Consequences; January 1812

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“He had no debt, no creditor”

There is a time when ‘principles’ become not a good thing but an obsession. Like jealousy or revenge, stubborn adherence to ‘principles’ taken to a point where they are self-harming can erode the mind.

This old man does not sound deranged but as he calmly gives his testimony, he does sound profoundly broken and angry. Has he let ‘principles’ overtake his right mind..? you can decide.

It is 1861 when the British papers carry the report of a debtor up before the authorities to explain why he should be discharged from his debt. This happened all the time though. A businessman or a tradesman who could not pay his bills went through these hoops every day.

But in earlier times than 1861 a debtor was put in jail to concentrate his mind about paying his creditors. Dickens’ dad was an example. But in the enlightened 1860s the debtor was simply made to account for himself financially and if it seemed he was an innocent who had run out of money rather than a fraudster he was discharged from bankruptcy after a couple of years. As part of the tidying up process debtors were found still in jail and were being set free.

This man before the court was a victim of those ‘earlier times’. He should have been angry and who could blame him? The arthritic old man, William Miller by name is speaking under oath to the registrar of the Queen’s Bench Prison, an humane man who is only trying to clear up now what authorities should have done five long decades before – release William Miller from a debtor’s prison as seemingly he had never been a debtor in the first place.

It is a murky story and one has to suspend disbelief or the truth of everything Miller testifies, but from his side the facts are these. In 1814, yes that’s right 1814, Miller was a carpenter and cabinet maker in the sleepy Hampshire town of Christchurch. Miller still can recall the day — Saturday September 3rd that his Kafka-esque nightmare began..

He says that a man named Cull accused him of owing the absolutely eye-wateringly huge sum in those days of £1,000. How a simple carpenter could run up what was the equivalent of millions nowadays is never questioned. Cull has him arrested and thrown into debtors’ prison, where he still languishes in 1861 (though since 1854 he had been moved from Winchester prison to London).

Miller forcefully and clearly states that the paperwork that put him there in the first place was unofficial, unauthorised, illegal and possibly forged. He adds that he owned property in the town that would have provided rents to satisfy at least some of the debt but the money went missing. Miller claims that there is further back story attached to his jailing in that, according to Miller, the man Cull had seduced one of his sisters. As this possibly occurred before Miller was incarcerated, that might present circumstantial evidence of malign motive on Cull’s part.

The kindly registrar named Winslow told the sickly 77-year-old man that he would release him that day if only he would declare himself bankrupt, but the old man stuck by his principle that no man should acknowledge that he was a debtor when he plainly was not. The unspoken fact was that fifty years had institutionalised Miller beyond redemption. He was simply scared of the fate awaiting him outside prison.

Independent evidence is scant today to corroborate Miller’s story . If absence of evidence is ever evidence of absence this might be the case. It was the law that every bankrupt Tom, Dick or Harry across England got his name published in the official London Gazette as part of the punishment. And while there were dozens of bankrupt millers by trade that year there were fewer Millers by name and none named William nor any within 100 miles of Christchurch in 1814.

There was a family named Cull residing in Christchurch at that time. It  was in a position of some power in town, with one member acting as the town’s auctioneer. That man had a son who was the right age to be a seducer during Napoleonic times but that isn’t proof.

William and Miller is such a common coupling of names that most villages would have record of one, so that haystack may hide a needle, who knows? However, there is a record of an 84-year old named William Miller dying in Christchurch in 1867, so that may have been our man, as their respective ages almost match. For he was released — probably as much against his wishes as his original incarceration was. One can only hope that those six years he had left were better than the rest of his adult life, stolen from him.Miller Times Aug 20

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Part of Miller’s verbatim testimony in November 1861

 

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Sailing too close to the wind

Eupion Oil is slippery stuff. It’s one of many hydrocarbons bearing classical sounding names that they could so easily be diaphanously-clad minor spirits partying with old Zeus disguised as a bull. Not wishing to sound like a Tom Lehrer tribute band, but aside from Eupion there’s kerosene, naphtha, propane and toluene. Ethane, methane, heptyne and undecene, Classical allusions point to the fact that many of these compounds were first identified in the earlier decades of the 19th century when science was still a branch of the arts and scientists knew their Latin and Greek.

