Charles Dickens celebrates the newspaper industry and its portrayal of ‘modern’ British society

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Given that surviving archival records of the Metropolitan Police courts of the Victorian period are very few are far between for the past few years I’ve spent a considerable amount of my time reading nineteenth-century newspapers. While I stick mostly to the ‘police intelligence’ it is impossible not to occasionally get distracted by the other news stories they covered. Living, as we do, in a society where news is now 24/7 and delivered instantly via tiny super powerful computers that fit in our pockets, it is hard to imagine sometimes how important the  Victorian press was to the dissemination of news and ideas to our ancestors. So, in a break from the norm today I want to highlight a speech that was reported in 1862 in the Daily News by none other than Charles Dickens, arguably England’s greatest ever novelist.

In May 1862 the Newsvendors Benevolent Institution celebrated their 23rdanniversary with a banquets at the Freemason’s Tavern in Great Queen Street (below right). Freemasons'_TavernThis is not the current Freemason’s Hall which is just further up the street but was on the site of what is now the Connaught Hotel. Regardless, it was a grand affair and with Dickens in the chair, no doubt an entertaining evening was had by all.

The famous author and public speaker opened by praising the man that had deputized for him the year before, Wilkie Collins. In 1861 Dickens had toothache and so had handed the chair to his friend but now expressed some regrets so well had his fellow novelist performed. ‘If I ever find myself obliged to provide a substitute again’, Dickens declared, ‘they may implicitly rely on my sending them the most speechless man of my acquaintance!’.

He then went, at some length, to list the ways in which the newspaper covered the whole gamut of life in Victorian Britain and the world. He did this by imagining himself peering over the shoulder of a reader, just as many of us will have done on a tube train or bus, trying to catch a story that has made the headlines.

The newspapers, Dickens noted, tell us who is born, who married, and who has died, and how. Other points and events in our lives are also recorded, especially if they are the lives of royalty or the famous. I’m struck by the fact that just the other week a baby was born in London and this made the news, even though millions of babies are born every day, all over the world. This baby was special of course, because Archie Windsor was the son of a prince and his new American born spouse.

Dickens noted that it was in the newspaper that the reader discovered that ‘there are great fleets bound to all the ports of the  world’ and here that they would find what these fleets carried, what space they had, where you might purchase a ticket to travel on them, and even find out what the ships were made of. Here were adverts for almost anything you could want (and many things you certainly wouldn’t need):

Still glancing over the shoulder of my newsman, I find I am offered all kinds of houses, lodgings, clerks, servants, and situations which I can possibly or impossibly want. I learn to my intense gratification that I need never grow old, that I may always preserve the juvenile bloom of complexion, that if I ever become ill it is entirely my own fault, that I may have no more grey hair. If I have any complaint and want brown cod liver oil or a Turkish bath I am told where I can get it, and that if I want an income of £7 a week I have only to send for it enclosing half-a-crown’s worthy of postage stamps’.

Along with the adverts (spurious and genuine) Dickens cited the political news that the papers reported. Here, he said, you could find out what the Home Secretary had to say about the ‘last outrage, the last railway accident, or the last mine explosion’, only to be told that the minster of state had said that ‘he knew nothing of the occurrence beyond what he had read in the newspapers’!

Dickens himself had reported from the law courts before he had ‘made it’ as an author of popular stories. He told his captive audience at the Freemason’s Tavern that the reporting of the police courts of the capital would inform the reader that:

if I have a propensity to indulge, I may very cheaply bite off a human being’s nose, but that if I presume to take off from a butcher’s window the nose of a dead calf or pig, it will cost me exceedingly dear’.

Once the laughter had settled down he went on to add:

and also find that if I allowed myself to be betrayed into the folly of killing an inoffensive tradesman upon his own doorstop, that little incident will not affect the testimonials to my character, but that I shall be described as a most amiable young man, and above all things, remarkable for the singular inoffensiveness of my character and disposition’.

Dickens was an astute observer of course and in many of the reports of court cases the defendants are described in flattering terms despite the crimes they are accused of, especially if they are drawn from the ranks of ‘respectable’ society.

He then went on to list the theatrical and other arts news that could be found in the papers, even though he noted that it was hardly ‘news’ at all. He ended with a tour around foreign and international news suggesting that the London press reported incidents and events that in some countries (he mentioned Japan as an example) would never be reported. This echoes today’s world news  where British and European readers may well be better informed of what is happening in some closed societies (like China, Saudi Arabia or North Korea) than the people living there.

