A curious child gets a knockout blow

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Not all stories are exactly what they seem when you start reading them. I found this one, about a Thames lighterman – one of the men that operated the flat bottomed barges ferrying goods up and down London’s central river – assaulting an eight year-old boy, and assumed it was a simple case of child abuse.

However, the incident – unpleasant as it was –  actually revealed that something else was going on in the capital at the end of November 1889.

Matthew Petter should have been at Sunday school on the 24 November. But, like many young boys, he was curious and as he crossed Vauxhall Bridge he got distracted watching the boats go up and down. As he watched he noticed a small group of men who were having an argument with a lighterman.

Henry Bliss (28) was a lighterman and when some of his fellows had recently downed tools and gone on strike, he carried on working. This hardly endeared him to his colleagues and today they were showing him how they felt.

Their hoots and cries of ‘blackleg’ escalated from verbal into physical brickbats being thrown; rubbish, bricks and stones were lobbed in his direction and Bliss lost his temper. He picked up a half-brick and threw it back, aiming at his tormenters. The brick missed them and struck a railing, bounced off and smacked young Matthew on the head, and knocked him senseless.

The crowd of angry rivermen roared in outrage and rushed forward to seize Bliss. He turned his boat and headed out into the river. The mob chased him along the bank and some took to other crafts. Finally Bliss gave himself up to river police, asking for their protection, as he clearly feared for his life.

The boy was hospitalised and when Bliss appeared to answer a summons at Westminster Police Court he was very apologetic, offering to compensate Mrs Petter for the cost of treating the little lad’s injuries. Mr D’Eyncourt probably sympathized with the lighterman – magistrates tended to side against striking union men – so he fined him a nominal 26and Mrs Petter accepted a payment of 50sin compensation.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, December 8, 1889]

Don’t put your sons on the stage Mr Gamgee, they are too young to box

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William Gamgee wanted his two sons to be able to take up a ‘manly’ sport but before he could let them appear on the stage of the Royal Aquarium in Tothill Street he had to get a magistrate’s permission. It might seem odd to us that such restrictions existed in the late 1800s, after all this was a society that still sent fairly young children to prison, locked them in workhouses, and expected them to work long hours in factories and mills. But, slowly, things were improving.

Gamgee, a hairdresser, appeared before Mr Partridge at Westminster Police court in early December 1889 to make his case.  He brought his lads along, together with the outfits they would wear and the boxing gloves they’d use in the bouts. He was applying for a license under the terms of the Act for the Better Protection of Children for the boys to ‘box nightly in costume’.

To support his case he’d brought along a certificate from ‘a gentleman designating himself as a bone-setter’ who declared that, in his opinion, boxing was beneficial to the general health of boys. He also had a letter from his sons’ schoolmaster confirming that they were regular attendees at school and were making good progress with their studies.

Gamgee said that he would get no financial reward for the boys’ performance and they themselves would not be paid, but would be given gold medals for their efforts. ‘That is all’, he stated.

Mr Partridge wanted to examine the gloves the pair would be using. He wasn’t sure that they wouldn’t hurt them but Gamgee assured them that the boys are never bruised’. ‘They only have three short rounds, and I decide when time is up’, he explained. They’d been training for a year and a half for this opportunity but it wasn’t his intention for them to go on to become pugilists in the future.

The boys seemed to have a different opinion. When asked if they’d rather be boxers or follow their father’s trade of hairdressing they were adamant that they wanted to be fighters. ‘Which is the best “man” of the two?’ asked the magistrate.

‘We are as good as each other’, came the reply, to laughter in court.

The police said that they had examined the boys (‘stripped’) and thought them to be in good health and showing no signs of harm from their training. The inspector didn’t think the gloves would harm them and so all the signs for Gamgee seemed good. So it was probably something of a surprise when Mr Partridge refused to grant his application.

[from The Standard, Thursday, December 05, 1889]

‘The water rushed in with such violence’: the flooding of Southwark workhouse

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Southwark workhouse c.1910

It always seems strange to be looking at the news and seeing scenes of devastation caused by flooding in the summer. The situation at Whaley Bridge in Derbyshire is awful and surely yet another example of how climate change is affecting the planet. But it is August and I associate torrential rain and flooding with the autumn and winter, not the summer.

Clearly I’m no meteorologist and even a casual glance back at the past reveals that sudden downpours and extreme weather is not a new phenomenon (even if the climate emergency we are now facing most certainly is).

