A sad end for an unwanted baby: clubbed to death in a Southwark toilet

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In May 1848 a young woman presented herself at the door of Sarah Potter’s house in Jane Street, Southwark asking if she might take a room. She told her she was a ‘servant out of place’, temporarily she hoped, and that her name was Ann Brightwell.

Ann seemed like a ‘decent young woman’ so the mechanic’s wife took her in. About a month later however, Sarah began to have some suspicions about her new tenant and confronted her. Mrs Potter clearly thought that there was more to Ann’s story than she had revealed at first, and she ‘charged her with being enciente‘ (or in other words, pregnant).

For a servant to get pregnant in the 1800s was common but still unacceptable in the eyes of a disproving society. Ann’s plan was to hide herself away from the shame but despite her denials, Mrs Potter had found her out. Whether this changed her plans or not it is impossible to say. Ann might have intended to have the baby in her room in Southwark and then leave it at the workhouse door or try and raise it alone.

Perhaps then this discovery precipitated a terrible chain of events, or maybe the shock of being found out brought added stress which quickened her pregnancy. Either way things soon became much worse for the young servant.

On the 2 July Mrs Potter saw Ann leaving the ‘water-closet’ carrying an umbrella, ‘in a hurried state’. When Sarah investigated she was in no doubt that a new born baby had been  disposed of inside.

The police and a surgeon were summoned and Ann arrested. In the Southwark Police Court Dr Robert Tebbett deposed that in his opinion there was no doubt the child had been born alive. Mrs Potter told the magistrate that she had heard Ann admit that she ‘had destroyed her child by casting it into the water-closet, and striking it with the end of the umbrella’.

Ann denied all of the evidence brought against her, as well she might. She was being accused of infanticide, a crime that carried a capital charge until 1938. While women continued to sentenced to death throughout the later 1800s none were executed in London but Ann could not rely on that. The magistrate committed her for trial and at that point she disappears from the records.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, July 31, 1848]

There’s no avoiding hard work for two ‘lazy casuals’ in Hammersmith

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Luke Fildes, Applicants for Admission to a Casual Ward (1874)

The 1880s were a desperate decade for many in London. After the prosperous years of mid century England suffered an economic slump, if not a full blown depression. Work was harder to come by and in 1888 the word ‘unemployment’ entered the Oxford English Dictionary. There were demonstrations of the unemployed in Trafalgar Square in 1886 and 1887, the latter being broken up by police and the military with heads being broken in the process. Opponents of free trade clashed with its proponents and members of what Marx and Engels would have dubbed the ‘lumpenproletariat’ smashed windows in Pall Mall.

If you couldn’t find work in London you had limited choices. There was no social security or benefit system as we would understand and begging was illegal and those caught risked a spell in prison. There were plenty of charities and plenty of people prepared to donate to them, just as there are today, but this was open to abuse and so donors were chewy in who they helped. The Mendicity Society went to war on indiscriminate charitable giving and its recipients, believing that beggars should be directed back to their place of origin rather than being a drain on the capital’s ratepayers.

So when legitimate work and begging were closed to you what was left was illegal gain or the workhouse. The first carried a very real risk of being caught up in the Victorian criminal justice system which was a brutal machine designed to ‘grind men good’. Victorian prisons were grim institutions where ‘hard bed, hard work, and hard fare’ were the order of the day. Subsistence diets, sleep deprivation and a multitude of petty regulations (all too easy to break) combined with backbreaking ‘hard labour’ were designed to break the spirit of convicts in a system that had long since abandoned any notion of ‘reformation’.

Given that even the smallest theft prosecuted before a Police Magistrate could land you inside Cold Bath Fields gaol for a month or more, crime clearly did not pay.

The final alternative then was the workhouse. But this too came at a price. If you were admitted to the workhouse proper then you would be there for a long while with little hope of earning your freedom. Workhouses were feared by the working classes almost as much (sometimes more) than the prison. Families were separated, food was basic and work was compulsory.

