If you pay peanuts what do you expect? Exploitation in the Victorian rag trade

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Mrs Davis was a shirt maker operating in Houndsditch on the edge of the City of London. She lived in Gun Square and made shirts for a shopkeeper (Mr Cook) who had a premises on the corner of St Paul’s Churchyard close by Wren’s masterpiece. Mrs Davis took delivery of materials from Mr Cook’s warehouse and gave him back ‘fine shirts’ for which she was usually paid half a crown (26d) each.

In order to make the number of shirts Mr Cook required Mrs Davis farmed out some of the work to others, including Elizabeth Harding a girl of 19. She paid Elizabeth 6d for an evening’s work which she thought was enough time to make one shirt. So she was pocketing 2for herself for each item Elizabeth made for her, not a great deal for the younger woman.

In November 1843 Mrs Davis discovered that Elizabeth  had completed one of the eight shirts she’d given her but had pawned; the others were so incomplete that she had to pay someone else 3s  to finish them. When she took the seven shirts to the warehouse the foreman refused to take them as he was expecting the contracted eight. Not only that but he then demanded she pay him 16s  for the raw materials that Mr Cook had supplied.

Mrs Davis was out of pocket and extremely angry with Elizabeth, so took her before the magistrate at Guildhall to complain.  Elizabeth Harding was charged with the theft of a shirt (the one she had pawned) and Alderman Farebrother was told the whole sorry story.

He wasn’t particularly sympathetic to Mrs Davis. He could see why a girl who was paid just sixpence a day was ‘sometimes tempted to do wrong’. His wider point is still relevant today when we look around the world at the sweatshops that produce fashion for British highstreet for a fraction of the amount that the shops charge the customer. Mr Farebrother declared that:

‘he wished that those that who were fond of buying those very cheap articles were obliged to make them at the price’.

Mrs Davis listened to the fine gentleman’s words with a stony expression on her face. She retorted that

‘she fared no better than her assistants, for she was a widow, with children dependent on her. She had sometimes to make shirts at 3each, and even at 2d.’

It was not unknown for the price to fall even lower than that, she added.

In the end the alderman referred the case to the Lord Mayor (the City’s chief magistrate) and remanded her so that questions could be asked at the pawnbrokers where she allegedly took the missing shirt. That was an offence and if she was found guilty she might expect a term of imprisonment.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, November 06, 1843]

 

No sign of the garrotting panic but a Victorian ‘Wonga’ scam is exposed

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Prompted by a facebook post from the Police historian Neil Bell I decided today to go back to 1862 to see if there was any hint of that year’s big crime story in the Police court reportage. 1862 was the year that Sir Hugh Pilkington MP was attacked by robbers on his way home from the Houses of Parliament. He was attacked from behind, throttled (‘garrotted’) and robbed. It was a form of highway robbery (‘mugging’ we would probably call it) but it sparked a moral panic about returning ‘ticket of leave’ criminals and the perceived ‘softness’ of the criminal justice system.

The panic died done fairly quickly and historians have shown that in reality street crime was no more prevalent in 1862 than it was in years either side of that; it was the reaction of the police, public and government to the press coverage that was the real story, not the incidents of ‘garrotting’ themselves.

Plus câ change.

Meanwhile over at Worship Street Police court things were a little more mundane. No garrotting or otherwise dangerous street crime here, just a case of unlicensed pawnbrokers. It’s still interesting however, as we learn much more about the everyday life of the Victorian city through these snippets of ‘real life’.

William Murray and James Spriggs were both brought up as offenders against the Excise Act. The prosecution – led by officers from the Inland Revenue – alleged that the men had been carrying out the business of pawnbrokers without have the required license to do so. The pair were trading as chandlers (sellers of all sorts of cheap goods) rather than pawnbrokers, but were proven to have extended loans to local people in the East End in exactly the same way as ‘brokers operated.

It was a well executed investigation and both men were duly convicted. The magistrate, Mr Leigh, handed down fines of £12 10plus costs to each man, the minimum he was obliged to levy. Each was warned that a failure to pay would result in them going to prison for a month.

