‘Picking up rotten fruit from the ground’: Two small waifs struggle to survive in a society that doesn’t care

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The fact that Alice and Rosina Purcell were charged at Worship Street Police court under legislation intended to prosecute beggars and vagrants is not, in itself, unusual in the 1870s. Policemen, officers of Mendicity Society, and other public servants were all obliged to point out and have arrested those who wandered the streets destitute and begged for alms.

No, what makes this case so upsetting is the fact that that Alice and Rosina were aged just 6 and 8 respectfully. They were found wandering around Spitalfields Market begging ‘and picking up rotten fruit from the ground’. They were dressed in ‘the dirtiest of rags’ when James Gear, a school board inspector, decided to intervene. He took them to the nearest police station and then brought them before Mr Hannay at the east London police magistrate’s court.

The pair were clearly poor and hungry but through the filth the reporter still described them as ‘cheerful and intelligent’. They told the justice that their mother was dead and their father, who worked as a dock labourer, ‘left nothing for them at home’. They had no choice but to try and beg or find food for themselves.

This is a good example of the reality of life for very many people – young and old – in late Victorian Britain. Without a welfare system that supported families effectively girls like Alice and Rosina had to literally fend for themselves. We can criticize and condemn their father but with no wife at home to care for his children he was obliged to go out to work all day. Moreover dock work was not guaranteed – he’d be expected to be there very early in the morning for the ‘call on’ and such seasonal work that he would have got was very badly paid.

Mr Hannay was told that the girls were protestants and it was hoped that they might be sent away to the Protestant School. That would provided a solution of sorts but sadly there were no places available. Instead the magistrate ordered that the little sisters be taken to the workhouse until a better option could be found.

We might congratulate ourselves on having left such poverty behind. Children as young as Alice and Rosina should not have to beg for food in the modern capital of Great Britain. After all we are one of the richest countries in the world and have a well established welfare system that, we are told, people travel to the UK from all over the planet to exploit.

Yet poverty still exists in Britain and to a much higher rate than any of us should be comfortable with.  In March it was revealed that 4,000,000 children live in poverty in the UK, an increase of 500,000 since 2012. Last night’s news detailed the impact this is having in schools where almost half of all teachers surveyed said they had given children food or money out of their own pockets such is the degree of want they experience among pupils. The news report stated:

‘Children reaching in bins for food, homes infested with rats, five-year-olds with mouths full of rotten teeth. The reality of poverty in Britain, according to teachers who say they’re having to deal with it every day’.

This is not that far removed from the case above, the key difference being we no longer prosecute children for vagrancy or separate families in the workhouse. But it is absolutely scandalous that in a country that can waste £33,000,000 on ‘botched no-deal ferry contracts’ or spends £82,000,000 annually on the Royal family, and allows directors of FTSE companies to earn (on average) £2,433,000 each year (without bonuses) any child is going without sufficient food.

[From The Morning Post, Wednesday, May 01, 1872]

If you enjoy this blog series you might be interested in Drew’s jointly authored study of the Whitechapel (or ‘Jack the Ripper’) murders which is published by Amberley Books on June 15th this year. You can find details here.

Prison for the mother who couldn’t support her babies

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Today Haille Rubenhold’s new book on the five canonical victims of ‘Jack the Ripper’ is published in the UK. I’ve chatted with Haille about her work but haven’t read it yet. I am well aware that its publication (or at least the publicity surrounding its publication) has caused a stir and led to Haille being attacked in some quarters by those that believe she has misrepresented ‘Ripperologly’ (the name given to the study of this, the most famous of all ‘cold cases’).

I haven’t read it yet (my copy is on order and I’ll review here when I have) but while I recognize very many people might be upset that she has (supposedly) claimed that the stories of the ‘Ripper’s’ victims have never been told when they have, I think it is also very good that an independent and credible researcher such as Haille has chosen to write about this topic. She had important things to say about prostitution, women’s lives, poverty and homelessness, and I’m keen to read it. She may not be as well informed on the details of the case as those that have studied it for decades and that may undermine some of her findings but she deserves to be ‘heard’.

