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:
Dr Davies appears to have had a particular interest in mental health issues. In 1840 he briefly took the national stage at the Old Bailey where he was a medical expert witness in the trial of Edward Oxford who was accused of treason having taken two shots at Queen Victoria in June 1840 (http://www.oldbaileyonline.org/). Dr Davies’s testimony played a significant part in the verdict:- Edward Oxford was found not guilty by reason of insanity.
He served as Coroner for 36 years, retiring in 1875 at the age of 76. During this period it is claimed he personally oversaw thirty thousand inquests and allegedly never took a day’s absence, appointed a deputy or spent a night outside the borough. Sadly the original case files don’t survive and the main record from his tenure is the Coroner’s Court Roll which is still in the possession of the Coroner’s Office. A microfilmed version is available to view in the Heritage Research Area.
Following his retirement he sat for a portrait to be presented to the Corporation in memory of his long term of office. The artist chosen was William Thomas Roden and the portrait was initially put on display at Mr Thrupp’s gallery in New Street before finding a permanent home in the collection of the Museum & Art Gallery. It can be seen here.
The line drawing in Edgbastonia has been drawn from this painting. An earlier portrait also exists from Queens College and is now in the collections of the University of Birmingham but can also be seen on-line.
Dr Davies enjoyed about 3 years retirement before his death on 11th December 1879 after a few months of ill health. He was attended at the end by his old friend Oliver Pemberton, who himself became Coroner in 1891. I suspect that much more can be discovered about this remarkable man by delving further into the archives from Birmingham’s early period as a Borough.