‘Oh don’t be so hard on me,’ pleads an Irish philosopher and gentleman of the road

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I had a ‘conversation’ yesterday on social media with someone asking how he should act when homeless people ask for money in the street. Should he give money, or buy them food or a coffee, or should he simply take the time to chat to them? It is a complex question and I quite understood his dilemma; some charities (like the Salvation Army) tell us not to give money, believing it perpetuates the problem. Others suggest we should to help them get the basic necessities of life.

I’m also often told that ‘they will spend it on drink or drugs’, not that it is any of my business how they spend whatever money they have.

Homelessness, vagrancy and begging are not modern social issues, they have been with us for as long as humans have lived in societies. The ‘modern’ vagrancy laws in Britain have their roots in the Tudor period with laws to punish ‘sturdy beggars’ and the building of houses of correction to enforce them. By the Victorian period poverty was endemic and being dealt with by the Poor Law, with workhouses operating as a deterrent to the ‘work-shy’ in the belief that poverty was a personal failing, not a product of society or a capitalist economic system.

There was also limited understanding of mental health and very little state provision for those that suffered. That much is obvious form so many of the cases I’ve written about on this site. I am reluctant to say that nineteenth-century society didn’t care about the poor and homeless and mentally ill, just that it didn’t really understand them and the underlying reasons for their actions.

St. George Gregg was someone who often found himself in trouble with the authorities in the late 1830s and early 40s. He’d come up before the Police court magistrates at Queen Square on more than one occasion in 1840 and was there again in early May that year.

Gregg was an Irishman and was frequently charged for being drunk. He was about to be convicted and fined by Mr Burrell when he raised his hand and asked if he could say a few words. The justice agreed and listened.

The defendant held out a small book, offering it to the chief usher to give to the magistrate. He explained that he’d been writing a book ‘on the currency question’ and thought his worship might like a copy. Mr. Burrell wasn’t interested.

I don’t want your book. What have you to say to the charge against you?’

I walk frequently thirty miles a day’, replied Gregg, ‘That fatigues me, and if I have nothing to eat the liquor has an effect sooner. I had no dinner yesterday, in fact I had no “tin”.’

The magistrate didn’t know what he meant by ‘tin’, so asked him.

Tin is money’, the man explained, ‘and having no  money I had no dinner’.

He’d tried to sell his books for money but seemingly had no takers to he’d started to sing in the streets and that way he’d raised a few pennies which he spent on drink.

‘You might have purchased victuals with that’, Mr Burrrell remarked.

‘Oh, sure, I wasn’t victuals hungry, I was grog hungry’ Gregg shot back. ‘I was like the captivating chandler, wanted I wanted in starch, I made up in blue’, he said, warming to his theme.

So I had toddy till I had but a single copper left, then devil a bed had I, and was making my way to the church-yard to go to bed on a tombstone, when the police found me quarters’.

He added that he’d written a study of ‘ambition’ and would send the magistrate a copy.

‘I don’t want your book. You are fined 5s’ was Mr. Burrell’s response.

Gregg hadn’t got one shilling let alone five and the justice must have realised this. What was the point of fining a homeless tramp anyway? Gregg attempted to barter with the justice, offering him books that he probably hadn’t written (and certainly hadn’t ‘published’ as he’d insisted he had) as part payment of the penalty. Burrell was having none of it and ordered him to be taken away; if he couldn’t pay the fine he’d have to go to prison.

Oh don’t be so hard on me’, pleaded the Irishman, ‘I want to finish a poem’. He was led away protesting his freedom.

Society didn’t understand George Gregg. He didn’t, couldn’t or wouldn’t conform to what was expected of him. He chose to live by his wits and on his own terms. Perhaps he was a ‘popular philosopher’, who wrote tracts in notebooks or scraps of paper that nobody read. His logical response to accusations of being drunk (drinking on an empty stomach) or his choice of how to spend the money he’d earned (on drink because he was thirsty after singing and walking) would be quite reasonable if he was a ‘normal’ member of society. Because he was an outsider and had chosen to live differently to others, the law treated him as a problem. It punished him rather than helped him. I’m not entirely sure we have made much progress in the last 180 odd years.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, May 7, 1840]

‘I won’t have a month, you must give me more’: an unhappy drunk at Westminster

The late Mr L C Tennyson d'Eyncourt

On Friday I recounted the story of a man who was clearly very unhappy at being brought before a magistrate and locked up, particularly because he’d had nothing to eat or drink that morning.  John Betts disturbed the court proceedings and smashed up his cell before he finally accepted his lot.

