A mother’s desperation drives her to steal

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St Marylebone Workhouse

The year 1834 was an infamous one in English social policy history. It was in that year that the Poor Law Amendment Act was passed, ushering in a more draconian system of poor relief that split up families and created a stigma around poverty that lasted well into the twentieth century.

The historical arguments around the creation of the New Poor Law in in 1834 have their own long history and so I will limit myself here to the barest of details, readers could seek out the work of Poor Law historians such as Brundage, Digby, Englander, Higgenbotham, and Rose if they want to study this more.

In essence the 1843 act aimed to stop the practice of outdoor relief – where paupers were given top-ups (‘doles’) to supplement low or no wages in order to survive in times of economic hardship. Instead they were all expected to present themselves at a workhouse if they wanted support form the parish. The ‘house’ became a symbol of terror and oppression as anyone entering it effectively lost all control over their life. They were given workhouse clothes, men and women were separated, children taken from parents, and all were set to work in heavy manual labour in return for a very basic subsistence.

Not surprisingly those that found themselves in poverty did everything they could to avoid the workhouse, which was the intention of the act itself. Edmund Chadwick and the other committee members that framed this nasty piece of legislation wanted to ensure that pauperism was prevented by the deterrent nature of the system. The underlying principle was ‘less eligibility’. Workhouse conditions had to be worse than those outside so people were deterred from using them.

The Poor Law commissioners were driven by a desire to reduce the costs of poor relief, which fell on the pockets of the rate paying parishioners. While most people (certainly most middle class rate paying people) in Victorian England would have described themselves as Christians they clearly hadn’t read the sections of the New Testament which deal with poverty.

Mary Ann Stokes was poor. In 1845 she found herself so desperate to feed her two young children and avoid going into a ‘house’ where she’d lose them that she resorted to theft instead. Widowed, but ‘respectable’, Mary Ann had gone from her home in Blackfriars to the open fields at Battersea, south of the river Thames, where several market gardeners grew vegetables for the London markets.

She was found at 2 in the afternoon by police constable Jackson (178V) in land owned by William Carter and he stopped and searched her. Mary Ann had three lettuces, three carrots, and 39 small onions tied up in a large handkerchief and so he arrested her. She admitted the theft but begged for mercy, saying she was hungry and had to feed her children. The policeman took her to court at Wandsworth for the magistrate to decide what to do with her.

The market gardener, Mr Carter, was in court and to his credit he refused to press for a conviction. He could see that Mary Ann was desperate. She stood in the dock, wearing her ‘widow’s weeds’ and clutching her children to her. In court she claimed she’d found the vegetables and hadn’t stolen or picked them. Mr Clive, the sitting magistrate, said he would discharge her, not because he believed her story that she’d found the veg but because it couldn’t be proved that she’d taken it.

It was a pretty heartless decision because in effect he was warning her that next time she might not be so lucky, and be seen stealing. He offered her no help, no charity, no chance to find paid work, nothing but a reprimand. Mary Ann was in this situation because her husband had died, she’d lost the family’s breadwinner and had to care for her children as well as picking up whatever work she might be able to.

This was not an uncommon situation in the Victorian period where poverty blighted the lives of millions. The first real attempt at change came in 1908 when the introduction of Old Age Pensions ushered in the first stage of the Welfare State. We should not however that anyone that had sought help in a workhouse at any point in his or her life was not eligible for an OAP.

The stigma, therefore, continued long into the new century.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, July 10, 1845]

Drew’s new book (co-authored by Andy Wise) is published by Amberley Books. It is a new study of the Whitechapel murders of 1888 which offers up a new suspect, links the ‘Jack the Ripper’ killings to the unsolved ‘Thames Torso’ crimes, and provides the reader with important contextual history of Victorian London. The book is available on Amazon here

No help for the weakest from a society which simply didn’t care

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There are so many dreadful stories of poverty and distress in the pages of the nineteenth-century press that it would possible for me to write about that topic every single day. The number of attempted suicides in London in the 1800s reveals the struggle that so many people had with poverty, mental illness and a society that simply provided no proper system of support for those that didn’t ‘win at life’.

