When bureaucracy gets in the way of helping those in need: a case from history

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A workhouse in West London c.1857

In 1834 Parliament Passed the Poor Law Amendment Act ushering in one of the most contentious and unpopular pieces of legislation in our history. The New Poor law sought to reduce the costs of the pauperism (which fell on the ratepayers of any given parish) by discouraging people from applying for it. Previously the poor law had offered ‘doles’ to those in need to support them in the community – a form of ‘income support’ if you like. Workhouses existed and some parishes preferred the option of aiding the poor by giving them food and shelter in return for their labour; this was termed ‘indoor relief’.

After 1834 the New Poor Law stipulated that all those seeking relief should undergo the ‘workhouse test’. In other words enter the workhouse if they wanted any help from the parish. Given that this meant surrounding not only one’s independence but also accepting the breakup of the family, the new system provoked widespread resistance, condemnation and despair. Historians have argued that the ‘test’ was inconsistently enforced and very much dependant on the discretion of local poor law officials.

Nonetheless the 1834 legislation represented open season on the poor, vulnerable, sick and unemployed. The stain of the workhouse was not really removed until the 20th century, when the welfare state was established in 1948 by Attlee’s Labour government.

Before and after 1834 arguments over who was, or was not, entitled to poor relief often reached the summary courts for the adjudication of local magistrates. One group of people that frequently had their cases heard were the unmarried mothers of illegitimate children. These so-called ‘bastard bearers’ were considered to be not only immoral but a burden on the rates. Throughout the 18th and 19th century justices of the peace up and down the country grilled young women as to the paternity of their children and threatened them with the house of correction if they refused to divulge  the father’s name. Women also came voluntarily to court to complain that men had used them and then abandoned them without taking responsibility for the children that had helped bring into the world.

There was then, a mutual desire to make fathers pay for their offspring, either by marrying the mother or promising to pay a weekly amount to defray the costs that would otherwise fall on the parish and the rates.

In May 1845 Lloyd’s Weekly carried its usual summary of the ‘doings’ of the London Police Courts, where the capital’s professional magistracy sat in judgement on petty crime, violence, drunkenness, and a huge range of other business. Amongst its columns was a report on the ‘Bastardy Clause in the New Poor Law’. This referred to an update to the 1834 legislation just passed (in 1845) concerning illegitimacy.

It gave a single magistrate the power (previously only invested in two justices sitting together) to determine bastardy cases. Women were still to be examined and were still expected to ‘bring forward the same amount of “corroborative evidence” required by the old act’. In short they had to attempt to prove that the father was who they said he was.

The paper commented that this change had brought more women to court, perhaps because it was easier to find a single justice than wait for a petty sessions (or two or three JPs) to be convened. The paper was unsure however, whether the process was any better as a result. In fact the evidence from the London courts seemed to suggest that no one was really that sure how the law was affected by the new legislation and exactly who was responsible for sitting in judgement on cases brought by mothers who had been left high and dry by their lovers.

Lloyd’s gave an example: 

A young woman appeared at Marlborough Street Police Court to complain that she had given birth to a child and that the father, a groom working for Sir James Middleton in Whitehall, was refusing to support her and the baby. The groom denied any responsibility and had not paid her a penny in the three months since she gave birth. Given that her prospects for marriage were now extremely limited as were her opportunities to find paid work, this unnamed woman was facing the very real threat of having to enter the workhouse where she would most likely be separated from her child and lose all connection with it along with her independence.

No wonder she came to the magistrate at Marlborough Street for help.However, it was clearly more complicated than she had hoped to make her reluctant groom accept responsibility for his actions.

She told the magistrate that she had initially applied to the parish for help but they had referred her to the Queens Square Police Court. The justice there sent her instead to Bow Street. Bow Street sent her to marlborough Street, who at first referred her to the Clerkenwell Sessions of the Peace. At the sessions she was referred back to Marlborough Street. No one, it seems, wanters to take responsibility for this three month-old baby and its poverty-stricken mother.

