‘We will have Bread!’ is the cry from Wandsworth

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Richard Davey, John Young and William Cornish had entered the Wandsworth Union workhouse in February in search of food and shelter. Unfortunately for them this didn’t amount to much and came at a price. Having been given a very basic subsistence breakfast (as was normal for those visiting the casual ward) they were expected to pay for their keep by undertaking some menial work.

The three refused and considered the meal (of ‘six ounces of bread and cheese’) insufficient and were discharged from the workhouse along with nine other men, all of who seemingly ungrateful for the ‘help’ they’d received.

The trio made their way along Wandsworth High Street and entered a baker’s run by James Plummridge. Davey asked for some bread as he and his friends were starving. The assistant, James’ wife Susannah, refused; she must have realised they were paupers and therefore unlikely to have the funds to buy her stock. Moreover, she and her husband ran a business, not a charity.

Davey was undeterred however, and grabbed a half-quarter loaf and ripped into three pieces, handing two to Cornish and Young. They quickly left the shop with Mr Plummridge in hot pursuit.

He followed them until he saw a police constable and then had them arrested and taken to the nearest station house. There they were locked up and brought before Mr Paynter at Wandsworth Police Court in the morning.

They were poor, dishevelled and out of work. Davey had pinched a loaf of bread because they were hungry. Nevertheless they had not only committed a theft they had wilfully abused the rules  the New Poor Law (passed 12 years previously). The magistrate could have dealt with this summarily and locked them up for a week or so. Instead he chose to

make an example of them and sent them for trial at the Old Bailey. There, on the 23 February, Davey was convicted and others found not guilty. The judge handed Davey a sentence of one month’s imprisonment. He and his fellows had already served 10 days inside and so Davey may have spent nearly six weeks locked up for the offence of stealing a loaf of bread.

Life could be tough in the 1840s.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, February 13, 1846]

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The workhouse girl who failed to take her opportunities and took the silver instead

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Yesterday we celebrated 100 years of women over 30 having the vote in England. Britain wasn’t the first nation to give women the vote however, that was New Zealand in 1893. In 1893 in England women were still firmly viewed as second-class citizens.

Many young working-class women found work in London as domestic servants. One such woman was Harriett Sabin, a 17 year-old who found herself before the North London Police court in February 1893, charged with theft.

Harriett had been hired in December 1891 to work at a house in Clissold Road. She had got the position through the Metropolitan Association for Befriending Young Servants (MABYS) which had been formed in 1874 by Henrietta Barnet and Jane Nassau Senior. MABYS helped young women who had grown up in workhouses to find work in the homes of the better off and by 1890 the charity had over 1,000 volunteers throughout the capital.

It soon became evident that Harriett wasn’t suited to the position she been found however. She had arrived with ‘an indifferent character’ but ‘had pleaded for a chance’. Sadly her opportunity didn’t last very long though and she was given notice to quit at the end of a month. While employment hadn’t worked out Harriett was determined she would get something out of the experience.

On the penultimate day of December 1891, while the family were at dinner, Harriett got hold of a key and absconded through a side gate with a number of articles belonging to the house and staff that worked there. A search was made and it was found that the following items were missing:

‘a silver teapot, a gold bracelet, two gold brooches, a gold ring, a case of dessert knives and forks, and an umbrella’.

Another servant also reported that she had lost some items and suspicion inevitably fell on the girl from the workhouse. A warrant was issued to arrest her but she was nowhere to be found. Harriett had disappeared and nothing was heard about her until she surfaced in December 1893 in Northampton where ‘she was in custody for a similar offence’.

The police investigation, led by Detective-sergeant Bowers, had traced several of the stolen items to a pawnbrokers in Wood Green. In court the magistrate was at pains to point out that the pawnbroker was also at fault here. In the eighteenth century pawnbrokers were heavily criticised by commentators like Henry Fielding (the novelist and Bow Street magistrate) for allowing thieves a mechanism for laundering stolen goods. In this case a silver watch had been accepted even though it was engraved with the name of the owner – Mr Attree, Harriet’s former employer.

Many of the goods were produced in court for members of household (the Attrees and their staff) to swear to. The pawnbroker’s assistant, John Smith, was also there (n doubt shuffling uncomfortably under the magistrate’s glare).

DS Bowers had traveled the 60 miles north to question Harriett and reported that she had been convicted of theft there, and sent to prison for two months (which helps to explain why she had seemingly ‘disappeared’). Since she was now before Mr Ware and Mr Lane (the two sitting justices at North London) that sentence must have been completed. They decided that since she was clearly ‘a bad girl’ she would  to prison for a further three months.

The system was harsh. Harriett, a workhouse girl from a pauper background, had been given an opportunity to carve out a better life for herself, albeit as someone else’s drudge. She didn’t take it, or couldn’t adapt to it, and we don’t entirely know why. As a result she ended up exchanging one closed institution (the poor house) for another (the prison).

