A fake surgeon tries (and fails) to con Ellen Terry’s father

Ellen-Terry-jubilee

Today is of course the first of April, the day when japes and merry pranks fill the pages of the newspapers and the content of TV and radio news shows. This year there seems to be something of a paucity of ‘April fools’ perhaps because the world is quite mad enough without making stuff up.

The Victorians were just as gullible as ourselves it seems and the nineteenth-century press were quite happy to try and trick their readerships with ‘fake news’ stories. I doubt however, whether this extended to the reporters at the Police Courts, who were tasked with entertaining readers with the day-to-day ‘doings’ of this lower level of the criminal justice system.

Alongside the drunks, brawlers, petty thieves and wife beaters there were those who tried, in a  variety of ways, to trick the more susceptible members of society. These included fraudsters who sold things that didn’t work, or bought goods on ‘tick’ with no intention of paying, and others who persuaded people to part with money under false pretences.

One such person was Frederick Walter Ventris, a bookseller, who was charged at Wandsworth Police Court with ‘obtaining money by false representations’.

Ventris had knocked at the door of a Mr Terry (an actor) and his wife. He told the lady of the house ‘a pitiable tale of having been a surgeon, but could not follow his profession as he was paralysed, and had just been discharged from the Fulham infirmary’. Mrs Terry said she would speak to her husband, gave him some money to allow him to pay for his lodgings and invited him to call again soon.

Ventris returned a day or so later and this time managed to speak to Mr Terry. This was probably Benjamin Terry, a well-known actor and the head of what was to be a renowned acting family. Terry was married to Sarah Ballard, who also trod the boards, and then had several children. One of these was Ellen who went on to achieve international fame as a Shakespearean actress, appearing often alongside Henry Irving. Her great nephew was John Gielgud, demonstrating perhaps that great genes do run in the family.

Benjamin Terry was sympathetic to Frederick Ventris’ plight who wrote to the Charity Organisation Society on his behalf. Ventris explained that he had been given permission to deliver a series of lectures on chemistry by the vicar of Chiswick and in this way managed to persuade several other persons to give him money so he could buy the ‘chemical equipment’ he needed for the talks.

However, when the case came to court Ventris’ ruse began to unravel. The vicar, the Reverend Dale said he given no such permission to the supposed surgeon. He said the story he had been told was that the man was one of his parishioners and was applying for the job of caretaker at the local board school.

Ventris protested to the magistrate that all this was hearsay and false rumour but Mr Paget was having nothing of it. He saw through the attempt to hoodwink and actor and a man of the cloth, both potentially more open to believing a ‘hard luck’ story, and found Ventris guilty as charged. He told him he ‘had taken advantage of a superior education to commit a systematic course of fraud on charitably disposed persons’. He then sent him to prison at hard labour for three months.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, April 01, 1879]

The grass is not always greener on the other side of the Channel

As PC Martin (406B) patrolled his beat in Grosvenor Place he saw a man going from door to door begging for money or food. As each front door turned him away he started to try at the lower, or trade door. The policeman now decided to move in an arrest the beggar, as he was branch of the vagrancy laws.

The man was not English and once an interpreter was found it was discovered that his name was Adophe Blesche and that he came from Austria. Blesche was produce din court at Westminster in early March 1881 charged with begging.

He admitted his offence but said he didn’t know what else to do. He was starving and had nowhere to turn. He told the magistrate that he was a labourer and had been working in Lille in France at a picture frame manufacturers. He had left, he said, ‘because they told him a foreigner could get a living and money in England’. Adoplhe was one of millions of migrants that traveled to Brain and America in the the late 1800s, attracted by the prospect of a better life in a more stable society.

The Westminster magistrate was curious however, as to what had driven him from his native Austria. The chief clerk suggested enquiries should be made with he Austrian authorities in London; he thought Blesche might be an army deserter.

When this was relayed to him by the interpreter Blesche admitted as much; he had served in Bohemia (his birth place) for 12 months but had run away from his unit. Given that the punishment for such an offence was six years’ imprisonment, it was not surprising that he didn’t want to return home.

Mr D’Eyncourt, the sitting justice, remanded him in custody and asked for the Austrian consul to be informed. Sadly for Adolphe he had pinned too many of his hopes on British hospitality. I wonder how many current refugees and economic migrants are similarly regretting their decision to cross the Channel.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, March 07, 1881

Two incorrigible beggars at Bow Street get no help and little sympathy

 

Mr. and Mrs Philips were well known to their parish officers and to the local charity groups that attempted to intervene in the lives of London’s poor in the 1880s.

