The perils of drinking with strangers


William Kirbyshire, of Aswell in Hertfordshire, had come down to London to get married. As he strolled along Regent Street a man stopped him and asked the way to Leicester Square. William apologised and he too was a stranger in the capital and regretted he was unable to help. The man thanked him and walked away. A few minutes later William decided it was time for some refreshment and he entered the next public house he came to.

As he propped up the bar nursing his drink he noticed the man that had asked him for directions chatting to two others. One of them came over and introduced himself as William Hook. Hook asked William if he ‘knew of any place of amusement where the evening could be passed pleasantly’. William mentioned a couple of places and Hook suggested they go there together, but the visitor to London declined.

Hook was seemingly persistent in making friends however and offered to treat him to a bottle of champagne, an offer that was soon lowered to beer. As the pair were joined by Hook’s companions, Peter Stevens and William Smith, the drink began to flow and very quickly the conversation turned to boasts of strength.

Hook declared that he could throw a ‘certain weight 30 yards’ and was prepared to put money on it. It took some persuasion but eventually William agreed to meet Hook and the others at a different pub later that day. When he arrived the three men were already there, and Hook bought them a round. They soon moved on to a third pub – this was turning into what we might call a ‘pub crawl’ – and Hook was in effervescent mood.

He stated loudly that he ‘thought nothing of spending £20 on a lark, as he could have £100 whenever he wanted it’.

The impression he was giving was a wealthy young man who had deep pockets. He was also luring the unwary Kirbyshire in however, and Smith and Stevens soon played their part in this.

As William and his new found chums began to toss coins (a simple game of chance) Smith leaned over and whispered to him that since Hook ‘had plenty of money, he might as well have some of it as anybody else’. William was ready to play and bet and won a shilling from Hook straight away. The others now persuaded him to carry on and managed to get him to lay a huge bet of £10 (about £500 today). Reluctant at first he was only convinced when he saw Stevens put down 5 sovereigns.

Hook won the toss and paid up but William he felt he’d been cheated. He claimed that a ‘plant had been played on him’ by the men and demanded his money back. When they gave him back a few sovereigns but refused to hand over the rest he called a policeman and had them arrested. The next day the four men all appeared before the magistrate at Clerkenwell Police court.

Mr Beadon, the justice, was unsympathetic. As far as he was concerned while the trio of gamblers were ‘known bad characters’ in the area and this was clearly a scam, they hadn’t actually broken the law. Instead William was simply a dupe and he had ‘acted in a very foolish manner in drinking and betting with strangers’. Hook, Smith and Stevens were discharged while William Kirbyshire slunk away to lick his wounds and put the whole thing down to experience.

London was a dangerous place for the unwary. It remains so today and visitors were constantly being warned to keep a close eye on their possessions in the crowded streets and not to take strangers at face value. One wonders what William’s future wife thought of the whole affair, if he even chose to tell her.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, March 11, 1857]


An episode of ‘officious bumbledom’ as an 1890s dustman gets into hot water


John Rooney had ‘parked’ his dust cart as he often did while he went to see he if there was any need for his services. The Lambeth based dustman had not been gone long but when he returned he found it had moved. As he looked around he saw the horse and cart being led away slowly by another man in the direction of the Vestry Hall.

Rooney ran after the cart and remonstrated with the man. The pair wrestled as the dustman attempted to get hold of the reins and the other resisted. In the melee the other man claimed he was ‘struck a violent blow in the chest and also behind the ear’. As a result he pressed charges against the dustman and Rooney found himself in court at Clerkenwell in front of Mr Bros the sitting magistrate.

His victim was a vestryman, a member of local (parish) government whose name was Joseph Walton. Walton explained that he had seen the dustcart standing unattended and had watched it for 10 minutes. When no one returned to it he decided to impound it and drew it away to the Vestry Hall.

Rooney’s lawyer, a Mr Cowdell, said his client had no idea who Walton was and so was understandably annoyed to see him ‘stealing’ his cart. It was normal custom for dustmen to leave their carts unattended ‘in a manner difficult for the horse to run off’ while they searched out work. In his client’s view, ‘it was a piece of “officious bumbeldom” for [Walton] to inferrer’ in this way.

