Henry Cooper: serial fraudster or plucky entrepreneur?

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We’ve met Henry Cooper before on this site. No, not the boxing legend who once floored Mohammed Ali, but a serial fraudster who got himself locked away on more than one occasion in the 1860s and 70s. In 1872 Cooper was sent to prison for five years for fraud but he had more than one opportunity to mend his ways before then, sadly he didn’t take them.

The Digital Panopticon shows that a Henry Cooper was gaoled in 1867 for forging a warrant for goods; he got five years then and spent his time at Portland quarrying stone. It is quite likely that he would have had a number of less serious convictions before this and so this court appearance – in June 1860 – fits quite nicely and suggests it is the same individual.

On Thursday 21 June (on the longest day of the year) Henry was up before the magistrate at Guildhall facing a charge of ‘absconding from his liabilities’. Described as a ‘boot and shoe manufacturer’ (interestingly, as on one of his prison records he is shown as having worked as a shoemaker inside). Cooper was bankrupt, and it was alleged that he’d tried to obtain goods on credit just three months after being declared so.

He’d run up debts of around £1,000 which, in 1860, was the equivalent of a vast sum of money (about £60,000 today). Cooper had been trying to run a business on Great Cambridge Street, Hackney Road, which he’d started with just £9 a year earlier. By the end of the first year he was £500 in the red. By May 1860 things had got so bad that Henry decided his best move was to shirk his responsibilities and emigrate to New Zealand.

Naturally he didn’t inform his creditors of his decision and the first they heard of it was when their representatives turned up at his shop and found it boarded up and Cooper gone. They made some enquires and tracked him down to Liverpool where he’d booked passage to New Zealand on the Northern Bride. Henry had managed to pull together about £300 in gold and a further £700 in disposable goods to sell when he arrived.

It was a bold move and had it worked Cooper may well have made a new life for himself on the other side of the world. As it was the alderman magistrate committed him for trial for fraud and he lost his chance. He pleaded guilty at the Old Bailey and judgement was respited on the 37-year old. The Digital Panopticon has a life archive for a Henry Cooper which includes this case and suggests he died in 1876.

If this really is Henry then it shows what a strain prison and hard labour put on this man. He was just 53 when he died but he’d possibly quarried stone for several years and been locked up in the ‘separate system’ at Pentonville in a regime of ‘hard bed, hard fare, hard labour’.  I feel kind of sorry for Henry; yes he was a fraudster but he was, in his own way, an entrepreneur of sorts.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, June 22, 1860]

Wars ‘on the buses’ in Chelsea

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We are used to the idea that business works best when there is competition. Throughout the 1980s we were consistently told that privatised industry was so much better than public ownership. As a result we saw the selling off of British Telecom, and gas and electricity supply. The infamous ‘Tell Sid’ ad seemed to run for ages, encouraging ordinary people to buy shares in British Gas.

Among the wave of privatisations was the deregulation of transport. The railways went as did the bus services, leading not to more efficiency and cheaper prices (as we had been promised) but to ever rising rail fares and the closure of vital (if not particularly  cost effective) rural bus routes.

Competition there was, but massive benefits for the consumer? Not so much.

In early Victorian London competition was also the watchword as the capital’s expansion into the suburbs drove a need for greater and more join dup transport links. Over the course of the century London developed horse drawn trams, omnibuses, and overground (and underground) railways. Soon the metropolis was better connected than anywhere else in Europe and, arguably, remains so today (even if we do moan about it reliability).

But here again competition brought as many problems as it brought benefits. We can see an example of this in a report from Queen Square Police Court published in the autumn of 1843.

The magistrate at Queens Square, Mr Bond, complained that his office had been beset with numerous requests for summons as omnibus proprietors prosecuted each other for damage to vehicles, or drivers and conductors brought charges against each other for assault.

Three rival firms were operating in Chelsea, as the starting point for journeys into central London. Messrs. Glover, Child and Ingram all ran ‘buses from the Three Compasses pub at 94-94 Fulham High Street (pictured below in the 1880s).

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The competition was fierce but rather than this leading to a better service it merely served as a ‘danger to the public and disturbance to the neighbourhood’ and Mr Bond was sick of it.

Several representatives of the bus companies were in his court in November to hear he warn them that unless they started to take notice he would bring the full force of the law to bear upon them. Mr Bond felt that ‘as trifling penalties appeared to have no effect upon he should for the future, when there was sufficient evidence to warrant a conviction, impose the highest penalty, that of 5L, for each offence’.

Hit them in the pocket was Mr Bond’s strategy, just as it is the preferred strategy of the independent bodies appointed to regulate privatised industries today. Just as today, I suspect our ancestors grumbled about the cost and reliability of their transport networks. They didn’t have anything to compare it with of course as all this was new to them.

At some point the government decided that transport was too important to leave in private hands, and required, at least, some level of nationalisation. Have we reached that point again, some people clearly believe privatisation has failed? In London, of course, our transport remains in the control of the capital’s government, and not entirely in private hands, which means its users are eagerly shielded from attempts to close down unprofitable routes or hike up prices.

And we rarely see realise ‘Blakeys’ and ‘Stan’ fighting ‘on the buses’.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, November 20, 1843]