‘We didn’t live – we starved’: Poverty and ‘foreign markets’ in 19th Century Whitechapel

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In my last post I started walking the streets of East London with Charles Booth’s poverty survey as my guide. Moving on from Gunthorpe and Flower and Dean Walk (which in the 1880s was George Street and Flower and Dean Street respectively) in this post I’ve arrived at Wentworth Street.

In the late nineteenth century Wentworth Street was extremely poor. In Booth’s original map (above) it is a mixture of colours from red to pink to blue but since it abuts George Yard, Thrawl Street and other courts and alleys associated with the ‘Abyss’ we can confidently assume that most people living here were living close or below what Seebohm Rowntree was later to define as the ‘poverty line.

This story, reported in the Manchester press, gives us some idea of exactly what conditions were like in and around Wentworth Street in the last decade of the 1800s.

In early November 1893 Mr Wynne Baxter, the local coroner (and the man that had presided over the inquests into most of the Whitechapel murder victims in 1888), convened an inquest on the death of Elizabeth Newton.

Elizabeth was only four months old; she was the illegitimate daughter of Martha Newton who lived at 75 Wentworth Street. The paper described Martha as a ‘poor, miserable-looking girl’ who lived with her mother.

At the time little Elizabeth had been born Martha was living in a local lodging house, and went to the infirmary to give birth. Once the child and mother left hospital they went to live with Martha’s mother Margaret but the conditions were awful.

‘Her mother only occupied one room’, the inquest was told. So Martha and her baby joined her ‘sister, aged eight years […] and her other illegitimate child, aged two’, in the room.

Margaret Newton was desperately poor and the augmented family struggled to feed itself. Margaret told Mr Baxter that Marth fed her newborn on ‘cornflour, arrowroot, or anything the mother could get for it’. She herself only earned 1s3d to 1s 6da day.

How much was the rent, the coroner asked her. ‘Five shillings’, was the reply.

‘How do you live’?

‘We didn’t live – we starved’, Margaret Newton told him.

The final witness was the doctor who declared Elizabeth dead. She weighed only 3lb 12oz when he examined her. He told a stunned court that she should have weighed at least 11b by then. The coroners’ jury delivered a verdict of ‘death by malnutrition’.

Sadly Elizabeth’s death was not uncommon in late nineteenth-century London. Without an effective system of state benefits or health service that was free at the point of need, many children succumbed to poverty and lack of nutrition in Victoria’s Britain.

In the 1880s and 1890s Wentworth Street was busy during the day and early evening. As Charles Booth observed it was:

 ‘thronged every day by stalls, both buyers and sellers nearly all but not altogether Jews, women bareheaded, bewigged, coarse woolen shawls over shoulders, more like a foreign market scene than anything English’.

The red on the map probably refereed to ‘the small shops and houses on the North side’, the poor were absent except in the nearby courts.

Today, as I found out on my walk, there is very little remaining of nineteenth-century Wentworth Street. This is hardly surprising when you consider that this area was very heavily bombed during the Second World War (see map from www.bombsight.org) and post war council rebuilding and slum clearance.

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There was still a strong Jewish community in and around Wentworth Street during and after WW2. Helen Shaw (Schevitch) remembered life back then:

We had one kitchen at the back of our house, which was like a scullery. We only had cold running water, a gas cooker and wooden table, and back yard. The whole family, nine of us at the time had to wash there, but when it was bath time we only had a metal bath with water poured from the fireplace, and the three younger girls were bathed together in this boat like tub. There was a time when there was a shortage of fuel when I was about eleven and every family was rationed one sack of coal. We had to go and collect the coal from Flower and Dean Street (or Fashion Street) and had to line up.

Now, as my walk confirmed, there is hardly any sign of the Jewish presence in Wentworth Street. Instead this area is home to a new set of immigrants and their British born descendants. The larget and most visible migrant group (akin to the Jewish residents in the 1880s that Booth remarked upon) are the Bangladeshis, most of whom trace their roots to Sylheti in the northeast of the country. They are Muslim and established their first roots in the area as early as 1910 and it took them until the early 1980s to win permission to build a mosque.

If you want to have any sense of the Wentworth Street that Booth described as ‘a foreign market’ in the 1890s then take the underground to Whitechapel and wander along the market stalls that throng beside Whitechapel High Street opposite the London Hospital. Close your eyes, and imagine yourself transported back in time.

The authorities fail in an early attempt to protect fostered children from wilful neglect

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On 11 October 1870 Margaret Waters was hanged for the murder of more than a dozen infant children that had been given into her care. Waters was the the most notorious ‘baby farmer’ of the Victorian age but she was not alone. Many children suffered or died at the hands of neglectful or merely inept baby farmers and after Waters Parliament acted to protect children from this abuse, passing the Infant Life Protection Act of 1872.

Baby farming was a form of early fostering, but one that lacked the checks and controls in place today. The mothers of illegitimate children (or poor women who simply coldly cope with bringing up a child and working) were able to place their offspring with a baby farmer to raise. They would pay a small weekly fee and in return the new born child would be nursed by someone else. Often the money was simply not enough and farmers struggled to keep the children properly nourished. Illness followed malnutrition and death followed soon after in many cases. Women like Waters deliberately allowed their charges to wither and die, but very many infants simply died of unintentional neglect.

The Infant Life Protection Act required foster carers to register with the parish authorities and thus represents the first attempt to regulate baby farming. I wonder if that legislation – or the furore that surrounded the Margaret Waters case – was in the mind of the Hammersmith magistrate Mr Diplock when Annie Wheeler was brought before him in August 1872.

Wheeler stood in dock apparently dressed in mourning. ‘Draped in black’ the ‘middle-aged’ woman was represented by a solicitor, Mr Claydon. She was charged with the manslaughter of a child aged just five weeks.

Evidence for the prosecution began with Dr William Henry Harvey. He testified to visiting Wheeler’s house in Fulham where he examined the child in question. The female baby was dead and, in his opinion, had died of ‘exhaustion for the want of nourishment’. It wasn’t the first time he’d been there, a  few weeks earlier he’d attended to pronounce death on another infant who had died similarly of malnutrition and diarrhoea.

Detective Manley also testified to visiting Wheeler’s property and to seeing the dead child in her care. As he was examining her- later identified as Saran Ann Nash – he noticed another ‘in a cot, very thin, and apparently dying’. He took this child away and placed it with the Fulham workhouse authorities.

Annie Wheeler explained that little Sarah had been in her care for just three weeks. She’d been paid £4 and was to be paid 7s 6d a week thereafter. Wheeler then was fostering children and not making a very good job of it it seems. Two at least had died in her care, and another was now in the poor house infirmary in a very weak state.

Infant mortality was high in the Victorian period so the death of a child, especially an infant in its first year, was not at all unusual. The question here was whether Sarah’s death was caused by neglect (which would be manslaughter) or was simply unavoidable.  It wasn’t a question that a magistrate could rule upon, this had to go to a jury. Wheeler was remanded in custody and set for trial later that summer.

However, the case against her was weak and it didn’t get past the grand jury at Old Bailey. There was insufficient evidence to proceed, the prosecution barrister told the judge, and Wheeler was released and able to return to ‘caring’ for little children. If this was an early test for the Infant Life Protection Act then I fear it failed rather badly.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, August 03, 1872]