The death of William Urquhart

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The death of William Urquhart, or, Karl Marx liked a good gossip

Every subject has its apocryphal stories, and the Victorian Turkish bath is no exception. One of these relates to the death of David Urquhart’s thirteen month old son William in the Turkish bath at his Rickmansworth home in 1858.

The circumstances of the baby’s death were quite inaccurately reported at the time causing the baby’s mother, Harriet, much unnecessary additional unhappiness. Coming so soon after the reintroduction of the bath into England, the story received widespread publicity to which gossips, as is their wont, gave credence by the confident manner in which they retold and embellished it.

The gossip continues to this day, most recently in Francis Wheen’s well-received new biography of Karl Marx. Wheen, in the process of relating the rather surprising relationship between Urquhart and Marx misses few opportunities to denigrate the now mostly forgotten Urquhart by emphasizing his, admittedly sometimes undeniable, eccentricities. As an instance of this, Wheen quotes Marx’s letter to Engels about baby William’s death, written on 5 March.

Did you overlook, in one of the [Manchester] Guardians you sent me, the item in which David Urquhart figures as an infanticide? The fool treated his 13-month-old baby to a Turkish bath which, as chance would have it, contributed to congestion of the brain and hence its subsequent death. The coroner’s inquest on this case lasted for 3 days and it was only by the skin of his teeth that Urquhart escaped a verdict of manslaughter.

Now while the use of the word infanticide can be seen in the light of the following sentence to have been pure hyperbole, there remains the clear implication that Urquhart subjected the baby to extreme heat and that this, directly or indirectly, caused the child’s death.

Not only did Marx not bother to check his facts—it might be argued that he was, after all, writing a private letter to a friend—but nearly 150 years later the story is repeated, without any comment whatsoever, by a respected biographer who also, perhaps less justifiably, failed to check the facts. A closer examination of contemporary accounts tells a rather different story.

The travels of the newly-wed Urquharts

In 1854 Urquhart married Harriet Angelina Fortescue, sister of the first Baron Carlingford (who, as Chichester Fortescue was MP for Louth, and later became the fourth husband of Lady Frances Waldegrave.) Harriet, like her husband, was passionately interested in politics, writing under the pseudonym ‘Caritas’ in The Free Press, as well as contributing to David’s writings and handling his extensive correspondence.

Two years later, traveling round Ireland, the Urquharts met Richard Barter, an extremely successful doctor who owned St Ann’s Hydropathic Establishment near Blarney in Co. Cork. Barter had read Urquhart’s The Pillars of Hercules and been impressed by it. He had immediately seen the therapeutic potential of hot-air baths and invited the Urquharts to stay as his guests, offering to provide the workers and materials needed if David would help him to build a ‘Turkish’ bath in the grounds of his hydro.

Vapour baths had been available for many years, but Barter realised that only the dry air of the Turkish bath could be heated to the very high temperatures (up to 220ºF) required for therapeutic purposes. After much experimentation, for it was still difficult in the mid-1800s to heat air to such temperatures without contaminating it with impurities, they succeeded in building the first modern hot-air bath in the British Isles. (Thereafter, Urquhart would build a Turkish bath, smaller or larger, in each of his homes, for it was only in the bath that he found some relief from the pain of his neuralgia.)

Returning to the mainland, the Urquhart family (for there were, by now, two children) stayed for a short time in Manchester. While there, David helped the local Foreign Affairs Committee (FAC) to build their own Turkish bath, the first in England to be opened to the general public since the time of the Romans.

The move to Rickmansworth

Then, after a brief stay in Lytham they moved in November 1857 to Rickmansworth, at that time in the county of Buckinghamshire. They had found what they hoped would be a pleasant home, appropriately called Riverside House, at Moneyhill on the banks of the Colne. But first, while builders were making a number of alterations, including the by now predictable addition of a self-contained Turkish bath, they stayed at the Swan Inn—like Riverside House, now demolished.

By mid-January the work was completed and the Urquharts moved in with their small retinue of servants. There was Matilda Ellrington who had been working at the Albion Hotel in Manchester when the Urquharts were staying there, and who joined them in Lytham to look after the children. At about the same time, George Barnes had been appointed as house-steward, while Edward Rackley and Matilda’s younger sister Emma joined them at the time of the move.

