There were very many prosecutions for begging heard at the Victorian Police courts. Begging was an offence that fell under laws that had been amended over the centuries but had been in place in some form since at least the Tudor period. In the nineteenth century you weren’t supposed to beg, you were supposed to present yourself at the workhouse gates if you really had no means of supporting yourself, and take the consequences.
The consequences (as contemporary writers like Jack London or George Sims discovered) were grim. On admittance to the workhouse causal ward the newcomer would be stripped and washed in cold water. His possessions would be bundled up and taken away, he was given a token with a number on for safe keeping. It was assumed that if a pauper kept anything of value (even his clothes) they would be stolen by his companions. A member of staff (or fellow inmate) would dole out a lump of hard bread and the new arrival would be shown to the ‘shed’ – a cold unlit room where the poor slept. Bedding was minimal and the mattress token; London found that his was blood stained for the warden turned it over.
If they managed to sleep at all it was either a miracle or a result of being so exhausted they could do little else. In the morning they were rudely awakened and their clothes etc were returned. Now they were led out into the yard to be fed and to pay for their keep. Food was basic: a swill that vaguely resembled oatmeal porridge. Work was backbreaking and usually involved smashing up rocks. Paupers were treated much like criminals and the stain attached to poverty followed them around for life.
No wonder then that people would rather beg, or even turn to crime. A little boy known only by his surname (‘Hall’) had been arrested by the police in central London. He was presented at Marlborough Street Police court to face Mr Mansfield. The magistrate heard that the boy had turned to begging after his father had taken him out of a Barnardo’s Home. Mr Hall inferred that he would rather have the lad with him than in one of the charity’s institutions but we are not told why.
However Mr Mansfield seemed to suggest that this was the fault of Barnardo and other similar ‘public institutions’ that had closed ‘their doors to those [children] who lame or in ill-health’. The consequence of this policy was that they had to return to their homes ‘or their haunts of vice, to be more neglected and cruelly ill-treated than before’.
He thought it ‘monstrous that those little waifs and starts should be cast aside in that matter’. Having said his piece he discharged little Hall into the care of his father.
[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, October 20, 1886]