A cabbie pushes his luck at Bow Street

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When Julius Beale hailed  a cab at Regent’s Circus at 1 in the morning it is fair to say he was a little the worse for drink. As the cab headed off towards his home in Gower Street, Beale fell asleep and didn’t wake until he was dimply aware of being outside his front door. While his head was clouded by the alcohol he had consumed he felt sure he’d paid the driver and made it up the stairs to his front door. However, as the cab pulled off he was suddenly aware that his watch – an expensive gold time piece – was missing. Assuming he had left it in the cab or it had been lifted while he slept, he ran after the vehicle. Eventually a passing policeman helped him stop the driver. The cab was searched and his watch and chain was discovered under the seat.

The next morning Beale, the policeman and the cab driver were all in the Bow Street Police Court where a charge of theft was brought against the driver, John Leggatt.

Having heard Beale’s evidence Leggatt’s lawyer, Mr Abrams, cross-examined the prosecutor.  Crucially of course he had been inebriated and therefore his testimony was fairly suspect at best. Could he really recall exactly what had happened? Had he in fact even paid the fare for his journey? An alternative scenario was presented in which Beale was actually running away from the cab driver who was demanding his money.

The policeman confirmed Beale’s account of the events but this didn’t include any evidence that Leggatt had stolen the watch or that Beale had paid him for the ride. It merely confirmed that the ‘cabman was driving away at a trot, pursued [it seemed] by the prosecutor’.

As far as Mr Henry, the Bow Street magistrate, was concerned there was not enough evidence either to convict Leggatt in a summary court or send him for jury trial. He concluded that:

 ‘the circumstances of the case were very suspicious, but drunken men sometimes did very strange things, and it was quite possible that the prosecutor might have put the watch and chain under the seat himself. At all events no jury would convict the prisoner on the evidence of a drunken man’.

And so he discharged him.

At this Abram decided to push his (or rather his client’s) luck. He said he hoped that Beale would now settle his fare. Mr Henry strongly advised Beale not to however. The cabbie had been driving away at a trot and this seemed suspicious if he hadn’t been paid. He should have at least have taken the man’s address and best practice would have been to drive him directly to the ‘station-house, that the [police] inspector might settle any dispute’.

The magistrate invited Mr Abrams to apply for a summons if he wished to take it further but he declined, given what he had heard from the justice. His client however, was much less easily dissuaded and did apply for one. Mr Henry told him he ‘could have the summons if he liked but it would probably not succeed, as he (Mr Henry) had very little doubt he had been paid’. Reflecting on this Leggatt chose to cut his losses and not spend his money on a summons that was doomed to fail.

Was Leggatt a thief? Possibly, or perhaps he saw the dropped watch and thought he’d take advantage of the windfall. Was Beale a fare-dodger? Again, how can we know that? In all likelihood he did pay or the cab driver would have pursued him on the night. The moral is probably don’t get into a cab when you’re drunk.

[from The Morning Post , Saturday, May 17, 1862]

Last night I went to a London Historians event at the Sir Christopher Hatton pub in Leather Lane where we were entertained by an excellent musician Henry Skewes (who set old ballads about convict transportation to music) and two fascinating talks on the history of crime. The first, by Dr Lucy Williams of Liverpool University, focused on the life of one woman convicted at the Old Bailey in 1876. Lucy, and the other speaker, Professor Tim Hitchcock of Sussex, are part of the Digital Panopticon project which is tracing the lives of those sentenced to exile in Australia after 1788.

Lucy uses the records of the courts, the census, and newspaper sources like these to track her ‘criminals’ through time and the findings of these long term project are already challenging what we understand about criminality and individual lives in the past. While I’m not part of the project my own work is already revealing how important it is to look outside the jury courts if we want to study criminality in the past. I started in the summary courts of the 18th century but have now moved on to this work on the 1800s, because here we seen a much better recording of crime and those involved in it. I will be presenting my academic version of this work in Liverpool, to the Digital Panopticon team, in September of this year.

 

Losing ‘the war on drugs’: a nineteenth-century perspective

It is probably reasonable to say that for some people – the church, police, social reformers, and government – the consumption of alcohol has long been an issue of concern. Most of the problems of society in the nineteenth century seem to have been  associated with drinking at some point or another and sobriety was held to be a virtue. Whether they were were discussing poverty, domestic violence or anti-social behaviour the ‘demon drink’ was at the heart of the matter.

