‘You are a disgrace to human nature’: the meanness of the Poor Law exposed

Unknown

The Police Courts were places where people could bring their grievances on all manner of things in the 1800s. It is easy to get the impression that their main purpose was to deal with crime – petty and serious. However, this view is often reinforced by the newspapers’ selection of cases to bring to the attention of their readers: they often chose the outrageous, amusing, shocking, and heart ringing stories as well as regular examples of cases which reminded the public that working class men were brutal, that theft was common, and fraud to be avoided by the wary.

When Ellen Potts came to the Guildhall Police court to ask for Alderman Moon’s help it gave the court reporter of The Morning Post the perfect opportunity to expose an old chestnut: the misuse of authority by a lowly public servant. It helped that Ellen was pretty (‘a good-looking girl’ of ‘about 18 years of age’) and the public servant had a reputation locally for meanness.  Immediately then there was a melodramatic backstory that readers could relate to with a villain and a young heroine that needed saving.

Miss Potts told the court that she had been thrown out of her home after a row with her mother (‘over a shawl’). With nowhere to go that night Ellen knocked on the door of the West London Union workhouse at St Bride’s on Shoe Lane. The relieving officer, Mr Miller, refused her entry however, on the grounds that her mother took in lodgers at her house on Cloth Lane and so was perfectly capable of supporting her daughter.

Alderman Moon was angry with the officer whose only (and sustained) defense was to say he was only following orders. He quickly established that Mrs Potts was receiving poor relief herself and that Miller knew this.

‘Then how can she support her daughter?’ the magistrate demanded to know.

‘You have discretionary power, and I think it is a most cruel act of a man to refuse shelter to a girl under such circumstances, and your conduct is most disgraceful’.

When Miller tried once more to say it that Ellen was her mothers responsibility Alderman Moon cut him off.

‘Don’t talk to me about the mother. You may be a good badger for the guardians, but at the same time a disgrace to human nature. No wonder, when females  are thus cruelly refused an asylum, so many should become prostitutes for the sake of obtaining that relief for which the ratepayers are rated so heavily. There are constant complaints of your hard-hearted conduct, which is a disgrace to your nature’.

This brought cries of ‘hear, hear’ from all sections of the courtroom and Miller must have looked up miserably from the dock, as he continued to say that he was only doing what he’d been told to do by his employers.

The chief clerk whispered to the alderman that Miller was liable to a hefty fine for his actions. The magistrate told Miller that he was going to levy that penalty, £5, for disobeying the general rule that ‘relief shall be given to all person in urgent distress’. After one more forlorn attempt to shift responsibility from himself to the guardians the relieving officer finally work up to what was required of him.

‘Is it your wish she be taken into the house?’ he asked the alderman. ‘If so I will do it willingly’.

‘It is so’, Alderman Moon told him. ‘There’s an end of the case’.

So Miller avoided a fine and Ellen was admitted to the workhouse so she didn’t have to walk the streets and risk falling into an even worse fate.  Arguably the real villains here were the Poor Law Guardians that set the rules that Miller was expected to enforce, and Mrs Potts who was prepared to let her teenage daughter take her chances on the streets. At least this mini melodrama ended happily.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, August 10, 1849]

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 took the shawl from distress, for I had no money to buy one and was perishing with cold’: desperation or conspiracy as two old offenders appear at Wandsworth

ElephantCastleCloseup

John Rogers kept a beer tent at Wandsworth fair. We’ve probably all encountered a beer tent at music festival or county show but this was likely to have been a little smaller and I doubt today that the landlord and his staff would sleep overnight in it! This, however, is exactly what Rogers did in May 1845. Presumably, as the fair went on for a number of days, he was obliged to sleep in his tent to protect his stock and his taking. If this was the case he failed completely, because overnight he was robbed of 17(about £50 today).

The beer seller was taken in by two criminals – Daniel Sullivan and Kesiah Edwards – who presented to be cousins that had just been reunited after an absence of 14 years. There may have been some truth in their separation as Sullivan had only recently returned from transportation to Australia, but I doubt he told that story to John Rogers. Sullivan and been in and out of the tent all-day, eating and drinking but not always paying. He’d returned with Kesiah in the evening and she’d told the tale of them meeting by chance at the fair after so many lost years.

