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]

The apple doesn’t fall that far

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William Thomas’ son – Thomas Thomas – had been a difficult child. He had grown up in a large family with eight siblings, another one of which had been in trouble with the law as Thomas had. In January 1866 Thomas had been brought before a magistrate and sent to the Reformatory School ship Cornwall, which was moored off Purfleet in Essex.

The school could take up to 250 boys who had been convicted of offences that earned them three years on board but parents were expected to contribute to the costs. William Thomas now found himself in court at Marlborough Street because he had neglected to pay for his son’s keep. He now owed £1 and 7for his failure to pay 1s 6d  a week.

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William Thomas pleaded poverty but that didn’t go down well with the prosecutor (a Mr Brannan from the Home Secretary’s office) or the magistrate – Mr Knox.

The court heard that William had abandoned his wife and six children at home and was now living in Foley Street with a new partner and had already given her two new mouths to feed. He’d promised to pay if given time but had then furnished Mr Brannan with a false address.

Mr Knox sent him to prison for 10 days and told him to find the money.

Underlying this of course is the domestic environment that Thomas Thomas had grown up in. Poverty, overcrowding, and domestic instability would all have contributed to his delinquency. We are very aware of these issues today and try to support children caught up in them.

Not that we are always that successful: there are still high truancy rates, children are abused and abandoned, and thousands suffer mental health problems. At least birth control has allowed couples to take more control over the size of their families and this would have been useful had it been available to the Thomas’s in the mid 1860s.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, June 16, 1866]

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]

‘The devil finds work for idle hands to do’: a youngster pays the price for his temptation

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William Barham was only 11 years of age when he stood in the dock at mansion House Police court. His experience is a reminder that attitudes towards children (especially juvenile offenders) have changed enormously in the past 150 years.

William’s father worked in a local market close to Mark Lane as a ‘sampler of corn’. He was well respected having held the post for many years. His lad often went into work with him and was allowed to play and run about the offices at the New Corn Exchange. The beadle had an office there, where the boy was allowed occasionally to wash himself.

On the 8 May William was watching Mr Wise the beadle tie up some bags of silver coin. The temptation  must have been too great because when the beadle left the room William helped himself to one of the bags. Wise spotted the loss on his return and his suspicions immediately fell on young William.

This was compounded by the eleven year-old’s absence and so on the following morning, when he reappeared, he was questioned closely about the missing money (which amounted to £5). William denied all knowledge of it and the matter was handed over to the police. Now William cracked; handling questions from his father and a man he knew was one thing, but being interrogated by police detective, perhaps in a cell nearby clearly unsettled the child.

Accompanied by his father, the beadle and the detective, William took them across the river to ‘an orchard in a retired part of Bermonsdsey’ where he’d buried his loot. They dug up the bag which still contained most of the silver; William had spent 36but wouldn’t say on what.

At his first appearance in court, soon after the discovery of the theft, William was remanded in custody at the request of his father. Mr Barham said he wanted his son to be placed in a juvenile reformatory, for his own good. The magistrate agreed but sent the child back to a police cell while the arrangements were made. This had taken about a week and now father and son were reunited at the Mansion House, along with the boy’s mother.

Alderman Challis, sitting as magistrate, asked the parents what they wanted to happen to William. They said they were ‘both anxious that some steps should be taken to reclaim their son from the dangerous career on which he had entered’.

Detective Monger explained that his enquiries had established that William had be led on by an older boy, a common trope in juvenile crime.

This other lad had persuaded William to ‘steal anything he could lay his hands on’ and, as a result, ‘he had frequently robbed his father and mother’.

Today William would have been seen as a troubled child, perhaps one that played truant or had been excluded from school. William didn’t go to school in 1860, nor, it seems, did he work. As the proverb suggests, ‘the devil finds work for idle hands to do’.

The alderman agreed that a reformatory school was the best place for William but the law required that he face a spell in prison first. William was sentenced to 14 days in Holloway gaol so that he could face the full consequences of his criminal actions and hopefully learn from it. Thereafter he would be sent to the Home in the East School for the Reformation of Criminal Boys at Bow, for four years. His father was obliged to pay 2sa week towards his keep, the intention being that parents should not evade their responsibilities entirely.

William was led away in tears and ‘for some minutes after was heard shrieking loudly for his father and mother’. It was a harsh system and we can only hope that William emerged in his early teens unscathed by it and perhaps one step removed from the influences that had led him to steal in the first place.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Saturday, May 19, 1860]

An unconventional Lady and her runaway maid

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United Industrial School site, Edinburgh, c.1877.

In the nineteenth century concern about juvenile crime and the fate of those young people caught up in led Mary Carpenter and others to campaign for the building of reformatories. In 1851 Carpenter had publisher an influential tract on the reform of juveniles and in 1852 she and Russell established a reformatory at Kingswood near Bristol. Two years’ later she opened a similar institution for girls at Red Lodge.

These were private charitable initiatives but gained government support in 1854 with the passing of the Young Offenders Act that encouraged their building and allowed magistrates to send juvenile criminals to them. In 1857 new legislation created Industrial Schools; both operated as a sort of public/private enterprise to remove young offenders from the streets of Britain’s crowded cities and educated them for a new life, away from the temptations and corruption of the homes they left behind. Boys were usually trained for industry or agriculture, while girls were taught to sew or to be domestic servants. All were taught to read and write so they knew their letters and could read the Bible.

Mary Ann Millen was a reformatory girl. At 18 she had been released from an institution in her native Edinburgh and sent to work in the household of Lady Douglas in London.

