‘No home, no parish, and nothing to eat’: But there is little Christmas cheer from the City bench

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In some of the interviews with homeless people and reports of their plights this winter one of the depressing strategies that emerged is that some individuals would prefer to commit a crime and go to prison for a few days or weeks than suffer the cold and hunger of living on the streets at this time of the year. British prisons are not nice places; they are overcrowded, dangerous, drugged fueled and brutalizing – no one would choose to go there if they had a choice.

Yet even modern prisons compare well with those of Victorian London. In 1845 London was still being served by some of the institutions that had survived from the Georgian period – the houses of correction  like Clerkenwell that had last been rebuilt in 1775, the extant Newgate Gaol had been reconstructed after the Gordon Riots in 1780, and even Bridewell, one of the oldest gaols in the capital, was not to close until 1855.

Brixton Prison opened in 1820 but despite been new it was described as ‘one of the unhealthiest prisons in London’.* Four young girls had spent 10 days inside the gaol, on a diet of basic food and set to hard labour. Their crime was breaking windows but their intention had been to get off the streets so when they were released they set about finding a way back inside again.

Eliza Jones, Mary Hayes, Eliza Montague and Martha Pike attacked Mr Inglis’ biscuit shop on St Paul’s Churchyard, pelting it with stones. They broke several panes and were promptly arrested and brought before the alderman magistrate at Guildhall Police court.

The girls had used heavy stones – at least a pound each – one of which was produced in court as evidence of their ‘mischief’. Poor Mr Inglis was out of pocket to the tune of £12 which, at about £700 in today’s money, was a considerable sum. He said that the girls had originally come in to ask if he could spare them any stale buns as they were starving. When he said he had none they broke his windows.

The four girls pleaded that they ‘had no home, no parish, and they were hungry’. Alderman Hughes was not sympathetic however, what they had done was an outrage: ‘they had wantonly inflicted a grievous loss on a tradesman’. Inglis was contributing to the poor rates so, indirectly, he was supporting individuals just like them (although since they had ‘no parish’ he wasn’t really).

If the girls thought their actions would secure them a bed and festive food for the Christmas period he would make sure they were disappointed. They would go to gaol, for two months at hard labour, but he gave orders that ‘they should be strictly excluded from partaking of the Christmas fare’.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, 23 December, 1845]

* B. Wienreb and C. Hibbert, The London Encylopaedia

If you feel like helping end homelessness (or at least making the lives of those living rough on our streets a little more comfortable) you might consider a donation to St Mungo’s

‘The wonder-stricken animal then tried to turn around’: An actual ‘bull in a china shop’

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According to some sources the expression ‘a bull in a china shop’ (used to refer to a clumsy person) has its origin sometime before it was first written down in Frederick Marryat’s 1834 novel, Jacob Faithful. As you can see from the illustration above however, the expression was in use well before then.

Londoners would have been familiar with the sight of bulls and others livestock being herded through the city streets in the 1800s. Smithfield market had been the destination for hundreds of thousands of beasts throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth century, as drovers brought in animals to sold and then herded east to the slaughterhouses in Spitalfields and Whitechapel.

Occasionally an animal would escape and run amok but more frequently, as the records of the eighteenth-century Mansion House and Guildhall justice rooms reveal, they were deliberately separated from the herd and chased through the streets by boys and young men. These incidents of ‘bullock-hunting’ (akin to the annual bull run in Pamplona, Spain) caused chaos on the City streets and ended in prosecutions before the magistrates.

Bullock hunting seemed to tail of off in the 1830s and had pretty much disappeared by the Victorian period. Urban areas were ‘improving’ and the authorities and public were increasingly intolerant of rowdy folk customs that interrupted the ‘polite and commercial’ pattern of day-to-day life.

By the 1840s campaigners were active in trying to close Smithfield as a cattle and sheep market. They cited the noise, the smell and the impracticality of moving animals through the streets. The market had also become too small to serve the city’s needs and was required to expanded, but not in the centre. In 1852 work began on a new market in Islington, which opened in 1855 as the Metropolitan Cattle market. Smithfield underwent a rebuilding and emerged, in 1868, as the new Smithfield meat market, selling dead meat rather than live animals.

