‘Distressing accidents and dreadful diseases’: attempts to weed out fake beggars in early Victorian London

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Just recently there was a news items which suggested we need to examine the hands of those asking for money on the streets of London and other British cities. Despite the fact that homelessness as risen by 170 per cent in the last eight years and food bank use has also increased the focus seems to be on weeding out the fake poor from the deserving ones.

I’m comfortable with the idea of prosecuting fraudsters  but I do wonder what sort society we have become when our reaction to someone sitting on a cold wet London street in the middle of winter is to ask ourselves ‘is he trying to con me out of 50p?’

Sadly this is nothing new. The early Victorians were just as concerned with the idea of fake beggars as we seem to be. This was a society which passed the Poor Law Amendment Act in 1834, a piece of legislation that demonized those who asked for help and attempted to discourage benefit dependency but breaking up families and locking up paupers.

It also created the Mendicity Society (or, to give it its proper names: the Society for the Suppression of Mendicity). Formed in 1818 its aim was simple – to prevent people begging in London. It tried to move beggars along and encourage them to leave the capital if possible by giving them small amounts of charity. However, it eschewed the gift of money, preferring instead to give tickets which recipients could exchange for an investigation into their circumstances. This was presumably designed to root out the scammers, who would not want to have their case considered.

Men like William Horsford worked as mendicity officers, looking out for beggars on the streets and hauling them before the magistrates. Begging was an offence under the terms of the 1824 Vagrancy act which allowed the police and others to take people off the streets for having no visible sign of maintaining themselves. This legislation is still in operation today.

In early December 1839 Horsford was on the case of two people who he knew to be incorrigible beggars. Edward Johnson (alias Watson) and Mary Carrol were known to him and the police. Mary dressed in widow’s weeds and made herself look as desperate as possible in order to attract sympathy from passers-by; Johnson was described as a ‘miserable wretch’. Horsford spotted the pair in Pall Mall and decided to tail them, calling on a police constable to help.

He followed them through St James’ Park and then to a pub in Pimlico, called the Compasses (which had existed since the 1640s at least).  They left the pub after an hour and moved on to Sloane Sqaure where they started to knock on door. At one house, where the lady resident had a reputation for charity, Mary Carrol handed over a letter to the servant that opened the door.

The servant declined to accept it, or to give them anything so they headed for Chelsea and tried their luck at a chemist’s shop.  Horsford felt he had enough ammunition now and snuck into the shop behind them. As they tried to beg money using the letter he arrested them and confiscated the letter.

The pair appeared before Mr Burrell at Queen’s Square Police court where the letter was read out. It detailed the ‘facts’ that Mary was a ‘widow afflicted with rheumatism and divers other complaints – that she had a large family, and that her husband had been killed but a few weeks ago by a gentleman’s carriage running over him’.

It was signed by a ‘Mr Churton of Ebury Street’ who recommended the reader to assist Mary ion any way they could.  When searched Johnson was found to have a number of other letters on his person, each addressed to a different but well heeled recipient (the Bishop of London, Marquis of Londonerry, and Countess of Ripon) and each of which carried their own particular ‘sob story’ of ‘distressing accidents and dreadful diseases’.

The pair were clearly poor but Johnson at least was literate. He admitted writing the letters himself but justified by stating that Mary was a deserving case and he was only trying to help. The magistrate had no sympathy (just as the vigilantes who target ‘rogue’ beggars to day have none) and he sent them to prison for three months at hard labour. At least they would be fed and housed over winter, if not very comfortably.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, December 06, 1839]

for more on the work of the Mendicity Society see:

Little help (and no sympathy) for Heroes

A simple case of imposture or a glimpse into the transgender community of Victorian London?

The mad lady and the Queen

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In 1871 Queen Victoria had been on throne for 34 years. Her husband Albert had been dead for a decade and she was yet to adopt the title of Empress of India. Victoria had a big influence on her subjects but her withdrawal from much of public life following the loss of her consort increasingly isolated her from public affection. 1870 had seen the overthrow of the French monarchy and the creation of the Third Republic, dark echoes in England called for a similar revolution, one that never transpired. In late November Victoria’s eldest son, Albert Edward, fell ill with typhoid (probably the same disease that had killed his father) and Victoria must have feared she would lose him as well.

