A poor lad is exposed to shame and ridicule by the callous workhouse system

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The Victorian period is synonymous with the harsh treatment of paupers in the workhouse. We draw much of our popular imagery of the workhouse from Dickens (and film and television adaptions of Oliver Twist in particular) and from now fading folk memories of the dreaded ‘house’. There are good late nineteenth century descriptions of the workhouse from men – social reformers and journalists – who visited them, sometimes in disguise. These give us an idea of the deprivations that those forced through poverty to enter them were exposed to.

The newspaper reports of proceedings at the Police Courts of the metropolis are another excellent way to ‘experience’ the reality of these cold and uncaring institutions and assess wider attitudes towards poverty and paupers. On many occasions malingerers and ‘shammers’ were brought before the magistracy to be punished for begging. Vagrants were rounded up by the police and given short sentences by the courts. The Mendicity Society brought prosecutions against those they thought were faking their injuries, and sometimes of course they were right. Just as today not every beggar with a hard luck story is telling the truth. But the courts also helped the poor, handing out small sums of money and, as in today’s case, taking to task or even punishing those that abused paupers in their care.

In late May 1868 the Thames Police court was graced with the presence of the 5th Marquis of Townshend. John Villiers Townshend (whose Vanity Fair caricature can be seen right), was the member of parliament for Tamworth and enjoyed a reputation as ‘the pauper’s friend’. Townshend was a social reforming politician who made it his business to know what was happening in the capital’s workhouses.  He was in court in 1868 to point out the mistreatment of a young lad in causal ward of the Ratcliffe workhouse. mw06374

The young man, who’s name is not given, had been released on to the streets wearing a rough canvas suit of clothes which was printed with the following text:

‘Jack from the country’ (on the back of the jacket) and ‘Lazy scamp’ on one trouser leg.

The intention was clear: when the lad left the ward he would be exposed to ridicule in the streets and, presumably, this was done deliberately to deter him from ever seeking asylum there again. After all one of the driving principles of the poor law was to deter the ‘undeserving’ poor from seeking help from the parish. The workhouse had to be awful, the logic ran, so that the last and feckless would not think of going there. Instead the workhouse was to be a place of last resort, used by the ‘deserving’ or genuinely impoverished who really had no alternatives.

Having been presented with this disturbing scene Mr Paget, the Thames magistrate, sent a runner to bring Wilding, the labour master and superintendent of the Ratcliffe workhouse, to the court to answer for himself. Wilding said he’d followed the rules. The lad had been given food and shelter I the ward but he’d chosen to cut up his own clothes and so had nothing to wear. That’s why he’d given him the rough canvas suit, what else was he to do? He marked the suit accordingly as what he clearly felt was an appropriate punishment.

The pauper explained that the reason he had ripped up his clothes was that ‘that he could not wear them any longer, they were very dirty and covered with vermin’.

Mr Paget took the side of the lad (or perhaps more obviously that of the marquis). He instructed the clerk of the court to send a letter to the Poor Law Board to report the misconduct of the labour master. Lord Townshend said he would also bring the matter up with the board. ‘If paupers were thrust into the streets with such extraordinary comments and inscriptions on their garments it would’, he declared, ‘give rise to inconvenience and breeches of the peace’.

More practically the marquis also undertook to provide the lad with a new set of clothes and a pair of stout boots. The canvas suit would be returned to the Ratcliffe workhouse, hopefully for disposal. The watching public gave him a rousing cheer as he left the courtroom, here was one small victory for the ordinary man over the hated keepers of the pauper ‘bastilles’

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, May 26, 1868]

If you enjoy this blog series you might be interested in Drew’s jointly authored study of the Whitechapel (or ‘Jack the Ripper’) murders that is published by Amberley Books on 15 June this year. You can find details here:

An ‘infernal din’ disturbs the peace on the Sabbath and lands the Salvation Army in court

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It was 10.30 on a Sunday morning in late April 1896 and Mr Eamonson had settled down to write in his study when, once again, his peace was broken by the sound of music playing in the street outside. He set aside his work and went outside to remonstrate with those responsible, as he’d done more than once before.

