Mendicity and casual racism in 19th century Bloomsbury

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Just who Samuel Sharp really was, the police court report of The Morning Post was not sure. Sharp had also been heard to call himself Thomas Thompson, Frederick Augustin and even William Williams.

It is much clearer what he was however: a charlatan – at least in the eyes of the reporter and the officers of the Mendicity Society that engineered his appearance in Marlborough Street Police Court.

Sharp presented himself as Christian missionary. He was also ‘a man of colour, with the habiliments of the clerical cut’, it was reported. He earned his living by going door-to-door and obtaining sums of money for his stated aim of returning to Africa to preach the Gospel.

The Mendicity Society (or the Society for the Suppression of Mendicity) had been founded in 1818 to bring the practice of begging to an end. It was a fairly futile purpose in a city with thousands of paupers, vagrants and the destitute. One of its officers, a Mr. Horsford, saw through what he thought was Sharp’s facade and decided to set a trap for the so-called missionary.

Horsford discovered (from letters of complaint sent to the society) that as well as calling on householders and asking for money, Sharp also promenaded with a lady friend . So Horsford assumed the disguise of a ‘sporting character’ (complete with ‘cigar in mouth’) and began to watch his prey. Sharp (‘the sable defendant’ as the paper dubbed him) and ‘his white lady set out on their morning excursion’. The pair stopped at a pub and ordered food. While the ‘beefsteaks’ were being cooked Sharp left his companion (who was dripping with jewellery and sporting a ‘handsome watch at her side’) to ‘try his luck in Fitzroy Square’.

Horsford watched as the fake missionary called at one a house and left a pamphlet and then made as if he was returning to his own home just as Sharp approached. Turning to him and and asking his ‘business’, Horsford pretended that he was the homeowner.

Immediately Sharp, who was completely fooled by this ruse, presented the officer with a printed petition for funds and added, in ‘a canting tone’:

‘A penny, or as much more as he might please to give, to enable him to enter on his blessed ministration of enlightening the heathen blacks with the truth of the Gospels’.

Before the would-be man of the cloth could react Horsford and another officer seized him. There was a struggle and Sharp temporality escaped but was recaptured and taken to a police station. His dwelling was searched and he was found to own a ‘handsome carpet bag’ along with other  luxury items including a ‘silk umbrella’ and ‘a good silver watch and chain’, the proceeds it was assumed of a life of impersonation.

I suspect Sam Sharp was everything the mid Victorians detested: a man who exploited the ‘goodwill’ of Christian Englishman; a foreigner (and a ‘savage’ black at that) who consorted with a white woman of dubious reputation (she had rings on all her fingers); and a mendicant to boot.

He was remanded in custody so that his victims could be traced and a case built against him.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, January 31, 1845]

‘the course of true love never did run smooth’ when the law is involved.

Calais circa 1830 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

Calais, c.1830 by J.M. Turner

Towards the end of January 1830 a flustered man rushed into the Bow Street Police Court in some distress. He gained an audience with the sitting magistrate and told him his story.

The man (a widower who was not named in the press report) had traveled from Calais where he ran a ‘respectable English Tavern’. His main source of help was his 17 year-old daughter and a  couple of other servants, one of which was a young man ‘of rather low connexions and habits’.

An ‘intimacy’ had developed between the innkeeper’s daughter and the serving lad which was becoming something of a concern to her father. I imagine he expressed this on several occasions and the young lovers must have realised there was little hope of them being allowed to continue their fledgling relationship.

So they did what all romantic early nineteenth-century couples did, they decided to elope.

The young man forged a draft for money and secured £80 from a local tradesman the landlord dealt with regularly; the girl squirrelled away all of the day’s takings. They made their escape late one Sunday night, chartering a small boat from Calais harbour to England. They arrived in Dover and headed for London. When he discovered them gone the father set off in hot pursuit.

