Whilst researching for an upcoming presentation on Coroners Records at Who Do You Think You Are? Live at the NEC in April I found myself being sidetracked (a common occurrence!) by Dr John Birt Davies – the first Birmingham Coroner.
Born in the, improbably named, village of Nateley Scures, Hampshire in 1799, he studied medicine at Edinburgh graduating in 1822. He moved to Birmingham shortly afterwards and his first hospital role was that of physician to the General Dispensary (MS 1759/1/1/1 Birmingham General Dispensary Committee minutes 1794-1840). He became heavily involved in local politics as a Liberal and this may have been the reason behind his failure to secure a position at the General Hospital. He founded a Fever Hospital at the Bath House, Bath Row where he attended the only case of Asiatic cholera in Birmingham in 1832. In 1839 Aris’s Gazette reports on the presentation of silver plate to Dr Davies by a deputation led by Thomas Pemberton and John Cadbury in recognition of his public service over 14 years . The citation mentions his” zealous attention towards numerous poor patients who have sought and received his gratuitous aid” (Aris’s Birmingham Gazette – Monday 15 August 1836).
His appointment as the Borough’s first coroner was on 15 May 1839 shortly after the Liberals secured the city’s incorporation (BCC/1/AA/1/1/1 Birmingham Borough Council Minutes).
His election was not without controversy as John Welchman Whateley, a local solicitor, was also standing and he had served as County Coroner for Warwickshire covering the Birmingham Division for 20 years. Birt Davies received 40 votes to Whateley’s mere four – a result which was greeted enthusiastically by the Lancet with the following headline:
Mr Whateley challenged the appointment, although this was partly politically motivated and was intended to test the validity of the Charter of Incorporation. His challenge was ultimately unsuccessful – although he was given a compensation allowance of £117 per annum until his death in December 1874.
There were no specific requirements to be a Coroner other than being a man of some standing but by the early 19th Century it was customary for the office to be held by someone with legal expertise. John Birt Davies brought his medical expertise, some of it gained whilst physician at Queen’s Hospital to the role. He had been a strong supporter of William Sands Cox in his foundation of the Birmingham Royal School of Medicine and Surgery, which became in 1843 the Queen’s College, and he occupied its chair of forensic medicine for many years.
Coroners were required to submit annual reports to the Home Office and Dr Davies produced detailed analysis of several different types of verdicts. The following table shows his analysis of suicides in 1840: