The sailor and his two wives (or is it the wife and her three husbands?)

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The Ratcliffe Highway in the 1800s

On Sunday the 4th February 1855 Mary Ann Falconer was preparing dinner in her home just off the Ratcliffe Highway. There was a loud rap at the door and the sounds of people in the street outside. Mary described the crowd as a ‘mob’ and noticed one woman stood out from the crowd.  Her name was also Falconer (Jemima Falconer) and she demanded that Mary hand over her husband, whom she believed was inside, or let her in. When Mary refused Jemima smashed five of her windows.

The police were called and soon Jemima was in custody, arrested by PC Joseph Duble (95H) and taken to the nearest police station. On the Monday Jemima Falconer was up before Mr Yardley, the Thames Police Court magistrate on a charge of criminal damage.

Given that Mary and Jemima shared a common surname the magistrate wanted to know if they were related, they were not he was informed. So was Mary living with Jemima’s husband as the prisoner suggested?

‘She claims him’ said Mary ‘but she has no right to him, for she has another husband living’.

At this point an ‘elderly weather-beaten sailor’ stepped forward and announced that he was Mr Falconer and was ‘lawfully married’ to Mary. Jemima now piped up to complain that he was also married to her. ‘You married me first’, she insisted.

‘What business had you to have two wives?’ Mr Yardley asked the old seaman. Falconer now tried to explain that he’d known Mary was some years and she’d told him she was a widow. While he was at sea she’d posted the banns for their marriage and on his return he’d felt pressured (by her and some of the community) to go through with it.

He soon regretted his decision however:

‘She helped me spend all my wages, and then another man claimed her as his wife, and I found out she had another husband, to whom she’d been married 8 or 10 years before’.

It was now a scandalous case of bigamy, and Mr Yardley warned Mary she could face a sentence of seven years’ transportation if she was convicted. Mary tried to protest that the sailor had taken her from her husband against her will and ruined her but the old seaman denied this vehemently, pointing out that it was her who had put up the banns for their forthcoming marriage, not him.

‘Plenty of people can prove what I say’ claimed Mary but the magistrate’s patience was running out. He was trying a case of criminal damage, not a complex affair of bigamy and he wanted to no more lies in his court. Why had she smashed the Falconer’s windows ?

‘I wanted bread sir, and where could I go but to my husband?’

‘He not your husband, woman’, said the justice, ‘You have no claim on him whatever’.

The gaoler said he knew the woman to have been in court before and the policeman confirmed it. ‘I believe she has three husbands living’ PC Duble added, ‘I known her to be a most desperate and disorderly prostitute’.

‘I thought so’ commented the magistrate, ‘A very pretty character we have of you, woman. I sentence you to be imprisoned and kept to hard labour for 14 days, as a disorderly prostitute’.

At least she avoided the more serious accusation of bigamy.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, February 06, 1855]

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‘The Lord is not so unjust as to hold a man responsible for a rash act when he is mad’: a man’s grief drives him to suicide.

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Finsbury Square, c.1828

I am breaking, ever so slightly, with the normal pattern of these blog posts today. This story concerns the police courts but is not a report from one of them. Instead it came under the headings for London’s coroners courts, which detailed the inquests into those that died in suspicious circumstances.

On the 22 January 1838 an inquest jury sat at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital to listen to the evidence in case of a retired police court officer who had died at the age of 60. Thomas Van had worked at the Worship Street Police court ‘for nearly 25 years’ and was ‘an active officer’.

Each of the London police courts were served by half a dozen officers, modelled on the system set up by the Fieldings at Bow Street in the mid 1700s. Officers ran messages, brought up prisoners from the cells, kept order in the court and may well have played a role as active investigators in some instances. This was how the Bow Street officers (dubbed ‘Runners’ of course) operated.

Van’s wife had died in last year and he missed her very much. He lived with his son in rented rooms at 13 Queen Street, Finsbury Square and his landlord, Benjamin Watkins, gave evidence to the inquest. At about 9 o’clock a week earlier Watkins had heard a loud thud from Van’s room above and rushed upstairs to see what had happened. There he found the man stretched out on the floor with blood flowing from a gash in his throat.

