‘Picking up rotten fruit from the ground’: Two small waifs struggle to survive in a society that doesn’t care


The fact that Alice and Rosina Purcell were charged at Worship Street Police court under legislation intended to prosecute beggars and vagrants is not, in itself, unusual in the 1870s. Policemen, officers of Mendicity Society, and other public servants were all obliged to point out and have arrested those who wandered the streets destitute and begged for alms.

No, what makes this case so upsetting is the fact that that Alice and Rosina were aged just 6 and 8 respectfully. They were found wandering around Spitalfields Market begging ‘and picking up rotten fruit from the ground’. They were dressed in ‘the dirtiest of rags’ when James Gear, a school board inspector, decided to intervene. He took them to the nearest police station and then brought them before Mr Hannay at the east London police magistrate’s court.

The pair were clearly poor and hungry but through the filth the reporter still described them as ‘cheerful and intelligent’. They told the justice that their mother was dead and their father, who worked as a dock labourer, ‘left nothing for them at home’. They had no choice but to try and beg or find food for themselves.

This is a good example of the reality of life for very many people – young and old – in late Victorian Britain. Without a welfare system that supported families effectively girls like Alice and Rosina had to literally fend for themselves. We can criticize and condemn their father but with no wife at home to care for his children he was obliged to go out to work all day. Moreover dock work was not guaranteed – he’d be expected to be there very early in the morning for the ‘call on’ and such seasonal work that he would have got was very badly paid.

Mr Hannay was told that the girls were protestants and it was hoped that they might be sent away to the Protestant School. That would provided a solution of sorts but sadly there were no places available. Instead the magistrate ordered that the little sisters be taken to the workhouse until a better option could be found.

We might congratulate ourselves on having left such poverty behind. Children as young as Alice and Rosina should not have to beg for food in the modern capital of Great Britain. After all we are one of the richest countries in the world and have a well established welfare system that, we are told, people travel to the UK from all over the planet to exploit.

Yet poverty still exists in Britain and to a much higher rate than any of us should be comfortable with.  In March it was revealed that 4,000,000 children live in poverty in the UK, an increase of 500,000 since 2012. Last night’s news detailed the impact this is having in schools where almost half of all teachers surveyed said they had given children food or money out of their own pockets such is the degree of want they experience among pupils. The news report stated:

‘Children reaching in bins for food, homes infested with rats, five-year-olds with mouths full of rotten teeth. The reality of poverty in Britain, according to teachers who say they’re having to deal with it every day’.

This is not that far removed from the case above, the key difference being we no longer prosecute children for vagrancy or separate families in the workhouse. But it is absolutely scandalous that in a country that can waste £33,000,000 on ‘botched no-deal ferry contracts’ or spends £82,000,000 annually on the Royal family, and allows directors of FTSE companies to earn (on average) £2,433,000 each year (without bonuses) any child is going without sufficient food.

[From The Morning Post, Wednesday, May 01, 1872]

If you enjoy this blog series you might be interested in Drew’s jointly authored study of the Whitechapel (or ‘Jack the Ripper’) murders which is published by Amberley Books on June 15th this year. You can find details here.

A ‘crippled’ child has no alternative but to beg for money at Victoria Station


When John Long appeared at the Westminster Police court in July 1883 it was his second time there in the space of a few days. John hadn’t done anything particularly awful, hardly even criminal in our eyes. He was only 13 years old and was found begging at Victoria Station and so when he came before Mr D’Eyncourt the magistrate made out an order to send him to the St Nicholas Catholic Certified Industrial School, where he was to stay until he was 16.

However, when John arrived there with a policeman, the school’s master refused to admit him. He explained that the school was unable to look after a boy like John (despite, it seems, having initially told Mr D’Eyncourt that they could).

In 1883 poor John was deemed ‘a cripple’ , a word we wouldn’t use today. The teenager ‘had lost the sight of the right eye, had lost his left leg in an accident, and had never been vaccinated’ (notwithstanding the fact that his skin was pockmarked – suggesting he’d already had smallpox and so was safe from future infection).

