‘The only way we have of earning bread for our families is by selling fruit in the streets’: a costermonger’s lament

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This week, just ahead of the next round of marking that will fall due in mid July, I’ve managed to return to my current research project. Nether World is a study of late Victorian London through the lens of the Police Magistrate courts. Commissioned by Reaktion Books it will explore the rich culture of everyday life in the metropolis in the period c.1840-1900.

Today I have mostly been looking into the lives of costermongers, the people that sold fruit and veg and other ‘perishables’ from barrows. Increasingly their tradition of wheeling and then stationing their barrow on the street, so their customers could easily come and buy from them, came into conflict with property owners and local authorities who wanted to keep the thoroughfares of the city free and open to a growing commercial and private transport network.

From 1829 onwards the capital had a new weapon to use against this form of itinerant trading: the men of Peel’s Metropolitan Police. Given that the ‘New’ Police were tasked with patrolling the streets during the day (when the old watch had only done so at night) it was inevitable that they would quickly clash with these traditional street vendors.

Costermongers were fiercely independent, rebellious in their dress and outlook, and had little time for ‘middle class moralizing’ and attempts to suppress or restrict their way of life. As a result the police engaged in a long running battle to force them to conform to set pitches and markets rather than be allowed to trade where they liked. Using the wide-ranging powers given by the highways acts costers were constantly being asked to move along and were arrested or summoned to court if they refused.

This caused considerable resentment within the costermonger community and  it is hardly surprising that one trader admitted to Henry Mayhew (the celebrated journalist and social investigator) that it was considered legitimate to punch a policeman.

‘To serve out a policeman is the bravest act by which a coster-monger can distinguish himself. Some […] have been imprisoned upwards of a dozen times for this offense […]’, one explained.

Henry Mayhew, London Labour And The London Poor, (London, 1851),

In November 1858 Lloyd’s Newspaper reported the sitting magistrate at Clerkenwell was ‘engaged for some considerable time’ in processing the costermongers that the police had arrested on the preceding Saturday evening. No less than 17 costermongers had been brought before Mr Corrie. They had been locked up and their barrows and stock removed to the Green Yard.

One defendant had been locked up for 36 hours before being bailed at 11 in the morning. When he went to collect his barrow he was at first refused it and then later, when he returned, he found all his stock of apples had been carelessly thrown into a sack so that they were now bruised and unsalable. Another man, that sold fish, got out of lock-up to find is stock left in the yard without any care and so, similarly, spoiled and valueless.

‘Some of the defendants’, the paper reported, ‘remarked that the only way they had of earning bread for their families was by selling fruit in the streets’.

They were given little or no notice by the police to move along, and most times their barrows were ‘causing no obstruction’ and yet they were ‘treated and pushed about like felons’.  Despite having some sympathy for their situation the magistrate still found for the police and although he waived the fines for those locked up for hours, imposed a shilling fine on everyone else.

No wonder them that the costermongers of London viewed the capital’s police with contempt. In their eyes they were only trying to earn a living, which was being thwarted by the police who they must have seen as the friends of their rivals, the lower middle class grocers that had fixed places to sell their wares.

Nowadays of course we are used to the idea that most trade takes place in shops and while markets exist, these are mostly periodic not daily concerns. The modern retailer’s grumbles about the unrestricted and low-cost competition offered online might find an echo in the grumbles of costers forced off the streets by Victorian shopkeepers and their ‘friends’, the police.

[from Lloyd’s Illustrated Newspaper, Sunday 7 November 1858]

Another dreadful attack on the police and an echo of PC Culley, the first officer to be killed ‘in the line of duty’.

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It was claimed last week (by the Daily Express) that assaults on the police had risen to ‘28 attacks a day on officers in crime epidemic’.1

With recent events in mind it is easy to suggest that our police men and women are at a greater risk of harm than ever before but as one independent fact checking organization has shown, it isn’t really possible to compare rates with those in recent years because reporting criteria has changed.

