Shocking Discovery at Halmerend

The following article was attached to the burial register of Audley parish church, on the page containing entry 1559, Maria Smith. Under her name in the register are the words "Coroners inquest". The article is from The Times, Saturday July 30, 1881.

Within the last few days a discovery of a very shocking character has been made at Halmerend, and resulted in some equally shocking disclosures. About ten week’s ago a girl named Maria Smith, thirteen years of age, suddenly disappeared from her home in that village, and inquiries subsequently instituted failed to elicit any information as to her whereabouts. The child’s mother was dead, and her father was cohabiting with another woman, and, as the home was not a very comfortable one, it was at first supposed that the girl had gone to some relatives at a distance, but this surmise proved to be incorrect. On Monday Police-sergeant Dodd mentioned the matter to the coroner, at whose suggestion a thorough search of the neighbourhood was made, particular attention being paid to disused pit shafts. On the rails erected round an old shaft at Hayes Wood some threads were found, and upon a descent of the shaft being made the body of the girl was found at the bottom in a shocking condition. The corpse was raised to the surface, and removed to the Boar’s Head Inn. The discovery caused considerable excitement in the neighbourhood.

On Wednesday Mr J Booth, coroner, held an inquest on the body of the deceased, at the Boar’s Head Inn, Halmerend.

The first witness was Samuel, jun., who deposed to descending the old pit shaft at Hayes Wood in search of the missing girl and finding the body at the bottom.

Jane Staley stated that she had lived with James Smith, the father of the deceased, for seven years, but was not married to him. On the 20th May last she told the deceased to do some work, and she grumbled at having to do it, whereupon witness remarked that she should be a great deal better off if she had not the deceased to keep. The girl went upstairs and did the work she had been told to do, but afterwards left the house and did not return. The girl was stupid and would not do any work without a good deal of grumbling.

In reply to the Coroner, witness said she had not thrashed the deceased as much as was stated by various people in the village, nor had the girl ever expressed her intention of committing suicide. Deceased had sufficient clothing, but she did not always put it on.

One of the Jurymen said the last time he saw the deceased in the street she had neither shoes nor stockings on, and when asked how it was she said she had none to put on. Other Jurymen also spoke to seeing the deceased about poorly clad, and in a sadly neglected state.

James Smith, father of the deceased, identified the body as that of his daughter, by the clogs on her feet. He was not aware of anything which should cause her to commit suicide, nor had she ever complained of being thrashed by Staley. He had once thrashed her, but that was through the policeman saying he had caught her on some trucks after coal. He certainly never heard her make any remarks as to destroying her life, nor had he any suspicion that she intended such a thing. He was quite sure that she was not thrashed on the evening before her disappearance.

A youth named James Lockett said that on the day the deceased left her home he met her going in the direction of Hayes Wood. She was crying, and said to him, "Well, Jim," and he replied, "Well, Maria." She appeared greatly distressed, and made for the direction of the pit in which she was found. Deceased did not say anything as to where she was going, nor had he mentioned the matter to anyone else.

Margaret Bowers, sixteen, said the deceased was a companion of hers. She had often complained of being ill-treated by Staley, and on several occasions she had pulled her jacket off and showed witness her back covered with bruises, which she said had been caused by Staley thrashing her with a strap. She had also said on two occasions that if her mother continued to ill-treat her in such a manner she should destroy herself, as she could not stand that treatment.

Elizabeth Shufflebotham, fourteen, said she knew the deceased perfectly well, and was talking with her the morning before her disappearance. She said she was almost ready to make an end of her life, as her mother ill-treated her so. Witness had often seen deceased’s flesh black and blue through being thrashed by Staley, and on different occasions deceased had said that she could not stand this treatment much longer, as it was more than she could bear.

The Coroner, in summing up, said the jury would have no difficulty in finding a verdict. There was sufficient evidence to prove that the deceased’s mother so-called had ill-treated her in a shocking manner, and this, no doubt, had led to the unfortunate end of the girl. Although it was proved, however, that such was the case, the law provided no punishment for such persons, although they richly deserved it.

The jury found that Maria Smith was found dead at the bottom of an old pit shaft, but how she got there is not sufficient evidence to show. At the same time they were strongly of opinion that the ill-treatment received at the hands of Jane Staley was the cause of the deceased’s untimely death. It was the desire of the jury, therefore, that the Coroner should give a severe reprimand, for her brutal treatment of the deceased.

The coroner then called Mrs Staley into the room, and said that the jury were strongly of opinion that the ill-treatment had been the cause of the deceased’s death. Instead of properly looking after the children she was allowing them to run about in a shocking condition, and he was only very sorry that he had not the power to punish her in the manner which she deserved. She was a disgrace to her sex, and to those by whom she was surrounded, and if it had been in his power he would have severely punished her.

1881 Census, Halmerend

Name Relationship Mar Age Occupation Place of birth
James Smith Head Marr

47

Coal miner Alcester, Warks
Mary J Smith Wife Marr

35

  Bloxwich, Staffs
Thomas Smith Son Unm

15

Coal miner Walsall, Staffs
Maria Smith Dau  

13

  Walsall, Staffs
Thomas Staley Son  

8

  Walsall, Staffs
Fanny Smith    

6

  Walsall, Staffs
Frank Smith Son  

4

  Walsall, Staffs
George Smith Son  

8 m

  Halmerend,Sta
John Hodgkiss Lodgr Marr

52

Coal miner Ruscall, Staffs
Thomas Hodgkiss Lodgr Marr

29

Coal miner Fenton, Staffs
Sidey Hodgkiss Wife Marr

24

  Fenton, Staffs
Lisons Hodgkiss Dau  

7

  Fenton, Staffs
John Hodgkiss Son  

1

  Halmerend,Sta

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