Sad Case of Poverty and Neglect at Weymouth; 1896

A court case appeared in the local papers in March of 1896 of a family who were living in Weymouth at the time. It reveals the true horrors of poverty and neglect that some families found themselves in during the Victorian period.

Lucy Eudora Stickley  had been born in the little village of  Milborne st Andrew in Dorset in 1857, daughter of Thomas and Mary, a labourer in the village.

In 1878 Lucy met and married  Walter Gunstone, an 18-year-old lad from Downton in Wiltshire, son of Zephaniah and Hannah. (I hadn’t twigged until later in my research and read the military records of one of their sons who listed himself as Methodist that the whole family could possibly have been raised as methodists.)

By the time of the 1881 census, the couple had moved to Christchurch where they were lodging with another large family. They had had two little lads, Reginald Guy Dalney (1879-1923) and Rosslyn Hubert Walter (1880-1944). Dad Walter was a stone mason by trade.

The next census, 1891, found their family back at Christchurch, by then they had  4 more children, Lucy Agnes (1884-), Margaret (1887-1892), William (1888-1906) and little Walter George (1889-). All the children had been born in different places, suggesting perhaps the family led a fairly itinerant life, and moved where work was to be found.

But this life wasn’t easy for the family, and seemingly Walter had been a less than the perfect husband and father.

According to the details that came out in court case March of 1896, life hadn’t been kind to Lucy. Her husband Walter was described as a violent man, and frequently beat her.

Back in 1892 things was charged at Bournemouth with assault, after having stripped her naked and beating her with a rope.

For this little misdemeanour he was fined 25/-.

At some stage either Lucy had endured enough and left her husband, or he simply disappeared leaving her and the children homeless and penniless because Lucy entered the workhouse. While  there Walter sent her a letter informing her he had found a younger, much prettier girl down in Weymouth, who was keeping him, he was out of work. This rather gullible female earned a pittance from her needlwork!

Walter, when he gave his evidence in the 1896 court case replied that most of those facts were true, but he had been giving Lucy money. Fifteen shillings or so a week in fact.

(One suspects that might not have been true!)

Lucy somehow got herself released from the workhouse and made her own way down to Weymouth to find Walter. With her were three of her children six children, 12-year-old Lucy Agnes Eudora, 8-year-old William and 7-year-old Walter.

Reginald by now had signed up with the 2nd Kings Shropshire Light infantry and was serving abroad.

Rosslyn had followed in his father’s footsteps, he was employed as a stone mason living in digs down in Tonbridge Kent.

Little Margaret died in 1892 aged just five.

Lucy and her family were living at no 2 Adelaide Court, East Street, but perhaps ‘living’ is being a bit optimistic, from all accounts they must have been on the point of starvation.


Someone had drawn attention to the pitiful state of Lucy’s children to the police.

Daughter Lucy was brought to the police station before the Chief Constable under the Industrial Schools Act. So shocked was he with the state of her that Dr Browning was sent for and she had to suffer the indignity of being examined in front of her mother. Dr Browning  described her as being very thin and pale and was suffering from a disease of great debility caused by starvation or improper food. The state of her clothing was filthy in the extreme.

The doctor then went along to Lucy’s house where he examined William and Walter. According to his report he found the two young lads in a very filthy state. The younger boy had a severe bruise on his head and another on his elbow. he was very thin and pale and had been badly fed judging from his appearance. the elder boy was in a similar condition, but had no bruises about him.


Dr Browning then went on to examine their home, declaring it in tolerable order for the locality (one can only assume Adelaide Court was one of less desirable areas of Weymouth) Continuing on to note the bedding in the two rooms used as bedrooms was disgustingly filthy. There was no food in the house beyond some pieces of bread and some butter.

He declared The condition of the children was calculated to cause them unnecessary suffering. His opinion was that the children had not sufficient food and that they had been grossly neglected.

Lucy was removed to the Girl’s Home in East street, William and Walter taken to the workhouse.

A statement from Lucy was read out in court where she accused her husband of cruelty throughout their marriage. She denied any immorality taking place in her house as she had been accused of.

Walter denied any ill-treatment of his wife, apart from the case brought before the Bournemouth magistrate a few years before, claiming he’d only done that once or twice…in self-defence.

Mum Lucy was committed to three months imprisonment and Dad Walter agreed to pay towards his children in care whilst the mother was in prison.

And their life after these traumatic times?

By the time of the next census,1901, Mum Lucy was working as a laundry assistant in Bournemouth, she had no children were with her.

Walter on the other hand seems to have done o.k. for himself. Not long after his wife Lucy was enprisoned he started a new family with another lady, Elenor Amelia Price.  Maybe it was the pretty young female from Weymouth that he had so cruelly bragged about to Lucy while she was in the workhouse. In 1901 the couple already have two young children, Leonard Rosslyn (there’s that family name again) and Nelly. Though as of yet I can find no marriage for the couple.

The following  1911 census, reveals a little more information. By then Lucy’s working as a live-in-servant at Dorchester. Information she supplied stated she had given birth to nine children in her time, five of whom had sadly died. Maybe she wasn’t a natural and caring Mum, or more likely life had dealt her a cruel hand, ground her down and she had to try and do what she and her children could to survive, but failing miserably.

And what did life deliver to her surviving children?

The year before Lucy’s conviction, her first born son Reginald, aged 16, also found himself incarcerated in Dorchester gaol, for theft of a bicycle. That he was sent from there to Milbourne St Andrews Reformatory school is born out by the facts revealed when at 18 he joined the Kings Shropshire Light Infantry. His address is given as such. Reginald served just under 19 years in the army, though it hadn’t got off to a good start, being imprisoned twice for minor offences, but came good in the end.  He married and had three children, but died early at the age of 44.

Rosslyn had left home before the infamous court case and moved to Tonbridge, Kent where he worked as a stone mason, following in his fathers footsteps. Thereafter joining the Royal Engineers in 1915 with trade listed as stone mason. Once his service had completed he stayed on as a Territorial and worked his way up to sergeant with an exemplary record. Rosssly married twice, losing his first wife Louise in 1930.  He remarried in 1933 to Elizabeth Gocher. Rossly died at Hove in 1944 aged 63.

For Walter, the 1911 census reveals him and his younger wife Ellen living with their family of eight children, not a sign of any of his children from his prior marriage to Lucy!

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Ian Gunstone says:

    Hi Susan, WOW! what can I say, Stumbled across your blog during a haphazard google search as I Have just started researching my Family tree. It would appear that Walter and Lucy above are my Great Great Grandparents, their Son Reginald being my Great Grandfather, so your post as made for very “interesting” reading! I Would love to get in touch with you via email if you have the time to pick your brains on the Gunstones and the local area in General.


  2. cannasue says:

    Hi Ian,
    I’m glad that it found its way to a family member, but I just hope that it wasn’t too upsetting to read about the less than perfect life that they led.
    Life was very tough for many people, and not everyone managed to ‘struggle’ their way through in one piece.
    Feel free to get in touch with me, not sure what I can help with, but will give it a try.


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