Managing the Poor: the Oakum Room



On May 2nd, 1887, Thomas White was sentenced to fourteen days hard labour for ‘neglecting his task at the workhouse’. An article in the Birmingham Mail described White as a tramp, and the task which he was deemed to have been negligent of was oakum picking.[1] Up and down the country, in workhouses and jails, men, women and children were daily set to work in this onerous, uncomfortable job. Baskets or tubs of dirty, thick rope was pulled into individual strands ready for reuse as caulking material. In workhouses it was used as a test in an attempt to deter people from claiming relief. Most institutions set a daily quota that each claimant must pick. Richard Wood was the tramp master, and at White’s trial he testified that on the morning of April 30th that he had given White 4lbs of oakum to pick, but that he had only picked 2lb 13oz. The workhouse doctor had confirmed that White was in good health. The presiding magistrate enquired if cold weather might have impacted the defendant’s ability to undertake his task, but was assured that the room was ‘sufficiently warm’ and that the job was such a simple one that ‘some of the seven-day boys sometimes picked the oakum just for pleasure’.[2]

Birmingham’s oakum room had not always been situated within the workhouse. In 1867, Guardian Mr Benton brought forward a motion that a labour test should be imposed on those claiming outdoor relief, as it was in Manchester. He stated that he brought the motion forward ‘in no revengeful spirit, but because he thought it would be beneficial to the people not to allow themselves to become paupers.’[3] By the following year there was an Oakum Room Sub-Committee, consisting 11 Guardians, under the authority of the Visiting and General Purposes Committee. The oakum room was based on Great Charles Street, and divided into sections for men and women with male and female attendants.[4] This was some way from the workhouse, and it is possible that it was a test house only for those seeking outdoor relief, rather than for workhouse inmates. By 1871 it was decided that the oakum picking room should be moved to the workhouse, once the tenure on the Great Charles Street premises was up.[5]

It would seem that, although Mr Benton’s proposal was presented as novel for the town, there had been a longer standing tradition of poor tests, including oakum picking. For some reason it had been discontinued.  The Relief Committee was responsible for managing outdoor relief. In March, 1858, they reported to the Board of Guardians that they were currently employing upwards of five hundred men in stone breaking and oakum picking. It was stated that one hundred and fifty men had lately been in the oakum ward as a result of the pearl button makers strike. This statement met with mixed responses: Mr Tonks said that in his opinion ‘the Board ought to require from them such an amount of labour as would prevent them from going there from choice’. Mr Phillips reported that a number of ‘insubordinate’ men from among the strikers claiming relief had been sent to the outdoor oakum ward, but that there was danger of men becoming ill from the cold weather, a factor confirmed by Mr Maher, who agreed that some means of heating the oakum room should be considered as ‘setting aside humanity, it would be economy to do so’. Men who became ill could be an even greater burden on the parish. Only Mr Corbett appeared to show a modicum of empathy, suggesting that it seemed unlikely that men would choose to break stones or pick oakum in return for ‘the miserable allowance of bread and money’ which they provided.[6]

[1] Birmingham Mail, May 2nd, 1887

[2] Ibid.

[3] Aris’s Birmingham Gazette, May 4th, 1867

[4] Birmingham Archives, Heritage and Photography, GP B/2/3/10 Oakum Room Sub-committee 1869-1872

[5] Birmingham Daily Gazette, March 9th, 1871

[6] Aris’s Birmingham Gazette, March 8th, 1858


‘Mysterious Tragedy in Birmingham’


The Illustrated Police News of October 29th, 1898 carried the dramatic illustration and story of a woman who had been gagged and murdered in her bed. The crime took place at number 60 Latimer Street. This road no longer exists, but was near Bath Street. It was demolished in the 20th century to make way for the inner ring road. The victim is named as Miss Mary Aliban, aged ‘about sixty two years of age’ and the report suggests that she had in the past been an ‘inmate of Winsor Green Asylum’ (clearly a misprint).

