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The Recorder's Charge by Charles Dickens

The following article appeared on 3rd March 1849 in the weekly journal The Examiner. Although not signed, it was written by Charles Dickens. It was the third of four articles Dickens wrote for The Examiner between January and April 1849, giving his critical appraisal of the events surrounding the cholera outbreak at Mr Drouet's school for pauper children at Tooting. After 180 children from the school died from the disease, Drouet was charged with manslaughter but subsequently acquitted.

The other articles in the series were The Paradise at Tooting (January 20th), The Tooting Farm (January 27th), and The Verdict for Drouet (April 23rd).


People who went to see Mr. Catlin's party of Indians at the Egyptian Hall, were in general mightily entertained to observe how necessary 'medicine,' or mystery, was to the greater part of their proceedings; and how impossible the red men considered it to set hopefully about any grave undertaking without divers preliminary conjurations from the 'medicine man.' Really, the custom obtains quite as extensively among the white men of England. What an enormous amount of Medicine is held to be necessary, among us, before we can set about the plainest piece of business! Worse still. In some cases — as in that of the church, for example — our Medicine men differ violently among themselves, and in a conflict of Medicine set all England by the ears, when it is only desirous to say its prayers in peace. In parliament, besides a great deal of very indifferent Medicine constantly practised and never varying, we have the standard Medicine of a select committee, which is one of its most perplexing and complicated mysteries, and very bad Medicine indeed. At court we have ceremonies far more ridiculous than anything in the Ojibbeway code of etiquette. In law, we have a solemn jingling of words and phrases which is the most bewildering and unmeaning Medicine of all.

The grand jury, coming into court at the Old Bailey on Monday last to be regaled with a little Medicine of this latter kind, were addressed by the learned Recorder for the City of London, who, as Medicine man, danced round and round them, and the general question of the Tooting case, in the following wild manner:

The charge in question was made against the keeper of an establishment for the reception of pauper children, at Tooting, and he was accused of having caused the deaths of no less than four children, by a degree of criminal neglect, in not giving them proper food, by crowding them together in an unwholesome atmosphere, and a general inattention to those precautions which were necessary to preserve a number of children, placed together under such circumstances, in a state of ordinary bodily health. It appeared that several parishes, acting under proper authority, had sent a number of children to the establishment in question, where they were placed under the charge of the defendant, who was to receive a stipulated price per head for the children. The exact number that was so received did not exactly appear, but there was no doubt that it was larger than the capabilities of the establishment could properly provide for, and that the children were consequently crowded together in a manner likely to be injurious to their health, and predispose them to the attack of any epidemic or contagious disease. The indictment would probably allege that it was the duty of the defendant, by the contract he had entered into, to supply proper food and clothing, and to take proper precautions to preserve the health of the children placed under his charge, and that he had criminally neglected to perform that duty. The depositions were very voluminous, and he was bound to say that they contained many statements which were not legally admissible, and which would not be received or admitted by a judge. A good deal of the matter consisted of hearsay evidence, and of conclusions drawn by parties who did not state any facts upon which those conclusions were founded. The cause of the deaths appeared to be clearly proved to be cholera, and by the depositions it appeared that there had been a good deal of speculation as to how the disease of cholera was occasioned, and how far it might have been prevented, in the present instance, supposing more food had been given to the deceased children, and they had been provided with more clothes and greater comforts. In an ordinary case of manslaughter, the cause of death was generally distinctly alleged against the party accused, but in this case the offence which appeared to be imputed to the defendant was, that by a certain course of improper treatment he had predisposed the system of the deceased children to receive the disease, and had rendered them peculiarly liable to be attacked by the disorder. The important question, however, was, what act had been done by the defendant that had conduced to the death of the deceased.

The Recorder talks about "an ordinary case of manslaughter," as if there were nothing whatever in the Tooting case to make it an extraordinary one. The question is, what act has been done by the defendant to conduce to the death of the deceased! Is it? Or does the question extend itself into a series of acts, no one among them in itself perhaps involving the terrible catastrophe so widely known, but all, taken together, involving that degree of gross neglect of ordinary precaution for the safety of human life, which constitutes one form of manslaughter? Suppose another kind of "farmer," being skipper of a ship, had taken on board for his profit an unheard-of number of apprentices, and "by a degree of criminal neglect in not giving them proper food, by crowding them together in an unwholesome atmosphere, and a general inattention to those precautions which are necessary to preserve them," had so reduced and wasted those apprentices that after certain weeks of this ill-treatment scurvy or erysipelas broke out among them, and swept numbers of them away. Does the Recorder mean to say that to sustain a charge of manslaughter against that man, it would be necessary to prove any one specific act on his part amounting to inoculation for scurvy or erysipelas? "Did the defendant do any act." "They must see what act had been done."

Again and again the Recorder jingles and juggles with this phrase. "Under these circumstances he would ask them who could say that the defendant was the cause of the children being attacked by cholera, and yet they must be satisfied that this was the case before the defendant would be amenable to the present charge." But supposing the grand jury had taken it into their heads to ask the medical witnesses whether, the children being attacked by cholera, the defendant was the cause of its being physically impossible that they could recover, in that lazaar-house which was his Mint, — would they have travelled very far out of the strict justice of the case?

