Little charity for the Irish at Marlborough Street

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1843 could certainly be viewed as one of the low points of welfare policy in this country. 1834 saw the passing of the Poor Law Amendment Act, an act designed to force anyone seeking support from the state (in those days this meant the parish) to enter a workhouse  rather than be relieved outside. A previous piece of catch-all legislation, the Vagrancy Act (1824) also deserves mention as an instrument designed both to clamp down on beggars and vagrants and allow the arrest of pretty much anyone the local authorities took a dislike to but were otherwise unable to pin a specific offence on.

Thomas Lakey was exactly the sort of person the middle classes in Victorian society disliked. Lacey was unemployed, he was poor, homeless and, probably worst of all, he was Irish. When he appeared at Marylebone Police Court in June 1835 he was described as a ‘sturdy Irish beggar, accused of being a ‘common vagrant’.

The prosecution was brought by the Mendicity Society, an organisation formed in 1818 to ‘stop people begging’. The society was well organised and used careful record keeping to track mendicants, whom they helped financially on the understanding that they stopped begging and/or left the area.

Lacey came before the magistrate at Marylebone accused on being a ‘common drunken vagabond’ for the last 20 years. He had his own particular modus operandi, according to the officers bringing the case to court:

‘Having lost a hand, it was his practice to accost females in the street, and thrusting his stump before them, to demand charity in a menacing tone’.

If his appeal was not successful on the basis of his disability then ‘in his other hand he carried a stick, which he employed with great dexterity when drunk, or when pursued by a constable’.

For 20 years Thomas had received a pension of 15 pence a day from the East India Company. Given that this seemed enough to live on the magistrate (a Mr Chambers) was surprised the Irishman needed to beg at all. Mr Chambers told him that his pension (amounting to about 21 pence in today’s money, the equivalent of 2 days wages for a labourer) should allow him to live while he could also do some work, since he had a perfectly usable hand despite his injury.

We have no idea of how Thomas lost his hand, an accident working for the Company is most likely, but it may have happened after that. Clearly Mr Chambers had little sympathy for him. He turned to the Mendicity Society officers and suggested they speak to the East India Company. Perhaps if they were informed how Lacey was abusing the pension he had been given they might see fit to stop it.

The poor Irishman now work up to the reality of what was being proposed in court, the loss of the small dole he had to keep himself together. He told the court that if he was released he would immediately return to Kilkenny, where he was born, and no longer be a burden on London’s ratepayers or a threat to its inhabitants. Mr Chambers sent him to prison for two months to think it over.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, June 19, 1835]

The case of the ‘detonating grave digger’

The object of today’s post had a rather Dickensian name, Mr Wackett.

Wackett (no first name was given, if indeed he had one) declared himself to be a grave digger in Bethnal Green. One Sunday evening in early June 1839 Police constable Smith (171G) was strolling his beat in Shoreditch when he heard screams up ahead.

Moving along he quickly came upon several alarmed if not terrified persons, mostly women, who were trying to get away from a man in the street. Wackett was in the thick of things, apparently hurling small bags at passers-by, which appeared to explode on contact.

As the bags landed they ‘exploded with a report that could be heard at a considerable distance’, he later told the Worship Street court.

PC Smith arrested the grave digger and took him back to the station to search him. A number of bags, containing what seemed to contain gravel, were found on his person . On the orders of a magistrate these were taken away and examined by a local chemist.

When Wackett appeared before the Worship Street justice (Mr Broughton)  it was reported that:

‘intermixed with the gravel [was] a detonating powder which,  when thrown at any person, particularly a female, might create much alarm, but was not likely to destroy, or sensibly damage the dress’.

So it was an unpleasant thing to do, but one designed to upset and alarm and not to hurt or damage clothing. As a result Mr Broughton gave the grave digger a lecture on behaving more decently in future and let him go with a small fine.

[from The Operative, Sunday, June 9, 1839]

I hadn’t heard of the The Operative before, but it seems to have come out of Chartism. The paper’s ‘mission statement’ was “Established by the working classes for the defence of the rights of labour. Also for a ‘fair day’s wages for a fair day’s work.’

