‘Worthless informers’ and grumpy cabbies

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When a local authority, like the Common Council of the City of London, passes a by-law or establishes a new regulation they are seldom met with much enthusiasm. All sorts of regulations govern our lives in all sorts of ways, and have done for centuries. We are told where and when we can and cannot park, and are fined if we are caught. Weights and measures are regulated to protect us from disreputable traders who would sell us less than the advertised amount of fruit or vegetables. In the past both of these regulations applied, along with hundreds of others.

Magistrates adjudicated on cases of adulterated milk or bread, on buildings with badly laid roofs, or fined those who did not have a license for their dog, or who had traded their horse cruelly. In the last decades of the 1800s parents who kept their children from school were also hit in the pocket or threatened with having their offspring taken away.

Regulation then is at the heart of local government and, while it is supposed to make our lives and relationship run more smoothly, it seems often to be an open sore of resentment.

So it is not surprising that the people that either enforce these local laws or bring prosecutions on behalf of the parish or local council are not popular figures. The modern traffic warden springs to mind, as does the Victorian beadle in Oliver Twist and the informing constable for the Reformation of Manners Movement in the 1780s.

While we might agree that regulation is necessary we don’t like it or the people that ‘dob’ us in when we infringe the law. Perhaps that why modern society has tried to replace human law enforces with robotic devices that can perform a similar task without fear or favour. The ANPR device and speed camera are the modern solution to universal enforcement.

In 1840 in the City of London cab drivers were regulated. This wasn’t anything new, they had been regulated for at least a century. Licensed cabbies were given a badge to show they had paid for the privilege of trading in the square mile. This badge took the form of a ‘metal ticket’ and it was supposed to be visible at all times.

A failure to display a badge could earn them a fine, but it seems that the person that prosecuted them for this neglect of the rules could also profit from that fine. This too was anything but new. In the 1700s it was common for those bringing criminals and others to court to be able to claims rewards for so doing.

In  May 1840 a man named Stowell appeared at the Guildhall Justice room (one of the city’s two Police Courts). Stowed was described as ‘the informer’ and he had brought prosecutions against a number of cab drivers for not obeying the letter of the law.

Edward Williams was charged with carrying two passengers in his cab without displaying his badge. Williams said he had left it at home and was prepared now to go and fetch it. He pleaded poverty and Stowell generously acceded to dropping the charge so long as his costs were covered, and 2s 6d were paid to his witness.

Stowell was probably well-known to the cabbies and so he used undercover agents, to do his dirty work.

William Cox, a 50 year-old cabbie was charged with not ‘wearing his metal ticket conspicuously’. On being challenged in Fleet Street by one of Stawell’s men Cox pulled it out of his waistcoat and showed him it.

Cox grumbled that ‘if upon the worthless oath of a common informer poor cabmen were to be fined for not wearing the badge conspicuously, they would be victimised; for what chance had they of bringing an indifferent person who might be passing to prove the contrary? Against such a charge, however false, a man might have no protection’.

The case against Cox was dismissed but the next defendant was not so fortunate.

Stowell’s witness claimed that when he asked James Cones to show him his badge he had unbuttoned his waistcoat and drawn it out. Cones argued that the ‘badge had accidentally bobbed inside his waistcoat, and would have bobbed out again presently’.

His excuse was not as persuasive as his fellow driver’s and was probably delivered  with deep sarcasm and  contempt for  Stowell’s chosen ‘profession’. Mr Alderman Johnson, the presiding magistrate, fined him 5s plus costs.

It is a while since I last got a parking ticket but I can’t say it did much other than cement a deep dislike for the person that stuck it on my windscreen. I doubt I am alone.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, May 20, 1840]

Today’s case was reported exactly 177 years before my mother was born, so on this – her 77th birthday (although she certainly doesn’t look it) – I’d like to wish her a very happy birthday! 

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