Conjoined Twins, Fisherton Anger and Samuel Pepys: A Tale of the ‘Fisherton Monster’

on Monday, 18 January 2021. Posted in Archives, Wiltshire People

“The true picture of a female monster born near Salisbury.” London : Printed for R. P. at the sign of the Bible in Chancery-lane, 1664 Image reproduced courtesy of Chetham’s Library (ref H.P.978)

In the early hours of the 26th October 1664, Mary Waterman, wife of John Waterman from Fisherton Anger, gave birth to triplet girls, Mary, Martha and Efflett. What makes this birth even more remarkable was two of the girls, Mary and Martha, were conjoined. A description of the twins is provided in a letter from the Salisbury Oculist Dr Daubeney Turberville to Robert Boyle - a founding member of the Royal Society:

On Tuesday night last, these was borne in Fisherton adjoining to our Town of Salisbury a monstrous Issue in part, the women has three children girls the one very well formed & fat, the other two as you may call them hath but one Body, continued handsomely to their shoulders, from whence growth four Arms completely …ade, two necks & two heads very well featured with all the parts, but they are contrary posited, one at one end of the Body & the other at the other, out of the side there is a Belly, Navel, a woman’s part, & one Fundament, and two complete Legs, & thighs, feet, & nails, they were at writing here of very lusty, & doe take their food, sugar & water, look about & wag all parts, the one is more sleepy then the other, both very pretty”.

The baptism register of Fisherton Anger only confirms their baptism, with no mention of their physical condition. Interestingly it was one of the ‘Monstrous’ twins rather than the ‘normal’ daughter who was named after their mother.

WSHC 1902/1

John was an ostler and described as the ‘labouring poor’. A physician, William Hann, who had witnessed the birth, described the Waterman home as a ‘poorly appointed dwelling, ‘full of holes’ and the girls as having only a linen cloth for its covering, which was taken off at the desire of every new spectator’, which had already brought ‘a thousand’ people to the Watermans’ door; making this a very cold environment for the newly born girls. Hann wrote to Robert Boyle to inform him of the twins’ birth and how he first heard about the birth at Fisherton, whilst at a local coffeehouse he overheard Mr Kent, minister of Fisherton, say that he:

"could justify the baptizing it with two names, adding, that it was a question to be debated by divines, whether it were to be reckoned as two persons, and whether it had two souls".

On Sunday last (says he) the wife of one Waterman an Ostler in Fisherton was in Travell the whole afternoon, & about 11 of the clock at Night she was delivered of a Daughter every way well shaped & proportioned, about an hour after she was delivered of another strange misshapen Birth, having two heads, the one where of was at the place of the Feet, 4 Arms& 4 hands, both the heads arms, & hands well proportion[e]d as low as the Breast, about the middle of the Body there came forth 2 feet Legs Thighs, & Buttocks, with the parts of a woman, & the Arms (& all these by one side) & 2 or 3 Inches above the pudendum the Navel grown out”.

The twins, at first seem to thrive, but died after two days within minutes of each other. Sadly, Efflett also did not survive for very long; she was buried on the 2nd November, only seven days after her birth.

Robert Boyle was a founding member of The Royal Society of London which was founded in 1660 for ‘Improving Natural Knowledge’ with two other members, Sir Christopher Wren, who, incidentally, was born at East Knoyle, 18 miles west of Fisherton Anger, and William Petty. It was granted a royal charter by King Charles II who was a patron of the arts and sciences. It is Robert’s correspondence with William Hann (now archived at the Royal Society) that detail the decision to dissect, embalm and have the twins displayed. The Watermans were clearly not wealthy, and the financial incentive to have their daughters displayed was most probably the key factor in their agreeing to this proposal. John initially refused to allow the dissection of his daughters, saying that ‘if he should suffer it, he should offend God’

The twins were put on display in Winchester, Oxford and London. While they were in London, Samuel Pepys met a gentleman, who had seen the twins, and wrote in his diary:

Here was a gentleman attending here that told us he saw the other day (and did bring the draught of it to Sir Francis Prigeon) of a monster born of an hostler's wife at Salisbury, two women children perfectly made, joyned at the lower part of their bellies, and every part perfect as two bodies, and only one payre of legs coming forth on one side from the middle where they were joined. It was alive 24 hours, and cried and did as all hopefull children do; but, being showed too much to people, was killed.
Friday 11th November 1664 Samuel Pepys.

