‘No home, no parish, and nothing to eat’: But there is little Christmas cheer from the City bench

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In some of the interviews with homeless people and reports of their plights this winter one of the depressing strategies that emerged is that some individuals would prefer to commit a crime and go to prison for a few days or weeks than suffer the cold and hunger of living on the streets at this time of the year. British prisons are not nice places; they are overcrowded, dangerous, drugged fueled and brutalizing – no one would choose to go there if they had a choice.

Yet even modern prisons compare well with those of Victorian London. In 1845 London was still being served by some of the institutions that had survived from the Georgian period – the houses of correction  like Clerkenwell that had last been rebuilt in 1775, the extant Newgate Gaol had been reconstructed after the Gordon Riots in 1780, and even Bridewell, one of the oldest gaols in the capital, was not to close until 1855.

Brixton Prison opened in 1820 but despite been new it was described as ‘one of the unhealthiest prisons in London’.* Four young girls had spent 10 days inside the gaol, on a diet of basic food and set to hard labour. Their crime was breaking windows but their intention had been to get off the streets so when they were released they set about finding a way back inside again.

Eliza Jones, Mary Hayes, Eliza Montague and Martha Pike attacked Mr Inglis’ biscuit shop on St Paul’s Churchyard, pelting it with stones. They broke several panes and were promptly arrested and brought before the alderman magistrate at Guildhall Police court.

The girls had used heavy stones – at least a pound each – one of which was produced in court as evidence of their ‘mischief’. Poor Mr Inglis was out of pocket to the tune of £12 which, at about £700 in today’s money, was a considerable sum. He said that the girls had originally come in to ask if he could spare them any stale buns as they were starving. When he said he had none they broke his windows.

The four girls pleaded that they ‘had no home, no parish, and they were hungry’. Alderman Hughes was not sympathetic however, what they had done was an outrage: ‘they had wantonly inflicted a grievous loss on a tradesman’. Inglis was contributing to the poor rates so, indirectly, he was supporting individuals just like them (although since they had ‘no parish’ he wasn’t really).

If the girls thought their actions would secure them a bed and festive food for the Christmas period he would make sure they were disappointed. They would go to gaol, for two months at hard labour, but he gave orders that ‘they should be strictly excluded from partaking of the Christmas fare’.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, 23 December, 1845]

* B. Wienreb and C. Hibbert, The London Encylopaedia

If you feel like helping end homelessness (or at least making the lives of those living rough on our streets a little more comfortable) you might consider a donation to St Mungo’s

The City’s charity will not be given to ‘worthless people’ a magistrate assures the public.

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Goldsmiths’ Hall in the mid-ninetenth century, by Thomas Shepherd

It is the time of the year when charities do so much to raise awareness of poverty and homelessness. People are homeless all year round of course, and poverty is endemic in our society, but there is something particularly poignant about seeing someone sleeping rough at Christmas which helps charities prick the consciences of the general public.

At the Guildhall Police court in December 1855 the suffering of the poorest was on the mind of Alderman Finnis, the duty magistrate, but so were the attempts of the poor to help themselves. He notified the press that his court had received a cheque for £20  from the Goldsmiths’ Company which was to be added to the Poor Box. This enabled him and his fellow magistrates ‘to relieve many deserving cases’ in the City but he assured readers (and potential donors) that the money ‘was not given to worthless people’. The Goldsmiths could well afford it, as the painting of their headquarters above suggests.

Among those he might consider ‘worthless’ were Martha Gilbert and Mary Murphy. They had entered a bakery at 49, Old Bailey and had asked for a loaf of bread. When Mrs Fore, the shopkeeper, had placed it on the counter the women ripped it in half and rushed out, stuffing into their mouths as they ran. They were soon captured  and brought before the alderman.

In their defense they said they were starving which only earned them a rebuke.

‘That is no excuse, for you should have applied to the union’, Alderman Finnis told them.

