Little sympathy for a woman driven to seek the Parish’s help

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In 1834 the New Poor Law came into existence. This draconian legalisation was the brainchild of Edwin Chadwick and Nassau Senior. Whilst the Poor Law Amendment Act (1834) did not go quite as far in its reform of the old system as the Poor Law Commissioners might have wished it still represented a very significant organisation change to the way poor relief was delivered in England. Part if its intention was to get rid of the practice of giving ‘outdoor relief’ (what we might see perhaps as ‘benefits’) and instead force anyone that required help to enter the workhouse.

As a result the workhouse came to dominate the lives of England’s poor, representing as it did (alongside the debtor’s prison) a very personal failure at the game of life. Families were separated and orphans apprenticed out, while the stain of the ‘house remained with tens of thousands of men and women for the rest of their lives. It is hard to imagine a society which thinks it is fair and reasonable to force those who are unable to support themselves to enter what was, in effect, a prison (with hard labour task that were akin to those in prisons), in return for meagre subsistence and little else. Dickens’ novel Oliver Twist gives us a very stark view of how unforgiving the workhouse experience was in early Victorian England.

The poor relief system was based on a person’s place of settlement. Settlement law was complicated but, in simple terms, involved determine who was responsible for footing the bill for a person’s care. Throughout the nineteenth century settlement was determined by birth, marriage and/or your place of habitation and work. So if you were born in a certain parish – such as Bethnal Green – then that was your last place of settlement and that poor law union was obliged to support you.

However, if you travelled to somewhere else to live and work (or married someone who lived in a neighbouring parish for example) then after a year your settlement would be wit the new parish. Poor Law unions were generally unwilling to help anyone outside of their area and spent considerable time and resources in ‘removing’ unwanted paupers from their jurisdiction.

All of this is by way of explaining the content behind one old lady’s appearance at the Worship Street Police Court in East London in October 1838, just four years after the passing of the New Poor Law.

Ann Cook was 68 and had been widowed for 20 years. She had married her husband at Shoreditch Church and they had lived in Curtain Road where he worked as a plumber. She had a son who lived in Manchester and another who had moved to Liverpool. While Ann’s aunt was alive and living at Greenwich she too was frail and unable to support her niece. In effect then, Ann had nobody to look after her and had reached the stage in life where she was also unable to support herself through work. Had she lived in our society the state would have provided her with an Old Age Pension and sheltered accommodation. Sadly for Ann she had been born in the late 1700s and into a society which seemingly cared very little about old women like her.

Claiming settlement from Shoreditch (where she had married and resided) rather than Bethnal Green (where she was lodging) Ann had approached the Shoreditch workhouse for help. She had initially gone to Bethnal Green but they had told her she should go to Shoreditch.

However, when she knocked at the door of the Shoreditch workhouse she was refused entry. That was at 11 o’clock in the morning and Ann was turned away by the workhouse keeper’s daughter. Some angry words were exchanged it seems, and Ann may well have said some things she later regretted.

Twelve hours later, desperate and having eaten nothing in 24 hours, Ann was back at the gates of the workhouse. Now she was met by Mr Coste, the parish’s receiving officer, who also refused to let her in but on the grounds  that it was too late at night. He gave her sixpence to find her lodgings and shooed her away. Ann never did find new lodgings because Coste had her arrested and on the following morning she was brought before the magistrate at Worship Street on a charge of ‘endeavouring to obtain a  lodging in Shoreditch workhouse at an unreasonable hour of night’.

Ann told the magistrate her story and the relieving officer gave his justification for not admitting her. Without evidence of her marriage he could not established her settlement. As he could not be sure whether Shoreditch were obliged to help her he thought it better to bar her entry and send her away. After all, he said, ‘they would have a great expense at her removal’ had she not been entitled to support there.

This to-and-froing of paupers between parishes (especially poor ones like Shoreditch and Bethnal Green) was all too common. There seems to have been no sense that someone like Ann deserved help regardless of where she was domiciled. She was simply viewed as a burden on the parochial purse and, as such, someone to be ignored and neglected and deemed ‘someone’s else’s problem’.

