On Monday morning 3 November 1879 the foreman at a stables in Coburg Row, Westminster, found that one of the stablemen was much ‘the worse for drink’ and sacked him on the spot. The stakes were owned by Mr W. Ackers Smith, who ran a cab and omnibus company and had dozens of horses.
The stableman, James Cooper, didn’t leave immediately however, but loitered around the premises for for a while. After he had left ‘it was discovered that no less than 12 horses had had the hair cut from their tails to the dock.’ Cooper, in his rage at being dismissed had mutilated his master’s stock. While none of the animals had been hurt by the attacks their value, had Mr Ackers Smith wished to sell them on, was significantly reduced.
The police were called and a detective, DS Church of B Division, was soon on the trail of the disgruntled former employee.
Cooper had been seen leaving the stables with a large bag and his movements led the police to a shop in Vincent Street nearby. The shopkeepers, who bought and sold material by weight (usually metals) had purchased a pound and a half of horsehair from a man matching Cooper’s description. The shopkeeper, Mr Oxford, had no more details than this as he only recorded his metal sales, nothing else. He merely offered the explanation that it was a perk of an ostler’s trade to take home horsehair for his own use, so he hadn’t asked too many questions of Cooper.
Cooper was eventually tracked down and arrested. Brought before the Police Magistrate (Mr D’Eyncourt) at Westminster he was charged with the theft of the horsehair. The idea of ‘perks’ (perquisites) prevailed throughout the nineteenth century even if the practice had been under attack for at least a century. Perks harked back to a time before wages had been as fixed as they were in the 1800s; workers were used to taking home benefits of their trades as part of their wage. So carpenters took ‘chips’, coal heavers ‘sweepings’, weavers ‘thrums’ and so on. Employers did their best to stamp out what they saw as pilferage but we are pretty wedded to our perks even today.
However, Cooper’s action, while described as a theft, was really a act of revenge for losing his job. Mr D’Eyncourt was not impressed with him.
‘it was a very dirty trick to play just for the sake of 10d or a shilling, which only represented a few glasses of ale, and for that he seemed to have disfigured a dozen horses’.
However, despite his anger the justice was hamstrung by the sanctions available to him. Cooper had pleaded guilty and thus opted to be dealt with summarily. Mr D’Eyncourt handed him the maximum sentence allowed, four months in prison with hard labour. He would therefore spend Christmas and New Year in gaol and start the new century unemployed and without a good character. That was probably the real punishment for his crime.
[from The Morning Post, Thursday, November 06, 1879]