A den of dangerous anarchists in North London

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In  November 1895 two women living in and around Harringay Park received disturbing letters in the post.  The letters contained threats and were written in black and red ink, with ‘rude drawings of skulls and cross bones’, reminiscent of some of the missives sent to the police during the Whitechapel (or ‘Jack the Ripper’) murder case a few years earlier.

The first person affected was a Mrs E. Brooks, of Green Lanes. She received two letters, the first of which read:

“We find you are no longer wanted in the world. We are going to blow you up, house and all. You may not believe it. You may laugh at it. But sure as there is a God, your end will come. We shall not name the day when we shall carry out the deed; and all the detectives in London will not stop us. You can laugh, but beware”.

The letter was signed “the Captain” and written on paper with the heading, ‘the Anarchists Secret Society’.

Mrs Brooks received a second letter, this time from the ‘Anarchists Society’, written in red ink, which warned that ‘we have resolved to blow you up with dynamite  next Saturday‘.

Needless to say poor Mrs Brooks was unnerved by the threats so contacted the police. Detective sergeant Alexander, of Y Division, investigated and found that another woman had had a similar communication.

Mrs Amy Fisk’s letter purported to come from the ‘Red Cross Society’ and said:

‘We have been watching your house , 93, Umfreville-road, Harringay, for some weeks past; in fact, since your husband’s death… some months ago. And we have had a meeting at our den in in France, and, as your husband was a member of our Society at Holloway, when he, in a fit of temper, murdered one of our band, we have made up out mind to avenge him by taking your life’.

Eventually the letter writer was traced and found to be a young lad, aged 16, who lived in the same street as Mrs Fisk. On 18 November William Ross, a ‘well-dressed boy’ appeared in the North London Police Court, accompanied by his father. The two women he was accused of threatening were also present and when they realised who the letter writer was, they both declared that they were not inclined to wish him any harm.

It seems that the boy had threatened Mrs Brooks because she ran a sweet shop and William owed her money. She had said she would be obliged to inform his parents if he didn’t pay up. She ‘was not alarmed’ by the letters but did want the ‘annoyance’ to stop.

The boy was defended in court by a lawyer who accepted that his actions were wrong but said they were ‘a boyish freak’. DS Alexander said that William had ‘partially admitted the allegation, but added that he did not do it single-handily’. He didn’t think that he had done anything wrong.

Mr Fenwick, the magistrate, thought otherwise. This was a serious affair and the lad would stand trial for it, regardless of the fact that his father was a ‘most respectable man’ who had lived in Umfreville Road for 25 years. He committed him to trial but accepted bail to keep him out of prison in the meantime.

The 1890s were rife with stories of anarchist cells and bomb-throwing terrorists and this must have fired young Bill’s imagination. The Pall Mall Gazette commented that:

‘It is sad that this finished stylist should be wasting his time in being committed to trail when the British public is clamouring for high-class fiction’.

A decade later two great thrillers were published which drew on some of the themes highlighted by fears of anarchists and others: G. K. Chesterton’s The Man who was Thursday (1908) and Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent (1907). Both are worth the time and trouble to rediscover.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, November 19, 1895; The Pall Mall Gazette, Tuesday, November 19, 1895}

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‘There is a remedy for almost every wrong in this country’, a magistrate explains, if one knows where to look.

O it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Tommy, go away”;
But it’s “Thank you, Mister Atkins”, when the band begins to play, 

             Rudyard Kipling, ‘Tommy’ (1892)

Kipling published his Barrack-Room Ballads in 1892 which included one of his most famous poems, Tommy. The poem highlights the reality of solders’ situations in late Victorian Britain; eulogised as ‘heroes’ when there were enemies to defeat, and condemned as ‘bar-room brawlers’ when they were cooped up in garrison towns like Aldershot or Colchester. Not that much has changed in the intervening 100 plus years, ‘squaddies’ are still a cause for concern on Saturday nights in Colchester, but every serviceman and woman is deemed a hero at the point they are killed or wounded in action.

Kipling’s poem calls for change and an acceptance that ‘tommy’ was simply an ordinary man called upon to do extraordinary things. Within a quarter of  a century the ranks of Britain’s small professional armed forces were swelled by millions of citizen volunteers and (from 1916) conscript ‘tommies’. This weekend we remember the millions that died in that war and those that have given their lives since, as well as all those that were wounded, both physically and mentally, in conflicts since 1914.