When he had finished telling his tale at Bow Street the principal officer (or ‘Runner’ as we more commonly term the men that served the Bow Street court) set off to find them. J.J. Smith tracked them down to a lodging house in Holborn where he secured the girl and told the lad he was free to go, ‘the sole object being to recover [the landlord’s] daughter’.

But the young beau was not so easily put off. He followed Smith and the girl back to Bow Street and even into the building. Here he was ‘very unceremoniously ejected’ and warned to stay away unless he fancied prison and a turn on the treadmill. Still he lingered, seeing the father and daughter climb into the carriage that would take them back to Dover and thence to France. As the coach pulled away ‘the “lovers” were observed to exchange parting signals’.

There really is a story to be written here, for anyone out there with more imagination than me.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, January 30, 1830]

Who on earth was Countess Nelson?

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In early 1838 a man appeared at Marlborough Street Police Court charged with embezzling ‘sums of money’ from Countess Nelson.

This caught my eye because my boyhood was Horatio Nelson. From an early age (I think I remember having a Ladybird book on Nelson) I was fascinated by his story. I suspect much of Nelson’s history is suffused with myth; a result of distortions by his early biographers (like Southey) and the repetition of heroic tales over time. But I liked the fact that this man from relatively humble origins in Norfolk rose to be the greatest warrior that England has produced.

nelson-hit

 

Whether he shot a polar bear as a teenage midshipman is unimportant, as is the exact story behind him ‘turning a blind eye’; the brilliance of his victory at Aboukir Bay and the vital importance of defeating the combined French and Spanish fleet at Trafalgar were thrilling to me as a young boy.

There is an adage of course that one should never meet your heroes. The closest I have ever got to Nelson is his tomb at St Paul’s or his memorial in Trafalgar Square (although I have made the pilgrimage to Burnham Thorpe in Norfolk where he was born and trod the decks of HMS Victory  at Portsmouth).

As an adult the biographies I have read of this greatest of English heroes have been careful to present his other side. The vanity of the man must have been awful, his treatment of Frances Nisbet his wife, his galavanting with the wife of his friend Lord Hamilton, and his oppression of popular uprising in Naples; all jar against the popular image of Horatio Nelson.

Ultimately I remain a fan. I can separate the sea captain, the patriot, the strategist and the brave leader who cared for his troops, from the arrogant, illiberal, self-centred man who cheated on his wife. But while we have had a recent exhibition focused on the life of Nelson’s love, Emma Hamilton, what of the lady she replaced?

Nelson married Frances Nisbet in 1787 after they had met on the Caribbean island of Nevis. Frances had been married before but her husband, a doctor, had died. Military marriages are difficult to maintain over distances, and naval ones in the 18th century even more so given that men were at sea for months on end. When Nelson met Emma at Naples the writing was on the wall for Frances and his marriage.

After the admiral’s death in 1805 at Trafalgar she herself fell ill but made a recovery. She moved to Paris for a while (to live with her son) before returning to England and setting down in Exeter. She died in 1831 in London, in Harley Street.

So who, I wonder, was the Countess Nelson who appeared as part of a court case in January 1838?

Francis Wright, ‘a respectable looking man’ was brought before the magistrate at Marlborough Street for embezzlement. The court heard that Wright had left the Countess’ service some weeks before and had set himself up in business with a beer shop on the Clapham Road.

Wright was charged with ‘forging a certain receipt with intent to defraud Lady Nelson’ and a warrant was executed to bring him in. He was asked to produce his account book but told the justice he was unable to as he had torn it up to ‘make pipe-lights for his customers’. How convenient. He was remanded for further enquiries.

The case didn’t reach the Old Bailey but it may have been too trivial for that and been dealt with later by the summary process. The nature of the court reportage means its not always possible to trace these cases further.

However, I can reveal who Countess Nelson was. She was most probably Hilare (more properly Mrs George) Knight. She had previously been married to William Nelson, Horatio’s brother. William had been given his more famous brother’s title (including that of the Duke of Bronte, Sicily) and so when the couple married in 1829 she adopted the title of Countess Nelson.

