The shoeblack who only wanted a chance to ‘go straight’.


The Victorians believed that criminality was endemic in the working classes and that some offenders were beyond help. This informed a debate about the existence of a ‘criminal class’, reviewed and given impetus by the writings of Henry Mayhew at mid century. Just as there were those that ‘would not work’ there were those that lived by theft and violence. This depiction of crime had important consequences for those caught up in the justice system because by the 1870s the authorities had pretty much abandoned all attempts at rehabilitating prisoners and instead imposed ever more strict forms of discipline and penalties for breaking the rules.

The harsh nature of the penal system didn’t end when you left gaol. Under the terms of the Prevention of Crimes Act (1871) any prisoner released early on a ticket-of-leave could be arrested and presented before a magistrate on the mere suspicion (by the police) that they had done something wrong. Moreover, registers of habitual offenders were now kept which recorded previously untold details of thousands of individuals convicted of all manner of offenders by the Victorian state. Now then, a criminal record could dog your footsteps forever.

Not surprisingly this made it very hard for former convicts, like Thomas Briggs, to go straight. By March 1875 Briggs already had a  prison record. He’d served at least one term of penal servitude and had been up before the local Police magistracy on a number of occasions.

On Saturday 20 March 1875 he was there again, this time in Mr Hannay’s court at Worship Street in Shoreditch.

Briggs was an unlicensed shoeblack who  plied his trade on the streets. The 35 year-old was well known to the local police and it seems they were in no mind to let him live out an easy life. PC 250N was patrolling his beat near Shoreditch church at seven in the evening when he saw Briggs standing by his box looking for trade. According to the policeman the ‘black and his box were blocking the passage and he asked him to move along.

The real problem here was that Thomas didn’t have a license to clean shoes in the street and this was because the police refused to give him one. Every time they saw him on the street they move him on or confiscated his box, taking away his livelihood. Thomas then had to collect this from the police station , reinforcing his relationship with the law and reminding everyone of his criminal history. According to Briggs this happened ‘four or five times a week’.

On this occasion Thomas lost control of the situation and refused to move. When the PC insisted the shoeblack climbed the nearest lamp post and yelled abuse down at the copper below. He accused the local police of persecuting him; they knew he’d only bene out of prison for a few weeks and ‘pitched on’ him at every opportunity making it impossible for him ‘to earn an honest living’.

In court the constable told the magistrate that Briggs was ‘obstinate’, obstructive and abusive. He ‘collected a crowd about him, told the people his history to enlist their sympathies, and then said they should see him righted’.

Not surprisingly Mr Hannay took the police’s side in this. Briggs would have to confine himself to cleaning shoes only in places where the police allowed him to (presumably licensed ‘backs had more liberty of choice?). The magistrate told him he would be dismissed without further charge today but warned him that future transgressions would fall heavily upon him. He advised the policeman to bring him in as often as was necessary for the former convict to learn that rules were there to be obeyed.

Naturally we can’t know whether Thomas Briggs was an honest man caught up in an impossible system. He may have been a petty criminal who preferred an ‘easy’ way of life. However, his extreme reaction to being moved on again suggests that he might have had some mental health issues which would hardly have been identified as such in the 1870s as they would be today.

Nor would he have had any support on leaving prison; no probation officer or social services, or any form of state benefit. Recidivism remains a serious problem today when there are many more options open to those caught up in the criminal justice system – if Thomas Briggs managed to ‘go straight’ and stay out of gaol for the rest of his life then he would have been a quite remarkable individual.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, March 21, 1875]


Health and safety ‘gone mad’, as a child narrowly avoids being roasted alive

The Great Western Railway

On the 19 March 1873 The Morning Post reported its daily selection of reports from the Metropolitan Police Courts. At Marylebone there was a complicated ‘health and safety’ case (or at least that is how we would probably describe it today). Nowadays these sorts of cases don’t tend to come up before a magistrate, being dealt with elsewhere, but in the 1800s these were part and parcel of a local justice’s workload.

