‘Distressing accidents and dreadful diseases’: attempts to weed out fake beggars in early Victorian London

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Just recently there was a news items which suggested we need to examine the hands of those asking for money on the streets of London and other British cities. Despite the fact that homelessness as risen by 170 per cent in the last eight years and food bank use has also increased the focus seems to be on weeding out the fake poor from the deserving ones.

I’m comfortable with the idea of prosecuting fraudsters  but I do wonder what sort society we have become when our reaction to someone sitting on a cold wet London street in the middle of winter is to ask ourselves ‘is he trying to con me out of 50p?’

Sadly this is nothing new. The early Victorians were just as concerned with the idea of fake beggars as we seem to be. This was a society which passed the Poor Law Amendment Act in 1834, a piece of legislation that demonized those who asked for help and attempted to discourage benefit dependency but breaking up families and locking up paupers.

It also created the Mendicity Society (or, to give it its proper names: the Society for the Suppression of Mendicity). Formed in 1818 its aim was simple – to prevent people begging in London. It tried to move beggars along and encourage them to leave the capital if possible by giving them small amounts of charity. However, it eschewed the gift of money, preferring instead to give tickets which recipients could exchange for an investigation into their circumstances. This was presumably designed to root out the scammers, who would not want to have their case considered.

Men like William Horsford worked as mendicity officers, looking out for beggars on the streets and hauling them before the magistrates. Begging was an offence under the terms of the 1824 Vagrancy act which allowed the police and others to take people off the streets for having no visible sign of maintaining themselves. This legislation is still in operation today.

In early December 1839 Horsford was on the case of two people who he knew to be incorrigible beggars. Edward Johnson (alias Watson) and Mary Carrol were known to him and the police. Mary dressed in widow’s weeds and made herself look as desperate as possible in order to attract sympathy from passers-by; Johnson was described as a ‘miserable wretch’. Horsford spotted the pair in Pall Mall and decided to tail them, calling on a police constable to help.

He followed them through St James’ Park and then to a pub in Pimlico, called the Compasses (which had existed since the 1640s at least).  They left the pub after an hour and moved on to Sloane Sqaure where they started to knock on door. At one house, where the lady resident had a reputation for charity, Mary Carrol handed over a letter to the servant that opened the door.

The servant declined to accept it, or to give them anything so they headed for Chelsea and tried their luck at a chemist’s shop.  Horsford felt he had enough ammunition now and snuck into the shop behind them. As they tried to beg money using the letter he arrested them and confiscated the letter.

The pair appeared before Mr Burrell at Queen’s Square Police court where the letter was read out. It detailed the ‘facts’ that Mary was a ‘widow afflicted with rheumatism and divers other complaints – that she had a large family, and that her husband had been killed but a few weeks ago by a gentleman’s carriage running over him’.

It was signed by a ‘Mr Churton of Ebury Street’ who recommended the reader to assist Mary ion any way they could.  When searched Johnson was found to have a number of other letters on his person, each addressed to a different but well heeled recipient (the Bishop of London, Marquis of Londonerry, and Countess of Ripon) and each of which carried their own particular ‘sob story’ of ‘distressing accidents and dreadful diseases’.

The pair were clearly poor but Johnson at least was literate. He admitted writing the letters himself but justified by stating that Mary was a deserving case and he was only trying to help. The magistrate had no sympathy (just as the vigilantes who target ‘rogue’ beggars to day have none) and he sent them to prison for three months at hard labour. At least they would be fed and housed over winter, if not very comfortably.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, December 06, 1839]

for more on the work of the Mendicity Society see:

Little help (and no sympathy) for Heroes

A simple case of imposture or a glimpse into the transgender community of Victorian London?

A hero of the Peninsula and Waterloo meets the ‘terror of Chelsea’: who comes out best?

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I’ve just been revisiting the rise and fall of Napoleon in case I need to step in and provide some teaching cover for a colleague who is temporarily unwell. We all need to be prepared to teach outside of our specialism from time and as long as its not too far removed most jobbing historians can do it.

While Napoleon and the French Wars might seem a long way removed from my research area he is someone I have studied and be interested in for most of my reading life. As a child I quickly went from a love of Nelson to the man Nelson dedicated almost his entire career to thwarting. I saw Bonaparte as a brilliant mind, flawed by vaunting ambition, and ultimately let down by those closest to him and his inability to recognize when he had overstretched himself.

