Distressing Sewell Suicide at Blyth
By Margaret Doubell
This article was originally published in the April 1998 edition of Soul Search, the journal of The Sole Society.
Today, buying on credit with Visa, Mastercard, American Express, etc. is part of our way of life and the credit limits you can build up by holding different cards are quite daunting. Yet, even Barclaycard at its most generous, does not give me a credit allowance equal to my whole year's salary. So when I read that in 1880 my grandmother's uncle, Henry Sewell, an agricultural labourer, had been served with a writ by a local shopkeeper, Mrs Sarah Stewart for £41 19s for groceries obtained by his wife, an immediate reaction was to wonder what on earth possessed Mrs Stewart to let the debt build up to so much. Henry's yearly wages would not have amounted to much more than that. How on earth did the woman think he was going to pay his wife's debts!
A similar thought was probably going through Henry's mind when the writ was served on him on Wednesday 8th December 1880, especially as he was not aware that he owed anything at all to Mrs Stewart. Quite predictably the first thing he did was to go immediately to Mrs Stewart's where he found his wife, Mary Arm Sewell (nee Foster), according to one newspaper report "endeavouring to keep the matter quiet" and according to another was "not in the least put out about it". Both could have been true. The reason for the confidence was that she said she had £100 at a bank in Worksop, about six miles away. She planned to fetch it and pay the debt. They therefore agreed that she should go with Mrs Stewart the next day and take out the required amount.
Life is never that simple though and on Thursday and Friday circumstances arose to prevent their going. The newspapers are irritatingly reticent about what those circumstances were but there might be a clue in what happened on Monday, when Mary Arm Sewell did finally get to Worksop. This time her husband was the one who went with her. I can imagine that his irritation, anger, frustration and worry would have been mounting over the past few days. He says he persevered with her and insisted that she went with him but even so she was reluctant to get up on the Monday. Finally they set out to walk to Worksop, and on the way there, she told him that she planned to get out all the money and pay off the other two or three debts she had accumulated. Goodness knows what they were; he never said. They parted at her sister‑in‑law's in Newgate Street at about 11.30a.m.. She was going to Beckett's Bank in Potter Street to get her money and he said he would follow and meet her as she came out of the bank.
He did follow her but she did not come out and after waiting outside until 1 p.m. ‑ he may have been nervous about banks ‑ he went in and enquired about her. She had never been there.
Henry did not find out at the time whether she actually had any money in the bank but he later said he thought she probably had not. I think she certainly had not, at least she had not on that Monday, 13th December. Whether she had ever had any is a different matter.
Henry was probably extremely confused and worried at this time. He went back to Newgate Street, tried to find Mary but when no‑one seemed to know where she was, he started back for Blyth. As he came into the village, he met Mary's mother who told him that Mary had come home and said how pleased she was that everything was now settled. He soon told her that absolutely nothing had been settled that day and asked her to go to his house to fetch Mary, while he waited in her house. A little while later she was back saying that his wife would not come. I do not know why he did not go straight home but perhaps he wanted to talk to his wife away from their four children. He never did.
Meanwhile what had Mary been doing? Goodness knows. She had not gone to the bank but what had she done? She had not got back to Blyth until 3 p.m.; at least that was when she had arrived at her mother's and asked for a drink of water before going home. She had left her husband at 11.30 a.m. and it should not have taken her three and half hours to walk the six miles back to Blyth. Had she gone somewhere else in Worksop to try to borrow money, or had she just wandered about aimlessly before drifting back to Blyth? If she had no plans to bring any money back, why had she walked all the way to Worksop in the first place? Anyway, whether it was because the item she had hoped to pawn was not worth much or because the rich relations had failed her or because she was just living in a fantasy, world, she came back home.
And what did she find at home "She found children being looked after by her neighbour, Maria Parkin. Four children to be precise: the eldest Sarah Annie, almost 13 who for the past two years had been a regular truant from school; Ann aged 10, Elizabeth aged 6, and John Henry aged 4. The two of her children who were not there were Clara who had died of measles and pneumonia six years ago at the age of one and George who had died of diarrhoea two years ago, aged three months.
Mary Ann was tired ‑ she had after all walked twelve miles that day ‑ not to mention emotionally exhausted and she wanted to rest so she went upstairs to lie down. Maria Parkin meanwhile went off to Mary's mother but later came back to find Mary Arm irritated with the children who wanted their tea and would not let her have a moments peace. She walked up and down the room, got their tea ready and then went upstairs again.
