A mason stares poverty in the face, and gets little sympathy from the bench

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There was very little Mr Horace Smith could do for the man came to ask for help at his police court in Dalston in December 1889. The man – who said he was a monumental mason (and therefore cut and inscribed gravestones and the like) – was in debt.

More specifically he was behind on the rent for his workshop, owing his landlord £4 10(which is approximately £370 in today’s money, but would have amounted to a fortnight’s pay for a skilled tradesman like him).

His landlord, however, had sent in the bailiffs to seize goods (his headstones, most of which were already inscribed) to the value of £30, so way over the cost of the debt. The mason wanted the magistrate’s help in fighting the order, which he thought excessive.

Mr Smith agreed it was excessive but said he could order the return of the goods if the debt was settled. The mason didn’t have the money and didn’t believe that the goods taken could be sold at auction either. After all, he said, ‘nobody will give much for tombstones with inscriptions’.

The justice agreed but could offer no more help. If the man wanted damages for excessive distress he would have to go to the County Court, and that would probably mean settling the debt first, and cost him time and money, which he didn’t have. It was a vicious circle: to pay his rent the mason needed his stone and tools back, work was slow at the moment and now his landlord had undermined him.

Mr Smith had limited sympathy:

‘The moral of it all is that you should pay your rent, and people should not take premises which they cannot pay for’.

And with that, he dismissed the case.

[from The Standard, Monday, December 09, 1889]

‘Let them starve’. Little sympathy as parochial officialdom is set in the dock

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‘Joseph Carney, a street vendor or “costermonger”, sells fresh herring from a barrow in a street market near Seven Dials’.1

The summary courts of the capital could sometimes side with the ‘little man’ against authority, especially when that ‘authority’ was seen to be officious and heavy handed. This was certainly the case in October 1888 when a costermonger known only as Nathan, brought a summons against a servant of the vestry.

The magistrate – Montagu Williams – listened as Nathan outlined his complaint. He sold goods from a barrow and on Sunday morning he had left it briefly unattended while went to settle a debt to a local publican. On his return the barrow had gone and he soon learned that it had been impounded by John Dowling, a street keeper working for Bethnal Green parish.

Nathan went to the parish greenyard, where all impounded vehicles and animals were taken, but he was told he would have to wait until the next morning to retrieve it. The next day he went but since Dowling was not there he was now instructed to come back on Thursday.

This meant he would be unable to trade for three days.

‘My children will starve’, he complained.

‘Well let them starve’, was the reply from one of the men that worked there.

On Thursday he saw Dowling who now refused to release the barrow until a 5fee had been paid. Nathan didn’t have 5so he offered 3 and a half. He was told to go away and find the balance. Meanwhile he couldn’t work.

The vestry was represented at Worship Street by Mr Voss, the clerk. He defended Dowling and the right of the vestry to impound barrows after 11am on a Sunday (when they were no longer allowed to trade). He had little or no sympathy for Nathan and his family nor for another complainant who appeared to support the costermonger. Mary Donovan said she had also had her barrow impounded by Dowling and was unable to pay the fee to get it back. As a consequence she’d fallen behind with the rent and her landlord had sent in the bailiffs to get her ‘bits o’ things’.

‘What do you have to say to that?’ Mr Williams demanded of Voss.

The clerk stuck to his script.

‘This man, Sir, was acting under his orders. The vestry makes certain regulations’.

The justice felt that these were extremely bad regulations and, what is more, they were being applied without care or understanding for the lives of the people they affected. Nathan told him he had threated to go to law but the street keeper had dismissed this saying he ‘did not care for the magistrate, for he had bigger people behind him’ who would support his actions.

Mr Williams now demonstrated exactly who had authority in the district by admonishing the clerk and the street cleaner, and demanding that the barrows be returned ‘instantly’, and without further costs to either party. The war between the costers and the vestry would, no doubt, rumble on and on, just as tensions between these sorts of street traders and the police did. But on this occasion at least, we can raise a glass to the victory of the little man (and woman).

[from The Standard, Tuesday, October 23, 1888]

  1. from: https://mickhartley.typepad.com/blog/2012/03/little-mic-mac-gosling.html

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]

The bailiffs thwarted – a small victory at the Mansion House

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On Wednesday 27 October 1886 a man appeared in front of the alderman magistrate at the Mansion House Police Court to answer a summons. Mr B. A. Bird was a clerk employed by Messrs. Norman & Co. (Limited) of Queen Victoria Street.

The company either sold furniture or operated a loan scheme for those making hire purchases of large items. In July 1885 a City merchant named Gray (first initial ‘F’, possibly Frederick) had bought some furniture for £22 using the hire purchase service. He paid £3 deposit and agreed to make subsequent monthly payments of £1 until the whole sum was covered.

By June 1886 he had paid back £13 but had fallen into financial difficulty and fell into arrears. Anyone who has a mortgage or large credit card bills to service today will understand how this feels. By the 1880s debt was no longer something that was likely land you in debtor’s gaol but it still carried a stigma. In 1869 legislation restricted the amount of time one could be thrown in prison for debt to six weeks, and in 1883 the Bankruptcy Act further protected the person of those that couldn’t pay their debts.

Normans waited five months before they chose to recover the debt by other means. When no further payments were forthcoming they despatched Mr Bird and ‘some carmen’ [the Victorian equivalent of van drivers] to Gray’s business address.

There ‘they forcibly broke open the door, and removed the whole of the furniture in question, together with Mr Gray’s papers in the table-drawers, and a mat which did not belong to them’.

Regardless of whether they had a right to recover the debt or not Alderman deemed them to have acted unlawfully and excessively and sided with the complainant. He fined Bird £5 for the offence, and awarded £2 2s costs, plus an extra 5s 6d  for the damage to the lock they broke as they entered.

I know that in my own family history there was a Frederick Gray who we believe worked as a clerk and settled in West London. The family originated from Cambridgeshire, from the small village of Maney in the heart of the fens, and at some point in the mid 1800s one of them chose to travel down to London to look for work. Was this ‘F. Gray’ a relative of mine? From this distance it is hard to say and, of course, it is highly unlikely –  this man was a merchant not a humble clerk, and it is not an unusual surname after all. But for all that I feel a certain link to the past in this story a man who stood up to the bullying tactics of the debt collectors and won.

[from The Standard, Thursday, October 28, 1886]