As PC 99 L Division made his usual patrol by the Surrey side of Blackfriars Bridge (i.e south of the River Thames) he saw a woman sitting on the steps by the water. As he approached he could see that she was in condsiderable distress and asked her what she was up to.
The elderly lady, who gave her name as Elizabeth Briant, admitted that she had been so ‘cruelly beaten by the man whom she had lived with for thirty-eight years that she was tired of her existence’. Elizabeth was working up the courage to throw herself into the river to drown.
Attempting suicide was a crime and so the policeman arrested her and, the next day, brought her before the magistrate at Southwark Police Court.
Elizabeth cut a forlorn figure in the dock: her arms were covered with bruises, as was her face. She told the magistrate that her husband had ‘ill used her to a great extent’ in recent weeks. On the previous Saturday he had ‘knocked her down, kicked her, and blackened both eyes’. Having assaulted her the man then ‘thrust her out of the house, and left her to starve in the streets’. She had run down the steps at Blackfriars and it was only the lucky intervention of the beat bobby that had saved her from ending her miserable life.
The magistrate asked her if she had any children, and she told him she had eight, ‘but only one was living, and she hoped he was serving Her Majesty in India’. So this poor old lady had lost seven sons or daughters and her only surviving son was in the imperial army thousands of miles away.
It was a desperately sad story but also a fairly typical one for the time. There was little the justice could do expcept order the arrest of the husband (who might expect a short prison sentence if summarily convicted, hardly benefiiting Elizabeth) and send the poor woman to the workhouse to be cared for. Once there, she could hardly expect to leave and was effectively being condemned to live out the remainder of her days as an inmate before being given a pauper burial when she finally passed away.
Nevertherless, Elizabeth looked up from the dock and thanked ‘his Worship for his kindness’. She had probably lived most of her life in grinding poverty and could now expect to see out her remaining days in a ‘pauper bastille’. It would be another 45 years before the government of the day introduced the Old Age Pension and, since she would have been a recipient of Poor Law funds, Elizabeth would not have been entitled to it anyway.
For me, the Victorian period is a savage reminder of what our society looked like before we had a welfare system; it was a society that often left women like Elizabeth Briant to choose the only option that ended the pain of everyday life. For all the calls for belt-tightening in the face of self-imposed austerity we should remember that today this country is one of the top 25 richest countries in the world and we can well afford a decent welfare system, whatever politicians tell us in the next few weeks and months. The divide between rich and poor is as wide as it has ever been and it is frankly appalling that so many ‘ordinary working people’ have to resort to food banks in the 21st century. So before we look back with horror at a Victorian age that drove women like Elizabeth to attempt suicide which she take a long hard look at ourselves.
[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, May 1, 1860]