The Mansion House has no sympathy with those bent on ‘destroying themselves’.

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When an unnamed woman was charged with disorderly conduct at Mansion Police Police court in December 1841 the sitting justice took it upon himself to make a statement to the press. Sir Peter Laurie, the incumbent Lord Mayor, didn’t inflict further punishment on the woman because she had already been locked up overnight in the City’s compter (a old term for a prison). However, all leniency stopped there.

The Lord Mayor had previously punished her for attempting to ‘destroy herself’ (in other words for attempting suicide) by jumping off one of the capital’s bridges. Sir Peter said that there had been considerable numbers of suicide attempts in the past few months. No less than 26 people had been charged with the offence at Guildhall  and a further five at Mansion House from September to October.

As a result he had determined to deal with all future cases more severely. In November he had sent a man to Bridewell in an attempt to check ‘so revolting an offence’ by ‘a little wholesome severity’. That individual had tried to cut his own throat because he was suffering from ‘poverty and idleness’. A day later he sent a woman to the Old Bailey to face a jury trial. His fellow justice, Sir Chapman Marshall, followed his lead and committed a man for ‘attempting to drown himself’. In both cases the accused pleaded guilty and received a sentence of 14 days imprisonment.

Since then there had been a notable falling off in persons attempting to take their own lives so Sir Peter commended the actions of the bench.

The clerk of the court ‘observed that several desperate imposters had made money by the experiment of tumbling into the Thames. The infliction of imprisonment and hard labour for the offence would certainly check the practice as far as pretenders were concerned, whatever effect it might have on those that seriously wished to get rid of life.’ He added that the ‘great majority’ were imposters in his opinion.

Sir Peter concluded by warning ‘every man and woman brought before me jumping or trying to jump into the river shall most positively walk off to Newgate [gaol] , and I am very much mistaken if the Judges do not henceforward inflict upon offenders very heavy punishments’.

It hardly needs to be said that such draconian attitudes to what may well have been genuine mental health issues would not be applied today. Attempting suicide is no longer an offence under law although persons displaying suicidal tendencies may well be sectioned, and forcibly confined. So the Victorian bench looks particularly uncaring in this regard. But before we congratulate ourselves on living in more enlightened times we might note the report of the parliamentary commission created by the late Jo Cox that has revealed the worrying extent of loneliness in modern Britain.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, December 15, 1841]

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A ‘poor man’ and ‘a most depraved and incorrigible beggar’: Contrasting attitudes at Mansion House as winter sets in

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We’ve just had a weekend of severe weather in which snow caught much of southern England by surprise. Many parts of London were covered in a white coating yesterday, all very attractive and fun for kids but a nightmare for commuters come Monday morning. My university is effectively closed as teaching is suspended and all the trains into central London are running slow or late or both. Mind you, I’m not sure how much difference that is to a normal day!

So winter is well and truly upon us and this is the season which hits the homeless and the poor the hardest. For those that have to decide between food and heating, or those sleeping rough in the capital, December through to the spring is particularly challenging.

That is why Shelter and the  other homeless charities campaign so hard to help people at this time of the year. We will all see the adverts on the tube or get a leaflet through the door asking for a one-off donation or a regular contribution. Each year the BBC supports the St Mungo’s charity, which does such good work with the homeless.

The early Victorians were certainly aware of the problem of poverty and homelessness. They had charities and dedicated people who worked, often through the church, to support those in need. What they didn’t have, as we know, is a system of poor relief that allowed people to be supported within their own homes. There was no housing benefit or  income support. If you needed ‘relief’ you went to the workhouse, and this was increasingly true after 1834 and the passing into law of the Poor Law Amendment Act.

Attitudes towards poverty had hardened in the 1830s and poverty, which had always been viewed in part as a personal failing, was now frequently associated with moral bankruptcy. At Mansion House Police court two cases came up in early December which highlight contrasting contemporary attitudes towards poverty and homelessness.

Peter Jordan was described as an ‘imbecile’. Today we would understand this as someone with learning difficulties and now, as then, we would have some sympathy with him. The sitting magistrate at Mansion House that morning was Alderman Pirie, who was deputising for the Lord Mayor. He certainly looked on Jordan’s case with compassion but he was fairly limited in what he could do.

