Unhappy patient bites porter at one of London’s finest hospitals

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On Wednesday the 6 September 1883 the assistant medical officer at the Highgate Infirmary on Dartmouth Park Hill ordered that Eli Sparksman be discharged. The 20 year-old gardener had no home to go to however, and seemed reluctant to leave. The assistant MO ordered one of the porters to find him and escort him off the premises but this seemingly simple instruction resulted in a court case at Highgate Police court.

Highgate Infirmary had opened in 1870 and quickly established itself; none other than Florence Nightingale described it as ‘the finest metropolitan hospital’. Until 1893 it was part of the Central London Sick Asylum district, thereafter reverting to the St Pancras Poor Law Union. It served the poor of north London and in 1930 became the Highgate Hospital. In 1948 it was incorporated into the Whittington (where I was born) as its Highgate wing, close to the cemetery at Highgate.

Sparksman had reacted badly to be told to change his clothes and leave the institution, and refused, demanding instead to be seen by Dr McCann the head of the hospital. Acting on the instructiosn he’d been given Walter Bowen went looking for Eli Sparksman, and the porter eventually found the young patient wandering in the infirmary’s garden.

He tried to lead Sparksman back inside the building but as they were climbing the steps up from the garden Eli became ‘very violent’, and threw himself to the ground. As Bowen tried to drag him to his feet the patient attacked him, biting his hand ‘in a very savage manner’.

Despite his injury the porter got his charge back inside to the ward where Sparksman threatened to ‘knock his head off with a stone’ if he got him outside again. Hospital staff today continue to be attacked and abused by patients, some of them drunk and disorderly others, like Eli I suspect, suffering from a form of mental illness. In this instance the police were called and PC Deeks arrived to take the man into custody. The policeman later testified that Sparksman was both violent and verbally abusive towards him as he took him back to Kentish Town nick.

The case came up before the magistrates at Highgate where no account seems to be taken of Eli’s mental health. The police knew him as ‘a very bad boy’ (which given that he was 20 and not 12 suggests again that this was a person who today would be diagnosed with a learning difficulty or mental illness and not treated as a criminal).  The bench had no truck with violence towards medical or police officials and sent Eli to prison for a month at hard labour.

[from The Morning Post , Tuesday, September 11, 1883]

Child cruelty or a single parent who simply couldn’t cope?

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Children in the St Pancras workhouse school at Leavesden

I think it would be quite easy to look at this next case and judge the man in the dock quite harshly. Perhaps that would be correct as William Everett’s supposed neglect of his three children had brought them almost to the point of starvation and most people would condemn him for that cruelty.

Moreover William Everett, a ‘jobbing gardener’ in full time work, liked a drink and the inference drawn here is that he preferred to spend money on alcohol than on his children.

But before we are as quick to judge him as the editor of the Standard was in September 1877, let’s look at the context and see if we might read between the lines.

Everett was charged at Clerkenwell Police court with ‘neglecting to maintain his children’. As a result of this neglect they had fallen chargeable on the parish of St Pancras and had thus become a burden on the ratepayers. The prosecution was brought, therefore, by the local Poor Law Guardians and one of the relieving officers, a Mr Stevens, gave evidence.

He told the magistrate, Mr Hosack, that he’d been called to the prisoner’s home at 16 Bertam Street, Highgate New Town, after some neighbours expressed their concerns. He found the children in a half starved state:

They were very scantily clothed and in want of food’. He gave some funds for them and told Everett to look after them better in future.

Some weeks later however, on the 24 May 1877, he was again called to the property by worried locals.

He found the children in the most deplorable condition. They had no food, and when food was given to them they ate ravenously. There was no bed for them to lie upon, and they scarcely had a particle of clothing’.

The officer took the children to the workhouse and they had since been sent (by the guardians) to an industrial school at Leavesden (which had began to built in 1868). They were safe then, but their care was being met by local people through the rates and not by their father.

Mr Hosack thought this was one of the worst cases of child neglect he’d seen as a magistrate and said so. How much did Everett earn? He was paid 21a week the deputy relieving officer told him, which should have been sufficient, it was felt, to provide home, heat and food for his family of four. However, as he ‘was given to drinking’ perhaps he squandered much of it.

In his defence William Everett said he did his best, but as he was out all day working he could hardly care for them as well. He had no wife, either she’d died or had left them, but her absence from court suggests the former.

The children were Rosina Jane (11), Emily (8) and Thomas (7) so only Rosina was really of an age where she could be expected to help out. His landlady at Bertram Street said that William went out very early leaving the children a 1lb of bread to eat and didn’t come home till very late. She often took them in herself and washed them, She said ‘it was quite a relief to neighbourhood when the children were removed to the workhouse’.

I bet it was. It must have been hard to see three small children virtually starving and living in dire poverty while their father either spent his days working every hour he could, and/or the evenings drinking himself into oblivion in the pub.

Who was to blame however? A society that allowed such desperate poverty to exist in the richest city in the world or the neglectful gardener who enjoyed one too many drinks at the end of a hard day and perhaps couldn’t face returning to a family home he had once shared with his wife. Each day he was reminded of his loss as he looked own on the plaintive faces of his children, all three of whom probably resembled their mother. As for the money he earned, well that was, at 21a week, about £65 today, how far would that go?

But perhaps I’m guilty of misplaced sympathy for William Everett, perhaps he was simply a drunk and neglectful parent who wasn’t prepared to take responsibility for his own family. That’s clearly what the magistrate thought: he sent him to prison for a month, with hard labour. The parish rates would continue to support his kids.

[from The Standard, Thursday, September 06, 1877]