The menace of fireworks (a lesson from the past?)

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Bonfire night is upon us again and, despite the ongoing pandemic, dusk is ushered in by the sound of fireworks as it has been for the last few weeks.

This means that my social media feed is also full of people complaining about fireworks: children and young adults throwing them, pets being distressed by them, and our peace being shattered by them. But before we get carried away by thinking that this is in any way a modern problem, let me assure you that we’ve been complaining about fireworks for well over 150 years.

In 1846, for example, the London Daily News reported a case from the Edmonton Petty Sessions under the headline: ‘A caution to dealers in fireworks’.

Mary Emmune was summoned to court to explain why she had sold ‘a quantity of catherine wheels, squibs, etc.’ to a child. She faced a penalty of £5, which seems quite lenient but was the equivalent of around £300 today. Despite having a solicitor to represent her the bench still levied the full amount.

In doing this the chair (the magistrate in charge on the day) was probably mindful of his own experience of Guy Fawkes night that year. He told the dealer’s lawyer that his own horse had ‘nearly run away with him’ in fright at all the explosions around him, and that one of his friend’s animals had been ‘severely injured in consequence of fireworks’.

This is clear echo through time of the distress caused by loud bangs and flashes to our pets and work animals. In the past of course horses were ubiquitous in Victorian society. Pretty much everything we rely on motorised transport for (commuting, goods delivery, public transport) was provided by horse power in the 1800s.

So there was plenty of risk of animals being ‘spooked’ by fireworks (either those just ‘going off’ and those more mischievously thrown by youths. Youths were not allowed to be sold fireworks (which is why Mrs Emmune was prosecuted) and that is the case today. It is illegal to sell them to under 18s and it is against the law for anyone under 18 to be in possession of a firework in a public space.

In the following year there was tragedy in Exeter when an eighteen year-old apprentice was killed when two rockets exploded in his trouser pockets. The coroner’s jury returned a verdict of ‘accidental death’ with a strong recommendation ‘against the use of fireworks being permitted by the authorities’.

The same paper also reported that a curate and his assistant were prosecuted in Topsham, Devon, for ‘rolling lighted tea-barrels through the streets’, despite this practice having been banned by local magistrates. The Rev. Cooke was fined £2 plus expenses.

The same problems continue to blight Guy Fawkes today of course. Fatalities are rare but they do happen, but between 2000-2005 (the last year that statistics were taken) an average of 1,650 people a year were bring injured by fireworks.

Two more fatalities in 1851 were the result of illegal firework manufacture in the Clerkenwell, London. William Phillips and James Prickett (both in their late teens) died at St Bartholomew’s hospital in early November of wounds sustained when testing fireworks they were making. The other man involved was ‘dangerously ill’ and so evidence was scarce but it seems the trio were employed by a chemist named Thomas Herring in Aldersgate Street. Unbeknown to Herring the lads were making fireworks ‘solely for the amusement of themselves’.

‘They had made a lot of squibs’, the court was told, ‘but they would not go off properly’. As they tried again one ended up in the fire, popped out of the grate and set off others. There was an explosion which blew out the windows, and a fire engulfed the premises, leaving all three lads severely burned.  The coroner concluded that the house might have exploded, taking down the nearby properties. He added that manufacturing fireworks was illegal, because it was deemed a ‘nuisance’ by law.

Your opinion on fireworks will probably be influenced by your age, where you live, and whether you have pets. I like displays but clearly that is problematic at the moment, especially as this year’s Bonfire Night marks the start of a new month long lockdown. In almost any other context they are nuisance at best. But, given that, as  history tells us, this is an issue with deep roots, I doubt we are going to solve it until retailers are banned form selling fireworks completely (or choose to refrain from doing so independently).

So whatever you do do, do it safely and with regard for the people (and animals) you live close to.

[From Daily News, Friday 13 November 1846; Examiner, Saturday 27 November 1847; Morning Chronicle, Thursday 6 November 1851).  

Echoes of Oliver Twist as an Islington apprentice complains of being abused

Noah Claypole from Oliver Twist

By the mid 1840s the Victorian reading public were familiar with the work of Charles Dickens and his stories of everyday life. Between 1837 (when the young Queen Victoria ascended the throne) and 1839 Bentley’s Miscellany serialised the adventures of Oliver Twist as he escaped from the home of the Sowerberrys and the abuse he’d suffered at the hands of Noah Claypole and Charlotte, the serving maid.