In August 1846 three young girls were brought before the magistrate at Southwark Police court to be disciplined for their disobedience. The girls, who are not named in the newspaper report, were all inmates of the Southwark workhouse on Mint Street. Their crime – such as it was – appears to have been a refusal to do the work that was allocated to them by the institution’s porter, who was in court to testify against them.

He explained that on the previous Saturday (the last one in July) there had been a storm that had caused severe flooding in the basement. He had instructed the trio to help carry several beds from the ward to the upper stories of the building. Southwark workhouse was built in 1782 as a three story structure with a new section added in 1844. The ward in the basement was called the ‘probationary ward’ and it housed some of the sick female residents.

The flood was frightening, one inmate told Mr Secker: ‘the water rushed in with such violence, that before she could escape with her child it rose up as high as her waist, and it was only providential that some of them were not drowned’.

The three girls were asked to explain their refusal to carry the beds upstairs. They stated that the beds were simply too heavy for them and ‘above their strength’. Had the porter and workhouse staff allowed the beds to be separated (i.e. taken apart rather than left whole) then they could have managed it and been happy to do it. They added that they were then punished by the porter by being forced to remain in the flooded basement and ‘treated with much rigour’.

We know that workhouses were terrible places often run by cruel overseers who treated the inmates appallingly. Oliver Twist may be a novel but it is not a fantasy. In 1865 a report by the medical journal the Lancet condemned the state of Southwark workhouse stating that it ‘ought to be removed, and one built better adapted to fulfil its duties to the poor and sick of the neighbourhood’. Regardless of this it continued to serve the area until 1920.

‘Pauper bastilles’ like Southwark were designed to be places you did not want to enter. Under the principle of less eligibility’ set out in the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act going into a workhouse was supposed to be a least resort. The aim was to deter anyone who was able bodied from seeking poor relief. Only the sick and old would ask for help from the parish, everyone else would try to find work, any work, rather than enter the ‘house’.

Mr Secker could see that the three little girls had done nothing wrong, at least not in the eyes of the law. He stopped short of admonishing the cruelty of the porter who had tried to make children carry heavy iron beds up from a flooded basement and then locked them in a dark wet ‘prison’ as a punishment. Instead he simply said that no further punishment was necessary or appropriate and discharged them, presumably back into the ‘care’ of the parish authorities.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, August 04, 1846]

‘You answered him back and used your tongue pretty freely’: patriarchal dismissal of domestic abuse

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Here are two cases of domestic abuse from 1875, both handled slightly differently by the magistrates involved, but both revealing of contemporary attitudes.

Daniel Lambert had run his own pub but the business had failed and he’d been forced to sell up and move to a house in Notting Hill where he lived with his wife. It seems he blamed his wife for their misfortune and consoled himself by going out and getting drunk alone.

One evening he returned home after a session at the pub and his wife, Amelia, was standing at the gate, ready to scold him for his drinking. He told her to go inside. She carried on her critique and he threatened to ‘kick her to pieces’ if she didn’t stop. Amelia gave in and went upstairs but Lambert followed and beat her anyway. The couple ended up in court at Hammersmith before Mr Ingham.

Lambert’s barrister (Mr Whitty) argued that his client was provoked by her constant nagging. So ‘you abused him?’ the magistrate asked her, ‘you answered him back’, and ‘used your tongue pretty freely?’

‘No, sir’ she responded. ‘He struck me, pinched me, and kicked me […] I got away from him and called a constable, but he would not take him, as he did not see any blow struck’.

The police were reluctant to interfere in a ‘domestic’ unless they saw clear evidence of violence. This cooper wouldn’t examine her either, because the bruises she had were under her clothes and he said he could not see them without a doctor being present. This drew laughter in the court, as had the justice’s remarks about Amelia using ‘her tongue pretty freely’.

However, despite being ridiculed by a male dominated court Amelia did have one ally, the landlady that ran their house. She told the court that Mrs Lambert was a ‘most sedate woman’ and not the monster that Lambert and his brief wanted to make her out be. Daniel Lambert said she had sold all his goods when the business failed and had threatened to poison him, but there was no evidence for any of this. In the end Mr Ingham ruled that Lambert would have to find tow sureties in £20 each to ensure he behaved himself, for just two months. It was a legal slap on the wrist and reflected the reality that the magistrate thought that Amelia was to blame for her husband’s violence.

