‘I don’t want to ask a favour from swindlers’ : making a stand on a point of principle.


An early gas stove

James Connell was a fine upstanding member of his local community. He lived with his wife in New Cross Road, Deptford and was a member of the local vestry. So it is something of a surprise to find him summoned before Mr Kennedy, the sitting magistrate at Greenwich Police court in late May 1895.

The reason for the summons was non-payment of his gas bill but the case is interesting because it reveals the new forms of fuel supply that were just coming on line in the late Victorian period. Connell was summoned by representatives of the  South Metropolitan Gas Company who insisted that the vestryman owed them the not inconsiderable sum of  £10 10sand ninepence. In today’s money that probably amounts to around £865, which explains their desire to recover the debt.

Mr Connell disputed that he owed that amount and set out his case before the Greenwich justice. He stated that in 1892 the couple had purchased a new gas oven to replace their old coal one having been persuaded to do so by one of the company’s salesmen. Mrs Connell had been assured that the new device was cheaper and more effective than her old one and they were given an estimate of the amount of gas that it would consume in the course of a year. This figure was estimated at 27 feet per hour.

In 1892 the gas consumption figure was 29,300 ft, in 1893 it was a little higher (29,390ft) but in 1894 it leapt to 69,400 ft. Mr Connell clearly felt the gas salesman had misrepresented the true cost of the oven and so was refusing to pay for the huge increase in gas. As a result the company disconnected their supply and the current impasse was established.

‘You have a meter, and what it register you have to pay?’ asked Mr Kennedy. ‘Unfortunately I have no meter’, Connell replied, as the company had taken that away when the company cut them off. He didn’t trust what it said and now he had no meter he couldn’t check it anyway: ‘how did he know the meter was correct, or what had been done with it since it was taken away?’

The gas company’s representative insisted the bill was accurate and suggested that all devices varied in their consumption. It was a fairly lame if predictable response and sadly for Connell the law was not in his favour. Mr Kennedy said he would indeed have to pay the bill with 3costs added but suggested he took his complaint about the salesman’s ‘misrepresentation’ of the oven’s performance to the County Court.

Connell felt he shouldn’t have to pay anything until the company had answered any prosecution he brought but again he was disabused of that and told he must pay up. Could the magistrate allow him more time for the payment to be made, he asked? That was up to the company and he could certainly request it, Mr Kennedy told him.  ‘I don’t want to ask a favour from swindlers’ was the man’s riposte.

In the end Mr Connell left court with his head held high convinced that he had, in his words, ‘exposed a fraud’. At the very least he had alerted others that might be fooled into switching from coal to gas on the back a visit from a silver-tonged gas salesman. I suppose this reminds us that in the 1890s the middle class were being tempted to spend their hard earned money on new technologies, like gas ovens, and that having the latest kitchen accessory also demonstrated that you were ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ and were fashionably ‘modern’.

Gas ovens first appeared in the 1840s and were exhibited at Crystal Palace in 1851 but they took a while to become popular with ‘ordinary’ people, being a  luxury at first reserved for the very rich.  It was the introduced of rented ovens like that ‘owned’ by the Connells with an attached meter that helped extend their use more widely in the 1880s. So the Connells were early adopters and gas ovens only really took off in England in the late Edwardian period.

I have a lot of sympathy for Mr Connell because he and his wife were sold something that ended up costing them considerably more than they had been promised, and we’ve probably all been there.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, May 30, 1894]

Sibling rivalry or simply a case of looking after number one?

In early February 1866 a ‘decent looking young man’ was presented at Mansion House Police Court on a charge of robbery.

Joseph Searle was accused of ‘being concerned in an extensive robbery’ of Mr Scott’s mantle* factory in Bishopsgate Street, in the City of London. There was no doubt, according to the evidence, that the business had been robbed, and quite of lot of items stolen by several persons, not all of them in custody.

What puzzled or concerned the Lord Mayor (who presided over the Mansion House courtroom) was that the evidence against Searle in particular had been provided by his younger brother Frederick.

Indeed this lad was employed by Scott’s and was also (by his own admission) involve din the crime himself, for it was he who had handed over the stolen property to his elder sibling.

The Lord mayor asked the prosecuting solicitor for some clarification:

Was he, he asked, to understand that ‘it was to be attempted to convict the prisoner upon the evidence of the actual thief, who was in the position of getting out of the scrape himself by convicting his own brother of the crime?’

The lawyer said that was exactly the situation although he added that others were undoubted involved in the robbery and he believed that the younger brother was keen to ‘make a clean breast of it’.

The Lord Mayor said that while he was prepared to accept the evidence he was bound to add that it was ‘an unusual course to to call a person who had actually committed a robbery to convict his own brother’.

Unusual and ‘very painful’ he concluded.

Mr Scott then appeared to testify that he had released Frederick Searle from his service some weeks ago and had lost around £40-50 worth of stock in the robbery. He suspected Searle and so he found and questioned him until he admitted his involvement, and named others. He then ‘dobbed in’ his elder brother who was quickly apprehended.

Under the circumstances the Lord Mayor had little choice but to remand both brothers in custody, despite his reservations. The case doesn’t appear to have reached the Old Bailey so perhaps the prosecution found it hard to present a case which relied (as the magistrate feared) on a brother’s word against his sibling. It may have been downgraded from robbery to embezzlement and heard at the sessions. Whatever the case, both Fred and Joe Searle disappear from the records at this point.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, February 10, 1866]

*a mantle, for those unaware, was ‘a mesh cover fixed round a gas jet to give an incandescent light when heated’.