A destitute Essex girl in London makes the news

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Fetter Lane, Farringdon c.1880

I have discussed the tragedy of suicide on this blog before because it features quite regularly in the pages of the London press. While cases in the papers often featured women it would probably be wrong to see this as particularly female; it is just more likely that when a woman (especially a young woman) attempted or succeeded in ending her life it made a more affecting news story.

Given that suicide (or its attempt) was illegal in the 1800s those whose efforts to kill themselves failed or were in some other way interrupted (often by the police) would be brought before a magistrate where the circumstances of their actions were investigated. In some instances this could mean they got some help (and perhaps this was their intention) while in others they simply received an admonition from the justice and even a spell of imprisonment.

It is hard to say whether Sarah Esther was fortunate in getting help from the Bow Street justice or merely thrown from one desperate situation into another. She appeared before  Mr Twyford at London’s senior Police Court having been found by a  policeman on Waterloo Bridge at 7 in the morning. According to the constable she was about to throw herself into the Thames.

When he stopped her and demanded to know what she was up to she told him that she was desperate because she had lost her job. Sarah had come to London from Essex and had secured work as a domestic servant in a house in Fetter lane, Farringdon. She found the work hard and her mistress even harder to please and so she had been dismissed. Destitute and unable to return home to Essex she had seen no other way out than the river.

The alternative for Sarah was the workhouse but according to the relieving officer for the area, Mr Kirby, she seemed ‘disinclined to go herself’. Mr Twyford decided to make the decision for her, thinking it better she went into the workhouse (whatever the horrors it held for the Victorian working class) than to prison. Neither was an attractive option but with no other system of social support aside from charity Sarah’s choice were limited. She could go to gaol for a few days, or enter the workhouse for a similar period. Either way without further help in getting work her future looked bleak.

Girls like Sarah were prey to ‘bullies’ (pimps) and brothel madams, both of whom would sell them into prostitution without a second thought. From there the slide into criminality, desperate poverty, disease and death was pretty much inevitable.

The magistrate determined that the workhouse was best for her because there she would receive ‘every attendance’. But he wanted to make sure the girl was not insane so he sent her off with Mr Kirby but insisted that she be examined by a surgeon as soon as possible. So there was one option remaining for Sarah, if the medical man deemed her to be mad then she might be committed not to a workhouse or a prison but to an asylum. Once there she would have little or no opportunity to leave until her doctors decided she was well again.

So Mr Twyford’s actions, in following the paths open to him by what was a bad law could hardly be said to have helped the poor girl. A one way ticket to Essex and her family would have been a much more sensible and probably cheaper option in the long run. Sadly, that wasn’t the choice the Police Magistrate made.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, September 3, 1839]

for other cases of attempted suicide from the Police courts see:

A ‘passenger incident’ on the late Victorian Underground

Did a ‘wife’ take poison to escape her abuser? Or did her cry for help go unnoticed?

An elderly lady is driven to despair in a society that didn’t care

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A sorry pond dipper is saved by the local bobby

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Dulwich College in the mid-nineteenth century

Police constable Milne (163P) was walking his beat close to Dulwich College, south of the River Thames when he heard a noise. It was about 10.30 at night and so he clearly wasn’t expecting to here sound near the school and set off to investigate. The sound seemed to have come from close to a pond near the college and to his horror PC Milne now saw a pair of feet and ankles sticking up from the water.

Removing his helmet and stripping to the waist the policeman dived into the pond and made his way towards the feet. ‘With difficulty he managed to reach the place where he had noticed the feet’ [they had since disappeared beneath the water], and was then able to drag the person out and on to the bank. The pond, he observed, was about nine feet deep.

Using the first aid he had been taught as a police trainee he revived the man he had rescued but he was far from grateful. As soon as he came to the bedraggled pond dipper ‘made a rush for the water’. Constable Milne secured him and conveyed him back to the nearest police station.

At the station the prisoner revealed that he was ‘a hackney carriage proprietor’ named Mitchell who lived in Lower Norwood. He admitted that he had been trying to kill himself and was promptly charged with the same. At Lambeth Police Court he again confessed his fault and said that he hoped the magistrate, Me Ellison, would send him to prison for a year as it was all he deserved. Instead Ellison remanded him in custody so that enquiries could be made as to his mental health.

