No help for heroes at Westminster, just a prison cell

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In 1892 Rudyard Kipling published a collection of poems called ‘Barrack Room Ballads’. This included ‘Tommy’ which he’d penned a coupe of years earlier and contrasted the public view of the Victorian soldier in wartime and peace. This is best summed up by this line:

O it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Tommy, go away”;

But it’s “Thank you, Mister Atkins”, when the band begins to play,.

Soldiers – as Kipling’s poem suggested – were to be valued when there was fighting to be done but were considered a nuisance at other times. I grew up watching the annual Festival of Remembrance that honours the dead of two world wars (and subsequent conflicts) but while the British Legion have done much for ex-servicemen and their families it was still deemed necessary to create the Help for Heroes charity in 2007 to support men and women wounded in the course of serving in the armed forces.

We might well ask why such a charity is needed in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, a country which is a founder member of NATO and that has an arms trade that generates billions from the sale of lethal weapons across the globe. Then again we might ask ourselves why over half a million people used food banks in Britain last year, or why the DWP (Department for work and pensions) concluded that in 2016 over 21m Britons were living in ‘relative poverty’.

But back to ‘Tommy Atkins’ and public attitudes in the 1800s. There was no ‘help for heroes’ then, or a British Legion. All the ex-soldier without work could rely on at mid century was his army pension (if he had one) charity, the Poor Law, and his wits. George Hill had no pension because he’d been kicked out of the army for getting drunk and assaulting an officer.

Hill was lucky; if he’d attacked the officer whilst on active service he’d have faced a court martial and the possibility of a firing squad. Instead he’d been released ‘with ignominy’ and no pension and had subsequently found it difficult or impossible to secure gainful employment. As a result Hill sat himself on the streets of London with a painted sign that read:

9th Regiment of foot.

I have served 22 years in the 9thFoot – 20 years in India, and have been in eight general engagements, and am now discharged without a pension’.

Begging was a summary offence and so when PC James Light (128B) discovered him on his beat he asked him to move along and, when this request was ignored, arrested him. The former infantryman was brought before Mr Broderip at Westminster Police court where his previous military indiscretion was revealed. In the eyes of Victorian society Hill was a violent drunk who deserved nothing from a society he had served for 22 years expect condemnation and a prison cell. The magistrate duly obliged and sent him down for three months.

George Hill may well have been a ‘impudent, violent beggar’ and he certainly had previous convictions for vagrancy but today we recognize that ex-servicemen suffer mental as well as physical wounds as a consequence of what they’ve been through. Perhaps Hill’s 22 years in the colours had left him similarly scarred and unable to function as a part of ‘normal’ Victorian society.

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He had probably fought at the battles of Mudki and Ferozeshah during the First Anglo-Afghan War and so, like many modern soldiers, had been to Kabul. He would also have been with the colours at the battle of Soprano (right) in the First Anglo-Sikh war. Technically of course he was fighting under the general banner of the East India Company but that matters little, the danger and suffering is the same.

In 1852 then soldiers like George Hill were not valued by the society they had served. Within two years however thousands of then were fighting for ‘Queen and Country’ once more as Britain took on the might of Imperial Russia in the Crimea and then the challenge to the Empire in India in 1857. So once again it was ‘ “Thank you, Mister Atkins”, when the band begins to play’.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, 5 January, 1852]

No help for the weakest from a society which simply didn’t care

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There are so many dreadful stories of poverty and distress in the pages of the nineteenth-century press that it would possible for me to write about that topic every single day. The number of attempted suicides in London in the 1800s reveals the struggle that so many people had with poverty, mental illness and a society that simply provided no proper system of support for those that didn’t ‘win at life’.

For me it is a constant reminder that the greatest achievement of the British state was the creation of the Welfare State in the aftermath of the Second World War. Clement Atlee’s post war government presided over a broken Britain, one battered by war which, while it had emerged victorious, had come perilously close to defeat and invasion by Hitler and fascism. Churchill is rightly credited with pulling us together through that dark period of our history but, for me, it was Atlee’s government that secured the peace by setting in place the foundations for rebuilding society.

