‘Oh don’t be so hard on me,’ pleads an Irish philosopher and gentleman of the road

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I had a ‘conversation’ yesterday on social media with someone asking how he should act when homeless people ask for money in the street. Should he give money, or buy them food or a coffee, or should he simply take the time to chat to them? It is a complex question and I quite understood his dilemma; some charities (like the Salvation Army) tell us not to give money, believing it perpetuates the problem. Others suggest we should to help them get the basic necessities of life.

I’m also often told that ‘they will spend it on drink or drugs’, not that it is any of my business how they spend whatever money they have.

Homelessness, vagrancy and begging are not modern social issues, they have been with us for as long as humans have lived in societies. The ‘modern’ vagrancy laws in Britain have their roots in the Tudor period with laws to punish ‘sturdy beggars’ and the building of houses of correction to enforce them. By the Victorian period poverty was endemic and being dealt with by the Poor Law, with workhouses operating as a deterrent to the ‘work-shy’ in the belief that poverty was a personal failing, not a product of society or a capitalist economic system.

There was also limited understanding of mental health and very little state provision for those that suffered. That much is obvious form so many of the cases I’ve written about on this site. I am reluctant to say that nineteenth-century society didn’t care about the poor and homeless and mentally ill, just that it didn’t really understand them and the underlying reasons for their actions.

St. George Gregg was someone who often found himself in trouble with the authorities in the late 1830s and early 40s. He’d come up before the Police court magistrates at Queen Square on more than one occasion in 1840 and was there again in early May that year.

Gregg was an Irishman and was frequently charged for being drunk. He was about to be convicted and fined by Mr Burrell when he raised his hand and asked if he could say a few words. The justice agreed and listened.

The defendant held out a small book, offering it to the chief usher to give to the magistrate. He explained that he’d been writing a book ‘on the currency question’ and thought his worship might like a copy. Mr. Burrell wasn’t interested.

I don’t want your book. What have you to say to the charge against you?’

I walk frequently thirty miles a day’, replied Gregg, ‘That fatigues me, and if I have nothing to eat the liquor has an effect sooner. I had no dinner yesterday, in fact I had no “tin”.’

The magistrate didn’t know what he meant by ‘tin’, so asked him.

Tin is money’, the man explained, ‘and having no  money I had no dinner’.

He’d tried to sell his books for money but seemingly had no takers to he’d started to sing in the streets and that way he’d raised a few pennies which he spent on drink.

‘You might have purchased victuals with that’, Mr Burrrell remarked.

‘Oh, sure, I wasn’t victuals hungry, I was grog hungry’ Gregg shot back. ‘I was like the captivating chandler, wanted I wanted in starch, I made up in blue’, he said, warming to his theme.

So I had toddy till I had but a single copper left, then devil a bed had I, and was making my way to the church-yard to go to bed on a tombstone, when the police found me quarters’.

He added that he’d written a study of ‘ambition’ and would send the magistrate a copy.

‘I don’t want your book. You are fined 5s’ was Mr. Burrell’s response.

Gregg hadn’t got one shilling let alone five and the justice must have realised this. What was the point of fining a homeless tramp anyway? Gregg attempted to barter with the justice, offering him books that he probably hadn’t written (and certainly hadn’t ‘published’ as he’d insisted he had) as part payment of the penalty. Burrell was having none of it and ordered him to be taken away; if he couldn’t pay the fine he’d have to go to prison.

Oh don’t be so hard on me’, pleaded the Irishman, ‘I want to finish a poem’. He was led away protesting his freedom.

Society didn’t understand George Gregg. He didn’t, couldn’t or wouldn’t conform to what was expected of him. He chose to live by his wits and on his own terms. Perhaps he was a ‘popular philosopher’, who wrote tracts in notebooks or scraps of paper that nobody read. His logical response to accusations of being drunk (drinking on an empty stomach) or his choice of how to spend the money he’d earned (on drink because he was thirsty after singing and walking) would be quite reasonable if he was a ‘normal’ member of society. Because he was an outsider and had chosen to live differently to others, the law treated him as a problem. It punished him rather than helped him. I’m not entirely sure we have made much progress in the last 180 odd years.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, May 7, 1840]

‘She had no doubt the prisoner would have murdered her’: violence and crime in the St. Giles rookery

PC Baker (108G) was on duty in Buckeridge Street, St Giles in mid April 1844 when he heard a shout of ‘murder!’ In the mid nineteenth century Buckeridge Street (also known as Buckbidge) was a part of the notorious St. Giles ‘rookery’. aaa445A place full of  ‘lodging-houses for thieves, prostitutes, and cadgers’ (according to Henry Mayhew) and somewhere the New Police generally proceeded with caution.

