An Italian displays a touch of bravura in court, but it does him no good

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St Margaret & St John’s Workshops in Westminster c.1875

Frederic Calvi was an Italian immigrant in London. Calvin worked as an engineer, and was presumably quite  skilled or reliable one as it was reported that he was ‘in constant work’. So it is something of a surprise to find this otherwise respectable working-class man in front of the Police Court magistrate at Marlborough Street on  charge of deserting his three children.

The case was brought by the Westminster Poor Law Union as it was them that had picked up the costs of supporting the children. And the costs were considerable. Mr Tett, the settlement officer for Westminster, claimed that they had spent £40 on caring for the Calvi children.

Having made some enquiries into the engineer’s situation Mr Tett assured the court that there was no need for him to have dumped the three children on the parish, as Calvi earned plenty of money and was well able to support them.

However, there was no mention of a Mrs Calvi so perhaps the children had no mother and Frederic was a lone parent. If that were the case, and if he didn’t have other relatives in England, then he might well have struggled to maintain a living and look after his family. There were plenty of Italians in London (as I’ve found in several past posts) but most of those recorded in the press were working as musicians.

Had Calvi come over on his own and married here? Or had he brought his family with him? This might be important as without an extended family or support network any change in his circumstances might throw him (and his children) into poverty.

In court before Mr Newton, Frederic was adamant that he needed the parish’s help. He had fallen sick he said and so was unable to provide for his children. That was the reason he’d taken them to the workhouse. He added that ‘it was well known that in England innocent people [like himself] were condemned’.

His attitude in court probably didn’t help him. Here was an occasion to throw yourself on the mercy of the justice, not to defy the system. But Frederic was clearly a proud man, or a callous one who cared little for his kids. Either way his actions and his attitude hardly endeared him to Mr Newton.

The policeman that had brought him in added that the Italian engineer was bullish when arrested. He said the prisoner declared he ‘was a Bismarck and would get over it’. What did that mean? It was probably a reference to ‘a rare stumble’ by the German chancellor in 1875 when his aggressive diplomacy nearly led to war on the continent of Europe as he attempt to force France to abandon rearmament backfired. Thereafter Bismarck proceeded with utmost caution. Calvi was indicating that in future he would do the same.

Sadly for him (and his three children) Mr Newton was not in the mood for second chances. He found the engineer guilty of deserting his children and sent him to prison for a month at hard labour. Exactly how that helped the situation or eased the strain on the Westminster parish purse (which would now have the children for another month) I’m not clear.

Calvin displayed a cavalier attitude on hearing the sentence however. He turned to the magistrate and challenged him to a game of billiards.

‘Double or quits’, he shouted, ‘He would be sure to get off’.

[from The Standard, Monday, November 22, 1875]

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‘A gross outrage’ on a young woman reveals the commonplace nature of sexual harassment in London

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Farringdon station under construction in the 1860s

The news feed is still dominated by the Westminster ‘sex pest’ scandal with a growing list of male MPs having to deny, admit or explain their poor behaviour towards female colleagues in the palace or outside. What has emerged is that sexual harassment (from the relatively minor to the extremely serious) is endemic in British politics.

As I discussed last week the Victorians experienced this problem, especially when the new railways began to break down the barriers between the sexes (and classes).  The busy railway carriages of Victorian London provided men with an opportunity to get close to women in ways that were usually denied them. We have seen this replicated in the modern world with attacks on female commuters on the London Underground.

Of course sexual  harassment is not (and was not) confined to the tube or other forms of transport. The Westminster scandal is just the tip of the iceberg; the Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey revelations have opened a can of worms in the movie and wider entertainment industry and I fully expect that over the course of the next year or so we are going to see more and more women come forward to complain that they have been assaulted at work or pressured into having unwanted sexual relations by men in positions of power.

This is because we don’t live in an equal society in terms of gender, despite the progress that has been made since the end of the last world war. There needs to be a reckoning and I rather suspect that it is just beginning. But let us return to the nineteenth century and to an incident that was reported, if not in great detail.

Miss Mary Ann Newell was ‘quietly walking along the street’ minding her own business one afternoon in November 1866. Mary Ann was quite close to her lodgings in Northampton Square, Clerkenwell (close to where the London Metropolitan Archives are located today) when a young man came up behind her.

Without warning or introduction he reached around her with his arms and ‘assaulted her in a  very indecent manner’. The newspaper report does not give any more details than this but I think it is quite clear that he must have touched her breasts. Such an action was of course as outrageous then as it would be today. Mary Ann escaped from his grasp and ran home where she told her landlord.

He set off in pursuit of the young man, capturing him a few streets away and taking him to a police station. The next day all three appeared at the Clerkenwell Police Court in front of Mr D’Eyncourt.

