‘Tis good enough for such as thee’: one landlord’s resistance to a billeting order

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The Royal London Militia dept, Finsbury, 1857

Thomas Cole ran a pub on Shoreditch High Street called the Star and Garter. No doubt it was a fairly rough and ready establishment, popular with the locals but nothing special. Cole’s business was in selling drink (and some food) and providing paying accommodation for those that needed it. However, under the law he was also obliged – when required – to provide beds for soldiers for the militia.

This was a much resented obligation because it cost landlords money; in food and drink, laundry and candles, and of, in lost revenue as they couldnt let theses spaces to paying guests. It had caused problems in the American colonies in the preamble to the War of Independence and had been initially banned under the terms of the 1689 Bill of Rights. It was clearly still happening in 1855 however because three militia men turned up at Cole’s pub with the paperwork that said he was to put them up for a few nights.

Cole accepted the charge with bad grace and showed the trio from the Royal London militia upstairs to a ‘miserable room’ which he’d prepared for them. It wasn’t exactly 4 star accommodation, as two of them later explained at the Worship Street Police court.

Nothing could exceed the discomfort of the apartment, which was destitute of a chair, stool, table, washing stand, or a single peg to hang their clothes on‘.

At least there was a bed, just one however, but the mattress itself was rotten and

torn down the middle, and the framework so dilapidated that it would inevitably have broken down under their weight‘.

The men companied, but to no effect as Cole said the room was ‘good enough for such as they’, and so they returned to their headquarters to inform their officers who billeted them elsewhere.

That was on the 10 July and a few days later Captain Connor and Sergeant Brooks visited The Star and Garter to see the situation for themselves. They also received a rough welcome from the landlord who seemed determined that all soldiers were ‘a set of thieves and rogues’ , regardless of regiment or rank. Cole was very reluctant to let them inspect the room but eventually they did, finding it just as their men had described it.

Cole tried to say that the trio had exaggerated so that they could extort one from him to buy their silence but the sitting magistrate, Mr D’Eyncourt, didn’t buy his half hearted excuse. He said he understood he was unhappy at having to provide accommodation for the militia but the law was the law and he was obliged to. He fined him 40s and warned him about his future conduct.

Cole was adamant he wouldn’t  pay a penny and was prepared to go to gaol for it. Mr D’Eyncourt didn’t offer him that alternative though, telling him that unless the money was paid by the following day a distress warrant would be issued for the debt. In other words, pay up or the bailiffs would turn up and starting taking his possessions away.

The 1850s were a time of international tension for the British Empire with war in the Crimea and, two years later, the Indian revolution (or ‘Mutiny’) in 1857. Soldiers, and the militia, were very much a part fo the fabric of Victorian life but clearly not welcomed by everyone.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Saturday, July 21, 1855]

A terrible discovery in Bunhill Row reveals a domestic tragedy.

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Elizabeth Collinson was employed as a servant in the household of Mr Morris, a cabinetmaker in Curtain Road, Shoreditch. When his wife discovered that her unmarried serving girl was pregnant she ‘turned her out of doors’ so she wouldn’t bring disgrace on the family.

It was a heartless thing to do but typical of the way that ‘bastard bearers’ were treated in the nineteenth century. Very many unmarried servants fell pregnant as a result of relationships with other servants, sometime consensual, often not, and it was invariably the woman that was held responsible. A servant with a child, especially a baby, who no longer an asset but a liability; her work would be restricted and there was another mouth to feed. So Mrs Morris’ decision – callous as it was – is also understandable. However, in this case she may have had another reason for expelling Elizabeth and her unborn child.

Elizabeth left the house and took a box with her. Several weeks later the box was discovered in a house in Bunhill Row belonging to a surgeon. Inside was the body of a baby, ‘partly eaten by rats’. The girl was eventually arrested and in April 1839 she appeared before the magistrates at Worship Street charged with ‘making away with her illegitimate child’.