By contrast Eliza Hastings was unhappy because the magistrate refused to lock her up for longer.

The ‘wild looking and wretchedly clad’ woman was stood in the dock at Westminster to face Mr D’Eyncourt, a well established Police Court justice in the late 1800s. Eliza was charged with being drunk and disorderly and it wasn’t the first time she’d been up before the ‘beak’.

The court was told that she had ‘been repeatedly locked up’ and that ‘prison was the only home she has besides the streets’. She was homeless and presumably preferred not to enter the casual wards of London’s several workhouses.

No less than 30 conviction could be proven against the woman and the last of these had been on the 31 March, Mr D’Enycourt was told, when she was sent to prison for a month.

‘You keep on giving me a wretched month, that’s no good to me‘ Eliza grumbled from the dock, ‘give me a long time in prison‘ she pleaded.

However, Mr D’Eyncourt gave her another month and Eliza lost it. She raged at the magistrate and his court, ‘I won’t have a month, you must give me more’ before tearing off one of her boots and throwing it ‘with violence’ at the bench.

She was then led out of the court by the officers, screaming at the injustice of it all.

The magistrate might have wanted to give her longer but rules were rules and the guidelines he worked to suggested 30 days was the appropriate sentence for the offence she’d committed. She’d not used violence, or resisted arrest, or stolen anything. She was a drunk, a vagrant and quite possibly suffering from mental illness. I suspect that today she’d be a case for probation or social services and helped rather than locked up.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, May 6, 1888]

For other cases heard by Mr D’Eyncourt see:

Mr D’Eyncourt sends his own message after a telegraph boy is attacked

Health and safety ‘gone mad’, as a child narrowly avoids being roasted alive

Pickett climbs a fence and saves a life

The actress and her ‘lunatic’ husband

The ‘extraordinary life of an ungovernable girl’.

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Silena Salter was by all accounts an ‘extraordinary’ young woman, By the age of 18 she was already a well known character at the Guildhall Police court in the City of London. She had appeared there on no fewer than 19 occasions charged with disorderly conduct but although she was possessed of a ‘violent and uncontrollable temper, that amounts almost to madness’ she was otherwise ‘honest, sober, and virtuous’.

On the 24 April 1866 she had again rung the bell in the vagrant ward at the West London Union workhouse despite promising never to do so again. This was the charge that kept on bringing her before a justice and it seemed the authorities were completely unable to prevent this young woman from misbehaving. One magistrate had refused to even take the case and left it for Alderman Waterloo, to whom she had last made her pledge to behave. He saw her on the 28 April and was joined in court by the governor of the City Prison, Mr Weatherhead.

The governor handed the justice a pamphlet detailing the ‘Sad Story’ of Silena’s life. The girl had been born in Bath, the daughter of a gardener and her mother had died when she was very young. Her father remarried but Silena’s stepmother ‘possessed little, or no, control over her’ and she was ‘left to her own inclinations’.

She went to school and then into service as a domestic but she didn’t take to either of these attempts at improving her character. She ran away, stealing money from her stepmother and came to London in search of a new life. A young man who was sweet on her followed after her but she wanted nothing to do with him. Left alone she ended up homeless on the streets of the capital, wandering from workhouse to workhouse until her ‘refractory’ behaviour earned her a spell in Holloway Prison.

Several times the authorities sent her back home to Bath, but each time she ‘escaped’ and returned to London. This girl was a force of nature and it seemed no one was going to tame her rebellious spirit. A drastic situation called for drastic measures and the authorities in London decided to send her abroad, to America.

