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


Over the past three weeks I have looked at how children were treated in the so called good old days and presented a few cases of what was really going on.  What I need to emphasise is that these were only a few cases of countless recordings of horrific child cruelty.  In the vast volumes of criminal cases, those involving children are extremely frequent and the following is an example of what was indeed a common occurrence.


Belfast, Tuesday 20th April, 1909
The City Coroner (Dr. James Graham) held an inquest in the Old Recorders Court, Townhall Street, Belfast, touching the death of Bridget McGowan, the two-week-old daughter of James and Catherine McGowan, which occurred on Saturday morning.  Head constable Peate and Sergeant John J. Moore represented the constabulary.

Bridget Rooney, No.9 Murray’s Place, grandmother of the child, deposed that the deceased was born in her house about a fortnight ago.  It was delicate from birth.  The mother had been stopping in her house two or three days before the birth, and after the child was born she remained about a fortnight.  She went out of Wednesday, 14th inst., and returned about nine o’clock, when the witness sent for the police to have her removed.


Head-Constable Peate – What state was she in?
Bridget Rooney - She was crying and wanted in.  I took her in because the police told me.
Head-Constable Peate - Had she any drink taken?
Bridget Rooney – She had the smell of drink and was tossed looking, but she could walk well enough.

Proceeding, witness said her daughter went out the following morning, but she did not go to the Workhouse, as advised by the police, and returned on Friday evening between eight and nine o’clock.  Witness gave her a cup of tea, and she said she had been looking for her husband and could not find him.  During Friday night she sat on the stairs.
The Head-Constable – Did you refuse to allow her to go into the room?
Bridget Rooney - Certainly I did, she had a good fire.
Head-Constable - Did you refuse to allow her to go to the fire?
Bridget Rooney – I would not do that.
The Registrar (Mr. James Beattie) – did you refuse to allow her to go to bed?
Bridget Rooney – She had no bed and I had no bed for her.
Witness added that she shut the door on her daughter’s face and told her to go away but she did not do so.
The Coroner – I suppose she still had the smell of drink?
Bridget Rooney – She might have had some.

Head-Constable Peate – Did you allow her to remain on the stairs with two children all night?
Bridget Rooney – She could have gone into the fire.  I would not give her the liberty to do so but she could have gone in if she liked.
Answering further questions witness said she again sent for the police on Friday night, but they took no action.  The child was carefully dressed.  She got out of bed about six o’clock on Saturday morning, and found her daughter in the hall lilting to the child, which was crying.  Witness heard Mrs Hughes asking her daughter to go to her house but she did not remember stating that she heard her daughter telling Mrs Hughes that witness would not let her into her house.  At the time of the birth the witness sent for a nurse.


Child Murder


This is the image that we have of childhood in the ‘Good Old Days.’  What a pity it’s a load of nonsense as this applied to less than 1% of the childhood population.



Head-Constable Peate – Was the child born before the nurse arrived?
Bridget Rooney – Oh, how long, and lying on the tiles too.
The Coroner – Are you positive the child was alive on Saturday morning?
Bridget Rooney – Yes, because it was crying.

Mrs Catherine Hughes, No.1 Murray’s Place, said that on Friday evening she saw Catherine McGowan sitting on the lowest step of the stairs in No.9 Murray’s Place with deceased and her little boy.  Witness asked her why she was sitting there with her baby, and she replied that her mother would not let her into the house.  Mrs Rooney opened the door when she heard witness’s voice, and refused to let her and her baby in, slamming the door in her face.  On Saturday morning when passing the house witness saw Mrs. McGowan standing in the hall with the child in her arms.  She asked witness to get her a glass of porter, but witness declined, and brought them to her house, where she said she would warm the child and give the boy a drop of tea.  Witness took the child from Catherine McGowan to warm it, and then found that it was dead.
The Coroner - Was this woman under the influence of drink?
Catherine Hughes – She looked as if she had some early in the morning.
Constable Abraham Rothwell was also examined as to visiting Mrs. Rooney’s house when the mother of the deceased was there.

James McGowan, father of the child was next called, but not sworn.
Head-Constable Peate – Do you know where your wife is?
James McGowan – No.
Have you been looking for her?
James McGowan – No.
When did you see her last?
James McGowan – Yesterday (Monday) evening.
James McGowan – At her mother’s door.
Where was she stopping?
James McGowan – She did not tell me where she was staying.
Where are you staying?
James McGowan – At the model lodging house in Station Street.
You have not seen your wife since last night?
James McGowan – No.
Did you ask her to be at this inquest today?
James McGowan – No.
Nothing passed between you as to the death of the child?
James McGowan – No.
You never mentioned it?
James McGowan – She told me she had been summoned to attend here today.
Did she ask you not to attend?
James McGowan – She told me that Sergeant Moore said I had no call to come.
What are you by trade?
James McGowan – A rope spinner.
What are your wages?
James McGowan – Twenty-one shillings a week.
Have you given anything to your wife lately?
James McGowan – Yes.
James McGowan – I gave her a shilling last night, one on Friday at dinner time, and on Wednesday night I gave her the same.
Do you know what she did with it?
James McGowan – I could not say.
Why didn’t you provide a proper place for her to live in?
James McGowan – We had two rooms in Clermont Lane, and we were put out of them about a week before the child was born.
How many children has your wife had?
James McGowan – Ten.
How many of them are alive?
James McGowan – Three.
On how many of them were inquests held?
James McGowan – Two or three.
The Coroner – what was the cause of death in the last case?
James McGowan – Overlying.
Dr. James D. Williamson, J.P., Albertbridge Road, attributed death to acute congestion of the lungs.
Head-constable Peate – Might that have been brought about by unnecessary exposure?
James McGowan – Yes.
The Coroner – from the history of the case did that child receive proper treatment?
James McGowan – I am afraid not, sir.
Dr. W. J. Wilson concurred with Dr. Williamson.

The registrar pointed out to the jury that under the new Children Act, parents, not withstanding poverty, were bound to provide proper lodgings, clothing and food for their children.  That could have been done in the present case by applying at the Workhouse.
The jury returned a verdict in accordance with the medical evidence, and added a rider to the effect that in their opinion death was caused by culpable neglect of its parents, James and Catherine McGowan, in not providing proper lodgings and medical aid for it.

At the conclusion of the inquest Sergeant Moore arrested the father, James McGowan, on the charge of failing to provide proper lodging and medical aid for the child, as a result of which it died.
McGowan was then removed to the cells at the Central Police Office, Chichester Street, and was be brought before the magistrates in the Custody Court on Wednesday Morning.
He was later found guilty of neglect and sentenced to imprisonment in Belfast Prison.

Although this may seem a bit unfair as the father was 'not around' at the time of the child's death that was the whole point of the law.  In these days women were seen as mere items and the fathers were therefore responsible for them and children.  Fathers were also deemed responsible for any child they fathered and if they did not provide for them then they were prosecuted.  We have this rosy image of the good old days but the fact of the matter is they were a living hell and if you do not want to take my word for it them simply go to the records of the courts, leave aside the massive criminal material, and look at just how we treated our children. It is then that you'll realise that the 'Good Old Days' were just not that great after all!



Thank You


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