A ‘child of the Jago’ in the Mansion House court

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The Old Nichol area as shown on Charles Booth’s poverty maps (1889) showing the density of poverty maked out in black and blue.

The Old Nichol had a fearsome reputation in late Victorian London. The collection of about 30 streets at the north end of Brick Lane was in the area now occupied by modern day Arnold Circus. In the late 1800s the Nichol was home to around 5-6,000 people and it was immortalised in fiction by Arthur Morrison in A Child of the Jago (1896). It was a far cry from modern hipster Shoreditch and Bethnal Green.

In 1875 the Nichol was where Henry Stuck lived. Henry was nine and his parents occupied a room at 5 Old Nichol Street one of the most notorious streets in the Nichol slum. It seems that Henry played away from home, preferring to hang out with other boys in a property in Lower Thames Street, south of the Mansion House in the old City of London. He was also known to stay with known thieves in a lodging house in Shoreditch.

In fact reports said that a ‘gang of boys, 40 or 50 in number’ were ‘in the habit of frequenting a small coffee house’ in the street which they had dubbed ‘the House of Lords’. There they seem to have created their own private playground to ape the behaviour of their elders and (at least in the minds of the disapproving authorities) hatch plots to commit petty crime.

In July 1875 Henry was in court. He was brought before Alderman Phillips at the Mansion House Police Court charged with begging. As he stood in the dock a description of the boys’ haunt was delivered in court by Henry’s father:

‘Here they regaled themselves with halfpenny and penny worths of coffee’, he told the magistrate, ‘their language and behaviour being… of the most disorderly and disgraceful character when any of the parents visited the room in search of their children’.

When he wasn’t begging Henry went about the City selling fuses.

Why hadn’t the coffee house been closed down by the police the Alderman wanted to know? They had no power to do an inspector of police explained.

‘On one occasion when the boys were found tossing in the house, [in other words they were gambling, which was a summary offence] the police took out a summons, but it was dismissed’.

As far as Mr Stuck was concerned Henry was ‘a very bad boy’ who had been away for up to three weeks recently. His mother spoke up for him though, arguing that it was her husband’s poor treatment of the lad that had driven him out. She asked the magistrate to send Henry to a Reformatory school where he might learn skills and be away from bad influences. She added that her husband ‘would not work to support his children, and starvation only started the boy in the face at home’.

She had painted  a grim picture of life in the Nichol where poverty was endemic and many children lived hand-to-mouth on the streets. Morrison’s novel way well have served to exaggerate the reality of the ‘blackest streets’ of East London but the truth was bad enough.

A Reformatory was a popular choice for working-class parents who struggled to support let alone control their offspring. Many seem to have used the courts to try to get them off their hands. But magistrates were wise to this and often asked the family to make a financial contribution to the child’s upkeep, which may have deterred some from seeking this solution.

If this was Mr Stuck’s intention then he would have to wait to see if the Alderman would oblige him. The magistrate ordered the boy to be taken to the workhouse while the circumstances of the case were investigated. Mr and Mrs Stuck left the court without him, to pursue their domestic squabble in private. As for Henry, who was only nine, his future was far from certain but hardly appeared rosy.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, July 26, 1875]

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There’s no avoiding hard work for two ‘lazy casuals’ in Hammersmith

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Luke Fildes, Applicants for Admission to a Casual Ward (1874)

The 1880s were a desperate decade for many in London. After the prosperous years of mid century England suffered an economic slump, if not a full blown depression. Work was harder to come by and in 1888 the word ‘unemployment’ entered the Oxford English Dictionary. There were demonstrations of the unemployed in Trafalgar Square in 1886 and 1887, the latter being broken up by police and the military with heads being broken in the process. Opponents of free trade clashed with its proponents and members of what Marx and Engels would have dubbed the ‘lumpenproletariat’ smashed windows in Pall Mall.

