An ingenious thief and the ‘bird lime trick’.

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Wapping in the 1890s, from Booth’s poverty map

Cash registers weren’t invented until the later 1870s, and that was in America. A busy pub like the Three Crowns in Upper Smithfield, Wapping didn’t have anything quite as fancy. But it did experience a creative attempt to take money from the ’till’ nevertheless.

Catherine Morgan ran the pub with her husband and at about 8 o’clock in the morning of the 10th May she was in parlour bar of the pub and noticed a young man come in. There was a glass partition between the parlour and main bar and she could clearly see the lad take out a long stick. He pushed the stick towards ‘the engine’, and inserted between its two handles.

Now I suspect someone out there knows what device the reporter is talking about here but it would seem to be some early version of a cash machine. This is made more plausible by what happened next.

As Catherine watched on in horror the young man withdrew the stick and she saw that there were two coins stick to it! Hurrying back through into the pub she grabbed him and shouted: ‘Give me that stick’. Just as quickly he broke off the end of the stick and wiped it on his trousers. Catherine unfolded his hand to discover two shillings hidden in his palm.

The police were called and Mrs Morgan held him captive until PC H31 could take him into custody. He appeared on more than one occasion at Thames Police Court before this appearance on the 20 May 1876. Now the court was told that this was not the first time the lad, by the name of Morris Cooney, had been seen practising his ‘trick’.

Earlier on the month he had almost been caught by the landlady of the Garrett Tavern in Leman Street, Whitechapel. He had come in and asked her for a light and a glass of porter. Once she had served him  she had gone out the back to the parlour to ‘see to the children’. Hearing ‘a jingle’ she came back to find him with his stick and a flash of silver. She challenged him but he gulped down his beer and ran out of the pub.

The stick had been daubed with bird lime, which made it sticky and ideal for Cooney’s purpose. Unfortunately for him his clever device was easily spotted by women as eagle eyed at Catherine Morgan. What was worse for Morris was that his appearance in court revealed a previous conviction for a felony so the magistrate was not inclined to deal with him summarily (which may have reduced his sentence). Instead he was committed for trial, at the Session or at Old Bailey, where he might face a long spell in prison.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, May 21, 1876]

A small treat and a careless driver leads to a tragic accident in Poplar

London was a busy city in the 1800s and, just as it is today, it was full of traffic and people in a hurry. As a consequence of this, accidents happened and fatalities were fairly commonplace. We should also remember that in the nineteenth century medicine was not as advanced as it is today and the emergency services (such as they were) far less effective. Sadly then, traffic accidents often led to death where today lives might be saved.

Every accidental death is a tragedy but the early death of a child is  more upsetting, and more devastating for the parents and those involved.

In May 1852 Mary Ann Merritt and her mother were in a grocer’s shop in Poplar. Mary Ann was three years old and probably as delightful as all three year-olds can be. The grocer’s wife offered her a fig, but her mother intercepted the treat, and told Mary Ann she must give half of it to one of her siblings.

Mrs Merritt divided the fruit in half and gave one part to her little daughter. Excited, Mary Ann ran out of the shop and into the street.

Meanwhile Matthew Gale, a 23 year-old greengrocer from Bromley, was ‘lolling’ in the back of his cart while his vehicle proceeded along the road, guided only a four year-old child he had entrusted the reins to.

As the cart rumbled along the cobbles at a speed of ‘four or five miles an hour’ Mary Ann rushed out to cross the road and the cart with its load of potatoes, collided with the little girl. Mary Ann was ‘knocked down and one of the cart’s wheels ‘passed over the child’s head, and it [sic] died almost immediately’.

Whe Mary Ann’s father, a mechanic, discovered what had happened he quickly found Gale and grabbed him. ‘You vagabond, you have killed my child’, clearly holding him responsible for the accident. Merritt hit the greengrocer and the pair ended up in the Thames Police court on the following Monday, with Gale charged with causing the child’s death.

