A mother’s grief as her son’s rejection condemns her to the workhouse

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Having just formally committed William Herbert to the Old Bailey to face trial for murder the Clerkenwell magistrate then had to deal with a string of applications from impoverished petitioners who needed help.

One of these was an elderly widow who said that her son had abandoned her. She wanted to know if Mr Barstow (the magistrate) could compel her son to support her?

The justice asked her to explain the situation, which she did. Her son had recently married, and that had been the start of ‘her troubles’ because at almost the same time her husband had died. Except that he wasn’t actually her husband. In common with many working-class couple in the 1800s they hadn’t officially married.

But no one knew this, not even her children, so it must have come as something of a shock to the young man when his new wife (‘through her inquisitiveness’) found out and told him. Up until then the widow had been allowing her son ‘to have what part of the house he pleased’ and he had agreed to pay her 26a week in maintenance.

However, as soon as he discovered the family secret he changed; he called her a ‘fallen woman, a woman of sin’ and refused to have anything more to do with her. She didn’t complain or censure him but simply reminded her son that he ‘had been brought up respectably’ and she hoped he would at least continue to pay her the weekly allowance.

He refused outright and (and here was the clue to his change of heart) told her that ‘his wife ashamed of her past conduct, and would not allow him to do anything for her’.

‘In fact’, he continued, ‘he had got orders from his wife not to speak to her’.

She had come to terms with his rejection of her but she needed that money which was why she had come to see the magistrate for his help. Unfortunately Mr Barstow told her that there was nothing he could do for her; ‘an illegitimate son was not bound to keep his mother’. With that the ‘poor woman, who seemed much affected’ left the court probably knowing that her next port of call must be the parish workhouse.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, November 15, 1880]

Winter is coming

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Winter is coming.

Hallowe’en has come and gone and Bonfire Night is looming. The clocks have gone back and the air has turned distinctly chilly. Yesterday in town I noticed more rough sleepers than usual around King’s Cross and St Pancras and reflected once again that our modern society still hasn’t solved the problem of poverty. And now an election is looming and we might ask ourselves which party is most determined to address the problem of poverty and inequality in the UK?

The reports from the Victorian Police Courts provide ample evidence that desperation and poverty were endemic in the 1800s. This was a society without a welfare state, with no old age pension scheme, or National Health Service, or social services. Where we have a benefits system (however flawed) they had the workhouse or charity and recourse to either meant shame and failure.

In our ‘modern’ world we have people whose lives have been destroyed by drink or drugs and both provide the really desperate with the anaesthetic they need to simply survive on day-to-day basis. I saw a notice yesterday that said, ‘would you smash up a phone box to get 24 hours in a dry cell with food?’

This is a reality for some people in ‘modern’ Britain.

In October 1865 Mary M’Grath was charged at Thames Police Court with being drunk and disorderly and punching a policeman. Mary was about 30 years old and had a baby with her in court. PC John Mansfield (393K) testified that on the previous afternoon he had seen Mary rolling about, quite drunk, on the East India Dock Road.

She was carrying her infant and staggering about so badly that she kept banging into the nearby ‘walls and houses’. The child was ‘injured and screamed fearfully’, he added. Mary kept up a stream of the most unpleasant language, so disgusting that several onlookers complained to him about it.

Eventually  she fell heavily and a man rushed up to save the child and a police sergeant arrived to help  PC Mansfield take her to the police station. Once there she rewarded him with more abuse and landed a blow on his face, blackening his eye and impairing his sight.

The next day they appeared in court before Mr Paget, the magistrate, who asked the constable what had become of the child.

‘It was taken to the workhouse’, the policeman replied.

‘How old is it?’ the magistrate asked him.

‘Four months old’.

‘It is eight months old’, piped up Mary from the dock.

Mr Paget declared that nothing was more disgraceful than seeing a mother so drunk in public. Didn’t she have a husband at home he enquired.

‘No sir, my husband died seven years ago’, came the reply. So her baby was illegitimate and presumably the product of new relationship or a casual encounter, and no father was present in court. Drunk, riotous and promiscuous the magistrate was probably thinking, a suitable object not for pity but for condemnation.

In reality of course Mary’s life became that much more difficult when her husband had passed away. She would have lost the main bread winner and her partner. It is likely she already had children so they would have added to her problems. Perhaps this explains her descent into alcoholism.

