Echoes of Oliver Twist as an Islington apprentice complains of being abused

Noah Claypole from Oliver Twist

By the mid 1840s the Victorian reading public were familiar with the work of Charles Dickens and his stories of everyday life. Between 1837 (when the young Queen Victoria ascended the throne) and 1839 Bentley’s Miscellany serialised the adventures of Oliver Twist as he escaped from the home of the Sowerberrys and the abuse he’d suffered at the hands of Noah Claypole and Charlotte, the serving maid.

Of course that escape was short lived as Oliver was plunged into the criminal underworld of the metropolis and the lives and crimes of Fagin and his gang of pickpockets. Happily of course ‘all’s well that ends well’, and Oliver finds redemption and peace in the home of Mr Brownlow, even if the plot does have a few more twists and turns along the way.

Oliver was a parish apprentice. He was placed first with a chimney sweep and then with Mr Sowerberry (an undertaker) as a way to get him out of the workhouse and off the parish books. Apprenticeship was not as popular as it had been 100 years earlier but it was still seen as a route to a respectable trade and steady income. Young people were apprenticed in their teens and learned a skill from their master before leaving to set up as journeyman in their early 20s.

The system was open to abuse of course; Dickens was not making up the characters of Noah and Charlotte, or Gamfield the brutish sweep. These sorts of individuals existed, even if Dickens exaggerated them for dramatic or comic effect. In the 1700s in London apprentices who felt aggrieved could take their complaints (or not being trained, being exalted, or even abused) to the Chamberlain of London in his court at Guildhall. Failing that they might seek advice and mediation from a magistrate.

Both sides approached the Chamberlain and magistrate in the Georgian period and apprentices were released from their contracts or admonished in equal measure. For a master the courts were often a useful way to discipline unruly teenagers who simply refused to obey their ‘betters’.  However, other masters resorted to physical chastisement in their attempts to discipline their disobedient charges.

Sometimes this went too far, as in this case that reached the Police Court magistrate at Clerkenwell.

Joseph Mitchely was a parish apprentice, just like the fictional Oliver. He was aged 14 or 15 and had been bound to an Islington  ‘master frame maker and french polisher’ named Wilton. In early November he had complained to the court that Henry Wilton was beating him unfairly and the magistrate ordered an investigation to be made. He called in the parish authorities (in the person of Mr Hicks) who made some enquiries into the case.

Having completed his investigation Mr Hicks reported back to Mr Tyrwhitt, the sitting justice at Clerkenwell. He declared that the boy had exaggerated the extent of the ‘abuse’ he’d supposedly suffered and was now apologetic. Apparently, young Joseph now ‘begged his master’s forgiveness’.

Mr Tyrwhitt discharged the master frame maker and told the boy to return with him and make his peace. He added that in it might be better if any further disputes between them were brought before him or one of his fellow magistrates, and suggested that Mr Wilton avoid ‘moderate correction’ in future. Hopefully both parties had learnt a valuable lesson   and were able to move forward in what was a crucial relationship (for Joseph at least).

[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, November 21, 1848]

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Wars ‘on the buses’ in Chelsea

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We are used to the idea that business works best when there is competition. Throughout the 1980s we were consistently told that privatised industry was so much better than public ownership. As a result we saw the selling off of British Telecom, and gas and electricity supply. The infamous ‘Tell Sid’ ad seemed to run for ages, encouraging ordinary people to buy shares in British Gas.

Among the wave of privatisations was the deregulation of transport. The railways went as did the bus services, leading not to more efficiency and cheaper prices (as we had been promised) but to ever rising rail fares and the closure of vital (if not particularly  cost effective) rural bus routes.

Competition there was, but massive benefits for the consumer? Not so much.

In early Victorian London competition was also the watchword as the capital’s expansion into the suburbs drove a need for greater and more join dup transport links. Over the course of the century London developed horse drawn trams, omnibuses, and overground (and underground) railways. Soon the metropolis was better connected than anywhere else in Europe and, arguably, remains so today (even if we do moan about it reliability).

But here again competition brought as many problems as it brought benefits. We can see an example of this in a report from Queen Square Police Court published in the autumn of 1843.

The magistrate at Queens Square, Mr Bond, complained that his office had been beset with numerous requests for summons as omnibus proprietors prosecuted each other for damage to vehicles, or drivers and conductors brought charges against each other for assault.

