a grave ‘crime’ in Lewisham



Today’s post demonstrates the variety of business that came before late Victorian magistrates in the capital’s police courts. In the last few days I have written about a rape case, pickpockets at the Oval, and a burglary from a shop in Whitechapel. But this case, from 1894, whilst sad is far less serious and hardly ‘criminal’ in any modern sense of the word.

Sarah Piper (aged 19) and Edith Hollidge (who was just 14) were both servants working for families in Greenwich. They were seen by a witness at Lewisham Cemetery taking flowers (specifically China asters) from one grave and placing them on another.

In court Piper protested her innocence, she said she had not touched any flowers. Edith however, admitted her crime, saying ‘she did not see why one grave should have all the flowers’.

The cemetery’s superintendent (a Mr. Bugg) appeared to add the information that neither child had any relatives buried there. A widow then came to give evidence that her husband’s grave was frequently having the flowers she left there stolen, which must have been very upsetting for her.

The justice told Edith that her behaviour was ‘wanton mischief’ and fined her 5s, Sarah was discharged without punishment.

I can’t imagine two teenagers appearing in court for such a ‘crime’ today, much less being punished for it. Distressing as I am sure it was for the bereaved I don’t think the girls had any malicious intent. Edith just wanted to ensure that no grave was neglected.

The rising population of Victorian London presented the authorities with a major headache in the second half of the 1800s. The old parish churchyards were full or filling up and so several major new cemeteries were built (of which Highgate is the most famous). Lewisham (more properly called Hither Green or Lee Cemetery) opened in 1873.


[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, September 11, 1894]


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