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‘A state of utter filth’

In March 1893 Marion and Edmund Neild were brought before Stafford magistrates charged with neglecting their children. The couple were living at 24 Eastgate Street, a poor dwelling in the town centre. The Medical Officer of Health reported what he had seen in the house. The front room was occupied as some sort of shop but the back room was ‘in a state of utter filth’. There were no signs of crockery or any other household utensils. ‘An abominable smell emanated from the beds and some flocks on the floor were covered in filth’. The situation in the Neild household had presumably been reported to the authorities by neighbours. They said the children went about in a very dirty condition, with their clothes in rags.

Behind this superficial picture of squalor lay marital violence and tragedy. In evidence, Marion Neild said ‘she had no heart to do anything in the house or for the children as her husband continually beat her.’ Her twelve years of marriage had been a life of ‘systematic cruelty at the hands of her husband’. In misery and despair she had sought refuge in drink and had been forced to beg bread for her children.

Edmund James Neild was a printer and compositor by trade. His story was that he earned 27 shillings a week of which he gave his wife 24 shillings. He said she had neglected the children and even pawned their clothing. He did admit to having beaten his wife ‘when she deserved it’ but he denied that he spent most of his time in public houses. The magistrates gave both Marion and Edmund a month in prison, a pointless sentence that did nothing to help their neglected children.[1] When they came out Edmund stayed on in Stafford. But Marion disappeared. I’ve found no trace of her, either alive or dead, after that fateful day in 1893. So what happened to her and what was the background to the disastrous Neild family?

Marion Neild had been born Marion George in Worcester in 1862. Her father Robert was a machinist in the city and he and his wife Emma, had six children. They were Protestants and the evidence suggests they were a skilled working class family strongly based in the city. Nevertheless, sometime in the late 1870s Marion left Worcester and came to Stafford. The first we know of her coming was when she arrived at St Austin’s Catholic Church in Stafford on 8 August 1880 to marry Edmund Neild.[2] It is significant that neither of the witnesses was from Marion’s family nor was apparently connected to her. One was Edmund’s sister Rebecca and the other was George Keogh, a ‘club manager’ living three doors down from the Neilds’ house in Eastgate Street.

As a printer and compositor Edmund Neild was a skilled and presumably literate man in a reasonably secure job. Both he and his wife superficially looked as though they would settle down to become a respectable working class family in Stafford. We have seen it alleged, however, that Edmund was violently abusive towards his wife from the start of their marriage. What was this man’s background?

Edmund’s background

Edmund’s father was James Neild (see the outline genealogy). We know this because Edmund gave his name for the St Austin’s Marriage Register, but there is otherwise almost no simple evidence as to who he was. The only definite fact is that James Neild married Rebecca Donnelly in Salford, Lancashire, in the early months of 1851.[3] Rebecca always said she had been born in Manchester, so it is reasonable to conclude we are dealing with the correct couple. Neither is traceable in the 1851 Census, however, and the reason is almost certainly that James Neild was serving in the military. Although he has not been traced in the military records, their first child, Edmund, was born soon afterwards in 1852 in Queenstown, Co. Cork (modern Cobh) and that made him technically Irish. Queenstown (Spike Island) was a major British military base. Was James Neild himself Irish? It’s possible, but even if he wasn’t, it’s pretty clear that his wife Rebecca Donnelly came from an Irish family despite having been born in Manchester. And the couple were Catholics.  James and Rebecca may have had more children in the 1850s and early 1860s but, if so, they didn’t survive, and Edmund’s only surviving sibling was his sister Rebecca Teresa who was born in Colchester, Essex, in 1854.[4] Colchester was also a garrison town which again suggests James Neild was in the forces. Neild-George Geneal conct

It is possible James and Rebecca Neild came to Stafford when James was drafted to the militia barracks some time after 1864. It was a common posting for soldiers at the end of their military career. If so, James didn’t settle in Stafford and, indeed, there is no actual proof of his presence in the town. I’ve traced no record of his death – he just disappears from history. Edmund Neild must therefore have had a fairly disrupted childhood in shifting environments and an unstable relationship with his father. Domestic violence could well have been part of existence both for him and his mother. We know today that many abusive adults themselves experienced abuse in childhood. Edmund may have been one of them.

After James’s death or disappearance Rebecca Neild did not let the grass grow under her feet. In 1871 she married an Irishman, John Higgins.[5] He was a printer and compositor who had been born in Ireland around 1828. In 1861 he had been living in Liverpool with his widowed mother and two sisters and he was working as a compositor at that time too. They have not been traced before that, so presumably they were Famine immigrants to Britain during the 1850s. John Higgins must have moved to Stafford during the 1860s, presumably for work. There is no obvious previous connection between Higgins and the Neild family, so John must have met the Rebecca after he settled in the town. When Rebecca married Higgins in 1871 the couple set up house at 52 Eastgate Street and as part of the deal Higgins accepted the two step-children, Edmund and Rebecca. Edmund, who was now 19 years old, was described as a printer in the 1871 census and it seems very likely he entered the trade – and got a job – through his new step-father.

