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The Boss Of Bethnal Green’s Bicentennial

May 18, 2018
by Julian Woodford

On the two hundredth anniversary of the trial of Joseph Merceron, corrupt magistrate and gangster, who is the subject of Julian Woodford’s book The Boss of Bethnal Green, Julian explores this auspicious event in East End history.

Julian will be speaking at Tower Hamlets Local History Library & Archives, Bancroft Rd, E1 4DQ, on Thursday 31st May at 6pm as part of London History Day. He conducted much of his research at the archives and he will outline how he used the collection to uncover Joseph Merceron’s story. Click here for tickets.

The Court of King’s Bench by Augustus Pugin & Thomas Rowlandson, courtesy Bishopsgate Institute

By nine-thirty of the morning of Saturday 18th May 1818, the public gallery at the Court of King’s Bench in Westminster Hall was full. Joseph Merceron, the tyrant who had controlled almost every aspect of life for the poor in the East End for more than thirty years was finally being brought to book.

It was impossible to conduct business in Bethnal Green without money finding its way into Merceron’s pocket. He owned hundreds of tenements and a significant proportion of the public houses too. Incredibly, he was also licensing magistrate and converted his own inns into brothels and gin palaces, while withholding licences for more reputable competitors. As parish treasurer and government tax commissioner, all rate and tax monies passed through his hands. He was responsible for the public amenities – paving, sewerage, lighting and cleaning. He controlled the workhouse and awarded contracts to supply it with food, bedding and fuel. It was the same with a major prison and even the local charity school. As infrastructure was transformed during the Napoleonic wars, directorships of major private companies provided Merceron with further opportunities for corruption. The finances of water works, the docks and the local militia were all subject to his influence. He made many enemies, yet all attempts to unseat him proved hopeless until now – at last – his dominance was under threat. Was the career of the Boss of Bethnal Green about to end?

Emergence

Joseph Merceron was born on Brick Lane in January 1764, the eighth child of a Brick Lane pawnbroker, former silk weaver and second generation Huguenot refugee. Merceron’s father James had astutely shifted careers a few years earlier as the Spitalfields silk industry entered a depression, and he made a small fortune as former colleagues turned to him in desperation for money for food, clothing and shelter. By the time Merceron reached school age, James had expanded his empire to become a slum landlord and had achieved a position of local importance as an officer within the Bethnal Green parish vestry – the local council of its day.

Merceron was a brash, outgoing child and a natural leader. Throughout his childhood the streets of Spitalfields echoed with the sounds of gunfire and military deployments as the starving weavers rioted and were forcibly suppressed by the authorities. The resultant public executions, almost literally on his own doorstep, and the threat to property and life presented by violent mobs, left a strong impression on the boy and shaped his lifelong attitude to power as a tool to be used strategically and with great effect.

After leaving school, Merceron served brief apprenticeships in his father’s pawnshop and a local lottery office – both perfect finishing schools in the dark arts of finance. At sixteen, his father died and Joseph took over the management of the family’s growing property portfolio – a position of power he expanded exponentially by being appointed as agent to two important local landowners. By his twenty-first birthday, Merceron was collecting the rents from more than five hundred homes and able to evict tenants at will for non-payment. The extent of his ruthlessness was soon illustrated when he arranged for his half-sister to be incarcerated in a lunatic asylum, in order to grab her share of their father’s estate, and when he collaborated with a corrupt clergyman to steal the fortune of a mentally disabled local heiress.

