Little sympathy for a woman driven to seek the Parish’s help

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In 1834 the New Poor Law came into existence. This draconian legalisation was the brainchild of Edwin Chadwick and Nassau Senior. Whilst the Poor Law Amendment Act (1834) did not go quite as far in its reform of the old system as the Poor Law Commissioners might have wished it still represented a very significant organisation change to the way poor relief was delivered in England. Part if its intention was to get rid of the practice of giving ‘outdoor relief’ (what we might see perhaps as ‘benefits’) and instead force anyone that required help to enter the workhouse.

As a result the workhouse came to dominate the lives of England’s poor, representing as it did (alongside the debtor’s prison) a very personal failure at the game of life. Families were separated and orphans apprenticed out, while the stain of the ‘house remained with tens of thousands of men and women for the rest of their lives. It is hard to imagine a society which thinks it is fair and reasonable to force those who are unable to support themselves to enter what was, in effect, a prison (with hard labour task that were akin to those in prisons), in return for meagre subsistence and little else. Dickens’ novel Oliver Twist gives us a very stark view of how unforgiving the workhouse experience was in early Victorian England.

The poor relief system was based on a person’s place of settlement. Settlement law was complicated but, in simple terms, involved determine who was responsible for footing the bill for a person’s care. Throughout the nineteenth century settlement was determined by birth, marriage and/or your place of habitation and work. So if you were born in a certain parish – such as Bethnal Green – then that was your last place of settlement and that poor law union was obliged to support you.

However, if you travelled to somewhere else to live and work (or married someone who lived in a neighbouring parish for example) then after a year your settlement would be wit the new parish. Poor Law unions were generally unwilling to help anyone outside of their area and spent considerable time and resources in ‘removing’ unwanted paupers from their jurisdiction.

All of this is by way of explaining the content behind one old lady’s appearance at the Worship Street Police Court in East London in October 1838, just four years after the passing of the New Poor Law.

Ann Cook was 68 and had been widowed for 20 years. She had married her husband at Shoreditch Church and they had lived in Curtain Road where he worked as a plumber. She had a son who lived in Manchester and another who had moved to Liverpool. While Ann’s aunt was alive and living at Greenwich she too was frail and unable to support her niece. In effect then, Ann had nobody to look after her and had reached the stage in life where she was also unable to support herself through work. Had she lived in our society the state would have provided her with an Old Age Pension and sheltered accommodation. Sadly for Ann she had been born in the late 1700s and into a society which seemingly cared very little about old women like her.

Claiming settlement from Shoreditch (where she had married and resided) rather than Bethnal Green (where she was lodging) Ann had approached the Shoreditch workhouse for help. She had initially gone to Bethnal Green but they had told her she should go to Shoreditch.

However, when she knocked at the door of the Shoreditch workhouse she was refused entry. That was at 11 o’clock in the morning and Ann was turned away by the workhouse keeper’s daughter. Some angry words were exchanged it seems, and Ann may well have said some things she later regretted.

Twelve hours later, desperate and having eaten nothing in 24 hours, Ann was back at the gates of the workhouse. Now she was met by Mr Coste, the parish’s receiving officer, who also refused to let her in but on the grounds  that it was too late at night. He gave her sixpence to find her lodgings and shooed her away. Ann never did find new lodgings because Coste had her arrested and on the following morning she was brought before the magistrate at Worship Street on a charge of ‘endeavouring to obtain a  lodging in Shoreditch workhouse at an unreasonable hour of night’.

Ann told the magistrate her story and the relieving officer gave his justification for not admitting her. Without evidence of her marriage he could not established her settlement. As he could not be sure whether Shoreditch were obliged to help her he thought it better to bar her entry and send her away. After all, he said, ‘they would have a great expense at her removal’ had she not been entitled to support there.

This to-and-froing of paupers between parishes (especially poor ones like Shoreditch and Bethnal Green) was all too common. There seems to have been no sense that someone like Ann deserved help regardless of where she was domiciled. She was simply viewed as a burden on the parochial purse and, as such, someone to be ignored and neglected and deemed ‘someone’s else’s problem’.

