Another man who shirked his parental responsibilities and thought he’d get away with it

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The church of St Lawrence Jewry in the 1930s

William Dell was having a bad day and it was about to get worse.

In the first week of June 1869 he had been presented with a summons to attend at the Guildhall Police court. Being summonsed was one of the ways you ended up before a magistrate in nineteenth-century London, and was certainly preferable to being brought there from a cell by a policeman or gaoler, but was still unpleasant and embarrassing.

Dell’s ‘crime’ was that he was behind with his child support payments, or, as the Victorians would have termed it, he was in ‘bastardy arrears’. Having impregnated Emma Barrett but not being inclined to marry her, he had left her and her baby ‘chargeable to the parish’.

In other words, without the financial support of William Dell Emma would have been forced to exist on money raised from amongst the local ratepayers. Where possible, and when a father could be identified, the overseers of the poor much preferred to avoid this. If Dell wouldn’t marry Emma he could at least be expected to stump up the money to support her bastard. The amount was at 26a week.

Dell either thought he should pay or didn’t have the spare cash to do so, so he ignored the bastardy order that had been imposed on him and had ran up arrears of £2 5by the beginning of June (suggesting that he had paid nothing for about 18 weeks).

Hence the court summons in June.

He was stood outside the Guildhall court waiting to be called in when a woman approached him. She was Sophia Barrett, Emma’s mother. She berated William for ruining her daughter and abandoning his child and, when Dell protested that the child was not his but his brother’s, she lost her temper completely.

Sophia started to hit Dell with the only weapon she had to hand, her umbrella. He tried to fend her off and then ran away to the rear of St Lawrence Jewry church (which stands in Guildhall Yard) to escape her.

Sophia Barrett was not so easily shaken off, and went round the church the opposite way and attacked him again in Gresham Street. Here she ‘pulled his hair and struck him’ again and again until William Dell was rescued by a passing policeman. Sophia Barrett was now arrested and both parties appeared in the Guildhall Police court together.

Sophia Barrett was charged with assault but showed no remorse. Indeed she went on the attack complaining to the alderman magistrate that Dell had neglected his obligations and left her, a poor widow,  to care for both her daughter and the child. Dell, she said, had ‘never contributed one farthing to the support of the child and had declared that he would not’.  She felt entirely justified in letting the man know exactly how she felt.

Alderman Finnis seemed to largely agree with her. He sympathized with her and dismissed the assault charge on the grounds of provocation. As she stepped down from the dock, her reputation enhanced rather than tarnished, Dell took her place.

Alderman Finnis asked him why he had failed to obey the order of the court to support Emma Barrett and her baby? Dell wriggled in the dock and claimed he had no money to do so. The money ‘he earned’, he stated, ‘was barely sufficient for himself’. It was a lame excuse even if for many in Victorian London barely subsistence wages were the norm. He had ‘had is way’ with Emma and was obliged to face the consequences.

In the alderman’s eyes if he allowed Dell to avoid his responsibilities he would be exposing the good ratepayers of the City to a flood of claims for child support. So he glared down at the man in the dock and told him that he could either pay his arrears now or go to prison with hard labour for two months. Dell refused to pay and so was led away to start his sentence.

It is worth noting that his incarceration did not cancel his debt, on his release he would still be expected to support Emma’s child unless she married and found someone else to pay for its upbringing. So Dell faced an uncertain future if he continued to refuse to pay. Once out of prison he was still liable and unless he found the money he might well end up being sent back to gaol. Moreover, having been inside once his chances of finding regular well-paid work were diminished. If he thought he was merely scraping by beforehand then his outlook after prison was hardly improved.

But at the same time the situation was little better for Emma; any hope that she might have had that Dell would recognize that his best interests lay in marrying her were probably killed stone dead by this prosecution and the animosity that came with it. She would also find it hard to persuade a suitor to take on another man’s bastard. So she would continue to live with her mother in a household with no male breadwinner, and few prospects of avoiding an impoverished existence.