He commented PC Milne for his quick thinking and his bravery and said he deserved a reward. Hopefully Mr Mitchell recovered and perhaps recognised that the copper had saved his life, and maybe even rewarded him himself. At least for PC Milne he had a story to dine out on for the rest of his career.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, August 25, 1880]

A ‘passenger incident’ on the late Victorian Underground

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As someone who lives in London and regularly uses the ‘tube’ (the underground railway,  for those unfamiliar with the metropolis) I am used to the occasional delay in services caused by that saddest of announcements, a ‘passenger incident’. This can mean that someone is ill and a carriage has been stopped so that medical assistance can be sought, but it can also indicate that a person has thrown themselves in front of a train.

While I can just about imagine what motivates someone to do this I can’t begin the understand how the poor driver of a train must feel when he or she sees someone fall out the racks in front of his eyes, and they are unable to stop the vehicle from crushing them. Between 1993 and 2015 over 1400 people attempted to take their own lives on the Underground, that is an average of 64 a year, and over one a week.

The London Underground has been operating since the 1860s and it has been used for suicides attempts throughout that time. According to one piece of research, suicide on the railway increased after 1868 (just three years after the first train ran) when newspapers published details of the methods would-be suicides used.*

If that was the case then this example, from The Standard in 1893, was probably just as unhelpful.

Isaac Shelton was a 63 year-old ‘house decorator’ who lived on the Edgware Road.  At a quarter to six in the evening on 27 June (a Tuesday) Isaac was seen entering the tunnel at Baker Street underground station, heading for Edgware Road. A fellow passenger shouted to him but he was ignored. At the same time a train was arriving in the station and the driver was alerted and the service was detained.

The station inspector, Mr Coleman, was summoned but in the meantime a young man named Albert Swift set off in pursuit of Shelton.

‘In the darkness he could hear somebody scrambling about on the ballast, and going in the direction of the noise, he found [Shelton] about 150 yards into the tunnel, lying across the metals of the upline’.

Albert tried to get the man’s attention and lift him up, but all he got back was the request: ‘leave me alone, I’m going home’. Fortunately the young man was soon joined by Mr Coleman and a porter and eventually the three manhandled Shelton up and off the tracks and back out to safety.

He seemed ‘sober, but excited’, they later testified.

The case came before the Marylebone Police magistrate, Mr Plowden. Shelton claimed she had no recollection of how he had got where he was. He said he had been having epileptic fits for twenty years and one had come on as he made his way home that evening. His wife appeared and confirmed that her husband suffered from epilepsy, and was subject to fits.

I’m not an expert on epilepsy but I have known people who suffer. This seems something quite unlike a fit and more akin to an desperate act by someone who did not wish to carry on. It seems this was also the opinion of the justice, who remanded Shelton in custody, perhaps to seek a medical opinion on his condition. Fortunately his attempt (if thats what it was) failed, because someone was quick witted enough to spot him and do something about it.

I imagine that is how most attempts are foiled today – by someone caring enough to see what their fellow passengers are doing and to notice when a person looks like they need a gentle word or two to bring them back from the edge, literally and figuratively.

[from The Standard, Thursday, June 29, 1893]

*O’Donnell, I.; Farmer, R. D. T. ‘The epidemiology of suicide on the London underground’. Social Science & Medicine 38 (3): 409–418. February 1994

 

 

Did a ‘wife’ take poison to escape her abuser? Or did her cry for help go unnoticed?

Cyanide

On Wednesday this week I related the story of a man who was woken by his wife hitting him. In hitting her back too hard he caused her death. He was sent to face trial at the Old Bailey and convicted of manslaughter. The culprit seems to have had a history of domestic violence and so while he was treated gently by the court (since his wife was a drunk and a sloven, in the eyes of the society they lived in I hasten to add) we should not be quite so understanding. As one correspondent to me on Twitter noted, ‘domestic violence is tragedy’.

Today’s case, from 1862 (some 27 years earlier) also involves a man being accused of causing the death of his partner, and he too seems to have gotten away with what must have been deemed routine and ‘normal’ violence.

John Lemon made ‘base coin’. Now whether this was a legitimate trade or a variation on illegal coining I’m unsure at the present. However, the Bow Street Police court where he appeared in May 1862 was interested in the death of his common law wife, not his occupation.