If you chose to take your chances with what work you could pick up day to day then the only safety net that Victorian society provided was the workhouse casual ward. Here you could enter for a day and, in return for some hard labour you would be fed and watered and allowed a place to sleep. You would then be released in the hope you could find proper employment outside.

The casual ward was a last resort; it carried a stigma that the working class wished to avoid being tainted with. For some it seems, it was the work – the hard labour – they wished to avoid but failure to obey the rules of the ‘house’ might well find you in front of a magistrate. This is what happened to Thomas Williams and James White in July 1881.

The pair were Irishmen – so straight away they were in the cross hairs of the magistrate’s ‘gun’. The Irish (despite building Britain’s transport networks and fighting Britain’s wars for over a century) were seen as lazy, criminal and drunken. Prejudices against the Irish continued throughout the Georgian and Victorian period well into own with jokes at their expense only becoming considered ‘racist’ and inappropriate in the late 20th century.

Williams and White had admitted to the Hammersmith workhouse casual ward on the previous Thursday but had refused to do any work. George Perry, superintendent of the workhouse’s casual ward told the Hammersmith Police Court that on the Friday morning ‘they were set to shone breaking’. This literally meant breaking larger stones into smaller ones and was exactly the sort of work prisoners and paupers had been forced to do for over a hundred years.

The men were not keen however. Williams complained that he was injured and couldn’t do the work, his ankle was too painful he said. A doctor was called and confirmed there was nothing the matter with him, he was shamming. As for White, he told Perry that ‘he was not accustomed to break stones’. This surprised the magistrate, Mr Paget.

‘Are you not Irish?’ he asked.

He was, came the reply. Then ‘why could he not break stones’?

‘The hammer was too light’ was White’s response.

This was met with a stony face and the magistrate determined that the two ‘last casuals’ would not get away with their ‘ingratitude’ towards the beneficent state or avoid the hard work that they had been tasked with. He sent them to prison for a month, with hard labour.

[from The Standard, Monday, July 25, 1881]

An ill-conceived attempt to impose unwanted laws leads to rioting in London

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In June 1855 a bill was introduced to Parliament to close down shops and to suspend public transport  on Sundays, to better enforce the observation of the Sabbath. The bill was presented by Lord Robert Grosvenor and it sparked a series of demonstrations by working-class Londoners attacking the bill and the hypocrisy of the aristocratic class that sought to impose it. As the history Gerry White has described the ‘mob’:

‘assembled along the carriage drives between the Serpentine and Kensington Gardens crowds assembled to hoot and hiss the phaetons of the rich and their Sabbath-breaking servants. There were cries of ‘Go to Church!’ and horses were made to shy and bolt.’

The disorder spread and on Sunday 1st July around 150,000 people turned out to protest and Lord Grosvenor’s house was attacked and his windows smashed. The police eventually restored some order after a baton charge but almost 50 constables were injured. It was an example of the periodic outbreaks of rioting that London has seen down the centuries, the most recent of which being those that started in Tottenham in 2011. Perceived injustice, legitimate concerns ignored, overly officious policing, and extended periods of hot weather can combine to tip communities over the edge and inspire hot heads to take to the streets.

After the August 2011 riots hundreds of people found themselves before the capital’s magistrate courts, mostly of charges of looting. The punishments handed down to some (like Nicolas Robinson, jailed for 6 months for stealing a bottle of water) also demonstrate a historical continuity; in times of ‘moral panic’ or when authority is so obviously challenged the courts tend to overreact. At the end of the Gordon Riots (1780) dozens were publicly hanged  in mass executions as a show of determination by the state to those that had caused such chaos in the metropolis for a week in June.

In the aftermath of the riots against Lord Grosvenor’s Sunday Trading Bill there were dozens of prosecutions before the London Police magistrates. On Sunday 15 July Reynold’s Newspaper reported several examples including that of Charles Whitehouse, a lad of 14, who was present in the crowd gathered outside the peer’s London home in Park Street.

