London had several gentleman’s clubs in the mid nineteenth century. These were private clubs where a member of the wealthy elite could relax without being bothered from the unwanted attention of his wife, family or the hot polloi. On Pall Mall there were two that mirrored each other: the Athenaeum (which admitted men that had demonstrated some level of distinction in an intellectual pursuit) and the United Service Club, which was founded in 1815 for members of the armed forces.
The USC was a fairly exclusive establishment; to be a member from 1815 to 1892 you had to hold the rank of major or commander at least. As a result it earned the nickname of ‘The Senior’ amongst its members. One of those was the Duke of Wellington, the victor of Waterloo and Conservative Prime Minister from January 1828 to December 1830 – and again, briefly, in 1843).
So this was definitely a club for the rich and (in some cases at least) the powerful. By contrast Frederick Sactidge was neither. He was employed to wait on the members in the main hall of the club and was paid £10 a year with board and clothes provided. These were, one member later commented, ‘extremely handsome wages for a mere child like him’.
Sadly Frederick doesn’t seem to have appreciated how lucky he was and how benevolent the membership were being in deigning to let him serve their drinks and fetch their newspapers. Instead he saw the wealthy military men as an opportunity to supplement his basic salary.
After a while some of the members began to miss small amounts of money from their great coats which hung in the hall while they relaxed. There were a number of servants employed by the club but suspicion fell on Frederick and one member decided to set a trap for him.
Major-General Sir George Bowles*, the Lieutenant of the Tower of London, placed some marked copper coins in the pocket of his coat before it was taken away to be hung up by Frederick. When he checked a few minutes later the halfpennies were missing and Sir George demanded that the boy be searched. To nobody’s surprise the coins were found on him, he was effectively caught ‘red handed’ and charged with the offence.
The case came before Mr Hall at Bow Street where the conduct of the boy was described as ‘most scandalous’. Several members had complained, the steward of the club told the magistrate, and he might have progressed to commit more serious thefts had he not been detected. Mr Hall fully committed the lad for a jury trial.
What happened after that is unclear; Frederick doesn’t appear in the records of the Old Bailey Online or the Digital Panopticon. Perhaps the prosecution was dropped or he was offered a way out of his predicament. Maybe one of the members took pity on him and found him a position in the army or the navy. After all, in March 1854 Britain was embroiled in a war with the Russian Empire (a reminder, if we need one, that relations with Russia have been fraught for centuries) and while men like the ‘Iron Duke’ and Sir George sipped their whiskies in Pall Mall thousands were dying from enemy actions and (more frequently) disease on the Crimea.
[from The Morning Post, Friday, March 24, 1854]
*Sir George apparently owed his elevated position at the Tower to the influence of his friend the Duke of Wellington. Bowles had served with Wellington throughout the wars with France and was present at Waterloo.