GOLDEN DAWN: Dr William Wynn Westcott work as A CORONER 1883-1919
See also my file on his work as a GP and for The Extra Pharmacopoeia; and his campaiging on medical issues.
Before you get started, some abbreviations:
BMA = British Medical Association; the campaigning organisation of physicians.
BMJ = British Medical Journal, published by the BMA; very good for medical news and available online at jstor.
GMC = General Medical Council. It was set up by the Medical Act 1858 to keep a register of those qualified to practice; and to set and regulate standards of medical education. The Council members were elected by professional physicians. The 19th century world was getting increasingly professionalised; there were also far more types of employment a doctor could have. I noticed when I was researching the GD members who were doctors, that by the end of the century it was difficult to get a job in the public domain (local authorities, poor law boards etc) without being on the GMC’s register.
LCC = London County Council. The LCC’s powers took effect on 21 March 1889 and it continued to cover the boroughs of Inner London until replaced by the Greater London Council in 1965; taking over the responsibilities of such previous organisations as the London School Board and the Metropolitan Board of Works. The Progressives (allied roughly with the Liberal Party) were in the majority from 1889 to 1907; then the Municipal Reform group (roughly allied with the Conservative Party) dominated until 1934. The LCC’s councillors were elected; its chairperson and vice chairperson were appointed. An Act passed in 1892 gave control of the coroners’ service in London to the LCC; so from that year they were Westcott’s employers.
Sources for GMC and LCC: wikipedia pages.
And a rather puzzled comment from me on vice-presidents in Victorian and Edwardian societies. The societies Westcott belonged to had so many! Usually the society has a ruling council or committee as well, so I’m not sure what the vice-presidents are doing; perhaps it’s just an honorary title.
CORONER: A VERY OLD PROFESSION
In 1909/10 Westcott did a spot of research on the origins of the office of coroner; and found evidence of its existence in a charter issued by King Athelstan in 925.
In 1910 Westcott gave his own definition of the duties of a coroner: “to discover from witnesses how, when, and where a person has died, and to assist his jury to decide correctly whether any person is criminally to blame for the occurrence of the death; he is to discover the particulars required for the proper registration of the death...to forward the same to the registrar, and to issue a burial or cremation order”. Most of those duties would have surprised a coroner working even as late as the mid-19th century. Their basis was the clauses of the Coroners’ Act 1887 – that is, a law passed three years after Westcott was first appointed to a job as coroner. That Act and one passed in 1892 still define a coroner’s powers. Other laws passed at that time began the process of turning the coroner into a paid local official: in the 1880s senior coroners were still elected and made their own choices about who they would employ; and until 1860 coroners had not had an official salary. These moves were part of an effort to drag the ancient office of coroner into the late 19th century; and between 1883 and 1909 the work of a coroner changed more than it had in the previous 900-or-so years. Westcott himself was active in making some of those changes, broadening the scope of what a coroner’s inquest investigated; pushing to have the work of a coroner clearly defined in law; demanding higher standards from coroners and others whose work brought them into contact with coroners; and explaining what coroners did, to other medical and legal professionals.
CENTRAL MIDDLESEX - WESTCOTT’S FIRST JOB
All that said, I think Westcott’s appointment to his first post as a coroner followed an old-and-tried route: in March 1883 he was offered a job as his deputy coroner by the coroner for Central Middlesex, Dr George Danford Thomas, on the basis that their families knew each other well. That’s not to say Westcott lacked the necessary credentials. On the contrary: in its announcement of his appointment the Lancet referred to Westcott as a man who had “devoted special attention to medico-legal questions”. I think that must be a reference to articles Westcott had had published in the British Medical Journal in the 1870s (see the medical/professional file for those).
If you’ve read my file on Westcott’s family, you’ll know that he was born in 1848 and grew up in Martock in Somerset. George Danford Thomas, born in 1846, moved to live three or four miles from Martock in 1855, when his father, Rev Richard James Francis Thomas, became vicar of St John the Baptist Yeovil. Westcott and George Danford Thomas might have been school-holiday friends in the late 1850s and 1860s. Westcott would also have known Rev Richard Thomas between 1870, when Westcott joined his uncle’s medical practice, and 1873 when Rev Thomas died: Rev Thomas was very active in local official life in Yeovil and its surroundings. He was the first president of the local school board; Westcott was a governor of one of its schools in the 1870s. And though his son George Danford Thomas worked in London once he had got his medical qualifications, he kept up his contacts in the West Country in an important way: in 1875 he was initiated into the freemasons’ Lodge of Brotherly Love 329, founded in Martock in 1810 but by the mid 19th-century meeting in Yeovil. Westcott was already a member of that lodge, initiated in 1873.
George Danford Thomas had been elected to the post of coroner for Central Middlesex in 1881, succeeding the man whose deputy coroner he had been. The district went into London as far as Finsbury and out as far as parts of Barnet; Hornsey and Islington were in it on the east side, and its western border was the Edgeware Road: quite a sprawl. It had probably been manageable by one coroner for centuries, and for two years Danford Thomas had worked with no deputy. Then he was overcome by the ever-increasing number of inquests needed as so much of what had been rural was rapidly built over.
Though Westcott was Danford Thomas’s choice, Westcott’s testimonials had to be sent to the office of the Lord Chancellor, Roundell Palmer Earl of Selborne; I daresay ratification went through on the nod, but even this requirement to have approval from on high for the new employee was a move into the modern world from the older way of making appointments. Because I haven’t been able to find any information on the point, I can’t say how far payment of Westcott’s salary had moved with the times. I couldn’t discover whether at this stage Westcott was paid as a local official or as a senior employee of Danford Thomas. When he began work in 1883 he was probably paid by Danford Thomas, out of Thomas’s own salary which also (again I think) had to cover the expenses of the offices at 68 St Mary’s Terrace Paddington; which might explain why Danford Thomas had been willing to go for two years without any coroner to help him.
Westcott was next-man-down from Danford Thomas as top man, and was able to work from his own home – 396 Camden Road – at least some of the time, while sharing the hours of the main office’s staff. Originally, coroners had carried out all enquiries into a death themselves. This was no longer possible in urban areas; there was too much work, and Danford Thomas and Westcott had at least two men working for them. One was Thomas Henry Beasley, who was initiated into the Order of the Golden Dawn; probably to ensure his silence about various errands he’d run for Westcott on GD business. Mr Beasley, an ex police inspector, performed a range of tasks as the coroner’s Summoning Officer. The basis of his work was – as his job title suggests – serving summonses to appear at the coroner’s court, to witnesses and jury members. However, in a clear case of murder, he searched the room in which the corpse had been found for clues; and did the leg-work required to identify it – interviewing the neighbours, for example - having found no identification on the body. A Summoning Officer working for Westcott himself in 1914 took typed witness statements to the witnesses homes, for their signatures. By as early as the 1870s the volume of work also required the Central Middlesex coroner’s office to employ a secretary to deal with the ever-increasing paperwork, liaise with the staff who were so often out of the office, and keep the accounts. In 1884 this was Walter Schröder.
After only a week or two learning his new job, Westcott began presiding over inquests on his own. Inquests were news in an age with a large number of newspapers searching for items to fill their pages. Even reports on inquests whose outcome was a dull ‘death by natural causes’ were a staple of the local papers; and nationally-read papers like The Times and the high-society Morning Post published reports of inquests they thought would inform, or entertain (if that’s the word), their readers. Reports on one particularly gruesome and sensational inquest Westcott took, in 1914, were published as far away as Australia. The name of the coroner was always printed, so that George Danford Thomas, William Wynn Westcott, and their fellow coroners became – not exactly famous, but people whose names newspaper readers might find vaguely familiar. Westcott had mixed feelings about the press. Often he found that a newspaper report of relatives in distress resulted in clothes and money being sent to his office for them. However, he did wish reporters wouldn’t focus on the gory details of someone’s death by violence. His link with the Times branched out during the first World War into the publication of his yearly statistics. The World War did cause a change in the character of the inquest reports, with Westcott’s views on the inquest being given more prominence than the corpse and how it had died. Perhaps the newspapers were feeling that they had to cover too many deaths on foreign fields already; without adding unnatural death at home to the readers’ burden.
Given that Westcott thought he’d presided over 25000 by the beginning of World War 1, I’m not going to cover them in detail! I will just mention some inquests that caught my eye in Timesonline and in north and east London papers in the British Newspaper Archive.
A batch of inquest reports published on 27 and 28 March 1883 were the earliest I found:
- at Paddington Coroners’ Court, Westcott held an investigation into a carriage accident in Cambridge Street. Dennis Carter had been driving a brougham hired from the stables where he worked; there was a boy on the seat with him and two women passengers were inside. The horse had taken fright at something and bolted, and the carriage had collided with a hansom cab. Carter, the boy sitting with him and the driver of the hansom cab had all been thrown into the road. They were taken to St Mary’s Hospital Paddington; Carter died of his injuries several hours later; the boy and the cab driver were still in hospital on the day of the inquest. Jury’s verdict: accidental death.
- it wasn’t usual for an inquest to be held in the house where the death had occurred. However Jane Keppel Barrington, widow of the 6th Viscount Barrington, died after she fell down the stairs, and Westcott held the inquest at her home, 20 Cavendish Square, so that the jury could examine the staircase in question (and have a look round at how the other half lived). Verdict: Viscountess Barrington had died of head injuries sustained in the fall. This inquest – with its aristocratic subject - was the first by Westcott to be reported in the Times.
- Islington was one of the oldest urban parts of Central Middlesex district and already had a coroners’ court building in operation. Westcott was a regular at the Coroners’ Court on Holloway Road until he changed jobs in 1894. Amongst his first inquests at the venue were these two, reported in the Islington Gazette. In each case, the person was elderly, and had apparently been in good health for their age. Francis Barlow of 5 Douglas Road was 69. He was a civil servant at Somerset House (where the census and registry records were kept) and had done his day’s work there as usual before dying back at home, very suddenly, during the evening. The post mortem found the heart to be surrounded by deposits of fat. Conclusion: he’d died of a heart attack. Susanna Mary Robinson of 8 Girdleston Road was 76. Three days before her death, she had had a slight seizure but quickly recovered. However, a second seizure, while she was having afternoon tea, was so severe she was dead before the doctor arrived. The post mortem found that her lungs and heart were in good condition, but she had a blood clot on the brain. Conclusion: she died of a stroke. Verdict in both cases: death from natural causes. In each case, the usual procedure was followed, in a case where violence by another person was not suspected: the dead person’s own doctor carried out the post mortem. The idea that post mortem investigations should be carried out by doctors who were trained specifically to do them was something that medicine was only moving towards, quite slowly, during Westcott’s working life: he was one of those coroners who campaigned for autopsies to be carried out by specialists.
The local paper printed short reports on the inquests on Barlow and Robinson, despite the mundane conclusion of each of them, and despite the fact that the dead man and woman were not well known figures, even locally.
