The boy that tried to set fire to the Bank of England

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The Royal Exchange and Bank of England

(you can see the railings and the gas lamps on the left hand side) 

PC Batchelor was on his beat in Threadneedle Street at one in the morning when he saw smoke coming through the railings by the Bank of England. Was the ‘old lady’ on fire? He quickly discovered a fire at the base of column that connected to one of the gas lamps that lit the street. As the policeman set about tackling the small blaze he saw a figure leap over the railings and run off.

He ran after the escapee and collared him. His quarry was a young lad of 13 named Michael Buckley. He arrested him and took him before the magistrate at Mansion House in the morning.

The boy explained that he and several other lads had taken to sleeping rough within the boundaries of Bank and tended to curl up near the base of the lamp columns. They dragged in straw to make beds that were a little more comfortable than the hard stone floors or pavements. I imagine this was their version of the cardboard boxes that modern homeless people use to create a crude mattresses.

However, Micheal told the Lord Mayor (who presided as the City’s chief magistrate) that one of the lads had fallen out with the others and left, but had set fire to the straw bedding ‘in revenge’.

The court heard that had the fire melted the pipe that carried gas to the  street light ‘much damage might have been caused to the interior of the building’, hence the paper’s overlay dramatic headline that read:

Setting fire to the Bank of England’.

The Bank was not inclined to prosecute the lads for their trespassing but this didn’t stop the Lord Mayor – Sir Thomas Dakin – from sending the lad to prison for a week at hard labour. He said something had to be done to prevent boys from sleeping rough on the Bank’s property but his concern seemed to be with the potential risks of fire or other damage, not with the poor lads’ welfare.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, June 19, 1870]

The apple doesn’t fall that far

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William Thomas’ son – Thomas Thomas – had been a difficult child. He had grown up in a large family with eight siblings, another one of which had been in trouble with the law as Thomas had. In January 1866 Thomas had been brought before a magistrate and sent to the Reformatory School ship Cornwall, which was moored off Purfleet in Essex.

The school could take up to 250 boys who had been convicted of offences that earned them three years on board but parents were expected to contribute to the costs. William Thomas now found himself in court at Marlborough Street because he had neglected to pay for his son’s keep. He now owed £1 and 7for his failure to pay 1s 6d  a week.

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William Thomas pleaded poverty but that didn’t go down well with the prosecutor (a Mr Brannan from the Home Secretary’s office) or the magistrate – Mr Knox.

The court heard that William had abandoned his wife and six children at home and was now living in Foley Street with a new partner and had already given her two new mouths to feed. He’d promised to pay if given time but had then furnished Mr Brannan with a false address.

Mr Knox sent him to prison for 10 days and told him to find the money.

Underlying this of course is the domestic environment that Thomas Thomas had grown up in. Poverty, overcrowding, and domestic instability would all have contributed to his delinquency. We are very aware of these issues today and try to support children caught up in them.

Not that we are always that successful: there are still high truancy rates, children are abused and abandoned, and thousands suffer mental health problems. At least birth control has allowed couples to take more control over the size of their families and this would have been useful had it been available to the Thomas’s in the mid 1860s.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, June 16, 1866]

The wife of the Lord mayor is found sleeping rough in Islington.

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When Sergeant Gillett (31N) found Amelia Cooke and her children sleeping under the stars he decided to act. It wasn’t the first time the woman and her family had been picked up by the police – she was well know as a homeless person who refused to go into the workhouse.

On this occasion however, it being 2.30 in the morning, the police sergeant was concerned for the health of her children and decided to take them, and her, into custody. On Thursday 12 June 1851 he brought them and their mother to the Clerkenwell Police Court for Mr Tyrwhitt to decide what to do with them.

The magistrate was told that Amelia (27 years of age and described by the  Morning Chronicle’s reporter as ‘a sun-burnt haggard looking woman’) was regularly to be found around Islington sleeping in doorways or on the pavements. When quizzed as to why she would not take the help of the parish poor law authorities she explained that it would damage her case, as ‘she was entitled to considerable property’.

