November 7, 1916 – Death stalks Harborough: from teenagers barely able to shave to a one-month-old baby boy


Click here  to see an NHS video explaining how we cope with baby deaths in 2016

Today we call it SIDS – Sudden Infant Death Syndrome – but in 1916 they called it plain old common sense.

This poignant insight into the lives – and deaths – of babies is revealed in the November 7, 1916, edition of the Market Harborough Advertiser.

The story comes from an inquest into the unnamed one-month-old son of William and Florence Spicknell of St Mary’s Road.

The inquest heard the baby slept in bed between the couple along with ‘another child, aged 16 months, in the same bed at the foot’.

infant death rates v1

Ironically, infant mortality rates have been falling in Market Harborough as this graph from the April 25, 1916, newspapersandthegreatwar blog shows

“On Friday night she took him to bed as usual. She woke at 7.30 next morning and found the baby lying on its left side. Its face was drawn and she thought he was dead.”

The account then details the rather aggressive – considering the circumstances – questioning of the grieving father by the coroner.

Coroner: Do you read the papers?

Father: Yes.

Coroner : And you have seen a good deal about children being overlain?

Father: I never heard of a case like this before.

Coroner: What, never heard of a case of a child being found dead in bed with its parents?

Father: No.

Coroner: I should think you are the only man who has not. You have heard of having a cot beside the bed?

Father: Yes.

Coroner: Why didn’t you have a cot?

Father: I thought there was no harm in having the children in bed with us.

Coroner: I should say there is every harm in it and every reason why you should not do it.

The rather insensitive interrogation did not extend to any punishment but the Coroner and jury concluded by saying: “They did not consider it right for infants and children to be in bed with their parents. They were responsibilities on the husband as well as the wide in this matter.”

This sad and unexpected story is published on the same page as another sad, but less surprising, account of a teenage Harborian who has been killed in action.

Private Charlie Evans, who lived with his sister in East Street, was only 17 when he enlisted a year ago and he spent his 18th birthday in the trenches.

Miss Evans received a letter from her brother’s best ‘chum’ Lance-Corporal Stevenson. “I am very sorry to hear that Charlie was killed. He was in the best of health and as happy as could be the day before he was missing, in fact we spent a good day together on Thursday and then on Friday it looks as though I lost one of my best friends.”

What makes this story so heart-rending is the following sentence, said with matter-of-fact plainness but which reveals the extraordinary horror of fighting on the Western Front.

“I cannot tell you who found him but a few friends and myself looked for him a few days after but we did not find him.”

The account very sadly concludes: “Two photos which were picked up on the battlefield were sent to Miss Evans by a private in the same regiment and she identified them as having been sent b her to Private Evans.”

And there is a brief, but equally sad story of Private F Clarke of Quaker’s Yard, Harborough, who had survived a wounding, gone back to the fighting, only to be killed in action at the age of 20. Another young man who would not be returning to the Harborough Rubber Works when the war eventually ran its course.

  • This column is published every Monday by John Dilley on the Newspapers and the Great War website and will continue until the 100th anniversary of the final armistice in November 2018.
  • My fellow researcher and De Montfort University lecturer David Penman is conducting a similar real-time project with the Ashbourne Telegraph. Check out his Great War Reports.
  • Check out this week’s Harborough Mail for current news from the Market Harborough area.




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