The picture is a bit startling, depicting how poor Mary might have suffered at the hands of her murderers. A smaller, inset picture shows her collecting rent, for she was in possession of some properties which, the report reveals, gave her a moderate income of about thirty-two shillings a week. She was in the habit of collecting her rent with the assistance of two boys, whom she employed to carry her money bags. Neighbours described a woman of ‘miserable disposition’ and many reported that the ‘chink of coins’ could be heard from her home as she counted up her savings.

The house in Latimer Street was a front house, with one room upstairs and one room downstairs, occupied by Mary Aliban. The back of the house was occupied by someone else.  Mary was usually an early riser, but on Thursday her shutters remained down all day. A neighbour recalled seeing her shortly before 11pm on the Wednesday evening ‘fetching some beer’, and appeared ‘in her usual health’. The unusual occurrence attracted the attention of some of her neighbours, who found that the front door was open, prompting them to call for a police officer.

Police-officer Waters entered Mary Aliban’s house and went upstairs to her room, where he found her body, on the bed ‘a piece of calico tied tightly around her neck, a handkerchief stuffed into her mouth, and both arms tied to the rails of the bedstead’. The evidence pointed to the act having been carried out by a labouring man, or men (as the illustration garishly suggests). ‘The arms were tied with cheap silk handkerchiefs, of the description usually worn by men of the labouring class when dressed up.’ The piece of calico, pulled so tightly around Mary’s neck and which was likely the cause of her death, had been torn from a garment pulled from a box near the end of the bed. Strangulation was assumed, undertaken with violent determination. Knuckle marks were seen on the victim’s face, and it was suggested that there had been two assailants, one who attempted to suffocate her with his hands while a second found the material with which to strangle and gag her. ‘It was abundantly clear that the murderer, or murderers, had carried out their work with the utmost ferocity.’

The motive had, doubtless, been Mary Aliban’s cash. One of the bags which she used for rent collection was found empty on the floor. The second, described by her neighbours, was missing altogether. There was no sign of forced entry and it was concluded that ‘whilst the victim left the house for the supper beer on Wednesday night the murderers had entered unobserved and secreted themselves in the cellar until their victim had gone to bed’.

Mary Aliban was probably in possession of considerable savings, most of which she carried about with her in an old carpet bag. One neighbour, Mrs Hewlett, claimed that Mary had once asked her to feel the weight of the bag, ‘I lifted it up’ said Mrs Hewlett, ‘and it was remarkably heavy for its size’. A search of the house found some cash overlooked by the murderer/s – police found a quantity of gold, silver and copper to the value of £108, hidden in a saucepan. Most of the neighbourhood were aware that Mary carried her savings around with her, and that she might have a considerable sum of cash in the bags she persistently carried around, or got others to carry for her.

For some time police were at a loss as to the identity of Mary’s murderer/s, but a breakthrough came through the witness statement of yet another neighbour who recalled seeing two youths leaving Mary’s house at 8am on Thursday morning. She thought they were about nineteen or twenty years of age and  of the ‘peaky blinder class’. On Friday afternoon police received information from the landlady of a lodging house in West Bromwich regarding the ‘extraordinary behaviour’ of a tenant named Frank Jones, who had bought copies of each evening newspaper as they were published, taking them to his room to read. It was soon found that Jones, who was unemployed, had previously lived in Latimer Street, and would have known of Mary’s supposed fortune. On being searched he was found to have a sovereign, which he claimed to have found when he was walking back to his lodgings in West Bromwich, admitting that he had been in Latimer Street until one o’clock on Thursday morning. ‘There is no trace of the second man supposed to be involved in the affair, nor is it known how much money has been stolen from the house.’

What do you think? Do you reckon it was Frank Jones who murdered Mary? And did he act alone? If so, what might have happened to the money? 

Charge of Bigamy

From Birmingham Daily Post, September 13th 1861

Birmingham Police Court

Before T.C. Kynnersley, T. Cox and C.H.Cope Esqs.

