A servant so drunk she could hardly stand up

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We are now, thanks to Downton Abbey and (previously) Upstairs Downstairs  pretty familiar with the dynamics of master/servant relationships in the Victorian period. Even if those dramas might distort realities in some respects they offer us a view of a world that ceased to exist about a 100 years ago. 

For the most part, above stairs at least, servants were deferential and obedient, and households ran fairly smoothly.  Of course these dramas focus on the ‘big house’ scenario where a hierarchy of servants  – from butler to scullery maid – have clearly defined roles to perform ‘above stairs’. 

In reality very many households in the 1800s had just one or two servants to help them with their daily lives, and relationships here might have been a little different to those depicted in TV and film dramas. 

Madeline Brett was not your typical well-behaved servant. She had joined Mrs Mary Jane Snell’s service on 23 December 1880, just before Christmas. This should have been an opportunity for young Madeline. At just 18 she now had a position in a house on Bonchurch Lane, North Kensington. In 1890 this area was marked as mostly pink to red on Charles Booth’s poverty maps, so ‘fairly comfortable’, to ‘Middle class: well-to do’. 

It seems Madeline liked a drink, and this was soon very obvious to her mistress. 

A few days after Christmas, on 29 December, Madeline broke a bottle she was trying to place on the table. Her speech was slurred and she could hardly walk. Mrs Snell was shocked, but she said nothing. It seems the servant had a temper and her mistress was already a little afraid of her. 

However, when Madeline announced she was going to wash the china Mrs Snell begged her not to, afraid that she would break it all. This provoked the servant who pulled on a coat and went out of the front door to fetch a passing milk boy. She told him to go and get a policeman to arrest her mistress!

When the constable arrived she ranted at him and the officer was forced to subdue her; Mrs Snell then dismissed her from her service and asked her to leave. But instead of collecting her things Madeline simply stormed out returning some hours later, even more intoxicated than she had been earlier. 

Mrs Snell was in her drawing room when Madeline entered carry a watering can. At first she demanded her mistress take the can upstairs, then fell over, got up, made her way to the small kitchen, and collapsed again. Mrs Snell told her to go to bed but the girl refused. Clutching some paper she said she was going to light the gas. 

When Mrs Snell investigated she found pieces of burnt paper all over the house where Madeline had tried, and failed, to ignite the gas lighting. When Mrs Snell upbraided her employee Madeline ran out into the street, shouting and knocking at doors until a policeman quickly arrived and arrested her for being drunk and disorderly . 

She appeared at Hammersmith Police court on 30 December where she pleaded not guilty and accused her employer of unreasonable conduct. The magistrate remanded her and she was up again three days later when Mrs Snell appeared to give her evidence. Madeline continued to protest her innocence – it ‘was a false charge’ she insisted, ‘she was drunk for the want of drink’ she told Mr Paget. 

The justice not surprisingly chose to believe Mrs Snell over her servant. Madeline was sentenced to 21 days in prison with hard labour. She took this badly, fighting with the gaoler and police as they led her away, and issuing a stream of threats to her – now former – mistress as she went.    

[from Lloyd’s Illustrated Newspaper, Sunday 2 January 1881]

The artist’s model who left no trace

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An incident in the Revolutionary War of America (The Fraser Highlanders at Stone Ferry) – Robert Ronald McIan (1854)

Robert McIan probably thought he was doing someone else and himself a good turn when he ‘rescued’ John Coster from his perilous condition on the streets of central London. It was the dawn of the Victorian age – 1837 – and the comedian and artist was strolling near his home on Newman Street, off Oxford Street, he saw a man in ‘a wretched state of constitution and starvation’. He decided to take him home and feed him.

McIan would later admit that his motivation was more than just that of a good Samaritan; he recognized that Coster’s ‘picturesque appearance’ made him a perfect subject for artist study. Coster was an Indian from the Bengal, who had been born a ‘Mohametan’ but had converted to Catholicism. He spoke English, but with a heavy Indian accent.

He was treated with some compassion by McIan who made him a servant in his household but he was also a ‘curiosity’ and was shown to the artist’s friends, several of whom painted him themselves. Coster then was drawn and painted by no lesser figures than ‘Sir David Wilkie, Landseer, Etty, Ewins, and most of the celebrated painters of the day’.