Mr Grove, the shutting justice, was no more sympathetic to Ann than the reliving officer had been. He told her off for attempting to gain entry at that time of night and suggested she seek help form her family. When Ann had explained that this was unrealistic (her son being hundreds of miles away and her only other relation being even less capable of support yah herself) the magistrate simply wanted her that if she turned up in his court again he would have ‘to punish her’.

‘I have not had  bit of bread to eat since yesterday morning’ Ann told him. ‘I went to Bethnal-green, and they pushed me off the step of the door. What shall I do? (the poor creature burst into tears)’.

Mr Coste said that his parish never refused relief when they knew the applicant. He was washing his hands of the situation and on this occasion the magistrate was complicit. He merely discharged Ann and set her free to look for help elsewhere. With winter approaching and with little prospect of gaining work he had effectively condemned Ann to a slow death. Whenever we hear politicians and social commentators bemoaning the benefit system and the ‘scroungers’ that abuse it we should remember why the Liberal and Labour Party were so adamant that welfare reform was necessary in the twentieth century.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, October 13, 1838]

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Little charity for the Irish at Marlborough Street

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1843 could certainly be viewed as one of the low points of welfare policy in this country. 1834 saw the passing of the Poor Law Amendment Act, an act designed to force anyone seeking support from the state (in those days this meant the parish) to enter a workhouse  rather than be relieved outside. A previous piece of catch-all legislation, the Vagrancy Act (1824) also deserves mention as an instrument designed both to clamp down on beggars and vagrants and allow the arrest of pretty much anyone the local authorities took a dislike to but were otherwise unable to pin a specific offence on.

Thomas Lakey was exactly the sort of person the middle classes in Victorian society disliked. Lacey was unemployed, he was poor, homeless and, probably worst of all, he was Irish. When he appeared at Marylebone Police Court in June 1835 he was described as a ‘sturdy Irish beggar, accused of being a ‘common vagrant’.

The prosecution was brought by the Mendicity Society, an organisation formed in 1818 to ‘stop people begging’. The society was well organised and used careful record keeping to track mendicants, whom they helped financially on the understanding that they stopped begging and/or left the area.

Lacey came before the magistrate at Marylebone accused on being a ‘common drunken vagabond’ for the last 20 years. He had his own particular modus operandi, according to the officers bringing the case to court:

‘Having lost a hand, it was his practice to accost females in the street, and thrusting his stump before them, to demand charity in a menacing tone’.

If his appeal was not successful on the basis of his disability then ‘in his other hand he carried a stick, which he employed with great dexterity when drunk, or when pursued by a constable’.

For 20 years Thomas had received a pension of 15 pence a day from the East India Company. Given that this seemed enough to live on the magistrate (a Mr Chambers) was surprised the Irishman needed to beg at all. Mr Chambers told him that his pension (amounting to about 21 pence in today’s money, the equivalent of 2 days wages for a labourer) should allow him to live while he could also do some work, since he had a perfectly usable hand despite his injury.

We have no idea of how Thomas lost his hand, an accident working for the Company is most likely, but it may have happened after that. Clearly Mr Chambers had little sympathy for him. He turned to the Mendicity Society officers and suggested they speak to the East India Company. Perhaps if they were informed how Lacey was abusing the pension he had been given they might see fit to stop it.

The poor Irishman now work up to the reality of what was being proposed in court, the loss of the small dole he had to keep himself together. He told the court that if he was released he would immediately return to Kilkenny, where he was born, and no longer be a burden on London’s ratepayers or a threat to its inhabitants. Mr Chambers sent him to prison for two months to think it over.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, June 19, 1835]

When bureaucracy gets in the way of helping those in need: a case from history

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A workhouse in West London c.1857

In 1834 Parliament Passed the Poor Law Amendment Act ushering in one of the most contentious and unpopular pieces of legislation in our history. The New Poor law sought to reduce the costs of the pauperism (which fell on the ratepayers of any given parish) by discouraging people from applying for it. Previously the poor law had offered ‘doles’ to those in need to support them in the community – a form of ‘income support’ if you like. Workhouses existed and some parishes preferred the option of aiding the poor by giving them food and shelter in return for their labour; this was termed ‘indoor relief’.

