An ill-conceived attempt to impose unwanted laws leads to rioting in London

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In June 1855 a bill was introduced to Parliament to close down shops and to suspend public transport  on Sundays, to better enforce the observation of the Sabbath. The bill was presented by Lord Robert Grosvenor and it sparked a series of demonstrations by working-class Londoners attacking the bill and the hypocrisy of the aristocratic class that sought to impose it. As the history Gerry White has described the ‘mob’:

‘assembled along the carriage drives between the Serpentine and Kensington Gardens crowds assembled to hoot and hiss the phaetons of the rich and their Sabbath-breaking servants. There were cries of ‘Go to Church!’ and horses were made to shy and bolt.’

The disorder spread and on Sunday 1st July around 150,000 people turned out to protest and Lord Grosvenor’s house was attacked and his windows smashed. The police eventually restored some order after a baton charge but almost 50 constables were injured. It was an example of the periodic outbreaks of rioting that London has seen down the centuries, the most recent of which being those that started in Tottenham in 2011. Perceived injustice, legitimate concerns ignored, overly officious policing, and extended periods of hot weather can combine to tip communities over the edge and inspire hot heads to take to the streets.

After the August 2011 riots hundreds of people found themselves before the capital’s magistrate courts, mostly of charges of looting. The punishments handed down to some (like Nicolas Robinson, jailed for 6 months for stealing a bottle of water) also demonstrate a historical continuity; in times of ‘moral panic’ or when authority is so obviously challenged the courts tend to overreact. At the end of the Gordon Riots (1780) dozens were publicly hanged  in mass executions as a show of determination by the state to those that had caused such chaos in the metropolis for a week in June.

In the aftermath of the riots against Lord Grosvenor’s Sunday Trading Bill there were dozens of prosecutions before the London Police magistrates. On Sunday 15 July Reynold’s Newspaper reported several examples including that of Charles Whitehouse, a lad of 14, who was present in the crowd gathered outside the peer’s London home in Park Street.

The case (that of smashing windows and so causing criminal damage) was presented by Inspector Webb of the Metropolitan Police. Webb described how he had seen the boy throw a stone towards his lordship’s window and had moved into the crowd to arrest him. Several of those assembled complained, saying that he had done nothing, but the inspector ignored them and tried to extract him and take him back to the station house.

As the inspector and a group of constables led Charles away there was a cry of ‘rescue’ and the crowd turned their fury on the police, pelting them with stones and anything else they could find. The attack was so violent that the police were forced to take refuge in the Mount Street workhouse. Two of his officers had been so badly hurt they still hadn’t been able to return to their duties.

He continued to explain how, while they sheltered in the workhouse, ‘the mob became so furious, calling for the release of the boy, otherwise they would pull down the building, that it was thought advisable, to prevent more serious consequences, for the constables to sally out with their prisoners, and literally fight their way through the mob to the lock-up house’.

In his defence Charles said that he had been forced to throw a stone by others in the crowd. His cap had been swept from his head by a man behind him who urged him to join in with the collective rage against the Grosvenor property. He was warned that failure to do so would mean he never saw his cap again.

Whether this was a weak excuse or the truth is impossible to say, but it made no impression on the Marlborough Street magistrate, Mr Hardwick. Addressing the boy he declared:

‘You must have been very imperfectly educated to have done an act of malice to a person to whom you are a stranger and who never did you the last harm’.

His next words were aimed at any of those present in court that might have been involved and, via the newspaper, the wider reading public. The boy’s actions were serious he said, and as for the context – the widespread rioting – that, if proven, could result in a  sentence of transportation to Australia. If anyone came before him charged with inciting or organising the rioting and stone throwing he would commit them for trial as he was ‘determined that both property and the public peace shall be protected’.

The boy’s father appeared in court and was there to hear his son be fined the relatively huge sum of 40s (over £100) for throwing one stone. He was mortified he said, and had tried to prevent all three of his children from getting mixed up in the trouble. On the day he had taken two of his boys on a long walk as far away from the crowds as he could but had never thought that Charles was likely to get mixed up in it.