At the heart of this was a child. A child whose father didn’t want her and who the ‘state’ (which in the 1860s meant the parish) didn’t want to have to pay for. Today Emma would be better supported, although our own society still struggles to make fathers take responsibility for the children they beget on women prefer not to marry or support.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday 6 June 1869]

‘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]

Winter is coming

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Winter is coming.

Hallowe’en has come and gone and Bonfire Night is looming. The clocks have gone back and the air has turned distinctly chilly. Yesterday in town I noticed more rough sleepers than usual around King’s Cross and St Pancras and reflected once again that our modern society still hasn’t solved the problem of poverty. And now an election is looming and we might ask ourselves which party is most determined to address the problem of poverty and inequality in the UK?

The reports from the Victorian Police Courts provide ample evidence that desperation and poverty were endemic in the 1800s. This was a society without a welfare state, with no old age pension scheme, or National Health Service, or social services. Where we have a benefits system (however flawed) they had the workhouse or charity and recourse to either meant shame and failure.

In our ‘modern’ world we have people whose lives have been destroyed by drink or drugs and both provide the really desperate with the anaesthetic they need to simply survive on day-to-day basis. I saw a notice yesterday that said, ‘would you smash up a phone box to get 24 hours in a dry cell with food?’

This is a reality for some people in ‘modern’ Britain.

In October 1865 Mary M’Grath was charged at Thames Police Court with being drunk and disorderly and punching a policeman. Mary was about 30 years old and had a baby with her in court. PC John Mansfield (393K) testified that on the previous afternoon he had seen Mary rolling about, quite drunk, on the East India Dock Road.

She was carrying her infant and staggering about so badly that she kept banging into the nearby ‘walls and houses’. The child was ‘injured and screamed fearfully’, he added. Mary kept up a stream of the most unpleasant language, so disgusting that several onlookers complained to him about it.

Eventually  she fell heavily and a man rushed up to save the child and a police sergeant arrived to help  PC Mansfield take her to the police station. Once there she rewarded him with more abuse and landed a blow on his face, blackening his eye and impairing his sight.

The next day they appeared in court before Mr Paget, the magistrate, who asked the constable what had become of the child.

‘It was taken to the workhouse’, the policeman replied.

‘How old is it?’ the magistrate asked him.

‘Four months old’.

‘It is eight months old’, piped up Mary from the dock.

Mr Paget declared that nothing was more disgraceful than seeing a mother so drunk in public. Didn’t she have a husband at home he enquired.

‘No sir, my husband died seven years ago’, came the reply. So her baby was illegitimate and presumably the product of new relationship or a casual encounter, and no father was present in court. Drunk, riotous and promiscuous the magistrate was probably thinking, a suitable object not for pity but for condemnation.

In reality of course Mary’s life became that much more difficult when her husband had passed away. She would have lost the main bread winner and her partner. It is likely she already had children so they would have added to her problems. Perhaps this explains her descent into alcoholism.

She told him that she couldn’t remember what had happened the previous day, so drunk had she been. She had been inside the workhouse, and therefore destitute as no one went inside iff they could possibly help it.

‘I was there long enough’ she explained, and ‘I was half starved’ and ‘discharged myself. I took a drop [of alcohol] and lost myself’.

So in her version of events  she had been so malnourished in the ‘house’ that a small amount of drink (probably gin) had affected her much more than it would normally. It was probably an exaggeration of the truth but it did her no good. Instead of opting to find her some help in the form of money, food and shelter Mr Paget sent her to prison for a month at hard labour.

She had merely swapped one uncaring institution for another. As for the child, well as a ‘suckling’ Mr Paget decided it needed to stay with its mother, so off to gaol it went as well.

This was an oft repeated story in Victorian London. Children were growing up affected by alcoholism, grinding poverty, homelessness, and sometimes, prison. No wonder reformers demanded change and some turned to ‘extreme’ politics (like socialism or anarchism). Men like Paget had comfortable lives and sat in judgement for the most part on those that scraped by.

Can we, hand on heart, say that 150 years later everything is so much better? Yes, of course to an extent we have provided a much better safety net for Mary M’Grath and her baby. But have we really tackled the root causes of her poverty? No, I don’t think we have  and while we pursue a form of economics and politics that allows some people to live in epic luxury while others sleep rough on the streets I don’t think we can sit in judgement of our ancestors either.

