The details of black confidence tricksters provide evidence of relationships between them and the larger, white, society of Victorian Britain and Ireland. Exploiting the sympathy of the latter has to be evidence that ‘race relations’ in the British Isles were not solely a matter of victims and exploiters, of colonialists and racism. Reports in the contemporary press were usually concerned with events that reached the courts, suggesting other cheats and rogues were successful with their tricks.
In May 1878 the story of Joseph Etter Stanley attracted considerable attention in Oxford, for he had been robbed on the train from London to Oxford. An ambitious young man born in Nevis in the British West Indies, he had been working as a stone mason in Trinidad. He was hoping to spend three years studying architecture in Oxford. He said he had saved £200 and had sailed to Southampton in April 1878. He got off the train in order to go to the toilet, and the train moved off without him. His luggage was located in Oxford but not his bag with his considerable savings (over a year’s income for many Britons in 1878). Destitute, a subscription was taken up and assistance sought at the local Charity Organization Society whilst the police and railway authorities searched for the missing bag. [Jackson’s Oxford Journal of 25 May and 8 June 1878.]
An arrest was made but the charge against ‘Mr. Hance’ of Birmingham was dismissed. Stanley had lied to the Charity Organization Society’s people and others in Oxford. He was charged with obtaining money by false testimonials, and sentenced to prison for six months with hard labour [The Times, 29 June 1878, p 12]. Jackson’s Oxford Journal of that date said he had pleaded guilty. Investigations had found that Stanley had been working as a mason on the new Royal Courts of Justice in London up to July the previous year (1877). The Charity Organization Society was an informal group which tried to reduce duplication in assistance given to the needy, checking the bona fides of applicants, and focussing on assisting the honest poor.
On 18 June 1880 The Times reported on ‘a young man of colour, who described himself as an architect’ being charged at Thames Police Court as Stephen Etter Stanley having stolen a Bank of England £300 note from his London employer.
Obtaining assistance from members of the public in Oxford, convincing the police of the truth of the loss of his case (which led to charges against Hance), holding down a job as a skilled mason on a prestigious building project in central London, and later convincing Thomas Impkey to trust him (Stanley stayed at Impkey’s home in High Street, Poplar) all show differing yet positive aspects of life in Victorian London for one individual. Time in prison may not have reformed Etter Stanley: but we do not know what he did after mid-1880. Claiming to be an architect was not an obvious way to obtain funds.
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