Academic journal article Dickens Quarterly

Death & the Lady: Miss Coutts, Mr. Dickens & the Dead House Committee

Academic journal article Dickens Quarterly

Death & the Lady: Miss Coutts, Mr. Dickens & the Dead House Committee

Article excerpt


During the research for my book on the history of Gray's Anatomy, I worked extensively in the archives of the old St. George's Hospital, which originally stood at London's Hyde Park Corner. While doing so, I stumbled across an intriguing story. I felt sure, however, that there was something missing from the narrative, so the work was laid aside in the hope that in the fullness of time something might yet emerge. The missing material recently came to my hand during work on Dickens and the Workhouse, among Charles Dickens's Letters. It concerns a matter which arose in correspondence between Dickens and Angela Burdett Coutts. In the footnotes to the Pilgrim edition of the Letters this correspondence is accompanied by one of those alluring, tantalising, tormenting words for a scholar: "unexplained"(Letters 8:27 In.).

The story is not a pleasant one, as it involved the mistreatment of both the dead and the living. But since it also involves Dickens's fierce sense of justice, it will--I hope--appeal to readers of Dickens Quarterly. It concerns the death of a poor woman in St. George's Hospital.

Margaret Purvis died from cancer of the womb at St. George's Hospital in the autumn of 1856. Before Joseph Lister's discovery of antisepsis, the operation of hysterectomy was virtually unknown, and for several months she had been under the care of the surgeon Dr. Robert Lee, who treated her haemorrhages and severe pain with quinine and opium. Mrs. Purvis sank into coma and slipped away in the early hours of I October, at the age of 46. At the post-mortem examination the suspected cause of her death was confirmed. Her body was found to be pale and bloodless (Post Mortem Book 1856: 231).

Mrs. Purvis had been a widow, her husband Andrew--a journeyman tailor--having died the previous year from what we would call tuberculosis of the lung. Among men of his occupation, who were poorly paid and invariably worked in unhealthy and confined conditions, "consumption" was a common cause of death. The 1851 Census reveals that the Purvis family had lived at 2 Alfred Cottages, Coburg Row--renting rooms in a small cottage in a poor district of old Westminster on the outer edges of the urban slum quarter known as the Devil's Acre--close to Tothill Fields prison and the old road to the Horse-Ferry, south of where Victoria Street now runs.

The Purvises' orphaned daughter Ann Elizabeth (aged 19) was comforted after her mother's death by Harriet Bragg, her old head-mistress and mentor, who had remained a friend of the family. Two days after the death, Mrs. Bragg made her way north to St. George's Hospital, intending to spare young Ann the traditional duty of laying-out her mother's body, by undertaking these last respectful offices herself. She carried with her a clean shroud and equipment necessary for the sad task (Chamberlain: 35-41).

We know some of what followed only because three months after these events, a special committee was appointed in January 1857 by the Board of Governors at St. George's Hospital to investigate the entire matter. The flurry of consternation which gave rise to this committee's deliberations had followed hard upon the receipt of a letter from a very eminent personage: Miss Angela Burdett Coutts, whose mansion stood only a few hundred yards from St. George's, on the corner of Stratton Street and Piccadilly, facing Green Park. The Hospital's Governors do not appear ever to have known that, behind the scenes, the country's most famous novelist was assisting Miss Coutts. His name does not appear once in the records of St. George's Hospital in association with this matter.

The famous anatomical textbook Gray's Anatomy was being created at the medical school of old St. George's between 1856-57, the same era as Mrs. Purvis's slow death and the unexplained Dickens-Coutts letters (Richardson 2008). The post-mortem on Mrs. Purvis's body had in fact been undertaken by Henry Gray himself, and Gray also sat as a Governor on the Hospital's Weekly Board which later considered the Purvis case (Post Mortem Book 1856, 231). …

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