Echoes of Oliver Twist as an Islington apprentice complains of being abused

Noah Claypole from Oliver Twist

By the mid 1840s the Victorian reading public were familiar with the work of Charles Dickens and his stories of everyday life. Between 1837 (when the young Queen Victoria ascended the throne) and 1839 Bentley’s Miscellany serialised the adventures of Oliver Twist as he escaped from the home of the Sowerberrys and the abuse he’d suffered at the hands of Noah Claypole and Charlotte, the serving maid.

Of course that escape was short lived as Oliver was plunged into the criminal underworld of the metropolis and the lives and crimes of Fagin and his gang of pickpockets. Happily of course ‘all’s well that ends well’, and Oliver finds redemption and peace in the home of Mr Brownlow, even if the plot does have a few more twists and turns along the way.

Oliver was a parish apprentice. He was placed first with a chimney sweep and then with Mr Sowerberry (an undertaker) as a way to get him out of the workhouse and off the parish books. Apprenticeship was not as popular as it had been 100 years earlier but it was still seen as a route to a respectable trade and steady income. Young people were apprenticed in their teens and learned a skill from their master before leaving to set up as journeyman in their early 20s.

The system was open to abuse of course; Dickens was not making up the characters of Noah and Charlotte, or Gamfield the brutish sweep. These sorts of individuals existed, even if Dickens exaggerated them for dramatic or comic effect. In the 1700s in London apprentices who felt aggrieved could take their complaints (or not being trained, being exalted, or even abused) to the Chamberlain of London in his court at Guildhall. Failing that they might seek advice and mediation from a magistrate.

Both sides approached the Chamberlain and magistrate in the Georgian period and apprentices were released from their contracts or admonished in equal measure. For a master the courts were often a useful way to discipline unruly teenagers who simply refused to obey their ‘betters’.  However, other masters resorted to physical chastisement in their attempts to discipline their disobedient charges.

Sometimes this went too far, as in this case that reached the Police Court magistrate at Clerkenwell.

Joseph Mitchely was a parish apprentice, just like the fictional Oliver. He was aged 14 or 15 and had been bound to an Islington  ‘master frame maker and french polisher’ named Wilton. In early November he had complained to the court that Henry Wilton was beating him unfairly and the magistrate ordered an investigation to be made. He called in the parish authorities (in the person of Mr Hicks) who made some enquiries into the case.

Having completed his investigation Mr Hicks reported back to Mr Tyrwhitt, the sitting justice at Clerkenwell. He declared that the boy had exaggerated the extent of the ‘abuse’ he’d supposedly suffered and was now apologetic. Apparently, young Joseph now ‘begged his master’s forgiveness’.

Mr Tyrwhitt discharged the master frame maker and told the boy to return with him and make his peace. He added that in it might be better if any further disputes between them were brought before him or one of his fellow magistrates, and suggested that Mr Wilton avoid ‘moderate correction’ in future. Hopefully both parties had learnt a valuable lesson   and were able to move forward in what was a crucial relationship (for Joseph at least).

[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, November 21, 1848]

A bareknuckle fight in the grounds of Ally Pally

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Police constables Rudkin (696Y) and Mitchell (467Y) had got a tip off that an illegal prize fight was happening on their patch, which covered the area around Alexandra Palace in north London. So, on the morning of Sunday 18 November 1883 they hurried off to investigate.

As the officers were coming along a public footpath from Muswell Hill to Mr Cotton’s fields they saw a lot of male heads gathered in a large circle and the sounds of ‘blows and scuffling’. They were close to a railway bridge and some observers had stationed themselves up their to get a better view of proceedings.

This also allowed several people to see the approaching policemen and the cry went up:

‘Look out! here’s the police!’

The crowd scattered in all directions with the two bobbies in pursuit. PC Mitchell saw one of the men that had been fighting and chased him into a field, catching him up and arresting him. His name was William Rearden and he was stripped to waist and wearing only ‘slippers’ on his feet. The other boxer managed to get away so the coppers had to be satisfied with breaking up the fight and the capture of just one of the fighters.

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Rearden could hardly deny being in a fight. He was bleeding from his mouth and ears and there was a large and recent bruise developing on his chest. This was bare-knuckle boxing, not a fight sanctioned by the Queensbury rules.

Rearden was adamant that he’d done nothing wrong. When captured he surrendered immediately and promised to ‘go quietly’ to the police station. He insisted it was just a fight to settle a dispute he had with his adversary, no ‘prize’ was involved. The police had found no evidence of a ‘professional’ fight: no ring, no gloves or seconds and of course, no second fighter was in custody.

In the end the case came before Mr Bodkin at the Highgate Police court. Rearden told the magistrate that he was an ex-soldier who had served in Egypt and South Africa, He’d been decorated for his service and proudly wore his medal ribbons in court.  He was able to produce a certificate of his service and good character and was still on the Army Reserve list.

