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Too Poor To Live

It was a way of saving the full cost of a funeral, but no-one would want to use it today. In the nineteenth century, a woman who lost a baby or small child would often sell its body to anatomists for scientific investigation. She wouldn’t have to pay for a funeral and she would earn some money on top. But who would want to be a mother in that position?

The small bodies of infants and children were prized by anatomists not just because they were easier to handle, but because they could be used for investigations into growth and development. Even though medicine had been in existence for thousands of years, doctors still knew very little about the human body. Even when religious and cultural taboos on dissecting bodies began to fade, the supply of corpses was not enough to meet demand until the Anatomy Act of 1832.

The act was designed to stop body-snatching, or the theft of corpses from graveyards, by making it legal for families to donate  the bodies of a dead relative to science. It also allowed hospitals and workhouses to donate unclaimed bodies. Workhouses were the dreaded institutions that took in people who were unable to support themselves. They were hated by the poor, because the food was bad, the conditions were harsh and the staff were often uncaring and cruel. Being taken to a workhouse was often a death sentence.

And if someone died there after the Anatomy Act, they might easily end up on a dissecting table. What would the doctors and anatomists have thought when they cut up a body from the workhouse? It must have been common to see signs of starvation, neglect and violence, especially in children. But attitudes were different in those days: death and suffering were common sights, so people tended to accept them as inevitable. The country was much poorer and life was very harsh for the poor.

In 1834, it got even harsher. Parliament passed another act that increased the supply of bodies for dissection. But the new laws weren’t about medicine: the act was called the New Poor Law Amendment Act. It stopped official money being given to unmarried mothers and cut off other sources of income. The act was intended to lower the number of illegitimate births. But it didn’t. Instead, it raised the number of illegitimate deaths. Faced with an unwanted pregnancy, desperate women resorted to abortion and infanticide.

Abortion was a serious crime in Victorian times and for decades after. It often left clear evidence and was dangerous to the mother. But infanticide – the killing of a baby or small child – was easier to conceal. Who could prove that a baby had been smothered or poisoned rather than being stillborn or dying of disease? Babies and children were even deliberately starved to death, especially when they were unwanted additions to an already large family.

The Poor Law Amendment Act made all these problems worse, so it vastly increased the number of tiny bodies being sold or donated to anatomists and medical schools. Medical knowledge advanced, but at a very heavy price in suffering and unnecessary death. And knowledge of the body didn’t automatically mean better treatments. In Victorian times, an old saying was even truer than it is today: “Prevention is better than cure.” A baby or child that was given enough nourishing food would be better able to fight off an infection. That was if its mother wanted it to live. If the mother didn’t, what chance did it have?

National Federation of Funeral Directors