A bailiff gets his comeuppance

In October 1849 Henry and Margaret Joyce were summoned to the Clerkenwell Police Court to be be charged with assault by Henry Herrick. The Joyces ran an ironmonger’s shop in Wilstead Street, Somers Town (near Euston in central London). Herrick was ‘an officer of the Palace Court’, a court that was concerned with the private prosecution of small debts. It is likely that Herrick was a forerunner of a modern debt recovery officer, or bailiff. The compile were represented in court by a lawyer who was usually attached to the Hatton Garden Police Court nearby.

Herrick gave his evidence, stating that he had gone to the Joyce’s shop to serve a warrant on their son. At the door he declared who he was and showed him his authority to arrest their boy for debt. Perhaps not surprisingly they threw him out and prevented him executing his warrant. The son was apparently hiding in the back yard.

The officer persisted however, forcing his way into the house and seizing the lad. Mrs Joyce now attacked him ‘violently’, pelting him ‘with crockeryware’! Henry Joyce tore his shirt and his wife snatched at his face. Eventually he dragged the son out into the street and tried to bundle him into a cart he had waiting nearby. The lad rested and a crowd soon gathered to see what all the fuss was about.

The defence now challenged his evidence, Mr Sidney (the Hatton Garden solicitor) asked Herrick: ‘Pray, have you got a staff?’ ‘Yes’ the officer responded. ‘Did you use it on my clients?’ Herrick denied that he had, and the staff was produced in court.

This was a heavy staff with a brass crown at the top, a ceremonial symbol of the officer’s authority but something capable of doing great harm. Mr Joyce declared that he had indeed used it on him in his attempts to capture their son.

The solicitor now remained to know where Herrick’s witnesses were. After all he had claimed that a large crowd had witnessed the ‘violent’ attack on him his clients. The only person who supported Herrick was his assistant, who said the boy had not resisted at first, but only after his parents had hit Mr Herrck. It was a confused and inconsistent prosecution and there were no independent witnesses that supported the Palace Court officer.

By contrast Mr Sidney was able to bring in a lady named Frances Stephenson who had entered the ironmonger’s shop as a customer and witnessed Herrick’s arrival. When Mrs Joyce saw the officer she asked him what he wanted.

‘”I’ll soon let you know”, and he stuck her. Witness [Mrs Stephenson] said, “You brute, what do you mean?” Witness then saw the staff in his hand. The children were alarmed, and crying and screaming. He had a large ring on his finger and he struck Mrs Joyce on the head’.

The magistrate asked Herrick if he wanted to question Mrs Stephenson. What we would the point, the officer answered, since she had sworn on oath against him. Mr Tyrwhitt (the magistrate) asked her if she had any connection to the Joyces. She hadn’t she said, ‘I am quite a stranger, and entered the shop accidentally to purchase the bottom of a grate’.

A local shoemaker also saw the altercation and testified that Herrick had struck Mrs Joyce. He said he saw  a small crowd and heard cries of ‘shame’ and hissing; ‘the people also hooted the officer’. He saw no one attack Herrick but he did see the officer and his assistant attack the son and his parents.

The evidence pointed to a counter accusation, that Herrick was the aggressor not the victim. This is certainly how Mr Tyrwhitt saw it and he advised the officer that he could take it to the Sessions of the Peace but he was going to dismiss it here.

Being arrested and then imprisoned for debt was a terrible thing in the 1800s. Thousands were incarcerated in prisons such as the Marshals (which the Palace court served). Dickens had first hand experience of this as his father had been locked up in one. Once in it was hard to get out because self-evidently your ability to repay any debt was complicated by imprisonment.

So this may be an example of collective resistance to the processes of the debtors’ court; Herrick was (as a bailiff character) a ‘hate figure’ and whether he acted as he testified or as the witnesses for the defence did, we shall never know.

I know whose side I’m on however.





[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, October 30, 1849]

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