In the early 1860s Britain was not at war – we’d had seen off the might of Imperial Russia in the Crimea several years earlier and the Indian Mutiny (or, more properly, war of independence) was a fading memory as well. Great Britain had an empire that covered the globe and our wealth was unsurpassed. Yet despite this our rulers did very little to support the poorest in society or recognize the contribution that others (‘foreigners’) had made to the nation’s success.

The Poor Law of 1834 had been designed to penalize the poor and to deter people from asking for help by effectively locking them up in a workhouse and breaking up their families if they did so. We had no NHS either, there were charities that helped the poorest with medical care but no universal right to free healthcare at the point of need. The understanding of mental illness was still in its infancy, and without private means an individual suffering with any form of mental illness was likely to be thrown into a workhouse or public asylum to be mistreated by doctors and nursing staff that knew very little and cared much less.

Muhomed Ali Khan was a member of the British Empire who felt he was entitled to its support. After 1857 and the failure of the Indian uprising the British state had taken full control of the Indian subcontinent. The British ruled for the benefit of the Queen and the motherland, not for the millions of indigenous Indians that lived there. Khan must have come to England to work, perhaps as a sailor, or soldier in the Queen’s army, or even as an employee of the East India Company.

Whatever the reason in 1862 he was in a parlous state. Destitute and suffering with physical and mental illness he was found at 11.30 in the morning outside the office of the East India Company in Victoria Street by a policeman. When asked what he was doing Khan told PC John Fever (255A) that he ‘had a claim on the government, and had determined to die at the door of those offices’. Fearing the man would make good on his promise PC Fever picked him up and helped him to the nearest workhouse.

Two days later Khan was back outside the EIC offices and had to be dragged back to the care of the workhouse staff. He had nothing to eat in between and was causing ‘annoyance’ by ‘walking about day after day in front of them’. The poor man was embarrassing the company that had profited so much  from the exploitation of India, its people  and its natural wealth. So he was brought before Mr Arnold at Westminster in a case the paper headlined ‘the Troublesome Indian’.

Here we learn that Khan had been ‘troublesome’ before: he had gained entry to the House of Lords and made an attempt on his own life. He had also appeared at Horse Guards during the Queen’s procession to open Parliament and had tried to cut his own throat. On both occasions, the magistrate was told, the poor man was sent to prison but it clearly hadn’t had the effect intended.

Mr Arnold was sympathetic but unable to do anything of real use for Khan. He hadn’t committed  an offence by wandering outside the EIC’s offices so he discharged him from court, but he didn’t help him much either. The man was given a shilling to get some food and sent on his way. It was almost inevitable that he would end up dead in the river or a workhouse infirmary before long and Victorian society, frankly, didn’t care which.

The British Empire and state was built on the backs of the vast majority who did not benefit from it but this was not properly recognized until Atlee and that first Labour administration.  I rather fear that lesson has been lost over the years as we worry about ‘benefit scroungers’ and continue to underfund the NHS and social care. For Mohamed Khan in 1862 we have the unnamed Hungarian who collapsed and died outside Parliament in December 2018.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Saturday, 4 January, 1862]

A family is broken up, just in time for Christmas

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Monday’s post touched on the subject of prostitution and brothels in central London in the 1880s, suggesting that a young girl of just 14 years of age might have been drugged with alcohol as a precursor to being ‘sold’ into the sex trade. Today’s case concerns three young children who have been taken into what passed for ‘care’ in the late Victorian city, because their mother was a prostitute and they were being brought up in a brothel.

Georgina Rogers (aged 11) and her sister Agnes (10) and brother Henry (8) were brought before the magistrate at Westminster. They had come from St George’s workhouse under the watching eye of William Girling, an officer working for the Rescue and Reformation Society at Charing Cross. They had sepnt a few nights in the workhouse after they had been removed from ‘a disorderly house’ in Cumberland Street, Pimlico.

