The Work of Punishment and Reclamation.
The Effect of "The Society for the Suppression of Mendicity" State Business carried out by Individual Enterprise—"The Discharged Prisoners'Aid Society"—The quiet Work of these Societies Their Mode of Work— Curious Statistics Singular Oscillations—Diabolical Swindling.
The Society for the Suppression of Mendicity has done more towards checking
imposture, and bringing evildoers to punishment, than the Government itself,
notwithstanding all the elaborate and expensive machinery at its command. Nor,
by the way, is this a solitary instance of business peculiarly its own being
shirked by the State, and handed over to be dealt with by the skill, energy, and
perseverance of a few private individuals. A kindred association to that, the
province of which is the better government of the beggars of London, is that
which devotes its energies to the reclamation of returned convicts. Anyone at
all acquainted with the matter is aware of the immense amount of lasting and
substantial good that the "Discharged Prisoners' Aid Society" has accomplished.
That the individuals chiefly concerned—the returned convicts
themselves—fully appreciate the advantages held out by the said Society is
sufficiently proved by the fact, that out of 368 licence-holders discharged into
the metropolis, 290 placed themselves in its hands. No doubt such arrangements
do prove as convenient as economical as regards the Government; but whether it
is just to inflict a responsibility of such magnitude on private individuals
is another question; or whether the easement it confers is cheaply purchased by
our rulers at the cost of so unmistakable a confession of their incapacity.
So quietly and unobtrusively do these self-constituted guardians of public morality perform the arduous duties they undertake, that it may be safely assumed not one person in a thousand is aware what their prime objects are, let alone the means by which they are accomplished. As regards the Mendicity Society, there can be no doubt what is the popular impression. It is commonly regarded as a sort of amateur detective association for the discovery of fraudulent begging,—a Society that has in its employ certain cunning individuals of the detested breed of "spies," who earn their wages by lurking in shady places, and peeping over men's shoulders, and covertly listening to their private conversation. The full extent of the Society's usefulness, according to vulgar prejudice, is represented by the unfortunate "cadger" pounced on in the act of receiving alms, and carried before a magistrate to account for that enormous iniquity. People, however, who know no more of the Society than this, know only of the smallest and least important of its functions. It is a poor's-relief association on an extensive scale. It has its labour-sheds for testing the genuineness of the mendicants that apply at the office, to say nothing of a real treadmill of its own. Moreover it proclaims its ability to offer suitable employment to every able-bodied mendicant referred to it. The following is the Society's method of dealing. The plan of the institution is to provide subscribers with tickets, which are intended to be distributed to street-beggars only, and which will insure admission to the Society's office, where the applicant is examined by the sitting or assistant manager, who directs such immediate relief as in his judgment may appear proper.
If the applicant appears deserving, and is without lodging, money sufficient to procure one for the night is given. In cases where the applicant appears to have an immediate claim on any London parish, the pauper is referred to the overseers of such parish. If, as in some cases, it is requisite for the applicant to return on a subsequent day, he is furnished with a return-ticket, which introduces him again to the office for further relief. In the mean time inquiry is made, if practicable, into the character of the pauper, by which the sitting manager is governed in awarding proper relief. Men are sent to the Society's premises to chop wood, and women and children to the oakum-room. During the time they are employed, men receive eightpence, and women four-pence per day, for lodging-money, and two meals, and one meal for each member of the family; and on Saturdays double allowance of money, with an extra meal to take home for each, that they may have no excuse for begging on Sunday. Each meal in winter consists of a pint of nutritious soup, and a sixth of a four-pound loaf of good bread; and in summer one quarter of a pound of cheese, and the same proportion of bread. At the end of a week, if they apply, the order for work may be renewed, until they have been employed a month, when the case is discharged, unless the sitting manager considers an extension of employment desirable; in which case it is laid before the committee, who renew the order for another month, or give such other relief as they think most likely to prevent the necessity of a recurrence to street-begging. In order to check repeated applications from the same persons, those who habitually resort to the refuges for the house-less, or the metropolitan workhouses, for lodging, and to the Society for food, if males, have to perform three hours' work at the mill; if females, three hours' work at oakum-picking, before food is given them; and the men may also, if practicable, have three days' work at stone-breaking. Applicants of this description making more than six applications within one year are refused further relief, unless on investigation they are found deserving of assistance.
