I have written before about how newspapers can indirectly reveal, especially through court cases, the hard reality of life for working people. These often plot the minutiae of their lives in a way that other sources don’t. In 1852, one such case stands out in the Hereford Times. Anne Price lived in Peterchurch in rural Herefordshire, in the beautiful border country of valleys near Hay-on-Wye. She is described as aged forty, married but illiterate, neither able to read or write, and had two children ‘on the point of death’ at home. She was relying on the parish for support, her husband presumably no longer able to support them or no longer in the area. This was a type of welfare where rate payers contributed towards minimal payments given to recipients who lived within the parish. The payments were given for a specific reason and without them recipients would not otherwise survive. This kept them living and, to a degree, working within the community rather than becoming inmates of the local workhouse. This welfare was continually being cut as far as possible to decrease the tax burden for contributors, as well as putting forward complex terms about who could receive such benefits to lower the number of recipients. Thus only the ‘respectable’, ‘deserving’ hardworking poor were probably able to claim. Anyone convicted of a crime was unlikely to qualify. As always, the welfare bill was constantly thought to be too high.
Anne, apparently at her wits end, had gone into a farmer’s field between one and two o’clock in the morning, accused of carrying a jug, where she was said to have milked a cow and therefore ‘stolen’ three pints of milk. The farmer, Mr Barrett, a rate payer, had suspected that his cows were being surreptitiously milked and had set a servant to watch them. This was how Anne was caught. According to the witness, the servant, she apparently threw the jug on the ground when he accosted her and bribed him if he wouldn’t tell his master, with half a sovereign or a new smock frock. She presumably made smock frocks for sellers in Hereford or for drapers nearby, a common local female occupation but very poorly paid. He supposedly refused the bribe and in court Anne denied this story, instead saying she had just been to the doctor for her sick children and was passing through the field. It seems unlikely that she would have half a sovereign to hand and claimed the story was a ‘sting’ and a trumped up charge as she was ‘chargeable to the parish’. If the case succeeded, she would probably no longer be eligible for parish support. The court refused to believe the male witness could lie that credibly and found her guilty. The chairman remarked that even if she had done it to give sustenance to her children, which he thought she might have, it was still an act of theft and she was to spend a month’s imprisonment in the house of correction.
It seems to be such a heart breaking case – an uneducated woman ranged against a male court and prosecutor, apparently trying to do her best for her ill children, living on the very limits of existence. There seemed to have been very little empathy with Anne’s situation but instead a determined attempt to get another person chargeable to the parish off hand-outs in any way possible, including locking them up. Whether she saw her sick children again, or how they were cared for if she wasn’t there, is not apparent but one is tempted to think the worst.