Another man who shirked his parental responsibilities and thought he’d get away with it

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The church of St Lawrence Jewry in the 1930s

William Dell was having a bad day and it was about to get worse.

In the first week of June 1869 he had been presented with a summons to attend at the Guildhall Police court. Being summonsed was one of the ways you ended up before a magistrate in nineteenth-century London, and was certainly preferable to being brought there from a cell by a policeman or gaoler, but was still unpleasant and embarrassing.

Dell’s ‘crime’ was that he was behind with his child support payments, or, as the Victorians would have termed it, he was in ‘bastardy arrears’. Having impregnated Emma Barrett but not being inclined to marry her, he had left her and her baby ‘chargeable to the parish’.

In other words, without the financial support of William Dell Emma would have been forced to exist on money raised from amongst the local ratepayers. Where possible, and when a father could be identified, the overseers of the poor much preferred to avoid this. If Dell wouldn’t marry Emma he could at least be expected to stump up the money to support her bastard. The amount was at 26a week.

Dell either thought he should pay or didn’t have the spare cash to do so, so he ignored the bastardy order that had been imposed on him and had ran up arrears of £2 5by the beginning of June (suggesting that he had paid nothing for about 18 weeks).

Hence the court summons in June.

He was stood outside the Guildhall court waiting to be called in when a woman approached him. She was Sophia Barrett, Emma’s mother. She berated William for ruining her daughter and abandoning his child and, when Dell protested that the child was not his but his brother’s, she lost her temper completely.

Sophia started to hit Dell with the only weapon she had to hand, her umbrella. He tried to fend her off and then ran away to the rear of St Lawrence Jewry church (which stands in Guildhall Yard) to escape her.

Sophia Barrett was not so easily shaken off, and went round the church the opposite way and attacked him again in Gresham Street. Here she ‘pulled his hair and struck him’ again and again until William Dell was rescued by a passing policeman. Sophia Barrett was now arrested and both parties appeared in the Guildhall Police court together.

Sophia Barrett was charged with assault but showed no remorse. Indeed she went on the attack complaining to the alderman magistrate that Dell had neglected his obligations and left her, a poor widow,  to care for both her daughter and the child. Dell, she said, had ‘never contributed one farthing to the support of the child and had declared that he would not’.  She felt entirely justified in letting the man know exactly how she felt.

Alderman Finnis seemed to largely agree with her. He sympathized with her and dismissed the assault charge on the grounds of provocation. As she stepped down from the dock, her reputation enhanced rather than tarnished, Dell took her place.

Alderman Finnis asked him why he had failed to obey the order of the court to support Emma Barrett and her baby? Dell wriggled in the dock and claimed he had no money to do so. The money ‘he earned’, he stated, ‘was barely sufficient for himself’. It was a lame excuse even if for many in Victorian London barely subsistence wages were the norm. He had ‘had is way’ with Emma and was obliged to face the consequences.

In the alderman’s eyes if he allowed Dell to avoid his responsibilities he would be exposing the good ratepayers of the City to a flood of claims for child support. So he glared down at the man in the dock and told him that he could either pay his arrears now or go to prison with hard labour for two months. Dell refused to pay and so was led away to start his sentence.

It is worth noting that his incarceration did not cancel his debt, on his release he would still be expected to support Emma’s child unless she married and found someone else to pay for its upbringing. So Dell faced an uncertain future if he continued to refuse to pay. Once out of prison he was still liable and unless he found the money he might well end up being sent back to gaol. Moreover, having been inside once his chances of finding regular well-paid work were diminished. If he thought he was merely scraping by beforehand then his outlook after prison was hardly improved.

But at the same time the situation was little better for Emma; any hope that she might have had that Dell would recognize that his best interests lay in marrying her were probably killed stone dead by this prosecution and the animosity that came with it. She would also find it hard to persuade a suitor to take on another man’s bastard. So she would continue to live with her mother in a household with no male breadwinner, and few prospects of avoiding an impoverished existence.

At the heart of this was a child. A child whose father didn’t want her and who the ‘state’ (which in the 1860s meant the parish) didn’t want to have to pay for. Today Emma would be better supported, although our own society still struggles to make fathers take responsibility for the children they beget on women prefer not to marry or support.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday 6 June 1869]

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

Two deserters and a lad that upset an apple cart

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Three prisoners appeared at the North London Police court in early May 1899 and each of their cases was affected by new legislation, passed the previous year. According to the reporter from The Standard this was the Criminals Act of 1898 but I’m struggling to find the exact piece of legislation referred to.

