Winter is coming and for one mother that means a spell inside

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Winter is coming.

Hallowe’en has come and gone and Bonfire Night is looming. The clocks have gone back and the air has turned distinctly chilly. Yesterday in town I noticed more rough sleepers than usual around King’s Cross and St Pancras and reflected once again that our modern society still hasn’t solved the problem of poverty.

The reports from the Victorian Police Courts provide ample evidence that desperation and poverty were endemic in the 1800s. This was a society without a welfare state, with no old age pension scheme, or National Health Service, or social services. Where we have a benefits system (however flawed) they had the workhouse or charity and recourse to either meant shame and failure.

In our ‘modern’ world we have people whose lives have been destroyed by drink or drugs and both provide the really desperate with the anaesthetic they need to simply survive on day-to-day basis. I saw a notice yesterday that said, ‘would you smash up a phone box to get 24 hours in a dry cell with food?’

This is a reality for some people in ‘modern’ Britain.

In October 1865 Mary M’Grath was charged at Thames Police Court with being drunk and disorderly and punching a policeman. Mary was about 30 years old and had a baby with her in court. PC John Mansfield (393K) testified that on the previous afternoon he had seen Mary rolling about, quite drunk, on the East India Dock Road.

She was carrying her infant and staggering about so badly that she kept banging into the nearby ‘walls and houses’. The child was ‘injured and screamed fearfully’, he added. Mary kept up a stream of the most unpleasant language, so disgusting that several onlookers complained to him about it.

Eventually  she fell heavily and a man rushed up to save the child and a police sergeant arrived to help  PC Mansfield take her to the police station. Once there she rewarded him with more abuse and landed a blow on his face, blackening his eye and impairing his sight.

The next day they appeared in court before Mr Paget, the magistrate, who asked the constable what had become of the child.

‘It was taken to the workhouse’, the policeman replied.

‘How old is it?’ the magistrate asked him.

‘Four months old’.

‘It is eight months old’, piped up Mary from the dock.

Mr Paget declared that nothing was more disgraceful than seeing a mother so drunk in public. Didn’t she have a husband at home he enquired.

‘No sir, my husband died seven years ago’, came the reply. So her baby was illegitimate and presumably the product of new relationship or a casual encounter, and no father was present in court. Drunk, riotous and promiscuous the magistrate was probably thinking, a suitable object not for pity but for condemnation.

In reality of course Mary’s life became that much more difficult when her husband had passed away. She would have lost the main bread winner and her partner. It is likely she already had children so they would have added to her problems. Perhaps this explains her descent into alcoholism.

She told him that she couldn’t remember what had happened the previous day, so drunk had she been. She had been inside the workhouse, and therefore destitute as no one went inside iff they could possibly help it.

‘I was there long enough’ she explained, and ‘I was half starved’ and ‘discharged myself. I took a drop [of alcohol] and lost myself’.

So in her version of events  she had been so malnourished in the ‘house’ that a small amount of drink (probably gin) had affected her much more than it would normally. It was probably an exaggeration of the truth but it did her no good. Instead of opting to find her some help in the form of money, food and shelter Mr Paget sent her to prison for a month at hard labour.

She had merely swapped one uncaring institution for another. As for the child, well as a ‘suckling’ Mr Paget decided it needed to stay with its mother, so off to goal it went as well.

This was an oft repeated story in Victorian London. Children were growing up affected by alcoholism, grinding poverty, homelessness, and sometimes, prison. No wonder reformers demanded change and some turned to ‘extreme’ politics (like socialism or anarchism). Men like Paget had comfortable lives and sat in judgement for the most part on those that scraped by.

Can we, hand on heart, say that 150 years later everything is so much better? Yes, of course to an extent we have provided a much better safety net for Mary M’Grath and her baby. But have we really tackled the root causes of her poverty? No, I don’t think we have  and while we pursue a form of economics and politics that allows some people to live in epic luxury while others sleep rough on the streets I don’t think we can sit in judgement of our ancestors either.

Winter is coming.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, November 01, 1865]

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An unhappy husband gets sympathy but little help from Mr Yardley

NPG D12316; Sir Francis Buller, 1st Bt ('Judge Thumb') by James Gillray, published by  William Humphrey

‘Judge Thumb’ or Sir Francis Buller, 1st Bt (‘Judge Thumb’), by James Gilroy (1782)

As I mentioned in previous post about domestic violence the Aggravated Assault Act (1853) was well intentioned. Under its term magistrates could send men that beat their wives or partners to prison for up to six months at hard labour and it was considered necessary because of the widespread abuse that women (most visibly working-class women) received in mid nineteenth-century England.