Mr Grove, the shutting justice, was no more sympathetic to Ann than the reliving officer had been. He told her off for attempting to gain entry at that time of night and suggested she seek help form her family. When Ann had explained that this was unrealistic (her son being hundreds of miles away and her only other relation being even less capable of support yah herself) the magistrate simply wanted her that if she turned up in his court again he would have ‘to punish her’.

‘I have not had  bit of bread to eat since yesterday morning’ Ann told him. ‘I went to Bethnal-green, and they pushed me off the step of the door. What shall I do? (the poor creature burst into tears)’.

Mr Coste said that his parish never refused relief when they knew the applicant. He was washing his hands of the situation and on this occasion the magistrate was complicit. He merely discharged Ann and set her free to look for help elsewhere. With winter approaching and with little prospect of gaining work he had effectively condemned Ann to a slow death. Whenever we hear politicians and social commentators bemoaning the benefit system and the ‘scroungers’ that abuse it we should remember why the Liberal and Labour Party were so adamant that welfare reform was necessary in the twentieth century.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, October 13, 1838]

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‘Well, I’m sure, if a man acts bad once in his life, he never gets over it’, complains a young member of the ‘swell mob’.

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One of the key themes that is emerging from the Digital Panopticon conference in Liverpool (where I am at the moment) is the critical importance of being identified as someone with previous criminal convictions, however petty. In the nineteenth century the British state’s ability to track ‘known offenders’ increased and while defendants might try to avoid being recognised as such (by offering a false name or denying being convicted previously) the arrival of professional police forces and a more bureaucratic justice system gradually entrapped the late Victorian and Edwardian offender in ways that his or her Georgian ancestors might have escaped.

The police and magistracy were important agents in this process as the summary courts of London (the police magistrate courts) were the arenas were criminal careers were established. We can illustrate this in the case on on young man who was brought before the Mansion House in September 1839, the year that the nomenclature of ‘police magistrate’ was official established.

William Jones was reported to be a ‘notorious pickpocket’ when he appeared before Sir Peter Laurie in the City of London’s premier magistrate court. Sir Peter, who later served as Lord Mayor was sitting in on this occasion for the incumbent office holder, Sir Chapman Marshall. The Charter‘s reporter recorded that William was:

‘One of those well-dressed thieves whose appearance never excites attention’.

In other words William blended in with the crowds in central London which enabled him to get close to his victims and get away without being noticed. On this occasion however, he had not been so lucky and had been arrested by a City police officer.

Whilst the PC was taking Jones and another suspected thief into custody however, he managed to slip his custodian and escape. His bid for freedom didn’t last long though, being ‘known to the police’ meant that William was soon tracked down to a well-known haunt of his, a public house associated with local criminals.

He was brought before the Sir Peter at Mansion House charged, it seems, with running away from the policeman. The magistrate asked him what he had to say for himself.

‘I couldn’t help running away’, William told the alderman, adding: ‘It was my business to run away if I could. It was the officer’s business to prevent it’.

‘But you know it is an offence to make an escape from an officer?’ he was asked.

‘Please you, my Lord, if you were in my place wouldn’t you try to get away yourself? I’m blessed if you jist [sic] wouldn’t’.

Sir Peter turned to the collection of police officers gathered in the court and declared: ‘I suppose this young man is well known?’

This was confirmed by the police who said he was known for ‘constantly parading about the streets with other well-dressed thieves, and sometimes thieves of the other sex’. This sounds to be very like a description of the so-called ‘swell mob’ described by Dickens and many others as a mid nineteenth-century phenomenon.

William knew what was coming; even though he had not been convicted of a crime as such (he was not charged with theft from the person for example) his mere association with the ‘swell mob’ and identification as a local thief meant he could expect to be sent to prison as a suspected criminal.

‘Aint a body to go to draw a breath of air on a warm day but he must be pulled [i.e. arrested] for it?’ William complained. ‘Well, I’m, sure, if a man acts bad once in his life, he never gets over it’.

