‘Let them starve’. Little sympathy as parochial officialdom is set in the dock

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‘Joseph Carney, a street vendor or “costermonger”, sells fresh herring from a barrow in a street market near Seven Dials’.1

The summary courts of the capital could sometimes side with the ‘little man’ against authority, especially when that ‘authority’ was seen to be officious and heavy handed. This was certainly the case in October 1888 when a costermonger known only as Nathan, brought a summons against a servant of the vestry.

The magistrate – Montagu Williams – listened as Nathan outlined his complaint. He sold goods from a barrow and on Sunday morning he had left it briefly unattended while went to settle a debt to a local publican. On his return the barrow had gone and he soon learned that it had been impounded by John Dowling, a street keeper working for Bethnal Green parish.

Nathan went to the parish greenyard, where all impounded vehicles and animals were taken, but he was told he would have to wait until the next morning to retrieve it. The next day he went but since Dowling was not there he was now instructed to come back on Thursday.

This meant he would be unable to trade for three days.

‘My children will starve’, he complained.

‘Well let them starve’, was the reply from one of the men that worked there.

On Thursday he saw Dowling who now refused to release the barrow until a 5fee had been paid. Nathan didn’t have 5so he offered 3 and a half. He was told to go away and find the balance. Meanwhile he couldn’t work.

The vestry was represented at Worship Street by Mr Voss, the clerk. He defended Dowling and the right of the vestry to impound barrows after 11am on a Sunday (when they were no longer allowed to trade). He had little or no sympathy for Nathan and his family nor for another complainant who appeared to support the costermonger. Mary Donovan said she had also had her barrow impounded by Dowling and was unable to pay the fee to get it back. As a consequence she’d fallen behind with the rent and her landlord had sent in the bailiffs to get her ‘bits o’ things’.

‘What do you have to say to that?’ Mr Williams demanded of Voss.

The clerk stuck to his script.

‘This man, Sir, was acting under his orders. The vestry makes certain regulations’.

The justice felt that these were extremely bad regulations and, what is more, they were being applied without care or understanding for the lives of the people they affected. Nathan told him he had threated to go to law but the street keeper had dismissed this saying he ‘did not care for the magistrate, for he had bigger people behind him’ who would support his actions.

Mr Williams now demonstrated exactly who had authority in the district by admonishing the clerk and the street cleaner, and demanding that the barrows be returned ‘instantly’, and without further costs to either party. The war between the costers and the vestry would, no doubt, rumble on and on, just as tensions between these sorts of street traders and the police did. But on this occasion at least, we can raise a glass to the victory of the little man (and woman).

[from The Standard, Tuesday, October 23, 1888]

  1. from: https://mickhartley.typepad.com/blog/2012/03/little-mic-mac-gosling.html

A ‘mad cat lady’ is ordered to make the ultimate sacrifice

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We are a nation of pet lovers and one supposes that this has ever been so. But this does not mean that everyone, everywhere, sees pets as a ‘good thing’. Moreover within almost every community I have lived in I can remember at least one ‘mad cat lady’, the sort of person who keeps a number of feline friends for company and is often (albeit gently) mocked for it. The case of Louisa Bragg brings both of these statements together and shows, once again, that the range of a magistrate’s work in the 1800s was quite wide.

In July 1889 Miss Bragg (she was described as an ‘elderly maiden lady’ so we must presume she was still a ‘miss’) was brought before Mr D’Eyncourt at Westminster Police court on a ‘peremptory summons’. The summons was issued by the court because Louisa had failed to comply with a previous ruling regarding her large collection of cats.

She lived at 65 Marsham Street, Westminster, in a house of multiple occupation. The other residents had complained about the old lady and her cats, saying that they were a source of disease and that several of them had died and were decaying in her rooms!

The case was presented by Mr Rogers, who prosecuted on behalf of the vestry, and he brought in the sanitary inspector to support his case. Thomas Dee testified ‘to the filthy conditions of the defendant’s room, where he saw seven cats on the table’. Sergeant Edwards, the court’s warrant officer, also reported on the state of things he’d seen when he served the summons on Miss Bragg.

The poor lady begged for leniency and to be allowed to keep her animals who she said were dear to her. She appeared in court armed with copies of acts of parliaments and attempted to defend herself, saying the law was wrong. The question was, she implored the magistrate, one of whether ‘a happy home should be broken up’.

Mr. D’Eyncourt dismissed this as mere sentiment and suggested she get rid of the cats and take a ‘nice little dog’ instead. Miss Bragg huffed at this suggestion and begged for more time so she could find a bigger room elsewhere. D’Eyncourt was in no mood to sympathize with her however, insisting that unless she cleared out the cats and cleaned up her room she would be levied with a fine of a £5 for refusing to obey the order of his court. Since she had already breached the first order he fined her a sovereign for good measure.