However, not everyone agreed that it was a good idea and some pointed out its flaws and unexpected side-effects. Mr Yardley, one of the capital’s Police Court Magistrates was clearly not a big fan of the new act. While he recognised its purpose he declared that one of its effects was ‘to make […] women a good deal worse, and he had made his mind up to punish drunken and disorderly women brought before him as severely as he could’.

His words presupposed of course that the reason that men beat their wives was because they were disobedient, slovenly and drunken in the first place. Rather than questioning the rights of men to discipline their partners the law was actually trying to limit the amount of violence they used rather than stop it altogether. Yardley was of the school of thought that physical punishment was appropriate so long as it did not go too far. In that regards he was a echo of the possible apocryphal Justice Buller who suggested that men might beat their wives so long as they only used a stick ‘no thicker than their thumb’.

Yardley delivered his statement on the new act during a hearing at Thames Police Court when a man had appeared in court asking for help and guidance on controlling his own, rather disobedient wife. The ‘very respectable man’ (who was not named by the reporter, no doubt to save his blushes), told the magistrate that his wife was an incorrigible alcoholic.

‘The applicant, whose anxieties and troubles were depicted on his countenance, said that his wife was repeatedly drunk; that she had made away with a good deal of property to indulge her propensity for strong drinks; and that when he expostulated with her, she abused him, and used the most foul epithets towards him’.

She had sold off his property to feed her habit and in desperation he had even offered to separate with her and grant her half his navy pension of £60 a year. She had refused his offer and continued to torment him. He wanted help from the court to deal with her but the magistrate was unable to offer any.

Had she been violent towards him? No, the only ‘violence’ was verbal. The poor man was clearly at his wits end and feared that if he tried to repress her with force he would find himself on a charge under the new act and would soon be facing a spell in prison.

Yardley sympathised with him but reiterated that his hands were tied. In his opinion the Aggravated Assaults Act had seemingly emboldened women and innocent men like the applicant were likely to continue to suffer the consequences. He wanted it known that he would deal severely with any drunk and disorderly woman that came before him but that was little comfort to the anonymous husband in his court.

‘Can’t you compel my wife to accept of a separate maintenance?’ he implored the magistrate. ‘No’, said Yardley, ‘I cannot give you the least assistance’.

[from The Era, Sunday, August 28, 1853]

A sadly typical story of an ‘unfortunate’ girl in Victorian London

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The Victorians condemned prostitution. They saw it as a vice, a personal failure of character, and a step on the slippery slope to damnation. Yet prostitutes also occupied a special place in contemporary debates being both victims deserving of pity and agents of corruption at the same time.

In the nineteenth century the idea that there was a class of society that existed on the proceeds of crime (‘those that will not work’ as Henry Mayhew described them) gained credence. The so-called ‘criminal class’ identified by Mayhew and others conveniently allowed all the ills of the society to be lumped onto a section of the working class, and prostitutes were part of this ‘class’.

In the 1860s in the wake of the Crimean War (when more British soldiers succumbed to disease than to wounds inflicted by the enemy) there was a moral panic about the prevalence of sexually transmitted infection. This led to the passing of the Contagious Diseases Acts which attempted to regulate prostitution and halt the spread of syphilis  and gonorrhoea. Working-class women were dragged off the street and forcibly examined for signs of disease, and then effectively imprisoned in ‘lock’ hospitals until they were ‘clean’. Men were not subjected to the same treatment but were encouraged to seek medical help. It was a classic Victorian ‘double standard’.

But the CDAs also provoked resistance by women and a campaign, led by Josephine Butler, eventually led to their repeal. Butler sought to understand the women that felt it was necessary to sell their bodies to survive and she brought some of them into her own home to ‘rescue’ them. These women were ‘unfortunate’ contemporary rhetoric said, they could be helped, and reclaimed from the awful class they had ‘fallen’ into.

Which brings me to the Police Courts and the magistrates that presided there. The capital’s police court magistracy probably saw more ‘unfortunates’ than anyone else (with the exception of the police). I’m not impugning their reputation, but one of the most common (if not the most common) charge heard in these summary courts was ‘drunk and disorderly’, and when this was applied to a woman it was likely she was a prostitute picked up on the street the night before by a beat constable.

