Friday 14 September 2012

The Tyrant of Bethnal Green

A piece on Joseph Merceron, the tyrant of Bethnal Green from 'Report from the Committee on the State of the Police of the Metropolis (1816) 510.

The Rev. Joshua King, called in, and Examined.

YOU are clergyman of the parish of Bethnal-green? — The rector of that parish.

How long have you held that situation ? — About seven years.

Do you principally reside there ?— Yes, I do, and discharge all the duties myself.

Is it a very large parish?—It consists of a population of about 40,000, generally the lowest description of people; the overflowing population out of Spitalfields have settled in that parish.

As clergyman of the parish, you have felt it your duty to make yourself acquainted, as far as lay in your power, with the state and condition of the Police?—Surely.

What is that? — I am sorry to say that it is most deplorable; every Sunday morning, during the time of Divine Service, several hundred persons assemble in a field adjoining the church-yard, where they fight dogs, hunt ducks, gamble, enter into subscriptions to fee drovers for a bullock; I have seen them drive the animal through the most populous parts of the parish, force sticks pointed with iron, up the body, put peas into the ears, and infuriate the beast, so to to endanger the lives of all persons passing along the streets.

This on the Sunday?—At all times, chiefly on the Sunday, Monday, and sometimes Tuesday; Monday is the principal day; one or two thousand men and boys will, on these occasions, leave their looms and join in the pursuit; pockets are frequently picked; persons are tossed and torn; one day in the last summer, I am informed, that one man was killed, and two so severely wounded, that their lives were despaired of.

Did you ever learn whether that information was correct?—1 am persuaded, with respect to one of then who was tossed in St. John-street, near my house; the other two were in Hackney-parish; they drove the beast into Hackney, where the accidents happened; one was taken to the hospital, where I understood he died.

Do they ever drive the bullock across the church-yard?—Yes ; about two months ago, during the time of Divine Service, to the great consternation of the congregation, a bullock was hunted in the church-yard; and although Mr. Merceron, a Magistrate for the county, the beadles, and Mr. Merceron's clerk, who is a constable, were present; I cannot learn, that they took any steps to put a stop to so wanton and disgraceful an outrage; on the contrary, I have reason to believe, that the officers of my parish frequently connive at and sanction such practices. What reason have you ro believe that? —I have sent for a constable to request that he would furnish me with the names of some of the ringleaders, and I never could yet obtain a single name, though most of them were resident in the neighbourhood, and must be known to him. And I have sometimes seen him actually join its the chase.

Did you .ever speak to Mr. Merceron, or to any of the Magistrates, or lay any special complaints before the Bench of Magistrates?—I complained to Mr. Merceron, about five years ego, of the disgraceful practice of bullock-hunting, and expressed it wish to be in the commission of the peace, that I might more effectually prevent such practices. Upon that occasion, Mr. Merceron declared that there was no kind of amusrnent he was so fond of us bullock-hunting, and that its his younger days he was generally the first its the chase; he discouraged me at the same time from entertaining any hopes of getting into the commission, by saying no person could be appointed unless he was recommended by the other Magistrates; and that if any other Magistrate was necessary for the district, he should take care to recommend his friend Mr. Timmings, and not me.

Did you ever make any complaint to any other Magistrate, or to the Bench?— I have made a complaint to the Police Office, Worship-street, twice ; they have sent officers both times immediately. Did the interference of the officers of Worship-street put a stop for that time to the evil you complained of?—Yes, certainly, immediately; the mob dispersed, and I believe they took the bullock from them ; m fact, I have taken two bullocks from them which they had driven into the church-yard:  I opened a stable door in the church-yard, the bullocks took refuge there, and I put a lock on and locked them in.

Do those bullock, according to your belief, belong to any butcher, or are they purchased for the purpose of hunting? — I believe they belong to large droves, which are coming to Smithfield market, and that the persons who assemble in this field, fee the drovers to let them select a bullock out of their herd.

In the way to market?—Yes, un the Sunday, and sometimes in their coming from the market on the Monday.

Are those scenes of riot and confusion more frequent on the Sunday or th Monday?—On both days; but bullocks are, I think, more frequently hunted on the Monday than the Sunday; but this mob, which assembles on the Sunday. assembles generally on the Sunday about eleven o'clock, or a little before.

Was two months ago the last period in which the bullock-hunting has taken placc?—No. there has been bullock-hunting since that ; and I apprehend, from the inquiries I have made within the last few days, that it has been discontinued within the last fortnight or three weeks ; since this Committee has been sitting, an alarm has been produced, and more pains taken to prevent those outrages.

