Friday, 17 March 2017

The Whore and the Mayoress: The Death of Bristol Eliza.

The Golden Cross: Whitmore Lane on the left c.1890. Image National Library of Wales.

The Whore and the Mayoress: The Death of Bristol Eliza

I am currently writing a book on Charlotte Street and Whitmore Lane in Cardiff, two streets notorious for prostitution, drink, violence and theft. From 1840-1870 it was a community unique in Cardiff's history and one that is currently quite unknown. See my earlier post on the general background of the book for more information on the growing art and narrative history project.

One of the most interesting events in my research so far has been the case of Eliza Wells. This is the text from my book.

Monday April 15th 1850

Merry Meyrick is woken up at Ann Llewellyn’s brothel. She gets the message that Bristol Eliza wants her because she is dying. Eliza used to be a servant from Bristol and worked on the Lane with Merry when she came to Cardiff. For the last three years she’s been going in and out of the workhouse with her injuries, big open sores on her legs that she got from a bully kicking three years ago. Wounds that just won’t heal. Syphilis has ravaged her body, there are weeping sores on her hands and feet, massive lesions and growths all over. To dull the pain Eliza’s been taking an ounce of laudanum a day for years, Merry often gets the laudanum for her and she takes half an ounce at a time from a small phial and then a drop of water. Recently it's got so bad that if she tries to speak or move too much she’s soon asleep.  

Merry walks down Whitmore Lane to Mrs Prothero’s brothel where Eliza has been lodging for years. Eliza is in a very bad state, weak, haggard and withered. She looks about 50 years old but has only lived 23 short years. She quietly tells Merry that she is dying and that she has seen it coming in her dreams. Merry doesn’t really know what to say so she talks to her of praying to God for solace. They say a prayer together and sit for a while. In the afternoon Eliza says she wants someone to read the bible to her. Merry can read and write a little but she knows her words will be slow and stumbling so Mrs Prothero sends for one of the few well educated people that they have had contact with. 

Mrs Vachell, the mayoress, who knows the girls from the courts and the streets comes within the half hour. She reads to Eliza and prays with her. Eliza asks to be turned from one side to another to ease the pain on her sore body and then she dies. When they try to move her body for the coroner blood gushes out of her mouth and nostrils. The inquest says that she died by the visitation of God.



So why does this sad event interest me so much? It gives an extremely rare behind the scenes insight into the human relationships of the many brothels on Charlotte Street and Whitmore Lane. It is also  evidence of the camaraderie and community that I hoped existed in this much maligned community. Here's some background information on the main people:

Mrs Prothero ran a brothel on Whitmore Lane from at least 1839 until her death aged 84 in 1857. It was in a commanding position at number 44 Whitmore Lane, right next door to the Custom House where the sailors were paid their wages. It also operated in conjunction with a pub on Charlotte Street that was called 'The Navigators Arms' 1841-1849, 'The Lame Chicken' up until 1851 and then 'Noah's Ark' until 1855. This notorious beer house was run by Mrs Prothero's daughter and son-in-law and it supplied drunken customers for the brothel and also out of hours beer.