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Zeus; a victim of  inappropriate touching 

But hey, class, we’re here to talk of Eupion. Since the 1850s Eupion was used for many disparate purposes; to protect telegraph wires, as a domestic stain remover without the ominous ether-like scent of operations and as a substitute liquid to light lamps in place of the ever scarcer and pricier oil from lately deceased whales.

Then in the early 1870s a German living in London developed a patented process, which, if it worked as claimed, could easily turn the liquid into a gas that burned twice as bright as coal gas. And it could be piped across towns and into homes. It could also serve as a smoke-free alternative to coal for the steam engines propelling London’s Underground. More especially though, the Eupion could be transported as liquid to serve new weeny domestic micro-gasworks that would light isolated communities or even country houses where the expense of running pipes to them was too great. Hurrah for the Victorians and their constant striving for new technology to drive forward civilisation.

The way to capitalise such technology of course was through floating a company.

So this brings us on to the Eupion Fuel and Gas Company and some slippery customers who first met their accusers in late 1874. It turned out that during that year these minor league City crooks aiming to go up to the bigs had been selling their shares through stupidly innocent share dealers over and over again to their mates. The accomplices then gave the shares back to the directors and then went and bought some more. This was to make it seem like the world was interested in Eupion.

The money too was recycled. Sloppy auditing and a dodgy bank manager meant that the Eupion board would pay the proceeds into one bank, then tell the first bank that they were transferring the cash to the equivalent of a high interest savings account at another bank whose dodgy manager ‘loaned’ the money straight back to the directors, The directors passed it straight to the accomplices so that they had the cash to be able to buy more shares. Unaccountably (literally and metaphorically) the innocent first bank told the Stock Exchange that all the individual payments of the same money which it had seen repeatedly come and go across their counters still added up to a grand total. This pleased the Stock Exchange, which would not let a company be entered as a publicly traded stock unless a majority percentage of its shares had already been privately taken up.

Another nicety of the Stock Exchange was that it signed off on a new issue by naming a ‘settling day’. Upon that future day the brokers who had bought on behalf of clients had to pony up the cash and the Stock Exchange dealer who had sold on the understanding that he would have the shares come settling day had to provide the promised Share Certificates. If he did not have the shares he would have to obtain them — at any price. In any rapidly rising market it could be impossible to get even one hot share as everyone was hunting the same stock.  And if the dealer failed to come up with the goods and the deal was held over to the next settling day, then the buyer’s broker could exact what they called ‘blood money’,  the difference in price between what the agreed to pay for the shares and the actual cost of obtaining them – and it was no small amount.

But of course all the ‘sold’ shares had never left the oily hands of the Eupion directors. So they held them back so that all their phoney buyers could claim their blood money.

Ingenious though the fraud was, the Stock Exchange and the trial judge, an ex-Lord Mayor of London and Calvinist Scot grocer named Sir Andrew Lusk were onto the wheeze.

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Grocer Lusk

This was, after all, so much more important than a fraud against any old shareholders. No, it was far worse to Lusk and his City contemporaries; it was a fraud against The Stock Exchange – that meant and attack on the smooth operation of  capitalism itself. The Stock Exchange was stung by this clever intrusion into the well-oiled relations of buyer and seller. Knowing it could not act itself, it forced the dealers themselves to call to account these half a dozen ‘respectable’ City figures who had conspired to go just too far.

This buying and selling of shares that you did not hold was indeed a part of a system that itself by its nature condoned – no, encouraged  Much of this sort of gambling and market rigging was ‘honest speculation’. It was how brokers and dealers earned much more than the money their simple commission would pull in. Cornering a market, bulls, bears, shorting and all the other tricks of the trade were acceptable, naturally, but this was not. The Eupion directors had invented a way of doing business quite as dishonest as many others, but this was not one that was sanctioned.

In their various defences, the prominent names who had become Eupion directors did the unthinkable and bit at the hand that hitherto fed them — and not just the Stock Exchange itself, but to those colleagues, friends and enemies who right now filled the crowded public spaces of the courtroom. In his defence one accused argued “…the Exchange said the morality was to buy what they could never get and sell what they could not deliver”, and he was right. That did not go down well with the rest of the club. No-one likes a cheat who tells teacher that there others were cheating, so it was off to the Old Bailey for the half dozen in the dock to face criminal proceedings for fraud.