Meanwhile, for ordinary Londoners life went on as usual. The ‘widow of Windsor’ was almost an abstract concept since she’d ducked out of view but her name, and what she symbolised, mattered  considerably.

It certainly mattered to an elderly seamstress called Mrs Lyons. She told the magistrate at Clerkenwell that she had been promised work by her Majesty but ‘court intrigues’ were preventing her from pursuing it. Mrs Lyons lived off the Caledonian Road in north London, close to where the new St Pancras terminal was being constructed. She was poor and in ‘want of money’ she explained, but was confident that with the queen’s patronage she would be fine.

Sadly Mrs Lyons was not very well; she suffered from some form of mental illness, as a police inspector told Mr Cooke, the justice sitting on her case at Clerkenwell Police Court.

‘About two years since the poor woman began to get strange at times in her speech, said that her room was full of rats, that she had an interview with the Queen and members of the royal family, and that her Majesty had promised her money, but that she was prevented from getting it by court intrigues’ .

He went on to say that up until recently Mrs Lyons had lived quietly but in the last few months her condition had worsened and she had started threatening people, including her landlady. A doctor had been called to examine her and he’d declared she was ‘not right in her head’ and she’d been carried off to Islington workhouse. From there she was to be sent to the Colney Hatch Asylum, Europe’s largest such institution.

She had left her room with rent arrears and her landlady was refusing to give her sister leave to take away her sibling’s few possessions until that was paid. Mr Cooke said he was glad the woman was now in safe hands (although I’m not sure I’d consider being in the ‘care’ of a Victorian asylum ‘safe’. I suppose he might have meant the public were safe from her). He ordered the court to pay the arrears so she could be reunited with her ‘things’ and dismissed the case.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, November 28, 1872]

for another story that features Queen Victoria see: “Let me see the Queen, I know who the ‘Ripper’ is!”

 

A fruity case: a man sacrifices his character for ‘a trumpery consideration’.

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Mr Adams had employed George Groves in his warehouse for 14 years. In that time the man had been a model employee, never late, never any trouble, always carrying out his work loading and unloading fruit, efficiently and without any hint of dishonesty. Adams’ wholesale fruiterers operated from premises in Pudding Lane (where the Great Fire had started over 200 years earlier) and supplied all manner of produce to the markets, shops and restaurants of the capital.

Groves was paid reasonable well: he earned 4a day basic, but could make this up to 6s with overtime. As a senior member of staff he had the owner’s trust and the ‘greatest confidence was placed in him’. In short George Groves was just the sort of chap every small businessman wanted: honest, reliable and loyal.

So it must have come as a tremendous shock and personal betrayal to find that his man had stolen from him. It must have been tempting when working with easily disposable items such as apples, oranges and the occasional exotic pineapple, for a worker to snaffle something into a pocket to take home for the wife and kids, or indeed to munch themselves. But Groves had filched 5lbs of grapes which he had hidden (not very well it turned out) ‘about his person’.

He was walking home from work on Friday night when something about his appearance or movements alerted the suspicions of a City police constable  on Fish Street Hill. The officer stopped him and searched him, finding the grapes. He marched him back to Pudding Lane where the foreman identified the fruit as being missing. Groves was arrested and held overnight in the cells before being taken before the Lord Mayor in the morning.

At Mansion House Groves admitted his crime but could provide no explanation for it. The grapes sold at retail for 6d per pound (making them about £1.50 per pound in today’s money) but he reckoned he’d have only realised 1d so it was hardly worth his while). It was so out of character and the Lord Mayor was amazed that a man would ‘sacrifice [his] character for such a trumpery consideration’. The crime was theft but the justice was feeling charitable on the grounds of his previous good conduct. He decided to convict him of unlawful possession, which was a lesser offence and carried a punishment of seven day’s hard labour.

