The battle of the sexes claims another victim

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Victorian society is often described as one in which the sexes existed in ‘separate spheres’, with men occupying a ‘public’ space and women restricted to the home, or ‘private’ one. While this thesis works quite well for the women of the middle and upper classes it is less obviously true of the vast majority of the working class. Many working-class women worked and looked after the domestic environment. They were housewives, mothers and significant contributors to the family economy, and this often resulted in tensions at home.

Julia Bagot was one such women. She was married to Martin and they had several children. While Julia worked hard every day Martin Bagot had ‘done no work for 18 months’ and liked a drink with his mates. At home the domestic duties fell to Julia who was expected to undertake to keep her husband happy and fed while also performing the role of the family’s main breadwinner.

One evening in May 1884 she came home from work at 9 o’clock, tired and hungry. Her husband followed her through the door a few minutes later, drunk and belligerent. As he demanded tea she put a saucepan of water on the stove to boil and looked to the children.

One of her daughters had no clean clothes to wear for school the next day and when she pressed Martin about this he told her he had pawned them (presumably to get the money he needed for beer). An argument ensued, a ‘few high words were exchanged’, before the affair escalated and Martin seized the pan of water and threw the contents at his wife.

Julia’s face was scalded by the almost boiling liquid and she was temporarily blinded in one eye. Mrs Bagot was taken to the hospital where her wounds were dressed but the doctors feared that she might permanently lose the sight in her eye. The next morning the pair were in the Clerkenwell Police court with Martin facing a charge of assault and wounding. One of his children gave evidence against him and the injuries she had suffered were all too apparent, her head and face being largely wrapped up in bandages.

The magistrate remanded Martin Bagot in custody to see how his wife’s condition developed over the next few days. The papers don’t tell us whether Julia recovered or what punishment the Clerkenwell justice decided to meet out to Bagot. However, while he might have faced a fine or a spell of weeks or months in prison neither would have helped Julia much. Nursing a serious injury and potential crippled for life a women in her forties or fifties (Martin was 54) as she was would find it hard to continue working. With her husband unemployed and with several mouths to feed the outlook for the Bagot family was bleak, if not desperate.

The workhouse loomed large in the lives of the working poor of Victorian London and sadly, it was probably the family’s next destination. There they would be compelled to live in ‘separate spheres’, him on the male side, her on the female.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, May 15, 1884]

A ‘daring robbery’ or an opportunistic pickpocket?

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In the eighteenth century the quintessential property crime of the day was highway robbery, and the highwayman was the archetypal criminal. By the end of the Napoleonic wars however, the era of men like Dick Turpin was over and their exploits were passing into legend. As the Georgian period changed into the Victorian, the highwayman was replaced by the burglar.

That is not to say that highway robbery did not take place. The offence, if not the romantic image of the offender, persisted and remains to this day. Robbery, in terms of the law in the 1800s, meant theft with violence or the threat of violence. If it took place on the street – the king’s (or queen’s) highway – then it became highway robbery. In the 21st century we tend to call it mugging, but we are talking about the same thing.

We need to to be careful of course when we look at the way the term was used by the newspapers in the past, because they had a tendency to exaggerate and use emotive language to entertain or worry their readers. Take this story for example, is this a highway robbery or a less direct example of pocket picking?

Mr Lee, a carver and gilder, was in Oxford Street one Friday evening in May 1836 and called a hansom cab to take him home. As he was about to step into the cab he slipped and fell onto the street. The cab driver, Thomas Hands, jumped down from his seat to help him. Seeing another man nearby, he called him over to help. Thomas Hands then gave him his hand to help him up and into the vehicle.

As Lee sat down however, he realised he’d lost his pocket watch, having been absolutely convinced it and his chain had been there a few minutes earlier. His suspicions immediately turned to the pair that had helped him and he got out of the cab and called over a nearby policeman.

At this Hands ‘lashed his horse, and succeeded in getting away’. He was picked up later though having been identified by the victim and a witness, he didn’t have the watch on him however.

