‘What would become of the little children?’: charity and kindness make a rare appearance in a Police Court

John Tenniel The Nemesis of Neglect

Tomorrow is the last day of February meaning that (as we do every four years) we get a 29thday of this month. Did you know that 1888 was a leap year? Making a very tenuous link today is also the artist John Tenniel’s birthday. Had he lived he would be 200 years old today.

On 29 September 1888 the magazine Punch published a cartoon by Tenniel alongside an article on slum living in the East End of London. Tenniel’s iconic image of the Nemesis of Neglect (above), was published at the height of the Jack the Ripper murders, while London reeled from the terror created by a serial killer the police seemed unable to catch.

Tenniel’s drawing and the text that accompanied it suggested that the murderer was a product of the degraded environment in which all the victims had lived, and died. It also warned polite society of the dangers of not doing ‘something’ about the abject poverty of the East End, which risked the ‘contagion’ spreading to reach the wealthier parts of the metropolis.

In February Whitechapel was relatively quiet; the series lodged in the National Archives at Kew as the ‘Whitechapel Murders’ had not yet started, but poverty was very much in evidence.

At Westminster Police court a 76 year-old man appeared to ask Mr D’Eyncourt for a summons. He wanted to bring a charge against the one of the officers at St Luke’s workhouse in Chelsea. The elderly man moved slowly and spoke with difficulty, clearly suffering as he was from fresh injuries. He told the magistrate that he’d sustained these when he was turfed out of his bed at 6.45 in the morning by a workhouse attendant.

He was, he said in response to the justice’s questioning, 15 minutes late in getting up after the bell rang at 6.30. But he had only just got to sleep having been kept awake by others’ coughing and cramp in his legs.

‘I am so badly bruised that I have not been able to walk upright since’ he complained.

The poor man had no family or friends and had been an inmate of the workhouse for six years. Mr D’Eyncourt granted his summons and said he would not have to pay for it. He would hear what other inmates said and call the accused party before him.

At Southwark Sarah Ann Davis stood in the dock with a baby in her arms. She was accused of begging in London Road, having been arrested by a police sergeant. Sarah denied the charge, she ‘was selling some pins to get some food for her children’ she explained.

Sergeant Ireland told Mr Slade that the prisoner’s husband was currently serving a prison sentence for begging. As if that compounded the woman’s crime and demonstrated she was guilty.

The magistrate asked her why she didn’t turn to the workhouse.

‘I don’t want to break up the home while my husband is away’, she replied.

Mr Davis was, she said, and out of work carpenter who’d do any job if he could get one. 1888 was not a good year for work: this was the year that the word ‘unemployment’ entered the dictionary and for the past few years large numbers of unemployed men and women had gathered in Trafalgar Square to listen to socialists and free traders bemoan the state of the economy and the capitalist system that had seemingly failed so many.

Slade called her landlord to the stand and asked him about the family’s character. He was told that the Davis’ were good, respectable and quiet tenants, but were two weeks behind with their rent.

‘You are not going to turn them out?’ The magistrate asked.

‘On no, sir, certainly not. What would become of the little children?’ the landlord replied.

‘Very well, I will discharge her now. You can go know, Mrs. Davis. You will receive some coal and bread tickets from the Poor-box Fund, and you had better apply to the Relieving Officer for some out-door relief’.

Then he warned her against begging in future, and she left, with applause for the magistrate ringing out in court.

Individual acts of decency by men like Mr Slade and Sarah’s landlord were not enough of course to mitigate the realities of abject poverty in late nineteenth century London. On another day Sarah might have gone to gaol and had her children taken away.  Another magistrate might have told her it was the ‘house or nothing, and she would have again lost her children.

Tenniel’s image of the ghoul raising from the ‘slum’s foul air’ was so powerful because it reflected a sort of stark reality, even if it was as fantastical as his more famous illustrations for Alice in Wonderland.

[from The Standard, 28 February 1888]

‘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]

‘We didn’t live – we starved’: Poverty and ‘foreign markets’ in 19th Century Whitechapel

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In my last post I started walking the streets of East London with Charles Booth’s poverty survey as my guide. Moving on from Gunthorpe and Flower and Dean Walk (which in the 1880s was George Street and Flower and Dean Street respectively) in this post I’ve arrived at Wentworth Street.