Boys will be boys of course, and whatever his motivations I’m sure Charles was simply excited that something was happening and his curiosity got the better of him. Like Nicolas Robinson he ended up doing something he would probably never have done if it hadn’t been for the circumstances, and both young men paid the price for it as the authorities hit out at those they could catch in the wake of both incidents of rioting.

Lord Grosvenor quickly dropped his unpopular Sunday Trading bill and peace returned to the capital’s streets. Riots are often symptoms of underlying tensions based on perceptions of (or actual) inequality, the lack of a voice, impotence and frustration; it only takes a small spark (like the killing of Mark Duggan by the police, or the death of Cynthia Jarrett) to ignite the flames.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, July 15, 1855]

Two ungrateful sons take out their anger on their mother’s effects

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Mercer Street, Seven Dials c.1890

When Mrs Lang lost her husband she also lost the main breadwinner and the driving force for the family business. The Langs had run a coppersmith business in Mercer Street, close to  Covent Garden. Fortunately for Mrs Lang she had two grown up sons and they undertook to help out in the running of the workshop.

However, the brothers, William and George, were not keen to take on the business for ever and soon began to resent working for their mother. They hit on the idea to emigrate and decided to seek their fortunes in Australia. Australia, which had once been deemed only fit as a dumping ground for Britain’s unwanted criminals, was now flourishing. It had enjoyed its own gold rush and the transportation of felons had come to a halt in the 1860s. Now, in May 1890, it looked like an attractive destination for the Lang brothers, but they needed to the funds to get there and establish themselves.

They began by asking their mother for money, above and beyond what they earned from working in the shop. The requests soon turned to demands, and eventually to demands with menaces. So concerned was Mrs Lang that she told her solicitor who wrote to the men warning them to desist.

This did nothing to deter them however and after their mother rejected demand for a sum of £500 they threatened to ‘do for her’ and then went to her home and smashed it up. The damage they did was considerable. While the elderly lady sheltered in her bedroom the pair set to work on her effects. When she felt it was safe to emerge she found a trail of devastation:

All ‘her pictures and ornaments had been smashed, and were lying about in atoms. The damage would amount to quite £30’ [£1,800 today]. A week later William went further, assaulting his mother by striking her ‘several blows’.

After appearing in court at Marlborough Street William was formally committed for trial while George, although acquitted of causing the damage, was ordered to find sureties (to the tune of £50) to keep the peace towards his mother for six months.

[from The Standard, Friday, May 16, 1890]

A ‘daring robbery’ or an opportunistic pickpocket?

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In the eighteenth century the quintessential property crime of the day was highway robbery, and the highwayman was the archetypal criminal. By the end of the Napoleonic wars however, the era of men like Dick Turpin was over and their exploits were passing into legend. As the Georgian period changed into the Victorian, the highwayman was replaced by the burglar.

That is not to say that highway robbery did not take place. The offence, if not the romantic image of the offender, persisted and remains to this day. Robbery, in terms of the law in the 1800s, meant theft with violence or the threat of violence. If it took place on the street – the king’s (or queen’s) highway – then it became highway robbery. In the 21st century we tend to call it mugging, but we are talking about the same thing.

We need to to be careful of course when we look at the way the term was used by the newspapers in the past, because they had a tendency to exaggerate and use emotive language to entertain or worry their readers. Take this story for example, is this a highway robbery or a less direct example of pocket picking?

Mr Lee, a carver and gilder, was in Oxford Street one Friday evening in May 1836 and called a hansom cab to take him home. As he was about to step into the cab he slipped and fell onto the street. The cab driver, Thomas Hands, jumped down from his seat to help him. Seeing another man nearby, he called him over to help. Thomas Hands then gave him his hand to help him up and into the vehicle.

As Lee sat down however, he realised he’d lost his pocket watch, having been absolutely convinced it and his chain had been there a few minutes earlier. His suspicions immediately turned to the pair that had helped him and he got out of the cab and called over a nearby policeman.

