The Beadle and the ‘burdensome’ bride

GB-1618-x350-Parish-Beadle-222x300

In 1834 parliament passed the infamous Poor Law Amendment Act. Historians have debated the causes and impact of this piece of legislation for decades but few would argue that it was either popular or beneficial to the poor. It established the principle that anyone seeking relief from poverty should enter the workhouse, thereby deterring all but the most desperate from applying.

Its intention was therefore partly to deter idleness and encourage thrift but also to protect the pockets of the middle class ratepayers who paid for poor relief.

The act is a long document; running to 110 clauses it would bear comparison with a modern EU directive for its complexity and attention to detail. Amongst its stipulations is this one, number 57 which reads:

And be it further enacted, That every Man who from and after the passing of this Act shall marry a Woman having a Child or Children at the Time of such Marriage, whether such Child or Children be legitimate or illegitimate, shall be liable to maintain such Child or Children as a Part of his Family, and shall be chargeable with all Relief, or the Cost Price thereof, granted to or on account of such Child or Children until such Child or Children shall respectively attain the Age of Sixteen, or until the Death of the Mother of such Child or Children ; and such Child or Children shall, for the Purposes of this Act, be deemed a Part of such Husband’s Family accordingly.

This might seem fairly uncontroversial; a man was to take on the responsibilities of looking after the children of the woman he’d married if she’d had them before he married her.

What is interesting is that is seems that poor law unions were practising a form of cost-cutting in the years before and after the new Poor Law that involved persuading local men to marry mothers whose children had fallen chargeable to the parish. Moreover, this ‘persuasion’ involved a cash incentive it seems, as this case from the Guildhall Police Court in the City shows.

An unnamed ‘young man’ came to the court to ask Sir Chapman Marshall’s advice. He explained to the alderman magistrate that he had been asked by the beadle of St Bartholomew the Great to marry a young woman who had become ‘burdensome’ to the parish.

He alleged that the parish official had promised him £5 if he married the girl and said that as soon as he produced the certificate proving the union he would get his money, a sort of parochial dowry so to speak. The beadle visited the newlyweds and pressed a paper bill into the bride’s hand, insisting that she didn’t look at it until he had left. When the note was examined the couple were disappointed to discover that it was for £2 10s, just half the amount that had been promised.

As a result the unhappy groom had approached the magistracy seeking a summons to bring the beadle to book for his dishonesty and breach of contract. The paper made a point of saying that the ‘amendments of the poor laws have not removed the incitements to bring about pauper marriages’, and clearly disapproved of the practice.

Sir Chapman presumed that the young man was the father of the child anyway, but this was refused. No, the infant’s father was dead he was told, and it ‘belonged’ (all paupers belonged in the 1800s) not to St Bart’s but to Shoreditch, which lay outside of the City. The man was obliged, as the terms of the act above set out, to support the child regardless of whether he had fathered it, and he wanted the rest of his money.

There was nothing the magistrate could do for him however, as this didn’t fall under his jurisdiction as a magistrate. He recommend instead that the man took his case before the Court of Requests, which dealt with disputes over small debts. The beadle was liable, the magistrate declared, as he’d entered into a contract and hadn’t fulfilled it. The husband thanked him and said he would certainly take his advice.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, March 02, 1836]

‘Half a loaf better than none’: a little local difficulty at Thames

e06de58a9936eda45a6b3371ee38f1e9--victorian-photos-victorian-london

Jewish immigrants on Petticoat lane, by George Eastman House

The newspaper reports of the late Victorian police courts offer us a window into a past society. They throw up all sorts of things that can seem strange, or familiar to the modern reader. London is revealed as a busy and bustling city with all sorts of opportunities for conflict between its denizens. We get an idea of how people lived, where they worked, and how they moved around. We can also see that the capital was, as it is today, one of the world’s most multicultural and vibrant cities.

The East End of London had a large and well established Jewish community. Many of London’s Jews were fairly recent arrivals; coming over during the late 1870s and 1880s to escape persecution in eastern central Europe. Jews living in the Russian Pale (modern day Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Moldova, Poland and some parts of Latvia and Russia) were oppressed by laws which prescribed where they could live, how and when they could work, and that forced them to serve in the armies of Tsarist Russia.

Life was extremely hard in the Pale of Settlement and communities were subject to periodic violent outbreaks of anti-semitic pogroms. Not surprisingly tens of thousands chose to leave their homes and travel across Europe in a search for a better and safer life. Many settled in London, particularly around Whitechapel where they established a community, while others tried to find the money to pay their passage to the ‘golden medina’, the United States of America.

London was no paradise however. Prejudice here was rife and periodic instances of anti-semitism continued to plague the Jewish community. But it was not as lethal as the oppression they had suffered in the Russian Empire, nor was the poverty as grinding. Hard work and persistence meant that the Ashkenazi people of the East End set down strong routes in the capital of Empire and gradually moved out of the East to the North and West of London as their prosperity grew.

In 1897 we get a glimpse of this community and, at the same time, a contemporary English view of them and their traditions. I wouldn’t say the report is racist or ‘anti-alien’ (to use a late Victorian expression) but it does perhaps reflect a contemporary curiosity about the ‘other’ in society.

In January 1897 Joseph Moseley, a Jewish sponge maker, appeared at Thames Police Court to prosecute a summons against Evelina Cohen. The pair had met in January 1896 a year earlier and after a brief courtship Joseph had proposed marriage. He gave Evelina a valuable  diamond engagement  ring and another ‘buckle’ ring as a symbol of their friendship. They agreed to marry in March of that year.

However, something must have gone wrong or Evelina changed her mind because instead of marrying the sponge maker, she married someone else in March 1896 leaving poor Joseph high and dry, and missing two rings. This was why he took her to court.

Mr Dickenson presided at Thames in early 1897 and he was less than pleased that this case had come before him. It did no credit to either of them, he said, to be dragging each other through the courts in this way. He understood that it was the ‘custom among most people, especially ladies, to return rings when an engagement was broken off’.

‘It would be a graceful act on the part of the young lady’ he said, ‘to say “Take back the ring thou gavest,” and give the complainant [Joseph] the diamond hoop, keeping the buckle ring as a trophy of her conquest’.

Moseley was represented by a lawyer, Mr Deakin, who explained that the matter had now been settled. The magistrate was pleased to hear it: ‘half a loaf was better than no bread’ he added referring to the return of one of the rings. Deakin wasn’t convinced that the sponge maker had recovered much from the encounter. ”In this case’, he grumbled, ‘it is only a fifth of a loaf’. After all he had hoped to marry and benefit from Evelina’s dowry, which was reported to be £500 plus a property.

The whole report smacks then of a business deal reneged upon rather than a man jilted ‘at the altar’. The fact that this had to go to law would seem to reflect contemporary negative views of the Jewish community as being built around trade and money, with this being seen as a ‘bad’ thing. Joseph had missed out of a ‘good deal’  and was now trying to get his investment back and I suspect many middle-class English readers reading this had some of their prejudices affirmed by the whole episode.

[from The Illustrated Police News etc, Saturday, January 16, 1897]