The Thief Non-professional.
The Registered and the Unregistered Thieves of the London Hunting-ground. The Certainty of the Crop of Vice. Omnibus Drivers and Conductors.— The “Watchers. “—The London General Omnibus Company. The Scandal of their System. The Shopkeeper Thief False Weights and Measures.— Adulteration of Food and Drink—Our Old Law, “I am as honest as I can afford to be!”—Rudimentary Exercises in the Art of Pillage.
There are unregistered as well as “registered” thieves. How many of
the former make London their hunting-ground, it were much more difficult to
enumerate. Nor is it so much out of place as might at first appear, to class
both phases of rascality under one general heading. We have to consider the
sources from which are derived our army of London thieves. It is not as though
the plague of them that afflicts was like other plagues, and showed itself mild
or virulent, according to well-defined and ascertained provocatives. On the
contrary, the crop of our crime-fields is even more undeviating than our wheat
or barley crops. A grain of corn cast into the ground may fail, but the seeds of
vice implanted in kindly soil is bound to germinate, unless the nature of the
soil itself is altered. As already stated, the number of our London thieves has
somewhat decreased of late years, but it is merely to the extent of six or
seven per cent. If it is twenty thousand at the present time, this day
twelvemonths, allowing for the increased population, it will be nineteen
Appalling as are the criminal returns for the city of London, it would be a vain delusion to imagine that when the “twenty thousand” have passed in review before us, the whole of the hideous picture has been revealed. The Government statistics deal only with “professional criminals;” that class of persons, that is to say, who have abandoned all idea of living honestly, and who, weighing the probable consequences, resign themselves to a life of systematic depredation, and study existing facilities, and likely new inventions, just as the ingenious joiner or engineer does in an honest way.
The all-important question being, what are the main sources from which are derived with such steadiness and certainty, recruits for the great criminal army, it would be as well to inquire how much of dishonesty is permitted amongst us unchecked, simply because it does not take precisely that shape and colour it must assume before it so offends us that we insist on the law’s interference. It should perhaps tend to make us more tender in our dealings with thieves denounced as such, and convicted, and sent to prison, when we consider the thousands of men of all grades who know honesty by name only, and who would at the merest push of adversity slip off the straight path on which for years past they have been no better than barefaced impostors and trespassers, and plunge at once into the miry ways of the professed thieves. It ceases to be a wonder how constantly vacancies in the ranks of crime are filled when we reflect on the flimsy partition that screens so many seemingly honest men, and the accidental rending of which would disclose a thief long practised, and cool, and bold through impunity. There are whole communities of men, constituting complete branches of our social economy, on whom the taint of dishonesty rests, and their masters are fully aware of it, and yet year after year they are allowed to continue in the same employment. Nay, I think that I may go as far as to assert that so complete is the disbelief in the honesty of their servants by these masters, that to the best of their ability they provide against loss by theft by paying the said servants very little wages. A notable instance of this is furnished by the omnibus conductors in the service of the General Omnibus Company. It is not because the company in question conducts its business more loosely than other proprietors of these vehicles that I particularize it, but because it is a public company in the enjoyment of many privileges and monopolies, and the public have an undoubted right to expect fair treatment from it. I don’t know how many omnibuses, each requiring a conductor, are constantly running through the streets of London, but their number must be very considerable, judging from the fact that the takings of the London General Omnibus Company alone range from nine to ten thousand pounds weekly. Now it is well known to the company that their conductors rob them. A gentleman of my acquaintance once submitted to the secretary of the company an ingenious invention for registering the number of passengers an omnibus carried on each journey, but the secretary was unable to entertain it. “It is of no use to us, sir,” said he. “The machine we want is one that will make our men honest, and that I am afraid is one we are not likely to meet with. They will rob us, and we can’t help ourselves.” And knowing this, the company pay the conductor four shillings a day, the said day, as a rule, consisting of seventeen hours—from eight one morning till one the next. The driver, in consideration it may be assumed of his being removed from the temptation of handling the company s money, is paid six shillings a day, but his opinion of the advantage the conductor still has over him may be gathered from the fact that he expects the latter to pay for any reasonable quantity of malt or spirituous liquor he may consume in the course of a long scorching hot or freezing cold day, not to mention a cigar or two and the invariable parting glass when the cruelly long day’s work is at an end.
