Fined for disturbing a mathematical genius

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Charles Babbage (1791-1871)

Most of you will be reading this post on a computer, or a tablet, or perhaps even a smart phone. It is too much of a leap to say that without Charles Babbage’s ground-breaking work in creating his Analytical Engine in the early 1800s such devices may not have been invented, but Babbage is often heralded as the father of computing.

Babbage was born in the eighteenth century (as the ‘terror’ was sweeping Paris in fact) and died in 1871 (as Germany completed its emergence as a major European power. His life then, neatly bookmarks the end of the ancient regime and the birth of modern Europe.

But of course, scientific genius also comes with the normal traits of human life. Babbage had to eat and drink, he married and had children. He also hated being disturbed, and had a particular antipathy to street musicians, as this quote, from 1864, show:

‘It is difficult to estimate the misery inflicted upon thousands of persons, and the absolute pecuniary penalty imposed upon multitudes of intellectual workers by the loss of their time, destroyed by organ-grinders and other similar nuisances’.

Babbage campaigned against ‘public nuisances’, not only musicians but children playing in the street and drunks rolling home after a night in the pub. He even produced a mathematical calculation to show the likely number of windows broken by drunks and contributed to a drive to ban children from playing with hoops in the street, because of the potential damage they could do to horses’ legs. He reminds me a lot of an elderly teacher at my North London grammar school who railed against paper darts on the grounds that ‘they will have someone’s eye out, boy!’

Babbage was well known for his hatred of street musicians, often Italian organ grinders, who played for the money they could extract from passers-by (or perhaps householders who gave then coins to go away). In December 1866 he appeared at the Marylebone Police court, near his home, to  bring just such a complaint before Mr Mansfield.

Joseph Jenanin and Andrew Roadling were charged with ‘refusing to desist from playing musical instruments when requested to do so’. Babbage testified that on the 29 November Jenanin and Roadling, along with seven others, were performing in Paddington Street, just 200 yards from the mathematician’s home.

He went out and asked them to stop but they ignored him. He called a nearby policeman who then confirmed his story in court. In defence of the men their attorney, Mr Sayers, called upon several local tradesmen who told the magistrate that the musicians had in fact stopped playing when Babbage asked them to. They added that the men were not a nuisance in the neighbourhood, in fact we might suppose they quite enjoyed the concert and perhaps it attracted some trade.

On this occasion Babbage was thwarted by the justice system, to some degree at least. While the magistrate was prepared to accept that the men were causing a nuisance to him, they were too far from his home to have done so deliberately. As a result he couldn’t or wouldn’t punish them with the full force of the law but simply fined them 10s each and Mr Babbage’s costs. This would probably mean they avoided the great man’s home in future, but would not have ruined them or forced them to sell their instruments.

We can imagine Charles Babbage returning home from court still fuming at the outrage. He was 75.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, December 10, 1866]

 

An Italian displays a touch of bravura in court, but it does him no good

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St Margaret & St John’s Workshops in Westminster c.1875

Frederic Calvi was an Italian immigrant in London. Calvin worked as an engineer, and was presumably quite  skilled or reliable one as it was reported that he was ‘in constant work’. So it is something of a surprise to find this otherwise respectable working-class man in front of the Police Court magistrate at Marlborough Street on  charge of deserting his three children.

The case was brought by the Westminster Poor Law Union as it was them that had picked up the costs of supporting the children. And the costs were considerable. Mr Tett, the settlement officer for Westminster, claimed that they had spent £40 on caring for the Calvi children.

Having made some enquiries into the engineer’s situation Mr Tett assured the court that there was no need for him to have dumped the three children on the parish, as Calvi earned plenty of money and was well able to support them.

However, there was no mention of a Mrs Calvi so perhaps the children had no mother and Frederic was a lone parent. If that were the case, and if he didn’t have other relatives in England, then he might well have struggled to maintain a living and look after his family. There were plenty of Italians in London (as I’ve found in several past posts) but most of those recorded in the press were working as musicians.

Had Calvi come over on his own and married here? Or had he brought his family with him? This might be important as without an extended family or support network any change in his circumstances might throw him (and his children) into poverty.

In court before Mr Newton, Frederic was adamant that he needed the parish’s help. He had fallen sick he said and so was unable to provide for his children. That was the reason he’d taken them to the workhouse. He added that ‘it was well known that in England innocent people [like himself] were condemned’.

His attitude in court probably didn’t help him. Here was an occasion to throw yourself on the mercy of the justice, not to defy the system. But Frederic was clearly a proud man, or a callous one who cared little for his kids. Either way his actions and his attitude hardly endeared him to Mr Newton.

The policeman that had brought him in added that the Italian engineer was bullish when arrested. He said the prisoner declared he ‘was a Bismarck and would get over it’. What did that mean? It was probably a reference to ‘a rare stumble’ by the German chancellor in 1875 when his aggressive diplomacy nearly led to war on the continent of Europe as he attempt to force France to abandon rearmament backfired. Thereafter Bismarck proceeded with utmost caution. Calvi was indicating that in future he would do the same.

Sadly for him (and his three children) Mr Newton was not in the mood for second chances. He found the engineer guilty of deserting his children and sent him to prison for a month at hard labour. Exactly how that helped the situation or eased the strain on the Westminster parish purse (which would now have the children for another month) I’m not clear.

Calvin displayed a cavalier attitude on hearing the sentence however. He turned to the magistrate and challenged him to a game of billiards.

‘Double or quits’, he shouted, ‘He would be sure to get off’.

[from The Standard, Monday, November 22, 1875]