We’ve all encountered a jobsworth at one point or other in our lives and know how annoying they can be. Walton was probably just following procedure however, and he could count on the support of the magistrate. Mr Bros determined that it was a violent assault and sentenced the prisoner to 21 days in prison. He later relented and changed this to a 40s fine.

I doubt it made Rooney much happier though; he had been dragged through the courts and fined for reacting to seeing his livelihood being taken away. I suspect Harold Steptoe would have sympathised with him.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, February 28, 1892]

‘The knife at work again’ screams the ‘headline’ in the Chronicle


David Connor was a drunk. And when he was in his cups he was extremely violent. Plenty of people would testify to that fact, including the police to whom he was a known offender.

In February 1857 he was up before Mr Tyrwhitt at Clerkenwell Police court on charge of stabbing James Roberts. Both men were costermongers – street traders who had a reputation for bad language, heavy drinking, and fighting. When they rolled up their sleeves and traded blows in a ‘fair fight’ no one really minded but when knives were involved the state intervened.

Roberts had entered the Coffee House pub on Chapel Street in Somers Town at about 8 o’clock at night. Connor – a ‘rough, dirty looking fellow; – was already much the worse for drink. The pair argued and Roberts left. He made his way to another pub, the Victoria, but Connor followed him and the two men quarrelled again.

This time they came to blows and Connor pulled out a knife and stabbed the other coster in the arm. As Roberts bled and sought medical help, Connor scarpered before the police could catch him. Enquiries were made however and the culprit was picked up and taken into custody. The police were adamant that Connor was guilty because he was known to be aggressive and ‘committed assaults on nearly every person he fell in with’.

Connor pleaded for leniency and said he was sorry, it would;t have happened if he hadn’t have been drinking. He asked the magistrate to deal with him there and then – knowing he would get a lesser sentence at the Police Court. Mr Tyrwhitt asked after Roberts’ health and was told that his injuries were not yet clear, and it was too soon for him to appear in court to give his evidence. He doesn’t seem to have been in mortal danger but under the circumstances it was appropriate to remand Connor in custody to see what charge he would eventually face.

The paper’s headline – the knife at work again – suggests a contemporary concern with mindless violence in the late 1850s. There was a growing concern about a criminal class and outbreaks of garrotting panics in the 1850s and 1860s fuelled this. I suspect Connor would have faced  a trial at the Sessions later that month and a faulty lengthy prison spell if he was convicted. Violence that involved knives was not considered very ‘British’ and he may well have paid the price for that.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Monday, February 23, 1857]

A teenage thief with an uncertain future


Occasionally a dip into the Police Courts reveals an individual that we can trace using some of the existing historical databases for the history of crime. When that coincides with a topic I have been teaching in the same week it is all the more interesting.

My second year students at the University of Northampton have been studying historical attitudes towards juvenile crime and seeing how these developed throughout the period from the mid 1700s to the passing of the Children’s Act in 1908. We’ve looked at the beginnings of attempts at intervention (such as the Marine Society) and at the coming of Reformatories and Industrial schools. These aimed (as the name suggests) at the rehabilitation and education of young people (even if they often failed to live up to Mary Carpenter’s vision). However, parallel institutions  (such as the hulks and then Parkhurst Prison) continued to offer a  more punitive form of penal policy.

In February 1842 (a few years before legislation was passed that created Reformatories or gave magistrates formal powers to deal with most juvenile crime) Sarah Watson appeared before Mr Greenwood at Clerkenwell Police Court. Sarah was 14 years old and so, from the 1850s onwards, would have been a suitable example for summary trial and punishment.

She was accused by a Bloomsbury grocer of stealing  the not inconsiderable sum of £8 in cash. Mr John Wilkinson (of 18 Broad Street) testified that the young girl had entered his shop and asked for ‘an ounce of cocoa and some sugar’. As his assistant had turned to fulfil her order Sarah somehow managed to steal a packet on the counter that contained a number of coins from that day’s taking.

