A poor lad is exposed to shame and ridicule by the callous workhouse system

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The Victorian period is synonymous with the harsh treatment of paupers in the workhouse. We draw much of our popular imagery of the workhouse from Dickens (and film and television adaptions of Oliver Twist in particular) and from now fading folk memories of the dreaded ‘house’. There are good late nineteenth century descriptions of the workhouse from men – social reformers and journalists – who visited them, sometimes in disguise. These give us an idea of the deprivations that those forced through poverty to enter them were exposed to.

The newspaper reports of proceedings at the Police Courts of the metropolis are another excellent way to ‘experience’ the reality of these cold and uncaring institutions and assess wider attitudes towards poverty and paupers. On many occasions malingerers and ‘shammers’ were brought before the magistracy to be punished for begging. Vagrants were rounded up by the police and given short sentences by the courts. The Mendicity Society brought prosecutions against those they thought were faking their injuries, and sometimes of course they were right. Just as today not every beggar with a hard luck story is telling the truth. But the courts also helped the poor, handing out small sums of money and, as in today’s case, taking to task or even punishing those that abused paupers in their care.

In late May 1868 the Thames Police court was graced with the presence of the 5th Marquis of Townshend. John Villiers Townshend (whose Vanity Fair caricature can be seen right), was the member of parliament for Tamworth and enjoyed a reputation as ‘the pauper’s friend’. Townshend was a social reforming politician who made it his business to know what was happening in the capital’s workhouses.  He was in court in 1868 to point out the mistreatment of a young lad in causal ward of the Ratcliffe workhouse. mw06374

The young man, who’s name is not given, had been released on to the streets wearing a rough canvas suit of clothes which was printed with the following text:

‘Jack from the country’ (on the back of the jacket) and ‘Lazy scamp’ on one trouser leg.

The intention was clear: when the lad left the ward he would be exposed to ridicule in the streets and, presumably, this was done deliberately to deter him from ever seeking asylum there again. After all one of the driving principles of the poor law was to deter the ‘undeserving’ poor from seeking help from the parish. The workhouse had to be awful, the logic ran, so that the last and feckless would not think of going there. Instead the workhouse was to be a place of last resort, used by the ‘deserving’ or genuinely impoverished who really had no alternatives.

Having been presented with this disturbing scene Mr Paget, the Thames magistrate, sent a runner to bring Wilding, the labour master and superintendent of the Ratcliffe workhouse, to the court to answer for himself. Wilding said he’d followed the rules. The lad had been given food and shelter I the ward but he’d chosen to cut up his own clothes and so had nothing to wear. That’s why he’d given him the rough canvas suit, what else was he to do? He marked the suit accordingly as what he clearly felt was an appropriate punishment.

The pauper explained that the reason he had ripped up his clothes was that ‘that he could not wear them any longer, they were very dirty and covered with vermin’.

Mr Paget took the side of the lad (or perhaps more obviously that of the marquis). He instructed the clerk of the court to send a letter to the Poor Law Board to report the misconduct of the labour master. Lord Townshend said he would also bring the matter up with the board. ‘If paupers were thrust into the streets with such extraordinary comments and inscriptions on their garments it would’, he declared, ‘give rise to inconvenience and breeches of the peace’.

More practically the marquis also undertook to provide the lad with a new set of clothes and a pair of stout boots. The canvas suit would be returned to the Ratcliffe workhouse, hopefully for disposal. The watching public gave him a rousing cheer as he left the courtroom, here was one small victory for the ordinary man over the hated keepers of the pauper ‘bastilles’

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, May 26, 1868]

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

Forced aboard a merchant ship in New Orleans: an echo of modern slavery on the high seas

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New Orleans, c.1841

John Burns was a steward on board a merchant ship named the Rio Grande. He’d sailed with it to New Orleans in 1849 where he’d gone ashore with a fellow crew member who had been taken ill. He took temporary lodgings in a boarding house and made plans to collect his pay packet in the morning. This was normal: sailors often collected their pay onshore, being paid at a shipping agent’s office.

However, this was also when they were vulnerable to thieves and fraudsters who knew they were likely to have been carrying fairly large amounts of cash. In London the Ratcliffe Highway and its associated dockland was notorious as an area where prostitutes would inveigle seaman into bars, get them drunk, take them upstairs and rob them (or assist others in their robbery). I’m fairly New Orleans presented very similar hazards to the unwary.

As Burns left his lodgings to collect his money two men seized him and forced a drink down his throat, which ‘rendered him insensible’. Having dragged him they manhandled him on board a ship called the Ashley, which was run by Alfred Greg. The two men were what were known as ‘runners’ or ‘crimps’; in effect they acted as a press gang for merchantmen, forcing men to serve as seaman against their will.

