Street gambling and the law in 1850s London

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The nature of the law is at the centre of discussions this morning. Yesterday judges sitting in the highest court in the land – the Supreme Court – ruled that the highest political figure in the country (the Prime Minister) had acted unlawfully (illegally) in proroguing Parliament. The proroguing was declared null and void  and parliament will reconvene this morning at 11.30 to hold the executive to account.

This – despite what some newspaper editorials and unhappy government representatives might say – is democracy in action. We are not a dictatorship, and no one is above the law. This means that the law protects us – the people – from misrule by those that govern us.

This may be a frustration to the small majority of voters who voted to leave the European Union in 2016 but I hope they will recognize that the alternative – giving the executive carte blanche to ride rough-shod over parliamentary sovereignty – would have set an extremely dangerous precedent for the future. Many people voted to be free of the constraints of rule from Brussels (however misguided that might have been) I’m not sure they voted to ‘take back control’ only to surrender it to a modern day Hitler or Stalin.

This blog is concerned not with the highest court of the land but with some of the lowest. The Police Magistrates courts of Victorian London tended to deal with the more trivial problems of daily life in the capital. But here too law was important and central, and its application was supposed to be given without fear or favour, regardless of class.

In 1857 two justices sat in judgment on a man accused of organizing gambling in public. This was an unusual case; in part because two City magistrates were present but also because they quite clearly disagreed with each other.

Davis was arrested by City constable 325 for obstructing the footway at Bride Lane. Davis was with two other men and when the officer searched him he found betting books and £5 17sin coin on him. The case turned then on whether Davis (or the other men) were using the books and actually taking bets at the time. It was established that he wasn’t so the question arose of why the constable had arrested him. Alderman Copeland thought it a ‘monstrous interference with the liberty of the subject’ that the policeman  had arrested a ‘gentleman’ for doing nothing illegal at all.

He went on to say that not far away the officer might have found persons selling goods on the street and trading illegally by the Stock Exchange, yet they were not being arrested.  Abraham Davis had been stopped, moved on, and searched on several occasions by the same City policeman and alderman Copeland was clearly implying that the constable was enforcing the law selectively, and with bias.

Alderman Hale took a different view. He noted that gambling was a problem. It led to idleness, to debt, and to crime as well as causing large crowds to gather and block the streets. There were laws against it and he was determined to enforce them regardless of the class of individual brought in front of him.

Alderman Copeland agreed that gambling was a public nuisance but argued as well that other infringements of the law – such as the illegal trade in tallow (carried out just yards from where Davis was arrested, and ignored by the police) must also be prosecuted. He also felt that having a betting book in one’s possession was not the same thing as organizing illegal gambling and he clearly felt that the policeman had overstepped by searching a gentleman’s pockets on the street.

In the end alderman Hale agreed that while the officer was within his rights to attempt to suppress the ‘evil’ of street gambling Abraham Davis had not been found to be doing anything illegal. Under the law he was innocent and so he discharged him. The law was, even at this level, supposed to be applied  fairly and it seems that this is what the officer had been doing. Had he brought in some working class men for illegal trading I wonder whether alderman Copeland would have tried to defend them as vociferously as he attempted to defend a ‘gentleman’?

[from The Morning Post, Friday, September 25, 1857]

Upper class boisterousness Bloomsbury Square and a reminder that double standards persist

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Police constable Fisher (32E) was on duty in Great Russell Street in the early hours of Friday morning, 26 July 1867. As he approached Bloomsbury Square on his beat he heard what sounded like gunshots, and he rushed towards the sound. Nearby PC Vindon (34E) had also heard the sounds and was hurrying to investigate.

As the two officers converged on the square they saw two young men aiming rifles at the gas lamps. They had missed more than once but had now succeeded in putting out two of the square’s lamps. When they saw PC Vindon they turned tail and ran, one of them running straight into the arms of constable Fisher.

‘That is nice conduct for a young man like you – firing off powder and putting the lamps out’, PC Fisher admonished his prisoner.

‘There you are mistaken’, the young man replied, ‘it was only caps’.

Looking down PC Fisher saw 12 exploded caps on the ground, six by each lamppost. He arrested the lad, who gave his name as Frank Hughes, and took him back to the police station to be charged.

