A beggar fights back and racism rears its ugly head in 1830s London

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Slaves on a West Indian plantation being freed following passage of the Slavery Abolition Act (1833)

Assaults were prosecuted frequently in London’s police courts in the 1800s, and many of them involved attacks on the police or other authority figures. So the violence meted out to Samuel Daniels, a Mendicity Society officer, is, on the surface at least, not particularly notable.  What makes this case – from 1836 – noteworthy is the language used to describe the attack and perpetrator of it. Because, as we shall see, this was shot through with early Victorian notions of race and prejudice.

The Mendicity Society had been founded in 1818 with the intention of preventing begging in London. It gave out alms to those that agreed to move away and brought prosecutions against those that did not. As a charity it relied on donations but was doing very well by the 1820s, to the extent that it drew down criticism that not all of its funds were reaching those it purported to help. By the time this case came before a magistrate at Marlborough Street, the society had acquired a corn mill where some of those swept from the streets could be given work.

Mr Daniels had been looking for beggars in Soho in September 1836 and found Domingo de Sousa. De Sopusa was known to him as an ‘incorrigible vagabond’ and ‘imposter’ and presumably that meant he had tried to ‘help’ him off the streets previously, without success. Now he determined to take him into custody and have him taken before a magistrate to be charged under the Vagrancy Act. He did not count of de Sousa’s resistance however.

The officer was sensible enough to recognize that the beggar was a powerful man and so enlisted a nearby policeman for support. The presence of the constable failed to have the desired effect and de Sousa declared that:

‘Me no go wid mendacity ________!’ and then thumped Daniels hard on his chest.

He grappled with him trying to throw the charity officer the ground as the police tried to pull him off. In the process PC Sullivan received a bite wound which drew blood and the beggar was only subdued when a second constable arrived.

It wasn’t the end of the violence; a few yards down the road de Sousa escaped the clutches of the law and turned on the Medicity man. He through him down so violently that he broke his right leg in two places. He then attacked PC Sullivan, kneeing him in the groin before the other officer managed to secure him once more.

It was clearly a violent attack but it is the language used to describe it that reveals contemporary prejudice.

PC Marchant (the second officer) was ‘attacked with all the activity and ferocity of a tiger’, the report stated. De Sousa ‘sprang away’ and his attack resembled that of a ‘wild beast than of a human being’. While the policeman was ‘strong and resolute’ de Sousa was described in animalistic terms:

‘His physiognomy, which closely resembled an ouran-outang’s [sic] , was hideously distorted; his eyes rolled furiously, and he bit at his opponents, using a kind of growl’.

De Sousa was a ‘black man of horrid aspect and powerful structure’. He was clearly seen as a threat to public safety just as many nineteenth-century people feared that freed slaves would be a threat to their former masters and the communities around the plantations on which they worked.   It seems that rhetoric was in use in London in the 1830s just as slavery was being abandoned after centuries of exploitation.

In 1834 the British parliament finally agreed to abolish slavery in British colonies but the process took another four years to complete. When the slaves were freed they did not rise up and slaughter their former abusers, they went to church to give thanks to God though the religion they had adopted in captivity.

Domingo de Sousa was treated not just as a violent beggar – cause enough to bring him to court – but as a member of an ‘inferior’ and ‘sub-human’ race. Mr Dyer, the sitting magistrate, committed him for trial at the next sessions and as he was led away he had one last blow to strike against his oppressors:

‘Me berry glad me break de medicity’s man’s leg’ he shouted as the gaoler dragged him back to the cells.

[from London Dispatch, Sunday 9 September 1836]

The celebrated ‘Soapy Fits King’ appears at the Lyceum

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When PC 64E reached the small crowd gathered outside the Lyceum Theatre on the Strand he found a man writhing around on the pavement, and frothing at the mouth. He whistled for help and PC 53E waited while his colleague took the man to hospital on an ambulance.

Once there however, the surgeon in charge declared that there was nothing wrong with the patient, expect that is that he had evidently been eating soap. Realizing that he’d been conned, the police constable arrested the man and took him back to the station before presenting him before the magistrate at Bow Street in the morning.

The man gave his name as Peter McDermott but Mr De Rutzen was informed by the gaoler (Sergeant Bush) that he was commonly known as the ‘Soapy Fits King’. McDermott was a beggar that had appeared ‘at nearly every police court in London’  and been sentenced numerous times as a rogue and vagabond.

