A story of disability from the Overseers’ Accounts

Another trip to the Devon Heritage Centre has uncovered a disturbing story that left me feeling rather uncomfortable.

Names are important. In many ways they define us. They are how we identify ourselves to the world and how the world knows us. There have been times when the naming of names has assumed a particular significance, such as after the war of 1914-19. Then the state poured enormous effort and resources into naming the names of the war dead. There have been other occasions when names have been replaced by numbers as a dehumanising tactic. Here the primary example is probably that of the Nazi’s treatment of their holocaust targets, who were tattooed with identification numbers. Perhaps it is for this reason that there was such controversy about the dehumanising effect of politicians describing refugees as swarms or hoards. So finding an example of a person with a disability having their identity disregarded has left me feeling rather disturbed; to modern eyes and ears it just seems shocking.

There are gaps in the Kenton Overseers’ records. No records seem to have survived for the period 1782 to 1811. The Overseers’ Account books in the Devon Heritage Centre resume in November 1812 so the first entries cover the period from November 1812 to Easter 1813 when, alongside the usual records of payments for out- relief to named individuals, and disbursements, there are some entries  for ‘the Dumb Girl’. The first of these is for ‘clothing for the Dumb Girl’ and then an entry which shows that she was in receipt of 2 shillings and six pence per week.

20 weeks at 2s6d a week for the Dumb Girl          £2 10s[i]

Later the amounts accounted for show that payments were increased to 5 shillings a week, with occasional payments to others for the purchase of items of clothing for her such as ‘Mrs Bear for clothing for the Dumb Girl’ and ‘Mary Gooding for worsted for the Dumb Girl.’[ii]

Sometimes the entries record payments as simply being for the Dumb Girl but other entries show payments being made ‘to Mary Rugg for the Dumb Girl.’ Mary Rugg seems to have been the ‘go-to’ person at the time. She is shown as being paid for numerous tasks such as mending clothing and bedding from the poor house, watching over those who were sick, and washing the recently deceased.

The Overseers’ Accounts continue to record payments made for Dumb Girl until the end of 1821, when the records again break off. Entries variously refer to The Dumb Girl, Dummy, Dumey, and once, Dumb Maid.[iii] When a different Overseer takes over, indicated by a change in handwriting, he began to record payments in approximate alphabetical order of the name of the recipient. His entries into the accounts book at this point have her payments recorded in the ‘D’ section of his accounts.  So

Davey Thos

Dawe Walter

Dumb Girl

Dally Elizh

Just once during the whole of the period from 1812 to 1821 is there anything which gives a clue to the ‘dumb girl’s’ identity, when in 1817 a single entry refers to Dummy Frost[iv], but at no time is a forename given. That single entry makes it clear that her identity was known to the Overseers but it looks as if it did not seem necessary to them to record it, although all the other paupers who were receiving support were named in full.

Perhaps the most shocking aspect of this case however comes from some entries in the accounts book during 1816 and 1817. In July 1816 an extra payment of 1 shilling is made against a description ‘Dumb Girl ill’ followed shortly by a second 1 shilling payment to ‘Sarah Evans for attending the Dumb Girl.’ The next entry for her though sheds some light on the illness

attendance for the Dumb Girl in labour                  5s[v]

and on the 5th August a blanket is purchased for the child, described as ‘Dumb Girls child.’ The child was then removed from its mother and given to a wet nurse who was paid for nursing and caring for the baby. Once again no name is mentioned. Entries are recorded against ‘Dumb Girls child’ or ‘Dummys child’. In February 1817 wood is purchased ‘for use of Dumeys child ill’.[vi] No further mention of the child is made.

It is impossible not to speculate about the circumstances which led to ‘Dumb Girl’s’ pregnancy and the birth of her child. We do not know the nature of her ‘dumbness’. However it seems certain that if she had been assaulted, which seemed likely to me, she would have been unable to report the offense or identify the perpetrator. There is no indication that efforts were made to identify the child’s father. This would be the usual course of action when an illegitimate child was likely to be a burden on the poor rates. The Overseers must therefore have determined that no information was likely to be forthcoming and so nothing was done to either make the father pay for the upkeep of his child or to determine if any criminal charges should have been brought.

The gaps in the surviving records are frustrating. We do not know how long Dumb Girl had been supported by the parish before the surviving records open, nor from the Overseers’ Accounts do we know what became of Dumb Girl or her child. But armed with the two pieces of information – the surname Frost and the birth of a child in around July 1816 – I determined to name them and restore their identities. Knowing that the child had been born alive it seemed certain that the Overseers would have ensured it was baptised, and so it proved. The baptismal records show that on 28 July 1817 Jane Frost, illegitimate daughter of Jane Frost was baptised in All Saints’ Parish Church, Kenton, having been born four days earlier on 24 July.

Jane Frost lived just 7 months and was buried on 12 February 1817, shortly after the entry in the accounts recording the purchase of wood, presumably to keep the child warm when she was ill. A short, sad life, but not a nameless one. Jane Frost, her mother, died in November 1823. The burial records show her as Jane Frost of The Poorhouse, Kenton. Surprisingly she was 48 years old. She was therefore over 40 years old when she gave birth to her daughter and although constantly referred to as the Dumb Girl was not a girl but an adult woman. Sadly I’ve been unable to find any more information about her. There are no readily identifiable potential baptisms for c1775 which could confirm her own parentage. However the fact that Jane Frost was, in fact, in her 40s at the time that her own child would have been conceived, and not the child I had imagined from the numerous references to her as a girl, opens up another possibility. It is still possible, and perhaps likely, that she was subjected to an assault, but just possibly, as an adult albeit disabled, she made her own choices about her sexual activity.

But Jane Frost Senior and Jane Frost Junior whose lives were short and quite possibly traumatic at least have their names.

[i] Devon Heritage Centre, Kenton/70A/PO6 Overseers Account Book November 1812-March 1813

[ii] Devon Heritage Centre Kenton/70A/PO6 Overseers Account Book 1 January 1816

[iii] ‘Maid’ is being used here as the colloquial term often used in Devon and Cornwall for girls and young women, rather than in the sense of a domestic servant

[iv] Devon Heritage Centre Kenton/70A/PO7 Overseers Account Book Lady Day 1817

[v] Devon Heritage Centre Kenton /70A/PO6 Overseers Account Book July 1816

[vi] Devon Heritage Centre Kenton/70A/PO7 Overseers Account Book February 1817

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