In January 1849, Peter Drouet’s Establishment for Pauper Children in Tooting, Surrey, was at the centre of a national scandal after many children in his care were suddenly struck down and killed by cholera. The event lead Charles Dickens to write four pieces over the coming months published in the The Examiner. At least 180 children from the school are believed to have died from the disease. Drouet was charged with manslaughter but subsequently acquitted.
When it first became known that a virulent and fatal epidemic had broken out in Mr Drouet’s farming establishment for pauper children at Tooting, the comfortable flourish of trumpets usual on such occasions (Sydney Smith’s admirable description of it will be fresh in the minds of many of our readers) was performed as a matter of course. Of all similar establishments on earth, that at Tooting was the most admirable. Of all similar contractors on earth, Mr Drouet was the most disinterested, zealous, and unimpeachable. Of all the wonders ever wondered at, nothing perhaps had ever occurred more wonderful than the outbreak and rapid increase of a disorder so horrible, in a place so perfectly regulated. There was no warning of its approach. Nothing was less to be expected. The farmed children were slumbering in the lap of peace and plenty; Mr Drouet, the farmer, was slumbering with an easy conscience, but with one eye perpetually open, to keep watch upon the blessings he diffused, and upon the happy infants under his paternal charge; when, in a moment, the destroyer was upon them, and Tooting church-yard became too small for the piles of children’s coffins that were carried out of this Elysium every day.
The learned coroner for the county of Surrey deemed it quite unnecessary to hold any inquests on these dead children, being as perfectly satisfied in his own mind that Mr Drouet’s farm was the best of all possible farms, as ever the innocent Candide was that the chateau of the great Baron Thunder-ten Tronckh was the best of all possible chateaux. Presuming that this learned functionary is amenable to some authority or other, and that he will be duly complimented on his sagacity, we will refer to the proceedings before a very different kind of coroner, Mr Wakley, and his deputy Mr Mills. But that certain of the miserable little creatures removed from Tooting happened to die within Mr Wakley’s jurisdiction, it is by no means unlikely that a committee might have sprung into existence, by this time, for presenting Mr Drouet with some magnificent testimonial, as a mark of public respect and sympathy.
Mr Wakley, however, being of little faith, holds inquests, and even manifests a disposition to institute a very searching inquiry into the Muses of these horrors; rather thinking that such grievous effects must have some grievous causes. Remembering that there is a public institution called the “Board of Health,” Mr Wakley summons before him Dr Grainger, an inspector acting under that board, who has examined Mr Drouet’s Elysium, and has drawn up a report concerning it.
It then comes out — truth is so perverse — that Mr Drouet is not altogether that golden farmer he was supposed to be. It appears that there is a little alloy in his composition. The “extreme closeness, oppression, and foulness of air,” in that supposed heaven upon earth over which he presides, “exceeds in offensiveness anything ever yet witnessed, by the inspector, in apartments in hospitals, or elsewhere, occupied by the sick.” He has a bad habit of putting four cholera patients in one bed. He has a weakness in respect of leaving the sick to take care of themselves, surrounded by every offensive, indecent, and barbarous circumstance that can aggravate the horrors of their condition and increase the dangers of infection. He is so ignorant, or so criminally careless, that he has taken none of the easy precautions, and provided himself with none of the simple remedies, expressly enjoined by the Board of Health in their official announcement published in the Gazette, and distributed all over the country. The experience of all the medical observers of cholera, in all parts of the world, is not in an instant overthrown by Mr Drouet’s purity, for he had unfortunately one fortnight’s warning of the impending danger, which he utterly disregarded. He has been admonished by the authorities to take only a certain number of unfortunates into his farm, and he increases that number immensely at his own pleasure, for his own profit. His establishment is crammed. It is in no respect a fit place for the reception of the throng shut up in it. The dietary of the children is so unwholesome and insufficient, that they climb secretly over pailings, and pick out scraps of sustenance from the tubs of hog-wash. Their clothing by day, and their covering by night, are shamefully defective. Their rooms are cold, damp, dirty; and rotten. In a word, the age of miracles is past, and of all conceivable places in which pestilence might — or rather must — be expected to break out, and to make direful ravages, Mr Drouet’s model farm stands foremost.
In addition to these various proofs of his mortal fallibility, Mr Drouet, even when he is told what to do to save life, has an awkward habit of prevaricating, and not doing it. He also bullies his assistants, in the inspector’s presence, when they show an inclination to reveal disagreeable truths. He has a pleasant brother — a man of an amiable eccentricity — who besides being active, for all improper purposes, in the farm, is “with difficulty restrained “from going to Kensington “to thrash the Guardians” of that Union for proposing to remove their children! The boys under Mr Drouet’s fostering protection are habitually knocked down, beaten, and brutally used. They are put on short diet if they complain. They are “very lean and emaciated.” Mr Drouet’s system is admirable, but it entails upon them such slight evils as “wasting of limbs, debility, boils; &c.,” and a more dreadful aggravation of the itch than a medical witness of great experience has ever beheld in thirty years’ practice. A kick, which would be nothing to a child in sound health, becomes, under Mr Drouet’s course of management, a serious wound. Boys who were intelligent before going to Drouet, lose their animation afterwards (so swears a Guardian) and become fools. The surgeon of St Pancras reported, five months ago, of the excellent Mr Drouet, “that a great deal of severity, not to use a harsh term” — but why not a harsh term, surgeon, if the occasion require it? — “has been exercised by the masters in authority, as well as some we presume, out of authority,” meaning, we presume, the amiably eccentric brother. Everything, in short, that Mr Drouet does, or causes to be done, or suffers to be done, is vile, vicious, and cruel. All this is distinctly in proof before the coroner’s jury, and therefore we see no reason to abstain from summing it up.