And of course this was true, lads like William Jones were in and out of the justice system over the course of their (often short) lives being arrested on suspicion, prosecuted for petty thefts, being fined, imprisoned (often by default of not having the money to pay the fine), and then progressing to more serious crime and, ergo, longer prison terms. Before the late 1850s many might have ended up being transported to Australia or, later, serving long periods of penal servitude in a convict prison. After 1869 the habitual offenders register dogged the footsteps of convicted felons and eventually photography and then fingerprints (from the early 1900s) made it even harder for those caught up in the justice system to ‘go straight’ and avoid future convictions.

Sir Peter sent William Jones to the City Bridewell, or house of correction, telling him (and the newspaper’s readership) that ‘this shows the value of never having acted dishonestly’. This of course was a luxury young men like William could hardly afford growing up poor in an unforgiving city like London.

Several of the historians gathered for the Digital Panopticon launch have made the point that history has a lot to say about recidivism and the ‘making’ of a criminal. The ‘convict stain’ and the albatross of previous convictions made (indeed continue to make) it hard for those who make one or two mistakes in life to get back on track. Sadly, policy makers today don’t seem to want to listen to the evidence of history.

[from The Charter , Sunday, September 15, 1839]

A young man is ‘saved’ by a clever use of the legal system

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A curious case today, where the intention of the prosecutor may well have been something quite different than it at first appeared.

The defendant was a woman named Mary Ann Downes and she had been brought to the Marlborough Street Police Court on a charge of assault. Two gentlemen had first presented themselves before Mr Dyer the sitting justice, to request a warrant. One of the men explained that his brother:

‘a young man of rather weak intellect, had got connected with the woman, and had left his friends, who were persons of station and property, to live with this woman, who so completely got him under control that she will take care that he will have no intercourse with his relatives’.

I’m sure it was not the first or the last time that a young man friends and family had taken exception to his choice of partner, but he was over age (22) and quite able, one would think, to decide things for himself. Unless that is, the term ‘weak intellect’ suggested that he was more seriously mentally ill or particularly stupid.

Either way the two men were determined to separate their friend and brother from the woman and turned up at his house at 8 Bidborough Street in a post chaise with the intention of taking him away to the country. Mary Ann was having none of it however.She remonstrated with them and would not let them in; when they pressed their case she hit them.

Perhaps this was their intention all along because now they had a case for accusing her of assault and Mr Dyer issued the warrant.  A hackney carriage was despatched – this time with an officer of the court (Mr Carter) on board – to execute the warrant and bring Mary Ann in.

Sometime later it returned with the accused woman and a very disheveled officer. Carter  was ‘in a violent perspiration, and the woman’s dress and appearance indicated that a severe struggle between them had occurred’. This had been no easy arrest.

Carter, on oath, told the court that Mary Ann had resisted arrest and had put up such a struggle that he was forced to call a policeman to help him. Mr Dyer turned to the woman and demand to know why she had assaulted the officer.

‘I did not know what he came for’ she replied.

‘I exhibited the warrant’ grumbled the officer, clearly still suffering from the encounter with this formidable woman.

‘You did not’, she retorted, ‘you pulled and dragged me about very much, and would not let me lock up my drawers or my drawing room’. She then added: ‘the warrant was for the purpose of getting me out of the way, so they might take away my husband, Mr Downes, who is not capable of taking care of himself or his property’.

Mary Ann was described as ‘bony and thin’ and an ‘altogether vulgar character’. Her age was put at 35 so she was much older than her ‘husband’ (if they were indeed married). The magistrate bailed her for the assault but noted that the two men who had requested the warrant had not returned to prosecute. In all likelihood Mary Ann was correct in her accusation that the warrant was a ruse; regardless of whether she had hit or assaulted anyone the two gentlemen had used the summary court system to extricate a young man from a domestic situation   that they clearly believed was detrimental to his health, wealth and social position.

One can only imagine the fury that Mary Ann Downes might unleash if she ever got to see him or the two men ever again.

