A doctor’s wife

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After a short honeymoon in South Devon following their wedding in June 1880, Lil and her husband Cameron returned as newly-weds to set up their first home together in Dorking.

Looking at the 1881 census[i], taken on the night of Sunday 3rd April, they are living on Hampstead Road supported by a cook and a housemaid.  It’s quite striking how very young the residents were, with Dr Brock, head of the household, aged 25, his wife Lil just 23, their cook Annie C Baker was 22 and Helen Beck, a housemaid, only 15 years old.  What the census doesn’t reveal however is that Lil was pregnant and, just over three weeks later, on 27th April, she gave birth to a stillborn son at Park End, the same house in which her aunt Meta had died just over five years previously. 

A ‘stillborn’ is a baby born after the 28th week of pregnancy (after 1992 this became the 24th week[ii]), but who never draws a spontaneous breath.  We cannot know why Lil’s firstborn son died, although complications with the placenta, a birth defect or problems with her own health could have contributed, but it was not always possible to know what went wrong.  At the time, the only legal requirement was a declaration of stillbirth signed by a doctor or midwife to ensure that no child born alive, but who died soon afterwards, was buried as a stillbirth.[iii] 

A list of Births that appeared in the London Evening Standard on 27th April 1881
London Evening Standard 27 Apr 1881 [v]

Although there was no legal framework to register the birth and death of a stillborn child until 1927[iv], in the late 19th century, it was not uncommon to see pathetic entries in the family notices columns of many local and national newspapers such as the sixteen short words that made public the heartbreak Lil and her husband were going through.

It’s impossible to imagine the devastation and grief the young couple must have experienced and maybe putting a notice in the newspapers was a way of communicating their loss to friends and acquaintances.  Sadly then, as it is now, the death of a baby was a very emotive subject not considered suitable for general conversation. 

In those days, many parents were unaware of what happened to their stillborn baby’s body after it was taken away.  Often, if a baby was stillborn at full term, their tiny body was placed in the coffin of an unrelated adult who was about to be buried or added to a shared grave with other deceased infants.  Although a list of stillbirth burials was kept by the cemetery with the date and the child’s surname, the list would not reveal into which coffin or grave it been placed[vi].

Happily, just over two years later Lil gave birth to a healthy boy when my grandfather was born at 40 South Street, Dorking, on 25th September 1883.  Lil’s pregnancy and the birth must have been a terribly anxious time for the young parents but, curiously, my grandfather’s birth was only registered by his father 84 days later[vii].  This is quite surprising as, since 1874, there has been a legal requirement to register a live birth within 42 days[viii]or risk a fine.   An announcement of the birth of a son appeared in the London Evening Mail within a week of his arrival and my grandfather was baptised Neville Brevoort Carey at St Martin’s Church on 21st November 1883, so the delay in registering the birth wasn’t a question of deciding upon a name.[ix]  

Less than two years later, Lil gave birth to a daughter on 17th August 1885, again at 40 South Street, and news of the birth appeared in newspapers including The Star, Guernsey, and the Croydon Observer.  The little girl was baptised Cécile Frances on 11th September at St Martin’s Church but, again, Cameron was a little tardy as he didn’t register her arrival until 62 days after her birth[x] – perhaps he was too busy, or just disorganised, but we can never know for sure.

Little Cécile was just three when she became unwell and was taken to Nower Lodge, the home of Dr Chaldecott, her father’s senior partner, for treatment.  Tragically, despite the two doctors’ best efforts, she died on 14th December 1888 of whooping cough and the then invariably fatal tubercular meningitis – both diseases caused by bacterial infection and nowadays preventable by vaccination or treatable with antibiotics.  Cécile’s death certificate is particularly poignant as the doctor in medical attendance was her father, and her mother, who was present at the death, took responsibility for the formalities by visiting the registrar herself just three days later[xi].  Cécile’s little body was buried in the same grave as her aunt Mabel Brock[xii] in Dorking Cemetery close to the Chapel, but her name was not added to the headstone.

Headstone over the grave of Mabel Agnes Brock and Cecile Frances Brock (name not commemorated) at Dorking Cemetery
The headstone over the grave of Mabel Agnes Brock and her niece Cécile Frances Brock | from the private collection of Natalie Mayhew

Two months after the death of their eldest daughter, Lil gave birth to another daughter at 40 South Street on 28th February 1889.  I don’t think we can even begin to imagine the stress and anxiety her parents must have experienced so soon after the death of her older sister, and her father registered the birth of Lilian Mary within three weeks.  Lilian’s middle name was later changed on the register to Carey, the name with which she was baptised on 21st April that same year. 