Dominance

Merceron’s astonishing rise to power continued. By June 1786, still just twenty-two, he became a Commissioner of Land Tax, meaning he was now able to collect rates on behalf of the County of Middlesex as well as private rents. Later that year Merceron joined the Bethnal Green vestry and became the parish treasurer – meaning that all the parish funds now passed through his hands. The rudimentary book-keeping systems of the day made it difficult to spot if any of these funds went missing and the power conferred on Merceron by the control of money made it easy for him to dominate the vestry. Bethnal Green was always a poor parish, only formed in 1743 to house the overspill of poor journeymen weavers from Spitalfields as London expanded eastwards over the marshy and typhus-infested fields. There was no ‘squirearchy’ since most of the middling class had the good sense to move out to more attractive locations. The vestrymen of Bethnal Green were uneducated artisans, easily led by the dynamic treasurer who rewarded his supporters with rate reductions and a seat at the vestry table.

By 1795, Merceron had used his power to get himself appointed as a magistrate of the County of Middlesex. These magistrates had been famously corrupt for decades and Merceron had no difficulty in dominating this motley group. He established himself within a core of corrupt leaders, the others being William Mainwaring MP, chairman of the bench, his son George Mainwaring, the County Treasurer, and Sir Daniel Williams, a surgeon and apothecary whose name was guaranteed to be found on any committee where contracts were being awarded.

How could these men amass so much power and influence at the very heart of local government yet remain untouched by central government and the law? The explanation lies in the circumstances of the aftermath of the French Revolution. In the seventeen-nineties, London was beset by the growth of radical and sometimes revolutionary societies fuelled by the increasingly educated yet disenfranchised lower-middle classes, spurred on by events in France. Many of these societies had sprung up in the eastern suburbs including Spitalfields and Bethnal Green. In response, William Pitt’s government established an extensive spy network under the management of the Middlesex magistrates. Merceron and his cronies were instrumental in running these spies. For example, it was a Merceron associate who accosted the madman and would-be assassin James Hadfield as he tried to shoot King George III at the Drury Lane Theatre in May 1800. From the government’s point of view, tough but corrupt magistrates were infinitely preferable to the alternative of revolutionaries who would welcome a French invasion.

So – at least while the Napoleonic Wars lasted – Merceron’s prosperity grew. In Bethnal Green, his positions as landlord, parish treasurer and county magistrate meant he was able to alter rate assessments brazenly, doubling them at a stroke for his opponents and reducing them as a favour – to be called in when required – for his allies. When a serious depression hit Bethnal Green in 1800 and the government awarded an emergency relief grant to assist the starving poor, much of it disappeared into Merceron’s pockets, despite the needs of a thousand inmates of the local workhouses in a year when more than a hundred children and forty adults had died of starvation in Spitalfields alone. When a Home Office official was sent to investigate after complaints were raised, Merceron explained lamely that the receipts for his expenditure had been stolen in a burglary and no action was taken.

Belligerence

Over years, all attempts to challenge Merceron’s corruption met with failure. As early as 1788, The Times – as part of a wider campaign to reform the poor laws – ran a series of articles railing against the ‘bare-faced injustice’ of the ‘feasting junto of the Green.’ Yet this criticism petered out as events in France took hold of the public imagination. In 1799, a radical MP, Sir Francis Burdett, exposed the appalling abuse of political prisoners in Coldbath Fields prison in Clerkenwell, which Merceron and his colleagues had both tolerated and encouraged. But Burdett’s claims were cynically covered up by the Pitt government. In 1804, two Bethnal Green vestrymen succeeded briefly in removing Merceron as treasurer, only for him to return a year later. Then. in 1812, an alliance between Bethnal Green’s new rector, Joshua King, and a local gin distiller, John Liptrap, uncovered extensive evidence of rate tampering by Merceron which resulted in him being tried for perjury and corruption. The trial collapsed when Merceron bribed the prosecution lawyers to drop the case and shortly afterwards Liptrap was declared bankrupt after Merceron used his influence to destroy Liptrap’s business.

