Fraudsters take advantage during Lancashire cotton famine

Local historian Keith Johnson looks at how the cotton famine caused a spike in crime in the 1860s...

Wednesday, 18th March 2020, 11:45 am
Down Crooked Lane was a soup kitchen
Down Crooked Lane was a soup kitchen

In 1863 all of Lancashire was in the grip of the cotton famine and the Preston Sessions of mid-February saw a number of those famished Lancashire residents in the dock.

The Preston Relief Committee and the Preston Guardians were doing much work with handouts and soup kitchens to relieve the starvation and suffering of those out of work due to mills being shut. In consequence, those found to be have made false claims or defrauded the benevolent organisations felt the full force of the law.

John Swindlehurst, a former porter employed by the Preston Board of Guardians, was accused of stealing three tickets out of a relief payment book valued at 17 shillings. It was claimed he had got a young girl to present them to Henry Turner, a pay clerk of the union, and receive the cash, being rewarded with tuppence on each occasion. The original book holder had found the tickets torn out of his book when he went to collect his allowance.

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Whilst admitting the offence Swindlehurst in his defence claimed that the tickets had been given to him by a woman in Crooked Lane outside the soup kitchen who had felt pity for him. The magistrates felt no such pity and he was sentenced to three years penal servitude.

Later in the day Mary Tomlinson, aged 30, was charged with having obtained by false pretences cash payments, eighteen loaves of bread and four cwt of coal the property of the Relief Committee.

William Jackson, a volunteer of the Preston Relief Committee, stated he had visited the accused in November 1862 when she told him her family consisted of ten persons, three of them under ten and five capable of work. She had claimed that only her husband was working earning 10 shillings per week, and their total income was 14 shillings thanks to a payment from the parish council.

Consequently he arranged for her to receive 9 shillings extra per week a payment that was later increased to 15 shillings per week until it was discovered that the actual family income was actually 30 shillings per week following information received from Mr. Humber his mill employer.

When asked what she had to say for herself, she replied that she did not know she was doing wrong, and that her husband was a very drunken man. The chairman Mr. T. B. Addison responded by telling her she was of an age to know better and then informed her she would spend the next 12 months imprisoned in Lancaster Castle.

Next called up was Joseph Brooks, a factory worker of Byrom Street, who had received bread, soup and coals from the Preston Relief Committee under false pretences. It had emerged that at the time he made the claims his wife had also been working at Messrs. Broadhurst manufactures and he had failed to declare her 9 shillings per week income. His crime proven he was sentenced to prison for 14 days.

Before the day was out other Lancashire folk were found guilty of similar offences including Mary Comber of Haslingden, who for claiming three shillings by false pretences from her local Board of Guardians, was sent to prison for six months, as was Michael Kelly of Blackburn who had obtained provisions with a false claim.

Ann Wisdom of Accrington was treated more leniently getting a three month sentence for falsely claiming 17 shillings worth of goods. While the Burnley couple of Thomas and Catherine Giles were found guilty of defrauding the Burnley Relief Committee of 7 shillings per week after not declaring his correct income as a tailor.

They both faced six months in prison with Mrs. Giles being despatched to Lancaster and her husband sent to the House of Correction in Preston.

Some consolation for them all was that they would be getting their daily bread whilst behind bars, unlike some of the less fortunate who queued daily for bowl of soup or crust of bread.