Sometimes you get exactly what you pay for, a Bow Street justice explains.

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‘I left the room with silent dignity, but unfortunately I tripped over the carpet.’ (Mr Pooter in Diary of a Nobody, Grossmith and Grossmith, 1892)

Bow Street Police Court was the most senior summary court in the capital in the Victorian period. Its magistrates sat in judgement on tens of thousands of petty criminals and sent many of them on for trial at the Old Bailey. In the 20th century some of the most famous felons in our history appeared there, including Ronnie and Reggie Kray. The original bar (where prisoners stood to hear their fate) is now in the national justice museum at the Galleries of Justice in Nottingham, complete with cut-outs of some of those that stood there.

It is probably to assume that this case, from May 1900, was not one that troubled the sitting justice overmuch. It was hardly a crime at all, but serves to remind us that the London Police Courts were – as the parlour of the 18th century justices of the peace had been – a forum for the public to air their grievances, however small.

Mr Vaughan was in the chair at Bow Street when a ‘respectable-looking’ man applied to him for ‘some remedy’. The unnamed gentleman had bought a watch in the Strand and he was unhappy with it.

It had been advertised, he said, as ‘the cheapest watch in the world’, but it didn’t actually tell the time.

Mr Vaughan asked the man what he had paid for it. 4s and 9d came the reply.

‘Then  I should say it was “the cheapest watch in the world”‘, replied the the magistrate. ‘Does it go at all?”

‘It does go but it won’t mark the hours’, grumbled the applicant. He explained that he had taken it to a watchmaker who had examined it and told him that the ‘wheels [were] not cut to mark the hours’.

Mr Vaughan looked it over and expressed his opinion that it was amazing it went at all for that price. The case itself was probably worth the money and he advised him to take it back. No law had been broken, the man had just been something of a cheapskate and he was fairly fortunate his name was withheld from the reading public, or he might have become a ‘Pooterish’ laughing stock.

He left the court, apologising to the court for wasting its time….

[from The Standard, Thursday, May 22, 1890]

One thirsty fellow’s scheme for ‘raising the wind’.

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Vauxhall Bridge c.1829

James Edwards was a man with a tremendously large thirst but very small funds. In early 1854 he came up with a cunning plan to cash in on what may have been a fairly common practice. Unfortunately for him it backfired, and in late February he found himself in the dock of the Westminster Police Court.

One day a house in Besborough Gardens, Pimlico, was inundated with tradesmen delivering all sorts of goods and services. Between 15 and 18 different butchers, bakers, sweeps, french polishers and the like descended on the fashionable parade near Vauxhall Bridge. The staff and the unnamed gentleman that resided there were puzzled – no one had ordered anything.

One can imagine the chaotic scene with bewildered homeowner turning away frustrated and annoyed tradesmen – perhaps much like the exchanges between Charles Pooter and his butcher and the other tradesmen that called on him (and then fell over his badly positioned boot scraper).

The gentleman and his family at first assumed it must have been ‘a hoax got up by some mischievous person’ but eventually the trail was traced back to James Edwards.

Edwards had apparently gone around the various local tradesmen making spurious orders for unwanted items and services in the hope that he would received a tip. This came in the form of ‘a few halfpence or pints of beer’ and, with up to 18 orders he must have had plenty of money or alcohol to drink himself silly for the rest of the afternoon.

Whether it was good luck or inside knowledge is not made clear in the report, but the family’s cook, who normally placed most of the orders for the household, had recently left. This allowed such an unusual situation to occur. Edwards had, as the paper reported, discovered  a new ‘mode of raising the wind’ (or obtaining there necessary funds).

It was a nuisance if not a crime and in the absence of the cook’s testimony that she had not made the orders the magistrate was obliged to give him the benefit of the doubt. He ordered him to enter into his own recognisances to behave himself for the next six months and warned the tradesmen to be on ‘their guard against tricks of this description’.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, February 27, 1854]

Jerry-building and brick-burning: public nuisances in early Edwardian London

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Something a little different this morning. I have noted before that the Police Courts of London were not simply concerned with the everyday crimes we might expect (thieving, petty violence and fraud for example), They also served their communities as forums for relegating everyday life. Paupers came here asking for help, or to be punished for their refusal to work; members of the working and lower middle-class came to seek the magistrates’ legal advice on all manner of things from desertion to unpaid wages; and these courts performed many of the functions we now associate with public health boards, consumer protection agencies, or small claims courts.

Early in the reign of King Edward VII (r.1901-1910) Mr Finnis, a clerk (the archetypal lower middle-class professional of Edwardian England*) appeared at the West London Police Court (situated in Hammersmith) to bring a case of jerry-building against Charles Marsh.

Jerry-building was the practice of erecting cheap and poorly built properties for working classes families. The phrase had been in existence since the 1860s and has nothing to do with Germany or Germans. It may be derived from the slang word Jerrycummumble which meant: “To shake, towzle, or tumble about.”**

Finnis worked for the Chiswick Local Board and he complained that Marsh had been ordered to pull down a building ‘that had been erected contrary to the bye-laws’. Marsh didn’t appear in person but sent along his solicitor who told the court that his client was attempting to comply with the order.

He asked for some of the fines that had been levied to be remitted as part of the building (indeed buildings as it seems there were three in total) had already been demolished. Finnis was unmoved, he had sent letters (threatening ones) but had received no reply. He said he would abide by the magistrate’s decision but would not consent to ant reduction in the penalties unilaterally. The justice, Mr Curtis Bennett, said he had no power to lift the fines unless the Board agreed, so the case effectively reached an impasse; either the buildings were taken down or the fines paid and the buildings made good.

Mr Bennett’s next hearing was not about ‘crime’ either. This time he was asked to adjudicate on a case of nuisance. A Mr Augustus Bird was adamant that he had the right to burn bricks at his property in Shepherds Bush. Burning bricks is essential to their strength and durability so this was a case of local manufacturing coming up against the concerns of local residents; the clash of industry with the needs of a growing domestic population in West London.

Bird had been fined £50 for his persistence in burning bricks and causing a  nuisance to locals. He maintained (through his legal representative) that he had every right to do so and asked for the fines to be waived. The magistrate sided with the authorities in upholding the ban on brick-burning but said he would accept a compromise: so long as Mr Bird ceased his noxious activities he would reduced the fine for his previous offence to just £10.

Both these cases reflect the pressure on space that late Victorian and early Edwardian London faced as its population grew and the city expanded. London was not an industrial town (as Manchester was for example), it had grown over the centuries and swallowed up the surrounding countryside and its villages. Inevitably tensions would occur as the demands of industry came into conflict with the desires of residents to live in clean and quiet neighborhoods. When tensions did arise they were often played out in the police magistrates courtroom.

* For example Mr Pooter in The diary of a Nobody by Grossmith & Grossmith

** see http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/211600.html