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The Duggan family

At the end of August 1890 an inquest was held in Stafford into the death of John Duggan. He was a baby just five months old and it was reported that ‘the child was a mere skeleton, only weighing six and a half pounds.’[1] It was a shocking case but it emphasises the burdens faced by young women in Victorian Britain when there was no welfare support and illegitimacy could be stigmatised, the children victimised.

The tragic John had been the illegitimate child of Ann Duggan, the 23-year old daughter of John and Ann Duggan. John Duggan was Irish. He had been born around 1821 in the small town of Killenaule, Co. Tipperary, and worked as a tailor. He was probably forced out of Ireland in the 1840s by lack of work during the Famine and by 1851 he had arrived in Castleton near Rochdale where he was lodging with John Thompson, a tailor. There were two other tailors in the household who also presumably worked for John Thompson. John Duggan moved on, however, and sometime during the 1850s he arrived in the Stafford area. The first we know of him there was when in 1860 he married Ann Riley in Penkridge, six miles south of Stafford.[2] Ann was younger than John, only 22 to his 39, and she had been born in Penkridge, the daughter of a farm labourer. She was also a tailor and we can assume she had already moved into Stafford and that the couple had met in the town. It was a shotgun wedding. Their first child, Ellen, was born only about three months after their marriage.[3]

John and Ann Duggan went on to have nine children, of whom their daughter Ann was the fifth. She was born in 1867. In general the family seems to have been secure and decent, although their son Michael (b. 1864), ‘a respectable looking lad’, had some petty scrapes with the law in childhood and particularly as an adult (he died in 1907).[4] Nevertheless, by the mid-1880s John Duggan was in his 60s and ailing. In 1890 his wife said he had been out of work for five years and he died in 1891.[5] Ann Duggan was therefore stressed around 1890, having to do paid work to provide an income and also dealing with a dying husband. It was in these circumstance that her daughter Ann ran into trouble.

John Duggan’s short life and death

Back in 1881 Ann, then 14 years old, had been listed in the Census as a ‘domestic servant’, although we don’t know whether this was working for her parents at home or as a paid servant outside. We unfortunately know nothing about her activities during the 1880s, but it seems she ultimately left home and in 1889, if not before, she had moved to Leicester. As another shoemaking town, Leicester was a common destination for Staffordians and it may have been that Ann Duggan had entered the shoe trade and gone there in search of work. Alternatively, she might have ‘trailed’ there behind a Stafford man who had made the move. All we know is that in 1889 some man in Leicester made her pregnant and the sad events began to unfold.

Ann had her baby John in Leicester in the spring of 1890.[6] When he was only a fortnight old he was put out to a nurse in the city but the baby’s father paid nothing for his support and Ann had to keep working. We don’t know what job she did but it provided her with just 12-13 shillings a week, a miserable amount. It is, nevertheless, noteworthy that she did not go into the workhouse like many women in her position would have done. She had another option – her mother. The latter promised to pay for baby John’s keep, so the baby was sent to Stafford around the beginning of May 1890. John’s grandmother Ann then immediately farmed him out to Rosannah Key who charged 5 shillings a week to look after him.

Rosannah Key was a woman from Tipton in the Black Country who had married Joseph Key from Eccleshall in 1885.[7] The couple lived at 21 Mill Bank in Stafford from 1885 until the late 1890s and Joseph, a wood sawyer, probably worked at Venables’ timber yard relatively close by on the Doxey Road. The couple already had one child, Matthew Charles, born in 1887, but Rosannah must have needed to supplement the family income by taking in other children.[8] She was summoned John Duggan’s inquest and her evidence was stark. She said that ‘when she received the deceased [John] it was in a filthy condition and had a cough. She paid great attention to the child and said she would rather keep the child than it should be knocked about.’ She had obviously feared for the baby’s welfare but she was given little time to deal with it because Ann Duggan (senior) took him away after a month – in other words, sometime in June 1890. Duggan said he was ‘taken away because the money was too much’. The baby lived with her until it died.[9]

The inquest evidence was imprecise about John’s condition when he left Rosannah Key but she was not overtly blamed and, indeed, the Coroner concluded he had been ‘treated well at Mrs Key’s’. The inquest clearly saw the Duggan women blameworthy and there was disbelief that ‘she (Ann Duggan senior) did not notice five weeks before what a tiny wretched child it was.’ Dr Blumer, Stafford’s MoH who had examined the child, said he should have been twice the weight. A juror asked Duggan whether she ‘thought all that was required from you was to pay the 5 shillings?’ to which she replied that ‘I have not much time as I have to work very hard to keep my husband who has been out of work for five years.’ It transpired the baby had been fed on condensed milk and Blumer thought he ‘had died from insufficient or improper food, as its digestive powers were gone.’ He did say that there were no external marks of violence on the child’s body.[10]

We have to have some sympathy with Ann Duggan and her mother. Ann was living in a strange city and had been made pregnant by someone who clearly cared nothing for the consequences. Her circumstances must have been miserable, something also suggested a few months later when, in the 1891 census, she was lodging with two other young women in the house of a ‘vermin destroyer’, Mary Beadle.[11] Ann must have been desperate to get her mother to take over baby John but Ann (senior) was clearly not up to the task. Her work and her ailing husband obviously imposed burdens which meant a third responsibility was beyond her. It would seem, however, that the rest of the family washed their hands of the situation. Ann’s daughter Ellen, then a 29-year old tailor, was still living with her parents at 29 Red Lion Street but she clearly did nothing. Their son John, also a tailor and then 24, lived just along the street with his wife Agnes who was expecting her first child, but they did nothing too. The hard fact is that baby John was the unwanted child of a wayward daughter and no-one cared enough to save him. The inquest jury was nevertheless reluctant to apportion blame that might lead to one or both Anns being prosecuted, despite a steer from the Coroner in that direction. Their verdict was merely ‘death from malnutrition’ which suggests they sympathised with the predicament mother and daughter had faced.