The young man, whose name was William Sparrow Cumber was just 16 years of age, and described as a bookbinder. Several of his friends appeared to give him a good character but the offence was proven against him. The magistrate made no comment that was recorded by the reporter but fined him the significant sum of £2 10(about £240 today). Mr D’Eyncourt warned him that if he failed to pay the money he would go to prison in the house of correction for a week at hard labour.

Did this represent ‘justice’ for Mary Ann or an effective deterrent to William and those inclined to behave similarly? I suppose the proof would in what happened next. If this served to let the young bookbinder know that he couldn’t treat women as objects, then a hefty fine (rather than gaol) allowed him to keep his job whilst being effective in protecting women locally. If his mates helped pay his fine and his ruffianism and day in court was considered a ‘badge of honour’ then more young women were likely to fall victim to similar assaults.

Given the deeply gendered nature of Victorian society and the generally subservient position of women in it, and the experience of modern women in a society which is supposedly so much more ‘enlightened’ where equality is concerned, I rather fear Mary Ann was forced to tread much more carefully when she left her home, with more than half an eye on who was behind her from then on.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, November 07, 1866]

A furious ostler takes his rage out on the horses

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On Monday morning 3 November 1879 the foreman at a stables in Coburg Row, Westminster, found that one of the stablemen was  much ‘the worse for drink’ and sacked him on the spot. The stakes were owned by Mr W. Ackers Smith, who ran a cab and omnibus company and had dozens of horses.

The stableman, James Cooper, didn’t leave immediately however, but loitered around the premises for for a while. After he had left ‘it was discovered that no less than 12 horses had had the hair cut from their tails to the dock.’ Cooper, in his rage at being dismissed had mutilated his master’s stock. While none of the animals had been hurt by the attacks their value, had Mr Ackers Smith wished to sell them on, was significantly reduced.

The police were called and a detective, DS Church of B Division, was soon on the trail of the disgruntled former employee.

Cooper had been seen leaving the stables with a large bag and his movements led the police to a shop in Vincent Street nearby. The shopkeepers, who bought and sold material by weight (usually metals) had purchased a pound and a half of horsehair from a man matching Cooper’s description. The shopkeeper, Mr Oxford, had no more details than this as he only recorded his metal sales, nothing else. He merely offered the explanation that it was a perk of an ostler’s trade to take home horsehair for his own use, so he hadn’t asked too many questions of Cooper.

Cooper was eventually tracked down and arrested. Brought before the Police Magistrate (Mr D’Eyncourt) at Westminster he was charged with the theft of the horsehair. The idea of ‘perks’ (perquisites) prevailed throughout the nineteenth century even if the practice had been under attack for at least a century. Perks harked back to a time before wages had been as fixed as they were in the 1800s; workers were used to taking home benefits of their trades as part of their wage. So carpenters took ‘chips’, coal heavers ‘sweepings’, weavers ‘thrums’ and so on. Employers did their best to stamp out what they saw as pilferage but we are pretty wedded to our perks even today.

However, Cooper’s action, while described as a theft, was really a act of revenge for losing his job. Mr D’Eyncourt was not impressed with him.

‘it was a very dirty trick to play just for the sake of 10d or a shilling, which only represented a few glasses of ale, and for that he seemed to have disfigured a dozen horses’.

However, despite his anger the justice was hamstrung by the sanctions available to him. Cooper had pleaded guilty and thus opted to be dealt with summarily. Mr D’Eyncourt handed him the maximum sentence allowed, four months in prison with hard labour. He would therefore spend Christmas and New Year in gaol and start the new century unemployed and without a good character. That was probably the real punishment for his crime.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, November 06, 1879]

Winter is coming and for one mother that means a spell inside

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Winter is coming.

Hallowe’en has come and gone and Bonfire Night is looming. The clocks have gone back and the air has turned distinctly chilly. Yesterday in town I noticed more rough sleepers than usual around King’s Cross and St Pancras and reflected once again that our modern society still hasn’t solved the problem of poverty.

The reports from the Victorian Police Courts provide ample evidence that desperation and poverty were endemic in the 1800s. This was a society without a welfare state, with no old age pension scheme, or National Health Service, or social services. Where we have a benefits system (however flawed) they had the workhouse or charity and recourse to either meant shame and failure.

In our ‘modern’ world we have people whose lives have been destroyed by drink or drugs and both provide the really desperate with the anaesthetic they need to simply survive on day-to-day basis. I saw a notice yesterday that said, ‘would you smash up a phone box to get 24 hours in a dry cell with food?’

This is a reality for some people in ‘modern’ Britain.