She also deserves to be treated with respect, as do respected Ripperologists like Paul Begg. Name-calling is never appropriate. We can critique, argue and disagree with each other without chucking unpleasantness about.

One of issues Haille’s work highlights is the desperate poverty that women (and of course men) endured in Victorian London. This wasn’t something new in 1888, it was endemic throughout the 1800s. The magistrate courts could provide temporary relief for those caught in the poverty trap but they could just as frequently criminalize paupers, especially when outside agencies were involved.

Nance (or Nancy) Donovan was a pauper with two children who had only just got out of prison when she appeared before the Lord Mayor at Mansion House Police court in late February 1853. She stood in the dock, in ‘filthy rags’ and with one of her children – a babe in arms – clutched closely to her.

She should have perhaps inspired charity but there was no sympathy on display in the Lord Mayor’s courtroom that cold February morning. Nancy had been brought in from the streets by a City policeman after she’d been pointed out by a an officer from the Mendicity Society. Nancy had been begging from the steps at the end of King William Street with one child in front of her, the other in her arms. The suspicion was that she had drugged them both with laudanum so they looked ill and starving.

Of course Nancy denied this and begged the magistrate to let her off this time.

‘I’ll never bother yez any more if you let me off this once. Upon my sowl I wasn’t begging a farthing from anyone. I was only just sitting down to nurse the babby in this cowld weather, and sure enough it wanted a dhrop of suck’.

The Lord Mayor was unmoved, clearly believing that Nancy was a mendicant (a beggar) that was using and abusing her offspring to feed her idle lifestyle. He sent her to gaol once again, to bridewell for a months, and her children to the workhouse to be ‘cared for’ by the parish.

This was Victorian ‘justice’ and ‘welfare’ policy and it is hardly surprising that women turned to prostitution, alcohol and the streets, as Rubenhold’s important new study highlights.

[from The Standard, Monday, February 28, 1853]

My own study of the Whitechapel or ‘Jack the Ripper’ murders is due to be published in June 2019.

The NSPCC steps in to ‘save’ four kids from their drunken mother

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The NSPCC was founded in 1884 (notably a lot later than the charity for the protection of animals) with the mission to force society to take much more care over the neglect and abuse of children. In 1889 it had its first breakthrough when it successfully campaigned to get parliament to pass legislation to protect children and at this point the London Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children added the word ‘National’ as it expanded nationwide.

Mr and Mrs Farrant must have been amongst the first wave of parents to be prosecuted as a result of the society’s actions. In February 1896 the couple were summoned before the magistrate at West Ham Police court charged with neglecting their four children.

The case was brought by the NSPCC and prosecuted by Mr Moreton Philips on their behalf. The parents were defended by their own solicitor, Mr Fred George. The NSPCC were alerted to the plight of the children by the Farrants’ landlady and visited their home in Wharf Road, Stratford. Inspector Brunning of the Society found the kids living in desperate conditions, the three youngest being left home alone for long periods.

All four children – James (7), Racheal (5), Minetta (3) and George (1) lived in a condition ‘likely to cause them unnecessary suffering or injury to health’. The inspector reported that ‘the children were dirty and insufficiently clothed’ and they were ill. He told Rachael Farrant in no uncertain terms that she must act to improve things or a prosecution would follow.

The family moved – to Tenby Road – but there was no improvement. When Brunning tracked them down again he found them in the same situation only now both James and George had developed opthalmia (possibly conjunctivitis) in their eyes and the ‘place was in a horrible state’. If the eye disease was not treated it could lead to blindness but the state of the place and the mother suggested that the care of the children was hardly top of Mrs Farrant’s ‘to-do- list.

In court while James Farrant – a cooper – was said to be a hard-working man who gave his wife 20-30sa week for the family, Racheal was ‘addicted to drink’. The neglect was proved beyond doubt and so it only fell to the magistrate to determine punishment. This might have severe consequences for the children because both parents were now liable to be imprisoned.

