Many of those that appeared in the dock at London’s many Police Magistrate courts were charged with assault. The registers at Thames Police Court are some of the very few that survive and there you will find literally hundreds of cases of assault every month. However, what you won’t discover is any context that will enable to you to understand why these cases came to court. Summary court records (unlike jury courts like Old Bailey) are sadly lacking in qualitative information. We might discover that someone went to court charged with assaulting someone else, and find out that they were fined or imprisoned, but we rarely know exactly what happened or why.
That is why the newspaper coverage of the police courts is so useful; it gives us the detail that we are lacking elsewhere and allows us to comment on the motivations of those accused of hitting, kicking or pushing their fellow Londoners, and ask whether they had (or believed they had) any justification for so doing.
Let’s take William Howard for instance. Howard was a ‘respectable mechanic’ living in rented rooms in Market Street, Borough, (just south of the river) with his wife and family. On the 19 November 1867 James Stephens called at his door. His youngest son answered the door and Howard called from indoors for the man to be let in.
Stephens worked for a man named Linfield, who was a landlord’s agent tasked with collecting the rent from a number of houses in the area. Rents were collected along with the rates (which went towards the Poor law for example).
The rent collector had come to ask Howard for 10s and 3d, which was two weeks’ rent plus 3s for the rates. William Howard handed the collector a receipt he had for 8s 2d for money he had already paid towards the Poor Rate. He asked this amount to be deducted from his bill but Stephens refused and the pair argued.
Accounts of what append next differ but it is likely that the mechanic manhandled the rent collector out of his house and told him that before he settled any difference in what he owed he wanted to discuss it directly with his landlord first. Howard clearly felt aggrieved that the minion was demanding money he felt he didn’t owe or was possibly asking him to pay his rates in advance.
All of this ended up in a summons for assault that was heard at the Southwark Police Court. It doesn’t seem to be an issue about not being able to pay, but more about the underlying principle of when he was supposed to pay, and how much. In this the magistrate had quite a lot of sympathy with him.
Mr Partridge (the magistrate) asked Stephens if the occupants of the houses were ‘on the rate books’. Stephens wasn’t sure. But ‘he knew that the landlord paid all the rates in a lump , thereby saving the parish some trouble in collecting the rates. The tenants were all aware of this’, he added.
The magistrate said that all tenants had a right to be rated and entered into the ledgers. Moreover, he ‘considered it very unfair of the landlords of these small tenements in raising rents for a future tax’. The relevant act, he stated, ‘specifies that the occupiers should pay the rates themselves, and if there is no other agreement deduct the same from the rent’. It seems this was what William Howard was doing and he saw nothing wrong with it. As for the assault, well he could see fault on both sides and so dismissed the charge against the mechanic who was free to go, his reputation intact.
[from The Morning Post, Friday, December 13, 1867]