The workhouse girl who failed to take her opportunities and took the silver instead

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Yesterday we celebrated 100 years of women over 30 having the vote in England. Britain wasn’t the first nation to give women the vote however, that was New Zealand in 1893. In 1893 in England women were still firmly viewed as second-class citizens.

Many young working-class women found work in London as domestic servants. One such woman was Harriett Sabin, a 17 year-old who found herself before the North London Police court in February 1893, charged with theft.

Harriett had been hired in December 1891 to work at a house in Clissold Road. She had got the position through the Metropolitan Association for Befriending Young Servants (MABYS) which had been formed in 1874 by Henrietta Barnet and Jane Nassau Senior. MABYS helped young women who had grown up in workhouses to find work in the homes of the better off and by 1890 the charity had over 1,000 volunteers throughout the capital.

It soon became evident that Harriett wasn’t suited to the position she been found however. She had arrived with ‘an indifferent character’ but ‘had pleaded for a chance’. Sadly her opportunity didn’t last very long though and she was given notice to quit at the end of a month. While employment hadn’t worked out Harriett was determined she would get something out of the experience.

On the penultimate day of December 1891, while the family were at dinner, Harriett got hold of a key and absconded through a side gate with a number of articles belonging to the house and staff that worked there. A search was made and it was found that the following items were missing:

‘a silver teapot, a gold bracelet, two gold brooches, a gold ring, a case of dessert knives and forks, and an umbrella’.

Another servant also reported that she had lost some items and suspicion inevitably fell on the girl from the workhouse. A warrant was issued to arrest her but she was nowhere to be found. Harriett had disappeared and nothing was heard about her until she surfaced in December 1893 in Northampton where ‘she was in custody for a similar offence’.

The police investigation, led by Detective-sergeant Bowers, had traced several of the stolen items to a pawnbrokers in Wood Green. In court the magistrate was at pains to point out that the pawnbroker was also at fault here. In the eighteenth century pawnbrokers were heavily criticised by commentators like Henry Fielding (the novelist and Bow Street magistrate) for allowing thieves a mechanism for laundering stolen goods. In this case a silver watch had been accepted even though it was engraved with the name of the owner – Mr Attree, Harriet’s former employer.

Many of the goods were produced in court for members of household (the Attrees and their staff) to swear to. The pawnbroker’s assistant, John Smith, was also there (n doubt shuffling uncomfortably under the magistrate’s glare).

DS Bowers had traveled the 60 miles north to question Harriett and reported that she had been convicted of theft there, and sent to prison for two months (which helps to explain why she had seemingly ‘disappeared’). Since she was now before Mr Ware and Mr Lane (the two sitting justices at North London) that sentence must have been completed. They decided that since she was clearly ‘a bad girl’ she would  to prison for a further three months.

The system was harsh. Harriett, a workhouse girl from a pauper background, had been given an opportunity to carve out a better life for herself, albeit as someone else’s drudge. She didn’t take it, or couldn’t adapt to it, and we don’t entirely know why. As a result she ended up exchanging one closed institution (the poor house) for another (the prison).

She was just 17 when she appeared before the magistrates at North London Police Court, and would be nearly 20 by the time she would be released from gaol. In effect her life was already ruined. I can only imagine what the future held for her but with a set of previous convictions and no character references to support her, that future must have seemed bleak to her.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, February 07, 1893]

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