The Shocking Death of Victorian Servant Eliza Bollends

A Scullery Maid at Work by Charles Joseph Grips, 1866.

A Scullery Maid at Work by Charles Joseph Grips, 1866.

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.

“Shocking Death at Beeston.” Nottinghamshire Guardian, April 14 1865.
(©2015 British Newspaper Archive)

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.”

Eliza stated:

“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.”

The Scullery Maid by Giuseppe Crespi, 1710-15.

The Scullery Maid by Giuseppe Crespi, 1710-15.

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.

London Evening Standard, April 13, 1865.

London Evening Standard, April 13, 1865.
(©2015 British Newspaper Archive)

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.

Mimi Matthews is the author of The Pug Who Bit Napoleon: Animal Tales of the 18th and 19th Centuries (to be released by Pen and Sword Books in November 2017).  She researches and writes on all aspects of nineteenth century history—from animals, art, and etiquette to fashion, beauty, feminism, and law. 

Sources

“A Painful Case.”  Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper.  Sunday April 16, 1865.

“Death from Exhaustion.”  London Evening Standard.  Thursday April 13, 1865.

“Shocking Death at Beeston.”  Nottinghamshire Guardian.  Friday April, 14 1865.


© 2015-2017 Mimi Matthews

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20 thoughts on “The Shocking Death of Victorian Servant Eliza Bollends

  1. Sarah Waldock says:

    Sounds like a clear case of hormonal depression and fear of dismissal preying on her mind, if she had felt suicidal earlier as well. I wonder if part of the reason for her death was that she did not bother to fight to live…. poor woman. I expect the unfortunate infant was placed on the parish and went subsequently into some kind of indentured servitude.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mimi Matthews says:

      I think you’re right, Sarah. She must have been in a panic about losing her position. Still, I do think the ‘Misses Cheatham’ could have done a lot more. It seems clear to me that they wanted her gone asap. Being maiden ladies themselves, perhaps they could not bear even the slightest brush with anything scandalous for fear of their own reputations?

      Like

    • Mimi Matthews says:

      I’d assumed they were using exhaustion as a general term to cover complications from childbirth and subsequent weakness & death. Also, it mentions that she’d lost a lot of blood – which was probably exacerbated by a two mile hansom cab ride.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Sarah Waldock says:

        Yes, blood loss is probably at least a contributary cause. I lost almost 2 pints with the birth of our son, and ended up with chronic illness because it was in the middle of the AIDs scare and they wouldn’t transfuse. If I’d had hypothermia on top of that I wouldn’t give a tinker’s cuss for my survival… and if the poor woman just succumbed to weakness in despair, her body’s defenses would not be helping.
        I agree, the behaviour of her employers was disgraceful. And maybe fuelled by jealousy that she had found a live one, and they had not.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Mimi Matthews says:

        It’s hard to imagine a 19th century woman surviving the complications you had, especially if she was sent out into the cold to be jostled around in a carriage. Thank goodness for modern medicine. And for employment law, too!

        Like

  2. TuiSnider says:

    The next time I hear someone complain about how social media isolates people, I shall remind them of cases like this! There was so much needless suffering here – not just after she gave birth, but for her entire pregnancy. Just think how anguished and lonely she must have been. Very sad! Thanks for sharing! ~Tui, @TuiSnider on Twitter, dropping by from #wwwblogs today

    Liked by 1 person

  3. monicadescalzi says:

    I’ll be curious: how did she manage to hide her pregnancy? It’s almost tempting to suggest that the story shows how invisible servants had become, but I suppose that would be oversimplifying … The other girl must have known but perhaps thought it wiser to pretend she didn’t. What about the Miss Cheathams? Did they fail to notice what was going on under their very noses? Were they in denial? Perhaps they didn’t know how to deal with it – or maybe they rather cruelly expected Eliza to confess …

    Now two legal points: (1) Shouldn’t the sisters have been prosecuted for gross negligence manslaughter or something? (2) No mention is made of wages being paid on her leaving the house.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Mimi Matthews says:

      Good questions, Monica. I don’t know if the fact that she was the cook – thus mostly in the kitchen – would have aided in concealment. Also, the 1860s was the era of the crinoline and she may have been able to conceal her figure with that. As for the law, if the inquest verdict had found the sisters to be responsible, I’m sure they would have been prosecuted. Since the maid testified that it was Eliza who insisted on leaving and the midwife testified that Eliza was well enough to do so, there was little evidence against the Cheatham sisters. Though personally I suspect the true circumstances were quite different than what the maid and the midwife testified to.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Sarah Waldock says:

      there are frequent tales throughout history of women and girls concealing pregnancy, now I was big enough not to be able to reach my motorbike handlebars by the time I was 5 months gone, but a lot of first pregnancies don’t show much and much can be achieved with clothing

      Liked by 1 person

  4. carol hedges (@carolJhedges) says:

    It was bout this time that the medical fraternity and the police were beginning to campaign to get the laws changed so that the man in the case did not get off scot free. Many children (and this baby could easily have been one) were farmed out to unscrupulous women, who stared them to death. It wasn’t until the 1870s that the law was changed to make ‘baby farming’ a crime and men more responsible for children that fathered. A very sad story!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mimi Matthews says:

      Very interesting facts, Carol! It makes me doubly sad for Eliza and her baby. Either he was placed on the parish and put into indentured servitude, like Sarah was saying, or baby farmed to an unscrupulous woman like in your example. Either way, a horrible fate!

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