There were six or eight members of the Salvation Army assembled on the opposite side of Burdett Road in East London, and they had drawn a small crowd around them. He approached John Murfitt who was banging a large drum and asked him, ‘please to stop, or go away’.

Murfitt took no notice and the band played on.

Eamonson tried again, cupping his hands and shouting for them to stop or play somewhere else.

Ignored three times he set off in search of a policeman to complain to. Eventually he found one and accompanied him back to Burdett Road to ask the Army band to desist.  The officer tried to take their names and addresses on the grounds that they were causing a nuisance and obstructing the pavement but it was difficult given the ‘infernal din’ they were making.

In the end two of the band (Murfitt the drummer and Charles White) were summoned before Mr Mead at Thames Police court on the dual accusations of refusing to stop making a disturbance after having being requested to, and of obstruction of the thoroughfare. The men denied both charges.

In essence the men of William Booth’s ‘army’ tried to argue that they couldn’t hear what was being said to them, so weren’t aware that Eamonson had requested them to stop. Their solicitor, a Mr Frost, told the court that the Army ‘always cheerfully acquiesced in any suggestion’  that they should refrain from disturbing the peace but hinted that on this occasion his clients were the victims of an ‘organized attack’. Perhaps Eamonson was a serial complainer and simply didn’t like the Salvation Army.

He would not have been alone; in its early years Salvationists like Murfitt and White suffered considerable abuse from all classes in Victorian society. They were ridiculed, chased down the street, and prosecuted as a nuisance. It is quite hard to imagine the global success and acceptance that they have today.

Mr Mead was a stickler for the law and so he trod a careful path around this pair of summons. He agreed with the lawyer that the playing of music was not illegal and that any obstruction caused was minor, technical in fact, but not worthy of a summons. However, he was also clear that Mr Eamonson had been disturbed by a band playing loudly outside his home on a Sunday morning.

In many persons’ eyes the essence of the Sabbath is quietness’, he stated, and so he could ‘quite understand the Complainant being annoyed’.

He told Frost that if his clients gave an undertaking not to play there in the future he would dismiss the summonses. The lawyer waivered, not wanting to commit the Army to signing up to self-enforced restrictions, but Mr Mead pressed him.

‘Perhaps you would like to consider your position’, he told him. Further prosecutions could follow if others objected to the Army setting up a band outside their homes but hopefully if they took sensible cognizance of this action they could continue their form of recruitment without the need to defend themselves in court.

It was an invitation to common sense: leave Mr Eamondson and others like him alone, and the Salvation Army band could continue to play. Persist in disturbing his peace and the law would probably find for the complainant. Mead decided to end proceedings by adjourning the hearing sine die, meaning that it was effectively postponed indefinitely. Like Mr Eamonson the worthy magistrate had no desire to hear from the Salvation Army in his court again and, if they followed the advice he’d give, he wouldn’t have to.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, April 28, 1896]

Forced aboard a merchant ship in New Orleans: an echo of modern slavery on the high seas

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New Orleans, c.1841

John Burns was a steward on board a merchant ship named the Rio Grande. He’d sailed with it to New Orleans in 1849 where he’d gone ashore with a fellow crew member who had been taken ill. He took temporary lodgings in a boarding house and made plans to collect his pay packet in the morning. This was normal: sailors often collected their pay onshore, being paid at a shipping agent’s office.

However, this was also when they were vulnerable to thieves and fraudsters who knew they were likely to have been carrying fairly large amounts of cash. In London the Ratcliffe Highway and its associated dockland was notorious as an area where prostitutes would inveigle seaman into bars, get them drunk, take them upstairs and rob them (or assist others in their robbery). I’m fairly New Orleans presented very similar hazards to the unwary.

