Stark contrasts as privilege triumphs on the back of human misery

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Elizabeth Avery had committed a very common crime in early Victorian London and received a very usual sentence for it. When she was brought before the Queen’s Square Police court on 25 June 1837 (just five days after the queen acceded to the throne) she was accused of stealing a silver spoon. The theft was discovered when Elizabeth had attempted to pawn the item and the ‘broker had become suspicious.

The spoon belonged to Philip John Miles, the sitting Conservative MP for Bristol who kept a house in London as many provincial members did. Miles owed his position to wealth and his money derived from banking and his family’s sugar plantations in Jamaica. Until 1833, Miles, like many rich and powerful men in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century England, was a slave owner. The honourable member for Bristol (who had previously held seats at Westbury and Corfe Castle) was a millionaire in his day and had acquired the slaves he had owned indirectly, as his bank took possessions of them when their owners defaulted on their mortgages.

Slavery had been finally abolished in 1833 after a long campaign and owning slaves was now illegal (the trade itself had been banned in 1808). But it left the thorny question of compensation. Not for the enslaved of course, but for the men that would have to give up their ‘property’, such was early nineteenth-century logic. A project at University College London reveals that around 10-20 of Britain’s wealthy elite have links to slavery in the past; ours was an economy built on the forced labour of millions of African slaves – something we might remember more often.

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Philip John Miles did very well out of the compensation scheme that was enshrined in law in 1837 (by a parliament in which he sat of course). His son became a baronet who also sat as a Tory at Westminster. Throughout his political career he never once had to contest an election and only resigned his seat so his son could ‘inherit’ it.

This son, Sir Philip Miles (2ndbaronet), also pursued a career in politics and was a little more active than his father or grandfather. He was more ‘liberal’ than either, even supporting votes for some women in 1884.

The Miles’ then were a wealthy, privileged family who handed that wealth and influence down to their children so they could enjoy the benefits that it brought. Contrast this then with Elizabeth Avery, who stole a spoon from John Miles’ dinner table. She was the daughter of a charwoman – a lowly servant who had worked for the family for 14 years, doing their laundry. Avery regularly went to see Mr Harding, a pawnbroker on York Street, Westminster, sent by her mother to pledge things so they could pay their rent and feed themselves.

On the night the spoon was lifted John Miles had thrown a lavish party and the Averys had come round to clear away the lined to wash. Elizabeth must have been tempted by the huge array of silver on show and, having seen such things in the pawnbrokers and knowing they could be transformed into money, pocketed it.

She was only seven years old after all.

In court Mr White the sitting magistrate, having heard the case against Elizabeth (presented by Miles’ butler and the pawnbroker’s assistant), called for the girl’s mother. He admonished her for sending her daughter to a pawnshop, saying that she ‘most probably would not have stolen the spoon had she not known a method of disposing of it’. In order to emphasize his message and the lesson he wanted Mrs Avery to learn he sent Elizabeth to prison for seven days.

So, for taking a spoon from the table of a man who owed his possession of it to a trade in human beings a little girl of seven, raised in poverty, was condemned to spend a week away from her mother in the squalid conditions of the Westminster House of Correction.

While the Miles family prospered I wonder what happened to the Averys? I suspect that Mrs Avery may have lost her job cleaning linen for the Miles household. That would have thrown a poor family into crisis and Elizabeth may have been forced to turn to some form of crime to survive thereafter. Many of London’s prostitutes started that way, and in 1842 a teenager called Elizabeth Avern, alias Avery, was convicted of stealing a boot valued at 29d.

Of course it may have been a different Elizabeth Avery but the court noted she had a previous conviction and as a result they through the book at her. She was sentenced to 7 years transportation to Australia. Transportation was a form of forced migration, which effectively enslaved those condemned to work for the British state as it built its empire ‘down under’.

I suppose that is what we might call poetic ‘injustice’.

