‘Oh Freddy, where’s mammy?’: a tragedy on the Hackney Marshes

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This is a very sad story which really seems to have been the result of an accident rather than any intent on the part of the perpetrator. However, it is a useful reminder that the oft maligned Health & Safety laws we have established today are there for a reason.

John Squibb was a 24 year-old carman (the nineteenth century’s equivalent of a modern van driver). He was taking dust to Hackney Marshes to dispose of it. This was a daily task as the capital’s fires produced tonnes of unwanted waste which was collected weekly by dustmen. These characters have all but disappeared from our streets but I can remember  them back in the early 1970s, now they have been replaced by modern refuse operatives with their high viz jackets and automated collection vehicles. Modern ‘rubbish’ is more varied than the dust from fires and stoves that occupied most the trade in the 1800s.

Squibb drove his cart to Hackney Marshes and began to unload it into a prepared hole. I suppose this was the Victorian version of landfill; literally filling the earth with unwanted ashes and coal dust. As he worked a small group of children watched him, probably fascinated by the process but also keen to see if they could glean anything of value from the ‘rubbish’. As the illustration at the top of the page shows our poorer ancestors were obliged to scavenge from the rubbish pits in just the same way as we see in modern developing countries.

One of the children, three year-old Henry Walton, was standing close to the cart, too close in fact. His older brother was with him but possibly not looking after him as he should have been. As Squibb turned the cart to finish unloading it the wheel clipped little Henry and knocked him over. Before anyone could react quickly enough the cart moved forward, crushing the boy under the wheel.

The carman realised what had happened and rushed to drag the child out but it was too late. Henry cried out to his brother: ‘Freddy, where’s mammy?’, and died in Squibb’s arms. It was terribly sad but probably an accident and at Worship Street Police court that is how Mr Hannay saw it. He remanded Squibb so that the necessary checks could be made by the police and the licensing authorities but it was unlikely that the man would be prosecuted.

You have to wonder at a three year old being able to be on Hackney Marshes on a Friday morning with only other small children to supervise. We may have become overprotective of our children (to the extent that they hardly seem to pay outdoors at all) but incidents like this remind us of why some laws and controls are necessary. It is also a reminder of the poverty that existed in late Victorian London; many of these children would have been sent out to find things the family could use, eat or sell – this was recycling nineteenth-century style.

[from The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, 14 November, 1885]

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