Winter is coming. Use your vote wisely.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, November 01, 1865]

‘It’s no use crying over spilt milk’, one young charmer tells the maid he has ruined. Bastardy at Westminster

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The poor servant girl ‘undone’ by the master (or another male of the house) is a well-worn trope of Victorian fiction. That said it is fairly rare for stories like this to reach the newspapers, at least in the reports that I have been looking through for the last three years.

In mid October 1879 an unnamed domestic servant applied for a summons at Westminster Police court to bring Edward Salmon to court. She alleged that he was the father of her unborn child and that he had run away from his responsibilities and left her ‘ruined’.

Salmon was not in court, nor was his mother – Mrs Hermina J. Salmon – for whom the girl had worked. She had employed as a maid in the salmon’s house at 55 Oxford Road, Ealing and the girl told the magistrate that Salmon had ‘accomplished her ruin in the early part of last year’. When it became obvious that she was pregnant she was sacked and turned out of the house.

This was the usual consequence of intimate relationships between female servants and male members of the household, regardless of whether the sexual relationship was consensual or not. In this case Mrs Salmon clearly held her maid responsible. She told her in a letter that she could not have been ‘a “correct” girl when she entered service, for had she been so she would not have allowed [her son] to take liberties with her’.

Edward had also written to the girl (who had been asking for money) telling her that she should not ‘get cut up about it’. Instead she should:

‘keep up her spirits, and although he was sorry, it was “no use crying over spilt milk”.

He also advised her not to threaten him for he would be happy to ‘let the law take its course’.

He warned her to stay away until ‘any unpleasantry passed over’ (until she’d had the baby) and that she was not tell his mother either.

He wasn’t afraid, he said, of his character being dragged through the mud because ‘it was so bad at present it could hardly be made worse’.

What a charmer.

Edward Salmon had sent the girl £2, as had his mother, but they promised no more saying that was all they could afford. As a result the servant, showing considerable courage and determination, had gone to law.

Mr. D’Eyncourt was told that Edward Salmon was not available and nor was his mother. Both were represented by a lawyer. There was a certificate from Mrs Salmon explaining her absence (the reasons were not given by the paper however) but a witness appeared to depose that he’d seen Edward boarding a ship at the docks. Edward Salmon had taken a ship bound for India and was currently in Paris, although his lawyer said that he would return in a ‘few weeks’.

D’Eyncourt declared that the summons had been duly served and so the law required Salmon to appear. That explained why he ‘had bolted’. He issued a maintenance order for the upkeep of the child – 5sa week until it reached 15 years of age. Salmon would also have to pay cost of 25s, and he backdated the order to January, which was when the maid had first made her application.

I do think this case is unusual but perhaps because of the determination of this woman to hold the father of her unborn child to account. To take on a social ‘superior’ in this way was a really brave thing to do. The court also supported her, naming Salmon publically (making it harder for him to shirk his responsibility) and handing down a maintenance order, while keeping her name out of the news.

Her reputation may have been ruined by the careless action of a young man who took advantage but she had won back some self respect at least. Whether he ever returned or made and kept up his payments to her and his child is a question I can’t answer. I would doubt it but at least this young woman had tried.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper (London, England), Sunday, October 19, 1879]

Hard choices for an unmarried mother in Spitalfields

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Spitalfields (in the early 20th century) by the photographer C. A. Matthew 

Sophia Higgins, the wife of a chemist in Spicer Street, Spitalfields was making her way home at 11 at night when something caught her attention.  She was crossing the market when she heard what she thought was a baby crying.

Moving towards the sound she soon discovered an infant ‘lying on the pavement, wrapped in a piece of blanket’. Horrified she stopped it up, went to find a person nearby to care for it, and then rushed off to the nearest police station.

The police arrived and collected the child, taking it to the Whitechapel workhouse to make enquiries there. Having established from the porter who they thought the mother was, another officer was despatched to find her and arrest her.

