‘You only have to order for one of the cafés, they put it down in their books, and all is settled up all right’: testing the boundaries of credit in Victorian London

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Today we operate a society largely underwritten by credit. I hardly use cash to pay for anything and for many things that I buy I use a credit card. My grandmother would no doubt be horrified if she was alive today. She was an Edwardian, born before the outbreak of war in 1914 in a very different country to the one we live in today. There credit was usually reserved for the wealthy although many small shopkeepers recognized that poor people needed some help in making ends meet and did them credit where possible.

But the real beneficiaries of credit in the way we understand it today (not paying for goods or services for sometime after you received them) were the middle class and elite. Many of wealthy in Victorian and Edwardian society simply lived on the ‘never never’, paying their bills when they really had to. Naturally this system was open to abuse as while the payments came from those at the top many of purchases were actually made by their servants.

In April 1888 Mary Hughes was prosecuted at the Marlborough Street Police court for ‘unlawfully obtaining three slices of salmon, value 10(or about £40 today). Hughes had entered Mrs Ann Crump’s fishmonger’s shop on New Bond Street and had asked for the fish. She said that the fish was for her mistress, the Countess of Dudley, and so the salmon was wrapped and the bill added to the countess’ account. Normally the fishmonger would have delivered the item later but Mary insisted that it was needed in a hurry, so she was given it straight away.

Something about her demeanor raised the cashier’s (a  Mr Woodwatd) suspicions however, and he decided to follow her. Woodward followed Mary along Bond Street to St James’ Street where she boarded a bus headed for Victoria. When they reached the Vauxhall Road Woodward collared her and told her he suspected her of committing a fraud. Mary spun him a line about having to go somewhere before she returned to her mistress but he didn’t fall for it. He called over a passing policeman and had her arrested. The officer took her in a cab to Dudley House, (below right) the home of the countess, and Woodward followed behind. dudley house

At Dudley House Mary’s unraveled: the housekeeper stated that she didn’t know her, she had never worked there and no one had sent her out to buy salmon. Mary was taken back to a police station to be charged and brought before the magistrate the next day. In court it was revealed that she’d told the officer on the way to the station that her ruse was an easy one to perpetrate:

‘You know what it is, constable, in these large firms. I have had many a piece there; you only have to order the salmon for some of the cafés, and then they put it down in their books, and all is settled up all right’.

This admission brought chuckles of laughter in the courtroom but the magistrate was unlikely to have been amused. This exploitation of the credit system undermined it and that, ultimately, affected people like him who enjoyed the freedom to choose when to pay that it brought. Mary said she had a relative who worked for the Countess of Dudley which is how she knew where the household placed its orders, let’s hope there were no repercussions for that employee. She added that on the day she’d committed the fraud she’d been drunk.

It was a lame defense at best but Mr Mansfield decided to remand her for a week while he decided what to do with her.  In the end Mary was tried and convicted at the quarter sessions and sent to Millbank prison for two months.

[from The Standard, Saturday, April 14, 1888]

A landlady receives an unwanted seasonal gift: slap in the face with a wet fish

DORE: BILLINGSGATE, 1872. Billingsgate fish market in the early morning. Wood engraving after Gustave Dore from 'London: A Pilgrimage,' 1872.

Billingsgate Marketing the morning by Gustave Doré, 1872

Drunkenness is usually associated with this time of year. People have plenty of time off work and numerous social occasions in which drink plays an important role. Whether it is sherry before Christmas dinner, beer on Boxing Day in the pub, or champagne and whiskey on New Year’s Eve, the season tends to lead some to imbibe excessively.

Not surprisingly then the Victorian police courts were kept busier than usual with a procession of drunkards, brawlers, and wife beaters, all brought low by their love of alcohol. Most of the attention of the magistracy was focused on the working classes, where alcohol was seen as a curse.

By the 1890s the Temperance Movement had become a regular feature at these courts of summary justice, usually embodied in the person of the Police Court Missionaries. These missionaries offered support for those brought before the ‘beak’ in return for their pledge to abstain from the ‘demon drink’ in the future. These were the forerunners of the probation service which came into existence in 1907.

