A mother’s desperation drives her to steal

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St Marylebone Workhouse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A heartless debt collector at Battersea and a sighting of the Ripper in Poplar?

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So another Christmas is upon us and today thousands of people (well men mostly) will be rushing around trying to secure that last minute present for the ‘significant other’ in their lives. Meanwhile I am sitting smugly, safe in the knowledge that I had this all wrapped up (literally) by Wednesday evening. Which means I have today free to write about the past at my leisure.

This blog is based on reading  section of news reports of the cases heard before London’s Police Court magistrates in the reign of Queen Victoria. Much before 1837 reports exist but are fewer in number and so you’ll find most of mine bunch between about 1850 and 1900. I use today’s date and pick a year – this morning it is 1888, a year I often return to because it was in that late summer and autumn that London was terrorised by a killer known only as ‘Jack the Ripper’. I teach a whole module based around the Whitechapel murders of 1888 at the University of Northampton where I am currently head of the History department.

Whilst looking at the regular courts reports for the 24 December 1888 I noticed an additional ‘crime news’ item about a murder case that was occupying the attention of readers. I’ll return to that story after my usual report from the police courts. Today the court in question is Wandsworth, south of the River Thames and to the west. The man in the dock was Arthur Baldwin who was accused of violently assaulting a woman in Battersea.

On the 13 December Baldwin, a debt collector, turned up at the home of Elizabeth Leonard at 12 Gwynn Road in Battersea. Baldwin was accompanied by a bailiff from the county court and they demanded the rent she owed on the property. She said she hadn’t got the money for the rent, and clutching her purse she turned to her little boy and took out a shilling for him to go and buy some bread.

At this Baldwin reached across and snatched her purse and the pair wrestled with it. He took out several pawn tickets and as Elizabeth fought with him the tickets were ripped up and she was thrown violently against the large copper kettle on the stove. Baldwin and the bailiff (a Mr Hewett) picked up several items of Elizabeth’s furniture, ‘including three chairs and a Dutch clock’, and left with them.

The debt itself amounted to just 8s and Baldwin had obtained a warrant, but there was no evidence that he’d shown it to Elizabeth. The magistrate (Mt Curtis Bennett)  thought he was acting illegally and ‘had no right to go to the house at all’. He fined the debt collector 20awarded Elizabeth 30s costs which should have covered the rent arrears and her pawned goods. I’d like to think that the fact that the case came up as Christmas was approaching was in the justice’s mind. Here was a poor woman and child, with no husband, in debt and probably dreading what the New Year would bring. Perhaps with Scrooge and Tiny Tim in mind Mr Curtis Bennett did the right thing on this occasion.

Meanwhile, under the report of the heartless debt collector was one which caught my eye entitled ‘The Poplar Murder’.

In the morning of Thursday 20 December 1888 a woman’s body had been found in Clarke’s Yard, Poplar. Next to her was a glass bottle which at first was believed to contain poison. It looked initially like a suicide. But the bottle had actually held sandalwood oil and it quickly became evident that the woman had been strangled. A doctor’s report suggested she had been attacked from behind:

‘Dr Brownfield’s opinion is that the murderer stood behind the woman on her left side, and having the ends of a cord wrapped around his hands, threw it around  her throat, and crossing his hands so strangled her’.

The report went on the say that there was considerably ‘conjecture’ about the nature of the cord and the way it was used. In America the police used a similar cord to restrain those they had arrested instead of handcuffs – with the nickname “Come along”. ‘The more a prisoner struggles the tighter is drawn the cord’, the paper added.

The woman had marks on her neck which were consistent with such a weapon being used and the reporter stated that there had been recent speculation that the Whitechapel murder was an American. Indeed some reports suggested the killer might be a native American from Buffalo Bill Cody’s travelling Wild West show and the quack doctor, Francis Tumblety, has also been closely associated with the killings. It also noted that descriptions of the man seen with the woman before she was found murdered ‘pointed to an individual of a distinctly American type’.

The murder in question was, as all Ripperologists will know, that of Rose Mylett a ‘known prostitute’. Rose is not normally considered to be a ‘Ripper’ victim (and the police even tried to suggest she’d died by natural causes or, as we’ve heard, by her own hands). Wynne Baxter and George Bagster Phillips (both closely involved in the Whitechapel murder case) and the coroner were clear that it was a homicide however but one that had to be added to the roll of unsolved murders that year.

