This article was first published in the July 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine
Charles Dickens was a good friend to the ‘deserving poor’, but if tricked or traduced he was famously short on sympathy. In 1850, after discovering that he had made several donations to a man who was later found in good health, and far from dire circumstances, Dickens marched the begging-letter writer to his local magistrate. Aggrieved that the magistrate seemed “deeply impressed” by this literate rogue – and “quite charmed to have the agreeable duty of discharging him” – Dickens took aim at his new foe in his magazine Household Words: “He is one of the most shameless frauds and impositions of this time,” snarled Dickens, recalling the glut of pathetic appeals that had recently found their way to his home. “In his idleness, his mendacity, and the immeasurable harm he does… he is more worthy of Norfolk Island than three-fourths of the worst characters who are sent there.”
In the late 1830s, the journalist and social investigator James Grant estimated that London’s lodging houses were home to at least 250 professional begging-letter writers, the most successful of them able to employ clerks, keep a carriage and earn an income equal to that of a society physician. Around a thousand begging letters were, Grant believed, sent daily. Forty-nine out of fifty of these were fraudulent, defrauding the benevolent public of around £50,000 a year (perhaps £2m today).
With the advent of Uniform Penny Postage in 1840, the number of begging letters doubled. By the time Dickens had his fingers burned, London was in the grip of an invisible crime wave. With no more than pen, paper and a credible sob story, legions of begging-letter writers, often working in cahoots, were thriving on the wages of imposture.
Though itinerant rogues had used sham petitions throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, it was not until the 1790s that the begging-letter writer evolved into the kind of white-collar conman that Dickens despised. The Newgate Calendar, an ever-popular anthology of crime and punishment, signalled his arrival with the tale of Henry Perfect, the son of a Leicestershire clergyman, indicted for obtaining money under false pretences from the Earl of Carendon, the Duchess of Beaufort, Lord Willoughby de Broke, Lord Littleton, Lady Howard, and a score of bishops and honourables. According to the Calendar, Perfect’s letters were written either in the guise of an impoverished cleric or bereaved wife. A fastidious worker, he kept a book of accounts “as regular as any merchant in London”. In no more than two years, Perfect had earned himself the grand sum of £488, for which he was sentenced to seven years in Botany Bay.
It was thanks to the efforts of the London Mendicity Society – founded on the high-minded belief that begging debased the poor, robbing them of industry and self-reliance – that a public spotlight was trained on the ruses that Perfect and his like were practising upon the charitable rich.
While the society invited its well-heeled subscribers to forward all begging letters to its offices at Red Lion Square, it scoured the broadsheets for suspicious adverts, and fished for information from anyone who believed they might have received a fictitious petition. Every letter was checked and cross-referenced, with officers looking out for common names and calligraphy.
By the early 1830s, the society had amassed 28,000 begging letters “from persons of rank and influence”. Though the majority of these letters were from the genuinely needy – largely destitute women without the means to provide for their families or pay outstanding debts – many were the work of chancers and opportunists, like the young man from the Black Country who, while admitting to never having known “true poverty”, expressed a desire to travel and see the world’s great sights.
Dickens, fast becoming an expert on the varieties of sob story that continued to do the rounds of the rich and titled, was happy to endorse the society’s work. The charitably inclined should, he urged, “be deaf to such appeals, and crush the trade… Give money today in recognition of a begging-letter – no matter how unlike a common begging letter, – and for the next fortnight you will have a rush of such communications.”
In its most successful year, the Mendicity Society prosecuted 42 professional begging-letter writers. This was a relatively small return on the time and effort that it expended. With good reason, one irate critic claimed the organisation was itself a “stupendous hoax” and “a tremendous swindle”.
The society stood firm, pointing to the high-profile cases that it had, over the course of three decades, helped expose. There was Joseph Underwood, a master of the begging epistle, whose penmanship had netted him thousands; Harriet Reid, the “bold and masculine” defrauder of Lord Chichester, Lord Hardwicke and Lady Pole; William King, committed to three months’ hard labour after attempting to defraud Lord Nugent with false tales and forged testimonials; the McMullins, mother and son begging-letter writers, found residing in a divided apartment: one room well-furnished, the other (which inquiring ladies and gentleman were ushered into) unimaginably shabby; and Henry Stone, whose “singular command” of the English language – and multiple aliases – won over the great and good, including the Duke of Wellington, whose donations were found to amount to a staggering £400.
While the stick-wielding officers of the Mendicity Society went banging on the doors of the city’s begging-letter writers, they were, it seemed, oblivious to the more lowly ‘screevers’ who made a living by supplying ‘slums’ (letters), ‘fakements’ (petitions) and other bogus material to professional cadgers.
Generally speaking, screevers were exiles from respectable society: clerks, teachers, lawyers and otherwise “reduced gentlemen”. Their profession, as exposed by Henry Mayhew in his London Labour and the London Poor, remained “a class of whom the public little imagine either the number or turpitude”. A short letter confirming the alias of the bearer could be purchased for a shilling.
