‘We didn’t live – we starved’: Poverty and ‘foreign markets’ in 19th Century Whitechapel

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In my last post I started walking the streets of East London with Charles Booth’s poverty survey as my guide. Moving on from Gunthorpe and Flower and Dean Walk (which in the 1880s was George Street and Flower and Dean Street respectively) in this post I’ve arrived at Wentworth Street.

In the late nineteenth century Wentworth Street was extremely poor. In Booth’s original map (above) it is a mixture of colours from red to pink to blue but since it abuts George Yard, Thrawl Street and other courts and alleys associated with the ‘Abyss’ we can confidently assume that most people living here were living close or below what Seebohm Rowntree was later to define as the ‘poverty line.

This story, reported in the Manchester press, gives us some idea of exactly what conditions were like in and around Wentworth Street in the last decade of the 1800s.

In early November 1893 Mr Wynne Baxter, the local coroner (and the man that had presided over the inquests into most of the Whitechapel murder victims in 1888), convened an inquest on the death of Elizabeth Newton.

Elizabeth was only four months old; she was the illegitimate daughter of Martha Newton who lived at 75 Wentworth Street. The paper described Martha as a ‘poor, miserable-looking girl’ who lived with her mother.

At the time little Elizabeth had been born Martha was living in a local lodging house, and went to the infirmary to give birth. Once the child and mother left hospital they went to live with Martha’s mother Margaret but the conditions were awful.

‘Her mother only occupied one room’, the inquest was told. So Martha and her baby joined her ‘sister, aged eight years […] and her other illegitimate child, aged two’, in the room.

Margaret Newton was desperately poor and the augmented family struggled to feed itself. Margaret told Mr Baxter that Marth fed her newborn on ‘cornflour, arrowroot, or anything the mother could get for it’. She herself only earned 1s3d to 1s 6da day.

How much was the rent, the coroner asked her. ‘Five shillings’, was the reply.

‘How do you live’?

‘We didn’t live – we starved’, Margaret Newton told him.

The final witness was the doctor who declared Elizabeth dead. She weighed only 3lb 12oz when he examined her. He told a stunned court that she should have weighed at least 11b by then. The coroners’ jury delivered a verdict of ‘death by malnutrition’.

Sadly Elizabeth’s death was not uncommon in late nineteenth-century London. Without an effective system of state benefits or health service that was free at the point of need, many children succumbed to poverty and lack of nutrition in Victoria’s Britain.

In the 1880s and 1890s Wentworth Street was busy during the day and early evening. As Charles Booth observed it was:

 ‘thronged every day by stalls, both buyers and sellers nearly all but not altogether Jews, women bareheaded, bewigged, coarse woolen shawls over shoulders, more like a foreign market scene than anything English’.

The red on the map probably refereed to ‘the small shops and houses on the North side’, the poor were absent except in the nearby courts.

Today, as I found out on my walk, there is very little remaining of nineteenth-century Wentworth Street. This is hardly surprising when you consider that this area was very heavily bombed during the Second World War (see map from www.bombsight.org) and post war council rebuilding and slum clearance.

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There was still a strong Jewish community in and around Wentworth Street during and after WW2. Helen Shaw (Schevitch) remembered life back then:

We had one kitchen at the back of our house, which was like a scullery. We only had cold running water, a gas cooker and wooden table, and back yard. The whole family, nine of us at the time had to wash there, but when it was bath time we only had a metal bath with water poured from the fireplace, and the three younger girls were bathed together in this boat like tub. There was a time when there was a shortage of fuel when I was about eleven and every family was rationed one sack of coal. We had to go and collect the coal from Flower and Dean Street (or Fashion Street) and had to line up.

Now, as my walk confirmed, there is hardly any sign of the Jewish presence in Wentworth Street. Instead this area is home to a new set of immigrants and their British born descendants. The larget and most visible migrant group (akin to the Jewish residents in the 1880s that Booth remarked upon) are the Bangladeshis, most of whom trace their roots to Sylheti in the northeast of the country. They are Muslim and established their first roots in the area as early as 1910 and it took them until the early 1980s to win permission to build a mosque.

