‘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]

The ‘Peculiar People’ and the tragic death of little Alice

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After yesterday’s bank holiday violence and drunken disorder the reports from the London police courts returned to more criminal topics. At Bow Street a fugitive from Cape Town in British South Africa was refused bail on a charge of stealing diamonds and £1300 in cash. while at Mansion House John Thompson was committed to face trial at Old Bailey for several thefts in and around the Inner Temple law chambers. In the end he was convicted of stealing a hat brush and a coat, while seven similar charges were taken into consideration. He was gaoled for nine months.

Over at Lambeth an unusual case unfolded. It had come before the magistrates before but was now to be resolved the paper reported. It concerned the death of a child and the suggestion of negligence on behalf of the parents.

Robert Cousins, a 27 year-old man living in Orient Street, West Square, Lambeth was presented before Mr Chance and charged with the manslaughter of Alice Maria Cousins, his 11 month old daughter. Dr Price from Guy’s Hospital said that his post mortem examination revealed that baby Alice had died from tuberculosis and pneumonia. The magistrate quizzed him as to whether the child might have lived had the father summoned a doctor, which he clearly hadn’t. She may have, the doctor confirmed, but it was far from certain.

Why hadn’t Cousins sought medical help? Was he too poor or was there another reason?

This became apparent when the next witness took the stand. She was Matilda Taylor and she said she belonged to a Christian sect called the ‘Peculiar People’. A branch of Wesleyanism, the Peculiar People (sometimes conflated with Quakers) did not believe in medicine. Instead Matilda insisted, they chose instead to pray for Alice’s recovery and leave her fate to God.

‘Supposing your leg is broken’ Mr Chance demanded, what would she do then? ‘The Lord has not told us what to do in that case, but he does tell us in sickness what to do’.

So we must presume that the Cousins were also members of this branch of Christianity.

Mr Chance was not impressed:

‘It is really wonderful how persons can have such narrow-minded fanaticism’ he quipped, before adding that ‘it is a most guilty and unfeeling conduct to adopt. You take just one passage or so from the Bible, instead of taking it as a whole’.

Nevertheless he dismissed the charge of manslaughter on legal grounds, suggesting instead that the Public Prosecutor might wish to bring a case of endangering life by neglect, which brought a sentence of six months upon conviction. The ‘peculiar people’ then upped and left his court, presumably followed by dark looks and murmurings of righteous indignation from the public gallery.

[from The Standard, Thursday, March 29, 1883]

This isn’t the only reference to the Peculiar People and clashes with the legal system in Victorian London as this blog suggests

The limits of the magistrate’s powers exposed as the co-op is in the dock

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Mary Anne Loane was a ‘poor thinly-clad and wretched-looking’ woman who came to see the Thames Police court magistrate to seek his help. She told Mr Paget that she and her husband had been defrauded of 20s by the St George Co-operative and Provident Industrial Society.

She and her husband, a journeyman shoemaker, lived in Rosemary Lane – a very poor area of London. Mr Loane had invested 20s in the Co-op by paying in 3 and 6d whenever he could afford it. In return they were promised a dividend and ‘get provisions cheap’.

No interest was forthcoming however, and Mrs Loane complained that goods were actually more expensive in the Co-op stores in Cannon Street and its bakery on John Street than they were in her local grocer’s. She told Mr Paget she paid  a penny more for per pound for sugar in the Co-op and ‘candies were [also] a penny dearer at the stores’.

To add insult to injury when one of their children had died, and her husband had asked to retrieve his investment to pay for the burial fees, ‘he was told by the committee [of the Co-op] that it must be buried by the parish’. Being buried by the parish was the ultimate humiliation for poor families and many joined burial clubs to make sure they had the funds to avoid this. Mr Loane had probably thought he was insuring himself and his family against such an eventuality rather than dreaming of the ‘riches’ he could make from his investment but it had all come crashing down with he failure of the company to pay up.

The Loanes weren’t the only ones affected by this, there were other ‘sufferers’ and many of them crowd into Mr Paget’s court to see what he was going to do for them.

Sadly, he could do nothing at all.

‘I cannot help you’ he told Mrs Loane,

‘You must put up with it if you join such societies as these, where the magistrates have no jurisdiction’.

He asked to see the printed rules and regulations of the Co-opertaive society  and was handed a copy but that only confirmed his fears. He was powerless to act, the families would have nothing for their investments which, though small in the general scheme of things, were all the excess ‘wealth’ they had in the world.

