Poverty, a pig and no small amount of pathos; a day in the life of London’s Police Courts

StGilesMap1830

Today’s post takes a handful of hearings from the Police Courts in early April 1834 to show the variety of both the reporting, and the types of cases that came before them. We should remember that while the press reports served as a source of information for the public about the ways in which crime and general ‘bad behaviour’ was being dealt with, they were also a source of amusement and diversion for many.

Firstly, at Bow Street, the dock was crowded as around eight Irish men took their place in front of the magistrate. Cornelius Donovan and his brother Timothy were the only defendants named by the reporter from the Morning Postperhaps because it was these two that spoke up in court.

The men were charged with assaulting a group of their fellow countrymen, the O’Neils. The fight had broken out as a result of dispute over the ownership of a property in St Giles. St Giles in the 1800s was synonymous with poverty, crime and was home to a large Irish population, now of course it is a much more fashionable part of the modern city, where the only evidence you’ll find of poverty are the Big Issue sellers and the rough sleepers in shop doorways.

The justice told all the men that he could not determine who had the legal entitlement to the house, they ‘would have to fight it out’. At this Tim Donovan ‘(interrupting His Worship)’, said ‘There, do you hear that? Come out of this, all of ye, and settle this at once’.

The poor magistrate had to raise his voice to correct the misunderstanding; what he meant was that the warring parties would have to ‘fight out’ their competing claims in a court of law, not on the street!. As he left the court Tim was heard to say, ‘By Jasus, we have got to begin all over again’.

From the amusing story of the fighting Irish (a familiar theme for the nineteenth-century press) we move to Marylebone Police Court. Here Thomas Allingham was accused of ill-treating a pig.

PC 117T (one of Peel’s new force) told the magistrate that he had been on his beat at 7 in the morning when he saw Allingham riding the large animal around a field off the Bayswater Road. According to the copper Allingham was ‘beating and spurring the poor animal in the most unmerciful manner, until it at last sunk down under its load and appeared nearly dead’.

When the policeman remonstrated with the lad he leapt off the pig and attacked him with a knife. He was charged with almost ‘boring’ the pig  to death and with assaulting a police officer. The magistrate ordered him to find bail against an appearance at the next sessions of the peace.

Finally, and perhaps appropriately for 1834 we have a case of destitution. This was the year which saw the passing of Poor Law Amendment Act; the piece of legislation which had the cruel intention of forcing the unemployed and sick to seek relief in a workhouse (rather than being assisted in the community). It was the brainchild of Edwin Chadwick who often gets a better press (as a social reformer and champion of pubic health) than I think he deserves. The New Poor Law was an awful imposition on the lives of the most vulnerable in English society and it has left a long dark stain on this nation’s history.

Mary Ann Davis, ‘a miserable-looking being clothed in rags, and carrying an infant in her arms’, was presented before Mr Shutt. A policeman said he had found the two of them sleeping rough in a doorway on Oxford Street between 10 and 11 the previous night. Given that they were in breach of the Vagrancy Laws he had escorted them to the police station.

Mr Shutt wanted to know if the woman had been drinking. ‘I don’t think she was’ the policeman reported,  but ‘she was shivering with cold, and the infant was crying’.

The magistrate turned to the mother and asked her when she had last slept in a bed. Some time ago, admitted Mary, and in St Giles so she was clearly down on her luck. She had been to Marlborough Street police office (the police courts were termed offices until later in the century) but had been sent away again.

No one there seemed to want to help her.

This justice was more sympathetic; he instructed an officer to take Ann and her child to the overseers of the poor at St Giles so they could receive her. She ‘must not’, he insisted, ‘be suffered to perish in the streets’. Whether the overseers did as they were asked is impossible to know for certain. Many thousands passed through their hands in the first half of the 1800s; this was a period where very many suffered from poverty and unemployment.

Chadwick’s ‘reform’ of the old poor law system was based on a recognition that rising population numbers were putting an increased pressure of the public purse. Sadly, as the continued presence of rough sleepers testifies, even our modern nation, with its extensive welfare provision, still fails a proportion of its citizens.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, April 07, 1834]

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