Joe begins a three part series looking at how childrenwere treated in the
‘Good Old Days’

There is no doubt that we are all horrified when we hear of crulety to children but beleive it or not this occurance was once common place in Victorian Belfast when many were subjected to cruelty and neglect from drunken or uncaring parents.  Others were forced to endure a life of untold hardships which ended in untimely death and suffering.  In the Belfast of the late 19th century many were put to work in mills for frightfully long hours in the most appalling conditions.  The conditions in the homes where they lived however was not much better.  In the majority of cases complete families were forced to live in a single room sharing drinking water and toilet facilities with the rest of the street.  It was with scenes of depravation such as this which led to the formation of a society to protect the rights of children.  That organisation was the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (N.S.P.C.C.).  Branches were established in many of the main industrial cities in the British Isles.  The first branch formed in Ireland was established in Dublin on the 16th of June 1889.  Another branch soon followed to deal with the Northern counties.  In 1891 their first local office was located at 21 Arthur Street, Belfast.


March 27 1909
Shocking disclosures were revealed at an inquest in Belfast on the body of a little Belfast child named Eileen Quail.  The baby was five months old and lived at 37 Merrion Street.  The parents of the child David and Elizabeth Quail both appeared in court.
Mrs Armstrong deposed that she had been a neighbour of the Quails and had known them for almost a year.  When their baby was born they were living in Turin Street at the Grosvenor Road and at that time the child was a fat, healthy baby.  That was in October.  The following month Quail was out of work and his family moved up to 36 Theodore Street to live with Mrs Armstrong.  When she was asked did she think the family neglected the child she claimed that sometimes the child did not get anything to drink from “six at night until about eight the following morning.”  When asked did she know how the Quail family lived she replied that she did not.  She went on to tell the court that Mrs Quail went out every night at eight o’clock and never returned until early the next morning and sometimes she did not return until four o’clock the following morning.  Proceeding the witness said that she never saw the child getting any food in the absence of its mother although the father might have given it some in the absence of the witness.  On one occasion Mrs Armstrong spoke to the parents about their treatment of the child and threatened to bring the “cruelty” on them.
District Inspector Redmond - Did you often hear the child screaming at night while its mother was absent? Yes
The Coroner - And I suppose you saw the child wasting away for the want of food and that is why you threatened to report the matter?  Yes.
District Inspector Redmond - The result of all that was that when they left you in the middle of January the child was in a very weakly and sickly condition?  Yes
And did you believe that was brought about by neglect?  Yes.
“About a fortnight ago,” concluded the witness, “I saw the child and it then looked more wasted and exhausted than ever.  On six or seven occasions I have seen the mother under the influence of drink with the child in her charge.”
Dr Kennedy said that he made a post mortem examination on the child’s body along with Dr Houston.  It was only about six pounds in weight and presented a very wasted appearance.  There was no trace of food in the stomach and they came to the conclusion that death was due to starvation.
District Inspector Redmond - What weight should a five month old baby be?
Witness - About 12lbs or 16lbs.
You found no trace of food whatsoever in the stomach?  No.
The child must have been without food for at lest twelve hours? Yes.
The Coroner said that a few days previous he had made a remark about infantile mortality.  Belfast seemed to be getting a special place for child murder.  He also said that he knew that the jury would do their duty.  They couldn’t come to any other conclusion than that the child was starved to death.
David Quail, the father of the child elected to make a statement.  He appeared to be a well educated man although he said that his occupation was that of a labourer.  He had been working for he Corporation for seven weeks and his weekly wage was £1.00.  To get this he had to leave home for work at 5.30am each morning and got home again twelve hours later.  His daughter had been in a delicate state for the past month and they had been feeding her on milk.  They had two feeding bottles - one for day use and one for night use.  They used three tins of milk weekly  About three weeks before the child’s death the child had been taken to the Children’s Hospital by Mrs Quail.  The baby had a cold and they kept a fire going in the room all night.  On the 23rd March the child seemed to have recovered and ‘looked brighter’ than usual.  He saw it fed twice that evening.  Then on Wednesday morning he looked at the child and noticed that she ‘looked as if she were breathing her last.’  Quail went on to tell the coroner’s court that he had never heard Mrs Armstrong complain of the way his daughter was being treated but the Coroner disagreed and stated that he believed that David Quail was not telling the truth.