In 1813, a new and more robust adversary appeared. John Thomas Barber Beaumont was an astonishingly talented man who was ‘devoted to alleviating the insecurity of the poor, whilst crusading against those who would prey on them’. By turns a successful artist, soldier and businessman, Barber Beaumont attempted to establish a philanthropic property development in Mile End involving houses, shops factories and pubs. Merceron, as licensing magistrate, refused to grant Beaumont a licence unless bribes were paid. Beaumont’s complaints to the Middlesex magistrates went unheard, and open letters to The Times and to the Home Secretary made no difference. In frustration, Beaumont’s response was to present all the evidence he had collected against Merceron to a parliamentary Select Committee in 1816.

Beaumont’s campaign was fuelled by the background of extreme distress on the streets of East London following the end of the Napoleonic wars. A sharp increase in the price of corn led to the number of unemployed in Bethnal Green doubling to 42,000 in the latter half of 2016. The people Merceron was stealing from were starving. Beaumont’s evidence of corruption at the heart of local government created uproar and was used by committee chairman, the Whig MP Henry Grey Bennet, to mount a wider attack on Merceron drawing on the earlier evidence of rate tampering from the failed attempt to prosecute him in 1812.

As Beaumont put it to MPs, while England’s attention was diverted by the long war with France, its domestic ‘vermin had been suffered to feed and fatten undisturbedly… the mite extracted from the widow, and the pound bestowed by the benevolent, are alike wrested from the bank of charity in which they were deposited, to feed a vortex to which I will not trust myself to give a name.’

With the return of peace, the government no longer turned a blind eye to Merceron’s corruption. As Beaumont made clear, the distress in the East End, with hordes of unemployed sailors and soldiers unable to support their starving families was exacerbated by the actions of the government’s own local representative. It was inevitable that something must be done. Yet still the authorities repeatedly refused to act against Merceron and it was left once more to the Reverend Joshua King to bring a private prosecution against him in 1818 for the theft of poor rate funds and corrupt licensing of public houses.

So it was that Joseph Merceron took his place in the dock two hundred years ago today. The people of Bethnal Green, having learned of the full extent of his corruption, had already voted Merceron and his cronies out of all their parish offices by Easter. The evidence against him was extensive, underpinned by his own self-incriminating testimony to Bennet’s 1816 Select Committee. Criminal penalties in Regency London were unforgiving. Young girls found guilty of petty shoplifting were routinely be transported to Australia for seven years and the death penalty still applied for a wide variety of crimes. Surely this was the end for the Boss of Bethnal Green?


Click here to order a copy of THE BOSS OF BETHNAL GREEN

You may also like to read about:

The Boss of Bethnal Green

In Search of the Boss of Bethnal Green

Julian Woodford, Author and Digital Flâneur

A One-Way ticket to Sydney

A Stick-Up at Six-Mile Stone

At the Royalty Theatre, Wellclose Square

A Date with Joseph Merceron

James Hadfield’s Pistol

6 Responses leave one →
  1. Jean Clements permalink
    May 18, 2018

    Thank you so much for The Boss of Bethnal Green. Such an interesting insight into the background of my ancestors and something completely unknown to me.

  2. Mike smith permalink
    May 18, 2018

    If like me you love the history of londons east end,this book is a must read,it truly brings the location and character’s alive giving a far greater understanding of the time

  3. Julian Woodford permalink
    May 18, 2018

    Thanks Jean, I’m glad you enjoyed it!

  4. May 18, 2018

    What a rotter! The street name should be changed.

  5. Paul Loften permalink
    May 18, 2018

    A fascinating history specially for someone who has lived just outside the Borough and spent six years at school in Bethnal Green founded by a Hugenot silk weaver Thomas Parmiter. Parmiters school has now moved to Herts but there still exists an old boys association from the Bethnal Green site which celebrates its history. This was some story ! as its theme resonates through the ages as a reminder of corruption in government and the abuse of power, if left unchecked.
    We hope that this book by Julian woodford will give us the awareness to prevent it occuring again in the corridors of power.

  6. Richard Smith permalink
    May 18, 2018

    A very interesting post. What terrible corruption and how the poor and vulnerable were exploited and cheated. “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.”

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