In McIan’s head he had done the man a great service so it must have come a terrible betrayal of trust to discover that the man he had saved from the streets had robbed him. Yet in March 1840 that is exactly what he alleged. A pistol had disappeared from his painting room and, since Coster (who had also vanished) was familiar with the room and its contents, and the door had been forced open, suspicion fell on him.

A description of the missing servant and the gun – a ‘Highland pistol’ – were circulated and several months later both were recovered. The pistol had been pawned on Tottenham Court Road and it was easy to trace that back to Coster given his distinctive appearance as an Asian in London.

At his appearance at Hatton Garden Police court Coster was also accused of a second robbery. Since he’d quit McIan’s service he had been living in lodgings St Giles and his landlady deposed that he had plundered her rooms before running out on her as well. Coster admitted stealing the pistol but vehemently denied any knowledge of the other charge.

Mr Combe, the sitting magistrate that day, told Coster he would be remanded in custody while further enquiries were made and other witnesses sought. But he informed the prisoner that if he was convicted all of his luxurious long black hair would be shaved off.

‘No!’, Coster exclaimed from the dock, ‘da neber sall; me die first before da sal cut de hair off’.

Robert Ronald McIan (1802-1856) was a popular artist in the Victorian period known for his romanticized depictions of Highland life and history. He had trod the boards in the theatre in his youth (which may explain why he still described himself as a ‘comedian’ in 1840). He is most well known for his “Battle of Culloden’ and ‘A Highland Feud’ (both 1843) and in the same year he exhibited ‘An Encounter in Upper Canada’ which depicted the heroic fight between Clan Fraser and a larger French and American Indian force. The Highland pistol that Coster probably featured in some of these paintings and, who knows, maybe his former servant did as well in some way.

Edwin Landseer (1802-1873) also had his Scottish connections – his ‘Monarch of the Glen’ (1851) is one of the most famous images of nineteenth century art. In 1858 he was commissioned to create the four bronze lions that guard Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square.

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Sir David Wilkie (1785-1841) was, famous for his historical paintings. Like McIan he was a Scot, born in Fife the son of a clergyman. Soon after the court case that involved Coster and his acquaintance McIan he travelled abroad, painting the portrait of the Sultan in Constantinople and various others on including Mehemet Ali in Alexandria, Egypt. He fell ill at Malta and died on the return voyage.

As for John Coster I’m afraid history doesn’t record what happened to him. There’s no record of a jury trial for this theft of an artist’s pistol or the robbery of a St Giles lodging house. Once again, the mysterious Indian with the ‘long black hair and dark piercing eyes’ vanished.

Above right: ‘General Sir David Baird Discovering the Body of Sultan Tippoo Sahib after having Captured Seringapatam, on the 4th May, 1799,’ by Sir David Wilkie (1839) – National Gallery of Scotland

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday 10 March 1840]

A fishy tale of dishonesty or an act of love?

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Fish Street Hill in the City

Parliamentary legislation in 1848 (collectively known as the Jervis Acts) and the 1850s had allowed for the fast processing of prisoners who had been arrested for relatively minor acts of property crime. Mostly these acts were aimed at the treatment of juvenile offenders and those accused of simple theft of small amounts or low value items.

So it is a little surprising to see the act being cited in the case of Mary Ann Gill, who was brought before the Lord Mayor of London at Mansion House in May 1860.

Surprising because Mary was charged with stealing the not insignificant sum of eight sovereigns from her master. For context, £8 in 1860 equates to about £500 today. Then it would have been the equivalent of 40 days labour for a skilled tradesman, and worth much more to a shop girl like Mary. Mary could quite easily have ended up before a jury for this crime but, because she eventually pleaded guilty, she avoided that, perhaps hoping for a more lenient sentence.

The circumstances were fairly straightforward: Mr Rouse, a fish salesman, employed Mary at his premises on the appropriately named Fish Street Hill (close to the Monument which marks the outbreak of the 1666 fire). At some point in February 1860 Rouse suspected that Mary might have been responsible for stealing money missing from a bag he kept in a cupboard. She denied it however, and he had no proof.

Then, some months later he discovered a watch in her possession and demanded to know where it came from. She told him she’d bought and (presumably because he didn’t pay her enough to be able to afford such luxuries) he realized she’d used the money he’d lost to pay for it. Having grilled her closely he brought her before the Lord Mayor to be dealt with by law.