In the end the magistrate decided that James was less culpable than his wife, since he gave her ample money to look after the children and household. So he fined him 20s and let him go. That would still make a dent in the £3 he earned a week (about £230) but it kept him out of gaol. Racheal was not as fortunate. Since she was held most to blame the justice sent her to prison for two months, with hard labour. It was hoped, the magistrate added, that the ‘rest’ from the drink would help her quit.

He didn’t say what would happen to the children if James Farrant had no one he could turn to look after them but with four children under 7 it was imperative that he found a family member of female friend to step in quickly, or they’d end up in the workhouse. The NSPCC might have saved them from neglect but its actions may well have resulted in a worse and more uncertain future for the Farrant children.

[from The Standard, Thursday, 7 February, 1895]

A waiter reaches rock bottom and tries to end it all

Victorian man ordering coffee from a waiter in a bar

We know that very many families today struggle to survive even though we have a well established and supposedly thriving economy and the safety net of a state financed benefit system. The refusal of some employers (like Tim Martin) to even discuss paying the ‘living wage’ is indicative of the reality that even in the 21stcentury poverty continues to exist side-by-side with immense wealth.

It is often those working in the service and entertainment industries that get paid the least for working the longest and most inconvenient hours. To get some historical perspective (and sadly, historical continuity) we can look at the case of John Johnson who appeared in the dock at Mansion House Police court in January 1884 accused of attempting to kill himself.

Johnson was a waiter working at a Fenchurch Street restaurant who was paid so little he was struggling to feed and clothe his family. Let’s note that this man was not a criminal, not a thief, nor was he unemployed, or seeking benefits. Like so many people today who work in the ‘gig economy’ or on ‘zero-hour contracts’ he was paid very little to wait tables in central London and by January he was so overwhelmed by his situation he plunged a kitchen knife into his own chest.

He recovered in hospital but was arrested and questioned by the police. When he told them of his economic distress they investigated, sending a sergeant and a man who was present at the restaurant at the time to see his circumstances for themselves.

It was pretty desperate.

The sergeant told the Lord Mayor at Mansion House that:

‘There was barely any furniture in the house’, suggesting that they had pawned or sold (or even burned them for fuel), in an effort to stay warm and alive. The waiter’s wife was ‘so weak that she seemed scarcely able to stand’ when they knocked at the front door.

She showed them in and upstairs where the family occupied one room. There ‘they found some of the children lying on a very old bedstead with no clothes on them. She then pointed to a corner, which was so dark that they could not see anything, but on searching more closely [they] discovered some of the children huddled together. They were fast asleep, but had no clothing whatever on.’

He went on to say that the couple’s eldest daughter, a girl of 18, was sat slumped in the fireplace with a child in her arms. This baby was hers but the father had been locked up in ‘a madhouse’ so she had no one else to support it. Another girl, aged four, sat next to her, with no ‘shoes or stockings on’.

It was a terrible sight to behold and the gentleman accompanying the officer immediately doled out some coins to help them ‘relieve their present condition’ but clearly they needed much more help.

In court the Lord Mayor could do little more than inform the parish poor law officials to pay a visit. He extracted a promise form Johnson that he wouldn’t repeat his attempt at suicide, and dismissed him.  This was a society that only cared up to a point and was more interested in profit than economic equality of opportunity. I sometimes (often actually) wonder how far we’ve come since then.

Tim Martin is worth an estimated £448,000,000. He allegedly pays his bar staff a basic £8.05 an hour.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, 29 January, 1884]

A family is broken up, just in time for Christmas

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Monday’s post touched on the subject of prostitution and brothels in central London in the 1880s, suggesting that a young girl of just 14 years of age might have been drugged with alcohol as a precursor to being ‘sold’ into the sex trade. Today’s case concerns three young children who have been taken into what passed for ‘care’ in the late Victorian city, because their mother was a prostitute and they were being brought up in a brothel.

Georgina Rogers (aged 11) and her sister Agnes (10) and brother Henry (8) were brought before the magistrate at Westminster. They had come from St George’s workhouse under the watching eye of William Girling, an officer working for the Rescue and Reformation Society at Charing Cross. They had sepnt a few nights in the workhouse after they had been removed from ‘a disorderly house’ in Cumberland Street, Pimlico.