The reality is that from their very inception, in 1829, members of the public have subjected the police to attacks. It has not become then a dangerous occupation, it always has been. The first officer to die to be killed in the line of duty was PC Robert Culley. He signed up for Peel’s new force in September 1829, joining C Division. On 13 May 1833 he was part of a team sent into break up a demonstration of the National Union of the Working Classes (a group  of radicals demanding parliamentary reform). The gathering at Coldbath Fields in Clerkenwell descended into violence as the police moved in to disperse it and PC Culley was fatal wounded in the affray.

Hundreds of officers have died since Culley, with PC Andrew Harper being the most recent. Many thousands more have been injured and it is unlikely that we would ever have a true figure for this because statistics for common assault are notoriously unreliable. During the first 20-30 years of policing in England the police were deeply unpopular in working class areas. Seen as ‘class traitors’, and busybodies their use to suppress Chartism or demonstrations against the hated Poor Law won them few friends. Nor did their efforts to close down markets or stop street gambling endear them to working-class communities.

While they enjoyed gradual acceptance by the end of the century it would be fair to say that the public still saw the police as a ‘necessary evil’ rather than the ‘lovable bobby’ that 1950s and 60s television dramas like to depict.

In 1883 William Aldis was brought before the magistrate at Thames Police court in the East End of London. Aldis was a costermonger – a small trader who sold goods from a barrow. Costers were always being asked to ‘move along’ by the capital’s police and they resented these attempts to interfere with their traditional way of life. They saw the police as their enemies.

On the 2 August 1883 PC James Simpson (135K) was on duty just after midnight on Salmon’s Lane in Limehouse. He noticed Aldis and a group of ‘roughs’ standing outside the Copenhagen pub. They were drunk and rowdy, and making quite a noise so PC Simpson moved over to tell them to go home.

Aldis saw his opportunity to ‘serve out a policeman’ (as one coster had famously boasted to Henry Mayhew) and punched the officer in the face, blackening his eye, and sending him crashing to the pavement. The other roughs steamed in and rained down blows and kicks on the stricken policeman as he lay helpless on the ground. When they’d finished their work they ran off before help could arrive.

William Aldis was arrested later but it took a while for the case to come to court because PC Simpson was too sick to attend. Even two weeks later he was still unable to appear to give evidence in person. Evidence was obtained however, which satisfied Mr Lushington that the costermonger was to blame for the assault and he sentenced him to six months at hard labour.

So before we carried away in thinking that we have a ‘crime epidemic’ on our hands today and that something different is happening in society it is worth remembering again (as my blog yesterday argued) that violence towards the police and others is nothing new. That may not be very comforting but it is the reality.

[from The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, August 18, 1883]

‘There’s no justice for a ticket-of-leave man’: Fenians, Police and the ‘Manchester Outrage’.

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In the 1850s transportation to Australia slowly declined before being abandoned in the 1860s. Transportation, which had been the most effective alternative to hanging for the Georgians, was now itself replaced by incarceration at home. In 1865 the Prisons Act consolidated control of prisons under a government agency (rather than being left to local control) and penal servitude replaced transportation as the most serious of non-capital punishments.

One of the innovations of the colonial transportation system had been the mark system. This allowed convicts to earn points for good behaviour; points that might lead to better conditions, food and, ultimately, early release. The principle was sound: convicts would be easier to control if they understood that it was in their interest to get their heads down, accept their punishment and strive to win their freedom. The ultimate goal was a ticket-of-leave, which allowed convicts to live as free men within the colony, so long as they did not offend again.

The ticket-of-leave system (which in modern terms is parole) was exported back to England and applied to criminals locked up in the country’s various gaols. Here too offenders could earn the points that would enable them to be released on license before the end of their sentences. There were conditions of course, and these were easily broken, at which point a convict might find himself up before a magistrate and, ultimately, back in prison.

In May 1867 John Jones had been released on a ticket-of-leave and came back to his friends and family in London. The license required that he report to the police with 48 hours of being released and that he carried his ticket-of-leave on him at all times. Moreover, every moth Jones was required to report in to his nearest police station and confirm his address. He was then expected always to sleep at this address, and no other. The police were supposed to able to find him if they needed to. If he moved home Jones had 48 hours to inform the local police or he would be in breech of the terms of his release.

