Little charity for the Irish at Marlborough Street

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1843 could certainly be viewed as one of the low points of welfare policy in this country. 1834 saw the passing of the Poor Law Amendment Act, an act designed to force anyone seeking support from the state (in those days this meant the parish) to enter a workhouse  rather than be relieved outside. A previous piece of catch-all legislation, the Vagrancy Act (1824) also deserves mention as an instrument designed both to clamp down on beggars and vagrants and allow the arrest of pretty much anyone the local authorities took a dislike to but were otherwise unable to pin a specific offence on.

Thomas Lakey was exactly the sort of person the middle classes in Victorian society disliked. Lacey was unemployed, he was poor, homeless and, probably worst of all, he was Irish. When he appeared at Marylebone Police Court in June 1835 he was described as a ‘sturdy Irish beggar, accused of being a ‘common vagrant’.

The prosecution was brought by the Mendicity Society, an organisation formed in 1818 to ‘stop people begging’. The society was well organised and used careful record keeping to track mendicants, whom they helped financially on the understanding that they stopped begging and/or left the area.

Lacey came before the magistrate at Marylebone accused on being a ‘common drunken vagabond’ for the last 20 years. He had his own particular modus operandi, according to the officers bringing the case to court:

‘Having lost a hand, it was his practice to accost females in the street, and thrusting his stump before them, to demand charity in a menacing tone’.

If his appeal was not successful on the basis of his disability then ‘in his other hand he carried a stick, which he employed with great dexterity when drunk, or when pursued by a constable’.

For 20 years Thomas had received a pension of 15 pence a day from the East India Company. Given that this seemed enough to live on the magistrate (a Mr Chambers) was surprised the Irishman needed to beg at all. Mr Chambers told him that his pension (amounting to about 21 pence in today’s money, the equivalent of 2 days wages for a labourer) should allow him to live while he could also do some work, since he had a perfectly usable hand despite his injury.

We have no idea of how Thomas lost his hand, an accident working for the Company is most likely, but it may have happened after that. Clearly Mr Chambers had little sympathy for him. He turned to the Mendicity Society officers and suggested they speak to the East India Company. Perhaps if they were informed how Lacey was abusing the pension he had been given they might see fit to stop it.

The poor Irishman now work up to the reality of what was being proposed in court, the loss of the small dole he had to keep himself together. He told the court that if he was released he would immediately return to Kilkenny, where he was born, and no longer be a burden on London’s ratepayers or a threat to its inhabitants. Mr Chambers sent him to prison for two months to think it over.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, June 19, 1835]

The Chartist press reports the return of a convict to the city

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Yesterday myself and a colleague from the University of Northampton visited the London Academy school in Edgware to talk to their Sixth form students about Chartism (a topic they are study for A level history). We found them to be a very engaged and articulate group of young people, who had some firm opinions about the world they live in.

The Charter  was supported by several petitions to parliament and its signatories demanded 6 things from the government of the day:

  • a vote for all men (over 21)
  • the secret ballot 
  • no property qualification to become an MP
  • payment for MPs
  • electoral districts of equal size
  • annual elections for Parliament

All but one of these are now things we pretty much take for granted but in the 1830s they were deemed quite revolutionary.

The Chartists knew the value of good media and had to put up with some very biased reporting which portrayed them as alternatively dangerous and violent, or inept and disorganised. The Chartist Land Scheme was ridiculed and those responsible  for the Newport Rising in November 1839 harshly punished.

On 2 February 1839 James Thompson began publication of a short-lived 4 page newspaper that reported the Chartist movement from a positive perspective. Unlike some more famous organs of Chartism The Chartist was cheap (at 2 and half pence), so arguably it had the potential to be more accessible to working people.

It seems to have existed briefly though (it died out in July of 1839, at the end of the Chartist Convention), and it seems Thompson  was very concerned at the actions of so-called ‘physical force’ Chartists that dominated the news agenda after riots in Birmingham following the general strike of that year (the so-called ‘sacred month’).

In February 1839 The Chartist reported the goings on at the London Police Courts just like every other paper did. At Mansion House a ‘dejected man’ named Thomas Lee was presented to the magistrate by the police as a returned convict.

Lee had been picked up by a City of London copper (PC 133) when he found him ‘loitering around the neighbourhood of Watling-street’. The Lord Mayor criticised the policeman; telling him he had ‘exceeded his duty’ by arresting a man for doing nothing.

The officer’s sergeant now interjected to say that he had instructed his man to detain Lee because he had seen him going into shop and suspected he was a thief. At the station the man had told the sergeant that he was a ‘returned convict’ and had only recently arrived back in England from Australia.