They had, he was told, but St George’s had refused them poor relief. This was probably true the reliving officer of the West London Poor Law Union admitted,

‘for the metropolitan parishes were refusing to relieve the poor for the purpose of driving them into the City, where it was well known they were all relieved’.

Only the day before he had had no less than 153 applications, many from paupers living outside the City’s boundaries.

Alderman Finnis was outraged. ‘It is a pity they [meaning the Poor Law Unions in Middlesex] are not prosecuted for it’ he grumbled. Turning to the two women, who had clearly been honest in claiming their theft was entirely motivated by hunger, he sent them to the house of correction for seven days.

At least they would get fed.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, December 13, 1855]

If you would like to give to charity this winter then perhaps consider St Mungo’s who have been doing great work in London with the homeless since 1969.

An unlikely jewel thief who is not as clever as he thinks he is

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Paul’s Wharf by Joseph Pennell (1884)

Very many of the crimes prosecuted at the police courts were easily dealt with by the magistracy who handed down fines or short spells of imprisonment. However, the courts also acted as filters for the jury courts – the Middlesex sessions and Central Criminal court at Old Bailey. When a very serious case – like today’s – came before the justices their task was to stage a pre-trial hearing and commit the defendant to take his trial later.

Samuel William Liversedge was a commercial traveller. The 33 year-old worked for a City jewelers based at 44 St. Paul’s Churchyard, Goddard & Lawson.  He enjoyed the full confidence of his bosses, being trusted with thousands of pounds worth of jewelry each week, which he took around the various shops in the capital to sell. He was paid on commission but with a retaining salary, and this was always topped up to 50a week so Samuel was well remunerated for his work.

At some point in 1877 things began to wrong for him it seems. Whether he simply succumbed to the temptation that carrying around a small fortune in precious stones and gold and silver presented, or perhaps because he was in debt despite his generous salary. Either way as early as April that year he began to steal from the firm.

Things came to a head in November when Liversedge left St. Paul’s Churchyard with £1,000 worth of items in his usual black leather bag. When he got back, that evening, he was excitable and somewhat the worse for drink. The bag was missing and he told his Mr Goddard and Mr Lawson that he’d been robbed on a train whilst traveling between Edgware Road and King’s Cross. By his account he’d entered a carriage in which there were three men and a woman and as they left they brushed past him and must have pinched the bag containing all the jewelry. He called the guard who was unable to stop the train and so the thieves got away.

That was his story but it didn’t hold up in court, either at the Guildhall (before Sir Andrew Lusk) or later at the Old Bailey in March 1878. The guard testified at Liversedge’s trial and said he had looked for the three men and a woman and had seen no one leave his train carrying a bag such as had been described.

The bag did reappear at about 6.30 the same evening, ‘floating off Paul’s Pier, with the empty jewel cases and the cards attached to them’. William Barham found them. Barham was a Thames lighterman and he saw the bag in the water and fished it out. Lightermen knew the river intimately and was sure that it hadn’t been in the water long. The bag was closed and there was hardly any water inside, so someone had thrown it in not long before.

Goddard and Lawson had taken a cab to Scotland Yard as soon as their traveler had told them he’d been robbed. They had been told to make a full inventory of the missing items and came back to tell Liversedge. He suggested they all go to Bow Lane police station to do this, which they objected to. Samuel ignored them and rushed off to the station where he gave a list of the missing items, but a very short and partial one. Crucially Bow Lane Police station was close by Paul’s Wharf, where the bag was later found.

Sir Andrew Lusk heard from the prosecutors that at first they’d wanted to deal with this carefully and without prejudicing any future court case. Fundamentally they wanted their goods back though and hoped that some publicity might lead to the identification of items that they expected  that LIversedge had pawned. They asked for a remand which the magistrate granted.