And perhaps here we can point to some improvement in the way in which we look after  our damaged servicemen. Although we still need charities like Help for Heroes to augment government provision we have become much better at rehabilitating the injured. This is especially true in the area of mental health. Before the First World War the notion that soldiers were adversely affected mentally by war was not properly considered even though it must have been evident to some.

It was the work of Dr W. H. R Rivers, a psychiatrist in Craiglockhart Medical Hospital in Scotland during the war that did much to help society understand mental illness in the context of war, even if this treatment was not really adopted at the time.

Today’s tale from the Police Courts doesn’t feature soldiers but it is related to the problem of mental health and its treatment in the 1800s. I’ve chosen 1892 because of the publishing of Kipling’s poem.

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A man named Smythe appeared at the West London Police Court to ask for a summons. The request was for a summons to bring the superintendent of a private lunatic asylum to court for unlawfully detaining a prisoner called ‘Carter’.  Mr W. Doveton Smythe explained that Carter had been imprisoned for five years for shooting at a man but, just four months before he was due to be released, he had been transferred to Broadmoor Prison in Berkshire, where criminals deemed to be ‘insane’ were confined.

From Broadmoor he was later taken to a pauper lunatic asylum (presumably being thought no longer to be dangerous) and then, at the request of his mother, he was placed in a private mental asylum. So, this prisoner, who had served his sentence, was now effectively being held against his will in a secure institution and Mr Smythe (whose relationship to the Carters is not made clear) was trying to get him out.

Mr Smythe told the magistrate, Mr Curtis Bennett, that Carter had been examined by an independent specialist  (Dr Flood) and visited by several friends. They all felt that he was ‘perfectly sane’. He wanted a summons against the superintendent for assault, since (as he was sure the magistrate was aware) ‘illegal detention is, technically, an assault’.

Mr Bennett was unconvinced. ‘Friends are really the worst people to form an opinion in such a case’, he told the complainant. ‘Unfortunately that has been the cause of many murders being committed’.

Moreover, this wasn’t the right place to make his request. Removing Carter from the private asylum would not overthrow the original decision to send him to Broadmoor or the pauper asylum. Therefore he advised Mr Smythe to take his complaint to the Lunacy Commissioners instead, and if he got no joy there he suggested the [Chancery] Master in Lunacy instead.

‘There is a remedy for almost every wrong in this country’, he declared, ‘though many people do not seek the right remedy’.

Mr Smythe thanked him and left, meanwhile poor Carter remained locked up in a private asylum.

[from The Standard, Friday, November 11, 1892]

The showman, the tram conductor, and the irritated magistrate.

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Fare dodging was frequently punished at the summary courts. Conductors of trams or buses, hackney coachmen, and train guards brought in travellers  who had refused or neglected to pay for their journeys. In some circumstance this was because they disputed the amount charged (most often when it came to cabs) or claimed that they hadn’t realised the vehicle was going as far as it was, or had missed their stop. It seems that in most of the instances that were reported by the press the customer paid up, often with an added penalty of paying the transport company’s court costs.

Harry Perkins was one such example of a fare dodger that annoyed the sitting magistrate  at Thames and ended up paying much more than he need have had he simply bought a ticket in the usual way.

Perkins was described as a ‘showman, living in a caravan at Dalston’. So perhaps he was a part of a travelling circus. His actions in late October 1890 certainly entertained the editor of The Standard who decided to submit his story to print for his readership. The circus man boarded a tram in Dalston and travelled to Shoreditch where he attempted to get off. At this point the conductor (‘Conway, badge 1227’) asked him for 1s for his fare. When this was refused Conway restrained his customer until a policeman was found who could take him into custody.

In court the next day Perkins was charged with refusing to pay his fare and with being drunk. The magistrate started by questioning the tram’s conductor as to Perkins’ conduct.

Was the prisoner drunk, Mr Williams asked Conway.

‘Well that depends’, came the reply.

‘What?’ said the justice.

‘It is a very difficult thing to say whether a man is drunk or not’, was Conway’s response.  ‘Some people say that a man is not drunk when he can stand; others say that…’

At this point the magistrate cut him off.

‘I don’t want a lecture on drunkenness’ he grumbled, ‘if you can’t prove that the man was drunk on your care there is an end of that part of the charge. How about refusing the fare?’