It would likewise appear that by virtue of this arrangement between the omnibus conductor and his employers, the interference of the law, even in cases of detected fraud, is dispensed with. It is understood that the London General Omnibus Company support quite a large staff of men and women watchers, who spend their time in riding about in omnibuses, and noting the number of passengers carried on a particular journey, with the view of comparing the returns with the conductor’s receipts. It must, therefore, happen that the detections of fraud are numerous but does the reader recollect ever reading in the police reports of a conductor being prosecuted for robbery?
To be sure the Company may claim the right of conducting their business in the way they think best as regards the interests of the shareholders, but if that “best way” invcilves the countenancing of theft on the part of their servants, which can mean nothing else than the encouragement of thieves, it becomes a grave question whether the interests of its shareholders should be allowed to stand before the interests of society at large. It may be that to prosecute a dishonest conductor is only to add to the pecuniary loss he has already inflicted on the Company, but the question that much more nearly concerns the public is, what becomes of him when suddenly and in disgrace they turn him from their doors? No one will employ him. In a few weeks his ill-gotten savings are exhausted, and he, the man who for months or years, perhaps, has been accustomed to treat himself generously, finds himself without a sixpence, and, what is worse, with a mark against his character so black and broad that his chances of obtaining employment in the same capacity are altogether too remote for calculation. The respectable barber who declined to shave a coal-heaver on the ground that he was too vulgar a subject to come under the delicate operations of the shaver’s razor, and who was reminded by the grimy one that he had just before shaved a baker, justified his conduct on the plea that his professional dignity compelled him to draw a line somewhere, and that he drew it at bakers. Just so the London General Omnibus Company. They draw the line at thieves rash and foolish. So long as a servant of theirs is content to prey on their property with enough of discretion as to render exposure unnecessary, he may continue their servant; but they make it a rule never again to employ a man who has been so careless as to be found out.
As has been shown, it is difficult to imagine a more satisfactory existence than that of an omnibus conductor to a man lost to all sense of honesty; on the other hand it is just as difficult to imagine a man so completely “floored” as the same cad disgraced, and out of employ. It is easy to see on what small inducements such a man may be won over to the criminal ranks. He has no moral scruples to overcome. His larcenous hand has been in the pocket of his master almost every hour of the day for months, perhaps years past. He is not penitent, and if he were and made an avowal to that effect, he would be answered by the incredulous jeers and sneers of all who knew him. The best that he desires is to meet with as easy a method of obtaining pounds as when he cheerfully drudged for eighteen hours for a wage of four-shillings. This being the summit of his ambition, presently he stumbles on what appears even an easier way of making money than the old way, and he unscrupulously appears not in a new character, but in that he has had long experience in, but without the mask.
I should wish it to be distinctly understood, that I do not include all omnibus conductors in this sweeping condemnation. That there are honest ones amongst them I make no doubt; at the same time I have no hesitation in repeating that in the majority of cases it is expected of them that they will behave dishonestly, and they have no disinclination to discredit the expectation. I believe too, that it is much more difficult for a man to be honest as a servant of the company than if he were in the employ of a “small master.” It is next to impossible for a man of integrity to join and work harmoniously in a gang of rogues. The odds against his doing so may be calculated exactly by the number that comprise the gang. It is not only on principle that they object to him. Unless he “does as they do,” he becomes a witness against them every time he pays his money in. And he does as they do. It is so much easier to do so than, in the condition of a man labouring hard for comparatively less pay than a common road-scraper earns, to stand up single handed to champion the cause of honesty in favour of a company who are undisguisedly in favour of a snug and comfortable compromise~ and has no wish to be “bothered.”
It is a great scandal that such a system should be permitted to exist; and a body of employers mean enough to connive at such bargain-making, can expect but small sympathy from the public if the dishonesty it tacitly encourages picks it to the bones. What are the terms of the contract between employer and employed? In plain language these: “We are perfectly aware that you apply to us well knowing our system of doing business, and with the deliberate intention of robbing us all you safely can; and in self-defence, therefore, we will pay you as what you may, if you please, regard as wages, two-pence three farthings an hour, or four shillings per day of seventeen hours. We know that the probabilities are, that you will add to that four shillings daily to the extent of another five or six. It is according to our calculation that you will do so. Our directors have arrived at the conclusion, that as omnibus conductors, of the ordinary type, you cannot be expected to rob us of a less sum than that, and we are not disposed to grumble so long as you remain so moderate; but do not, as you value your situation with all its accompanying privileges, go beyond that. As a man who only robs us of say, five shillings a day, we regard you as a fit and proper person to wait on our lady and gentleman passengers; to attend to their convenience and comfort, in short, as a worthy representative of the L.G.O.C. But beware how you outstrip the bounds of moderation as we unmistakably define them for you! Should you do so, we will kick you out at a moment’s notice, and on no consideration will we ever again employ you.”
