The return of Harry Harcourt – an imposter or a genuine man in need?

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In the boiler room of a Victorian steam ship

On Wednesday I featured the story of Henry Harcourt who had claimed he was deaf and dumb and presented himself at the Lambeth workhouse casual ward seeking shelter. There he suddenly blurted out that he could in fact speak (and hear) but had closed off the world while serving as a stoker on a voyage to and from Australia. To the surprise of everyone in the Lambeth Police court he also claimed to be a relation the sitting Home Secretary, Sir Vernon Harcourt.

Henry was remanded in custody so that enquiries could be made into his history to ascertain whether he was telling the truth or not. Two days later the papers reported that he was back up before Mr Chance at Lambeth for the latest developments to be revealed.

Police constable 110L took the stand to tell Mr Chance that he’d discovered that Harcourt had been a barman then, working with his aunt, and she didn’t remember him having any difficulties speaking or hearing then. That was in 1877 he confirmed, just six years earlier.

The magistrate now turned to Harcourt in the dock to ask him to explain his situation.

‘Do you seriously say now that you have pretended to be deaf and dumb for 14 years?

‘Yes, to all but my immediate friends’, replied the former stoker/barman.

So how did he manage on board the ship, Mr Chance wanted to know.

‘I only spoke to those attending the fires. The persons on board thought I was deaf and dumb’.

‘I am very sorry for what I have done’ Harcourt added.

The court heard that he had written down requests for food on pieces of paper so as to maintain his ruse with his fellow shipmates but could offer no real explanation for why he acted this way. Mr Chance was clearly dissatisfied with his answer and equally determined to get to the bottom of it. Was there anyone who could shed any light on the case, he asked?

The police constable that had investigated Harcourt’s background said the aunt was loathe to come forward to testify and added that she was a woman of independent means. There was a declaration from Harcourt that he was entitled to some family money from a will but nothing was at all clear. Mr Chance said he needed to hear directly from Harcourt’s aunt and remanded him in custody once more.

‘It’s a most extraordinary thing’, the magistrate concluded, ‘and I cannot help thinking there is something more than has already come to light’.

Whether there was, and whether it was reported, you will have to wait to find out later this week.

[from The Standard, Thursday, February 01, 1883]

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A genuine case for support, or a malingering fantasist?

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Continuing my analysis of one whole week in the reporting of the Police Courts here is the case of a man who claimed to be related to a famous politician but who had ended up in a workhouse.

Henry Harcourt was 24 and turned up at the casual ward of Lambeth workhouse seeking ‘shelter and food’. He was a curious individual in several ways but most obviously because he presented himself as deaf and dumb. He was clutching a piece of paper given to him at a nearby police station which told him how to find the workhouse and acted as a letter of introduction. Presumably then, he had been picked up on the streets as a vagrant  by a policeman that decided to help rather than prosecute him.

Henry was given food and the, as was the normal procedure, set to work in the casual ward. The workhouse superintendent, Mr George Ware, told the Lambeth Police Court magistrate (Mr Chance) that Harcourt:

‘was given 4lb of oakum to pick. He did but very little, and made signs that he wanted to see the doctor’.

Dr Lloyd thought the man fit for work but was inclined to excuse him on the grounds of his disability, being, as he thought, entirely deaf and unable to speak. Imagine the shock then when on Sunday morning in chapel he suddenly blurted out:

‘I wish to confess. I have been pretending to be deaf and dumb for 14 years. I went a voyage to Australia and back as assistant stoker on a ship, and never spoke to anyone’.

Henry confirmed his story story in front of Mr Chance and added that he had kept his silence in part to protect his respectable family and friends from his fall from grace socially. He ended by adding that he was ‘a distant relation of Sir Vernon Harcourt’, the sitting Home Secretary in Gladstone’s Liberal government. Mr Chance was suitably intrigued and remanded the man in custody so further enquiries could be made before he decided whether he could be prosecuted for falsely representing himself and soliciting relief.

[from The Standard , Tuesday, January 30, 1883]

One man’s complaint reveals ‘considerable excitement’ about the trade in pauper bodies at Lambeth

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In December 1857 a poor man appeared at the Lambeth Police court to ask the magistrate’s advice. In November his elderly sister was so sick with consumption (TB as we know know it) she was ordered to be admitted to the sick ward at the Newington workhouse. There, on the 3 December, she died.

Before she died she had begged her friends and family to give her a decent burial because rumours were swirling around the parish about what happened to the bodies of those that died inside the ‘house.