In 1898 Lucas Atterby had been enjoying several too many beers in the Birkbeck Tavern on the Archway Road, Highgate. As closing time approached he and his friends were dancing and singing and generally making merry but the landlord had a duty to close up in accordance with the licensing laws of the day. Closing time was 11 o’clock at night (10 on Sundays) but Atterby, a respectable solicitor’s clerk, was in mood to end the party. So when Mr Cornick, the pub’s landlord, called time he refused to leave.

Mrs Cornick tried to gentle remonstrate with him and his mates but got only abuse and worse for her trouble. The clerk leered at her and declared: ‘You look hungry’, before slapping her around the face with ‘a kippered herring’ that he’d presumably bought to serve as his supper or breakfast.

It was an ungallant attack if only a minor one but if was enough to land Atterby in court before Mr Glover at Highgate Police court. The magistrate saw it for what it was, a drunken episode like so many at that time of year. He dismissed the accusation of assault with ‘a Billingsgate pheasant’ (as kippers – red herrings – were apparently called) but imposed a fine of 10splus costs for refusing to quit licensed premises.

The clerk would probably have been embarrassed by his appearance in court (and the pages of the Illustrated Police News) and if he wasn’t he could be sure his employer would have been less than impressed. It was a lesson to others to show some restraint and to know when to stop. A lesson we all might do well to remember as we raise a glass or three this evening.

A very happy (and safe) New Year’s Eve to you all. Cheers!

[from The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, 31 December, 1898]

The Regent’s Canal might be polluted but there’s no cause for alarm say the committee

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Something different caught my eye this morning and so this is not a case from the Police Courts but possibly one that could develop into a prosecution if it was not resolved. The Daily Telegraph (which in the 1870s was not the same Conservative Party organ it is today) ran a story about pollution in the Regent’s Canal.

The article reported on a meeting of the St Pancras vestry who were responsible for the canal that ran through central London and was used by all sorts of people in the 1800s. Several complaints had been registered about the state of the canal and the smells that emanated from it. As a result the sanitary committee had been asked to investigate and report back to the vestry with its findings.

The medical officer of health and the chief surveyor of the parish were both consulted and they gave evidence to the committee and vestry. The surveyor had undertaken an examination of the main area of the canal where the problems had been highlighted. This section was where the drains of the nearby  Gardens emptied into to canal. The suggestion was that the zoo was polluting the watercourse.

The committee heard that each year the zoo emptied 16 million gallons of water into the canal: seven million gallons from their well and an additional nine million which was supplied to them by the West Middlesex Water Company. On top of all of this water was the annual rainfall, all of which contributed to swelling the canal.

Into this water had been washed a variety of deposits from the various tanks used by the zoo, along with animal and human waste. During the dry summer months the committee was told, it was likely that mud had been washed into the drains, adding to the general discolouration of the water.

The investigation  had arranged for some fish to be caught and examined, to check for any health concerns. Five gudgeon were studied and found to be healthy. The report concluded that:

‘the water of the canal is turbid and unsightly, but no offensive exhalations could be detected, even when it was disturbed by a passing barge, and it was being fished at the time of the medical officer’s visit’.

So all things considered  the committee felt that no action (which would incur an expense of course, if only in a legal prosecution of the zoo) was necessary. They adopted a ‘do-nothing’ approach by 37 votes to 8 and left locals to continue grumbling about the unpleasant odour of the canal.

[from The Daily Telegraph, 12 November, 1874]

Fishy goings on in Pimlico land two servants in prison

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For some reason the morning paper on Halloween 1857 chose to concentrate on thefts by servants and other employees. Several of the stories from the Police courts told of light-fingered employees at banks, shops, and in the homes of the wealthy.

In the 1700s Daniel Defoe had commented that servants ‘beggar you inchmeal’ meaning they stole small amounts of property on such a regular basis as to gradually impoverish the rich. He exaggerated of course but theft by servants was one of the great fear and complaints of those employing them. Given the poor remuneration given to domestic servants it is hardly surprising that some chose to steal when they got the opportunity, to say nothing of the abuse many female servants suffered at the hands of their masters and their male offspring.