Robert Anderson and CID never accepted the coroner’s verdict of wilful murder, however, and in 1910 wrote in his memoirs:

‘the Poplar case of December, 1888, was death from natural causes, and but for the ‘Jack the Ripper’ scare, no one would have thought of suggesting that it was a homicide’.

In my own investigation of the Ripper case (made in collaboration with a former student of mine who served with the police) we felt that Rose Mylett’s killing bears close scrutiny as a possible addition to the murder series. If we manage to get our thesis into print in 2018 I will then be able to shed a little more light on why we’ve reached this conclusion. Until then it will have to remain a mystery, just as it was to the readers of the Victorian papers in 1888.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, December 24, 1888]

The callous churchwardens who dug up a child’s grave to make a new path

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This is an unusual case, and one that remained unresolved (as many did that came before the London Police courts). In mid November 1867 a solicitor approached the sitting magistrate at Wandsworth for a summons to bring the churchwardens of St. Mary’s Church, Battersea, to court.

The solicitor, Mr Condy, said he was representing the parents of a child who had died six weeks earlier. The child – aged just nine – had been buried in the churchyard but his grave had recently been dug up, and his body exhumed. Naturally this was extremely upsetting for the parents of the child and so they had asked the lawyer to intercede on their behalf. Since they were very poor, time was of the essence, as they could not afford a long drawn out legal action.

In court it was explained that the churchwardens had decided to lay a new path through the churchyard and they needed to move the boy’s grave as a consequence. The churchwardens ordered the newly laid grave to be opened and the child’s coffin to be removed and reburied somewhere else in the graveyard.

At no point, it seems, did they deem it necessary to consult with the bereaved parents, or even inform them so they might attend. Nor, and this was important, had they obtained any legal permission to move the child’s grave. According the the evidence presented they should have applied for a faculty (a legal term for reserving a burial spot) or a license from the secretary of state. The churchwardens had therefore infringed the terms of the Burial Act (1857).

However, Mr Dayman, the magistrate, thought the summons should be issued against the person that had dug up the child, not those that had instructed him, and that was the sexton. Mr Cindy said he’d approached the sexton but he insisted he was only following instructions, as ‘he was only a servant’.

The magistrate was insistent however; ‘If a man were told to do an unlawful act, he was not bound to do it’.

At this point a suggestion was made to the court that the parents might bring a civil action or take the churchwardens to the ecclesiastical (church) courts. Mr Condy said the first option was no use since the family had ‘no property in the body’. He added that, from his experience, pursuing a case in the ecclesiastical courts was ‘a tedious affair’. And in case they parents were too poor to do either. The police courts were the cheaper option, which explains why they were so frequently used by London’s poor.

Mr Dayman issued a summons to bring in the sexton. There was little hope that the parents would get much more than an apology and perhaps a small amount in compensation.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, November 15, 1867]

A cheesemonger runs, but he can’t hide

Ludgate Hill by Camille Pissarro, 1890

John Alfred Smith worked for a cheesemonger in the City of London (who had premises on Ludgate Hill), but in October 1890 Smith was summoned before Mr Denham at Wandsworth Police Court, to answer a charge that he had deserted his wife and family.

The prosecution was brought by the Poor law Guardians of Clapham and Wandsworth and therefore fell under Denham’s jurisdiction. Prosecuting, Mr Charter explained that Smith’s wife and her five children had applied for relief on the 30th August of that year.The circumstances of her application are not made clear, but it would seem that at some Smith simply didn’t come home.

What was established was that Smith had run his own business in Battersea but this seems to have collapsed and forced him to seek work elsewhere. With his business in tatters it the man appears to have decided his family was just too much for his pocket to maintain, and he abandoned them to the parish. However, there may have been another reason for his flight: in short, another woman.

Answering the summons before the magistrate Smith made the bold move of denying that he was married to the woman at all. He said no proper marriage had taken place and added that they had never lived together long enough for the relationship to be established as such. One wonders then how she managed to produce no less than five children.

