The Life and Death of Hannah Wiltshire

‘The Life and Death of Hannah Wiltshire. A Case Study of Bedminster Union Workhouse and Victorian Social Attitudes on Epilepsy’ 

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This study offers a factual account of the life and death of the vulnerable poor living in rural England during the mid-nineteenth century. The narrative that unfolds is an attempt to demonstrate how, without adequate transparent social and medical support, a devoted family unit can rapidly fall apart. Despite class based medical discrimination towards the treatment of epileptics in Victorian England, Ann Howe and her supporters succeeded in provoking a legal obligation for accountability from the Guardians of the Bedminster Union Workhouse. Exploring original archived material, secondary sources, family history data and field visits, the account attempts to reveal how a woman who was probably illiterate, and the daughter of impoverished farm labourers, embarked upon a campaign for justice.


During the year of 1855 rumours of murder and cover up were circulating in the small north Somerset village of Walton-in-Gordano. The allegations originated from the historic institution known as Bedminster Union Workhouse and the suspected man-slaughter of a 22 year old female inmate named Hannah Wiltshire. Hannah Wiltshire’s death caused local public outrage at the time as well as a perception of a cover up at the inquest court. Media controversy also led to accusations that workhouse guardians concealed the true extent of neglect at Bedminster Union Workhouse.

Using historical records and extensive analysis of archived material, an attempt has been made to piece together an account of the life and death of Hannah Wiltshire, a pauper who lived near Bristol. The inquest documents no longer exist (Somerset Records Office, 2015), but detailed reporting on the day of the inquest by regional newspaper reporters provided a valuable secondary source of material.

Available in book shops now and directly from the Bristol Radical History Group, throughout libraries South West, The British Library and various Bristol book shops. The Hydra Bookshop in Bristol is the main seller.