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The Pawnshop in a Bleeze: Pawnbroking in 19th Century Newcastle

One of the things i'm hugely proud of with this project is providing a platform to share incredible work, whether that be on subjects we know and love or more specialist areas.

Michael's research into Newcastle pawnbroking explores the underbelly of black market dealings on Tyneside, as well as the reputable face of the trade itself and how the much maligned industry seeped into musical folklore.


Pawnbrokers were ambiguous figures for the Victorian working class. They were resented for the interest they charged and the hold they had over their communities, but their services were constantly relied upon by urban workers to manage precarious household finances. Families often used the pawnshop on a weekly basis, pledging clothes, linen and furniture to raise small amounts until the next wage came in.

Many pawnbrokers saw themselves as respectable professionals and sought to improve the reputation of their trade. Some used the money and influence they acquired though the pawn trade to establish larger businesses or gain political office. Yet the trade was constantly dogged with links to criminality and receipt of stolen goods.

This article explores one Newcastle pawnbroker, made famous through a North East folk song. It looks at his career, and the professional association he helped to form. By reviewing reports of court cases, we gain an insight into the lives of the people who used and misused the services of pawnbrokers.

The song and its author

‘The Pawnshop in a Bleeze: or the spout without water’ is song by Joseph Philip Robson (1808-1870), first appearing in Songs of the Bards of the Tyne, an anthology of songs edited by Robson and published in 1850 by P. France & Co. The song is dated 9th August 1849, and several sources highlight that it was inspired by a real fire at Trotters pawnbrokers of Side, a street near Newcastle Quayside, which is named in the song’s fifth verse. The publisher itself was based at 8 Side, so must have been very aware of the pawnshop and the fire.

The song was recorded by Tyneside music hall singer Charles Earnest Catcheside-Warrington (1859-1937) and included in Volume One of his Tyneside Songs with Pianoforte Accompaniment, a chapbook of songs first published by J.G. Windows in 1912. He named the song ‘The Paanshop Bleezin’’ and this (or ‘The Pawnshop Bleezing’) is used in modern renditions. A recording of Catcheside-Warrington singing the song can be found on ‘The Keel Row – Songs of the Urban Tyne’ compilation CD. He omits the third verse from Robson’s original, and that omission seems to be followed in other modern versions.

The lyrics from Robson’s 1850 version are reproduced below with the original spelling and punctuation, and a translation into modern English for readers unfamiliar with the dialect. The publishers themselves acknowledged the difficulty even for contemporary audiences and included a glossary ‘for those who are unaccustomed to the LINGO NORTHUMBRIA of these songs’.

The Paanshop Bleezin'

Wor, Sall was kaimin' oot her hair,

An' aw was turnin' dosy,

Whiles snot'rin' in wor easy chair,

That myeks a chep sleep cosy:

When frae the street cam screams an' cries-

Wor Sall says "Wheest!" aw rubs my eyes;

An' marcy! shoots o' "Fire!" aw hears-

Aw myeks yen lowp doon a' wor stairs,

An' smash, aw seed a queerish seet,

Yel thousands crooded I' the Street;

It was the Pawnshop bleezin'.

The wimmin folks 'twas sair to see

Lamentin' their distresses;

For mony a goon, an' white shemee,

Was brunt wi' bairns's dresses;

Peg Putty stamp'd an' cried, "Oh, dear!

"Wor Geordey's breeks is gyen, aw fear;

Maw bonny shawl an' Bella's frock-"

Says Betty Mills, "An' there's wor clock,

An' aw' my bits of laddies' claes-

My pillowslips an' pair o' stays-

Is in the Pawnshop bleezin'."

A dowpy wife wi' borrow'd fat,

An' wiv a puggy beak, man,

Cam' pushin' wiv her bonnet flat,

An' puffin oot her cheeks, man.

Ye niver seed suc bullet eyes-

Her screams aw thowt wad splet the skies:

"Oh Lord! maw babbies' things is gyen!

Maw unborn babe hes claithes noo neyn!

An' when wor Billy finds it oot,

There'll murder be, aw hae ne doot:

Oh dear! what garr'd me put them in?

'Twas a' the Races an' curs'd gin-

That set my claes a-bleezin'!"

"Oh, marcy, aw'll be hammer'd tee!"