The Central Criminal Court, to give it its proper title, dealt with murders, assaults, theft and burglaries – interpersonal offences — and so this bit of white collar crime was quickly shuffled back to the Queen’s Bench  a court which was finding its feet following the wholesale revision of the British court system the previous year. Though justice always proceeded with glacial sloth in Victoria’s age, they seem to have been particularly snowed under as it did not come to court for two whole years. So it was back to the courtroom in the Guildhall, but this time facing the Lord Chief Justice.

The fraud charge was difficult to prosecute. Who had defrauded whom? They weren’t the first in the Square Mile to hold onto shares to push for blood money. The shares they sold were actually sold in the way that shares should be sold. Yes it’s true the bank manager was conspiring to give the money back as a loan, but hey, it would not have been the first dodgy loan, nor the last and that in any event was for the bank to prosecute. Yes it’s true that the buyers signed the shares back to the company, but that too was broadly legal.

The jury took just 40 minutes to say they were not guilty of the more serious charge conspiracy to defraud. However they were guilty of inducing the Stock Exchange to grant a settling day by false pretences – though no-one including the judge knew if this was actually a crime at all.

The court was “very much crowded” on Saturday morning July 1st 1876, when the accused were finally called back to face sentence. But first came the pleas in mitigation. One claimed that he had two life threatening diseases, 12 children and aged parents to support and who would be condemned to the workhouse – he got 12 months. Another claimed that he had only become roped in as a trustee of the estate of one of the patentees – he got two months. The bank manager for 30 years who was on a salary of £1200 a year with a promotion in the offing till this blew up – he got 12 months.

The lesson, of course was to others in the City. Keep to the rules and do not try to invent new ways to screw the system. There were enough schemes to do that in place and the system did not need any more.

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Climate change by any other name

Global warming started early — 1869 in fact — but our foolhardy ancestors denied the obvious signs of climate change… Capture

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Feelin’ alright? Not Feelin’ too Good Myself

Ailments can so easily be politicised. Where there is any kind of pain or suffering, weasel politicians smelling blood gravitate to the scene like the hyenas you always knew they were.

It was so back in history when the British confected a case for conflict over the detached organ of an unfortunate sea captain and so the War of Jenkins’ Ear was born. Google it, why don’t you?

So it is now. For many reasons, the small islands making up the countries called the UK have 65 million souls by the official count, but that is a nearly 20 per cent population increase since 1990.

Many services provided by the state have become overwhelmed by this fact. Revenues into the state  have not commensurately increased in purchasing power terms. So there is a war to be fought over this latter day ear in a jar.

The Hiroshima target is Britain’s free health service. The National Health Service has been adopted by those who are not in government like some duffle-coated Peruvian orphan bear. It is no longer the NHS but it has become our NHS (though there is much anecdotal evidence that there are many from outside the UK who fly in to take advantage of the lackadaisical failure to check entitlement).

It is worth reminding ourselves that the UK has a tradition bordering on obsession of the ritual celebration of events. It’s plainly ‘bread and circuses’ to distract the populace from moaning about hyena politicians and the NHS. Usually these are sporting triumphs, or oftentimes disasters. The calendar runs  Cheltenham winter race meeting full of drunks and the Irish, then the Grand National horse race of death (everyone is temporarily an expert of horseflesh and the jumps), followed by Ascot (ditto for racing without jumping) The Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race, Wimbledon (Come on Tim! or someone else whose certainly destined to lose — and everyone for a two week period knows their backhand lob from percentage first service faults), then it’s the cricket and so on to take up more time until attention turns from sport to the celebration of Christmas – a festival which now begins in retail terms in late August – I kid you not.

In parallel we talk endlessly and amaterurishly of the weather, in a country where 72F is perceived as a stultifying heatwave and 31F is Arctic chill. Each and every winter the conversation turns to disease. Yes folks it is the “flu season”. And guess what happens? Our NHS gets a bunch more customers with respiratory disease blocking further the already creaking conveyor belt of “get ’em in, get ’em well, get ’em out.”

And of course circling politicians make much of this. But here’s the thing. There have always been winter crises in the NHS. Even before there was an NHS there were winter crises. Flu epidemics – or should that be pandemics? —  like the poor, have always been with us and have overwhelmed the health systems of the world.