If you want to have any sense of the Wentworth Street that Booth described as ‘a foreign market’ in the 1890s then take the underground to Whitechapel and wander along the market stalls that throng beside Whitechapel High Street opposite the London Hospital. Close your eyes, and imagine yourself transported back in time.

From St George’s Church to Booth’s London and CrossRail; rebuilding Hanover Square and Mayfair

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When Alice Lisle married Edward Montague Balmerino Lisle at St. George’s Church, Hanover Square, little did she suspect that her marriage would be so short lived. Within a month of marrying him Lisle had disappeared, not to be seen again until his dead body was dragged from the Thames 30 years later.

St George’s, Hanover Square is one of London’s most charming places of worship and Alice was in good company in holding her nuptials there. In 1814 Harriet Westbrook had married the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley at the church, and in 1839 Benjamin Disreali used the venue to marry Mary Lewis. In the previous century Sir William Hamilton married the lowly born Emma Hart who went on to become more famous (or infamous) as the mistress of Horatio Nelson. Seven years later Europe’s most famous clown, Joseph Grimaldi, married Maria Wells, whose father ran the theatre at Sadler’s Wells that still bears his name.

There were other ‘celebrity’ weddings: in 1880 Mary Lewes (better know to us as the novelist George Elliot) married John Cross and in 1886 Theodore Roosevelt (not yet the 26thpresident of the USA) married Edith Carrow. In the twentieth century the church also witnessed the marriages of Guglielmo Marconi (1905) and Amy Johnson (1932). Amy Johnson married her fellow aviator Jim Mollison, a Scot, but she too vanished after her plane supposedly crashed into the Thames near Herne Bay in early January 1941.

In the late 1890s when Charles Booth revisited Hanover Square to reassess his earlier definition of the area as mostly red (for ‘comfortable’ commercial property) he found some change, but not to the overall character of the area. George Street (which today is home to Sotherby’s auction house) was made up of ‘4 and 3 story houses, offices; shops (a few)); chambers etc.’ He noted that fewer people actually lived here any more. There was a resident vet on New Bond Street, and a few helpers but in general this was fast becoming a commercial area of the capital, not a residential one.

He noted the rebuilding that had gone on in nearby Maddox Street, where the core business was tailoring. It was still quite Red on the map, and a hotel and restaurant had been established at number 51, a new development that presumably served the growing commercial streets nearby. Brook Street followed the same pattern of change, being increasingly focused on business and trade rather than residential. There were ‘two or three doctors left’ but no one else lived there. In and around Hanover Square the buildings, if not businesses, had become private members’ clubs and societies such as ‘The Zoological’, ‘St George’s Club, the Oriental Club, and the New County Club, for ladies’. As a result of the change of use Booth noted that Hanover Square ‘could go from yellow to red’.

St George’s Church had been built in 1725 as part of an expansion of 50 new churches authorized by Parliament to meet the needs of the growing Hanoverian capital. The design of St George’s was undertaken by John James, who had worked with Sir Christopher Wren. Construction took three and a half years and cost £10,000 (about £1,000,000 at today’s prices). Today Hanover Square, which once hosted such famous guests as Prince Talleyrand, the archetypal crafty diplomat who managed to survive both the French Revolution and Napoleon, is dominated by a modern construction project. imagesCrossrail is a 73-mile railway line which will (one day) link East and West London with a new over and underground line and modern stations. It should have started running at the end of 2018 but is now set to be delayed until autumn 2021.

Costs have escalated from £14.8bn to a possible £18.25bn but I wouldn’t be surprised if London was still blighted by construction work and dozens of high-viz wearing workmen well into the 2020s. There is simply too much money to be made from infrastructure construction projects like Cross Rail and HS2 for there to be any sense of urgency in actually finishing them. Meanwhile London continues to look like one huge building site, to the detriment of his historical built environment. One wonders what John James and, later, Charles Booth, would have thought.

In the next post I’ll share some of my photos of the modern view of Hanover Square and the area Booth mapped in the late 1800s.

The case of the missing bridegroom and his distraught newlywed wife

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You have to feel sorry for Mrs Alice Lisle. The ‘petite, fair, blue-eyed, young lady’ appeared at the Bow Street Police Magistrates court in late August 1897 to ask for help. Her husband, she explained, had disappeared.