Mary Anne Griffin was just such a girl. She probably attracted the attention of the papers because of her age – she was just 17 – and because she had a ‘genteel appearance’. Mary Anne had been found staggering along the Fulham Road by PC Stevens (266B) in a state of complete intoxication. As she approached the road the policeman saw her trip and fall down in a ‘fit’. He revived her with salt water and she promised to go home.

Half an hour later though he encountered her again and when he cautioned her for not doing as she was told she attacked him. Mary Ann ‘flew at him’, he explained to Mr Arnold at Westminster Police Court:

‘She made use of very disgusting language, and said she would tear his eyes out. She threw herself down on the ground, and  endeavoured to kick him, and in doing so, necessarily much exposed herself’.

PC Stevens got her back to the police station but it took three constables to bring her under control  and get her confined in a cell.

Mr Arnold turned to the girl and asked her what she had to say for herself.

‘I am very sorry’, she answered (with ‘her head down and […] in a very meek voice’) ‘I was so drunk I did not know what I did’.

The court gaoler said he had seen her before and that when she had been in the cells she was a quiet and ‘well conducted girl’. She was not like the ‘hardened girls of her class’ that usually came before him Mr Arnold agreed, and perhaps this was an opportunity for intervention (as a modern social worker or probation officer might term it). Sadly no. Mr Arnold completely misunderstood the reason why Mary Ann was drunk in the first place, which was to inure herself to the awful situation she found herself in. Alcohol acted as a sort of anaesthetic to the degradation she was subjected to on a daily basis.

What Mr Arnold should have done was to help Mary Ann find a path out of poverty and prostitution because, at 17 she was (as he noted) very far from being the  hardened criminal she would most likely become. If, that is, she lived that long. Many working girls died young, killed by disease, the brutality of men, or at their own hands.

What Mr Arnold did do of course, was to send her to the house of correction for 14 days; not for being a prostitute (that was not a crime) but for being drunk and resisting the policeman’s well-meant instruction to go home quietly. She probably didn’t have a ‘home’ as such, merely a bed in cheap lodgings which she may well not have had the money to pay for. That’s why she stayed out and ignored him in the first place.

[from The Standard , Monday, August 13, 1860]

An ‘exceedingly painful case’ at Bow Street

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Charing Cross station in the nineteenth century 

Mrs Ann Leonardi (or Lee as she was also known) was, by her own description,  an ‘independent lady’. This probably meant she was unmarried, or widowed, or even an heiress (the latter seems less likely in these circumstances however) but whatever the reality she found herself in the dock at Bow Street charged with theft.

Ann had visited the ‘refreshment bar’ at Charing Cross railway station because, she later claimed, she felt unwell.  Ann had asked for a little brandy, that well known pick-me-up for ladies of a certain class. The barmaid placed a glass and two flasks of the spirit on the counter and Ann (‘with some little hesitation’) handed over enough money for a glass.

However, when the barmaid returned Ann had gone and so had both flasks.

It seems the station employed its own private detective, a man named Tom Toby, who was informed of the theft and went in search of Ann armed with her description. He soon caught up with her and discovered the brandy flasks in her possession. Ann offered to pay with a cheque for £5 but this was refused, she was arrested and handed over to the police.

When she was brought before Mr Vaughan at Bow Street she was bailed to reappear in a week’s time. For whatever reason (and Ann put this down to ‘foolishness’) she failed to appear and so a warrant was issued for her arrest. In the meantime however, Ann handed herself in to the nearest police station and apologised for her behaviour.

So in early July 1873 Ann Leonardi was in court and she pleaded guilty to the theft but with the mitigation that she had no idea she had the flasks as ‘her head was completely lost through trouble and too much drink that she had taken that day’. What was the cause of this ‘trouble’ and why was Ann so upset? Unfortunately we can never know this but a novelist might speculate. Was she unlucky in love? Or distraught about the death of a child or other relative?

Ann had some friends though, and several came to Bow Street to offer her a ‘good character’. They told the magistrate (Mr Vaughan again), that sometimes she ‘was not in her right mind’. So perhaps Ann suffered from some form of mental illness or, and this maybe more likely, she was an alcoholic.

Ann’s situation was about to get worse. Mr Vaughan expressed his opinion that this was an ‘extremely painful case’ but since she had broken the law and skipped bail, he had no choice but to send her to prison for a month at hard labour. In doing so he may have been influenced by the implication that she was in some way addicted to alcohol. Perhaps he felt this shock would be the necessary cure for her problem.