Shouts of ‘murder’ were hardly uncommon here, and were probably often ignored (as they were in Whitechapel in the 1880s). However, PC Baker chose not to ignore this and entered the yards of number 26, following the noise he’d heard. There he found a man and a woman grappling with each other, and saw that the man had a life pressed to the woman’s throat.

Seeing the policeman the man turned and ran into the house and Baker followed as fast as he could. He could see the woman was bleeding from two cuts on her neck but the wounds weren’t too serious.

Inside he found her assailant in the apartment and immediately noticed a frying pan on the fire in which it seemed that metal was being melted. ‘You have been melting pewter pots’, PC Baker accused the man. ‘Yes, that is the way I get my living’ the other admitted. Pewter pots were frequently stolen from the numerous pubs in the capital and once melted down they were very hard to identify, so it was the normal practice of thieves to dispose of them this – turning stolen goods into saleable metal.

Looking across the dark room Baker now noticed that a woman was in bed there. At first she seemed asleep but then he realised she was merely drunk and lying in a comatose state. Her name was Bishop and the man he had caused (and arrested) was called James Robinson. Robinson was searched and the knife was found on in.

On the following day (the 16 April 1844) Robinson was up before the ‘beak’ at Clerkenwell Police court. He was charged attempted murder by the girl he’d attacker, Mary Ann Macover  ‘a well-looking, but dissipated’ nineteen year-old. She alleged that the three of them (Robinson, herself and Bishop) and been drinking before a quarrel had broken out. Robinson had dared her to drink half a pint of gin in one go and when she’d refused he abused her.

He chased her out into the yard with the knife, nearly bit off her ear in the struggle, and had it not been for the timely arrival of the policeman ‘she had no doubt the prisoner would have murdered her’. The wounds to her throat were visible to all those watching in court but I don’t get the feeling that the magistrate had that much sympathy with her or was that interested in the assault.

What was interesting to the law however was the melting down of (probably) stolen pewter pint pots. Moreover Robinson was familiar to the police and courts in the area having been previously convicted. He also went under the name of Lewis and this made it very likely that the justice, Mr Combe, would take the opportunity to lock him away.

Robinson denied the assault but it was much harder for him to explain away the pan of pewter melting on the fire. Mr Combe decide to send him to the Clerkenwell house of correction for two months at hard labour adding that he would grant Mary Ann a warrant for his arrest for the assault. This was not to be executed until he had served his full sentence however, meaning he would be rearrested as he was released from the gaol. It was then up to her to prosecute the supposed attempt on her life at the Sessions.

This seems the wrong way around for us today. The desire to punish a man for an implied property crime (the theft of pewter pint pots), instead of what seems very clearly to have been an actual violent crime (assault or attempted murder), is the opposite of what a magistrate would do now. But in 1844 assault had not been codified and the term covered a wide range of actions and was invariably prosecuted as a ‘civil’ action at the Sessions (or before a magistrate if it was less serious). It was the 1861 Offences against the Person Act that brought in the offences (such as GBH, wounding) that we are familiar with today and ushered in a less tolerant attitude towards casual violence.

St Giles was also a dreadful place with a terrible reputation for violence, crime, poverty and immorality. I doubt Mr Combe was as bothered by the violence (which he probably thought he could do nothing about) as he was by the property crime. By locking up Robinson for a couple of months, and putting him on notice thereafter, he at least took one thief off the streets  for a while and gave the local landlords some relief from the loss of their drinking vessels.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, April 17, 1844]

The unwanted dinner guest

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Let’s not beat about the bush, James Bull was an alcoholic. In 1840 the papers referred to him as ‘dissipated’ by they meant that he was a drunk. Bull was, technically at least, a married man with an eleven year old child, but he had separated from his wife some time ago.

