Arrest Warrant for Elizabeth Ainsworth, widow, for Wilfull Child Neglect

Leek, County of Stafford: 19 October 1871.

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As new child abuse laws move into force, widows' lack of economic safety nets become glaringly clear

(Item #5953) Arrest Warrant for Elizabeth Ainsworth, widow, for Wilfull Child Neglect. Single Motherhood, Elizabeth Ainsworth, Robert Farrow, Enoch Hinton, suspect, complainant, executor.

Arrest Warrant for Elizabeth Ainsworth, widow, for Wilfull Child Neglect

Leek, County of Stafford: 19 October 1871. Single sheet measuring 34 x 21cm with print form completed in manuscript to both recto and verso. Faint offsetting to header and some soiling along original foldlines at verso; in all, a clean, legible example. The present County of Stafford Warrant for the arrest of the widow Elizabeth Ainsworth for criminal child neglect preserves an exceptionally early example of laws designed by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) being executed as attitudes toward parenting and child labor shifted in the latter half of the century. As a stand-alone document it is research rich for the questions it raises about the specific economic and social conditions of Ainsworth and her children -- including her summons a year later by Public Health Enforcement. More importantly, in context it raises questions about the successes and failures of new laws designed to protect children from abuse and neglect during the late Industrial Revolution and how they affected numerous families.

According to the present warrant, county sanitary officials sought the arrest of a widowed mother due to concerns about the safety of her young children: "To the Constables of the Constabulary Force of the County of Stafford, and to all other Peace Officers in the said County...Information hath this day been laid before the Robert Farrow of Leek, in the said County, Sanitary Inspector, for that Ellizabeth Ainsworth of Bellevue, Leek in the said County, widow...did unlawfully and wilfully neglect to provide adequate food, clothing, and lodging for her five children John, Isaac, Frank, George, and Holland being in her custody all respectively under the age of fourteen years, whereby the health of such children is likely to be seriously injured." Specifics are not included in the warrant, but what information is present suggests a woman living in extreme poverty.

The historical record bears this out. Census records show that Elizabeth (b. 1832) would have been 39 years old and recently widowed by her husband John (b. 1830), a silk trader; she herself had taken up silk winding in order to support her family, with her eldest sons assisting her as silk twisters while the youngest were still infants. Records from Ellington's Kirby Cane Mill during this period show that the majority of employees in these fields were women and children, "the wages being too poor to attract adults [men]" (Kirby Cane). Shifts began "at six in the morning and finished at five at night with an hour and a half for breakfast and dinner" with pay ranging between "five and seven shillings per week" (Kirby Cane). This means that at the low end, someone like Elizabeth would be making the modern equivalent of $35 weekly to support herself and her children as well as pay off any debts left behind by her late husband. While legislation earlier in the century had sought to account for poverty resulting from shifting employment opportunities during the period, but these policies largely "took for granted the universality of the stable two-parent family, primarily dependent upon the father's wage" and the mother's domestic care-taking; "hence the poverty of women and children was thought to be remediable by the increased earnings of husbands and fathers. These assumptions were quite incompatible with the realities of industrial low pay and recurrent unemployment, and early or sudden death: Many deserted, abandoned, or widowed women were left to support children or other dependents on less than subsistence wages" (Thane). Asylums and poor houses, which admitted impoverished women suffering from exhaustion and other ailments, mostly served "housekeepers, housemaids and the like" but also reported increases in "silk weavers, stay-makers, tailoresses and other occupations": "primarily the very poorest women in society" (Higgs & Wilkinson).

While women like Elizabeth Ainsworth struggled to keep families afloat without a social and economic safety net, new laws were being enacted to protect children from the dangers of industrialization. The 1870 Education Act the previous year "stands as the very first piece of legislation to deal specifically with the provision of education...on a national scale"; expanded in 1876 and 1880, it not only increased the number of schools in underserved areas, it also "recommended that education be made compulsory in order to stop child labour" (Parliament). In concert with these efforts, organizations such as the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) began battling "against child abuse and neglect in England between 1870 and 1908," pushing legislation to end "children being considered the chattel of their parents" and instead "reshaping public opinion to police parental behavior...including the passage of the first legislation to protect children in their own homes" (Behlmer). Yet the lack of alignment between the new standards of domestic child care and the existing precarity for single parents and widows was highly problematic and unsustainable -- leading to cases such as Ainsworth's. Records show that Robert Farrow would make another complaint against Ainsworth in 1872. But by 1881, census records show her complying with laws regarding education, with George and Holland both being listed as enrolled students.

The number of cases like this which would emerge across the decade pointed to problematic "Victorian attitudes toward poverty, family, social class, and state interference" (Behlmer). These issues and more coalesce around the present document, which welcomes engagement from researchers in a variety of fields.

England, Wales & Scotland Census 1861, 1871, 1881.
(Item #5953)

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Arrest Warrant for Elizabeth Ainsworth, widow, for Wilfull Child Neglect