‘Distressing accidents and dreadful diseases’: attempts to weed out fake beggars in early Victorian London

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Just recently there was a news items which suggested we need to examine the hands of those asking for money on the streets of London and other British cities. Despite the fact that homelessness as risen by 170 per cent in the last eight years and food bank use has also increased the focus seems to be on weeding out the fake poor from the deserving ones.

I’m comfortable with the idea of prosecuting fraudsters  but I do wonder what sort society we have become when our reaction to someone sitting on a cold wet London street in the middle of winter is to ask ourselves ‘is he trying to con me out of 50p?’

Sadly this is nothing new. The early Victorians were just as concerned with the idea of fake beggars as we seem to be. This was a society which passed the Poor Law Amendment Act in 1834, a piece of legislation that demonized those who asked for help and attempted to discourage benefit dependency but breaking up families and locking up paupers.

It also created the Mendicity Society (or, to give it its proper names: the Society for the Suppression of Mendicity). Formed in 1818 its aim was simple – to prevent people begging in London. It tried to move beggars along and encourage them to leave the capital if possible by giving them small amounts of charity. However, it eschewed the gift of money, preferring instead to give tickets which recipients could exchange for an investigation into their circumstances. This was presumably designed to root out the scammers, who would not want to have their case considered.

Men like William Horsford worked as mendicity officers, looking out for beggars on the streets and hauling them before the magistrates. Begging was an offence under the terms of the 1824 Vagrancy act which allowed the police and others to take people off the streets for having no visible sign of maintaining themselves. This legislation is still in operation today.

In early December 1839 Horsford was on the case of two people who he knew to be incorrigible beggars. Edward Johnson (alias Watson) and Mary Carrol were known to him and the police. Mary dressed in widow’s weeds and made herself look as desperate as possible in order to attract sympathy from passers-by; Johnson was described as a ‘miserable wretch’. Horsford spotted the pair in Pall Mall and decided to tail them, calling on a police constable to help.

He followed them through St James’ Park and then to a pub in Pimlico, called the Compasses (which had existed since the 1640s at least).  They left the pub after an hour and moved on to Sloane Sqaure where they started to knock on door. At one house, where the lady resident had a reputation for charity, Mary Carrol handed over a letter to the servant that opened the door.

The servant declined to accept it, or to give them anything so they headed for Chelsea and tried their luck at a chemist’s shop.  Horsford felt he had enough ammunition now and snuck into the shop behind them. As they tried to beg money using the letter he arrested them and confiscated the letter.

The pair appeared before Mr Burrell at Queen’s Square Police court where the letter was read out. It detailed the ‘facts’ that Mary was a ‘widow afflicted with rheumatism and divers other complaints – that she had a large family, and that her husband had been killed but a few weeks ago by a gentleman’s carriage running over him’.

It was signed by a ‘Mr Churton of Ebury Street’ who recommended the reader to assist Mary ion any way they could.  When searched Johnson was found to have a number of other letters on his person, each addressed to a different but well heeled recipient (the Bishop of London, Marquis of Londonerry, and Countess of Ripon) and each of which carried their own particular ‘sob story’ of ‘distressing accidents and dreadful diseases’.

The pair were clearly poor but Johnson at least was literate. He admitted writing the letters himself but justified by stating that Mary was a deserving case and he was only trying to help. The magistrate had no sympathy (just as the vigilantes who target ‘rogue’ beggars to day have none) and he sent them to prison for three months at hard labour. At least they would be fed and housed over winter, if not very comfortably.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, December 06, 1839]

for more on the work of the Mendicity Society see:

Little help (and no sympathy) for Heroes

A simple case of imposture or a glimpse into the transgender community of Victorian London?

A glimmer of hope for an abused wife in Somers Town

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According to the memoirs of one of London’s Police Court magistrates the working class believed that magistrates had the power to divorce married couples. In reality divorce was out of the question the poorer classes as it was an expensive legal exercise which effectively excluded all but the wealthiest in late Victorian society. Police magistrates in London could however, order a legal separation and require a husband to continue to maintain his wife.

We can see an example of this in a report from Clerkenwell in 1885. Richard Davis, a labourer living at 12 Churchway in Somers Town, was brought before Mr Hosack and charged with assaulting his wife. This was a common enough accusation levelled in the police courts, hundreds of women prosecuted their partners on a weekly basis in London.   In most cases the accusation was enough and when the couple appeared in court the wife would either drop the charge or plead for leniency, often whilst she stood in the witness box sporting a black eye or swaddled in bandages.

The police rarely intervened in ‘domestics’, and were not supposed to intervene unless ‘actual violence is imminent’ (as the Police Code stated). Most of the time they were called after violence had occurred as I have described on numerous occasions in previous posts here. In court this was the only situation in which a wife could testify against her husband but the difficulties in doing so were considerable. A wife that prosecuted her husband might fear retribution, or the loss of his earnings should he be imprisoned (which was one of the options that magistrates resorted to when confronted with wife beaters).

