Miscarrriages of Justice. Case of the Mother who ‘locked’ children in dark room
This case was that of a woman who was sentenced by a Metropolitan Magistrate, since dead, to six months’ imprisonment for locking her children up in a dark room and otherwise neglecting them and leaving them in a filthy condition. The moment I read this case in the paper I had a very strong feeling that there was something wrong about
this sentence and that the sentence was a miscarriage of justice. And just as I had read the case a note came from Emmeline saying she was sure something was wrong about this sentence. She wrote: “You and I know enough of the lives of the very poor to realise this, could you do anything about it, make enquiry and find out what is really the truth.”
I made up my mind to make enquiries personally though what further steps I could take I did not know in the least.
I started out early that morning and spent the day interviewing anyone I could find who had had contact with the woman. I saw the doctor who had examined the children and whose report of their condition was dreadful. I saw the landlady, the neighbours, the Inspector of the N.S.P.C.C. who had reported the case, one or two relatives. All this confirmed my opinion that the woman was not cruel or neglectful but actuated by fear that the children would be taken away from her by the Poor Law or education authorities because she was too poor to either feed, clothe or house them properly….
I discovered later that the case had been much exaggerated by the N.S.P.C.C. official. I asked him how he had entered the locked room and he said: “The eldest child let me in.”
I said: “Then the key was on the inside of the door?”
He admitted this. I also asked the time of his entering the room and found it was about 5p.m. on a winter’s afternoon.
The windows were covered by curtains given to the woman by one of her employers and of which she was very proud. I told him I did not think that the facts justified the sensational headlines which I had seen in the papers: “Children Locked In A Dark Room.”….
Of course something had to be done for the children, but nothing was gained by putting the woman in prison. The woman was very ignorant, could neither read nor write, had never seen the country nor the sea; had, in fact, never been outside London in her life.
She was so dazed and troubled when the police arrested her and took her to the Police Station, and when
she finally appeared in the dock that as she told me later: “I ‘ad me characters from me mistresses in me pocket but I did not know ‘ow to ‘andle ‘em up.”
So with no-one to speak for her and no knowledge that she could have appealed within seven days, she was bundled off to prison and her children sent to the Workhouse.
As soon as I had got a fairly adequate knowledge of the facts of her case I went to the Home Office hoping against hope that I should be able to see the Home Secretary.
I had the good fortune to be recognised by the Commissionaire at the doors who told me that he used to be butler in a house in which I had often stayed, and there was no difficulty about my being shown into the room of the permanent Under-Secretary of State.
I knew the Under-Secretary and his wife personally, and I had taken the precaution to write on the paper asking for an interview and stating my business “not suffrage” as it was the time of the militant suffrage agitation and any woman seeking an interview with a Government official was suspect.
I met with courtesy and sympathy and understanding. I began by saying I had gone very carefully into the facts of the case of this woman and had come to the conclusion that she was no more cruel than I was and had no more right to be in prison than I had and added that I had come to
ask for her release. He expressed the opinion that this was rather an extraordinary request, but promised to consult the Home Secretary and see if it could be arranged for me to see the woman in Prison and report on the result of the interview.
I pointed out that unless I could see her alone without any wardress present, and that unless I could have more than the regulation quarter of an hour for the interview, my visit would be useless.
The next day I had the permit to interview the woman in Holloway Prison and on the conditions for which I had asked. I had asked if I might hold out any hope of release and was told I might go as far as to ask her whether, if she were released, she would take my advice about the future care of the children. So I went to Holloway. I began by telling her that I had nothing to do with the Poor Law, nothing to do with the School people and was not even a District Visitor.
Then I got the real story and it was exactly as I had expected.
Acting on the Home Secretary’s instructions I asked her whether, if she were released, she would take my advice about the children. To this she gladly consented and I left her feeling very hopeful, so much so that I ordered a new set of clothes for her, ready to send to the prison on her release.
Next day I got the order for her release and invited her to breakfast at my flat with her married daughter and other relatives.
They were very poor and very dirty and I asked my Cockney maid to give the room in which we had breakfasted an extra clean up after they had gone. I asked her later if she had “found anything” and with true Cockney euphemism she replied: “Well, I did think the dust was a little inclined to move.”
“However, all’s well that ends well, and through the generosity of various people who read of the case in “Votes for Women” and other papers I was able to get her a new room, new furniture and new clothes.
She kept her old jobs of work. She was allowed to leave the youngest children in the Poor Law Institution and the Matron, being a very understanding woman, allowed her to see them at any hour that suited her work and not only on regulation visiting days.
I kept in touch with her for years until she finally disappeared during the war.