Fishy goings on in Pimlico land two servants in prison

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For some reason the morning paper on Halloween 1857 chose to concentrate on thefts by servants and other employees. Several of the stories from the Police courts told of light-fingered employees at banks, shops, and in the homes of the wealthy.

In the 1700s Daniel Defoe had commented that servants ‘beggar you inchmeal’ meaning they stole small amounts of property on such a regular basis as to gradually impoverish the rich. He exaggerated of course but theft by servants was one of the great fear and complaints of those employing them. Given the poor remuneration given to domestic servants it is hardly surprising that some chose to steal when they got the opportunity, to say nothing of the abuse many female servants suffered at the hands of their masters and their male offspring.

On October 30 1857 Margaret Ward appeared at Westminster Police court and was remanded for further examination by the justice, Mr Paynter. She worked for a Mr Bicknell at his home in Upper Ebury Street, Pimlico and he had accused her of stealing a £5 note from his writing desk.

He had questioned her after the money was discovered missing but she denied any part in it. However the court was told that Margaret had recently bought some fine new clothes and, since she’d arrived in service with ‘very bare of clothing’ suspicions were heightened and he had dismissed her at once.

A ‘very respectable’ woman then testified that she had previously employed Miss Ward and that following her dismissal by Mr. Bicknell Margaret had turned up at her door ‘decked in finery’. She was surprised that the girl had managed to earn enough to buy such nice clothes but Margaret allegedly told her that ‘there were other ways of getting money’. A local baker also declared that Margaret had come to his shop and had changed a £5 note, the court was then shown clothing valued at that amount that the police had found in her possession.

Margaret Ward was prosecuted at the Westminster Quarter Session in November 1857. In the face of the overwhelming evidence gathered against her, the 19 year-old servant pleaded guilty and was sentenced to six weeks in the house of correction.

Joseph Tonks followed Margaret into the dock at Westminster. He was much older (52) and gave his occupation as a fishmonger. Tonks was employed by Mr Charles in Arabella Row , also in Pimlico, and was accused of stealing some of his master’s fish.

Tonks had been in Mr Charles’ service for eight years and the master fishmonger had ‘considerable confidence’ in him. He paid him £1 5sa week which was a pretty good wage in 1857. However, after fish began to go missing Mr Charles grew suspicious of his his long term employee and had him followed. Tonks was seen visiting a broker in Artillery Row on more than one occasion and on a Thursday evening he was stopped and searched. Two whitings ‘were found in his hat, and five herrings concealed about his person’.

Clearly something fishy was going on…

The broker was summoned to court and testified that Tonks had called on his to borrow some paint and a brush and wanted to buy his wife a present. The journeyman fishmonger admitted his guilt and opted to have his case dealt with by the magistrate instead of going before a jury. This probably saved him a longer prison sentence but Mr Paynter  still sent him away for six months at hard labour since the court was told that Tonks had probably been robbing his master on a regular basis for some time.

Tonks seems to have had less of a cause than Margaret to steal from his boss. He was quite well paid and trusted and well thought of. But we don’t know what else was going on in his life. All sorts of pressures can pile up and force people to desperate measures. Then again maybe he just thought it was too easy an opportunity to pass up. He’d got away with it for so long that it had probably become routine for him to pack a couple of fish in his hat for treats.

On release from prison both Tonks and Margaret Ward would have struggled to find good work without the necessary references, and that was the most serious punishment of all.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Saturday, October 31, 1857]

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