The excisemen reported that they had been investigation many more instances of this sort of offence in recent months, and mostly in East London. These two shopkeepers were ‘ostensibly’ chandlers in Bethnal Green – hardly a well paid occupation – but both could afford to employ a lawyer to defend them. They were doing very well out of this sideline to the day job.

The court was told that there were plenty of ‘leaving shops’ in East London where the poorest could get short or medium term loans at very high interest by pledging their possessions as security. The magistracy were aware of it and two justices in particular, Mr Beard and Mr Abbott, condemned the practice and assured the public that they would be prepared to inflict the maximum penalty of £50 on offenders.

It strikes me that leaving shops were operating very much like the high interest pay day loan companies like Wonga, which today offer (or used to offer in Wonga’s case) much needed cash but at huge cost in terms of interest. These companies profit from the very poorest in society and the same practice, albeit a less sophisticated version, was taking place in the 1860s.

Plus câ change, eh?

[from The Standard, Monday, September 22, 1862]

An young Indian is taken for a ride by a beguiling fraudster

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Mr Tahrir-ud-din Ahmed was an Indian student studying in England. He had taken up residence at 1 Colville Gardens in fashionable Kensington and so must have come from a wealthy family in British India. He would have made an impression in his fine clothes and he certainly caught the eye of one young woman at London Bridge station. However, her intentions towards him were far from honourable, as Tahrir was about to find out.

Tahrir had gone to the station on the 13 July to bid farewell to a friend who was travelling back to Brighton. As he entered the waiting room he noticed a fashionably dressed young lady sitting on her own. He enquired after her and she explained that she was waiting for her parents to arrive, as they were expected on an incoming train from Brighton.

She gave her name as Blanche Coulston and said she’d recently arrived from Australia and knew no-one in the capital. She then asked Tahrir if he would mind waiting with her until her parents arrived; the young man could hardly refuse such a request, and agreed to look after her.

One can imagine the scene: two young people, of probably equal social standing, enjoying each others’ company regardless of any presumed cultural differences. Tahrir was acting like a gentleman in protecting a lone woman from any potential dangers and sharing the company of an attractive young lady of fashion and style in the process. So when Miss Coulston’s parents failed to appear and she suggested they dine together, Tahrir agreed straight away.

They took the young lady’s landau to the Temple and back, and when Mr and Mrs Coulston still failed to make an appearance Blanche suggested they continued their friendship by retiring to her family’s rooms near Regent’s Park. Tahrir and Blanche climbed back into the coach and headed to 3 Stanhope Terrace where the Coulstons had a suite. After a supper Tahrir slept in Blanche’s father’s room and the next morning they breakfasted together.

It was all going very well, except, of course, for the mystery of the missing parents. The pair headed for the Grosvenor Hotel as Blanche thought they might have arrived while she and her new friend were absent for the night and had checked in there instead. When they discovered they hadn’t Tahrir suggested she send them a telegram and they returned to his lodgings to do so.

Having sent her message the pair returned to Stanhope Gardens as Blanche said she needed to collect some things she had left at a school nearby. I presume like many young ladies of quality, she had worked as a teacher or governess. The pair went back to her rooms and she said there would be a short delay while her landau was made ready. They had lunch and Blanche suggested that Tahrir might like to freshen up in her father’s rooms.

The Indian student thanked her and was about to head off to bathe when she asked him if she might admire his gold rings. He had three on his fingers and he gladly handed them over to her.

That was a mistake.

When Tahrir had washed and shaved he returned to the family’s drawing room to find Blanche, but she wasn’t there. He rang the bell and summoned the landlady who informed him that she had left sometime ago. Tahrir took a hansom cab to London Bridge, assuming perhaps that she had news from her parents.

She wasn’t there so he returned to Stanhope Gardens. At 10 the carriage came back without her. Tahrir went home requesting that the landlady wire him should Miss Coulston return. In the morning he’d heard nothing and so he informed the police.

