A baby on the tracks and a child in a dustbin; two horror stories from the 1880s

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Lloyd’s weekly round up of ‘Police intelligence’ on Sunday 13 July 1884 contains a fascinating variety of human greed, misery and criminal artfulness. There are possibly a dozen or more cases from a betting scam in the City of London to an assault in Highgate, and the stories reveal the diversity of life in the Victorian capital. Two cases stand out amongst the petty thefts, domestic violence, fraud and juvenile crime reported. Both involve some form of child abuse, and both are quite shocking examples.

Clara Wardle was prosecuted at Thames Police court in the East End of London in very strange circumstances. Clara was seen to place a small child, her own baby, on the tram lines on Commercial Road and then run away. Luckily for the infant John Kerr saw what happened and rushed over and snatched up the child before a rapidly approaching hose and van crushed it under its hooves and wheels. The young lad handed the baby over the police.

Meanwhile another man who had seen what Clara had done chased after her and caught her in a side street. He marched her off to find a policeman and PC Newport (44H) took her into custody and ensured she appeared before Mr Lushington in court the next day.

Clara stood in the dock clutching her baby to her breast and listened as the evidence against her was read out. She told the magistrate that she never intended to hurt the child. She was ‘merely laid the child down to frighten her husband, who she thought would have picked the baby up’.

A report of the incident in a provincial newspaper gives us a little more insight into the case. John Kerr (the rescuer) is reported as telling the magistrate that he saw Clara and a man (presumably her husband) ‘running after a tram-car in Commercial Road’ at about 6 o’clock in the evening. The man boarded the tram ‘leaving the prisoner [Clara] standing in the road. She then deliberately laid her baby on the rails and ran away’.

So her action was part of an argument between her and her husband that almost led to the death of a baby. Perhaps he was leaving her, or simply had had enough of the row and saw an opportunity to escape quickly. Lushington remanded her for further inquiries, presumably to bring her husband in to see what he had to say about the matter.

South of the river, at Lambeth, two young boys were placed in the dock once more having been remanded a few days earlier by Mr Chance. Their crime was arguably even worse than Clara, since they acted deliberately and with malice. The lads were about 10-12 years of age and they were accused of having taken away a boy of 7 or 8 and forcing him inside a dustbin.

George Steeden and Stephen Murphy had taken Henry Douglas to a house in Penge and imprisoned him in a dustbin by loading bricks on the lid so he couldn’t climb out again. They’d trapped him in the 4 ½ foot deep bin at around five in the evening and by their own confession had left him there ‘to be found dead, so they might afterwards get a reward for the discovery of the body’.

Young Henry was locked into his intended tomb for nearly 17 hours, being discovered around one in the afternoon of the following day. It must have been a terrifying and traumatizing experience for the child. The magistrate said it was one of the ‘most serious cases he had ever had before him with regard to boys’. Steeden had been in trouble with the law before so Mr Chance ordered that he be given ‘six strokes of the rod’ before being sent to an Industrial School until he reached 16. Murphy was sent back to the workhouse where he’d been held on remand while the court decided what to do with him.

Despite the newsworthiness of both of these stories the papers seemed to have lost interest at this point. I’ve therefore no idea whether Stephen Murphy was considered the lesser of the two ‘evils’ and allowed to go home or if he too was sent to a reformatory or industrial school. Clara clearly needed help or at least a reconciliation with her husband. The court might have had her examined to determine the state of her mental health; if she was found to be insane then she risked being sent to an asylum. If her husband had abandoned her then the 28 year-old women might end up destitute and in the workhouse. Either way her future looked uncertain at best.

For many of those reading the ‘Sundays’ over their breakfast or supper these were the lives ‘others’; part of the world outside their comfortable homes and about people that they did not know, nor wanted to know. They would have been shocked certainly, disgusted and angered probably, but amused and entertained as well, such was the purpose of the ‘crime news’ in the nineteenth century.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, July 13, 1884; The Hampshire Advertiser, Saturday, July 12, 1884]