The Police Courts overflowed on Monday mornings with those dragged up from the cells on charges of being ‘drunk and disorderly’, ‘drunk and incapable’ or ‘drunk and refusing quit licensed premises’. Most were fined (with the threat of gaol if they didn’t pay up) while the worst offenders (i.e those that used violence or resisted arrest) could expect to spend a few weeks or months in a house of correction.

So one of the functions of the courts was to deal with the effects of alcohol but they also regulated the trade in beer and spirits. Justices of the Peace (magistrates) had been involved in issuing licenses from at least the late seventeenth century, and they continued to do this in the 1800s. Look above the door of any pub and you can often find the notice that denotes the right of the landlord to sell you a pint.

There were restrictions (locally applied) to the opening hours a landlord could keep but after 1872 the first national licensing law was introduced. The Intoxicating Liquor (Licensing) Act (also known as the Aberdare Act) was unpopular (as most restrictions on our consumption of ‘booze’ are!)  and it brought protests and a petition to Parliament, all to little effect.

Governments were also concerned to control the manufacture, importation and sale of alcohol (especially spirits) through taxation and this of course led to smuggling and the development of an illicit trade in home made alcohol.

In late March 1851 Henry Haines and Elizabeth Collins appeared at Clerkenwell Police Court charged ‘by the excise with having been concerned in working in a private still’.

Two officers of the excise, George Lowe and Richard Oliver, working on information they had received, turned up at a premises on St John’s Street, Clerkenwell at five o’clock on Monday, March 24th. They knocked the door and were met by a man who was struggling to restrain two large bulldogs. He quickly asked them to wait so he could tie them up, warning that otherwise they might bite them.

It was a ruse of course, while the excise men waited the man made his escape. Lowe and Oliver entered the building and soon found a kitchen with a large still in it. Haines was in his shirt sleeves busily working; Elizabeth Collins (who turned out to be the wife of the man that had run away) was also working in the kitchen along with a small boy, her son.

This was a serious operation; the officers reported that there was a ‘thirty-gallon copper still [which was] charged with rectifying spirits, and running from the worm end, and more than fifty-five over proof.  There were one hundred gallons of molasses wash in three tubs, and in a can seven gallons of strong spirits, and five bags evidently for yeast.’ There was lots of water and a fire burned under the still.

All of the goods were seized and the operation was shut down. Haines was fined £30 (about £1,7000 in today’s money) with a three month prison sentence with hard labour should he default on the payment. Collins was discharged on the assumption that she ‘acted under the coercion of her husband’.

It doesn’t reveal what the still was making but the widespread availability of cheap gin in the 1800s was a contemporary concern that agitated social commentators. Plenty of satirical prints and popular songs warned of, and  occasional celebrated, Londoner’s love/hate relationship with drink. This still was closed down but many others would have sprung up in its place; Haines’ fine might seem a hefty one but the profits to made outweighed the risks of being penalized. The authorities were fighting a losing battle, just as the we are losing (or have lost) the modern war on illegal drugs.

[from (Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, March 30, 1851]

The wrong sort of military violence

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The Crimean War had raised some concerns about the quality of recruits to the British army and about the diseases they were exposed to at home and abroad. Large numbers of soldiers were admitted to military hospitals suffering from sexually transmitted conditions, and in the aftermath of the war attempts were made to control prostitution  and general disease with the passing of the (ultimately ineffectual) Contagious Diseases Acts (1864, 1866, and 1869).

Disease and prostitution went had-in-hand with off-duty drinking, another problem for the military authorities. Not infrequently soldiers fell foul of the civil authorities as a result of their commitment to ‘boozing’, and many of them found their way into the Police Courts. In March 1859 (three years after the Crimean War ended) a number of soldiers appeared in front of London magistrates.

At Lambeth Police Court George Robinson and Richard Burns (privates in the Grenadier Guards) were charged with being drunk and disorderly at the Crown pub. The story is interesting for one of the details which then links this to another case, at Southwark, on the same day.