[from The London Dispatch and People’s Political and Social Reformer, Sunday, September 2, 1838]

The Hungerford Market boys provide early trouble for the Peelers

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I’ve mentioned the unpopularity of the New Police on more than one occasion in this blog and it was certainly a truth that not everyone welcomed Peel’s innovation. It took several years for the ‘Peelers’ to become grudgingly accepted on the capital’s streets and even by the end of the 1800s not everyone welcomed them. In the early days of the professionals there were accusations of corruption and collusion with local criminals and prostitutes, and of heavy handedness and a lack of discipline.

This case demonstrates some of that early tension and is a useful reminder that many policemen were vulnerable to attack from those that resented their presence in their communities. In this example it was a ‘gang of fellows in Hungerford market‘ that were determined to show their contempt for the ‘boys in blue’ at every opportunity, and had organised themselves to deal with any legal consequences that might arise.

PC Richard Wallington (19 F Division) was proceeding along his beat along Villiers Street between 11 and 12 at night on Wednesday 11 August 1830 (less than a year after the first of the Peelers had taken to the streets) when he saw a group of men harassing a private watchman.

He heard ‘high words’ as the watchman tried to get them to go home quietly. One of the men, a ‘sturdy looking fellow’ named Thomas Moody, said they would not quit because they were looking for someone. In fact they were looking for a policeman that he claimed ‘they had paid £8 for’.

This sounds like a bribe and presumably they expected something for it. However, it seems as if whatever they expected the copper to do (or to not do perhaps) had not been forthcoming and now they were after revenge. Moody declared that if they found him they meant to ‘rip [his] b_____ guts out’.

At this PC Wallington turned away, sensibly enough perhaps as he was outnumbered. Unfortunately for him the men had seen him and followed him into the Strand. Mood confronted the PC and threatened to ‘rip his guts out’. Wallington  told him to be quiet and go home. Instead of following that advice however the man attacked him, kicking and thumping him before the policeman was able to call for assistance. As Inspector Wovenden and some other officers arrived the pack of men scattered but Moody was overpowered and taken back to the station house.

In the morning he was produced before the magistrate at Bow Street and the case of assault against him outlined to Sir Richard Birnie. Inspector Wovenden testified that Moody had also insulted and threatened him and declared that he didn’t fear the consequences. Moody insisted that his gang had clubbed together to create a subscription fund out of which any fines incurred for assaulting policemen would be settled.

It is an interesting concept and shows how the so-called ‘criminal classes’ of nineteenth century London might have found a strategy to deal with this new threat to their operations. Many of the street crimes that the New Police dealt with were punished by fines: drunkenness, disorderly behaviour, gambling, refusing to quit licensed premises, obstruction – all carried a fine of between 1s and 10s. Even assault routinely incurred just a fine.

However, a failure to be able to pay any fine would land you in the house of correction for anything up to a month so swift payment was necessary. Later in the century, if the records of the Thames Police Court for the 1880s are reliable, it would seem that magistrates were choosing to punish serious assault (i.e that meted out to the police or to women) with prison, regardless of any ability to pay a fine.

In August 1830 though Sir Richard was content to test the theory of whether the Hungerford Market gang would make good on their boast to pay the fines incurred by anyone that took out a policeman. He handed down a hefty fine, £5 (or £250 today) which Moody could not find quickly. In consequence as he was in default he was taken away to serve two months in prison. It didn’t answer the wider question of who the gang had ‘bought’ but at least it sent a message that Peel’s New Police could not be interfered with with impunity.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, August 13, 1830]

A drunk explains how ‘Going native’ in New Zealand saved his life

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When a man named Burns appeared before the Union Hall Police magistrate on a  charge of being drunk and disorderly, he caused quite a stir. Burns (his first name was not recorded by the court reporter) declared himself as English, and he spoke perfect English, but his appearance was that of Maori warrior.

His face was tattooed in the Maori fashion so that he resembled ‘a New Zealand chief’. How had he come to allow himself to ‘be so disfigured’, the Chief Clerk wanted to know. Well, he replied, ‘it was better than being eaten’. With that dramatic start Burns then gave a brief account of his life and travels, and of what had brought him to London in July 1835.