The witness was an errand boy named James Clarke who worked at 89 Oxford Street. He had been passing by and told the sitting magistrate at Marylebone that he saw Hands take the watch and chain out of Lee’s pocket as he helped him up. Another man (known only as ‘Jack’) was involved, and when Thomas had pinched the watch he palmed it to him. He had apparently wanted to give it back to the driver but Hand had declined saying , ‘Cut away with it, Jack’, imploring him to run away. At the time it was Clarke who, having sen the theft, had run after the policeman to tell him Hands was the thief but did not have the watch.

A few days later the watch turned up in a pawnbroker’s shop, owned by Mr Cordell in Compton Street. It had been pawned by Sarah the day after the robbery but watches were easy to identify and some pawnbrokers were on the alert for stolen goods.

The The Morning Post described it as ‘Daring Highway Robbery’ and it certainly took place on a busy thoroughfare. It seemed to have involved a ‘gang’ of criminals, and if not planned it was at least well-executed. The three were working together, but whether they were simply taking advantage of an opportunity or had arranged it so that Hand’s fare would slip is hard to say. The actual crime here was taking the watch from the gilder’s pocket whilst he was unaware of it and that is ‘privately stealing’ rather than robbery. But the fact that two men were involved makes it feel more like a mugging.

The pair were fully committed for trial despite their protestations that they were as ‘innocent as new born “babbies”‘. Sarah Rose was acquitted, probably because little direct evidence could pin her to the crime. Thomas was asked who ‘Jack’ was but denied knowing anyone of that name, just as he denied any involvement in the theft. The charge was pocket picking, not robbery, which rather supports the idea that the press wanted to make it sound more dramatic than it was. Having your pocket picked on Oxford Street is hardly newsworthy after all.

The outcome was dramatic however, Thomas Hands was convicted and sentenced to be transported to Australia for life. Today an Oxford Street pick-pocket might expect to be fined, warned or perhaps imprisoned if it could be demonstrated that they had a record of offending. I’ve looked at the magistrate’s sentencing guidelines and compared the criteria for this case. It would seem Thomas Hands fits the criteria to be deemed a significant player (in that he stole the goods), that there was an element of planning, and that the goods taken (the watch) was of some value to the owner. If he came before a magistrate today at worst I suspect he would have been sent prison for 6 months to a year.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, May 13, 1836]

A young man gambling with his future ‘borrows’ some opera glasses

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Samuel Palethorpe was perhaps a typical young man from a respectable, if not wealthy background; typical in that he had indulged his passions rather more than he might, and had gotten into trouble as a result. If he had come from working-class roots then his brush with the law in May 1870 might have had more severer long term consequences.

Samuel had fallen into financial difficulties, probably as a result of his addiction to gambling. As so many have done before and afterwards, he determined that the best way to get himself out of this financial pickle was to have one last throw of the dice, and play the horses again.

His problem was that he didn’t have the money to stake in the first place, and this is when he chose a course that would eventually end up with his appearance before the Lord Mayor at the Mansion House, on a charge of obtaining goods by false pretences.

Palethorpe visited Mr How’s chemical apparatus shop in Foster Lane and purchased six pairs of opera glasses. He charged the items to his uncle’s account, having stated that he had been sent to collect them. This was a lie; his relative, Mr Samuel Peace Ward, had no knowledge of the transaction and when he found out (because the bill was delivered to him), he was furious.

In the meantime the young man had pawned the glasses and placed all the money (about £5-6) on the horses. He had hoped to redeem the pledges and restore the glasses as well as settling his debts and having some money left over to pay his passage to America, and a new life. Sadly for him, lady luck wasn’t smiling on his and the bets failed.

At this point it has to be said that he did the ‘decent thing’, and handed himself in at the Bow Lane Police Station, admitting his crime. He also forwarded five of the pawn tickets (the ‘duplicates’) to his uncle – one he had lost – who was able to redeem them and return them to Mr How.

