There were certain individuals who turn up in the newspapers in the 19th century who were evidently seen a “characters” by the journalists of the age. Most of these people were persistent offenders at being drunk in public places, and their court appearances, when the police hauled them in, were notable for the exchanges between the accused and the constables and the magistrates.
However, reading between the lines of the mirth that these cases generated, one detects the sad fact that many of these “characters” had suffered tragedies in their lives that had led them to turn to drink, which then led to a downward spiral.
One such “character” was Margaret Burke, who turned up at Marlborough Police Court in August 1888.
The Sheffield Evening Telegraph opined on her case in an editorial on Wednesday, 15th August, 1888:-
MARGARET BURKE IN COURT
“Mrs. Margaret Burke, who appeared at a London Police Court the other day, is a character whom Dickens would have loved to portray.
If Mrs. Margaret Burke has any weakness, it is that she too frequently betrays a liking for a “drop of the creature.”
Unfortunately, her brother fosters this liking, and the consequence is that the old lady finds herself more often than is desirable in the hands of the authorities.
DRUNK AS USUAL
Charged on the recent occasion with having, in the constable’s words, been “drunk as usual,” Mrs. Margaret Burke pathetically threw herself on the mercy of the court.
She admitted that, reversing the Scriptural order of things, she had been tempted by her brother and fallen. She had yielded to the seductive draught. She had put her lips to the fatal cup, and had found too late that “whisky and gin don’t agree with her limbs.”
A POOR WIDOW
But then, what is she to do, a poor “lone wider” over 60 years of age, she has no one to take care of her. Her life is one of sad reflection. She is always fretting, and in despair at her present lot, no less than the fraternal wiles, is responsible for her backsliding.
She ekes out a paltry pittance selling flowers at the Haymarket.
When gentlemen give her sixpence for a penny bouquet, and forget to ask for their change, she naturally seeks to make the most of her wealth.
SHE SPENDS IT ON ALCOHOL
Unhappily, her method of making the most of it is by indulgence in alcohol. “Worried and troubled in her mind,” she flies to the bottle for oblivion from her woes.
Margaret is no believer in the virtues of abstinence. Her happiest moments are when, over a gill of the best, she can drink her fill, and then, like Keats’s nightingale
“Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget The weariness, the fever, and the fret Here where men sit and hear each other moan.”
Of course, she is sorry afterwards for her frailty, but the remorse disappears at the next opportunity for tippling.
Margaret is but a type of a large class, whose lives are a continual alternation between misery and drunken bliss, and whom no effort of philanthropy seems appreciably to reform.”
A DROP OF CRATUR
The Worcestershire Chronicle carried a report on the actual proceeding in its edition of Saturday, 18th August, 1888:-
Margaret Burke, an elderly woman with a rubicund face and curly red hair, described as “a flower seller from the Haymarket,” was charged at Marlborough Street with being drunk at a quarter-past ten on Saturday night.
Constable 18 R said that the old lady was “drunk as usual.”
DRUNK EVERY NIGHT
Prisoner:- “What does he say?”
Constable:- “She’s drunk every night, your Worship, and she gives us a lot of trouble.”
Prisoner:- “God bless yer Wortchip, I’ve two bad limbs.”
Mr. Hannay:- “Very likely.”
Prisoner:- “And on Saturday night, a brother of mine comes up to me and, says he, “Maggie, have a drop of the cratur?” (Great laughter.)
Well, your Worship, whiskey and gin don’t agree with my limbs (more laughter.) I’m a poor lone widder, over sixty years of age, and have no one to take care of me. I can’t eat a bit for fretting after the dear children that I’ve lost. I’ve no one in the wide world now, and my poor legs won’t stand drink, and I’m always fretting.”
A GOOD TRADE
Mr. Hannay (to the constable):- “She must do a good trade in flowers if she can afford to get drunk every night.”
Constable:- “Gentlemen give her silver for a penny flower, and she keeps the change.” (Laughter )
Prisoner:- “Lor’, bless ye, they don’t stop for it. (Laughter.) A good gentleman comes to me and says, “Kitty my dear, have you a nice flower to-night?” and I shows him one and he buys it, and don’t stay for the change. I afflicted and worried, and I’ve a troubled mind. I m fretting, it is……”
SHE WAS VERY SORRY
Mr. Hannay (cutting short her story):- “Here I will give you another chance, and if you are sorry I will let you off.”
Prisoner:- “God bless your Wortchip, then I’m sorry very sorry (Laughter). Good day””