‘Oh don’t be so hard on me,’ pleads an Irish philosopher and gentleman of the road

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I had a ‘conversation’ yesterday on social media with someone asking how he should act when homeless people ask for money in the street. Should he give money, or buy them food or a coffee, or should he simply take the time to chat to them? It is a complex question and I quite understood his dilemma; some charities (like the Salvation Army) tell us not to give money, believing it perpetuates the problem. Others suggest we should to help them get the basic necessities of life.

I’m also often told that ‘they will spend it on drink or drugs’, not that it is any of my business how they spend whatever money they have.

Homelessness, vagrancy and begging are not modern social issues, they have been with us for as long as humans have lived in societies. The ‘modern’ vagrancy laws in Britain have their roots in the Tudor period with laws to punish ‘sturdy beggars’ and the building of houses of correction to enforce them. By the Victorian period poverty was endemic and being dealt with by the Poor Law, with workhouses operating as a deterrent to the ‘work-shy’ in the belief that poverty was a personal failing, not a product of society or a capitalist economic system.

There was also limited understanding of mental health and very little state provision for those that suffered. That much is obvious form so many of the cases I’ve written about on this site. I am reluctant to say that nineteenth-century society didn’t care about the poor and homeless and mentally ill, just that it didn’t really understand them and the underlying reasons for their actions.

St. George Gregg was someone who often found himself in trouble with the authorities in the late 1830s and early 40s. He’d come up before the Police court magistrates at Queen Square on more than one occasion in 1840 and was there again in early May that year.

Gregg was an Irishman and was frequently charged for being drunk. He was about to be convicted and fined by Mr Burrell when he raised his hand and asked if he could say a few words. The justice agreed and listened.

The defendant held out a small book, offering it to the chief usher to give to the magistrate. He explained that he’d been writing a book ‘on the currency question’ and thought his worship might like a copy. Mr. Burrell wasn’t interested.

I don’t want your book. What have you to say to the charge against you?’

I walk frequently thirty miles a day’, replied Gregg, ‘That fatigues me, and if I have nothing to eat the liquor has an effect sooner. I had no dinner yesterday, in fact I had no “tin”.’

The magistrate didn’t know what he meant by ‘tin’, so asked him.

Tin is money’, the man explained, ‘and having no  money I had no dinner’.

He’d tried to sell his books for money but seemingly had no takers to he’d started to sing in the streets and that way he’d raised a few pennies which he spent on drink.

‘You might have purchased victuals with that’, Mr Burrrell remarked.

‘Oh, sure, I wasn’t victuals hungry, I was grog hungry’ Gregg shot back. ‘I was like the captivating chandler, wanted I wanted in starch, I made up in blue’, he said, warming to his theme.

So I had toddy till I had but a single copper left, then devil a bed had I, and was making my way to the church-yard to go to bed on a tombstone, when the police found me quarters’.

He added that he’d written a study of ‘ambition’ and would send the magistrate a copy.

‘I don’t want your book. You are fined 5s’ was Mr. Burrell’s response.

Gregg hadn’t got one shilling let alone five and the justice must have realised this. What was the point of fining a homeless tramp anyway? Gregg attempted to barter with the justice, offering him books that he probably hadn’t written (and certainly hadn’t ‘published’ as he’d insisted he had) as part payment of the penalty. Burrell was having none of it and ordered him to be taken away; if he couldn’t pay the fine he’d have to go to prison.

Oh don’t be so hard on me’, pleaded the Irishman, ‘I want to finish a poem’. He was led away protesting his freedom.

Society didn’t understand George Gregg. He didn’t, couldn’t or wouldn’t conform to what was expected of him. He chose to live by his wits and on his own terms. Perhaps he was a ‘popular philosopher’, who wrote tracts in notebooks or scraps of paper that nobody read. His logical response to accusations of being drunk (drinking on an empty stomach) or his choice of how to spend the money he’d earned (on drink because he was thirsty after singing and walking) would be quite reasonable if he was a ‘normal’ member of society. Because he was an outsider and had chosen to live differently to others, the law treated him as a problem. It punished him rather than helped him. I’m not entirely sure we have made much progress in the last 180 odd years.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, May 7, 1840]

‘I won’t have a month, you must give me more’: an unhappy drunk at Westminster

The late Mr L C Tennyson d'Eyncourt

On Friday I recounted the story of a man who was clearly very unhappy at being brought before a magistrate and locked up, particularly because he’d had nothing to eat or drink that morning.  John Betts disturbed the court proceedings and smashed up his cell before he finally accepted his lot.

