Echoes of Oliver Twist as an Islington apprentice complains of being abused

Noah Claypole from Oliver Twist

By the mid 1840s the Victorian reading public were familiar with the work of Charles Dickens and his stories of everyday life. Between 1837 (when the young Queen Victoria ascended the throne) and 1839 Bentley’s Miscellany serialised the adventures of Oliver Twist as he escaped from the home of the Sowerberrys and the abuse he’d suffered at the hands of Noah Claypole and Charlotte, the serving maid.

Of course that escape was short lived as Oliver was plunged into the criminal underworld of the metropolis and the lives and crimes of Fagin and his gang of pickpockets. Happily of course ‘all’s well that ends well’, and Oliver finds redemption and peace in the home of Mr Brownlow, even if the plot does have a few more twists and turns along the way.

Oliver was a parish apprentice. He was placed first with a chimney sweep and then with Mr Sowerberry (an undertaker) as a way to get him out of the workhouse and off the parish books. Apprenticeship was not as popular as it had been 100 years earlier but it was still seen as a route to a respectable trade and steady income. Young people were apprenticed in their teens and learned a skill from their master before leaving to set up as journeyman in their early 20s.

The system was open to abuse of course; Dickens was not making up the characters of Noah and Charlotte, or Gamfield the brutish sweep. These sorts of individuals existed, even if Dickens exaggerated them for dramatic or comic effect. In the 1700s in London apprentices who felt aggrieved could take their complaints (or not being trained, being exalted, or even abused) to the Chamberlain of London in his court at Guildhall. Failing that they might seek advice and mediation from a magistrate.

Both sides approached the Chamberlain and magistrate in the Georgian period and apprentices were released from their contracts or admonished in equal measure. For a master the courts were often a useful way to discipline unruly teenagers who simply refused to obey their ‘betters’.  However, other masters resorted to physical chastisement in their attempts to discipline their disobedient charges.

Sometimes this went too far, as in this case that reached the Police Court magistrate at Clerkenwell.

Joseph Mitchely was a parish apprentice, just like the fictional Oliver. He was aged 14 or 15 and had been bound to an Islington  ‘master frame maker and french polisher’ named Wilton. In early November he had complained to the court that Henry Wilton was beating him unfairly and the magistrate ordered an investigation to be made. He called in the parish authorities (in the person of Mr Hicks) who made some enquiries into the case.

Having completed his investigation Mr Hicks reported back to Mr Tyrwhitt, the sitting justice at Clerkenwell. He declared that the boy had exaggerated the extent of the ‘abuse’ he’d supposedly suffered and was now apologetic. Apparently, young Joseph now ‘begged his master’s forgiveness’.

Mr Tyrwhitt discharged the master frame maker and told the boy to return with him and make his peace. He added that in it might be better if any further disputes between them were brought before him or one of his fellow magistrates, and suggested that Mr Wilton avoid ‘moderate correction’ in future. Hopefully both parties had learnt a valuable lesson   and were able to move forward in what was a crucial relationship (for Joseph at least).

[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, November 21, 1848]

‘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

Four go wild in Kilburn, until the police spoil their fun

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For anyone that has read the Famous Five books, or Swallows and Amazons  this story might chime with memories of childhoods past. Today children seem to be hard wired to televisions, computers, or mobile devices, playing video games or ‘chatting’ with friends via social media. In the past – in the days before ‘technology’ – kids played in the street, built tree houses, and had ‘adventures’.

For the record I’m not sure exactly how trueand of that is, it may yet another myth of a British past that never existed (the same one where everyone could leave their front doors unlocked, you could see a film and get fish and chips all for tuppence, the trains ran on time, and England were good at football).

Whether or not this ‘golden age’ ever existed I do suspect that working-class children and youth had a very different experience of life than their wealthier compatriots. Most working class children in the 1800s would have worked, few would have gone to school beyond a basic primary education, and very few would have enjoyed much in the way of ‘luxuries’. Sadly, it seems, a decade or more of austerity is bringing that experience of the past back to some working class communities today.

Children (in any period of history) will find ways to amuse themselves if they are not otherwise engaged in tasks or education by adults. They will also ape adults, and seek to find space away from adults to act our their own fantasies of life.

Ernest Digwood, George Cronin, James Harwood, and William Wallace (probably no relation) were four small boys intent on creating their own world within the adult one. If they’d lived in the countryside they’d have played in the woods and fields, climbing trees, stealing eggs for nests, swimming in ponds or rivers, and running through corn fields.

But they didn’t grow up in rural Essex, or Buckinghmashire, or anywhere very green at all. Instead they had to make their fun in West London, among the streets and houses of one of the world’s busiest cities. Boys being boys they explored their patch and found an empty house on Kensal Road, at number 174, close to the canal. Today the area has little trace of its Victorian past, rows of modern social housing and warehouse space make this part of London indistinguishable from many others. But in 1892 these four boys found a place to play.

They had established a den, built a fire in kitchen grate and had brought provisions. I say ‘brought’ because they certainly hadn’t ‘bought’ them. The quartet had been out in the surrounding streets and had found a delivery van with an ample supply of food. Helping themselves, they returned to the house with ‘eggs, two loaves [of bread], some sugar, liver, steak, and four bottles of gingerade’. It was a veritable feast but they never got to enjoy it.

Someone must have seen them or heard them in the property and reported it to the police. PC 412X arrived and arrested them, taking them before Mr Plowden at the West London Police court. James Harwood was known to the court, having been in trouble there before. The birching he’d received then clearly hadn’t acted as the deterrent it was intended. He and Ernest were sent to the workhouse, probably to be beaten again. George Cronin and William Wallace were released into the care of their parents but could hardly expect to get away without a slippering from their respective fathers.

They stole and the broke into an empty house, and of course that’s wrong. But at least they had an adventure, which is something, surely?

[from The Standard, Friday, January 15, 1892]

Spare the rod and spoil the child? Not if the vicar has his way

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Legislation in 1847 and 1850 brought nearly all no violent crime committed by juveniles under the jurisdiction of the magistrate. Developments in the 1850s then empowered justices to send boys and girls from 8-14 to reformatory or industrial schools to be disciplined and to learn some basic life skills. This did a lot to remove young people from the adult courts where, for centuries, they had been dealt with alongside all other offenders. It took another half century (to 1908) before separate courts were created for juveniles but we can see the mid century acts as an improvement of sorts.

William Frewen wasn’t in a reformatory in 1863 but he could well have been. William attended Barnes National School in South London. He was listed as a scholar and lived near by. In early January 1863 the school was still closed up for the Christmas holiday but a break-in had been discovered. The schoolmaster’s desk had been forced open and a small money box was missing.

The box (described as the ‘missionary box’) was used to hold donations for charity and at the time contained about 10s). Young William had already gained an unwelcome (if not unwarranted) reputation for pilfering and it was to him that the school master turned when he learned of the theft.

William denied everything but he was taken to see the local vicar, the Rev. Coplestone where, after another boy said he’d seen William enter the office by an open window, he confessed. Perhaps because of the confession or maybe out of a sense of Christian forgiveness the reverend told the magistrate at Wandsworth Police court that he was reluctant to press charges.

After some discussion the vicar and Mr Ingham (the magistrate presiding) decided that while they would not take this further (and send the boy away) he did require some form of punishment, if only to deter future acts of criminality. Mr Ingham ordered that he be given over to the local police sergeant so he could ‘receive eight strokes with a rod’.

Hopefully that short, sharp, lesson would be quickly learned and William would mend his ways. If not then it is likely that he would become a fairly regular occupant of a Police Court dock.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, January 09, 1863]