A cab driver hits rock bottom as he plunges into the Thames’ polluted waters.

The_silent_highwayman

Constable William Hanson (103F) was on duty on Waterloo Bridge when a hansom cab pulled up. Nothing unusual in that of course but what followed was.

The driver leapt down from the cab, rushed to the side of the bridge and then, before PC Hanson could react, threw himself over the side. The officer shouted for help as he heard the splash, and charged down the steps to the riverside.

Charles Field’s life must have swirled around him as he plunged into the Thames’ murky waters and poisonous waters. In July and August of that year the pollution in the Thames, always bad, had reached new heights, as raw sewage emptied into the river in unprecedented quantities bring death and disease in its wake. The ‘Great Stink’ closed Parliament and forced the authorities to take action. Eventually new sewers were designed and built and a monument to their creators, Charles Bazalgette, can still be seen on London’s Embankment.

This was all in the future as Charles Field struggled and sank through the filthy waters. Twice he touched the riverbed before rough hands lifted him clear and into a boat. A waterman had been passing under the bridge at just the right moment, heard the splash, and pulled his oars hard to reach the drowning man.

Between them the waterman and the policeman managed to save the cab driver’s life and PC Hanson helped him to Charing Cross Hospital where he remained for the best part of two weeks as he recovered.

Attempting suicide was a crime however, and so, on the 2 November 1858, Charles Field was set in the dock at Bow Street and formally charged. Having heard the circumstances Mr Jardine, London’s most senior magistrate,  asked him to explain himself.

Field was full of regret for his actions and said he never intended to ‘destroy himself’.  For weeks he had suffered with ‘rheumatic gout’ and that had affected his ability to work. Since he couldn’t take his cab out his family suffered, and his wife was ‘afflicted with paralysis’ so she was unable to help either.

It was desperate but with no social security or health service to fall back on there was little Charles could do but carry on. The 50 year-old cut a sad figure in the dock, looking ‘extremely ill’ and clearly at his wits end. He said that on the day he jumped he had finally managed to go out in the cab, things looked like they might start to improve at last.

But then disaster struck. He was so far behind with his rent that his landlord turned them all out on the street and seized his furniture and effects. His brother gave them a room but he had no money for food. Field went out with his cab but had a ‘bad day’, took little money and found himself on Waterloo Bridge facing the prospect of going home empty handed.

Which is why something broke inside him and he decided to take his own life.

The magistrate turned to the police constable and asked him whether all of this was true. It was, PC Hanson confirmed. He had made enquiries and discovered that the defendant’s wife and children were ‘actually starving’. Given this, and Field’s very obvious remorse, Mr Jardine said he would not punish him. He reprimanded him, reminding the cab driver that suicide was a crime as well as a sin, but discharged him. He ordered that Charles Field be given 10s from the poor box ‘for his present relief’ and told him to ‘call again’ if he needed further help.

Charles Field was a working man; he’d probably been a cab driver for many years. Tough work, driving a cab in all weathers, rarely having a day off, putting up with abuse from customers and other road users. His wife was sick, his children hungry, he had a mountain of responsibilities and no means of support. He got no sick leave, no holiday pay, no unemployment benefit if he couldn’t work, no means to get credit to pay his bills. Like many poor Victorian Londoners when the fragile house of cards he had built came tumbling down he and his family were tipped into poverty.

This is why we have a system to help those that need it. Whether it be medical care that is free at the point of need, or state benefits for periods of unemployment or when work is short. This doesn’t always help of course: those working in the so-called ‘gig economy’ are rarely guaranteed pay and self-employed men like Charles Field still suffer by comparison to those of us that enjoy the benefits of sick pay and annual leave allowances.

That is why the rights of workers matter so much, and why our modern British social security system should be a source of pride, not something for politicians and wealthy press barons to sneer at and undermine.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, November 03, 1858]

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]

‘What a shame for four men to beat one’: One woman’s brave but foolish intervention

garotte

Violence was topic for most of the cases reported in the evening Standard newspaper on 13 October 1877. Just as modern readers are shocked by hearing of stabbings and attacks on defenseless elderly people and children, our ancestors must have shaken their heads and wondered what the world was coming to.

Of course the accounts of assaults and domestic violence were both real and relatively unusual; it was this that made them newsworthy. So we do have to be aware that when we read the nineteenth-century papers we are looking at a selection of ‘crime news’ that the editor thought his readership would ‘enjoy’. Plenty of less sensational news was generated by the ‘doings’ of  the metropolis’ police magistrate courts.

But let’s return to October 1877.

