Continuing my analysis of one whole week in the reporting of the Police Courts here is the case of a man who claimed to be related to a famous politician but who had ended up in a workhouse.
Henry Harcourt was 24 and turned up at the casual ward of Lambeth workhouse seeking ‘shelter and food’. He was a curious individual in several ways but most obviously because he presented himself as deaf and dumb. He was clutching a piece of paper given to him at a nearby police station which told him how to find the workhouse and acted as a letter of introduction. Presumably then, he had been picked up on the streets as a vagrant by a policeman that decided to help rather than prosecute him.
Henry was given food and the, as was the normal procedure, set to work in the casual ward. The workhouse superintendent, Mr George Ware, told the Lambeth Police Court magistrate (Mr Chance) that Harcourt:
‘was given 4lb of oakum to pick. He did but very little, and made signs that he wanted to see the doctor’.
Dr Lloyd thought the man fit for work but was inclined to excuse him on the grounds of his disability, being, as he thought, entirely deaf and unable to speak. Imagine the shock then when on Sunday morning in chapel he suddenly blurted out:
‘I wish to confess. I have been pretending to be deaf and dumb for 14 years. I went a voyage to Australia and back as assistant stoker on a ship, and never spoke to anyone’.
Henry confirmed his story story in front of Mr Chance and added that he had kept his silence in part to protect his respectable family and friends from his fall from grace socially. He ended by adding that he was ‘a distant relation of Sir Vernon Harcourt’, the sitting Home Secretary in Gladstone’s Liberal government. Mr Chance was suitably intrigued and remanded the man in custody so further enquiries could be made before he decided whether he could be prosecuted for falsely representing himself and soliciting relief.
[from The Standard , Tuesday, January 30, 1883]