For me it is a constant reminder that the greatest achievement of the British state was the creation of the Welfare State in the aftermath of the Second World War. Clement Atlee’s post war government presided over a broken Britain, one battered by war which, while it had emerged victorious, had come perilously close to defeat and invasion by Hitler and fascism. Churchill is rightly credited with pulling us together through that dark period of our history but, for me, it was Atlee’s government that secured the peace by setting in place the foundations for rebuilding society.

In the early 1860s Britain was not at war – we’d had seen off the might of Imperial Russia in the Crimea several years earlier and the Indian Mutiny (or, more properly, war of independence) was a fading memory as well. Great Britain had an empire that covered the globe and our wealth was unsurpassed. Yet despite this our rulers did very little to support the poorest in society or recognize the contribution that others (‘foreigners’) had made to the nation’s success.

The Poor Law of 1834 had been designed to penalize the poor and to deter people from asking for help by effectively locking them up in a workhouse and breaking up their families if they did so. We had no NHS either, there were charities that helped the poorest with medical care but no universal right to free healthcare at the point of need. The understanding of mental illness was still in its infancy, and without private means an individual suffering with any form of mental illness was likely to be thrown into a workhouse or public asylum to be mistreated by doctors and nursing staff that knew very little and cared much less.

Muhomed Ali Khan was a member of the British Empire who felt he was entitled to its support. After 1857 and the failure of the Indian uprising the British state had taken full control of the Indian subcontinent. The British ruled for the benefit of the Queen and the motherland, not for the millions of indigenous Indians that lived there. Khan must have come to England to work, perhaps as a sailor, or soldier in the Queen’s army, or even as an employee of the East India Company.

Whatever the reason in 1862 he was in a parlous state. Destitute and suffering with physical and mental illness he was found at 11.30 in the morning outside the office of the East India Company in Victoria Street by a policeman. When asked what he was doing Khan told PC John Fever (255A) that he ‘had a claim on the government, and had determined to die at the door of those offices’. Fearing the man would make good on his promise PC Fever picked him up and helped him to the nearest workhouse.

Two days later Khan was back outside the EIC offices and had to be dragged back to the care of the workhouse staff. He had nothing to eat in between and was causing ‘annoyance’ by ‘walking about day after day in front of them’. The poor man was embarrassing the company that had profited so much  from the exploitation of India, its people  and its natural wealth. So he was brought before Mr Arnold at Westminster in a case the paper headlined ‘the Troublesome Indian’.

Here we learn that Khan had been ‘troublesome’ before: he had gained entry to the House of Lords and made an attempt on his own life. He had also appeared at Horse Guards during the Queen’s procession to open Parliament and had tried to cut his own throat. On both occasions, the magistrate was told, the poor man was sent to prison but it clearly hadn’t had the effect intended.

Mr Arnold was sympathetic but unable to do anything of real use for Khan. He hadn’t committed  an offence by wandering outside the EIC’s offices so he discharged him from court, but he didn’t help him much either. The man was given a shilling to get some food and sent on his way. It was almost inevitable that he would end up dead in the river or a workhouse infirmary before long and Victorian society, frankly, didn’t care which.

The British Empire and state was built on the backs of the vast majority who did not benefit from it but this was not properly recognized until Atlee and that first Labour administration.  I rather fear that lesson has been lost over the years as we worry about ‘benefit scroungers’ and continue to underfund the NHS and social care. For Mohamed Khan in 1862 we have the unnamed Hungarian who collapsed and died outside Parliament in December 2018.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Saturday, 4 January, 1862]

A magistrate woefully out of touch with reality but who founded a legal dynasty

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Sir Henry Curtis-Bennett might be forgiven for not really knowing ‘how the poor live[d]’ in 1888. He had been appointed a magistrate for Westminster just two years previously at the age of 40. In 1888 in fact he was ‘Mr’ as the king didn’t knight him until May 1913 just a few weeks before he died. He was the son of an Essex  vicar and read law at university. He was called to the Bar in 1870 and so had plenty of experience (as all the metropolitan magistrates did) in the legal system, if not in the day-to-day life of ordinary Londoners.