At the station he explained that he’d just returned from Wimbledon where he’d won a prize for shooting. He claimed he didn’t know there was any powder in the rifle (which seems unlikely). However, he was clearly ‘respectable’, being described as having a ‘gentlemanly appearance’ and this probably helped him when he was brought before Sir Thomas Henry at Bow Street Police court.

There he apologize and said he hoped the magistrate might overlook his indiscretion. No, said Sir Thomas, he could not possibly do that but he only fined him. The sum was large, 40s, but not hard to find for someone with deep pockets like young Frank. He paid up at once and was released.

This is a reminder that class determined outcomes in the summary courts of the capital. Working class ruffians were mostly sent to prison (many would not have afforded such a fine anyway) because their behavior was deemed disorderly and a sign of latent criminal intent. By contrast the transgressions (however serious) of the upper class were put down to ‘youthful excess’ and deemed in some way ‘natural’.

I’d like to say we’d left those class distinctions behind but when we have our second Old Etonian and ex-Bullingdon Club Prime Minister in a decade I doubt we have.

Today my current cohort of students graduate from the University of Northampton with degrees in History. Young people, students especially, can get a very bad press but that is unfair and unjustified. I’ve taught most of these students over the past three years and while I know some better than others they are all a bright, hardworking and thoughtful bunch of young people. I wish them all the best for their future and hope they take some of the things they’ve learned forward with them, whatever they do, and stay in touch with us here.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, July 26, 1867]

Drew’s new book (co-authored by Andy Wise) is published by Amberley Books. It is a new study of the Whitechapel murders of 1888 which offers up a new suspect, links the ‘Jack the Ripper’ killings to the unsolved ‘Thames Torso’ crimes, and provides the reader with important contextual history of Victorian London. The book is available on Amazon here

From Kennington Common in 1848 to the People’s Vote in 2019; 171 years of democracy in action

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A nation divided against itself, unhappy with its political masters; tens of thousands of people marching though the capital with banners held aloft; a petition signed by thousands of ordinary people which the Prime Minster chooses to ignore. We’ve been here before haven’t we, in 1842 with Chartism. In May of that year a 100,000 people (Maybe 150,000) turned out to accompany a petition supporting the Charter on its way to Parliament. This was a ‘good-humoured and “teetotal”’ procession but later that year, and subsequently, things turned ugly as the Victorian state not only rejected the six demands of the people but deployed the police and military to guard against insurrection.1

By March 1848 Chartism was in decline but radical revolution was very much in the air in continental Europe. 1848 was the ‘year of revolutions’  and in March 1848 London witnessed large gatherings of Chartists in places with long histories of popular protest (like Clerkenwell and Bethnal Green) and a mass demonstration on Kennington Common later that spring, on 10 April. kenningtoncommon-standardThis drew another 150,000 people (right) but the authorities made sure it didn’t go anywhere: troops were stationed throughout the capital at hot spots and no one was allowed to cross the Thames to march on Parliament.

The Charter demanded the following reforms, all but one of which have been achieved today:

  1. Universal suffrage
  2. Abolition of property qualifications for members of parliament
  3. Annual parliamentary elections
  4. Equal representation
  5. Payment of members of parliament
  6. Vote by secret ballot

I doubt anyone (especially Brenda) wants to see annual general elections but in 1848 the government was not inclined to grant any of the Chartists’ demands. The 1832 Great Reform Act had extended the franchise to the middle class but the idea of making it universal was not properly contemplated until the 1860s when Disraeli took his ‘leap in the dark’ and enfranchised very many more working class men.

The 1848 petition was claimed to have 5m signatures but it reality it had fewer than 2m and some of these were faked (it was apparently signed very many times by Queen Victoria). This undermined the Chartists just as much as the violence that some Chartists deployed (in the Newport Rising of 1839 for example) hardened some hearts against them and divided the leadership.

Yesterday (23 March 2019), 171 years after 1848 something like a 1,000,000 people marched through central London and tried to squeeze into Parliament Square. There was no violence and it was all very good humoured.032319-london-brexit-march-01

The police presence on the ground was minimal (the police have other ways to watch crowds these days, evidenced by the helicopters that circled overhead and the ubiquitous CCTV). People came from all over Britain not just from ‘Remoaning’ London, and they brought their children and pets with them.

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There was a carnival, pro-European, feel to the march albeit with a lot of deep felt anger and frustration at the cavalier attitude of the ruling party (and indeed the opposition in Parliament). This was a protest with a very similar purpose to that of the Chartists in that both wanted to see a shift in power from the executive to the people, and both would argue that they were not being listened to.

