Writing to Charles Dickens
AUTHOR: WILLIAM ELLIS-REES
PUBLISHED: 5 MARCH 2023
If you read Part One of the story, which can be found on the London Overlooked website by following this link, you will remember that in 1844 Charles Dickens, who was still young but already successful, was in receipt of a series of begging letters written by a certain John Walker, a married man with four children. Walker claimed to be in desperate need of help, and Dickens initially responded by sending money and clothes.
But as the emotional tone of the letters intensified, Dickens began to doubt their sincerity. He had been plagued by begging letters ever since he burst on to the literary scene with The Pickwick Papers, so he understood how persuasive their unscrupulous writers were capable of being. However, in his final letter, dated 17 May, Walker had put Dickens in an impossible position by announcing that his wife had died as a result of a traumatic miscarriage.
A line in the sand
The next day, and for the second time in this sorry affair, Dickens turned to his younger brother Fred to act as his representative, dropping him a note in which he asked him to visit Walker at his home in Lambeth:
If he be really in the distress he states, I shod. be sorry to refuse him another Sovereign. If you have one in your pocket give it him (being thoroughly satisfied); if not, I will send it to him after I have spoken with you at breakfast tomorrow.
Although he did not wish to refuse his help in a case of genuine need, he was also aware of the very real possibility that he was being cynically manipulated. He made his position clear in blunt terms:
But I have some doubts of him. Do not be taken in. If I could establish it for a fact that he has imposed upon me, I would have him up to Queen Square forthwith.
The reference to Queen Square, where the Westminster police court was located, strongly suggests that Dickens was ready to deal decisively with Walker should he turn out to be a fraud. A line had been drawn in the sand. Crossing it or hanging back now depended on the outcome of Fred’s journey across the river to the back streets of Lambeth.
A favourite brother
Frederick ‘Fred’ William Dickens was eight years younger than Charles and enjoyed a close relationship with his famous brother, at least until 1845 when his affair with Anna Weller, the girl he eventually married, caused a rift. Fred’s unhappy personal life is a story in itself, marked as it was by his adultery, his debts and his early death at the age of forty-eight, a wretched alcoholic living in dire poverty in County Durham.
Fred gave his name to two characters in the novels. Rather sadly, he was Nell Trent’s disreputable older brother in The Old Curiosity Shop, which had been published in serial form between 1840 and 1841. But he was also Scrooge’s kind-hearted nephew in A Christmas Carol, and one would like to think that Dickens had not forgotten that Fred, as a boy, had been the favourite of his three brothers. No doubt Dickens had used his influence to secure Fred’s position in the Treasury, and he obviously felt that he could rely on his brother’s support in dealing with John Walker and his begging letters.
Beyond the pale
When Fred appeared at the house in Lambeth, it turned out that Walker was not at home. However, much to his astonishment, Mrs Walker was. Far from being dead, as claimed by her husband in the letter of 17 May, she was very much alive. One can only imagine the conversation that followed this remarkable discovery.
Fred’s news would doubtless have put something of a dampener on his meeting with his brother on the morning of the 19th when they discussed the matter over the breakfast table. Between them they must have concluded that Walker had put himself beyond the pale by placing his ‘patron’ under a degree of pressure that amounted to moral and emotional blackmail. The time had surely come to enlist the help of an appropriate organisation, and that organisation was without question the Society for the Suppression of Mendicity, which was commonly and more simply known as the Mendicity Society.
Reward and punishment
The Mendicity Society had been founded in 1818 under the presidency of the Duke of Northumberland and with the patronage of the Duke of York. The stated aim was quite simply to rid the capital of mendicants by means of the twin incentives of reward and punishment. The reward was charity, which was offered in exchange for an undertaking to desist from begging. The punishment was prosecution, which was used as a weapon against serial offenders.
The principal targets of the Society’s measures were street beggars, but the writers of begging letters, while operating behind closed doors, came within its scope. By the time Walker began to pester Dickens, a staggering number of cases had been investigated. The published figure was near enough eighty-one thousand. Although in many of these cases the writers were found to be in genuinely desperate circumstances, the Society’s investigators also encountered chancers and opportunists.