Mrs Bull was a ‘woman of steady and trustworthy principles’ and whether she had thrown him out or he had simply left isn’t clear. What is evident is that James was on his uppers; out of money he needed to rely on his long suffering wife to support him. She worked as a domestic servant in the Earl of Darlington’s London home at Upper Brook Street.

James was in the habit of visiting his estranged spouse and demanding money with menaces. He had developed a strategy of calling when he knew the house had guests for dinner, forcing his way into the kitchens and threatening to prevent her from overseeing the dinner service.

This would not only have been an embarrassment to Mrs Bull, it could have put her employment in jeopardy. In mid April 1840 James went too far, and caused a disturbance at the house which was brought to the attention of the Earl (or the head of his household staff at least). James Bull was arrested and taken before the magistrate at Marlborough Street Police court on a charge of creating a disturbance.

Mrs Bull told the justice, Mr Long, that she allowed her husband six shillings a week from her wages but it was ‘quite impossible’ for her to do more for him. She had her child to look after and James was perfectly capable of finding work. He was ‘strong, able-bodied , and capable, if so disposed, of keeping himself’.

In his defence James said he was ‘without money, and he had not tasted food for some time’ which was why he’d visited his wife at her work.

After all, he added, he ‘had a right to’ ask her for help.

That was as maybe but he had no right to abuse her, or impact her work and endanger her employment. And things were worse than this the court discovered. Mr Long pressed her and she admitted that in the past few weeks James had threatened and assaulted her.  Having ‘elicited’  this information from Mrs Bull the magistrate decided to intervene in this domestic squabble. He committed James to the Sessions where he would have to answer for his actions, and find bail in the meantime to avoid being remanded in prison.

It was a serious message to James to leave his wife alone and accept the small amount of charity she had volunteered. It was also an injunction to him to give up his ‘dissipated’ lifestyle and find honest work. If not he could expect to be seeing the inside of many more police and prison cells in the future and could kiss goodbye to seeing his wife and child ever again.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, April 16, 1840]

Huge numbers of special constables are sworn in London. Why?

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We all love a mystery don’t we? When you dip into a newspaper that was published 170 years ago sometimes things just don’t make sense on their own. Take this report from April 1848 at Marlborough Street Police court for example. The report is headed ‘Special Constables’ and starts by declaring that:

‘The swearing in of special constables continued throughout the day, without intermission, in consequence of the large numbers of persons of all ranks that presented themselves at this court’.

Historically special constables were sworn in to police particular events (notably public executions) or at a time of crisis (during riots for example). The practice both preceded the introduction of the New Police in 1829 and continued afterwards. You can still serve as a ‘special’ today so long as you can give four hours of voluntary service a week.

In April 1848 the press reported that hundreds of men had come forward in London to swell the ranks of the professionals: ‘There could not have been fewer than twelve or fourteen special constables sworn in yesterday’ the The Morning Post noted. Men were joining en masse from businesses that employed large numbers – not unlike the ‘Pals’ battalions later raised during the First World War.

‘Messers. Cottam and Hallam’s men, to the number one hundred, were sworn in. About 120 men in the employ of Messers. Dowbiggin, the upholsterers, were also sworn in; and Mr. Lumley, the lessee of the Opera, furnished 63 able men’.

But it was not just the working men of London that were signing up in their droves to represent their communities and employers, ‘men of rank’ were also volunteering for action.

‘Lord Colchester, Lord Wharncliffe, Lord Cawdor, Lord Sondes, the Marquis of Blandford, B. Neville Esquire, Sir Moses Montefiore, Mr. Fox Maule, the Hon. F. Baring, Colonle Sir E. Cust, Colonel C. Hutchinson, Hon. C. Hardinge, Colonel Wood, Henry Agar, A.E. Lockhart MP, etc..’ all signed up.

A tradesmen approached the sitting magistrate at Marlborough Street with a query. He said he had men who were keen to serve but were concerned that they would not, as he believed was the principle of specials, be used to support policing in their own community, but instead be deployed elsewhere. Mr Bingham thought to reassure him:

‘It was perfectly well understood’ he said, ‘that special constables were for the protection of their own immediate neighbourhood only, and so long as they assisted to preserve the peace of their own locality, they need be under no apprehension of being called elsewhere’.