‘Mischievous’ or ‘evil’? An 11 year-old before the Guildhall Police Court

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In the nineteenth century the age of criminal responsibility was just 7 (today it is 10). It had been set at 7 for centuries and was not raised (to 8) until 1933. However, there was an understanding in law that while a 7 year-old could be tried for a crime the courts had to prove (up until the age of 14) that the child understood that what they had done was serious and not merely ‘mischievous’. This principle in law is termed doli incapax and in the wake of the murder of James Bulger in 1993 the Labour government abolished it.

Not only was it harder to prove that a child had committed an offence under the age of 14 it was also difficult to build a case if that was based on the evidence of children as well. There seems to have been no restrictions on children giving evidence or being cross-examined but in many historical cases where young people appear at the Old Bailey the court asks them to declare that they understand the consequences of lying on oath. This was not something that adult witnesses were asked to affirm.

Today child witnesses are protected in court and often give their testimony behind a screen or via a video link. The latter was not available in the 1800s of course, but in this case we do get a sense of the courts recognising the need to shield young victims and witnesses from the harsh reality of the operation of the criminal law, or at least a recognition that any testimony they gave might be suspect.

In May 1839 William Henry Browning, a child of 11 years of age, was brought up again at the Guildhall Police Court. He had appeared there at least one before in the past few days, on a charge of trying to kill an infant boy.

Two smaller boys appeared to give evidence against him. One was the victim, a three year-old, the other his older brother who was 5 or 6. They made a statement to the effect that William had placed a rope around the younger boy’s neck, ‘pulled him down, and then loosened the cord and ran away’.

The child still bore the marks of the attack, which revealed that ‘some force’ had been used and the court was told that ‘the little fellow had been in considerable danger of being choked’.

No adult seemed to have witnessed the event but a couple of women (including the victim’s mother, a Mrs Birbeck) turned up to testify that William was a naughty child. He had apparently been ‘saucy’ to Mrs Birbeck and her servant, and threatened to break her windows. She also accused him attempting to steal her chickens.

The boy’s father appeared to make a counter complaint about Mrs Birbeck for accusing his child of theft and attempted murder, and picking on him unfairly. He added that his family were in desperate circumstances, which may have affected the boy’s mental health, and this may explain his son’s erratic behaviour:

Mr Browning, a shoemaker, was ‘in very ill-health’. His son had ‘not been out of his sight for above half an hour, and he complained of Mrs Birbeck having given the boy into custody. instead of bringing him home to be corrected. A reverse of fortune, and the loss of his wife, obliged him to live in this low neighbourhood, and he should be glad if the alderman would get the boy into some asylum’.

Alderman White, the presiding magistrate at Guildhall Police Court, rather unnecessarily conceded that ‘the mother very naturally felt some exasperation’ when she saw that her little boy had nearly been strangled, but it was going to be hard to prove it in court. Mr White told her that he had to consider the ‘tender age of the accused as well as the two witnesses’. Turning to Mr Browning however, he added that the boy could not be let off scot free. Instead of sending him to an ‘asylum’ (whether the shoemaker meant this literally or not) he was going to send him to prison for a short, sharp, shock.

William was sent down for 14 days ‘lest impunity should encourage repetition’.

At 11 years of age William Browning was just a year older than Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, the killers of James Bulger (who was 2).

[from The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, May 23, 1839]

A ‘daring robbery’ or an opportunistic pickpocket?

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In the eighteenth century the quintessential property crime of the day was highway robbery, and the highwayman was the archetypal criminal. By the end of the Napoleonic wars however, the era of men like Dick Turpin was over and their exploits were passing into legend. As the Georgian period changed into the Victorian, the highwayman was replaced by the burglar.

That is not to say that highway robbery did not take place. The offence, if not the romantic image of the offender, persisted and remains to this day. Robbery, in terms of the law in the 1800s, meant theft with violence or the threat of violence. If it took place on the street – the king’s (or queen’s) highway – then it became highway robbery. In the 21st century we tend to call it mugging, but we are talking about the same thing.

