‘If you attempt to go to work today, I will tear you to pieces’. Dark threats of eviction at the Arsenal

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This is a case of conflicting versions of ‘the truth’, which has probably been lost somewhere in between.

On 25 November 1888 four people appeared at Woolwich Police court in South East London. John and Ellen Moore had been summoned for threats that they were alleged to have made towards George and Charlotte Tuffnell, from whom they rented an upstairs room in their house.

George Tuffnell explained that he and his wife lived at 2 Stanley Villas in Bullfields, Woolwich and that he worked at the Royal Arsenal. As he was leaving for work at 9 o’clock on Saturday morning John Moore confronted him.

‘If you attempt to go to work today’, he warned him, ‘I will tear you to pieces’.

Mr Marsham, the incumbent magistrate, wanted to know why on earth Moore would say such a thing, what had Tuffnell done – if anything – to provoke that reaction?

‘Well, you shall judge for yourself sir’, Tuffnell continued, ‘when I tell you what happened on the previous night’.

He went on to describe how he and his wife had returned home at 11.30 on the Friday night with the determination to evict their lodgers. We don’t know why, they didn’t say, but very few if any protections were in place for tenants in the 1880s and so while the Moores might have been behind with their rent, their landlords might simply have taken against them for no good reason.

Either way, Tuffnell loudly turned to Charlotte and declared, ‘Are the lodgers in?’, adding, ‘I mean to have them out’.

At this the Moores, who’d overheard (as I’m sure they were meant’) came rushing downstairs ‘like a couple of tigers in their nightshirts’. This dramatic description brought laughter from the court but covered the fact that a family was about to be turned out in the cold just a month before Christmas.

Tuffnell presented the altercation as one that threatened his wife and family: ‘Our three children were in a bedroom upstairs’, he said, ‘frightened out of their wits’, and he and his wife couldn’t get to them.

One wonders why they had gone out and left them in the first place if they cared so much.

John Moore presented an alternative version of the situation. He said he and his wife were ‘decent people, while the Tuffnell family were given to strife and mischief’. On Friday night he and Ellen were asleep in bed when they were rudely awakened by someone banging on their door.  Tuffnell was ‘raving and roaring like a caged animal’ and ‘battering the staircase with a hammer to emphasise his threats and imprecations’.

He and Ellen got up and opened the door and asked him to keep quite until morning when they would answer his requests for them to leave. At this Tuffnell said:

‘What did you say [to me]?’

‘I said, “Go in, Looney!”’ Moore admitted (and once more Mr Masham’s courtroom collapsed into laughter).

The magistrate turned to Moore and demanded to know if he nad his wife had vacated their rooms. ‘Not yet’, Moore told him. ‘We are going next week’. In that case, the justice replied, ‘I will adjourn the case until Thursday, and if you have left the house you need not appear again’.

Regardless of the truth of that’s night’s events it seems evident that the couples did not get on and so it was probably best that they went their separate ways.

[from The Standard, Monday, November 26, 1888]

Tenants 1 rent collectors 0: Justice is done at Southwark

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Many of those that appeared in the dock at London’s many Police Magistrate courts were charged with assault. The registers at Thames Police Court are some of the very few that survive and there you will find literally hundreds of cases of assault every month. However, what you won’t discover is any context that will enable to you to understand why these cases came to court. Summary court records (unlike jury courts like Old Bailey) are sadly lacking in qualitative information. We might discover that someone went to court charged with assaulting someone else, and find out that they were fined or imprisoned, but we rarely know exactly what happened or why.

That is why the newspaper coverage of the police courts is so useful; it gives us the detail that we are lacking elsewhere and allows us to comment on the motivations of those accused of hitting, kicking or pushing their fellow Londoners, and ask whether they had (or believed they had) any justification for so doing.

Let’s take William Howard for instance. Howard was a ‘respectable mechanic’ living in rented rooms in Market Street, Borough, (just south of the river) with his wife and family. On the 19 November 1867 James Stephens called at his door. His youngest son answered the door and Howard called from indoors for the man to be let in.

