Criminal Historian

Working with dead people

Category: Poor Law

The misfortunes of a Victorian actress

punch2Laura 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

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

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.

"Poverty is not the only crime": death and the inhumane overseer of Brentford

In my 18th century research, I’ve found the odd case of pregnant women being ferried across parishes in an attempt by overseers to shift financial responsibility for the women and their soon-to-be-born children to others… and these cases were in Old Poor Law days, before the divide between ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor became as sharp as it did post-1834.

So perhaps this following case shouldn’t shock me – but it does. In a case that took place not long after the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act came into effect, the case of Bridget Neville and her daughter Margaret remains horrifying nearly 200 years after it took place.

 

"Infant's Repast" by Ford Madox Brown (1848). This item is from the Pre-Raphaelite Online Resource www.preraphaelites.org, © Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery.

“Infant’s Repast” by Ford Madox Brown (1848). This item is from the Pre-Raphaelite Online Resource www.preraphaelites.org, © Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery.

On Monday 6 February 1837, just four months before Victoria became Queen, an inquest took place into the death of a little girl named Margaret Neville, who was just short of two years old.

The inquest, heard before coroner Thomas Stirling at the Windmill Inn in Turnham Green, now west London, caused considerable interest both amongst residents and the press, and raised the issue of the responsibilities of the overseers, and the need for compassion when carrying out their duties.

It was heard that Margaret was one of two children of Bridget Neville and her unnamed husband (possibly Michael). The Nevilles, who may have been Irish, were desperately poor, unemployed, and were having to travel around the country in search of work.

They had been in Croydon before, where, on their daughter Margaret being poorly, they had taken her to a surgeon, who had diagnosed an inflammation of the chest, and had given Margaret a blister, and her mother some powders to give to her.

They had then had to leave Croydon, as a policeman had turned up at their lodging house at midnight and given them a couple of hours’ notice to leave. They had then walked to Wandsworth, where they spent their last pennies on a night’s lodging.

They had then decided to get to Bristol on foot, in the hope of finding work there. However, on reaching Brentford in Middlesex around 3pm on the previous Friday morning, they realised that little Margaret, who had been poorly for the past month, had taken a turn for the worse.

They decided to stay in Brentford for the night, and booked a bed in a “common lodging-house” – all that they could afford.

But when the landlady saw how ill Margaret was, she refused to allow them to stay, saying:

“since the Poor Law Commissioners had come down there, the Overseers had given orders to the lodging-house keepers not to shelter any persons who were likely to become a burden to the [Poor Law] Union.”

So the Nevilles then went to another lodging house, where they were again met with a refusal. At a third house, the landlady said they could stay if they got the permission of the overseer, telling them where he could be found.

The overseer, Mr Burness, worked as a leather-cutter or shoemaker. The Nevilles – Margaret being carried in her mother’s apron as the latter walked – duly arrived at his workshop and asked leave to stay. He looked at Margaret, and told her to get back to Wandsworth:

“Do you think I’d give leave for this woman to lodge you, and your baby so bad as it is? No, indeed, go away with you.”

Bridget cried, “I am afraid my child will die in my apron – what am I to do in that case?”

“I don’t care where you go, so long as you don’t stop here.” retorted Burness. (As this was relayed to the coroner, the people present cried, “Shame, shame.”)

Bridget tried to remonstrate with the overseer, but she shouted, “Do you want to insult me in my own house? I won’t give you leave, so be off with you.”

The Nevilles were then made to leave, but, having been given the local magistrate’s name – Mr Crighton, a former poor law guardian – by the last lodging house landlady, there proceeded a tragic tour of houses in search of him.

They then went to another lodging house, where the lady who opened the door told them that the “gentleman upstairs” had warned her if she took them in, and “the child should die during the night, she would have to bury it at her own expense.”

Punch_Poor_LawThe lady gave the Nevilles a shilling, and told them the magistrate’s correct address. But the footman there refused to let them in, saying the magistrate only let him take messages to him once a day, and that time had already gone.

They then traipsed back to the last lodging house owner. She said, “I am very sorry, but I cannot let you remain, as if the child dies the parish officers will call me to an account for doing so.”

The Nevilles were in despair. They had spent all day going back and forth, trying to find anyone who would help them, or give them accommodation where they could look after their sick toddler. What were they to do?

In a final, desperate, move, they went into the Prince of Wales public house in Turnham Green. Once under the gaslight, Bridget peeked into her apron to see how Margaret was, only to see her child’s dead face reflected in the gloomy light.

Margaret had died whilst her parents had been desperately seeking help, and for the past half an hour, Bridget had been unknowingly carrying her corpse around in her apron.

The pub landlord, a Mr Battersbee, soon realised what had happened, and did what nobody else had done – he helped. He called the Chiswick overseer, a builder named Mr Adamson, who immediately admitted the family into the Chiswick workhouse, and put them before a warm fire, giving them food and drink.

The coroner’s jury was clear on what the problem was.

They said the failure to help the Nevilles was an effect of the “boasted New Poor Law system”, where “poor things were now turned out of even the common lodging-house, by order of the overseers, who would let them die in the street.

“The poor now could get no relief, but that was not the worst of the matter; they must not even ask for relief under pain of being sent to prison.”

They added that,

“Poverty was not the only crime to which the poor were subject, as sickness appeared now to be one also.”

