Primrose Day, by Frank Bramley (1885) Tale Gallery, London
By late April 1899 the old queen was nearing the end of her long reign and Britain was just six months away from the debacle of the second South African (Boer) war. The birth of Duke Ellington (on the 29 April) is an indicator that the ‘modern’ age was just around the corner, and all the horror and cataclysm that accompanied the ‘Great War’ less than a generation away. Yet as the millennium approached London was still very much a Victorian city where people looked backwards as much as forwards, and where ‘respectability’ ‘character’ and social class remained as ingrained as they had been for the last 100 years.
The Police courts of the capital continued to deal with the dregs of society; with the petty thieves, wife abusers, and disorderly prostitutes. Here was also where the poor came for advice or charity, and it was where those that manifestly could not cope with life sometimes turned up.
Jannie McDonald was one of those that struggled with life at the end of the century. Just 18 years of age Jannie was a young woman living in Notting Hill Gate. On the 26 April a policeman was called to her lodgings in Silver Street where he found her collapsed on the floor. She was clutching an empty bottle of laudanum that she has swallowed in an attempt to end her life. When she recovered she admitted that she had tried to kill herself on account of the abuse she received from her husband. The couple had been married less than a year but she preferred death to the prospect of returning to him. In court at West London Police court she changed her story and said she had only taken the drug to ‘procure some sleep and to ease pain’. The magistrate remanded her so that further enquiries could be made into the state of her mental health.
Over at Westminster William Lewis was re-examined having been remanded just over a week earlier. He was accused of criminal damage; he had allegedly ‘damaged the floral decorations at the Beaconsfield statue on Primrose Day’. Until April of this year 2018 (when the statue of Milicent Fawcett was installed) there were several famous people commemorated in Parliament Square, all of them men, one of which was Benjamin Disraeli, the Earl of Beaconsfield.
Disraeli, always Victoria’s favourite prime minister, died on 19 April 1881 and his followers marked his passing each year on Primrose Day. Perhaps Lewis was not a fan or held some grudge against the politician who pioneered what we now call ‘One nation Conservatism’. Like Jannie however, William was suffering from some form of mental illness. In fact enquiries in his case revealed that he had ‘three times been confined in a lunatic asylum’ and was currently out on ‘probation’. This didn’t refer to probation as we understand it within the criminal justice system today, as the first Probation orders were not issued until after August 1907. A district reliving officer from Rickmansworth (where William ‘belonged’) now appeared and he was discharged into his custody to be taken ‘home’ and re-confined.
Both these cases reveal that this was a society that was actually quite similar to our own with people that simply couldn’t cope with day-to-day life for whatever reason. What is noticeably different, one hopes at least, is that today both of these individuals would get more support from the state and local authorities than they did in 1899 at the end of the Victorian period. This change was not about to happen in 1899 of course; it took two world wars to finally overhaul the nature of the British state and create a society, which valued all of its citizens at least a little more equally than it had before. Two wars and the extension of the franchise (something Disraeli experimented with to win greater support for the Conservative Party) led to the election of ‘socialist’ government and the creation of a welfare state that remains (for all its flaws) the envy of the world to this day.
[from The Standard , Friday, April 28, 1899