by Carolyn Kirby
From the study where I do my writing, I have a distant view of the Berkshire Downs and at the centre of that view, beside the Thames, is the building that used to be the Berkshire County Asylum. This building helped to inform many of the details about the workings of a Victorian mental asylum that I have included in The Conviction of Cora Burns but at the heart of my research was the story of Hannah Mulcay.
Hannah was a 26 year-old laundry-maid at the new asylum that was built in 1870. Like all of England’s public asylums, its population of “lunatics” swelled as the nineteenth century progressed. The reasons for this expansion are hotly debated but the County asylums, like Berkshire’s, grew into settlements that included a farm, an electricity generating plant, a gasworks and of course, a huge laundry. The asylums became major employers in the communities that they served. The asylum servants like Hannah Mulcay usually lived in, eating and socialising together.
In 1871, Hannah was brought to trial in Reading and found guilty of “concealment of a birth.” The facts of her case were that her room-mate had awoken to find a shawl drenched in blood beside Hannah’s bed. When asked about it, Hannah, still in the bed, said that she’d had a miscarriage. The asylum’s housekeeper testified that no-one had known Hannah to be expecting a child, only that she had “got stout.” A search of the asylum quickly revealed, behind some hot water pipes, the body of a newborn baby girl.
Hannah received a sentence of six months in Reading jail. The lesser charge of “concealment of a birth” rather than murder had been introduced to provide an alternative to a murder charge where a new mother’s situation seemed especially vulnerable. Infanticide was not a distinct crime in England until 1922. Hannah’s sentence may seem lenient in the context of the Victorian justice system which appears to our eyes so harsh. But the predicament of unmarried working-class women who found themselves pregnant was so common and often so tragic that few in society could remain untouched by it, regardless of the pronouncements of the moralists.
Apart from Hannah’s wages being sent to Reading jail to cover her board, we don’t know what happened to her next. The circumstances of her crime are rather different to those I have invented for Cora Burns, but I wrote Cora’s story as a way of imagining how women like Hannah could ever get over such a terrible ordeal in their lives. I only hope that Hannah Mulcay, like Cora, found a way to overcome hardship and create a hopeful future for herself.