15 June 2020

Starvation in 1827 London

The wicked Beadle is a familiar character from Charles Dicken's Oliver Twist. But in this story from the London Evening Standard of Friday, 9th November 1827, we see a that Aldgate's beadle could, and did, get into trouble himself.

The 1824 Vagrancy Act had made it an offence for homeless people to sleep rough. In this case, the relevant paragraph is:
every Person wandering abroad and lodging in any Barn or Outhouse, or in any deserted or unoccupied Building, or in the open Air, or under a Tent, or in any Cart or Waggon, not having any visible Means of Subsistence, and not giving a good Account of himself or herself
But as early as 1827 it was clear to one magistrate at least that it was only as effective if a viable alternative existed.

The majority of the 1824 Vagrancy Act remains in force in England and Wales.


Yesterday two deplorable half-famished lads, who gave their names Woodyer and Dickson, were brought before Mr. Ballantine, charged with having committed an act of vagrancy the preceding night, in the parish of St. Botolph, Aldgate. 

They were detected sleeping in an empty house near St. Catherine's Docks, and when brought before the magistrate, they said that they were totally destitute of food, lodging, or a rag to cover them; that they had been tried at the Old Bailey Sessions lately terminated, and discharged, and when they left the prison they were without food or money to procure it.

In this state they had wandered the streets, and at night they laid themselves down to rest on tea damp earth in the old house wherein they were found. They had endeavoured to remove one of the old window sashes of the house, in order to dispose of it, to purchase wherewith to satisfy the cravings of hunger: but they were prevented by being taken into custody. 

The magistrate asked why they had not applied to the parish officers of Aldgate, who, he had no doubt, would relieve them. 

They said they had applied to Hall, the beadle, to be admitted into the house, but he refused, and gave them sixpence each, and sent them off. The magistrate censured the conduct of the beadle in very severe terms, and observed, that the very act of giving the prisoners money, instead of taking them into the house, and imposing upon them a task of labour, was encouraging them in crime, as they were persons whose reputation was known to be that of thieves. 

The worthy magistrate despatched an officer, desiring the attendance of the beadie immediately, in order that the matter should be explained. In a short time after Hall arrived, and admitted that he had refused to take the prisoners into the poor house, but had given them 6d. each as casual poor. 

Mr. Ballantine: Then, sir, you acted extremely wrong. You give money to these poor wretches, who are known to have no other method of living but by thieving, and send them upon the public to pursue their usual source of life. It was your duty to take them into the house. I will make an order for their immediate reception into the poor house. 

Beadle: Are we to take all persons into the house that make application, your worship? 

Magistrate: I order these people to be taken in instead of committing them to prison. 

Beadle: There are 500 such as the two prisoners that nightly sleep in the old houses in our parish. Surely we are not obliged to relieve them? 

Magistrate: You are bound to do so, if you are ordered, sir. 

Beadle: I submit, sir, that you are empowered by the act of parliament to...

Magistrate: l make the order, sir; and if you don't take care, I will discharge yon from your office. 

Hall, on hearing this, left the office immediately, and an officer was sent with the prisoners with the magistrate's order for their admission to the workhouse. 

Two other fellows, almost naked, were next placed at the bar, charged with purloining a half quartern leaf from the shop of a baker named Harris. 

The fellows admitted stealing the loaf, but declared they had not tasted food for days together. The magistrate took great pains in elucidating to what parish they belonged, but could not, as they declared they could not tell him. One of them, however, said he came from Portsmouth. 

They were ordered to be committed to the House of Correction for a month. 

One of them, in the most heartrending manner, asked the magistrate, on being removed, if he would give him some food, as he was starving. 

The magistrate instantly ordered him proper necessaries. 

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