This close relationship with the local police must have made it pretty difficult for a convicted criminal to return to normal life. The prison stamp would have been on Jones following his release: the deathly pallor, close cropped hair, poor constitution, and sunken eyes (all products of the ‘hard labour, hard bed, hard fare’ policies of the prison system under Edmund Du Cane) would have marked him out as an ex-con. With little opportunity to rejoin ‘straight’ society Jones would naturally have gravitated back to the ‘criminal class’ that Mayhew and Binney had described in their writings.

In late November 1867 PC Harry Shaw (77G) saw Jones in Golden Lane, Clerkenwell. Jones was with a group of men the officer knew to be convicted thieves and he understood that he had gone there to express his sympathy ‘with the relatives of three men who had been hanged at Manchester on the previous day’.

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This was a infamous case, that of the ‘Manchester Martyrs’. William Philip Allen, Michael Larkin and Michael O’Brian were Fenians, members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, and they had been part of crowd of over 30 who had attacked a police van carrying fellow Fenians to gaol. In the attempt to release their prisoners a policeman, Sergeant Charles Brett, was killed.

Five men were convicted of Brett’s murder but two had their sentences overturned. Allen, Larkein and O’Brian were not so fortunate and were ‘turned off’ in front of a huge crowd above Salford Gaol on 23 November 1867. This was one of the very last public hangings to take place in England. Karl Marx remarked that the hangings served the cause of Irish nationalism better than many an act of terrorism had because it gave them martyrs to act as inspiration for the next generation of freedom fighters.

Naturally anyone celebrating those that had killed a police officer was unlikely to earn much sympathy from a serving constable. John Jones had joined a procession of men and women who marched from Clerkenwell Green to Hyde Park and PC Shaw followed, watching them. As they ‘dodged’ in and out of the crowd the constable suspected they were trying to pick pockets but he had no definite proof, just suspicion.  In the end he collared Jones and cautioned him, demanding to see his ticket-of-leave. Since he didn’t have it on him, Jones was told he must appear at Clerkenwell Police court to explain himself.

In early December, looking ‘rough’ John Jones presented himself before the sitting justice. He said little, saying ‘it was no use for him to speak, as there was no justice for a ticket-of-leave man’. The police, added, ‘had entered into a conspiracy to injure him, and he could do nothing’. The magistrate asked to see his license but he didn’t have it on him so he was remanded in custody so that one of his friends could fetch it.

Within days Clerkenwell itself experienced the full force of Fenian terror as conspirators attempted to break their fellow nationalists out of prison by blowing open the gate.  On 13 December 12 people were killed and over a hundred were injured in what The Timesdescribed as ‘a crime of unexampled atrocity’. Eight men were charged but two gave Queen’s evidence against the others. Two more were acquitted by the Grand jury and , in the end, only Michael Barrett was held responsible for the bomb. On the 26 May 1868 Barrett earned the dubious honour of being the last man to be publicly hanged in England as William Calcraft ‘dropped’ him outside Newgate Gaol.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, 11 December, 1867]

A ‘barbarous’ attack on ‘Eliza Doolittle’ at Charing Cross

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One of the classic ‘screen’ images we have of the late Victorian/Edwardian period is that of Eliza Doolittle selling flowers in Covent Garden market in My Fair Lady. Eliza, as one of London’s poorest and least educated citizens, is chosen by Professor Higgins for his experiment in linguistics.

According to the social investigator Henry Mayhew there was somewhere between 400 and 800 flower sellers in mid Victorian London, and most of them were very young girls, often the daughters of costermongers. They operated throughout the capital but were concentrated on the ‘busiest thoroughfares’ such as the Strand where they ‘cried their fares’ to attract passing ladies (mostly) to buy them.

