The politics of sudden death: The office and role of the coroner in England and Wales, 1726-1888
thesisposted on 06.10.2009, 09:03 by Pamela Fisher
The office of coroner has attracted little attention from academic historians. This thesis presents the first comprehensive study of the role across England and Wales between 1726 and 1888. It engages with, and throws new light on, some of the major themes that run through eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British history: popular politics, the rise of democracy, the growth of the state and the development of separate professional spheres. Petty rivalries were confronted, as the developing professions of law and medicine jostled to claim this office as their birthright, but the coroners were also minor players on a much larger stage. They had to bear some of the pain of the many conflicts that emerged as society tried to define the level and nature of services to be funded from taxation, and to strike a balance between local and central control, and between lay and professional involvement. This thesis explains how local structures of power and authority affected many aspects of the role, including the selection of the coroner, the types of death investigated and the nature and frequency of medical testimony admitted. It explains how a medieval system was adapted to suit changing needs, how the inquest could be used to challenge the actions of those who had a duty of care to the community and how financial impositions could restrict its utility. The thesis provides the first detailed geographic assessment of the role of county magistrates in defining when an inquest should be held, and identifies the startling possibility that some county magistrates may deliberately have sought to establish a system that would ensure that certain murders would never be discovered.