In November 1888 he was presiding at Wandsworth when young George Thomas Bellenger was brought before him, charged with ‘living beyond the control of his parents’. The gaoler brought him up from the day cells and informed his worship that the lad was half starved. Until that morning he’d not eaten for days and so had been glad of the meal that Mr Ironmonger, a local Industrial School officer had provided.

The officer had been to George’s parent’s home and found it to be in a terrible state. There were several children there, all ‘crying for food’ and he reported that the place lacked the basic ‘necessaries of life’ (by which I presume he meant food and heating).

If the family were destitute then surely they should have gone to the workhouse Mr Curtis-Bennett declared. The gaoler said his worship was correct but added that many of the poor were ‘disinclined to become inmates of the workhouse’.

The magistrate said he was aware of this but couldn’t understand it. After all in England the poor were looked after better than in any other country in the world. Here there were ‘workhouses, infirmaries, and dispensaries’. This was the extent of the ‘welfare state’ in 1888: there was no unemployment benefit, no state pension, no NHS. Instead if you unable to feed yourself or find shelter you could enter the ‘house’ where you would treated (despite the former barrister’s opinion) little better than prisoners were.

George’s mother was called forward to explain her situation. She told the magistrate that her husband was out of work. He had been employed by a mineral water company as a delivery man but he had been sacked after eight years’ service. The reason, she was asked?

‘He trotted the horses’.

‘For no other reason?’

‘No sir’.

So because he pushed the horses to get his rounds done more quickly they company had sacked him. Workers had few, if any, rights in the 1880s and unemployment was high so there were always people to fill gaps if employers wished to get rid of people or pay them lower wages.

At this Mr Curtis-Bennett had a temporary rush of charitable understanding. He awarded the woman 10from the poor box. Then he sent her little boy to the workhouse.

Henry Curtis-Bennett died in office. He had become the Chief Magistrate at Bow Street and in July 1913 he was a attending a meeting at Mansion House (seat of the Lord Mayor of London) when he fell ill. He had survived a bomb attack in 1908 orchestrated by militant suffragettes (and other attempts as he was a lead magistrate in suppressing their ‘outrages’) but he didn’t survive this latest assault on his constitution. curtiss-bennett-1He died soon afterwards and was succeeded by his eldest son, also Henry, who went on to be a more famous lawyer than his father and a Conservative politician.

His son – Derek Curtis-Bennett) followed in his father and grandfather’s footsteps and entered the law. As a defence barrister he famously defended (if not successfully) the traitor William Joyce (Lord Haw-Haw) and the murderer John Christie.

No one knows what happened to little George or his siblings, or if they even survived the winter of 1888.

[from The Standard, Friday, November 02, 1888]

A ‘crippled’ child has no alternative but to beg for money at Victoria Station

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When John Long appeared at the Westminster Police court in July 1883 it was his second time there in the space of a few days. John hadn’t done anything particularly awful, hardly even criminal in our eyes. He was only 13 years old and was found begging at Victoria Station and so when he came before Mr D’Eyncourt the magistrate made out an order to send him to the St Nicholas Catholic Certified Industrial School, where he was to stay until he was 16.

However, when John arrived there with a policeman, the school’s master refused to admit him. He explained that the school was unable to look after a boy like John (despite, it seems, having initially told Mr D’Eyncourt that they could).

In 1883 poor John was deemed ‘a cripple’ , a word we wouldn’t use today. The teenager ‘had lost the sight of the right eye, had lost his left leg in an accident, and had never been vaccinated’ (notwithstanding the fact that his skin was pockmarked – suggesting he’d already had smallpox and so was safe from future infection).

These were all given as reasons not to accept him into the school. So the boy was sent back with the police who had little choice but to take him to the workhouse. That was Friday (20 July) and on Saturday the workhouse clerk brought John back to Westminster Police court to see what should be done with him.

This time Mr Stafford was presiding and the court was attended by Mr Lawrence of the London Industrial School Department. Everyone seemed to agree that a place should be found for John but there was no such institution for disabled delinquents (as they clearly saw John to be). He was a ‘confirmed beggar’ and lived at home with his parents who, it was declared, ‘seemed to make a good thing out of [his begging]’.