Stephens worked for a man named Linfield, who was a landlord’s agent tasked with collecting the rent from a number of houses in the area. Rents were collected along with the rates (which went towards the Poor law for example).

The rent collector had come to ask Howard for 10 and 3d, which was two weeks’ rent plus 3s for the rates. William Howard handed the collector a receipt he had for 82d for money he had already paid towards the Poor Rate. He asked this amount to be deducted from his bill but Stephens refused and the pair argued.

Accounts of what append next differ but it is likely that the mechanic manhandled the rent collector out of his house and told him that before he settled any difference in what he owed he wanted to discuss it directly with his landlord first. Howard clearly felt aggrieved that the minion was demanding money he felt he didn’t owe or was possibly asking  him to pay his rates in advance.

All of this ended up in a summons for assault that was heard at the Southwark Police Court. It doesn’t seem to be an issue about not being able to pay, but more about the underlying principle of when he was supposed to pay, and how much. In this the magistrate had quite a lot of sympathy with him.

Mr Partridge (the magistrate) asked Stephens if the occupants of the houses were ‘on the rate books’. Stephens wasn’t sure. But ‘he knew that the landlord paid all the rates in a lump , thereby saving the parish some trouble in collecting the rates. The tenants were all aware of this’, he added.

The magistrate said that all tenants had a right to be rated and entered into the ledgers. Moreover, he ‘considered it very unfair of the landlords of these small tenements in raising rents for a future tax’. The relevant act, he stated, ‘specifies that the occupiers should pay the rates themselves, and if there is no other agreement deduct the same from the rent’. It seems this was what William Howard was doing and he saw nothing wrong with it. As for the assault, well he could see fault on both sides and so dismissed the charge against the mechanic who was free to go, his reputation intact.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, December 13, 1867]

Sharp practice by a Bermondsey landlord is averted by a sensible application of the law

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A brush-maker drilling holes in the backs of brushes

The Police courts weren’t there just for the prosecution of petty criminals, they could function quite well as a court of redress for ‘ordinary’ people. The magistrate’s courtroom  became a sort of  unofficial advice centre for London’s poor; quick, inexpensive, and accessible. Men like Mr Partridge at Southwark offered their opinions on a range of day-to-day problems and sometimes, in cases like this, upheld the law in favour of the ‘little man’.

Thomas Clark was a brush maker who supplied a number of businesses in the Bermondsey area. It was a family affair, his wife helping him to make and repair brushes. The couple lived in Hunter Street, off Dover Road, renting a room there. 50 years later this was a dreadfully run down and poor area, and in 1869 it was hardly a fashionable address.

The Clarks were struggling to make ends meet and had fallen behind with their rent. This was fairly common in nineteenth-century London and landlords were often quick to move in and evict tenants. Equally tenants were known to do midnight flits, packing up their belongings and moving in with relatives or friends while they found somewhere else to live. The frequency with which people abandoned homes when they were in arrears is celebrated in the popular early twentieth-century music hall song, ‘My Old Man’ (popularised by Marie Lloyd):

We had to move away,
‘Cos the rent we couldn’t pay
The moving van came round just after dark
There was me and my old man
Shoving things inside the van
Which we’d often done before let me remark
We packed all that could be packed
In the van, and that’s a fact
And we got inside all we could get inside
Then we packed all we could pack
On the tail board at the back
Till there wasn’t any room for me to ride.

Written & Composed by F. Leigh and C. Collins, performed by Marie Lloyd

One of the strategies landlords applied was to seize the goods of tenants who hadn’t paid them. This ‘distraint of goods’ was legal but only after they had served notice and given the tenants time to pay.

Thomas Clark was 11s behind with his rent and his landlady was making threats to evict them.  Thomas now decided to lock up his room and move his family elsewhere while he worked out what to do. Was is going to try and avoid paying what he owed? Or was he genuinely hoping to find a solution? It is impossible to know from such a distance but his landlady wasn’t keen to take the risk.