The next day her husband and friends presented themselves at the workhouse to collect her but she was ‘nowhere to be found’. They asked the undertaker there, and all he could tell them was she had been buried by mistake the body mistaken for that of another pauper, a Mr Bazely. Deeply unsatisfied, and understandably upset, they decided to pursue the matter with Mr Norton at Lambeth.

A local parish constable named Cook was called to give evidence of local practice. He told the court that the workhouse master ‘had been in the habit of disposing of the bodies of deceased paupers for anatomical purposes’. This had caused ‘considerable excitement’ amongst the poor of the parish’.

‘Persons who supposed they were following a deceased relative or friend to the grave not infrequently followed  perfect stranger, brought from other parishes, while that over which they supposed they were mourning had been disposed of in a  different way; and the thought of such deception created great dissatisfaction’.

Cook’s evidence was damning and must have been shocking to the reading public. Dr Elizabeth Hurren (at Leicester University) has demonstrated that there was a lively trade in the bodies of the poor in Victorian England after the the passing of the Poor Law Amendment Act in 1834. Elizabeth has also suggested that the Whitechapel murders of 1888 may well be connected to this dark history in London. The trade was exposed by a series of articles in the popular press leading, as Hurren explains, to the arrest and prosecution of Albert (or Alfred) Feist at the Old Bailey in May 1858. Feist had broken the terms of the Anatomy Act (1832) which had prohibited the sale of dead bodies for profit. That act had been the government’s reaction to the illegal trade in the dead which was exposed by the Burke and Hare murders in Edinburgh and that of the ‘Italian boy’ in London in 1831.

Feist was convicted but sentence was reserved. The case then went for review and he was subsequently acquitted. The use of pauper bodies for the training of surgeons was legal under the Anatomy Act but the practice was effetely concealed from the public and, most importantly, from the poor themselves. As Hurren’s work show:

‘Summaries of the Anatomy Act, just like the New Poor Law, were supposed to be available to the poor, pinned on walls in places they might congregate. However, in such pieces of legislation, the word “dissection” itself was often concealed behind that of “anatomical examination”.’*

The families of paupers were often unaware of what had happened or unable to do anything about it afterwards. The pressure of finding enough body parts to train all the new doctors increased after 1858 when legislation required that all medical students must study anatomy for two years. Whole bodies were now routinely cut up into their composite parts so students could practice, explore and understand.

It must have made grim reading over breakfast and supper and its interesting to see the story unfold within the reportage of the summary courts. At Lambeth Mr Norton told the complainant that the workhouse master (who was of course Mr Feist) had been guilty of a misdemeanour in allowing his sister’s body to be buried so quickly after death. He was required, by law, to keep it for 48 hours so the family could arrange a funeral themselves. He told him he was happy to issue a summons.

As we now know Alfred Feist would face trial for this and a total of 62 other instances of supplying dead pauper bodies for the anatomy trade. In the end of course he, and his accomplice in the trade – the undertaker Robert Hogg – escaped scot free. Hurren estimates that a staggering 125,000 pauper bodies were sold in the Victorian period to benefit the study of medicine.

Poor lives didn’t matter in the 1800s but the reading public didn’t really want to be reminded of that too often. The exposure of the body trade, like the scandals surrounding the treatment of paupers in the Andover workhouse in 1845-6 reminded society of the harsh realities of being poor in Victoria’s Britain in perhaps a similar way that the tragedy at Grenfell Tower has caused a considerable amount of soul searching this year. Ultimately, it seems, even today poor lives don’t matter as much as rich ones.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, December 16, 1857]

*Review by Laurence Talairach-VielmasElizabeth T. Hurren, Dying for Victorian Medicine: English Anatomy and Its Trade in the Dead Poor, c. 1834–1929, in Miranda [http://journals.openedition.org/miranda/4586] accessed 16/12/17

A brutal husband is saved by his terrified wife

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This week my masters students at the University of Northampton will be looking at the subject of domestic violence. This 14 week module concentrates on Violence and the Law and we discuss all forms of violence (including state violence inflicted as punishment). Historians and criminologists have shown that, in history, the vast majority of all violent crime (homicide, assault, wounding, and robbery) was committed by men.

It is also true that the most likely relationship between murderer and victim was domestic or at least involved parties that were known to each other. Despite the concentration of ‘true crime’ histories and television dramas on ‘stranger’ murders, the reality was (and is) that most people know the people that injure or kill them.

Many of the domestic murders that were eventually prosecuted at the Old Bailey in the nineteenth century started their journey in the summary courts. Moreover, these courts heard countless incidents of male violence towards their wives and partners, some of which may well have been steps on the way to a later homicide. Working-class women in the victorian period put up with a considerable amount of abuse before they went to law since the consequences of involving the police or magistracy could make a bad situation worse.

