If you have been following this blog you will have noticed that while the focus is on the Police Courts of London in the 1800s the work of the courts and magistrates that presided in them covered a lot of business that can not be described as ‘crime’. People used the police courts as a sort of first-stop help centre; to prosecute crime certainly, but also to complain about poor working conditions, a lack of support from parish officials, and sometimes as way of getting important information into the public domain. They were helped in this by the presence of the media of the day, the newspapers, who reported stories they thought would interest their readers.
Today’s story is a case in point; a crime may have been committed but it is unlikely.
Mrs William Blay presented herself at West Ham Police Court to seek the help and advice of the sitting justice, Mr Phillips. She and her spouse had been married for 15 years and had never had a cross word she told the beak. William Blay was a Thames lighterman but had recently been working as a labourer at a dry dock at Ratcliffe.
Ratcliffe in the 1890s
The couple lived in Stratford and William had left the family home on Livingstone Road at just past 5 in the morning, getting to work ok. He’d left there at 9 (people worked long hours in the nineteenth century) but never made it home. She knew he was ‘in the habit of coming home by the tow path of the Rice Mills River, as it was a short cut’, and she feared he might have fallen and drowned.
The court usher intervened; Mr Izatt told the magistrate that had William fallen in and perished he thought his body would quickly have been found, as the canal drained daily. Mrs Blay continued, giving a description of William. He was 41 with a fair complexion, blue eyes and light whiskers and mustaches. He had been wearing ‘a dark jacket over a blue guernsey, fustian trousers, and a flannel shirt’. His clothes were old and tatty, she told Mr Phillips, because his work was hard (and not well paid she might have added).
He had a cut on his head which had healed to leave a scar, one of his kneecaps had been broken and ‘on the foot of the same leg his his toes were bound up, him having met with several accidents recently’. William Blay was probably working as a day labourer because he could no longer operate as lighterman due to the state of his poor health. Little was done to support workers who were injured at work and William was probably doing his level best to keep the family out of the workhouse.
Mrs Blay asked for the press’ help in finding him and the magistrate thought it likely they now would, she thanked him and left. In reality there was very little she could hope for. No one was going to mount a search for a poor half crippled labourer who had probably fallen into the canal or a ditch so exhausted must he have been having tramped to Ratcliffe from Stratford (about 6 miles, so perhaps an hour or more’s walk) for a minimum of a 12 hour working day in the heat of summer.
We might remember that our society has imposed rules on how long people can work and made great strides towards protecting workers from accidents and supporting them when they are unable to continue in the same employment. We should never take these hard won rights for granted.
[from Daily News, Saturday, July 22, 1882]