By contrast Eliza Hastings was unhappy because the magistrate refused to lock her up for longer.

The ‘wild looking and wretchedly clad’ woman was stood in the dock at Westminster to face Mr D’Eyncourt, a well established Police Court justice in the late 1800s. Eliza was charged with being drunk and disorderly and it wasn’t the first time she’d been up before the ‘beak’.

The court was told that she had ‘been repeatedly locked up’ and that ‘prison was the only home she has besides the streets’. She was homeless and presumably preferred not to enter the casual wards of London’s several workhouses.

No less than 30 conviction could be proven against the woman and the last of these had been on the 31 March, Mr D’Enycourt was told, when she was sent to prison for a month.

‘You keep on giving me a wretched month, that’s no good to me‘ Eliza grumbled from the dock, ‘give me a long time in prison‘ she pleaded.

However, Mr D’Eyncourt gave her another month and Eliza lost it. She raged at the magistrate and his court, ‘I won’t have a month, you must give me more’ before tearing off one of her boots and throwing it ‘with violence’ at the bench.

She was then led out of the court by the officers, screaming at the injustice of it all.

The magistrate might have wanted to give her longer but rules were rules and the guidelines he worked to suggested 30 days was the appropriate sentence for the offence she’d committed. She’d not used violence, or resisted arrest, or stolen anything. She was a drunk, a vagrant and quite possibly suffering from mental illness. I suspect that today she’d be a case for probation or social services and helped rather than locked up.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, May 6, 1888]

For other cases heard by Mr D’Eyncourt see:

Mr D’Eyncourt sends his own message after a telegraph boy is attacked

Health and safety ‘gone mad’, as a child narrowly avoids being roasted alive

Pickett climbs a fence and saves a life

The actress and her ‘lunatic’ husband

Bank Holiday drunkenness and violence drives the press narrative at Easter 1883.

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No sign today of the return of the cake scandal from yesterday but we’ll stay rooted in the police court reports from 1883, 135 years ago. These reports reference the preceding bank holiday (Monday 26 March) which must have been Easter Monday. In the late Victorian period England only enjoyed four bank holidays (Easter, Whit Monday, the 1st Monday in August and Boxing Day). These had been introduced in 1871 and were in addition to the Good Friday and Christmas Day closures that existed before Sir John Lubbock brought his legislation before parliament that year.

The press frequently commented on the effect public holidays had on the working population, an effect it seems they thought far from positive. Public holidays were associated with crowds gathering in the parks and at the coast and, more detrimental to the public good, the consumption of alcohol in large amounts.

At Worship Street Police Court ‘exactly half’ the day charges were related to drink: ‘such as disorderly conduct, drunk whilst in charge of horses and vehicles etc, common assaults…’ A policeman brought in one belligerent who he said was responsible for an assault using a belt marked with words ‘skeleton army’ which implied gang membership. Since there was no real proof the fellow had done nothing that he could be charged with Mr Hannay released him.

Over at Southwark three other gang members were paraded before the magistrate, Mr Bridge. Edward Walters (20) James Walters (19) and William Robinson (20) were alleged to be affiliated to the Black Gang. There were accused of a violent street robbery carried out in Union Street in the Borough. Their victim was William White who had sustained injuries too severe to allow him to attend court in person until now.

Between 12 and one in the morning of Sunday 4 March 1883 the three gangsters had jumped White in the street and knocked him to the ground.

‘One man placed his foot across his eyes, while another put his hands in his pockets’ the court was told. ‘While struggling with them he received such a brutal kick in the side of the head that he became insensible, and he had no recollection of anything after that until he found himself in Guy’s Hospital’.

