Mike Guilfoyle is in a suitably Dickensian mood before Christmas. Here the vice-chair of the Friends of Brockley and Ladywell Cemeteries recalls the short life of Ethel Hannah Newberry who died in the Lewisham Workhouse Infirmary.
It was not so long ago that the grim shadow of the workhouse engulfed the lives of many poor families who were cared for by Poor Law Guardians in institutions redolent of harsh Dickensian conditions, captured most vividly in the novel Oliver Twist (c.1838) and noted in another source as “uninviting places of wholesome restraint.”
Although poor relief had existed locally before this time, the Lewisham Workhouse (which dates from c.1817) had by the 1860’s mostly become a pauper hospital for the poor, old and infirm.
Indeed a report from the medical journal the Lancet of 1865 noted that the felicitously named Union Master, Mr Willam Want, was duly “alive to his duties and responsibilities”. ( He died in 1878 and is buried in Ladywell cemetery)
Cemetery records disclose the names, ages and dates of burial of many of those who spent their final years at the Lewisham Union Infirmary.
But one name that I viewed with uncommon interest and which left an abiding and heartfelt impression was that of a young girl of 10 years called Ethel Hannah Newberry .
I had first encountered Ethel’s name from reading the sad details of a court hearing at Greenwich Police (magistrates) court in 1889 on the excellent police magistrate blog: A child is beaten and half-starved for theft of some cakes
The NSPCC was founded in 1884 with a mission to protect children from cruelty.
The cruelty that is most difficult to detect is domestic – that perpetrated by parents or other relatives of children because it is often hidden within the family.
This was the case with Ethel Newberry, a child of 10 who was abused and half starved by the father and aunt at the family home in Sydenham in May 1889.
The case came to the attention of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children who brought a prosecution at Greenwich Police court.
In the dock were Phillip Newberry, the child’s father, and Mary Phillips, her aunt. The details are quite distressing.
Ethel had been beaten on her back by her father with a cane, on numerous occasions. When she’d been examined by a doctor the extent of her injuries were considerable, with several scars and abrasions.
Her aunt had hit her over the head with a copper stick and smacked her wrists with a cane. The treatment she’d been receiving had alerted neighbours who had complained about it to the local Poor Law relieving officers, who had visited the house.
He had discovered that Ethel was almost emaciated, weighing just 30lb when should have been at least 50-60lb at her age. The child was taken to the local workhouse where she was treated for her injuries and fed properly; slowly she was beginning to recover.
The case came before Mr Marsham at the police court and he quizzed the father and aunt about their treatment of little Ethel. The court also heard from Ethel herself.
The whole episode seems to have resolved around food. Ethel was given meals but presumably these were so scant as to leave her continuously hungry.
The doctor that checked her over at the workhouse could find no explanation for her emaciation that suggested a disease so the only conclusion was that the family had not been giving her enough to eat.
This may have been an attempt on their behalf to discipline the child for behaving ‘badly’ but if it was it only made things worse.
Ethel now began to steal food. She admitted to the magistrate that she had taken cakes from a shop and this was why her aunt had ‘whacked’ her.
She was clearly desperate. The justice decided that while there was little evidence to prove that Mary Phillips had done more than was deemed normal in terms of chastisement, the cruelty of the father was excessive and so he was committed for trial at the Old Bailey.
The London SPCC was successful in portioning Parliament for a change in the law to protect children from abuse and this was passed in 1889.
Under the terms of the Prevention of Cruelty to Children Act the police were authorised to remove a child from its parents if cruelty was suspected and give it into the care of the parish.
On conviction for cruelty anyone “who willfully treats or neglects any boy under 14 years of age, or any girls under 16, in a manner likely to cause unnecessary suffering“ was liable to a £50 fine or three months in prison.
However, this is where this case disappears. There is no record of a Phillip Newberry standing trial at the Old Bailey or appearing in the prison system either.
But in 1888 the new Lord Mayor of London, Sir James Whitehead, entertained 400 of the inmates of Lewisham Workhouse to a dinner of roast beef, plum pudding, and beer.
In addition each man had a quarter-pound of tobacco, and every woman half a pound of tea. In the evening the inmates were entertained with music!
I was so moved when reading this tragic story that I started to pore over digitised cemetery records from deceased on line which contains all Lewisham burial records from 1858 -1999 .
My finger trembled when I eventually read that Ethel Hannah Newberry had died in the Union Infirmary, Lewisham, aged 10 years over the Christmas period of 1889.
She had been laid to rest in Ladywell cemetery on the December 27 1889. No doubt her cruel treatment noted above contributed to her premature death.
One can only speculate as to who was present at the graveside, if anyone, as she was interred in what from looking at the records appears to have been a forlorn paupers grave. But Ethel’s name lives on and she is fittingly remembered here.
In keeping with present covid regulations and what for some is the thorny issue of when to use face coverings another case (above) also from Greenwich Police court in 1878 has a very contemporary feel to it!
Footnote: Two other notorious cases from 1889 both with links to the Lewisham Union Infirmary and which attracted considerable public and newspaper interest are referenced here : Hannah Hudgell who was charged with Infanticide.
Louisa Smith whose inquest was held at the Infirmary following her murder on nearby Algernon Road -She was featured on Ladywell Live Neighbourhood Notables ( 2019)