Under the pressure of the courtroom Mary confessed. She had stolen the sovereigns and used close to £5 to buy a gold watch. What had she done with the remainder she was asked? The rest she had spent on a ‘young man with who she rode about in a cab when she had a holiday’, she explained. Perhaps the gold timepiece was for him as well, a gift to seal their love, or maybe he’d induced her to steal in the first place?

I prefer the more romantic explanation.

Mary’s life now began to unravel quickly however. It was revealed that she had been dismissed on no fewer than two previous occasions for ‘dishonesty’, a precarious situation for anyone seeking work, even in a vast metropolis like London. Moreover, she had secured the job with Mr Rouse by providing him with a ‘specious, but utterly false statement, as to the reason for her being unable to produce a character.

The magistrate – the Lord Mayor – sent her to prison for six months. In the circumstances this was not that lenient an outcome; had she braved an Old Bailey jury she may even have got off scot-free; unlikely but not impossible. There are only a handful of cases of servants stealing from their masters in 1860 which suggest either that many preferred the summary option or that cases simply didn’t make it that far very often.

Of course, she wasn’t to know that.

[from Morning Chronicle, Saturday 12 May 1860]

An unwanted ‘guest’ under a Whitechapel grocer’s bed

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Harris Rosenthorn ran a small grocer’s shop on Plummer’s Row, Whitechapel. For a few days he’d noticed a young immigrant loitering nearby and suspected he was up to no good. Then, on Thursday 2 November 1893 the lad had come into the shop and bought some butter. From his accent Mr Rosenthorn determined that the teenager was probably a Russian Pole, one of many in the East End.

At around 9.30 the grocer went upstairs to the second floor and into one of the bedrooms. The candle lighting the room had just gone out and worried, Rosenthorn lit another. He soon found the strange young man hiding under the bed. The lad crawled out and, before the shopkeeper could stop him, he pushed past and down the stairs.

He ran straight into one of the Rosenthorns’ servants, who, alerted by her master’s cries of alarm, tried to tackle him. She was punched in the chest and pushed to the floor and the man got away.

He didn’t get far however, soon several neighbours were after him and overpowered the burglar a few streets away. As he ran he dropped a chisel he’d been carrying, either to use as a jemmy or a weapon. His captors handed him over to the police and on Friday 3 November he appeared before Mr Dickinson at the Thames Police court.

The young man gave his name as Max Landay. He was just 17 years of age and under the powers bestowed on magistrates by the summary jurisdictions acts of the 1800s the justice decided to deal with him without recourse to a jury trial. Max was sent to prison for six months with hard labour.

[from The Standard, Saturday, November 04, 1893]

All’s well that ends well?: love and abduction in 1850s London

 

Antique illustration of immigrants in New York

Mr Pass, like many fathers, wanted the best for his daughter. He was part of the large immigrant population of London, a boot maker by trade, he lived in Hoxton, East London. His sister had married and was living in Regent’s Park, well away from some of the bad influences Pass feared his daughter might be exposed to. So at an early age he opted to send her to live there.

It must have been a wrench but then again, with his wife dead Pass was hardly in a position to bring up his child and educate her to be the respectable Jewish woman he hoped she would become. Moreover, his sister, Louisa Salomens, was a ‘lady of property’, who had a house in Northumberland Terrace, and young Rebecca Pass would do well there.

So off she was sent as an infant to live and learn from her aunt. All was going well until one day in early July 1857 when Rebecca, accompanied by a servant bearing a note, turned up at Pass’ home in Hoxton. The message was worrying: according to Mrs Salomens Rebecca had ‘formed some improper connection’ with an unsuitable young man and Louisa felt it best that her brother now take ‘exclusive control’ of his daughter.

Pass must have been shocked and then angry but of course he took Rebecca in and made her as comfortable as possible. She lived there under strict supervision (probably never being allowed out, unless it was with her father) until the last week or so of the month when the Pass household had another unexpected visitor at their home in Pitfield Street, Hoxton.