Once a sheepish Conway had muttered that yes, he had refused the shilling demanded Mr Williams turned his attention (and clear irrigation) to the showman in the dock. Why had he attempted to get off without paying he wanted to know.

‘I did not want to ride’, answered Perkins. ‘I got on the car, and found the seats on top wet, and the inside was full, so that I wanted to get off, and the conductor would not let me’.

‘But you had a good long ride’ declared Mr Williams, adding ‘so it took you about half-an-hour to find out that the seat was wet?’

The prisoner could only restate his previous explanation that he ‘did not want to ride’. The magistrate dismissed this with a curt statement that he was fining him 10for the trouble he had caused when all this could have been avoided had he simply paid, when asked, the 1s fare.

I rather suspect that the message Mr Williams was sending was intended for a wider audience than the circus man. His time had been wasted unnecessarily and he wanted to avoid similar cases coming before him in the future. It probably also served as a rebuke for the conductor (and therefore all bus and tram conductors) and allowed readers to chuckle over the discomfort of ‘jobsworths’ everywhere.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, October 29, 1890]

A cheesemonger runs, but he can’t hide

Ludgate Hill by Camille Pissarro, 1890

John Alfred Smith worked for a cheesemonger in the City of London (who had premises on Ludgate Hill), but in October 1890 Smith was summoned before Mr Denham at Wandsworth Police Court, to answer a charge that he had deserted his wife and family.

The prosecution was brought by the Poor law Guardians of Clapham and Wandsworth and therefore fell under Denham’s jurisdiction. Prosecuting, Mr Charter explained that Smith’s wife and her five children had applied for relief on the 30th August of that year.The circumstances of her application are not made clear, but it would seem that at some Smith simply didn’t come home.

What was established was that Smith had run his own business in Battersea but this seems to have collapsed and forced him to seek work elsewhere. With his business in tatters it the man appears to have decided his family was just too much for his pocket to maintain, and he abandoned them to the parish. However, there may have been another reason for his flight: in short, another woman.

Answering the summons before the magistrate Smith made the bold move of denying that he was married to the woman at all. He said no proper marriage had taken place and added that they had never lived together long enough for the relationship to be established as such. One wonders then how she managed to produce no less than five children.

Mrs Smith’s sister was called to give evidence and she described how Smith had taken her sibling, aged just 16, to Brighton ‘on the pretense of marrying her’. While no record of the marriage could be found it seems that there was at least anecdotal evidence of the union. Smith had, his sister-in-law swore, declared on their return that they were married. Mrs Smith also appeared in court to confirm that she was indeed married to the man in dock.

This was good enough for Mr Denham. Regardless of the veracity of her statement or that of her sister he thought it appalling that a woman and five children could be abandoned  in such a way. Smith ‘was morally guilty, whether she were his wife or not’. Moreover now it emerged that Smith had taken a new wife since his desertion, ‘a young woman who was suffering from nervous prostration brought about by his arrest’.

So it would seem that Smith had simply had enough of his former life. Abandoning Battersea, his failing business and its debts, and his wife and kids he relocated to the City and found work and a new (and younger) partner. Unfortunately for his attempt to disappear completely failed just as his business had, the state (in the person of the Clapham and Wandsworth Poor Law Union) caught up with him. The magistrate, angered both by Smith callousness towards his family and his blatant disregard for his responsibilities sent him to prison for six weeks at hard labour.

[from The Standard, Friday, October 17, 1890]

Bovril in hot water over its ‘dangerous’ method of advertising

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In the autumn of 1890 the London press had received a number of letters concerning a new method of advertising. Companies (especially those that did not have a high street presence) had begun to put up ‘sky signs’ that loomed over the metropolis atop tall buildings.

These signs ‘used the sky of heaven as a background for their advertisements’ and were particularly useful for businesses that were located ‘in back streets and out of reach of the public eye’. One such sign that had recently been erected advertised the merits of Bovril, ‘a thick and salty meat extract paste similar to a yeast extract, developed in the 1870s by John Lawson Johnston’ (wikipedia, 4/10/17).

The Clerkenwell vestry opposed the the installation of such sky signs because they felt they presented a risk to health and safety, and summoned the representatives of Bovril Ltd to Clerkenwell Police Court and prosecuted them under the Metropolis Management Act, 18 and 19 Victoria, cap 120 (1855) section 119. The section of legislation made it unlawful for anyone to block a passage or erect a sign that endangered road users and the vestry’s concern was that the Bovril sign (in particular the letter ‘B’)  might fall and crush passers by below.

