A terrible discovery in Bunhill Row reveals a domestic tragedy.

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Elizabeth Collinson was employed as a servant in the household of Mr Morris, a cabinetmaker in Curtain Road, Shoreditch. When his wife discovered that her unmarried serving girl was pregnant she ‘turned her out of doors’ so she wouldn’t bring disgrace on the family.

It was a heartless thing to do but typical of the way that ‘bastard bearers’ were treated in the nineteenth century. Very many unmarried servants fell pregnant as a result of relationships with other servants, sometime consensual, often not, and it was invariably the woman that was held responsible. A servant with a child, especially a baby, who no longer an asset but a liability; her work would be restricted and there was another mouth to feed. So Mrs Morris’ decision – callous as it was – is also understandable. However, in this case she may have had another reason for expelling Elizabeth and her unborn child.

Elizabeth left the house and took a box with her. Several weeks later the box was discovered in a house in Bunhill Row belonging to a surgeon. Inside was the body of a baby, ‘partly eaten by rats’. The girl was eventually arrested and in April 1839 she appeared before the magistrates at Worship Street charged with ‘making away with her illegitimate child’.

In court Elizabeth stood her ground. She told the justices that the cabinetmaker Morris was the father of her child and that he had ‘given her something to procure a premature birth’. She was suggesting that Morris had told her to get an abortion and supplied her with the abortifacient. That was illegal but it was hard to prove and Mrs Morris was quick to dismiss the girl’s testimony as lies, she said she didn’t believe her at all.

I wonder however if there was some truth in what Elizabeth had said. Mr Morris wouldn’t be the first employer to have an affair with a younger woman working in his house. Moreover, he held all the cards and could have easily told Elizabeth she would be dismissed if she didn’t do as he said. As for Mrs Morris, we might imagine why she’d want the girl gone and, while being angry and upset at what her husband had done, may also have been desperate to save her marriage in a society where divorce was all but impossible for a woman of her class.

The magistrates turned their ire on her however, reprimanding her for her ‘inhumanity in turning the poor girl into the streets under such circumstances’. The court then heard medical evidence concerning the state of the child when discovered. It was impossible to tell, the witness stated, whether the baby had been born dead or had been killed shortly afterwards. That mattered as if the latter could be proved then Elizabeth would face a trial for infanticide. Since it could not the justices committed her to be tried for concealing the birth of her child, which carried a maximum sentence of two years’ imprisonment.

Only three trials of women accused of concealing a birth are recorded in the Old Bailey Proceedings after April 1839 and Elizabeth is not one of them. Perhaps the prosecution was dropped or insufficient evidence secured to bring it to court. Maybe Morris recognised that for this story to be heard again in open court might expose him to criticism, humiliation or worse, a charge of aiding an abortion. Given all of this it seems it was in no one’s interest to drag Elizabeth through the courts and into a prison, her life was already ruined by the disgrace and the best she might hope for was that someone else would give her a position and that she might leave this tragedy behind her.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, April 22, 1839]

The press ride to the rescue of a baby ‘bitten by rats’

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The Council of the Rats by Gustave Doré (1867)

This case demonstrates the power of the Victorian press in highlighting social issues, albeit on a local matter. The fact that the newspaper (in this example the popular Illustrated Police News) reported the circumstances of this particular case engaged the public and directly benefitted one poor woman and her child.

In late January 1872 The Illustrated Police News carried a story from the Worship Street Police Court about another who had complained about her living conditions. The woman, who was not named in the report, had appeared at the Police court to ask for the magistrate’s help. She told Mr Bushby that her lodgings, in Wilson Street, Finsbury, were ‘infested with rats’ and her child had been attacked by the animals.

She described how the rats ‘were in the habit of coming up from their holes and running about the room in midday. The child she held had, while left lying down, been bitten three times by them, and at length, by the directions of the doctor to whom she had taken it for treatment, she had come to the magistrate to inform him of the facts’.

