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

e71484cd1f61d2d64a523479de545fe5

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?

The butler did it, but which butler?

dc02123ed282af97def1f8403ba50d8b

There must always have been some semblance of doubt when households employed a new member of the domestic staff, especially one as critical for the running of the house as a butler. The butler was the most senior male servant in the Victorian period and would be responsible for the conduct of all of those below him. It was imperative, therefore, that the butler had the confidence of his master and mistress and was above suspicion in terms of his honesty.

For whatever reason William Clarke no longer enjoyed his employer’s confidence or affection yet there was no suggestion that he was anything other than completely honest. The reality was though, that in late April 1881 he found himself surplus to requirements and as he worked out his notice he had the task of showing the new butler around his home.

Charles Reeve had, by his own admission, been out of position for a period of several moths. Presumably however, he came with a set of verifiable references because his master lived at a prestigious address, 35 Hans Place, Sloane Street, Chelsea and was a commander in the Royal Navy.

On the day Reeve joined the household (and Clarke showed him his duties) a tradesman called to deliver an envelope containing a £5 note and two sovereigns. This was the balanced (the ‘change’) from an invoice Captain (Commander*) Francis Lowther had paid by cheque. Clarke placed the envelope, unopened, on a marble slab in the hallway and thought no more of it. He left in the evening leaving the new man in charge.

Sadly though Reeve, perhaps thinking his new employers would be late back and not needing him, chose to celebrate his new position with a few glasses of alcohol. When the commander and his wife returned not only had the envelope mysteriously disappeared, the new butler was also dead drunk.

At first it was thought that Clarke must have run off with the missing money but then the finger was pointed at Reeve, since he had protested his lack of money when he arrived. How had he suddenly been able to afford to drink himself into an inebriated state?

In court at Westminster Reeve’s lawyer posted his client’s innocence. He’d come by his own money honestly and would hardly have jeopardised his position on the very first day. He had previously served the Duke of Argyll and another ‘noble lord’ and his credentials as an honest man were unquestionable.

Captain Lowther said he had no real suspicions over any of his established staff, believing them all to be honest. Mr D’Eyncourt, the sitting magistrate, had nothing which justified indicting Reeve as a thief however, so he simply required him to enter into his own recognizances in case he was obliged to return to court in the future should more evidence arise. Did he remain in position at Hans Place? That would seem awkward for all concerned since if he hadn’t stolen the money, who had?

[from The Morning Post , Monday, May 02, 1881]

*as a Commander in the Royal Navy Lowther was either shore bound waiting for a commission (either as a captain of a smaller vessel, or second in command on a larger one) or was part of the Admiralty staff in the capital. He may also have been retired from the Navy and living on his pension. If there is another alternative explanation I’m sure someone will tell me!

The magistrate and the ‘omnibus trick’

omnibus_00001_shillibeers_first_omnibus

The London Police Courts did not sit on Christmas Day but the Boxing Day papers were still published for Victorian fathers and grandfathers to read over their breakfast of devilled kidneys and smoked haddock and eggs. And so the editors included stories from Christmas Eve, to keep their readership amused, entertained and informed about the ‘doings’ of the courts and the thieves, brutes  and loafers that were the staple of most crime news in the mid-1800s.

On Boxing Day 1853 the breakfaster would have opened his paper to read about ‘the Omnibus Trick’.

A Mr Ayres and a Mr Douglas appeared at the Hammersmith Police Court to protect their business and their reputation. The pair were joint proprietors of the Hammersmith Omnibus Association which ran red buses on a variety of routes across the capital. They had turned up because they had heard that the magistrate at Hammersmith had recently complained about the tactics deployed by some of its operators to entice the public to travel with them.