Lemon lived with Ann Gedling in a property on White Hart Street, off Drury Lane. When he got home late one evening, possibly the worse for drink, he and Ann argued. Lemon hit her ‘a severe blow on the head with a flat iron’ before staggering off to bed.

In the morning, in an echo of Charles Mills’ case from Wednesday, Ann was feeling sick and she called for him to help her. He found that she had swallowed a quantity of poison; namely cyanide, which they pair used in the coin manufacturing process. He told the magistrate it was used in extra-plating coins.

Whether Ann had taken it in an attempt to end her life (and rid herself of an abusive partner) is unknown but it saved Lemon from further prosecution for her death. A doctor was unable to help her as she passed away the moment he stepped through the door.

In court expect testimony was provided by a surgeon called Lovett. He pronounced that death was due to the ingestion of cyanide of potassium and that effectively trumped the blow that Lemon had landed. She may have died from the abuse she had received, and indeed her death could certainly be attributed to the coin maker, at least in terms of him provoking her to kill herself.

But the law, in the person of Mr Corrie the Bow Street magistrate, didn’t see it like that. Since he had not directly killed her Lemon was discharged.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, June 02, 1862]

A drug dealer’s brush with death earns him some sympathy in court

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Drugs were legal in the Victorian period, so when Hartmann Henry Saltzberger appeared in court it was not because he was described as a ‘dealer in opium’. Instead he was charged with attempting to take his own life, a state it was assumed he had been driven to by the collapse in his business.

Saltzberger traded in opium from premises in Anerley Park, in south-east London. Recently however, the war between Bolivia and Peru and Chile (the so-called War of the Pacific, 1879-1883) had given him problems in getting supplies of the drug.

As his supplies dwindled so did his business and this brought his creditors to his door. One of these was Thomas Swabey, from whom Saltzberger rented his property at Anerley. He had called in the bailiffs after the opium dealer filed for bankruptcy at Croydon. When the official receiver called at Salzberger’s house he found the tenant’s door bolted shut.

The police were called and when PC 271P forced entry he discovered the dealer lying senseless on his bed. A doctor was summoned and its ascertained that Saltzberger had administered a large dose of opium in an attempt to kill himself.

Appearing at Lambeth the 54 year-old explained that he was in ‘pecuniary circumstances’ and admitted taking his own drugs to end his life. His son testified that his father’s mind had been affected by his fall in fortunes and that his relatives had been worried about him for some time. They may have been worried but not enough to help, Hartmann complained, as they had time and again refused his requests for money. The bankruptcy may have been the catalyst for his suicide attempt, but the business had been in trouble for some time.

A doctor stated that Saltzberger wasn’t so ill that he needed to be sent to an asylum. He was a regular opium user and this would have taken its toll, but as yet he was not quite ‘mad’ enough to be confined. Mr Chance, the sitting magistrate was not convinced however, and asked for the drug dealer to be remanded so that a second opinion could be sought from the prison’s medical officer and the chaplain. He described the situation as ‘sad’ and showed considerably more sympathy for Saltzberger than we might have expected.

In many ways this was quite an enlightened approach to the effects of drug use; while Saltzberger’s problem was the failure of his livelihood, it was clearly exacerbated by his reliance on a mind altering substance. Drugs weren’t made illegal in Britain until after 1912 when an international agreement attempted (and of course failed) to stem the trade in narcotics.

[from The Standard, Friday, May 07, 1886]

From glad rags and riches to a prison cell: one Victorian lady’s fall from grace

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Rose Cleveland had once been a lady of substance but by May 1873 she had fallen very far indeed. She still retained some of her old contacts and acquaintances, and was managing to keep up the appearance of a ‘person of quality’, but the facade was dropping away.

On 1 May that year she had called on an old friend of hers in Pimlico. When she knocked at the door of Mrs Elizabeth Palmer Parker at Forwood House, Winchester Street she was met by Mrs Parker’s sister, Phoebe. Miss Phoebe Taylor was unmarried and served her sibling as housekeeper. She admitted Rose and showed her into the back dining room.