Moreover, he was in work, as a bricklayer, and he had no record of being in trouble with the law previously. All this counted in his favour and persuaded the justice that a ticking off would suffice. Fighting in public was unlawful Mr Bodkin told him but in light of his record he would merely bind him over to keep the peace for six months. Having agreed to enter into recognizances of £20 Rearden (known as ‘Roberts’ in the Army) was released to his friends.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, November 20, 1883]

Teenagers in church, but not for the sake of their souls

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Police constable William Gearing (86B) was on his beat in Horseferry Road when he noticed two things that were suspicious. First, a lamp in the street had been extinguished, something he associated with criminals operating under cover of darkness.

The second was that there was a light flickering in the nearby Roman Catholic chapel. Given that it was 11.45 at night he assumed that the priest was not taking a late service or communion and decided to investigate.

The gate of the chapel was open but when he tried the door itself it was locked. He somehow found the keys and entered the building. Two men were in the chapel and they panicked, rushing up into the gallery to hide. PC Gearing went outside to call for help and as soon as another officer arrived they managed to secure the two intruders.

Once the pair –Joseph Isaacs and John Mason – had been locked up back at the nearest police station house, PC Gearing returned to the chapel to investigate. There he found evidence that the men had been trying to rob the place: several drawers were opened and a cupboard in the sacristy had been forced. He also found some of the church’s silver placed wrapped up in a large handkerchief ready to be taken away. The final clue was a portion of recently lighted candle and some false keys, both essential ‘calling cards’ of the nineteenth-century burglar.

He carried on his enquires and discovered that the chapel had been securely locked the evening before so the men had to have picked the lock (or used their false keys) to enter. In court at Westminster one of the duo, Isaacs, said they’d found the keys in the sacristy cupboard but couldn’t account for why they were in the chapel in the first place. Mason, probably wisely, said nothing at all.

Mr Paynter wanted to know if the men had previous form for burglary. The police told him that Isaacs had served time for highway robbery while Mason had been imprisoned for three months under a different name, for theft. The magistrate duly committed them to take their chances with an Old Bailey jury.

On the 24 November 1856, less than a week after the Westminster hearing, the pair appeared at the Central Criminal Court and pleaded guilty to simple larceny, a lesser offence than breaking and entering. They were only youngsters, both just 17 years of age. Isaacs got four years, his companion 12 months.

According to the Digital Panopticon neither lad repeated their offences (or at least were not recorded as being caught for anything after 1856). Joseph lived until he was 63, dying in 1902. John Mason was not so fortunate, he died in 1870, at the young age of 31. He was buried in St Pancras.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, November 19, 1856]

‘Oh nonsense, I scarcely touched you’: a gentle nudge out of the door

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It can’t have been much fun being a solicitor’s clerk in the Victorian period. In fact I doubt its that much fun now but at least you probably aren’t as exposed to causal violence as Albert Jones was in 1886.

He was sent out to serve a writ and demand for money on a publisher and arrived at Messrs Eyre Bros at 4 in the afternoon of the 18 October. The writ was made out against a Mr G Butcher and Albert duly served it at his office in Paternoster Square, close by St Paul’s Cathedral.

Mr Butcher was not amused. Having asked a series of questions about the writ (which seems to have been part of a long running legal dispute) he said:

‘Can you convey a message to Mr. Kelly?’

Albert replied that he could but said he had been instructed by his superior to tell Butcher that ‘if he had anything to say he had better see him in person’.

‘Does Mr. Kelly expect me to pay this?’ Butcher asked.

Having been told that he did the publisher went on to say:

‘’He wont get a halfpenny of it, and tell him from me that if ever there was a liar in the world he is one’.

As Albert turned to leave, placing his hat back on his head, Butcher kicked him sharply in the rear, propelling him forwards and out of the door. This prompted the clerk (or perhaps his employer) to press charges for assault, and so Butcher found himself up before an alderman at the Guildhall Police court.

‘Did the kick hurt you?’ Jones was asked.

‘It did hurt for a few moments’, the clerk replied.

‘Oh nonsense, I scarcely touched you’, came the response from the dock. ‘I simply put my foot up to assist you getting out of the office a little faster’.

With laughter ringing out in court Butcher might have enjoyed this small victory had the magistrate not then handed him a fine of 40s.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, November 17, 1886]

A sharp eyed passer-by foils a burglary

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Mrs Isabel James was on her way home wither husband one Sunday night in November 1886. It was late, around midnight, and she was passing a warehouse on Bethnal Green Road when she noticed something that didn’t seem right.

A pony and cart was parked outside the warehouse, partly obscuring the door to the premises. As she looked she saw a man standing between the cart and the door and another, stopped over, who seemed to be fiddling with the lock. The standing man started straight at her, so she got a good look at him. He looked like he was trying to hide ‘as much as possible the movements of his companion’ so she told her husband that they should report it to the police.