This calmed the tradesman who said he now suspected many more of his employees would be presenting themselves at the court in due course. The paper reported that Mr Bingham would now sit in tandem with his colleague Mr Hardwick tomorrow, so they could get through the numbers of men wishing to be sworn.

Nowhere, however, does it explain why so many specials were being called for or were volunteering. For this you need to know your history, particularly the political history of Britain in the mid 1800s. 1848 has been described as the ‘year of revolutions’ because of events in Paris, Sicily, Germany, the Habsburg Empire and elsewhere. Everywhere the desire for liberal democracy clashed with autocracy and in Britain, a nation more ‘democratic’ than some, we had our own taste of a popular movement for change: Chartism.

This is not the place for a careful analysis of Chartism but it was both a democratic movement and a revolutionary one. The Chartists wanted to extend the vote to all men, by secret ballot, and the abolition of the property qualification that effectively excluded all but the wealthy from standing for parliament. Indeed of the six demands they made only the call for annual elections has come into being. At the time however, these were radical demands and while Lord Russell (the sitting Prime Minister) was sympathetic to an increase in the franchise Britain wasn’t ready for one-man-one-vote (and wouldn’t be until 1918).

Chartists were split internally, between those that believed change had to come from persuasion and rhetoric and those that agitated for direct action to force change. The most extreme example of this would be the Newport Rising in November 1839 the failure of which which led to arrests and the transportation of the ringleaders to Australia. By 1848 Chartism was on its last legs but one of its leaders, Feargus O’Connor, decided that the best way to achieve their aims was by a combination of public demonstrations and a petition to Parliament.
He called a mass meeting of Chartists at Kennington Common, south of the river Thames, to rally his supporters and then a march to Parliament to present the petition. It echoed the events of 1780 when Lord George Gordon summoned his rag bag of anti-Catholic protestors to the Common to rail against attempts to repeal anti-Catholic legislation. In the end his supporters ran riot for a week burning down several prominent buildings (including Newgate Gaol) and attacking the Bank of England.

This may have been in the minds of the government and public in 1848 (as would Newport of course) and a call went out for volunteer constables. Lord Russell pleaded with O’Connor not to address the rally and agitate the crowd, nor to march on Parliament. He also arranged for 8,000 troops to be on hand and 150,000 special constables.

chartistsThe meeting went ahead on the 10 April 1848 without trouble, the Chartists claimed 300,000 turned up by other estimates put the numbers at a more conservation 20,000 – 50,000. O’Connor also claimed he had gathered over 5,000,000 signatures but in reality the petition contained just 1,975, 496 many of which were fake.

 

The whole thing did little for the cause and Chartism died a death after that.

So now we know why there were so many men signing up to be specials in April 1848, but without this little bit of historical knowledge (which I remember studying as a schoolboy) nothing in this newspaper report would make sense.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, April 08, 1848]

A practised finger-smith on Hungerford Bridge

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I.K. Brunel’s Hungerford Suspension Bridge, which opened in 1845

Samuel Hughes was operating the toll on the Hungerford suspension bridge when he saw a young woman running towards his booth. As she came closer she slowed her run, and walked slowly past him. Hughes was stationed on the Surrey side of the bridge and it was about half past one in the morning of the 29 March 1849, and he had been in the middle of a conversation with another – unnamed -man.

About five minutes earlier a drunk had staggered past his gate, making for the Middlesex (north) side of the bridge. Hughes gave the man more than the usual cursory glance simply because he appeared to be so drunk. He was able to state later that the man was properly dressed, and there was a scarf around his neck.

Soon after the woman left the bridge in the direction of Southwark, south London, the tollbooth keeper heard the heavy steps of a man trying to run towards him. The drunk he’d seen earlier now loomed into view but he was clearly struggling to hold his trousers up as he approached.

There had been a spate of robberies on and around the bridge in recent weeks and, putting two and two together, Hughes urged his companion to follow the young woman whom he believed might have just robbed the drunken man who stumbled after her. A pursuit was then joined but it was police constable Thomas Crosby (189L) that made the arrest.

