‘Such things are a disgrace there’: A Dutchman tries to save his father’s shame by dumping his grandchild on the streets of London

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Lower Thames Street in the late 1800s

One of the subjects that continues to fascinate my undergraduate students is infanticide. Almost invariably they approach the topic wanting to understand how a mother could deliberately murder her newborn baby. Looking through the very many cases that came before the Old Bailey they are understandably shocked at the stories of women who cut their infant child’s throat, or smothered it at birth, before dumping the body in the nearest privy.

Without wishing to deny the reality that some mothers did kill their newborn babies I think most historians would agree that this was probably the exception rather than the rule in infanticide cases. Babies died in childbirth much more often in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, before advancements in medical care arrived in the 1900s. Most importantly the women accused were invariably single, poor, young and from the servant class. These young women had fallen pregnant and then had tried to conceal this from their families and employers, for fear of being condemned as immoral and, in the case of servants, being dismissed from service.

Illegitimacy is not an issue in most Western societies today. Very many people choose to live together before they marry and some do not marry at all yet still have children. This has been widely accepted in most communities in Britain since the 1970s if not a little earlier and the word ‘bastard’ has almost lost its original meaning.

However this was far from true in the 1800s, even if – as this case perhaps implies – London was seen as a more progressive city than some in Europe.

In December 1875 Samuel Whiffin was walking towards London Bridge on Lower Thames Street when he noticed a parcel lying near a doorway. As a policeman was approaching from the opposite direction Whiffin called him over and pointed out the package. PC Holly examined it and realized that it contained the body of an infant.

To his relief the baby was alive but very cold, so PC Holly carried it off to the Home for the Houseless Poor. This charity provided ‘nightly shelter and sustenance to the absolutely destitute working- classes, who are suddenly thrown out of employment by inclement weather’.* Having been looked after by the charity the child was next taken to the Homerton Workhouse and the search for its parents began.

Three days later Jans Hans, a Dutch labourer living at 3, Walburgh Street, St George-in-the-East, was brought before Sir Robert Carden at  Mansion House to be examined concerning the abandonment of the child. He was accused along with his sister, who was in St George’s hospital and too ill to attend.

The court heard the evidence of PC Holly as to the finding of the baby and then from a Mrs Plaggenine, a German woman who was landlady to Hans and his sister. Sir Robert was interested in the revelation that the siblings shared a single room in the property, and intimated that this was not normal. Mrs Plaggenine ignored, or did not understand, the magistrate’s question, but the suggestion of incest was left hanging in the air.

The policeman that had arrested Jan Hans questioned him about the child and reported that the man had admitted leaving it in the street on the previous Thursday. Hans told him that he had set the child down then retired to a safe spot where he could watch to see that someone stopped and rescued the baby. He had tried advertising the baby for adoption but had no success.

Hans and his sister were desperate, the Dutchman now explained to the alderman. They were very poor and couldn’t afford to raise a child. His sister had traveled from Holland ‘to be confined’ (to give birth) because the father refused to take responsibility for it. He added that ‘such things were a disgrace there’.

Presumably because Jan lived and worked in London this seemed like a good solution to Hans senior. If he sent his daughter to England she could give birth and the child would be brought up by strangers in a strange country but at least his family’s reputation would be protected. The child had a lucky escape and it is hard to imagine the mental state of Hans’ sister who seems to have been almost entirely left out of the decision-making process. She was ill in hospital while her brother disposed of her baby and the alderman magistrate cast further doubt on her morality by suggesting it was the product of an incestuous relationship.

Jan Hans was remanded in custody so that the courts could decide what to do with him and his sister. If they couldn’t and wouldn’t care for the baby (and no adopted family could be found) then it would grow up in the workhouse like Oliver Twist, perhaps never knowing of it Dutch heritage.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, 20 December, 1875]

A ‘riot in church’? Drunkenness and disorder at St. George’s-in-the-East

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We credit the Victorians with being much more regular churchgoers than we are today. In 1851 a census was taken of all religious observance in Britain and it produced some interesting results. The report showed that only about 40-45% of those able to attend church did so, with numbers higher in rural areas. Moreover it noted that if everyone who could attend did, there wouldn’t be room for them all.