Charge of bigamy.- A young man named W.G.Reed, a coach-maker, residing in Francis Street, was brought up on remand, charged as above. It appeared from the evidence that in December 1850 (sic.) , the prisoner married a woman named Elizabeth French, at St. Andrew’s Church, Bordesley, in this town. – Mrs. Sarah Wall, pew opener at the church, said she saw the parties married, and Detective Jenns, who had the case in hand,  produced a copy of the marriage certificate. Within seven months the coach-maker, who had gone up to London, became acquainted with a young woman named Emma Churchill, and was in July 1959, married to her at St. Phillip’s Church, Stepney. Jenns produced a copy of the certificate of this second wedding. The defence set up by the accused was an odd one. His first wife, a deformed young woman….agreed to make her his wife, on condition that, should she bring forth a living child, the union should be held to be binding, but if the babe died then the marriage would be void. The child did die and he, leaving the deformed woman, married Churchill in London. The Bench committed him to the next assizes for trial. The question of bail being referred to, the Magistrates said that they would accept two sureties in £50 each, and the prisoner at £100. Not being provided with the sureties, the bigamist was locked up.

**The missing word, replaced in the text above with three dots, was not quite legible to me, and the more I looked at it the more unsure I was of what it read. I think, given the context, it perhaps referred to the impregnation of  poor Elizabeth French. The date ‘1850’ seems quite clear in the print, but it would seem more probable that it should have read 1858, which would tie in with Reed’s trip to London ‘within seven months’. 

Singular Conduct of a Pistol Maker

Birmingham Police Court


September 1st, 1858
Before T.C.S Kynnersley and S. Buckley Esqs.

Singular conduct of a pistol maker:- A respectable young man named William Henry Bate, who stated that he was a pistol maker in Talbot Street, Winson Green, was summoned to answer the following rather serious charge: A neat little Irish girl named Margaret Colorin, servant to Mrs. E. Mahoney, shopkeeper in the above locality, stated that a few nights ago – it was near ten o’clock and quite dark – she had occasion to go into the yard, into which the premises of the defendant Bate came. As she passed she distinctly heard Mrs. Bates say to her husband “Paddy’s a-coming”, and he directly fired off a pistol three several (sic.) times. The sound came as if defendant was not many yards off, and she was so much frightened that on getting into her mistress’s house she had a violent fit of hysterics.  Mrs. Mahoney and another respectable female neighbour, proved hearing three distinct reports of fire-arms. The defence was that Mr. Bate, whose father is a gun-maker in Whittall Street, in accordance with his father’s practice, always proves his pistols before disposing of them. He did so on the night in question. He only discharged one, his wife letting off the other two. He distinctly denied pointing them at the girl, and did not hear his wife say that Paddy was coming. Mr. Kynnersley said it was a highly improper course to pursue at night and Mr. Bate must pay the costs, 7s. This was done.

[Birmingham Daily Post, Thursday 2nd September 1858]

A Porcine Adventure

Report from the Birmingham Daily Post, January 18th 1858

Birmingham Police Court

Before Mr Kynnersley and Mr Phillips

A Porcine Adventure:-  A rough looking young fellow named William Bennett, living at the Worcester Wharf, was charged with being concealed on the premises of John Sheldon, a labouring man, residing in Cheapside, with intent to commit a felony.  Sheldon said that he was awakened by his “Missis” between one and two o’clock in the morning, in consequence of a noise in the pigstye, and on going down to ascertain the cause, he found he prisoner lying in the stye in the comfortable straw bed that had been made up for the pigs on the previous evening. The animals themselves had been turned out of their quarters, and were grunting their discontent in the yard. Sheldon naively observed to the Bench that he believed that if he had not so opportunely discovered the intruder his pigs “would have gone in no time”. The Magistrates appeared to take a similar view of the matter and committed the prisoner to the House of Correction for seven days.

At the same session:

A Couple of House Robbers:- William Smith and Maria Gill who cohabit together in Woodcock Street were placed at the bar charged with having in their possession a quantity of household goods, wearing apparel, and other articles, the produce of some of the innumerable house robberies that have taken place of late in all quarters of the town. The prisoners were apprehended on Friday night by Detective-officers Palmer and Clarke, and the house being searched a heap of bed linen, half a dozen chairs, a clock, and other property were found.  A portion of these were identified by Mrs Coley, a married woman, living in Sheep Street, whose house was entered by means of skeleton keys during her absence and robbed on the 21st ult.  The prisoners were therefore remanded until tomorrow, for the production of evidence in other charges against them.

