‘Picking up rotten fruit from the ground’: Two small waifs struggle to survive in a society that doesn’t care

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The fact that Alice and Rosina Purcell were charged at Worship Street Police court under legislation intended to prosecute beggars and vagrants is not, in itself, unusual in the 1870s. Policemen, officers of Mendicity Society, and other public servants were all obliged to point out and have arrested those who wandered the streets destitute and begged for alms.

No, what makes this case so upsetting is the fact that that Alice and Rosina were aged just 6 and 8 respectfully. They were found wandering around Spitalfields Market begging ‘and picking up rotten fruit from the ground’. They were dressed in ‘the dirtiest of rags’ when James Gear, a school board inspector, decided to intervene. He took them to the nearest police station and then brought them before Mr Hannay at the east London police magistrate’s court.

The pair were clearly poor and hungry but through the filth the reporter still described them as ‘cheerful and intelligent’. They told the justice that their mother was dead and their father, who worked as a dock labourer, ‘left nothing for them at home’. They had no choice but to try and beg or find food for themselves.

This is a good example of the reality of life for very many people – young and old – in late Victorian Britain. Without a welfare system that supported families effectively girls like Alice and Rosina had to literally fend for themselves. We can criticize and condemn their father but with no wife at home to care for his children he was obliged to go out to work all day. Moreover dock work was not guaranteed – he’d be expected to be there very early in the morning for the ‘call on’ and such seasonal work that he would have got was very badly paid.

Mr Hannay was told that the girls were protestants and it was hoped that they might be sent away to the Protestant School. That would provided a solution of sorts but sadly there were no places available. Instead the magistrate ordered that the little sisters be taken to the workhouse until a better option could be found.

We might congratulate ourselves on having left such poverty behind. Children as young as Alice and Rosina should not have to beg for food in the modern capital of Great Britain. After all we are one of the richest countries in the world and have a well established welfare system that, we are told, people travel to the UK from all over the planet to exploit.

Yet poverty still exists in Britain and to a much higher rate than any of us should be comfortable with.  In March it was revealed that 4,000,000 children live in poverty in the UK, an increase of 500,000 since 2012. Last night’s news detailed the impact this is having in schools where almost half of all teachers surveyed said they had given children food or money out of their own pockets such is the degree of want they experience among pupils. The news report stated:

‘Children reaching in bins for food, homes infested with rats, five-year-olds with mouths full of rotten teeth. The reality of poverty in Britain, according to teachers who say they’re having to deal with it every day’.

This is not that far removed from the case above, the key difference being we no longer prosecute children for vagrancy or separate families in the workhouse. But it is absolutely scandalous that in a country that can waste £33,000,000 on ‘botched no-deal ferry contracts’ or spends £82,000,000 annually on the Royal family, and allows directors of FTSE companies to earn (on average) £2,433,000 each year (without bonuses) any child is going without sufficient food.

[From The Morning Post, Wednesday, May 01, 1872]

If you enjoy this blog series you might be interested in Drew’s jointly authored study of the Whitechapel (or ‘Jack the Ripper’) murders which is published by Amberley Books on June 15th this year. You can find details here.

Lessons from the 1840s should remind us that refugees are welcome here

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1848 was another hard year for the Irish people. The potato blight continued to bring famine to Ireland and tens of thousands left their homes and communities to make the journey to England and Scotland or America. The impact of this on a city like London is evident in the newspaper reports of poor relief in the capital and elsewhere.

The Marylebone vestry was told that between December 1846 and December 1847 huge numbers of migrants had appeared in London needing to be supported by the city’s parishes. 5,941 had arrived in St George’s-in-the East, 2,761 in the East London Union, 6,253 in Whitechapel and 7,783 in Stepney.

In central London the numbers were similarly high. There were almost 5,000 arrivals in St. Giles and 7,864 in Marylebone and a staggering 11,574 in St Martin’s-in-the-fields. In total in that one year the parochial poor law authorities spent thousands of pounds in relieving around 80,000 to 100,000 migrants from Ireland.

The vestry heard that several parishes hadn’t kept records of those they’d helped (or those records were not available) and noted that a further 30,000 Irish men and women had been relieved in Glasgow.

The Irish potato famine killed about one in eight of the population and forced two million others to leave. It was also entirely unnecessary. A combination of high grain prices, over dependence on the potato crop, and a deeply rooted and ideological resistance by the English landowners and government to help the poor led to the death of a million people, and the migration of many more.

The British Imperial state failed to deal with a humanitarian disaster on its own doorstep, allowing grain to be exported from Ireland when it could have used to feed its people, and refusing to intervene when Irish landlords turfed impoverished families off the land. The Poor Law system was rooted in deterring pauperism rather than helping those in need and the prevailing economic doctrine was laissez-faire ruled out government interference. Underlying all of this was Protestant evangelism that believed in ‘divine providence’ and underscored a deep-seated anti-Catholic prejudice in large sections of British society.

When the Marylebone vestry heard that St Martin’s-in-the-fields had relieved 11,574 Irish at the cost of £144 13s6d(or about £12,000 today, £1 for each person) ‘laughter followed’. Were they laughing at the fact that St. Martin’s ratepayers were paying out so much, or that so many had ended up there? Why were they laughing at all?

Today the news is filled with images of refugees and economic migrants huddled into overflowing boats, or carrying their belongings along dusty roads, fleeing war or disaster. We shouldn’t forget that in the 1840s this was the reality within the British Isles.

Disasters like Ireland in the 1840s or Syria in the 21st Century are not simply ‘natural’ disasters. They are often caused by, or exacerbated by the actions of governments or individuals, sometimes motivated by religion, ideology or greed, but the people most affected are invariably the poorest and least able to cope. For that reason migration is a World issue where borders are irrelevant. We should have helped the Irish in the 1840s and we should help the Syrians today.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, July 31, 1848]