‘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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A young mother is driven by ‘wretchedness and starvation’ to throw her boy into the canal

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The entrance to the Regent’s Canal at Limehouse in 1823

A few days ago I wrote up the case of mechanic that rescued a woman from drowning herself in the Regent’s canal. That case was from 1866 but lest we suppose that it was an isolated incident today I’ve found another attempted suicide in the canal, and this one ended being prosecuted at the Old Bailey in 1849.

In February 1849 a woman was placed in the dock at the Worship Street Police court before Mr Hammill, the sitting magistrate. Her name was Anne Mallandine and she was charged with attempting to murder her own by throwing him to the Regent’s canal. The chief witness was John Stoddart, a clerk employed by a Haggerstone builder, who was looking out over the canal from his boss’ counting house at four o’clock in the afternoon of the 6 February.

He saw Anne walking along canal tow path pulling a small boy along by the hand. The child was resisting and saying ‘don’t mother, don’t!’. Anne ignored him and propelled him towards the edge of the path clearly determined to throw him into the water. Suddenly, to Stoddart’s horror,  she picked him up and threw him in.

As the boy struggled and moved away from the bank Anne started to undress. She had taken off her bonnet and shawl before the clerk could reach her but he was able to stop her jumping in after her boy. Another man arrived on the scene and secured the woman while Stoddart bravely plunged into the water to rescue the little lad.

The clerk and the other man managed to get both parties to a nearby pub where they were cleaned up and handed over to the police. The boy was taken from his mother and placed in the workhouse while Anne was locked up for the magistrate to decide  what to do with her in the morning.

After Stoddart gave his testimony a young man named John Wilding said he had seen the incident and noticed Anne earlier. He said she had been trying to ‘lure the boy to the bank by showing him some ducks that were swimming in the water’ but he had got wind of her real purpose and tried to get away.

PC Heath (N48) told Mr Hammill that on arrest Anne had expressed regret that the witnesses had arrived as quickly as they had since ‘then she would have been spared the trouble of going before a magistrate or anybody else’.

Mr Hammil wanted to know what had brought her to do such a dreadful thing. Anne told him that she and her son were starving and had not eaten anything for at least a day. She was probably also trying to avoid the shame of going to the parish for help and clearly dreaded the workhouse more than she feared death.

Anne was committed to take her trial at the Old Bailey and imprisoned in Newgate gaol in the meantime. On the 5 March she was formally tried for attempting to kill  her little boy Mason. Anne (or Hannah as she was named in the Old Bailey Proceedings) was described as 28 years old and unmarried; she cried throughout the trial as the witnesses recounted the events of that afternoon. The court was told that the water was about five feet deep at the part of the canal and that probably helped save Mason’s life.

Her defence counsel accepted that she had done as was alleged but had only acted out of desperation. He stopped short of declaring her insane but  argued that she had been brought to do what she did from ‘wretchedness and starvation’ and suggested that at the time she was not in a state of mind that allowed her to act rationally. This probably did just enough to convince the jury , who found her not guilty.

[from The Morning Chronicle , Thursday, February 8, 1849; The Morning Post , Tuesday, March 06, 1849]

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 return of Harry Harcourt – an imposter or a genuine man in need?

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In the boiler room of a Victorian steam ship

On Wednesday I featured the story of Henry Harcourt who had claimed he was deaf and dumb and presented himself at the Lambeth workhouse casual ward seeking shelter. There he suddenly blurted out that he could in fact speak (and hear) but had closed off the world while serving as a stoker on a voyage to and from Australia. To the surprise of everyone in the Lambeth Police court he also claimed to be a relation the sitting Home Secretary, Sir Vernon Harcourt.

Henry was remanded in custody so that enquiries could be made into his history to ascertain whether he was telling the truth or not. Two days later the papers reported that he was back up before Mr Chance at Lambeth for the latest developments to be revealed.

Police constable 110L took the stand to tell Mr Chance that he’d discovered that Harcourt had been a barman then, working with his aunt, and she didn’t remember him having any difficulties speaking or hearing then. That was in 1877 he confirmed, just six years earlier.

The magistrate now turned to Harcourt in the dock to ask him to explain his situation.

‘Do you seriously say now that you have pretended to be deaf and dumb for 14 years?

‘Yes, to all but my immediate friends’, replied the former stoker/barman.

So how did he manage on board the ship, Mr Chance wanted to know.

‘I only spoke to those attending the fires. The persons on board thought I was deaf and dumb’.

‘I am very sorry for what I have done’ Harcourt added.

The court heard that he had written down requests for food on pieces of paper so as to maintain his ruse with his fellow shipmates but could offer no real explanation for why he acted this way. Mr Chance was clearly dissatisfied with his answer and equally determined to get to the bottom of it. Was there anyone who could shed any light on the case, he asked?

The police constable that had investigated Harcourt’s background said the aunt was loathe to come forward to testify and added that she was a woman of independent means. There was a declaration from Harcourt that he was entitled to some family money from a will but nothing was at all clear. Mr Chance said he needed to hear directly from Harcourt’s aunt and remanded him in custody once more.

‘It’s a most extraordinary thing’, the magistrate concluded, ‘and I cannot help thinking there is something more than has already come to light’.

Whether there was, and whether it was reported, you will have to wait to find out later this week.

[from The Standard, Thursday, February 01, 1883]

A genuine case for support, or a malingering fantasist?

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Continuing my analysis of one whole week in the reporting of the Police Courts here is the case of a man who claimed to be related to a famous politician but who had ended up in a workhouse.

Henry Harcourt was 24 and turned up at the casual ward of Lambeth workhouse seeking ‘shelter and food’. He was a curious individual in several ways but most obviously because he presented himself as deaf and dumb. He was clutching a piece of paper given to him at a nearby police station which told him how to find the workhouse and acted as a letter of introduction. Presumably then, he had been picked up on the streets as a vagrant  by a policeman that decided to help rather than prosecute him.

Henry was given food and the, as was the normal procedure, set to work in the casual ward. The workhouse superintendent, Mr George Ware, told the Lambeth Police Court magistrate (Mr Chance) that Harcourt:

‘was given 4lb of oakum to pick. He did but very little, and made signs that he wanted to see the doctor’.

Dr Lloyd thought the man fit for work but was inclined to excuse him on the grounds of his disability, being, as he thought, entirely deaf and unable to speak. Imagine the shock then when on Sunday morning in chapel he suddenly blurted out:

‘I wish to confess. I have been pretending to be deaf and dumb for 14 years. I went a voyage to Australia and back as assistant stoker on a ship, and never spoke to anyone’.

Henry confirmed his story story in front of Mr Chance and added that he had kept his silence in part to protect his respectable family and friends from his fall from grace socially. He ended by adding that he was ‘a distant relation of Sir Vernon Harcourt’, the sitting Home Secretary in Gladstone’s Liberal government. Mr Chance was suitably intrigued and remanded the man in custody so further enquiries could be made before he decided whether he could be prosecuted for falsely representing himself and soliciting relief.

[from The Standard , Tuesday, January 30, 1883]

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]