[The Daily News, 23. August 1869]

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The Daily News. Nr. 7273, 23. August 1869. S. 4.
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PROBABLY there are not many persons out of the north of London, except those who are officially interested in Poor Law questions, to whom the inquiry into the conduct of some parochial authorities in St. Pancras has been of sufficient interest to induce them to follow it. The matter has, however, been one of great public importance, not merely as bearing on the administration of the Poor Law in one of the largest parishes in the kingdom, but as illustrating some of the evils incident to our Poor Law system. The inquiry originated in a parochial squabble, but the immediate cause which set the Poor Law Board in motion was a parochial tragedy. On the 25th of June, a poor woman named MARY ALLEN died in the Insane Ward of St. Pancras Workhouse. She had been transferred there from the Infirmary in the delirium of illness. She had entered the Infirmary on the 28th May with three of her children, having been suffering from scarlatina or scarlet fever, and being in a condition of considerable weakness. On the fourth of June she was discharged and sent home, but returned on the twentieth suffering from erysipelas. On the next day delirium came on, and she was sent to the Insane Ward, and four days afterwards she died. Her deceased created an uneasy feeling, and an inquest was held on the body, which resulted in a verdict that she died from natural causes, but the jury wished to declare in the verdict that her death was accelerated by her premature discharge from the Infirmary on the fourth of June. The Coroner told the jury that such a verdict was one of manslaughter against Mr. HARLEY, the House surgeon, and they therefore modified it to one of censure. Hence the inquiry which Mr. MONTAGUE BERE has conducted on behalf of the Poor-Law Board, which covered the whole treatment of the sick poor in the Infirmary, and which came to its close on Saturday.

The question as to MARY ALLEN was a complicated one. There was first the inquiry into the justice of the verdict censuring Mr. HARLEY for discharging her uncured, and next the question of Mr. HARLEY’S motive for doing so; and this latter question involved a part of the Board of Guardians. As to MARY ALLEN’S premature discharge, there was a very considerable preponderance of evidence in favour of the verdict. There can be no doubt that the poor woman herself believed that her death was caused by leaving the Infirmary too early. Indeed it was her own complaints on returning which called attention to her case. Mr. HARLEY declared that he believed her to be well, though weak; and Mr. TIZLEY, the relieving officer, said she did not complain to him, though he saw her often. Mrs. HUSSEY, a fellow-lodger of MARY ALLEN’S, gave similar evidence, and attributed her decease to a cold she had caught in taking home some washing several days after her discharge. But two of the nurses, Mr. NEW, a surgeon who attended Mrs. ALLEN gratuitously, and some other persons, testified that she urgently begged to be allowed to stay longer, and protested against being turned out; and Dr. ELLIS, Mr. HARLEY’S successor, produced a written statement made by Mrs. ALLEN when she returned, declaring that she had been turned out before she was well. How far the poor woman’s impression on this point was correct is another matter. One of the nurses, Mrs. GRIFFITH, said that her opinion at the time was that the woman was not well enough to go out. Mrs. CANNON said she could see when the woman came to be discharged that she was very ill, and indeed she thought herself, she said, weaker than when she came in; and JANE HILL, a nurse, who took part of the responsibility of her discharge, said she was well enough to go into the workhouse but not into the street. As to the children, it was shown that they had not done peeling, and were therefore in the stage when scarlatina infection is most dangerous; and there was some conflict in the medical evidence as to whether the woman herself was discharged too early or not. The fact, however, is quite insuperable. The poor woman enters the Infirmary to recover from a lowering fever which leaves the skin in a most dangerously sensitive state, she remains in but seven days, is then sent out against her own earnest wish and protest, has to work as a washerwoman in that condition, catches a cold which brings on an attack of erysipelas, the erysipelas flies to her brain and she becomes delirious and dies. Is she another Poor Law martyr as so many persons believe, and as the Coroner’s Jury found by their verdict, or was her own impression that she was so one of the delusions of her delirium?

But when this question has been decided, another question arises. If MARY ALLEN was a martyr, to what was she sacrificed? If the doctor was in an indecent hurry to get her out of the Infirmary, what made him so? Are there any other cases which show the same haste? Public opinion has been inclined to answer these questions in the affirmative, and has had some justification for doing so. An officer lately employed in the receiving ward said that many had been discharged before they were well, and primâ facie evidence for the statement is supplied in the fact that it was the boast of some of the Guardians that in a single month Mr. HARLEY had reduced the number of cases from 145 to 100. Such a clearance at least shows zeal; did it show discretion? Either the place must have been very full of hangers-on, or Mr. HARLEY must have been very successful in rapid cures, or the poor patients must have been hurried out. A number of cases were inquired into which certainly were not those of old “infirmary birds,” which, to say the least, did not show any remarkable curative skill, and which ran parallel in some respects to the case of MARY ALLEN. In fact, that poor woman’s case was, it is to be feared, typical of other cases. We will not anticipate the points of Mr. BERE’S report to the Poor Law Board; but there is a certain suggestiveness in the occurrence of these events just at the present moment. The late Board of Guardians, in pursuance of Mr. HARDY’S Act, are building an Infirmary for the parish, where the sick poor can be properly attended to. At the last election of Guardians a large number of persons were returned pledged to stop this expenditure if possible, and it was their policy to prove it to be needless. They gave Mr. HARLEY the temporary appointment of Infirmary surgeon, and he, knowing their feelings, endeavoured to do his duty as they wished it to be done. Several of these gentlemen gave evidence in the inquiry, and said that they had given no instructions to clear the Infirmary, nor is it likely that they had. But Mr. JAMES WATKINS, one of these new Guardians, admitted that Mr. HARLEY, as his own medical attendant, knew his opinion that the Workhouse Infirmary was sufficient, and that patients were kept too long. Dr. EDMUNDS, another new Guardian, admitted that he had freely expressed his opinion that there were people in the Infirmary who ought to be out of it, though he thought Mr. HARLEY had been too zealous in clearing it. We will not anticipate the decision of the Commissioner on Mr. HARLEY’S conduct; but whatever that decision may be, Mr. HARLEY is not the only person to be affected by it. The new Guardians represented a policy of which, unhappily, a large number of the ratepayers approve, which necessarily leads to such scenes as these. Nominally Guardians of the Poor, these persons are really guardians of the ratepayers’ pockets. They were elected not to administer the affairs of the Union efficiently, but to do them cheaply. Their great idea is to knock a penny or two in the pound off the poor-rate. Of course the poor suffer, and, equally of course, the poor-rates are not effectually relieved. MARY ALLEN, goes to a pauper’s grave, and leaves three children to the parish; scandals arise; the ratepayers’ money, saved by grinding the faces of the poor, is squandered in litigation, and the last state of the parish is worse than the first. When will the ratepayers learn that the interests of the poor are identical with their own?


  • Social cases. 1869