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]

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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]

A glimpse into history: an Irishwoman’s flight from the siege of Paris in 1870

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Parisian women queue for food during the Prussian siege of Paris, 1870

Sometimes the cases that are reported in the London Police Courts reveal glimpses of the wider history that was taking place both in Britain and around the world.

In July 1870 Napoleon III, emperor of the French, declared war on the kingdom of Prussia. Napoleon’s decision to take on his powerful European neighbour was prompted by his failing popularity at home and the (inaccurate as it turned out) advice of his generals. The Prussians (under Bismarck) saw the war as an opportunity to push forward the cause of German unification and, ultimately, begin to shape the continent in their favour.

The war went badly for the French from the start and ended in ignominious defeat at Sedan at the end of August, just over a month after it started. Napoleon was deposed and national government was declared which continued to resist the Prussian forces. This led to the siege of Paris which lasted until it too surrendered on 28 January 1871. In the aftermath of the war Prussia annexed Alsace-Lorraine and left  festering sore that when combined with mutual distrust and competing imperial ambitions, contributed to the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914.

Within all national and international conflicts of course there are personal stories and individual tragedies. An unnamed Irish woman (a ‘native of Cork’) appeared at the Marylebone Police Court in mid September 1870 having fled Paris and the advancing Prussian forces. Her husband was a French national she explained to Mr Mansfield, the sitting magistrate, and had been forced to remain in Paris to man the defences.

She described the situation in the French capital:

‘bills were posted up on the walls stating that those that did not wish to expose themselves to the siege must leave. My husband is a tradesman, and he was bound to go to the fortifications. I had no means of subsistence, and I had to leave and go to my mother at Cork’.

Sieges were hard on all the occupation of a city and the Paris siege was notable for the hardships the French suffered. There were later reports of people starving and eating cats and dogs and even the animals in the Paris zoo. Ultimately the siege led to further revolution and civil war, so it is no surprise that those that could opted to flee and become refugees.

The woman had traveled to London with her five children but had run out of money and was now desperate. That she turned to the Police Courts is indicative of the public’s use of the the London magistracy as centres of advice and aid in a crisis. Sadly for her, there was little Mr Mansfield could, or was inclined, to do for her.

She told him she was staying at a house at 57 Praed Street and had applied to the French authorities for help on several occasions. They had simply directed her from one ‘society’ to another; in all probability with the country at war and Paris under desire there was little they could do to help the Irish wife of one of their citizens. But the lady believed that there was more to it than this; she felt they didn’t want to help her because she was Irish and ‘they say they have so many of their own country-people to see to’.

Since Ireland was still part of the British Empire she therefore sought support from the British state. Mr Mansfield replied that the best he could do, since several charities had not helped her, was send her to the relieving officer at Paddington. In other words she could enter the workhouse. That was clearly not something she, as a ‘respectable’ tradesman’s wife, wanted to do. Mr Mansfield said he would send her instead to see Archbishop Manning’s chaplain, to see what he might do for her.

Archbishop Manning had a good reputation in Victorian London. As the senior Catholic cardinal in England and Archbishop of Westminster he had considerable influence. In 1889 he intervened and helped broker a settlement to the Great Dock Strike and so hopefully he (if his chaplain was prepared to get him involved) he may well have helped a fellow Catholic find the means to return home to Ireland and thence perhaps to France once the situation had claimed down. Presuming, of course, that the lady’s husband survived both the siege and then the Commune and its overthrow in May 1871.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, September 17, 1870]

Mr Barstow brooks no excuse for truancy

‘No equally powerful body will exist in England outside Parliament, if power is measured by influence for good or evil over masses of human beings’. The Times, 29 November 1870.*

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The school holidays are over again and millions of children are returning to their classrooms. Since 1918 (and the controversial Fisher Act) secondary school education has been compulsory for all children in England and Wales, initially up to age 14 and now, effectively to 18. Parents that allow their children to miss school (to be truant) can be prosecuted, fined and even imprisoned in rare cases. In  2015 alone almost 20,000 parents were prosecuted for allowing their offspring to miss school and there has been the highly publicised case of Jon Platt who was fined £120 plus costs for choosing to take his children away on a family holiday to Florida. Mr Platt successfully appealed the decision to the High Court before it went on to a Supreme Court hearing which upheld the Isle of Wight council’s original decision.

