Charity, mendacity and malingering; what are we to do about poverty and begging?

Do you give money to beggars in the street? Or buy the Big Issue?  Or do you walk on by thinking that by ‘helping’ them with money you are doing more harm than good (as we are often told). Perhaps you pop into the nearest coffee shop and purchase them a hot drink and a sandwich?

We all have our opinions about poverty and begging and often we react emotionally to the person we see. I was particularly struck by the number of beggars I saw in Venice last summer, amidst the crowds of wealthy sightseers gazing at canal views and wearing designer clobber while old women in layers of rags held out their hands or a cup for change.

I have a problematic relationship with beggars; sometimes I give them money, other times I chat to them, but most of the time I think its not my problem, that is is what the state is there for. I’m not comfortable with this and mostly I just feel impotent.

It is often said that there are professional beggars, or shammers that trick us into feeling sorry for them when actually they ‘earn’ plenty of money from begging and choose this form of malingering over actual work. I imagine its true for one in a hundred but hardly widespread.

I suspect the same conflicting emotions faced our Victorian ancestors. In the 1800s charity was a way for upper and middle-class women to find a public role in society. The prevailing patriarchal ideology meant that  they were unable to work or pursue a career  as they are today and confined to running the household and directing the care and education of their children they must have craved something else.

Lady Richardson was one such well-heeled Victorian lady. From her fashionable London home at 42 Bedford Square she played a role in helping ‘deserving cases’ like Jane Alexander and Maria Bogice.

Lady Richardson was aware of and way even have been involved with  the Mendicity Society. Their purpose (as set down in an 1850 note) was thus:

The society gives meals and money, supplies mill and other work to applicants, investigates begging-letter cases, and apprehends vagrants and impostors. Each meal consists of ten ounces of bread, and one pint of good soup, or a quarter of a pound of cheese. The affairs of the Society are administered by a Board of forty-eight managers. The Mendicity Society’s tickets, given to a street beggar, will procure for him, if really necessitous, food and work. They are a touch-stone to impostures: the beggar by profession throws them aside.

In January 1837 Sir John had passed a letter on to his wife which purported to be a request for help from one Maria Bogice. It was delivered to the house in Bedford Square by Jane Alexander.

Lady Richardson was at once suspicious. She had already ‘relieved’ (in the other words, helped) Maria by donating to her daughter some clothes so she would be able ‘to take a position’ (as a servant or shop girl most likely). So she thought it odd that she would write her a begging letter so soon afterwards.

When challenged about this Jane suggested that it was probably a mistake and went to leave. But Lady Richardson added it was a ‘very wilful and wicked’ mistake if mistake it was and decided to look into the matter. She referred the letter to the  Mendicity Society for their thoughts.

When Mr Kynvett replied that Jane Alexander was well known to them and that she had been concocting letters like this since 1834 (using a variety of names) the case was sent to the summary courts.

Jane appeared at Hatton Garden Police Court charged with attempting to ‘practice a gross imposition’ on Sir John* and Lady Richardson. Jane admitted her guilt but ‘begged hard for forgiveness’, she had acted, she said, out of extreme distress.

The justice was unmoved by her act of contrition. He told her that ‘such tricks steeled the heart of charity’ (a reaction perhaps familiar to modern readers). Lady Richardson added her own thoughts, saying that:

‘There are so many frauds committed in this way upon individuals who are anxious to do good that it is difficult to tell whether you are helping a needy person or one who gains his or her living by obtaining sums from the benevolent’.

Poor Lady Richardson, while she had to return to her town house in Bedford Square (below) to lick her wounds over a dinner prepared for her and her family by a staff of cooks and servants, Jane Alexander had the luxury of being sent to prison for 21 days to reflect on her ‘crime’ of being poor. Her children were removed from her and sent to the workhouse.

bedford_square_may_2005_

Ian Duncan Smith would presumably have wept buckets.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, January 09, 1837]

*Sir John Richardson was familiar with the legal system. He was a judge at the Court of Common Pleas in the 1830s.

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