She told the desk sergeant that far from being destitute she was actually the wife of the sitting Lord Mayor of London, Alderman Musgrove. He had changed his name, she added, because ‘Cooke’ was far too common for a man of his status. The pair had been married at St. Nicholas’ Church in Liverpool and she had previously lived at 17 Wellington House, St. Pancreas where a sum of £350 (£28,000 in today’s money) had been left for her but she was refused access to.

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Sir John Musgrove was born in Hackney and had made his money by property speculation in the mid 1820s. While he may have travelled to Liverpool there is no record of him marrying there. In fact there is no record of him marrying at all, and when he died (in 1881) his baronetcy died with him, suggesting he had no male heirs.

Mr Tyrwhitt thought that Amelia was possibly ‘deluded’ and sergeant Gillet agreed. He wondered if the sufferings she’d been through in sleeping rough and hardly eating had ‘impaired her faculties’ and added that it was certainly ‘injuring her children’s health’.

The magistrate despatched an officer of the court to Mr Perch, one of the overseers of Clerkenwell, to make enquiries as to their future care.

Perch soon returned and said he advised taking the family into the workhouse so enquiries could be made into Amelia’s story (not that I think anyone apart from her believed it).  He’d spoken to the poor woman and was convinced that she was delusional. That made up Mr Tyrwhitt’s mind and he ordered Turner (the officer) to accompany the woman and her ‘miserable’ children to the workhouse.

But Amelia was a spirited woman and convinced of the truth of her story. She grabbed her children as they left the curt and tried to run away. When Turner caught hold of her she fought him at first before eventually being overpowered and led away to the ‘house. I doubt the Lord Mayor was even informed of the case, unless he chanced upon it over his breakfast of course.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, June 13, 1851]

 

A ‘demented’ socialist picks a fight with the police

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Throughout the late 1880s Trafalgar Square was the site of numerous political demonstrations, protests and gatherings of the poor and homeless. It is hard for us to imagine the capital without the square; it is one of the top ten tourist sites that visitors flock to now, but it was only laid out in the 1830s and Nelson’s Column wasn’t erected until 1839-42 and the base sculptures were not completed until 1849. By then the square had already borne witness to Chartist demonstrations in 1848. What Nelson himself would have made of the political rhetoric than unfolded below him is hard to say. England’s greatest naval hero would probably have disapproved though, since he was an arch conservative and no champion of liberty or democracy.

In 1886 demonstrations in the square had been badly mishandled by the police and groups of rioters had caused chaos in nearby Pall Mall. Shortly afterwards the commissioner of the Metropolitan Police had resigned amid calls for a parliamentary enquiry. Determined that a similar chain of events should not engulf him the new commissioner, Sir Charles Warren, tried to ban gatherings in the square the following year (in November 1888) but without success. When protesters did congregate in large numbers Warren resorted to excessive force and several people were injured and 2 or 3 killed in the melee that resulted from police baton charges and the use of the military.

Earlier in the year, in July 1887, Trafalgar Square had become a sort of temporary shantytown, occupied by London’s homeless who spilled over from the square into the parks close by. Local residents complained about the sight and radical politicians railed about the poverty that had caused them to flock to the centre of the city in such numbers and desperation. The police were ordered to sluice the bench with cold water, to discourage rough sleepers, and to clear the parks of the human detritus that ‘infested’ it.

In May 1888 meetings were back on, and the newspapers reported that there had been a ‘Conversational meeting’ in the square on Saturday 12th. These had been organized to assert the rights of free speech in the face of Warrens’ attempts in the previous year to close the square to public gatherings. Members of the Bloomsbury branch of the Socialist League (which included William Bartlett, a prominent figure in the British Labour movement) deliberately held meetings in the square to discuss the issues of the day and the importance of being to air their views in a public space.

However, police attempts to curtail this supposed freedom led to scuffles and occasionally to accusation of assault on both sides. At the meeting on 12 May Walter Powell was arrested by the police in the square and charged at Bow Street Police court with disorderly conduct.