Here at least Mr Maltby, referring to the new act, directed his clear to issue a summon to bring the groom to court in the following week. The woman was told to bring along the required “corroborative evidence”. Hopefully then he would be proven (as much as that was possible) to be the father of the child and mother and baby might avoid entering the dreaded workhouse so evocatively described by Dickens in Oliver Twist.

I am reminded that for many people, then and now, trying to get state (or parish) support when you are clearly in need of it is complicated by bureaucracy and the mean-spirited nature of benefit systems that assume it either someone’s else responsibility or that the person asking for help is in some way ‘trying in on’.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly London Newspaper, Sunday, May 18, 1845]

Of oysters and late night drinking in Vinegar Yard

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In 1827 the Metropolitan Police were yet to be created. Sir Robert Peel (Home Secretary from 1822 to April 1827) was not in post but would soon take up the reins again in January 1828. The lack of an ‘official’ police however should not be taken to mean that the capital lacked policing before 1829. There were officers attached to each of the Police Offices (the courts that are the subject of this blog) and many patrolling the river Thames and its quaysides. The Bow Street runners had operated day patrols since the late 1700s and and watchmen continued a tradition started in the medieval period, of walking their beats at night.

So all told London had around 450 ‘police officers’ and 4,500 watchmen employed and answerable to the various watch committees, magistracy, and the government. The capital was then very far from being ‘unpoliced’ when Peel guided his important ‘reform’ through  Parliament.

The officers attached to the Police (or ‘Public’) offices like Bow Street, Marlborough Street, Lambeth or Thames, worked on the instructions of the police magistrates. They investigated crimes (or at least followed up leads); they served warrants and summons; searched properties for stolen goods; and watched premises where infringements of bylaws or other offences were suspected.

Interestingly while they were paid a small salary it appears that their superiors (including Peel) believed they were best motivated by financial incentives. Officers such as David Herring at Bow Street were able to earn bonuses on top of their salary for executing particular tasks or rewards from grateful victims of theft for the return of their goods; they could also earn money for displaying ‘zeal’. This might mean a reward of up to £500 for recovering property, or simply an extra shilling for working overtime on patrol (i.e working after dark).

Herring appears in 10 trials at the Old Bailey as an investigating or arresting officer and may well have profited from his work. According to Leon Radzinowicz (the founding father of the history of crime)  the practice of financial rewards among police officers was widespread and persisted long after Peel’s creation of the Met in 1829.*

I wonder if Herring was after some extra money before Christmas in 1827. At half past midnight he and a fellow officer from Bow Street entered an oyster shop in Vinegar Yard run by Mr Pearkes. He went upstairs and found a gentleman sitting at a bench with a pint pot in front of him. After greeting him with a friendly ‘How are you, Sir?’ Herring picked up the pot and sniffed at it before setting it down. The pot was empty and Herring and officer Price left the building without any explanation.

The gentleman was clearly annoyed and as he left the oyster shop he presented Pearkes with his card bearing his name: Mr Ellar. Ellar told Pearkes what had occurred and said he had been insulted by the officers’ behaviour.

Herring ran a respectable establishment and so he summoned Herring (as the conductor – or leader – of the patrol) to the Bow Street office. He alleged there that Herring had behaved improperly. Mr Pearkes told the justice (Mr Halls) that often served respectable persons last at night when they had been attending the theatres, sometimes men alone, sometime they brought their wives and children. He ‘never suffered improper characters to come there’.

He told Mr Halls that Mr Ellar had been drinking  pint of ale but that he had obtained from a local publican and was not selling beer himself (as he did not have a license to do so). The justice however sided with the officer and with the law. Herring and been sent out to keep an eye on the unlicensed sale of liquor in any form and while this was hardly a serious offence it was breach of the regulations. As the magistrates told the oyster shop keeper:

‘It was a very great hardship upon publicans, who were obliged to take out and pay for licenses, and were compelled to close at a given hour, that others who were not subjected to the same restraints, were making a profit upon the commodities at all hours’.