In October 1865 Mary M’Grath was charged at Thames Police Court with being drunk and disorderly and punching a policeman. Mary was about 30 years old and had a baby with her in court. PC John Mansfield (393K) testified that on the previous afternoon he had seen Mary rolling about, quite drunk, on the East India Dock Road.

She was carrying her infant and staggering about so badly that she kept banging into the nearby ‘walls and houses’. The child was ‘injured and screamed fearfully’, he added. Mary kept up a stream of the most unpleasant language, so disgusting that several onlookers complained to him about it.

Eventually  she fell heavily and a man rushed up to save the child and a police sergeant arrived to help  PC Mansfield take her to the police station. Once there she rewarded him with more abuse and landed a blow on his face, blackening his eye and impairing his sight.

The next day they appeared in court before Mr Paget, the magistrate, who asked the constable what had become of the child.

‘It was taken to the workhouse’, the policeman replied.

‘How old is it?’ the magistrate asked him.

‘Four months old’.

‘It is eight months old’, piped up Mary from the dock.

Mr Paget declared that nothing was more disgraceful than seeing a mother so drunk in public. Didn’t she have a husband at home he enquired.

‘No sir, my husband died seven years ago’, came the reply. So her baby was illegitimate and presumably the product of new relationship or a casual encounter, and no father was present in court. Drunk, riotous and promiscuous the magistrate was probably thinking, a suitable object not for pity but for condemnation.

In reality of course Mary’s life became that much more difficult when her husband had passed away. She would have lost the main bread winner and her partner. It is likely she already had children so they would have added to her problems. Perhaps this explains her descent into alcoholism.

She told him that she couldn’t remember what had happened the previous day, so drunk had she been. She had been inside the workhouse, and therefore destitute as no one went inside iff they could possibly help it.

‘I was there long enough’ she explained, and ‘I was half starved’ and ‘discharged myself. I took a drop [of alcohol] and lost myself’.

So in her version of events  she had been so malnourished in the ‘house’ that a small amount of drink (probably gin) had affected her much more than it would normally. It was probably an exaggeration of the truth but it did her no good. Instead of opting to find her some help in the form of money, food and shelter Mr Paget sent her to prison for a month at hard labour.

She had merely swapped one uncaring institution for another. As for the child, well as a ‘suckling’ Mr Paget decided it needed to stay with its mother, so off to goal it went as well.

This was an oft repeated story in Victorian London. Children were growing up affected by alcoholism, grinding poverty, homelessness, and sometimes, prison. No wonder reformers demanded change and some turned to ‘extreme’ politics (like socialism or anarchism). Men like Paget had comfortable lives and sat in judgement for the most part on those that scraped by.

Can we, hand on heart, say that 150 years later everything is so much better? Yes, of course to an extent we have provided a much better safety net for Mary M’Grath and her baby. But have we really tackled the root causes of her poverty? No, I don’t think we have  and while we pursue a form of economics and politics that allows some people to live in epic luxury while others sleep rough on the streets I don’t think we can sit in judgement of our ancestors either.

Winter is coming.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, November 01, 1865]

‘A very bad case’, as temptation gets the better of a young servant girl

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The temptations faced by servant girls working in the homes of the wealthy must have been very hard to resist. For a young woman like Ellen Shean her mistress’ home, with its fine furnishings, ornaments, silver plate and glass, and other comforts would have been a world away from her own humble beginnings. Even more stark was the contrast between Ellen’s personal belongings (such as they were) and those of her employer, Mrs Elizabeth Bailey.

When Ellen began her service, in mid September 1862, she arrived with just a couple of changes of clothes and a few personal effects – she had no money at all. By contrast Mrs Bailey lived in relative luxury, at 13 Sutherland Place, in fashionable Westbourne Grove. 

It wasn’t long before Mrs Bailey began to notice that money was going missing. Servants weren’t paid weekly or even monthly in the 1800s, they had an annual salary (of around £10-£20) which was paid out quarterly. Wages were low but of course their bed and board was included, as was a uniform, so what money they had was supposed to be for ‘treats’ (the odd day out) and to save for their future.

London of course, was a very tempting place with all sorts of sights and delights to turn the head of a young woman. Many domestics migrated to the capital looking for work so while Ellen may have been a local girl it is entirely possible she had traveled from as far away as Ireland. Shean is a surname with a variety of roots, from Ireland (as a shortened version of Sheenan) to Surrey and Staffordshire. Sheens are also found in the census in south Wales and across the Bristol Channel.

As Ellen was a new servant Mrs Bailey soon began to suspect that she might be the source of her missing money and so she decided to set a trap for her employee. She marked a florin (a coin valued at 1/10 of a pound) and left in in one of her dresses. Some time after Ellen had finished her rounds upstairs Mrs Bailey decided to investigate whether she had taken the bait.