She told him that she couldn’t remember what had happened the previous day, so drunk had she been. She had been inside the workhouse, and therefore destitute as no one went inside iff they could possibly help it.

‘I was there long enough’ she explained, and ‘I was half starved’ and ‘discharged myself. I took a drop [of alcohol] and lost myself’.

So in her version of events  she had been so malnourished in the ‘house’ that a small amount of drink (probably gin) had affected her much more than it would normally. It was probably an exaggeration of the truth but it did her no good. Instead of opting to find her some help in the form of money, food and shelter Mr Paget sent her to prison for a month at hard labour.

She had merely swapped one uncaring institution for another. As for the child, well as a ‘suckling’ Mr Paget decided it needed to stay with its mother, so off to gaol it went as well.

This was an oft repeated story in Victorian London. Children were growing up affected by alcoholism, grinding poverty, homelessness, and sometimes, prison. No wonder reformers demanded change and some turned to ‘extreme’ politics (like socialism or anarchism). Men like Paget had comfortable lives and sat in judgement for the most part on those that scraped by.

Can we, hand on heart, say that 150 years later everything is so much better? Yes, of course to an extent we have provided a much better safety net for Mary M’Grath and her baby. But have we really tackled the root causes of her poverty? No, I don’t think we have  and while we pursue a form of economics and politics that allows some people to live in epic luxury while others sleep rough on the streets I don’t think we can sit in judgement of our ancestors either.

Winter is coming. Use your vote wisely.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, November 01, 1865]

Hard choices for an unmarried mother in Spitalfields

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Spitalfields (in the early 20th century) by the photographer C. A. Matthew 

Sophia Higgins, the wife of a chemist in Spicer Street, Spitalfields was making her way home at 11 at night when something caught her attention.  She was crossing the market when she heard what she thought was a baby crying.

Moving towards the sound she soon discovered an infant ‘lying on the pavement, wrapped in a piece of blanket’. Horrified she stopped it up, went to find a person nearby to care for it, and then rushed off to the nearest police station.

The police arrived and collected the child, taking it to the Whitechapel workhouse to make enquiries there. Having established from the porter who they thought the mother was, another officer was despatched to find her and arrest her.

Eventually Ellen Lehain was identified as the child’s mother and questioned by the police before being summoned before the magistrate at Worship Street Police Court in October 1853. A witness, Ann Buskin (described as an ‘unmarred female’) said she had lodged with Ellen at a property in Holborn and testified that she had recently given birth to an illegitimate child.

Ann explained that her fellow lodger had ‘nursed it for a few weeks, when she left there to go into the union house’ (meaning the local workhouse for the poor).

The child was produced in court and  Ellen admitted it was hers. When the policeman had asked her what she had done with it she had told him she’d left the baby at the door of the workhouse. So how did it come to be in the middle of Spitalfields market the court wanted to know?

Ellen’s response to this question is not recorded.

In her defence the girl simply pleaded poverty and distress as the reason for abandoning her new born baby. Mr D’Eyncourt sent her to the house of correction for three months, the fate of her child was not something the newspaper reporters seems to have thought important enough to write down. Perhaps it was obvious: the child would become another mouth for the parish union to feed, until at least he or she could be apprenticed out into service.

No one seemed to be in the least bit interested in the fate of its mother, who must have been in considerable distress to give up a child she had been caring for for several weeks.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, October 14, 1853]

‘Such things are a disgrace there’: A Dutchman tries to save his father’s shame by dumping his grandchild on the streets of London

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Lower Thames Street in the late 1800s

One of the subjects that continues to fascinate my undergraduate students is infanticide. Almost invariably they approach the topic wanting to understand how a mother could deliberately murder her newborn baby. Looking through the very many cases that came before the Old Bailey they are understandably shocked at the stories of women who cut their infant child’s throat, or smothered it at birth, before dumping the body in the nearest privy.

Without wishing to deny the reality that some mothers did kill their newborn babies I think most historians would agree that this was probably the exception rather than the rule in infanticide cases. Babies died in childbirth much more often in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, before advancements in medical care arrived in the 1900s. Most importantly the women accused were invariably single, poor, young and from the servant class. These young women had fallen pregnant and then had tried to conceal this from their families and employers, for fear of being condemned as immoral and, in the case of servants, being dismissed from service.