Appearing in court Samuel was apologetic and his uncle was understanding. No one would benefit from a jury trial his lawyer told the magistrate, London’s Lord Mayor. Instead he hoped Samuel could be dealt with summarily.

His worship agreed and, after admonishing Palethorpe for effectively ‘throwing his money into the Thames, for backing the favourite horse means the same thing’, he fined him £2 2s and the costs of redeeming the items. Of course Samuel had no money so would go to prison for two months, a lesson for him perhaps. His uncle assured the court that once he came out he would be taken to the country, so ‘he might be removed from his evil associates’.

In other words, he would have a chance to start over – a chance not often extended to the offspring of London’s poorer classes. Let’s hope Samuel took it.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, May 10, 1870]

Two metal thieves are ‘bagged’ in Bethnal Green

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There was a market for pretty much anything stolen in the Victorian period. Today we are familiar with the character of ‘knock-off Nigel‘ who sells ‘dodgy’ DVDs and electrical equipment in the local pub, but the trade in stolen property is timeless. Victorian London had a well-established second hand clothes trade, and pawn shops allowed the honsest (and dishonest) to pledge items in return for cash. In recent years we have seen an increase in the mdoern version of pawnbrokers – stores like Cash Converters have appeared on many high streets.

While thieves stole almost anything they could in the 1800s some things were cleary worth more – or were more salebale – than others. Cash was easily used, and had to trace back to the owner; watches were valauble, but much more easily identified. Handkerchiefs were easy to pinch, but you had to steal a lot of them to make any real money; larger goods (burgled from homes) might make a much better return but the risks were greater.

Edward Phillips and Samuel Prior were opportunistic thieves. The two lads (aged about 17 or 18) were stopped late one evening in April 1877 by two detectives in the East End. When they were intercepted on York Street, Bethnal Green, Phillips was carrying a carpet bag. The policemen searched it and found a brass door plate and one from a window, which was  tarnished, as if it had been in a fire.

The door plate was engraved ‘Miller and Co. Wine Merchants’, and so certainly seemed not to belong to the teenagers. They were arrested and enquiries were made.

The door plate had been taken from the wine merchants’ premises in Welbeck Street, while the brass window surround (which had been broken into four pieces to fit in the bag) came from the Brown Bear public house in Worship Street, Finsbury.

When the lads were searched at the station officers found ‘a knife, a screw-driver, and a pocket-pistol’. The bag had also been stolen. The pair admitted their crimes rather than face potentially more serious punishment at the Old Bailey. Their were probably intending to trade in the metal for money but on this occasion they had been foiled; the Worship Street Police magistarte sent the to prison for six months, with hard labour.

[from The Illustrated Police News etc, Saturday, May 5, 1877]

 

The solicitor’s clerk and Commissioner Ye’s fur coat

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Ye Mingchen (1807-1859), governor of Canton (now Guangdong), China

Frederick Fisher might be forgiven for thinking that while he had committed a crime, his grudging admission should have won him some leniency at the very least. Fisher was a clerk in a firm of London solicitors. One the firm’s clients was a Lieutenant Tracey who had seen service in the second Opium War (1856-60). Tracey had been present at the Battle of Canton in which a small face of around 6,000 British troops had overcome and captured a city of over 1 million Chinese.

During the battle the lieutenant had been instrumental in the capture of Commissioner Ye Mingchen (also rendered as Yeh Ming-ch’en) who had famously resisted British influence in the region. One of the items Tracey had taken in spoils was a fur coat belonging to the Chinese viceroy. In April 1859 he had left this at the London solicitors where Frederick Fisher worked.

This must have been a temptation for the young clerk. On small wages and with what was probably a rather dull job he saw the exotic coat made from the fur of hundreds of grey squirrels and decorated with gold buttons, and took it. Fisher pawned the item with a broker in Pentonville and pocketed the money and the ticket (or ‘duplicate’).

