The Investigation of Suicide in Victorian and Edwardian Scotland

Author:Robert Shiels
Position:Robert Shiels (MA LLB Dundee, LLM PhD Glasgow) is a solicitor in Scotland. I am grateful to the anonymous reviewer for helpful comments made about an earlier draft. I alone am responsible for the final paper.
Pages:1-17
Dundee Student Law Review, Vol. 5(1+2), No.4
The Investigation of Suicide in Victorian and
Edwardian Scotland
Robert Shiels*
Introduction
Notwithstanding the highly sensitive nature of death by suicide is such that there seems to have
been little discussion, in Scotland at least, of the history and related legal aspects of the
occurrence of these events. There is no doubt that the subject matter ought to be considered
because of the sad circumstances that often surround such deaths, not least because of the effect
of the event on the nearest relatives of the deceased. Occasionally, these deaths are induced in
large numbers by appalling circumstances that certain groups in the same society find
themselves in.1 Most commonly, in Scotland, death by suicide occurs by individuals acting
alone. That aspect of solitude, however, should not prevent attempts at discovering underlying
issues for further development in order to try to discover more of the phenomenon. In doing so
some indication can be given of the particular Scottish approach to the issues.
Existing literature
The office of coroner in Scotland had fallen into decline and disappeared before modern times.2
This contrasted notably with the work of forensic examination of deaths that continued, and
still continues, to be carried out by the coroner in England and Wales, and also in Northern
Ireland. The Coroner’s Court is a well-established part of the respective jurisdictions. In
Scotland, individual deaths by suicide, and much else besides, were left to be investigated by
the Procurator Fiscal, the local public prosecutor appointed by the Sheriff, with such medical
advice and assistance as required, and if available. In short, the circumstances of a death by
suicide were not examined in a public forum. The legal processes in practice (investigation by
an official with a report to a senior colleague elsewhere with the findings) appear distinctly
continental in origin but the existence of such a procedure of investigation in private was at
variance with the English practice, and yet remained unchanged by national government in
London where there was preference for the application of a model that matched that of English
law.
Professor Olive Anderson through her classic text, Suicide in Victorian and Edwar dian
England, was notable for her examination of suicide from many different but complementary
*Robert Shiels (MA LLB Dundee, LLM PhD Glasgow) is a solicitor in Scotland. I am grateful t o the anonymous
reviewer for helpful comments made about an earlier draft. I alone am responsible for the final paper.
1 Florian Huber, P M Y S Y T D  O G   (Allen Lane,
2019) has provided the most recent history of exactly that with the collapse of German society in the
immediate post-war era.
2 JG“ C I   J  J -3.
angles.3 Anderson made use of a wide range of sources, including coroners’ inquests, official
statistics, and newspaper reports. The value of her research lay in her challenge of the reasons
usually given to explain suicide: far from the newly created and heavily-industrialised urban
centres giving rise to appalling conditions that drove people to take their lives, deaths by suicide
more often occurred in rural areas or small backwater towns. The explanations included the
point that industrial centres were, in fact, communities in which plentiful work nearby with
high wages gave reasons for living. The book was extensively reviewed and highly regarded.4
One of Anderson’s convincing arguments was that suicide statistics were plainly shaped at
every stage by the processes which produced them.5 Her view was that in the Victorian period
professional expertise, greater bureaucratic rigour and consistency made some very substantial
advances in a system for investigating sudden death, but always within an archaic feudal
framework which was neither uniform nor centrally controlled.6 The coroners of Wales and
Ireland had their duties to perform but that was in the context of the inquest model from English
law:
“It has too often been forgotten that the English legal system of investigating sudden
death was a peculiarly open one, and involved washing everyone’s dirty linen not only
in a public inquest room, but probably in the local newspaper as well. An inquiry was
thus not usually welcome”.7
Professor Anderson identified four stages as being crucial to the process by which a death came
to be registered as one caused by suicide. The first, or pre-coronatorial, at which it was settled
whether a death should be drawn to the attention of the coroner; the second, or coronatorial, at
which the coroner determined whether an inquest should be held on that death; the third, or
inquest stage, at which a jury decided whether a verdict of suicide should be returned; and,
finally, the recording stage, at which the coroner and the local Registrar of Deaths carried out
this verdict into the judicial statistics compiled by the Home Office and the death returns lodged
at the General Register House.8
Yet, one reviewer noted that the evidence on which the professor relied was overwhelmingly
drawn from London and the south-east; there was little detailed material from the great
industrial cities and the north of England- “Wales gets only the briefest discussion, Scotland
an occasional mention, and Ireland not even that”.9 The Scottish investigation of suicide by
confidential inquiry is an example of how the inherent contradictions of law and civic
administration (in short, the wholly different ways of doing the same thing) amongst the home
nations were, somehow, absorbed and tolerated within the Victorian and Edwardian eras.
3 Olive Anderson, Suicide in Victorian and Edwardian England (Oxford University Press, 1987).
4  ‘ P B ‘   M H  -1.
5 Anderson (n.3), 32.
6 ibid, 15.
7 ibid, 255.
8 ibid, 18.
9 David Cannadine, History in Our Time (Penguin, 1998), 127.

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