When John Long appeared at the Westminster Police court in July 1883 it was his second time there in the space of a few days. John hadn’t done anything particularly awful, hardly even criminal in our eyes. He was only 13 years old and was found begging at Victoria Station and so when he came before Mr D’Eyncourt the magistrate made out an order to send him to the St Nicholas Catholic Certified Industrial School, where he was to stay until he was 16.
However, when John arrived there with a policeman, the school’s master refused to admit him. He explained that the school was unable to look after a boy like John (despite, it seems, having initially told Mr D’Eyncourt that they could).
In 1883 poor John was deemed ‘a cripple’ , a word we wouldn’t use today. The teenager ‘had lost the sight of the right eye, had lost his left leg in an accident, and had never been vaccinated’ (notwithstanding the fact that his skin was pockmarked – suggesting he’d already had smallpox and so was safe from future infection).
These were all given as reasons not to accept him into the school. So the boy was sent back with the police who had little choice but to take him to the workhouse. That was Friday (20 July) and on Saturday the workhouse clerk brought John back to Westminster Police court to see what should be done with him.
This time Mr Stafford was presiding and the court was attended by Mr Lawrence of the London Industrial School Department. Everyone seemed to agree that a place should be found for John but there was no such institution for disabled delinquents (as they clearly saw John to be). He was a ‘confirmed beggar’ and lived at home with his parents who, it was declared, ‘seemed to make a good thing out of [his begging]’.
The court heard that John Long was ‘a great nuisance to the ladies and gentlemen at Victoria station’ and when they finally let the lad speak for himself he apologised and promised to reform if given the chance. He told the magistrate he ‘earnestly wanted to work’. Mr Stafford was prepared to give him that chance and said he would write to the Reformatory and Refuge Union to see if a place could be found for him. Hopefully he could be taught to sew or make baskets so he could be useful to society rather than a drain on it.
I think this gives an insight into a society before the Welfare State and NHS was created and one we might foresee returning if we continue to allow the erosion of our ‘caring’ society. Where were John’s parents in all of this? They don’t seem to have been consulted or involved at all. Where was the duty of care of the state either? Let’s remember this was a boy of 13 who had committed no crime (unless we think of begging as a crime), he was blind in one eye and had only one leg. What on earth was he to do apart from beg?
[from The Standard, Monday, July 23, 1883