A summons had been taken out by James Henderson, a factory inspector, who was bringing a charge against the Great Western (Railway) company. He was represented in  court  by a barrister, Mr Henderson, while the company was defended by another lawyer, Mr Thesiger. The case was heard by Mr D’Eyncourt.

The fact were briefly restated: a young lad working for the company during the day had:

‘imprudently crept into the fire-box of a [steam] engine, and whilst asleep the fire was lifted by the fireman in ignorance of the poor boy being there’.

Crucially the report doesn’t say  what happened to the ‘poor boy’ but I am assuming he was fine, or this would have been a very different sort of prosecution. As it was Mr Henderson was attempting prosecute under the terms of the Factory Acts while the company’s counsel argued that these acts didn’t cover the railway company’s premises.

As I suggested, the case was complex and turned on a number of key points of law involving the definition of the engine sheds in the context of the Factory legislation. In the end Mr D’Eyncourt ruled that since the work carried out there involved repairs and maintenance to the rolling stock and locomotives owned by the railway, rather than any manufacturing per se, the acts did not apply and so he dismissed the summons.

I think we would all be more interested in the welfare of the boy and how he came to be sleeping in a fire box but the editor clearly thought his readers would prefer to hear the minutiae of a legal debate. What was more interesting (to me at least) was its remark that exactly a year earlier the Marylebone court had been much busier than it was this week in 1873. In March 1872 there had been 49 charges heard on the corresponding day whereas a year later there were just 23.

The paper listed them:

‘Drunk and incapable, 8; drunk and disorderly, 13; drunk and assault, 1; throwing stones, 1’.

All the offenders that were known to the court were fined 26d or sent to prison for seven days. These types of cases were much more typical of the London Police Courts in the 1800s; and thankfully much more typical than cases involving the accidental roasting of children in locomotive sheds.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, March 19, 1873]

Outrageous behaviour by “welshers” and “roughs”


The steam train had opened up Britain and given the Victorians opportunities to visit the seaside and enjoy other leisure pursuits, such as a day at the races. However, this came at a price because the train was a great social leveller, and so long as one had the funds the normal barriers to the mixing of the classes were weakened. Single female travellers were particularly at risk from the unwanted sexual advances of other passengers but, as this case (from the Southwark Police Court) shows, it was hard for anyone to escape bad or boorish behaviour on the railways.

On the 6 February 1879 two publicans  and brothers – Edwin and Walter Cole – had taken the Brighton Railway Company train to  Plumpton to watch the horse racing. When they got back to the station at Plumpton there was a crowd on the platform. Walter (who ran the Latimer Arms in Notting Hill Gate) explained what happened as he and his brother waited for the train:

They ‘were surrounded by a numbers of “welshers” and roughs, who attacked them, and attempted to rob them of their railway tickets and money’.

As they boarded the train the attack continued, and Walter was punched by one man and   had to get help from the guard to restrain him. The guard called Charles Jones, an inspector working for the railway company, who collared the attackers and shepherded them to a carriage at the opposite end of the train where he locked them in.

When the train reached London Bridge Edwin and Walter alighted and were walking towards the exit when two of the men that surrounded them at Plumpton rushed them . One aimed a kick at Walter before he was seized by the station master, a Mr Pierpoint, and Inspector Jones. The assailant, a man named William Butler, was then handed over to the police.

The police seemed reluctant to prosecute at first because there was no obvious injury to either of the Cole brothers. Butler was released and no other members of the group that had caused the trouble in East Sussex were arrested. Walter was determined to press charges however, and applied for a summons to bring Butler to court.

So, a few weeks later, on the 22 February, Butler found himself before Mr Partridge at Southwark having to deny he had anything to do with this ‘outrageous’ behaviour. He said he didn’t go to horse races, didn’t bet on the horses and hadn’t done anything wrong.  The evidence against them was pretty damning and the prosecution witnesses were respectable men and their stories were consistent.

