A poor lad is exposed to shame and ridicule by the callous workhouse system

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The Victorian period is synonymous with the harsh treatment of paupers in the workhouse. We draw much of our popular imagery of the workhouse from Dickens (and film and television adaptions of Oliver Twist in particular) and from now fading folk memories of the dreaded ‘house’. There are good late nineteenth century descriptions of the workhouse from men – social reformers and journalists – who visited them, sometimes in disguise. These give us an idea of the deprivations that those forced through poverty to enter them were exposed to.

The newspaper reports of proceedings at the Police Courts of the metropolis are another excellent way to ‘experience’ the reality of these cold and uncaring institutions and assess wider attitudes towards poverty and paupers. On many occasions malingerers and ‘shammers’ were brought before the magistracy to be punished for begging. Vagrants were rounded up by the police and given short sentences by the courts. The Mendicity Society brought prosecutions against those they thought were faking their injuries, and sometimes of course they were right. Just as today not every beggar with a hard luck story is telling the truth. But the courts also helped the poor, handing out small sums of money and, as in today’s case, taking to task or even punishing those that abused paupers in their care.

In late May 1868 the Thames Police court was graced with the presence of the 5th Marquis of Townshend. John Villiers Townshend (whose Vanity Fair caricature can be seen right), was the member of parliament for Tamworth and enjoyed a reputation as ‘the pauper’s friend’. Townshend was a social reforming politician who made it his business to know what was happening in the capital’s workhouses.  He was in court in 1868 to point out the mistreatment of a young lad in causal ward of the Ratcliffe workhouse. mw06374

The young man, who’s name is not given, had been released on to the streets wearing a rough canvas suit of clothes which was printed with the following text:

‘Jack from the country’ (on the back of the jacket) and ‘Lazy scamp’ on one trouser leg.

The intention was clear: when the lad left the ward he would be exposed to ridicule in the streets and, presumably, this was done deliberately to deter him from ever seeking asylum there again. After all one of the driving principles of the poor law was to deter the ‘undeserving’ poor from seeking help from the parish. The workhouse had to be awful, the logic ran, so that the last and feckless would not think of going there. Instead the workhouse was to be a place of last resort, used by the ‘deserving’ or genuinely impoverished who really had no alternatives.

Having been presented with this disturbing scene Mr Paget, the Thames magistrate, sent a runner to bring Wilding, the labour master and superintendent of the Ratcliffe workhouse, to the court to answer for himself. Wilding said he’d followed the rules. The lad had been given food and shelter I the ward but he’d chosen to cut up his own clothes and so had nothing to wear. That’s why he’d given him the rough canvas suit, what else was he to do? He marked the suit accordingly as what he clearly felt was an appropriate punishment.

The pauper explained that the reason he had ripped up his clothes was that ‘that he could not wear them any longer, they were very dirty and covered with vermin’.

Mr Paget took the side of the lad (or perhaps more obviously that of the marquis). He instructed the clerk of the court to send a letter to the Poor Law Board to report the misconduct of the labour master. Lord Townshend said he would also bring the matter up with the board. ‘If paupers were thrust into the streets with such extraordinary comments and inscriptions on their garments it would’, he declared, ‘give rise to inconvenience and breeches of the peace’.

More practically the marquis also undertook to provide the lad with a new set of clothes and a pair of stout boots. The canvas suit would be returned to the Ratcliffe workhouse, hopefully for disposal. The watching public gave him a rousing cheer as he left the courtroom, here was one small victory for the ordinary man over the hated keepers of the pauper ‘bastilles’

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, May 26, 1868]

If you enjoy this blog series you might be interested in Drew’s jointly authored study of the Whitechapel (or ‘Jack the Ripper’) murders that is published by Amberley Books on 15 June this year. You can find details here:

Prison for the mother who couldn’t support her babies

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Today Haille Rubenhold’s new book on the five canonical victims of ‘Jack the Ripper’ is published in the UK. I’ve chatted with Haille about her work but haven’t read it yet. I am well aware that its publication (or at least the publicity surrounding its publication) has caused a stir and led to Haille being attacked in some quarters by those that believe she has misrepresented ‘Ripperologly’ (the name given to the study of this, the most famous of all ‘cold cases’).

I haven’t read it yet (my copy is on order and I’ll review here when I have) but while I recognize very many people might be upset that she has (supposedly) claimed that the stories of the ‘Ripper’s’ victims have never been told when they have, I think it is also very good that an independent and credible researcher such as Haille has chosen to write about this topic. She had important things to say about prostitution, women’s lives, poverty and homelessness, and I’m keen to read it. She may not be as well informed on the details of the case as those that have studied it for decades and that may undermine some of her findings but she deserves to be ‘heard’.

