The Social Background of 1877 Watford
As many of those alive at the time were aware, the late 19th century was a period of transition. British society was attempting to assimilate the societal effects of the economic and technological changes that had already occurred in the earlier industrial revolution.
The existing social order was proving to be inadequate especially in a town like Watford which was transitioning from a small country market town to a large industrialised railway conurbation now firmly positioned on the outskirts of London. As the old order decayed, local Reverend Newton Price found that his traditional role as a member of the established clergy had become more difficult. The ancient regime based on deference to inherited status was being challenged and undermined by both an economically powerful rising middle class and a tentatively self-aware working class whose labour was the source of the new wealth. The landed aristocracy’s original means of revenue in agriculture had long been in decline and was now diminishing faster than their social prestige.
All these changes were perfectly demonstrated by the shifting demography of Watford. Entrepreneurial plutocrats were taking on the landholdings of debilitated aristocrats and country squires and aping their style and culture in the estates that surrounded the town. At the same time, into Watford’s proto-urban area of rapidly spreading streets, filled with by-law housing and factory enterprises, came an expanding proletarian population which was made up of the sons and daughters of the Hertfordshire countryside’s once exclusively agricultural workforce.
The land, commerce, and labour: these were the contributory, complementary factors involved in the generation of new wealth in Watford, as in the nation. Yet the uneven distribution of this wealth and the weakening of the old social institutions also brought an increase in the underlying social and class antagonisms. These tensions could remain hidden or be smoothed over while the archaic social order meant that the constituent social classes had little or no genuine social interaction and lived largely ignorant of the circumstances or concerns of the other. However the yawning social gulf, hitherto maintained by iron-clad etiquette and physical geography, was increasingly under strain. The Earls of Essex’s and Clarendon’s refusal to have the hoi polloi of railway passengers gawping at their estates had been an early local symbol of their futile resistance to social change.
The traditional role of the clergy was to act as a mediator in the occasional confrontations between the social classes, mollifying resentments and defusing rebellion on the one hand and mitigating harsh authoritarianism and callous disregard on the other. Christian charity was the proposed common currency in each instance. In the 1870s as an Anglican clergyman serving in the expanding Watford suburb of Oxhey, Newton Price’s role could be a challenging one as the town’s underlying social antagonisms in this era of change were inclined to manifest themselves in novel and unexpected aspects of the town’s social and civic life.
The Newton Price letter
On October 30th 1877 a letter to the editor appeared in The Standard newspaper. It was from the Revd Newton Price, incumbent chaplain of the hamlet of Oxhey. The heading above the letter read, “A Hero”. In this letter, which also featured in a number of other papers in the days ahead, Newton Price recounted the story of Charles Cheshire, a Bushey resident who had died that day under the grimmest of circumstances. Charles Cheshire, Price stated, had been an outstanding athlete, a sprinter “known to the Sporting World” who ran under the name of Fortescue. About a month ago, he went on to say, Cheshire had encountered a mad dog “on a solitary road”. Price described how with great courage and public spiritedness, Cheshire had “endeavoured to hold the brute and arrest him in his mischievous career”.
In late 19th century Britain, rabies was not the unknown disease it is today. A ‘mad dog’ was, as likely as not, to be a rabid dog and it was common knowledge that such a highly infectious and aggressive animal could spread the havoc of incurably horrific disease in the town. Newton Price described a “fearful contest” between man and dog in which spilled “blood lay in the road”. Forestalling a future controversy, he also mentioned the occupants of a passing carriage who “thought themselves unable to help” and who “drove to the next farmhouse for assistance. When help came, the gallant fellow had been overcome and the dog escaped”. The real purpose of Newton Price’s letter became apparent at the end. Charles Cheshire had now subsequently died as a result of the attack and he had left behind him a young widow and three small children, the youngest of these merely a babe in arms. This residual family was now left “helpless and penniless”.
The contemporary social provision for people in Mrs Cheshire’s position was scant indeed. The workhouse was the only statutory recourse. The harsh and minimal regime exercised there was justified on the theologically backed grounds that the poor were feckless and generally the authors of their own condition in some way. That is to say the ‘undeserving poor’ who were resefntfully kept at the community’s begrudged expense. This assumption of blameworthiness was patently not the case with the Cheshire family. To Victorian sensibilities, the circumstances of their plight placed them in the converse position of ‘the deserving poor’. Newton Price’s letter is straining to present Charles Cheshire’s tragedy as a noble and heroic sacrifice. The reason for this was that the family would now depend on the only other contemporary provision for hardship the era would tolerate – charity; - a limited resource for which there was much competition.
After the shock of Charles Cheshire’s death, Newton Price had immediately gone into action, displaying the decisive activity that would make his reputation in the town. No time at all was lost in establishing a fund for Charles’ dependants.
Since his arrival in the area, Newton Price had been attempting to cultivate the notables of the town. At the time of writing his letter he had already co-opted one of the town’s most prominent businessmen, F J Sedgwick the brewery owner, as a treasurer for the putative fund. The letter ended with an appeal for donations to be sent to this treasurer. Newton Price’s campaigning skill was apparent in the large number of newspapers that carried his letter, an epistle which astutely combined sensation with compassionate appeal. (Some papers, it must be said, merely lifted the lurid details from the letter without printing the appeal.).
The Cheshire Fund had been rapidly constituted as a committee “of the local gentry” with Revd W Falconer, the Rector of Bushey, as their Chairman.
Almost immediately, the story of Charles Cheshire’s demise and the circumstances of his infection were being reproduced in newspapers all over the country. At that point in time rabies, or hydrophobia, as the disease in humans was then known, was a hot topic in the press of 1877 where a certain amount of public hysteria was being simultaneously stoked and condemned by journalists.
The Hydrophobia Mystique
Despite its cause being unknown and its occurrence incurable, rabies in the 19th century, even in the worst years, had a very limited economic impact. At most it only claimed animals in their hundreds. In terms of mortality it was not comparable to foot and mouth disease or the new and devastating rinderpest which killed many hundreds of thousands of animals, nevertheless the public response to rabies was unparalleled and by any measure an over-reaction. Even contemporary observers in the midst of it recognised it as a hysteria. Throughout the 19th century, rabies/hydrophobia exercised a peculiar preoccupation over the public imagination in Britain. Almost any outbreak or incident, however limited, was automatically considered newsworthy. Journalists’ reports dwelt pruriently on the gruesome sufferings of human victims and speculated on the moral complicity of stereotypically canine carriers as agents of doom.
Parliament regularly debated measures to combat the disease and a continuous public discourse on the subject veered between repelled horror and morbid fascination. The hysteria at the time was attributed not only to the unpleasantness of the symptoms, but also to the unnervingly long incubation period (usually over a month) and the certainty of death once the disease was confirmed. Moreover the fact that the disease could be inflicted on humans by their otherwise loyal, devoted and much loved pets was also a great source of insidious anxiety for the public.
The human death toll in the worst year – 1877 (the year of Charles Cheshire’s death) – was 79 and this was exceptional (The 57 who died in the runner-up year of 1875 represented only two deaths per million). The average Victorian was in fact ten times more likely to be murdered than catch rabies. This rarity meant that few doctors could recognise it and few vets could identify it. Nobody knew its cause, therefore speculation was rife and quack ‘remedies’ and protections catered more for the hysteria than the disease. The authorities however felt that they should make demonstrative responses to the public concern, but these measures meant that many more dogs were destroyed on the suspicion of madness than could possibly have been infected.
With such a weak understanding and recognition of the disease on the part of the medical authorities and rudimentary public health administrations, the first alert to the public would come from the press in alarmist reports couched in breathless and disturbing prose. There was no knowledge of viruses at this time so, although the infectiousness of rabies was well known, there was also the belief that the ‘origin’ of an outbreak could begin as a ‘self-generated’ illness within a susceptible individual animal.
In a society with a strong religious mind-set that attributed ’purpose’ to the workings of nature, the idea that these affected individual animals were in some way flawed or self-evidently morally reprehensible seemed likely. A habitually aggressive or badly behaved dog was thought to be potentially predisposed to rabies. Dogs being so malleable in their nature were popularly considered to have had their temperament or moral reprehensibility transferred to them from their owners. Thus the social prejudices and class distinctions of the age were transferred to the canine world.
Although the actual cases of rabies were indiscriminate and affected a wide variety of wild and domesticated animals, in the popular imagination the exemplar of hydrophobia was the rabid dog, a mongrel cur whose nature had been brutalised and embittered by a cruel and fecklessly poor owner who had obtained it on a whim and cast it out as a stray when care and responsibility for it had proved too tiresome or costly. In this scenario rabies was thought to be self-generated within the conditioned animal as a sort of manifestation of its corrupted soul. The malevolent pariah now wandered abroad in search of victims with the single purpose of transferring its deadly disease to them.
This kind of moral pathology was characteristic of the times and a parallel can be seen in the contemporary attitude to venereal disease. This was thought of as typically spread by one type of person, the corrupted and corrupting prostitute. Her (the stereotype was female) customers were rarely seen as agents of the disease but often considered as ‘victims’. In 1864 when VD had infected a third of the army personnel and a similarly alarming proportion of the navy, the government introduced an Act for the compulsory medical examinations of prostitutes in port and garrison towns. By contrast, examinations of sailors and soldiers were ruled out as humiliating for the men and distasteful to the medical officers. To the pious Victorian sensibility, blame for disease was of more significance than prevention.