Jordan had been brought it by Duncan Campbell, a parish officer for the City. He had found the man ‘soliciting for charity’. In other words he was begging and that was against the wide-ranging vagrancy laws. However, Campbell’s aim wasn’t to have him punished for begging but to help him. He wanted to ‘prevent him perishing in the streets’.

Had he applied for relief, the alderman wanted to know. This was complicated; there was no help to had at Cannon Street he was told, and the London workhouse had recently closed and a new one was not yet built. The City had also closed a house of refuge so that was no option either.

All that was left to the justice was to send Jordan to prison for begging. And so the ‘poor man, […] who used formerly to work in the coal pits, was removed to Bridewell, under particular directions’ (presumably not to be whipped or set to hard labour, but instead to be looked after).

The next defendant in the dock received far less sympathy. Maria Butcher and her two children were also presented for begging in the streets. A policeman testified that he had found the two children at five in the evening on the Saturday.

He said ‘he saw the poor children, half naked and shivering on the steps leading to London Bridge. He took them to the Station-house and found in their pockets eighteen-pence halfpenny.  Their mother, who was up to all the tricks of vagrancy, the officer said, was in the justice-room’.

Maria denied any knowledge of what her children got up to when she wasn’t around but no one believed her. She took in washing and had, she said, very ‘little to give them’. The alderman said he was sure she was happy to take any money they ‘earned’ by begging nevertheless.

‘I’d be very glad to get any’ she replied, ‘and I assure you I’d make good use of it’.

The magistrate was horrified:

‘What a wretch you must be to send out these poor infants in such dreadful weather’.

His feelings were echoed by a street keeper who said he knew Maria as a ‘most depraved and incorrigible beggar’ who exploited her children to avoid doing any work herself. She often sent then out without hardly any clothes or shoes, in all weathers, to beg for her. Another witness, a Poor Law Union official said the children were well known beggars and the police were obliged to bring them in under the law.

In the end although she begged for clemency Mr Pirie sent her and the children to Bridewell but – for her at least – there was no similar instructions for them to go easy on her. The children could expect some level of care but she would bread and water and the drudgery of hard labour, picking oakum most likely.

So that winter all four of the people brought before the Mansion House court ended up in prison. Their ‘crime’? Poverty. Today there will still be hundreds of men, women and young people sleeping rough and begging on London’s streets. So before we congratulate ourselves too much on creating a fairer and more civilised society than our early Victorian ancestors perhaps we should take a moment to reflect on that uncomfortable fact.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, December 11, 1838]

An appeal to the Lord Mayor so ‘that one of the few holidays in this country would not be lost’. Some pre-Christmas cheer at Mansion House

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Before I became an academic historian I worked mostly in retail. I enjoyed the busy Christmas period but it has to be said that shopkeepers and shop staff work extremely hard for very little pay and hardly any time off. Most of us that are lucky enough to work in education will get at least a week’s downtime over Christmas and probably quite a bit more.

This is because schools and universities close down between Christmas and New Year and there is no teaching at my place for three weeks. I will use some of this time for marking, preparation and research but will also have a week’s proper holiday as well. Contrast this with the 15 years I worked in a variety of shops when I would work till 5 or 6 on Christmas Eve and be back in on the 27 December and sometimes even on Boxing Day.

Indeed Boxing Day has almost ceased to be a day off for many workers. Traditionally Boxing Day was a time when we rewarded servants and tradespeople for their service over the past year in a custom that stretched back to the 17th century at least. Now many if not most shops open their doors at 9 am so that the British public can start to spend the vouchers and money their relatives have given them for Christmas, or exchange their unwanted presents and ill-fitting clothes.

It seems that even in mid Victorian period there was some recognition that workers needed some proper time off. In 1842 an organisation was formed to campaign for an end to Sunday trading and to regulate shop opening times. From the evidence I see in these newspapers reports, shops in London opened all hours in the 1800s, you could walk into a grocers, or haberdashery, or a cheese shop anytime from early morning to almost midnight. In fact nineteenth-century London looks a lot more like twenty-first century London than does it resemble the city of my youth.