Eventually Ellen Lehain was identified as the child’s mother and questioned by the police before being summoned before the magistrate at Worship Street Police Court in October 1853. A witness, Ann Buskin (described as an ‘unmarred female’) said she had lodged with Ellen at a property in Holborn and testified that she had recently given birth to an illegitimate child.

Ann explained that her fellow lodger had ‘nursed it for a few weeks, when she left there to go into the union house’ (meaning the local workhouse for the poor).

The child was produced in court and  Ellen admitted it was hers. When the policeman had asked her what she had done with it she had told him she’d left the baby at the door of the workhouse. So how did it come to be in the middle of Spitalfields market the court wanted to know?

Ellen’s response to this question is not recorded.

In her defence the girl simply pleaded poverty and distress as the reason for abandoning her new born baby. Mr D’Eyncourt sent her to the house of correction for three months, the fate of her child was not something the newspaper reporters seems to have thought important enough to write down. Perhaps it was obvious: the child would become another mouth for the parish union to feed, until at least he or she could be apprenticed out into service.

No one seemed to be in the least bit interested in the fate of its mother, who must have been in considerable distress to give up a child she had been caring for for several weeks.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, October 14, 1853]

‘Such things are a disgrace there’: A Dutchman tries to save his father’s shame by dumping his grandchild on the streets of London

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Lower Thames Street in the late 1800s

One of the subjects that continues to fascinate my undergraduate students is infanticide. Almost invariably they approach the topic wanting to understand how a mother could deliberately murder her newborn baby. Looking through the very many cases that came before the Old Bailey they are understandably shocked at the stories of women who cut their infant child’s throat, or smothered it at birth, before dumping the body in the nearest privy.

Without wishing to deny the reality that some mothers did kill their newborn babies I think most historians would agree that this was probably the exception rather than the rule in infanticide cases. Babies died in childbirth much more often in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, before advancements in medical care arrived in the 1900s. Most importantly the women accused were invariably single, poor, young and from the servant class. These young women had fallen pregnant and then had tried to conceal this from their families and employers, for fear of being condemned as immoral and, in the case of servants, being dismissed from service.

Illegitimacy is not an issue in most Western societies today. Very many people choose to live together before they marry and some do not marry at all yet still have children. This has been widely accepted in most communities in Britain since the 1970s if not a little earlier and the word ‘bastard’ has almost lost its original meaning.

However this was far from true in the 1800s, even if – as this case perhaps implies – London was seen as a more progressive city than some in Europe.

In December 1875 Samuel Whiffin was walking towards London Bridge on Lower Thames Street when he noticed a parcel lying near a doorway. As a policeman was approaching from the opposite direction Whiffin called him over and pointed out the package. PC Holly examined it and realized that it contained the body of an infant.

To his relief the baby was alive but very cold, so PC Holly carried it off to the Home for the Houseless Poor. This charity provided ‘nightly shelter and sustenance to the absolutely destitute working- classes, who are suddenly thrown out of employment by inclement weather’.* Having been looked after by the charity the child was next taken to the Homerton Workhouse and the search for its parents began.

Three days later Jans Hans, a Dutch labourer living at 3, Walburgh Street, St George-in-the-East, was brought before Sir Robert Carden at  Mansion House to be examined concerning the abandonment of the child. He was accused along with his sister, who was in St George’s hospital and too ill to attend.

The court heard the evidence of PC Holly as to the finding of the baby and then from a Mrs Plaggenine, a German woman who was landlady to Hans and his sister. Sir Robert was interested in the revelation that the siblings shared a single room in the property, and intimated that this was not normal. Mrs Plaggenine ignored, or did not understand, the magistrate’s question, but the suggestion of incest was left hanging in the air.

The policeman that had arrested Jan Hans questioned him about the child and reported that the man had admitted leaving it in the street on the previous Thursday. Hans told him that he had set the child down then retired to a safe spot where he could watch to see that someone stopped and rescued the baby. He had tried advertising the baby for adoption but had no success.

Hans and his sister were desperate, the Dutchman now explained to the alderman. They were very poor and couldn’t afford to raise a child. His sister had traveled from Holland ‘to be confined’ (to give birth) because the father refused to take responsibility for it. He added that ‘such things were a disgrace there’.