Personally I can’t see how a month in a Victorian prison would have done much for her well-being and the consequences would be felt by Ann for years afterwards. She had stolen two small bottles of brandy, which she had subsequently offered to pay for; the magistrate’s actions here seem to fall far short of ‘justice’.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, July 02, 1873]

Midsummer ‘madness’ at Marlborough Street

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There was much less understanding of mental health in the Victorian period than there is today. Public asylums were largely used as dustbins for the unwanted mentally ill poor, while private ones attempted to treat the ‘mad’ relatives of the better off. Some families simply locked their disturbed relatives away in the attic, too embarrassed to be seen to have insanity ‘in the family’.

But of course there was probably just as much mental illness in the 1800s as there is today, but while modern society has slowly become more accepting of it our ancestors saw sufferers as objects of pity, danger or ridicule. Just as casual racism is evident in reading the Victorian press, so are jokes at the expense of the mentally ill.

Jane Roderick (also known as Jane Waddy) was brought up before the Marlborough Street police magistrate charged with being drunk and disorderly. She had been arrested in Leicester Square a few nights before, proclaiming the health of the Queen and Royal family loudly to anyone in the vicinity.

She was still quite loud when she stood in the dock as she explained her behaviour to him. Jane told the justice that the reason she had undertaken her own public celebration was because she had heard the good news that the sons of Her Majesty ‘had been admitted into the House of Parliament to assume their rights as the Royal family without the consent of Parliament’, which she deemed a good thing.

It was such a good thing, she continued, that she felt duty bound to drink a toast (or two) in port wine.

She then entered into an elaborate story: she was, she said, born in Kent and was a ‘woman of Kent’. Her uncle worked in the Queen’s gardens, she claimed, and so she had brought a rose for him to plant for the Queen. Her father had made a communion table at Chislehurst, and now she heard the Queen was ‘ready to support her sons’. Finally she added that she was widowed and one of her sons lived in a vicarage at Greenwich under the Queen’s care.

It was probably a mix of fact and fantasy, but it was delivered in a chaotic manner that suggested that the poor woman was not in full control of herself. That is certainly how the press depicted her.

Mr Vine, the court’s gaoler, now appeared to give evidence to the fact that the same woman had been up in court on the same charge four months earlier, and had given exactly the same story in her defence.

At this Jane either affected deafness or really was unable to hear what the man said. On it being repeated to her she admitted to having been drinking: ‘I had a “little drop” then, of course, and unfortunately I have been given to it since my husband’s death’.

Mr Cooke, the magistrate, turned to her and asked her if she had any friends locally. She had claimed to have been born in Poland Street (which prompted titters of laughter in court, but why is not clear). In the 1880s it was quite a respectable place in Soho with a number of artisans and tradesmen living there. Jane replied that her sister-in-law lived nearby, and then told him (somewhat randomly) that she was the daughter of a carpenter, and that one of the guardians of the poor in Lambeth had a mortgage on her fathers house.

Again, this may well all have been true but it didn’t really answer the magistrate’s questions.

He declared: ‘I think you are not right in your mind. You will be sent down to..’

‘Sent down! Where?’ interrupted Jane.

‘To the House of Detention for a week; but they will not put you in the cell’.

She thanked him and added, ‘I shall charge you 13s for this; and if you have not money to pay, why, spout your ticker!’

This last remark brought the house down in laughter, clearly amusing the court reporter who added that she then left ‘with a  jaunty air’, calling the gaoler to ‘order her brougham [her carriage] to drive her to Hanwell’.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, June 21, 1885]

Happy solstice everyone!

The battle of the sexes claims another victim

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Victorian society is often described as one in which the sexes existed in ‘separate spheres’, with men occupying a ‘public’ space and women restricted to the home, or ‘private’ one. While this thesis works quite well for the women of the middle and upper classes it is less obviously true of the vast majority of the working class. Many working-class women worked and looked after the domestic environment. They were housewives, mothers and significant contributors to the family economy, and this often resulted in tensions at home.

Julia Bagot was one such women. She was married to Martin and they had several children. While Julia worked hard every day Martin Bagot had ‘done no work for 18 months’ and liked a drink with his mates. At home the domestic duties fell to Julia who was expected to undertake to keep her husband happy and fed while also performing the role of the family’s main breadwinner.

