‘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]

Gang fights and assaults on the police – taking the long view

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With all the trouble surrounding the release of Blue Story, Andrew Onwubolu’s (aka ‘Rapman’) new film about love and friendship amongst rivals London gangs the issue of youth violence is back in the news. As this blog has touched on several times already in last few years, none of this is anything new. London has a history of gang violence that stretches back at least 150 years.

Plenty of the early concerns about youth violence and gangs focused on the ‘roughs’ and (later, in the 1890s) ‘hooligans’ who terrorized districts such as Southwark. Marylebone and the East End.

Christopher Eaton and John Marr (both just 16 years of age) were apparently connected to ‘a gang of roughs’ that were ‘infesting Bermondsey New Road’ in November 1875.

An elderly man named Richard Carney testified before the magistrate at Southwark Police court that on Friday 23 November he was walking home when he saw two boys fighting with a crowd gathered around them. He – rather unwisely it had to be said – pushed his way through the throng to try and separate them.

The crowd now turned on him and started to kick and punch him. As he collapsed a reserve policeman came running up to help, only to be subjected to the same treatment by the lads.

As the youths ran away PC Robert Atkins managed to secure the two boys and, having summoned a fellow officers to help, got them to the station and Mr Carney to Guy’s Hospital. Fortunately neither man was badly hurt although the youths had attempted to escape, kicking out at the officers that arrested them.

Mr Benson in the chair commented that ‘these street outrages must be put a stop to, as the peaceable inhabitants of Bermondsey could not pass along the streets without being assaulted after dark’. He sentenced Eaton to 21 days hard labour and Marr to 10.   Whether it did any good is anyone’s guess but given that several police were injured as gang’s clashed in Birmingham just this weekend it would seem that 144 years later little has improved.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, November 28, 1875)

A case mistaken feline identity

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Alfred Mackness was insistent that Robert Couldry had stolen his prize-winning show cat. So convinced was he that he took out a summons to bring the other man to court at Lambeth to answer his charge.

The case was heard before a Police Court magistrate and Mackness attempted to prove that Couldry had somehow obtained the cat illegally after it had won a 25s  prize and had been ‘highly commended’ at a show at Birmingham.

He said he’d seen the cat, a striking white female with distinctive blue eyes, at cat shows at Alexandra Palace and Crystal Palace and had challenged Couldry about it.  Couldry denied any wrongdoing and insisted by turn that the cat – who he called (ironically perhaps) ‘Charcoal’ – was and had always been his.

The court then witnessed the curious spectacle of a number of white cats being brought before the bench for inspection. Three cats were taken out of baskets and examined by Mackness but none could he identify as his own. C

ouldry swore on oath that the cat he had exhibited at the shows in question were his property and, without any clear evidence to the contrary, the justice agreed.

The summons was dismissed and poor Alfred went home empty handed.

[from The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, November 25, 1876]

‘A very serious thing’ means a birching for one young boy

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When Louis Perry sent his errand boy off to deliver some work for him he gave him strict instructions. Lipman Forkell was to take some boots to his customer on a barrow and then drop the barrow off at the hire place. The lad was told not to forget to collect the 10change due from his deposit of a shilling.

However young Lipman – a 12 year-old boy who lived in Eastman Court, Whitechapel in London’s East End – carried out the task but failed to return Mr Perry’s money. This was a second chance for Lipman; he’d been accused of stealing money before but had been let off with a warning. He wasn’t to get a third chance and the boot maker was determined to teach him a lesson.

On Thursday 7 August 1879 the boy was brought before Mr Bushby at Worship Street Police court and formally charged with stealing 10in silver coins. The magistrate warned Mr Perry that he was also liable to be prosecuted, ‘for employing  a lad under age’. On this occasion he got off with a warning.

Lipman was not so fortunate. The magistrate told him that to have taken to stealing at such a young age was very serious and he would be punished for it. On top of sending him to prison for three days Mr Bushby ordered that the boy be given ‘twelve strokes of the birch rod’. These would be administered by a local policeman, which helps explain why the ‘old bill’ were far from popular in the district.