News, after all, is power.

Charles Dickens finished his speech with a toast to the men (and ladies) of the institution who raised funds for those vendors who fell on hard times. The evening raised around £100 for the charity which would be used to provide pensions for the men who sold the newspapers that carried all of this news to the public. £100 in 1862 amounts to about  £6,000 today, and so it was a significant sum of money.

I’m struck by the comparison we might make with the way Dickens characterized the reach and variety of the newspaper in 1862 and today’s internet or ‘world wide web’. Our first instinct now if we want to find something out is to reach for our phones, tablets or PCs and to ‘Google it’. In seconds we find an answer (if not always ‘the’ answer) to our question.

But for all this technology our desire to know and understand the world around us is much the same. Moreover the Internet has really only replaced print news as the vehicle to inform, deceive, manipulate and exploit our desires and prejudices. Had the Victorians invented the worldwide web they would have probably have used it for all the things we use it for.

Once again I am left wondering just how ‘modern’ we really are.

[from Daily News, Wednesday, May 21, 1862]

An ‘attempt to impose on the Duchess of Cambridge’ (no, not that one…)

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Princess Augusta of Hesse-Kassel, the 2nd Duchess of Cambridge

On 12 March 1869 an elderly man by the name of Alfred Rodwell (a retired bookbinder) was brought into the Bow Street Police court by PC Fraser. He was charged with obtaining money by false presences from ‘her Royal Highness the Duchess of Cambridge’. Today that elevated position is held by Kate, wife of Prince William, and mother of the third in line to throne of England. In 1869 the incumbent was Princess Augusta of Hesse-Kassel the wife of Adolphus, the seventh son of George III. In 1869 she would have been in her early seventies and lived with her husband at Kew, and then later at St James’ Palace.

It was to the palace that Rodwell had sent a petition for her attention. According to the duchess’ equerry, Lord Frederick Paulet, the petition and a covering letter were received on the previous Wednesday asking for money. Numerous other aristocrats had appended their names to the petition making promises of cash for the former bookbinder, including Countess Russell (right) Frances-Anna-Maria-Fanny-ne-Elliot-Countess-Russelland Lord Amberley. A search was made of Rodwell’s lodgings where several large envelopes were found, each of them addressed to a person of title or importance, and each of them containing the petition and a similar begging letter.

It quickly became apparent that while Rodwell had been helped by Countess Russell in the past she no longer deemed him to a respectable person worthy of her benevolence. Paulet was suspicious and so he had contacted the Mendicity Society to find out if Rodwell was a ‘deserving case’ or a charlatan.  The Bow Street magistrate, Sir Thomas Henry, decided to remand the old man in custody while enquiries were pursued.

A few days later he was back in court and this time it became evident that he’d altered the petition (changing the date from one that Countess Russell had signed a year or more earlier) and he had also forged some of the signatures on it. Mr Fryer from the Mendicity Society (who made it their business to root out imposters seeking charitable support) showed that the signature of ‘Captain S. Sanderson’ and that of ‘Lord Bailey’ were both fake. ‘Some of the signatures were genuine’ he said, ‘others doubtful’.

He added that Rodwell had also stuck some of the pages of the petition together so that it obscured the whole of some names (like that of Lady Victoria Buxton, a noted philanthropist). Sir Thomas questioned the accused about his attempts to alter the document in a number of ways but Rodwell stuck to  his story even when the magistrate confronted him with the evidence that he was obviously changed the date from ‘1862’ or ‘1867’ to ‘1869’. Rodwell said that the Countess Russell had signed his petition in 1867 and that was enough.

‘But you have altered the date’, said the justice, ‘and that is forgery. A character may be good at the time it is written, and not hold good another year. I can’t tell when it was written’.

When asked again why he had altered the writing Rodwell rather lamely claimed that it ‘was to make it look more modern’.

