Corruption and poor value in the supply of army clothing were a perennial source of civil anxiety during the first decades of the 19th century. Certainly, bad quality and under-sizing were among the “rigs” of the times, and the system of private contracts between colonels and clothiers did nothing to prevent this, given that colonels profited personally in the process. In some passing remarks in his Sketches of the Character, Manners and Present State of the Highlanders of Scotland (1822), Peninsular veteran and clan revivalist Colonel David Stewart went much further, seeing the contract system as a source of national demoralisation (in the original sense of the word):
“When the cheapest offer has been preferred, the next object of the contractor is to fulfil it on terms as profitable as possible to himself; that is, to make the article as bad as he can, first saving the risk of its being returned on his hands … In this process he must give directions to his workmen, who thus become familiarised with fraud, bad materials, and hasty and careless workmanship, such as they do not see in the fair honest course of business. Observing this iniquitous proceeding among their superiors, and, so far as they perceive, without shame, punishment, or prejudice to their characters, it cannot be a matter of surprise, that, in their own little dealings, they should practise a duplicity and deception so successfully carried on among those to whom, from their education and rank in society, they might be expected to look up as examples of honour and integrity. When the great number of contracts is taken into consideration … and when we farther consider the thousands of the common and labouring people to whom, in the course of workmanship, the secret of these deceptions must be communicated … this system of itself may be viewed as a very fruitful source of dishonesty, and of the lessening of that regard for fair dealing and probity which has always been so honourable a feature in the character of the people of this kingdom.”
So were army clothiers’ workshops really schools of iniquity? In one case at least, a browse of the proceedings of the Old Bailey (all wonderfully online) throws up a good number of dishonest happenings. I’m not quite sure why, but all date from the first couple of decades of peace after 1815. The firm of John Dolan had been in operation since 1802, if not before, offering “full as good cloathing as any other clothier can for the same price” from an address in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London. Army contractors flourished in war time, and by 1813 the operation had moved to larger premises nearby, and John’s son, John James Dolan, had become a partner. By 1820 they had been joined by second son Lawrence Henry Dolan and a Thomas Smith; by the mid twenties John senior had retired, leaving the firm in the hands of his two sons. In 1833, when John James gave evidence to a parliamentary select committee into army affairs, the firm was clothing six regiments of the line plus veteran companies and the staff corps, and supplying artillery clothing to the Board of Ordnance. Dolan’s was never as powerful in the army clothing trade as, say, J & B Pearse, but the firm was nevertheless a significant operator.
Which must have made its workshops a tempting target for professional criminals. On February Leap Day, 1820, four young men of doubtful character shinned over the ten foot wall around Dolan’s factory in Stonecutter’s Alley, using a crowbar and a skeleton key to break into the warehouse. Leaving with a large bale of army cloth, and dropping another in the yard in their haste, they made their getaway in a hired hackney coach. At the Spitalfields pawn shop of fence John Franklin, they were cornered by a constable and a posse of local potato sellers, one unfortunate suspect being apprehended in a neighbouring privy. The four burglars – Fred Pitt, Tom Dodd, Bill Prussia, James Simpson – and hackney driver John Hewitt were transported for seven years, the fence Franklin for fourteen.
There is no suggestion here that these thieves were insiders, but others were. Five years later, in May 1825, John Gough, who had worked at Dolan’s for a year as a cutter, left work with three yards of cloth offcuts bundled into his pockets, only to be spotted at midnight by a watchman, showing them to “a girl of the town”. Gough’s intended barter was scotched by his arrest. Lawrence Dolan stated in court that the pieces were identifiable as army cloth by the mark of the broad arrow. In his defence, the prisoner said, interestingly: “It is very clear if a man goes in the least aside from honesty he is amenable to the laws of his country, and it is clear the cloth was in my possession, but I had not taken it for the purpose of stealing it.” He was sent down for one year.
The next piece of larceny proved a sad affair. The Dolans had employed for “many years” a tailor by the name of Brennock, and in March 1828 his young son James was hired by the brothers as an errand boy. His career in that role didn’t last long, for by April 30th he had made off with 13 gross of bone buttons, three gross of hooks and eyes, two pairs of trousers and a pair of shoes, a pair of cutter’s shears, two pieces of linen, two yards of cloth, and eight of the Dolans’ best silver spoons from their dwelling house adjacent to the factory. When the spoons were missed, the constable was sent for; the boy burst into tears and eventually confessed. Some of the spoons were found hidden in the dust-bin, and the linen and shoes in the factory rag-hole. Most of the remaining items were discovered at the Fitzroy Square shop of John Loynes, a small tailor or “piece-broker”, though Loynes had already pawned the remaining spoons and a piece of cloth.
Some of the stolen cloth was army scarlet, and some artillery blue; as Dolan’s were the sole contractors at the time for the artillery clothing issued by the Board of Ordnance, the latter was readily identifiable.
Brennock later claimed that Lawrence Dolan had offered not to prosecute if he would cooperate, but this was denied. Loynes maintained that he had bought the items from the lad in good faith, assuming them to be the property of his father, the tailor; since no one could prove otherwise, he was found not guilty. The value of the stolen goods was reckoned at 99 shillings – about £450 in today’s money – which seems a high estimate. Brennock was transported for seven years. He was just fourteen years old.
Though it might have been worse. The next – unrelated – case in the same court involved an eighteen year old burglar who had taken goods worth ten shillings. He was sentenced to death.
Perhaps the unfortunate affair of young Brennock made the Dolans think twice about prosecution. In February 1835 one of their workers, John Deagle, was brought into court and charged with filching a yard of cloth. But in the event no witnesses appeared and Deagle was acquitted. And even when prosecution was followed through, the Dolans now seemed more favourable to leniency. In March 1839 John James Dolan was supervising work in the cloth room when he noticed a piece of linen duck fall from under the coat of one of his cutters, Charles Gosling, who was on his way out to his mid-day lunch. The foreman and a local officer were called in; more linen was found in Gosling’s coat pocket and tucked down each thigh in his drawers, five yards in total. The Dolans gave Gosling a good character; recommended to mercy, he was sentenced to just three months.