The coat was soon missed and the solicitor (a Mr Preston) in whose private office it had been deposited must have flown into a rage or panic. This was an expensive and irreplaceable item and he looked for the culprit. Preston’s suspicions fell on Frederick and he interrogated him. Under pressure the young man buckled and when his boss offered him a way out, by saying that if the coat was returned all would be well, he caved in and admitted his crime.

Imagine his horror then when, having accompanied a detective and Mr Preston to the pawnbrokers and retrieved the missing fur coat, he was arrested. When he was taken before Alderman Phillips  at the Guildhall Police Court and accused of theft, he demanded to know  the lieutenant had sanctioned the prosecution given that the coat was now back in his possession.

The magistrate told him it ‘was immaterial, as the charge was of stealing a coat out of the possession of Mr Preston [my italics], who was responsible to Lieutenant Tracey for it’.

Having admitted his guilt there was nothing Fisher could do but ask for his case to be dealt with summarily, therefore hopefully sparing himself a more lengthy prison sentence. Alderman Phillips remanded him to await his decision on the following Saturday. Sadly we have no idea happened to him because the papers had moved on by then, and poor Frederick Fisher’s fate remains a mystery.

As for Ye Mingchen (who was condemned in the English Parliament as an ‘inhuman monster’ by Lord Palmerston), he was taken as a prisoner of war to Calcutta in British India, where he died of disease a year later; a victim (like many) of British Imperialism. He is remembered as Chinese patriot who stood up to the West and there is a state of him  in Guangzhou.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, April 23, 1859]

Of unrequited love and the pledging of china, not troths.

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We are about to enter the week of valentines, and so all the shops are fun of heart themed gifts, chocolates and cards. If you try to buy a bunch of red roses this week you can guarantee that they will be double what you’d pay at any other time of the year, and if you choose to eat out on Tuesday night the menus will be ‘special’ and the tables set up for couples.

Valentine’s Day is now a commercial opportunity, just like Mother’s Day, Christmas and Easter but has it always been thus?

It is likely that Valentine’s Day celebrates the martyrdom of one or more individuals in ancient Christianity who were associated in some way with romance. The positioning of the holiday in February however has much more to do with the early Church’s campaign to eradicate paganism.

In Roman pagan tradition mid February was a time to celebrate fertility and the god Faunus. During the festival of Lupercalia the unmarried young women of Rome would place their names in a  large urn  to be drawn out by the city’s bachelors. The couples were paired for a year but often (it is said) married their ‘chosen’ partners. There were other more bawdy elements to the festival, supposedly including nudity and the spanking of bottoms!

The romantic element (as opposed to the more overtly sexual one) of Valentine’s can be traced back to the 14th century when courtly love was very much in vogue amongst European nobility. By the early modern period the practice of sending love tokens on the 14 February seems to have been well established; Shakespeare references it in Hamlet for example. The late eighteenth century saw pamphlets published to help individuals write their own messages and the introduction of the penny post in 1840 opened up the possibly for the masses to exchange anonymous love letters.

The Victorians soon became hooked on the practice and card manufactures began to mass produce valentine cards in the 1840s. In 1847 the first commercial cards appeared in the United States and we can probably date the modern obsession with Valentine’s Day from then.

Of course the 14 February is just another day for many, and can quite a lonely place if you are on your own. There are hundreds of hits for a Google search of ‘Valentine’s Blues’ and the overhyping of this one day as a ‘time for lovers’ can be very challenging for those without a partner. There is also considerable pressure on those who are in relationships to make the day ‘special’, to spend lots of money, or simply to be ‘romantic’. Ir would probably be better to encourage a loving supportive relationship for 365 days of the year rather than just one.

Meanwhile back in 1847 in London one young woman was certainly not about to enjoy her Valentine’s Day, and her reaction to this ended up in a court case at one of London’s Police Magistrate Courts.

Thomas Frisk was a young saddler living in Fore Street in the City of London. For several months he had been courting a young lady named Mary. Mary (whose full name was Mary Martha Mills) lived in Somers Place West, St Pancras and for the past nine months Thomas had sent her his ‘addresses’ and had showered her with gifts and money.

