In a society where large numbers of Londoners lived quite close to the what became termed the ‘poverty line’* in the early twentieth century, people had to find a variety of strategies to survive. Obtaining credit if you were not already wealthy (or at least comfortable) was all but impossible. So, just as today’s society is blighted by ‘pay-day’ loan sharks that charge crippling amounts of interests on small amounts of borrowing to those who have no real capital to offset loans against, Victorian Britain had the pawnbroker.
You could take items of value to the pawnbroker to be exchanged for cash. In all probability you wouldn’t get the true value of your possessions or even close to it but, as the saying goes, ‘beggars can’t be choosers’ (Proverbs, 615.6). He would give you a ticket for your item and the cash. Hopefully you would then get enough money in the following week or so to be able to return to the ‘broker and redeem your coat, or hat or jewellery (or whatever it was you had ‘pledged’).
If you failed to redeem your possessions in the time allowed then the pawnbroker was allowed to sell it in his shop for whatever he could get. Today we see shops such as Cash-converters who operate in a quite similar way, providing a place for people to sell things they no longer want or buy cheap household goods that others have exchanged for much needed cash. This trade in second-hand (or ‘pre-owned’/’pre-loved’) goods has existed for centuries of course, its just that today we have taken it to a new level with car-boot sales, cash-converters and online auction sites like Ebay.
Pawnbrokers had earned a poor reputation in the late eighteenth century for stimulating a trade in stolen goods. When someone presented them with a item of clothing, some jewellery, or a watch, asking for a relatively small sum of money in exchange, many must have put aside any qualms they had and issued the ticket.
However, not all of them did and, as the courts tightened their grip on petty crime in the 1800s pawnbrokers increasingly came under scrutiny. The pawnbrokers was one of the first places the police would visit to enquire after stolen goods in the Victorian age and the ‘broker who had unwittingly (or wittingly) placed pilfered goods on his shelves would lose them or worse, risk prosecution himself. It therefore behoved the ‘respectable’ pawnbroker to ask a few questions before he accepted a pledge.
Henry Ayling was a footman working in the service of a fine London household run by Lady Stracey in Belgrave Square. Like most servants Ayling would have been paid monthly or annually (and not paid that much anyway) and so ready cash was at a premium. Lady Stracey had hired a bicycle for her son but allowed Henry to use it when her son was at the family seat in the countryside. The footman must have found it useful in running errands across the capital and on his days off.
In November 1888 however, as he began to run out funds he seems to have decided that he could find another use for it besides hurtling round the streets of London. He deposited the bike with a pawnbroker in exchange for the princely sum of £2. He had apparently hoped to redeem the machine when he was paid. However, Lady Stracey had in the meantime decided her son no longer required the bicycle, so asked Ayling to return it to the hire firm in Maidenhead. Ayling promised to do so but it soon became clear that he hadn’t. When it was found that he’d pawned it the footman was arrested and charged with stealing it.
The case came before the police court magistrate at Westminster where Ayling explained what had happened. Fortunately for him (and perhaps on Lady Stracey’s recommendation) Mr Partridge (the magistrate) opted to use his summary powers to deal with him. He applied the law, using the offence of ‘unlawful pawning’ (35 & 36 Vict. c.93. s.38) as set out in Oke’s Magisterial to fine the footman £3. This included the pledge of £2 to get the item back, so in effect he was being penalised to the sum of £1 for the offence. He was warned that if he failed to pay he’d go to prison for a month at hard labour.
Whether Lady Stracey penalised him further by dismissing him is not stated in the newspaper report but I rather suspect it is quite likely. Ayling was the loser here but so was the pawnbroker; the bike was worth £14 and he had only offered £2 for it. Had the footman defaulted he stood to make up to £12 profit on the deal, or around £750 today (about the cost of a modern high-end bicycle).
[from The Morning Post, Monday, November 26, 1888]
One of there first investigators to use the poverty line ( which ‘denotes the minimum standard of necessities for life (fuel, lighting, rent etc) plus a calorific intake’) was Seebohm Rowntreee (1871-1954). His examination of poverty in York (published in 1900) was, (along with Charles Booth’s mapping of poverty in late 1880s London), a seminal study underpinning future social policy in the UK.