‘The water rushed in with such violence’: the flooding of Southwark workhouse

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Southwark workhouse c.1910

It always seems strange to be looking at the news and seeing scenes of devastation caused by flooding in the summer. The situation at Whaley Bridge in Derbyshire is awful and surely yet another example of how climate change is affecting the planet. But it is August and I associate torrential rain and flooding with the autumn and winter, not the summer.

Clearly I’m no meteorologist and even a casual glance back at the past reveals that sudden downpours and extreme weather is not a new phenomenon (even if the climate emergency we are now facing most certainly is).

In August 1846 three young girls were brought before the magistrate at Southwark Police court to be disciplined for their disobedience. The girls, who are not named in the newspaper report, were all inmates of the Southwark workhouse on Mint Street. Their crime – such as it was – appears to have been a refusal to do the work that was allocated to them by the institution’s porter, who was in court to testify against them.

He explained that on the previous Saturday (the last one in July) there had been a storm that had caused severe flooding in the basement. He had instructed the trio to help carry several beds from the ward to the upper stories of the building. Southwark workhouse was built in 1782 as a three story structure with a new section added in 1844. The ward in the basement was called the ‘probationary ward’ and it housed some of the sick female residents.

The flood was frightening, one inmate told Mr Secker: ‘the water rushed in with such violence, that before she could escape with her child it rose up as high as her waist, and it was only providential that some of them were not drowned’.

The three girls were asked to explain their refusal to carry the beds upstairs. They stated that the beds were simply too heavy for them and ‘above their strength’. Had the porter and workhouse staff allowed the beds to be separated (i.e. taken apart rather than left whole) then they could have managed it and been happy to do it. They added that they were then punished by the porter by being forced to remain in the flooded basement and ‘treated with much rigour’.

We know that workhouses were terrible places often run by cruel overseers who treated the inmates appallingly. Oliver Twist may be a novel but it is not a fantasy. In 1865 a report by the medical journal the Lancet condemned the state of Southwark workhouse stating that it ‘ought to be removed, and one built better adapted to fulfil its duties to the poor and sick of the neighbourhood’. Regardless of this it continued to serve the area until 1920.

‘Pauper bastilles’ like Southwark were designed to be places you did not want to enter. Under the principle of less eligibility’ set out in the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act going into a workhouse was supposed to be a least resort. The aim was to deter anyone who was able bodied from seeking poor relief. Only the sick and old would ask for help from the parish, everyone else would try to find work, any work, rather than enter the ‘house’.

Mr Secker could see that the three little girls had done nothing wrong, at least not in the eyes of the law. He stopped short of admonishing the cruelty of the porter who had tried to make children carry heavy iron beds up from a flooded basement and then locked them in a dark wet ‘prison’ as a punishment. Instead he simply said that no further punishment was necessary or appropriate and discharged them, presumably back into the ‘care’ of the parish authorities.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, August 04, 1846]

Skinny-dipping in the Serpentine: Two brothers end up in hot water as they try to beat the capital’s heatwave.

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I imagine that you, like me, are suffering from this prolonged bout of hot weather. The British trend to grumble whatever the weather of course; it is either too hot, too cold, too wet, too dry, rarely ‘just right’. But weather like this is causing problems, from moorland fires and potential crop shortages, to increased levels of pollution and higher mortality rates. Now perhaps, skeptics are waking up to the idea that global warming is a reality and not just scaremongering by environmentalists and climate change experts.

This year is not exceptional however, we’ve had heatwaves before. In 1976 temperatures sored to 35.9C, in 1990 they topped 37C in Cheltenham. There were similar heatwaves when the temperature reached the mid 30s: in July 1933, August 1932, July 1923 and August 1911 but this one may be one of the most sustained.

What do people do when the weather gets so hot? Well in July 1900, at the tail end of Victoria’s reign, two brothers decided to cool off by going for a swim in the Serpentine. However, their actions scandalized the public and so the pair found themselves up before the magistrate at Marlborough Street Police court.

Reginald Ingram, a 32 year-old medical practitioner, and his brother Malcolm (25) lived at the same address in Pimlico. On Tuesday 24 July they were seen swimming in the Serpentine in Hyde Park. Not only was it against the rules of Royal Park to swim or bathe in the lake at that time and place, the men were also stark naked!

Police constable 74D was called to the incident and witnessed the men running ‘about in a nude condition’. He arrested them, secured their clothes, and ferried them to the nearest police station where they were charged.

Both men pleaded guilty to swimming in the lake but said they were unaware that they’d broken the regulations, not realizing that bathing was prohibited in certain areas of the lake. Ignorance of course, is no defense in law and Mr. Denman fined the brothers 40each for their offence.

I’m a little surprised he didn’t add an extra penalty for indecency, but perhaps that is making assumptions that the late Victorians were more obsessed with decorum than they were. Regardless, their attempt to cool down by skinny dipping in a public park had landed them in hot water.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, July 25, 1900]

A ‘poor man’ and ‘a most depraved and incorrigible beggar’: Contrasting attitudes at Mansion House as winter sets in

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We’ve just had a weekend of severe weather in which snow caught much of southern England by surprise. Many parts of London were covered in a white coating yesterday, all very attractive and fun for kids but a nightmare for commuters come Monday morning. My university is effectively closed as teaching is suspended and all the trains into central London are running slow or late or both. Mind you, I’m not sure how much difference that is to a normal day!