Moreover an ex-detective from P Division appeared in court to inform his worship that the prisoner was a member of a notorious ‘gang of welshers and thieves’ who hung around race courses. They were were know as ‘Dutch Sam’s Gang’. ‘Hooligans’ were to become closely associated with the Southwark and Lambeth area in the 1890s and in 1888 the Pall Mall Gazette ran a feature about the various ‘gangs of London’ all of whom had colourful monickers like ‘Dutch Sam’.

There was laughter in the court as Butler’s affiliation was announced. Whether this came from his ‘chums’ or was a derisory reaction from the general public isn’t clear but Mr Partridge wasn’t in a mood to be amused. Despite the violence being petty and no real damage being done he handed the young man a two month prison sentence at hard labour.

[from The Standard, Monday, February 24, 1879]

p.s the term ‘welsher’ has, it seems, nothing to do with Wales and the Welsh people. According to the OED a ‘welsher’ is a ‘bookmaker who takes bets at horse races but who absconds, or refuses to pay if he loses’. It seems to have come into regular usage in the early 1860s. ‘Roughs’ was commonly used in the early Victorian period for groups of men at political demonstrations that acted aggressively; by the 1870s onwards it seems mostly to have applied to gangs of young men that were increasing seen as a social problem in British cities. Organised crime around British race courses is the subject of the BBC TV drama series Peaky Blinders, which takes the real-life story of the Birmingham gang as its inspiration, weaving in other race course gangsters such as Darby Sabini and Billy Kimber. ‘The inspiration for ‘Dutch Sam’s Gang’ may have been an early professional boxer of the same name who was popular in the 1820s.

A mother’s anguish at her inability to send her children to school


One of the many functions of the Police Court magistrate in London was to deal with parents who refused to send their children to school. School boards had been created by the Elementary Education Act (1870) also termed Forster’s Act. In addition boards could seek to have bye laws passed that allowed for the fining of parents whose children played truant. By the late 1870s about 40% of the population lived in areas where school attendance (to the age of 10) was compulsory.

However, while the state and many parents recognised the importance of an elementary education  for children aged 5 and over, not everybody agreed or was able to comply with the law. Children were useful around the home as helpmeets and carers, they could earn money in all sorts of ways, and so supplement the family purse.

Moreover sending children was not without complications and costs. The school boards made some exceptions for parents who lived a long way from the nearest school, but this was unlikely to have affected those living in London where schools were plentiful. Nevertheless parents who could not afford to provide shoes or even proper clothes for their offspring would choose to keep them at home, our of embarrassment as much as anything else.

Finally for all but the poorest school was not free; parents had to pay for it so this added a further disincentive. In 1880 schooling was made compulsory everywhere and in 1891 education became free in all board and church schools for children up to the age of 10.

Margaret Godfrey lived in Nine Elms, was widowed and therefore extremely vulnerable to poverty. She also had a son of school age, and another below the age of five. Margaret didn’t have the money to feed her children, let alone clothe them and buy shoes so she hadn’t sent the elder boy to school.

As a result she was summoned to attend Wandsworth Police court by the local school board and asked to explain herself in front of the magistrate. Her son, the court was told, was ‘nearly naked’ and she had approached the Charity Organisation Society for help. They had given her 5s ‘in kind, but no clothes for the children’.

Margaret said they had been living on dry bread for six weeks. She would be happy for the boy to attend school but she couldn’t send him without shoes. The superintendent asked the magistrate (Mr Bridge) to help with money from the poor box and he agreed.

Margaret would have enough money to buy clothes and the boy would attend Sleaford Street board school. No mention was made of helping provide the family with enough money to eat properly; if Mrs Godfrey wanted of course they could all enter the workhouse. That would have signalled the end of her family however, and having lost her husband I can imagine how desperately she wanted to avoid that outcome.

Now we have a free education system for all children that need it and a benefit system to help mothers like Margaret. Yet we still have children attending school without having had a proper breakfast or evening meal afterwards, and plenty of truancy and a  state system that attempts to punish the parents for it – on occasion by sending them to prison. Plus ça change.

