A ‘very hard and cruel case’ as a mother nearly loses everything

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The very last case heard at Guildhall Police court on 19 September 1864 was a tragic one, and one that might have been written by the capital’s greatest narrator, Charles Dickens.

Mrs Samuel Smith came to ask the magistrate’s help in a dispute she was having with a firm of ship owners. In January she had placed an advert in the newspapers looking for an apprenticeship for her son, who ‘wanted to go to sea’. A Mr Edward West, who ran a company of shipbuilders and said he knew a firm that was prepared to take on young master Smith, for a fee, answered that advert.

The fee (or premium) he required was quite high at £20 and more than Mrs Smith could afford in one go. Her husband was an invalid and unable to work so the family’s funds were limited. Nevertheless she offered to pay in two instalments and Lang & Co. (West’s firm) said they would accept £11 up front with £10 in the form of a ‘note of hand’ (an obligation to pay later in other words).

This was all agreed and the lad left London and sailed off to start his new life and career with the firm of Powell & Co, shipowners, where Mr. West had secured an apprenticeship for him.

Then tragedy struck. The ship ran into a storm and was wrecked with the loss of everyone on board, including Mrs Smith’s boy.

This was not the end of her troubles however; Mr West (or rather Powell & Co.) still demanded the balance of the premium, and had signaled their intention to sue Mrs Smith for it. Thus, she had come to the Guildhall to ask for advice.

Alderman Hale sent for Mr West who explained that the issue was between Mrs Smith and Mr Powell, he was simply an intermediary in all of this. He had brokered the deal, so Powell owed him the money, and Mrs Smith owed Powell. He wasn’t budging despite agreeing with the alderman declaring that it was ‘ a most harsh and cruel proceeding’.

Mrs Smith said she was prepared to pay the £10 she owed but not the costs that had subsequently been incurred by the issuing of a writ. She was in danger of losing her furniture and other possession as the debt mounted and the bailiffs circled. She needed this to end here before her debts spiraled.  The magistrate thought this fair and said she had suffered enough, it was, he added, a ‘very hard and cruel case’. This probably forced West to accept the woman’s offer and the money was paid there and then.

This case was harsh and cruel and quite Dickensian. I can quite imagine the great story teller sitting in court and creating a pen portrait of the avaricious Mr West and pale and weeping figure of Mrs Smith.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, September 20, 1864]

The old ‘money changing’ scam on the Docks

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For many people arriving in London in the 1880s the capital was a stopover en route to somewhere else; for many European Jews that ‘somewhere else’ was the golden medina, the United States of America. This had been the case for thousands of Irish migrants in the 1840s, fleeing famine and poverty after potato blight devastated their lives. Very many settled in London, Liverpool and Birmingham but plenty had the ambition to make a fresh start outside of the British Empire, an empire that had palpably failed to support them when they needed it.

London’s docks must have heaved with people looking for a passage across the Atlantic in the 1800s and a similar scene would have played out at Liverpool. Men like Messers, Koosch and Schack, two German travellers, asked around to find a berth on a steamer bound for Ellis Island. These two had struck lucky and secured a place on the Etna which had been built and launched in Greenock in August 1854.

However their luck was soon to run out when they were taken in by a fairly straightforward conman. John Louis befriend the pair and explained that he was a provisons dealer and was also travelling on the Etna. They had plenty of English money but no American dollars. That was no problem, Louis assured them, he was in an ideal position to change the money for them so they’d welcomed on to US soil with open arms.

Delighted, the two friends handed over all their money (about £10)  and arranged to meet Louis the following day. Of course he never showed up and they soon realised they’d been scammed and  robbed.

With the help of the local police Koosch and Schack traced Louis and he was arrested and brought before the Lord Mayor at Mansion House Police court. He was represented by a solicitor and he promised to return every penny that his client had taken. This must have been a relief for the two Germans whose chances of making a new life in America would have been devastated before they’d even arrived had they been force to travel with nothing.

But for the Lord Mayor this wasn’t enough; he needed to demonstrate to the public that anyone behaving in such a ‘villainous and disgraceful way’ could expect no mercy in his court. He sent Louis to prison for four months with hard labour.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, September 18, 1883]