‘Ring the bell, and put the child on the doorstep’: a young mother is handed a stark ultimatum

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There have been plenty of examples in the pages of this blog of quite stark reminders that the past was ‘a different country’. Periodically today there are news reports of babies being found abandoned. In late January this year for example, a postman found a newborn child on a doorstep in Hackney as he made his rounds. The baby was taken into care and the police ‘appealed to his mother to come forward, assuring her she is not in trouble and will be helped’.

That is invariably the message to mothers who, for whatever reason, feel unable to keep a child they have just given birth to. Come forward, you’re not in any trouble, we are just worried about you.

This was not the way society viewed mothers that abandoned their babies in the nineteenth century however; something clearly illustrated by this cautionary take from 1871.

Elizabeth Fisher was working as a servant when she fell pregnant. She had the child and at first her sister agreed to care for it. Elizabeth’s employer, a Mrs Cruise (of Arthur Road, Brixton), made it abundantly clear that she was not willing for an illegitimate child to be raised under her roof.

Fisher either had to get rid of her baby or leave her service.

That was normal in the 1800s. Servants who got pregnant would often be dismissed and so many hid their pregnancies and then gave away or farmed out their children to relatives or women who they paid to take them in.

This worked for Elizabeth for a while but then in December 1870 her sister explained that she could no longer care for the baby.  With what one imagines was a heavy heart Elizabeth took her baby to the Camberwell workhouse (below right) and asked them to care for it.

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The workhouse refused telling her they were ‘neither a nursery nor a baby-farming establishment, and they could not separate mother and child’. If Elizabeth wanted to place her baby in their care she’d have to admit herself at the same time. Even when Fisher offered to pay a weekly sum for the child’s acre the workhouse authorities turned her away.

She was back to square one.

Her mistress, Mrs Cruise, now suggested she take the child to its father. While Fisher wasn’t married she did know where the father was. Cruise told her to go to Gloucester Terrace, Hyde Park (where the man lived), ‘ring the bell, and put the child on the doorstep for the father to take in’.

So it was that Elizabeth, her sister, and Mrs Cruise set off, taking an omnibus towards Haymarket (where Cruise was going to attend the theatre). The sisters hopped off but seemingly never made it to Gloucester Terrace. The baby was found on a shop doorstep in the Haymarket by a policeman.

It took some time for the police to trace the child back to Elizabeth Fisher who by this time had left Cruise’s employment. The police obtained a summons to bring Fisher, her sister (Mrs Brown,, who lived in Hoxton) and Mrs Cruise to court at Marlborough Street. Mr Tyrwhitt, the sitting Police magistrate, listened carefully to the stories all three women told before reaching his judgment.

Despite her telling her employer to leave the child on a doorstep or leave her employment, the justice exonerated Mrs Cruise. She’d apparently acted ‘only with kindness’ her lawyer had argued, and Mr Tyrwhitt agreed. Nor did he condemn the workhouse for not receiving the child and refusing the mother’s money. The father was not summoned as Elizabeth’s sister did not want to ‘disgrace’ him. Instead he reserved his opprobrium for Elizabeth Fisher. He sent her to prison for 10 days with hard labour.

I doubt she took her child with her and I imagine she would have found it hard to find similar employment thereafter, with the stain of imprisonment added to that of bastard bearing. Elizabeth was ‘ruined’ and yet no fault or responsibility was set at the door of the man that she had conceived her baby boy with.

This was the reality of being poor, female, and a single mother in nineteenth-century London. It may not be easy today, but at least it is unlikely to land you in gaol.

[from Morning Post, Wednesday, 22 February 1871]

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