Cries Orange Jinny, blarin';

"Aw popp'd Ned's suit to hae a spree,

But suen aw'll get me fairin'-

He thinks, poor sowl, his claes is reet,

He'll want yen suit o' Friday neet-

What mun aw dee? aw wadent care,

But, hinnies, watch an' seal is there;

And warse an' warse! he'll quickly knaw,

That earrings, weddin' ring an' a',

Is in the Pawnshop bleezin'!"

Lang Skipper Jack, wi' mony a sweer,

Cam laingerin' up the Side, man;

Says he, "What's a' the matter, here?

Noo, here's a bonny tide, man!

Why, marrows, sure it cannit be;

This is'nt Trotter's place aw see?"

So oot his baccy fob he tuik,

Hawled oot some tickets frae a buik:

"Why, sink the sowls ov a' the lot!

Ay, d--n the yel scrape's geyn to pot!

There's a' maw fortin' bleezin'!"

The yells, an' blairs, an' curses lood,

And cries o' stupefaction;

An' bits o' bairns amang the crood,

Increased the mad distraction:

Aye, mony a wife will rue the day,

She pat her husband's things away;

An' men will groan wi' bitter grief,

(For pawnshop law hes ne relief)-

To find their labour, toil, an' pain,

To 'pear like decent folks, is vain-

There a' their goods is bleezin'!

The world was better far aw sure,

When pawnshops had ne neym, man;

When poor folks could their breed procure,

Withoot a deed o' sheym, man!

Ther' Boxes luik like cuddie's stalls;

There's hell-fire in ther hollow balls;

Their gains is large, wor chance is sma'-

They often's get wor pledges a'--

Just like the plagues ov Egypt sent,

They banish peace an' calm content-

Aw wish they a' were bleezin'.

Our Sall was combing out her hair,

And I was turning dozy,

While snoring in my easy chair

That makes a chap sleep cosy

When from the street came screams and cries

Our Sall says "hush!" I rubbed my eyes;

And mercy! shouts of "Fire!" I heard

I made a leap down our stairs,

And smash, I saw a weird sight,

There thousands crowded in the street;

It was the pawnshop blazing.

The women folks was sore to see

Lamenting their distresses;

For many a gown, and white chemise,

Was burnt with children’s dresses;

Peg Putty stamped and cried, "Oh, dear!

"Our Geordie's breeches are gone, I fear;

My bonny shawl and Bella's frock"

Says Betty Mills, "And there's our clock,

And all my bits of boys’ clothes-

My pillow slips and pair of stays-

Are in the pawnshop blazing"

A pregnant wife with borrowed fat,

And with a puggy nose, man,

Came pushing with her bonnet flat,

And puffing out her cheeks, man.

You never saw such bullet eyes-

Her screams I thought would split the skies:

"Oh Lord! My babies' things are gone!

My unborn babe has clothes now none!

And when our Billy finds it out,

There'll murder be, I have no doubt:

Oh dear! what made me put them in?

It was all the races and cursed gin -

That set my clothes a-blazing!"

"Oh, mercy, I'll be hammered too!"

Cries Orange Jinny, wailing;

"I pawned Ned's suit to have a spree,

But soon I'll get my comeuppance-

He thinks, poor soul, his clothes are alright,

He'll want that suit on Friday night-

What must I do? I wouldn’t care,

But, dears, his watch and chain is there;

And worse and worse! He'll quickly know,

That earrings, wedding ring and all,

Is in the pawnshop blazing!"

Long Skipper Jack, with many a swear,

Came wandering up the Side, man;

Says he, "What's all the matter, here?

Now, here's a bonny tide, man!

Why, friends, surely it cannot be;

This isn’t Trotter's place I see?"

So out his tobacco box he took,

Hauled out some tickets from a book:

"Why, sink the souls of all the lot!

Aye, damn my savings have gone to pot!

There's all my fortune blazing!"

The yells, and wails, and curses loud,

And cries of stupefaction;

And groups of kids among the crowd,

Increased the mad distraction:

Aye, many a wife will rue the day,

She put her husband's things away;

And men will groan with bitter grief,

(For pawnshop law has no relief)-

To find their labour, toil, and pain,

To appear like decent folks, is vain-

There all their goods are blazing!

The world was better far I’m sure,

When pawnshops had no name, man;

When poor folks could raise their kids,

Without a deed of shame, man!

Their boxes look like donkey’s stalls;

There's hell-fire in their hollow balls;

Their gains are large, our chance is small

They often get our pledges all

Just like the plagues of Egypt sent,

They banish peace and calm content -

I wish they all were blazing.