As she explained to Mr Lushington Alice, then Alice Elizabeth Hunt, had married Edward Montague Balmerino Lisle (33) at St. George’s Church, Bloomsbury (pictured above) on 14 July 1897. He was, she said, a gentleman of ‘independent means’ that she’d met at Bunhill Fields Coffee Tavern near Aldersgate Station (now Barbican underground) where she was working behind the counter. Having ‘paid his attentions’ to her for two months he proposed and they married.

It had been a very happy (if short) marriage. They honeymooned in Windsor, in sight of the castle, and on 11 August he returned in advance to London to settle some financial business.

Alice hadn’t seen him since.

I do wonder at Mr Lisle’s honesty. Apparently he liked to gamble (if not excessively) and his letters to her suggest he spent most of his time at the races. His full name was – slightly unbelievably – Just Henry Edward Montague Elphinstone Balmerino Lisle – and he claimed to have been a pupil at the Marlborough School and to have returned there to look up an old friend shortly after leaving Windsor.

The magistrate could not help much beyond recommending that the newspapers – starting with the Daily Mail (who had a reporter in court that day) – should publicise the case in the hopes that someone knew something. In the meantime, all Alice could do was go back to her lodgings at Hunter Street, Brunswick Square and wait.

That really was the last Alice saw of her bridegroom. Whether he ran away to avoid a previous marriage (bigamy was not uncommon at the time), or to outrun his creditors (debt was equally familiar to many men of his generation), he doesn’t seem to met a sticky end. At least not in 1897 that is. Oddly I did find a mention of man with his name being fished out of the Thames, presumed dead by his own efforts, 30 years later

[from Sheffield Evening Telegraph, 28 August, 1897]

Stoke Newington ‘has a great reputation’; ‘anything will sell or let there’.

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In the last two blog posts I explored the murder of John Broome Tower, whose lifeless body was dragged from a reservoir in Stoke Newington. No one was ever prosecuted for the clerk’s murder and the police eventually seem to have decided that he’d taken his own life, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary.

In 2020 this blog will change tack from the course it has been on since I started writing it in April 2016. All the stories from the capital’s police magistrate courts will remain and I will probably revisit those sources from time to time, rich as they are. Having completed writing two books in 2019 (both of which should reach the shops before the end of 2020) I will now be concentrating my writing efforts on a new work for Reaktion books on the police courts. I suspect this to go to print in about 12-18 months, and I’ll post updates on this site.

In the meantime I am going to use the notebooks left by Charles Booth (and held by the LSE) to explore London’s streets and communities in the last decades of the nineteenth century. Booth’s Inquiry into the Life and Labour of the People in London was carried out between 1886 and 1903 and the most outstanding result of his research were his poverty maps revealing the distribution of wealth in the late Victorian capital.

Booth, working with a small team of investigators, many from the Toynbee Hall settlement in Spitalfields, walked the streets with police and London School Board visitors, interviewed employers, trade unionists, clergymen, and others in his attempt to understand individual circumstances of poverty and want. All of this went into his notebooks, 450 of them, and the level of detail is fascinating.

My aim is to explore an area mapped by Booth and compare its conditions today to those at the end of the nineteenth century. I have already looked at the area around Tufnell Park (where I was born in the 1960s) and today I’ll explore the streets where my wife’s family settled in London having migrated here from Cyprus in the 1950s.

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William Patten School on Dynevor Road (formally Church Street Board School). It had a open air playground on the roof, built deliberately – as others were – to bring fresh air to London’s children in a period when levels of TB were dangerously high.

I think migration (from overseas, the Empire and Commonwealth, what is now the EU, and the rest of the UK) is likely to be one of the themes of this project, as London has always been a multi-cultural city. Another is the diversity of wealth in the capital: Booth’s maps reveal that poverty and relative affluence existed side-by-side in the 1880s just as they do today, and I hope that will come out in this blog.

Another theme that I suspect might feature is that of change. When the houses in St George’s Avenue, Tufnell Park were built in the last quarter of the 1800 the aspiring middle class inhabited them. When Booth mapped them in the early 1890s the area was on the brink in his view; at risk of sliding downwards economically as poor housing and cheaper rents prompted the ‘better sort’ to move elsewhere. When my parents moved in to their house in St George’s in about 1960 the area was far from prosperous.

