Trying to eat for free in the late 19th-century City


One of the joys of writing a blog based on the reportage of the summary court system in 19th-century London is the discovery of bits of social history I’d never really thought about before. The London Police courts had plenty of theft and violence, tales of poverty and desperation, alongside more serious hearings that led to trials for murder at the Old Bailey. But the the court reporters also entertained their readers with tales of peculiar or amusing incidents with colourful characters that give us a very real insight into the day-to-day lives of our Victorian ancestors.

Sometimes the cases are quite hard to understand at such a distance and that leads me to research them in a little more depth. Today’s case is just such an example.

In January 1895 a young man (18 years of age) called George Townsend was brought before the alderman magistrate at Guildhall Police Court accused of forgery. This would seem to be quite a serious offence until I worked out what he had been charged with forging.

George was a regular at the British Tea Table Company’s café at 68 Aldersgate Street. The café had been opened in 1879 by John Pearce. Pearce was a self-made man in the classic entrepreneurial tradition which has in modern times given us men like Sir Alan Sugar. Pearce had been born in poverty in Shoreditch and had worked since he was a boy of nine.

As a porter at Covent Garden Pearce spotted a gap in the market, which was the ‘difficulty that workmen had in procuring good food early in the morning’.* He first hired a barrow and then a stall before earning enough money selling hot food to open his first restaurant for the working man. By the early 1880s Pearce had several premises trading under the Pearce & Plenty brand.

I suppose these were the forerunners of the transport café (sometimes referred to a s a ‘greasy spoon’) , like the excellent Hope Worker’s Café on the Holloway Road.

Anyway back to George Townsend and his criminal activity. In late December 1894 he had visited the café and bought some food. The assistant that served him gave him a ticket (his bill ) for 11s and 1/2d. George sat at his table to eat his meal but someone noticed him produce a pencil with a rubber on the top and then proceed to edit his ticket. He changed the 11 to a 1 and so reduced his bill considerably.

Moreover when he presented this to the cashier she asked him for ‘three halfpence’ and he gave her a shilling. She then gave him back the balance in change. Not only had he conned them out of the real price of his meal, he had pocketed an extra 10s and a halfpenny!

The customer that saw him do this pointed it out to the assistant but it was too late by then as he had paid and left. But she decided to keep an eye out.

On the 12 January of the following year he was seen again. This time when he tried to alter his bill (from 7s to just 1 and a half) they caught him and called the police. When confronted he denied do anything but PC Savall (221 City) found a ‘lead pencil with a rubber attached to it’ on his person.

It was a relatively minor offence but the managing director of the company told the magistrate that ‘in consequence of many similar tricks played on the Company he desired to press the charge’. As a result Townsend appeared at the Old Bailey on the 28 January and was convicted. He was given a good character and released on his recognisances with his ‘character’ (a Mrs Wingfield – his stepmother) standing surety for him.

I’ve often wondered how many times cafés and restaurants are caught by customers that try and evade paying for their meals but Townsend’s actions take that to a new level.

[The Morning Post, Tuesday, January 15, 1895]

*,/tag/british-tea-table/ [accessed 16/1/17]

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