The wrong sort of military violence

Grenadier_Guards

The Crimean War had raised some concerns about the quality of recruits to the British army and about the diseases they were exposed to at home and abroad. Large numbers of soldiers were admitted to military hospitals suffering from sexually transmitted conditions, and in the aftermath of the war attempts were made to control prostitution  and general disease with the passing of the (ultimately ineffectual) Contagious Diseases Acts (1864, 1866, and 1869).

Disease and prostitution went had-in-hand with off-duty drinking, another problem for the military authorities. Not infrequently soldiers fell foul of the civil authorities as a result of their commitment to ‘boozing’, and many of them found their way into the Police Courts. In March 1859 (three years after the Crimean War ended) a number of soldiers appeared in front of London magistrates.

At Lambeth Police Court George Robinson and Richard Burns (privates in the Grenadier Guards) were charged with being drunk and disorderly at the Crown pub. The story is interesting for one of the details which then links this to another case, at Southwark, on the same day.

The pair had entered the Crown on the evening of 17 March and while they weren’t Irish they were ‘keeping up’ St Patrick’s Day. They were already drunk however, and the landlord, a Mr Broadhurst, refused to serve them. Landlords were obliged to keep good order and refusing more alcohol to the already semi-inebriated was a wise move. Unfortunately for Broadhurst and his son, who was also serving behind the bar, this only provoked trouble from the soldiers.

Having been denied beer they attempted to get over the bar and help themselves. As the Broadhursts tried to stop them they were attacked. Burns took off his heavy leather belt and started to strike young master Broadhurst with it.

The police were called and they were marched off to the station, but not before several panes of glass had been smashed and a number of people injured, including the police who arrested them. The magistrates fined them 10s or 10 day in prison for wilful damage and a further 10s for the violence.

Over at Southwark a similar case of drunken military violence was being heard. John Whitsey (of the Coldstream Guards) was accused of assaulting a policeman and a member of the public, whilst drunk on Borough High Street.

PC James McCarthy (134M) was on his beat at 11.15 at night when he heard a disturbance. He saw Whitsey punch a man, knocking him to the floor. When the man got up, the guardsman hit him again, returning him to the street. When PC McCarthy tried to intervene Whitsey turned don him, kicking out and trying to take his legs from under him. All the time the guardsman was using ‘the most disgusting language’ McCarthy had ever heard.

The soldier was clearly drunk and belligerent. McCarthy was forced to call for help and ‘sprang his rattle’ (these were the days before the police were issued with whistles). In the scuffle that ensued the rattle was broken before the solider was eventually subdued.

The reporter noted that in court Whitsey appeared without his belt – ‘a sign of former bad conduct’ – and the belt seems significant to me in another way. In the last quarter of the 1800s young hands in London and Salford (but also in other towns) were using belts as a weapon. The Salford ‘scuttlers’ decorated heavy leather belts with horse brasses and wielded these as effective flails to beat their opponents and cause previous wounds. The belt (like the slipper’) was the weapon of choice for domestic violence – whether against spouses, children or servants, and since braces actually did the job of holding up one’s trousers it was an easy item to use in a fight.

Whether Whitsey had been divested of his belt at the the station to prevent further violence or whether the military had taken it away as a sharing punishment is a mystery, but either way it demonstrated he was ‘a bad sort’.

The man that Whitsey had knocked to the ground didn’t appear in court. The PC told the magistrate, Mr Coombe, that he was a ‘working man’ and probably couldn’t take the time to attend. Mr Coombe told the soldier that he was lucky; without a victim prepared to testify against him he would only be dealt with for the assault on the policeman. He fined him 5s, or seven days in prison.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Saturday, March 19, 1859]

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