In 1835 William died and in 1837 (one year before this case) she remarried, to George Knight, a relative of Jane Austen – so as one researcher noted she was well connected with two famous literary names!

Interestingly as a footnote, neither the original Lady Nelson or Emma Hamilton would live to see the monument to the admiral open in their lifetime. Nelson’s column was erected between 1840-3 at a cost of £47,000 (over £2m today), much of it from public subscription. Frances Nelson died in 1831 and Emma died, penniless, in 1815. Countess Nelson however lived until 1857 so may have strolled beneath the gaze of her illustrious relative by marriage.

[from The Morning Post, Sunday, January 29, 1838]

Two incorrigible beggars at Bow Street get no help and little sympathy

 

Mr. and Mrs Philips were well known to their parish officers and to the local charity groups that attempted to intervene in the lives of London’s poor in the 1880s.

The Charity Organisation Society was founded in London in 1869 with the intention to support ‘self-help’ and thrift over state intervention. At its head were two strong women – Helen Bosanquent (neé Dendy) and Octavia Hill (who went on to be a founder of the National Trust). The COS wanted people to help themselves and viewed poverty (as many did in the 1800s) as largely a personal failing.

Supporters of the COS disliked ‘outdoor relief’ (where families were given handouts without being required to enter the workhouse) and argued that the ‘workhouse test’ was a proper way of separating the needy from the work-shy.

However, it was often accepted that there were those who could not work and, at face value at least, Mr. and Mrs Philips seem to have fallen into that category.

Mr. Philips was blind and his wife had lost her right arm. In late January 1887 the pair made their way to the Bow Street Police Court in Covent Garden to ask for help.

Mr. Vaughan, the sitting magistrate, sent out for information about the couple, to ascertain what sort of people they were and what he might do to assist them. It didn’t take long for the various charity groups and local parish officials to get back to him. On the 27th the husband and wife attended his court to hear the results of his investigations.

It wasn’t good news.

The COS reported that that had initially being paying the pair 12s a week (about £35 or the equivalent of a day’s wages for a craftsman) but when they discovered that Mrs Philips was ‘constantly drunk’ and that Mr. Philips continued to go out begging, they stopped all support. The parish officers described them as ‘incorrigible beggars’ who they were constantly having to remove from the streets around their home in Euston Road.

They added that Mrs Philips drinking had reached such a point that her mental health was affected. According to one witness: ‘she ‘showed symptoms of softening of the brain through excessive drinking’.

Mr. Vaughan looked down at the couple from the bench and told them that there was nothing he could do for them while they continued to disobey the laws surrounding vagrancy and begging. In order to get help in late Victorian Britain paupers – whatever their situation – had to either submit themselves to the horrors of the workhouse or attempt to live up to the standards set by demanding middle ladies like Mrs Bosanquet and Octavia Hill; there was no middle ground if you couldn’t support yourself.

[from The Morning Post , Friday, January 28, 1887]

An unwanted French visitor is ‘awarded’ some English hospitality

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Louis Rateau was a serial thief.

A self-declared chemist of no fixed abode he was charged at Marylebone Police Court of stealing overcoats in January 1887. His victims were all medical men: Dr Caley of Wimple Street, Dr Fosbrook of Buckingham Palace Square, and Dr Bradley of Orchard Street, Portman Square.

Rateau’s modus operandi was delightfully simple and effective. He called at the house of a doctor requesting a word with them. The servant that answered the door would take a proffered note to their masters and while the chemist waited in the hall he helped himself to each and every overcoat he could find hanging on the rack.

When the poor valet returned there was no sign of the elusive visitor.

However, while this ruse had worked well at the homes of Dr Bradley and Dr Fosbrook, Dr Caley’s servant was sharper witted. He quickly worked out what had occurred and set off in pursuit of the thief.  With assistance from the police the Frenchman was soon in custody.