[from The Morning Post , Monday, June 26, 1837]

Three little girls are failed by a penny-pinching state

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After a campaign by Mary Carpenter and others Parliament passed the Reformatory Schools Act in 1854. This piece of legislation allowed magistrates to send children (up to the age of 16) to a state certified reformatory school for a period of 2 to 5 years. Carpenter and her colleagues believed that juvenile offenders needed to be removed from bad influences and environments and given an opportunity for an education and training for a new life. She and Russell Scott had pioneered the reform with their school at Kingswood near Bristol, which opened in 1852.

It was worthy innovation but it was undermined by at least two things: a lack of money and the imperative that all juvenile convicts should spend time in a prison first (usually about 2-4 weeks). The latter was to meet the demands of society; rarely a good way to conduct penal policy.

The problem was that without proper state funding the number of reformatories established was limited and the levels of staffing always insufficient. Without the space to hold juveniles many were simply returned to their parents once they had served their initial sentences and those in care were not always given the education promised because there weren’t enough staff to supervise them adequately.

Eliza Wood, Emma Major and Margaret Hawkins are just three examples of the problems the reformatory movement encountered in its early years. The three girls, with an average age of 10, had been convicted of stealing at the Lambeth Police Court in the spring of 1860. When it was explained to Mr Norton, the magistrate, that girls’ mothers were ‘drunken and dissipated women’ living in an area around Kent Street that was notorious for crime and prostitution, he decided to use the new option allowed by law. He sentenced them to three weeks in prison to be followed by four years in a certified reformatory.

The girls were taken to the house of correction on Wandsworth Common but at the end of their term the prison governor wrote to Mr Norton. He apologised but said it was impossible for him to send the girls on to a reformatory because there wasn’t one that could take them.

The only certified school in London was at Hampstead, and that was full. Indeed they had already turned away another child that Norton had sent their way: Hannah Reynolds (convicted in February 1860). The governor had been trying to place the trio at a reformatory ‘in the country’ but so far he’d had no success. As a result there was nothing he could do but send them back to Lambeth and the dubious ‘care’ of their parents.

Various charities existed to help juvenile offenders and the governor assured Norton that he had tried to enlist their support but that they too had been unable to help. It seems that the new legislation was the victim of its own success; so keen were magistrates to use the option of sending children away that the reformatories simply couldn’t cope with the numbers.

I am firm believer in the necessity of spending money on criminal justice, whether that be on police, prisons or the courts. This country has a very long history of penny pinching when it comes to penal policy, sometimes in the misguided notion that treating criminals harshly by making their environment as unpleasant as possible somehow prevents others from criminality.

It doesn’t. All that is achieved is to brutalise those locked up or to make it harder for offenders to return to society and find work on release. This simply perpetuates the cycle of offending.

We have seen what fewer police on the streets means for our society: it means higher levels of violent crime and wilful disregard for the laws of the road. We can also see what the result of austerity in the court service is, as several recent rape cases have collapsed because insufficient resources have been deployed to allow a thorough disclosure of information that might be useful to defendants.

These three little girls (aged 10, 9 and 10) should never have been sent to the Surrey house of correction at Wandsworth (later the prison that now bears that name). But the age of criminal responsibility was low and children were routinely caught up in the justice system and flogged, imprisoned, transported, or even executed on rare occasions. Mary Carpenter’s vision was the right one for the time: the separation of children from the poverty and destitution that overwhelmed them in Britain’s growing urban and industrial districts. Sadly the government of the day only paid lip service to this vision and so the reformatory movement was hamstrung from its birth.

If we want to deal properly with crime and its causes we need to invest the time, money and effort in it, not be constantly looking at ways of saving money which we justify with a level of analysis worthy only of the most populist of modern tabloid newspapers.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, May 2, 1860]

‘Oh don’t be so hard on me,’ pleads an Irish philosopher and gentleman of the road

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I had a ‘conversation’ yesterday on social media with someone asking how he should act when homeless people ask for money in the street. Should he give money, or buy them food or a coffee, or should he simply take the time to chat to them? It is a complex question and I quite understood his dilemma; some charities (like the Salvation Army) tell us not to give money, believing it perpetuates the problem. Others suggest we should to help them get the basic necessities of life.