White was still in pain and hadn’t been too clear about the identities of the men that had attempted to rob him. He’d given some information to the police who had apprehended the men quite quickly with the help of a witness, who’d helped out at the scene. The three men were fully committed to take their trial at the next sessions.

Over at Thames the story was similar to that at Worship Street: 36 cases mostly involving alcohol that included ‘drunk and disorderly conduct, wilful damage, refusing to quit licensed premises when requested, assaults, and attempted suicide’.

The picture the press gathered then was a sorry one. The working class, left to their own devices, used the extra day off work to get drunk, fight, challenge authority, and even fall so far into inebriation that in despair they attempted to take their own lives. The appearance of gang violence sandwiched within this tale of low-life degradation was quite probably deliberate. It reminded the readers of the press that at its worst the working class of England were animalistic and violent, especially when they were allowed to indulge their passion for ‘the demon drink’.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, March 28, 1883]

Health and safety ‘gone mad’, as a child narrowly avoids being roasted alive

The Great Western Railway

On the 19 March 1873 The Morning Post reported its daily selection of reports from the Metropolitan Police Courts. At Marylebone there was a complicated ‘health and safety’ case (or at least that is how we would probably describe it today). Nowadays these sorts of cases don’t tend to come up before a magistrate, being dealt with elsewhere, but in the 1800s these were part and parcel of a local justice’s workload.

A summons had been taken out by James Henderson, a factory inspector, who was bringing a charge against the Great Western (Railway) company. He was represented in  court  by a barrister, Mr Henderson, while the company was defended by another lawyer, Mr Thesiger. The case was heard by Mr D’Eyncourt.

The fact were briefly restated: a young lad working for the company during the day had:

‘imprudently crept into the fire-box of a [steam] engine, and whilst asleep the fire was lifted by the fireman in ignorance of the poor boy being there’.

Crucially the report doesn’t say  what happened to the ‘poor boy’ but I am assuming he was fine, or this would have been a very different sort of prosecution. As it was Mr Henderson was attempting prosecute under the terms of the Factory Acts while the company’s counsel argued that these acts didn’t cover the railway company’s premises.

As I suggested, the case was complex and turned on a number of key points of law involving the definition of the engine sheds in the context of the Factory legislation. In the end Mr D’Eyncourt ruled that since the work carried out there involved repairs and maintenance to the rolling stock and locomotives owned by the railway, rather than any manufacturing per se, the acts did not apply and so he dismissed the summons.

I think we would all be more interested in the welfare of the boy and how he came to be sleeping in a fire box but the editor clearly thought his readers would prefer to hear the minutiae of a legal debate. What was more interesting (to me at least) was its remark that exactly a year earlier the Marylebone court had been much busier than it was this week in 1873. In March 1872 there had been 49 charges heard on the corresponding day whereas a year later there were just 23.

The paper listed them:

‘Drunk and incapable, 8; drunk and disorderly, 13; drunk and assault, 1; throwing stones, 1’.

All the offenders that were known to the court were fined 26d or sent to prison for seven days. These types of cases were much more typical of the London Police Courts in the 1800s; and thankfully much more typical than cases involving the accidental roasting of children in locomotive sheds.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, March 19, 1873]

A ‘riot in church’? Drunkenness and disorder at St. George’s-in-the-East

drawing10

We credit the Victorians with being much more regular churchgoers than we are today. In 1851 a census was taken of all religious observance in Britain and it produced some interesting results. The report showed that only about 40-45% of those able to attend church did so, with numbers higher in rural areas. Moreover it noted that if everyone who could attend did, there wouldn’t be room for them all.

This was worrying as church was seen as the best way of inculcating good morals and discipline in the populace. Universal education was still in its infancy and its reach was limited, the church (and particularly the established Church of England)

There does also seem to have been a concern about behaviour in church, especially the behaviour (or misbehaviour) of the lower classes and this is evident in the report of cases before the Thames Police Court magistrate in March 1860, nine years after the census was taken.