The first report that evening was of ‘an unprovoked assault’ on Mrs Jane Nash. Jane was walking out with a friend to meet her husband for Friday night drinks. As she made her way along Newington Causeway a drunken man collided with her, and ‘nearly knocked her down’. Jane gave him a piece of her mind, telling him to watch where he was going.

The man turned round, punched her in face twice, and would have started kicking her as she lay on the ground if two men hadn’t intervened and pulled him off her. At Southwark Police court he was sent to prison for 14 days by Mr Benson.

Staying south of the river Edward Richards surrender his bail and appeared at Wandsworth Police court charged with ‘a gross outrage’. He was accused, along with three other men not in custody, of attacking a man at a farm in Merton. John Ebliss, a ‘native of Bengal’, was sleeping at Baker’s End farm when Richards and the others hauled him out in a blanket and threw him in a ditch. Whether this was a prank or they had discovered Richards sleeping rough on their property wasn’t made clear in the report. The magistrate, Mr Paget, remanded Richards for a week so that the other men could be apprehended.

At Marlborough Street George Webster was charged with assaulting William Bowden, one of the surgeons attached to St John’s Hospital in Leicester Square. Webster had been making a disturbance in the hospital, probably drunk, and was thrown out. This sort of behavior still happens in hospitals today and every  night NHS are abused and assaulted by members of the public who’ve had too much to drink. Webster had come back into the hospital and in an argument with the surgeon he punched him in the ear. Mr Cooke warned him that behaviour like that could get him a prison sentence but on this occasion, and with the surgeon’s agreement, he merely bound him over to keep the peace for a year.

The final case was the worse. At half past midnight on the previous Friday (the 5 October) Emily Withers was passing the corner of Cannon Street Road when she saw a street robbery in progress. Four young men had set on another. When they discovered he had no money that started beating him up and Emily, unwisely decided to intervene.

‘What a shame for four men to beat one’, she cried, drawing the attention of one of them.

‘What is it to do with you?’ Robert Martin asked, moving over to her.

He kicked out at her, landing a blow on her knee. As the young man struggled free of his attackers and ran for help Martin now kicked Emily in the stomach. The violence knocked her off her feet and ‘she was in such agony that she could neither move nor speak’. It took some moments before a policeman came running up and arrested Martin.

Emily spent four days confined to bed as a result of the attack but recovered sufficiently by the following Friday to give evidence against her abuser in court. Mr Chance, the presiding magistrate at Thames Police court sentenced the 17-year-old lad to six month’s hard labour.

So here were four acts of violence to unsettle the readers of the Standard as they digested their supper. It would remind them that while crime had fallen considerably since the early decades of the century there was still plenty to fear on the capital’s streets. However, the reports were also reassuring  in that in each case someone was in custody or was being punished for their acts of violence. They were off the streets and no threat any more.

Today I think we operate in a similar way. I live in London and stabbings are reported weekly, sometimes more.  Every death is a tragedy, a young life cut short, and a family bereaved.  It is made worse because the culprits are rarely caught and so remain at large, as an ongoing danger. But are they are a danger to me and my life? The news reports suggest that this sort of violence – knife crime committed by teenagers on each other – is unlikely to affect me directly because I am a white man in my fifties. That said local reports suggest that there was a stabbing just up the road from us, and several muggings (by youths on scooters) had also been reported.

London can be dangerous; anywhere can be dangerous, just ask the victims of the recent assaults in Manchester. But violence is still rare and reported because it is rare, and therefore newsworthy. As Nick Ross always used to say, ‘don’t have nightmares’.

[from The Standard, Saturday, October 13, 1877]

No help for the weakest from a society which simply didn’t care

map-of-british-empire-watermark

There are so many dreadful stories of poverty and distress in the pages of the nineteenth-century press that it would possible for me to write about that topic every single day. The number of attempted suicides in London in the 1800s reveals the struggle that so many people had with poverty, mental illness and a society that simply provided no proper system of support for those that didn’t ‘win at life’.

For me it is a constant reminder that the greatest achievement of the British state was the creation of the Welfare State in the aftermath of the Second World War. Clement Atlee’s post war government presided over a broken Britain, one battered by war which, while it had emerged victorious, had come perilously close to defeat and invasion by Hitler and fascism. Churchill is rightly credited with pulling us together through that dark period of our history but, for me, it was Atlee’s government that secured the peace by setting in place the foundations for rebuilding society.

In the early 1860s Britain was not at war – we’d had seen off the might of Imperial Russia in the Crimea several years earlier and the Indian Mutiny (or, more properly, war of independence) was a fading memory as well. Great Britain had an empire that covered the globe and our wealth was unsurpassed. Yet despite this our rulers did very little to support the poorest in society or recognize the contribution that others (‘foreigners’) had made to the nation’s success.