1898 did see the passing of the Criminal Evidence Act which allowed defendants to testify (and which allowed wives, for example, to give evidence against husbands) but I don’t believe that is the act in question. That act was mostly concerned with the veracity of witness testimony but in the report I’ve selected today the magistrate was more concerned with discriminating between ‘habitual and casual’ criminals.

None of the prisoners were named but two of them were accused of deserting their wives and children, leaving them chargeable to the parish (and thus making them a burden on the ratepayers). Mr Cluer, the sitting magistrate, made a point of saying that while he intended to send both men to prison this was a much ‘more lenient punishment than probably they deserved’.

They owed money for the non-payment of maintenance to their wives and that was why they would be locked up but even then they would probably enjoy a better lifestyle behind bars than their wives and children and even by comparison to many of the poorer ratepayers in the area who lived honestly. He was clearly disgusted that he couldn’t throw the proverbial book at them.

The third prisoner mentioned in this report was a young man who had upset a costermonger’s cart and assaulted a policeman. As a result he’d been charged with a breach of the peace. On this occasion however, the police officer who had had his coat torn by the young man’s act ‘of ruffiansim’ was in forgiving mood and have the lad a good character.

In consequence of this the magistrate said he would treat him as a ‘second-class misdemeanant’ and that while he would also go to gaol, it would be for a shorter period and without some of the attached conditions (presumably hard labour) that he would have handed down had he ‘absolute control’ of the law.

So it seems that this new law tempered the ability of magistrates to exercise discretion and signaled another turn in the longer move towards allowing more and more offences to be dealt with summarily and with more lenient sentences. Arguably this process began in the 1840s and 1850s with Summary Jurisdiction Acts that removed petty thieves and younger offenders from the jury courts. It continued into the twentieth century and our own 21st. If someone can send me a link to details of the Criminals Act (1898) I will be grateful.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, May 2, 1899]

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 15 June this year. You can find details here

Child cruelty or a single parent who simply couldn’t cope?

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Children in the St Pancras workhouse school at Leavesden

I think it would be quite easy to look at this next case and judge the man in the dock quite harshly. Perhaps that would be correct as William Everett’s supposed neglect of his three children had brought them almost to the point of starvation and most people would condemn him for that cruelty.

Moreover William Everett, a ‘jobbing gardener’ in full time work, liked a drink and the inference drawn here is that he preferred to spend money on alcohol than on his children.

But before we are as quick to judge him as the editor of the Standard was in September 1877, let’s look at the context and see if we might read between the lines.

Everett was charged at Clerkenwell Police court with ‘neglecting to maintain his children’. As a result of this neglect they had fallen chargeable on the parish of St Pancras and had thus become a burden on the ratepayers. The prosecution was brought, therefore, by the local Poor Law Guardians and one of the relieving officers, a Mr Stevens, gave evidence.

He told the magistrate, Mr Hosack, that he’d been called to the prisoner’s home at 16 Bertam Street, Highgate New Town, after some neighbours expressed their concerns. He found the children in a half starved state:

They were very scantily clothed and in want of food’. He gave some funds for them and told Everett to look after them better in future.

Some weeks later however, on the 24 May 1877, he was again called to the property by worried locals.

He found the children in the most deplorable condition. They had no food, and when food was given to them they ate ravenously. There was no bed for them to lie upon, and they scarcely had a particle of clothing’.

The officer took the children to the workhouse and they had since been sent (by the guardians) to an industrial school at Leavesden (which had began to built in 1868). They were safe then, but their care was being met by local people through the rates and not by their father.

Mr Hosack thought this was one of the worst cases of child neglect he’d seen as a magistrate and said so. How much did Everett earn? He was paid 21a week the deputy relieving officer told him, which should have been sufficient, it was felt, to provide home, heat and food for his family of four. However, as he ‘was given to drinking’ perhaps he squandered much of it.

In his defence William Everett said he did his best, but as he was out all day working he could hardly care for them as well. He had no wife, either she’d died or had left them, but her absence from court suggests the former.

The children were Rosina Jane (11), Emily (8) and Thomas (7) so only Rosina was really of an age where she could be expected to help out. His landlady at Bertram Street said that William went out very early leaving the children a 1lb of bread to eat and didn’t come home till very late. She often took them in herself and washed them, She said ‘it was quite a relief to neighbourhood when the children were removed to the workhouse’.

