A case of extreme poverty and embezzlement

In May 1888 the newspapers were dominated (in terms of crime news) with the shocking murder of a young man in the Regent’s Park. This is something I’ve written about previously and I may return to in this blog but for now I was keen to see what else made the news in reporting from the police courts.

Elizabeth Sarah Davies, a 28 year old boot machinist with 4 young children, was brought up at Dalston Police Court in North East London charged with embezzlement.

Elizabeth was accused of taking no less than 40 boot uppers (worth around £2 – or £120 in today’s money) belonging to her employer’s, Alexander Lion & Company of Phipps Street. The works manager appeared and said she had been given the uppers as piecework to be paid at 1s a dozen. There was some discussion of the actual amount she would have been paid and it is clear that this was ‘out work’ (meaning she took the items home with her as was quite common at the time).

The uppers were due back on the following Saturday but she and goods never appeared. On investigation it became clear that Elizabeth had sold them for 3s. The manager accepted there were ‘extenuating circumstances’: Elizabeth and her family were starving. She had sold the uppers because she and the children had ‘not eaten for three days’. Her brother appeared for her and promised to pay the firm the £2 owing if they would just bind Elizabeth over instead of imprisoning her.

The magistrate agreed that this was a ‘sad’ case and decided to remand her for one day only, after which she would be released. There is no record of what happened next; did Elizabeth lose for employment (that is likely), did she have to enterer the workhouse with her children or was her brother able to support them both? Where was the father, dead, in prison or had he deserted them? This is one of those cases which reveals the human misery of the late nineteenth century before the Liberal reforms of the early twentieth began to improve the lives of the poorest.

[from Daily News , Tuesday, May 29, 1888]

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