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Perhaps with the passing of the Elementary Education Act (1870) and increased schooling for the 5-13 year olds this took some of the girls off the streets, at least on weekdays. This might mean that the character of Eliza Doolittle, as a young woman in her late teens or early twenties, was more typical of flower sellers by the late 1800s.

One Monday in June 1887 Martha Smith was selling roses at Charing Cross. She was calling out, ‘Roses, penny a bunch’ to catch the attention of pedestrians when a drunk started to hassle her. Thomas Davis (56) was also trying to sell flowers but his were withered and decayed. He ‘mocked her cry’ but when this failed to make her move along he resorted to violence.

He was carrying his own roses on a basket lid and he violently shoved this in her face, then punched her in the mouth, knocking out two teeth. He hadn’t finished though. Grabbing a ‘Chinese parasol’ he proceeded to beat her over the head with it. Somehow Martha managed to get away from him and found a policeman who arrested the man.

When he was charged at the station Davis said nothing but in court at Bow Street he told the magistrate that he competed for business with Martha and that she was trespassing on his territory, a lamppost by Charing Cross station. He alleged that she’d started the row and had scratched his face; he was only defending himself. PC 254E testified that Davis had said nothing of this version of events when he’d been arrested or charged and so Mr. Vaughan was not inclined to believe him.

The justice told Davis that just because both parties were on the same trade it was no reason for them for their assaulting one another’. The attack he’d made had been ‘barbarous’ and he ‘must go to gaol for one month’.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, June 29, 1887]

This is not my first ‘flower girl’ story – for another follow this link.

‘She had no doubt the prisoner would have murdered her’: violence and crime in the St. Giles rookery

PC Baker (108G) was on duty in Buckeridge Street, St Giles in mid April 1844 when he heard a shout of ‘murder!’ In the mid nineteenth century Buckeridge Street (also known as Buckbidge) was a part of the notorious St. Giles ‘rookery’. aaa445A place full of  ‘lodging-houses for thieves, prostitutes, and cadgers’ (according to Henry Mayhew) and somewhere the New Police generally proceeded with caution.

Shouts of ‘murder’ were hardly uncommon here, and were probably often ignored (as they were in Whitechapel in the 1880s). However, PC Baker chose not to ignore this and entered the yards of number 26, following the noise he’d heard. There he found a man and a woman grappling with each other, and saw that the man had a life pressed to the woman’s throat.

Seeing the policeman the man turned and ran into the house and Baker followed as fast as he could. He could see the woman was bleeding from two cuts on her neck but the wounds weren’t too serious.

Inside he found her assailant in the apartment and immediately noticed a frying pan on the fire in which it seemed that metal was being melted. ‘You have been melting pewter pots’, PC Baker accused the man. ‘Yes, that is the way I get my living’ the other admitted. Pewter pots were frequently stolen from the numerous pubs in the capital and once melted down they were very hard to identify, so it was the normal practice of thieves to dispose of them this – turning stolen goods into saleable metal.

Looking across the dark room Baker now noticed that a woman was in bed there. At first she seemed asleep but then he realised she was merely drunk and lying in a comatose state. Her name was Bishop and the man he had caused (and arrested) was called James Robinson. Robinson was searched and the knife was found on in.

On the following day (the 16 April 1844) Robinson was up before the ‘beak’ at Clerkenwell Police court. He was charged attempted murder by the girl he’d attacker, Mary Ann Macover  ‘a well-looking, but dissipated’ nineteen year-old. She alleged that the three of them (Robinson, herself and Bishop) and been drinking before a quarrel had broken out. Robinson had dared her to drink half a pint of gin in one go and when she’d refused he abused her.

He chased her out into the yard with the knife, nearly bit off her ear in the struggle, and had it not been for the timely arrival of the policeman ‘she had no doubt the prisoner would have murdered her’. The wounds to her throat were visible to all those watching in court but I don’t get the feeling that the magistrate had that much sympathy with her or was that interested in the assault.

What was interesting to the law however was the melting down of (probably) stolen pewter pint pots. Moreover Robinson was familiar to the police and courts in the area having been previously convicted. He also went under the name of Lewis and this made it very likely that the justice, Mr Combe, would take the opportunity to lock him away.