One such was a fellow who had got by as a professional perjuror until one of his feet became gangrenous, at which point he fell in with a quack doctor and paid for his treatment by distributing advertising leaflets in the streets, swearing on oath that he was himself the beneficiary of a most efficacious ointment. Sadly, ointment notwithstanding, his toes had to be amputated, but even so the only charity he was judged worthy of was the workhouse.
A kitchen sink drama
The wheels of retribution started to grind forthwith, and three days after Fred’s visit to Lambeth the Assistant Manager of the Mendicity Society, Thomas Lepard Knevitt, sent the chief clerk, a man by the name of William Sturgeon, down to Mitre Street to find out for himself what was going on in the Walker household.
Sturgeon arrived at some point between seven and eight in the evening and was taken to a kitchen at the back of the house. There, under questioning, the wretched Walker admitted that he was in considerable distress, so much so that he was unable to put a decent meal on the table. Sturgeon, in order to put Walker on the spot, replied that he thought it a pity that Mrs Walker had not taken in needlework in order to earn some money to support her family. Whereupon Walker, either answering without thinking or realising that the announcement of his wife’s death had evidently been seen for what it was, namely a bare-faced lie, blurted out that she had indeed been unwell but was on the road to recovery and would soon be able to work.
A dismal scene
As a consequence of admitting that his wife was alive, Walker was taken off to the police court in Marylebone to answer the charges made against him by the aggrieved Dickens. The following day, which was Wednesday 22 May, his case came before the magistrate, John Rawlinson, who learnt from Sturgeon that he had been on the Society’s register since 1842 and had received many handouts from its funds. As a result Sturgeon was able to affirm that the letters sent to Dickens were in Walker’s hand, a claim Walker was in no position to refute.
The scene in the courthouse must have been dismal. Dickens declared that it gave him no pleasure to participate in the proceedings, but he had felt himself obliged to come forward. He was constantly pestered by the writers of begging letters, and Walker had lied shamelessly about his wife’s death. Even so, he was thrown off balance by Walker’s obvious distress, and he had seen Mrs Walker waiting outside in the street all morning in the hope of speaking to him on her husband’s behalf.
At the eleventh hour
During the hearing Walker frequently wept, and his plight certainly had some effect on the magistrate. While under no illusion that he had done wrong, Rawlinson was inclined to think that he was deserving of some compassion. The letters indicated that he was a man of good education, which in Rawlinson’s view must have weighed in his favour. Indeed, Walker told the court that he had worked on and off as a clerk and an accountant until a lack of regular employment drove him to desperate measures to keep the wolf from the door.
When asked what he had to say for himself, he hesitated. Then in a faint voice he offered the following apology:
I wrote that last letter at the eleventh hour, when we were so badly off that I knew not what to do. I am sorry I overstepped the truth in saying that my wife was dead, but my motive was good, as we had not a bit of bread to eat.
On being told by Rawlinson that the charges against him would be dropped, he burst into tears. According to a report in The Times, which covered the case in detail,
before he quitted the court several persons relieved him, for which he was truly grateful.
The good Mr Sturgeon
Lest Dickens steal all the limelight, it is worth noting here that William Sturgeon performed a little act of charity, and it might add a humane touch to this rather unedifying story. Having escorted Walker to the police court in Marylebone, he went back down to Mitre Street, where he called in on Mrs Walker. She and her four children were living in abject misery, and she told the kind-hearted clerk that she had been really very ill, even if her illness had not carried her off as claimed by her mendacious husband.
Clearly moved by her plight, Sturgeon gave her a small sum of money from his own pocket. Then he returned to Marylebone, where he ‘afforded the prisoner relief’, which, if not another personal gift, would have been a donation from the Society’s funds.
What do we know about Mr Sturgeon? He was in his late fifties and lived with his wife and children down in Walworth, not so very far from the Walkers. His position as chief clerk to the Society has a certain ring to it, but he had a chequered career in which he experienced debt and unemployment. He had been born in Kent — Rochester, to be exact — and he could almost have been a character in a novel by Charles Dickens … TO BE CONCLUDED
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