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BERKSHIRE CORONERS' INQUISITIONS (INQUESTS).
 
 
 
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Background
The role of coroner or "crowner" as it was originally known, has been in existence for over 800 years. The early coroners were primarily interested in establishing the cause of someone's death only to the extent that any guilty party could be fined by the King, or his chattles confiscated. Natural causes and accidental death were verdicts that exonerated third parties of wrongdoing, and were therefore welcome in the community, but were of no monetary value to the Crown. The verdicts in which the  Crown had a real interest were the crimes of murder and "felo de se" or "self murder", i.e. Suicide. Society was violent and the coroner was an important source of income to the Crown. Suicides were not the rare occurrence that you may imagine; suicides by hanging and drowning were frequently seen. The most inventive method of suicide I have come across was employed by Helen Cobbie, an inhabitant of Appledram, West Sussex, who in 1566 did "voluntarily and wickedly suffocate herself in a cheese press".
 
 
Berkshire's records.
Berkshire is particularly lucky to have a large collection of Victorian and Edwardian coroners' case records which are deposited at the Berkshire Record Office. Unfortunately, not all areas of Berkshire are covered equally as some coroners thought it appropriate to destroy their records. However, the cases whose records do survive total nearly 4700. See Areas covered and Persons in each parish .
 
 
Inquisitions in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Over the centuries the office of H.M. Coroner has slowly changed. In the 19th century there was growing public concern that the easy access to poisons and the inadequate medical investigation of the actual cause of death was leading to many murders going undetected. The coroners were then charged with determining the circumstances and medical cause of sudden, violent and unnatural deaths.
 
Every county, or sub-division of a county had a coroner appointed by the Crown. An inquisition (inquest) would be held before the H.M. Coroner for the division, who having received notice of the death would issue a warrant for summoning a jury which must have at least 12 members, but could have as many as 23. The jurors were drawn from the list of male inhabitants from the parish where the body was discovered, who would then elect a foreman to speak on their behalf. The jurors received a fee for their service, which stood at one shilling for the majority of the Victorian period. Unlike criminal trials the jurors were allowed to ask questions of the witnesses. In the rural parishes the jurors were inevitably farmers, millers, blacksmiths, carpenters, shop keepers etc., and due to the relatively small pool of candidates could be called upon to serve on several occasions. The older, more experienced jurors would become experts over the years and often pursue lines of questioning extremely useful in deciding the final verdict. The position of juror was taken very seriously and rather than being considered an inconvenience, being appointed to a jury was considered an honour.
 
The jury was sworn "super visum corporis", that is to say "on view of the body". The jurors would actively examine the corpse to see if there were any telltale signs of violence or other clues that might help them come to the correct verdict. With no refrigeration the inquisitions were arranged at short notice and were usually held on the day following the death. In the case of murder they were often held the same day. A room sufficiently large to hold the coroner, jury, witnesses and the table for the corpse was not always readily available and more often than not the local public house was used. The verdicts fell into four categories; murder/manslaughter, suicide, accidental death and natural causes. The jury was at liberty to add a rider to the verdict if they felt more detail was needed to give a rounded view of the circumstances. They were also able to accuse someone of murder or manslaughter or in the case of accidental death, consider whether the negligence of a third party had been a contributory factor.
 
What might family historians be missing?
I first started researching the coroners' inquisitions in relation to my own family tree and found their contents totally fascinating, offering a rare glimpse into the lives of the ordinary Berkshire people. Rural communities were very close, so any villager's death, whatever the cause, would be felt by the whole community. Can you imagine the trauma of discovering a body whilst you were on your way to work, or the tumult as a dozen or so villagers desperately try to save a drowning boy from the river?
 
As I started to read an increasing number of inquisitions I soon found family members who had taken part in the events described in the evidence, acting as witnesses in some cases, or serving on the jury in others. I realised that many thousands of family history researchers must be missing out on important chapters in their ancestor's lives. See Search serviceExample search.  Persons in each parish.