Presumably because Jan lived and worked in London this seemed like a good solution to Hans senior. If he sent his daughter to England she could give birth and the child would be brought up by strangers in a strange country but at least his family’s reputation would be protected. The child had a lucky escape and it is hard to imagine the mental state of Hans’ sister who seems to have been almost entirely left out of the decision-making process. She was ill in hospital while her brother disposed of her baby and the alderman magistrate cast further doubt on her morality by suggesting it was the product of an incestuous relationship.

Jan Hans was remanded in custody so that the courts could decide what to do with him and his sister. If they couldn’t and wouldn’t care for the baby (and no adopted family could be found) then it would grow up in the workhouse like Oliver Twist, perhaps never knowing of it Dutch heritage.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, 20 December, 1875]

‘Why, that is the old, old game, they all deny they are the father!’ Paternity and the working classes

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In the eighteenth century provincial magistrates spent a lot of their time adjudicating on cases of illegitimacy. While it wasn’t exactly a crime to have a child out of wedlock it was still considered a disgrace to be avoided. More pressing for the parish authorities was the  fear that if the father of a newborn was not identified, and then held responsible for the mother and child, a financial burden might fall upon the ratepayers.

This seems to have continued well into the Victorian period but bastardy cases (to use the terminology of the law) are not as frequently reported as I thought they might be. This may mean they didn’t occur that often or, that they were so mundane and everyday as not to be worth reporting.

In late July 1878 one case did make it into the pages of the weekly Illustrated Police News, perhaps because it seemed to shine a light into working-class lives and allow readers to chuckle at the loose morals of the labouring classes.

Edward Bellett was summoned before the magistrate at Clerkenwell to ‘show cause why he should not contribute towards the support of an illegitimate child’. Bellett didn’t bother turn up, hardly surprising perhaps since his given address was the Monarch Public House, on Hornsey Road.

Instead it was left to the complainant, Alice Martin (of Canonbury Park) and her sister-in-law (Ellen Martin), to present the case against him. They told Mr Hosack, the justice, how Alice and Edward had met while they both worked as servants more than a year ago.

The pair got on famously from the moment they met and it was felt by everyone that saw them that they ‘are going to make a match of it’. I suspect that while this may have been how Alice saw it she may also have been laying the foundations of her suit against him, and also preserving her reputation by initiating that she fully believed their courtship would lead to marriage.

It didn’t however, but ‘improper indecency’ certainly did and, on July 15 1877 she gave birth to a little boy. Before then she’d already had to leave service; few servants could continue to work once the household had discovered they were ‘enciente’ (as the reporter put it). She didn’t see Edward at all once she left and he refused to acknowledge his paternity when they did meet, declaring that she would have to go to law if she expected him to support her.

Ellen Martin had accompanied her sister-in-law to meet with the reluctant father and she took centre stage in the hearing at Clerkenwell to describe how such things were conducted. The couple had met in a private bar of a public house (perhaps the one that was cited in the summons), with Ellen standing nearby, earwigging their conversation.

She merely went to see fair play‘, she insisted, and ‘at first stood on one side, but, woman-like, wanting to to see a little of what was going on, she went nearer and nearer and heard all that passed.’ She explained that Edward ‘did the usual thing on such auspicious occasions‘.

What was ‘the usual thing’ Mr Hosack enquired.

Why, to go to the private bar of some public-house to talk the matter over quietly and for the father to stand some refreshment, which he did, and it was a drop of gin. After a long “conflab” [Edward] told [Alice] to meet him on the following Sunday fortnight’ (as he only got every other Sunday off.

Edward told Alice to come alone, insisting that ‘two’s company but three’s a crowd’. He clearly didn’t want Ellen along to back her sister up and stiffen her resolve. He said he would pay something towards the child’s upkeep if he was forced to but no money ever materialised, hence the official summons.

Mr Hosack was dubious. He wasn’t convinced that Edward was the father of Alice’s child (which in itself suggested he wasn’t too impressed by her character, or that of her sister-in-law) but nor was he sure it could be proved that he was.