In December 1859 a deputation from the Early Closing Association appeared at Mansion House Police Court to ask for the Lord Mayor’s support. In 1859 Christmas Day fell on a Sunday. Given that the 25 December was observed as a holiday the Association were worried that the ‘toiling classes’ would miss out on an extra holiday this year.

Mr Lilwall and Mr Winkworth (secretary and vice president respectively) reminded the Lord Mayor that in 1857 the then incumbent chief magistrate had issued a recommended that Boxing Day be observed as a public holiday. Shops and other businesses had taken up the idea and it had even been adopted by mayors across the country. The result was that shop workers, clerks, and all manner of the ‘industrial classes’ got a proper holiday from Saturday afternoon through to Tuesday morning on the 27th.

The Association urged this Lord Mayor to follow suit and urge businesses to adopt the holiday. It was hard, they said, for individual tradesmen to grant an extra day of leave and close their shops because they didn’t know what the competition was doing. It needed a voice of authority to make a declaration.

The Lord Mayor agreed with the deputation from the Association but it wasn’t sure he had either the power or the influence to instigate a holiday in London, let alone elsewhere.

But he was certainly happy to publicly ‘express his hope that the tradesmen and merchants of the city, and the bankers, as far as they possibly could, would close their establishments on the 26th inst. and so give an opportunity for rational and recreative enjoyment to those in their employ’.

He hoped that this would mean that Christmas, as one of the ‘few holidays which were generally observed in this country would not be lost’.

The Early Closing Association continued it campaign throughout the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. It took them until 1912 to achieve part of their aim, half-day closing. Some of you might remember when shops would close early on a weekday and many will recall that until the 1990s Sunday opening was rare. Nowadays shops open Sundays, all week long, from 8 to 8 and later, and some big stores are open 24/7.

Spare a thought then for those that have to man the tills and restock the shelves over the bus Christmas period who work even harder than they normally have to. They need a rest just as much (if not more) than everyone else. Perhaps its time that we made Boxing Day a proper national holiday, with all shops closing for the day. After all, do we really need ‘retail therapy’ on the morning after Christmas?

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, December 9, 1859]

A pair of well-read rogues at the Mansion House

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The New Police (created in London in 1829) spent most of their time on patrol. They were tasked with knowing their beat inside out; all the locals, shops, warehouses and dwellings while keeping an eye out for suspicious characters, open windows and broken locks. The aim of the police was crime prevention and deterrence and in this they were a ‘modern’ extension of the old watchmen of early modern and eighteenth-century London.

One of these new ‘Peelers’ (after Sir Robert Peel, the home secretary that created them) was walking his beat on Liverpool Street in early December 1851 when he noticed two men acting suspiciously. One seemed to be trying to hide something under his coat while the other glanced about, as if checking whether anyone had seen them.

Perhaps noticing the policeman they turned into a street and the ‘bobby’ (another nickname derived from Peel) watched as one stopped and trued to time a pair of books up with a piece of string.  The officer (named in the newspaper report) approached and stopped them and asked what they were doing.

The men, Henry Robinson and Henry Hamper, said they had been given the books by a beer-shop owner to take to a pawn shop on her behalf. The books in question were two volumes of the Waverley Novels by Sir Walter Scott. They were ‘elegantly bound’ and the policeman was unconvinced by the pair’s explanation.

It wasn’t hard to trace the beer shop owner, who doubled as the men’s landlady, and she and the would-be thieves all appeared at the Mansion House in front of the Lord Mayor. She explained that she had bought the books at £1 8 a volume and had a set of them.  There were a lot of the Waverley novels, published by Scott (anonymously at first) from 1814 to 1831. The novels (which included Ivanhoe, a work I have at home) were extremely popular with readers in the nineteenth century. The landlady’s set must have been worth quite a bit, as just one of them would be the equivalent of about £80 today.

In recent weeks she’d found that four of the books had been stolen from the trunk she kept them in. When challenged in court one of the Henrys admitted taking two books out of the trunk and selling them in Petticoat Lane for 5s, a fraction of their value.