On the same the say the newspapers reported another case of domestic violence, this time heard before Mr Cooke at Clerkenwell. On Friday 16 July Mrs Badcock was making breakfast and getting her children ready for school. She picked up a pair of her husband’s trousers and heard money rattling in a pocket. The children had no shoes and Benjamin Badcock was lazy and rleucatnt to go out to work. The family were in poverty and Mrs Badcock suggested that since Ben had boots on his feet he might go out and earn some money so his children had some of theirs.

This sent the 47 year-old causal labourer into a rage and he turned on his wife, hitting her and throwing her onto the bed. She’d been holding a knife while she made breakfast and he seized this and threatened her with it. Fearing that he would kill her the couple’s eldest daughter, Mary Ann (16), rushed between them.

Badcock turned his anger on her now and thumped her in the face several times. When he had gone they left the house and applied for a warrant to bring him before a magistrate. Now, in court, Badcock denied the assault merely claiming he’d ‘slapped’ his daughter’s face for insubordination, as he was entitled to. Mr Cooke didn’t comment on the violence (or at least his comments were not recorded) but he also required Badcock to find two sureties (in this case for £25 each) to keep the peace towards his wife and daughter for six months.

In both cases a man had abused his wife (and daughter in the second example). This was routine, common and often punished similarly at the time. Would the sanction have worked? It is very hard to say but I strongly doubt it. There was an existing culture that tolerated male violence towards females (wives, partners and children) and we have struggled to leave that culture behind. Domestic violence and abuse (for abuse takes many forms, not all of which are physical) is notoriously difficult to quantify. However, there are currently an estimated 2,000,000 victims every year. Over a quarter of women aged 16-59 have reported some form of abuse from partners or other family members, and the figure for male victims runs at around 15%.

So this is not a Victorian problem, it is a very modern issue and while it increasingly affects men as well as women, boys as well as girls, it is predominately a problem related to male anger and male violence. History shows us that ignoring it, or pretending that it is a small isolated group of ‘bad’ people that are responsible, is not going to solve the problem. When we factor in the reality that around 35-45% of all homicide victims are killed by someone close to them then perhaps we see just how serious a social issue this is.

[from The Standard, Monday, July 19, 1875]

A baby on the tracks and a child in a dustbin; two horror stories from the 1880s

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Lloyd’s weekly round up of ‘Police intelligence’ on Sunday 13 July 1884 contains a fascinating variety of human greed, misery and criminal artfulness. There are possibly a dozen or more cases from a betting scam in the City of London to an assault in Highgate, and the stories reveal the diversity of life in the Victorian capital. Two cases stand out amongst the petty thefts, domestic violence, fraud and juvenile crime reported. Both involve some form of child abuse, and both are quite shocking examples.

Clara Wardle was prosecuted at Thames Police court in the East End of London in very strange circumstances. Clara was seen to place a small child, her own baby, on the tram lines on Commercial Road and then run away. Luckily for the infant John Kerr saw what happened and rushed over and snatched up the child before a rapidly approaching hose and van crushed it under its hooves and wheels. The young lad handed the baby over the police.

Meanwhile another man who had seen what Clara had done chased after her and caught her in a side street. He marched her off to find a policeman and PC Newport (44H) took her into custody and ensured she appeared before Mr Lushington in court the next day.

Clara stood in the dock clutching her baby to her breast and listened as the evidence against her was read out. She told the magistrate that she never intended to hurt the child. She was ‘merely laid the child down to frighten her husband, who she thought would have picked the baby up’.

A report of the incident in a provincial newspaper gives us a little more insight into the case. John Kerr (the rescuer) is reported as telling the magistrate that he saw Clara and a man (presumably her husband) ‘running after a tram-car in Commercial Road’ at about 6 o’clock in the evening. The man boarded the tram ‘leaving the prisoner [Clara] standing in the road. She then deliberately laid her baby on the rails and ran away’.

So her action was part of an argument between her and her husband that almost led to the death of a baby. Perhaps he was leaving her, or simply had had enough of the row and saw an opportunity to escape quickly. Lushington remanded her for further inquiries, presumably to bring her husband in to see what he had to say about the matter.

South of the river, at Lambeth, two young boys were placed in the dock once more having been remanded a few days earlier by Mr Chance. Their crime was arguably even worse than Clara, since they acted deliberately and with malice. The lads were about 10-12 years of age and they were accused of having taken away a boy of 7 or 8 and forcing him inside a dustbin.

George Steeden and Stephen Murphy had taken Henry Douglas to a house in Penge and imprisoned him in a dustbin by loading bricks on the lid so he couldn’t climb out again. They’d trapped him in the 4 ½ foot deep bin at around five in the evening and by their own confession had left him there ‘to be found dead, so they might afterwards get a reward for the discovery of the body’.

