No ‘soft soap’ from Mr Lushington as he fines a company for exploiting its workers

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Messrs. Paton and Charles, soap manufactures, were summoned before Mr Lushington at Thames Police Court accused of breaking the terms of the Factory Act.

There were several acts to restrict working hours and try to improve conditions in the workplace in the 1800s, from early efforts in 1833 (mainly aimed at the cotton industry in the north) to later reforms after the extension of the franchise in 1867. Most of this was targeted at preventing the exploitation of children under 14 and was tied up with new arguments about the nature of childhood and the value of education.

It is probably fair to say that while the acts were well-meant they were (at first anyway) pretty toothless. An economic downturn in the 1870s also led some to argue that legislation had gone too far and that Britain was becoming uncompetitive internationally  because of restrictions imposed on employers – now where have we heard that before (or since)?

Paton & Charles’ soap manufactory operated out of premises in Brewhouse Lane,  Wapping , close to the river. Records at the London Metropolitan Archives suggest they had been trading in Wapping (at 148 Wapping High Street) since at least 1867 and there is a Post Office entry for them as early as 1843 at the same address, so they were a well established firm by 1881 when their representatives appeared in court. They may well have moved in 1880 to the Brewhouse Lane site, a year before this case emerged.

Mr Lushington was told that the firm employed ‘around 80 hands’ , both girls and boys as well as adults. Four young women were in court to testify that they had been asked to work longer than a ten hour day, working ‘until ten o’clock at night, instead of six in the evening, which was the normal time of leaving off’. They cited two dates (15th and 22nd of June) when this had occurred but the suggestion was it was more common than this. Someone (presumably an inspector) had found them at work at seven in the previous week, hence the summons.

The girls were employed in the perfume department where they worked under the direction of Alfred Smith. It seems it was Smith who was directly responsible for getting them to work overly long hours against the stipulation of the Factory Acts. He was not in court however, and Lushington felt the responsibility was wider than this. He determined that the ‘firm had [not] used due diligence to enforce the carrying out of the provisions of the Act ‘ and fined them £8 and 16s (or around £400 today).

[from The Standard, Friday, July 22, 1881]

Robbery but not ‘the usual suspects’ in Albert Square

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Reynolds Map of East London (1882)

Fans of the BBC’s Eastenders soap will be interested to know that there actually was an Albert Square in East London in the past, even if it has long gone today. Census returns from 1871 reveal it as a dangerous place, home to prostitutes (‘fallen women’) and sailors. It was close to the Ratcliffe Highway, the scene of a pair of notorious murders in 1811, and shared much of the reputation for overcrowding and poverty as its near neighbour Whitechapel. The Shadwell area was covered by the Thames Police Court, the only magistrate court for which records survive in any real depth for the late Victorian period.

Prostitution (which was not a crime as such) and theft (which of course was) were interconnected  in the 1800s. Many of the women prosecuted at Old Bailey or before summary courts for stealing were prostitutes who took the opportunity of their clients’ drunkenness or exhaustion to remove their purses, pocket books, watches or other property of value. Some women used the ‘cover’ of prostitution to get close enough to men in pubs or in crowded streets to be able to pick their pockets whilst distracting them with their ‘charms’.

The Ratcliffe Highway and Albert Square and its environs were notorious areas for this sort of petty offending and so we might expect that the defendants in this case of theft might have been denizens of this East End district and that their unfortunate victim was an unwary traveler into their web. But this was not the case for William Collins and Richard Carthy who came up before the Thames magistrate in July 1863, or at least at face value it did not seem to be the case.

Both men lived in the Blackfriars district, further west along the Thames river. Collins was described in court as an engineer and Carthy as a musician. They were both reasonably well-do-do or at least had some wealth of their own because they had representation in court from a lawyer, Mr Joseph Smith.

Their victim (Margaret Taylor) on the other hand was a much less ‘respectable’ individual although we can only guess at this from the description of the circumstances of case she laid against them.  Mr Woolwich was told that Collins and Carthy had visited her rooms at 12 Albert Square after meeting her in Shadwell. She was not alone there, as ‘other persons were present, and a great deal of drinking was going on’.

