One of the most harrowing things about reading the newspaper accounts of life in the Victorian East End around the time of the Jack the Ripper murders is when you come across an article that really brings home the plight of the poor families in the area.
Poverty was endemic in the area, and that poverty, as the following article – which appeared in The Illustrated Police News on Saturday 27th April, 1889 – demonstrates, could have fatal consequences.
The report is intriguing and disturbing on several counts.
Firstly, it shows how there were some amongst the deserving poor who were simply too proud to ask for assistance, even if they and their families were on the verge of starvation.
Secondly, it demonstrates that there were those who did what they could do to intervene in such situations.
And, finally, it shows how a Coroner’s jury could be so moved by the circumstances behind a case that came before them, that they themselves would take direct action to offer some support in order to alleviate the harrowing circumstances that they had heard about.
The article read:-
AN EAST END FAMILY STARVING
“A painful revelation of destitution and misery was made at an inquest held at the Mile-end Vestry- hall.
The jury were summoned to inquire into the death of Daniel Callan, aged five months, the son of Annie Seager, of 4, Bohn-street, Harford-street, Mile-end.
The mother, who appeared as if she had suffered very much from want of food, stated that she was the wife of Frederick Seager, a carman.
He had deserted her. Witness had to get her living by charing.
Lately, she had only earned 3s. to 4s. a week, and had had to keep four children, aged respectively seven, three and a half, and two and a half years old, and the deceased.
For days together they went without food.
TOO PROUD TO ASK FOR HELP
“Why,” asked the coroner, “did you not go to the workhouse?”
“I did not like the idea of a young woman like myself applying to the parish,” said the poor woman.
THE LANDLADY’S TESTIMONY
Emma Carley, the landlady of the house, stated that Mrs. Seager came to lodge with her about three weeks ago.
All the furniture she brought with her was one broken chair and a bundle.
Witness did not know she was in such a starving condition until Saturday, when she called her attention to her baby being so ill.
“I went to her room,” added Mrs. Carley, “and found she had no light, no coals, and no food. I got some coals, &c., and made a fire. I did not send for a doctor, as I did not know what to do.”
CHILDREN CRYING FOR BREAD
Mr. Courtam Chivers, the coroner’s officer, who visited the house, said he found the deceased lying dead on the floor, and a child, three years and a half old, lying in the corner covered with a few rags.
The eldest boy was crying for bread, while the other was sitting in the corner naked.
Witness immediately communicated with the relieving officer, and together they visited the house, taking some food with them.
The children were ravenous, and devoured no less than nineteen rounds of bread and butter, and drank two quarts of tea.
They waited till the mother came home at half-past ten p.m. The relieving officer then supplied them with three blankets and other necessaries.
Witness said the children were scrupulously clean.
THE DOCTOR’S TESTIMONY
Mr. Edward K. Houchin, of 29, High street, Stepney, stated that by the directions of the coroner’s office he visited the house on Tuesday night, and found the child dead.
The body was very much emaciated, but clean. It only weighed six-and-three quarter pounds.
The stomach was quite empty and there was an entire absence of fat.
The cause of death was starvation.
THE WORST CASE HE HAD HEARD
By the Jury: The child must have been without food for at least twenty-four hours, and could only have had a small quantity for days previous.
The foreman of the jury said this was the worst case it had been his lot to hear of. It was extremely sad, for the mother appeared to have done all that she could in her power under the circumstances.
He should be glad if his brother jurymen would help the woman, and he would start a collection with half a sovereign.
The jury readily responded, and a sum of £1. eleven shillings was made up and handed to her by the coroner’s officer.
The verdict of the jury was in accordance with the evidence.”