The real Mr Trotter

The fifth verse tells us that the fire was at Trotter’s pawnshop. Modern sources such as Mood (2006) and Tebbutt (1983) refer to Mrs Trotter’s pawnshop, but in fact the shop was owned by Mr Thomas Robinson Trotter. The origin of this error is unclear, but it means that arguably the North East’s most famous pawnbroker is misremembered.

Trotter was born in 1796 and had worked in pawn and related trades in Newcastle since the 1820s. In 1827, he had been a pawnbroker’s clerk living in Ellison Street in Gateshead. By 1834, he had his own business at 25 Drury Lane, advertising as a pawnbroker and dealer in silver plate and watches. The entrance to Drury Lane remains, just off the corner of Mosley Street and Grey Street, behind The Vineyard Wine Bar.

The terraces of Ellison Street, Gateshead in the mid 20th century. Unknown original source.

He appears to have moved from Drury Lane to 17 Side in late 1837 and by 1839, he had relocated to a first-floor premises at 103 Side and was advertising his business as a pawnbroker and clock and watch maker. The location of his 103 Side premises was a row of buildings immediately behind the Black Gate which are no longer standing, opposite what is now Milburn House.

The fire at Trotter’s shop was discovered around 9pm on the evening of Tuesday 30th July 1849. By 9.45pm the flames had broken out of the upstairs windows and two fire engines had arrived. It took about an hour to put out the fire, but by this time the pawnshop and its contents were nearly all destroyed. Watches and clothing were lost, although some silverware escaped with less damage. The goods in the two ground floor business beneath the pawn shop, Anderson & Young’s tobacconists and Huntley’s wholesale stationers, were water damaged from the fire engines. The cause of the fire was unknown.

Ordnance Survey, 1860s

Trotter was insured to the value of £1,600, and Mr Huntley downstairs and the building’s owner Mr Bradshaw were also insured. However, insurance at that time did not cover the pawned items themselves, only the value of the pawnbroker’s interest in the goods, so Trotter’s customers had no protection against any losses above the value of their debt. A few weeks later, Trotter advertised that the owners of pawned goods not destroyed in the fire could come to collect them.

Trotter himself prospered after the fire. From at least 1840 he had owned a freehold property at 8 Oxford Street Ward, so his business was obviously good before the fire. After the fire he appears to have given up pawnbroking. He started a new business as Thomas R. Trotter & Son, initially based in 1850 at Three Indian Kings Head Court, an alleyway accessible through what is now the entrance to Charts at 63 Quayside.

By 1852, Thomas R. Trotter & Son had relocated to North Shields, trading as a ship chandler and provision merchant from Clive Street and Shepherd’s Quay, and Trotter himself lived in a house in nearby affluent Dockwray Square. By 1860 he had purchased a house in the prestigious Northumberland Square in North Shields.

In 1859, Trotter and his son sued business rival Krans Frederick Plunns in the Northumberland Assizes for 40s damages for slandering them by claiming that casks of Trotter’s meat were rotten. The court report shows his business success, saying he was ‘supplying most of the American vessels that came to North Shields with pork, beef, salted provisions &c.’

Later Trotter became a ship owner and merchant, and eventually retired to Princes Street in Corbridge with his wife Elizabeth. He finally moved to 11 Huntingdon Place in Tynemouth as a widower and died on 24th August 1881, aged 86.

Trotter and stolen goods

The pawning of stolen goods was a vast black-market industry and in Trotter’s early career, he appears several times as a witness in reports of court proceedings for theft or robbery, although with no suggestion of impropriety on his part. Five reported cases give us an insight into the criminality associated with the pawn trade.

The first case was heard by the Durham Midsummer Sessions on 14th July 1828. The defendant William Wright, aged 20, of Gateshead was charged with stealing a silver watch from baker William Clarke the previous 7th December 1827. Clarke saw Wright in his lodging house before he went to bed and when he woke up, both Wright and his watch had gone. On the same day, Wright visited his acquaintance Joseph Anderson. Wright offered to sell Anderson the watch for 30s so he could pay to redeem a suit he had in pawn in Sunderland. Anderson’s landlord Peter McDonald paid Wright 20s for the watch, and then took it to John Forster’s pawn shop at 30 Broad Chare in Newcastle on 8th December. Trotter appeared as a witness to confirm the watch was pawned for 25s and was still in the pawnshop, so it appears at this stage he was working for Forster. The case was concluded when Clarke identified his stolen watch and Wright was found guilty and sentenced to seven years transportation.