Several of the  Police Magistrates who wrote about their careers expressed their frustration at the abused wives who continually summoned their spouses for their violence only to forgive them or plead for leniency when they appeared in court. This is one such example of the almost impossible situation some married found themselves in in the 1800s.

William Collins was described as a ‘powerful and ruffianly-looking fellow’ when he stood in the dock at Lambeth before Mr Norton. His wife, Elizabeth, was unable to appear at first, so injured was she by her husband’s violence. In her place the constable dealing with the case told the magistrate what had happened.

He explained that he was called to a house in Caroline Place, Walworth Road where the couple lived. He found Elizabeth ‘in her night dress, with two or three deep wounds on her arms and one on her chest, from each of which the blood was streaming’.

Collins had apparently attacked his wife with a broken wine bottle, ripping her flesh with the jagged edges of the glass. The PC arrested Collins and put Elizabeth in a cab so she could be taken to hospital to have her wounds dressed. The court heard from the surgeon that treated her that she was ‘within a hair’s breath’ of dying from her wounds; fortunately for her the cuts had avoided any major organs.

The constable reported that when he had gone to fetch Mrs Collins to appear he was unable to find her and believed she was unlikely to press the case against her husband. Mr Norton chose to remand Collins in custody until Elizabeth could be found and encouraged to appear.

A few hours later she did come to court, but was clearly (the paper reported) ‘under great terror of the prisoner’. To no one’s surprise despite the horrific attack Collins had inflicted on her she ‘used every possible effort to get her husband off’. The magistrate was hamstring by her reaction and did as much as he could to help her by bailing Collins to appear ‘on a future day’.

He was presumably hoping that this brush with the law would serve as  session to the man, effectively warning him that if he hurt Elizabeth again in the meantime he would face the full force of the law. Sadly, I doubt this would have had much, if any affect on someone who was prepared to slash his wife with such casual cruelty.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Monday, November 5, 1855]

Since it is November 5th, ‘bonfire night’, you might enjoy this blog post I wrote for our ‘Historians at Northampton’ blog site which looks at the BBC drama series about the Gunpowder Plot.

Recently acquired wealth attracts the wrong sort of customers to a Bermondsey pub

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Bermondsey in a contemporary map (Map of London, by W=Edward Weller, 1868)

This blog has discussed the Australian gold rush in previous post (see One drink led to another… for an example) and despite the distance it seems many people were prepared to make the long journey in the hope of seeking a fortune in mineral wealth. Frederick Palmer was one such man and in September 1856 he was recently returned from ‘the gold diggings’ to his pub in Bermondsey, south London.

Palmer’s wealth was in the form of a £102 exchequer bill and a £20 bank of England note. This was a considerable  amount of money, – £140 in 1852 is equivalent to about £8,000 today. On the 3rd September Mrs Palmer ran the establishment, the Bricklayers Arms at number 11 Webb Street* while her husband was out an about on other business.

At around 1 or 1.30 that day two men entered the pub and drew Mrs Palmer’s attention. Both were well-dressed and to her eyes had the look of members of the ‘swell-mob’, a contemporary descriptor for ‘professional’ criminals that liked to flaunt their relative wealth through a conscious display of fashion.

Having drunk some ale one of the pair approached the landlady and asked if they might use the private ‘club room’ upstairs to ‘contract some business’. Before she let them upstairs Mrs Palmer made sure she had secured the valuable paper money her husband had left in her care inside a locked drawer in the bedroom. She also locked the bedroom door just in case.

Having taken the two men more beer upstairs Mrs Palmer’s brother (a Mr Willis) was surprised to see the pair return to the saloon and quickly leave the premises within fifteen minutes. Suspecting foul play he immediately told his sister to run and check that all was as it should be upstairs. It wasn’t and she was soon back downstairs declaring that the bedroom door had been forced and all her drawers turned out – not surprisingly the cheque and £20 note were missing. Good news travels fast and I wonder if the Palmers’ sudden acquisition of wealth had attracted some unwelcome local attention.

Willis rushed off in pursuit of the men and soon overpowered one of them, William Granger, in Bermondsey Street. The other man escaped but the police were looking for him. Appearing in Southwark Police Court three weeks later they had still not managed to catch the other suspect, nor had the police succeeded in finding the missing money. However, PC 155M told the presiding justice (Mr Coombe) that if Granger were to be again remanded if was confident that their enquiries would eventually bear fruit. He added that Granger was ‘well known as connected to with a gang of the swell mob who had recently plundered taverns and public houses all over the kingdom’. Presented with this ‘evidence’ Mr Coombe was quite happy to grant the request for a remand.