I bet it was. It must have been hard to see three small children virtually starving and living in dire poverty while their father either spent his days working every hour he could, and/or the evenings drinking himself into oblivion in the pub.

Who was to blame however? A society that allowed such desperate poverty to exist in the richest city in the world or the neglectful gardener who enjoyed one too many drinks at the end of a hard day and perhaps couldn’t face returning to a family home he had once shared with his wife. Each day he was reminded of his loss as he looked own on the plaintive faces of his children, all three of whom probably resembled their mother. As for the money he earned, well that was, at 21a week, about £65 today, how far would that go?

But perhaps I’m guilty of misplaced sympathy for William Everett, perhaps he was simply a drunk and neglectful parent who wasn’t prepared to take responsibility for his own family. That’s clearly what the magistrate thought: he sent him to prison for a month, with hard labour. The parish rates would continue to support his kids.

[from The Standard, Thursday, September 06, 1877]

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]

‘I don’t give a damn who drinks here, so long as they spend plenty of money’.

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Hungerford Stairs, c.1822

1830 was the first full year that the Metropolitan Police patrolled the streets of the capital. They received a mixed reception and often concentrated on the sorts of offences that were easy to clear up, as this made it easier to justify the ratepayers’ expense in paying for them. This involved policing street crime (pickpockets, shoplifters, robberies) as well as moving on traders, vagrants and beggars, drunks and gamblers, and keeping an eye on licensed  premises (pubs and beer shops for example) to ensure they were were training out of hours or illegally.

Sometimes they took proactive action, watching public houses and even donning plain clothes to catch out unsuspecting landlords; on other occasions they relied on tips off from the public or informers, or simply reacted to complaints.

In May 1830 a Thames waterman had lost his apprentice. The lad had gone out and not come back but the master had a pretty good idea where to look. He made his way over, at three in the morning, to the Cannon public house, by Hungerford Stairs. There he found his apprentices and another boy ‘playing at cards, and in a state of intoxication’.

He collared them, dragged them home and, on the next day, brought them before Mr Minshull the Police magistrate at Bow Street.

The waterman said that the Cannon was notorious for being open all night but when he’d companied to the landlord there about allowing the two apprentices to drink and gamble he’d got short shrift.

The landlord said he ‘did not care a d____ who came to his house so long as they spent plenty of money‘.

The magistrate told the boys the off and warned them to behave in the future, and then discharged them into the care of the two watermen they were apprenticed too. If they hadn’t been disciplined already  they could expect a thrashing when they got home. As for the landlord well Mr Minshull was determined he wouldn’t escape the law and so he instructed the New Police to investigate. It was against the terms of the Police Act for the landlord to suffer ‘card playing and other prohibited games’ in his house and he could expect the ‘heaviest penalty’ if prosecuted.

Following this the superintendent of police appeared to request and receive permission to prosecute seven similar establishments for breaches of their licenses. They could all expect large fines and regular visits from the police.

Not surprisingly then the relationship between the police and the landlords of the city got off to a bad start from the New Police’s inception  and didn’t improve much thereafter. Some police could be bribed to turn a blind eye, others probably thought there were bigger fish to fry and found pubs a useful source of information. Others were incorruptible. Either way, pubs were ‘easy pickings’ for a new police force determined to prove its value to the community it served.

[From The Morning Post, Wednesday, May 05, 1830]

A feckless husband and father is brought to book

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Today I start my third year classes at the University of Northampton teaching and working with students on a module entitled ‘Crime and Popular Culture in the late Victorian City’. The City in question is London and we concentrate on the last quarter of the 1800s. In particular the module uses the Whitechapel murders of 1888 as a prism through which to explore crime, poverty, and a variety of other topics, using different sorts of popular culture along the way.

Naturally this aligns quite neatly with this blog that looks at the work of the Victorian Police Courts. As is evident to anyone who regularly dips into these stories, ‘all human life is here’.

Poverty is one of the fundamental defining characteristics of many of those that ended up before a police magistrate in the nineteenth century. Poverty was a prime cause of criminal activity; poverty often went hand-in-hand with alcohol abuse and gambling; poverty and domestic spousal abuse were also strongly interlinked. In addition many (if not most) of those seeking advice from the Police Courts were poor, vulnerable, or elderly.

Poverty and the police courts then, were inseparable.

Walter Crump was described by the court reporter as an ‘able-bodied young man’ when he was examined before the magistrate at Westminster Police court on 11 January 1888. He was brought in by the guardians of the poor at St George’s, Hanover Square, for deserting his wife and children. His absence had left them in poverty and had meant they had turned to the parish for support, meaning their upkeep fell on the ratepayers.

