The Toddler’s Tale #OnePlaceTragedies in #Sticklepath

Sticklepath’s leat provided water power to run the mills. Primula House, seen here in the top right corner of the photograph marks the place where the leat moves from behind the houses to the front gardens. Shortly afterwards the water re-joins the Taw River at Sticklepath Bridge. Jessie Barron, nee Finch, is seen here next to the leat in her lovely sunny garden. It looks idyllic. However, several tragedies are associated with this waterway.

Explore the lives of Jessie’s Uncle, Thomas Finch and his family, to discover their tragic story for yourself, using the census and registry office information (birth marriage and death), a newspaper article and some memorial cards.  

Researching family history is exciting as we discover records, imagine celebrations and solve mysteries. However it can be frustrating when we can’t find answers, and surviving records often relate to deaths and tragedies. Then our hearts go out to those involved.

Thomas Seacombe Finch was born in 1866 when his brother James was 10, Susan was 6, Jessie (not the one above) was 5 and Albany was 3.  In 1871 we find them with their parents George and Rebecca Finch in Primula House.  This timeline follows events in their lives:

1872 sister Naomi was born

1881 Census – Thomas age 15 is living in Primula House with his parents

1885 father George died

1886 sister Jessie died

1891 Census – Thomas is still living in Primula House

George Finch, aged only 50, took ill fairly suddenly and died.  The family understood he had toothache, the doctor prescribed opium, and he died seemingly of an overdose.  The death certificate tells a different story, which need not concern us here.  Even today, with all our scientific advances there are often inconsistencies and unanswered questions surrounding a death.  Were people more accepting in the past?  I wonder. 

Ten months later Jessie died of tuberculosis. TB was a common cause of death in young adults at the time.  Often people became pale, weak and lost weight, giving it the name ‘consumption’.  Coughing up blood was often a late sign of pulmonary TB.  There was no cure.

Happier days followed.  I have no idea how Thomas met Essex girl Annie but the timeline continues with a marriage certificate, and the birth of a son:

1893 January Thomas Seacombe Finch married Annie Lena Locking in Essex 

1893 December Victor Thomas Finch was born

Victor was healthy, growing well, starting to walk and watch the other children around him with interest. Just when things were going well, totally out of the blue, tragedy struck.  2 months before his 2nd birthday Victor died.

An unexpected death means a coroner’s inquest.  These were often held in the local pub.  Coroner’s records often do not survive or are not accessible, but the newspaper reports are fairly detailed.  The Western Times of Friday 25th October 1895 (accessed from http://britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk January 2021) tells us:

Child Drowned at Sticklepath

Mr Coroner Prickman held an inquest at the Taw River Hotel, Sticklepath, on Wednesday, on the body of Victor Finch, aged one year and ten months, who was drowned in the Taw River on Monday.  Mary Ann Cooper, of South Zeal, said she saw the deceased playing with some other children in the garden adjoining the mill leat.  The water in the leat is about a foot deep and the bank about five feet high.  Thomas Finch, blacksmith, of Stickelpath, said the deceased was his only child.  He went into the garden to fetch his child to dinner, and found him lying in the river quite dead.  The other children who were playing with the deceased were too young to give evidence. Dr Middlemist, of Okehamptnn, said he considered the child was stunned by the fall.  Accidental drowning was the verdict.  (Transcription includes spelling errors as printed).

Reflecting on the story, shows how times have changed.  A group of young children, of different parents, would not be left completely unsupervised in a garden, especially not with an unguarded 5 foot drop and a stream running through.  Even the smallest ponds tend to be covered or filled in.  No hint of blame or reprimand was mentioned. I wonder how much shame or guilt would have been felt?  On the other hand, perhaps our children lose something by not being allowed to play freely outside, albeit in a safer environment.

“The only and Dearly-loved Child of Thomas and Annie Finch” – their grief is almost palpable.

This newspaper gave a relatively sanitised version of the story.  Another paper clarifies that the body was indeed found in the river, not the leat, having presumably been swept along by the water almost to the bridge. We can picture the rising panic, hunting for the toddler, before the dreadful truth is discovered. Very distressing. 

A couple of years later, happier times follow:

1897 daughter Gladys Lena Finch born 

1900  son Leslie George Finch born

1901 census Thomas, who describes himself as a farmer, is living with family, a domestic servant aged 17 and brother-in-law Stephen Locking is staying. 

(You could only put one occupation on the 1901 census. Thomas was one of the three Finch Brothers running the Finch Foundry or smithy at the time, but he took the lead for the farming aspects).

COMING SOON: Tragedy strikes this same family again.  Part 2 next week!

#OnePlaceStudies Society provides blog prompts for each month during 2021. You don’t have to be a Society member or have a registered One Place study to join in. Everyone is invited. February’s prompt is #OnePlaceTragedies. Further details at https://www.one-place-studies.org/resources/blogging-prompts/

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