On October 30 1857 Margaret Ward appeared at Westminster Police court and was remanded for further examination by the justice, Mr Paynter. She worked for a Mr Bicknell at his home in Upper Ebury Street, Pimlico and he had accused her of stealing a £5 note from his writing desk.

He had questioned her after the money was discovered missing but she denied any part in it. However the court was told that Margaret had recently bought some fine new clothes and, since she’d arrived in service with ‘very bare of clothing’ suspicions were heightened and he had dismissed her at once.

A ‘very respectable’ woman then testified that she had previously employed Miss Ward and that following her dismissal by Mr. Bicknell Margaret had turned up at her door ‘decked in finery’. She was surprised that the girl had managed to earn enough to buy such nice clothes but Margaret allegedly told her that ‘there were other ways of getting money’. A local baker also declared that Margaret had come to his shop and had changed a £5 note, the court was then shown clothing valued at that amount that the police had found in her possession.

Margaret Ward was prosecuted at the Westminster Quarter Session in November 1857. In the face of the overwhelming evidence gathered against her, the 19 year-old servant pleaded guilty and was sentenced to six weeks in the house of correction.

Joseph Tonks followed Margaret into the dock at Westminster. He was much older (52) and gave his occupation as a fishmonger. Tonks was employed by Mr Charles in Arabella Row , also in Pimlico, and was accused of stealing some of his master’s fish.

Tonks had been in Mr Charles’ service for eight years and the master fishmonger had ‘considerable confidence’ in him. He paid him £1 5sa week which was a pretty good wage in 1857. However, after fish began to go missing Mr Charles grew suspicious of his his long term employee and had him followed. Tonks was seen visiting a broker in Artillery Row on more than one occasion and on a Thursday evening he was stopped and searched. Two whitings ‘were found in his hat, and five herrings concealed about his person’.

Clearly something fishy was going on…

The broker was summoned to court and testified that Tonks had called on his to borrow some paint and a brush and wanted to buy his wife a present. The journeyman fishmonger admitted his guilt and opted to have his case dealt with by the magistrate instead of going before a jury. This probably saved him a longer prison sentence but Mr Paynter  still sent him away for six months at hard labour since the court was told that Tonks had probably been robbing his master on a regular basis for some time.

Tonks seems to have had less of a cause than Margaret to steal from his boss. He was quite well paid and trusted and well thought of. But we don’t know what else was going on in his life. All sorts of pressures can pile up and force people to desperate measures. Then again maybe he just thought it was too easy an opportunity to pass up. He’d got away with it for so long that it had probably become routine for him to pack a couple of fish in his hat for treats.

On release from prison both Tonks and Margaret Ward would have struggled to find good work without the necessary references, and that was the most serious punishment of all.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Saturday, October 31, 1857]

Fishy goings on at South Kensington

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Between May and October 1883 thousands of visitors flocked daily to South Kensington to see what was the largest ever ‘special event’ to staged anywhere in the world ever. In total some 2.6 million people crowded in to the Royal Horticultural Society’s grounds (behind the Natural History museum) to see the International Fisheries Exhibition.

The exhibition housed a huge collection of marine life from all over the globe so we might think of this as the Victorian equivalent of modern Britons tuning in (also in their millions) to watch David Attenborough’s Blue Planet television series on Sunday nights. The Spectator’s report of the exhibition gives a flavour of the event:

there is the tetradon, a knobbly, bladder-shaped creature, used by the Chinese as a lantern, when he has been scooped ; a collection of beautiful shells, and a hammer-headed shark from Formosa’.

The International Fisheries Exhibition, London, 1883

It cost just a shilling to enter the exhibition and there was so much to see that many must have made multiple visits in the five months during which it ran.

One pair of visitors certainly seem to have thought the outlay was worth it but they were engaged in a very different sort of  ‘fishing’.

William Williams and John Nesbett were well-established members of London’s criminal fraternity. It is quite likely that they had been involved in crime in some way of another for the entirety of their lives. Now, heading for the twilight of their lives, they were still at it.

The crowds at South Kensington provided easy pickings for the pair of practised thieves. As men and women pressed themselves up close to the glass of the aquariums to gawp at the strange creatures within Williams and Nesbett took advantage of the cramped conditions to dip pockets and lift purses and jewellery.