This was worrying as church was seen as the best way of inculcating good morals and discipline in the populace. Universal education was still in its infancy and its reach was limited, the church (and particularly the established Church of England)

There does also seem to have been a concern about behaviour in church, especially the behaviour (or misbehaviour) of the lower classes and this is evident in the report of cases before the Thames Police Court magistrate in March 1860, nine years after the census was taken.

John March, who had a ‘respectable appearance’ and carried on a trade as an umbrella maker, was charged with disturbing the Rev. Thomas Dove as he presided over service at St George’s-in-the-East on Sunday morning.

He told Mr Yardley that the accused he ‘was interrupted during the Litany service by the saying of supplications in a different tone from that in which he was singing them’. There was also some ‘unnecessary coughing’ he complained.

I found it surprising that there was a policeman on duty in the church. PC Charles Pearce (382K) said he was alerted to a young man in a pew who was coughing loudly. He said that March ‘related the coughing several times , and out his hand over his mouth and held his head down’. It ‘was an artificial cough’ PC Pearce concluded, and March was obviously trying to put the minister off his stride. March’s neighbour could also be heard to tell him to ‘hush’.

The policeman moved in and spoke to the young man, saying:

‘You must go. You have been coughing and laughing all the morning’. March was reluctant to oblige, declaring it ‘was only a mistake’.

Mr Yardley was told that there was plenty more evidence of March’s attempts to undermine the curate but no one turned up in court to testify so he discharged the prisoner. This decision was met with ‘a murmur of satisfaction and applause’.

Next up was Eliza Fenwick who, by contrast with the ‘respectable’ John March was described as ‘dirty and dissipated’. She was also charged with disturbing Rev. Dove’s service but, more seriously, by being drunk and disorderly.

Here Mr Yardley was on firmer legal ground. He said she had been proven guilty of ‘most improper conduct’ which was ‘aggravated by the fact of her being drunk’. Drinking was bad enough but drinking on the Sabbath, and being drunk in church was the action of a dissolute individual. However, there was no evidence that Eliza had gone to Rev. Dove’s service with the express intention of disturbing it so he simply fined her 10s for being drunk and disorderly. So long as she paid she was free to go, if she didn’t have the funds however she’d go to prison.

St George’s-in-the-East was one of several churches built by Nicholas Hawksmoor in the early 1700s to bring the church into the lives of the capital’s poorest communities. Driven by legislation (the New Churches in London and Westminster Act, 1710) the intent was to build 50 new churches across the metropolis. There was a real concern at the time that a lack of places of worship would undermine attempts to spread good discipline and morality amongst London’s poor, so the religious census of 1851 was an echo of this initiative.

I find it interesting that Reynolds’s Newspaper, which served a more radical working-class readership than most, chose to caption this report ‘Rioting in church’. There was no rioting as such which  that the paper had its tongue firmly in its cheek, and was pouring some scorn on the actions of the Rev. Dove in bringing such trivial complaints to court. Alternatively if might have been using the ‘headline’ technique (not something we associate with Victorian papers) as a means to catch the eye, regardless of the real content of the article below.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, March 4, 1860]

St George’s remains (along with Christ’s Church Spitalfields) an example of Hawksmoor’s magnificent architectural ability. It was hit by German bombs during the WW2 but has mostly survived and is well worth a visit. 

A migrant woman’s lament: ‘He drinks very hard, and I can’t get rid of him’.

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Today’s post is a sadly typical tale of domestic violence but one that also sends some light on immigrant communities and working-class attitudes towards marriage and illegitimacy in the 1860s. We shouldn’t assume, for example, that everyone married in the past, even when they wanted to start a family. Nor does it follow that migrant families were more socially conservative than those of the indigenous English population. Instead what we can find is that there was a much greater degree of continuity in relationships than a discourse that sees the 1960s’ ‘sexual revolution’ as a dramatic catalyst for changing moralities.