On the 29 November 1865 she sailed from Liverpool to New York where ‘hopes were entertained that in another country she would become a better girl’. But ‘such hopes were futile’ the pamphlet observed.

Silena upped sticks and worked her passage back to Britain and to London.

Despite the best efforts of the magistracy, the Poor Law authorities and several well-meaning ‘charitable ladies’ it seemed that the obstinacy of this young woman was such that she was determined not to be ‘saved’ from herself. She was ‘a living witness to the waywardness of the human heart’ and Alderman Waterloo said there was really nothing else he could do for her but to send her to Holloway once more.

He did so ‘not in the expectation that the punishment would do her any good, but I the hope that some of the kind friends who visited the prison might devise some means of reclaiming her’.

Silena was taken down to the cells where she kept up a steady protest by kicking at the doors until the van came to take her to prison. 

[from The Standard , Monday, April 30, 1866]

‘A dangerous imposter’ on Rosslyn Hill spells trouble for DS Fox

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The Victorian criminal justice had been developing a much more effective means of keeping records on those that passed through it doors than had been the case in the Georgian period. As a result criminals routinely gave false names to the police and magistrates in the hope that their previous convictions would not dog their footsteps for ever. Being ‘known to the police’ or the courts was dangerous; a magistrate or trial court judge was very likely to hand down a much stiffer sentence if he knew you’d failed to learn your lesson in the past.

I some cases of course the problem ran much deeper and this is particular true in cases of those that committed offences in part because they were suffering from mental illness. The law recognised that mental health was a factor and the principal of acting with ‘diminished responsibility’ had been debated throughout the nineteenth century following a handful of high profile cases that shocked society. In 1863 the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum had opened in 1863 to take those convicted as being guilty but insane.

This would have been too early for John Gough. He had been convicted of ‘assault with intent to murder’ at Exeter Assizes in 1856 and had sentenced to life imprisonment. In 1873 he was freed on a ticket of leave (effectively parole) and had then been admitted (or admitted himself, it is not clear) to a lunatic asylum. Gough must also have moved from the south west to London because in 1883 he turned up at the Marylebone Police Court charged with assaulting a police detective.

Detective Sergeant Fox saw Gough wandering at Rosslyn Hill in Hampstead in late February 1883. Gough looked in serious trouble and was soliciting for charity, as Fox described in court:

‘The prisoner was bandaged about the the head and arms, as though suffering from injuries, and while walking along praying aloud begged for alms of people’.

Begging was illegal and so DS Fox arrested him, only to attacked and verbally abused (with ‘profane language’) by his charge. Back at the station Gough was examined and it was found that there was nothing whatsoever wrong with him; his show of injury was just that, a show. The man was ‘an imposter’ Mr De Rutzen (the magistrate) was told and the police added the information regarding Gough’s previous conviction.

While Gough was clearly suffering from mental illness he had checked out of the asylum in 1877 and hadn’t been in contact with the police either. This was a breach of his release license and this, coupled with the assault on the detective sergeant, earned him a another spell inside. De Rutzen declared Gough was ‘a dangerous man’ and sentenced him to two months at hard labour. It might have bene more sensible to send him to Broadmoor or even to the Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum which had opened in 1851 which held over 2000 patients in the 1880s, including (just possibly) a candidate for Jack the Ripper.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, March 07, 1883]

Sad tales from the Police courts, and the hunt for the men that shot a policeman hots up.

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Islington High Street, c.1890

On June 27 1884 The Morning Post reported on several London’s police courts as well as updating their readers on an ongoing story concerning the shooting of a policeman. At Southwark a man named Hill was brought up for the second time, having been remanded on a charge of fraud. Hill had supposedly cashed fake cheques on at least two separate individuals for over £15 a time. That might not sound like much but a rough calculation for 1884 makes that around £700 in today’s money. The magistrate further remanded him for the Public Prosecutor to get involved.

