Belladonna and a Research Rabbit Hole: Avoiding Assumptions in Family History.

Whilst reading a newspaper from July 1915, my attention was caught by an attempted suicide in Dewsbury. It read:

GIRL DRINKS BELLADONNA.
Thornhill Lees Servant Upset By
Brother Being At The War.

Clara Stead (17), domestic servant, of Pontefract, was summoned for attempting to commit suicide by drinking a quantity of belladonna liniment at Dewsbury on the 15th inst.

Hetty Armitage, who employed the girl at the Perseverance Inn, Thornhill Lees, explained that on Thursday last week Stead was in the kitchen black-leading, but she went to a bathroom and afterwards accused called for witness and said, “Mrs. Armitage, do you know what I have done?” Later she added, “I have taken poison.” Asked where she had got it from, she replied, “From the bathroom,” and asked why she had done it she answered, “I don’t know.” Witness’ husband gave the girl milk and water, and she was afterwards taken to the Infirmary,

In answer to a question in Court, as to the reason for her act, Jones, [sic] who appeared greatly distressed, said, “I have a brother at the war.”

The Chairman: That ought not to have depressed you like that. You are young to do a thing like this.

The girl’s mother preferred to take her daughter back home and look after her.

The Chief Constable thereupon asked for the case to be withdrawn, and the Magistrates agreed.1

That was it. I had to find out more. Who was the girl? What became of her? Did her story have a happy ending? Who was her brother? What happened to him?

And so I disappeared down a research rabbit hole for the rest of the evening. The results reinforced once more that you should check multiple sources even for the same event; and never make assumptions when researching family history.

The first thing was to compare the Batley News report with that of the Dewsbury Reporter to see if that added anything.2 It did. The three main extras were:

  • Clara had worked at the pub since June;
  • Fred Armitage was the pub licensee; and
  • In a difference to the Batley News, Fred gave her hot water and salt, not milk and water.

Next I looked at the locality. Thornhill Lees is now a suburb of Dewsbury, lying around one mile south of the town centre between Savile Town and Thornhill. Back then it was a village. Near the river Calder, it had a station on the Yorkshire and Lancashire railway. Its chief employment industries were the collieries and glass bottle works. If you watched the Jeremy Clarkson episode of Who Do You Think You Are? you will have seen the Kilner Brothers glass bottle manufacturers. The Perseverance Inn, at Forge Lane, Thornhill Lees stood by the Calder and Hebble Navigation Canal. Ironically it had seen its fair share of inquests over the years on those successful in ending their lives, particularly by drowning in the waterway. Although the building still stands today, it is no longer a pub.

Map showing the location of the Perseverance Inn, Ordnance Survey Maps – 25-inch England and Wales, 1841-1952, Yorkshire CCXLVII.7 (Dewsbury) Revised: 1914 to 1915, Published: 1922 – National Library of Scotland, under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC-BY-NC-SA) licence

So who was Clara Stead? She was born on 2 December 1897 at Streethouse, near Pontefract, the daughter of William Stead and his wife Kezia (née Cooper). Her baptism took place on 23 December 1897 at Normanton All Saints, alongside that of her siblings William (born according to the baptism register on 16 July 1890, and was he really called William Stead as declared in the register? But more of that later);3 and Emma (born 16 September 1895).4 The couple’s other children were Minnie, born 14 January 1893;5 Colin, born on 13 December 1900;6 Richard, born 10 February 1903;7 and Lena, born in 1906. Note, other than Clara and William’s birth dates, I’ve not corroborated the remaining children’s births against any other sources.

The Stead family lived in the Streethouse part of Snydale-with-Streethouse, in both the 19018 and 19119 censuses. Pontefract lies around four miles to the north east of the village. Coal mining was the principal occupation, and Drighlington-born William was no exception, working as a hewer.

He married Kezia Cooper at Normanton parish church on 18 April 1892. At 26, she was four years William’s senior. The parish register entry records her as the daughter of Benjamin Cooper, and a widow – though this marital status is scored out.10 Unusually (but not impossible) the implication is her deceased husband was also named Cooper. But it is worth paying attention to such anomalies as the scoring out and name. The other thing to note about the marriage is it post-dates their son William’s birth by almost two years.