The shop worker realised  immediately that the packet was missing and, since she was the only customer in the shop at the time, he grabbed the child and found the property on her.

She was caught red handed and there was seemingly little or no allowance for the fact she was so young. The age of criminal responsibility in the nineteenth century was just 7. Up until 14 there was an understanding in law that the court should determine that the offender was able to understand that what they were accused of doing was wrong (the principal of doli incapax) but there seems to have been little doubt in Sarah’s case. Now of course a child of 14 would not face a magistrate’s hearing or a full blown jury trial but this was 1842 not 2018. Sarah offered no defence and the magistrate committed her for trial and locked her up in the meantime.

Just over two weeks later Sarah was formally tried at the Old Bailey. The court was told that the packet she lifted from the counter contained ‘3 sovereigns, 8 half-sovereigns, 4 half-crowns, 18 shillings, 9 sixpences, and 5 groats’. The evidence differed slightly from that offered at Clerkenwell as Mr Wilkinson’s shopman said that there were actually two other female customers in the shop at the time. He also stated that Sarah had tucked the packet under her dress concealed in her waist band, which made it seem clear to the listening jurors that her actions were intentional.

It seems a plausible story and it convinced the jury. Rather than an innocent child Sarah came across as a cunning and practised thief, who fitted the stereotype of the Victorian juvenile delinquent as characterised by the Artful Dodger and his chums in Oliver Twist. The policeman that processed her told the court that Sarah had been in and out of the workhouse, had been previously prosecuted for begging and sometimes maintained herself by selling matches. As a street urchin, with no family to speak off and a pattern of criminal behaviour, things didn’t look good for Sarah.

Nevertheless she was only 14 and the judge respited sentence on her while he decided what punishment was appropriate. At this this point she might have disappeared from the available historical record, at least the easily available one. But the the new Digital Panopticon website allows us to pick up her story if only in a limited way.

Sarah’s immediate fate is far from clear; she may have been imprisoned or even transported (although I think the latter is unlikely from the sources we have). We do know however that at some point in her life she left London and moved north, to Cumbria. Maybe this was escape of sorts, leaving the capital to find a better life. Maybe at some point she married; I doubt she was sent north by the penal system.

Whatever the reason Sarah appears for the last time in any official records in 1886 in Whitehaven, where she is listed in the death register. She was 58 years old. What happened in those intervening 44 years? Did her brush with the Old Bailey court serve as a deterrent to future offending? Like so many of the characters that pass through the police courts of Victorian London sarah Watson remains an enigma, only briefly surfacing to leave her mark on the historical record.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, February 10, 1842]

Whitecross Street, ‘one of the most disgraceful streets in the metropolis’.


In today’s Britain we are used to a 24/7 retail culture. We can shop every day of the week from dawn to early evening and beyond and the notion of keeping Sunday ‘special’ has long gone. Yet I can remember when Sunday trading was not ubiquitous and even a time when most shops still shut for a half day or closed early during the week.

Victorian London was a busy commercial city and shops and businesses opened early and shut late. The working day was long and, for much of the century, there was little protection for workers who had few rights. The rights we enjoy today were hard won in the twentieth century by the trades unions and the emerging Labour Party.

Nevertheless Victorian Britain was also a more religious society than is the case today. Even if fewer people regularly attended church than we might assume, there were laws in place – some going back to the reign of King Charles II – to maintain Sunday as a day of rest as stipulated in Christian teaching.

It would seem though that the laws surrounding Sunday trading were only partially obeyed or enforced. The New Police had fought a long running battle with small businessmen from the 1830s onwards to keep the Sabbath sacred, and it was a battle (according to Stephen Inwood) in which they frequently had to concede defeat.

Edward Varuvain and George Martin were shopkeepers who fell foul of the law in February 1873. The men ran shops in Whitecross Street and were summoned at the request of the St Luke’s vestry for ‘pursuing a worldly avocation on the Lord’s day’. Charities and essential services were exempt from the laws but Varuvain and Martin did not come under that category.