The case (that of smashing windows and so causing criminal damage) was presented by Inspector Webb of the Metropolitan Police. Webb described how he had seen the boy throw a stone towards his lordship’s window and had moved into the crowd to arrest him. Several of those assembled complained, saying that he had done nothing, but the inspector ignored them and tried to extract him and take him back to the station house.

As the inspector and a group of constables led Charles away there was a cry of ‘rescue’ and the crowd turned their fury on the police, pelting them with stones and anything else they could find. The attack was so violent that the police were forced to take refuge in the Mount Street workhouse. Two of his officers had been so badly hurt they still hadn’t been able to return to their duties.

He continued to explain how, while they sheltered in the workhouse, ‘the mob became so furious, calling for the release of the boy, otherwise they would pull down the building, that it was thought advisable, to prevent more serious consequences, for the constables to sally out with their prisoners, and literally fight their way through the mob to the lock-up house’.

In his defence Charles said that he had been forced to throw a stone by others in the crowd. His cap had been swept from his head by a man behind him who urged him to join in with the collective rage against the Grosvenor property. He was warned that failure to do so would mean he never saw his cap again.

Whether this was a weak excuse or the truth is impossible to say, but it made no impression on the Marlborough Street magistrate, Mr Hardwick. Addressing the boy he declared:

‘You must have been very imperfectly educated to have done an act of malice to a person to whom you are a stranger and who never did you the last harm’.

His next words were aimed at any of those present in court that might have been involved and, via the newspaper, the wider reading public. The boy’s actions were serious he said, and as for the context – the widespread rioting – that, if proven, could result in a  sentence of transportation to Australia. If anyone came before him charged with inciting or organising the rioting and stone throwing he would commit them for trial as he was ‘determined that both property and the public peace shall be protected’.

The boy’s father appeared in court and was there to hear his son be fined the relatively huge sum of 40s (over £100) for throwing one stone. He was mortified he said, and had tried to prevent all three of his children from getting mixed up in the trouble. On the day he had taken two of his boys on a long walk as far away from the crowds as he could but had never thought that Charles was likely to get mixed up in it.

Boys will be boys of course, and whatever his motivations I’m sure Charles was simply excited that something was happening and his curiosity got the better of him. Like Nicolas Robinson he ended up doing something he would probably never have done if it hadn’t been for the circumstances, and both young men paid the price for it as the authorities hit out at those they could catch in the wake of both incidents of rioting.

Lord Grosvenor quickly dropped his unpopular Sunday Trading bill and peace returned to the capital’s streets. Riots are often symptoms of underlying tensions based on perceptions of (or actual) inequality, the lack of a voice, impotence and frustration; it only takes a small spark (like the killing of Mark Duggan by the police, or the death of Cynthia Jarrett) to ignite the flames.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, July 15, 1855]

A ‘mysterious’ lost boy is ‘saved’ from the slums

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Bangor Street, Notting Hill

Lilian Edward was brought up before Mr Curtis Bennett at the Hammersmith Police Court charged with ‘being in the unlawful possession of a child’. The little boy was also called to court and questioned by the magistrate, even though he was only four years old. Lilian herself was just 18 and the circumstances suggested that the little boy, who was not named, may have originally have been lost (or indeed kidnapped)  as far away as Scotland.

Lillian cohabited with a man named McSweeney at a property in Bangor Street, Notting Hill (or Notting Dale as it was then known), but they were not married. According to one source Bangor Street :

Originally called George Street, it was the most notorious road of the Notting Dale ‘Special Area’ slum.
It was more colloquially known as ‘Do as you like Street’, a place where ‘no one left their door closed’, and the venue of the Rag Fair.

McSweeney was also in court and claimed the child as his, but Lilian testified that the boy did ‘not belong to him’. Who’s was he then, the magistrate wanted to know.

The child had been brought from the local workhouse at the special request of Mr Bennet because, as he explained in court, he had received a letter from Liverpool with a photo and description of a child who had gone missing in Dundee. The sender had presumably got wind (perhaps from some earlier hearing reported in the press) that a ‘mysterious child’ had been discovered and was living in a poor part of west London.