Two years before trading ceased at Smithfield John Waistcoat appeared in the Guildhall Police court charged with ‘driving cattle without a license, or a drover’s badge’. This tells us cattle were still being brought into the centre in December 1850 and, as we will see, were still causing chaos. It also reveals that ‘bullock hunting’ was still very much alive, long after it was supposedly stamped out.

Waistcoat was only 15 years of age when he arrested by City police constable 117. The officer had seen two animals running towards Skinner Street, ‘apparently very excited’ and being chased by a group of small boys. Waistcoat was older and seemed to be trying to catch them so the copper stopped him and demanded to see his badge and license. When he was unable to produce either he collared him.

Meanwhile the beasts continued to run wild in the City streets.

A Mr Pierce said he saw one bull run into Rose and Crown Court and enter his house, which operated as a workshop. A witness who was inside the property described what happened next:

‘I was in the room on the ground floor at work, when I heard a great noise outside, and the next minute, to my great surprise, I saw a bull’s head thrust into the passage over the little wicket gate at the street door. I immediately closed the room door and he [the bull] went into the passage’.

By this time his testimony had reduced the Guildhall court’s occupants to unrestrained laughter as they imagined the scene.

‘I felt the wainscotting giving way’ he continued, ‘and accordingly pressed against it on the inside, while the bull pressed against it from without. ‘I felt the partition cracking under the weight, and at the same time the females in the room began to scream and make such a noise that I believe the bull was frightened, and he passed along the passage and I thought he was going upstairs’.

The people in court continued to laugh as the poor man tried to explain what had occurred to the alderman justice on the bench. For the reporter from Reynold’s it must have seemed as if he had the scoop of the week; many of the daily reports from the police courts were mundane, this was anything but.

‘The wonder-striken animal then tried to turn around’, the witness told Sir Peter Laurie (the magistrate), ‘and in doing so he knocked down the whole of the partition between the passage and the room with his hind quarters, and backed out, sending the little wicket gate flying over to the public house opposite. The bull then got clear of the court, and left me master of the ruins’.

The damage was estimated by Pierce to be between £2 and £3 which might not sound a lot but probably equated to about two weeks wages for a skilled tradesman, so not insignificant. The question was, who was to pay? Sir Peter decided that Waistcoat was not responsible and discharged him. Instead he decided that the man that bought the cattle should pay, and directed Mr Pierce to send his bill to a Mr Lowe.

[from Reynolds’s Weekly News, Sunday, December 1, 1850]

‘I thought it would give a man a job’; one man’s weak excuse for breaking windows

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George Jackson had a strange way of helping the late Victorian economy. On Sunday 19 August 1883 he picked up a handful of stones in the Strand and put them in his pocket. He walked on down the Strand in the direction of what was then the Charing Cross railway and foot bridge, heading for Whitehall. In 1883 this was where the majority of the government buildings were, including the Home Office on the corner of Charles Street and parliament Street.

At ten to one in the morning he was seen by PC 31 of A Division who watched as the young man lobbed two stones at the windows of the Home Office building. As the plate glass window smashed the police officer rushed over and seized the culprit as he calmly walked away. Jackson was taken away and brought before the sitting magistrate at Bow Street on the Monday morning after.

Mr Flowers wanted to know why he had thrown the stones, telling him he ‘had acted like an idiot’. The magistrate declared that:

I cannot understand a man willfully breaking a window and walking off’, adding: ‘You are not a glazier, are you?’

No, but I thought it would give a man a job’, was Jackson’s reply.

Yes, and you a month’s imprisonment’, quipped Mr Flowers.

It was a case of willful damage to government property but not overly serious. Certainly it was something the magistrate was well within his power to deal with summarily. However, he was inclined, he said, to send Jackson for trial where he could expect a more severe sentence. The prisoner’s situation wasn’t helped by the appearance of a policeman from L Division who said that he’d previously been convicted for breaking windows in Lambeth. The justice there had sent him down for a month but he’d not learned from his experience.

Mr Flowers decided to remand his for a few more days ‘for enquiries’. George would have to sweat it out in a cell for the time being as he waited to find out his fate.

In the end Jackson turned up at the Middlesex Sessions having been committed for trial almost a year later on a separate charge by one of Flowers’ fellow magistrates, Mr Vaughan. He was tried on the 5 February 1884 for ‘maliciously damaging three panes of glass, the property of Her Majesty’s Commissioners of Works’.

