The bailiffs thwarted – a small victory at the Mansion House

maple and co 003 - 1891

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]

‘Lazy’? ‘Good-for-nothing’? Or economic migrants with a dream of a better life?

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Frederick William Turner was described in the Southwark Police Court as a ‘singular-looking young fellow’ but also (by the magistrate), as a ‘lazy good-for-nothing’. What was it that Frederick had done to earn such a condemnation from Mr Burcham?

His ‘crime’ was dodging his fare on the railway. To be precise Turner had travelled from Portsmouth to London without paying. He had fallen asleep in a second-class carriage and when he was rudely awakened by a ticket inspector (Anthony Coleman) he ‘fumbled about in his pockets’ before telling the inspector ‘he had neither ticket nor money’.

Coleman grabbed him and marched him to the office of the station superintendent for him to deal with. There he admitted having no money, and no intention of ever paying for the ride. The superintendent recognised the lad as someone he had caught fare dodging not long ago. Indeed, six months previously Turner had made the same journey to London, had been caught without a ticket or the means to pay and was imprisoned for seven days because he (fairly obviously) didn’t have the 10s to pay a fine instead.

Now Frederick found himself once again before ‘the beak’ and got little sympathy from the bench. Mr Burcham asked him to defend himself but all Frederick said was that it was true. He had come up from Portsmouth to look for work in London. He didn’t have the fare, presumably because he was poor and out of work.

Instead of admiring his desire to find work (as Norman Tebbit might have done, despite the implicit criminality) Mr Burcham was clearly outraged that the lad had demonstrated that he had learnt nothing from his previous brush with the law.

He had ‘no right to defraud the railway by travelling on their line’, he told him. Fred’s response was to say that he had ‘tried to walk up but could not on account of the heat’. It was the height of summer after all and a particularly hot one. A temperature of 100.5 degree Fahrenheit (38 C) was recorded in Kent in July of that year, so the young man was not exaggerating.

Regardless of this Mr Burcham condemned him as ‘lazy’ when it seems apparent he was anything but. We might excuse his attempt to evade his fare if his higher purpose was to gain employment in the capital, but the magistrate couldn’t or wouldn’t. He handed down another 10s fine which the lad would not be able to pay and so, for the second time that year, Frederick Turner found himself in prison.

I have no idea how or if he then made his way back to Portsmouth from London, or whether he served his week inside and found work and digs in the capital. At some point in the middle of the nineteenth century an ancestor of mine made his way to London from Maney in the fens of Cambridgeshire looking for work after the agricultural depression.  He stayed and survived and started a line of family members that includes me. I’ve no idea whether he saved his pennies to pay for  ticket on the new railway line or not; perhaps he hid in a wagon or kept out of there way of the inspector.

He was more fortunate, it would seem, than Frederick Turner, but both young men had the same goal in mind: to make a new life in the city that consumed so many migrants fro so many parts of Britain and the Empire. I think to describe such people as ‘lazy’ or ‘good-for-nothing’ does them a deep disservice.

[from Morning Post, Saturday 1 August 1868]