It was testimony to the poverty she lived in and the dreadfully poor state of housing in some parts of the coastal, especially the East End. Mr Bushby told her to report the situation to the Sanitary Inspectors with the intention of getting the building condemned. He also advised her to move house as soon as possible.

The latter may have been sensible counsel but the woman was unable to go anywhere she said, because she owed two weeks rent and her husband was out of work. This was hardly an unusual situation in East London at the time; many people fell behind with the rent and faced eviction or were trapped in poor conditions while they struggled to make ends meet.

The doctor she had taken her baby to, Dr Timothy of Worship Street, had come to give evidence in her support and testified that she was a ‘deserving cause’. The middle classes of Victorian England had quite clear ideas about who did (and who did not) deserve the support of society and his opinion helped the woman’s case in the end.

A week later the newspaper told its readers that as  a consequence of their coverage of the story the court had received a large number of public donations for the woman. Individuals had read the horror story of rats and had sent in small sums of money that totalled £1 15s 6d (or about £80 today). Moreover, the landlord was shamed into saying he would allow her to move and accept her arrears in instalments. She was handed the money by the court  and expressed her gratitude to everyone involved. In the meantime, the paper added, the family had moved to a new home in Lisson Grove and the woman’s husband had also  found work.

For once then, the papers had a ‘good news’ story to tell and could take some of the credit for it. The readership could also feel suitably proud that they had helped a member of the ‘deserving poor’ escape a desperate domestic situation.

[from The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, January 27, 1872]

The sad story of an elderly seamstress and her Majesty

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In the light of yesterday’s happy announcement of a royal engagement I thought I’d feature a (sort of) royal story from Victorian London’s Police courts.

In 1871 Queen Victoria had been on throne for 34 years. Her husband Albert had been dead for a decade and she was yet to adopt the title of Empress of India. Victoria had a big influence on her subjects but her withdrawal from much of public life following the loss of her consort increasingly isolated her from public affection. 1870 had seen the overthrow of the French monarchy and the creation of the Third Republic, dark echoes in England called for a similar revolution, one that never transpired. In late November Victoria’s eldest son, Albert Edward, fell ill with typhoid (probably the same disease that had killed his father) and Victoria must have feared she would lose him as well.

Meanwhile, for ordinary Londoners life went on as usual. The ‘widow of Windsor’ was almost an abstract concept since she’d ducked out of view but her name, and what she symbolised, mattered  considerably.

It certainly mattered to an elderly seamstress called Mrs Lyons. She told the magistrate at Clerkenwell that she had been promised work by her Majesty but ‘court intrigues’ were preventing her from pursuing it. Mrs Lyons lived off the Caledonian Road in north London, close to where the new St Pancras terminal was being constructed. She was poor and in ‘want of money’ she explained, but was confident that with the queen’s patronage she would be fine.

Sadly Mrs Lyons was not very well; she suffered from some form of mental illness, as a police inspector told Mr Cooke, the justice sitting on her case at Clerkenwell Police Court.

‘About two years since the poor woman began to get strange at times in her speech, said that her room was full of rats, that she had an interview with the Queen and members of the royal family, and that her Majesty had promised her money, but that she was prevented from getting it by court intrigues’ .

He went on to say that up until recently Mrs Lyons had lived quietly but in the last few months her condition had worsened and she had started threatening people, including her landlady. A doctor had been called to examine her and he’d declared she was ‘not right in her head’ and she’d been carried off to Islington workhouse. From there she was to be sent to the Colney Hatch Asylum, Europe’s largest such institution.*

She had left her room with rent arrears and her landlady was refusing to give her sister leave to take away her sibling’s few possessions until that was paid. Mr Cooke said he was glad the woman was now in safe hands (although I’m not sure I’d consider being in the ‘care’ of a Victorian asylum ‘safe’. I suppose he might have meant the public were safe from her). He ordered the court to pay the arrears so she could be reunited with her ‘things’ and dismissed the case.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, November 28, 1872]

*(and now my gym!)

for another story that feature Queen Victoria see: “Let me see the Queen, I know who the ‘Ripper’ is!”