Of course while most of France adored him in the early 1800s much of the rest of Europe hated and feared him, most especially the English. He represented a challenge to British dominance and to the institution of hereditary European monarchy; he was a child of the revolution for all his abandonment of democracy. Most of all he wasn’t an aristocrat, he was – like so many of the men that rose through the ranks of the Imperial Army – a self-made man and the crowns of Europe had little time for that sort of success story.

The wars against France left a deep scar on Europe and on Britain and so those that served at Napoleon’s final defeat in Flanders were held in high esteem. Charles Miller was one such veteran of Waterloo – he had served throughout the whole of the Peninsula Campaign in Spain and Portugal, a war that did so much to undermine Napoleon’s grip on the European continent.

In 1838 (twenty years after Wellington’s victory at Waterloo) Charles Miller was serving with the Royal Veteran Battalion in Chelsea. He was quartered at Chatham and on Friday 12 October he had traveled to the Chelsea College to pick up some money that was owed to him. As he looked around for somewhere to spend the night he ran into a man named Thomas Ivey who promised to guide him to a suitable lodging house.

Unbeknown to the old soldier however, Ivey was a crook. He was well known to people in Chelsea as a thief and a rogue and Miller was exactly the sort of easy ‘mark’ he preyed upon. As Miller drew out his purse to buy some apples from a street seller Ivey pounced, snatched it, and ran off.

Miller raced after him but Ivey knew the streets and alleys around Jew’s Row much better than the outsider and he easily avoided him. The solider was persistent however, and eventually, with the assistance of the police, Ivey was captured and brought before the magistrates at Queen Square Police court.

Ivey tried to pretend that while he had met the veteran of Waterloo he hadn’t robbed him; there had been a misunderstanding and he ‘make it all right’. For his part Miller was at pains to say he’d not been drinking (often a charge leveled at those that had their purses lifted when visiting the capital). He had lost everything he had – a sovereign and four half crowns – and so was on his uppers.

The magistrate was determined that Ivey should face trial for this offence but was informed that the man had only recently bee released from Clerkenwell prison for a similar crime. That would surely count badly against him and the justice wanted to make sure they had all the details before sending him in front a judge and jury. So Thomas Ivey was remanded in custody for two days to get the report on his previous conviction.

Ivey paid dearly for his actions that day and I’m sure his choice of victim played a part. On 22 October he was tried and convicted at the Old Bailey and sentenced to transportation. He remained in England until February 1840 when he sailed for Van Dieman’s land to start a 10-year term of exile. Thereafter he seems to have kept his nose clean and in 1846 he earned his ticket of leave. He was freed three years later on the 9 April 1849. He was still just 29 years of age, (being born in 1820, just a year before Napoleon died on St Helena).

What did he do next? Sadly the records don’t tell us that but perhaps he embraced his new start ‘down under’ and put his past life as ‘the terror of Chelsea’ behind him. Nor do we know what happened to Charles Miller, the old soldier that Ivey robbed. I doubt he got his purse back (certainly not the contents) so his immediate circumstances were difficult. Hopefully his regiment supported him because in 1838 he must have been at least in late 40s if not older, and it is likely that in all those years of service he would have picked up one or more injuries.  There was no ‘help for heroes’ in early Victorian England and precious little state support for veterans, despite the supposed affection in which the victors of Waterloo were held. Not for the first time I’m left wondering whether the criminal, in being transported to Australia had the better outcome here?

[from The Morning Chronicle, Monday, October 15, 1838]

The ‘exorbitant’ cost of a West End hotel

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We all know that staying overnight in a London hotel can be expensive. The closer you are to the centre the higher the prices and I’ve talked to people who have booked ‘cheaper’ accommodation in London only to find that they are actually commuting in from Hertfordshire!

So it is well known today that the capital is expensive but what about in the past? Was London a trap for visitors in the nineteenth century as well?

Well, if this case from 1830 is anything to go by then yes, it was.