We need to to be careful of course when we look at the way the term was used by the newspapers in the past, because they had a tendency to exaggerate and use emotive language to entertain or worry their readers. Take this story for example, is this a highway robbery or a less direct example of pocket picking?

Mr Lee, a carver and gilder, was in Oxford Street one Friday evening in May 1836 and called a hansom cab to take him home. As he was about to step into the cab he slipped and fell onto the street. The cab driver, Thomas Hands, jumped down from his seat to help him. Seeing another man nearby, he called him over to help. Thomas Hands then gave him his hand to help him up and into the vehicle.

As Lee sat down however, he realised he’d lost his pocket watch, having been absolutely convinced it and his chain had been there a few minutes earlier. His suspicions immediately turned to the pair that had helped him and he got out of the cab and called over a nearby policeman.

At this Hands ‘lashed his horse, and succeeded in getting away’. He was picked up later though having been identified by the victim and a witness, he didn’t have the watch on him however.

The witness was an errand boy named James Clarke who worked at 89 Oxford Street. He had been passing by and told the sitting magistrate at Marylebone that he saw Hands take the watch and chain out of Lee’s pocket as he helped him up. Another man (known only as ‘Jack’) was involved, and when Thomas had pinched the watch he palmed it to him. He had apparently wanted to give it back to the driver but Hand had declined saying , ‘Cut away with it, Jack’, imploring him to run away. At the time it was Clarke who, having sen the theft, had run after the policeman to tell him Hands was the thief but did not have the watch.

A few days later the watch turned up in a pawnbroker’s shop, owned by Mr Cordell in Compton Street. It had been pawned by Sarah the day after the robbery but watches were easy to identify and some pawnbrokers were on the alert for stolen goods.

The The Morning Post described it as ‘Daring Highway Robbery’ and it certainly took place on a busy thoroughfare. It seemed to have involved a ‘gang’ of criminals, and if not planned it was at least well-executed. The three were working together, but whether they were simply taking advantage of an opportunity or had arranged it so that Hand’s fare would slip is hard to say. The actual crime here was taking the watch from the gilder’s pocket whilst he was unaware of it and that is ‘privately stealing’ rather than robbery. But the fact that two men were involved makes it feel more like a mugging.

The pair were fully committed for trial despite their protestations that they were as ‘innocent as new born “babbies”‘. Sarah Rose was acquitted, probably because little direct evidence could pin her to the crime. Thomas was asked who ‘Jack’ was but denied knowing anyone of that name, just as he denied any involvement in the theft. The charge was pocket picking, not robbery, which rather supports the idea that the press wanted to make it sound more dramatic than it was. Having your pocket picked on Oxford Street is hardly newsworthy after all.

The outcome was dramatic however, Thomas Hands was convicted and sentenced to be transported to Australia for life. Today an Oxford Street pick-pocket might expect to be fined, warned or perhaps imprisoned if it could be demonstrated that they had a record of offending. I’ve looked at the magistrate’s sentencing guidelines and compared the criteria for this case. It would seem Thomas Hands fits the criteria to be deemed a significant player (in that he stole the goods), that there was an element of planning, and that the goods taken (the watch) was of some value to the owner. If he came before a magistrate today at worst I suspect he would have been sent prison for 6 months to a year.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, May 13, 1836]

An early example of the problems facing Peel’s ‘New Police’.

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In the first year or so from their creation in 1829 the ‘New Police’ experienced a somewhat troubling baptism of fire. Resented by the working class for interfering in their day-to-day lives, and looked down upon and resented by the middle class for being another expensive charge on the rates, the new ‘Peelers’ were attacked from all sides. Added to this was the reality that in the first 18 months of their existence a large number of new officers were disciplined and discharged for drunkenness, corruption, or for fraternizing with local prostitutes.

It was, then, an inauspicious beginning for Sir Robert Peel’s new force of law and order.