I’m also often told that ‘they will spend it on drink or drugs’, not that it is any of my business how they spend whatever money they have.

Homelessness, vagrancy and begging are not modern social issues, they have been with us for as long as humans have lived in societies. The ‘modern’ vagrancy laws in Britain have their roots in the Tudor period with laws to punish ‘sturdy beggars’ and the building of houses of correction to enforce them. By the Victorian period poverty was endemic and being dealt with by the Poor Law, with workhouses operating as a deterrent to the ‘work-shy’ in the belief that poverty was a personal failing, not a product of society or a capitalist economic system.

There was also limited understanding of mental health and very little state provision for those that suffered. That much is obvious form so many of the cases I’ve written about on this site. I am reluctant to say that nineteenth-century society didn’t care about the poor and homeless and mentally ill, just that it didn’t really understand them and the underlying reasons for their actions.

St. George Gregg was someone who often found himself in trouble with the authorities in the late 1830s and early 40s. He’d come up before the Police court magistrates at Queen Square on more than one occasion in 1840 and was there again in early May that year.

Gregg was an Irishman and was frequently charged for being drunk. He was about to be convicted and fined by Mr Burrell when he raised his hand and asked if he could say a few words. The justice agreed and listened.

The defendant held out a small book, offering it to the chief usher to give to the magistrate. He explained that he’d been writing a book ‘on the currency question’ and thought his worship might like a copy. Mr. Burrell wasn’t interested.

I don’t want your book. What have you to say to the charge against you?’

I walk frequently thirty miles a day’, replied Gregg, ‘That fatigues me, and if I have nothing to eat the liquor has an effect sooner. I had no dinner yesterday, in fact I had no “tin”.’

The magistrate didn’t know what he meant by ‘tin’, so asked him.

Tin is money’, the man explained, ‘and having no  money I had no dinner’.

He’d tried to sell his books for money but seemingly had no takers to he’d started to sing in the streets and that way he’d raised a few pennies which he spent on drink.

‘You might have purchased victuals with that’, Mr Burrrell remarked.

‘Oh, sure, I wasn’t victuals hungry, I was grog hungry’ Gregg shot back. ‘I was like the captivating chandler, wanted I wanted in starch, I made up in blue’, he said, warming to his theme.

So I had toddy till I had but a single copper left, then devil a bed had I, and was making my way to the church-yard to go to bed on a tombstone, when the police found me quarters’.

He added that he’d written a study of ‘ambition’ and would send the magistrate a copy.

‘I don’t want your book. You are fined 5s’ was Mr. Burrell’s response.

Gregg hadn’t got one shilling let alone five and the justice must have realised this. What was the point of fining a homeless tramp anyway? Gregg attempted to barter with the justice, offering him books that he probably hadn’t written (and certainly hadn’t ‘published’ as he’d insisted he had) as part payment of the penalty. Burrell was having none of it and ordered him to be taken away; if he couldn’t pay the fine he’d have to go to prison.

Oh don’t be so hard on me’, pleaded the Irishman, ‘I want to finish a poem’. He was led away protesting his freedom.

Society didn’t understand George Gregg. He didn’t, couldn’t or wouldn’t conform to what was expected of him. He chose to live by his wits and on his own terms. Perhaps he was a ‘popular philosopher’, who wrote tracts in notebooks or scraps of paper that nobody read. His logical response to accusations of being drunk (drinking on an empty stomach) or his choice of how to spend the money he’d earned (on drink because he was thirsty after singing and walking) would be quite reasonable if he was a ‘normal’ member of society. Because he was an outsider and had chosen to live differently to others, the law treated him as a problem. It punished him rather than helped him. I’m not entirely sure we have made much progress in the last 180 odd years.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, May 7, 1840]

‘None will doubt but that our emigration, has proved most useful to the British nation’*. A lack of opportunity at the end of transportation.

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In April 1867 two teenagers appeared at the Greenwich Police court accused of the possession of  a variety of items that didn’t belong to them and being unable to ‘give a satisfactory account; of where they acquired them. Basically then, it was assumed they’d stolen them.

