‘You are a disgrace to human nature’: the meanness of the Poor Law exposed

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The Police Courts were places where people could bring their grievances on all manner of things in the 1800s. It is easy to get the impression that their main purpose was to deal with crime – petty and serious. However, this view is often reinforced by the newspapers’ selection of cases to bring to the attention of their readers: they often chose the outrageous, amusing, shocking, and heart ringing stories as well as regular examples of cases which reminded the public that working class men were brutal, that theft was common, and fraud to be avoided by the wary.

When Ellen Potts came to the Guildhall Police court to ask for Alderman Moon’s help it gave the court reporter of The Morning Post the perfect opportunity to expose an old chestnut: the misuse of authority by a lowly public servant. It helped that Ellen was pretty (‘a good-looking girl’ of ‘about 18 years of age’) and the public servant had a reputation locally for meanness.  Immediately then there was a melodramatic backstory that readers could relate to with a villain and a young heroine that needed saving.

Miss Potts told the court that she had been thrown out of her home after a row with her mother (‘over a shawl’). With nowhere to go that night Ellen knocked on the door of the West London Union workhouse at St Bride’s on Shoe Lane. The relieving officer, Mr Miller, refused her entry however, on the grounds that her mother took in lodgers at her house on Cloth Lane and so was perfectly capable of supporting her daughter.

Alderman Moon was angry with the officer whose only (and sustained) defense was to say he was only following orders. He quickly established that Mrs Potts was receiving poor relief herself and that Miller knew this.

‘Then how can she support her daughter?’ the magistrate demanded to know.

‘You have discretionary power, and I think it is a most cruel act of a man to refuse shelter to a girl under such circumstances, and your conduct is most disgraceful’.

When Miller tried once more to say it that Ellen was her mothers responsibility Alderman Moon cut him off.

‘Don’t talk to me about the mother. You may be a good badger for the guardians, but at the same time a disgrace to human nature. No wonder, when females  are thus cruelly refused an asylum, so many should become prostitutes for the sake of obtaining that relief for which the ratepayers are rated so heavily. There are constant complaints of your hard-hearted conduct, which is a disgrace to your nature’.

This brought cries of ‘hear, hear’ from all sections of the courtroom and Miller must have looked up miserably from the dock, as he continued to say that he was only doing what he’d been told to do by his employers.

The chief clerk whispered to the alderman that Miller was liable to a hefty fine for his actions. The magistrate told Miller that he was going to levy that penalty, £5, for disobeying the general rule that ‘relief shall be given to all person in urgent distress’. After one more forlorn attempt to shift responsibility from himself to the guardians the relieving officer finally work up to what was required of him.

‘Is it your wish she be taken into the house?’ he asked the alderman. ‘If so I will do it willingly’.

‘It is so’, Alderman Moon told him. ‘There’s an end of the case’.

So Miller avoided a fine and Ellen was admitted to the workhouse so she didn’t have to walk the streets and risk falling into an even worse fate.  Arguably the real villains here were the Poor Law Guardians that set the rules that Miller was expected to enforce, and Mrs Potts who was prepared to let her teenage daughter take her chances on the streets. At least this mini melodrama ended happily.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, August 10, 1849]

Drew’s new book (co-authored by Andy Wise) is published by Amberley Books. It is a new study of the Whitechapel murders of 1888 which offers up a new suspect, links the ‘Jack the Ripper’ killings to the unsolved ‘Thames Torso’ crimes, and provides the reader with important contextual history of Victorian London. The book is available on Amazon here

‘The water rushed in with such violence’: the flooding of Southwark workhouse

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Southwark workhouse c.1910

It always seems strange to be looking at the news and seeing scenes of devastation caused by flooding in the summer. The situation at Whaley Bridge in Derbyshire is awful and surely yet another example of how climate change is affecting the planet. But it is August and I associate torrential rain and flooding with the autumn and winter, not the summer.

