It seems appropriate, on the day after St Patrick’s Day, to tell the story of an Irish pauper who appeared in court on her nation’s saint’s day and triumphed. It must have been a rare victory for London’s poorest who faced a daily battle with the poor law authorities and the criminal justice system.
Biddy (probably short for Bridget) Brick was well known to the courts of the capital and a was a thorn in the flesh of the poor law officers of East London. She was, the Worship Street Police court was told, ‘a source of constant plague and annoyance, from her clamorous mode of demanding relief, and her pertinacious refusal to be passed to her native country’. [I had to look ‘pertinacious’ up; it means obstinate and determined and I’m going to use it more often!]
Her favourite method of gaining both the attention and the financial support she craved was to drop her infant child outside the workhorse door and leave it. Presumably she thought this would mean that the poor law authorities would have to support it, and herself. The tactic could backfire however, and she had seen the inside of a London gaol several times as a consequence of her actions.
Mr Bennet, the beadle of St Luke’s in Whitechapel was at his wits end and had pursued a campaign to finally get Biddy sent back to Ireland as her place of legal settlement. Parishes had an obligation to support only those paupers who were legally entitled to settle in the parish; anyone falling ‘chargeable’ who was settled elsewhere was supposed to be ‘passed’ to their native parish.
The settlement laws were complex and you could gain settlement in a variety of ways such as marriage, work, or through renting a rateable property. Biddy however, filled none of these criteria. Eventually Bennet succeeded and escorted Biddy to a ‘pauper ship’ that would carry her to Ireland. As they parted however, the Irishwoman offered a parting shot:
‘Good bye for the present old chap, I’ll be returnable by May’.
In fact she returned much more quickly than that; within days a City of London officer appeared at the beadle’s door with Biddy and her child in tow. She had attempted her old truck of dumping her baby on the workhouse steps at Cripplegate and had been dragged before the Lord Mayor at Mansion House. He heard her starry and sent her back to St Luke’s.
Distressed and confounded Bennet took her to court to ask Mr Greenwood at Worship Street what he should do with her. He presumably hoped the magistrate would help him get her sent back to Ireland as soon as possible. Unfortunately for him Mr Greenwood told him the law was against him.
‘The child, I suppose, is illegitimate?’ ask the justice.
‘Yes, your Worship’, replied the beadle.
‘And the mother has no legal settlement in England?’
‘She has not, your Worship’.
‘Then the law is in the woman’s favour’, Mr Greenwood explained, ‘for the clause in the New Poor Act  that relates to the subject merely says that a bastard child takes the settlement of its mother; but the mother in this case having no settlement, the law remains as it was before, and the child belongs to the parish in which it was born’.
‘But then the mother, sir….’
‘The chid being under seven years of age, the mother by law in inseparable from it, and must partake in the settlement’, concluded the magistrate.
Poor Mr Bennet, all his efforts had unraveled and Biddy enjoyed her victory over the local authorities. She blessed the magistrate and wished that he ‘might never die’ before she ‘shouldered her chid and hurried off, sticking close to the gold-laced skirts of the functionary’. The newspaper report, in its tone and eloquence, might have been written by Dickens himself.
[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, March 18, 1840]