The ‘Children of the Poor House’ series sets out to highlight the stories that we have uncovered from our archives. This week we are examining the mysterious death of one of our apprentices, William Lacey.

William Lacey was admitted to the Poor House at the tender age of 7, in February 1803. He lived with us for six years until, in November 1809, he was apprenticed to Matthew Currie to learn the trade of weaver for a period of five years.

However, three years after Lacey’s apprenticeship began, on 25th April 1812, it was reported by the Poor House Orderly that an “extraordinary meeting” of Belfast Charitable Society was held yesterday regarding the death of William Lacey. It was the mysterious circumstances of his death which prompted the Committee to investigate his case further.

On 20th April 1812, Belfast Charitable Society had received an anonymous letter from an inhabitant of Carrickfergus which stated that:

It appears that Matthew Currie … had some time ago taken (by indenture) some of the Poorhouse Boys to learn…the trade of a weaver and that he by severe beatings has been the cause of one of their deaths. It is also said that the Lads back was actually broken…”

Belfast Charitable Society members William Clarke and Reverend Samuel Hanna went to Carrickfergus, the day after this letter was received, to visit the Rev Mr Dobbs to enquire further on young William’s death. In their report to the Committee they mentioned that a man called James Hall was asked, by Matthew Currie, to inspect the body of the boy for a report concerning his death. Upon inspection, James Hall found no “marks of violence” to indicate that the boy’s back was broken. He did, however, find “some purple spots on his [William Lacey’s] neck” but was unsure if this was the cause of death.  Several other witnesses were also called to inspect the body, including Martha Clark (a servant) and Margaret Penny (Matthew Currie’s  sister-in-law)- they too found that the back was not broken. Although they both saw the purple marks on William Lacey’s neck and breast.

It was also during this time (23rd April 1812), that William Clark received a letter from Mr Dobbs. The letter contained information from William Millar, who was allegedly at odds with his neighbour Matthew Currie. William Millar did not see the boy beaten by his master nor in bad health. However, he often heard, late at night, the cries of a boy, whom he thought was Lacey, through the wall which divided the Millar and Currie family homes.  However, Thomas Thomson, a journeyman and former apprentice of Matthew Currie, believed that these cries were from William Currie’s own children.

Due to the conflicting evidence, the Committee decided, on Friday 24th April, that a coroner’s inquest should be held to determine for certain the cause of death. Several of the witnesses were called to report on the boy’s death, including William Millar and Thomas Thomson. In addition, Dr Samuel D Steward was called and sworn in. Dr Steward commented that there was an injury to the side of Lacey’s head which could have been caused by “a blow of a blunt instrument”. Although, he felt that it was not the cause of his death. Further examination of the body and from testimonies about the boy’s health before his death, the doctor concluded that William Lacey died due to an “intermitting Fever accompanied with a bowl complaint”.

After all the evidence was heard, the jurors found that “the Deceased William Lacey came to his Death by the usual visitation of God”.

It is still unclear whether William Lacey did in fact die of a “a bowl complaint” as neither the doctor nor the coroner commented on the purple marks on his neck. However, this incident led to Belfast Charitable Society taking additional measures to protect the welfare of its apprentices. It did so by thoroughly vetting the suitability of the individual taking in a child as an apprentice and introducing welfare visit to ensure the children were properly cared for and that the conditions of their indentures were being met.  In the case of apprentices outside of the immediate Belfast area, trusted individuals were placed in charge of welfare check. Following William Lacey’s death, the Rev Dobbs who had done so much to ensure the case was investigated,  was appointed visitor to the apprentices in Carrickfergus.