‘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]

Murder in Wales but business as (depressingly) usual in London

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In mid March 1866 the trial of Robert Cox was concluding in Swansea. The body of John Davis had been discovered by police in Dyffryn Wood a long time after his disappearance. The body had been decapitated and the evidence led the police to Cox (or Coe). The jury had convicted Cox after deliberating for 12 hours and the judge, Justice Blackburn, ‘passed sentence of death in the usual manner’. The so-called ‘Mountain Ash murder’ resulted in the execution of Cox outside Swansea gaol on 12 April 1866. Cox confessed to killing his workmate after they had both been drinking. His was the last public execution in Wales.

Meanwhile the reports of the London Police courts reminded readers that most crime in the country was much more mundane. At Marlborough Street  Henry Baynes, a publisher’s clerk, was brought up again on a charge of defrauding his employers. He was accused of obtaining cheques by false presences from a number of publications including The Morning Post, the Owl, and Notes and Queries.  The prosecuting counsel was a Mr Wontner who was to go on to become a magistrate later in the century. On this occasion he managed to persuade the sitting justice that there was sufficient evidence against Baynes to send him for a jury trial.

At Southwark Mary Ann Vanna was accused to stealing a clock, coat and ‘other articles of wearing apparel’ from a house in Cole Street. She pleaded guilty in the hope of having the case heard summarily (and therefore getting a reduced sentence) and said it was the first time she’d been before a magistrate. The justice said he doubted that as she was a ‘well known character’ who lived with a ticket-of-leave man. He sent her to prison for six months at hard labour.

Over at Worship Street Mary Ann Taylor appeared in the dock charged with destroying her clothes in the casual ward at Shoreditch workhouse. She raised eyebrows in court because of the state of her dress:

‘beneath a dark wrap of a shawl and old bonnet she wore what was immediately recognizable as having been long since a nipped counterpane, but perfectly white and carefully patched and darned so as to exclude the clemency of the weather’.

When the magistrate asked the poor law officers why she was dressed like that they told him that when paupers destroyed their own clothes, with the expectation that the house would give them new, better ones, they supplied one of these ‘nice white dresses’ instead.

The effect was to humiliate the wearer and it seemed to have worked on Mary Ann who looked miserable and wept openly as she explained that she’d cut up her own clothes because they were ‘so filthy’. The magistrate sent her to prison for 14 days.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, March 16, 1866]

Several young women fall for the same scam and the law is unable to help them

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For very many poor Londoners the Police Court magistrate was the ‘go-to’ person for legal advice. Not everyone that appeared before him had either committed a crime or been the victim of one, so he acted as a free (or at least a cheap) alternative to hiring a solicitor. All those serving as magistrates had to have had seven years’ experience at the bar, and all were aided in court by very capable clerks who new the latest developments in the law and could point magistrates towards the relevant sections of legal handbooks.

Magistrates couldn’t always help however, sometimes applicants brought up cases which either weren’t covered by the Police or jury courts or simply didn’t represent infringements of the law at all, however unfair they might seem. Just such a case was brought before Mr Mansfield at Marylebone Police court in mid February 1868.

On Saturday 15 February a deputation of young women came to the court to ask advice and to seek a summons against a man they said had defrauded them. They had all seen an advertisement in a newspaper that sought young women to learn a business. The advert suggested that in return for 5they would receive training which would then allow them to earn upwards of 35s a week. So for an investment of just £15 in today’s money they could earn a respectable £100, no wonder so many were tempted.

When the answered the ad they were invited to attend at a property in Marylebone were they were given a ‘little wooden stand and a small brush’ and instructed in how to paint letters onto a piece of glass. The glass was a memorial plate and bore the inscription:

‘In Memoriam – Died 2d July, 1799’

However, in each case the man declared that even after ten days of doing this simple task, none of them were ‘quite competent’ and all needed ‘more instruction’. All of them were being told they weren’t holding the pen properly and that their strokes weren’t fine enough.

