A servant so drunk she could hardly stand up

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We are now, thanks to Downton Abbey and (previously) Upstairs Downstairs  pretty familiar with the dynamics of master/servant relationships in the Victorian period. Even if those dramas might distort realities in some respects they offer us a view of a world that ceased to exist about a 100 years ago. 

For the most part, above stairs at least, servants were deferential and obedient, and households ran fairly smoothly.  Of course these dramas focus on the ‘big house’ scenario where a hierarchy of servants  – from butler to scullery maid – have clearly defined roles to perform ‘above stairs’. 

In reality very many households in the 1800s had just one or two servants to help them with their daily lives, and relationships here might have been a little different to those depicted in TV and film dramas. 

Madeline Brett was not your typical well-behaved servant. She had joined Mrs Mary Jane Snell’s service on 23 December 1880, just before Christmas. This should have been an opportunity for young Madeline. At just 18 she now had a position in a house on Bonchurch Lane, North Kensington. In 1890 this area was marked as mostly pink to red on Charles Booth’s poverty maps, so ‘fairly comfortable’, to ‘Middle class: well-to do’. 

It seems Madeline liked a drink, and this was soon very obvious to her mistress. 

A few days after Christmas, on 29 December, Madeline broke a bottle she was trying to place on the table. Her speech was slurred and she could hardly walk. Mrs Snell was shocked, but she said nothing. It seems the servant had a temper and her mistress was already a little afraid of her. 

However, when Madeline announced she was going to wash the china Mrs Snell begged her not to, afraid that she would break it all. This provoked the servant who pulled on a coat and went out of the front door to fetch a passing milk boy. She told him to go and get a policeman to arrest her mistress!

When the constable arrived she ranted at him and the officer was forced to subdue her; Mrs Snell then dismissed her from her service and asked her to leave. But instead of collecting her things Madeline simply stormed out returning some hours later, even more intoxicated than she had been earlier. 

Mrs Snell was in her drawing room when Madeline entered carry a watering can. At first she demanded her mistress take the can upstairs, then fell over, got up, made her way to the small kitchen, and collapsed again. Mrs Snell told her to go to bed but the girl refused. Clutching some paper she said she was going to light the gas. 

When Mrs Snell investigated she found pieces of burnt paper all over the house where Madeline had tried, and failed, to ignite the gas lighting. When Mrs Snell upbraided her employee Madeline ran out into the street, shouting and knocking at doors until a policeman quickly arrived and arrested her for being drunk and disorderly . 

She appeared at Hammersmith Police court on 30 December where she pleaded not guilty and accused her employer of unreasonable conduct. The magistrate remanded her and she was up again three days later when Mrs Snell appeared to give her evidence. Madeline continued to protest her innocence – it ‘was a false charge’ she insisted, ‘she was drunk for the want of drink’ she told Mr Paget. 

The justice not surprisingly chose to believe Mrs Snell over her servant. Madeline was sentenced to 21 days in prison with hard labour. She took this badly, fighting with the gaoler and police as they led her away, and issuing a stream of threats to her – now former – mistress as she went.    

[from Lloyd’s Illustrated Newspaper, Sunday 2 January 1881]

The soldier who found it all too much to bear

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This is one of those stories that could make a mini drama series all of its own, despite there being very little detail to go on. All it needs is a storyteller with a vivid imagination.

In July 1861 a ‘tall, military-looking man; named James Moxham was set in the dock at Southwark Police court. He was charged with two counts of theft and one of attempting to kill himself in his cell. How on earth had he come to this desperate state?

It seems that Moxham, a soldier in the army, had been courting a young woman named Jane Clerk. The court heard that he was accused of stealing two gold rings and a pawnbroker’s duplicate (ticket) for a gold chain. The jewelry belonged to Jane but one wonders if the rings had been intended for the two of them at some future wedding ceremony.

Clearly something had gone very wrong for Jane to bring a charge of felonious theft against her paramour but what exactly happened isn’t revealed in this report. All we are told was that in court Jane pleaded for leniency on the grounds that Moxham had since returned the stolen items and she’d forgiven him.

The soldier had also tried to hang himself in his cell, though whether this was because he believed he’d lost his chance at love or could not cope with the public shame of a court hearing for theft, is again, open to question. He told the sitting justice, Mr Maude, that he deeply regretted his actions and it was evident he was still traumatized from his experience.

Since Jane no longer wished to bring a prosecution and the jewelry had been reunited with its owner, Mr Maude admonished the soldier for his bad behaviour but directed the clerk of the court to discharge him. That should have been that but a policeman piped up that Moxham was wanted by the army, as a deserter. That may have been the real shame he was trying to escape from. He was immediately re-arrested and taken back to the cells to await the visit of his company sergeant.