Both coroner’s jury and the press found that although Margaret had died from the inflammation of her chest, if she had had sufficient care and attention earlier, she could have survived. Therefore, the ‘inhumanity’ of the overseer had contributed.

The jury stated that the Brentford overseer should have had the humanity to admit the family to the workhouse, and that in failing to do so, he had shown ‘great neglect’ in refusing shelter or help to them.

But that did not help the Nevilles, who had lost a daughter in their desperate search for charity and compassion.

Source: The Champion and Weekly Herald, 12 February 1837

 

The Adventures of Captain Heather and his Wife

manNot very much is known about Captain Heather’s background. That he called himself a captain is evident from the descriptions of him as such in the Victorian press.

He claimed to be an army captain, a gentleman, a pensioner of the Consolidated Board (which was responsible for army provisions). He also claimed to have been born in Hanwell, Middlesex, in 1794 – but there is no evidence of his birth or baptism there, and none for neighbouring parishes. He is also absent from all of the National Archives’ army records.

The first thing known about him is that he married Sarah Ann Smith in Marylebone in 1827. She had a better recorded past; the daughter and only child of Morgan Smith, a Reading grocer who had died when she was around eight years old, and his wife Sarah Shackel, from a well-to-do family from Earley, near Reading.

Backing up Heather’s assertion that he was in the army, he and Sarah were living in St Helier, Jersey, by 1830, when their first child, the exotically named Victoria Commenda was born. They were still there in 1835, when second daughter Caroline Banksia was born.

They returned home in 1837 or 1838, and settled into a grand house – 25 Brompton Crescent, Kensington. Sarah was pregnant with their third child.

On 13 August 1838, The Morning Post reported that a Mrs Heather, ‘a youthful matron’, had been charged at the Queen Square police office in Westminster with breaking window panes of a cottage in Gore Lane, Kensington. The accusation was made the cottage’s owner, Mrs Wiseman, who, the paper reported, was known as “The Merry Widow”.

It appeared that Sarah Heather had suspected “the young widow” of having “inveigled” the attentions of her husband John. Sarah was described as “the best of wives”, but, the Morning Post pointed out,

“as jealousy, once aroused, knows no bounds, abuse and violence are usually resorted to against the supposed delinquent party as a means of vengeance.”

Sarah was ordered to pay six shillings – the value of the damage she had caused to the Merry Widow’s window – but refused to do so. The magistrates then ordered her to be locked up in default of payment – despite the fact that she was nine months pregnant. Hopefully, she soon changed her mind about paying, or her husband paid on her behalf.

The couple settled back into married life. In the early 1840s they moved abroad again for a few years, renting out their house, but had returned by 1851. In the 1851 census, John Heather was listed as the owner of a public house in Henley on Thames – presumably it was an investment he was checking on, as the rest of the family remained in Kensington.

Holy Trinity Church, Brompton. Photo by David Castor.

Holy Trinity Church, Brompton. Photo by David Castor.

He then became a vestryman at Holy Trinity Church in Brompton, and poor law guardian for Kensington, living the life of a socially-aware, charitably minded, affluent gentleman. His mother in law had died in 1847, leaving her daughter a substantial amount of money, so the Heathers were comfortably off.

But suddenly, in 1863, Captain Heather was in the news. The Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper described him thus:

“John Heath [sic], apparently about sixty-five years of age, and very infirm…who it was stated had been a captain in the army.”

He may have been infirm, but he was nothing if not active. He was in the news as the result of an affiliation case heard at Marylebone: he was accused of having had an affair with 28-year-old Elizabeth Hoare, one of the servants of a Mrs Whitaker at Dorset Place. Elizabeth said:

“Defendant visited there [Dorset Place] and he made my acquaintance. I had intercourse with him in 1858 and 1859. The child was born on the 7th of October 1858.” (Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, 20 September 1863)

Heather had, apparently, paid maintenance to Elizabeth, although she complained that she used to have “a difficulty” in getting the money  – “Sometimes he gave me 10s, 1l, 2l, and 3l”. It was Heather who arranged Elizabeth’s confinement – with a Mrs Doggett acting as midwife. However, Elizabeth stated that in 1860, he tried to get her to say that the child was not his, and when she would not, stopped her money.

Elizabeth was then prompted to take her case to the authorities, where, although she argued that she “was never intimate with any other man”, and that she “will swear that I never had a child before, neither have I had one since”, was soon forced to admit that she “might have had” another baby since.

Luckily for John Heather, but not so for Elizabeth, it was decided that the complainant’s immorality – in having had two illegitimate children by two different fathers, and attempting to hide the fact of the second child’s existence – meant that the case should be dismissed. No order for maintenance was made, and the “infirm” Heather did not have to pay further for this child, who continued to be supported by its mother.

John’s long suffering wife Sarah died in 1866 of bronchitis, leaving the Shackel and Smith money to her husband and three daughters. By this time, John had been paralysed for the past year, leaving him almost immobile. He survived in this state until April 1869, when he died in the family home in Kensington. He died intestate, with his parentage unknown, and much of his life likewise – apart from the gossip provided by the newspapers’ crime reports.

That was a bit of an indulgent post about my great-great-great-grandparents. Unfortunately, due to my grandma having thrown away all photos of my granddad’s family (like you do), I’ve had to illustrate this piece with more generic images. 🙁  

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