Three lads in a boat, bound for Australia with ‘tea, cheese’ and a sense of adventure.

poverty

Thomas Stead was only a young boy when he was brought to the Bow Street Police Court, the most senior of the summary courts of the capital. He was charged with stealing two bank cheques and a dagger.

Thomas was only 14 and had been arrested with two other lads in an open boat by officers from the Thames Police , who patrolled London’s arterial river. When they were seized they were found to be well equipped, with tea, cheese, candles, etc., and a pair of revolvers’. The boys’ stated plan was to row to Australia!

I’ve no idea why it was only Thomas that appeared at Bow Street, or what happened to the others, but perhaps he was the only one without a family to look after him.

The sitting magistrate was clearly somewhat impressed by the spirit and determination of this young thief, but at the same felt it necessary to try and cure him of his ‘stealing propensities’ (as he put it). He sent him to the reformatory at Feltham – a young offenders  institution that still exists (and I recall visiting when my father used to play football for the London Probation Service team).

The justice hoped, he said, that the 10 days he would have to spend in prison before Feltham (as was required with all reformatory sentences, quite against the wishes of Mary Carpenter who had champion this form of rehabilitation for youthful felons), and the spell in the Reformatory itself, would affect a change in the boy.

Then, ‘perhaps, if he still desired to be a sailor, he would be assisted in doing so, and would be able to go to Australia, not in an open boat, but in a legitimate, and in a much more safe way’.

He went on to tell Thomas that he:

 ‘was an intelligent lad, and if he only acted properly a bright future might be in store for him’. Australia was no longer the place where Britain disposed of its unwanted criminals and political prisoners, that had slowed in the 1850s and come to an end in 1868. Only ‘honest, industrious people were wanted’ there now he concluded.

I really wonder what happened to Thomas Stead. For all his faults he seems to me (as he did to the Bow Street magistrate) exactly the sort of youngster Victorian society celebrated. He was resourceful, brave and adventurous and had he been born into a wealthy family (instead of most likely being an orphan and condemned to living hand-by-mouth on the streets) he might be a name we all remember as well as Livingstone, Stanley, Scott or Rhodes.

The last convict ship, HMS Hougoumont (named for one of the key buildings that allied troops fought so hard to keep at the battle of Waterloo) sailed to Australia in 1867, with 281 passengers. It marked the end of a system of forced migration that had lasted nearly 80 years.

[from The Standard, Saturday, April 25, 1885

It has been a year since I started writing this daily blog. It began as an exercise in forcing myself to undertake a piece of research writing on  daily basis to keep myself ‘fit’ (in a sense) admit the routines associated with being a senior lecturer in a busy teaching university. It has grown (largely thanks to all the people that bother to read it and tell me they enjoy or find it useful) into a body of research that I will now attempt to use to form part of a couple of larger written projects over the the next few years. So, thank you for the positive comments made via the site, twitter and Facebook, and I hope you continue to enjoy reading the day-to-day stories from the police courts of London.

                                                                                                                           Drew 

 

Poverty, sympathy and the school of ‘hard knocks’

In January 1867 three young boys were charged at the Marylebone Police Court, with begging. Churchill Long was 11, his brother Stephen 10 and their friend Thomas Fields just 8.

A passing policeman, Sergeant Bunce (50 C Division) found the trio sheltering in the doorway of confectioner’s shop at 8 in the evening. According to Sgt. Bunce’s testimony they were asking passers-by on Coventry Street for change in and looked ‘to be nearly dropping from want’.

He took them back to the police station and left them eating a meal while he made inquiries about their families. Thomas had no father but his mother lived in Soho and was a washerwoman (a very lowly poorly paid class of servant). The Longs had a father barely alive and in such a ‘poor state of health that he was unable to work’. Their mother was in an even worse condition – she ‘was hourly expected to die’.

Tom Field’s mother then appeared in the courtroom in floods of tears. She told the magistrate that she had been in such a state that Tom had asked if he could go ‘with some fuses to get a few halfpence”. In other words he was offering to  take some small items to sell (but in reality, to go begging on the streets). She was trying to work when she could but had other children to care for; her situation had worsened after the recent death of her husband.

It was  sad story and on this occasion the ‘beak’ was sympathetic. Mr Knox (the justice)asked if she would like her son to go to school. She said she did. He then decided that Tom should be sent to Feltham Industrial School (the predecessor of the modern young offenders’ prison).