Persons who have not been six months in London are not considered objects of the charity; but food is given to persons passing through London in search of work, to assist them on their way. In the case of mendicants incapable of labour, the amount of daily allowance is 6d. for a single man, 9d. for a man, his wife, and young child, and is. in any other case; but this allowance may be doubled on Saturday night, at the discretion of the sitting or assistant-manager. Labourers at the mill receive 6d. per day, and the wife and children of persons employed may receive a meal. The wives of men employed either at the mill or stoneyard may also have work, and receive wages, provided that their joint earnings do not exceed one shilling per day.
The Society's "Report" recently issued shows the kind and the extent of the business transacted through its officials up to the close of the year 1867. It contains much that is interesting as well as instructive, and not a little that is puzzling. We are informed that within the year 644 vagrants were arrested and taken before a magistrate, and that of this number 311 were committed, and 333 discharged. From the commencement to the close of the year 1867, upwards of 10,000 cases of "casual" relief passed through the hands of the Society, as well as between 400 and 500 cases that are alluded to as "registered"—a term, it may be assumed, that distinguishes the ordinary casual case from that which demands investigation and private inquiry. Amongst the whole number, 44,347 meals were distributed, and a considerable sum of money and some clothes; it being no uncommon occurrence for the management to rig-out the ragged, hard-up unfortunate applying for relief, and to start him in the world in a way that, if he has the intention, gives him a fair chance of recovering a decent position.
The most curious part of the affair, however, appears in the plain and simple tabulated statement that represents the yearly number of vagrants relieved and set to work, and consigned to proper punishment, since the time of the Mendicity Society's first establishment. In the first year of the Society's existence, when the scheme was new, and the vagrant crop dead-ripe for gathering, and the officers eager to get at their new and novel employment, 385 "sturdy beggars" were caught and sent to gaol. It is consoling to know that in the last year (1967) this number was decreased considerably, and that no more than 311 were sentenced. This may appear no vast reduction, but when we consider not only the enormously-increased population since 1818, and, what is of equal significance, the advance of intellect and cleverness and cunning amongst this as every other community doomed to live by the exercise of its wits, the result is one on which the country may be congratulated.
When, however, we come to regard the long column that at a glance reveals the figures that pertain to vagrant committals for fifty successive years, a decided damper is thrown on one's hopes that the trade of the shiftless roving vagabond is becoming surely though slowly extinguished. As might be expected of a class so erratic in its movements, it would be difficult to measure them by any fixed standard; but one is scarcely prepared to discover the awful amount of uncertainty that prevails as regards the going and coming of these impostor tramps, when there is a dearth of them, and when their swarming may be expected. They are like cholera or plague, and have their seasons of sloth, and again of general prevalence and virulence. The laws that govern the movements of the professional beggar are inscrutable. You may make war on him and thin his ranks, and prosecute him and persecute him, and by the end of the year be able to show in plain unmistakable figures that he is not half the formidable fellow he was last year; that you have blunted his sting and decreased his dimensions. You still prosecute the war of extermination, and next year you are in a position to reveal in black-and-white further glorious results. The thousand has become seven hundred, and again the seven hundred four. At this rate, ere two more years are elapsed, you may strip the rags from your last beggar's back, and hang them on the city gate as a scarecrow and a caution against a revival of the detestable trade.
But alas for our delusive hopes! Come another year—that which showed our seven hundred beggars dwindled down to four—and without any apparent cause the enemy, crippled and more than half killed as it seemed, reappears on the stage hale and sound, and with years of life in him yet. The four hundred has grown to six. There are no means of accounting for it. Depression of trade and poverty widely prevailing will not do so, for such are times of prosperity and fattening with the professional beggar. When "giving" is the order of the day, and benevolence, sickening at the sight of privation and distress that seems endless, shuts her eyes and bestows her gifts on all comers, then is the cadger's harvest, then he may pursue his shameful avocation with comparative impunity. If we required evidence of this, it is furnished by the Society's statistics. In 1865, which was an ordinarily fair year with the working man, the number of vagrant committals reached 586, while in the year following, when destitution prevailed so enormously, and the outcries of famine were so generously responded to through the length and breadth of the land, the number of begging impostors who got into trouble were only 372.
