Charles Dickens is charged at Bow Street (for spreading a disease!)

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Charles Dickens, perhaps unusually for a novelist, was extremely popular in his own time with his stories being devoured  in serial form by tens of thousands of readers and his live performances drawing many others to the the theatre. His fame and admiration may well have led those who shared his surname to name their offspring after the great novelist. This would appear to be the background behind a rather unusual appearance at Bow Street Police court in September 1893 and perhaps explain why the editor of The Standard chose it as one of the few summary court cases he published that day.

Charles A. Dickens was a clerk working for a large firm based in Gloucester. On the 19 August 1893 Dickens had arrived in London with two of his sons, and they checked in to the West Central Temperance Hotel in Southampton Row.  As a 1927 guide tells us: ‘Temperance Hotels (especially in Bloomsbury), in which alcoholic liquors are not consumed, often afford comfortable quarters at very reasonable rates’, so perhaps this why Dickens (a clerk minding his pennies) selected it as a sensible place to stay.

On Sunday and Monday one of the children (also named Charles) was ill. On Tuesday he said he felt a little better but Mr Dickens was still concerned enough to call for a doctor. Having examined the boy the doctor (named Steggall) informed the clerk that his son was suffering from scarletina, the medical term for scarlet fever. As a highly infectious and potentially fatal illness Dickens should have isolated his son from others and informed the authorities; however he did neither of these things which is why he ended up facing a court case.

The magistrate at Bow Street (Mr Lushington – who had been promoted from the less the prestigious court at Thames) heard from Dickens’ lawyer (as the clerk himself did not  appear to testify in person) who spoke in defence of a charge brought by Mr H. C. Jones of the St. Giles Board of Works.

Mr Jones alleged that Dickens had breached the terms of the Public Health London Act (1891) by  exposing the sufferer of a contagious disease to others. The Dickens family had left the hotel without informing the proprietor of the boy’s illness. Mr Jones said that had the doctor not taken it upon himself to tell the hotel the room might have been let to other guests. As it was, once Dr Steggall had let them know of Charles’ condition,  the room was fumigated in accordance with the terms of the act.

Nevertheless, he said, the boy had still mingled with other guests in the ‘public coffee room’. Moreover they had then traveled back ‘on a public carriage and then a train to  Gloucester. How many people might have been infected was impossible to say’. Once back in Gloucester it appeared that Dickens had not even informed the medical authorities there, something Jones had checked with Dr Lovett at the Gloucester Sanitary commission.

Dr Francis Bond, from the Gloucester medical board, thought it serious enough to appear at Bow Street to back up Mr Jones’ case and help bring this to the attention of the press (and public). He explained that there was a ‘popular delusion’ that scarlet fever was only infectious in its later stages when in fact, he continued’, it was infectious from the beginning. As a result young Charles should have been isolated immediately and the relevant medical authorities informed.

In his defence Dickens’ lawyer argued that his client was unaware that scarletina was in fact scarlet fever and confirmed that the clerk wasn’t aware that the disease was contagious until ‘the peeling stage’. Thus he had ‘adopted the natural course of taking the child home to be nursed’. He hadn’t even been aware of the 1891 legislation (which is perhaps hardly surprising given that it was new and only applied to the capital).

However, ignorance is no defence in law and while Lushington was prepared to accept that it was a mistake and not a deliberate attempt to evade his responsibilities, he still fined the clerk two guineas with a  further five guineas costs. If Mr Dickens was unable to pay he added, he would go to prison for a month. Hopefully the clerk was able to produce the fines which were not insignificant. As for the author whose name both the clerk and his son shared, he knew all about the dangers of scarletina. His son (also Charles) contracted the illness in Paris in 1847. Scarlet fever was a dangerous disease, particularly for the children of the poor in Victorian England, and wasn’t really eradicated until the discovery of penicillin in the 20th century. That said, in recent years, it seems to have made a comeback.

The case here then reveals not only the celebrity of Charles Dickens (and his wide influence) but also the use of the papers as a way to inform the wider public of the law and the consequences of breaking it. This story served to remind readers (many of whom were working class) that the magistracy had the power to intervene in private lives, and that all citizens had responsibilities, not only for the health of their own family members but a also had duty of care to others. These then were not simply ‘criminal’ courts, they had a much wider purview.

[from The Standard, Saturday, September 16, 1893]

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