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

Noah Claypole from Oliver Twist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Gang of Cheerful thieves at Clerkenwell are destined for a life inside

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In early August 1881 four young men appeared in the dock at Clerkenwell Police Court charged with picking pockets in Islington. It was a fairly straightforward case and so it either caught the eye of the newspaper reporter because his editor was intent on warning his readership about the perils of London’s streets, or because of the bravado displayed by the accused. I found it interesting because it shows how previous criminal behaviour and convictions were increasingly being used to identify ‘recidivist’ (or repeat) offenders.

William Hillman (26), Charles Jones (19), Edward Davies (18) and George Smith (19) were, they self-declared in court, all unemployed and homeless. They were seen attempting to pick ladies’  pockets in Upper Street, Islington, by Detective-Sergeant Holloway of N (Islington) Division Metropolitan Police in August 1881. DS Holloway watched them carefully and when he saw Davies lift a purse he called for assistance and moved in to arrest all four of them.

There was no purse in Davies’ possession (it was common practice amongst pickpockets to ditch anything that could easily tie them to a particular target) but ‘the exact amount of money that had been in the purse’ was found on him. In consequence all four young men were produced in court on the following morning.

The presiding magistrate was Mr Hosack and from the research I have doing in the archives it is becoming clear that Police Court Magistrates (or at least some of them) were not always tied to one particular court. Here Hosack was at Clerkenwell yet on the 28 July 1881 he was at Worship Street (in the East End) where he sent Emma Heath to Westminster Prison for stealing two table cloths and ‘other articles’ from her master John Waldron. He also sent John Gladding to face trial at the Middlesex Sessions for stealing a watch. Gladding, a persistent offender with a string of previous convictions, was sent into penal servitude for 6 years (with a further 5 years of supervise by the police when he got out again).

Mr Hopsack was told that some of those in front of him were also ‘known thieves’. In the nineteenth century a criminal record would dog the footsteps of a convicted man or woman and could be produced in court before the magistrate determined what to do with them. Not surprisingly then many criminals opted to give false names to police and in court in the hopes that their past crimes did not catch up with them.

Unfortunately for these four that didn’t work. Jones, as Mr Hosack heard, had been given four months ins prison for stealing from the person (pickpocketing) at Marylebone in May 1880. Then he had been using the name Alfred Rogers. Seven months later he was back in court, this time at Marlborough Street (calling himself Charles Clare), where he received a three month sentence for the same offence. In April 1881 (or four months previously) Jones was sent down for six weeks hard labour by the Guildhall magistrate. This also shows that thieves moved around London, being picked up by different police divisions and courts and so hoping to avoid being identified.

Jones wasn’t the only member of the ‘gang’ to have a criminal history. Hillman had been sentenced to four months at Clerkenwell for picking pockets and uttering counterfeit coin. Davies had also been imprisoned by the Clerkenwell magistrate for dipping pockets. Nothing could be proven in terms of a criminal record against Smith but ‘he was known as the constant companion of known thieves’ DS Holloway explained.

As a result Smith got off relatively lightly, with a month’s imprisonment. The others all received three months with hard labour. Not that it seemed to make much of an impression on the men who acted as if it was all a big joke.

They ‘demonstrated great delight at the sentence, performing a dance, and calling out to their companions at the back of the Court, “Cheer up old pals, we can sleep away that lot”. “Meet us when we come out”, and other expressions of that kind, until they were removed by the gaoler’.

For them there was little prospect of ‘going straight’. With no Probation Service (until after 1907) and little or nothing in the way of rehabilitation in the late Victorian prison system, they were likely to go the way of John Gladding. I would confidently predict that most if not all of these four men would wind up on a sentence of penal servitude with post release supervision by the police within a very few years. Thus, the revolving doors of the Victorian prison system would become a familiar sight to each of them until illness or injury finally curtailed their criminal ‘careers’.

[from The Standard, Thursday, August 04, 1881]

Sad tales from the Police courts, and the hunt for the men that shot a policeman hots up.

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Islington High Street, c.1890

On June 27 1884 The Morning Post reported on several London’s police courts as well as updating their readers on an ongoing story concerning the shooting of a policeman. At Southwark a man named Hill was brought up for the second time, having been remanded on a charge of fraud. Hill had supposedly cashed fake cheques on at least two separate individuals for over £15 a time. That might not sound like much but a rough calculation for 1884 makes that around £700 in today’s money. The magistrate further remanded him for the Public Prosecutor to get involved.

