A sad end for an unwanted baby: clubbed to death in a Southwark toilet

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In May 1848 a young woman presented herself at the door of Sarah Potter’s house in Jane Street, Southwark asking if she might take a room. She told her she was a ‘servant out of place’, temporarily she hoped, and that her name was Ann Brightwell.

Ann seemed like a ‘decent young woman’ so the mechanic’s wife took her in. About a month later however, Sarah began to have some suspicions about her new tenant and confronted her. Mrs Potter clearly thought that there was more to Ann’s story than she had revealed at first, and she ‘charged her with being enciente‘ (or in other words, pregnant).

For a servant to get pregnant in the 1800s was common but still unacceptable in the eyes of a disproving society. Ann’s plan was to hide herself away from the shame but despite her denials, Mrs Potter had found her out. Whether this changed her plans or not it is impossible to say. Ann might have intended to have the baby in her room in Southwark and then leave it at the workhouse door or try and raise it alone.

Perhaps then this discovery precipitated a terrible chain of events, or maybe the shock of being found out brought added stress which quickened her pregnancy. Either way things soon became much worse for the young servant.

On the 2 July Mrs Potter saw Ann leaving the ‘water-closet’ carrying an umbrella, ‘in a hurried state’. When Sarah investigated she was in no doubt that a new born baby had been  disposed of inside.

The police and a surgeon were summoned and Ann arrested. In the Southwark Police Court Dr Robert Tebbett deposed that in his opinion there was no doubt the child had been born alive. Mrs Potter told the magistrate that she had heard Ann admit that she ‘had destroyed her child by casting it into the water-closet, and striking it with the end of the umbrella’.

Ann denied all of the evidence brought against her, as well she might. She was being accused of infanticide, a crime that carried a capital charge until 1938. While women continued to sentenced to death throughout the later 1800s none were executed in London but Ann could not rely on that. The magistrate committed her for trial and at that point she disappears from the records.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, July 31, 1848]

‘What a fool I have been!’

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Camberwell Green, c.1901

Sarah Mary Hopkins was a 48 year-old woman who had, for the past three years, lived under the roof of her master, James Bowler. Mr Bowler was very old, nearly 90 years of age, and he had befriended Sarah when she was a child.

In 1867 he had given her a position as his housekeeper and trusted her so completely that ‘she had control of everything’. He even wrote her into his will so that she would be provided for when he died.

Without knowing anything else about Sarah’s life it would seem that, as a spinster or widow, or at least with no male partner that she declared, she had found herself in a very fortunate position. She had a steady wage and a comfortable home to live in, with an employer that both respected and cared for her.

Why then would she jeopardise all of this? Sadly it seems this is exactly what she did do in the summer of 1870.

On Monday 25 July Mr Bowler noticed that some of his silverware was missing. Three spoons seemed to have disappeared. On Tuesday ‘two more’ had gone and a purse with £4 3s and 6d in it (about £200 in today’s money). More worryingly Sarah also vanished from the house, and wasn’t seen again that week.

Mr Bowler called for the police and PC Elliott (388P) managed to trace Sarah to a property in Camberwell. The policeman challenged her about the thefts but she denied it, moreover she even denied knowing anybody called Bowler and said she wasn’t employed as a housekeeper at his address.

PC Elliott was suspicious, it seemed that Sarah had been drinking and she was also sporting a black eye, perhaps there was a man involved. Her lodgings were searched and ‘the constable found thirty pawnbrokers’ duplicates relating to watches, silver spoons, rings, and other valuable articles, which she had plundered [the] prosecutor of’.

When the case came before the Lambeth Police court magistrate Sarah admitted her crime and declared, ‘what a fool I have been’. The justice remanded her in custody to wait his adjudication. He may well have wanted to find out a little more about her motivation. The black eye suggests that she might have been involved with someone who was intimidating her or otherwise pressurising her into stealing from the old gentleman. Perhaps too he wanted to hear if Mr Bowler was prepared to forgive her this breach of trust and plead for leniency.

