A mother’s desperation drives her to steal

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St Marylebone Workhouse

The year 1834 was an infamous one in English social policy history. It was in that year that the Poor Law Amendment Act was passed, ushering in a more draconian system of poor relief that split up families and created a stigma around poverty that lasted well into the twentieth century.

The historical arguments around the creation of the New Poor Law in in 1834 have their own long history and so I will limit myself here to the barest of details, readers could seek out the work of Poor Law historians such as Brundage, Digby, Englander, Higgenbotham, and Rose if they want to study this more.

In essence the 1843 act aimed to stop the practice of outdoor relief – where paupers were given top-ups (‘doles’) to supplement low or no wages in order to survive in times of economic hardship. Instead they were all expected to present themselves at a workhouse if they wanted support form the parish. The ‘house’ became a symbol of terror and oppression as anyone entering it effectively lost all control over their life. They were given workhouse clothes, men and women were separated, children taken from parents, and all were set to work in heavy manual labour in return for a very basic subsistence.

Not surprisingly those that found themselves in poverty did everything they could to avoid the workhouse, which was the intention of the act itself. Edmund Chadwick and the other committee members that framed this nasty piece of legislation wanted to ensure that pauperism was prevented by the deterrent nature of the system. The underlying principle was ‘less eligibility’. Workhouse conditions had to be worse than those outside so people were deterred from using them.

The Poor Law commissioners were driven by a desire to reduce the costs of poor relief, which fell on the pockets of the rate paying parishioners. While most people (certainly most middle class rate paying people) in Victorian England would have described themselves as Christians they clearly hadn’t read the sections of the New Testament which deal with poverty.

Mary Ann Stokes was poor. In 1845 she found herself so desperate to feed her two young children and avoid going into a ‘house’ where she’d lose them that she resorted to theft instead. Widowed, but ‘respectable’, Mary Ann had gone from her home in Blackfriars to the open fields at Battersea, south of the river Thames, where several market gardeners grew vegetables for the London markets.

She was found at 2 in the afternoon by police constable Jackson (178V) in land owned by William Carter and he stopped and searched her. Mary Ann had three lettuces, three carrots, and 39 small onions tied up in a large handkerchief and so he arrested her. She admitted the theft but begged for mercy, saying she was hungry and had to feed her children. The policeman took her to court at Wandsworth for the magistrate to decide what to do with her.

The market gardener, Mr Carter, was in court and to his credit he refused to press for a conviction. He could see that Mary Ann was desperate. She stood in the dock, wearing her ‘widow’s weeds’ and clutching her children to her. In court she claimed she’d found the vegetables and hadn’t stolen or picked them. Mr Clive, the sitting magistrate, said he would discharge her, not because he believed her story that she’d found the veg but because it couldn’t be proved that she’d taken it.

It was a pretty heartless decision because in effect he was warning her that next time she might not be so lucky, and be seen stealing. He offered her no help, no charity, no chance to find paid work, nothing but a reprimand. Mary Ann was in this situation because her husband had died, she’d lost the family’s breadwinner and had to care for her children as well as picking up whatever work she might be able to.

This was not an uncommon situation in the Victorian period where poverty blighted the lives of millions. The first real attempt at change came in 1908 when the introduction of Old Age Pensions ushered in the first stage of the Welfare State. We should not however that anyone that had sought help in a workhouse at any point in his or her life was not eligible for an OAP.

The stigma, therefore, continued long into the new century.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, July 10, 1845]

Drew’s new book (co-authored by Andy Wise) is published by Amberley Books. It is a new study of the Whitechapel murders of 1888 which offers up a new suspect, links the ‘Jack the Ripper’ killings to the unsolved ‘Thames Torso’ crimes, and provides the reader with important contextual history of Victorian London. The book is available on Amazon here

‘Oh Daddy, please have mercy!’: abuse is a part of everyday life in a Victorian home

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Amelia Ayres had not enjoyed life since her mother had died. He father remarried and the family lived on Arthur Street, off Battersea Park Road, south London. He was a shoemaker and seemed to live up to the reputation that profession had earned in the nineteenth century of being quick to abuse their wives and children.