Whitecross Street had been a problem for the vestry for some time. There were several shops there and plenty of costermongers who plied their trade there. There had been a market there for centuries (and there is still a thriving food market there today and lots of trendy shops and eateries). The police had tried to move the costers off and shut the shops, but tensions had flared. Eventually an uneasy truce had broken out. The costers were allowed to operate up until 11 on a Sunday morning and the shopkeepers agreed to stay closed.

Then in early 1873 some of the retailers began to open on the sabbath and others, presumably emboldened or simply not wishing to miss out, followed suit. The costermongers, seeing their compromise agreement being effectively abandoned, resumed trading all day long.

The local sanitary inspector visited the street on the previous Sunday and found it cluttered with barrows and with several shops open. Martin was out in the street crying his wares, shouting ‘buy! buy! buy! What will you buy?’ and so ‘rendered the street a Babel’ as the inspector put it.

Mr Pedder from the vestry said it had become ‘one of the most disgraceful streets in the metropolis’ and the case against the two men was proved. However, given that Mr Ricketts (the sitting magistrate at Clerkenwell) only fined them 1s each plus costs, I doubt it deterred them from similar behaviour in the future. After all, they had a living to make.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, February 9, 1873]

Pickett climbs a fence and saves a life


It was about midnight on the 3 February 1866 and James Pickett was walking home along a path that ran parallel to the tow path of the Regent’s canal. It must have been a dark night because there was no full moon that February (itself a rare occurrence) so what happened next was all the more exceptional.

Pickett heard a sound, perhaps a splash or a gasp, and must have realised that someone was in the water. He clambered over the railings and rushed to the water’s edge, jumping in without pausing to remove his clothes.

James, a mechanic, was a strong man and after a struggle he managed to secure the person in the canal (a woman named Elizabeth Groves) and bring her safely out of the water. She lay on the bank ‘insensible and apparently dead’ but the mechanic picked her up and found a way to get her to hospital. Although Elizabeth had gone under the water to a depth of 8 feet and was feared drowned, she made a full recovery in the Royal Free Hospital.

However, this was no accident and it soon became evident that Elizabeth had attempted to put an end to her own life by throwing herself in the canal. The Regent’s Canal (like the Thames river) was a popular spot for suicides like Elizabeth (and indeed for anyone who wished to dispose of a dead body – as was to become apparent in the Thames Torso murder series of 1887-8).

Suicide was against the law and so once she was well enough Elizabeth was produced at Clerkenwell Police Court and asked to explain herself by Mr D’Eyncourt. Elizabeth, an artificial flower maker, told the magistrate that:

‘she was very sorry for what she had done. She included to attempt to take her life because she had separated from her husband’.

Either the shame of a failed marriage or her despair at losing someone she loved had driven Elizabeth to her desperate decision. Her husband appeared in court to say that he had parted from her because of her drinking but was prepared to have her back if the ‘magistrate would allow it’. That was the best course of action for everyone; a term of imprisonment was not likely to help Elizabeth and as long as she embraced this ‘second chance’ they was some hope that the Roves could make a decent fist of their marriage.

The real hero here, as Mr D’Eyncourt made  appoint of recognising, was James Pickett. He had ‘behaved in a very gallant manner’ the magistrate told him and declared that he should be rewarded with the sum of £2 from the  court’s poor box.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, February 05, 1866]

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“Go on, little one; pay him out”: mindless violence on the City Road claims another life.


The City Road in London, c.1885, complete with trams

Last night my wife and I drove down the City Road in London on our way to a very glamorous party in Stoke Newington. Both of us were dressed up as passengers on the ill-fated RMS Titanic which struck an iceberg on its maiden voyage in 1912. As we crawled in traffic along the City Road through Shoreditch the pavements were thronged with bright young things intent of having a good time. Pubs and clubs were heaving and everywhere the sound of partying crowds was audible above the cars, buses and motorcycle noise.

