‘You are a disgrace to human nature’: the meanness of the Poor Law exposed

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The Police Courts were places where people could bring their grievances on all manner of things in the 1800s. It is easy to get the impression that their main purpose was to deal with crime – petty and serious. However, this view is often reinforced by the newspapers’ selection of cases to bring to the attention of their readers: they often chose the outrageous, amusing, shocking, and heart ringing stories as well as regular examples of cases which reminded the public that working class men were brutal, that theft was common, and fraud to be avoided by the wary.

When Ellen Potts came to the Guildhall Police court to ask for Alderman Moon’s help it gave the court reporter of The Morning Post the perfect opportunity to expose an old chestnut: the misuse of authority by a lowly public servant. It helped that Ellen was pretty (‘a good-looking girl’ of ‘about 18 years of age’) and the public servant had a reputation locally for meanness.  Immediately then there was a melodramatic backstory that readers could relate to with a villain and a young heroine that needed saving.

Miss Potts told the court that she had been thrown out of her home after a row with her mother (‘over a shawl’). With nowhere to go that night Ellen knocked on the door of the West London Union workhouse at St Bride’s on Shoe Lane. The relieving officer, Mr Miller, refused her entry however, on the grounds that her mother took in lodgers at her house on Cloth Lane and so was perfectly capable of supporting her daughter.

Alderman Moon was angry with the officer whose only (and sustained) defense was to say he was only following orders. He quickly established that Mrs Potts was receiving poor relief herself and that Miller knew this.

‘Then how can she support her daughter?’ the magistrate demanded to know.

‘You have discretionary power, and I think it is a most cruel act of a man to refuse shelter to a girl under such circumstances, and your conduct is most disgraceful’.

When Miller tried once more to say it that Ellen was her mothers responsibility Alderman Moon cut him off.

‘Don’t talk to me about the mother. You may be a good badger for the guardians, but at the same time a disgrace to human nature. No wonder, when females  are thus cruelly refused an asylum, so many should become prostitutes for the sake of obtaining that relief for which the ratepayers are rated so heavily. There are constant complaints of your hard-hearted conduct, which is a disgrace to your nature’.

This brought cries of ‘hear, hear’ from all sections of the courtroom and Miller must have looked up miserably from the dock, as he continued to say that he was only doing what he’d been told to do by his employers.

The chief clerk whispered to the alderman that Miller was liable to a hefty fine for his actions. The magistrate told Miller that he was going to levy that penalty, £5, for disobeying the general rule that ‘relief shall be given to all person in urgent distress’. After one more forlorn attempt to shift responsibility from himself to the guardians the relieving officer finally work up to what was required of him.

‘Is it your wish she be taken into the house?’ he asked the alderman. ‘If so I will do it willingly’.

‘It is so’, Alderman Moon told him. ‘There’s an end of the case’.

So Miller avoided a fine and Ellen was admitted to the workhouse so she didn’t have to walk the streets and risk falling into an even worse fate.  Arguably the real villains here were the Poor Law Guardians that set the rules that Miller was expected to enforce, and Mrs Potts who was prepared to let her teenage daughter take her chances on the streets. At least this mini melodrama ended happily.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, August 10, 1849]

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

‘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]

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]

A baby on the tracks and a child in a dustbin; two horror stories from the 1880s

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Lloyd’s weekly round up of ‘Police intelligence’ on Sunday 13 July 1884 contains a fascinating variety of human greed, misery and criminal artfulness. There are possibly a dozen or more cases from a betting scam in the City of London to an assault in Highgate, and the stories reveal the diversity of life in the Victorian capital. Two cases stand out amongst the petty thefts, domestic violence, fraud and juvenile crime reported. Both involve some form of child abuse, and both are quite shocking examples.

