Poverty, sympathy and the school of ‘hard knocks’

In January 1867 three young boys were charged at the Marylebone Police Court, with begging. Churchill Long was 11, his brother Stephen 10 and their friend Thomas Fields just 8.

A passing policeman, Sergeant Bunce (50 C Division) found the trio sheltering in the doorway of confectioner’s shop at 8 in the evening. According to Sgt. Bunce’s testimony they were asking passers-by on Coventry Street for change in and looked ‘to be nearly dropping from want’.

He took them back to the police station and left them eating a meal while he made inquiries about their families. Thomas had no father but his mother lived in Soho and was a washerwoman (a very lowly poorly paid class of servant). The Longs had a father barely alive and in such a ‘poor state of health that he was unable to work’. Their mother was in an even worse condition – she ‘was hourly expected to die’.

Tom Field’s mother then appeared in the courtroom in floods of tears. She told the magistrate that she had been in such a state that Tom had asked if he could go ‘with some fuses to get a few halfpence”. In other words he was offering to  take some small items to sell (but in reality, to go begging on the streets). She was trying to work when she could but had other children to care for; her situation had worsened after the recent death of her husband.

It was  sad story and on this occasion the ‘beak’ was sympathetic. Mr Knox (the justice)asked if she would like her son to go to school. She said she did. He then decided that Tom should be sent to Feltham Industrial School (the predecessor of the modern young offenders’ prison).

This took him away from his mother and siblings and reduced their outgoings, but whether Tom would have thanked him for it is open to question. Industrial schools were strict institutions and linked to the Reformatory School movement that had arisen in the 1850s. It represented a chance for the lad to ‘reform’ but I doubt he would have received much we would understand as ‘care’.

As for the Long children, their father – although clearly gravely ill – also turned up at court to explain his circumstances and to confirm that he feared for his wife’s health. He too wanted his children to attend a school and the magistrate asked him to return again when he was more able to do so. In the meantime Mr Knox ordered that the family be given some charitable support from the poor box.

This case demonstrates the multifaceted role of the police court in Victorian society; the case arose out of a ‘police’ issues (begging and vagrancy were ‘crimes’, and punishable) but exposed a wider social problem (poverty). As magistrate Mr Knox ‘helped’ the families cope with the pressures of surviving and bringing up their children. But he did this by removing the boys to a disciplinary environment where they would no longer see their parents. They would gain an education of sorts and be cared for (in the most rudimentary of ways at least).

So he helped save them from starvation and the abject poverty they were otherwise seemingly doomed to experience, but at the same time the justice acted for the benefit of the state; he intervened to prevent the children growing up to become members of London’s ‘criminal class’.

From the distance of history we might judge this as a drastic form of intervention and reflect that we have in place much kinder ways of dealing with child poverty today. But can we really rush to congratulate ourselves when even the government acknowledges that we have 2.3 million children living in poverty in the UK today?

[from The Morning Post, Monday, January 14, 1867]

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