As Rogers was closing up the couple asked if they could sleep overnight in the tent having nowhere else to go. He took pity of them (a mistake) and he and his two staff settled down to rest after their long day. In the morning Rogers woke to find that his pocket had been cut open and all his money stolen. Edwards was still curled up in one corner of the beer tent but Sullivan was nowhere to be seen.

Kesiah Edwards now denied knowing Sullivan at all. However, she was certain it was him that had taken the money as she’d seen him using a razor blade to cut up his food. In fact, she declared, wasn’t that the blade over there? –picking up a razor from the ground. The beer seller must have realized that he’d been played and he had her arrested before setting off to see if he could find the other thief.

He had an inkling of Sullivan’s likely haunts and eventually found him in a pub at the Elephant & Castle (the Alfred’s Head) where he was treating all his mates to a drink, at Roger’s expense. The former convict came quietly and Rogers deposited him at the nearest police station. The next day he and his two captives appeared at Wandsworth Police court where the pair were charged with robbery.

Sullivan cut an imposing figure in the dock with the court reporter describing him as having ‘a most forbidding appearance’; Kesiah Edwards was ‘decently attired in black’ and she was the only one to offer a defense to the charge presented, Sullivan said nothing at all.

She claimed that she’d met Sullivan at the fair and he’d ‘treated her’. He then asked her to be his common law wife. None of this was what she wanted but she had nowhere to sleep that night so went along with his suggestion that they shelter in the beer tent. Her instance that there was no conspiracy between was slightly undermined by the evidence of PC Griffiths (126M) who had looked into the tent on his rounds and had noticed Sullivan and Edwards lying together, evidently deep in quite conversation.

Mr Paynter – the magistrate at Wandsworth that day – was in no doubt that the pair were in this together and committed them both for trial. After Sullivan had ben taken back down to the cells a second charge was brought against the female prisoner. Kesiah was now accused of stealing a shawl from an inmate at the Wandsworth workhouse. Her claims of being homeless at the fair seemed accurate now as it was established that she’d spent the previous Saturday night in the poor house. She offered no defense this time, admitting her crime:

‘I do not deny this robbery’, Kesiah told the court, ‘but I had nothing to do with the other’. ‘I took the shawl from distress, for I had no money to buy one and was perishing with cold’.

She was asked where she was from and gave a sad tale of being the widow of a ‘respectable tradesman’ who had ‘buried my five children all within a twelvemonth’.  It was a ‘pitiable’ story the beak agreed but that did not excuse her dishonesty or criminality. She was led away sobbing to face trial on both charges.

At the Old Bailey that May Edwards was acquitted of the robbery in the beer tent but having pleaded guilty to stealing the shawl she was sent to prison for six months. The jury rejected Sullivan’s defense that he had been ‘drinking all night, and knew nothing about it’ and convicted him. The judge sentenced him to be transported back to Australia, this time for 10 years. He had stolen 17(£50) and she had confessed to taking a shawl valued at 4(or £12 now).

It was a very harsh sentence for Sullivan but he’d had his chance and blown it.  Recidivists  were not tolerated if their former crimes were brought up against them in the Victorian justice system. I have more sympathy though for Edwards. Her story may have been a fabrication but it echoes with the lives of many poor women in the nineteenth century – recently highlighted by Hallie Rubenhold’s study of the five canonical victims of Jack the Ripper. Women like Kesiah had to live by their wits if they were to survive in an unforgiving world. Some turned to prostitution, others stole or begged, still more stayed with abusive partners simply because a bad man was better than no man if it meant you had a roof over your head and food in your belly.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, May 15, 1845]

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:

‘An habitual offender who accepts imprisonment as an occupational hazard’: the sadly typical story of Lydia Lloyd

RailwayHotel-1907

There are those moments in research when your own work links with that of others working in a similar area. Because I know several of the wonderful people behind the Digital Panopticon website and database and was present when they launched in 2016 I remember the exhibition that accompanied it. The site allows you to trace individuals caught up in the English criminal justice system from the later 1780s to the beginning of the twentieth century through their prison and transportation records. Within the site the team have managed to create ‘life archives’ of a number of criminals which reveal the mishaps and opportunities that led them to feature in a number of institutional records.

