‘When the fun stops, stop?’: the ‘curse’ of betting in late nineteenth-century London.

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When Augustus Peake asked to speak to his employer it wasn’t to ask for time off or for a rise, it was to make a deeply embarrassing confession. Peake had worked as cashier to Mr. W.H. Chaplin, a London wine merchant, for a decade but had been stealing from the till for the past 15 months.

In 1887 Peake earned £150 a year (about £12,000 at today’s prices) but had run into difficulties at home. He had a growing family and was struggling to make ends meet. At some point in the mid 1880s he’d taken ‘a few shillings’ and ‘invested’ them in a speculative bet. This paid off, he won but before long he was hooked. The shillings turned into pounds and by July 1887 he was confessing to having embezzled upwards of £250 (or £20,000 now).

We would now recognize that he had a gambling addiction, something that afflicts very many people in Britain today. Unfortunately for Peake he had compounded his addiction by stealing from his employer. While he admitted his crime in July he also begged Mr Chaplin not to act on the information straight away as his wife had just given birth and he feared the effect it might have on her nerves and health. To his credit the wine merchant took pity and agreed.

Peake was then arrested at his home in Leytonstone in August and brought before Mr Vaughan at Bow Street Police court. There he admitted his crime and  the circumstances that drove him to it. Like all deluded gamblers he said he ‘always had before him the vision of getting all the money back again in one grand coup’ but it never happened and when he realized the half yearly accounts would expose him he confessed all to Mr Chaplin.

The magistrate had heard and seen it all and took the opportunity to warn the public, via the newspapers, of the perils of gambling which he viewed as ‘a curse to this country’.

I wish that the clerks in mercantile houses of London could come to this court and see what I see and hear what I hear. This is only one of a multitude of cases where prisoners placed in your position have confessed that their robberies are entirely due to betting’.

Peake was clearly well thought of by his master who pleaded leniency. Nevertheless Mr Chaplin and Mr Vaughan agreed that an example had to be made and Peake was sent to prison for three months. That would not be the end of his punishment of course. No one was likely to trust him as a cashier in the future unless Chaplin took pity on him. So he would be out of work, massively indebted (unless the wine merchant chose to write it off) and with a new mouth to feed at home. In a society without support for unemployment (beyond the workhouse) or for those suffering from addictions, Augustus’ future looked bleak indeed.

Personally I think gambling and the companies that promote it is, as Mr Vaughan put it, a curse on society. I suspect we all ‘have a flutter’ from time to time which is fine so long as we realize that the odds are massively stacked against us. After all ‘the house always wins’, and it is no coincidence that betting shops proliferate in areas of the greatest deprivation.  Quite why drugs are illegal and gambling is promoted on television I shall never fully understand.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, August 10, 1887]

Lessons from the 1840s should remind us that refugees are welcome here

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1848 was another hard year for the Irish people. The potato blight continued to bring famine to Ireland and tens of thousands left their homes and communities to make the journey to England and Scotland or America. The impact of this on a city like London is evident in the newspaper reports of poor relief in the capital and elsewhere.

The Marylebone vestry was told that between December 1846 and December 1847 huge numbers of migrants had appeared in London needing to be supported by the city’s parishes. 5,941 had arrived in St George’s-in-the East, 2,761 in the East London Union, 6,253 in Whitechapel and 7,783 in Stepney.

In central London the numbers were similarly high. There were almost 5,000 arrivals in St. Giles and 7,864 in Marylebone and a staggering 11,574 in St Martin’s-in-the-fields. In total in that one year the parochial poor law authorities spent thousands of pounds in relieving around 80,000 to 100,000 migrants from Ireland.

The vestry heard that several parishes hadn’t kept records of those they’d helped (or those records were not available) and noted that a further 30,000 Irish men and women had been relieved in Glasgow.