It took a while for this to all reach the Central Criminal Court but in March of the following year Samuel Liversedge was formally tried and convicted of stealing ‘three watches, one pendant, nine pairs of earrings, and other articles’ belong to the City firm. Several pawnbrokers turned up to give evidence that they had received items from Liversedge over the course of the last six months or so. The jury found him guilty and the judge sent him to prison for seven years at penal servitude.

Whatever motivated Liversedge to steal from his masters and jeopardize a pretty well paid career is a mystery; his voice – if he spoke at all – is not recorded in the Old Bailey Proceedings and we don’t know what happened to him thereafter. At 33 he was probably fit enough to survive 5 or so years in gaol before he earned his ticket of leave but his chances of returning to that level of trusted employment were slim.

[from The Standard, Monday, December 10, 1877]

‘The wonder-stricken animal then tried to turn around’: An actual ‘bull in a china shop’

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According to some sources the expression ‘a bull in a china shop’ (used to refer to a clumsy person) has its origin sometime before it was first written down in Frederick Marryat’s 1834 novel, Jacob Faithful. As you can see from the illustration above however, the expression was in use well before then.

Londoners would have been familiar with the sight of bulls and others livestock being herded through the city streets in the 1800s. Smithfield market had been the destination for hundreds of thousands of beasts throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth century, as drovers brought in animals to sold and then herded east to the slaughterhouses in Spitalfields and Whitechapel.

Occasionally an animal would escape and run amok but more frequently, as the records of the eighteenth-century Mansion House and Guildhall justice rooms reveal, they were deliberately separated from the herd and chased through the streets by boys and young men. These incidents of ‘bullock-hunting’ (akin to the annual bull run in Pamplona, Spain) caused chaos on the City streets and ended in prosecutions before the magistrates.

Bullock hunting seemed to tail of off in the 1830s and had pretty much disappeared by the Victorian period. Urban areas were ‘improving’ and the authorities and public were increasingly intolerant of rowdy folk customs that interrupted the ‘polite and commercial’ pattern of day-to-day life.

By the 1840s campaigners were active in trying to close Smithfield as a cattle and sheep market. They cited the noise, the smell and the impracticality of moving animals through the streets. The market had also become too small to serve the city’s needs and was required to expanded, but not in the centre. In 1852 work began on a new market in Islington, which opened in 1855 as the Metropolitan Cattle market. Smithfield underwent a rebuilding and emerged, in 1868, as the new Smithfield meat market, selling dead meat rather than live animals.

Two years before trading ceased at Smithfield John Waistcoat appeared in the Guildhall Police court charged with ‘driving cattle without a license, or a drover’s badge’. This tells us cattle were still being brought into the centre in December 1850 and, as we will see, were still causing chaos. It also reveals that ‘bullock hunting’ was still very much alive, long after it was supposedly stamped out.

Waistcoat was only 15 years of age when he arrested by City police constable 117. The officer had seen two animals running towards Skinner Street, ‘apparently very excited’ and being chased by a group of small boys. Waistcoat was older and seemed to be trying to catch them so the copper stopped him and demanded to see his badge and license. When he was unable to produce either he collared him.

Meanwhile the beasts continued to run wild in the City streets.

A Mr Pierce said he saw one bull run into Rose and Crown Court and enter his house, which operated as a workshop. A witness who was inside the property described what happened next:

‘I was in the room on the ground floor at work, when I heard a great noise outside, and the next minute, to my great surprise, I saw a bull’s head thrust into the passage over the little wicket gate at the street door. I immediately closed the room door and he [the bull] went into the passage’.

By this time his testimony had reduced the Guildhall court’s occupants to unrestrained laughter as they imagined the scene.

‘I felt the wainscotting giving way’ he continued, ‘and accordingly pressed against it on the inside, while the bull pressed against it from without. ‘I felt the partition cracking under the weight, and at the same time the females in the room began to scream and make such a noise that I believe the bull was frightened, and he passed along the passage and I thought he was going upstairs’.