In court Elizabeth stood her ground. She told the justices that the cabinetmaker Morris was the father of her child and that he had ‘given her something to procure a premature birth’. She was suggesting that Morris had told her to get an abortion and supplied her with the abortifacient. That was illegal but it was hard to prove and Mrs Morris was quick to dismiss the girl’s testimony as lies, she said she didn’t believe her at all.

I wonder however if there was some truth in what Elizabeth had said. Mr Morris wouldn’t be the first employer to have an affair with a younger woman working in his house. Moreover, he held all the cards and could have easily told Elizabeth she would be dismissed if she didn’t do as he said. As for Mrs Morris, we might imagine why she’d want the girl gone and, while being angry and upset at what her husband had done, may also have been desperate to save her marriage in a society where divorce was all but impossible for a woman of her class.

The magistrates turned their ire on her however, reprimanding her for her ‘inhumanity in turning the poor girl into the streets under such circumstances’. The court then heard medical evidence concerning the state of the child when discovered. It was impossible to tell, the witness stated, whether the baby had been born dead or had been killed shortly afterwards. That mattered as if the latter could be proved then Elizabeth would face a trial for infanticide. Since it could not the justices committed her to be tried for concealing the birth of her child, which carried a maximum sentence of two years’ imprisonment.

Only three trials of women accused of concealing a birth are recorded in the Old Bailey Proceedings after April 1839 and Elizabeth is not one of them. Perhaps the prosecution was dropped or insufficient evidence secured to bring it to court. Maybe Morris recognised that for this story to be heard again in open court might expose him to criticism, humiliation or worse, a charge of aiding an abortion. Given all of this it seems it was in no one’s interest to drag Elizabeth through the courts and into a prison, her life was already ruined by the disgrace and the best she might hope for was that someone else would give her a position and that she might leave this tragedy behind her.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, April 22, 1839]

The shoeblack who only wanted a chance to ‘go straight’.

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The Victorians believed that criminality was endemic in the working classes and that some offenders were beyond help. This informed a debate about the existence of a ‘criminal class’, reviewed and given impetus by the writings of Henry Mayhew at mid century. Just as there were those that ‘would not work’ there were those that lived by theft and violence. This depiction of crime had important consequences for those caught up in the justice system because by the 1870s the authorities had pretty much abandoned all attempts at rehabilitating prisoners and instead imposed ever more strict forms of discipline and penalties for breaking the rules.

The harsh nature of the penal system didn’t end when you left gaol. Under the terms of the Prevention of Crimes Act (1871) any prisoner released early on a ticket-of-leave could be arrested and presented before a magistrate on the mere suspicion (by the police) that they had done something wrong. Moreover, registers of habitual offenders were now kept which recorded previously untold details of thousands of individuals convicted of all manner of offenders by the Victorian state. Now then, a criminal record could dog your footsteps forever.

Not surprisingly this made it very hard for former convicts, like Thomas Briggs, to go straight. By March 1875 Briggs already had a  prison record. He’d served at least one term of penal servitude and had been up before the local Police magistracy on a number of occasions.

On Saturday 20 March 1875 he was there again, this time in Mr Hannay’s court at Worship Street in Shoreditch.

Briggs was an unlicensed shoeblack who  plied his trade on the streets. The 35 year-old was well known to the local police and it seems they were in no mind to let him live out an easy life. PC 250N was patrolling his beat near Shoreditch church at seven in the evening when he saw Briggs standing by his box looking for trade. According to the policeman the ‘black and his box were blocking the passage and he asked him to move along.

The real problem here was that Thomas didn’t have a license to clean shoes in the street and this was because the police refused to give him one. Every time they saw him on the street they move him on or confiscated his box, taking away his livelihood. Thomas then had to collect this from the police station , reinforcing his relationship with the law and reminding everyone of his criminal history. According to Briggs this happened ‘four or five times a week’.