He and his fellow magistrates were ‘determined to punish, as far as the law allowed, all persons who disposed of excisable liquors on their premises without a license’

Herring would have earned some extra money and perhaps well knew that Pearkes bent the rules for his wealthy clientele. The charge was brought against the police officer but Mr Halls saw no merit in it; the only way he would countenance a charge was if Mr Ellar (as the injured person) appeared to prosecute Herring.

Since he hadn’t the case was dismissed.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, December 21, 1827]

Mr Pearkes’ oyster shop was well known to Londoners. Situated near Drury Lane (and illustrated above) it was the subject of a funny article (recounted later in 1880) when an oyster appeared to whistle

* Radzinowicz, L; ‘Trading in Police Services: An Aspect of the Early Police in 19th Century England’, University of Pennsylvania Law Review, 102/1 (November 1953)

Literally scraping the barrel in a Fetter Lane boozer

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The Swan & Sugar Loaf pub in Holborn, c.1919

Joseph Howitt, the landlord of the Swan and Sugarloaf pub in Fetter Lane found himself in front of an unforgiving magistrate at Bow Street in December 1878. Howitt was accused, by  officers from the Inland Revenue, of adulterating his beer with cheap sugar.

The officers had taken a sample of Howitt’s beer and tasted it from the tap. They had also searched his cellar and found plenty of incriminating evidence. They had had their suspicions verified by ‘an analytics chemist’, Mr G. N. Stoker.

What Howitt had done was to add ‘put’ sugar to his beer in the cask. This was a ‘coarse brown sugar, the refuse or scraping of barrels, which was sold at cheap rate’. Officials found several bags of the sugar and 43 empty ones.

The sugar made beer seem stronger than it was and imparted a different (and not unpleasant) taste. One of the IR officers said that it gave the beer a ‘crispness’ that ‘a finer sugar, sometimes used by brewers, failed to accomplish’. It was also said to give the beer a ‘fictitious strength’, which again may have made it more appealing to Howitt’s customers.

Perhaps because it was no threat to health and may even have improved the drinking the officer had told Howitt that while he intended to bring a prosecution it was not a very serious offence and he should appeal any fine.

Unfortunately for the publican the justice, Sir  James Ingram, was either in a bad mood that day or held publicans in low esteem. He said he was of the belief that the defendant had been attempting to fortify his beer (which was a more serious offence, carrying a maximum fine of £200). Howitt escaped the maximum fine but still received a hefty fine of £50, hardly welcome a week before Christmas.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, December 20, 1878]

NB: The Swan & Sugar Loaf in Holborn is listed as early at 1800 and survived until 1941 when it was destroyed by the luftwaffe.  Sir James Ingram (1847-1924) trained at the bar and went on to be a Liberal MP. He was managing director of the Illustrated London News, taking over when his father and brother died in 1860 and serving until 1900.

Of cheap gin and forgiving husbands

One of London’s brand new police constables was on duty in Drury Lane in November 1829 when he came across the collapsed person of an elderly lady. She was very drunk having consumed too much cheap gin at the behest of a friend of hers.

The policeman called for assistance from a couple of passers-by and they managed to carry the woman to the nearest watch-house (the predecessor of the police station).

In the morning she was brought up before Mr Halls at Bow Street on a charge of being drunk and incapable. The magistrate noted that she was the eight such case he’d seen this morning already.

‘He did not know what was the matter with the old women, that they should reduce themselves to the level of swine for the pure love of gin’.

At this point an old man steeped forearm and told Mr Hall that the woman was his wife and the mother of his seven children. He said that his wife was ‘addicted to drinking, and on Saturday contrived to possess herself of every farthing of his hard week’s earnings, which she spent on gin, and left him and their children without a morsel of food to put in their mouths’.