Three rival firms were operating in Chelsea, as the starting point for journeys into central London. Messrs. Glover, Child and Ingram all ran ‘buses from the Three Compasses pub at 94-94 Fulham High Street (pictured below in the 1880s).

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The competition was fierce but rather than this leading to a better service it merely served as a ‘danger to the public and disturbance to the neighbourhood’ and Mr Bond was sick of it.

Several representatives of the bus companies were in his court in November to hear he warn them that unless they started to take notice he would bring the full force of the law to bear upon them. Mr Bond felt that ‘as trifling penalties appeared to have no effect upon he should for the future, when there was sufficient evidence to warrant a conviction, impose the highest penalty, that of 5L, for each offence’.

Hit them in the pocket was Mr Bond’s strategy, just as it is the preferred strategy of the independent bodies appointed to regulate privatised industries today. Just as today, I suspect our ancestors grumbled about the cost and reliability of their transport networks. They didn’t have anything to compare it with of course as all this was new to them.

At some point the government decided that transport was too important to leave in private hands, and required, at least, some level of nationalisation. Have we reached that point again, some people clearly believe privatisation has failed? In London, of course, our transport remains in the control of the capital’s government, and not entirely in private hands, which means its users are eagerly shielded from attempts to close down unprofitable routes or hike up prices.

And we rarely see realise ‘Blakeys’ and ‘Stan’ fighting ‘on the buses’.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, November 20, 1843]

Fined for hanging a cat – a porter’s shame at Marlborough Street

I have written about cruelty to animals in previous posts on this site and, sadly, it seems to have been all too common in Victorian London. Cats, dogs and even performing monkeys were subjected to abuse or neglect by their owners or strangers and, occasionally, this was deemed serious enough to bring the perpetrators before the summary courts.

Henry Lewis, a porter  working at 31 Pall Mall (a very ‘respectable’ address in the 1840s) was charged at Marlborough Street with ‘cruelty towards a cat’ in early November 1846.

The case (for anyone reading, but especially those of you – like me – who live with cats) was horrific.

Mr Hardwick (the Police Magistrate) was told that Lewis was seen:

‘to hang the cat by the neck to a shutter in an area of the house. He then took a poker, and struck it with the nobbed end several blows on the head. Afterwards he cut down the cat whilst alive, and threw it in the dusthole‘.

Asked why he acted in such a cruel way all that Lewis could offer in his defence was to say that the animal was ‘troublesome, and mischievous’ and that once he had trapped it he thought that was the best way of getting rid of it.

Cats can be  a nuisance of course; doing damage to property or taking food from kitchens but that can never justify the level of violence the porter meted out in this instance. Mr Hardwick agreed and ‘sharply rebuked the man’, while fining him 40s.

This week President Trump, that well known humanitarian, described the terrorist that ran down and killed eight people in New York as ‘an animal’. Technically he may have been correct – we are all animals. But he is wrong in the sense that he intended it. Most animals don’t kill their own kind for political, ideological, or religious reasons, only homo sapiens (i.e us) do that.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, November 03, 1846]

for other posts concerning cruelty to animals see:

Animal cruelty exposed in the early years of the RSPCA

Cruelty to cat grabs the attention of the press while across London the ‘Ripper’ murders begin.

Six weeks in gaol for cruelty to a cat

 

A well-read thief hides his plunder in his hat

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A Victorian coffee house, note the lack of female customers.

Francis Nicholls was a young man of about 25 years of age. He sounds like he possessed a certain degree of cunning and a great deal of cheek. At the end of October 1845 Nicholls was brought before the magistrate at Greenwich Police Court and charged with a number of counts of theft.

On Tuesday afternoon (28th October) Francis visited a beer shop on Blackheath Road (run by William Gentry.  He sat himself down and ordered ‘some bread and cheese and a pint of beer’. Having downed his pint he called for another and for a “screw of tobacco” to enjoy with it. He then took out a notebook and asked for a pencil and proceeded to write something in it.

Mr Gentry now had ‘occasion to go out’ of his shop so asked his customer to settle his account, at which point the young man ‘rummaged in his pockets’ and admitted he had no money and couldn’t pay. He handed over his waistcoat and handkerchief in lieu of his bill (saying the publican could pawn them) and left.