Well ‘they all say they are not the father’, Ellen quipped, ‘that is the old, old game’ and he shouldn’t fall for it. After all, she added, the baby looked ‘just like him’ and so she was sure, having met the man, that he must be the father. The magistrate played for time, saying that while he doubted much could be done he would at least insist that Edward was brought to court to speak for himself.

I dont know the outcome of this case but suspect Alice was not able to persuade Edward to undertake his responsibilities towards her baby. Curiously in early August an Alice Martin was brought before the magistrates at the Shire Hall in Nottingham and charged with leaving her employment in May of the previous year. This Alice was a maid of all work to a Nottinghamshire publican. He sued her for breach of contract and wanted to recover damages against her. Alice claimed she left because she’d been mistreated. The bench dismissed the case and let her go.

If she’d had a baby in mid July then she would have been fairly ‘big with child’ in May or at least showing, so perhaps this is our Alice Martin after all. Having left her paid employment and with a child on the way perhaps she headed for London to seek out her brother and his wife, perhaps knowing that her lover lived in the capital as well. Otherwise this is quite the coincidence.

[from The Illustrated Police News etc, Saturday, July 27, 1878; Nottinghamshire Guardian , Friday, August 02, 1878]

‘labouring under considerable depression of spirits’: a young woman throws herself and her baby into the canal

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The Grand Surrey Canal on Davies’ Pocket Map of London, 1852

On Sunday 17 May 1840 a policeman (32P) was walking his beat, which took him along the Surrey Canal. This ran through Camberwell and Peckham to the Surrey Docks at Rotherhithe, but no longer exists.

It was between one and two in the morning and the moon (which had been full three days earlier) was waning. The copper thought he heard a splash and hurried to the bank. As he peered across the water he thought he saw something, a woman’s bonnet, floating in the canal. Without a thought, he ‘threw off his coat and cape and jumped into the water’.

The water engulfed him and he was soaked through as he thrashed about to find the woman he presumed had fallen in. The canal was nine feet deep at this point, quite deep enough for someone to drown in, but fortunately the policeman soon found a body in the water. He grabbed it and pulled the person to safety, hauling them up onto the towpath.

When he’d recovered himself he realized he had rescued a young woman and her infant child that she had ‘closely clasped in her arms’. He took them both to the station house and then on to the Camberwell workhouse where they were able to get a change of clothes. The next morning he collected her and brought her to the Union Hall Police court to face questions about her actions from the magistrate.

After PC 32P had given his evidence another officer testified to having seen the woman, Mary Doyle, walking by the canal late at night. He had assumed she was lost and accompanied her back to safety. Mary told the justice she had no idea how she had ended up in the water and said that whatever feelings she had about her own life she would never have endangered her child.

Attempting suicide was an offence in 1840 as of course was attempting to kill your own child. It was evident however, that Mary was not herself. The paper reported that:

 ‘she was labouring under considerable depression of spirits’ and there was a suggestion that the child was illegitimate, and so perhaps Mary was trying to end her own life, and that of her infant, in order to escape the shame of ‘an illicit intercourse’.

The magistrate decided to remand her for further enquiries. He added that if she could find bail he’d be happy to release her to her friends. Sadly, no friends had appeared in court that morning so she was taken back to the cells.

Now PC 32P asked the court if anything could be done for him. He had risked his life, he pointed out, and had got soaked through and his uniform soiled in the process. Could he be ‘recompensed for what he had done?’

While it may sound a little ungallant in the circumstances, he did have a point. Policemen were responsible for their own uniforms and he would have to get his cleaned, presumably at his own expense. Unfortunately for him the clerk explained that there was no fund available for him, and suggested he apply to the Humane Society which paid out rewards for those that ‘saved the lives of others’.

The Humane Society (now ‘Royal’) was founded in 1774 by two doctors who wanted to promote resuscitation, and made awards to those that rescued others from the ‘brink of death’. They set up ‘receiving houses’ throughout the capital where people could be brought to recover. It still exists and continues its work recognizing the efforts of lifesavers, but it no longer offers rewards.