Broad Chare, Newcastle in 1912. Source: Newcastle Libraries

A second case was heard by Newcastle Quarter Sessions on 10th April 1833. The defendant Jane Summerbell was charged with handling stolen goods. The robbery had happened the previous 9th September 1832, when the William Sharrocks was knocked down in Collingwood Street by a man who stole his gold watch. On Christmas Eve 1832, Summerbell was seen by a witness with the watch. She could not explain where she obtained the watch but said she planned to pawn it. On 14th February 1833, Summerbell tried to pawn the watch in Trotter’s shop, asking for £1 10s or about four weeks average wages at the time. She told Trotter that it belonged to her husband and he had bought it in Manchester. Presumably she wasn’t believed as she was apprehended. She claimed that her husband was a joiner named James Smith and he had given her the watch to pawn to pay off a beer debt. However, this appears to have been a lie, and she was actually the widow of a soldier. Sharrocks, the victim of the robbery, identified the watch as his, and Summerbell was found guilty and sentenced to fourteen years transportation.

A third case was heard in the Newcastle Midsummer Sessions on 28th June 1837. A boy called John Hume was charged with stealing a diamond ring on 18th March 1837 from William Hall who was staying at the George Inn in Newcastle where Hume was a servant. The ring had been located in Trotter’s shop, and Hume was found guilty. His youth and good character spared him a worse sentence, and he was jailed for fourteen days with hard labour.

A fourth case was heard by the Newcastle Quarter Sessions on 28th June 1843, this time involving two defendants: John Brown, aged 18, and John Johnson Nisbet, aged 31. Brown was accused of stealing a watch from a ship’s master Christopher Loutit, to which he pleaded guilty. Nisbet was accused of receiving and trying to dispose of the watch, and he pleaded not guilty. Nisbet pawned the watch with Trotter, who asked ‘the usual questions, as to whose property it was’ and then accepted the pawn, giving Nisbet 30s, more than three week’s average wages at the time. A publican, Edward Carragan of Sandgate, then gave evidence that Nisbet was drinking in his pub the same day and sold the pawn ticket for the watch to Carragan for 6s. Carragan ‘seemed to be at least half drunk, and on some points expressed himself so freely as to elicit repeated laughter’. Nonetheless, his evidence was accepted and Brown and Nisbet were both sentenced to six months imprisonment with hard labour.

A fifth case was heard by Newcastle Sessions on 21st October 1846. Arthur Lavery was charged with stealing a silver castor from the home of surgeon T. M. Greenhow of Eldon Square. The theft occurred sometime in the afternoon of 28th August 1846 by entering Greenhow’s dining room through an unlocked door. The police were informed that the castor was at Trotter’s pawnshop, and the Newcastle Police Court has instructed Trotter earlier in October to retain the goods for another month while further investigations were made to find the thief. Trotter was unable to identify Lavery as the person who pawned the goods, but two other witnesses confirmed they had seen Lavery trying to sell the castor for 30s in Mr Curry’s pub on the Quayside. Lavery denied this, and in defence he raised his compliance with the police, the fact he was not identified when initially apprehended, and that he had freely given the police his address. He called witnesses to attest to his character and that it was not him who had tried to pawn or sell the castor. He was found not guilty.

In two of these cases, there are examples of how pawning stolen goods could be used to make profit by more than just the direct thieves. In the first case in 1828, the thief sold a stolen watch for 20s and the purchaser immediately pawned it for 25s. If the pawn was never redeemed, the second party had therefore made himself 5s profit. The pawnbroker could of course make a profit by selling the unredeemed watch.

In the fourth case in 1843, the thief's accomplice pawned the watch for 30s and then sold the pawn ticket for a further 6s, making himself a total of 36s profit. The purchaser of the pawn ticket could buy back the watch from the pawnbroker for 30s plus interest, obtaining a watch which was presumably worth a lot more than that. Again, the pawnbroker would also make their usual profit on the transaction.

Proceedings against Trotter

A case widely reported around the country in August 1837 appears to have involved Trotter. In news reports, the defendant is named as John Robinson Trotter, a pawnbroker of Newcastle. However, there was no pawnbroker or related trader of that name in Newcastle, nor indeed anyone with that exact name in newspapers, directories or electoral registers in the 1820s to 1840s, other than this series of articles. Around this time, Trotter’s advertisements in newspapers and the court cases he attended showed he was dealing and repairing watches which fits with the subject of the case. It is almost certain that the forename is an error repeated in publications as the story was syndicated, and the case actually relates to Thomas Robinson Trotter.