The magistrate, Mr Yardley, thought that some responsibly did indeed lie with Matthew Gale. The court heard that if ‘the prisoner had been in his proper place, in front of the cart, with the reins in his hand, he could have pulled up and prevented the occurrence’. Drivers, he said, should ‘be more careful in a neighbourhood where children were running about’.

But Mr Yardley also attributed some of the blame to Mary Ann’s mother. She should, he said, ‘have looked more cautiously after her little girl, and prevented it running into danger’. Gale was bailed to await the findings of the coroner’s inquest. He doesn’t appear again so I expect that it was accepted that  this was just an accident. It was avoidable, and the young man would have to live with it, as would Mrs Merritt, her husband and their family.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, May 11, 1852]

‘for the protection of life and property’? A magistrate opts to believe the police despite the evidence in front of him.

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The Metropolitan Police Court Magistrate presided over the summary court of that name but he was not actually attached to the Metropolitan Police, so in some respects it is a bit of a misnomer. In reality as the nineteenth century unfolded, the police, (in the person of inspectors, sergeants and ordinary constables) played a much increased role in bringing prosecutions to court. In the first third of the century most cases were brought by the victims of crime, as had been the case throughout the previous century, and this situation persisted for much of the 1800s. Gradually, however, the police began to dominate proceedings, especially at this lower level of the justice system.

This was not without its problems. In particular there was considerable concern about how much authority a policeman’s voice carried in the courtroom. The Police were still a fairly new body in the mid 1800s, and although respect for the ‘boys in blue’ grew over time they certainly weren’t held in high esteem by everyone in Victorian society.

The working classes resented them for the most part, or barely tolerated them as a necessary evil. Henry Mayhew interviewed a costermonger (a person that sold food or other goods from a mobile street barrow) who declared that it was a source of pride for any of his class to punch one of the ‘Peelers’  that blighted their daily lives by moving them on when they were trying to earn a living.

The middle classes and the elites were just as ambiguous in their acceptance of the ‘new police’. They saw them (at first anyway) as an unwelcome extra burden on their pockets, or as a bunch of lower class busybodies who often got quite above themselves in telling them to do (or not to do) this or that.

It is probably fair to say that the ‘good old British bobby’ was not really accepted by society until well over a hundred years had passed since his creation. Dixon of Dock Green epitomises the trusted and honest copper of the 1950s, not the corpulent figure of the p’liceman from the late Victorian and Edwardian music hall.

So the police magistrate must often have been faced with a potential conflict between the police (as keepers of the peace) on one hand, and the public on the other. As a law man he had to try and square this tricky circle, and in this case from 1850 I think we can see how he falls back on the law to do so, whilst exercising some discretion at the same time.

In April 1850 Edward Williams found himself in the Worship Street Police Court accused of assaulting a policeman in the execution of his duty. It was a serious offence and the justices at Worship Street and the nearby Thames court (both of which served the supposedly ‘lawless’ and ‘criminal’ East End) normally came down hard on drunken brawlers that picked fights with the police or refused to ‘go quietly’ when asked.

Edward, then, was in trouble.

However, his version of events was quite different to that presented by the police who brought the charge, and in looking at both I think we can see some of the tensions that I’ve mentioned above.

PC Ward of N Division stated that he had been on duty with a  fellow officer outside a beer shop in Clapton when Williams had approached him. It was late, just before midnight, and Williams spoke to him asking him, ‘what I considered I was placed there for’.

Ward’s reply was: “For the protection of life and property”, which was the strap line of the Met in the 1800s. This didn’t satisfy Williams, who turned on him and told him: ‘that was a lie, that I was placed there , it seemed, for the purpose of insulting women, and he called me all the rascals and vagabonds he could lay his tongue to’.

At this the copper asked him to move along and go home. Williams, he claimed, refused and, after having been warned again, the young man struck him several times in the face, drawing blood. Eventually he was overpowered by the officers and taken to the station. PC Devitt (310 N) backed up his colleague’s testimony.

This assault on the person of a police constable was what had landed Williams, a supposedly ‘respectable’ young man, in court. He however, told a slightly different story and sought to justify but not deny, his attack on PC Ward.