An unnamed gentleman and his wife had come up to London for the night and checked in to a ‘well known hotel and the west end of town’. They took their room and ordered some food and drink, stout for the lady and a brandy and soda for her husband. When room service arrived the waiter brought them a pair of wax candles and the gentleman attempted to send them away.

‘My wife and I are very moderate persons, and have no desire to pay for extravagances, so common candles [i.e tallow ones] will do for us quite as well as wax’.

The waiter said they could do as they liked but they would be charged for wax ones whether he left them or not, so they might as well enjoy them. The hotel clearly had a policy of charging customers for ‘extras’ (a bit like the way that some hotels today add hidden items to your bill).

In the morning the guests were presented with a bill that they felt was extortionate:

1830, 29 September

One bed – waiter, chambermaid, and porter, 6s

two suppers, 5s ; stout 1s, brandy and water 24d;

Apartment, 76d; wax lights 2s 6d; two breakfasts, 4s; ham with breakfast, 2s;

Total £1 10s4d.

So the overnight stay had cost the couple about £100    in today’s money, the candles alone were £8.50. Now £100 for one night in the west end may not sound too much given  that included breakfast, drinks and supper but in 1830 that represented a week’s wages for a skilled tradesman whereas today £100 might buy you a plumber or carpenter for a day. In reality then the hotel had charged them about £500 for their night’s accommodation; today you might easily pay that or more.

The gentleman refused to pay his bill on the grounds that he was being overcharged so the hotel manager seized his luggage. The man took his complaint to Bow Street and Mr Halls. The magistrate agreed that the bill was excessively high but there was nothing he could do about it, the hotel was well within its rights to charge whatever they liked and told him that ‘persons that went to houses like the one in question went with their eyes open’.

The gentlemen left in a grump muttering that he would put the matter in the hands of his solicitor.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, October 01, 1830]

 

One in the eye for a foreign national in London

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Mr (or perhaps Monsieur)  Goughenheim was strolling along Bear Street near Leicester Square in mid August 1839 with an English friend (named Richardson) when he noticed a man across the road that he recognised. Goughenheim was a translator and he’d spotted one of his former clients, Jean Jaques Covin, who happened to owe him money for his services.

Crossing the road, Goughenheim hailed the man and demanded he honour his debt. Covin was literally taken aback, and took a moment to step backwards before lifting his cane and aiming an attack at the translator. It was a vicious assault and caught Goughenheim in the eye, seemingly popping it.

Richardson grabbed hold of the assailant and he was quickly given into he custody of the police with the help of some passers-by. It took some time to come to court (because of the victim’s injuries) but eventually the case was heard before the Marlborough Street Police magistrate in early September, 1839.

There several witnesses gave evidence but were unable to comment on what was factually said because the entire exchange had been in French.  One was able to testify however, that:

as he ‘was passing a portion of the aqueous humour [from Gugenheim’s eye] fell upon his clothes, and at first he thought the prisoner had squirted water over the prosecutor, until he saw that his eye was totally destroyed‘.

The justice, Mr Dyer, was pretty clear that this was too serious a case for him to deal with  summarily. Covin, through his solicitor, denied any attempt to injure the other man, saying he thought he’d been assaulted himself when Gougenheim placed his hand on his shoulder to get his attention in the street. He accepted he’d raised his stick but never meant to hurt Gougenheim. His solicitor asked Mr Dyer to be lenient and to fine his client rather than send it up through the system.

Gougenheim challenged Covin’s version of events and insisted he’d not acted aggressively himself. Probably on the strength of this and the seriousness of Gougenheim’s injury, the magistrate decided he would commit the Frenchman for a full jury trial. There would still be an opportunity for this to be settled however, if Covin offered to pay the translator what he owed him and added compensation for the injury he might have escaped an embarrassing public trial and a potential prison sentence.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, September 3, 1839]

The painted lady and a ‘most impudent fellow’.

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Miss Elizabeth Cox was disturbed by sounds outside her front door in late August 1831. She opened the door which was next to Mr Ryder’s Yard, Queen Street on Cheapside and was confronted by a young man dressed as a painter and decorator.

Miss Cox looked him up and down and said (rather unnecessarily) ‘You are painting my door’. The painter agreed and added that he would happily paint her as well if she wanted him to. ‘Ay, do’, she supposedly replied.

