Victorian justice in Lelant

Maxwell Adams

Version 21 August 2006

We live in troubled times and struggle to keep civilised in the face of provocations. I think we make a better fist of it than our predecessors. I have been reading the scanty reports about two cases of crime in Lelant 117 years ago which raise interesting and difficult moral questions of how we should deal with wrongdoers, questions that still test and divide us today. It is instructive to see how they were handled then and to reflect that we approach these things differently.

The cases were reported in the local papers, The Cornish Telegraph, The West Briton, and The Cornishman. I am afraid that the papers disagree about some particulars, but taken together probably give a fairly accurate view of what happened and what some people thought.

The reports of the first case are brief. They are small pieces, no more than a few inches of news print in all and easily missed in the crowded format of Victorian papers. Yet the devastation to the people involved must have been vast. There is no comment, either critical or laudatory, about the business. The outcome was clearly what might be expected, what was usual.

In 1879 two women from the rural part of Lelant parish, Eliza Quick and Elizabeth Kemp (or Marks, the papers disagree about her surname), were charged with stealing ninety pounds of coal from Wheal Sisters Mine near Trencrom Hill on 8 March. Ninety pounds is two sacks, say a good barrow load. The coal belonged to the mine's owners. We do not know why they stole the coal. The most likely explanation is that they wanted it not to resell but for their fires to heat their homes and cook their food.

We need not agonise about whether all those years ago they did it. They were guilty. They were caught stealing the coal. They pleaded guilty. They even said that they were sorry for stealing the coal. So there is no doubt there.

We know exactly what effect their crime had on the two women. We are told that throughout their appearance in court they "keenly felt the ignoble position in which they had placed themselves, as both sobbed piteously." These were not hardened criminals. Both the women pleaded guilty and pleaded that they had stolen through "extreme poverty." The manager of the mine, Mr Rosewarne was clearly disturbed by the circumstances of the women and thought that this was not the simple and straightforward crime it appeared. The papers report that "he strongly recommended the defendants to the mercy of the court." What did Rosewarne know? Why would he, representing the aggrieved owners, urge mercy upon the magistrates for two women who had stolen from his mine?

The magistrates listened to Rosewarne's plea for mercy. We know this because they said so. The Chair of the magistrates said specifically that they would take Mr Rosewarne's recommendation of mercy into account. Their sentence would be lenient. How civilised it all sounds. Contrite impoverished women, an understanding mine manager, listening magistrates. The women must surely have been hopeful hearing these comments.

The Cornish Telegraph report then continues with these words from the Chair of the magistrates: "They were bound to protect the public and, therefore, the defendants would be sent to prison for a fortnight, with hard labour."

It is said baldly. There is no comment. We are not told what the women said or did when they heard the sentence though we can imagine how distraught they were. We do not know what Rosewarne thought, whether jail with hard labour was what he had meant by mercy.

Those were hard times made harder by hard people. I said earlier that the papers made no comment on the business. That is not quite right. At the end of two of the reports, probably written by the same journalist, are two sentences that seem to me to be the journalist expressing his doubts. At any rate he chose to mention some facts and I believe that he understood how vastly damaging they would be to the court's reputation. My heart was chilled as I read those next two sentences. I write them exactly as he did: "The defendants are widows, and their husbands were killed in the mine. Each leaves a family of children to be provided for during her absence."

I think I now see Rosewarne's worry, the facts of two mining deaths, of widowhood, of two families of fatherless children, of rank and destructive poverty. I think I now see why he urged mercy.

I do not know whether the jailing magistrates knew these chilling facts, though if a newspaper reporter did perhaps it is fair to expect them to know too. I do not know, but I suppose that they inquired of any particular circumstances of the two women who had drawn attention to their poverty. The magistrates appear to have been unconcerned about two families of children left to be provided for by who knows who. We do not know what happened to the fatherless children during their mothers' imprisonment but judging by the census two years later Elizabeth Kemp at the time of her jailing had four children aged fourteen to six. Eliza Quick appears to have had children now adults as well as younger ones. The society that had left the widows in corrosive poverty was probably at ease with itself in leaving their children in it alone.

The gentlemen responsible for protecting the public against the widows of Lelant deserve to be widely known. They should not be allowed to rest quietly in obscurity and I now drag them into the light. Their names were: Major John Haye (chairman), George John Smith, GA Michell, and DW Bain. Francis Harvey is mentioned in one report and not the others so let us leave him here in the half-light. I should not be surprised in the least to be told that they were righteous stalwarts of their communities and men of unshakable moral and spiritual principles. At least three were members of the Cornwall Central Relief Committee, an organisation for the relief of distress among the poor in Cornwall, but they appear to have missed the irony. I can only wonder, Who were the real criminals in this case?

The next case came only two months later. It is more difficult. In June two girls from Lelant village, Alice Stevens and Caroline Maddern (or Madron, again the papers disagree), aged about fourteen and fifteen, were charged with stealing flowers. The papers report the case over several weeks and the facts appear to be thus. What they stole were rooted plants from a child's grave in Lelant churchyard. They gave the plants to John Hosking, the Lelant Station Master, who was at that time prettifying the slopes at the railway station.

To steal from a grave is particularly wrong. Immense distress is caused to the family. At fourteen and fifteen the girls should have known better. However, they took the plants not for themselves and their own pleasures but for their community, still wrong, but misplaced sodality.

