Working on Archive Collections: A Volunteer Reflects

One of our Speak Out volunteers, Jill Allbrooke, shares some thoughts on what she has discovered in the pages of some magistrates court records held at London Metropolitan Archives.

I’ve now done two sessions working on the Marylebone court records for 1951 and 1961. I’ve found gay-related cases in all the volumes I’ve looked at so far, but to be honest the most interesting part for me is the vivid and entertaining picture the records paint of life in west London 50 – 60 years ago.

I’ve looked at nineteenth century court records in a previous life and the first thing that struck me about the Marylebone records is how similar they are in some respects, especially in the triviality of the offences people are charged with, such as stealing pairs of socks and bars of soap. However, in the nineteenth century such petty thefts could earn you a date with the hangman or at best a one-way trip to Australia, whereas in the 50s and 60s many offenders were simply discharged.

The most common crimes in both years are being drunk and soliciting (by women). Many of the drunks compounded their crime by “urinating on the footway.” Sleeping rough is described rather poetically as “… did wander abroad and lodge in the open air.” There were lots of prosecutions for deserting the armed forces, running brothels, betting in public, selling from unlicensed barrows, attempting to procure miscarriages and quite a few straight couples having sex in public. Popular thefts include money from gas meters and automatic cigarette machines, typewriters and wirelesses (no laptops or mobile phones back then) and large quantities of lead and coke (the fuel not the drug). In 1951 lots of people were charged with stealing or defacing ration books and identity cards, and in 1961 there was much more shoplifting, I suspect because there were more self-service shops by then, and items such as tins of cat food and jars of Marmite are laboriously listed by the court officials.  In the 1961 volume I came across a surprisingly large number of people charged with possessing “Indian hemp.”Occasionally a serious charge such as murder or rape appears amid the long lists of drunks, prostitutes and car thieves, and is quite shocking in comparison.

I find myself strongly tempted to look below the surface for more evidence related to the LBGT history of London. For example, on 12 January 1951 someone was prosecuted for breaking the windows of the Black Cap pub in Camden. I’m wondering if the Black Cap had a gay clientele that far back, and if it did, whether this could point to a homophobic incident? Maybe I’m just reading too much into it.

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