The Charity Organisation Society was founded in London in 1869 with the intention to support ‘self-help’ and thrift over state intervention. At its head were two strong women – Helen Bosanquent (neé Dendy) and Octavia Hill (who went on to be a founder of the National Trust). The COS wanted people to help themselves and viewed poverty (as many did in the 1800s) as largely a personal failing.

Supporters of the COS disliked ‘outdoor relief’ (where families were given handouts without being required to enter the workhouse) and argued that the ‘workhouse test’ was a proper way of separating the needy from the work-shy.

However, it was often accepted that there were those who could not work and, at face value at least, Mr. and Mrs Philips seem to have fallen into that category.

Mr. Philips was blind and his wife had lost her right arm. In late January 1887 the pair made their way to the Bow Street Police Court in Covent Garden to ask for help.

Mr. Vaughan, the sitting magistrate, sent out for information about the couple, to ascertain what sort of people they were and what he might do to assist them. It didn’t take long for the various charity groups and local parish officials to get back to him. On the 27th the husband and wife attended his court to hear the results of his investigations.

It wasn’t good news.

The COS reported that that had initially being paying the pair 12s a week (about £35 or the equivalent of a day’s wages for a craftsman) but when they discovered that Mrs Philips was ‘constantly drunk’ and that Mr. Philips continued to go out begging, they stopped all support. The parish officers described them as ‘incorrigible beggars’ who they were constantly having to remove from the streets around their home in Euston Road.

They added that Mrs Philips drinking had reached such a point that her mental health was affected. According to one witness: ‘she ‘showed symptoms of softening of the brain through excessive drinking’.

Mr. Vaughan looked down at the couple from the bench and told them that there was nothing he could do for them while they continued to disobey the laws surrounding vagrancy and begging. In order to get help in late Victorian Britain paupers – whatever their situation – had to either submit themselves to the horrors of the workhouse or attempt to live up to the standards set by demanding middle ladies like Mrs Bosanquet and Octavia Hill; there was no middle ground if you couldn’t support yourself.

[from The Morning Post , Friday, January 28, 1887]

Poverty, sympathy and the school of ‘hard knocks’

In January 1867 three young boys were charged at the Marylebone Police Court, with begging. Churchill Long was 11, his brother Stephen 10 and their friend Thomas Fields just 8.

A passing policeman, Sergeant Bunce (50 C Division) found the trio sheltering in the doorway of confectioner’s shop at 8 in the evening. According to Sgt. Bunce’s testimony they were asking passers-by on Coventry Street for change in and looked ‘to be nearly dropping from want’.

He took them back to the police station and left them eating a meal while he made inquiries about their families. Thomas had no father but his mother lived in Soho and was a washerwoman (a very lowly poorly paid class of servant). The Longs had a father barely alive and in such a ‘poor state of health that he was unable to work’. Their mother was in an even worse condition – she ‘was hourly expected to die’.

Tom Field’s mother then appeared in the courtroom in floods of tears. She told the magistrate that she had been in such a state that Tom had asked if he could go ‘with some fuses to get a few halfpence”. In other words he was offering to  take some small items to sell (but in reality, to go begging on the streets). She was trying to work when she could but had other children to care for; her situation had worsened after the recent death of her husband.

It was  sad story and on this occasion the ‘beak’ was sympathetic. Mr Knox (the justice)asked if she would like her son to go to school. She said she did. He then decided that Tom should be sent to Feltham Industrial School (the predecessor of the modern young offenders’ prison).

This took him away from his mother and siblings and reduced their outgoings, but whether Tom would have thanked him for it is open to question. Industrial schools were strict institutions and linked to the Reformatory School movement that had arisen in the 1850s. It represented a chance for the lad to ‘reform’ but I doubt he would have received much we would understand as ‘care’.

As for the Long children, their father – although clearly gravely ill – also turned up at court to explain his circumstances and to confirm that he feared for his wife’s health. He too wanted his children to attend a school and the magistrate asked him to return again when he was more able to do so. In the meantime Mr Knox ordered that the family be given some charitable support from the poor box.

This case demonstrates the multifaceted role of the police court in Victorian society; the case arose out of a ‘police’ issues (begging and vagrancy were ‘crimes’, and punishable) but exposed a wider social problem (poverty). As magistrate Mr Knox ‘helped’ the families cope with the pressures of surviving and bringing up their children. But he did this by removing the boys to a disciplinary environment where they would no longer see their parents. They would gain an education of sorts and be cared for (in the most rudimentary of ways at least).

