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

Unknown

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]

Creative protest in Trafalgar Square: an echo of Extinction Rebellion from 1888

TS

In July 1888 Robert Allen, a 64 year-old cabinetmaker, was charged at Bow Street, with ‘resisting the police and riotous conduct’. He’d been arrested in Trafalgar Square amid what seemed to have been a rather unusual form of demonstration.

Demonstrations in Trafalgar Square were all the rage in the 1880s. In 1886 a public meeting had ended in chaos as a ‘mob’ had moved off to smash up property in nearby Pall Mall. Then in 1887 the heavy-handed response of the authorities to a peaceful protest had left at least one person dead and very many more injured in what was dubbed ‘Bloody Sunday’ by the press.

Not surprisingly then by July 1888 the police were a little jumpy about protestors and speakers in the square. In fact unauthorized gatherings were banned and no one was supposed to set themselves up to address crowds in the square. If they wanted to do that they had only to move along to Speakers Corner (close to Marble Arch on Hyde Park) where it was permitted.

At four o’clock in the afternoon of the 21 July 1888 (a Saturday) Allen was walking around the square ‘speaking in a loud voice’. What he was saying we don’t know but it had drawn a large crowd to him, and they were following the orator on his ‘perambulation’.

Superintendent Sheppard (of B Division, Metropolitan Police) was on duty in the square that day and was alarmed by what he saw. This seemed like a clear breach of the laws governing assemblies and he tried to intervene. Around a thousand men and boys were now listening to Allen and there was, Sheppard later told the Bow Street magistrate, ‘a good deal of horse play’.

‘Meetings are prohibited’, he explained to Allen, ‘and I cannot allow you to have a crowd following you causing danger and obstruction. I must disperse them’.

‘I am only having a conversation with my friend’, replied Allen, pointing at someone in the crowd nearby.

‘That is sheer nonsense’ the policeman told him. If he wanted to continue to talk to his friend he’d clear a gap in the throng and the two could leave peacefully. But Allen didn’t want to do that.

‘No’, he said, ‘I shall not do that; I claim my right to do as I am doing now’.

Sheppard called over some officers who went to disperse the gathered crowd and Allen walked away. However, far fro stopping what he was doing he just continued on a new circulation of Nelson’s Column, drawing a fresh group of followers. Now they were singing the Marseillaise and Sheppard described them as ‘very rough’. Again he tried to have them broken up, again Allen created a disturbance by speaking loudly to no one in particular.

The superintendent had run out of patience and told Allen that he had been warned but now he would be arrested, by force if necessary. The cabinetmaker went quietly, followed by a large crowd all the way to the police station.

In court Allen denied holding a meeting, rejected any accusation that he was a troublemaker, and said while some of the police had always acted reasonably, others ‘gloried in brutality’.  His politics were clear, however, when he declared that ‘a society of millionaires and paupers could not be formed on a sound basis’. He was about to launch into a political speech at this point but Mr Bridge (the magistrate) cut him off. Allen was bailed while further enquiries were conducted.  A week later Allen was discharge after promising not to disturb the public peace in the future.

I recently watched Ben Zand’s insightful documentary about the Extinction Rebellion movement and it occupation of central London this year. The co-founder of ER – Roger Hallam – described their tactics as “Criminal inaction.” If you witnessed it live on the news you’ll be aware that thousands of protestors of all ages staged a series of peaceful sit down occupations of London landmarks. They brought traffic to a standstill in the capital for an unprecedented 11 days but no one was hurt (although it cost the public and authorities millions of pounds in lost business and policing).ER

It was ‘remarkably effective’ as Zand agreed, it made the government listen and Climate Change is now firmly on the agenda. It galvanized tens of thousands of people, many of them young people who weren’t involved in politics or protest before but now are. At one point in the April take over the head of the Metropolitan Police – Cressida Dick – is seen imploring the protestors to go  home or go to Marble Arch (where they can protest legally), warning that otherwise they will be arrested.

But arrest was one of their tactics. By being arrested and charged they get publicity, a day in court, and their cause is highlighted. They are non-violent, they are creative, determined, and they are not going away. They are also part of a well-established tradition of protest in this country (not all of it peaceful of course) that stretches back hundreds of years. I met some of them in London and then later this summer in Edinburgh. These are intelligent, passionate, and well organized people and while they provide a temporary headache for the likes of Cressida Dick and Superintendent Sheppard we should be very proud that our nation continues to produce young people who are prepared to put their lives and liberty on the line to achieve a better future for all of us.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, July 24, 1888]

Drew’s new book (co-authored by Andy Wise) is published by Amberley Books. It 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 1880s London. The book is available on Amazon here