These were all given as reasons not to accept him into the school. So the boy was sent back with the police who had little choice but to take him to the workhouse. That was Friday (20 July) and on Saturday the workhouse clerk brought John back to Westminster Police court to see what should be done with him.

This time Mr Stafford was presiding and the court was attended by Mr Lawrence of the London Industrial School Department. Everyone seemed to agree that a place should be found for John but there was no such institution for disabled delinquents (as they clearly saw John to be). He was a ‘confirmed beggar’ and lived at home with his parents who, it was declared, ‘seemed to make a good thing out of [his begging]’.

The court heard that John Long was ‘a great nuisance to the ladies and gentlemen at Victoria station’ and when they finally let the lad speak for himself he apologised and promised to reform if given the chance. He told the magistrate he ‘earnestly wanted to work’. Mr Stafford was prepared to give him that chance and said he would write to the Reformatory and Refuge Union to see if a place could be found for him. Hopefully he could be taught to sew or make baskets so he could be useful to society rather than a drain on it.

I think this gives an insight into a society before the Welfare State and NHS was created and one we might foresee returning if we continue to allow the erosion of our ‘caring’ society. Where were John’s parents in all of this?  They don’t seem to have been consulted or involved at all. Where was the duty of care of the state either? Let’s remember this was a boy of 13 who had committed no crime (unless we think of begging as a crime), he was blind in one eye and had only one leg. What on earth was he to do apart from beg?

[from The Standard, Monday, July 23, 1883

Little charity for the Irish at Marlborough Street


1843 could certainly be viewed as one of the low points of welfare policy in this country. 1834 saw the passing of the Poor Law Amendment Act, an act designed to force anyone seeking support from the state (in those days this meant the parish) to enter a workhouse  rather than be relieved outside. A previous piece of catch-all legislation, the Vagrancy Act (1824) also deserves mention as an instrument designed both to clamp down on beggars and vagrants and allow the arrest of pretty much anyone the local authorities took a dislike to but were otherwise unable to pin a specific offence on.

Thomas Lakey was exactly the sort of person the middle classes in Victorian society disliked. Lacey was unemployed, he was poor, homeless and, probably worst of all, he was Irish. When he appeared at Marylebone Police Court in June 1835 he was described as a ‘sturdy Irish beggar, accused of being a ‘common vagrant’.

The prosecution was brought by the Mendicity Society, an organisation formed in 1818 to ‘stop people begging’. The society was well organised and used careful record keeping to track mendicants, whom they helped financially on the understanding that they stopped begging and/or left the area.

Lacey came before the magistrate at Marylebone accused on being a ‘common drunken vagabond’ for the last 20 years. He had his own particular modus operandi, according to the officers bringing the case to court:

‘Having lost a hand, it was his practice to accost females in the street, and thrusting his stump before them, to demand charity in a menacing tone’.

If his appeal was not successful on the basis of his disability then ‘in his other hand he carried a stick, which he employed with great dexterity when drunk, or when pursued by a constable’.

For 20 years Thomas had received a pension of 15 pence a day from the East India Company. Given that this seemed enough to live on the magistrate (a Mr Chambers) was surprised the Irishman needed to beg at all. Mr Chambers told him that his pension (amounting to about 21 pence in today’s money, the equivalent of 2 days wages for a labourer) should allow him to live while he could also do some work, since he had a perfectly usable hand despite his injury.

We have no idea of how Thomas lost his hand, an accident working for the Company is most likely, but it may have happened after that. Clearly Mr Chambers had little sympathy for him. He turned to the Mendicity Society officers and suggested they speak to the East India Company. Perhaps if they were informed how Lacey was abusing the pension he had been given they might see fit to stop it.

The poor Irishman now work up to the reality of what was being proposed in court, the loss of the small dole he had to keep himself together. He told the court that if he was released he would immediately return to Kilkenny, where he was born, and no longer be a burden on London’s ratepayers or a threat to its inhabitants. Mr Chambers sent him to prison for two months to think it over.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, June 19, 1835]

A beggar who was not so ‘armless after all

Joseph White was a charlatan who pretended to be disabled when in reality he was as able-bodied as many another working-class man in late Victorian London.

