Barnsley Chronicle January 5, 1907
Darfield Father’s Brutality
Terrified Children Jumped from The Bedroom Window
Coroner’s Stinging Censure
A shocking story was unfolded at an inquest which was conducted at the Barnsley Town Hall on Wednesday morning by the District Coroner (Mr PP Maitland).
The jury had been called to consider the death of Laura Ford, age 15 years, daughter of Edward Ford, Miner, 69 School Street, Darfield. The girl died in the Beckett hospital on New Year’s Eve, and it was suggested that her end had been accelerated by her father’s brutal conduct.
Ford, who had been apprehended the previous day at Bilston, in Staffordshire, was present during the proceedings, and at the close was censored in biting words by the Coroner. He is now awaiting the hearing of the charge preferred against him by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, who summoned him a fortnight ago for ill treating, exposing, and neglecting his children. Ford is a widower, his wife having died six years ago.
The most important witness at the inquest was Mrs Mary Ann Nichols, wife of Thomas Nicholls, who lives next door to the Fords. She described Ford as a man of violent temper, and particularly bad when, as was very often the case, he was in beer. The neighbours were all afraid of him, and would sit with their doors locked when he was in one of his violent moods.
The coroner: Not a very desirable neighbour.
Mrs Nicholl said Ford had threatened her several times, while she had heard him use very bad language to children, and seen them run out screaming. Shortly after 10 o’clock on the night of Sunday, December 9, she being in bed at the time, she heard something bump next door, and then heard Ford shout upstairs to the children, “Come down and fetch some coal up from the cellar, or else I’ll – – – – well come and cut your heads off.”
The girl Laura screamed, and witness shouted to her to lie still, and let her father fetch the coals himself. Then there was a rumble in the bedroom, and when witness looked out of the window she saw Lorna’s brother Edward – a boy of 12 – crouching in his shirt on the windowsill, which was some 12 feet above the ground. The boy asked her to let him come into her house, and then jumped down onto the flags. A moment later the girl rushed to the window in night attire, crying, “Save me! Save me!” And although told to stay where she was, she, too, jumped out, falling heavily on the flags in a sitting position. By this time a crowd gathered.
Dr Castle and the police were sent for, and the girls attended to. She was fearfully frightened, was trembling from head to foot. Ford, was very drunk, came out of the house, and offered to fight anyone in the crowd. Witness took care of two children, but as the girl got worse and worse Inspector Thomson of the N.S.P.C.C., arranged for her removal to the Hospital.
Questioned by the Coroner as to the way the children were fed, Mrs Nicholl said she did not think the girl had had sufficient. They were given bread and lard, and on Sundays they got a cooked dinner of frozen meat, but that was all they would have during the week, except perhaps a penny pair of kippers.
Edward Ford, the dead girl’s brother, said his father had often threatened to cut their heads off with a carving knife. On the night in question his father shouted, “If you don’t come down and fetch some coals I’ll cut your – – – – heads off.” Witness went downstairs, but as he was getting the coal bucket his father struck him on the neck with his fist. After that he ran upstairs, his father following him with the carving knife. Laura shouted to tell his father was coming, so he made for the window and dropped out without hurting himself.
Question by Mr C Hodgkinson, solicitor, Penistone (who is conducting the NSPCC prosecution of Ford), the boy said he was in terror of his father, who had, amongst other things, threatened to set fire to the beds and burn them all up. They had to live principally on bread and lard.
The Coroner: He looks fairly well on it.
Gertrude Ford, an elder daughter, who is a domestic servant at Doncaster, was also called. She left home, she said, because her father, who gave way very much to drink, did not treat her properly. He had threatened to chop her head off if she did not go. Her dead sister used to be a strong, healthy girl.
Dr Castle, of Darfield, spoke to attending the girl during November for acute rheumatism. So far as he could judge, her heart was all right then. She got better, and he stopped attending her after 10 days. When he saw her on December 9 she was in a hysterical condition, and also considerably bruised from the fall. Judging by the subsequent cause he should say that that episode was the beginning of the St Vitus’s dance which the girl developed.
The Coroner: Where the symptoms consistent with the girl having been frightened?
Dr Castle: Yes, I think so, though it is only fair to say that they might have arisen without the fright.
Inspector Thomson described a conversation he had with Ford, who had absconded after having been summoned to appear at the West Riding Court. Ford said the children got through the window because he had threatened to give Edward a good hiding with his belt for stealing a half crown from his (Ford’s) pocket. He denied he was drunk at the time, saying he had not drank for six months. The house was well furnished.
PC Cripps said that on visiting the house after the affair December 9 they found Ford stretched and laid out in a drunken sleep. Two boys younger than Edward were sitting crying over the fire, with only their shirts on. Ford used bad language when witness went away.
Dr Thompson, A surgeon at the Beckett Hospital, attributed the girl’s death to heart disease following acute rheumatism. The girl was well nourished when admitted on December 13, but could not speak.
The Coroner: In your opinion, do you think the St Vitus dance which appeared would be due to the fright or to the previous rheumatism?
Dr Thompson: If she had had rheumatism previously she was likely to have St Vitus dance. Any fright, shock, or excitement might bring it on.
The coroner: If she had not had this fright possibly the St Vitus dance would not have appeared?
Dr Thompson: I wouldn’t say for certain. Possibly it would not.
The Coroner: Do you think that fright has in anyway accelerated her death?
Dr Thompson: I think it might.
Addressing the jury, the Coroner remarked that whatever verdict they might bring in then there was no doubt whatever that the conduct of the father had been most inhuman and cruel. To cause another person’s death through fright amounted to manslaughter, and was held to be such in a recent case where a woman jumped through a window under somewhat similar circumstances.
In the present case, however, it appeared that the poor girl had suffered from a severe attack of rheumatism, and that this setup a weak condition of the heart, so that that must be taken as the original cause of death. At the same time, they could not dissociate her death from the fright she had received, and, as far as his own personal opinion when, the fright caused by her father’s brutal conduct had accelerated her end. However the National Society of the Prevention of Cruelty to Children had taken up the case, and the jury were thus to a certain extent relieved of the responsibility. He thought they might leave the father to the NSPCC, with the hope that he would be sent to prison for a very considerable time, and content themselves with returning a verdict in accordance with the medical evidence.
After a private consultation the foreman (Mr R Patterson) said the jury were of opinion that the girl’s death was due to heart failure following acute rheumatism and probably accelerated by the fright.
The coroner: I would suggest “possibly accelerated” by the father’s brutal conduct instead of “probably accelerated.”
The Foreman: Very well. The jury also think that the father ought to be highly censored for his conduct to the children.
The coroner: You are satisfied to leave the case now to the NSPCC?
The Former: Yes.
The coroner then called Ford before him and said: I suppose you have heard the evidence which has been given.
Ford: Yes, but there have been a lot of false statements made.
The coroner: I feel so indignant and so disgusted with you that I can hardly find words in which to carry out the wish of the jury. I know that however strongly I speak it will not have the slightest effect, because the evidence shows that you are absolutely callous, especially when in drink. I dare say you are not quite so bad when sober, but your conduct when in drink is just as bad as ever it can be. My opinion on the evidence is that there is no doubt whatever that morally you are responsible for your daughter’s death, and I hope that the society for the Prevention of Cruelty to children – that is to prevent children from being punished by such creatures as you – will get you sent to prison for as long term as the law allows. Such creatures as you ought not to be alive on the face of the civilised earth. You are a brute.
Ford was then removed in the custody of the police.