He did so in the hope that they would be married and Mary had given him some encouragement. So confident (or hopeful) was he that they would be wed that Thomas sent her money to buy a fine china dinner service. The magistrate at Clerkenwell Police Court was told that Thomas did this in anticipation of the ‘happy day’ …when they would ‘be made one’.

Sadly for Mary Thomas was not a very patient young man and soon became keen on ‘another charmer’ and broke off the relationship with Mary. He then rather ungallantly  heaped scorn on her unhappiness by demanding the return of the china she had bought to grace their marital home.

Mary reacted as many might and refused to return his gifts. Instead she pawned the dinner service and send him back the ‘duplicate’ (the  pawn ticket). I’m sure Bridget Jones would empathise with Mary Martha Mills.

We all act differently when we are unlucky in love, or rejected by the object of our affections. Few of us will be so lucky to go through life without this happening.

Thomas was upset but his reaction was extreme. Instead of taking the hit to his pocket he chose instead to take his former amour to court. Not surprisingly the magistrate was less than sympathetic; the reporter in the paper noted that ‘Mr Wakeling [the magistrate] questioned the compliant, who cut a very sorry figure in court’, and dismissed the case without costs.

Love and marriage was one of several themes the court reporters of the Victorian press liked to cover for the ‘human interest’ nature of the stories. I’ve found a handful of stories in the past year that detail cases of eloping lovers, angered fathers, and broken relationships – all of which that end badly in the summary courts of the capital. They go to show us that our Victorian ancestors are much more closely linked to our modern lives than the passage of 150 or more years might suggest.

[from The Morning Post (London, England), Friday, February 12, 1847]

A working-class method of saving one’s money from the clutches of the Poor Law Guardians

On this day in 1860 the newspapers reported the case of an elderly lady who went to ask the advice of the Lambeth Police magistrate, Mr. Elliot. Her behaviour puzzled the justice but reveals  an often hidden aspect of the Victorian Poor Law.

Mrs Till (who was probably widowed and alone) told Mr. Elliot that on 4th April she had pledged 8s with a pawnbroker for sixpence. The magistrate was baffled; why would she handover 8 shillings only to take 6 pennies in return?

Mrs Till explained:

‘The fact was, your Worship, that I was going into the workhouse, and knowing that the money would be taken from me I adopted that manner of securing it’.

In effect then, rather than pawning her money she had deposited it – much like we might do in a savings account, but one that could not be touched by the authorities and used to pay for her care.

The court usher backed up what the ‘aged’ woman was saying. He told the court that when paupers entered the workhouse they were stripped and their clothes washed. Any money found on them was ‘appropriated to their support’. The sixpence that Mrs Till had she could hide in her mouth so the inspectors didn’t find it.

This struck me as rather like the dilemma that the elderly and their families have today when they are in need of full-time care in a home or with social care visits. Someone who has the means the pay will be expected to do so; thus all their savings (that they may have earmarked for their children and grandchildren) is used up in supporting them and their care. I’m not suggesting this is necessarily wrong, but the person who makes provision for old age and its unforeseen eventualities can be seemingly treated ‘unfairly’ by comparison to those who don’t.

In this case Mrs Till had come out of the workhouse and was now having trouble getting her money back. She explained that the pawnbroker was denying her the money because she could not state exactly which coins constituted the eight shillings she had pledged.

Mr Dixon, the usher, thought he could resolve this. He was familiar with the pawnbroker who was a ‘respectable’ man and, with his Worship’s leave, he said he would speak to him and get the money back. Mr Elliot agreed.

Also on this day a Joseph Grout reappeared at Guildhall Police Court on a charge of burglary. A trimming-maker from Slater Street in Bethnal Green was fully committed for trial at the Old Bailey, and bail was refused on the grounds that he had previous convictions for receiving stolen goods.

In the week that Peter Vaughan died I was reminded of his character Harry Grout (better known as ‘Grouty’) in Porridge.

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[from The Morning Post, Saturday, December 10, 1864]