But there is blame elsewhere; and though it cannot diminish the heavy amount of blame that rests on this sordid contractor’s head, there is great blame elsewhere. The parish authorities who sent these children to such a place, and, seeing them. in it, left them there, and showed no resolute determination to reform it altogether, are culpable in the highest degree. The Poor-Law Inspector who visited this place, and did not, in the strongest terms, condemn it, is not less culpable. The Poor-Law Commissioners, if they had the power to issue positive orders for its better management (a point which is, however, in question), were as culpable as any of the rest.
It is wonderful to see how those who, by slurring the matter when they should have been active in it, have become, in some sort, participes criminis, desire to make the best of it, even now. The Poor-Law Inspector thinks that the issuing of au order by the Poor-Law Commissioners, prohibiting boards of guardians from sending children to such an institution, would have been “a very strong measure.” As if very strong cases required very weak measures, or there were no natural affinity between the measure and the case! He certainly did object to the children sleeping three in a bed, and Mr Drouet afterwards told him he had reduced the number to two — its increase to four when the disease was raging, being, we suppose, a special sanitary arrangement. He did not make any recommendation as to ventilation. He did not call the children privately before him, to inquire how they were treated. He considers the dietary a fair dietary — IF proper quantities were given where no precise quantity is specified. He thinks that, with care, the premises might have been accommodated without danger to health, IF all the accommodation, on the premises had been judiciously applied. As though a man should say he felt convinced lie could live pretty comfortably on the top of the Monument, IF a handsome suite of furnished apartments were constructed there expressly for him, and a select circle came up to dinner every day!
These children were farmed to Mr Drouet at four shillings and sixpence a week each; and some of the officials seem to set store by its being a great deal of money, and to think exoneration lies in that. It may be a very sufficient sum, considering that Mr Drouet was entitled to the profits of the children’s work, besides: but this seems to us to be no part of the question. If the payment had been fourteen and sixpence a week each, the blame of leaving the children to Mr Drouet’s tender mercies without sufficient protection, and of leaving Mr Drouet to make his utmost profit without sufficient check, would have been exactly the same. When a man keeps his horse at livery, he does not take the corn for granted, because he pays five-and-twenty shillings a week. In the history of this calamity, one undoubted predisposing cause was insufficient clothing. What says Mr William Robert James, solicitor and clerk to the Board of Guardians of the Holborn Union, on that head? Mr Drouet “told him in conversation (!) that the four and sixpence a week would include clothing. No particular description of clothing was mentioned.” Is it any wonder that the flannel petticoats worn by the miserable female children, in the severest weather of this winter, could be — as was publicly stated in another metropolitan union a few days ago- “read through?”
This same Mr James produces minutes of visits made by deputations of guardians to the Tooting Paradise. Thus : As regards the complaint of Hannah Sleight, as to the insufficiency of food, we believe it to be unfounded. Elizabeth Male having complained that on her recent visit she found her children in a dirty state. her children had our particular attention, and we beg to state that there was no just cause of complaint on her part.
It being clear to the meanest capacity that Elizabeth Male’s children not being dirty then, never could by possibility have been dirty at any antecedent time.
But it appears that this identical James, solicitor and clerk to the Board of Guardians of the Holborn Union, had a valuable system of his own for eliciting the truth, which was, to ask the boys in Mr Drouet’s presence if they had anything to complain of, and when they answered “Yes,” to recommend that they should be instantly horsewhipped. We learn this, from the following extraordinary minute of one of these official visits :
We beg to report to the board our having on Tuesday, the 9th of May, visited Mr Drouet’s establishment to ascertain the state of the children belonging to this union. We were there at the time of dinner being supplied, and in our opinion the meat provided was good, but the potatoes were bad. We visited the school-rooms, dormitories, and workshops. Everything appeared clean and comfortable, led see are of opinion that the new sleeping resins for infants on the ground floor have a very unhealthy smell. The girls belonging to the Union looked very well. The boys appeared sickly, which induced us to question them as to whether they had any cause of complaint as to supply of food or otherwise. About forty of them held up their hands to intimate their dissatisfaction, upon which Mr Drouet’s conduct became violent. He called the boys liars, described some that had held up their hands as the worst boys in the school, and said that if he had done them justice, he would have followed out the suggestion of Mr James, and well thrashed them. (Laughter.) We then began to question the boys individually, and some of them complained of not having sufficient bread at their breakfast. Whilst pressing the inquiry, Mr Drouet’s conduct became more violent. He said we were acting unfairly in the mode of inquiry, that we ought to be satisfied of his character without such proceedings, and that we had no right to pursue the inquiry in the way we were doing, and that lie would be glad to get rid of the children. To avoid further altercation we left, not having fully completed the object of our visit.