John March, who had a ‘respectable appearance’ and carried on a trade as an umbrella maker, was charged with disturbing the Rev. Thomas Dove as he presided over service at St George’s-in-the-East on Sunday morning.

He told Mr Yardley that the accused he ‘was interrupted during the Litany service by the saying of supplications in a different tone from that in which he was singing them’. There was also some ‘unnecessary coughing’ he complained.

I found it surprising that there was a policeman on duty in the church. PC Charles Pearce (382K) said he was alerted to a young man in a pew who was coughing loudly. He said that March ‘related the coughing several times , and out his hand over his mouth and held his head down’. It ‘was an artificial cough’ PC Pearce concluded, and March was obviously trying to put the minister off his stride. March’s neighbour could also be heard to tell him to ‘hush’.

The policeman moved in and spoke to the young man, saying:

‘You must go. You have been coughing and laughing all the morning’. March was reluctant to oblige, declaring it ‘was only a mistake’.

Mr Yardley was told that there was plenty more evidence of March’s attempts to undermine the curate but no one turned up in court to testify so he discharged the prisoner. This decision was met with ‘a murmur of satisfaction and applause’.

Next up was Eliza Fenwick who, by contrast with the ‘respectable’ John March was described as ‘dirty and dissipated’. She was also charged with disturbing Rev. Dove’s service but, more seriously, by being drunk and disorderly.

Here Mr Yardley was on firmer legal ground. He said she had been proven guilty of ‘most improper conduct’ which was ‘aggravated by the fact of her being drunk’. Drinking was bad enough but drinking on the Sabbath, and being drunk in church was the action of a dissolute individual. However, there was no evidence that Eliza had gone to Rev. Dove’s service with the express intention of disturbing it so he simply fined her 10s for being drunk and disorderly. So long as she paid she was free to go, if she didn’t have the funds however she’d go to prison.

St George’s-in-the-East was one of several churches built by Nicholas Hawksmoor in the early 1700s to bring the church into the lives of the capital’s poorest communities. Driven by legislation (the New Churches in London and Westminster Act, 1710) the intent was to build 50 new churches across the metropolis. There was a real concern at the time that a lack of places of worship would undermine attempts to spread good discipline and morality amongst London’s poor, so the religious census of 1851 was an echo of this initiative.

I find it interesting that Reynolds’s Newspaper, which served a more radical working-class readership than most, chose to caption this report ‘Rioting in church’. There was no rioting as such which  that the paper had its tongue firmly in its cheek, and was pouring some scorn on the actions of the Rev. Dove in bringing such trivial complaints to court. Alternatively if might have been using the ‘headline’ technique (not something we associate with Victorian papers) as a means to catch the eye, regardless of the real content of the article below.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, March 4, 1860]

St George’s remains (along with Christ’s Church Spitalfields) an example of Hawksmoor’s magnificent architectural ability. It was hit by German bombs during the WW2 but has mostly survived and is well worth a visit. 

‘All his trouble brought on by drinking’; a suspected burglar at Southwark

Brazil_Railway_Company_closeup

We know that London was a cosmopolitan city in the Victorian age, and that it sat at the heart of Empire and world trade. Ships brought cargoes from all over the globe and Britons traveled far and wide to work and seek their fortunes in foreign lands.

Charles Conran was one such individual. In February 1865, as the American Civil was coming to an end, Conran had recently returned from Brazil where he had been working as a navvy. He had been contracted by a firm in Victoria Street to help build ‘a railway near Rio Janeiro’ [sic] and had been abroad for three years.* Once home In London it had gone on what we might today describe as ‘a bender’; drinking heavily and spending the wages he had accumulated abroad.

This had not ended well for Charles. At half past one in the morning he had been discovered trying to break into a premises on Newington Causeway by a policeman on his beat. PC 163M had heard ‘a rattling noise’ outside a glove dealer’s shop and stopped Conran as he attempted to ‘force the bolt of a shutter box’ to gain entry. Since the man couldn’t give a satisfactory explanation of his conduct the constable arrested him and presented him before the Southwark magistrate in the morning.

