‘What would become of the little children?’: charity and kindness make a rare appearance in a Police Court

John Tenniel The Nemesis of Neglect

Tomorrow is the last day of February meaning that (as we do every four years) we get a 29thday of this month. Did you know that 1888 was a leap year? Making a very tenuous link today is also the artist John Tenniel’s birthday. Had he lived he would be 200 years old today.

On 29 September 1888 the magazine Punch published a cartoon by Tenniel alongside an article on slum living in the East End of London. Tenniel’s iconic image of the Nemesis of Neglect (above), was published at the height of the Jack the Ripper murders, while London reeled from the terror created by a serial killer the police seemed unable to catch.

Tenniel’s drawing and the text that accompanied it suggested that the murderer was a product of the degraded environment in which all the victims had lived, and died. It also warned polite society of the dangers of not doing ‘something’ about the abject poverty of the East End, which risked the ‘contagion’ spreading to reach the wealthier parts of the metropolis.

In February Whitechapel was relatively quiet; the series lodged in the National Archives at Kew as the ‘Whitechapel Murders’ had not yet started, but poverty was very much in evidence.

At Westminster Police court a 76 year-old man appeared to ask Mr D’Eyncourt for a summons. He wanted to bring a charge against the one of the officers at St Luke’s workhouse in Chelsea. The elderly man moved slowly and spoke with difficulty, clearly suffering as he was from fresh injuries. He told the magistrate that he’d sustained these when he was turfed out of his bed at 6.45 in the morning by a workhouse attendant.

He was, he said in response to the justice’s questioning, 15 minutes late in getting up after the bell rang at 6.30. But he had only just got to sleep having been kept awake by others’ coughing and cramp in his legs.

‘I am so badly bruised that I have not been able to walk upright since’ he complained.

The poor man had no family or friends and had been an inmate of the workhouse for six years. Mr D’Eyncourt granted his summons and said he would not have to pay for it. He would hear what other inmates said and call the accused party before him.

At Southwark Sarah Ann Davis stood in the dock with a baby in her arms. She was accused of begging in London Road, having been arrested by a police sergeant. Sarah denied the charge, she ‘was selling some pins to get some food for her children’ she explained.

Sergeant Ireland told Mr Slade that the prisoner’s husband was currently serving a prison sentence for begging. As if that compounded the woman’s crime and demonstrated she was guilty.

The magistrate asked her why she didn’t turn to the workhouse.

‘I don’t want to break up the home while my husband is away’, she replied.

Mr Davis was, she said, and out of work carpenter who’d do any job if he could get one. 1888 was not a good year for work: this was the year that the word ‘unemployment’ entered the dictionary and for the past few years large numbers of unemployed men and women had gathered in Trafalgar Square to listen to socialists and free traders bemoan the state of the economy and the capitalist system that had seemingly failed so many.

Slade called her landlord to the stand and asked him about the family’s character. He was told that the Davis’ were good, respectable and quiet tenants, but were two weeks behind with their rent.

‘You are not going to turn them out?’ The magistrate asked.

‘On no, sir, certainly not. What would become of the little children?’ the landlord replied.

‘Very well, I will discharge her now. You can go know, Mrs. Davis. You will receive some coal and bread tickets from the Poor-box Fund, and you had better apply to the Relieving Officer for some out-door relief’.

Then he warned her against begging in future, and she left, with applause for the magistrate ringing out in court.

Individual acts of decency by men like Mr Slade and Sarah’s landlord were not enough of course to mitigate the realities of abject poverty in late nineteenth century London. On another day Sarah might have gone to gaol and had her children taken away.  Another magistrate might have told her it was the ‘house or nothing, and she would have again lost her children.

Tenniel’s image of the ghoul raising from the ‘slum’s foul air’ was so powerful because it reflected a sort of stark reality, even if it was as fantastical as his more famous illustrations for Alice in Wonderland.

[from The Standard, 28 February 1888]

Fire and murder in the East End but business as usual for Mr Lushington

John Tenniel The Nemesis of Neglect

John Tenniel’s Nemesis of Neglect, Punch (29/9/1888)

On Friday 31 August 1888 the Standard newspaper reported on the ‘great fire’ that had raged at the London docks the night before. Workers had knocked off at 4 that day as usual but at 8.30 in the evening someone noticed the smell of burning. It took until nine for the authorities at Whitechapel to be alerted whereupon officials there ‘ordered every steamer to proceed to the scene’. By the time they got there (coming from all over the city) a massive fire was underway.

