A Compassionate Man:
Charles Dickens Discusses the News

AUTHOR: WILLIAM ELLIS-REES

PUBLISHED: 24 SEPTEMBER 2022

Charles Dickens at about the time of the story. Daniel Maclise 1839. National Portrait Gallery.

One of the most significant of Charles Dickens’s many acquaintances was the wealthy and influential Angela Burdett-Coutts. She was born into a position of enormous privilege as the daughter of Sir Francis Burdett, the 5th Baronet, and Sophia Coutts, whose father was the founder of the prestigious banking house. In 1837 she inherited a fortune from the maternal side of her family that few women in England could rival.

She walked in the grandest social circles and even entertained hopes of marrying the Duke of Wellington. She proposed to the Duke in February 1847, when she was thirty-two and he was already seventy-seven. Nothing came of it.

Not the least remarkable fact about Burdett-Coutts is that she used most of her vast wealth to finance worthy causes. Indeed, if she is remembered for anything then she is remembered as one of the leading philanthropists of the nineteenth century. The list of her activities is long and varied and ranges from the financing of public drinking fountains — some of these for dogs! — to the sponsoring of educational establishments and social housing projects.

Angela Burdett-Coutts at about the time of the story. c.1840. National Portrait Gallery.

A busy man

However, it is when we discover how much money she devoted to improving the lives of the poor, and in how many ways she did this, that we most readily see a spiritual kinship with the great novelist. And the story of Urania Cottage, the home for ‘fallen’ women Dickens masterminded with her support, is too well-known to need more than a mention here.

The concept that eventually materialised as Urania Cottage was first floated in a letter written by Dickens to ‘Miss Coutts’ in May 1846, but their association had begun long before then, and the story that follows starts with another letter with the much earlier date of April 1841. At the time Dickens was living at 1 Devonshire Terrace in Marylebone with his wife, Catherine Hogarth, and the first four of their ten children. He had spent twelve months serialising The Old Curiosity Shop and he was now also working on Barnaby Rudge.

He was certainly very occupied with literary activities. But not to the exclusion of all else. His correspondence from this period reveals his interest in the news of the day, such as the fate of ‘the Boy Jones’, who was currently serving a three-month prison sentence in Tothill Fields for breaking into Buckingham Palace — not for the first time, either — and eating cold meat and potatoes in one of the royal apartments.

Charles Dickens’s house at no.1 Devonshire Terrace. Daniel Maclise / John Forster The Life of Charles Dickens volume 2 1876.

A shop in Marylebone

The letter we are concerned with was sent to Miss Coutts on the 20th, which was a Tuesday. In it Dickens raised a number of matters, one of which had as its subject a curious little item, a real-life drama that had evidently been touched on in previous correspondence. As there is no mention of it in any other letter sent by Dickens to Miss Coutts, we must assume that it was referred to in a letter sent by Miss Coutts to Dickens.

The two principal characters in the drama were a man and a woman by the names of Edward Hurcomb and Maria Robinson, and the plot in which they played the leading roles centred around a piece of pork.

Not only butter

Now, where there is a piece of pork there is usually a butcher, and the butcher in this particular drama was none other than the aforementioned Edward Hurcomb. So what do we know about him? He was born in Paddington in 1813, which means that he was in his late twenties when Dickens and Angela Burdett-Coutts took an interest in him. He was living with his first wife, Sarah, who was about twenty years his senior, at 19 William Street in Marylebone. And when the census was taken later that year, he told the enumerator that he was a ‘butter man’, which needs a bit of explaining.

There was rather more to a butter man than selling butter, although that was indeed one of his occupations. He would also sell cheese, and we will see in due course that Edward Hurcomb also described himself as a cheesemonger. But it does not end there, for a butter man would also supply his customers with eggs and meat products. Samuel Cullum, for example, a butter man and cheesemonger of some standing with a royal warrant and premises in Old Bond Street, included bacon and a variety of hams on his rather beautiful trade card. So it is no surprise that even a less exalted butter man, in this case Edward Hurcomb, should be closely connected, for better or for worse, with a piece of pork.

Trade card of Samuel Cullum. c.1810. British Museum.

There goes the pork

As we know, Hurcomb lived in William Street, which ran roughly north to south in the densely populated area between Lisson Grove and Edgware Road, and which was replaced in the 1920s by Daventry Street. A glance at the 1841 census makes it clear that this was not a prosperous area. The dwellings along William Street were crammed with residents, and to judge by their occupations — labourer, shoemaker, plasterer, laundress, dressmaker and so on — there would have been considerable hardship. Old Bond Street this most certainly was not.

Hurcomb must have been in the habit of placing meat outside his shop, for on the night of Saturday 26 December 1840 — that is to say about four months before Dickens wrote his letter to Miss Coutts — a piece of pork was stolen by an opportunistic thief. Hurcomb only found out about the theft when someone reported it to him — possibly a customer, or someone passing by — but he was told that the thief was still in sight and walking away with the stolen meat.

Show me your basket!

