Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Hard Times for a Victorian Pauper

Many of the hearings listed under the police courts involved crimes such as stealing items as diverse as a fork and spoon, watches or clothing, being drunk and disorderly, using bad or foul language, or the more alarming such as ill-treatment of a child or an animal, for example, an ass, a donkey, a horse, a goat or a cock. Frequently, very stiff sentences were handed down for pathetically petty crimes committed by the deprived or hungry
, or even by children as young as nine or ten. At other times, there seemed to be a high level of tolerance towards parents who abandoned or cruelly treated their children.

An inquest in The Times newspaper dated 21 January 1837 describes the sad "riches to rags" demise of a Medway trader, a man called Thomas Burton, aged sixty-five.

The first witness was Charles Dean, who was the watchman for the parish. He described how, on the previous Sunday night about 11.30pm the Dover coachman told him someone was lying in the road and would mostly likely be run over. Mr. Dean set off up Strood Hill and met the man coming down, staggering drunkenly. Charles Dean led him down the hill, asking him where he was going. Thomas Burton said he wanted to go to Strood so Charles Dean left him.

Later, he found Thomas lying in the road again, so he called on a friend to help him and the two of them took Thomas to the Bull's Head, where they were able to make him warm and comfortable in the straw. But Thomas wasn't getting any better and the men called on James Vine, the relieving officer of the workhouse. Vine, at first, came to the conclusion the man was drunk, although later he conceded that Thomas was really ill.

No bathing - that's dangerous!

A man, assumed to be a doctor's assistant, told the court he'd arranged for Thomas to  be put to bed and kept warm, and to have  beef tea and brandy administered every two hours. But he must not be bathed as that would tire him. So Thomas was returned to the workhouse in a filthy state, and an inmate, Susannah Hayler, was employed to wash him with warm water. It was during this process that Thomas died.

Feed the patient?  Oh dear, we forgot!

It was found Thomas' pockets contained addresses of upper-class people he thought might help him - and there was other evidence that proved Thomas had formerly had connections with people of substance, for example, there were letters from Lord Cornwallis and the Earl of Jersey. William Stephenson, the medical officer, carried out the post-mortem and found the body perfectly healthy.

But - there was not a particle of food in it. Thomas Burton had been kept warm, bathed, fussed over, but it had not occurred to anyone to give him something to eat!

Adapted from: Cameron Janet, Murder & Crime, Medway, Tempus Publishing, 2008.


  1. I can imagine that happening in Australia!
    Everyone would say it was someone else's job, Jo

    1. Well, then, Australia's not much different from UK, Jo ;)