WE thank Trevor McFarlane and Sue Washington of the Cheslyn Hay and District Local History Society for supplying this heartrending story of starvation and desperation in Victorian days.
For us the workhouse is but a fading memory but such was its daunting and depressing power that it still casts a shadow over our region. Many readers will recall parents or grandparents muttering darkly about the "spike". The system of poor relief was hard and unforgiving and while the regime undoubtedly did save people from absolute starvation there were still those unfortunate souls that the system failed.
Sue and Trevor have put together the sad story of Sarah Ann Baker:
"Murder charges, particularly of a mother brought to court accused of killing her two-year-old son, rarely attract much sympathy. However, 160 years ago, Sarah Baker of Cheslyn Hay, standing in the dock and faced with that charge, was such an exception.
"Aged 24 and described as fresh freckled complexion, brown hair, dark grey eyes and of slender build, she had been seduced under a promise of marriage, but on becoming pregnant, was deserted to fend for herself. The man in question had left the country to avoid his responsibilities and later married someone else.
"After giving birth Sarah washed cinders at a shilling a day in an attempt to support herself and her baby, Charles, but she was starving herself to feed him. At length, she became ill with a complaint of the falling of the womb because of weakness and hard labour, which then prevented her from working.
"She and her child were taken to the workhouse of the Brewood Union, where she was brutally turned out with no support and with no home to return to. Sarah's mother had been confined to a lunatic asylum and her grandmother was completely out of her mind, so Sarah was forced to wander about, depending on just the parish allowance for her subsistence.
"After three days without food Sarah visited her aunt Rebecca Whitehouse in Cheslyn Hay on Friday, June 10, 1853, and said she was going to Norton Hall to obtain a recommendation to the infirmary as she was unwell, but, facing a future without hope, decided on the desperate measure of killing herself and her child.
"On Sunday she visited another aunt, Jane Whitehouse, in Bloxwich and said that while at Norton Hall she had met a woman from Derbyshire who asked if she would part with the child and she was returning to see her the next day. She then left with her young son.
"On Monday Sarah returned without the child and upon being asked where he was, replied that she had left him at Norton Hall but when a Cheslyn Hay nailer named Pearson visited Rebecca Whitehouse later the same day he accused Sarah of 'doing away with the child', which she vehemently denied.
"The following morning Sarah went to Walsall, to see Hannah Longmore, who confirmed in court that she had arrived at her house about 9 o'clock on the Tuesday morning. Her child was not with her and she said that she had handed him over to a lady at Norton Hall. She continued with this lie and repeated it later to Thomas Walker but when Hannah asked her again if she had got rid of the child, Sarah broke down and confessed that she had thrown her son down an abandoned mine in Pelsall while he was asleep.
"Sarah then took Hannah to Pelsall Common, pointing to an old pit, saying that was where he son's body lay. The next day the body of the baby was brought up.
"In court a statement made by the prisoner was read out: 'I have been destitute in the wide world for three weeks. I intended to have made myself away at the same pit but was prevented by the timber. I had had nothing to eat from Thursday to Saturday when I went to my Aunt's.'
"Her defence pleaded for mercy, as she was not accountable for her acts at the time, and although the jury returned a verdict of guilty, it was accompanied by a strong recommendation for mercy, which was ignored by the judge, who donned the black cap and passed a sentence of death.
"However, from this point onwards, when it seemed inevitable that Sarah's sad and short life was destined to end in the confines of a prison, her fate improved.
"On July 16, 1853, her sentence was changed to transportation for her natural life. Ultimately, she was committed to Stafford Prison on June 17, 1853, transferred to Brixton Prison on May 10, 1854, moved to Fulham Refuge on March 8, 1861, moved again to Millbank in September 1863, then back to Brixton Prison, April 2, 1863. On March 30, 1864, by order of Her Majesty, it was decreed that Sarah Baker be set at liberty within 90 days from the date of the order, and this is where the recorded life of Sarah Baker finishes.
"Despite thorough researches, there does not appear to be any death of this Sarah Ann Baker registered, so the conclusion must be that she married again, probably somewhere many miles away from Cheslyn Hay. And who knows? Perhaps she may even have enjoyed a reasonably happy life, but somehow one doubts it."
Sarah's story appears in the Cheslyn Hay and District Local History Society book Tales of Cheslyn Hay by Trevor McFarlane; visit www.chdlhs.co.uk for more details.
Have you researched a true story of olden days in the Black Country? Contact firstname.lastname@example.org or write in to 41 High Street, Cradley Heath, B64 5HL.