‘Where are your father and mother?’ A young girl, broken by poverty, breaks windows and then breaks down in court

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I know that there are people in this world that believe that society has become too soft: too soft on crime, on beggars, on children, on immigrants. They will often look back to the distant past and make specious pronouncements on how there was more respect or deference in the past. It is part and parcel of a lack of empathy for others – perhaps best (or rather worst) expressed by Jacob Rees-Mogg in his hateful comments about the ‘stupidity’ of the victims of the Grenfell Tower disaster.

Before the Liberal reforms of the early twentieth century and the transformative Labour government of 1945 this country treated its poorest with callous unconcern. This indifference to the suffering of the poor was extended to the mentally ill, the sick poor, elderly, and orphaned children. If you weren’t wealthy you simply didn’t matter in the eyes of the elites that ran the country.

I think we can see this in the treatment of one young teenage girl in east London in 1865.

Priscilla Herman was an inmate of the Bethnal Green workhouse. She was under 16 years of age and in November she was brought before the magistrate at Worship Street Police court charged with criminal damage.

The court heard that Priscilla, described as ‘placid’ but displaying ‘features indicative of aught but abandoned and vicious conduct’, had smashed five panes of glass and verbally abused a female overlooker.

That was Ann Summers, who testified that when she’d asked her to do some cleaning work Priscilla had refused and threatened her. Summers was old and the girl had threatened, she said, ‘to beat my _______ old head in’.

The magistrate asked the overlooker why she hadn’t found Priscilla work as a domestic servant outside of the workhouse. She’d tried, Summers explained, but she kept getting dismissed.

‘A great many of the girls turn out bad after leaving us; the language of this one is most shameful and disgusting’.

The police constable that had escorted Priscilla to court agreed that her language was ‘dreadful’. He added that she’d admitted braking the windows but no one knew why she did it.

I doubt anyone really cared why she did it, they simply wanted to punish her for doing so. The magistrate did ask her some questions however:

‘Why did you leave your last place, girl?’

No answer.

‘Did you do wrong?’

No answer.

‘Where are your father and mother?’

At this Priscilla broke down in the dock and started sobbing.

‘I haven’t any’, she cried.

She admitted behaving badly at her last job and promised to do better and ‘be a good girl’ if she were given another chance.

As an orphan under 16 I would hope we would give Priscilla a chance today although given the large numbers of teenagers sleeping rough on our streets I’m not confident that our society would do much better by her.  However, I doubt even  the most heartless of Rees-Mogg’s chums would do as the magistrate here did, and send Priscilla to prison for three weeks, effectively minimalizing any chance of her finding an honest living outside of the ‘house in the near future.

She was led away, still sobbing he eyes out, her future looking bleak as winter approached.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, November 24, 1865]

A little local difficulty: ‘political’ violence in early Victorian Stepney

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Politics, as we have seen recently, can sometimes get a little heated and nothing gets more heated than local politics. Having stood as a candidate for local elections in the recent past I can attest to long running petty squabbles between party workers, elected and defeated councilors, and their friends and families.

In one large east Midlands town there were dark mutterings about a Conservative councilor who had defected from Labour several years earlier simply because he thought it more likely to be re-elected if he stood for ‘the other side’.  The suggestion (made by his Conservative colleague, against whom I was contesting a seat) was that he only entered politics for the rewards it brought in terms of his local standing in the community; it mattered not whether he was part of a left or right political party, what mattered was being in government.

I’ve no idea if this was accurate or fair (and indeed I wondered at the time if there was a smack of racism in the comment) but historically the exercise of local government has involved a deal of self aggrandizement. It is also accurate to say that local politics has probably always been fractious though it doesn’t always end in violence as this particular example from 1847 did.

Charles Williams, a general dealer from Mile End, was attending  meeting of the Stepney parish vestry on Easter Monday 1847 when a man rushed into the room and interrupted them. Williams and his colleagues were tasked with electing parish officers when James Colt (a local undertaker and carpenter) interrupted them.  Colt pulled the chair out from underneath one of the candidates for the role of churchwarden, tipping him on to the floor, before slamming shut the room’s shutters – plunging it into darkness – and throwing the ink pot into the fire. He called everyone present ‘the most opprobrious names’ and challenged them all to a fight.

It was a quite bizarre episode and it seemed that Colt’s intention had been to close down proceedings because he believed they were being conducted either illegally or unfairly. An argument then ensued about the manner of the meeting and whether it conformed to the rules as they were understood. James Colt was, like the man he’d tipped out of the chair, been seeking election as parish officer (an overseer in Colt’s case) and he may have believed he was being excluded form the meeting so as to have missed this chance at a bit of local power.  Perhaps he was, and perhaps with good reason.