One of these was Lydia Lloyd who first appears in the DP in 1865. Her life story reveals a woman who first got in trouble in her teens and went to on prostitution and a number of encounters with the summary courts before, in 1870, she was sent to prison for eighteen months for theft. As Dr Lucy Williams notes, Lydia was one of ‘many women living on the margins of society, trapped in prison’s ‘revolving door’.

Whilst in prison she continued to break the rules, and the system was hard on those that it didn’t break quickly. Lydia (pictured in 1879 below) was punished for laughing in chapel, and for striking another inmate with her tin mug. Both infringements resulted in her being denied daily exercise for three days.  She didn’t learn from this and continued to offend inside, and then again once she’d been released.

Lydia_Lloyd_1

Lydia turns up in my daily search of the Police court, in February 1879. She appeared at the Hampstead Police court, described as a laundress, accused of burglary and the theft of a shawl. The alleged victim was Charles Augustus Mackness, the landlord of the Railway Inn, Church End, Finchley in north London.

Mr Mackness told the magistrate (Mr Marshall) that between half past five and six that morning he’d been awakened by a ring on his doorbell. A policeman was at the door and explained that he’d been alerted to a light passing several windows and thought he might have an intruder. Mackness searched and found Lydia under the bed in the tavern’s ‘best bed-room, which they kept for visitors’. Lydia was arrested.

Looking around the room it was evident that she’d been through several drawers and the wardrobe and had stolen a shawl and possibly, a blanket that had been on the bed. I wonder if the latter was just to keep her warm as I doubt the room was heated and it was February.

Lydia denied taking the shawl but she could hardly explain why she was in the landlord’s rooms. Moreover her ticket of leave, which she carried with her, was produced in court showing she had been given seven years imprisonment in 1873, with a further five years’ of police supervision. That was six year’s earlier and Lydia had failed to comply with the terms of her parole. Not that it was easy for a former offender to ‘go straight’ even if she’d wanted to. For Lydia there was only going to be one outcome here: the magistrate remanded her and she was later formally indicted to appear at the Old Bailey for breaking in to Mr Mackness’ house.

The jury convicted her in early March and the judge handed down another custodial sentence, this time ten years’ penal servitude. Once inside Lydia again continued with her disruptive behaviour, fighting, talking in chapel, arguing with other inmates, and damaging prison property. None of this would have helped her, fighting the system was pointless, as the prison diarist Austin Bidwell recognized:

‘An English prison is a vast machine’, he wrote. ‘Move with it and all is well. Resist, and you will be crushed as inevitably as the man who plants himself on the railroad track when the express is coming’.

(From P. Priestley, Victorian Prison Lives, (London, 1985. p.229)

Lydia came out of gaol in September 1884 when she was 43 years of age, again released on license. The Panopticon believes she died just seven years later at the age of 50, she’d spent much of the past 28 years inside. At some point she managed to have three children but her brushes with the law, and a lifetime addicted to alcohol, meant she must hardly have known them.

This sort of construction of a ‘criminal life’ is invaluable in demonstrating the affect that the criminal justice system had on the lives of ordinary working-class men and women who while far from perfect individuals, never really did much more than break the laws surrounding petty theft. Today our prisons are full of very similar neglected and damaged people, who have ‘failed at life’ and/or been let down by society.

As a footnote, I grew up in Church End, Finchley. The Railway Tavern was demolished in 1962, the year before I was born. The Minstrel pub was built on that site and my friends and I used to drink in there in the early 1980s. It too has gone now, and another bar has taken its place. Dr Williams studied for her first degree in History at Northampton, where I taught her.

It is a very small world.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday 25 February, 1879]

A defiant cook takes her chances before a jury

9361f807a50ff70873c0f107c57ba2fd

The Police Courts of London had the power to act summarily (i.e without a jury) in a large number of instances. Many offences were prosecuted at this level without troubling the judges at Hick’s Hall or Old Bailey, and very many people were sent to prison on the judgment of a Police Court magistrate acting alone.