So he helped save them from starvation and the abject poverty they were otherwise seemingly doomed to experience, but at the same time the justice acted for the benefit of the state; he intervened to prevent the children growing up to become members of London’s ‘criminal class’.

From the distance of history we might judge this as a drastic form of intervention and reflect that we have in place much kinder ways of dealing with child poverty today. But can we really rush to congratulate ourselves when even the government acknowledges that we have 2.3 million children living in poverty in the UK today?

[from The Morning Post, Monday, January 14, 1867]

A ‘foolish country gentleman’ is scammed at London Bridge

In January 1877 Mr Fletcroft Fletcher had come up to London from his estate at Ash in Kent for the cattle show. Having completed his business in the capital he headed to London Bridge station to take his train home.

As he waited for the train he ‘got into conversation with a ‘respectable looking man’. The men talked first about the ‘cattle show and farming’ before his new acquaintance turned the discussion to charity.

The pair had decided to settle down in a public on Southwark High Street for some food and drink. While they were there another man appeared who gave his name as Richard Snowball. Snowball, who was in ‘a very excited state’, told the gentlemen  that he had just come into some money having won a law suit. In fact ‘he had so much money he intended to give some to the poor’. However, he wanted to find someone ‘with confidence to distribute it’. Fletcher and his companion seemed like just the men to help him with his philanthropy.

Snowball added that as well as giving money to the needy he thought he would also like to give each of the gentlemen  a gold ring (as a token of his gratitude and a mark of their new found friendship), unfortunately however, ‘all the shops were shut’ (as it was now well past seven in the evening).

So he reached into his waistcoat pocket and handed what appeared to be a large sum of money to the man Mr Fletcher had met at the station. ‘I have confidence in you’ he told him.

Turning to Fletcher he asked if, in a return of confidence, he would entrust him with his watch. The country gentleman obliged, handing over a gold watch and chain worth around £60 (perhaps £2,000 in today’s money). The two men then rose and left, requesting than Fletcher wait for them to return in a few minutes.

The ‘few minutes’ turned into ‘nearly an hour’ and there was no sign of either of them. When Fletcher realised that he had been conned he called a policeman and ‘laid an information’ against the the pair.

A week later he picked Snowball out amongst those detained at Stone’s End Police Station and he was charged at Southwark Police Court with theft. In court the investigating officer, Detective Inspector Ricahrd Stevens (of M Division) asked for Snowball to be remanded so they had more time to catch the other (unknown) party. The magistrate granted his application.

The case doesn’t appear to have reached a trial so the police probably didn’t catch the mysterious ‘other’ man. If they failed to find the watch or secure any other witnesses then they would have probably have had little to hold Snowball (if that was indeed his name) on.

Mr Fletcher, as an ‘foolish country gentleman’  had been caught by the ‘confidence trick’ (the paper described it). This was the nineteenth-century version of the email scam that promises a reward for doing good at no risk to oneself. If you are being promised ‘something for nothing’ be wary because if it seems ‘too good to be true’ then it probably is.

[from The Illustrated Police News etc, Saturday, January 13, 1877]

Charity, mendacity and malingering; what are we to do about poverty and begging?

Do you give money to beggars in the street? Or buy the Big Issue?  Or do you walk on by thinking that by ‘helping’ them with money you are doing more harm than good (as we are often told). Perhaps you pop into the nearest coffee shop and purchase them a hot drink and a sandwich?

We all have our opinions about poverty and begging and often we react emotionally to the person we see. I was particularly struck by the number of beggars I saw in Venice last summer, amidst the crowds of wealthy sightseers gazing at canal views and wearing designer clobber while old women in layers of rags held out their hands or a cup for change.

I have a problematic relationship with beggars; sometimes I give them money, other times I chat to them, but most of the time I think its not my problem, that is is what the state is there for. I’m not comfortable with this and mostly I just feel impotent.

It is often said that there are professional beggars, or shammers that trick us into feeling sorry for them when actually they ‘earn’ plenty of money from begging and choose this form of malingering over actual work. I imagine its true for one in a hundred but hardly widespread.

I suspect the same conflicting emotions faced our Victorian ancestors. In the 1800s charity was a way for upper and middle-class women to find a public role in society. The prevailing patriarchal ideology meant that  they were unable to work or pursue a career  as they are today and confined to running the household and directing the care and education of their children they must have craved something else.