Soon after he’d gone Gentry realised he had taken the pewter pint post he had been drinking out, so made a complaint to the nearest policeman.

Later, in the early evening, Francis entered the Victoria Coffee Rooms, also on Blackheath Road, and this time asked the serving woman, Mary Ann Wells, for ‘some coffee, a rasher of bacon, and a roll’. Having served him Mary Ann asked him to pay and again he pleaded poverty and apologised for having nothing to give her.

The servant called her mistress, Mrs Atkinson, who immediately sent for a police constable. The policeman, who happened to be passing by, was detective constable  John Evans (189R) and he secured the young man. Suspecting that Nicholls was concealing something DC Evans asked him to remove his hat. Nicholls refused and so Evans swept it from his head, whereupon out fell a squashed up piece of metal that had once been Mr Gentry’s pewter pint pot.

Back at the station a proper search was conducted and  a copy of The Times newspaper tucked inside Nicholls’ trousers, which was subsequently identified as belonging to the coffee house’s owner, Mr Atkinson. The young thief was locked up for the night.

Brought before Mr Grove at Greenwich it looked like a fairly straightforward case of theft and of the non payment of bills. But the magistrate suspected that Nicholls was a serial offender so ordered that he be locked up for a week so that the officers of the Toothily Fields Bridewell could come down and identify him. If he was a recidivist thief then he faced a few months in gaol rather than a few days of weeks.

Let’s hope he had a ready supply of newspapers or paper, because he was, unusually for London’s so-called ‘criminal class’, seemingly quite well educated.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly London Newspaper, Sunday, November 2, 1845]

A poor woman pleads not to be sent to ‘a country which was foreign to her’

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1848 was a tumultuous year in Europe. There were revolutions in Italy, Germany,  Denmark and the Habsburg Empire (in Hungary). Louis-Phillips was forced from his throne in France and fled to England, while there was rioting in Sweden and a short civil war in Switzerland. Britain didn’t escape trouble as Chartists assembled across the country in large numbers including a ‘monster’ rally in Kennington Park in April when tens of thousands demanded the vote.

Over in Ireland the ‘great famine’ was forcing thousands to flee the island and leaving almost  million dead; reducing the population overall by 20-25%. Many of these travelled to England finding their way to London or one of the other other large urban areas of Victorian Britain.

So 1848 saw political unrest, nationalism, poverty, and the mass migration of peoples fleeing all these events. We get an inclining of how this might have impacted society in a brief report of business from the Thames Police Court in October of that year.

‘THAMES – Complaints are almost daily made by aged natives of Ireland, whose necessities compel them to apply for parochial relief, of the hardship of being sent back to Ireland after a long stay in England’.

One case in particular was brought to the attention of the Thames Police Court magistrate, Mr Yardley. A ‘poor Irish widow’ who had been resident in England for 40 years applied to the Stepney Poor Law Union for relief only to be refused help and told to go home to Ireland. She explained to Mr Yardley that she had been away so long she ‘did not know a soul there. She hoped the magistrate would interpose , and prevent her being sent to a country which was foreign to her’.

The woman had been before him to ask for help a week earlier and he had directed a letter to the union on her behalf, so he asked what had happened in the interim. A police officer attached to the court confirmed that the letter had been delivered but one of the reliving officers said they were only following the instructions handed down to them by the board of guardians of the poor.

The policy in a time of huge pressure on the parish purse was, it seems, to try and get rid of as many unwanted paupers as possible. The court was told that while this woman  claimed she had lived in England for 40 years her ‘residence was a broken one, and not continued for five years in any one parish’. In short she had moved around and so did not ‘belong’ anywhere.

Mr Yardley was sympathetic to the woman’s plight but could only assure her that he would intercede on her behalf and hope the guardians relented. She thanked him for his time and left the court.

I think this reveals some of the problems facing the authorities in mid Victorian Britain but also the callous lack of care for the people of the wider empire. Stepney was poor, as was most of the East End in the 1800s. Poor relief fell on the parish rather than the national purse. So it was individual ratepayers who were supporting the huge numbers of impoverished East Londoners whose ranks were undoubtedly swollen by migrants from Ireland (and perhaps from further afield in such a troubled decade).

