A mother’s desperation drives her to steal

workhouse

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

Tragedy in the Temple and a stabbing by a Dorset Street resident; all part of daily life in 1880s London

WO1_IPNW_1889_07_06-0003-F

Lloyd’s Weekly newspaper offered its readers (as the title suggests) a way to catch up with all the news, scandal, gossip, and ‘police intelligence’ that had been carried by the dailies in the preceding week. This Sunday paper had a little more time to frame stories or to carry features than the time limited Daily News or Morning Post did.

It was a very popular newspaper, selling over 1m copies on one day in February 1896, more than its closest rivals the News of the World and Reynold’s Newspaper. It lasted until the 1920s but didn’t survive the financial crisis at the end of that decade.

At the end of June 1889 Lloyds carried a full page of reports from the Metropolitan Police courts, ranging from a case of tea merchant obtaining credit by false pretenses to a valet that stole two gold sovereign coins. By the late 1880s the method of court reporting was well established and the typology of crime and social issues (such as poverty, unemployment, suicide) were very familiar to readers. Individual cases were routinely given a headline (such as ‘Strange Case’ or ‘An Unfortunate Visit to London’), which was not always the case earlier in the century.

Two in particular caught my eye this morning, an attempted suicide in the City and the stabbing of a woman in Deptford. The Deptford case involved was heard at Greenwich Police court but the accused – James Collins – was a resident of Whitechapel. Collins, a 68 year-old wood carver had previously cohabited with Emma Edwards in rooms at 17 Dorset Street, Spitalfields.

Dorset Street was an address that was all too familiar to readers who had been following the news story of 1888. The desperate poverty of Dorset (or ‘dosset’) Street had been highlighted after the brutally mutilated body of Mary Kelly was discovered in a room there in November 1888. Many researchers believe that Kelly was the final victim of the killer known only as ‘Jack the Ripper’, but other (myself included) beg to differ.

Emma Edwards told the magistrate at Greenwich (a Mr Kennedy) that she was walking along Griffin Street in Deptford when she saw her former lover in the street. She noticed ‘the gleam of a knife’ in his hand and suddenly she ‘felt herself stabbed’. She survived and Collins was arrested. In his defense he said it was an accident; he carried knives for his work and she must had fallen against one in his pocket.

The police were able to provide testimony that Collins had threatened Emma on more than one occasion, promising to ‘settle’ her ‘at the first opportunity’. Mr Kennedy sent him to prison for six months for aggravated assault.

The newspaper reports are full of accounts of casual male violence towards women and we should remember this in the context of the ‘Ripper’ murders. However you wish to depict the Whitechapel killings the perpetrator was a misogynistic serial murderer who operated in a society where working class women were placed firmly at the bottom of the social ladder; a reality that enabled him to kill almost without impunity. He was no caped crusader or criminal mastermind, as some versions of the mystery continue to suggest.

At the Mansion House along with the fraudulent tea merchant Sir Andrew Lusk was sitting in for the Lord Mayor. Lusk (no relation I think to the famous ‘Mishter Lusk’ who was sent a piece of human kidney during the Whitechapel murders) served as an MP until 1885 and was Lord Mayor in 1874/5. He was quite old in 1889, being in his late 70s.

By contrast Florence Ross was a young woman with her life ahead of her. An actress or dancer in the music hall, Ross was living with her sister in 1889 while she went through a period of ‘rest’. Whether that ‘rest’ implied she was ill, had fallen pregnant, or was simply unemployed, is not made clear from the report but I think we might speculate.

Florence Ross was rescued from a fountain in Middle Temple gardens where she had tried to drown herself. A policeman saw her rush to the water and jump in and so acted quickly to pull her out. The gardens are close by the Embankment and what is now Temple underground station.

WO1_IPNW_1889_07_06-0003-F

Whatever the reality she was lucky and survived but attempted suicide was an offence and so she was placed in the dock at Mansion House to answer for it. She said little or nothing by way of explanation but the magistrate decided to see what ways the court could find to help her. He remanded her for a week while enquiries were made. The Illustrated Police News later included its artist’s impression of her attempt in its 6 July edition. Sadly no paper seems to have recorded the outcome of those enquiries. Florence’s was one story amongst many, one human tragedy in a city which was witnesses to countless acts of violence, desperation, and cruelty each and every day, only a handful of which made the pages of the metropolitan press.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, June 30, 1889; The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, July 6, 1889]

 

 

 

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

‘I should like to go to sea sir’: a boy’s plea for adventure falls on deaf ears

Steam_tug_PS_'Ben_More'_on_River_Thames

What are we to make of young John Speller? The teenager was set in the dock at Hammersmith accused of trying to steal several small steam boats (or ‘launches’) that had been moored at Chiswick and Strand-on-the-Green.

