Sunday 1 April 2018

A Tale of Misery

John and Sarah-Ann Langley lived in Tamworth Street, Lichfield in 1904 when hauled before the authorities charged with the neglect of five-year-old John Langley. The case attracted a lot of interest from the people of Lichfield. Although it may seem quite extraordinary today, the court was crowded, with large numbers gathered outside, from the moment the session opened at 11am until the judge ended proceedings at 11:45pm. It should be noted they did hold for both lunch and tea for a total of 75 minutes (how very cricket!)

John senior had had four children from a former marriage, the youngest Arthur Langley was six years old. His latest wife, Sarah-Ann, had several children by a former marriage, three of which were still under her care at this time. Back in July 1903 John Langley had visited a Dr Rowland and said nothing could be done to stop John junior's odd habits, including going into the streets picking up refuse and eating it.

As a result the child was admitted to the workhouse. Notes show he was a good weight and exhibited no odd behaviour nor was he seen as troublesome, although below average size for his age and academically inferior to his peers. He stayed at the workhouse until the end of August 1903, mainly because of an unexplained weakness to one arm, during which time he seemed fine and none saw any reason for concern following his release.

On December 22nd 1903 Dr Rowland was again called to the Langley's home. Since his last examination in July the child had certainly lost weight, he noted abrasions to the neck, small of the back, the left knee and bruising to the right thigh. Again taken to stay in the workhouse, young John Langley's condition could easily be explained by normal childhood bumps and knocks. Furthermore, although he had lost weight there was no evidence of him overeating, as would be expected if he had been starved. Yet it was noted that, while no sure diagnosis could be given, in general the child seemed unwell.

The father protested at the possible return of the boy to their care - he complaining young John could not be controlled, he frequently wandered out into the street, and regularly found to be feeding on offal or horse dung (commonplace sights in town streets at the time) - the child thus remained under the supervision of the workhouse and at this time magistrates began to take an interest despite the five-year-old's weight having increased from an appalling low of just 29 pounds.

A baker employed by Langley was called to give evidence and, finally the truth began to emerge. He spoke of how he would see the boy tethered by way of a muffler tied to the chain supporting the swing from 9am until midday. This he saw from September onwards, the child wearing inadequate clothing for the cold weather. He also spoke of the boy being tied up there by his sister almost as soon as the household had awakened.

At mealtimes he could be seen peering in through the window, one sister may pass him a crust on occasions but was more often to be seen eating our of the swill bucket or picking crumbs from the floor of the back yard. Another employee, one John Millington, had taken pity on the boy and passed him food, sending him to the bottom of the yard to eat in secret. The boy's father was witnessed knocking him across the yard on a number of occasions, apparently for no reason, further torture imparted by tethering his left arm to his left leg. Unlike the other children of the house he wore no cap, not a single button sewn on his jacket, he wore no muffler nor scarf, leaving his neck exposed to the elements.

Fearing repercussions he only spoke to the father concerning his paralysed arm, warning both him and his wife to take him to a doctor. Langley told him it was pointless, the paralysis the result of an illness when he was just two years of age. He pitied the child, saying he was heard to cry a number of times, unable to climb down from the swing without help. Since that time both Millington and another employee by the name of Statham had left the employment of the Langleys and reported them to the NSPCC. Statham, when questioned, also spoke of him seeing Langley plunging the boy into a could water trough in all weathers, again seemingly for no reason. These reports were further endorsed by a neighbour, he adding the boy had an awful cough, would be seen walking continually to keep warm, and known to eat anything within his reach. The NSPCC backed up these claims, saying their investigations had also revealed this atrocious behaviour.

Others disagreed, the defence arguing, rather predictably, this was a bad child, born of a consumptive mother who died shortly after his birth. He had been offered plenty of food but it was his choice to eat from the gutter. Furthermore another of his siblings had died young, a clear indication of mental problems suffered by the mother, she the former Mrs Langley.

The defence called a witness, another baker and friend of the Langleys who swore nothing could be further from the truth. The boy had eaten well, from his father's dinner plate no less, supplemented by a diet of eggs, boiled milk and port wine (strange diet for a five-year-old). He also said the child had been allowed to warm himself in the boiler house where a fire burned constantly - this confirming the child was kept outdoors during the day. This witness accused the witnesses for the prosecution of having an axe to grind with the Langleys and in particular the new Mrs Langley. Even his eldest half-sister came forward to give evidence, saying he was treated no differently from the rest and his mental problems were her brother's own fault.

Quickly a verdict was reached. Cheers both inside and outside the court rang out as midnight approached and the Langleys were found guilty. This quickly turned to anger as the crowd threatened to riot, windows of the nearby bakery broken, as they heard the sentence. Given two weeks to pay, the Langleys were fined £25 each - a large sum in 1904 but surely inappropriate for such crimes. Even worse, when explaining the leniency of the sentence the court spoke of how a custodial sentence would have deprived the many other children of both parents.

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