A child is beaten and half-starved for the theft of some cakes

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The NSPCC was founded in 1884 with a mission (that it continues today) to protect children from cruelty. The cruelty that is most difficult to detect is domestic; that perpetrated by parents or other relatives of children, because it is often hidden within the family.

This was the case with Ethel Newberry, a child of ten who was abused and half starved by the father and aunt at the family home in Sydenham in May 1889. The case came to the attention of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children who brought a prosecution at Greenwich Police court. In the dock were Phillip Newberry, the child’s father, and Mary Phillips, her aunt. The details are quite distressing.

Ethel had been beaten on her back by her father with a cane, on numerous occasions. When she’d been examined by a doctor the extent of her injuries were considerable, with several scars and abrasions. Her aunt had hit her over the head with a copper stick and smacked her wrists with a cane. The treatment she’d been receiving had alerted neighbours who had complained about it to the local Poor Law relieving officers, who’d visited the house. He had discovered that Ethel was almost emaciated, weighing just 30lb when should have been at least 50-60lb at her age.

The child was taken to the local workhouse where she was treated for her injuries and fed properly; slowly she was beginning to recover. The case came before Mr Marsham at the police court and he quizzed the father and aunt about their treatment of little Ethel. The court also heard from Ethel herself.

The whole episode seems to have resolved around food. Ethel was given meals but presumably these were so scant as to leave her continuously hungry. The doctor that checked her over at the workhouse could find no explanation for her emaciation that suggested a disease, so the only conclusion was that the family had not been giving her enough to eat. This may have been an attempt on their behalf to discipline the child for behaving ‘badly’ but if it was it only made things worse.

Ethel now began to steal food. She admitted to the magistrate that she had taken cakes from a shop and this was why her aunt had ‘whacked’ her. She was clearly desperate. The justice decided that while there was little evidence to prove that Mary Phillips had done more than was deemed normal in terms of chastisement, the cruelty of the father was excessive and so he was committed for trial at the Old Bailey.

The London SPCC was successful in portioning Parliament for a change in the law to protect children from abuse and this was passed in 1889. Under the terms of the Prevention of Cruelty to Children Act (52 & 53 Vict., c.44) the police wwre authorized to remove  a child from its parents  if cruelty was suspected and give it into the care of the parish. On conviction for cruelty anyone ‘who willfully treats or neglects any boy under fourteen years of age, or any girls under sixteen, in a manner likely to cause unnecessary suffering’ was liable to a £50 fine or three months in prison.

However, this is where this case disappears. There is no record of a Phillip Newberry standing trial at the Old Bailey or appearing in the prison system either. The newspapers (from those digitized by Gale for the British Library) don’t mention this case after he was committed and his sister discharged. So perhaps, in the end, the society decided that there was insufficient evidence to take the case before a jury. Hopefully, though, they also managed to removed Ethel from her abusers.

[from The Standard, Monday, May 27, 1889; Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper , Sunday, June 9, 1889]

2 thoughts on “A child is beaten and half-starved for the theft of some cakes

  1. On the 1891 census, Phillip Newberry, a widower aged 53, ‘House agent’ and Mary Phillips, aged 50, ‘wife’s sister’, are recorded as living with Phillip’s two sons aged 26, ‘clerk’, and 16, ‘student’, in Sydenham Road, Lewisham. From their occupations and those of their neighbours, it seems to have been an almost ‘lower middle class’ area.
    I regret I couldn’t find poor youmg Ethel.

    Liked by 1 person

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