We are probably all familiar with the concept of the press gang as it operated in the eighteenth century, forcibly enlisting men and boys into the Nelsonian navy but this was nearly half a century later and in a foreign country. In 1849 New Orleans was, as it is today, the largest city in Louisiana, the 18th state of the USA. In 1849 something like half of Louisiana’s population were enslaved and it is hard to think of what happened to Burns as anything other than enforced labour by kidnapping.

Burns tried to explain to the master (Greg) that he was no sailor, just a steward with no experience of seamanship but he was ignored and set to work. He was promised $35 and the ship sailed to England, docking in London in April. When he asked for his pay he was told he’d already been paid, but he’d never seen ‘a halfpenny of it’. Instead the master had paid all the money to the two men that had pressed him.

Perhaps this was a common scam, akin it seems to me, to modern slavery where men and women and kidnapped and forced to live and work in terrible conditions by criminal gangs. The steward had the sense to get away from the ship and present him himself at the Thames Police court where he obtained a summons against Greg. A few days later the master was in court to hear Burns testify against him. Two other crew members turned up to confirm his evidence and Mr Yardley (the magistrate) said it was evident that a ‘gross and scandalous fraud’ had been committed.

However, it doesn’t seem like he was able to do much about it, perhaps because the crime (of kidnapping) had happened outside his jurisdiction. He could – and did – insist that John Burns was paid however, and would remand the master in custody if necessary until the sum was handed over.

The story served as a cautionary tale for others travelling to ‘foreign’ parts to not get taken unawares by unscrupulous captains in search of a crew.

[from The Standard, Monday, April 23, 1849]

An enterprising mother and daughter team come unstuck

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St Botolph’s, Aldgate from the Minories

Cordelia Johnson ran a small manufacturing workshop in the Minories, on the borders of the East End of London and the City. The wife of a commercial traveller, Mrs Johnson employed a number of women to make up work shirts which were sold to a number of ‘outfitters and slopsellers’ in the City.  For weeks now items of her stock had been going on a daily basis and Cordelia was unable to discover how.

Eventually she turned to one of her most trusted employees, a young woman named Mary Ann Cantwell who she trusted to run errands for her as well as in the workshop sewing shirts. Mary Ann promised to help by keeping her eyes open and her ear to the ground for any hints of who was responsible for the pilfering.

Unfortunately for Mrs Johnson however, Mary Ann was the culprit. She was in league with her mother Harriet and the pair of them were engaged in a clever racket by which they stole material or fully made up shirts and pawned them at one or more of East London’s many pawnbrokers’ shops.  Mary Ann must have felt untouchable when her boss trusted her with the effort to trace the thieves and it emboldened her.

On Saturday 14 March 1857 Mary Ann spoke to one of the other younger women in the workshop and suggested she steal a pile of clothes and pawn them in Poplar. The girl, like Mary Ann, was Irish and the funds raised, she said, could be used to fuel the forthcoming St Patrick’s Day festivities. The girl was not so easily tempted however and went straight to her boss and told her what had happened. Mrs Johnson went to see the police and Police Sergeant Foay (7H) – ‘an intelligent detective officer’ – decided to follow Mary Ann to see what she was up to.

From his hiding place in Mrs Johnson’s house Sergeant Foay watched the young woman leave the factory take a pile of shirts from a cupboard and walk out of the building. He tracked her to Cannon Street Road, on the Ratcliffe Highway where she met her mother and handed over the clothes. Foay pounced and grabbed at the pair of them. HE got hold of Mary Ann but Harriett put up ‘a most determined resistance’ hitting and biting him in the process. Eventually he had them both under arrest and when they were safely locked up the police went off to search their lodgings at 13 Cannon Street Road.

There they found more evidence, namely a great number of pawnbrokers’ duplicates. These were cross checked with several ‘brokers who confirmed that they had been exchanged for shirts and materials brought by Harriet or Mary Ann. Four duplicates were found on the younger woman who, in front of Mr Selfe at Thames Police court, tried to take all the blame herself, saying her mother knew nothing of the crime.

The magistrate acknowledged this act of selfless filial duty but dismissed it. The evidence against both of them was overwhelming and both would be punished. Mary Ann was fined £6 for illegally pawning items (with a default of two months’ imprisonment if she was unable to pay, which I suspect meant she did go to gaol). If so she might have joined her 40 year-old mother whom the magistrate sent straight to prison for two months’ hard labour without even the option of paying a fine.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, March 20, 1857]

A lazy policeman, ‘regaling himself with coffee and cold meat,’ reveals early resistance to the New Police

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It is easy to think that the police have always been with us, so much a part of society have they become. Although we may not see them as often on our streets as our parents and grandparents did, a police presence of sorts is everywhere if only at the end of a surveillance camera. Moreover we accept this and (for the most part) value the police and the work they do to keep us safe from criminals, terrorists and others that would do us harm.

