Destitute And Starving In A Cellar

Over the Christmas period, 1888, what, at face value, appeared to be a very sad and moving story, gripped Londoners and, in the wake of the fates of the victims of Jack the Ripper, that had been reported on extensively in the media over the autumn, people were moved to try to do something to help a girl who, so it seemed, was every bit as unfortunate as the women who had fallen victim to the Whitechapel murderer between August and November that year.

The case was, perhaps, considered especially poignant because the discovery of the poor girl’s plight had actually been made on Christmas Day itself.

The case in question was first reported in the newspapers on Thursday the 27th of December 1888; the following article about it being published in The South Wales Echo on that date:-


“Sarah Warhurst, 19, a wretchedly clad girl, who looked weak and ill, was charged before Mr d’Eyncourt, at Westminster yesterday, under the following circumstances:-

Robert James, storekeeper to Mr C. Humphreys, of Knightsbridge, deposed that yesterday forenoon he was making an inspection of his employer’s premises, and among the places he visited was an empty house, No. 32, Hobart-gate.


In a coal cellar opening into an area he found the accused lying on some boards, with nothing to cover her except her dress, which was much worn and covered with mud.

The girl, who seemed in a dazed and half-unconscious state, said, in reply to his questions, that she thought she had been in the cellar some days and came there because she had no home or friends.

The rain had come through into the cellar, which was very close and smelt badly.

She was given into custody, really from motives of humanity.


Constable Clancy, 54 B R, said he was called to the cellar by the last witness, and found the accused huddled in a heap on the boards.

She told him on the way to the station that she spent her last 2d on bread and butter on Saturday night, when she got into the area for shelter, and that she had had nothing to eat since; also that she was formerly a weaver at Oldham, in Lancashire, which town she left in April or May last, partly on account of the strike of mill hands, and partly because she was beaten and ill-treated by a cousin.


In reply to questions put by the magistrate and Mr Safford, the chief clerk, the girl stated that she tramped to London, begging her way, and got a situation during the season as a jam-coverer.


Since her discharge from that place she had been on the streets, and had lived in a room with a girl called “Dark Annie,” in Katharine-street, Notting-hill.

Wearied of the wretched life, she said that she could not go out for money, and last Thursday, owing the landlady 6 shillings, she was turned out.

The accused walked about the streets all Friday and Saturday, and late that night took shelter in the cellar.


Dr. Francis Pearse, Divisional Surgeon of Police, who was sent for to examine the girl by direction of the magistrate, said she was in a very nervous condition.

She had a nasty wound over the left ankle, the result of a fall, and this was in a bad state through neglect. It would take at least a fortnight to heal. She was weak from want of food, but not so prostrated as might have been expected from so long a fast.


Constable Clancy remarked that Warhurst ravenously ate some scones which he bought her on the way to the station, and was so weak that he had to bring her to the police-court in a cab.

She had told him that her parents were dead and that her cousin at Oldham knocked her about because she did not bring home enough
money from the mill.


Mr D’Eyncourt commended the constable for his humanity, and ordered his expenses to he refunded out of the poor box.

The girl was sent to Kensington Infirmary, and her recognisances accepted to appear at the court again in a fortnight’s time.”


Over the next few days there was a huge outpouring of sympathy for poor Sarah Warhurst, and the authorities were inundated with offers of help; indeed, there were almost too many offers of assistance, as is evidenced by the following letter that appeared in the London Evening Standard on Wednesday 2nd January, 1889:-

“SIR, – As a considerable amount of interest has been manifested in the case of this girl, who, it will be remembered, was found in a sick and destitute condition on Christmas-day in the cellar of an empty house at Albert-gate, and remanded by the Magistrate to the Infirmary of this parish, I should be glad if you would kindly inform those who have already so generously made offers of assistance in money and otherwise, or who may still contemplate doing so, that the antecedents and story of the girl are being carefully inquired into by myself and others on behalf of the Guardians; that she is rapidly recovering, and that when she is fit to leave the Infirmary she will be supplied with a suitable outfit, to enable her to go into an excellent situation with a lady who, knowing all the circumstances of the case, is willing to take her and give her the training which will, it is to be hoped, place her in the ranks of respectable domestic service.

No further assistance, therefore, is now required for her; but I may, perhaps, be allowed this opportunity of mentioning that the Guardians of Kensington have a Fund (at present at a very low ebb) from which they assist similar cases, of which, alas! there are at all times only too many that do not come so prominently as this one before the public, and, as the Hon. Treasurer of this Fund, I shall be glad, with the permission of the donors, to be allowed to put to it any balance that may remain from the money contributed to help Sarah Warhurst, and to receive any further contributions from those who recognise the value of such a Fund in assisting inmates, on discharge, in a manner which the Poor Laws cannot or do not recognise.