The girls were prosecuted by the vicar, Richard Tyacke, who felt prosecution in the courts was the best way to deal with this. There must have been some outcry, or some unease, although the papers do not directly mention it, because Tyacke felt pushed to write to two papers to explain some details of the offence and to defend himself and the prosecution. He uses carefully manipulative words. He calls the stealing "stripping a child's grave" and the dead child he calls "the little one." He affects an aggressive tone and threatens prosecution against anyone else caught stealing flowers or damaging shrubs in the burial grounds. This man, educated and presumably steeped in the Bible, plainly could not conceive of any other way of dealing with two young girls who stole and gave the plants to prettify the railway station. Tyacke sees not a mantissa of difficulty in these circumstances. He hints at why he prosecuted: he declaims that the person who would "rob a grave" would steal anything from anyone. We usually restrict the words "rob" and "grave" to resurrectionists like Burke and Hare and Tyacke would know that. I fear too that he was not being merely rhetorical and believed the nonsensical principle he wrote.

Now I agree with the vicar's view of the distressing and insensitive nature of the offence. Does not everyone? For the family of the dead child it must have been vastly distressing. What is in doubt is how best the girls should have been dealt with and that divided the Victorians as much as it probably does us today. The magistrates, who were the same gentlemen as protected the public from the widows of Lelant, with the addition of William Cole Pendarves, fined the girls one shilling each. However, with costs the total charge was fourteen shillings and sixpence (about seventy three pence), then a vast sum for their impoverished families. The magistrates must have known full well it could not be easily paid. The prosecuting vicar must have known. But again they were merciful. They gave the girls three weeks to pay.

They could have given them three months to pay and still there would have been difficulty. Indeed, the vicar's lawyer, Mr Daniell, had urged the magistrates at the trial to incarcerate Alice and Caroline as that "would prove beneficial both to themselves and to the parish." I think we can wonder whether in imposing a fine and costs that could not be paid in the short time the court was playing with these girls.

The girls and their parents did not pay the fines and costs in the time. This was not obstinacy, they did not have the money as everyone must have known all along. I do not know whether the two girls were at work or at school in 1879, their ages suggest work. Two years later in the census they are described as a domestic servant and a field worker. Though the papers do not say so in their reports of this trial, both their mothers were widows, both with four children at home. The mothers are recorded in the census two years later as a field worker and a charwoman; their income would be pitiable.

The two girls were sent to prison for seven days because the impossible fine and costs had not been paid.

Let us be quite clear in our minds about what the girls had done, why they had done it, how wrong it was, and why they had been jailed. Let us also be clear who had prosecuted them. And let us be clear that we are talking about a Victorian prison not a 1990s reformatory. Readers with strong stomachs can read for themselves about Victorian prisons at this time in the Report of the Royal Commission of 1879.

I think that it is heartening that Tyacke was driven publicly to defend himself, and this while the girls had been merely fined. He chose to be silent when they were jailed, possibly thinking that there was nothing befitting that he could say.

The liberal voices of those who thought what had happened to the girls was as wrong as their stealing are reported only indirectly in the local papers. It is heartening that the scandal reached the House of Commons. The Home Secretary explained his opposition to the jailing of young children, though he pointed out that at fourteen and fifteen the girls were not very young. He appeared to regret that he had not known about the imprisonment until they had served their sentence. The Pall Mall Gazette is indirectly reported as saying that "sensible and humane" people would oppose sending children to prison where they associated with hardened criminals, a remarkably modern liberal view.

In the middle of July the anonymous Lelant correspondent of The Cornishman unwittingly gives us another glimpse of the outcry. He laments that the case "has been made a good deal of," though he gives us no details of the criticisms, simply denigrates the liberal critics, and further attacks the girls. It is he who states, without knowing the import of what he says, that the girls were the children of widows, something the vicar was careful never to reveal. He goes on to say that "natural sympathy was stirred up" for the girls.

Clearly, locally and elsewhere there was an outcry and there were people who deplored the jailing of the girls and the vicar's approach to the sorry crime. It is a pity that we cannot read more views of the locals, both favourable and unfavourable, for ourselves.

I cannot be sure what Vicar Tyacke thought of the imprisonment of two young Lelant girls though Daniell's comment suggests that it is what the vicar wanted. I do not know whether later he thought there might have been a better way of dealing with the horror of stealing from a grave plants put there by a grieving family and friends. What I have learned of him in looking at the history of Lelant and his role in this case does not suggest an imaginative man of large understanding. He probably went to his grave believing he had done right and that Alice and Caroline got what they deserved.

As I go to nod to my mother's scattered ashes, I pass Richard Tyacke's grave in the churchyard and recall the words of Portia to Shylock: For as thou urgest justice, be assured Thou shalt have justice, more than thou desir'st.

Sources

Cornishman 5 June 1879, 12 June 1879, 26 June 1879, 17 July 1879
Cornish Telegraph 10 June 1879, 1 July 1879, 15 July 1879
Royal Cornwall Gazette 6 June 1879
West Briton 3 April 1879, flowers 5 June 1879, 17 July 1879, 21 July 1879
Pall Mall Gazette referred to in West Briton 17 July 1879
Census for Lelant 1881: piece 2340/folio 79 Elizabeth Kemp; 2340/80 Elizabeth Quick; 2340/48 Alice Stevens; 2340/51 Caroline Ann Maddern

Notes

A letter in the West Briton of 9 June 1887 complained of flowers taken from graves in Kenwyn churchyard, Truro.

The St Ives Times for 14 January 1921, page 7b, reports the vicar of Lelant, Arthur Chapman, withdrawing charges at Camborne magistrates against a sixteen year old domestic he employed of stealing a 5 watch from him; he withdrew the charges because he thought a court case might "affect her future" and he did not wish that to happen.

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