Margaret testified that she had been sitting on her bed with the two men (which certainly does not suggest she was a ‘respectable’ woman in nineteenth-century terms) when Collins handed her  glass of beer. As she took it he purloined her silver watch and quickly palmed it to his companion. Margaret saw him do it and accused him of theft, a row broke out and it soon escalated.

There were several other men and women in the house and this makes it fairly clear that it was a brothel.  Perhaps it was one that was well known to the police and one where they turned  a ‘blind eye’; police corruption in the 1860s was entirely possible, or they may simply have wished to restrict prostitution on the street by containing it indoors. The men’s solicitor established that there were at least 25 other men and women in Margaret’s room at the time so the picture that emerges is one of considerable debauchery.  The fact that 12 Albert Square was a brothel may have influenced the magistrate’s decision-making and attitude towards the offenders Collins and Carthy who had visited it.

PC George Coleman (270K) was first on the scene and he rushed upstairs to Margaret’s room where the two men still were. He reported seeing Carthy pass the watch back to Collins who then lobbed it out of the window and ‘over the houses’, intent in getting rid of any evidence against him. He arrested both of them.

No one could find the watch. PC Coleman said they had searched for it but it might ‘have gone down the chimney of one of the houses’ and it was also likely that someone had picked it up and taken it for their own. He was convinced however, that the men were guilty as charged.

Mr Woolrych agreed and declared that ‘there never was a clearer case’. He told the pair that he would commit them for trial by jury and that they would be remanded in the meantime so further depositions could be taken. So it would seem that in this instance that the law was protecting the sex workers of East London (or at least, their property) from their wealthier clientele. It is not beyond possibility of course that Collins and Carthy were dupes. The case never came to Old Bailey and while it may well have been heard elsewhere it may also have been dropped if the men had found a way to pay off Ms Taylor. Perhaps then, what we see here was a more sophisticated form of robbery than it at first appears.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, July 16, 1863]

 

 

 

 

Yet more casual violence towards women in the East End

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Limehouse, Tower Hamlets. This photo is early 1900s but the scene would have been quite similar in the 1880s

There were two reported cases from the Thames Police court in the Morning Post on the 15 June 1881. The first was an awful case of domestic abuse that I will consider shortly, while the second was a case of fraud.

A compositor (someone that worked in the printing trade) named Jacob Marks was brought up before Mr Saunders charged with obtaining money by false pretences. It was alleged that Marks pretended to be a broker ’employed by the Inland Revenue to levy distress when the Queen’s taxes were not paid’.

He went around Tower Hamlets suggesting that he had some influence in registering people as tax collectors, a steady form of employment. He demanded a registration fee of 1 to 2 guineas but it was a scam. Several people parted with money but no one was appointed as a result and Marks promptly disappeared. Mr Saunders committed him for trial for fraud.

It was the other case that was more shocking however. Thomas Leigh , a 23 year-old ship’s cooper who lived in Limehouse, was accused of assaulting his wife, Ellen. Mrs Leigh was so badly hurt that she was unable to attend the court in person and there were fears over her life as a result of the injuries she had sustained.

I suspect no one is any doubt of how difficult the Victorian period was for women; domestic violence was a daily experience for many women and men resorted to violence in a routine manner. Moreover much of this was simply accepted by society as appropriate or even necessary. The law did little to protect females from abuse by fathers, husbands, lovers or employers and the prevailing rhetoric of patriarchy validated a man’s ‘correction’ of his ‘disobedient’ or ‘bad’ wife.

Proportionally very few women ever tried to prosecute their husbands in court and when they did it was probably after suffering silently or meekly for years. When they did go before a magistrate it was often because they feared that the ‘next time’ they were were assaulted might be the ‘last time’; and given the strong correlation between domestic violence and domestic murder this is not at all surprising.

Thomas Leigh was probably a man that sent considerable time away from home. As a  ship’s cooper he may have worked on land at the docks but it is more likely he traveled often, leaving his wife to cope at home and coming back periodically to (hopefully) share his wages.

The couple lived at Fuller’s Rents, Cotton Street in the East End and on Monday 13 June they rowed. We don’;t know what about but Leigh claimed that he was provoked into hitting his spouse.

‘She tore my shirt, and gave me a great deal of provocation before I struck her’, he told Mr Saunders in his defence.