And so it was that at about ten o’clock on that cold and cloudy Boxing Day night the butter man of William Street in Marylebone found himself in hot pursuit of the man, woman or child who had relieved him of a piece of pork. In fact the thief was a woman. When he caught up with her, Hurcomb demanded to search the basket she was carrying. One imagines that the woman, who, incidentally, was in her mid to late thirties, was not terribly happy at being accosted in this way. But Hurcomb had her dead to rights, and, when he looked inside her basket, he discovered not one but two pieces of pork, one of them his and the other someone else’s.

Who the rightful owner of this second piece of pork was will always remain a mystery. But the identity of the thief — Maria Robinson — was established without difficulty. Before very long she found herself in custody at the police station in Little Harcourt Street, where she was told to hand over the basket and turn out her pockets. She had five shillings sixpence on her.

Nineteenth-century cheesemonger at work. T. J. Watson An Illustrated Vocabulary for the Use of the Deaf and Dumb 1857.

A shocking sight

She would face the magistrate, John Rawlinson, at the court in Wimpole Street two days later. But on the day after the incident, and while she was still in custody, Hurcomb decided to visit her lodgings, presumably with the intention of learning what her circumstances were and what had driven her to steal two pieces of pork. She lived at 1 Carlisle Mews, which was only a few streets from his premises and as scarred by poverty as William Street. There he met Maria’s husband, Thomas Robinson, a man in his mid to late forties.

When Hurcomb stepped into the Robinsons’ lodgings, he was shocked. The couple had six children — two boys and four girls — the oldest being about ten and the youngest barely twelve months. They were scantily clad, and it emerged that Thomas Robinson, who had been in and out of work for a long time, had earned only six or seven shillings in the previous week. Indeed, the condition of the whole family was distressing, and in his statement to the magistrate Hurcomb would recall his feelings on encountering the wretched father and his six unhappy children. The sight he beheld in that lodging house in Carlisle Mews was one that he would never forget.

Appalling conditions in a lodging house in Field Lane in Holborn. The Poor Man’s Guardian 20 November 1847.

Her careworn countenance

Maria Robinson appeared before Rawlinson’s court on Monday 28 December. According to The Times she was

a woman whose careworn countenance and attenuated frame excited the commiseration of all present,

and Hurcomb, seeing her forlorn expression and recalling the distressing scene he had witnessed in Carlisle Mews, announced that he had decided not to proceed with the prosecution. Maria Robinson, he was convinced, had been driven to thieving by her state of distress.

Rawlinson was taken aback and put it to Hurcomb that a woman with money in her pocket and pork in her basket was not exactly in distress. In reply Hurcomb gave an account of his visit to the prisoner’s family, at which the magistrate congratulated him on his generosity and said that he, John Rawlinson, was not inclined to interfere with his decision.

Then, turning to Robinson, he pointed out that she had been shown exceptional leniency by the man she had robbed. He hoped that she would profit by his merciful behaviour. And that was that. Rawlinson discharged the prisoner and gave instructions that the condition of the destitute Robinsons be made known to the parish overseers.

As time went on

As far as we can tell, the Robinsons kept their heads above water. In the 1851 census the couple were still living in Marylebone in a mews off Manchester Street and Thomas was employed as a coachman. Their two youngest daughters from their Carlisle Mews days were at home, and Maria had given birth to a further three sons. And they were in Marylebone at the time of the next census too, when Thomas, still a coachman, was sixty-two and Maria fifty-two.

The noble Edward Hurcomb carried on trading in William Street, although after a few years he moved his shop down to Borough. Thereafter he worked as a delivery man. In time he moved back north of the river, living with his second wife, Mary, and their children first in Hammersmith and then in Kensington. He died in 1867 at the age of fifty-four and was buried in a common grave in Brompton Cemetery.

Brompton Cemetery. © William Ellis-Rees 2022

Now black pudding

He has a monument of sorts, though, in the story of the compassion he showed the destitute woman who robbed him of a piece of pork. He was certainly a good man, and it seems particularly unjust that he should be robbed again only weeks after Maria Robinson had made off down William Street with stolen meat in her basket.

This other theft took place on Saturday 27 February. The thief was a Margaret Lovegrove, who swiped black pudding worth ten pence from outside the shop but was spotted putting the pilfered goods under her left arm before showing a clean pair of heels. She was not exactly a hardened criminal and was sentenced at the Old Bailey to be sent to Newgate for seven days only. But she was at it again in August, stealing a petticoat from a shop, for which she received the much heavier sentence of six months.

Nineteenth-century butcher at work. T. J. Watson An Illustrated Vocabulary for the Use of the Deaf and Dumb 1857.

An odd response

Dickens took only a passing interest in the case of Maria Robinson, which he only heard about because Miss Coutts was keen to find out the details. He referred to Hurcomb as ‘the benevolent Porkman’, which has a hint of caricature and leaves one wondering if he was more amused than upset by the incident. But at least he showed Maria Robinson — a ‘poor distracted creature’ — a degree of sympathy.

Even if the story was in one ear and out the other, we must be grateful to Dickens. After all, he saved two otherwise overlooked Londoners — a Marylebone shopkeeper and an impoverished mother — from oblivion.

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