02 August 2018

“Shut up from the world, in such a desert place of sorrow grief and woe for ever”: Sidney Smart, a deaf pauper in Basford Workhouse

Edited 3 August 2018 to rectify some errors of mine in relation to the 1851 Census entries for Sidney. Thank you to Norma McGilp for bringing these to my attention.
'Isolation', by Deaf artist Nancy Rourke. http://www.nancyrourke.com/isolation.htm

One obstacle in the way of solid and qualitatively rich historical research on the Irish Poor Law is the loss of major archival sources for the period. While local and national Irish archives possess correspondence registers for individual Poor Law unions, the central Poor Law Commission / Local Government Board files were lost in the 1922 destruction of the Public Records Office, housed at the time in the Four Courts on Dublin’s quayside.[1] It wasn’t until I attended the hugely enjoyable ‘Fragmentary Lives’ event in the National Archives in Kew, London in June, that I realised what a huge loss that really represents.

As Kim Price, Steven King and others mentioned on the day, the files within the collection MH 12 - correspondence of the Poor Law Commission, the Poor Law Board and the Local Government Board with Poor Law Unions and other Local Authorities – are an underused and fantastically valuable resource for historians looking at the poor law in England and Wales. This is not least because of the letters written by paupers to the Commission and Board over the years, representing as authentic a ‘voice’ of paupers as you could get. While I have come across letters written by Irish Deaf paupers before, particularly those written by Annie Eakins in Carrickmacross workhouse, these have generally been found reproduced in local newspapers, rather than the originals. On occasion these versions seem truncated, edited, or incomplete in some way. Furthermore, other letters written by Deaf paupers are sometimes referred to in newspaper reports on Board of Guardians meetings, but are reproduced partially or not at all. This means that access to the thoughts, feelings, frustrations and demands of Deaf paupers remains highly elusive – to say nothing of the added complexities of dealing with the writings of those for whom English was a second language.

Which is why I was so thrilled to come across, on my first encounter with the MH 12 series in Kew, a letter from a ‘partially deaf and dumb’ English pauper named Sidney Smart, from 1865, appealing to the Poor Law Board for assistance with his situation in Basford workhouse in Nottinghamshire. Sidney was born in 1841 to William Smart, a bleacher, and his wife Rosamund; his sisters were lace menders and his brother Erasmus a lacemaker.[2] Sidney had clearly learned some of the family trades, as he had “been working in private shops and lace factory for some time past” by the time he put pen to paper to the Poor Law Board in 1865. However, he had “only earned half a crown a per week and some times a little more above that sum being unable to support himself well”, and he had “never been put in a suit of new clothes except at the death of his mother”.[3] By 1861 Sidney was a resident of Basford workhouse, where he was enumerated as ‘deaf and dumb’.[4] His letter to the Poor Law Board of 18 August 1865 was apparently motivated by recent upsets in the house, and Sidney had a feeling that, as a result of these spats, he would be sent to the asylum. Sidney wrote a four-page letter “about such treatment he has got to suffer and wishes to know if the law can afford him any Protection from being removed to the asylum for which news is being spread about and treated with great indiginity at Basford Union workhouse”.[5]

The letter, while primarily detailing more recent conflicts that Sidney was experiencing, also shows a perception of a general pattern in his treatment by workhouse authorities. It is a peculiar missive in its turns of phrase, in comparison to other pauper letters; it opens with a description by Sidney himself as being “an imbecile of idiotic appearance partially deaf and dumb Blind with one eye and almost unable to speak for himself named sidney smart”.[6] The letter recounts a recent argument that developed between Sidney and a ‘manager’ in the workhouse, Robert Wheatley:[7]

it appears that on monday morning July 17th my first attention was called in to go and clean some windows and after partially accomplishing them   the men were in want of the ladder which I had to let them have it   and nothings else for me to do   I then went down the garden to help another youth to do some work there for the afternoon only.   whereupon the manager Robert wheatley soon begin to interfere with such threatening language swearing fearful oath to turn me out but I refused to let him do so and with stood object against him   according to what was stated  in his case some times ago to the manager either went or pretended to tell the Govenor Mr Rhodes   but the manager cam back without any assistant seized me violently by the neck by saying I had no right to be there I kick and struck him two or three time discolored his eye which made him leave me alone then I left the garden where the governor had his attention directed shortly afterward insisted upon me going to something doing   but he did not give me proper notice what to do   so I really could do nothing else.[8]

