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]

 

A ‘miserable lad’ and a ‘monster’: contrasting fortunes revealed in the press

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The Regent’s Canal in the early 1840s

On Saturday night my wife and I were crossing Blackfriars Bridge in the early evening. We were on our way to eat out at a fancy restaurant on the south side of the Thames on what was a lovely early autumn evening. The Thames was lit up and locals and tourists were strolling back and forth across the river and along the embankment. As we passed one of the inset buttresses of the bridge I noticed the rescue equipment attached the wall and, close by, a notice from the Samaritans offering a phone number for anyone in distress.

This was a reminder that people still jump from bridges like Blackfriars as they have done for centuries. It’s easy to do, there is little to stop you on Blackfriars for example and the pages of the Victorian press regularly recorded the discovery of floating corpses or the efforts of the police and passers-by to drag distraught ‘jumpers’ from the water.

Not everyone chose the Thames however, as this case shows.

Joseph Davis was described in court as ‘miserable, half-starved, and wretchedly clad’. A young man, Joe was down on his luck and at 10 o’clock on the 23 October 1846 PC 323K found him climbing the parapet of a bridge over the Regent’s Canal. As the policeman watched the lad launched himself into the water and the bobby had to rush to get help in dragging him out again.

Fortunately medical help was swiftly found and after a good meal Joseph was locked up overnight in the station house and taken before Mr Bingham at Worship Street Police court. The policeman said he knew the lad and one of his brothers, so a messenger was dispatched to find him and bring the family together to support the poor boy. Hopefully this was a one-off and Joseph Davis went on to lead a happy life.

Sadly this was not the case for the next person Mr Bingham saw that day. The newspaper reporter described William Clarke as ‘a monster’ and it sounds to have been well deserved. The ‘respectable’ watchmaker was brought up from the cells on a charge of rape and additional charges of sexual assault. He was committed to Newgate to take his trial at the Old Bailey.

The report of that trial in the Proceedings is scant; it merely records that he was found guilty and sentenced to transportation for life. As with nearly all cases of indecent assault and rape the details were withheld from the public, for fear of corrupting morals. One fact was recorded however: Clarke’s victim was his daughter Ann, who was just 12 years of age. Moreover her younger sister (not named) had also been assaulted by her father.

So that day the magistrate had two very different cases to deal with and both have disturbing echoes to our own ‘modern’ society as stories of child abuse and suicidal teenagers continue to dominate the newspapers.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly London Newspaper, Sunday, October 25, 1846]

‘What business do you have in kicking my boy and ill-using my wife?’ An Eastender’s challenge to a local bobby.

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Who’d be a policeman? Especially in mid Victorian London, and in the East End at that. There a policeman’s lot was most certainly not a happy one, as the song goes. In 1847 the Metropolitan Police had been established for less than 20 years and while they may have ridden out the crisis of the first decade, where allegations of corruption and drunkenness had meant that many of the early recruits had to be replaced, they were still very far from being popular or respected.

The working class resented them for interfering in their day-to-day lives and for being ‘class traitors’, while the middle classes were unhappy at having to pay for them and disliked being told what to do by an ‘inferior’. The upper classes had no more time for time for them either, having effectively lost the control they had over policing to the home office.

So pity poor PC Edward Jessop (215H) who had Thrawl Street as part of his beat in 1847. Thrawl Street was a very poor street in a very poor area, populated by the residents of low lodging houses who lived a precarious hand-by-mouth existence. Thrawl Street was to be home to several of the victims of Jack the Ripper in the 1880s but its reputation for poverty went back much longer than 1888.

On Sunday 10 October 1847 PC Jessop approached Thrawl Street proceeding as he was obliged to do, at a steady walking pace. It was half past eight in the evening and, as he later reported, he saw a group of young men playing a game of chance under a street lamp. He moved in to stop them (gambling was a misdemeanor and punishable by a fine) but as he did a lad scaled the lamp for the purpose, he believed, of turning it out and making it impossible for him to see what was going on.