[from The Illustrated Police News etc, Saturday, July 30, 1870]

‘That sink of iniquity Bluegate Fields, where so many outrages and robberies’ occur.

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Bluegate Fields by Gustave Doré, 1872

‘Walter Hill aged 26, a man of colour and late cook and seaman on board the ship Ben Nevis, from Surinam, was charged with attempting to murder Honara Morris, a woman of this town, better known as Mad Norah, on Sunday morning in that sink of iniquity, Bluegate Fields, Shadwell, where so many outrages and robberies have been committed’.

So began the Daily Newsreport on the proceedings of the Thames Police Court on July 29, 1862. There is so much information here for the social historian before we even get to grips with the case itself.  Bluegate Field features in Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray: 

‘Then, suddenly, some night he would creep out of the house, go down to dreadful places near Blue Gate Fields, and stay there, day after day, until he was driven away. On his return he would sit in front of the picture, sometimes loathing it and himself…”

The Picture of Dorian Gray, (1890)  p.112

The area was a byword for vice and crime, with opium dens and brothels, the haunts of seamen, thieves and those seeking the seedier side of life, like Dorian. Nowadays it is only remembered in the name of nearby school but in the 1860s it was a slum district over which Nicholas Hawksmoor’s impressive church of St George’s in the East loomed.

So we learn that this attempted murder took place in a notoriously rough and criminal area, and that its supposed victim, ‘Mad’ Norah was quite likely to have been closely connected with prosecution.

The ship, the Ben Nevis, is listed in a catalogue of fast sailing ships for the period 1775-1875 and the fact that it had sailed out of Surinam might give us a clue to its cargo. Surinam (or Dutch Guiana) was an economy built on the labour of slaves and then indented workers (by the late 1800s from Java) to replace the supply of slaves once that trade was abolished. In fact slavery was only abolished in 1863, a year after this case appeared in the London press and it took another decade for slaves to be emancipated. The slaves and later free workers farmed sugar, cotton and indigo so we might imagine the Ben Nevis was bringing these to the London docks.

We also learn of course that the defendant in this case was black. As a ‘man of colour’ the reporter felt it necessary to distinguish him from other ‘cooks’ and ‘seamen’ either as a conscious act of Victorian racism or simply because it was newsworthy, as something ‘different’. Either way it reminds us that in the second half of the nineteenth century London was a melting pot of peoples from all over the world.

According to one witness, a local labourer named James Hayward, Walter lived in Ratcliffe Highway where many sailors had lodgings close to the docks. Hayward saw him arguing with Norah outside her house in Bluegate Fields. He had accused her of stealing clothes and money, something she vehemently denied. It was 5 in the morning and must have wakened many nearby. Hayward said he saw Hill land a punch on the woman before running off.

He came back about two hours later armed with a knife. Grabbing Norah from behind he threatened to murder her. Hayward, addressing the magistrate at Thames, described how he saw Hill strike:

‘her blow after blow with the knife  until it stuck into her shoulder, and he could not get it out again’.

Hill fled but was chased and caught. His clothes had been stolen, Hayward agreed, but not by Norah. Someone else had snuck into the room while the seaman and the woman (clearly a prostitute) slept off the drink they had consumed the night before.

The police were called and PC Edward Dillon (18K) arrived. He fetched a surgeon and Norah was taken to the London Hospital where she was treated for multiple stab wounds. When she had received sufficiently to be questioned by the police she confirmed she had entertained Hill but had not pinched his belongings. She knew who had however, ‘Irish Annie and Black Sall’, and said she told Hill that he had better go home (since he was pretty much naked) and come back later. She must have been shocked when he had returned with a  knife.

The house surgeon at the London, David Hyman Dyte, testified that Norah’s wounds were serious but hopefully not life threatening, as all her organs had been missed in the stabbing. It had also taken ‘enormous force’ to extract the 5 inch blade from her shoulder. She had lost a lot of blood, and was not fit to appear in court. This would mean Hill would be remanded to wait for her to recover and the next appearance was set for the 5 August. Hill was held in Clerkenwell and when he came before the Thames court again he was again remanded by Mr Woolrych as Norah, although recovering, was still too ill to come to court.

