An account of an inquest held in Manly in 1858 could almost have been written by Dickens. Philip Cohen, proprietor of the Pier Hotel at Manly (pictured) gave evidence that he had met the nurse or midwife, Mrs Margaret Picken, on her way home to North Harbour, ‘shouting and much-intoxicated’. He asked her about Mrs George Birch, who had been expecting a child. Mrs Picken answered “She was pretty well, considering.”
“Considering what?” asked Cohen.
“Considering she was lying in labour from Sunday evening to Tuesday morning, and I had to kill the child to save the mother.”
Cohen, outraged, reported the case to the Coroner, and Mrs Picken was arrested.
The inquest heard from Mr George Birch (publican of the New Brighton Hotel) that his wife’s confinement had been a difficult one, and that Mrs Picken had not been intoxicated at any time; his wife had said Mrs Picken had done her best; there had been no doctor in attendance.
Despite this, however, the Sydney Morning Herald reported (Monday 9th August 1858) that a verdict of manslaughter was given against Margaret Picken, and she was committed to Darlinghurst Gaol to await trial.
But before the comparison with Sarah Gamp from Martin Chuzzlewit is drawn, it should be noted that the newspaper carried a correction the following day – a verdict of manslaughter had not been brought, and the inquest had been adjourned! A considerable error by the newspaper, made worse by its failure to subsequently report whether Mrs Picken was brought to trial or not. But perhaps the most illuminating aspect of the story is how rudimentary medical care was in early Manly, despite its proximity to Sydney.
Labels: 19th century midwifery, George Birch, Margaret Picken, Philip Cohen