Lady Richardson was one such well-heeled Victorian lady. From her fashionable London home at 42 Bedford Square she played a role in helping ‘deserving cases’ like Jane Alexander and Maria Bogice.

Lady Richardson was aware of and way even have been involved with  the Mendicity Society. Their purpose (as set down in an 1850 note) was thus:

The society gives meals and money, supplies mill and other work to applicants, investigates begging-letter cases, and apprehends vagrants and impostors. Each meal consists of ten ounces of bread, and one pint of good soup, or a quarter of a pound of cheese. The affairs of the Society are administered by a Board of forty-eight managers. The Mendicity Society’s tickets, given to a street beggar, will procure for him, if really necessitous, food and work. They are a touch-stone to impostures: the beggar by profession throws them aside.

In January 1837 Sir John had passed a letter on to his wife which purported to be a request for help from one Maria Bogice. It was delivered to the house in Bedford Square by Jane Alexander.

Lady Richardson was at once suspicious. She had already ‘relieved’ (in the other words, helped) Maria by donating to her daughter some clothes so she would be able ‘to take a position’ (as a servant or shop girl most likely). So she thought it odd that she would write her a begging letter so soon afterwards.

When challenged about this Jane suggested that it was probably a mistake and went to leave. But Lady Richardson added it was a ‘very wilful and wicked’ mistake if mistake it was and decided to look into the matter. She referred the letter to the  Mendicity Society for their thoughts.

When Mr Kynvett replied that Jane Alexander was well known to them and that she had been concocting letters like this since 1834 (using a variety of names) the case was sent to the summary courts.

Jane appeared at Hatton Garden Police Court charged with attempting to ‘practice a gross imposition’ on Sir John* and Lady Richardson. Jane admitted her guilt but ‘begged hard for forgiveness’, she had acted, she said, out of extreme distress.

The justice was unmoved by her act of contrition. He told her that ‘such tricks steeled the heart of charity’ (a reaction perhaps familiar to modern readers). Lady Richardson added her own thoughts, saying that:

‘There are so many frauds committed in this way upon individuals who are anxious to do good that it is difficult to tell whether you are helping a needy person or one who gains his or her living by obtaining sums from the benevolent’.

Poor Lady Richardson, while she had to return to her town house in Bedford Square (below) to lick her wounds over a dinner prepared for her and her family by a staff of cooks and servants, Jane Alexander had the luxury of being sent to prison for 21 days to reflect on her ‘crime’ of being poor. Her children were removed from her and sent to the workhouse.

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Ian Duncan Smith would presumably have wept buckets.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, January 09, 1837]

*Sir John Richardson was familiar with the legal system. He was a judge at the Court of Common Pleas in the 1830s.

‘Twas Christmas Eve in the Police court’…

firstchristmascard

 

In the 1860s the Police Courts closed at Christmas but just as we are used to that last minute rush for a present so the Victorian court system (and those caught up in it) were clean to clear the decks and settle down for the goose and the crackers.

At Worship Street in Stepney on Christmas Even 1866 the sitting magistrate was busy. As usual the cells were full of night charges brought in by the police in the evening and small hours, many of them drunk and incapable. The morning visitors were often those seeking the support or the protection His Worship; paupers, the elderly or abused wives.

On the 24 December 1866 the court reporter from the Morning Post noted decided to dispose with the usual reflection on one peculiar or otherwise interesting case and instead give a flavour of the courtroom before the holiday:

‘Mr Newton was engaged for a long time’ he wrote, ‘in hearing applications from the poor-box, and disposing of cases against the incurably drunk and the drunk and disorderly’.

Most of those threatened with incarceration did what they could to avoid being locked up at Christmas, offering ‘all sorts of excuses for their misbehaviour. In most circumstances they were discharged, with the caution, “Don’t come here again”.

However, two men were not so lucky. One (a ‘dirty-looking looking fellow’)  had approached two girls in the street holding a bunch of mistletoe and demanding a kiss from each. When they refused he struck out, hitting one of them in the eye and causing her to faint. The bully was sent to prison for 14 days.

The other man had been conning punters on the Mile End Road with the ‘three-card trick’. His ‘confederates’ had kept an eye out for the police which had almost saved him from arrest. Unfortunately for him an officer in plain clothes infiltrated the crowd and when he witnessed one of the onlookers being cheated out of a sovereign he pounced and the fraudster was now going to spend the Christmas season in gaol.

Happy Christmas everyone and thanks for reading – more tales will continue tomorrow!

Drew

[from The Morning Post , Tuesday, December 25, 1866]