In 1855, rumours of murder and cover-up were circulating in the small North Somerset village of Walton-in-Gordano. Allegations were made that a 22-year-old female inmate of Bedminster Union Workhouse, who suffered from epilepsy, had been murdered. Victorian workhouses were brutal institutions that forced poor people into terrible working conditions and harsh treatment. Within a few months of entering the workhouse, Hannah Wiltshire died a violent death, after an altercation in the dining room.
Her premature death caused public outrage – fanned by a letter-writing campaign to the local press initiated by her pauper aunt, Ann Howe. Illiteracy did not stop Howe from attempting to expose the circumstances of her niece’s death, and demanding an inquiry. There were accusations that the Board of Guardians, the authorities who oversaw workhouses, concealed the neglect that took place inside the institution.
Adding to her distress, Howe was not convinced that Hannah’s body was in the coffin, because she hadn’t been allowed to view her niece’s body before burial. Workhouse Guardians had the right, under the punitive Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, to sell dead bodies to medical schools for dissection, for £2, 12 shillings per corpse, if a body remained uncollected by family or friends.
Due to public pressure, an inquest opened in October 1855 at the schoolhouse in Walton-in-Gordano. The coroner ordered that Hannah’s coffin be opened for inspection with the jury present, and the body inside was recognisable as Hannah Wiltshire. The surgeon who carried out the autopsy stated that although her skull had not been fractured, there were signs of bleeding under her skull. The workhouse doctor, Mr Massey, as well as the Master and Matron of the workhouse were not required to be present at the inquest.
Female pauper witnesses were called to say whether the doctor was sent for, or at least whether the matron visited poor Hannah, while she lay dying. After hearing all the evidence, the jurors took only 15 minutes to return the following verdict:
“…the deceased’s death was caused by apoplexy [a brain haemorrhage or stroke], but sufficient care was not taken by the authorities of the Bedminster Union Workhouse to separate the deceased from the other inmates of the establishment… The jury are also of the opinion of the peculiar circumstances under which the deceased on this occasion, came by her death. This verdict was dissented from by one or two jurors, who were for one of “Manslaughter”.
Following the verdict, there was an outcry that a unanimous charge of manslaughter was not reached, and a public enquiry was demanded. Instead, the Board of Guardians agreed to hold an enquiry behind closed doors.
Ann Howe persisted in attempting to bring those to blame to trial, with the possibility of them being charged with manslaughter. Although ultimately unsuccessful, her campaign did instigate a coroner’s inquest and a private investigation by the Governors of the Bedminster Union Workhouse. This was quite a remarkable achievement for an impoverished daughter from the labouring classes, and as a woman with very few rights.
The case of Hannah Wiltshire also unearthed disquiet in the community regarding the treatment of epileptic paupers. Perceptions of epilepsy among Victorian medical practitioners were formed by consideration of class and social status, a view that dramatically affected the treatment of the disease. Many Victorians saw the working class epileptic as a burden on society, and the condition a dangerous character flaw among the labouring poor; while among the wealthy, it was characterised as a private misfortune.
The inquest exposed many fundamental issues: that certain people and witnesses were not answerable to an inquest court; that the treatment of epileptics was class-based, and that institutions were not sufficiently transparent and accountable to the public. These revelations began a shift of attitude towards the treatment of epileptic paupers; as well as heightened mistrust of management practices inside England’s workhouses, particularly around treatment of the old, the ‘feeble-minded’, and invalids.
Just like Ann Howe, there are families today still fighting for truth and transparency. Recent parallels are found in the Winterbourne View scandal in Bristol, Hillsborough Stadium Disaster in Sheffield, and the plight of hemophiliacs given infected blood during the 1970s and 1980s.
The Bristol Cable covered the tragic story of Becky Romero, from Bedminster Down, who was found dead less than a fortnight after being discharged from a chronically underfunded, understaffed mental health facility in the south west. In December 2017, an inquest offered a verdict of accidental death with neglect.
Bedminster Union Workhouse finally closed under the Local Government Act of 1929. Finally, in 1948, many workhouses were converted into municipal hospitals for the chronically ill, funded by the new and optimistic NHS. Over 70 years later, a United Nations report has compared the austerity regime ushered in by the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats to the Victorian workhouse system, and many are still campaigning for justice.