After 1834 the New Poor Law stipulated that all those seeking relief should undergo the ‘workhouse test’. In other words enter the workhouse if they wanted any help from the parish. Given that this meant surrounding not only one’s independence but also accepting the breakup of the family, the new system provoked widespread resistance, condemnation and despair. Historians have argued that the ‘test’ was inconsistently enforced and very much dependant on the discretion of local poor law officials.

Nonetheless the 1834 legislation represented open season on the poor, vulnerable, sick and unemployed. The stain of the workhouse was not really removed until the 20th century, when the welfare state was established in 1948 by Attlee’s Labour government.

Before and after 1834 arguments over who was, or was not, entitled to poor relief often reached the summary courts for the adjudication of local magistrates. One group of people that frequently had their cases heard were the unmarried mothers of illegitimate children. These so-called ‘bastard bearers’ were considered to be not only immoral but a burden on the rates. Throughout the 18th and 19th century justices of the peace up and down the country grilled young women as to the paternity of their children and threatened them with the house of correction if they refused to divulge  the father’s name. Women also came voluntarily to court to complain that men had used them and then abandoned them without taking responsibility for the children that had helped bring into the world.

There was then, a mutual desire to make fathers pay for their offspring, either by marrying the mother or promising to pay a weekly amount to defray the costs that would otherwise fall on the parish and the rates.

In May 1845 Lloyd’s Weekly carried its usual summary of the ‘doings’ of the London Police Courts, where the capital’s professional magistracy sat in judgement on petty crime, violence, drunkenness, and a huge range of other business. Amongst its columns was a report on the ‘Bastardy Clause in the New Poor Law’. This referred to an update to the 1834 legislation just passed (in 1845) concerning illegitimacy.

It gave a single magistrate the power (previously only invested in two justices sitting together) to determine bastardy cases. Women were still to be examined and were still expected to ‘bring forward the same amount of “corroborative evidence” required by the old act’. In short they had to attempt to prove that the father was who they said he was.

The paper commented that this change had brought more women to court, perhaps because it was easier to find a single justice than wait for a petty sessions (or two or three JPs) to be convened. The paper was unsure however, whether the process was any better as a result. In fact the evidence from the London courts seemed to suggest that no one was really that sure how the law was affected by the new legislation and exactly who was responsible for sitting in judgement on cases brought by mothers who had been left high and dry by their lovers.

Lloyd’s gave an example: 

A young woman appeared at Marlborough Street Police Court to complain that she had given birth to a child and that the father, a groom working for Sir James Middleton in Whitehall, was refusing to support her and the baby. The groom denied any responsibility and had not paid her a penny in the three months since she gave birth. Given that her prospects for marriage were now extremely limited as were her opportunities to find paid work, this unnamed woman was facing the very real threat of having to enter the workhouse where she would most likely be separated from her child and lose all connection with it along with her independence.

No wonder she came to the magistrate at Marlborough Street for help.However, it was clearly more complicated than she had hoped to make her reluctant groom accept responsibility for his actions.

She told the magistrate that she had initially applied to the parish for help but they had referred her to the Queens Square Police Court. The justice there sent her instead to Bow Street. Bow Street sent her to marlborough Street, who at first referred her to the Clerkenwell Sessions of the Peace. At the sessions she was referred back to Marlborough Street. No one, it seems, wanters to take responsibility for this three month-old baby and its poverty-stricken mother.

Here at least Mr Maltby, referring to the new act, directed his clear to issue a summon to bring the groom to court in the following week. The woman was told to bring along the required “corroborative evidence”. Hopefully then he would be proven (as much as that was possible) to be the father of the child and mother and baby might avoid entering the dreaded workhouse so evocatively described by Dickens in Oliver Twist.