So there you have it, a drama in several acts: a tale of unrequited love or star-crossed lovers? An attempt to run away from the army to marry the woman he loved? A mental crisis occasioned by the impending doom of public shame? Over to you novelists!

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, July 5, 1861]

‘None will doubt but that our emigration, has proved most useful to the British nation’*. A lack of opportunity at the end of transportation.

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In April 1867 two teenagers appeared at the Greenwich Police court accused of the possession of  a variety of items that didn’t belong to them and being unable to ‘give a satisfactory account; of where they acquired them. Basically then, it was assumed they’d stolen them.

Arthur Edmonds was just 13 and lived in Birdcage Walk, Hackney while Thomas Taylor was older (at 16) and gave his address as Oakford Terrace, Boston Street, Goldsmith’s Row close to what is now Haggerston Park. So what were these two doing south of the river in Greenwich?

Well, as the court was told at 5 o’clock on Friday evening, 26 April, Thomas walked into a pawnbroker’s shop in Deptford and attempted to pledge 13 silver spoons. The assistant was suspicious and called the police. When PC Savage (484A) arrived he quizzed Thomas about the spoons and didn’t believe the lad’s explanation that he had found them while across Blackheath.

Thomas was arrested and Arthur picked up soon afterwards. When they were searched Thomas was found to have a small clock on him while his younger partner in crime was in possession of a huge haul. The police found:

‘an eye glass, £1 12s6d. in money, seven silver, and four brass coins, a syringe’ plus ‘a watch, [and] eight shirt studs’.

The pair were charged before Mr Traill and Edmonds’ father identified most of the goods his son had on him as his own. He explained that Arthur had run away on the previous Thursday (25/4) taking with him a writing desk in which most of those items had been stored. He’d also taken some clothes and the watch, which belonged to one of his other sons.

Taylor had previously been before the magistrates at Worship Street, which was much closer to home, so perhaps his desire to pawn the goods in South London was a deliberate move to avoid detection. Thomas told the court that he’d met Arthur and the younger boy had asked if he could join up with him. It sounds as if Arthur Edmonds was an unhappy youth or perhaps just a troublesome one. Did he run away for the adventure or because home was a place he feared?

The magistrate decided that the state needed to intervene here and sent both lads for trial at the next Sessions so that Arthur could be committed to a juvenile reformatory where he might learn some discipline and be removed from bad influences. Thomas was too old for a reformatory so if was convicted he’d face prison and probably lose all chances of leading an ‘honest’ life in the future.

One option for the pair might have been to transport them to the Australia and earlier in the century it is entirely possible that this is where they might have wound up, Thomas Taylor especially. But by the 1860s fewer and fewer convicts were being transported overseas and the last ship (the Houguomont) sailed in October 1867 with 280 ‘passengers’ on board.

Taylor is not an uncommon surname and Thomas a very frequently used first name but in December 1867, just 8 months after this incident, a Thomas Taylor was committed for trial at the Old Bailey by justice Newton at Worship Street. The17 year-old brushmaker was convicted of stealing 4 pairs of boots and sentenced to 4 months in Cold Bath Fields house of correction. The age is about right as is the area, so this may well be the same young man. His brush with the law at Greenwich clearly didn’t do enough to put him off.

Last night I went to the theatre, the Theatre Royal at Stratford to be precise. There I watched a production of Our Country’s Good by Timberlake Wertenberger performed by the Ramps on the Moon players in collaboration with the Nottingham Playhouse. The play is focused on the experience of a group of convicts transported to New South Wales in 1787 as part of the First Fleet to reach Botany Bay. In what is a play within a play a small number of transported felons battle prejudice and systemic abuse to put on a performance of Farquhar’s The Recruiting Sergeant, a restoration comedy that involves nearly all the cast playing more than one role.

It is based on a true story and is a reminder that it was those banished to Australia in the late 1700s and early 1800s that carved out a new life for themselves that did so much to establish the colony on the other side of the world. Transportation officially ended as a punishment in 1868, with the Houguomont being the very last transport ship to arrive in Western Australia in January that year. Thereafter most of those convicted by English courts would be sentenced to varying terms of imprisonment in the increasingly rigid British penal system. The opportunity for a new life, despite the fears it brought with it, would have to wait until British society was sufficiently affluent – about 100 years later – for some members of the working classes to choose to emigration ‘down under’.

Our Country’s Good is an excellent play and the Ramps on the Moon troupe are fantastic players, so do go and see it if you can, in London or elsewhere.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, April 29, 1867]

*Wisehammer’s prologue to The Recruiting Sergeant, Our Country’s Good, (1988)