Azey Birch (1816-1901)
IT is hard to not to feel some sympathy for Azey Birch and his family. On the one hand he spent much of his life appearing in court and jail, often for drunkenness, on the other he did get a raw deal when it came to luck – or lack of it.
He was three when Queen Victoria was born and died the same year as the monarch. Other than that, there lives couldn’t have been more different.
A Gypsy, he was born Azey Smith in Leicestershire, but changed his name on moving to 14 Vere Court (off Broad Street) after marrying Caroline.
She, like her husband, liked a drink, although in her case it usually led to assaults.
He was a chimney sweep by trade. The couple had 11 children, mostly pupils at St Mary’s Roman Catholic School, Barrowby Road.
In 1871, his 13-year-old daughter Hannah stole a loaf of bread, and to make an example of her, she was sentenced to five years in prison (industrial school) Azey was often in court charged with failing to pay towards he upkeep, but always opted for two weeks or a month in jail rather than pay.
In 1872 he was also bound over on a £20 surety after a fight with Caroline in the street.
And they lost a child of five was burnt to death when his nightclothes ignited from an open fire.
In 1878 They lost their one-year-old son Richard, following another drink-fuelled fight. Caroline went home, began to breast-feed the baby but fell unconscious. When she awoke the following morning, she found the baby had suffocated on her breast.
Later that year nine year old Edward was doing what lads did then. He, together with several of his mates, jumped on the back of a fly (horsedrawn cab) for a ride. It hit a bump, Edward lost his grip and his head became jammed between the side of the fly and the rotating wheel.
The following year, they lost Valentine their who died from suffocation. Azey and Caroline had had drink during the night. The father, mother, and two children were all in one bed, Valentine lying between the wall and her mother and was crushed.
In 1880, Abraham (1) died of natural causes.
After a few more years of drunken frolics, he seemed to settle down. He took up fishing, joining Grantham Angling Association and won many prizes from cigars to a bottle of whisky.
Then in 1894, he was thrown out of his Vere Court home by landlord Thomas Millard, who described him as such terrible blackguard “that could not do with him any longer”.
Azey died of senile decay and exhaustion, aged 85, which was well above life expectancy in Victorian England.
Yet for someone whose life was seemingly insignificant, it was laid bare in the local press through court and inquest reports.