There was ‘a large table knife on the floor besides him’ and while Van was not quite dead, he could not speak. Watkins called a carriage and took his lodger to St Bart’s where he died soon afterwards.

It was a tragic tale. Van had only recently been given a pension by the Worship Street office in recognition of his service, and because his grief made it impossible for him to carry on. He seems to have fallen into a deep despair and was quite unable to cope without his wife. His son testified to his father’s grief and told the coroner that Thomas Van ‘had been lately deranged’.

A suicide note was produced which read:

‘The Lord is not so unjust as to hold a man responsible for a rash act when he is mad’.

The inquest jury duly brought in a verdict of ‘temporary mental derangement’. Van probably had little to leave his son but suicides supposedly had their estates forfeited. They were also supposed to be buried at night, and not in consecrated ground. Perhaps the jury’s verdict allowed the family some license here.

Let’s hope so anyway.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, January 23, 1838]

‘Half a loaf better than none’: a little local difficulty at Thames

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Jewish immigrants on Petticoat lane, by George Eastman House

The newspaper reports of the late Victorian police courts offer us a window into a past society. They throw up all sorts of things that can seem strange, or familiar to the modern reader. London is revealed as a busy and bustling city with all sorts of opportunities for conflict between its denizens. We get an idea of how people lived, where they worked, and how they moved around. We can also see that the capital was, as it is today, one of the world’s most multicultural and vibrant cities.

The East End of London had a large and well established Jewish community. Many of London’s Jews were fairly recent arrivals; coming over during the late 1870s and 1880s to escape persecution in eastern central Europe. Jews living in the Russian Pale (modern day Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Moldova, Poland and some parts of Latvia and Russia) were oppressed by laws which prescribed where they could live, how and when they could work, and that forced them to serve in the armies of Tsarist Russia.

Life was extremely hard in the Pale of Settlement and communities were subject to periodic violent outbreaks of anti-semitic pogroms. Not surprisingly tens of thousands chose to leave their homes and travel across Europe in a search for a better and safer life. Many settled in London, particularly around Whitechapel where they established a community, while others tried to find the money to pay their passage to the ‘golden medina’, the United States of America.

London was no paradise however. Prejudice here was rife and periodic instances of anti-semitism continued to plague the Jewish community. But it was not as lethal as the oppression they had suffered in the Russian Empire, nor was the poverty as grinding. Hard work and persistence meant that the Ashkenazi people of the East End set down strong routes in the capital of Empire and gradually moved out of the East to the North and West of London as their prosperity grew.

In 1897 we get a glimpse of this community and, at the same time, a contemporary English view of them and their traditions. I wouldn’t say the report is racist or ‘anti-alien’ (to use a late Victorian expression) but it does perhaps reflect a contemporary curiosity about the ‘other’ in society.

In January 1897 Joseph Moseley, a Jewish sponge maker, appeared at Thames Police Court to prosecute a summons against Evelina Cohen. The pair had met in January 1896 a year earlier and after a brief courtship Joseph had proposed marriage. He gave Evelina a valuable  diamond engagement  ring and another ‘buckle’ ring as a symbol of their friendship. They agreed to marry in March of that year.

However, something must have gone wrong or Evelina changed her mind because instead of marrying the sponge maker, she married someone else in March 1896 leaving poor Joseph high and dry, and missing two rings. This was why he took her to court.

Mr Dickenson presided at Thames in early 1897 and he was less than pleased that this case had come before him. It did no credit to either of them, he said, to be dragging each other through the courts in this way. He understood that it was the ‘custom among most people, especially ladies, to return rings when an engagement was broken off’.

‘It would be a graceful act on the part of the young lady’ he said, ‘to say “Take back the ring thou gavest,” and give the complainant [Joseph] the diamond hoop, keeping the buckle ring as a trophy of her conquest’.