William’s birth certificate confirms this.11 He is registered as William Kirk. The certificate states he was born on 29 August 1890 at Ferry Fryston, although his birth was not registered until 5 November 1890 – way outside the 42-day limit. Also note this is some six weeks later than the birth date given in the baptism register. No father’s details are entered. But the certificate gives his mother’s name as Kezia Kirk, formerly Cooper. Like Kezia’s marriage to William Stead, this record has more question marks which need following up.

Kezia Cooper’s first marriage was the obvious next step. This was also at Normanton All Saints parish church on 2 January 1882, to John Kirk, a 21-year-old miner from Streethouse.12 The couple had three children – Jane Ann born on 15 October 1882 and who died on her second birthday; Maria born on 15 January 1886 and who died on the 23 January 1889; and another Jane Ann born on 21 July 1888 and who died less than one month later.

No death for John prior to Kezia’s second marriage to William Stead could be traced. The censuses indicated he was still alive, living with his father and step-mother at Streethouse in 1891 (and showing as married).13 Meanwhile in the same census, also in Streethouse, Kezia Kirk (married) and 8-month old William Kirk are living with her parents.14 Skip forward to 1901 and John Kirk is still alive and in Streethouse, but now married to Mary, and with daughter Mary Kirk and sons John Parkes and Charles Kirk.15 The marriage between John Kirk and Mary Parkes took place on 4 June 1892 at Holy Trinity church, Kimberley, Nottinghamshire.16

The assumption might be this marriage, and Kezia’s to William Stead a couple of months earlier, were bigamous. After all, as The National Archives guide states in this period “All divorce suits took place in London, thus restricting divorce to wealthier couples. Divorce did not really open up for all classes until the 1920s with the extension of legal aid and the provision of some local facilities.” 17 John Kirk was a coal miner living in a small Yorkshire village, as was Kezia’s father and new partner. None would seemingly fit the social status of those able to afford all the costs a divorce might entail.

However, Rebecca Probert whilst acknowledging that “the social profile of litigants remained definitely skewed towards the middle and upper classes” also points out that “there were plenty of examples of working-class petitioners” though “Those members of the working class who did petition for divorce tended to be drawn from the ranks of artisans rather than unskilled labourers.18

The inference to be made from this is just because a couple may not fit the accepted social profile for divorcees in this period, do not rule it out. And so it proved for John and Kezia Kirk.

John filed a divorce petition on 19 March 1891, a little over two weeks before the 1891 census date. The decree nisi was granted on 11 August 1891, and the decree absolute formally ending the marriage was issued on 23 February 1892.19

The grounds for the uncontested divorce were Kezia’s adultery with William Stead. Kezia left John for William on 15 October 1889, and on 18 July 1890 gave birth to William’s child. Note this is yet another date of birth for William Kirk – we now have 16 July 1890, 18 July 1890 and 29 August 1890 depending on record. Normally, considering the relative value of these sources, the birth certificate would carry more weight. But this is not always the case. And may not be in this instance.

So why was Kezia’s real marital status not declared when she married William Stead? Under the 1857 Act, no Church of England clergyman could be compelled to solemnise the marriage of a person who had been divorced because of their adultery. However, any other clergyman entitled to officiate within the diocese could conduct the marriage.20 A church marriage was therefore permissible. However perhaps Kezia stated she was widowed, and also used her maiden name, to try to avoid any difficult questions or judgement. But her second marriage took place in the same church as her first, and the rarity divorce in this community, with hers being finalised only a couple of months earlier and fresh in minds, must have been the talk of the neighbourhood. Also the vicar conducting the ceremony was not one brought in from elsewhere. The fact widowed is scored out indicates there was some background knowledge or question mark. But it all goes to show the Stead family background was more complex than initial appearances.