This reminds us that the provincial press regularly reported the goings on at the London Police courts along with entries about their own sessions. This sharing of crime news has a very long history with reports of cases at Old Bailey and the county assizes being  staple of early newspapers in the 1700s.

Mr Bennett wanted to see if the boy in his witness box was the same one that was described in the paper, and so he ‘questioned the little fellow’. PC Brown was unconvinced; he said that while ‘inquiries had been made’ (he was not very specific) they had not proved that this child and the one in the photo were the same. His eyes, he continued, were not there same colour as the description in the newspaper report. The magistrate was not sure though, he felt he might be the lost boy.

Next up was John Pike of the Children’s Aid Fund (founded as early as the 1850s) at Charing Cross who requested that the boy be sent to school in the meantime as ‘he was not under proper control’. McSweeney tried to intervene to demand the boy was given back to him but the magistrate refused to allow him to speak .

The whole hearing has the feel of a scene from a Dickens’ novel, with the ‘little fellow’ as another runaway like Oliver Twist. Mr Bennet clearly did’t want to send him back to the squalor of Bangor Street and the ‘care’ of McSweeney. He requested that the child be ‘remanded’ to the workhouse to give Mr Pike the time to draw up the necessary paperwork to have him admitted to the Industrial School at Milton. There he would he educated and cared for (in a fashion) but no further attempt was likely to be made to reunite him with his parents.

As for Lilian Edward, she was released to the relative freedom of Mr McSweeney’s company and his home in Bangor Street.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, July 14, 1889]

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]

The battle of the sexes claims another victim

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Victorian society is often described as one in which the sexes existed in ‘separate spheres’, with men occupying a ‘public’ space and women restricted to the home, or ‘private’ one. While this thesis works quite well for the women of the middle and upper classes it is less obviously true of the vast majority of the working class. Many working-class women worked and looked after the domestic environment. They were housewives, mothers and significant contributors to the family economy, and this often resulted in tensions at home.

Julia Bagot was one such women. She was married to Martin and they had several children. While Julia worked hard every day Martin Bagot had ‘done no work for 18 months’ and liked a drink with his mates. At home the domestic duties fell to Julia who was expected to undertake to keep her husband happy and fed while also performing the role of the family’s main breadwinner.

One evening in May 1884 she came home from work at 9 o’clock, tired and hungry. Her husband followed her through the door a few minutes later, drunk and belligerent. As he demanded tea she put a saucepan of water on the stove to boil and looked to the children.

One of her daughters had no clean clothes to wear for school the next day and when she pressed Martin about this he told her he had pawned them (presumably to get the money he needed for beer). An argument ensued, a ‘few high words were exchanged’, before the affair escalated and Martin seized the pan of water and threw the contents at his wife.

Julia’s face was scalded by the almost boiling liquid and she was temporarily blinded in one eye. Mrs Bagot was taken to the hospital where her wounds were dressed but the doctors feared that she might permanently lose the sight in her eye. The next morning the pair were in the Clerkenwell Police court with Martin facing a charge of assault and wounding. One of his children gave evidence against him and the injuries she had suffered were all too apparent, her head and face being largely wrapped up in bandages.

The magistrate remanded Martin Bagot in custody to see how his wife’s condition developed over the next few days. The papers don’t tell us whether Julia recovered or what punishment the Clerkenwell justice decided to meet out to Bagot. However, while he might have faced a fine or a spell of weeks or months in prison neither would have helped Julia much. Nursing a serious injury and potential crippled for life a women in her forties or fifties (Martin was 54) as she was would find it hard to continue working. With her husband unemployed and with several mouths to feed the outlook for the Bagot family was bleak, if not desperate.

The workhouse loomed large in the lives of the working poor of Victorian London and sadly, it was probably the family’s next destination. There they would be compelled to live in ‘separate spheres’, him on the male side, her on the female.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, May 15, 1884]