Today (May 21) in London History – A London Character: The Death of Mr Bosley

Joseph Bosley died on May 21, 1908. A London “character”, he’s the subject of today’s Today in London History podcast.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Storytime. History time.


The title character in Sir Walter Scott’s  Waverly novel Old Mortality is Robert Paterson.

Paterson – he was known as Old Mortality –  travelled around Scotland re-engraving the tombs of 17th-century Covenanter martyrs.

I loved the novel when I read it 55 years ago. And I loved what Old Mortality did, what he took up as his life’s work.

And sure enough, over half a century later I’m doing – have been doing for many years – something along the lines of what Paterson. Making sure people don’t forget. Telling the stories of those who went before us. 

Some of the old mortality work we do – some of the tombstones we re-engrave – are big ones, ones you can’t miss. Anne Boleyn in the podcast a couple of days ago, for example. Or the podcast about James Boswell’s life-changing and literature-changing meeting with Dr Samuel Johnson.

Those are all fine. But the ones that have a special place in my heart are the tombstones that are small, humble, and completely lost in the undergrowth. Tombstones that haven’t been seen in a century or more. Let alone their engravings read. When I find one of those – re-engrave it – and put it out here, that’s really satisfying. 

Today’s one of those days. You’re about to meet a London character you absolutely will not have heard of before now. A London character who’s not been on anybody’s radar for decades.

It’s like putting the net very deep in trackless, unpromising waters, bringing it up and lo and behold there’s something special in it, something no one for generations now has known about.

In this case, those trackless, unpromising waters were the pages of the Daily Telegraph for May 22nd, 1908. I mean who reads through the May 22nd, 1908 edition of the Daily Telegraph? Well, this London Walks guide did. And here’s what he came across. 

A story headlined A London Character: The Death of Mr Bosley. In short, this day – May 21st – in London history was the day Joseph Bosley became London history. 

May 21st, 1908. Joseph Bosley crossed over – died at home in Camberwell. Who was he? He was the Mendicity Society’s officer. We’ll get to the Mendicity Society in a minute. But first let’s get up close to Joseph Bosley. The Telegraph tells us he was a dapper little man of diminutive stature. That he’d started his working life as a country policeman and that despite his diminutive stature he proved to be a terror to poachers. As he did to beggars – especially the professional variety – in his second career. And I think we needs must add that there was a third line of work – after his stint of terrorising poachers in the countryside and before his swan song of terrorising professional beggars in the big smoke, Joseph Bosley was an attendant at Broadmoor Lunatic Asylum. You thinking what I’m thinking? Namely, this guy had some experiences over the course of his life.

Anyway, dapper little man leaves the countryside, comes to London by way of a Lunatic asylum. He and the Mendicity Society find one another. Some things were just meant to be. The Mendicity Society engages Joseph Bosley to put down the begging nuisance. He puts it down by going plain clothes. He wears a Chesterfield coat and gaiters. He strolls up and down the Strand smoking a briar root pipe. In short, he gives every appearance of a country gentleman who’s just come up to town for a holiday. What they see invariably proves attractive to professional cadgers. They set about setting about the dapper little country gentleman with their spiel and seconds later Joseph Bosley is frog-marching them off to Bow Street. What you also have to like about Mr Bosley was he felt for the poor and needy – he took no delight in running them in. He took every delight in nabbing the professionals. For example, the soapy-fits king, as he was known. Basically, he was a fake epileptic. His act went back a long way. Counterfeit cranks, the Tudors called them. Entre nous, i wish i’d seen his performance. He’d soap up his mouth and prick his lips and it was showtime. He was foaming at the mouth and into the bargain it was bloody froth. Stir in some convulsions and he’d draw a crowd in no time. And draw from a cascade of pennies. It was hitting the jackpot in a slot machine.Or the hardened old pro the Telegraph described as “the far-seeing gentleman who pretended to be blind.” Or the man with sound limbs who professed to be lame.

Those three would have been some of the sights on the Strand in the early 20th century, at least until Joseph Bosley came along and queered the pitch for them. 

As for the mendicity society itself, it was founded in 1818 and lasted until 1959. 

Its modus operandi was to dole out charity to beggars on condition that they immediately leave the area. 

That’s a familiar stratagem isn’t it? Send them on their way – out of sight out of mind. Except of course you’ve turned them into somebody else’s problem. 

The Society also came up with a system of tickets which could be given by the public to beggars instead of giving them money.

The beggars could then take the tickets to the Society’s office, where their cases would be investigated.

It was a pre-welfare state response 

to some of the profound material inequalities that blighted nineteenth-century Britain. 

The Society garnered a lot of praise in its early days. In 1819 the Times described it as “an institution which, whilst relieving real distress, spares no exertion to expose and punish imposition and fraud.”

It wasn’t long, though, before the Times was having second thoughts. There were people who smelt a rat – in the shape of financial irregularity. In 1824 the Thunderer, the Times, questioned how much of the Society’s money was being spent on beggars compared with the amount it was paying out in bonuses to its officers. Not pulling its punches, the Times said, “it is well known that rat-catchers encourage the breed of those animals which they are paid to destroy. We should think that the agents of the Mendicity Society are actuated by some similar principle.”

Well, that was nearly 100 years before our man Joseph Bosley was patrolling the Strand so effectively, so they must have sorted those early teething problems and in the process appeased their critics.

A final intriguing footnote to the Mendicity Society’s history, apparently they amassed a roomful of artefacts associated with professional beggars. I gather from my researches that it was a famous and much-visited collection – in short, a tourist attraction. Well, you know what I’m thinking: what happened to it? Is it stored in somebody’s attic? Answers on a postcard, please.


Ok, for a Today in London tip – maybe take a walk along the Strand when the theatres are letting out. That can be an eye-opening stroll. You’ll get an idea of just how we’ve progressed with some of these issue: i.e., homelessness, begging, street people, etc. It’s a world of contrasts, the Strand at that hour. Well-heeled people coming out of the theatres and restaurants and the Savoy hotel – and not a few luxury shops – and people sleeping rough in the doorways. Welcome to Britain, welcome to London in the third decade of the 21st century. 

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company, indeed London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

To put that another way, we hold this truth to be self-evident, that all walking tour companies are not created equal. You’re looking for the Rolls Royce walking tour company you’re in the right place. You’re looking for a Ford Escort, you’re in the wrong showroom.

Why the huge difference in quality? Because of another self-evident truth: 

it all comes down to the guiding. 

Those seven words – that’s the common-sense premise London Walks is built on.

Don’t just take it from us. Here’s a review just now put up by walker Laura Hayden:

“What a great tour! Aaron had the perfect balance of presence, professionalism, personality and excellent knowledge of his subject. He was well-organized, well-informed and well-spoken. This is why we come back to London Walks every time we’re in London. We’re guaranteed a great guide and a great walk.” 

Aaron’s a Cambridge University palaeontologist who has another string to his bow: he moonlights as a brilliant guide.

Goes without saying he’s in that London Walks all-star lineup of genuine experts – guides who are well-connected, experienced, 

accomplished professionals:

barristers, doctors, geologists, historians, archaeologists, palaeontologists, Royal Shakespeare Company actors. Let alone London Walks’ Delta Squad members: the creme de la creme of Blue Badge, Westminster and City

of London professionally qualified guides. Several of whom come trailing the big one, MVP honours  – winners of the coveted Guide of the Year Award. Guides who make the new familiar, and the familiar new. And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. Good luck and good Londoning. See ya tomorrow.


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