The limits of the magistrate’s powers exposed as the co-op is in the dock

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Mary Anne Loane was a ‘poor thinly-clad and wretched-looking’ woman who came to see the Thames Police court magistrate to seek his help. She told Mr Paget that she and her husband had been defrauded of 20s by the St George Co-operative and Provident Industrial Society.

She and her husband, a journeyman shoemaker, lived in Rosemary Lane – a very poor area of London. Mr Loane had invested 20s in the Co-op by paying in 3 and 6d whenever he could afford it. In return they were promised a dividend and ‘get provisions cheap’.

No interest was forthcoming however, and Mrs Loane complained that goods were actually more expensive in the Co-op stores in Cannon Street and its bakery on John Street than they were in her local grocer’s. She told Mr Paget she paid  a penny more for per pound for sugar in the Co-op and ‘candies were [also] a penny dearer at the stores’.

To add insult to injury when one of their children had died, and her husband had asked to retrieve his investment to pay for the burial fees, ‘he was told by the committee [of the Co-op] that it must be buried by the parish’. Being buried by the parish was the ultimate humiliation for poor families and many joined burial clubs to make sure they had the funds to avoid this. Mr Loane had probably thought he was insuring himself and his family against such an eventuality rather than dreaming of the ‘riches’ he could make from his investment but it had all come crashing down with he failure of the company to pay up.

The Loanes weren’t the only ones affected by this, there were other ‘sufferers’ and many of them crowd into Mr Paget’s court to see what he was going to do for them.

Sadly, he could do nothing at all.

‘I cannot help you’ he told Mrs Loane,

‘You must put up with it if you join such societies as these, where the magistrates have no jurisdiction’.

He asked to see the printed rules and regulations of the Co-opertaive society  and was handed a copy but that only confirmed his fears. He was powerless to act, the families would have nothing for their investments which, though small in the general scheme of things, were all the excess ‘wealth’ they had in the world.

An item printed after that day’s reports from the Police Courts listed the births and deaths in the metropolis in the year 1865. London had an estimated population of 2,999,513 in 1865 and the population was growing. Average weekly births outstripped deaths (2,052 to 1,413) and the report went on to state, with some pride, that the capital had dealt with the outbreaks of cholera much more effectively than had been the case on the Continent. Nearly 11,000 Londoners died of cholera in 1853-4 before Dr John Snow identified that it was spread by water and measures were taken to combat it.

July 1855 saw the ‘Great Stink’ and Joseph Bazalgette’s work to improve the city’s sewer system started the following year. His scheme didn’t cover all of London by 1866 however and when cholera arrived again it was the East End, and London’s poorest (like the residents of Rosemary Lane) that were most vulnerable.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, February 22, 1866]

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