In the Newcastle Assizes on 28th July 1837, a case was brought by the assignees of a bankrupt named Samuel Thompson, a watchsmith and silversmith based in Darlington. He got into financial difficulties in 1835 and pawned a number of watches, starting with a batch of fifteen in February 1835 which he took to Newcastle and pawned with Trotter for £15. Later in April 1835 he took a second batch of five gold and eighteen silver watches to Trotter, pawning these for £77. He was then declared bankrupt at a hearing on 25th February 1836.

The usury law still in place at the time included exemptions for pawnbrokers where the pawned goods were worth under £10, but for transactions of £10 and above, the maximum interest which could be charged was 5%. Instead, the pawn agreements had been made at 15% interest, the rate allowable under s2 Pawnbrokers Act 1800 for transactions between 42s and £10. In his defence, Trotter claimed that each watch was treated as a separate item, but provided no evidence to support this, apart from a letter sent from Trotter to Thompson saying he had made duplicate paperwork for each watch, thinking this might be more convenient for Thompson. The Judge considered this was an afterthought to cover up the illegal interest charged, since when the pawn was taken only one ticket was issued for each of the two transactions and only one entry each was made in Trotter’s records. The Court found in favour of Thompson’s assignees and Trotter was ordered to pay damages of £236, which is likely to be based on the loss to Thompson’s estate from what amounted to undervalue transactions. Thompson’s estate was divided up by his assignees in a final meeting at the Kings Head Inn in Darlington on 20th January 1838, presumably after Trotter had paid the damages.

The Kings Head, behind the statue of Pease in Darlington around 1888. Unknown original source.

No further details appear in the news about the case apart from the initial report which is repeated verbatim across at least thirteen regional newspapers. Notably, none of the North East newspapers carried the story. By this time Trotter had some local influence as a Committee member of the region’s pawnbroker trade body (see below), so perhaps this omission from local news was deliberate. It also raises questions about his move from Drury Lane to Side which happened three months after this case in November 1837, and whether that might have been a financial decision after the very large damages payment. The case certainly diminishes Trotter’s image as a law-abiding businessman, keen to assist the police in stopping criminal activity. It seems this wasn’t unusual, and Hudson (1982) says of the period:

‘…even the officially approved pawnbrokers undoubtedly disregarded the law from time to time, particularly in the matter of the prescribed rates of interest’.

The Newcastle Upon Tyne & Gateshead Pawnbroker’s Association

On 29th April 1835, 24 pawnbroker businesses met to form the Newcastle Upon Tyne & Gateshead Pawnbrokers Association. This was one of many around the country, the first being formed in Manchester and Salford around 1809-10.

The Association was run by a committee of seven, and Trotter sat on the committee from the start, until at least 1839. Interestingly, five of the businesses were run by women, although the committee remained all male. Female pawnbrokers were not unusual, typically entering the trade by inheriting a business from a deceased father or husband.

At the first meeting, the following resolutions were unanimously agreed, and published in the local newspapers the following week:

(1) The Pawnbrokers are a Class of Individuals who are daily liable to be imposed upon by Persons pledging Property which has been stolen or unlawfully obtained.
(2) That this Meeting cannot but regret that an impression too generally prevails with the Public, which is strengthened by the Tenor of a Resolution annually published by an Association in Newcastle for the Prosecution of Felons, that Pawnbrokers are in the Habit of lending Money upon Goods offered to be pledged, without using due Precaution to ascertain whether such Goods have or have not been honestly insinuated, by thus affording a Facility of disposing of stolen Property, the Pawnbrokers and amongst those who hold out an Inducement to plunder. With a view, therefore, of repelling an Insinuation as unjust and uncalled for, as it is injurious to the Character of this Body, collectively and individually, this Meeting feels it is a Duty they woe to themselves, to call the Attention of the Public to the Fact of their having, in a great Number of Cases, been mainly instrumental in detecting and bringing Offenders to Justice; and they hereby declare it to be their Determination in future to spare neither Trouble nor Expense in apprehending and bringing to Conviction all Persons who may at any Time offer to pledge Goods which have been stolen or fraudulently obtained; and they earnestly request that all Persons who may thus lose their Property will give early Information thereof to the Pawnbrokers.
(3) That it appears to this meeting that a zealous Co-operation amongst the several Members of this Body is highly necessary to the Protection of the Interests and Character of the Trade, and also beneficial to the Public at large, and that, therefore, the several Individuals now assembled do form themselves into an Association for the Purpose of detecting and prosecuting all Persons who may steal the Property of any of its Members, and that such Association be called “THE NEWCASTLE UPON TYNE AND GATESHEAD PAWNBROKERS ASSOCIATION”