Clearly he was no cat lover and one imagines that Miss Bragg’s fellow tenants were heartily sick of having to share their dwelling with half a dozen or more flea ridden moggies. One only has to travel to southern Europe or to Cyprus to see what a society where stray or semi-feral cats are allowed to roam free looks like. Lovely as they are (and I am most certainly a cat lover) they bring an associated risk of disease if they are not controlled.

However, for Miss Bragg, an elderly lady living on her own and seemingly without any living relatives close by, her cats were her only companions and so while others might dismiss her as the ‘mad cat woman’ they were all the friends she had in the world and to ask her to get rid of them smacks of heartlessness.

[from The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, July 6, 1889]

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‘I don’t want to ask a favour from swindlers’ : making a stand on a point of principle.

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An early gas stove

James Connell was a fine upstanding member of his local community. He lived with his wife in New Cross Road, Deptford and was a member of the local vestry. So it is something of a surprise to find him summoned before Mr Kennedy, the sitting magistrate at Greenwich Police court in late May 1895.

The reason for the summons was non-payment of his gas bill but the case is interesting because it reveals the new forms of fuel supply that were just coming on line in the late Victorian period. Connell was summoned by representatives of the  South Metropolitan Gas Company who insisted that the vestryman owed them the not inconsiderable sum of  £10 10sand ninepence. In today’s money that probably amounts to around £865, which explains their desire to recover the debt.

Mr Connell disputed that he owed that amount and set out his case before the Greenwich justice. He stated that in 1892 the couple had purchased a new gas oven to replace their old coal one having been persuaded to do so by one of the company’s salesmen. Mrs Connell had been assured that the new device was cheaper and more effective than her old one and they were given an estimate of the amount of gas that it would consume in the course of a year. This figure was estimated at 27 feet per hour.

In 1892 the gas consumption figure was 29,300 ft, in 1893 it was a little higher (29,390ft) but in 1894 it leapt to 69,400 ft. Mr Connell clearly felt the gas salesman had misrepresented the true cost of the oven and so was refusing to pay for the huge increase in gas. As a result the company disconnected their supply and the current impasse was established.

‘You have a meter, and what it register you have to pay?’ asked Mr Kennedy. ‘Unfortunately I have no meter’, Connell replied, as the company had taken that away when the company cut them off. He didn’t trust what it said and now he had no meter he couldn’t check it anyway: ‘how did he know the meter was correct, or what had been done with it since it was taken away?’

The gas company’s representative insisted the bill was accurate and suggested that all devices varied in their consumption. It was a fairly lame if predictable response and sadly for Connell the law was not in his favour. Mr Kennedy said he would indeed have to pay the bill with 3costs added but suggested he took his complaint about the salesman’s ‘misrepresentation’ of the oven’s performance to the County Court.

Connell felt he shouldn’t have to pay anything until the company had answered any prosecution he brought but again he was disabused of that and told he must pay up. Could the magistrate allow him more time for the payment to be made, he asked? That was up to the company and he could certainly request it, Mr Kennedy told him.  ‘I don’t want to ask a favour from swindlers’ was the man’s riposte.

In the end Mr Connell left court with his head held high convinced that he had, in his words, ‘exposed a fraud’. At the very least he had alerted others that might be fooled into switching from coal to gas on the back a visit from a silver-tonged gas salesman. I suppose this reminds us that in the 1890s the middle class were being tempted to spend their hard earned money on new technologies, like gas ovens, and that having the latest kitchen accessory also demonstrated that you were ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ and were fashionably ‘modern’.

Gas ovens first appeared in the 1840s and were exhibited at Crystal Palace in 1851 but they took a while to become popular with ‘ordinary’ people, being a  luxury at first reserved for the very rich.  It was the introduced of rented ovens like that ‘owned’ by the Connells with an attached meter that helped extend their use more widely in the 1880s. So the Connells were early adopters and gas ovens only really took off in England in the late Edwardian period.

I have a lot of sympathy for Mr Connell because he and his wife were sold something that ended up costing them considerably more than they had been promised, and we’ve probably all been there.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, May 30, 1894]

A little local difficulty: ‘political’ violence in early Victorian Stepney

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Politics, as we have seen recently, can sometimes get a little heated and nothing gets more heated than local politics. Having stood as a candidate for local elections in the recent past I can attest to long running petty squabbles between party workers, elected and defeated councilors, and their friends and families.