What of the aftermath?

It might be expected that Ann Duggan would have sunk into poverty, shunned by her siblings and those in Leicester who knew what had happened to her and her baby. Perhaps surprisingly that proved not to be the case. In the autumn of 1891, in Leicester, she got married.[12] Her new husband was Frederick Joseph Stevens who had been born in Bristol in 1866.[13] He seems to have eluded the 1891 Census but that was probably because he was away working on the railway. Having grown up in Bristol, he almost certainly went to work on the Midland Railway there. At some point he became a goods guard, a job he did for the rest of his career, and he subsequently moved north up the line to Leicester where he must have met Ann Duggan. It is, of course, conceivable he was poor John Duggan’s father but that seems unlikely because the couple went on to have an apparently settled marriage and five children, all of whom lived. Baby John’s fate must have lurked as a dark shadow over Ann Stevens/Duggan’s life and we have no reason to believe she didn’t prove to be a good and proud mother to her new family. They continued to live in Leicester until around 1900, at which point Frederick was moved to Coalville.[14] Around 1905 they moved again along the railway to Nuneaton where Ann and Frederick finally settled down. They had long lives there and died within weeks of each other in 1949.[15]

There is a final poignant note to the story. Old John Duggan died, as we have seen, in 1891, within nine months of baby John’s demise. His wife Ann lived on, however, for another twenty years and for all that time she shared accommodation with her daughter Ellen, who never married. In 1911 they were living at 9 Friar’s Road in Stafford but on 20 March that year Ann finally died, aged 73. Her funeral took place on 23 March and among the mourners was her daughter Ann who had come over from Nuneaton to attend. That explains why, on census day just over a week later, Ann and her son Frederick (aged 9) were recorded staying in the Friar’s Road house with sister Ellen.[16] Whatever the stresses of John Duggan’s sad death and the publicity it received, family bonds ultimately seem to have survived the trauma of 1890.


[1] Dr. F.M. Blumer, Stafford MoH, reported in the Staffordshire Advertiser (SA), 30 August 1890.

[2] Stafford Registration District (RD), Marriages, April-June 1860, John Duggan and Ann Riley, 6b/516. I have not checked as to whether Ann Riley was already a local Catholic or whether she ‘turned’ when she married the Catholic John Duggan, but the family were Catholics from then on.

[3] Penkridge RD, Births, June-September 1860, Ellen Duggan, 6b/355. Ann presumably went home to Penkridge for the birth.

[4] E.g. SA 6 June 1874, 21 December 1878, 11 April 1891 and in the 1900s.

[5] SA, 30 August 1890; Stafford Borough Council Burial record, 06/10924, John Duggan, 71, tailor, Red Lion Street, buried 11 March 1891.

[6] Leicester RD, Births, 1890, April-June, John Duggan, 7a/296.

[7] Stafford RD, Marriages, 1885, July-September, Joseph Key and Rosannah Hutton, 6b/31.

[8] Stafford RD, Births, 1887, January-March, Matthew Charles Key, 6b/19.

[9] Stafford Borough Burial Record, 06/10737, 30 August 1890, John Duggin (sic), illegitimate child of Ann Duggin (sic), 26 Red Lion Street. He received a Catholic funeral.

[10] The evidence in the three preceding paragraphs mostly comes from the report of the Inquest in the Staffordshire Advertiser, 30 August 1890. Evidence for Rosannah and Joseph Key comes from the standard demographic sources.

[11] Ann Duggan was listed in the 1891 census return for 3 Peel Street, Leicester, as ‘Annie Dunn’ but she had been born in Stafford, was the right age and is clearly our Ann. Her occupation is unfortunately completely indistinct and illegible.

[12] Leicester RD, Marriages, 1891, October-December, Ann Duggan and Frederick Stevens, 7a/596.

[13] Bristol RD, Births, 1866, October-December, Frederick J Stevens, 6a/14.

[14] Railway Employment Records, 1833-1956, Midland Railway, F.J. Stevens, goods guard, Coalville, 1901-4 (‘transfer applied for’). The records are incomplete.

[15] Nuneaton RD, Deaths, 1949, April-June, Frederick J Stevens, 82 yrs, 9c/763, and Ann Stevens, 82 years, 9c/760.

[16] SA, 25 March 1911, death of Ann Duggan, widow of John Duggan, 9 Friar’s Road, 20 March. Stafford Borough Burial Record 10/6176, 23 March 1911, Ann Duggan, widow. She had a Catholic funeral. 1911 Census return for 9 Friar’s Road, Stafford.