Contrasting fortunes at the London Police Courts


The ‘New police’ taking ‘charges’ to the Marlborough Street Police Court (c.1830)

I have two stories for you this morning, reflecting the contrasting events that brought people to appear at London’s Police Courts in the nineteenth century. For me they also highlight the different ways the capital impacted the lives of the many thousands of people that lived there; it was a hard and unforgiving place in the 1800s and Londoners had to survive as best they could.

James Grey was not surviving very well at all. He had traveled down from Glasgow to look for work, with his wife and two children in tow. They had been brought in to court because they had been found ‘looking [but] not asking for alms’ and a parish officer had taken pity on them and accompanied them to the nearest police court.

Grey and his family were economic migrants: he came  ‘for the purpose of bettering his condition’ he told the sitting magistrate (the Lord Mayor) at Mansion House. Sadly, it hadn’t worked out that way. Grey brought money to support them for ‘five or six weeks’ but that was soon gone and the weather made it hard for him to find any work. Now they had no money and nowhere to live.

The Lord Mayor asked him: ‘Why, what a fool were you to leave a certainty for an uncertainty. Why did not ask some of your countrymen about London before you left?’

The Scotsman replied that he had, and everyone that spoke for leaving said there was money to made there whilst those that ‘spoke against it never returned home’. This provoked laughter in the courtroom. James must have felt ashamed as well as desperate. When prompted by the Lord Mayor Grey asked him for help in getting them all home to Scotland where he was sure he would find work again.

The Lord Mayor extracted a promise that he would never again  come to London to  seek his fortune and directed him to a charitable organization that then provided the funds for the long trip north.

The next (and contrasting) case concerned two members of the so-called ‘swell mob’ – the ‘well-dressed thieves’ that lived (as best they could) from the profits of crime. Henry Vincent and Richard Jones  appeared at Marlborough Street Police Court charged with picking pockets. A former Bow Street Runner named Reardon had seen the pair while he worked as police constable during the King’s levee on St James. They were working their way through the crowd, dipping into the pockets and removing wallets and coins.

When Reardon apprehended them he found over £8 in cash between them, quite some haul! Where Grey and his family brought themselves low by refusing even to beg in the streets these two had determined to live well by their cunning and dexterity, knowing that London would always provide them with rich pickings.

The magistrate sent them to the house of correction for two months.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, July 23, 1830]