You have mentioned the name of Mr. Thninings, whom Mr. Merceron called his friend, and whom he wished to recommend to be a Magistrate; did you know him? — He was a person who had retired from keeping an ale-house; a man extremely ignorant.

Were you personally acquainted with him :—Yes, he is since dead.

Have you made any application to the Lord Lieutenant or to any one else, for the purpose of being in the commission?— I wrote soon after, I expressed my wish to Mr. Merceron, to the two members for the county; from the one I received a letter, saying that he never interfered, and from the other I received no answer.

Independent of the bullock-hunting, are the scenes of riot and disorder great during the Sunday in the fields adjoining the church?—Extremely so.

Crowds of disorderly people of both sexes:—Yes, but principally men and boys; and when I have spoken to some of the Police officers, they have told me that they durst not interfere, on account of their being so numerous and so desperate.

Are you at all acquainted with the condition in which the public-houses are in, in your parish, whether they are orderly or disorderly? —Some of them I apprehend are very disorderly, and I cannot but think that great blame is imputable to the acting Magistrates for the district, for not suppressing the licences of such houses.

Do you know any that have been in that disorderly condition for several years?—Some of them have been represented as being very disorderly; and I will take the liberty of mentioning those that have been particularly specified, if it is wished.

Did you ever lay any complaint against the conduct of those houses before the licensing Magistrates? — I never did.

Do you know whether such complaint has ever been made by the officers of the parish?—No, I do not.

If these houses are considered as so disorderly, can you assign any reason why you did not feel it your duty to lay such information? —It was not till lately that any particular houses were pointed out.

How long is it since you have learned that there are particular houses in your parish that some under that description? —Probably about a month or six weeks ago.

How long have you been resident in the parish ?—Seven years.

It is only within this month or six weeks that you have heard of any of the houses being disorderly?—No, I have beard that some of than were disorderly, but none were pointed out specifically to me till lately.

You considered the houses as for the resort of the lower classes of people in that neighbourhood:—Yes.

What are the particular houses the names of which you have learnt? —There are three that have been particularly pointed out; the one is the Sun in Slater-street, the Three Sugar Loaves in St. John-street, and the Seven Stars in Fleet-street.

Have those houses been particularly named to you, as being the three worst in the parish? —I do not know that they have been named as the worst, but are very disorderly.

Do you know any others that are disorderly ?—None that I can speak to, as so disorderly as those two or three others have been named, but I have not had an opportunity of making minute inquiry respecting them.

Do you know whether any complaint has ever been laid before the Magistrates, in respect of those houses?— I do not.

Do von know any thing as to the mode in which those houses are held, or who is the proprietor, or with whom they deal, that would lend you to think that any protection would be given them against such complaints, if they had been made? —The three houses I have mentioned belong to property of which Mr. Merceron is rent-gatherer; he took a lease of the latter house, that is of the Seven Stars, in the year 1788, and afterwards underlet it to Messrs. Hanburys; that and the Three Sugar Loaves are in Messrs. Hanburys trade.

Are those facts within your own knowledge—Yes, they are.

Is the manner in which those houses are conducted particularly disorderly ?— I have reason to believe it is; the Seven Stars and Three Sugar Loaves are a receptable for suspicious characters, at hours when all other public-houses are closed ; and at the Sun, a club significantly termed a cock and hen club, has been, and I believe still is held.

In which boys and girls meet ?—Yes, and get drunk and debauch one another.

Do you know, whether Mr. Merceron has the management of, as rent gatherer, or is the proprietor of many public-houses in the parish ?—I have been given to understand, that Mr. Hanbury holds ten or twelve public-houses under him.

You do not know that of your own knowledge ?—No, I do not; but I know that he serves a great number of those houses upon that property where Mr. Merceron is agent and rent-gatherer, from the boards over their doors.

Is there any personal difference between you and Mr. Merceron?—Nothing, except what has arisen from a disapprobation of his official conduct ; he is the treasurer of the parish, has amassed a large fortune without any ostensible means; takes care to elect the most ignorant and the lowest characters, on whom he can depend, to fill all parochial offices, and to audit his accounts; when I say elect, I mean that his influence is so extensive in the parish, that whoever he nominates, the vestry is sure to sanction and appoint.

Has there been a considerable opposition to that influence within your own memory, by the parishioners?—Yes, there has ; and indeed I am told that previous to my coming into the parish, the same opposition was manifested; that for the last 25 years, the respectable part of the parish have been contending with him for a successful examination of his accounts, and have never succeeded; with the assistance of the Dissenters, with whom he has identified himself, and the publicans who dare not withhold their support, he bears down all opposition; a grant of upwards of 12,000l. from Parliament, during a time of great distress in the parish, in the year 1800, passed through his hands, for the relief of the out-door poor, which I have reason to believe was not applied to the purpose for which it was intended, nor is it satisfactorily accounted for.

