Friday, 20 December 2013

Bromley Coroner's verdicts of Felo de se

On 16 May 1809 one William Goldsmith alias Smith was buried on Shooting Common near the sign post . He had been committed from Bromley to Dartford for the theft of "Beetle and Wedges" from Mister Bonner at Chislehurst. The Beetle and Wedges were tools used for log splitting to create firewood.
Before he could be committed and whilst he was detained in the town Cage in the eponymous Cage Field, he hung himself in the Cage on 16 May 1809. The Cage was the town Lock up and had recently been constructed to form two spaces to lock up detainees and was open to the elements. The present East and West Streets stand on Cage Field which was close to Market Square and was largely at that time a field of corn. The Bromley Town fire pump was housed in the adjacent shed and these two buildings were the only buildings on the Bromley edge of Cage Field.
The suicide in the cage lead the Bromley Coroner to record a verdict of Felo de se.
This archaic term meaning literally "Felon of himself" referred to suicide and had the effect of making the victim a felon prior to the nineteenth century movement to consider suicide a mental health condition. In this case in Bromley the internment conformed to the tradition of burial at a crossroads often at midnight with no mourners or clergy present and no rites observed. There is no record whether the body in this case had the traditional stake driven through it. The exceptions were suicides of children or mentally incompetent persons.
In 1824 the law relating to interment was repealed and amended and in 1882 the Interments (felo de se) Act 1882 and the coroners verdict of non compus mentis became more common due to the trend to view suicide as a mental health issue affecting human behaviour. Victorian mental health legislation also influenced the elimination of the use of the term.
However this passed by the Bromley Coroner who returned a verdict of Felo de se in 1906 and conforming to the 1882 Interments Act the parish register of Bromley Common Holy Trinity records the internment in a burial plot close to the West wall of the Church of "Man Unknown, about 45, suicide by poison found in Oakley Road, no service held verdict of Coroner's Jury Felo de Se". The burial plot is numbered 772 on the burial ground map. The transcript of this burial is available at Kent Online Parish Clerks .
The Coroner's verdict is perverse not only due to repeal but the verdict of non compus mentis had been in use for over 100 years locally and nationally. Quite why the Coroner recorded such a verdict remains a mystery.
I wonder whether those passing along the modern A21 have any sense that to the side of the road lies the interred remains of William Goldsmith alias Smith.