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Mary Lovell & the cracked milk jug

Captain Augustus Foster was Sherriff of Dorset, a Justice of the Peace and had a distinguished war record. He had served in the 14th Light Dragoons under the Duke of Wellington in the Spanish Peninsular War. Born in 1787, Captain Foster was also the Lord of the Manor in Warmwell near Dorchester. He was determined to pursue his case for larceny against 13 year old Mary Lovell. So he laid it before his son, Lieutenant Augustus Billet Foster also a magistrate who issued a warrant for the young girl’s arrest. The allegation was that she had stolen a cracked milk jug from the squire’s kitchen. The 84 year old pressed strongly for action to be taken. As a result, 13 year old Mary Lovell was speedily sentenced at Dorset Petty Sessions to 21 days’ hard labour in Dorchester Gaol. Children under 14 years could at the time be tried summarily by two magistrates without a jury. This would be followed by five years to be spent in the Devon Reformatory at Exeter.  Mary Lovell, who was the eldest of eight children, said the jug had been given to her by one of the squire’s servants after it had been dropped. She explained it had been given to put flowers in. The severity of this sentence caused a backlash right across the country. Far away in Yorkshire, the following appeared in a local newspaper:

‘CRACKED JUG. – The magistrates of Dorset seem determined that, as the ignorance of the labourers in that county is the densest so the “injustices” shall be the most flagrant in all England. A little girl of tender years and of unimpeachable character (as attested by her clergyman and schoolmistress) was brought before them for stealing a cracked milk jug which she alleges was given to her by the prosecutor’s servant: and to anyone but a Dorset  Justice the girl’s innocence is evident if only because she took the so-called stolen jug to the house, whence it was said to be stolen, to fetch milk.

She was sentenced to twenty one days’ imprisonment and five years to a Reformatory! Let us put on record the names of these justices:- ROF Steward, Esq., R Thornton, Esq and AB Foster, with whom may be associated Captain Foster. If these men are not struck off the list of justices at once and for ever, there is no honesty in Liberal Government and no hope of Reform in our administration of law.’ (Hull & East Counties Herald – 8th June 1871.)

Local clergyman, the Reverend Edward Cambridge said that the young girl was often in his house and nothing ever went missing. She was frequently sent on errands and given cash and there had never been any hint of dishonesty.  Tearfully the mother had explained that if the jug had been stolen, she would never have sent her daughter and her younger sister, Charlotte with it to the Squire’s house for milk.

A strong disapproving reaction among the general public led to Mary’s case being raised in Parliament. The Secretary of State for the Home Office, Mr Bruce said he had contacted the Dorset Magistrates for an explanation. The Home Office representative said he had been told Captain Foster’s servant had denied that she had given the milk jug to the young girl and several other items had gone missing. Magistrates Steward and Thornton had concluded that the young girl had stolen the item together with others. They felt therefore, they had to send Mary Lovell to prison followed by reformatory. She had been sent to prison for 21 days because they were led to believe this period was necessary to sort out the correspondence for the reformatory transfer. The five year Reformatory sentence had also to be put in place because the Exeter institution had refused to accept admissions for shorter periods. However, the Reformatory had recently submitted the young girl to an eye test which she had failed.  They had therefore refused to admit her. As she has completed her 21 days in prison, Mary Lovell had now been released. Perhaps not entirely convinced by the explanation he had been given, the Home Office’s Mr Bruce concluded:

‘Supposing the circumstances stated by the magistrates to be correct, the magistrates appeared to have acted according to the best of their beliefs for the good of the child.’

Augustus Foster was also the Chairman of the Visiting Justices of the County Gaol in Dorchester. When the prison was criticised by Whitehall civil servants as being inefficient and having no lighting in cells he was not amused and retorted:

‘Our own servants in our homes do not have fires in their bedrooms, yet it is insisted upon that their cells should be warmed at night for the prisoners.’

Captain Augustus Foster retired from this role in 1874 at the age of 88 and the old soldier from the Spanish Peninsular War died nearly five years later.

(Illustration: a young Victorian reformatory girl inmate.) 



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