Mrs Davis had been brave enough to challenge her husband’s abuse in public; it was very unlikely to have been the first time that he had assaulted her and perhaps she feared that if she suffered in silence the next attack might be worse, fatal even. In court Mr Hosack heard that Davis ‘constantly ill-used his wife’. On this most recent occasion he had arrived home drunk, the pair had argued and he had hit her with a chair. The labourer then picked up a paraffin lamp and hurled it at her. Fortunately it missed but it caused a small fire, which must have been terrifying.

Perhaps because Davis’ actions threatened not just the life of his wife but also those of his neighbours the magistrate decided to send him away to cool down. He sentenced him to three months at hard labour, which would certainly impact on the man and remind him that his wife had the power to resist.

More importantly perhaps Mr Hosack ordered a ‘judicial separation between the prisoner and his wife’ and told Davis that on his release he would have to pay her 10a week maintenance. He could make the order of course but could he compel the man to pay? I doubt it. As a labourer recently out of gaol Davis would have few prospects of finding well-paid work (if any at all) and 10was not inconsiderable.

Mrs Davis’ best option was to find a new home with friends or family and hope Richard did not find her. If she wanted his money she would have to fight for it, and that meant taking him before the courts again if he failed to pay.

[from The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, December 5, 1885]

‘He is not quite right in the head’: Moriarty causes chaos and injury in Pall Mall

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In early December 1883 Peter or Joseph (there was clearly some doubt as to his real name)* Moriarty made his second appearance before the magistrate at Marlborough Street Police court.

He was accused of wounding Mr Hwfa Williams, a resident of Great Cumberland Place, by shooting him in the leg. It doesn’t sound like it was a deliberate attack on the Welshman because Moriarty was reportedly waving a pistol about in Pall Mall and firing it at random.

There was also evident concern for the prisoner’s mental health because he was exhibiting signs of depression in the days before the shooting. His friends had removed two bottles of poison from him which suggests that he had taken the gun to end his own life, not another’s.

In court Moriarty was represented by a lawyer (Mr Ricketts) who argued that his client should be allowed bail and promised that he would be looked after and, therefore, be no danger to anyone else. But Hwfa Williams was still recovering from the incident; he was ‘progressing favorably, but the bullet had not yet been extracted’.

Thus Mr Mansfield decided that a further court appearance was necessary and , since firearms were involved and the victim not entirely free from danger (given the state of medicine in the 1880s) he refused bail. Moriarty, a 22 year-old Post Office clerk who lived in Luard Street, Pentonville, would spend a few more days and nights in gaol.

A few days later Moriarty was again brought to court, and again remanded in custody as Mr Newton was told Williams was still unable to attend court. Another week passed and detective inspector Turpin appeared with a certificate from the surgeon treating Williams that again insisted that while he was recovering he was not able to come to court to give evidence.

Once more the troubled young clerk was taken back to his cell to await his fate. The Illustrated Police Newsmade a point of telling its readers that, ‘from the manner in which the prisoner has conducted himself, […] there is little doubt that he is not quite right in the head’.

It was reported (by Lloyd’s Weekly) that the poor victim would finally be fit enough to attend court after the 6 January 1884 but I can find no record in the papers of him so doing. To me this suggests that the papers had grown tired of the case which had carried quite a bit of interest.

Moriarty would have remained in custody for at least a month, and all over the Christmas period. If Mr Williams had been keen to see his assailant punished without the trouble of having to go to court himself then this was achieved most effectively. If however, the court decided that the best place for Moriarty was a secure asylum then that is perhaps where he ended up, without the necessity for this to be made public knowledge.

*In late December his name was also given as Frederick James Moriarty

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper ), Sunday, December 2, 1883; The Morning Post, Wednesday, December 05, 1883; The Standard , Wednesday, December 19, 1883; The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, December 29, 1883; Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper , Sunday, December 30, 1883]

An unlucky thief is caught as the nation buries the hero of Waterloo

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The morning after the Duke of Wellington’s funeral was a busy time for the Guildhall Police court. By all accounts the funeral was a extraordinary affair, snaking its way through the City streets and drawing huge crowds. Whether we see Wellington as the hero of Waterloo or a deeply conservative and out of touch politician no one can deny his impact on the nineteenth century. He may not have been widely loved but he was respected, and the state gave him the biggest send off since Nelson’s.

As a consequence of the procession that accompanied the ‘Iron Duke’s cortege to St Paul’s Cathedral the court had been closed for the day so the cells had filled up with overnight charges for the aldermen to deal with later.

