Unclaimed Humanity: Desertion of Family


On March 11th 1870, a 50 year old plane-maker named James Fellowes was charged before the police court with abandoning his wife and five children and leaving them chargeable to Birmingham parish. The prisoner, who, it was reported, and recently been earning £1 a week, had absconded to Bristol in November of the previous year. He had been brought back to Birmingham on license and, this being his third offence, was given the maximum sentence of three months imprisonment. It is difficult to understand how this would have relieved the distress of his family.

Desertion of family was a serious problem in Birmingham, as it surely was in many other towns. There are numerous accounts of abandonment that came before the police courts. The prosecutions always resulted in a fine or, as in the case of Fellowes, a prison sentence. As this case reveals, the punishment did not always prevent a recurrence or address the hardship faced by the family of the absconder. But the primary concern of the courts in these cases had little to do with concern for the plight of abandoned children and much to do with the burden on the parish – or more particularly, the ratepayer.

Birmingham was one of a number of towns that had adopted the Gilbert Act in the late eighteenth century. Under this act the town established a Board of Guardians and Overseers of the Poor. This board was responsible for raising and distributing funds for the relief of poverty in the town, and whilst they took their responsibilities to the poor very seriously, they were also accountable to the ratepayer. So they pursued all cases of abandonment and bastardy as far as they could, even advertising rewards in local newspapers for information on absconding fathers.

The issue appeared to amplify as the century progressed; in 1874, Birmingham’s Board of Guardians appointed a detective, from the local police force, to track down absconders and bring them back to face the music.  The Birmingham Daily Post  reported that there were some hundreds of deserted children in the Workhouse, and although the cost of employing such an officer would, it was seen, be heavy, there was no likelihood at all approaching that much of maintaining so much of so much unclaimed humanity. 

It was an experienced officer, Sergeant James Daniels, who was appointed for the job. He proved to be a great success, at least in terms of lessening the burden on ratepayers. In one year alone, the Daily Post reported – sixty-two persons were sought out and apprehended; 250 persons brought before the Workhouse committee in order they might be examined as to their means; sixty-seven persons summonsed to appear before the magistrates; the parents of fifteen lost children discovered; thirty-five families restored to their respective heads upon the latter being discharged after imprisonment; thirty boys captured and returned who had absconded from the Marston Green homes or the Workhouse. In the course of his pursuits, Daniels racked up annual expenses of between £200 – £300 a respectable aggregate of work for twelvemonth. Some of those he tracked down had been missing for more than a decade. The appointment of a ‘poor law detective’, meant that no other town in the kingdom could boast a better system of preventing conjugal or parental neglect than Birmingham. 

Under clause 31 of the Gilbert Act, Guardians of the Poor were legally required to report ‘idle or disorderly persons’ to the magistrates for prosecution. This included those identified as ‘able, but unwilling to work or maintain themselves and their families. If Guardians were shown to have ignored complaints or claims against those who were exploiting the system in some way, they themselves were liable to a fine of not less than £5. This may have been further motivation to ensure prosecutions were pursued.

Information here is taken from Birmingham Daily Post, March 12th, 1870 & January 14th, 1884. Newspapers are available to view free of charge at the Library of Birmingham in the Local Studies section, 4th floor. Some copies are also available via paid subscription from the British Newspaper Archives. 

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3 thoughts on “Unclaimed Humanity: Desertion of Family

  1. Thank you for this article, we’re pretty sure that this is our 2nd great grandfather. The family was in Bristol on the 1871 census. In 1866 two of their daughters were christened in Birmingham and the address was recorded as workhouse.
    Would a pound a week be a reasonable wage at the time?

    • Thank you so much for your reply Barbara, what a fascinating family connection you may have unearthed and I appreciate the extra information. My understanding is that wages could fluctuate wildly at that time and work was not always guaranteed. In 1867, a professor at Kings College wrote a report on average wages for 1866 and it seems to have been placed at 45d per day – there were 240 old pennies in the pound, so that would make a pound a week slightly below average I think. Here’s the link to Professor Leone’s report, available freely online, in case it is of interest, https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/011631933

  2. Thanks Donna, I’m finding your blogs most interesting, I have downloaded and will look at Professor Leone’s paper later.

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