On this occasion Thomas lost control of the situation and refused to move. When the PC insisted the shoeblack climbed the nearest lamp post and yelled abuse down at the copper below. He accused the local police of persecuting him; they knew he’d only bene out of prison for a few weeks and ‘pitched on’ him at every opportunity making it impossible for him ‘to earn an honest living’.

In court the constable told the magistrate that Briggs was ‘obstinate’, obstructive and abusive. He ‘collected a crowd about him, told the people his history to enlist their sympathies, and then said they should see him righted’.

Not surprisingly Mr Hannay took the police’s side in this. Briggs would have to confine himself to cleaning shoes only in places where the police allowed him to (presumably licensed ‘backs had more liberty of choice?). The magistrate told him he would be dismissed without further charge today but warned him that future transgressions would fall heavily upon him. He advised the policeman to bring him in as often as was necessary for the former convict to learn that rules were there to be obeyed.

Naturally we can’t know whether Thomas Briggs was an honest man caught up in an impossible system. He may have been a petty criminal who preferred an ‘easy’ way of life. However, his extreme reaction to being moved on again suggests that he might have had some mental health issues which would hardly have been identified as such in the 1870s as they would be today.

Nor would he have had any support on leaving prison; no probation officer or social services, or any form of state benefit. Recidivism remains a serious problem today when there are many more options open to those caught up in the criminal justice system – if Thomas Briggs managed to ‘go straight’ and stay out of gaol for the rest of his life then he would have been a quite remarkable individual.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, March 21, 1875]

The Beadle and the ‘burdensome’ bride

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In 1834 parliament passed the infamous Poor Law Amendment Act. Historians have debated the causes and impact of this piece of legislation for decades but few would argue that it was either popular or beneficial to the poor. It established the principle that anyone seeking relief from poverty should enter the workhouse, thereby deterring all but the most desperate from applying.

Its intention was therefore partly to deter idleness and encourage thrift but also to protect the pockets of the middle class ratepayers who paid for poor relief.

The act is a long document; running to 110 clauses it would bear comparison with a modern EU directive for its complexity and attention to detail. Amongst its stipulations is this one, number 57 which reads:

And be it further enacted, That every Man who from and after the passing of this Act shall marry a Woman having a Child or Children at the Time of such Marriage, whether such Child or Children be legitimate or illegitimate, shall be liable to maintain such Child or Children as a Part of his Family, and shall be chargeable with all Relief, or the Cost Price thereof, granted to or on account of such Child or Children until such Child or Children shall respectively attain the Age of Sixteen, or until the Death of the Mother of such Child or Children ; and such Child or Children shall, for the Purposes of this Act, be deemed a Part of such Husband’s Family accordingly.

This might seem fairly uncontroversial; a man was to take on the responsibilities of looking after the children of the woman he’d married if she’d had them before he married her.

What is interesting is that is seems that poor law unions were practising a form of cost-cutting in the years before and after the new Poor Law that involved persuading local men to marry mothers whose children had fallen chargeable to the parish. Moreover, this ‘persuasion’ involved a cash incentive it seems, as this case from the Guildhall Police Court in the City shows.

An unnamed ‘young man’ came to the court to ask Sir Chapman Marshall’s advice. He explained to the alderman magistrate that he had been asked by the beadle of St Bartholomew the Great to marry a young woman who had become ‘burdensome’ to the parish.

He alleged that the parish official had promised him £5 if he married the girl and said that as soon as he produced the certificate proving the union he would get his money, a sort of parochial dowry so to speak. The beadle visited the newlyweds and pressed a paper bill into the bride’s hand, insisting that she didn’t look at it until he had left. When the note was examined the couple were disappointed to discover that it was for £2 10s, just half the amount that had been promised.