If you couldn’t find work in London you had limited choices. There was no social security or benefit system as we would understand and begging was illegal and those caught risked a spell in prison. There were plenty of charities and plenty of people prepared to donate to them, just as there are today, but this was open to abuse and so donors were chewy in who they helped. The Mendicity Society went to war on indiscriminate charitable giving and its recipients, believing that beggars should be directed back to their place of origin rather than being a drain on the capital’s ratepayers.

So when legitimate work and begging were closed to you what was left was illegal gain or the workhouse. The first carried a very real risk of being caught up in the Victorian criminal justice system which was a brutal machine designed to ‘grind men good’. Victorian prisons were grim institutions where ‘hard bed, hard work, and hard fare’ were the order of the day. Subsistence diets, sleep deprivation and a multitude of petty regulations (all too easy to break) combined with backbreaking ‘hard labour’ were designed to break the spirit of convicts in a system that had long since abandoned any notion of ‘reformation’.

Given that even the smallest theft prosecuted before a Police Magistrate could land you inside Cold Bath Fields gaol for a month or more, crime clearly did not pay.

The final alternative then was the workhouse. But this too came at a price. If you were admitted to the workhouse proper then you would be there for a long while with little hope of earning your freedom. Workhouses were feared by the working classes almost as much (sometimes more) than the prison. Families were separated, food was basic and work was compulsory.

If you chose to take your chances with what work you could pick up day to day then the only safety net that Victorian society provided was the workhouse casual ward. Here you could enter for a day and, in return for some hard labour you would be fed and watered and allowed a place to sleep. You would then be released in the hope you could find proper employment outside.

The casual ward was a last resort; it carried a stigma that the working class wished to avoid being tainted with. For some it seems, it was the work – the hard labour – they wished to avoid but failure to obey the rules of the ‘house’ might well find you in front of a magistrate. This is what happened to Thomas Williams and James White in July 1881.

The pair were Irishmen – so straight away they were in the cross hairs of the magistrate’s ‘gun’. The Irish (despite building Britain’s transport networks and fighting Britain’s wars for over a century) were seen as lazy, criminal and drunken. Prejudices against the Irish continued throughout the Georgian and Victorian period well into own with jokes at their expense only becoming considered ‘racist’ and inappropriate in the late 20th century.

Williams and White had admitted to the Hammersmith workhouse casual ward on the previous Thursday but had refused to do any work. George Perry, superintendent of the workhouse’s casual ward told the Hammersmith Police Court that on the Friday morning ‘they were set to shone breaking’. This literally meant breaking larger stones into smaller ones and was exactly the sort of work prisoners and paupers had been forced to do for over a hundred years.

The men were not keen however. Williams complained that he was injured and couldn’t do the work, his ankle was too painful he said. A doctor was called and confirmed there was nothing the matter with him, he was shamming. As for White, he told Perry that ‘he was not accustomed to break stones’. This surprised the magistrate, Mr Paget.

‘Are you not Irish?’ he asked.

He was, came the reply. Then ‘why could he not break stones’?

‘The hammer was too light’ was White’s response.

This was met with a stony face and the magistrate determined that the two ‘last casuals’ would not get away with their ‘ingratitude’ towards the beneficent state or avoid the hard work that they had been tasked with. He sent them to prison for a month, with hard labour.

[from The Standard, Monday, July 25, 1881]

Sad tales from the Police courts, and the hunt for the men that shot a policeman hots up.

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Islington High Street, c.1890

On June 27 1884 The Morning Post reported on several London’s police courts as well as updating their readers on an ongoing story concerning the shooting of a policeman. At Southwark a man named Hill was brought up for the second time, having been remanded on a charge of fraud. Hill had supposedly cashed fake cheques on at least two separate individuals for over £15 a time. That might not sound like much but a rough calculation for 1884 makes that around £700 in today’s money. The magistrate further remanded him for the Public Prosecutor to get involved.

