I can spend hours browsing Victorian newspapers, especially now that so many are online through The British Newspaper Archive. They tell us so much about the social history of that time through the news reports, the personal columns and the advertisements. These publications also reveal a great detail about the Victorians’ appetite for gossip and scandal!
Look at any Victorian newspaper from across the UK and you’re almost guaranteed to see a report of a suspicious death: perhaps a suicide pulled out of the river, or a murder victim found in an alleyway with his throat cut, or simply someone who had been run over by a cart in the street. Have you ever wondered what happened next?
Whether the death occurred in Liverpool or London, Manchester or Malvern, in every case, the procedure was the same. Once the police had reported a suspicious death to the coroner, he would summon a jury and investigate how the deceased died by interviewing members of the family and any witnesses, as well as viewing the body.
|Police Ambulance Entering a Mortuary from ‘Living London’ (1901)|
In the Victorian period, coroner’s inquests were frequently held in public houses because there was a table large enough for a body and there was space for the jury of twelve, plus the coroner and witnesses. Sometimes, inquests were held in the home of the deceased or in the open air. It was not until the latter part of the nineteenth century that coroners’ mortuaries started to appear, especially in large cities. Dedicated coroners’ courts were also founded at about the same time.
Here’s proof of the Victorians’ love of a spectacle and how quickly the rumour mill could spring into action. This picture shows an excited crowd outside a London coroners’ court, awaiting the verdict on a local man who had been shot dead:
|From ‘Living London’ (1901)|
By 1901, when these photographs were taken for an article in ‘Living London’, a formal system of coroner’s inquests was in place in large towns and cities. At this time, the jurors received “two shillings a day for their labours and are chosen from the Parliamentary voting lists, the occupants of each street being tackled in turn.” Their attendance could be enforced “for the entire day if needs be, and if eight inquests are on the list they must return eight verdicts”.
Here’s an image of jurors waiting to go inside to view a body:
|From ‘Living London’ (1901)|
The article also described a typical scene inside a London coroner’s court: “At a large table are seated the reporters; in the centre is the witness-box; while at the back are rows of chairs which are occupied by members of the public – dishevelled women, curiosity-mongers, and the like – and those witnesses who are able to control their feelings. Witnesses who are inclined to be hysterical are confined to the waiting-room – if there happens to be one – until they are required to give evidence.”
After the jury took their oaths, they left the court and filed into the mortuary to view the body or bodies. This being done, they returned to court and the witnesses were examined by the coroner. When all the evidence was heard, the jury delivered their verdict, after which the coroner signed a burial form to enable the family of the deceased to lay their loved one to rest.
This view of the inside of a coroner’s court clearly shows the witness box, the coroner, the jury and the reporters scribbling away:
|A Coroner’s Inquest from ‘Living London’ (1901)|
The outcome from this inquest would have been printed in all the local newspapers, ready for an eager public to speculate and gossip over – and for us to do the same more than 100 years later!
And thank goodness they were printed in the press! For family historians digging up intriguing cases about their ancestors, it's the only way left to get the information, as I believe inquest reports are most likely to have been destroyed by the authorities.
Hi Wendy. Thanks for leaving a comment. I completely agree – even when coroners' inquests do survive, the newspapers provide far more information, in all its gory detail!
Were official records of inquests kept? Newspaper accounts were presumably made by reporters and not likely to have been complete.
Why would they have been destroyed? I would have thought they would have ended up in an archive of some kind.
Official records of inquests were made but they have not always survived. Victorian newspaper accounts tend to give more detail as they were more lengthy than today's reports. Ideally, you'd check both sources.
Some were kept and have been deposited in archives. But like lots of Victorian records, inquests were not always considered important enough to be retained.
Thanks for the reply. I'm trying to find out if an official account exists of the inquest for Lord Castlereagh in 1822, which of course is an earlier period. But, as a very important person, you'd think an official account of the inquest would have been made and would have been preserved. The PRONI does not seem to have any records concerning the inquest at all, so I might be stuck with the newspaper reports.