Their mother had money, so perhaps she was a successful  brothel madam or otherwise well connected. This was evident because she hired a lawyer to defend the children in court with the aim of keeping them out of institutional care. Mr E D F Rymer told the magistrate (Mr Partridge) that arrangements had been made for the trio to go and live with their grandmother at Teddington.

This might have seemed like a sensible solution. After all, as Mr Rymer explained, in his experience ‘children of the prisoners’ class were invariably corrupted by mixing with those children in these institutions’. Just what sort of class the three siblings were is hard to judge but given that their mother was living with them in  a house of ill repute I doubt they were exactly members of the aristocracy. Instead I imagine that Ms Rogers perhaps considered herself to be better through wealth than she was through birth, and so aped the behaviour (if not the morality) of the middle classes.

The Rescue Society had been created in 1853 to protect children from sexual exploitation and prostitution. It ran 10 homes across the capital and had campaigned for a rise in the age of consent. Its members were dedicated to the cause and under the terms of the Criminal Law Amendment Act (1885) saw these realized with the help of Stead’s Maiden Tribute newspaper campaign.

So it was unlikely that Mr Girling was going to be happy to allow the children back into the care of Ms Rogers or her family. Crucially Mr Partidge agreed with him, not the lawyer. He ordered that the girls be taken to a reformatory school at Chelsea but allowed the lad (who was perhaps less at risk in his eyes of being corrupted) to go to his grannie.

Was this a good outcome for the children? It is hard to say. Reformatories separated parents from children, and children from ‘bad’ environments. The sisters would have learned domestic duties and sewing, as well as being educated in basic literacy and maths. But being parted from their family would have been traumatic, but not unusual for very many poor children in the later 1800s.

[from The Standard, Saturday, 19 December, 1885]

The descendant of the Rescue Society is Fegans, a charity that supports abused children and their parents.

‘Buy a ticket, feed a child this Christmas!’ The radical lottery that wasn’t to be

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This week I won a lucky dip on the National Lottery, not much I grant you, but it means I go into tonight’s draw with an extra line. My chances of winning (and starting to write this blog from a yacht moored in Cannes) may remain slim but they have just increased ever so slightly.

We buy lottery tickets because we dream we might change our lives, and many people have. Lotteries are nothing new of course nor are their critics. In the eighteenth century commentators railed against the London lottery that brought large crowds to the centre to hear the draw, and created a trade in the illegal trading of ‘numbers’.

Legislation at the start of the nineteenth century ruled that anyone running a lottery without the sanction of parliament was liable to a fine or imprisonment for up to three months. This restricted the proliferation of lotteries and so, as was intended, placed a curb on working-class gambling.

Some lotteries were deemed more acceptable than others however. Christmas lotteries, aimed at helping people provide ‘game, wine, spirits, etc’ for the festive period were not legal but it was understood that these were perhaps an exception and were rarely prosecuted.

So it must have seemed to Edwin Darrell that his lottery scheme, which aimed at raising money to ‘provide poor children with dinners’ at Christmas, would be allowed to go ahead. Sadly, Darrell was mistaken.

In December 1897 he was summoned before the Worship Street Police court and accused of selling ticket for the ‘Thirteenth Annual Grand Christmas Lottery’. Darrell was shown to have ordered the printing of 8,000 books of 10 tickets and of posters advertising the draw and prizes. These posters proudly stated that the funds from last year’s lottery sales had meant that ‘70,000 children had been fed’.

In court the prosecution presented the facts, which Darrell’s lawyer (a Mr Geoghegan) did not contest. Instead he stressed the lottery was entirely charitable and assured the magistrate that those buying tickets stood an even better chance of winning than they had in the previous year. In 1896 one of every 77 tickets won a prize, whereas this year one in just 45 was a winner. I wish I had those odds for the modern lottery!