In the late nineteenth century Wentworth Street was extremely poor. In Booth’s original map (above) it is a mixture of colours from red to pink to blue but since it abuts George Yard, Thrawl Street and other courts and alleys associated with the ‘Abyss’ we can confidently assume that most people living here were living close or below what Seebohm Rowntree was later to define as the ‘poverty line.

This story, reported in the Manchester press, gives us some idea of exactly what conditions were like in and around Wentworth Street in the last decade of the 1800s.

In early November 1893 Mr Wynne Baxter, the local coroner (and the man that had presided over the inquests into most of the Whitechapel murder victims in 1888), convened an inquest on the death of Elizabeth Newton.

Elizabeth was only four months old; she was the illegitimate daughter of Martha Newton who lived at 75 Wentworth Street. The paper described Martha as a ‘poor, miserable-looking girl’ who lived with her mother.

At the time little Elizabeth had been born Martha was living in a local lodging house, and went to the infirmary to give birth. Once the child and mother left hospital they went to live with Martha’s mother Margaret but the conditions were awful.

‘Her mother only occupied one room’, the inquest was told. So Martha and her baby joined her ‘sister, aged eight years […] and her other illegitimate child, aged two’, in the room.

Margaret Newton was desperately poor and the augmented family struggled to feed itself. Margaret told Mr Baxter that Marth fed her newborn on ‘cornflour, arrowroot, or anything the mother could get for it’. She herself only earned 1s3d to 1s 6da day.

How much was the rent, the coroner asked her. ‘Five shillings’, was the reply.

‘How do you live’?

‘We didn’t live – we starved’, Margaret Newton told him.

The final witness was the doctor who declared Elizabeth dead. She weighed only 3lb 12oz when he examined her. He told a stunned court that she should have weighed at least 11b by then. The coroners’ jury delivered a verdict of ‘death by malnutrition’.

Sadly Elizabeth’s death was not uncommon in late nineteenth-century London. Without an effective system of state benefits or health service that was free at the point of need, many children succumbed to poverty and lack of nutrition in Victoria’s Britain.

In the 1880s and 1890s Wentworth Street was busy during the day and early evening. As Charles Booth observed it was:

 ‘thronged every day by stalls, both buyers and sellers nearly all but not altogether Jews, women bareheaded, bewigged, coarse woolen shawls over shoulders, more like a foreign market scene than anything English’.

The red on the map probably refereed to ‘the small shops and houses on the North side’, the poor were absent except in the nearby courts.

Today, as I found out on my walk, there is very little remaining of nineteenth-century Wentworth Street. This is hardly surprising when you consider that this area was very heavily bombed during the Second World War (see map from www.bombsight.org) and post war council rebuilding and slum clearance.

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There was still a strong Jewish community in and around Wentworth Street during and after WW2. Helen Shaw (Schevitch) remembered life back then:

We had one kitchen at the back of our house, which was like a scullery. We only had cold running water, a gas cooker and wooden table, and back yard. The whole family, nine of us at the time had to wash there, but when it was bath time we only had a metal bath with water poured from the fireplace, and the three younger girls were bathed together in this boat like tub. There was a time when there was a shortage of fuel when I was about eleven and every family was rationed one sack of coal. We had to go and collect the coal from Flower and Dean Street (or Fashion Street) and had to line up.

Now, as my walk confirmed, there is hardly any sign of the Jewish presence in Wentworth Street. Instead this area is home to a new set of immigrants and their British born descendants. The larget and most visible migrant group (akin to the Jewish residents in the 1880s that Booth remarked upon) are the Bangladeshis, most of whom trace their roots to Sylheti in the northeast of the country. They are Muslim and established their first roots in the area as early as 1910 and it took them until the early 1980s to win permission to build a mosque.

If you want to have any sense of the Wentworth Street that Booth described as ‘a foreign market’ in the 1890s then take the underground to Whitechapel and wander along the market stalls that throng beside Whitechapel High Street opposite the London Hospital. Close your eyes, and imagine yourself transported back in time.

‘Where are your father and mother?’ A young girl, broken by poverty, breaks windows and then breaks down in court

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I know that there are people in this world that believe that society has become too soft: too soft on crime, on beggars, on children, on immigrants. They will often look back to the distant past and make specious pronouncements on how there was more respect or deference in the past. It is part and parcel of a lack of empathy for others – perhaps best (or rather worst) expressed by Jacob Rees-Mogg in his hateful comments about the ‘stupidity’ of the victims of the Grenfell Tower disaster.

