‘Ring the bell, and put the child on the doorstep’: a young mother is handed a stark ultimatum

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There have been plenty of examples in the pages of this blog of quite stark reminders that the past was ‘a different country’. Periodically today there are news reports of babies being found abandoned. In late January this year for example, a postman found a newborn child on a doorstep in Hackney as he made his rounds. The baby was taken into care and the police ‘appealed to his mother to come forward, assuring her she is not in trouble and will be helped’.

That is invariably the message to mothers who, for whatever reason, feel unable to keep a child they have just given birth to. Come forward, you’re not in any trouble, we are just worried about you.

This was not the way society viewed mothers that abandoned their babies in the nineteenth century however; something clearly illustrated by this cautionary take from 1871.

Elizabeth Fisher was working as a servant when she fell pregnant. She had the child and at first her sister agreed to care for it. Elizabeth’s employer, a Mrs Cruise (of Arthur Road, Brixton), made it abundantly clear that she was not willing for an illegitimate child to be raised under her roof.

Fisher either had to get rid of her baby or leave her service.

That was normal in the 1800s. Servants who got pregnant would often be dismissed and so many hid their pregnancies and then gave away or farmed out their children to relatives or women who they paid to take them in.

This worked for Elizabeth for a while but then in December 1870 her sister explained that she could no longer care for the baby.  With what one imagines was a heavy heart Elizabeth took her baby to the Camberwell workhouse (below right) and asked them to care for it.

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The workhouse refused telling her they were ‘neither a nursery nor a baby-farming establishment, and they could not separate mother and child’. If Elizabeth wanted to place her baby in their care she’d have to admit herself at the same time. Even when Fisher offered to pay a weekly sum for the child’s acre the workhouse authorities turned her away.

She was back to square one.

Her mistress, Mrs Cruise, now suggested she take the child to its father. While Fisher wasn’t married she did know where the father was. Cruise told her to go to Gloucester Terrace, Hyde Park (where the man lived), ‘ring the bell, and put the child on the doorstep for the father to take in’.

So it was that Elizabeth, her sister, and Mrs Cruise set off, taking an omnibus towards Haymarket (where Cruise was going to attend the theatre). The sisters hopped off but seemingly never made it to Gloucester Terrace. The baby was found on a shop doorstep in the Haymarket by a policeman.

It took some time for the police to trace the child back to Elizabeth Fisher who by this time had left Cruise’s employment. The police obtained a summons to bring Fisher, her sister (Mrs Brown,, who lived in Hoxton) and Mrs Cruise to court at Marlborough Street. Mr Tyrwhitt, the sitting Police magistrate, listened carefully to the stories all three women told before reaching his judgment.

Despite her telling her employer to leave the child on a doorstep or leave her employment, the justice exonerated Mrs Cruise. She’d apparently acted ‘only with kindness’ her lawyer had argued, and Mr Tyrwhitt agreed. Nor did he condemn the workhouse for not receiving the child and refusing the mother’s money. The father was not summoned as Elizabeth’s sister did not want to ‘disgrace’ him. Instead he reserved his opprobrium for Elizabeth Fisher. He sent her to prison for 10 days with hard labour.

I doubt she took her child with her and I imagine she would have found it hard to find similar employment thereafter, with the stain of imprisonment added to that of bastard bearing. Elizabeth was ‘ruined’ and yet no fault or responsibility was set at the door of the man that she had conceived her baby boy with.

This was the reality of being poor, female, and a single mother in nineteenth-century London. It may not be easy today, but at least it is unlikely to land you in gaol.

[from Morning Post, Wednesday, 22 February 1871]

A young postman is overwhelmed by Valentine’s Day

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Amidst all the commercial celebration of Valentine’s day, with every supermarket making special ‘dine in’ offers, shops filling their windows with hearts and chocolates, and florists selling red roses at double the normal price, it is easy to see that for some of these traders this has become one of the key income generating weeks of the year.

Once Christmas and the sales are over there is usually a slump in trade before Easter that [St] Valentine’s Day has now assumed such an importance to the retail industry. But do we have an idea of how busy it was in the past I wonder? We know the Victorians celebrated the occasion and sent love tokens as we do, but what effect did that have on everyday life?

Well we can get an idea of how it affected the people that delivered those messages, the postmen of the Victorian capital, in this case from 1871. An unnamed postman was prosecuted at Westminster Police court for drunkenness whilst on duty. His offence was minor but had the potential for serious consequences, his defense however, was most illuminating.

Mr Woolrych, the sitting magistrate at Westminster that day, was told that a crowd of ‘disorderly persons’ had gathered around a postman, drawing the attention of a passing police officer. As the bobby pushed his way through the throng he found the postman sorting a pile of letters under a lamppost. It was late at night, past 10.30, which was why he needed the gaslight to read the addresses on the mail.

Most of the letters ‘were valentines’ and they should have been delivered much earlier in the day by a colleague but that postie had failed to find the addresses and so they had gone back in the system, and our man was now tasked with uniting them with the correct (and probably by now quite desperate) recipients.

