‘I looked after them as well as I could’: a mother’s plea as her children are taken away.

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This morning I am working on the latest draft of my next book, which offers a (hopefully) plausible solution to the Whitechapel murders of 1888. So I’m currently sitting (fairly comfortably) in the National Archives at Kew. The sun is shining, the lake is full of geese, and the air conditioning in on. This is a world away, of course, from the trials and tribulations of the folk that were brought before or sought help or redress from London’s Police courts in the nineteenth century.

I’ve taken this case from July 1888, just before the series of murders associated with an unknown killer given the sobriquet of ‘Jack the Ripper’, began in August. I think it reveals the poverty and desperation of some Londoners at the time, and the casual cruelty that sometimes accompanied it.

However, this wasn’t a case that occurred in Whitechapel, but instead in Soho, in the West End. The area in which the murders of 1888 is so often portrayed as a degraded, godless, and immoral place that it can be easy to forget that other parts of the capital were equally poor, and that thousands of our ancestors lived hand-to-mouth in grinding poverty. It took two world wars to create a system that attempted to deal humanely with poverty; in 1888 this was still a long long way ahead.

Patrick and Mary Ann Lynch were tailors but they were also very poor. They lived in one room in a rented house in Noel Street, Soho. They had four children who lived with them, all crowded together in circumstances we would be shocked to discover in London today. In fact their circumstances, while not uncommon in late nineteenth-century Britain, still had the power to shock contemporaries. This was especially so when evidence of cruelty or neglect towards children was shown, as it was here.

The Lynch’s situation was brought to the attention of a local medical man, Dr Jackson, by neighbours of the couple. He visited and found the four children ‘in a wretched state’. He informed the police, and Inspector Booker of C Division paid them a visit. This is what he later told the Marlborough Street Police Magistrate:

The children ‘were in a filthy state. Three of them – Charlotte, aged four years, Michael, two years and ten months – were lying on a dirty old mattress. On the other side of the room was Henry James, aged ten months. They looked haggard and weak, especially Frank. They were so filthy that he could scarcely recognize their features. Frank seemed to be gasping’.

These were the days before social services and child protection but the policeman didn’t wait for permission from anyone, as soon as he could he had the children removed to the nearest workhouse in Poland Street. He arrested Mary Ann and charged her with neglecting her children. Mrs Lynch was taken to the police station where she was reunited with her husband, who had been arrested earlier the same evening for drunkenness  – it wasn’t his first time.

At the station Mary Ann said she’d tried to look after her kids but her husband hadn’t let her. ‘I looked after them as well as I could’, she pleaded, but ‘I had to work, and if I left off to look after them, my husband would kick me out of the place’.

In court the Inspector said that he’d tried to get the poor law relieving officer to intervene but he’d refused; no one wanted to help the family it seems. Another policeman, sergeant Castle, added that the relieving officer didn’t seem to think the Lynchs case was one of ‘actual destitution’, so weren’t inclined to act.

Mrs Lynch’s position was typical of many at the time. She had to work because he husband’s wages didn’t provide enough for the family to live on, especially as he chose to drink much of them away. Dr Jackson also gave evidence in court, telling the magistrate (Mr Hannay) that when he’d visited Patrick Lynch was lying on a mattress in drunken stupor, next to his son Henry. When he rose to his feet he pushed down on the little boy hurting him, and making him cry.

At this point little Henry was produced in court. This caused quite a stir as the child ‘appeared to be no bigger than a child’s shilling doll’. Mr Hannay was amazed the Poor Law Guardians hadn’t taken up the case adding that he was sure that the authorities would either realize that they had a duty to intervene, or would find themselves being prosecuted for neglect. For the meantime he remanded the couple and sent the children back to the workhouse.

[from The Standard , Tuesday, July 17, 1888]

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