It will be as well, perhaps, that the reader should have set before him the figures for the various years precisely as they stand in the Society's last issued Report. As will be seen, for some reason that is not explained, there are no returns for the four years 1830 to 1833 inclusive. Appended to the "committed vagrant list" is a record of the number of cases specially inquired into and "registered," as well as a statement of the number of meals that were in each year distributed.
Years... Cases registered ... Vagrants committed ... Meals given.
1818 ... 3,284 ... 385 ... 16,827
1819 ... 4,682 ... 580 ... 33,013
1820 ... 4,546 ... 359 ... 46,407
1821 ... 2,336 ... 324 ... 28,542
1822 ... 2,235 ... 287 ... 22,232
1823 ... 1,493 ... 193 ... 20,152
1824 ... 1,441 ... 195 ... 25,396
1825 ... 1,096 ... 381 ... 19,600
1826 ... 833 ... 300 ... 22,972
1827 ... 806 ... 403 ... 35,892
1828 ... 1,284 ... 786 ... 21,066
1829 ... 671 ... 602 ... 26,286
1830 ... 848 ... - ... 105,488
1831 ... 1,285 ... - ... 79,156
1832 ... 1,040 ... - ... 73,315
1833 ... 624 ... - ... 37,074
1834 ... 1,226 ... 652 ... 30,513
1835 ... 1,408 ... 1,510 ... 84,717
1836 ... 946 ... 1,004 ... 68,134
1837 ... 1,087 ... 1,090 ... 87,454
1838 ... 1,041 ... 873 ... 155,348
1839 ... 1,055 ... 962 ... 110,943
1840 ... 706 ... 752 ... 113,502
1841 ... 997 ... 1,119 ... 195,625
1842 ... 1,223 ... 1,306 ... 128,914
1843 ... 1,148 ... 1,018 ... 167,126
1844 ... 1,184 ... 937 ... 174,229
1845 ... 1,001 ... 868 ... 165,139
1846 ... 980 ... 778 ... 148,569
1847 ... 910 ... 625 ... 239,171
1848 ... 1,161 ... 979 ... 148,661
1849 ... 1,043 ... 905 ... 64,251
1850 ... 787 ... 570 ... 94,106
1851 ... 1,150 ... 900 ... 102,140
1852 ... 658 ... 607 ... 67,985
1853 ... 419 ... 354 ... 62,788
1854 ... 332 ... 326 ... 52,212
1855 ... 235 ... 239 ... 52,731
1856 ... 325 ... 293 ... 49,806
1857 ... 354 ... 358 ... 54,074
1858 ... 329 ... 298 ... 43,836
1859 ... 364 ... 305 ... 40,256
1860 ... 430 ... 350 ... 42,912
1861 ... 446 ... 335 ... 73,077
1862 ... 542 ... 411 ... 47,458
1863 ... 607 ... 451 ... 45,477
1864 ... 413 ... 370 ... 55,265
1865 ... 774 ... 586 ... 52,137
1866 ... 481 ... 372 ... 38,131
1867 ... 488 ... 311 ... 44,347
Total 54,767 ... 27,609 ...3,713,726
Assuming that the Society constantly employs the same number of officers, and that they
are always maintained in the same condition of activity, it is difficult to
account for the disparity displayed by the above-quoted figures. It would
almost seem that the mendicity constabulary were gifted with a prescience of
what was about to happen; that they know, by the barking of dogs or some other
unmistakable token, when "the beggars are coming to town," and sallied out,
as fishermen do at the approach of herrings or mackerel, prepared, and fully
determined to make a good haul.
It is a pity that, despite the good work it accomplishes, the Society for the Suppression of Mendicity should have weighty reasons for lamenting the falling-off of public support it has of late experienced. Nothing could be more promising than its launching. It took the field with a staff of eight constables only, and an income of 4,384/.; nor could it be said to disappoint the expectations of its patrons. In its first year of operation it prosecuted 385 professional vagrants. Its success progressed. After a lapse of twenty-five years, in 1842 we find it with an income of 6,576/.; and that prosperity had not dulled its energy appears from the fact that in the year last mentioned there occurred, in the deep waters where that slippery and voracious fish, the incorrigible beggar, lurks for prey, the splendid catch of over thirteen hundred. Encouraged by so fair a stroke of business, and the kindness and generosity of an appreciative public, the Society then added a new branch to their business—the begging-letter branch; which, it should be understood, did not originally come within the scope of its operations in any shape.
