Today I start my third year classes at the University of Northampton teaching and working with students on a module entitled ‘Crime and Popular Culture in the late Victorian City’. The City in question is London and we concentrate on the last quarter of the 1800s. In particular the module uses the Whitechapel murders of 1888 as a prism through which to explore crime, poverty, and a variety of other topics, using different sorts of popular culture along the way.
Naturally this aligns quite neatly with this blog that looks at the work of the Victorian Police Courts. As is evident to anyone who regularly dips into these stories, ‘all human life is here’.
Poverty is one of the fundamental defining characteristics of many of those that ended up before a police magistrate in the nineteenth century. Poverty was a prime cause of criminal activity; poverty often went hand-in-hand with alcohol abuse and gambling; poverty and domestic spousal abuse were also strongly interlinked. In addition many (if not most) of those seeking advice from the Police Courts were poor, vulnerable, or elderly.
Poverty and the police courts then, were inseparable.
Walter Crump was described by the court reporter as an ‘able-bodied young man’ when he was examined before the magistrate at Westminster Police court on 11 January 1888. He was brought in by the guardians of the poor at St George’s, Hanover Square, for deserting his wife and children. His absence had left them in poverty and had meant they had turned to the parish for support, meaning their upkeep fell on the ratepayers.
They had been in the Fulham Road workhouse since July when Crump had left them and the parish officials had tried, and failed, to get him to take responsibility for them. They had written to him, the magistrate was told, warning him that a prosecution would follow if he did nothing to help them, but he:
‘took no heed of this, but went to races and hopping [as many Londoners did in the late summer], returning to Westminster and living in lodging houses as a single man’.
Walter denied trying to evade the authorities and said that previously he had been unable to support his family. Now, with some improvement in his condition, he might be able to ‘pay something weekly’.
Mr Eyncourt, the sitting magistrate at Westminster, was unimpressed. He had cost the ratepayers the sum of £30 by neglecting his familial duties (perhaps as much as £1,800 in today’s money). He had only offered to do anything about it when ‘he was in custody’. he added, and it had taken a great deal of time and effort to track him down. As a result he was sent to prison for a month at hard labour, just how useful that was in supporting the family is less clear but I presume it was intended as a message to others.
[from The Standard, Thursday, January 12, 1888]
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