I am reminded that for many people, then and now, trying to get state (or parish) support when you are clearly in need of it is complicated by bureaucracy and the mean-spirited nature of benefit systems that assume it either someone’s else responsibility or that the person asking for help is in some way ‘trying in on’.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly London Newspaper, Sunday, May 18, 1845]

Poverty, a pig and no small amount of pathos; a day in the life of London’s Police Courts

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Today’s post takes a handful of hearings from the Police Courts in early April 1834 to show the variety of both the reporting, and the types of cases that came before them. We should remember that while the press reports served as a source of information for the public about the ways in which crime and general ‘bad behaviour’ was being dealt with, they were also a source of amusement and diversion for many.

Firstly, at Bow Street, the dock was crowded as around eight Irish men took their place in front of the magistrate. Cornelius Donovan and his brother Timothy were the only defendants named by the reporter from the Morning Postperhaps because it was these two that spoke up in court.

The men were charged with assaulting a group of their fellow countrymen, the O’Neils. The fight had broken out as a result of dispute over the ownership of a property in St Giles. St Giles in the 1800s was synonymous with poverty, crime and was home to a large Irish population, now of course it is a much more fashionable part of the modern city, where the only evidence you’ll find of poverty are the Big Issue sellers and the rough sleepers in shop doorways.

The justice told all the men that he could not determine who had the legal entitlement to the house, they ‘would have to fight it out’. At this Tim Donovan ‘(interrupting His Worship)’, said ‘There, do you hear that? Come out of this, all of ye, and settle this at once’.

The poor magistrate had to raise his voice to correct the misunderstanding; what he meant was that the warring parties would have to ‘fight out’ their competing claims in a court of law, not on the street!. As he left the court Tim was heard to say, ‘By Jasus, we have got to begin all over again’.

From the amusing story of the fighting Irish (a familiar theme for the nineteenth-century press) we move to Marylebone Police Court. Here Thomas Allingham was accused of ill-treating a pig.

PC 117T (one of Peel’s new force) told the magistrate that he had been on his beat at 7 in the morning when he saw Allingham riding the large animal around a field off the Bayswater Road. According to the copper Allingham was ‘beating and spurring the poor animal in the most unmerciful manner, until it at last sunk down under its load and appeared nearly dead’.

When the policeman remonstrated with the lad he leapt off the pig and attacked him with a knife. He was charged with almost ‘boring’ the pig  to death and with assaulting a police officer. The magistrate ordered him to find bail against an appearance at the next sessions of the peace.

Finally, and perhaps appropriately for 1834 we have a case of destitution. This was the year which saw the passing of Poor Law Amendment Act; the piece of legislation which had the cruel intention of forcing the unemployed and sick to seek relief in a workhouse (rather than being assisted in the community). It was the brainchild of Edwin Chadwick who often gets a better press (as a social reformer and champion of pubic health) than I think he deserves. The New Poor Law was an awful imposition on the lives of the most vulnerable in English society and it has left a long dark stain on this nation’s history.

Mary Ann Davis, ‘a miserable-looking being clothed in rags, and carrying an infant in her arms’, was presented before Mr Shutt. A policeman said he had found the two of them sleeping rough in a doorway on Oxford Street between 10 and 11 the previous night. Given that they were in breach of the Vagrancy Laws he had escorted them to the police station.

Mr Shutt wanted to know if the woman had been drinking. ‘I don’t think she was’ the policeman reported,  but ‘she was shivering with cold, and the infant was crying’.

The magistrate turned to the mother and asked her when she had last slept in a bed. Some time ago, admitted Mary, and in St Giles so she was clearly down on her luck. She had been to Marlborough Street police office (the police courts were termed offices until later in the century) but had been sent away again.

No one there seemed to want to help her.

This justice was more sympathetic; he instructed an officer to take Ann and her child to the overseers of the poor at St Giles so they could receive her. She ‘must not’, he insisted, ‘be suffered to perish in the streets’. Whether the overseers did as they were asked is impossible to know for certain. Many thousands passed through their hands in the first half of the 1800s; this was a period where very many suffered from poverty and unemployment.