Since he’d left all his tools in the room Clark sent  girl to fetch some of them. But when she arrived she was met by the landlady who ‘took the key from her and bundled her out’. When Thomas visited on the following day all his possessions were gone, cleared out by Thomas Farrell, a ‘sworn broker’ called in by the landlady.

The Clarks had now lost their home and the tools they required for their livelihood. It was a disaster and so Thomas turned to the courts for help. He summoned Farrell to the Southwark Police Court and appeared their to prosecute him for illegal distraint in November 1869.

Thomas Clark complained that Farrell (and his son) had seized his goods but given no notice and left him no inventory. He calculated that they had taken £7 worth of items when he owed just 11s in rent. Mrs Clark supported her husband’s claim. She said she was there  when Farrell had arrived at the property demanding the rent arrears and told him her husband would deal with it when he got home in the evening. Farrell refused and demanded and extra 5s costs on top of the rent that was owed. When she was unable to pay the pair began to remove the brush-making tools from the room.

Farrell’s son said he had left an inventory and claimed not to know that he had to give notice of distraint of goods. Mr Partridge ignored his excuses and told the pair that they had acted illegally. He ordered that they return the goods as soon as the rent was paid, and only the 11s, nothing more. If they failed to do so they would be liable to pay the Clarks the full value (£7) of the tools less the rent, in other words a sum of £6 9s plus 21 costs.

In the end it was a compromise that applied the law fairly. Thomas Clark did owe 11s rent and the magistrate acknowledged that. But he could hardly be excepted to find the money if he couldn’t work to earn the money to pay it. The Farrells had been too eager to make a profit from the brush maker’s difficulties and now the law was holding them to account. In this way the Police Court magistrate was regulating daily life in the capital and doing it quickly before a worse situation arose.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, November 27, 1869]

Robbed by a neighbour; an everyday hazard for London’s many tenants

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This was probably a fairly typical property crime: the theft of a lodger’s property by another person living in the same house. Many Londoners lived cheek by jowl with others in the 1800s in lodging houses that had little privacy or security. Individuals would share landings or rooms and sometimes (in the poorest homes) even a bed, so these Victorians often knew their neighbours intimately.

Frederick Hart lived as a lodger in the home of Mrs Clough in Shepherds Bush. The shop assistant wore a watch a chain on special occasions and kept it safe (or so he thought) in a locked box in his bedroom. He had worn in on Sunday 16 August 1886, perhaps to church or to for some occasion on his day off, and when he got home he careful locked it away.

On the following Tuesday (the 18th) he noticed that the box had been interfered with and the lock forced open. There had been a crude attempt to refasten the box and when he opened it to his horror he found that his Albert chain* was missing.

Fred’s suspicions immediately fell on Mrs Clough’s daughter, Florence. He questioned her and she told him she knew where it was. When he pressed her she admitted taking it and pledging it at a pawnbrokers. Fred summoned a policeman to whom Florence admitted both the crime and tearing up the pawn ticket. This would make it hard for the young man to get his watch chain back but it is was not the most worst thing about her crime.

Mr Paget, the magistrate at Hammersmith, told her that ‘breaking open a box was a serious matter’. It wasn’t as if Hart had been careless and had left his valuables lying around for anyone to steal. He had gone to the trouble of locking them away but she had still violated his privacy and stolen from him.

Florence Clough was given a good character reference by her mother, who told Mr Paget that she always helped her. ‘And robbed the lodgers’ quipped the magistrate, clearly in no mood to be lenient. He sent Florence to prison (most likely to Westminster house of correction where most summarily convicted women were sent in the 1880s).

Her sentence was three months at hard labour. She was 15 years old.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, August 22, 1886]

*meaning it had a bar at one end for attaching to a buttonhole.

A sad end for an unwanted baby: clubbed to death in a Southwark toilet

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In May 1848 a young woman presented herself at the door of Sarah Potter’s house in Jane Street, Southwark asking if she might take a room. She told her she was a ‘servant out of place’, temporarily she hoped, and that her name was Ann Brightwell.