For two guineas, the more ambitious cadger could purchase a petition: a request for charitable aid, complete with forged signatures from witnesses and subscribers. Ten guineas bought the screever’s masterwork: a long literary composition composed in his best curlicue style. In the course of his research, Mayhew managed to obtain a screever’s list of personages known to have fallen for begging-letter deceptions. The list, drawn from the notebook of a man who had spent “30 years on the monkery”, included the late Queen Dowager, the Bishop of Norwich, Sir Robert Peel, the Dukes of Devonshire and Portland, Lord Lytlleton, and a certain author by the name of “Charles Dickins [sic]”. Just as he had suspected, Dickens, along with several other literary gentlemen, had indeed established a reputation as a charitable fool.
Mayhew delegated the task of profiling the begging-letter impostor, the long-standing nemesis of the Mendicity Society, to a young journalist called Andrew Halliday. The picture that Halliday drew, with no shortage of artistic licence, was of a down-at-heel dandy, an educated trickster with “white cravats, soft hands, and filbert nails”, “his general expression of pious resignation contradicted by restless, bloodshot eyes”.
Unlike the screever who simply acted as amanuensis to the less literate cadger, Halliday’s begging-letter writer was a shape shifter, and it was his ability to adapt himself “in person”, to bring his literary ventriloquism to life, that earned him a particularly devilish reputation. One day he might play The Decayed Gentleman, the next The Distressed Scholar wanting not a penny more than the rail-fare or coach hire to take up a new appointment. “Among the many varieties of mendacious beggar,” declared Halliday, “there is none so detestable as this hypocritical scoundrel.” To affront common decency and charitable instincts with these wily impersonations was considered worse than fraud itself.
A mischievous Times leader from October 1867 begged to differ. Presenting the much-maligned begging-letter writer as a novelist manqué, The Times asked its readers “not [to] despise this humble professional” but to think of him as a natural competitor of the authors of cheap fiction who “by dint of huge type and monstrous margin, stretch a simple tale of passion and wickedness into three volumes priced a guinea and a half”.
The parallel may have been partly facetious, yet after the rabid admonishments of Dickens & Co this was a rather unexpected accolade for the begging-letter pariah. A writer first, a criminal second?
But with the telegraph and telephone offering up new possibilities to the white-collar criminal, these ‘humble professionals’ were a dying breed. Although the Mendicity Society’s pigeon-hole archives now held a quarter of a million begging letters, business was not what it used to be. By the turn of the century, prosecutions for begging-letter fraud were set to reach an all-time low, and the enmity that had been voiced towards these ‘shameless frauds’ soon gave way to a hearty and sentimental appraisal of a once-popular deception. It was a rose-tinted obituary for a singularly ingenious career, an elegy for those literary Fagins who had contrived to rob the rich without ever leaving their lodgings.
Case study: The male damsel in distress is exposed
London’s most prolific and successful writer of begging letters, Henry Stone, was tried at the Clerkenwell Sessions in 1852. During the trial, Stone was found to have made a small fortune on the strength of the following notice in The Times:
“To the Charitable and Affluent. At the 11th hour a young and most unfortunate lady is driven by great distress to solicit from those charitable and humane persons who ever derive pleasure from benevolent acts, some little pecuniary assistance. The advertiser’s condition is almost hopeless, being, alas! Friendless, and reduced to the last extremity. The smallest aid will be thankfully acknowledged, and the fullest explanation given. Direct Miss T. C. M., Post-office, Great Randolph St., Camden New Town.”
An expert in dissembling ‘female distress’, Stone had employed an accomplice to play the part of a young woman “deceived by a base and heartless villain”. The ruse was exposed by the Mendicity Society. Stone’s handiwork earned him transportation for seven years.
Case study: American fraudster preys on the dead
Throughout the 1850s, the Mendicity Society warned that American swindlers were pursuing “a heartless system of imposture,” studying the obituary notices to cheat bereaved families with their artful and pathetic tales. The following letter from a young lady signed ‘C’, a supposed inmate of ‘Jail Hospital’, was sent to the family of a recently deceased gentleman in Oxford:
“Kind and honoured benefactor, – It is now some time since I last wrote, nor should I do so now had I not been very ill and in much distress, and impelled thereto by your desire that I should apply to you again the moment I had further need of your assistance. God bless you, my honoured Sir, for your great goodness to me, unworthy as I am of your generous consideration… My wretchedness and disgrace is breaking my heart. I feel at times it would be better for me to die, and yet I pray to God to be returned to my dear, dear native land, and be once more clasped to the fond hearts of my dearest parents… The money you sent me last is all expended. Please, dear Sir, send me a little more; 5l. Or 10l. will do… Pray send soon, for I am in much distress. I am destitute and sickness is adding tenfold to my suffering.”
The Mendicity Society’s exposure of this con (which invariably asked that remittances be sent to a certain Dr SJ Lynch in New York) ensured that the mysterious ‘C’ was left to languish in Jail Hospital, receiving no assistance from the family of her honoured Sir.
Dr Antonio Melechi is a sociologist at the University of York. He is the author of Servants of the Supernatural: The Night Side of the Victorian Mind (Heinemann, 2008).