As soon as they found a constable they explained what they’d seen and he, with another officer, went off to investigate. On reaching the warehouse they saw a man in the cart, who, seeing two policemen arriving raised the alarm and the pair of would-be burglars raced off as fast as the pony and cart could carry them, with the policemen in hot pursuit.

The chase continued through several back streets but by the time the officers caught up with the vehicle the men had escaped. However, Mrs James was able to give such a clear description of the man she’d eyeballed that it led to the arrest and charging of John Bloxham on suspicion.

His name had come up when the owner of the cart had come to claim it from the police. He explained he lent it to Bloxham (although he had no idea he was going to use it was such a nefarious purpose) and the police had their lead. They arranged an identity parade and Mrs James picked Bloxham out.

At the Worship Police court Bloxham, a 32 year old general dealer from Shoreditch, denied the crime. Mr Bushby was told that when the police investigated the warehouse (which was owned by a boot and shore manufacturer named Samuel Lyon) they had discovered that a ‘very determined effort had been made to force the door with a jemmy’. The lock had been broken although it wasn’t clear if the thieves had gained access of taken anything. At this stage Mr Bushby simply agreed to the police’s request to remand Bloxham while further enquiries were made.

The enquiries were made and Bloxham was formally charged with housebreaking and tried at the Middlesex quarter sessions on 6 December. There was insufficient evidence however, and he was cleared of the crime.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, November 17, 1886]

A drunken musician suffers has an embarrassing day in court

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It was probably quite an embarrassing appearance in court for Mr Chamberlain. On Saturday, November 13 1858 he was out late in Bridgewater Gardens  in the City, and on his way home. He’d had a lot to drink but thought he was in control of himself (don’t we all!)

Two women approached him on the street and asked him if they’d like to ‘treat them to some gin’.  This was a common enough solicitation by prostitutes and there is little doubt that Chamberlain, a musician by trade, understood this.  He took them up on the offer and the trio headed for Spurgeon’s public house where they drank together.

Some time afterwards they all left the pub and the women (he says) dragged him reluctantly across the square. Having got him into a dark corner of the gardens two men rushed up and robbed him while the women held him and unbuttoned his clothes. He tried to resist but one of the women hit him in the face and knocked him down. He lost a fob watch in the process.

At least this is the story he told the Guildhall Police court magistrate Alderman Lawrence. Only one defendant was in court to hear the charge. Mary Blake had been picked up by police at a pub in Goswell Street the following day, but denied any knowledge of the crime. She had been in Bridgewater Gardens that evening but hadn’t met with the prosecutor.

Her lawyer said it was a case of mistaken identity and Chamberlain, who was by his admission drunk at the time, was an unreliable witness. The alderman was inclined to agree but Blake was a ‘bad character’ and reportedly ran a brothel so he decided to remand her in custody to see him more evidence could be found in the meantime.

It doesn’t look like any more evidence was forthcoming because there’s no record of a trial or prosecution for Mary. This is hardly surprising; this sort of encounter was common and very hard to prosecute successfully. Without the watch being found on Mary, with the victim effectively admitting he’d chosen to go for a drink with known prostitutes,  and his drunken state (which impaired both his judgment and his ability to make a clear identification of the culprits), no jury would have convicted her.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, November 16, 1858]

A mother’s grief as her son’s rejection condemns her to the workhouse

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Having just formally committed William Herbert to the Old Bailey to face trial for murder the Clerkenwell magistrate then had to deal with a string of applications from impoverished petitioners who needed help.

One of these was an elderly widow who said that her son had abandoned her. She wanted to know if Mr Barstow (the magistrate) could compel her son to support her?

The justice asked her to explain the situation, which she did. Her son had recently married, and that had been the start of ‘her troubles’ because at almost the same time her husband had died. Except that he wasn’t actually her husband. In common with many working-class couple in the 1800s they hadn’t officially married.

But no one knew this, not even her children, so it must have come as something of a shock to the young man when his new wife (‘through her inquisitiveness’) found out and told him. Up until then the widow had been allowing her son ‘to have what part of the house he pleased’ and he had agreed to pay her 26a week in maintenance.

However, as soon as he discovered the family secret he changed; he called her a ‘fallen woman, a woman of sin’ and refused to have anything more to do with her. She didn’t complain or censure him but simply reminded her son that he ‘had been brought up respectably’ and she hoped he would at least continue to pay her the weekly allowance.

He refused outright and (and here was the clue to his change of heart) told her that ‘his wife ashamed of her past conduct, and would not allow him to do anything for her’.

‘In fact’, he continued, ‘he had got orders from his wife not to speak to her’.

She had come to terms with his rejection of her but she needed that money which was why she had come to see the magistrate for his help. Unfortunately Mr Barstow told her that there was nothing he could do for her; ‘an illegitimate son was not bound to keep his mother’. With that the ‘poor woman, who seemed much affected’ left the court probably knowing that her next port of call must be the parish workhouse.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, November 15, 1880]