Chadwick’s ‘reform’ of the old poor law system was based on a recognition that rising population numbers were putting an increased pressure of the public purse. Sadly, as the continued presence of rough sleepers testifies, even our modern nation, with its extensive welfare provision, still fails a proportion of its citizens.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, April 07, 1834]

English Authorities 0 Irish poor 1: a Whitechapel beadle is thwarted

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It seems appropriate, on the day after St Patrick’s Day, to tell the story of an Irish pauper who appeared in court on her nation’s saint’s day and triumphed. It must have been a rare victory for London’s poorest who faced a daily battle with the poor law authorities and the criminal justice system.

Biddy (probably short for Bridget) Brick was well known to the courts of the capital and a was a thorn in the flesh of the poor law officers of East London. She was, the Worship Street Police court was told, ‘a source of constant plague and annoyance, from her clamorous mode of demanding relief, and her pertinacious refusal to be passed to her native country’. [I had to look ‘pertinacious’ up; it means obstinate and determined and I’m going to use it more often!]

Her favourite method of gaining both the attention and the financial support she craved was to drop her infant child outside the workhorse door and leave it. Presumably she thought this would mean that the poor law authorities would have to support it, and herself. The tactic could backfire however, and she had seen the inside of a London gaol several times as a consequence of her actions.

Mr Bennet, the beadle of St Luke’s in Whitechapel was at his wits end and had pursued a campaign to finally get Biddy sent back to Ireland as her place of legal settlement. Parishes had an obligation to support only those paupers who were legally entitled to settle in the parish; anyone falling ‘chargeable’ who was settled elsewhere was supposed to be ‘passed’ to their native parish.

The settlement laws were complex and you could gain settlement in a variety of ways such as marriage, work, or through renting a rateable property. Biddy however, filled none of these criteria. Eventually Bennet succeeded and escorted Biddy to a ‘pauper ship’ that would carry her to Ireland. As they parted however, the Irishwoman offered a parting shot:

‘Good bye for the present old chap, I’ll be returnable by May’.

In fact she returned much more quickly than that; within days a City of London officer appeared at the beadle’s door with Biddy and her child in tow. She had attempted her old truck of dumping her baby on the workhouse steps at Cripplegate and had been dragged before the Lord Mayor at Mansion House. He heard her starry and sent her back to St Luke’s.

Distressed and confounded Bennet took her to court to ask Mr Greenwood at Worship Street what he should do with her. He presumably hoped the magistrate would help him get her sent back to Ireland as soon as possible. Unfortunately for him Mr Greenwood told him the law was against him.

‘The child, I suppose, is illegitimate?’ ask the justice.

‘Yes, your Worship’, replied the beadle.

‘And the mother has no legal settlement in England?’

‘She has not, your Worship’.

‘Then the law is in the woman’s favour’, Mr Greenwood explained, ‘for the clause in the New Poor Act [1834] that relates to the subject merely says that a bastard child takes the settlement of its mother; but the mother in this case having no settlement, the law remains as it was before, and the child belongs to the parish in which it was born’.

‘But then the mother, sir….’

‘The chid being under seven years of age, the mother by law in inseparable  from it, and must partake in the settlement’, concluded the magistrate.

Poor Mr Bennet, all his efforts had unraveled and Biddy enjoyed her victory over the local authorities. She blessed the magistrate and wished that he ‘might never die’ before she ‘shouldered her chid and hurried off, sticking close to the gold-laced skirts of the functionary’. The newspaper report, in its tone and eloquence, might have been written by Dickens himself.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, March 18, 1840]

Austerity, benefits and a lack of compassion: the application of the ‘hard labour test’ in 1840s London

Historical work on the role of the eighteenth-century justice of the peace (by Peter King, and myself) has revealed the important work they did in mediating claims for poor relief. As well as dealing with all sorts of offending and advising on a range of local matters JPs (later termed magistrates) sometimes intervened to assist the poor when they were refused help by the Poor Law officials in their parish.