Arthur Edmonds was just 13 and lived in Birdcage Walk, Hackney while Thomas Taylor was older (at 16) and gave his address as Oakford Terrace, Boston Street, Goldsmith’s Row close to what is now Haggerston Park. So what were these two doing south of the river in Greenwich?

Well, as the court was told at 5 o’clock on Friday evening, 26 April, Thomas walked into a pawnbroker’s shop in Deptford and attempted to pledge 13 silver spoons. The assistant was suspicious and called the police. When PC Savage (484A) arrived he quizzed Thomas about the spoons and didn’t believe the lad’s explanation that he had found them while across Blackheath.

Thomas was arrested and Arthur picked up soon afterwards. When they were searched Thomas was found to have a small clock on him while his younger partner in crime was in possession of a huge haul. The police found:

‘an eye glass, £1 12s6d. in money, seven silver, and four brass coins, a syringe’ plus ‘a watch, [and] eight shirt studs’.

The pair were charged before Mr Traill and Edmonds’ father identified most of the goods his son had on him as his own. He explained that Arthur had run away on the previous Thursday (25/4) taking with him a writing desk in which most of those items had been stored. He’d also taken some clothes and the watch, which belonged to one of his other sons.

Taylor had previously been before the magistrates at Worship Street, which was much closer to home, so perhaps his desire to pawn the goods in South London was a deliberate move to avoid detection. Thomas told the court that he’d met Arthur and the younger boy had asked if he could join up with him. It sounds as if Arthur Edmonds was an unhappy youth or perhaps just a troublesome one. Did he run away for the adventure or because home was a place he feared?

The magistrate decided that the state needed to intervene here and sent both lads for trial at the next Sessions so that Arthur could be committed to a juvenile reformatory where he might learn some discipline and be removed from bad influences. Thomas was too old for a reformatory so if was convicted he’d face prison and probably lose all chances of leading an ‘honest’ life in the future.

One option for the pair might have been to transport them to the Australia and earlier in the century it is entirely possible that this is where they might have wound up, Thomas Taylor especially. But by the 1860s fewer and fewer convicts were being transported overseas and the last ship (the Houguomont) sailed in October 1867 with 280 ‘passengers’ on board.

Taylor is not an uncommon surname and Thomas a very frequently used first name but in December 1867, just 8 months after this incident, a Thomas Taylor was committed for trial at the Old Bailey by justice Newton at Worship Street. The17 year-old brushmaker was convicted of stealing 4 pairs of boots and sentenced to 4 months in Cold Bath Fields house of correction. The age is about right as is the area, so this may well be the same young man. His brush with the law at Greenwich clearly didn’t do enough to put him off.

Last night I went to the theatre, the Theatre Royal at Stratford to be precise. There I watched a production of Our Country’s Good by Timberlake Wertenberger performed by the Ramps on the Moon players in collaboration with the Nottingham Playhouse. The play is focused on the experience of a group of convicts transported to New South Wales in 1787 as part of the First Fleet to reach Botany Bay. In what is a play within a play a small number of transported felons battle prejudice and systemic abuse to put on a performance of Farquhar’s The Recruiting Sergeant, a restoration comedy that involves nearly all the cast playing more than one role.

It is based on a true story and is a reminder that it was those banished to Australia in the late 1700s and early 1800s that carved out a new life for themselves that did so much to establish the colony on the other side of the world. Transportation officially ended as a punishment in 1868, with the Houguomont being the very last transport ship to arrive in Western Australia in January that year. Thereafter most of those convicted by English courts would be sentenced to varying terms of imprisonment in the increasingly rigid British penal system. The opportunity for a new life, despite the fears it brought with it, would have to wait until British society was sufficiently affluent – about 100 years later – for some members of the working classes to choose to emigration ‘down under’.

