An Italian displays a touch of bravura in court, but it does him no good

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St Margaret & St John’s Workshops in Westminster c.1875

Frederic Calvi was an Italian immigrant in London. Calvin worked as an engineer, and was presumably quite  skilled or reliable one as it was reported that he was ‘in constant work’. So it is something of a surprise to find this otherwise respectable working-class man in front of the Police Court magistrate at Marlborough Street on  charge of deserting his three children.

The case was brought by the Westminster Poor Law Union as it was them that had picked up the costs of supporting the children. And the costs were considerable. Mr Tett, the settlement officer for Westminster, claimed that they had spent £40 on caring for the Calvi children.

Having made some enquiries into the engineer’s situation Mr Tett assured the court that there was no need for him to have dumped the three children on the parish, as Calvi earned plenty of money and was well able to support them.

However, there was no mention of a Mrs Calvi so perhaps the children had no mother and Frederic was a lone parent. If that were the case, and if he didn’t have other relatives in England, then he might well have struggled to maintain a living and look after his family. There were plenty of Italians in London (as I’ve found in several past posts) but most of those recorded in the press were working as musicians.

Had Calvi come over on his own and married here? Or had he brought his family with him? This might be important as without an extended family or support network any change in his circumstances might throw him (and his children) into poverty.

In court before Mr Newton, Frederic was adamant that he needed the parish’s help. He had fallen sick he said and so was unable to provide for his children. That was the reason he’d taken them to the workhouse. He added that ‘it was well known that in England innocent people [like himself] were condemned’.

His attitude in court probably didn’t help him. Here was an occasion to throw yourself on the mercy of the justice, not to defy the system. But Frederic was clearly a proud man, or a callous one who cared little for his kids. Either way his actions and his attitude hardly endeared him to Mr Newton.

The policeman that had brought him in added that the Italian engineer was bullish when arrested. He said the prisoner declared he ‘was a Bismarck and would get over it’. What did that mean? It was probably a reference to ‘a rare stumble’ by the German chancellor in 1875 when his aggressive diplomacy nearly led to war on the continent of Europe as he attempt to force France to abandon rearmament backfired. Thereafter Bismarck proceeded with utmost caution. Calvi was indicating that in future he would do the same.

Sadly for him (and his three children) Mr Newton was not in the mood for second chances. He found the engineer guilty of deserting his children and sent him to prison for a month at hard labour. Exactly how that helped the situation or eased the strain on the Westminster parish purse (which would now have the children for another month) I’m not clear.

Calvin displayed a cavalier attitude on hearing the sentence however. He turned to the magistrate and challenged him to a game of billiards.

‘Double or quits’, he shouted, ‘He would be sure to get off’.

[from The Standard, Monday, November 22, 1875]

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The callous churchwardens who dug up a child’s grave to make a new path

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This is an unusual case, and one that remained unresolved (as many did that came before the London Police courts). In mid November 1867 a solicitor approached the sitting magistrate at Wandsworth for a summons to bring the churchwardens of St. Mary’s Church, Battersea, to court.

The solicitor, Mr Condy, said he was representing the parents of a child who had died six weeks earlier. The child – aged just nine – had been buried in the churchyard but his grave had recently been dug up, and his body exhumed. Naturally this was extremely upsetting for the parents of the child and so they had asked the lawyer to intercede on their behalf. Since they were very poor, time was of the essence, as they could not afford a long drawn out legal action.

In court it was explained that the churchwardens had decided to lay a new path through the churchyard and they needed to move the boy’s grave as a consequence. The churchwardens ordered the newly laid grave to be opened and the child’s coffin to be removed and reburied somewhere else in the graveyard.

At no point, it seems, did they deem it necessary to consult with the bereaved parents, or even inform them so they might attend. Nor, and this was important, had they obtained any legal permission to move the child’s grave. According the the evidence presented they should have applied for a faculty (a legal term for reserving a burial spot) or a license from the secretary of state. The churchwardens had therefore infringed the terms of the Burial Act (1857).

However, Mr Dayman, the magistrate, thought the summons should be issued against the person that had dug up the child, not those that had instructed him, and that was the sexton. Mr Cindy said he’d approached the sexton but he insisted he was only following instructions, as ‘he was only a servant’.