Whether the money or the other man was found is not clear. Granger was remanded until the following Tuesday (23 September) when three cases were reported (a ‘smoke nuisance’, a case of juvenile theft, and the robbery of ‘an old countryman’) but there was no mention of Granger. As with so many of the people mentioned in the police court reports William Granger disappears.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, September 18, 1856]

*on the corner with Tower Bridge Road – the pub is no longer there.

Beware the green-eyed monster

 

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Violence between women was not prosecuted as frequently as that between men, but we shouldn’t think it was a rare event. Lambeth Police Court just such a serious case of violent assault involving both a female assailant and a female victim in early September 1855.

Eliza Williams was brought up before the magistrate to answer a charge of cutting and wounding. Williams was a ‘good-looking’ and ‘rather well-dressed’ young woman and her victim was Catherine Upton, another young lady living close by.

Upton was married but seems to have been separated from her husband as, and this was the underlying cause of the attack, having a relationship with Eliza’s former lover. As a consequence ‘a strong feeling of jealousy existed in the mind’ of Eliza ‘against her more favoured rival’.

A week before the court hearing Eliza confronted Catherine and they quarrelled. Eliza picked up and smashed a glass number and stabbed her in the head with a shard of the glass. The wound ‘bled profusely’  and needed medical attention.

Now there were in court Catherine explained that she did not wish to press the charge and further. I suspect this means she was content to have the magistrate hand down a lenient punishment rather than take the case before a jury where Eliza might expect to get a long gaol term. Mr Elliott note her wish and sent Williams away for six weeks.

Eliza was far from happy with the outcome however; she raged at the bench and at her accuser declaring that she would ‘give it to the complainant when she got out’. This only landed her in more trouble with the magistrate who now insisted that on release she must post bail against her good behaviour towards Catherine for two months.

At that she was led away to begin her six weeks of confinement.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, September 3, 1855]

A little local knowledge helps prevent ‘the grossest frauds and impositions’.

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When the Rev. Henry Burton, vicar of Atcham near Shrewsbury received a letter asking for his help he was immediately suspicious. Whether this was because he had be sent such missives or before and was wise to them, or perhaps on account of him being on the list of magistrates for Shropshire, we will never know but Rev. Burton decided to forward the letter to London. He sent it on to Mr Elliot, one of the capital’s Police Court magistrates, then looking after the Lambeth court.

The letter was from a  man named Henry Dewhurst who described himself as a doctor and begged the vicar to help him financially by placing an order (with payment) for a book that he had written. The book was entitled ‘The Moral Philosopher‘ and was priced at 8s and 6d (about £25 today). Dewhurst added that:

‘Diseased heart, want of employment, and the almost fatal effects of typhus fever to himself, wife, and two out of four children, have plunged them into the deepest distress. For two days they have not tasted food. Wife is fast sinking from consumption and want of nutriment. All they had is in pledge, even his clothes, for 56d. An early reply is humbly supplicated’.

Rev. Burton wanted to see if the magistrate at Lambeth could make some local enquires (as Dewhurst gave his address as 25 William Street, Nelson Square, Lambeth) and so Mr Elliot despatched the court officer, Sergeant Goff to see what he could find out.

When Goff returned he said it was a scam, or a ‘system of imposture’ as he put it. He had visited Mr Dewhurst and confirmed that he was someone who had previously been exposed as a fraud at the Lambeth Police Court. About a year earlier he had tried exactly the same method of parting gullible individuals from their money with a hard luck story and the promise of a book that never materialised.

Goff discovered that Dewhurst had also written other begging letters recently including one to another vicar (this time in Canterbury) where he tried to pass himself off as a having in MA in astronomy. That had also failed to convince the reverend gentleman who had asked a lady friend in Lambeth to check its validity.

Mr Elliot asked Goff if he was satisfied that Dewhurst was an imposter. Goff replied that he was, adding:

‘He has not his wife living with him, and whenever he is asked for the book he states he publish, his excuse is that it is at the binder’s, but who the binder is he does not say’.

The magistrate declared that if everyone was as careful as the Rev. Burton the ‘grossest frauds and impositions might be prevented’.

Interestingly in 1835 a man named William Henry Dewhurst did publish a pamphlet or book entitled the The Moral Philosopher, so perhaps he wasn’t such a fraud after all? 

[from The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, September 7, 1848]