As Burns left his lodgings to collect his money two men seized him and forced a drink down his throat, which ‘rendered him insensible’. Having dragged him they manhandled him on board a ship called the Ashley, which was run by Alfred Greg. The two men were what were known as ‘runners’ or ‘crimps’; in effect they acted as a press gang for merchantmen, forcing men to serve as seaman against their will.

We are probably all familiar with the concept of the press gang as it operated in the eighteenth century, forcibly enlisting men and boys into the Nelsonian navy but this was nearly half a century later and in a foreign country. In 1849 New Orleans was, as it is today, the largest city in Louisiana, the 18th state of the USA. In 1849 something like half of Louisiana’s population were enslaved and it is hard to think of what happened to Burns as anything other than enforced labour by kidnapping.

Burns tried to explain to the master (Greg) that he was no sailor, just a steward with no experience of seamanship but he was ignored and set to work. He was promised $35 and the ship sailed to England, docking in London in April. When he asked for his pay he was told he’d already been paid, but he’d never seen ‘a halfpenny of it’. Instead the master had paid all the money to the two men that had pressed him.

Perhaps this was a common scam, akin it seems to me, to modern slavery where men and women and kidnapped and forced to live and work in terrible conditions by criminal gangs. The steward had the sense to get away from the ship and present him himself at the Thames Police court where he obtained a summons against Greg. A few days later the master was in court to hear Burns testify against him. Two other crew members turned up to confirm his evidence and Mr Yardley (the magistrate) said it was evident that a ‘gross and scandalous fraud’ had been committed.

However, it doesn’t seem like he was able to do much about it, perhaps because the crime (of kidnapping) had happened outside his jurisdiction. He could – and did – insist that John Burns was paid however, and would remand the master in custody if necessary until the sum was handed over.

The story served as a cautionary tale for others travelling to ‘foreign’ parts to not get taken unawares by unscrupulous captains in search of a crew.

[from The Standard, Monday, April 23, 1849]

A little local difficulty: ‘political’ violence in early Victorian Stepney

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Politics, as we have seen recently, can sometimes get a little heated and nothing gets more heated than local politics. Having stood as a candidate for local elections in the recent past I can attest to long running petty squabbles between party workers, elected and defeated councilors, and their friends and families.

In one large east Midlands town there were dark mutterings about a Conservative councilor who had defected from Labour several years earlier simply because he thought it more likely to be re-elected if he stood for ‘the other side’.  The suggestion (made by his Conservative colleague, against whom I was contesting a seat) was that he only entered politics for the rewards it brought in terms of his local standing in the community; it mattered not whether he was part of a left or right political party, what mattered was being in government.

I’ve no idea if this was accurate or fair (and indeed I wondered at the time if there was a smack of racism in the comment) but historically the exercise of local government has involved a deal of self aggrandizement. It is also accurate to say that local politics has probably always been fractious though it doesn’t always end in violence as this particular example from 1847 did.

Charles Williams, a general dealer from Mile End, was attending  meeting of the Stepney parish vestry on Easter Monday 1847 when a man rushed into the room and interrupted them. Williams and his colleagues were tasked with electing parish officers when James Colt (a local undertaker and carpenter) interrupted them.  Colt pulled the chair out from underneath one of the candidates for the role of churchwarden, tipping him on to the floor, before slamming shut the room’s shutters – plunging it into darkness – and throwing the ink pot into the fire. He called everyone present ‘the most opprobrious names’ and challenged them all to a fight.

It was a quite bizarre episode and it seemed that Colt’s intention had been to close down proceedings because he believed they were being conducted either illegally or unfairly. An argument then ensued about the manner of the meeting and whether it conformed to the rules as they were understood. James Colt was, like the man he’d tipped out of the chair, been seeking election as parish officer (an overseer in Colt’s case) and he may have believed he was being excluded form the meeting so as to have missed this chance at a bit of local power.  Perhaps he was, and perhaps with good reason.