The Lord Mayor chose not to send them for trial before a jury, possibly because the evidence was not as concrete as it might be. A jury might not be convinced that both of them had taken the items or that they hadn’t simply found them. Better then to use his summary powers and convict them as ‘rogues and vagabonds’ which required much less of a burden of proof. He sent them to prison for two months.

Sadly I don’t think they were allowed to take the books with them as reading matter.

[from The Morning Post , Tuesday, December 02, 1851]

The bailiffs thwarted – a small victory at the Mansion House

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On Wednesday 27 October 1886 a man appeared in front of the alderman magistrate at the Mansion House Police Court to answer a summons. Mr B. A. Bird was a clerk employed by Messrs. Norman & Co. (Limited) of Queen Victoria Street.

The company either sold furniture or operated a loan scheme for those making hire purchases of large items. In July 1885 a City merchant named Gray (first initial ‘F’, possibly Frederick) had bought some furniture for £22 using the hire purchase service. He paid £3 deposit and agreed to make subsequent monthly payments of £1 until the whole sum was covered.

By June 1886 he had paid back £13 but had fallen into financial difficulty and fell into arrears. Anyone who has a mortgage or large credit card bills to service today will understand how this feels. By the 1880s debt was no longer something that was likely land you in debtor’s gaol but it still carried a stigma. In 1869 legislation restricted the amount of time one could be thrown in prison for debt to six weeks, and in 1883 the Bankruptcy Act further protected the person of those that couldn’t pay their debts.

Normans waited five months before they chose to recover the debt by other means. When no further payments were forthcoming they despatched Mr Bird and ‘some carmen’ [the Victorian equivalent of van drivers] to Gray’s business address.

There ‘they forcibly broke open the door, and removed the whole of the furniture in question, together with Mr Gray’s papers in the table-drawers, and a mat which did not belong to them’.

Regardless of whether they had a right to recover the debt or not Alderman deemed them to have acted unlawfully and excessively and sided with the complainant. He fined Bird £5 for the offence, and awarded £2 2s costs, plus an extra 5s 6d  for the damage to the lock they broke as they entered.

I know that in my own family history there was a Frederick Gray who we believe worked as a clerk and settled in West London. The family originated from Cambridgeshire, from the small village of Maney in the heart of the fens, and at some point in the mid 1800s one of them chose to travel down to London to look for work. Was this ‘F. Gray’ a relative of mine? From this distance it is hard to say and, of course, it is highly unlikely –  this man was a merchant not a humble clerk, and it is not an unusual surname after all. But for all that I feel a certain link to the past in this story a man who stood up to the bullying tactics of the debt collectors and won.

[from The Standard, Thursday, October 28, 1886]

A snake trader charms the Mansion House

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The summary courts of the capital didn’t always deal with crime or antisocial behaviour; some of those that came before so did so for advice or to ask for help. One such person, named, was a traveler from the Caribbean, who appeared before the Chief Clerk at Mansion House in some distress.

The unnamed visitor, described by the press reports as a ‘respectable-looking young negro’, said he had arrived in London from his native Demerara via a circuitous route. He told  Mr Oke, the clerk that he had left Demerara (in what was then British Guiana and is now Guyana) in an attempt to make some money.

Whilst ‘out in the woods’ in Demerara he ‘had discovered a nest of boa-constrictors that had only just been hatched, and having heard that such objects were of value in foreign countries, he carefully secured his prize… and resolved to take the “little strangers” to the Zoological Gardens at Moscow, where he was told he would be paid a good price for them’.

It seems that there was nothing deemed wrong in the young man’s actions, the Victorians hadn’t yet determined that trading in live exotic animals was cruel. The RSPCA (who are concerned about such a trade in snakes today) had been in existence for around 50 years by 1873 (when this application came before the Mansion House Police Court) but perhaps they were busy enough dealing with cruelty to domestic animals.

Unfortunately for the adventurous snake dealer things didn’t go quite to plan however. He made his way to Hamburg where he was supposed to make a connection to take him on to Russia but the boas fell sick. Despite ‘all his endeavours’ the ‘young “boas” all died’.

