Echoes of Bleak House or an elderly fraudster?

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“Jarndyce and Jarndyce drones on. This scarecrow of a suit has, in course of time, become so complicated that no man alive knows what it means.”

Benjamin Gibbs Mitchell was an old man and had recently found himself in the Giltspur prison in the City of London. It is likely that Mitchell was in gaol for debt, as most of the Giltspur’s inmates were sent there by their creditors [https://londonhistorians.wordpress.com/2010/10/27/compters-aka-counters/]. The gaol closed just a year or so after he was released and imprisonment for debt was formerley ended in 1869.

He may have committed another minor offence but the circumsatnces of his appearance in the Thames Police Court in September 1852 suggests that he was someone for whom money was often scarce.

Mitchell was charged by his landlady, Mrs Hannah with assault but this was to reveal quite a lot about the old man and his delaing with his neighbours. Mrs Hannah kept a lodging house in Wellington Place and when Benjamin Mitchell turned up there he was quite effusive about his requirements.

He demanded ‘coffee and eggs for breakfast, mutton and potatoes for dinner, with soup at other times, and feather pillows for his bed’. He was suffering he said from a delicate stomach following his imprisonment.

On being asked how he would pay he told the good lady he was expecting large sum of money anytime soon. However, after a month he had not paid a ‘farthing’ for this keep and Mrs Hannah began to get annoyed with him. He met her demands for money with violence, striking her with his umbrella. She wrenched the item from him and ‘belaboured him in return’. This is what brought the pair into court.

Benjamin denied the assault and calimed his affairs were in the hands of a most ‘respectable lawyer’, named Mr. Gray*. He was pursuing a claim to £7,000,000 through Chancery that had been going on for 54 years. This sounds like the infames ‘Jarndyce vs Jarndyce’ case that provides the backdrop for Dickens’ Bleak House, a case that went on for ever and ever (and ever).

The magistrate was skeptical and so Mitchell asked him to seek out his doctor who would vouch to the truth of. The court sent for Dr Faulkener.

When he arrived he did indeed speak in Benjamin’s defense; he was a ‘respectable man’ and there was such a claim. In the meantime though the justice had heard that several neighbours had complained about Mitchell’s frauds over a number of years and so he had decided to sentence the old man to 10s fine or 7 days in prison. That was heavy punishment for the assault but he justified it on the grounds that he was unable to punish him for the frauds. I’m not sure that would stand up in court today!

However having heard that the claims the man had made were now verified he sent word to have him released from the cells (he had not been able to pay the fine, as I suspect the ‘beak’ well knew). Instead he sent the old man the amount of the fine for his own use plus 5s from the poor box – punishment had switched quickly to charity on the evidence of one ‘respectable’ medical man.

*my brother is just such a ‘respectable’ lawyer

[From Daily News, Friday, September 24, 1852]

The real life Dodger and his crew?

Most readers will be familiar with Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist (or at least with one of the many film versions of the story). The young runaway Oliver arrives in London, tired, hungry and homeless, and is befriended by the Artful Dodger and inveigled into a (brief) life of crime.  Dickens probably based his characters on real people; he was a court reporter before he became a successful novelist and attended these same Police Courts.

Mr_Brownlow_at_the_bookstall

Oliver was fortunate that Mr Brownlow rescued him (twice in fact) or he may have suffered the same fate as so many young boys and men in the first half of the 1800s, to be transported to Australia or locked up in prison and set to hard labour.

Dickens based his story on seeing or reading about real life characters like Ikey Solomons or Bill Sheen either of whom could have been Fagin the receiver. And when we look at the pages of the newspapers for the 1820s it is possible to see the sketchy beginnings of the Dodger and his crew, as in this case from 1821.

Three boys, teenagers barely 14 years old, were brought before the City magistrate at the Guildhall. James Morgan, Henry Moir and George Singleton were accused of taking handkerchiefs in St Swithin’s Lane (a long winding road that runs between Cannon Street and King William Street and emerges by the Bank of England).

Mr Sandford, who was walking up the lane, missed his handkerchief and looking round saw a small boy (named Davison) who informed him some other lads had been attempting to pick his pocket. Sandford followed the boy to Lombard Street where he pointed out one of the culprits, Morgan, who was wearing a  brown coat.

A constable was called and Morgan was dragged to the Compter (the holding gaol for the city in Poultry, a street nearby). Here Morgan loudly declared his innocence although his face was well known to the watch and the City constables. While he continued to protest, saying he had ‘never been in custody before’, Singleton arrived with a black coat over his arm which he said he’d brought along as it belonged to his chum Morgan.

The officer he spoke to was suspicious however, and looking around he noticed another, smaller boy (Moir), who had no coat on. Moir was recognized as being released from Newgate prison only the day before, having ‘had the good fortune to be acquitted on an indictment for picking pockets’. Young Davison now swore that he had also seen Moir with Morgan in St Swithin’s Lane and so he (and Singleton) were quickly arrested.Singleton’s ploy was to have switched coats with Morgan to make the process of identification that much harder – on this occasion it hadn’t worked.

Moir’s parents appeared in court and were described as ‘respectable working people’ who lamented the fact that they could do nothing to keep their son on the straight and narrow. They told the beak that ‘they were desirous that he might be disposed of in any that might prevent his destruction’. No one appeared for Morgan, his friends having apparently ‘given him up as incorrigible’; Singleton said he had an employer who would speak for him  All three ‘dodgers’ were remanded for re-examination at later date, when Mr Sandford could appear to prosecute them. Their likely fate if found guilty? Probably prison and possibly transportation to New South Wales. Who know, they may even and benefited from the latter and emerged unscathed to become citizens of the new Australian nation.

            [from The Morning Chronicle , Friday, May 23, 1823]