Before The Beak: True Stories From The London Police Offices In 1830 – by J. F. Slattery

Before The Beak: True Stories From The London Police Offices In 1830 – by J. F. Slattery

This is a book about people, of all social classes, who lived in London in the year 1830. It presents a vivid snapshot of their lives, gained from newspaper reports of cases heard at the police offices. Actual crimes occupy a certain space, but criminals are not the book’s overriding focus. Victims and witnesses of crime appeared in court as well, plus many others who were not criminals, but for whom the magistrates were responsible: children, the mentally ill, spouses involved in domestic disputes and, above all, the unemployed and otherwise destitute seeking relief under the Poor Law.

After an initial Chapter I. Setting the Scene, which provides a succinct account of the socio-political background, and explains the administrative and legal system in the London of 1830, the book is constructed as a series of narratives, featuring individual cases. Chapter II. In the New Year Snow describes the severe winter of 1830, and introduces the police offices and their magistrates. Chapter III. The Poor and the Destitute recounts tragic stories of poverty requiring action by the magistrates in their capacity as Poor Law administrators. Chapter IV. Love, Marriage and the Law has three sections: (i) “Errant husbands and thorough scoundrels” features husbands prosecuted for failure to maintain their families and fathers of illegitimate children sued by mothers for maintenance. (ii) “Domestic strife, elopement and the tar who bought a wife” narrates cases of domestic violence and cruelty, the misadventures of couples who eloped, and the misadventure of a trusting sailor. (iii) “Bigamy” speaks for itself: it was a widespread crime. Chapter V. Children, Animals and Lunatics begins with orphans, abandoned children and child apprentices; then come cases involving the mentally disturbed (in whose often terrible treatment the courts interfered), and finally prosecutions for cruelty to animals carried out by the SPCA (not yet the RSPCA). Chapter VI. The Tempted and the Fallen is divided into (i) “Drink” (cases of drunken people, sometimes funny, but more often tragic) and (ii) “Sex” (a more lurid Chapter, including child brothels in Marylebone and some reported rape cases). Chapter VII. Thieves and their Victims turns to actual crime: (i) “The perils of the street” describes the rife street crime of the period; this is followed by (ii) “Burglars and cracksmen”, and (iii) “Dishonest servants.” The chapter closes with (iv) “A miscellany of theft”, including shoplifting and body-snatching. Chapter VIII. Two Murders recounts two sensational murders which took place in London that year; one was never solved; for the other a man was hanged, and the newspaper reports accompany him to his last moments on the gallows. Chapter IX. Flouters of the Law features prize fighters, duellists, fortune tellers and others who deliberately and repeatedly broke the law. Chapter X. Public Order and Disorder has Chapters: two sections: (i) “The New Police” recounts the foundation of the Metropolitan Police by Peel and narrates cases of unsuitable policemen prosecuted for misbehaviour; while (ii) “Riot and Revolution” portrays the severe rots which occurred in London in November 1830 and the cases of individual rioters who came up before the police magistrates. Finally Chapter XI. 1830 and Beyond brings a medley of cases to close the year, and looks forward to the history of England over the next seventy years, noting that in the lifetime of a person born in 1830 the social and political fabric of England would undergo a complete change.

The general reader interested in history will find this book both funny and tragic, but always fascinating. It would be a perfect bedside book, but it would also be very suitable background at school or university. Lawyers will find a particular interest in its cases. It is original in its approach and lively in its presentation.

Genre: Fiction, Literary


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