The justice sympathised with the old man but remained him he had taken her ‘for better or worse’ and the husband quipped that ‘it had all been worse and no better’, prompting laughter in the court.

Mr Hall admonished the old drunk and told her she didn’t deserve such a decent husband, and then related her into his care.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, November 17, 1829]

A far sighted optician thwarts a spectacle thief

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When Mr Anderson, an optician who traded from premises at 151 High Holborn*, finished his dinner on a Thursday in October 1859, he went through to check on his shop. As he cast his eyes over his stock he immediately noticed that a string of spectacles was missing. He had left these on his counter the night before but now they were nowhere to be seen.

Fortunately for the optician these were marked ‘with a number on the glass’ (rather than on the rim) and so he hoped they would be ‘easily identified’. Anderson now set about advertising the loss amongst his fellows in the trade and this quickly brought results.

On the next day an ‘elderly man, of shabby appearance’ walked into an optician’s shop at 2 Cranborne Street, near Leicester Square. He approached the owner, Mr Whitehouse, and offered him ‘half a dozen eye-glasses for sale’.

Whitehouse recognised the numbers on the glass as those listed on the handbill Mr Anderson had circulated the previous afternoon and secured the goods and the old man. The police were called and he was taken into custody.

Back at the police station the thief was searched and more glasses were found on him. Now he admitted selling to other opticians in and around the area and officers were despatched to retrieve the goods. All of this was revealed at Bow Street Police Court and the unnamed ‘elderly man’ was fully remanded for the theft of over £6 worth (over £250 in today’s money) of spectacles.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, October 22, 1859]

The US have a Museum of Vision with a  large collection of spectacles (many online) – its fair to say that these were a world away from the designer pairs we see (no pun intended) today.

  • in 1860 (a year later than this case, these premises are listed as being occupied by a ‘brass letter and glass letter cutter’  called Nicholas Flogny. Whether he and Anderson were connected or shared a premises is unclear. Cranbourne Street is at the heart of London’s West End, close by the busy Leicester Square (there is no sign today of Mr Whitehouse’s shop.

Two strikes and you’re out: a ticket-of-leave man at Bow Street

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From the landing of the First Fleet in 1787 to the arrival of the Hougoumont in January 1868 around 164,000 British men and women were transported to Australia for crimes committed in the British Isles. The last convicts may have landed in 1868 but the reality was that by the late 1850s transportation had dwindled to a trickle. The gold rush of the early ’50s had made the new colony a more attractive place for free settlers and the established communities of the continent were much less content to take the mother country’s convicts.

This presented the authorities in Britain with a problem; what to do with all those offenders that it had been so happy to send overseas. Hanging for all but murderers had been abandoned by the mid 1820s and the prison had come to dominate penal policy. But from New South Wales and Van Dieman’s Land one idea was transported back to Britain.

Convicts were sentenced to 7 or 14 years transportation or life but there was a necessary opportunity for some reduction. If a convict behaved themselves and settled into their new existence, perhaps being bound to work on a freeman’s farm or in government employ, they might earn a ‘ticket-of-leave’. In essence this was very like parole today; the convicted man or woman would have some of their sentence remitted and they could live free in the community so long as they continued to obey the law.

The answer for the British authorities was to apply a similar system in domestic penal policy. So prisoners in gaol could now earn parole and live as ‘ticket-of-leave’ men (or women) and go home to their families and friends. However, ANY transgression would land them back in prison to complete their sentence*.

George McDougall was just one such ticket-of0-leave man. Usually the nineteenth-century newspapers were quick to condemn the practice of early release and in 1862 the garroting panic was blamed on the ticket-of-leave men and there were widespread calls for a toughening up of penal policy.  However, and perhaps because McDougall was a clear subject for sympathy, here the paper sided with the convict.