What reason have you to believe that?—I have got an extract, which I have made from the parish register, in which it appears to have been audited, and I have been informed, that he pretended he had mislaid or lost his vouchers, and not a single voucher was produced; Mr. Mitford, jun. was, I believe, sent down by Government, to inquire how the money had been expended ; I am not aware how far he was satisfied. I have brought with me an extract from the parish register. purporting to be an audit of the account; that 505l. which appears at the bottom, remained in his hands about two years ;. there was then, a little disturbance in the parish, and it was brought forward and paid to the Poor's Rate account ...

Easter Monday, 1802.
Joseph Merceron, Esq. one of the Committee appointed on Faster Monday last, for the management of the Money voted by Parliament, for the Relief of this Parish, reported that they had received from Govermuent the sum of

Paid by Weekly Payments 6894l. 4s 6d.
Paid sundry Tradesman's Bills 518l. 9s. 1d.
Paid Stationery, Printing and incidental Expenses 109l. 8s. 7 1/2d.
Paid to Poor Rate Account 3,412l. 13s. 4d.
Paid to Building Account  724l. 16s. 7d.
Balance in hand 505l. 12s. 2 1/2d.
£12,165  4s. 4d.

Can you explain that part of the account by which that 3,400l. was paid to the Poor hates?—That was before I came into the Parish, and I cannot; I inquired at Down, Thornton & Co.'s banking-house, as to the amount of the sum that had gone through Mr. Merceron s hands, and I have reason to believe that he received nearly 500l.  more than appears in that account; I have received a letter from their clerk to that effect; Mr. Merceron denies having received the money, and says it was brought to him by the church-wardens; the churchwardens are since dead, and how the matter stands cannot be explained.

You cannot explain at all how it came to pass that 3,412l. was paid over to the head of the Poor's Rate?—Not at all.

Has this business ever been investigated by the parish since you have been Rector?—An attempt has been made to investigate, but unsuccessfully.

From what cause?— Mr. Merceron did not think proper to give any account of it.

Were you not strong enough in the vestry to force hint to an account?— By no means ; I will state what occurred a very short time ago :—In order to prevent investigation, I have seen him instigate his creatures to riot and clamour, even within the wells of the church; he has taken his stand on the church steps, and proposed three times three huzzas, taking his hat off and being the foremost in the shout; so successful was he on that occasion, that lately he has adjourned all public vestry meetings to the church-yard, where a mob has collected to support him. He instigated that mob, at a late meeting, to attack a person of the name of Shevill, who, had be not takent refuge in my house, would probably have fallen a sacrifice to their fury.

What wes the cause of the supposed quarrel between Mr. Merceron and Air, Shevill?—Mr. Shevill had addressed the parishioners, requiring that Mr. Merceron should publish an annual account of the monies passing through his hands; Mr. Shevill published two addresses, which appeared to me very candid, and those, I believe, were the reasons of Mr. Merecron attacking him.

Is it the practice for the vestry to assemble in the church-yard?—That is a thing never known till lately.

How long has the practice been adopted ?—I think on two late occasions, when they expected a very full meeting that has taken place.

Has every householder a right to vote at vestry meeting ?—Every one rated at 15l. and upwards.

Do you believe that all those who have assembled were rated at £15l.? — Thc great bulk of the mob were not rated at that sum.

Of course they had no means in the church-yard of keeping the vestry distinct from the others?—Certainly not.

Have any legal measures ever been taken to correct the abuses of which you complain?—Ahout three years ago, I advocated the cause of the parishioners, and instituted two indictments against Mr. Merceron; the one for having fraudulently altered the Poor Rates, after they had been allowed, whereby he doubled and trebled the rates of some, and reduced the rates of others; the other was for perjury, founded upon it series of oaths he had taken before the Commons, the Court of Delegates, and the Chancellor, upon the authenticity of which it chiefly depended, whether he retained some property he had possessed himself of, belonging to a poor idiot and her orphan sisters, or no; contrary to the uniform tenor of which oaths, the three Courts unequivocally decided and compelled him to restore the property.

The property, in point of fact, was restored? — It was; the houses and the money were restored, in pursuance of a decree of Chancery, bearing date 23d November 1812.

By what means did you become acquainted with the fact, as to his altering the Poor's Rate?— From the information which I received from the vestry clerk himself, who furnished me with the Poor's Rate books, and pointed out the alterations that had been made.