He grabbed at the boy and pushed him away, the lad fell over and yelped. The gathered crowd let out a chorus of insults and threats, and suggested he might have killed the child. A man – who turned out to be the boy’s father – raced out of a nearby house and started hitting the constable, who did his best to resist. As he tried to arrest the man the boy’s mother appeared and now he was assailed on two fronts. Since she scratched his face he retaliated and hit her about the head with his truncheon.

That was the version of events that PC Jessop told the inspector back at the station when he and a colleague had managed to capture the father and mother and charge the former with assaulting a policeman. However, when the case came before Mr Hammile at Worship Street Police court an alternative story was laid out for public consumption. I doubt very much that 20 or 30 years later, when the police were more widely accepted (and the idea of the ‘criminal class’ had gained greater purchase in Victorian society) this would have played out in this way, so this case is interesting from a police history perspective.

Mr Hammile was told, by the defence’s solicitor (and this in itself is interesting because it suggests that a poor community had somehow clubbed together to defend one of its own) that the real villain was PC Jessop himself.

PC Jessop told the court that he was assailed by a crowd of up to 150 persons, many of whom were throwing stones and brickbats but he seemed to have escaped injury while the boy’s mother, Mrs Hurley had been left ‘bleeding in the arms of a neighbour’ and was still too weak to give evidence in court the next day.

Witnesses (several of them) testified that PC Jessop had been the aggressor. He had had seized the boy while he was playing with some others and had kicked him, knocked him to the floor and then hit him about the head with his open hand. This had brought Mrs Hurley out to remonstrate with the officer who had struck out at her in return. She was punched in the face, the justice was told, and later beaten with a truncheon. As she cried for help her husband arrived and demanded to know ‘what business [the constable] had to kick his boy and ill-use his wife’.

At that the policeman had attacked Patrick Hurley and the whole scene descended into a brawl. Hurley resisted arrest until another officer arrived and he went willingly with him but refused to be led by PC Jessop. A number of witnesses claimed the policeman was drunk and was staggering along his beat and leaning against the walls to steady himself. This was denied by PC Jessop and his inspector who said he was ‘perfectly sober’ and not one to take liquor. ‘He was a remarkably well-conducted young man’.

So now it was left to the magistrate to determine who was telling the truth and whom he should believe. In the end he sided with the Hurleys, which might seem surprising. He discharged Patrick Hurley on the grounds that he was provoked by PC Jessop’s attack on his son and wife. He instructed Inspector Ellis to report the matter to the police commissioners for them to investigate as they thought fit and gave Mrs Hurley leave to bring an assault charge against the constable if she wished.   PC Jessop wasn’t reprimanded but I doubt he would be so keen to return to Thrawl Street in a hurry.

By 1888 it was reported that streets like the nearby Dorset Street were so dangerous for the police that they would only patrol them in groups of four; I rather suspect that this would also apply to places like Flower & Dean and Thrawl Streets and policeman would have been more careful to at least be assured that a colleague was nearby.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, October 12, 1847]

Is it better to plead guilty to bigamy than risk prison for debt?

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It is fairly unusual to find a case about bigamy in the summary courts of the capital. Accusations that an individual was already married must have been reasonable common given the reality that working class men and women cohabited quite frequently in the 1800s, and the Old Bailey heard over 1500 trials for bigamy between 1800 and 1900. Of those close to 85% resulted in a conviction and most (515 out of 1305) took place in the last two decades of the century.

In 1846 there were 12 cases and only Robert Furness escaped a guilty verdict. You may be surprised to discover that a conviction of bigamy could earn you a sentence of transportation overseas for no less than seven years. All of the accused in 1846 were men but women could also be prosecuted.

However, as I suggested they don’t often appear in the newspaper reports unless, as in the case of Charles Brindley, they were unusual. Brindley, a Spitalfields silk manufacturer, was brought up at Worship Street Police court in September 1846 and accused of several counts of bigamy. The court was told he had no less than four wives but little detail was produced.

Brindley then confessed to marrying twice without either wife being aware of it. This should have led him to face trial but the magistrate released him, so why did do this? It seems that along with the accusation that he was a polygamist Charles Brindley was in serious debt. An officer from the Sheriff’s court was after him and he seems to have confessed to bigamy to avoid being thrown into debtor’s prison.

