Is it better to plead guilty to bigamy than risk prison for debt?


It is fairly unusual to find a case about bigamy in the summary courts of the capital. Accusations that an individual was already married must have been reasonable common given the reality that working class men and women cohabited quite frequently in the 1800s, and the Old Bailey heard over 1500 trials for bigamy between 1800 and 1900. Of those close to 85% resulted in a conviction and most (515 out of 1305) took place in the last two decades of the century.

In 1846 there were 12 cases and only Robert Furness escaped a guilty verdict. You may be surprised to discover that a conviction of bigamy could earn you a sentence of transportation overseas for no less than seven years. All of the accused in 1846 were men but women could also be prosecuted.

However, as I suggested they don’t often appear in the newspaper reports unless, as in the case of Charles Brindley, they were unusual. Brindley, a Spitalfields silk manufacturer, was brought up at Worship Street Police court in September 1846 and accused of several counts of bigamy. The court was told he had no less than four wives but little detail was produced.

Brindley then confessed to marrying twice without either wife being aware of it. This should have led him to face trial but the magistrate released him, so why did do this? It seems that along with the accusation that he was a polygamist Charles Brindley was in serious debt. An officer from the Sheriff’s court was after him and he seems to have confessed to bigamy to avoid being thrown into debtor’s prison.

If that was his ruse it didn’t work; as he left the court the Sheriff’s man was waiting for him and he was led away to face his creditors. Should we feel sorry for him? It seems that he made a lot of promises he couldn’t keep, both to those he traded with and to the women he formed relationships with. In the end it all unraveled and Brindley would be ruined. So I have some (limited) sympathy.

Just two years before Brindley was arrested by the Sheriff’s man the liability that would lead you to debtor’s prison was set at £20 (a significant amount) and this went some way to saving thousands from the horror that Dickens’ experienced as a child. Following a change in the law in 1869 the number of people in debt was cut significantly but individuals could still be sent to gaol for up to six weeks (if not indefinitely any more). Even in the early twentieth century there were still close to 12,000 in prison for debt. Theoretically you can still go to prison for debt but it is thankfully highly unlikely.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, October 03, 1846]

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]

A bailiff gets his comeuppance

In October 1849 Henry and Margaret Joyce were summoned to the Clerkenwell Police Court to be be charged with assault by Henry Herrick. The Joyces ran an ironmonger’s shop in Wilstead Street, Somers Town (near Euston in central London). Herrick was ‘an officer of the Palace Court’, a court that was concerned with the private prosecution of small debts. It is likely that Herrick was a forerunner of a modern debt recovery officer, or bailiff. The compile were represented in court by a lawyer who was usually attached to the Hatton Garden Police Court nearby.

Herrick gave his evidence, stating that he had gone to the Joyce’s shop to serve a warrant on their son. At the door he declared who he was and showed him his authority to arrest their boy for debt. Perhaps not surprisingly they threw him out and prevented him executing his warrant. The son was apparently hiding in the back yard.

The officer persisted however, forcing his way into the house and seizing the lad. Mrs Joyce now attacked him ‘violently’, pelting him ‘with crockeryware’! Henry Joyce tore his shirt and his wife snatched at his face. Eventually he dragged the son out into the street and tried to bundle him into a cart he had waiting nearby. The lad rested and a crowd soon gathered to see what all the fuss was about.

The defence now challenged his evidence, Mr Sidney (the Hatton Garden solicitor) asked Herrick: ‘Pray, have you got a staff?’ ‘Yes’ the officer responded. ‘Did you use it on my clients?’ Herrick denied that he had, and the staff was produced in court.

This was a heavy staff with a brass crown at the top, a ceremonial symbol of the officer’s authority but something capable of doing great harm. Mr Joyce declared that he had indeed used it on him in his attempts to capture their son.

The solicitor now remained to know where Herrick’s witnesses were. After all he had claimed that a large crowd had witnessed the ‘violent’ attack on him his clients. The only person who supported Herrick was his assistant, who said the boy had not resisted at first, but only after his parents had hit Mr Herrck. It was a confused and inconsistent prosecution and there were no independent witnesses that supported the Palace Court officer.

By contrast Mr Sidney was able to bring in a lady named Frances Stephenson who had entered the ironmonger’s shop as a customer and witnessed Herrick’s arrival. When Mrs Joyce saw the officer she asked him what he wanted.

‘”I’ll soon let you know”, and he stuck her. Witness [Mrs Stephenson] said, “You brute, what do you mean?” Witness then saw the staff in his hand. The children were alarmed, and crying and screaming. He had a large ring on his finger and he struck Mrs Joyce on the head’.

The magistrate asked Herrick if he wanted to question Mrs Stephenson. What we would the point, the officer answered, since she had sworn on oath against him. Mr Tyrwhitt (the magistrate) asked her if she had any connection to the Joyces. She hadn’t she said, ‘I am quite a stranger, and entered the shop accidentally to purchase the bottom of a grate’.

A local shoemaker also saw the altercation and testified that Herrick had struck Mrs Joyce. He said he saw  a small crowd and heard cries of ‘shame’ and hissing; ‘the people also hooted the officer’. He saw no one attack Herrick but he did see the officer and his assistant attack the son and his parents.

The evidence pointed to a counter accusation, that Herrick was the aggressor not the victim. This is certainly how Mr Tyrwhitt saw it and he advised the officer that he could take it to the Sessions of the Peace but he was going to dismiss it here.

Being arrested and then imprisoned for debt was a terrible thing in the 1800s. Thousands were incarcerated in prisons such as the Marshals (which the Palace court served). Dickens had first hand experience of this as his father had been locked up in one. Once in it was hard to get out because self-evidently your ability to repay any debt was complicated by imprisonment.

So this may be an example of collective resistance to the processes of the debtors’ court; Herrick was (as a bailiff character) a ‘hate figure’ and whether he acted as he testified or as the witnesses for the defence did, we shall never know.

I know whose side I’m on however.





[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, October 30, 1849]