Mrs Prothero's brothel or 'lodging house' at 44 Whitmore Lane, 1851. All five women listed were active prostitutes, 'girls of ill fame' has been written down by the census taker then later crossed out.
Merry Meyrick is Maria Meyrick, a Cardiff born girl who turned to prostitution in the Friar's Fields area of Newport around 1841 at the age of 19.  She returned to Cardiff in 1845 after she was severely beaten by her bully and almost killed. At first Maria worked mainly out of the Gloucester Arms beerhouse at 28 Charlotte Street but like most other girls she moved from pub to pub and brothel to brothel. She could be vicious and was an accessory in the murder of a man in 1847 when she assaulted his landlady Peggy the Sweep for bringing a light out to her own door. She was transported to Van Dieman's Land in 1851 for a brothel theft at the Noah's Ark. (Her nickname Merry comes from a report in a Hobart newspaper- Maria liked to wear pink dresses.)
1841 census record for Eliza Wells, aged 15.
Maria Meyrick showed another side of her character though with Bristol Eliza (place name nicknames were common in these streets, Liverpool Dick, Swansea Dan, Swansea Sue and Gloucester Bill were all living on Charlotte Street and Whitmore Lane). Eliza Wells was indeed from Bristol and was a house servant for a skilled working class family on Lawrence Hill in 1841. When she moved to Cardiff is unknown as she seemed to stay out of trouble with the authorities but by February 1847 she was very unwell. She entered the Cardiff Union Workhouse as a destitute prostitute and with 'wounds on legs'. She seems to have admitted herself voluntarily for medical help for short periods and discharged herself on the 16th February, 15th April and 24th July 1847. 
Cardiff Union Workhouse admissions register 1847 listing Eliza Wells
The inquest says that the wounds on her legs were originally caused by kicks from a bully (pimp). There was endemic violence towards prostitutes from their bullies right through the Victorian era and kicking was as popular as punching. Why the wounds did not heal though is due to the syphilis she had contracted. The inquest does not say this explicitly, preferring to call it 'the disease to which unfortunate women are peculiarly liable' and 'a certain disease'. Eliza was obviously in the latter stages of syphilis and her body would have been a mass of painful sores. She would have also probably suffered from growths around her vagina and anus, hair loss, swollen glands, tiredness, headaches and joint pains. As she worsened further she would have had vision and heart problems, numbness, loss of co-ordination and she died from either a laudanum overdose, meningitis, strokes or dementia like symptoms as her brain rotted.

The inquest also says that laudanum, a flavoured medicine of 10% opium and 90% alcohol, was easily accessible from the chemist and that it was low cost and commonly used by the prostitutes. It was a cheaper way of getting wasted than alcohol and was also an effective pain reliever. Laudanum misuse was a massively under reported problem in Cardiff and I have only come across one other reference to it in this time period when Ann Llewellyn, who Maria Meyrick was lodging with, took an overdose in January 1857. This was probably a suicide attempt as she was about to be given a four year sentence for a robbery.

What interests me with all this information is that Mrs Prothero, Maria Meyrick and others obviously took care of Eliza Wells over a three year period. I think a common assumption with a case like this is that Eliza would have been forced out of the brothel as she was no longer economically viable and would have died in the workhouse. The opposite seems true here however as she died in bed surrounded by friends. There was no way she could have paid any rent or bought laudanum by her own means especially in the latter years or months of her life yet this is what happened. The relevant records for the workhouse do not survive for this period but I doubt if she was a candidate for outdoor relief from the Poor Law authorities so what we have is a brothel owner and a working prostitute looking after one of their own and caring for them.

The mayoresses' involvement is also interesting. Mrs Vachell probably came into contact with Mrs Prothero and her girls either through the police courts and magistrates or through some civic charitable cause, although I have found no charity involvement recorded this early- all of the 'homes for fallen women' and church work seemed to have started in the 1860's. I find it very consoling that a 'lady of the pave' could go out on a Monday morning to the mayors house and ask her to come and read to a dying syphilitic. 

Eliza Wells was buried April 17th 1850 at St Mary the Virgin Cardiff aged 23 and I like to think that her funeral was well attended by her friends. I am glad that she was looked after. 
St Mary the Virgin Church Burial Record for Eliza Wells, 1850.

References:

Inquest report: Cardiff and Merthyr Guardian 20th April 1850 p.3. 
The earliest reference to Mrs Prothero's brothel is in The Cambrian, 9th March 1839. p.3.
Mrs Prothero's death: St Mary the Virgin Burial Registers 1857. p.69.
For Maria Meyrick: 
Bully assault see Cardiff and Merthyr Guardian, 9th August 1845 p.4. 
Move to Cardiff see The Cambrian 4th December 1846 p.3.
Brothel theft see CMG 23rd Nov 1850 p.2. 
For part in Whitmore Lane murder see CMG 6th November 1847 p.3. 
For Eliza Wells see: 1841 Census Gloucester, Clifton, HO107.378.5.15.25. 
Burial- St Mary the Virgin Cardiff burials 1850 p.72. 
Laudanum overdose of Ann Llewellyn see CMG 17th Jan 1857 p.8.
Article in it's current form is copyright Anthony Rhys 2017.

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