During the 1870s John and Rebecca Higgins proceeded to have three surviving children, Ellen (b. 1873), William (b. 1874) and Cicely Edith (b. 1876). They moved to No. 11 Railway Street , a respectable address in Newtown. There is no other record of their doings during that decade but things did not run smoothly. John Higgins died in 1879 at the early age of 51.[6] For a second time Rebecca was left to face the world alone and bring up her three young children.  Just eight months after her husband’s death Edmund moved out and began his abusive marriage with Marion George.

What happened to Marion?

It seems clear that, by her own admission, Marion caved in in the face of Edmund’s violence and took to drink. The squalor that Dr Bloomer found in their house was clearly no temporary lapse but before the events of 1893 we have no evidence of the family’s problematic situation. There are no recorded events where either Edmund or Marion were involved in drunken, disruptive or violent behaviour in public. The crisis was unfolding indoors and only the children’s neglected condition finally exposed things to wider gaze. By this time the widowed Rebecca Higgins was living back in Eastgate Street, at No. 72, and it seems surprising that she did not become involved, if only to help her grandchildren. She certainly did become involved after 1893 and took in Edmund and his remaining young children. In 1901 Edmund, together with Edith (b. 1888) and William (b. 1891), were living at No. 72 with Rebecca and her Higgins children William and Cicely. He still described himself in the census as ‘married’.

By this time Marion had been absent for a number of years and we have seen that she just seems to have disappeared. Her appearance at the magistrates’ court must have been pathetic but, even allowing for newspaper licence, she was able to coherently expose the frightful conditions under which she lived, her own mental state and Edmund’s role in creating them. That suggests she was not a total drunken wreck. It also suggests she was a woman with some spirit who perhaps challenged the dominant male role in her Victorian marriage. After her release from gaol she may have used the opportunity to do a bunk. Although there is no record of her returning to her family and her home town of Worcester, perhaps family members paid for her to emigrate. She certainly seems to disappear from the British historical record.[7]

Edmund’s later years

Having moved in with his mother, Edmund Neild stayed on in Stafford. There must have been stresses in the household. Edmund’s relationship with Rebecca’s son William Higgins, a labourer, was probably poor but in this case it was the younger man who was problematic. In the 1900s William had a number of convictions for theft and in October 1904 he was in court for the theft of a pistol (value £1) from Edmund.[8] He sold it George Powell, the landlord of the Duke of York pub in Tipping Street. The incident is interesting because it suggests yet again that Edmund’s father James was in the military. Edmund must have inherited the gun after his father’s death or disappearance. Apart from a conviction in 1907 for not having a dog licence, Edmund kept out of trouble with the law.[9] His mother, meanwhile, had died in 1902 but Edmund continued to live in the family house at No. 72 Eastgate Street. In 1911 he was still there with his son William (Neild) and a married couple and their child as lodgers. He still said he was ‘married’. He finally died in Stafford in 1921.[10]

Edmund and Marion’s children mostly showed little attachment to Stafford and left the town in early adulthood. Their traumatic early years cannot have given them much attachment to the place, although their family circumstances seem to have stabilised when they moved in with their grandmother. James Robert Neild (b. 1885) did stay on in Stafford, however, and in 1917 married a Protestant woman, Bertha Ward.[11]  The couple stayed in Stafford but no children have been traced.

A problematic family

The story of Marion George and Edmund Neild shows the difficulties of reconstructing circumstances and motivations from limited historical data. The facts exposed in their household in 1893 were clear enough but building the wider picture has proved much more difficult. Edmund Neild was violent and abusive towards his wife and I’ve speculated on possible reasons in his background for this. His behaviour after 1893 shows, however, no continuing evidence of disruption or violence. In the aftermath he was not disowned by his mother and the children were brought up in the new family household.  The Neild/George marriage was obviously a tragic mistake but the pathological reasons for that are now difficult to fathom.

Another incidental point emerges from the story of the Neild family. Were they Irish? We have seen that in practice the ethnic pattern revealed by this family was complex and it emphasises the dangers of generalising about ethnic stereotypes and the need to examine the actual patterns of ethnicity revealed in real families in their historical context.


[1] Staffordshire Advertiser (SA), 25 March 1893.

[2] Parish of St Austin, Stafford, Register of Marriages, 1858-1880.

[3] Salford Registration District (RD), Marriages, January-March 1851, James Neild and Rebeca (sic) Donnelly, 20/781.

[4] Colchester RD, Births, July-September 1864, Rebecca Teresa Neild, 4a/245.

[5] Stafford RD, Marriages, January-March 1871, John Higgins and Rebecca Neild, 6b/35.

[6] Stafford Borough Council burial records, 04/6897, John Higgins, compositor, 23 December 1879.

[7] I’ve tried looking for her under both her married and maiden surnames and just by searching likely-looking ‘Marions’, since it was a relatively uncommon forename. No likely person emerged from these searches.

[8] SA, 15 October 1904.

[9] SA, 13 April 1907.

[10] Stafford Borough Council burial records, 11.9783, 30 March 1921, Edmund J Neild, printer.

[11] Stafford RD, Marriages, October-December 1917, James Robert Neild and Bertha Ward, 6b/37.