Eventually Colt was summoned before the magistrate at Thames to face a charge of assault. The paper concentrated on the shenanigans at the parish meeting and heard several claims and counter claims regarding the legitimacy or otherwise of the proceedings but for Mr Ballantine the magistrate the question was simple: had Colt committed an assault or not? It was fairly obvious to all present that he had and so the justice fined him £5 and let him go. I would suggest James Colt had demonstrated by his histrionics that he was entirely unfit for public office.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, April 9, 1847]

An enterprising mother and daughter team come unstuck

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St Botolph’s, Aldgate from the Minories

Cordelia Johnson ran a small manufacturing workshop in the Minories, on the borders of the East End of London and the City. The wife of a commercial traveller, Mrs Johnson employed a number of women to make up work shirts which were sold to a number of ‘outfitters and slopsellers’ in the City.  For weeks now items of her stock had been going on a daily basis and Cordelia was unable to discover how.

Eventually she turned to one of her most trusted employees, a young woman named Mary Ann Cantwell who she trusted to run errands for her as well as in the workshop sewing shirts. Mary Ann promised to help by keeping her eyes open and her ear to the ground for any hints of who was responsible for the pilfering.

Unfortunately for Mrs Johnson however, Mary Ann was the culprit. She was in league with her mother Harriet and the pair of them were engaged in a clever racket by which they stole material or fully made up shirts and pawned them at one or more of East London’s many pawnbrokers’ shops.  Mary Ann must have felt untouchable when her boss trusted her with the effort to trace the thieves and it emboldened her.

On Saturday 14 March 1857 Mary Ann spoke to one of the other younger women in the workshop and suggested she steal a pile of clothes and pawn them in Poplar. The girl, like Mary Ann, was Irish and the funds raised, she said, could be used to fuel the forthcoming St Patrick’s Day festivities. The girl was not so easily tempted however and went straight to her boss and told her what had happened. Mrs Johnson went to see the police and Police Sergeant Foay (7H) – ‘an intelligent detective officer’ – decided to follow Mary Ann to see what she was up to.

From his hiding place in Mrs Johnson’s house Sergeant Foay watched the young woman leave the factory take a pile of shirts from a cupboard and walk out of the building. He tracked her to Cannon Street Road, on the Ratcliffe Highway where she met her mother and handed over the clothes. Foay pounced and grabbed at the pair of them. HE got hold of Mary Ann but Harriett put up ‘a most determined resistance’ hitting and biting him in the process. Eventually he had them both under arrest and when they were safely locked up the police went off to search their lodgings at 13 Cannon Street Road.

There they found more evidence, namely a great number of pawnbrokers’ duplicates. These were cross checked with several ‘brokers who confirmed that they had been exchanged for shirts and materials brought by Harriet or Mary Ann. Four duplicates were found on the younger woman who, in front of Mr Selfe at Thames Police court, tried to take all the blame herself, saying her mother knew nothing of the crime.

The magistrate acknowledged this act of selfless filial duty but dismissed it. The evidence against both of them was overwhelming and both would be punished. Mary Ann was fined £6 for illegally pawning items (with a default of two months’ imprisonment if she was unable to pay, which I suspect meant she did go to gaol). If so she might have joined her 40 year-old mother whom the magistrate sent straight to prison for two months’ hard labour without even the option of paying a fine.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, March 20, 1857]

The gin craze in 1890s Mile End

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It is a great time to be a gin connoisseur; there are new brands or artisanal gin popping up seemingly every week and a collection of tonics that complement them beautifully. I think I’ve currently got about eight different sorts of gin in my cabinet but until the weather improves that’s probably where they’ll stay.

Gin is relatively easy to produce and since it is a white spirit it can be flavoured with pretty much any sort of botanical. In Victorian London gin was a cheap alcohol favoured by the masses (rather like the cheap nasty gin that Winston Smith and everyone below the elite ranks of the Party consume in Orwell’s 1984). Gin palaces sold cheap liquor to working-class Londoners, many of whom drank it to drown out the depressing reality of their impoverished daily lives.