One evening in May 1884 she came home from work at 9 o’clock, tired and hungry. Her husband followed her through the door a few minutes later, drunk and belligerent. As he demanded tea she put a saucepan of water on the stove to boil and looked to the children.

One of her daughters had no clean clothes to wear for school the next day and when she pressed Martin about this he told her he had pawned them (presumably to get the money he needed for beer). An argument ensued, a ‘few high words were exchanged’, before the affair escalated and Martin seized the pan of water and threw the contents at his wife.

Julia’s face was scalded by the almost boiling liquid and she was temporarily blinded in one eye. Mrs Bagot was taken to the hospital where her wounds were dressed but the doctors feared that she might permanently lose the sight in her eye. The next morning the pair were in the Clerkenwell Police court with Martin facing a charge of assault and wounding. One of his children gave evidence against him and the injuries she had suffered were all too apparent, her head and face being largely wrapped up in bandages.

The magistrate remanded Martin Bagot in custody to see how his wife’s condition developed over the next few days. The papers don’t tell us whether Julia recovered or what punishment the Clerkenwell justice decided to meet out to Bagot. However, while he might have faced a fine or a spell of weeks or months in prison neither would have helped Julia much. Nursing a serious injury and potential crippled for life a women in her forties or fifties (Martin was 54) as she was would find it hard to continue working. With her husband unemployed and with several mouths to feed the outlook for the Bagot family was bleak, if not desperate.

The workhouse loomed large in the lives of the working poor of Victorian London and sadly, it was probably the family’s next destination. There they would be compelled to live in ‘separate spheres’, him on the male side, her on the female.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, May 15, 1884]

A beer shop owner’s gamble fails to pay off

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Just this week, in the wake of the professional footballer Joey Barton being banned for placing bets on his own team, the Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, declared that he thought there was too much gambling in modern society. He told the press:

‘It is a little bit I must say the general problem in our society. You you have everywhere, on every advert, bet … bet on Sky … bet on here and there, so you have not to be surprised when people get addicted to betting’.

Gambling and indeed, concerns about gambling are nothing new. There were worries about the effects of the lottery in eighteenth-century London, and plenty of pamphlets and tracts were written condemning games of chance such as cards or dice. It was especially concerning when apprentices or other young people were involved.

Georgian worries turned into Regency ones, and then into Victorian ones; what we see today is perhaps only the inevitable slide towards everyday betting on anything, that all those previous commentators had warned us about.

Nineteenth-century critics of gambling condemned the practice for the same reasons they (for it was often the same people) attacked the consumption of alcohol – at least to excess. Gambling, like the ‘demon drink’, drained the pockets of the poor and brought destitution and moral collapse. As a result most gambling was highly regulated, just like the sale of alcohol.

Which is why James Knott found himself in front of the police magistrate at Worship Street in late April 1857.

Knott ran a beer shop in Shoreditch which had aroused the suspicions of the police. Inspector Cole thought Knott was engaged in an illegal betting operation and had the shop watched. Having assured himself that the shop keeper was up to mischief he called on him one afternoon to ask some questions.

Inspector Cole wanted to look inside a desk which was nailed to the floor but Mrs Knott was reluctant. She told him that ‘the key had been taken away by her husband’ and she couldn’t open it. Cole’s response was to say he was quite happy to break it open.

Knott then appeared and miraculously produced the key and opened the desk. Inside (to Knott’s apparent ‘surprise’) the inspector found what he was looking for: ‘various documents relating to races, amongst which were telegraphic messages from York and Doncaster, and numerous betting cards and books’, with details of races run since September 1856.

Knott had explained when questioned by Cole that a man known only as ‘Jemmy’ ran the betting organization, but so far the police had been unable to apprehend him. Knott had a lawyer to speak for him in court who told the sitting magistrate, Mr D’Eyncourt, that his client was innocent, that at worst he had acted in ignorance of the law, and since he was ‘impoverished’ he hoped the justice would be lenient with him.

Mr D’Eyncourt wasn’t inclined to leniency however, and fined him the full amount – £25 (or nearly £1,500 in today’s money) – warning him that failure to pay would earn him three months in the house of correction. At first the ‘impoverished’ beer shop owner looked destined for a spell of hard labour but then, as miraculously as he had found the key to a desk the contents of which he claimed to be entirely ignorant of, he paid his fine and left.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, April 30, 1857]