The Irish potato famine killed about one in eight of the population and forced two million others to leave. It was also entirely unnecessary. A combination of high grain prices, over dependence on the potato crop, and a deeply rooted and ideological resistance by the English landowners and government to help the poor led to the death of a million people, and the migration of many more.

The British Imperial state failed to deal with a humanitarian disaster on its own doorstep, allowing grain to be exported from Ireland when it could have used to feed its people, and refusing to intervene when Irish landlords turfed impoverished families off the land. The Poor Law system was rooted in deterring pauperism rather than helping those in need and the prevailing economic doctrine was laissez-faire ruled out government interference. Underlying all of this was Protestant evangelism that believed in ‘divine providence’ and underscored a deep-seated anti-Catholic prejudice in large sections of British society.

When the Marylebone vestry heard that St Martin’s-in-the-fields had relieved 11,574 Irish at the cost of £144 13s6d(or about £12,000 today, £1 for each person) ‘laughter followed’. Were they laughing at the fact that St. Martin’s ratepayers were paying out so much, or that so many had ended up there? Why were they laughing at all?

Today the news is filled with images of refugees and economic migrants huddled into overflowing boats, or carrying their belongings along dusty roads, fleeing war or disaster. We shouldn’t forget that in the 1840s this was the reality within the British Isles.

Disasters like Ireland in the 1840s or Syria in the 21st Century are not simply ‘natural’ disasters. They are often caused by, or exacerbated by the actions of governments or individuals, sometimes motivated by religion, ideology or greed, but the people most affected are invariably the poorest and least able to cope. For that reason migration is a World issue where borders are irrelevant. We should have helped the Irish in the 1840s and we should help the Syrians today.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, July 31, 1848]

A ‘crippled’ child has no alternative but to beg for money at Victoria Station

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When John Long appeared at the Westminster Police court in July 1883 it was his second time there in the space of a few days. John hadn’t done anything particularly awful, hardly even criminal in our eyes. He was only 13 years old and was found begging at Victoria Station and so when he came before Mr D’Eyncourt the magistrate made out an order to send him to the St Nicholas Catholic Certified Industrial School, where he was to stay until he was 16.

However, when John arrived there with a policeman, the school’s master refused to admit him. He explained that the school was unable to look after a boy like John (despite, it seems, having initially told Mr D’Eyncourt that they could).

In 1883 poor John was deemed ‘a cripple’ , a word we wouldn’t use today. The teenager ‘had lost the sight of the right eye, had lost his left leg in an accident, and had never been vaccinated’ (notwithstanding the fact that his skin was pockmarked – suggesting he’d already had smallpox and so was safe from future infection).

These were all given as reasons not to accept him into the school. So the boy was sent back with the police who had little choice but to take him to the workhouse. That was Friday (20 July) and on Saturday the workhouse clerk brought John back to Westminster Police court to see what should be done with him.

This time Mr Stafford was presiding and the court was attended by Mr Lawrence of the London Industrial School Department. Everyone seemed to agree that a place should be found for John but there was no such institution for disabled delinquents (as they clearly saw John to be). He was a ‘confirmed beggar’ and lived at home with his parents who, it was declared, ‘seemed to make a good thing out of [his begging]’.

The court heard that John Long was ‘a great nuisance to the ladies and gentlemen at Victoria station’ and when they finally let the lad speak for himself he apologised and promised to reform if given the chance. He told the magistrate he ‘earnestly wanted to work’. Mr Stafford was prepared to give him that chance and said he would write to the Reformatory and Refuge Union to see if a place could be found for him. Hopefully he could be taught to sew or make baskets so he could be useful to society rather than a drain on it.

I think this gives an insight into a society before the Welfare State and NHS was created and one we might foresee returning if we continue to allow the erosion of our ‘caring’ society. Where were John’s parents in all of this?  They don’t seem to have been consulted or involved at all. Where was the duty of care of the state either? Let’s remember this was a boy of 13 who had committed no crime (unless we think of begging as a crime), he was blind in one eye and had only one leg. What on earth was he to do apart from beg?