Of course that escape was short lived as Oliver was plunged into the criminal underworld of the metropolis and the lives and crimes of Fagin and his gang of pickpockets. Happily of course ‘all’s well that ends well’, and Oliver finds redemption and peace in the home of Mr Brownlow, even if the plot does have a few more twists and turns along the way.

Oliver was a parish apprentice. He was placed first with a chimney sweep and then with Mr Sowerberry (an undertaker) as a way to get him out of the workhouse and off the parish books. Apprenticeship was not as popular as it had been 100 years earlier but it was still seen as a route to a respectable trade and steady income. Young people were apprenticed in their teens and learned a skill from their master before leaving to set up as journeyman in their early 20s.

The system was open to abuse of course; Dickens was not making up the characters of Noah and Charlotte, or Gamfield the brutish sweep. These sorts of individuals existed, even if Dickens exaggerated them for dramatic or comic effect. In the 1700s in London apprentices who felt aggrieved could take their complaints (or not being trained, being exalted, or even abused) to the Chamberlain of London in his court at Guildhall. Failing that they might seek advice and mediation from a magistrate.

Both sides approached the Chamberlain and magistrate in the Georgian period and apprentices were released from their contracts or admonished in equal measure. For a master the courts were often a useful way to discipline unruly teenagers who simply refused to obey their ‘betters’.  However, other masters resorted to physical chastisement in their attempts to discipline their disobedient charges.

Sometimes this went too far, as in this case that reached the Police Court magistrate at Clerkenwell.

Joseph Mitchely was a parish apprentice, just like the fictional Oliver. He was aged 14 or 15 and had been bound to an Islington  ‘master frame maker and french polisher’ named Wilton. In early November he had complained to the court that Henry Wilton was beating him unfairly and the magistrate ordered an investigation to be made. He called in the parish authorities (in the person of Mr Hicks) who made some enquiries into the case.

Having completed his investigation Mr Hicks reported back to Mr Tyrwhitt, the sitting justice at Clerkenwell. He declared that the boy had exaggerated the extent of the ‘abuse’ he’d supposedly suffered and was now apologetic. Apparently, young Joseph now ‘begged his master’s forgiveness’.

Mr Tyrwhitt discharged the master frame maker and told the boy to return with him and make his peace. He added that in it might be better if any further disputes between them were brought before him or one of his fellow magistrates, and suggested that Mr Wilton avoid ‘moderate correction’ in future. Hopefully both parties had learnt a valuable lesson   and were able to move forward in what was a crucial relationship (for Joseph at least).

[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, November 21, 1848]

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]

Hard choices for an unmarried mother in Spitalfields

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Spitalfields (in the early 20th century) by the photographer C. A. Matthew 

Sophia Higgins, the wife of a chemist in Spicer Street, Spitalfields was making her way home at 11 at night when something caught her attention.  She was crossing the market when she heard what she thought was a baby crying.

Moving towards the sound she soon discovered an infant ‘lying on the pavement, wrapped in a piece of blanket’. Horrified she stopped it up, went to find a person nearby to care for it, and then rushed off to the nearest police station.

The police arrived and collected the child, taking it to the Whitechapel workhouse to make enquiries there. Having established from the porter who they thought the mother was, another officer was despatched to find her and arrest her.

Eventually Ellen Lehain was identified as the child’s mother and questioned by the police before being summoned before the magistrate at Worship Street Police Court in October 1853. A witness, Ann Buskin (described as an ‘unmarred female’) said she had lodged with Ellen at a property in Holborn and testified that she had recently given birth to an illegitimate child.

Ann explained that her fellow lodger had ‘nursed it for a few weeks, when she left there to go into the union house’ (meaning the local workhouse for the poor).

The child was produced in court and  Ellen admitted it was hers. When the policeman had asked her what she had done with it she had told him she’d left the baby at the door of the workhouse. So how did it come to be in the middle of Spitalfields market the court wanted to know?

Ellen’s response to this question is not recorded.