The prosecution demanded that draw be cancelled forthwith as the lottery was illegal and despite Darrell’s protests that it should go ahead since tickets had already been sold (and so would presumably have to be refunded) the magistrate agreed. Mr Cluer told him that if the draw was lottery was folded no further action would be taken by the court but if it went ahead the full force of the law would be applied.

I understand that the law is the law but am surprised that an exception was not made in this case. After all the lottery was in its 13thyear and there was clear evidence that the proceeds were going to charity, and a very good cause at that. I wonder if it had more to do with politics?

Edwin Darrell was the secretary of the United Radical Club that was based in Kay Street, Bethnal Green. Popular labour radicalism had surged in the 1880s and presented an increasing challenge to the Liberal Party that had traditionally secured the votes of many working class men.  Maybe this was an opportunity for the authorities to slap down an emerging political force and remind others that rules, after all, were rules.

[from The Standard, Wednesday 8 December, 1897]

A magistrate woefully out of touch with reality but who founded a legal dynasty

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Sir Henry Curtis-Bennett might be forgiven for not really knowing ‘how the poor live[d]’ in 1888. He had been appointed a magistrate for Westminster just two years previously at the age of 40. In 1888 in fact he was ‘Mr’ as the king didn’t knight him until May 1913 just a few weeks before he died. He was the son of an Essex  vicar and read law at university. He was called to the Bar in 1870 and so had plenty of experience (as all the metropolitan magistrates did) in the legal system, if not in the day-to-day life of ordinary Londoners.

In November 1888 he was presiding at Wandsworth when young George Thomas Bellenger was brought before him, charged with ‘living beyond the control of his parents’. The gaoler brought him up from the day cells and informed his worship that the lad was half starved. Until that morning he’d not eaten for days and so had been glad of the meal that Mr Ironmonger, a local Industrial School officer had provided.

The officer had been to George’s parent’s home and found it to be in a terrible state. There were several children there, all ‘crying for food’ and he reported that the place lacked the basic ‘necessaries of life’ (by which I presume he meant food and heating).

If the family were destitute then surely they should have gone to the workhouse Mr Curtis-Bennett declared. The gaoler said his worship was correct but added that many of the poor were ‘disinclined to become inmates of the workhouse’.

The magistrate said he was aware of this but couldn’t understand it. After all in England the poor were looked after better than in any other country in the world. Here there were ‘workhouses, infirmaries, and dispensaries’. This was the extent of the ‘welfare state’ in 1888: there was no unemployment benefit, no state pension, no NHS. Instead if you unable to feed yourself or find shelter you could enter the ‘house’ where you would treated (despite the former barrister’s opinion) little better than prisoners were.

George’s mother was called forward to explain her situation. She told the magistrate that her husband was out of work. He had been employed by a mineral water company as a delivery man but he had been sacked after eight years’ service. The reason, she was asked?

‘He trotted the horses’.

‘For no other reason?’

‘No sir’.

So because he pushed the horses to get his rounds done more quickly they company had sacked him. Workers had few, if any, rights in the 1880s and unemployment was high so there were always people to fill gaps if employers wished to get rid of people or pay them lower wages.

At this Mr Curtis-Bennett had a temporary rush of charitable understanding. He awarded the woman 10from the poor box. Then he sent her little boy to the workhouse.

Henry Curtis-Bennett died in office. He had become the Chief Magistrate at Bow Street and in July 1913 he was a attending a meeting at Mansion House (seat of the Lord Mayor of London) when he fell ill. He had survived a bomb attack in 1908 orchestrated by militant suffragettes (and other attempts as he was a lead magistrate in suppressing their ‘outrages’) but he didn’t survive this latest assault on his constitution. curtiss-bennett-1He died soon afterwards and was succeeded by his eldest son, also Henry, who went on to be a more famous lawyer than his father and a Conservative politician.

His son – Derek Curtis-Bennett) followed in his father and grandfather’s footsteps and entered the law. As a defence barrister he famously defended (if not successfully) the traitor William Joyce (Lord Haw-Haw) and the murderer John Christie.

No one knows what happened to little George or his siblings, or if they even survived the winter of 1888.

[from The Standard, Friday, November 02, 1888]