The pair had entered the Crown on the evening of 17 March and while they weren’t Irish they were ‘keeping up’ St Patrick’s Day. They were already drunk however, and the landlord, a Mr Broadhurst, refused to serve them. Landlords were obliged to keep good order and refusing more alcohol to the already semi-inebriated was a wise move. Unfortunately for Broadhurst and his son, who was also serving behind the bar, this only provoked trouble from the soldiers.

Having been denied beer they attempted to get over the bar and help themselves. As the Broadhursts tried to stop them they were attacked. Burns took off his heavy leather belt and started to strike young master Broadhurst with it.

The police were called and they were marched off to the station, but not before several panes of glass had been smashed and a number of people injured, including the police who arrested them. The magistrates fined them 10s or 10 day in prison for wilful damage and a further 10s for the violence.

Over at Southwark a similar case of drunken military violence was being heard. John Whitsey (of the Coldstream Guards) was accused of assaulting a policeman and a member of the public, whilst drunk on Borough High Street.

PC James McCarthy (134M) was on his beat at 11.15 at night when he heard a disturbance. He saw Whitsey punch a man, knocking him to the floor. When the man got up, the guardsman hit him again, returning him to the street. When PC McCarthy tried to intervene Whitsey turned don him, kicking out and trying to take his legs from under him. All the time the guardsman was using ‘the most disgusting language’ McCarthy had ever heard.

The soldier was clearly drunk and belligerent. McCarthy was forced to call for help and ‘sprang his rattle’ (these were the days before the police were issued with whistles). In the scuffle that ensued the rattle was broken before the solider was eventually subdued.

The reporter noted that in court Whitsey appeared without his belt – ‘a sign of former bad conduct’ – and the belt seems significant to me in another way. In the last quarter of the 1800s young hands in London and Salford (but also in other towns) were using belts as a weapon. The Salford ‘scuttlers’ decorated heavy leather belts with horse brasses and wielded these as effective flails to beat their opponents and cause previous wounds. The belt (like the slipper’) was the weapon of choice for domestic violence – whether against spouses, children or servants, and since braces actually did the job of holding up one’s trousers it was an easy item to use in a fight.

Whether Whitsey had been divested of his belt at the the station to prevent further violence or whether the military had taken it away as a sharing punishment is a mystery, but either way it demonstrated he was ‘a bad sort’.

The man that Whitsey had knocked to the ground didn’t appear in court. The PC told the magistrate, Mr Coombe, that he was a ‘working man’ and probably couldn’t take the time to attend. Mr Coombe told the soldier that he was lucky; without a victim prepared to testify against him he would only be dealt with for the assault on the policeman. He fined him 5s, or seven days in prison.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Saturday, March 19, 1859]

One thirsty fellow’s scheme for ‘raising the wind’.

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Vauxhall Bridge c.1829

James Edwards was a man with a tremendously large thirst but very small funds. In early 1854 he came up with a cunning plan to cash in on what may have been a fairly common practice. Unfortunately for him it backfired, and in late February he found himself in the dock of the Westminster Police Court.

One day a house in Besborough Gardens, Pimlico, was inundated with tradesmen delivering all sorts of goods and services. Between 15 and 18 different butchers, bakers, sweeps, french polishers and the like descended on the fashionable parade near Vauxhall Bridge. The staff and the unnamed gentleman that resided there were puzzled – no one had ordered anything.

One can imagine the chaotic scene with bewildered homeowner turning away frustrated and annoyed tradesmen – perhaps much like the exchanges between Charles Pooter and his butcher and the other tradesmen that called on him (and then fell over his badly positioned boot scraper).

The gentleman and his family at first assumed it must have been ‘a hoax got up by some mischievous person’ but eventually the trail was traced back to James Edwards.

Edwards had apparently gone around the various local tradesmen making spurious orders for unwanted items and services in the hope that he would received a tip. This came in the form of ‘a few halfpence or pints of beer’ and, with up to 18 orders he must have had plenty of money or alcohol to drink himself silly for the rest of the afternoon.

Whether it was good luck or inside knowledge is not made clear in the report, but the family’s cook, who normally placed most of the orders for the household, had recently left. This allowed such an unusual situation to occur. Edwards had, as the paper reported, discovered  a new ‘mode of raising the wind’ (or obtaining there necessary funds).

