This interesting story from Winter 1891, isn’t one i’d like to dwell on. The subject matter is quite shocking, enough for me to say read at your own discretion. Keep in mind though, the story is over 120 years old and the events were limited to one family and took place in a street, no longer there in Blantyre.
Gardiner Terrace was a small street with several old tenements situated just off Main Street, Blantyre at the top of the junction with Broompark Road. It formed a border with Causeystanes and Auchinraith during the late 1800’s but is no longer there today. One of the homes in the year 1891 belonged to stonemason James Thomson who was in his thirties. James lived there with his wife Rebecca Thomson (nee Bell). Their relationship wasn’t a happy one and they are known to have argued very often regarding matters of jealousy. The following tale is only remembered due to the excellent reporting of the Glasgow Herald on Wednesday 16th December 1891.
James had been married previously and had three little children from that marriage who now lived with him and Rebecca. (2 boys and a girl). His most recent marriage to Rebecca also bore another boy. The family lived at the property and in 1891 the eldest child was 12. By Summer 1891, the unhappy marriage failed and enough was enough. James moved out. Whether it was the breakdown of her marriage or for anything else, Rebecca (also in her thirties) couldn’t cope and turned to alcohol. James tried to be some sort of father by providing 30 shillings per week (a considerable sum!) and was permitted to visit whenever he wanted. Unfortunately, it would appear Rebecca spent much of the money on drink. The situation inevitably had a toll on the 4 children and sadly Rebecca started to resent the three little children from James’s first marriage still living under her care. Her own child by James was very much favoured.
It was in December 1891, in the middle of a cold Winter that neighbours started to suspect things weren’t right with the household. On one particular evening, the children’s pitiful cries alerted a neighbour enough to call for the police. Two constables were dispatched to the house at 6 o clock and in darkness. They found the house locked and no cries within. However, the constables waited until the couple returned from a prayer meeting at 11pm. The police immediately asked where the children were, concerned about their safety. To the horror of both constables, James and Rebecca casually walked to the outside coal bunker on the dark , wintry evening and unlocked a padlock. Inside the space not 3.5 feet x 3.5 feet wide and only 4 foot tall was a scared boy aged 12, a boy aged 11 and a little girl age 9, all shivering, hungry but alive. If this was not shocking enough, each of them was completely naked, laying partially under an old and wet coal sack covered in coal dust and completely filthy. The sight was horrendous and neither James nor Rebecca displayed any remorse. With no care system existing in those days, it was left for the police to take the children into their care to get fed and washed. They were taken back to the Police Station and cleaned up. Both parents were charged with neglect and advised to contact lawyers for an immediate trial.
The case was heard in Hamilton Sheriff Court on Tuesday 15th December 1891 before Sheriff Davidson. James and Rebecca stood trial for ill treatment and neglect including frequently locking children in the outside coal bunker without clothes, food, light or ventilation for prolonged periods of up to 6 hours at a time. Both parents under advisement from each of their separate lawyers pleaded guilty. Before the final verdict was declared by the Sheriff, the full details of the case were read out. The Court heard about many arguments within the marriage, the drinking binges and how incredibly James felt that when he visited Rebecca, he was assured that the children were being “disciplined appropriately”. The court was told by police officers that the house was scrupulously clean, including the bedroom of the other son, but bizarrely, the bedroom of the 3 affected children was filthy and neglected. It was almost as though Rebecca chose never to go in that room. Both Rebecca’s and James’s separate lawyers tried to put the blame on each other. Attacking Rebecca’s character for drinking, and her with his cheating. It was said that it had been James’s idea to put the children in the coal bunker. Neighbours were interviewed and reported the children were often seen “going about the ash pits to see what they could find“. The children’s viewpoint was also heard, putting them through the court process, something that may not have happened in this day and age. The little girl told the court she only washed when she got to the pump well at High Blantyre Primary School. Her weight was half that of an ordinary child her age. It was a sorrowful spectacle for all in court.
So to the verdict. The Sheriff refused to allow that there had been quarrels between the accused parents and determined that even estranged, they both had failed entirely in their obligations to look after the children. Commenting on the fact that both parents had been at a Church Prayer meeting the evening of their arrest, the Sheriff said he was not overly impressed with the couple’s profession of religion on the basis that how can people of god be so cruel. Did they stop that evening to pray for their children? James Thomson suffered 30 days imprisonment as fitting to his crime and his wife received 14 days prison.
The story ends here as probably did the Thomson’s marriage. Probably for the best. However, it leaves me wondering and without an established social service, what happened to those little children once their parent’s sentence was carried out?