Street gambling and the law in 1850s London

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The nature of the law is at the centre of discussions this morning. Yesterday judges sitting in the highest court in the land – the Supreme Court – ruled that the highest political figure in the country (the Prime Minister) had acted unlawfully (illegally) in proroguing Parliament. The proroguing was declared null and void  and parliament will reconvene this morning at 11.30 to hold the executive to account.

This – despite what some newspaper editorials and unhappy government representatives might say – is democracy in action. We are not a dictatorship, and no one is above the law. This means that the law protects us – the people – from misrule by those that govern us.

This may be a frustration to the small majority of voters who voted to leave the European Union in 2016 but I hope they will recognize that the alternative – giving the executive carte blanche to ride rough-shod over parliamentary sovereignty – would have set an extremely dangerous precedent for the future. Many people voted to be free of the constraints of rule from Brussels (however misguided that might have been) I’m not sure they voted to ‘take back control’ only to surrender it to a modern day Hitler or Stalin.

This blog is concerned not with the highest court of the land but with some of the lowest. The Police Magistrates courts of Victorian London tended to deal with the more trivial problems of daily life in the capital. But here too law was important and central, and its application was supposed to be given without fear or favour, regardless of class.

In 1857 two justices sat in judgment on a man accused of organizing gambling in public. This was an unusual case; in part because two City magistrates were present but also because they quite clearly disagreed with each other.

Davis was arrested by City constable 325 for obstructing the footway at Bride Lane. Davis was with two other men and when the officer searched him he found betting books and £5 17sin coin on him. The case turned then on whether Davis (or the other men) were using the books and actually taking bets at the time. It was established that he wasn’t so the question arose of why the constable had arrested him. Alderman Copeland thought it a ‘monstrous interference with the liberty of the subject’ that the policeman  had arrested a ‘gentleman’ for doing nothing illegal at all.

He went on to say that not far away the officer might have found persons selling goods on the street and trading illegally by the Stock Exchange, yet they were not being arrested.  Abraham Davis had been stopped, moved on, and searched on several occasions by the same City policeman and alderman Copeland was clearly implying that the constable was enforcing the law selectively, and with bias.

Alderman Hale took a different view. He noted that gambling was a problem. It led to idleness, to debt, and to crime as well as causing large crowds to gather and block the streets. There were laws against it and he was determined to enforce them regardless of the class of individual brought in front of him.

Alderman Copeland agreed that gambling was a public nuisance but argued as well that other infringements of the law – such as the illegal trade in tallow (carried out just yards from where Davis was arrested, and ignored by the police) must also be prosecuted. He also felt that having a betting book in one’s possession was not the same thing as organizing illegal gambling and he clearly felt that the policeman had overstepped by searching a gentleman’s pockets on the street.

In the end alderman Hale agreed that while the officer was within his rights to attempt to suppress the ‘evil’ of street gambling Abraham Davis had not been found to be doing anything illegal. Under the law he was innocent and so he discharged him. The law was, even at this level, supposed to be applied  fairly and it seems that this is what the officer had been doing. Had he brought in some working class men for illegal trading I wonder whether alderman Copeland would have tried to defend them as vociferously as he attempted to defend a ‘gentleman’?

[from The Morning Post, Friday, September 25, 1857]

A ‘very hard and cruel case’ as a mother nearly loses everything

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The very last case heard at Guildhall Police court on 19 September 1864 was a tragic one, and one that might have been written by the capital’s greatest narrator, Charles Dickens.

Mrs Samuel Smith came to ask the magistrate’s help in a dispute she was having with a firm of ship owners. In January she had placed an advert in the newspapers looking for an apprenticeship for her son, who ‘wanted to go to sea’. A Mr Edward West, who ran a company of shipbuilders and said he knew a firm that was prepared to take on young master Smith, for a fee, answered that advert.