She also deserves to be treated with respect, as do respected Ripperologists like Paul Begg. Name-calling is never appropriate. We can critique, argue and disagree with each other without chucking unpleasantness about.

One of issues Haille’s work highlights is the desperate poverty that women (and of course men) endured in Victorian London. This wasn’t something new in 1888, it was endemic throughout the 1800s. The magistrate courts could provide temporary relief for those caught in the poverty trap but they could just as frequently criminalize paupers, especially when outside agencies were involved.

Nance (or Nancy) Donovan was a pauper with two children who had only just got out of prison when she appeared before the Lord Mayor at Mansion House Police court in late February 1853. She stood in the dock, in ‘filthy rags’ and with one of her children – a babe in arms – clutched closely to her.

She should have perhaps inspired charity but there was no sympathy on display in the Lord Mayor’s courtroom that cold February morning. Nancy had been brought in from the streets by a City policeman after she’d been pointed out by a an officer from the Mendicity Society. Nancy had been begging from the steps at the end of King William Street with one child in front of her, the other in her arms. The suspicion was that she had drugged them both with laudanum so they looked ill and starving.

Of course Nancy denied this and begged the magistrate to let her off this time.

‘I’ll never bother yez any more if you let me off this once. Upon my sowl I wasn’t begging a farthing from anyone. I was only just sitting down to nurse the babby in this cowld weather, and sure enough it wanted a dhrop of suck’.

The Lord Mayor was unmoved, clearly believing that Nancy was a mendicant (a beggar) that was using and abusing her offspring to feed her idle lifestyle. He sent her to gaol once again, to bridewell for a months, and her children to the workhouse to be ‘cared for’ by the parish.

This was Victorian ‘justice’ and ‘welfare’ policy and it is hardly surprising that women turned to prostitution, alcohol and the streets, as Rubenhold’s important new study highlights.

[from The Standard, Monday, February 28, 1853]

My own study of the Whitechapel or ‘Jack the Ripper’ murders is due to be published in June 2019.

No help for heroes at Westminster, just a prison cell

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In 1892 Rudyard Kipling published a collection of poems called ‘Barrack Room Ballads’. This included ‘Tommy’ which he’d penned a coupe of years earlier and contrasted the public view of the Victorian soldier in wartime and peace. This is best summed up by this line:

O it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Tommy, go away”;

But it’s “Thank you, Mister Atkins”, when the band begins to play,.

Soldiers – as Kipling’s poem suggested – were to be valued when there was fighting to be done but were considered a nuisance at other times. I grew up watching the annual Festival of Remembrance that honours the dead of two world wars (and subsequent conflicts) but while the British Legion have done much for ex-servicemen and their families it was still deemed necessary to create the Help for Heroes charity in 2007 to support men and women wounded in the course of serving in the armed forces.

We might well ask why such a charity is needed in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, a country which is a founder member of NATO and that has an arms trade that generates billions from the sale of lethal weapons across the globe. Then again we might ask ourselves why over half a million people used food banks in Britain last year, or why the DWP (Department for work and pensions) concluded that in 2016 over 21m Britons were living in ‘relative poverty’.

But back to ‘Tommy Atkins’ and public attitudes in the 1800s. There was no ‘help for heroes’ then, or a British Legion. All the ex-soldier without work could rely on at mid century was his army pension (if he had one) charity, the Poor Law, and his wits. George Hill had no pension because he’d been kicked out of the army for getting drunk and assaulting an officer.

Hill was lucky; if he’d attacked the officer whilst on active service he’d have faced a court martial and the possibility of a firing squad. Instead he’d been released ‘with ignominy’ and no pension and had subsequently found it difficult or impossible to secure gainful employment. As a result Hill sat himself on the streets of London with a painted sign that read:

9th Regiment of foot.

I have served 22 years in the 9thFoot – 20 years in India, and have been in eight general engagements, and am now discharged without a pension’.

Begging was a summary offence and so when PC James Light (128B) discovered him on his beat he asked him to move along and, when this request was ignored, arrested him. The former infantryman was brought before Mr Broderip at Westminster Police court where his previous military indiscretion was revealed. In the eyes of Victorian society Hill was a violent drunk who deserved nothing from a society he had served for 22 years expect condemnation and a prison cell. The magistrate duly obliged and sent him down for three months.

George Hill may well have been a ‘impudent, violent beggar’ and he certainly had previous convictions for vagrancy but today we recognize that ex-servicemen suffer mental as well as physical wounds as a consequence of what they’ve been through. Perhaps Hill’s 22 years in the colours had left him similarly scarred and unable to function as a part of ‘normal’ Victorian society.

