Saturday, April 17, 2021

A Rabbit Hole

      Once in a while, I have need of reading historical newspapers for some research project or other. I enjoy it but it is time consuming. Not just because the difficulty of finding the information sought but because I become distracted by some of the news articles I spot as I am scanning pages.

     Like this one, from the North Devon Journal, published on Thursday 12 May 1853; "May 10th-(Before the May and Robert Budd, Esq.)-Eliza Boatfield, a prostitute with a wooden leg, was charged by Policeman Chanter with using obscene and abusive language in Joy-Street, on the preceding night.-Committed for 14 days." I think most people would be curious about a one legged prostitute but the fact that she worked on Joy Street and not delivering was mildly amusing too. So then, I became curious about Eliza. Who was she? How did she lose her leg? What happened to her when she got out of jail?

     Unless the archives in Devonshire or in the Barnstaple area have more information, from Canada I was only able to fill in her story a tiny bit. I do know what happened to her leg from another article in the Exeter Flying Post, published on Thursday 24 January 1850. A young woman of 19 was operated on at the Torrington Union workhouse. The operation was noteworthy because it was accomplished while the patient was sedated with chloroform. It was Eliza Boatfield, who had been living in the South Molton Union workhouse and had been suffering from an unspecified disease for 9 months. She was brought to the workhouse in a very emaciated state, where because of the extensive disease (again unspecified) in her leg, the medical officers deemed it necessary to remove the limb above the knee joint. Everyone was pleased with the success of the operation. Eliza of course was not given an opportunity to say what she thought.

      Now I feel really bad for Eliza because she is at such a young age alone and living in one of those awful workhouses and her leg has been cut off. How can she support herself? Clearly we know it did not have a happy ending but how did this begin even? I could not find a baptism record for Eliza although I found her on the 1851 census living in the South Molton workhouse. She said she was born in High Bickington where there are numerous Boatfields. Without a birth register I cannot figure out who her parents were but I believe she lost them at a young age. There are three or four Eliza Boatfields from that part of Devon, born within 10 years of each other but I believe our Eliza is the 9 year old who, in the 1841 census was living at a farmhouse working as a servant. 

     Poor Eliza. I was unable to find out what happened after her arrest on Joy Street. There was an Eliza Boatfield who was married in 1857 in Barnstaple but without knowing more about her I can't say for sure which Eliza Boatfield it is but I feel it is her. I am sure a one legged former (or not so former) prostitute who has a criminal record would not be marrying a great guy but I hope he was a decent guy. 

     And while trying to find out about Eliza, I came across a John Bawdon, who was in the same workhouse, referred to by the newspaper as the notorious John Bawdon, and who was thrown in jail because he refused to do his workhouse chores. I kinda like the sound of this Mr. Bawdon and I wonder why he was so 'notorious'. Truly, reading old newspapers is like taking a long trip down a rabbit hole

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