The Shocking Death of George Aveyard

Family history at its most basic boils down to births, marriages and deaths. Sometimes it is easy to become immune to the true meaning of the parade of dates marking the start and end of life. There are, after all, so many in a family tree. Occasionally, though, one event does stop you still in your tracks. For me the death of George Aveyard is one such event.

George was the two-year-old son of Daniel and Sophia Aveyard. In the context of my Aveyard One-Name Study, Daniel’s parents were George Aveyard (1780-1854) and his second wife Hannah Asquith. The family originated in the West Ardsley area, but somewhere between March 1832 and June 1841, they moved to Gildersome Street, an area south of the centre of modern-day Gildersome.  

Daniel was the second youngest of George’s 18 children, baptised on 4 August 1830 at St Mary’s, Woodkirk [1]. Evidence strongly suggests George and Hannah were my 4x great grandparents.

Daniel, a coal miner, married Sophia Brook at All Saints Dewsbury Parish Church on 23 August 1852 [2]. Sophia was born on 1 June 1832 and baptised one month later at Woodkirk parish church, her parents being William and Amelia Brook [3].

All Saints, Dewsbury Parish Church – Photo by Jane Roberts

Daniel and Sophia’s marriage resulted in 12 children [4]. So far, I have identified 10 of them – whilst Aveyard is an uncommon name there was more than one Aveyard/Brook marriage in the relevant period. I suspect I have identified at least one of the remaining children, but more work is required (short of purchasing the relevant birth certificates).

The so far identified children are Simeon [5] (birth registered in 1853); George [6] (birth registered in 1855); Sarah Elizabeth [7] (birth registered in 1861); Brook [8] (birth registered in 1863); twins Joseph and Mary [9], whose diminutive name appears to have been Polly [10] – yes, that is a known short form of Mary, (births registered in 1865); Ada [11] (birth registered in 1868). She was buried on 25 April 1869 at St Peter’s Birstall under the name of Adah Aveyard and her father was named as Daniel [12]; Herbert [13] (birth registered in 1870); Richard Newman [14] (birth registered in 1871); and Rachel [15] (birth registered in 1872). She was buried on 21 July 1872 at St Peter’s Birstall with her father named as Dan[ie]l [16].

The events in this post took place in Gildersome Street on 13 August 1858, with the inquest taking place before Coroner Thomas Taylor the following day at the King’s Arms Inn, Gildersome. Whilst many inquest records do not survive for this period, with newspapers being the main information source, we are fortunate that the HM Coroner of Wakefield records at West Yorkshire Archives (Wakefield) includes the notebooks of Thomas Taylor [17] for the period 1852-1900. They include the notes for the inquest of George Aveyard.

A little over two years old, George was able to talk and had been used to walking alone for about six months. Sarah Aveyard (née Stables) the wife of one of Daniel’s older brothers, Thomas, gave an account at the inquest, testifying there were “...always plenty of children playing about” [18] in Gildersome Street where the families lived. 

It was clear that even though a toddler, George was amongst them. Her young nephew had been to her house on morning of his death, leaving at around 11 o’clock heading down the road. So, his aunt clearly had no concerns that he was out and about without his mother.

You can envisage the scene: traditionally based around weaving and cloth manufacture but now becoming a mining village, this was a close-knit community with groups of impoverished, grubby children, the streets their playground, freely popping in and out of houses, many of them occupied by relatives. A place where everyone knew everyone. In this period Gildersome Street really was an Aveyard enclave.

At around 11.45 am George arrived home. His mother, Sophia, gave him a piece of bread and content he once more wandered back outside. At around noon she noticed he was missing. This was out of character, as according to Sophia’s evidence at the inquest “I have not lost him before.” [19]. She sent out her eldest child Simeon to seek him. At this point she believed him to be perfectly safe at his grandmother’s home about 80 yards away. This is most likely to be his paternal grandmother, Hannah Aveyard. 

It was dinner time and Sophia was starting to feel anxious. Another neighbour, widow Elizabeth Buckley, overheard her asking one of her daughters if she had seen George. This would have been just gone one o’clock. Elizabeth in fact had seen George two or three times that morning. 

Now events took on a dark, stuff of nightmares turn. Alice Aveyard, described as “going in [sic] 11 years” [20], daughter of Thomas and Sarah, and therefore cousin of little George, was the one who made the horrific discovery. I imagine it would haunt her until her dying days, a scene no adult, let alone a child, could never unsee.  

According to her inquest evidence:

“…I went yesterday afternoon to George Buttery’s privy adjoining the Wakefield and Bradford Road. The door was wide open. On looking thro’ the hole in the seat I saw a bare knee in the soil and I imm[ediat]ely gave an alarm.” [21]

In the 1851 census, Thomas and Sarah Aveyard’s household details were adjacent to the entry for the family of George Buttery. In other words they were close neighbours.