Before the Liberal reforms of the early twentieth century and the transformative Labour government of 1945 this country treated its poorest with callous unconcern. This indifference to the suffering of the poor was extended to the mentally ill, the sick poor, elderly, and orphaned children. If you weren’t wealthy you simply didn’t matter in the eyes of the elites that ran the country.

I think we can see this in the treatment of one young teenage girl in east London in 1865.

Priscilla Herman was an inmate of the Bethnal Green workhouse. She was under 16 years of age and in November she was brought before the magistrate at Worship Street Police court charged with criminal damage.

The court heard that Priscilla, described as ‘placid’ but displaying ‘features indicative of aught but abandoned and vicious conduct’, had smashed five panes of glass and verbally abused a female overlooker.

That was Ann Summers, who testified that when she’d asked her to do some cleaning work Priscilla had refused and threatened her. Summers was old and the girl had threatened, she said, ‘to beat my _______ old head in’.

The magistrate asked the overlooker why she hadn’t found Priscilla work as a domestic servant outside of the workhouse. She’d tried, Summers explained, but she kept getting dismissed.

‘A great many of the girls turn out bad after leaving us; the language of this one is most shameful and disgusting’.

The police constable that had escorted Priscilla to court agreed that her language was ‘dreadful’. He added that she’d admitted braking the windows but no one knew why she did it.

I doubt anyone really cared why she did it, they simply wanted to punish her for doing so. The magistrate did ask her some questions however:

‘Why did you leave your last place, girl?’

No answer.

‘Did you do wrong?’

No answer.

‘Where are your father and mother?’

At this Priscilla broke down in the dock and started sobbing.

‘I haven’t any’, she cried.

She admitted behaving badly at her last job and promised to do better and ‘be a good girl’ if she were given another chance.

As an orphan under 16 I would hope we would give Priscilla a chance today although given the large numbers of teenagers sleeping rough on our streets I’m not confident that our society would do much better by her.  However, I doubt even  the most heartless of Rees-Mogg’s chums would do as the magistrate here did, and send Priscilla to prison for three weeks, effectively minimalizing any chance of her finding an honest living outside of the ‘house in the near future.

She was led away, still sobbing he eyes out, her future looking bleak as winter approached.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, November 24, 1865]

‘I like the workhouse, they give me good food there’: two stray waifs on London Bridge

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George W. Martin was a music teacher with a social conscience, a man that comes across as a real-life ‘Mr Brownlow’, the benevolent savior of ‘Oliver Twist’. In early November 1872 Mr Martin was walking across London Bridge when he spotted two street urchins begging.

They were tiny, virtually without clothes, and seemed to be siblings. One of them – a boy of 7 named Patrick Davey – asked him for a halfpenny and George bought them both some food. As they ate he asked them why they were out on the streets begging they told him that they had no choice; ‘they must take money home or [their] father would thrash them’.

The kindly gentleman now called over a constable who took them to a police station house so investigations could be made. Once their address was determined an officer was dispatched to fetch their father and the following day the trio were brought before Mr Benson at Southwark Police court.

Whilst Patrick and his sister Bridget (6) shivered in the dock ‘almost in a state of nudity’, they did not seem to be starving. Their father – ‘a tall powerful man’ – promised his worship that the children were well-fed, and he assured him he never sent them out to beg.

However, it was not the first time Davey had been summoned about his wandering offspring. The man agreed and apologized but said their was little he could do. He had to go to work early each day and they children had no mother at home to look after them.

Patrick had lost his jacket and told the magistrate he’d sold it. Overnight the children had been kept in the workhouse and Patrick said he quite liked the place because, he explained, ‘they give me good food there’. Clearly food was his driving force.

Mr Benson ordered that they be taken back to the workhouse for a week and hoped (perhaps as a result of the coverage of the story by the press) that ‘some benevolent person’ might help support getting them into school. Perhaps Mr Martin would, having already shown a willingness to get involved where other had not.