In this moral setting, Charles Cheshire was represented as “A Hero” who attempted to save the town by fighting and subduing the vicious animal in order to prevent it from “spreading its mischief”. The Times report took pains to describe Cheshire as a “respectable young man” and by implication, a victim, in contrast to the assumed disreputable former owner of his attacker. The Times went on to say “Were common people prevented from keeping dogs, many accidents of this kind would be prevented”. In keeping with this righteous dichotomy, the larger scale outbreaks of rabies among the hunting animals of the respectable rich were reported (if reported at all) in a more sympathetic and matter-of-fact way as ‘misfortunes’ and ‘heavy losses’. In these accounts the ‘fine qualities’, breeding and expensiveness of the animals was emphasised such as in the case of the outbreak of rabies that resulted in the total destruction of the foxhounds of the Essex Hunt, said to be “one of the finest and best hunting packs in the whole Kingdom.”
There does however appear to have been a certain amount of uneasiness among the rural hunting elite about the susceptibility of their animals to rabies. “It was after all, the aggressiveness and independence characteristic of the best foxhounds that supposedly inclined them to go mad, and their inbred predilection for chasing other animals over vast tracts of countryside that made them particularly liable to spread the disease.” As if seeking to avoid any suggestion of the reprehensibility otherwise associated with rabies, the news reports of outbreaks among the animals of the gentry express incredulity that such a tragedy could befall such expensive, well cared for, pedigree animals.
In these reports the usual villains, a stray mongrel or a feral cat, were often assumed or said to have been seen nearby. Reports of these outbreaks among the animals of the upper class universally lacked the panic-inducing elements that featured in those of the cities and towns.
The Hydrophobia Panic
By late 1877, after a larger than usual number of deaths from rabies, the nation was already in a state of alarm. Watford shared in this general apprehension since there had been a number of cases of human hydrophobia in the surrounding area. In early September a suspected rabid dog had caused chaos at Wiggington near Tring by running about the neighbourhood biting other dogs as well as two or three persons before it was shot by a Mr Knight. One of the dog’s victims was Richard Turney, a nine year-old boy that was bitten under the chin. Some weeks later he was taken to the brand new West Herts Infirmary at Hemel Hempstead where he subsequently died. By October, 13 human fatalities had been registered for that year in London. In that same month, a Mrs Mannette Skipworth, “a highly esteemed lady” was reported to have died from hydrophobia in Bedford. She had been the owner of two dogs, one of which was destroyed after becoming infected. The other had later nipped her finger while being fed. In church that Sunday she became giddy. By Wednesday she had died “despite the attendance of Dr Jenner”, the Baronet physician to Queen Victoria and the Prince of Wales. Prior to this, “a gentleman and his family were travelling by train to Banbury when they observed a dog on the train showing signs of hydrophobia. The gentleman threw the dog out of the window and on his arrival at Banbury told the guard of the train what he had done”. The stationmaster telegraphed back along the line a message to say that the dog, if found, was to be destroyed.
In response to mounting public concern, Watford magistrates, like many other judicial authorities in the country, decided to issue a control order on dogs. This order decreed that all dogs within their area of jurisdiction should be “kept under restraint for the next two months”. In practice, this meant that all dogs were to be kept on leads, muzzled or tied up when outside the property of their owners. Signs had already gone up in Vicarage Road Cemetery saying “No dogs allowed unless led by a string” and “loose dogs” had already been banned from Cassiobury Park. Now such instructions were given the force of law and a continuous stream of errant dog owners were soon appearing in the dock before the Watford Bench in the Petty Sessions. Many were incredulous or offended at the impugning of their beloved and dutiful companions with the suggestion of their association with this frightful disease. Others rankled at the strictness of the enforcement of the order carried out by plain-clothes constables. One man who insisted that his dog had only one foot over the threshold asked the Magistrate sarcastically “Will I be fined if he looks out of the window?” Most of the many accused received a 12/6d fine. The police in Watford were also given powers to destroy on the spot any dog which they suspected of being diseased, a task they were said to detest and one which necessarily courted an emotional response from owners or passers-by. In October it was reported that “a dog belonging to Mrs Unwin of the High Street, bitten some time ago by a mad dog, showed signs of madness and was destroyed”. Such was the level of anxiety about the disease that even the ‘natural’ violence of a dog became topical and received press attention. For example when MP Robinson’s greyhound got free and pursued a small dog, the Watford Observer felt it necessary to report this conventional killing of a “beautiful and valuable Maltese in the High Street.”
With the advent of the Cheshire case, the heightened mood in the town peaked. By this time The Watford Observer had found the subject so newsworthy that it gave itself over to a broad summary of all recent press reports, speculations and letters on the matter. These included numerous instances of the various current opinions about the disease. These ranged from continental examples of supposedly scientific research, to ‘folk remedies’ and fanciful ‘cures’, including a preposterous tale of an ‘eminent French physician’ who, convinced of his own infection, prepared an elaborate suicide for himself by means of an overheated Turkish bath, only to emerge from it still alive and miraculously cured. In the same way that certain highly strung or ferocious dogs were thought to be temperamentally inclined to rabies, one popular myth of circular reasoning actually attributed the generation of the disease in humans to the very anxiety and hysteria that the prospect of it generated in susceptible individuals.
In contrast to all this speculation and fantasy, The Observer gave the voice of reason to ‘a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians’. He denied any suggestion of a known cure, batting away each claim as a fad that lasted no more than a year before being inevitably discredited under test conditions. Such desperate conjectures, he affirmed, were simply proof of “the current total ignorance of the cause and pathology of the disease” This ignorance, he went on to say, was further compounded by the fanciful imaginings associated with even the observation of the symptoms of this illness, such was the notion that the patient’s behaviour in extremis took on the character of the animal that had infected him, a notion that even Newton Price would fall prey to. Medical ignorance, the physician wrote, actually derived from the rarity of the disease which prevented the vigorous laboratory study that he was confident would ultimately reveal its true nature and provide “relief from the nervous horror which always hangs about the unknown”. .His prediction was quite correct as in 10 years or so Louis Pasteur would conquer the disease with just such laboratory work. Until that time however The Watford Observer was content to round off its résumé of the subject with the emotional (and unattributed) story of a martyred French nun who sacrificed herself to a rabid dog to save threatened children.
It was amidst such an atmosphere of ‘nervous horror’ that Newton Price’s letter and appeal was published in the press. It was with some justification that he attempted to cast Charles Cheshire in a light of heroism similar to that of the self-sacrificing Gallic Sister. The truth of all the circumstances of Charles Cheshire’s meeting with his canine nemesis on the road out of Watford would expose some of the town’s underlying social tensions and test the conciliatory skills of Newton Price and his colleagues.
On the ‘solitary road’
The ‘solitary road’ that Newton Price described Charles Cheshire strolling along at 9.30am on a fine September morning was the Watford to Garston section of the St Albans Road. Since ancient times it had been part of a major route across southwest Hertfordshire. In 1877 when Charles was walking along it, it was still a toll road administered by the Hatfield-Reading Turnpike Trust. The tolls it garnered had once been considered sufficient for the maintenance of the road but like much of the infrastructure, the toll system would soon prove itself inadequate to cope with the northward expansion of the town when numerous housing developments began to appear along St Albans Road.
This urbanisation was still decades away when Charles Cheshire set out on the route to Garston. The road itself was not kerbed and channelled until 1895 so in 1877 there was no pavement beyond the railway bridge. Over the tracks, apart from a few railway workers’ cottages and farmhouses, it was open land given over to agriculture. Although it carried incomparably less traffic than the present St Albans Road, the 1877 version followed the same course, travelling straight north-northeast before arcing around Lea Farm on the right in order to reach the small hamlet of Garston, the first clustered habitation to be found after leaving Watford.
Once over the railway line, the first farm on the left was Callowland. It is said that the name derived from the Anglo-Saxon ‘calu’ meaning smooth or bare (as in callow or unbearded youth). At the time that Charles Cheshire was passing it, the 160-acre Callowland was a tenant farm still owned by the Master and Fellows of Merton College, Oxford. In four years’ time the Earl of Essex would purchase the acreage with an eye to maximising the profit potential from future housing developments that would also include the next farm along, Gammons Farm. Like Callowland, Gammons was sited on well-drained soil on a foundation of chalk overlaid by drift particularly well suited to the cultivation of wheat or barley, a crop that would have been recently sown in the fields when Charles passed by.
About 20 years before, Gammons Farm had been the location of a celebrated test case in which the tenant, John Horncastle, had successfully sued his landlord, the Earl of Essex, for compensation. Essex had been preserving and propagating his ‘ground’ game animals; deer, hares, rabbits and flightless birds, on land neighbouring Gammons Farm. Because of ancient feudal laws, tenants were not allowed to kill any game animals that they found on the land they rented, even if, as in Horncastle’s case, these game animals crossed into his fields and devastated his crops. These game laws were not just resented by tenant farmers; for the past 800 years an acrimonious guerrilla war between landowners and poachers had been persistently fought. The feudal rights established after the Norman Conquest and perpetrated by aristocratic estate holders had never been fully accepted by the local population despite draconian penalties enacted on landless peasants who took any game.
