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

Fish wharf at Billingsgate Market CC72_01834

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]

The police magistrate as a teaching tool

Today was the first time that I’ve used this blog in my own teaching. I’ve discussed it at conferences and with colleagues but thus far I hadn’t exposed undergraduates to it.

I am coming to the end of a 10 week module for third year undergraduates at Northampton University which explores the social and cultural history of late Victorian London. It takes the 1888 Jack the Ripper murders as it focal point and verse off to look at a variety of interconnecting themes.

So we start with London in the late nineteenth century (the ‘infernal wen’) as the capital of Empire and the expanding metropolis that seemed to many contemporaries to represent everything they feared about society in the later 1800s. Here was a huge urban area, densely packed with hundreds of thousands of people, many drawn from outside of London, living cheek by jowl, and struggling for air beneath the coal smog.

Here were colourful migrants and visitors from every corner of the Empire and the globe, bringing the riches of other lands along with their culture, language and radical politics. Tensions rose with unemployment – a new word in the 1880s – and competition for space. So we explore the themes of immigration and anti-alienism as well as poverty, charity, and housing reform.

We look at the Ripper murders and the impact they had; at the way the press manipulated the story and how this fitted with other contemporary concerns about violence, prostitution, immorality and the plight of the poor. Hopefully the module challenges some preconceptions about the Victorian age (and about who might have been the ‘Ripper’) and next week we are tackling the mythology associated with the case and its impact on history and Ripperology, head on.

This week I chose to concentrate on the notion that a criminal ‘class’ existed in the Victorian period. This is how contemporaries like Henry Mayhew and James Greenwood described the ‘underclass’ (the residuum); a class below the ‘respectable’ and ‘honest’ working class who were eulogised in Ford Maddox Brown’s painting ‘Work’. These were the Londoners who ‘will not work’ and earned their living instead by thievery and deception.

We discussed how this view was created by writers like Mayhew and Greenwood (and others0 and perpetuated by a media driven by a  mix of sensationalism and early investigative journalism. I asked them to search through this blog to see the ways in which I’d interpreted the newspapers that contributed to the rhetoric of criminality and got some others to mine the database of nineteenth-century newspapers to discover the reportage of the police courts for themselves.

It was interesting to see my own research reflected back at me, (and to have my typos pointed out!) and to hear their own interpretations of what they read and found. I’m trying to use more digital resources in teaching as I recognise that this is how this generation access historical material. Where I once spent hours, days and weeks hunched over dusty volumes in a archive, the next cohort of historians are turning to the computer screen to make their own discoveries.

There’s a instant quality to this method of data searching but it all still requires context: some of the things they found didn’t make sense to them – in places I was able to draw on what is now over three years of looking at the London Police courts to help them make sense of it. In the end I thought it was a useful expertise which I will repeat next year, and perhaps in the spring with my second years (who study a longer broader period of crime history).