The row and subsequent fight was loud enough to alert the neighbours (and presumably violent enough for them to not simply ignore it as many routinely did). One aspect of the later ‘Ripper’ murders (in 1888) was the fact that no one seemed to hear anything, or if they did, they chose not to intervene. One witness supposedly heard Mary Kelly shout ‘murder’ but that was so common in the dark courts of Whitechapel that she thought nothing of it.

When PC Robert Wells (346D) arrived he found Ellen in a terrible state. Her husband had beaten her and kicked her ‘five times about the body’. She was, the court heard, ‘enciente at the time’. In other words she was pregnant. Was it his child, did he even know? Was that what they had rowed about? At this stage we can’t know.

It was clear that this was serious but Thomas Leigh seemed ‘indifferent’ in court. PC Wells told Mr Saunders that two women had stayed up with Ellen all night but she was in a ‘dangerous’ condition. Leigh asked for bail which was refused; Saunders remanded him for a week and told him that he was facing a charge of assault that might easily become worse if his victim failed to recover.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, June 15, 1881]

Gamekeeper turned poacher at the West India Docks

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Sugar being loaded at the West India Docks c.1900

So far this week at the Thames Police Court we have had three assaults (one of them domestic), a stabbing at sea, and a case of arson (with no obvious motive). The reporting has come from two different newspapers, Reynold’s and  the Illustrated Police News. Today’s post is taken from the Standard, and concerns a breach of trust.

Francis Earl was a Customs House officer. In fact he was described as ‘an extra out-door Customs Officer’ which sounds very much like he was a junior or low ranking officer rather than anything more sophisticated. In consequence I don’t expect he was particular well paid for the job he did, probably in all weathers and at antisocial hours.

Perhaps this led him into temptation, and that is hardly surprising given the huge amount of luxury goods that came through the London docks in the late nineteenth century.

On Saturday morning, the 11 June 1881, Earl was about to leave the West India Dock when he was stopped by watchman. His black bag was searched and a bottle of gin found inside. Earl was arrested and was then taken before Mr Lushington at Thames Police Court the next morning. There he was charged with the unlawful possession of goods that were believed to have been stolen.

Lushington had a reputation for severity, and he clearly didn’t like the idea that a Custom’s officer might be corrupt. After all it was the job of men like Earl to catch and prosecute those seeking to evade customs duties, not to profit from the illegal trade.

As a result the magistrate sent him to prison for two months adding that ‘he hoped the defendant would lose his position at the Customs, since he was not fit to be trusted’.

Ouch.

[from The Standard, Monday, June 13, 1881]

A mysterious case of arson in Mile End

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The spinning room in the Shadwell rope works c1880

This week I am looking at the business of just one of London’s police courts, Thames (in East Arbour Lane) over the course of seven days in June 1881. After yesterday’s wounding at sea and violent assault at home we have another two cases from the East London courtroom.

Francis Kearns and Thomas Risdale were accused of assaulting Henry Osborn. All three were milkmen, the former worked for the Farmers’ Dairy Company (based in Stepney) and while Osborn was employed by an unnamed rival. They clashed in a pub in Cotton Street, Limehouse and Kearns hurled a can containing eight quarts of milk at Osborn. As a fight began to escalate the police were called and the men arrested. Mr Saunders, the magistrate presiding that day, sent both defendants to prison for a month at hard labour.

However it was the other story I found more interesting because it involved arson, a crime historians have , relatively speaking, largely ignored.

At 4 o’clock on Saturday 11 June the gates of Joseph Johnson’s rope and twine factory in Wade’s Place on the Mile End Road were locked. All the hands had gone home at 2 having finished for the day, as was the normal pattern of working in the 1800s. Workers generally worked Monday to Saturday afternoon, having the latter off along with Sunday.  Joseph Johnson ran the factory with his brother William but they didn’t live there. At 11 at night William checked the premises, as he always did, and found everything in order and nothing out of the ordinary. He returned to his home which was close by the business.

However, at one o’clock on Sunday morning a fire was seen burning in the factory and the alarm was raised. William rushed over accompanied by his carman (effectively a nineteenth-century van driver) and they found the whole place on fire. They also discovered a man lying on the ground, ‘face downwards, close to the shed door’. William asked him what he was doing there but his reply was inaudible and Johnson and the carman left him and ran off to try and save the horses that were stabled there.