Our Country’s Good is an excellent play and the Ramps on the Moon troupe are fantastic players, so do go and see it if you can, in London or elsewhere.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, April 29, 1867]

*Wisehammer’s prologue to The Recruiting Sergeant, Our Country’s Good, (1988)

‘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]

Three hearty fellows from Horselydown fall foul of Mr Coombe’s benevolence

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In January 1861 three ‘hearty-looking men’ appeared at the Southwark Police court in front of Mr Combe, the magistrate presiding. The trio were dressed in agricultural labourers’ clothes and said they come from Horsleydown, by Wapping, where they claimed to earn a living by  working on the river front. However, there had been a severe winter and the frost had prevented them from doing any paid work. They told the magistrate that their ‘wives and families were at home starving’.

That the winter of 1860/61 was a hard one is evidenced by several donations listed in the papers to the local poor relief funds. At Southwark alone over a dozen people had left sums of money, postal orders or postage stamps for the magistrate to distribute as they saw fit. However, these three men had been arrested for begging and that was met with strong disapproval from Mr Combe. He enquired the circumstances in which they had been picked up by the police and PC Duff (216M) stepped forward to make his report.

PC Duff explained that he was on duty in Bermondsey Street at four in the afternoon when he saw the three men walking down the road. They were carrying spades and singing a song. As they sang ‘Got no work to do’ they waived their spades on which was written the words “Relieve the distressed poor” in chalk.

Several people did part with money, although the constable felt they were often in worse straights than the three river workers. It was also suggested that there was more than a air of menace about the way they presented themselves and how they persuaded passers-by to help them.

After they had been shaken down at the police station six shillings and eleven pence was discovered so they had managed to extract a small amount of loose change from the Southwark locals at least. Mr Combe was not inclined to leniency in this case; he saw the men as imposters – and declared ‘he would not be doing his duty if he didn’t send them to prison’.

And prison was where they went next, sentenced to seven days hard labour in the house of correction. That seems to have come as something of a shock to the three of them, who perhaps hoped for help not brickbats. Mr Combe was making it quite clear that this was a society who helped those it deemed deserved it and these three ‘hearty’ fellows from Horselydown did not fit that description.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, January 24, 1861]

The drunken Bobby who joined the Lincolns

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Recruiting sergeants at St George’s barracks
When Sir Robert Peel created the New Police in 1829 he envisaged a force of men that would be uniformed, follow orders, and operate under a clear hierarchy. Some of those serving as members of the old watch or parish constables joined up in the first months of the Metropolitan Police but many of these were soon weeded out as unsuitable.
The call then went out to the sorts of men that had served the British army so well in the wars against Napoleon – the agrarian working class men of England, Wales and Scotland.
The New Police concentrated on the beat system, a dull routine of daily and nightly meanders along a set route which was carefully supervised by sergeants. London was divided into police districts (Divisions) with each division broken up into station houses from which patrols were despatched daily and nightly.
When one of the duty sergeants for N Division (Sgt 37N) paraded his men ahead of the night patrol at 10 o’clock on the evening of the 8 December 1874 one of his team was missing. PC William Pitcher (193N) , who was just 23 years old, was nowhere to be seen and so some quick enquiries were made.
Asking around the sergeant soon discovered that the constable had been to the St George’s Street military barracks  and had joined the 10 (North Lincoln) Regiment of Foot. He was traced to Colchester where his battalion (the second) were billeted and fetched back to London by warrant to face the music at the Clerkenwell Police Court.
When he was arrested PC Pitcher held his hands up. He said he expected nothing less. In court he explained that he ‘had gone out with some friends, had taken a little too much to drink, and then had enlisted for a soldier’.
The magistrate fined him 40s (or 14 days in the house of correction at Clerkenwell) and dismissed him. Did he remain a soldier or return to the police? Sadly, this source doesn’t tell me that.
[from The Morning Post, Friday, December 18, 1874]
Between 1868-1871 the 1st battalion of the 10th had seen service in Japan but private Pickering would not have been part of that having joined the 2nd battalion, and later at that. The 1st battalion also served at Omdurman in 1898 while the 2nd battalion took part in the 2nd South African (Boer) war of 1899-1902. Nowadays army reforms have seen the Lincolnshires amalgamate with the Northamptonshire Regiment and others to create the modern Royal Anglians.