Many historical novels feature a serving girl who has gotten herself into “trouble.” In fiction, the understanding mistress of the house is quick to intervene and, in short order, the serving girl’s future is secured to everyone’s satisfaction. In reality, female servants of the 19th century were expected to preserve their reputations in order to maintain genteel employment. The character of one’s servants was a reflection on the house as a whole. To that end, no respectable Victorian lady wanted a light-skirt for a housemaid or a wanton for a cook, and many mistresses strictly forbade male callers or “hangers on.”
So what was the 19th century lady of the house to do if one of her servants ended up in the family way? There were many approaches to this unfortunate situation, one of the most common of which was a swift dismissal without a character reference. This course of action could occasionally have unexpectedly tragic results. Such was the case for poor Eliza Bollends in 1865.
Eliza Bollends was cook to the Misses Cheatham (or Cheetham) of Chilwell in Nottinghamshire. She was a single woman, twenty-eight years of age. According to the inquest report in the April 14th 1865 edition of the Nottinghamshire Guardian, Eliza shared a room and a bed with fellow servant Ellen Rillman. At four o’clock in the morning on Sunday April 9, Rillman woke to discover that Eliza had risen from bed, partially dressed herself, and lit a fire. Eliza then left the room. Thinking no more of the matter, Rillman went back to sleep.
At half-past five o’clock, when Eliza had still not returned to bed, Rillman went in search of her. She found her sitting in the corner of the kitchen and discovered that she had given birth to a baby boy. Eliza requested that Rillman go and fetch help from the next door neighbor, a woman by the name of Mrs. Bowley. Rillman did so. Upon returning, Rillman asked Eliza why she had not mentioned her condition to anyone, to which Eliza replied:
“I thought I should have made an end of myself before now.”
Mrs. Bowley arrived at the house sometime later along with the local midwife, a woman named Mrs. Beeton. Mrs. Bowley addressed Eliza:
“Eliza, why didn’t you mention it and not leave it like this; you’ll kill yourself.”
“It will not matter; I want to die and then there will be an end of it.”
The midwife took the child from Eliza. She then advised that Eliza go to bed. Eliza allegedly refused, stating:
“I shall go to Beeston if I have to walk; I shall not go to bed here.”
Mrs. Bowley and the midwife agreed that they should call a cab to come and collect Eliza and take her to Beeston (roughly 2 miles away), where she had a friend named Mrs. Cox. It was at that point that Mrs. Bowley instructed Rillman to go and wake the Misses Cheatham. According to a report in the April 16, 1865 edition of Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper:
“The Misses Cheatham were informed of the circumstance, and they appeared very much annoyed. When they heard that the deceased wished to leave, they said it would be best she should do so.”
Mrs. Beeton gave corroborating evidence to this effect in her inquest testimony. The Nottinghamshire Guardian quotes her as stating:
“The Misses Cheetham sent word that they would sooner have her removed if it was safe.”
Though they allegedly professed concern for her safety, the Misses Cheatham did not summon a doctor for Eliza. Instead, they returned to bed. Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper reports:
“The Misses Cheetham remained in bed until she had been removed.”
No one in the household had known that Eliza was pregnant. According to Rillman’s testimony, Eliza admitted that the father of the baby was “a young man at Deeping, Lincolnshire.” This disclosure had no affect on subsequent events. A cab was sent for and, when it arrived, Eliza walked out to it without assistance, climbed in, and departed for Beeston.
Eliza arrived at the home of Mrs. Cox in Beeston in a state of exhaustion. Mrs. Cox was poor and, as a result, did not summon medical help until the very last minute. Mr. James Butler, a Beeston surgeon, arrived to attend Eliza at seven o’clock on Sunday evening. He testified at the inquest that she was in a “state of collapse.” He administered “stimulating medicines” to no avail. Butler stated:
“She died about one o’clock from exhaustion, consequent loss of blood, the exertions of removing, and exposure to cold. It was a very imprudent thing to have removed her.”
After hearing all of the evidence, the jury at the inquest returned the following verdict:
“That the deceased had died from exhaustion, consequent upon the delivery of a child, and from exposure to cold on being removed from Chilwell to Beeston, and also from want of proper medical assistance.”
It is not clear in any of the reports what happened to the baby. He was alive and apparently healthy at the time of birth, but after Eliza gave him to the midwife, Mrs. Beeton, he is never mentioned again. The identity of the baby’s father is also never disclosed. I suspect that Eliza took the secret of his identity to the grave. As for the Misses Cheatham – who I am assuming are two sisters – there is no indication that they suffered any censure as a result of their conduct. Due to the testimony of Ellen Rillman, who was still in their employ, it was generally believed that it was Eliza herself who had insisted on leaving Chilwell immediately after giving birth.
Fortunately, the tale of the sad and very preventable death of Eliza Bollends is by no means the Victorian norm. With articles bearing such titles as “A Shocking Death in Beeston,” one can only conclude that many in the 19th century were as disturbed by the young mother’s dismissal and subsequent death as we would be if such a thing happened today.
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