top of page
  • gbuckler

A Domestic Servant's Sad Story


By the time he was 30 years old, William Charles Graygoose, my great great grandfather, had built up what appears to have been a successful business as a furniture dealer. His documents were headed:

W C Graygoose

57 Great Queen Street, Lincolns Inn Fields

Upholsterer, Cabinet maker and Licensed Appraiser

Second-hand furniture bought or exchanged

Valuations of every description for the probate and legacy duty

Curtains, Carpets, Bedding etc. cleaned as NEW & remade

Goods removed in Town or Country – Rents collected and legally recovered

Number 57 Great Queen Street stood in a row of fourteen classical-style dwellings of a uniform design, to the rear of which were William’s showrooms, stockrooms and workshops. It was in this large and impressive house that he lived with his wife Eliza, their seven children born between 1849 and 1864, and their servants.

We know the names of three of the servants who were employed by William at the time the incident I am about to describe took place – Sarah Wigley, Jane Ward and Catherine Fox. What life was like for these three women in the Graygoose household we cannot possibly know, although the fact that there were three of them suggests they may have been spared the extreme trials of the ‘maid of all work’ who would have been expected to cover the tasks of housemaid, nurse, parlour maid and cook. The apparently endless list of jobs, the long hours, the isolation and the loneliness made this a miserable existence for many of these young women. Even had the conditions in which William’s servants worked not been quite so severe, with few opportunities for any social life outside their employer’s household the only relationships with the opposite sex would most probably have been those formed with the various delivery boys who called daily at the house. Perhaps it was just such a relationship that led to the events of one spring morning in 1863.

Catherine (Kate) Fox and Sarah Wigley shared a bedroom in the Graygoose house. When they awoke on the morning of 31st March, Sarah told Kate that she had not closed her eyes all night – although she said nothing about feeling unwell. Sarah, who was the cook went to her work in the kitchen while Kate went to the nursery.

Later that morning William’s wife, Eliza Graygoose, asked Kate to go to the kitchen to check the preparations for dinner. Kate found Sarah sitting on a chair in a fainting state and apparently insensible; she gave her a glass of water before informing Mrs Graygoose. My great great grandfather was then called and arrived in the kitchen to find Sarah ‘apparently very ill’. There were spots of blood on the floor and from, what he saw, William suspected that Sarah had been ‘delivered of a child’. He immediately sent for a surgeon who examined Sarah and recommended that she be taken to the workhouse.

William immediately put Sarah in a cab and took her to St Giles’ Workhouse in Endell Street, less than half a mile away. Established in 1725 and extended fifty years later to accommodate 520 inmates, the workhouse was supported by the ‘rich inhabitants’ of two parishes – St Giles-in-the-Fields and St George, Bloomsbury. By 1863 the buildings had been further extended to accommodate 850 inmates, and an infirmary had been added with places for 105 patients. It was to the infirmary that Sarah was taken for a further examination by the medical officer who confirmed that she had been delivered of a full-grown child.

But where was Sarah’s child? The medical officer instructed William to organise a search and the next day William ordered Jane Ward, the charwoman, to search the coal cellars and, if she found nothing there, to go through the rest of the house. Jane found nothing until it occurred to her to look into the cisterns of the water closets, and it was in one of these she discovered the body of a child wrapped in an old towel. Jane left the body in the cistern while James Blake, the beadle of St Giles and coroner’s officer, was alerted.

At the inquest, which was adjourned for three weeks so that Sarah could be present, Mr Blake told the coroner that, once the body had been removed from the cistern, he was able to see that it was the body of a male child with a strip of cotton, twisted into a string, tied around the neck. The body had be taken to the workhouse where, after a further examination, the medical officer found the cause of death to have been ‘strangulation, with a ligature around the neck, after a separate existence from the mother’. The coroner told the jury that there was no doubt that the body was that of Sarah’s child, that it had been born alive and that the cord around its neck, which had caused the child’s death, had been tied by Sarah. It was the jury’s responsibility to decide how far she was voluntarily guilty of her child’s death. He then asked Sarah if she had anything to say to the jury, and she replied: ‘I was so frightened at the time I hardly knew what to do.’

Sarah’s fear was well-founded, as the coroner himself stated. As an unmarried mother in Victorian England, she would have been considered a disgrace and possibly condemned to live as a social outcast. Women were expected to uphold ‘sexual purity’ and those who, in the eyes of society, failed to do so were considered ‘fallen women’. It is significant that not one of the reports of Sarah’s situation makes any reference to the father – there was no such label as a ‘fallen man’, the fault belonged to the woman alone. Sarah faced alienation from family and friends, little prospect of future employment, harsh treatment by relief agencies and censure from society; and there was a real possibility of starvation for both herself and her child. What were her options?