So what was a privy? Well, I’ll start by saying a privy was a far cry from the flushing, sanitary toilets of today. Improvements had, in fact, commenced with the landmark 1848 Public Health Act which decreed:

“That it shall not be lawful newly to erect any House, or to rebuild any House pulled down to or below the Floor commonly called the Ground Floor, without a sufficient Watercloset or Privy and an Ashpit furnished with proper Doors and Coverings.” [22]. 

There were also provisions for the newly created Local Boards of Health to issue notices where any houses had insufficient provision:

 “..whether built before or after the Time when the act is applied to the District in which it is situate…” [23] 

But this is a bit of gloss which belies the true unsanitary, conditions. In the period a privy was essentially nothing more than a small wooden, sometimes brick, building which could be shared by several families. The implication, however, in the inquest notes is that the Gildersome Street houses by 1858 did not have massive communal privies shared by scores of people. Alice’s evidence is that this one belonged to one household, that of George Buttery.  Sarah Aveyard in her evidence stated:

“The privy does not belong to Daniel Aveyard’s house.” [24]

Number of families aside, the very basic interior design was a wooden board with a hole cut into it. In fact, there could be more than one hole, and these not necessarily divided into separate cubicles. 

Excreta (liquid and faeces) would drop through this hole and the waste would drain and collect into cesspits. These were generally porous for the liquid matter to drain away, though this did not always happen. And when it did operate correctly, the question is where did it seep to and what contamination did it cause? The (hopefully but not always) dry waste would build up and eventually be shovelled out by night soil men. And yes, it was a job carried out under the cover of darkness.  The waste would then be sold on for manure.

So, the soil referred to in Alice’s evidence was actually a euphemism for human excreta.  

Even if not serving a large number of houses, the stench surrounding these privies would be unimaginable at any time of year, never mind August and the height of summer. And it was in this hell hole that a child was trapped.

Alice went to tell her mother she had seen a child’s leg in the privy. It was about quarter past one in the afternoon. Sarah returned with her daughter to the appalling scene, saw the knee and screamed. This attracted the attention of some local women, including Elizabeth Buckley. 

The women removed George’s body, which was lodged head first in the soil (think about the true meaning of the word soil in this context). Elizabeth testified that when they extracted him, he was dead, his eyes were partly open, there was no froth about his nose and, she observed when she washed his body, that he had no signs of injury. She also stated the the privy seat was not broken and in good order.

In other words this appeared to rule out any foul play, which view the inquest jury duly took. Its verdict was that George had “accidentally suffocated.” It is a verdict which does not even begin to capture the hideous circumstances surrounding this young child’s death.

Back in 1858, with its alarmingly high childhood mortality rates, a child’s death was not the unexpected event it is today in 21st century England. But a child’s death in such a ghastly accident was utterly shocking. Perhaps this was the reason Daniel, Sophia and their family had left Gildersome Street by the time of the 1861 census, and had moved to Boggart Lane in the Howden Clough area of Batley, near Still House Farm, which stands today [26]. They wanted to escape the scene of such personal family trauma?

Such was the hideous nature of George’s death, the inquest was widely reported in local newspapers, as typified by the 21 August 1858 edition of the Pontefract Advertiser [26] which recorded:

SHOCKING DEATH OF A LITTLE BOY – An inquest was held on Saturday, at the King’s Arms Inn, Gildersome before T. Taylor, Esq., on the body of George Aveyard, aged two years, son of Daniel Aveyard, coal miner. On Friday last, about noon, deceased went out of his father’s house, and no more was seen of him until one and two in the afternoon, when he was discovered in the soil of an adjoining privy. When extricated he was found to be quite dead….”

It is a death which over 160 years later, and amidst so many other deaths recorded in the course of my family history research, I cannot forget and one that does not cease to sicken.

As for location, the buildings of Gildersome Street have long been erased from maps. Ironically the present-day area is one which I frequently visit. It lies among the network of busy roads and the industrial estate areas, all within minutes walking distance from where West Yorkshire Archives (Leeds) now stands.

