A coster’s barrow stinks out the Guildhall

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Sometimes it is the banality of the Police courts that interests me. The magistrates that presided in London’s summary courts sent thousands of offenders up through the system  to face trials at Old Bailey or Clerkenwell where they were, if convicted by a jury, sentenced to transportation, imprisonment and even to death. Many more petty criminals, drunk and disorderly men and women, or anti-social juveniles were sent for spells of hard labour, expelled to a reformatory, or fined a few shillings or pounds.

The justices (the magistracy of London) had wide ranging powers which were hardly constrained by the right of appeal. Tremendous discretion rested with these men, all of whom had a legal background and many of whom served their communities for years.

One of the responsibilities they had was to keep to peace and another was to help regulate trade and maintain what we might term, health and safety. The metropolis had a infrastructure of inspectors and health officers but it fell to the magistrate to deal with those that broke the numerous rules that governed food sales and preparation or the maintenance of property.

In October 1889 Alfred Woodbridge was summoned to appear at the Guildhall Police Court before the alderman magistrate who presided there. Woodbridge was a costermonger, a trader who sold goods cheaply from a barrow. Costermongers didn’t enjoy a terribly respectable reputation and had frequent and endemic run-ins with the police who were forever moving them on from their pitches on the city’s streets.

Woodbridge wasn’t in trouble for obstructing the highway however; he had been brought on the instructions of the Commissioners of Sewers for having in his possession meat that  unfit for human consumption.

The coster had been spotted outside one of the City’s markets (either Smithfield, Fleet or Leadenhall – the report did not specify which) by a meat inspector named William Allen. Mr Allen told the court that he had discovered that Woodbridge had on his barrow:

’29 hams and eight pieces of pork, which were diseased and totally unfit for human food’. He seized them and took them to Dr Sedgewick Saunders – the Medical Officer of Health for the City of London – to be examined.  Dr Saunders confirmed the meat was bad saying that:

‘The odour from them was filthy, and they were quite black. It would have been a very serious result had they been eaten’.

Luckily they weren’t and so no harm had been done. Woodbridge made no attempt to deny the charge and he was fined £9 and 5s with a warning that if he could not find the money to pay he would go to prison for a month.

The magistrate then was enforcing the regulations that allowed trade to function across the City and at the same time protecting the public from unscrupulous traders. Whether Woodbridge learned his lesson and made sure his produce was safe in future is of course unknown. But a £9 fine was no small beer and we can be fairly sure that if he showed his face again in the area inspectors like Mr Allen would be quick to check his barrow.

[from The Standard, Friday, October 18, 1889]

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