In her defence the girl simply pleaded poverty and distress as the reason for abandoning her new born baby. Mr D’Eyncourt sent her to the house of correction for three months, the fate of her child was not something the newspaper reporters seems to have thought important enough to write down. Perhaps it was obvious: the child would become another mouth for the parish union to feed, until at least he or she could be apprenticed out into service.

No one seemed to be in the least bit interested in the fate of its mother, who must have been in considerable distress to give up a child she had been caring for for several weeks.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, October 14, 1853]

The ‘tyranny of Trades unions’ causes a short sighted appointment.

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I was drawn to this headline in the Standard for late October 1897, which referred to a case before the magistrate at Worship Street in the East End of London. It concerned a glass beveller called Mr Bacon who had summoned his apprentice to appear in court.

In the course of my PhD research I found that London masters frequently brought their apprentices to court (or indeed were summoned by them to appear themselves) but at the Chamberlain’s not, not Mansion House or Guildhall. There all sorts of disputes were heard and resolved, usually touching on the disobedience of apprentices or failure of masters to teach their charges their arts.

Elsewhere in England disputes between masters and apprentices (and masters and servants) were often settled in front of a magistrate, and so this one was in line with what we know from previous research from an earlier period.

Mr Bacon had come to complain that his apprentice was entirely unfit to learn the trade of glass beveling because, to quote:

‘Apart from the apprentice being exceedingly troublesome and unruly’ […] ‘he was near-sighted, and consequently couldn’t be put to work the machinery or the larger tools, which were dangerous’.

Clearly then there was a problem but how was it that Bacon had just found this out Mr Corser (the sitting justice) wanted to know?

Well that was because of the unions the glass worker explained. In order to be allowed to start work in the shop the lad had to be formally apprenticed (in other words, to have his indentures signed). The unions refused to allow their men to work with non-indentured boys and threatened to go on strike if this was not complied with. Indeed they had already struck when an apprenticed  boy  had been set on one of the beveling machines.

So ‘the lad in this case was no good to him’ (and I suspect his attitude was something that Bacon was not prepared to cope with either). If he kept him on his poor sight would inevitably lead to accidents and he (Bacon) would be liable for compensation. As a result the magistrate had no choice but to cancel the youngster’s indentures and hope he found gainful employment somewhere else.

[from The Standard, Monday, October 25, 1897]

‘I don’t give a damn who drinks here, so long as they spend plenty of money’.

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Hungerford Stairs, c.1822

1830 was the first full year that the Metropolitan Police patrolled the streets of the capital. They received a mixed reception and often concentrated on the sorts of offences that were easy to clear up, as this made it easier to justify the ratepayers’ expense in paying for them. This involved policing street crime (pickpockets, shoplifters, robberies) as well as moving on traders, vagrants and beggars, drunks and gamblers, and keeping an eye on licensed  premises (pubs and beer shops for example) to ensure they were were training out of hours or illegally.

Sometimes they took proactive action, watching public houses and even donning plain clothes to catch out unsuspecting landlords; on other occasions they relied on tips off from the public or informers, or simply reacted to complaints.

In May 1830 a Thames waterman had lost his apprentice. The lad had gone out and not come back but the master had a pretty good idea where to look. He made his way over, at three in the morning, to the Cannon public house, by Hungerford Stairs. There he found his apprentices and another boy ‘playing at cards, and in a state of intoxication’.

He collared them, dragged them home and, on the next day, brought them before Mr Minshull the Police magistrate at Bow Street.

The waterman said that the Cannon was notorious for being open all night but when he’d companied to the landlord there about allowing the two apprentices to drink and gamble he’d got short shrift.

The landlord said he ‘did not care a d____ who came to his house so long as they spent plenty of money‘.

The magistrate told the boys the off and warned them to behave in the future, and then discharged them into the care of the two watermen they were apprenticed too. If they hadn’t been disciplined already  they could expect a thrashing when they got home. As for the landlord well Mr Minshull was determined he wouldn’t escape the law and so he instructed the New Police to investigate. It was against the terms of the Police Act for the landlord to suffer ‘card playing and other prohibited games’ in his house and he could expect the ‘heaviest penalty’ if prosecuted.