The death of baby William

But joy at moving into their new home was short-lived, for on 4 February their younger son, thirteen months old William, died in tragic circumstances. In the midst of teething at the time, he was often in considerable pain. His elder brother David had been similarly afflicted during the time they had been at St Ann’s, and the Urquharts had discovered that his pain was eased whenever he had been placed in the warmth of the Turkish bath.

The same procedure had been successfully tried with baby William at Lytham, where Urquhart had first built himself a small Turkish bath, and it was now repeated in their grand new bath at Riverside.

This was no small cramped cubbyhole but a spacious facility, capable of holding several guests at the same time, and divided into a number of areas, each designed for a specific purpose.

William had been left alone for five minutes in his cot on the floor, in the coolest part of the bath, when he suffered a fit. Emma removed him, and Matilda ran with him to his parents who tried unsuccessfully to revive him. A local surgeon, George Codd, was called but by the time he arrived, William was dead.

There was no self-evident legal requirement to hold an inquest because, as Dr Barter wrote to a friend on hearing the news, William had earlier, during their stay at the Swan Inn, been seen by Mr Codd about his gums. Indeed, according to the Bucks Herald, Urquhart had immediately written to the local coroner, Mr Lowe, giving him full details of what had happened and the coroner had initially decided that no inquest would be necessary.

The inquest

But the Urquharts had reckoned without the local gossips, many from the Swan Inn, who had a field day spreading rumours about the strange newcomers to the village who had killed their baby in a hot bath. Because of this, the coroner felt he had no option but to hold an inquest, and this duly opened at the Halfway House Inn in Moneyhill on 5 February.

Mr Codd testified that he had conducted a postmortem and concluded that death had been caused by ‘congestion of the brain’ and that the fits had been a result of teething troubles. When Matilda Ellrington gave her evidence she said that the older boy and his parents all ‘used the bath regular’ and little Willy ‘always seemed in much better health when he took the bath regular.’

Yet it was the gossip which seemed to set the agenda for the inquest and so many people wished to attend the second day’s hearings that it was adjourned to the Fox and Hounds in the centre of Rickmansworth.

It was rumoured that the child had been seen naked on a cold verandah; that it had two black eyes and was bruised from the cheek to the shoulder; that boiling water had been poured onto its head from a kettle; and that the body was said to have been covered with scars and blood. Above all, Turkish baths—in which it was said that the baby had been left at 140ºF for up to seven hours—were dangerous and no fit place for grown adults, let alone babies.

In such a small community it would have been impossible for the jurors not to have heard such mischievous rumours, but it soon became clear that they were totally without any foundation in fact. For example, when William Cudworth, landlord of the Swan, was asked on the second day of the inquest to confirm what he had already told one of the jurors, namely, that ‘Mr Urquhart had throttled the child,’ he blandly replied, ‘I was not on my oath then’. Furthermore, some of the servants at the Swan stated that, in fact, the Urquharts always seemed to treat their children kindly.

Testifying a second time, Matilda Ellrington poured scorn on those who tut-tutted at the temperatures in the bath. ‘I have been in the bath myself when it was 180 degrees,’ she said, adding proudly, ‘and have been there for half an hour.’

So, one by one, over a period of three days, the rumours were either quashed, or dismissed for lack of any witnesses prepared to testify. It was admitted that the child had a single scar, but this had been caused by accidental contact with a hot wet blanket six weeks previously, and it had been treated by a doctor at the time.

At the end of the third day, according to the Advertiser, the jury’s verdict was that ‘the evidence is unsatisfactory as to the cause of death.’ But, gratuitously, it concluded, ‘The jury highly censured the treatment of deceased.’

The aftermath of the inquest

Harriet Urquhart, already upset by William’s death, found the inquest itself almost as hard to bear. Her biographer says that though she rarely spoke of this double trial, her life ‘was never quite the same again’ and her health suffered ‘not at once, but later on.'

The behaviour of the jury throughout the trial, their unusual censure of two bereaved parents who were actually shown to have cared deeply for their children, and the manner in which all this was reported, were to have further repercussions.

For in reporting the inquest, the Advertiser tended to quote only the responses of the witnesses. This omission of the jurors’ questions succeeded somehow in giving credence to actions which the witnesses had, in reality, denied. On the third day, for instance, answers given by William Rackley (a servant at the Swan and a brother of Edward) were transcribed as:

Did not ever see the deceased in a hot bath. Never saw Mr Urquhart pinch the child in the throat. Never saw any act of cruelty to the child. Saw a mark on the child, but never saw the child with black eyes. I never told any person I ever did...