[from The Standard, Friday, February 21, 1879]

‘You’ll have someone’s eye out with that boy!’


Our class of boys was told repeatedly at school about the dangers of throwing paper darts or flicking elastic bands at each other. ‘You’ll have someone’s eye out with that , boy!’ thundered our Latin master. We ignored him of course, as most small boys do, and, to my knowledge, no one at Christ’s College Finchley did lose an eye to a small missile hurled in jest.

Sadly, but equally predictably, there were handful of pupils in our year who were always the butt of yokes and more serious bullying. Often this was because of the way they looked, some minor disability they had, or some other personal characteristic. Being overweight, wearing glasses, having red hair, very short (or very tall), less intellectually gifted, or indeed, cleverer, could single you out for abuse. Children and teenagers (and some teachers) can be cruel and some people must have had a horrible and traumatic time at our school.

None of this is new of course and despite the best efforts of several generations of school teachers it continues.

On  weekday in February 1870 a young woman was working at a stall in Crawford Street, Marylebone to earn a few pennies. We don’t know her age but it was probably early teens. We don;t know her name either but she had suffered an injury as a child and had loss an eye. The one eyed girl was most likely a source of conversation and ridicule amongst the children of the district, who would have seen her standing by her stall most days of the week.

One can only imagine what she had to put up with hearing the whispers of the adults and being pointed at by younger passers-by. The mixture of pity, ridicule, and fear that she engendered in others must have left her feeling isolated and victimised unless she had very strong support from her family and friends.

One young lad, Charles West aged 10, wasn’t content with staring or pointing. He owned a catapult and in early February 1870 thought it would be a good jape to see if he could knock out her remaining good eye.

Taking aim he released a stone which struck the girl plumb in the face, injuring her eye as he’d intended. She was rushed to get medical help and Charles ran away. Enquiries were made and the boy was eventually traced and locked up in prison while the girl’s injuries were assessed.

After five days in custody Charles was brought up before Mr Mansfield at Marylebone Police Court. The case was briefly confused by the appearance of a butler who produced another lad who said he’d committed the awful crime. The child was lying however, presumably encouraged by the butler to do so. Was the butler in the employ of Charles West’s family? That would suggest that Charles was no street urchin but the son of respectable parents.

Mr Mansfield reprimanded the butler, dismissed the other boy and turned to Charles. The girl was in recovery and, thankfully, no lasting damage had been done to her sight the doctor had assured him. Charles had spent the best part of a week locked up and the magistrate decided that was sufficient punishment.

Hopefully he was punished by his parents and his catapult taken away. If he did come from a middle class family of means one  also hopes that they made a generous donation to the girl with one eye and, more importantly, reminded their offspring of the need to be kind to those less fortunate than ourselves.

[from The Illustrated Police News etc, Saturday, February 12, 1870]

Whitecross Street, ‘one of the most disgraceful streets in the metropolis’.


In today’s Britain we are used to a 24/7 retail culture. We can shop every day of the week from dawn to early evening and beyond and the notion of keeping Sunday ‘special’ has long gone. Yet I can remember when Sunday trading was not ubiquitous and even a time when most shops still shut for a half day or closed early during the week.

Victorian London was a busy commercial city and shops and businesses opened early and shut late. The working day was long and, for much of the century, there was little protection for workers who had few rights. The rights we enjoy today were hard won in the twentieth century by the trades unions and the emerging Labour Party.

Nevertheless Victorian Britain was also a more religious society than is the case today. Even if fewer people regularly attended church than we might assume, there were laws in place – some going back to the reign of King Charles II – to maintain Sunday as a day of rest as stipulated in Christian teaching.

It would seem though that the laws surrounding Sunday trading were only partially obeyed or enforced. The New Police had fought a long running battle with small businessmen from the 1830s onwards to keep the Sabbath sacred, and it was a battle (according to Stephen Inwood) in which they frequently had to concede defeat.