By 1877 this long war was reaching a climax. The rising population of the post-industrial revolution carried rural traditions with it into the towns and one of these was the assumption of poaching as a right. This clash with the newly urbanised population meant that 1877 saw the peak of the conflict with an all-time high of 12,400 successful prosecutions for poaching. It was this raging conflict that caused Lord Essex to employ a number of full-time gamekeepers and permanently ensconce them in various lodges about his estates. From these family homes, the gamekeepers were charged with the maintenance of a supply of game animals for Lord Essex and his friends to stalk and shoot, These weekend ‘shooting parties’ were great social events at which the animals were principally used as moving targets. Killed in huge numbers and collected by dogs, their carcasses were intended to provide a source of income to the estate when sold to local butchers. However this trade was also undermined by poaching since the butchers customers tended to prefer poached meat. This was the meat of animals killed by snares or methods other than by a blast of numerous lead pellets.
The keepers’ job was to protect the game from natural predators and unauthorised human ones and it was to one of Lord Essex’s trusted keepers that Charles Cheshire would soon turn that fateful morning.
Charles meets the dog
The purpose of Charles’ excursion is not clear. While he was known to be a fairly accomplished competitive athlete and runner, on that morning’s outing he was certainly not dressed for a training run but was striding out with a walking stick in regular clothes.
He was enjoying a day’s leave from his work which he described as a holiday so he may have been out walking simply to take the pleasure of the late summer weather. After passing Callowland and Gammons Farm he was somewhere in the vicinity of Bushey Mill Lane and Leggats Farm when he passed a black retriever coming towards him on the empty road. According to his wife, he patted the dog before moving on. The dog however circled around behind him and jumped at his coat tail. Not liking the dog’s demeanour, Cheshire turned and shook his cane at the animal and shouted at it to be off, whereupon the dog bared its teeth and flew at him, seizing his right hand in its jaws.
With impressive presence of mind and despite the pain, Charles Cheshire fought with his attacker, forcing the dog to relinquish its grip on his hand. Despite enduring more bites to his hands and forearm, he grappled with the animal until both were wrestling on the ground in mortal combat. Eventually using his body weight he pinned the struggling creature to the road beneath his knees with his bloody hands about its jaws.
Having temporarily subdued the wriggling beast, Charles was now at an impasse since he did not have the means to despatch the animal nor dare to relax the urgency of his grip lest the dog renew its frenzied assault. This battle and grim deadlock continued for a full 15 minutes with periodic bursts of renewed aggression from the dog, At that point in the drama came the scene that would later prove to be a controversial element of the tragedy, out of the distance came the sound of horses’ hooves pounding the dusty highway. Approaching the dirty and bloodied combatants from the direction of Garston came a large open carriage, most likely a barouche or landau, pulled by a pair of horses containing four passengers, all young men it was initially said, riding in comfort behind the driver. The carriage came to a halt beside Cheshire and the dog. Relieved, and assuming help was at hand, he called out to the occupants for a knife to kill the struggling beast still pinned beneath his knees and hands. When no knife or assistance was forthcoming, he called out again, asking them to pull a stake from the hedgerow as a means of finishing the animal.
What was said in reply to Cheshire’s entreaties varied in degrees of reprehensibility in the differing late reports of the encounter. What was certain and common to all accounts was that the passengers remained in their carriage. Having observed Cheshire’s predicament and heard his pleas for help, they simply bid their driver whip up the horses and drive on. They continued towards Watford leaving Charles Cheshire dumbfounded and stranded in their wake, alone on the road with his assailant.
No doubt with an element of despair, Cheshire was uncertain that his failing strength could continue the stalemate indefinitely. With no human assistance forthcoming, he resolved to release his grip on the hound. The two combatants sprang apart and regarded each other for a moment before the dog, seemingly having lost the stomach for the fight, “slunk away” following the disappearing carriage towards Watford.
Now perhaps for the first time after the adrenalin of the fight, Charles Cheshire could take stock of his injuries: bites, rips and tears to both hands and his left wrist. It may have been because of the civic minded heroism that Newton Price later credited him with (or perhaps because of some possible issue over the ownership of the dog that was later alluded to) that instead of immediately seeking medical attention for his wounds, Charles Cheshire chose now to walk to the cottage of one of the Earl of Essex’s gamekeepers.
William Grass was 60 years-old and living at Russell Lodge with his wife and family. They shared this address with the family of one of his employer’s gardeners. (The site of this lodge is now a car park next to a McDonalds restaurant on the corner of St Albans Road and Longsprings.)
William Grass had been a gamekeeper on the Essex estate for at least 20 years and a resident of the Lodge for the same period. His part in the dog attack episode was not mentioned in any of the many newspaper reports of the incident and only in one report of the subsequent inquest at which he was not called to give evidence, this despite him being the first person to see Charles after the attack which caused his death. Upon receiving the bloodstained caller and hearing his tale, William Grass, who would have had intimate knowledge of rabies, immediately “took down his gun and went out in search of the dog intending to shoot him.” In the event, the animal could not be found.
A courageous and stoical character
From Grass’s cottage, Charles Cheshire began walking back toward Watford. After crossing over the ‘crude factory-made’ iron bridge that spanned the railway line (and so appalled William Syme), he reached the parade of tall three-storey buildings, with shops on the ground floor and dwellings above, that appear very much unchanged to this day. Dr Henry Ashton Rudyard, physician and surgeon, lived at one of these, just three doors up from Langley Road. His was an ivy-covered address sandwiched between a Gentlemen’s Outfitters and Buss’s Drapers shop. In his consulting room and surgery, Dr Rudyard immediately administered the recommended treatment for wounds of this kind. Cauterisation was at that time routinely used to stop bleeding and in an age of primitive germ theory and before the discovery of viruses, it was also erroneously thought to be a protection against infection by simultaneously sealing and sterilising the wound. After completing this procedure and hearing about the circumstances of the injuries, Dr Rudyard, aware of the risks, suggested Charles Cheshire travel to the University College Hospital (UCH) in London.
Leaving Dr Rudyard’s surgery, Charles crossed the road to Watford Junction Station where he took a steam train to Euston and the nearby London teaching hospital, a building he would have been familiar with because of its close proximity to his workplace. At the hospital, however, they could do little more than repeat Dr Rudyard’s procedures. But at least while in London, Charles was able to get word to his wife who also worked nearby, and reassure her that he was alright in case she had heard anything to the contrary. After returning from UCH he could only do what any 19th century victim of an animal bite could do, which was to allow his wounds to heal and hope for the best. As we have seen, Charles Cheshire had a courageous and stoical character. Although the injuries to his pen hand meant that he could not resume his work, his wounds healed and as time passed, in apparent good health, Charles began to hope that he might get away with it.
On Tuesday 24th October, almost a month after the attack, Charles was seen enjoying the company at the Working Men’s Club in Rickmansworth where “he was a frequent visitor and appeared to be in about the usual health he had enjoyed since his injuries” Then on the following Saturday after returning from his work in Euston, he complained of a pain in his right arm which was swiftly followed by a spasmodic difficulty in breathing. Dr Wilson-Iles was summoned and observed many of the classic signs of rabies: an aversion and inability to swallow liquids, convulsions and involuntary cries. All of these, Dr Iles observed, were endured by Charles Cheshire with a sort of detached wonder at his own behaviour, for he was observed as remaining rational throughout, even to the extent of being aware that those restraining him were doing so for his own good.
Realising that death was near, Charles sent for Revd Newton Price who arrived around 6pm. Charles Cheshire’s cottage was full that day with concerned neighbours and friends. The town’s most eminent physicians visited, their professional duty or medical curiosity obliging them to observe this rare but legendary condition.
Watford Doctors; Brett, Iles and Wiley, (the latter was Wilson-Iles’ partner) all visited. But beyond administering sedatives, all were equally powerless to help. At 11.30pm, Iles visited again and found the patient quite lucid and comparatively composed but with a weak pulse. At 4.30am Dr Wiley was called out again and on arrival found that Charles’ condition had worsened and he had died before Dr Iles arrived.
The Three Musketeers
Two doctors and a religious minister: Brett, Iles and Price constituted a triumvirate of social reform and institutional innovation in Watford. Their combined efforts and swashbuckling energy made them local heroes and future legends. They were referred to at the time as ‘the three musketeers’. This was a sobriquet that still had resonance for social reform in Watford a generation later when it was adopted by the first three Socialists to be elected onto the Town Council.
In 1850 Dr Brett had come to Watford aged 22 from London, having received his medical education there at Guys Hospital. Nine years later Dr Wilson-Iles arrived in the town. Both men were made wealthy by their lucrative profession, with Dr Brett having the head start he had already purchased the prestigious Watford House, a large estate on the corner of the High Street and Clarendon Road. His actual home once stood in the position that the Clements department store later occupied. The pair established a good reputation in the town by their energy and commitment to work for the general public benefit, plus their occasional acts of personal kindness such as the waiving of fees for their services to the poorer patients, as in the case of Charles Cheshire. The two doctors cemented their professional friendship still further by their membership of Freemasonry and their enlistment in the 2nd Hertfordshire Rifle Volunteers.