When they had secured the horses – all safe and well I’m glad to say – they looked for the mysterious man but he had gone. He hadn’t gone far however, and they soon caught up with him near the gates. Johnson and his employee seized the man and handed him over to the police. On the way to East Arbour Square Police station the man, who gave his name as John Redding (a cooper from Stratford), desperately tried to escape his situation.

‘I hope you will not swear against me’ he pleaded with Johnson, ‘I did not intend to do any hard. If £1000 will get me out of it, I can get it’.

£1000 in 1881 was a huge sum of money, the equivalent to nearly £50,000 today so I’ve no idea how a cooper thought he would lay his hands on that amount, and it all adds to the mystery.

At Thames Police Court Mr Saunders was told the police thought Redding had been drinking and was sporting a black eye. Was this an explanation of his behaviour or evidence of him seeking some ‘dutch courage’ to carry out a deliberate act of arson, perhaps one inspired by revenge? When he was searched no ‘lucifers’ (matches) were found on him; in fact nothing (not even a pipe) was found that might have enabled him to start the blaze. It was a curious case and clearly there was more to be discovered. As a result Mr Saunders remanded him in custody for further examination.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, June 12, 1881]

A Stabbing on the High Seas (and other tales from Thames Police Court)

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This week I am going to take a slightly different approach to my selection of cases. Instead of taking them from across a range of Police Courts I am going to concentrate on just one, the Thames Police Court, which was one of two courts serving the East End of London*. I am also going to stick to one year, 1881 (a year when there are also manuscript records for Thames**). Hopefully then, I will be able to chart the business of Thames Police court from Saturday 11 June 1881 to Friday 17 June.

There are two cases reported from Saturday’s sitting, the first concerned a man named George Braithwaite who was accused of assaulting Elizabeth Grub, a ‘young woman’ living on the Isle of Dogs. She was too ill to attend court and the magistrate remanded Braithwaite in custody for a week to ‘see how the complainant progressed’.

The second concerned a ‘stabbing on the high seas’. Tobias Rosenfelt was brought up in Thames on a charge of ‘unlawfully wounding Harry Price, chief steward on board the steamship “Libra”.’ The Libra was one of the vessels run by the General Steam Navigation Company between London and Hamburg. The company (formed in 1824) carried both passengers and cargo across the Channel and North Sea, and later (after 1882) began operations in the Mediterranean. The Libra was launched in 1869 but sank in 1889 following a collision at sea.

According to the report of the case in 1881 Rosenfelt, a 29 year-old horse dealer who lived in Whitechapel (in Half Moon Passage), was on board the Libra on May 1st as it steamed towards Hamburg. He was in boisterous mood and entered the saloon, calling loudly for a bottle of lemonade. When Price, the ship’s steward, asked him to be  little more restrained Rosenfelt gave him a mouthful of abuse.

Price then asked him to leave but he refused. When the steward attempted to throw him out of the saloon he was attacked. He took a knife (or ‘some other sharp instrument’) from his pocket and aimed it at the steward’s chest. Price put up his hands to defend himself and was stabbed in his palm. Rosenfelt fled with the steward in pursuit. When he reached the middle of the ship Price caught up with him but Rosenfelt snatched hold of a ‘camp chair’ and bashed Price over the head with it.

Presumably at some point the horse dealer was arrested or detained onboard and returned to England to face the music in June. At the hearing the prosecutor told Mr Lushington (the Thames magistrate) that Rosenfelt had previously been charged with manslaughter in Hamburg, and wounding, and was clearly a ‘dangerous man’. The magistrate remanded him in custody to see if more evidence emerged. We can see if he reappeared later that week.

[from The Illustrated Police News etc , Saturday, June 11, 1881]

*the other was Worship Street in Shoreditch

**held by the London Metropolitan Archives (LMA)

Exploiting workers in the late 19th century ‘rag trade’.

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Contemporary cartoon on the evils of ‘sweated’ factory labour

Yesterday’s case looked at the regulation of living conditions and featured two landlords who were fined heavily for allowing their rental properties to fall into a ‘filthy’ state, ‘unfit for human habitation’. That was in Bermondsey, south London, an area identified with poverty and poor housing in Charles Booth’s poverty maps.