When the Advertiser summarised the three days’ hearings in its main editorial, it was not uncritical of the behaviour of the jurymen (who frequently squabbled amongst themselves), and it concluded that since the Urquharts had been censured, even though the cause of William’s death had not been fully determined, the matter could not be allowed to rest there.

But Urquhart by now knew that the reports in the Bucks Advertiser had been provided by one of the jurors, a Mr Carter, and had already decided to pursue the matter further.

During the following weeks a number of letters were published in the Bucks Advertiser. A member of the jury wrote of their difficulties in understanding the conflicting evidence and stated that, after the second day, eleven of the jurors had sent a note to the coroner asking for specialist legal advice which they were not granted.

Urquhart wrote that he had offered the jurors an opportunity to try the bath themselves so as to better understand it. One of them replied that jurors could not be expected to submit themselves to treatments which ‘might seriously injure their health.’

The Foreign Affairs Committees expressed their concern.

This attempt to disparage Urquhart and spread alarm about the safety of the newly re-introduced Turkish bath affected others far from Rickmansworth, especially those involved in the FACs who were thinking of setting up a Turkish bath in their own locality.

On 20 February, John Singleton, who was for many years Secretary of the Preston FAC and who later ran the Turkish bath in Grimshaw Street, Preston, wrote a worried letter to John Buxton, often used as a troubleshooter by Urquhart when any of the FACs were in difficulties.

One of the members of our Committee has received a letter from a friend in Kendal stating that he has seen a report in ‘The Weekly Dispatch’ of an inquest over one of Mr Urquhart’s children that had died through the effects of using cold water in ‘The Turkish Bath’. Pray send us word if this is true...

These reports were even more worrying for the Bradford FAC which had opened a Turkish bath at 58 Leeds Road a couple of months earlier, advertising it as being ‘Under the advice and direction of Mr Urquhart’. As can well be imagined, a précis of the Advertiser’s reports of the inquest which appeared in the Bradford Observer caused much local consternation.

It was not until six weeks later that the Bradford Advertiser, usually supportive of the Foreign Affairs Committees, rather belatedly got its act together. Feeling that it was its duty, as an advocate of the Turkish bath, to publicize the truth of the matter, it finally answered the damaging report which had appeared in its contemporary.

A letter from David Urquhart stated that he had already decided to take proceedings against the writer of the newspaper reports, and explained in detail why the bath was not to blame. In addition, he attached letters of support from the editor of The Free Press, from Dr Barter, and from Sir John Fife, a surgeon at the Newcastle Infirmary and a past mayor of that city. There were also copies of certificates from two London doctors, John Westmacott and (a different) Dr Codd. Both had been at the inquest, had heard the postmortem results, and stated that it was their opinion that death was due to convulsions consequent on painful teething.

The Urquharts vindicated

Finally, on 7 May, in the Court of the Queen’s Bench, Urquhart’s counsel, Mr Edwin James, QC, asked that Carter be brought to trial ‘for the publication of a garbled and untrue report’ of the inquest.

The transcripts and reports were reviewed in detail, and the omission of the cross- examinations was criticized. It also transpired that although the two London doctors had attended the inquest in order to refute the allegations against Urquhart, the coroner would not allow them to be examined. The report in the Advertiser made no mention of this, nor of the fact that the temperature in the Turkish bath was only 95ºF when William was placed inside.

But the Urquharts were not successful in their immediate objective for the report, although ‘not verbally accurate,’ was deemed to be ‘fair and bona fide’ and on that account the Court ‘ought not to interfere.’Nevertheless the Bucks Herald wrote in an editorial that,

If it was [Urquhart’s] aim to establish before the highest criminal tribunal of the country the falsehood of the cruel suspicions to which he has been exposed by gossiping servants and prejudiced jurymen, he has fully succeeded. Having read the affidavits of Mr and Mrs Urquhart, both Lord Campbell and Mr Justice Earle publicly expressed their opinion that the parents of the deceased infant had treated it with uniform attention, kindness, and tenderness, and that there was not the slightest ground for the excitement which had prevailed against them...

And with that, the Urquharts had to be content.

Thank you icon

The Master and Fellows of Balliol College, Oxford, for permission to consult the Papers of

David Urquhart

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Map showing Riverside and the Halfway House

The Urquharts' renowned Turkish bath at Riverside

The Halfway House Inn, Moneyhill


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