It was a scam: the man was effectively taking money off the girls but still getting their work. They continued in the hope of earning a decent wage when in reality he never had any intention of paying them. To confirm this the unnamed man kept changing his address and avoiding them. He claimed that the £5 he charged was for the materials they used in their instruction and now a large number of women were out of pocket, and angry.

Mr Mansfield sympathized with them but said that they had been naïve; it was, he said, ‘very indiscreet to part with money their money’.  Whilst he saw the basis for a summons it was very weak and he doubted they would get any redress in law. After all the man could reasonably say the women had received something for their £5 if only the brushes and the little wooden stand. Instead he felt that the exposure of this in the press was the best way to stop anyone else being duped by this practice.

It was scant justice for the women affected by the scam, none of whom had managed to find gainful employment since they’d placed their hopes and money with the glass painter. Hopefully no one else was conned and they all learned to be a little more streetwise thereafter. After all, if it looks too good to be true, it probably is.

[from The Standard, Monday, February 17, 1868]

A sailor finds that he’s been sold a parcel of horses**t

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James Randall had bought a packet of what he believed to be tobacco from someone, possibly a dock worker, at one of the many pubs in and around the City of London. The vendor had torn open the package just enough to allow him to test a sample of the tobacco, and he had handed over 2for it. Later he discovered that instead a pound and a half of ‘baccy, all he had was a worthless mix of ‘sawdust and horsedung’.

The sailor had been ‘done’ but instead of accepting his bad luck he decided he would try to recover the situation. Later that day he was walking in the Minories in the City, close to its eastern edge, when he encountered a young lad named Thomas Watts. He offered him the parcel of ‘tobacco’ for 2s3d hoping to make a small profit from the deal.

Watts, a ‘respectable’ youth, was unsure, and said no. Randall immediately dropped the price to 19d, but Thomas still wavered. The sailor went to 16d  and Watts caved in. He handed over the money and was about to examine his purchase when a policeman ran up to the pair of them.

PC Hayton (588 City) had watched the transaction and knew Randall as a suspicious individual. He took the parcel and the plug sample of tobacco  fell out soon followed by the worthless mixture of sawdust and manure. The copper quickly established that the boy had been ripped off and instructed Randall to give him his money back. He demurred at first but then complied. As Watts thanked the policeman the seaman took his chance and ran off.

The officer chased him across the City and caught up with him in Finsbury Circus where he arrested him. On the way to the station Randall confessed to knowing his parcel was valueless and so to trying to defraud Thomas. Not surprisingly then when he was produced at the Mansion House Police court Sir Robert Carden committed him for trial.

Randall was tried at the Old Bailey on the 22 October 1855 and found guilty on his own confession, he was 25 years of age. The judge sent him to prison for three months.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, September 30, 1855]

A curious (and confusing) case of a two bob’ fraudster and his mate.

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There are plenty of cases of fraud that came before the Metropolitan Police courts in the Victorian period. From individual attempts to extort money from gullible ‘punters’ to full-blown and well-organized ‘long firm’ scams, the courts were kept busy with the full gamut of fraudsters. Some had quite elaborate ruses but William Jewell and Joseph Richards simply relied on talking fast and confusing their victims.

Jewell was a 38 year-old waterside labourer from Bethnal Green while Richards was a simply ‘labourer’ from nearby Mile End. In September 1895 both were placed in the dock at the North London Police court on a charge of being ‘suspected persons’ and with attempting to defraud tradesmen. Being ‘suspected’ was a catch-all term which allowed the police to pick up people they thought were up to no good.

Jewell was the main player in this case, Jackson seems to have acted as his accomplice, or look out. The scam went something like this:

Jewell entered a shop (such as Henry Amos’ confectionary shop in Well Street). He put a sixpence on the counter and asked for a pennyworth of sweets. The shopkeeper’s wife served him and  handed over the sweets and 5 pennies in change.

Now Jewell took a penny form his pocket, added it to the pile already there and asked Mrs Amos to please change it for a sixpence. Before she had time to scop up the pennies Jewell said: ‘Give me a shilling instead of the sixpence and the coppers’.

