Dirty, Dishonest and Badly Behaved: Sophia Jarvis, Victorian Maid

Mitcham Industrial School.  © Karen Ellis-Rees 2018

On Friday 19th December 1862 a small, emaciated, ragged young woman came to the gatehouse of the Mitcham Industrial School and asked to be admitted.  It was with some surprise that Mrs Charlotte Cuttress, the porter’s wife, heard that the girl was called Sophia Jarvis.  Sophia, a former pupil, had gone into service over a year ago with a very respectable family in Nunhead.  Mrs Cuttress later said that she had not recognised the girl as she was “so wretched I had to turn around and could not look at her.”  Seventeen-year-old Sophia was taken to the infirmary, where she would remain for a week, and the Master of the School, Mr R J Pelcher, was called to hear how she had got into such a terrible state.

Sophia and her sister, Maria, were born in Bermondsey.  Their father, James, a brewery worker, died in 1855 when Sophia was about ten.  The girls ended up in the workhouse belonging to the parish of St George the Martyr in Mint Street in Bermondsey.  Conditions in this institution were horrifying.

By 1857 the sisters had moved down to the Industrial School in Upper Mitcham, a fifteen-minute walk away from the heart of the Surrey village with its weather-boarded houses, old coaching inns and historic cricket green.  Industrial schools served a number of purposes.  Set in rural locations, they prevented inner-city workhouses from becoming overcrowded, and, because they allowed children to be relocated to the countryside, they were regarded as healthy.  Furthermore, children were taught a trade, so they would not burden local rate payers when they reached adulthood.  The boys trained as shoemakers and tailors, or they joined the army.  The girls were prepared for domestic service.  Both sexes might find themselves sent abroad as fodder for the Empire.

Church of St Peter and St Paul in Mitcham.  © Karen Ellis-Rees 2018

On 9th March 1859, which was Lady Day, Sophia went to work for a Mrs Norris, who in turn recommended her to Mrs Manning.  By January 1860 she was back in the School: Mrs Manning had let her go.  Sophia explained that she had been released because she was too young, but it may have been because she gave in to temptation and pocketed a sixpence, which had been conveniently left on a table.  In the spring she was baptised at the local church of St Peter and St Paul.  Perhaps it was thought that a dose of religion would make her a better maid.

In October 1861 she was employed by Mrs Mary Langton Thomas, a widowed lady with nine children aged from three to eighteen.   As the only servant employed to look after the family of ten and their lodger, Sophia was paid 1s 6d a week to live-in and do the housework—this would have the buying power of about £6 in today’s money.  Although Sophia was not paid much, this was an opportunity for her: many better-off households would be reluctant to take a maid from the workhouse, and in time she would learn skills that would enable her to earn more in the future.

Mrs Thomas had been born Mary Langton Hanbury in London; her parents were Sarah Fuller and John Hanbury, a carpet manufacturer.  The family moved to Yorkshire and appeared to live a comfortable middle-class life.  In 1843 Mary would probably have been regarded as “on the shelf”, when, aged twenty-nine, she married the somewhat younger John Henry Thomas.

Henry Daniel & Co. A Guide to the Nunhead Cemetery (1891).  © British Library

The Thomases settled in Newport in Monmouthshire, where John, the son of a local surgeon, worked as a banker.  In sixteen years of marriage they had nine children: six sons—Langton, Dillon, Saville, Hanbury, Samuel and George—and three daughters—Alice, Gertrude and Jessie.  John had become the Secretary of the Blaenavon Iron and Coal Company, which during this time was not very successful, perhaps explaining why the family moved to Nunhead.  In March 1860 John died at Linden Grove, aged forty-one, and was buried over the road in Nunhead Cemetery.   He left approximately £300,000 in today’s money; but with nine children to provide for, and with no real source of income, Mrs Thomas was forced to take in a lodger as well as employing a maid from the workhouse.  Given that she had had three servants in Wales, Mrs Thomas may have feared she was coming down in the world.

The house at 15 Linden Grove was in semi-rural Nunhead.  Nearby was Peckham Rye common, Nunhead Cemetery (then called All Souls’ Cemetery), farms and market gardens.  For the first six months Sophia was content.  She had a room at the top of the house: it had neither light or heating, but it was her own space.  The family ate well, dining on roasts, stews and hashes, and Sophia shared the same food, eating in the kitchen with the younger children.  Mrs Thomas seemed a very respectable person, with a wide circle of friends and acquaintances, who included doctors and clergymen.