The case for the vestry was presented by Mr Bodkin and he argued that since the letters were made of wood, and weighed ‘on average one hundredweight’ they constituted a real risk to those below. As noted above the letter B projected over Lever Street and so the vestry had ordered the firm to take them down. This request had been refused or ignored and so it ended up before Mr Bros at Clerkenwell. Bodkin argued that there was a very real risk the sign could fall and added that its elevated position made it entirely possible that it could be struck by lightning, fall or ignite the rest of the building in fire.

Defending Bovril, Mr Forrest Fulton suggested the concerns were overblown. He called Mr George Sage (of messrs. Sage), whose company had made the letters. Sage attempted to convince the magistrate (and the vestry) that there was no danger to anyone:

‘The letters were erected with the greatest care and every precaution was taken to avoid accidents’.

They had even attached a lightning conductor to the building as extra protection for the signage. Challenged by the vestry’s spokesman he said that he accepted that ‘London’s atmosphere might, in the course of years, weaken the structure’, but he called forward another member of Sage’s team who reassured the court that ‘no pressure of wind could bring the letter B down’. Mr Fulton also insisted that any fire risk was applicable to the building anyway, and not exacerbated by wooden letters above its roof.

An architect was produced who also testified that the structure was safe and Fulton confirmed that Bovril had agreed to have the sign inspected annually to ensure it was well maintained and presented no risk to the public. So, was this really about public safety or about the increasing presence of advertising? London was awash with commercial signage in the late nineteenth century; indeed it is one of things that first strikes you when you look at pictures of the capital like this Kilburn omnibus below (from c.1890).

LGOC bus Kilburn c1890

In the end I suspect Mr Bros the magistrate compromised because while he fined Bovril 40 for not complying with the vestry’s order this was a nominal amount and not a real disincentive to the advertisers. The paper noted that an appeal was likely and one imagines it would have considerable commercial support. Late Victorian and Edwardian England thrived on commerce and entrepreneurship and companies such as Bovril had deep pockets.

The days of the vestry as an influential body were also numbered, they would soon lose what little power they had to councils. One only has to take a ride through central London and along the river today to recognise that business has triumphed over the aesthetic desires of those that would prefer a less cluttered skyline or a more low-key use of advertising. This process started in the 1800s and has been relentless ever since.

[from The Standard, Saturday, October 04, 1890]

Charles Dickens is charged at Bow Street (for spreading a disease!)

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Charles Dickens, perhaps unusually for a novelist, was extremely popular in his own time with his stories being devoured  in serial form by tens of thousands of readers and his live performances drawing many others to the the theatre. His fame and admiration may well have led those who shared his surname to name their offspring after the great novelist. This would appear to be the background behind a rather unusual appearance at Bow Street Police court in September 1893 and perhaps explain why the editor of The Standard chose it as one of the few summary court cases he published that day.

Charles A. Dickens was a clerk working for a large firm based in Gloucester. On the 19 August 1893 Dickens had arrived in London with two of his sons, and they checked in to the West Central Temperance Hotel in Southampton Row.  As a 1927 guide tells us: ‘Temperance Hotels (especially in Bloomsbury), in which alcoholic liquors are not consumed, often afford comfortable quarters at very reasonable rates’, so perhaps this why Dickens (a clerk minding his pennies) selected it as a sensible place to stay.

On Sunday and Monday one of the children (also named Charles) was ill. On Tuesday he said he felt a little better but Mr Dickens was still concerned enough to call for a doctor. Having examined the boy the doctor (named Steggall) informed the clerk that his son was suffering from scarletina, the medical term for scarlet fever. As a highly infectious and potentially fatal illness Dickens should have isolated his son from others and informed the authorities; however he did neither of these things which is why he ended up facing a court case.

The magistrate at Bow Street (Mr Lushington – who had been promoted from the less the prestigious court at Thames) heard from Dickens’ lawyer (as the clerk himself did not  appear to testify in person) who spoke in defence of a charge brought by Mr H. C. Jones of the St. Giles Board of Works.

Mr Jones alleged that Dickens had breached the terms of the Public Health London Act (1891) by  exposing the sufferer of a contagious disease to others. The Dickens family had left the hotel without informing the proprietor of the boy’s illness. Mr Jones said that had the doctor not taken it upon himself to tell the hotel the room might have been let to other guests. As it was, once Dr Steggall had let them know of Charles’ condition,  the room was fumigated in accordance with the terms of the act.