At Westminster an Irish woman named Catherine Fagan was accused of begging but the case touched on her supposed involvement with the cause of Irish Nationalism. A membership card for the “W. P. Boyton” branch of the Irish National Land League was found in her possession. The INLL championed the rights of poor tenant farmers in Ireland and it was hardly a revolutionary organisation, but the 1880s were a difficult decade for Anglo-Irish relations, and saw several Fenian terrorist attacks in England (as I’ve written about previously on this blog). Fagan was eventually allowed to go, with some charity from the poor box.

But the story that touched me this morning concerned another woman in distress, Sarah Ann Cocksedge. Sarah Ann was presented at Lambeth Police Court charged with attempting to take her own life. This was, as I’ve written about on several occasions, a sadly regular charge before the magistracy. Even more tragic of course, was the fairly routine discovery of drowned bodies floating in or washed up on the banks of the River Thames. London was an unforgiving and hard place to live in the 1800s and Victorian society’s understanding of mental illness was far from as advanced as our own is.

Sarah Ann had tried to take a poison, ‘spirits of salts’ (which is hydrochloric acid) but had been prevented. In custody she told a policeman that she wanted to kill herself because  had been asked her to cover up the death of an infant child.

She said a ‘former mistress had given her a child to get rid of, which she had put into a garden (mentioning the place) and this had preyed on her mind’.

A detective from CID appeared in court to say that he had enquired into her claims but had been unable to substantiate them. The chaplain of the goal that had been holding her since her suicide attempt sent a letter to the court asking the justice to remand her back into his care, as he felt he could help her find a new home.

Sarah Ann continued to declare that she had spoken the truth regarding the dead child but it seems no one wanted to listen. She was again remanded and sent back to prison.

Finally, the paper reported that the police were closing in on two men wanted for shooting a police constable in Islington. PC Chamberlain had been shot in Park Street, ‘whilst in pursuit of two men suspected go burglary’. They had got away and the constable was injured, but not fatally it was thought. Two days later it was reported that he was ‘somewhat better’ and that the manhunt was focused on Hampstead.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, June 27, 1884]

A deceptive haberdasher gets it on the chin for misleading the public

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Islington in the Victorian era

For many years before I became an academic historian I worked in retail, either running shops as a manager or serving in them as an assistant. It was hard work, mostly enjoyable because of the people I worked with and the majority of the customers I met. It was pressured, particularly on busy Saturdays and in the Christmas run-in, and I got a lost less free time than I do today. It was also considerably less well paid.

One of the areas of contention I remember concerned pricing. Customers would occasionally try and haggle over a price and were often on the look out for a ‘bargain’; so ‘Sales’ were always busy. Sometimes a customer would bring an item to the counter to pay for it only for myself or a colleague to realise that it had been mis-priced (meaning that the price advertised on the label was cheaper than the actual price). We would always apologise, occasionally sell it to them at the stated price anyway, and emphatically point out that under consumer law we were not obliged to sell anything at any price to anyone.

So I was interested by the following case from the Clerkenwell Police Court which arose from just such an encounter, but in 1842.

Mr Thomas Deacon, a ‘gentleman’ was strolling through Islington when his eye was caught by a ‘handsome shawl’ hanging on a door outside a habersdasher’s. Shops did have window displays in the 1800s but the tradition (begun in the 1700s) of displaying goods outside to entice passers-by in, clearly continued. In this instance it worked; since he shawl was labelled at 16s 6d (about £36 today) Mr Deacon decided to enter the shop and purchase it.

He enquired about the shawl and the shop assistant (‘shop man’ as they were called then)  offered to show him a section of others. No, he said, he wanted that one, which the assistant fetched. Deacon produced a sovereign to pay for it but was told this was not enough; the price of the item was in fact £1 13s (or £73). For a sovereign he would only get ‘half of it’.

Deacon was angry and remonstrated with the man. However, the shop man insisted he could not sell it to for less and so Deacon stormed out and went to the station house to bring a policeman. When he returned the owner of the shop, Mr Turner, was present. When he confirmed that his assistant had acted correctly Deacon lost his temper and ‘collared him’. At this Turner grabbed him, and threw him out of the shop.

This incident now escalated and Deacon summoned Turner for assaulting him. A few days later Turner ended up in the Clerkenwell court where Deacon’s interests were represented by a lawyer, a Mr Wakeling, while Turner hired a Mr Stoddard to defend him from the charge.

Having heard the evidence from both sides the magistrate, Mr Greenwood, said:

‘there was no law to prevent a man from labelling his goods at whatever price he sought fit, nor any law to compel the shopkeeper to sell the goods at the labelled price. The public, upon whom the deception was practised,’ he continued,’could best punish it’ (by withdrawing their custom I presume).

He dismissed the assault charge and everyone left. I doubt the experience did much for either man but it reminds us that our retail trading laws and regulations have been developing because of incidents such as this over hundreds of years.

