‘Distressing accidents and dreadful diseases’: attempts to weed out fake beggars in early Victorian London

e71484cd1f61d2d64a523479de545fe5

Just recently there was a news items which suggested we need to examine the hands of those asking for money on the streets of London and other British cities. Despite the fact that homelessness as risen by 170 per cent in the last eight years and food bank use has also increased the focus seems to be on weeding out the fake poor from the deserving ones.

I’m comfortable with the idea of prosecuting fraudsters  but I do wonder what sort society we have become when our reaction to someone sitting on a cold wet London street in the middle of winter is to ask ourselves ‘is he trying to con me out of 50p?’

Sadly this is nothing new. The early Victorians were just as concerned with the idea of fake beggars as we seem to be. This was a society which passed the Poor Law Amendment Act in 1834, a piece of legislation that demonized those who asked for help and attempted to discourage benefit dependency but breaking up families and locking up paupers.

It also created the Mendicity Society (or, to give it its proper names: the Society for the Suppression of Mendicity). Formed in 1818 its aim was simple – to prevent people begging in London. It tried to move beggars along and encourage them to leave the capital if possible by giving them small amounts of charity. However, it eschewed the gift of money, preferring instead to give tickets which recipients could exchange for an investigation into their circumstances. This was presumably designed to root out the scammers, who would not want to have their case considered.

Men like William Horsford worked as mendicity officers, looking out for beggars on the streets and hauling them before the magistrates. Begging was an offence under the terms of the 1824 Vagrancy act which allowed the police and others to take people off the streets for having no visible sign of maintaining themselves. This legislation is still in operation today.

In early December 1839 Horsford was on the case of two people who he knew to be incorrigible beggars. Edward Johnson (alias Watson) and Mary Carrol were known to him and the police. Mary dressed in widow’s weeds and made herself look as desperate as possible in order to attract sympathy from passers-by; Johnson was described as a ‘miserable wretch’. Horsford spotted the pair in Pall Mall and decided to tail them, calling on a police constable to help.

He followed them through St James’ Park and then to a pub in Pimlico, called the Compasses (which had existed since the 1640s at least).  They left the pub after an hour and moved on to Sloane Sqaure where they started to knock on door. At one house, where the lady resident had a reputation for charity, Mary Carrol handed over a letter to the servant that opened the door.

The servant declined to accept it, or to give them anything so they headed for Chelsea and tried their luck at a chemist’s shop.  Horsford felt he had enough ammunition now and snuck into the shop behind them. As they tried to beg money using the letter he arrested them and confiscated the letter.

The pair appeared before Mr Burrell at Queen’s Square Police court where the letter was read out. It detailed the ‘facts’ that Mary was a ‘widow afflicted with rheumatism and divers other complaints – that she had a large family, and that her husband had been killed but a few weeks ago by a gentleman’s carriage running over him’.

It was signed by a ‘Mr Churton of Ebury Street’ who recommended the reader to assist Mary ion any way they could.  When searched Johnson was found to have a number of other letters on his person, each addressed to a different but well heeled recipient (the Bishop of London, Marquis of Londonerry, and Countess of Ripon) and each of which carried their own particular ‘sob story’ of ‘distressing accidents and dreadful diseases’.

The pair were clearly poor but Johnson at least was literate. He admitted writing the letters himself but justified by stating that Mary was a deserving case and he was only trying to help. The magistrate had no sympathy (just as the vigilantes who target ‘rogue’ beggars to day have none) and he sent them to prison for three months at hard labour. At least they would be fed and housed over winter, if not very comfortably.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, December 06, 1839]

for more on the work of the Mendicity Society see:

Little help (and no sympathy) for Heroes

A simple case of imposture or a glimpse into the transgender community of Victorian London?

A young lad is ‘too sharp for his prosecutors’, and swallows the evidence

29623284911_b969db3460_b

Mrs Sarah Cameron ran a tobacconist shop on the Broadway in Westminster, central London. One evening in November 1840 a young man  called William Meeton entered the ‘snuff and tobacco’ shop and asked for a cigar. He handed over half a crown and she gave him the cigar and his change (which consisted of ‘two shillings and four pennyworth of halfpences’).

Meeton scraped up the coin but after examining carefully it ‘threw down a shilling alleging it was bad’. He accused the tobacconist of trying to fob him off with forgeries but Mrs Cameron was sure the coins she had handed over were fine, and she said so. Now she suspected him of committing a crime and called for a policeman who soon arrived and arrested the lad.

William Meeton was charged at Queen’s Square Police Court with uttering – a variant of the wider crime of coining and forgery. While forging meant making false notes (and coming, fake coins), uttering described the practice of using or distributing counterfeit money.

The magistrate demande to see the coin in question. Sadly Mrs Cameron didn’t have it. Why not, Mr Burrell asked?