Nevertheless, he said, the boy had still mingled with other guests in the ‘public coffee room’. Moreover they had then traveled back ‘on a public carriage and then a train to  Gloucester. How many people might have been infected was impossible to say’. Once back in Gloucester it appeared that Dickens had not even informed the medical authorities there, something Jones had checked with Dr Lovett at the Gloucester Sanitary commission.

Dr Francis Bond, from the Gloucester medical board, thought it serious enough to appear at Bow Street to back up Mr Jones’ case and help bring this to the attention of the press (and public). He explained that there was a ‘popular delusion’ that scarlet fever was only infectious in its later stages when in fact, he continued’, it was infectious from the beginning. As a result young Charles should have been isolated immediately and the relevant medical authorities informed.

In his defence Dickens’ lawyer argued that his client was unaware that scarletina was in fact scarlet fever and confirmed that the clerk wasn’t aware that the disease was contagious until ‘the peeling stage’. Thus he had ‘adopted the natural course of taking the child home to be nursed’. He hadn’t even been aware of the 1891 legislation (which is perhaps hardly surprising given that it was new and only applied to the capital).

However, ignorance is no defence in law and while Lushington was prepared to accept that it was a mistake and not a deliberate attempt to evade his responsibilities, he still fined the clerk two guineas with a  further five guineas costs. If Mr Dickens was unable to pay he added, he would go to prison for a month. Hopefully the clerk was able to produce the fines which were not insignificant. As for the author whose name both the clerk and his son shared, he knew all about the dangers of scarletina. His son (also Charles) contracted the illness in Paris in 1847. Scarlet fever was a dangerous disease, particularly for the children of the poor in Victorian England, and wasn’t really eradicated until the discovery of penicillin in the 20th century. That said, in recent years, it seems to have made a comeback.

The case here then reveals not only the celebrity of Charles Dickens (and his wide influence) but also the use of the papers as a way to inform the wider public of the law and the consequences of breaking it. This story served to remind readers (many of whom were working class) that the magistracy had the power to intervene in private lives, and that all citizens had responsibilities, not only for the health of their own family members but a also had duty of care to others. These then were not simply ‘criminal’ courts, they had a much wider purview.

[from The Standard, Saturday, September 16, 1893]

‘An extraordinary story’ of a missing boy in North London

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Mrs Ada Wigg was clearly at her wits end when she presented herself at the North London Police Court in early September 1898. She said she needed the magistrate’s helping in finding her missing son, Frank. The Wiggs lived in Shrubland Grove, Dalston and on Saturday 3 September she had despatched Frank (who was aged 11 and a half) to Sailsbury Square in the City on business.

The boy came home in a hansom cab paid for by a ‘gentleman’ he had met. This man had apparently bought the young boy dinner, given him a shilling and told him that if he came again he would  ‘keep him and make a gentleman of him’.

For a young lad from East London (even one from a family that sounds like they were doing ok) this might have sounded very tempting, to his mother it must have been horrifying. Ada told her son that he was forbidden from ever seeing the man again and hoped that was that. Unfortunately on Sunday Frank went off to church as usual at 10.30 in the morning, but hadn’t been seen since. Mrs Wigg went to the police and they followed up enquiries around the boy’s known haunts, even sending a telegraph to Lichfield where they had friends, but to no avail.

It is hard to look back in time with any degree of certainty but it looks from here as if young Frank was being groomed. Mr D’Eyncourt thought it an ‘extraordinary story’ and hoped that by reporting in the newspapers the boy might be noticed and found. His mother gave a description that was carefully recorded by the court reporter. Frank was:

‘Tall, fair and good looking, with blue eyes. He was wearing a light Harrow suit and patent shoes, and carried a silver lever watch and chain’.

Mrs Wigg had not seen the gentleman concerned but the boy had told he was aged ‘about 50, tall and grey’.

Two days later The Standard carried  brief follow up to the story. The reporter at North London said a telegram had been received at the court which read:

“Frank Gent Wigg found safe at Clapham. Grateful thanks to Magistrate, Police and Press”, Mrs A Wigg.

So the publicity worked on this occasion and whatever the mysterious gentleman had in store for Frank – even if it was simply a benign desire to give him a leg up in life – was averted.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, September 06, 1898; The Standard, Thursday, September 08, 1898]