This suited society, because it kept the jury courts free of the more petty offenders or offences and it arguably also suited quite a few defendants. A Police Court magistrate had limited powers to punish summarily; he could fine you and send you to prison, but only for relatively short periods of time. A judge at the sessions or central criminal court could put you away for years on end, even life.

So we often see prisoners asking the magistracy to deal with them summarily, preferring a quick hearing and a short sentence to being remanded for a week or two to face a jury and perhaps a lengthy period of penal servitude. Harriet Payne however, chose a different path, which perhaps reflects the fact that she (or her lawyer) believed she might earn the sympathy of a jury or (more likely) be able to cast enough doubt in their minds as to her culpability for the crime she was accused of.

Harriet Payne had worked as a cook for Mrs Eliza Godwin in Upper Tooting for a year from 1864 to 1865. On the 17 December she was dismissed after a week’s notice. Almost as soon as she had vacated her room at Holme Cottage her mistress ( a widow) noticed that a number of things were missing including table cloths, napkins and other items of linen, and then, a few days later, three ‘finger glasses’ disappeared.

Suspicion immediately fell on Harriet and she was arrested by the police. PC Kempster was unable to trace any of the things stolen back to the prisoner (with the exception of a shawl which she declared was her property) but a glass was discovered at a neighbour’s house in Tooting. However, in the course of searching the former cook’s room the police did find a key that happened to fit one of the linen drawers at Holme Cottage.

This was proof that Harriet could have taken the table linen as suspected and this was enough for Mr Ingham the sitting magistrate at Wandsworth. He decided that she was probably guilty of theft but that it was hard to prove it so he found her guilty instead of the lesser offence of unlawfully possessing the shawl she’d claimed was her own. He started to hand down a sentence of two months imprisonment but Mr Wilson, Harriett’s lawyer, begged leave to interrupt his worship. He asked instead that she be able to take her chances with the jury at the sessions and the magistrate allowed this.

Harriett was released on bail to face a trial later that month or early the next year, the outcome of which may have seen her released with her reputation intact, or sent to a London prison for a longer stretch than Mr Ingram had originally intended. That was the risk she took and I’m afraid I can’t discover the result.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, 21 December, 1865]

Chaos at Westminster as a dress is ruined and a dog eats an expensive shawl

landseer

A Distinguished Member of the Humane Society, by Edwin Landseer (1838)

Madame Courtney was a ‘foreign’ (probably French) dressmaker who ‘spoke English very badly’. Just after Christmas 1859 a woman called at her house to ask her to make a ‘very handsome’ dress for her. She returned a week later to try the dress on for size and said she should like to keep it on and send the money at a later date.

The dressmaker was unhappy about this because she knew the customer, Mrs Emily White, as someone who had not settled all of her outstanding debts, so she refused. Instead she suggested that Mrs White either paid  for the dress or left the dress she had arrived in as security.

This upset Mrs White who flew into a rage. According to Madame Courtney White then ‘struck her several times, and the seizing a pair of scissors, [and] demolished her own new dress’.

As a result both Mrs White and her dressmaker appeared in court at Westminster in front of the magistrate, Mr Dayman. The dress in question was produced:

‘It was chequered with incisions as the costume of any harlequin, the pieces being held together merely by the lining’.

The whole exchange caused much amusement in the court and this continued as Mrs White’s defence counsel (Mr Lewis) offered an alternative explanation for the state of the garment. He cross -examined the dressmaker to establish that she employed several ‘workmen’ and owned a large Newfoundland dog. Newfoundlands were very popular in the Victorian period, as much as Labradors are today it seems, but they are massive animals.  Madame Courtney confirmed that this was true and admitted that her ladies had rushed to her aid. However, she said this had prompted Mrs White to seize a nearby poker and threaten to ‘split all their heads open’.

