The flotsam and jetsam of the London streets


The Police Courts of Victorian London were filled with all sorts of flotsam and jetsam swept from the streets by the police on their beats. Many were petty criminals, or opportunistic thieves, or drunks and brawlers and wife beaters. Most of them were dealt with fairly perfunctorily by the magistrates that presided, being fined or sent to prison for short periods. Some, whose offenses were more serious or who opted to take their chances before a judge and jury, were committed for trial at a higher court (often the Old Bailey) while others were remanded or bailed while more evidence or witnesses were sought.

All of this was reported in varying degrees of the details by the court reporters of the capital’s newspapers. They selected unusual cases, heart warming ones, or made  a point of detailing particularity heinous or topical crimes. We should remember that Charles Dickens started his writing career as just such a court reporter. It is fair to say that the reporting was unrepresentative of the largely mundane nature of these busy urban courtrooms.

The stories reveal much more about life in the capital than simply crime and punishment. For me it is the stories behind the arrival of so many of these people in court that is interesting. Take today’s case, a young lad brought in by a Whitechapel shopkeeper for stealing a kettle.

Robert Burns was a ‘slight-made delicate boy of twelve’. His nose was broken, in fact it was so bent as to by lying almost flat against his cheek. He came before the Worship Street magistrate (Mr D’Eyncourt) accused of taking a ‘an iron tea-kettle of the value of 1s 3d’. Mr Cash the ironmonger was alerted to the robbery by a neighbour and chased a small group of boys down Whitechapel High Street until he caught up with Robert. The others got away but the lad had his kettle wrapped in an apron.

The justice turned to the boy and asked him what he had to say for himself. Robert said he hadn’t stolen it, that the other lads had just asked him to hold it. But ‘the moment I had got it they both went off very quick, so I went on quick to keep up with them’.

D’Eyncourt had heard this sort of defence time and time again and was clearly ready to convict the lad. He took a moment to inquire whether Robert wished to be dealt with summarily or preferred a jury trial. The boy hesitated before saying he would be judged by the magistrate.

The magistrate was about to pass sentence when the shopkeeper interrupted. Mr Cash said he had no great desire to prosecute this boy but robberies of the shops on the street were so often carried out by lads like Robert and his ‘friends’ that he felt obliged to do something to stop it. D’Eyncourt turned once more to Robert asking what his father and mother did for a living.

‘I have not got any father or mother’, Robert replied. His dad had left to go to sea and his mother had thought him dead, she had died a year ago of typhus. He had no siblings, ‘only myself’ he said.

So how did he keep himself in food and shelter then, asked the ‘beak’.

I take carts and hold horses, and run errands, and when I can’t get nothing like that to do I pick up bones in the streets and sell them to the ragshops. I sleep where I can, sometimes in sheds and stables, but now I’m sleeping at a place kept by a man named Howard for a few nights‘.

He had  been employed, he told the court, by a coal merchant, but the man had beaten him so badly that he ran away.

It was a sorry sad tale but there was more. How had got such a ‘dreadful wound’ to his nose?

Why, I was sleeping under a penthouse at Houndsditch one night, as I had nowhere else to go, when a city policeman woke me up with three or four blows on my back with his truncheon, and on my jumping up and turning round, he struck me again with his truncheon, and it came on the bridge of my nose such a dreadful blow that the blood poured out, and it never stopped bleeding from then, half-past 1 in the morning till half-past eight at night’.

That had happened 3 months earlier but the nose still hurt. We must assume that he had not had it treated by a doctor or nurse. The magistrate was astonished; ‘Do you seriously mean to tell me that you have got your living in that way for the whole of the last twelvemonth?’ ‘Yes, Sir, I couldn’t live any other way’.

The justice paused  and said instead of making a decision today he would call for more witnesses to test the veracity of the boy’s story and so he sent him to the house of detention to await his judgement.

[From The Examiner, Saturday, August 21, 1852]


One thought on “The flotsam and jetsam of the London streets

  1. This is a really good post, I thought. Quite an echo of the artful Dodger, but in reality probably not an unusual tale for the times. You paint a raw picture of Victorian London, and the fate of those who were orphaned and found themselves on the streets. We still have street dwellers, many of whom have also fallen on hard times, but there is so much more available to them than 150 years ago.


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