At Westminster an Irish woman named Catherine Fagan was accused of begging but the case touched on her supposed involvement with the cause of Irish Nationalism. A membership card for the “W. P. Boyton” branch of the Irish National Land League was found in her possession. The INLL championed the rights of poor tenant farmers in Ireland and it was hardly a revolutionary organisation, but the 1880s were a difficult decade for Anglo-Irish relations, and saw several Fenian terrorist attacks in England (as I’ve written about previously on this blog). Fagan was eventually allowed to go, with some charity from the poor box.

But the story that touched me this morning concerned another woman in distress, Sarah Ann Cocksedge. Sarah Ann was presented at Lambeth Police Court charged with attempting to take her own life. This was, as I’ve written about on several occasions, a sadly regular charge before the magistracy. Even more tragic of course, was the fairly routine discovery of drowned bodies floating in or washed up on the banks of the River Thames. London was an unforgiving and hard place to live in the 1800s and Victorian society’s understanding of mental illness was far from as advanced as our own is.

Sarah Ann had tried to take a poison, ‘spirits of salts’ (which is hydrochloric acid) but had been prevented. In custody she told a policeman that she wanted to kill herself because  had been asked her to cover up the death of an infant child.

She said a ‘former mistress had given her a child to get rid of, which she had put into a garden (mentioning the place) and this had preyed on her mind’.

A detective from CID appeared in court to say that he had enquired into her claims but had been unable to substantiate them. The chaplain of the goal that had been holding her since her suicide attempt sent a letter to the court asking the justice to remand her back into his care, as he felt he could help her find a new home.

Sarah Ann continued to declare that she had spoken the truth regarding the dead child but it seems no one wanted to listen. She was again remanded and sent back to prison.

Finally, the paper reported that the police were closing in on two men wanted for shooting a police constable in Islington. PC Chamberlain had been shot in Park Street, ‘whilst in pursuit of two men suspected go burglary’. They had got away and the constable was injured, but not fatally it was thought. Two days later it was reported that he was ‘somewhat better’ and that the manhunt was focused on Hampstead.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, June 27, 1884]

Little charity for the Irish at Marlborough Street

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1843 could certainly be viewed as one of the low points of welfare policy in this country. 1834 saw the passing of the Poor Law Amendment Act, an act designed to force anyone seeking support from the state (in those days this meant the parish) to enter a workhouse  rather than be relieved outside. A previous piece of catch-all legislation, the Vagrancy Act (1824) also deserves mention as an instrument designed both to clamp down on beggars and vagrants and allow the arrest of pretty much anyone the local authorities took a dislike to but were otherwise unable to pin a specific offence on.

Thomas Lakey was exactly the sort of person the middle classes in Victorian society disliked. Lacey was unemployed, he was poor, homeless and, probably worst of all, he was Irish. When he appeared at Marylebone Police Court in June 1835 he was described as a ‘sturdy Irish beggar, accused of being a ‘common vagrant’.

The prosecution was brought by the Mendicity Society, an organisation formed in 1818 to ‘stop people begging’. The society was well organised and used careful record keeping to track mendicants, whom they helped financially on the understanding that they stopped begging and/or left the area.

Lacey came before the magistrate at Marylebone accused on being a ‘common drunken vagabond’ for the last 20 years. He had his own particular modus operandi, according to the officers bringing the case to court:

‘Having lost a hand, it was his practice to accost females in the street, and thrusting his stump before them, to demand charity in a menacing tone’.

If his appeal was not successful on the basis of his disability then ‘in his other hand he carried a stick, which he employed with great dexterity when drunk, or when pursued by a constable’.

For 20 years Thomas had received a pension of 15 pence a day from the East India Company. Given that this seemed enough to live on the magistrate (a Mr Chambers) was surprised the Irishman needed to beg at all. Mr Chambers told him that his pension (amounting to about 21 pence in today’s money, the equivalent of 2 days wages for a labourer) should allow him to live while he could also do some work, since he had a perfectly usable hand despite his injury.

We have no idea of how Thomas lost his hand, an accident working for the Company is most likely, but it may have happened after that. Clearly Mr Chambers had little sympathy for him. He turned to the Mendicity Society officers and suggested they speak to the East India Company. Perhaps if they were informed how Lacey was abusing the pension he had been given they might see fit to stop it.