Taking this view of the case, the omnibus conductor, although entitled to a foremost place in the ranks of thieves non-professional, can scarcely be said to be the least excusable amongst the fraternity. There are many who, looking down on the “cad” from their pinnacle of high respectability, are ten times worse than he is. Take the shopkeeper thief for instance. He is by far a greater villain than the half-starved wretch who snatches a leg of mutton from a butcher’s hook, or some article of drapery temptingly flaunting outside the shop of the clothier, because in the one case the crime is perpetrated that a soul and a woefully lean body may be saved from severance, and in the other case the iniquity is made to pander to the wrong-doer’s covetous desire to grow fat, to wear magnificent jewellery, and to air his unwieldly carcase annually at Margate.
He has enough for his needs. His deservings, such as they are, most liberally attend him; but this is not enough. The “honest penny is very well to talk about; in fact, in his cleverly assumed character of an upright man, it is as well to talk about it loudly and not unfrequently, but what fudge it is if you come to a downright blunt and “business” view of the matter to hope ever to make a fortune by the accumulation of “honest pennies!” Why, thirty of the shabby things make no more than half-a-crown if you permit each one to wear its plain stupid face, whereas if you plate it neatly and tender it—backed by your reputation for respectability, which your banking account of course proves beyond a doubt—it will pass as genuine silver, and you make two and five-pence at a stroke! You don’t call it “making,” you robbers of the counter and money-till, that is a vulgar expression used by “professional” thieves; you allude to it as “cutting it fine.” Neither do you actually plate copper pennies and pass them off on the unwary as silver half-crowns. Unless you were very hard driven indeed, you would scorn so low and dangerous a line of business. Yours is a much safer system of robbery. You simply palm off on the unwary customer burnt beans instead of coffee, and ground rice instead of arrowroot, and a mixture of lard and turmeric instead of butter. You poison the poor man’s bread. He is a drunkard, and you are not even satisfied to delude him of his earnings for so long a time as he may haply live as a wallower in beer and gin, that is beer and gin as originally manufactured; you must, in order to screw a few halfpence extra and daily out of the poor wretch, put grains of paradise in his gin and coculus indicus in his malt liquor! And, more insatiable than the leech, you are not content with cheating him to the extent of twenty-five per cent by means of abominable mixtures and adulteration, you must pass him through the mill, and cut him yet a little finer when he comes to scale! You must file your weights and dab lumps of grease under the beam, and steal an ounce or so out of his pound of bacon. If you did this after he left your premises, if you dared follow him outside, and stealthily inserting your hand into his pocket abstracted a rasher of the pound he had just bought of you, and he caught you at it, you would be quaking in the grasp of a policeman in a very short time, and branded in the newspapers as a paltry thief, you would never again dare loose the bar of your shop shutters. But by means of your dishonest scales and weights, you may go on stealing rashers from morning till night, from Monday morning till Saturday night that is, and live long to adorn your comfortable church pew on Sundays.
I must be excused for sticking to you yet a little longer, Mr. Shopkeeper Thief, because I hate you so. I hate you more than ever, and you will be rejoiced when I tell you why. A few months slnce, there seemed a chance that your long career of cruel robbery was about to be checked. An excellent lord and gentleman, Lord E. Cecil, made it his business to call the attention of the House of Commons to the state of the law with respect to false weights and measures, and the adulterations of food and drinks. His lordship informed honourable members that the number of convictions for false weights and measures during the past year amounted to the large number of thirteen hundred, and this was exclusive of six districts, namely: Southwark, Newington, St. George’s, Hanover Square, Paddington, and the Strand, which for reasons best known to the local authorities, made no return whatever. In Westminster alone, and within six months, a hundred persons were convicted, and it was found that of these twenty-four or nearly one-fourth of the whole were licensed victuallers, and forty-seven were dairymen, greengrocers, cheesemongers, and others, who supplied the poor with food, making in all seventy per cent. of provision dealers. In the parish of St. Pancras, the convictions for false weights and measures exceed those of every other parish. But in future, however much the old iniquity may prevail, the rogue’s returns will show a handsome diminution. This has been managed excellently well by the shrewd vestrymen themselves. When the last batch of shopkeeper-swindlers of St. Pancras were tried and convicted, the ugly fact transpired that not a few of them were gentlemen holding official positions in the parish. This was serious. The meddlesome fellows who had caused the disagreeable exposure were called a “leet jury,” whose business it was to pounce on evil doers whenever they thought fit, once in the course of every month. The vestry has power over this precious leet jury, thank heaven! and after sitting in solemn council, the vestrymen, some of them doubtless with light weights confiscated and deficient gin and beer measures rankling in their hearts, passed a resolution, that in future the leet jury was to stay at home and mind its own business, until the vestry clerk gave it liberty to go over the ground carefully prepared for it.
