Suffer the Children

Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children

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 shal take immediate steps to make you. C.J.C. Wilkinson, RO


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.

[aesop_image imgwidth=”600px” img=”” credit=”Wikimedia Commons” align=”center” lightbox=”on” caption=”Pentonville Prison” captionposition=”left” revealfx=”off”]

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.

The Rev. H. B. Cooke (ex-officio guardian and magistrate) said before the magistrates mulcted him in the costs they in all probability would have seen the child, and have heard the opinion of a medical man concerning it. Mr. Jackson said he considered Mr. Wilkinson had acted in the only manner he could have done, as he could not go into a man’s house like Rock’s after he had been told that the children had plenty to eat. Mr. Newman, sen, (ex-officio guardian and magistrate), said the relieving-officer had taken the word of the very man which ought not to have been taken. The Rev. H. B. Cooke said Mr. Wilkinson no doubt meant to do right, and had committed a slight error in judgment in adopting the course he had. Mr. Newman said that where such complaints were made as that into which they were inquiring, it was not sufficient that the relieving officer should be satisfied with the ipso dixit of the offending person. Suggestions were then made as to the answer to be given to the Poor-law Board, several of the Guardians appearing desirous to pass a resolution entirely absolving Mr. Wilkinson from all blame; whilst others thought that the admission, as stated by the Rev. H. B. Cooke, that there had been an error of judgement, would be better, and prevent any further notice being taken of the matter by the Poor Law Board. The Clerk was then requested to give that as the opinion of the Guardians, and also to state thee facts as to the application made to the relieving officer on behalf of the deceased, and what had been done by Mr. Wilkinson.Leeds Mercury - Wednesday 13 April 1870


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.

LETTERS TO THE EDITOR. SOCIETY FOR THE PREVENTION OF CRUELTY TO CHILDREN. Gentlemen, Amongst benevolent institutions there does not appear to be one for getting at unrevealed cases of cruelty to children. Most neighbourhoods furnish such instances, which are freely talked about by neighbours, but receive no further attention. There seems to be wanted an organisation for looking into doubtful cases of real or supposed cruelty and neglect, and not waiting for them to come to light of themselves, which many never do. A case in point was reported last week. A child was alleged to have been killed by its father dashing it against the wall, and placing it on a stool, whence it fell on the fender, and subsequently died. The only witness was a child, too young to be sworn, and so the case had to be dismissed, and would probably never have been heard of but for the accidental killing of the child. Existing agencies are inadequate for reaching such cases. for instance, the district visitor looks upon her avocation as being more spiritual than temporal, and more to the adults than to the children. – She leaves her tract, with a kindly inquiry for the general spiritual welfare of the family, and is in most instances young and inexperienced in the matter of children. The school attendance officer gives an occasional perfunctory call, but his sole business is to get the children to school. If the family want parish relief the relieving officer calls, and if satisfied of their indigence (the squalid condition of the family being rather a recommendation than otherwise), he relieves them to the extent of two or three shillings a week, and there his duty ends. Nor can much reliance be placed on neighbours as regards taking the initiative. They will talk freely and in words sympathise, readily giving, when judiciously asked, useful information; but they do not personally ‘wish to have any bother’ with those living perhaps in the same street with themselves or even next door. Allow me to mention two unrevealed cases, which have occurred within the last month, end the result obtained by personal effort in each case. Two young children, whose parents are hawkers, were discovered in an emaciated condition. On inquiry, the neighbours- disclosed that they were ill-treated by beating, starving, and want of clothing. They were found in the bitter weather undressed, save for their nightgowns-if such they could be called-before an empty grate, about noon, having bad no breakfast that morning. Their appearance would have led to the conclusion that they were but just past the crisis of some serious illness. This case was recommended to the infirmary, and the children became out-patients. These children had attended school; and the neighbours, when inquiry was made, said they knew “all about it.” This occurred in a small country town. What must be in a dense district? The second case is that of a girl of nearly 14, of ordinary health end intelligence, but “knocked stupid” through the brutality of a reputed father and own mother influenced against her, while the other children are made much of. The girl is now placed in comfortable service, and her mother, at any rate, is more kindly disposed towards her, and the girl herself, from having been miserable and threatening to destroy herself, is happy. The neighbours knew “all about” this too. These are not the only cases by far I could name. The sad effects of cruelty and privation during childhood are but too clearly seen in the mental stupidity and ill-developed frame, and brutality of the matured life. It is the home that forms these. And can nothing more be done to mitigate and reduce these evils to a minimum? While we have a society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, can we not do something to prevent cruelty to children? ~A CHESHIRE VICAR. Liverpool Mercury - Friday 15 April 1881

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.