The case eventually made it to the Old Bailey later that month and we get a little more detail from Honora (who was recorded as Myers not Morris, these mistakes are common in the press). She said that Hill had been brought to the house by Sank Smith (a ‘coloured girl’) and it was her that had taken his money. Her landlady had pinched his clothes she added, so perhaps these were ‘Irish Annie’ and ‘Black Sall’ who were mentioned earlier.

We don’t learn much else new about the incident and there were only the same witnesses as before, but the jury were told that while Hill admitted attacking Norah he was provoked and didn’t mean to cause her as much harm as he did. He added that it was his first time in England.

Whether this swayed them much is unlikely, but the reputation that the area had and the trade that Norah followed possibly did. They found him guilty but recommend him to mercy. The judge sent him to prison for a year.

[from Daily News, Tuesday, July 29, 1862]

Trouble at the Tower of London

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The Tower of London stands today as a popular tourist attraction maintained by the Royal Palaces. Almost every day of the year it is thronged with visitors snapping selfies with the Yeomen of the Guard (or Beefeaters) or the ravens. It remains a royal palace and a functioning building but is no longer a prison or a fortress as it once was.

When I used to visit the Tower as a boy my main interest was in the Tower Armouries, then housed in the White Tower. I was fascinated by the arms and armour on display nearly all of which has been moved to an excellent (but sadly distant) museum in Leeds. The Tower was home to the Office of Ordnance (responsible for the stores of weapons held there) from the early 15th century.

In 1855 the Ordnance employed many men to work in different capacities at the Tower, and amongst these was William Handley whose title was ‘foreman of labourers’. He lived in the Tower itself, in one of the houses (no. 41) with his wife and four children. We know this because he appeared on both the 1841 and 1851 census returns.

One of the men that Mr Handley supervised was Patrick Dawson, an ‘elderly Irishman’ who worked as a ‘porter and timekeeper’ on one of the bridges leading over the Moat and into the Tower grounds. Dawson however is not listed amongst the Ordnance’s employees in the RA’s document so perhaps he was casually employed or simply not recorded.

He was certainly there though because on the 27 June 1855 he was controlling the bridge crossing when a house and cart pulled up with a load of iron coal boxes to deliver. The driver, or carman, was called Benjamin Matthie and he was employed by a man named Porter who was a contractor used by the Ordnance. Porter operated out of premises in Camden Town and he had despatched Matthie with his load to the Tower that day.

Apparently there was a small railway on the bridge, ‘to facilitate the traffic’ (which was Dawson’s responsibility to regulate), and the carman duly pulled his horse and van up on it and began to start unloading his cargo. He removed the boxes from the van and was lowering them in to the dry moat below when another vehicle arrived.

This cart was going directly into the Tower and so Dawson called down to Matthie and asked him to move his van out of the way so the other could pass. Now without wishing cast aspersions or generalise too wildly, delivery drivers do tend to be a bit grumpy when asked to stop unloading or to move out of the way when they are busy in their work. A Victorian carman was the equivalent of the modern day white van man, and they enjoyed a similar reputation.

Matthie looked up at the old porter and told him that the other van would have to wait. Dawson insisted he move and the carman again refused. The porter went to fetch his boss, Mr Handley who also asked Matthie to move his van.

He too was refused.

At this Handley called over another man to take hold of the horses’ reins and move them back over the bridge. Seeing this Matthie threw down the box he was holding and declared that he ‘would be ______ if he unloaded any more’.

You can fill in the blanks from your imagination.

Once the other driver had passed over the bridge Matthie attempted to move his cart back onto it, so he could continue to unload at a convenient point. Dawson was having none of it however. His duty, he said, was to keep the bridge clear and Matthie had already demonstrated that he wouldn’t do as he was asked to.

