‘It was a tolerably fine night for a walk’:a freezing night in London brings little humanity from the parish

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Ratcliffe Highway in the late 1800s

Robert Mace was a former solider, discharged from the army in 1853 having previously served in India. He was 31 years of age, had no job and no home to speak of. He was in London, in Ratlciffe, on the night of the 3 February 1860 and was intending to make his way back to his last place of settlement, Maidstone in Kent. However, it was cold, it was getting dark and he was hungry so he knocked at the door of the Ratcliffe workhouse and asked for relief.

Mr Snelling,  the porter at the union workhouse opened the door and told him to go away. He would t be admitted there and that was the end of it. Mace did go away for a bit but unable to find shelter and still starving from lack of food he tried again, with the same response from Snelling. As he walked away from the workhouse gates he saw a policeman, PC Polter (276K) and asked him to help. The constable said he was sorry but he couldn’t make the workhouse admit him.

Mace bent down, picked up a stone from the street and lobbed it at a gas lamp that illuminated the gates of the poor house. The lamp smashed and since he’d committed criminal damage right in front of him PC Polter had no option but to the arrest the man and take him before a magistrate.

Robert Mace appeared before Mr Selfe at Thames Police court on the following morning. He explained his situation  and the magistrate had some sympathy with him. Since the workhouse porter was also summoned to give evidence Mr Selfe wondered why he hadn’t simply admitted the man as he’d requested?

Because. the porter insisted, the man was perfectly capable of making his way to Maidstone. Mr Selfe was amazed at this, did the porter rally think this man could make that trip and find shelter and ‘refreshment’ on the way?

‘There are half a dozen workhouses between ours and Greenwich’ Snelling stated, ‘He could have called at any of them on the way to Maidstone’.

‘Well you might have taken him into the house, I think, and given him some bread and a night’s lodging’ Selfe said, adding ‘he is a poor, emaciated fellow’.

Snelling dismissed this:

‘The weather was fine last night. He could have got several miles on his road between three o’clock and eight’.

‘Not so fine’, the magistrate countered, ‘I walked home in the snow from this court at five o’clock, and I was very cold, although I had an overcoat on, and was well wrapped up’.

‘It was tolerably fine for a walk’ the porter insisted.

The lack of humanity the porter displayed was clearly staggering even to a contemporary audience – the reporter ‘headlined’ the piece as ‘The model union’ with deep sarcasm. Regardless of whether the Ratcliffe workhouse should have admitted him or not Mace was guilty of criminal damage although the victim was the Commercial Gas Company not the union.

Mr Selfe decided that  it would probably do the former soldier more good to be incarcerated in a prison than a workhouse so sentenced him to five days. He hoped that the bed and board he’d receive there would be sufficient to set him up for the long walk to Maidstone which, depending which route he took, was considerable being about 50 miles from London.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Saturday, 4 February, 1860]

One thought on “‘It was a tolerably fine night for a walk’:a freezing night in London brings little humanity from the parish

  1. A heart-warming story – in terms of the judiciary having a heart. Very contemporary, too, since many a vagrant engineers a place in prison for a week, to escape the cold, even in 2019, I suspect.

    Like

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