They had been in the Fulham Road workhouse since July when Crump had left them and the parish officials had tried, and failed, to get him to take responsibility for them. They had written to him, the magistrate was told, warning him that a prosecution would follow if he did nothing to help them, but he:

‘took no heed of this, but went to races and hopping [as many Londoners did in the late summer], returning to Westminster and living in lodging houses as a single man’.

Walter denied trying to evade the authorities and said that previously he had been unable to support his family. Now, with some improvement in his condition, he might be able to ‘pay something weekly’.

Mr Eyncourt, the sitting magistrate at Westminster, was unimpressed. He had cost the ratepayers the sum of £30 by neglecting his familial duties (perhaps as much as £1,800 in today’s money). He had only offered to do anything about it when ‘he was in custody’. he added, and it had taken a great deal of time and effort to track him down. As a result he was sent to prison for a month at hard labour, just how useful that was in supporting the family is less clear but I presume it was intended as a message to others.

[from The Standard, Thursday, January 12, 1888]

You can use this site to search for specific crimes or use the Themes link in the menu on the left to look for areas or topics that interest you. If you are interested in a particular court (such as Bow Street or Marylebone) you can also limit your search to one court in particular. Please feel free to comment on anything you read and if something in particular interests you then please get in touch. You can email me at drew.gray@northampton.ac.uk

Tenants 1 rent collectors 0: Justice is done at Southwark

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Many of those that appeared in the dock at London’s many Police Magistrate courts were charged with assault. The registers at Thames Police Court are some of the very few that survive and there you will find literally hundreds of cases of assault every month. However, what you won’t discover is any context that will enable to you to understand why these cases came to court. Summary court records (unlike jury courts like Old Bailey) are sadly lacking in qualitative information. We might discover that someone went to court charged with assaulting someone else, and find out that they were fined or imprisoned, but we rarely know exactly what happened or why.

That is why the newspaper coverage of the police courts is so useful; it gives us the detail that we are lacking elsewhere and allows us to comment on the motivations of those accused of hitting, kicking or pushing their fellow Londoners, and ask whether they had (or believed they had) any justification for so doing.

Let’s take William Howard for instance. Howard was a ‘respectable mechanic’ living in rented rooms in Market Street, Borough, (just south of the river) with his wife and family. On the 19 November 1867 James Stephens called at his door. His youngest son answered the door and Howard called from indoors for the man to be let in.

Stephens worked for a man named Linfield, who was a landlord’s agent tasked with collecting the rent from a number of houses in the area. Rents were collected along with the rates (which went towards the Poor law for example).

The rent collector had come to ask Howard for 10 and 3d, which was two weeks’ rent plus 3s for the rates. William Howard handed the collector a receipt he had for 82d for money he had already paid towards the Poor Rate. He asked this amount to be deducted from his bill but Stephens refused and the pair argued.

Accounts of what append next differ but it is likely that the mechanic manhandled the rent collector out of his house and told him that before he settled any difference in what he owed he wanted to discuss it directly with his landlord first. Howard clearly felt aggrieved that the minion was demanding money he felt he didn’t owe or was possibly asking  him to pay his rates in advance.

All of this ended up in a summons for assault that was heard at the Southwark Police Court. It doesn’t seem to be an issue about not being able to pay, but more about the underlying principle of when he was supposed to pay, and how much. In this the magistrate had quite a lot of sympathy with him.

Mr Partridge (the magistrate) asked Stephens if the occupants of the houses were ‘on the rate books’. Stephens wasn’t sure. But ‘he knew that the landlord paid all the rates in a lump , thereby saving the parish some trouble in collecting the rates. The tenants were all aware of this’, he added.

The magistrate said that all tenants had a right to be rated and entered into the ledgers. Moreover, he ‘considered it very unfair of the landlords of these small tenements in raising rents for a future tax’. The relevant act, he stated, ‘specifies that the occupiers should pay the rates themselves, and if there is no other agreement deduct the same from the rent’. It seems this was what William Howard was doing and he saw nothing wrong with it. As for the assault, well he could see fault on both sides and so dismissed the charge against the mechanic who was free to go, his reputation intact.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, December 13, 1867]

When bureaucracy gets in the way of helping those in need: a case from history

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A workhouse in West London c.1857

In 1834 Parliament Passed the Poor Law Amendment Act ushering in one of the most contentious and unpopular pieces of legislation in our history. The New Poor law sought to reduce the costs of the pauperism (which fell on the ratepayers of any given parish) by discouraging people from applying for it. Previously the poor law had offered ‘doles’ to those in need to support them in the community – a form of ‘income support’ if you like. Workhouses existed and some parishes preferred the option of aiding the poor by giving them food and shelter in return for their labour; this was termed ‘indoor relief’.