"The question is what act has been done." This is the great Medicine for the Grand Jury. Let us test the Medicine. Here is a proclamation, we will imagine, published with the sanction and authority of the Crown, and made notorious in every newspaper and channel of information, cautioning all engine-drivers on railways, that by reason of some uncommon condition of the atmosphere they are liable to a new class of fatal accidents; enjoining them, upon the first appearance of certain warnings which usually precede these accidents, and which are plainly described, to stop; and instructing them with what remedies to be provided beforehand, at the cost of a few pence, and how to use them, on the instant, for the protection of all under their charge. One engine-driver, having in his care the largest and the worst-appointed train in the kingdom, which is very profitable to him, sets these instructions at defiance, disregards the warnings which have been foretold to him, and which manifest themselves to his senses beyond all question, and going on headlong, comes to a crash, and destroys one hundred and fifty-five passengers,* — are we to be told that before he could be tried for the manslaughter of four of these unfortunates, it would be necessary to show that he had put a luggage-van across the railway, or a hundredweight of gunpowder into the boiler?

Is it easy to believe that the parallel case to this, the Recorder utterly dismisses from his and the grand jury's consideration? In all these wanderings and repetitions of words about ordinary cases of manslaughter, there is not one word of reference to the extraordinary circumstances of the time; to the bounden duty of the keeper of such an establishment to adapt his arrangements in some degree to the peculiar peril of the time; to the circular of the Board of Health, expressly addressed to masters of asylums, schools, workhouses, and all such institutions, warning them not to be defective, in all the respects in which this place was most defective; to the total neglect of that circular in this particular case; to the appearance of the premonitory symptoms one fortnight before the breaking out of the disease; and to their being passed over with the same shameful indifference and neglect which characterised the whole administration of the house! On all these vital points of the case, there is not one word in the Recorder's charge. Nay, the Recorder deems it a great point in the defendant's favour "that the same treatment had been pursued for a period of six years without any such result taking place;" and really is as cool upon it as if it were notorious to the whole world that the cholera had been among us all that time!

The magnates of the city have been taking very high flights into the regions of Noodledom lately, borne aloft upon the balmy air of Smithfield; and it would seem as if the Recorder were dutifully meting out his Medicine by the standard at Guildhall.

In the same spirit he talks about there having been no complaint with reference to the food generally, down to the month of June last, "when there was some complaint with regard to e potatoes." As if there had been no difficulty of complaint! As if nobody remembered anything of the defendant's conduct to the boys when they did complain! As if the surviving children had never been weighed against other pauper children, and found in an extreme state of physical deterioration! As if there were no evidence of dire and gnawing hunger having been among them habitually!

The Recorder's speech might be a good enough address for the defendant's counsel, but it is a very bad charge from the judicial bench. It could not have been much more out of place at Covent Garden Market the other day, when the modest Mr. Charles Cochrane and his literary friend Mr. G. W. M. Reynolds, author of the Mysteries of London, and of the Revolution of Trafalgar Square," appeared upon the hustings in hopes to inclose and cultivate for themselves a snug little farm of a grievance, out of the Tooting paradise. It is so peculiarly the misfortune of these illustrious patriots to damage and debase any cause with which they connect themselves, that we should hail their expatriation for life on any constitutional grounds, with unbounded satisfaction.

Although we cannot but lament that the Poor-Law Amendment Act did not invest the Commissioners with due powers for the government of such a place as that at Tooting, we are glad to find, from Mr. Baines's explanation in the House of Commons, that such powers will now be conferred upon them. The most important provisions of the Out-door Pauper's Bill appear to be, that the Commissioners will henceforth prescribe rules for the management of such houses (of which there are but few in existence); that they will revise the contracts made between the guardians and the contractors, and stipulate for certain conditions, with power of enforcing penalties for non-fulfilment; that they will have the power of summarily dismissing the contractors; and that they will have "very effective powers of visitation." Nothing is more necessary than these last. If the Sanitary Commission had not fortunately possessed (under the Removal of Nuisances Bill) the right of visiting Tooting without invitation, we should probably never have had Mr. Grainger's Report.

That it is not proposed to invest the Poor-Law Commission with these new powers before they are needed, is now a trite truth, which we cannot better confirm than by a short extract from a valuable, thoroughly-informed, and most useful publication, the Journal of Public Health." Let us premise that we allow one thousand feet of cubic air to every felon in his prison:

"Let us set aside all the inhumanity and brutal indifference which have been brought out in evidence" — on this Tooting case — "the hunger and thirst, the cold, the ill-treatment, the uncleanliness, the diseases of filth and neglect, the itch, scald heads, the sore eyes, the running tetters, the scrofulous affections of the joints, and abscesses, the thin shanks and pot bellies, the diseased bowels, the foundation for the consumption of coming years, which were inflicted on these much-abused children — and judge of the system by the regard paid to the primary want of LIFE under all conditions — the supply of fresh air. We are told that the children had not quite 136 cubic feet of respirable air for each child, or an amount equal to what could be contained in a box five feet two inches every way. This supply would preserve life for eight hours, when the outraged laws of life would resolve the living frame into dead matter. In the boys' schoolroom, occupied for three hours twice a day, there were thirty-seven cubic feet of air for each boy!"

Will all our Medicine-men insist, like the Recorder, on having the Tooting tragedy in "one act," or will any of them be content to read it in fifty?

* The registered number of deaths from cholera at the Toting Establishment to January 20th.

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