A month later Tahrir was at the Fisheries exhibition when he saw Blanche in company with a man. He found a policeman and had her arrested. On Wednesday 15 August 1883 Blanche was brought before the sitting magistrate at Marylebone to face a charge of stealing three rings worth £20. She had the rings but claimed he had gifted them to her, something he strongly denied.

The court heard from Henry Selby who ran a livery stable with his brother. He deposed that Miss Coulston had approached him to hire a carriage and had offered two gold rings as security. She had taken the carriage but failed to pay for the hire, so he’d kept the rings and told the police. Detective sergeant Massey had tracked the third ring to a pawnbroker’s on Buckingham Palace Road. He’d established that Miss Coulston claimed (to several people it seems) to have bene the daughter of a Brighton doctor who was in the process of relocating to London.

On the strength of this, and her plausible persona, she was defrauding all sorts of people in the capital. The magistrate had little choice but to commit her for trial.

I rather suspect that everything about Miss Coulston was fake, including her name. No one of her name appears at the Old Bailey and perhaps that is because she gave a false name. Or perhaps the prosecution case was weak or Tahrir, having recovered his property, chose not to press charges. Maybe he put it all down to experience and decided to forgive her. The lesson is clear however, people aren’t always exactly what they seem.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, August 19, 1883]

The odd couple: An unsympathetic pair of thieves in the dock in South London

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I can certainly begin to discern a qualitative difference in the style of Police court reporting over the course of the nineteenth century. The later reports (those from the 1890s in particular) are more ‘serious’ or less inclined to find amusement in the day-to-day happenings at the courts. The very early ones are quite short and factual, more akin to the reporting of crime in the previous century. But the ones around mid century (from the 1840s to the 1860s) show, I think, a desire to entertain. This would fit with the rise of ‘new journalism’ and the beginning of the ‘modern’ newspaper industry in this country.

Several of the cases reported by The Morning Post  on Monday 9 August 1841 have journalistic flourishes: descriptive remarks which are often absent from reports at the end of the century. They also seem partly aimed at provoking an emotional reaction in the reader – of horror, or sadness, shock, or sympathy. Whilst the language is old fashioned the approach seems very ‘modern’. It might, perhaps, reflect the influence of Charles Dickens, whose stories were popular at the time.

The Morning Post regaled its readers with the antics of a group of juvenile thieves who used even younger children to sneak into properties and secrete valuables in bags, which they then carried out to the waiting gang. The idea being that these kids were too young to prosecute, and perhaps so small as be undetected or unsuspected. One other lad (‘a little fellow’ as the paper described him) stole a pair of gloves and slammed a door in the face of his pursuers. When caught he boldly denied the theft saying ‘he never wore such things’ so why would he steal them? He may have got away with this attempted theft (the gloves were found discarded nearby) but two years later George (aged 17) was tried at the Old Bailey for stealing cloth and sent to prison.

Over at Union Hall Police court, south of the river, James Lewis appeared in court alongside his wife Harriet, both of them charged with stealing (James from his employer, a linen draper in Walworth) and Harriet from a local pawnbroker.

The reporter was fascinated by Harriet and gave his readers a pen portrait of her:

The female prisoner, who was dressed in the first style, with satin gown and rich velvet shawl, cut a very curious figure in the dock, when seated amongst a motely group of persons, consisting of low prostitutes and ragged mendicants’.

So we learn, incidentally, that in the early 1840s the prisoners mostly sat together at Union Hall, and weren’t brought up one by one from the cells to be dealt with.

Harriet clearly loved clothes but perhaps her husband’s salary wasn’t sufficient for her to indulge her passion, so she helped herself at the pawnbroker’s expense while he was fetching a waistcoat she had asked him about. Mr Cottingham committed for trial by jury at the Surrey assizes. During the trial she ‘appeared dreadfully excited, and wept bitterly’ as the details of the case were described. She protested her innocence and seems to have convinced the jury that it was all a mistake, she never intended to steal anything and they let her off.