After 1834 the New Poor Law stipulated that all those seeking relief should undergo the ‘workhouse test’. In other words enter the workhouse if they wanted any help from the parish. Given that this meant surrounding not only one’s independence but also accepting the breakup of the family, the new system provoked widespread resistance, condemnation and despair. Historians have argued that the ‘test’ was inconsistently enforced and very much dependant on the discretion of local poor law officials.

Nonetheless the 1834 legislation represented open season on the poor, vulnerable, sick and unemployed. The stain of the workhouse was not really removed until the 20th century, when the welfare state was established in 1948 by Attlee’s Labour government.

Before and after 1834 arguments over who was, or was not, entitled to poor relief often reached the summary courts for the adjudication of local magistrates. One group of people that frequently had their cases heard were the unmarried mothers of illegitimate children. These so-called ‘bastard bearers’ were considered to be not only immoral but a burden on the rates. Throughout the 18th and 19th century justices of the peace up and down the country grilled young women as to the paternity of their children and threatened them with the house of correction if they refused to divulge  the father’s name. Women also came voluntarily to court to complain that men had used them and then abandoned them without taking responsibility for the children that had helped bring into the world.

There was then, a mutual desire to make fathers pay for their offspring, either by marrying the mother or promising to pay a weekly amount to defray the costs that would otherwise fall on the parish and the rates.

In May 1845 Lloyd’s Weekly carried its usual summary of the ‘doings’ of the London Police Courts, where the capital’s professional magistracy sat in judgement on petty crime, violence, drunkenness, and a huge range of other business. Amongst its columns was a report on the ‘Bastardy Clause in the New Poor Law’. This referred to an update to the 1834 legislation just passed (in 1845) concerning illegitimacy.

It gave a single magistrate the power (previously only invested in two justices sitting together) to determine bastardy cases. Women were still to be examined and were still expected to ‘bring forward the same amount of “corroborative evidence” required by the old act’. In short they had to attempt to prove that the father was who they said he was.

The paper commented that this change had brought more women to court, perhaps because it was easier to find a single justice than wait for a petty sessions (or two or three JPs) to be convened. The paper was unsure however, whether the process was any better as a result. In fact the evidence from the London courts seemed to suggest that no one was really that sure how the law was affected by the new legislation and exactly who was responsible for sitting in judgement on cases brought by mothers who had been left high and dry by their lovers.

Lloyd’s gave an example: 

A young woman appeared at Marlborough Street Police Court to complain that she had given birth to a child and that the father, a groom working for Sir James Middleton in Whitehall, was refusing to support her and the baby. The groom denied any responsibility and had not paid her a penny in the three months since she gave birth. Given that her prospects for marriage were now extremely limited as were her opportunities to find paid work, this unnamed woman was facing the very real threat of having to enter the workhouse where she would most likely be separated from her child and lose all connection with it along with her independence.

No wonder she came to the magistrate at Marlborough Street for help.However, it was clearly more complicated than she had hoped to make her reluctant groom accept responsibility for his actions.

She told the magistrate that she had initially applied to the parish for help but they had referred her to the Queens Square Police Court. The justice there sent her instead to Bow Street. Bow Street sent her to marlborough Street, who at first referred her to the Clerkenwell Sessions of the Peace. At the sessions she was referred back to Marlborough Street. No one, it seems, wanters to take responsibility for this three month-old baby and its poverty-stricken mother.

Here at least Mr Maltby, referring to the new act, directed his clear to issue a summon to bring the groom to court in the following week. The woman was told to bring along the required “corroborative evidence”. Hopefully then he would be proven (as much as that was possible) to be the father of the child and mother and baby might avoid entering the dreaded workhouse so evocatively described by Dickens in Oliver Twist.

I am reminded that for many people, then and now, trying to get state (or parish) support when you are clearly in need of it is complicated by bureaucracy and the mean-spirited nature of benefit systems that assume it either someone’s else responsibility or that the person asking for help is in some way ‘trying in on’.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly London Newspaper, Sunday, May 18, 1845]