In 1859 following heightened international tension between Britain and France, there was a nationwide ‘invasion’ scare that prompted the UK government to revive the local militia system. As a result many men volunteered and of the newly created Watford Company of the 2nd Herts Rifle Volunteers, Brett and Iles were in the vanguard. Initially the force was to be egalitarian to distinguish it from the class-structured regular army. Brett joked that he had joined as “a full Private”. Similarly their uniforms were green or grey as the Army could not countenance ‘amateurs’ in their beloved scarlet. Inevitably an officer structure soon crystallised and when it was required that volunteers buy their own uniforms and equipment this had the effect thereafter of excluding the poor and working class. Brett soon found himself raised from the rank of Private to Surgeon Major and ultimately Lieutenant-Colonel. He and Iles remained as brothers-in-arms in this force to the ends of their respective lives (Brett for 32 years, Iles for 25). Not to be outdone in matters of promotion and rank, Iles competed outstandingly with Brett in another of their brotherly associations, the Freemasons,
The Watford Freemasons had first met in the Spreadeagle pub in the High Street but by the 1870s they had their own Hall adjoining the Corn Exchange. Dr Brett, as already “the principal doctor in Watford” had been initiated into the brotherhood in 1858 and Dr Wilson-Iles followed him a year later. By 1866 Iles was a Worshipful Master, and then Lodge Secretary after nine years in various posts, including Grand Director of Ceremonies in 1868. He became Grand Senior Warden in 1870. Then he spent another five years as Grand Provincial Secretary before culminating his progress in 1879 as Deputy Provincial Grand Master, Treasurer of the Watford Lodge and Worshipful Master of two others.
Given his Christian vocation it is encouraging that Newton Price did not join the doctors in the militia. But he could see the efficacy of joining the brotherhood of the Freemasons as a potentially useful means of networking for the promotion of improvements in the town and in Christian charity. Consequently he too became a Freemason in 1872. Price had also shared the experience of higher education in Dublin University with Wilson-Iles. The youthful Iles had studied medicine there in the schools of St George.
Where all three men excelled, and why they are still remembered today, was because of their committee work. In this they were overseeing numerous initiatives for the attempted transformation of Watford from an unsanitary dirty market town with a largely illiterate and uneducated population, into a desirable, more salubrious civic environment for healthier and more civilised townspeople. Dr Iles had been a Medical Officer in London charged in 1855 with suppressing a cholera epidemic. Watford had suffered its own outbreak a few years before and both Iles and Brett were convinced of the need for improved sanitation to combat disease. Between them all three men held a bewildering number of posts in the furtherance of their aims to improve health and education locally:- membership of the Board of Guardians, the Local Board of Health and the Public library Committee, Medical Officer to the Salters Almshouses and Officer of Health for WUDC and the Workhouse, Public Vaccinator, Factory Surgeon to Watford Cottage Hospital, President of the West Herts Medical Association, Surgeon to the LNWR and the West Herts Infirmary to name but a few.
Through the decades and in a variety of aspects, it gradually became clearly apparent that the early methods of fundraising, by networking among the generous, and provoking the consciences of the parsimonious rich, were not going to be adequate to the numerous tasks. Thus the three musketeers and their supporters became pioneers in the application of the new municipal ‘penny rate’ taxation legislation, exemplified in Watford by its provision of running costs for the Watford Public Library previously built by public subscription. The terror of rabies in the town and the inability of the feeble local authority to respond or reassure, mirrored the limitations of contemporary medical science in its powerlessness to help doomed victims like Charles Cheshire. Furthermore, the fearful uncertainty of the future for his family similarly demonstrated the paucity of welfare provision yet again.
National press sensation
Such was the public fascination with hydrophobia at that time that Charles Cheshire’s death and the circumstances that led up to it were reported in all parts of the nation. Earlier that September, before the diagnosis, only the Watford Observer had printed a small mention of the dog’s attack and then mainly as an encouragement to the townspeople to heed the advice of the Watford Magistrates to keep all dogs under control. However the letter that Newton Price later managed to get printed in a national newspaper as an appeal on behalf of the nascent Cheshire Fund also served as confirmation of hydrophobia and therefore sensationalised national interest and generalised anxiety followed. Some papers simply reprinted an unattributed version of Newton Price’s letter without the appeal while others waited for the imminent inquest. The Times and The Morning Post were the first to give a full account of the attack. Evidently both papers were using the same source as in their haste for an exclusive both repeated the same errors of fact regarding the colour and breed of the dog: a liver-coloured lurcher (the classic poacher’s dog) and more glaringly the forename of the victim who was reported by both papers to be ‘Richard’ Cheshire. Both accounts appeared the same day but The Morning Post version was the most lurid and sensational with an unlikely amount of detail: it gave an epic blow by blow description of the fight with the wounded Cheshire throwing the frenzied beast to the ground, where:
“Once recovered, the animal launched at him and seized his throat. Cheshire used both hands to force open its jaws”
The account describes “dog and man struggling, both fell to the ground rolling over each other several times”.
And then an awful climax: “At this moment of life or death struggle an open carriage containing four young men had stopped [Cheshire] naturally thought rescue was at hand”. The Post says:
“he called out in piteous accents to those within to alight and cut the throat of the dog whose jaws the poor fellow still held fixed in his hands.”
He told them that there was a knife they could use for the purpose in his coat pocket. The Morning Post was not as circumspect as Newton Price regarding these travellers about whose motives he had been equivocal. In this account there is no question of ‘help being sent from the next farmhouse’:
“To the lasting disgrace of the occupants of the carriage they answered the sufferer’s appeal by bursting out in a fit of laughter and drove off in the direction of Watford”
The Post is suitably disgusted by its own description of such callousness, describing it as an “almost incredible act of desertion” The Times, though more restrained in its prose, agreed with all the particulars of The Post’s report including the reprehensible behaviour described there. The Times moreover made a point of emphasising that Cheshire was “a respectable young man” and “of a respectable family”, as if this social status made his fate still more tragic.
It also described how the dog had “slunk off” in the wake of the carriage as if recognising some malevolent identification with the occupants. All the subsequent reports fixated on hydrophobia as the main point of public interest and were more cautious about condemnation of the un-Samaritan passers-by. Nevertheless it was apparent that the identity and behaviour of these individuals was the subject of much indignant speculation among the population in Watford. This general condemnation prompted a Mr R Bradbury of 3 Melbourne Road, Bushey to come to the aid of the maligned carriage occupants. A few days later a letter from him appeared in The Times in which he claimed that one of the occupants of the passing carriage had intended to give assistance but was prevented from doing so by one or more of the ladies with whom he was travelling. The following day there was a swift rebuttal from Newton Price himself who by now felt evidently less inclined to give the benefit of the doubt and was, like The Morning Post, finding his faith in human nature rather tested.
“The explanation offered of the conduct of those who passed by Cheshire without rendering help applies as I an informed, only to the occupants of the second carriage. Those in the first were young men and it is stated that they did not even stop to answer Cheshire’s appeals. One hesitates to believe this. For the credit of our nature we will hope that some explanation or correction can be offered”
Many in Watford hoped and expected that such an explanation and some clarity would be brought to light at the impending inquest. It must be imagined that the popular anger and distaste was unnaturally heightened by the fearful and disturbed general mood.
Panic in Watford
Despite coming a month after the actual attack, Charles Cheshire’s death seems to have exacerbated the fear of potentially hydrophobic dogs within the town. The Monday following his death, a dog was reported to have attacked the son of a Mr John and then molested a draper named Mr Austin. After these exertions “it laid down in St Mary's Churchyard where Mr F Downer called upon some men to destroy it” This they attempted to do but it escaped them and ran away. A Mr Dell, a grocer at Watford Station, further reported a child being attacked by a dog. This was the 10 year-old son of William Battershall, a rural postman. The boy was wounded and Mr Battershall reported the event to the Magistrates. Next a child of Mr Kilby, the landlord of the Estcourt Arms in St John’s Road, had his child threatened as was the son of Mr George Clark in Watford Fields.
While fear stalked the town, Newton Price and his Committee immediately set about raising funds for the future of Cheshire’s widow and fatherless children through the agency of the newly established Cheshire Fund. To a large extent the success of this fund depended on the exploitation of public sympathy and, crucially, that it should be considered a worthy cause. At a time before political, social or even human rights had been established, distressed individuals such as the Cheshires, had to prove themselves worthy of the charity they might receive from their fellows. Suddenly rendered extreme ‘have-nots’, the shape of their future now depended entirely on the judgement and approval of the ‘haves’. Newton Price had used his prestige as a churchman to set the right tone in his letter and thankfully the press had picked up his lead, reiterating Cheshire’s respectability in most of their coverage.
“Cheshire, although of a respectable family, was employed only in a humble capacity at Camden-Town where his salary was small and ceased altogether through this cruel attack” In truth, it was something of a stretch of the traditional class stratification to conceive of the 27 year-old Charles Cheshire as a member of the ‘respectable’ classes. Newton Price was one of a vanguard of middle class pioneers championing the idea of a respectable faction within the working class. All of his reformist activity was aimed at overturning a brutish stereotype of the working class as a whole. His preferred mechanism was self-help but even he could see the inadequacy of that for the rescue of Mrs Cheshire and her children. Their catastrophe was on a scale that would require some wider cross-class wealth redistribution hence his attempt at image promotion for the Cheshires up the social ladder.
Charles Cheshire: railway clerk
Charles Cheshire had been born near Tring in Hertfordshire to a father who was a carman delivering goods locally. The family moved to London where his father found greater work opportunities because of the numerous railway stations which served as distribution points from which to supply the expanding city. While living in Kentish Town at the age of 21, Charles met Charlotte Myson, the daughter of one of his father’s fellow carmen. In July 1870 when Charlotte was 17, they were married at the bizarrely pinnacled St Martin’s Church, Kentish Town. Seven months later their first son Walter was born.
