Death of An Unknown Woman

Study the plight of the Victorian poor throughout the latter years of the 19th century and the spectre of the workhouse often looms large over newspaper accounts and official reports on their everyday struggles for survival.

There are many tragic and heart-rending stories about men, women and children who found themselves, often through no fault of their own, forced to seek the shelter of their local workhouse.

Yet, as today’s article illustrates, for some, even gaining admission to this last hope of shelter could prove difficult, if not impossible.


On Friday 1st October 1880, The Sunderland Daily Echo, featured the following report:-

“The annals of the poor contain no more pathetic story than that which was told on Wednesday by Sarah Hamilton at an inquest held by Mr Humphreys at Poplar on the body of a “woman unknown.”

The only companions that the “woman unknown” had in her last hour – passed on the pavement in front of the Poplar Workhouse, to which she had been refused admission – were Sarah Hamilton and her two children; and but for her testimony, society would have been left in ignorance of the cruel wrong which the poor outcast suffered at the hands of constituted authority.

Sarah Hamilton, being destitute, went to the Poplar Union Workhouse on Friday evening last, and asked for admission for herself and little ones.

An exterior view of the workhouse at Poplar.
Poplar Workhouse.


She was told to go to the Whitechapel Workhouse, but as she had wandered about for many weary hours, and was too exhausted to undertake the journey, a note to the “relieving” officer was given her.

She delivered it, but might have saved herself the trouble, for all that the relieving officer could do was to inform her that she was out of his district.

She then went back to the Workhouse, and found the “woman unknown” imploring for admission.


She was groaning with pain and looked ghastly pale, and said that if she were not taken in she would die.

But the gate porter was obdurate, and replied, “Then you must die. If there were forty of you you would all have to die if you hadn’t orders.”

The two women and the children then sat down on the pavement, Sarah Hamilton taking the hands of her strange companion in her own, and doing what she could to protect her from the chill of the night air.

Finding that she was dying, Sarah Hamilton made other efforts to move the representative of workhouse authority to pity, but met only with insulting rebuffs.


Despairing of obtaining either shelter or assistance, she settled down on the cold stones for the night, nestled her two little ones to her side, and took the woman unknown within her embrace, until between three and four o’clock in the morning “she looked into her face and found that she had died in her arms.”

The body was promptly removed by the police, who had passed the wretched group several times during the night, but “did not interfere,” notwithstanding that the dying woman “kept groaning and retching, and imploring her companion to ring the workhouse bell.”

Such is the manner in which the victims of penury are allowed to die in the streets of a city that boasts of a home for lost and starving dogs.

The story of the woman Hamilton was fully corroborated even by the gate-porter himself, who, in reply to the Coroner, admitted that he had refused the repeated applications made by the women for admission to the house.”


Giving evidence at the subsequent inquest into the woman’s death, James Belcher, aged 65, said that he had acted as watchman at the Poplar Workhouse gates since June 1875.

According to Reynold’s Newspaper, in an article dated the 3rd October 1880, he told the court that he remembered the deceased woman coming to the gates between eleven and twelve o’clock on the night before she died, but he had turner her away because she had no order for admission.

He insisted that she never told him she was ill, nor did she tell him that she was unable to go for an order.

He also said that he had been acting on the verbal instructions of the workhouse master.


Responding to the Coroner who asked him if he was in the habit of using “rough language to these poor people, ” Belcher replied, “Well, sometimes I do give them a very rough answer; so would you if you was there.”

Asked by the Coroner if Mrs Hamilton’s claim that he had told the woman that they “might die if they hadn’t got an order, ” Belcher swore that he couldn’t remember having said such a thing.

However, when pressed by the Coroner, “Will you swear you didn’t say so?” Belcher was hesitant, replying, ” Well, I won’t swear as I didn’t; I might have said so.”

The Coroner then asked him if he had said, “And that if there were forty of them, and they had no orders, they must all die?”

Belcher was surprisingly forthcoming in his reply:- “Well, perhaps I might have said that too. I do say a good “choker” to them sometimes. I have found since that she had been in the workhouse before, but I didn’t tell Doughty (the actual night watchman) that when I told him I had refused her.


A member of the jury then questioned him about what the deceased woman had, in fact, said to him prior to her being refused admission.

Belcher replied that she hadn’t told him that she would die if she wasn’t let in.

However, the jury pressed him further and he, somewhat reluctantly, admitted that “she might have said it after he slammed the wicket gate in her face.


He was questioned further about whether he was in the habit of treating poor creatures in this way, to which he replied that it was his habit, he did it to get rid of them, and then added:- “They’d palaver half the night if I’d let ’em. Some of ’em stops there the whole blessed night, and sleeps on the steps when we won’t let ’em in.”


Mrs Hamilton’s testimony was, to say the least, harrowing, and it still makes unpleasant reading today. Worse still, as far as many newspapers were concerned, was the fact that the police had passed the woman several times as she lay dying on the street – and according to Mrs. Hamilton she had even retched and vomited in their presence – and yet they did nothing.

Indeed, Police-constable Stephen Passmore, 84K, testified at the inquest that he had seen her at the workhouse gates at around midnight. She had told him that she was very tired and unwell, yet he had done nothing to help her.


In its issue of the 3rd October 1880, Reynold’s Newspaper reported on the Coroner’s summing up at the inquest:-

“The Coroner, in summing up, animadverted in the strongest possible language upon the grossly inhuman conduct of the witness Belcher, at his advanced age, with one foot in the grave, and upon the general laxity of the poor-law system; and the jury, who had exhibited the utmost indignation throughout the proceedings, in recording their Verdict, added that in their opinion there was gross neglect on the part of the workhouse authorities in the deceased being refused admission, and that no pauper inmate ought to be allowed to be employed as night watchman.

They also further said that the police constable was greatly to blame for allowing the deceased to remain in the streets all night, instead of insisting on her admission, or removing her to the police-station.”


Commentating on the conclusion of the inquest The Portsmouth Evening News had this to say:-

“Such an event as this ought to be impossible in any Christian land, and especially in England, where the relief of the poor is a first charge upon all property.

The fact that it has occurred makes it self-evident that there is something radically wrong somewhere.

We may justly condemn the grossly inhuman speech and conduct of a porter, who, being of an advanced age, and himself a pauper, might have been at least expected to manifest verbal sympathy, if he did not dare to overstep the orders to which he was so fatally loyal.

The police-constable, too, is censurable. For, though he might have been exceeding his duty if he had persisted in forcing admission for the dying woman, such an excess would have been readily pardoned, when the urgency of the motive was considered.

Besides, a policeman is a man, as well as a hireling, and out of his manhood he ought to have dared much for the poor creature he so heartlessly neglected.

It was, however, clearly his simple duty to remove her to the police station when he found that shelter was denied her at the workhouse.


The laxity of the Poor Law is forcibly exposed by this episode, and something should be done either by giving greater discretion to the warders at the gates, or to police-constables; by having a relieving officer in attendance at the lodge; by having the orders given at the gates, or accommodation provided where the orders are given, or in some way, to prevent the recurrence of an incident which is a blot upon our civilisation.”