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]

Exploitation in the ‘rag trade’: a perennial disgrace

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It is not often that the Police Magistrates of London side with the defendant in the dock over the prosecutor but this is one of those cases. Arthur Brotherton described himself as a ‘clothier and slop-dealer’ operating out of a property on Jury Street, Aldgate. He had employed Elizabeth Craig to make up nine coats for him to sell, and had supplied her with all the necessary materials.

This was out work and so Elizabeth took the cloth home to work on, or at least that was what she was supposed to have done. Instead she took it to a pawnbrokers and exchanged it for money; money she badly needed to support her family. When he found out Brotherton had her arrested and she appeared before Mr Norton at Lambeth Police court.

Looking wretched and clutching a ‘half-starved child in her arms’ Elizabeth pleaded poverty as her motivation for stealing from her employer. She said Brotheton expected her to make up the coats for just a ‘shilling a piece’ and added that she also had to ‘provide the thread for making them up, and also work the button-holes with twist’.

If it seems like very little to us that’s because it was.  Kennington tailor was in the public gallery that morning at on hearing this he rose to his feet. He declared that:

‘he was quite astonished that any person could expect to get such coats as these produced made up for the paltry pittance of one shilling apiece. They would occupy the poor woman two days in making each, and the lowest possible sum he should have given the prisoner was five shillings’.

Mr Norton entirely agreed and told Brotherton that he was unsure how anyone could expect him to punish a woman for doing what she’d done when she was subjected to such poverty. He described the slop-seller’s conduct in trying to pay her so little and then prosecute her as ‘heartless’.

Brotherton was unmoved and said she could perfectly well earn 10 shillings a week doing so if only she wanted to. At this another tailor stood up and said this was impossible:

‘if she earned anything like the money [that Brotherton had suggested, then at those wage rates] she must work the whole of the night as well as the day’.

The prosecutor now said that Elizabeth got an allowance form her estranged husband and that supplemented the wages he paid. Clearly this was unreasonable but he added that Mr Craig had guaranteed the gods he’d supplied to his wife and so he’d hold him accountable for his loss.

Craig was in court but said he wasn’t responsible. As far as he understood it the pawnbroker had already agreed to hand the material back to Brotherton ‘as he had taken them in an unfinished state’ and had ‘rendered himself liable to deliver things up without the payment of a principal or interest’. He paid his wife 3s  a week and had often had to get things our of pawn for her; he did what he could but wasn’t responsible for her actions.

The magistrate had made his feelings clear; regardless of the law Brotherton was the real villain of the piece. As an exploitative trader he used Elizabeth’s desperation for money to pay her a pittance for the skilled work she undertook. Hopefully his exposure in the newspapers was a warning him and to others not to mistreat their workers in future. Elizabeth walked away from court a free woman but probably one without work and so the money she needed to support herself and her child, her future then was very much in the balance.

Her story is a reminder that in very many parts of the world women and men (and children) continue to be exploited and paid a pittance so that others can dress in the latest fashions and manufacturers and retailers can profit from it. Next time you buy a dress or a shirt or some trousers check the label and ask yourself, how much was the person that made this paid and how much time did they spend doing it?

[from Lloyd’s Weekly London Newspaper , Sunday, July 12, 1846]

‘I’ll steal from you Mr Robinson’: pilfering in the Victorian department store

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Edith Oliver’s appearance at Marlborough Street Police court in May 1876 gives us a glimpse back at the beginnings of the department store in London. Edith was accused of stealing ‘a bonnet shape’ from her employer and when her lodgings were searched several other items were found, including ‘lace, silk, and velvet materials used in the workroom’ on Oxford Street.

The bonnet pattern had been discovered concealed under Edith’s clothes so she must been the subject on suspicion, perhaps based on information from another employee. The firm employed 500 workers and there were notices posted up all over the building warning the staff of the consequences of taking home things that belonged to the company without permission.

Wages for workers in the clothing trades in the late 1800s weren’t large and Edith (like many others) was probably keen to supplement them by doing private work or making and repairing clothes for her family. There was nothing new in this of course, workers had been taking home offcuts as ‘perks’ (perquisites) of the job for centuries. It was in the previous century that the owners of businesses had started to clamp down in such pilferage, and parliament had obliged by passing hundreds of laws to prohibit thefts from the workplace with the threat of capital punishment for those that persisted.

By 1876 Edith wasn’t going to face such a severe penalty but if convicted she would almost certainly lose her liberty, and her job. Mr Addrett, the works manager, said that they were vulnerable to pilfering an so it was necessary to make an example of her. William Franklin, a timekeeper at the firm, testified that Edith had told him she was setting herself up in business privately and that the goods found at her home belonged to her and weren’t stolen.

Mr Newton, the sitting magistrate, found Edith quietly and sentenced her to 14 days hard labour. She would also lose her job but he didn’t think that would affect her too much, and fully believed she would find work again afterwards somewhere else. He hinted that there should be a tighter control of such staff and that character references should be taken as they were for domestics. Otherwise someone like Edith might walk into employment and start pilfering all over again.

Now we routinely take references which often ask questions about the prospective employee’s honesty and suitability. Edith would have found it hard to get similar work without the Mr Addrett’s recommendation  but I’m sure if she was a talented seamstress she would have had no problem getting piece work away from the bright lights of Oxford Street and over in the East End.

Which brings me to reveal where Edith worked. She was employed by Mr Peter Robinson, silk mercer, on Oxford Circus. Robinson had run a business in the West End from the 1830s and opened his department store on Oxford Street in 1850. By 1876 he was dead and since he had no male children the store must have been run by someone else. It wasn’t run by his younger assistant, John Lewis, because he turned down the opportunity to go into business with his mentor, opting instead to open his own shop in 1864. I wonder how he got on?

[from The Morning Post, Friday, May 26, 1876]

An act of kindness or a juvenile prank?

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Westminster Bridge and the new Houses of Parliament, 1858

As a mother and her daughter walked along the banks of the Thames in October 1858 two young men hailed them from their cart and asked them if they’d like a ‘ride to the new bridge’.

I imagine the ‘new bridge’ in question was Westminster which was under construction in 1858. By the middle of the 1800s the old Westminster Bridge (which dated from the middle of the previous century) was in a bad state of repair. Thomas Page was commissioned to design a new bridge and the structure, with decorations by Charles Barry (the architect of the new Gothic Houses of Parliament) opened in May 1862.

The young men, named Shearing and Lloyd may have an ulterior motive in picking up the women but it certainly wasn’t robbery. The women were poor, being alter described as of ‘very humble position’. Moreover the younger woman was carrying an infant and so they gratefully accepted the lads’ offer and climbed aboard.

The men were smoking and probably showing off, or ‘larking about’ to use a term contemporaries would have understood. One of them threw his pipe away once he had finished with it and the cart rattled on towards the bridge.

Suddenly to their horror the women realised that there was a fire in the cart and their clothes quickly ignited. It seemed to have spread from a piece of paper, maybe lit from the discarded pipe. Since it was so shocking and had burned right through the women’s clothes to their undergarments they decided to press charges at the Westminster Police Court.

Mr Arnold, the sitting justice, was told that ‘the old lady’s hands were burnt in extinguishing the fire, and she and her daughter, who appeared very creditable people, were much grieved by the loss they had sustained to their clothes, amounting to at least £2’.

So the case turned on whether the fire was an accident, or set deliberately, perhaps as a prank.

Was that the reason the men had offered the women a lift, to lure them into the cart to play an unpleasant joke on them? It is certainly possible but Mr Arnold was unsure. Had he been sure, he said, that the fire was intentional ‘he would have visited it with the severest punishment of the law’. But there was not enough evidence against the pair so he was unable to order compensation, and so the lads were released. Regardless of whether there was any intent or not this judgement did nothing at all to help the poor women who probably could ill afford to lose their clothes to a fire, however accidental.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, October 05, 1858]

Exploiting workers in the late 19th century ‘rag trade’.

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Contemporary cartoon on the evils of ‘sweated’ factory labour

Yesterday’s case looked at the regulation of living conditions and featured two landlords who were fined heavily for allowing their rental properties to fall into a ‘filthy’ state, ‘unfit for human habitation’. That was in Bermondsey, south London, an area identified with poverty and poor housing in Charles Booth’s poverty maps.

North of the Thames the East End, and in particular the narrow streets and courts of Whitechapel were equally synonymous with degradation. Here too  in the 1880s there was a contemporary concern about the ‘sweating’ in the clothing trade.  ‘Sweating’ referred to the exploitation of (often foreign) workers, forced to work long hours in cramped and unhealthy conditions, for very low pay.

In 1890 a House of Lords select committee reported that ‘the evidence tends to show much evasion of the Factory Acts and overtime working of females’ in the clothing industry in London. The Factory Acts, widely flouted and largely ineffectual, were supposed to prevent dangerous or unhealthy conditions in the workplace, and to limit the amount of hours men, women and especially children, could be asked to work in any given week.

In May 1886 a Whitechapel tailor, Harris Solomons, was summoned to the Thames Police Court to answer charges that he was overworking some of his female employees.

Solomons, most probably one of the East End’s well-established Jewish community, operated from 8 Fieldgate Street, Spitalfields, close to the Bell Foundry and not far from the London Hospital.  In just a few years this area would become forever associated with the unsolved murders of ‘Jack the Ripper’.

The summons against the Whitechapel tailor was prosecuted by a factory inspector, Gerald Slade. He gave evidence that he had visited the defendant’s property four times in the last two months. This suggests either that the authorities were operating a crackdown on the clothing industry or Mr Solomons was a name on a targeted hit list.

Slade discovered that along with himself, Solomons employed two women. He found that these women were required to work until 9 o’clock most days, sometimes as late as 10. On Sundays they worked till 4 in the afternoon.

The inspector informed Solomons that if he expected his workers to toil on a Sunday he must let them leave no later than 8 in the evening on weekdays. Given that Solomons was in all likelihood Jewish and assuming his workers were, then they would not have worked Saturdays or late on a  Friday night, because of religious restrictions.

This constrained the working week and competition was great in the period so it seems Solomons was flouting the regulations of the Factory Acts that had been passed in part to protect labourers from such exploitation.

When Slade visited the premises on the following Sunday he had found both women, and the tailor, hard at work at half-past five, well beyond the 4 o’clock cut off point. As a result he had summoned Solomons for infringing the act.

Solomons pleaded innocent and tried to argue that there were special circumstances. He had a deadline, and since ‘the holidays’ were imminent he needed to get this job finished. In total Slade brought 3 charges, all similar, against the tailor and Mr Lushington found against him. He fined him 206d in the main case, and 1 plus costs in the other two. It was an expensive day in court for the tailor and a day lost in the workshop to boot.

Whether this, or similar cases, had any real immediate or long term effect on the operation of the ‘rag trade’ or on workshop conditions in London is debatable. The select committee noted that the worst offenders were very hard to prosecute. Evidence had to produced  which usually meant an inspector had to catch an employer ‘red handed’ or an employee had to be a ‘whistle-blower’. The latter were extremely hard to find because work was at a  premium in the late 1800s and many of those recruited to work in these ‘sweat shops’ were desperate for the few pennies they earned.

Contemporaries like Annie Besant attempted to explore the trade but the huge numbers of ‘greeners’ (newly arrived Eastern European refugees, escaping persecution or famine in Russia) meant that there was a ready-made surplus of labour. A whistle-blower risked their job and their survival for little or no reward.

The way to fight ‘sweating’ then, was collective action. Given the small numbers of unionised labour in the 1870s and ’80s this was hard. Besant and the women that worked in Bryant & May match factory in the East End did, however, later show the capital and the world how determined and well-organised collective action could force an employer to address the concerns about pay and conditions.

The lesson was not lost on the dockers who organised successfully in 1889. The Match Girls and the Great Dock strikes probably represented the high point of late Victorian Trades Unionism. Over the next century workers’ rights would be championed, protected, and then gradually eroded from the 1980s onwards. We might remember then why we need to protect workers from exploitative employers: women being asked to work 6 days a week from early morning to late at night, with no rest, no lunch break, and very low pay is reason enough.

Exploitation has not gone away, and never will under the model of capitalism that exists in Britain and the world. Anyone that is any doubts about this need only look at trafficked workers, the existence of sweatshops in the developing world, the need for a minimum wage, and the modern phenomena of the ‘gig economy’ and zero-hour contracts. Capitalism has never been able to successfully police itself, which is why we need the state to do that.

[from The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, June 5, 1886]

A burglary in the Haymarket

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The Dog and Duck, Soho as it is today

When John Reynolds locked up the White Horse tavern on Whitecomb Street, Haymarket he made his way upstairs. Reynolds was a potman working for the landlord, Mr Austin, and he noticed his employer’s bedroom door was open. This was a surprise because his boss was out of town. He entered the room and found it ‘in a state of confusion’ with drawers ‘broken open’. Reynolds rushed downstairs and alerted the person in charge of the house, a Miss Pulsford.

She followed Reynolds upstairs to inspect the chaos and found a loaded revolver and a cut throat razor lying on the bed. They discovered that some ‘silver tops were taken from glasses, two clocks were gone, an umbrella, and other articles, mainly of wearing apparel’.

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The derelict Hand & Raquet pub on the corner of Whitecomb Street, possibly the site of the Mr Austin’s  White Horse in the 1870s.

The police were called and an inspector found an earring near the skylight and – on entering an unoccupied house next door – a large amount of clothing that seemed to have been dropped in the escape. There was no sign of the intruders however, and they might have gotten away with their theft had it not been for a sharp eyed landlord at a rival establishment.

Charles Cooper ran the Dog and Duck in Frith Street, Soho. A day after the break-in three men turned up at his house and offered for sale two clocks. Cooper must have been a friend of Mr Austin’s because he recognised the timepieces. He told the men he didn’t want them but knew someone who might buy them so asked them call again later that day. When they returned the police were waiting for them.

The men were brought before the magistrate at Marlbourough Street to be examined. He listened to the witness and to the police – who also produced the missing umbrella. This had borne Austin’s monogram but that had almost been obliterated as the thieves tried to hide the ownership of it from potential buyers. The justice remanded Charles Edmunds and Henry Watkins in custody but bailed the third man, Edward Stacey, for £50.

Interestingly a Henry Watkins and a Charles EDMONDS appear in the Old Bailey on more than one occasion in the 1880s. This offence is not listed by they were acquitted on two other occasions for similar activities. The Dog & Duck still exists in Soho, while the White Horse was demolished some years ago. In 1871 the landlord was listed as John Austen.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, November 16, 1881]