Robinson denied the assault but it was much harder for him to explain away the pan of pewter melting on the fire. Mr Combe decide to send him to the Clerkenwell house of correction for two months at hard labour adding that he would grant Mary Ann a warrant for his arrest for the assault. This was not to be executed until he had served his full sentence however, meaning he would be rearrested as he was released from the gaol. It was then up to her to prosecute the supposed attempt on her life at the Sessions.

This seems the wrong way around for us today. The desire to punish a man for an implied property crime (the theft of pewter pint pots), instead of what seems very clearly to have been an actual violent crime (assault or attempted murder), is the opposite of what a magistrate would do now. But in 1844 assault had not been codified and the term covered a wide range of actions and was invariably prosecuted as a ‘civil’ action at the Sessions (or before a magistrate if it was less serious). It was the 1861 Offences against the Person Act that brought in the offences (such as GBH, wounding) that we are familiar with today and ushered in a less tolerant attitude towards casual violence.

St Giles was also a dreadful place with a terrible reputation for violence, crime, poverty and immorality. I doubt Mr Combe was as bothered by the violence (which he probably thought he could do nothing about) as he was by the property crime. By locking up Robinson for a couple of months, and putting him on notice thereafter, he at least took one thief off the streets  for a while and gave the local landlords some relief from the loss of their drinking vessels.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, April 17, 1844]

The shoeblack who only wanted a chance to ‘go straight’.

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The Victorians believed that criminality was endemic in the working classes and that some offenders were beyond help. This informed a debate about the existence of a ‘criminal class’, reviewed and given impetus by the writings of Henry Mayhew at mid century. Just as there were those that ‘would not work’ there were those that lived by theft and violence. This depiction of crime had important consequences for those caught up in the justice system because by the 1870s the authorities had pretty much abandoned all attempts at rehabilitating prisoners and instead imposed ever more strict forms of discipline and penalties for breaking the rules.

The harsh nature of the penal system didn’t end when you left gaol. Under the terms of the Prevention of Crimes Act (1871) any prisoner released early on a ticket-of-leave could be arrested and presented before a magistrate on the mere suspicion (by the police) that they had done something wrong. Moreover, registers of habitual offenders were now kept which recorded previously untold details of thousands of individuals convicted of all manner of offenders by the Victorian state. Now then, a criminal record could dog your footsteps forever.

Not surprisingly this made it very hard for former convicts, like Thomas Briggs, to go straight. By March 1875 Briggs already had a  prison record. He’d served at least one term of penal servitude and had been up before the local Police magistracy on a number of occasions.

On Saturday 20 March 1875 he was there again, this time in Mr Hannay’s court at Worship Street in Shoreditch.

Briggs was an unlicensed shoeblack who  plied his trade on the streets. The 35 year-old was well known to the local police and it seems they were in no mind to let him live out an easy life. PC 250N was patrolling his beat near Shoreditch church at seven in the evening when he saw Briggs standing by his box looking for trade. According to the policeman the ‘black and his box were blocking the passage and he asked him to move along.

The real problem here was that Thomas didn’t have a license to clean shoes in the street and this was because the police refused to give him one. Every time they saw him on the street they move him on or confiscated his box, taking away his livelihood. Thomas then had to collect this from the police station , reinforcing his relationship with the law and reminding everyone of his criminal history. According to Briggs this happened ‘four or five times a week’.

On this occasion Thomas lost control of the situation and refused to move. When the PC insisted the shoeblack climbed the nearest lamp post and yelled abuse down at the copper below. He accused the local police of persecuting him; they knew he’d only bene out of prison for a few weeks and ‘pitched on’ him at every opportunity making it impossible for him ‘to earn an honest living’.

In court the constable told the magistrate that Briggs was ‘obstinate’, obstructive and abusive. He ‘collected a crowd about him, told the people his history to enlist their sympathies, and then said they should see him righted’.

