Merthyr Tydfil in the mid 1800s
I have been writing about the London Police courts for nearly a year, looking at a different case every day. Additionally I have also spent several weeks in the London Metropolitan Archive near Farringdon which holds the official records of these summary courts. Sadly very little archival material survives; at Bow Street, for example, there are only records from the 1890s onwards – most of the earlier material being lost or destroyed).
The best kept records are the the two sets of registers for Thames Police Court, which run from 1881 and cover the late summer and autumn of 1888 when ‘Jack the Riper’ terrorised the East End. The registers contain useful information for the historian: names of defendants, their ages, gender, the offence with which they were charged, the police officer that brought the to court, and the complainant (if that wasn’t the policeman). We also have an outcome; the adjudication of the sitting magistrate.
I spoke at the Ripperologist’s 21st birthday conference in Algdate last year, where I outlined the functions of the police courts and the role they performed; hopefully later this year I will be ready to provide a more detailed analysis based on the research I have been doing.
At this stage in my research I have almost completed a detailed analysis of the registers at Thames for 1881 and can begin to share some of my findings. It will probably come as no surprise to historians of crime and professionals working in policing, social work or probation, to read that many of those brought into Thames were charged with an alcohol related offence. This might be drunk and disorderly, drunk and using obscene language, drunk and assaulting a policeman, or many other combinations – all involving some form of drunkenness with disorderly behaviour.
These were also the cases that mostly came up first in the registers, so I am imagining that the cells were cleared of those held overnight before the ‘day charges’ or the ‘remands’ (usually more serious offences) were brought in.
The registers provide us with plenty of information. For example, in the 1881 register for the 16 March there are 9 people charge with some variety of disorderly behaviour (one as ‘incapable’, three with violence) 8 of whom are women and one man, William Ethridge. The justice, Mr Saunders, either fined them or sent them to prison for a short period of hard labour. Those fined either paid or risked being incarcerated like the others.
However, despite this information we don’t know the circumstances or detail of their crimes, for that we can only hope to find them in the newspapers, which reported selective cases more descriptively. So today’s case is one of those common drink related ones; a man brought before the courts for being drunk and disorderly.
Timothy McCarthy was a migrant worker. He had travelled from his native Merthyr Tydvil [sic] in Wales in search of work. He told the Bow Street magistrate that there was no work at home and no poor relief either; ‘it was no use stopping there’.
However, it wasn’t that much better in London but he had met with some of his fellow countrymen, who, like him, were out of work, and they had some ‘jollification’. The result was that he was arrested for being drunk on the streets. Fortunately he was bailed rather than being locked up and set at liberty. Unfortunately he chose to carry on drinking as soon as he was liberated.
The magistrate was unimpressed to have him back in court. He turned to the Welshman and said: ‘I know something of Merthyr, and if you were charged with drunkenness there you would be fined 10s costs plus the penalty imposed on you for the offence’.
McCarthy admitted that this was true.
The magistarte admonished him for replaying the ‘indulgence’ of the court in releasing him by offending straight away adding, ‘indeed, you are hardly sober now’. He continued:
‘To me it is a matter of wonderment always that you men who say you cannot get work can invariably find the means of getting drunk’. A presumably shamefaced McCarthy meekly responded that ‘it is friends as treat us’, before he was instructed to pay a 3s fine or go to prison for 3 days.
[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, March 12, 1878]