A coster’s barrow stinks out the Guildhall

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Sometimes it is the banality of the Police courts that interests me. The magistrates that presided in London’s summary courts sent thousands of offenders up through the system  to face trials at Old Bailey or Clerkenwell where they were, if convicted by a jury, sentenced to transportation, imprisonment and even to death. Many more petty criminals, drunk and disorderly men and women, or anti-social juveniles were sent for spells of hard labour, expelled to a reformatory, or fined a few shillings or pounds.

The justices (the magistracy of London) had wide ranging powers which were hardly constrained by the right of appeal. Tremendous discretion rested with these men, all of whom had a legal background and many of whom served their communities for years.

One of the responsibilities they had was to keep to peace and another was to help regulate trade and maintain what we might term, health and safety. The metropolis had a infrastructure of inspectors and health officers but it fell to the magistrate to deal with those that broke the numerous rules that governed food sales and preparation or the maintenance of property.

In October 1889 Alfred Woodbridge was summoned to appear at the Guildhall Police Court before the alderman magistrate who presided there. Woodbridge was a costermonger, a trader who sold goods cheaply from a barrow. Costermongers didn’t enjoy a terribly respectable reputation and had frequent and endemic run-ins with the police who were forever moving them on from their pitches on the city’s streets.

Woodbridge wasn’t in trouble for obstructing the highway however; he had been brought on the instructions of the Commissioners of Sewers for having in his possession meat that  unfit for human consumption.

The coster had been spotted outside one of the City’s markets (either Smithfield, Fleet or Leadenhall – the report did not specify which) by a meat inspector named William Allen. Mr Allen told the court that he had discovered that Woodbridge had on his barrow:

’29 hams and eight pieces of pork, which were diseased and totally unfit for human food’. He seized them and took them to Dr Sedgewick Saunders – the Medical Officer of Health for the City of London – to be examined.  Dr Saunders confirmed the meat was bad saying that:

‘The odour from them was filthy, and they were quite black. It would have been a very serious result had they been eaten’.

Luckily they weren’t and so no harm had been done. Woodbridge made no attempt to deny the charge and he was fined £9 and 5s with a warning that if he could not find the money to pay he would go to prison for a month.

The magistrate then was enforcing the regulations that allowed trade to function across the City and at the same time protecting the public from unscrupulous traders. Whether Woodbridge learned his lesson and made sure his produce was safe in future is of course unknown. But a £9 fine was no small beer and we can be fairly sure that if he showed his face again in the area inspectors like Mr Allen would be quick to check his barrow.

[from The Standard, Friday, October 18, 1889]

Mr Tyrwhitt sends a message

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I am coming to recognise the names of several of the men that served as Police Court magistrates in the second half of the nineteenth century. Some, like Mr Lushington at Thames seemed to have little time for wife beaters or drunks, while others reveal a tender side to their nature when presented with cases of genuine need and despair.

Magistrates had considerable discretion in determining what to do with those brought before them; a ‘rule book’ existed (they might use Richard Burn’s Justice of the Peace and Parish Officer, or Oke’s Magisterial) but within the penalties available for a variety of offences there was considerable room for manoeuvre. Indeed while the prosecutor had the ultimate choice of bringing a case in the first place, the magistrate chose then whether to dismiss a charge, convict summarily, or send the prisoner up to a jury court (where they might expect a much more serious form of punishment).

Over at Marlborough Street, one of the busier police courts in London, Mr Tyrwhitt presided in the late 1860s. In late September 1867 two cases were reported at his court which suggest that he had a low tolerance level for nuisance and repeat offenders.

First up was Alice Smith, a ‘young woman’ who refused to give her address in court. I doubt this endeared her to the justice who may well have assumed she had something to hide or was a ‘down and out’. Alice had been caught picking flowers from a bed near the Serpentine in Hyde Park. PC William Cowell had seen the woman take the flowers but as soon as she saw him she hurriedly dropped them. Alice pleaded with the constable not to take her in and charge her, ‘offering to give him whatever he liked to let her go’.

She was probably intending to sell them for the few pennies she might get. It was a petty offence, hardly a serious crime but the magistrate was in an unforgiving mood. He told Alice that she was:

‘one of those mischievous persons that must be restrained. The business of that court was much increased by people that did mischief in the park’.

He fined her 5s or four days imprisonment and let it be known that in future he would hand down a fine of 40s (a significant amount in 1867) to anyone caught ‘plucking flowers’ belonging to the Board of Works.

Having dealt with such a serious theft of the capital’s flora Tyrwhitt was presented with three juvenile felons. George Vial (17), Frederick Williams (15) and James Brougham (14) had been seen loitering around Piccadilly by a plain clothes detective. Phillip Shrives, of C Division Metropolitan Police, said he had been watching the lads follow railway vans (‘evidently for the purpose of robbing them’) and arrested them.

With no other evidence presented against them another justice might have warned them or considered sending them to a reformatory school, but not Mr Tyrwhitt; he sent them all to prison for three months at hard labour.

And so, in this way, were ‘criminal careers’ created.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, September 25, 1867]

p.s I would add that despite what must come across as a rather liberal attitude towards these nineteenth-century offenders I do think we should recognise that for many of those caught up in the justice system, terrible as it could be in the 1800s, a considerable proportion of them had committed an offence that had left behind a victim or victims. On Sunday (yesterday that is) my brother-in-law and sister-in-law’s home was broken into in the early hours while they were away at a family gathering in Manchester.

The thieves broke in through the back patio doors, made a considerable mess as they ransacked all the upstairs room, and stole a small amount of personal and irreplaceable jewellery. The burglary meant I spent half the day waiting for the police and the glass replacement man but it was of course much worse for my in-laws who returned home to find their home violated. Historians of crime need to start to recognise the very real effect of crime on those that were victim to it; as one fellow historian of crime noted to me today:

‘There’s temptation to treat it as colourful history from below with juicy sources and too little recognition that many criminals hurt the poor and vulnerable. Time for the Victim Turn?’