As the postman at last moved off to make his deliveries the policeman noticed that he was rather unsteady on his feet, and stopped him. He quickly realized that the man was under the influence of alcohol and he arrested him. In court the postman apologized but said he had been on duty since four in the morning, had had very little if anything to eat all day, and so when a kindly woman had treated him to a ‘tumbler of sherry’ it had ‘produced an effect over which [he] had no control’.

His supervisor appeared to confirm that the young man had an exemplary record in his four and a half years with the Post Office:

‘He was a steady, honest, and industrious servant, against whom no complaint had ever been made; and should he be convicted…dismissal from the service would certainly follow’.

In this case common sense prevailed. Mr Woolrych accepted that while drinking on duty rendered the man  ‘blamable’ for the offence there were mitigating factors. There was no need to ruin a young man with such a previously unblemished record and so he discharged him (which is probably why the papers decided not to reveal his name).

The evidence revealed that (as noted earlier):

the ‘defendant had been on duty since four o’clock in the morning without intermission or opportunity of taking a meal, as the valentine delivery was very heavy, and the reserve men had even been called upon to perform the duties of letter-carriers’.

Valentine’s Day was a big day then in Victorian England with very many people using the postal service to send their tokens of affection to their sweethearts. After Christmas this was probably the busiest period of the year for the men of the Post Office, just as it is today for the florists, chocolatiers and restaurateurs of the capital.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, February 16, 1871]

A postman is ‘bitten’ by an angry magistrate

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Londoners puzzled at the arrival of new ‘post box’ mistake it for a stove, (Punch , January 1855)

The postman seems to have been a British institution for as long as we can remember. Every day (except Sundays and Bank Holidays), all over the country, the Royal Mail deliver letters and parcels (and a considerable amount of waste paper) in a system that has its roots in the 15th century. The first mention of the term ‘postman’ was in 1526 (according to the OED) and literally means someone who delivers a message by post.

The English postman really rose to prominence in popular culture after the introduction of the penny post by Rowland Hill in 1840. Hill’s innovation – to create a standard rate for letters – was followed up by the adoption of a (whisper it) French invention, the pillar box in the 1850s. Now ‘ordinary’ people could stay in touch with loved ones wherever they were in the country, just as long as they could read and write (or find someone that could) and had a penny for the stamp.

The arrival of the post (so much more exciting than the arrival of an email) was an event; if you had a relative or friend living far away, or serving in the armed forces, how special must it have been (in the days before telephones) to get a letter from them? As one contemporary remarked:

Who has not heard with pleasure the sharp, loud, firm ‘ rat-tat’ of the postman? What a stir it causes in the house!

                 Uncle Jonathan, Walks in and Around London, 1895 (3 ed.)*

I am struggling to find out whether ‘postman’ is or was an official term. The title ‘letter-carrier’ seems to be interchangeable with postman and it certainly appears to mean the same thing. Given that postmen (and women these days) are out in all weathers, walking long distances, carrying heavy loads, and fighting off the attentions of over-anxious canine guards, they have retained our affection.

However, as this case shows not all ‘posties’ were held in high esteem, at least not by everyone, and not when they ‘let the side down’.

Senior Stoker (which sounds more like a job description than a name) was charged before Mr Newton at Marlborough Street Police Court with being ‘drunk and incapable while employed as a letter-carrier for the General Post-office’.

Stoker, the court was told, had been working for the post office for five years. He had been found, as the PO’s solicitor (Mr Breton Osborn) testified, ‘helplessly drunk while in charge of a bag containing several post letters which should have been delivered’. The charge was ‘serious’ he said, and ‘of great public importance’.

The postman had been found ‘staggering about helplessly drunk’ by PC Knighton (230C) in Greek Street, Soho at half-past three in the afternoon, the bag over his shoulder. The policeman stopped him and asked what he had in the sack. ‘Only some cold boiled beef’ replied Stoker. PC Knighton didn’t believe him, checked, and found it actually contained about 30 letters.

Imagine the consternation in the Police Court; here was a public servant who should have been delivering the missives and messages of love, hope and congratulations to homes in the West End when instead he was as a drunk as a lord and swaying through the streets.

Not only that but Stoker had apparently got himself inebriated fast. One witness, Edward Powell (the assistant overseer of the Western District post-office) declared that Stoker had left the office at 2.15 and then he was sober. If he hadn’t been, he wouldn’t have been allowed to start his deliveries.

In his (albeit very weak) defence Stoker said that he ‘was short of food’ and ‘some drink he had in the morning took effect on him later in the day’. That must have been some delayed reaction if he was telling the truth. More likely he had met some ‘pals’ and stopped for some refreshment in a local beer-house.

The magistrate, Newton, asked Mr Osborn if Stoker would be dismissed from his job. That did ‘not always follow’, the Post Office’s solicitor explained, it was ‘at the discretion of the Postmaster-General’.  Mr Newton was pretty convinced that this sort of behaviour should mean that Stoker lost his job, and said so, but in the meantime he fined him £5 or one month in prison.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, April 08, 1880]

*http://www.victorianlondon.org/index-2012.htm [accessed 7 April 2017]