John’s MO was to untether  a launch and let it drift out in the current of the river, then attempt to pilot it. He’d tried this on no less than six occasions without much success. On a launch named Zebra he’d even tried to start a fire to get the boiler going so that he could ‘get up a head of steam’.

Sadly for him he had been caught red handed and now faced Mr Paget in the Hammersmith Police court.  The magistrate listened carefully to the Zebra’s owner and engineer, a Mr Faulkner, who testified against the lad adding that as well as trying to pinch the boat he’d caused damage from the misplaced effort to get the boiler going.

He then turned to John and asked him what he had to say for himself. ‘I should like to go to sea’, came the reply.

So should we see John as a frustrated sailor, a boy in search of adventure, or a delinquent who needed a stiff lesson in discipline? Perhaps he got his chance to sail the world eventually; after all London’s docks brought opportunities for travel every day of their week.

But not that week, or the next four. Because Mr Paget (who clearly had no sense of what it was like to be a teenager anymore) sent him to prison for a month for causing damage to the Zebra and for attempting to steal it.

[from The Standard, Monday, June 11, 1888]

A practised finger-smith on Hungerford Bridge

115970

I.K. Brunel’s Hungerford Suspension Bridge, which opened in 1845

Samuel Hughes was operating the toll on the Hungerford suspension bridge when he saw a young woman running towards his booth. As she came closer she slowed her run, and walked slowly past him. Hughes was stationed on the Surrey side of the bridge and it was about half past one in the morning of the 29 March 1849, and he had been in the middle of a conversation with another – unnamed -man.

About five minutes earlier a drunk had staggered past his gate, making for the Middlesex (north) side of the bridge. Hughes gave the man more than the usual cursory glance simply because he appeared to be so drunk. He was able to state later that the man was properly dressed, and there was a scarf around his neck.

Soon after the woman left the bridge in the direction of Southwark, south London, the tollbooth keeper heard the heavy steps of a man trying to run towards him. The drunk he’d seen earlier now loomed into view but he was clearly struggling to hold his trousers up as he approached.

There had been a spate of robberies on and around the bridge in recent weeks and, putting two and two together, Hughes urged his companion to follow the young woman whom he believed might have just robbed the drunken man who stumbled after her. A pursuit was then joined but it was police constable Thomas Crosby (189L) that made the arrest.

He was on his beat in Salton Road when he saw a woman running from Belvedere Road (which ran parallel with the river) with a gentleman chasing her. He shouted out ‘stop her!’ and as she darted into Howley Street he grabbed her and took her into custody. Another officer, PC Bradley, found a scarf and purse in the street where the woman was apprehended.

The woman’s name was Ann Philips and she was well known to the police and magistracy as a local prostitute. At Lambeth Police Court she was charged with robbing a man on the Hungerford bridge. Her alleged victim was John Brookes, a blacksmith from Paddington who deposed that he was walking over the bridge that morning, heading north.

He said he’d not got far when he met the prisoner.

‘She stopped and talked to him for two or three minutes, when she left, and in a moment afterwards he missed his scarf from his neck. He also missed his watch, guard, and purse, and discovered that his waistcoat was unbuttoned and his braces cut’.

She had worked fast as only a practised finger-smith could.

Ann denied it, offering an alternative version of events where she was approached by a very drunk man on the bridge whose clothes were already in a state of disarray. She was scared by him and ran away.

It was hardly a creditable response and the magistrate (the Hon. G. C. Horton) believed not a word of it and sent her for trial for the robbery. The paper reported that several similar robberies had been committed on the bridge recently and were thought to be the work of a man and woman acting together.

‘As soon as they are accomplished’ the report continued, ‘one of the thieves starts for Middlesex and the other for the Surrey side’, making the pursuit that much harder.

Having an accomplice also made it much easier to dispose of the stolen loot so that nothing was found if one of the pair was arrested. So it was with Ann, as nothing was found on her person, just the scarf and empty purse abandoned in the street.

Ann may have gone to the Surrey Assizes for this offence but I’m interested to find that another woman named Ann Phillips turning up at Old Bailey two years later for a very similar theft. This time the crime was committed in Freeman’s Passage, near Honey Lane in the City and a watch was stolen when a man stopped to speak to a woman.

If Ann ranged as far as Hungerford Bridge (between Westminster Bridge and Waterloo) its not too much of a leap to imagine that she could have looked for trade in the City at times. In 1851 Ann was 23 which would make her about 21 in 1849, an typical age for a young prostitute/thief in mid Victorian London. The judge sent her to gaol for six months and one imagines that this wasn’t her last brush with the law.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, April 6, 1849]

‘You won’t see me alive in ten minutes’: a strongman’s wife reaches the limits of her despair

sampson-adv

I am struck by the frequency of attempted suicide cases that came before the London magistracy in the late nineteenth century. The Police Code book stated that:

A person who kills himself in a manner which in the case of another person would amount to murder, is guilty of murder’,1 which seems a supremely unhelpful directive under the circumstances.