As a result there was always a market for cheap ‘booze’ and in 1899 Louis Wormker and his mates decided they might as well profit from it. Wormker, along with Solomen Rosenbloom, Abraham Rosenbloom, his wife Sarah, and their friend Levi Kalhan were immigrants or the descendants of immigrants living in East London’s Mile End district.

They had set up an illegal still at 1, Bohn Street which held 10-15 gallons of spirit. In the back parlour the gin was flavored with caraway and other essences while being stored in large casks each holding 36 gallons. At nearby Ellen Street (where Abraham Rosenbloom lived) investigators from the Inland Revenue found more evidence of the illegal operation to bottle and distribute unlicensed alcohol to clubs and pubs in the area.

The four men and one woman were brought before Mr Mead at Thames Police court and prosecuted on behalf of the Inland Revenue Commissioners (since this was a case of the evasion of tax and duty). The IRC employed its own detectives  to investigate the case and, at this stage, wanted the culprits to enter into bail to appear at a later date. Sarah Rosenbloom was asked to find £50 bail, the others £100 each. This done they were all released.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, March 01, 1899]

‘It was a tolerably fine night for a walk’:a freezing night in London brings little humanity from the parish

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Ratcliffe Highway in the late 1800s

Robert Mace was a former solider, discharged from the army in 1853 having previously served in India. He was 31 years of age, had no job and no home to speak of. He was in London, in Ratlciffe, on the night of the 3 February 1860 and was intending to make his way back to his last place of settlement, Maidstone in Kent. However, it was cold, it was getting dark and he was hungry so he knocked at the door of the Ratcliffe workhouse and asked for relief.

Mr Snelling,  the porter at the union workhouse opened the door and told him to go away. He would t be admitted there and that was the end of it. Mace did go away for a bit but unable to find shelter and still starving from lack of food he tried again, with the same response from Snelling. As he walked away from the workhouse gates he saw a policeman, PC Polter (276K) and asked him to help. The constable said he was sorry but he couldn’t make the workhouse admit him.

Mace bent down, picked up a stone from the street and lobbed it at a gas lamp that illuminated the gates of the poor house. The lamp smashed and since he’d committed criminal damage right in front of him PC Polter had no option but to the arrest the man and take him before a magistrate.

Robert Mace appeared before Mr Selfe at Thames Police court on the following morning. He explained his situation  and the magistrate had some sympathy with him. Since the workhouse porter was also summoned to give evidence Mr Selfe wondered why he hadn’t simply admitted the man as he’d requested?

Because. the porter insisted, the man was perfectly capable of making his way to Maidstone. Mr Selfe was amazed at this, did the porter rally think this man could make that trip and find shelter and ‘refreshment’ on the way?

‘There are half a dozen workhouses between ours and Greenwich’ Snelling stated, ‘He could have called at any of them on the way to Maidstone’.

‘Well you might have taken him into the house, I think, and given him some bread and a night’s lodging’ Selfe said, adding ‘he is a poor, emaciated fellow’.

Snelling dismissed this:

‘The weather was fine last night. He could have got several miles on his road between three o’clock and eight’.

‘Not so fine’, the magistrate countered, ‘I walked home in the snow from this court at five o’clock, and I was very cold, although I had an overcoat on, and was well wrapped up’.

‘It was tolerably fine for a walk’ the porter insisted.

The lack of humanity the porter displayed was clearly staggering even to a contemporary audience – the reporter ‘headlined’ the piece as ‘The model union’ with deep sarcasm. Regardless of whether the Ratcliffe workhouse should have admitted him or not Mace was guilty of criminal damage although the victim was the Commercial Gas Company not the union.

Mr Selfe decided that  it would probably do the former soldier more good to be incarcerated in a prison than a workhouse so sentenced him to five days. He hoped that the bed and board he’d receive there would be sufficient to set him up for the long walk to Maidstone which, depending which route he took, was considerable being about 50 miles from London.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Saturday, 4 February, 1860]