Joseph Bosley of the Mendicity Society – the organization that took it upon themselves to police street begging – said that McDermott was well known to him as well. He’d watched McDermott for 18 years. He would appear at hospitals across the capital, sometimes twice in one day, ‘apparently suffering from fits, but he never had anything the matter with him’.

On the day in question McDermott had a glass of water in on hand and a brandy in the other and one wonders whether his audience genuinely believed him to be ill or were just amused by his antics. He denied using soap of course, and pointed to his extremely dirty face. ‘Do I look like it?’ he asked, to laughter in court.

‘I say it is not English’, he complained, ‘[that] I am not allowed to beg, and I have had nothing to eat for three days’.

He had a point of course. Society offered little for McDermott beyond the workhouse casual ward and that was in many ways worse than prison. This was a man who clearly had quite severe mental health issues that no one seemed to want to recognize. He was only a risk to himself and a more charitable society might have recognized his need for support. Mr De Rutzen decided to remand him in custody while he decided what to do with him.

A week later ‘the King’ was brought up again and more evidence as to his past misdemeanors was presented. Mr De Rutzen now ordered that he face trial as ‘an incorrigible rogue and vagabond’.

[from The Standard, Saturday, September 22, 1900; The Standard, Saturday, September 29, 1900]

A runaway slave at Bow Street has a fascinating story to tell the magistrate

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In yesterday’s post I discussed the casual racism and anti-Semitism that was endemic in late nineteenth-century London and led to the passing of the Aliens Act in 1905 (the first legislation aimed at controlling immigration). Throughout the 1800s Britain was a beacon of hope for refugees from persecution on political, religious or other grounds. It was also in Britain that the campaign to abolish slavery had found its political leadership.

Of course England and Britain more broadly had arguably profited most from the use of slave labour and the ‘triangular trade’. The passing of the Slave Trade Act in 1807 abolished slavery in all British Colonies, but compensated slave owners heavily. It was an important first step.

In the 1860s slavery still existed in the USA and in 1861 war broke out in America, in part as a result of efforts to abolish the practice. A year after England had abolished the trade in African slaves the US passed a law to prevent importation of slaves to America, but this did not free those slaves already working on (mostly) southern plantations. In fact Northern owners simply started to sell their slaves to southerners. Gradually a situation emerged (made law after 1820) that divided America into southern slave owning and northern ‘free’ states.

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In 1860 Abraham Lincoln was elected President of the USA, the 16th to hold that office. A Republican and a dedicated abolitionist, Lincoln did not win a single southern state. A month later South Carolina seceded (left) from the Union and cited Northern ‘hostility to slavery’ as a reason for doing so. Between January and February 1861 Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas  followed and the Confederacy was born.

War followed in April that year with the attack on Fort Sumpter and it raged until the south was finally surrendered at Appomattox courthouse on 9 April 1865. Slavery was finally abolished in all US states by the 13thAmendment to the  constitution, passed on 18 December 1865. By that time its key champion, Lincoln, was dead, shot in Washington by John Wilkes Booth.

Britain watched the Civil war with interest. America was slowly becoming a rival economic power and British merchants continued to trade with the south after secession. But anti-slavery was also now written into the English legislature and voices here supported the North in its ambition to end the inhuman practice once and for all.

In July 1863 as war continued across the Atlantic a former slave appeared in court at Bow Street. George Washington was a young black man that had arrived in London with his father, fleeing from the war and slavery. He was in court because he’d been arrested whilst begging in Whitehall. He was stood in the street with a placard around his neck that explained his fate and aimed to draw sympathy from passersby.

He was having some success it seems because PC William Waddrupp noticed that a crowd had gathered around him and were placing money in his cap. Begging was illegal and so he took him into custody.

At Bow Street it emerged that Washington and his father had found lodgings with a costermonger in Mint Street, in the Borough. The coster had arranged for the placard to be printed and ‘managed’ the ‘appeal’ for funds. Whether he did so out of the goodness of his heart or because he saw an opportunity to take a slice of the income is a question we’ll have to keep hanging in the air. He wasn’t prosecuted for anything at Bow Street anyway.

Mr Hall was keen to hear how George and his father had come to be in London. Mr Washington senior said that he had been a drummer in the Confederate army and that his son had been servant to ‘one of the rebel captains’. In the aftermath of the battle of Bull Run (probably the first one in July 1861) they escaped and ran to the north making their way to New York.