Williams told the magistrate, Mr Arnold, that he had been walking out with a young woman, Frances Coleman, to whom he ‘had been paying his attentions’ (courting or dating as we would say now). He was walking her home to her parents but had to stop for moment and asked her to continue, saying he would catch her up.

As she passed the beer shop he heard one of the officers call out to her, ‘my dear’, then ‘whistle to her in a manner which could not be otherwise than insulting to a modest woman, and finally making a most disgusting noise with his mouth’. I leave that to your imagination.

He approached the policemen and remonstrated with them. So here, perhaps was the bones of PC Ward’s report. When the policeman denied acting in the manner Williams believed he had done, and then arrested him, he felt justified in resisting. The ‘assault’, he argued, was  the ‘perfecting justifiable result’ of the constable’s poor behaviour towards the woman he admired.

Frances supported her young man in court, confirming his evidence but at the same time allowing Mr Arnold some wriggle room. She said there was some noise emanating from the beer shop, something with which the police quickly agreed. Could the whistles and other offensive remarks have come from someone in there, asked the justice? She doubted it, repeating that she thought the calls towards her had come from one of the officers. However, despite two witnesses (Frances and Edward) telling a different tale to that of the constables the magistrate decided to believe one over the other but sought to use the beer house as a possible means of sowing some doubt.

Mr Arnold told the court that he could not imagine for one moment that the police would lie or to ‘knowingly and willingly commit perjury’ , but that at the same time neither would a decent young lady such as Frances. So it must have been the unruly occupants of the drinking den that acted so offensively.

The police then were in the clear despite the evidence to the contrary. As for young Edward however, his action had been ‘completely unjustifiable’. He had accused a policeman of doing something quite impossible for a public servant, and had then employed violence when asked to go home. Arnold opted to use the law in all its force to send a message that the police must be respected at all times, and especially when they were carrying out their duties.

He fined Williams £5 or one month in the house of correction if he could not pay. He found a way to implement the law and demonstrate that he was, in his mind, being even handed. I doubt Edward saw it that way.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, April 21, 1850]

An astrologer fails to see his own future in the stars.

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James Wallace was described in court as a 37 year-old astrologer. When he appeared before Mr Bridge at Bow Street he was charged with a violent assault on his wife. The case was fairly straightforward, although some things about Wallace clearly disturbed the magistrate and led him to hand the man a hefty sentence.

Mr and Mrs Wallace lived at Edward Street on the Hampstead Road. The newspaper report gives us no indication whether their marriage was a happy one or whether, instead, Wallace’s abuse of his wife was a regular occurrence. I expect it was the latter because the historical research that has analysed domestic violence in the 1800s reveals that many women put up with a considerable amount of abuse before they felt impelled to take the matter to court.

At Thames court, in the East End, spousal abuse was a weekly if not daily part of the business of the court and Messrs. Lushington and Saunders regularly sent violent men to prison or fined them, for beating this partners. Thomas Holmes, who wrote several article sand books on the Police Courts in the late Victorian and Edwardian period had this to say about domestic abuse before the Police Court magistrates:

These wives will put up with a lot before they complain to the magistrates, and it is only when the wounds are fresh, and pain and resentment have not yet subsided, that they will give evidence against their husbands. Smarting under their wrongs, they rush to our courts and beg for protection, but when the summons has been granted and a week has elapsed before it is heard, their resentment cools, and very little evidence can be obtained from them; in fact, many wives do not appear, and a great number of those that do appear lie unblushingly to the magistrate in order to save their husbands from prison‘.

Thomas Holmes, Pictures and Problems from the London Police Courts (Edward Arnold, London, 1900). p.64

Holmes was a Police Court Missionary, a forerunner of the Probation Officers that were to be created in 1907. PCMs attached themselves to the London courts and offered help and advice to defendants, whilst at the same time seeking to them to append their name to the pledge to refrain from drinking alcohol. These champions of temperance identified the ‘demon drink’ as the ‘curse of the working classes’ and became familiar and largely, it seems, welcome faces at the courts.