With nothing to trade and most of his money gone the lad used the rest of his funds to get himself to England and the capital where he now asked for the Empire’s help to secure a boat back home. He had found ship at the West India dock that was prepared to carry him back to Guiana in return from him working his passage but he had no clothes. He asked the court therefore, if he might have some money from the poor box to purchase the necessary clothes for the voyage.

Mr Oke sent an assistant to check his story and, having ascertained that he was telling the truth, agreed to help. He was given a small sum and ‘left the court apparently highly delighted with the result of his application’.

There is a footnote to this story: Mr George Colwell OKe (1821-1874) served as the Chief Clerk to the magistrates in the City from 1864 onwards having started as a clerk in 1855. He was widely respected for his knowledge of the criminal law and assisted many aldermen and lord mayors in their decision making. Moreover, as a result of his deep understanding of statue law and practice Oke produced several volumes on the subject.

The best selling and most well-known of these was his Synopsis of Summary Convictions,(1858) which ran to 8 volumes and was popularly known as Oke’s Magisterial. You can find this online and while it is hardly an exciting read, it is invaluable to historians in understanding the legal structure under which all Police Court business was conducted. Oke rarely appears in the pages of the newspapers so it is nice to see such an influential figure pop up and act in a charitable way, demonstrating the alternative function of these central summary courts.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, October 23, 1873]

Two jewel thieves nabbed in Cheapside

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Cheapside in the 1890s

One of the early jobs I had as an adult was working in a jewellers over the busy Christmas period. Being new to the trade my job was to fetch items from inside the large shop windows and bring them to the assistants serving customers on the counter. Jewellers are different from most retail outlets in that customers are not generally allowed to select their purchases without supervision; after all some of the rings, necklaces and watches they sell are extremely valuable.

This makes it more of a challenge for shoplifters and jewel thieves. The crudest method is the smash and grab: literally smashing a jeweller’s window with something heavy (like a hammer or a brick) and snatching as much as they can before running off with it. This is harder to achieve during daylight so its no surprise that jewellers routinely empty their displays at the end of the day’s trading.

The other common method of theft is deception by distraction. This is frequently deployed by shoplifters and involves convincing the shop keeper that you are an honest regular customer and diverting their gaze or attention from your target long enough to palm it or other wise secrete it about your person. This often works best if the thief has an accomplice.

In October 1889 Mary Ann Sinclair and Sarah Pond (or Pend) entered a jewellers shop in Cheapside in the City of London owned by a Mr Carter. They asked the assistant if they could see some wedding rings. Neither of them were particular young ladies (Sinclair was 52 and Pend 39) but presumably they were respectably dressed and caused the assistant no alarm.

He produced a triangular wire tray containing a selection of rings. Mary Ann tried on 2 or 3 of the rings but none fitted; she told the man that they had better bring in their friend (the bride to be presumably) just to be sure. She then asked the assistant to measure her finger and left. Almost as soon as they had gone the assistant realised one of the rings was missing, a diamond band valued at £15 10s (or around £600 in today’s money).

This was not the first theft these two had carried out however. On the 2 October they had performed a similar deception at John James Durant & Son., also on Cheapside and the police were onto them. Soon after they left Carter’s two detectives picked up their trail and followed them to Gutter Lane, just off the main street, where they were arrested. Back at Cloak Lane police station the pair were identified as the women that had stolen another ring from  Durant’s by Albert Chambers by the same ruse. Chambers, who served as the shop’s engraver, told the police that he counted the number of rings on the wire frame  before handing them to his colleague to show the women. This was probably standard practice.

So the police now had good evidence against the women and at the Mansion House Police court they were both committed for trial. At the Old Bailey on 21 October they were tried and convicted of the theft despite their protestations that they knew nothing about it. Pend admitted to having a previous conviction from 1878 when she was known as Mary Margaret M’Cull. Both women were sent down for 15 months at hard labour.

We have no more information about Sinclair but Sarah Pend (or M’Cull) generated a little more detail in the records. The new Digital Panopticon website notes that she was born in Norfolk in 1850 and had great eyes and sandy coloured hair. She was sent to Holloway Prison and released onto the habitual criminals register in January 1891.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, October 11, 1889]