It is hard to believe what some of the archive and court reports say about human behaviour during Victorian times. One can only research and write about the injustice that took place.

Take, for example, a Pillgwenlly, Newport woman called Catherine, who was 39 years of age when this story took place in the 1890s. She was described as ‘exceedingly stout’ and suffering from problems with her heart. Fred, her husband, went to work at Newport docks as a coal trimmer at 4am. Catherine started shouting for help an hour later and neighbours came in. She was about to have a baby. She was in a panic state.

The midwife arrived shortly after 6am and by then the baby had been born and died. The midwife stated, ‘I could see whisky coming out of the baby’s nostrils’. Within a short time Catherine too was dead. She was said by the neighbours to have been agitated, and for all intents and purposes, delivered the baby herself. It was difficult due to her size; her body gave out.

Unfortunately, Catherine’s baby never made it to this stage. Photo credit: Tim Bish

The midwife stated that she could smell whisky all around the woman’s room’. One other witness report said that Catherine had been a hard drinker and addicted to whisky. Her husband gave another witness. He said his wife used to be a heavy drinker but had not been so for over a year. She had had an awful shock a few days ago which turned her to drink a whisky. She had observed the bloody hand of a man being pushed through a broken window. It had shocked her and she needed support, so she used whisky.

The pathologist, upon examining Catherine’s body, said that she was full of fatty tissue, but no signs of whisky in the stomach. Heart disease and shock were the probable causes of death. The coroner agreed, but not before calling the midwife Mrs Williams back up in front of him. He said to her, ‘I am refusing your application for expenses. When you gave evidence at the first hearing in my court you were drunk. You said you warned the women who had got there before you not to give Catherine any more to drink. You said she had been drinking for a month. You had no right to make that assumption. You said you saw whisky coming out of the baby’s nostrils. That has not been proven.’

The Coroner’s final verdict on Catherine’s passing was death by natural causes.

And there we have it: witnesses to incidents are not always what they seem.

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