Anyway, let us return to James Wallace. He did not fit the usual profile of a ‘wife beater; in late Victorian London. Rather than being a rough manual worker who, on returning from work or the pub late in the evening, took out his frustrations on his life partner. Instead Wallace was an educated man, or so he wanted the magistrate to think. Whilst he was on remand for the attack on his wife he wrote to the magistrate. In his letter he explained that he was a former clerk, but now earned  a living as an astrologer. He spoke of his wife in ‘a very derogatory manner’, trying to excuse his own behaviour in chastising her.

However, Wallace hadn’t simply beaten his wife for her bad behaviour – as was commonly the case with men in the period, or at least was the justification they presented in court. Wallace had dragged his wife through the streets and punched her in the head. This stepped way beyond contemporary views of acceptable ‘chastisement’.

Moreover, James Wallace was, to the magistrate at least, a charlatan and a trickster. As an astrologer he claimed to be able to read peoples’ fortunes and Mr Bridge described him as someone who ‘obtained money by cheating unwily persons’.

It is quite easy to get the impression that Mr Bridge was disgusted by the man he saw before him in the dock. He was squandered an education to peddle false dreams and he undermined any pretence of being a ‘gentleman’ by his cruel treatment of his wife.

In his letter Wallace had apparently asked the magistrate to allow himself and his wife to separate. That at least Bridge was happy to agree to. But he added that the astrologer would have to pay his wife maintenance of 10s a week for the duration of that separation; neither were free to remarry unless they obtained an expensive divorce.

On top of that the justice ordered that Wallace be sent to prison for six months  at hard labour, a serious penalty that reflected his poor opinion of him, his chosen ‘career’ and his behaviour towards his spouse.

I guess James didn’t see that coming…

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, April 14, 1889]

A woman who wanted to see the world through a man’s eyes

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Following yesterday’s story about a German man arrested for cross-dressing at King’s Cross, today’s story is of a woman who preferred to live as a man. While the German performer was perhaps simply a female impersonator, the subject of today’s blog appears to be much closer to the modern transgender community. Her story clearly excited those that heard it in 1868 and the editor of The Illustrated Police News gave it plenty of space.

One Saturday night in late March PC Bonner (35H) was walking his beat along Cable Street in the East End when he heard a woman singing. What he saw was a man however, and he approached ‘him’. When he was close enough, and allowing for the fact that it was dark, PC Bonner was able to discern that the singer was female even though she was dressed in a man’s clothes.

He arrested her, not for ‘assuming male attire’ but for begging, and took her back to the police station. On the Monday following she was produced at the Thames Police Court in front of the magistrate, Mr Benson.

Mary Walker was a 38 year-old woman with quite a story to tell. She had already been prosecuted several times and so was a familiar face at the police courts of the capital where she was known as the ‘female barman’. She had been to prison for robbing her master (a pub landlord) and presumably had struggled to find work since.

Using the names John Walker and John Thum she had sailed on a Cunard liner as a stoker and worked as a porter on the Great Western Railways, before on each occasion her sex was discovered and she was dismissed. Mary had once even proposed marriage to another woman. Mary (or John) was not living in a society that was prepared to accept her for what she was or what wanted to be. Historians have demonstrated that there was nothing new in what Mary (or countless men and women) was doing in the Victorian period; ‘people had been crossdressing, and getting arrested for it, for many, many, many centuries’ Jeanne de Montbaston tell us.

Gender had become more clearly defined in the Victorian period so while the pervious century had seen the exploits of the female pirates Anne Bonney and Mary Read the prevailing ideology of ‘separate spheres’ supposedly attempted to keep women as tightly constrained by societal norms as their were by their corsets.

Clearly for Mary Walker the laces were drawn far too tight.

She had been born in Bedfordshire, a largely rural county where any attempt at ‘being different’ would have attracted attention. At some point she chose to leave and pursue an alliterative life.

