Thursday, June 9, 2011

the mayhew files: river crimes

This week's tidbit on Mayhew's London (which I finally started reading for myself this week) focuses on that great body of water, the Thames, and the criminal opportunities it provides.  I promise that this section is significantly shorter than the last installment, which will make for much easier reading.

image source: Through the Sand
The first of the delightful souls who made their living, law-abiding or not, on the river are the mudlarks.  These poor souls spent their time dredging the mud flaps on the sides of the river for spilled coal, bits of copper, driftwood and even bits of fat, though God knows what the latter comes from.

The mudlarks were often young boys who worked hard for little return.  There was more of them at this kind of work in the summer than the winter, as one may well imagine.  They got up as soon as it was light and went down to the docks.  As coal-laden barges were being unloaded the boys gathered around them, picking through the mud to find pieces of coal that had fallen off the sides.  The boys then sold the coals to poor people in the neighborhood that they live in, making about 6d a day.  They could make as much selling driftwood, but they usually made slightly less.  

However, mudlarks were not above thieving right from the boats if they thought no one was paying attention.

An older version of the mudlark was the dredgeman.  Also rising early in the morning, the dredgemen made their way in their boats to where a barge has just docked, but will dredge deeper out in the water for spilled coal.  Sometimes, to ensure more of a profit, they made sure that some of the coal did spill over.  They also went alongside the boats and stole copper funnels and ropes from the sides.  These items and others were then sold to local merchants.

Sweeping boys, on the other hand, went aboard boats as their primary means of gain.  Hired to sweep the boats clean, they often engaged in a bit of cleaning of another manner entirely, picking up any stray valuables or items that could be sold.  Sweeping boys tended to sleep in open boats wrapped in whatever they could find in the winter.  They were excellent swimmers, often escaping capture once caught stealing by taking to the water and swimming away. 

The sweeping boys appear to be what the mudlarks aspired to become, as the mudlarks were generally between 6 and 12 years of age while the sweeping boys are from 12 to 16. 

Another member of this river crime class were the sellers of small wares.  These boys went aboard the ships with baskets of trinkets that they then traded to the crew men for pieces of rope or fat and bones from the cook.  They then took the items they had traded to sell on shore.  They generally lived at home with their parents.  They were not above pilfering the odd exposed valuable on the boats they worked.

The ship captain not only had to worry about the boys who came aboard his boat, but he also had to keep his eyes on the men working on it.  Sometimes these labourers would pick up some of the goods to be delivered and secret them about their persons.  These goods were then taken to local merchants and sold or more likely used by themselves. 

Smuggling was popular along the river as it was in any other port.   Smugglers carried in loads of goods past the customs house to get them in duty free.  Sometimes the amount smuggled was large-- in one instance Mayhew mentions a boat attempting to smuggling 229 pounds of tobacco.  In another case, however, one American sailor carried only a few pounds of tobacco hidden in his clothes.

Lightermen were employed to navigate boats and barges in the river.  Claiming to know the river like the back of their hand, these men were responsible for making sure that the boat avoided shallows and other areas.  While the lighterman could make a good living doing honest work, the temptation to steal often prevailed upon them.  They often sailed empty or stolen barges up to a barge they targeted for plundering when no one else was aboard.  As they may have been on that particular barge that day they know what is on it and where.  Once on the barge, unloading its goods and making off with it in the night is then a simple matter.                                                                          

These lightermen often lived with prostitutes like the tierranger or river pirate (Note: yes, there were Victorian river pirates.  Who knew?)

The river pirate was a different animal all together.  These men took to the rivers dressed as seamen and tried to make it aboard a ship with the intent to plunder it.  If discovered they would often lie and claim that they belong to another boat.  They would then ask for the name of the boat that they had been caught trying to board.  Once told the name, they would tell the members of the other boat that they were mistaken and head in the direction of another boat as if it was theirs.

River pirates usually started out as mudlarks who had advanced their way up the criminal ladder as sweeping boys, then dredgemen, before taking on their role as pirates.  Some may have been lightermen also-- by reading Mayhew one gets the impression that the difference between the thieving lighterman and the pirate was small indeed.

To give an example of river piracy- One pirate was caught in the act of plundering a boat.  Being a strong man he put up a fight, smashing the head of one of the detectives sent to arrest him with an iron bar.  The detective, at the time of writing, had not recovered from the attack.  Eventually the river pirate was overcome by the coppers, but was sentenced to only 15 months of hard labour.  Compare that sentence to the smugglers who were sentenced to six months of hard labour each for trying to sneak in 48 pounds of tobacco.

Often these pirates worked in groups and were pretty clever.  In one instance a crew detained one of these men when he stole a watch.  They called for the police and then waited for the cops to take the crook away.   Within a short span of time a boat came up with several men in overcoats.  They took the man into custody and took the watch as evidence.  When the captain of the ship went to the police the next morning to claim the watch back he discovered that the police had not heard of the incident.  It appears that the river pirates' friends had rescued him in disguise.

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