Today our rights (as consumers) are protected by a number of laws but primarily by the Sale of Goods Act (1979). This requires retailers to meet certain conditions but it doesn’t protect us from the sort of ‘deception’ Mr Turner was accused of. This might seem unfair until you’ve worked in a shop. It is a fairly simple thing to switch a price label after all, so retailers need to retain the right not to part with something for less than its value, unless you choose to.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, May 6, 1842

The Salvation Army wins few friends in 1880s Islington

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When William Booth founded his Christian mission in Whitechapel in 1865 it was just just another example of nineteenth-century evangelical religious fervour. It was not until 1878 that he, with inspiration from his son, Bramwell, came up with the concept of an ‘army’ to give the movement a distinct and lasting mission. The Salvation Army grew from a small congregation in the East End to a worldwide movement promoting its own brand of aggressive Christianity served with a large helping of brass band music and singing.

In its early days, however, it would be fair to say that many people found it an unpalatable mixture of ‘rough music’ and rather un-English lay preaching. For some it was a welcome and much needed force for good, while for others it was a subject ripe for ridicule. This contrast is played out in a court case heard by the sitting magistrate at Clerkenwell Police Court in 1881, just a few years after Booth’s Army took to the streets.

As a Salvation Army band marched along Victoria Road in Islington one Sunday afternoon in early May, supported by about 100 ‘cadets’, ‘privates’, lieutenants’, and ‘captains’ John Roswell and others in the watching crowd hooted and poured derision on them. This was an ‘army’ in name only, and it aped the uniforms of Victoria’s finest, which may well have upset those who had served under the colours or who had sons or brothers, or husbands fighting for the Queen overseas.

As three of the young Salvation Army ‘cadets’ (those training for ministry)  passed by the crowd they were pelted with rotten fish and mud. Two of the cadets managed to identify those they thought responsible and on the following Wednesday John Rosewell was brought in front of the magistrate to answer a charge of assault.

His accusers were William Powell and Daniel Baugh. Baugh also alleged that when he remonstrated with Rosewell the youngster attacked him, beating him across the back with a stick. He was helpless, he insisted, to defend himself.

This brought about laughter in the courtroom because Daniel was a man mountain, whilst the defendant was a small lad, about half his size. He had pointed Rosewell out to a police inspector but the police could find no corroborating evidence against him. He was accused of throwing mud but had no mud on his hands or his clothes.

So, there was a case of disputed identification which would ultimately undermine the case against John Rosewell but the magistrate then demonstrated his own dislike of the Salvation Army and its activities.

It was a Sunday, Mr Ricketts asked, and you were singing songs?

Songs such as “My Grandfather’s clock”, “The Old Armchair”, and “Jim Crow”  he continued. The cadets looked confused. Amid more laughter they told him that they were ‘singing the songs of Zion, set to tunes for showing people the direct road to the Captain above’.

Did they work?, the magistrate asked. No, they marched and sang and were rewarded with lodgings and food for doing the ‘Master’s work’.

The justice didn’t like this at all:

‘Then I suppose these processions, these popular songs on a Sunday, and all this turning of religion into a mockery, is done solely for the purpose of getting money?’ he alleged.

It was to raise money for their work, for the mission and the Salvation hall protested the cadets, but to little effect. The magistrate, as a follower of a more traditional form of ‘sober’ worship clearly had little time for General Booth and his followers. He dismissed the charge against Rosewell (as unproven) and grumbled that ‘scenes like those caused by the Salvation Army were likely to lead to riot and tumult’.

Widely disliked in the late 1800s the Army changed tack and started to provide social welfare as well as evangelism and popular music. It survived the critics and the brickbats and now claims to have 1.5 million members across the world.

[from The Standard), Wednesday, May 04, 1881]

A tragic accident at the door of the Police Court

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HMS Warrior at Woolwich

Rachel Scott was 13 years of age and was walking in the street outside the Worship Street Police Court one afternoon in April 1841. At the same time a heavily laden cart belonging to the G Wells carrier firm from Hackney and Homerton was making its slow and steady progress towards the City Road.

The driver, Samuel Banks, called out to the girl but she seemed not to hear him. For whatever reason Banks was unable to stop or shift direction and the cart ran over the girl. An officer of the police court rushed to pick her up and Rachel was taken to her parents’ home at 22 Worship Street.

The surgeon that examined Rachel could only ‘proscribe lotions’ and warn that ‘serious effects might ensue’. The magistrate bailed the driver to appear again in three days, and at that point Banks and young Rachel disappear from history. The paper reported that the landlord of the house where Rachel lived with her family had experienced his own tragedy recently when a part of the cellar collapsed on his daughter, who was crushed to death.