He was on his beat in Salton Road when he saw a woman running from Belvedere Road (which ran parallel with the river) with a gentleman chasing her. He shouted out ‘stop her!’ and as she darted into Howley Street he grabbed her and took her into custody. Another officer, PC Bradley, found a scarf and purse in the street where the woman was apprehended.

The woman’s name was Ann Philips and she was well known to the police and magistracy as a local prostitute. At Lambeth Police Court she was charged with robbing a man on the Hungerford bridge. Her alleged victim was John Brookes, a blacksmith from Paddington who deposed that he was walking over the bridge that morning, heading north.

He said he’d not got far when he met the prisoner.

‘She stopped and talked to him for two or three minutes, when she left, and in a moment afterwards he missed his scarf from his neck. He also missed his watch, guard, and purse, and discovered that his waistcoat was unbuttoned and his braces cut’.

She had worked fast as only a practised finger-smith could.

Ann denied it, offering an alternative version of events where she was approached by a very drunk man on the bridge whose clothes were already in a state of disarray. She was scared by him and ran away.

It was hardly a creditable response and the magistrate (the Hon. G. C. Horton) believed not a word of it and sent her for trial for the robbery. The paper reported that several similar robberies had been committed on the bridge recently and were thought to be the work of a man and woman acting together.

‘As soon as they are accomplished’ the report continued, ‘one of the thieves starts for Middlesex and the other for the Surrey side’, making the pursuit that much harder.

Having an accomplice also made it much easier to dispose of the stolen loot so that nothing was found if one of the pair was arrested. So it was with Ann, as nothing was found on her person, just the scarf and empty purse abandoned in the street.

Ann may have gone to the Surrey Assizes for this offence but I’m interested to find that another woman named Ann Phillips turning up at Old Bailey two years later for a very similar theft. This time the crime was committed in Freeman’s Passage, near Honey Lane in the City and a watch was stolen when a man stopped to speak to a woman.

If Ann ranged as far as Hungerford Bridge (between Westminster Bridge and Waterloo) its not too much of a leap to imagine that she could have looked for trade in the City at times. In 1851 Ann was 23 which would make her about 21 in 1849, an typical age for a young prostitute/thief in mid Victorian London. The judge sent her to gaol for six months and one imagines that this wasn’t her last brush with the law.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, April 6, 1849]

Two urchins and a strumpet; three different fates.

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In March 1842 two teenagers were set in the dock at Lambeth Street Police Court before the sitting magistrate Mr Henry. The pair, John Pierse (16) and John Hawes (14), were charged with burgling a house north of the river, in Goodman’s Fields. The evidence against them was provided by another ‘young urchin’ who wasn’t named in court. Their hearing was quickly followed by that of a young girl who was accused of receiving the property the had stolen.

Frederick Edwards was a printer and bookseller who lived on Leman Street, near Whitechapel. In 1888 Leman Street was the headquarters of H Division from which the investigation into the ‘Ripper’ murders was conducted. In 1842 that station was yet to be built and the Metropolitan police still lacked a detective branch (that would come later in the year). H Division were probably using an old watch house at 26 Leman Street in 1842 as their first purpose-built station (at 37-39) was not completed until 1847.

Between 2 and 3 in the morning of Thursday 3 March the young thieves broke into Mr Edwards’ property though a window and stole as much as they could. They boasted of their exploits to one of their young friends and ultimately that was to prove their downfall. This star witness told Mr Henry that:

‘they ransacked both parlours, and carried away all the portable property they could’. This included silver cutlery, candlesticks and plate as well as clothes. The lads then took their bounty to a field near Limehouse Church and buried it.

On Friday they returned to the scene and dug up the silver before handing it over to Mary Davis who pawned it for them. Later that evening the two Johns, Mary, and the ‘urchin who gave evidence against them’ all enjoyed ‘ gorge of roast-pork, plum-pudding, and ale, at a beer-shop’ before heading off to the Victoria Theatre for an evening of light entertainment.

Mr Henry asked the boy (whose name we later discover to have been Joseph Mason) what the trio had done next. He was told that they had walked back over London Bridge together but then separated; Pierse and Mason found digs in Wentworth Street while Hawes (also known as ‘greeny’ – perhaps because of his youth?) and Mary went off to sleep together somewhere. The magistrate was as outraged by this piece of information as he was by the theft itself. Hates was just 14 years old and Mary 18 and the notion that they had been sleeping together was ‘scandalous’ he said.