As a result of this incident Sidney was brought to the local Magistrates and charged with assault, but was not convicted. The story was reported in the Nottinghamshire Guardian, who reported that the defendant, “who was deaf and dumb, was understood to deny the charge”, indicating that an interpreter for Sidney was probably not present. Rather than convict, “[t]he magistrates thought it was a case in which the discipline of the Workhouse would be of more effect than imprisonment.”[9]

Sidney’s letter directly refers to the hearing. “The magistrait after hearing the evidence of the witness though it was a Proper case for the board of Guardians to deal with and accordingly admissed it which has not yet been laid before the Board of Guardians to make out right on both sides alternately according to the alleged rules as parts of any such punishments”. The Board had not yet acted at the time of Sidney’s letter, but even before they had, he had got into another altercation with an elderly male pauper: “now another row has taken place on the 15th inst which was not my fault but with another old man between 50 and 60 years of age we both got a little hurt as well as another”. [10]

While Sidney’s letter is difficult to make full sense of – for reasons to do with his literacy and command of the English language, which as a partially deaf man he may have struggled with – a distinct sense of injustice carries through it. He portrays himself as a man at the end of his tether, resorting to violence only because more peaceful avenues are closed to him due to his mistreatment: “I am at last obliged to use my fist or kick a purpose for the defence set up because the Govenor however will do nothing for me whenever I often lay reports before him”. Such reports included “Sunday profane language… and all other evil things [which are] winked at causeing a fight to ensue … it appears however to be a very disgraceful thing and a curse to thy saviour”. Sidney forlornly distances himself from such immoral conduct: “all I want is a place of peace and guidness sir to be a good boy”.

He specifically describes his feelings about communication as a deaf pauper in the workhouse; the master and others “carry on their business in the presence of my conduct while I am deaf can not hear nor speak plain to claim any such case in a fair way by talking”. Sidney claims that he “has never been prosecuted nor careful examined by either the doctor or any one of the board during my stay in the workhouse more then 5 year ago”, and “They alway interfere with one another about a deaf man because they can not hardly know how to make sign of interpretation to a deaf man[emphasis mine – CL]. He lamented his existence, “shut up from the world in such a desert place of sorrow grief and woe for ever”. [11]

The letter was read by the Poor Law Board, but seems to have raised some puzzlement; the Board wrote to the Basford Guardians a week later on 24 August, to verify Sidney’s complaint – and his state of mind. “From the contents of the letter the Board are disposed to consider that the writer is not altogether of sound mind, but they will be glad to know whether the Guardians are of opinion that there are grounds for his complaint.”[12] But it turns out that the point was moot, as far as the Board were concerned; the Basford Guardians replied on 5 September that “the writer of that letter is insane and has been removed to the Lunatic Asylum. He had been guilty of an assault upon another inmate before his removal to the Asylum to which he was summoned before the County Justices, he was not however punished for the offence.”[13] Obviously, even without any criminal conviction against him, Sidney had been judged by the workhouse authorities to be insane.

He entered the Nottingham Pauper Lunatic Asylum in Sneinton, on 19 August 1865 – the day after his letter to the Poor Law Board was written - and remained there until his death, almost twelve years later, on 22 February 1877.[14] The 1871 Census of England and Wales shows him as an inmate in Sneinton, but instead of being described as ‘deaf and dumb’, the final column of the Census enumeration lists him as an ‘imbecile’.[15] Sidney Smart’s case is, of course, revealed to us here in just a few documents and reports, and was far more complex than any of these individually may suggest. We cannot tell whether he genuinely had a mental illness, or whether those responsible for his committal actually believed he did, even given the very different criteria and definitions of mental illness in the mid-nineteenth century.