The people in court continued to laugh as the poor man tried to explain what had occurred to the alderman justice on the bench. For the reporter from Reynold’s it must have seemed as if he had the scoop of the week; many of the daily reports from the police courts were mundane, this was anything but.

‘The wonder-striken animal then tried to turn around’, the witness told Sir Peter Laurie (the magistrate), ‘and in doing so he knocked down the whole of the partition between the passage and the room with his hind quarters, and backed out, sending the little wicket gate flying over to the public house opposite. The bull then got clear of the court, and left me master of the ruins’.

The damage was estimated by Pierce to be between £2 and £3 which might not sound a lot but probably equated to about two weeks wages for a skilled tradesman, so not insignificant. The question was, who was to pay? Sir Peter decided that Waistcoat was not responsible and discharged him. Instead he decided that the man that bought the cattle should pay, and directed Mr Pierce to send his bill to a Mr Lowe.

[from Reynolds’s Weekly News, Sunday, December 1, 1850]

An unlucky thief is caught as the nation buries the hero of Waterloo

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The morning after the Duke of Wellington’s funeral was a busy time for the Guildhall Police court. By all accounts the funeral was a extraordinary affair, snaking its way through the City streets and drawing huge crowds. Whether we see Wellington as the hero of Waterloo or a deeply conservative and out of touch politician no one can deny his impact on the nineteenth century. He may not have been widely loved but he was respected, and the state gave him the biggest send off since Nelson’s.

As a consequence of the procession that accompanied the ‘Iron Duke’s cortege to St Paul’s Cathedral the court had been closed for the day so the cells had filled up with overnight charges for the aldermen to deal with later.

When the court reopened on the Friday morning Sir John Key had over 30 night charges plus the usual flow of men, women and juveniles brought in by the police and private prosecutors during the day.

Of the 30 or so night charges the magistrate sent eight of them to prison (for picking pockets or assaulting police officers), and fined others for drunkenness and damaging property. This was pretty standard fare for those swept up by the police during the small hours.

Sir John remanded Alfred Povah for further examination after he was accused of stealing clothes to the value of £3 from the Inns of Court in Holborn. When the police had searched Porch they had found a set of skeleton keys on his person, suggesting he was a ‘professional’ thief.

Povah had been spotted heading up the stairs to Mr Rotch’s chambers in Furnivall Inn by one of the clerks. He called the firm’s beadle who nabbed the thief and handed him over to the police. PC McMath (77 City) undertook the search and later told an Old Bailey court that the keys were known as ‘Bramah keys’ and were considered to be ‘more dangerous’ by the police, suggesting perhaps that they were more effective at opening locked doors.

The thief’s professionalism marked him out as a member of the ‘criminal class’ within which the burglar was considered to be the arch enemy of respectable society. The burglar had replaced the highwayman as the symbol of serious crime as the Victorians increasingly saw their homes as sacred places.

Moreover Povah had a criminal record, having appeared at the Bailey two year’s previously for a similar crime. He was just 18 at the time and the judge sent him away for three months, the leniency shown perhaps prompted by his full confession in court. This time the Common Sergeant was not so generous and ordered that Alfred, not yet 20, be transported to Australia for seven years.

He never went however, by that time the colony was resisting the continued import of Britain’s unwanted felons. Instead Alfred served three years in an English prison before being released, on 22 November 1855, at the age of  22.

Had Alfred been 19 in 1815 he might have had the chance to be a hero like the thousands of men and boys that served under the Duke at Waterloo. When they returned to England having helped defeat Napoleon they received little or no help from an indifferent state. Wellington by contrast was feted as a war hero, the savior of Europe, and (a rich man already) was granted a reward of £200,000 (possibly £11m today).

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, November 20, 1852]

A thief falls foul of the mastermind behind Pimms

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I’m not sure this example of Victorian ‘justice’ would have troubled the magistrates courts today. I am even more convinced that it wouldn’t have resulted – as it did in 1895 – in a hefty prison sentence.

