Late Victorian humour in the Police Courts

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The London Police Courts were the equivalent of today’s magistrates’ courts although they dealt with considerable more ‘civil’ and non-criminal business than the modern courtrooms do. In London Police magistrates (not members of the Police it should be said) sat alone not as  bench of three, and had considerable power to punish offenders. This was quick and faulty rough justice but it had its amusing moments and so the newspapers despatched their reporters daily to record the goings on in these summary courts.

The Illustrated Police News (which was not an official ‘police’ paper) was ‘one of Britain’s very first tabloids and one of the first periodicals to tap into the British public’s morbid appetite for crime and sensation’.* It had dramatic printed covers and carried news from all over Britain about murders, robberies, accidents and disasters.

When the infamous Whitechapel murderer struck in the late summer of 1888 the IPL was on hand to provide a gruesome commentary on the horrors and alert its readers to possible sightings of the suspect.

It was a sensational newspaper in a period in which ‘sensation’ came to the fore in popular culture; the papers began life in the 1840s and benefitted from the rise in newspaper consumption, the development of ‘New Journalism’, as well as the Music hall, melodrama and much faster communications (with railways and the telegraph).

In February 1897 the IPN reported on the daily round of cases at the Police Courts as usual. There was a case of domestic  violence at Guildhall in the City, one of child neglect at Marylebone; violence between neighbours in the Borough was dealt with at Southwark; and a jealous lover was jailed for a week for beating up a young woman who spurned his attention.

All of this was fairly typical of the sorts of hearings magistrates conducted during the 1800s and, as again was normal, the press were careful to place some light relief amongst all these tales of human misery.

On 20 February 1897 there were two cases that served this purpose.

Patrick Sweeney was a 27 year-old comedian who was of ‘no fixed abode’. He had been charged with stealing a ‘safety bicycle’ belonging to an actor named George Power. Sweeney had taken the bike and then tried to sell it to a cycle manufacturer in Battersea for £5.

He was arrested by Detective Stephens and when asked his name he handed over his calling card. On this was printed: Patrick Sweeney: The Champion Clog and Jog Dancer’. In the South West London Police court Power testified to being the owner of the bicycle but when it was pointed out that Sweeney was a fellow entertainer he said: ‘Really? I don’t know him’, drawing considerable laughter from the public gallery. Poor Patrick clearly wasn’t as famous as Dan Leno.

The clog dancing comedian was committed for trial for the theft despite his protests that he had bought the bike in Scotland and knew nothing of what he was accused of.

Meanwhile over at Thames another case tickled the editor of the Illustrated Police News.

A man (unnamed) was summoned for an unspecified offence (probably domestic violence). The defendant (who was the husband of the complainant), told the magistrate – Mr Mead – that his stepfather had married his wife’s mother and that they had had a family.

‘Then you are married to your sister?’observed the magistrate.

‘Well I suppose its something like that; its a kind of dual relationship’ the man replied.

‘And you sister is your wife?’ Mr Mead continued, clearly enjoying the man’s discomfort and so playing to his audience. ‘It seems so’ came the ‘despairing’ response.

‘And you married your father’s daughter?’ Mr Mead continued, ‘I suppose I did – in law’.

‘Then your stepfather’s daughter is your sister, and she is also  your wife?’ concluded the justice.

‘Oh I don’t know. It beats me’ declared the defendant to raucous laughter.

We all need some cheering up from time to time and, as the Victorians knew, nothing beats laughing at the discomfort of others.

[from The Illustrated Police News etc,  Saturday, February 20, 1897]

*’The Illustrated Police News: “The worst newspaper in England”’, by BNA (http://blog.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/author/violetmacdonald/) [accessed 20/2/2017]

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