The peril of children running errands on London’s streets

Boys exercising at Tothill Fields Prison

I recall being dispatched to buy cigarettes for my father on several occasions in my youth, or to return ‘pop’ bottles for the deposit. Both involved a long walk (or run) down (and then back up) the hill where we lived. Running ‘errands’ like this was a common enough thing in the past but I suspect it is one of those things that no longer happens, especially with small children, given the perceived perils of modern society.

In the nineteenth century sending a child (even one as young as 7) out to fetch food or drink, or to deliver a message, was very normal. After all children worked at a much younger age and until mid century school was really only for the sons and daughters of the better off.

But the streets could be just as dangerous a place for children in the 1800s as they are today. Carts and coaches rumbled along the cobbled thoroughfares at great speed and could rarely stop in time to avoid a running child if they stepped into its path; thieves and villains lurked around every corner, and child prostitution rackets operated in the capital.

Sometimes the threat came from young people not much older than themselves, as in this case from 1855. In early March Ann Jane Hatley had been sent out with sixpence to buy some butter. She was 7 years of age and lived with her parents in Exeter Street, Chelsea. As she walked along a small boy, about 12 or 13 came up to her and asked where she was going. When she explained he said she needed to be careful of lest she drop the 6in the mud of the street.

The lad, whose name was William Smith, produced a piece of paper and said the best thing was for her to wrap her coin in it to protect it. When Ann handed over the money for him to do so he promptly ran off with it. Fortunately, a passer-by had seen what happened and set off in pursuit. William was captured and brought before the magistrate at Westminster.

In court several other children were produced who reported similar robberies on them whilst out running errands. Susannah Welsh (who was 9 or 10) had been sent to buy flour. William had followed her for ‘some distance’ before he suddenly pounced and wrestled the money she was carrying (2s) from her grasp.

Thomas Mursell (just 8) had been entrusted with 9to pay a baker’s bill when Smith approached him and asked what he was doing. When he discovered the boy had money Smith contrived to knock it out of his hand, as ‘if by accident’, and then offered him some paper to wrap it in as they pair collected it from the street. It was only when Thomas got to the baker’s shop that he realized that William had managed to steal over half of it.

There were a string of other small boys and girls with similar tales to tell but the magistrate (Mr Arnold) had heard enough. He duly committed the ‘expert juvenile highwayman’ (as Reynold’s Newspaper dubbed him) for trial before a jury.

William went for trial at the Westminster Quarter Sessions where he was convicted of two thefts (from Ann and Susannah) and sentenced to a spell in the house of detention.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, March 4, 1855]

A tragic accident at the door of the Police Court

700px-The_Warrior_prison_ship

HMS Warrior at Woolwich

Rachel Scott was 13 years of age and was walking in the street outside the Worship Street Police Court one afternoon in April 1841. At the same time a heavily laden cart belonging to the G Wells carrier firm from Hackney and Homerton was making its slow and steady progress towards the City Road.

The driver, Samuel Banks, called out to the girl but she seemed not to hear him. For whatever reason Banks was unable to stop or shift direction and the cart ran over the girl. An officer of the police court rushed to pick her up and Rachel was taken to her parents’ home at 22 Worship Street.

The surgeon that examined Rachel could only ‘proscribe lotions’ and warn that ‘serious effects might ensue’. The magistrate bailed the driver to appear again in three days, and at that point Banks and young Rachel disappear from history. The paper reported that the landlord of the house where Rachel lived with her family had experienced his own tragedy recently when a part of the cellar collapsed on his daughter, who was crushed to death.

In fact the Morning Post was full of ‘bad’ news that Saturday morning. At Islington a woman (the wife of a clergyman)  had been found face down on her bed, quite dead with a  small medicine bottle close by. In another report an inquest was held at University Hospital in Bedford Square into the death of a patient who had burned to death in a  private room.

The largest space was given over, however, to a story of four convicts from the convict ship Warrior, moored in the dock at Woolwich, who had apparently died of influenza. The four were taken to the dead house at the Royal Arsenal where they were examined by the coroner. Influenza was ‘very prevalent’ in the town and had affected the Justicia prison hulk as well as Warrior. The two ships were crowded, Warrior had twice as many convicts on board as it normally did and this was given as a potential cause of the spread of the epidemic. However, the verdict of the coroner’s court was not that overcrowding or poor sanitary conditions had led to the mens’ deaths but that they had died ‘by the visitation of God’.

The men were Edward Sheffield, from Hertford who was just 18 and under sentence of transportation for seven years; Michael Westal from Liverpool (also facing seven years); Samuel Medlam (29) from Warwick and David Owen, another teenager, who died 12 days after being admitted to the hospital at Woolwich.

It is a reminder to those of you researching your family trees that a sentence of transportation did not always mean that your ancestor made the long sea journey to Australia. Many died en route, and some, like the four men listed here, never left England. Warrior  had been a receiving ship until 1840, meaning that she served as a new home for sailors who had been recruited (or were ‘pressed’ – i.e forcibly recruited) into the Navy. In 1840 she started a new life as a prison hulk (a floating prison). Conditions on the hulks (like Justicia) were awful, worse men than prisons. Convicts were not supposed to stay there for the duration of their sentences, but just until a fleet sailed for Australia. Some. however, as we have seen, never made it that far.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, April 17, 1841]