In one large east Midlands town there were dark mutterings about a Conservative councilor who had defected from Labour several years earlier simply because he thought it more likely to be re-elected if he stood for ‘the other side’.  The suggestion (made by his Conservative colleague, against whom I was contesting a seat) was that he only entered politics for the rewards it brought in terms of his local standing in the community; it mattered not whether he was part of a left or right political party, what mattered was being in government.

I’ve no idea if this was accurate or fair (and indeed I wondered at the time if there was a smack of racism in the comment) but historically the exercise of local government has involved a deal of self aggrandizement. It is also accurate to say that local politics has probably always been fractious though it doesn’t always end in violence as this particular example from 1847 did.

Charles Williams, a general dealer from Mile End, was attending  meeting of the Stepney parish vestry on Easter Monday 1847 when a man rushed into the room and interrupted them. Williams and his colleagues were tasked with electing parish officers when James Colt (a local undertaker and carpenter) interrupted them.  Colt pulled the chair out from underneath one of the candidates for the role of churchwarden, tipping him on to the floor, before slamming shut the room’s shutters – plunging it into darkness – and throwing the ink pot into the fire. He called everyone present ‘the most opprobrious names’ and challenged them all to a fight.

It was a quite bizarre episode and it seemed that Colt’s intention had been to close down proceedings because he believed they were being conducted either illegally or unfairly. An argument then ensued about the manner of the meeting and whether it conformed to the rules as they were understood. James Colt was, like the man he’d tipped out of the chair, been seeking election as parish officer (an overseer in Colt’s case) and he may have believed he was being excluded form the meeting so as to have missed this chance at a bit of local power.  Perhaps he was, and perhaps with good reason.

Eventually Colt was summoned before the magistrate at Thames to face a charge of assault. The paper concentrated on the shenanigans at the parish meeting and heard several claims and counter claims regarding the legitimacy or otherwise of the proceedings but for Mr Ballantine the magistrate the question was simple: had Colt committed an assault or not? It was fairly obvious to all present that he had and so the justice fined him £5 and let him go. I would suggest James Colt had demonstrated by his histrionics that he was entirely unfit for public office.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, April 9, 1847]

A row over the adulteration of the great British banger (and its got nothing to do with the EU!)

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What percentage of a pork sausage should be made up of meat? It’s a good question now and it was a good question in 1882 when Henry Newman was dragged before the magistrate at Southwark by the sanitary officer of the Bermondsey vestry.

The officer, a Mr Thomas, testified that he had bought a pound of sausages from Newman’s shop on Southwark Park Road for nine pence. He told the butcher he was ‘going to have them analyzed’ (which seems a waste for a packet of well made bangers). He took them to a Dr Muter who issued a certificate  that declared they were made from 82 per cent meat and fat and 12 per cent bread. The doctor confirmed however, that while the sausages contained bread they were not in any way ‘injurious to health’.

In court the vestry’s legal team contended that the bread was used ‘so that inferior parts of meat could be used’ to manufacture the sausages. Newman’s  brief challenged that and brought along two other sausage makers to explain to Mr Slade (the justice) that it was impossible to make proper sausages without adding bread to the mix.

The magistrate agreed that bread was an essential part of the process and said the question turned on whether 18 per cent constituted adulteration under the act. In his opinion it didn’t and so he dismissed the summons and two further similar cases that the overeager vestry had brought against other butchers. In the end the vestry were required to pay costs of £2 2sand Mr Thomas probably chose to buy his supper somewhere else in future.

So is 18 per cent too much bread in a sausage? I don’t know. Why don’t you have a look at the next packet you buy from a supermarket or ask your local butcher (if you still have one).

[from The Standard, Thursday, March 23, 1882]

The ‘gospel according to the nineteenth century moralists’ brings the end of a popular entertainment

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I have often wondered what the Victorians would make of our society should a character like H G Wells’ ‘time traveller’ actually manage to create a machine to visit the future. While one imagines that he would probably find some things to be predicable (motorized transport, even airplanes), others largely unchanged (like Parliament and the judiciary), it would be the leveling of daily life and the permissive nature of relationships that might give cause for shock.

Victorian society was not as buttoned up and prudish as it has sometimes been perceived. In fact, as Matthew Sweet argues in Inventing the Victorians (2001) even that oft repeated suggestion that they covered up the legs of their pianos is a myth; a joke aimed at themselves and at Americans (whom they felt were more obsessed with suppressing sexuality).

Nevertheless vice and obscenity were prosecuted in the courts and their definitions of what constituted ‘obscene’ were certainly narrower than our own. This is where I think the ‘time traveller’ would struggle to make sense of society: when he viewed television, looked at a tabloid newspaper, causally searched the internet, or simply walked down a busy London street, he would have been assaulted by images of (in his mind) semi-nudity everywhere.