‘A well seasoned tippler’

Birmingham Police Court

On Saturday October 9th, 1858, before magistrate William Lucy,

A well-seasoned tippler.- The notorious Barbara Colman was placed at the bar charged, as usual, with being “drunk and disorderly”. She was described as of Fox Street, hawker, and this was nearly her hundredth appearance before the Magistrates. Today she said she did not know how it was; “when I’m ill, I keep sober, but when I get well, then I go off drinking.” What were the Magistrates to do? Sending her to gaol was of no avail. The old stager put in a novel appeal: Please your worship, I was going to be married.” This from a lass who owns to sixty-eight was too much for one’s gravity, and amidst the general laughter, Barbara was discharged, and in gratitude for this she said, “I’ll ask you all to the wedding!”

This item was taken from Birmingham Daily Post, October 11th 1858.  Available to view by subscription to the British Newspaper Archives. Birmingham’s historical newspapers can also be viewed free of charge in Local Studies at the Library of Birmingham, 4th floor – please support our local libraries and archives.

Sarah Cox, a young thief sentenced to the reformatory

Tuesday September 9th 1884

Birmingham Police Court

Before Messrs. Kynnersley (stipendiary), Harris, Goodman, Payton and Goodrick

A young thief._ Sarah Cox (aged 12), living with her parents in Adam Street, was charged on remand with stealing 1s 6d from the till of Sarah Watkins, shopkeeper, Great Lister Street._ The prosecutrix stated that on the 1st September she went into the shop and saw the prisoner drawing her hand away from the till. She asked the girl what she wanted, and the latter replied that she wanted a pennyworth of tobacco. Prosecutrix went to the till, and missed 1s 6d. She caught hold of the prisoner, and a shilling fell out of her sleeve to the floor. She was given into custody and charged with the offence, when she replied that she would give the prosecutrix a penny if she would let her go._ Prisoner, who had twice been previously convicted, was sentenced to fourteen days imprisonment and five years in a reformatory

At this same hearing, directly after young Sarah had been sentenced, the ‘incorrigible’ serial inebriate William, ‘Billy’ Poole also made his 116th appearance before the magistrates – this time being fined 20 shillings for being drunk whilst in charge of a horse in the Bull Ring two days earlier.

This report was found in Birmingham Daily Post, September 10th 1884. This paper can be viewed by subscription to the British Newspaper Archives  and all of Birmingham’s 19th century newspapers can viewed free of charge at the Local Studies Centre, Library of Birmingham. 


‘A pawnbroker heavily fined’: July 16th 1885

Birmingham Police Court

Thursday July 16th, 1885
Before Messrs. Kynnersley (stipendiary), Cook and Harris

A pawnbroker heavily fined:- John Taylor (8), schoolboy, was charged with stealing three shirts. On the 28th ult., prisoner went to Mrs. Murcott, who keeps a mangle, and asked for three shirts belonging to his mother. The shirts were given to him in the belief that they belonged to his mother. Prisoner pawned the shirts the same day with Mrs. Mary Hall, pawnbroker, Farm Street. Prisoner was discharged with a caution. – The pawnbroker was charged with receiving the shirts from Taylor, he being under the age of 12. Taylor was put in the witness box and stated that he took the shirts to Mrs. Hall’s shop and the assistant named Mary Leighton took them in pledge. Witness added that he regularly pledged goods with Mrs. Hall. – A fine of £5 with costs was imposed (on Hall)

This item was taken from The Birmingham Daily Post dated July 17th, 1885. Local newspapers are available to view online by subscription to the British Newspaper Archive and on microfilm, free of charge, at the Local Studies Centre, 4th floor, Library of Birmingham. Birmingham Archives are currently under threat from council cutbacks – please support our local public resources – updates on Twitter via @FoLoB_ (Friends of the Library of Birmingham)

A record number of appearances at Victoria Law Court, 1894


Victoria Law Courts; Wikicommons

On Monday, June 25th 1894 no less than 99 cases were presented to magistrates at the Victoria Law Court. The Daily Post reported that the usual number for a Monday morning averaged around 60 and that ‘this week the leap has been a very significant one’.  The cases presented were varied but, the paper declared, could not be ascribed to a recent ‘epidemic of ruffianism which seems to have settled in the city’ as only 11 of the cases involved assault ‘on a Saturday night in the whole of the city’. The report gave a broad outline of the array of cases that were heard, most of which were petty thefts, Sunday afternoon street gambling and ‘many cases of drunkeness’.