They moved out in the early 1970s seeking the more open spaces of Finchley (and in so doing echoing the paths trodden by countless Londoners from the late eighteenth century onwards, in fleeing the congested centre for the suburbs to the north and south). Now Tufnell Park is desirable and expensive. A house that might have cost under £2,000 in 1960 will cost you close to £2,000,000 today.

The same is true for Stoke Newington. My wife’s family sold their property there in the late ‘70s and now an equivalent house would be worth around £1,500,000. They left because the area was ‘rough’ and in the 1870s (when the board school at the end of their road was built), poverty was endemic and life expectancy one of the worst in London. By the 1890s Booth thought that the streets behind Church Street Stoke Newington were largely ‘comfortable’ and we saw (in the last two posts) that in the mid 1880s the area was a ‘rapidly expanding’ suburb on the up.

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Old public house on Nevill Road

What you will notice today is the overwhelming concentration of domestic property. Of course there are plenty of shops and pubs, most of which are on Stoke Newington Church Street and the High Street, but few if any commercial buildings exist beyond there. In Booth’s walks he or his team noted the existence of Maynard’s confectionary factory (on Gordon Road) that had once been a factory.

The area south of Maury Road was one of the ‘roughest’ in the area according to the notebooks. Ottway Street, Mellington Street, Stellamn and Landfield Street varied in cloulor from blue to pink and were nicknamed ‘Tiger’s Bay’ and ‘Spike’s Island’ at the time. The inhabitants were ‘low-bred English of no particular occupation’. Their problem was the lack of a regular wage, an uncertainty that remains a problem today and is a causal factor in poverty. The policeman that accompanied Booth or his researcher told him that ‘some of the women washed but others, “you’d better judge for yourself”.’

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I concentrated my walk the other day around Nevill Road and Dynevor Road, ending up back on Church Street via Dumont Road and Kersley Road. For the most part the properties are fine late Victorian ones in good condition. There are some modern builds, mostly post war social housing some of which are probably a result of enemy bombing. A ‘doodlebug’ hit Defoe Road for example, and parts of Dynevor Road were destroyed or badly damaged by enemy action.

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For Booth in the 1890s this was a decent respectable part of the district. It ‘looks pink and clerical’ he said but was actually largely occupied by ‘artisans’. Dynevor Road was pink (‘fairly comfortable. Good ordinary earnings’) and it was here (at 106) that John Broome Tower lodged in 1884. Chesholm and Broughton Road were both similar. Oldfield, Harcombe, Woodland, and Sandbrook Roads were occupied by artisans and shop workers, most of whom presumably employed by businesses on the High Street or Church Street (or those communing into the West End of London). It was pink in the 1890s, it is probably similar today, although the cost of living makes this an expensive place to live now (true for much of London of course).

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An echo of the area’s past: a Victorian post box by Walford Road (next to a synagogue – another reminder of the mixed community that existed in the 1890s and still exists today).

Stoke Newington was – in the 1880/90s – ‘very healthy’ Booth wrote. ‘It has a great reputation’. The houses were small but nearly all of them were occupied. That is still true in the streets I walked around. There were properties for sale and estate agents boards advertising letting opportunities but relatively few. It feels ‘well-heeled’, quite and ‘desirable’. ‘Anything will let or sell in Stoke Newington’ the police constable accompanying Booth on his travels told him with confidence.

One imagines the same is true today.

 

 

The Stoke Newington murder mystery

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Just after nine o’clock on Wednesday  morning, 8 January 1884, a man’s dead body was recovered from a reservoir at Stoke Newington. George Jaggers, employed by the New River Company, had dredged the reservoir after several personal items had been found nearby by a group of boys and two men walking to work. The objects, which included a hat, coat, ‘a pearl pin, an earring, a watch key, a bar of gold, a watch chain’ plus some money, were formally identified as belonging to a Mr John Broome Tower.

At a coroner’s inquest held at the vestry hall in Stoke Newington several witnesses testified to finding the possessions of Broome Tower in the vicinity of the reservoir, which was situated (as it is now) north of Lordship Park, in the space between Green Lanes and the Seven Sisters Road.

