A few years ago when I told a friend excitedly that I was going to be doing a presentation at Who Do You Think You Are Live? she was very pleased for me – but her look turned to one of mystification touched with horror when I told her the topic – Coroners’ Inquest Records. “Why? What’s that got to do with family history? And aren’t they too horrific and depressing?”
Well, it’s true that they won’t be directly relevant documents for all family historians but, if you do have ancestors whose death warranted an inquest, the coroner’s record or associated newspaper report reveal as much about the lives of our ancestors and their families as they do about their sudden – and sometimes violent – deaths.
And yes, of course by their nature they deal with the often taboo topic of death in a wide variety of forms, and can indeed contain unpleasant details. But they are also full of details about everyday life and provide information that may be found in no other sources. As such they are a very overlooked, resource for social history.
I started reading inquest reports whilst I worked in Birmingham archives, initially with a kind of prurient curiosity I must admit. But as I read more of those that I was serving to members of the public I was increasingly drawn to the, almost peripheral, details about the lives of all those caught up in the, often, tragic events. And I was particularly moved by reading the almost verbatim words in some of the witness statements and the recognition that these are often voices of the types of people that are often not heard in other records; the poor, the uneducated and sometimes the criminal.
In this blog I’m going to share a variety of stories from the Coroners’ records, mainly from the Birmingham Coroner but also from surrounding areas or those which historically were covered by other jurisdictions. They will include deaths from natural causes or Visitation from God, domestic and industrial accidents, suicide and murder, and some that are just bizarre. and will mostly date from the 100 years from 1839, when the first Birmingham coroner was appointed up until 1939. I’ll also be looking in more detail at the coroner’s themselves (just five of them in the first century) and alterations in the way in which inquests have been conducted. And considering the changes in the way they have been reported from the sensationalism of Victorian reporting and lurid illustrations in media such as the Illustrated Police News to the slightly more restrained coverage in the mid 20th century.