Eventually Colt was summoned before the magistrate at Thames to face a charge of assault. The paper concentrated on the shenanigans at the parish meeting and heard several claims and counter claims regarding the legitimacy or otherwise of the proceedings but for Mr Ballantine the magistrate the question was simple: had Colt committed an assault or not? It was fairly obvious to all present that he had and so the justice fined him £5 and let him go. I would suggest James Colt had demonstrated by his histrionics that he was entirely unfit for public office.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, April 9, 1847]

The pillar box thief comes unstuck

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Today I am going to begin a week of posts all drawn from the equivalent week in 1884 (when the calendar matched with ours). For some context in 1884 Great Britain’s empire was at its height, Queen Victoria (who had been Empress of India since 1876) was in the 47th year of her reign. Her husband had died in December 1861, she had survived an assassination attempted two years earlier, then a bad fall at Windsor Castle which prevented her from walking properly for several months. This was compounded by the death of her servant John Brown, whom she mourned quite publicly, stoking rumours that the pair had been having an affair.

In politics Gladstone was in power, the second and longest of his four ministries. Disraeli (Victoria’s favourite) was dead and so the opposition was led by the future Tory PM Lord Salisbury. Socialism was becoming a force to be reckoned with on the European continent and in London on the 4 January 1884 the Fabian Society was founded with its particular brand of gentle democratic socialism. It attracted some of the leading thinkers and writers of the day, including George Bernard Shaw,  H. G. Wells, Annie Besant, Emmeline Pankhurst and Sidney and Beatrice Webb. The future Labour Party PM Ramsey MacDonald was also an early convert.

In January 1884 Gilbert and Sullivan’s eight comic opera, Princess Ida, opened at the Savoy Theatre in London’s West End and on the 18th, with less success, General Charles Gordon set off for Khartoum to quell an uprising in what is now Sudan; he never returned. In the world of sport 1884 saw the establishment of Derby County as a professional football club while in tennis William Renshaw won the Wimbledon men’s singles and Maud Watson beat her sister Lillian in the ladies final.

Over at Westminster Police court, on the morning of January 2, William Henderson was brought up for the second time having been remanded in custody charged ‘with intent to commit a felony’. Henderson, who gave his home address as a house in York Street, had been reported acting suspiciously on several occasions in and around Belgrave Square.

According to these reports Henderson was loitering near a pillar box which was later discovered to have been tampered with. When he’d realized a policeman was watching him he had run away and a letter addressed to ‘a lady in Scotland’ was found discarded by the post box, it was smeared with something sticky.

Henderson was picked up some hours afterwards and when he was searched he was found to have a pair of gloves with the fingers cuts off, also sticky with some sort of adhesive. There were also some hooks made from copper wire and more evidence of glue on his handkerchief.

A search of his lodgings revealed yet more adhesive material and ‘a contrivance for abstracting letters from pillar-boxes’. In addition to the mechanism he’d apparently been using to steal the post was a large collection of letters and stamps. Mr D’Eyncourt remanded him once more so the police investigation could be continued, in the meantime the letter thief (or avid philatelist) was returned to prison to await his fate. If you stick with my posts for the next few days (no fun intended) we may discover what happened to him.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, January 25, 1884]

‘Buy a ticket, feed a child this Christmas!’ The radical lottery that wasn’t to be

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This week I won a lucky dip on the National Lottery, not much I grant you, but it means I go into tonight’s draw with an extra line. My chances of winning (and starting to write this blog from a yacht moored in Cannes) may remain slim but they have just increased ever so slightly.

We buy lottery tickets because we dream we might change our lives, and many people have. Lotteries are nothing new of course nor are their critics. In the eighteenth century commentators railed against the London lottery that brought large crowds to the centre to hear the draw, and created a trade in the illegal trading of ‘numbers’.

Legislation at the start of the nineteenth century ruled that anyone running a lottery without the sanction of parliament was liable to a fine or imprisonment for up to three months. This restricted the proliferation of lotteries and so, as was intended, placed a curb on working-class gambling.

Some lotteries were deemed more acceptable than others however. Christmas lotteries, aimed at helping people provide ‘game, wine, spirits, etc’ for the festive period were not legal but it was understood that these were perhaps an exception and were rarely prosecuted.

So it must have seemed to Edwin Darrell that his lottery scheme, which aimed at raising money to ‘provide poor children with dinners’ at Christmas, would be allowed to go ahead. Sadly, Darrell was mistaken.

In December 1897 he was summoned before the Worship Street Police court and accused of selling ticket for the ‘Thirteenth Annual Grand Christmas Lottery’. Darrell was shown to have ordered the printing of 8,000 books of 10 tickets and of posters advertising the draw and prizes. These posters proudly stated that the funds from last year’s lottery sales had meant that ‘70,000 children had been fed’.