The fire was raging in the South Quay warehouses which were ‘crammed with colonial produce in the upper floors and brandy and gin’ at ground floor level. With so many combustibles it is not surprising that the 150 yard long building blazed so violently. The conflagration not only drew the police and fire brigade to the site it also attracted thousands on Londoners  in the East End to step out of their homes to see the fire.

The Pall Mall Gazette also featured a report on the fire within its fourth edition that day. It described the warehouse as 200 yards long and said 12 steamers were engaged in fighting the blaze. It reported that soon after the first fire was brought under control a second broke out at the premises of Messrs. J. T. Gibbs and Co. at the dry dock at Ratcliffe, damaging workshops, goods and a nearby sailing ship, the Cornucopia.

As dramatic as the dockyard fires were they were eclipsed by an adjacent report on the same page which read:

HORRIBLE MURDER IN EAST LONDON

ANOTHER WHITECHAPEL MYSTERY

This of course refereed to the gruesome discovery made by police constable John Neil as he walked his beat along Buck’s Row (now Durward Street) parallel to the Whitechapel High Street. PC Neil had found the dead body of a woman later to identified as Mary Ann ‘Polly’ Nichols, the first ‘canonical’ victim of murderer known to history as ‘Jack the Ripper’.

The Gazette’s reporter must have seen the body in the Whitechapel mortuary because he was able to describe it in some detail for his readers.

‘As the corpse lies in the mortuary it presents a ghastly sight […] The hands  are bruised, and bear evidence of having been engaged in a severe struggle. There is the impression of a ring having been forced from one of the deceased’s fingers, but there is nothing to show that it had been wrenched from her in a struggle’, ruling out (it would seem) robbery as a motive.

No one, it seems, had heard anything despite there being a night watchmen living in the street. It was a mystery and as more details of Polly’s injuries emerged in subsequent days the full horror of the killing and the idea that a brutal maniac was at work in the East End gained ground in the press.

Meanwhile it was business as usual for the capital’s Police Courts; at Thames Francis Greenfield was charged with cruelty to a pony. He was brought in by PC 73K who had found the man beating the animal as he exercised it around a circle, presumably training it. The poor ‘animal was bleeding from the mouth, and there was a wound on the side of its lip’. The constable was told by several bystanders that Greenfield had been ‘exercising’ the beast for well over an hour. Mr Lushington, the magistrate, adjourned the business of his court  to go and see the pony for himself. When he returned he sentenced Greenfield to 10 days imprisonment with hard labour for the abuse.

Having dealt with that case the next reported one was of Philip McMahon who was in court for beating his partner, Emily Martin. The pair had been cohabiting for four or five years and it wasn’t the first time he had hit her. After a previous incident, when he’d blacked her eye, she had forgiven him and had done so several times since. Then on Monday (27 August) he had come up to her on the Mile End Road and grabbed her by the throat. He tore off a locket that she wore and assaulted her. He declared he was leaving her and when she tried to reason with him and implore him not to go he hit her again, knocking her senseless. Mr Lushington gave him 6 months hard labour.

Both cases testify to the violence and cruelty that was often associated with the working class residents of the East End of London. This allowed the press to construct a picture of Whitechapel as a place that had abandoned any semblance of  decency. The area became the ‘abyss’, a netherworld or living hell, where life was cheap and personal and physical corruption endemic. The “ripper’ became the embodiment of this vice and crime-ridden part of the Empire, given form by John Tenniel’s nemesis of Neglect, published on 29 September 1888 at the height of the murder panic. As with the modern press, historians and other readers need to be very careful before they take everything written in them at face value.

[from The Standard , Friday, August 31, 1888; The Morning Post, Friday, August 31, 1888;The Pall Mall Gazette , Friday, August 31, 1888]

for more Ripper related posts see:

Cruelty to cat grabs the attention of the press while across London the ‘Ripper’ murders begin.

“Let me see the Queen, I know who the ‘Ripper’ is!”