So winter is well and truly upon us and this is the season which hits the homeless and the poor the hardest. For those that have to decide between food and heating, or those sleeping rough in the capital, December through to the spring is particularly challenging.

That is why Shelter and the  other homeless charities campaign so hard to help people at this time of the year. We will all see the adverts on the tube or get a leaflet through the door asking for a one-off donation or a regular contribution. Each year the BBC supports the St Mungo’s charity, which does such good work with the homeless.

The early Victorians were certainly aware of the problem of poverty and homelessness. They had charities and dedicated people who worked, often through the church, to support those in need. What they didn’t have, as we know, is a system of poor relief that allowed people to be supported within their own homes. There was no housing benefit or  income support. If you needed ‘relief’ you went to the workhouse, and this was increasingly true after 1834 and the passing into law of the Poor Law Amendment Act.

Attitudes towards poverty had hardened in the 1830s and poverty, which had always been viewed in part as a personal failing, was now frequently associated with moral bankruptcy. At Mansion House Police court two cases came up in early December which highlight contrasting contemporary attitudes towards poverty and homelessness.

Peter Jordan was described as an ‘imbecile’. Today we would understand this as someone with learning difficulties and now, as then, we would have some sympathy with him. The sitting magistrate at Mansion House that morning was Alderman Pirie, who was deputising for the Lord Mayor. He certainly looked on Jordan’s case with compassion but he was fairly limited in what he could do.

Jordan had been brought it by Duncan Campbell, a parish officer for the City. He had found the man ‘soliciting for charity’. In other words he was begging and that was against the wide-ranging vagrancy laws. However, Campbell’s aim wasn’t to have him punished for begging but to help him. He wanted to ‘prevent him perishing in the streets’.

Had he applied for relief, the alderman wanted to know. This was complicated; there was no help to had at Cannon Street he was told, and the London workhouse had recently closed and a new one was not yet built. The City had also closed a house of refuge so that was no option either.

All that was left to the justice was to send Jordan to prison for begging. And so the ‘poor man, […] who used formerly to work in the coal pits, was removed to Bridewell, under particular directions’ (presumably not to be whipped or set to hard labour, but instead to be looked after).

The next defendant in the dock received far less sympathy. Maria Butcher and her two children were also presented for begging in the streets. A policeman testified that he had found the two children at five in the evening on the Saturday.

He said ‘he saw the poor children, half naked and shivering on the steps leading to London Bridge. He took them to the Station-house and found in their pockets eighteen-pence halfpenny.  Their mother, who was up to all the tricks of vagrancy, the officer said, was in the justice-room’.

Maria denied any knowledge of what her children got up to when she wasn’t around but no one believed her. She took in washing and had, she said, very ‘little to give them’. The alderman said he was sure she was happy to take any money they ‘earned’ by begging nevertheless.

‘I’d be very glad to get any’ she replied, ‘and I assure you I’d make good use of it’.

The magistrate was horrified:

‘What a wretch you must be to send out these poor infants in such dreadful weather’.

His feelings were echoed by a street keeper who said he knew Maria as a ‘most depraved and incorrigible beggar’ who exploited her children to avoid doing any work herself. She often sent then out without hardly any clothes or shoes, in all weathers, to beg for her. Another witness, a Poor Law Union official said the children were well known beggars and the police were obliged to bring them in under the law.

In the end although she begged for clemency Mr Pirie sent her and the children to Bridewell but – for her at least – there was no similar instructions for them to go easy on her. The children could expect some level of care but she would bread and water and the drudgery of hard labour, picking oakum most likely.

So that winter all four of the people brought before the Mansion House court ended up in prison. Their ‘crime’? Poverty. Today there will still be hundreds of men, women and young people sleeping rough and begging on London’s streets. So before we congratulate ourselves too much on creating a fairer and more civilised society than our early Victorian ancestors perhaps we should take a moment to reflect on that uncomfortable fact.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, December 11, 1838]

A ragged schoolboy fined for spoiling the Queen’s view

In January 1838 a young lad named Charles Scott was placed in the dock at Queen’s Square Police Court accused of damaging trees in St James’ Park.

Scott was dressed in the uniform of the Philanthropic School. The Philanthropic (later Royal Philanthropic) Society had been established in the late 1700s to provide care and education for the children of the poor.

The lad had been caught breaking off branches in the park and stripping them to create a stick – just the sort of thing young boys have done (and probably still do) for centuries. Charles’ misfortune was that because the trees in the park had suffered really badly in the winter chill the police were ordered to be especially vigilant in apprehending anyone inflicting more damage on them.

Whether the fact that the tree was on an island visible from Buckingham Palace made the ‘crime’ worse isn’t clear, but the policeman made a point of adding that geographical detail in court; damaging the Queen’s trees was apparently a serious offence.

Young Charles was convicted of criminal damage and fined 7s or a week in prison. It isn’t clear what option he chose but if he returned to the school I’m fairly sure he could expect further sanctions.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, January 24, 1838]