In court the prosecution presented the facts, which Darrell’s lawyer (a Mr Geoghegan) did not contest. Instead he stressed the lottery was entirely charitable and assured the magistrate that those buying tickets stood an even better chance of winning than they had in the previous year. In 1896 one of every 77 tickets won a prize, whereas this year one in just 45 was a winner. I wish I had those odds for the modern lottery!

The prosecution demanded that draw be cancelled forthwith as the lottery was illegal and despite Darrell’s protests that it should go ahead since tickets had already been sold (and so would presumably have to be refunded) the magistrate agreed. Mr Cluer told him that if the draw was lottery was folded no further action would be taken by the court but if it went ahead the full force of the law would be applied.

I understand that the law is the law but am surprised that an exception was not made in this case. After all the lottery was in its 13thyear and there was clear evidence that the proceeds were going to charity, and a very good cause at that. I wonder if it had more to do with politics?

Edwin Darrell was the secretary of the United Radical Club that was based in Kay Street, Bethnal Green. Popular labour radicalism had surged in the 1880s and presented an increasing challenge to the Liberal Party that had traditionally secured the votes of many working class men.  Maybe this was an opportunity for the authorities to slap down an emerging political force and remind others that rules, after all, were rules.

[from The Standard, Wednesday 8 December, 1897]

Laudanum, primroses and mental health collide as the millennium approaches.

Primrose Day 1885 by Frank Bramley 1857-1915

Primrose Day, by Frank Bramley (1885) Tale Gallery, London

By late April 1899 the old queen was nearing the end of her long reign and Britain was just six months away from the debacle of the second South African (Boer) war. The birth of Duke Ellington (on the 29 April) is an indicator that the ‘modern’ age was just around the corner, and all the horror and cataclysm that accompanied the ‘Great War’ less than a generation away. Yet as the millennium approached London was still very much a Victorian city where people looked backwards as much as forwards, and where ‘respectability’ ‘character’ and social class remained as ingrained as they had been for the last 100 years.

The Police courts of the capital continued to deal with the dregs of society; with the petty thieves, wife abusers, and disorderly prostitutes. Here was also where the poor came for advice or charity, and it was where those that manifestly could not cope with life sometimes turned up.

Jannie McDonald was one of those that struggled with life at the end of the century. Just 18 years of age Jannie was a young woman living in Notting Hill Gate. On the 26 April a policeman was called to her lodgings in Silver Street where he found her collapsed on the floor. She was clutching an empty bottle of laudanum that she has swallowed in an attempt to end her life. When she recovered she admitted that she had tried to kill herself on account of the abuse she received from her husband. The couple had been married less than a year but she preferred death to the prospect of returning to him. In court at West London Police court she changed her story and said she had only taken the drug to ‘procure some sleep and to ease pain’. The magistrate remanded her so that further enquiries could be made into the state of her mental health.

Over at Westminster William Lewis was re-examined having been remanded just over a week earlier. He was accused of criminal damage; he had allegedly ‘damaged the floral decorations at the Beaconsfield statue on Primrose Day’. Until April of this year 2018 (when the statue of Milicent Fawcett was installed) there were several famous people commemorated in Parliament Square, all of them men, one of which was Benjamin Disraeli, the Earl of Beaconsfield.

Disraeli, always Victoria’s favourite prime minister, died on 19 April 1881 and his followers marked his passing each year on Primrose Day. Perhaps Lewis was not a fan or held some grudge against the politician who pioneered what we now call ‘One nation Conservatism’. Like Jannie however, William was suffering from some form of mental illness. In fact enquiries in his case revealed that he had ‘three times been confined in a lunatic asylum’ and was currently out on ‘probation’. This didn’t refer to probation as we understand it within the criminal justice system today, as the first Probation orders were not issued until after August 1907. A district reliving officer from Rickmansworth (where William ‘belonged’) now appeared and he was discharged into his custody to be taken ‘home’ and re-confined.

Both these cases reveal that this was a society that was actually quite similar to our own with people that simply couldn’t cope with day-to-day life for whatever reason. What is noticeably different, one hopes at least, is that today both of these individuals would get more support from the state and local authorities than they did in 1899 at the end of the Victorian period. This change was not about to happen in 1899 of course; it took two world wars to finally overhaul the nature of the British state and create a society, which valued all of its citizens at least a little more equally than it had before. Two wars and the extension of the franchise (something Disraeli experimented with to win greater support for the Conservative Party) led to the election of ‘socialist’ government and the creation of a welfare state that remains (for all its flaws) the envy of the world to this day.