It was a nuisance if not a crime and in the absence of the cook’s testimony that she had not made the orders the magistrate was obliged to give him the benefit of the doubt. He ordered him to enter into his own recognisances to behave himself for the next six months and warned the tradesmen to be on ‘their guard against tricks of this description’.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, February 27, 1854]

Plunder on the Thames or merely a perk of the job?

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In late February 1828 two young men were brought before the Lord Mayor  at Mansion House charged with ‘having taken some bushels of corn’ from a loaded cargo vessel they were working on.

The pair (who were not named in the newspaper report) were employed as lightermen on the Thames river  – ‘the people who have operated the boats on the Thames with a history going back hundreds of years’.

The prosecution was brought by a Mr Ashford, a corn factor  (a trader in corn) who had sent the bushels as samples to his customers. Presumably if the quality (and price) were acceptable they would then enter into contracts to take regular deliveries from him.

Ashford told the Lord Mayor that it was becoming ‘a general practice with lightermen to plunder corn vessels’ and that while he was loath to press ‘to have any punishment inflicted’ he wanted something done to stop it.

He probably recognised that he needed the lightermen on side as it was, to convey his samples and future deliveries along the crowded waterway of the capital. He may also have been acknowledging that for hundreds of years those working on the river (as lightermen, dockers and warehousemen) had a long standing belief that they had rights to a part of the cargos they conveyed, unloaded or secured.

The concept of customary rights or perquisites (‘perks) has been understood by social historians to form part of the ‘economy of makeshifts’ of working men and women in the long eighteenth century and beyond. Carpenters working at the naval shipyards on the Thames took home offcuts of wood to build stairs in their homes, dock workers felt entitled to help themselves to plugs of tobacco or ‘sips’ of alcohol; while coal heavers swept up the dregs of coal from boats coming in from the North East and South Wales to use on their fires.

This alternative economy (which had its examples in almost all small industries and in agriculture) was increasingly suppressed as capitalism took hold in the 1700s and employers used the growing sheaf of property laws to prosecute for theft.

Perks still exist of course; who hasn’t taken home some office stationary for personal use, used the employer’s phone or surfed the internet on a work PC; or perhaps exploited staff discount for friends? We have a deep seated sense of entitlement to the benefits of working for this or that company, institution or individual and it is hard tom let go of (or police of course).

In the end the Lord Mayor decided not to proceed against the two lightermen, taking on board what the corn trader had requested. But he laid down a marker:

He said he was ‘perfectly aware of the practice, which, if not actual felony, came very near it; and, if after this warning, were not discontinued, he would, in any future case, recommend prosecution’.

He then sent the men away with a flea in their ears.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, February 25, 1828]

 

 

When drugs were considered a lesser evil than alcohol; opium dealers in late 19th century Lambeth

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Until the 20th century drug abuse (as we would term it) wasn’t really a matter for the law. Despite characterisations of areas such as Limehouse in the East End as overrun by opium dens London actually had relatively few addicts compared to the USA or Europe. Britain had of course famously fought a war to ensure that it could continue to supply the people of China with opium (against the wishes of the Chinese government) – an interesting reversal of modern fears about ‘foreign’ imported drugs being used to undermine our citizens’ physical and mental health.

In fact opium was widely available in England in the 19th century, and not just from opium dens or the local Chinese population. You could get opium, or its derivatives such as laudanum , from the chemist until well into the 1920s.

So when James Clark (a 65 year-old traveler) and James Prior, described as a labourer, were brought before the magistrate at Lambeth charged with having in their possession 2 and a half gallons of ‘over-proof’ spirits and 3lb of opium it was the alcohol that concerned the authorities, not the ‘hard’ drugs.

They had been under suspicion and when they were followed by officers from the Inland Revenue their barrow was found to contain the ‘articles mentioned in the charge’, of ‘which they gave a very unsatisfactory account’.

They were also personally searched and papers were found on them that linked them to a gang concerned with the ‘illicit trade’ in the sale of unlicensed liquor. This was a case of tax evasion not the supply of illegal drugs that it would have been today.