I wonder if this might have been Lady Gertrude Douglas, the daughter of the seventh marquise of Queensbury and an author in her own right. Gertrude, using the pseudonym ‘George Douglas’, wrote several Scottish based novels in the 1870s but lived in London, where she later helped her brother with his school. In 1882 she married one of the pupils, Thomas Henry Stock; she was 40, he was just 18.

Lady Douglas was familiar with the Edinburgh reformatory and the girls there. Perhaps she made charitable donations as a patron or involved herself on the board of trustees; this would have been exactly the sort of philanthropic ‘work’ that a Victorian lady could be involved in without drawing undue attention to herself, not that it seems that Gertrude was worried about other people’s opinions of her.

Mary arrived in London in April 1872. She was 18 and spoke with a heavy Scots accent. It must have seemed a very strange world to her; while Edinburgh was a busy modern city in the late 1800s it was tiny by comparison to the capital. Lady Douglas’ other servants were all English and Mary struggled to make friends, and even to make herself understood.

She lasted three weeks at the house in Gloucester Terrace, Kensington, before running away and making the long journey back to Scotland. She was quickly missed. Money was missing from a dressing room table and one of the servants had lost a waterproof coat. Lady Douglas summoned the police and a detective caught the next available train to Edinburgh.

It didn’t take Detective Seymour long to run down the runaway. Mary probably had few other options than to head for familiar territory in the neighbourhood where she’d grown up before being sent to the reformatory. Seymour had sent a telegram to the local police and their enquiries led Seymour to the High Street where he found Mary and arrested her.

She was wearing the coat and had just £2 17sof the money left. She’d bought some clothes and presumably paid her fare and had something to eat, the rest had ‘been taken from her’ she said.

Mary returned to London with the officer and appeared before Mr Bridge at Hammersmith Police court. Lady Douglas was there and intervened on the girl’s behalf. It was her desire that the girl should return to the reformatory in Edinburgh rather than suffer worse punishment in London. The magistrate was willing to grant her wish but on the condition that Mary had a taste of imprisonment to deter her from future crime. He sent her to prison for one day and ordered that thereafter she be handed over to Lady Douglas so she could be taken back to Scotland.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, May 15, 1872]

p.s Lady Gertrude philanthropy was not confined to poor Scotch lasses. In 1891 she founded the Dog’s Trust, which continues to this day. By then her marriage had broken down. Her husband had emigrated to South Africa and she ended her days in a convent hospital, dying of consumption in 1892. 

Prison doesn’t work, and history has the proof.

It is what we all dread when we wake up in the night and hear a noise we can’t place. Was that the wind? Perhaps a cat? Or is there someone in our house?

Mrs North, the landlady of the Duke of Cambridge pub in Lewisham High Street, awoke to see a strange man in her bedroom.  He was staring directly at her and she shouted, ‘who are, and what do you want?’

At this he panicked and rushed towards the open widow, escaping into the night as Mrs North’s husband work and gave chase. He shouted ‘stop him’ from the window but he was gone.

When she’d recovered from the shock the landlady found that the burglar had carefully sorted a pile of their property to take away, including ‘some money’ and their pet canary. He’d left empty handed on this occasion but robberies were reported from other local pubs in late April 1883 and the same individual was suspected.

The police investigated break-ins at the Pelton Arms in East Greenwich on 24 April, where William Davis, the landlord, said he’d woken up to find the place burgled and clothes and a bag containing £2 and 10 shillings missing. The Rose of Lee (at Lee)* had been broken into on the same night as the Duke of Cambridge, and ‘property to the value of £6’ stolen.

The police had some leads and on the day after the Lewisham and Lee thefts PC Drew (75R) was watching a man named Edward Toomey and alerted his sergeant, Hockley. They seized Toomey, who was wearing some of the clothes identified as being stolen from the Pelton Arms, and pretty much admitted his crimes. As they led him off to the station Toomey reached into his pocket and pulled out the North’s canary, letting it fly off into the London skies. He’d got rid of the evidence and freed a caged creature just as he faced up to seven years’ for his own offences.

The case came up before the Police Court magistrate at Greenwich where one of Toomey’s associates turned informer to save his own skin and Mr Balguy committed Toomey to face trial at the Old Bailey.

Edward Toomey was tried at the Central Criminal court in May 1883 along with two others (Thomas Prosser and Cornelius Shay). Toomey was just 17 years of age and his accomplices were 38 and 18 respectively. Only Toomey was convicted and he was sentenced to 18 months at hard labour.

This early brush with the law and punishment did nothing to curb Edward’s criminality, nor indeed his MO. In 1885 (just after he came out of gaol) he was back in again after being convicted of burgling the Lord Nelson pub in East Greenwich. He got another year inside.

Did he learn from this one? Well no, he didn’t.

In January 1887 (just over a year after his conviction, and soon after his release) he was sent back to prison for burgling a jeweller’s shop in Lee High Street. This time the judge gave him a more severe sentence: five years penal servitude. At least that was that for Edward’s criminal career we might think, but no. In 1903 now aged 37, Toomey broke into the ‘counting house of the managing committee of the South Eastern and Chatham railway company’ and robbed the safe, taking away over £80 in cash. For this latest crime he went to prison for another five years. He was released on license in 1907 aged 41.

Edward’s experience is proof (if proof is needed) of the ineffectiveness of prison as a punishment for crime. It did him no good whatsoever and failed to protect the property of the persons he robbed. Sadly home secretaries and justice ministers are unlikely to read histories of crime and punishment, if they did perhaps they’d come up with some more innovative forms of dealing with serial criminals.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, May 09, 1883]

*where, many years later Kate Bush played her first gig.

‘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)