- A few days after the group of inquests I’ve touched on above, Westcott held what was probably his first inquest on a child. Westcott held so many of these; even the last inquest he ever held was on a child; but investigating a child’s death never got any easier for him. In particular, he felt that many of the deaths of infants could easily have been avoided by better care. He also suspected that many natural deaths of infants were not natural at all; though it was difficult to prove they had been intended – a mother giving evidence about the death of her infant was, Westcott thought, one of the most likely witnesses to commit perjury during an inquest. On this first occasion the inquest was held at the Railway Tavern Hotel New Southgate, that area of Central Middlesex not having its own coroners’ court yet. The dead child was William Watson Elliott, aged 11, son of a local jeweller. There was nothing untoward, though much that was sad, about the case: the post mortem found a fault in the child’s artery, he could have died at any time; it also found evidence of disease in the child’s bowel – the child had often been ill over the past few months, though (probably for financial reasons) he had not been receiving treatment and was often well enough to go to school. Verdict: death from natural causes.
- I can’t help feeling that my next example was an inquest where a great deal was left unsaid, probably unthought, at the time: in August 1883 Westcott went to the Middlesex County Lunatic Asylum at Colney Hatch to hold an inquest on one of its inmates. Fanny Williams, aged 34, had been found by members of the nursing staff lying dead on a bed, with the marks of a ligature on her neck; but a post mortem (presumably carried out by a member of the medical staff) showed she had died of a heart attack. As well as staff members, Fanny’s mother, Mrs Rose, also gave evidence. She had often visited her daughter at the asylum, and there was plainly no love lost on either side between her and Fanny’s nurses. Accusations flew: Mrs Rose had often seen Fanny with bruises and other injuries and said the staff had ill-treated her; the nursing staff in their turn said that Fanny (now past speaking for herself) was disruptive and violent towards them.
Fanny Williams was epileptic and was taken into Colney Hatch for the third time in 1880, after becoming suicidal. The injuries seen by Mrs Rose on her visits could have been caused by falls during one of Fanny’s epileptic fits. However, today we might wonder if they had been the results of self-harm; or of too-violent restraint; or the ill-treatment Mrs Rose alleged and the staff denied. The verdict of the inquest was accidental death and that, apparently, was the end of the matter. I don’t think it would be now.
Some cases that led to Westcott becoming a campaigner on the issues raised:
- one of the cases that contributed its mite to Westcott’s book On Suicide: Westcott went to Kilburn to hold an inquest on Ambrose Balam, whose body had been found hanging from a tree in Regent’s Park over the previous weekend.
- appearing in a set of reports published in the Morning Post in August 1883: two inquests Westcott held in the same week, possibly on the same day, wherein the corpse was a woman in her forties, a long-time heavy drinker, who had died after following up an evening at the bottle with a hefty dose of a medicine to help her sleep.
- And finally, another theme which ran through Westcott’s inquests: the unidentified corpse. One from 1886 was unusual in that the unknown dead man was obviously well-to-do. He’d also not been found in the street or a room in a lodging house, he’d been found in the hackney cab that he had hired a short while before at Elephant and Castle, needing to be taken to St Pancras to catch a 7.30 am train. When his passenger failed to get out of the cab at St Pancras, the cab driver looked inside and found that he had died during the trip. The cab man had taken the cab and the corpse round to the Middlesex Hospital, where the inquest subsequently took place. The dead man had never got home after his last evening out – he was wearing evening dress and a silk top hat. He had a ring, and watch which were both described in the report in the Morning Post; but nothing to say who he was. Despite being quite a young man – mid-thirties was the estimate – he had died of “syncope” – a heart attack. Verdict: death from natural causes.
Suicide, even attempted suicide, was still a crime; but it took Westcott only 1883 and 1884 to amass the statistics that formed the basis of his book usually referred to as On Suicide, published in 1885. Suicide was such a taboo subject that there were very few books on it in any language. Westcott’s work as a coroner and his ability to read French and German made him an ideal person to fill the gap in the market. On Suicide was published in 1885 and definitely increased Westcott’s standing in the medical profession. It was reviewed in the Times amongst other places and by 1892 if not before, was being cited in works by other writers. It’s frequently the only work by Westcott mentioned in connection with his name.
In Westcott’s lifetime, before the NHS, most doctors had at least two sources of income: as a general practitioner and medical officer for a local authority, for example; or general practice and working in a hospital. Westcott himself had worked in his uncle’s general practice and for the local Poor Law Board during the 1870s. Throughout his working life as a coroner and into his retirement, he had one other job, doing research for issues of The Extra Pharmacopoeia, work that could be done out of office hours and at home. However, it seems that the money from those two jobs was not enough, and over the next few years he made efforts to get the boss’s job in another coroner’s district.
The search for such a job began in 1884, only a year after Westcott began working for Danford Thomas, with the first of two applications for the job of coroner to the City of London and Southwark. On each occasion, the job went to somebody else and I shall say here that I think this might have been because though other applicants might not be so experienced, their medical qualifications – especially if they were younger - were often better than Westcott’s. It seems that Westcott was aware of his lack of qualifications: probably in 1891/92, he gained a Diploma in Public Health.
It might have been part of a plan to raise his profile in his profession that Westcott offered to give a talk called A Coroner’s Notes on Sudden Death at the British Medical Association’s annual conference in Bournemouth in July 1891. All proceedings of the BMA’s conferences were published in the British Medical Journal, so the talk reached a much wider audience than was able to go to the conference.
Shortly after that BMA conference, Westcott was offered extra work as a coroner when the coroner for West Middlesex, Dr Thomas Bramah Diplock, was forced to give up work: he had cancer of the tongue and could no longer speak at an inquest. The West Middlesex district met the Central Middlesex district on either side of Edgeware Road. From September 1891 Westcott was presiding over inquests on the West Middlesex side of the road, in Cricklewood and Kilburn. Dr Diplock died in March 1892. Westcott applied for his job but in January 1893 someone else was appointed, a Dr W B Gordon Hogg who lived in Chiswick, part of the West Middlesex coroner’s district. I think Dr Gordon Hogg may have been covering Dr Diplock’s work in the further reaches of his district – Chiswick, Brentford and Ealing – rather too far for Westcott to have done the work in addition to his commitments in the Central district. Westcott had to make do with accepting Hogg’s offer to continue the work in West Middlesex that he’d already been doing, as Hogg’s deputy. Around the same time, the job of coroner to the City of London and Southwark fell vacant again; Westcott applied for it again; and someone else was appointed again.
In the spring of 1892 while he was doing his first job in Central Middlesex and covering for Dr Diplock in West Middlesex, Westcott was also applying for a third post, as medical officer for the Vestry of St Mary Islington. Originally meant to be temporary while the usual man, Dr Melmott Tidy, was taking sick-leave, the vacancy turned into a permanent one when Dr Tidy died instead of recovering as he was expected to. Westcott’s application for the temporary and then the permanent post was controversial, especially in a year of local elections: a byelaw would have to be suspended for him to be appointed, as he was a vestryman of St Mary Islington at the time. To make things look better he resigned as a vestryman, but in the long run he got a lot of bad publicity rather than the job. The byelaw was suspended amidst rowdy scenes and negative comment in the press; but in a close vote, the job was awarded to someone with better qualifications and more experience.
However, help was at hand from the LCC.
CORONER NORTH-EAST LONDON DISTRICT
The 1892 Coroners’ Deputies Act had made the London County Council responsible for the appointments of deputy coroners. The LCC took the opportunity it had been offered, to reorganise the coroners’ service within its boundaries. A number of new districts, and consequently new posts, were created. Westcott applied for the new post of coroner to the LCC’s North-East district; and got it, against 48 other applicants, nine of whom were interviewed.
Being appointed to its north-eastern district made him an LCC employee. His new district covered the boroughs of Hackney, Stoke Newington, Shoreditch, Bethnal Green; and for some years at least, the parish of St Luke in the borough of Finsbury. He was the senior employee in the district, with a deputy coroner working for him. His salary looked good - £1150 per year – but I think he had to pay his office expenses, and perhaps even his deputy, out of it. He continued to use his home – 396 Camden Road – as his headquarters but on a larger scale, I would think, with at least one employee in the office during its usual hours. He had a number of different deputy coroners over the years, beginning in October 1894 with Dr George Vere Benson. At least in the early years of Westcott’s tenure, they tended to work from offices around City Road. They usually didn’t stay long, though – Benson himself moved on very shortly, taking the job Westcott had vacated in West Middlesex before getting a top job in East Sussex.
In 1912, a two-year programme by the LCC to line up the boundaries of their boroughs with the boundaries of their coroners’ districts resulted in the parish of St Luke’s being moved into what had been called Central Middlesex but was now known as Central London. The senior coroner there was now Westcott’s colleague from the 1880s, and fellow member of several professional medical organisations, Walter Schröder. Apart from that minor adjustment, Westcott continued to ply the same coroners’ beat for 25 years: starting work in June 1894 and finally retiring in the autumn of 1919, having probably continued in-post a lot longer than he had intended, due to World War 1.
Whereas the Central Middlesex district, during Westcott’s time there, was turning gradually from rural or semi-rural to suburban, as London marched northwards, the north-east LCC district had been built on much sooner and more densely. Taking in the northern fringes of the City, and parts of the East End, it was a district originally middle-class but now sliding down the social scale, with poor housing and too often large numbers of people in small numbers of rooms. In the census year of 1901 the district had 560,000 inhabitants. Life was tough for them: Westcott noted that inquests on men over 60 or women over 80 were rare. If he did hold an inquest on someone so old, they had died in the workhouse, where a roof over their head and regular meals, however inadequate, had kept them alive longer than their peers. The area was more culturally diverse than Central Middlesex, with many inhabitants who had been born outside England. There was a large Jewish community from central Europe and in the end Westcott consulted the Chief Rabbi, Dr Hermann Adler, for his advice on prospective jurors named Cohen: they had a tendency to ask to be excused jury service on the grounds that the Cohens were a priestly caste, forbidden to touch a dead body. By the late 1890s, it was unusual for jurors even to see the body, let alone touch it; but Westcott followed the Chief Rabbi’s advice and let those Cohens who wanted to be, be excused. Some jurors annoyed Westcott by - despite having lived in London for several years – still only being able to speak their native language and the patois of the East End (cockney slang I guess Westcott means - he thought it “almost defies translation”). It wasn’t unusual for Westcott to find at the end of an inquest that some of the jury had not understood a word of the evidence; but by then it was too late for him to do anything about it.
In the 12 years to 1906 Westcott and his deputy did an average of 1098 inquests per year, one for every ten deaths. Giving a talk in 1906, Westcott took June 1903 to June 1904 as typical. Westcott and his deputy did 1041 inquests during those 12 months. In addition, Westcott usually did about 250 private investigations – about which he said nothing at all at the talk, so I don’t know what was going on there. Of the 1041 inquests, 580 were on dead men and 461 on dead women. Three resulted in prosecutions for murder; four in prosecutions for manslaughter – Westcott thought those numbers were very low considering the nature of his district. There were 61 suicides in the 12 months; 51 were men, 10 were women. In the cases of 8 men and 6 women, the inquest found that the death had been at least partly caused by neglect of the dead person by third parties. 8 men and 10 women had died of destitution. 47 men and 35 women had died of what Westcott termed “alcoholic excess”. 432 of the dead had died as a result of accidents. Five of the bodies had died from injuries whose cause the inquest hadn’t been able to determine. Twelve people had drowned. Seven infants had been still-born; and 13 more had died very shortly after the birth.