In 1829 Burns was a sailor on a ship that ran into trouble and was wrecked off the New Zealand coast. He and six others made it to shore but everyone of his companions were killed by the natives. For some reason however, Burns’ life was saved on the intervention of one of their captors and he quickly adopted the local ‘manners and customs’ in order to survive, with, he added, one exception. He refused to eat ‘the bodies of the enemies of his tribe slain in war’.

There were contemporary reports that the Maoris practised cannibalism up until the early 1800s so Burns may have witnessed this. He may also have been playing on popular representations of the savage for effect.

Having settled into the community, he continued, he was soon adopted as a chief. In order to take up this new position he ‘was compelled to undergo the painful operation of tattooing, which was performed with such skill that it is now impossible to distinguish his visage from that of a native’.

As a senior member of the tribe he also learned to master the Maori war canoe and this led to his escape. One day, when he and several other canoes were patrolling along the coast looking for enemies, he spotted a western ship in the distance. He tricked the others into canoeing  off in one direction before turning his own canoe towards the sailing vessel and paddling hard. He quickly got himself out of reach of his former companion’s spears and made it to the ship. The crew helped him on board but it took him some time to convince the Spanish captain that he was indeed and Englishman and not the Maori warrior he appeared to be.

Eventually the Spanish ship had dropped him off in England and he had made his way to London where he now intended to exhibit himself at the Surrey Zoological Gardens. He told the justice at Union Hall that he would be dressed in the ‘costume of New Zealander, and [would] display his dexterity in the management of the canoe, and perform other feats which he had acquired during his six years residence amongst them’.

The magistrate declared that he could not deprive the public of such an entertainment and dismissed the charge against him.

The early 1800s were a time of war for the Maori peoples. Much of this was bloody internal fighting as the rival tribes acquired and used Western guns on each other. ‘Tens of thousands’ died in the so-called ‘musket wars’ of the 1810s, 20s and 30s, at just the time Burns was shipwrecked. Western weaponry was not the only killer however: disease also took its toll of the native population.

From the 1840s onwards tribal rivalry was expressed less in warfare and more in economics but by then New Zealand was increasingly being dominated by European interests. After the purchase of land at Auckland in 1840 the European population grew steadily, and many Maoris left. By 1858 there were more white faces than Maori ones. British policy was to acquire land the Maori deemed worthless or ‘wasteland’, and while there was continued fighting between the Maori settlers and the newer European colonists for most of the rest of the century, there was only ever going to be one final victor.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, July 23, 1835]

A ‘knocker wrencher’ is nabbed!

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William Kilminster was presented in the dock at Worship Street Police Court in July 1837 charged with ‘wrenching off the brass knob from a door in Shoreditch’.

The court reporter treated the story lightly, as though it were amusing and perhaps this was on account of language he used to describe it, or instead because it revealed the different ways in which working-class and elite behaviours were judged. We should remember that in the 1830s most of those buying a daily or weekly newspaper would have been at least lower middle class or aspirational working class who aped those above them.

Kilminster had been seen at 1 in the morning by a policeman on his beat. The reporter recorded what the policeman had described to the magistrate:

‘he observed the prisoner working away at the knob of one of the doors with all the vigour and dexterity of the lordly personages that have heretofore monopolized this respectable recreation’. 

So was ‘knocker wrenching’ a thing? (His phrase, not mine I hasten to add). Indeed it was as this blog post from earlier this year shows. We find yet more information about this form of anti-social behaviour (or theft, which is what it is) here. It sounds like a Benny Hill sketch waiting to happen!

William Kilminster had been nicked and quickly thrown into prison when he’d first came before a magistrate. Now several of his friends had come to plead for clemency on the grounds that he was ‘an honest hard-working man who had acted under the influence of liquor, and too probably under the pernicious influence laid before him by crayon members of the aristocracy’.