Unfortunately these good relations were not to last.  In June 1862 Mr W Cockerell, the School’s visiting officer, was summoned to Linden Grove in response to a complaint by Mrs Thomas.  He was told that forty postage stamps had gone missing, and, although Mrs Thomas did not accuse the girl directly, it was obvious that she thought that the girl was light-fingered.   Speaking to Mr Cockerell Sophia denied taking the postage stamps; but she admitted taking the pastries, as she was hungry.  There seemed to be no suggestion at this stage that Mrs Thomas wanted to send Sophia away, so the girl remained in the house when Mr Cockerell left.

From this time relations between maid and mistress changed dramatically.  Sophia no longer ate what the family ate; she was given a diet of rice and salt for dinner, with dry bread for breakfast.  Sent to bed between six and seven p.m., she frequently missed tea, and, in case she thought of eating the family left-overs, she was no longer required to wait at table.  One can only assume that Mrs Thomas was punishing her for suggesting to Mr Cockerell that she was underfed.

During the autumn Mrs Thomas went to Yorkshire to bury her mother, leaving Sophia in charge of the younger children.  On her return Mrs Thomas accused the girl of rifling through her wardrobe and stealing the key to the food store.  Threatened with the police the maid admitted taking bread.  At this time Mrs Thomas began to chastise her physically, hitting her across the hands with a stick on an almost daily basis.  The girl’s hands were bruised, swollen and damaged.  In November, angry at the girl’s slovenly appearance, Mrs Thomas cut the hair at the back of her head, paying no heed to her excuses that she had neither a comb nor the time to keep herself neat.  At the beginning of December she took the girl into a small room and beat her with a fishing rod, giving her a cut on the head and a black eye that was so swollen that she could not see.

On Thursday 18th December events came to a head.  Sophia had been told to clean the children’s boots in her room, but without a light to see by she did not do them to Mrs Thomas’s satisfaction.  She was ordered to strip down to her chemise (a thin garment like a nightdress or petticoat worn over the skin and under the stays/corset) and to stand in the backyard.  Twelve-year-old George Thomas was told by his mother to fetch a bucket of water.  Mrs Thomas stood on a chair and poured the bucket over the girl.  Then she poured a second.  Poor Sophia would have been cold, and bitterly ashamed that a boy, even one as young as George, could she her almost naked in the by now translucent chemise.  Ordered to lie on the freezing ground, she was held down by Mrs Thomas, while George filled two more pails, which the older woman poured over her.  Hardly able to get her breath after this ordeal, Sophia was ordered back to her room to get dressed.

Eagle House in Mitcham, bought by the parish of St George the Martyr in Southwark.  The industrial schools were built on land attached to the house.  © Karen Ellis-Rees 2018

The following day Sophia ran away, heading to the Old Kent Road to the house of Mr Pelcher’s mother-in-law.  She had previously worked for the family.  The old lady gave her breakfast, and a shilling to get the omnibus down to Mitcham to seek help.

When the girl was admitted to the Industrial School Infirmary, Jane Walton, the nurse, noted that when she sat down she was so weak that she could not get up without assistance.  Sophia was kept in the infirmary.  She was cared for and fed until Christmas Day, when she joined the other girls in the school.

On 13th January 1863 Sophia made a statement at the Lambeth Police Court, and the following day Mrs Thomas was summoned to appear for ill-treating the girl.  Mr Buchanan, representing Mrs Thomas, explained that his client was a respectable and humane lady with a large family; she had only chastised the girl with a rap to the knuckles, as she would her own children.  The staff from the Industrial School described how the girl had left the school looking healthy, only to return underfed and injured.  Witnesses for Mrs Thomas spoke to discredit the girl: a vicar and the lodger said that she did wait at table.  George said that the story of the water buckets was untrue, and that Sophia was indeed fed, as she ate with the younger children in the kitchen.  The magistrate, Mr Elliott, decided that the case should go to a higher court.

A month later the case came before the Surrey Sessions under Mr J E Johnson.  The court was full.  This was a sensational case:  cruelty, nudity, and the word of a respectable middle-class mother challenged by a little nobody from the workhouse.  Mrs Thomas was accused of failing to feed her servant for four months, causing her bodily harm and a permanent injury.  Although only forty-eight, Mrs Thomas was described as an elderly lady, and allowed a seat behind her counsel.

A Winter’s Night by William Hole.

Sophia, brought up since infancy in the care of the parish authorities of St George the Martyr, cut a sorry figure.  She had been accused of stealing forty stamps, two sacks of potatoes, cake, a 2lb lump of sugar, port and sherry—although her mistress admitted that she had not been able to smell alcohol on the girl.  Strangely, there was no suggestion that any of the Thomas children, or the lodger, might possibly have helped themselves.  After Mr Cockerel’s visit she was beaten almost daily with a stick, a rolling pin or a fishing rod, and had not been allowed to leave the house unless accompanying one of the children to church.

