Celia's story

Concealment of Birth at Brighton Workhouse 1858

By Euan Coombs.

Print of the Brighton Workhouse

Celia Brown was appointed Assistant Matron of the Brighton Workhouse on Tuesday 3rd February 1857, as reported in this notice in the Brighton Gazette two days later.

News cutting announcing the appointment of Celia as Assistand Matron

But all did not go smoothly for Celia. Just 11 months later, she is charged with the concealment of a birth, as reported in in the Sussex Advertiser of March 3rd 1858.

Newspaper clipping of the Concealment of Birth

Celia had concealed her still-born child in a cupboard in her bedroom where it had remained three of four days before it was discovered.

Following the discovery of Celia’s still-born baby in December of 1857 an Inquest was held at Brighton Workhouse which was then situated on Church Hill, behind St Nicholas' Church, (modern-day Dyke Road, opp. Powis Grove).

The Inquest was held to determine the reason for the baby’s death and Celia was effectively put on trial before the coroner, Mr P Black Esq., Mr John Patching (Chairman of the Board Of Governors), Mr W Lucas (Vice Chairman), Mr Alfred Morris (Clerk to the Guardians)  and Mr Philip Passmore (Governor of Brighton Workhouse).

During the Inquest Celia had no legal representation and made no attempt at a defence. She gave no evidence and would not reveal the identity of the father of her child.

Eliza Passmore, the matron at Brighton Workhouse and wife to the Governor, gave the following evidence:

Newspaper clipping of the testimony of Eliza Passmore

Ann Delves then also gave evidence:

Newspaper clipping of the testimony of Ann Delves

Ann Delves refers to 'rumour of a mishap’, so clearly there had been some gossip regarding Celia Brown, although Ann is clearly not pressed on what these rumours might be.

There is then evidence from Police Superintendent Barnden who attended the scene:

Newspaper clipping of the testimony of Superintendent Barnden

The ‘small knife with blood on it’ suggests that Celia used the knife to cut the umbilical cord. The ‘piece of calico not made up’ is intriguing as calico was a cheap form of cotton textile but it has always been associated with babies and wrapping for a new born baby – but of course it can and still is often used as a shroud. The question is why did Celia obtain it, as swaddling clothes or as a shroud?

The surgeon, a Mr Rugg, then gave evidence:

Newspaper clipping of the testimony of Richard Rugg

Clearly, the suggestion that Celia might not have known she was pregnant caused a certain amusement. Celia is then asked via the Superintendent if she wishes  to make a statement to the jury.

Newspaper clipping of the verdict

Despite the fact that Celia is ‘very respectably connected’ clearly at this inquest Celia is very much alone. The Inquest takes place at the workhouse itself and not neutral legal ground, such as a courtroom or a magistrate’s court, which arguably puts her into a vulnerable position.

No one is there to speak for her and Celia doesn’t utter a word: when she is asked who the father is she remains silent other than to deny it is anyone in the Workhouse; when she is asked if she made any preparation for the baby she remains silent; when the Superintendent questions her she remains silent; and when she’s asked if she wants to make a statement to the jury, again, she remains silent.

This, however, is not the end of Celia’s story.

Just over a year later in June 1859 the Governor and the Matron of Brighton Workhouse tendered their resignations and sought testimonials from their employers. The following report appeared in the Brighton Examiner on June 23rd 1859:

Newspaper clipping of the censuring the schoolmistress

The Chairman of the Board then continued to state that, “there had been reports in the town and, he believed, remarks in the newspapers reflecting on the morality of the conduct of the Governor”. He went on to state:

Newspaper clipping of the activities of Passmore

At this point the Governor of the Workhouse left the meeting, headed straight to Brighton train station and was not heard of again. In his absence a full investigation was carried out into his activities and behaviour. The investigation into the activities of Passmore went on for a whole week and featured the testimony of fifteen witnesses.  He did not appear and refused to give evidence. The investigation found that the charge of misconduct was proved ;

Newspaper clipping of Passmore's resignation

With regard to Passmore’s wife, the Matron, the investigation goes on to state:

Newspaper clipping of the committee granting a testimonial to the Matron

Interestingly, and with echoes of Celia’s predicament the report states:

Newspaper clipping of the censuring the schoolmistress

Passmore’s wife, then, is the innocent party and clearly, according to this investigation, knew nothing of his nocturnal activities. The schoolmistress, on the other hand, even though she was under Passmore’s ‘pernicious influence’ is considered to be culpable.

This attitude is indicative of the times: if a woman was single then she was considered to be of bad character if she engaged in sexual activity, especially with a married man. Celia would also have been considered to be responsible for her own situation.

In light of the revelations regarding Passmore’s behaviour it is highly probable that he was the father of Celia’s baby.

If he was, it put Celia in an impossible position: she was the assistant matron and Passmore’s wife was the Matron; Celia was working with Mrs Passmore every day while carrying her husband’s child. This would explain why she couldn’t confide in Mrs Passmore or answer her question as to the identity of the father. 

Celia protected Passmore, even at the expense of her liberty and reputation, and she continued communicating with him over a year later; did she love him despite his questionable behaviour?

Whether she loved him or not Celia clearly couldn’t turn to him for help in the midst of this crisis. Ultimately, he sat on the Committee that passed judgement over her at the Inquest.

Who could Celia turn to? Who could she speak to, or confide in? She had no-one, so she kept this secret, gave birth alone and kept the baby even though it was dead. Why didn’t she discreetly dispose of the body and simultaneously maintain her job and position?

Could it be that she didn’t want to let her baby go? She had the emotional attachment that a mother has to her baby and she couldn’t relinquish that because it was hers. It was all she had. She wasn’t going to let it go. She was going to hold onto her baby for as long as she could and that was her downfall.


Brighton Gazette, Brighton Examiner, Sussex Advertiser (accessed via The Keep and The British Newspaper Archive)