Glass bottle used for tincture of belladonna, England, 1880-. Credit: Science Museum, London. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Now back to Clara and her attempted suicide. What was it that she drank? Belladonna, known also as Deadly Nightshade, is, as its name suggests, a poisonous plant. However its roots and leaves have medicinal properties. Frequently advertised in the late 19th/early 20th century newspapers, it was a popular medicine-store cupboard standby. Its multiple uses included from insomnia relief, to as a diuretic and a muscle relaxant. It was also used as a pain reliever, with belladonna liniment recommended for such things as muscular aches, sprains, and rheumatic pains. Even chilblains and boils were treated with it. But it was also misused, with the newspapers full of poisoning cases and suicides. Then there were accidents, like a Birmingham family who mistakenly used it as a condiment in their stew. Or the Glasgow child who, imitating her sister drinking, took a swig out of a bottle containing belladonna liniment. Luckily Clara survived, unlike many others.

A huge positive about her court case is the compassionate attitude of the Chief Constable and the magistrates. On receiving assurances that Clara’s mother wanted to take her back home and care for her, they all agreed to drop the charges. Whilst this humane course of action is far from unique in this period, especially where there were promises not to do it again and where families were prepared to look after those charged, it could have been all too different. Lots of factors came into play, but I’ve looked at some other cases in the same period for girls of a similar age which had a range of far worse outcomes.

  • A 17-year-old domestic servant, who attempted to strangle herself on a footpath between Yeadon and Guisely in January 1915, was detained at an asylum;
  • In August 1915 the Vicar of Mapperley wrote suggesting to the court that a 15-year-old girl who jumped into a pond should be sent away, as it was not advisable to let her return home. The advice was taken and she was sent to a home for two years;
  • In June 1916 a 17-year-old Northampton girl was remanded to a workhouse for a week after throwing herself into the River Nene; and
  • Others were bound over, placed in the care of probation officers, or in the care of organisations such as the Salvation Army;

Did this tale have a happy ending? In part ‘yes’. Clara married a local coal miner in Pontefract Register Office on 6 March 1916. Her husband served for seven months with the Coldstream Guards in England towards the end of the war, and survived. The couple raised a family and Clara lived to a ripe old age.

But her fears for her brother, identified as William, turned out to be well-founded.

William Kirk married Heckmondwike girl Lily Victoria Andsley at Normanton All Saints on 16 December 1911.21 The couple had two girls, Dorothy born on 20 September 1912, and Edna born on 29 April 1914.22 William served with the 10th Battalion of the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry (KOYLI) during the war, going overseas on 11 September 1915. This means at the point of Clara’s attempted suicide, her brother, though in the Army, was still in England.

William died on 9 July 1916 as a result of wounds suffered in the initial days of the Battle of the Somme. He is buried at Heilly Station Cemetery, Mreicourt-L’Abbe, France, a cemetery used by medical units from the 36th and 38th Casualty Clearing Station during this period. The additional information provided by the CWGC is that he was the husband of Lily Victoria Stead (formerly Kirk), of 43, Belmont St., Streethouse, Pontefract, Yorks.

I did a double take at her new surname of Stead. It did fleetingly cross my mind that she had adopted the surname of William’s family. However the implication by the use of ‘formerly’ was a remarriage. And this proved to be the case.

William Kirk’s pension card notes his widow married miner Samuel Stead on 9 March 1918.22 The marriage took place once more at Normanton All Saints.23

So ended my rabbit hole exploration.

However the real take away point from this is not Clara’s story. It is far more basic, and to do with research. It is primarily not to accept things at face value and not to make assumptions when investigating family history. Do not try to make facts fit your theories. Approach research with an open mind. Always dig deeper to locate as many sources as possible to corroborate findings. Weigh up and evaluate the relative merit of evidence sources. And make sure you have a wide range of evidence to support your conclusions.

