Wednesday, 20 February 2013

When Children Die In Strange Circumstances

Last night my cousin shared a photograph with me. It was taken after the 1908 hurricane hit Bungay and severely damaged two Cemetery chapels. What interested both of us about the photograph was the gravestone in front. It was a Jolly grave. Our common ancestors. Not only that, the grave was for two children - brothers - one aged twelve and the other aged nine, who had drowned. Putting my Miss Marple hat on, I went straight to the British Newspaper Archive website.

Bungay Cemetery Chapel; the aftermath of the 1908 hurricane
The Ipswich Journal dated 7 March 1882 reported the drowning death of nine-year-old James Jolly, the son of James and Charlotte Jolly of Bungay. The report states James was allegedly seen stealing from a broken shop window and upon being asked what he was doing, ran away. He was last seen by a school friend who spoke with James and asked where he was going in such a hurry. James replied that he was going on an errand and ran towards the direction of the Bungay Common. The next day a local butcher found a cap on the Common, by the river, belonging to James Jolly and went to alert Policeman Mann. Upon further searching, they found the body of James Jolly who was drowned. An inquest returned an open verdict of "accidental drowning".

Contacting my cousin with the news, we were both shocked about this newspaper article. Curiosity got the better of me an hour or so later and I went back to the British Newspaper Archive on the off-chance that James Jolly's brother Frederick may have also died under strange circumstances. You would be right in assuming that a large percentage of children died in Victorian times. Sickness, disease, inadequate (or expensive) health care and poverty were rife and it would be considered "normal" for a child to die before being given a proper chance at life. You can therefore imagine my total surprise when I found the newspaper report for Frederick.

The Ipswich Journal dated 27 December 1890 reported that Frederick Jolly "died suddenly". After a brief illness ( a common cold) Frederick, who was an errand boy for a local chemist, complained of feeling unwell and was sent home to recuperate. On the way home he met with some of his friends who began taunting him with snowballs. We all know that kids can be cruel but I am pretty certain that they did not anticipate that would be the last time they would see their friend. Frederick allegedly reported to his friends that he had eaten some poisoned sweets and felt unwell. The next day, after a night of vomiting and diarrhoea, Frederick was pronounced dead by the local surgeon, Mr Garneys. The coroner for the district decided that no inquest was necessary and Frederick had died of "sudden illness".

The gravestone of brothers, Frederick & James Jolly
What frustrates me as a twenty-first century genealogist and social historian is that the circumstances of these children's deaths was brushed aside and not properly dealt with. The newspaper reports throw up all kinds of unanswered questions and leaves me sorely wishing for a time machine. In the case of James, he was a nine-year-old boy. A cheeky larrikin perhaps, but a boy who had his whole life ahead of him. How did he come to drown? Why did he drown? Who is accountable for this boys death? Was it a mere accident or was something bigger going on?

In the case of Frederick, he was a twelve-year-old boy who had been sick with a common cold. The circumstances of how he came to ingest "poisoned sweets" is baffling. He worked for a chemist so it may be safe to assume that Frederick may have been curious about the powders and tablets and maybe the temptation to "try" some overcame him. Did he unwittingly kill himself? Why was this not mentioned in the report? It was just expected that he was a child, and children die every day. No big deal.

I am quite saddened that these two brothers died so young. Their parents James and Charlotte Jolly lost two of their sons to unfair and disadvantaged circumstances. I think I can better understand my great-grandmother Nellie Jolly today. She prayed every night, on her knees, beside her bed, with her rosary beads wrapped around her hands, for everyone in her family. She named every single one - immediate family and extended - and she would not raise from her kneeling position until she had mentioned every person.

It turns out that the photograph (pictured above) is actually on page 93 of Christopher Reeve's 2009 book "Bungay Through Time". The photograph's caption reads:
"Bungay Cemetery, Hillside Road: The Cemetery, established in the late nineteenth century, originally had three mortuary chapels. In 1908, a rare hurricane occured which blew down the north wall of one of them, and it was demolished soon afterwards..."

Bungay Cemetery today



  1. Fascinating story.It would always be investigated nowadays wouldnt it? Frustrating though too.

  2. Thanks for your comment Anne. Indeed, that's just what I said to my family. If it happened today, it would be treated as suspicious and people would be questioned, and investigations would be undertaken to determine the full story. Frustrated is just how I feel! :-)

  3. The death of these two individuals are quite confusing, coincidental, and incredibly strange. Heh. I completely agree of the fact that it was sad that they died at a young age. Even so, they are most likely reading this saying 'Jolly ho, have a look, James! This woman has written a blog about us!' 'Facsinating!' ;) Great job!

    1. Thanks for your lovely comments Hayley, you made me smile and giggle. xx

  4. Wow what a story to find tragic for the family and the boys with all their lives ahead of them.
    If only you could find out more, think your theory of tablets from the chemists is probably correct, they weren't in childproof containers then....all very sad xxxx

    1. Thanks very much for your comment Lynn, I really appreciate your feedback. You're right, medications were not monitored or childproof back then. I don't think childproof caps came into being until about 10-20 years ago. xx

  5. Hey Debs,

    Just realised, James and Charlotte were not strangers to their children dying so young.
    Out of 10 children, James and Frederick were their youngest.

    Of the others, 1st child William died c1862 aged 8. Third child Anna Marie died 1860 aged 1.
    Three grew up to get married and have children of their own, but I don't know what happened to the others :-(

    x x x

    1. Thanks Angie, I knew about William but looking at my family tree I only had eight children listed, so am missing two including Anna Marie. Miss Marple hat on again?! :-)

  6. A sad story Deb, but like you I wondered at how cavalier they seem to have been.

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