Winter is coming

Image 01-11-2019 at 10.34

Winter is coming.

Hallowe’en has come and gone and Bonfire Night is looming. The clocks have gone back and the air has turned distinctly chilly. Yesterday in town I noticed more rough sleepers than usual around King’s Cross and St Pancras and reflected once again that our modern society still hasn’t solved the problem of poverty. And now an election is looming and we might ask ourselves which party is most determined to address the problem of poverty and inequality in the UK?

The reports from the Victorian Police Courts provide ample evidence that desperation and poverty were endemic in the 1800s. This was a society without a welfare state, with no old age pension scheme, or National Health Service, or social services. Where we have a benefits system (however flawed) they had the workhouse or charity and recourse to either meant shame and failure.

In our ‘modern’ world we have people whose lives have been destroyed by drink or drugs and both provide the really desperate with the anaesthetic they need to simply survive on day-to-day basis. I saw a notice yesterday that said, ‘would you smash up a phone box to get 24 hours in a dry cell with food?’

This is a reality for some people in ‘modern’ Britain.

In October 1865 Mary M’Grath was charged at Thames Police Court with being drunk and disorderly and punching a policeman. Mary was about 30 years old and had a baby with her in court. PC John Mansfield (393K) testified that on the previous afternoon he had seen Mary rolling about, quite drunk, on the East India Dock Road.

She was carrying her infant and staggering about so badly that she kept banging into the nearby ‘walls and houses’. The child was ‘injured and screamed fearfully’, he added. Mary kept up a stream of the most unpleasant language, so disgusting that several onlookers complained to him about it.

Eventually  she fell heavily and a man rushed up to save the child and a police sergeant arrived to help  PC Mansfield take her to the police station. Once there she rewarded him with more abuse and landed a blow on his face, blackening his eye and impairing his sight.

The next day they appeared in court before Mr Paget, the magistrate, who asked the constable what had become of the child.

‘It was taken to the workhouse’, the policeman replied.

‘How old is it?’ the magistrate asked him.

‘Four months old’.

‘It is eight months old’, piped up Mary from the dock.

Mr Paget declared that nothing was more disgraceful than seeing a mother so drunk in public. Didn’t she have a husband at home he enquired.

‘No sir, my husband died seven years ago’, came the reply. So her baby was illegitimate and presumably the product of new relationship or a casual encounter, and no father was present in court. Drunk, riotous and promiscuous the magistrate was probably thinking, a suitable object not for pity but for condemnation.

In reality of course Mary’s life became that much more difficult when her husband had passed away. She would have lost the main bread winner and her partner. It is likely she already had children so they would have added to her problems. Perhaps this explains her descent into alcoholism.

She told him that she couldn’t remember what had happened the previous day, so drunk had she been. She had been inside the workhouse, and therefore destitute as no one went inside iff they could possibly help it.

‘I was there long enough’ she explained, and ‘I was half starved’ and ‘discharged myself. I took a drop [of alcohol] and lost myself’.

So in her version of events  she had been so malnourished in the ‘house’ that a small amount of drink (probably gin) had affected her much more than it would normally. It was probably an exaggeration of the truth but it did her no good. Instead of opting to find her some help in the form of money, food and shelter Mr Paget sent her to prison for a month at hard labour.

She had merely swapped one uncaring institution for another. As for the child, well as a ‘suckling’ Mr Paget decided it needed to stay with its mother, so off to gaol it went as well.

This was an oft repeated story in Victorian London. Children were growing up affected by alcoholism, grinding poverty, homelessness, and sometimes, prison. No wonder reformers demanded change and some turned to ‘extreme’ politics (like socialism or anarchism). Men like Paget had comfortable lives and sat in judgement for the most part on those that scraped by.