She was just 17 when she appeared before the magistrates at North London Police Court, and would be nearly 20 by the time she would be released from gaol. In effect her life was already ruined. I can only imagine what the future held for her but with a set of previous convictions and no character references to support her, that future must have seemed bleak to her.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, February 07, 1893]

The press ride to the rescue of a baby ‘bitten by rats’

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The Council of the Rats by Gustave Doré (1867)

This case demonstrates the power of the Victorian press in highlighting social issues, albeit on a local matter. The fact that the newspaper (in this example the popular Illustrated Police News) reported the circumstances of this particular case engaged the public and directly benefitted one poor woman and her child.

In late January 1872 The Illustrated Police News carried a story from the Worship Street Police Court about another who had complained about her living conditions. The woman, who was not named in the report, had appeared at the Police court to ask for the magistrate’s help. She told Mr Bushby that her lodgings, in Wilson Street, Finsbury, were ‘infested with rats’ and her child had been attacked by the animals.

She described how the rats ‘were in the habit of coming up from their holes and running about the room in midday. The child she held had, while left lying down, been bitten three times by them, and at length, by the directions of the doctor to whom she had taken it for treatment, she had come to the magistrate to inform him of the facts’.

It was testimony to the poverty she lived in and the dreadfully poor state of housing in some parts of the coastal, especially the East End. Mr Bushby told her to report the situation to the Sanitary Inspectors with the intention of getting the building condemned. He also advised her to move house as soon as possible.

The latter may have been sensible counsel but the woman was unable to go anywhere she said, because she owed two weeks rent and her husband was out of work. This was hardly an unusual situation in East London at the time; many people fell behind with the rent and faced eviction or were trapped in poor conditions while they struggled to make ends meet.

The doctor she had taken her baby to, Dr Timothy of Worship Street, had come to give evidence in her support and testified that she was a ‘deserving cause’. The middle classes of Victorian England had quite clear ideas about who did (and who did not) deserve the support of society and his opinion helped the woman’s case in the end.

A week later the newspaper told its readers that as  a consequence of their coverage of the story the court had received a large number of public donations for the woman. Individuals had read the horror story of rats and had sent in small sums of money that totalled £1 15s 6d (or about £80 today). Moreover, the landlord was shamed into saying he would allow her to move and accept her arrears in instalments. She was handed the money by the court  and expressed her gratitude to everyone involved. In the meantime, the paper added, the family had moved to a new home in Lisson Grove and the woman’s husband had also  found work.

For once then, the papers had a ‘good news’ story to tell and could take some of the credit for it. The readership could also feel suitably proud that they had helped a member of the ‘deserving poor’ escape a desperate domestic situation.

[from The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, January 27, 1872]

Three hearty fellows from Horselydown fall foul of Mr Coombe’s benevolence

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In January 1861 three ‘hearty-looking men’ appeared at the Southwark Police court in front of Mr Combe, the magistrate presiding. The trio were dressed in agricultural labourers’ clothes and said they come from Horsleydown, by Wapping, where they claimed to earn a living by  working on the river front. However, there had been a severe winter and the frost had prevented them from doing any paid work. They told the magistrate that their ‘wives and families were at home starving’.

That the winter of 1860/61 was a hard one is evidenced by several donations listed in the papers to the local poor relief funds. At Southwark alone over a dozen people had left sums of money, postal orders or postage stamps for the magistrate to distribute as they saw fit. However, these three men had been arrested for begging and that was met with strong disapproval from Mr Combe. He enquired the circumstances in which they had been picked up by the police and PC Duff (216M) stepped forward to make his report.

PC Duff explained that he was on duty in Bermondsey Street at four in the afternoon when he saw the three men walking down the road. They were carrying spades and singing a song. As they sang ‘Got no work to do’ they waived their spades on which was written the words “Relieve the distressed poor” in chalk.

Several people did part with money, although the constable felt they were often in worse straights than the three river workers. It was also suggested that there was more than a air of menace about the way they presented themselves and how they persuaded passers-by to help them.

After they had been shaken down at the police station six shillings and eleven pence was discovered so they had managed to extract a small amount of loose change from the Southwark locals at least. Mr Combe was not inclined to leniency in this case; he saw the men as imposters – and declared ‘he would not be doing his duty if he didn’t send them to prison’.