She told Mr Benson that it was then that she ‘indulged the foolish freak of changing her clothes. The desire to act the part of a man and to adopt the garb and condition of the sterner sex grew into a passion’. It was then she went to sea but her ‘sex was discovered by her shipmates’.

The magistrate asked her why she had ‘degraded her sex’ in this way? Why not simply take a position on a ship suited to women? Mary said that it was not possible, but in reality I suspect it was simply not what she wanted. Mary wanted the freedom that came with a  male persona, the freedom, as she put it, to fulfil her ‘desire of seeing foreign lands’.

Not surprisingly the magistrate called for medical expertise and Inspector Holloway of H Division said a surgeon had declared that she was ‘very much out of health’. Mary had also been in Elizabeth Fry’s Refuge at Hackney, and she didn’t want to be sent back there, because the conditions were too bleak. I rather suspect also that she would have found the regime too restrictive and the attempts of the matrons to enforce femininity claustrophobic.

The magistrate was clearly conflicted; he had little sympathy for her actions but she hadn’t committed a serious crime either. Her choice of a  lifestyle had, he stated, been too hard for the frailties of a woman and had left her in  a ‘lamentable condition’. He sent her to the House of Detention for a week, where he trusted she would be properly looked after.

The only place where women could safely assume the identity of a man was the stage and women like Vesta Tilley (pictured above) made a career out of it. Tilley appeared most famously as ‘Burlington Bertie’ as she trod the boards in the popular musical halls. This, of course, was a temporary reversal of gender identities and so allowed the Victorian and Edwardians to poke fun at each other gently in safety. That tradition continued through the 20th and 21st centuries with performers like Dick Emery and, more recently, David Walliams. Anyone, like Mary Walker, who actually wished to redefine her own gender was threatening.

We shouldn’t be too surprised at this though, even in the ‘enlightened’ world of 2017 society remains fairly uncomfortable about those that wish to adopt a gender they find more comfortable and natural than the one they were born into.

[from The Illustrated Police News etc, Saturday, April 4, 1868]

A victim of the prison system takes his anger out at Thames Police court

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The Thames Police court magistrate, Mr Lushington, enjoyed a reputation as the scourge of the ‘drinking classes’. In the late 1870s and ’80s Lushington fined and imprisoned thousands of drunks and wife beaters, disorderly prostitutes and petty thieves; those that used actual violence against the police were a particular bête noire of his, and could expect length spells in gaol at hard labour.

In the process he must have made a number of enemies – indeed most magistrates would have upset or annoyed those that came in front of them in the course of their justicing work. So perhaps we might expect there to have been occasions when the magistrates themselves were the victims of violence from those they sat in summary judgement on.

This is just one example where Mr Lushington was almost on the receiving end of another form of summary punishment.

Lewis Britton was still a teenager when he appeared at Bow Street, London’s senior Police court. A year earlier he had been charged with stealing a small step ladder and the Thames magistrate (possibly Lushington but other justices did serve there) had committed him for trial at the sessions. He was convicted and received a six month prison sentence.

This apparently affected him very badly and according to his mother, had completely changed him as a person.  Prison had a very debilitating affect on those that experienced in the late 1800s; it was brutal and isolating, and many if not most prisoners were scarred by it for life. Lewis (just 18 when he went inside) found it very hard to adjust to life afterwards and had not been able to find employment since.

He clearly blamed Lushington for his situation and one day he determined to do something about it.

Britton turned up at the Thames court holding a large stone. He was met by the court’s housekeeper, James Denny, who asked him what he wanted. Lewis told him he needed to see Mr Lushington and when Denny asked him why he said: ‘I want to give him this’, indicating the stone, and added that he intended to ‘do for him’.

Naturally alarmed, Denny told him to go away and threatened to have him taken into custody if he didn’t. Britton’s response was to wave the rock at Denny and threaten him as well. The housekeeper summoned PC Charles Andrews (166K) who arrested him. When the officer got his prisoner under lock and key he questioned him. The young man told him:

I mean to settle him when he comes outside, for giving me six months for nothing. If I don’t do it now I will at some other time‘.

