Sharp practice by a Bermondsey landlord is averted by a sensible application of the law


A brush-maker drilling holes in the backs of brushes

The Police courts weren’t there just for the prosecution of petty criminals, they could function quite well as a court of redress for ‘ordinary’ people. The magistrate’s courtroom  became a sort of  unofficial advice centre for London’s poor; quick, inexpensive, and accessible. Men like Mr Partridge at Southwark offered their opinions on a range of day-to-day problems and sometimes, in cases like this, upheld the law in favour of the ‘little man’.

Thomas Clark was a brush maker who supplied a number of businesses in the Bermondsey area. It was a family affair, his wife helping him to make and repair brushes. The couple lived in Hunter Street, off Dover Road, renting a room there. 50 years later this was a dreadfully run down and poor area, and in 1869 it was hardly a fashionable address.

The Clarks were struggling to make ends meet and had fallen behind with their rent. This was fairly common in nineteenth-century London and landlords were often quick to move in and evict tenants. Equally tenants were known to do midnight flits, packing up their belongings and moving in with relatives or friends while they found somewhere else to live. The frequency with which people abandoned homes when they were in arrears is celebrated in the popular early twentieth-century music hall song, ‘My Old Man’ (popularised by Marie Lloyd):

We had to move away,
‘Cos the rent we couldn’t pay
The moving van came round just after dark
There was me and my old man
Shoving things inside the van
Which we’d often done before let me remark
We packed all that could be packed
In the van, and that’s a fact
And we got inside all we could get inside
Then we packed all we could pack
On the tail board at the back
Till there wasn’t any room for me to ride.

Written & Composed by F. Leigh and C. Collins, performed by Marie Lloyd

One of the strategies landlords applied was to seize the goods of tenants who hadn’t paid them. This ‘distraint of goods’ was legal but only after they had served notice and given the tenants time to pay.

Thomas Clark was 11s behind with his rent and his landlady was making threats to evict them.  Thomas now decided to lock up his room and move his family elsewhere while he worked out what to do. Was is going to try and avoid paying what he owed? Or was he genuinely hoping to find a solution? It is impossible to know from such a distance but his landlady wasn’t keen to take the risk.

Since he’d left all his tools in the room Clark sent  girl to fetch some of them. But when she arrived she was met by the landlady who ‘took the key from her and bundled her out’. When Thomas visited on the following day all his possessions were gone, cleared out by Thomas Farrell, a ‘sworn broker’ called in by the landlady.

The Clarks had now lost their home and the tools they required for their livelihood. It was a disaster and so Thomas turned to the courts for help. He summoned Farrell to the Southwark Police Court and appeared their to prosecute him for illegal distraint in November 1869.

Thomas Clark complained that Farrell (and his son) had seized his goods but given no notice and left him no inventory. He calculated that they had taken £7 worth of items when he owed just 11s in rent. Mrs Clark supported her husband’s claim. She said she was there  when Farrell had arrived at the property demanding the rent arrears and told him her husband would deal with it when he got home in the evening. Farrell refused and demanded and extra 5s costs on top of the rent that was owed. When she was unable to pay the pair began to remove the brush-making tools from the room.

Farrell’s son said he had left an inventory and claimed not to know that he had to give notice of distraint of goods. Mr Partridge ignored his excuses and told the pair that they had acted illegally. He ordered that they return the goods as soon as the rent was paid, and only the 11s, nothing more. If they failed to do so they would be liable to pay the Clarks the full value (£7) of the tools less the rent, in other words a sum of £6 9s plus 21 costs.

In the end it was a compromise that applied the law fairly. Thomas Clark did owe 11s rent and the magistrate acknowledged that. But he could hardly be excepted to find the money if he couldn’t work to earn the money to pay it. The Farrells had been too eager to make a profit from the brush maker’s difficulties and now the law was holding them to account. In this way the Police Court magistrate was regulating daily life in the capital and doing it quickly before a worse situation arose.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, November 27, 1869]

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