Alluding to the scandalous adulteration of food, Lord E. Cecil remarked, “The right hon. gentleman, the President of the Board of Trade, in one of his addresses by which he had electrified the public and his constituents, stated that the great panacea for the ills of the working class was a free breakfast table. Now he, Lord E. Cecil, was the last person in the world to object to any revision of taxation if it were based upon really sound grounds. But with all due deference to the right hon. gentleman, there was one thing of even more importance, namely, a breakfast table free from all impurities.” And then his lordship proceeded to quote innumerable instances of the monstrous and dangerous injustice in question, very much to the edification of members assembled, if reiterated “cheers,” and “hear, hear,” went for anything. This was promising, and as it should be. As Lord Cecil remarked, “when I asked myself why it is that this great nation which boasts to be so practical, and which is always ready to take up the grievances of other people, has submitted so tamely to this monstrous and increasing evil, the only answer I could give was that what was everybody’s business had become nobody’s business.” Doubtless this was the view of the case that every member present on the occasion took, and very glad they must have been when they found that what was everybody’s business had become somebody’s business at last.
And what said the President of the Board of Trade when he came to reply to the motion of Lord Cecil: “That in the opinion of the House it is expedient that Her Majesty’s Government should give their earliest attention to the wide spread and most reprehensible practice of using false weights and measures, and of adulterating food, drinks, and drugs, with a view of amending the law as regards the penalties now inflicted for those offences, and of providing more efficient means for the discovery and prevention of fraud”? Did the right hon. President promptly and generously promise his most cordial support for the laudable object in view? No. Amazing as it may appear to the great host of working men that furnish the shopkeeping rogue with his chief prey, and who to a man are ready to swear by the right hon. gentleman, he did nothing of the kind. He started by unhesitatingly expressing his opinion that the mover of the question, quite unintentionally of course, had much exaggerated the whole business. And further, that although there might be particular cases in which great harm to health and much fraud might possibly be shown, yet general statements of the kind in question were dangerous, and almost certain to be unjust.
“Now, I am prepared to show,” continued the hon. gentleman, “that the exaggeration of the noble lord—I do not say intentional exaggeration, of course—is just as great in the matter of weights and measures as in that of adulteration. Probably he is not aware that in the list of persons employing weights that are inaccurate—I do not say fraudulent; no distinction is drawn between those who are intentionally fraudulent and those who are accidentally inaccurate, and that the penalty is precisely the same and the offence is just as eagerly detected. Now the noble lord will probably be surprised to hear that many persons are fined annually, not because their weights are too small, but because they are too large.”
Probably, however, his lordship, who has evidently given much attention to the subject, is master of this as well as all other branches of it, and is not so much surprised as it may be assumed the less knowing President of the Board of Trade was when the anomaly was brought under his notice. Probably Lord Cecil is aware, that in a very large number of businesses, articles are bought as well as sold by weight by the same shopkeeper and at the same shop, in such case it is nothing very wonderful to discover a weight of seventeen ounces to the pound. Moreover, it may be unknown to Mr. Bright, but it is quite a common trick with the dishonest shopkeeper to have means at hand for adjusting his false weights at the very shortest notice. It is not a difficult process. Weights are, as a rule, “justified” or corrected by means of adding to, or taking from, a little of the lead that is for this purpose sunk in the hollow in which the weight-ring is fixed. This leaden plug being raised by the point of a knife, nothing is easier than to add or withdraw a wedge of the same material. The knife point raises the leaden lid, the knife handle forces it down at a blow, and the trick is done. At the same time, the coolest rogue with a knowledge that the “leet” is only next door, cannot always manage his conjuring deftly, and this may in not a few instances account for the weight more than just. Besides, taking the most liberal view of the matter, it would be manifestly dangerous to allow a system of “averages” to do duty for strict and rigid justice. The relations between customer and shopkeeper would speedily fall into a sad muddle if the latter were permitted to excuse himself for selling fifteen ounces instead of a full pound of butter today, on the ground that he has a seventeen ounce weight somewhere about, and the probability that what he is short to-day the customer had over and above in the pound of lard he bought yesterday.
