Down and out in a Chelsea back garden

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Homelessness is very much a part of life in London in the 21st century, something, I feel, we should – as a society – feel ashamed of.  London is the capital of one of the world’s richest countries; by GDP we are the ninth wealthiest country in the world, we have 54 billionaires (ranking us 7th in the world), and London is the sixth richest city on the planet.

However, in the 1870s Britain was THE richest nation on earth. In terms of GDP Great Britain far outstripped the US and generated more wealth than Germany, France, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Italy put together.  London was the premier city of empire in the 1900s with more goods and wealth passing through here than anywhere else.

So for there to be rampant poverty and homelessness in Victoria’s capital was even more of a national disgrace. And, just like today, no everyone that was homeless had started life in poverty, or had led a ‘dissolute’ life.

Take James Russell for example. James was a 58 year-old man, quite close to my own age. He was well educated and described himself as a tutor. He had studied at Trinity College, Cambridge and had earned a living teaching in various schools and most recently for the army and navy.

Yet despite this he found himself destitute and homeless in 1877, living a migratory existence sleeping on benches, in a baker’s barrow, and even an empty hansom cab. In September 1877 he was discovered sleeping in a garden in Pond Place, Chelsea by a policeman on patrol. The officer, PC Henry Skeats (328B) asked him his business and, since he couldn’t give a satisfactory account of himself, he arrested him.

Standing in the dock at Westminster Police court James Russell told Mr Woolrych his story.

He had a note from Dr Thompson, his master at Trinity, confirming his attendance there,  and promised that his situation was merely temporary; he hoped to get gainful employment soon. The magistrate sympathized with him: after all here was an educated man, a member of the upright middle classes, not the usual underclass he had to deal with. Russell promised that he would not return to sleeping rough on the constable’s patch (he made no such vow about alternatives however) and that was good enough for Mr Woolrych who released him.

Homelessness is not always a product of simple economics; mental illness plays it part, as does drug and alcohol abuse. If you want to help end homelessness in this country (or any country) then I would urge you to look to political solutions that favour a more equal distribution of wealth. Poverty is nothing new but then neither is wealth inequality that is controlled by the richest in society. For a more immediate and practical action you might consider, if indeed you can afford it, supporting one of the many homeless charities like Shelter or St Mungo’s.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, September 23, 1877]

Outrage at the Houses of Parliament as a lunatic is let loose

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It was just before 5 o’clock on the 16 July 1894 when Mr John Sandys, the public orator (literally the voice) of the University of Cambridge, arrived at the Houses of Parliament with his wife.  He and his wife Mary were supposed to be meeting Sir Richard Temple, the Conservative MP for Kingston a privy councilor.

Mary stepped out of the cab and as her husband settled the fare a ‘rough looking man’ rushed up to her shouting incoherently. Some witnesses claimed to have heard him shout ‘I’ll do for you’, or ‘Now I’ve got you’, but none were clear. What was certain was that he was brandishing a clasp knife and seemed intent on doing her some harm.

He lunged forward and slashed at her, slightly damaging her dress but thankfully not Mrs Sandys’ person. A quick thinking passer-by came to her assistance and two police officers helped wrestle him to the ground before taking him into custody. He was marched to King Street Police station where Mrs Sandys officially identified him as her attacker and signed the charge sheet. The man refused to give his name and nothing was found on his person that might explain who he was or why he had attempted to stab Mary.

At his first hearing at Westminster Police court his name emerged. He was Watson Hope Scott, also known as Samuel Strange – which seems an appropriate nom de plume. The magistrate expected that Strange or Scott was quite mad and could discern no connection between him and Mrs Sandys. He remanded the prisoner for further enquiries.

On 24 July he was again brought before the Westminster magistrate and a certificate was handed over (by Detective Inspector Waldock) that established that Scott was indeed insane.  He had discovered that Scott had served in the army in China but had been discharged in 1884 after suffering a severe bout of sunstroke. This had left him mentally damaged and unfit to serve. On his return to England he had found work with a medical herbalist but that only lasted three years before his employer dismissed him, because of his mental health problems.