[from The Standard , Friday, April 28, 1899

When bureaucracy gets in the way of helping those in need: a case from history

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A workhouse in West London c.1857

In 1834 Parliament Passed the Poor Law Amendment Act ushering in one of the most contentious and unpopular pieces of legislation in our history. The New Poor law sought to reduce the costs of the pauperism (which fell on the ratepayers of any given parish) by discouraging people from applying for it. Previously the poor law had offered ‘doles’ to those in need to support them in the community – a form of ‘income support’ if you like. Workhouses existed and some parishes preferred the option of aiding the poor by giving them food and shelter in return for their labour; this was termed ‘indoor relief’.

After 1834 the New Poor Law stipulated that all those seeking relief should undergo the ‘workhouse test’. In other words enter the workhouse if they wanted any help from the parish. Given that this meant surrounding not only one’s independence but also accepting the breakup of the family, the new system provoked widespread resistance, condemnation and despair. Historians have argued that the ‘test’ was inconsistently enforced and very much dependant on the discretion of local poor law officials.

Nonetheless the 1834 legislation represented open season on the poor, vulnerable, sick and unemployed. The stain of the workhouse was not really removed until the 20th century, when the welfare state was established in 1948 by Attlee’s Labour government.

Before and after 1834 arguments over who was, or was not, entitled to poor relief often reached the summary courts for the adjudication of local magistrates. One group of people that frequently had their cases heard were the unmarried mothers of illegitimate children. These so-called ‘bastard bearers’ were considered to be not only immoral but a burden on the rates. Throughout the 18th and 19th century justices of the peace up and down the country grilled young women as to the paternity of their children and threatened them with the house of correction if they refused to divulge  the father’s name. Women also came voluntarily to court to complain that men had used them and then abandoned them without taking responsibility for the children that had helped bring into the world.

There was then, a mutual desire to make fathers pay for their offspring, either by marrying the mother or promising to pay a weekly amount to defray the costs that would otherwise fall on the parish and the rates.

In May 1845 Lloyd’s Weekly carried its usual summary of the ‘doings’ of the London Police Courts, where the capital’s professional magistracy sat in judgement on petty crime, violence, drunkenness, and a huge range of other business. Amongst its columns was a report on the ‘Bastardy Clause in the New Poor Law’. This referred to an update to the 1834 legislation just passed (in 1845) concerning illegitimacy.

It gave a single magistrate the power (previously only invested in two justices sitting together) to determine bastardy cases. Women were still to be examined and were still expected to ‘bring forward the same amount of “corroborative evidence” required by the old act’. In short they had to attempt to prove that the father was who they said he was.

The paper commented that this change had brought more women to court, perhaps because it was easier to find a single justice than wait for a petty sessions (or two or three JPs) to be convened. The paper was unsure however, whether the process was any better as a result. In fact the evidence from the London courts seemed to suggest that no one was really that sure how the law was affected by the new legislation and exactly who was responsible for sitting in judgement on cases brought by mothers who had been left high and dry by their lovers.

Lloyd’s gave an example: 

A young woman appeared at Marlborough Street Police Court to complain that she had given birth to a child and that the father, a groom working for Sir James Middleton in Whitehall, was refusing to support her and the baby. The groom denied any responsibility and had not paid her a penny in the three months since she gave birth. Given that her prospects for marriage were now extremely limited as were her opportunities to find paid work, this unnamed woman was facing the very real threat of having to enter the workhouse where she would most likely be separated from her child and lose all connection with it along with her independence.

No wonder she came to the magistrate at Marlborough Street for help.However, it was clearly more complicated than she had hoped to make her reluctant groom accept responsibility for his actions.

She told the magistrate that she had initially applied to the parish for help but they had referred her to the Queens Square Police Court. The justice there sent her instead to Bow Street. Bow Street sent her to marlborough Street, who at first referred her to the Clerkenwell Sessions of the Peace. At the sessions she was referred back to Marlborough Street. No one, it seems, wanters to take responsibility for this three month-old baby and its poverty-stricken mother.

Here at least Mr Maltby, referring to the new act, directed his clear to issue a summon to bring the groom to court in the following week. The woman was told to bring along the required “corroborative evidence”. Hopefully then he would be proven (as much as that was possible) to be the father of the child and mother and baby might avoid entering the dreaded workhouse so evocatively described by Dickens in Oliver Twist.

I am reminded that for many people, then and now, trying to get state (or parish) support when you are clearly in need of it is complicated by bureaucracy and the mean-spirited nature of benefit systems that assume it either someone’s else responsibility or that the person asking for help is in some way ‘trying in on’.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly London Newspaper, Sunday, May 18, 1845]