The magistrate, Mr Paynter, had been at Hammersmith, close to the turnpike gate, when a bus passed with a sign attached to the rear which read:

“4d to the Bank”

Underneath this in very small letters was also inscribed:

“from Sloane Street”

His Worship thought that this was rather misleading advertising as it ‘convened the idea that the fare was only 4d from Kensington to the Bank’ whereas that fare only applied when the vehicle reached Sloane Street ‘which was some way off’. In his eyes it was a ‘trick’ to lure unwary passengers on board. And it seems to be working he added, as several of his fellow passengers that day were surprised when the conductor asked them for more than the minimal 4d to travel to the heart of the City.

The owners of the Hammersmith Omnibus Association were equally scandalised by the practice which, they assured Mr Paynter,  was not of their doing. The ‘trick’ was, they insisted, being perpetrated by a rival company (which also used red omnibuses) and was clearly designed to ‘injure the reputation of their association’. Both partners had attended on Christmas Eve specifically to protect their reputation and deny any shenanigans on their part.

When his worship told them that he had seen two buses carrying the same message (the second with the ‘from Sloane street’ script album obscured) Mr Douglas quickly explained that two rival buses did indeed travel one after the other along that stretch of the route so he was sure they were to blame.

The justice seemed somewhat treasured but still unhappy. He told the men that the conductor on the bus he had taken was ‘very impertinent’ and had he not been a magistrate he might well have summoned him to court. He had taken the numbers of the two buses and he handed these over so that Ayres and Douglas could make sure they were not vehicles owed by their company. The men promised to look into the matter  and then thanked the magistrate for his time and left.

I’m a little surprised that the magistrate was using public transport but I suspect it reveals that the relative inexpensiveness and convenience of the omnibus service was something that appealed to Londoners of all classes. The first horse drawn service) in fact running to the Bank from Paddington) had opened in London in 1829 (a few years after a similar scheme started in Paris) but rival firms ran individual ‘buses for many years before larger conglomerates started to appear.

The first of these was the London General Omnibus Company which started business in 1855 (a couple of years after this case came to court). Within a year of opening the LGOC was running 600 of the capital’s 810 omnibuses; this was the real beginning of a London-wide public transport system.

For me this story has echoes of the modern day dispute between private transport operators. The traditional London tax (the ‘black cab’ ) is being squeezed by private hire companies, mostly notably Uber, who seek to operate at lower fares but with less regard for the ‘service’ they provide or the people they employ. While ‘cabbies’ are still required to learn ‘the knowledge’ Uber drivers rely on satnavs and are accused of taking circuitous routes and ramping up fares for passengers. There are other accusations aimed at them and (as this interesting article suggests) plenty of other reasons why a ‘black cab’ is better than an Uber. But you can make up your own minds, just as justice Paynter did in 1853.

[from The Standard , Monday, December 26, 1853]

An overcharging bus conductor ends up inside

John Rogers was a conductor on the Blackwall omnibus whose vehicle served the route to the Great Exhibition of 1851. He found himself in court in October of that year accused of overcharging a customer and of using foul and abusive language.

Mrs Margaret Clifton was waiting at Sloane Street with a group of other passengers to catch a bus towards Bank. She claimed to have heard him shout ‘fourpence for the bank’ and so she got onboard and asked for Southampton Street. When she reached her destination  she got off and handed him 4d, as required.

Rogers however, refused her money and demanded sixpence instead. When she in turn refused to pay the extra he called her names (the report merely stating he called her ‘a _____ and _____ cat’) * which drew a crowd of concerned people around them.

Rogers then severely overstepped the mark by asking her ‘what she would have thought, on taking him to a room, he offered her only a tanner – would she not demand a shilling?’ It was an outrageous thing to say because Rogers was implying she was a prostitute, or was at least willing to act as one.

The crowd was suitably disgusted as was a local shopkeeper who, a police witness stated, was unable to appear in court but was happy to testify at a later date.

Rogers was reprimanded by the magistrate despite at least one (working class) witness appearing to support the conductor’s defence that he had said no such thing. The Bow Street justice sentenced Rogers to a month’s imprisonment and suspended his license for a further two months harsh indeed.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, October 9, 1851]

  • make up your own mind what he might have said