Jerry-building and brick-burning: public nuisances in early Edwardian London

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Something a little different this morning. I have noted before that the Police Courts of London were not simply concerned with the everyday crimes we might expect (thieving, petty violence and fraud for example), They also served their communities as forums for relegating everyday life. Paupers came here asking for help, or to be punished for their refusal to work; members of the working and lower middle-class came to seek the magistrates’ legal advice on all manner of things from desertion to unpaid wages; and these courts performed many of the functions we now associate with public health boards, consumer protection agencies, or small claims courts.

Early in the reign of King Edward VII (r.1901-1910) Mr Finnis, a clerk (the archetypal lower middle-class professional of Edwardian England*) appeared at the West London Police Court (situated in Hammersmith) to bring a case of jerry-building against Charles Marsh.

Jerry-building was the practice of erecting cheap and poorly built properties for working classes families. The phrase had been in existence since the 1860s and has nothing to do with Germany or Germans. It may be derived from the slang word Jerrycummumble which meant: “To shake, towzle, or tumble about.”**

Finnis worked for the Chiswick Local Board and he complained that Marsh had been ordered to pull down a building ‘that had been erected contrary to the bye-laws’. Marsh didn’t appear in person but sent along his solicitor who told the court that his client was attempting to comply with the order.

He asked for some of the fines that had been levied to be remitted as part of the building (indeed buildings as it seems there were three in total) had already been demolished. Finnis was unmoved, he had sent letters (threatening ones) but had received no reply. He said he would abide by the magistrate’s decision but would not consent to ant reduction in the penalties unilaterally. The justice, Mr Curtis Bennett, said he had no power to lift the fines unless the Board agreed, so the case effectively reached an impasse; either the buildings were taken down or the fines paid and the buildings made good.

Mr Bennett’s next hearing was not about ‘crime’ either. This time he was asked to adjudicate on a case of nuisance. A Mr Augustus Bird was adamant that he had the right to burn bricks at his property in Shepherds Bush. Burning bricks is essential to their strength and durability so this was a case of local manufacturing coming up against the concerns of local residents; the clash of industry with the needs of a growing domestic population in West London.

Bird had been fined £50 for his persistence in burning bricks and causing a  nuisance to locals. He maintained (through his legal representative) that he had every right to do so and asked for the fines to be waived. The magistrate sided with the authorities in upholding the ban on brick-burning but said he would accept a compromise: so long as Mr Bird ceased his noxious activities he would reduced the fine for his previous offence to just £10.

Both these cases reflect the pressure on space that late Victorian and early Edwardian London faced as its population grew and the city expanded. London was not an industrial town (as Manchester was for example), it had grown over the centuries and swallowed up the surrounding countryside and its villages. Inevitably tensions would occur as the demands of industry came into conflict with the desires of residents to live in clean and quiet neighborhoods. When tensions did arise they were often played out in the police magistrates courtroom.

* For example Mr Pooter in The diary of a Nobody by Grossmith & Grossmith

** see http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/211600.html

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