When the court reopened on the Friday morning Sir John Key had over 30 night charges plus the usual flow of men, women and juveniles brought in by the police and private prosecutors during the day.

Of the 30 or so night charges the magistrate sent eight of them to prison (for picking pockets or assaulting police officers), and fined others for drunkenness and damaging property. This was pretty standard fare for those swept up by the police during the small hours.

Sir John remanded Alfred Povah for further examination after he was accused of stealing clothes to the value of £3 from the Inns of Court in Holborn. When the police had searched Porch they had found a set of skeleton keys on his person, suggesting he was a ‘professional’ thief.

Povah had been spotted heading up the stairs to Mr Rotch’s chambers in Furnivall Inn by one of the clerks. He called the firm’s beadle who nabbed the thief and handed him over to the police. PC McMath (77 City) undertook the search and later told an Old Bailey court that the keys were known as ‘Bramah keys’ and were considered to be ‘more dangerous’ by the police, suggesting perhaps that they were more effective at opening locked doors.

The thief’s professionalism marked him out as a member of the ‘criminal class’ within which the burglar was considered to be the arch enemy of respectable society. The burglar had replaced the highwayman as the symbol of serious crime as the Victorians increasingly saw their homes as sacred places.

Moreover Povah had a criminal record, having appeared at the Bailey two year’s previously for a similar crime. He was just 18 at the time and the judge sent him away for three months, the leniency shown perhaps prompted by his full confession in court. This time the Common Sergeant was not so generous and ordered that Alfred, not yet 20, be transported to Australia for seven years.

He never went however, by that time the colony was resisting the continued import of Britain’s unwanted felons. Instead Alfred served three years in an English prison before being released, on 22 November 1855, at the age of  22.

Had Alfred been 19 in 1815 he might have had the chance to be a hero like the thousands of men and boys that served under the Duke at Waterloo. When they returned to England having helped defeat Napoleon they received little or no help from an indifferent state. Wellington by contrast was feted as a war hero, the savior of Europe, and (a rich man already) was granted a reward of £200,000 (possibly £11m today).

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, November 20, 1852]

Bullying, touts and the London cab trade: the forgotten role of the waterman  

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You might be forgiven for thinking that a London waterman was someone that worked on the river in the Victorian period. This is certainly what these men did in the 1700s but by the nineteenth century the cabmen of the Thames had almost entirely disappeared from the water. Instead they set themselves up at hansom cab stands across the city, providing water for the horses and opening doors to assist fares to and from the streets. They earned a living from the cabbies (who paid for the water) and the passengers (who tipped them for their service).

Watermen don’t seem to have had a particularly good reputation however.  In 1853 Charles Manby Smith painted a comic and somewhat melancholic picture of them: poor, disheveled, the but of the cabbies’ jokes, standing out in all weathers, frequently splashed by ‘mud and mire’. Life was hard for the waterman and not infrequently short.

But perhaps this case demonstrates that watermen had a little more power than Smith credits them with, and suggests that they could, to some degree at least, control which cab drivers were able to ply their trade successfully.

In November 1847 John Cooke was charged with assault at Bow Street Police court. On the previous evening he’d been working as a waterman on the Strand, keeping the pitch at the Spotted Dog rank where two cabs were stood. Cooke helped a fare into the second cab, ignoring the one in front and presumably dispending with cab etiquette.

The driver of the first cab, Edward White, complained at this and asked him what he was doing. Cooke replied that he could ‘do what he chose and if [White] was cheeky he should not have a fare all night’.

White must have said something to him because the waterman now strode over to the cab and thrust his fist through the window, smashing it, and then hit the driver and dragged him out onto the street. He started to beat him up before a policeman intervened and arrested him.

In court the story was told and Mr Hall ordered Cooke to pay a fine of 40(with the threat of 14 days in prison if he did not) and added compensation of 1s 8d for White for the damage done to his cab window. Two of Cooke’s fellow watermen tried to argue that the cabbie had made up the story but the magistrate didn’t believe them. In terms of social status the policeman and hansom drivers were a class above the watermen who stood by the road and watered the horses, and Mr Hall wasn’t about to take their side. The papers described Cooke as ‘one of those persons known as “bucks” and “touts”’, suggesting his actions were well-known but not approved of.

So did watermen have some power here? Was this an example of them trying to extract some more money from the cabbies, or being used by certain cab drivers to control who got fares and where? The Strand would have been a prime position for hansoms after all, with its proximity to London’s clubs and theatres. Do doormen today have a role in which drivers get which fares? Do they get tips? Was this all part of the informal economy of Victorian London  and does it still exist?

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, November 19, 1847]

A thief falls foul of the mastermind behind Pimms

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I’m not sure this example of Victorian ‘justice’ would have troubled the magistrates courts today. I am even more convinced that it wouldn’t have resulted – as it did in 1895 – in a hefty prison sentence.