The Police court was told that had Conran managed to shoot the bolt he would have been able to access the shop via a set of steps and could have plundered Mr Solomon Myers’ stock with impunity. Conrad insisted however that he was no thief; he had got drunk and lost his way, he had no intention to break in to Mrs Myers’ shop at all.

The police had conducted some enquiries and discovered that Conran was telling the truth about his return from Brazil. That added up, and his employers state that while they had given him some of his salary there was still more to come. So Conran wasn’t completely broke (and therefore motivated to steal from the glover’s) and this helped his case.

The magistrate was inclined to believe that this was an honest error on his part, that perhaps all he wanted was some shelter in the doorway of the shop, not to burgle it. When he was arrested all he had on him was ‘an old knife’ the policeman said. As for money, ‘he had not a farthing’. He wasn’t drunk but had clearly been drinking the justice was told, so he couldn’t be prosecuted as drunk and disorderly either.

The magistrate looked down from the bench and instructed the court officer to discharge Conran, suggesting to the former navvy that ‘he keep sober for the future’.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, February 17, 1865]

*The British had been active in the building of the Brazilian railways between 1840 and the 1880s. Schemes funded by the City of London and private investors had helped open up Brazil thought the period and into the 1900s

An embarrassed client is one ‘unfortunate’s “get out gaol free” card

the_haymarket_at_midnight

In 18657 Henry Mayhew wrote that that there were 8,600 prostitutes in London who were ‘known to the police’ (others suggested that in total there were 10 times this number of ‘unfortunates’). Mathew believed the higher figure was no exaggeration and declared that there were 8,000 or more amongst the ‘circulating harlotry of the Haymarket and Regent’s Street’.  One of these it seems, shared a surname with me.

Mary Gray was described as ‘a shabbily attired unfortunate’ when she appeared before Mr Knox at Marlborough Street Police Court. Mary was accused of robbing Henry Videon, a licensed victualler whose address was given as 51 Dean Street, Soho.

Mr Videon did not appear to press the charge against Mary Gray so this was brought instead by the policeman that arrested her. PC Kingston (184C) told the magistrate that he had resounded to cries of help in the street and found Mary and Videon ‘grappling on the ground’. He seized the woman and when the man had got to his feet he charged her with stealing a valuable breast pin, worth £10.

Mary denied it but before she could palm it to a nearby woman, PC Kingston grabbed her hand and found it concealed there. Mary now changed her story and said that she’d not stolen it, she was simply holding it because the man had refused to pay her the £2 he owed her for sex. Mary described how she had met Videon on the Haymarket at half past one in the morning and had taken him to a brothel, the York Hotel. They’d not stayed there very long but walked on down Regent Street where she demanded payment.

The story was now taken up by the policemen who repeated what the victualler had told him. According to him, when Videon had refused to pay her she ‘knocked his hat off’ and stole his pin. Mary said she only took the pin ‘for a lark’ but it didn’t look good for her.

However, in order to press the case Videon needed to be there. Prosecutors frequently failed to turn up to court. For some, the mere fact that they had caused someone to be locked up for a few days was satisfaction enough. In Videon’s case his absence from court that day can probably be explained by embarrassment.

Mr Knox agreed to remand Mary in custody for a week more to see if her victim appeared. She had a poor reputation as a local prostitute and had been on prison for drunk and disorderly behaviour before so he had no qualms about imprisoning her again. But the theft was serious and he could hardly commit her for trial without hearing from the man she was supposed to have robbed.

Knox had his doubts Videon would show up however.

His conduct, ‘in going to the Haymarket, then going to a house with the prisoner, and afterwards walking with her, [was] not very creditable to him’.

He’d probably been drunk or tipsy that night, had picked her up and now regretted the whole sordid affair. Unfortunately for him he had failed to keep his name out of the papers and may well have had some awkward questions to answer later that week. As for Mary well she would have to endure a week more in prison but then would be free to continue her existence as one of the better class of sex workers in the capital, operating as she did in London’s wealthy West End.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, January 20, 1865]