At the expiration of another quarter of a century, however, we find that, instead of an increase of income to the extent of one-third, as occurred in the first quarter of a century of the Society's existence, its resources have fallen off to the extent of nearly one-half, as compared with the income of 1842.
This is as it should not be. As has been shown, feeding the deserving poor as well as punishing the inveterate vagrant comprises a prominent feature of the Society's business, and this it is impossible to do without adequate funds. It might be supposed that the passing of the Houseless Poor Act would have diminished the number of applicants to this and other charitable societies; but there is a large class of persons temporarily thrown out of work to whom the casual wards of workhouses are useless, and who do not apply for assistance there. The number of this class who applied with tickets at the Society's office during the past year was more than double the number of such applicants in the preceding year, being, in 1866, 4,378; but in 1867, 10,532. Among these poor persons 44,347 meals, consisting of 7,389 four-pound loaves, upwards of four tons of cheese and 785 gallons of soup, have been distributed. In addition to this amount of food, 65/. 7s., in small Sums of money, has been given to those whose cases seemed suitable for such relief.
The apprehended cases were 644, as compared with 693 such cases in 1866, but though a diminished constabulary force was employed for part of the year, yet nearly as large a number of old offenders was committed by the magistrate, being 311 compared with 372 in 1866. The number of begging-letters referred to the office for inquiry during the past year was 2,019, being somewhat fewer than the return of such applications for the year 1866. Of the 2,019 letters 790 were from unknown applicants; 620 from persons previously known to the Society's officials, but requiring a more recent investigation; and 609 from persons too well known to require any investigation.
The following cases that have occurred during the past year will show the mode in which the Society deals with the very different classes of applicants brought within the sphere of its operations:
"No. 617. F. J.—This young man, 24 years of age, came to the office with a subscriber's ticket. He stated that he had been employed last as a bookkeeper at Manchester, and left that situation in April, and had since been in London seeking a situation, in which he had failed, and having no friends here, had become destitute. He was a well-spoken single man, and appeared to be truthful in his statements and anxious to return to Manchester, where he had relatives who would assist him. At the instance of the presiding manager some old clothes were given him, which improved his appearance, and thirty shillings were handed to a constable to pay his fare, which was done, and the balance was given to him. A few days after he wrote from Manchester a letter, in which he stated that he had every prospect of obtaining employment, and expressed much gratitude for what had been done for him at this office."
"No. 883. S. F.—This woman, 37 years of age, applied to the Society with a subscriber's ticket, alleging her distress to have been caused by the desertion of her husband and her own inability to procure employment, owing to the want of decent clothing. She was sent to the Society's oakum-room to work, and while there saved enough money to purchase several articles of wearing apparel. Inquiry was made; and it being found that her statements were true and her character good, a situation was found her, in which she still is, apparently giving satisfaction to her employers, and likely to obtain a respectable living for the future.
"No. 169,150. 5. W. G.—This poor woman, the widow of a labourer, and aged 45 years, had done her best to bring up her family in credit, by keeping a small coal and greengrocery shop, making ginger-beer, &c. during the summer months; and several of the children were nearly providing for themselves, when she lost her sight, and was found in a state of distress. Her eldest daughter had been obliged to leave her situation to look to the house; but having a knowledge of the sewing-machine and a prospect of obtaining work at home, it was decided to recommend the case for liberal relief, in order that a machine might be obtained and the daughter thus enabled to assist in rearing the younger children at home, which object there is reason to hope has been accomplished."
"No. 54,494. C. T., alias S.—A well-dressed woman was apprehended on a warrant, charging her with obtaining charitable contributions by false pretences; she had been known to the Society's officers for years, and a number of complaints had been lodged at the office against her during that time; when apprehended on previous occasions no one could be found willing to appear against her. In the present instance she had applied to a lady residing at Rutland-gate for a loan of 2/. to enable her to take her brother to Scotland, whom she represented as having just left the Brompton Hospital very ill, and that she had been advised to get him to his native air, where they had friends. To strengthen her appeal she mentioned the names of two or three persons known to the lady to whom she was applying, and as having been sent by one of them to her; on the faith of the representations made she was assisted with 2l6s.; but subsequent inquiry convinced this lady that the statement was false. At the time the prisoner was taken into custody she had 5/. 8s. 5½d. on her person; and being made acquainted with the charge confessed herself guilty of these offences, and offered to repay the money; but on the case being stated to the magistrate he sentenced her to three months~ imprisonment, and the money found in her possession to be applied to her maintenance while there."