In court he pleaded guilty as charged and claimed he was driven to his crime out of desperation. Since he had arrived in London from France three months earlier he had had no work, and nowhere permanent to live. He had ‘dossed’ in a lodging house but now, with no money, he was sleeping rough and stealing to survive.

He must have had the appearance of respectability for the servants to let him stand indoors (or not to send him to the tradesman’s entrance) but a few more weeks of surviving in the open would have soon rendered that ruse impossible.

Louise apologised and promised to return to France if he was discharged but the magistrate had other ideas. He would give him accommodation and regular meals, but at Her Majesty’s Pleasure in prison for four months at hard labour.

quelle dommage!

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, January 27, 1887]

A Garroting in Victorian Islington

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In 1862 a series of attacks in London (starting with one on Hugh Pilkington MP ) by robbers who grabbed their victims from behind and throttled them, initiated a wave of reports of similar incidents up and down the country. Before long Britain was in the grip of a ‘moral panic’ and the police and courts clamped down on anyone they suspected of being a ‘garrotter’.

The key suspects were the so-called ‘criminal class’ and in particular those criminals that had been released earlier from imprisonment on license. These were known as ‘ticket-of-leave’ men and I’ve written about them before on this blog.

The 1862 panic soon faded from the attention of the public as the press moved on to new stories but the term lingered. Thereafter street robberies with violence were occasionally referred to as ‘garrotings’ as this example from 1867 shows.

James Perring, an Islington resident, was riding in his cart on Fann Street when a young man stopped his vehicle. Mr. Perring may have been elderly, the report is not clear, but he was certainly not able-bodied. He had suffered a recent wound in his leg and was forced to walk with a crutch for support.

The person that stopped his cart, later identified as 19 year-old William Brown, (a ‘stout looking fellow’), was not alone, he had three companions. Regardless of this Mr. Perring asked him to let go of his horse ‘or he would be kicked’.

As he said this one of the other men leaped into the cart and grabbed him around the throat, pulling him over. Perring suffered badly from this attack and the wound in his leg was opened up causing him to lose a lot of blood.

Brown saw this and pressed his advantage, kicking the cart owner in the knee when he tried to grab at him. As he shouted for help the four men or boys all ran away. Mr. Perring checked his pockets and found he had lost five sovereign coins (quite a bit of money for the 1860s). The robber had also dropped his cap which Perring later found it in his cart.

The police soon arrived and started to search for the gang but only managed to discover Brown. He had run into a lodging house, crept upstairs into a room and had thrown ‘himself on a bed, pretending to be asleep’. The landlord said he had never seen him before and the police took him away protesting his innocence.

Brown appeared at Clerkenwell Police Court in late January 1867 charged with felonious assault. He wasn’t charged with the robbery because fortunately for him and Mr Perring the sovereigns were found when a thorough search of the cart was made.

Probably because of this or because none of the other protagonists could be found this case never made it to the Old Bailey. It may have been an attempted robbery or simply antisocial behaviour by a group of young ‘hooligans’ (although that term wasn’t coined until the 1890s). Either way it was very unpleasant for  James Perring and evidence that the notion of the ‘garroter’ was still very much in the public domain five years after the panic had subsided.

[from The Illustrated Police News etc, Saturday, January 26, 1867]

Austerity, benefits and a lack of compassion: the application of the ‘hard labour test’ in 1840s London

Historical work on the role of the eighteenth-century justice of the peace (by Peter King, and myself) has revealed the important work they did in mediating claims for poor relief. As well as dealing with all sorts of offending and advising on a range of local matters JPs (later termed magistrates) sometimes intervened to assist the poor when they were refused help by the Poor Law officials in their parish.

The parish was the local authority with responsibility for helping those that could not work through ill-health, age or legitimate unemployment. But one’s entitlement to benefits (as we might term them) was limited and conditional. The laws of settlement were complicated but, in essence, a person had to be born in a parish to be entitled to poor relief there, or to have settled there through work or marriage.

