Gentleman & The Tramp
For centuries London was filled with a plethora of poor, invalid or destitute people living day-by-day, scraping an existence by any means possible. But then a middle-class inspired march to morality (which found its origins in the 1790s) sought to clear the poor from the streets and out of plain sight. The instrument for this purge was the Vagrancy Act (1824) whereby it became an offence throughout England and Wales to sleep rough or beg. Critics including William Wilberforce denounced the rigidity of the Act because it made no allowance for circumstances as to why someone might be on the streets, leaving magistrates with no power of discretion – no matter how unjust their rulings became.
One such case involving Lord Maryborough occurred in 1826. Lord Maryborough (or William Wellesley-Pole, 1760-1845), was a man often berated for being ‘angry at all times… advancing in age without improving in reputation’. Being the father of notorious rake ‘Wicked Willam’ Long-Wellesley can’t have helped, but the fact is that Maryborough garnered negative sentiments throughout his life and since, as he is still considered a ‘nonentity’ by modern historians. However, this blog will over time provide sufficient examples of Maryborough’s achievements, loyalty and personal integrity to counter such unbalanced views. This case in particular shows that Maryborough was far from being a reactionary old Tory, and that his ethos was always one of Christian charity, even if he did think everyone belonged in their rightful place in the social hierarchy.
On 17th August 1826 a poor blind woman named Ellen Goodall was arrested and charged with acts of vagrancy, appearing before Marlborough Street Magistrates a few days later when the full extent of her ‘crimes’ were revealed. On that day the prosecution declared that begging was the least of 70-year-old Ellen’s nefarious activities. The court heard that Goodall was living in sin with a man of 80 and that this state of ‘unlawful wedlock’ had gone on for 22 years. This evil woman needed to be ‘separated from this paramour with whom she lived in prostitution, by removing her to the workhouse’. For all her poverty, however, Goodall was rich in loyalty and steadfastly refused consent to be placed in the workhouse because she would not sacrifice her aged companion.
Lord Maryborough appeared before the Magistrate explaining that he had already procured Ellen’s discharge on two or three occasions before, suggesting that she was effectively targetted for arrest. He explained that he had known her for over 20 years and she was in the habit of coming to his house in Savile Row from where she often received ‘broken victuals, and also clothes’. Also, ‘to enable her to earn a little extra money the family provided Ellen with a basket filled with cakes’ which she sold in or about the streets locally. Maryborough challenged the court to prove that Ellen was begging as he had never seen her do so.
Then the very Dickensian-named Mr Fagan, a beadle of the parish, and member of the Society for the Suppression of Vice, spoke for the prosecution. His hostility towards Ellen was entirely to be expected given his membership of a group of zealots who believed that punishment was the only way to make the poor mend their ways.
Fagan asserted that Goodall was guilty of ‘constructive begging’ for she was clearly witnessed ‘holding out her hand whilst holding a basket’. He added that her refusal to give up the lodgings and enter a workhouse proved her guilt and immorality beyond question. Fagan conceded he had been ordered by members of the Society for Suppression of Vice to bring Ellen and her partner to justice. Given these facts, the magistrate stated his belief that the old woman before him could have been bending down to do her shoelaces, yet the outcome of her arrest would have been the same.
Maryborough replied that the case was ‘nonsense, talking about an old woman, nearly 70 years of age, living by prostitution, and that to support a man of 80; and because she will not enter into a workhouse, to lose by that act all her little comforts, she is to be persecuted…. Supposing they are living together, what is that to any person? Where is the immorality of such, then?’
During a lengthy discussion that followed, the Magistrate pointed out that he had no room for manoeuvre, therefore the law must apply. Goodall was sent to Newgate Prison for 15 days. As he left the Court, Maryborough stated that he did not care what trouble and expense he would be put to, on behalf of this poor woman, and if the Magistrate could not oblige he would go to a higher authority.
A few days later Maryborough was finally thwarted when senior Magistrate Mr Roe informed him that he had no power of pardon under the Vagrancy Act, and Goodall remained in prison. Sadly we do not know what became of this unfortunate woman, but her ageing partner got the worst of all outcomes in that he was discharged but thrown out of their lodgings. Yet, thanks to Maryborough’s involvement Ellen’s case did come to the attention of the public.
A letter to the Editor of the Morning Post on 25th August declared Lord Maryborough ‘a man of feeling actuated by motives which do him honour… At this moment, when distress stalks about the land, every latitude ought to be allowed to those who, not able to pay shop rent, make the street their bazaar – where an honest penny may be gained to keep a life together… Lord Maryborough is an honour to his country for the humane interference he has shewn in a case that really demands serious enquiry’.
The Morning Chronicle decried that fact that the Vagrancy Act allowed ‘parish beadles and the like to tyrannise the poor, to wound their feeling, and to pry into their affairs… Because Ellen Goodall was old and poor, it was presumed naturally that she could be nothing less than a vagrant.
Finally, on 27th August an open letter to Home Secretary Sir Robert Peel was published in The Examiner asking how it can be right to ‘punish the poor for being so, for suffering under a state of things they could not avoid? Who would remain poor if he could avoid it? Who would be a burthen on others if they could be independent? Who would ask for charity or vend cakes in Savile Row, if he could sell jewellery in Bond Street? The Vagrancy Act denies one thing that the very poorest in this land has rights to: and that is justice’.
When we consider the changes to the benefit system brought about since the Lib/Tory Coalition in 2010, the above seems peculiarly relevant today.