The case turned on the rights of parents over the desire to protect children’s education. The law insists that children attend school regularly so that they can benefit from the free education system provided by the state. This has a long history in England with  early attempts to provide schooling for the children of poor families (wealthy parents had long been able to educate their kids) going back to the eighteenth century. It was in 1833 that the state first became directly involved in school education with parliament voting money for the creation of schools for the poor.

Educating the poor was considered to be a crucial tool in fighting crime and poverty in the nineteenth century. Commentators from the end of the Napoleonic Wars onwards equated delinquency with a lack of formal education, moral guidance, and opportunities for gainful employment. If children could be taught to read and write, and learn to respect their ‘betters’ then society could go a long way toward eradicating the so-called ‘criminal class’ that Henry Mayhew and others wrote so much about.

In 1870 the Forster Act attempted to address the perennial  problem of inadequate supply of schools for the children of the poor. It created board schools (fee paying but with fee waivers for the poorest families) for children aged 5-13 (or 10 if if the child could demonstrate they had reached a certain level of education by then). Attendance was compulsory on the basis that there would now be a school within range of the child’s home.

One of the consequences of creating a compulsory system of course was that the new School Boards had to enforce it. The parents of children that failed to send their youngsters to school would be prosecuted, and those prosecutions ended up before a Police Magistrate.

In some cases children were hard to police (just as they are today), parents may well have simply been unaware that their sons or daughters were playing truant. In other cases there was considerable complicity on the part of the adults; children were useful as helpmeets at home, or as extra hands at work. And inevitably poverty and illness took its toll. I have read cases of mothers not wishing to send their children to school without shoes, too poor were they to properly cloth them but too proud to ask for charity.

Given that many parents might well have had reasonable (or at least understandable) grounds for keeping children at home this report of cases before the Clerkenwell Police magistrate is instructive.

Mr Barstow presided over a series of School Board truancy cases heard in September 1874, just four years after Forster’s Act. He was pretty ruthless in upholding all the School Board officer’s complaints.

In one case a ‘poor woman’ told him that:

‘the small average attendance made by her two children was caused by the illness of her husband, which had extended over 14 weeks’. During that time, when he could not work she had gone out to earn enough to keep the home together. She had tried to send one child to school in the morning and one in the afternoon, so that he should never be left uncared for.

Mr Barstow fined her 2s 6s, plus 2s costs.

Next was another poor woman who carried a baby in her arms. She too had failed to make sure her other children attended school and was fined the same amount. Sadly she didn’t have 2s and sixpence so she was sent to the house of correction for five days. Presumably she took her children with her or they went tot he workhouse, there didn’t seem to be a husband at home to stand with her.

There were several parents prosecuted that morning, nearly all of them ‘of the poorest class’ and the magistrate fined them all without exception. His final case was a ‘respectably-dressed’ man however, who claimed that he had not sent his boy to the school as it wasn’t ‘very effective’. Mr Barstow asked him to provide proof of the inefficiency of the school in question which the man was unable to do. In future, Barstow said, he would need to see evidence of a school’s failings if he was to excuse any non-attendance.

The man was clearly frustrated at being dragged through the courts in this manner. He declared that he thought the act was designed to deal with ‘the “gutter” children and street Arabs’, not with respectable families such as his own. Mr Barstow paid him no heed and handed him the standard 2s 6s fine plus costs. 

Men like Mr Barstow probably believed in the project of public education and were well placed to see the results of poverty, ignorance and crime on London’s population. Education then wasn’t about empowering children or providing them with an opportunity to develop and grow. Rather it was an exercise in social control and social engineering, churning out ‘good citizens’ who knew their place in the unequal hierarchy of Victorian society.

Plus ça change

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, September 05, 1874]

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

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]