Mrs Parker vaguely recalled her visitor and was reminded that she had once had some suspicions of her when the pair had dined, four years ago. On that occasion Rose had invited her to dine at the Grosvenor Hotel but attempted to walk off with her guest’s sealskin coat and watch. In consequence, on this occasion Elizabeth asked her sister to stay and keep an eye on their visitor.

However, despite some care being taken to watch Ms Cleveland she managed to purloin two brushes from a ‘valuable set’ in the room. They were missed soon after Rose took her leave of the ladies and a servant was despatched to catch up with her and bring them back. The police were involved and the next day Rose found herself in the Westminster Police Court facing a charge of theft.

Here her life and for fall from grace was broadcast for all to hear and the papers to record. She gave her names as Rose Cleveland, but the court added her other known names (her aliases) as ‘Lady Clinton’ and ‘Lady Grey’. Detective Squire White (a B Division detective) testified that she was well known to him and his colleagues.

‘At one time she owned horses and carriages’, he told the magistrate, ‘but had gradually been reduced in circumstances, and had lately been in the habit of visiting persons’ [like Mrs Parker], and ‘laying her hands on whatever she could carry off’.

The final humiliation was that she ‘had married her former coachman, and he had done nothing for a living for some time’.

Rose admitted her crime and asked to be judged summarily rather than go before a jury. The magistrate agreed to her request and sent her to prison at hard labour for two months. Yesterday’s story was that of an elderly woman who tried to kill herself to escape poverty and an abusive husband. Today’s reminds us that desperation came in many forms in the 1800s, and could affect those were supposedly protected by their wealth or the social status provided by birth or marriage.

In the end Rose had neither.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, May 02, 1873]

An elderly lady is driven to despair in a society that didn’t care

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As PC 99 L Division made his usual patrol by the Surrey side of Blackfriars Bridge  (i.e south of the River Thames) he saw a woman sitting on the steps by the water. As he approached he could see that she was in condsiderable distress and asked her what she was up to.

The elderly lady, who gave her name as Elizabeth Briant, admitted that she had been so ‘cruelly beaten by the man whom she had lived with for thirty-eight years that she was tired of her existence’. Elizabeth was working up the courage to throw herself into the river to drown.

Attempting suicide was a crime and so the policeman arrested her and, the next day, brought her before the magistrate at Southwark Police Court.

Elizabeth cut a forlorn figure in the dock: her arms were covered with bruises, as was her face. She told the magistrate that her husband had ‘ill used her to a great extent’ in recent weeks. On the previous Saturday he had ‘knocked her down, kicked her, and blackened both eyes’. Having assaulted her the man then ‘thrust her out of the house, and left her to starve in the streets’. She had run down the steps at Blackfriars and it was only the lucky intervention of the beat bobby that had saved her from ending her miserable life.

The magistrate asked her if she had any children, and she told him she had eight, ‘but only one was living, and she hoped he was serving Her Majesty in India’. So this poor old lady had lost seven sons or daughters and her only surviving son was in the imperial army thousands of miles away.

It was a desperately sad story but also a fairly typical one for the time. There was little the justice could do expcept order the arrest of the husband (who might expect a short prison sentence if summarily convicted, hardly benefiiting Elizabeth) and send the poor woman to the workhouse to be cared for. Once there, she could hardly expect to leave and was effectively being condemned to live out the remainder of her days as an inmate before being given a pauper burial when she finally passed away.

Nevertherless, Elizabeth looked up from the dock and thanked ‘his Worship for his kindness’. She had probably lived most of her life in grinding poverty and could now expect to see out her remaining days in a ‘pauper bastille’. It would be another 45 years before the government of the day introduced the Old Age Pension and, since she would have been a recipient of Poor Law funds, Elizabeth would not have been entitled to it anyway.

For me, the Victorian period is a savage reminder of what our society looked like before we had a welfare system; it was a society that often left women like Elizabeth Briant to choose the only option that ended the pain of everyday life. For all the calls for belt-tightening in the face of self-imposed austerity we should remember that today this country is one of the top 25 richest countries in the world and we can well afford a decent welfare system, whatever politicians tell us in the next few weeks and months. The divide between rich and poor is as wide as it has ever been and it is frankly appalling that so many ‘ordinary working people’ have to resort to food banks in the 21st century. So before we look back with horror at a Victorian age that drove women like Elizabeth to attempt suicide which she take a long hard look at ourselves.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, May 1, 1860]