Local historian Keith Johnson recalls a tragic drowning inquest from yesteryear...
On the last Tuesday of January 1871 the Preston coroner Miles Myres held an inquest at the Earl Street police station on the body of Annie Stilton, aged 21, a barmaid at the Grey Horse and Seven Stars on Fishergate for seven months.
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Various witnesses were called to shed light on the events that had unfolded.
Margaret Poole, a widow, who lived at the Ship Inn on the Marsh, recalled seeing Miss Stilton walking slowly past the inn at about 3 o’clock on the previous Thursday afternoon looking very white and with a troubled expression on her face.
Ishmael Thomas, a puddler (involved in iron manufacture), stated that on Thursday afternoon at about four o’clock, he saw a woman in the river Ribble at Ashton. Alerted by a splash he hurried to the place. Remarking that the water was deep, and he had to make three attempts before he was able to rescue her. She was in the water about 15 minutes and had almost drowned.
James Simpson told how he had helped in pulling the woman out of the water and carrying her to the home of borough magistrate Ormerod Pilkington. Stating that she seemed to have little or no life in her, and was quite insensible.
Preston surgeon John Pilkington told the court that he was called to Mr. Pilkington’s residence at 5 o’clock and the woman was lying in the saddle room on a temporary bed, quite insensible, pulseless and deadly cold. By 9 o’clock that evening after being nursed she had shown the first signs of consciousness. The following morning she seemed considerably better and was removed to the workhouse at Fulwood.
Mr. Ridley, a surgeon at the workhouse, saw her at noon and directed the nurses to attend to her. She appeared quite sensible, but weak and feverish.
When he attended her a couple of hours later she was annoyed that she was in the workhouse, and asked him to let her be taken to a friend’s house.
He had no power to keep her against her will, therefore gave an order that she might be removed.
She was removed that evening by two young men who arrived in a cab and took her to a house in Sizer Street, home of the Crook family. Mr. Ridley visited there on the Saturday and she was a good deal worse with fever and congested lungs. By the next morning she was dangerously ill and on the
Sunday night she was no better. The Crooks appeared to take good care of her, but on the Monday he was told she had died.
There were suggestions that she may have been in the early stages of pregnancy, but neither Mr. Ridley or other surgeons had found evidence upon examination.
Isabella Bibby, landlady at the Grey Horse and Seven Stars, explained that Miss Stilton had left the inn on the Thursday afternoon for a walk and seemed normal in her behaviour. On Christmas Eve she had suffered a sort of fainting fit, and often complained of her head, becoming insensible on one occasion. Mrs. Bibby stated that she had been to see her after the incident and offered to take her home, but her request was refused by the workhouse officers.
According to her, Miss Stilton had told her that all she could remember of the incident was walking up the
Marion Stilton, the wife of a livery stable keeper in Chester, told the inquest she had last seen her daughter a few months before and was on friendly terms with her. Revealing that from childhood she had suffered fainting fits that could occur at any time.
The coroner, in summing up, said that either an open verdict, or one stating she had died through falling into the water would be advisable rather than a verdict of felo de se (suicide).
The jury returned with a verdict that she had died from injuries received after falling in the water in an unconscious state.