At the beginning of October 1867 a German shoemaker named John Martz was brought before the magistrate at Thames Police Court in the East End. Martz may have been a Jewish immigrant but we can’t determine that with any certainty from his surname. We do know that he was cohabiting with a woman who also came from Germany however, Sarah Leiss and given they have migrated to East London it is at least plausible that  they were members of the growing German Jewish population of Whitechapel.

Whilst John and Sarah were not married they did have two children, one of them an infant. On 1 October Sarah appeared in court with her baby in her arms to accuse Martz of beating her. He had come home drunk on the previous night and ‘scolded and swore at her little boy, and threatened to beat him’. When she tried to take the boy away he grabbed it and threw the child down the stairs. Thankfully the boy was uninjured but it was this act of violence that probably prompted her to come to court.

It was not the first time he had hit her or threatened the children and it always occurred when he had been out drinking. It was a familiar story and Mr Benson, the justice, had heard it all hundreds of times before.

‘Why don’t you leave him?’ he asked.

‘I have left him several times’ Sarah replied, ‘and he comes after me again. He drinks very hard, and I can’t get rid of him’.

When sober, she added, he was a ‘very good man’ but when he was intoxicated, he ‘was furious and cruel’.

On the night in question Martz had been seen coming out of his house Merton Place, St George’s-in-the-East, brandishing a knife. PC Joseph Newman (166H) had shouted to him as the shoemaker approached, warning him to drop the weapon. Drawing his truncheon he declared:

‘If you advance another step with that knife I will murder you’.

This had the intended effect and a terrified Martz dropped his knife in the street.

In court Martz needed a translator to make sense of everything that had been said and in his defence merely said he had been drunk and wasn’t aware of what he was doing. Mr Benson instructed the interpreter to explain carefully to the shoemaker that he was clearly responsible for more than one act of violence and that he must now find sureties for his good behaviour towards his wife for three months. If he failed to find two persons that would vouch for him and pledge money then he would go to prison for 14 days.

If Martz was (and I expect he was)  the main breadwinner then a term of imprisonment, whilst giving Sarah some peace, would have severe consequences for her and her children. Hopefully this brush with the law would chasten the German and provoke a change in his behaviour. But it does have the feeling of trying to place a sticking plaster over an open wound; a case of doing the minimum without really trying to solve the situation.

It is the other elements of the case that I find useful as a social historian; the detail that John and Sarah were not married, the open statement that they had children together nevertheless and cohabited, with no comment being passed by either magistrate or the papers. This seems very ‘modern’ but perhaps the reality is that marriage (and divorce) were luxuries that many very poor working class Londoners could not afford in the Victorian period.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, October 02, 1867]

Police corruption in the 1840s: H Division in the dock at Lambeth

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In late April 1842 four police constables appeared at Lambeth Police Court as defendants charged with pilfering from the London Docks. John Broughton, Robert Bird, Joseph Linscott and Thomas Trotman stood accused of stealing brandy and wine whilst they were supposed to have been on duty. The four men were represented by a solicitor, a Mr Pelham and the case was heard before Mr Henry, the Lambeth magistrate.

The case was brought by William Pierse, Police Superintendent at H Division (later to be the home of the BBC’s Ripper Street) , and he stated that he received information that the men had been taking home ‘quantities of wine and brandy’ when they had finished their shifts at the docks. Acting on this tip off he visited the home of Broughton (199 H) at 12 William Street, St George-in-the-East.

Pierse challenged the policeman with the information he had and Broughton denied all knowledge. The superintendent asked if he had any objections to a search of his property and Broughton said he neither had any objection nor any alcohol in the house. However, as soon as the senior officer began to open some of his cupboards  PC Broughton quickly produced  a bottle of brandy, claiming it was a gift from a ship’s mate aboard The Ocean.

If this was meant to stop there search then it failed and the brandy was quickly joined by ‘a champagne bottle and two smaller bottles, and a small earthenware bottle of brandy’. He tried to pass these off as presents, before he was cautioned and confessed to having taken them from the docks.