Notes

  • [1] Baptism of Daniel Aveyard, St Mary’s Woodkirk Baptism Register. Accessed viaWest Yorkshire, England, Church of England Births and Baptisms, 1813-1910 [database on-line]. Originals at West Yorkshire Archive Service; Wakefield, Yorkshire, England; Yorkshire Parish Records; New Reference Number: WDP108/1/2/1
  • [2] Baptism of Sophia Brook, St Mary’s Woodkirk Baptism Register. Accessed viaWest Yorkshire, England, Church of England Births and Baptisms, 1813-1910 [database on-line]. Originals at West Yorkshire Archive Service; Wakefield, Yorkshire, England; Yorkshire Parish Records; New Reference Number: WDP108/1/2/2
  • [3] Marriage of Daniel Aveyard and Sophia Brook, All Saints Dewsbury Parish Church. Marriage Register Accessed via Ancestry.com. West Yorkshire, England, Church of England Marriages and Banns, 1813-1935 [database on-line]. Originals at West Yorkshire Archive Service; Leeds, Yorkshire, England; Yorkshire Parish Records; Reference Number: WDP9/28
  • [4] 1911 Census, Aveyard family entry. Although Sophia is now a widow her Particulars as to Marriage details have been completed. Accessed via Findmypast. Originals at The National Archives, Kew. Reference RG14PN27255
  • [5] Birth Registration of Simeon Aveyard, March Quarter 1853, Hunslet Registration District, Volume 9B, Page 219, Mother’s Maiden Name Brook. Accessed via the General Register Office Website Birth Indexes.
  • [6] Birth Registration of George Aveyard, December Quarter 1855, Hunslet Registration District, Volume 9B, Page 184, Mother’s Maiden Name Brook. Accessed via the General Register Office Website Birth Indexes.
  • [7] Birth Registration of Sarah Elizabeth Aveyard, June Quarter 1861, Dewsbury Registration District, Volume 9B, Page 475, Mother’s Maiden Name Brooke. Accessed via the General Register Office Website Birth Indexes.
  • [8] Birth Registration of Brook Aveyard, December Quarter 1863, Dewsbury Registration District, Volume 9B, Page 502, Mother’s Maiden Name Brook. Accessed via the General Register Office Website Birth Indexes.
  • [9] Birth Registration of Mary and Joseph Aveyard, March Quarter 1865, Dewsbury Registration District, Volume 9B, Page 550, Mother’s Maiden Name Brook. Accessed via the General Register Office Website Birth Indexes.
  • [10] 1891 Census, Aveyard family entry. Accessed via Findmypast. Originals at The National Archives, Kew. Reference RG12/3722/12/17
  • [11] Birth Registration of Ada Aveyard, June Quarter 1868, Dewsbury Registration District, Volume 9B, Page 575, Mother’s Maiden Name Brooke. Accessed via the General Register Office Website Birth Indexes.
  • [12] Burial of infant named Adah Aveyard, 29 April 1869 at St Peter’s, Birstall. Accessed via Ancestry.com. West Yorkshire, England, Church of England Deaths and Burials, 1813-1985 [database on-line]. Originals at West Yorkshire Archive Service; Wakefield, Yorkshire, England; New Reference Number: WDP5/1/4/3
  • [13] Birth Registration of Herbert Aveyard, March Quarter 1870, Dewsbury Registration District, Volume 9B, Page 578, Mother’s Maiden Name Brook. Accessed via the General Register Office Website Birth Indexes.
  • [14] Birth Registration of Richard Newman Aveyard, March Quarter 1871, Dewsbury Registration District, Volume 9B, Page 604, Mother’s Maiden Name Brook. Accessed via the General Register Office Website Birth Indexes.
  • [15] Birth Registration of Rachel Aveyard, March Quarter 1872, Dewsbury Registration District, Volume 9B, Page 603, Mother’s Maiden Name Brook. Accessed via the General Register Office Website Birth Indexes.
  • [16] Burial of infant named Rachel Aveyard, 21 July 1872 at St Peter’s, Birstall. Accessed via Ancestry.com. West Yorkshire, England, Church of England Deaths and Burials, 1813-1985 [database on-line]. Originals at West Yorkshire Archive Service; Wakefield, Yorkshire, England; New Reference Number: WDP5/1/4/4
  • [17] Taylor was the coroner for the Honour of Pontefract from 1852-1900, deputy county coroner 1855, 1861-1864, and county coroner 1864-1900.
  • [18] Coroner’s notes at the inquest into the death of George Aveyard, 14 August 1858 Originals at West Yorkshire Archives, Thomas Taylor, West Yorkshire Coroner’s Notebooks June to November 1858, Reference C493/K/2/1/9
  • [19] Ibid
  • [20] Ibid
  • [21] Ibid
  • [22] Public Health Act 1848 (11 & 12 Vict. c.63), An Act for promoting the Public Health – 31st August 1848. Accessed via Legislation.gov.uk website, delivered by The National Archives http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/Vict/11-12/63/contents/enacted
  • [23] Ibid
  • [24] Coroner’s notes at the inquest into the death of George Aveyard, 14 August 1858 – Ibid
  • [25] Example of a dry toilet for illustrative purposes. This one is from a railway station in Vrbčany in the Czech Republic. Source Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Suchy_zachod_zastavka_Vrbcany_detail.jpg, Attributed to Ludek [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D
  • [26] 1861 Census, Aveyard family entry. Accessed via Findmypast. Originals at The National Archives, Kew. Reference RG09/3401/107/24
  • [27] Identical reports featured in The Leeds Mercury of 17 August 1858 and The Leeds Intelligencer of 21 August 1858

6 responses to “The Shocking Death of George Aveyard

  1. Very interesting, thanks for sharing!

  2. So awful! Poor little guy.

  3. That’s quite horrific, the poor little soul.

  4. Wow! What a tale! I can just imagine the curious little toddler, perhaps investigating the privy, and accidentally falling to his doom. So sad.

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