As a result the unhappy groom had approached the magistracy seeking a summons to bring the beadle to book for his dishonesty and breach of contract. The paper made a point of saying that the ‘amendments of the poor laws have not removed the incitements to bring about pauper marriages’, and clearly disapproved of the practice.

Sir Chapman presumed that the young man was the father of the child anyway, but this was refused. No, the infant’s father was dead he was told, and it ‘belonged’ (all paupers belonged in the 1800s) not to St Bart’s but to Shoreditch, which lay outside of the City. The man was obliged, as the terms of the act above set out, to support the child regardless of whether he had fathered it, and he wanted the rest of his money.

There was nothing the magistrate could do for him however, as this didn’t fall under his jurisdiction as a magistrate. He recommend instead that the man took his case before the Court of Requests, which dealt with disputes over small debts. The beadle was liable, the magistrate declared, as he’d entered into a contract and hadn’t fulfilled it. The husband thanked him and said he would certainly take his advice.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, March 02, 1836]

“Go on, little one; pay him out”: mindless violence on the City Road claims another life.

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The City Road in London, c.1885, complete with trams

Last night my wife and I drove down the City Road in London on our way to a very glamorous party in Stoke Newington. Both of us were dressed up as passengers on the ill-fated RMS Titanic which struck an iceberg on its maiden voyage in 1912. As we crawled in traffic along the City Road through Shoreditch the pavements were thronged with bright young things intent of having a good time. Pubs and clubs were heaving and everywhere the sound of partying crowds was audible above the cars, buses and motorcycle noise.

Today that area of London might still look a little shabby but it is far from being the dangerous and impoverished district it was in the late 1800s.  North East London in the 1880s was not as bad as Whitechapel and Spitalfields, or indeed the Borough and Lambeth, but it was rife with crime, gangs, and casual violence as this case from 1883 shows.

On the 20th January 1883 a fight broke out on the City Road when three young men confronted an older man, a 27 year old painter named William Johnston and his brother,  George.

The alteration seems to have taken place in a pub called the Duke of Bridgewater where the pair had gone to play skittles (although it may have been seeded earlier in the evening at The Dock public house). A teenage lad named Edward Jackson had approached George Johnston and asked him for a penny to set up the skittles, as was customary. When George refused to pay him a scuffle ensued. George got punched in the mouth and told the lad: “If you were big enough I would give you a good hiding”. The brothers then left.

Two other lads, Daniel Daniels (19) and Charles Wilsdon (18) joined Jackson (who was just 16) in following the Johnstons out of the pub. Jackson taunted George, declaring to his mates that he had punched jim in the mouth and would happily do so again. George was enraged, turned and hit out at the youngster.

There are conflicting results of what happened that night but drink was certainly involved. George’s brother William was a big man and at first the lads were wary of him. A scuffle began with William and Daniels squaring up to each other. Jackson and Wilsdon seemed to have been egging their mate on – daring him to prove himself against an such a large opponent: “Go on, little one; pay him, little one” they shouted. Daniels allegedly said to William Johnston:

“Do you think I am going to fight a man of 25. and I am only 18? I will put a knife through you”.

Despite this threat the episode was unfolding as a so-called ‘fair fight’ until Daniels and Jackson decided to get involved. They rushed in and topped the big man over, throwing him into the street and onto the tram lines, fracturing his skull.

As the lads tried to melt away the police were called and they were picked up. On the following day, worried about his condition, George took his brother to the Royal Free Hospital where he was examined by Dr Mihanda Barrigea, the house surgeon at 8 in the evening. We now know that head injuries need to be treat quickly and sadly for William it was too late. He died on the Monday morning as a result of the injuries he’d received in the street brawl. The three young men were formally committed to trial at the Old Bailey by the sitting justice at Clerkenwell Police Court. There was insufficient evidence for the jury to convict them of manslaughter however, so they all walked free from court at the end of the month.