They hoped to find a sympathetic ear and help but got neither until they met a man named General Morgan. He told them to go to England ‘where they had a great affection for slaves, and would no doubt provide for them comfortably’. Working their passage they found a ship and landed in London at some point in 1863. There they met the costermonger and he suggested the strategy of asking for alms in public. They had no idea it was against the law to beg in England and said they would be happy to return to New York if a ship could be found to take them under the same terms as they had arrived.

Mr Hall was minded to believe them. They were in breach of the law but he accepted that they had been badly advised (here and by General Morgan) so he discharged them. I wonder if by highlighting their plight they might have got someone to help them – either to return to the US or to stay and prosper in London.

There was sympathy and no obvious racism on show at Bow Street (in stark contrast to Mr Williams’ comments on Jews appearing at Worship Street nearly 30 years later. This is possibly explained by the relative lack of black faces in 1860s London. Black people were a curiosity and not a threat in the way waves of Eastern European immigrants were seen in the 1880s. Moreover the politics of anti-slavery were still very strong in London at mid century and while some merchants and sections of government might have had economic or geopolitical reasons for supporting the Confederacy there was widespread sympathy for the plight of the slaves.

For these reasons , and perhaps simply for the fact that George Washington and his father had entertained Mr Hall and his court with a fascinating story of courage and ‘derring-do’, they won their freedom all over again.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, July 31, 1863]

A poor lad is exposed to shame and ridicule by the callous workhouse system

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The Victorian period is synonymous with the harsh treatment of paupers in the workhouse. We draw much of our popular imagery of the workhouse from Dickens (and film and television adaptions of Oliver Twist in particular) and from now fading folk memories of the dreaded ‘house’. There are good late nineteenth century descriptions of the workhouse from men – social reformers and journalists – who visited them, sometimes in disguise. These give us an idea of the deprivations that those forced through poverty to enter them were exposed to.

The newspaper reports of proceedings at the Police Courts of the metropolis are another excellent way to ‘experience’ the reality of these cold and uncaring institutions and assess wider attitudes towards poverty and paupers. On many occasions malingerers and ‘shammers’ were brought before the magistracy to be punished for begging. Vagrants were rounded up by the police and given short sentences by the courts. The Mendicity Society brought prosecutions against those they thought were faking their injuries, and sometimes of course they were right. Just as today not every beggar with a hard luck story is telling the truth. But the courts also helped the poor, handing out small sums of money and, as in today’s case, taking to task or even punishing those that abused paupers in their care.

In late May 1868 the Thames Police court was graced with the presence of the 5th Marquis of Townshend. John Villiers Townshend (whose Vanity Fair caricature can be seen right), was the member of parliament for Tamworth and enjoyed a reputation as ‘the pauper’s friend’. Townshend was a social reforming politician who made it his business to know what was happening in the capital’s workhouses.  He was in court in 1868 to point out the mistreatment of a young lad in causal ward of the Ratcliffe workhouse. mw06374

The young man, who’s name is not given, had been released on to the streets wearing a rough canvas suit of clothes which was printed with the following text:

‘Jack from the country’ (on the back of the jacket) and ‘Lazy scamp’ on one trouser leg.

The intention was clear: when the lad left the ward he would be exposed to ridicule in the streets and, presumably, this was done deliberately to deter him from ever seeking asylum there again. After all one of the driving principles of the poor law was to deter the ‘undeserving’ poor from seeking help from the parish. The workhouse had to be awful, the logic ran, so that the last and feckless would not think of going there. Instead the workhouse was to be a place of last resort, used by the ‘deserving’ or genuinely impoverished who really had no alternatives.

Having been presented with this disturbing scene Mr Paget, the Thames magistrate, sent a runner to bring Wilding, the labour master and superintendent of the Ratcliffe workhouse, to the court to answer for himself. Wilding said he’d followed the rules. The lad had been given food and shelter I the ward but he’d chosen to cut up his own clothes and so had nothing to wear. That’s why he’d given him the rough canvas suit, what else was he to do? He marked the suit accordingly as what he clearly felt was an appropriate punishment.

The pauper explained that the reason he had ripped up his clothes was that ‘that he could not wear them any longer, they were very dirty and covered with vermin’.

Mr Paget took the side of the lad (or perhaps more obviously that of the marquis). He instructed the clerk of the court to send a letter to the Poor Law Board to report the misconduct of the labour master. Lord Townshend said he would also bring the matter up with the board. ‘If paupers were thrust into the streets with such extraordinary comments and inscriptions on their garments it would’, he declared, ‘give rise to inconvenience and breeches of the peace’.