He was trying to confuse the poor lady and would have succeeded in gaining an extra sixpence had not Mr. Amos been listening in. He came in from the back room and Jewell scarpered. The eagle eyed confectioner spotted Jackson just outside the shop as Jewell ran off, he was nonchalantly pretending to read a newspaper.

Unsuccesful here, the pair tried the same ruse at Mrs Muffett’s newsagent’s in Hackney Wick. Again it was Jewell who entered the shop and engaged Mrs Muffett in conversation. He asked for the evening paper (which cost a halfpenny)

and put a shilling on the counter. The newsagent gave him ‘eleven pence halfpenny change’. He then asked for his shilling back and Mrs Muffett obliged, assuming he’d found the 1/2d  for the paper in his pocket. But Jewell pushed the money back over to her and asked her to change it for a florin (a two shilling piece).

She didn’t have one she told him.

‘Then I have to give you a halfpenny’ he replied. ‘No, you have to give me a shilling’ she said, as he’d wanted to get back 2sf rom her. Again his attempt had failed but probably worked on other occasions. Shop assistants had (and have) to be alert  to possible attempts by customers who try to persuade then that that have given them large amounts than they have (‘I gave you a £20 note…’) or accused them of shortchanging them.

In these days of contactless debit transactions and a virtually cashless society we forget sometimes how easy it was to trick someone who is not expecting it.

Mrs Muffett called the police and with Mr Amos help the two men were picked out of a police identification parade. There wasn’t sufficient evidence to prosecute Jackson but Mr Taylor (the duty magistrate) decided there was ample proof of Jewell’s fraudulent intent, and he sent him to prison for three months at hard labour. Three months, for trying to trick two women out of two bob seems pretty harsh to me.

[from The Standard, Friday, September 27, 1895]

The old ‘money changing’ scam on the Docks

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For many people arriving in London in the 1880s the capital was a stopover en route to somewhere else; for many European Jews that ‘somewhere else’ was the golden medina, the United States of America. This had been the case for thousands of Irish migrants in the 1840s, fleeing famine and poverty after potato blight devastated their lives. Very many settled in London, Liverpool and Birmingham but plenty had the ambition to make a fresh start outside of the British Empire, an empire that had palpably failed to support them when they needed it.

London’s docks must have heaved with people looking for a passage across the Atlantic in the 1800s and a similar scene would have played out at Liverpool. Men like Messers, Koosch and Schack, two German travellers, asked around to find a berth on a steamer bound for Ellis Island. These two had struck lucky and secured a place on the Etna which had been built and launched in Greenock in August 1854.

However their luck was soon to run out when they were taken in by a fairly straightforward conman. John Louis befriend the pair and explained that he was a provisons dealer and was also travelling on the Etna. They had plenty of English money but no American dollars. That was no problem, Louis assured them, he was in an ideal position to change the money for them so they’d welcomed on to US soil with open arms.

Delighted, the two friends handed over all their money (about £10)  and arranged to meet Louis the following day. Of course he never showed up and they soon realised they’d been scammed and  robbed.

With the help of the local police Koosch and Schack traced Louis and he was arrested and brought before the Lord Mayor at Mansion House Police court. He was represented by a solicitor and he promised to return every penny that his client had taken. This must have been a relief for the two Germans whose chances of making a new life in America would have been devastated before they’d even arrived had they been force to travel with nothing.

But for the Lord Mayor this wasn’t enough; he needed to demonstrate to the public that anyone behaving in such a ‘villainous and disgraceful way’ could expect no mercy in his court. He sent Louis to prison for four months with hard labour.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, September 18, 1883]

An young Indian is taken for a ride by a beguiling fraudster

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Mr Tahrir-ud-din Ahmed was an Indian student studying in England. He had taken up residence at 1 Colville Gardens in fashionable Kensington and so must have come from a wealthy family in British India. He would have made an impression in his fine clothes and he certainly caught the eye of one young woman at London Bridge station. However, her intentions towards him were far from honourable, as Tahrir was about to find out.