Not only had Sophia been physically abused, but Mrs Thomas had only given her a month’s pay in all the time she had worked there.  The rest of the money was kept to pay for the clothes she needed for her job.

The description of her physical state is distressing.  Dr Broad, the medical attendant to the Industrial School, described her emaciated condition, her sunken face and swollen fingers, her nails black with dried blood, her bruised back and elbows.  When he saw her on 20th December, her right eye had been black, and she had a wound on her head.  This was backed up by Thomas Evans, the police doctor.

Mr Pelcher, who had not recognised the girl, had gone to see Mrs Thomas, who said that she had thrown the water on “the poor thing” as she was dirty.  The girl had given her trouble, and she now wanted to return her to the School.  Pelcher explained that Sophia had previously been in good health, and that he knew the state of her hands from his regular school inspections.

Mrs Thomas’s lawyer, Mr Buchanan, said that the girl was dirty, dishonest and badly behaved.  Any injuries were her own fault, as she did not look after herself.  Three doctors agreed that the girl was scrofulous, that this and a natural weakness may have led to her being emaciated, and that the swelling on her hands was nothing more than scrofula brought on by anxiety.  They were Mr Arthur Serjeant of Queen Road Peckham, who was a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons; Dr Richard Stoke of Peckham Road; and a family friend, Dr John Davis, who had known Mrs Thomas since she was a child.  Two vicars were also willing to give Mrs Thomas glowing character references.

The next witnesses were the Thomas children.  Twelve-year-old George was a hit with the press, being described as nice looking and intelligent.  He again denied that the water incident had taken place, and that he had seen the girl naked.  There was plenty of food, he said, but she had begun thieving as soon as she had come to the house.  (Langton Henry Thomas, a clerk at the London Joint Stock Bank, also said that food had been available.)  Samuel said that the girl had told him that the black eye had been caused by her running into some wood in the cellar; he said that it could not have been done with his fishing rod, as it was kept locked up.  He denied speaking to anyone about his evidence, but he had to admit on further questioning that he had given a statement to Mr Buchanan’s clerk.  Dillon said that her knuckles had been knocked because she was dirty, and that she ran away because she was caught thieving.  Hanbury and Gertrude continued the party line, saying that she was hearty and well, and that there was plenty of food.

The children’s evidence was obviously not true.  Even the defence doctors admitted that Sophia had something wrong with her—if only an inherent weakness.  The jury retired for twenty minutes, and then found Mrs Thomas guilty.  At this point Mr Sleigh, the lawyer for the parish, asked for mercy in consideration of Mrs Thomas’s family, but the Chairman said that it was his painful duty to sentence Mrs Thomas to three months hard labour in Wandsworth Prison.

Veiled female prisoner in the Surrey House of Correction in Wandsworth.  Image in Henry Mayhew and John Binny The Criminal Prisons of London (1862) between pages 382 and 383..

A detailed description of Wandsworth Prison can be found in The Criminal Prisons of London (1862) by Henry Mayhew and John Binney.  Originally built in 1849 as the Surrey House of Correction, the prison had separate sections for men and women.  It must have been a great shock for Mrs Thomas, who was used to a life of middle-class respectability.  On arrival her clothes would be removed and she would be given prison garb to wear: a blue wool or brown serge dress, a jean corset, a blue calico jacket and a white calico cap.  She would have worked from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m., making clothes for other prisoners, or knitting, or working in the laundry, or picking the coir that was used to stuff prison mattresses.

After her sentence was up Mrs Thomas moved back to Linden Grove.  She is there in the 1871 census, which suggests that she was fully integrated into local society, as she obviously did not feel the need to move to a new house.  Later she lived with her children in Beckenham and Brighton, finally settling in Sidmouth in Devon, where she died in 1900, leaving what would now be worth over £3.5 million.

After the trial Sophia went back into domestic service, remaining there until 1870, when she married Harry Inblatt Parker, a boot maker.  They lived for most of their married life in Roan Street in Greenwich.  Interestingly, like most working-class girls, their daughters went into domestic service.  One imagines that with Sophia to look out for them they did not suffer as she did.

© london-overlooked 2018


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  1. Interesting story – I wasn’t expecting Mrs Thomas to be sent to gaol. I assumed her treatment of Sophia would only have been a little more extreme than what happened to a lot of domestic staff, so it’s striking that it was such a cause celebre.

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