Goldsmiths’ Hall in the mid-ninetenth century, by Thomas Shepherd
It is the time of the year when charities do so much to raise awareness of poverty and homelessness. People are homeless all year round of course, and poverty is endemic in our society, but there is something particularly poignant about seeing someone sleeping rough at Christmas which helps charities prick the consciences of the general public.
At the Guildhall Police court in December 1855 the suffering of the poorest was on the mind of Alderman Finnis, the duty magistrate, but so were the attempts of the poor to help themselves. He notified the press that his court had received a cheque for £20 from the Goldsmiths’ Company which was to be added to the Poor Box. This enabled him and his fellow magistrates ‘to relieve many deserving cases’ in the City but he assured readers (and potential donors) that the money ‘was not given to worthless people’. The Goldsmiths could well afford it, as the painting of their headquarters above suggests.
Among those he might consider ‘worthless’ were Martha Gilbert and Mary Murphy. They had entered a bakery at 49, Old Bailey and had asked for a loaf of bread. When Mrs Fore, the shopkeeper, had placed it on the counter the women ripped it in half and rushed out, stuffing into their mouths as they ran. They were soon captured and brought before the alderman.
In their defense they said they were starving which only earned them a rebuke.
‘That is no excuse, for you should have applied to the union’, Alderman Finnis told them.
They had, he was told, but St George’s had refused them poor relief. This was probably true the reliving officer of the West London Poor Law Union admitted,
‘for the metropolitan parishes were refusing to relieve the poor for the purpose of driving them into the City, where it was well known they were all relieved’.
Only the day before he had had no less than 153 applications, many from paupers living outside the City’s boundaries.
Alderman Finnis was outraged. ‘It is a pity they [meaning the Poor Law Unions in Middlesex] are not prosecuted for it’ he grumbled. Turning to the two women, who had clearly been honest in claiming their theft was entirely motivated by hunger, he sent them to the house of correction for seven days.
At least they would get fed.
[from The Morning Post, Thursday, December 13, 1855]
If you would like to give to charity this winter then perhaps consider St Mungo’s who have been doing great work in London with the homeless since 1969.