The jury at the inquest then retired and, after a short absence, returned.  The foreman announced that they had found a verdict in accordance with the medical evidence - that the child died from starvation and that this was caused by the wilful neglect of the parents.
At the conclusion of the inquest both David and Elizabeth Quail were arrested and charged with manslaughter and not murder.  This charge was based upon the finding of the jury that the child died from ‘wilful neglect.’  Elizabeth Quail insisted that nothing was found in her daughter’s stomach due to the type of food she was being fed with was such that no trace would be found because it did not remain in the stomach.  Both the accused were remanded in custody.

What made the City Coroner make such a remark inferring that Belfast was now a place which specialised in child murder?  After browsing through the papers and events around the beginning of 1909 I was horrified to discover some amazing tales of child abuse and neglect.

March 1909

In the recorder’s Court in Townhall Street on March 11 the City Coroner was again hearing the inquest on the brutal death of a Belfast child.  This time it concerned the newly born child which died at birth and whose mother Sarah Lough, aged 17, resided at 68 Walton Street.  This inquest had started a fortnight previously but was adjourned pending the attendance of the girl who was an inmate of the Union Hospital.  The girl’s father had been arrested for cruelty to his children and was present at the inquiry in the custody of the police.  Professor Symmers occupied a seat at the hearing next to Dr Graham, the Coroner.

The young girl, Sarah Lough was ‘dressed in Workhouse clothes and also seemed to be in a delicate condition,’ according to the reporters who covered the case for the local press.  She told the court that her mother had died about a year previous and since that time, her father and three children all slept in the same room which they occupied at 68 Walton Street.  On the morning of February 24th she felt ill and sent her father for a neighbour, but before his return the child was born and she was so weak she could not attend to it and so she left it in a bucket.  The neighbour, Mrs Pollock, arrived soon afterwards in the company of two doctors, Dr Ritchie and Dr Fulton.
The jury returned a verdict to the effect that the child came to its death from suffocation as a result of misadventure at birth and added a rider condemning the conditions under which the family were forced to live in the one room.
Samuel Lough, the father of this poor family, was brought up before the magistrate, Mr Garrett Nagle, in the Belfast Custody Court charged with neglecting his children.

It had been pointed out at a later trial in August 1909 that under the Children Act parents notwithstanding poverty, were bound to provide proper lodging, clothing and food for their children.
In that case the two week old daughter of James and Catherine McGowan died through culpable neglect in not providing proper lodging and medical aid for the child.  The father was subsequently arrested and brought before  the courts.


Child Murder

A jury heard how his wife spent most of her housekeeping on drink and that prior to the death of this child she had another nine children, six of whom died.  When questioned further it was revealed that inquests were held on three of their other children, the last of which found that that child died in similar circumstances.
Deprivation and squalid living conditions such as these were widespread.  It was conditions like these which led directly to the forming of a society in 1891 to help unfortunate children who were caught up in such appalling conditions.  Early NSPCC reports outlined the case of a boy of five whose mother had burned him with a red hot poker while another told the terrible story of an eight year old whose mother would leave him drugged and bound in a locked orange box under the bed when she went out.  No one seemed to care.  In fact at this time it should be noted that a society had already been formed to protect animals from cruelty while the proper welfare of young children was being ignored.
Add this to the case of the nurse who opened a baby farm at Hawthorn Street and it is harrowing to read that she was intoxicated at every opportunity.  She had the charge of a young baby which had been born to a girl called Nesbitt, who was then working at Stranraer.  Nurse Heaney agreed to rear the child in her absence having placed advertisements for the same in the local newspapers.  An inquest was told that this was the first child which she had had charge of and it died, aged three and a half months.  The court tried to ascertain would the child have died if it had been looked after in different circumstances.  Although the child died from the results of a convulsive attack Professor Symmers, a leading expert who was often called in to give evidence in instances of child neglect, said - “I think it possible it would have lived.  It seemed to be constitutionally normal in every other way.  It certainly had not been nourished in the way one would like to see an infant looked after.” 

An Inspector Barry from the NSPCC was also called to testify.  He claimed that someone had reported the nurse to his society and, as a result, he was sent out to investigate the matter.  When he arrived at the house in Hawthorn Street he had considerable difficulty gaining access.  When Nurse Heaney eventually opened the door she explained that she had been asleep.  It was his opinion that she was ‘considerably under the influence of drink.’  The child , which was well-clad and lying in a cot appeared to be in a convulsive fit and it was his opinion that the nurse was ‘quite incapable of taking charge of it.’  Two days later the child, which was still in the custody of Nurse Heaney, was dead.



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