Scott then worked at a cement factory but they couldn’t cope with hi either and let him go. Just recently he had found work in a City factory (doing what isn’t clear) but he suffered from fits and so the manager sacked him, fearing he might fall into the one of the machines and injure himself.

Throughout his hearing Scott sat in the dock looking dejected, ‘his face buried in his hands’. The magistrate declared him to be a lunatic and sent him to the workhouse asylum in Poland Street.  It is a desperately sad story. I doubt the sunstroke (more properly heatstroke) caused Scott’s mental health problems but it may well have exacerbated them. Once he lost his military career he was on a downwards spiral and the state would have done little to support him. He clearly did try to support himself, this was someone who wanted to work, wanted to contribute to society. But no one it seems was prepared to do anything for him.

Perhaps that’s why he ended up at Parliament – the place where British citizens might hope to get their problems heard and dealt with. After all, as Mr Johnson said yesterday, politicians are there to serve us, not themselves. This is not to excuse his attack on an entirely innocent woman but more to understand that it was probably born of a deep frustration and therefore represented a cry for help not a serious desire to do anyone harm. Sadly he didn’t really get any help, just a bed in an workhouse asylum, a slow death sentence if ever there was one.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, July 25, 1894; The Standard  Tuesday, July 17, 1894]

The ‘artful urchin’ and the 8th Baronet; a contrast in mid Victorian fortunes

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Sir Alexander Grant had a long lineage. In 1852 he was 69 years of age and would die two years later. Grant had served as an MP for various constituencies until the early 1830s and had acceded to his family baronetcy in 1825. Grant had made his money in the West Indies, as a plantation owner. Whether he was an advocate of slavery or a campaigner for its abolition is unknown to me, but either way he profited from the trade and had a smart address in London at Portman Square.

Thomas Dwyer, by contrast, has no known lineage. In 1852 he was just 12 years of age but already had a criminal record for picking pockets. We don’t know where he lived or who his father or mother was; he may have had none and probably slept where he could on the street, in doorways, or any form of rough shelter. Thomas had no stated trade (and clearly no inherited wealth) and we don’t know what happened to him after he briefly made the pages of the newspapers in February 1852.

Sir Alexander was walking on Duke Street, by Manchester Square (in the wealthy West End) when a man tapped him on the shoulder. He turned to see a man holding a young boy firmly by the hand and preferring him a handkerchief.

‘This boy’, the man declared, ‘has stolen your handkerchief’. He handed the lad and the hankie over and then walked off.

Sir Alexander seized the boy (Thomas Dwyer) and marched him off to find the nearest policeman, and gave him into custody. A day or so later the pair were reunited in the Marylebone Police Court.

PC Steel (33C) testified to receiving the prisoner and stated that the boy had pleaded for leniency and begged ‘that he might be forgiven’. He added that the ‘young delinquent’ had previously been prosecuted for a similar offence and, when caught, was found to wearing a black silk ‘kerchief (‘nearly new’) around his neck.

Sir Alexander complained that he lost at least six handkerchiefs to thieves like Thomas while walking the streets of the capital. There was no inclination to leniency from the bench that day and Thomas Dwyer was sentenced to two months’ imprisonment at hard labour, and to be privately whipped on one occasion.

These were the very different fates that resulted from the accident of birth. Alexander Grant had his life mapped out for him; from birth to his education (at Cambridge), then a successful business enterprise from his inherited money, to a position of power and influence in parliament, to a quite retirement in a fashionable quarter of London. Thomas Dwyer was born into poverty and stayed there; even his attempts to survive (by stealing small items of value from those way above his social status) were thwarted and ultimately ‘rewarded’ by punishment which would have made it more difficult to survive in any other way in the future.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, February 19, 1852]