Here’s a very unrepresentative set of inquests from Westcott’s North-East district; some that caught my eye.
- in August 1894, Westcott went to the Shoreditch Tabernacle to hold an inquest on the body of an 18-month old girl who’d had a fit and died after being given a medicine bought from a local herbalist. Westcott warned one witness that - depending on the outcome of the inquest - she might face prosecution. This inquest made it into the Times, perhaps because of the possibility that it involved an area of medicine that tended to be outside the usual medical controls. The report didn’t name the witness warned by Westcott, but surely she must have been the person who sold the family the medicine.
- in October 1895 Westcott went to Bethnal Green Vestry Hall for a particularly sensitive inquest. The corpse was that of George Walter Giourgi; a cook; aged 37; of Hamilton Road Mile End. Various witnesses gave evidence at inquest that they had seen the man being violently attacked by a policeman. The Times reported the evidence of Louisa Swannell of 32 Palm Street in detail – she seems to have been nearer the attack than anyone else. Mrs Swannell had been woken at 3am by “groans in the street”. She’d gone to the window and seen a policeman dragging a body onto the pavement from the roadway. She had watched as the policeman kicked the body in the head several times when the man couldn’t or wouldn’t get up. The policeman then began to walk away but came back when the man began to sit up, and hit him “a fearful blow on the head with something he had in his hand”. The medical evidence was of injuries indicating the use of “considerable violence”. PC Charles Payne police number 443K was at the inquest, apparently as the police’s prime suspect as the attack happened on his beat. He denied having used any violence and at that point Westcott adjourned the inquest while further evidence was collected, saying the case was “full of difficulties and...of great importance to the public”.
Before the inquest resumed a week later, the Police Commissioner had been informed about the case. He had sent Superintendent Wells and Detective-Inspector Mellish to the inquest’s second day. On the second day, the inquest heard the evidence of John Lacy that on the night before Giourgi’s death they had been out drinking together and that they had parted at around midnight. Louisa Swannell gave evidence again: as the attack went on she’d called out to the policemen, who had immediately turned off his lamp. Mrs Swannell’s evidence was corroborated by her husband John; by Elizabeth Stacey of 28 Palm Street, the wife of a butcher; and several other people. But when an identity parade was held none of them were able to identify the policeman who attacked the dead man. More medical evidence was heard, from Dr Bridgeman: Giourgi had died from a fractured skull though he had received several other injuries to the head. After the attack had finished Giourgi had managed to get home; he had been seen at around 0540 by milkman Edward Allaard. However, he felt ill the following morning and had died soon after he got up. Westcott interviewed PC Payne again, under caution. Payne denied that there had been a quarrel but the jury all but accused Payne of murder: they found that Giourgi had died “as a result of brutal violence inflicted by some unknown member of the police force, and that some policeman unknown is guilty of wilful murder”. After the verdict, Detective-Inspector Mellish arrested PC Payne; he was taken away to Bow Street.
I wanted to find out what happened about PC Payne; but I wasn’t successful. The case didn’t figure much in any papers after the end of the inquest. Those accounts I did find disagreed as to whether he’d been charged with murder or manslaughter; and the latest report on the case that I came across said that the prosecution lawyers were arguing on his behalf – suggesting that the cause of Giourgi’s death couldn’t be determined. I suppose the lawyers were thinking of Giourgi having got up and walked home. But I couldn’t find any evidence that the case had come to trial so I guess that like so often today, the policeman got away with it.
- one of the more unusual inquests Westcott presided over was that of a man who had died of injuries received when he was attacked by an elephant owned by George Sanger’s circus. The inquest was held in Hackney as the attack had taken place where the elephant was being kept, in Bentley Road Kingsland. The dead man was Allen Alfred Baker, aged 27. Baker had been keeper of the circus’s elephants until a few months before, when he’d been arrested and was deemed to have left his job. The circus had re-hired him a few days before the incident that led to his death, on the understanding that he would not have any involvement whatever with the elephants. Breaking the conditions of his new job, Baker went to see the elephant and its new keeper, John Killingback He had entered on a peaceful scene – Killingback was feeding the elephant. But the elephant went berserk when Baker spoke; charged him; and gored him in the side of the head with one tusk. Baker was taken to the Metropolitan Hospital and operated on to relieve the pressure of a depressed fracture of the skull. He died later. The inquest heard that the elephant was probably about 40 years old and had been with the circus for many years; it was a docile creature and had never given trouble before. Witnesses spoke about how elephants were supposed to have good memories. Westcott’s summing up, and a remark made by the jury foreman, made it clear they all thought the elephant had been ill-treated by Baker when he had charge of it. Verdict: accidental death and a general feeling that the dead man had got what was coming to him.
- in April 1899 Westcott was summoned to the parcels depot at Broad Street station after staff there had impounded a large box which had no paperwork with it, and found a mummified body and two skulls inside. The body was a woman, in a fine state of preservation, Westcott could see - he hazarded a guess that it had been kept in hot sand (he was thinking of ancient Egyptian mummification, I expect), and that she had been dead at least 10 years. Her three elaborate plaits were still intact and their dark colour still obvious. It was more difficult to reach any conclusions about the skulls but Westcott thought that they were, like the woman, probably native American. He decided to hold an inquiry into the body and in the meantime to ask a colleague to investigate the corpse; and the police to find out more about the box’s circumstances.
The inquiry was held on 29 April 1899 but before that a dispute had already broken out about where exactly the box had lost its paperwork; between the London and North-Western Railway and Pitt and Scott of 25 Cannon Street, whose Liverpool office had dealt with the box on its arrival there. Detective-Inspector Allen had discovered that the box had been aboard the SS Gulf of Corcovado from Peru, described in its list of cargo as “one case of mummies for Belgium”. Though there was still no information about who had sent the box, a label had now been found for it, giving its destination as Museum Maison de Melle, Belgium. Dr Franklin Hewitt Oliver had done a more thorough examination of the contents of the box which also included two lower jaw bones; some rope; some strips of hide and leather; and some earthenware pots. He’d confirmed Westcott’s tentative conclusion that the box’s contents were from South America. He suggested that the skulls were one male about 25 years, and one adult female; and that one of the jaw bones was from an adult male. He hadn’t found any evidence that the woman had died by violence, so Westcott gave some specific instructions to the jury as to what the verdict was to be. As Detective-Inspector Allen had found that the Museum at Melle was expecting the box, it was allowed to go on its way.
The jury’s verdict caused laughter in the High Court two years later, when it was read out as part of the case for damages being brought by the mummy’s owner, Mrs Aitken of Lima, Peru, against the London and North-Western Railway. By that time it seems to have been well known that the mummy was from Peru; and had been bought by Mrs Aitken from the British vice-consul there. She estimated that the mummy was several hundred years old. The mummy’s indignities hadn’t been over when it passed from Westcott’s care and crossed the channel. On reaching Belgium, it was impounded again, this time by the local police, who buried it in the cemetary at Melle. Thus are archaeological artefacts lost to history!
- One inquest report that I was glad not to find was one held by Westcott in 1905 on a child that had died from being boiled. That one led to a murder enquiry. Westcott took a photograph of the body along to a meeting of the Medico-Legal Society. I hope the members – many of whom were barristers rather than doctors – had strong stomachs.
- finally, one from much later in Westcott’s career: the only example I found in my hopping-about in the local papers of him holding an inquest on a woman who had died as a result of an abortion. Elizabeth Caroline March, a married woman aged 39, died of sepsis in Hackney Infirmary on 11 June 1916. The local magistrate had taken her testimony at the bedside while she was dying and before she was dead Henry Percy Jelley, known locally as the “threepenny doctor” had been arrested and charged with performing an illegal operation on Mrs March, the ‘legalise’ for carrying out an abortion. Westcott’s inquest on Mrs March was held on the following Saturday, with Jelley, on remand, appearing as a witness. At the end of the inquest Westcott issued a warrant for the continued detention of Jelley, and he was charged with murder at North London Police Court on Tuesday 5 July 1916.
The threepenny doctor was a well-known local figure and perhaps the police had been watching him for a while, waiting for a slip-up. By the time of the hearings at the police court, the police had found to be witnesses several other women who had had an abortion performed by Jelley. When the case reached the Old Bailey, Jelley conducted his own defence and it became clear that he was not the back-street abortionist of lurid tales. He was registered with the General Medical Council as fit to practice, having passed the London Society of Apothecaries exams in 1910. He’d been working as a GP at 92 High Street Homerton. Several women – perhaps the women from the earlier hearing – were witnesses for Jelley, having gone to him for an abortion and survived. In theory they could all have been charged under the same law as Jelley; but the court didn’t go that far. Jelley’s evidence in his own defence showed him to be a slap-dash doctor, spending only two minutes with each patient, and doing very few physical examinations. He hadn’t examined Mrs March when she had gone to him and probably didn’t realise how far into her pregnancy she was. He had been called to her home in Gainsborough Road Stoke Newington when she went into labour, but the child had been born dead before he arrived. In charging Jelley with murder the police had come down too hard on him: he might have treated all his patients negligently but it was obvious he hadn’t intended Mrs March to die. The jury found him guilty of manslaughter and he was sentenced to three years’ penal servitude.
In March 1897, someone who knew a lot about Westcott’s involvement in the Order of the Golden Dawn sent an anonymous letter to Westcott’s employers at the LCC. Westcott may have been shown the letter; he certainly knew its contents, which accused him of claiming to possess magical powers. It’s not clear now what form the LCC’s response took – whether Westcott was called in for an interview or sent a reprimand by letter – but on 15 March 1897 Westcott was told in no uncertain terms that the LCC wouldn’t tolerate one of its officials “to be made shame of in such a mad way”, especially if the letter writer went public. It wasn’t the first time there had been friction with the LCC over Westcott’s occult interests; in 1889, only a short while after the LCC’s legal powers took effect, he felt obliged to stop giving talks at the TS’s Blavatsky Lodge. That seems to have been a minor affair however. This 1897 one was serious. Though he remained a GD member, Westcott resigned from the various offices he held in the Order; including that of keeping the GD’s administrative records. Westcott seems to have been subject to psychosomatic illness. He was so upset at the thought that someone in the GD would act in such a way, that he had to take some sick leave in April, going to Hastings for a few weeks to recuperate. He was back in London by July but didn’t go on holiday with the rest of his family in September.
Though 1897 had begun so distressingly, it did bring a piece of legislation that Westcott welcomed, one of three pieces he felt had been a force for good in his work. The Infant Life Protection Act 1897 gave local authorities powers to monitor institutions providing childcare; and established a system of visits by inspectors to check standards. For the first time in such legislation the emphasis was on checking the welfare of the children, rather than scrutinising the providers of care. Institutions like the workhouse and charities (which tended to be run by the middle-classes) were exempt so most of those women who were inspected were working-class women being paid to take care of other working women’s children, usually in their own homes. However, Westcott didn’t see it that negative light, because the law required coroners to be notified when a child had died while in the care of one of these women, and that was an improvement.