Illegitimacy is not an issue in most Western societies today. Very many people choose to live together before they marry and some do not marry at all yet still have children. This has been widely accepted in most communities in Britain since the 1970s if not a little earlier and the word ‘bastard’ has almost lost its original meaning.

However this was far from true in the 1800s, even if – as this case perhaps implies – London was seen as a more progressive city than some in Europe.

In December 1875 Samuel Whiffin was walking towards London Bridge on Lower Thames Street when he noticed a parcel lying near a doorway. As a policeman was approaching from the opposite direction Whiffin called him over and pointed out the package. PC Holly examined it and realized that it contained the body of an infant.

To his relief the baby was alive but very cold, so PC Holly carried it off to the Home for the Houseless Poor. This charity provided ‘nightly shelter and sustenance to the absolutely destitute working- classes, who are suddenly thrown out of employment by inclement weather’.* Having been looked after by the charity the child was next taken to the Homerton Workhouse and the search for its parents began.

Three days later Jans Hans, a Dutch labourer living at 3, Walburgh Street, St George-in-the-East, was brought before Sir Robert Carden at  Mansion House to be examined concerning the abandonment of the child. He was accused along with his sister, who was in St George’s hospital and too ill to attend.

The court heard the evidence of PC Holly as to the finding of the baby and then from a Mrs Plaggenine, a German woman who was landlady to Hans and his sister. Sir Robert was interested in the revelation that the siblings shared a single room in the property, and intimated that this was not normal. Mrs Plaggenine ignored, or did not understand, the magistrate’s question, but the suggestion of incest was left hanging in the air.

The policeman that had arrested Jan Hans questioned him about the child and reported that the man had admitted leaving it in the street on the previous Thursday. Hans told him that he had set the child down then retired to a safe spot where he could watch to see that someone stopped and rescued the baby. He had tried advertising the baby for adoption but had no success.

Hans and his sister were desperate, the Dutchman now explained to the alderman. They were very poor and couldn’t afford to raise a child. His sister had traveled from Holland ‘to be confined’ (to give birth) because the father refused to take responsibility for it. He added that ‘such things were a disgrace there’.

Presumably because Jan lived and worked in London this seemed like a good solution to Hans senior. If he sent his daughter to England she could give birth and the child would be brought up by strangers in a strange country but at least his family’s reputation would be protected. The child had a lucky escape and it is hard to imagine the mental state of Hans’ sister who seems to have been almost entirely left out of the decision-making process. She was ill in hospital while her brother disposed of her baby and the alderman magistrate cast further doubt on her morality by suggesting it was the product of an incestuous relationship.

Jan Hans was remanded in custody so that the courts could decide what to do with him and his sister. If they couldn’t and wouldn’t care for the baby (and no adopted family could be found) then it would grow up in the workhouse like Oliver Twist, perhaps never knowing of it Dutch heritage.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, 20 December, 1875]

A vicar refuses to baptise a woman’s ninth childi

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As an example of how the London Police courts were used for all manner of business and as a one-stop advice bureau I present this case from October 1861. A woman named Evans (I cannot call her ‘Mrs Evans’ because she declared herself to be Unmarried) at Wandsworth Police court to ask for Mr Dayman’s advice.

Ms Evans had recently given birth to her ninth child, each of whom she had taken to be christened at Battersea Church, most of them by Reverend Jenkinson the presiding minister. However, on this occasion when she showed up with her infant he refused either to christen the baby or to ‘church’ her after her confinement.

Churching refers to the blessing given to mothers soon after they have given birth and is even performed if the child had died or the mother chose not to baptize it. So it was strange that the reverend refused both to christen her newborn or offer his blessing on the mother.

Ms Evans thought she knew why Rev. Jenkinson had refused her:

‘I suspect the reason of his objecting is because I am not married’, she told the magistrate.

‘That would not be a reason’ Mr Dayman responded.

‘I asked him the reason and he said that as I was not married he would neither church me nor christen my child. I went again on Sunday, and I could not have it done’.

The justice wasn’t sure what to do in this case. He wasn’t familiar with ecclesiastical (church) law but had never heard of a clergyman refusing to baptize a child, regardless of whether it was legitimate or not. Thousands of babies were born illegitimate in London every year since marriage amongst the working classes was not as common as we might think.