Matthie seized him by the collar and said he didn’t ‘give a ____ for his duty’ and that he would ‘throw him over the bridge and break his ______ neck’ if he did not let him place his van back on it. A scuffle ensued and Dawson was indeed pushed over the bridge, falling nine feet down to land on the boxes below.

The poor old man was badly hurt. He was taken to the London Hospital in Whitechapel where he was treated for broken ribs, ‘a contusion of the leg’ and other injuries. The police were called and Matthie was arrested. When he was charged he told PC Josiah Chaplin (124H) that he admitted shoving Dawson. ‘I told him to stand away from me three times’, he added, before pushing him over the edge.

The case came before the Thames Police Court several times from late June to late July 1855, partly because it was initially feared that the porter would not recover from his injuries and was too ill to attend court. He was kept in  the hospital for two weeks but continued to be a day patient right up until the case again came up in late July.

When Mr Yardley reviewed the case on July 26 he listened to various witnesses for both the prosecution and defence.

Mr Porter, on behalf of Matthie, told him that his employee had a good record of employment previously and was the sort of person to deliberately set out to harm anyone. He was, he told him, ‘very civil, industrious, and sober’. Two other witnesses vouched for the carmen. But there were also other labourers working for the Ordnance who saw what happened and heard Matthie threaten Dawson.

Mr Porter was continuing to plead for his servant when the magistrate interrupted him. As far as he could see, he said, there was such a disparity in strength between the defendant and the victim that ‘he would not be doing his duty if he did not commit the prisoner for trial’. A jury could decide on intent or provocation he added.

He bound over the various witnesses to appear and give their evidence. Porter asked him to bind Handley over as he felt he could affirm that his man had the right to unload his vehicle on the bridge (perhaps suggesting that Dawson had overstepped his authority). Mr Yardley didn’t really see why that was necessary given the evidence he had heard but he agreed, and insisted Porter turn up for the trial as well. Having completed all the paperwork he committed Matthie for trial (at the Middlesex Sessions I imagine since there is no record of it at Old Bailey) and released him on bail.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, July 27, 1855]

A teenage apprentice laughs off his appearance in court

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In my PhD thesis (which I finished in 2005 which seems like a lifetime away!) I researched the summary courts of the City of London in the eighteenth century. One of the areas I looked at was apprenticeship because in the 1700s and 1800s magistrates were often called upon to adjudicate in disputes between masters and their young charges. In the City however, these cases usually came before the Chamberlain’s Court and here masters complained about the laziness or disobedience of apprentices, or were counter sued for poor or cruel treatment  or for not teaching their employees the secrets of their trade.

Having looked in some detail at the workings of the Chamberlain’s Court and the cases that came before it, this story, from Clerkenwell Police Court in 1860, seems quite familiar.

Edward Howard, a ‘respectably attired lad’ of about 16-18 years of age, appeared before Mr D’ Eyncourt on  charge brought by his master. Charles Thompson, a carpenter and joiner, told the magistrate that Edward had been absent from his work without his permission.

Apprentices were bound for 7 years (often from 14 to 21) and they worked for their keep and to learn the craft. In the 1700s they invariably lived with the family as part of the household, so would expect their food, clothes and bed to be supplied in return for their labour. After the Napoleonic Wars ended (with Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo) there was a general decline in apprenticeships, especially live-in ones.

It would seem that Edward did live with the Thompsons, but perhaps the constraints of obeying the rules of the house and his master were especially difficult for this young man. This was not the first time he had been in trouble for leaving his work undone and staying away from home, and he had been in court on more than one occasion. The last time he was in front of a magistrate he was warned that a repeat offence would likely result in a spell of imprisonment at hard labour, but Edward seemed not to care.

The carpenter explained that Edward was ‘a very unruly lad’, and had done no work since the 9th July. This was a period of two weeks and Mr Thompson had had enough. The boy was, he said:

‘a very good workman when he pleased, but his general character was that of a dilatory idle lad’. He ‘was of an opinion that unless the prisoner was punished he would never do any good for himself’.

Mrs Thompson seems to have agreed, saying she could not speak up for him or ‘give him the best of characters’.