At this Hands ‘lashed his horse, and succeeded in getting away’. He was picked up later though having been identified by the victim and a witness, he didn’t have the watch on him however.

The witness was an errand boy named James Clarke who worked at 89 Oxford Street. He had been passing by and told the sitting magistrate at Marylebone that he saw Hands take the watch and chain out of Lee’s pocket as he helped him up. Another man (known only as ‘Jack’) was involved, and when Thomas had pinched the watch he palmed it to him. He had apparently wanted to give it back to the driver but Hand had declined saying , ‘Cut away with it, Jack’, imploring him to run away. At the time it was Clarke who, having sen the theft, had run after the policeman to tell him Hands was the thief but did not have the watch.

A few days later the watch turned up in a pawnbroker’s shop, owned by Mr Cordell in Compton Street. It had been pawned by Sarah the day after the robbery but watches were easy to identify and some pawnbrokers were on the alert for stolen goods.

The The Morning Post described it as ‘Daring Highway Robbery’ and it certainly took place on a busy thoroughfare. It seemed to have involved a ‘gang’ of criminals, and if not planned it was at least well-executed. The three were working together, but whether they were simply taking advantage of an opportunity or had arranged it so that Hand’s fare would slip is hard to say. The actual crime here was taking the watch from the gilder’s pocket whilst he was unaware of it and that is ‘privately stealing’ rather than robbery. But the fact that two men were involved makes it feel more like a mugging.

The pair were fully committed for trial despite their protestations that they were as ‘innocent as new born “babbies”‘. Sarah Rose was acquitted, probably because little direct evidence could pin her to the crime. Thomas was asked who ‘Jack’ was but denied knowing anyone of that name, just as he denied any involvement in the theft. The charge was pocket picking, not robbery, which rather supports the idea that the press wanted to make it sound more dramatic than it was. Having your pocket picked on Oxford Street is hardly newsworthy after all.

The outcome was dramatic however, Thomas Hands was convicted and sentenced to be transported to Australia for life. Today an Oxford Street pick-pocket might expect to be fined, warned or perhaps imprisoned if it could be demonstrated that they had a record of offending. I’ve looked at the magistrate’s sentencing guidelines and compared the criteria for this case. It would seem Thomas Hands fits the criteria to be deemed a significant player (in that he stole the goods), that there was an element of planning, and that the goods taken (the watch) was of some value to the owner. If he came before a magistrate today at worst I suspect he would have been sent prison for 6 months to a year.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, May 13, 1836]

Three lads in a boat, bound for Australia with ‘tea, cheese’ and a sense of adventure.

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Thomas Stead was only a young boy when he was brought to the Bow Street Police Court, the most senior of the summary courts of the capital. He was charged with stealing two bank cheques and a dagger.

Thomas was only 14 and had been arrested with two other lads in an open boat by officers from the Thames Police , who patrolled London’s arterial river. When they were seized they were found to be well equipped, with tea, cheese, candles, etc., and a pair of revolvers’. The boys’ stated plan was to row to Australia!

I’ve no idea why it was only Thomas that appeared at Bow Street, or what happened to the others, but perhaps he was the only one without a family to look after him.

The sitting magistrate was clearly somewhat impressed by the spirit and determination of this young thief, but at the same felt it necessary to try and cure him of his ‘stealing propensities’ (as he put it). He sent him to the reformatory at Feltham – a young offenders  institution that still exists (and I recall visiting when my father used to play football for the London Probation Service team).

The justice hoped, he said, that the 10 days he would have to spend in prison before Feltham (as was required with all reformatory sentences, quite against the wishes of Mary Carpenter who had champion this form of rehabilitation for youthful felons), and the spell in the Reformatory itself, would affect a change in the boy.

Then, ‘perhaps, if he still desired to be a sailor, he would be assisted in doing so, and would be able to go to Australia, not in an open boat, but in a legitimate, and in a much more safe way’.

He went on to tell Thomas that he:

 ‘was an intelligent lad, and if he only acted properly a bright future might be in store for him’. Australia was no longer the place where Britain disposed of its unwanted criminals and political prisoners, that had slowed in the 1850s and come to an end in 1868. Only ‘honest, industrious people were wanted’ there now he concluded.