The court heard that John Long was ‘a great nuisance to the ladies and gentlemen at Victoria station’ and when they finally let the lad speak for himself he apologised and promised to reform if given the chance. He told the magistrate he ‘earnestly wanted to work’. Mr Stafford was prepared to give him that chance and said he would write to the Reformatory and Refuge Union to see if a place could be found for him. Hopefully he could be taught to sew or make baskets so he could be useful to society rather than a drain on it.

I think this gives an insight into a society before the Welfare State and NHS was created and one we might foresee returning if we continue to allow the erosion of our ‘caring’ society. Where were John’s parents in all of this?  They don’t seem to have been consulted or involved at all. Where was the duty of care of the state either? Let’s remember this was a boy of 13 who had committed no crime (unless we think of begging as a crime), he was blind in one eye and had only one leg. What on earth was he to do apart from beg?

[from The Standard, Monday, July 23, 1883

‘I looked after them as well as I could’: a mother’s plea as her children are taken away.

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This morning I am working on the latest draft of my next book, which offers a (hopefully) plausible solution to the Whitechapel murders of 1888. So I’m currently sitting (fairly comfortably) in the National Archives at Kew. The sun is shining, the lake is full of geese, and the air conditioning in on. This is a world away, of course, from the trials and tribulations of the folk that were brought before or sought help or redress from London’s Police courts in the nineteenth century.

I’ve taken this case from July 1888, just before the series of murders associated with an unknown killer given the sobriquet of ‘Jack the Ripper’, began in August. I think it reveals the poverty and desperation of some Londoners at the time, and the casual cruelty that sometimes accompanied it.

However, this wasn’t a case that occurred in Whitechapel, but instead in Soho, in the West End. The area in which the murders of 1888 is so often portrayed as a degraded, godless, and immoral place that it can be easy to forget that other parts of the capital were equally poor, and that thousands of our ancestors lived hand-to-mouth in grinding poverty. It took two world wars to create a system that attempted to deal humanely with poverty; in 1888 this was still a long long way ahead.

Patrick and Mary Ann Lynch were tailors but they were also very poor. They lived in one room in a rented house in Noel Street, Soho. They had four children who lived with them, all crowded together in circumstances we would be shocked to discover in London today. In fact their circumstances, while not uncommon in late nineteenth-century Britain, still had the power to shock contemporaries. This was especially so when evidence of cruelty or neglect towards children was shown, as it was here.

The Lynch’s situation was brought to the attention of a local medical man, Dr Jackson, by neighbours of the couple. He visited and found the four children ‘in a wretched state’. He informed the police, and Inspector Booker of C Division paid them a visit. This is what he later told the Marlborough Street Police Magistrate:

The children ‘were in a filthy state. Three of them – Charlotte, aged four years, Michael, two years and ten months – were lying on a dirty old mattress. On the other side of the room was Henry James, aged ten months. They looked haggard and weak, especially Frank. They were so filthy that he could scarcely recognize their features. Frank seemed to be gasping’.

These were the days before social services and child protection but the policeman didn’t wait for permission from anyone, as soon as he could he had the children removed to the nearest workhouse in Poland Street. He arrested Mary Ann and charged her with neglecting her children. Mrs Lynch was taken to the police station where she was reunited with her husband, who had been arrested earlier the same evening for drunkenness  – it wasn’t his first time.

At the station Mary Ann said she’d tried to look after her kids but her husband hadn’t let her. ‘I looked after them as well as I could’, she pleaded, but ‘I had to work, and if I left off to look after them, my husband would kick me out of the place’.

In court the Inspector said that he’d tried to get the poor law relieving officer to intervene but he’d refused; no one wanted to help the family it seems. Another policeman, sergeant Castle, added that the relieving officer didn’t seem to think the Lynchs case was one of ‘actual destitution’, so weren’t inclined to act.

Mrs Lynch’s position was typical of many at the time. She had to work because he husband’s wages didn’t provide enough for the family to live on, especially as he chose to drink much of them away. Dr Jackson also gave evidence in court, telling the magistrate (Mr Hannay) that when he’d visited Patrick Lynch was lying on a mattress in drunken stupor, next to his son Henry. When he rose to his feet he pushed down on the little boy hurting him, and making him cry.