This purpose of the Association was to protect the business interests of members. It did this over the years in a number of ways, and the following sections look at some of the activities the Association was involved in on behalf of its members. The Association continued for over 150 years, though membership was relatively small compared with Pawnbrokers Protection Societies and Associations in other major cities such as Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham.

Drawing a line between the reputable and disreputable trade

On 2nd May 1884, the Association prosecuted a pawnbroker in the Gateshead Borough Police Court for charging excessive interest. Abraham Brown trading from West Street, was charged with breaching the interest limits in the Pawnbrokers Act 1872, after he lent 4s 5½d to a customer Jane MacDonald who pawned a clock, issuing a ticket to redeem the clock for 4s 9d, and then charging the customer a higher amount of 4s 10½d, which the Association found was 3d higher than permitted. The Association stated that negative press coverage of overcharging like this led it to start proceedings. The court found Brown guilty, and he received a fine and costs, and was ordered to compensate McDonald.

On 14th January 1885 at the Crown & Mitre Hotel in Grey Street, the Association held its anniversary dinner. Among the speeches, the issue of stolen goods and cooperation with the police arose again, as did the low rates of profit which could be made on lending following the Pawnbrokers Act 1872. The chairman noted in his speech that the Chief Constable had praised local pawnbrokers in his annual report for their assistance in detecting and recovering stolen goods. He went on to make the following comments, and parallels with modern ‘sale and buy back’ agreements, typically charged at higher rates of interest than pawn agreements, are clear:

‘If the police wanted to get at the receivers of stolen property, they must visit and put down the large numbers of unlicensed places there were, where goods were purchased for a week, or even a shorter time, and were re-sold to the person who left them at five times the profit that pawnbrokers were allowed to charge’.

Cooperation to identify fraudsters

As well as the protecting the interests of local members, the Association cooperated with the wider pawn trade to combat fraudulent pledges. In 1869, Leeds pawnbroker J. G. Hudson of 93 Briggate, secretary of the Association’s Leeds counterpart, wrote to the Pawnbrokers Gazette with details of fraudsters who visited his shop:

‘Will you permit me, through the Gazette, to give a word of caution to the Trade in the North.
On Friday afternoon, a very showily-dressed woman tried to pledge a half-hoop diamond ring. The stones were very off-colour, and the gold about 7 carat fine. She also offered an opal and emerald cluster ring, and a pair of earrings. They were refused, of course, and I immediately sent a caution to the Trade. About six o'clock, a very fashionably dressed youth offered a large 3-carat diamond ring, but as dead as a bit of glass, and a gold Geneva watch. He wanted £20 for the two, which I declined with thank. I followed him, and he went to another shop (he had a companion with him), but found it closed. I then spoke to him, and told him he had better make himself scarce. Of course I got well abused, but I think we have seen the last of them in Leeds.’

The following week, the Newcastle Association’s secretary John Garrett wrote to the Gazette to share the following information:

‘I wish to draw the attention of the Trade to a gang of swindlers that have just arrived in Newcastle. they are dressed as midshipmen, and are disposing of a lot of jewellery (duffing), consisting of off-colour diamond rings, pins, earrings, &c., by pledging them with the young and inexperienced members of the Trade, and afterwards selling the tickets, "as they have to meet the ship, and will not be in Newcastle again perhaps for years." I understand they have "done" one of our brethren to the tune of £15.’

In the same edition, Hudson of the Leeds Association provided further details of the fraudsters:

'... I have since learnt that the same parties have visited, and with some effect too, York, Scarborough and Sheffield. At the latter place, the plan adopted was different. A servant in livery brought a note, which ran as follows - "Dear sir, will you lend £20 on the rings, &c., as I have run short of cash at Pontefract Races?" and it transpired he had notes for all the best shops in the town.
With your permission, I will now give further particulars, which I trust will satisfy my critical friend, who, although he signs as a Pawnbroker's assistant, is, I strongly suspect, one of the gang whose little game I have spoilt. The young man is very easy to recognise. He is about 25 years old, medium height, and good address, but deeply marked by a scar on the right side of his face. His companion is an old man, about 40, short and stout, and has a large black beard, and would pass very well for a sea captain.’