The Poor Law of 1834 had been designed to penalize the poor and to deter people from asking for help by effectively locking them up in a workhouse and breaking up their families if they did so. We had no NHS either, there were charities that helped the poorest with medical care but no universal right to free healthcare at the point of need. The understanding of mental illness was still in its infancy, and without private means an individual suffering with any form of mental illness was likely to be thrown into a workhouse or public asylum to be mistreated by doctors and nursing staff that knew very little and cared much less.

Muhomed Ali Khan was a member of the British Empire who felt he was entitled to its support. After 1857 and the failure of the Indian uprising the British state had taken full control of the Indian subcontinent. The British ruled for the benefit of the Queen and the motherland, not for the millions of indigenous Indians that lived there. Khan must have come to England to work, perhaps as a sailor, or soldier in the Queen’s army, or even as an employee of the East India Company.

Whatever the reason in 1862 he was in a parlous state. Destitute and suffering with physical and mental illness he was found at 11.30 in the morning outside the office of the East India Company in Victoria Street by a policeman. When asked what he was doing Khan told PC John Fever (255A) that he ‘had a claim on the government, and had determined to die at the door of those offices’. Fearing the man would make good on his promise PC Fever picked him up and helped him to the nearest workhouse.

Two days later Khan was back outside the EIC offices and had to be dragged back to the care of the workhouse staff. He had nothing to eat in between and was causing ‘annoyance’ by ‘walking about day after day in front of them’. The poor man was embarrassing the company that had profited so much  from the exploitation of India, its people  and its natural wealth. So he was brought before Mr Arnold at Westminster in a case the paper headlined ‘the Troublesome Indian’.

Here we learn that Khan had been ‘troublesome’ before: he had gained entry to the House of Lords and made an attempt on his own life. He had also appeared at Horse Guards during the Queen’s procession to open Parliament and had tried to cut his own throat. On both occasions, the magistrate was told, the poor man was sent to prison but it clearly hadn’t had the effect intended.

Mr Arnold was sympathetic but unable to do anything of real use for Khan. He hadn’t committed  an offence by wandering outside the EIC’s offices so he discharged him from court, but he didn’t help him much either. The man was given a shilling to get some food and sent on his way. It was almost inevitable that he would end up dead in the river or a workhouse infirmary before long and Victorian society, frankly, didn’t care which.

The British Empire and state was built on the backs of the vast majority who did not benefit from it but this was not properly recognized until Atlee and that first Labour administration.  I rather fear that lesson has been lost over the years as we worry about ‘benefit scroungers’ and continue to underfund the NHS and social care. For Mohamed Khan in 1862 we have the unnamed Hungarian who collapsed and died outside Parliament in December 2018.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Saturday, 4 January, 1862]

A magistrate woefully out of touch with reality but who founded a legal dynasty

911ToVhHtiL

Sir Henry Curtis-Bennett might be forgiven for not really knowing ‘how the poor live[d]’ in 1888. He had been appointed a magistrate for Westminster just two years previously at the age of 40. In 1888 in fact he was ‘Mr’ as the king didn’t knight him until May 1913 just a few weeks before he died. He was the son of an Essex  vicar and read law at university. He was called to the Bar in 1870 and so had plenty of experience (as all the metropolitan magistrates did) in the legal system, if not in the day-to-day life of ordinary Londoners.

In November 1888 he was presiding at Wandsworth when young George Thomas Bellenger was brought before him, charged with ‘living beyond the control of his parents’. The gaoler brought him up from the day cells and informed his worship that the lad was half starved. Until that morning he’d not eaten for days and so had been glad of the meal that Mr Ironmonger, a local Industrial School officer had provided.

The officer had been to George’s parent’s home and found it to be in a terrible state. There were several children there, all ‘crying for food’ and he reported that the place lacked the basic ‘necessaries of life’ (by which I presume he meant food and heating).

If the family were destitute then surely they should have gone to the workhouse Mr Curtis-Bennett declared. The gaoler said his worship was correct but added that many of the poor were ‘disinclined to become inmates of the workhouse’.

The magistrate said he was aware of this but couldn’t understand it. After all in England the poor were looked after better than in any other country in the world. Here there were ‘workhouses, infirmaries, and dispensaries’. This was the extent of the ‘welfare state’ in 1888: there was no unemployment benefit, no state pension, no NHS. Instead if you unable to feed yourself or find shelter you could enter the ‘house’ where you would treated (despite the former barrister’s opinion) little better than prisoners were.