At this point little Henry was produced in court. This caused quite a stir as the child ‘appeared to be no bigger than a child’s shilling doll’. Mr Hannay was amazed the Poor Law Guardians hadn’t taken up the case adding that he was sure that the authorities would either realize that they had a duty to intervene, or would find themselves being prosecuted for neglect. For the meantime he remanded the couple and sent the children back to the workhouse.

[from The Standard , Tuesday, July 17, 1888]

Laudanum, primroses and mental health collide as the millennium approaches.

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Primrose Day, by Frank Bramley (1885) Tale Gallery, London

By late April 1899 the old queen was nearing the end of her long reign and Britain was just six months away from the debacle of the second South African (Boer) war. The birth of Duke Ellington (on the 29 April) is an indicator that the ‘modern’ age was just around the corner, and all the horror and cataclysm that accompanied the ‘Great War’ less than a generation away. Yet as the millennium approached London was still very much a Victorian city where people looked backwards as much as forwards, and where ‘respectability’ ‘character’ and social class remained as ingrained as they had been for the last 100 years.

The Police courts of the capital continued to deal with the dregs of society; with the petty thieves, wife abusers, and disorderly prostitutes. Here was also where the poor came for advice or charity, and it was where those that manifestly could not cope with life sometimes turned up.

Jannie McDonald was one of those that struggled with life at the end of the century. Just 18 years of age Jannie was a young woman living in Notting Hill Gate. On the 26 April a policeman was called to her lodgings in Silver Street where he found her collapsed on the floor. She was clutching an empty bottle of laudanum that she has swallowed in an attempt to end her life. When she recovered she admitted that she had tried to kill herself on account of the abuse she received from her husband. The couple had been married less than a year but she preferred death to the prospect of returning to him. In court at West London Police court she changed her story and said she had only taken the drug to ‘procure some sleep and to ease pain’. The magistrate remanded her so that further enquiries could be made into the state of her mental health.

Over at Westminster William Lewis was re-examined having been remanded just over a week earlier. He was accused of criminal damage; he had allegedly ‘damaged the floral decorations at the Beaconsfield statue on Primrose Day’. Until April of this year 2018 (when the statue of Milicent Fawcett was installed) there were several famous people commemorated in Parliament Square, all of them men, one of which was Benjamin Disraeli, the Earl of Beaconsfield.

Disraeli, always Victoria’s favourite prime minister, died on 19 April 1881 and his followers marked his passing each year on Primrose Day. Perhaps Lewis was not a fan or held some grudge against the politician who pioneered what we now call ‘One nation Conservatism’. Like Jannie however, William was suffering from some form of mental illness. In fact enquiries in his case revealed that he had ‘three times been confined in a lunatic asylum’ and was currently out on ‘probation’. This didn’t refer to probation as we understand it within the criminal justice system today, as the first Probation orders were not issued until after August 1907. A district reliving officer from Rickmansworth (where William ‘belonged’) now appeared and he was discharged into his custody to be taken ‘home’ and re-confined.

Both these cases reveal that this was a society that was actually quite similar to our own with people that simply couldn’t cope with day-to-day life for whatever reason. What is noticeably different, one hopes at least, is that today both of these individuals would get more support from the state and local authorities than they did in 1899 at the end of the Victorian period. This change was not about to happen in 1899 of course; it took two world wars to finally overhaul the nature of the British state and create a society, which valued all of its citizens at least a little more equally than it had before. Two wars and the extension of the franchise (something Disraeli experimented with to win greater support for the Conservative Party) led to the election of ‘socialist’ government and the creation of a welfare state that remains (for all its flaws) the envy of the world to this day.

[from The Standard , Friday, April 28, 1899

When bureaucracy gets in the way of helping those in need: a case from history

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A workhouse in West London c.1857

In 1834 Parliament Passed the Poor Law Amendment Act ushering in one of the most contentious and unpopular pieces of legislation in our history. The New Poor law sought to reduce the costs of the pauperism (which fell on the ratepayers of any given parish) by discouraging people from applying for it. Previously the poor law had offered ‘doles’ to those in need to support them in the community – a form of ‘income support’ if you like. Workhouses existed and some parishes preferred the option of aiding the poor by giving them food and shelter in return for their labour; this was termed ‘indoor relief’.