Did you obtain a verdict against him ?—I was dissuaded by the person whom I was so unfortunate as to employ as my solicitor on the occasion, from being in Court at the time of the trials; he contrived to instruct the leading counsel to declare, that I had consented to a verdict of acquittal being obtained for the defendant without trial, although I had given positive instructions to proceed with the trials; the counsel have declared, both before and subsequent to that mysterious transaction, that had the trials gone on, there was no doubt of his being convicted.

Is the vestry clerk now living—He is; I have extracts by me which I think amount to about five hundred cases, where alterations took place in the rates pointed out by the vestry clerk, and who still holds that office.

What is his name?—James May.

Is Mr. Merceron popular among the lower classes of the inhabitants in your parish?—Universully abhorred ; but having the collection of rents to a very considerable extent, and a number of houses of a small description in the parish, and as he can command the publicans by being a licensing Magistrate, and having been a commissioner of the property tax, and sitting on all appeals with respect to the assessed as well as parochial taxes, he has had on opportunity of most deppotically tyrannizing over the parish.

Is it the prevailing opinion in the parish, that a victualler has a better chance of obtaining a licence from the licensing Magistrates, if he applies for that licence through the medium of one person more than another?—Unquestionably; a man is considered a fool who applies for a licence through the medium of any other person than Messrs. Hanbury; I know there is an intimacy and connection between Mr. Merceron and them, for I heard Mr. Merecron formerly declare, when I was on better terms with him than I am at present, that Hanbury was a devilish good fellow, that he was always sending him presents, that he supplied his house with beer gratis, and that the week before he had sent him half a barrel of porter.

What is the state of the poor at this moment in your parish ?—It is truly wretched; the house is overflowing with poor; I believe they are at this time crowded together in beds, and that there are as many as six or seven in a bed; the men and women are in separate wards, that is the only distinction which can be made; the master of the workhouse has declared to me, that the house is not capable of containing more than 350, and I believe at the present time there are 700.

Do you know whether there is a great want of work among the weavers who inhabit your parish ; are many looms out of employments'—Very many.

It has been stated that there are nearly 3,000 looms out of employ in that vicinity at the present moment ; do you know whether that is correct? — I am not aware of the exact number.

Is the situation of the poor in your parish worse now than it was last year? — I should conceive much, and the great inhumanity of the parish officers consists in the very scanty pittance they allow the outdoor poor; they compel them all in the very crowded state of the house to come into the house, or they do not allow them more than from one shilling to three shillings per family, according to their number.

What is the allowance paid by the parish for each person in the workhouse per head per week?—I have no means of knowing that at all, but believe they cost the parish about  5s. 6d. per head.

Do you know what is the amount of bread, meat, &c. received per week, in the workhouse, each person?—Ninety oz, of bread, 18 oz. of meat, 1/2 lb. of butter, or 7 oz. of cheese; three pints of water gruel, and three pints of broth ; three teaspoontuls of salt, and 1/2lb. of soap, per ward ; also, seven pints of small beer, valued at about 5s. 6 d. per barrel.

Do you know what is the amount of the poor rate that was levied last year, or is to be levied this year, in the parish?—I do not.

From your observation, during a residence of seven years, can you state to the Committee, what is the moral condition of the inhabitants of your parish at present, contrasting it with what it was a few years back?—Not at all improved, or likely to in consequence of the want of education ; for although we have such an enormous population, we are only educating an hundred and twenty children under the Establishment, and we have only one parish church, capable of containing about twelve hundred, for the accommodation of all. I am not aware what number are educating by the Methodists, but I believe a considerable number.

Are there any other schools established in your parish ?—None, where they arw educated free of expense, excepting those which the Dissenters may have established ; they are principally Sunday schools.

Is there any school of the British and Foreign School Society ?—Not immediately in my parish, but in the parish of Spitalfields adjoining, there is a very large one.

Do many of the children of your parish attend?—I do not know the number, but I should conceive a considerable number.

You consider the state of your parish as more indigent at present, and as ignorant as it was some years back?—Quite, or more so.

It is then to the joint operation of increased indigence, and not augmented knowledge, that you attribute most materially the depraved state of the lower orders?— Certainly.

Do you know, whether the parish officers pay a regular attention to keeping the streets orderly and quiet at night?—Considering the description of population, I think they are ns orderly as can be expected.

By whom are the constables named ?—Every officer in the parish is appointed by Mr. Merceron, and all obey his mandates.

Is he high constable?—No, he is not.

Who is, the legal officer holding this office?—I do not know who is the constable for this year ; the officers are elected on Easter Monday, and I think the list is not yet printed.

Whoever Mr. Merceron thinks proper to nominate, is chosen as a Matter of course ?—Quite so.

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