As late as the 1920s, Nancy Astor, the Member of Parliament for Plymouth Sutton, received a letter complaining of the position of the working unmarried mother ‘for whom there is only the workhouse or death’. For Sarah, a young woman of 25, the loss of her job and the move to the workhouse would have represented a very severe fall. The workhouse may have provided a measure of security, but the regime was harsh, the buildings overcrowded and the work monotonous. If her child had survived, it would have faced the stigma of illegitimacy – the belief that he would have inherited his parents’ immoral character and might pollute the minds and morals of other children!

Death, it appears, was the alternative – and it was by no means a rare occurrence among those facing unmarried motherhood. One governess who found she was pregnant after being drugged and raped said that her first thought was self-destruction and she made two attempts to kill herself. And a housemaid who became pregnant was told by the father of her child that she should drown herself – and he would help her to do it. If Sarah couldn’t face the workhouse or the taking of her own life, there was another way out – she could have taken her child to a baby farmer who would either have board him for a regular payment, or killed him and seen to the disposal of the body.

As Sarah contemplated with growing misery these grim prospects for the future, it is hardly surprising that she devised a plan to conceal the birth of her child. After all, she had succeeded in keeping her pregnancy a secret – there was no suggestion that anyone in the Graygoose household had suspected this was the case; and Catherine Fox, with whom she shared a bedroom, said she had never noticed that Sarah ‘was in the family way’ – so Sarah had good reason to think that she would be able to conceal the birth.

Addressing the jury before they left to consider their verdict, the coroner said that this was a crime very much on the increase and ‘frequently by lenity an encouragement was given and a public injustice done’. It took the jury only a short time to return their verdict of ‘Wilful murder against Sarah Wigley’. Sarah was sent to Newgate Prison to await trial.

A newspaper report of the trial, which took place three weeks later, described the case as ‘one of those painful cases in which the mother of an illegitimate child was charged with having wilfully destroyed its life in order to avoid the shame and exposure consequent upon its birth, a class of offence that would appear to be, unhappily, but far too frequent’. The same report went on to say that Sarah had been ‘a respectable girl engaged as a domestic servant to a family in Great Queen Street’.

When the lawyer who was representing Sarah cross-examined the surgeon from the workhouse, the surgeon admitted that nearly all the observations on which he based his opinion that the child had been killed after birth might have presented themselves without the child having been born alive ‘in the sense required by the law to support a charge of wilful murder’. The newspaper went on to say that the same lawyer made ‘a most feeling appeal to the jury on behalf of the prisoner’.

After the jury had considered the case, it returned to give its verdict – it found Sarah Not guilty of murder but Guilty of endeavouring to conceal the birth; and the judge sentenced her to six months hard labour. The newspaper report ended: ‘The unfortunate young woman was removed from the bar shrieking violently, and apparently suffering great mental agony.’

Sarah was then taken back to Newgate before being removed to serve her sentence at the House of Correction in Westminster, a prison for female prisoners that was considered to be a more desirable place to be confined than many other prisons of that time. One social researcher who visited the prison two years before Sarah’s arrival was impressed by the staff’s ability to maintain discipline without resorting to any kind of physical violence.

We shall probably never know what became of Sarah after her release. If she was still in contact with her family, she may have been able to return home and rebuild her life from there. But in many cases a criminal conviction led to estrangement from family and friends. Perhaps Sarah was fortunate enough to find another post as a domestic servant – but not many households in a position to employ a servant would have considered taking on one who had only recently been released from prison. She may have found a temporary home in one of the refuges or shelters, overseen by the Discharged Prisoners Aid Society; a few months’ rehabilitation in a refuge would have given Sarah a better chance of finding employment again. The worst-case scenario for a female ex-prisoner like Sarah would have been the workhouse or a life on the streets.

As for William Charles Graygoose and his family, less than a year after Sarah’s trial their circumstances were to change dramatically, and by 1871 they were living in Surrey where William was landlord of the Red Lion Inn in Guildford.

25 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

(THE GRAYGOOSE LINE) Soon after I began digging for information about my great great grandfather, William Charles Graygoose, I came across this notice in The Era newspaper of 28th July 1872: ‘ROYAL MA

(THE GRAYGOOSE/HORTON LINE) When, on a summer’s evening in 1872, a constable on Hampstead Heath apprehended a 56 year old woman who happened to be carrying a few sprigs of fern, he could not possibly

(THE BUCKLER LINE) On Friday 28th May 1880, an open hearse carrying a black coffin, draped in a velvet pall, pulled into Highgate Cemetery. It was followed by four coaches, carrying the principal mour

Post: Blog2_Post
bottom of page