Pelham cross examined the superintendent but didn’t challenge his evidence, merely extracting a statement that up until then Broughton had held a good character in the force, and had served at the docks for the last 12 months. Superintendent Pierse then offered very similar evidence against each of the other officers in the dock.

So, we now had a policeman who, by his own confession, was guilty (at best) of a breach of trust and, at worst, of outright theft. The question now came of proving that he (and the other officers) had deliberately stolen it from the dockyards.

The court called in a Mr Clements who worked for the Dock Company as a ‘confidential constable’. This suggests that he was private security hired to protect the company’s stock. Clements said he was quite happy to let the police investigation take it course but he offered his own thoughts on the thefts.

According to him no brandy or champagne or other wine was left lying around the dock area but there were substantial stocks in the warehouses. So in his view the police must have carried away the alcohol ‘in small quantities’; and this, he added, ‘they had an opportunity of doing, as they always wore their great coats when leaving the dock, and they were never searched’.

Pilfering from the docks was widespread in the 1800s (as it had been in the 1700s, and would be till the docks finally closed in the late 20th century) but it was much easier if you were unlikely to be searched.

Mr Pelham now made a plea for his clients.

‘He expressed a hope that, as they all had wives and families who were solely dependent on them for support, and as their conduct in the present instance would lead to their dismissal from the force, he [i.e. Mr Henry, the justice] would merely fine them’.

That would indeed have been a good result for the men, and much better than ordinary thieves might have expected from the court. In the opinion of Mr Henry this was a very serious crime but he was mindful of the reality that proving that the brandy and wine found at the men’s homes was that taken from the docks would be difficult, if not impossible. For that reason alone, he said, he would not send them before an Old Bailey jury.

He was left with the only option available to send a message that this sort of behaviour was entirely unacceptable. He sent each of them to the house of correction for two months. One can imagine that for four young coppers, that was unlikely to be a pleasant experience. On top of that, they were unemployed and unlikely to find trusted work for some time, if at all.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, April 27, 1842]

a fortunate Frenchman and a callous villain

Two tales today from the Thames Police court, one which shows the sometimes very personal steps the magistracy took to deal with cases before them, the other revealing a rather less appealing attitude, towards the police.

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‘Before Whitechapel workhouse’ shows poor men queuing up ahead of the day’s work at the workhouse in Fulbourne Street, London which has since been demolished

Henri Rentiere was a Frenchman living in the St. George’s-in-the-East workhouse, in Wapping East London. Rentiere had come over to England on a cattle ship with an assurance of a return voyage which had not materialized. He now found himself destitute and had to seek help from the local parish. They had sent him to the workhouse but the daily slog clearly disagreed with him. He soon found himself in front of the Thames magistrate, Mr Cluer, on a charge of refusing to work.

The justice had examined him previously and  investigated his story. Cluer wrote to the French consulate asking for their help in repatriating their fellow countryman. They had passed the letter on to a charity who said it was nothing to do with them, they only helped people in London. This exasperated the magistrate who commented that they clearly didn’t know that Thames Police Court was in London.

So there was a problem. Henri didn’t want to be in the English capital, much less having to earn his keep in a workhouse, and yet he couldn’t afford his fare home. He stated that he wanted to join the French army and serve his country. Mr Cluer saw nothing wrong with that and moreover, he didn’t want M. Rentiere in St. George’s either, living there ‘at the expense of the ratepayers’. So he gave him the money to return to France from his own pocket, and sent him on his way.

Meanwhile the next case reported in the Daily News concerned the death of a policeman. John Barker – a 28 year-old labourer – was drunk and disorderly and causing a scene which attracted the police. As one officer tussled with him another tried to help but collapsed. He had died on the spot of ‘heart disease’ having become ‘so excited in the struggle’.

Barker received a ten month gaol sentence with hard labour and as he was escorted from the dock proclaimed: ‘One copper’s dead, and you’ll die too’.

[from Daily News, Thursday, July 30, 1896]