Incredibly the painter did just that. He dipped his brush into his pot and painted her face.

Was that enough Madame, he asked, or did she want more?

‘Go on, sir’ the lady told him.

So he did, applying paint to her bonnet and dress and, when he’d finished, demanded 3payment for the ‘work’ he’d completed!

But Miss Cox refused to pay and said she’d take him before the aldermen magistrates at the Guildhall instead. In response the man told her to do her worst, and he’d paint them as well.

The next day he was up before Sir Claudius Hunter at the Guildhall Police court and Miss Cox appeared (holding her bonnet and dress, both of which were covered in paint, as evidence). Naturally, she had washed the paint from her face.

The defendant gave his name as John George Barrett Gill (a ‘high-sounding name’ as the reporter remarked) and came across as an ‘extraordinary’ individual. He brazened out the encounter with the bench, seemingly unaware that he’d acted badly in any way whatsoever.

‘You are a very impudent fellow’, Sir Claudius told him, ‘and I’ll paint you in another way before I have done with you’.

The court now heard from several people that knew of Gill and doubted his sanity. One testified that just the other evening he’d invited a fellow workman to supper but that when he’d arrived he’d discovered the table and chairs, set for a meal, but outside the opposite house in the street!

Clearly Gill was eccentric but was he properly ‘mad’? Sir Claudius decided to bail him on the charge of damage (or possibly assault) but insisted that the surgeon at Wood Street compter (a small City gaol) examine him for signs of mental illness.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, August 20, 1831]

‘You must have a go at the treadmill’ a regular visitor to the courts is told.

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Beggars and vagrants were an endemic problem for the police and magistrates of nineteenth-century London. The Vagrancy Act (1824) empowered the New Police to sweep anyone begging from the streets and the Poor Law allowed for the repatriation of the unentitled back to their place of last settlement. But once arrested what could be done with ‘sturdy beggars’ like Thomas Costello? A spell in prison held little fear for them and if they had lived and worked in a town for a year at least then they could claim it was their home and be hard to get rid of.

This was the Lord Mayor’s problem as he peered down at Costello standing in the dock at Mansion House Police court in August 1837. A policeman had brought the Irishman in because he’d been upsetting sensibilities by begging ‘in a most importune style’ the court was told.

His way was to fix himself shivering and shaking against the wall, and his deplorable appearance, for he could make is very eyes almost start out of his head, soon brought customers to him’.

The officer had tried to get him to leave the city’s boundaries but Costello refused, so he took him into custody.

He wasn’t an unfamiliar sight in the police courts and the Lord Mayor was sure he recognized him. ‘We have often told you to leave the city’ he grumbled, ‘why do you persevere in annoying us?’

‘Ah, please your honour’, came the reply, ‘I’m all over pains and aches; I’m afraid I’ll never get well’.

‘You are sick with idleness’, the Lord Mayor quipped, seeing what appeared to be a strong man in the dock before him. Thomas claimed to be suffering from a bad fall from a horse, but the magistrate clearly didn’t believe him. Nor did he buy the man’s complaint that his eyesight was failing and the policeman agreed saying that:

‘there was not a beggar in the city – able and active as they were – who had better use of his eyes and hands than the defendant, who could see an officer at any distance, and get out of sight in a twinkling’.

‘Oh yes they ought to put me up as a tellygraph [sic]’ joked the prisoner, beginning to enjoy his moment in the spotlight perhaps. ‘You’d swear that I could read the newspaper from this to Portsmouth in a fog’!

Keen to determine whether Costello had been up before the bench recently (and so perhaps worthy of a more serious penalty) the Lord Mayor asked him. The beggar said he’d not been in trouble for three years which caused the police officer to comment that it couldn’t be less than six months. Guessing that he’d been in and out of gaols all over the place and that they’d proved to be no deterrent the Lord Mayor made one last effort to persuade Costello to leave London, or at least the city itself.

Oh! dear no; I won’t disgrace myself by going out of your jurisdiction’ Costello answered, no doubt with a smile, ‘I’ve got no parents, God help me, but yourself and the likes of you’.

London was his home and he wasn’t going to leave it for anyone.

And for the next couple of months he definitely wasn’t going anywhere. ‘You must have a go at the treadmill’ the justice told him.

