Not so much a ‘dumb waiter’ as a mute diner

In late May 1813 while most of Europe watched the beginnings of the slow demise of Napoleon’s first Empire, Bow Street police court had to deal with a rather odd case.


A Covent Garden coffee house

Mr. William Cunningham, a former Lloyd’s underwriter and wine merchant, was brought on the unusual charge of not paying for his dinner. Cunningham had walked into Hummums Coffee House at Covent Garden and been shown the menu. He indicated to the waiting staff that there was nothing on it he fancied but instead he’d like a neck of mutton and some Madeira wine.

Having eaten his fill and emptied the bottle he left, without paying. Staff pursued him but he ignored their entreaties to return by simply shaking his head. They then took him to Bow Street office (close by) where he was examined by the sitting justice, Mr. Read.

Cunningham refused to speak and so was taken to the Watch House to be detained. On the following morning he was again presented at Bow Street and Mr. Nares again asked him to explain himself. Not only did he continue to act dumb but the Watch House keeper reported that he ‘not uttered a syllable during the time he had been in his custody’. Nor did he have any money to pay for his keep in the Watch House (prisoners had to pay their own costs in this period, and often were not released until they had).

The magistrate committed him to Tothill Fields bridwell as ‘idle and disorderly’ (the default ‘catch all charge’ of its day) where, for ‘four or five days he refused to take any food’. The medical officer there offered him wine, which he drank but he hardly consumed anything else.

No one could be found who knew him (as he refused to speak) but some papers on his person indicated he lived in Whitechapel so the governor of the bridewell sent a request to have him transferred there. Parish officials knew of him and said he was ‘deranged’ but had no recollection of him being ‘dumb’. Once he had served his time he was let go, ‘care in the community’ we would call it today.

[from The Examiner , Sunday, May 30, 1813]

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