Mrs Smith’s sister was called to give evidence and she described how Smith had taken her sibling, aged just 16, to Brighton ‘on the pretense of marrying her’. While no record of the marriage could be found it seems that there was at least anecdotal evidence of the union. Smith had, his sister-in-law swore, declared on their return that they were married. Mrs Smith also appeared in court to confirm that she was indeed married to the man in dock.

This was good enough for Mr Denham. Regardless of the veracity of her statement or that of her sister he thought it appalling that a woman and five children could be abandoned  in such a way. Smith ‘was morally guilty, whether she were his wife or not’. Moreover now it emerged that Smith had taken a new wife since his desertion, ‘a young woman who was suffering from nervous prostration brought about by his arrest’.

So it would seem that Smith had simply had enough of his former life. Abandoning Battersea, his failing business and its debts, and his wife and kids he relocated to the City and found work and a new (and younger) partner. Unfortunately for his attempt to disappear completely failed just as his business had, the state (in the person of the Clapham and Wandsworth Poor Law Union) caught up with him. The magistrate, angered both by Smith callousness towards his family and his blatant disregard for his responsibilities sent him to prison for six weeks at hard labour.

[from The Standard, Friday, October 17, 1890]

The ‘Long Firm’ in late Victorian London

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Long Lane, Bermondsey in the 1930s, with its Victorian buildings still standing

I have always associated the ‘long firm’ fraud with 1960s criminals like the Krays. The scam, whereby a supposedly legitimate business is set up to develop a credit history before supplies are systematically defrauded, is described in Jake Arnott’s 2000 novel of the same name.  The long firm died out in the late 20th century as paper trails meant it became harder to get away with.

However, it seems that the form of fraud, and indeed the name, has quite deep roots in London criminal history, as this case from the Southwark Police court makes clear.

Charles John Holms, alias Frederick Jackson was described in court as a 41 year-old baker, although it is quite clear that he did very little baking and quite a lot of fraud. He opened a shop at 91 Long Lane, Bermondsey and an account with the London & South Western Bank. It seemed then, that he was trading legitimately, but this was very far from the truth.

Acting after a series of complaints were, made the police began an investigation, headed by Inspector Matthew Fox of CID. Having obtained a warrant to search his premises, the inspector turned up at Jackson’s shop in May 1880.

‘The shop had the appearance to an ordinary observer of being well stocked. On the shelves were a large number of kegs and cheese boxes, but on inspection they were all found to be empty, and with the exception of some loaves of bread and two sacks of flour, there was not a single article in the shop that the prisoner purported to deal in’.

In other words it was a front or a scam, and when he looked further inspector Fox found the evidence he needed to arrest the fake baker. Several letters from suppliers were discovered, along with a blank cheque book and some other paperwork that showed what he had been up to.

Jackson (or Holmes) had been carefully contacting supplies all over the country, ordering samples, paying for small orders of goods that he then disposed of quickly, before upping the ante and placing larger orders for goods he had no intention of paying for.

He used the bank account to draw cheques ‘payable to himself, which he passed away in payment of goods, thereby leaving an impression that he was carrying on a genuine trading business’.

Witnesses at Southwark, like Edward Elevy, (a starch manufacturer from Battersea) told the magistrate that he had received a letter of introduction from C. J Holmes of Bermondsey, written on a ‘bill-head on which the words “Established 25 years” were printed’. Soon afterwards he got an order for 25lbs weight of starch. This was never paid for and when another order arrived he ‘declined’ it and eventually sued him for the debt.

Elvey was not the only victim, the court was told that there were at least 68 suppliers in London that were owed money, and a further 40 ‘in the country’.

In May 1880 Holmes was remanded in custody for another week and in August he appeared at the Central Criminal charged, alongside several others, with fraud. It was a long and complicated case and the trial record runs to several pages. At the end of it Holmes was found guilty of obtaining goods by fraudulent means and conspiracy – he was sentenced to five years penal servitude. Three others were similarly convicted but received shorter sentences of 18 months, and four men were acquitted.

The ‘long firm fraud’ it seems, has a longer history than we might have thought, making its first appearance on Google’s Ngram reader in 1868.

[from The Standard , Wednesday, May 19, 1880]