Faced with this attack on his character Edward responded, as many of the lads that came before the Chamberlain in the 1700s did, with a show of bravado. He told the magistrate ‘with the greatest levity’, that ‘it was all correct, but he did not like his business’.

Mr D’Eyncourt sentenced him to be imprisoned at hard labour in the house of correction for 14 days. He was, he explained, entitled to have him whipped as well but said on this occasion he hoped that a spell in the ‘house’ would be sufficient punishment to affect a change in his behaviour. He was warning him (again) that further sanctions – and physical ones at that – would follow if he didn’t start taking is apprenticeship seriously.

I’m not at all sure that Edward was listening because he was taken away still laughing out loud at his situation in an attempt (real or otherwise) to show that he cared little for anything the courts, or his master, might do to him.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, July 27, 1860]

A ‘child of the Jago’ in the Mansion House court

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The Old Nichol area as shown on Charles Booth’s poverty maps (1889) showing the density of poverty maked out in black and blue.

The Old Nichol had a fearsome reputation in late Victorian London. The collection of about 30 streets at the north end of Brick Lane was in the area now occupied by modern day Arnold Circus. In the late 1800s the Nichol was home to around 5-6,000 people and it was immortalised in fiction by Arthur Morrison in A Child of the Jago (1896). It was a far cry from modern hipster Shoreditch and Bethnal Green.

In 1875 the Nichol was where Henry Stuck lived. Henry was nine and his parents occupied a room at 5 Old Nichol Street one of the most notorious streets in the Nichol slum. It seems that Henry played away from home, preferring to hang out with other boys in a property in Lower Thames Street, south of the Mansion House in the old City of London. He was also known to stay with known thieves in a lodging house in Shoreditch.

In fact reports said that a ‘gang of boys, 40 or 50 in number’ were ‘in the habit of frequenting a small coffee house’ in the street which they had dubbed ‘the House of Lords’. There they seem to have created their own private playground to ape the behaviour of their elders and (at least in the minds of the disapproving authorities) hatch plots to commit petty crime.

In July 1875 Henry was in court. He was brought before Alderman Phillips at the Mansion House Police Court charged with begging. As he stood in the dock a description of the boys’ haunt was delivered in court by Henry’s father:

‘Here they regaled themselves with halfpenny and penny worths of coffee’, he told the magistrate, ‘their language and behaviour being… of the most disorderly and disgraceful character when any of the parents visited the room in search of their children’.

When he wasn’t begging Henry went about the City selling fuses.

Why hadn’t the coffee house been closed down by the police the Alderman wanted to know? They had no power to do an inspector of police explained.

‘On one occasion when the boys were found tossing in the house, [in other words they were gambling, which was a summary offence] the police took out a summons, but it was dismissed’.

As far as Mr Stuck was concerned Henry was ‘a very bad boy’ who had been away for up to three weeks recently. His mother spoke up for him though, arguing that it was her husband’s poor treatment of the lad that had driven him out. She asked the magistrate to send Henry to a Reformatory school where he might learn skills and be away from bad influences. She added that her husband ‘would not work to support his children, and starvation only started the boy in the face at home’.

She had painted  a grim picture of life in the Nichol where poverty was endemic and many children lived hand-to-mouth on the streets. Morrison’s novel way well have served to exaggerate the reality of the ‘blackest streets’ of East London but the truth was bad enough.

A Reformatory was a popular choice for working-class parents who struggled to support let alone control their offspring. Many seem to have used the courts to try to get them off their hands. But magistrates were wise to this and often asked the family to make a financial contribution to the child’s upkeep, which may have deterred some from seeking this solution.

