Tuesday, 13 November 2012

A Cruel and Irresponsible Mother who Did her Duty by the Law

Much Victorian crime was committed by those too poor to fend for themselves and children were harshly dealt with by an unforgiving system of justice.

A strange case of maternal betrayal was reported in the Chatham News in 1870. To our modern minds, this seems an appalling case of child abuse, yet this mother was actually considered to be entirely within her rights by the rigid Victorian Police Court at Chatham. Chatham was, at that time, a sleazy area, rife with villains, drunks and prostitution.

At eleven years old, at Chatham, on 30 July, 1870, little Elizabeth Bruce appeared in court charged with stealing a pair of trousers and an old skirt, valued at 1s.6d. Her accuser was - her own mother - also called Elizabeth Bruce. The young prisoner pleaded guilty and it is easy to imagine her fear and sense of bewilderment at being betrayed by the one person who should protect her.

What happened to Elizabeth was not at all unusual in Victorian Britain.

Condemnation of a Mother

Mrs. Bruce said she was a widow who lived in The Brook (at that time, a seedy, sleazy part of Chatham) and she had left for work the previous Saturday, leaving her children at home, the eldest being the prisoner. The youngest child was just four years old, so naturally, Elizabeth was left in charge of the other children. Mrs. Bruce returned home about 3.30pm and soon missed the items of clothing. She asked her eldest daughter where they were and Elizabeth said she didn't know.

So the mother demanded an answer from the younger sister, who told her the prisoner had given the things to her to sell, so she took them to Mr. Boatman's, a second-hand clothes dealer. The wife, Mrs. Sarah Boatman, told the magistrate that on Saturday, she bought the articles produced in court from the younger sister, Emma Bruce, who said her mother had sent her on the errand.

A Little Girl of "Bad Character"

Mrs. Boatman was soundly admonished by the court for not making further enquiries about the provenance of the goods. "If there was no receiver," she was told, "there would be no thieves." The magistrate went on to say that if she ever gave such facilities again to children in the future, she would be in trouble herself.

As for the prisoner, the magistrate said he was sorry to hear so bad a character of her and he wouldn't be doing his duty if she wasn't severely punished. The little girl was sentenced to seven months hard labour, and afterwards, a Reformatory for five years. The sentence of hard labour meant actual imprisonment with a punishing work regime in terrible conditions. Most children sentenced to hard labour were then sent on to Reformatories where conditions were equally bad, an outrageously harsh punishment for a small impoverished child.

Adapted from Murder & Crime, Medway, Janet Cameron, Tempus Publishing, 2008
Chatham News, 30 July, 1870.
Copyright Janet Cameron
Published on Suite.101, January 2011.

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