Again, let us listen to Mr. Bright as an advocate of self-protection. “If the corporations and the magistrates have not sufficient interest in the matter, if the people who elect the corporation care so little about it, I think that is fair evidence that the grievance is not near so extensive and injurious and burdensome as it has been described by the noble lord. My own impression with regard to adulteration is, that it arises from the very great and, perhaps, inevitable competition in business; and that to a large extent it is prompted by the ignorance of customers. As the ignorance of customers generally is diminishing, we may hope that before long the adulteration of food may also diminish. It is quite impossible that you should have the oversight of the shops of the country by inspectors, and it is quite impossible that you should have persons going into shops to buy sugar, pickles, and cayenne pepper, to get them analysed, and then to raise complaints against shopkeepers and bring them before magistrates. If men in their private business were to be tracked by government officers and inspectors every hour in the day, life would not be worth having, and I should recommend them to remove to another country where they would not be subject to such annoyance.”
With a knowledge of the source from which this expression of opinion as to commercial morality emanates, one is apt to mistrust once reading it. Surely a line has been inadvertently skipped, a line that contains the key of the puzzle, and reveals the refined sarcasm that lurks beneath the surface. But no—twice reading, thrice reading, fails to shed any new lights on the mystery. Here is Mr. John Bright, the President of the Board of Trade, the working man’s champion, and the staunch upholder of the right of those who sweat in honest toil, to partake plentifully of untaxed food and drink, putting forth an extenuation for those who, under guise of honest trading, filch from the working man, and pick and steal from his loaf, from his beer jug, from his sugar bason, from his milk-pot, in short, from all that he buys to eat or drink. “My own impression is,” says the Right Hon. President, “that adulteration arises from competition in business.” Very possibly, but does that excuse it? We are constantly reminded that “competition is the soul of trade,” but we should be loth to think that such were the fact if the term “competition” is to be regarded as synonymous with adulteration, or, in plain language, robbery. “It is quite impossible that you should have persons going about endeavouring to detect the dishonest tradesman in his peculations, with a view to his punishment.” Why is it impossible? Must not the repose of this sacred “soul of business” be disturbed, on so trivial a pretext as the welfare of the bodies of a clodhopping people, who are not commercial? So far from its being “impossible” to substitute vigilant measures for the detection of the petty pilferer who robs the poor widow of a ha’porth of her three penn’orth of coals, or the fatherless child of a slice out of its meagre allowance of bread, it should be regarded by the Government as amongst its chief duties. Other nations find it not impossible. In France a commissary of police has the right to enter any shop, and seize any suspected article, bearing of course all the responsibility of wrongful seizure. In Prussia, as Lord Cecil informed the House, “whoever knowingly used false weights and measures was liable to imprisonment for three months, to be fined from fifty to a thousand thalers, and to suffer the temporary loss of his rights of citizenship. Secondly, where false weights and measures were not regularly employed, a fine of thirty thalers may be imposed, or the delinquent sent to prison for four weeks. Thirdly, the adulteration of food or drink is punishable with a fine of 150 thalers, or six weeks’ imprisonment. Fourthly, if poisonous matter or stuff be employed, the offender is liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding ten years. Fifthly, where adulteration was proved to have caused severe physical injury, a sentence of from ten to twenty years’ imprisonment might be passed. And yet in this country offences of this nature could only be punished by the imposition of a penalty of a fine of Ł5, with costs.” These are not laws of yesterday. They have stood the test of many years, and French and Prussians find it not “impossible” to continue their salutary enforcement. But it is curious the extraordinary view men in authority amongst us at times take of the licence that should be permitted the “trader.” I remember once being present at a County Court, and a case tried was that between a wholesale mustard dealer and a cookshop keeper. The cookshop keeper declined to pay for certain mustard delivered to him on the ground that his customers would not eat it. Indeed, it could hardly be called mustard at all, being little else than flour coloured with turmeric, and, backed by medical testimony, the defendant mainly relied on this point, i.e., that it was not mustard at all, for a verdict. But the judge would not hear of this; in his summing up he remarked that it was idle to contend that the stuff was not mustard; it was mustard in a commercial sense, whatever might be its quality, and thereon gave a verdict for the plaintiff, and for the amount claimed.