Can we, hand on heart, say that 150 years later everything is so much better? Yes, of course to an extent we have provided a much better safety net for Mary M’Grath and her baby. But have we really tackled the root causes of her poverty? No, I don’t think we have  and while we pursue a form of economics and politics that allows some people to live in epic luxury while others sleep rough on the streets I don’t think we can sit in judgement of our ancestors either.

Winter is coming. Use your vote wisely.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, November 01, 1865]

All’s well that ends well?: love and abduction in 1850s London

 

Antique illustration of immigrants in New York

Mr Pass, like many fathers, wanted the best for his daughter. He was part of the large immigrant population of London, a boot maker by trade, he lived in Hoxton, East London. His sister had married and was living in Regent’s Park, well away from some of the bad influences Pass feared his daughter might be exposed to. So at an early age he opted to send her to live there.

It must have been a wrench but then again, with his wife dead Pass was hardly in a position to bring up his child and educate her to be the respectable Jewish woman he hoped she would become. Moreover, his sister, Louisa Salomens, was a ‘lady of property’, who had a house in Northumberland Terrace, and young Rebecca Pass would do well there.

So off she was sent as an infant to live and learn from her aunt. All was going well until one day in early July 1857 when Rebecca, accompanied by a servant bearing a note, turned up at Pass’ home in Hoxton. The message was worrying: according to Mrs Salomens Rebecca had ‘formed some improper connection’ with an unsuitable young man and Louisa felt it best that her brother now take ‘exclusive control’ of his daughter.

Pass must have been shocked and then angry but of course he took Rebecca in and made her as comfortable as possible. She lived there under strict supervision (probably never being allowed out, unless it was with her father) until the last week or so of the month when the Pass household had another unexpected visitor at their home in Pitfield Street, Hoxton.

This time it was a young man named John Aarons, a ‘swarthy, sun burnt’ fellow who gave his address as the Continental Hotel in Leadenhall Street. Aarons explained that there had been a terrible misunderstanding ‘arising from a trifling misconception’, and there really was no ‘unsuitable connection’ at all, Louisa had got it all wrong. He had come to accompany Rebecca back to Northumberland Terrace where her uncle was waiting to take a trip to the country. He was very keen to see Rebecca before he went.

Perhaps experiencing a mix of emotions the boot maker agreed to let Aarons take her away, but insisted he had her back by six that evening. With that his daughter walked off with the young man, supposedly on her way back to Regent’s Park, albeit temporarily.

Of course, she never arrived. Pass travelled to his sister’s when she failed to appear and the police were immediately informed. A description of Aarons was circulated and he was soon picked up by a City of London constable in Houndsditch. On Monday morning (27 July) Aarions was brought before Mr Hammill at Worship Street, charged with abduction.

Both Pass and his sister were in court to set the scene. Louisa Salomens (a ‘very lady-like person’), explained that her niece had become involved with a ‘man of loose morals and inferior station’ (I’m not sure which was worse really). In this she had been aided and abetted by one of  Mrs Salomens servants, who had since been dismissed. Aarons had then turned up at her door and said he represented the young man that Rebecca had fallen for. He pleased for his friend and for Mrs Salomens to allow him to see Rebecca. The couple were in love he insisted, and it would ‘be a shame’ to part them.

Clearly Louisa wanted nothing to do with him and sent him away with a flea in his ear. So she was shocked to discover that he ‘had beguiled the girl from her father’s protection’ claiming he’d been sent by her. She’d sent no such message at all.

Aarons, demonstrating ‘an air of confident bravado’,  tried gamely to cross-examine Mrs Salomens and her brother to undermine her testimony but both were steadfast and he failed.  Mr Hammill said the charge of abduction had been clearly established and he would remand him in custody for a week while he decided what to do with him.

‘You don’t mean that!’ cried the prisoner from the dock. ‘Why I have paid my passage-money for America, and the ship sails tomorrow. But you’ll take bail, of course’.

No, Mr Hammill told him, he would not. Not at present, at least. This blow landed on Aarons but he soon recovered his ‘audacious demeanor’, and ‘swaggered out with the gaoler’.