The family are still living at 40 South Street on the 1891 census, Cameron now aged 36 and Lil 32, Neville is 7 and his sister Lilian is 2.  By now the family employed three servants, Rachel Butler a 26-year-old cook from Lower Tooting, Mildred Whale a 23-year-old nurse from Chiswick, and Elizabeth J Pilling a 22-year-old housemaid from Dorking[xiii].  Miss Whale, the nurse, may have taken on to help Lil during her fifth pregnancy as another daughter, Constance May, was born the following month on 27th May 1891.  Constance, who would always be known to her family and friends as Sissie, was baptised at St Martin’s on 20th June two days after her birth had been officially registered in good time by her father.

Within a couple of years, the family moved to “The Old House” also on South Street, which survives today as a very pretty Grade II listed building, where their daughter Helen Margaret was born on 14th April 1893.  Little Helen was baptised on 17th May and her arrival registered, late again, by her father 54 days after her birth[xiv]

photograph of the Old House, Dorking, now a Grade II listed building
The Old House, Dorking, in 2018 uploaded by Susan McArdle [xv]

By now Lil seems to have settled into the relatively dull routine of middle-class provincial life.  In addition to his busy general practice activities and work at the Dorking Cottage Hospital, her husband was by now a well-respected member of the parish and was often invited to take part in local events such as debates, awards ceremonies, concerts, and charitable activities to which she would occasionally accompany him as his dutiful wife. 

One evening in early 1896, the couple were amongst the assembled dignitaries at a gala ‘Assault-at-Arms’ evening in the large Assembly Hall adjoining the Red Lion Hotel in the centre of town[xvi].  The evening’s programme including a gladiatorial-style display of gymnastics, boxing, fencing with sabres and other combat devoted to celebrating stereotypically masculine characteristics such as aggression, strength, power, and toughness. 

Image of an Assault at Arms - Sword Versus Bayonet - from Harper's Weekly May 16, 1874
An Assault at Arms – Sword versus Bayonet[xvii]

It may be that evening was the catalyst for Lil to realise that her husband was showing signs of behaving in ways that would not have been thought to be typical of a man in those days.  He was no longer confident and decisive, was not fulfilling his responsibilities at home, and was becoming depressed and withdrawn.  He had been troubled with dyspepsia for many years but was now eating less and less and was suffering from insomnia[xviii], although he was just about able to continue with his public-facing work as a doctor.

Back at The Old House, things were becoming more and more strained.   Lil was pregnant again and it must have been so terribly painful and confusing for her to watch as her previously bright and cheerful[xix] husband’s psychological condition rapidly deteriorated.  Cameron was no longer able to fulfil the role of head of the family, and, by mid-April, had become taciturn and withdrawn, was refusing food and was incapable of carrying out his general practice work[xx]

Less than a month later, on 6th May 1897, Lil gave birth to a stillborn son at home and another bland notice appeared in a Guernsey newspaper which offered no clue as to the absolutely desperate state of affairs back home in Dorking. 

Notice in the Guernsey Star announcing the birth of a stillborn son to the wife of Alexander Cameron Brock at the Old House Dorking
The Star (Guernsey) 8th May 1897 [xxi]

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[i] 1881 England Census: Dorking, Surrey, District 13 RG11/796

[ii] Hansard  16 Jan 2020

[iii] Births and Deaths Registration Act 1874 sections 18 and 19

[iv] Mariposa Trust last accessed 13 Apr 2022

[v] London Evening Standard 04 May 1881 © The British Library Board via Findmypast.co.uk

[vi] As at 16 Apr 2022, Mole Valley District Council have not been able to identify any record of what happened to this baby’s body

[vii] Neville Brevoort Carey Brock – Birth Certificate

[viii] Birth and Deaths Registration Act 1874 sections 1 & 2

[ix] Dorking St Martin’s Baptisms 1879-1912

[x] Cécile Frances Brock – Birth Certificate

[xi] Cécile Frances Brock – Death Certificate

[xii] Dorking Cemetery Records

[xiii] 1891 England Census: Dorking, Surrey, District 12 RG12/576

[xiv] Helen Margaret Brock – Birth Certificate

[xv] British Listed Buildings last accessed 25 Apr 2022

[xvi] Dorking and Leatherhead Advertiser 16 Apr 1896 © The British Library Board via Findmypast.co.uk

[xvii] Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts last accessed 26 Apr 2022

[xviii] Bethlem Hospital Archives

[xix] Ibid

[xx] Ibid

[xxi] The Star (Guernsey) 6 May 1891 © The British Library Board via Findmypast.co.uk