Ruislip, Northwood and Eastcote
Local History Society


Extreme Poverty at Ruislip Common in the 1840s

Death from starvation in Ruislip

The following information comes from the report of the inquest into the death of William Terry published in The Times, 31 October 1844.  William Terry, according to evidence given by his sister at the inquest, got a living by 'jobbing about'.  He 'often had not a shilling a week to live upon'.  He lived in a loft above an outhouse in Pinner where he slept on straw or hay and sometimes came to her house on a Sunday 'to get a bit of dinner'.  He had been there on the Sunday before his death.  In October 1844 he appeared to be very ill and the owner of the loft brought him some gruel and apparently fearing that he was dying, arranged for a boy to bring him over to his sister, Mary Lavender’s at Withy Lane, Ruislip, in a dung cart on a Wednesday morning.  She and the boy helped him into the cottage and onto a chair, but he was faint, though sensible, and nearly fell off it two or three times, so they took him up to bed.  He drank a little milk, but was unable to eat any bread in it.  Mary was in some distress herself as her husband and son were both out of work and she had no money.  She said that she knew that she could not get any relief without going to the Relieving Officer four miles off at Hillingdon.  

The next morning, although it was raining fast she walked to Hillingdon to the Relieving Officer's house.  He was out and she was told he was at Uxbridge church, but she missed him there too and in great anxiety she went directly to Mr Rayner, the Uxbridge surgeon responsible for the medical care of Ruislip paupers.  He said that he was coming to Ruislip and would call, which he did that afternoon, not long after Mary herself returned, having by that time walked ten miles.  William Terry was by then beyond help and died three hours later.  Mr Rayner's opinion was that death was due to exhaustion and want of food and the other necessaries of life.

The inquest was held at The Six Bells, Ducks Hill, a stone's throw from Withy Lane, with Thomas Wakley as coroner.  He persistently questioned the surgeon about the ordering and supply of necessities for the sick in the Uxbridge Union and was clearly shocked and angered by the replies.  Apparently when a doctor ordered goods, for example half a pound of mutton, on medical grounds, the order had to be taken to the Relieving Officer who had discretion as to whether or not the goods were really needed and who could over ride the doctor's medical judgment.  

This was in fact an old grievance which had been aired in March 1841, when Mr Rayner had written to the Guardians about his authority to order any description of diet to sick paupers.  The reply had been unequivocal.  '…an M.O. is not empowered to order articles of Diet for Pauper Patients under his care.  Such a power would be equivalent to giving relief which the Law has vested generally in the Guardians and which it is not competent to an M.O. to exercise.  A M.O. can only advise Guardians to give certain articles of Diet to a Pauper and the Guardians will exercise their discretion upon their own responsibility whether they will or will not adopt such a recommendation or advice.'  Mr Rayner had evidently communicated his disquiet to Mr Wakley and to the annoyance of the Guardians, he had brought the matter up in the House of Commons and it had naturally been commented upon in The Times.

At the inquest, Matthew Ratcliffe, a butcher and publican at The George, Ruislip who was sitting on the jury, spoke up and confirmed what Mr Rayner had said.  He himself had supplied a poor woman called Lawrence with half a pound of mutton and half a pint of beer daily for three weeks following childbirth on the directions of Mr Rayner.  The Guardians had refused to reimburse him on the grounds that 'the order was from a medical gentleman, and not the Relieving Officer'.  Mr Wakley said  'This is monstrous.…The food is prescribed medically, yet the medical authority is not supreme.  I wonder that my medical brethren submit to such an arrangement, which is most cruel to the poor.'  A Juryman added 'And when half a pound of meat a day is ordered, they never allow but three pounds in the week, not thinking, I suppose, that the poor ought to eat on Sunday.'  Mr Wakley took particular note of the distances the poor were obliged to walk from the doctor's to the relieving officer before food could be procured.

Whilst giving evidence Mary Lavender had mentioned that her brother had been in the Union Workhouse twice, the last time three years previously when he had had a bad leg.  He had said that he would never go in there again if he could only get one meal a day out of it and that he was afraid to go in there again.  Since then he had been in Pinner.

The account of the inquiry appeared in The Times under the heading 'DEATH BY STARVATION' and the case focused unwelcome public attention on the workings of the Uxbridge Guardians.  The Poor Law Commissioners wrote to them on the 6th November, asking for an explanation of the circumstances.  