Clara Wardle was prosecuted at Thames Police court in the East End of London in very strange circumstances. Clara was seen to place a small child, her own baby, on the tram lines on Commercial Road and then run away. Luckily for the infant John Kerr saw what happened and rushed over and snatched up the child before a rapidly approaching hose and van crushed it under its hooves and wheels. The young lad handed the baby over the police.

Meanwhile another man who had seen what Clara had done chased after her and caught her in a side street. He marched her off to find a policeman and PC Newport (44H) took her into custody and ensured she appeared before Mr Lushington in court the next day.

Clara stood in the dock clutching her baby to her breast and listened as the evidence against her was read out. She told the magistrate that she never intended to hurt the child. She was ‘merely laid the child down to frighten her husband, who she thought would have picked the baby up’.

A report of the incident in a provincial newspaper gives us a little more insight into the case. John Kerr (the rescuer) is reported as telling the magistrate that he saw Clara and a man (presumably her husband) ‘running after a tram-car in Commercial Road’ at about 6 o’clock in the evening. The man boarded the tram ‘leaving the prisoner [Clara] standing in the road. She then deliberately laid her baby on the rails and ran away’.

So her action was part of an argument between her and her husband that almost led to the death of a baby. Perhaps he was leaving her, or simply had had enough of the row and saw an opportunity to escape quickly. Lushington remanded her for further inquiries, presumably to bring her husband in to see what he had to say about the matter.

South of the river, at Lambeth, two young boys were placed in the dock once more having been remanded a few days earlier by Mr Chance. Their crime was arguably even worse than Clara, since they acted deliberately and with malice. The lads were about 10-12 years of age and they were accused of having taken away a boy of 7 or 8 and forcing him inside a dustbin.

George Steeden and Stephen Murphy had taken Henry Douglas to a house in Penge and imprisoned him in a dustbin by loading bricks on the lid so he couldn’t climb out again. They’d trapped him in the 4 ½ foot deep bin at around five in the evening and by their own confession had left him there ‘to be found dead, so they might afterwards get a reward for the discovery of the body’.

Young Henry was locked into his intended tomb for nearly 17 hours, being discovered around one in the afternoon of the following day. It must have been a terrifying and traumatizing experience for the child. The magistrate said it was one of the ‘most serious cases he had ever had before him with regard to boys’. Steeden had been in trouble with the law before so Mr Chance ordered that he be given ‘six strokes of the rod’ before being sent to an Industrial School until he reached 16. Murphy was sent back to the workhouse where he’d been held on remand while the court decided what to do with him.

Despite the newsworthiness of both of these stories the papers seemed to have lost interest at this point. I’ve therefore no idea whether Stephen Murphy was considered the lesser of the two ‘evils’ and allowed to go home or if he too was sent to a reformatory or industrial school. Clara clearly needed help or at least a reconciliation with her husband. The court might have had her examined to determine the state of her mental health; if she was found to be insane then she risked being sent to an asylum. If her husband had abandoned her then the 28 year-old women might end up destitute and in the workhouse. Either way her future looked uncertain at best.

For many of those reading the ‘Sundays’ over their breakfast or supper these were the lives ‘others’; part of the world outside their comfortable homes and about people that they did not know, nor wanted to know. They would have been shocked certainly, disgusted and angered probably, but amused and entertained as well, such was the purpose of the ‘crime news’ in the nineteenth century.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, July 13, 1884; The Hampshire Advertiser, Saturday, July 12, 1884]

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

The prisoner who violently refused to accept her fate

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Although this story is not from one of London’s Police courts it does involve the magistrate system in London. It seems as if when crimes were committed inside prisons by serving prisoners it was possible for these cases to be heard (or at least assessed briefly) by visiting magistrates. Today we have a system whereby those held on remand in prisons or custody suites can be questioned by video link, so perhaps this was an early form of remote inquisition.

Elizabeth Heydrick was recidivist who had been in and out of court and the prison system on a number of occasions. None of her brushes with the law had any effect at all, unless it was to harden her resolve to be as obstreperous as possible.

