Caveat Emptor is the watchword on the Ratcliffe Highway as an Italian sailor strikes a hard bargain

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The Ratcliffe Highway in the late 1800s

Here’s a case of caveat emptor (‘buying beware’) from the Ratcliffe Highway, where in the nineteenth century unwary sailors and other visitors were frequently separated from their hard earned wages.

Marion Madria was an Italian seaman, one of many in the multi-cultural district close to the dockyards that stretched along the East End’s riverfront. As he walked along the Ratcliffe Highway in early August 1857 he passed a jewelry shop. One of the store’s employees stood outside offering items for sale to passers-by, tempting them to enter with special offers and ‘bargains of the lifetime’. Their tactics were much the same as those of retailers today, but relied on the spoken word more than print (sensible in a society with much lower levels of literacy than today’s).

Madria was hooked and reeled in to the shop where he was offered a gold chain for just £3. It was a ‘too-good-to-be-true’ bargain but £3 was still a lot of money so the sailor bartered the price down to £2 9s. He didn’t have all the money but that was no problem, the shop assistant said he could pay a deposit of 9and bring the balance back later. Moreover, he could even take the chain away in the meantime.

I suspect Madria might have been a little drunk when he bought the chain, which would hardly have been unusual for a sailor on the Highway. Later that day as he showed his prize off to his mates he soon realized he’d been ‘done’.  The ‘gold’ chain was nothing more than brass and worth barely 6not nearly £3. It should have been obvious that a chain of that eight made from gold would have cost nearer £300 than £3. It really was too good to be true.

Enraged and not a little embarrassed the Italian obtained a summons to bring the shop’s owner to court to answer for his attempt to defraud him. In consequence Samuel Prehowsky appeared at Thames Police court before Mr Yardley. Since Madria’s English was limited at best the case was presented by a lawyer, Mr Young.

Young set out the details of the case and showed the justice the chain in question. He said he’d had it valued at between 4 and 6 pence and it was clearly not even worth the 9sthat Madria had left as a deposit. Mr Yardley agreed but he was far from certain that any fraud had taken place. He couldn’t quite believe that anyone would have fallen for it anyway. Young said that his client had ‘been dragged into the shop, and done for’. The magistrate replied that had he indeed been ‘dragged in he would have dealt with this as an assault, but he’d entered of his own volition. There was no assault involved at all, just incredible naivety.

Mr Prehowsky was an immigrant himself, a long established Jewish trader in clothes and jewelry who had come to London from Poland many years earlier. He explained that he’d not been in the shop that morning but would be able to bring witnesses to prove that Madria was not charged £30 but just 10s, which he bargained down to 9s and paid.  At this Madra cut in:

‘He say all gold, only £2 9s. – you leave me de money, all you have got, -9s and bring me de money, all the rest of it’.

‘You have not paid him the other £2 I hope?’, the magistrate asked him.

‘No Senhor, all brass, like the Jew [who] stand there’.

This last exchange brought the house down, laughter filling the courtroom.

It was a cautionary tale for the paper’s readership – be careful when you are buying jewelry on the Highway or you might get less than you bargained for. It was also an opportunity to make fun at the expense of a foreigner (Madria) and remind English readers that Jews were untrustworthy and avaricious. But no crime had been committed. Prehowsky confirmed that he was not seeking the extra £2 in payment for this goods (he said he never had anyway) and the Italian had his chain so as far as Mr Yardley was concerned that was that. He advised Madria not to buy jewelry in future and let everyone go.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, August 6, 1857]

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