What is intriguing – and harrowing – for any historian of Deaf people in this period, is the reflection in his letter of a troubled mind, expressed in jumbled – but nonetheless coherent - English, if one is familiar with the ‘Deaf English’ of Deaf people, at the time - and often, still today. This is an artefact of the difficult process of teaching children to read and write English, when they cannot easily access the spoken language that is around them. Education for deaf children requires expertise, patience, but above all, the use of a language that is accessible – a signed language. The importance for deaf children of not just this expert schooling, but careful fostering of reading skills in later life, is here described by Brother Walsh of St Joseph’s School, Cabra in Dublin, in 1867:

…the manner in which the Deaf Mute is led from a knowledge of the merest elements of language, to an acquaintance with the most abstruse and complicated forms of construction... this is... the most difficult part of the teacher's business; it is a task demanding years of patient toil and great exertion from the master, and more than ordinary assiduity on the part of the pupil. So far all is well until the Deaf Mute leaves the Institution, and then much, very much, depends on the society into which he may happen to be thrown... But if... circumstances compel him to associate with the illiterate and uninstructed, instead of adding to what he knows, he will most probably forget what he has already learned.[16]

While the details of Sidney Smart’s school experiences remain unclear to me – and Deaf historians in Britain may wish to assist in this – it is evident that he received some education, but also clear that his abilities in written English were somewhat compromised by the time he wrote his letter. How much this was due to mental illness remains opaque, but one can surmise that with no other deaf paupers around him – from what we can tell – and at least four years of associating solely with “the illiterate and uninstructed” in the workhouse, Sidney’s literacy may have declined in a similar manner to that which Br Walsh describes. This seems an inadequate indication, however, of mental illness.

Sidney’s odd, impassioned, and forceful letter raised alarm bells for the Poor Law Board, unused to such strange language and grammatical choices. Sidney’s interactions with the workhouse staff and inmates - eventually characterised by disdain and ignorance, by his own account - may have, over time, also led to more direct prejudices against an individual who was literate and clearly intelligent, but quite different in his communication choices and language from other paupers - and one who was very frustrated by his situation. Considering this sad set of facts makes one wonder; what of the very many ‘deaf and dumb’ paupers who did not have the literacy of Sidney Smart? Those who never entered a school room, and left no documentary traces of their own as a result? The many deaf men and women who the 1861 England and Wales Index of Paupers indicate spent thirty, forty, even fifty years within the walls of workhouses in England and Wales?[17] Such stories are slippery and hard to discover, but for me, it seems so self-evidently important to strive to do so.

[2] England and Wales Birth Registration Index, 1837-2008, https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:2NSY-LSD; 1851 Census of England and Wales, Basford, Nottinghamshire, www.ancestry.co.uk. I am indebted to Norma McGilp for identifying my errors in my first examination of the 1851 Census for Sidney’s family.
[3] Letter from Sidney Smart, Basford Poor Law Union, to Poor Law Board, 18 August 1865. National Archives (NA), Folio 306, MH 12/9250/241.
[4] 1861 Census of England and Wales, Basford, Nottinghamshire, www.ancestry.co.uk.
[5] Ibid. Original letter has been reproduced exactly, with spelling and grammatical mistakes.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Wheatley is described in the Nottinghamshire Guardian as being 79 years old, and it is likely that he was an inmate of the workhouse himself who had been given a position of work of some importance for Sidney to perceive him as the ‘manager’. Nottinghamshire Guardian, 4 August 1865, p. 7.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Nottinghamshire Guardian, 4 August 1865, p. 7.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Letter from Mr Enfield, Poor Law Board, to Basford Poor Law Union, 24 August 1865. National Archives (NA), Folio 309, MH 12/9250/241.
[13] Letter from R. B. Spencer, clerk, Basford Poor Law Union, to Mr Enfield, Poor Law Board, 5 September 1865. National Archives (NA), Folio 318, MH 12/9250/241.
[14] UK, Lunacy Patients Admission Registers, 1846-1912, www.ancestry.co.uk. Also at National Archives (NA), MH 94/19.
[15] 1871 Census of England and Wales, Nottingham Pauper Lunatic Asylum, Sneinton, Nottinghamshire, www.ancestry.co.uk.
[16] Catholic Institution for the Deaf and Dumb, Twenty-First Annual Report, 1867, p. 42.
[17] For a 10% representative sample of this Index, see http://www.genuki.org.uk/big/eng/Paupers/ - examples include Fanny Scrivens from Ross, Herefordshire, described as “Dumb - 20 yrs” in that workhouse. Martha Tonks, in Bermondsey workhouse, had been there – according to the full 1861 Index – for 55 years.

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