Prison for the mother who couldn’t support her babies

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Today Haille Rubenhold’s new book on the five canonical victims of ‘Jack the Ripper’ is published in the UK. I’ve chatted with Haille about her work but haven’t read it yet. I am well aware that its publication (or at least the publicity surrounding its publication) has caused a stir and led to Haille being attacked in some quarters by those that believe she has misrepresented ‘Ripperologly’ (the name given to the study of this, the most famous of all ‘cold cases’).

I haven’t read it yet (my copy is on order and I’ll review here when I have) but while I recognize very many people might be upset that she has (supposedly) claimed that the stories of the ‘Ripper’s’ victims have never been told when they have, I think it is also very good that an independent and credible researcher such as Haille has chosen to write about this topic. She had important things to say about prostitution, women’s lives, poverty and homelessness, and I’m keen to read it. She may not be as well informed on the details of the case as those that have studied it for decades and that may undermine some of her findings but she deserves to be ‘heard’.

She also deserves to be treated with respect, as do respected Ripperologists like Paul Begg. Name-calling is never appropriate. We can critique, argue and disagree with each other without chucking unpleasantness about.

One of issues Haille’s work highlights is the desperate poverty that women (and of course men) endured in Victorian London. This wasn’t something new in 1888, it was endemic throughout the 1800s. The magistrate courts could provide temporary relief for those caught in the poverty trap but they could just as frequently criminalize paupers, especially when outside agencies were involved.

Nance (or Nancy) Donovan was a pauper with two children who had only just got out of prison when she appeared before the Lord Mayor at Mansion House Police court in late February 1853. She stood in the dock, in ‘filthy rags’ and with one of her children – a babe in arms – clutched closely to her.

She should have perhaps inspired charity but there was no sympathy on display in the Lord Mayor’s courtroom that cold February morning. Nancy had been brought in from the streets by a City policeman after she’d been pointed out by a an officer from the Mendicity Society. Nancy had been begging from the steps at the end of King William Street with one child in front of her, the other in her arms. The suspicion was that she had drugged them both with laudanum so they looked ill and starving.

Of course Nancy denied this and begged the magistrate to let her off this time.

‘I’ll never bother yez any more if you let me off this once. Upon my sowl I wasn’t begging a farthing from anyone. I was only just sitting down to nurse the babby in this cowld weather, and sure enough it wanted a dhrop of suck’.

The Lord Mayor was unmoved, clearly believing that Nancy was a mendicant (a beggar) that was using and abusing her offspring to feed her idle lifestyle. He sent her to gaol once again, to bridewell for a months, and her children to the workhouse to be ‘cared for’ by the parish.

This was Victorian ‘justice’ and ‘welfare’ policy and it is hardly surprising that women turned to prostitution, alcohol and the streets, as Rubenhold’s important new study highlights.

[from The Standard, Monday, February 28, 1853]

My own study of the Whitechapel or ‘Jack the Ripper’ murders is due to be published in June 2019.

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