In June 1888 Amelia, who’d suffered at the hands of her father and who seemed to be treated almost as badly by her stepmother, finally decided she’d had enough and took her father to court. She obtained the support of a new organization, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Women and Children, and their representative, a Mr Ingram, prosecuted the case on her behalf.

He told the magistrate at Wandsworth, Mr Curtis Bennett that Amelia had gone to the lodger’s room in their house to nurse their baby. This had enraged her father who had come at her with a shoemaker’s strap and had beaten her about the body with the buckle end. In court Amelia showed Mr Bennett the weals and bruises she had from the beating.

A neighbour, Mrs Slade, who said she’d heard the girl’s screams and hurried over, supported the girl’s testimony. She saw Richard Ayres, the child’s father, hitting her and then throwing into the kitchen and locking the door. This was not the first time and Mrs Slade reported that on a previous occasion Amelia had ‘escaped’ over the adjoining wall between their properties and sought sanctuary with her.

The magistrate was disgusted at the man’s cruelty and said he was unjustified in his actions. But he stopped short of applying any punishment, merely instructing him to ‘behave himself’. The officer from the Society suggested that they might take away four of Ayres’ children but Mrs Ayres appeared in court with her husband and refused this offer. I hope, at least, that they kept an eye on Amelia or that she got away.

Meanwhile the papers reported that Mr Bennett had a visitor in court who had come all the way from the Indian subcontinent. The ‘man of colour’ (whose name we are not told) said he’d traveled from Bengal in the hope of finding a better life and work in England. He said he was a clerk in the Indian telegraph service but he’d lost all his papers on the journey. He was destitute and asking for help. The magistrate told him that the mother country would certainly look after him and directed him to the nearest workhouse.

[from The Standard, Friday, June 15, 1888]

Today (June 15) Drew’s new book (co-authored by Andy Wise) is published by Amberley Books. “jack and the Thames Torso Murders’  is a new study of the Whitechapel murders of 1888 which offers up a new suspect, links the ‘Jack the Ripper’ killings to the unsolved ‘Thames Torso’ crimes, and provides the reader with important contextual history of Victorian London. The book is available to order on Amazon here

A fatality avoided as race goers clash with an ‘honourable member’ on Wimbledon Common

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Richard Sims Donkin MP (c.1895)

On the day of the Epsom Derby 1888 (30 May) Richard Donkin was exercising his horse near Wimbledon Common. Donkin, a Tynesider, had made his wealth in shipping in the north of England and in 1885 he stood for parliament and was elected as the Conservative Party member for the new constituency of Tynemouth.

As he rode along a path that adjoined the common a waggonette approace din the opposite direction. The vehicle, a sort of large open cab capable of carrying several person, was driven by Frank Flint. Flint was carrying several passengers, taking them to the races at Epsom. As they passed Donkin there was jeering from the wagon and Flint raised his whip and struck out at the horse and rider.Unknown

The MP struggled but he was a good horseman and managed to prevent his beat losing it’s footing and sliding into a ditch at the side of the road. Had the animal fallen he feared it might have broken a leg and then have had to be put down. He made enquires and found Flint’s name and had him summoned before the magistrate at Wandsworth Police court.

The prosecution was directed by Donkin’s solicitor, Mr Haynes while Flint was defended by a Mr Hanne. The prosecution case was that this was an assault and a deliberate attempt to unseat the parliamentarian. In defence it was argued that it was all a mistake and an accident. Flint testified that his own horse had shied on seeing the other animal and that he was trying to control it when is whip accidently connected with the MP’s mount.