I must confess that at the time I had my doubts as to this being sound law, but after the declaration of the President of the Board of Trade, I am bound to admit the possibility of my being mistaken. “Competition is the soul of commerce; competition is the parent of adulteration; adulteration is theft as a rule,—murder as an exception. The loaf that is composed of inferior flour, rice, Potatoes, and alum, is the “wheaten bread” of “commerce.” The Poisonous liquid composed of a little malt and hops, eked out with treacle and coculus indicus, is the beer of “commerce.” And, according to the same ruling, a lump of lard stuck under the buttershop scale, or the inch snipped off the draper’s yard, or the false bottom to the publican’s pot, constitute the weights and measures of “commerce.” All thse little harmless tricks of trade are, it seems, within the scope of a tradesman’s “private business,” and according to the President of the Board of Trade, if a tradesman in pursuit of his private business is to be watched and spied over for the malicious purpose of bringing him within the grasp of the law, why the sooner he quits the country, and settles amongst a more easy-going people, with elbow-room proper for his commercial enterprise, the better for him.
Undoubtedly, the better for him and the better for us. I would make this difference, however. When his iniquity was discovered, he should not go altogether unrewarded for his past services. He should be assisted in his going abroad. He should not be called on to pay one penny for his outward passage, and, what is more, he should be supplied with substantial linsey-wolsey clothing, and his head should be cropped quite close, so that the scorching sun of Bermuda or Gibraltar might not upset his brain for future cornmercial speculation.
It needs, however, something more persuasive than the “mustard of commerce” to induce us to swallow with satisfaction the President’s assertion, that “to a large extent adulteration is promoted by the ignorance of customers,” nor are we immensely consoled by the suggestion that “as the ignorance of the customer diminishes, the adulteration of food will also diminish.” Decidedly this is a bright look out for the ignorant customer! There is to be no help for him, no relief. He must endure to be cheated in weight and measure, and slowly poisoned in the beer he drinks, and the bread he eats, until he finds time and money to provide himself with a scientific education, and becomes an accomplished scholar in chemistry, able to detect adulteration at sight or smell. Is this what the President of the Board of Trade means, or what is it? He cannot mean that the imposture is endured because the consumer will not take the trouble to avail himself of the laws made for his protection, because he is distinctly informed that although there are such laws, they are rendered inoperative because of the “impossibility” of having inspectors and detectives going about prying into the “private business” of the shopkeeper, and annoying him. If the ignorance of the honest man is to be regarded as the fair opportunity of the rogue, then there appears no reason why the immunity enjoyed by the fraudulent shopkeeper should not likewise be the indulgence allowed to the professional thief. It is the “ignorance of the customer” that enables the cheat to impose on him bad money for good, or a forged signature for one that is genuine. It is the ignorance of the green young man from the country as regards the wicked ways of London, that enables the skittle sharper to fleece him with ease and completeness. Undoubtedly, if we were all equally “wide awake,” as the vulgar saying is, if no one had the advantage of his neighbour as regards cunning, and shrewdness, and suspicion, and all the other elements that constitute “a man of the world,” then the trade of cheating would become so wretched a one that even ingrain rogues would for their life-sake cultivate the sort of honesty that was prevalent as the best policy, though very much against their natural inclination; but it might possibly be found that there are thousands and tens of thousands of simple people who would prefer to remain in “ignorance,” having no desire to become “men of the world” in the sense above indicated, and electing for their soul’s-sake to be lambs with a fleece to lose, than ravening wolves, whose existence depends on the fleecing of lambs.
Apropos of the practice of cheating by means of the adulteration of foods and drinks, it may not be out of place here to mention that during the discussion a member in whom Mr. Bright expressed great confidence announced that the use of alum in bread, so far from being injurious, was positively beneficial. Doctor Letheby, however, is of a somewhat different opinion. Recently, at the Society of Arts, he read a paper on the subject. Here are his opinions on the matter: “By the addition of alum, inferior and even damaged flour may be made into a tolerable looking loaf. It is the property of alum to make the gluten tough, and to prevent its discoloration by heat, as well as to check the action of the yeast or ferment upon it. When, therefore, it is added to good flour, it enables it to hold more water, and so to yield a larger number of loaves; while the addition of it to bad flour prevents the softening and disintegrating effect of the yeast on the poor and inferior gluten, and so enables it to bear the action of heat in the progress of baking. According to the quality of flour, will be the proportion of alum, and hence the amount will range from 2 ozs. to 8 ozs. per sack of flour. These proportions will yield from 9 to 37 grains of alum in the quartern loaf, quantities which are easily detected by chemical means. Indeed, there is a simple test by which much smaller quantities of it may be readily discovered. You have only to dip a slice of the bread into a weak solution of logwood in water, and if alum be present, the bread will speedily acquire a red or purplish tint. Good bread should not exhibit any black specks upon its upper crust; it should not become sodden and wet at the lower part by standing; it should not become mouldy by keeping in a moderately dry place; it should be sweet and agreeable to the taste and smell; it should not give, when steeped, a ropy, acid liquor; and a slice of it taken from the centre of the loaf should not lose more than forty-five per cent. by drying.”
