By work or by other means

© Maxwell Adams

What do you think history is? Henry VIII? The battle of Trafalgar? Okay, that's history. But the most demanding and rewarding history tells us about ourselves. It does this by telling us not about kings and generals but about people struggling to make sense of the world we're in and trying to get happiness and show courage. This history of our fellows draws from us a response that exposes our innermost values, what we think life is about, what sort of people we are.

I thought of these things as I read about John Christopher, a farmer of Lelant a century and a half ago [Penzance Gazette 25 October 1843, 4/2 and the Royal Cornwall Gazette 27 October 1843, 2/7]. Oh, what a fool he was. How ill-used he was. How exploited his exploiters. It is a story about a foolish man, whores, and robbery. It is also a story about people.

One circumspect account does not name the foolish Lelant farmer but one does and I think he was probably the John Christopher who lived at Gunwin, a man of about forty two with a wife and family [1841 Lelant census 142/10/7]. On 21 October 1843 Christopher walked into the police station at Penzance and complained that he had been robbed of nearly £12, a large sum then. That looks straightforward, doesn't it? He described to the police in detail the money he had been robbed of: two £5 notes, a sovereign, a half-sovereign, and nine shillings. He seems a precise and careful man, for most of us probably don't know exactly how much we carry and how it is made up. We don't know why he had such a large sum on him.

Christopher identified his robbers. They were two women "in whose company he had been" and the name of one of them leapt in my face. We have met her before in the records of Lelant.

At this we begin to wonder how careful he really was. We also wonder how the money was taken from him without his immediately knowing. We can imagine his anger when he discovered he had been robbed, an anger that led him perhaps unwisely to the police.

The women were soon found - they would be well known to the police, I imagine, and would not be hiding - and arrested. They were Jane Williams and Pamilla Curgenven. Six years before Pamela Curgenven, for I'm sure it's she, had been described as a Lelant pauper and sent to the workhouse with her illegitimate child [Minutes of the Penzance Union Board of Guardians 14 September 1837, CRO PU/2]. In 1839 she had fallen foul of the bourgeoisie who called her "an idle and disorderly person" because she did not maintain her child. The Lelant ratepayers thought that if she tried she could maintain it, as the workhouse minutes put it, "by work or by other means" [op cit 9 May 1839].

In 1843 the women were described by the more detailed account as "ladies of the pavé." That's a sort of French. It means prostitutes. Curgenven was indeed now keeping herself "by work or by other means." I don't know about her child. I don't know whether the ratepayers of Lelant approved.

At the police court they were searched by a woman but no money was found on them. Not dozy fools then, but they do appear to have confessed to stealing the money though that is not entirely clear.

We do not know what went on at the court hearing. The newspapers do not report the facts but one indulges itself in a righteous but carefully titillating vagueness. "After hearing some of the most disgusting statements that ever came before this court," the two women were released on bail to appear on the following Monday. I do not suppose the disgusting statements were about what impelled them into their coarsening daily lives, or about life in the Victorian economy for paupers, or about the lack of effective help to get them into decent work and decent lives.

Over the weekend Christopher seems to have had second thoughts. He had been taken for a fool and had been robbed. Did he really wish to publicise this? Did he really wish the world and his family and his neighbours to know he had been in the company of these women? Did he wish the private details of his encounter to be made known? How much better to learn from the expensive experience and get on with his life. He decided to proceed no further and did not appear at the court on Monday, presumably hoping that without him the whole thing would die quietly.

The two women did appear at court which shows an interesting regard for the law. In Christopher's absence, they were discharged - they escaped prison by his not appearing in court and presumably they kept the £12. The magistrates were mortified. The keepers of two unnamed inns that Curgenven and Williams had often used for their work were sent for. They were "cautioned in most appropriate and strong" language about "knowingly harbouring such disreputable characters." The other newspaper describes them as "unfortunate creatures" which is possibly kinder, though "unfortunate" applied to Victorian women usually meant prostitute. Curgenven at any rate must by now have been used to denunciation by the apparently respectable: idle, disorderly, and disreputable. Yes, I suppose she was, but at this distance we can see other truths too.

Christopher lost his money which might have been a financial disaster for him and his family and, although he didn't go to court, his folly was publicised and perhaps his reputation among his neighbours damaged. At any rate I expect they enjoyed that most satisfying of emotional stews, pious thrills. His wife and family must have been deeply unhappy at his behaviour. The women presumably went back to their unhappy work, denounced and unhelped.

It is all a little unsavoury and sad, isn't it? However, we can see, can't we, the ambiguities and complexities in the story? We can see, can't we, the fragilities of three lives, all in their way marred, and drawing in other lives? The story enlarges our understanding and sympathies, doesn't it? Well, whether or not that is our experience of the story tells us about ourselves. And above all, when we read this Lelant story we should burn into our minds that Montaigne said that we all deserve hanging ten times over [Essays 1580, 3.9].

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