‘What would become of the little children?’: charity and kindness make a rare appearance in a Police Court

John Tenniel The Nemesis of Neglect

Tomorrow is the last day of February meaning that (as we do every four years) we get a 29thday of this month. Did you know that 1888 was a leap year? Making a very tenuous link today is also the artist John Tenniel’s birthday. Had he lived he would be 200 years old today.

On 29 September 1888 the magazine Punch published a cartoon by Tenniel alongside an article on slum living in the East End of London. Tenniel’s iconic image of the Nemesis of Neglect (above), was published at the height of the Jack the Ripper murders, while London reeled from the terror created by a serial killer the police seemed unable to catch.

Tenniel’s drawing and the text that accompanied it suggested that the murderer was a product of the degraded environment in which all the victims had lived, and died. It also warned polite society of the dangers of not doing ‘something’ about the abject poverty of the East End, which risked the ‘contagion’ spreading to reach the wealthier parts of the metropolis.

In February Whitechapel was relatively quiet; the series lodged in the National Archives at Kew as the ‘Whitechapel Murders’ had not yet started, but poverty was very much in evidence.

At Westminster Police court a 76 year-old man appeared to ask Mr D’Eyncourt for a summons. He wanted to bring a charge against the one of the officers at St Luke’s workhouse in Chelsea. The elderly man moved slowly and spoke with difficulty, clearly suffering as he was from fresh injuries. He told the magistrate that he’d sustained these when he was turfed out of his bed at 6.45 in the morning by a workhouse attendant.

He was, he said in response to the justice’s questioning, 15 minutes late in getting up after the bell rang at 6.30. But he had only just got to sleep having been kept awake by others’ coughing and cramp in his legs.

‘I am so badly bruised that I have not been able to walk upright since’ he complained.

The poor man had no family or friends and had been an inmate of the workhouse for six years. Mr D’Eyncourt granted his summons and said he would not have to pay for it. He would hear what other inmates said and call the accused party before him.

At Southwark Sarah Ann Davis stood in the dock with a baby in her arms. She was accused of begging in London Road, having been arrested by a police sergeant. Sarah denied the charge, she ‘was selling some pins to get some food for her children’ she explained.

Sergeant Ireland told Mr Slade that the prisoner’s husband was currently serving a prison sentence for begging. As if that compounded the woman’s crime and demonstrated she was guilty.

The magistrate asked her why she didn’t turn to the workhouse.

‘I don’t want to break up the home while my husband is away’, she replied.

Mr Davis was, she said, and out of work carpenter who’d do any job if he could get one. 1888 was not a good year for work: this was the year that the word ‘unemployment’ entered the dictionary and for the past few years large numbers of unemployed men and women had gathered in Trafalgar Square to listen to socialists and free traders bemoan the state of the economy and the capitalist system that had seemingly failed so many.

Slade called her landlord to the stand and asked him about the family’s character. He was told that the Davis’ were good, respectable and quiet tenants, but were two weeks behind with their rent.

‘You are not going to turn them out?’ The magistrate asked.

‘On no, sir, certainly not. What would become of the little children?’ the landlord replied.

‘Very well, I will discharge her now. You can go know, Mrs. Davis. You will receive some coal and bread tickets from the Poor-box Fund, and you had better apply to the Relieving Officer for some out-door relief’.

Then he warned her against begging in future, and she left, with applause for the magistrate ringing out in court.

Individual acts of decency by men like Mr Slade and Sarah’s landlord were not enough of course to mitigate the realities of abject poverty in late nineteenth century London. On another day Sarah might have gone to gaol and had her children taken away.  Another magistrate might have told her it was the ‘house or nothing, and she would have again lost her children.

Tenniel’s image of the ghoul raising from the ‘slum’s foul air’ was so powerful because it reflected a sort of stark reality, even if it was as fantastical as his more famous illustrations for Alice in Wonderland.

[from The Standard, 28 February 1888]

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