I am, Sir, your obedient servant,
JNO. H. RUTHERGLEN Clerk to the Guardians of Kensington. Guardians’ Offices, Marloes-road, Kensington, W., January 1.”


However, enquiries into Sarah Warhurst’s background soon revealed that her circumstances were not quite as she had presented them; and, when she next appeared in court, on Wednesday the 9th of January 1889, a different picture of her was painted by various witnesses.

The Cornubian and Redruth Times reported on her court appearance in its edition of Friday 18th of January 1889:-


“At the Westminster Police-court, Sarah Warhurst, the Oldham girl who was found destitute in a cellar at Albert-gate, Knightsbridge, at Christmas-time, has been brought up before Mr. d’Eyncourt, on remand from the Kensington Workhouse Infirmary, looking in greatly improved health, and neatly attired.

The circumstances under which the defendant was found have evoked an astonishing amount of sympathy from the charitable, and letters from all parts of England have been received at the court, at the institution where the girl was, and also by the police both in London and the country, containing subscriptions and offers of clothing and a home.

As an instance of the extraordinary interest which the case has excited.

It was stated that one post brought 95 letters to the Kensington Infirmary.


Mr. Rutherglen, the clerk to the Kensington Board of Guardians, and Inspector Kemp, of the B division of police, now attended before Mr. d’Eyncourt and detailed the results of the inquiries made into the girl’s antecedents.

It was stated on the report of Mr. Charles Hodgkinson, the chief constable of Oldham, Mr. Superintendent Hewitt, of Hurst, and other officers, that the girl is 19 years of age, and that her mother died 12 years ago and her father three.


Her aunt, living at Mossley, near Oldham, then took charge of her, but she ran away three times, the last occasion being one Saturday night in June, 1887, since which time her relations have never seen her.

She tramped to London, and in October, 1887, being found destitute and in a pitiable condition, she was relieved by a missionary of the Midnight Gospel Mission, and was sent to a Home at Barnet.


From there she was transferred to a good situation: but she behaved so badly that in December of the same year her employer telegraphed to the charity which had befriended her to say that if she was not fetched away she would be handed over to the police.


She was taken away, and lodged in Lady Aberdeen’s Home, Regent’s-park; but in April last year she ran away from there, and her next appearance was when she was seen in Kensington Gardens, dejected, destitute, and homeless.

Thomas Bell, the park-keeper there, having compassion on her, and believing that she intended to carry out her threat of committing suicide, took her home to his wife, and they most charitably kept her and fed her for nearly three months while she was out of work. The man also endeavoured to get her a situation at Crosse and Blackwell’s, but there was no evidence that she went there, and she left her benefactors without the least intimation and in the most ungrateful manner.

Possibly she worked during the summer, but last August a lady discovered her homeless and destitute on the Chelsea Embankment, and she then said that the park-keeper had befriended her, but she could not go back to him.


Mr. d’Eyencourt said that on the last occasion the girl alleged that she had left Oldham because of being assaulted by her cousin. Was that true? Inspector Kemp said it was altogether denied, as also was her statement that a strike of mill-hands affected her. She was in work as a weaver when she last ran away from Oldham, and she was a good weaver and reeler, but would not stop any length of time at her work.


Her sisters, who were married and living at Oldham, at first stated that they would have nothing more to do with her: but since a subscription had been started in the district – a sum of money being placed in the hands of the chief constable – her relations had manifested an interest in her, and a sudden desire to have her back and give her another chance.


Mr. Rutherglen said a married lady of the highest respectability now, knowing everything of the girl’s career, adhered to an offer she made at first to take the girl into her service. If his worship would allow the girl to be given over to this lady, the guardians, hoping she was repentant as she professed to be, would supply her with a good stock of clothes.

The balance of the money subscribed would be returned to the donors, and that not asked for would he applied to the excellent purpose of a Samaritan fund to assist poor deserving girls in a way the Poor-law could not recognise.


Mr. d’Eyncourt. addressing Warhurst, who cried bitterly, said he was afraid she was a very bad and almost hopeless girl. A great deal more than she deserved had been done for her, and in allowing her to go to the situation offered her so kindly he trusted she would turn over a new leaf and behave herself.

He should require her to enter into her recognisances to appear before him again if called upon, and if she did not go on well she might be brought up and punished.

His Worship gave the park-keeper Bell £3 to reimburse him to some small extent for the expenses he had incurred in maintaining the girl, and the remainder of the fund sent to this Court for her is held in reserve.

Mr. d’Eyncourt thinking that perhaps emigration will, after all, be the best for her.

The girl had a hysterical fit on leaving the Court.”