Sir Thomas could have asked each and every person who had supposedly signed the petition to come to court to swear that they had (or had not) given their consent to it but it would be waste, he said, of their time, especially when they would only have acted from ‘a charitable motive’ in the first place. Alfred Rodwell had been shown to be a chancer and he would suffer for it. He sent him to prison for three months and the gaoler took him down.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, March 13, 1869; The Morning Post, Friday, March 19, 1869]

A teenager learns a hard life lesson

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The Blewcoat School in Caxton Street

William Gillman had managed to secure a solid position for himself at a merchant’s offices in Mansion House Street in the City. He was 16 years of age and had been educated at the Blewcoat School in Caxton Street. The charity school, established in 1688 and situated in Caxton Street from 1709, served to help poor boys and girls in ‘reading, writing, religion, and trades’. The education he received there allowed Gillman to work for Mr Charles Ede as a clerk.

It should have been the basis for a long and respectable career had young William taken his opportunity. Sadly, and as if so often the case, he didn’t appreciate at 16 just what his life could be if he knuckled down and worked at it; maturity comes to all of us at different stage of life after all.

William was entrusted with Mr Ede’s postage stamps, amongst which were a ‘certain number of foreign’ ones which were kept in a book. The book was in a box which was locked away at night but to which William had access during the day. So when Mr Ede noticed that the foreign (at a shilling value each) stamps were running out faster than normal his suspicions fell on the lad.

The merchant decided to set a trap for his young employee, marking some of the stamps so he’d be able to recognize them later. One day soon afterwards he called for a stamp but since no one answered him he went to fetch one himself.  When he opened the box he found there were no shilling stamps left so he called William over, gave him 10and sent him to the post office to get some more.

When the teenager returned and handed him the stamps Ede noticed that some of them bore the secret marks he’d inscribed on them. Clearly William had pocketed some of the money for himself and fobbed his master off with the stamps he’d previously stolen. The merchant confronted the boy and asked him if he stolen from him. At first William lied and said he was innocent but capitulated when his boss told him about the markings.

Mr Ede resolved to write to the boy’s father and have him dismissed from his service and taken home. That would have been the end of it (and reminds us that very many petty thefts like this would never have reached the courts) had not William tried to justify his actions. Theft was bad enough but to couple it with deception and a refusal to acknowledge one’s guilt was too much for the merchant who was determined that the boy needed to be taught a lesson.

On Monday 4 February 1861 William Gillman appeared before the Lord Mayor at Mansion House police court where he was formally charged with theft. He could have been sent to prison for his crime but neither the magistrate or Mr Ede wanted that. The boy’s father was present and was willing to take the lad back into his care so, after ‘a severe reprimand’ he was discharged.

Let’s hope he learned that hard life lesson and quickly moved on.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, 5 February, 1861]

A waiter reaches rock bottom and tries to end it all

Victorian man ordering coffee from a waiter in a bar

We know that very many families today struggle to survive even though we have a well established and supposedly thriving economy and the safety net of a state financed benefit system. The refusal of some employers (like Tim Martin) to even discuss paying the ‘living wage’ is indicative of the reality that even in the 21stcentury poverty continues to exist side-by-side with immense wealth.

It is often those working in the service and entertainment industries that get paid the least for working the longest and most inconvenient hours. To get some historical perspective (and sadly, historical continuity) we can look at the case of John Johnson who appeared in the dock at Mansion House Police court in January 1884 accused of attempting to kill himself.

Johnson was a waiter working at a Fenchurch Street restaurant who was paid so little he was struggling to feed and clothe his family. Let’s note that this man was not a criminal, not a thief, nor was he unemployed, or seeking benefits. Like so many people today who work in the ‘gig economy’ or on ‘zero-hour contracts’ he was paid very little to wait tables in central London and by January he was so overwhelmed by his situation he plunged a kitchen knife into his own chest.

He recovered in hospital but was arrested and questioned by the police. When he told them of his economic distress they investigated, sending a sergeant and a man who was present at the restaurant at the time to see his circumstances for themselves.

It was pretty desperate.

The sergeant told the Lord Mayor at Mansion House that:

‘There was barely any furniture in the house’, suggesting that they had pawned or sold (or even burned them for fuel), in an effort to stay warm and alive. The waiter’s wife was ‘so weak that she seemed scarcely able to stand’ when they knocked at the front door.

She showed them in and upstairs where the family occupied one room. There ‘they found some of the children lying on a very old bedstead with no clothes on them. She then pointed to a corner, which was so dark that they could not see anything, but on searching more closely [they] discovered some of the children huddled together. They were fast asleep, but had no clothing whatever on.’