Clearly I’m no meteorologist and even a casual glance back at the past reveals that sudden downpours and extreme weather is not a new phenomenon (even if the climate emergency we are now facing most certainly is).

In August 1846 three young girls were brought before the magistrate at Southwark Police court to be disciplined for their disobedience. The girls, who are not named in the newspaper report, were all inmates of the Southwark workhouse on Mint Street. Their crime – such as it was – appears to have been a refusal to do the work that was allocated to them by the institution’s porter, who was in court to testify against them.

He explained that on the previous Saturday (the last one in July) there had been a storm that had caused severe flooding in the basement. He had instructed the trio to help carry several beds from the ward to the upper stories of the building. Southwark workhouse was built in 1782 as a three story structure with a new section added in 1844. The ward in the basement was called the ‘probationary ward’ and it housed some of the sick female residents.

The flood was frightening, one inmate told Mr Secker: ‘the water rushed in with such violence, that before she could escape with her child it rose up as high as her waist, and it was only providential that some of them were not drowned’.

The three girls were asked to explain their refusal to carry the beds upstairs. They stated that the beds were simply too heavy for them and ‘above their strength’. Had the porter and workhouse staff allowed the beds to be separated (i.e. taken apart rather than left whole) then they could have managed it and been happy to do it. They added that they were then punished by the porter by being forced to remain in the flooded basement and ‘treated with much rigour’.

We know that workhouses were terrible places often run by cruel overseers who treated the inmates appallingly. Oliver Twist may be a novel but it is not a fantasy. In 1865 a report by the medical journal the Lancet condemned the state of Southwark workhouse stating that it ‘ought to be removed, and one built better adapted to fulfil its duties to the poor and sick of the neighbourhood’. Regardless of this it continued to serve the area until 1920.

‘Pauper bastilles’ like Southwark were designed to be places you did not want to enter. Under the principle of less eligibility’ set out in the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act going into a workhouse was supposed to be a least resort. The aim was to deter anyone who was able bodied from seeking poor relief. Only the sick and old would ask for help from the parish, everyone else would try to find work, any work, rather than enter the ‘house’.

Mr Secker could see that the three little girls had done nothing wrong, at least not in the eyes of the law. He stopped short of admonishing the cruelty of the porter who had tried to make children carry heavy iron beds up from a flooded basement and then locked them in a dark wet ‘prison’ as a punishment. Instead he simply said that no further punishment was necessary or appropriate and discharged them, presumably back into the ‘care’ of the parish authorities.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, August 04, 1846]

Casual racism from the lips of someone who should know better: Anti alienist in nineteenth-century Whitechapel

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This morning I’m off to Whitechapel to show some friends of mine around the area. If the weather is kind to us (and it’s not looking good!) I will take them to see the strange sights of one of the most interesting parts of the capital. This was the area where Jack the Ripper selected and killed his victims, from amongst some of the poorest people in London.

In the nineteenth century it was an area that was home to a vibrant community of mixed ethnicities, and it must have been filled with a cacophony of competing languages. It was dangerous, exciting, troubling and fascinating and it drew visitors from across London of all classes to gawp at what they saw there. Soon after the Whitechapel murders began ‘dark’ tourists started to come to see where ‘Polly’ or ‘Annie’ were attacked and left mutilated, a phenomenon that has continued to this day.

We’re not going on a ‘Ripper tour’; while very good ones exist I’m not entirely comfortable with the whole industry that surrounds the case and anyway, I know the sites well enough to show my friends should they want to have a look. Hopefully I can contextualize them within the social history of the 1880s.

One thing I hope they do notice today (given that they are coming south from ‘middle England’) is the diversity of the modern East End and how this echoes the Whitechapel of the 1880s. In the last quarter of the century this was home to tens of thousands of immigrants fleeing persecution and hoping for better life in the West. Ashkenazi Jews from the Russian Empire (from modern day Lithuania, Poland, and Ukraine) escaped from the Tsar’s terror and came to London and settled (or continued their journey to the USA).