If Mr Drouet was sincere in saying he would be glad to get rid of the children, he must be in a very complacent frame of mind at present when lie has succeeded in getting rid, for ever, of so many. But the general complacency, on the occasions of these visits, is marvellous. Hear Mr Winch, one of the guardians of the poor for the Holborn Union, who was one of the visiting party at the Tooting Paradise on this 9th of May:
I was in company with Mr Mayes and Mr Rebbeck. The children were at dinner. They were all standing; I was informed they never sit at their meals. I tasted the meat, and I cut open about 100 potatoes at different tables, none of which were fit to eat. They were black arid diseased. I told Mr Drouet the potatoes were very bad. He replied that they cost him 7l. a ton. The children had no other vegetables. I told Mr Drouet I should give them other food. He made no reply. I also told Mr Drouet 1 thought the newly-erected rooms, smelt unhealthy. Mr Mayes said it was a pity when he was building he had not made the rooms higher; when Mr Drouet said he would have enough to do if he paid attention to everybody. We went through some of the sleeping-rooms, which appeared very clean. The girls looked well; but the boys, who were mustered in the school-room, appeared very sickly and unhealthy. Mr Drouet, his brother, and the schoolmaster, were present. Mr Rebbeck said to the boys, ” Now, if you have anything to complain of — want of food, or anything else — hold up your hands;” and from thirty to forty held up their hands. Mr Drouet became very violent, and said we were treating him in an ungentlemanly manner; he said that some of the boys who had held up their hands were liars, and scoundrels, and rascals. He said we were using him very unfairly; that his character was at stake; and, if we had anything to complain of, that was not the way to proceed. One of the boys whom I questioned told me they had not bread enough either for breakfast or supper; and, on comparing their dietary with that in our workhouse, I think such is the case. In consequence of the confusion, we left Mr Drouet’s without signing the visitors’ book. I did not make any motion in the Board of Guardians for the removal of the children. I again visited Mr Drouet’s establishment on the 30th of May. The potatoes were then of excellent quality. I went into the pantry, and was surprised to find the bread was not weighed out. We weigh it out in the union, as we find that is the only way to give satisfaction. The loaves at Mr Drouet’s were cut into sixteen pieces without being weighed. I saw no supply of salt in the dining-room, but some of the boys who had salt in bags were bartering their salt for potatoes. I did not ask the children whether they had been punished in consequence of what had taken place at my previous visit. We were in the establishment for an hour and a half or two hours on the 30th. We then expressed our satisfaction at what we witnessed. We made no further inquiry as to what had occurred on our previous visit. I made no suggestion to the board for the improvement of the dietary. We had no means of ascertaining that the children received the amount of food mentioned in the diet-table.
But we expressed our satisfaction at what we witnessed. Oh dear yes. Our unanimity was delightful. Nobody complained. The boys had had ample encouragement to complain. They had seen Mr Drouet standing glowering by, on the previous occasion. They had heard him break out about liars, and scoundrels, and rascals. They had understood that his precious character — immeasurably more precious than the existence of any number of pauper children — was at stake. They had had the benefit of a little fatherly advice and caution from him, in the interval. They were in a position, moral and physical, to be high-spirited, bold, and open. Yet not a boy complained. We went home to our Holborn Union, rejoicing. Our clerk was in tip-top spirits about the thrashing joke. Everything was comfortable and pleasant. Of all places in the world, how could the cholera ever break out, after this, in Mr Drouet’s Paradise at Tooting!
If we had been left to the so-much vaunted self-government, the question might have been unanswered still, and the Drouet testimonial might have been in full vigour. But the Board of Health — an institution of which every day’s experience attests in some new form the value and importance has settled the question. Plainly thus:— The cholera, or some unusually malignant form of typhus assimilating itself to that disease, broke out in Mr Drouet’s farm for children, because it was brutally conducted, vilely kept, preposterously inspected, dishonestly defended, a disgrace to a Christian community, and a stain upon a civilised land.
The four articles Charles Dickens wrote for The Examiner in 1849, about Drouet’s pauper-farm at Tooting were:
- The Paradise at Tooting (20 January).
- The Tooting Farm (27 January).
- A Recorder’s Charge (3 March).
- The Verdict for Drouet (23 April).
The following newspaper reports concerning the Drouet scandal have been reproduced on our site (in chronological order):
- Standard, The (4 January 1849). Outbreak of Cholera at an Infant Orphan Asylum.
- Examiner, The (6 January 1849). Sanitary Matters: Cholera at Infant Pauper Asylum, Tooting.
- Standard, The (8 January 1849). Alarming Increase of the Disease, and Further Government Proceedings.
- Examiner, The (13 January 1849). Latest Intelligence.
- Examiner, The (17 February 1849). Law Report.