Of course they should never have been in such a situation. Two small children should not have been out unaccompanied and begging in the streets of the capital. This was exactly the sort of social problem that Dickens was keen to expose in his writings. Patrick and Bridget deserved an education and a proper childhood, goodness knows what might have happened to them had not the music teacher intervened.

Two years earlier, in 1870, the Forster (or Elementary Education) Act had introduced compulsory primary education for children aged 5-13 but attendance was only enforced by school boards and it wasn’t free. After 1876 the poorest pupils could get free education if they were provided with a certificate by the parish. In 1880 the rules on attendance were tightened, putting the responsibility for ensuring it on local authorities and not simply the school boards.

In 1884 a commission reported that 50,000 London school age children were hungry. Free primary education arrived in 1891 when the Elementary Education Act required the government to pay a ‘fee grant’ of 10for each child aged 5-13 and prohibited schools from charging fees themselves.

So before 1891 education was a luxury that many families could not afford. Moreover, there was nothing provided in terms of childcare or nurseries for the poor, and many families relied on their children’s labour to supplement low incomes or help with caring responsibilities.

This Victorian lack of education is however, a thing of the past. Now children can be educated at the state’s expense in state of the art schools up and down the country. Yes they lack facilities, and many still go to school hungry, and truancy levels and exclusions remains a problem, but we do have free schools.

If only the poverty that Bridget and Patrick experienced – with a father that was in work remember – was also a thing of the past. It is not of course; over the last decade child poverty rates have risen to the point that we now have something like 4,000,000 UK children living in poverty. This is one of the worst rates of poverty in the industrialized world, not my words but those of the Children’s Society.

The election that is looming is one of the most important in a generation, and more important for the future of our children than any I can remember. We have the thorny subject of Brexit and our economic prosperity; we have the climate emergency and the need to take urgent radical action; and we have child care, health care and social care – three key issues that help support families in the UK.

This is an election about the future not about narrow and limited party political battles or the individual careers of over privileged politicians. Like 1945 this is an opportunity to change society for the better, and to change it so it works for the many, not the few.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, November 02, 1872]

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]

Five go wild in Wardour Street…until the police pick them up

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I can imagine that for some parents making sure their children go to (and stay at) school can be something of a challenge. The Police courts of late Victorian London fairly regularly witnessed prosecutions of fathers who were accused of allowing their sons and daughters (but usually sons) to play truant.  Fines were handed down which did little to help because in some instances parents needed the children at home to help either with piece work or, more often, to care for infants or elderly relatives while they went out to work.

Some tried very hard to ensure their offspring gained an education but this could be hard when the kids didn’t have boots or decent clothes to go to school in. We shouldn’t underestimate the extent to which pride existed in working-class communities where maintaining an image of ‘respectability’ was every bit as important to them as it was to the middle classes with whom the term is often more associated.

There was tremendous poverty in 1880s London but that didn’t mean that families were not striving every day to keep standards up. Mrs Rochford and her neighbours seemed to fighting a losing battle with their collective brood of five youngsters. Walter Rochford (11) and his brother  James (10) appeared in court at Marlborough Street alongside Ernest Flowers (10), Albert Carey (11) and Thomas Copeland, who was just 8. This ‘interesting youthful quintette’ as the paper described them, had been picked up by the police because they were begging in Wardour Street.

Four of them had no boots and they all hailed from Hammersmith, quite some distance away. Their mothers were in court to answer for them and to listen to the story they gave Mr De Rutzen.

The boys said that they often played truant from Board school, preferring instead to hide their boots in an empty house in Shepherds Bush to go begging house to house or in the streets. They slept in empty properties, tramcars and one even admitted to occupying a dog kennel! If they were ‘nice’ children in the countryside the whole episode would have something of Enid Blyton about it.

But they weren’t. They were five ‘little urchins’ and their mothers were at their wits end, not knowing how to control them. Some of them had been absent from home now for a week and so sending them to Board school was clearly pointless.

The magistrate had a solution however, he would have them confined in an industrial school, where they wouldn’t be able to run amok or indeed run anywhere without permission. It would probably mean the five would be broken up and would be separated from their families. I have no idea whether the parents were consulted or merely told this would be happening, but under the terms of industrial schools, they would (if they could) be expected to contribute something to their care.

The five boys were dispatched to the workhouse while the industrial school officer was sent for to determine their fates.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, June 12, 1887]