If Mr Adams (as was likely) refused to take him back afterwards then the period of imprisonment was the least of his troubles. For a man in his 30s or 40s, most probably with a family, to find himself unemployed a month before Christmas with little or no chance now of getting a letter of recommendation finding such well paid work would be difficult. If he was lucky he’d find casual labour, if not he was staring at the prospect of the workhouse.

All for what, a large bunch of grapes?

[from The Morning Post, 24 November, 1873]

Making explosives at home is a very bad idea

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It is that time of the year again. The period when all the supermarkets stock fireworks for Guy Fawkes and Diwali. Last Wednesday I was walking out of Finsbury Park station on my way to the football when there was a loud bang, the sound of crackers going off, and screams of fear and delight. Suddenly a young man in a hoodie came charging away from the noise followed soon after by three other excited teenagers.

He had thrown a parcel of fireworks into the street by the traffic lights, causing chaos and amusing himself and his friends. Its hardly the worst crime in the world but perhaps, in these dark days of urban terrorism, it wasn’t the most sensible thing to do.

Kids eh?

Such irresponsibility isn’t restricted to children or young adults of course and in 1888 it landed William Seal in court. Seal – who was described as ‘a cripple’ (meaning he was disabled in some way) – was hailed before Mr Bros at Dalston Police court for manufacturing fireworks in a  private house.

He was prosecuted under the Explosives Act (1875) and the case was brought by James Gibbons of the Metropolitan Board of Works and their solicitor, Mr Roberts. The court heard that Seal lived in the upstairs room of a house in Dunster Square, Hackney. The square was home to several houses, each of four rooms, and formed a cul de sac. It was a densely populated area and so very many families lived nearby to where Seal made his pyrotechnics.

Seal lived in a room that was just 9 feet by 7, not much different, in fact, than a standard cell in a Victorian prison. The room was heated by an open fire which was unprotected by any screen or grate, and the table on which Gibbons found Seal’s explosives being made was less than 4 feet away. The table very close to the open fire but the bed was even closer, and Seal stored fireworks under this as well.

The risk of a catastrophic accident, he figured, was very high indeed.

Seal’s landlady was called to give evidence and she testified that she believed he was a toy maker, she never knew he made fireworks and was shocked by the news. She lived downstairs and was ‘very indigent when she discovered the peril in which she and her four children had been placed’.

Mr Bros ordered that all Seal’s stock and manufacturing equipment be seized and brushed aside the defendant’s complaints that it would take away his meagre livelihood. He only made a shilling day from selling fireworks which was barely ‘enough to keep himself out of the workhouse’.

The magistrate was insistent and told the man that by breaking the terms of the act he had rendered himself liable to a fine of £100 a day, and endangered the lives of dozens of people nearby. He fined him £5 or a month’s imprisonment. Shaking his head Seal sloped away from the dock, ‘its the workhouse for me then’, he declared.

[from London Evening Standard, Monday, 5 November 1888]

A magistrate woefully out of touch with reality but who founded a legal dynasty

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Sir Henry Curtis-Bennett might be forgiven for not really knowing ‘how the poor live[d]’ in 1888. He had been appointed a magistrate for Westminster just two years previously at the age of 40. In 1888 in fact he was ‘Mr’ as the king didn’t knight him until May 1913 just a few weeks before he died. He was the son of an Essex  vicar and read law at university. He was called to the Bar in 1870 and so had plenty of experience (as all the metropolitan magistrates did) in the legal system, if not in the day-to-day life of ordinary Londoners.

In November 1888 he was presiding at Wandsworth when young George Thomas Bellenger was brought before him, charged with ‘living beyond the control of his parents’. The gaoler brought him up from the day cells and informed his worship that the lad was half starved. Until that morning he’d not eaten for days and so had been glad of the meal that Mr Ironmonger, a local Industrial School officer had provided.

The officer had been to George’s parent’s home and found it to be in a terrible state. There were several children there, all ‘crying for food’ and he reported that the place lacked the basic ‘necessaries of life’ (by which I presume he meant food and heating).

If the family were destitute then surely they should have gone to the workhouse Mr Curtis-Bennett declared. The gaoler said his worship was correct but added that many of the poor were ‘disinclined to become inmates of the workhouse’.

