The occupational hazards of operating a Victorian ‘Black Maria’

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The Bow Street Police court in 1881, with a Police van (or ‘black Maria’)

In most of the reports of the ‘doings’ of the Victorian Police courts it is taken for granted that the reader understands the process of court and how the system works at this level. This is presumably because the readership would have been familiar with the police courts, either from personal experience or through a regular consumption of the reportage.

For us, of course, there is no such easy familiarity and, while much of what occurs is straightforward it does help when explanations are given or light is shone on the working practice of these important day-to-day centres of summary justice. So, for example, we know that prisoners were transferred to and from the courts (to face hearings or be transported to prisons) but how?

Today those on trial are brought in security vans operated by private companies licensed by the Prison service. We have probably all the white high sided vehicles with small windows that deposit and collect from the various courts and prisons up and down the country. What though was the situation in the Victorian period? Perhaps unsurprisingly they had their nineteenth-century horse-drawn equivalents and in 1869 we get a description of one in the report of case heard at Bow Street.

William Watkins (a man of about 40) was charged at Bow Street in February with assaulting Sergeant James Phelps (A21) who was responsible for the Bow Street police van. Watkins had been remanded in custody accused of loitering outside the Adelphi Theatre ‘with the intention of picking pockets’. The justice had remanded him for a few days so that his character could be enquired into.
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Sergeant Phelps told the court that as he was ushering the prisoner Watkins into the waiting van the accused ‘resisted him’. The court reporter gave his readers some detail:

‘The interior of the van is divided into cells, with a passage down the middle’. As the sergeant was ‘putting the prisoner into the last cell – the one next to the door – [the prisoner] endeavoured to prevent him from closing the door by setting his foot against it’.

The policeman retaliated by stamping on Watkins’ foot but this simply provoked the man into violence. Watkins now kicked the sergeant ‘on the shin with such violence as to inflict a severe wound through his trousers, Wellington boots, and stockings’ [so now we know what policemen wore on duty].

The attack was painful and had left a scar on Phelp’s shin. He said he was used to prisoners who resisted arrest or being transported but never had he suffered an assault as bad as this.

PC Rice (75F) now reported on the man’s character and it wasn’t great. He said he’d arrested Watkins in 1864 for stealing a silk handkerchief from a pocket in High Holborn. Watkins had received a 12 month prison sentence for that crime and his actions five years later didn’t exactly endear him to the police or the magistracy. Mr Flowers, the Bow Street magistrate on this occasion, gave him three months for the charge of loitering with intend to steal, and an additional month for kicking out at the police sergeant. Presumably he was then taken away in a ‘black maria’, albeit carefully.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, February 11, 1869]

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‘Where are the police?’ is the cry as windows get smashed

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Middle Row, Holborn, in the nineteenth century

Henry Holesworth was strolling along High Holborn early on Friday evening, the 19th January 1855, when he noticed a cab driver seem to throw something. The driver was following another hansom along the road and pulled back his arm in what seemed, to Holesworth at least, a throwing action. Seconds later there was an almighty smash as one of the windows of Mr Watkins’ shop shattered.

Holesworth quickly told the shopkeeper what he’d seen and the pair of them set off in hot pursuit of the cabbie. Since the street was busy with other vehicles they soon caught up with him and gave him into the custody of a nearby policeman. On the following morning three men were in court, in front of the magistrate at Bow Street.

The defendant was James Boswell and he was charged with breaking a window valued at 10s but this was no ordinary act of vandalism or revenge. The Bow Street office heard from a number of people that morning, all tradesmen, who insisted that this was part of an orchestrated campaign against them.

The magistrate heard that representatives of the Plate Glass Protection Company ‘had constantly requested’ tradesmen in the area to unsure themselves against such damage. This was what we would term a protection racket then; intimidation by a local gang of felons who perhaps employed cab drivers to remind the shopkeepers of the perils of not parting with their insurance subscriptions.

Sadly however this was merely speculation; there was little or no proof of a conspiracy. Indeed there wasn’t even enough solid evidence to convict Boswell of breaking Mr Watkins’ window. Holesworth, a mechanic by trade, could only state that he saw the cab driver’s arm move as if he was throwing a stone. Crucially he did not see him throw anything and accepted his movement could have been caused by ‘a buffeting of the wind’.

As a result Boswell was discharged and walked free from Bow Street. However, the magistrate, Mr Henry, felt obliged to state (for the newspaper record at least) that he was aware that something was amiss and his statement carried a rebuke of the police.

‘It is a notorious fact’ he grumbled, ‘that nearly every night the tradespeople of Oxford Street have their plate-glass windows smashed, and the remark has been made as to what the police are about’.