 HYPERLINK "http://web6.infotrac.galegroup.com/"  Times Oct 31 1844, p6, col A
 LMA: BG U2, p252
 LMA: BG U2, p252
 LMA: BG U2, p258
 National Archives: MH 12 7877

A sad tale of poverty at Ruislip Common in 1845

Eileen M. Bowlt

At the time of the 1841 census William Murrell and his son, William, both described as agricultural labourers, were the sole occupants of a 'hut or shed' at Ruislip Common, just at the northern edge of the Lido Car Park.  Young William married and went to live at Iver, but was imprisoned at Aylesbury for stealing potatoes in January 1844.  It was a time of agricultural depression.

By August  William was out of gaol, but also out of work, 'except an occasional job or two'.  In October or November, as a result of the serious illness of his wife, he sought assistance and the family was ordered to be removed from the Eton Union to the Uxbridge Union when Martha should have recovered.  Early in December she was somewhat better and to avoid the order of removal, William borrowed a horse and cart and took the family and their few belongings to Ruislip Common, where his father still lived.  William and Martha found a lodging in the old workhouse (now a private house in Ducks Hill just above the Garden Centre), which had been divided into tenements that were let to poor people by the owner, Ralph Deane of Eastcote House. 

The couple's only food was some potatoes which William had been given in Iver in return for 'doing up' a garden and a few more that his father had provided as seed, supplemented by twopennyworth of sprats and occasionally a half loaf of bread.  Eventually Martha persuaded her husband to apply for help and he was given an order of admission to the Union Workhouse at Hillingdon.  Reluctant to go there he walked back to Ruislip and found that work was available in the woods, cutting pea sticks and carrying them to the road to be carted.  He began next day but in his weakened condition through lack of proper nourishment, he found that the most he could earn in a day was ninepence and was forced to give up.

In January 1845 he was very ill and Martha left home to walk to the Relieving Officer's house at Hillingdon to ask for medical relief.  She was given an order for Mr Rayner, the medical man with responsibility for Ruislip paupers, to attend her husband and having taken it to the doctor's house in Uxbridge, she returned to Ruislip Common, where she arrived about mid-day, having walked some ten miles without food and bringing nothing but a promise of a visit from the doctor.  Mr Rayner duly arrived and gave her an order to the effect that she should receive food and other necessaries.  Still hungry and very weary Martha set off again to the Relieving Officer's house so that he could exchange Mr Rayner's order for an order for Mr Collins, who had a grocery on Breakspear Road at the house now called Brill’s Cottage, a short distance from the old workhouse.  The order was to supply goods to the value of 3 shillings (15p).  

Three days later she attended the Union Workhouse seeking more help.  Mr Pearce, one of the Guardians who was from Ruislip, promised to set William to work 'in grubbing' on the Monday morning.  In the meantime Martha was given a meal at the workhouse and Mr Stratton, the Relieving Officer arranged to meet her at Ruislip church on the Saturday morning.  He gave her three loaves and one shilling and eightpence halfpenny.

William Murrell who had hurt his foot on a stump, became very ill over the weekend.  A neighbour saw him on the Sunday, lying on his face on a chaff bed, with a stiff neck and his jaw locked, although sensible.  Another neighbour, Mrs Allday went to Uxbridge herself on the Tuesday, to fetch Mr Rayner, but William Murrell died before he arrived. 

At the inquiry into the death held at The Six Bells by Thomas Wakley, Mrs Allday stated that her own husband 'had no employment but breaking stones at the Uxbridge Workhouse, at which he never could earn more than one shilling and fourpence or one shilling and sixpence  a day ,and to perform that work he had to walk ten miles a day.'  The surgeon, Mr Rayner, believed that death was due to lockjaw caused by the injury to the foot, rather than by want of food.  The jury brought in a verdict of 'Died from lockjaw'.  The foreman added 'that the jury could not separate without expressing their great dissatisfaction and disgust at the continuance of a system which compelled the poor, in the hour of sickness and destitution to travel so many miles as it was proved that the wife of the deceased man was compelled to walk before she could obtain the relief that was necessary for their wants'.


NOTE: More information about these cases can be read in the article "Death by Starvation" in the RNELHS 2007 JOURNAL available on the Journals section of our website.






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