The parish was the local authority with responsibility for helping those that could not work through ill-health, age or legitimate unemployment. But one’s entitlement to benefits (as we might term them) was limited and conditional. The laws of settlement were complicated but, in essence, a person had to be born in a parish to be entitled to poor relief there, or to have settled there through work or marriage.

Being ‘settled’ might meant paying a local tax for a year or something akin to that and, because the costs of poor relief fell on the ratepayers not the state, local authorities were not keen to attract new mouths to feed and equally vigorous in evicting anyone who looked like they might become a burden on the population.

JPs were therefore frequently called upon to hear settlement claims and counter-claims.

In 1834 parliament passed the Poor Law Amendment Act which set in place a new, harsh, form of poor relief designed to deter all but the genuinely impoverished from seeking help from the rates. Thereafter anyone requesting poor relief was supposed to be offered the workhouse and all the horrors that entailed if they wanted help from the parish. This meant the breakup of the family (men and women and children were housed in separate wings), a barely sufficient diet (see Oliver Twist) and backbreaking hard labour (picking oakum or breaking rocks were typical).

In short in the nineteenth century pauperism was seen as a personal failing, and if you asked for poor relief you faced an experience almost as bad as being sent to prison.

In 1847 a poor woman, whose name was not recorded by the Morning Chronicle‘s reporter, appeared at the Marlborough Street Police Court to ask for the magistrate’s help. She told Mr Hardwicke that because her ‘children were starving, her husband in an infirm state of health, and out of work’ she had approached the relieving officer at St. James’ workhouse to admit them temporarily.

However, the officer told her that he could only do so on the condition that her husband would agree to be set to hard labour, breaking stones.

She said that she was sure that if he ‘was put to such work as this, in this inclement season, in his present state of health, that it would kill him, and and she therefore said it was impossible to accept the condition’.

The officer, a Mr Dore, then said that the alternative was for the whole family to be passed (effectively evicted from the parish) to Ireland where her husband had been born. This too was unacceptable to her; she complained that while he had been born in Ireland he’d not been there for years, that she and her children were English born, they had no home in Ireland. Moreover, she continued:

‘Her husband was a journeyman tailor, had acquired a settlement in St. James’ parish, and had never applied for parish assistance’. She added that she ‘had begged a loaf a bread from the receiving officer, to feed her famishing children with, as they had nothing to eat all day. This was refused, and if it had not been for the humanity of a neighbour, her children must have passed another day without food’.

Mr Hardwicke sent for Dore, who confirmed the woman’s story but said his hands were tied; he had his instructions from the workhouse Board of Guardians. The magistrate suggested that there were times when a little discretion was in order. The hard labour ‘test’ might be appropriate in ‘cases in which the parish authorities had reason to believe that an able-bodied applicant only desired to lead an idea life in the workhouse’ but in cases such as this, he ‘thought the general rule ought to be relaxed’.

Mr Gore said he only had the one sort of work available but if saw someone really struggling the policy was to offer them medical help and some respite. This was usually evidenced it seems, by seeing that their hands had become ‘badly blistered’ and other signs of ‘bodily weakness’. In this case of course, by the time that was apparent the poor old man might have been well on his way to the grave.

The magistrate sent the relieving officer away to see what he could do for the family but that was as much the court did for them. This would not have been an isolated incident in a society without universal benefits.

But before we get too complacent and say how awful the Victorians were to their poor we should take a look at the reality that in 2015/16 the Tressell Trust donated over 1,000,000 three day emergency food parcels to vulnerable people in the UK.  Tressell are the biggest but not the only provider so the figure is larger than this. Barnardo’s estimates that there are 3.7 million children living in poverty, 1.7 million in ‘severe poverty’. The majority of these (63%) are living in families where at least one parent is in employment, not unemployed or ‘workshop’.

This is the reality of austerity Britain; the reality of the fallout from the banking scandal, the gap between rich and poor, the continued campaign to demonise those on benefits and the harsh reality of global capitalism. As in the 1840s it is the poorest that suffer while the richest are protected and indeed prosper and grow richer.

And we wonder why people commit crime…

[from The Morning Chronicle, Monday, January 25, 1847]

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.

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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.