Higher professional standards were something Westcott always argued for, and the Midwives Act 1902 brought them to a profession that – up to that point – had had virtually no regulation. The Act created the Central Midwives Board, which had roughly the same aims as regards midwives as the General Medical Council had for doctors: it supervised their training; it monitored their daily work; and – most importantly – created a register, without which no midwife could legally practice. To be registered, a midwife had to have one year’s professional experience; or certification by the Obstetrical Society of London or similar; and practising midwives had to notify the Board each year of their continued intention to practice. County councils and borough councils had the job of inspecting midwives’ work. The Act came into force in April 1903 and the LCC began to send one of its midwives’ inspectors to any inquest Westcott held in which a midwife had been involved with the dead body. Westcott contributed his own piece of inspection as well: he held about 12 inquests in any year in cases where a midwife had been involved; just to let midwives know he was watching them.
The last of the three laws was the Prevention of Cruelty ot Children Act 1904. It laid down rules for corporal punishment. It placed restrictions on children’s work; though it did allow for employers to apply to be exempt. The modern sources agree, though, that its most important clauses established the right of inspectors from the NSPCC to remove from home a child they suspected of being abused or neglected.
EXPLAINING THE CORONER’S WORK TO OTHERS
THE NEED FOR HIGHER STANDARDS
The Medico-Legal Society had been created in 1901 as a forum where barristers and doctors could meet to discuss, and understand better, the areas where their professions overlapped. Though it had not been his idea originally, Westcott was one of the Society’s founding members. He served on its Council, spent a few months as its treasurer, and attended its meetings very regularly. I imagine he could see at the outset what an important platform the Society could be for him. In 1901 he had been a coroner for nearly 20 years. He had formed decided views on the whole process of dealing with a dead body; particularly, I think, on almost everything to do with death certificates, one of the many areas where there was very little legislation and no widely-enforced standard – or, in fact, much idea that a standard might be needed. The Medico-Legal Society was the ideal place to raise these issues with barristers, who were in a better position than medical practitioners to bring about changes in the law; and with doctors, especially GP’s, who were so often the first professionals at the scene of a death.
Though it did not have the access to government that the barristers of the Medico-Legal Society had, the BMA was also a place where Westcott could talk about the problems that concerned him. In December 1902 another member of the St Pancras group of BMA members gave a talk on the relations between coroners and the GP’s in his area, focusing on death certificates. Westcott’s long comment at the end of the talk was thought so important in the BMJ that they published it with the text of the original talk. Another such long comment by Westcott was published in the BMJ in December 1905; this time on a talk about post-mortems and the cause of death.
Commenting on other speakers’ ideas was useful and – hopefully – got practitioners thinking and talking about the issues raised. In 1906, though, Westcott was offered a chance to take the initiative, to make a speech of his own at the Medico-Legal Society. His Twelve Years’ Experience of a London Coroner was the evening’s talk at the meeting of November 1906. After giving some statistics, Westcott then tried to give his audience a sense of the number of different people and groups of people who were involved in getting an inquest organised, and bringing it to a conclusion. He also took the opportunity to reflect on the changes since he’d begun work in the North-East district; and also on some things that annoyingly had stayed the same.
Westcott seems to have felt that the taking over of the work of London coroners by the LCC had been an advantage. He also singled out the three laws I’ve mentioned above. It was early days with all of them, especially the 1904 Act, but already he was regretting that he hadn’t seen much improvement in the general care given to infants, by their mothers and by paid carers; and that the amount parents’ drank hadn’t seemed to decline now their dealings with their children were subject to more scrutiny.
One aspect of a coroner’s work that hadn’t changed since 1894 was the confusion surrounding payment for medical examination of corpses. Poor wording of Section 22 Sub-section 2 of the Coroners’ Act 1887 meant that whether anyone was paid for them depended on where exactly the corpse had died. In some situations, no one was entitled to any payment for services rendered.
The amount of perjury Westcott thought he heard at an inquest hadn’t changed much either, he felt. People still lied in the coroner’s court, in two sets of circumstances especially: when asked how much the dead person drank on a regular basis; and – with mothers of recently dead babies – whether they had kept the baby in bed with them on the night it had died. Westcott never rid himself of the suspicion that a lot of newly-born babies’ deaths were not as natural as they appeared.
Westcott was ahead of his time in seeing that the huge amount of information amassed for and during an inquest could have more general uses. He wanted it be stored for reference and research; and he hoped that legislation might create a new profession, that of “medico-legal examiners of the dead”. In fact, by 1911 Westcott will have become acquainted with the first professional pathologist, Bernard Spilsbury, when Spilsbury joined the Medico-Legal Society. I think the modern study of forensics would astonish and delight him.
The following year Westcott had a chance to take his continuing exasperation with poorly-completed death certificates to the highest authority in the court system. In March 1907 the Medico-Legal Society was able to obtain an appointment with the Lord Chancellor, Robert Reid. Westcott was part of the Society’s delegation and although I couldn’t find details of what went on during the meeting, reports of it mention Westcott as having had a great deal to say on death certificates.
Having described his daily work in some detail, Westcott was rather surprised, in 1910, to be asked by the Medico-Legal Society Council to give a follow-up talk, but some careful thought and probably a re-reading of his talk at the 1902 BMA conference produced a speech he called The Coroner and His Medical Neighbours. Given at the meeting of 25 October 1910, this was the talk in which Westcott gave the definition of a coroner’s duty that I’ve quoted near the beginning of this file. He also spoke about various issues that made his life as a coroner more difficult than it need be, as always arguing for higher professional standards at every stage:
* he noted with annoyance that when the LCC had recently advertised a vacancy in its coroner’s districts, the advert had not required applicants to have either medical or legal knowledge. Westcott felt this was a throw-back to the times when the only qualification a coroner needed was to be the owner of freehold property. I hope he wasn’t thinking of his colleague Walter Schröder in the indictment; see below for why it would have been ungenerous to do so.
* reverting to a theme of talks and comments he’d made over the past few years, he described how his investigations into a death were so often hampered by inadequate death certificates. He reminded his audience that anyone could fill in a death certificate, including people who had no qualifications at all with which to judge how the person had died. He also accused doctors of being “inaccurate and unscientific” in completing them, especially in cases where the death was the result of a long illness. In addition to helping a coroner’s inquest reach the correct conclusions about the death, an accurately-completed death certificate was a useful piece of evidence in the study of epidemics. Westcott wanted tighter regulation of how a death certificate should be completed and who should be allowed to complete them; changes which would require new laws.
* he wanted dead bodies to be examined by specialists; the knowledge of a GP was often not sufficient to determine the cause of death accurately.
* he suggested that it be made obligatory for a GP doing a post mortem to inform the coroner if they had found that the body had died from violence or from causes that they could not determine. At that time (I find this amazing) it was not incumbent on a GP to let the coroner know.
Having criticised the GP’s on his patch in north-east London, Westcott obviously felt he had better finish with a compliment to them! He couldn’t bring himself to be completely positive, however: he admitted that, in general, he found that evidence from medical practitioners at his inquests was fairly true and reasonably accurate! In fact, a doctor with particular and specific experience was his preferred witness at an inquest: he felt he got the most accurate information from a police surgeon with several years experience. These were not usually GP’s but what we would call a junior doctor, working in a hospital. Even here Westcott made a caveat though: in cases of suspected poisoning he had best information from an analytical chemist; and I wonder if Westcott ever hired any of the GD’s three analytical chemists – Allan Bennett, Julian Levett Baker and George Cecil Jones – to analyse specimens for him.
These days, when so many of us spend our spare time watching Silent Witness or Vera or others of that ilk, we think we understand what is, and what is not, evidence. Westcott seems to have thought that amongst his fellow medical and legal professionals, there was very little understanding of it. He explained to the members of the Medico-Legal Society why, at the end of an inquest, he often impounded weapons that were thought to have caused the death of the corpse; they were evidence of what had happened and might be needed if there were court proceedings.
‘EVIDENCE’ COMES BACK TO HAUNT HIM – THE STARCHFIELD CASE
The most publicity-generating inquest Westcott ever held came late in his working life. In one way or another the case occupied the papers from January 1914, when the body was discovered, to March, when a prime suspect was tried for murder at the Old Bailey and acquitted; and for sometime after in Parliament and the medical press. After surviving all the stress of holding a three-part inquest in the midst of such publicity, Westcott received a public ticking-off from the judge in the murder case.
The inquest was on a five-year-old boy, William Starchfield, whose body was found on a train on the North London line. It was never established where the child had got onto the train; but his body was taken off it by the station porter at Haggerston, within the boundaries of Westcott’s patch in North-East London. He had been strangled. The three sessions of Westcott’s inquest took place at Shoreditch Coroners’ Court on 15, 22 and 29 January, with a police investigation ongoing but apparently making little progress. There were crowds inside the court and out at each session; and newspapermen photographed several of the jury members and the child’s mother. At the end of the third session, the jury – acting on Westcott’s clear instructions – gave a verdict of ‘murder by John Starchfield’, the boy’s father; this despite the fact that witnesses had provided him with an alibi. John Starchfield was arrested in the court room, to the loud and angry objections of his supporters.
After a series of hearings at Old Street Police Court, the case reached the Old Bailey at the end of March 1914; where Judge James Richard Atkins threw it out after hearing the Prosecution case. I’m not sure the case would even have got as far as the arrest of John Starchfield these days. The main evidence against him was his identification by witnesses; and at the Old Bailey, Starchfield’s defence lawyers soon showed how little the identifications could be trusted. It had also come out that some of witnesses had altered their statements after they had been typed. Westcott had read out the witness statements during the inquest, but the Jury hadn’t been given copies. Atkins had asked the Prosecution barrister whether the inquest jury had been aware that some of the statements had handwritten alterations on them; the barrister had replied that he didn’t know. After directing the Jury to find John Starchfield ‘not guilty’, Atkins told the Court that “the Coroner...violated all the principles on which an inquest should be conducted. It was most improper to procure evidence in such a way”: that is, by asking leading questions; and allowing the witnesses to make alterations by hand to their typed statements, “an entire mockery and an abuse of the duties entrusted to any Coroner”.
As a result of Judge Atkins’ remarks, the Starchfield murder trial became the subject of questions in Parliament. Reginald McKenna, the Home Secretary, made a statement in the House of Commons, and an investigation was promised into the manner in which evidence heard at the inquest had been collected. The BMJ reported that Westcott had disputed the statements made by the trial judge, but in a muted way. If he was reprimanded, the BMJ didn’t report that. An uncredited article in the Lancet leapt to Westcott’s defence, saying that Judge Atkins’ remarks showed how little he understood how a coroner’s court worked; and resenting Atkins’ criticism of “a coroner with reputation so high as that of Dr Wynn Westcott, with a period of 30 years’ admirable service to his credit”.
The efforts of the police did result in the discovery of a likely murder weapon, but nothing else came to light that a modern investigation would consider to be evidence. The murder of William Starchfield is still unsolved.
WORLD WAR 1 probably prolonged Westcott’s working life by several years. As more and more young men went to fight and older medical men went to the war hospitals, there was a desperate need for coroners to stay in their jobs. Westcott did so, working without a holiday from 1914 to 1919 and continuing to send the Times his yearly statistics, a practice that had begun several years before. By 1915 he had noticed changes in them due, he thought, to wartime conditions. He’d had fewer cases of people dying of destitution – the result of more employment opportunities. But there had been more deaths from accidents; which he attributed to older people, less quick and physically able, trying to do the work of those younger men who had gone to fight.