In fact the Morning Post was full of ‘bad’ news that Saturday morning. At Islington a woman (the wife of a clergyman)  had been found face down on her bed, quite dead with a  small medicine bottle close by. In another report an inquest was held at University Hospital in Bedford Square into the death of a patient who had burned to death in a  private room.

The largest space was given over, however, to a story of four convicts from the convict ship Warrior, moored in the dock at Woolwich, who had apparently died of influenza. The four were taken to the dead house at the Royal Arsenal where they were examined by the coroner. Influenza was ‘very prevalent’ in the town and had affected the Justicia prison hulk as well as Warrior. The two ships were crowded, Warrior had twice as many convicts on board as it normally did and this was given as a potential cause of the spread of the epidemic. However, the verdict of the coroner’s court was not that overcrowding or poor sanitary conditions had led to the mens’ deaths but that they had died ‘by the visitation of God’.

The men were Edward Sheffield, from Hertford who was just 18 and under sentence of transportation for seven years; Michael Westal from Liverpool (also facing seven years); Samuel Medlam (29) from Warwick and David Owen, another teenager, who died 12 days after being admitted to the hospital at Woolwich.

It is a reminder to those of you researching your family trees that a sentence of transportation did not always mean that your ancestor made the long sea journey to Australia. Many died en route, and some, like the four men listed here, never left England. Warrior  had been a receiving ship until 1840, meaning that she served as a new home for sailors who had been recruited (or were ‘pressed’ – i.e forcibly recruited) into the Navy. In 1840 she started a new life as a prison hulk (a floating prison). Conditions on the hulks (like Justicia) were awful, worse men than prisons. Convicts were not supposed to stay there for the duration of their sentences, but just until a fleet sailed for Australia. Some. however, as we have seen, never made it that far.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, April 17, 1841]

The Mint’s finest foils a counterfeiting conspiracy

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James Brennan had been a detective in the Metropolitan Police (for G Division) but had left the force to join a specialist team at the Royal Mint. Their role was to actively pursue inquires and prosecutions against those involved in forging and distributing counterfeit currency.

In April 1860 Brennan and his team, acting on information received, visited the Penton Arms beer shop in Islington looking for suspected coiners. He saw his target, Harry Mason, talking with two or three others. Brennan went directly up to him and said:

‘Harry, I am instructed by the Mint authorities to take you into custody. You are suspected of dealing in counterfeit coin’.

With that he reached into Mason’s pocket and removed a small bag. Inside were ‘several little packets’ containing ’31 florins and 25 shilling piece, all of them counterfeit’. There was also a tobacco tun within which was a ‘good’ florin, evidently used to make the mould for the ‘bad’ ones.

The idea that people would bother to forge fake coins of such relatively small value might seem a risk not worth taking; much less obvious perhaps than counterfeiting a high denomination bank note. But look at what has just occurred in 21st century Britain? The Mint has just issued a brand new one pound coin, complete with all sorts of anti-forgery technology. Apparently 1 in 30 of the the old ‘Thatchers’ is fake, hence the desire to crate something that can’t be forged.

Back in Islington in 1860 Mason was bundled into a cab as a ‘mob’ was gathering and inspector Brennan presumably feared they might help him affect and escape. The Mint’s inspector took his prisoner to his last known address – 2 Pembroke Street, near Caledonian Road – where they found one of his known accomplices, Margaret Sawyer. Brennan told Mason that the Mint had been watching him for several weeks; this was a carefully conceived operation.

A search of the premises revealed plenty of evidence of coining: they found a mould in a cupboard, ‘two galvanic batteries fully charged, another mould, two or three cylinders, a number of bottles containing acid, and all the necessary implements for making and colouring counterfeit coin’.

Mason was, as they say, ‘bang to rights’.

Brennan took his charges before the Police Magistrate at Clerkenwell where it was revealed that Mason was a milkman by trade, and was well known to the police, having been charged and convicted of a felony more than once before. He tried of course to deny the charges, and said the florin in the tobacco tin was also ‘bad’; Margaret said she knew nothing about any of it and hoped the magistrate would discharged her.

He did nothing of the sort and remanded them both for a week, so the Mint’s solicitor could appear. Bail was refused.

The pair appeared at the Old Bailey just under  a month later to face their trial. Margaret Sawyer was acquitted as she’d hoped, Mason though was convicted. A century earlier, a little over 40 years even, he would have faced the gallows but by 1860 the death penalty had been abolished for all crimes except murder. Harry Mason was sent into penal servitude for 8 years.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, April 09, 1860]