Their mother had money, so perhaps she was a successful  brothel madam or otherwise well connected. This was evident because she hired a lawyer to defend the children in court with the aim of keeping them out of institutional care. Mr E D F Rymer told the magistrate (Mr Partridge) that arrangements had been made for the trio to go and live with their grandmother at Teddington.

This might have seemed like a sensible solution. After all, as Mr Rymer explained, in his experience ‘children of the prisoners’ class were invariably corrupted by mixing with those children in these institutions’. Just what sort of class the three siblings were is hard to judge but given that their mother was living with them in  a house of ill repute I doubt they were exactly members of the aristocracy. Instead I imagine that Ms Rogers perhaps considered herself to be better through wealth than she was through birth, and so aped the behaviour (if not the morality) of the middle classes.

The Rescue Society had been created in 1853 to protect children from sexual exploitation and prostitution. It ran 10 homes across the capital and had campaigned for a rise in the age of consent. Its members were dedicated to the cause and under the terms of the Criminal Law Amendment Act (1885) saw these realized with the help of Stead’s Maiden Tribute newspaper campaign.

So it was unlikely that Mr Girling was going to be happy to allow the children back into the care of Ms Rogers or her family. Crucially Mr Partidge agreed with him, not the lawyer. He ordered that the girls be taken to a reformatory school at Chelsea but allowed the lad (who was perhaps less at risk in his eyes of being corrupted) to go to his grannie.

Was this a good outcome for the children? It is hard to say. Reformatories separated parents from children, and children from ‘bad’ environments. The sisters would have learned domestic duties and sewing, as well as being educated in basic literacy and maths. But being parted from their family would have been traumatic, but not unusual for very many poor children in the later 1800s.

[from The Standard, Saturday, 19 December, 1885]

The descendant of the Rescue Society is Fegans, a charity that supports abused children and their parents.

A late garrotting in Chelsea as the panic endures

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In 1862 there was a moral panic about street robbery.  I’ve covered it elsewhere on this blog and it has been well-documented in the work of Jennifer Davis. The so-called garroting panic began July of that year when a member of Parliament (Sir Hugh Pilkington) was attacked in the street in London. In modern language Sir Hugh was ‘mugged’: thieves used a choke hold from behind to disable him, then rifled his pockets for valuables and left him gasping for air as they ran off.

Within days and over the next few weeks the newspapers carried reports of similar attacks in the capital and across the country. It was as if a generation of criminals had been inspired by the events of the 17 July and had taken to the streets to garrote each and every suitable victim they could find.

Of course, this was not what was happening at all. Rather it seems that the press were exaggerating the extent of the problem (whilst moralizing on the state of the nation and pointing fingers at those they held responsible) and seeing hitherto fairly ordinary robberies as garroting.  The effect was fairly dramatic however; within weeks the public was on edge and started to report otherwise minor incidents as potential attacks. Newspapers carried adverts for anti-garrote technology such as studded metal collars and this was, in turn, parodied in Punch which showed groups of Londoners marching through the streets and armed to the teeth like some band of medieval questing knights.

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All histories tell us that the panic only lasted for a few weeks or months before fading away. This is the nature of moral panics – they burn brightly while the media and public is interested, but die fairly quickly once the novelty has worn off. But in December 1862 it seems the residual panic was still newsworthy as this case from the Westminster Police court shows.

On 3 December Michael Murray had been collecting the entrance money at a ‘teetotallers’ entertainment’ in Chelsea. Just before he reached his home in Simmond Street he was jumped by four men who used ‘most serious violence’ and robbed him of the takings (18s) and his pocket watch. The case before Mr Paynter was all about whom was responsible and who could be put on trial. In the end he determined that James Hurley would face a trial at Old Bailey for the robbery, the case against the (unnamed) others involved was ongoing.

Hurley, whose lengthy criminal record was read out in court, was convicted of the robbery and sentenced to 10 years penal servitude. A decade or so earlier he would have been transported and the decline of this option was one of the causal factors behind the panic about street robbery in the early 1860s.

