A sailor’s display baffles the bench


In June 1836 the Marylebone Police Court witnessed an entertaining performance of nautical wit delivered in defense of a charge of fare dodging.

Jack Robinson (described as ‘a jolly son of Neptune’) was brought in and charged with refusing to pay his fare to the driver of the No. 735 cab from Ratcliff Highway to Tottenham Court Road. Sailors have always been held in greater esteem than soldiers in English society and this was particularly the case in the nineteenth century when the memory of Nelson was still fairly fresh.

When he was asked why he had refused to pay his driver Jack’s response was full and passionate:

‘My Lord…the plain truth of the matter, without gammon or nonsense at all is this here: I came over in the Spartan from New York, and landed at Bristol, when I directly brought myself to anchor a-top a stage, and got into London yesterday’.

He went on to say that he met the cab on the Ratcliffe Highway, a notorious stretch of brothels, taverns and cheap lodging houses frequented by sailors that ran parallel to the banks of the River Thames (it is now simply called ‘The Highway’). He asked him to take him into town.

He agreed the fare with the driver in his own peculiar way:

“Now mate, what’s the price of my passage?” and he agreed to land me for two bob, with the understanding, my Lord, that on the road I was to stand grog for us both, which I did: and when I got out I offered him the blunt [the two bob – or 2 shillings] but he wouldn’t have it, and said he should charge for time instead of distance. “Avast, there my lad” says I. “I shan’t pay, so you may do you best and be d—d!”. and with that he calls up this blue-coated fellow (pointing to a policeman) who locked me up in this little square crib worse than the Black Hole at Calcutta.

With that he bowed to the justice and scraped his foot on the floor ‘in true sailor-like style’. Suitably impressed by his performance and persuaded of the honesty of his claim, the magistrate dismissed the case and let him go.

NB: HMS Spartan had been a famous ship of the line in the Napoleonic wars and the War of 1812 with America. But she had been broken up in 1822 so Robinson’s ship must have been a more recent version but perhaps one that carried the name of its predecessor and some of the associated glory. Robinson must have cut a dash in court and cabbies weren’t that popular in the period anyway.

[from The Morning Post , Thursday, June 09, 1836]

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