And prison was where they went next, sentenced to seven days hard labour in the house of correction. That seems to have come as something of a shock to the three of them, who perhaps hoped for help not brickbats. Mr Combe was making it quite clear that this was a society who helped those it deemed deserved it and these three ‘hearty’ fellows from Horselydown did not fit that description.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, January 24, 1861]

A ‘poor man’ and ‘a most depraved and incorrigible beggar’: Contrasting attitudes at Mansion House as winter sets in

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We’ve just had a weekend of severe weather in which snow caught much of southern England by surprise. Many parts of London were covered in a white coating yesterday, all very attractive and fun for kids but a nightmare for commuters come Monday morning. My university is effectively closed as teaching is suspended and all the trains into central London are running slow or late or both. Mind you, I’m not sure how much difference that is to a normal day!

So winter is well and truly upon us and this is the season which hits the homeless and the poor the hardest. For those that have to decide between food and heating, or those sleeping rough in the capital, December through to the spring is particularly challenging.

That is why Shelter and the  other homeless charities campaign so hard to help people at this time of the year. We will all see the adverts on the tube or get a leaflet through the door asking for a one-off donation or a regular contribution. Each year the BBC supports the St Mungo’s charity, which does such good work with the homeless.

The early Victorians were certainly aware of the problem of poverty and homelessness. They had charities and dedicated people who worked, often through the church, to support those in need. What they didn’t have, as we know, is a system of poor relief that allowed people to be supported within their own homes. There was no housing benefit or  income support. If you needed ‘relief’ you went to the workhouse, and this was increasingly true after 1834 and the passing into law of the Poor Law Amendment Act.

Attitudes towards poverty had hardened in the 1830s and poverty, which had always been viewed in part as a personal failing, was now frequently associated with moral bankruptcy. At Mansion House Police court two cases came up in early December which highlight contrasting contemporary attitudes towards poverty and homelessness.

Peter Jordan was described as an ‘imbecile’. Today we would understand this as someone with learning difficulties and now, as then, we would have some sympathy with him. The sitting magistrate at Mansion House that morning was Alderman Pirie, who was deputising for the Lord Mayor. He certainly looked on Jordan’s case with compassion but he was fairly limited in what he could do.

Jordan had been brought it by Duncan Campbell, a parish officer for the City. He had found the man ‘soliciting for charity’. In other words he was begging and that was against the wide-ranging vagrancy laws. However, Campbell’s aim wasn’t to have him punished for begging but to help him. He wanted to ‘prevent him perishing in the streets’.

Had he applied for relief, the alderman wanted to know. This was complicated; there was no help to had at Cannon Street he was told, and the London workhouse had recently closed and a new one was not yet built. The City had also closed a house of refuge so that was no option either.

All that was left to the justice was to send Jordan to prison for begging. And so the ‘poor man, […] who used formerly to work in the coal pits, was removed to Bridewell, under particular directions’ (presumably not to be whipped or set to hard labour, but instead to be looked after).

The next defendant in the dock received far less sympathy. Maria Butcher and her two children were also presented for begging in the streets. A policeman testified that he had found the two children at five in the evening on the Saturday.

He said ‘he saw the poor children, half naked and shivering on the steps leading to London Bridge. He took them to the Station-house and found in their pockets eighteen-pence halfpenny.  Their mother, who was up to all the tricks of vagrancy, the officer said, was in the justice-room’.

Maria denied any knowledge of what her children got up to when she wasn’t around but no one believed her. She took in washing and had, she said, very ‘little to give them’. The alderman said he was sure she was happy to take any money they ‘earned’ by begging nevertheless.

‘I’d be very glad to get any’ she replied, ‘and I assure you I’d make good use of it’.

The magistrate was horrified:

‘What a wretch you must be to send out these poor infants in such dreadful weather’.

His feelings were echoed by a street keeper who said he knew Maria as a ‘most depraved and incorrigible beggar’ who exploited her children to avoid doing any work herself. She often sent then out without hardly any clothes or shoes, in all weathers, to beg for her. Another witness, a Poor Law Union official said the children were well known beggars and the police were obliged to bring them in under the law.

In the end although she begged for clemency Mr Pirie sent her and the children to Bridewell but – for her at least – there was no similar instructions for them to go easy on her. The children could expect some level of care but she would bread and water and the drudgery of hard labour, picking oakum most likely.

So that winter all four of the people brought before the Mansion House court ended up in prison. Their ‘crime’? Poverty. Today there will still be hundreds of men, women and young people sleeping rough and begging on London’s streets. So before we congratulate ourselves too much on creating a fairer and more civilised society than our early Victorian ancestors perhaps we should take a moment to reflect on that uncomfortable fact.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, December 11, 1838]

A snake trader charms the Mansion House

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The summary courts of the capital didn’t always deal with crime or antisocial behaviour; some of those that came before so did so for advice or to ask for help. One such person, named, was a traveler from the Caribbean, who appeared before the Chief Clerk at Mansion House in some distress.

The unnamed visitor, described by the press reports as a ‘respectable-looking young negro’, said he had arrived in London from his native Demerara via a circuitous route. He told  Mr Oke, the clerk that he had left Demerara (in what was then British Guiana and is now Guyana) in an attempt to make some money.