If this was Mr Stuck’s intention then he would have to wait to see if the Alderman would oblige him. The magistrate ordered the boy to be taken to the workhouse while the circumstances of the case were investigated. Mr and Mrs Stuck left the court without him, to pursue their domestic squabble in private. As for Henry, who was only nine, his future was far from certain but hardly appeared rosy.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, July 26, 1875]

There’s no avoiding hard work for two ‘lazy casuals’ in Hammersmith

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Luke Fildes, Applicants for Admission to a Casual Ward (1874)

The 1880s were a desperate decade for many in London. After the prosperous years of mid century England suffered an economic slump, if not a full blown depression. Work was harder to come by and in 1888 the word ‘unemployment’ entered the Oxford English Dictionary. There were demonstrations of the unemployed in Trafalgar Square in 1886 and 1887, the latter being broken up by police and the military with heads being broken in the process. Opponents of free trade clashed with its proponents and members of what Marx and Engels would have dubbed the ‘lumpenproletariat’ smashed windows in Pall Mall.

If you couldn’t find work in London you had limited choices. There was no social security or benefit system as we would understand and begging was illegal and those caught risked a spell in prison. There were plenty of charities and plenty of people prepared to donate to them, just as there are today, but this was open to abuse and so donors were chewy in who they helped. The Mendicity Society went to war on indiscriminate charitable giving and its recipients, believing that beggars should be directed back to their place of origin rather than being a drain on the capital’s ratepayers.

So when legitimate work and begging were closed to you what was left was illegal gain or the workhouse. The first carried a very real risk of being caught up in the Victorian criminal justice system which was a brutal machine designed to ‘grind men good’. Victorian prisons were grim institutions where ‘hard bed, hard work, and hard fare’ were the order of the day. Subsistence diets, sleep deprivation and a multitude of petty regulations (all too easy to break) combined with backbreaking ‘hard labour’ were designed to break the spirit of convicts in a system that had long since abandoned any notion of ‘reformation’.

Given that even the smallest theft prosecuted before a Police Magistrate could land you inside Cold Bath Fields gaol for a month or more, crime clearly did not pay.

The final alternative then was the workhouse. But this too came at a price. If you were admitted to the workhouse proper then you would be there for a long while with little hope of earning your freedom. Workhouses were feared by the working classes almost as much (sometimes more) than the prison. Families were separated, food was basic and work was compulsory.

If you chose to take your chances with what work you could pick up day to day then the only safety net that Victorian society provided was the workhouse casual ward. Here you could enter for a day and, in return for some hard labour you would be fed and watered and allowed a place to sleep. You would then be released in the hope you could find proper employment outside.

The casual ward was a last resort; it carried a stigma that the working class wished to avoid being tainted with. For some it seems, it was the work – the hard labour – they wished to avoid but failure to obey the rules of the ‘house’ might well find you in front of a magistrate. This is what happened to Thomas Williams and James White in July 1881.

The pair were Irishmen – so straight away they were in the cross hairs of the magistrate’s ‘gun’. The Irish (despite building Britain’s transport networks and fighting Britain’s wars for over a century) were seen as lazy, criminal and drunken. Prejudices against the Irish continued throughout the Georgian and Victorian period well into own with jokes at their expense only becoming considered ‘racist’ and inappropriate in the late 20th century.

Williams and White had admitted to the Hammersmith workhouse casual ward on the previous Thursday but had refused to do any work. George Perry, superintendent of the workhouse’s casual ward told the Hammersmith Police Court that on the Friday morning ‘they were set to shone breaking’. This literally meant breaking larger stones into smaller ones and was exactly the sort of work prisoners and paupers had been forced to do for over a hundred years.

The men were not keen however. Williams complained that he was injured and couldn’t do the work, his ankle was too painful he said. A doctor was called and confirmed there was nothing the matter with him, he was shamming. As for White, he told Perry that ‘he was not accustomed to break stones’. This surprised the magistrate, Mr Paget.

‘Are you not Irish?’ he asked.

He was, came the reply. Then ‘why could he not break stones’?

‘The hammer was too light’ was White’s response.

This was met with a stony face and the magistrate determined that the two ‘last casuals’ would not get away with their ‘ingratitude’ towards the beneficent state or avoid the hard work that they had been tasked with. He sent them to prison for a month, with hard labour.

[from The Standard, Monday, July 25, 1881]