The hat and coat had been seen first by William Palmer, an engineer’s assistant, who saw them as he went to work for the New River Company on the Tuesday. At 8 o’clock, as he came back for his breakfast he saw two policeman carrying them and went over to tell them he’d seen them earlier that morning. Palmer lived in Queen Elizabeth’s Walk which ran down from the reservoir at Lordship Road, then along the edge of Clissold Park to the rear of St Mary’s old church on Church Street.

In Booth’s late 1890s map of the area the top end of the Walk is not mapped or categorized at all, the project not covering the very north of the capital. Around the old church, where there was a mortuary near Edwards Lane and Meadow Street, the housing was poor and coloured blue, but the properties along Queen Elizabeth’s Walk were comfortably red. There were pockets of pink on the map above Clissold Park but Lordship Park and the other streets bordering the pumping station on Green Lanes were solid red in colour.

Detective Inspector Glass of CID told the inquiry that his men had found footprints and other marks close to the reservoir and had made casts of them. George Jaggers explained that the water was about 6 foot deep where he found the body and that the edge sloped down from the top. He did not think someone could have thrown a dead body in from the top, he would have had to enter the water as well if the intention was to cover it sufficiently so it was hidden.

The coroner said that on the information they had heard thus far ‘there was no doubt that the young man had been murdered’. He said the likeliest theory was that Broome Tower had been attacked, dragged into the eater, strangled and drowned. The jury recorded a verdict of ‘willful murder against some person or person unknown’.

John Broome Tower had not been seen since New Year’s Eve and his disappearance was followed by that an unnamed young woman, the press reported.  The police were trying to trace her whereabouts as they wanted to question her in relation to the man’s death. As of the 12 January 1884 however, they were clueless and the papers were describing the discovery of a body in the reservoir as the ‘Stoke Newington Murder’.

Broome Tower was buried at Abney Park Cemetery in a service that was attended by a small number of people, including Miss Alice Drage, who had identified most of the items found as belonging to the deceased, his mother and father, and his old school master. In the late 1890s the cemetery, which still lies behind Church Street had a small female prison at its southeast corner.  This was the London Female Penitentiary which later became the London Female Guardian society, and housed ‘fallen women’ (Victorian and Edwardian code for prostitutes).

Was John Broome Tower murdered, or did he take his own life? I’ll continue my investigations and let you know.

[from The Herald, Saturday, January 12 1884)

‘The more I look at you the more convinced I am that you are the man that tricked me’

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William Hurley admitted to being a thief.  However, on this occasion, as he stood in the Bow Street dock on 21 November 1898 he strongly denied he had committed the crime for which he’d been charged. He brought in a lawyer to represent him but in the course of his examination he dismissed him and took over his own defense.

His accuser was a Miss Alice Bull who gave her address as Haverstock Hill in northwest London. She had traveled into central London on the train, stopping at Charing Cross where she deposited a black box at the cloakroom. As she was leaving the office a man came running up to her and said:

‘Excuse me; you have just left a black box in the cloak-room, and I have left a Gladstone bag. Unfortunately, you have taken my ticket, and I have got yours’.

He showed her his ticket and suggested they swap. Alice was wary:

‘How am I to know that your story is correct’, she asked.

‘’It’s all correct’, he assured her. ‘If you have any doubt about it, come back to the cloak-room with me’.

Reassured, Alice handed over the ticket and went off to spend the day in the capital. However, when she returned to the station in the evening and produced what she thought was her ticket she was given a brown paper parcel, which contained nothing other than a daily newspaper. Her box, and the watch and chain, three gold brooches, and clothing – valued at around £30 – was nowhere to be seen.

She reported the theft and the police investigated. The box turned up in a railway carriage at Action, lodged under a seat and devoid of its contents. The police did track down and arrest a suspect – William Hurley (23) and Alice picked him out in an identity parade at Old Kent Road police station.

Thomas Jones, the porter at the Charing Cross cloak room having at first failed to identify Hurley was more sure it was him when he saw him at Bow Street Police court. However, since he admitted that since 12,000 parcels were deposited each day at the station (a staggering amount when one thinks about it) there must have been some degree of doubt in his mind.

Alice went on the offensive in court, clearly annoyed that she had been robbed in this way. The only thing that had been found in her box was a ball of string.

‘Is that yours?’ she asked the man in the dock.

