One man’s complaint reveals ‘considerable excitement’ about the trade in pauper bodies at Lambeth

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In December 1857 a poor man appeared at the Lambeth Police court to ask the magistrate’s advice. In November his elderly sister was so sick with consumption (TB as we know know it) she was ordered to be admitted to the sick ward at the Newington workhouse. There, on the 3 December, she died.

Before she died she had begged her friends and family to give her a decent burial because rumours were swirling around the parish about what happened to the bodies of those that died inside the ‘house.

The next day her husband and friends presented themselves at the workhouse to collect her but she was ‘nowhere to be found’. They asked the undertaker there, and all he could tell them was she had been buried by mistake the body mistaken for that of another pauper, a Mr Bazely. Deeply unsatisfied, and understandably upset, they decided to pursue the matter with Mr Norton at Lambeth.

A local parish constable named Cook was called to give evidence of local practice. He told the court that the workhouse master ‘had been in the habit of disposing of the bodies of deceased paupers for anatomical purposes’. This had caused ‘considerable excitement’ amongst the poor of the parish’.

‘Persons who supposed they were following a deceased relative or friend to the grave not infrequently followed  perfect stranger, brought from other parishes, while that over which they supposed they were mourning had been disposed of in a  different way; and the thought of such deception created great dissatisfaction’.

Cook’s evidence was damning and must have been shocking to the reading public. Dr Elizabeth Hurren (at Leicester University) has demonstrated that there was a lively trade in the bodies of the poor in Victorian England after the the passing of the Poor Law Amendment Act in 1834. Elizabeth has also suggested that the Whitechapel murders of 1888 may well be connected to this dark history in London. The trade was exposed by a series of articles in the popular press leading, as Hurren explains, to the arrest and prosecution of Albert (or Alfred) Feist at the Old Bailey in May 1858. Feist had broken the terms of the Anatomy Act (1832) which had prohibited the sale of dead bodies for profit. That act had been the government’s reaction to the illegal trade in the dead which was exposed by the Burke and Hare murders in Edinburgh and that of the ‘Italian boy’ in London in 1831.

Feist was convicted but sentence was reserved. The case then went for review and he was subsequently acquitted. The use of pauper bodies for the training of surgeons was legal under the Anatomy Act but the practice was effetely concealed from the public and, most importantly, from the poor themselves. As Hurren’s work show:

‘Summaries of the Anatomy Act, just like the New Poor Law, were supposed to be available to the poor, pinned on walls in places they might congregate. However, in such pieces of legislation, the word “dissection” itself was often concealed behind that of “anatomical examination”.’*

The families of paupers were often unaware of what had happened or unable to do anything about it afterwards. The pressure of finding enough body parts to train all the new doctors increased after 1858 when legislation required that all medical students must study anatomy for two years. Whole bodies were now routinely cut up into their composite parts so students could practice, explore and understand.

It must have made grim reading over breakfast and supper and its interesting to see the story unfold within the reportage of the summary courts. At Lambeth Mr Norton told the complainant that the workhouse master (who was of course Mr Feist) had been guilty of a misdemeanour in allowing his sister’s body to be buried so quickly after death. He was required, by law, to keep it for 48 hours so the family could arrange a funeral themselves. He told him he was happy to issue a summons.

As we now know Alfred Feist would face trial for this and a total of 62 other instances of supplying dead pauper bodies for the anatomy trade. In the end of course he, and his accomplice in the trade – the undertaker Robert Hogg – escaped scot free. Hurren estimates that a staggering 125,000 pauper bodies were sold in the Victorian period to benefit the study of medicine.

Poor lives didn’t matter in the 1800s but the reading public didn’t really want to be reminded of that too often. The exposure of the body trade, like the scandals surrounding the treatment of paupers in the Andover workhouse in 1845-6 reminded society of the harsh realities of being poor in Victoria’s Britain in perhaps a similar way that the tragedy at Grenfell Tower has caused a considerable amount of soul searching this year. Ultimately, it seems, even today poor lives don’t matter as much as rich ones.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, December 16, 1857]

*Review by Laurence Talairach-VielmasElizabeth T. Hurren, Dying for Victorian Medicine: English Anatomy and Its Trade in the Dead Poor, c. 1834–1929, in Miranda [http://journals.openedition.org/miranda/4586] accessed 16/12/17

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‘A very miserable story’ of the path to disgrace and ruin for a lady writer in Bayswater

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This case is curious because it sheds some light on late Victorian attitudes towards mental health, alcoholism and class.