Ann seemed like a ‘decent young woman’ so the mechanic’s wife took her in. About a month later however, Sarah began to have some suspicions about her new tenant and confronted her. Mrs Potter clearly thought that there was more to Ann’s story than she had revealed at first, and she ‘charged her with being enciente‘ (or in other words, pregnant).

For a servant to get pregnant in the 1800s was common but still unacceptable in the eyes of a disproving society. Ann’s plan was to hide herself away from the shame but despite her denials, Mrs Potter had found her out. Whether this changed her plans or not it is impossible to say. Ann might have intended to have the baby in her room in Southwark and then leave it at the workhouse door or try and raise it alone.

Perhaps then this discovery precipitated a terrible chain of events, or maybe the shock of being found out brought added stress which quickened her pregnancy. Either way things soon became much worse for the young servant.

On the 2 July Mrs Potter saw Ann leaving the ‘water-closet’ carrying an umbrella, ‘in a hurried state’. When Sarah investigated she was in no doubt that a new born baby had been  disposed of inside.

The police and a surgeon were summoned and Ann arrested. In the Southwark Police Court Dr Robert Tebbett deposed that in his opinion there was no doubt the child had been born alive. Mrs Potter told the magistrate that she had heard Ann admit that she ‘had destroyed her child by casting it into the water-closet, and striking it with the end of the umbrella’.

Ann denied all of the evidence brought against her, as well she might. She was being accused of infanticide, a crime that carried a capital charge until 1938. While women continued to sentenced to death throughout the later 1800s none were executed in London but Ann could not rely on that. The magistrate committed her for trial and at that point she disappears from the records.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, July 31, 1848]

A brothel madam falls foul of the law

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In Victorian London overcrowding was common and tensions often flared between occupants of lodging houses and those that owned them. Disputes over non payment of rent were frequent and overcrowding and the demand for somewhere to sleep meant that landlords were able to kick out their tenants with relative ease. If they didn’t immediately evict those who were behind with the rent it was rarely out of any consideration for their welfare. More likely they were aware that if someone owed several weeks’ rent then evicting them was hardly likely to get the debt settled.

One option was to distrain their goods against the value of the debt. This was what happened to a young woman that lived in a house owned by Mary Lawson near the Gray’s Inn Road.

Mary’s unnamed tenant owed her the small sum of 2s 6d, or about £5 today. It wouldn’t buy you that much and helps illustrate how cheap the lodgings Mary ran were. Was this a week’s money, a month’s, we don’t know. What we do know is that the girl didn’t have the money to pay it and so Mary Lawson employed a broker named Chase (from nearby Saffron Hill) to seize her possessions.

The girl was obviously poor but she also had a child to support and so ‘was driven to wander about in great want’, until her former neighbours undertook to support her. The property she lived in at George Court,  Gray’s Inn Lane was home to many other people. Nothing remains of this property today and the space is occupied by Fox Court a modern office building which is home, a little ironically perhaps, to Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service (Social Security and Child Support).

In 1845 George Court was a brothel, and a large one. It had ‘accommodation for 46 girls’ in no less than seven houses, all of them owned by Mary Lawson. This ‘elderly woman’ was a madam on a large scale. The girl who she was in dispute with was a prostitute; we know this because when she came to the Clerkenwell Police Court to complain that Lawson had assaulted her she was described as ‘unfortunate’, Victorian code for a sex worker.

When Mary had heard how the other residents had clubbed together to help the girl she went into a rage, shouting at them and threatening to evict them all or seize their property. She couldn’t have her authority undermined in so direct a manner.

In court the magistrate, Mr Greenwood, saw an angle to challenge both Mary and her practice of extorting money with menaces. He called the broker over and told him, as one lawyer to another, ‘that no money can be due arising out of such places of immorality’. In short, Mary Lawson couldn’t charge her residents rent or distrain their goods for non payment because she was in effect living off their immoral earrings. He said he would inform the parish authorities (at St Andrew’s, Holborn) and have them put ‘down the nuisance’.