If that was his ruse it didn’t work; as he left the court the Sheriff’s man was waiting for him and he was led away to face his creditors. Should we feel sorry for him? It seems that he made a lot of promises he couldn’t keep, both to those he traded with and to the women he formed relationships with. In the end it all unraveled and Brindley would be ruined. So I have some (limited) sympathy.

Just two years before Brindley was arrested by the Sheriff’s man the liability that would lead you to debtor’s prison was set at £20 (a significant amount) and this went some way to saving thousands from the horror that Dickens’ experienced as a child. Following a change in the law in 1869 the number of people in debt was cut significantly but individuals could still be sent to gaol for up to six weeks (if not indefinitely any more). Even in the early twentieth century there were still close to 12,000 in prison for debt. Theoretically you can still go to prison for debt but it is thankfully highly unlikely.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, October 03, 1846]

A teenage girl gets the benefit of the doubt

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Since 1908 we have had separate courts for juvenile defendants and even before then there was a recognition that young children at least needed to be dealt with differently when they were caught up in the criminal justice system.

Today we wouldn’t think of placing a child of 13 in the dock of a magistrate’s court. Instead they would be brought before a youth court (if they are aged 10-17) and a parent or guardian would have to be present. The public are excluded from youth courts (but allowed in Magistrates’ courts) and defendants are called by their first name, and the presiding magistrates are specially trained.

The emphasis is on the welfare of the child, rather than their supposed criminality or deviant behaviour. Serious charges (murder for example) will potentially  end up before a judge and jury but nearly all other youth crime is heard in a Youth court where the legal process is more relaxed and less intimidating.

In the mid nineteenth century things were a little different. Welfare was not uppermost in the minds of the penal authorities and children were routinely imprisoned and even transported for a whole series of offences. Earlier in the century children (those aged below 16) could still end up on the gallows if they were convicted of murder, although this was extremely rare. So in 125 John Smith was hanged for burglary, he was 15; more infamously John Any Bird Bell was executed in 1831 for murdering a 13 year-old child, John was only a year older himself.

So when Anne Mabley appeared in the dock at Southwark Police court it’s no wonder she sobbed through her entire hearing. Anne was 13 and was accused of stabbing a younger child, nine year-old Richard Sparrowhall in the face.

The court was told that as Richard had passed Anne at ten that morning (the 19 September 1847) in Bermondsey she called to him. As he turned she asked him ‘how he should like to have his head cut off!’

Not surprisingly Richard replied that he wouldn’t like it, not at all!

But Anne produced a knife and tapped him on the shoulder with it. He pushed her roughly away, presumably in defence, and she stabbed him in the face. The blade cut his cheek below his eye and, very fortunately,  did little damage. Anne panicked and ran away but several witnesses saw what happened and caught hold of her.

While the lad was taken to have his wound looked at Anne was questioned by a policeman. She denied do anything and swore she had no knife but PC 159M soon found it and arrested her. He brought her straight to court as a day charge and her mother was sent for.

In between her tears Anne swore it was an accident, a joke that went wrong and said she’d been using the knife to trim her nails. The magistrate was inclined to believe and since Richard had escaped serious injury common sense prevailed and Anne was released into the care of her mother. So this story has a happy ending but on another day the 13 year-old girl could have faced a custodial sentence, of several weeks or even months, in an adult prison. The consequences of that experience may well have mentally scarred her for life, just as her attack on Richard might have scarred him physically.

[from The Standard, Monday, September 20, 1847]

‘She is a most dangerous woman, your Worship, I assure you’. A butcher’s warning at the Guildhall.

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William Brennan made a robust defence of his actions when he appeared before Alderman Lawrence at Guildhall Police court in September 1848. The City of London butcher had been summoned for detaining property belonging to Mrs Low, a ‘tall, good looking, elderly woman’ who had lived at a house in Lamb’s Passage.

Mrs Low stated for the record that eleven weeks previously she had left London to work in the country. Having been living with Brennan she told the court that he had asked her to leave behind several items of her property, including a table and chairs and a number of boxes. The butcher would be able to use them but not lend or rent them to anyone else. When she came back she took away some of her things but he refused to allow her all of them, hence the summons. The relationship between Mrs Low and the butcher was confusing and led to some amusement in the Guildhall.