Moseley was represented by a lawyer, Mr Deakin, who explained that the matter had now been settled. The magistrate was pleased to hear it: ‘half a loaf was better than no bread’ he added referring to the return of one of the rings. Deakin wasn’t convinced that the sponge maker had recovered much from the encounter. ”In this case’, he grumbled, ‘it is only a fifth of a loaf’. After all he had hoped to marry and benefit from Evelina’s dowry, which was reported to be £500 plus a property.

The whole report smacks then of a business deal reneged upon rather than a man jilted ‘at the altar’. The fact that this had to go to law would seem to reflect contemporary negative views of the Jewish community as being built around trade and money, with this being seen as a ‘bad’ thing. Joseph had missed out of a ‘good deal’  and was now trying to get his investment back and I suspect many middle-class English readers reading this had some of their prejudices affirmed by the whole episode.

[from The Illustrated Police News etc, Saturday, January 16, 1897]

Prison is no deterrence for an East End watchmaker

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Edward Oakey was seemingly a man for whom frequent court appearances and even prison were no deterrence, at least when he was under the influence of alcohol.

The 32 year-old German-born watchmaker lived with his wife in east London but the pair were far from happily married. Described as ‘somewhat addicted to drink and abusing his wife’, Oakey had already seen the inside of a London prison when the Thames Police court magistrate sent him down for assaulting his wife earlier in 1883.

Now, in late December he was back, charged once more with assault, on this occasion by ‘kicking her on the body’.

Oakey had returned home from his workplace at dinner time and set about his partner, grabbing her by the throat and propelling her around the room. He dared her to go back to the law again, saying he ‘wanted to do six months for her’. Mrs Oakey tried to calm him down and eventually he went out again with her pleas to avoid the drink following him down the street.

Her good advice was ignored however, and by 10 at night he was back, ‘very drunk’, and the violence and abuse started again. He punched her in the face and knocked her to the floor, before starting to kick her with his booted feet. Someone must have heard her cries and a police constable was summoned to help. Oakey was arrested and the next morning was hauled up before the magistrate at West Ham Police court. There he received not six months but just three, with the additional penalty of hard labour.

Did it do him any good? I doubt it. Domestic violence like this was endemic in the working-class communities of London and had little regard for ethnic origin. Oakey was probably lucky he hadn’t come up before Mr Lushington at Thames because he was particularly intolerant of wife-beaters.

Mrs Oakey may also have a part to play in the relative leniency he received. Many wives wanted their abusive husbands reprimanded, they wanted the violence to stop, but often not at the cost of losing his pay-packet for any significant period of time. Two months’ loss of earnings must have been hard to bear; three months was worse but to send him away for much more than that may have plunged the family into rent arrears, critical debt, poverty and the workhouse. For some a ‘bad’ husband was better than no husband at all in a society which provided little or no support for this occupying the bottom rungs of the ladder.

So let’s hope that when the watchmaker came out of prison in early 1884 he had mended his ways as skilfully as he usually mended timepieces and that, for Mrs Oakey at least, there was a happy new year ahead.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, November 30, 1883]

‘Twas Christmas Eve in the Police Court and lots of drunken women were lying all around…

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I don’t often feel sorry for members of the establishment, let alone the privileged few that served as magistrates in the nineteenth century. I some cases I see moments of compassion and leniency, but these are really few and far between. Most of the members of London’s impoverished working class could expect little truck from men like Montagu Williams or Thomas Saunders; anyone presented as a disorderly drunk would get little sympathy from them, or their colleagues.

But I do have some sympathy for Mr Benson, tasked as he was with clearing the cells at Thames Police court on Christmas Eve 1867. I expect he just wanted to get home to his wife and family, or maybe just to the port and stilton. Instead he was faced with a procession of drunken women, not all of them of the most ‘depraved’ class either.

The first up was Matilda Walker who appeared in court with her face shield by a black veil. She was charged with being drunk and incapable, a common charge for much less ‘respectable’ women than Matilda. Mr Benson pointedly rebuked her.

‘You are described as a married woman, and call yourself a lady, Mrs Walker. It is not ladylike to be drunk’.

The defendant was keen to point out that she had not intended to get drunk at all.