It took the police, in the person of PC Argent (H126), the best part of  week to track them down. He found the pair in a lodging house in Elder Street, Spitalfields in a room shared by five other men and two women. He added that Pierse, on the day following the robbery, had escaped from the police who had tracked him to a house on Essex Street, Whitechapel, where a gun had been found. For such a young criminal John Pierse was developing quite the reputation.

Mr Henry remanded the boys for further enquiries and now it was Mary’s turn to be examined.

She was described as a ‘strumpet’ and a ‘little prostitute’ by the court reporter. It was alleged that she had pledged several items of plate, knowing them to have been stolen. Mary admitted taking the items to the pawnbrokers for her friends but denied all knowledge of them being stolen. The magistrate clearly didn’t believe her so remanded her for a week as well.

The case came up at the Old Bailey on the 4 April and Hawes (who gave his age there as 12) pleaded guilty and was recommend to mercy by the prosecutor. The judge sentenced him to be sent to prison for a year. Davis (now determined as 17 years of age) and Pierse (or Pearce) were convicted after a short trial and sentenced to be transported to Australia for seven years.

Mary (or Maria) arrived in Van Dieman’s land on the 24 September 1842. She’d had a troubled journey, falling sick on the transport ship the Royal Admiral. In March 1844 she applied for permission to marry and so we might hope she made a new life for herself ‘down under’. It is less clear what happened to Pearce.

As for John (or William) Hawes he stayed in England following his period of imprisonment and doesn’t seem to have trouble the law thereafter. Tracing lives isn’t an exact science but the Digital Panopticon project suggests that William made it to old age, dying in 1907 at the age of 77.

So here we have three young lives caught up in crime as part of a strategy of survival in mid-Victorian London; it is worthy of a Dickens sub-plot. Who knows what happened to Pearce or indeed to Mason. Dod the latter stay out of trouble or get sucked back into a life of crime having avoided incarceration by grassing up his fellow diners? Did Mary really make it in Australia as we now know that some did? The colony was largely created by individuals such as her who cared out a new existence on the other side of the world. Perhaps John Pearce kept his nose clean in Van Dieman’s Land and didn’t trouble the record keepers thereafter. If he served his time and earned his ticket of leave he too might have enjoyed a new life away from the squalid slums of his native Whitechapel.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, March 10, 1842]

‘We will have Bread!’ is the cry from Wandsworth

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Richard Davey, John Young and William Cornish had entered the Wandsworth Union workhouse in February in search of food and shelter. Unfortunately for them this didn’t amount to much and came at a price. Having been given a very basic subsistence breakfast (as was normal for those visiting the casual ward) they were expected to pay for their keep by undertaking some menial work.

The three refused and considered the meal (of ‘six ounces of bread and cheese’) insufficient and were discharged from the workhouse along with nine other men, all of who seemingly ungrateful for the ‘help’ they’d received.

The trio made their way along Wandsworth High Street and entered a baker’s run by James Plummridge. Davey asked for some bread as he and his friends were starving. The assistant, James’ wife Susannah, refused; she must have realised they were paupers and therefore unlikely to have the funds to buy her stock. Moreover, she and her husband ran a business, not a charity.

Davey was undeterred however, and grabbed a half-quarter loaf and ripped into three pieces, handing two to Cornish and Young. They quickly left the shop with Mr Plummridge in hot pursuit.

He followed them until he saw a police constable and then had them arrested and taken to the nearest station house. There they were locked up and brought before Mr Paynter at Wandsworth Police Court in the morning.

They were poor, dishevelled and out of work. Davey had pinched a loaf of bread because they were hungry. Nevertheless they had not only committed a theft they had wilfully abused the rules  the New Poor Law (passed 12 years previously). The magistrate could have dealt with this summarily and locked them up for a week or so. Instead he chose to

make an example of them and sent them for trial at the Old Bailey. There, on the 23 February, Davey was convicted and others found not guilty. The judge handed Davey a sentence of one month’s imprisonment. He and his fellows had already served 10 days inside and so Davey may have spent nearly six weeks locked up for the offence of stealing a loaf of bread.

Life could be tough in the 1840s.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, February 13, 1846]