The fee (or premium) he required was quite high at £20 and more than Mrs Smith could afford in one go. Her husband was an invalid and unable to work so the family’s funds were limited. Nevertheless she offered to pay in two instalments and Lang & Co. (West’s firm) said they would accept £11 up front with £10 in the form of a ‘note of hand’ (an obligation to pay later in other words).

This was all agreed and the lad left London and sailed off to start his new life and career with the firm of Powell & Co, shipowners, where Mr. West had secured an apprenticeship for him.

Then tragedy struck. The ship ran into a storm and was wrecked with the loss of everyone on board, including Mrs Smith’s boy.

This was not the end of her troubles however; Mr West (or rather Powell & Co.) still demanded the balance of the premium, and had signaled their intention to sue Mrs Smith for it. Thus, she had come to the Guildhall to ask for advice.

Alderman Hale sent for Mr West who explained that the issue was between Mrs Smith and Mr Powell, he was simply an intermediary in all of this. He had brokered the deal, so Powell owed him the money, and Mrs Smith owed Powell. He wasn’t budging despite agreeing with the alderman declaring that it was ‘ a most harsh and cruel proceeding’.

Mrs Smith said she was prepared to pay the £10 she owed but not the costs that had subsequently been incurred by the issuing of a writ. She was in danger of losing her furniture and other possession as the debt mounted and the bailiffs circled. She needed this to end here before her debts spiraled.  The magistrate thought this fair and said she had suffered enough, it was, he added, a ‘very hard and cruel case’. This probably forced West to accept the woman’s offer and the money was paid there and then.

This case was harsh and cruel and quite Dickensian. I can quite imagine the great story teller sitting in court and creating a pen portrait of the avaricious Mr West and pale and weeping figure of Mrs Smith.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, September 20, 1864]

Two lads are charged ‘with getting an honest living’ as the press attack the police.

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The City of London’s Green Yard

Victorian newspapers did not use headlines as we know them today but quite often they deployed a sort of headline at the start of an article. I think we can see the development of the modern headline here, aimed at catching the attention of the reader and giving a sense of what the article was about.

On the 10 July 1858 one of the entries under the coverage of the Metropolitan Police Courts news declared:

HOW WE ENOURAGE INDUSTRY!

What followed was a direct criticism of a new police policy, which the writer clearly believed did exactly the opposite.

Michael Welsh and Morris Haven were two young entrepreneurs  (or at least that is how The Morning Chronicle’s reporter viewed them. They had bought a quantity of cherries and had been selling them from a barrow in the streets around the Guildhall in the old City of London.

They were not alone in this, several independent hawkers were operating throughout the area selling fresh fruit as it was now in season. They drew large crowds, particularly of young boys, who ‘swarmed round’ the barrows, ‘each eager to invest his halfpence in cherries’.

Buying from a coster’s barrow was popular, and some people who seldom visited fruiterers did stop and buy from a barrow. It was cheaper and more convenient and the City magistracy thought this a ‘good thing’. Sadly it seems the police did not.

New regulations had been put into force regarding street sellers and the City Police seems to have decided that anyone selling goods from a barrow constituted an obstruction that had to be removed. As a consequence the paper reported:

great numbers of fruit sellers have been brought up on the same frivolous pretext. Alderman Hale discharged several so charged during the last few days, and remarked that it was a pity the police did not show a little more indulgence to persons earning a reputable loving, particularly as the fruit season would not last long’.

Sitting in judgement on Welsh and Haven, Alderman Gabriel broadly agreed with his colleague’s actions earlier in the week but he wanted to uphold the law at the law time. After all he agreed, ‘the streets must be kept clear’. He told the young businessmen he would let them off on this occasion but they must refrain from breaking the regulations in future or he would punish them.

They didn’t get away scot-free however; their barrows had been impounded by the police and they had to pay 2s 6deach to liberate them from the Green Yard at Whitecross Street (where all stray animals and vehicles had been taken by the police and their predecessors for centuries).

[from The Morning Chronicle, Saturday, July 10, 1858]