Poverty and alcohol were the scourge of Victorian Britain. Women and children proving its most likely and unfortunate victims. It was a cycle that would repeat itself through the generations. A perfect illustration of that is the case of Shameful Mother and her Wretched Home. Alice Griffiths from Shrewsbury had just given birth to her 7th child. Trapped in an abusive marriage, living in a slum, she turned to the bottle to numb her squalid existence but it would lead to the death of poor baby Charles.
What do we know about the family?
Alice Wynn was born in Shrewsbury and grew up surrounded by alcohol at the Plough Inn on Severn Street. Daughter to an Innkeeper, and the youngest of 7 children. A working class family but not the poorest. Her father Thomas Wynn owned various properties but had little inclination to help his fellow man. That’s judging by a story in the local paper from 1883 when he refused to pay the Poor Rate, a tax on property levied in each parish, which was used to provide poor relief.
Alice grew up and married Henry Griffiths, from Shawbury, in 1887 when she was 20. So she would have been surrounded by alcohol from Birth. Henry was from Shawbury and was 23. They had a number of children as you’ll see below.
Just three years prior to sad death of baby Charles the 1901 census shows the family living in the Ditherington area of town with 6 children. A working class area with slums. Social house wouldn’t arrive for at least another 20 years there.
They had clearly been moving around the region perhaps for the husbands work as you can tell by the places of birth for the children.
Charles was born and died in 1904.
But fast forward to 1911 and the family are still in the area but with two more daughters added Florence and Doris.
Sadly, shortly after the census was taken and baby Doris’s details scribbled down, she died.
Son, John Henry Griffiths, listed in the 1901 census, joined the Army, but was discharged in 1915 for “not being likely to become an efficient soldier” despite his conduct being “good”.
It turns out health was the reason. Soldiers discharged, like John Henry Griffiths was, were done so under Paragraph 392 of King’s Regulations 1912 (http://www.military-researcher.co.uk/KingsRegs1912/para-3.html).
As for what happened to him is unclear as their are two death records of a John H Griffiths, born. 1888, from Shrewsbury.
According to one person on Ancestry Father Henry died in 1925 in Reading, Berkshire, at the age of 61. Although what he was doing there is unclear – perhaps it was work. https://www.ancestry.co.uk/family-tree/person/tree/46082237/person/24045727278/story
The mother Alice died in the summer of 1933 aged 67 in Shrewsbury.
So far I haven’t been able to trace what happened to the other children.
The area itself underwent lots of social development in the subsequent years following the first World War. At the time Alice and Henry were having their children in the St Micheal Street/Dithering area the population of Shrewsbury was just over 23,000. In 1907 there was thought to be around 200 uninhabitable houses. The Griffiths house on Bodkin Row, Springfields would have been one of those which was knocked down in development of the area.
Check out this amazing blog which tellS the history of Shrewsbury’s social house and describes some of the conditions people there faced.
As cited in the blog, the conditions the Griffiths family lived were were recognised at the time as appalling.
“I had no idea that there were such places for human beings to live in as there were in Shrewsbury … some houses were entirely devoid of light, others filthy in the extreme, and some without any back door; houses which were really a disgrace to civilisation.“
Councillor Franklin ‘Shrewsbury Town Council. The Housing of the Poor’ and ‘Local Notes’, Shrewsbury Chronicle, 13 September 1907
Some people however said the poor only had themselves to blame. “Councillor Pace, a Liberal, was ‘afraid in some cases the people themselves caused a great deal of the unpleasantness that existed by their own actions’.” Council houses they said were the “road to socialism”.
But, as John Boughton, in his blog pointed out, if being called a socialist for wanting social housing in order to decrease things like infant mortality, then that’s a label they would happily wear.
Councillor Bromley, spoke to a rival tradition of Tory Democracy that professed a concern for working-class conditions:
Mr How told them that the proposal might be ruinous to the country but was it not ruinous to the country to have an enormous infantile death-rate caused very largely by insanitary dwellings, and to permit the existence of slums which were undermining the health of the people. They were told that what they proposed was Socialism. If that was so then he was a Socialist – and he was among the Conservative Socialists because the Conservatives passed that act in 1890.
Sadly the story of Alice and her children is a common one of the time. The papers are littered with stories of infant mortality, drunken parents, and domestic abuse. If they made it out of infancy working class children, often with multiple siblings, then had to face disease, malnutrition, neglect, and hard work with long hours. For women marriage was only prospect but domestic abuse was rife. The only way to cope? Hit the bottle – a cycle that was hard to break with little social support, public sympathy, and a blame culture towards the poor – if things went wrong, you were on your own.