‘I don’t want to ask a favour from swindlers’ : making a stand on a point of principle.

Gas_stove_1851

An early gas stove

James Connell was a fine upstanding member of his local community. He lived with his wife in New Cross Road, Deptford and was a member of the local vestry. So it is something of a surprise to find him summoned before Mr Kennedy, the sitting magistrate at Greenwich Police court in late May 1895.

The reason for the summons was non-payment of his gas bill but the case is interesting because it reveals the new forms of fuel supply that were just coming on line in the late Victorian period. Connell was summoned by representatives of the  South Metropolitan Gas Company who insisted that the vestryman owed them the not inconsiderable sum of  £10 10sand ninepence. In today’s money that probably amounts to around £865, which explains their desire to recover the debt.

Mr Connell disputed that he owed that amount and set out his case before the Greenwich justice. He stated that in 1892 the couple had purchased a new gas oven to replace their old coal one having been persuaded to do so by one of the company’s salesmen. Mrs Connell had been assured that the new device was cheaper and more effective than her old one and they were given an estimate of the amount of gas that it would consume in the course of a year. This figure was estimated at 27 feet per hour.

In 1892 the gas consumption figure was 29,300 ft, in 1893 it was a little higher (29,390ft) but in 1894 it leapt to 69,400 ft. Mr Connell clearly felt the gas salesman had misrepresented the true cost of the oven and so was refusing to pay for the huge increase in gas. As a result the company disconnected their supply and the current impasse was established.

‘You have a meter, and what it register you have to pay?’ asked Mr Kennedy. ‘Unfortunately I have no meter’, Connell replied, as the company had taken that away when the company cut them off. He didn’t trust what it said and now he had no meter he couldn’t check it anyway: ‘how did he know the meter was correct, or what had been done with it since it was taken away?’

The gas company’s representative insisted the bill was accurate and suggested that all devices varied in their consumption. It was a fairly lame if predictable response and sadly for Connell the law was not in his favour. Mr Kennedy said he would indeed have to pay the bill with 3costs added but suggested he took his complaint about the salesman’s ‘misrepresentation’ of the oven’s performance to the County Court.

Connell felt he shouldn’t have to pay anything until the company had answered any prosecution he brought but again he was disabused of that and told he must pay up. Could the magistrate allow him more time for the payment to be made, he asked? That was up to the company and he could certainly request it, Mr Kennedy told him.  ‘I don’t want to ask a favour from swindlers’ was the man’s riposte.

In the end Mr Connell left court with his head held high convinced that he had, in his words, ‘exposed a fraud’. At the very least he had alerted others that might be fooled into switching from coal to gas on the back a visit from a silver-tonged gas salesman. I suppose this reminds us that in the 1890s the middle class were being tempted to spend their hard earned money on new technologies, like gas ovens, and that having the latest kitchen accessory also demonstrated that you were ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ and were fashionably ‘modern’.

Gas ovens first appeared in the 1840s and were exhibited at Crystal Palace in 1851 but they took a while to become popular with ‘ordinary’ people, being a  luxury at first reserved for the very rich.  It was the introduced of rented ovens like that ‘owned’ by the Connells with an attached meter that helped extend their use more widely in the 1880s. So the Connells were early adopters and gas ovens only really took off in England in the late Edwardian period.

I have a lot of sympathy for Mr Connell because he and his wife were sold something that ended up costing them considerably more than they had been promised, and we’ve probably all been there.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, May 30, 1894]

“The girls sent me to see the guvnor”: a burglar’s weak excuse.

cruchley_1827_whitechapel_mapco_chicksand

Henry Morris was woken in the middle of the night by a cry from his brother. Getting up he noted that it was four in the morning and he shuffled his way downstairs and headed towards the kitchen of his house in Chicksand Street, Spitalfields, because that was where his sibling tended to sleep.

The house was home to Morris, who was a tailor, his family and another couple who used the shop at the front for their millinery business. He usually locked up before he retired for the night but on this occasion he’d neglected to secure the back door, which opened into a yard at the rear.

The tailor pushed open the kitchen door and peering in he saw a stranger moving about the room. Morris challenged the intruder, who said that ‘he had come to see the guv’nor’, adding that ‘the girls’ had sent him. Morris  shouted out for help, raising his wife and the people at the top of the house, and a policeman (PC George Tooth – 151H) was soon on the scene. The unwanted guest was searched but found to have nothing on him. Nor was anything missing from the house, but the police constable still escorted his charge back to the nearest station.

In the morning William Wren was presented at Worship Street Police court on a charge of ‘burglarously entering’ the premises with an intention to steal. Wren, who said he was a labourer, denied any attempt at burglary; he said ‘he’d only lifted the latch and walked in’. He added that he had been taken to the house by two women he’d picked up (the mysterious ‘girls’ mentioned earlier) and had been drinking.

Mr Bushby didn’t care much for his explanation, there was little legal distinction in his mind. In his opinion Wren was an opportunist thief who, but for Morris’ intervention, may well have pocketed what he could find from amongst the possessions of the house’s occupants.

PC Tooth also thought that Wren was up to no good. He’d found a rope outside which would have allowed Wren to drop down into the yard behind the Morris’ property. This opinion was shared by a detective attached to H Division who also stated that he was sure he knew Wren as a previous offender. The magistrate wanted to check this information as it would certainly influence his decision making. As a precaution he remanded the labourer in custody for a few days so enquiries could be made.

It seems the hunch that Wren was a criminal was correct. In his trial at the Old Bailey in mid December the suggestion that he was a little drunk was brought up in his defence but did him no good. The jury found him guilty of breaking in with intent to steal and he confessed to his previous conviction from May 1884. Having been in court just seven months earlier under a different name (John Gregg) he could expect no mercy from the judge. He was soon led away to start a five year sentence of penal servitude, despite having stolen absolutely nothing – on this occasion at least.

[from The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, 28 November 1885]