The following week, another North East pawnbroker, John Gray, manager of J. Mitchell’s pawnbrokers in North Shields, wrote with further details:

‘Permit me to give a description of the remaining member of this gang of "duffers" that at present are taking their half-yearly tour through the North, and of which your two correspondents (Mr. Hudson of Leeds, and likewise Mr. Garrett of Newcastle) have, in last Monday's edition, given a true and correct picture of the two landsharks.
I beg to state that the number of the gang is three, and look like father, mother, and son. Mrs. Swindle is about 38 or 40 years of age, of very stout build, medium height, bright red face, and very flashily dressed; in personal appearance would make a good representative of Sir John Falstaff. She offers a case with earrings, studs, links, brooch, &c., all of which, on this as well as on former visits, were respectfully declined, with a request to leave the premises as soon as possible.’

The Association’s involvement in court proceedings

On 7th March 1890 in the Gateshead Borough Police Court, the Association brought proceedings under s34(2) Pawnbrokers Act 1872 against William Milmore who was charged with giving a false name and address when attempting to pawn a gold lapel pin for 10s. The penalty for giving false details under the 1872 Act was a maximum fine of £10, but Milmore had already served a custodial sentence of three months for the theft of the lapel pin. The Association said that its purpose in bringing the case was not to punish him further, but to draw public attention to the fact that the common practice of giving false details was a criminal offence. In this case, on 14th November 1889, Milmore had brought the lapel pin to an unnamed Gateshead pawnbroker, who was suspicious about the ownership of the item. Milmore claimed that it was his father’s and that he had permission to pawn it. The pawnbroker asked for proof of this, and Milmore left and returned with a signed note, purportedly from his father. The pawnbroker then asked Milmore to write down his own details, which he did, claiming to be called Thomas Ellison. The handwriting on the note from his ‘father’ and his own false details was the same, so the pawnbroker sent for Detective Robson of Newcastle Police to arrest him, leading to his imprisonment for theft. For the second offence of giving false details to a pawnbroker, he was fined 5s and costs, but was permitted to make arrangements with the police about paying it, and interestingly the Chief Constable said that the police would ensure Milmore was found a job.

However, the case of Sanderson v Slater the following year proved that sending for the police when a customer was suspected of stealing goods could backfire. On 19th August 1891, the Newcastle County Court heard a case brought by a labourer William Sanderson against John Edmund Slater, assistant in his father’s pawn shop in Buxton Street. Sanderson sought damages of £10, alleging that Slater caused him to be illegally arrested. In March 1890, Sanderson was out of work and asked his wife to pawn one of his suits for 10s at Slater’s shop, and they sent a boy to the shop to do this. Slater refused to accept the suit so Sanderson and his wife went to the shop, where Slater said he was suspicious about the ownership of the suit. Sanderson explained he had bought the suit for 10s from another pawnbroker Mr Davidson. Slater replied that Sanderson already had one suit pledged, and he did not believe a labourer could own that many clothes, accusing him of stealing the suit and calling him a scoundrel. Slater sent a young assistant to fetch the police, while Sanderson waited in the shop. Two detectives arrived, and Slater told them Sanderson had brought in stolen property, so the detectives began taking him to the police station, with a large crowd following. On the way, Sanderson explained where he had bought the suit and the detectives took him to Davidson’s pawn shop, where his story was corroborated and Sanderson was released from custody. It appears that Slater refused to apologise or compensate Sanderson afterwards, and the Court concluded there was no basis for Slater or the police to think the suit was stolen. Judge Seymour awarded Sanderson £5 compensation plus costs.

The Sanderson case was followed by an exchange of letters in the Newcastle Chronicle. First, on 25th August a correspondent under the name ‘Pro Bono Publico’ pointed out that pawnbrokers were protected by Pawnbrokers Act 1872 if they detain goods they suspect were stolen while inquiries about ownership are made. Pawnbrokers would be deterred from helping to detect stolen goods if Judge Seymour’s stood. The following day, a reply signed ‘One Who Was In Court’ contradicts this, pointing out that the Judge did not say Slater could not have detained the goods, but that without any notice of a crime having been committed, there was no basis for the police suspecting him, nor for Slater to hand Sanderson and the goods over to the police. The decision was made on the facts of the particular case, and the situation had been exacerbated by Slater’s subsequent treatment of Sanderson. Finally, on 27th August, Edward Edminson, secretary of the Association wrote to the Newcastle Chronicle defending Slater’s actions, and the role of pawnbrokers in informing the police of their suspicions. Like the first letter, Edminson suggested that this case would deter pawnbrokers from reporting suspected stolen goods, and he suggests that the Association may seek to challenge the decision, although no record could be found to suggest it did so.

