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]

‘I think you are a fool, nothing more’; playground insults in Hyde Park

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The reports of the Victorian police courts reveal much about society in the 1800s. Some of this is very familiar to us and we can imagine ourselves in their world. In other instances it seems a world apart, almost ‘another country’ entirely.

Take this case, from the Marlborough Street Police Court in the early years of Queen Victoria’s reign. This suggests a society that is riven with deep concerns regarding status and reputation. The two men involved are prepared to use the law to challenge assaults not on their person, but on their public image. Personal slights and insult is treated so seriously that it requires redress before a magistrate. I’m not sure that would be the case today.

Mr Dunn and Mr Smyth were well-to-do members of London’s middle class. Richard Dunn was a barrister while Smyth was a surgeon. Both were Irish and (in Victorian popular culture at least) the Irish had a reputation for being hot headed.

The pair were not formally acquainted with each other but met often, as they walked through Hyde Park. For some unknown (or undeclared) reason they didn’t like each other and a sort of feud had been established.

On January 9 January 1846 Dunn was strolling across the park when he saw the surgeon walking towards him. As the men crossed each other’s path Smyth blew a raspberry or made some similar noise with his mouth.

It was a pathetic thing for a grown man of quite high social status to do to another. In fact it was the sort of behaviour we’d associate with the school playground. But the barrister was determined that this insult should not pass unchallenged. Instead of ignoring it he went to his local police court, at Marlborough Street, and obtained a summons against Mr Smyth to bring him in to answer a charge.

On the 13 January the pair were up before Mr Maltby and Smyth was accused of behaviour that was intended to cause a breach of the peace. Dunn’s allegation was then, that by continually making rude noises or gestures towards him the medical man was actually attempting to make his lose his temper and provoke a fight between them.

Smyth didn’t deny making the rude noise but counter-claimed that Dunn had started it by ‘thrusting his tongue out at him as he passed’. ‘I had no wish to insult the complainant’, Smyth told the magistrate; ‘I only meant to say to him, by what I did, I think you are a fool, nothing more’.

‘Such conduct does appear likely to cause a breach of the peace’, the magistrate declared and fined Smyth 40s. This enraged the surgeon who refused to pay. He then threatened to sue Mr Maltby ‘for daring to fine him’ but he calmed down  and paid up when the justice had him locked up in the cells for a while. We might imagine the frustration of the sitting justice, to have his time wasted by such a pair of self-important middle-class men.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, January 14, 1846]