He went on to say that the couple’s eldest daughter, a girl of 18, was sat slumped in the fireplace with a child in her arms. This baby was hers but the father had been locked up in ‘a madhouse’ so she had no one else to support it. Another girl, aged four, sat next to her, with no ‘shoes or stockings on’.

It was a terrible sight to behold and the gentleman accompanying the officer immediately doled out some coins to help them ‘relieve their present condition’ but clearly they needed much more help.

In court the Lord Mayor could do little more than inform the parish poor law officials to pay a visit. He extracted a promise form Johnson that he wouldn’t repeat his attempt at suicide, and dismissed him.  This was a society that only cared up to a point and was more interested in profit than economic equality of opportunity. I sometimes (often actually) wonder how far we’ve come since then.

Tim Martin is worth an estimated £448,000,000. He allegedly pays his bar staff a basic £8.05 an hour.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, 29 January, 1884]

Spare the rod and spoil the child? Not if the vicar has his way

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Legislation in 1847 and 1850 brought nearly all no violent crime committed by juveniles under the jurisdiction of the magistrate. Developments in the 1850s then empowered justices to send boys and girls from 8-14 to reformatory or industrial schools to be disciplined and to learn some basic life skills. This did a lot to remove young people from the adult courts where, for centuries, they had been dealt with alongside all other offenders. It took another half century (to 1908) before separate courts were created for juveniles but we can see the mid century acts as an improvement of sorts.

William Frewen wasn’t in a reformatory in 1863 but he could well have been. William attended Barnes National School in South London. He was listed as a scholar and lived near by. In early January 1863 the school was still closed up for the Christmas holiday but a break-in had been discovered. The schoolmaster’s desk had been forced open and a small money box was missing.

The box (described as the ‘missionary box’) was used to hold donations for charity and at the time contained about 10s). Young William had already gained an unwelcome (if not unwarranted) reputation for pilfering and it was to him that the school master turned when he learned of the theft.

William denied everything but he was taken to see the local vicar, the Rev. Coplestone where, after another boy said he’d seen William enter the office by an open window, he confessed. Perhaps because of the confession or maybe out of a sense of Christian forgiveness the reverend told the magistrate at Wandsworth Police court that he was reluctant to press charges.

After some discussion the vicar and Mr Ingham (the magistrate presiding) decided that while they would not take this further (and send the boy away) he did require some form of punishment, if only to deter future acts of criminality. Mr Ingham ordered that he be given over to the local police sergeant so he could ‘receive eight strokes with a rod’.

Hopefully that short, sharp, lesson would be quickly learned and William would mend his ways. If not then it is likely that he would become a fairly regular occupant of a Police Court dock.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, January 09, 1863]

No help for the weakest from a society which simply didn’t care

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There are so many dreadful stories of poverty and distress in the pages of the nineteenth-century press that it would possible for me to write about that topic every single day. The number of attempted suicides in London in the 1800s reveals the struggle that so many people had with poverty, mental illness and a society that simply provided no proper system of support for those that didn’t ‘win at life’.

For me it is a constant reminder that the greatest achievement of the British state was the creation of the Welfare State in the aftermath of the Second World War. Clement Atlee’s post war government presided over a broken Britain, one battered by war which, while it had emerged victorious, had come perilously close to defeat and invasion by Hitler and fascism. Churchill is rightly credited with pulling us together through that dark period of our history but, for me, it was Atlee’s government that secured the peace by setting in place the foundations for rebuilding society.

In the early 1860s Britain was not at war – we’d had seen off the might of Imperial Russia in the Crimea several years earlier and the Indian Mutiny (or, more properly, war of independence) was a fading memory as well. Great Britain had an empire that covered the globe and our wealth was unsurpassed. Yet despite this our rulers did very little to support the poorest in society or recognize the contribution that others (‘foreigners’) had made to the nation’s success.

The Poor Law of 1834 had been designed to penalize the poor and to deter people from asking for help by effectively locking them up in a workhouse and breaking up their families if they did so. We had no NHS either, there were charities that helped the poorest with medical care but no universal right to free healthcare at the point of need. The understanding of mental illness was still in its infancy, and without private means an individual suffering with any form of mental illness was likely to be thrown into a workhouse or public asylum to be mistreated by doctors and nursing staff that knew very little and cared much less.