Poverty, war and famine always lead to migration and this inevitably puts pressure onto communities that are themselves often struggling to survive. Whether migration is fuelled by economic necessity, or by persecution, or simply a desire to get away to a ‘better place’, it is part of the human condition. Human beings have always migrated in search of better land, greater resources, improved living conditions, or a more tolerant society. Whether it was the Irish in the 1840s or Polish Jews in the 1880s, or South Asian Kenyans in the 1970s, or indeed Syrians in the last decade; all of these people have left their homes, sometimes their families, everything they know and love, to find a refuge overseas.

That this puts pressure on the country and community that receives them is self-evident. Tensions flare, xenophobia rears its ugly head, and people make political capital out of the situation. But the answer is not to close the borders, to turn one’s back on people in need, to refuse to help. The attempt of the Stepney guardians to send a poor Irish woman back to her country of birth and therefore into a situation where thousands were dying every week was simply wrong. It was wrong in 1848 and it remains wrong today.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, October 24, 1848]

The temptation is too great for a teenage toy shop assistant

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Henry Farley ran a toy shop on Fleet Street. In fact it was more than toy shop; Farley sold toys but also operated as a Post Office and considerable money went through his business. Regardless s of this by his own admission Farley wasn’t as careful with his accounting as he should have been and so it took him a while to realise that one of his employees had been dipping into his till.

Farley had employed an errand some months previously. John Martin, ‘a lad of about eighteen’, had impressed the toy shop owner and he soon earned his promotion to the front of house. Martin now had access to the money in the till , ‘being money received for letters  and postage stamps’.

This temptation clearly proved too much for the teenager and by early October Farley began to realise that money was going missing at an alarming rate. About £330 was missing, a huge sum in 1849, and, perhaps reluctantly, the shopkeeper’s attention fell on Martin. Calling him into his office he asked his assistant to turn out his pockets.

‘He turned the contents out of one of them, but being desired to empty the other, he flung  some money into the fire, which turned out to be two half-sovereigns and half-a-crown’.

Appearing before the Guildhall Police Court an embarrassed Farley said he didn’t really wish to press charges. He thought the fault was largely his own for not running his business more carefully. Moreover he didn’t want ‘to ruin the boy’. The whole sorry episode had ‘taught him a severe lesson’.

The magistrate, Alderman Musgrove, asked him if anyone else had access to the till and was told yes, they did but didn’t elaborate. The alderman chastised the toy shop proprietor for the laxness of his systems but declared that he couldn’t let this one go. John Martin would have to stand trial at the Old Bailey for embezzling his master’s property as that was in the best interests of the wider public.

I’m not sure whose interests it actually served to have Martin tried before a jury, as he was on 25 October 1847. There it was revealed that John earned 6s 6d a week and was well cared for, even receiving presents from his master. He clearly hadn’t repaid his trust  and maybe didn’t deserve the good character he received in court. He was convicted and sent to prison for six months. We have no idea whether Farley took him back afterwards, but if not the justice system had probably created another habitual offender.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly London Newspaper, Sunday, October 10, 1847]

An old man’s ‘revenge’, with echoes of the Ratcliffe Highway murders

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In October 1843 Thomas Rowe was brought before the Lord Mayor of London at Mansion House Police court. The Lord Mayor sat, as did the City’s aldermen, as single magistrates just as Police Magistrates did across the rest of the metropolis. On most days they dealt with the full gamut of summary offences and pretrial hearings, listening to cases of petty theft, fraud, disorderly behaviour and assault. But on this morning, Friday 6 October, a much more interesting (and serious) case was opened in the Mansion House.

Rowe, a 77 year-old former servant, was accused of attempted to murder his employer – a wine merchant named Thomas Waller. The incident had occurred at around nine o’clock that morning.  Thomas Lock, another of Waller’s servants, had opened the door to his former work colleague Rowe, with a ‘halloa’ and commented that he hadn’t seen him for some time. This was because Rowe had been dismissed some three week earlier after an argument with the wine merchant. Now he asked if he might have a word with Mr Waller and Lock went off to see if his boss would see him.

The 61 year-old wine dealer told him that he would; ‘I have nothing particular to say to him, but let him come in’, he said. Rowe was shown in to the counting house and Lock left him. Then five minutes afterwards he heard the sound of a pistol fire and a cry of ‘Rowe has shot me!’ from his master. He rushed in and put himself between the shooter and his victim, then moved Rowe out into the passage while he attended to the injured man. Rowe made his escape past a frightened serving girl and the beadle was called.

