The Docks night scene. Gustave Dore 1872
The 1850s was a boom time for the Isle of Dogs, the building of Brunel’s Great Eastern and other shipbuilding on the Island had attracted workers from all over the United Kingdom. However by 1866 there was a financial crash that devastated the shipyards which caused great distress among thousands of workers. This distress continued unabated for the next three years putting considerable strain on local authorities and charities to provide relief.
It was against this background that the story of the death of a young woman and child on the Isle of Dogs in 1869 gained national and international notoriety.
The exact details were recounted in Ruskin’s book Eagles Nest.
“An inquest was held in the Isle of Dogs by Mr. Humphreys, the coroner,
respecting the death of a woman named Catherine Spence, aged thirty-four, and
her infant. She was the wife of a labourer, who had been almost without employ-
ment for two years and a half. They had pledged all their clothes to buy food,
and some time since part of the furniture had been seized by the brokers for rent.
The house in which they lived was occupied by six families, who paid the landlord
5s. 9d. for rent. One of the witnesses stated that ‘all the persons in the house
were ill off for food, and the deceased never wanted it more than they did.’ The
jury on going to view the bodies found that the bed on which the woman and
child had died was composed of rags, and there were no bed-clothes upon it. A
small box placed upon a broken chair had served as a table. Upon it lay a tract
entitled ‘ The Goodness of God.’ The windows were broken, and an old iron tray
had been fastened up against one and a board up against another. Two days after
his wife’s death the poor man went mad, and he was taken to the workhouse.
He was not taken to the asylum, for there was no room for him in it was
crowded with mad people. Another juror said it was of no use to return a
verdict of death from starvation. It would only cause the distress in the island
to be talked about in newspapers. The jury returned a verdict that the deceased
woman died from exhaustion, privation, and want of food.”
The story appeared in many British Newspapers and was published widely aboard most notably in The New York Times.
Although this was a tragic story, many people at this time were destitute and many died from starvation.
What set this story apart was a number of factors, it illustrated that even the respectable poor who had worked but were now unemployed were faced with the choice of taking local charity which barely covered the rent or face the horrors of the workhouse.
The religious tract on the table for some indicated that even the church had let Catherine down.
The callousness of the juror who was more concerned about the good name of the Island was widely criticised and for many illustrated some of the hypocrisy of Victorian society.
Many writers and social reformers used the case to fight the social ills of the time and promote reforms.
The shame of this case and others to Victorian society did lead to greater Church and philanthropic works in the East End but the scale of the problem led some Victorians began to consider that part of the answer was to help people to emigrate. By the late 1860s and early 1870s there was a number of Isle of Dogs people who took advantage of this help and went to Canada and Australia.
The story was remembered by the Reverend Joseph B McCaul who was Canon Of Rochester Cathedral and Rector Of St. Michael Bassishaw,City of London in 1880 when he wrote this poem.
A TRUE TALE OF THE ISLE OF DOGS, LONDON, IN THE
YEAR OF GRACE 1869.
PRAY you, kind folks, have you ever
Of Cubitt Town, Isle of Dogs ?
It’s the grisly Cholera’s London
Amidst typhus, famine, and fogs !
Fair lovers of change and
That sensational novel down !
Let us go together, and
visit in thought
Saxon’s Alley in Cubitt Town.
Up the dismal
staircase in No. 1.
We must mount to the ” third floor back,”
And the scene I’ll show you has this good point,
It is terribly true — Alack !
Nay, search not your purse for its smallest coin —
It’s no case for
alms or bread.
You needn’t to knock at the door, for see —
are stone-dead !
In a corner, on rags, lies a skeleton form
glazed eyes staring wide —
It is Catharine Spence, aged thirty-four.
With a new-born babe at her side !
Hard by the sheetless
corpse, on a box,
Is a tract ” On the Goodness of God ! ”
And a lump of salt which the famished wretch
In the throes of starvation
Ask you perchance whether Catharine Spence
Was a trull or a
faithless wife ?
Had she no husband to work, or beg.
Or steal to
preserve her life ?
She had a husband — two years and more
He had had no work. They say
The “Guardians” had offered he starveling
Stone-breaking at eightpence a day !
Spirit and strength
and energy gone,
Spence prepared ” to die in peace ” ;
He went raving
mad on the second day
After death gave his wife release !
“Coroner’s Quest” on Catharine Spence
A juror ” felt bound to object ”
To the proper verdict of ” Starved to Death”
As ” it might on the
district reflect ! ”
” What use are the dead ? ” asked this parish sage,
” An egg-box is all they’re worth —
” Or else without any coffin I’d put
” Dead paupers into the earth ! ”
So now, gentle Ladies, you’ve
been with me
To Cubitt Town, Isle of Dogs —
Can you wonder that paupers
will sometimes die
In that home of typhus and fogs ?