Two ‘ungovernable’ girls smash up the workhouse to get a change of scenery.

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Over Easter I’ve been enjoying bingeing on the BBC’s Dickensian series (via Netflix). While Inspector Bucket hunts for the killer of Jacob Marley, a variety of characters created by Dickens interact with act other in a  number of subplots. 1842 was the year the Detective Department was created (and Bucket presumably is meant to represent them when he refers to himself as ‘the detective’).

One of the subplots in Dickensian is the attempt by Mrs Bumble (the workhouse keeper’s wife) to ingratiate herself and her husband with the Board of Guardians of the Poor so they can secure a better paid position running a workhouse in ‘the Midlands’. She forces the inept and overweight Bumble to apply with a mixture of threats and false promises and we know, of course, they’ll eventually succeed because that is how Bumble comes to feature in Oliver Twist’s early life.

The Bumbles run the local workhouse (which we rarely see) with little care for the young charges trapped within. At his interview before the Guardians Bumble promises to thrash each and every one of them to instil the ‘Christian discipline’ they so badly require.

Dickens drew on real life. As a journalist his attention to detail gives his characters – even the gross parodies like Mr and Mrs Bumble – genuine authority. Life in the workhouse was very hard for all inmates, no less so for the children of the poor, orphans like young Oliver. There was little food, a basic education and the only family they had was each other. So it would be surprising if the children of the workhouse didn’t rebel from time to time.

Sarah Shaddock and Mary Tighe were two young women on a mission. The mission  they had, it seems, was to infuriate the keeper and matron of the Bishopsgate workhouse in the City of London. The girls (now 18 years old) had been born in the workhouse – they had known no other home outside. Growing up in the institution they had not only rebelled, they had tried to make it impossible for the matron and keeper to control them.

This was the only freedom they had of course; the only ‘agency’ available to them was to refuse to do as they were told. This choice however, had consequences, and in early April 1842 they found themselves standing in the dock at Mansion House Police Court facing Alderman Gibbs, the sitting magistrate, charged with theft.

The assistant matron explained that the pair had only just returned to the workhouse, having been previously confined in the bridewell for damaging property and being disorderly. On their return they’d robbed an elderly pauper of her entire savings (which amounted to just a few pennies).

The alderman was told that the girls, who stood at the bar ‘as quiet as mice’ had ‘frequently distinguished themselves by breaking windows and pelting the elderly residents with bread’. Mr Booker, one of the parish officers, added that when the pair were bored of the workhouse they:

‘committed violence of some kind, and the contrived to have a little variety to their taste’, adding that ‘they had been for a length of time ungovernable’.

What was the alderman to do with these two ‘ungovernable’ girls? Sanctions were clearly having little effect on them. He decided to give them two months in prison at hard labour but with the following stipulations as to their regime.

The pair were ‘to be locked up locked up every alternate week during that period in a solitary cell’. In addition, he said, care should be taken that ‘the diet of the prisoners should be as low as could be consistent with the preservation of their health’.

In other words, he was putting them on a starvation/subsistence diet which would serve both to break their spirit and weaken any attempt at resistance, and remind them that life in the workhouse – however awful – was much preferable to gaol.

This is unusual, I’ve not encountered such detailed sentencing from the court reports but it reveals the limits of the system to really effect change in the persons brought before them. As they had reached 18 both Mary and Sarah could presumably also expect to be able to leave the workhouse at some point soon and make their own way in the world. Given that they had been institutionalised since birth I doubt that transition was going to be easy and we may find both women appearing before the London Police Courts in the future.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Saturday, April 2, 1842]

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