[from The Standard, Friday, August 08, 1879]

NB this post first appeared in August 2018

What does ‘drunk and incapable’ actually mean?

For the next few days I am taking a short holiday from writing this blog so I thought that I might revisit some of the ‘highlights’ of the past few years, especially as more recent readers might not have seen them. So for today, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, there will be a series of ‘repeats’ : the most viewed posts from 2016-18.

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[NB this is not Sarah but a 16 year-old girl from a 1893 book of police mugshots depicting Dundee citizens banned from drinking houses]

In mid June 1877 PC Savage was called to the Two Brewers pub in Clapham, south London, to deal with a drunken woman. Sarah Weller was very drunk and the landlord had described as being ‘riotous’ and had refused to serve her any more alcohol.

Savage helped Sarah from the pub but she soon fell over and so he arrested her and took her back to the police station. When she came up at Wandsworth Police Court she was charged with being ‘drunk and incapable’. This puzzled the magistrate, Mr Briggs; ‘he did not know why the word “incapable” was put in, as it was not an offence’.

The constable’s inspector now appeared and stated that it was the old form of charge and they still used it. Mr Bridge restated his view that it was no crime to be incapable and Sarah’s defence lawyer insisted her behaviour was due to an illness. The justice agreed, suggesting that perhaps Savage had mistaken hysteria for drunkenness and so Sarah should be discharged.

Under the terms of the Intoxication Act it was reasonable to take individuals into custody for their own safety and then let them go once they had sobered up.In some cases a summons might be appropriate but not all. Mr Briggs therefore released Sarah but accepted that the police were not to blame for interpreting the law as they had.

I can’t find the specific act that Briggs was referring to but it is interesting that law, in essence, doesn’t seem to have changed much. It’s not a crime to be drunk; it is what you do that matters. So disorderly or riotous behaviour can be penalised. Today police are obliged to arrest drunk and incapable persons for their own safety and safety seems to be paramount. These people will be released when sober unless they have previously been arrested for the same offence or they are acting in a  disorderly manner, then they might well face a charge and a magistrate’s court appearance, like Sarah.

[from Daily News, Monday, July 9, 1877]

‘I like the workhouse, they give me good food there’: two stray waifs on London Bridge

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George W. Martin was a music teacher with a social conscience, a man that comes across as a real-life ‘Mr Brownlow’, the benevolent savior of ‘Oliver Twist’. In early November 1872 Mr Martin was walking across London Bridge when he spotted two street urchins begging.

They were tiny, virtually without clothes, and seemed to be siblings. One of them – a boy of 7 named Patrick Davey – asked him for a halfpenny and George bought them both some food. As they ate he asked them why they were out on the streets begging they told him that they had no choice; ‘they must take money home or [their] father would thrash them’.

The kindly gentleman now called over a constable who took them to a police station house so investigations could be made. Once their address was determined an officer was dispatched to fetch their father and the following day the trio were brought before Mr Benson at Southwark Police court.

Whilst Patrick and his sister Bridget (6) shivered in the dock ‘almost in a state of nudity’, they did not seem to be starving. Their father – ‘a tall powerful man’ – promised his worship that the children were well-fed, and he assured him he never sent them out to beg.

However, it was not the first time Davey had been summoned about his wandering offspring. The man agreed and apologized but said their was little he could do. He had to go to work early each day and they children had no mother at home to look after them.

Patrick had lost his jacket and told the magistrate he’d sold it. Overnight the children had been kept in the workhouse and Patrick said he quite liked the place because, he explained, ‘they give me good food there’. Clearly food was his driving force.

Mr Benson ordered that they be taken back to the workhouse for a week and hoped (perhaps as a result of the coverage of the story by the press) that ‘some benevolent person’ might help support getting them into school. Perhaps Mr Martin would, having already shown a willingness to get involved where other had not.

Of course they should never have been in such a situation. Two small children should not have been out unaccompanied and begging in the streets of the capital. This was exactly the sort of social problem that Dickens was keen to expose in his writings. Patrick and Bridget deserved an education and a proper childhood, goodness knows what might have happened to them had not the music teacher intervened.