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He had probably fought at the battles of Mudki and Ferozeshah during the First Anglo-Afghan War and so, like many modern soldiers, had been to Kabul. He would also have been with the colours at the battle of Soprano (right) in the First Anglo-Sikh war. Technically of course he was fighting under the general banner of the East India Company but that matters little, the danger and suffering is the same.

In 1852 then soldiers like George Hill were not valued by the society they had served. Within two years however thousands of then were fighting for ‘Queen and Country’ once more as Britain took on the might of Imperial Russia in the Crimea and then the challenge to the Empire in India in 1857. So once again it was ‘ “Thank you, Mister Atkins”, when the band begins to play’.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, 5 January, 1852]

Little help (and no sympathy) for Heroes

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In October 2007 the charity Help for Heroes was launched. On its front page its makes this powerful statement:

‘Today, seven people will be medically discharged from the Armed Forces and their lives will change forever. In an instant, these highly-trained individuals will lose the camaraderie, purpose and career which has been their life’.

This is not a new phenomenon of course, but has perhaps been given greater focus and attention since the Gulf War and growing number of related experiences of men and women who have served in the armed forces and come home with both physical and mental injuries. This has permeated all levels of society, and become a topic for film and TV dramas (such as the most recent BBC series, The Bodyguard ).

Between October 1853 and March 1856 Britain was at war in the Crimea, battling with France and Turkey against the Russian Empire and its allies. Ultimately Britain and France prevailed but there was a high cost in lives lost and others altered forever. This war is often remembered as one in which more soldiers died of disease than of wounds sustained by enemy action; its symbolic ‘hero’ is Florence Nightingale, the ‘lady with the lamp’ and not Lord cardigan, the officer that led the doomed charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava.

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During the Crimean War the island of Malta served as a hospital base for British casualties returning from the front. Given the huge numbers of men needing care the Valletta Station Hospital (one of four military hospitals on Malta) was quickly overrun and deemed inadequate. Sadly the necessary reform and rebuilding required to upgrade Malta’s institutions to cope with the numbers wounded in ‘modern’ conflicts  didn’t open until after the Crimean war was over.

Nor was there adequate support for veterans who returned from the Crimean carrying the scars of their involvement with them. When Henry Arlett was discharged from the Royal Artillery at Christmas 1857 he had been given a sovereign and sent on his way. Henry had served in the Crimea and had been invalided home after spending  time at a military base on Malta  recuperating.

Back in Lambeth he had struggled to find work as his back pain continued to make manual work all but impossible. Without an obvious trade and deprived of the support of his regiment all Henry could rely on for money was his wife. She took in laundry, one of the lowest paid domestic trades, and in the summer of 1858 even that work was scarce.

Faced with grinding poverty Henry donned his uniform (which he’d kept in pristine condition) and went out on to the streets to beg. He did quite well by comparison to the usual run of vagrants that infested the capital. According to an officer of the Mendicity Society (which campaigned against begging and brought private prosecutions against  those that practised it) ‘in a short time he got as much as half-a-crown in coppers’.

The officer had him arrested and brought before Mr Norton at Lambeth Police court where the magistrate asked the former artilleryman to explain himself. Henry told him of his service and his discharge, of his family’s troubles and his reasons for begging but instead of sympathy or charity he received only the scorn of the man on the bench.

Mr Norton told him that if he was unable to support himself through work then he should go to the workhouse to be relieved. On discovering that Arlett was born in the City and had no settlement elsewhere he instructed him to return there with his wife; in effect washing Lambeth’s hands of any responsibility for his care.

You must be a mean-spirited person to disgrace the uniform of the finest corps in her Majesty’s service by begging in it’, he told him. ‘I shall give you a light sentence of seven days and on the termination of your imprisonment you must go to your parish, and if you are caught begging again your punishment will be much more severe’.

Arlett was unfazed by the magistrate’s condemnation of him:

This uniform suit is mine, and while there is a single shred of it together I shall not cease to beg’,

he declared before he was led away.

Just over 100,000 British and Imperial troops went to the Crimea. Of these 2,755 were killed in action and a further 1,847 died of their wounds. A staggering 17,580 died of disease. Henry Arlett was one of 18,280 British troops wounded in the conflict. In total then, of the 107,865 on the British strength 22,182 didn’t come home (around 22%) and another 18% were directly wounded in some way. That means that 40% of those sent to fight the Russians were casualties in some way or another.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, September 10, 1858]

‘You must have a go at the treadmill’ a regular visitor to the courts is told.