William Smith was minding his newspaper stall when he saw a young man approach a pillar (post) box in Threadneedle Street near the Bank of England. As he watched the man appeared to slide his hand into the post box opening and pull a letter out, which he put into his pocket.

Smith hailed a nearby policeman who quickly apprehended the thief. back at the police station the culprit gave his name as Henry Kempston (21) and admitted the charge. ‘I know I have done wrong’ he told the police sergeant.

The next morning he was brought before Alderman Davies at Guildhall Police court charged with the crime. He admitted taking the letter out but denied any intent to steal it. He had seen it sticking out ‘and foolishly took it right out, but meant to return it’.

Did he just want to be a postman? Alderman Davies, who sat in parliament for the Conservatives as an MP, wasn’t interested in any excuses and sent him to prison for two months with hard labour.

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Men like Horatio Davies (right) were sometimes very far removed from most ordinary lives in the nineteenth century.   Davies had come from humble origins however, having been educated at Dulwich College  as a ‘poor scholar’. He had a reputation as being harsh of ‘wrong-doers’ but kind to the needy. He clearly thought Henry was the former.

When he was in his thirties Davies teemed up with his brother-in-law to establish a number of restaurants, bars and hotels; ultimately creating the Gordon Hotels Group. Three years after this case he was knighted and at some pint after that he purchased an ailing drinks brand from an oyster salesman in London. James Pimms had invented a drink that aid the digestion of those eating his shellfish but it had limited appeal. Sir Horatio Davies helped turn it into the national and international institution that it is today.

[from The Standard, Friday, November 08, 1895]

A ‘typical girl’ in the dock at Clerkenwell

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In my seminar last week my students and I were discussing forms of property crime in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. One of those we focused on was shoplifting, noting its increasing importance in contemporary discourse in the 1700s (as the number of shops in London grew and the emphasis on the display of goods made them more vulnerable to opportunistic thieves).

They were interested to note that women made up a more equal  proportion of defendants at the Old Bailey in shoplifting trials than they did, say, in highway robbery or burglaries.  Indirect thefts, such as shoplifting or pocket-picking, were much more likely to feature females or children than the direct and often violent or dangerous crimes of robbery and housebreaking or burglary.

We also looked at what shoplifters stole and at why female thieves mostly seemed to have filched items that fitted within their social sphere. Thus women took clothes, or linen and lace, lengths of materials, and ribbons. Men, by comparison, stole tools, money, and precious items such as watches. Women did take these as well, but images of female thieves with ribbons and lace tucked under their clothes are more common.

The explanation is straightforward: women took things they could use or easily get rid of. There was a huge market in secondhand clothes and materials into which thieves could ‘invest’ their loot. Suspicions might be raised by a woman walking through town with a bag of working-men’s tools but not by a basket of ribbons.

Mary Ann Stanniel was only 18 when she appeared before Mr D’Eyncourt at Clerkenwell Police court in November 1860 but she had already established an unwanted reputation as a ‘well-known shoplifter’. On this occasion she was charged with taking two samples of silk ribbon belonging to John Skinner a linen draper on the Pentonville Road.

Mary had entered Skinner’s shop with a friend and then engaged the shopkeeper in conversation in a classic distraction technique. They asked him to show them two completely different sorts of product and Skinner was on his guard. He’d been robbed before and spotted the attempted deception.

However, having two young women in his shop, each demanding to see different things at the same time he was hard pushed to keep his eyes on both of them. He called his wife to help and she provided the necessary extra pair of eyes. Soon afterwards she noticed that a piece of blue ribbon was missing. Mrs Skinner came round the counter and took hold of Mary Ann’s hand, turning it over to reveal a roll of ribbon. It wasn’t the blue one she’d lost, but it was theirs so the police were called.

The blue ribbon was missing so when PC Lillycrap (409A) arrived he took Mary Ann to the station and searched her. It seems that her friend had done a runner when Mary Ann had been pinched by the shopkeeper’s wife. No ribbon was found on Ann so the policeman came back to the shop to check again. After a quick search the ribbon was found on the floor, behind some other things, where the defendant had hastily dropped it.

PC Lillycrap told Mr D’Eyncourt that he had arrested Mary Ann before and that she’d been up before the bench at Westminster Police court on similar charges. Mary Ann had some support in court, in the form of a solicitor who urged the magistrate to deal with the matter summarily, saving her a longer spell in prison after a full jury trial. He promised that after she had served whatever time the justice felt was appropriate Mary Ann’s father would ‘take her home and look after her’.

Whether D’Eyncourt believed him or not he did as requested and sent the shoplifter to the house of correction for four months and told her she ‘was fortunate’ she hadn’t got longer. Let’s hope her father kept his promise.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, November 7, 1860]