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]

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