April 30, 2016|Reports

Female lnebriates in Victorian England – Jane Fox

What a title! ln a change from our published programme, Jane Fox, an expert local genealogist, spoke of coming across a mysterious house on the same street while studying her own family history. Number 99 Southam Street in North Kensington had a matron, a deputy matron and 9 ‘inmates’. lt was the Victorian equivalent of today‘s Community Care homes and hostels, or the exclusive Priory Clinics looking after people with addiction problems.

Thirty three members of Wickham History Society heard how drunkenness was the most important social issue of Victorian times, contributing to perceived growing moral degeneracy. Hogarth’s cartoons of drunken women abandoning their babies are well known, but other artists portrayed drunk middle class women too, stressing the extent of the crisis across all classes. Male drunkenness was widespread and the main concern, but there was particular anxiety about women. who, some doctors believed, had a hereditary condition that they would pass onto their children (today’s addictive personality?)

Drunkenness had traditionally been treated as a public order offences dealt with by fines and hard labour. The Victorian papers had a field day with the notorious Tottie Fay who was fined or imprisoned 264 times for drunkenness. The idea of drunkenness as an addiction or an illness led to the development of hostels like Southam Street.

Initially the courts could recommend attendance, and in 1892 they were given the power to require attendance. The regime was structured around hard work. A vegetarian diet and plenty of exercise. ‘Inmates’ usually stayed about six months.

Jane discovered that the women in 99 Southam Street were from ‘respectable’ working class or lower middle class backgrounds. The home was a charity and they or their families would have had to pay towards their stay. Jane could only find a court record for one, Lucy Sykes, who was fined once for drunkenness and once for attempted suicide. Women came from as far away as the North East – perhaps to avoid public shame for the family.

lane also followed up the women after they left the home; encouragingly, the great majority lived to or beyond the average age of the time and causes of death did not appear to be alcohol linked except possibly in one case. Jane also looked forward to see if there was evidence of alcohol related or early death in their children – again she could find no evidence that was the case.

This was a fascinating subject, still unfortunately very relevant today, Jane showed how a skilled genealogist can bring history alive through using a wide range uf historical sources and records even for those who are not rich or famous.

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