George’s mother was called forward to explain her situation. She told the magistrate that her husband was out of work. He had been employed by a mineral water company as a delivery man but he had been sacked after eight years’ service. The reason, she was asked?

‘He trotted the horses’.

‘For no other reason?’

‘No sir’.

So because he pushed the horses to get his rounds done more quickly they company had sacked him. Workers had few, if any, rights in the 1880s and unemployment was high so there were always people to fill gaps if employers wished to get rid of people or pay them lower wages.

At this Mr Curtis-Bennett had a temporary rush of charitable understanding. He awarded the woman 10from the poor box. Then he sent her little boy to the workhouse.

Henry Curtis-Bennett died in office. He had become the Chief Magistrate at Bow Street and in July 1913 he was a attending a meeting at Mansion House (seat of the Lord Mayor of London) when he fell ill. He had survived a bomb attack in 1908 orchestrated by militant suffragettes (and other attempts as he was a lead magistrate in suppressing their ‘outrages’) but he didn’t survive this latest assault on his constitution. curtiss-bennett-1He died soon afterwards and was succeeded by his eldest son, also Henry, who went on to be a more famous lawyer than his father and a Conservative politician.

His son – Derek Curtis-Bennett) followed in his father and grandfather’s footsteps and entered the law. As a defence barrister he famously defended (if not successfully) the traitor William Joyce (Lord Haw-Haw) and the murderer John Christie.

No one knows what happened to little George or his siblings, or if they even survived the winter of 1888.

[from The Standard, Friday, November 02, 1888]

The magistrate tells a mentally ill mother to ‘remember to the end of her life what disgrace and danger she brought upon herself’.

Fig6

Today the British government has decided to mark World Mental Health Day by appointing a government minister to prevent suicide. The Health Secretary has admitted that under successive governments there has been too little focus of resources on tackling the problems of mental illness but, speaking on BBC Radio’s Today programme he stopped shorted of promising more money or specifying exactly how he intended to address the issue of mental health in the coming months and years.

The PM said this: ‘We can end the stigma that has forced too many to suffer in silence and prevent the tragedy of suicide taking too many lives’. They have pledged £1.8 to the Samaritans to help them run their free helpline. That is certainly something of course, but then we spend £38 billion on defence and about £45m on the Queen. The costs of mental health care do come out of the NHS budget of course and that budget is £124.7 billion and about 10% of that goes towards treating mental illness.

What all of these figures show is that mental illness is a massive problem in modern society and helps explain why upwards of 4,500 people take their own lives every year. Anyone visiting this blog over the last couple of years will probably have come across one or more story of attempted suicide prosecuted at the Metropolitan Police courts.  London was just as unforgiving and uncaring in the 1800s as it has proved to be in the 1900s and early 2000s. Policemen frequently prevented suicides simply by being on the streets (and bridges) at the right times.

Beat bobbies rescued men and women from the river, pulled them from canals, and cut them down from railings where they found them hanging. On more than one occasion a quick thinking guard or passenger saved a life on the overground or underground railways. Unlike today few of those attempting to end their lives received any help afterwards and all of them ended up facing prosecution for their ‘crime’.

Take the example of Maria Ford, a 28 year old married woman from Henry Street in Marylebone. She was charged before Mr Mansfield with attempting to murder her baby boy and then take her own life with poison. The magistrate was told that Maria was a drunkard with a history of being found incapable in the streets. After numerous appearances before  the courts she had recently promised to refrain from alcohol and had ‘signed the pledge’.

As a convert to the Temperance movement Mr Mansfield was prepared to give her the benefit of the doubt. The chaplain of the house of detention had written to him to attest to Maria’s attempt at reformation and he was keen to encourage her. He decided to treat the attempt on her son’s life as an accident occasioned by her being drunk but warned her against slipping ‘off the wagon’ in future:

‘He did not think she intended to injure her child’ he said, ‘but in her drunken madness she might have killed both the child and herself’.

He would therefore discharge her but now she had signed the pledge she had best keep it and ‘remember to the end of her life what disgrace and danger she brought upon herself by her drunken habits’.

I’m not sure anyone asked her why she drank or why there was no husband in court to support her. At least in that respects our society has made some significant strides forward even if, as Matt Hancock admits, there is still plenty of distance to travel.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, October 10, 1883]

for other cases that touch on attempted suicide see:

A man is driven to attempt suicide because of his ‘reduced circumstances’

‘She has been very low spirited lately’: The early casebook of the ‘Ripper’ surgeon reveals the extent of mental illness in London

A bad week in London, full of personal tragedy

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

7d8d0d813098d80d7257b381e7e025a4

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