The alcohol they had was ‘at least 50% over proof’ which presumably means they intended to dilute it to make considerably more than the 2.5 gallons they already had. The justice told them they could be liable for a massive fine, of up to £500. Instead he fined them £50 (or four months imprisonment) and £15 (or two) respectively, with the more serious sentence for Clark.

What happened to the opiates is anybody’s guess.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, February 05, 1890]

Who on earth was Countess Nelson?

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In early 1838 a man appeared at Marlborough Street Police Court charged with embezzling ‘sums of money’ from Countess Nelson.

This caught my eye because my boyhood was Horatio Nelson. From an early age (I think I remember having a Ladybird book on Nelson) I was fascinated by his story. I suspect much of Nelson’s history is suffused with myth; a result of distortions by his early biographers (like Southey) and the repetition of heroic tales over time. But I liked the fact that this man from relatively humble origins in Norfolk rose to be the greatest warrior that England has produced.

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Whether he shot a polar bear as a teenage midshipman is unimportant, as is the exact story behind him ‘turning a blind eye’; the brilliance of his victory at Aboukir Bay and the vital importance of defeating the combined French and Spanish fleet at Trafalgar were thrilling to me as a young boy.

There is an adage of course that one should never meet your heroes. The closest I have ever got to Nelson is his tomb at St Paul’s or his memorial in Trafalgar Square (although I have made the pilgrimage to Burnham Thorpe in Norfolk where he was born and trod the decks of HMS Victory  at Portsmouth).

As an adult the biographies I have read of this greatest of English heroes have been careful to present his other side. The vanity of the man must have been awful, his treatment of Frances Nisbet his wife, his galavanting with the wife of his friend Lord Hamilton, and his oppression of popular uprising in Naples; all jar against the popular image of Horatio Nelson.

Ultimately I remain a fan. I can separate the sea captain, the patriot, the strategist and the brave leader who cared for his troops, from the arrogant, illiberal, self-centred man who cheated on his wife. But while we have had a recent exhibition focused on the life of Nelson’s love, Emma Hamilton, what of the lady she replaced?

Nelson married Frances Nisbet in 1787 after they had met on the Caribbean island of Nevis. Frances had been married before but her husband, a doctor, had died. Military marriages are difficult to maintain over distances, and naval ones in the 18th century even more so given that men were at sea for months on end. When Nelson met Emma at Naples the writing was on the wall for Frances and his marriage.

After the admiral’s death in 1805 at Trafalgar she herself fell ill but made a recovery. She moved to Paris for a while (to live with her son) before returning to England and setting down in Exeter. She died in 1831 in London, in Harley Street.

So who, I wonder, was the Countess Nelson who appeared as part of a court case in January 1838?

Francis Wright, ‘a respectable looking man’ was brought before the magistrate at Marlborough Street for embezzlement. The court heard that Wright had left the Countess’ service some weeks before and had set himself up in business with a beer shop on the Clapham Road.

Wright was charged with ‘forging a certain receipt with intent to defraud Lady Nelson’ and a warrant was executed to bring him in. He was asked to produce his account book but told the justice he was unable to as he had torn it up to ‘make pipe-lights for his customers’. How convenient. He was remanded for further enquiries.

The case didn’t reach the Old Bailey but it may have been too trivial for that and been dealt with later by the summary process. The nature of the court reportage means its not always possible to trace these cases further.

However, I can reveal who Countess Nelson was. She was most probably Hilare (more properly Mrs George) Knight. She had previously been married to William Nelson, Horatio’s brother. William had been given his more famous brother’s title (including that of the Duke of Bronte, Sicily) and so when the couple married in 1829 she adopted the title of Countess Nelson.

In 1835 William died and in 1837 (one year before this case) she remarried, to George Knight, a relative of Jane Austen – so as one researcher noted she was well connected with two famous literary names!

Interestingly as a footnote, neither the original Lady Nelson or Emma Hamilton would live to see the monument to the admiral open in their lifetime. Nelson’s column was erected between 1840-3 at a cost of £47,000 (over £2m today), much of it from public subscription. Frances Nelson died in 1831 and Emma died, penniless, in 1815. Countess Nelson however lived until 1857 so may have strolled beneath the gaze of her illustrious relative by marriage.

[from The Morning Post, Sunday, January 29, 1838]