Laura Bentley was in dire straits. A 41-year-old Londoner, she supported her bedridden mother, who she lived with in lodgings in Delancey Street, St Pancras. In fact, their lodgings were nothing more than a single furnished room on the top floor of number 82.
Her wages were not enough to keep the pair afloat, and she had got into financial difficulties. This was mortifying to her; her father had been a gentleman with an income of £500 a year.
Laura had been ‘educated and brought up as a lady’ – but her father had absconded. He then died, and her mother had remarried, this time to a drunkard who spent all the late Mr Bentley’s money. He then seems to have left, leaving Laura and her mother in poverty.
Laura described herself as being of an ‘excitable’ personality; so excitable that at one point, she had to be taken into the insane ward of the Islington workhouse for three days. She was again admitted to the workhouse, and then to the insane or lunatic ward – the Hagar Ward – of the workhouse in 1897. Then living in Camden Town, she was admitted by her uncle, Frederick Roberts.
Laura Bentley’s discharge to the Islington workhouse infirmary, 1897, via Ancestry
She had originally wanted to be an actress, and had worked as such for some time, before an attack of laryngitis left her voice permanently affected. She had therefore found herself ‘disqualified’ from her profession, and so had to take on a job as a machinist. Initially she worked at Peter Robinson’s factory, and then at the Swan and Edgar premises.
But then she lost her job, due to ‘alterations made by these firms’, she said, but also, perhaps, because her health was poor. She had started drinking, and mixing with ‘women of loose character’. She owed five weeks’ rent, and the landlady had talked of evicting her due to her staying out all night drinking.
Her mother, who was unable to move her limbs due to chronic rheumatism, had formerly had to be helped by the charity of some local women, and the parish. Now, though, she was entirely reliant on Laura, and both women were on the verge of starving. It was also said that Laura had no friends left to call on for help.
Laura spent her days ‘tramping’ around the city trying to find work, to no avail. The combination of failure in her chosen profession, failure also in her second job as a machinist, and failure to adequately support her mother, may have led her to the drinking (although the mixing with loose women may simply have been out of loneliness and a desire for company).
It also, eventually, led to Laura becoming so ‘weary and distressed’ that she attempted to commit suicide by jumping off the York and Albany Bridge into the Regent’s Canal.
Laura’s admission to the lunatic ward of the Islington workhouse, 1897
Yet she also failed at doing this.
As she was desperately trying to clamber over the bridge in the dark – it was one o’clock in the morning – hindered by her long skirts, a local police constable spotted her. He ran up to her and grabbed her skirts, pulling her back.
“I beg you to let me do it!” she cried, “I am in fearful trouble! About 4l will save me from suicide, but if you will not let me do it, I will do it another day.”
Instead, she was arrested, and brought to Marylebone Police Court, charged with attempting suicide. She was remanded on bail, with the judge, Curtis Bennett, saying that ‘probably something would be done for her.’
What that would be, he failed to say, beyond suggesting that a gaol doctor should examine her, and that the parish overseers should be notified that her mother might need looking after.
But the records show that machinist Laura Bentley was again admitted to the workhouse – this time St Pancras – in 1903. It was stated at this point that she had ‘no home’. In 1906, again homeless, she was returned to the St Pancras workhouse. Her ‘nearest known relative or friend’ was the same uncle who had had her admitted to the lunatic ward in 1897.
It is clear that Laura’s cry for help – her attempted suicide – did not result in a happy ending. Brought before the magistrates, the only options open to her were prison or workhouse. It seems that the rest of her life was spent yo-yoing between workhouse and lodgings of some sort, between pauper wards and lunatic wards.
It was not the kind of life that an aspiring actress would have envisaged in her youth, but it showed the lack of options, open to many women in Victorian England when they fell on hard times.
Sources: Daily News, 11 July 1898; Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, 17 July 1898; workhouse admission and discharge records on Ancestry.