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.
The peculiarity of this verdict is, that while it has released the accused from the penalties of the law it has certainly not released him from the guilt of the charge The prosecution, badly as it was conducted, established what was alleged against Drouet. The hunger and thirst were proved; the bad food, and the insufficient clothing; the cold, the ill-treatment, the uncleanliness; the diseases generated by filth and neglect; the itch (much to Mr Baron Platt’s amusement), the scald heads, the sore eyes, the scrofulous affections, the pot bellies, and the thin shanks. All were proved. We give a thousand cubic feet of respirable air to every felon in his prison, and each child in Drouet’s prison had little more than a tenth part so much. They were half-starved, and more than half-suffocated. A terrible malady broke out, and a hundred and fifty perished. It was in evidence that every indecent and revolting incident that could aggravate the slightest illness, or increase the horrors of the most dangerous infection, existed in the establishment for which Drouet was responsible, when disease appeared there. But it was not satisfactorily proved that the disease might not have killed as many without such help, and therefore Mr Baron Platt very properly told the jury that the case had broken down.
The legal point arose upon that part of the indictment which charged Drouet with having neglected the duty of a right mode of treatment to the child named in it; in support of which the fact of the constitutional energy of the child having been so reduced by his management as to render it unable to resist the particular disease, was relied upon as having brought Drouet within the penalties of man slaughter. But the judge, setting aside this argument as inapplicable to the case, directed an acquittal on the ground that there had been no evidence adduced to show that the child was ever, at any time, in such a state of health as to render it probable he would have recovered from the malady but for the treatment of the defendant.
The extent of the wrong, in other words, precluded the remedy. For who, in such a crowd of children, could have singled out one poor child at any time, to say whether he was well or ill? The deputy-matron of the workhouse from which he went to Tooting, and to which he returned to die, could only say of the whole hundred and fifty-six that came back to her on the same night, that “they were not so stout and healthy as when they went to Mr Drouet’s.” No — she was certain they were not. “They were very sore in their bodies, and had sore feet, and there were wounds on different parts of their persons;” and some lived, and some died, and among the latter was little Andrews. That is the whole humble history. There was no doctor to examine the children when they left, or when they returned and evidence of half the wickedness of the “farm” was rejected, because one wretched little figure could not always be visibly separated from a crowd exactly like himself, and shown as he contended with horrors to which all were equally exposed. We are not objecting to the verdict on these grounds, but explaining it. The scruples of the law were quite justifiable and right; though we might have .been better pleased to see them enforced, in the particular case, with less tenderness for Drouet and more concern for his victims.
Mr Baron Platt declared himself early. The prosecution being less strongly represented than the defence, he took the very first opportunity of siding with the stronger. Witnesses that required encouragement, he brow-heated; and witnesses that could do without it, he insulted or ridiculed. Medical men are not famous for the clearness of their testimony at any time, and such questions from the bench as whether hunger and the itch were connected, and whether cholera was producible by the itch, did not put them more at their ease. Of course there was laughter at the facetiousness. There was also zealous applause, with which the prisoner signified his concurrence by tapping with his hand in front of the dock.
Nevertheless the trial cannot be read without much anguish of heart. The inexpressible sadness of its details is not relieved by Mr Baron Platt’s jocoseness. One little touch came out in the evidence of a peculiarly affecting kind, such as the masters of pathos have rarely excelled in fiction. The learned baron was not moved by it; naturally enough, for he had not the least notion what it meant.
Mary Harris, examined by Mr Clarkson: I am a nurse at Holborn union workhouse, and went to the Royal Free Hospital, Gray’s-inn road. I recollect Andrews coming with the other boys. He was not well. I gave him some milk and bread.
Mr Clarkson: Did he eat his bread? — Witness: No; he held up his head, and said, “Oh, nurse, what a big bit of bread this is!”
Baron Platt: It was too much for him, I suppose? — Witness: He could not eat it.
“Oh nurse!” says the poor little fellow, with an eager sense that what he had longed for had come too late, “What a big bit of bread this is! “Yes, Mr Baron Platt, it is clear that it was too much for him. His head. was lifted up for an instant, but it sank again. He could not but be full of wonder and pleasure that the big bit of bread had come, though’ he could not eat it. An English poet, in the days when poetry and poverty were inseparable companions, received a bit of bread in somewhat similar circumstances which proved too much for him, and he died in the act of swallowing it. The difference is hardly worth pointing out. The pauper child had not even strength for the effort which choked the pauper poet.
Drouet was “affected to tears” as he left the dock. It might be gratitude for his escape, or it might be grief that his occupation was put an end to. For no one doubts that the child-farming system is effectually broken up by this trial. And every one must rejoice that a trade which derived its profits from the deliberate torture and neglect of a class the most innocent on earth, as well as the most wretched and defenceless, can never on any pretence be resumed.
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.