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Beggars and vagrants were an endemic problem for the police and magistrates of nineteenth-century London. The Vagrancy Act (1824) empowered the New Police to sweep anyone begging from the streets and the Poor Law allowed for the repatriation of the unentitled back to their place of last settlement. But once arrested what could be done with ‘sturdy beggars’ like Thomas Costello? A spell in prison held little fear for them and if they had lived and worked in a town for a year at least then they could claim it was their home and be hard to get rid of.

This was the Lord Mayor’s problem as he peered down at Costello standing in the dock at Mansion House Police court in August 1837. A policeman had brought the Irishman in because he’d been upsetting sensibilities by begging ‘in a most importune style’ the court was told.

His way was to fix himself shivering and shaking against the wall, and his deplorable appearance, for he could make is very eyes almost start out of his head, soon brought customers to him’.

The officer had tried to get him to leave the city’s boundaries but Costello refused, so he took him into custody.

He wasn’t an unfamiliar sight in the police courts and the Lord Mayor was sure he recognized him. ‘We have often told you to leave the city’ he grumbled, ‘why do you persevere in annoying us?’

‘Ah, please your honour’, came the reply, ‘I’m all over pains and aches; I’m afraid I’ll never get well’.

‘You are sick with idleness’, the Lord Mayor quipped, seeing what appeared to be a strong man in the dock before him. Thomas claimed to be suffering from a bad fall from a horse, but the magistrate clearly didn’t believe him. Nor did he buy the man’s complaint that his eyesight was failing and the policeman agreed saying that:

‘there was not a beggar in the city – able and active as they were – who had better use of his eyes and hands than the defendant, who could see an officer at any distance, and get out of sight in a twinkling’.

‘Oh yes they ought to put me up as a tellygraph [sic]’ joked the prisoner, beginning to enjoy his moment in the spotlight perhaps. ‘You’d swear that I could read the newspaper from this to Portsmouth in a fog’!

Keen to determine whether Costello had been up before the bench recently (and so perhaps worthy of a more serious penalty) the Lord Mayor asked him. The beggar said he’d not been in trouble for three years which caused the police officer to comment that it couldn’t be less than six months. Guessing that he’d been in and out of gaols all over the place and that they’d proved to be no deterrent the Lord Mayor made one last effort to persuade Costello to leave London, or at least the city itself.

Oh! dear no; I won’t disgrace myself by going out of your jurisdiction’ Costello answered, no doubt with a smile, ‘I’ve got no parents, God help me, but yourself and the likes of you’.

London was his home and he wasn’t going to leave it for anyone.

And for the next couple of months he definitely wasn’t going anywhere. ‘You must have a go at the treadmill’ the justice told him.

‘I know where the mill is precious well’, Costello responded, ‘It ain’t out of the city, is it, my lord?’ And off to Bridewell he went, where he’d be fed and watered at the ratepayers’ expense but at least he wouldn’t be bothering the good citizens of London for a while.

[from The Morning Chronicle , Friday, August 11, 1837]

‘Oh don’t be so hard on me,’ pleads an Irish philosopher and gentleman of the road

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I had a ‘conversation’ yesterday on social media with someone asking how he should act when homeless people ask for money in the street. Should he give money, or buy them food or a coffee, or should he simply take the time to chat to them? It is a complex question and I quite understood his dilemma; some charities (like the Salvation Army) tell us not to give money, believing it perpetuates the problem. Others suggest we should to help them get the basic necessities of life.

I’m also often told that ‘they will spend it on drink or drugs’, not that it is any of my business how they spend whatever money they have.

Homelessness, vagrancy and begging are not modern social issues, they have been with us for as long as humans have lived in societies. The ‘modern’ vagrancy laws in Britain have their roots in the Tudor period with laws to punish ‘sturdy beggars’ and the building of houses of correction to enforce them. By the Victorian period poverty was endemic and being dealt with by the Poor Law, with workhouses operating as a deterrent to the ‘work-shy’ in the belief that poverty was a personal failing, not a product of society or a capitalist economic system.

There was also limited understanding of mental health and very little state provision for those that suffered. That much is obvious form so many of the cases I’ve written about on this site. I am reluctant to say that nineteenth-century society didn’t care about the poor and homeless and mentally ill, just that it didn’t really understand them and the underlying reasons for their actions.

St. George Gregg was someone who often found himself in trouble with the authorities in the late 1830s and early 40s. He’d come up before the Police court magistrates at Queen Square on more than one occasion in 1840 and was there again in early May that year.

Gregg was an Irishman and was frequently charged for being drunk. He was about to be convicted and fined by Mr Burrell when he raised his hand and asked if he could say a few words. The justice agreed and listened.