An item printed after that day’s reports from the Police Courts listed the births and deaths in the metropolis in the year 1865. London had an estimated population of 2,999,513 in 1865 and the population was growing. Average weekly births outstripped deaths (2,052 to 1,413) and the report went on to state, with some pride, that the capital had dealt with the outbreaks of cholera much more effectively than had been the case on the Continent. Nearly 11,000 Londoners died of cholera in 1853-4 before Dr John Snow identified that it was spread by water and measures were taken to combat it.

July 1855 saw the ‘Great Stink’ and Joseph Bazalgette’s work to improve the city’s sewer system started the following year. His scheme didn’t cover all of London by 1866 however and when cholera arrived again it was the East End, and London’s poorest (like the residents of Rosemary Lane) that were most vulnerable.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, February 22, 1866]

Smallpox brings death and difficult decisions to the Westminster Police Court

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Watercolour of a hand with smallpox by Robert Carswell in 1831 (Wellcome Library, London)

Mr Selfe had only just taken his seat at Westminster Police Court on the morning of the 12 April 1863 when the officer of health for the parish of St George’s, Hanover Square approached him. As a magistrate Selfe had to deal with all sorts of problems and issues of everyday life, but few were as sensitive as this.

The health officer, Dr Aldis of Chester Place, explained to the magistrate that a three year-old child had died of smallpox, a disease that remained widespread in poorer communities in the nineteenth century despite Edward Jenner’s best efforts to promote vaccination against it.

The unnamed child was lying in his cot so people could pay their respects, as tradition dictated, at a room in a house in Pimlico and Dr Aldis was worried about the public health consequences of this. The ‘small back room’ was home to the ‘boy’s father and mother and three other children’ and no fewer than 26 other persons lived in the property. Moreover, the doctor insisted, this was a crowded locality ‘in which the smallpox is very prevalent’.

He wanted to have the child buried quickly to avoid contagion but the mother was resistant. She wanted to grieve for her son and to do so in the customary way. The family were part of London’s large immigrant Irish community and they fully supported the bereaved mother.

Mr. Badderly, the overseer of the poor for the parish, had attempted arrange the funeral and had sent a man named Osborne to the house to try and remove the dead boy. He brought a small coffin and with the father’s permission placed the child within it. When the mother found it however, she removed her son and placed him back in his cradle. When Osborn objected a group of local Irish gathered and ‘intimidated him with their threats [so that] he felt compelled to retire’.

Here then was a clash between the parish and its obligations towards the health of the community and the very personal wishes of one grieving mother and her friends and family. Since the child’s father either agreed with the health officer or simply felt much less strongly that his wife, the court was bound to side with the parish. Mr. Selfe agreed that the child needed to be buried immediately, for the sake of public health, and since the father had no objection the mother’s wishes were of no consequence. The magistrate said that in his opinion ‘there could be impropriety in the police accompanying the parish officers to see that there was no breach of the peace from the removal of the child’.

It is a desperately sad story which reveals both the reality of infant mortality in the Victorian period and the poverty and overcrowding that condemned so many to a premature death. It also demonstrates the difficult decisions that some magistrates had to make when faced with evidence that ran counter to the wishes of individuals who had not done anything wrong or in any way ‘criminal’.

The mother’s desire to mourn for dead boy in her own way is completely understandable, but when this was countered by what was (at the time) understood to be a risk to the health of very many others, the justice’s decision is also easily understood. This week we have had the heart-rending story of the struggle of Connie Yates and Chris Gard who have lost the latest stage of their battle to keep their son, Charlie, alive in Great Ormond Street Hospital.

Mr. Justice Francis, who made the decision knew, as everyone in the court did, that when he told doctors ‘at Great Ormond Street that they could withdraw all but palliative care, was to all intents and purposes delivering a death sentence’.* He acted in what he considered to be the best interest of the child and against the interests of the parents. Time alone will tell whether he was right to do so.

At Westminster court in 1863 Mr. Selfe may have done the right thing, and saved many other lives. Given what we now know about smallpox it is unlikely that anyone would have caught it unless they had physical contact with the child whilst his exposed scabs still covered him, but the magistrate was not necessarily aware of that and so his actions were perhaps the best thing he could do in the circumstances.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, April 13, 1863]

*www.guardian.com [accessed 13/4/17]