At Westminster an Irish woman named Catherine Fagan was accused of begging but the case touched on her supposed involvement with the cause of Irish Nationalism. A membership card for the “W. P. Boyton” branch of the Irish National Land League was found in her possession. The INLL championed the rights of poor tenant farmers in Ireland and it was hardly a revolutionary organisation, but the 1880s were a difficult decade for Anglo-Irish relations, and saw several Fenian terrorist attacks in England (as I’ve written about previously on this blog). Fagan was eventually allowed to go, with some charity from the poor box.

But the story that touched me this morning concerned another woman in distress, Sarah Ann Cocksedge. Sarah Ann was presented at Lambeth Police Court charged with attempting to take her own life. This was, as I’ve written about on several occasions, a sadly regular charge before the magistracy. Even more tragic of course, was the fairly routine discovery of drowned bodies floating in or washed up on the banks of the River Thames. London was an unforgiving and hard place to live in the 1800s and Victorian society’s understanding of mental illness was far from as advanced as our own is.

Sarah Ann had tried to take a poison, ‘spirits of salts’ (which is hydrochloric acid) but had been prevented. In custody she told a policeman that she wanted to kill herself because  had been asked her to cover up the death of an infant child.

She said a ‘former mistress had given her a child to get rid of, which she had put into a garden (mentioning the place) and this had preyed on her mind’.

A detective from CID appeared in court to say that he had enquired into her claims but had been unable to substantiate them. The chaplain of the goal that had been holding her since her suicide attempt sent a letter to the court asking the justice to remand her back into his care, as he felt he could help her find a new home.

Sarah Ann continued to declare that she had spoken the truth regarding the dead child but it seems no one wanted to listen. She was again remanded and sent back to prison.

Finally, the paper reported that the police were closing in on two men wanted for shooting a police constable in Islington. PC Chamberlain had been shot in Park Street, ‘whilst in pursuit of two men suspected go burglary’. They had got away and the constable was injured, but not fatally it was thought. Two days later it was reported that he was ‘somewhat better’ and that the manhunt was focused on Hampstead.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, June 27, 1884]

Little charity for the Irish at Marlborough Street

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1843 could certainly be viewed as one of the low points of welfare policy in this country. 1834 saw the passing of the Poor Law Amendment Act, an act designed to force anyone seeking support from the state (in those days this meant the parish) to enter a workhouse  rather than be relieved outside. A previous piece of catch-all legislation, the Vagrancy Act (1824) also deserves mention as an instrument designed both to clamp down on beggars and vagrants and allow the arrest of pretty much anyone the local authorities took a dislike to but were otherwise unable to pin a specific offence on.

Thomas Lakey was exactly the sort of person the middle classes in Victorian society disliked. Lacey was unemployed, he was poor, homeless and, probably worst of all, he was Irish. When he appeared at Marylebone Police Court in June 1835 he was described as a ‘sturdy Irish beggar, accused of being a ‘common vagrant’.

The prosecution was brought by the Mendicity Society, an organisation formed in 1818 to ‘stop people begging’. The society was well organised and used careful record keeping to track mendicants, whom they helped financially on the understanding that they stopped begging and/or left the area.

Lacey came before the magistrate at Marylebone accused on being a ‘common drunken vagabond’ for the last 20 years. He had his own particular modus operandi, according to the officers bringing the case to court:

‘Having lost a hand, it was his practice to accost females in the street, and thrusting his stump before them, to demand charity in a menacing tone’.

If his appeal was not successful on the basis of his disability then ‘in his other hand he carried a stick, which he employed with great dexterity when drunk, or when pursued by a constable’.

For 20 years Thomas had received a pension of 15 pence a day from the East India Company. Given that this seemed enough to live on the magistrate (a Mr Chambers) was surprised the Irishman needed to beg at all. Mr Chambers told him that his pension (amounting to about 21 pence in today’s money, the equivalent of 2 days wages for a labourer) should allow him to live while he could also do some work, since he had a perfectly usable hand despite his injury.

We have no idea of how Thomas lost his hand, an accident working for the Company is most likely, but it may have happened after that. Clearly Mr Chambers had little sympathy for him. He turned to the Mendicity Society officers and suggested they speak to the East India Company. Perhaps if they were informed how Lacey was abusing the pension he had been given they might see fit to stop it.