William Smith was minding his newspaper stall when he saw a young man approach a pillar (post) box in Threadneedle Street near the Bank of England. As he watched the man appeared to slide his hand into the post box opening and pull a letter out, which he put into his pocket.

Smith hailed a nearby policeman who quickly apprehended the thief. back at the police station the culprit gave his name as Henry Kempston (21) and admitted the charge. ‘I know I have done wrong’ he told the police sergeant.

The next morning he was brought before Alderman Davies at Guildhall Police court charged with the crime. He admitted taking the letter out but denied any intent to steal it. He had seen it sticking out ‘and foolishly took it right out, but meant to return it’.

Did he just want to be a postman? Alderman Davies, who sat in parliament for the Conservatives as an MP, wasn’t interested in any excuses and sent him to prison for two months with hard labour.

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Men like Horatio Davies (right) were sometimes very far removed from most ordinary lives in the nineteenth century.   Davies had come from humble origins however, having been educated at Dulwich College  as a ‘poor scholar’. He had a reputation as being harsh of ‘wrong-doers’ but kind to the needy. He clearly thought Henry was the former.

When he was in his thirties Davies teemed up with his brother-in-law to establish a number of restaurants, bars and hotels; ultimately creating the Gordon Hotels Group. Three years after this case he was knighted and at some pint after that he purchased an ailing drinks brand from an oyster salesman in London. James Pimms had invented a drink that aid the digestion of those eating his shellfish but it had limited appeal. Sir Horatio Davies helped turn it into the national and international institution that it is today.

[from The Standard, Friday, November 08, 1895]

If you pay peanuts what do you expect? Exploitation in the Victorian rag trade

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Mrs Davis was a shirt maker operating in Houndsditch on the edge of the City of London. She lived in Gun Square and made shirts for a shopkeeper (Mr Cook) who had a premises on the corner of St Paul’s Churchyard close by Wren’s masterpiece. Mrs Davis took delivery of materials from Mr Cook’s warehouse and gave him back ‘fine shirts’ for which she was usually paid half a crown (26d) each.

In order to make the number of shirts Mr Cook required Mrs Davis farmed out some of the work to others, including Elizabeth Harding a girl of 19. She paid Elizabeth 6d for an evening’s work which she thought was enough time to make one shirt. So she was pocketing 2for herself for each item Elizabeth made for her, not a great deal for the younger woman.

In November 1843 Mrs Davis discovered that Elizabeth  had completed one of the eight shirts she’d given her but had pawned; the others were so incomplete that she had to pay someone else 3s  to finish them. When she took the seven shirts to the warehouse the foreman refused to take them as he was expecting the contracted eight. Not only that but he then demanded she pay him 16s  for the raw materials that Mr Cook had supplied.

Mrs Davis was out of pocket and extremely angry with Elizabeth, so took her before the magistrate at Guildhall to complain.  Elizabeth Harding was charged with the theft of a shirt (the one she had pawned) and Alderman Farebrother was told the whole sorry story.

He wasn’t particularly sympathetic to Mrs Davis. He could see why a girl who was paid just sixpence a day was ‘sometimes tempted to do wrong’. His wider point is still relevant today when we look around the world at the sweatshops that produce fashion for British highstreet for a fraction of the amount that the shops charge the customer. Mr Farebrother declared that:

‘he wished that those that who were fond of buying those very cheap articles were obliged to make them at the price’.

Mrs Davis listened to the fine gentleman’s words with a stony expression on her face. She retorted that

‘she fared no better than her assistants, for she was a widow, with children dependent on her. She had sometimes to make shirts at 3each, and even at 2d.’

It was not unknown for the price to fall even lower than that, she added.

In the end the alderman referred the case to the Lord Mayor (the City’s chief magistrate) and remanded her so that questions could be asked at the pawnbrokers where she allegedly took the missing shirt. That was an offence and if she was found guilty she might expect a term of imprisonment.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, November 06, 1843]