Saturday, 18 September 2021

Death on the Canal - 1857, Mary Burke

Death on the (Mon & Brec) Canal

I did the basic research for this blog series a couple of years ago. Then, as usual, flitted along to the next thing that caught my interest. Now I'm trying to flesh the cases out and present to you my justification for not being a fan of walking along the canal on dark and lonely nights... For more canal deaths, check out the master post.


The Monmouthshire Merlin of May 2nd 1857 reported that a ten year old girl had drowned in the canal at Cwmbran on Friday 24th April. Her cape was spotted in the water and efforts to get her out immediately commenced, though it was still some half an hour before her body was actually retrieved. An inquest was held the following day.

Monmouthshire Merlin 2nd May 1857

Searching the burial records, this seemed the most likely fit: Mary Burke.

Mary Burke 1857 burial record

Mary was actually just eight years old, and was laid to rest on Tuesday 28th April. Having a more accurate birthdate enabled me to find her on the 1851 census record when she was living with her family in Springvale. Her mother and father, Michael and Mary (née Crowley), had moved to the area from Ireland along with Mary's older sister, Margaret. Michael was listed as a labourer here; in the 1857 newspaper report he is described as a coker at Mr. Lawrence's works - i.e. Cwmbran Iron Works.

Mary Burke 1851 census

Mary herself was born in Wales, as listed on the birth register for 1850.

Mary Burke birth register 1850

Having her full name made it easier to search the newspaper records, and up came a more detailed report from the 9th May edition of the Monmouthshire Merlin. The deputy coroner, William Brewer, heard that the lock keeper at No. 11, Thomas Reid, was alerted by a boy who had seen Mary's cape in the water. Her father said that Mary had been sent to the shop by her mother at about 13:00 hours.

The journey was fairly treacherous - 'she had to cross the lock over a piece of wood' - but only halfpenny of the five pence her mother had given to her was found on her body so presumably she was on her way home. Michael was reported as being convinced that his daughter's death was not an accident...

Monmouthshire Merlin 09/05/1857

Except this was just a case of poor reporting rather than a sign of a deeper mystery. The Illustrated Usk Observer and Raglan Herald of the same day reveals that the full quote was actually he "did not believe that her death occurred otherwise than by accident." It also provided the reason for Mary's trip to the shop; she was sent to get some cheese for a lodger's dinner. She had been gone about 20 minutes when found dead.

I lost track of the family after that, but if you know more I would love to hear from you!

For more like this please click the image below:
Weird Wales

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