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Coroners' records


  • Coroners' Records

    Sudden deaths are usually reported to a coroner by the police or a doctor.

    The coroner will seek to establish a medical cause of death, sometimes by conducting a post mortem. The coroner may decide the death was of natural causes, if not he will order an inquest. An Inquest is a fact finding enquiry; who died, where and when, and how the death arose.

    The Coroner then prepares a report (the Coroner's Report). The Coroner has a legal obligation to retain all files for 15 years. It is then up to individual Coroners to decide what happens to the files, this accounts for regional variations in survival.

    If it is not known which coroner dealt with a death, it will normally be mentioned on the death certificate. Every coroner keeps an index of all deaths reported to him or her, and so should be able to confirm whether a particular death was dealt with by their office.

    The current coroner should know which archive service (i.e. town, county, national) would have been involved.

    An applicant will need the current coroner's permission to have access to the report, unless it is more than 75 years old.

    Click here to see a larger version of the newspaper report on the right.

    Inquests and Postmortems

    A postmortem or autopsy is a medical examination to establish the actual medical cause of death.
    An inquest is an inquiry into the circumstances to establish the reason for the death.
    You can have a postmortem without an inquest, and an inquest without a postmortem.

    Your first indication that there was an inquest is on a death certificate. The “Informant” will be the Coroner, and the date of the inquest is usually given. In some instances, an inquest is carried out as routine.

    The following link covers the rules in more detail: Surrey Coroners

    (Note that these procedures have evolved over time, and may not have been standardised in Victorian times)

    The coroner will usually call an inquest when the death was NOT due to “natural causes”, however some medical conditions (e.g. certain Industrial Diseases) always result in an inquest. However, the term "Natural Causes" can be misleading. It generally means a defined medical condition or illness not brought about by artificial means, accident, violence or the intervention of a third party. It may be used when death was due to an illness of sudden and uncertain onset, such as an acute infection, where the actual cause of the illness remains unknown.

    Locating an inquest report

    (1) Coroners' Reports

    Firstly, don’t get your hopes up. Many records are routinely destroyed, and of those surviving you may have problems of access due to the Data Protection Act (I have seen 75 or 80 years closure mentioned). Depending on the age, the first place to make enquiries is the local Records Office. For more recent records, try the local Coroner’s Office (find out the current contact details via the Police HQ website). Bear in mind that a Coroner's report is not likely to give you any insights into the life of the deceased. It is primarily a procedural document, and unless there were special circumstances, you will get very little information. Typical contents would be: the name of the person who carried out the identification, the name of the police officer who prepared the report, brief details of the circumstances, possibly a copy of the postmortem examination if appropriate, and the verdict of the coroner. If there was an inquest before a jury, there may be a summary of the evidence.

    (2) Newspaper Reports

    Most inquests are held in public, often before a jury, and are reported in the local newspaper, so this should be your first line of enquiry. Contact the central library nearest to where the inquest was held. They should be able to tell you the names of the newspapers most likely to have covered the inquest. They may also have copies of the newspapers in their archives (usually on microfilm or fiche).

    Click here for a larger version of the inquest report on the right.

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