George Jackson clearly had a problem with authority and government. He pleaded guilty but despite this, and probably because his previous convictions now counted hard against him, the judge sentenced him to eight years in prison. Jackson was listed as being 33 years old and a carpenter. Perhaps he was a disgruntled former government employee, now out of work (as many were in the 1880s (the decade that coined the word ‘unemployment’).

Maybe also he was suffering from some form of mental illness. Either way, eight years was a very stiff penalty for breaking windows and reflects both the harshness of the late Victorian ‘justice’ system and contemporary fears associated with terror attacks in the capital, of which there were several in the 1883-5.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, August 26, 1883]

Can we have our balls back please mister? No, says a Mr Grumpy near the Oval

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The cricket season is upon us and England have already won and lost a couple of home tests this summer. In London test matches are usually played at either Lords (in St John’s Woods) or south of the river at the Kennington Oval. I’ve mentioned the first test between England and the Australians (who are on their way over again) before on this blog but today’s story takes us further back into cricket’s history, to 1868 12 years before the test series began.

Surrey have played county cricket at the Oval since 1845 when the current site (then a market garden) was acquired. We all know that professional cricket has been on the decline in England in recent years but the proximity to a ground can be inspirational, especially for the young. However, it seems that in 1868 one local man living close to the Surrey CC’s ground suffered a rather unfortunate loss of perspective, one that eventually landed him in court.

In early June 1868 a ‘house proprietor’ based adjacent to Kennington Oval, a man named William Wades, was summoned before Mr Elliot at Lambeth Police court to answer a complaint.

The boys of St Paul’s School had been playing a cricket match on the Oval’s pitch throughout the day and several balls had been struck over the boundary and into the buildings or gardens nearby. Wades became fed up at the number of cricket balls that escaped the Oval and started to refuse to throw them back. He collected several and told the lads that they’d have to wait until the end of the day to retrieve them. The staff of St Paul’s prosecuted him for detaining their property.

In court Wades was indignant. He complained that  cricket balls could do a lot of damage and that it was an all too frequent occurrence to see them come sailing over the walls of his premises.

Mr Elliot was not sympathetic, perhaps suggesting he was a fan of the thwack of leather on willow. He told Wades that it was entirely possible that a ‘hard hitter’ might occasionally send a ball clear of the fences but hardly intentionally, any damage that was done would be the responsibility of the club’s management and he should seek redress in the normal way. He told Wades to hand over the balls and awarded costs to the school.

I used to live behind Northamptonshire’s ground in Abington, Northampton and until they extended their fences we quite often got practice balls landing in our car park. If they hit the cars they did no damage and the only problem we ever really had was when their scarifying of the grass covered all our vehicles in a dark red dust – for which the club immediately apologized and offered compensation.

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Interestingly, while England didn’t play the Australian national team until 1880, a team of native Australians (left) did tour England in 1868 and played their first game at the Oval in May that year. The ‘Aboriginals’ were met with some skepticism by the public and a good deal of Imperialist racism by the press, but they acquitted themselves well, playing 47 matches and winning a third of them. There are no accounts of them using sandpaper to tamper with balls or resorting to sledging to put the opposition off their strokes.

 

[from The Morning Post , Monday, June 08, 1868]

A furious ostler takes his rage out on the horses

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On Monday morning 3 November 1879 the foreman at a stables in Coburg Row, Westminster, found that one of the stablemen was  much ‘the worse for drink’ and sacked him on the spot. The stakes were owned by Mr W. Ackers Smith, who ran a cab and omnibus company and had dozens of horses.

The stableman, James Cooper, didn’t leave immediately however, but loitered around the premises for for a while. After he had left ‘it was discovered that no less than 12 horses had had the hair cut from their tails to the dock.’ Cooper, in his rage at being dismissed had mutilated his master’s stock. While none of the animals had been hurt by the attacks their value, had Mr Ackers Smith wished to sell them on, was significantly reduced.

The police were called and a detective, DS Church of B Division, was soon on the trail of the disgruntled former employee.