I really wonder what happened to Thomas Stead. For all his faults he seems to me (as he did to the Bow Street magistrate) exactly the sort of youngster Victorian society celebrated. He was resourceful, brave and adventurous and had he been born into a wealthy family (instead of most likely being an orphan and condemned to living hand-by-mouth on the streets) he might be a name we all remember as well as Livingstone, Stanley, Scott or Rhodes.

The last convict ship, HMS Hougoumont (named for one of the key buildings that allied troops fought so hard to keep at the battle of Waterloo) sailed to Australia in 1867, with 281 passengers. It marked the end of a system of forced migration that had lasted nearly 80 years.

[from The Standard, Saturday, April 25, 1885

It has been a year since I started writing this daily blog. It began as an exercise in forcing myself to undertake a piece of research writing on  daily basis to keep myself ‘fit’ (in a sense) admit the routines associated with being a senior lecturer in a busy teaching university. It has grown (largely thanks to all the people that bother to read it and tell me they enjoy or find it useful) into a body of research that I will now attempt to use to form part of a couple of larger written projects over the the next few years. So, thank you for the positive comments made via the site, twitter and Facebook, and I hope you continue to enjoy reading the day-to-day stories from the police courts of London.

                                                                                                                           Drew 

 

A tragic accident at the door of the Police Court

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HMS Warrior at Woolwich

Rachel Scott was 13 years of age and was walking in the street outside the Worship Street Police Court one afternoon in April 1841. At the same time a heavily laden cart belonging to the G Wells carrier firm from Hackney and Homerton was making its slow and steady progress towards the City Road.

The driver, Samuel Banks, called out to the girl but she seemed not to hear him. For whatever reason Banks was unable to stop or shift direction and the cart ran over the girl. An officer of the police court rushed to pick her up and Rachel was taken to her parents’ home at 22 Worship Street.

The surgeon that examined Rachel could only ‘proscribe lotions’ and warn that ‘serious effects might ensue’. The magistrate bailed the driver to appear again in three days, and at that point Banks and young Rachel disappear from history. The paper reported that the landlord of the house where Rachel lived with her family had experienced his own tragedy recently when a part of the cellar collapsed on his daughter, who was crushed to death.

In fact the Morning Post was full of ‘bad’ news that Saturday morning. At Islington a woman (the wife of a clergyman)  had been found face down on her bed, quite dead with a  small medicine bottle close by. In another report an inquest was held at University Hospital in Bedford Square into the death of a patient who had burned to death in a  private room.

The largest space was given over, however, to a story of four convicts from the convict ship Warrior, moored in the dock at Woolwich, who had apparently died of influenza. The four were taken to the dead house at the Royal Arsenal where they were examined by the coroner. Influenza was ‘very prevalent’ in the town and had affected the Justicia prison hulk as well as Warrior. The two ships were crowded, Warrior had twice as many convicts on board as it normally did and this was given as a potential cause of the spread of the epidemic. However, the verdict of the coroner’s court was not that overcrowding or poor sanitary conditions had led to the mens’ deaths but that they had died ‘by the visitation of God’.

The men were Edward Sheffield, from Hertford who was just 18 and under sentence of transportation for seven years; Michael Westal from Liverpool (also facing seven years); Samuel Medlam (29) from Warwick and David Owen, another teenager, who died 12 days after being admitted to the hospital at Woolwich.