Unusually for these little vignettes from the Police Courts this story has a happy ending.

Three days later a representative from a firm of London solicitors, Solomens, appeared in court to make a statement to Mr Hammill. They came to say that the young man who was at the heart of this love triangle had been found. He was not at all unsuitable or a person of ‘loose morals’ but instead was ‘respectably connected, and altogether unexceptionable in his character and circumstances’. Moreover, he had pledged to marry Rebecca immediately and thus, her ‘fair name remains unsullied’. As the family socilitor he was asking the court to discharge John Aarons forthwith.

The defendant was then brought over from the house of correction and the happy news was relayed to him. He was then released and Mr Hammill commented that he was delighted that all had ended as well as it had. Aarons had presumably still missed his boat though, but perhaps a grateful family might now be prepared to fund a ticket for a later one.

So, what do we think really happened here?  Had Rebecca and her unnamed admirer become lovers? Was that why the aunt had become so concerned? Or had they simply been discovered together (in her room perhaps) without a chaperone? Who knows, at least all’s well that ends well as the bard would say.

[from The Standard, Monday, July 27, 1857; The Standard, Thursday, July 31, 1857]

‘I wish I could avoid the drink sir, but it’s too tempting’. The Inebriate Act in action in the East End

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Minnie O’Shea was a drunk, an alcoholic with a problem, and when she appeared at Worship Street Police court in May 1899 it was very clear that she needed help. Minnie admitted as much herself, telling Mr Cluer the magistrate that ‘she wished she could avoid the drink; but it was too tempting for her’.

It wasn’t her first time in the dock; Minnie had three previous convictions for drunkenness in the past year alone, and according to police she’d been arrested and charged on least 20 occasions. She was a serial drunk and in 1899 that meant she had made herself liable to a new initiative aimed at dealing with the problem of alcohol abuse in society.

1898 had seen the passing of the Inebriates Act which allowed justices like Mr Cluer to send defendants like Minnie to a reformatory to dry out. A similar scheme had been attempted in 1879 but no funds had been provided for it. If a person was sent to a retreat under that legislation they had to fund their stay themselves. There was no way that a poor woman like Minnie could afford to do that. This new legislation supposedly expected the local authority (in this case the London County Council) to foot the bill.

Minnie was given the option of having her case heard summarily or to go to trial before a jury. Having been told that if she agreed to have the magistrate decided her fate at Worship Street that she would be sent for a home, she wanted to know for how long? If she behaved herself, the justice told her, she’d be out in a few months, so Minnie gladly accepted her fate. She’d get fed and a roof over her head so it wasn’t so bad, she must have thought.

It came as a bit of shock then when Mr Cluer handed down a sentence of three months confinement in a inebriate reformatory, albeit a Roman Catholic one that would suit her cultural background. ‘Three years!’ Minnie objected. ‘Then I’d better not consent, I won’t go’, she told him from the dock. Too late, Mr Cluer countered, ‘you cannot help it now’, and she was dragged out of the court to begin her enforced period of reformation.

Minnie was exactly the sort of person confined under this and the previous legislation.  Victorian society viewed alcoholism as a sort of moral individual failing and associated it particularly with women. Women were viewed as weak in nineteenth-century rhetoric and thus ill equipped with the requisite willpower needed to abstain from ‘the drink’. Minnie seemed to affirm this widely held view telling the justice as we’ve heard that ‘it was too tempting’ to turn to the bottle. In the late 1800s the ‘drunkard was an individual considered to pose a threat to wider society as well as to themselves’ and as Jennifer Wallis has shown this enabled so-called charity workers and reformers to treat alcoholics appallingly.1

Not only were some inmates treated badly the legislation was largely ineffectual. Few local authorities could afford to build reformatories and by 1900 the state hadn’t met demand either. In the first year of the act becoming law just 82 persons were sent to homes, 61 of them in London so Minnie may have been one of that handful. Most were women (for the dubious reason given above) and thereafter nearly all the reformatories that were established (9 from 11) catered exclusively for women.