Mrs Maria Wilkin was the widow of an army officer, a major no less. She was just 53 years of age and lived in rented rooms in Bayswater. It seems she tried to support herself by writing, a precarious way to earn one’s living, especially for a woman in the late 1800s.

She was up before Mr Plowden at Marylebone Police court on a charge of stealing a bottle of brandy from her landlady, Mrs Street. At first the hearing and been postponed so  that Mrs Wilkin could call witnesses in her defence and now, in early December 1893, she had one person to speak for her and a legal advocate.

The case was again presented, and Mrs Wilkin’s defence offered. Her character witness simply said she knew her, but not well. It was hardly a glowing reference and probably reflected the embarrassment the witness felt at being brought into public courtroom to defend someone whose behaviour she found objectionable.

Her barrister told Mr Plowden that Mrs Wilkin received regular visits from her family and was well cared for by them. At this point the accused woman objected, ‘denying she under the care of anybody’. She asserted her independence and  assured the magistrate she could support herself, by writing. Her previous landlady had ben quite happy to let her rent the rooms, so long as the rent ‘was guaranteed’.

‘Well, yes’, said Mr Plowden, ‘there’s the difficulty’. The rent clearly was not guaranteed and Mrs Wilkin was struggling to cope. He said it ‘was a most lamentable and painful’ case.

‘He had heard a great deal about the prisoner and her antecedents, and he did not know whether to blame or pity her, but it was a very miserable story. He had no doubt that she did steal the brandy. In her sober senses she would, no doubt, have shrank from doing such an act. But, under the influence of a craving for drink, she took the bottle of spirits’.

He would prefer it if her relatives would ‘take care of her’, in other words take her away from Mrs Street’s rooms and look after her at home. This would represent a move from independent living into care, something that we all may have to contemplate at one point in our lives, or the lives of our nearest and dearest. For the vast majority of Victorians care was not something they could contemplate; the working classes had the workhouse or the insane asylum, hopefully Mrs Wilkin, as a member of the middle classes, would be able to either continue her independent lifestyle or move in with her extended family.

The alternative was made starkly clear to her by the magistrate however. He would release her on the promise (guaranteed by her recognisances) that if necessary she would be recalled to court to face the consequences of her theft. It was a warning to her: if she was not able to resist the temptation to steal again then she faced prison where she ‘would be disgraced and ruined for life’.

Finally he told her that  he’d like her to enter a ‘retreat’ for a time, so that she could rid herself of her addiction to alcohol. Such retreats for ‘inebriate women of the better class’ had been established in England, Australia and the US in the second half of the nineteenth century. Whether Maria could afford one is a moot point however, and the court was offering her no financial assistance. Alcoholism was widely believed to be a working class issue and that is where most of the Temperance Movement’s efforts were concentrated, but this demonstrates that it was a problem at all levels of society in the 1890s.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, December 12, 1893]

The sad story of an elderly seamstress and her Majesty

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In the light of yesterday’s happy announcement of a royal engagement I thought I’d feature a (sort of) royal story from Victorian London’s Police courts.

In 1871 Queen Victoria had been on throne for 34 years. Her husband Albert had been dead for a decade and she was yet to adopt the title of Empress of India. Victoria had a big influence on her subjects but her withdrawal from much of public life following the loss of her consort increasingly isolated her from public affection. 1870 had seen the overthrow of the French monarchy and the creation of the Third Republic, dark echoes in England called for a similar revolution, one that never transpired. In late November Victoria’s eldest son, Albert Edward, fell ill with typhoid (probably the same disease that had killed his father) and Victoria must have feared she would lose him as well.

Meanwhile, for ordinary Londoners life went on as usual. The ‘widow of Windsor’ was almost an abstract concept since she’d ducked out of view but her name, and what she symbolised, mattered  considerably.

It certainly mattered to an elderly seamstress called Mrs Lyons. She told the magistrate at Clerkenwell that she had been promised work by her Majesty but ‘court intrigues’ were preventing her from pursuing it. Mrs Lyons lived off the Caledonian Road in north London, close to where the new St Pancras terminal was being constructed. She was poor and in ‘want of money’ she explained, but was confident that with the queen’s patronage she would be fine.