The petition to revoke Article 50 had passed 4.5m signatures by teatime Saturday (as most of the marchers were making their way home) and the woman that had posted it was hiding in Cyprus after receiving death threats for having the audacity to call for a democratic vote by the people. Today the government doesn’t need to send in the troops to break up demonstrations or have the secret service infiltrate political groups, there are enough trolls and anti-democratic keyboard warriors to do their dirty work for them.

Everything we have achieved as a people in terms of winning concession from our royal or our political masters has been achieved through protest and campaigning. The rich and powerful did not (and will not) give up their privileges easily but we the people are many and they are few, and ultimately they recognize this and bow to pressure when they have to.

From the Peterloo massacre and the first mass movement for electoral reform, through the Chartists to the Suffragettes and beyond this country has a proud history of social protest aimed at holding our rulers to account. A lot has been said recently about what democracy is and what it means to be democratic. Understandably the present occupant of 10 Downing Street believes she is democratically obliged to deliver the will of the people as expressed in June 2016 in the referendum.

At what point however, did anyone sign up to a democracy in which we were are only asked for our opinion once?

1.Jerry White, London in the Nineteenth Century, (London, Jonathan Cape, 2007), p.365

The magistrate tells a mentally ill mother to ‘remember to the end of her life what disgrace and danger she brought upon herself’.

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Today the British government has decided to mark World Mental Health Day by appointing a government minister to prevent suicide. The Health Secretary has admitted that under successive governments there has been too little focus of resources on tackling the problems of mental illness but, speaking on BBC Radio’s Today programme he stopped shorted of promising more money or specifying exactly how he intended to address the issue of mental health in the coming months and years.

The PM said this: ‘We can end the stigma that has forced too many to suffer in silence and prevent the tragedy of suicide taking too many lives’. They have pledged £1.8 to the Samaritans to help them run their free helpline. That is certainly something of course, but then we spend £38 billion on defence and about £45m on the Queen. The costs of mental health care do come out of the NHS budget of course and that budget is £124.7 billion and about 10% of that goes towards treating mental illness.

What all of these figures show is that mental illness is a massive problem in modern society and helps explain why upwards of 4,500 people take their own lives every year. Anyone visiting this blog over the last couple of years will probably have come across one or more story of attempted suicide prosecuted at the Metropolitan Police courts.  London was just as unforgiving and uncaring in the 1800s as it has proved to be in the 1900s and early 2000s. Policemen frequently prevented suicides simply by being on the streets (and bridges) at the right times.

Beat bobbies rescued men and women from the river, pulled them from canals, and cut them down from railings where they found them hanging. On more than one occasion a quick thinking guard or passenger saved a life on the overground or underground railways. Unlike today few of those attempting to end their lives received any help afterwards and all of them ended up facing prosecution for their ‘crime’.

Take the example of Maria Ford, a 28 year old married woman from Henry Street in Marylebone. She was charged before Mr Mansfield with attempting to murder her baby boy and then take her own life with poison. The magistrate was told that Maria was a drunkard with a history of being found incapable in the streets. After numerous appearances before  the courts she had recently promised to refrain from alcohol and had ‘signed the pledge’.

As a convert to the Temperance movement Mr Mansfield was prepared to give her the benefit of the doubt. The chaplain of the house of detention had written to him to attest to Maria’s attempt at reformation and he was keen to encourage her. He decided to treat the attempt on her son’s life as an accident occasioned by her being drunk but warned her against slipping ‘off the wagon’ in future:

‘He did not think she intended to injure her child’ he said, ‘but in her drunken madness she might have killed both the child and herself’.

He would therefore discharge her but now she had signed the pledge she had best keep it and ‘remember to the end of her life what disgrace and danger she brought upon herself by her drunken habits’.

I’m not sure anyone asked her why she drank or why there was no husband in court to support her. At least in that respects our society has made some significant strides forward even if, as Matt Hancock admits, there is still plenty of distance to travel.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, October 10, 1883]

for other cases that touch on attempted suicide see:

A man is driven to attempt suicide because of his ‘reduced circumstances’

‘She has been very low spirited lately’: The early casebook of the ‘Ripper’ surgeon reveals the extent of mental illness in London

A bad week in London, full of personal tragedy

Does the lack of the vote excuse you from obeying the law?