Lewis Britton was duly presented in court on a charge of threatening a magistrate’s life, and his mother appeared in his defence. She spoke of how his mind had been affected by the original court case and his incarceration, hoping for some leniency for her son. The Bow Street magistrate, Mr Flowers, asked if there was any evidence that Lewis was not in full control of his actions. The Police surgeon, Dr Horton, said he had examined the prisoner and ‘thought he was labouring under some delusions’. He doubted whether the lad had any real intention of striking Lushington with the stone, but that he merely meant to frighten him.

Having established that Lewis might be a ‘person of weak intellect’, Mr Flowers committed him to the St. Giles workhouse so he could be examined by the medical staff there.

Whilst the action he took was deplorable by any standards I have quite a deal of sympathy with young Britton. His original crime was hardly serious and seemingly a first offence. Yet he was sent into the Victorian prison system;  a system that was described by one middle-class inmate as a ‘vast machine’ that ground men down and crushed their spirits. He only served six months but that was enough to give him the taint of prison that marked him out as an ex-convict. It isn’t easy for prisoners who have served their ‘time’ to reintegrate into society today, and they have (arguably at least) much more support than their Victorian counterparts. Hopefully Lewis received some help at St. Giles but I’m not confident he did.

[from The Standard, Monday, March 31, 1879]

An ex-solider’s debt sheds light on my research query…

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The Shaftesbury Training Ship (or Industrial School)

I spent yesterday in the London Metropolitan Archives (LMA) pouring over one of few surviving registers we have for the London Police Courts. Most of what we can know about the ways these courts operate comes from the pages of the newspapers or the memoirs of a handful of Police magistrates or court visitors. The ledgers in the LMA are fairly dull and a  little confusing to the uninitiated.

One of the cases I noted at Thames was of a young lad of 12 named Bartholomew who was found wandering the streets unable to give a good account of himself. As a vagrant he was rounded up and taken before Mr Saunders. The record seems to say that the magistarte had sent him somewhere until he was 16 but I couldn’t work out where that ‘somewhere’ was from the almost illegible scrawl of the clerk.

However, by chance I solved the problem.

For today’s blog I chose the case of Thomas Seymour, an ex-soldier who drew a pension of 9d a day. Seymour lived with his wife and children at Flood Street, Chelsea but found himself in court at Westminster in February 1881 (the same year that Bartholomew was caught ‘wandering’).

Seymour was summoned to show why ‘he should not be committed to prison in default of paying the sum of £3 12s’ since when bailiffs had seized his goods and chattels they had failed to raise that amount.

The army pensioner owed such a large amount because in October 1879 (some 16 months earlier) he had been ordered to pay 2s 6d a week towards the upkeep of his son. The boy had been sent to an industrial school (so had presumably had his own run in with the law) and then to the ‘Shaftesbury Training Ship‘ until he turned 16.

The Shaftesbury housed around 350 ‘problem’ boys, often those that just would not go to school and preferred to play truant. Perhaps this was why Seymour’s son was sent there. This was also where young Bartholomew went I realised, the Thames’ magistrate’s answer to his wandering aimlessly no doubt.

Seymour complained that he had been out of work ‘for over 12 months’ and his army pension did not give him enough to live on. let alone pay for his estranged son.

Unfortunately for Seymour the evidence presented by the industrial schools officer, Jonathan Lawrence, proved damning. He told the court that Seymour had been:

‘more than once sent to gaol for wife beating, and was a drunken man. He had earned good wages in the employ of the London General Omnibus Company, but had been discharged 12 months ago for drunkenness. His eldest daughter was married, and helped the mother and a boy of 16 worked and brought home 10s. the only other child dependent being one 11 years old. Thus the home was comfortable and the only obstacle to its entire happiness was the presence of a lazy drunkard’.

Ouch.

The magistrate sent Seymour to Holloway Prison (then a mixed establishment) for a month.

I am however grateful to Mr Seymour for providing me with the answer to my tricky palaeographic conundrum.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, February 22, 1881]