This took him away from his mother and siblings and reduced their outgoings, but whether Tom would have thanked him for it is open to question. Industrial schools were strict institutions and linked to the Reformatory School movement that had arisen in the 1850s. It represented a chance for the lad to ‘reform’ but I doubt he would have received much we would understand as ‘care’.

As for the Long children, their father – although clearly gravely ill – also turned up at court to explain his circumstances and to confirm that he feared for his wife’s health. He too wanted his children to attend a school and the magistrate asked him to return again when he was more able to do so. In the meantime Mr Knox ordered that the family be given some charitable support from the poor box.

This case demonstrates the multifaceted role of the police court in Victorian society; the case arose out of a ‘police’ issues (begging and vagrancy were ‘crimes’, and punishable) but exposed a wider social problem (poverty). As magistrate Mr Knox ‘helped’ the families cope with the pressures of surviving and bringing up their children. But he did this by removing the boys to a disciplinary environment where they would no longer see their parents. They would gain an education of sorts and be cared for (in the most rudimentary of ways at least).

So he helped save them from starvation and the abject poverty they were otherwise seemingly doomed to experience, but at the same time the justice acted for the benefit of the state; he intervened to prevent the children growing up to become members of London’s ‘criminal class’.

From the distance of history we might judge this as a drastic form of intervention and reflect that we have in place much kinder ways of dealing with child poverty today. But can we really rush to congratulate ourselves when even the government acknowledges that we have 2.3 million children living in poverty in the UK today?

[from The Morning Post, Monday, January 14, 1867]

Clerkenwell on the eve of an ‘outrage’, 1867

 

fenian-guy-fawkes-2

The 13 December 1867 saw a massive terrorist attack in London. Irish republicans (‘Fenians’ as they were called) exploded a bomb at Clerkenwell Prison in an attempt to free members of their organization imprisoned inside. The attack failed in its intention as no prisoners escaped, but the bomb caused damage and killed 12 people and wounded more than a hundred more. I cover the attack and the related terrorist ‘war’ that followed in the 1880s in London’s Shadows, so I won’t revisit it here except to say that the bombing led to the arrest and trial of six men in April 1868. Michael Barrett was the only person convicted despite claiming to have been in Scotland at the time the bomb was exploded. He became the last man to be publically hanged in England when he was executed outside Newgate on the 26 May that year.

On the morning of the 13 December 1867 the Clerkenwell Police Court met as normal. The newspaper reported the proceedings on all London courts that day, choosing cases they thought might interest their readers.

In this case it was the story of three young thieves and their uncle, and an older ‘fence’. Henry Mason (18) and their younger sister Emma (just 14) were accused of stealing china and glass. William Mason (40) and William Bridge (aged 43) were charged with receiving the stolen items.

Emma Mason worked for a china and glass dealer named Ward who kept two shops on the Holloway Road. On the 2 December Emma was seen (by a passing policeman on his beat) coming out of one of the shops with a box of china, which she handed over to a young lad (later identified as her brother, Henry).

As the PC approached Henry scarpered with the constable in pursuit. He got away but the policeman returned to the shop and arrested Emma and William Mason. He soon extracted the address where their brother could be found and proceeded to Hope Cottage in Holloway with a fellow officer.

When they entered the house they found it stuffed with china and glass. There were ‘cut glass decanters, chimney ornaments, glasses, china plates, a set of tea trays, some tinware, and numerous other articles’, all belonging to Mr. Ward.

The ‘elder Mason’ (the uncle of the younger ones) was now arrested and when his room was searched the police found 43 pawnbroker’s duplicates, which presumably led them to William Bridge and a charge of receiving. The magistrate committed them all to trial.

They appeared at the Middlesex Sessions of the Peace in January 1868 and William Mason pleased guilty as charged. The court heard that he a criminal record already, including two separate terms of penal servitude. He was the chief instigator of the crime and ‘had signaled to the girl in Mr. Ward’s shop, so ‘she might know when to hand out articles to her little brother’. This girl was not Emma but her older sister Mary Ann (who did not appear in the summary hearing).

On conviction the judge postponed sentence on Mary so we might hope she escaped further punishment, perhaps because the court realized she would need to look after her younger sister (the children seem to have been orphans). Henry Mason was sent to Feltham (somewhere I remember well from the days when my father used to play football for a Probation Service team). Feltham opened as an Industrial School in 1854 but became the country’s second Borstal in 1910. It still holds young offenders aged 15-18.

But stiffest penalty was reserved for their uncle: the judge sent him away for ten years penal servitude as he was deemed ‘incorrigible’.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, December 14, 1867, and Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper , Sunday, January 12, 1868]