Not surprisingly Mr Hannay took the police’s side in this. Briggs would have to confine himself to cleaning shoes only in places where the police allowed him to (presumably licensed ‘backs had more liberty of choice?). The magistrate told him he would be dismissed without further charge today but warned him that future transgressions would fall heavily upon him. He advised the policeman to bring him in as often as was necessary for the former convict to learn that rules were there to be obeyed.

Naturally we can’t know whether Thomas Briggs was an honest man caught up in an impossible system. He may have been a petty criminal who preferred an ‘easy’ way of life. However, his extreme reaction to being moved on again suggests that he might have had some mental health issues which would hardly have been identified as such in the 1870s as they would be today.

Nor would he have had any support on leaving prison; no probation officer or social services, or any form of state benefit. Recidivism remains a serious problem today when there are many more options open to those caught up in the criminal justice system – if Thomas Briggs managed to ‘go straight’ and stay out of gaol for the rest of his life then he would have been a quite remarkable individual.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, March 21, 1875]

An embarrassed client is one ‘unfortunate’s “get out gaol free” card

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In 18657 Henry Mayhew wrote that that there were 8,600 prostitutes in London who were ‘known to the police’ (others suggested that in total there were 10 times this number of ‘unfortunates’). Mathew believed the higher figure was no exaggeration and declared that there were 8,000 or more amongst the ‘circulating harlotry of the Haymarket and Regent’s Street’.  One of these it seems, shared a surname with me.

Mary Gray was described as ‘a shabbily attired unfortunate’ when she appeared before Mr Knox at Marlborough Street Police Court. Mary was accused of robbing Henry Videon, a licensed victualler whose address was given as 51 Dean Street, Soho.

Mr Videon did not appear to press the charge against Mary Gray so this was brought instead by the policeman that arrested her. PC Kingston (184C) told the magistrate that he had resounded to cries of help in the street and found Mary and Videon ‘grappling on the ground’. He seized the woman and when the man had got to his feet he charged her with stealing a valuable breast pin, worth £10.

Mary denied it but before she could palm it to a nearby woman, PC Kingston grabbed her hand and found it concealed there. Mary now changed her story and said that she’d not stolen it, she was simply holding it because the man had refused to pay her the £2 he owed her for sex. Mary described how she had met Videon on the Haymarket at half past one in the morning and had taken him to a brothel, the York Hotel. They’d not stayed there very long but walked on down Regent Street where she demanded payment.

The story was now taken up by the policemen who repeated what the victualler had told him. According to him, when Videon had refused to pay her she ‘knocked his hat off’ and stole his pin. Mary said she only took the pin ‘for a lark’ but it didn’t look good for her.

However, in order to press the case Videon needed to be there. Prosecutors frequently failed to turn up to court. For some, the mere fact that they had caused someone to be locked up for a few days was satisfaction enough. In Videon’s case his absence from court that day can probably be explained by embarrassment.

Mr Knox agreed to remand Mary in custody for a week more to see if her victim appeared. She had a poor reputation as a local prostitute and had been on prison for drunk and disorderly behaviour before so he had no qualms about imprisoning her again. But the theft was serious and he could hardly commit her for trial without hearing from the man she was supposed to have robbed.

Knox had his doubts Videon would show up however.

His conduct, ‘in going to the Haymarket, then going to a house with the prisoner, and afterwards walking with her, [was] not very creditable to him’.

He’d probably been drunk or tipsy that night, had picked her up and now regretted the whole sordid affair. Unfortunately for him he had failed to keep his name out of the papers and may well have had some awkward questions to answer later that week. As for Mary well she would have to endure a week more in prison but then would be free to continue her existence as one of the better class of sex workers in the capital, operating as she did in London’s wealthy West End.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, January 20, 1865]

Mr Punch lands a blow on two young thieves in Fleet Street

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I’m sure we all have a memory of going to see the dentist as a child, and not always a happy one at that. I don’t remember much about him but I do recall the waiting room and the large pile of magazines you could read. I always opted for Punch because it had cartoons in it. I didn’t really understand most of them but they were still cartoons, so I tried to.

