When an unnamed woman was charged with disorderly conduct at Mansion Police Police court in December 1841 the sitting justice took it upon himself to make a statement to the press. Sir Peter Laurie, the incumbent Lord Mayor, didn’t inflict further punishment on the woman because she had already been locked up overnight in the City’s compter (a old term for a prison). However, all leniency stopped there.
The Lord Mayor had previously punished her for attempting to ‘destroy herself’ (in other words for attempting suicide) by jumping off one of the capital’s bridges. Sir Peter said that there had been considerable numbers of suicide attempts in the past few months. No less than 26 people had been charged with the offence at Guildhall and a further five at Mansion House from September to October.
As a result he had determined to deal with all future cases more severely. In November he had sent a man to Bridewell in an attempt to check ‘so revolting an offence’ by ‘a little wholesome severity’. That individual had tried to cut his own throat because he was suffering from ‘poverty and idleness’. A day later he sent a woman to the Old Bailey to face a jury trial. His fellow justice, Sir Chapman Marshall, followed his lead and committed a man for ‘attempting to drown himself’. In both cases the accused pleaded guilty and received a sentence of 14 days imprisonment.
Since then there had been a notable falling off in persons attempting to take their own lives so Sir Peter commended the actions of the bench.
The clerk of the court ‘observed that several desperate imposters had made money by the experiment of tumbling into the Thames. The infliction of imprisonment and hard labour for the offence would certainly check the practice as far as pretenders were concerned, whatever effect it might have on those that seriously wished to get rid of life.’ He added that the ‘great majority’ were imposters in his opinion.
Sir Peter concluded by warning ‘every man and woman brought before me jumping or trying to jump into the river shall most positively walk off to Newgate [gaol] , and I am very much mistaken if the Judges do not henceforward inflict upon offenders very heavy punishments’.
It hardly needs to be said that such draconian attitudes to what may well have been genuine mental health issues would not be applied today. Attempting suicide is no longer an offence under law although persons displaying suicidal tendencies may well be sectioned, and forcibly confined. So the Victorian bench looks particularly uncaring in this regard. But before we congratulate ourselves on living in more enlightened times we might note the report of the parliamentary commission created by the late Jo Cox that has revealed the worrying extent of loneliness in modern Britain.
[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, December 15, 1841]