Two years earlier, in 1870, the Forster (or Elementary Education) Act had introduced compulsory primary education for children aged 5-13 but attendance was only enforced by school boards and it wasn’t free. After 1876 the poorest pupils could get free education if they were provided with a certificate by the parish. In 1880 the rules on attendance were tightened, putting the responsibility for ensuring it on local authorities and not simply the school boards.

In 1884 a commission reported that 50,000 London school age children were hungry. Free primary education arrived in 1891 when the Elementary Education Act required the government to pay a ‘fee grant’ of 10for each child aged 5-13 and prohibited schools from charging fees themselves.

So before 1891 education was a luxury that many families could not afford. Moreover, there was nothing provided in terms of childcare or nurseries for the poor, and many families relied on their children’s labour to supplement low incomes or help with caring responsibilities.

This Victorian lack of education is however, a thing of the past. Now children can be educated at the state’s expense in state of the art schools up and down the country. Yes they lack facilities, and many still go to school hungry, and truancy levels and exclusions remains a problem, but we do have free schools.

If only the poverty that Bridget and Patrick experienced – with a father that was in work remember – was also a thing of the past. It is not of course; over the last decade child poverty rates have risen to the point that we now have something like 4,000,000 UK children living in poverty. This is one of the worst rates of poverty in the industrialized world, not my words but those of the Children’s Society.

The election that is looming is one of the most important in a generation, and more important for the future of our children than any I can remember. We have the thorny subject of Brexit and our economic prosperity; we have the climate emergency and the need to take urgent radical action; and we have child care, health care and social care – three key issues that help support families in the UK.

This is an election about the future not about narrow and limited party political battles or the individual careers of over privileged politicians. Like 1945 this is an opportunity to change society for the better, and to change it so it works for the many, not the few.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, November 02, 1872]

Help for heroes in 1870

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A veteran of the Crimean War

Whilst today is Hallo’een and this evening we will be inundated with small children flying high on sugar and commercialized excitement this is also the week that poppy sellers really began to make an appearance.  I’m not going to engage in the debate as to whether or not anyone should wear a poppy (or what colour that poppy should be); I believe that men and women have died in wars to preserve our freedoms and the freedom to wear a poppy (or not) is part and parcel of that.

Poppies were first sold in Britain in 1921, the year the Royal British Legion was formed. It sold 9,000,00 of them and raised £106,000 for veterans from the First World War. Last year 40,000,000 were sold worldwide and now the Legion helps veterans from all wars in the 20th and 21st century. The FWW was meant to be the ‘war to end all wars’, sadly it wasn’t.

What struck me about the reportage from the London Police courts for hallo’ween 1870 was a story about six young lads who had been collecting money for veterans, just as the Legion’s poppy sellers do today. The boys (part of a wider group of 36 they said) had approached Sir Robert Carden at the Guildhall just as the court was closing for the day.

A spokesman for the group piped up to say that they were asking for the magistrate’s help as they hadn’t been paid. When asked they said they took a stand in the street and collected money in a box which they then returned to the clerks in ‘the office’. Depending on the amount they raised they were paid between 2s6dand 4sa week. However, when they went to collect their money that day the office was closed and they had gone away empty handed.

It seems they were collecting considerable sums of money from the public. They knew how much because the opening used to remove cash was kept sealed. Nevertheless the boys could feel the weight of the boxes and could see the money being put in them. One lad, who stood outside Bow Church on Cheapside said that he seen a gentleman put in a sovereign and two other men donate half sovereigns. Each box must have amounted to a considerable sum and so for just a few shillings a week the lads were doing great work in drumming up money for the charity.

Sir Richard was sympathetic to their plight but thought that it might just be  a temporary error on the behalf of the clerks to forget to pay these six individuals. He advised them to try once more the next day but to return to see him they remained unpaid. In that case, he said, he would take more formal action against the charity.

So this shows us that the courts were used for more than just crime, they were arenas for negotiation, advice and support. It also reveals that there was some sort of charity to support old soldiers in the late 1800s, perhaps a recognition that the Victorian state (as Kipling later observed) was not doing enough.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, October 31, 1870]