Today that area of London might still look a little shabby but it is far from being the dangerous and impoverished district it was in the late 1800s.  North East London in the 1880s was not as bad as Whitechapel and Spitalfields, or indeed the Borough and Lambeth, but it was rife with crime, gangs, and casual violence as this case from 1883 shows.

On the 20th January 1883 a fight broke out on the City Road when three young men confronted an older man, a 27 year old painter named William Johnston and his brother,  George.

The alteration seems to have taken place in a pub called the Duke of Bridgewater where the pair had gone to play skittles (although it may have been seeded earlier in the evening at The Dock public house). A teenage lad named Edward Jackson had approached George Johnston and asked him for a penny to set up the skittles, as was customary. When George refused to pay him a scuffle ensued. George got punched in the mouth and told the lad: “If you were big enough I would give you a good hiding”. The brothers then left.

Two other lads, Daniel Daniels (19) and Charles Wilsdon (18) joined Jackson (who was just 16) in following the Johnstons out of the pub. Jackson taunted George, declaring to his mates that he had punched jim in the mouth and would happily do so again. George was enraged, turned and hit out at the youngster.

There are conflicting results of what happened that night but drink was certainly involved. George’s brother William was a big man and at first the lads were wary of him. A scuffle began with William and Daniels squaring up to each other. Jackson and Wilsdon seemed to have been egging their mate on – daring him to prove himself against an such a large opponent: “Go on, little one; pay him, little one” they shouted. Daniels allegedly said to William Johnston:

“Do you think I am going to fight a man of 25. and I am only 18? I will put a knife through you”.

Despite this threat the episode was unfolding as a so-called ‘fair fight’ until Daniels and Jackson decided to get involved. They rushed in and topped the big man over, throwing him into the street and onto the tram lines, fracturing his skull.

As the lads tried to melt away the police were called and they were picked up. On the following day, worried about his condition, George took his brother to the Royal Free Hospital where he was examined by Dr Mihanda Barrigea, the house surgeon at 8 in the evening. We now know that head injuries need to be treat quickly and sadly for William it was too late. He died on the Monday morning as a result of the injuries he’d received in the street brawl. The three young men were formally committed to trial at the Old Bailey by the sitting justice at Clerkenwell Police Court. There was insufficient evidence for the jury to convict them of manslaughter however, so they all walked free from court at the end of the month.

This is my last visit to 1883 for a while. I have tried to follow one week in the past and the stories of a couple of individuals in particular. One of these was Henry Harcourt who claimed to a distant relative of the Home Secretary, Sir William Harcourt. In early February the papers were full of reaction to the assassination in Dublin of the newly appointed Chief Secretary to Ireland and a top ranking civil servant. Following the stabbings of Lord Cavendish and Thomas Henry Burke the press reported that extra security had been given to prominent public figures, like Harcourt, to protect them from the ‘Assassination Society’. According to one report Sir William had a detective ‘sleeping in his house’ at all times.

On Wednesday 7 February Henry Harcourt made his final appliance at the Lambeth Police Court before Mr Chance. This time his aunt turned up to give evidence. She confirmed they had worked together as bar staff but had no recollection of Henry being either deaf or dumb at that time. As for Henry’s claim that he had been left £600 in a will only to have his ‘name scratched out’ by others, that was entirely false she said. The will was produced and the magistrate could see that it was entirely in order but made no mention of Henry anywhere.

Henry seems to have been a troubled soul and the court was told of information from Salford that suggested he fitted the description of man named Downey who had until recently made his living by telling people’s fortunes. He disappeared at the same time Henry showed up at the Lambeth casual ward seeking shelter. Harcourt denied any knowledge of this.

Mr Chance asked Harcourt’s aunt whether she would be prepared to help her nephew get back to sea. That seemed the best course of action for him so she agreed as did Henry. On that basis Mr Chance was prepared to release him without further charge or penalty.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, February 4, 1883; The Sheffield & Rotherham Independent , Monday, February 05, 1883; Daily News , Thursday, February 8, 1883]