Mrs John Green had taken some laundry to the public baths on Orange Street, off Leicester Square. Most families would not have had running water at home in the 1860s, much less facilities to wash their clothes. Wealthier women would have sent their laundry off with a char woman but Mrs Green was far from well off.
As she was putting up her clothes on the line another poor woman approached her and offered to help. Mary Bridgeman took a couple of shirts to hang but instead wandered off with them. Mrs Green alerted the bath’s matron and Mary was soon apprehended.
The case came to Marlborough Street Police Court where Mary appeared in the dock with a child in her arms. She was clearly poor and pleaded poverty; ‘she said she was sorry. She did it from hunger, the child having no bread to eat’. Mrs Green didn’t want to press charges, presumably she had her husband’s shirts back and she could see the distress Mary was in.
Unfortunately the sitting justice was less sympathetic. He told Mary that poverty was ‘no excuse’ and that ‘she could have gone to the parish for relief’. The reality was that had Mary asked for poor relief she would have condemned herself and her child to the workhouse and the magistrate knew that.
He felt he could no ignore this theft from a fellow member of London’s poor and so he sent Mary to prison for 7 days, with hard labour. Hopefully she had someone close to look after the child. Not that the justice would have cared that much either way.
[from Daily News, Monday, June 19, 1865]