‘I went home with an old lady, and, as it was Christmas-time, I took a glass of the very best Jamaica pine-apple rum diluted with cold water; nothing upon my honour, sir. The rum just elevated me’.

With excellent comic timing the magistrate declared:

‘And lowered you; you were on the ground’.

Warning her to lay off the rum in future he discharged her.

Next into the dock was Mary Stevens, also for being incapable under the influence. Mary’s only defence was that it was ‘Christmas time’. ‘That’s no reason you should degrade yourself,’ Mr Benson told, dismissing her from the courtroom with a flea in her ear.

Mary was swiftly followed by the next prisoner, Margaret MacDonald who had also tried to pass herself off under another name – Ann Corradine. She told the magistrate that she had been a teetotaller for almost 12 months, slipping ‘off the wagon’ just three days short of a full year.

Mr Benson wanted to know why she’d failed to keep the Pledge.

‘Iver [sic] since last Boxing Day, I have been solid and sober, but last night I met with a few friends from the ould country, and we drank bad luck to Fenianism, until….’

‘You were drunk’, Mr Benson interrupted her, ‘Go away and keep sober in future’. The Irish woman made a hasty exit before he changed his mind.

Finally the last of this group of inebriates was brought into court, and these two  were by far the worst. Ann Jones had been carried to a police station on a stretcher as she was incapable of walking by herself. According the police witness she was singing a popular music-hall ditty called ‘Strapped on a stretcher were Sarah and I’, but this didn’t endear her to Mr Benson.

‘I am very ill’ she told him.

‘Ill? I wonder you are not dead!’ he said, before dismissing her.

As for the last occupant of the dock, Jane Fry, she was either still very drunk or simply more combative than the others. She had behaved so badly and presumably was not at repentant that Mr Benson sentenced her to a day in prison. ‘It is Christmas time’ moaned the woman. ‘Lock her up till 5 o’clock this evening’ the magistrate ordered.

‘What a scandal it is to find so many women brought here for drinking to excess’ he thundered and headed home for his own favourite (but controlled) tipple.

Merry Christmas one and all. Have a lovely day whatever you are doing and thank you for reading this blog over the last 12 months.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, December 25, 1867]

A ‘grossly profligate young blackguard’ at Bromley

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All this week at my university we are running a series of events designed at raising awareness of issues surrounding sexual assault, harassment and consent. It is the third year running such activities have happened and this time I’m pleased to be aligning my second year teaching with it, by giving  special lecture and linked seminar workshop on the prosecution of rape in the 18th and 19th centuries.

One of the issues that any study of sexual assault in the past (and indeed the present) highlights is the difficulty survivors have in bringing their abusers to court and gaining any sort of justice. This remains an extremely difficult thing to do today and Time Magazine’s collective award of their Person of the Year 2017 to the ‘silence braekers’ reflects the courage of the women and men who have come forward to speak out.

Sexual assault and harassment takes many forms of course. Take this case for example, from December 1864. Amelia Harrison, a married woman who lived in Nelson Street, Bromley, was crossing the fields near her home at 10 at night when she was attacked.

A young lad rushed up to her from behind, raised her skirts and grabbed her ‘in a grossly indecent manner’. In the witness box at Thames Police Court Mrs Harrison was naturally reticent to go into much detail but Mr Paget pressed her. Reluctantly she ‘described the infamous outrage committed upon her , and said the prisoner hurt her’. She then told the court she was five months pregnant.

We don’t know exactly what happened but clearly some form of sexual assault had been committed. The lad in the dock, a ‘rough-looking boy’ named George Thomas wasn’t yet 15 years of age and cut a sorry figure. At first he denied doing anything and counter claimed saying Mrs Harrison had hit him and cut his lip.

He may have sustained an injury but it was soon clear that it must have come as  result of her resistance to his assault. Given the prisoner’s detail and the seriousness of the charge Mr Paget said he would have to formally commit him to a jury trial at the Sessions.