This time it was a young man named John Aarons, a ‘swarthy, sun burnt’ fellow who gave his address as the Continental Hotel in Leadenhall Street. Aarons explained that there had been a terrible misunderstanding ‘arising from a trifling misconception’, and there really was no ‘unsuitable connection’ at all, Louisa had got it all wrong. He had come to accompany Rebecca back to Northumberland Terrace where her uncle was waiting to take a trip to the country. He was very keen to see Rebecca before he went.

Perhaps experiencing a mix of emotions the boot maker agreed to let Aarons take her away, but insisted he had her back by six that evening. With that his daughter walked off with the young man, supposedly on her way back to Regent’s Park, albeit temporarily.

Of course, she never arrived. Pass travelled to his sister’s when she failed to appear and the police were immediately informed. A description of Aarons was circulated and he was soon picked up by a City of London constable in Houndsditch. On Monday morning (27 July) Aarions was brought before Mr Hammill at Worship Street, charged with abduction.

Both Pass and his sister were in court to set the scene. Louisa Salomens (a ‘very lady-like person’), explained that her niece had become involved with a ‘man of loose morals and inferior station’ (I’m not sure which was worse really). In this she had been aided and abetted by one of  Mrs Salomens servants, who had since been dismissed. Aarons had then turned up at her door and said he represented the young man that Rebecca had fallen for. He pleased for his friend and for Mrs Salomens to allow him to see Rebecca. The couple were in love he insisted, and it would ‘be a shame’ to part them.

Clearly Louisa wanted nothing to do with him and sent him away with a flea in his ear. So she was shocked to discover that he ‘had beguiled the girl from her father’s protection’ claiming he’d been sent by her. She’d sent no such message at all.

Aarons, demonstrating ‘an air of confident bravado’,  tried gamely to cross-examine Mrs Salomens and her brother to undermine her testimony but both were steadfast and he failed.  Mr Hammill said the charge of abduction had been clearly established and he would remand him in custody for a week while he decided what to do with him.

‘You don’t mean that!’ cried the prisoner from the dock. ‘Why I have paid my passage-money for America, and the ship sails tomorrow. But you’ll take bail, of course’.

No, Mr Hammill told him, he would not. Not at present, at least. This blow landed on Aarons but he soon recovered his ‘audacious demeanor’, and ‘swaggered out with the gaoler’.

Unusually for these little vignettes from the Police Courts this story has a happy ending.

Three days later a representative from a firm of London solicitors, Solomens, appeared in court to make a statement to Mr Hammill. They came to say that the young man who was at the heart of this love triangle had been found. He was not at all unsuitable or a person of ‘loose morals’ but instead was ‘respectably connected, and altogether unexceptionable in his character and circumstances’. Moreover, he had pledged to marry Rebecca immediately and thus, her ‘fair name remains unsullied’. As the family socilitor he was asking the court to discharge John Aarons forthwith.

The defendant was then brought over from the house of correction and the happy news was relayed to him. He was then released and Mr Hammill commented that he was delighted that all had ended as well as it had. Aarons had presumably still missed his boat though, but perhaps a grateful family might now be prepared to fund a ticket for a later one.

So, what do we think really happened here?  Had Rebecca and her unnamed admirer become lovers? Was that why the aunt had become so concerned? Or had they simply been discovered together (in her room perhaps) without a chaperone? Who knows, at least all’s well that ends well as the bard would say.

[from The Standard, Monday, July 27, 1857; The Standard, Thursday, July 31, 1857]

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

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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

Fishy goings on in Pimlico land two servants in prison

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For some reason the morning paper on Halloween 1857 chose to concentrate on thefts by servants and other employees. Several of the stories from the Police courts told of light-fingered employees at banks, shops, and in the homes of the wealthy.

In the 1700s Daniel Defoe had commented that servants ‘beggar you inchmeal’ meaning they stole small amounts of property on such a regular basis as to gradually impoverish the rich. He exaggerated of course but theft by servants was one of the great fear and complaints of those employing them. Given the poor remuneration given to domestic servants it is hardly surprising that some chose to steal when they got the opportunity, to say nothing of the abuse many female servants suffered at the hands of their masters and their male offspring.

On October 30 1857 Margaret Ward appeared at Westminster Police court and was remanded for further examination by the justice, Mr Paynter. She worked for a Mr Bicknell at his home in Upper Ebury Street, Pimlico and he had accused her of stealing a £5 note from his writing desk.