Following this the superintendent of police appeared to request and receive permission to prosecute seven similar establishments for breaches of their licenses. They could all expect large fines and regular visits from the police.

Not surprisingly then the relationship between the police and the landlords of the city got off to a bad start from the New Police’s inception  and didn’t improve much thereafter. Some police could be bribed to turn a blind eye, others probably thought there were bigger fish to fry and found pubs a useful source of information. Others were incorruptible. Either way, pubs were ‘easy pickings’ for a new police force determined to prove its value to the community it served.

[From The Morning Post, Wednesday, May 05, 1830]

Echoes of Oliver Twist as an Islington apprentice complains of being abused

Noah Claypole from Oliver Twist

By the mid 1840s the Victorian reading public were familiar with the work of Charles Dickens and his stories of everyday life. Between 1837 (when the young Queen Victoria ascended the throne) and 1839 Bentley’s Miscellany serialised the adventures of Oliver Twist as he escaped from the home of the Sowerberrys and the abuse he’d suffered at the hands of Noah Claypole and Charlotte, the serving maid.

Of course that escape was short lived as Oliver was plunged into the criminal underworld of the metropolis and the lives and crimes of Fagin and his gang of pickpockets. Happily of course ‘all’s well that ends well’, and Oliver finds redemption and peace in the home of Mr Brownlow, even if the plot does have a few more twists and turns along the way.

Oliver was a parish apprentice. He was placed first with a chimney sweep and then with Mr Sowerberry (an undertaker) as a way to get him out of the workhouse and off the parish books. Apprenticeship was not as popular as it had been 100 years earlier but it was still seen as a route to a respectable trade and steady income. Young people were apprenticed in their teens and learned a skill from their master before leaving to set up as journeyman in their early 20s.

The system was open to abuse of course; Dickens was not making up the characters of Noah and Charlotte, or Gamfield the brutish sweep. These sorts of individuals existed, even if Dickens exaggerated them for dramatic or comic effect. In the 1700s in London apprentices who felt aggrieved could take their complaints (or not being trained, being exalted, or even abused) to the Chamberlain of London in his court at Guildhall. Failing that they might seek advice and mediation from a magistrate.

Both sides approached the Chamberlain and magistrate in the Georgian period and apprentices were released from their contracts or admonished in equal measure. For a master the courts were often a useful way to discipline unruly teenagers who simply refused to obey their ‘betters’.  However, other masters resorted to physical chastisement in their attempts to discipline their disobedient charges.

Sometimes this went too far, as in this case that reached the Police Court magistrate at Clerkenwell.

Joseph Mitchely was a parish apprentice, just like the fictional Oliver. He was aged 14 or 15 and had been bound to an Islington  ‘master frame maker and french polisher’ named Wilton. In early November he had complained to the court that Henry Wilton was beating him unfairly and the magistrate ordered an investigation to be made. He called in the parish authorities (in the person of Mr Hicks) who made some enquiries into the case.

Having completed his investigation Mr Hicks reported back to Mr Tyrwhitt, the sitting justice at Clerkenwell. He declared that the boy had exaggerated the extent of the ‘abuse’ he’d supposedly suffered and was now apologetic. Apparently, young Joseph now ‘begged his master’s forgiveness’.

Mr Tyrwhitt discharged the master frame maker and told the boy to return with him and make his peace. He added that in it might be better if any further disputes between them were brought before him or one of his fellow magistrates, and suggested that Mr Wilton avoid ‘moderate correction’ in future. Hopefully both parties had learnt a valuable lesson   and were able to move forward in what was a crucial relationship (for Joseph at least).

[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, November 21, 1848]

A saucy thief in Soho steals from Crosse & Blackwell

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Arthur Jacobs was a porter who worked for Crosse & Blackwell’s in Soho. He was 28 years old and had a wife and family. The firm (described as Italian warehousemen in the press of the day) paid him 30 and Jacobs had worked for them for 14 years and was a trusted employee.

Over the past few months Thomas Blackwell had been compelled to sack some of the company’s workers because they had been found to be stealing from them.  Crosse and Blackwell employed around 300 persons in 1864 and had dismissed a handful of these when the thefts were discovered. However, they hadn’t managed to stop the pilfering and called in the police to investigate.

