Criminal Historian

Working with dead people

Month: February 2014

Mrs Middleton, the Witch: Attitudes towards the Elderly in George IV's England

Sir Richard Birnie

Sir Richard Birnie

In October 1821, at Bow Street police office, the police magistrate, Sir Richard Birnie, called the defendants in a peace charge before him, one by one.

“William Grant, labourer?” he called first, and was shocked when a red-haired, eight-year-old boy answered.

Another ten names were called, each person being referred to as a labourer. Ten other eight or nine year old boys answered.

Finally – “Jane Stevens, spinster, a labourer” – and a little girl answered in the affirmative.

Sir Richard was horrified. “Why, in the name of all that is wonderful, what is the meaning of all this?”

The prosecutor was called to explain why she had brought all these young children before the court.  Euphomia Middleton, a woman of around 70 years of age, duly appeared, to argue that the children kept gathering outside her house on Brompton Row, calling her names, threatening to murder her, swearing that she was a witch and saying that as such, she should be burned. She was clearly rattled.

One might have expected that, in the genteel, civilised, early 19th century, people – even children – calling old ladies witches would be frowned on, and punished. That is exactly what Mrs Middleton had expected.

But instead, old attitudes died hard. The magistrate told Euphomia that bringing children to the police office to be punished was a “farce”. She protested that if he didn’t punish them, she would, for putting her life in danger.

Witnesses argued that she had already been seen beating several of the children; and then one man “hinted” that Mrs Middleton had brought the problems on herself, by keeping “an extensive assortment of cats and other animals, for which she evinced a more than ordinary degree of fondness”. He said that as a result, she had become a “joke” among her neighbours.

Another neighbour said that Mrs Middleton was “the most violent and meddling person in all Brompton” – to which the rather biased magistrate answered, “That I can readily believe”.

Poor Euphomia tried to argue against this character assassination, but Sir Richard “told her she had taken the right method to get herself laughed at, and advised her to retire.”

So even in 1821, an old woman with a temper, who owned a cat, could be denounced as a witch by her neighbours and dismissed as a nuisance by those in authority.

Perhaps not so educated a society after all.


Graffiti in the debtors' prison

Prison Cell Graffiti c1750 from Nell Darby on Vimeo.

This graffiti can be seen at the Museum of London.

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