North of the Thames the East End, and in particular the narrow streets and courts of Whitechapel were equally synonymous with degradation. Here too  in the 1880s there was a contemporary concern about the ‘sweating’ in the clothing trade.  ‘Sweating’ referred to the exploitation of (often foreign) workers, forced to work long hours in cramped and unhealthy conditions, for very low pay.

In 1890 a House of Lords select committee reported that ‘the evidence tends to show much evasion of the Factory Acts and overtime working of females’ in the clothing industry in London. The Factory Acts, widely flouted and largely ineffectual, were supposed to prevent dangerous or unhealthy conditions in the workplace, and to limit the amount of hours men, women and especially children, could be asked to work in any given week.

In May 1886 a Whitechapel tailor, Harris Solomons, was summoned to the Thames Police Court to answer charges that he was overworking some of his female employees.

Solomons, most probably one of the East End’s well-established Jewish community, operated from 8 Fieldgate Street, Spitalfields, close to the Bell Foundry and not far from the London Hospital.  In just a few years this area would become forever associated with the unsolved murders of ‘Jack the Ripper’.

The summons against the Whitechapel tailor was prosecuted by a factory inspector, Gerald Slade. He gave evidence that he had visited the defendant’s property four times in the last two months. This suggests either that the authorities were operating a crackdown on the clothing industry or Mr Solomons was a name on a targeted hit list.

Slade discovered that along with himself, Solomons employed two women. He found that these women were required to work until 9 o’clock most days, sometimes as late as 10. On Sundays they worked till 4 in the afternoon.

The inspector informed Solomons that if he expected his workers to toil on a Sunday he must let them leave no later than 8 in the evening on weekdays. Given that Solomons was in all likelihood Jewish and assuming his workers were, then they would not have worked Saturdays or late on a  Friday night, because of religious restrictions.

This constrained the working week and competition was great in the period so it seems Solomons was flouting the regulations of the Factory Acts that had been passed in part to protect labourers from such exploitation.

When Slade visited the premises on the following Sunday he had found both women, and the tailor, hard at work at half-past five, well beyond the 4 o’clock cut off point. As a result he had summoned Solomons for infringing the act.

Solomons pleaded innocent and tried to argue that there were special circumstances. He had a deadline, and since ‘the holidays’ were imminent he needed to get this job finished. In total Slade brought 3 charges, all similar, against the tailor and Mr Lushington found against him. He fined him 206d in the main case, and 1 plus costs in the other two. It was an expensive day in court for the tailor and a day lost in the workshop to boot.

Whether this, or similar cases, had any real immediate or long term effect on the operation of the ‘rag trade’ or on workshop conditions in London is debatable. The select committee noted that the worst offenders were very hard to prosecute. Evidence had to produced  which usually meant an inspector had to catch an employer ‘red handed’ or an employee had to be a ‘whistle-blower’. The latter were extremely hard to find because work was at a  premium in the late 1800s and many of those recruited to work in these ‘sweat shops’ were desperate for the few pennies they earned.

Contemporaries like Annie Besant attempted to explore the trade but the huge numbers of ‘greeners’ (newly arrived Eastern European refugees, escaping persecution or famine in Russia) meant that there was a ready-made surplus of labour. A whistle-blower risked their job and their survival for little or no reward.

The way to fight ‘sweating’ then, was collective action. Given the small numbers of unionised labour in the 1870s and ’80s this was hard. Besant and the women that worked in Bryant & May match factory in the East End did, however, later show the capital and the world how determined and well-organised collective action could force an employer to address the concerns about pay and conditions.

The lesson was not lost on the dockers who organised successfully in 1889. The Match Girls and the Great Dock strikes probably represented the high point of late Victorian Trades Unionism. Over the next century workers’ rights would be championed, protected, and then gradually eroded from the 1980s onwards. We might remember then why we need to protect workers from exploitative employers: women being asked to work 6 days a week from early morning to late at night, with no rest, no lunch break, and very low pay is reason enough.

Exploitation has not gone away, and never will under the model of capitalism that exists in Britain and the world. Anyone that is any doubts about this need only look at trafficked workers, the existence of sweatshops in the developing world, the need for a minimum wage, and the modern phenomena of the ‘gig economy’ and zero-hour contracts. Capitalism has never been able to successfully police itself, which is why we need the state to do that.

[from The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, June 5, 1886]