Charles’ father’s work with the railways may have facilitated the opportunity to procure his son a start as a junior clerk with the LNER. Even if his own occupation (today’s equivalent would be a van driver) was not considered respectable, Charles’ father seems to have encouraged social improvement for his son.
Railway Clerk, as a position, provided a rare opportunity for a working class boy to rise through merit in an employment with a structured progression. However it was poorly paid, fairly insecure and at the lower levels had a decidedly uncertain status that did not guarantee the respectability that was intrinsic to professionals such as lawyers, doctors and clergymen. Nevertheless within the LNER itself, clerks, no matter how junior, were still members of an upper tier of employment in terms of job security and conditions (witnessed by Charles’ fatal day of paid holiday) when compared to the lower echelon of porters, signalmen and cleaners. These were weekly-paid and therefore liable to immediate dismissal. The distinction was emphasised by the clerks’ ‘civilian’ apparel as opposed to the overalls or liveried uniforms of the other rail workers. The railways had inherited the slightly raised social position of clerks from a pre-existing employment structure in which the majority of the working class would not have had the necessary literacy or numeracy skills to apply for clerical posts. The early railway companies initially appointed railway clerks to the positions that would soon become known as stationmaster. As the railways developed so did the hierarchies of employment with Chief Clerks and Junior Clerks adding to the gradations of employment. In the late 1860s it came about that the lowest order of Junior Clerk just about made contact with the highest products of working class education newly offered at the Board Schools. Candidates applying for positions with the railway companies would have to pass tests in writing, copying, spelling and arithmetic and pass a probationary period of six months. It was said that a Clerk required “sharp intelligence” and “adequate education and respectability”
For all classes being respectable essentially meant maintaining a reputable facade. Financial resources obviously made this easier but inevitably encouraged all the hypocrisies that a later age would come to regard as synonymous with Victorian morality. The wealthy elites were beyond social criticism simply because their wealth put them beyond the social observation of the wider community. The relative poverty and therefore closer proximity of working class living conditions made the appearance of respectability hard for them to achieve and a facade difficult to maintain.
“A 19th century working class person had never definitively gained the label of ‘respectable’, it was bestowed upon them and could always be lost through behaviour.”
(Anti-Social Behaviour in Britain, John Mullen, Ed Sarah Pickard, Palgrave MacMillan, 2014)
The majority of the working class out of realism, pride or the much vilified fecklessness decided that the game was not worth the candle. However, a large enough minority of the working class aspired to the respectable value system with its considerable normative power, so that it gave enough overall social consensus to assure mid-Victorian society its general cohesion and stability.
Needless to say the slim opportunity for self-improvement available to Charles as a young clerk was not available to his wife Charlotte: she had inevitably gone into domestic service. With zero prospects for self-advancement through work, a woman’s assumed goal was to make a good marriage and in that regard Charlotte’s tenuous respectability status was tied to that of her husband. With Charles now departed, she and her children stood at a perilous turning point. The likely future for a young working class widow, a nursing mother of three with no wider family support, was destitution. The only provision for the destitute was the workhouse, long since famous for its twin reputations of cruelty and inadequacy.
Despite all his theoretical promotion of self-help, Newton Price was well aware that not even Samuel Smiles (the originator of the concept) could offer it as a solution to Charlotte Cheshire’s predicament. Collective efforts were barely out of their infancy. Working class mutual assistance clubs, like Newton Price’s Dundalk Penny Bank, merely pooled the meagre resources that the working class poor were able to save. The collective results were similarly meagre. When Mr Brightman and Mr Lucas took up a collection among the other members of Charles Cheshire’s Working Men’s’ Club, the £6 that they raised would not have kept the surviving Cheshires for much more than a month, though it would have taken an agricultural labourer eight and a half weeks to earn it. Clearly if Charles Cheshire’s future earnings were to be replaced and his family’s future secured, then a transfer of resources would be necessary.
News reports noted Charles Cheshire’s fortitude in the face of death and how he bade his children farewell. What greater comfort could Newton Price give to Charles than a promise to care for his family. The Cheshires seemed to exemplify exactly the wholesome family life that Newton Price was trying to encourage through his various schemes and activities for social improvement. That Charles Cheshire should be so cruelly struck down in his prime was enough of a test of faith, that his family of innocents should suffer further ruin seemed unconscionable. If the Cheshires were to be helped then the social mechanisms for the rescue of the ‘deserving’, that is to say persons of the unusually distressed respectable classes, would have to be activated. Like all the activities of the respectable middle class this would require capital. Untypical access to such resources would have the effect of propelling the Cheshires up the social ladder overnight.
The Cheshire Fund
Responses to Newton Price’s newspaper appeal were being gathered in by the Treasurer, F J Sedgwick, a wealthy local brewery owner. Further to this, the members of the Committee (Newton Price, F Sedgwick, E L James, R Savill, J Middleton, W T Eley, G Green and Revd Falconer) delegated themselves to solicit donations from their own social circles (see Appendix 1). On 9th November Treasurer Sedgwick wrote from his brewery to give an initial breakdown of the contributions so far. The Revd Newton Price had the longest list of named contributors which included many wealthy ladies. William T Eley of Oxhey Grange included £2 contributions from local notables Jonathan King and Thomas Blackwell. Emily Louise James of Kitlers Green took donations from impressive acquaintances like Lord Rokeby (£2) and the Dean of Windsor (£1). Mr G Green collected from his associates at the Stock Exchange and F J Sedgwick tackled the Earl of Clarendon for £2. Those giving under 10/- remained anonymous but their smaller contributions totalled £346.
At the end of November, The Chelmsford Chronicle announced that the Cheshire Fund Committee had met on the 28th and had “unanimously resolved that the amount received by the Hon Treasurer having now exceeded £600, the subscription should at once be closed” Ultimately the total sum recorded was nearer to £700, a remarkable amount for the period. This sum was sufficient to put into practice a plan devised by the Committee. The initial part of the plan meant that £180 was to be used immediately to purchase a place for the eldest Cheshire son, the six year-old Walter, at the Wanstead Infant Orphan Asylum.
The Wanstead Infant Orphan Asylum was a sister institution to the London Orphan Asylum which in 1861 had moved to the outskirts of Watford after an outbreak of typhoid at its former Clapton location. The founder of both these asylum boarding schools was the Rev Andrew Reed. Though not wealthy himself, Reed was particularly skilled at extracting large sums from the wealthy and prestigious. He realised early in his fundraising career the added value of royal patronage. His great scoop was securing the patronage of Queen Victoria’s father, the Duke of Kent. Following this royal endorsement of the London Orphan Asylum project, a great flood of financial support and subscriptions came in from leading City figures and society notables eager to be seen to be following the regal lead.
By 1827 Rev. Reed had become concerned at how few institutions (including the London Orphan Asylum) were prepared to take in orphans below the age of seven years. To rectify this, he and two collaborators started what was initially known as the East London Infant Orphan Asylum in Hackney. As before, a huge boost came with royal patronage. This time it came from Queen Adelaide and the institution prospered accordingly. Like the expanded Gothic school at Watford, the Wanstead complex was an architecturally grand affair built this time in an Elizabethan style. The funding and funders however brought their own expectations to the project and the Rev. Reed soon felt obliged to disassociate himself. As a Congregationalist he had favoured non-denominational education at the Asylum whereas the Governors at Wanstead insisted on Anglican instruction. Furthermore admission was restricted to “maintaining and educating orphan children who are respectably descended”. “No candidate [for admission] is admitted whose parents have not filled respectable positions in society and, ceteris paribus [other things being equal], its eligibility is proportionate to the former respectability of its family”.
On one level this criteria reversed the principle of prioritizing those in the greatest need yet to the upper and middle classes, the greater height of a fall seemed to them to represent a correspondingly greater tragedy. Despite the graduated respectability criteria the Committee of the Cheshire Fund seemed confident that their own collective respectability would be sufficient recommendation to satisfy the stipulation. The Fund could easily pay the £180 purchase price of a place at Wanstead for Walter Cheshire. His younger brother Russell, who was barely four years old, seemed destined for a slightly less straightforward nomination. It was proposed by the Committee that he should be put forward for an election to a place in Wanstead the following year,
The Annual Wanstead Orphan Elections seem a particularly grisly business to modern sensibilities for they embody perfectly that grotesque combination of mawkish sentiment and harsh judgement known to us today by the adjective ‘Dickensian’. Inevitably with a charitable ‘solution’ there were more aspirant orphans than there were places for them. The chosen method of admission to Wanstead was by a popular vote. Meetings of rich people would be arranged at which they would hear mothers or their sponsors plead their ‘cases’. Votes would then be cast on the basis of which child was judged to most deserve a place at the Asylum school. Worse still, each vote represented a monetary pledge. With this crowd-funding the child/candidate had to achieve a certain level of sympathy, and therefore the requisite number of votes, in order to gain admission. A rich enough person could however buy all the votes necessary to guarantee a place and this appears to be what happened with Walter’s £180 purchase. The obvious unfairness of this procedure to an ugly child or ‘too proud’ mother was of little consideration to the wealthy patrons who flocked to these elections, soaking up the contending sob stories while enjoying the gambling atmosphere with their money placed on the chosen boy or girl that they fancied as a ‘winner’.