Ms Evans had gone along with two godfathers and was angry and upset that the vicar had refused her. All the magistrate could suggest was that she went over the vicar’s head and complained to the Bishop  (in this case the Bishop of Winchester). The court clerk furnished her with the bishop’s address and she thanked his worship and left.

Perhaps the vicar was trying to make a point about marriage and legitimacy; having blessed eight previous products of a relationship unordained by God however, it seems a little churlish of him to refuse the ninth however.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, October 23, 1861]

‘Why, that is the old, old game, they all deny they are the father!’ Paternity and the working classes

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In the eighteenth century provincial magistrates spent a lot of their time adjudicating on cases of illegitimacy. While it wasn’t exactly a crime to have a child out of wedlock it was still considered a disgrace to be avoided. More pressing for the parish authorities was the  fear that if the father of a newborn was not identified, and then held responsible for the mother and child, a financial burden might fall upon the ratepayers.

This seems to have continued well into the Victorian period but bastardy cases (to use the terminology of the law) are not as frequently reported as I thought they might be. This may mean they didn’t occur that often or, that they were so mundane and everyday as not to be worth reporting.

In late July 1878 one case did make it into the pages of the weekly Illustrated Police News, perhaps because it seemed to shine a light into working-class lives and allow readers to chuckle at the loose morals of the labouring classes.

Edward Bellett was summoned before the magistrate at Clerkenwell to ‘show cause why he should not contribute towards the support of an illegitimate child’. Bellett didn’t bother turn up, hardly surprising perhaps since his given address was the Monarch Public House, on Hornsey Road.

Instead it was left to the complainant, Alice Martin (of Canonbury Park) and her sister-in-law (Ellen Martin), to present the case against him. They told Mr Hosack, the justice, how Alice and Edward had met while they both worked as servants more than a year ago.

The pair got on famously from the moment they met and it was felt by everyone that saw them that they ‘are going to make a match of it’. I suspect that while this may have been how Alice saw it she may also have been laying the foundations of her suit against him, and also preserving her reputation by initiating that she fully believed their courtship would lead to marriage.

It didn’t however, but ‘improper indecency’ certainly did and, on July 15 1877 she gave birth to a little boy. Before then she’d already had to leave service; few servants could continue to work once the household had discovered they were ‘enciente’ (as the reporter put it). She didn’t see Edward at all once she left and he refused to acknowledge his paternity when they did meet, declaring that she would have to go to law if she expected him to support her.

Ellen Martin had accompanied her sister-in-law to meet with the reluctant father and she took centre stage in the hearing at Clerkenwell to describe how such things were conducted. The couple had met in a private bar of a public house (perhaps the one that was cited in the summons), with Ellen standing nearby, earwigging their conversation.

She merely went to see fair play‘, she insisted, and ‘at first stood on one side, but, woman-like, wanting to to see a little of what was going on, she went nearer and nearer and heard all that passed.’ She explained that Edward ‘did the usual thing on such auspicious occasions‘.

What was ‘the usual thing’ Mr Hosack enquired.

Why, to go to the private bar of some public-house to talk the matter over quietly and for the father to stand some refreshment, which he did, and it was a drop of gin. After a long “conflab” [Edward] told [Alice] to meet him on the following Sunday fortnight’ (as he only got every other Sunday off.

Edward told Alice to come alone, insisting that ‘two’s company but three’s a crowd’. He clearly didn’t want Ellen along to back her sister up and stiffen her resolve. He said he would pay something towards the child’s upkeep if he was forced to but no money ever materialised, hence the official summons.

Mr Hosack was dubious. He wasn’t convinced that Edward was the father of Alice’s child (which in itself suggested he wasn’t too impressed by her character, or that of her sister-in-law) but nor was he sure it could be proved that he was.

Well ‘they all say they are not the father’, Ellen quipped, ‘that is the old, old game’ and he shouldn’t fall for it. After all, she added, the baby looked ‘just like him’ and so she was sure, having met the man, that he must be the father. The magistrate played for time, saying that while he doubted much could be done he would at least insist that Edward was brought to court to speak for himself.