The reports of the Metropolitan Police Courts in the early years (when ‘Police Office’ is a more accurate term) are not as regular, or often as fulsome as they were after mid century, but this one from 1830 gives us a sense of the difficulties the police had in establishing themselves as protectors of the public and the state in the 1800s.

In early May 1830 PC John Harding (99 E) was placed in the dock at Bow Street accused of assaulting a member of the public. The charge was brought by a respectable member of society, a Middlesex magistrate no less, named Mr Mallard.

Mr Mallard claimed that he had seen PC Harding maltreating a woman in Russell Street, near the British Museum. It had been around 6 o’clock in the afternoon when he saw the policeman dragging a woman (later identified as Sarah Scott) up and down the street, while she protested.

Harding was not apparently on duty as he wasn’t wearing his badge, as the Middlesex justice told his colleague at Bow Street. When Mr Mallard attempted to stop the PC from continuing with his abuse of Sarah he received short shrift and a mouthful of invective. Crossing the road Mallard took out his pocket book and started to write down the copper’s details so he could report him.

At this PC Harding strode across towards him, ‘seized him by the collar’ and said: ‘I’ll teach a fellow like you to take a Policeman’s number!’ Mallard explained that he was a magistrate but Harding was undeterred; instead he grabbed him by the arm and ‘dragged him through St Giles into the High-street’, while a crowd of baying onlookers hooted at him.

Finally, Mallard was able to present PC Harding with his calling card and was released. He went and complained to the commissioners but was informed that the policeman was only doing his duty (as regards arresting the woman) and so would keep his job. Sarah Scott appeared and gave evidence that supported the magistrate’s version of events, while PC Harding argued that he had arrested the woman as she was interfering with his attempts to chastise a young street tearaway.

Mr Halls, the Bow Street justice on duty, was clearly conflicted. When presented with the word of a magistrate versus that of a policeman he felt unable to decide what the merits of the case were. Instead he chose to pass it up through the system, to the Sessions of the Peace, where a jury could decide whom to believe.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, May 03, 1830]

The dangers of the modern river; the Thames in 1833

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One of the most interesting and sometimes unexpected pleasures of reading the daily ‘doings’ of the London Police Courts is the information they reveal about the nineteenth-century city and its people. Many of the stories detail the petty squabbles of everyday life, or the man tragedies of death, illness and poverty; and of course criminality, greed, deceit and casual violence often feature. But we also learn about the way in which the metropolis operated; how people got about, where they worked, which areas were poor and which were wealthy.

One of the pleasures of modern London (in the summer months at least) is the river boat service on the Thames operated by TFL. For many people this forms part of their daily commute, either up towards Greenwich and beyond to the barrier, or west towards Putney and Wandsworth. In the warmer months it becomes a tourist bus during the day and a commuting vehicle in the mornings and evenings.

In my opinion the river is the best way to see the capital and understand why the Romans chose to build a city here in the first place.

The importance of the river and the need to cross it is clear from the development of London’s bridges and the huge variety of boats, barges, ships and ferries that plied their trade on the Thames in the 1800s. However, as we have seen in more recent times with the sinking of the Marchioness in 1989 and back to 1855 with the Princess Alice, the Thames can be a dangerous place.

The police office that dealt with disputes, thefts and incidents on the river was Thames and there had been a police presence here since 1798 when it was created by Patrick Colquhoun, a champion of professional policing. In March 1833 the master of a Gravesend steamer, the Pearl, was brought before the magistrate at Thames accused, in effect, of dangerous driving.

Mr Youwin was summoned to the court by Robert marshall, an ‘old and infirm Trinity waterman’. The Thames watermen had been  licensed to ferry passenger on the river since the early 1500s but the tradition went back hundreds of years before that. Marshall told the court that he had been attempting to cross the Thames from Elephant Stairs at Rotherhithe when his little boat got in to trouble.

He saw the Pearl coming towards him and took evasive action. He ‘went clear of her stern…when another waterman fouled him [i.e collided with him] and pushed him out of the tier of boats’. He explained that the ‘steamer could have stopped, but she continued her pace, and cut his boat in two before he could get out of the way. Her speed was about five miles an hour’.