Inspector Waller (no relation to the wine dealer) was soon on the case and sent ‘officers in all directions’ while he acted on information and hailed a cab to pursue the would-be assassin in the direction of Bow. He caught up with and Rowe quickly surrendered. He made no attempt here, or later before the magistrate, to deny what he had done so it really only fell to the justice to determine why he had tried to kill the merchant.

‘What reason had you for committing this dreadful act?’

‘I could not live with nothing but misery before my eyes’ replied Rowe. Having served his master faithfully for 24 years he felt he was owed more loyalty from the wine merchant. After ‘serving him morning, noon, and night, at all hours, I could help thinking it was like transporting me to a foreign country. I had no one to help me’.

Whatever the cause of his dismissal it was devastating. With no wife and children that he said were unable to support him, and no savings or means of employment, Rowe was throw on the scrap heap and all that society offered him was the workhouse and, eventually, a pauper burial with no known grave. It must have been a desperately depressing and frighting future for an elderly man who had probably worked all his life.

Nevertheless the Lord Mayor was horrified:

‘The idea of firing pistols at a man because it did not suit him to employ you is horrible beyond everything’.

Rowe was stony faced: ‘My Lord, Mr Waller is a very rich man and he could afford to employ me easily enough’.

So the motive for the attack was revenge and Rowe was taking no chances of failing in his mission. He had two pistols  (in case one misfired) and a dagger as back-up because, as he put it, ‘that was a thing that wouldn’t miss fire’.

How long had he had these weapons, the magistrate wanted to know.

‘I have had them for 30 years’, Rowe explained. ‘I bought them to protect myself at the time of the murder of the Marrs in Ratcliffe-highway’.

The defendant was referring to the infamous Ratcliffe Highway murders of 1811 when two entire families had been brutally murdered in the space of a week in East London. The case gained national headlines and highlighted the ineffectiveness of the capital’s policing in the years before Peel’s 1829 reform. The murderer was caught (although some doubt remains as to whether he was the right man) but he never went to trial. The body of John Williams was found hanging in his cell before he was formally committed to a jury trial. William’s corpse was then placed on a cart, with the murder weapons alongside his head, and he was paraded along the Highway before being buried at a crossroads and a stake driven through his heart.

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Having heard from the doctor that examined and treated the injured Mr Waller and from the policeman that searched the scene of crime for evidence (and picked up the offending bullet), the Lord Mayor asked Rowe if he anything further to say. ‘No, my Lord, I have nothing at all to say’. Since the wine merchant was still recovering from his injury (which it was hoped was not fatal) Rowe was remanded for a week.

When the case came before an Old Bailey jury much was made of Rowe’s infirmity and poor mental health. In the end this was what saved him. He had made no attempt to deny his actions at any stage. William Cook, a surgeon that specialised in ‘diseases of the mind’ testified that he had known Rowe for very many years and had seen him deteriorate. When asked by Rowe’s counsel what the effect of his dismissal from service would have been he answered that he thought it quite possibly could have tipped him over the edge. Rowe had complained of ‘a swimming in the head, and dizziness about the eyes’ on several occasions, the jury was told.

Thomas Rowe was acquitted on the three counts he was charged with: namely ‘feloniously assaulting Thomas Wilier […] and shooting off and discharging at him a certain pistol loaded with gunpowder and leaden bullets, and wounding him on the left side of his body, with intent to murder him.—2nd COUNT, stating his intent to be to maim and disable him.—3rd COUNT, To do him some grievous bodily harm.’

It was also revealed in court exactly why Rowe had been dismissed. Mr Waller had deemed him unfit to continue on account of his age and mental state. Waller told the Old Bailey that ‘when I gave him notice I said, “Your faculties give way, you don’t know what you are about”.’ He gave him a guinea and a week’s notice. After 24 years of service, a week’s wages and a guinea was not a lot of reward for his loyalty. A week later Rowe sent a letter to his former master (written by Rowe’s son) pleading for help but ignored it.

Rowe was found not guilty on the account of being insane; however, no one doubted he’d acted as charged. The asylum beckoned for Thomas Rowe, if anything a worse outcome than the workhouse, or a public execution.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, October 07, 1843]