On 19 May 1844, my 3x great-grandfather, Thomas Willoughby aged 54, attempted to take his own life by throwing himself into deep water in the village of Fyfield, near Marlborough in Wiltshire. Was it a cry for help? Or, had poor Thomas come to end of his tether after years of struggle against grinding poverty? It wasn’t until much later that I discovered the real reason for his wanting to end it all, and it wasn’t as I had imagined…
Thomas had spent most of this life in the village of West Overton, Wiltshire. He was a farm labourer and, in 1819, he married Mary Cullimore, a local woman. By the mid-1830s, the couple had eight children: six sons and two daughters. Life would have been hard for this poor family, who would have barely managed to feed themselves in the harsh landscape of the early 19th century countryside. One son, Joseph, had died in infancy, aged two and, in 1836, their eldest son George died, aged 15, starting a chain of tragic events that would lead, less than a decade later, to Thomas trying to commit suicide.
The year following George’s death, Thomas and Mary had another son, whom they also named George. Just a month later, Mary died too, leaving Thomas with seven surviving children, including the newborn baby. It would have been impossible for Thomas to find work as a farm labourer and look after his children so the family had to seek refuge in the Marlborough Union workhouse, where baby George died of inflammation of the lungs. It is hard to imagine how life could have become any worse, but sadly it did. By 1840, Thomas and his young family were back living in West Overton when his second oldest son, Henry succumbed to consumption and died aged 17. As well as a child, another vital pair of hands was lost. Life seemed to improve in the summer of that year when Thomas remarried, but little did he know that his new wife would be instrumental in the loss of another son, although this time it was not to death.
On 17 May 1844, Cornelius Willoughby, 18, was charged with having stolen three gallons of potatoes from local publican, Thomas Maslen, in Fyfield. It was the testimony of Cronelius’s stepmother that sealed his fate and led to his conviction. He was sentenced to six weeks’ hard labour and, two days later, his father Thomas threw himself into the pond. As the depositions for the trial haven’t survived, it was hard to know exactly why Thomas had wanted to end it all: the shame of his son’s conviction, the fear of the workhouse, or maybe even anger at his wife’s betrayal. A short article in the Devizes and Wiltshire Gazette revealed his motives:
On Saturday evening last, about nine o’clock, a labouring man, named Thomas Willoughby, in a fit of passion, caused by a quarrel with his wife, threw himself into the river Kennet, at Fifield; he had not been there long when an alarm was raised, and several persons ran to the spot, who on seeing what was the matter, were on the point of using means to rescue him from his supposed watery grave, which being perceived by him, he, to the surprise of all present, made his way to the opposite bank and got out without their assistance, and without having sustained any injury. He was then taken home, and subsequently brought before the magistrates at Marlborough, who committed him to prison, where he will have time to cool his temperament.
Suicide was a criminal offence before 1961, so Thomas had to stand trial for his actions. He was acquitted and forced to carry on living for another 20 years, until he died in 1866, at the age of 81, back in the Marlborough Union workhouse, where he was buried in a pauper’s grave with his infant son.
You can read about Thomas’s criminal son, Cornelius, in this month’s issue of Discover Your History magazine.