A fellow waterman on the scene told the justice that he had heard Marshall call out and agreed that the steamer could have avoided the boat if it had wanted to.

In defence the skipper of the Pearl, Youwin, stated that the ‘old man, who was too infirm to manage the boat, had run foul of the steamer due to his own negligence’. He said he could, and would provide witnesses to prove this. But that this point the magistrate, Captain Richbell, intervened and attempted to mediate.

He said that it was clear that Marshall was elderly and perhaps unfit to continue as a waterman but he felt he was owed some compensation for the loss of his boat (and his livelihood), this would, he taught, ‘prevent litigation’. Captain Youwin willingly agreed.

Finally the magistrate made a closing statement about the excessive speed of steamers, saying that while he did not wish to immune the reputation of Captain Youwin, something needed to change because the river had become very dangerous.

‘The watermen were greatly injured by the steam-vessels, for females and timid persons were afraid to venture in their wherries; the Thames-Police galleys were often damaged, and the nuisance would not be stopped until the conductor of some steamer was transported for manslaughter’.

This sounds to me very like the clash of an old way of life with the demands of the new, modern, one; a clash that was about to become much more common as London developed and grew in the Victorian age.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, March 11, 1833]

Nascent trade unionism nipped in the bud at Mansion House

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Most of us will have experienced,  or have maybe even taken part in some form of industrial action initiated by a trade union. Southern Rail commuters in particular are now very family with an ongoing dispute between the employers and drivers and guards who cannot agree on who should open the doors on their trains. The result has been months of strikes, reduced services and delays. There have been calls for the government to take action and even to prevent strikes from happening. In certain industries (the police and prison service for example) strike action is banned.

It would probably be fair to say that since the Winter of Discontent in 1978-9 there has been a regressive (or progressive, depending on your viewpoint) move towards striking unionism and union action.

We haven’t always had trade unions of course, and history shows us that governments had to be forced to allow them to exists at all, let alone exercise any kind of pressure on employers. The Combination Acts of 1799/1800 aimed to prevent workers combining  to form associations and these were not repealed until the 1820s; thereafter unions began to develop.

In 1833 a ‘general’ union was formed to represent the views and needs of men and women from a variety of trades. In 1834 the government infamously attempted to suppress the GNCTU (Grand National Consolidated Trades Union) by arresting six men from the Dorset village of Tolpuddle and transporting them to Australia.

So in 1834 the embryonic trades union movement was under pressure and we can see the antagonism that these workers’ groups faced in a case that came before the Lord Mayor at Mansion House in March of that year.

A tailor and draper on Cheapside came to the Mansion House Police Court to complain about the behaviour of a group of men who were pressurising his workers to down tools because one of their number had been sacked. Mr Roberts told the Lord Mayor and alderman Anstey who sat together as magistrates that he had been obliged to dismiss one of his men because of his behaviour. This man had ‘been absent eight hours from his work, by which the sale of a suit of clothes had been lost’.

As soon as this became widely known a group of journey tailors came to the place where Roberts’ men were working and told then in no uncertain terms that unless they stopped working ‘they should fare the worse for such a violation of propriety’.

Mr Roberts told the bench that this situation was intolerable and unless the ‘unionists’ were stopped ‘trade could not continue’. As a result he had identified one man (unnamed) who was now in the dock accused of urging others to disrupt his trade.

The Lord Mayor, as a member of the mercantile elite in the City could hardly be expected to side with the journeymen tailors and he didn’t. He was outraged at the man’s behaviour but at the same time he was reluctant to impose the normal sanction – three months’ imprisonment.

He asked the tailor if he would accept an apology and a promise that ‘no action of this kind would occur again’. He said he would but was concerned that there were ‘eight or ten journeymen’ present in court who would ‘deprive him of his men, and he hoped the Lord Mayor would let them know they should not act with impunity’.

The defendant’s lawyer said his client was sorry and had not intended to interrupt Mr Roberts’ business. The Lord Mayor them warned those present against any attempt to tae action in the future and discharged the defendant.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, March 03, 1834]