John Aldridge was a nine year-old boy who lived with his mother and two siblings in the parish of Wandsworth, south of the River Thames. In 1844 large parts of Wandsworth were agricultural, far from the densely populated urban sprawl it is today.
John was brought to the Wandsworth Police Court by a police constable from V Division. The copper had found the boy asleep in a field of wheat at two in morning, drenched to the skin as it was pouring with rain. When he woke him the lad ‘could scarcely speak or move his limbs’ so cold was he.
He told the police officer that his father was dead and his mother sold ‘lucifer matches’ during the day, sending out himself and his sister and brother to beg. John had to come home with at least 1s 3d ‘every night, or he had no supper and was well beaten’. In answer to a series of questions he told the court that he could make up to 3s ‘by begging and holding horses’.
Mr Clive the sitting magistrate listened to this tale before he decided what to do with John. He said he couldn’t prosecute the mother as no law forbade her sending her son out, or beating him either. John himself he could not punish because he was too young to be sent to prison, and anyway he was only obeying his parent’s wishes, as he should.
He concluded (as much for the benefit of the newspaper reporters to write down one imagines) that John’s situation was the result of misplaced charity on the streets. If people continued to give money to beggars like him and his siblings they would continue to beg. Much better, he argued , that those in need were directed to one of a ‘hundred channels’ where money could be given in a more controlled way. This of course echoes what we are told today about not giving money to beggars and vagrants on the streets; it does more harm than good.
As for John Aldridge there was really only one thing the magistrate could do for him. Like Oliver Twist (published in a series just a few years before – in 1837-9) he sent him to the Union Workhouse. Whether his mother was informed, or did anything about it, we will never know.
[from The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, August 1, 1844]