‘Wanton mischief’ and criminal damage earns a recidivist drunk a month in gaol

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While the Victorians didn’t have fingerprint technology or the data gathering capacities of modern police forces this didn’t mean that it was always easy for repeat offenders to avoid the repercussions of their past indiscretions.

Policemen were expected to get to know their beats and areas, and the local populations they served. From the end of the 1860s ‘habitual’ offenders were monitored more closely, making it even harder for them to ‘go straight’ and then,  when photography was invented, ‘mug shots’ added to a criminal’s woes.

Alongside the police were the gaolers, court officers and, of course, the magistrates themselves. These authority figures were adept at recognising old or frequent visitors to their court rooms and were far less likely to be lenient if someone had been up before them time after time before.

James Oaks was just the sort of frequent visitor that Mr Arnold at Westminster Police court was hearty sick of seeing in the dock. He was a drunk and probably turned up among the night charges that were paraded before the magistrates most mornings to be admonished, fined or sent to prison for a few days or weeks.

This time Oaks was accused of criminal damage. On the previous evening he had stumbled into a gentleman’s outfitters on Brompton Row. He was the worse for drink and flailing about. He tripped over his own feet and grabbed at a shirt hanging on a nail. Struggling to regain his balance he pulled on the shirt, tearing it and earning the wrath of the shop assistant.

The police were called, Oaks arrested, processed at the police station, and locked up overnight. In the morning at Westminster he tried to say he’d been pushed over and it was all an accident not of his making but Mr Arnold didn’t believe him.

First of all a clerk at Doyle & Foster’s outfitters gave a very damning and clear report of the prisoner’s actions and declared the damage done as the nail ripped the cotton amounted to 7s 6d. In 1869 that equated to a day’s pay for a skilled labourer (and Oaks was very far from being one of the those) so this was no cheap shirt.

More importantly I suspect, Mr Arnold recognised Oaks as someone he’d cautioned for being drunk and disorderly previously and so he was hardly likely to believe his version of events over that of a sober and respectable clerk.

The magistrate looked down at the man in the dock and told him ‘he had no doubt this was a piece of wanton mischief’ and for that he was sending him to the house of correction for a month. No fine, no warning, but straight to gaol.

That was a heavy sentence for the relatively trivial ‘crime’ James had committed and it would probably further impair his chances of finding legitimate employment on his release; presuming, of course, that gainful employment was something he wanted.

In the opinion of men like Mr Arnold the likes of Oaks were near-do-well drunks and loafers for whom second (or third) chances were a waste of his time. Better to keep locking them up than bothering to help them find work, or quit drinking. Sadly this attitude continued until well into the next century when social work and probation began to challenge it.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, August 18, 1869]

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