While the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was founded in the UK in 1824, by 1880, there was no similar society to guard against cruelty to children. Throughout the nineteenth century, tragic and sometimes horrific accounts of neglected and abused children appeared in the nation’s newspapers with appalling regularity, eventually leading to the formation of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. The tragic story of Benjamin Rock is one of those.
The Rock Family
The Rock family was, by all accounts, a typical working-class English family in 1861. They lived on Wood Street in Barnsley, Yorkshire and the head of the household, Abraham Rock, was a stone mason, aged 43. Abraham had married his second wife Sarah in the fall of 1848 at the parish church in Barnsley a little more than two years after the death of his first wife Ann. Abraham’s two sons from his first marriage lived with them. Eli aged 18 and Abraham aged 15 worked as stone masons like their father. By 1861, Abraham and Sarah had two children together. Their oldest, 9-year-old Arthur, was in school and 6-year-old Ann was at home with her mother.
Throughout the following decade, the family grew. Abraham’s two sons from his first marriage married with Eli marring Sarah Gibson in 1864 and Abraham marrying Elizabeth Rook the following year. In the meantime, Abraham and Sarah had three more children together. Martha was born in 1863, George was born in 1866 and Benjamin was born in 1868. Then, in 1869, tragedy struck and Sarah Rock suddenly took ill and died, leaving Abraham a widow with five young children.
DEATHS: ROCK. – March 17th, Sarah, wife of Mr. Abraham Rock, Wood-street, aged 40 years. ~Barnsley Chronicle, etc. – Saturday 27 March 1869
Struggle to Survive
Without the steadying presence of their mother, the young family seemingly began to disintegrate. Arthur, who was by then 17-years-old, got a job working at the pit as a miner and left home, eager to be away from what was becoming a toxic atmosphere in the family home. Abraham Rock was drinking heavily and working little. Despite having an income of 5s 6d a week from some properties to supplement his masonry business, by mid-February 1870 the family was forced to move to the cellar of their house so they could rent out the upper floor. There was but one bed which the children all shared with their father and there was seldom enough food to eat. The baby, Benjamin, once hail and healthy, fell ill soon after they moved into the cellar.
Over the next few weeks, 13-year-old Ann Rock tried to keep the children fed. At times, her father would give her money to buy food, but often he had nothing for her. She was forced to go to the neighbours, sometimes getting some bread and other times forced to scavenge their pig swill in search of sustenance for her siblings. She often went hungry herself so that her brothers and sister could eat.
On Thursday, 10 February, the perilous condition of the four Rock children prompted Maria Harrison, one of the Barnsley neighbours, to apply to Mr. Wilkinson, the relieving officer, for relief for the family, telling him that the baby was ill. She told Wilkinson that Abraham Rock was not looking after his children and asked for an order for the doctor. Wilkinson, knowing that the father, Abraham Rock, was a stone mason with the ability to support his family, wrote a note to him to remind him of his duty to care for his children.
Sir, I have received several complaints about your conduct to your family, and am now applied to for a medical order for one of your children, to which order I reply that you are an able-bodied man and have a good business in your hand; therefore ought and must provide for your family, which if you do not I shall take immediate steps to make you, &c. J C Wilkinson, RO ~Barnsley Chronicle - Saturday 12 March 1870
Wilkinson’s Letter to Abraham Rock
Living in Fear
Wilkinson gave the note to Mrs. Harrison but she did not deliver it to him since young Ann Rock expressed fear that her father might beat her if he saw the note.
On Wednesday, February 23, Maria Harrison returned to the relieving office with Sarah Rock, the wife of Abraham’s oldest son Eli. But despite their pleas, Wilkinson took no further action although he was surely aware that the children were in peril. He was told there was seldom a fire in the grate, unless Ann had found coals in the cinder heaps to burn, and there was never food in the house. Mrs. Harrison told him that she gave the children bread often and that they devoured it hungrily each time, as though they were starving. The two women were mostly concerned for baby Bennie, who was not doing well.
On Monday, 28 February, Abraham gave his daughter 1s 8d and she could buy food but the following day, he told her he had nothing to give her, having spent whatever he had on drink. When young Benjamin cried for food, Abraham threatened to thrash him. Ann asked her father what he would do if Bennie died and he told her he would drop the baby’s body down the well.
Sending for the Doctor
Maria Harrison asked Dr. Blackburn, surgeon and poor-law medical officer for the district, to attend young Benjamin. Instead he sent his assistant Matthew Hatton who ordered beef tea, milk, brandy and wine for the ailing infant. But as usual, there was nothing in the house so he gave them an order for the relieving officer. Wilkinson, however, had made his position clear. There would be no aid from the Poor Law for the children of an able bodied man. On 3 March, Ann Rock, in desperate fear for her brother, went to the doctor’s office and left a message, but knowing Abraham Rock was not one to pay his bills, the doctor did not come.