The magistrate (Mr Sydney) reminded her that she was not allowed to cross-examine the defendant, but she was not to be put off. When Hurley claimed it was a case of mistaken identity and that he knew who had stolen her property, and it wasn’t him, she said:

‘Why don’t you bring him here so that I might compare you? The more I look at you the more convinced I am that you are the man’.

Hurley, having dismissed his lawyer, again denied the charge, told the court he was a tailor and said he ‘had ten or eleven witnesses that he was at Gatwick Races on the day of the this occurrence, and did not return to London until 10 o’clock that night’.

The justice committed him to take his trial.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, November 22, 1898]

‘There is a remedy for almost every wrong in this country’, a magistrate explains, ‘if one knows where to look’.

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, 

             Rudyard Kipling, ‘Tommy’ (1892)

Kipling published his Barrack-Room Ballads in 1892 which included one of his most famous poems, Tommy. The poem highlights the reality of solders’ situations in late Victorian Britain; eulogised as ‘heroes’ when there were enemies to defeat, and condemned as ‘bar-room brawlers’ when they were cooped up in garrison towns like Aldershot or Colchester. Not that much has changed in the intervening 100 plus years, ‘squaddies’ are still a cause for concern on Saturday nights in Colchester, but every serviceman and woman is deemed a hero at the point they are killed or wounded in action.

Kipling’s poem calls for change and an acceptance that ‘tommy’ was simply an ordinary man called upon to do extraordinary things. Within a quarter of  a century the ranks of Britain’s small professional armed forces were swelled by millions of citizen volunteers and (from 1916) conscript ‘tommies’. This weekend we remember the millions that died in that war and those that have given their lives since, as well as all those that were wounded, both physically and mentally, in conflicts since 1914.

And perhaps here we can point to some improvement in the way in which we look after  our damaged servicemen. Although we still need charities like Help for Heroes to augment government provision we have become much better at rehabilitating the injured. This is especially true in the area of mental health. Before the First World War the notion that soldiers were adversely affected mentally by war was not properly considered even though it must have been evident to some.

It was the work of Dr W. H. R Rivers, a psychiatrist in Craiglockhart Medical Hospital in Scotland during the war that did much to help society understand mental illness in the context of war, even if this treatment was not really adopted at the time.

Today’s tale from the Police Courts doesn’t feature soldiers but it is related to the problem of mental health and its treatment in the 1800s. I’ve chosen 1892 because of the publishing of Kipling’s poem.

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A man named Smythe appeared at the West London Police Court to ask for a summons. The request was for a summons to bring the superintendent of a private lunatic asylum to court for unlawfully detaining a prisoner called ‘Carter’.  Mr W. Doveton Smythe explained that Carter had been imprisoned for five years for shooting at a man but, just four months before he was due to be released, he had been transferred to Broadmoor Prison in Berkshire, where criminals deemed to be ‘insane’ were confined.

From Broadmoor he was later taken to a pauper lunatic asylum (presumably being thought no longer to be dangerous) and then, at the request of his mother, he was placed in a private mental asylum. So, this prisoner, who had served his sentence, was now effectively being held against his will in a secure institution and Mr Smythe (whose relationship to the Carters is not made clear) was trying to get him out.

Mr Smythe told the magistrate, Mr Curtis Bennett, that Carter had been examined by an independent specialist  (Dr Flood) and visited by several friends. They all felt that he was ‘perfectly sane’. He wanted a summons against the superintendent for assault, since (as he was sure the magistrate was aware) ‘illegal detention is, technically, an assault’.

Mr Bennett was unconvinced. ‘Friends are really the worst people to form an opinion in such a case’, he told the complainant. ‘Unfortunately that has been the cause of many murders being committed’.

Moreover, this wasn’t the right place to make his request. Removing Carter from the private asylum would not overthrow the original decision to send him to Broadmoor or the pauper asylum. Therefore he advised Mr Smythe to take his complaint to the Lunacy Commissioners instead, and if he got no joy there he suggested the [Chancery] Master in Lunacy instead.

‘There is a remedy for almost every wrong in this country’, he declared, ‘though many people do not seek the right remedy’.

Mr Smythe thanked him and left, meanwhile poor Carter remained locked up in a private asylum.

[from The Standard, Friday, November 11, 1892]