The defendant held out a small book, offering it to the chief usher to give to the magistrate. He explained that he’d been writing a book ‘on the currency question’ and thought his worship might like a copy. Mr. Burrell wasn’t interested.

I don’t want your book. What have you to say to the charge against you?’

I walk frequently thirty miles a day’, replied Gregg, ‘That fatigues me, and if I have nothing to eat the liquor has an effect sooner. I had no dinner yesterday, in fact I had no “tin”.’

The magistrate didn’t know what he meant by ‘tin’, so asked him.

Tin is money’, the man explained, ‘and having no  money I had no dinner’.

He’d tried to sell his books for money but seemingly had no takers to he’d started to sing in the streets and that way he’d raised a few pennies which he spent on drink.

‘You might have purchased victuals with that’, Mr Burrrell remarked.

‘Oh, sure, I wasn’t victuals hungry, I was grog hungry’ Gregg shot back. ‘I was like the captivating chandler, wanted I wanted in starch, I made up in blue’, he said, warming to his theme.

So I had toddy till I had but a single copper left, then devil a bed had I, and was making my way to the church-yard to go to bed on a tombstone, when the police found me quarters’.

He added that he’d written a study of ‘ambition’ and would send the magistrate a copy.

‘I don’t want your book. You are fined 5s’ was Mr. Burrell’s response.

Gregg hadn’t got one shilling let alone five and the justice must have realised this. What was the point of fining a homeless tramp anyway? Gregg attempted to barter with the justice, offering him books that he probably hadn’t written (and certainly hadn’t ‘published’ as he’d insisted he had) as part payment of the penalty. Burrell was having none of it and ordered him to be taken away; if he couldn’t pay the fine he’d have to go to prison.

Oh don’t be so hard on me’, pleaded the Irishman, ‘I want to finish a poem’. He was led away protesting his freedom.

Society didn’t understand George Gregg. He didn’t, couldn’t or wouldn’t conform to what was expected of him. He chose to live by his wits and on his own terms. Perhaps he was a ‘popular philosopher’, who wrote tracts in notebooks or scraps of paper that nobody read. His logical response to accusations of being drunk (drinking on an empty stomach) or his choice of how to spend the money he’d earned (on drink because he was thirsty after singing and walking) would be quite reasonable if he was a ‘normal’ member of society. Because he was an outsider and had chosen to live differently to others, the law treated him as a problem. It punished him rather than helped him. I’m not entirely sure we have made much progress in the last 180 odd years.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, May 7, 1840]

‘I won’t have a month, you must give me more’: an unhappy drunk at Westminster

The late Mr L C Tennyson d'Eyncourt

On Friday I recounted the story of a man who was clearly very unhappy at being brought before a magistrate and locked up, particularly because he’d had nothing to eat or drink that morning.  John Betts disturbed the court proceedings and smashed up his cell before he finally accepted his lot.

By contrast Eliza Hastings was unhappy because the magistrate refused to lock her up for longer.

The ‘wild looking and wretchedly clad’ woman was stood in the dock at Westminster to face Mr D’Eyncourt, a well established Police Court justice in the late 1800s. Eliza was charged with being drunk and disorderly and it wasn’t the first time she’d been up before the ‘beak’.

The court was told that she had ‘been repeatedly locked up’ and that ‘prison was the only home she has besides the streets’. She was homeless and presumably preferred not to enter the casual wards of London’s several workhouses.

No less than 30 conviction could be proven against the woman and the last of these had been on the 31 March, Mr D’Enycourt was told, when she was sent to prison for a month.

‘You keep on giving me a wretched month, that’s no good to me‘ Eliza grumbled from the dock, ‘give me a long time in prison‘ she pleaded.

However, Mr D’Eyncourt gave her another month and Eliza lost it. She raged at the magistrate and his court, ‘I won’t have a month, you must give me more’ before tearing off one of her boots and throwing it ‘with violence’ at the bench.

She was then led out of the court by the officers, screaming at the injustice of it all.

The magistrate might have wanted to give her longer but rules were rules and the guidelines he worked to suggested 30 days was the appropriate sentence for the offence she’d committed. She’d not used violence, or resisted arrest, or stolen anything. She was a drunk, a vagrant and quite possibly suffering from mental illness. I suspect that today she’d be a case for probation or social services and helped rather than locked up.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, May 6, 1888]

For other cases heard by Mr D’Eyncourt see:

Mr D’Eyncourt sends his own message after a telegraph boy is attacked

Health and safety ‘gone mad’, as a child narrowly avoids being roasted alive

Pickett climbs a fence and saves a life

The actress and her ‘lunatic’ husband