Most are familiar with the Spanish Flu of 1918-19 that is said to have killed 50 million. Right now it’s Aussie Flu, but bird flu, Hong Kong Flu and Asian Flu have all had their day in the sick beds of the world.

Even the years when there wasn’t a plague, there was enough sickness to stop the buses and the postal service. People expected it. Here’s what was happening in Britain during January 1933 when there was a mini pandemic:-

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It wasn’t that we had to find someone to blame for death and disease back then. Here are the sage thoughts in a song by lesser known Texas blues singer Ace Johnson and his take on its inevitability and universality  of flu, from 1939.

Influenza is a disease, makes you weak all in your knees

’Tis a fever everybody sure does dread

Puts a pain in every bone, a few days and you are gone

To a place in the ground called the grave

Of course you could always rely on advertisers to come up with a cure. This is from that same January back in 1933.

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This time it’s the gabby cabby

By coincidence another cab-related case from 1862 that I just had to share. This time it seems as if the boot is on the other foot. There is more than a hint of irony that after driving like a crazy and not knowing the way to King’s Cross, Sam Simmons started abusing poor Mr Keith for his offered two shillings fare payment, not realising that the other man in the cab was none other than a plain clothes cop.

For Mr Keith it seemed the end of a pretty bad day, having already been robbed once.

I bet that Simmons was one of those cabbies that never went ‘sarf of the river’.insolent cabman

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It’s the rich wot gets the pleasure

And the poor knew their place.

This is the story from the Bow St Magistrate’s Court in 1862. It’s the tale of a cheapo toff who was embarrassed when a short-changed cabby chased him and shouted at him in the street for underpaying. Using his position in society the man turned the tables on the cabman by dragging him to court.

Putting two and two together and making five, the ‘gentleman’ who brought the charges against the cabby could have been the cricketer and cleric Edmund Henry Lacon Willes, (Winchester and Oxford, fast bowler for Kent and Hampshire). I only say that as one of his stops he made was at the newspaper Sporting Life. If not then I defame the memory of Willes, but you know what they say about fast bowlers…

The poor cabby knew he would never be believed, even though his story sounds like the truth. On the balance of probabilities he is unlikely to have done what he did unless he knew that Willes was in the wrong. Victorian sense of place was not to be on his side, however…it's the rich

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Let them eat paint!

Around the end of the Napoleonic War, there was a rich gentleman on business in the West Country. As he was rich, he stayed in a nice hotel.  He liked a snack for his supper if he arrived back from business late in the evening .

He particularly liked the local cheese known as Double Gloucester, which is a reddish coloured hard cheese. In the summer the colour in the cheese comes naturally from the amount of carotene in the cow’s diet. At other times — and this was a practice dating back to the middle ages — a natural food dye known as Anatto was added to Gloucester cheese to convince buyers they were getting the real thing and top quality cheese at that. This practice was copied by other dairies around the country which produced their own such as Red Leicester and Scottish coloured Cheddar.

The gent had eaten cheese on toast at home for years  without any digestive problem. But that one night after the snack in his hotel he was beset with terrible abdominal pains. He recovered, but the next time he ate cheese at the hotel the same thing happened. The cheese was further implicated when a kitten was violently ill after eating a bit of rind cut from the cheese. The hotel — being posh — had ordered the cheese not from a local farm, but from a “respectable shop” in London. The gentleman inquired of the shop what might have been added to their cheese to make him feel so unwell. Yes, they conceded,  they had added Anatto to the cheese, but they got this Anatto from their usual supplier with whom they had traded for years.

Further enquiries ensued. “Well maybe…” said the cheesemaker. Maybe the Anatto had been of “defective and inferior quality” and hadn’t produced an orange enough colour for our liking. So, yes, we did add a little vermillion to the mixture — but we got it from a reputable wholesale chemist.

Trouble was that they had not told the chemist that they were adding the vermillion to food. The chemist usually sold vermillion  as a pigment for house paint. To boost the red colour in red paint he naughtily but routinely added the very poisonous red lead to his vermillion, certain that no-one would be so foolish as to eat paint.