The war produced a new, frightening, kind of inquest: Westcott became one of the first coroners to hold an inquest on people killed in an air raid. The earliest published evidence I could find was from summer 1917 but Westcott definitely held at least two in June 1915, because he talked about them at a meeting of the Medico-Legal Society in January 1916. Some bombs had fallen on houses in Hackney and Stoke Newington, killing three people and injuring several others. Another bomb had fallen in Shoreditch, killing people travelling on a bus. Westcott took the remains of some of the bombs to the meeting to show the members – it will have been the first time they had seen a bomb, even in pieces. The Government had had to issue instructions about verdicts in cases of death due to bombing: their deaths were not to be described as murder, but as due to bombs from hostile airships.
Westcott’s resignation from his job as a coroner was done very quietly. I couldn’t find any newspaper coverage of it, even in the papers in Islington, where he’d lived since the 1880s and the Times, with which he had had such good relations for many years. The Times thought he was only taking a long, well-earned holiday, when Westcott left England to visit his daughter Lilian in South Africa, in March 1920. But the last inquest I could find him doing had been several months before. He held it in Hackney on 11 October 1919 and it seems fitting, though very sad, that the dead body was yet another infant; and one that – yet again – Westcott thought could have survived with better care. At the end of the inquest he remarked on the number of very young babies that were still dying from what he called “improper or inadequate feeding”; he felt that England was “in a very bad way in this respect”.
MEMBERSHIP OF SOCIETIES
Westcott was a member of a number of societies with aims that could be described as medical Here I’ll mention the two that had most to do with his job as a coroner.
The Coroners’ Society
Coverage of the meetings of this society was hard to find: I couldn’t find editions of the minutes of its meetings – proceedings or transactions – nor a list of its members. Nor were its doings well reported in the main magazines for doctors, the Lancet and the BMJ. I haven’t found much evidence of the Society lobbying for changes in law or practice. Membership wasn’t mandatory for coroners and in 1914 only three-quarters of those who were eligible had joined it – about 300 men, probably those who lived nearer London as it doesn’t seem to have held many meetings elsewhere. Perhaps it was just a pleasant forum for coroners to meet, talk shop and have a dinner together.
Because of this general lack of information about the Society I don’t know when Westcott joined it. I would suppose he joined as soon as started work in his first job – 1883. He was a member by November 1893 and had been elected to its ruling council. By 1906 he was one of its vice-presidents, and he served as president from June 1909 to June 1910. I should think that he remained a member until his retirement in 1919.
The Medico-Legal Society
Unlike the Coroners’ Society, the Medico-Legal Society was founded during Westcott’s years as a coroner. Also unlike the Coroners’ Society, it published transaction volumes each year from 1902 to 1915 and again from 1918; with full lists of members – it had about twice as many as the Coroners’ Society including at least one woman. The proceedings did not publish minutes of meetings but did publish all the talks that had taken place in the 12 months, and I have mined Westcott’s talks for a great deal of the information above on his work and how he saw his job.
The Medico-Legal Society was set up during the winter of 1901-1902 by a group of barristers, as a place where barristers and medical practitioners could meet to discuss the legal aspects of medicine and the medical aspects of the law. Westcott joined the fledgling society very soon after the original letter floating the idea was published in The Lancet, and was its treasurer during its first few months. His ex-boss George Danford Thomas, and Walter Schröder from the Central Middlesex office also joined it at this time and were keen and long-standing members of it; and Westcott’s son, Dr Martyn Westcott, was also a member during its early years.
Westcott’s obituary in The Lancet noted that he was known for the regularity with which he attended its meetings. He definitely saw it as a much more useful organisation than the Coroners’ Society. It had clout: the guest of honour at its annual dinner in July 1909 was the Master of the Rolls. Some of its members were Known:
- John Dixon Mann, for example, author of Forensic Medicine and Toxicology published in 1893 and still a leading work in its field in 1930 when Dorothy L Sayers mentioned it in Strong Poison as one of the works Lord Peter Wimsey sat down with as he tried to figure out how a meal could deliver a lethal dose of arsenic to one diner without harming the other.
- Bernard Spilsbury (1877-1947), the great pathologist of his age (though he was much criticised as well) who was a Council member by 1911.
And the Society had a certain chutzpah: in February 1909 the meeting’s speaker was George Bernard Shaw, whom they must have known was witty, but hostile. They were presumably braced ready to hear a talk called Socialist Criticism of the Medical Profession.
Westcott saw the Society as a way of reaching as far as Parliament and the chance to influence changes in the law; for example, John Francis Stanley Russell (1865-1931) the much-married 2nd Earl Russell, its president in 1912, could raise issues for the Society in the House of Lords. So although he was also a busy member of the BMA (I write about that in my other file on Westcott’s working life), Westcott did commit a lot of time and effort to the Medico-Legal Society from 1901 to 1919. He gave talks and brought curious items to do with his work to the meetings, everything from photographs of dead bodies to bits of bombs. From 1903 to 1905 he was on the Society’s governing Council. Then he was treasurer again for a few months before Walter Schröder took over, before becoming one of its vice-presidents, largely a ceremonial role. He took part in their campaigning work. I think he may have had some influence with what was in the Society’s transactions even when he was not a Council member: in 1914 the transactions included a notice for a new edition of L A Waddell’s Medical Jurisprudence in India; though not a member of the Society, Waddell was married to the niece of Westcott’s wife Eliza. In the years 1915 to 1918 the Society met when it could and Westcott came out of retirement (as it were) to be a member of the Council again while so many members were away. The members by this time included the judge in the Starchfield case, Judge Atkins; I wonder how they got on?
TWO PROFILES OF LONG STANDING COLLEAGUES:
George Danford Thomas and Walter Schröder had already worked together in the Central Middlesex coroner’s office for several years when William Wynn Westcott arrived at 68 St Mary’s Street Paddington, to start work as a coroner. Danford Thomas was his boss at that time, and Schröder acted as Danford Thomas’ private secretary and worked for Westcott as well, running the coroner’s office. Westcott moved on after a few years but the working partnership between Danford Thomas and Schröder continued until Danford Thomas died. All three men were active members of the Coroners’ Society and the Medico-Legal Society; so their working lives continued intertwined.
George Danford Thomas was the third son of Rev Richard James Francis Thomas and his wife Elizabeth. He was born in Mile End in 1846, during the time when Rev Richard was headmaster and chaplain to Bancroft’s Hospital Church of England school in Stepney. The family left London in 1855 when Rev Richard was appointed vicar of All Saints Yeovil; he stayed in post until his death in 1873.
I haven’t been able to discover much detail about how and where Danford Thomas trained as a doctor. An early entry in the Medical Directory mentions time spent at St Mary’s Hospital Paddington; though without dates. All sources seem to agree that he graduated MD in Brussels in 1876 with honours in medical jurisprudence; but he’d already had several jobs as a doctor by that time – working for two doctors in general practice while he was training in London; in field hospitals in France during the Franco-Prussian war; at Paddington Dispensary; and as assistant house surgeon at a lock hospital.
Danford Thomas’ big break came in the mid 1870s when Dr Hardwicke, coroner for central Middlesex, appointed him his deputy – the job Westcott was appointed to when Danford Thomas vacated it. In 1879 at least he was combining that post with one as Medical Officer for Willesden vestry. He had become a member of the British Medical Association and was on its Council. Dr Hardwicke died in 1881 and Danford Thomas won a close contest to succeed him. The electors were Middlesex freeholders. They appointed Danford Thomas for life and he remained in the job until his death in August 1910, despite attempts to get him to retire.
Walter Schrőder’s career was in one particular way the most remarkable of the three, because he rose so high from working-class beginnings. He was the younger son of William Schrőder and his wife Rebecca Maria. William Schrőder had been born in Kent and Rebecca Maria in Norfolk; but William was of German descent, and all the family were insistent that their surname was spelled ‘sch’ and that ‘o’ in it had an umlaut. Walter’s parents both worked for Walter Robertson Sculthorpe, a bachelor of independent means who lived on Telegraph Hill in Hampstead. William was his groom, Rebecca Maria was his housekeeper. Clearly the relationship between employer and employed was close: Walter the coroner’s clerk was named after him and perhaps had his schooling paid for by him; and though I can’t prove it without a copy of the Will, I think Sculthorpe left the Schrőder family some money when he died. They were able to continue to live in his house; and in 1881 William was able to tell the census official that he had an income derived from share dividends.
On census day 1871 Walter Schrőder was already working in the central Middlesex coroner’s office, for Dr Edwin Lankester. He kept his post through two changes at the top, when Dr Hardwicke succeeded Dr Lankester and when Dr Danford Thomas succeeded Dr Hardwicke. Though he was not qualified either as a doctor or a barrister, his long experience stood him in good stead and enabled him to rise through the ranks in the rapidly-changing world of London coroners in the late 19th and early 20th century. In 1894 when Westcott moved on to be coroner in the LCC’s North-East district, Danford Thomas appointed Schrőder to the post Westcott had vacated. 1895 to 1899 were the only years in which Schröder was not in the central Middlesex office – he was working as deputy coroner for South-West London and Surrey. Then in 1899 he returned to central Middlesex. When Danford Thomas died the LCC appointed Schrőder his successor, a job he remained in, through more changes of name and districts covered, until he retired in October 1930.
George Danford Thomas, Walter Schröder and people working with them played important roles in three of the famous early 20th century murder trials: those of Hawley Crippen (1910); Frederick Henry Seddon (1911); and George Joseph Smith, he of the brides in the bath (1914/15); all of whom murdered women on central Middlesex/central London’s patch.
Hawley Crippen was the first, with both George Danford Thomas and Walter Schröder involved in the inquest on the torso found under the cellar floor at 39 Hilldrop Crescent, where Hawley and Cora Crippen and their lodgers lived; which was also a very short walk from where the Westcotts lived, at 396 Camden Road. Newspaper coverage was already frenzied when Danford Thomas opened the inquest on the torso, at the Coroner’s Court on Holloway Road on 18 July 1910; because the torso was widely assumed to be part of the body of the music hall artiste Belle Elmore, in private life Mrs Cora Crippen; and her husband Hawley Crippen and a woman known as Ethel le Neve had gone on the run. The Times later noted that Danford Thomas had not looked well on the inquest’s first day. After cautiously identifying the torso as that of Cora Crippen, and hearing evidence from her many friends that proved she hadn’t been seen since February, he had adjourned the inquest pending further information. Before the next session, Hawley Crippen and Ethel le Neve had been arrested on board ship in Canada; and George Danford Thomas had died at his sister’s house in St Leonard’s-on-Sea, where he’d gone for a short break. When the inquest resumed, in mid-August, Schröder was in sole charge. Three more sessions ended with him summing up the evidence for over an hour; in case – I think – that in all the excitement the jury should overstep their powers. He particularly reminded them that they must first decide whether they agreed that the torso was the person all assumed it was; and he also told them that as this was an inquest not a hearing in a criminal case, any part played by Ethel le Neve in what had happened was not theirs to decide. The jury agreed that the torso was Cora Crippen’s; and that her husband Hawley Crippen had killed her; and so Crippen went for trial.