It is a reminder to those of you researching your family trees that a sentence of transportation did not always mean that your ancestor made the long sea journey to Australia. Many died en route, and some, like the four men listed here, never left England. Warrior  had been a receiving ship until 1840, meaning that she served as a new home for sailors who had been recruited (or were ‘pressed’ – i.e forcibly recruited) into the Navy. In 1840 she started a new life as a prison hulk (a floating prison). Conditions on the hulks (like Justicia) were awful, worse men than prisons. Convicts were not supposed to stay there for the duration of their sentences, but just until a fleet sailed for Australia. Some. however, as we have seen, never made it that far.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, April 17, 1841]

Beware Greek numismatists that show an interest in your collection

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On Thursday 5 April 1849 a young Greek (or possibly Austrian) man appeared at the Bow Street Police court charged with theft. It wasn’t his first appearance and it was not to be his last. It was part of series of pre-trial hearings that demonstrate the work that the Police magistrates did in shaping cases before they came before a judge and jury at the Old Bailey. Eventually, in May of the same year the accused pleaded guilty and received a sentence of transportation.

So what exactly was he accused of doing?

At the end of March Timonion Ulasto (variously written as Vlasto) was placed in the dock at Bow Street charged with stealing ‘a number of valuable coins from the British Museum’. One of the museum’s assistants, a Mr C Newton, told the magistrate that Ulasto had been introduced to him by ‘a personal friend’ and so he came with good credentials.

Ulasto professed to have a serious interest in the coins collection, especially Roman coins. He was also an acquaintance of General Charles James Fox, a notable collector. Fox’s name gained him almost unlimited access to the museum’s collection and he busied himself examining nearly everything they had.

On Saturday 24 March some members of staff began to have their suspicions about the coin enthusiast and started to watch him a little more closely. On the Monday these fears were realised. Whilst searching the room a catalogue ticket was found on the floor; this referred to a ‘certain coin of great value’ which was soon discovered to be missing.

The museum was reluctant to directly accuse Ulasto of theft since he had arrived with such good ‘introductions’, but as several more items disappeared over the next few days they decided to act. Mr Newton went to the police, who then applied to the magistracy for a search warrant, which was duly granted. Ulasto was reluctant to allow the search but when his premises were turned over coins to the value of £3,000 (about £175,000 in today’s money) were discovered in a drawer. Some of the items were identified (by catalogue tickets Ulasto had taken away) as belonging to the museum but others probably came from private collectors, General Fox among them.

Bail was refused (understandably) and Ulasto was remanded in custody, having declined to have an interpreter translate for him; it was common (particularly at Marylebone and the courts in the East End) for interpreters to appear to help defendants or prosecutors that had a poor or no command of English but the coin enthusiast was a well educated man who required no such assistance.

A few days  later he was back up before the Bow Street magistrate, this time he was represented by a lawyer, as were the museum. General Fox was also represented in court so his interests could be looked out for.

The theft had shaken the authorities at the museum who had convened an extraordinary meetings of the directors, at which no less a figure than Sir Robert Peel (the former Prime Minister and, of course, the founder of the metropolitan Police) had attended. They set up an investigation in to what had happened and to discover exactly how many, and what value of coins, had been stolen.

The court was crowded – Bow Street was always the most popular court as it was the most senior, but this was an exciting and intriguing ‘crime news’ story. General Fox was there, as was the principal librarian of the British Museum, Sir Henry Ellis, Lord Enniskillen.

Also in court that day was detective Inspector Charles Field, the inspiration behind Dickens’ character of Inspector Bucket in Bleak House. Three years after the Ulasto case Charles Dickens wrote of his experience of joining Field on duty and watching him work.  The inspector had executed the warrant to search Ulasto’s rooms and he was also investigating a series of other coin robberies in which the Greek featured as the most likely suspect. He asked for a further remand while he continued his inquiries.

Ulasto’s counsel requested that his client either be tried or released on bail but Mr Jardine, the magistrate, refused. He told the lawyer that the case was too serious to risk allowing ball and Timonion was again returned to prison.

He was again brought before the justice on the 10 April and again Field requested (and was granted) a further remand. On the 17 April he was up again; the newspapers gave a brief summary of what had occurred previously (although one imagines their readers were following the story fairly closely) and now the value of the items missing had risked to nearer £4,000.

The museum was able to provide evidence (from ‘sulphur casts’ made of the items it held) that the coins found at Ulasto’s lodgings were indeed their property. It was agreed that he should be further remanded until May.