On Thursday 14 October, at night, a plain clothes officer from A Division – Henry Dawson (301A) – watched Jacobs leave the firm’s premises at 21 Soho Square via the Sutton Street entrance. He followed him as he entered a pub and waited for him. When he left the pub the policeman noticed that the porter’s ‘pockets were very bulky’ and challenged him.

‘What have you got in your pockets’ the officer demanded. ‘Nothing’, replied Jacobs. Informing him that he was a police officer Dawson now insisted that he turned them out. Lo and behold he revealed two pots of jam.

PC Dawson said he was now going to arrest him for stealing from his employers but the porter begged him not to. ‘You might settle it without doing so’, he pleaded, ‘as I have a wife and family’. Sadly for him the copper was in no mood to turn a blind eye. Dawson arrested him and took him to the station before setting off to search Jacob’s lodgings.

There he found:

’12 bottles of cayenne pepper, 10 bottles of source, 8 pots of jam, 10 pieces of preserved meat, a quantity of pepper, mustard, isinglass, nutmegs, etc.’ When he told Jacobs what he discovered the porter said nothing.

When the case came before the Marlborough Street Police Court Thomas Blackwell appeared to give evidence. He confirmed that the goods were his and that Jacobs worked for them. Mr Yardley supposed that ‘confidence was placed in the prisoner?’

‘Great confidence’ said Mr Blackwell. ‘we have been continually missing property, but only  suspected the prisoner for the last three weeks in consequence of goods disappearing from a place where the prisoner had access’.

The value of the items stolen by Jacobs amounted to about £5 he added, or about £450 in today’s money. As to the total costs to the company of all the depredations they had suffered, he had no idea. The magistrate (Mr Yardley) committed Jacobs for trial and on 17 October he pleaded guilty (and was convicted) at the Middlesex Sessions and given a short prison sentence in Cold Bath Fields.

Crosse and Blackwell were well established by 1864 and had moved to the Soho Square site in 1839. Thomas Blackwell had joined the firm of West & Wyatt as an apprentice in 1816 and became friends with a fellow apprentice, Edmund Crosse. According to one history Crosse ‘sourced the ingredients and Blackwell created the recipes’. When the owner of West & Wyatt’s retired in 1830 Crosse and Blackwell borrowed the necessary funds to buy the business. The rest, as they say, is history.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, October 15, 1864]

Hard choices for an unmarried mother in Spitalfields

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Spitalfields (in the early 20th century) by the photographer C. A. Mathew 

Sophia Higgins, the wife of a chemist in Spicer Street, Spitalfields was making her way home at 11 at night when something caught her attention.  She was crossing the market when she heard what she thought was a baby crying.

Moving towards the sound she soon discovered an infant ‘lying on the pavement, wrapped in a piece of blanket’. Horrified she stopped it up, went to find a person nearby to care for it, and then rushed off to the nearest police station.

The police arrived and collected the child, taking it to the Whitechapel workhouse to make enquiries there. Having established from the porter who they thought the mother was, another officer was despatched to find her and arrest her.

Eventually Ellen Lehain was identified as the child’s mother and questioned by the police before being summoned before the magistrate at Worship Street Police Court in October 1853. A witness, Ann Buskin (described as an ‘unmarred female’) said she had lodged with Ellen at a property in Holborn and testified that she had recently given birth to an illegitimate child.

Ann explained that her fellow lodger had ‘nursed it for a few weeks, when she left there to go into the union house’ (meaning the local workhouse for the poor).

The child was produced in court and  Ellen admitted it was hers. When the policeman had asked her what she had done with it she had told him she’d left the baby at the door of the workhouse. So how did it come to be in the middle of Spitalfields market the court wanted to know? Ellen’s response to this question is not recorded.

In her defence the girl simply pleaded poverty and distress as the reason for abandoning her new born baby. Mr D’Eyncourt sent her to the house of correction for three months, the fate of her child was not something the newspaper reporters seems to have thought important enough to write down. Perhaps it was obvious: the child would become another mouth for the parish union to feed, until at least he or she could be apprenticed out into service.

No one seemed to be in the least bit interested in the fate of its mother, who must have been in considerable distress to give up a child she had been caring for for several weeks.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, October 14, 1853]