Alcoholism was a problem in the late 1800s and this was particularly true in poor working class areas like the East End. That is why the Temperance Movement arose and why Police Court Missionaries strove to help those ‘that helped themselves’ by pledging to abstain from ‘the drink’. But it was an uphill battle because life on the bottom rungs of society was desperately hard and for many Londoners drink was a form of anesthetic, muting the pain that they daily felt in their struggle simply to survive.

The middle classes that swelled the ranks of the Charity Organisation Society might have seen drink as a symptom of moral weakness but they didn’t have to suffer the privations that the capital’s poor did every day. They judged women like Minnie O’Shea, I don’t think we should.

[from The Standard, Monday, May 22, 1899]

  1. Wallis, J. ‘A Home or a Gaol? Scandal, Secrecy and the St James’s Inebriate Home for Women’, Social History of Medicine, Vol. 31, No. 4 pp. 774-795

The ‘gospel according to the nineteenth century moralists’ brings the end of a popular entertainment

days-doings-may-1871

I have often wondered what the Victorians would make of our society should a character like H G Wells’ ‘time traveller’ actually manage to create a machine to visit the future. While one imagines that he would probably find some things to be predicable (motorized transport, even airplanes), others largely unchanged (like Parliament and the judiciary), it would be the leveling of daily life and the permissive nature of relationships that might give cause for shock.

Victorian society was not as buttoned up and prudish as it has sometimes been perceived. In fact, as Matthew Sweet argues in Inventing the Victorians (2001) even that oft repeated suggestion that they covered up the legs of their pianos is a myth; a joke aimed at themselves and at Americans (whom they felt were more obsessed with suppressing sexuality).

Nevertheless vice and obscenity were prosecuted in the courts and their definitions of what constituted ‘obscene’ were certainly narrower than our own. This is where I think the ‘time traveller’ would struggle to make sense of society: when he viewed television, looked at a tabloid newspaper, causally searched the internet, or simply walked down a busy London street, he would have been assaulted by images of (in his mind) semi-nudity everywhere.

In 1872 Frederick Shore was summoned to Bow Street Police court to answer accusations that he had published an indecent periodical. Shore, who was represented by a barrister, Mr Laxton, was the publisher of Days Doings and short-lived sensational magazine that carried all sorts of stories, romances, gossip, sports and entertainment news. The prosecution, brought by the Society for the Suppression of Vice, alleged that it was obscene.

Shore had been in court three months previously and had then promised that ‘all nude pictures and matters suggestive of indecency’ would be removed from all future editions of the paper. This then was a hearing designed, in part, to ensure he had kept his word.

Mr Bealey, the barrister instructed by the Society, argued that he had not. He produced a copy of the latest edition and read a selection of it to the court before showing the magistrate (Sir Thomas Henry) a nude image. The defense argued that the image in question was ‘a well known picture’ and that the editors had ‘added drapery to it’ to ‘decrease its nudity’. Sir Thomas said this only made it worse, it was now ‘even more obscene’.

He concluded that the proprietors of Days Doingshad  ‘not kept good faith’. ‘There was no doubt’ he declared, ‘that the proprietors of the periodical pandered to a depraved taste’. He bound the witnesses form the Society over to prosecute and accepted bail of £150 from the defendant. The whole sorry issue would now have to go before a higher court.

Just how ‘obscene’ was  Days Doings?Well not very would be the conclusion of a modern audience. It was risqué certainly, and humorous, catering for  amiddle-class decadent readership. On its May 1871 cover it featured ‘Derby Night at Cremorne’ [Gardens] with a sensational scene of well dressed gentlemen drinking with women that might well have been prostitutes. Cremorne Gardens enjoyed a reputation as a lively and disreputable entertainment venuewhere the classes could mix. The 1871 article in the Days Doings supported Cremorne in the face of a sustained attack by organisations like the Society for the Suppression of Vice and the Cheslea Vestry who wanted it closed down.

