A big fire was always likely to bring people onto the streets in Victorian London. In August 1888 a fire at the docks would have been the news item in the papers the next day had not the mutilated body of Mary Ann (‘Polly’) Nicholls been found in Bucks Row, Whitechapel in the early hours.
Fires were dangerous, and appalling but they were also exciting, especially for London’s youth.
As PC Robert Beavis (283 M division, Metropolitan Police) was watching the fire service tackle a blaze at the Peak Frean’s biscuit factory on Mill Street, south of the river, he claimed he saw three youths ‘larking and pushing one another about’.
As he moved towards them one of them knocked another’s hat off (a fairly common prank for London youth). As PC Beavis was closest the lad whose hat had been tipped off span round and confronted him. This was a young man named M’Cullock Torrens, who accused the policeman of knocking his hat off. Beavis denied do anything of the kind and turned away. Presumably angered by this, Torrens then punched the policeman twice in the chest and ran off.
All three men attempted to escape, climbing into a hansom cab before PC Beavis managed to alert the driver to stop. He took his prisoners back to the station and the next day brought Torrens to the Southwark Police Court to be charged with assault.
Several other policeman were on duty that night and corroborated Beavis’ version of events in court. Torrens, who was clearly of ‘respectable’ stock and who was described in court as a ‘student’ living off Eccelston Square, near Victoria, told Mr Partridge (the magistrate) that he had taken a cab with two friends to witness the fire.
They had left the West End and stopped for a few drinks (but were sober, if excited). At the fire he had met up with the police and ‘treated’ the to a few drinks in a nearby pub. He insisted that it was the policeman that had knocked his hat off and when he asked him why the officer had walked off, ignoring him. When he put it back on the copper tipped it off again, so yes, he had hit him, ‘but not very hard’.
One of Torrens’ companions, Charles J Ware confirmed his friend’s account and said he did not consider that Torrens’ actions amounted to an assault. The magistrate disagreed, further more he chose to blame the young men for tempting police constables ‘from their duties and into public-houses at that hour in the morning’, rather than criticise the police for drinking on duty.
He added that ‘no doubt they got to larking, and someone knocked the prisoner’s hat off, but he had no right to assault the constable. An example must be made in such a case, consequently he fined him £10, or two months’ hard labour’. Torrens paid up and left the court with his mates.
The police magistrate was protecting the authority of the police in this case; he could have chosen to side with the young ‘gentlemen’ but that would very publicly have undermined PC Beavis and the collective voice of his colleagues. Torrens could easily afford £10 and was able to leave the court will little damage to his reparation – in fact, in the eyes of his peer group he may well have emerged as something of a ‘hero’.
[from the Morning Post, April 24, 1873]
P.S Peak, Frean & Company Ltd (known later as Peak Freans) were founded in 1857 in Bermondsey, London. According to reports the fire of 23 April 1873 was so spectacular it drew huge crowds, including the Prince of Wales. In 1921 the firm amalgamated with Huntley & Palmers and created the less interestingly named, Amalgamated Biscuit Manufacturers Limited. Several other buyouts over the next few decades mean that now both famous brands are under the umbrella of United Biscuits.