As for James, her husband, he had apparently being suspected of stealing from William Wharton’s linen drapery for some time. When his lodgings were searched a great deal of stolen property was discovered, including many shawls. The court heard that James Lewis was paid £40 a year plus board and lodging so the shopman must have come across as an ungrateful thief to the readers of The Morning Post.

I doubt he endeared himself either by then telling the court that he would happily give the names of other employees at Mr Wharton’s who had also been pilfering from him. He said he did it ‘make what reparation he could’ to his master but he probably came across as a sneak to the reading public, and one who was trying to wriggle out of a situation he got himself into because of his greed and that of his wife.

Mr Cottingham issued summonses for the men he named and remanded Lewis is custody to appear with them when they were found. What happened to him I’ve not been able to discover, as he disappears from the records. At the very least I imagine he lost his position and that, along with his wife’s brush with the law, must have undermined their relatively happy existence. For the readers of the The Morning Post then this served as a cautionary tale and a peek into the lives to others, people unlike but then again, just like, them.  Which is often why we like to read the ‘crime news’ after all.

[from The Morning Post , Monday, August 09, 1841]

Exploitation in the ‘rag trade’: a perennial disgrace

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It is not often that the Police Magistrates of London side with the defendant in the dock over the prosecutor but this is one of those cases. Arthur Brotherton described himself as a ‘clothier and slop-dealer’ operating out of a property on Jury Street, Aldgate. He had employed Elizabeth Craig to make up nine coats for him to sell, and had supplied her with all the necessary materials.

This was out work and so Elizabeth took the cloth home to work on, or at least that was what she was supposed to have done. Instead she took it to a pawnbrokers and exchanged it for money; money she badly needed to support her family. When he found out Brotherton had her arrested and she appeared before Mr Norton at Lambeth Police court.

Looking wretched and clutching a ‘half-starved child in her arms’ Elizabeth pleaded poverty as her motivation for stealing from her employer. She said Brotheton expected her to make up the coats for just a ‘shilling a piece’ and added that she also had to ‘provide the thread for making them up, and also work the button-holes with twist’.

If it seems like very little to us that’s because it was.  Kennington tailor was in the public gallery that morning at on hearing this he rose to his feet. He declared that:

‘he was quite astonished that any person could expect to get such coats as these produced made up for the paltry pittance of one shilling apiece. They would occupy the poor woman two days in making each, and the lowest possible sum he should have given the prisoner was five shillings’.

Mr Norton entirely agreed and told Brotherton that he was unsure how anyone could expect him to punish a woman for doing what she’d done when she was subjected to such poverty. He described the slop-seller’s conduct in trying to pay her so little and then prosecute her as ‘heartless’.

Brotherton was unmoved and said she could perfectly well earn 10 shillings a week doing so if only she wanted to. At this another tailor stood up and said this was impossible:

‘if she earned anything like the money [that Brotherton had suggested, then at those wage rates] she must work the whole of the night as well as the day’.

The prosecutor now said that Elizabeth got an allowance form her estranged husband and that supplemented the wages he paid. Clearly this was unreasonable but he added that Mr Craig had guaranteed the gods he’d supplied to his wife and so he’d hold him accountable for his loss.

Craig was in court but said he wasn’t responsible. As far as he understood it the pawnbroker had already agreed to hand the material back to Brotherton ‘as he had taken them in an unfinished state’ and had ‘rendered himself liable to deliver things up without the payment of a principal or interest’. He paid his wife 3s  a week and had often had to get things our of pawn for her; he did what he could but wasn’t responsible for her actions.

The magistrate had made his feelings clear; regardless of the law Brotherton was the real villain of the piece. As an exploitative trader he used Elizabeth’s desperation for money to pay her a pittance for the skilled work she undertook. Hopefully his exposure in the newspapers was a warning him and to others not to mistreat their workers in future. Elizabeth walked away from court a free woman but probably one without work and so the money she needed to support herself and her child, her future then was very much in the balance.