In the case of Clara and her family:

  • There are discrepancies in the newspapers, including one huge typographical error when Clara in one section of one newspaper report is called Jones. Newspapers aren’t gospel;
  • Clara’s mother Kezia was not widowed when she married William Stead – she was divorced;
  • Working class people should not be ruled out from obtaining divorces in this period;
  • The treatment by courts of those who attempted suicide did vary;
  • Try to seek as many sources as possible to corroborate information – which can vary from record to record, for example something as straightforward as William Kirk’s birthdate;
  • Do not make assumptions on surnames. From the parish register entry for her second marriage, it might have appeared Kezia’s ‘deceased’ husband’s surname was Cooper; from the census and his baptism, William seemed to be called William Stead, when in fact he was officially William Kirk; and when William Kirk’s wife was listed as Lily Victoria Stead on the CWGC records, this was no connection whatsoever to the Stead surname of her deceased husband’s family, and a name he had possibly used. She had in fact remarried and her second husband was called Stead;
  • people do not change. They do not always tell the truth today, and neither did the past confer magical, unwavering truth-telling behaviours on our ancestors, even given the more deferential, religious society in which they lived. It may be some details and events they were genuinely hazy on. But for others they did deliberately lie. And this applies even on official documents; and
  • read all documents carefully and critically for the clues they offer, either by phraseology, omissions or anomalies.

Footnotes:
1. Batley News, 24 July 1915;
2. Dewsbury Reporter, 24 July 1915;
3. Baptism and birth date details from Normanton, All Saints, Baptism Register, West Yorkshire Archive Service, Reference Number: WDP151/1/2/5;
4. Ibid;
5. 1939 Register, Ref: RG101/3772E/004/17 Letter Code: KRDD;
6. Baptism 3 January 1901, Normanton, All Saints, Baptism Register, West Yorkshire Archive Service, Reference Number: WDP151/1/2/6;
7. 1939 Register, Ref: RG101/3641G/012/2 Letter Code: KMWM;
8. 1901 Census, Ref: RG13/4296/28/18;
9. 1911 Census, Ref: RG14/27482;
10. Normanton All Saints Marriage Register, West Yorkshire Archive Service, Reference Number: WDP151/1/3/6;
11. William Kirk Birth Registration, GRO Ref: Pontefract, December Quarter 1890, Volume 9C, Page 81;
12. Normanton All Saints Marriage Register, West Yorkshire Archive Service, Reference Number: WDP151/1/3/4
13. 1891 Census, Ref: RG12/4588/28/14
14. 1891 Census, Ref: RG12/3759/36/34
15. 1901 Census, Ref: RG13/4296/30/21
16. Nottinghamshire Family History Society Marriage Indexes
17. TNA Research Guide: Divorce – https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/help-with-your-research/research-guides/divorce/
18. Probert, Rebecca. Divorced, Bigamist, Bereaved?: the Family Historian’s Guide to Marital Breakdown, Separation, Widowhood, and Remarriage: from 1600 to the 1970s. Kenilworth England: Takeaway, 2015.
19. Divorce and Matrimonial Cause Files, Divorce Court File: 4262. Appellant: John Kirk. Respondent: Kezia Kirk. Co-respondent: William Stead. Type: Husband’s petition for divorce [hd]., 1891, Ref: J77/468/4262
20. Probert, Rebecca. Divorced, Bigamist, Bereaved?….
21. Normanton All Saints Marriage Register, West Yorkshire Archive Service, Reference Number: WDP151/1/3/9
22. Western Front Association; London, England; WWI Pension Record Cards and Ledgers; Reference: 114/0536/KIR-KIR
23. Normanton All Saints Marriage Register, West Yorkshire Archive Service, Reference Number: WDP151/1/3/10

3 responses to “Belladonna and a Research Rabbit Hole: Avoiding Assumptions in Family History.

  1. Great work! Rabbit holes like this are so much fun! And I love how you turned this into a case study, using it to highlight the many aspects of family history research that make it more than simply matching names and dates.

  2. I found this is a fascinating tale. I recently came across a divorce in London in 1859 for a working class couple (it’s in my latest blog). Both said they were widowed when they remarried and this was probably very common in the circumstances. Your example is noteworthy because the couple were in Yorkshire and Kezia remarried in her local church where everyone would have known the background.
    I’ve been thinking recently about the fact that pubs, places of fun and jollity, were also used for coroner’s inquests. What a contrast!

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