It was a cab driver’s word against a respected member of parliament and I think we know how those encounters were likely to play out.  For Montague Williams, the sitting magistrate, the issue was not simply who was to blame it was whether this constituted an assault. He consulted the clerk who consulted Justice (James Fitzjames) Stephen’s volume on the criminal law and decided that Flint was guilty of an indirect assault, and fined him £5.

Richard Donkin lived in Wimbledon until his death in 1919 at the age of 82. He served Tynemouth as MP until 1900 but made little impression on parliamentary history. Most of his interventions were concerned with shipping, something he knew a lot about. I’ve no idea what happened to Flint or his unruly passengers but if they had backed Ayeshire, the three year old stallion that won the Derby in May 1888 they might at least have won enough money to pay the hefty fine that Mr Williams handed down.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, June 13, 1888]

On June 15 Drew’s new book (co-authored by Andy Wise) is published by Amberley Books. It is a new study of the Whitechapel murders of 1888 which offers up a new suspect, links the ‘Jack the Ripper’ killings to the unsolved ‘Thames Torso’ crimes, and provides the reader with important contextual history of Victorian London. The book is available to order on Amazon here

‘I took the shawl from distress, for I had no money to buy one and was perishing with cold’: desperation or conspiracy as two old offenders appear at Wandsworth

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John Rogers kept a beer tent at Wandsworth fair. We’ve probably all encountered a beer tent at music festival or county show but this was likely to have been a little smaller and I doubt today that the landlord and his staff would sleep overnight in it! This, however, is exactly what Rogers did in May 1845. Presumably, as the fair went on for a number of days, he was obliged to sleep in his tent to protect his stock and his taking. If this was the case he failed completely, because overnight he was robbed of 17(about £50 today).

The beer seller was taken in by two criminals – Daniel Sullivan and Kesiah Edwards – who presented to be cousins that had just been reunited after an absence of 14 years. There may have been some truth in their separation as Sullivan had only recently returned from transportation to Australia, but I doubt he told that story to John Rogers. Sullivan and been in and out of the tent all-day, eating and drinking but not always paying. He’d returned with Kesiah in the evening and she’d told the tale of them meeting by chance at the fair after so many lost years.

As Rogers was closing up the couple asked if they could sleep overnight in the tent having nowhere else to go. He took pity of them (a mistake) and he and his two staff settled down to rest after their long day. In the morning Rogers woke to find that his pocket had been cut open and all his money stolen. Edwards was still curled up in one corner of the beer tent but Sullivan was nowhere to be seen.

Kesiah Edwards now denied knowing Sullivan at all. However, she was certain it was him that had taken the money as she’d seen him using a razor blade to cut up his food. In fact, she declared, wasn’t that the blade over there? –picking up a razor from the ground. The beer seller must have realized that he’d been played and he had her arrested before setting off to see if he could find the other thief.

He had an inkling of Sullivan’s likely haunts and eventually found him in a pub at the Elephant & Castle (the Alfred’s Head) where he was treating all his mates to a drink, at Roger’s expense. The former convict came quietly and Rogers deposited him at the nearest police station. The next day he and his two captives appeared at Wandsworth Police court where the pair were charged with robbery.

Sullivan cut an imposing figure in the dock with the court reporter describing him as having ‘a most forbidding appearance’; Kesiah Edwards was ‘decently attired in black’ and she was the only one to offer a defense to the charge presented, Sullivan said nothing at all.

She claimed that she’d met Sullivan at the fair and he’d ‘treated her’. He then asked her to be his common law wife. None of this was what she wanted but she had nowhere to sleep that night so went along with his suggestion that they shelter in the beer tent. Her instance that there was no conspiracy between was slightly undermined by the evidence of PC Griffiths (126M) who had looked into the tent on his rounds and had noticed Sullivan and Edwards lying together, evidently deep in quite conversation.