The pawning of hire purchase goods

The growth of hire purchase as a method of borrowing brought problems for pawnbrokers. Hire purchase was well established by the 1860s, initially for middle-class consumers buying goods such as musical instruments. It began to be used by working class consumer for furniture or high-cost investments such as sewing machines, and by 1891, about a million agreements were in existence. If goods subject to hire purchase agreements were pawned, the lender could sue the pawnbroker and the goods, which were legally the lender’s property, would have to be returned to the lender regardless of whether the customer had made any payments.

The 1894 Court of Appeal case of Helby v Matthews briefly jeopardised the basis of the hire purchase system. Helby provided a piano on a hire purchase agreement based on 36 monthly payments of 10s 6d, but before the agreement was paid, the purchaser pawned the piano with a pawnbroker Matthews. Helby then sued Matthews for the return of the piano, initially successfully in the County Court. This was reversed at the Court of Appeal on 1st May 1894 which effectively ended hire purchase as a system, holding that it was simply an agreement to buy goods for a predetermined price. This decision was celebrated by pawnbrokers, including the Association, because it would remove hire purchase lenders’ claims against pawned goods. John Goolden, the Sheriff of Newcastle and president of the newly-founded National Pawnbrokers Association welcomed the Court of Appeal case in a speech to the local Association on 5th June 1894. This jubilation was short-lived though, as the House of Lords reversed the Court of Appeal decision on 30th May 1895, restoring the original decision that hire purchase was in fact a hire agreement with the eventual option to purchase, meaning lenders could once again recover their goods if pawned.

In June 1910, the Association prosecuted a Jarrow widow, Julia Race for illegally pawning goods subject to a hire purchase agreement. The defendant had household goods totalling £21 4s on hire purchase from Northern Furnishing Company in South Shields, which were payable in fortnightly instalments. Some of these goods, including a set of brass fire-irons, four kitchen chairs and a fender, and were pawned between January and March 1910 for £2 5s at William White’s pawnbrokers. The pawnshop manager, William Hislop, testified that he asked Race if she owned the goods and if they were on hire purchase before accepting them, though she denied being asked this. Michael Cohen, on behalf of Northern Furnishing Company produced hire purchase agreements and a County Court return of goods order in respect of the goods. Race explained that the goods were her son’s and he asked her to pawn them as he was ‘absolutely starving’ and thought that he would be able to get work and redeem them. However, their situation worsened, and her son had now disappeared for a month, leaving his wife and child. The court expressed that its sentence was lenient based on her difficult circumstances, so she was fined 20s and ordered to repay an outstanding 8s 6d to the pawnbroker within 14 days or be committed to jail.

The Association in the twentieth century

By 1900, membership had increased to 33 and the Association appears to have prospered in the early decades of the 20th century. Newspapers reported a meeting on 6th April 1924 where Association members discussed the oddest pawned goods received, which included a 26-seat bus, a canary in a cage, a horse and cart, a cork leg and a tombstone.

By 1944, membership had increased to 44 but reduced sharply after the Second World War, with 18 members by 1955, causing the Association secretary to complain ‘the trade has little attraction for young men nowadays, so women are having to be recruited’, seemingly oblivious to the original composition of the Association 120 years previously. The Association blamed the fall in trade on rising costs affecting profits, claiming interest charges were still limited by Pawnbrokers Act 1872 to 5s in the £ (5%) per month.

Only four Association members were left by 1980 as the pawn trade dwindled before its more recent revival, and the point at which the Association formally ended is unclear. Further research into the Association and the activities of members like Trotter would provide rich insights into the daily lives of the Newcastle working class.


Michael Agboh-Davison is an organiser at Unite the Union, His interest in the history of consumer credit and bailiff law comes from two decades working as a voluntary sector debt adviser. This article was originally written to accompany a training course on modern pawnbroking law delivered to members of the Institute of Money Advisers.


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