‘It was an impulsive theft, and I beg for mercy’: the sad fall of an unemployed clerk

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Robert Stevens been out of work for some time when he entered a baker’s shop in Mile End in May 1859. Stevens had previously earned a living as a clerk, a gateway situation for someone hoping to move up the social ranks from the working to the middle classes.

The nineteenth century saw the establishment of the middling classes as the solid centre of Victorian life with their values of hard work, education, thrift, and family life. The social climbing of members of the middle classes were gently mocked in the 1892 novel The Diary of a Nobody where the character of Mr Pooter struggles to be taken seriously by superiors, friends and tradesmen alike.

In an unfortunate coincidence another clerk was in Mr Bradbrook’s  bakery that day and he was collecting money on behalf a firm of coal merchants. The baker had opened his till and placed four gold sovereigns on the counter just as Stevens approached to buy some bread. As the collections clerk and the shopkeeper discussed the account Stevens dashed in and swept the money from the counter and ran out of the shop.

The baker and John Griffiths (the clerk) recovered from their initial shock and rushed off after him, catching him up a few streets away. He had one coin on him having lost the others in his haste, these were picked up by Griffiths  in the chase. The unfortunate young man was handed over to the police and brought before the magistrate at Worship Street Police court to be dealt with by the law.

Robert Stevens pleaded guilty and apologized for his crime. ‘I went into the shop to buy’, he told Mr Hammill, ‘but but catching sight of the gold lying close to my hand, was seized with an irresistible desire of appropriating it to my own service, and unfortunately did so.

It was, I assure you, an impulsive theft, and I beg for mercy, having long been out of employment as a clerk’.

John Griffiths spoke up for the prisoner and urged the justice to show mercy and be lenient. As a fellow clerk he perhaps understood better than most how easy it was to lose a ‘respectable’ position whether because of the precarious state of the economy or the capricious  nature of employers.

It did little or no good however, Mr Hammill ignored the request for compassion and sent Stevens to prison for four months at hard labour. Having served a sentence in a mid nineteenth-century goal I doubt that Robert would have found white-collar work easy to come by afterwards. He was dogged by a criminal record, albeit one of his own making, and the stain of the prison would be on him. Hopefully he recovered and found a new path but this is another example of how a lack of real support for those that find themselves unemployed can have catastrophic and life changing consequences.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Monday, May 23, 1859]

If you enjoy this blog series you might be interested in Drew’s jointly authored study of the Whitechapel (or ‘Jack the Ripper’) murders which is published by Amberley Books on 15 June this year. You can find details here:

Fishy goings on in Pimlico land two servants in prison

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For some reason the morning paper on Halloween 1857 chose to concentrate on thefts by servants and other employees. Several of the stories from the Police courts told of light-fingered employees at banks, shops, and in the homes of the wealthy.

In the 1700s Daniel Defoe had commented that servants ‘beggar you inchmeal’ meaning they stole small amounts of property on such a regular basis as to gradually impoverish the rich. He exaggerated of course but theft by servants was one of the great fear and complaints of those employing them. Given the poor remuneration given to domestic servants it is hardly surprising that some chose to steal when they got the opportunity, to say nothing of the abuse many female servants suffered at the hands of their masters and their male offspring.

On October 30 1857 Margaret Ward appeared at Westminster Police court and was remanded for further examination by the justice, Mr Paynter. She worked for a Mr Bicknell at his home in Upper Ebury Street, Pimlico and he had accused her of stealing a £5 note from his writing desk.

He had questioned her after the money was discovered missing but she denied any part in it. However the court was told that Margaret had recently bought some fine new clothes and, since she’d arrived in service with ‘very bare of clothing’ suspicions were heightened and he had dismissed her at once.

A ‘very respectable’ woman then testified that she had previously employed Miss Ward and that following her dismissal by Mr. Bicknell Margaret had turned up at her door ‘decked in finery’. She was surprised that the girl had managed to earn enough to buy such nice clothes but Margaret allegedly told her that ‘there were other ways of getting money’. A local baker also declared that Margaret had come to his shop and had changed a £5 note, the court was then shown clothing valued at that amount that the police had found in her possession.

Margaret Ward was prosecuted at the Westminster Quarter Session in November 1857. In the face of the overwhelming evidence gathered against her, the 19 year-old servant pleaded guilty and was sentenced to six weeks in the house of correction.

Joseph Tonks followed Margaret into the dock at Westminster. He was much older (52) and gave his occupation as a fishmonger. Tonks was employed by Mr Charles in Arabella Row , also in Pimlico, and was accused of stealing some of his master’s fish.

Tonks had been in Mr Charles’ service for eight years and the master fishmonger had ‘considerable confidence’ in him. He paid him £1 5sa week which was a pretty good wage in 1857. However, after fish began to go missing Mr Charles grew suspicious of his his long term employee and had him followed. Tonks was seen visiting a broker in Artillery Row on more than one occasion and on a Thursday evening he was stopped and searched. Two whitings ‘were found in his hat, and five herrings concealed about his person’.