The magistrate said he was aware of this but couldn’t understand it. After all in England the poor were looked after better than in any other country in the world. Here there were ‘workhouses, infirmaries, and dispensaries’. This was the extent of the ‘welfare state’ in 1888: there was no unemployment benefit, no state pension, no NHS. Instead if you unable to feed yourself or find shelter you could enter the ‘house’ where you would treated (despite the former barrister’s opinion) little better than prisoners were.

George’s mother was called forward to explain her situation. She told the magistrate that her husband was out of work. He had been employed by a mineral water company as a delivery man but he had been sacked after eight years’ service. The reason, she was asked?

‘He trotted the horses’.

‘For no other reason?’

‘No sir’.

So because he pushed the horses to get his rounds done more quickly they company had sacked him. Workers had few, if any, rights in the 1880s and unemployment was high so there were always people to fill gaps if employers wished to get rid of people or pay them lower wages.

At this Mr Curtis-Bennett had a temporary rush of charitable understanding. He awarded the woman 10from the poor box. Then he sent her little boy to the workhouse.

Henry Curtis-Bennett died in office. He had become the Chief Magistrate at Bow Street and in July 1913 he was a attending a meeting at Mansion House (seat of the Lord Mayor of London) when he fell ill. He had survived a bomb attack in 1908 orchestrated by militant suffragettes (and other attempts as he was a lead magistrate in suppressing their ‘outrages’) but he didn’t survive this latest assault on his constitution. curtiss-bennett-1He died soon afterwards and was succeeded by his eldest son, also Henry, who went on to be a more famous lawyer than his father and a Conservative politician.

His son – Derek Curtis-Bennett) followed in his father and grandfather’s footsteps and entered the law. As a defence barrister he famously defended (if not successfully) the traitor William Joyce (Lord Haw-Haw) and the murderer John Christie.

No one knows what happened to little George or his siblings, or if they even survived the winter of 1888.

[from The Standard, Friday, November 02, 1888]

One of the waifs and strays that Barnardo’s couldn’t help

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There were very many prosecutions for begging heard at the Victorian Police courts. Begging was an offence that fell under laws that had been amended over the centuries but had been in place in some form since at least the Tudor period. In the nineteenth century you weren’t supposed to beg, you were supposed to present yourself at the workhouse gates if you really had no means of supporting yourself, and take the consequences.

The consequences (as contemporary writers like Jack London or George Sims discovered) were grim. On admittance to the workhouse causal ward the newcomer would be stripped and washed in cold water. His  possessions would be bundled up and taken away, he was given a token with a number on for safe keeping. It was assumed that if a pauper kept anything of value (even his clothes) they would be stolen by his companions.   A member of staff (or fellow inmate) would dole out a lump of hard bread and the new arrival would be shown to the ‘shed’ – a cold unlit room where the poor slept. Bedding was minimal and the mattress token; London found that his was blood stained for the warden turned it over.

If they managed to sleep at all it was either a miracle or a result of being so exhausted they could do little else. In the morning they were rudely awakened and their clothes etc were returned. Now they were led out into the yard to be fed and to pay for their keep. Food was basic: a swill that vaguely resembled oatmeal porridge. Work was backbreaking and usually involved smashing up rocks. Paupers were treated much like criminals and the stain attached to poverty followed them around for life.

No wonder then that people would rather beg, or even turn to crime. A little boy known only by his surname (‘Hall’) had been arrested by the police in central London. He was presented at Marlborough Street Police court to face Mr Mansfield. The magistrate heard that the boy had turned to begging after his father had taken him out of a Barnardo’s Home. Mr Hall inferred that he would rather have the lad with him than in one of the charity’s institutions but we are not told why.

However Mr Mansfield seemed to suggest that this was the fault of Barnardo and other similar ‘public institutions’ that had closed ‘their doors to those [children] who lame or in ill-health’. The consequence of this policy was that they had to return to their homes ‘or their haunts of vice, to be more neglected and cruelly ill-treated than before’.