Now the prosecution switched to General Fox who brought a separate charge for the theft of his property. No less than 71 coins produced in the court were from the general’s collection he said, and had been taken some time after he had first met Ulasto back in January at Fox’s London home at 35 Hill Street,  Mayfair. The magistrate bound General Fox over to prosecute and the supposed coin thief was returned to his cell.

And that, it would appear, was that for the Police Courts. It is likely that Ulasto came up once more , to be formally committed for trial, but the papers don’t seem to have reported it. His case was heard, as we know, on May 7 1849 and he chose to plead guilty (to the theft of over £6,000 worth of coins – a huge amount, probably close to £350,000 at modern prices). If he was hoping for a reduced punishment then he may have been disappointed; the judge sentenced him to be transported to Australia for 7 years.

If Ulasto (first described as a citizen of Vienna) was Greek (as he was thereafter referred to) then I enjoy the irony in his desire to steal Greek and Roman antiquities from the British Museum. After all, the museum ‘owns’ a tremendous amount of other people’s property plundered by British adventurers and empire builders over the course of the 18th and 19th centuries. If a native of Athens wished to repatriate some of his cultural heritage can we really condemn him?

[from Daily News, Saturday, March 31, 1849 The Morning Post, Friday, April 06, 1849]

Nascent trade unionism nipped in the bud at Mansion House

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General Association

Most of us will have experienced,  or have maybe even taken part in some form of industrial action initiated by a trade union. Southern Rail commuters in particular are now very family with an ongoing dispute between the employers and drivers and guards who cannot agree on who should open the doors on their trains. The result has been months of strikes, reduced services and delays. There have been calls for the government to take action and even to prevent strikes from happening. In certain industries (the police and prison service for example) strike action is banned.

It would probably be fair to say that since the Winter of Discontent in 1978-9 there has been a regressive (or progressive, depending on your viewpoint) move towards striking unionism and union action.

We haven’t always had trade unions of course, and history shows us that governments had to be forced to allow them to exists at all, let alone exercise any kind of pressure on employers. The Combination Acts of 1799/1800 aimed to prevent workers combining  to form associations and these were not repealed until the 1820s; thereafter unions began to develop.

In 1833 a ‘general’ union was formed to represent the views and needs of men and women from a variety of trades. In 1834 the government infamously attempted to suppress the GNCTU (Grand National Consolidated Trades Union) by arresting six men from the Dorset village of Tolpuddle and transporting them to Australia.

So in 1834 the embryonic trades union movement was under pressure and we can see the antagonism that these workers’ groups faced in a case that came before the Lord Mayor at Mansion House in March of that year.

A tailor and draper on Cheapside came to the Mansion House Police Court to complain about the behaviour of a group of men who were pressurising his workers to down tools because one of their number had been sacked. Mr Roberts told the Lord Mayor and alderman Anstey who sat together as magistrates that he had been obliged to dismiss one of his men because of his behaviour. This man had ‘been absent eight hours from his work, by which the sale of a suit of clothes had been lost’.

As soon as this became widely known a group of journey tailors came to the place where Roberts’ men were working and told then in no uncertain terms that unless they stopped working ‘they should fare the worse for such a violation of propriety’.

Mr Roberts told the bench that this situation was intolerable and unless the ‘unionists’ were stopped ‘trade could not continue’. As a result he had identified one man (unnamed) who was now in the dock accused of urging others to disrupt his trade.

The Lord Mayor, as a member of the mercantile elite in the City could hardly be expected to side with the journeymen tailors and he didn’t. He was outraged at the man’s behaviour but at the same time he was reluctant to impose the normal sanction – three months’ imprisonment.

He asked the tailor if he would accept an apology and a promise that ‘no action of this kind would occur again’. He said he would but was concerned that there were ‘eight or ten journeymen’ present in court who would ‘deprive him of his men, and he hoped the Lord Mayor would let them know they should not act with impunity’.

The defendant’s lawyer said his client was sorry and had not intended to interrupt Mr Roberts’ business. The Lord Mayor them warned those present against any attempt to tae action in the future and discharged the defendant.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, March 03, 1834]