Evidence was presented that he had been followed into the square by ‘a crowd of roughs’, whom he had then attempted to address. The term ‘roughs’ was applied widely in the late 1800s, to mean youth gang members, political ‘muscle’, or simply members of the ‘residuum’ or ‘underclass’. It was always used disparagingly and Powell was being depicted as a ‘rabble rouser’ who probably deserved to be arrested for inciting crowd trouble.

Since he had been locked up in the cells overnight the magistrate decided he’d been suitably punished already and let him go with a warning.

Whenever crowds gathered in London however, there was always the possibility of other forms of criminality taking place. Once Powell had been discharged tow others were stood in the dock accused of picking pockets. Both men were remanded in custody so the police could continue their enquiries.

The last appearance related to Trafalgar Square that morning was Alexander Thompson, who was charged with disorderly conduct and assaulting the police. He was probably a member or supporter of the Socialist League that had insisted on championing the right of citizens to occupy the square for political protest but he had run foul of the police stationed to prevent trouble.  By 1888 the Socialist League, which had been founded by Henry Hyndeman and had included William Morris, was suffering from internal schisms. The Bloomsbury branch would split in the face of a takeover from anarchists who were more revolutionary in their outlook.

Back at Bow Street Mr. Vaughan looked the man up and down and must have decided he was very far from being a dangerous and ‘disorderly’ ruffian.

He said that ‘unless the man was demented he could not imagine his attacking a man of the constable’s calibre’ and dismissed the charge.

This was a backhanded compliment to the police officer, and a dismissal of the threat posed by ‘revolutionaries’ like Thompson. It was probably also an attempt to diffuse tensions in the spring of 1888 so as to avoid a repeat of the very real violence of the previous autumn.

However, events overtook the police in 1888 and the right to protest, while remaining a key issue, was subsumed by the murders of five or more women in the East End of London, where many of the rough sleepers had tramped from the previous summer. Warren, who was so determined not to be brought low by criticism of his failure to act against  protestors was soon to face much more serious criticism of his ability to run a police force capable of catching a brutal serial killer. In November 1888, just a  year after ‘Bloody Sunday’, Warren resigned as Commissioner.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper , Sunday, May 13, 1888]

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

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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]

‘Clothed in the dirtiest of rags’; three little urchins at Worship Street.

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Alice and Rosina Purcell were homeless. The sisters survived on whatever they could scavenge around Spitalfields Market, living on ‘rotten fruit and begging of the salesmen’ there. Thomas Williams was also destitute and had no other means of supporting himself besides begging. All three of them fell foul of the laws against vagrancy and begging and in late April 1872 were arrested and taken before Mr Hannay at Worship Street Police court.

Alice and Rosina must have struggled to see over the dock because they were just children, aged between 6 and 8 years. A school board officer named Mr Gear had picked them and enquiries were made by the local police. The girls’ mother was dead and their father, who worked as labourer at the London docks, ‘left nothing for them’. They were both ‘clothed in the dirtiest of rags, although they looked cheerful and intelligent’.

The magistrate wanted to send them to school but they were Protestants Mr Gear told him, and at present there were no vacancies in Protestant schools so the pair were remanded for a week and sent to the nearest workhouse.

As for Thomas (who was 13), he had been brought in by police constable Barker (141N) and had also been remanded to a workhouse and in the meantime a school had been found for him. Here the school option was complicated however.  The choice of a Catholic school was based on information given to the court when first the case was aired a week ago.  It was claimed, by the landlord where his family had formally lived, that the lad had been brought up a Catholic. Thomas, who had lost both his parents, hadn’t contradicted him. However now Thomas objected to being sent to a Catholic school and said that he had in fact been a pupil at St Mark’s Protestant school in Hoxton.

Mr Hannay asked him why he hadn’t said this earlier to save the confusion? Thoams admitted he hadn’t wanted to say anything in court, possibly because the poor lad was simply bewildered or afraid.

Religion was important and so even though these children were paupers with no parents to speak for them (or at least as in the girls’ case who were prepared to take responsibility for them) Mr Hannay was determined that they should be educated within the tenets of their faith, and where possible, I expect, he would always have favoured the reformed church over the Roman one.