More practically the marquis also undertook to provide the lad with a new set of clothes and a pair of stout boots. The canvas suit would be returned to the Ratcliffe workhouse, hopefully for disposal. The watching public gave him a rousing cheer as he left the courtroom, here was one small victory for the ordinary man over the hated keepers of the pauper ‘bastilles’

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, May 26, 1868]

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

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

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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.

An ‘attempt to impose on the Duchess of Cambridge’ (no, not that one…)

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Princess Augusta of Hesse-Kassel, the 2nd Duchess of Cambridge

On 12 March 1869 an elderly man by the name of Alfred Rodwell (a retired bookbinder) was brought into the Bow Street Police court by PC Fraser. He was charged with obtaining money by false presences from ‘her Royal Highness the Duchess of Cambridge’. Today that elevated position is held by Kate, wife of Prince William, and mother of the third in line to throne of England. In 1869 the incumbent was Princess Augusta of Hesse-Kassel the wife of Adolphus, the seventh son of George III. In 1869 she would have been in her early seventies and lived with her husband at Kew, and then later at St James’ Palace.

It was to the palace that Rodwell had sent a petition for her attention. According to the duchess’ equerry, Lord Frederick Paulet, the petition and a covering letter were received on the previous Wednesday asking for money. Numerous other aristocrats had appended their names to the petition making promises of cash for the former bookbinder, including Countess Russell (right) Frances-Anna-Maria-Fanny-ne-Elliot-Countess-Russelland Lord Amberley. A search was made of Rodwell’s lodgings where several large envelopes were found, each of them addressed to a person of title or importance, and each of them containing the petition and a similar begging letter.

It quickly became apparent that while Rodwell had been helped by Countess Russell in the past she no longer deemed him to a respectable person worthy of her benevolence. Paulet was suspicious and so he had contacted the Mendicity Society to find out if Rodwell was a ‘deserving case’ or a charlatan.  The Bow Street magistrate, Sir Thomas Henry, decided to remand the old man in custody while enquiries were pursued.

A few days later he was back in court and this time it became evident that he’d altered the petition (changing the date from one that Countess Russell had signed a year or more earlier) and he had also forged some of the signatures on it. Mr Fryer from the Mendicity Society (who made it their business to root out imposters seeking charitable support) showed that the signature of ‘Captain S. Sanderson’ and that of ‘Lord Bailey’ were both fake. ‘Some of the signatures were genuine’ he said, ‘others doubtful’.

He added that Rodwell had also stuck some of the pages of the petition together so that it obscured the whole of some names (like that of Lady Victoria Buxton, a noted philanthropist). Sir Thomas questioned the accused about his attempts to alter the document in a number of ways but Rodwell stuck to  his story even when the magistrate confronted him with the evidence that he was obviously changed the date from ‘1862’ or ‘1867’ to ‘1869’. Rodwell said that the Countess Russell had signed his petition in 1867 and that was enough.

‘But you have altered the date’, said the justice, ‘and that is forgery. A character may be good at the time it is written, and not hold good another year. I can’t tell when it was written’.

When asked again why he had altered the writing Rodwell rather lamely claimed that it ‘was to make it look more modern’.

Sir Thomas could have asked each and every person who had supposedly signed the petition to come to court to swear that they had (or had not) given their consent to it but it would be waste, he said, of their time, especially when they would only have acted from ‘a charitable motive’ in the first place. Alfred Rodwell had been shown to be a chancer and he would suffer for it. He sent him to prison for three months and the gaoler took him down.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, March 13, 1869; The Morning Post, Friday, March 19, 1869]

A Victorian tale to bring a gleam to Mr Duncan Smith’s eyes

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The Victorians – and especially those who signed up to the Mendicity Society – had a real hatred of imposture when it came to poverty. The society was determined to root out and expose (and thence to punish) anyone who pretended to be in need of poor relief or charity when they were fit and able to work. We seem to have inherited this distrust of the poor and now frame those we would like to see exposed as ‘benefit scroungers’.

It is fairly common for highly paid, privately educated, and well-connected, privileged members of Parliament to condemn those that claim they cant survive on the little the state provides.  In these hard times there has also been a focus on denying benefits to the disabled, by reinterpreting what it means to be ‘unfit to work’. Withholding benefits or making the hoops that the impoverished need to jump through to get them more complicated or time consuming is another, well practiced, tactic of modern ‘caring’, Conservative Britain.