Edward Varuvain and George Martin were shopkeepers who fell foul of the law in February 1873. The men ran shops in Whitecross Street and were summoned at the request of the St Luke’s vestry for ‘pursuing a worldly avocation on the Lord’s day’. Charities and essential services were exempt from the laws but Varuvain and Martin did not come under that category.

Whitecross Street had been a problem for the vestry for some time. There were several shops there and plenty of costermongers who plied their trade there. There had been a market there for centuries (and there is still a thriving food market there today and lots of trendy shops and eateries). The police had tried to move the costers off and shut the shops, but tensions had flared. Eventually an uneasy truce had broken out. The costers were allowed to operate up until 11 on a Sunday morning and the shopkeepers agreed to stay closed.

Then in early 1873 some of the retailers began to open on the sabbath and others, presumably emboldened or simply not wishing to miss out, followed suit. The costermongers, seeing their compromise agreement being effectively abandoned, resumed trading all day long.

The local sanitary inspector visited the street on the previous Sunday and found it cluttered with barrows and with several shops open. Martin was out in the street crying his wares, shouting ‘buy! buy! buy! What will you buy?’ and so ‘rendered the street a Babel’ as the inspector put it.

Mr Pedder from the vestry said it had become ‘one of the most disgraceful streets in the metropolis’ and the case against the two men was proved. However, given that Mr Ricketts (the sitting magistrate at Clerkenwell) only fined them 1s each plus costs, I doubt it deterred them from similar behaviour in the future. After all, they had a living to make.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, February 9, 1873]

The press ride to the rescue of a baby ‘bitten by rats’


The Council of the Rats by Gustave Doré (1867)

This case demonstrates the power of the Victorian press in highlighting social issues, albeit on a local matter. The fact that the newspaper (in this example the popular Illustrated Police News) reported the circumstances of this particular case engaged the public and directly benefitted one poor woman and her child.

In late January 1872 The Illustrated Police News carried a story from the Worship Street Police Court about another who had complained about her living conditions. The woman, who was not named in the report, had appeared at the Police court to ask for the magistrate’s help. She told Mr Bushby that her lodgings, in Wilson Street, Finsbury, were ‘infested with rats’ and her child had been attacked by the animals.

She described how the rats ‘were in the habit of coming up from their holes and running about the room in midday. The child she held had, while left lying down, been bitten three times by them, and at length, by the directions of the doctor to whom she had taken it for treatment, she had come to the magistrate to inform him of the facts’.

It was testimony to the poverty she lived in and the dreadfully poor state of housing in some parts of the coastal, especially the East End. Mr Bushby told her to report the situation to the Sanitary Inspectors with the intention of getting the building condemned. He also advised her to move house as soon as possible.

The latter may have been sensible counsel but the woman was unable to go anywhere she said, because she owed two weeks rent and her husband was out of work. This was hardly an unusual situation in East London at the time; many people fell behind with the rent and faced eviction or were trapped in poor conditions while they struggled to make ends meet.

The doctor she had taken her baby to, Dr Timothy of Worship Street, had come to give evidence in her support and testified that she was a ‘deserving cause’. The middle classes of Victorian England had quite clear ideas about who did (and who did not) deserve the support of society and his opinion helped the woman’s case in the end.

A week later the newspaper told its readers that as  a consequence of their coverage of the story the court had received a large number of public donations for the woman. Individuals had read the horror story of rats and had sent in small sums of money that totalled £1 15s 6d (or about £80 today). Moreover, the landlord was shamed into saying he would allow her to move and accept her arrears in instalments. She was handed the money by the court  and expressed her gratitude to everyone involved. In the meantime, the paper added, the family had moved to a new home in Lisson Grove and the woman’s husband had also  found work.

For once then, the papers had a ‘good news’ story to tell and could take some of the credit for it. The readership could also feel suitably proud that they had helped a member of the ‘deserving poor’ escape a desperate domestic situation.

[from The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, January 27, 1872]