Again, speaking of the cruelty and dishonesty of the various sophistications” practised by the vendors of food as regards the inefficacy of the laws made for its suppression, the good doctor says:
“Parliament has attempted to deal with the matter by legislation, as in the ‘Act for Preventing the Adulteration of Articles of Food or Drink’ of 1860; but as the Act is only permissive, little or no effect has been given to it. Even in those places, as in the City of London, where it has been put into operation, and public analysts have been appointed, no good has resulted from it; in fact, it stands upon the statute-book as a dead letter. Speaking of the City, I may say that every inducement has been offered for the effective working of the Act, but nothing has come of it. In olden times, the remedies for such misdemeanours were quick and effectual. In the Assisa panis, for example, as set forth in Liber Albus, there are not only the strictest regulations concerning the manner in which the business of the baker is to be conducted, but there are also penalties for failing in the same, ‘If any default,’ it says, ‘shall be found in the bread of a baker in the City, the first time, let him be drawn upon a hurdle from the Guildhall to his own house through the great streets where there be most people assembled; and through the great streets which are most dirty, with the faulty loaf hanging about his neck. If a second time he shall be found committing the same offence, let him be drawn from the Guildhall, through the great street of Chepe in manner aforesaid to the pillory, and let him be put upon the pillory and remain there at least one hour in the day; and the third time that such default shall be found, he shall be drawn, and the oven shall be pulled down, and the baker made to forswear the trade within the City for ever.’ It further tells us, that William de Stratford suffered this punishment for selling bread of short weight, and John de Strode ‘for making bread of filth and cobwebs.’ One hoary-headed offender was excused the hurdle on account of his age and the severity of the season; and it would seem that the last time the punishment was inflicted was in the sixteenth y ear of the reign of Henry VI., when Simon Frensshe was so drawn. A like punishment was awarded to butchers and vintners for fraudulent dealings; for we are told that a butcher was paraded through the streets with his face to the horse’s tail for selling measly bacon at market, and that the next day he was set in the pillory with two great pieces of his measly bacon over his head, and a writing which set forth big crimes. In the judgments recorded in Liber Albus there are twenty-three cases in which the pillory was awarded for selling putrid meat, fish, or poultry; thirteen for unlawful dealings of bakers, and six for the misdemeanours of vintners and wine dealers. Verily we have degenerated in these matters.”
And while we are on the subject of thieves non-professional, and their easy conversion to the article legally stamped and recognised, it may not be amiss briefly to remark on the odd ideas of honesty entertained and practised by thousands of our hard-fisted, and except for the singular weakness hinted at, quite worthy and decent “journeymen.” It is curious how much of hallucination prevails amongst us on the subject of “common honesty.” It is as though there were several qualities of that virtue, “common,” “middling,” and “superfine,” as there are in household bread; and that, carrying out the simile, although the “superfine” is undoubtedly nicer, and what one would always use if he could afford it, the honesty dubbed “common” is equally wholesome, and on the whole the only sort on which it is possible for a working man to exist.
“I am as honest as I can afford to be,” is an observation common in the mouth of those who really and truly earn their bread and acquire a creditable reputation by the sweat of their brow. It never seems to occur to them that such an admission is equal to a confession of dishonesty, and since it is simply a matter of degree, that the common thief on the same grounds may claim the privilege of shaking them by the hand as their equal. The man who fixes the standard of his honesty at no greater height becomes an easy prey to temptation. “If he is as honest as he can afford to be,” and no more, it simply means that his means not being equal to his necessities he has already admitted the thin end of the wedge of dishonesty to make good the gap, and that should the said gap unhappily widen, the wedge must enter still further in until a total splitting up of the system ensues, and the wedge itself becomes the only stedfast thing to cling to.
