London’s police magistrate courts were created (officially) by the passing of the Middlesex Justices Act (1792). This established seven new ‘Police Offices’ throughout the capital in addition to Bow Street (and Mansion House and Guildhall in the old City of London). The press reported on these courts as they reported on all the other criminal and civil courts, but it took them a little while to start doing so in a systematic way.
As a result the earliest reports are patchy, not always easy to find, and short on detail. Thereafter, and especially from the 1840s onwards, court reporting settled into a pattern that hardly changed throughout the century. Reports became longer; those from Lambeth and the East End often involved poverty or drunken violence, those based at Guildhall or Mansion House dealt with fraud and other financial themes. As the senior magistrate court Bow Street often had the most serious cases, but Clerkenwell, Marylebone, and Westminster were all very busy.
Everyday the reader would be exposed to a mixture of information, cautionary tales, pathos, and humour.
On January 1st 1818, 200 years ago today, underneath a report from Argentina of the retreat of Spanish forces in Chile, was a short item of new from the police courts. Spain had suffered a ‘complete defeat’ the paper noted, in a war that had raged since 1810. 1818 was to see the end of the war which culminated in the battle of Maipu on 5 April. Argentina, Chile and Peru all won their independence from Bourbon Spain.
Meanwhile in London The Morning Post reported from just two police courts: Bow Street and Marlborough Street.
John Cook was charged with robbing a woman at the pit entrance to Covent Garden theatre. The court was told that he had cut ‘her pelisse and other clothes to get at her purse’. He then removed a ‘Bank-note, a half-Sovereign and six shillings’. The Bow Street justice committed him for trial.
A ‘familiar’ face appeared at Marlborough Street charged with being drunk and riotous. John McNaughton had been a Commissary General in the Peninsula (linking this story to that of the South American war of independence above). The charge was brought by Mr Molloy, who ran the Grosvenor Coffee House in Bond Street. McNaughton was a regular customer but a troublesome one. Having once held a position demanding respect and authority the magistrate was lenient with him; he awarded damages to Molloy but released the former army man on his promise to stay away from the coffee house in future.
Finally, after tales of serious crime and drunken behaviour the paper ended on a whimsical story to amuse its readers. A Mr Brown had called in a sweep to clean his chimney. Westwood, based in St Pancras, sent his ‘boy’ who climbed up and cleaned the chimney. Brown remarked that it had never been cleaned as well by anyone previously and took the time to praise and question the lad that had done it. It soon became clear that this was no boy at all, but ‘a poor girl of 12’.
She explained that ‘her uncle had turned her out of doors to look for work, and she had engaged herself to a sweep rather than be chided, as she could get no other work’.
The paper doesn’t tell us what happened to the young girl, whom Mr Brown had brought to Marlborough Street to hear the advice of the magistrate on the issue. I suspect a summons for the uncle or her being placed in the parish workhouse were both possible outcomes. Perhaps however, such a sad and touching story might have prompted someone reading to offer her a place in service. Maybe even Mr Brown might have taken her in.
[from The Morning Post, Thursday, January 01, 1818]