HL Deb 03 March 1914 vol 15 cc362-7

*THE EARL OF SELBORNE rose to ask the Lord Chancellor whether his attention has been drawn to the case of Sarah Savage, sentenced to six months imprisonment with hard labour for cruelty to her children, as reported in The Times of February 20.

The noble Earl said: My Lords, I want to draw the Lord Chancellor's attention, and through him the attention of the Government, to the case of Sarah Savage, which was reported in the Press at the beginning of last week. The case was rather a peculiar one. This woman some sixteen months ago took a small room for herself and one daughter, and for sixteen months no one had any idea that there was any one in this room except this woman and the one daughter. Then it was found that there were three other children there also. Those three children during sixteen months had never left the room. They were in a condition of extreme dirt, two of them were covered with sores, and they seemed to have become mentally deficient. The exact reason of their extreme stillness has not transpired. The fact remains that for sixteen months they made no noise, so that neither the landlady nor any other occupant of the house had any idea that these three children were there. The magistrate took a severe view of the case and sentenced the woman to six months imprisonment with hard labour.

I do not wish for a moment to suggest anything against the magistrate, because obviously his feelings of humanity were roused; but I venture to think that, even on the face of the case, there are indications of another aspect. For instance, the children were well fed and nourished. There was no sign of personal ill-usage by the mother. The mother was described as a respectable and hard-working woman, and she herself was obviously, from the meagre reports that I have seen, quite incapable of putting her case. I would say that she herself showed signs of some of that lack of intelligence which it appears the children also displayed. But she did say that she earned only 10s. a week at the most, and that she could not find the money for shoes or clothes with which to send these children to school.

Since the case appeared it has been investigated by a lady, Miss Mary Neal, whose account has appeared in one of the suffrage papers, Votes for Women. Probably the Home Office already has that account in its possession, but I will, with the Lord Chancellor's permission, hand it to him. The account given puts a different aspect on the case. I have no means of pronouncing judgment. All I want to do is to draw the attention of the Government to it and ask them to investigate it. The case put forward for the woman now is this, that having these four children and never being able to earn more than 10s. a week—except that the one daughter whom she publicly acknowledged occasionally earned an additional shilling—she felt quite unable to take adequate lodgings for the family. She knew that if it was found that there were five people in this room she would be prosecuted for over-crowding; she knew that the attention of the Poor Law authorities would be drawn to the case; and she feared that the consequences of that would be that the family would be broken up.

The case presented by this lady is not that this poor woman was careless of her children, but that she was deeply attached to them, and that the one thing she most dreaded was being separated from them by the Poor Law authorities. I confess that it seems to me one of the most piteous cases which I have ever seen recorded in the Police Courts if this story, which bears on it every evidence of credibility, is true, or only partly true; and I am sure that now that the attention of the Government has been drawn to it the Government will have it thoroughly investigated. There are plenty of people who have expressed their readiness to help this poor woman and her children if only she can be released from prison. Therefore the first thing I wish to do is to ask the Lord Chancellor whether he will give me an assurance that this case will be most carefully sifted and examined.

I do not want this opportunity to pass without saying something about that great class of cases of which this is only one. Is there any class in the whole of the nation more deserving of our sympathy than that of the poor widow left with a number of young children? It is very hard in any circumstances for one woman to earn enough money to keep a family when the bread-winner has gone, but sometimes it is not even possible for the mother to go out to work at all because the children may be so young that they cannot be left at home alone and she cannot take them to work with her. Now here it is that the Poor Law steps in. But how does the Poor Law step in? I do not know whether it is custom, or whether it is regulation of the Local Government Board, or whether it is law—I am told it is law; but the Poor Law is always ready to help a poor woman in a case like this but generally on one condition—that of breaking up her home. The Poor Law will take her children from her and put them in some institution where their keep costs much, or the Poor Law will take some of the children and board them out, but usually with any other woman except their own mother. The one person with whom the children are not boarded is the mother. The consequence is that the home is broken up.

Now, my Lords, try and put yourselves in the position of a poor woman who has just lost her husband and who has to fight the world with her children. She has either to try and struggle on, as I believe this poor woman did, making a very grievous error in the way she did struggle, or else she has to ask the help of the public authorities and run the risk of seeing her home broken up and of being separated from her children. If that is the state of the law, I say the law is crassly stupid. The right person to look after her children in these circumstances is the mother, and it is the mother who should receive the help and not some other woman. All that the law ought to see to is that the money given in help for the children is used for the children, and if this terrible case is only instrumental in drawing public attention to this state of the law and in bringing about an alteration of it, then this woman will have been a martyr in a great cause.