Most stayed close to docks where they arrived and where there was already a well established Jewish community (so they had places to worship, kosher food they could eat, people that understood their language, and opportunities to work). They found work as boot and shoemakers, bakers, and in ‘rag trade’ sweat shops. They certainly impacted the area and tensions were often raised – no more so than during the Ripper case when some people pointed the finger of blame at the Jews, suggesting ‘no Englishman could have done this’.

While England in the 1880s had no laws against immigration there was racism, better known then as ‘anti-alienism’. Men like Arnold White stoked the fires of xenophobia, publishing lies and preying upon people’s fears of the ‘other’ and arguing that the new arrivals took locals’ jobs or deflated wages. Just like the lies spread by modern racists the claims were not true but the lies stuck. When times are hard it is easy to blame those that look different from the majority for all the problems in society.

This clearly wasn’t helped by the attitudes of those in positions of authority, or by the actions of influencers like the editors of newspapers. In 1891 The Standard newspaper reported the daily news from the Police Courts with the following story from the East End.

The sitting magistrate that day was Montagu Williams , QC. The clerk had handed him a list of summonses, the first six of which were applications from ‘foreign Jews’ who had taken them out against their co-religionists for threats and assaults. The report went on to say that, ‘as usual in such cases, some of other of the parties was unable to speak the English language, and there was a rush of persons to offer their services’ as translators.

Mr Williams had a rule that only one person should act as interpreter for the court, and he charged a fee. A solicitor for one of the men in court told the justice that his client could not afford that fee as he was a poor man. Williams said ‘he did not care’, adding:

It was not for the Court to pay the interpreter in these wretched squabbles. If these foreigners were allowed to flock into this country and, when settled here, were to disturb the peace by quarrelling and fighting among themselves, it would soon be necessary that they should have a Court with the officers and Magistrate speaking their language’.

This drew laughter from the public gallery.

As the cases were heard the same solicitor (Mr Bedford) was attempting to make his case about the threatening language used by one of the accused, referring to the ‘hard swearing’ that was common in the community.

‘You need not trouble about the language, Mr. Bedford’, Montagu Williams told him. ‘These people cannot speak the truth in any language. They are none of them to be believed on their oath’.

This then was the prevailing attitude towards Eastern European immigrants in late nineteenth-century London and it contributed towards the passing of the first anti-immigrant legislation (the Aliens Act) in the early twentieth century. Nowadays the dews have mostly gone from Spitalfields  (although there are traces of them in old shops signs and other buildings). They worked hard and prospered and moved north into the suburbs. Other groups followed them and now this area is home to many Bengalis.

Racism and xenophobia has not moved on sadly, and continues to blight society. London’s success (and that of Britain as a whole) is built on the industry of millions of immigrants over a thousand years or more and we would do well to remember and celebrate it, not immediately point the finger at ‘them’ when times are hard.

[from The Standard, Thursday, July 30, 1891]

Drew’s new book (co-authored by Andy Wise) is published by Amberley Books. It is a new study of the Whitechapel murders of 1888 which offers up a new suspect, links the ‘Jack the Ripper’ killings to the unsolved ‘Thames Torso’ crimes, and provides the reader with important contextual history of Victorian London. The book is available on Amazon here

A deserted wife takes advantage of a change in the marriage laws

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In 1857 Parliament passed a landmark act that fundamentally altered the ability of married couples to obtain divorce. The Matrimonial Causes Act (1857) was only one step on the pathway to modern divorce law but it was an important one. In essence it enabled divorce to be dealt with by the civil not the ecclesiastical (church) courts so long as the grounds were adultery. It wasn’t equal (the nineteenth century was a deeply patriarchal society after all) so while men only had to prove that their wife had committed adultery women had to show an additional cause (such as cruelty or desertion).

One extra clause in the act allowed a woman to protect any earnings she had from falling into the hands of her husband if he deserted her. Previously men were deemed to own everything on marriage and so could walk away and take everything with them. This important legal change brought Louisa Lichfield to Clerkenwell Police court in July 1858 to ask for Mr Tyrwhitt’s help.