There is a painting by G E Hicks that depicts one of these elections held at the London Tavern in 1866. The picture accurately conveys the atmosphere and popularity of these events. The viewer is immediately struck, as were the voters, by the remarkable amount of publicity: handbills, posters and banners, generated by the organised campaigns waged on behalf of each of the candidates. The widowed mothers are pictured wan and in mourning, masking their desperation with a show of humility and overt respectability. Russell Cheshire, it was decided, was to be put up for just such a process in May 1878.
The youngest Cheshire child, Norah, was only a three month-old babe in arms and, according to the prejudices of the times, as a girl was to be spared the education thought necessary for her brothers. She would stay in her mother’s care and share with her the benefit of an income drawn from the remaining capital sum of £500 in the Fund which the Committee planned to invest as a Trust on the Cheshire’s behalf. Income would come to Charlotte in the form of regular payments generated by the investment. These would continue until Norah was 14 years old and of working age. At this point the remaining capital sum of the Fund would be made over to the mother for the benefit of herself and her children.
As might be expected of a school with royal patronage, the Wanstead Asylum enjoyed great prestige and a high reputation. Attendance at the school represented a great career advantage to former pupils especially when seeking employment. The future of Mrs Cheshire and her children, though now secured, would be taking a drastically changed new direction. Following so immediately on the heels of the traumatic death of her husband Charles, these rapid events must have been quite overwhelming to the 23 year-old Charlotte Cheshire. Not least of which was the drama of the inquest in which she was unexpectedly called upon to play a pivotal part.
Charles Cheshire’s death took the already fractious town to a fever pitch of anxiety. That a coroner’s inquest had to be convened within 48 hours gave the general uncertainty a point of focus. Rules governing a coroner’s interest in a death have changed over the years but in the mid-nineteenth century, coroner’s inquests were held in the case of early all violent deaths and some sudden deaths. Although an absolute rule had never been laid down, it was generally understood that inquests were held not only where violence was suspected but also in the cases of diseases that could be confounded with deaths by violence. As the industrial revolution had gathered pace, poisons and their availability became more widespread. Sudden deaths were of interest to the law “because mortal violence and poisoning often have immediate effect. The law therefore points out those who die suddenly (subitos mortuos) to the special attention of coroners. Many deaths under the following heads would belong to this class, having occurred either suddenly or with symptoms caused by the respective diseases, not easily distinguished from the symptoms of deaths by poison... Hydrophobia, tetanus, intemperance and starvation properly belong to violent deaths”
The coroner’s responsibility was to establish who the deceased was and how, when and where they died. The inquest as court of inquiry sought to establish the manner or cause of the death. Because it was a legal court, the coroner had the power to summon witnesses and compel them to tell the truth, so perjury was possible at an inquest. Coroners were usually from a legal or medical background and were appointed for life by the county authorities. Juries at inquests were quite common in this period. Composed of between 12 and 24 persons, they were usually men of some standing locally who were empowered to examine the body, hear witnesses and come to a verdict as to the cause of death.
Mr Brabent, the coroner who came to oversee the inquest into the death of Charles Cheshire, was unusual in that he was empowered by the Liberty of St Albans. (This authority originated with privileges claimed by St Albans Abbey from King Offa of Mercia). An ancient independent political unit originating in the middle ages, Liberties had been absorbed into the county structure after 1850 and by 1867 only a handful including St Albans remained, still exercising some legal jurisdiction which by 1877 was actually being phased out in all but name.
The venue for the inquest was The Rifle Volunteer public house. One of Oxhey's original pubs, it had been built as a beerhouse by Clutterbucks Stanmore brewery sometime after 1850 when the part of Oxhey then known as ‘New Bushey’ was being developed. The naming of the pub had coincided with the formation of the local militia of which Drs Iles and Brett were founder members. It was chosen as a venue by Mr Brabant because of its location in Villiers Road, the same street as where the Cheshire family lived, making it easily accessible to all interested parties.
The 13 members of the jury were all drawn from the local jury list and were as follows: Mr Thurlow, the Foreman, Mr Wand, Mr S Fowler, Mr Lunnon, Mr George, Mr Miller, Mr Jones, Mr Goode, Mr M Sheppard, Mr Greenfield, Mr Taylor, Mr Dysnall and another Mr Sheppard.
As well as the jury and the witnesses notified by Mr Brabant, interested parties and members of the public were also present. The ‘Three Musketeers’, Rev. Newton Price, Dr Brett and Dr Iles were all in attendance.
At the very start of the proceedings, Dr Iles stepped forward and spoke. Using his authority as a medical man he, “expressed his opinion that the widow would not be able to undergo examination that day” Those assembled were sympathetic and Mr Brabant assented. Instead of the widow’s testimony, Dr Iles believed that he himself would be able to give the information that would be valuable to the jury in their deliberations. Notwithstanding this offer, it was the Revd Newton Price who was first called to give evidence. Newton Price described how he was called to the home of the deceased at 6.30pm on Saturday. He said that he had known him previously and that he was a railway clerk at Euston Station. Price described him as being in reasonable shape though obviously ill. The Coroner asked if Charles had given him the history of his infection. Newton Price replied that he had not but that he had heard the story of the dog attack from Mrs Cheshire. Price added that ‘other matters’ had passed between them. It appeared that Charles had a presentiment of his imminent death and had called upon Newton Price in his religious capacity.
Newton Price stated that he had been with Charles Cheshire for two hours and he had been told that Charles’ most serious attack occurred during that period. He described how after a few minutes’ conversation, he suddenly rose up “making strange noises” Price seems to have been aware that the Coroner’s primary concern was the cause of death, so he was at pains to follow this point of interest and emphasise the symptoms popularly supposed to be associated with ‘hydrophobia’. Accordingly the agitation, involuntary movements and convulsions caused by the disease’s attack on the central nervous system were interpreted by Newton Price, in terms of the time-honoured folk myth, as imitative of a dog. A Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians writing in the next Watford Observer cited such observations as “simply proof of the current total ignorance of the cause and pathology of the disease. This ignorance is compounded by the fanciful imaginings associated with even the observations of the symptoms of this illness. Such as the notion that the patient’s behaviour in extremis takes on the character of the animal that infected him”
(It is a further testament to Charles Cheshire’s character that he appears to have risen above such ignorant fears. During a period of comparative calm he apparently asked for his children to be brought to him so that he could kiss them goodbye. He is said to have remarked sardonically “I won’t bite them”.)
The Coroner though had only such ignorant notions and very limited science to guide him in defining a cause of death. So consequently he was inclined to keep returning to the accepted folklore as evidence. During Dr Iles’ testimony, Mr Brabant showed a persistent interest in the ‘fear of water’ a mythically definitive symptom after which rabies was named when it affected humans. This derived from the pain and difficulty experienced by sufferers when swallowing.
Newton Price also witnessed Charles having convulsions so great it took a number of men to restrain him. Yet Price also conveyed his admiration of Charles Cheshire who retained an awareness of his circumstances and understood that he was restrained for his own benefit.
When Dr Wilson-Iles gave evidence, he told how, although he had not known Charles Cheshire before, he called upon him on Saturday afternoon after his partner Dr Wiley had already visited at 11.30am. Dr Iles gave a full account of his visits to Charles that day and of the symptoms he observed including “an inability to swallow liquids”. Prompted by the Coroner in regard Charles’ attitude to drinking, Dr Iles made a point of noting the “great repugnance” exhibited by the patient towards the bowl of milk that had provoked throat spasms. On retaining his composure he told Dr Iles “in a perfectly rational manner” the story of his encounter with the Black Retriever including his visit to Mr Grass who surprisingly had not been summoned to give evidence, this despite the fact that he had been the first witness to hear of the attack and also as it transpired, his being a gamekeeper on the Cassiobury Estate. Because of his occupation with that estate it would have been Grass, of all people in the town, who would have had the greatest recent experience of rabies.
There was naturally a great deal of interest in the infected dog and its possible owner. At that time the Retriever was a relatively new breed, known then as the Flat-Coated Retriever, at this point all retrievers were black (Golden Retrievers were not introduced until WW1). The first examples of the Flat-Coated Retriever were introduced around 1860 from St John’s dogs in Canada. Their first appearance in the show ring was in 1864 with Old Bounce and her daughter Young Bounce. These two became the nucleus for the development of the ‘Flattie’ as they were colloquially known. This breed soon found its vocation and rapidly gained enormous popularity in field sports where they were known as ‘gamekeepers’ dogs’.
Dr Wilson-Iles concluded his account of Charles Cheshire’s deterioration with his death at 4.30am just prior to the Doctor’s fourth visit to Villiers Road that weekend. Dr Iles announced definitively for the benefit of the Coroner that he had no doubt whatever that the cause of death had been hydrophobia.
That fateful Saturday evening Dr Iles had been joined by Dr Brett who also came to observe this rare case at 8.30pm. This was evidently not the occasion when Charles had related the tale of the dog to Dr Iles because Dr Brett now stood up at the inquest, “I should like to ask Dr Iles, did the deceased say the dog had a collar?”
Brett explained that a Black Retriever with a collar had been seen about the town. A collar perhaps implied a traceable owner. Dr Iles disappointed him and replied that Cheshire had mentioned no collar. For two weeks running The Watford Observer had reprinted a letter from a correspondent who simply signed as “Reader”. The letter retold Charles Cheshire’s experience, condemning the passers-by and ending: “I do sincerely hope that in the cause of humanity the owner of this dog may be found so that he may be made to pay for all the damages done by this animal”. Furthermore ‘Reader’ was surprised that such a thing could have happened at all in the light of the Watford Magistrates’ order. At the inquest the jury in The Rifle Volunteer was equally disturbed and noted that for all the plain-clothes policing activity and zealous prosecutions of errant dog owners in the past weeks, neither the police nor the magistrates had made any effort whatever to trace the owner of this particular dog, now proven to be rabid.