Walter Schrőder played no active part in the inquest that led to the trial of Frederick Henry Seddon. His deputy coroner George Alexander Cohen presided over the inquest on the body of Eliza Mary Barrow who had died in September 1911 after an illness of about two weeks, at her lodgings in 63 Tollington Park Holloway. A death certificate had been signed by the doctor who had attended her during that illness; and she had been buried without a post mortem - and thereby hangs a tale of negligence and carelessness which I imagine had Westcott raging as he heard and read about it. All went quiet, however, until her family found out about her death several weeks later; and started an argument about the Will she had made a few days before she died. They demanded the body be exhumed; and that was where Schrőder’s deputy coroner came in, probably thinking at the outset that the relatives were making the usual fuss of those who discover they are not the dead person’s beneficiaries. The evidence Cohen heard that day caused him to decide that a post mortem was necessary. He adjourned the inquest for a month. By the time the inquest resumed Miss Barrow’s landlord, Frederick Henry Seddon, had been arrested: Dr William Henry Willcox, analyst at the Home Office, had found two grains’-worth of arsenic - a fatal dose - in Miss Barrow’s organs.
On 22 December 1914 Walter Schrőder himself conducted the inquest on the body of Margaret Elizabeth Lofty, who had died the day after marrying the man she thought was called John Lloyd. She had drowned while in her bath, in lodgings at 14 Bismarck Road (now Waterlow Road) off Highgate Hill. There was, apparently, nothing unusual about the case to prolong the inquest; and a verdict of accidental death was recorded. But reading a report of the inquest caused a Mr Joseph Crossley in Blackpool to send the police a newspaper cutting of an inquest held the year before on Alice Smith, who had died in exactly the same way while she and her husband were renting rooms in his boarding house. The police became involved, evidence of a third such death was discovered, and eventually George Joseph Smith – the correct name of John Lloyd – was tried and hanged for the murder of three wives. Schröder was later credited with coining the phrase ‘bride in the bath’ – an off-the-cuff response made while he was hearing evidence from the supposed John Lloyd as to how long he and his wife had been married. The remark was quickly taken up by the press and went plural when the second and third murders became known.
I’ve mentioned that Westcott was a member of the Coroner’s Society. So too were George Danford Thomas and Walter Schröder and all three men served a twelve-month as its president, Danford Thomas in 1894 to 1895; Westcott in 1909 to 1910; and I haven’t been able to find out exactly when Schröder did his year but it was probably after the other two. All three men also joined the Medico-Legal Society in 1901/02, when the idea for such a society was first suggested by a group of barristers. Westcott was the only one of the three who gave any talks at the Society’s meetings but Danford Thomas was a Council member and Schröder was its treasurer from around 1905 until his death nearly 40 years later.
There was a connection between George Danford Thomas and Westcott through freemasonry in Yeovil in the 1870s; one that may have influenced Thomas’s decision to offer Westcott a job as his deputy several years later. In London, all three men were freemasons while never being very active and while never being members of the same lodge; Westcott was the most active of the three, as a member of Quatuor Coronati Lodge 2076. In 1891, 1897 and 1902, George Danford Thomas was one of the petitioners asking for permission from the United Grand Lodge of England (UGLE) to found new craft lodges: Aesculapius Lodge 2410, which at least in the 1890s was based around a number of doctors who were active members of the Royal College of Physicians; Sancta Maria Lodge 2682; and The Somersetshire Lodge 2925 which was probably a lodge for men from Somerset who were living in London (it never met anywhere in Somerset) and in any case Danford Thomas resigned from it after only a few months. Walter Schröder’s association with freemasonry was very tentative: he was initiated into Robert Burns Lodge 25 in October 1897 but resigned from it in June 1902 and was never a member of any other lodge.
In their lives outside work George Danford Thomas was a family man; and Walter Schröder a life-long bachelor. George Danford Thomas married Sarah de Horne Vaizey in 1872. Sarah’s father Joseph Vaizey ran a farm just east of Dorchester. Unusually for Victorian England, George and Sarah Thomas had only one child, Francis, born in 1873 and like his father, a coroner, though as a barrister rather than a doctor. At least until 1891, the Thomas family lived above the central Middlesex coroner’s office, at 68 St Mary’s Street Paddington; a mode of living above the shop that Westcott copied. By the time of Danford Thomas’s death, however, they had moved to Upper Hamilton Terrace Maida Vale. Perhaps this move took place around 1901 because on census day that year, George and Sarah were not at home, they had gone to Southend and were staying at the East Cliff Hotel in Prittlewell.
George Danford Thomas died on 5 August 1910. He had been ill for some months but a snag had arisen that prevented his taking retirement on health grounds. Because he had been elected rather than appointed – the last coroner to take the job that way – he did not have any entitlement to a pension, and so had to continue in work despite all attempts to find a way for him to retire. Sarah died the following year.
Walter Schröder continued to live on Telegraph Hill until at least 1911. His mother Rebecca Maria died in 1891 and his father William in 1900; and Walter’s older sister Jane Schröder came to keep house for him. By 1911 Walter and Jane, the children of servants, were employing one servant of their own. Perhaps it was the first world war that brought the necessity for change: after over 50 years living on the same street and decades working in the same office Walter started to move. In 1923 his address 34 Heath Street Hampstead; which may have been his office rather than his home. When Walter retired in October 1930, on a pension of £731 per year, he was mentioned as living in Great Missenden. However when he died he was back in Hampstead living at 3 Heath Mansions. His health had been failing for several years, often confining him to his home for long periods; returning to Hampstead meant that when well enough, he could continue to enjoy some kind of social life.
Both George Danford Thomas and Walter Schröder were busy outside working hours. Danford Thomas was active in the Volunteer Force; and in the Unionist Party, even standing for election to Parliament in 1885 in the new constituency of Islington West, though he was defeated by the Liberal Richard Chamberlain. Schröder was a church-goer at the high Anglican St Alban’s Church Holborn. He was a member of Hampstead Scientific Society; the Savage Club,; and the Worshipful Company of Coachmakers and Coach Harness Makers, serving as its master in 1927. He was a governor of the Royal Free Hospital, and for the National Safety-First Council.
Walter Schröder achieved more recognition for his work than Danford Thomas or Westcott: in the 1923 birthday honours he was made a Knight of the British Empire (KBE); by that time he had been working in the coroners’ service for over 50 years. Though not acknowledged by name, he was also involved in the revision of the standard textbook for coroners, known as Jervis on Coroners, for its seventh edition published in 1927. The editor for that edition was Francis Danford Thomas, son of George Danford Thomas. Pretty good for the son of a groom. He died on 28 July 1942.
SOURCES SECTION FOR WESTCOTT’S WORK AS A CORONER:
Medico-Legal Society Transactions volume VII 1909/10 published for the Society by Charles Griffin and Co Ltd of Exeter St. On p88 Westcott’s talk at the meeting of 22 March 1910: A Note Upon Deodands: text pp91-97.
Moves towards modernisation of the coroner’s work had already begun: see oro.open.ac.uk, a PhD thesis, Open University 2020: Coroners in London and Middlesex c 1820-1888: A Study of Medicalization and Professionalization. By Yvonne King Fisher.
The job of a coroner in the recent past:
Victorian Values: The Life and Times of Dr Edwin Lankester MD, FRS by Mary P English. Bristol: Biopress Ltd 1990: p136-141; 161. I was looking at this biography while researching GD member Kat Bates, who knew the family well.
Website //legalhistorymiscellany.org wasn’t as helpful as I’d hoped but it did say in a posting from July 2016 that coroners were paid officials from 1860.
Website www.coronersociety.org.uk is the home of the Coroners’ Society. Founded 1846. Useful list of Acts that defined the coroner’s powers.
Wikipedia on the various coroners’ acts.
Westcott on a coroner’s duties:
Medico-Legal Society Transactions volume VIII 1910/11. On p15 Westcott’s talk The Coroner and His Neighbours, given at the meeting of 25 October 1910; text pp15-26, the quote is from p16.
Westcott’s first appointment as coroner:
One source from freemasonry gave 1881 as the year Westcott first worked as a coroner. The information probably came from Westcott himself but it wasn’t correct and he must have known it. The source for 1881 is a speech made by R F Gould at the dinner following Westcott’s installation as Worshipful Master of Quatuor Coronati Lodge 2076, in November 1893.
Ars Quatuor Coronatorum volume VI 1893 p205.
Evidence for 1883:
Hackney and Kingsland Gazette Monday 12 March 1883 p3 with a quote from The Lancet on Westcott’s suitability for the job.
Kilburn Times Friday 9 March 1883 p5 Coronership of Central Middlesex giving information on George Danford Thomas a well; and the reference to the Lord Chancellor’s role.
Wikipedia on the Lord Chancellor in question: Roundell Palmer 1812-95 a rather Conservative Liberal.
George Danford Thomas:
There’s a wiki on him with information on his father.
Alumni Oxoniensis volume 4 p1407 entry for Richard J F Thomas.
Gladstone Diaries entry for 8 September 1831 p377 Gladstone was at Cuddesdon where he met several young friends including Richard Thomas. On p377 footnote 7 says Thomas was probably born in 1813.
At www.yeovilhistory.info the church of which Rev Thomas was the vicar, St John the Baptist Yeovil.
The School Boards 1872 Section 3 p44 entry for Yeovil School Board.
GD member Thomas Henry Beasley:
Times Monday 4 February 1884 p10e inquest on Thomas Baldwin.
Times Thursday 27 March 1884 p11f inquest on Mary Ann Yates.
If the inquest was being held in Central Middlesex in 1884, Yates is not one of the generally accepted victims of Jack the Ripper, but there is an article on her in Ripper Notes dated 22 April 2005: Murder by Numbes, by Dan Norder, Wolf Vanderlinden and Jeffrey Bloomfield; p39-42.
PO London Directory 1884 law directory p2011
PO London Directory 1886 law directory p2036
PO London Directory 1888 law directory p2086.
And see also my file on Beasley, on our web pages.
Westcott’s first inquests:
The street accident: St James’s Gazette Tuesday 27 March 1883 p12.
The Viscountess who fell down her stairs: Times 28 March 1883 p9.
Wikipedia on the viscounts Barrington, family surnames Keppel Barrington. The viscountess was Jane Elizabeth Liddell (born 1804), 4th daughter of Thomas Liddell, first Baron Ravensworth. She married the 6th Viscount Barrington (1793-1867) in 1823; five sons five daughters.
Francis Barlow and Susanna Mary Robinson: Islington Gazette Wednesday 28 March 1883 p3.
William Watson Elliott: Barnet Press Saturday 31 March 1883 p5.
Fanny Williams the asylum inmate: Barnet Press Saturday 18 August 1883 p6.
The suicide in Regent’s Park: Times Wednesday 29 August 1883 p10.
The two heavy-drinking women: Morning Post Tuesday 28 August 1883 p2.
New purpose-built coroner’s courts; I noticed this because it’s local to me:
Times 2 December 1886 p7 mentioned that Westcott had held his first inquest at the new Hornsey coroner’s court building “yesterday”.
The unknown man in the hansom cab: Morning Post Wednesday 25 August 1886 p3.