After 1834 the New Poor Law stipulated that all those seeking relief should undergo the ‘workhouse test’. In other words enter the workhouse if they wanted any help from the parish. Given that this meant surrounding not only one’s independence but also accepting the breakup of the family, the new system provoked widespread resistance, condemnation and despair. Historians have argued that the ‘test’ was inconsistently enforced and very much dependant on the discretion of local poor law officials.

Nonetheless the 1834 legislation represented open season on the poor, vulnerable, sick and unemployed. The stain of the workhouse was not really removed until the 20th century, when the welfare state was established in 1948 by Attlee’s Labour government.

Before and after 1834 arguments over who was, or was not, entitled to poor relief often reached the summary courts for the adjudication of local magistrates. One group of people that frequently had their cases heard were the unmarried mothers of illegitimate children. These so-called ‘bastard bearers’ were considered to be not only immoral but a burden on the rates. Throughout the 18th and 19th century justices of the peace up and down the country grilled young women as to the paternity of their children and threatened them with the house of correction if they refused to divulge  the father’s name. Women also came voluntarily to court to complain that men had used them and then abandoned them without taking responsibility for the children that had helped bring into the world.

There was then, a mutual desire to make fathers pay for their offspring, either by marrying the mother or promising to pay a weekly amount to defray the costs that would otherwise fall on the parish and the rates.

In May 1845 Lloyd’s Weekly carried its usual summary of the ‘doings’ of the London Police Courts, where the capital’s professional magistracy sat in judgement on petty crime, violence, drunkenness, and a huge range of other business. Amongst its columns was a report on the ‘Bastardy Clause in the New Poor Law’. This referred to an update to the 1834 legislation just passed (in 1845) concerning illegitimacy.

It gave a single magistrate the power (previously only invested in two justices sitting together) to determine bastardy cases. Women were still to be examined and were still expected to ‘bring forward the same amount of “corroborative evidence” required by the old act’. In short they had to attempt to prove that the father was who they said he was.

The paper commented that this change had brought more women to court, perhaps because it was easier to find a single justice than wait for a petty sessions (or two or three JPs) to be convened. The paper was unsure however, whether the process was any better as a result. In fact the evidence from the London courts seemed to suggest that no one was really that sure how the law was affected by the new legislation and exactly who was responsible for sitting in judgement on cases brought by mothers who had been left high and dry by their lovers.

Lloyd’s gave an example: 

A young woman appeared at Marlborough Street Police Court to complain that she had given birth to a child and that the father, a groom working for Sir James Middleton in Whitehall, was refusing to support her and the baby. The groom denied any responsibility and had not paid her a penny in the three months since she gave birth. Given that her prospects for marriage were now extremely limited as were her opportunities to find paid work, this unnamed woman was facing the very real threat of having to enter the workhouse where she would most likely be separated from her child and lose all connection with it along with her independence.

No wonder she came to the magistrate at Marlborough Street for help.However, it was clearly more complicated than she had hoped to make her reluctant groom accept responsibility for his actions.

She told the magistrate that she had initially applied to the parish for help but they had referred her to the Queens Square Police Court. The justice there sent her instead to Bow Street. Bow Street sent her to marlborough Street, who at first referred her to the Clerkenwell Sessions of the Peace. At the sessions she was referred back to Marlborough Street. No one, it seems, wanters to take responsibility for this three month-old baby and its poverty-stricken mother.

Here at least Mr Maltby, referring to the new act, directed his clear to issue a summon to bring the groom to court in the following week. The woman was told to bring along the required “corroborative evidence”. Hopefully then he would be proven (as much as that was possible) to be the father of the child and mother and baby might avoid entering the dreaded workhouse so evocatively described by Dickens in Oliver Twist.

I am reminded that for many people, then and now, trying to get state (or parish) support when you are clearly in need of it is complicated by bureaucracy and the mean-spirited nature of benefit systems that assume it either someone’s else responsibility or that the person asking for help is in some way ‘trying in on’.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly London Newspaper, Sunday, May 18, 1845]