‘Where are the police?’ is the cry as windows get smashed

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Middle Row, Holborn, in the nineteenth century

Henry Holesworth was strolling along High Holborn early on Friday evening, the 19th January 1855, when he noticed a cab driver seem to throw something. The driver was following another hansom along the road and pulled back his arm in what seemed, to Holesworth at least, a throwing action. Seconds later there was an almighty smash as one of the windows of Mr Watkins’ shop shattered.

Holesworth quickly told the shopkeeper what he’d seen and the pair of them set off in hot pursuit of the cabbie. Since the street was busy with other vehicles they soon caught up with him and gave him into the custody of a nearby policeman. On the following morning three men were in court, in front of the magistrate at Bow Street.

The defendant was James Boswell and he was charged with breaking a window valued at 10s but this was no ordinary act of vandalism or revenge. The Bow Street office heard from a number of people that morning, all tradesmen, who insisted that this was part of an orchestrated campaign against them.

The magistrate heard that representatives of the Plate Glass Protection Company ‘had constantly requested’ tradesmen in the area to unsure themselves against such damage. This was what we would term a protection racket then; intimidation by a local gang of felons who perhaps employed cab drivers to remind the shopkeepers of the perils of not parting with their insurance subscriptions.

Sadly however this was merely speculation; there was little or no proof of a conspiracy. Indeed there wasn’t even enough solid evidence to convict Boswell of breaking Mr Watkins’ window. Holesworth, a mechanic by trade, could only state that he saw the cab driver’s arm move as if he was throwing a stone. Crucially he did not see him throw anything and accepted his movement could have been caused by ‘a buffeting of the wind’.

As a result Boswell was discharged and walked free from Bow Street. However, the magistrate, Mr Henry, felt obliged to state (for the newspaper record at least) that he was aware that something was amiss and his statement carried a rebuke of the police.

‘It is a notorious fact’ he grumbled, ‘that nearly every night the tradespeople of Oxford Street have their plate-glass windows smashed, and the remark has been made as to what the police are about’.

The Metropolitan Police force was only 26 years old in 1855 and still establishing itself in mid Victorian society. It may have survived the early attempts to abandon Peel’s experiment with centrally organised policing, but – as this report shows – continued to face ongoing criticism of its efficiency.

[from The Standard, Monday, January 22, 1855]

An appeal to the Lord Mayor so ‘that one of the few holidays in this country would not be lost’. Some pre-Christmas cheer at Mansion House

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Before I became an academic historian I worked mostly in retail. I enjoyed the busy Christmas period but it has to be said that shopkeepers and shop staff work extremely hard for very little pay and hardly any time off. Most of us that are lucky enough to work in education will get at least a week’s downtime over Christmas and probably quite a bit more.

This is because schools and universities close down between Christmas and New Year and there is no teaching at my place for three weeks. I will use some of this time for marking, preparation and research but will also have a week’s proper holiday as well. Contrast this with the 15 years I worked in a variety of shops when I would work till 5 or 6 on Christmas Eve and be back in on the 27 December and sometimes even on Boxing Day.

Indeed Boxing Day has almost ceased to be a day off for many workers. Traditionally Boxing Day was a time when we rewarded servants and tradespeople for their service over the past year in a custom that stretched back to the 17th century at least. Now many if not most shops open their doors at 9 am so that the British public can start to spend the vouchers and money their relatives have given them for Christmas, or exchange their unwanted presents and ill-fitting clothes.

It seems that even in mid Victorian period there was some recognition that workers needed some proper time off. In 1842 an organisation was formed to campaign for an end to Sunday trading and to regulate shop opening times. From the evidence I see in these newspapers reports, shops in London opened all hours in the 1800s, you could walk into a grocers, or haberdashery, or a cheese shop anytime from early morning to almost midnight. In fact nineteenth-century London looks a lot more like twenty-first century London than does it resemble the city of my youth.

In December 1859 a deputation from the Early Closing Association appeared at Mansion House Police Court to ask for the Lord Mayor’s support. In 1859 Christmas Day fell on a Sunday. Given that the 25 December was observed as a holiday the Association were worried that the ‘toiling classes’ would miss out on an extra holiday this year.

Mr Lilwall and Mr Winkworth (secretary and vice president respectively) reminded the Lord Mayor that in 1857 the then incumbent chief magistrate had issued a recommended that Boxing Day be observed as a public holiday. Shops and other businesses had taken up the idea and it had even been adopted by mayors across the country. The result was that shop workers, clerks, and all manner of the ‘industrial classes’ got a proper holiday from Saturday afternoon through to Tuesday morning on the 27th.

The Association urged this Lord Mayor to follow suit and urge businesses to adopt the holiday. It was hard, they said, for individual tradesmen to grant an extra day of leave and close their shops because they didn’t know what the competition was doing. It needed a voice of authority to make a declaration.

The Lord Mayor agreed with the deputation from the Association but it wasn’t sure he had either the power or the influence to instigate a holiday in London, let alone elsewhere.

But he was certainly happy to publicly ‘express his hope that the tradesmen and merchants of the city, and the bankers, as far as they possibly could, would close their establishments on the 26th inst. and so give an opportunity for rational and recreative enjoyment to those in their employ’.

He hoped that this would mean that Christmas, as one of the ‘few holidays which were generally observed in this country would not be lost’.

The Early Closing Association continued it campaign throughout the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. It took them until 1912 to achieve part of their aim, half-day closing. Some of you might remember when shops would close early on a weekday and many will recall that until the 1990s Sunday opening was rare. Nowadays shops open Sundays, all week long, from 8 to 8 and later, and some big stores are open 24/7.

Spare a thought then for those that have to man the tills and restock the shelves over the bus Christmas period who work even harder than they normally have to. They need a rest just as much (if not more) than everyone else. Perhaps its time that we made Boxing Day a proper national holiday, with all shops closing for the day. After all, do we really need ‘retail therapy’ on the morning after Christmas?

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, December 9, 1859]