Echoes of Saddleworth as arsonists set Wimbledon Common on fire

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At the beginning of the week the Fire Serve in Greater Manchester declared that they had finally put out the fires that have devastated Saddleworth Moor in the past few weeks. Although they warned that the continuing hot weather might precipitate further outbreaks of fire, the situation is now under control.

The exact cause of the fire hasn’t yet been confirmed but there were sightings of men or youths on the 24 June apparently deliberately setting fires. Of course it goes without saying that anyone who starts a fire that might endanger people, homes, wildlife and the environment is either completely devoid of morals or intelligence, or is in need of psychiatric support.  It remains to be seen whether any prosecutions will follow.

Sadly arson is not that uncommon an offence, nor is there anything particularly new in what those people did in the north west of England. In July 1881 four men were charged at Wandsworth Police court in South London with ‘wifully setting fires’ on Wimbledon Common.

Now, readers of a certain age may associate Wimbledon Common with much more positive examples of outdoor activity but it is fair to say that Frederick Deverell (a porter), William Grain (a lighterman), William Booth (a plumber) and Alfred Byrant (a painter) were no Wombles. SHOWBIZ Wombles 1

Deverall and Grain were seen lighting matches and throwing them into the furze on Sunday evening (the 17 July, 1881), while Booth and Bryant were sighted doing exactly the same on the Monday. The common had been set on fire several times that month and so the offenders could expect to be dealt with severely if they were caught.

All of the parties denied any deliberate wrongdoing, claiming it was an accident. Mr Shiel, the presiding magistrate, didn’t believe them however and fined Booth and Bryant £5 each, with a month in prison if they were unable to pay the fines. He clearly deemed that Deverall and Grain’s crimes were the greater however, as he indicted them to stand trial in front of a jury where they might be given a longer custodial sentence if convicted.

The pair were lucky. They were tried at the Old Bailey on 2 August and acquitted. Both were young, just 17, and the situation on the common was confused with lots of visitors and some people camping out in the summer holidays.

Nevertheless there does seem to have been sufficient witness testimony from the police (who were there in plain clothes) and the head keeper of the common to have convicted them so perhaps the fact that they received good character references saved them from a lengthy spell in gaol. I hope those responsible for setting the fires on Saddleworth Moor are not afforded such generosity if they ever come before a jury.

[from The Standard , Wednesday, July 20, 1881]

Plunder on the Thames or merely a perk of the job?

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In late February 1828 two young men were brought before the Lord Mayor  at Mansion House charged with ‘having taken some bushels of corn’ from a loaded cargo vessel they were working on.

The pair (who were not named in the newspaper report) were employed as lightermen on the Thames river  – ‘the people who have operated the boats on the Thames with a history going back hundreds of years’.

The prosecution was brought by a Mr Ashford, a corn factor  (a trader in corn) who had sent the bushels as samples to his customers. Presumably if the quality (and price) were acceptable they would then enter into contracts to take regular deliveries from him.

Ashford told the Lord Mayor that it was becoming ‘a general practice with lightermen to plunder corn vessels’ and that while he was loath to press ‘to have any punishment inflicted’ he wanted something done to stop it.

He probably recognised that he needed the lightermen on side as it was, to convey his samples and future deliveries along the crowded waterway of the capital. He may also have been acknowledging that for hundreds of years those working on the river (as lightermen, dockers and warehousemen) had a long standing belief that they had rights to a part of the cargos they conveyed, unloaded or secured.

The concept of customary rights or perquisites (‘perks) has been understood by social historians to form part of the ‘economy of makeshifts’ of working men and women in the long eighteenth century and beyond. Carpenters working at the naval shipyards on the Thames took home offcuts of wood to build stairs in their homes, dock workers felt entitled to help themselves to plugs of tobacco or ‘sips’ of alcohol; while coal heavers swept up the dregs of coal from boats coming in from the North East and South Wales to use on their fires.

This alternative economy (which had its examples in almost all small industries and in agriculture) was increasingly suppressed as capitalism took hold in the 1700s and employers used the growing sheaf of property laws to prosecute for theft.

Perks still exist of course; who hasn’t taken home some office stationary for personal use, used the employer’s phone or surfed the internet on a work PC; or perhaps exploited staff discount for friends? We have a deep seated sense of entitlement to the benefits of working for this or that company, institution or individual and it is hard tom let go of (or police of course).

In the end the Lord Mayor decided not to proceed against the two lightermen, taking on board what the corn trader had requested. But he laid down a marker:

He said he was ‘perfectly aware of the practice, which, if not actual felony, came very near it; and, if after this warning, were not discontinued, he would, in any future case, recommend prosecution’.

He then sent the men away with a flea in their ears.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, February 25, 1828]