Young Henry was locked into his intended tomb for nearly 17 hours, being discovered around one in the afternoon of the following day. It must have been a terrifying and traumatizing experience for the child. The magistrate said it was one of the ‘most serious cases he had ever had before him with regard to boys’. Steeden had been in trouble with the law before so Mr Chance ordered that he be given ‘six strokes of the rod’ before being sent to an Industrial School until he reached 16. Murphy was sent back to the workhouse where he’d been held on remand while the court decided what to do with him.

Despite the newsworthiness of both of these stories the papers seemed to have lost interest at this point. I’ve therefore no idea whether Stephen Murphy was considered the lesser of the two ‘evils’ and allowed to go home or if he too was sent to a reformatory or industrial school. Clara clearly needed help or at least a reconciliation with her husband. The court might have had her examined to determine the state of her mental health; if she was found to be insane then she risked being sent to an asylum. If her husband had abandoned her then the 28 year-old women might end up destitute and in the workhouse. Either way her future looked uncertain at best.

For many of those reading the ‘Sundays’ over their breakfast or supper these were the lives ‘others’; part of the world outside their comfortable homes and about people that they did not know, nor wanted to know. They would have been shocked certainly, disgusted and angered probably, but amused and entertained as well, such was the purpose of the ‘crime news’ in the nineteenth century.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, July 13, 1884; The Hampshire Advertiser, Saturday, July 12, 1884]

‘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

A child is beaten and half-starved for the theft of some cakes

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The NSPCC was founded in 1884 with a mission (that it continues today) to protect children from cruelty. The cruelty that is most difficult to detect is domestic; that perpetrated by parents or other relatives of children, because it is often hidden within the family.

This was the case with Ethel Newberry, a child of ten who was abused and half starved by the father and aunt at the family home in Sydenham in May 1889. The case came to the attention of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children who brought a prosecution at Greenwich Police court. In the dock were Phillip Newberry, the child’s father, and Mary Phillips, her aunt. The details are quite distressing.

Ethel had been beaten on her back by her father with a cane, on numerous occasions. When she’d been examined by a doctor the extent of her injuries were considerable, with several scars and abrasions. Her aunt had hit her over the head with a copper stick and smacked her wrists with a cane. The treatment she’d been receiving had alerted neighbours who had complained about it to the local Poor Law relieving officers, who’d visited the house. He had discovered that Ethel was almost emaciated, weighing just 30lb when should have been at least 50-60lb at her age.

The child was taken to the local workhouse where she was treated for her injuries and fed properly; slowly she was beginning to recover. The case came before Mr Marsham at the police court and he quizzed the father and aunt about their treatment of little Ethel. The court also heard from Ethel herself.

The whole episode seems to have resolved around food. Ethel was given meals but presumably these were so scant as to leave her continuously hungry. The doctor that checked her over at the workhouse could find no explanation for her emaciation that suggested a disease, so the only conclusion was that the family had not been giving her enough to eat. This may have been an attempt on their behalf to discipline the child for behaving ‘badly’ but if it was it only made things worse.

Ethel now began to steal food. She admitted to the magistrate that she had taken cakes from a shop and this was why her aunt had ‘whacked’ her. She was clearly desperate. The justice decided that while there was little evidence to prove that Mary Phillips had done more than was deemed normal in terms of chastisement, the cruelty of the father was excessive and so he was committed for trial at the Old Bailey.

The London SPCC was successful in portioning Parliament for a change in the law to protect children from abuse and this was passed in 1889. Under the terms of the Prevention of Cruelty to Children Act (52 & 53 Vict., c.44) the police wwre authorized to remove  a child from its parents  if cruelty was suspected and give it into the care of the parish. On conviction for cruelty anyone ‘who willfully treats or neglects any boy under fourteen years of age, or any girls under sixteen, in a manner likely to cause unnecessary suffering’ was liable to a £50 fine or three months in prison.

However, this is where this case disappears. There is no record of a Phillip Newberry standing trial at the Old Bailey or appearing in the prison system either. The newspapers (from those digitized by Gale for the British Library) don’t mention this case after he was committed and his sister discharged. So perhaps, in the end, the society decided that there was insufficient evidence to take the case before a jury. Hopefully, though, they also managed to removed Ethel from her abusers.

[from The Standard, Monday, May 27, 1889; Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper , Sunday, June 9, 1889]