‘Where are your father and mother?’ A young girl, broken by poverty, breaks windows and then breaks down in court

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I know that there are people in this world that believe that society has become too soft: too soft on crime, on beggars, on children, on immigrants. They will often look back to the distant past and make specious pronouncements on how there was more respect or deference in the past. It is part and parcel of a lack of empathy for others – perhaps best (or rather worst) expressed by Jacob Rees-Mogg in his hateful comments about the ‘stupidity’ of the victims of the Grenfell Tower disaster.

Before the Liberal reforms of the early twentieth century and the transformative Labour government of 1945 this country treated its poorest with callous unconcern. This indifference to the suffering of the poor was extended to the mentally ill, the sick poor, elderly, and orphaned children. If you weren’t wealthy you simply didn’t matter in the eyes of the elites that ran the country.

I think we can see this in the treatment of one young teenage girl in east London in 1865.

Priscilla Herman was an inmate of the Bethnal Green workhouse. She was under 16 years of age and in November she was brought before the magistrate at Worship Street Police court charged with criminal damage.

The court heard that Priscilla, described as ‘placid’ but displaying ‘features indicative of aught but abandoned and vicious conduct’, had smashed five panes of glass and verbally abused a female overlooker.

That was Ann Summers, who testified that when she’d asked her to do some cleaning work Priscilla had refused and threatened her. Summers was old and the girl had threatened, she said, ‘to beat my _______ old head in’.

The magistrate asked the overlooker why she hadn’t found Priscilla work as a domestic servant outside of the workhouse. She’d tried, Summers explained, but she kept getting dismissed.

‘A great many of the girls turn out bad after leaving us; the language of this one is most shameful and disgusting’.

The police constable that had escorted Priscilla to court agreed that her language was ‘dreadful’. He added that she’d admitted braking the windows but no one knew why she did it.

I doubt anyone really cared why she did it, they simply wanted to punish her for doing so. The magistrate did ask her some questions however:

‘Why did you leave your last place, girl?’

No answer.

‘Did you do wrong?’

No answer.

‘Where are your father and mother?’

At this Priscilla broke down in the dock and started sobbing.

‘I haven’t any’, she cried.

She admitted behaving badly at her last job and promised to do better and ‘be a good girl’ if she were given another chance.

As an orphan under 16 I would hope we would give Priscilla a chance today although given the large numbers of teenagers sleeping rough on our streets I’m not confident that our society would do much better by her.  However, I doubt even  the most heartless of Rees-Mogg’s chums would do as the magistrate here did, and send Priscilla to prison for three weeks, effectively minimalizing any chance of her finding an honest living outside of the ‘house in the near future.

She was led away, still sobbing he eyes out, her future looking bleak as winter approached.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, November 24, 1865]

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