Tahrir had gone to the station on the 13 July to bid farewell to a friend who was travelling back to Brighton. As he entered the waiting room he noticed a fashionably dressed young lady sitting on her own. He enquired after her and she explained that she was waiting for her parents to arrive, as they were expected on an incoming train from Brighton.

She gave her name as Blanche Coulston and said she’d recently arrived from Australia and knew no-one in the capital. She then asked Tahrir if he would mind waiting with her until her parents arrived; the young man could hardly refuse such a request, and agreed to look after her.

One can imagine the scene: two young people, of probably equal social standing, enjoying each others’ company regardless of any presumed cultural differences. Tahrir was acting like a gentleman in protecting a lone woman from any potential dangers and sharing the company of an attractive young lady of fashion and style in the process. So when Miss Coulston’s parents failed to appear and she suggested they dine together, Tahrir agreed straight away.

They took the young lady’s landau to the Temple and back, and when Mr and Mrs Coulston still failed to make an appearance Blanche suggested they continued their friendship by retiring to her family’s rooms near Regent’s Park. Tahrir and Blanche climbed back into the coach and headed to 3 Stanhope Terrace where the Coulstons had a suite. After a supper Tahrir slept in Blanche’s father’s room and the next morning they breakfasted together.

It was all going very well, except, of course, for the mystery of the missing parents. The pair headed for the Grosvenor Hotel as Blanche thought they might have arrived while she and her new friend were absent for the night and had checked in there instead. When they discovered they hadn’t Tahrir suggested she send them a telegram and they returned to his lodgings to do so.

Having sent her message the pair returned to Stanhope Gardens as Blanche said she needed to collect some things she had left at a school nearby. I presume like many young ladies of quality, she had worked as a teacher or governess. The pair went back to her rooms and she said there would be a short delay while her landau was made ready. They had lunch and Blanche suggested that Tahrir might like to freshen up in her father’s rooms.

The Indian student thanked her and was about to head off to bathe when she asked him if she might admire his gold rings. He had three on his fingers and he gladly handed them over to her.

That was a mistake.

When Tahrir had washed and shaved he returned to the family’s drawing room to find Blanche, but she wasn’t there. He rang the bell and summoned the landlady who informed him that she had left sometime ago. Tahrir took a hansom cab to London Bridge, assuming perhaps that she had news from her parents.

She wasn’t there so he returned to Stanhope Gardens. At 10 the carriage came back without her. Tahrir went home requesting that the landlady wire him should Miss Coulston return. In the morning he’d heard nothing and so he informed the police.

A month later Tahrir was at the Fisheries exhibition when he saw Blanche in company with a man. He found a policeman and had her arrested. On Wednesday 15 August 1883 Blanche was brought before the sitting magistrate at Marylebone to face a charge of stealing three rings worth £20. She had the rings but claimed he had gifted them to her, something he strongly denied.

The court heard from Henry Selby who ran a livery stable with his brother. He deposed that Miss Coulston had approached him to hire a carriage and had offered two gold rings as security. She had taken the carriage but failed to pay for the hire, so he’d kept the rings and told the police. Detective sergeant Massey had tracked the third ring to a pawnbroker’s on Buckingham Palace Road. He’d established that Miss Coulston claimed (to several people it seems) to have bene the daughter of a Brighton doctor who was in the process of relocating to London.

On the strength of this, and her plausible persona, she was defrauding all sorts of people in the capital. The magistrate had little choice but to commit her for trial.

I rather suspect that everything about Miss Coulston was fake, including her name. No one of her name appears at the Old Bailey and perhaps that is because she gave a false name. Or perhaps the prosecution case was weak or Tahrir, having recovered his property, chose not to press charges. Maybe he put it all down to experience and decided to forgive her. The lesson is clear however, people aren’t always exactly what they seem.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, August 19, 1883]