This article appeared in Issue 74 of Buckets & Spades. Margaret Nigh explains a court case surrounding her great, great, grandmother.
A pdf copy of this article is available for download using the link below.
My name is Elizabeth Merrifield (nee James). I am 22 years old. I have two little girls: Elizabeth, born 1860, and Sarah, born 1859. My husband, Henry Merrifield has abandoned me, and here I am in prison accused of the manslaughter of my 15 month old son, Henry. But perhaps I should go back to the beginning and tell you the whole sad story.
Henry and I married on 23rd November 1858 at St James BRISTOL. He was a baker and I had work as a shoe-binder. We lived a contented life at first. We lived at 4 Harford Street, BRISTOL, where we rented rooms. We had two lovely little girls, Sarah Ann, born 1859 and Elizabeth who was born in 1860. Henry deserted me in 1862 - he was seeing another lady. I was pregnant with my third child at this time.
I was obliged to go to the Stapleton Union, as by now I was unable to work, and Henry did not provide for me. I had my husband bound over to keep the peace. He then returned home and we lived very comfortably for three months. But even before the bond was up, he became troublesome again, and he left home and has never contributed to my maintenance since. This was when my son was only a month old. I had an allowance from the parish of two shillings and three loaves weekly.
I let my landlady have two loaves and nine pence every week, as rent, out of that. I occasionally had small presents of money given to me. I allowed my children all that I could afford. During my son, Henry's, illness, Mr and Mrs Peacock kindly gave me a little wine, which I gave to him every morning up to the time of his death. I took Henry to the Infirmary (BRISTOL ROYAL INFIRMARY). Mrs Jones, a friend, carried the child. I took him three times during his illness and twice to Mr Foxwell, the parish surgeon. I did not take him in the three weeks before his death. I do not know what more I could have done.
INQUEST ON HENRY MERRIFIELD
As reported in THE DAILY NEWS, Thursday lOth September 1863 (taken from the Western Daily Press) under the title of 'Starvation of a child committal of the Mother for manslaughter' on Monday and Tuesday 7th and 8th September 1863.
It was alleged that Henry Merrifield had been wilfully starved to death by his own mother. Two women named LAWLER and GRIFFITHS, who had lived in the same house with the prisoner, deposed to her habits of drunkenness and her neglectful conduct towards her children.
Mr E C BOARD, assistant house surgeon at the Infirmary, who had made a post-mortem examination, stated his belief that the deceased had died from want of nourishment. The inquest then heard Elizabeth's side of the story.
It was also reported that Elizabeth said she had had no hot food for three or four months, that her work had been short, and that she had been driven to live on dry bread alone. Her children had had part of it.
The coroner, in summing up, said the prisoner would like her other children sent for. The coroner agreed. The children were led in and seen to have rosy cheeks and were tidily dressed. The coroner said that they appeared to be healthy and well fed children, and did not appear neglected, and were a credit to the prisoner.
The jury were then asked to decide if the death of the infant was caused by the neglect of the mother or not.
After brief deliberations, the jury returned a verdict to the effect that the child was feloniously slain by Elizabeth Merrifield.
The coroner then made out his warrant for her committal for trial on the charge of manslaughter at the next Gloucester Assizes. Elizabeth was returned to prison.
Elizabeth MERRIFIELD 22, boot binder, was indicted for the manslaughter of her infant child, Henry MERRIFIELD at BRISTOL on 7th September 1863. (As reported in the BRISTOL MERCURY and WESTERN COUNTIES ADVERTISER Saturday 9th April 1864.)
Mr CRIPPS prosecuted. The prisoner was undefended. It appeared that the accused had been in prison for seven months, and under the circumstances, Mr CRIPPS said he would offer no evidence and the prisoner was acquitted.
Elizabeth Merrifield was my great, great grandmother. I feel she was dealt a poor hand and really did not deserve the ordeal she went through.
As yet, I have been unable to find when she died, but her daughters grew up and married.
Elizabeth (1860) married John James COLENSO, had three children and died in 1952.
Sarah Ann (1859) married John Alfred JEFFRIES and had at least one son.
1 Shirley ISSEYEGH of Elstree, HERTS, who I met at Weston-super-Mare Family History Society Open Day. She is also researching the MERRIFIELDS and gave me my first information about this story
2 Birth certificates
3 Marriage certificates
4 B.M.D. records
5 Newspapers: DAILY NEWS 1863
WESTERN DAILY PRESS 1863
WESTERN COUNTIES APVERTISER 1864