Suicide. Its History, Literature, Jurisprudence, Causation and Prevention by W Wynn Westcott MB London. Deputy Coroner for Central Middlesex. Joint Author of the Extra Pharmacopoeia. Published 1885 London: H K Lewis.
Cited in 1892:
Source: BMJ 1892 volume 2 of that year issue of 22 October 1892: 909-10: ‘Unsound Mind’ Verdicts on Suicide.
Job applications 1884-94:
City of London and Southwark 1884:
BMJ 1884 volume 1 of that year issue of 19 April 1884 p746.
Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper Sunday 20 April 1884 p7.
Westcott’s paper at the BMA annual conference 1891:
BMJ 1891 volume 2 of that year issue of 17 October 1891: A Coroner’s Notes on Sudden Deaths; text pp841-842.
City of London and Southwark 1892:
Kentish Mercury Friday 13 May 1892 p5.
Standing in for Dr Diplock; his death:
The earliest West Middlesex inquest I found: Hampstead and Highgate Express Saturday 12 September 1891 p6.
Kentish Mercury Friday 13 May 1892 p5.
BMJ 1892 volume 1 of that year p975 issue of 7 May 1892 obituary of Thomas Bramah Diplock.
West Middlesex appointments of Hogg and Westcott: BMJ 1893 volume 1 of that year issue of 14 January 1893 p80. Westcott’s appointment was ratified by the chairman of the LCC – a new requirement of the Coroners’ Deputies Act 1892.
Medical Directory 1892 p198 entry for William Bruce Gordon Hogg.
Appointment of Westcott’s replacement in West Middlesex: BMJ 1894 volume 2 of that year issue of 4 August 1894 p290 reported the appointment of Westcott’s successor as deputy coroner for West Middlesex. I think the man who took over from him was George Vere Benson, for a short time Westcott’s own deputy in North-East London.
Coroners’ Deputies Act 1892:
BMJ 1893 volume 1 of that year issue of 14 January 1893: 80.
PO London Directory 1893 law directory p2167.
PO London Directory 1895 law directory p2262.
Westcott as Coroner for North-East London 1894:
Notice of the recruitment process and Westcott’s appointment: BMJ 1894 volume 1 of that year issue of 9 June 1894: 1267.
The boundaries of his district:
Medico-Legal Society Transactions volume IV 1906/97 in Westcott’s talk Twelve Years’ Experience of a London Coroner p15.
Chief Rabbi: wikipedia’s list of them with biographical details. It’s likely Westcott had known Dr Adler since the 1880s, when Dr Adler was preacher at the Bayswater Synagogue.
PO London Directory 1895 law directory p2262 coroners’ service.
Twelve Years’ Experiences of a London Coroner by Westcott, originally a talk. Published London: Baillière Tindall and Cox. Preface p1.
And for the loss of the parish of St Luke’s in 1912:
BMJ 1912 volume 2 of that year issue 6 July 1912: 44-45.
Lancet 1912 volume 2 of that year p41.
Inquests in North-East London District:
Times 30 August 1894 p9.
Kicked to death by a policeman:
Times 2 October 1895 p4 and 9 October 1895 p7. I searched the Times to March 1896 but there was no coverage of any trial of Payne.
St James’s Gazette Wednesday 9 October 1895 p7.
My confusion about the charges against Payne:
Yorkshire Gazette Saturday 9 November 1895 p10
Birmingham Daily Post Friday 11 October 1895 p8. This was the latest report on the Payne case that I could find in the local press.
Killed by an elephant:
Times 15 January1897 p12 Inquest Reports.
The South American mummy:
Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper Sunday 23 April 1899 p18: Gruesome Discovery at Broad Street station.
Sheffield Evening Telegraph Wednesday 19 April 1899 p4.
Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper Sunday 30 April 1899 p13.
Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser Saturday 14 December 1901 p16
Worcestershire Chronicle Saturday 14 December 1901 p8
West Cumberland Times Saturday 14 December 1901 p4
Times Wednesday 11 December 1901 p13 High Court of Justice.
The child that had been boiled: Medico-Legal Transactions volume II 1904/05 p115.
At //journals.sagepub.com, Journal of Medical Biography: The Threepenny Doctor: Henry Percy Jelley of Hackney by Andrea Turner. February 2002. Turner discovered that H P Jelley’s father, Richard Jelley, had also qualified as a doctor late in life.
H P Jelley also appears in articles on local history websites: for example at //horridhackney.com, in a blog from June 2021. This blog makes the important point that working-class areas like Hackney were not places that most doctors wanted to set up in general practice; so that Jelley was supplying a great need. When his arrest became known, thousands of local people wrote letters of support for him.
At his trial, Jelley conducted his own defence and called his own witnesses. He gave details of his working life which alarmed the judge, Mr Justice Lawrence; and me. He said that he had been practising medicine since 1872 and had done his first post mortem at aged 8. He admitted not being qualified to practise until 1910. He claimed that over the last six years he had carried out over 300,000 consultations; never spending more than two minutes with each patient. He said he had not given Mrs March a physical examination. In sentencing Jelley to three years’ penal servitude, Lawrence particularly condemned Jelley’s treatment – lack of it – of Mrs March after she had given birth prematurely.
His arrest and trial:
Times 19 June 1916 p5.
Times Mon 12 June 1916 p3; Tue 13 June 1916 p3; Sat 17 June 1916 p3; Wed 5 July 1916 p5; Thurs 13 July 1916 p3; Sat 22 July 1916 p3. In these accounts the Times refers to Jelley as the “threepenny doctor” of Hackney.
Confirming that by 1911 Jelley was registered to practice medicine:
Lancet 1910 volume 1 of that year; lists of those passing the exams of the LSA – the Society of Apothecaries of London. Issue of 15 January 1910 p215: H P Jelley of Edinburgh passing the chemistry exam. Issue of 5 March 1910 p689 H P Jelley of Edinburgh passing the exams in surgery, medicine and forensicm medicine. Issue of 30 April 1910 p1237 H P Jelley of Edinburgh passing the exam in midwifery. The LSA also offered exams in materia medica, anatomy and physiology but – at least this year – Jelley did not pass those. Unlike some of the other people in the lists, Jelley was not listed as attached to any hospital.
GMC Registers; first registered 4 May 1910. In practice 1911 at 92 High Street Homerton; and 1915 at 174 High Street Homerton. These were the only years in which Jelley was on the GMC lists.
Despite his unusual name I couldn’t identify Jelley on the 1911 census; perhaps he was still in Edinburgh in April 1911.
Probate Registry 1945. If this is the right person, Jelley died on 11 December 1944, in Glasgow.
Back to Westcott’s working life: the anonymous letter of 1897
Westcott to GD and SRIA member Frederick Leigh Gardner in a letter marked “private”, 17 March 1897; quoted in full in Howe p165. Howe is: The Magicians of the Golden Dawn: A Documentary History of a Magical Order 1887-1923 by Ellic Howe, using records in the Yorke Collection and the Freemasons’ Library. Published London: Routledge and Kegan Paul 1972.
Westcott’s period of sick leave: Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia (SRIA), Metropolitan College Transactions for 1897-98: p3.
Infant Life Protection Act 1897:
Bastards, Baby Farmers and Social Control in Victorian Britain, by Joanne Pearman. PhD thesis University of Kent 2017. See the whole thesis at https://kar.kent.ac.uk/62866.
Midwives Act 1902:
The Health Foundation’s website at //navigator.health.org.uk/theme/midwives-act-1902. And wikipedia. Just noting here that the Act applied in England only.
The Prevention of Cruelty to Children Act 1904:
The actual clauses of the law can be seen at //vlex.co.uk
It’s set into context at www.issuesonline.co.uk its section on child protection legislation in the UK. The first such statute was not passed until 1889.
Explaining a coroner’s work:
Source: BMJ 1902 volume 2 of that year issue of 6 December 1902: 1756-59, with the text of the talk entitled The Coroner and his Relations with the Medical Practitioner, and Death Certification.
Source: BMJ 1905 volume 2 of that year issue of 16 December 1905: 1593-94: Post-Mortem Examinations and the Cause of Death.
Medico-Legal Society Transactions volume IV 1906/07 pp15-32.
Medico-Legal Society Transactions volume VIII pp15-26.
The Starchfield case:
Sources for it were legion at the time and there has been a fair amount written since, too, on the web and elsewhere. As most people can get to a copy of the Times online I list its coverage for those who want to know more: Sat 10 January 1914 p9; 4 February 1914 p5; 5 February 1914 p3; 7 February 1914 p5; 10 March 1914 p4. See also Lloyds Weekly News: Wed 4 March 1914 p3. On the inquest: Times Fri 16 January 1914 p46; Fri 23 January 1914 p7; Fri 30 January 1914 p6. There was coverage in the Times in February 1914 of the hearings at Old Street magistrates’ court but Westcott was not involved in those. On the trial: Wed 1 April 1914 p4, p8; Thur 2 April 1914 p4, p8, p9.
Sources for the aftermath involving Westcott (there were other aftermaths involving the dead child’s mother, a couple of magazines, and several of the witnesses): BMJ 1914 volume 1 of that year issue of 18 April 1914: 886-87. Lancet 1914 volume 1 of that year issue of 18 April 1914: 1125-26: Procedure in the Coroner’s Court.
Wikipedia on James Richard Atkin 1867-1944. Until he was made a judge in 1913 he specialised in commercial law; so in 1914 he probably knew a great deal less about criminal procedure than Westcott did.
World War 1 and the Air-raids:
Medico-Legal Society Transactions volume XIII 1915-18 published for the Society by Baillière Tindall and Cox of 5 Henrietta Street: pxv; p48 re meeting of 25 January 1916.
Times 8 January 1916 p4 Westcott’s inquest statistics for the year 1915.
Times 1 January 1917 p5; 4 January 1917 p5 Westcott’s inquest statistics for the year 1916.
Illustrated Police News 21 June 1917.
Pall Mall Gazette Monday 9 July 1917.
Resignation from his job:
The latest account of an inquest taken by Westcott that I could find: Taunton Courier and Western Advertizer Wednesday 15 October 1919 p6
Times 12 March 1920 p13.
MEMBERSHIP OF SOCIETIES
The Coroners’ Society
He was a member, and on its governing Council, by 1893: Ars Quatuor Coronatorum volume VI 1893 p205: speech by R F Gould after Westcott’s installation as WM of craft lodge Quatuor Coronati 2076.
As vice-president in 1906: title page of Twelve Years’ Experiences of a London Coroner by Westcott. Published London: Baillière Tindall and Cox.
His election as the Society’s president: Times Friday 18 June 1909 p10.
Lancet 1909 volume 1 of that year p1845 issue of 26 June 1909.
Lancet 1914 volume 1 of that year p1841 issue of 27 June 1914.
The Medico-Legal Society
Its wikipedia page. It’s still in existence, with branches in all major towns.
Journal of Society for Psychical Research 1919-1920 title page: the rooms at 20 Hanover Sq used by the Society, at least for its first few meetings were those of SPR; Westcott was a member of SPR.
The process of founding the Society began in the Lancet 1900 volume 2 of that year; and was well covered in the next few months:
Lancet 1901 volume 2 issue of 12 October 1901 p1008; issue of 19 October 1901 p1079; issue of 23 November 1901 p1451 which announced a meeting at 20 Hanover Square, Thursday 5 December 1901 at 1700 hours; perhaps Westcott was at this first meeting. Issue of 14 December 1901 p1689.