Mrs Lichfield was a ‘respectably dressed and very lady-like female’ who gave her address as 4 King Street, Lower Road, Islington. She applied to the magistrate for an order under section 21 of the  Matrimonial Causes Act to protect her property from Henry Lichfield, a greengrocer of Cross Street, Lower Road, Islington.

Louisa’s solicitor (Thomas Wakeling) explained that in February 1855 she had arrived home with her husband who, ‘without any provocation’, assaulted her and threw her out of their home, dislocating her shoulder in the process. He told her that ‘she had no business there, and that she should never enter his place again’.

She had pleaded with him and returned to him several times only to be shunned and rejected again and again. With no income or saving Louisa fell into poverty and went to ask help from the parish authorities of St Marylebone. They were unwilling to help and passed her to St Mary’s, Islington and even though Henry was well aware of her desperate situation he did nothing to help her.

Since that time she ‘had been partly supported by her friends and partly by her needle’ (in other words she earned money by sewing). In the meantime she had managed inherited some money and property from a deceased relative and now was frightened that Henry would claim it and take it from her. The new law enabled her to protect it and she was therefore seeking an order from Mr Tyrwhitt to do this. The magistrate was happy to oblige her.

I think this shows that Louisa, and/or her friends, well aware of the change in the law and how it might benefit her. She was lucky to have such allies in this situation as few women would have been to organize an effective legal challenge without them. Louisa was not a rich woman from a privileged background, she was the deserted wife of a small businessman, a member of the aspiring middle class. She was disadvantaged by the system but the 1857 act did at least go some way to protecting her from the worst her husband could do, and Louisa was an early beneficiary.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, July 29, 1858]

An extraordinary tale of the escaped convict who panned for Australian gold

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On Saturday 20 July 1867 the dock at Lambeth Police court was occupied by a ‘miserably-attired man’ of about 40 years of age. Thomas Nugent, of no fixed abode, was charged with having escaped from the penal colony at Van Diemen’s Land 15 years earlier.

PC Waghorn (101L) said that Nugent had walked into the Kennington Lane Police station to give himself up. He was, he declared to the desk sergeant, ‘without home or friends and perfectly destitute’. He felt he had no other option that to surrender to justice.

Nugent explained that he had been convicted of committing at burglary in Manchester and sentenced to ten years transportation at the assizes held for Kirkdale, Lancashire. He’d gone to Norfolk Island, a notorious penal settlement, but escaped during a mutiny there. For a time he’d found work prospecting in the Australian gold rush and earned enough money to buy his passage back to England. He stayed with his father, a navy pensioner, at Greenwich, before enlisting in the army.

He served in the 64thfoot in Persia (modern Iran) and during the Indian war of independence (or ‘Mutiny’) of 1857. He was discharged with a small pension after suffering a series of injures and being declared unfit. Since then he’d found work on the docks but it was back breaking and his body couldn’t cope with it.  As a result he was forced onto the streets to fend for himself as best he could.

It was an extraordinary story, as the newspaper report stated, and the magistrate was keen to discover whether it was a fantasy or not. He remanded Nugent in custody and requested the police and clerk to very the man’s tale.  At least in the meantime he’d get food, a bed and shelter for a few days.

It seems he was telling the truth, at least about his transportation, or at least in part. The Digital Panopticon reveals that in August 1843 a Thomas Nugent was convicted at Lancaster of a burglary. He had one previous conviction for ‘offences against property’. Nugent arrived in Norfolk Island in May 1846 but absconded in July 1849. He was caught, but ran away several more times before he disappears from the records in 1850. So while he got his dates wrong it is possible, likely even, that this was the same Thomas Nugent. By 1867 transportation to Australia had all but ended so perhaps now he felt safe in handing himself in.

[from The Standard, Monday, July 22, 1867]

‘You answered him back and used your tongue pretty freely’: patriarchal dismissal of domestic abuse

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Here are two cases of domestic abuse from 1875, both handled slightly differently by the magistrates involved, but both revealing of contemporary attitudes.

