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 5s they 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]