Mr Lewis now claimed that while all this distraction was going on the dog, ‘amused himself by eating up Mrs White’s shawl, which cost 20 guineas’. His client refused to pay for the dress because it did not fit, and had since been ‘shamelessly imprisoned for four hours’ and her own dress had not been returned to her. After she had cut off the new dress (which she said she was perfectly entitled to do) she sat in her underwear while the huge dog ‘growled at her display of uncovered crinoline’. Finally she said that she had since paid the dressmaker for the work she had done.

The case had become pure farce and I imagine the magistrate was becoming increasingly frustrated at the deteriorating decorum of his courtroom. He grumbled that while women were the ‘weaker sex’ they definitely ‘were not the “gentler” sex when aroused’. He dismissed the complaint from Madame Courtney and suggested that if she wanted to pursue a claim for non payment or damage to the dress she would have to take it to the county court. She had no right to detain Mrs White and therefore she also had the right to sue the French woman for false imprisonment and the value of her shawl.

Then, much to his relief, both women left the Westminster court room.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, January 04, 1860]

A deceptive haberdasher gets it on the chin for misleading the public

qr84

Islington in the Victorian era

For many years before I became an academic historian I worked in retail, either running shops as a manager or serving in them as an assistant. It was hard work, mostly enjoyable because of the people I worked with and the majority of the customers I met. It was pressured, particularly on busy Saturdays and in the Christmas run-in, and I got a lost less free time than I do today. It was also considerably less well paid.

One of the areas of contention I remember concerned pricing. Customers would occasionally try and haggle over a price and were often on the look out for a ‘bargain’; so ‘Sales’ were always busy. Sometimes a customer would bring an item to the counter to pay for it only for myself or a colleague to realise that it had been mis-priced (meaning that the price advertised on the label was cheaper than the actual price). We would always apologise, occasionally sell it to them at the stated price anyway, and emphatically point out that under consumer law we were not obliged to sell anything at any price to anyone.

So I was interested by the following case from the Clerkenwell Police Court which arose from just such an encounter, but in 1842.

Mr Thomas Deacon, a ‘gentleman’ was strolling through Islington when his eye was caught by a ‘handsome shawl’ hanging on a door outside a habersdasher’s. Shops did have window displays in the 1800s but the tradition (begun in the 1700s) of displaying goods outside to entice passers-by in, clearly continued. In this instance it worked; since he shawl was labelled at 16s 6d (about £36 today) Mr Deacon decided to enter the shop and purchase it.

He enquired about the shawl and the shop assistant (‘shop man’ as they were called then)  offered to show him a section of others. No, he said, he wanted that one, which the assistant fetched. Deacon produced a sovereign to pay for it but was told this was not enough; the price of the item was in fact £1 13s (or £73). For a sovereign he would only get ‘half of it’.

Deacon was angry and remonstrated with the man. However, the shop man insisted he could not sell it to for less and so Deacon stormed out and went to the station house to bring a policeman. When he returned the owner of the shop, Mr Turner, was present. When he confirmed that his assistant had acted correctly Deacon lost his temper and ‘collared him’. At this Turner grabbed him, and threw him out of the shop.

This incident now escalated and Deacon summoned Turner for assaulting him. A few days later Turner ended up in the Clerkenwell court where Deacon’s interests were represented by a lawyer, a Mr Wakeling, while Turner hired a Mr Stoddard to defend him from the charge.

Having heard the evidence from both sides the magistrate, Mr Greenwood, said:

‘there was no law to prevent a man from labelling his goods at whatever price he sought fit, nor any law to compel the shopkeeper to sell the goods at the labelled price. The public, upon whom the deception was practised,’ he continued,’could best punish it’ (by withdrawing their custom I presume).

He dismissed the assault charge and everyone left. I doubt the experience did much for either man but it reminds us that our retail trading laws and regulations have been developing because of incidents such as this over hundreds of years.

Today our rights (as consumers) are protected by a number of laws but primarily by the Sale of Goods Act (1979). This requires retailers to meet certain conditions but it doesn’t protect us from the sort of ‘deception’ Mr Turner was accused of. This might seem unfair until you’ve worked in a shop. It is a fairly simple thing to switch a price label after all, so retailers need to retain the right not to part with something for less than its value, unless you choose to.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, May 6, 1842