‘I know where the mill is precious well’, Costello responded, ‘It ain’t out of the city, is it, my lord?’ And off to Bridewell he went, where he’d be fed and watered at the ratepayers’ expense but at least he wouldn’t be bothering the good citizens of London for a while.

[from The Morning Chronicle , Friday, August 11, 1837]

Stark contrasts as privilege triumphs on the back of human misery

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Elizabeth Avery had committed a very common crime in early Victorian London and received a very usual sentence for it. When she was brought before the Queen’s Square Police court on 25 June 1837 (just five days after the queen acceded to the throne) she was accused of stealing a silver spoon. The theft was discovered when Elizabeth had attempted to pawn the item and the ‘broker had become suspicious.

The spoon belonged to Philip John Miles, the sitting Conservative MP for Bristol who kept a house in London as many provincial members did. Miles owed his position to wealth and his money derived from banking and his family’s sugar plantations in Jamaica. Until 1833, Miles, like many rich and powerful men in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century England, was a slave owner. The honourable member for Bristol (who had previously held seats at Westbury and Corfe Castle) was a millionaire in his day and had acquired the slaves he had owned indirectly, as his bank took possessions of them when their owners defaulted on their mortgages.

Slavery had been finally abolished in 1833 after a long campaign and owning slaves was now illegal (the trade itself had been banned in 1808). But it left the thorny question of compensation. Not for the enslaved of course, but for the men that would have to give up their ‘property’, such was early nineteenth-century logic. A project at University College London reveals that around 10-20 of Britain’s wealthy elite have links to slavery in the past; ours was an economy built on the forced labour of millions of African slaves – something we might remember more often.

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Philip John Miles did very well out of the compensation scheme that was enshrined in law in 1837 (by a parliament in which he sat of course). His son became a baronet who also sat as a Tory at Westminster. Throughout his political career he never once had to contest an election and only resigned his seat so his son could ‘inherit’ it.

This son, Sir Philip Miles (2ndbaronet), also pursued a career in politics and was a little more active than his father or grandfather. He was more ‘liberal’ than either, even supporting votes for some women in 1884.

The Miles’ then were a wealthy, privileged family who handed that wealth and influence down to their children so they could enjoy the benefits that it brought. Contrast this then with Elizabeth Avery, who stole a spoon from John Miles’ dinner table. She was the daughter of a charwoman – a lowly servant who had worked for the family for 14 years, doing their laundry. Avery regularly went to see Mr Harding, a pawnbroker on York Street, Westminster, sent by her mother to pledge things so they could pay their rent and feed themselves.

On the night the spoon was lifted John Miles had thrown a lavish party and the Averys had come round to clear away the lined to wash. Elizabeth must have been tempted by the huge array of silver on show and, having seen such things in the pawnbrokers and knowing they could be transformed into money, pocketed it.

She was only seven years old after all.

In court Mr White the sitting magistrate, having heard the case against Elizabeth (presented by Miles’ butler and the pawnbroker’s assistant), called for the girl’s mother. He admonished her for sending her daughter to a pawnshop, saying that she ‘most probably would not have stolen the spoon had she not known a method of disposing of it’. In order to emphasize his message and the lesson he wanted Mrs Avery to learn he sent Elizabeth to prison for seven days.

So, for taking a spoon from the table of a man who owed his possession of it to a trade in human beings a little girl of seven, raised in poverty, was condemned to spend a week away from her mother in the squalid conditions of the Westminster House of Correction.

While the Miles family prospered I wonder what happened to the Averys? I suspect that Mrs Avery may have lost her job cleaning linen for the Miles household. That would have thrown a poor family into crisis and Elizabeth may have been forced to turn to some form of crime to survive thereafter. Many of London’s prostitutes started that way, and in 1842 a teenager called Elizabeth Avern, alias Avery, was convicted of stealing a boot valued at 29d.

Of course it may have been a different Elizabeth Avery but the court noted she had a previous conviction and as a result they through the book at her. She was sentenced to 7 years transportation to Australia. Transportation was a form of forced migration, which effectively enslaved those condemned to work for the British state as it built its empire ‘down under’.

I suppose that is what we might call poetic ‘injustice’.

[from The Morning Post , Monday, June 26, 1837]