That this melancholy consummation is not more frequently attained is the great wonder, and would tend to show that many men adopt a sort of hobbling compromise, walking as it were with one foot on the path of rectitude, and the other in the miry way of petty theft, until they get to the end of life’s tether and both feet slip into the grave.
It is a fact at once humiliating, but there it stands stark and stern, and will not be denied, that there are daily pursuing their ordinary business, and passing as honest, hundreds and thousands of labouring folk, who, if their various malversations were brought to light, and they were prosecuted, would find themselves in prison ere they were a day older. Nor should this startle us very much, as we are well aware of it, and mayhap are in no small degree responsible for it, since it is mainly owing to our indolent disregard that the evil has become so firmly established; at the same time it should be borne in mind, that this no more excuses those who practise and profit on our indifference to small pilferings than a disinclination to prosecute a professional pickpocket mitigates the offence of the delinquent.
The species of dishonesty alluded to, as not coming within the official term “professional,” has many aliases. Ordinary it is called by the cant name of “perks,” which is a convenient abbreviation of the word “perquisites,” and in the hands of the users of it, it shows itself a word of amazing flexibility. It applies to such unconsidered trifles as wax candle ends, and may be stretched so as to cover the larcenous abstraction by our man-servant of forgotten coats and vests. As has been lately exposed in the newspapers, it is not a rare occurrence for your butler or your cook to conspire with the roguish tradesman, the latter being permitted to charge “his own prices,” on condition that when the monthly bill is paid, the first robber hands over to the second two-shillings or half-a-crown in the pound. It is not, however, these sleek, and well-fed non-professional thieves that I would just now speak of, but rather of the working man—the journeyman tailor for example.
Did anyone ever yet hear of a working tailor who was proof against misappropriation of his neighbour’s goods, or as he playfully designates it, “cabbage?” Is it not a standard joke in the trade this “cabbage?” Did one ever hear of a tailor being shunned by his fellow-workmen, or avoided by his neighbours, on account of his predilection for “cabbage?” Yet what is it but another word for “theft?” If I entrust a builder with so much timber, and so much stone, and so many bricks, to build me a house, and I afterwards discover that by clever dodging and scheming he has contrived to make me believe that all the material I gave him has been employed in my house, whereas he has managed to filch enough to build himself a small cottage, do I accept his humorous explanation that it is only “cabbage,” and forgive him? No. I regard it as my duty to afford him an opportunity of explaining the matter to a magistrate. But if I entrust my tailor with stuff for a suit, and it
afterwards comes to my knowledge that he has “screwed” an extra waistcoat out of it, which he keeps or sells for his own benefit, do I regard it as a serious act of robbery? I am ashamed to say that I do not; I may feel angry, and conceive a contempt for tailors, but I take no steps to bring the rogue to justice. I say to myself, “It is a mean trick, but they all do it,” which is most unjust to the community of tailors, because though I may suspect that they all do it, I have no proof of the fact, whereas I have proof that there is a dishonest tailor in their guild, and I have no right to assume but that they would regard it as a favour if I would assist them in weeding him out.
And it is almost as good a joke as the calling downright theft by the comical name of “cabbage,” that the tailor will do this and all the tinie insist on his right to be classed with honest men. He insists on this because he was never known to steal anything besides such goods as garments are made out of. As he comes along bringing your new suit home he would think it no sin to call at that repository for stolen goods, the “piece broker’s,” and sell there a strip of your unused cloth for a shilling, but you may safely trust him in the hall where the hats and umbrellas and overcoats are. He would as soon think of breaking into your house with crowbars and skeleton keys, as of abstracting a handkerchief he saw peeping out of a pocket of one of the said coats.
As with the tailor, so it is with the upholsterer, and the dressmaker, and the paperhanger, and the plumber, and all the rest of them. I don’t say that every time they take a shred of this, or a pound weight of that, that they have before their eyes the enormity of the offence they are about to commit. What they do they see no great harm in. Indeed, point out to them and make it clear that their offence has but to be brought fairly before the criminal authorities to ensure them a month on the treadmill, and they would as a rule be shocked past repeating the delinquency. And well would it be if they were shocked past it, ere misfortune overtake them. It is when “hard up” times set in, and it is difficult indeed to earn an honest penny, that these rudimentary exercises in the art of pillage tell against a man. It is then that he requires his armour of proof against temptation, and lo! it is full of holes and rust-eaten places, and he falls at the first assault of the enemy.