The young man had swallowed it she told him, along with several other shillings he had in his possession. It was a common enough ploy to get rid of the evidence (albeit temporarily). The chief usher of the Police Court informed his worship that that the accused was ‘well known’ to the court, which would have counted against him. However, without the proof that the shillings were bad there was little the justice could do. After some conferring Mr Burrell and his clerk agreed that no case could be made without the coins as evidence.

He turned to Meeton and told him that while today he ‘had been too sharp for his prosecutors’ his card was marked, and warned him about his future conduct. He was discharged, presumably to find the nearest privy!

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, November 18, 1840]

NB a half-crown was worth 2 shillings and 6 pence so you can work out for yourselves just how much Mrs Cameron was selling her cigars for. No age is given for Meeton but this wouldn’t matter anyway in the context of the 19th century. There was no age restriction on buying or selling tobacco to minors until 1933. It still isn’t illegal for children to smoke but under 16 it is subject to parental control. 

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

54

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]

One man’s convenience is another’s inconvenience, or, there are two sides to every story

b4c83a0c6cca9fc8c1eaa68a383d0849

Mr T Coggan ran a baker’s shop in Chelsea, to the side of which was a ‘dead wall’ (a wall without openings). Perhaps because of where it was (near the corner of Moore Street) or maybe because it wasn’t lit, this wall seems to have become very popular with those gentlemen that found  themselves ‘caught short’ on their way home.

James Tagg was one such person. Tagg, a provisions merchant who lived in Durham Place (close to the Royal Hospital, home of the Pensioners), was out with friends. It was about 9 o’clock and Tagg needed ‘to go for an ordinary purpose’ to use the wall.

However ‘he had scarcely reached it when [Coggan] came and took hold of his arm, [he] said something he didn’t understand, [and then] struck him a violent blow across the nose’.

The merchant was knocked over and out, losing consciousness in a pool of blood. He came to in a ‘doctor’s shop’ with blood continuing to flow from his nose and mouth. It only temporarily stopped, starting up again the following day. He plugged his nostrils and ‘applied ice to his head’ but the doctors declared he was in a ‘dangerous state’.

Tagg had suffered such a blow as to cause him to haemorrhage. A summons was issued to bring Coggan before a magistrate but it was a couple of weeks before Tagg was strong enough to testify against him. When he did, in mid August 1850, two different two versions of the incident were aired, demonstrating the difficulties that magistrates had in  unpicking the truth from contesting accounts.

The baker was represented in Westminster Police Court by a solicitor, Mr Seale. Seale queried whether the provisions merchant was rather the worse for drink at the time and perhaps suggested that he did not fully understand his client’s reasonable protests about people using his property as a toilet. Tagg responded that he was ‘perfectly sober’ and the wall in question was a long way from the baker’s front door. In fact it was just the sort of place he would have expected Mr Seale to use in extremis.

Tagg also produced three witnesses (presumably his companions on the night) who supported his statements. They helped fill in the gaps left by Tagg’s loss of consciousness (and therefore any memory of the attack itself). It sounded brutal:

‘It was proved that the defendant got complainant’s head under his arm and then struck him while in that position at least three times; that the complainant, when dropped by the defendant immediately after, remained insensible for ten minutes’.

The witnesses reported that the ‘pool of blood in the street would have induced a person to believe that a sheep had been slaughtered rather than a human being had been struck’.

Now Seale tried to explain the incident from his client’s point of view, presenting an alternative  narrative for the magistrate. The baker was sorry for the injury caused, it was not deliberate he said.

In fact, on the night in question he had been stood at his ‘own door with his wife, when observing the complainant crossing over to his wall, and having experienced the most intolerable annoyance and damage from persons committing a nuisance there, and sometimes even at his street door, he walked towards him and said “it won’t do; I won’t have it here”.

As he challenged the man who was attempting to pee on his property he claimed that the merchant ‘threw his hat off, and and struck [him] two blows’. Thus in Coggan’s version of events he was acting in self-defence and only after great provocation. It was not the first time that passers-by had used his wall as a public convenience and for Coggan, enough was enough.

Recalled by the magistrate (Mr Burrell) Tagg denied squaring up to the baker or throwing any punches. He stuck to his story that the attack came out of nowhere without warning. Even if he had hit the baker first the magistrate said, Coggan had not used ‘reasonable force’ in retaliating. It was an extremely violent assault which had gravely injured the victim.

However, while Mr Burrell felt it was an appropriate case to be heard by a jury he asked the provisions merchant whether he wished to take the case any further. Tagg said he had ‘no vindictive feeling’ towards the baker despite his injury, and said if Coggan would pay him compensation of £10 and cover the cost of his medical treatment (which was not free in the 1800s of course) he would be satisfied. After some wrangling they agreed and both left court.

So, gentlemen, when you are next making your way home after a night’s entertainment with your mates, be aware that what looks like a convenient place to undertake a ‘necessity’ is probably someone else’s property, and they may not be quite as understanding of your needs as you might hope.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, August 16, 1850]