Hurley was followed into the dock at Westminster by Daniel Turnham and Henry Welham where they were charged with a garrote attack on William Toy, and old cavalryman who had served with the 9th Lancers. He was attacked on his way home and choked from behind and hit on the hand with a metal object. The two men ripped his waistcoat pocket to get at the 17sand 6dhe was carrying in it. The police were quickly on the scene and set off in pursuit, catching the Welham who was already wanted for another robbery some days before.  Turnham was picked up soon afterwards. Mr Paynter remanded then in custody so a case could be built against them. They don’t appear in the Old Bailey records so perhaps on this occasion they got lucky, many others did not.

There were real consequences to this media constructed crime panic. The police arrested many more ordinary people for street crime than they had in previous years, redefining simple thefts and assaults as ‘highway robberies’. The courts played their part too, handing down much stiffer penalties for those the police brought before them. Parliament passed the Security Against Violence Act the following year (1863), which reintroduced whipping for some violent offences (although it was rarely used). In 1864 the Penal Servitude Act meant that second offenders were hit with five year minimum sentences as Parliament determined to be ‘tough on crime’ (if not on the causes of it).

[from The Standard, Monday, 15 December, 1862]

Scandal in fashionable Chelsea as three brothels are exposed

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In 1885 Parliament passed a Criminal Law Amendment Act. Its subheading explained its purpose: ‘An Act to make further provision for the Protection of Women and Girls, the suppression of brothels, and other purposes’. It raised the age of consent from 13 to 16 and followed a campaign by Josephine Butler and others to change the law. The bill had become deadlocked in parliament as it was opposed by powerful elite interest who felt that they and their sons had a natural right to the bodies of young working class girls.

The act was finally passed after the editor of the Pall Mall Gazette William T Stead orchestrated a sensational news story involving the sale of a 13 years old girl into prostitution. Stead and his accomplices, Elizabeth Jarrett  and Bramwell Booth, were prosecuted and Stead and Jarrett went to gaol, but his goal was achieved and the act passed.

One of the terms of the act was to allow the use of summary proceedings for the prosecution of brothel owners. In December 1885 Ellen Randall (alias Johnson) a 34 year-old landlady was charged at Westminster Police court with renting two houses in Chelsea (at 5 and 7 Elm Park Road) ‘with the knowledge that they were used for immoral purposes’. She was fined £20.

On the same day Edwin Summerfield (59) and Ellen Dewhurst (alias Summerfield) were charged with keeping a disorderly house at number 12 Elm Park Road. Both cases drew ‘considerable interest’ from the public gallery as these addresses were not in the poorer districts (often associated with immorality and crime) but slap bang in the middle of ‘one of the best parts’. Mr Partridge fined Mr Summerfield £20.

The 1885 act was wide ranging and multi purposed. While it undoubtedly helped protect some vulnerable women and young girls it also criminalized homosexuality. Section 11 (known as Labouchere’s amendment) was vague and allowed for the prosecution of any men who engaged in any form of homosexual act. In 1895 it was used against Oscar Wilde who was accused and convicted of ‘gross indecency’ and sent to prison. It virtually destroyed Wilde, ruining his reputation and crippling him financially. The amendment wasn’t repealed until 1967.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, December 12, 1885]

Ghostly goings on in Westminster : everybody needs good neighbours.

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The act of going to law was often a last resort, a necessary act to put an end to a problem that had resisted all attempts resolution. While it was sometimes suggested that the poorer classes enjoyed their ‘day in court’ it was equally observed that the middle classes feared the taint by association of appearing before a magistrate.

Mr Henry Payne seems to have been one of those who would rather not have resorted to law, and who was keen to avoid a repeat appearance. The respectable dyer was not in trouble with the police, instead he was the victim of persistent and escalating intimidation. The cause was unknown but the middle aged dyer, who lived in Rochester Row in Westminster, was pretty clear who was the culprit.

He blamed his young well-to-do neighbor, George Champion. For several weeks Mr Payne had been ‘annoyed by mysterious stone throwing’. When he tried to find out who was responsible his neighbour muttered darkly about his house being haunted, and this rumour soon spread amongst the other nearby occupants of Rochester Row.

