The Case of the Marylebone Six
AUTHOR: WILLIAM ELLIS-REES
PUBLISHED: 19 SEPTEMBER 2021
If you read last week’s article, which can be accessed here, you will remember that trouble was brewing in Marylebone Lane on the evening of Thursday 13 January 1848. Two powerfully built young men, John Poole and John Smith, who were both navvies and out of work, entered a baker’s shop at No. 64 owned by a Mr Charles Butler. One of the two men picked up a loaf of bread he had seen sitting in the window. The pair then walked straight out of the shop and back into the street.
The baker, as surprised as he was angered, walked to the door. Peering out into Marylebone Lane, he noticed that the two navvies had been joined by four others. At that moment he caught sight of a police officer, who just happened to be on patrol.
The six men were promptly apprehended and escorted to the police station at the bottom of Marylebone Lane. There they explained that they had taken the loaf — or at least Poole and Smith had taken the loaf — because they were starving. When they were told to turn their pockets out, it was discovered that they had only a single ha’penny between them. Mr Butler’s loaf cost thruppence ha’penny.
Grim and gaunt
On the following Monday the six men appeared before the magistrates at the Middlesex Sessions House on Clerkenwell Green. Heavy rain fell all day and it was cold from dawn to dusk. One of the London papers, reporting Thursday evening’s incident, had described the navvies as ‘grim and gaunt’ as they prowled through the streets of Marylebone, and their condition was unlikely to have changed over the two intervening days.
John Poole and John Smith pleaded guilty to the charge of stealing the loaf of bread. On the other hand their four companions — John Barrett, James Johnson, Thomas Miles and Thomas Williams — put in a plea of not guilty. Their defence was that they took no part in the actual theft. They did not know what their companions had in mind: they simply waited for them outside the shop. They added that at the time of the incident they were all trying to gain admission to the casual ward of the parish workhouse in Northumberland Street.
A stable for the night
The journalist Henry Mayhew, writing in the middle of the century, described in unsparing detail the temporary shelters that were available to ‘casuals’ or vagrants:
These wards consist each of a large chamber, in which are arranged two large guard-beds, or inclined boards, similar to those used in soldiers’ guard-rooms; between these there is a passage from one end of the chamber to the other. The boards are strewn with straw, so that, on entering the place in the daytime, it has the appearance of a well-kept stable. All persons are supplied with two, and in the cold season with three, rugs to cover them. These rugs are daily placed in a fumigating oven, so as to decompose all infectious matter.
The wards were cheerless and basic, and, as lights were not allowed, there was nothing else to do but sleep. Then in the morning, before they left, the casuals were required to undertake a set amount of manual labour, a form of payment for their accommodation. Men were often made to break stones, and so, had our six navvies been admitted on the night of the 13th, then on the morning of the 14th they would have been given precisely the work they had for so long been unable to find.
A melancholy sight
But they did not get into the casual ward and they did not get to break stones. Instead, as we have seen, they were frog-marched down Marylebone Lane to the police station, their attempt at stealing bread from Mr Butler at No. 64 an ignominious failure. Accordingly, when they stood before the magistrates, hungry and shamed, they might have expected swingeing sentences to be handed down to them. The smallest of misdemeanours, such as picking a pocket or stealing clothes from a washing line, might condemn a felon to months of imprisonment or even to years of penal transportation.
But at precisely the moment when he might have come down on the navvies with the full force of the law, the chairman of the magistrates, Francis Pearson Walesby, chose instead to bare his soul. How distressing to see six strong men cowering before him at the bar! How melancholy that in a city where opulence reigned supreme there were those — and they our fellow-creatures — who were driven to theft by nothing more than hunger! Naturally he had no intention of absolving the men of guilt, if guilty the jury deemed them to be. He simply wanted to express his sadness at this state of affairs.
Walesby then told the court a story he felt had a bearing on the matter. He had been at the Westminster Bridewell — the prison at Tothill Fields — as a visiting justice. One of the inmates had been found guilty of an offence identical to that of the navvies, namely stealing a loaf of bread. So emaciated was he that he was consigned to the infirmary, where in spite of the best efforts of the medical officers he died. An inquest was held, at which the jury returned a verdict of death from starvation.