THE PREVENTION OF CRUELTY TO CHILDREN. SPEECH BY MR. SAMUEL SMITH MP. A town’s meeting, which had been convened by the Mayor in response to a numerously-signed requisition, was held at the Town-hall, Liverpool, a yesterday afternoon. The requisition bore the names of Mr. Samuel Smith. and about 400 other influential citizens, and asked his Worship to call the meeting for the purpose of considering the desirability of forming a society for the prevention the of cruelty to children. There was a very large attendance. The Mayor (Mr. William Radcliffe) presided…. The Mayor said: This meeting has been called upon the requisition which you have heard read by or the deputy town clerk, which requisition; bears the signatures of magistrates, ministers of religion, professional men, bankers, merchants, and other rate-payers of the city of Liverpool, and is of a very representative and influential character. The formation of such a society as that now proposed was suggested by Mr. Samuel Smith, one of the members for Liverpool, at the last annual meeting of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and hold here a few weeks ago, and the suggestion was at once warmly taken up by a great number of our citizens who feel the need of such an association and who are deeply in sympathy with its objects. Although we must all have recognised the miserable condition in which many of the children of this vast community are to be found not only in our streets, but unhappily also in their own homes, the or question of the formation of such a society is to me personally, as perhaps also to many of you here today, new. While, therefore, expressing my deep sympathy with this object, and the urgent need for some such movement, I do not venture to suggest to those who have more fully considered this subject, and who will address this meeting, the method by which their philanthropic purpose can best be accomplished. It may be that the very existence of such a society will in itself be productive of good. (Applause) I believe me that those organisations which have already done so much for ameliorating the condition of the children of the city will welcome the cooperation of a body of gentlemen so influential and so likely to command public confidence as those whose names will be submitted to you today to form the first committees. With these remarks and the expression of my warm interest in this good movement, I will no call upon Mr. Samuel Smith to move the first resolution. (Applause.)Liverpool Mercury - Friday 20 April 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.

AT the Liverpool Police-court, on Saturday, a labourer named Patrick Regan was charged before Mr. Raffles, stipendiary magistrate, with cruelly illtreating his step-daughter, aged thirteen years, on the 26th ult. Mr. A. J. Cleaver, barrister, appeared to prosecute at the instance of the Liverpool Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, this being the first prosecution under the, auspices of the society. The Prisoner on the date in question was beating his wife. The girl interfered, and prisoner struck her in the eye with his fist. when matter came to the knowledge of the society through a School- board officer and the girl was removed to the society’s newly-founded shelter, and a summons issued against the prisoner, who, failing to answer to the summons, was apprehended by warrant. Prisoner said the blow was accidentally given, and he was sent to gaol for twenty-one days’ hard labour.Illustrated Police News - Saturday 15 December 1883

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.

Mary Jane Brown, aged 11, and Ellen Brown, aged 7. of 10 house, 2 court, Henderson-street, were sent on Saturday to Everton-terrace Industrial School, where. they will remain until they are 16 years of age. They had begged in the streets late at night for years, and a lady brought them to the shelter in Nile-street, on the 7th instant, in a wretched condition, not daring to go home until they obtained 1s. Their father is in prison. Ellen Walker, aged 12, and Margaret Duffev, aged 10, of Brindley-street, were brought to the shelter by a police constable. They tried to rob a till at a public house. The landlady refused at first to charge them, and the officer could not therefore arrest them. They were taken into the shelter, and Mr. Raffles was applied to for advice. The landlady was directed to bring a charge, and the girls were brought before his worship, who remanded the case for a week. Francis Goodwin, labourer, has been committed to prison for 14 days with hard labour for deserting his boy Francs, aged 8. The boy was sheltered and eventually taken to the Workhouse, and the guardians prosecuted at the instigation of the society, the superintendent giving evidence.” Liverpool Mercury - Monday 21 January 1884

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.


1 extract money from someone by fine or taxation.