My Lords, the noble Earl has asked whether the attention of the Government has been drawn to this case. It has, and the case is under investigation just now by the Home Secretary, who is considering the question of the sentence and investigating the circumstances closely with a view to seeing what should be done, not only as regards the mother, but as regards the children. Provision will be made for assisting the children in some trade or calling. The Home Secretary is as keenly aware as the noble Earl can be of the scandal that there should be such a case. But there is one point on which I do not quite agree with the noble Earl. He has spoken as if this poor woman was a martyr to a system. An unfortunate woman she has been, but a woman who is grievously to blame.

I have before me the depositions and the report of the case, and the only conclusion at which one can arrive is that, from however distorted notions, she was guilty of grievous cruelty. These unfortunate children were locked up. The woman was very badly off, as the noble Earl has said. She went out to work and earned 10s. a week; doubtless it took her whole time to do it, and she did what she could for the children. But what she ought to have done was, even at the cost of separation, if such were necessary—and I do not believe it was—to have taken other steps by which the children might have been cared for. Instead of that, what did she do? Until the inspector of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children happened to get upon the track of the case, nobody appears to have heard of it or to have taken any notice. The inspector visited the room and discovered the three children in an indescribable state and in a mental condition bordering upon idiocy. They were covered with vermin and sores, and in a condition which is revolting to read.

It was with some difficulty that access was obtained to the room in which the three children were locked. The room was dark, and there was a heavy curtain drawn across the window, which was closed. There was no fire, and a large bed constituted the only furniture. The girl who opened the door, the eldest of the three children, was pale and wild-eyed. She was inadequately clothed and vermin- ous, had no boots or stockings on, and was in a condition of idiocy. On a light being brought the bed was seen to move. Investigations showed that there was a second child, aged eleven, lying face downwards on the floor under the bed. This child was in a similar condition as regards vermin. The third child, aged seven, was also found under the bed in a similar condition. These children are now being looked after. It may have been from mistaken notions altogether, but this wretched woman was guilty of indescribable cruelty. She ought to have made almost any sacrifice of her feelings rather than put the children in that position, and I do not wonder that the magistrate took a severe view of the case.

The Home Secretary is now reviewing the whole of the circumstances. I do not doubt that this woman was attached to her children and that she acted on notions which were probably not the notions of a person who was quite balanced, and that is being taken into consideration. I hope the children will be looked after better in the future. For the rest I entirely agree with the noble Earl that this class of case, of which I am afraid there are many more, discloses a problem which urgently calls for attention. The worst of it is that it is not a specific problem and one easy to deal with, but a problem that will require the greatest efforts of society before we can hope to grapple with it.


My Lords, I should like to say a single word on this subject. The noble Earl has done well in calling the attention of the House to the specific case which he described, and he has, independently of that, called attention to a custom— shall I say?—in some areas in the kingdom which possibly forces a woman to the choice between separation from her children or such action in the way of neglect— apparent neglect, because it was not intentionally culpable—as that described. But I would point out that the noble Earl is—I say it with all respect—quite in error if he thinks that that is the law of the land. It depends upon the guardians of the poor in the particular place in what manner they exercise the very wide discretion which is allowed them in such a matter. There are boards of guardians which have for years past, rightly or wrongly, placed upon themselves extremely strict limitations as to cases in which they will give outdoor instead of indoor relief, but there are plenty of other boards of guardians doing quite differently. I have not investigated this case. I know nothing of it except what the noble Earl has said, and I do not know in what part of England it took place. But it took place under a board of guardians which differs as regards the exercise of its powers very widely from other boards of guardians if, knowing fully the circumstances in which this poor woman was living, they took the line which the noble Earl has described. There are, happily, some boards of guardians who give adequate outdoor relief so that the widow may live at home with, and look after, her children. Such relief is given by those boards of guardians because they realise the very principle to which the noble Earl has so rightly called attention —the desirability of keeping the mother and children together. Boards of guardians who do this are, I think, to be encouraged, and they are using powers which are distinctly given them by the law as it stands.


I should like to explain that this particular board of guardians knew nothing about the case. The suggestion is that it was the terror of the mother of what action the board of guardians would take that induced her to act as she did.


The terror which the noble Earl refers to is, of course, one of the great difficulties with which boards of guardians who have the largest and most generous impulses in these matters have to contend. Out of the past there has come a great fear of the Poor Law and its operation, which in these days is an anachronism. The fact that such dread does exist is one of the things we have to do our level best to overcome.