However, as I have been outlining to my second year History and Criminology undergraduates at Northampton, it took some time for the police to establish this place in our hearts. Very many people, including those in the upper echelons of society, resisted the creation of a professional Police force in the early years of the nineteenth century.

For much of the previous century the idea of a uniformed police was anathema to an English people schooled in ‘liberty’ and opposed to continental (French) forms of state run policing.  “I had rather half a dozen people’s throats should be cut in Ratcliffe Highway every three or four years than be subject to domiciliary visits, spies, and all of the rest of Fouché’s connivances’, commented one skeptic at the time.

Even after Robert Peel successfully (and quietly) steered his Metropolitan Police Bill through Parliament the New Police (as they were dubbed) struggled to gain acceptance. The working classes resented their interference in their street activities (like gambling or trading from stalls), the middle classes disliked the burden they placed on their pockets and the upper class feared the loss of localised control over law and order as these ‘bobbies’ answered directly to the Home Secretary, not the magistracy.

Some of these tensions can be seen in the early reports police actions that resulted in cases heard before the capital’s Police courts. In February 1830 for example, the magistrates at Bow Street sided with a parish constable (the ‘old police’) against two officers from the New Police in a dispute over a fire at the Covent Garden opera house.

Following this brief case was a longer one, also at Bow Street where a ‘wretched-looking young woman’ was accused of being ‘riotous and disorderly’ by PC 104. The officer appeared to give evidence stating that between 2 and 3 o’clock in the morning the girl had been in a coffee shop in Phoenix Alley and had refused to pay for her drinks. He’d been called to ‘turn her out’ and, since he was adamant that she was going nowhere, he arrested her.

Mr Halls, the sitting justice, turned on the officer and upbraided him for arresting the woman when he should have been more concerned that a coffee house was still open after hours.  What hadn’t he applied for a summons against the coffee house owner, he asked?

Here the young woman leaped in, the reason ‘was obvious’ she said. The constable hadn’t been ‘called in as he had stated, but was at the time seated in one of the boxes, regaling himself with coffee and cold meat’.

While the policeman denied this Mr Halls seems to have believed the woman because he discharged her and demanded that the police inspector, who had attended court to hear the case, immediately applied for ‘an information […] against the keeper of the coffee-house’. He added that the girl might prove a useful witness.

In the first year of the New Police accusations of corruption and collusion (with coffee house and beer shop owners, petty crooks, and prostitutes), as well as laziness and drunkenness, were commonly thrown at the new force. Some of this criticism was valid, some malicious, and there was a large turnover of men between 1829 and the early years of the 1830s. It probably took the police until the 1860s to be accepted, albeit grudgingly, by the public, and to the 1950s to be ‘loved’.

A Policeman’s lot, as the song goes, is not a happy a one.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, February 18, 1830]

‘It was a tolerably fine night for a walk’:a freezing night in London brings little humanity from the parish

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Ratcliffe Highway in the late 1800s

Robert Mace was a former solider, discharged from the army in 1853 having previously served in India. He was 31 years of age, had no job and no home to speak of. He was in London, in Ratlciffe, on the night of the 3 February 1860 and was intending to make his way back to his last place of settlement, Maidstone in Kent. However, it was cold, it was getting dark and he was hungry so he knocked at the door of the Ratcliffe workhouse and asked for relief.

Mr Snelling,  the porter at the union workhouse opened the door and told him to go away. He would t be admitted there and that was the end of it. Mace did go away for a bit but unable to find shelter and still starving from lack of food he tried again, with the same response from Snelling. As he walked away from the workhouse gates he saw a policeman, PC Polter (276K) and asked him to help. The constable said he was sorry but he couldn’t make the workhouse admit him.

Mace bent down, picked up a stone from the street and lobbed it at a gas lamp that illuminated the gates of the poor house. The lamp smashed and since he’d committed criminal damage right in front of him PC Polter had no option but to the arrest the man and take him before a magistrate.

Robert Mace appeared before Mr Selfe at Thames Police court on the following morning. He explained his situation  and the magistrate had some sympathy with him. Since the workhouse porter was also summoned to give evidence Mr Selfe wondered why he hadn’t simply admitted the man as he’d requested?

Because. the porter insisted, the man was perfectly capable of making his way to Maidstone. Mr Selfe was amazed at this, did the porter rally think this man could make that trip and find shelter and ‘refreshment’ on the way?

‘There are half a dozen workhouses between ours and Greenwich’ Snelling stated, ‘He could have called at any of them on the way to Maidstone’.

‘Well you might have taken him into the house, I think, and given him some bread and a night’s lodging’ Selfe said, adding ‘he is a poor, emaciated fellow’.

Snelling dismissed this:

‘The weather was fine last night. He could have got several miles on his road between three o’clock and eight’.