What is interesting about the Waterman’ twins was the change in attitudes, from supposition to the principals of experimental sciences, before, during and after the civil wars.

During the Medieval period, deformed births – known as monstrous births after the Latin word ‘monstrum’ meaning an unnatural thing or event – were blamed on the mother. The mother’s cravings, desires, actions, experiences and thoughts during pregnancy could change the baby’s body while developing in the womb. A baby could be born monstrous if the mother wished it. Monstrous births could also be considered to be omens and signs from God. During this early modern period monstrous births were used as a propaganda tool to highlight low moral standards and beliefs.

In the political and social upheaval of the mid-17th century both Royalists and Parliamentarians used monstrous births as a way of challenging political and religious beliefs. ‘Royalism was a monstrous condition and deserved to be punished’. A 1643 broadside written by a Parliamentarian:

looke upon this monstrous Thing’, in the form of a double-bodied, many-headed papist-Royalist, ‘that would our Kingdome unto ruine bring’”

While the Royalists, on the other hand:

a strange and wonderful monster: born in Kirkham parish in Lancashire (the child of Mrs. Haughton, a Popish gentlewoman) the face of it upon the breast, and without a head (after the mother had wished rather to bear a child without a head then a Roundhead) and had curst the Parliament.

The Restoration of the monarchy brought about a big change in the attitude to babies born deformed. King Charles II had an enthusiastic interest in natural philosophy and the modern sciences, known as the ‘new experimental science’, where observation was the key element. By all accounts the approach taken by the Royal Society towards the twins was one of observation and analysis, with none of the suppositious views of the past.

Broadsides and Broadside Ballads were cheap, singled sheets of paper that were printed in their thousands and sold by vendors on street corners during the 16th and 17th Centuries. One such print was the ‘The true picture of a female monster born near Salisbury’’ (1664) and was sold in London to proclaim that ‘Fisherton had witnessed the birth of a ‘wonderful Creature, which cannot be otherwise accounted [than] a Monster’.

Another type of Broadside was the Broadside Ballad. These were popular during this period and were another way of conveying the local and national news by way of a rhyme. One such example was ‘Natures Wonders?’

Afflictions God doth sometimes send
to Parents for their sin,
When they will not their lives amend,
then doth the Lord begin
With Judgments for to humble them,
and make them feel his hand;
O turn unto the Lord in time,
for none can Him withstand…
Then Parents all Example take,
at all times seek the Lord;
Fruit of your bodies he can make
by your own selves abhorr’d: 24
Your Children which should be a joy
and comfort in the end,
The Lord in fury will destroy.
if you do him Offend.lxxv

Both these publications show the shift in attitudes from the suppositious to the natural sciences during this period after the civil war. They present the ‘Fisherton Monster’ as a symbol of natural truth and with a tone that reflects the influence of the natural sciences.

On the 20th February 1665 Mary and Martha returned to Fisherton Anger and were buried in St Clement’s churchyard. In 1852 this church was replaced with the current one, St. Paul’s Church.

Entry for the twins from Fisherton Anger burial register
WSHC 1902/1

The parish burial register only gives their names and the burial date, there is no mention to the fact that they died 4 months earlier.

A time when so many women died in child birth, Mary not only survived such a traumatic birth, incredibly, she went onto to have three further children with John: Ann, baptised on the 2nd February 1666/7; Elizabeth, baptised on the 29th March 1668/9 and John, baptised on the 3rd September 1671.

Mary was buried on the 21st September 1680. John was buried on the 30th May 1682, two years after his wife. Even though Mary and Martha did not live for very long, I hope by telling their story their legacy will live on.

Ian Hicks
Community History Advisor

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