This brought Shore into the cross hairs of anti-vice campaigners who saw his periodical as part of the problem. In early 1872 Days Doings was (as this case shows) under constant attack and eventually caved in. It remerged as ‘Here and There’ a much milder version of itself but it still had room to comment on the attempts to close down Cremorne Gardens. It condemned the threats to popular entertainment ‘by the prudery of aldermen, ministers and police inspectors. Dancing is banned at Cremorne’ and other venues it stated, ‘for this “is the gospel according to the nineteenth century moralists”.*

Goodness knows what those same moralists would have made of most Britain today.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, February 02, 1872]

*quoted in Lynda Nead, Victorian Babylon (2005), p.139

A little bit of common sense as Easter concentrates the mind of the ‘beak’.

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The magistrates operating at London’s several Police Courts applied the law as they saw it but used their discretion when appropriate. It is not accurate to describe the courts as spaces to demonstrate the power of the state but nor were they arenas for the poor to negotiate their way to a better life. Moreover, we must not see the magistracy as a group of like-minded individuals who always presented a united front, or who invariable took the side of the police or indeed, the wealthier or middle classes.

They did tend towards a moral position in most things; drunks, wife beaters and prostitutes could expect short shrift, as could recidivist thieves or tradesmen that attempted to defraud or trick their customers. Some justices had particularly fearsome reputations as ‘no nonsense’ law givers (like Mr Lushington in the late 1800s) while others might have earned contrasting reputations as ‘kindly gentlemen’.

In popular culture it is the character of Mr Fang in Oliver Twist that represents one contemporary view of the uncaring Police Court magistrate. Mr Fang, on no evidence whatsoever, initially sentences Oliver (who has fainted clean away in the courtroom though illness and exhaustion) to ‘three months – hard labour of course’. Dickens had reported on the courts of the metropolis and was aware of the institutions he was critiquing and the men that served them. He used Mr Brownlow as the voice of reason and charity who ultimately saves Oliver from being caught up in the Victorian justice system.

Sometimes though we do get a sense of the humanity of the Victorian bench and perhaps at certain ties of the year this was more likely to be highlighted by the court reporters who attended these daily summary hearings. The reading public may well have needed to reminded that while justice was swift and harsh for those that deserved it, it could also be ‘just’.

Easter was certainly a time when charity and ‘good Christian’ values were uppermost in everyone’s thoughts, especially the upright moral middle classes of Victorian England.  Over at Westminster Police court in March 1865 Easter was just a fortnight away and Mr Arnold was in the high seat of the courtroom. He had several charges that day one of whom was James Davis. Davis cut a melancholy figure in court:

‘A poor, miserable-looking fellow, covered with rags, was brought up on remand’ the report described, ‘charged with hawking without a license’.

Davis had been held in the cells for a couple of days while enquiries had been made, and this experience had clearly not done him much good. This probably factored into the justice’s decision-making, but before we leap to the conclusion of the case let us door-to-door the circumstances of the charge.

PC Rowe (113 B) was on patrol in Chelsea when he noticed Davis wandering from door to door in King’s Place off the King’s Road. A ragged looking individual had no business being in such an elevated part of town and the policeman was immediately suspicious. There had been a series of burglaries and robberies recently, committed by people that pretended to sell things at the door (we are familiar with this sort of trick today).

As Davis left one house PC Rowe collared him and asked him what he was doing. Davis was indeed trying to sell stuff and had a card of shirt buttons  and the previous householder had bought some from him. Rowe asked him if he had a license to sell goods in the street and off course since he didn’t, he took him into custody.