So while most adulteration of food and drink was almost certainly deliberate in the 19th century, once in a while there was a chain of events, each link innocent in itself,which led to disaster. Nowadays chains of this nature leading to catastrophe are usually contained the text of air accident reports and the like.

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“Man of God, there is death in the pot!”

Ever wondered how an old timey cup of coffee tasted?

What was it really like to take that first sip, on a day some hundreds of years before intensive farming methods, fancy new coffee plant varieties, modern methods of drying, roasting, grinding and so on? Well, wonder no more. Was it wonderful, like nothing you’ve ever tasted? Yes and no, The ‘no’ was that it mostly wasn’t wonderful and the yes — it was like nothing else, but it must have tasted irredeemably foul.

It wasn’t the fault of the beans though. In the early nineteenth century it was consumerism. The new middle classes took to the rich taste of coffee favoured by richer folks the century before. They liked convenience and so bought ready ground coffee, not beans. As it was said at the time, those who sold ground coffee recognised that “no article presents greater facilitation for adulteration than coffee”. And adulterate they did. About 36,000 lbs of genuine coffee was imported into the UK each year but it was boosted by 18,000 lbs of something else.

Adding roasted chicory was the most common of harmless extenders in coffee. That started out as a tax avoidance scheme. The UK government had thought that taxing imports of coffee was a nice little earner.  But then the pesky Dutch and later the French took up the habit of adding roasted chicory to their coffee at the very start of the 19th century because, unaccountably, they liked the taste. Britain took up the fashion. His Majesty’s government plugged the potential revenue loophole and slapped a tax on imported chicory too.

Then came what economists nowadays call incentivised import substitution. Farmers in Yorkshire and East Anglia particularly found that they could grow chicory at home. And of course domestic chicory could not be taxed like imports. ‘Aha’ thought the legislators, to get around this we’ll make it an offence for anyone who has anything to do with coffee to have roasted chicory on the premises. So an Act of Parliament  in 1822 – An Act to regulate the Manufacture and Sale of Scorched or roasted Corn, Beans, Peas, Beans or Parsnips – included a £100 fine for anyone using any vegetable substance “prepared or manufactured in imitation of or in any respect to resemble coffee or cocoa”.

And many did get caught — and fined the huge amount of £100, which in those days was enough to bankrupt a substantial business. Those critical of food adulteration were named and shamed. Take Mr Chaloner for example, who put burnt pea flour and sand in his coffee when he bothered at all, though 17 lbs of what he was selling as coffee had no coffee in it whatsoever.

Dare I go into what else got sold as coffee? Yes I will. Dried used coffee grounds were often added and, distasteful as the practice might have been, it was not so utterly disgusting as the other common adulterant.

Horses were as common as cars and trucks — in fact they were cars and trucks, or at least their engine. So just as today there are breakers who recycle old vehicles there were obviously knackers and horsemeat traders mopping up the dead and decrepit horseflesh.

But what to do with all those horse livers they ended up with? Some bright spark had the brainwave that if you slowly baked them until they were dry and crumbly you could add the powder to… yes, you’re ahead of me… coffee.

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How it was in France. Would you like some soap with your skinny Latté

Though Starbucks and the rest have re-educated our tastebuds for ‘real’ coffee’, those cocktails of coffee and roasted roots still exist. There is a coffee and chicory brand called Camp Coffee which has been on sale in Britain  since 1876. And there are other brands around Europe which use roasted barley, roasted dandelion root, roasted chickpeas as well. The Germans even have a word for these caffeine-free coffee substitutes, but someone should really tell them, as that word is ‘muckefuck’, which would make a practitioner in the art of caffeine-free coffee a muckefucker, I guess.

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(The headline by the way is from 2 Kings v 38 — but you knew that already — and it’s one of those Old Testament recipe fails, only saved in the nick of time by part-time fine dining chef and full-time prophet, Elisha).

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“Died from excessive tobacco smoking”

 

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Nearly 100 years before Sir Richard Doll’s proof that smoking and cancer were linked and way before the tobacco lobby cranked up its PR campaigns, a scientist in 1855 studying the adulterants and poisons that went into commonplace foods sold in England also looked at what went into tobacco. While he was describing the effects of the growing craze for smoking on the human body, he observed this… who knew? Well, they seemed to.tobacco

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