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Living and dying

Radcliffe Infirmary 1770

On 30 November 1770 the Bishop of Oxford consecrated the Radcliffe Infirmary’s burial ground (long since buried itself), and the congregation prayed that it might be the ‘only useless part of the Establishment’. We have a record of at least one patient for whom the burial ground was useless, but only because she was discharged a few minutes too soon. In 1786 the Oxford Journal records that ‘Ann Jutt was discharged from our Infirmary and had not walked from there more than an hundred yards before she dropped down dead’. Unfortunately a hospital cannot avoid death altogether but the records of deaths can be interesting, sometimes for the social history they provide and sometimes because the circumstances are curious or just bizarre.

An examination of the causes of death in the Radcliffe Infirmary’s records shows that road accidents are by no means a phenomenon unique to modern life. In nineteenth century Oxford we find a high incidence of death as a result of being run over by carts. However, the most common cause of death was the result of the use of open fires for cooking and heating. There are countless examples of death as a result of clothes catching fire.

Accidents at work turn up frequently. There are many instances of injuries from farming equipment, which is itself a comment on the nature of the communities in the Oxford area. One of the most common such injuries, and one which provokes some gruesome descriptions, is damage to limbs after entanglement in threshing machines. In the records of several of the hospitals it is often possible to spot when there was a new railway under construction in the area because of the appearance of the labourers in the admission, discharge and death registers. Indeed, accidents to railway employees appear at regular intervals, usually when an engine driver did not notice a worker on the track.

The Radcliffe Infirmary was closely involved in one of the more famous railway accidents of the nineteenth century, which took place at Shipton on Cherwell on Christmas Eve 1874. The 10am train from Paddington to Birmingham was very popular that day and extra carriages were added at Reading and Oxford. The latter was a mistake as the carriage was old and one of the wheels collapsed, causing the carriage to plunge off the embankment with twelve other carriages following. Thirty four people were killed and more than a hundred injured. Forty seven of these were admitted to the Radcliffe Infirmary, of whom only four died. There was considerable praise for the way in which the staff of the Infirmary coped with the simultaneous admission of enough patients to fill nearly a quarter of their beds. Unfortunately we do not have any details of the patients as both the admission and death registers are missing for that period.

Occasionally the records give us brief pictures of deaths which seem unusual, but which frequently give an idea of life in a world without antibiotics, manufacturing standards or health and safety regulations. The following causes of death are examples:

  • 1846 Ellen Symonds: Erysipelas after leeches
  • 1852 John Wardsworth: Injured chest after a steam explosion at the baths and wash houses
  • 1864 William Beckley :Scalded by falling into the alkali wash
  • 1883 An unknown man: Asphyxia from lying near a lime kiln
  • 1885 Richard Collett: Shock after a pig bite

Anyone who looks into history can find reasons to be grateful for living in the present age. In 1778 Martha Jewell died in the Infirmary. When the staff cleared her belongings from the box under her bed they found the body of a baby girl, apparently born about eleven days before. It says a great deal about the different standards of the day that no-one knew that Martha had given birth behind the curtains of her four poster bed and that nobody noticed anything unusual about the smell.

Martha Jewell’s murder of her child was not all that unusual; there are many examples of single women attempting to conceal their pregnancies and dispose of the unwanted child. One of the most famous examples in Oxford’s medical history was the case of Anne Greene, who was hanged in Oxford Castle on 14th December 1649 for the murder of her illegitimate child. As usual the hanging was followed by the transfer of the body to the Anatomy School for dissection. Dr. Petty, the reader in anatomy, noticed that the body was unusually warm and he and his companions succeeded in bringing Anne back to consciousness. She was dazed and bruised but in a few days the power of speech came back and she started to speak at the point at which she had stopped on the gallows. It transpired that she had lost the intervening period completely and did not remember ‘how her fetters were knocked off, how she went out of the prison, when she was turned off the ladder, whether any psalm was sung or not, nor was she sensible of any pain’. She never did recall her experiences, although she lived on for many years, marrying and having a legitimate family.

Ten years later Dr. Conyers of St John’s College had the same opportunity when another girl was hanged for the same reason and the body delivered to him for dissection. Once again the presumed corpse was revived. However the bailiffs, especially one Henry Mallory, were not prepared to allow another convicted criminal to escape punishment. Shortly after midnight they broke down the door of the house where the girl was resting, bundled her into a coffin and carried her out to the field of Broken Hayes (now Gloucester Green bus station). In spite of her cries of ‘Lord, have mercy upon me’ they hanged her from a tree, later cut down by disgusted local inhabitants. Medical science had done its best to perform another miracle, but the requirements of civic justice were the final victors.

Last updated: 28 August, 2018