Punch has been around for a very long time and I use its political cartoons in teaching at visual sources for undergraduates. One of Punch’s founders was Henry Mayhew, whose investigative survey of life in London is also a treasure trove for social historians. In fact Mayhew’s work is sometimes the only primary source that used to tell the story of mid-nineteenth century London; something I find a little problematic at least. Mayhew’s journalism is useful, interesting and entertaining, but it is juts still one point of view, not the full picture.

From its creation in 1841 Punch, or the London Charivari (to give it its full title) liked to poke fun at the establishment. The French word ‘charivari’ referred to the ritual folk practice of humiliating those that offended public morals. In England we had a similar practice – ‘rough music’ – whereby wife-beaters, adulterers, ‘nags’ and the like were shamed by the entire village gathering outside their home to bash pots and pans together and shout abuse. We call this ‘Twitter’ today.

By the 1860s Punch, which had struggled at first, was well established and was being printed by the firm of Bradbury and Evans in London. Punch’s  head office was at 85 Fleet Street in the heart of the newspaper district.

On Saturday 19 December 1868 three men appeared at the Guildhall Police court on a variety of charges relating tot he theft of copies of the magazine. The first was Samuel Watts who ran a beer shop on Fetter Lane, just around the corner from Punch’s offices. Watts was initially charged with in the unlawful possession of 256 copies of Punch magazine ‘well knowing the same to have been stolen’. He protested his innocence and was represented by a lawyer.

His brief, Mr Lewis, told the court that the police had ‘made a great deal about the defendant keeping a house which was frequented by bad characters’. But no one had complained about his beer shop in the seven years he’d run it and it was hardly his fault if the odd ‘bad character’ came in from time to time. After all, ‘it was not to be expected that his house would be frequented by gentlemen only’. The police accepted that Watts was not really a suspect in the case and so the magistrate discharged him but then swore him in as a witness.

Next to appear were the real culprits: James Connor and Alfred Clarke. Connor was 24 and Clarke just 19 and they were charged with stealing 300 copies of the publication from the Fleet Street offices on the 9th December. The court heard that a parcel containing the copies was taken from behind a counter and left at a coffee house at 90 Shoe Lane, run by William Bye. The parcel was left in the name of John Clarke, to be collected later.

A little after 3 another lad named George Harrison entered the pub and picked it up. Bye saw him hand it over to Alfred Clarke at the door and go off with it. From there Clarke and Connor distributed the copies of the paper to a number of newspaper vendors to sell in the streets for whatever they could get. They asked just 1d back for each copy sold.

One of these was Richard Bailey. He was in the Three Lions pub and saw Clarke and Connor playing at skittles. They asked him to sell some copies and he agreed, as he had no work at the time and the money was useful. But although he managed to sell some – at  one and a half pence each – he soon realised the copies were stamped. They were supposed to be sold at 4 and he must have realised they were stolen. Not wanting to get into trouble he took them back to the thieves, who by now were playing bagatelle.

Connor and Clarke were eventually arrested by a detective in the City of London force. He picked up Clarke in Fleet Street and then discovered the missing copies of Punch behind the skittle alley in the games room of the Three Lions pub. On the 11 January Clarke and Connor were tried at the Old Bailey and convicted of the theft.

Clarke was sentenced to four months imprisonment but Connor came off much worse. He admitted to having previously been convicted (in 1866) and so the judge sent him away for seven years of penal servitude.

For stealing £12 worth of magazines. Ouch.

 

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, December 20, 1868]

Mr Barstow brooks no excuse for truancy

‘No equally powerful body will exist in England outside Parliament, if power is measured by influence for good or evil over masses of human beings’. The Times, 29 November 1870.*

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The school holidays are over again and millions of children are returning to their classrooms. Since 1918 (and the controversial Fisher Act) secondary school education has been compulsory for all children in England and Wales, initially up to age 14 and now, effectively to 18. Parents that allow their children to miss school (to be truant) can be prosecuted, fined and even imprisoned in rare cases. In  2015 alone almost 20,000 parents were prosecuted for allowing their offspring to miss school and there has been the highly publicised case of Jon Platt who was fined £120 plus costs for choosing to take his children away on a family holiday to Florida. Mr Platt successfully appealed the decision to the High Court before it went on to a Supreme Court hearing which upheld the Isle of Wight council’s original decision.