This is my last visit to 1883 for a while. I have tried to follow one week in the past and the stories of a couple of individuals in particular. One of these was Henry Harcourt who claimed to a distant relative of the Home Secretary, Sir William Harcourt. In early February the papers were full of reaction to the assassination in Dublin of the newly appointed Chief Secretary to Ireland and a top ranking civil servant. Following the stabbings of Lord Cavendish and Thomas Henry Burke the press reported that extra security had been given to prominent public figures, like Harcourt, to protect them from the ‘Assassination Society’. According to one report Sir William had a detective ‘sleeping in his house’ at all times.

On Wednesday 7 February Henry Harcourt made his final appliance at the Lambeth Police Court before Mr Chance. This time his aunt turned up to give evidence. She confirmed they had worked together as bar staff but had no recollection of Henry being either deaf or dumb at that time. As for Henry’s claim that he had been left £600 in a will only to have his ‘name scratched out’ by others, that was entirely false she said. The will was produced and the magistrate could see that it was entirely in order but made no mention of Henry anywhere.

Henry seems to have been a troubled soul and the court was told of information from Salford that suggested he fitted the description of man named Downey who had until recently made his living by telling people’s fortunes. He disappeared at the same time Henry showed up at the Lambeth casual ward seeking shelter. Harcourt denied any knowledge of this.

Mr Chance asked Harcourt’s aunt whether she would be prepared to help her nephew get back to sea. That seemed the best course of action for him so she agreed as did Henry. On that basis Mr Chance was prepared to release him without further charge or penalty.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, February 4, 1883; The Sheffield & Rotherham Independent , Monday, February 05, 1883; Daily News , Thursday, February 8, 1883]

Dancing ghosts and conjuring tricks in Old Street

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You might be surprised to know that in 1875 there were newspapers on a Sunday. The Police Courts were closed on Christmas Day so this report must have been from Friday’s business however. It is one in which definitions of the law, and of what constitutes ‘music’ were the at centre of proceedings, but it also involved dancing ghosts and a conjuring trick.

William Wallser ran a traveling fairground show and in December 1875 he set up a tent between two houses in Old Street, in the parish of Shoreditch, and ‘parked’ his caravan next to it. Each night he performed magic tricks and ‘a “ghost illusion” similar to that of the Polytechnic the Worship Police Court was told. This was the use of glass and mirrors pioneered by John Henry Pepper at the Royal Polytechnic Institution in London which became known as ‘Pepper’s Ghost’.

Wallser’s must have been a cheap version of Pepper’s trick and he only charged a penny to get in. As a result it was probably a pretty rough and ready form of entertainment with a lot of noise and boisterous behaviour from the (probably) tipsy paying customers and their children.

It was certainly noisy and disorderly enough to cause a number of people to complain to the parish authorities. The vestry clerk of St Leonard’s brought a complaint that the showman was operating  ‘disorderly house’ and Wallser was informed that, if convicted at the Sessions, he faced a possible fine of up to £100, a huge amount in 1874 and an awful lot of penny entrance fees.

Wallser was well-off enough to be defended in court and his lawyer claimed that the act was concerned with places of public entrainment that allowed music and dancing. It had recently been decided, he explained to Mr Hannay (the magistrate) ‘that a booth used by strolling players for the performance of stage plays was not a house within the meaning of the Act, and did not require a license’.

The vestry clerk was adamant that music was being being played as Wallser had both an organ and a triangle and he had heard reports that dancing had taken place. Mr Abbott (defending) said it was the ‘ghosts’ that were dancing and the people that played them were not ‘seen’. In other words they were part of the theatrical performance, dancing and music wasn’t the purpose of the entertainment.

Mr Hannay said an organ and a triangle ‘meant music’. Mr Abbott disagreed but he didn’t win the argument. The magistrate  committed the showman to appear at the next Sessions at Middlesex but released him on his own recognisances. I wonder if he managed to magic himself out that one.