I think Mrs May, Jeremy Hunt, Amber Rudd, Ester McVey and (especially) Iain Duncan Smith would have relished living the 1800s. Workhouses, ‘less eligibility’ and mendicity officers would have been right up their street (although they may have struggled with this county’s open doors policy on immigration – at least until the end of the century that is).

They would have liked Mr Turner, who gave evidence at Clerkenwell Police court in March 1866. He was there to investigate Johanna (or Ellen) Shields who had been brought up by the curate of St George’s, Queen Square, for begging at his door. The curate (presumably a  ‘good Christian’) had found Johanna knocking on his door asking for money as her husband was sick and out of work and she had six children to feed.

He asked her name and where she lived. Johanna gave a false name (Ellen Thomas) and an address in Little Ormond Yard, in Bloomsbury. He didn’t believe her and to confirm his suspicions he donned his hat and said he’d accompany her home to see for himself. This unnerved Johanna who tried to put him off, saying she would go and get her certificate to prove she was registered in the parish (and so entitled to relief). Instead the curate summoned a constable and had her arrested.

In court at Clerkenwell Mr Barker (the magistrate) was told (by the curate, whose name is never revealed) that Johanna had changed her story when he’d said he’d go with her, which led him to involving the police. The woman now said she lived in Church Street, St Giles, had six children (one of whom was blind) and a sick husband. When he subsequently visited her address he found her husband, and three children, none of whom was blind. He also testified that she had asked his fellow rector at St George’s for help and he’d refused also. He said he was ‘determined to give all imposters into the custody of the police’.

So what was Mr Barker to do with Johanna? She denied the charge but the evidence against came from a respectable source. Moreover the justice expected she’d done it before, and so had ‘form’. She was being treated as if she was a criminal when her only ‘crime’ was being poor and asking for help.

This is where Mr Turner from the Mendicity Society came in. He was tasked with discovering whether she had a history of ‘shamming’ so the bench could decide what punishment (if any) to hand down. This would take a week and Mr Barker decided that regardless of the outcome Johanna would spend the next seven days locked up on remand. The gaoler escorted her back to the cells to be transferred to the Clerkenwell house of detention where she would subsist on bread and water and pick oakum with all the other ‘offenders’.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, March 06, 1866]

Prison for the mother who couldn’t support her babies

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Today Haille Rubenhold’s new book on the five canonical victims of ‘Jack the Ripper’ is published in the UK. I’ve chatted with Haille about her work but haven’t read it yet. I am well aware that its publication (or at least the publicity surrounding its publication) has caused a stir and led to Haille being attacked in some quarters by those that believe she has misrepresented ‘Ripperologly’ (the name given to the study of this, the most famous of all ‘cold cases’).

I haven’t read it yet (my copy is on order and I’ll review here when I have) but while I recognize very many people might be upset that she has (supposedly) claimed that the stories of the ‘Ripper’s’ victims have never been told when they have, I think it is also very good that an independent and credible researcher such as Haille has chosen to write about this topic. She had important things to say about prostitution, women’s lives, poverty and homelessness, and I’m keen to read it. She may not be as well informed on the details of the case as those that have studied it for decades and that may undermine some of her findings but she deserves to be ‘heard’.

She also deserves to be treated with respect, as do respected Ripperologists like Paul Begg. Name-calling is never appropriate. We can critique, argue and disagree with each other without chucking unpleasantness about.

One of issues Haille’s work highlights is the desperate poverty that women (and of course men) endured in Victorian London. This wasn’t something new in 1888, it was endemic throughout the 1800s. The magistrate courts could provide temporary relief for those caught in the poverty trap but they could just as frequently criminalize paupers, especially when outside agencies were involved.

Nance (or Nancy) Donovan was a pauper with two children who had only just got out of prison when she appeared before the Lord Mayor at Mansion House Police court in late February 1853. She stood in the dock, in ‘filthy rags’ and with one of her children – a babe in arms – clutched closely to her.

She should have perhaps inspired charity but there was no sympathy on display in the Lord Mayor’s courtroom that cold February morning. Nancy had been brought in from the streets by a City policeman after she’d been pointed out by a an officer from the Mendicity Society. Nancy had been begging from the steps at the end of King William Street with one child in front of her, the other in her arms. The suspicion was that she had drugged them both with laudanum so they looked ill and starving.

Of course Nancy denied this and begged the magistrate to let her off this time.