The Metropolitan Police force was only 26 years old in 1855 and still establishing itself in mid Victorian society. It may have survived the early attempts to abandon Peel’s experiment with centrally organised policing, but – as this report shows – continued to face ongoing criticism of its efficiency.

[from The Standard, Monday, January 22, 1855]

No ‘land fit for heroes’ for one wounded survivor of the Crimea, just a ‘rolling’ in Westminster

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In January 1856 the Crimean War was nearly at an end. The battle of Balaklava (25/10/1854) and Inkerman (25/1/1855) had both taken place and as Austria threatened to enter the war on the side of the Allies (France, Britain and Turkey) Russia sued for peace.  Nearly a million soldiers died, many from disease not the actions of the enemy. Britain and the Empire lost 21, 097 men but 16,000 of these died from disease; this was the war in which Florence Nightingale rose to prominence and Britain agonised over the poor state of health of its troops.

When the troops came home they might have expected a better reception but the concept of a ‘land fit for heroes’ was still in the distant future. While the Royal Navy had usually enjoyed a positive public  profile the army was not so well thought of. The many hundreds of wounded ex-servicemen found it hard to adjust to ‘civvy street’ when they returned.

Walter Palmer had served in the Coldstream Guards in the Crimea. The regiment fought at Alma, Sebastopol and Balaklava and won four of the newly minted Victoria  Crosses. Palmer was a man with a tale to tell then. He’d been badly wounded and returned to London missing three fingers from his right hand. With his army pay burning a hole in his jacket pocket he had set himself up at a table in the Star and Garter pub in Westminster, regaling all who would listen with his tales of the war.

Apparently he attracted quite an audience; ‘entertaining a party of ardent lovers of military glory with his recital of his adventures and exploits at the seat of war, and liberally standing treat for his patriotic hearers’.

As Palmer boasted of his life with the guards he flashed his money about and this caught the attention of some of the less patriotic members of the crowd. As he left, arm in arm with a ‘lady’ he’d met, a couple of them followed him along King Street.

One of these was Thomas French and Palmer was not so drunk that he hadn’t noticed the ‘dissipated young man’ watching him intently in the pub. French and the other man, later identified as Philip Ryan, rushed him and robbed him. The damage to his hand meant the soldier was unable to defend himself and thrown down to the ground. French reached inside his tunic and cut away his inside pocket, stealing 15 in silver coin.

Ryan ran off at the sound of an approaching policeman but French stopped and pretended to have just arrived to help the soldier. He consoled him about his ‘treatment by “those villainous rogues”‘ and helped him to his feet. Palmer went along with the ruse until the policeman arrived and then gave him into custody. Ryan returned to try and rescue his mate and wrestled with the copper. French shoved a handful of money at his pal urging him to swallow it.

Ryan got away but after French was secured at the station the police quickly apprehended him. In court at Bow Street Ryan’s solicitor defended his client saying there was little evidence of his involvement in the crime. The magistrate, Mr Henry reluctantly agreed, accepting that since the young man had since spent a week in custody that was perhaps sufficient punishment for now. Ryan was released.

Thomas French was much more clearly involved and it was revealed that he had string of previous convictions. He was minded to send him for jury trial and a possible long period of imprisonment or worse. French was alive to the possibility that he might fare badly in front of a jury and so he made a last ditch attempt to plead for leniency.

He asked to be dealt with summarily, promising that if ‘His worship could give him one more chance, he would reform and “become a new character altogether”. I suspect Mr Henry had heard that one  a hundred times before but he allowed the youngster’s plea and sent him to prison for three months. Harsh maybe, but not as bad as being locked up for years or sent to Australia.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, January 17, 1856]

You can use this site to search for specific crimes or use the Themes link in the menu on the left to look for areas or topics that interest you. If you are interested in a particular court (such as Bow Street or Marylebone) you can also limit your search to one court in particular. Please feel free to comment on anything you read and if something in particular interests you then please get in touch. You can email me at drew.gray@northampton.ac.uk

Dodging the Police and skating on thin ice in St James’s Park

St James Park Frozen

In the Victorian period the ornamental lake in St James’ Park was occasionally turned into an impromptu  skating rink. There are reports of Londoners donning their skates and taking to the ice in large numbers.  This was despite the fact that it was a dangerous thing to do and the park authorities and police took measures to stop them.

This rarely prevented them however, as one writer noted in 1853:

They invariably prefer testing the ice themselves, by walking on to it, or under it, as may happen: and it is for the sake of checking this precocious spirit of experiment, that the edge of the ice all round the lake has been broken every morning since the frost set in, by men appointed for the purpose; and hence it is that now, when it will bear, bridges of plank have to be laid down that they may get on and off. You may observe, likewise, that ropes are laid across the ice from one bank to the other, in readiness to be drawn instantly to any part that may give way.

