Tuesday 22 November 2016

A Ghoulish Surprise in a Parish Register

I was searching for burial information for members of one branch of my family recently and came across a disturbing note in the burial register for St Paul, Shadwell parish, tower Hamlets borough, in Middlesex.

The entry read: 1781 Septr 18 – Mary Parker a Child twelve days old kept by her Parents in a Closet 2 years unburied and would not then have buried her, but as they were moving from ye House in King David Lane.

I have looked at thousands of pages of entries in parish registers, and found some sad cases, particularly dealing with children, but I had never seen such a record as this one.

It is difficult to imagine why the body of an infant would be kept at all, let alone for such a time period.

We do know that there had been a law that required that the dead be wrapped in wool shrouds from 1666 onward. That had to more to do with supporting the national wool industry than any religious reason. These are evidenced by the word “affidavit” in the burial registers indicating such a wrap had been used. By the late 18th century many parishes were not enforcing the act although for paupers it had generally been ignored anyway. This burial register did note that the burials were all with Affidavits.

Many parishes charged fees for burials that, while not necessarily excessive might have been more than poor families could afford. Could this family not been able to afford a burial? Could they have forgotten about it after several months? That’s hard to imagine.

Could the child have been conceived and born out of wedlock? And then its death hidden?

It is interesting that the child had a name but not a coffin.

I have not tracked down the family after this burial date. The parents’ names were not recorded so we don’t know whether they had other children or even whether this child had been baptized. And since they moved away, we don’t know where their new residence was. There was a 17 January 1781 baptism for a five-month old Samuel Parker whose parents were Samuel and Mary Parker, and who lived on King David Lane. They seem to be the most likely family of little Mary. Since they are also not part of my family, I won’t likely pursue a search for them.

Some interesting and surprising things turn up in parish registers. This is among the strangest I have seen, though. And just a bit ghoulish, too!

Wayne Shepheard is a volunteer with the Online Parish Clerk program in England, handling four parishes in Devon, England. He has published a number of articles about various aspects of genealogy in several family history society journals. He has also served as an editor of two such publications. Wayne provides genealogical consulting services through his business, Family History Facilitated.