Daniel Lambert had run his own pub but the business had failed and he’d been forced to sell up and move to a house in Notting Hill where he lived with his wife. It seems he blamed his wife for their misfortune and consoled himself by going out and getting drunk alone.

One evening he returned home after a session at the pub and his wife, Amelia, was standing at the gate, ready to scold him for his drinking. He told her to go inside. She carried on her critique and he threatened to ‘kick her to pieces’ if she didn’t stop. Amelia gave in and went upstairs but Lambert followed and beat her anyway. The couple ended up in court at Hammersmith before Mr Ingham.

Lambert’s barrister (Mr Whitty) argued that his client was provoked by her constant nagging. So ‘you abused him?’ the magistrate asked her, ‘you answered him back’, and ‘used your tongue pretty freely?’

‘No, sir’ she responded. ‘He struck me, pinched me, and kicked me […] I got away from him and called a constable, but he would not take him, as he did not see any blow struck’.

The police were reluctant to interfere in a ‘domestic’ unless they saw clear evidence of violence. This cooper wouldn’t examine her either, because the bruises she had were under her clothes and he said he could not see them without a doctor being present. This drew laughter in the court, as had the justice’s remarks about Amelia using ‘her tongue pretty freely’.

However, despite being ridiculed by a male dominated court Amelia did have one ally, the landlady that ran their house. She told the court that Mrs Lambert was a ‘most sedate woman’ and not the monster that Lambert and his brief wanted to make her out be. Daniel Lambert said she had sold all his goods when the business failed and had threatened to poison him, but there was no evidence for any of this. In the end Mr Ingham ruled that Lambert would have to find tow sureties in £20 each to ensure he behaved himself, for just two months. It was a legal slap on the wrist and reflected the reality that the magistrate thought that Amelia was to blame for her husband’s violence.

On the same the say the newspapers reported another case of domestic violence, this time heard before Mr Cooke at Clerkenwell. On Friday 16 July Mrs Badcock was making breakfast and getting her children ready for school. She picked up a pair of her husband’s trousers and heard money rattling in a pocket. The children had no shoes and Benjamin Badcock was lazy and rleucatnt to go out to work. The family were in poverty and Mrs Badcock suggested that since Ben had boots on his feet he might go out and earn some money so his children had some of theirs.

This sent the 47 year-old causal labourer into a rage and he turned on his wife, hitting her and throwing her onto the bed. She’d been holding a knife while she made breakfast and he seized this and threatened her with it. Fearing that he would kill her the couple’s eldest daughter, Mary Ann (16), rushed between them.

Badcock turned his anger on her now and thumped her in the face several times. When he had gone they left the house and applied for a warrant to bring him before a magistrate. Now, in court, Badcock denied the assault merely claiming he’d ‘slapped’ his daughter’s face for insubordination, as he was entitled to. Mr Cooke didn’t comment on the violence (or at least his comments were not recorded) but he also required Badcock to find two sureties (in this case for £25 each) to keep the peace towards his wife and daughter for six months.

In both cases a man had abused his wife (and daughter in the second example). This was routine, common and often punished similarly at the time. Would the sanction have worked? It is very hard to say but I strongly doubt it. There was an existing culture that tolerated male violence towards females (wives, partners and children) and we have struggled to leave that culture behind. Domestic violence and abuse (for abuse takes many forms, not all of which are physical) is notoriously difficult to quantify. However, there are currently an estimated 2,000,000 victims every year. Over a quarter of women aged 16-59 have reported some form of abuse from partners or other family members, and the figure for male victims runs at around 15%.

So this is not a Victorian problem, it is a very modern issue and while it increasingly affects men as well as women, boys as well as girls, it is predominately a problem related to male anger and male violence. History shows us that ignoring it, or pretending that it is a small isolated group of ‘bad’ people that are responsible, is not going to solve the problem. When we factor in the reality that around 35-45% of all homicide victims are killed by someone close to them then perhaps we see just how serious a social issue this is.