Her story is a reminder that in very many parts of the world women and men (and children) continue to be exploited and paid a pittance so that others can dress in the latest fashions and manufacturers and retailers can profit from it. Next time you buy a dress or a shirt or some trousers check the label and ask yourself, how much was the person that made this paid and how much time did they spend doing it?

[from Lloyd’s Weekly London Newspaper , Sunday, July 12, 1846]

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]

A chance theft adds insult to a widow’s grief

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London was an extremely busy port city in the Victoria period. Goods came in and out of the docks and the river teamed with shipping, bringing travellers to and and from the various parts of the British Empire, and the rest of the world. This provided all sorts of opportunities for criminal activity: from smuggling, to pilfering from the docks, or the theft of sailor’s wages, and all sorts of frauds. The Thames Police and the Thames Police office then, were kept just as busy as the port and river was.

In June 1859 Susan Breeson appeared in the dock at Thames to be questioned about her possession of a pair of gold framed spectacles we she insisted had been given to her in part payment of a debt.

Breeson had taken the spectacles to a pawnbroker in mid May but he’d become suspicious and refused to give her the money she’d asked for. This wasn’t the first time apparently; another ‘broker had refused to lend her the 7s she asked for them.

Breeson’s story was that her husband worked on the docks as a ‘searcher’ (literally a man working for the Customs who searched ships for contraband etc.) He’d found the, she said, at Victoria Dock in Plaistow but she didn’t know their value or even whether they were gold or brass. Samuel Redfern, who ran the pawn shop in Cannon Street Road with his father-in-law, didn’t believe her story and so he retained the glasses and alerted the police.

Questioned before Mr Yardley at Thames Susan now changed her account and said that the spectacles had been given to her by a sailor. However, the court now discovered that Breeson wasn’t married to a customs officer at all, instead – according to the police – she ran a brothel in Stepney. the specs were given to her, but in payment of money owed, for lodgings or something else it seems.

Sergeant John Simpson (31K) deposed that Breeson was well-known to the police of K Division. She was a ‘bad character, and she cohabited with a man who worked in the docks many years’.  So some elements of her story had a hint of truth about them but now she elaborated and embellished it. The sailor in question, she explained, had been given the spectacles as a gift from a poor dying parson on board a ship ‘for kindness exhibited, towards him in his illness’.

Now the hearing took a more interesting turn. From a simple case of a brothel madam trying to pawn goods either lifted from a client, or pilfered from the docks and used as payment for sexual services or drink, it now became clear that the spectacles were part of a larger and more serious theft.

The next witness was Mrs Barbara Wilson Morant and she had travelled up from Sittingbourne in Kent to give her evidence. She testified that the glasses and the case they were in had belonged to her husband, who had died in the East Indies. She had been in the Indies with him but had traveled back overland, sending the spectacles and other things by sea. She told Mr Yardley that she had arrived in England by screw steamer after a voyage of several months (she’d left the East Indies in August).

The keys of her luggage were sent to Mr Lennox, her agent‘, she explained, and now ‘she missed a diamond ring, a gold pencil-case, a pair of gold-mounted spectacles, and other property‘.

The sergeant conformed that Mrs Morant’s luggage had been examined at Victoria Dock on its arrival, where it was then repacked ready for her to collect it. It would seem that someone pinched the items in the process. Samuel Lennox worked as a Custom House agent and confirmed that he had collected 15 pieces of the Morants’ luggage and checked them off to be collected but he couldn’t say who had unloaded them or carried out any other searches. The company employed casual workers who were hired without checks being made on them. Perhaps one of these was Breeson’s partner in crime?

Mr Yardley recognised that this was serious. While Breeson may not have stolen the spectacles (and perhaps the other items) but she was certainly involved in disposing of it. He remanded her for further enquiries for a week but said he would take bail as long as it was substantial and was supported by ‘reputable sureties’. It would be very hard to prove that anyone had stolen the Morants’ possessions or that Breeson was involved. She doesn’t appear at the Old Bailey although a ‘Susan’ and a ‘Susannah’ Breeson do feature in the records of the prisons and courts of London throughout the 1850s and 60s.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, June 9, 1859]