The poor Irishman now work up to the reality of what was being proposed in court, the loss of the small dole he had to keep himself together. He told the court that if he was released he would immediately return to Kilkenny, where he was born, and no longer be a burden on London’s ratepayers or a threat to its inhabitants. Mr Chambers sent him to prison for two months to think it over.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, June 19, 1835]

The Chartist press reports the return of a convict to the city

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Yesterday myself and a colleague from the University of Northampton visited the London Academy school in Edgware to talk to their Sixth form students about Chartism (a topic they are study for A level history). We found them to be a very engaged and articulate group of young people, who had some firm opinions about the world they live in.

The Charter  was supported by several petitions to parliament and its signatories demanded 6 things from the government of the day:

  • a vote for all men (over 21)
  • the secret ballot 
  • no property qualification to become an MP
  • payment for MPs
  • electoral districts of equal size
  • annual elections for Parliament

All but one of these are now things we pretty much take for granted but in the 1830s they were deemed quite revolutionary.

The Chartists knew the value of good media and had to put up with some very biased reporting which portrayed them as alternatively dangerous and violent, or inept and disorganised. The Chartist Land Scheme was ridiculed and those responsible  for the Newport Rising in November 1839 harshly punished.

On 2 February 1839 James Thompson began publication of a short-lived 4 page newspaper that reported the Chartist movement from a positive perspective. Unlike some more famous organs of Chartism The Chartist was cheap (at 2 and half pence), so arguably it had the potential to be more accessible to working people.

It seems to have existed briefly though (it died out in July of 1839, at the end of the Chartist Convention), and it seems Thompson  was very concerned at the actions of so-called ‘physical force’ Chartists that dominated the news agenda after riots in Birmingham following the general strike of that year (the so-called ‘sacred month’).

In February 1839 The Chartist reported the goings on at the London Police Courts just like every other paper did. At Mansion House a ‘dejected man’ named Thomas Lee was presented to the magistrate by the police as a returned convict.

Lee had been picked up by a City of London copper (PC 133) when he found him ‘loitering around the neighbourhood of Watling-street’. The Lord Mayor criticised the policeman; telling him he had ‘exceeded his duty’ by arresting a man for doing nothing.

The officer’s sergeant now interjected to say that he had instructed his man to detain Lee because he had seen him going into shop and suspected he was a thief. At the station the man had told the sergeant that he was a ‘returned convict’ and had only recently arrived back in England from Australia.

‘Is that true, prisoner?’ asked the Lord Mayor.

‘Yes, my lord, it is’.

‘How did you get back?’ asked the justice.

Lee replied that he had worked his passage on a ship.

Now the clerk asked him how long ago he had been sentenced. It was eight years previously Lee explained. Did he have a discharge order? No, he didn’t.

The Lord Mayor was clearly perturbed by this. If he had no papers how was he to know that he hadn’t escaped from his sentence of transporttaion (rare as it was to escape from Australia, unlike the Americas in the previous century)?

Lee said nothing.

The sergeant informed the court that Lee had originally been convicted in Cornwall and  added that the prisoner had admitted that he was so destitute if was quite likely to commit a crime that would have seen him transported again anyway.

The magistrate ordered a message to be sent to Cornwall to check the validity of the man’s story and sent him to Newgate gaol in the meantime. Did Lee have to make the long journey back to Oz? I’m afraid I will have to leave that to someone else. If he had he may well have met with some of the ringleaders at Newport. Following their trial at the Shire Hall in Monmouth John Frost, Zephaniah Williams, and William Jones, were found guilty on the charge of high treason and were sentenced  to be hanged, drawn and quartered. Fortunately for them this was commuted to transportation for life.

We asked the pupils at the London Academy for their six points and among their responses were the abolition of university fees, better opportunities for graduate employment and the lowering of the voting age to 17. All of these are sensible ‘demands’ (as were the Chartists’) and demonstrate that 17 year-olds can identify with politics outside of party and we should probably trust them with the franchise in the way that working men demanded to be trusted in the 1830s and 40s.

[from The Chartist, Saturday, February 2, 1839]