There are a surprisingly large number of references in the Birmingham Daily Post between 1857 and 1900 to suicide or attempted suicide in Calthorpe and Cannon Hill parks. This evidence gives an insight into some of the uses of public parks by Birmingham residents that fell outside the boundaries of sanctioned park use. The majority of suicides, attempted and actual, reported in the newspaper were by women, and nearly all tried to drown themselves in the boating, bathing, or fishing pools at Cannon Hill Park. Suicide by drowning was more common amongst women than men in nineteenth-century England, and the verdict ‘found drowned’ was a recognised euphemism.1 The minutes of the Birmingham City Council Baths and Parks Committee during this period describe the polluted state of these pools, which were contaminated with sewage overflowing from the wells of houses in Russell Road, making them unpleasant enough for recreational use.2 This article gives an account of the coroner’s inquest into the death of Lucy Johnson, whose body was discovered in the fishing pool at Cannon Hill Park in March 1890, after going missing from her lodgings in January. Lucy had been living with family members and was last staying at Charles Henry Street, in Highgate, evidently deciding to travel out to a suburban park away from her home to end her life. Evidence given at the inquest reveals that she was a bedstead painter, but she had been out of work since the winter of 1889. It is likely that she had been involved in the industrial dispute of the Bedstead Workers Association, which brought local workers out on strike for increased pay.3 Although the strike was successful, Lucy Johnson was still unemployed in January 1890, and as she was also pregnant and single at the time of her death, it is easy to conclude that she felt overwhelmed by the situation she found herself in. Another woman worker who was driven to commit suicide in Cannon Hill Park was Elizabeth Ann Hollins, a Birmingham Board School teacher at Norton Street, Winson Green, who was living in lodgings at Crompton Road, Birchfield. She travelled from her home on the other side of the city to Cannon Hill Park in March 1892 and apparently climbed the fencing after the park was closed for the evening or entered the park through neighbouring fields, crossing the river Rea to the boating pool where her body was found. Unlike Lucy Johnson, the coroner’s inquest found no obvious reasons for her suicide.4 Both incidents, however, allow a brief glimpse into the lives of these women and convey a sense of the despair of people perhaps living in difficult circumstances who came to places intended for leisure and recreation to end their lives.
1 Olive Anderson, Suicide in Victorian and Edwardian England (Oxford, 1987), p.44 2 BCC Baths and Parks Committee Minutes, 5 January 1876 [BA&H: BCC AL/1/1/6]; 16 May 1887;
19 September 1887 [BA&H: BCC AL/1/1/8] 3The People’s Century: Birmingham 1889-1989 (TURC publishing, 1989), p.3 4Birmingham Daily Post (25 March 1892)
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BA&H: Birmingham Daily Post 1890
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