Sure enough, the coin was missing and Elizabeth confronted her servant with the theft. At first Ellen denied it but soon broke down when Mrs Bailey threatened to involve the police. Ellen threw the coin onto the carpet in front of her and then reached into her pocket and took out a purse. Inside was a significants amount of money in coin (£1 8s) and Mrs Bailey’s wedding ring.

Ellen admitted her crime and the next day both women appeared before Mr Dayman,  the Police Magistrate at Hammersmith. Questioned in court Ellen burst into tears and could say nothing in her defence. She must have known that she was effectively ruined; no one would be likely to employ her again as a servant in a respectable household and with a criminal record and no references her future looked very bleak indeed.

It was a serious offence which merited a jury trial and possibly a long prison sentence but Mrs Bailey (perhaps wishing to avoid further embarrassment to herself as well) requested that the justice deal with her servant summarily. She told he she ‘did not want to press the case severely’ and Mr Dayman agreed. However, he said ‘it was a very bad case, as servants must be trusted. There was no excuse for the prisoner to rob her mistress, as she had a comfortable house’.

He sent Ellen Sheen to prison for two months, with hard labour.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, October 31, 1862]

Two ‘dangerous female thieves’ opt for the best ‘worst case’ scenario

Poplar High Street in the late 1800s

Thomas Thomas had only recently docked in London from a long voyage out of Adelaide, Australia. The steamship fireman had picked up his wages on the Monday and headed from his digs to a beer shop in Poplar to relax.

As he sat drink ‘some ale’ two women approached him and asked him to join them. This was a fairly standard approach for the area’s prostitutes and I expect Thomas knew what he was letting himself in for when he accepted their invitation.

Ellen White and Elizabeth Johnson, (described in the report as ‘dangerous thieves’) were clearly well-know to the police and courts and were soon deploying diversionary tactics to rob the sailor.

As Johnson held his attention in conversation White,’thrust her hand in his trousers pocket and took from it a bag containing three half sovereigns’.

Thomas felt the attempt on his purse and grabbed her, but wasn’t quick enough to prevent her passing ‘something’ (his money most likely) to her confederate. Both women rose and quickly tried to get away with their prize. But Thomas maintained a firm grip on White and ‘called out lustily for the police’. Within moments both women were in custody and were taken to the police station.

A ‘female-searcher’ was employed to search both prisoners but nothing was found on them. She reported, however, that while she conducted the search she thought she saw both women swallow something. One of the police constables present at the search also said that he believed each defendant had swallowed at least one coin to prevent any evidence being found on them.

In court at Thames both women protested their innocence before Mr Selfe, the sitting magistrate. He told them them that in the circumstances he was going to commit them for trial before a jury. At this the women asked him instead to deal with them summarily, as they would receive a much reduced sentence if he did.

‘Oh, settle it here. Settle it here, sir; pray do, Mr Selfe’ they pleaded.

‘You say you are innocent, and I can’t settle it here’ replied the justice. ‘If you plead guilty I will settle it now. Are you guilty or not guilty? You may plead now or be committed for trial.’

White and Johnson were clearly upset at being put in this situation and continued to protest their innocence, presumably knowing that the lack of any hard evidence against them meant there at least was some doubt whether a jury would convict. ‘It was very hard to be charged with a crime they did not commit’, they argued. Mr Selfe was adamant however: they had to plead guilty if they wanted him to determine their fate, otherwise a jury would decide.

The women now conferred and must have been weighing up the chances that a jury might convict them anyway, and that they risked a much more severe prison term from the Middlesex sessions if convicted. Eventually they reluctantly agreed to confess to the theft and take their punishment.

Now a policeman piped up and said that Ellen White had a previous conviction for stealing and had served a month in prison for it. Mr Selfe said he was not interested and declared that he knew both of them well as defendants in his court.  Since Thomas Thomas was soon going to return to the sea he said he would deal with them today and sentenced both women to three months imprisonment with hard labour.

I think this demonstrates the problem facing petty thieves in court in the period: arguably they had committed the crime anyway but there was no hard evidence to convict them. Any lawyer worth his salt would have got them off but they hadn’t the funds to employ one and must have thought they’d been clever enough to avoid being convicted.

Mr Selfe could have dismissed the case but he knew them, as did the police. There was a good chance that a jury might have acquitted them for lack of evidence and because it was hardly likely that Thomas would have stuck around to press charges and appear in court; his occupation meant he would at sea for months at a time.

So this was a case of risk assessment and brinkmanship. In this case the women blinked first and chose a short spell in prison as a better alternative to the longer one they might have suffered had a jury found them guilty. As to the missing sovereigns, well, everything passes eventually…

[from The Morning Chronicle , Wednesday, October 26, 1859]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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