‘Not so fine’, the magistrate countered, ‘I walked home in the snow from this court at five o’clock, and I was very cold, although I had an overcoat on, and was well wrapped up’.

‘It was tolerably fine for a walk’ the porter insisted.

The lack of humanity the porter displayed was clearly staggering even to a contemporary audience – the reporter ‘headlined’ the piece as ‘The model union’ with deep sarcasm. Regardless of whether the Ratcliffe workhouse should have admitted him or not Mace was guilty of criminal damage although the victim was the Commercial Gas Company not the union.

Mr Selfe decided that  it would probably do the former soldier more good to be incarcerated in a prison than a workhouse so sentenced him to five days. He hoped that the bed and board he’d receive there would be sufficient to set him up for the long walk to Maidstone which, depending which route he took, was considerable being about 50 miles from London.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Saturday, 4 February, 1860]

‘Weel, your honour, I was three sheets to the wind, and that’s all about it’: A Tyneside collier in the Thames Police court

Unloading coal at the London docks 1871

The London press delighted in occasionally giving their readership a flavor of the drama that unfolded in the metropolitan police courts. There was plenty of pathos but also humour for balance, and if a reporter could poke fun at a regional or foreign accent, so much the better.

John Leslie was a seaman. He was master of the Sarah, a collier that brought coal down from the north east of England to unload at the London docks. It was a tough life but he was his own man and earned a decent wage for the fuel he delivered to the capital.

In early November 1863 he had unloaded his cargo and so he headed for pubs and lodging houses close by the docks, in Ratcliffe and Wapping. At some point, and it is not clear why, Leslie, much the worse for drink, went in search of his mother.

He turned up at the home of Mrs Elizabeth Farrier at 131 Wapping High Street, Banging on the door he demanded to be let in shouting ‘I want my mother!’ Mrs Farrier said that no one answering to his mother’s name lived there, he was mistaken and should go away. But John was determined and in his drunken rage he pushed past her into the house. As she tried to stop him he punched her in the face and swore at her.

The tumult alerted the house and Mrs Farrier’s neighbours and a policeman was summoned. PC Palmer managed to arrest Leslie and dragged him off to the station. The next morning he was stood in the dock at Thames Police court charged with violent assault.

In his defense a chastened Leslie said he was merely looking for his mother.

‘You should prosecute the search for your mother at reasonable hours, and when you are sober’,

the magistrate (Mr Partridge) admonished him.

‘Weel, your honour, I was three sheets to the wind, and that’s all about it’,

the man replied in a strong north eastern accent.

When asked if he had been ‘paid off’ Leslie countered that he was not a mere sailor but his own boss:

‘Eh mon! I am not paid off at all. I am master of my own ship’.

That didn’t do him any favours with the justice who, determining that he was a man of means (despite his rough appearance) fined 40for the assault, a considerable sum by the standards of assault prosecutions in the 1860s. However, Leslie was a ‘man of means’ and he paid the money immediately and went on his way leaving the mystery of his mother’s location unsolved.

[from The Globe, 13 November 1863]

An ‘accidental’ assault in the City as a sex-pest gets above himself

Dalby's Grocers and Confectioners Shop

Mrs Sarah Ann Mott had just come out of a shop in Fenchurch Street and was heading home with her partner to their home in Ratcliffe, east London when she told her husband to walk on and she’d catch him up. She had noticed a confectioner’s and had decided to pick up ‘some cakes for my baby’ and popped inside. Having made her purchases she hurried on after Mr Mott.

She’d not gone far when a well-dressed man veered into her path and made a grab at her thighs. ‘How do you do, my dear’ he leered and moved around behind her. As she turned to face him he laughed loudly, right in her face.

The man’s actions elicited a cry from Sarah that brought her husband running to her rescue.

How dare you insult my wife in the public streets, do you think she is a common prostitute?’

‘She may be for what I know’ said the stranger, prompting Mr Mott to place his hand on his shoulder and shout for a policeman. Not wishing to be arrested the man aimed a punch at Mott but missed, connecting with Sarah instead.

When the police arrived and Mott explained what had happened the man, who gave his name as Edmund Henshaw, a wine merchant living in Mincing Lane in the City, denied everything and called Mott ‘a ______ liar’.

They all went to the nearest police station where Mott demanded an apology. Henshaw’s attempt at an apology was so clearly a sham that Mott insisted on charging him and bringing him before the Lord Mayor at Mansion House. There he again denied the charge, said he’d brushed against Sarah’s leg by accident and was only defending himself when he’d hit her.

Despite the difference in class – Henshaw being a supposedly ‘respectable’ merchant and the Motts mere ‘slopsellers’ from the rough part of town – the magistrate found for the complainants. Henshaw, a sex pest who clearly thought himself above the law, was convicted and fined 20s, a small victory for ‘the little man’ (and woman).

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, August 25, 1853]