‘Is that true, prisoner?’ asked the Lord Mayor.

‘Yes, my lord, it is’.

‘How did you get back?’ asked the justice.

Lee replied that he had worked his passage on a ship.

Now the clerk asked him how long ago he had been sentenced. It was eight years previously Lee explained. Did he have a discharge order? No, he didn’t.

The Lord Mayor was clearly perturbed by this. If he had no papers how was he to know that he hadn’t escaped from his sentence of transporttaion (rare as it was to escape from Australia, unlike the Americas in the previous century)?

Lee said nothing.

The sergeant informed the court that Lee had originally been convicted in Cornwall and  added that the prisoner had admitted that he was so destitute if was quite likely to commit a crime that would have seen him transported again anyway.

The magistrate ordered a message to be sent to Cornwall to check the validity of the man’s story and sent him to Newgate gaol in the meantime. Did Lee have to make the long journey back to Oz? I’m afraid I will have to leave that to someone else. If he had he may well have met with some of the ringleaders at Newport. Following their trial at the Shire Hall in Monmouth John Frost, Zephaniah Williams, and William Jones, were found guilty on the charge of high treason and were sentenced  to be hanged, drawn and quartered. Fortunately for them this was commuted to transportation for life.

We asked the pupils at the London Academy for their six points and among their responses were the abolition of university fees, better opportunities for graduate employment and the lowering of the voting age to 17. All of these are sensible ‘demands’ (as were the Chartists’) and demonstrate that 17 year-olds can identify with politics outside of party and we should probably trust them with the franchise in the way that working men demanded to be trusted in the 1830s and 40s.

[from The Chartist, Saturday, February 2, 1839]

Mendicity and casual racism in 19th century Bloomsbury

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Just who Samuel Sharp really was, the police court report of The Morning Post was not sure. Sharp had also been heard to call himself Thomas Thompson, Frederick Augustin and even William Williams.

It is much clearer what he was however: a charlatan – at least in the eyes of the reporter and the officers of the Mendicity Society that engineered his appearance in Marlborough Street Police Court.

Sharp presented himself as Christian missionary. He was also ‘a man of colour, with the habiliments of the clerical cut’, it was reported. He earned his living by going door-to-door and obtaining sums of money for his stated aim of returning to Africa to preach the Gospel.

The Mendicity Society (or the Society for the Suppression of Mendicity) had been founded in 1818 to bring the practice of begging to an end. It was a fairly futile purpose in a city with thousands of paupers, vagrants and the destitute. One of its officers, a Mr. Horsford, saw through what he thought was Sharp’s facade and decided to set a trap for the so-called missionary.

Horsford discovered (from letters of complaint sent to the society) that as well as calling on householders and asking for money, Sharp also promenaded with a lady friend . So Horsford assumed the disguise of a ‘sporting character’ (complete with ‘cigar in mouth’) and began to watch his prey. Sharp (‘the sable defendant’ as the paper dubbed him) and ‘his white lady set out on their morning excursion’. The pair stopped at a pub and ordered food. While the ‘beefsteaks’ were being cooked Sharp left his companion (who was dripping with jewellery and sporting a ‘handsome watch at her side’) to ‘try his luck in Fitzroy Square’.

Horsford watched as the fake missionary called at one a house and left a pamphlet and then made as if he was returning to his own home just as Sharp approached. Turning to him and and asking his ‘business’, Horsford pretended that he was the homeowner.

Immediately Sharp, who was completely fooled by this ruse, presented the officer with a printed petition for funds and added, in ‘a canting tone’:

‘A penny, or as much more as he might please to give, to enable him to enter on his blessed ministration of enlightening the heathen blacks with the truth of the Gospels’.

Before the would-be man of the cloth could react Horsford and another officer seized him. There was a struggle and Sharp temporality escaped but was recaptured and taken to a police station. His dwelling was searched and he was found to own a ‘handsome carpet bag’ along with other  luxury items including a ‘silk umbrella’ and ‘a good silver watch and chain’, the proceeds it was assumed of a life of impersonation.

I suspect Sam Sharp was everything the mid Victorians detested: a man who exploited the ‘goodwill’ of Christian Englishman; a foreigner (and a ‘savage’ black at that) who consorted with a white woman of dubious reputation (she had rings on all her fingers); and a mendicant to boot.

He was remanded in custody so that his victims could be traced and a case built against him.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, January 31, 1845]

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]

The beginnings a notorious life of crime?