[from The Standard, Monday, July 19, 1875]

A mother’s desperation drives her to steal

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St Marylebone Workhouse

The year 1834 was an infamous one in English social policy history. It was in that year that the Poor Law Amendment Act was passed, ushering in a more draconian system of poor relief that split up families and created a stigma around poverty that lasted well into the twentieth century.

The historical arguments around the creation of the New Poor Law in in 1834 have their own long history and so I will limit myself here to the barest of details, readers could seek out the work of Poor Law historians such as Brundage, Digby, Englander, Higgenbotham, and Rose if they want to study this more.

In essence the 1843 act aimed to stop the practice of outdoor relief – where paupers were given top-ups (‘doles’) to supplement low or no wages in order to survive in times of economic hardship. Instead they were all expected to present themselves at a workhouse if they wanted support form the parish. The ‘house’ became a symbol of terror and oppression as anyone entering it effectively lost all control over their life. They were given workhouse clothes, men and women were separated, children taken from parents, and all were set to work in heavy manual labour in return for a very basic subsistence.

Not surprisingly those that found themselves in poverty did everything they could to avoid the workhouse, which was the intention of the act itself. Edmund Chadwick and the other committee members that framed this nasty piece of legislation wanted to ensure that pauperism was prevented by the deterrent nature of the system. The underlying principle was ‘less eligibility’. Workhouse conditions had to be worse than those outside so people were deterred from using them.

The Poor Law commissioners were driven by a desire to reduce the costs of poor relief, which fell on the pockets of the rate paying parishioners. While most people (certainly most middle class rate paying people) in Victorian England would have described themselves as Christians they clearly hadn’t read the sections of the New Testament which deal with poverty.

Mary Ann Stokes was poor. In 1845 she found herself so desperate to feed her two young children and avoid going into a ‘house’ where she’d lose them that she resorted to theft instead. Widowed, but ‘respectable’, Mary Ann had gone from her home in Blackfriars to the open fields at Battersea, south of the river Thames, where several market gardeners grew vegetables for the London markets.

She was found at 2 in the afternoon by police constable Jackson (178V) in land owned by William Carter and he stopped and searched her. Mary Ann had three lettuces, three carrots, and 39 small onions tied up in a large handkerchief and so he arrested her. She admitted the theft but begged for mercy, saying she was hungry and had to feed her children. The policeman took her to court at Wandsworth for the magistrate to decide what to do with her.

The market gardener, Mr Carter, was in court and to his credit he refused to press for a conviction. He could see that Mary Ann was desperate. She stood in the dock, wearing her ‘widow’s weeds’ and clutching her children to her. In court she claimed she’d found the vegetables and hadn’t stolen or picked them. Mr Clive, the sitting magistrate, said he would discharge her, not because he believed her story that she’d found the veg but because it couldn’t be proved that she’d taken it.

It was a pretty heartless decision because in effect he was warning her that next time she might not be so lucky, and be seen stealing. He offered her no help, no charity, no chance to find paid work, nothing but a reprimand. Mary Ann was in this situation because her husband had died, she’d lost the family’s breadwinner and had to care for her children as well as picking up whatever work she might be able to.

This was not an uncommon situation in the Victorian period where poverty blighted the lives of millions. The first real attempt at change came in 1908 when the introduction of Old Age Pensions ushered in the first stage of the Welfare State. We should not however that anyone that had sought help in a workhouse at any point in his or her life was not eligible for an OAP.

The stigma, therefore, continued long into the new century.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, July 10, 1845]

Drew’s new book (co-authored by Andy Wise) is published by Amberley Books. It is a new study of the Whitechapel murders of 1888 which offers up a new suspect, links the ‘Jack the Ripper’ killings to the unsolved ‘Thames Torso’ crimes, and provides the reader with important contextual history of Victorian London. The book is available on Amazon here