The Bow Street courtroom

The Bow Street courtroom

In a piece worthy of today’s Daily Mail, in 1800, the Caledonian Mercury reported on the illegal occupations undertaken by some of London’s immigrants.

It reported that ‘some foreigners’ who lived on Oxford Street, near Poland Street, were said to ‘possess a knowledge of the occult science, or, in plain terms, were fortune tellers’.

After a tip-off, John Revett, a Bow Street Runner, was despatched to Oxford Street. On reaching the house, he was ushered up to a chamber which contained a ‘very curious machine, called a catoptrical’ and a tablet on which were inscribed a series of questions.

The catoptrical was supposed to be able to answer these questions, but the audience had to pay a shilling for each question they wanted answered.

Each visitor had to look into a telescope-like barrel, supported on a glass tub, and, by the aid of mirrors, an answer would be shown.

The newspaper reported that only the ‘ignorant’ would have thought this was really magic, as the mechanism for working the machine was clearly visible, one of the ‘foreigners’ working the various figures and letters of the answer.

Officer Revett had been promised a wife for his shilling. He returned to the Bow Street magistrate, Richard Ford, to report this, and Ford duly issued a warrant to apprehend the ‘parties practicing this nefarious imposition.’

It took three officers – Revett, together with Townsend and Sayer – to carry out the warrant on Oxford Street. All, of course, paid their shilling to get their fortunes told first, with Sayer wishing he hadn’t, after he was told his wife would be unfaithful to him.

Unluckily for the ‘foreigners’, ‘no lucky omen gave notice of the approach of the officers of justice’; they were taken by surprise by their clients revealing themselves to be officers.

They were brought, in a coach, to the Bow Street public office at 10pm in the evening, and examined by Mr Ford.

Boys exercising at Tothill Fields Prison, or Bridewell. Via Wellcome Images (L0002980).

Boys exercising at Tothill Fields Prison, or Bridewell. Via Wellcome Images (L0002980).

Under the 1744 Vagrancy Act (17 Geo 2, c5), the prisoners were deemed to be rogues and vagabonds, as the act covered ‘persons pretending to have skill in physiognomy, palmistry or fortune telling’.

They were unceremoniously packed off to Tothill Fields Bridewell to await trial at the next Quarter Sessions.

Before they had left the Bow Street office, however, the prisoners had admitted to Mr Ford that they were French immigrants, and that the government paid to them a regular allowance. This allowance was immediately stopped.

The Caledonian Mercury reported that the fortune-tellers ‘did not have recourse to any supernatural means to foretell what would shortly be their fate.’

Instead, Richard Ford – who, unhappily for them, also acted as superintendent of the Aliens Office – stated by the usual means that he would now use his influence to ensure that they were deported back to France.

Source: Caledonian Mercury, 20 October 1800

JM Beattie’s book The First English Detectives: The Bow Street Runners and the Policing of London, 1750-1840 (Oxford University Press, 2012) has lots more on Richard Ford and two of his Runners, Townsend and Sayer.