Not many Christmases go by without one channel or another screening the Dickens classic of Oliver Twist. Having feasted on the traditional Christmas dinner one is then presented of a forlorn looking Oliver pleading for ‘more’ of his workhouse gruel. The story line portrays how harsh life could be in the Victorian workhouse for those unfortunate enough to be a ‘guest’ in receipt of their hospitality. However, despite the hard work, the sparse living conditions and the meagre rations the inmates were assured of a roof over their heads and food in their stomachs. For the younger folk there was also the chance that they would be taken away and put into an apprenticeship of one kind or another. This option could either be a relief of sorts if their master treated them fairly but a living nightmare if he turned out to be a monster. In such cases, young apprentices, regardless of if they came from the workhouse or a family environment, would often abscond. Quite often their masters would post a notice in the local press asking for any news of their whereabouts along with a physical description which as can be seen below were a good indication of how much regard they had for the apprentice.
This true story of the ‘Meavy Apprentices’ is a classic example of how unbearable life could be under the guardianship of a cruel and wicked master and what depths of cruelty they were made to suffer. In the early February of 1881 a local policeman found two young lads called Charles Hammond and Clapp wandering along the Roborough road. At once he became concerned at their appearance and it was very clear that Hammond was very ill. They were immediately taken to Plymouth Workhouse where they were examined by the surgeon. He described Hammond’s condition as him being; “semi-idiotic with scarcely any flesh on his ribs, and with two wounds on his body – one four inches long with one of his toes rotted through exposure.” It transpired that both boys were apprentices to a ‘gentleman’ farmer from Hoo Meavy called – Mr. Charles Constant. In view of the boy’s alleged mistreatment the Plymouth Guardians decided to prosecute farmer Constant for alleged “revolting cruelty” towards the boys.
A few days after the meeting of the Plymouth Guardians a letter written by Mr. S. P. Haddy, the relieving officer for Tavistock, was published in The Western Morning News. In it he wrote that the first indication he had that a boy from Plymouth Workhouse was with Mr. Constant was in a letter originally sent to the Tavistock Clerk to the Guardians and the passed to him. In the letter it was requested that he should visit Mr. Constant and submit a report of his findings. Haddy then went on to explain that in his opinion there was no urgency in the matter and as he had been ill since January. Additionally as Hoo Meavy was two miles outside of his ‘ordinary round’ he did not see any reason to send his deputy. He then received another letter stating that another boy from the workhouse was also apprenticed to Mr. Constant and could he immediately make a visit and report back. Haddy replied to this request saying that he still had not fully recovered from his illness but that he would endeavour to visit within the next fortnight. The letter then went on to explain that he had not realised there was any concerns about the boys welfare or else he would have treated it with a matter of urgency. Excuses, excuses, I think one could deduce that Mr. Haddy ‘protesteth too much’ and was at fault for not investigating the conditions the two boys were subjected to.
On Saturday the 12th of March 1881 Mr. Constant was summonsed to appear at the Roborough Police Court where he faced the charges of; “depriving Charles Hammond of sufficient and suitable food, whereby life was endangered, also with otherwise inhumanely treating him.” It was revealed that when Mr. Constant applied to the workhouse for two boys he specifically asked for two orphans as he didn’t want any interference from parents. Both boys gave evidence to the effect that they had been cruelly ill-treated and neglected by Constant. In Hammond’s case it was said how when he first came to Constant’s farm he was made to sleep in the harness room and was later given the loft to sleep in. He was never given any bedding and instead had to make use of some old sacks, he also said how before long all his clothes had worn out but he was given no new ones. During a recent cold spell he had no stockings to keep his feet warm and how he was not allowed in any of the inside rooms to warm himself. Beatings were part of everyday life for Hammond, on one occasion he was punched in the face and on another hit on the head with a stick. On several occasions he was tied to a grate with his hands behind his back and then thrashed with a stick. Many of these beating took place in stables that were some distance from the farm, it was stated the reason for this was that nobody could hear the boy’s screams. On Christmas Day poor young Hammond was left tied up in a back kitchen with no fire from ten o’ clock in the morning until seven o’ clock in the evening. On another occasion Hammond was hit on the head with a hedge stake thus causing a deep wound which was still evident when he was returned to the workhouse. Most of these accusations were born out by Dr. Thomson who saw many of the injuries and scars when he examined the boys at the workhouse. It was also stated that when Hammond returned to the workhouse he was found to be in a “terribly debilitated and emaciated condition, and covered with sores and bruises.” In his defence Constant produced two girl witnesses who gave evidence to the effect that contradicted that given by the two boys. At the close of the court Constant elected to be dealt with summarily and was consequently sentenced to six month’s imprisonment with hard labour.
Information taken from;
The Exeter & Plymouth Gazette, February 3rd, 1881.
The Western Morning News, February 5th, 1881.
The Western Times, March 12th, 1881.
The Portsmouth Evening News, March 14th, 1881.
The Daily Gazette for Middlesborough, March 16th, 1881.
The Derby Daily Telegraph, March 17th, 1881