Among those who had spent the weekend in the gaol for disorderly behaviour was Mary Ann Bayliss of Price Street who, after getting into a quarrel outside the Green Lamp pub in Dale End had smashed on of its windows with her boot. She had been arrested by constable Connolly and was committed to appear at the assizes.

Thomas Spinks, ‘a well known character’ and an accomplice named as Henry Edwards were also committed to the assizes on charges of burglary. The two had broken into the house of William Thompson in Peel Street and stolen ‘three coats, a pair of boots and a number of other articles’. They were apprehended by constable Kelly at the Black Horse pub on Prospect Row, still in possession of much of the property although Edwards had already sent his young niece off to pawn the coats.

Other cases attracted fines, including ‘an unusually large number of cases before the Bench of men and women charged with being drunk and disorderly on Saturday night’. The fines ranged from five to ten shillings plus costs and it was reported that ‘in most instances evidence was given of the defendants using disgusting language’.

Fines were also issued for gambling on the streets on Sunday, seemingly a prevalent problem in the city: ‘In consequence of the complaints made by residents in different parts of the city of the nuisance caused by boys gambling on the Sunday, police officers have been watching in the neighbourhood where the nuisance is most prevalent. On Sunday several boys were arrested and were now fined in amounts of 1s. and 2s. 6d. according to the age of the culprits.’

It seems that at weekends the police were certainly kept on their toes in later nineteenth-century Birmingham!

Birmingham’s nineteenth-century newspapers are available to view online by subscription to the British Newspaper Archives and free of charge at the Local Studies Centre on the 4th floor of the Library of Birmingham. Our local library and archive services are currently under threat from government funding cuts. Please support our libraries and archives in any way you can. 

Dispute over a parrot – Polly asked to give evidence


This report from the Birmingham police court appeared in the Daily Post on May 27th, 1871. Other cases before the magistrates that day included a charge of embezzlement, the theft of coal and a robbery of a gentleman as he lay asleep in a ‘house of ill repute’. The case of Polly stands out as it does not appear as a criminal issue, but rather the JPs were being requested to decide who should have custody of a pet parrot. I’m afraid I cannot find what happened to Polly! As always, local newspapers can be viewed free of charge at the Library of Birmingham, on the 4th floor, Local Studies department. They are also available by subscription through the British Newspaper Archives.

Frederic Schweiss, foreign bird dealer, Market Hall, was summoned by Mrs. Whitehouse, Graham Street, for detaining a parrot which, she alleged, belonged to her. Mrs. Whitehouse lost a bird some time ago and, passing the defendant’s stalls, she saw a bird which she believed to be her ‘pretty Polly’. The defendant denied that the parrot belonged to the complainant and called the person from whom he obtained it for £3. 10s.  The bird was brought into court and, as Mrs. Whitehouse had stated that Polly could imitate the barking of a dog, the mewing of a cat, and do many other wonderful little tricks, she was requested to put the parrot through these various performances with a view to strengthen her claim. The complainant appealed very coaxingly to Polly, but the bird made no response. Mrs. Whitehouse explained this circumstance by saying that Polly, being in a strange place, and surrounded by a number of persons, was shy. The defendant said the parrot could only say ‘Holyoak’ in English. It could speak in Spanish (Laughter). – Mr. Gem (a magistrate) to Mrs. Whitehouse ‘perhaps you can get it to talk a bit of Spanish, or say Holyoak’!  Mrs. Whitehouse replied that the bird never spoke a word of Spanish. The defendant: ‘It can whistle the Blue Bells of Scotland’ (Laughter). Mr. Kynnersley (Magistrate) ‘the better plan will be to leave the parrot here until Monday, and in the meantime if it barks like a dog and does all you, Mrs. Whitehouse, credits it with, that will be strong proof in your favour. If it speaks Spanish, the presumption that it belongs to the defendant will be equally conclusive. – Adjourned.