Mr Paynter – the magistrate at Wandsworth that day – was in no doubt that the pair were in this together and committed them both for trial. After Sullivan had ben taken back down to the cells a second charge was brought against the female prisoner. Kesiah was now accused of stealing a shawl from an inmate at the Wandsworth workhouse. Her claims of being homeless at the fair seemed accurate now as it was established that she’d spent the previous Saturday night in the poor house. She offered no defense this time, admitting her crime:

‘I do not deny this robbery’, Kesiah told the court, ‘but I had nothing to do with the other’. ‘I took the shawl from distress, for I had no money to buy one and was perishing with cold’.

She was asked where she was from and gave a sad tale of being the widow of a ‘respectable tradesman’ who had ‘buried my five children all within a twelvemonth’.  It was a ‘pitiable’ story the beak agreed but that did not excuse her dishonesty or criminality. She was led away sobbing to face trial on both charges.

At the Old Bailey that May Edwards was acquitted of the robbery in the beer tent but having pleaded guilty to stealing the shawl she was sent to prison for six months. The jury rejected Sullivan’s defense that he had been ‘drinking all night, and knew nothing about it’ and convicted him. The judge sentenced him to be transported back to Australia, this time for 10 years. He had stolen 17(£50) and she had confessed to taking a shawl valued at 4(or £12 now).

It was a very harsh sentence for Sullivan but he’d had his chance and blown it.  Recidivists  were not tolerated if their former crimes were brought up against them in the Victorian justice system. I have more sympathy though for Edwards. Her story may have been a fabrication but it echoes with the lives of many poor women in the nineteenth century – recently highlighted by Hallie Rubenhold’s study of the five canonical victims of Jack the Ripper. Women like Kesiah had to live by their wits if they were to survive in an unforgiving world. Some turned to prostitution, others stole or begged, still more stayed with abusive partners simply because a bad man was better than no man if it meant you had a roof over your head and food in your belly.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, May 15, 1845]

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

A birching in Wandsworth as a killer opens his file in Whitechapel

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On 9 am on 4 April Emma Smith died in the London Hospital on Whitechapel Road. At 45 years of age Emma was just like most of the victims of the man, known only as ‘Jack the Ripper,’ who traumatized the community of the East End in the summer and autumn of that year. Although we know very little about Emma Smith it is believed that she lived in George Street, Spitalfields, that she was a mother but estranged from her family, drank frequently, and lived by prostitution.

On the night of the 2 April she was attacked by a group of men, beaten badly, and left for dead. One of the gang shoved a blunt instrument up into her vagina and it was this injury that brought about her death two days later.

Emma’s is the first name in the Metropolitan Police file containing what scant records exist of the so-called Whitechapel Murders of 1888-91, but few experts today believe that she was killed by the ‘ripper’. Instead Emma’s murder is more likely to have been the work of a gang of ‘roughs’ or ‘bullies’, such as the Nichol Gang, who attempted to control petty crime and vice in the area.

Emma’s murder hardly troubled the newspapers in April 1888; the murder of an ‘unfortunate’ wasn’t newsworthy until it became the only story in town by September that year. The Standard didn’t even report on the ‘doings’ of the Thames or Worship Street Police courts that day, only carrying stories from Hammersmith, Westminster, West Ham, Wandsworth and the two City of London courts: Guildhall and Mansion House.

It was the case at Wandsworth that caught my eye today. Harry Lucas and Thomas Wise, two teenage tearaways, had been remanded for a few days accused of robbing a small girl in Lavender Hill. Rose Calver had been sent out to run an errand for her mother when she ran into the two lads on Grayshott Road. They asked her where she was going and when they saw the money in her hand made a grab for it. To her credit little Rose struggled with them but they were too strong for her and threw her to ground.

They were captured soon afterwards and Rose identified them. In court they were asked their age and said they were 17. Mr Williams was skeptical:

‘You are no more seventeen than I am’, he told Lucas.

‘Yes he is sir’, interjected his mother, ‘he was seventeen yesterday’.

