16th September 1883

Girl dies of neglect at a Jersey hospital

When illegitimate Eva Downton died on 16 September 1883 after two months at Jersey General Hospital, her mother, Emily, was charged with four years of neglect leading to infanticide. By the time she appeared in court the following month, Emily had already been waiting in prison for six weeks, but she faced further delays as various witnesses couldn’t be called, and several members of the jury sought to be excused service.

Not guilty plea

Eventually, the hearing was only delayed until the other side of the weekend, at which point Downton entered a plea of not guilty, despite the fact she had previously been sentenced to a month of hard labour upon a previous conviction of neglect, and the child’s death certificate including, as the cause of death, “phthisis due to neglect”. Phthisis is a progressive wasting disease.

Giving evidence at the mother’s trial, the surgeon, Charles Godfray, claimed that by the time she was four years old Eva had weighed just 16lbs (1.1 stone or 7.25kg) including her clothes. The healthy weight for a child of her age in the early 1880s would have been 56lbs (4 stone or 25.5kg). Moreover, the Jersey Weekly Press and Independent him describing her as “neglected and dirty, and poorly clothed. She was suffering from constipation, most probably caused by neglect, and was in a bent and huddled state.”

Burial on hold

Despite this, the constable of St Helier had initially refused to arrest the mother as she had already been punished once for neglect and so, as far as the police were concerned, the matter had been dealt with. It was only when the hospital’s director approached the Lieutenant-Bailiff that an inquest was ordered and plans for the girl’s burial were put on hold.

No defence witnesses

There were no witnesses for the defence, but Emily’s hard upbringing, entry into service, falling pregnant by her employer’s son, turned away by her parents once the child arrived and being forced to live on the street were all explained to the jury. Her representative, again quoted in the Jersey Weekly Press and Independent, reminded the jury that “she had already been six weeks in prison on this charge after a previous punishment for the same alleged offence. The learned counsel implored the jury to judge the prisoner from her own level, and in so doing they could only bring in a verdict of not guilty.”

The plea didn’t work. The jury withdrew for just 10 minutes before returning a guilty verdict. The attorney-general initially sentenced Emily Downton to seven years’ penal servitude but, on hearing opinions from other jurats present in the court, settled on two years’ imprisonment with hard labour.


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