Payne’s house was sandwiched between Champion’s and that of Mr Cocks, an undertaker. He too had suffered from stones and broken bricks being tossed into his back yard or small items hitting his windows. Both men had complained to the police who sent an officer to keep watch.

Payne had boarded his yard to protect his family from the missiles that sailed over, mostly during the night. His wife and children didn’t dare set foot out there, and poor Henry was going out of his mind with ‘the annoyance’.

Finally, when a large stone broke a skylight in his roof he had enough and opted to take legal action. He applied for a summons to bring Champion before the magistrate at Westminster Police court where he appeared, smartly and fashionably dressed, on the 28 November 1890.

Mr De Rutzen questioned all of those involved. Payne gave his evidence in a rush, clearly perturbed by the whole affair. Inspector Webber for the police, said that his men had seen nothing thrown but had felt one! This brought a moment of levity to the court as everyone imagined the poor policeman being struck by a ‘ghostly’ missile.

In the end, and probably because Mr Payne was reluctant to take it further and since Champion was clearly a member of the wealthier class, the justice opted for a ‘common-sense’ approach. He suggested that so long as the nuisance stopped there was no need to do anything else. Mr Payne was not asking for compensation for the skylight, he just wanted some peace from ‘the ghosts’. Champion walked free from court but with a reminder that if the stone throwing restarted Mr De Rutzen was very open to issuing a second summons, and then the dyer and his neighbours might not be so reasonable.

[from The Standard , Saturday, November 29, 1890]

Interfering mothers-in-law at Westminster give the ‘beak’ a headache

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Some of the cases that came before the Police Court magistrates seem particularly unimportant or trivial. It must have been quite frustrating, if not downright annoying, to have to listen to a never ending stream of petty disputes and grumbles on a daily basis, but moments of humour will probably have helped to lift the mood.

On the morning of the 16 November 1888 while Francis Tumblety (a suspect in the Ripper murders case) was being bailed at Marlborough Street, a young wife appeared at Westminster in answer to a summons taken out against her by her husband.

No names were given (perhaps to protect the couple and give them a chance to ‘move on’ with their lives) but they were newly wed and, it seems, barely mature enough for this life-long commitment.

The wife – described as a ‘mere girl’ – broke down in the dock, ‘cried and seemed greatly distressed’. She had been summoned for attacking her husband with a broom (which caused much laughter in the courtroom). She denied doing so and said she loved him and wouldn’t never hurt him.

However this public investigation into their married revealed the influence of each of the couple’s mothers, both of whom seemed unable to let their offspring go.

The husband was just 21 years of age and a sorter in the Post Office. Recently his mother had encouraged him to come back to his old home and declared that ‘the poor boy looked  bad’; implying that she (and not his wife) needed to look after him properly.

The poor wife complained that while he earned nearly a pound a week she was struggling to cope with paying the rent, and managing the family budget on the 13 a week he gave her. My students struggle to cope with their first year away from home, why should we expect it to be that much easier for Victorian newlyweds on a similarly limited income?

The situation was not helped by the fact, revealed in court, that the wife’s mother lived with them. She was a nurse and it was inferred that she was staying close to them as her daughter was pregnant. Had they married because she was with child? It is not unlikely.

In denying that she’d hit her partner with a broom the young wife did admit that she was ‘subject to fainting fits’. She explained that ‘when I have felt myself “going off” I may have seized my husband’s wrists and dug my nails into his flesh “unconsciously”‘.

The magistrate, (Mr Partridge) waived her away. Her husband had not attended to press the summons nor had he declared his intention to renew it. So as far as he was concerned it was at an end. He hoped that she would go home to him and advised them to ‘make up their differences’. As for her mother-in-law, he urged her to ‘live apart from them, and not interfere’.

If this marriage was going to work it required both mothers to accept that their children were adults now, with their own lives to lead.

[from The Standard, Saturday, November 17, 1888]