In 1872 Frederick Shore was summoned to Bow Street Police court to answer accusations that he had published an indecent periodical. Shore, who was represented by a barrister, Mr Laxton, was the publisher of Days Doings and short-lived sensational magazine that carried all sorts of stories, romances, gossip, sports and entertainment news. The prosecution, brought by the Society for the Suppression of Vice, alleged that it was obscene.

Shore had been in court three months previously and had then promised that ‘all nude pictures and matters suggestive of indecency’ would be removed from all future editions of the paper. This then was a hearing designed, in part, to ensure he had kept his word.

Mr Bealey, the barrister instructed by the Society, argued that he had not. He produced a copy of the latest edition and read a selection of it to the court before showing the magistrate (Sir Thomas Henry) a nude image. The defense argued that the image in question was ‘a well known picture’ and that the editors had ‘added drapery to it’ to ‘decrease its nudity’. Sir Thomas said this only made it worse, it was now ‘even more obscene’.

He concluded that the proprietors of Days Doingshad  ‘not kept good faith’. ‘There was no doubt’ he declared, ‘that the proprietors of the periodical pandered to a depraved taste’. He bound the witnesses form the Society over to prosecute and accepted bail of £150 from the defendant. The whole sorry issue would now have to go before a higher court.

Just how ‘obscene’ was  Days Doings?Well not very would be the conclusion of a modern audience. It was risqué certainly, and humorous, catering for  amiddle-class decadent readership. On its May 1871 cover it featured ‘Derby Night at Cremorne’ [Gardens] with a sensational scene of well dressed gentlemen drinking with women that might well have been prostitutes. Cremorne Gardens enjoyed a reputation as a lively and disreputable entertainment venuewhere the classes could mix. The 1871 article in the Days Doings supported Cremorne in the face of a sustained attack by organisations like the Society for the Suppression of Vice and the Cheslea Vestry who wanted it closed down.

This brought Shore into the cross hairs of anti-vice campaigners who saw his periodical as part of the problem. In early 1872 Days Doings was (as this case shows) under constant attack and eventually caved in. It remerged as ‘Here and There’ a much milder version of itself but it still had room to comment on the attempts to close down Cremorne Gardens. It condemned the threats to popular entertainment ‘by the prudery of aldermen, ministers and police inspectors. Dancing is banned at Cremorne’ and other venues it stated, ‘for this “is the gospel according to the nineteenth century moralists”.*

Goodness knows what those same moralists would have made of most Britain today.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, February 02, 1872]

*quoted in Lynda Nead, Victorian Babylon (2005), p.139

The Regent’s Canal might be polluted but there’s no cause for alarm say the committee

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Something different caught my eye this morning and so this is not a case from the Police Courts but possibly one that could develop into a prosecution if it was not resolved. The Daily Telegraph (which in the 1870s was not the same Conservative Party organ it is today) ran a story about pollution in the Regent’s Canal.

The article reported on a meeting of the St Pancras vestry who were responsible for the canal that ran through central London and was used by all sorts of people in the 1800s. Several complaints had been registered about the state of the canal and the smells that emanated from it. As a result the sanitary committee had been asked to investigate and report back to the vestry with its findings.

The medical officer of health and the chief surveyor of the parish were both consulted and they gave evidence to the committee and vestry. The surveyor had undertaken an examination of the main area of the canal where the problems had been highlighted. This section was where the drains of the nearby  Gardens emptied into to canal. The suggestion was that the zoo was polluting the watercourse.

The committee heard that each year the zoo emptied 16 million gallons of water into the canal: seven million gallons from their well and an additional nine million which was supplied to them by the West Middlesex Water Company. On top of all of this water was the annual rainfall, all of which contributed to swelling the canal.

Into this water had been washed a variety of deposits from the various tanks used by the zoo, along with animal and human waste. During the dry summer months the committee was told, it was likely that mud had been washed into the drains, adding to the general discolouration of the water.

The investigation  had arranged for some fish to be caught and examined, to check for any health concerns. Five gudgeon were studied and found to be healthy. The report concluded that:

‘the water of the canal is turbid and unsightly, but no offensive exhalations could be detected, even when it was disturbed by a passing barge, and it was being fished at the time of the medical officer’s visit’.

So all things considered  the committee felt that no action (which would incur an expense of course, if only in a legal prosecution of the zoo) was necessary. They adopted a ‘do-nothing’ approach by 37 votes to 8 and left locals to continue grumbling about the unpleasant odour of the canal.

[from The Daily Telegraph, 12 November, 1874]