Ashton Poor Law Union


Refusal to Remove a Body

Another well-publicised case which allowed Joseph Rayner Stephens to pour more accusations of infamy on John S Stanley was that of Harriet Lang the wife of John Lang mechanic of Stalybridge. I have tried to summarise a very long letter below from Harriet Lang to the "Ashton Chronicle" in the 13 January 1849 edition.

She begins by describing that her widowed mother Ann Flinders had had to be admitted to the Workhouse on 31 December 1847, because Harriet could no longer afford to keep taking time off work to look after her sick mother, particularly since her husband had also been unemployed for quite a long time. She goes on to say that the staff at the Workhouse were very kind to her at first, allowing her to visit once a week and to wash and dress her mother's back. Harriet spoke particularly well of a Mrs Smith, the governess, but then describes how things changed very much for the worse when her mother had to be removed to the hospital. Apparently her mother had to be tied down because she was very restless and Mrs Ellis did not approve of Harriet visiting her mother. She was turned away several times and also refused permission to take her mother some tobacco. Her mother had smoked all her life and Harriet thought that being allowed to smoke might make her less restless, but Dr Wood and Mr Smith refused to allow it.

On Sunday 26th November 1848 Esther Lodge came from the hospital to tell Harriet that her mother had died and to hasten to the hospital because the body 'would not keep for long'. The following morning she went to the hospital with Beatrice Wood and Samuel Stansfield to measure the body for a coffin. Mrs Ellis refused to let them in saying that if they were going to bury the body themselves Harriet would also have to pay for her mother's upkeep at the hospital out of the burial club money she had been saving for her mother's funeral. Mrs Ellis became very rude and there was no moving her until the question of maintenance had been resolved. Apparently the hospital's preferred choice would have been to give Ann Flinders a pauper's burial and to keep the rest of the money for her keep during her stay. No progress was made and they were turned away promising to return when Mr Ellis was in.

They then went to see a Mr McCulloch? He agreed that they should have been let in to measure and remove the body, and that Mrs Ellis could at least have been civil to them. He gave Harriet a note to take back to the hospital. They went back in the evening and made the same request to Mr Ellis. He again said that if they were to bury the body themselves they would also have to pay for her upkeep at the rate of five shillings and threepence per week. Harriet insisted that this was impossible, but Mr Ellis then refused to issue a death certificate so Harriet would not be able to claim the burial money. Again they were turned away.

They went back later again in the evening when they knew that the Guardians sub-committee would be meeting and again requested Ann Flinder's body. This time they were refused by Mr Stanley, who insisted that the burial money was theirs and that they would make her pay. Harriet insisted that the burial club money had been saved solely for the purpose of meeting burial costs and not for payment of debts. Dr Wood tried to intervene and advised Harriet to come to some sort of terms reminding her of how very ill her mother had been (and by inference how very expensive). Harriet said she was perfectly aware of how ill her mother had been because she had nursed her herself for nine months until she could no longer do so. Again there was an impasse and Harriet had no alternative but to leave.

The next day, not knowing what to do she went to visit Mr Stephens to explain her plight who offered to help and intervene on her behalf. Later that evening at dusk they took a cart to the hospital to remove the body in accordance with a promise extracted from Mrs Ellis by Mr Stephens and Mr Corry. They struggled to remove the body not helped by anyone there. Just as they were leaving, with the body barely strapped down to the cart Mr Ellis was spotted coming up the street furious and stating that if he'd have been in it would have been a different story, but he knew he had lost. The neighbours shouted to them to keep the cart to the main street in case Mr Ellis showed his face again and tried to follow them.

Harriet Lang and Beatrice Wood were advised by Mr McCulloch to attend the next Guardian's meeting to advise them that her mother's body had been buried, but I don't think they had the courage for this since they went to Mr Corry's house to tell him instead.


Next I turned to the Minutes of that Guardians meeting on Thursday 14th December 1848. After the normal business of the meeting there was an item on the agenda to discuss the alleged cruelty of Mr Stanley in refusing to release Ann Flinder's body, and how to act in future if met with similar circumstances. There followed a letter from Mr Stanley where he expressed his sorrow for causing unneccessary grief to Mrs Lang and saying that he had never had the intention of refusing to release the body, but had only had the intention of delaying its release until Mr Ellis could establish the circumstances the following day.

At the second request the body had been allowed to be measured and Frank Higginbottom had been sent to Stalybridge to find out how much money was in the burial club and to see if the cost of the burial could be recouped by the Parish chargeable with the maintenance of the deceased. It transpired that the daughter was correct in asserting that she was entitled to the funds, since she had been paying into the fund on her mother's behalf.

The letter continued by saying that Mr Stanley had not allowed the corpse to be taken away before Tuesday evening because he did not think it fitting for it to be removed before a coffin had been prepared.

The Guardians also looked into Poor Law regulations to establish the facts:-

"Poor Law only allows for funeral expenses to be paid out of burial money or to repay a loan"

As to whether Mr Stanly had the power to refuse the body and whether he acted on his own or on behalf of the Committee. It was decided that any member when visting the Workhouse or Hospital only possessed the delegated authority of the Committee subject at all times to revision. No action of any official or member is legal unless sanctioned by the Committee as a whole.

Despite the above, John Strongitharm Stanley was re-elected to serve as a Guardian in the April 1849 elections for the Towns Division, West Ward with 692 votes. And, despite a further scathing article in "The Ashton Chronicle" in January 1849, he was also re-elected to serve as a Councillor at Ashton-under-Lyne's 1849 elections.



Gay J Oliver © 2002 - all rights reserved