I dont know the outcome of this case but suspect Alice was not able to persuade Edward to undertake his responsibilities towards her baby. Curiously in early August an Alice Martin was brought before the magistrates at the Shire Hall in Nottingham and charged with leaving her employment in May of the previous year. This Alice was a maid of all work to a Nottinghamshire publican. He sued her for breach of contract and wanted to recover damages against her. Alice claimed she left because she’d been mistreated. The bench dismissed the case and let her go.

If she’d had a baby in mid July then she would have been fairly ‘big with child’ in May or at least showing, so perhaps this is our Alice Martin after all. Having left her paid employment and with a child on the way perhaps she headed for London to seek out her brother and his wife, perhaps knowing that her lover lived in the capital as well. Otherwise this is quite the coincidence.

[from The Illustrated Police News etc, Saturday, July 27, 1878; Nottinghamshire Guardian , Friday, August 02, 1878]

A personal tragedy for the girl that couldn’t cope

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By the time Ann Poulter was brought before the magistrate at Marlborough Street she had recovered sufficiently from her pregnancy to face a rigourous legal inquisition. It was almost six weeks since she had given birth on the 2 May 1845 and she’d spent most of the time in between in hospital as she was very weak. Now Ann, a servant working at a house in Hanway Street, Fitzrovia, was charged with killing her new born baby.

Standing in the dock before the justice, Mr Maltby she now had to listen to a succession of witnesses testify against her. The first of these was Diana Hugo a charwoman who deposed that on that day she’d gone to work at Hanway Street as usual. She’d suspected that Ann was pregnant and was hiding it, as many young women would have done in a society that condemned women for falling pregnant before marriage.

Servant girls like Ann were vulnerable to the pressures applied by masters or their sons, or indeed those of their fellow male servants. Even if the child was  a product of  a loving relationship it was likely to be unwelcome because having a child out of wedlock was a sure fire way to get yourself dismissed in Victorian England.

Diana Hugo’s suspicions were confirmed by what she found in the kitchen – traces of blood on the floor and other signs. She told her mistress he called Ann to her and grilled her about it. Ann denied everything and said she’d merely been unwell ‘but would soon be better’.

The char wasn’t convinced and when she heard the stifled cry of an infant she searched and found (in the coal cellar) a baby girl, ‘newly born, wrapped in a gown’ that belonged to Ann. The baby and mother were reunited and Ann was sent to bed and a surgeon was sent for.

Dr Odling was next to give evidence. He said he examined Ann and the baby later that day and all was well. When he came back in the evening however the child was dead and there ‘were marks of violence on its person, particularly about its head’. The police were summoned and Ann was arrested and taken away.

The doctor that carried out the post mortem examination (a Dr Hind) said that the injuries the child had sustained were not obvious externally. The baby girl had died of injuries to her head, her little skull being fractured. Ann told him that one or two days before the birth she’d tripped and fallen downstairs, which is how she accounted for the injuries to her baby.

Now it was Ann’s turn to give her account of what happened and she was vague and contradicted the earlier reports. She admitted dropping the child so that it bruised its face, but it wasn’t intentional. She also said that she hadn’t released she was so close to her time or she would left her employment and gone into confinement.

The consequences of being found guilty of killing her baby were serious but it seems that there was no one in court who was there to help or speak up for her.

Mr Maltby committed her to take her trial at the Old Bailey but I can find no record of this taking place. Nor does she appear in the records collated under the digital panopticon project, so what happened to her? She may have been tried and acquitted – not all not guilty verdicts were written up for the Old Bailey Proceedings. She may avoided trial altogether if, say, some new evidence surfaced.

But I suspect the real reason she disappears from the records is that she died; possibly while awaiting trial in prison. She was clearly a disturbed young woman to have hidden her baby in the coal cellar, and it seems likely she did kill it. It isn’t too wild a leap then to suggest that the pain of this coupled with her personal trauma led her to end her own life before a jury convicted her of taking that of her new born daughter’s.

Hanway Street is rumoured to have been named after Jonas Hanway, an eighteenth-century philanthropist and founder of the Marine Society (which helped destitute young boys find an escape from poverty and crime in the Navy). Hanway was also a governor at Thomas Coram’s Foundling Hospital, which took in the unwanted offspring of the poor. One of Coram and the other founders (such as William Hogarth) aims was to offer a safe refuge for illegitimate babies born to mothers who felt they had no alternative but to get rid of them. So there is a sad irony that this tragedy took place in where it did.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, June 18, 1845]