The sufferings of humanity
Walesby had not pulled his punches. He was at pains to assure the jury that he was not in any way trying to influence their decision in the case of the six navvies. But he insisted — and The Times reported his address to the jury — that
it was a duty which was imposed upon a court of justice to listen to the sufferings of humanity; and, whilst the Court was bound to protect the property of the public from depredation, and to guard the interests of society at large, it was not at the same time precluded from extending full consideration to the circumstances which might surround or be connected with the commission of crime.
The jury returned a verdict of ‘guilty’ together with a plea for leniency, which in view of the address from the bench is not entirely surprising. But when the time came to close the proceedings, Walesby offered the following rather remarkable comment on the case. In his view it was regrettable that the navvies ganged together to roam the streets of Marylebone. By doing this — by acting as a gang — they risked intimidating members of the public. They ought instead to have thrown themselves on the mercy of the parish workhouse. After all, the parish was there to help.
We must not have gangs
Walesby’s comments provoked a spirited response from one of the defendants, who declared that he and his companions had asked a relieving officer of the workhouse in Northumberland Street for help. At the time they had not eaten for two days and two nights. The officer, seeing their plight, took them to the police station at the bottom of Marylebone Lane, where they might obtain the tickets that allowed them to spend the night in the casual ward. However, only one ticket was available at the Marylebone Lane station. And so the men set off to find another workhouse in the hope of getting tickets there, and it was in the course of this journey that they passed the baker’s shop at No. 64, saw the bread in the window and under the impulse of hunger committed the theft.
At this point Walesby’s sympathy reached its natural limit. He said that he had encountered a similar case two years ago in which the incompetence or indifference of relieving officers was made the excuse for a criminal act. On that occasion the allegations were found to be baseless, and he was no more prepared to listen to such criticisms now than he had been then. ‘If an officer performed his duty,’ he was reported as saying, ‘a destitute person could at all times by applying to him receive information where to obtain bread.’ There must be a clear warning that roving gangs of desperate men were not to be tolerated.
Reaping the whirlwind
Where Walesby professed to have some sympathy for the navvies, others clearly had none. An editorial in The Morning Post pointed out that support for destitute citizens was generously provided by means of the poor rates and private benevolence. The problem, as the Post saw it, was twofold. In the first place, without adequate government control, the system was open to abuse. Then, and more seriously,
the poor are left at liberty to do what they will with their own, while they are receiving good wages; and, being without education, without advice, without good example, they squander in senseless, sensual extravagance that which might be to them a source of comfort and independence.
In just this way, the editorial went on to suggest, the six navvies were the victims of their own fecklessness. In all probability they had squandered the good wages they had earned while in work in reckless self-indulgence. Now they were out of work they were suffering the consequences of their profligacy.
In damning the six men in this way the Post was expressing a widely held prejudice. The early 1840s had seen a boom in the building of railways that had cooled significantly as the decade came to a close, leaving railway labourers who had previously enjoyed lucrative employment high and dry. Having sown the wind, the argument ran, these labourers were now reaping the whirlwind. Meanwhile the ‘pious men’ who preached thrift and moderation to the working classes preached in vain. And the government, in failing to control the speculators, and ensure sustained long-term employment, had abandoned the labourers to their wanton and destructive instincts.
The misery of destitution
But Lloyd’s Weekly London Newspaper, and, one would imagine, many of the more thoughtful members of the reading public, saw the matter differently, taking issue with Walesby’s equivocation over the guilt of the navvies:
He surely could not mean to imply that the guilt of the six prisoners at the bar, who had, under the pressure of starvation, stolen a loaf of the value of 3½d., was equal to what it would have been, had no such impulse led to the committal of the robbery with which they stood charged.
Walesby was also criticised for his assertion that a person in need could always look to the parish for help. There were instances beyond counting of relieving officers turning away applicants for assistance with open contempt. Small wonder that petty offences were on the rise when even prison offered greater relief from starvation than the very institution designed to alleviate the misery of destitution.
Walesby sentenced all six men to one month’s imprisonment with hard labour in the Middlesex House of Correction at Coldbath Fields. He claimed that compassion had influenced his decision, as indeed had the jury’s request for leniency. So did Lloyd’s criticise Walesby unfairly after all? Hard to say. We would need to know what sentence he would have handed down had the men in the dock been anything other than unemployed navvies, grim and gaunt, with no more than a ha’penny to their name.
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