The following day, having received a message from Sarah Rock, the wife of Abraham’s older son Eli that she would stand any expense incurred, he finally sent his assistant to the Rock house again. When his man returned to the office after seeing baby Bennie, he told the doctor that the child was very ill and not likely to live. Dr. Blackburn then sent a private note to Mr. Wilkinson, asking him to reconsider the case. He told him that the child was wasting away and required beef tea and another nourishment if he were to recover. Still Wilkinson did nothing.
Benjamin Rock died on Sunday, 6 March 1870.
With the death of baby Benjamin, the police finally became involved, finding from the neighbours and the rest of the children that the family had been without food for several days prior to Bennie’s death. Abraham Rock was apprehended on the day following his son’s death in a drunken state. At the six-hour inquest held on Tuesday, 8 March at the Wood-street Hotel, the coroner told the jury that the infant Benjamin weighed only 14 pounds and was incredibly emaciated. The autopsy showed he had suffered from pleuro-pneumonia for some time but that might have been cured by food. After hearing all the evidence, the jury retired for about thirty minutes and returned a verdict of manslaughter due to death by starvation.
Soon after the inquest verdict, Abraham Rock was charged with having caused the death of Benjamin Rock through starvation and neglect. He was committed for trial at the assizes. At the trial in Leeds on 23 March 1870, Abraham Rock was found guilty and sentenced to five years of penal servitude. He was sent to HM Prison Pentonville in London and the children were finally under the care of Poor Law relief.
After complaints about the shocking tragedy reached the Poor Law Union, the relieving officer, Mr. Wilkinson was charged with neglect and an inquiry into the matter was conducted on 12 April 1870. Testimony from the neighbours and Sarah Rock was heard but Wilkinson maintained that he had done his duty. He said that he had personally spoken to Abraham Rock on 22 February and that Abraham had told him that his children ‘had as much to eat as other people’s children so there was no need to call at his house.’ He told the inquiry that he could not then visit the house since the father had assured him that all was well with the family. He told the board that had he brought the case to the magistrates, they would have dismissed the case and mulcted 1extract money from someone by fine or taxation. him for costs. The members of the inquiry considered the matter and returned their verdict.
While Abraham was in prison, three of his sons died. His son Eli died in the workhouse on 1 December 1875 of gangrene of the lung. His son Arthur died at the Swaithe Main Colliery in Barnsley on 6 December, just five days later in a mining disaster. His son Abraham died at 6 Union Place, Broughton, Salford, Manchester of phthisis, a form of tuberculosis.
Not long after being released from prison, Abraham Rock himself died of phthisis as well and his death was registered by his daughter Ann Rock.
Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children
During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, the industrial revolution that took place in Great Britain not only changed the way goods were manufactured but also had profound effects on British society. As economic conditions improved and incomes rose, the middle class grew in size. There was a marked increase in educational opportunities and with increasing literacy rates and lowered taxes on newspapers, circulation increased. As the population became more informed about conditions throughout the country, there was a growing social awareness and the number of philanthropic and benevolent societies and associations burgeoned. The mid to late eighteenth century was a time of sweeping social reform.
When news of New York’s newly formed Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children reached Great Britain in 1875, the public began to call for the formation of similar societies in Great Britain. While the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was founded in 1824 in the UK, there was no similar society to guard against cruelty to children. Tragic stories such as the one of Benjamin Rock touched the hearts of many and by 1880, the philanthropic community of the nation called for action.
In Liverpool, newly elected MP Samuel Smith campaigned for the foundation of the Liverpool Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (LSPCC) in 1883.
With the advent of the Liverpool society, the children suddenly had a champion to protect them. In December 1883, the first case came before the courts of Liverpool. Ellen Hanrahan, step-daughter of Patrick Regan, tried to interfere when Regan was beating her mother and was struck in the face. She was removed to the new Nile street shelter for her protection and Regan was apprehended by warrant to stand trial.
By January 1884, the Liverpool Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children was frequently involved in cases involving the children of Liverpool, ensuring that their abusers were punished and that they were protected and cared for by the Poor Law Guardians.
Throughout the decade, other towns in the UK formed their own societies including London in 1884. After five years of campaigning, Lord Shaftsbury, Reverend Edward Rudolf and Reverend Benjamin Waugh succeed in passing the first UK law to protect children from abuse and neglect in 1889. In the same year, the London society was renamed the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. In 1895, the London society was granted a Royal Charter by Queen Victoria when she became it’s patron.
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