This is not the first time Pepper’s Ghost has made an appearance on this blog, if you want to know more then follow this link ‘Pepper’s Ghost’ and the disgruntled scene painter 

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, December 26, 1875]

‘You are all talk, and there is no work in you’: a magistrate sends a ‘Union man’ to prison for Christmas

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Striking dockers in the East India Dock Road, 1889

1889 was a big year for British Trades Unionism. It was the year that Ben Tillett (with support from John Burns and other prominent socialists) led the London dockworkers to victory in their dispute with the dock companies. The demands of the workers seem almost trivial today; they wanted a guarantee of at least four hours work at sixpence (a ‘tanner’) an hour.

East Londoners supported them, as did the Catholic bishop of London, the Labour Church and the Salvation Army. Funds were raised to feed striking families and rent strikes broke out as the workers resisted all attempts to force them back to work. Afterwards John Burns reflected that then Labour movement had learned a lesson that was perhaps more important than the achievement of the specific aims of the strike. He declared:

‘labour of the humbler kind has shown its capacity to organise itself; its solidarity; its ability. The labourer has learned that combination can lead him to anything and everything’.

If only.

The strike sent ripples thorough society and, like the Match Girls’ strike the year before, unnerved the authorities. Labour was flexing its muscles and where possible those in power needed to put this particular genii firmly back in its box. During the Dock Strike the police had been deployed to break up picket lines, and arrest those intimidating non-union workers. Some of the battle lines that we saw repeated in the twentieth century had their birth in the 1880s. I well recall how Margaret Thatcher’s government used the police to in the front line against the miners in the 1980s for example.

When Charles Stephens, a union man, appeared at Worship Street Police Court in December 1889 he must have feared the worst. A complaint against Stephens was brought by an unnamed ‘sandwich man’ – someone employed by an advertising agent to wear a sandwich board and walk up and down in the street.

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The sandwich man was standing by Shoreditch church when Stephens approached him. He asked him if he was a union man and the other replied that he wasn’t.

‘If you don’t belong to a Union, I ain’t going to let you carry them boards about’, Stephens told him, and then seized him and wrestled with him until the straps of the boards broke and were thrown down to the street.

Stephens was arrested and charged at Worship Street with disorderly conduct and assault. Mr Montagu Williams, the sitting magistrate, asked the prosecutor what the man had meant by ‘Union man’.

The sandwich professed not to know so Stephens interjected from the dock:

“I asked him if he belonged to the Labourer’s Union’.

‘Union for what?’ demanded Mr Williams

‘To prevent a man working unless he belongs to it’ came Stephens’ defiant reply.

‘That is a very disgraceful union then’, snapped the magistrate.

At this Stephens pullet a small booklet from his pocket and handed it to the policeman by the dock. It was entitled ‘The Dock, Wharf, and General Labourers Union of Great Britain and Ireland’. It was stamped to show that Stephens was a fully paid up member and declared that Ben Tillett was it secretary. It was the union Tillett had formed in 1887 as the Tea Operatives and General Labourers’ Association which, from small beginnings, had swelled to over 30,000 members by the end of 1889.

Stephens was part of a growing movement of organised labour and his confidence and bravado in the dock are perhaps indicative of how union members felt in the wake of their victory that year. Montagu Williams was neither impressed nor intimidated however, and was seemingly resolved to reassert the authority of the ruling class in the face of such an upstart.

‘You are one of those men that get up these Unions and strikes’, he told him. ‘You are all talk, and there is no work in you. Well I will teach you, and others like you that you shall not interfere with men who choose to work, you will go to prison for 21 days’.

Stephens was led away, still shouting the odds defiantly. He would spend Christmas in gaol that year.

[from The Standard, Saturday, December 21, 1889]

For more posts related to late 19th century Trade Unionism and its contexts see:

Striking workers in West Ham are thwarted with the help of the bench

Assault on the docks

Exploiting workers in the late 19th century ‘rag trade’.