A sad example of Victorian poverty

Police Constable Williams of N Division, Metropolitan Police, was patrolling his beat late in the evening of November 28th 1863 when he saw a man he found suspicious. As the PC retreated into a doorway he saw the man stop outside a building on Kingsland Road near to a yard for the King’s Head pub.

The man unfastened his coat and trousers and withdrew a parcel which he flung into a nearby  empty building. The PC showed his lamp and demanded to know what the man was doing and what was in the package.

“A dead kid” came the reply. The officer now asked him to show him but the man, Charles Law, at first refused. PC Williams insisted and the two retrieved the parcel. It contained the tiny dead body of a female child.

When asked how he came by it Law replied: “It was a premature birth from a poor woman, and I, being a medical man, undertook to get rid of it to save the burial fees, which would have been 7s and 6d”. He then added that he wished he’d buried it in the garden and avoided being caught with it. The policeman took him into custody.

Back at the station house another body was found in his pocket, both were ‘rather small’, both premature and about six months old according to the divisional surgeon who appeared to give evidence at Law’s hearing at the Worship Street Police Court. He was unable to say whether the children had breathed at all or had been still born.

The building into which the body had been thrown was a house in the process of being built or renovated and the court was informed that in daylight anyone could have seen and found the remains of the children Law was disposing of. The clerk told the justice that under law exposing bodies in this way was an offence at common law. As Charles Law stated himself to be a ‘medical man’ he was saved the inconvenience of being remanded in custody and was bailed at his own surety of £80 and two from his friends at £40 each.

Was Law an abortionist? He told the court one of the women lived in Nottingham and that he was merely clearing up on their behalf. There is no Charles Law prosecuted at the Old Bailey for abortion (which was illegal) so perhaps he was telling the truth. It may be however, that there was simply not enough evidence against him. It does however, tell us something about the desperation of women who either wished to lose unwanted children or who miscarried and could not afford the fees to bury their offspring.

 

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, November 29, 1863]

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