“Jarndyce and Jarndyce drones on. This scarecrow of a suit has, in course of time, become so complicated that no man alive knows what it means.”
Benjamin Gibbs Mitchell was an old man and had recently found himself in the Giltspur prison in the City of London. It is likely that Mitchell was in gaol for debt, as most of the Giltspur’s inmates were sent there by their creditors [https://londonhistorians.wordpress.com/2010/10/27/compters-aka-counters/]. The gaol closed just a year or so after he was released and imprisonment for debt was formerley ended in 1869.
He may have committed another minor offence but the circumsatnces of his appearance in the Thames Police Court in September 1852 suggests that he was someone for whom money was often scarce.
Mitchell was charged by his landlady, Mrs Hannah with assault but this was to reveal quite a lot about the old man and his delaing with his neighbours. Mrs Hannah kept a lodging house in Wellington Place and when Benjamin Mitchell turned up there he was quite effusive about his requirements.
He demanded ‘coffee and eggs for breakfast, mutton and potatoes for dinner, with soup at other times, and feather pillows for his bed’. He was suffering he said from a delicate stomach following his imprisonment.
On being asked how he would pay he told the good lady he was expecting large sum of money anytime soon. However, after a month he had not paid a ‘farthing’ for this keep and Mrs Hannah began to get annoyed with him. He met her demands for money with violence, striking her with his umbrella. She wrenched the item from him and ‘belaboured him in return’. This is what brought the pair into court.
Benjamin denied the assault and calimed his affairs were in the hands of a most ‘respectable lawyer’, named Mr. Gray*. He was pursuing a claim to £7,000,000 through Chancery that had been going on for 54 years. This sounds like the infames ‘Jarndyce vs Jarndyce’ case that provides the backdrop for Dickens’ Bleak House, a case that went on for ever and ever (and ever).
The magistrate was skeptical and so Mitchell asked him to seek out his doctor who would vouch to the truth of. The court sent for Dr Faulkener.
When he arrived he did indeed speak in Benjamin’s defense; he was a ‘respectable man’ and there was such a claim. In the meantime though the justice had heard that several neighbours had complained about Mitchell’s frauds over a number of years and so he had decided to sentence the old man to 10s fine or 7 days in prison. That was heavy punishment for the assault but he justified it on the grounds that he was unable to punish him for the frauds. I’m not sure that would stand up in court today!
However having heard that the claims the man had made were now verified he sent word to have him released from the cells (he had not been able to pay the fine, as I suspect the ‘beak’ well knew). Instead he sent the old man the amount of the fine for his own use plus 5s from the poor box – punishment had switched quickly to charity on the evidence of one ‘respectable’ medical man.
*my brother is just such a ‘respectable’ lawyer
[From Daily News, Friday, September 24, 1852]