My method of research for this blog is quite simple. I use today’s date to search back through the newspaper records for a police court hearing with a corresponding date. I thought I might look for a day in June where there was a previous general election given the turmoil of the last few weeks, but there were only two elections in June in the 1800s  (1807 and 1826) both a little too early for the reportage of the Police Courts. So instead I’ve opted for 1859 when the election was held just a few weeks earlier, on 31 May.

That election was won by the Liberal Party and returned Lord Palmerston – he of gunboats fame – as Prime Minister. Palmerston won a significant majority of 59; a figure either Mrs May or Mr Corbyn would have been delighted with on Thursday. However it represented a decline for the Liberals (or Whigs as they were then) from the previous ballot in 1857 when their lead was 100 seats.

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‘A leap in the dark’ (Punch cartoon)

This political cartoon refers to Lord Derby’s comment that Disraeli was taking a ‘leap in the dark’ when he sponsored the second Reform Act – which he considered an astute political move. By using popular support for reform to introduce a Bill extending the vote to urban working-class electors, he believed the Tories would stand to gain in subsequent elections.
Catalogue reference: LIBRARY Punch, p. 47 (3 August 1867)

[from http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/pathways/citizenship/struggle_democracy/docs/punch1867.htm%5D

Perhaps the writing was on the wall because in 1865 the Tories got back in. This was the last general election under the system introduced after the Great Reform Act of 1832, a new reform act in 1867 extended the suffrage (see cartoon reference above) to include many more people and arguably set in motion the move towards the one-person-one-vote system we have in place today. In took the reforms of 1884, 1918 and 1928 to finally do that however.

I doubt any of this concerned Charles Webb in the weeks after the 1859 general election. As a ‘ruffianly looking, middle-aged’ man dressed as a ‘builder’s labourer’, Webb almost certainly did not have the right to exercise his vote whether he wanted to or not. Like most of the poorer class in Victorian society he was unenfranchised, not being considered fit to vote as he did not own property.

We can speculate as to whether this bothered him or not, or indeed whether this lack of a political voice in some way disconnected him from a sense of social belonging. Does a person who has no political rights in a society therefore have no social responsibilities? If you are not part of the mechanism of making laws then can you perhaps be excused for not obeying them?

These are philosophical questions and again I doubt they crossed Webb’s mind as he watched a procession of charity school children march down Cheapside towards St Paul’s Cathedral. Webb was seen by a policeman, PC Legg, who observed him walk into Post Office Yard with another man. He watched as Webb took a purse out of his pocket, extracted a few silver coins (which he gave to the other man) then threw the purse away. The implication was that Webb had stolen the purse (with the aid of his accomplice) and was disposing of the evidence. He moved in and arrested Webb but the other man got away.

At the police station Webb refused to give his address and denied all knowledge of the purse. When the case came before the magistrate at Mansion House, (which was the Lord Mayor, as the City’s chief lawman), Webb explained why:

‘Well of course I did, but I never saw that purse before and I never touched it’. He then aimed a verbal swipe at the policeman: ‘Ain’t you paid for not telling the truth?’

The clearly frustrated copper then told the Lord Mayor that he had searched the prisoner and found that he has specially adapted his coat for picking pockets, an accusation that Webb vehemently denied.

‘My Lord’ began PC Legg, ‘he shoves his hands through his pockets which are open at the bottom, and work in that way’, demonstrating to the court with the accused’s coat.

‘Why what do you mean by that?’ responded Webb, ‘D’ye mean to say I’m a thief? I am as honest as you are, and works hard for my living. Can’t yer see that them ere pockets is worn away at the bottom?’, he finished, prompting laughter in the courtroom.

When the policeman insisted his version of events was correct (as it undoubtedly was) Webb returned to his theme of accusing the officer of lying. ‘Yes I dare say you’ll say so; but you’ll say anything , cos of how your’e paid for it’

This was probably an opinion shared by many of London’s criminal fraternity who had little love of the New Police and saw them as an extension of the old semi-professional watch, their-takers and informers of the previous century. Magistrates generally took the word of a policeman over that of a working-class man, especially if he looked (as Webb did) like a ‘ruffianly’ individual.

The alleged pickpocket was remanded in custody while the owner of the purse, or more information or evidence, was sought. We don’t know what happened to him after that, but I would expect he spent some time off the streets at society’s expense.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, June 10, 1859]