The return of Harry Harcourt – an imposter or a genuine man in need?

La_Touraine_Boiler_Room

In the boiler room of a Victorian steam ship

On Wednesday I featured the story of Henry Harcourt who had claimed he was deaf and dumb and presented himself at the Lambeth workhouse casual ward seeking shelter. There he suddenly blurted out that he could in fact speak (and hear) but had closed off the world while serving as a stoker on a voyage to and from Australia. To the surprise of everyone in the Lambeth Police court he also claimed to be a relation the sitting Home Secretary, Sir Vernon Harcourt.

Henry was remanded in custody so that enquiries could be made into his history to ascertain whether he was telling the truth or not. Two days later the papers reported that he was back up before Mr Chance at Lambeth for the latest developments to be revealed.

Police constable 110L took the stand to tell Mr Chance that he’d discovered that Harcourt had been a barman then, working with his aunt, and she didn’t remember him having any difficulties speaking or hearing then. That was in 1877 he confirmed, just six years earlier.

The magistrate now turned to Harcourt in the dock to ask him to explain his situation.

‘Do you seriously say now that you have pretended to be deaf and dumb for 14 years?

‘Yes, to all but my immediate friends’, replied the former stoker/barman.

So how did he manage on board the ship, Mr Chance wanted to know.

‘I only spoke to those attending the fires. The persons on board thought I was deaf and dumb’.

‘I am very sorry for what I have done’ Harcourt added.

The court heard that he had written down requests for food on pieces of paper so as to maintain his ruse with his fellow shipmates but could offer no real explanation for why he acted this way. Mr Chance was clearly dissatisfied with his answer and equally determined to get to the bottom of it. Was there anyone who could shed any light on the case, he asked?

The police constable that had investigated Harcourt’s background said the aunt was loathe to come forward to testify and added that she was a woman of independent means. There was a declaration from Harcourt that he was entitled to some family money from a will but nothing was at all clear. Mr Chance said he needed to hear directly from Harcourt’s aunt and remanded him in custody once more.

‘It’s a most extraordinary thing’, the magistrate concluded, ‘and I cannot help thinking there is something more than has already come to light’.

Whether there was, and whether it was reported, you will have to wait to find out later this week.

[from The Standard, Thursday, February 01, 1883]

A genuine case for support, or a malingering fantasist?

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Continuing my analysis of one whole week in the reporting of the Police Courts here is the case of a man who claimed to be related to a famous politician but who had ended up in a workhouse.

Henry Harcourt was 24 and turned up at the casual ward of Lambeth workhouse seeking ‘shelter and food’. He was a curious individual in several ways but most obviously because he presented himself as deaf and dumb. He was clutching a piece of paper given to him at a nearby police station which told him how to find the workhouse and acted as a letter of introduction. Presumably then, he had been picked up on the streets as a vagrant  by a policeman that decided to help rather than prosecute him.

Henry was given food and the, as was the normal procedure, set to work in the casual ward. The workhouse superintendent, Mr George Ware, told the Lambeth Police Court magistrate (Mr Chance) that Harcourt:

‘was given 4lb of oakum to pick. He did but very little, and made signs that he wanted to see the doctor’.

Dr Lloyd thought the man fit for work but was inclined to excuse him on the grounds of his disability, being, as he thought, entirely deaf and unable to speak. Imagine the shock then when on Sunday morning in chapel he suddenly blurted out:

‘I wish to confess. I have been pretending to be deaf and dumb for 14 years. I went a voyage to Australia and back as assistant stoker on a ship, and never spoke to anyone’.

Henry confirmed his story story in front of Mr Chance and added that he had kept his silence in part to protect his respectable family and friends from his fall from grace socially. He ended by adding that he was ‘a distant relation of Sir Vernon Harcourt’, the sitting Home Secretary in Gladstone’s Liberal government. Mr Chance was suitably intrigued and remanded the man in custody so further enquiries could be made before he decided whether he could be prosecuted for falsely representing himself and soliciting relief.

[from The Standard , Tuesday, January 30, 1883]