He thought it ‘monstrous that those little waifs and starts should be cast aside in that matter’. Having said his piece he discharged little Hall into the care of his father.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, October 20, 1886]

The histrionic farrier from Luton who drank himself silly at Barnet Fair

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I grew up in Finchley in North London. It was then (and is now) a multi-cultural  suburban centre with a busy high street, a couple of nice parks, and good transport links to central London. However, a quick glance at G. W. Bacon’s atlas of the capital (see below right) shows that in 1888 (when the map was published) there was very little of the modern Finchley in evidence.

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Church End (where I went to school) is just a small village and there are open fields all the way to what is now East Finchley. The railways (The Edgware, Highgate & London line) is there, as is the main southbound road towards Temple Fortune, Golders Green and then the main metropolis. Barnet, in the late nineteenth century then, was a largely rural place with pockets of suburban growth. This is reflected in this case from Highgate Police court in September 1898.

Thomas Hopkins, a 48 year-old farrier was brought up to answer a charge of being disorderly and of damaging a police cell.  The man wasn’t from Highgate or Finchley but had travelled down to the Barnet Fair from Luton in Hertfordshire. He’d been found at Whetstone on a Monday night, drunk as a lord, ‘behaving in a very disorderly manner’. The local police arrested him and locked him in a cell to sober up overnight.

Hopkins was belligerent however and made a great deal of fuss. He demanded water and complained that he was being allowed to die in the cell. When Sergeant Goodship went to see what all the noise was about the farrier threatened him saying:

‘If you don’t let me out, you will be hung in two minutes’.

It was an empty threat but typical of Hopkins’ histrionic manner. Throughout his arrest, incarnation and appearance in court Thomas managed to embroider his tale with exaggeration and melodrama. It amused the court’s audience if not the magistrates sitting in judgement on him.

‘I’m dying’, he told the police who had locked him up.

As he attempted to destroy his cell he promised to pay for all the damage, ‘even if it’s a thousand pounds’.

For context £1,000 in 1898 equates to about £78,000, which would pay a skilled tradesman wages for almost a decade!).

In court he was asked to explain himself and told the bench that on the previous Sunday he’d got two horses ready in Luton. One he intended to ride, the other would led by his assistant. But his wife refused to allow ‘his man’ to travel as well (perhaps thinking she’d need him at the stables).

He rode for 20 miles and called ahead for someone to meet him (who never showed up). He carried on and said he’d now walked for 200 miles, which collapsed the court in laughter. Luton is about 30 miles from Barnet so Hopkins was exaggerating wildly for effect. He wanted to show how far he’d tramped and how thirsty he was.

He was worried about falling victim to robbers as well. ‘There are any number of roughs lying about there’, he explained and revealed that he always carried a knife up his sleeve. When the police arrested him they took his knife away, and he lay still on the floor and pretended to be dead, ‘but I knew I wasn’t’, he added with perfect (if not necessarily deliberate) comic timing.

As the magistrates struggled to contain the laughter in the courtroom Hopkins played his final card. He claimed the police had try to kill him.

‘They gave me enough poison to kill the whole world’ he told his enthralled audience.

Sergeant Goodship gave a more rational explanation:

‘He told me he’d been drinking hard for a fortnight’.

The court was told that a doctor had been supposed to examine him in Luton before he left for the fair but hadn’t managed to before the farrier set off. Perhaps his wife and friends had been worried about the sate of his mental health. The bench could see that all was clearly not quite right with Thomas Hopkins and remanded him to the nearest workhouse infirmary so he could be checked out by a doctor. Ultimately, ‘mad’ or not, he would be sent back to Luton and his wife, though what fate awaited him there was unclear.

Barnet has had a horse fair since the middle ages and it would have drawn men like Thomas Hopkins from all over the south east of England. Horses and cattle were traded there and there was racing as well, at least till 1870. Now it exists as annual local festival, not a horse fair. The name of course is probably better as coated with cockney rhyming slang – Barnet Fair = Hair. So on Friday, after work, I’m off to get my Barnet snipped.

[from The Standard , Tuesday, September 13, 1898]