The case turned on the rights of parents over the desire to protect children’s education. The law insists that children attend school regularly so that they can benefit from the free education system provided by the state. This has a long history in England with  early attempts to provide schooling for the children of poor families (wealthy parents had long been able to educate their kids) going back to the eighteenth century. It was in 1833 that the state first became directly involved in school education with parliament voting money for the creation of schools for the poor.

Educating the poor was considered to be a crucial tool in fighting crime and poverty in the nineteenth century. Commentators from the end of the Napoleonic Wars onwards equated delinquency with a lack of formal education, moral guidance, and opportunities for gainful employment. If children could be taught to read and write, and learn to respect their ‘betters’ then society could go a long way toward eradicating the so-called ‘criminal class’ that Henry Mayhew and others wrote so much about.

In 1870 the Forster Act attempted to address the perennial  problem of inadequate supply of schools for the children of the poor. It created board schools (fee paying but with fee waivers for the poorest families) for children aged 5-13 (or 10 if if the child could demonstrate they had reached a certain level of education by then). Attendance was compulsory on the basis that there would now be a school within range of the child’s home.

One of the consequences of creating a compulsory system of course was that the new School Boards had to enforce it. The parents of children that failed to send their youngsters to school would be prosecuted, and those prosecutions ended up before a Police Magistrate.

In some cases children were hard to police (just as they are today), parents may well have simply been unaware that their sons or daughters were playing truant. In other cases there was considerable complicity on the part of the adults; children were useful as helpmeets at home, or as extra hands at work. And inevitably poverty and illness took its toll. I have read cases of mothers not wishing to send their children to school without shoes, too poor were they to properly cloth them but too proud to ask for charity.

Given that many parents might well have had reasonable (or at least understandable) grounds for keeping children at home this report of cases before the Clerkenwell Police magistrate is instructive.

Mr Barstow presided over a series of School Board truancy cases heard in September 1874, just four years after Forster’s Act. He was pretty ruthless in upholding all the School Board officer’s complaints.

In one case a ‘poor woman’ told him that:

‘the small average attendance made by her two children was caused by the illness of her husband, which had extended over 14 weeks’. During that time, when he could not work she had gone out to earn enough to keep the home together. She had tried to send one child to school in the morning and one in the afternoon, so that he should never be left uncared for.

Mr Barstow fined her 2s 6s, plus 2s costs.

Next was another poor woman who carried a baby in her arms. She too had failed to make sure her other children attended school and was fined the same amount. Sadly she didn’t have 2s and sixpence so she was sent to the house of correction for five days. Presumably she took her children with her or they went tot he workhouse, there didn’t seem to be a husband at home to stand with her.

There were several parents prosecuted that morning, nearly all of them ‘of the poorest class’ and the magistrate fined them all without exception. His final case was a ‘respectably-dressed’ man however, who claimed that he had not sent his boy to the school as it wasn’t ‘very effective’. Mr Barstow asked him to provide proof of the inefficiency of the school in question which the man was unable to do. In future, Barstow said, he would need to see evidence of a school’s failings if he was to excuse any non-attendance.

The man was clearly frustrated at being dragged through the courts in this manner. He declared that he thought the act was designed to deal with ‘the “gutter” children and street Arabs’, not with respectable families such as his own. Mr Barstow paid him no heed and handed him the standard 2s 6s fine plus costs. 

Men like Mr Barstow probably believed in the project of public education and were well placed to see the results of poverty, ignorance and crime on London’s population. Education then wasn’t about empowering children or providing them with an opportunity to develop and grow. Rather it was an exercise in social control and social engineering, churning out ‘good citizens’ who knew their place in the unequal hierarchy of Victorian society.

Plus ça change

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, September 05, 1874]