‘It was an impulsive theft, and I beg for mercy’: the sad fall of an unemployed clerk

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Robert Stevens been out of work for some time when he entered a baker’s shop in Mile End in May 1859. Stevens had previously earned a living as a clerk, a gateway situation for someone hoping to move up the social ranks from the working to the middle classes.

The nineteenth century saw the establishment of the middling classes as the solid centre of Victorian life with their values of hard work, education, thrift, and family life. The social climbing of members of the middle classes were gently mocked in the 1892 novel The Diary of a Nobody where the character of Mr Pooter struggles to be taken seriously by superiors, friends and tradesmen alike.

In an unfortunate coincidence another clerk was in Mr Bradbrook’s  bakery that day and he was collecting money on behalf a firm of coal merchants. The baker had opened his till and placed four gold sovereigns on the counter just as Stevens approached to buy some bread. As the collections clerk and the shopkeeper discussed the account Stevens dashed in and swept the money from the counter and ran out of the shop.

The baker and John Griffiths (the clerk) recovered from their initial shock and rushed off after him, catching him up a few streets away. He had one coin on him having lost the others in his haste, these were picked up by Griffiths  in the chase. The unfortunate young man was handed over to the police and brought before the magistrate at Worship Street Police court to be dealt with by the law.

Robert Stevens pleaded guilty and apologized for his crime. ‘I went into the shop to buy’, he told Mr Hammill, ‘but but catching sight of the gold lying close to my hand, was seized with an irresistible desire of appropriating it to my own service, and unfortunately did so.

It was, I assure you, an impulsive theft, and I beg for mercy, having long been out of employment as a clerk’.

John Griffiths spoke up for the prisoner and urged the justice to show mercy and be lenient. As a fellow clerk he perhaps understood better than most how easy it was to lose a ‘respectable’ position whether because of the precarious state of the economy or the capricious  nature of employers.

It did little or no good however, Mr Hammill ignored the request for compassion and sent Stevens to prison for four months at hard labour. Having served a sentence in a mid nineteenth-century goal I doubt that Robert would have found white-collar work easy to come by afterwards. He was dogged by a criminal record, albeit one of his own making, and the stain of the prison would be on him. Hopefully he recovered and found a new path but this is another example of how a lack of real support for those that find themselves unemployed can have catastrophic and life changing consequences.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Monday, May 23, 1859]

If you enjoy this blog series you might be interested in Drew’s jointly authored study of the Whitechapel (or ‘Jack the Ripper’) murders which is published by Amberley Books on 15 June this year. You can find details here:

An H Division policeman gets away with brutality towards a defenceless immigrant

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The Kind Hearted Policeman by  L Huard (1864). This was the image of policing the Met were keen to promote but it did not always reflect the reality

Under the headline ‘More outrages of young women’, The Era newspaper (which was aimed primarily at the entertainment industry and licensed traders) carried a story of what appeared to be police brutality in the East End of London.

A respectable married woman (aged about 30) named Sarah Gompertz was walking towards Spitalfields at four o’clock in the afternoon. One imagines Sarah lived here as part of the area’s large Jewish community as her name suggests a Russian, Polish or German origin. There was always tension between the immigrant population and the indigenous one (even allowing for the fact that London has been home to migrating peoples for as long as it has existed), but this was not as pronounced as it was to become in the last two decades of the nineteenth century.

As she made her way along a policeman from H Division was patrolling his beat ahead of her. As the constable came alongside her he allegedly spat a mouthful of half-chewed carrot at her as he passed. Outraged Sarah protested. Instead of apologising the officer, PC William Gulley, responded by telling her to move along. When she refused to move he manhandled her violently, as the paper described:

‘this valiant constable of the H Division seized Mrs Gompertz by the back hair with one hand, and grasping her dress with the other, violently propelled her forward by the length of several houses, expediting her movements with brutal blows from behind with his knees, tearing open her dress by the force used, and exposing both her shoulders and her neck and bosom in a most indecent, and to the sufferer, most humiliating, manner’.

And, the report continued,

‘in this disgraceful way, with her dress unfastened, her shawl and bonnet streaming behind, she was pushed and dragged to the station, like a common troll or drunken prostitute, charged with taking part in a street disturbance, and refusing to move on at the voice of authority’.

Back at the police station the inspector on duty refused to register the charge and related the poor woman immediately but did little else to publicly  admonish the constable. The woman had walked home in a state of distress and collapsed. A doctor was called and he noted that her exhaustion and stress was compounded by the fact that she was pregnant. Its not clear whether witnesses saw the constable’s actions or merely saw the effects when she reached home but the paper was clearly convinced that the assault had happened.

Mrs Gompertz later pressed a charge of assault against PC Gulley at Worship Street but the constable was able to find three fellow officers who were prepared to testify in his defence. It went to the Old Bailey in November but the constable was acquitted and no details were recorded. In the end it was probably the word of an immigrant against that of a ‘guardian of the public’ backed up by three colleagues who had not seen what had happened. The inspector must have believed Mrs Gompertz’s account but was presumably too timid to take on his own men.

[from The Era , Sunday, September 4, 1864]

A dreadful case of child abuse by a mother

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Hampstead Heath, c.1870

Mr. Stanmore was a stonecutter who lived at Hampstead with his 13 year old son. The boy’s mother had left her husband 12 years previously, seemingly disappearing without a trace. The pair seem to have got on with life and Stanmore had never remarried.

One day, out of the blue it seems, Mrs Stanmore returned ‘splendidly attired, and wearing a gold watch and other articles of costly and fashionable jewellery’.

Clearly she had run into some fortune and wanted her son to be a beneficiary of this. She told her husband that she proposed to send the boy to school – a grammar school no less – at Hampstead and cover the costs herself. Stanmore was hardly going to stand in the way of such an opportunity for his son and so consented and handed him over.

The boy was taken to the school (which charged her 30 guineas a term) and then she departed ‘in the same mysterious manner as she arrived’. Then on 9th September 1850 she appeared at the school, paid the boy’s fees and took him away, ‘but to what place no clue could be obtained’.

Wind forward to early December 1840, and the boy was back home ‘in a woeful state’. His back had been scared by beatings, he had a large wound on his thigh and his nose was ‘much lacerated’. A surgeon was called and examined him and the boy told him that his mother had inflicted his injuries.

She had taken him from the school to a very well furnished house in Vaughan Terrace on the City Road and had at first treated him well. But that didn’t last and she soon started to beat him, using a poker and a thick stick. On the day he ran away she had ‘jumped on him, dragged him three times to the top of the house and down again by his hair, then fastened upon his nose with her teeth, and afterwards bit him severely in the thigh’.

She left him locked up but he managed to escape and found his way to an aunt’s house, who took him home. The aunt testified that when the boy arrived he had been bleeding ‘profusely’. The magistrate issued a warrant for Mrs Stanmore’s arrest.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, December 08, 1840]