[from The Standard, Monday, July 23, 1883

‘I looked after them as well as I could’: a mother’s plea as her children are taken away.

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This morning I am working on the latest draft of my next book, which offers a (hopefully) plausible solution to the Whitechapel murders of 1888. So I’m currently sitting (fairly comfortably) in the National Archives at Kew. The sun is shining, the lake is full of geese, and the air conditioning in on. This is a world away, of course, from the trials and tribulations of the folk that were brought before or sought help or redress from London’s Police courts in the nineteenth century.

I’ve taken this case from July 1888, just before the series of murders associated with an unknown killer given the sobriquet of ‘Jack the Ripper’, began in August. I think it reveals the poverty and desperation of some Londoners at the time, and the casual cruelty that sometimes accompanied it.

However, this wasn’t a case that occurred in Whitechapel, but instead in Soho, in the West End. The area in which the murders of 1888 is so often portrayed as a degraded, godless, and immoral place that it can be easy to forget that other parts of the capital were equally poor, and that thousands of our ancestors lived hand-to-mouth in grinding poverty. It took two world wars to create a system that attempted to deal humanely with poverty; in 1888 this was still a long long way ahead.

Patrick and Mary Ann Lynch were tailors but they were also very poor. They lived in one room in a rented house in Noel Street, Soho. They had four children who lived with them, all crowded together in circumstances we would be shocked to discover in London today. In fact their circumstances, while not uncommon in late nineteenth-century Britain, still had the power to shock contemporaries. This was especially so when evidence of cruelty or neglect towards children was shown, as it was here.

The Lynch’s situation was brought to the attention of a local medical man, Dr Jackson, by neighbours of the couple. He visited and found the four children ‘in a wretched state’. He informed the police, and Inspector Booker of C Division paid them a visit. This is what he later told the Marlborough Street Police Magistrate:

The children ‘were in a filthy state. Three of them – Charlotte, aged four years, Michael, two years and ten months – were lying on a dirty old mattress. On the other side of the room was Henry James, aged ten months. They looked haggard and weak, especially Frank. They were so filthy that he could scarcely recognize their features. Frank seemed to be gasping’.

These were the days before social services and child protection but the policeman didn’t wait for permission from anyone, as soon as he could he had the children removed to the nearest workhouse in Poland Street. He arrested Mary Ann and charged her with neglecting her children. Mrs Lynch was taken to the police station where she was reunited with her husband, who had been arrested earlier the same evening for drunkenness  – it wasn’t his first time.

At the station Mary Ann said she’d tried to look after her kids but her husband hadn’t let her. ‘I looked after them as well as I could’, she pleaded, but ‘I had to work, and if I left off to look after them, my husband would kick me out of the place’.

In court the Inspector said that he’d tried to get the poor law relieving officer to intervene but he’d refused; no one wanted to help the family it seems. Another policeman, sergeant Castle, added that the relieving officer didn’t seem to think the Lynchs case was one of ‘actual destitution’, so weren’t inclined to act.

Mrs Lynch’s position was typical of many at the time. She had to work because he husband’s wages didn’t provide enough for the family to live on, especially as he chose to drink much of them away. Dr Jackson also gave evidence in court, telling the magistrate (Mr Hannay) that when he’d visited Patrick Lynch was lying on a mattress in drunken stupor, next to his son Henry. When he rose to his feet he pushed down on the little boy hurting him, and making him cry.

At this point little Henry was produced in court. This caused quite a stir as the child ‘appeared to be no bigger than a child’s shilling doll’. Mr Hannay was amazed the Poor Law Guardians hadn’t taken up the case adding that he was sure that the authorities would either realize that they had a duty to intervene, or would find themselves being prosecuted for neglect. For the meantime he remanded the couple and sent the children back to the workhouse.

[from The Standard , Tuesday, July 17, 1888]

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]

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]