Mr. and Mrs Philips were well known to their parish officers and to the local charity groups that attempted to intervene in the lives of London’s poor in the 1880s.
The Charity Organisation Society was founded in London in 1869 with the intention to support ‘self-help’ and thrift over state intervention. At its head were two strong women – Helen Bosanquent (neé Dendy) and Octavia Hill (who went on to be a founder of the National Trust). The COS wanted people to help themselves and viewed poverty (as many did in the 1800s) as largely a personal failing.
Supporters of the COS disliked ‘outdoor relief’ (where families were given handouts without being required to enter the workhouse) and argued that the ‘workhouse test’ was a proper way of separating the needy from the work-shy.
However, it was often accepted that there were those who could not work and, at face value at least, Mr. and Mrs Philips seem to have fallen into that category.
Mr. Philips was blind and his wife had lost her right arm. In late January 1887 the pair made their way to the Bow Street Police Court in Covent Garden to ask for help.
Mr. Vaughan, the sitting magistrate, sent out for information about the couple, to ascertain what sort of people they were and what he might do to assist them. It didn’t take long for the various charity groups and local parish officials to get back to him. On the 27th the husband and wife attended his court to hear the results of his investigations.
It wasn’t good news.
The COS reported that that had initially being paying the pair 12s a week (about £35 or the equivalent of a day’s wages for a craftsman) but when they discovered that Mrs Philips was ‘constantly drunk’ and that Mr. Philips continued to go out begging, they stopped all support. The parish officers described them as ‘incorrigible beggars’ who they were constantly having to remove from the streets around their home in Euston Road.
They added that Mrs Philips drinking had reached such a point that her mental health was affected. According to one witness: ‘she ‘showed symptoms of softening of the brain through excessive drinking’.
Mr. Vaughan looked down at the couple from the bench and told them that there was nothing he could do for them while they continued to disobey the laws surrounding vagrancy and begging. In order to get help in late Victorian Britain paupers – whatever their situation – had to either submit themselves to the horrors of the workhouse or attempt to live up to the standards set by demanding middle ladies like Mrs Bosanquet and Octavia Hill; there was no middle ground if you couldn’t support yourself.
[from The Morning Post , Friday, January 28, 1887]