He had questioned her after the money was discovered missing but she denied any part in it. However the court was told that Margaret had recently bought some fine new clothes and, since she’d arrived in service with ‘very bare of clothing’ suspicions were heightened and he had dismissed her at once.

A ‘very respectable’ woman then testified that she had previously employed Miss Ward and that following her dismissal by Mr. Bicknell Margaret had turned up at her door ‘decked in finery’. She was surprised that the girl had managed to earn enough to buy such nice clothes but Margaret allegedly told her that ‘there were other ways of getting money’. A local baker also declared that Margaret had come to his shop and had changed a £5 note, the court was then shown clothing valued at that amount that the police had found in her possession.

Margaret Ward was prosecuted at the Westminster Quarter Session in November 1857. In the face of the overwhelming evidence gathered against her, the 19 year-old servant pleaded guilty and was sentenced to six weeks in the house of correction.

Joseph Tonks followed Margaret into the dock at Westminster. He was much older (52) and gave his occupation as a fishmonger. Tonks was employed by Mr Charles in Arabella Row , also in Pimlico, and was accused of stealing some of his master’s fish.

Tonks had been in Mr Charles’ service for eight years and the master fishmonger had ‘considerable confidence’ in him. He paid him £1 5sa week which was a pretty good wage in 1857. However, after fish began to go missing Mr Charles grew suspicious of his his long term employee and had him followed. Tonks was seen visiting a broker in Artillery Row on more than one occasion and on a Thursday evening he was stopped and searched. Two whitings ‘were found in his hat, and five herrings concealed about his person’.

Clearly something fishy was going on…

The broker was summoned to court and testified that Tonks had called on his to borrow some paint and a brush and wanted to buy his wife a present. The journeyman fishmonger admitted his guilt and opted to have his case dealt with by the magistrate instead of going before a jury. This probably saved him a longer prison sentence but Mr Paynter  still sent him away for six months at hard labour since the court was told that Tonks had probably been robbing his master on a regular basis for some time.

Tonks seems to have had less of a cause than Margaret to steal from his boss. He was quite well paid and trusted and well thought of. But we don’t know what else was going on in his life. All sorts of pressures can pile up and force people to desperate measures. Then again maybe he just thought it was too easy an opportunity to pass up. He’d got away with it for so long that it had probably become routine for him to pack a couple of fish in his hat for treats.

On release from prison both Tonks and Margaret Ward would have struggled to find good work without the necessary references, and that was the most serious punishment of all.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Saturday, October 31, 1857]

The ‘tyranny of Trades unions’ causes a short sighted appointment.

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I was drawn to this headline in the Standard for late October 1897, which referred to a case before the magistrate at Worship Street in the East End of London. It concerned a glass beveller called Mr Bacon who had summoned his apprentice to appear in court.

In the course of my PhD research I found that London masters frequently brought their apprentices to court (or indeed were summoned by them to appear themselves) but at the Chamberlain’s not, not Mansion House or Guildhall. There all sorts of disputes were heard and resolved, usually touching on the disobedience of apprentices or failure of masters to teach their charges their arts.

Elsewhere in England disputes between masters and apprentices (and masters and servants) were often settled in front of a magistrate, and so this one was in line with what we know from previous research from an earlier period.

Mr Bacon had come to complain that his apprentice was entirely unfit to learn the trade of glass beveling because, to quote:

‘Apart from the apprentice being exceedingly troublesome and unruly’ […] ‘he was near-sighted, and consequently couldn’t be put to work the machinery or the larger tools, which were dangerous’.

Clearly then there was a problem but how was it that Bacon had just found this out Mr Corser (the sitting justice) wanted to know?

Well that was because of the unions the glass worker explained. In order to be allowed to start work in the shop the lad had to be formally apprenticed (in other words, to have his indentures signed). The unions refused to allow their men to work with non-indentured boys and threatened to go on strike if this was not complied with. Indeed they had already struck when an apprenticed  boy  had been set on one of the beveling machines.

So ‘the lad in this case was no good to him’ (and I suspect his attitude was something that Bacon was not prepared to cope with either). If he kept him on his poor sight would inevitably lead to accidents and he (Bacon) would be liable for compensation. As a result the magistrate had no choice but to cancel the youngster’s indentures and hope he found gainful employment somewhere else.

[from The Standard, Monday, October 25, 1897]

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]