A snake trader charms the Mansion House

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The summary courts of the capital didn’t always deal with crime or antisocial behaviour; some of those that came before so did so for advice or to ask for help. One such person, named, was a traveler from the Caribbean, who appeared before the Chief Clerk at Mansion House in some distress.

The unnamed visitor, described by the press reports as a ‘respectable-looking young negro’, said he had arrived in London from his native Demerara via a circuitous route. He told  Mr Oke, the clerk that he had left Demerara (in what was then British Guiana and is now Guyana) in an attempt to make some money.

Whilst ‘out in the woods’ in Demerara he ‘had discovered a nest of boa-constrictors that had only just been hatched, and having heard that such objects were of value in foreign countries, he carefully secured his prize… and resolved to take the “little strangers” to the Zoological Gardens at Moscow, where he was told he would be paid a good price for them’.

It seems that there was nothing deemed wrong in the young man’s actions, the Victorians hadn’t yet determined that trading in live exotic animals was cruel. The RSPCA (who are concerned about such a trade in snakes today) had been in existence for around 50 years by 1873 (when this application came before the Mansion House Police Court) but perhaps they were busy enough dealing with cruelty to domestic animals.

Unfortunately for the adventurous snake dealer things didn’t go quite to plan however. He made his way to Hamburg where he was supposed to make a connection to take him on to Russia but the boas fell sick. Despite ‘all his endeavours’ the ‘young “boas” all died’.

With nothing to trade and most of his money gone the lad used the rest of his funds to get himself to England and the capital where he now asked for the Empire’s help to secure a boat back home. He had found ship at the West India dock that was prepared to carry him back to Guiana in return from him working his passage but he had no clothes. He asked the court therefore, if he might have some money from the poor box to purchase the necessary clothes for the voyage.

Mr Oke sent an assistant to check his story and, having ascertained that he was telling the truth, agreed to help. He was given a small sum and ‘left the court apparently highly delighted with the result of his application’.

There is a footnote to this story: Mr George Colwell OKe (1821-1874) served as the Chief Clerk to the magistrates in the City from 1864 onwards having started as a clerk in 1855. He was widely respected for his knowledge of the criminal law and assisted many aldermen and lord mayors in their decision making. Moreover, as a result of his deep understanding of statue law and practice Oke produced several volumes on the subject.

The best selling and most well-known of these was his Synopsis of Summary Convictions,(1858) which ran to 8 volumes and was popularly known as Oke’s Magisterial. You can find this online and while it is hardly an exciting read, it is invaluable to historians in understanding the legal structure under which all Police Court business was conducted. Oke rarely appears in the pages of the newspapers so it is nice to see such an influential figure pop up and act in a charitable way, demonstrating the alternative function of these central summary courts.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, October 23, 1873]

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