Recently historians of crime have become more interested in looking at the offending patterns of individuals and networks as a means of understanding criminal activity in the past. Heather Shore’s latest book is an example of this approach. Shore traces the criminal life of William Sheen and his family, a ‘career’ that involves petty theft, violence, informing and murder. The Sheens lived in Whitechapel, East London, an area which remained associated with crime and criminal networks throughout the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries. William (or ‘Bill’) Sheen first came to the attention of the authorities in the Regency period but he (and his family) remained as a stain on society long into the Victorian age.

Contemporaries and modern criminologists have debated the causes of crime and the pathway offenders took to reach the point at which they found themselves in a court room, imprisoned, or on a scaffold. Mostly the circumstances or incidents which started the process are hidden to us but just occasionally we can get a glimpse of offending patterns that often start modestly but then escalate to more serious acts of illegality.

Sheen was already known by 1829 but the appearance in the Mansion House police Court of someone bearing that name (and resident in Whitechapel) could well indicate a relative (or even his son perhaps). In June 1829 three young men were charged at the Mansion House courtroom with stealing bread and other goods from a City baker named Mr Baber who had a shop in London Wall.

The defendants, listed as Wilkinson, Sheen, and Brown were accused of  taking away three loaves. One of them entered the property, grabbed the bread and ran out. He then passed a loaf to each companion and they made off. This wasn’t the first time the baker had fallen victim to the lads’ thieving, the court was told that they had frequently taken cakes, bread or biscuits but this time Baber was determined to put a stop to it by catching and prosecuting them.

As the ran away they tore the bread up and stuffed it into their mouths, feigning (the baker alleged) hunger. This was their defence in court when questioned by the magistrate. Sheen declared that: ‘It’s very hard that a poor man can’t take  a bit of bread to satisfy nature, without being grabbed for it’. Wilkinson complained that ‘vot right have we to starve any more nor yourself, my Lord Mayor’? [the London press quite often rendered the speech of the working classes or of immigrants like this – I presume it amused the middle class readership].

The Lord mayor sent for the parish officials from Whitechapel who testified that the three were among the most ‘idle and refractory vagabonds in the parish’. He added that ‘if they were not checked they would, no doubt, engage in some desperate offence’.

The justice and his fellow alderman Mr Atkins agreed. They were determined to make an example of the three men but felt on this occasion the Vagrancy Act was lacking. Although this was such a minor theft they decided to send the three to Old Bailey to face  trial there. While Sheen does appear of subsequent occasions he wasn’t tried for theft in 1829 so perhaps it never got that far.

It was seen as extraordinary by the newspaper that reported it as such cases were routine and dealt with summarily, perhaps this was William Sheen in the early days of his path to notoriety.

[from Caledonian Mercury , Monday, June 15, 1829]

Some monkey business in Regent’s Street

When the patrolling police constable on Regent’s Street  arrested an Italian boy and his baboon he probably thought it was a fairly routine  procedure. The lad was begging and the monkey was there to help attract a crowd and perhaps elicit some sympathy. This appears to have been no ordinary papio however and while the report in the Morning Chronicle gives no exact details as to which species of baboon it was, what happened next suggests it was quite a large one.

The policeman went to arrest the boy and his pet it was ostensibly because the animal had bitten another boy in the street. The baboon then attacked the officer, biting him and when he was brought to the police house he bit the gaoler there too! This was quite an angry monkey.

The magistrate at Marlborough Street, a Mr Conant, sentenced the boy to a month’s imprisonment and – for the safety of the public at large – ordered that the baboon be destroyed. This death sentence, however, proved quite hard to execute.

Two or three officers fetched pistols and fired at the beast, but this seemed to have little effect as the reported noted: ‘the balls entered the body of the animal but they appeared to have no other effect than that of exciting the monkey’s fury, and that peculiar sort of chatter that is heard from such animals when excited by rage or fear’.

The bobbies tried again.

This time the shots simply made him more furious and he raged around shaking the walls in his cells. A bullet entered his mouth, knocking him over, but didn’t kill him. Somehow he now managed to break free of his chains.

Pandemonium ensued as the police scattered and the baboon escaped from custody and scaled the wall of the police house.

For two hours the police searched  for him before he was found, next door, when he attacked a footman and leapt away. The animal was eventually tracked to a house at the rear of the police house in Queen’s Row. He was quickly surrounded by police armed with pitchforks and bludgeons. Pinned down, the animal was finally dispatched by PC Avis who thrust at him with a cutlass.

What might seem to us to be a case of extreme and unnecessary cruelty on behalf of the Metropolitan Police was seen as a victory by the press of the day. The streets had been secured from the ‘extraordinary ferocity’ of a wild animal, which should never have been allowed to ‘be exhibited in the public streets’ of the capital.

 

[from The Morning Chronicle , Thursday, May 8, 1834]