The magistrate said he was loath to send them to prison and dealt with them under the Juvenile Offenders Act (that of 1847 or 1850) which might have allowed him to send them to a reformatory school, but certainly gave him the power to remove them from the adult justice system if he deemed them to be under the age of 16. Perhaps they were, perhaps Williams was simply bending the rules to give them a second chance. Maybe he simply wanted to avoid the cost of institutional care. He discharged Lucas and ordered that Wise receive six strokes of the birch from a police sergeant.

[from The Standard, Thursday, April 05, 1888]

The bravery of one young man saves another from a terrible beating at the hands of his father

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Battersea, in Charles Booth’s poverty maps of 1889-90

John Hobart had just got home to the house his mother ran in Gywnn Road, Battersea when she called to him. Eliza Hobart rented rooms to a family who lived upstairs, a father (William Williams) and his young son. Eliza was worried because she’d heard screams from upstairs and it seemed as if Williams was beating his young lad half to death.

‘Go upstairs and stop it’, she shouted to her own lad, who hurried upstairs at once. He reached the Williams’ door and tried it but it was locked. He could hear dreadful noises from within so put his shoulder to the portal and forced it open. As he fell into the room he saw Williams brandishing a heavy rope and raining down blows on his boy. When he saw the intruder Williams let go of his victim and went for Hobart swinging his rope.

Fortunately before he could do any damage a policeman arrived and subdued him, taking him away to the station while the little boy was carried off to the infirmary, bleeding from wounds to his head and face. The rope and a piece of wood was recovered from the room as evidence and the police constable reported that when he examined Williams at the station he noticed blood on his cuffs.

In court at Wandsworth Williams admitted beating the lad with the rope but denied the accusation that he’d hit with a piece of wood. He justified his actions by saying that the boy had played truant from school but had kept the money his father had given him for his fees. The justice, Mr Sheil, remanded Williams in custody while he decided what to do with him.

And that, I’m afraid, is the last we hear of him. If Williams came back to be punished or released by a Police court magistrate the papers didn’t report it. If he was sent for a jury trial or imprisoned or fined, again, we have no record. All we can hope is that his little boy survived and that may be due entirely to the determination of his landlady to interfere and the bravery of her son to intervene.

[from The Standard, Thursday, March 26, 1885]

Spare the rod and spoil the child? Not if the vicar has his way

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Legislation in 1847 and 1850 brought nearly all no violent crime committed by juveniles under the jurisdiction of the magistrate. Developments in the 1850s then empowered justices to send boys and girls from 8-14 to reformatory or industrial schools to be disciplined and to learn some basic life skills. This did a lot to remove young people from the adult courts where, for centuries, they had been dealt with alongside all other offenders. It took another half century (to 1908) before separate courts were created for juveniles but we can see the mid century acts as an improvement of sorts.

William Frewen wasn’t in a reformatory in 1863 but he could well have been. William attended Barnes National School in South London. He was listed as a scholar and lived near by. In early January 1863 the school was still closed up for the Christmas holiday but a break-in had been discovered. The schoolmaster’s desk had been forced open and a small money box was missing.

The box (described as the ‘missionary box’) was used to hold donations for charity and at the time contained about 10s). Young William had already gained an unwelcome (if not unwarranted) reputation for pilfering and it was to him that the school master turned when he learned of the theft.

William denied everything but he was taken to see the local vicar, the Rev. Coplestone where, after another boy said he’d seen William enter the office by an open window, he confessed. Perhaps because of the confession or maybe out of a sense of Christian forgiveness the reverend told the magistrate at Wandsworth Police court that he was reluctant to press charges.

After some discussion the vicar and Mr Ingham (the magistrate presiding) decided that while they would not take this further (and send the boy away) he did require some form of punishment, if only to deter future acts of criminality. Mr Ingham ordered that he be given over to the local police sergeant so he could ‘receive eight strokes with a rod’.

Hopefully that short, sharp, lesson would be quickly learned and William would mend his ways. If not then it is likely that he would become a fairly regular occupant of a Police Court dock.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, January 09, 1863]