Charles Manby Smith, Curiosities of London Life (1853)

In January 1879 the weather was cold enough for the lake to freeze over and dozens took to the ice. In desperation the park authorities and police resorted to the law to try to deter the thrill seekers. One morning at Bow Street a ‘number of young men’ were brought in before Mr Ingram charged with ‘sliding and skating on the ornamental water’ despite ‘the caution of the police and the printed notices forbidding the same’.

The case was prosecuted by the representatives of the Commissioners of Her Majesty’s Works, who ran the parks, in the person of Mr Golden, a Treasury Solicitor. Golden regretted having to bring the case but said the Commissioners had been exasperated by pleasure seekers simply ignoring all the signs and even attempting to cut the rope that was used to clear them off.

Several policemen had been deployed to thwart the skaters but their attempts had become something of an entertainment in itself. The skaters amused themselves by ‘dodging’ the bobbies who found it ‘no easy task’ to catch them. Mr Golden told the magistrate that the ‘tumbling of an officer was a special source of delight to the mob’.  I can well imagine it was.

The magistrate, satisfied that the Treasury solicitor had proved his case, turned to one of the young men in the dock and asked him if he thought it was ‘fun’ to act as he had been accused of doing. ‘Certainly’, replied the youth, ‘and I think so still’. The appearance in court hadn’t cowed him or his fellows at all. I suspect they were respectable young men because their names were not recorded in the paper and Mr Ingram fined them the considerable sum of £1 each and let them go.

[from The Standard, Friday, January 17, 1879]

For other posts relating to London’s parks see:

Pram (and class) wars in Regent’s Park

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

Riotous behaviour in Hyde Park and a cobbler is sent packing

You can use this site to search for specific crimes or use the Themes link in the menu on the left to look for areas or topics that interest you. If you are interested in a particular court (such as Bow Street or Marylebone) you can also limit your search to one court in particular. Please feel free to comment on anything you read and if something in particular interests you then please get in touch. You can email me at drew.gray@northampton.ac.uk

Art theft in the Caledonian Road – a Frenchman is questioned at Bow Street

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Caledonian Road market, late 1800s

London was a cosmopolitain city in the nineteenth century. I have been tracing my family tree and have discovered that one of my grandfather’s sisters married a German tailor who lived and worked around Marylebone. There was a large Russian/Polish community in Whitechapel alongside many previously settled German Jews. In Limehouse you could find a small but well established Chinese community, while Frenchmen, Italians and other Europeans were well represented throughout the capital.

Henry Sanders was a 21 year-old Frenchman who lived in Stanmore Street, off the Caledonian Road. He described himself as a watchmaker but was brought before Sir James Ingham at Bow Street Police Court accused of obtaining artworks from a  Belgian painter under false pretences.

Sanders (which may not have been his real name) was brought in by the police having been tracked and arrested in Liverpool by Inspector Moser. The Belgian authorities had approached the Metropolitan Police and were formally requesting that Sanders be extradited to the Low Countries to face trial.

Three other men were involved in the deception; fellows Belgians named Leroy, Marten and Merney. They had been apprehended in a pub in Tottenham Court Road five days earlier but Sanders had escaped north.

Questioned by Sir James Sanders admitted obtaining two paintings by the artist Hoezort. The pictures (Le Lundi and L’Attende) had cost him £60 which he said he had secured the rights to sell. Three other watercolours were found however, ‘alleged to have been obtained by fraud from Continental artists’, and evidence relating to at least one of these was found in a notebook at Sanders’ premises. The police also uncovered  series of letters and notes written by Sanders but under a variety of different aliases.

For the time being the police requested a remand so they could pursue their enquiries and the magistrate granted it. Henri Sanders (if that was indeed his name) and his three associates, would continue to enjoy the hospitality of the English police and prison system until such a time as a decision was made as to whether to send them home or dismiss the charge against them.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, January 02, 1883]

The sweep’s boy who wasn’t all he appeared

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London’s police magistrate courts were created (officially) by the passing of the Middlesex Justices Act (1792). This established seven new ‘Police Offices’ throughout the capital in addition to Bow Street (and Mansion House and Guildhall in the old City of London). The press reported on these courts as they reported on all the other criminal and civil courts, but it took them a little while to start doing so in a systematic way.