The Coroner’s primary concern was to ascertain the cause of death. When the jury started to suggest that further evidence and witnesses should be brought before the inquest, he began to worry that the investigation was starting to stray beyond its simple purpose. But worse was to come. The matter of the callous passers-by was now raised, presumably from the floor as newspaper reports refer to the interjection coming from “a gentleman present”. This gentleman said that “he believed the names of those persons who had passed… were known” and that “he thought some effort should be made to get them before a jury” This suggestion seemed to have named an ‘elephant in the room’ for, to Mr Brabant’s disquiet, the jury agreed with alacrity. The Coroner then began a protracted struggle to remind the jurymen of their limited remit. A general and increasingly vociferous discussion ensued about the possibility and permissibility of pursuing further evidence.
“At this moment whilst the Coroner and the jury were deliberating as to whether an endeavour should be made to obtain further evidence, the Revd Newton Price led into the room the widow of the deceased who appeared to be absorbed in the deepest grief”
Whether it was Newton Price’s intention or not, Charlotte Cheshire’s unexpected appearance killed the debate at a stroke and the room fell silent. In answer to Mr Brabant she recounted how she had been in London on the day her husband had the encounter with the dog but that he had called on her at her workplace when he came up to the hospital. She had not asked him much about the incident, not wishing to worry him. The Coroner then asked her if Charles had spoken about the passers-by. All the newspaper reports noted the lengthy and pregnant pause in the room as she composed herself to speak:
“My husband died with such good will towards everybody that I should hardly wish the circumstances mentioned, unless you feel it is really necessary. Of course those who might have passed could not have prevented the dog from attacking him and I am sure he would not wish anything to be mentioned by me as an act of accusation against anyone”
After listening to this moving and affecting reply, the Coroner observed that the behaviour of the coach party had indeed been “inhuman”, but as Mrs Cheshire was led from the room he still “insisted it had nothing whatever to do with their present enquiry”41.
Mr Brabant may have thought the matter concluded but the jury thought otherwise and returned to the matter of tracing the ownership of the dog. “That is rather travelling out of your province” replied the Coroner. In a clumsy effort to perhaps provoke a revelation of their identities, Juryman Fowler rather pointedly suggested that the passes-by may have owned the dog.
The Foreman of the jury, Mr Thurlow, then rose to say that he believed that the Watford Magistrates had now extended their control order. In this he was quite correct. At the recent Petty Sessions, Inspector Stephen Chapman had made a report on the matter to the Watford Bench: “mad dogs have been seen in the town and neighbourhood of Watford”. He gave a litany of suspected mad dog reports and of those dogs killed by the police. The Bench immediately acceded to his request to renew the order for “all dogs to be for a time shut up” or “led on a chain”.
The jury Foreman was suggesting that the renewal of the legal order gave weight to the jury’s request for further investigation. But Mr Brabant was having none of it and once again tried to explain the limits of the inquest’s jurisdiction. His final say suggested that if the jurymen had any further concerns for investigation, they should take them to the police.
“After a long discussion on this head the jury, apparently with some unwillingness, fell into the Coroner’s view” and “in accordance with the medical testimony a verdict of ‘Death from Hydrophobia’ was agreed unanimously”
At the agreement of the verdict, Dr Brett spoke up, perhaps in an effort to soothe concerns and announced that he had been reliably informed by a Mr J F Watkin that the Black Retriever dog had been traced to Sarratt where it was killed. As to the origin of the dog, Dr Brett had been told that on the 7th October a dog of that description went to Delrow house and was tied up there in the stables for the night. In the morning it was discovered to have bitten a horse and was chased away. Five weeks later the horse was believed mad and shot. In a cliché, the occupants at Delrow said they thought the dog had come from predictably anonymous travellers at Barnet Fair.
Dr Wilson-Iles also tried to mollify those present with the rationality of his medical knowledge explaining that they could “rest comfortable at the present moment that the dog was dead” since rabid dogs, said he, only lived a short time. When the jury asked how long, he replied “they tell us in the books that they do not live more than a few days”
Naming the passers by
Despite the outrage expressed at the inquest and in the national newspapers, there was evident nervousness about naming the ‘passers-by’, this despite the equally anonymous gentleman’s claim that, ‘they are known’. This reticence may simply have been because the occupants of the carriage(s) were locally powerful people. A clue to their socially unassailable position may lie in the vehicles in which they were travelling along the St Albans Road that fateful late summer morning.
The types of carriage described in the reports were the sole preserve of the aristocratic or the very rich. Open carriages that could accommodate four passengers and be drawn by at least two horses were almost certainly to have been either a landau or a barouche. The landau was the more lightweight of the two. Mounted on elliptical springs for a smooth ride it was the luxury sports car of its day. A city carriage, it had a low shell that was designed to give maximum visibility to the occupants and their clothing. It was a carriage in which to promenade and be seen. It was a social carriage with a dropped footwell, again to maximise display. The barouche or ‘Sociable’ was another open-topped four-wheeler. This also carried four passengers in well-upholstered seats facing each other in pairs. More solidly built than the landau, it was the equivalent of a modern convertible limousine. It was an exclusive carriage for the aristocracy and the wealthy and was used in the 19th century for display and summer leisure driving. The barouche was designed to give a powerful impression of luxury and elegance. Like the landau it was a prestige vehicle intended to impress equals and induce awe in the lower orders. Barouche driving is mentioned as a fashionable pastime in Louisa May Allcott’s 1868 novel Little Women.
The owners and occupants of such carriages (deemed carriage folk by their envious peers) would probably have enjoyed a lifestyle that involved little or no personal interactions with the lower classes. Under normal circumstances a meeting on the road with someone of Charles Cheshire’s social status would have merely seen him stand to one side and doff his cap. In the exceptional circumstances in which Charles Cheshire was caught on that fateful September morning it is easy to imagine that it was the gulf of the social divide that prevented Charles Cheshire from receiving assistance. In truth such stylish vehicles would have probably have been carrying the very people most likely to be of the least practical use to Charles Cheshire in his predicament.
Despite all its economic expansion and demographic changes, there remained a strong feudal element to 19th century Britain. The Country House remained the dominant social institution, even in the late Victorian period as agriculture declined. In towns like Watford, a rural oligarchy, some of whom were (grudgingly or enthusiastically) accepting the company of parvenu landed neighbours, still held sway over the subservient, antiquated functionaries of local government; the aldermen, parish vestries and Justices of the Peace. In spite of their declining economic power the aristocracy still held onto their social esteem by serving as patrons and presidents, giving a mystique and élan to organisations that would otherwise be worthy but bereft of glamour. Conversely the rural workforce had inherited the lowest of all social positions which the expanding next generation as townspeople were less inclined to passively accept.
Those Watford townsfolk attending Charles Cheshire’s inquest at the Rifle Volunteer appear to be caught in a tension between deference and social justice. The residual feudalism that so irked radical liberals like Richard Cobden MP and John Bright can still be scented in the inquest room. The jurymen behave as if they are enacting a Saxon Folk-Moot, wanting to use their temporary communitarian authority to shame delinquent members of their local community. Ultimately they retreat and defer to the Coroner who, as his title implies, was a representative of the Crown, a Norman innovation of centralised authority. Yet socially this is still the balance of power that was accepted in 1877.
The signs of strain are there, the weakness and declining ‘noblesse oblige’ of the old order, in the face of economic change. The personal efforts of middle class activists like Brett, Iles and Price to fill the vacuum and attend to the deepening flaws and challenges, will demonstrate their well- meaning inadequacy to first-hand observers like William H Syme. He will equally condemn the ‘idleness of the rich’ and the ‘bumbledom’ of local institutions as his part in what Asa Briggs called the ‘Late Victorian Revolt’.
What became of them?
The Cheshire Fund proposal went ahead as planned with the eldest son Walter Cheshire attending the Wanstead Orphan Asylum. Charlotte Cheshire moved the family back to London and four years after her husband’s death, she and her daughter Norah were living in Camberwell. It seems that her second son Russell failed as a candidate in the proposed 1878 Orphan Elections, or possibly avoided them altogether, as at seven years old he was still living at home with his mother and sister at 23 Rust Square. This address was included in the famous Charles Booth 1889 survey of London streets which produced a colour-coded map shaded in tints that signified the varying degrees of respectability or roughness of the inhabitants. Rust Square was recorded as “3-St[orey] houses. Good working class. “Pink as map.” This meant it was seen as “working class but not poor, secure employment possibly” In the 1881 census Charlotte’s income was recorded as “living on independent means” so it seems that the Cheshire Fund was still successfully providing a steady income to her and her family.
Ten years later, when Norah was about to become 14 and trigger the release of the capital sum to her mother, her brother Walter Cheshire, now aged 20, was living back home with the family. He had become qualified and was now working as a mercantile clerk. This was an occupation which might be considered at least one rung up from his father’s former position. John Roebuck, an outspoken independent MP, may have used the Mercantile Clerk as an example of the civilising effect of education, but a clerk’s social position was still a fragile one. Russell at 17 was now entering the same line of work as his older brother so in 1891 the household was a secure one. Walter Cheshire later married an Irish woman named Annie and the pair set up home in Hornsey where they had a child named Harold. Russell also married, his wife was named Julia. The couple emigrated to Canada, where they raised three children in Ontario; Norah, named after her aunt, Russell Junior and Wilfred.