He added that it had already been allowed to be ‘carried on for too long a period, to the annoyance of the more peaceable and respectable inhabitants in the vicinity, as disturbances and robberies were the constant result of the nuisance, which had frequently been complained of’.

As for Mary Lawson, he took note of her relative wealth and how she had come by it and fined her the princely sum of 50s for the assault plus costs, and sent her on her way.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly London Newspaper, Sunday, July 20, 1845]

Negligent landlords in Bermondsey are held to account

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Bermondsey in the 1880s

In the 1880s London was the capital city of the greatest empire in the world. Yet amongst all the wealth London was witness to some of the worst living conditions in the British Empire. We often associate the ‘abyss’ of Whitechapel with that squalor and in the lodging houses around Flower and Dean Street and Dorset Street poverty was indeed rife. But if you look at Charles Booth’s poverty maps (published in the early 1890s) it is evident that South East London was as bad, if not worse.

Despite there being no council housing the authorities did have a role to play in regulating the conditions people lived in and the quality of properties that were rented out. This task fell under the responsibilities of the London Police Courts and the magistrates that sat in judgement there.

Building regulation may not have been the most exciting work of the magistracy but it was important, and by reporting it the newspapers rogue landlords were put on notice that they might be prosecuted, and tenants were emboldened to report similar problems. For the historian these reports also serve a useful purpose in revealing living conditions in the capital.

Charles Randell owned several houses in Farncombe Street, Bermondsey, and in May 1885 he was summoned to Southwark Police Court for neglecting his properties. The Bermondsey Vestry charged him with ‘neglecting to put in proper habitable repair five houses, which were in a filthy state and unfit for habitation’.

The Sanitary Inspector for the district, a Mr Thomas, gave evidence in court in support of the prosecution. He told the magistrate that he had visited the properties in March, finding them in a ‘filthy state’.

‘The drains were stopped up with filth, the yards unpaved [and so simply muddied areas], and without water’.

He had been ordered to take action but nothing happened, at least not until now when the summons was executed on him. There was still no water supply, the court was told. Clearly Randall had ignored the original report and was now only doing the minimum possible under threat of prosecution.

The case revealed that he took 12s a week for each house, which each served as homes to two families. It is hard to be exact about family size without consulting the census but on average women had six children in the late 1800s. So with extended family members it is not unreasonable to suggest that these five small properties opening on to one court were home to around 20-30 people, all with a supply of water or property sanitation.

Randall blamed the problem on the man he employed to undertake repairs, who had, he said, ‘deceived him’. The magistrate was unmoved and fined him a total of £46 (or £2,200 in today’s money).

Another ‘house agent’ Drummond Palmer, who owned property in the same street was also brought to court for the same offence He too had ignored the Sanitary Inspector’s report and he too was fined £5 for each of his courses plus a shilling a day for the 81 days he had failed to make the repairs required. He left court with a bill of £18 and 6s.

Henry Illingworth was also in the sights of the Inspector. The boot maker was charged with failing to clean and repair two shops he owned on Grange Road, also in Bermondsey. Inspector Thomas said that they in a ‘very foul state’:

‘The stench from the houses was intolerable. There was no door or pan to the closet [the outside toilet], and it was without a water supply. They were devoid of dustbins, and the houses were unfit for anyone to live in in such a state’.

Palmer was fined £14 and 6s.

In Booth’s map Farncombe  Street is a mix of commercial (red) property and (at the end nearest the Thames) black and dark blue (‘semi-criminal’ and ‘very poor’ in Booth’s categories. Whether the families that lived in Randall and the other landlords’ houses saw the benefit of the fines levied on them is very doubtful. The work would probably have been carried out but there was little to prevent rents from being raised to cover the costs. The 1880s was a period of economic deflation if not outright depression; times were hard and work hard to come by. Until the advent of proper social housing schemes in the next century the poorest in Victorian and Edwardian society continued to suffer from the greed of others.

[from London Evening Standard, Thursday 4th June 1885]