However, when they attempted to steal an old gentleman’s watch and chain they were seen. Realising their peril they tried to beat a hasty escape but now the packed halls worked against them and they were nabbed as they tried to escape. On the next day they were presented before Mr Sheil at Westminster Police court.

The men denied doing anything and nothing was found to incriminate them. This was quite normal of course; pickpockets were adept at ditching stolen items so that they could appear ‘clean’ if arrested. A detective appeared to give evidence that they were known offenders and the ‘associates of thieves’, and that was enough for the magistrate to remand them. If they could be shown to have previous convictions that would probably be enough to earn them some more time in prison.

Indeed it was, because we find William Williams in the Middlesex House of Detention records convicted as an ‘incorrigible rogue’ in early July. He was sent to Wandsworth Prison for three months having been committed by Mr Shiel’s colleague Mr Partridge at Westminster on the 27 June. He was 62 years of age. I can’t find Nesbett but he may have given a false name or simply been lucky on this occasion.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, June 07, 1883]

A fishmonger takes extreme measures to protect his stock

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A brief entry today, if I may be permitted, but an odd one.

We are a nation of animal lovers. I am not sure when that started but it seems to have been in place for much of the Victorian period. Whether this ‘love’ extended past our pets (predominately cats and dogs and small birds) to livestock is a moot point but the RSPCA were founded early in the century (in 1824).

Cruelty to animals has been highlighted in several posts in this blog because on many occasions people were taken before Police Magistrates to answer for their behaviour. Such incidents included stolen dogs (a supposedly ‘modern’ phenomenon), horses worked until they literally died in the streets, or monkeys mistreated as they helped musicians beg for money.

But this one struck me as particularly unpleasant and unusual.

A summons was applied for at the Dalston Police Court in north east London to bring in a fishmonger who lived in Hackney-Wick. The tradesman was not named in the newspaper report but Mr Bros (the sitting magistrate) asked what the summons was for.

The applicant was a woman (also unmanned) and she told him that the fishmonger used a gun to scare off cats that came into his garden, no doubt attracted by the smell of fish.

According to her ‘he frightened everybody by firing across the gardens at the cats that went after his fish. On a recent afternoon the man fired at a cat two gardens off, the shot going through the cats head and killing it’.

This was a regular activity, she complained, and she was ‘afraid to go into the back yard’ for fear of being shot herself.

Mr Bros granted the summons. I have two cats and they roam across the neighbours’ gardens (and we are visited by several other local felines). It can be a nuisance, they are a danger to local wildlife, especially birds, and they have an unpleasant habit of digging holes in the beds and filling them. So I understand people wanting to keep them out.

The fishmonger undoubtedly wanted to scare them away for good reason, but shooting them two gardens away? I hope he got his just desserts.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, August 5, 1888]

Stealing His Grace’s kippers

John Williams was a ‘labourer of no fixed abode’ when he was charged at Clerkenwell Police Court with stealing a hamper. The charge was brought by the Great Northern Railway Company, whose representative testified that Williams had been seen removing a hamper of fish from one of its  delivery vans parked in Charles Street, Farringdon.

Williams approached the front of the vehicle, reached in and took up the hamper and ran off pursued by a member of railway’s staff. He was soon captured and handed over to the police.

The hamper was addressed to the Duke of Northumberland* and while its contents were not disclosed in court one imagines they included smoked haddock and salmon, both staples of a good breakfast or supper for those that could afford them.

John Williams clearly could not but saw an opportunity to make some money or put some food in his belly. Williams was described as a ‘man of colour, and a native of Jamaica’ which reminds us that London had a diverse population at the turn of the 19th century (as indeed it had at the beginning of it).

Williams did not get to eat the sea fruits of his opportunism, but he was soon to taste prison food; the magistrate sent him to gaol at hard labour for a month.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, October 17, 1897]

  • this would have been the 6th Duke, Algernon Percy who had succeeded to the title in 1867 and who had a long political career, serving under Disraeli and Lord Derby. He was also a Garter Knight and by 1897 was in the twilight years of his life, dying as he did two years later.