Sadly Mrs Lyons was not very well; she suffered from some form of mental illness, as a police inspector told Mr Cooke, the justice sitting on her case at Clerkenwell Police Court.

‘About two years since the poor woman began to get strange at times in her speech, said that her room was full of rats, that she had an interview with the Queen and members of the royal family, and that her Majesty had promised her money, but that she was prevented from getting it by court intrigues’ .

He went on to say that up until recently Mrs Lyons had lived quietly but in the last few months her condition had worsened and she had started threatening people, including her landlady. A doctor had been called to examine her and he’d declared she was ‘not right in her head’ and she’d been carried off to Islington workhouse. From there she was to be sent to the Colney Hatch Asylum, Europe’s largest such institution.*

She had left her room with rent arrears and her landlady was refusing to give her sister leave to take away her sibling’s few possessions until that was paid. Mr Cooke said he was glad the woman was now in safe hands (although I’m not sure I’d consider being in the ‘care’ of a Victorian asylum ‘safe’. I suppose he might have meant the public were safe from her). He ordered the court to pay the arrears so she could be reunited with her ‘things’ and dismissed the case.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, November 28, 1872]

*(and now my gym!)

for another story that feature Queen Victoria see: “Let me see the Queen, I know who the ‘Ripper’ is!”

 

Echoes of Oliver Twist as an Islington apprentice complains of being abused

Noah Claypole from Oliver Twist

By the mid 1840s the Victorian reading public were familiar with the work of Charles Dickens and his stories of everyday life. Between 1837 (when the young Queen Victoria ascended the throne) and 1839 Bentley’s Miscellany serialised the adventures of Oliver Twist as he escaped from the home of the Sowerberrys and the abuse he’d suffered at the hands of Noah Claypole and Charlotte, the serving maid.

Of course that escape was short lived as Oliver was plunged into the criminal underworld of the metropolis and the lives and crimes of Fagin and his gang of pickpockets. Happily of course ‘all’s well that ends well’, and Oliver finds redemption and peace in the home of Mr Brownlow, even if the plot does have a few more twists and turns along the way.

Oliver was a parish apprentice. He was placed first with a chimney sweep and then with Mr Sowerberry (an undertaker) as a way to get him out of the workhouse and off the parish books. Apprenticeship was not as popular as it had been 100 years earlier but it was still seen as a route to a respectable trade and steady income. Young people were apprenticed in their teens and learned a skill from their master before leaving to set up as journeyman in their early 20s.

The system was open to abuse of course; Dickens was not making up the characters of Noah and Charlotte, or Gamfield the brutish sweep. These sorts of individuals existed, even if Dickens exaggerated them for dramatic or comic effect. In the 1700s in London apprentices who felt aggrieved could take their complaints (or not being trained, being exalted, or even abused) to the Chamberlain of London in his court at Guildhall. Failing that they might seek advice and mediation from a magistrate.

Both sides approached the Chamberlain and magistrate in the Georgian period and apprentices were released from their contracts or admonished in equal measure. For a master the courts were often a useful way to discipline unruly teenagers who simply refused to obey their ‘betters’.  However, other masters resorted to physical chastisement in their attempts to discipline their disobedient charges.

Sometimes this went too far, as in this case that reached the Police Court magistrate at Clerkenwell.

Joseph Mitchely was a parish apprentice, just like the fictional Oliver. He was aged 14 or 15 and had been bound to an Islington  ‘master frame maker and french polisher’ named Wilton. In early November he had complained to the court that Henry Wilton was beating him unfairly and the magistrate ordered an investigation to be made. He called in the parish authorities (in the person of Mr Hicks) who made some enquiries into the case.

Having completed his investigation Mr Hicks reported back to Mr Tyrwhitt, the sitting justice at Clerkenwell. He declared that the boy had exaggerated the extent of the ‘abuse’ he’d supposedly suffered and was now apologetic. Apparently, young Joseph now ‘begged his master’s forgiveness’.

Mr Tyrwhitt discharged the master frame maker and told the boy to return with him and make his peace. He added that in it might be better if any further disputes between them were brought before him or one of his fellow magistrates, and suggested that Mr Wilton avoid ‘moderate correction’ in future. Hopefully both parties had learnt a valuable lesson   and were able to move forward in what was a crucial relationship (for Joseph at least).

[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, November 21, 1848]

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]

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]