If the policeman did approach them he was likely to have been given around £5 (or £300 in today’s money), quite sufficient for him to get his tunic cleaned and pressed, and to be able to dine out on the story for months afterwards. As for Mary, she disappears from the records at this point so hopefully she survived and avoided being prosecuted. Who knows, perhaps the shock of her brush with death was enough of a prompt to turn her life around.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, May 19, 1840]

p.s. On 10 February 1840 Queen Victoria married her prince, Albert to begin what was undoubtedly one of the few ‘love matches’ in the history royal marriages at the time. Today of course is the wedding of Prince Harry to Meghan Markle. I’m no royalist – quite the opposite in fact – but this is clearly a marriage based on love and not dynastic expedience. This is also a revolutionary marriage in its own small way: Harry, an English prince descended from Victoria, is marrying an American commoner, and a person of mixed race. This is (almost) then a ‘normal’ marriage, and continues the modernisation of the royal family that began under Harry’s mother, Diana. I will doff my red cap to them both today, and wish them well (but I shan’t be watching on television!)

A terrible discovery in Bunhill Row reveals a domestic tragedy.

news-image-of-dead-infant-found

Elizabeth Collinson was employed as a servant in the household of Mr Morris, a cabinetmaker in Curtain Road, Shoreditch. When his wife discovered that her unmarried serving girl was pregnant she ‘turned her out of doors’ so she wouldn’t bring disgrace on the family.

It was a heartless thing to do but typical of the way that ‘bastard bearers’ were treated in the nineteenth century. Very many unmarried servants fell pregnant as a result of relationships with other servants, sometime consensual, often not, and it was invariably the woman that was held responsible. A servant with a child, especially a baby, who no longer an asset but a liability; her work would be restricted and there was another mouth to feed. So Mrs Morris’ decision – callous as it was – is also understandable. However, in this case she may have had another reason for expelling Elizabeth and her unborn child.

Elizabeth left the house and took a box with her. Several weeks later the box was discovered in a house in Bunhill Row belonging to a surgeon. Inside was the body of a baby, ‘partly eaten by rats’. The girl was eventually arrested and in April 1839 she appeared before the magistrates at Worship Street charged with ‘making away with her illegitimate child’.

In court Elizabeth stood her ground. She told the justices that the cabinetmaker Morris was the father of her child and that he had ‘given her something to procure a premature birth’. She was suggesting that Morris had told her to get an abortion and supplied her with the abortifacient. That was illegal but it was hard to prove and Mrs Morris was quick to dismiss the girl’s testimony as lies, she said she didn’t believe her at all.

I wonder however if there was some truth in what Elizabeth had said. Mr Morris wouldn’t be the first employer to have an affair with a younger woman working in his house. Moreover, he held all the cards and could have easily told Elizabeth she would be dismissed if she didn’t do as he said. As for Mrs Morris, we might imagine why she’d want the girl gone and, while being angry and upset at what her husband had done, may also have been desperate to save her marriage in a society where divorce was all but impossible for a woman of her class.

The magistrates turned their ire on her however, reprimanding her for her ‘inhumanity in turning the poor girl into the streets under such circumstances’. The court then heard medical evidence concerning the state of the child when discovered. It was impossible to tell, the witness stated, whether the baby had been born dead or had been killed shortly afterwards. That mattered as if the latter could be proved then Elizabeth would face a trial for infanticide. Since it could not the justices committed her to be tried for concealing the birth of her child, which carried a maximum sentence of two years’ imprisonment.

Only three trials of women accused of concealing a birth are recorded in the Old Bailey Proceedings after April 1839 and Elizabeth is not one of them. Perhaps the prosecution was dropped or insufficient evidence secured to bring it to court. Maybe Morris recognised that for this story to be heard again in open court might expose him to criticism, humiliation or worse, a charge of aiding an abortion. Given all of this it seems it was in no one’s interest to drag Elizabeth through the courts and into a prison, her life was already ruined by the disgrace and the best she might hope for was that someone else would give her a position and that she might leave this tragedy behind her.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, April 22, 1839]