After the release of the Cheshire Fund’s capital sum, which she may have shared out with her children, 47 year-old Charlotte returned to the kind of domestic employment she had given up after Charles’ death. She became a housekeeper for a Thomas Symonds and his two nephews who lived and worked with him in his butcher’s shop. Ten years later she had moved on to the piano-making family of Offer where she was a nurse to their new-born son. She died in 1928 aged 74, fifty-one years after the death of her young husband Charles. She had never remarried.
Lincolnshire-born Dr Francis H Wilson-Iles continued his tireless efforts to improve the town’s health and education provision. He was continually lauded for his work with the Local Board, Fire Brigade, Militia, Freemasons and medical institutions. The very day that Cheshire was attacked, Wilson-Iles was being elected as the Watford District Medical Officer for the brand new West Herts Infirmary. Then quite unexpectedly in 1883 all his activity came to a calamitous end.
It was nine years after Charles Cheshire’s illness that Louis Pasteur administered the first successful vaccination against rabies. This breakthrough came about as part of an effort to prove the theory of germs or bacteria as the source of infection and disease. Until conclusive evidence was presented by Pasteur and Robert Koch, this idea had been considered a controversial hypothesis. Not only was the acceptance of germ theory too late to help Charles Cheshire, it also did not come in time to help Dr Wilson-Iles.
While performing a tracheotomy to save the life of a child choking with diphtheria, Dr Iles accidentally nicked himself with his scalpel. Thereafter he contracted an infection that soon led to blood poisoning. This in turn quickly proved fatal. His unexpected death at the age of 48 shocked the town.
“Never perhaps in the history of Watford has the loss of one of its inhabitants caused such general and heartfelt sorrow”
Thousands turned out for his funeral and 70 wreaths followed the hearse.
In 1877 Newton Price’s campaigning for the moral and physical improvement of the working class was just getting into its stride. Having instigated and supported a number of teetotal Working Mens’ Clubs such as the one Charles Cheshire frequented, he now arbitrarily engaged W H Syme to design and build a teaching kitchen behind his school on Watford Heath. Here he pioneered Domestic Economy classes for girls. These skills gave them employment opportunities in the limited spheres open to women and also supplied nutritious meals to the Clubs. Spurred by opposition Newton Price took up a national campaign for Domestic Economy to be taught in all schools. Ten years later, after he had given evidence to a Parliamentary Committee, he saw Domestic Economy accepted as a curriculum subject nationally. In the same year, 1887, the Watford Library, which Newton Price with Brett and Iles had been instrumental in establishing, became a truly free library when all borrowing charges were abolished.
In 1877, at the time of the Cheshire tragedy, Newton Price was minister at the tiny Oxhey Chapel but was lobbying for a parish of his own in the teeth of opposition from the incumbent Vicar of Watford. So it is surprising that given the networking advantages that Freemasonry would have afforded him, Newton Price chose to resign from the Brotherhood before the year was out. Despite this he did achieve his personal goal in 1880 when Queen Victoria granted parish status onto the Oxhey District which he coveted. Once again he commissioned W H Syme, this time as architect for the new Parish Church of St Matthews. In the last years of his life, Newton Price finally ran out of steam. He died at his vicarage in 1907.
Dr Alfred T Brett had come to Watford in 1850, the earliest of the incoming ‘musketeers’. A Londoner, he had qualified at Guy’s Hospital and joined the practice of an existing Watford doctor. Over time he became a very busy man in the town, collecting an inordinate number of posts and positions in the community including Medical Officer for the Urban District Council, the Workhouse and the London Orphan Asylum, Factory Surgeon, Public Vaccinator and Surgeon to both the Watford Hospital and the London and North West Railway, to name but a few of his titles. He was also instrumental in establishing Watford’s sanitation and educational institutions. Notwithstanding all his ‘extracurricular’ activities, he also ran a successful private medical practice which enabled him to marry the daughter of Mr Reeves of Chalkhill and support the four daughters of his marriage. A wealthy man, he lived at the prestigious Watford House in the High Street, situated between Upton Road and Clarendon Road. His surgery was located in the grounds of his house at the corner of the High Street and Clarendon Road.
After his death from Brights Disease in 1896, Dr Brett extensive property was sold and later developed into The Parade, High Street. In the grounds of Watford House Alfred Brett had also built himself a private museum. This small building he filled with a collection of natural history exhibits. With a lifelong passion for the subject, he was for years the President of the Watford Natural History Society and Field Club. It was at the 1878 Annual General Meeting of this Society that Dr Brett gave the yearly address in which he summed up the events of the preceding year:
“I might mention that in 1877 hydrophobia caused a great deal of alarm in Watford and other places.”
He spoke of two instances where the disease had been transmitted to humans: one at Hemel Hempstead and the other (Charles Cheshire) at Bushey.
“I saw the latter case and quite agree with Sir Thomas Watson who says ‘No-one who has ever seen a case of hydrophobia could mistake it for any other disease or ever forget it’”
The reason why Dr Brett was talking about the Cheshire case at the AGM of a Natural History Society and Field Club, was merely as a side issue to an important Field Sport matter that had also occurred during the previous year. Dr Brett had to report to the assembled membership that in 1877 a devastating total of 140 deer, all belonging to the Earl of Essex, had died at Cassiobury Park that year. All of them killed by rabies, which he called a “fatal and singular disease”46.
During the historic visitation of rabies upon Watford this massacre was the most glaring manifestation and probably its single most significant factor. Yet despite all the hysteria and panic within the town, the comprehensive newspaper coverage and the coroners’reports, it was a fact and a connection that does not appear to have been recorded, or even noted, anywhere else.
Appedix 1 PORTRAITS
The Three Musketeers and their beards
As can be seen, Dr Brett sports a beard of the ‘Newgate Frill’ type. By the late 1870s this was really rather old-fashioned: the face clean-shaven except for side whiskers and growth under the chin and neck appearing as an upside-down halo. This seems quite bizarre to modern eyes but for his contemporaries in the 1850s it was a logical outcome of an evolution in the fashion for men’s facial styling. In the preceding 1830s and 40s, fashionable men were clean-shaven, then in the late 40s, sideboards began creeping downwards. They broadened into side whiskers, either close cropped ‘mutton chops’ or combed out ‘Piccadilly Weepers’. They carried on with their downward trajectory until the mid 1850s when the fashion was for the whiskers to meet beneath the chin. The result was the ‘Newgate Collar’ or ‘Frill’, named after the hangman’s noose which when in use occupied a similar position. This was the fashion with which Brett in maturity decided to settle.
Newton Price and Wilson-Iles, both younger men, kept up with the beard trends that followed, matching their own fashion-consciousness in the 1860s to intellectuals everywhere who had started growing the voluminous ‘Natural’ or ‘Philosopher's’ beards. These were in homage to Diogenes, Epictetus and Critolaus, who distinguished themselves from the clean-shaven ignorant hoi polloi, by both their intellect and their shaggy beards. These beards tapped into aspirations to the patriarchal wisdom of the venerable sage, and in the case of a pulpit thunderer like Newton Price, to the status of the Old Testament prophets. Soon men of science like Dr Iles and all great thinkers like Charles Darwin and Karl Marx would feel them obligatory.
Left to rght: Dr Iles, (in uniform) with full blown Diogenes, Rev. Newton Price favours Old Testament style while Dr Brett sticks with the old fashioned Newgate frill.
Contributions collected by The Cheshire Fund Committee
The Rev. Falconer collected from his parishioners in Bushey;
chief contributor was Edward Joseph who gave £5.
The Revd Newton Price collected £77.1s.8d from a lot of ladies and individuals including:
- G de Quetteville of Kensington 10/-
- an anonymous donor £2
- Thomas Petitt and friends
- John Corbett (the philanthropist MP)
- R.G. 10/-
- C.E.W. 3 guineas
- W.G.S. £1
- Mrs Nutt of Paris £1
- W.W. 2 guineas
- R Horsfall 1 guinea
- Mrs Napier of Hanover Square £1
- Mrs T Peckham £1
- A.M. 10/-
- Mrs Watts of Hampstead 10/-
- Mrs Hill of Cambridge Square £1
(one-time muse for Byron’s ‘Ianthe’) £1
- The Rt Hon H Cowper, MP for Hertford £5
- H.V. £2
- Mrs Skinner of Eccleston Square £1
Walker Ashbourne, wife of the
Attorney General (her daughter attempted
an assassination of Mussolini) £1
William T Eley of Oxhey Grange
- Thomas Blackwell £2
- Jonathan King £2
The servants at Oxhey Grange 15/-
Emily Louise James of Kitlers Green
- Lord Rokeby, recently retired General £2
- Lord Rokeby’s servants £1.16.6d
- The Dean of Windsor £1
G Green collected sundry amounts from the Stock Exchange
F J Sedgwick
- The Earl of Clarendon £2
- Mr Ross’s men 10/-
Those giving under 10/- remained anonymous but these smaller amounts totalled £346.
With grateful thanks to Roger Kattenhorn for this well researched and detailed article.
Copyright remains with Roger Katternhorn