In October 1885 White had positioned himself on Camden High Street so as to beg money from the many passer-by. He wore no boots and one sleeve of his jacket was empty, suggesting that he had lost a limb in an accident or while serving his country.

However, White was not all he seemed (or was in fact, more!) His begging attracted the attention of the local beat constable, PC BOxall of Y Division, who was reacting to complaints made by several pedestrians nearby.

PC Boxall asked him how he had lost his arm. ‘In an accident’ the man replied. Regardless of his injuries the constable decided that he ‘was imposing himself on people’ and so made to arrest him. As the policeman pulled him along towards Somers Town police station White slipped his (entirely healthy) arm from inside of his trousers and attempted to wriggle free of his captor.

PC Boxall called for help and a second copper appeared to convey the fraudulent beggar to the station. Once there it was discovered that far from having nothing to wear on his feet White had secreted his boots in ‘in the seat of his trousers’!

The magistrate asked White what he had to say for himself. All he could do was deny it and say the policemen had made it all up. The beak was falling for that; ‘you are a regular imposter’ he told him, before seeing him to prison for 21 days.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, October 20, 1885]

Two enterprising con artists almost fool the well-meaning folk of the City

In 1836 (the year before Queen Victoria began her long reign) two women appeared before the Lord Mayor at the Mansion House police court. Mary Jones and Harriet Wilson were charged with attempting to get charity by presenting forged begging letters and petitions.

A string of witnesses were called to testify as to whether they had signed the various documents the women had presented. All of these were upstanding members of the community, described by the newspaper reporter as ‘the highest names in the charitable vocabulary’. All of them denied signing any petitions or writing a letter for either woman; several though were puzzled as to how the pair had managed to gain what looked like genuine signatures.

The women’s attempt at forgery was clearly quite effective and many of those that had seen (and were familiar with) the handwriting or signatures of prominent parishioners were fooled by the ruse. One man even said that he had no recollection of signing anything for them but it looked like his writing (this prompted laughter in the court).

The Lord Mayor (sitting as chief magistrate for the City of London) sent the women to prison for their pains as ‘first-rate hands in the trade of mendicancy’.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, October 12, 1836]

Fishy goings on at Union Hall Police Office


Poverty was rife in nineteenth-century London and, just as today, beggars were a familiar sight on the capital’s streets. The 1824 Vagrancy Act (5 Geo. 4. c. 83) was a wide ranging piece of legislation that effectively caught up anyone who was on the streets and acting in a way that might draw suspicion. It made it an offence to sleep rough or to beg and allowed the authorities to sweep up any ‘undesirables’ and imprison them with very little evidence. Readers might be interested to know that this draconian piece of legislation has not been completely abandoned (as this recent case shows).

In the 1800s beggars were often referred to as mendicants and correspondents frequently complained about the problems caused by ‘widespread mendacity’ in the metropolis. In June 1828  an unusual  case of mendacity came to the Union Hall Police Court.

A ‘fellow’ was brought up for begging on the streets by the Mendacity officers of the local parish. He had often been found eating raw cabbage in an attempt to elicit sympathy for his situation. His aim was, it was said, ‘to induce people to believe he was starving’ and so get them to offer him money or more palatable foodstuffs.

The man was well known for doing this and had recently been released from prison for this offence. Since regaining his freedom he had apparently eschewed the cabbage and taken to picking up offal from the streets and pretending to consume this instead. The reason he was now in court was that officers had decided to watch him and had seen him take a mackerel’s head from a nearby kennel and pretend to to eat it. He had smeared the blood of the fish around his mouth to make it look like he had swallowed it but when he was arrested and searched the fish’s head was found in his pocket!

We might hope that a modern magistrate would have some sympathy with the man and his condition and  point him in the direction of social services or mental health practitioners but neither were available (or even considered suitable) in the 1820s and so the poor fellow was sent back to prison for three months.

[From The Standard , Thursday, June 05, 1828]