"No. 42,064. T. B., with a number of aliases, was again apprehended by one of the Society's constables; he had been known as a begging-letter impostor for upwards of twenty years, and during that period had been three times transported, and as many times liberated on tickets-of-leave. On this occasion (in company with a Woman whom he represented as a district visitor) he applied to a gentleman residing in Eaton-square, stating he was ‘Mr. Bond,' one of the overseers of St. Marylebone parish, and gave in his card to that effect. On obtaining an interview, he said he and the lady with him had interested themselves on behalf of a ‘Mrs. Cole,' a widow with six children, a native of Ledbury in Herefordshire, who wished to return home, where she would be able to obtain a living for herself and family, and he was seeking subscriptions to purchase the family a little clothing and funds to defray the expense of their transit. The gentleman knowing Ledbury well, and believing the prisoner's statement to be true, gave him 10s.; but afterwards finding that he had been imposed on, obtained a warrant for his apprehension, and the case being clearly proved, he was sentenced to three months' imprisonment; and the magistrate remarked that a more hardened criminal had never been brought before him, and that the Home Secretary should be applied to to cause him to finish his unexpired term of two years and three months."
"No. 54,889. M. W.—A woman with an infant in her arms was apprehended by one of the Society's constables for endeavouring to obtain money by false pretences from a gentleman residing in Portland-place, by stating that her husband was at the Bournemouth Sanatorium, and produced a letter purporting to be from the medical officer of the institution, which was as follows:
‘National Sanatorium, Bournemouth, Hants . —The resident surgeon wishes to inform Mrs. W. that her husband, having ruptured a blood-vessel, is in a very precarious state. James W. is very desirous of seeing his wife, and begs she will come as early as possible.' This note was signed as by the resident medical officer. She stated to the prosecutor that having no means of paying her railway fare, she had applied to him for assistance, as he had been kind to her husband on previous occasions. Being apprehended and detained for inquiries, she admitted the truth of the charge made against her; and the case being clearly proved, she was sentenced to three months' imprisonment. The prisoner and her husband had been carrying on this system of imposition for a long time, but owing to parties declining to come forward to prosecute, had not previously been convicted."
But there remains yet to notice one member of the begging-letter-writing fraternity, compared with whom all the rest are mere innocent and harmless scribblers. After an experience so long and varied, and so many conflicts sharp and severe with their natural enemies the officers of the "Society," and so many exposures and defeats, it might be reasonably hoped that the professional beggar whose genius takes an epistolary turn must find his ingenuity well-nigh exhausted; but, as recent revelations have disclosed, the machinery brought against him for this suppression has but sharpened his wits and rendered him more formidable than ever. Although but recently discovered, it is hard to say for how long a time this diabolical desire for swindling the unwary has existed. Very possibly, many a "dodge" of minor calibre has been invented and run the length of its tether, and died the death of all dodges, while the one in question has lurked in the dark, and grown fat and prospered.
It would be next to impossible for the imagination most fertile in wicked invention to conceive anything more devilish and mischievous, or an evil that might be perpetrated with less fear of detection. The mainspring of the pretty scheme is not to impose on the benevolence and credulity of the living, but to blast and vilify the character of the dead. To obliterate from the hearts of those who were nearest and dearest to him—the husband dead and buried—all kindly remembrance of him; to tear, as it were, from his poor honest body the white shroud in which tender hands had enveloped it, and show him to have lived and died a traitor, a hypocrite, and an impostor, false to that very last breath with which he bade his wife, his "only darling," farewell; and this that some cold-blooded ruffian may extort from the wronged man's duped indignant survivors a few miserable pounds or shillings, as the case may be.