Clearly something fishy was going on…

The broker was summoned to court and testified that Tonks had called on his to borrow some paint and a brush and wanted to buy his wife a present. The journeyman fishmonger admitted his guilt and opted to have his case dealt with by the magistrate instead of going before a jury. This probably saved him a longer prison sentence but Mr Paynter  still sent him away for six months at hard labour since the court was told that Tonks had probably been robbing his master on a regular basis for some time.

Tonks seems to have had less of a cause than Margaret to steal from his boss. He was quite well paid and trusted and well thought of. But we don’t know what else was going on in his life. All sorts of pressures can pile up and force people to desperate measures. Then again maybe he just thought it was too easy an opportunity to pass up. He’d got away with it for so long that it had probably become routine for him to pack a couple of fish in his hat for treats.

On release from prison both Tonks and Margaret Ward would have struggled to find good work without the necessary references, and that was the most serious punishment of all.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Saturday, October 31, 1857]

‘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]

The Marlborough Street magistrate helps Big Ben’s missus deliver a knock-out blow

In the 1840s the biggest name in English boxing was Benjamin Caunt. Ben Caunt (pictured below) was one of the first English prize-fighters to seek international acclaim. In 1841 he traveled to the USA to look for rivals to fight for a world title but ended up bringing an American boxer home with him to manage instead. Caunt was so famous that some have suggested the bell within the clock tower at the Palace of Westminster was named after him, which seems unlikely.

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By 1846 ‘Big Ben’ was running a pub in St Martin’s Lane with his wife, although he continued to box well into the 1850s.

John Gill was a baker who lived in Cumming Street, Pentonville. On Saturday 19 December 1846 he had been drinking in the Caunts’ pub and got up to leave. Mrs Caunt asked him to settle his bill of 5s and at this point the baker made some wrong choices.

First, while he acknowledged the debt, he argued that since  her husband owed him 5 guineas it was a bit unfair of her to ask him to pay up in full when ‘Ben’ was already in his debt.

Such familiarity didn’t go down terribly well with Mrs Caunt. She came around from the other side of the bar and stood toe-to-toe with him.

‘Does Ben owe you anything?’ she asked, ‘Then I’ll pay you this way’, and punched him twice in the face.

Regaining his feet if not his composure, and finding his mouth full of blood, Gill staggered to the bar and launched a stream of abusive words at the landlady.

That was his second mistake.

Ben Caunt heard the foul language aimed at his wife and loomed into view, hauling the baker to his feet and throwing him out on to the street.

All of this of course landed Mrs Caunt in court before Hardwick at Marlborough Street. In her the dock Mrs Caunt didn’t deny the assault but said she had been provoked. She alleged that Gill had used bad language towards her before she had thrown any punches and was able to produce a witness to that effect.

The newspaper reporter for Lloyd’s Weekly clearly enjoyed the story and its associations with the English champion. Mrs Caunt had delivered a punch that ‘would have done no discredit to her husband’s powers’. The hapless baker was the butt of the story and that is how the magistrate saw it as well.  So Gill’s third mistake was in not simply putting the whole episode down to experience and going home quietly. Mr Hardwicke told him that he had ‘provoked the assault, by using language that was almost certain to cause a breach of the peace’, and he dismissed the summons.

Gill was beaten again, this time by a justice system and a magistrate that favoured the ‘weaker’ sex (who was clearly not the weaker one on this occasion).

[from Lloyd’s Weekly London Newspaper, Sunday, December 27, 1846]

One thirsty fellow’s scheme for ‘raising the wind’.

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Vauxhall Bridge c.1829

James Edwards was a man with a tremendously large thirst but very small funds. In early 1854 he came up with a cunning plan to cash in on what may have been a fairly common practice. Unfortunately for him it backfired, and in late February he found himself in the dock of the Westminster Police Court.

One day a house in Besborough Gardens, Pimlico, was inundated with tradesmen delivering all sorts of goods and services. Between 15 and 18 different butchers, bakers, sweeps, french polishers and the like descended on the fashionable parade near Vauxhall Bridge. The staff and the unnamed gentleman that resided there were puzzled – no one had ordered anything.

One can imagine the chaotic scene with bewildered homeowner turning away frustrated and annoyed tradesmen – perhaps much like the exchanges between Charles Pooter and his butcher and the other tradesmen that called on him (and then fell over his badly positioned boot scraper).

The gentleman and his family at first assumed it must have been ‘a hoax got up by some mischievous person’ but eventually the trail was traced back to James Edwards.

Edwards had apparently gone around the various local tradesmen making spurious orders for unwanted items and services in the hope that he would received a tip. This came in the form of ‘a few halfpence or pints of beer’ and, with up to 18 orders he must have had plenty of money or alcohol to drink himself silly for the rest of the afternoon.

Whether it was good luck or inside knowledge is not made clear in the report, but the family’s cook, who normally placed most of the orders for the household, had recently left. This allowed such an unusual situation to occur. Edwards had, as the paper reported, discovered  a new ‘mode of raising the wind’ (or obtaining there necessary funds).

It was a nuisance if not a crime and in the absence of the cook’s testimony that she had not made the orders the magistrate was obliged to give him the benefit of the doubt. He ordered him to enter into his own recognisances to behave himself for the next six months and warned the tradesmen to be on ‘their guard against tricks of this description’.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, February 27, 1854]