A Sordid Little Theft

On Sunday 25 June 1899 the body of an unknown, male child was found on the banks of the River Don at Sheffield, at a place opposite Attercliffe Church. The body had been found wrapped up in some material and it had then been placed in a wooden Hudson’s Soap box. The local newspapers quickly dubbed it the ‘Attercliffe Mystery Baby.’ The box appeared wet, so it was thought that it might have been washed up onto the banks of the river. It had been found and opened by some young boys who, upon seeing the contents, called out to a man who was passing. His name was Samuel Smith and they told him that they had found a body.

Smith, in turn informed a constable who took the remains to the Sheffield Mortuary. Consequently an inquest was organised to be held at the same Mortuary by the city Coroner, Mr D Wightman on Wednesday 28 June 1899. Meanwhile, a post mortem was undertaken by the police medical officer Mr Arthur Hallam on Monday 26 June. At the inquest he told the jury that he had examined the remains and found that the child had not lived longer than 24 hours after birth, but as to how it had died he could not say. He explained that decomposition had set in, and so he was unable to estimate exactly how the child had died. A verdict of ‘found dead’ was recorded by the jury.

The same day the attention of Mrs Elizabeth Duffy was drawn to the report in the Sheffield Independent by a neighbour called Annie Bidwell. Both women lived on Princess Street, Attercliffe. And Annie knew that Mrs Duffy had recently given birth to a male child, who the midwife told her had died. Harriet Oakland was an experienced midwife, who at the age of 55 had brought many babies into the world. Mrs Duffy’s pregnancy had been a hard one and the birth was equally traumatic. She was so exhausted after many hours of labour on Sunday 18 June, that she could not remember anything about it afterwards. The only thing she could recall was Harriet telling her the baby was a boy and he had died shortly after she gave birth.

The next day the midwife brought a wooden Hudson’s Soap box in which to bury the child. He was placed inside and the lid was nailed down. The midwife told the grieving mother that she would make arrangement to have the child buried by a church sexton and have him placed in consecrated grounds. However she could not take the child that day as there were no general funerals taking place. Harriet told Elizabeth that she would pick up the box the next day, being a Tuesday. Despite her promise, it was Friday 23 June before she actually returned. The midwife told Elizabeth that for 2s to pay the sexton, she could have the child buried at either Attercliffe or Grimesthorpe Cemetery and the money was duly paid over to her.

On the following Sunday, exactly a week after the baby had been born, it was reported in the newspapers that the body of a child had been found on the banks of the river. That was when Annie Bidwell became suspicious and shared her suspicions with her neighbour. Elizabeth immediately called the midwife and demanded to know whether the child that had been found in the wooden box had been hers or not. Harriet looked horrified at her and instead of answering asked her ‘do you think I could do such a thing as that?’ Elizabeth then demanded to see the burial certificate which all sextons had to fill out a copy for the relatives. Harriet said that she would come round with it the next day.

However when the hours dragged by and the midwife did not arrive, Elizabeth began to realise what had happened to her dead baby and she reported the matter to the Sheffield City Police authorities. Harriet Oakland was arrested and charged with concealment of birth and brought before the magistrates on Friday 30 June 1899. The prosecution, Mr Robert Fairburn outlined the case for the bench before Elizabeth was brought to give her evidence. Neighbour Annie Bidwell was the next witness and she told the court that she had been present at the birth of the child. Although she was present in the room however, she admitted not seeing the child’s actual body as the midwife had wrapped it in a towel as soon as she realised it was dead.

The witness admitted that she had drawn Elizabeth’s attention to the report of finding of the child in the newspaper. But the most damning evidence against the midwife was the next witness, who was a shopkeeper of Pinfold Lane, Sheffield, a woman called Harriet Young. She told the court that she had sold the soap box to the prisoner on Sunday 23 June. After hearing this indisputable evidence, Harriet Oakland was found guilty of concealing the birth and sent to take her trial at the next Assizes. At the beginning of the Assizes on Wednesday 26 July 1899, the judge Mr Justice Grantham went through the upcoming cases for the grand jury before the trials began.

When making a reference to the concealment of birth case, the judge told them that it was quite clear that the prisoner had taken the body of the child. However whether the baby had been still born or had died soon after birth was irrelevant in the matter. He said what was proven was that the midwife had taken the body of the child, and had professed to be going to get it legally buried. Instead of doing that, she had placed the child in a box and left it either in the water or on the banks of the river, knowing that it would soon be found. However Mr Justice Grantham told the jury that the evidence could not possibly support the charge of concealment of birth.

He explained that:

Although putting the body away in a box was ample to make out a secret disposal, it was quite clear the woman had no intention of concealing the fact of the child’s birth, which was what would have to be established before the charge could be fully made out. There was therefore, no evidence to support a bill on that charge.’

The judge said that instead he had ordered the officer of the court to charge the prisoner with lesser offence, which was that of obtaining money (the 2s) under false pretences.

Harriet Oakland was brought before Mr Justice Grantham on Friday 28 July 1899 at the West Riding Summer Assizes charged with obtaining money by false pretences. Mr R Leader prosecuted the case and described the events leading up to the trial. He told the court that after Mrs Duffy gave birth, that she paid the prisoner 6s for her own fees and 2s for the burial of the child. The child’s mother Mrs Duffy gave her evidence again before the judge, at that point stopped the case. He explained that the jury could not progress the case any further. He told them that Harriet Oakland had got the money for the burial from a distraught mother and then she had:

’Told various lies and made various excuses for not having done what she promised to do.’ He said that given the circumstances, the jury had no option therefore but to find the prisoner not guilty of the crime. In discharging the midwife, he told Harriet that she had a lucky escape. He said:

You have behaved in a most disgraceful way, in obtaining money from a poor woman still in her childbed, to bury the child. Then you left it to be found by children. Unfortunately you cannot be convicted of the crime of which you have been charged, although you well deserve to be convicted of some crime.’

Harriet Oakland was then removed from the court.

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