In June 1870 she was in the Westminster house of correction serving a nine month sentence for assaulting the matron of the Bethnal Green workhouse. On that occasion as she’d left he dock she had turned to matron and vowed to kill her when she got out. As a result the magistrate ordered her to find sureties to ensure her good behaviour towards the woman on her release. This proved impossible however, so when her time was up she was kept inside and told she’d not be released until she did so (up to the period of sureties which was 12 months).

After three months Heydrick rang the bell of her cell, summoning a warder named Elizabeth Warwick to her. Heydrick told Warwick that she wanted to go to the exercise yard and the warder took her there. After about 10 minutes she said she wanted to return to the cell, but asked for some water first. She then turned on the taps but didn’t drink, just letting them empty into the yard. For this nuisance the warder rebuked her and told her to get back to the cell.

As they climbed the stairs to the level of Heydrick’s cell the prisoner turned around and punched Warwick in the face, blackening her eye, and then again twice to the chest. Other warders rushed to assist their colleague and so prevented Heydrick’s assault from being even more serious. As it was Elizabeth Warwick was badly injured and shaken up. The prison surgeon feared she’d broken two ribs and she was not fit to return to her duties – of even to leave her room – for nearly a month.

The magistrates that visited the prison fully committed Heydrick to stand trial for the violent assault at the next sitting of the Middlesex Sessions. On July 7 Heydrick appeared in court before a judge and jury who were told that when she had been taken to a ‘refractory cell’ (by which I presume they meant something like the ‘darks’ at Millbank, a solitary cell designed for punishment) she was searched. Male warders had helped subdue her after the assault on Warwick but only female warders could search her. As Amelia Newton was doing so she found a long pin in her jacket and was removing the potential weapon when Heydrick struck out and hit her in the face, cutting her lip and drawing blood.

The jury duly convicted her and the judge handed down an additional one-year sentence. Again this seemingly had little effect on Elizabeth who was led away from the dock laughing to herself.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, July 08, 1870]

A desperate life which is no life at all

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Clerkenwell Prison 

Margaret Raymond was someone who needed help. Unfortunately for her she lived in the late Victorian period where support for people like her was extremely limited. As a result she existed on the margins of society, alternating from periods of imprisonment and spells in the parish workhouse.

When she appeared at Clerkenwell Police court in late June 1871 it was about the 50th time she’d been there. Most of her arrests had been alcohol related: drunk and disorderly, drunk and incapable, resisting arrests, assault, abusive langue and so on. She was an alcoholic but there was no effective social care system to help her off her addiction so she continued to spiral between different forms of incarceration.

On this occasion she was charged with bring drunk and disorderly and assaulting the landlord of the White Swan pub in Islington High Street. Margaret had entered the pub in the evening, already drunk, and demanding he serve her. When he refused she became violent and he tried to throw her out. In the process he got hit about the head and body and his coat was torn. Eventually Margaret was frog-marched away to the local police station to sober up.

In the morning before Mr Baker at Clerkenwell Police court she had no memory of the incident, it having been carried out in a drunken haze as always. The magistrate listened as her previous convictions were read out. These included no less than 31 charges at Upper Street Police station and two years imprisonment for criminal damage. That was for breaking the windows of John Webb’s shop at a cost of £8. She pleaded guilty, gave her age as 42 and her occupation as a ‘washer’. That was a casual trade at best so may simply have been her attempt to avoid saying she was unemployed.

The magistrate looked down at the drunken women in his dock and could see little else to do with her but fine her 5s that she almost certainly didn’t have. Instead Margaret would go back to prison – this time the Middlesex House of Correction for a week with hard labour – and continue her cycle of desperate existence. I’ve no doubt she would have continued to appear before the London bench or at the gates of the workhouse until the inevitable happened, and she she succumbed to her addiction and died, probably destitute, homeless, and on the streets.

[from The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, July 1, 1871]

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