Those attempting to kill themselves were ordered to be given medical assistance and then prosecuted for a misdemeanor. In most cases I’ve found the accused was remanded so that enquiries could be made into their mental health and character with the aim being, it seems, to ensure that they didn’t try anything so drastic again.

While there were several attempts at hanging and one of a man who walked into an underground train tunnel to end his life, most of the attempted suicides that made the pages of the newspapers were of women who had been prevented from drowning themselves in the Thames or one of the capital’s canals. In almost all instances their lives were saved by the quick reactions of a nearby beat bobby or member of the public. The case of Edith Sampson was a little different.

In late March  1892 Dora Hoffmeister was working as a servant at the Empire Hotel in Leicester Square. She knew Edith as one of the guests and met her by the front door to the hotel on the 31 March in the afternoon. Edith spoke to her saying darkly: ‘You won’t see me alive in ten minutes’, before hurrying off upstairs to her room.

Alarmed, Dora followed her and entered her bedroom where she saw Mrs Sampson sat at her dressing table. She took a small bottle from the table and poured its contents into a glass. Dora seized the bottle and realized it was marked ‘Laudanum. Poison’. She remonstrated with Edith who relented and poured the liquid back into the bottle and set it down.

Dora stayed as Edith dressed and went out, and then returned to her duties. About an hour later she decided to check on her again and went up to her room. There she found Edith lying on the bed where she had been carried by one of the hotel’s waiters after she’d been discovered earlier. Apparently another servant, Harriet Perrett had found Edith slumped on the stairs, a handkerchief in one hand and the bottle of laudanum in the other.  Dora rang for help and stayed with Edith until a surgeon arrived.

Dr Clarke examined his patient and the bottle and administered an emetic. Edith vomited up the poison and complained that the doctor should have let her die. ‘You don’t know my troubles’, she declared and continued to bemoan her fate until her mother arrived. Edith Sampson was just 18 years of old her mother explained, and had married  ‘Sampson, the Strong Man’ in September 1891. He was not about having left for Liverpool earlier that week. The couple had quarreled and Edith was clearly unhappy in her marriage. Nevertheless Edith’s mother was sure that this was a one off and told Mr Newton (the magistrate at Marlborough Street) that her daughter would never take her own life.

Mr Newton was much less sure however, and said she’d already made that attempt and might well try again. In his opinion the best course of action would be to have Edith secured in the infirmary at the local house of correction for a week. Edith Sampson ‘was led away crying, and evidently in deep distress’.

Edith was probably married to Charles A. Sampson, a famous strongman in the late Victorian period. He claimed he owed his remarkable strength to being hit by lightning when he was a child and he would appeared on stage throughout Britain and further afield. As a vaudeville showman Sampson would have been on the road a lot, with little time for his young wife. Edith, who was described as ‘good-looking’ and ‘fashionably attired’ might have enjoyed the trappings of a prosperous theatre existence but she may well have been quite lonely and worried that her new husband might be subjected to the charms of other women while he was out of her sight and care.

Hopefully this incident was enough to alert Edith’s family and friends to rally round her and give her the support she needed and, had it not been for the attention of a stranger, Dora Hoffmeister, a European immigrant worker in London, Sampson might have been burying his young wife without even celebrating his first wedding anniversary.

[from The Standard, Saturday, April 02, 1892]

  1. Neil R A Bell and Adam Wood (Eds), Sir Howard Vincent’s Police Code 1889, (Mango Books, 2015), p.174

A ‘frantic’ young woman attempts to ‘destroy herself’.

suicide

Alongside petty crime, disorderly behaviour and violence the Police magistrates of the capital heard a considerable number of cases of distress and desperation. None more so than charges levelled against people (mostly women) who had attempted suicide by throwing themselves into the River Thames to drown.

It seems to have been a regular occurrence in the 1800s and featured in the BBC’s drama Taboo, where James Delany’s half-sister (Zilpha Geary, played by Oona Chaplin) leaped to her death. From the thirteenth century up to 1961 ‘self-murder’ was a crime, perhaps more importantly to some, a sin in the eyes of the church. As a result those accused of attempting to ‘destroy’ themselves frequently came before the metropolis’ magistracy.

While it was a largely accepted ‘truth’ that the ‘weakness’ of women’s minds was more likely to drive them to take their own lives, the reality was that men ‘committed’ (or attempted) suicide more frequently. However, gendering suicide in this way to make it a ‘female malady’ (as Elaine Showalter has dubbed madness in the 1800s) fitted contemporary tropes more closely. While men do feature in newspaper reports of attempted suicide it is more common for the examples to be of young women, like Zilpha and for the act to be one of drowning rather than hanging or other forms of self-harm.