Mr Grove was sympathetic to their appeals and released the ‘inoffensive and quite’ mechanic from gaol on condition that he paid a fine of 5s ‘to Her Majesty’ and a further 2s for the damage he had done to the door. With both monies secured William was free to go, with a small stain on his character and the admonition of the justice ringing in his ears.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, July 21, 1837]

Today is Graduation Day for my History students at the University of Northampton, I’m very proud of all of their achievements but every year there are one of two that stand out. We had several firsts this year and lots of upper seconds. Students get a bad press sometimes but I have to say that anyone gaining a degree from any university in England has earned it and deserves all the credit they get. As do all of those that help and support them, which includes family, friends and their lecturers 🙂

‘Limping Bill’ and the case of the stolen armadillo

 

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London Zoo in 1837

Two cases for you these morning, both from the Marylebone Police Court in the year of Queen Victoria’s accession to the throne. The first features a fair of ‘fashionable’ young men and a street trader, the second involved a theft from London Zoo.

Captain Ferguson (alias Collegian Fred) and Lieutenant Grant (also known as the Lady Killer) were summoned before the magistrate by a stall holder who operated at the corner of Paradise Street in Lambeth. The complaint was brought by Billy Bucket (commonly known locally as ‘Limping Bill’) and he alleged that while he was selling his wares the two came along and whilst play fighting with each other they managed to knock over his stall of seafood.

The Morning Post‘s court reporter rendered Billy’s testimony in dialect, for maximum comic effect and I think this demonstrates one of the functions of these early reports from the metropolis’ police courts, that of entertaining a middle-class or elite audience. To give you a sense of this I shall simply set it down as it was printed in 1837.

‘Please your vorships (said the little bandy-legged complainant) I vos standing at my stall last night in the hact of sarving a customer with a harpeth of pickled heels of the best quality, when up comes these regular swells well primed with lush [he meant the worse the wear for alcohol] , and one of un shoves the other right bang against my stall, not was not strong enough by no means to stand such a heavy “swell” and over it goes’.

The result was that the street was scattered with ‘shrimps, periwinkles, welks, pickled eels, and other delicacies’, Billy’s stock and any chance he might have had to make his living that day was either ruined or stolen as the jars of eels broke and the local children rushed in and picked up and ate whatever they could lay their hands on. Billy estimated the cost of the collision as ‘at least 10s‘ and so he came to court to get compensation.

The two ‘swells’ then negotiated a price with the costermonger, settled their account and left.

Next up was a ‘well-dressed middle-aged’ hairdresser and perfumer named Joel Lazarus. Lazarus gave his address as 20 Upper Cleveland Street, Fitzroy Square. If the first case at Marylebone was amusing because of the characters involved (a cockney costermonger and ‘a couple of swells’) then this one entertained because it was quite bizarre.

While Lazarus stood in the dock the witness stand was occupied by an armadillo, ‘a remarkably fine specimen of its kind’, which the hairdresser was accused of stealing from the zoo.

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The magistrates (there were two in attendance, Mr Shutt and Lord Montford) were told that at seven o’clock the previous evening the gate guard at Regent’s Park Zoo had noticed Lazarus leaving the zoo and was suspicious. John Henry White stated that he observed him ‘making his egress from the grounds carrying before him his hat, around which was tied a handkerchief’.

White stopped him and asked him what he had under the ‘kerchief. Lazarus told him to mind his own business and seemed ‘in a  great hurry to reach his gig, which was standing in the road’. Before he could get to the waiting transport however, White called for help and the man was swiftly captured.

He was searched and an armadillo was found concealed in his hat. This was identified then and in court by Mr Alexander Mullins the ‘superintendent of the gardens’. He told the bench that the animal was valued at £5 and that it had recently been imported from South America.

When questioned Lazarus admitted taking the animal but would say no more. A surgeon appeared to testify that he was aware that the hairdresser ‘occasionally suffered from an aberration of mind’. There was no proof of madness at the time of the theft, the magistrates declared, and  regardless it was the ‘duty of his friends to look after him’ if he was indeed suffering in the way described.

However, they felt a fine was a sufficient punishment in this case and they imposed one of £5 for the theft plus another £5 to reflect the value of the armadillo. The monies were paid and Lazarus was free to go. The armadillo was taken back to the zoo, and was probably the subject of greater close attention than it had been previously. After all ‘bad’ publicity is better than no publicity and I imagine Londoners would have been quite keen to see the armadillo that a hairdresser had tried to steal.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, July 10, 1837]