The process by which the villany in question may be accomplished is much more simple than would at first appear. The prime condition of the impostor's success is that he must reside at a long distance from those it is his intention to dupe. The swindler lives in France or Germany, sometimes as far away as America. The first "move" is to look into the newspaper obituary notices for a likely victim. A gentleman who dies young, leaving a wife and a numerous family to bemoan their bitter bereavement, is not uncommonly the case fixed on. If, during his lifetime, he was a man who, from his station in life, must have been tolerably well known, so much the better. It is a woman who writes the letter. She writes of course to the individual as though not in the least suspecting that he is dead. The following genuine copy of such a letter will, better than anything, illustrate the cold, cruel, subtle villany essential to the success of the "Dead-man's lurk," as in the profession it is styled:
"My ever-dearest Robert,—It is only after enduring the sickening disappointment that has attended my last three letters sent to the old address, that I venture to write to your private abode, in the fervent hope that this my desperate appeal to your oft-tried generosity may fall into no other hands but your own.
"I cannot think that my boy's father can have grown cold towards her whose whole life is devoted to him, who fled from home and friends, and took up her abode in a foreign land and amongst strangers, that her darling might not be troubled,—that his home might be peace. Alas! what is my home? But I will not upbraid you. Were I alone, I would be content to die rather than cause you a single pang of uneasiness; but, as my dear Robert knows, I am not alone. God still spares our boy to me, though I much fear that the doctor's prediction that he would get the better of his ailments when he had turned the age of ten will not be verified. Sometimes as I sit of nights—long, weary, thoughtful nights—watching my sick darling, and thinking of those old times of brief bitter sweetness, I wish that you could see him, so like your own dear self; but the thought is at once hushed, when I reflect on the pain it would cause you to contemplate our poor fatherless boy. I am almost tempted to thank God that he cannot remain much longer on earth; but it is hard, cruelly hard, to see him suffer from want as well as from his painful malady. Do, for the sake of the old times, send me a little money, though only a few pounds. There is no other resource for us but the workhouse. At any rate, pray send me an answer to this, and relieve the dreadful suspense that haunts me.
"P.S. As I have been, from reasons too painful to disclose to you, compelled to quit the lodgings in V.-street, please direct Post-office,—. Yours, ever true and faithful, Elizabeth ."
As it happened, the gentleman to whom this villanous epistle was addressed had, till within a few years of his demise, resided in a far-away quarter of the globe, and under such conditions as rendered a ten-years-ago intimacy with any English Elizabeth utterly impossible; but unfortunately his survivors were content to treat the attempted imposture with silent contempt, and a likely opportunity of bringing to proper punishment one of a gang of the most pestiferous order of swindlers it is possible to conceive was lost. It was probably only the very peculiar and exceptionally conclusive evidence that the letter could not apply to Mr. Robert —, that saved his friends from painful anxiety, and perhaps robbery. It is so much less troublesome to hush-up such a matter than to investigate it. To be sure, no one would have for a moment suspected, from the precise and proper behaviour of the man dead and gone, that he could ever have been guilty of such wickedness and folly; but it is so hard to read the human heart. Such things have happened; and now that one calls to mind— That is the most poisonous part of it,—"now that one calls to mind!" What is easier than to call to mind, out of the ten thousand remembrances of a man whose society we have shared for twenty years or more, one or two acts that at the time were regarded as "strange whims," but now, regarded in the light that the damnable letter sheds on them, appear as parts of the very business so unexpectedly brought to light? Perhaps the man was privately charitable, and in benevolent objects expended a portion of his income, without making mention of how, when, and where, or keeping any sort of ledger account. How his means so mysteriously dwindled in his hands was a puzzle even to his most intimate friends—now it is apparent where the money went! But there, it is no use discussing that now; he has gone to answer for all his sins, and it is to be devoutly wished that God, in the infinite stretch of His mercy, will forgive him even this enormous sin. Meanwhile it will never do to have this base creature coming as a tramping beggar, perhaps with her boy, and knocking at the door, desperately determined on being cared for by the man who was the cause of her ruin and her banishment. Better to send her ten pounds, with a brief note to the effect that Mr. — is now dead, and it will be useless her troubling again.
This is what did not happen in the case quoted, and for the reasons given; but it might, and in very many cases it doubtless has happened; and it would be worth a whole year's catch of common begging-letter impostors if the Society for the Suppression of Mendicity could trap a member of the "Dead-lurk" gang, and hand him over to the tender mercies of the law.