So when Sarah Keyworth tried to jump off Westminster Bridge she was providing the Morning Post’s reporter with exactly the copy he needed to reinforce the weakness of the ‘fairer sex’ in the minds of his readership.

Sarah, ‘a respectable-looking young woman’ was seen running along Westminster Bridge by a gentleman named Houghton. Mr Houghton told the court at Southwark that she was ‘calling out in  a frantic manner’ before she ‘suddenly stopped and climbed over the railings of the bridge’.

He must have feared that she was about to jump so he reacted quickly and grabbed hold of her. She struggled, saying ‘let me go, let me go!’ but he held on until a policeman arrived to help. Sarah was taken to the local police station and brought up before the magistrate in the morning.

At her first hearing she was ‘sullen’ and said she had fully intended to have ‘destroyed herself and was sorry the gentleman had interfered’. The magistrate (Mr Woolrych) had remanded her and instructed the prison chaplain to visit her.

A week later and she was back up in court and this time her sister appeared with her to support her. Now Sarah was in repentant mood, through floods of tears she said ‘she was very sorry for such an attempt on her life. She knew the wickedness of it, and promised never to do it again’. Her sister told Mr Woolrych that she could only imagine she had been driven to it after ‘words with her young man’. She promised to look  after her and so the magistrate admonished Sarah and let them both go.

Sadly, attempting to drown oneself in the Thames is still one of the favoured options for those who feel that life is something they can no or longer wish to cope with. In 2014 over 100 calls were made to the City of London police on account of people trying to jump from one of the five bridges along the stretch of river covered by the City’s jurisdiction. Given that London has over a dozen more bridges (not including railway ones) that pedestrians can access the numbers of places where potential human tragedies could occur probably raises that figure considerably.

A 2016 report from the City noted that there were 20-25 suicides by drowning alone in the Thames and attempts have been made to prevent further deaths by installing information boards with the Samaritans phone number and even patrols on some bridges to look out for those in need. London can be a lonely place and it would seem that it always has been.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, March 11, 1865]

A suspected murderer captured and a fatal accident exposed

victorian-crime-magazine

In a break from the daily ‘doings’ of the Metropolitan Police courts I thought I’d take a look at ‘other news’ on the same page of the papers this day in 1873. Following the reports from Guildhall, Mansion House, Westminster, Marylebone and the Worship Street Police courts came the story of the ‘Coram Street Murder’. This reported the killing of Harriet Buswell, a London prostitute, found dead in her bed, and the arrest of a suspect in the village of Pirbright near Guildford, in Surrey.

The man, named Joveit Julien, was a Frenchman and had raised suspicion while drinking in a pub. On being searched he was found to have ‘three napoleons and several other pieces of money’ along with papers suggesting he had tickets to travel to New York but hadn’t made that trip. Despite claiming he couldn’t speak English he was more than capable of reading a wanted poster issued by the police which offered a £200 reward. He was arrested and an interpreter found so that the police investigating the murder could question him. However, the report continued, when two witnesses failed to identify him the authorities were forced to let him go.

Perhaps this was an all too common example of suspicion falling upon a foreigner? However, later in the month a German – Dr Gottfried Hessel – was formally charged with Harriett’s murder at Bow Street Police court. Hessel was discharged for lack of evidence but no one else was ever prosecuted for the murder of the woman.

Meanwhile in London and on Lambeth side of the Thames the paper reported that a ‘fatal accident’ had occurred. A builder named Bass had visited a wharf belong to a Mr Beaumont. Darfield Wharf, was close by the Lion Brewery at Charing Cross Bridge, and the builder had gone there in search of mouldings. The wharf manager West took him to see his stock that was held below a loft used to store oats.

Another man, the foreman Harris, was about to go along with the pair when his wife called him back to fetch her the key to a coal cellar. Her domestic request saved his life.

The loft was old and probably creaking under the weight of oats stored there. With a sickening creak the ceiling gave way and 50 tons of oats landed on the wharf manager and his customer. Harris shouted for help and all hands rushed to try and clear the rubble from the stricken men.  The men from Bennett’s hay and straw wharf nearby also downed tools to come and help and within moments there were ’40 men engaged in clearing away the mass of rubbish’.

One small boy was pulled from the wreckage, miraculously unharmed, but the two men trapped under the fall were not so lucky. West had been hit on the head and died instantly, Bass had suffered a broken leg, snapped just above the knee and must have passed away in considerable agony. Mr Bass’ pony had also been under the loft when it collapsed and it too was dead.

It was a terrible tragedy which today would have provoked an investigation into health and safety. The Victorians however, were no so big on H&S so one can only hope the parish did their best for the families of the men that died.

[from The Morning Post,  Friday, January 10, 1873]