Muhomed Ali Khan was a member of the British Empire who felt he was entitled to its support. After 1857 and the failure of the Indian uprising the British state had taken full control of the Indian subcontinent. The British ruled for the benefit of the Queen and the motherland, not for the millions of indigenous Indians that lived there. Khan must have come to England to work, perhaps as a sailor, or soldier in the Queen’s army, or even as an employee of the East India Company.

Whatever the reason in 1862 he was in a parlous state. Destitute and suffering with physical and mental illness he was found at 11.30 in the morning outside the office of the East India Company in Victoria Street by a policeman. When asked what he was doing Khan told PC John Fever (255A) that he ‘had a claim on the government, and had determined to die at the door of those offices’. Fearing the man would make good on his promise PC Fever picked him up and helped him to the nearest workhouse.

Two days later Khan was back outside the EIC offices and had to be dragged back to the care of the workhouse staff. He had nothing to eat in between and was causing ‘annoyance’ by ‘walking about day after day in front of them’. The poor man was embarrassing the company that had profited so much  from the exploitation of India, its people  and its natural wealth. So he was brought before Mr Arnold at Westminster in a case the paper headlined ‘the Troublesome Indian’.

Here we learn that Khan had been ‘troublesome’ before: he had gained entry to the House of Lords and made an attempt on his own life. He had also appeared at Horse Guards during the Queen’s procession to open Parliament and had tried to cut his own throat. On both occasions, the magistrate was told, the poor man was sent to prison but it clearly hadn’t had the effect intended.

Mr Arnold was sympathetic but unable to do anything of real use for Khan. He hadn’t committed  an offence by wandering outside the EIC’s offices so he discharged him from court, but he didn’t help him much either. The man was given a shilling to get some food and sent on his way. It was almost inevitable that he would end up dead in the river or a workhouse infirmary before long and Victorian society, frankly, didn’t care which.

The British Empire and state was built on the backs of the vast majority who did not benefit from it but this was not properly recognized until Atlee and that first Labour administration.  I rather fear that lesson has been lost over the years as we worry about ‘benefit scroungers’ and continue to underfund the NHS and social care. For Mohamed Khan in 1862 we have the unnamed Hungarian who collapsed and died outside Parliament in December 2018.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Saturday, 4 January, 1862]

The City’s charity will not be given to ‘worthless people’ a magistrate assures the public.

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Goldsmiths’ Hall in the mid-ninetenth century, by Thomas Shepherd

It is the time of the year when charities do so much to raise awareness of poverty and homelessness. People are homeless all year round of course, and poverty is endemic in our society, but there is something particularly poignant about seeing someone sleeping rough at Christmas which helps charities prick the consciences of the general public.

At the Guildhall Police court in December 1855 the suffering of the poorest was on the mind of Alderman Finnis, the duty magistrate, but so were the attempts of the poor to help themselves. He notified the press that his court had received a cheque for £20  from the Goldsmiths’ Company which was to be added to the Poor Box. This enabled him and his fellow magistrates ‘to relieve many deserving cases’ in the City but he assured readers (and potential donors) that the money ‘was not given to worthless people’. The Goldsmiths could well afford it, as the painting of their headquarters above suggests.

Among those he might consider ‘worthless’ were Martha Gilbert and Mary Murphy. They had entered a bakery at 49, Old Bailey and had asked for a loaf of bread. When Mrs Fore, the shopkeeper, had placed it on the counter the women ripped it in half and rushed out, stuffing into their mouths as they ran. They were soon captured  and brought before the alderman.

In their defense they said they were starving which only earned them a rebuke.

‘That is no excuse, for you should have applied to the union’, Alderman Finnis told them.

They had, he was told, but St George’s had refused them poor relief. This was probably true the reliving officer of the West London Poor Law Union admitted,

‘for the metropolitan parishes were refusing to relieve the poor for the purpose of driving them into the City, where it was well known they were all relieved’.

Only the day before he had had no less than 153 applications, many from paupers living outside the City’s boundaries.

Alderman Finnis was outraged. ‘It is a pity they [meaning the Poor Law Unions in Middlesex] are not prosecuted for it’ he grumbled. Turning to the two women, who had clearly been honest in claiming their theft was entirely motivated by hunger, he sent them to the house of correction for seven days.

At least they would get fed.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, December 13, 1855]

If you would like to give to charity this winter then perhaps consider St Mungo’s who have been doing great work in London with the homeless since 1969.