The ‘tyranny of Trades unions’ causes a short sighted appointment.

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I was drawn to this headline in the Standard for late October 1897, which referred to a case before the magistrate at Worship Street in the East End of London. It concerned a glass beveller called Mr Bacon who had summoned his apprentice to appear in court.

In the course of my PhD research I found that London masters frequently brought their apprentices to court (or indeed were summoned by them to appear themselves) but at the Chamberlain’s not, not Mansion House or Guildhall. There all sorts of disputes were heard and resolved, usually touching on the disobedience of apprentices or failure of masters to teach their charges their arts.

Elsewhere in England disputes between masters and apprentices (and masters and servants) were often settled in front of a magistrate, and so this one was in line with what we know from previous research from an earlier period.

Mr Bacon had come to complain that his apprentice was entirely unfit to learn the trade of glass beveling because, to quote:

‘Apart from the apprentice being exceedingly troublesome and unruly’ […] ‘he was near-sighted, and consequently couldn’t be put to work the machinery or the larger tools, which were dangerous’.

Clearly then there was a problem but how was it that Bacon had just found this out Mr Corser (the sitting justice) wanted to know?

Well that was because of the unions the glass worker explained. In order to be allowed to start work in the shop the lad had to be formally apprenticed (in other words, to have his indentures signed). The unions refused to allow their men to work with non-indentured boys and threatened to go on strike if this was not complied with. Indeed they had already struck when an apprenticed  boy  had been set on one of the beveling machines.

So ‘the lad in this case was no good to him’ (and I suspect his attitude was something that Bacon was not prepared to cope with either). If he kept him on his poor sight would inevitably lead to accidents and he (Bacon) would be liable for compensation. As a result the magistrate had no choice but to cancel the youngster’s indentures and hope he found gainful employment somewhere else.

[from The Standard, Monday, October 25, 1897]

‘You’ll have someone’s eye out with that boy!’

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Our class of boys was told repeatedly at school about the dangers of throwing paper darts or flicking elastic bands at each other. ‘You’ll have someone’s eye out with that , boy!’ thundered our Latin master. We ignored him of course, as most small boys do, and, to my knowledge, no one at Christ’s College Finchley did lose an eye to a small missile hurled in jest.

Sadly, but equally predictably, there were handful of pupils in our year who were always the butt of yokes and more serious bullying. Often this was because of the way they looked, some minor disability they had, or some other personal characteristic. Being overweight, wearing glasses, having red hair, very short (or very tall), less intellectually gifted, or indeed, cleverer, could single you out for abuse. Children and teenagers (and some teachers) can be cruel and some people must have had a horrible and traumatic time at our school.

None of this is new of course and despite the best efforts of several generations of school teachers it continues.

On  weekday in February 1870 a young woman was working at a stall in Crawford Street, Marylebone to earn a few pennies. We don’t know her age but it was probably early teens. We don;t know her name either but she had suffered an injury as a child and had loss an eye. The one eyed girl was most likely a source of conversation and ridicule amongst the children of the district, who would have seen her standing by her stall most days of the week.

One can only imagine what she had to put up with hearing the whispers of the adults and being pointed at by younger passers-by. The mixture of pity, ridicule, and fear that she engendered in others must have left her feeling isolated and victimised unless she had very strong support from her family and friends.

One young lad, Charles West aged 10, wasn’t content with staring or pointing. He owned a catapult and in early February 1870 thought it would be a good jape to see if he could knock out her remaining good eye.

Taking aim he released a stone which struck the girl plumb in the face, injuring her eye as he’d intended. She was rushed to get medical help and Charles ran away. Enquiries were made and the boy was eventually traced and locked up in prison while the girl’s injuries were assessed.

After five days in custody Charles was brought up before Mr Mansfield at Marylebone Police Court. The case was briefly confused by the appearance of a butler who produced another lad who said he’d committed the awful crime. The child was lying however, presumably encouraged by the butler to do so. Was the butler in the employ of Charles West’s family? That would suggest that Charles was no street urchin but the son of respectable parents.

Mr Mansfield reprimanded the butler, dismissed the other boy and turned to Charles. The girl was in recovery and, thankfully, no lasting damage had been done to her sight the doctor had assured him. Charles had spent the best part of a week locked up and the magistrate decided that was sufficient punishment.

Hopefully he was punished by his parents and his catapult taken away. If he did come from a middle class family of means one  also hopes that they made a generous donation to the girl with one eye and, more importantly, reminded their offspring of the need to be kind to those less fortunate than ourselves.

[from The Illustrated Police News etc, Saturday, February 12, 1870]