At this Thomas broke down and started to sob. He called for his mother, admitted his crime, and ‘begged forgiveness’. The magistrate paused and consulted with his chief clerk. He was minded, he said, to send Thomas for trial but decided in the end to punish him summarily. The prisoner was ‘a grossly profligate young blackguard’, he said, ‘and must be punished for laying his hands on a woman so indecently’. He would go to prison for two months at hard labour.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, December 07, 1864}

‘Every member of the force has a watch and chain, of course, How he got it, from what source?’ A policeman in the dock at Thames

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If you want to know the time, ask a policeman.
The proper city time, ask a policeman,
Every member of the force has a watch and chain, of course,
How he got it, from what source? ask a policeman.

This well-known music hall ditty (which I’ve mentioned before) reflects a contemporary working-class distrust of the police by suggesting that they weren’t always as honest as they should have been.

When William Harris, a Ratcliff wine cooper, and his wife got home from a night out they found the door of their house open and a policeman guarding it. It was half-past midnight and the couple must have been both surprised and concerned.

The officer quickly moved to reassure them. He told them he’d found it ajar and had investigated. There may have been a burglary but he wasn’t sure, no one was on the premises, but they had better check if anything was missing.

Mr Harris rushed upstairs and looked around to see if anything had been disturbed. It didn’t seem as if it had but then he realised his pocket watch and chain was missing from the dressing table. He went down to report it the loss to the constable.

Earlier that evening PC Patrick Barry (382K) and PC John Prestage (also K Division), were patrolling on Broad Street in Ratcliffe when the latter called Barry’s attention to a door that seemed open. PC Prestage told his colleague to wait outside while he investigated. He went upstairs but reported that no one was in the the house. He then sent Barry off to  to report a suspected robbery, telling him he would stand guard in the meantime.

Barry soon returned with sergeant Richard Plumsett, who had been checking the patrols of his constables as was normal practice. Sergeants would set constables off on their beats and time them to ensure they were  in the right place at the right time. He came over the the house in Broad Street and spoke to both officers. This was about 11.45 at night.

Just after 12.30 Sergeant Plumsett was back and now he found Barry, Prestage and Mr Harris embroiled in an argument. Harris was complaining about the loss of his watch but wasn’t keen on going along to the police station to officially report it. PC Prestage told his superior that:

‘Mr Harris does not seem satisfied about losing his watch: I don’t know whether he wants to blame the police for it’.

The sergeant then noticed that Prestage was drunk, or at least under the influence of alcohol. He immediately instructed the pair of them to return to the station with him.

Back at the King David Lane police station the situation developed. Mr Harris arrived later on and accused the policeman of robbing him. With a drunken officer and an unhappy local resident the desk sergeant, Robert Smith, told Prestage that he’d better turn out his pockets to satisfy the cooper’s suspicions.

‘Have you got a watch?’ Sergeant Smith asked.

‘Yes, I am in the habit of carrying two watches’, replied PC Prestage, and unbuttoned his great coat to reveal a watch on a chain around his neck.

‘Where is the other watch?’ the sergeant continued, and it was handed over.

When Mr Harris was shown the watch he immediately identified at the one he had lost from his dressing table. The police had no choice and the next morning PC Prestage found himself in the dock at Thames Police Court in front of the imposing figure of Mr Lushington.

The magistrate asked him to explain himself but all he could say was that he was ‘under the influence of liquor and was not aware he had taken the watch’. This was too serious for Mr Lushington to deal with there and then so he remanded him for a week with a view to committing him for trial at the Middlesex Sessions.

On 17 December 1877 John Prestage (described as a baker, not a policeman) was tried and convicted of theft at Middlesex Sessions and sentenced to nine years imprisonment. He was 20 years old and pleaded guilty. He was sent, as so many of those sentenced were, to Cold Bath Fields prison. I’m curious to know why he wasn’t described as a policeman when the newspaper report is very clear that he was.  The Daily Gazette (a Middlesbrough paper) reported the case at Middlesex as that of a ‘Dishonest Policeman’ so there seems to be no doubt as to his occupation.

[from The Standard, Monday, December 03, 1877]