The magistrate was insistent however; ‘If a man were told to do an unlawful act, he was not bound to do it’.

At this point a suggestion was made to the court that the parents might bring a civil action or take the churchwardens to the ecclesiastical (church) courts. Mr Condy said the first option was no use since the family had ‘no property in the body’. He added that, from his experience, pursuing a case in the ecclesiastical courts was ‘a tedious affair’. And in case they parents were too poor to do either. The police courts were the cheaper option, which explains why they were so frequently used by London’s poor.

Mr Dayman issued a summons to bring in the sexton. There was little hope that the parents would get much more than an apology and perhaps a small amount in compensation.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, November 15, 1867]

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]

A poor woman pleads not to be sent to ‘a country which was foreign to her’

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1848 was a tumultuous year in Europe. There were revolutions in Italy, Germany,  Denmark and the Habsburg Empire (in Hungary). Louis-Phillips was forced from his throne in France and fled to England, while there was rioting in Sweden and a short civil war in Switzerland. Britain didn’t escape trouble as Chartists assembled across the country in large numbers including a ‘monster’ rally in Kennington Park in April when tens of thousands demanded the vote.

Over in Ireland the ‘great famine’ was forcing thousands to flee the island and leaving almost  million dead; reducing the population overall by 20-25%. Many of these travelled to England finding their way to London or one of the other other large urban areas of Victorian Britain.

So 1848 saw political unrest, nationalism, poverty, and the mass migration of peoples fleeing all these events. We get an inclining of how this might have impacted society in a brief report of business from the Thames Police Court in October of that year.

‘THAMES – Complaints are almost daily made by aged natives of Ireland, whose necessities compel them to apply for parochial relief, of the hardship of being sent back to Ireland after a long stay in England’.

One case in particular was brought to the attention of the Thames Police Court magistrate, Mr Yardley. A ‘poor Irish widow’ who had been resident in England for 40 years applied to the Stepney Poor Law Union for relief only to be refused help and told to go home to Ireland. She explained to Mr Yardley that she had been away so long she ‘did not know a soul there. She hoped the magistrate would interpose , and prevent her being sent to a country which was foreign to her’.

The woman had been before him to ask for help a week earlier and he had directed a letter to the union on her behalf, so he asked what had happened in the interim. A police officer attached to the court confirmed that the letter had been delivered but one of the reliving officers said they were only following the instructions handed down to them by the board of guardians of the poor.

The policy in a time of huge pressure on the parish purse was, it seems, to try and get rid of as many unwanted paupers as possible. The court was told that while this woman  claimed she had lived in England for 40 years her ‘residence was a broken one, and not continued for five years in any one parish’. In short she had moved around and so did not ‘belong’ anywhere.

Mr Yardley was sympathetic to the woman’s plight but could only assure her that he would intercede on her behalf and hope the guardians relented. She thanked him for his time and left the court.

I think this reveals some of the problems facing the authorities in mid Victorian Britain but also the callous lack of care for the people of the wider empire. Stepney was poor, as was most of the East End in the 1800s. Poor relief fell on the parish rather than the national purse. So it was individual ratepayers who were supporting the huge numbers of impoverished East Londoners whose ranks were undoubtedly swollen by migrants from Ireland (and perhaps from further afield in such a troubled decade).

Poverty, war and famine always lead to migration and this inevitably puts pressure onto communities that are themselves often struggling to survive. Whether migration is fuelled by economic necessity, or by persecution, or simply a desire to get away to a ‘better place’, it is part of the human condition. Human beings have always migrated in search of better land, greater resources, improved living conditions, or a more tolerant society. Whether it was the Irish in the 1840s or Polish Jews in the 1880s, or South Asian Kenyans in the 1970s, or indeed Syrians in the last decade; all of these people have left their homes, sometimes their families, everything they know and love, to find a refuge overseas.

That this puts pressure on the country and community that receives them is self-evident. Tensions flare, xenophobia rears its ugly head, and people make political capital out of the situation. But the answer is not to close the borders, to turn one’s back on people in need, to refuse to help. The attempt of the Stepney guardians to send a poor Irish woman back to her country of birth and therefore into a situation where thousands were dying every week was simply wrong. It was wrong in 1848 and it remains wrong today.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, October 24, 1848]

A cheesemonger runs, but he can’t hide

Ludgate Hill by Camille Pissarro, 1890

John Alfred Smith worked for a cheesemonger in the City of London (who had premises on Ludgate Hill), but in October 1890 Smith was summoned before Mr Denham at Wandsworth Police Court, to answer a charge that he had deserted his wife and family.