Being ‘settled’ might meant paying a local tax for a year or something akin to that and, because the costs of poor relief fell on the ratepayers not the state, local authorities were not keen to attract new mouths to feed and equally vigorous in evicting anyone who looked like they might become a burden on the population.

JPs were therefore frequently called upon to hear settlement claims and counter-claims.

In 1834 parliament passed the Poor Law Amendment Act which set in place a new, harsh, form of poor relief designed to deter all but the genuinely impoverished from seeking help from the rates. Thereafter anyone requesting poor relief was supposed to be offered the workhouse and all the horrors that entailed if they wanted help from the parish. This meant the breakup of the family (men and women and children were housed in separate wings), a barely sufficient diet (see Oliver Twist) and backbreaking hard labour (picking oakum or breaking rocks were typical).

In short in the nineteenth century pauperism was seen as a personal failing, and if you asked for poor relief you faced an experience almost as bad as being sent to prison.

In 1847 a poor woman, whose name was not recorded by the Morning Chronicle‘s reporter, appeared at the Marlborough Street Police Court to ask for the magistrate’s help. She told Mr Hardwicke that because her ‘children were starving, her husband in an infirm state of health, and out of work’ she had approached the relieving officer at St. James’ workhouse to admit them temporarily.

However, the officer told her that he could only do so on the condition that her husband would agree to be set to hard labour, breaking stones.

She said that she was sure that if he ‘was put to such work as this, in this inclement season, in his present state of health, that it would kill him, and and she therefore said it was impossible to accept the condition’.

The officer, a Mr Dore, then said that the alternative was for the whole family to be passed (effectively evicted from the parish) to Ireland where her husband had been born. This too was unacceptable to her; she complained that while he had been born in Ireland he’d not been there for years, that she and her children were English born, they had no home in Ireland. Moreover, she continued:

‘Her husband was a journeyman tailor, had acquired a settlement in St. James’ parish, and had never applied for parish assistance’. She added that she ‘had begged a loaf a bread from the receiving officer, to feed her famishing children with, as they had nothing to eat all day. This was refused, and if it had not been for the humanity of a neighbour, her children must have passed another day without food’.

Mr Hardwicke sent for Dore, who confirmed the woman’s story but said his hands were tied; he had his instructions from the workhouse Board of Guardians. The magistrate suggested that there were times when a little discretion was in order. The hard labour ‘test’ might be appropriate in ‘cases in which the parish authorities had reason to believe that an able-bodied applicant only desired to lead an idea life in the workhouse’ but in cases such as this, he ‘thought the general rule ought to be relaxed’.

Mr Gore said he only had the one sort of work available but if saw someone really struggling the policy was to offer them medical help and some respite. This was usually evidenced it seems, by seeing that their hands had become ‘badly blistered’ and other signs of ‘bodily weakness’. In this case of course, by the time that was apparent the poor old man might have been well on his way to the grave.

The magistrate sent the relieving officer away to see what he could do for the family but that was as much the court did for them. This would not have been an isolated incident in a society without universal benefits.

But before we get too complacent and say how awful the Victorians were to their poor we should take a look at the reality that in 2015/16 the Tressell Trust donated over 1,000,000 three day emergency food parcels to vulnerable people in the UK.  Tressell are the biggest but not the only provider so the figure is larger than this. Barnardo’s estimates that there are 3.7 million children living in poverty, 1.7 million in ‘severe poverty’. The majority of these (63%) are living in families where at least one parent is in employment, not unemployed or ‘workshop’.

This is the reality of austerity Britain; the reality of the fallout from the banking scandal, the gap between rich and poor, the continued campaign to demonise those on benefits and the harsh reality of global capitalism. As in the 1840s it is the poorest that suffer while the richest are protected and indeed prosper and grow richer.

And we wonder why people commit crime…

[from The Morning Chronicle, Monday, January 25, 1847]