A victim of the prison system takes his anger out at Thames Police court

treadmill

The Thames Police court magistrate, Mr Lushington, enjoyed a reputation as the scourge of the ‘drinking classes’. In the late 1870s and ’80s Lushington fined and imprisoned thousands of drunks and wife beaters, disorderly prostitutes and petty thieves; those that used actual violence against the police were a particular bête noire of his, and could expect length spells in gaol at hard labour.

In the process he must have made a number of enemies – indeed most magistrates would have upset or annoyed those that came in front of them in the course of their justicing work. So perhaps we might expect there to have been occasions when the magistrates themselves were the victims of violence from those they sat in summary judgement on.

This is just one example where Mr Lushington was almost on the receiving end of another form of summary punishment.

Lewis Britton was still a teenager when he appeared at Bow Street, London’s senior Police court. A year earlier he had been charged with stealing a small step ladder and the Thames magistrate (possibly Lushington but other justices did serve there) had committed him for trial at the sessions. He was convicted and received a six month prison sentence.

This apparently affected him very badly and according to his mother, had completely changed him as a person.  Prison had a very debilitating affect on those that experienced in the late 1800s; it was brutal and isolating, and many if not most prisoners were scarred by it for life. Lewis (just 18 when he went inside) found it very hard to adjust to life afterwards and had not been able to find employment since.

He clearly blamed Lushington for his situation and one day he determined to do something about it.

Britton turned up at the Thames court holding a large stone. He was met by the court’s housekeeper, James Denny, who asked him what he wanted. Lewis told him he needed to see Mr Lushington and when Denny asked him why he said: ‘I want to give him this’, indicating the stone, and added that he intended to ‘do for him’.

Naturally alarmed, Denny told him to go away and threatened to have him taken into custody if he didn’t. Britton’s response was to wave the rock at Denny and threaten him as well. The housekeeper summoned PC Charles Andrews (166K) who arrested him. When the officer got his prisoner under lock and key he questioned him. The young man told him:

I mean to settle him when he comes outside, for giving me six months for nothing. If I don’t do it now I will at some other time‘.

Lewis Britton was duly presented in court on a charge of threatening a magistrate’s life, and his mother appeared in his defence. She spoke of how his mind had been affected by the original court case and his incarceration, hoping for some leniency for her son. The Bow Street magistrate, Mr Flowers, asked if there was any evidence that Lewis was not in full control of his actions. The Police surgeon, Dr Horton, said he had examined the prisoner and ‘thought he was labouring under some delusions’. He doubted whether the lad had any real intention of striking Lushington with the stone, but that he merely meant to frighten him.

Having established that Lewis might be a ‘person of weak intellect’, Mr Flowers committed him to the St. Giles workhouse so he could be examined by the medical staff there.

Whilst the action he took was deplorable by any standards I have quite a deal of sympathy with young Britton. His original crime was hardly serious and seemingly a first offence. Yet he was sent into the Victorian prison system;  a system that was described by one middle-class inmate as a ‘vast machine’ that ground men down and crushed their spirits. He only served six months but that was enough to give him the taint of prison that marked him out as an ex-convict. It isn’t easy for prisoners who have served their ‘time’ to reintegrate into society today, and they have (arguably at least) much more support than their Victorian counterparts. Hopefully Lewis received some help at St. Giles but I’m not confident he did.

[from The Standard, Monday, March 31, 1879]

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