Brennan denied withholding Mrs Low’s property but said she had come to lodge with him 15 months ago. She was a widow but had been ‘courting a bit’ before she took up her position outside of the capital.  He said she’d left some things in his shed and sold the rest; he denied unlawfully retaining anything.

Alderman Lawrence questioned the butcher:

how did you become acquainted with her, and what sweethearting took place between you?

Brennan was horrified.

Sweethearting with me, your worship! No, no not so bad as that , although I had enough of her [which prompted laughter in court]. I have a delicate little wife of my own, and this ere woman has frightened her out of her wits [more laughter].’

He continued:

Why, this woman lodged with me, and I couldn’t get quit of her; she would stop in my house whether I would go or no, and so to get quit of her I had to leave the house. She stole my saw, my chopper and other things, and fixed herself in my house like a post.

He again denied holding on to her property and said that in all the time she’d stayed with him and his wife she’d ‘never paid a farthing’ in rent. ‘She is a most dangerous woman, I assure your Worship’.

The gathered audience in court was probably in fits by now, delighting in Brennan’s discomfort as he revealed that he – a butcher – had been bested by a supposedly weaker older woman. The alderman couldn’t pick a winner here however and sent one of the court’s officers to investigate who owned what and whether there was any truth in the accusation leveled against the city butcher. One imagines that either way Brennan was not going to live this down anytime soon.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, September 14, 1848]

The perils of coming up to ‘the smoke’; highway robbery in the Borough

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John Roots had come to London in the late summer of 1848 to get treatment at Guy’s Hospital. The elderly labourer traveled first to Rochester (four miles form his home), where he caught a stage to London, arriving on the 22 August with 29sto his name. Arriving at the Borough, near London Bridge, he first took himself off to an inn to eat and drink. He stayed till the pub’s clock struck 6 and went off in search of lodgings, as the inn had no rooms available. At that point he had about half his money left having spent the rest on his fare, food and drink.

He was walking in the general direction of the St George’s Circus and as he sat down to rest for a while on Blackman Street, near the gates of the Mint, he met three men who hailed him.

What are you doing here? let us see what you have got about you’, one of them asked him.

Roots ignored them, and then told them to go away. They didn’t, instead they seized him and his inquisitor punched him hard in the face. The others grabbed him as he tried to recover, and rifled his pockets before running off. It was a classic south London highway robbery, and seemingly one carried out by a notorious gang of known criminals.

The Kent labourer’s cries had alerted the local police and very soon Police sergeant John Menhinick (M20) was on the scene and listened to Roots’ description of what had happened. He ran off in pursuit of the gang and managed to catch one of them and Roots later identified the man as the one that had hit him.

Appearing in court at Southwark a week later (Roots had been too sick from his injury and general ill health to attend before) the man gave his name as Edward Sweeny. Sweeny said he had nothing to do with the robbery; he was entirely innocent and had seen Roots lying on the pavement and had tried to help him, but he’d collapsed. When the policeman came up he said he’d told him to run away lest he was blamed for it, which he did.

Sergeant Menhinick dismissed this as rubbish but nothing had been found on Sweeny that could link him to the crime. All the prosecution had was Roots’ identification and given his age, his unfamiliarity with the capital, and his own admission that he’d spent two and half hours in a pub on Borough High Street (and so might have been a little the worse for ale) it wasn’t an easy case to prove.

The magistrate, Mr Cottingham, said that he’d rarely heard of ‘a more desperate robbery’ and declared he intended to commit Sweeny for trial at the Bailey. However, given the poor state of the victim’s health he said he would hold off doing so for a week so he could recover sufficiently to make his depositions.

Eventually the case did come to the Old Bailey where Sweeny was now refereed to by another name: Edward Shanox. Given the poor evidence against him it is not surprising that he was acquitted. Shanox/Sweeny was 21 years old and makes no further appearances in the records that I can see. Perhaps he was a good Samaritan after all, and not a notorious gang member.

As for Roots, he was still left penniless by the robbery and presumably unable to pay his hospital fees, so his future, as a elderly man and a stranger to ‘the smoke’, must have looked bleak.

[from The Standard, Monday, August 28, 1848]