Whilst ‘out in the woods’ in Demerara he ‘had discovered a nest of boa-constrictors that had only just been hatched, and having heard that such objects were of value in foreign countries, he carefully secured his prize… and resolved to take the “little strangers” to the Zoological Gardens at Moscow, where he was told he would be paid a good price for them’.

It seems that there was nothing deemed wrong in the young man’s actions, the Victorians hadn’t yet determined that trading in live exotic animals was cruel. The RSPCA (who are concerned about such a trade in snakes today) had been in existence for around 50 years by 1873 (when this application came before the Mansion House Police Court) but perhaps they were busy enough dealing with cruelty to domestic animals.

Unfortunately for the adventurous snake dealer things didn’t go quite to plan however. He made his way to Hamburg where he was supposed to make a connection to take him on to Russia but the boas fell sick. Despite ‘all his endeavours’ the ‘young “boas” all died’.

With nothing to trade and most of his money gone the lad used the rest of his funds to get himself to England and the capital where he now asked for the Empire’s help to secure a boat back home. He had found ship at the West India dock that was prepared to carry him back to Guiana in return from him working his passage but he had no clothes. He asked the court therefore, if he might have some money from the poor box to purchase the necessary clothes for the voyage.

Mr Oke sent an assistant to check his story and, having ascertained that he was telling the truth, agreed to help. He was given a small sum and ‘left the court apparently highly delighted with the result of his application’.

There is a footnote to this story: Mr George Colwell OKe (1821-1874) served as the Chief Clerk to the magistrates in the City from 1864 onwards having started as a clerk in 1855. He was widely respected for his knowledge of the criminal law and assisted many aldermen and lord mayors in their decision making. Moreover, as a result of his deep understanding of statue law and practice Oke produced several volumes on the subject.

The best selling and most well-known of these was his Synopsis of Summary Convictions,(1858) which ran to 8 volumes and was popularly known as Oke’s Magisterial. You can find this online and while it is hardly an exciting read, it is invaluable to historians in understanding the legal structure under which all Police Court business was conducted. Oke rarely appears in the pages of the newspapers so it is nice to see such an influential figure pop up and act in a charitable way, demonstrating the alternative function of these central summary courts.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, October 23, 1873]

A little local knowledge helps prevent ‘the grossest frauds and impositions’.

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When the Rev. Henry Burton, vicar of Atcham near Shrewsbury received a letter asking for his help he was immediately suspicious. Whether this was because he had be sent such missives or before and was wise to them, or perhaps on account of him being on the list of magistrates for Shropshire, we will never know but Rev. Burton decided to forward the letter to London. He sent it on to Mr Elliot, one of the capital’s Police Court magistrates, then looking after the Lambeth court.

The letter was from a  man named Henry Dewhurst who described himself as a doctor and begged the vicar to help him financially by placing an order (with payment) for a book that he had written. The book was entitled ‘The Moral Philosopher‘ and was priced at 8s and 6d (about £25 today). Dewhurst added that:

‘Diseased heart, want of employment, and the almost fatal effects of typhus fever to himself, wife, and two out of four children, have plunged them into the deepest distress. For two days they have not tasted food. Wife is fast sinking from consumption and want of nutriment. All they had is in pledge, even his clothes, for 56d. An early reply is humbly supplicated’.

Rev. Burton wanted to see if the magistrate at Lambeth could make some local enquires (as Dewhurst gave his address as 25 William Street, Nelson Square, Lambeth) and so Mr Elliot despatched the court officer, Sergeant Goff to see what he could find out.

When Goff returned he said it was a scam, or a ‘system of imposture’ as he put it. He had visited Mr Dewhurst and confirmed that he was someone who had previously been exposed as a fraud at the Lambeth Police Court. About a year earlier he had tried exactly the same method of parting gullible individuals from their money with a hard luck story and the promise of a book that never materialised.

Goff discovered that Dewhurst had also written other begging letters recently including one to another vicar (this time in Canterbury) where he tried to pass himself off as a having in MA in astronomy. That had also failed to convince the reverend gentleman who had asked a lady friend in Lambeth to check its validity.

Mr Elliot asked Goff if he was satisfied that Dewhurst was an imposter. Goff replied that he was, adding:

‘He has not his wife living with him, and whenever he is asked for the book he states he publish, his excuse is that it is at the binder’s, but who the binder is he does not say’.

The magistrate declared that if everyone was as careful as the Rev. Burton the ‘grossest frauds and impositions might be prevented’.

Interestingly in 1835 a man named William Henry Dewhurst did publish a pamphlet or book entitled the The Moral Philosopher, so perhaps he wasn’t such a fraud after all? 

[from The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, September 7, 1848]