If only society was as bothered about the fact that three children were wandering the streets of the world’s largest city starving and living on their wits quite as much as they cared which version of the Christian doctrine was used to educate them. It smacks, to me at least, of gross hypocrisy.

[from The Morning Post , Wednesday, May 01, 1872]

‘I am absolutely lost in London’: bureaucracy and callousness combine to mistreat a servant of the Empire.

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A Hindu temple in Bangalore in the 1880s

 This week the news is rightly dominated by the scandalous treatment of the Windrush generation. This country had a proud history of supporting and welcoming immigrants because it recognized the tremendous value they brought to these islands. The first discordant voices in the immigration debate were raised in the late 1800s as large numbers of Eastern European Jews arrived in London, fleeing persecution in the Russian Empire. Anti-Semitism mixed with protectionism meant that politicians on the right (like Arnold White) and left (H. M. Hyndman) used immigration as a political weapon and argued that Britain was too full, and needed to look after its own people first.

Racism and anti-immigration rhetoric often raises its ugly head when there is an economic crisis. We saw this in the 1880s, in the 1930s, the 1970s and today, in this prolonged period of austerity and concern around our impending exit from the European Union. Blaming immigrants focuses attention on the symptoms not on the causes of economic hardships and helps keep the working classes divided. Moreover it also reveals that when times are hard governments attempt to save money by reducing the amount of benefits that are paid out to those at the bottom of society, rather than raising the contributions made by those at the top. There are lot more people at the bottom than there are at the top and those in power (at national, local and parochial levels) have always been closer, in terms of social class, to those at the top.

Consider this case from 1889, a time of serious economic downturn if not quite a depression. The payments for poor relief had been rising across the second half of the 1880s and London was receiving thousands of political and economic migrants from Europe as well as very many from across the UK and wider Empire. If these migrants arrived (as many of them did) without much or any money; without jobs to go to: without homes or friends and family to stay with, then they had few choices but to appeal to charity or the state for help. The reaction they got was often uncaring and unhelpful even, as in this case from Westminster, they seemingly had every right to assistance.

In April 1889 a ‘poorly-dressed woman’ (we are not told her name) presented herself at Westminster Police court asking for help. She was Irish and she had been married to a serving British soldier in India, a sergeant major in the Nilgiri Rifles. The Rifles was a volunteer regiment raised in Madras in 1878 and while she had lived with him she had drawn a small government allowance as she was deemed to be ‘on the staff’ of the regiment.

However, at some point the couple had separated (‘through no fault of her own’ she told the magistrate at Westminster, Mr Partridge) and he, on leaving the regiment at the red of his period of service, had returned to England with their two children. The woman had followed him, taking a boat a Bangalore in March 1888 after gaining a certificate from the District Staff Officer there, which entitled her to free passage. She had just eight rupees left for the whole of the voyage and arrived in London on the 14 April. She headed to the War Office with her papers with the intention of being sent on to Ireland where ‘her friends were’.

However, there she was met with a similarly uncaring bureaucracy as that has recently confronted the Windrush generation. She was entitled to help from the British state but the paperwork had not arrived or could not be validated. Until ‘the order’ came from India nothing could be done for her. Even the certificate from the ship’s captain that declared she had forgone her beer allowance (and was thus entitled to some money for that) could not be processed. She ‘was transferred from one to the other, only to be told that nothing could be done for her at present’.

The previous night she had slept at the workhouse casual ward in Buckingham Palace Road and now she asked Mr Partridge for help. ‘She was absolutely lost in London’, she said, ‘having never been here before’. Without some temporary help she said would have to ‘walk the streets or starve’ – suggesting her only alternative was to beg or to prostitute herself.

The magistrate was cold. There was nothing he could or would do for her he said. He told the clerk to give her the fare to get to Thames Police court so she could plead her case there. ‘The docks are in that district’ he added, suggesting that since she’d arrived by boat she wasn’t his problem. The poor woman was dispatched with a shilling, not knowing what to do or where to go.

[from The Standard, Thursday, April 18, 1889]