Indecency and rough behaviour spoil the tranquility of London’s Royal Parks

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One of the pleasures of London – as I was reminded by a good friend recently – is simply walking in the parks and taking in the everyday sights. On any day in London you can stroll in the Regent’s, Hyde or Green Park, enjoying an ice cream or a cold drink, and see ‘all sorts and conditions of men’ and women. There will be lycra clad cyclists; city businessmen with their suit jackets over their shoulders; kids rushing around and spooking the waterfowl; sun worshippers soaking up the rays; and elderly couples or sitting on benches reminiscing on life past.

The parks are one of London’s treasures: they are free and provide acres of green space  to counterbalance the emissions of millions of motorised vehicles. They have been places of  pleasure, exercise and, occasionally, political protest, for generations.

Hyde Park was originally a private hunting area acquired as such by Henry VIII in 1536. It first opened to the public in 1637 under Charles I, and in 1665 many Londoners sought sanctuary here from the plague that ravaged London in the reign of Charles II. The Serpentine was created in the 1730s, on the wishes of Queen Caroline, the consort of George II and by the early 1800s the park was used for public celebrations (much as Trafalgar Square was be used in the 20th century).

But London’s parks at night or at dusk offered a different sort of experience for some and caused considerable unease to others. In the 1880s rival gangs of youths from the  Marylebone area aggressively patrolled the boundaries of Regent’s Park searching for unwary members of each other’s ‘crews’, and prostitutes plied their trade in the darker, unlit parts where quick assignations were easy to keep from the prying eyes of the police.

Well, they were usually able to conceal their behaviour and many a policeman would have turned a blind eye to prostitution so long as there wasn’t a standing order to police it, or the people involved were not so blatant as to make it necessary for even the most discriminating of bobbies to intervene.

This seems to be what happened in early July 1869 and the indiscretion of the sex worker involved was compounded by the violent disorder displayed by her potential clients.

Police sergeant Martin (14A) was patrolling in Hyde Park near the Knightsbridge barracks when he saw several men noisy exchanging words (and worse) with a woman. The sergeant observed them and her to be acting ‘indecently’ (although we are not told exactly what this meant), and he moved over towards them to tell them to stop.

Quite sensibly the prostitute quickly made her escape, having no desire to be arrested, but the men decided to pick a fight with the police officer. They ‘made use of indecent language and put themselves in fighting attitude’. In other words they put up their fists as if to box with sergeant Martin.

When Martin attempted to tackle the nearest, a man named Joseph Tucker, he was wrestled to the ground and the other three men started kicking at him as he lay there. Luckily another policeman soon arrived and, with assistance of a passerby, he managed to rescue the sergeant and arrest his assailants.

All four men ended up in court before the Marlborough Street police magistrate the next day, charged with disorderly behaviour and assault. James Hunt, William Yardley, David Hodgman and Tucker represented themselves in court and none offered much by way of a defence, except to say the policeman attacked them first, which seems unlikely.

The man that had helped the stricken officer was there as well to give evidence. Mr Street, who was described as the manager of the Royal Exchange Association (an insurance firm) confirmed the policeman’s testimony and added his disquiet that members of the military, stationed nearby, seemed complicit on ‘setting the mob on the police’. The magistrate expressed his regret that the soldiers weren’t ‘before him’ so he could deal with them too. Several other witnesses came forward to support the police sergeant and insurance man’s evidence.

So it was a fairly straightforward case for Mr Tyrwhitt the magistrate. He handed down fines of 20to Hunt and Hodgman and 40 to Yardley, all with alternative custodial sentences if they failed to pay. As for Tucker, who seemed the ringleader and chief protagonist, he was sent to prison at hard labour for a months for the disorderly conduct and ‘two periods of twenty-one days for assaulting the police’. He warned all of them not to appear before him again, or the consequences would be severe.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, July 4, 1869]

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2 thoughts on “Indecency and rough behaviour spoil the tranquility of London’s Royal Parks

  1. It has occurred to me that two things are strikingly different about crime then and crime now, and you may have already touched on these issues.

    The first is that almost always when a police officer finds himself in trouble, outnumbered or needing to pursue multiple perpetrators, there is always another police office on hand. I’ve not done the research but it appears that London and other cities were policed at greater density than today.

    The other outstanding fact — astounding fact might better describe it — is the propensity for criminals, sometimes hardened career criminals engaged in violent acts who are willing to submit to be “taken in charge” by a lone policeman or even a member of the public. Running away must have been an option, but time and again the reports have the crim quietly accepting his fate.

    Your thoughts?

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    1. Thanks, yes it does seem to be the case that there were more (or more visible) police in the 1800s. The other factor (which we do also see today, though perhaps not to the same extent) is the willingness of bystanders to ‘have a go’ and help catch criminals. I’m not sure so much about your second observation, simply because the courts are the end point (or at least a measurable point) in a ‘crime’. So what we see here are the cases where someone has been caught or surrendered, not the possibly many more occasions when they got away. We also have to bear in mind that these reports of cases are only a tiny fraction of those prosecuted through the courts every day, so my source base is necessarily selective. The more cases I uncover however, the more we should be able to see patterns.
      Thanks for your comments,
      Drew

      Like

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