One other thing Mary Ann had done when she had retuned from Worksop was to send for some beer. According to her husband she had taken to drinking about two years ago and it was apparently common knowledge that she was a drinker; he says he had seen her helplessly drunk twice. He dated her drinking from the time when Robert Hiles, the current innkeeper of the Swan, had come and set up a shop where you could get groceries and porter but he did not really know why she had started to drink.
They had been married about 13 years and the drinking had only started in the last two. It might have been a bad case of post‑natal depression but we will never know. There was obviously a lot Henry did not know if he did not know whether she had £ 100 in the bank or not.
However, after feeding the children, she retired upstairs, possibly with her beer, leaving Maria Parkin downstairs with the children. It was at this time that her mother first arrived and Mary Ann refused to go with her. After a while, Maria, who was a bit worried about her friend, started to go up the stairs but was sent down again by Mary who was on her hands and knees on the bedroom floor but who said she would be down soon. Maria thought she was sick and preferred to leave her alone but almost immediately one of Mary's younger girls began asking for some bread and butter and Mary, in a rather thick voice shouted to Maria to give her some. Maria said she thought she sounded as if she was choking but she had obviously had enough by that time because she went next door. Did she think Mary was drunk and had no wish to clear up after her?
Ten minutes later she was back again. Mrs Shacklock, Mary's mother, had arrived for the second time and gone upstairs to speak to her daughter. What she found was Mary on the bedroom floor with a pillow under her head and her clothes covered in blood. She had severed a principal vein in her neck with her husband's razor which was lying by her side.
Maria came, Henry came, Dr Beckitt came, and I suppose it would be too much to hope in all this flurry of activity that her children did not come too, they were only downstairs. Henry, seeing his wife lying in a pool of blood said, "Oh, Mary, what have you done? She could not reply, though it was another twenty minutes before she actually died.
What happened next? The jury on the inquest returned a verdict of suicide while in an unsound state of mind. There is nothing in any, of the evidence to say that she was of unsound mind: everyone seemed determined to say that she was quite all right when she went to Worksop but perhaps that is what the emphasis on the drink was for. Perhaps it was just kindness on the part of the jury: if she had killed herself while of sound mind she would have been guilty of self‑murder and not entitled to burial by the Church. She was buried in the church, though she was not given the normal funeral service.
After the funeral, Henry and his children moved in with his older brother George, an agricultural worker and owner of a steam threshing machine of the kind presumably that Hardy wrote about in "Tess of the D'Urbervilles". George though, died six months later and left £200. Most of this was divided between his brothers and sister but when it came to Henry's share, the money was not left to him direct but to hold in trust for his children. George also left his furniture and household effects in trust for Henry's children though Henry could have the use of them in his life. The debts had obviously not been paid and George was doing what he could to help his nephews and nieces as well as his brother.
What eventually happened to Henry and the children is a mystery. They had all left Blyth by 1891. Indeed they had left Nottinghamshire but where had they gone? To some large town I imagine. What else do you do if you are a low paid agricultural labourer saddled with debts worth up to two year's earnings? What of the children? If this had happened today, they would probably have had counselling and been referred to child psychologists, they doubtless needed it. But this was the 1880s. Sarah Ann had already been truanting in 1878. Was this because her mother was already drunk or depressed and she was helping at home, or was it because she was roaming the streets, running wild? The fact that it was Maria Parkin who was gletting the bread and butter ready and not Sarah might suggest the second.
If anyone has come across a Henry Sewell b 1844, Sarah Ann b 1868, Ann b 1870, Elizabeth b 1874 or John Henry b 1876 coming into their area in the 1880s I would love to hear from them. I wish I knew the full story. The other thing I wish is that I had the talent of Thomas Hardy to make a novel of the story. I am sure it is crying out for such treatment.
The information for this account came first from an entry in the parish register of Blyth that said that Mary Ann Sewell aged 36 had been buried using part of the Bishop's Order 13B ‑ I think this is correct ‑ after the inquest. This made me think it was suicide and this was confirmed when I read the Log Book for Blyth School which noted that the Master was absent on the afternoon of Tuesday 14th December, 1880 as he was on the jury investigating the case of Mary Ann Sewell, mother of Sarah Annie who had committed suicide on Monday 13th. This Log Book also gave details of Sarah's truanting and the Schools Attendance Record shows they had all left school by 1886. Newspaper reports on the inquest in the Nottingham Daily Express on Thursday Dec 16th and the Retford and Gainsborough Times on Friday Dec 17th provide the details. Henry Sewell, Maria Parkin and Mary Shacklock, Mary Arm's mother gave evidence. I have also read George Sewell's will as well as the usual parish, census and GRO records.
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