‘I’ll never bother yez any more if you let me off this once. Upon my sowl I wasn’t begging a farthing from anyone. I was only just sitting down to nurse the babby in this cowld weather, and sure enough it wanted a dhrop of suck’.

The Lord Mayor was unmoved, clearly believing that Nancy was a mendicant (a beggar) that was using and abusing her offspring to feed her idle lifestyle. He sent her to gaol once again, to bridewell for a months, and her children to the workhouse to be ‘cared for’ by the parish.

This was Victorian ‘justice’ and ‘welfare’ policy and it is hardly surprising that women turned to prostitution, alcohol and the streets, as Rubenhold’s important new study highlights.

[from The Standard, Monday, February 28, 1853]

My own study of the Whitechapel or ‘Jack the Ripper’ murders is due to be published in June 2019.

‘Distressing accidents and dreadful diseases’: attempts to weed out fake beggars in early Victorian London

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Just recently there was a news items which suggested we need to examine the hands of those asking for money on the streets of London and other British cities. Despite the fact that homelessness as risen by 170 per cent in the last eight years and food bank use has also increased the focus seems to be on weeding out the fake poor from the deserving ones.

I’m comfortable with the idea of prosecuting fraudsters  but I do wonder what sort society we have become when our reaction to someone sitting on a cold wet London street in the middle of winter is to ask ourselves ‘is he trying to con me out of 50p?’

Sadly this is nothing new. The early Victorians were just as concerned with the idea of fake beggars as we seem to be. This was a society which passed the Poor Law Amendment Act in 1834, a piece of legislation that demonized those who asked for help and attempted to discourage benefit dependency but breaking up families and locking up paupers.

It also created the Mendicity Society (or, to give it its proper names: the Society for the Suppression of Mendicity). Formed in 1818 its aim was simple – to prevent people begging in London. It tried to move beggars along and encourage them to leave the capital if possible by giving them small amounts of charity. However, it eschewed the gift of money, preferring instead to give tickets which recipients could exchange for an investigation into their circumstances. This was presumably designed to root out the scammers, who would not want to have their case considered.

Men like William Horsford worked as mendicity officers, looking out for beggars on the streets and hauling them before the magistrates. Begging was an offence under the terms of the 1824 Vagrancy act which allowed the police and others to take people off the streets for having no visible sign of maintaining themselves. This legislation is still in operation today.

In early December 1839 Horsford was on the case of two people who he knew to be incorrigible beggars. Edward Johnson (alias Watson) and Mary Carrol were known to him and the police. Mary dressed in widow’s weeds and made herself look as desperate as possible in order to attract sympathy from passers-by; Johnson was described as a ‘miserable wretch’. Horsford spotted the pair in Pall Mall and decided to tail them, calling on a police constable to help.

He followed them through St James’ Park and then to a pub in Pimlico, called the Compasses (which had existed since the 1640s at least).  They left the pub after an hour and moved on to Sloane Sqaure where they started to knock on door. At one house, where the lady resident had a reputation for charity, Mary Carrol handed over a letter to the servant that opened the door.

The servant declined to accept it, or to give them anything so they headed for Chelsea and tried their luck at a chemist’s shop.  Horsford felt he had enough ammunition now and snuck into the shop behind them. As they tried to beg money using the letter he arrested them and confiscated the letter.

The pair appeared before Mr Burrell at Queen’s Square Police court where the letter was read out. It detailed the ‘facts’ that Mary was a ‘widow afflicted with rheumatism and divers other complaints – that she had a large family, and that her husband had been killed but a few weeks ago by a gentleman’s carriage running over him’.

It was signed by a ‘Mr Churton of Ebury Street’ who recommended the reader to assist Mary ion any way they could.  When searched Johnson was found to have a number of other letters on his person, each addressed to a different but well heeled recipient (the Bishop of London, Marquis of Londonerry, and Countess of Ripon) and each of which carried their own particular ‘sob story’ of ‘distressing accidents and dreadful diseases’.

The pair were clearly poor but Johnson at least was literate. He admitted writing the letters himself but justified by stating that Mary was a deserving case and he was only trying to help. The magistrate had no sympathy (just as the vigilantes who target ‘rogue’ beggars to day have none) and he sent them to prison for three months at hard labour. At least they would be fed and housed over winter, if not very comfortably.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, December 06, 1839]

for more on the work of the Mendicity Society see:

Little help (and no sympathy) for Heroes

A simple case of imposture or a glimpse into the transgender community of Victorian London?