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]

‘What could parsons, bishops, politicians, and the editors of the daily press do without lying’? An Anarchist exposé of hypocrisy

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In 1884 the Imperial Federation League was formed in London and in several other colonial cities throughout the empire. Its aim was to create a federation of self-governing states under the umbrella of the British Empire. At the heart lay the idea of British Nationalism – a greater Great Britain if you will – and was very much concerned with white nationalism.

In a break from my usual sources for this blog I’ve had a look at the political newspapers that are made available via Gale’s Nineteenth Century Collections Online. Within these I found an article in The Anarchist from September 1885 which references the notion of a ‘Federation of the Empire’ and the racism that underpinned it.

It reported that a number of ‘Indians’ had applied to a district court which was presided over by a Police Magistrate named Mr Panton. The group wanted to obtain license to trade on the streets door to door (hawking) but were refused. The writers was indignant on their behalf:

‘Those Indians are our fellow-citizens, members of the same empire; but they are unfit to hawk goods in this part of the world! We have seen several of them about the streets, and were impressed with their cleanly appearance and respectable bearing. For hawkers, we thought them a immense improvement on any of our own race that we have seen in the same trade’.

The article goes onto say:

‘And what of the Chinese? They hawk and very properly too. And they are not of the same empire. We presume were China conquered and annexed to the British Empire, all Chinese would be refused hawker’s’ licenses here. This is a good commentary on the Federation craze’.

The author ends by declaring that his society accused ‘swarthy Indians’ of being ‘noted liars! Ah, that is sad. But is that any reason they should be refused hawkers’ licenses?’ he asks.

‘have we no liars in Melbourne of the British race? What could parsons, bishops, politicians, and the editors of the daily press do without lying? To honestly carry our any law against lying would be to shut up most of the churches, most of the newspapers, to stop most trades, to abolish royalty, levees, parliaments, and what not.

Let us have fair play all round, and favor to none, whether truthful or not’.

Despite having some popular political support in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century the IFL never managed to persuade enough politicians that it was viable and the outbreak of war in 1914 effectively killed it as an idea. However, there it has remerged as a possible solution to life after Brexit; CANZUK (a political union of Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the UK) has been mooted as a viable alternative economic force to the EU.

[from The Anarchist, Tuesday, September 15, 1885]

A man with a mission and some chalk

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It was not Edward Barnbrook’s first time in court. He had appeared before the magistrates at Marylebone Police court on a number of occasions. He was described on the charge sheet as having ‘no home’ and ‘no occupation’, but he certainly believed he had an important task to complete.

His crime?

– ‘defacing walls and hoardings by chalking verses from Scripture on them, [and] also sentences  satirising our statesmen and country’.

In late August 1861 he was brought up before Mr Mansfield having been arrested by PC Gaze (356S) between one and two o’clock that morning in Little Albany Street, close to Regent’s Park. The constable had interrupted the men while he was chalking a message on a wall. What was that message, the magistrate asked.

‘What nation can fight?’ replied the policeman to stifled laughter in the courtroom. Since Barnbrook had refused to stop writing the constable had arrested him and taken him back to the station to charge him.

Thomas Taylor, a man with the wonderful title of ‘inspector of nuisances’ appeared next, to explain that Barnbrook was  serial offender and his daubing was a constant source of irritation to local residents.

Mr Mansfield asked the slogan writer why he did it.

‘Prisoner (solemnly): To fulfil the prophets and prophecy, also the saints, and to make the Bible universal. I have a mission’.

Religious zeal was as prevalent in Victorian society as it appears to be in our own and seemingly dismissed or tolerated as harmless unless it was attached to violence. The magistrate remanded the prisoner for two days. In effect the man was being imprisoned without being convicted of any offence,a fairly standard practice for those caught doing something but not really guilty of doing that much.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, August 23, 1861]