On his first appearance before the magistrate Davis pleaded poverty, saying he was ‘half starved’ and was trying to ‘get an honest living’. Nevertheless, the law was the law and Mr Arnold reminded him so that he could seek advice from the relevant authorities. In this case that was the Inland Revenue and a few days later a gentleman from the Excise appeared.

The offence Davis had admitted to carried a maximum fine of £10 but the revenue man said this could be reduced ‘by a quarter’ under legislation passed in 1860 and 1861. This was still a huge sum for a man in Davis’ parlous state to find. £10 was the equivalent of almost £600 in today’s money and would have bought you a skilled tradesman’s labour for a nearly two months. Davis was selling his buttons for a few pennies, and trying to scrape a few shillings together to eat and put a roof over his head.

So taking all of this in account Mr Arnold acting with charity, compassion and no little common sense. This man, he declared:

‘could not pay £2 10s, and if he sent him to prison it was for trying to get an honest living. Nothing was known of him [meaning he was not ‘known to the police’ as a repeat offender or trouble maker] and he (Mr Arnold) should not put the law into force’.

He told him he ‘must not do it again’ but released him on his own recognizances with the warning that he might be required to attend his court again in the future, presumably if he was caught selling without a license once more. Another man was similarly convicted and released, so that Mr Arnold could award punishment at a later date. The inference was that as long as he behaved himself and obeyed the law, that ‘later date’ would not transpire.

Quite how James Davis managed to keep himself together and earn his ‘honest living’ without being able to afford to purchase a hawking license is not clear, but at least he was out of gaol and with no stain against his character.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, March 31, 1865]

A father’s choice of bride upsets his daughters

1880f Sutcliffe Rd(s)

Plumstead in the 1880s

George Warren was blessed with three grown daughters, and doubly blessed in that each had managed to secure a marriage and so were no longer a ‘burden’ to him. His joy was not complete, however, because his wife of many years had passed away and he had been left alone for nearly two years.

After two years George thought it reasonable that, having left a suitable period for grieving, he should take a new wife. He might have hoped that his daughters would have been happy to see their father married once again, and living out his approaching dotage with a companion and helpmeet.

And Hepzibah, Harriet and Lucy would probably have welcomed a new Mrs Warren as a stepmother, if only George hadn’t opted for someone who was apparently not much older than they were. As it was his decision to marry a much younger woman was greeted with considerable disapproval. Nor did the sisters keep their disquiet at his choice to themselves; instead they brought their concerns directly to his door and in doing so ended up before a magistrate on a charge brought by their father.

In early July 1880 Hepzibah Randle, Harriet Unsworth and Lucy Nicholls were brought up before the Woolwich Police magistrate charged with ‘wantonly disturbing their father’.

According to George the trio had marched up to his home at 136 Burrage Road, Plumstead, and started knocking the door violently. They kept this up for twenty minutes at a time and soon a crowd had gathered to see what all the fuss was about. George said that they demanded to see his wife and made such a commotion that it ‘scandalised the neighbourhood’.

This action reminds me very much of ‘rough music’; a proactive whereby communities showed their contempt or disapproval of individuals that offended popular morality. Whole villages might congregate outside the home of a wife beater, scold or adulterers and bang pots and pans to keep them awake and express their disgust.

Perhaps this was what the women in Plumstead were doing; showing their father in a very demonstrative way that in choosing to marry someone so much younger than himself he was in some way embarrassing them and himself, and bring the family name into disrepute.

George didn’t see it that way of course, he felt he was entitled to marry whomsoever he liked, and the magistrate agreed. He rejected the daughters collective and individual efforts to explain that they simply wanted to meet the new Mrs Warren, or to visit their father in the wake of his nuptials.

Mr Bagley made them each promise not to disturb  their ‘father’s happiness’ again or visit him in ‘an unfriendly spirit’, and award George Warren the costs of bringing the case to court. Finally he expressed the ‘hope that shortly the might be at peace and harmony, not only with their father but their stepmother also’.

I fear this might have been a little too much to ask.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, July 06, 1880]