‘The Lord is not so unjust as to hold a man responsible for a rash act when he is mad’: a man’s grief drives him to suicide.

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Finsbury Square, c.1828

I am breaking, ever so slightly, with the normal pattern of these blog posts today. This story concerns the police courts but is not a report from one of them. Instead it came under the headings for London’s coroners courts, which detailed the inquests into those that died in suspicious circumstances.

On the 22 January 1838 an inquest jury sat at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital to listen to the evidence in case of a retired police court officer who had died at the age of 60. Thomas Van had worked at the Worship Street Police court ‘for nearly 25 years’ and was ‘an active officer’.

Each of the London police courts were served by half a dozen officers, modelled on the system set up by the Fieldings at Bow Street in the mid 1700s. Officers ran messages, brought up prisoners from the cells, kept order in the court and may well have played a role as active investigators in some instances. This was how the Bow Street officers (dubbed ‘Runners’ of course) operated.

Van’s wife had died in last year and he missed her very much. He lived with his son in rented rooms at 13 Queen Street, Finsbury Square and his landlord, Benjamin Watkins, gave evidence to the inquest. At about 9 o’clock a week earlier Watkins had heard a loud thud from Van’s room above and rushed upstairs to see what had happened. There he found the man stretched out on the floor with blood flowing from a gash in his throat.

There was ‘a large table knife on the floor besides him’ and while Van was not quite dead, he could not speak. Watkins called a carriage and took his lodger to St Bart’s where he died soon afterwards.

It was a tragic tale. Van had only recently been given a pension by the Worship Street office in recognition of his service, and because his grief made it impossible for him to carry on. He seems to have fallen into a deep despair and was quite unable to cope without his wife. His son testified to his father’s grief and told the coroner that Thomas Van ‘had been lately deranged’.

A suicide note was produced which read:

‘The Lord is not so unjust as to hold a man responsible for a rash act when he is mad’.

The inquest jury duly brought in a verdict of ‘temporary mental derangement’. Van probably had little to leave his son but suicides supposedly had their estates forfeited. They were also supposed to be buried at night, and not in consecrated ground. Perhaps the jury’s verdict allowed the family some license here.

Let’s hope so anyway.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, January 23, 1838]

An echo of Oliver Twist in Bethnal Green

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If you are familiar with the plot of Oliver Twist you will remember that young Oliver is bound as an apprentice to Mr Sowerberry, an undertaker, by the magistrate (who takes pity on the boy and saves him from the clutches of the brutish chimneysweep, Mr Gamfield). Of course Oliver is far from safe at the Sowerberrys, because of the callous nature of the undertaker’s wife and the other apprentice, Noah Claypole. Eventually Oliver runs away and tramps to London.

Dickens published the first chapter of Oliver Twist in 1837 (the year Queen Victoria came to the throne) and – as a former court reporter himself – he drew upon his experiences and those of the people he observed in the courts, debtors prisons, and workhouses of early Victorian London.

At the every end of 1839 the sitting justice at Lambeth Street Police Court, Mr Hardwick, heard an application to apprentice a pauper boy (just like Oliver) to a silk weaver in Spitalfields. The application was made by the Beadle of St George’s in the East whose name was not Bumble, but Overton. He wanted the boy off the parish books (and therefore its costs) and apprenticed to a weaver so he could earn a useful trade.

However, the Beadle of Bethnal Green, a man named Christie, appeared in court to object to the application. He told Mr Hardwick that the local silk weavers (the descendants of the Huguenot refugees that had fled persecution in France after 1685 when Louis XIV revoked  the  Edict of Nantes) were in a parlous state. The weavers had prospered in the East End until their monopoly on trade began to unravel in the second half of the 18th century. By the 1830s many of them were facing desperate times.

Christie told the court that in the last few weeks the Bethnal Green Poor Law Guardians had been forced to offer relief to 200 families, ‘and of those upwards of 150 were silk weavers’.  The weavers simply could not afford to take on apprentices at this time as there was not enough work to support their families as they were, let alone to feed more hungry mouths. Even if a weaver worked 15 or 16 hours a day he was unable to earn more than 7 or 8 shillings a week (about £17 in today’s money).

The beadle confirmed that the Worship Street magistrates had stopped binding apprentices in the area because of the hardship. Mr Hardwick agreed to the objection and refused to bind the lad, sending him back to the workhouse. The poor law guardians would have to wait for an improvement in the local economy if they were going to get their ‘Olivers’ off the books.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, January 1, 1840]