A little charity at Christmas time (for once)


It is the time of year when charities ask us for money to help the homeless, the elderly, refugees and abandoned pets. Of course they do this all year round (because the problems they address are constant, not seasonal) but perhaps they know we are more likely to dip into our pockets over Christmas. We all know the story of Scrooge and Tiny Tim after all.

The Victorian poor law was harsh and often cruel, separating families and treating those who could not work little better than criminals. Sadly we’ve not lost the rhetoric underpinning the 1834 legislation, which is that there are those deserving of state assistance and those that aren’t. Many people would much rather go without that apply for benefits, visit a food bank or ask for charity, so ingrained in our culture is the philosophy of ‘self-help’ and independence.

Mrs Sarah Escott was a proud and ‘respectable’ working-class woman. Her husband was a gunmaker and the couple lived close to his work in Whitechapel. If you walk around the area close to ‘Petticoat Lane; and Spitalfields Market today you might be forgiven for thinking it has always been a rich and trendy part of London but this is far from the truth. In the middle of the 1800s and right through to late in the 20th century this was a poor area.

The street names also highlight its association with arms manufacturing in the past such as Artillery Passage and Gun Street, while  the Worshipful Company of Gunmakers have been located on Commercial Street since the 1670s.

Mrs Escott lived with her husband at 3 Rupert Street (now Goodman Street, south of the Commercial Road and close to the old East London railway arches at Pinchin Street). The couple had recently been delivered of triplets, something the newspaper reporter and the Thames Police court magistrate thought worthy of noting.

in December 1851 Sarah had brought her three babies to the court because she wanted the justice’s help. She carried two of them while a small girl cradled the third triplet. The magistrate was astonished:

‘Why do you mean to say those three healthy babes are of one birth?’

‘Yes sir’, replied Mrs Escott, ‘they are all girls and I suckle them all’.

But here was the problem. The gunmaking trade was depressed (little did anyone know a major war – the Crimean – was just around the corner) and Mr Escott was not getting enough work to keep the family together. He earned barely 8s shillings a week  (about £25 in today’s money) but wasn’t even guaranteed that. The Escotts were living close to desperate poverty and Sarah had been getting some help from the parish poor law fund.

However, the Guardians had stopped the payments of ‘outdoor’ relief and the family were now facing the threat of the workhouse and all that entailed. Sarah was trying to feed her triplets (whose arrival must have as much a surprise as it was a  very mixed blessing) . She needed good nutrition to keep them all alive on the quality of her own milk, something the justice recognised was difficult if not impossible on her meagre diet.

Mr Ingram the justice listened carefully and told Mrs Escott that he thought her a worthy candidate for help. He directed a police constable to accompany Sarah and her children to the local relieving officer for the Whitechapel Board of Guardians and to make the case for her. The policeman, PC Macready (93H Division), said he knew the family and stated that they were ‘very deserving, industrious people, whose poverty arose from no fault of their own’.

I expect this applied to lots of people in Whitechapel throughout the 1800s, unfortunately not many of them would have been treated as well, even a week before Christmas.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, December 17, 1851]

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