The prosecution was brought by the Poor law Guardians of Clapham and Wandsworth and therefore fell under Denham’s jurisdiction. Prosecuting, Mr Charter explained that Smith’s wife and her five children had applied for relief on the 30th August of that year.The circumstances of her application are not made clear, but it would seem that at some Smith simply didn’t come home.

What was established was that Smith had run his own business in Battersea but this seems to have collapsed and forced him to seek work elsewhere. With his business in tatters it the man appears to have decided his family was just too much for his pocket to maintain, and he abandoned them to the parish. However, there may have been another reason for his flight: in short, another woman.

Answering the summons before the magistrate Smith made the bold move of denying that he was married to the woman at all. He said no proper marriage had taken place and added that they had never lived together long enough for the relationship to be established as such. One wonders then how she managed to produce no less than five children.

Mrs Smith’s sister was called to give evidence and she described how Smith had taken her sibling, aged just 16, to Brighton ‘on the pretense of marrying her’. While no record of the marriage could be found it seems that there was at least anecdotal evidence of the union. Smith had, his sister-in-law swore, declared on their return that they were married. Mrs Smith also appeared in court to confirm that she was indeed married to the man in dock.

This was good enough for Mr Denham. Regardless of the veracity of her statement or that of her sister he thought it appalling that a woman and five children could be abandoned  in such a way. Smith ‘was morally guilty, whether she were his wife or not’. Moreover now it emerged that Smith had taken a new wife since his desertion, ‘a young woman who was suffering from nervous prostration brought about by his arrest’.

So it would seem that Smith had simply had enough of his former life. Abandoning Battersea, his failing business and its debts, and his wife and kids he relocated to the City and found work and a new (and younger) partner. Unfortunately for his attempt to disappear completely failed just as his business had, the state (in the person of the Clapham and Wandsworth Poor Law Union) caught up with him. The magistrate, angered both by Smith callousness towards his family and his blatant disregard for his responsibilities sent him to prison for six weeks at hard labour.

[from The Standard, Friday, October 17, 1890]

Hard choices for an unmarried mother in Spitalfields

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Spitalfields (in the early 20th century) by the photographer C. A. Mathew 

Sophia Higgins, the wife of a chemist in Spicer Street, Spitalfields was making her way home at 11 at night when something caught her attention.  She was crossing the market when she heard what she thought was a baby crying.

Moving towards the sound she soon discovered an infant ‘lying on the pavement, wrapped in a piece of blanket’. Horrified she stopped it up, went to find a person nearby to care for it, and then rushed off to the nearest police station.

The police arrived and collected the child, taking it to the Whitechapel workhouse to make enquiries there. Having established from the porter who they thought the mother was, another officer was despatched to find her and arrest her.

Eventually Ellen Lehain was identified as the child’s mother and questioned by the police before being summoned before the magistrate at Worship Street Police Court in October 1853. A witness, Ann Buskin (described as an ‘unmarred female’) said she had lodged with Ellen at a property in Holborn and testified that she had recently given birth to an illegitimate child.

Ann explained that her fellow lodger had ‘nursed it for a few weeks, when she left there to go into the union house’ (meaning the local workhouse for the poor).

The child was produced in court and  Ellen admitted it was hers. When the policeman had asked her what she had done with it she had told him she’d left the baby at the door of the workhouse. So how did it come to be in the middle of Spitalfields market the court wanted to know? Ellen’s response to this question is not recorded.

In her defence the girl simply pleaded poverty and distress as the reason for abandoning her new born baby. Mr D’Eyncourt sent her to the house of correction for three months, the fate of her child was not something the newspaper reporters seems to have thought important enough to write down. Perhaps it was obvious: the child would become another mouth for the parish union to feed, until at least he or she could be apprenticed out into service.

No one seemed to be in the least bit interested in the fate of its mother, who must have been in considerable distress to give up a child she had been caring for for several weeks.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, October 14, 1853]

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]