Lancet 1902 volume 1 of that year issue of 5 April 1902 p984 announced the Society’s first official meeting: Thursday 10 April 1902, 1730 hours at 20 Hanover Square, to formally adopt a set of rules, and choose officers for the coming 12 months. Issue of 19 April 1902 p1127 announced the new Society’s name. Most of the officers of the new society were barristers, or doctor/academics often specialising in medical jurisprudence.
Westcott’s regular attendance at the Society’s meetings: Lancet 1925 volume 2 of that year p355 issue of 15 August 1925: obituary of William Wynn Westcott.
Change of venue; probably soon after the Society’s foundation but I noticed it in BMJ 1912 volume 1 of that year issue of 18 May 1912 p1163. The Society now met at 11 Chandos Street in rooms belonging to the Medical Society.
And Medico-Legal Society Transactions volume 1 1902/04 to volume XIV 1919/20. Just noting two things here: unlike other societies of which Westcott was a member, the Medico-Legal Society allowed women members from the start; and it also allowed non-specialist members – Earl Russell, for example, joined as an interested layman. Westcott’s talks:
- Volume 1 1902/04 pviii talk on 9 June 1903: The Overlaying of Infants. Text pp44-48.
- Volume 2 1904/05 the horrifying photographs: p115 meeting of 14 February 1905; talk on 6 June 1905: Notes Upon Suicide. Text pp85-98 with comments from the audience.
John Dixon Mann as a member. volume 3 1905/06 piii.
Westcott’s second spell as the Society’s treasurer wasn’t long enough to get in the Transactions. Medical Directory 1905 p348 in the London list.
- volume 4 1906/97 p15 meeting of 20 November 1906. Westcott’s talk Twelve Years’ Experience of a London Coroner. Text pp15-32. More ghoulish specimens, showed by Westcott and Salusbury Trevor: p25 meeting of 20 November 1906.
The Society’s deputation to the Lord Chancellor is not the kind of thing the Transactions print. I noticed it in BMJ 1907 volume 1 of that year issue of 30 May 1907: 767. The meeting had been on 22 March 1907.
Wikipedia page on Robert Reid as Lord Chancellor December 1905 to June 1912.
- volume 6 1908/09 p202 talk by George Bernard Shaw on 16 February 1909: The Socialist Criticism of the Medical Profession. On p229: Master of the Rolls at the Society’s annual dinner.
- volume 7 1909/10 p88 talk 22 March 1910: A Note Upon Deodands. Text pp91-97.
- volume 8 1910/11 p14 meeting of 25 October 1910: The Coroner and His Medical Neighbours. Text pp15-26.
- volume 9 1911/12 p69 meeting of 21 May 1912: A Note on a Curious Result of Burning a New-Born Child. Text pp69-70. I hasten to add that – at least according to its parents – the child was dead when it went into the oven.
- volume 12 1914/15 pxv review of the new, 5th edition of L A Waddell’s Medical Jurisprudence for India.
- volume 13 1915/18; Westcott returns to the Society’s Council: piii. On pxv meeting of 25 January 1916: Exhibition of Specimens: the Remains of Three Incendiary German Bombs.
This wasn’t a formal talk but Westcott’s remarks and explanations were written up on p48.
- volume 14 1919/20 was the last I looked at. Westcott had been able to stand down again from the Society’s Council. He was still a member (pxii) and, looking through the list of members I could see how few of the Society’s founders were still members nearly 20 years later.
He gets to fill in the 1911 census form as the householder, and he writes his surname ‘sch’ and with the umlaut. Unlike some other British people of German descent, including the royal family, he did not Anglicise his surname during World War 1.
I searched Medical Directory issues between 1895 and 1925; he was not listed in any of them so he was not a doctor. Checking whether he was qualified as a barrister is trickier but I haven’t seen any evidence that he was.
Freebmd; census returns 1861-1911.
Probate Registry entries for Walter Robertson Sculthorpe 1879; for William Schröder 1900; for Walter Schröder 1942.
The Crippen case 1910:
Times 16 August 1910 p3; Tuesday 20 September 1910 p3; Tuesday 27 September 1910 p3.
The Seddon case 1911:
Times Friday 24 November 1911 p4; Wednesday 6 December 1911 p4; Friday 15 December 1911 p4.
George Joseph Smith and the brides in the bath 1914/15:
Times had no coverage of the inquest but in the issue of Tuesday 23 February 1915 p5 it gave the date the inquest had been held, and that Schröder had presided.
The inquest took place in two sessions and was widely reported. I looked particularly at the account of session one in the London Evening Standard of Wednesday 23 December 1914 p8, not yet using the ‘bride in the bath’ headline but A One-Day Wife: Woman Found Drowned in Bath. I think it’s likely that Joseph Crossley saw the report on the second session of the inquest that was published in the Lancashire Evening Post on Saturday 2 January 1915 p3. It was only a short report but it did give the circumstances of the death.
Schröder coining the phrase: Daily News Tuesday 10 June 1930 p9 in a report on Schröder’s 75th birthday.
Wikipedia on George Joseph Smith 1872 to 13 August 1915.
Jervis on Coroners:
It’s full title is Sir John Jervis on the Office and Duties of Coroners… first edition 1829 and still being issued as the basic textbook for members of the profession. For John Jervis (1802-56), attorney general in Lord John Russell’s government, there’s a wiki.
Schröder’s involvement in a recent edition: The Lancet 1930 volume 2 of that year issue of 23 August 1930 p411.
The edition in question: 7th, issued 1927; edited by Francis Danford Thomas and with an historical introduction by F J Waldo. London: Sweet and Maxwell.
Coroner’s Society: obituaries though they don’t give a date for his year as president.
The Medico-Legal Society: Medico-Legal Society Transactions volume 1 1902/04 to volume XIV 1919/20. And The Lancet 1942 volume 2 of that year issue of 15 August 1942: appreciation of Walter Schröder by “D.H.K.”
KBE: Times Saturday 30 June 1923 p8 Birthday Honours list.
At Ancestry, United Grand Lodge of England membership records to 1921.
At www.dhi.ac.uk Lane’s Masonic Records: entry for Robert Burns Lodge 25.
Report of the Hampstead Scientific Society 1919-20: p3 officers elected at the meeting of 3 December 1920; Schröder was a Council member. The president for the next 12 months was Professor W M Flinders Petrie. On p5 Schröder and Mr E S Payne had been auditing the Society’s accounts since 1901.
The Coachmakers: A History of the Worshipful Company of Coachmakers and Coach Harness Makers 1677-1977 edited by Harold Nockolds. London and New York: J A Allen and Co Ltd 1977. On p111 Nockolds noted that all lists of members up to 1870 had been lost. As the book did not contain a list of members since then, I couldn’t discover whether Walter’s father William had been a member (he was never the Master), or when Walter had joined. For Walter as Master: Appendix B p219.
Report on the Health of the Borough issued by the MO of Hampstead Borough Council 1930 p5.
The Savage Club:
Its website: www.savageclub.com, which says it was founded in 1857 by a group including several men who worked for the Illustrated London News. It always thought of itself as bohemian. The website tracks the meeting-places of the club from Covent Garden originally to W1 by the mid-20th century.
And wikipedia. A list of well-known members includes George and Weedon Grossmith, and P G Wodehouse; perhaps Schröder knew them as friends. It’s still a men only club.
Schröder as a member: The Lancet 1942 volume 2 of that year issue of 15 August 1942: appreciation of Walter Schröder by “D.H.K.”
Times Monday 21 July 1930 p9.
The Lancet 1930 volume 2 of that year issue of 23 August 1930 p411, the source for Schröder’s involvement in Jervis on Coroners.
- in The Medico-Legal and Criminological Review 1942
- BMJ 1942 volume 2 of that year issue of 15 August 1942 p203.
- Times Wednesday 29 July 1942 p7
- The Lancet 1942 volume 2 of that year issue of 15 August 1942: appreciation of Walter Schröder by “D.H.K.”
George Danford Thomas:
Freebmd, census returns 1851 to 1911. Probate Registry entries: George Danford Thomas 1910; Sarah de Horne Thomas 1914 (died 1911).
There’s a wiki on him but it’s not correct about the Crippen case.
His father, Richard J F Thomas:
Alumni Oxoniensis volume 4 p1407.
As a friend of W E Gladstone in their youth: Gladstone Diaries entry for 8 September 1831 p377,
At www.yeovilhistory.info the church of which he was vicar is St John the Bapt Yeovil.
The School Boards 1872 Section 3 p44 Yeovil School Board.
As a freemason though not very active: at Ancestry, United Grand Lodge of England membership records to 1921: Richard J F Thomas initiated 1864 into a lodge in Oxford.
A sample of his entries in the Medical Directory while I was trying to work out when he became a coroner.
- 1872 London list p170.
- 1875 London list p192.
- 1879 volume 1 London list p207.
Times had no entries at all for George Danford Thomas in 1874 so he probably wasn’t a coroner that year. The first inquest by him that I could find in the Times was Tuesday 6 April 1875 p5.
In the Coroner’s Society:
The Lancet 1894 volume 2 of that year issue of 17 November 1894 p1171: letter from him as the Society’s president.
The Medico-Legal Society: Medico-Legal Society Transactions volume 1 1902/04 to volume XIV 1919/20.
The Crippen case: wikipedia.
Times 15 July 1910 p9 discovery of the torso and the disappearance of Hawley Crippen and Ethel le Neve.
Over the next 2 weeks or so Times had reports virtually every day on the search for Crippen and le Neve with supposed sightings as far away as Scotland and Barcelona; pleas by police; rewards for information; and the pursuit of them to Canada by detectives from the Metropolitan Police.
Times Saturday 16 July 1910 p6 report on the autopsy.
Times Tuesday 19 July 1910 p11 first session of the inquest on the torso thought to be of Cora Crippen. Both Danford Thomas and Schröder were present and this session was the only one attended by Danford Thomas.
George Danford Thomas’s wife Sarah:
At ancestry.ca she’s listed as a daughter of Joseph Vaizey born 1813 and Julia Sarah Flower (1821-88).
Sporadically as a freemason:
At Ancestry, United Grand Lodge of England membership records to 1921: as George Danford Thomas and as George D P Thomas for 329 only.
At www.dhi.ac.uk Lane’s Masonic Records: entries for lodges 329; 2410; 2682; 2925.
The Lancet 1910 volume 2 of that year issue of 13 August 1910 p520. The anonymous writer of the obituary credited The Lancet with helping George Danford Thomas get elected as coroner for central Middlesex in 1881: it had lobbied its readers, encouraging those who were eligible to vote, to vote for Danford Thomas, who was then elected by a big majority.
BMJ 1910 volume 2 of that year issue of 13 August 1910 p416
Times Monday 8 August 1910 p11 though it’s not correct in saying that Danford Thomas was a widower.
Copyright SALLY DAVIS
8 April 2022
Email me at:
Find the web pages of Roger Wright and Sally Davis, including my list of people initiated into the Order of the Golden Dawn between 1888 and 1901, at: