‘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]

‘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]