Cooper had been seen leaving the stables with a large bag and his movements led the police to a shop in Vincent Street nearby. The shopkeepers, who bought and sold material by weight (usually metals) had purchased a pound and a half of horsehair from a man matching Cooper’s description. The shopkeeper, Mr Oxford, had no more details than this as he only recorded his metal sales, nothing else. He merely offered the explanation that it was a perk of an ostler’s trade to take home horsehair for his own use, so he hadn’t asked too many questions of Cooper.

Cooper was eventually tracked down and arrested. Brought before the Police Magistrate (Mr D’Eyncourt) at Westminster he was charged with the theft of the horsehair. The idea of ‘perks’ (perquisites) prevailed throughout the nineteenth century even if the practice had been under attack for at least a century. Perks harked back to a time before wages had been as fixed as they were in the 1800s; workers were used to taking home benefits of their trades as part of their wage. So carpenters took ‘chips’, coal heavers ‘sweepings’, weavers ‘thrums’ and so on. Employers did their best to stamp out what they saw as pilferage but we are pretty wedded to our perks even today.

However, Cooper’s action, while described as a theft, was really a act of revenge for losing his job. Mr D’Eyncourt was not impressed with him.

‘it was a very dirty trick to play just for the sake of 10d or a shilling, which only represented a few glasses of ale, and for that he seemed to have disfigured a dozen horses’.

However, despite his anger the justice was hamstrung by the sanctions available to him. Cooper had pleaded guilty and thus opted to be dealt with summarily. Mr D’Eyncourt handed him the maximum sentence allowed, four months in prison with hard labour. He would therefore spend Christmas and New Year in gaol and start the new century unemployed and without a good character. That was probably the real punishment for his crime.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, November 06, 1879]

When prison is a better option than the Poor law

 

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The City of London workhouse

Ann Weeks and Sarah Hart were poor and they were starving.

They were so desperate  that they queued up to get into the London Union workhouse. Having not eaten for days they were admitted and given a bed for the night. But instead of the hot meal they had hoped for all they were given was ‘a small bit of dry bread’.

Their reaction was extreme and landed them in the Guildhall Police Court on the following day. Having decided that they would be better fed in prison the women started breaking the windows of the workhouse and pulling out the fittings in the hope that they would get convicted of wilful damage and sentenced to gaol.

The women admitted their crime and justified it on the grounds of desperation. The alderman magistrate had some sympathy for their plight and bemoaned the fact that ‘a gaol should be sought after as a superior refuge to the workhouse’.

The overseer admitted conditions were bad in his institution but said they were overwhelmed with paupers seeking shelter at night, since over 50 came to his door every evening.  The alderman said he had no choice but to give the women what they wanted and sent them to the Bridewell house of correction for two months.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Monday, March 8, 1841]

Two lads cause a rumpus in Highgate

Walter Howe and Josiah Flanders were, by all accounts at least, a pair of tearaways. Despite only being 16 years of age Walter had already racked up a considerable amount of ‘gaol time’. He had been confined in a juvenile reformatory as a boy and had been to prison twice in his early teens. Josiah had so far avoided imprisonment but his appearance, in October 1881, at the Highgate Police Court was not his first.

The Reformatory Schools Act (1854) established a series of reformatories across England and Wales. Pioneered by Mary Carpenter in Bristol these became (along with Industrial Schools) the forerunners of more modern forms of youth custody centres. Their aim was to  remove young people from damaging influences and environment (especially the slums of London and other major British cities) and set them to learn useful skills alongside a ‘moral’ education.

A further act in 1854 allowed juvenile offenders  aged up to 16 to be sentenced to between 2 and 5 years in  reformatory school as an alternative to prison. However, they still had to go to gaol for 14 days – to soften them up and give them a taste of what they might have to look forward to should they not choose to mend their ways.

Clearly this had little effect on Walter Howe.

The boys appeared before the magistrate at Highgate accused of wilful damage and assault. A nurseryman in Highgate (Henry Glass) was disturbed by the noise the blade were making and came out of his house to find them attacking his wall. When he told them to stop they turned on him.

In court Glass testified that Howe struck him twice in the face with a stick while Flanders thumped him with his fist. A police detective appeared to confirm that the boys had a history of bad behaviour; he detailed their convictions and described Howe as ‘a very bad character’.

The magistrate sent Walter to prison for two months and the other lad for one. Clearly neither were good examples of the success of Victorian youth intervention policies.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, October 25, 1881]