McDougall appeared at Bow Street Police Court in September 1862 (a few weeks after the panic had began to subside) charged with having revoked his license by his ‘subsequent misconduct’. The Scot had been sentenced to 10 years for burglary in 1858 and was sent to a convict prison. There he served his time until 1860 when he was released on a ticket-of-leave and sent home to his wife in Scotland .

He lived peacefully until ‘a few days ago’ he became ’embroiled in a drunken disturbance in the streets of Edinburgh’ and was arrested and taken before the justices of the peace and fined. Not by any means a serious offence by but serious for George because the authorities were obliged to inform the Home Secretary and a warrant was issued to bring him to London to have his license revoked.

The man was clearly very ill: despite being ‘in dreadful ill-health and [suffering from] consumption’ (TB) George was brought back to the capital and presented at Bow Street. Here the old man told the court that it was very hard that he should be sent back to prison to serve out the remaining eight years of his sentence as he was ‘a dying man, almost’. He asked for medical assistance and for leniency.

He may have got the former but he certainly didn’t get the latter. The magistrate was sympathetic but his hands, he said, were tied. He was ‘bound to administer the law’ and George was packed off to one of the convict prison (such as Pentonville or Millbank) that served the Victorian penal system. Given the harsh regimes that existed in the 1860s I would be surprised if George ever saw Scotland or his wife again.

[from The Standard, Monday, September 15, 1862]

  • I believe a similar principal exists for life prisoners who are released on license today.

The Bow Street Runners have the tables turned on them

The Bow Street Runners was the contemporary (and slightly disparaging) name given to the officers attached to the Bow Street Police Office. These proto-policemen had been established in the late eighteenth century by the Fielding brothers, Henry and John, and by the early 1800s they were regularly bringing criminals before the magistrate in Covent Garden and helping prosecute cases at the Old Bailey. The Runners were also being sent outside of the capital to help with provincial crime fighting.

They were not professional police has we understand them however, they were more akin to the thief-takers of the early to mid-eighteenth century if less corrupt. Runners were paid a basic stipend for their service but relied mostly on rewards from government and from those victims whose cases they pursued. I think it’s fair to say that if we are to see them (as Professor Beattie does) as England’s ‘first detectives’ then we should recognise that they were just as flawed and open to accusations of heavy handiness and corrupt practice as many of those that have come after them.

The Metropolitan Police were founded in 1829 and there was much discussion of the need (or otherwise) of professionals in London in the years leading up to Peel’s initiative. The Runners were part of that conversation and incidents like today’s news story from 1824, reflect concerns about the way the Bow Street officers operated on occasion and perhaps the need to replace them with a more accountable group of men.

The landlord of the Star & Garter public house in St. Martin’s Lane, Mr. Sbrinzi, had recently been the victim of a robbery. As a consequence two Bow Street Runners had been in and out of his house on a regular basis, presumably making enquiries.

They were there late on Sunday night. At about midnight one of his lodgers knocked him up to let them in and as Sbrinzi opened the door two Runners forced their way in demanding to know who was in the house. Despite the landlord answering their queries in full the men dragged him out of his property by the collar and marched hi to the watch house. There they tried to have him locked up overnight but the constable of the night refused them.

On the way he complained that ‘they had used him so roughly that he was obliged, in his own defence’, to seize on them (by the name of Donald) by the hand and tried to shake him off. At this the officer shouted to his colleague: ‘Hollick, give your knife, and I’ll cut his __________ hand off’. Not surprisingly then the publican pressed a charge of assault at the Bow Street office.

The two Runners arrived in the building as Sbrinzi was giving his evidence and immediately countered with their own version of events. They accused him of assayult but when an independent witness verified the landlord’s story the magistrate, Mr. Birnie, dismissed their accusations out of hand. He ‘strongly censured the conduct of the patrole’ (meaning Hollick and Donald) and recommend that Mr. Sbrinzi prosecute them at the Sessions of the Peace, which he said he would do.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, September 14, 1824]