As a result the earliest reports are patchy, not always easy to find, and short on detail. Thereafter, and especially from the 1840s onwards, court reporting settled into a pattern that hardly changed throughout the century. Reports became longer; those from Lambeth and the East End often involved poverty or drunken violence, those based at Guildhall or Mansion House dealt with fraud and other financial themes. As the senior magistrate court Bow Street often had the most serious cases, but Clerkenwell, Marylebone, and Westminster were all very busy.

Everyday the reader would be exposed to a mixture of information, cautionary tales, pathos, and humour.

On January 1st 1818, 200 years ago today, underneath a report from Argentina of the retreat of  Spanish forces in Chile, was a short item of new from the police courts. Spain had suffered a ‘complete defeat’ the paper noted, in a war that had raged since 1810. 1818 was to see the end of the war which culminated in the battle of Maipu on 5 April. Argentina, Chile and Peru all won their independence from Bourbon Spain.

Meanwhile in London The Morning Post  reported from just two police courts: Bow Street and Marlborough Street.

John Cook was charged with robbing a woman at the pit entrance to Covent Garden theatre. The court was told that he had cut ‘her pelisse and other clothes to get at her purse’. He then removed a ‘Bank-note, a half-Sovereign and six shillings’. The Bow Street justice committed him for trial.

A ‘familiar’ face appeared at Marlborough Street charged with being drunk and riotous. John McNaughton had been a Commissary General in the Peninsula (linking this story to that of the South American war of independence above). The charge was brought by Mr Molloy, who ran the Grosvenor Coffee House in Bond Street. McNaughton was a regular customer but a troublesome one. Having once held a position demanding respect and authority the magistrate was lenient with him; he awarded damages to Molloy but released the former army man on his promise to stay away from the coffee house in future.

Finally, after tales of serious crime and drunken behaviour the paper ended on a whimsical story to amuse its readers. A Mr Brown had called in a sweep to clean his chimney. Westwood, based in St Pancras, sent his ‘boy’ who climbed up and cleaned the chimney. Brown remarked that it had never been cleaned as well by anyone previously and took the time to praise and question the lad that had done it. It soon became clear that this was no boy at all, but ‘a poor girl of 12’.

She explained that ‘her uncle had turned her out of doors to look for work, and she had engaged herself to a sweep rather than be chided, as she could get no other work’.

The paper doesn’t tell us what happened to the young girl, whom Mr Brown had brought to Marlborough Street to hear the advice of the magistrate on the issue. I suspect a summons for the uncle or her being placed in the parish workhouse were both possible outcomes. Perhaps however, such a sad and touching story might have prompted someone reading to offer her a place in service. Maybe even Mr Brown might have taken her in.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, January 01, 1818]

A waiter’s cheeky swig lands him him in court

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The Strand, London (late 1800s)

In 1881 Thomas Carr (originally from Norfolk) owned and ran the King’s Head public house at 265 The Strand.* The hostelry was close to where the new Royal Courts of Justice was nearing completion (it opened in 1882) and on one of London’s busiest thoroughfares (as the illustration above suggests). In late November Mr Carr employed a waiter to work in the pub serving what would seem to be quite high class customers.

William Whitlock had been working at the King’s Head for just three weeks when he seriously blotted his copybook. He was accused of stealing a bottle of champagne by Mr Carr’s son, and prosecuted at the Bow Street Police court in front of the sitting magistrate, Mr Flowers.

Mr Carr junior said he had seen the waiter carrying a bottle of champagne into the pantry and so followed him in. Once inside he challenged him and Whitlock told him that a gentlemen had left some wine in the bottle after he’d finished with it and he was taking it as ‘his perquisites’.

Carr explained that ‘in obtaining wine for customers it is the practice to give a bono check [a blank cheque in other words], and mby these means the prisoner [Whitlock] obtained the bottle of champagne on the representation that it was for a customer’.

Now, whether he intended to take the whole bottle or just finish the dregs is not made clear. Carr’s son said he saw Whitlock pouring water into the bottle – to dilute the wine or rinse it out having swigged the last half glass? Either way he had ‘no right to any wine’ while he was working and so shouldn’t have acted as he did. But it hardly seems to be the crime of the century.

Nevertheless the magistrate was faulty adamant that a crime (theft) had been committed. He found the waiter guilty and sentenced him to one month’s imprisonment. I doubt Mr Carr expected this outcome nor , it seems, did he welcome it. His solicitor approached the bench and pleaded for Whitlock’s freedom. Mr Flowers then agreed to substitute a 30s fine for the prison term. This was still a hefty punishment for a low paid worker – 30s in 1881 represents about £200 in spending power today – but at least it kept him out of gaol at Christmas.

[from The Illustrated Police News etc, Saturday, December 17, 1881]

*The pub has long gone and now it is a smart office block owned by a Japanese telecom company.