The poor Irishman now work up to the reality of what was being proposed in court, the loss of the small dole he had to keep himself together. He told the court that if he was released he would immediately return to Kilkenny, where he was born, and no longer be a burden on London’s ratepayers or a threat to its inhabitants. Mr Chambers sent him to prison for two months to think it over.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, June 19, 1835]

Cruelty to a performing monkey in Marylebone

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Italian organ grinders have figured before on this blog; there seems to have been  a fair few of them active in Victorian London and they nearly all seem to have used a monkey as part of their act. I suppose it helped to draw a crowd and buskers today often need a gimmick to help part passers-by from their cash.

Today we place considerable restrictions on the use of animals in theatres, circuses and on television and film but we frequently look back on the past as a time when people cared less about cruelty towards them than they do now. I’m not sure this really holds up to examination; after all the RSPCA was founded in 1824, long before the NSPCC ( 1884).

Police detective Cumner of D Division was walking around Portman Square in London’s fashionable West End, when he saw a man  knocking on the houses of the well-to-do. The man was ‘dragging a monkey along the street by means of a chain’. As he approached a house he tried to force the animal to camber up the railings, to perform one imagines. But according to the detective the poor beast ‘did its best to do as directed, but seemed unable to complete the task owing to its weak condition’.

The man then kicked the animal before a nearby police constable saw him and approached. At this the man seized his money, thrust it under his coat and walked away. The copper would have probably nicked him for begging or loitering with intent.

Detective Cumner decided to follow him however, to see what he did next.

He saw him stop in the next street and start to hit the animal ‘most cruelly’. At this Cumner intervened and when he got close he saw that the monkey was bleeding from its feet. The man, an Italian musician named Joseph Syra, was arrested and taken back to the police station.

The animal was then shown to a vet on Marylebone High Street. James Rowe examined the animal and discovered that it had suffered really badly under Syra’s ‘care’.

It ‘was dressed up as a soldier’ and strips of steel had been attached to its legs, to keep it upright. It was ‘very ill and emaciated’, and the metal splints had caused its hind legs and feet to bleed. The very act of standing in an unnatural position was, in the vet’s opinion, causing it great pain and injury.

When the case was outlined before Mr Cooke, the sitting magistrate at Marylebone he fined Syra 25s with 10s 6d costs. warning him that if he couldn’t pay he would go to prison for 10 days.

This alarmed the detective: ‘But what shall I do with the monkey, your worship, if the man goes to prison?’

‘I really don’t know’, came the reply, ‘I suppose they would not receive it at the Green Yard?’

This provoked a weak laugh from the courtroom. The Green Yard was the City of London’s holding pen for stray cattle and sheep that had been found wandering before or after they were supposed to be sold at Smithfield Market. It was unlikely that an Italian musician’s pet would be welcome there.

Fortunately  the vet stepped in and offered to keep the monkey for the duration. He had, he said, a large cage which was ideal for the purpose. One wonders whether anyone thought to remove the poor monkey from Joseph Syra’s clutches but perhaps, in 1886, that was beyond the authority of the magistracy.

[from The Standard, Monday, April 19, 1886]

A woman who wanted to see the world through a man’s eyes

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Following yesterday’s story about a German man arrested for cross-dressing at King’s Cross, today’s story is of a woman who preferred to live as a man. While the German performer was perhaps simply a female impersonator, the subject of today’s blog appears to be much closer to the modern transgender community. Her story clearly excited those that heard it in 1868 and the editor of The Illustrated Police News gave it plenty of space.

One Saturday night in late March PC Bonner (35H) was walking his beat along Cable Street in the East End when he heard a woman singing. What he saw was a man however, and he approached ‘him’. When he was close enough, and allowing for the fact that it was dark, PC Bonner was able to discern that the singer was female even though she was dressed in a man’s clothes.

He arrested her, not for ‘assuming male attire’ but for begging, and took her back to the police station. On the Monday following she was produced at the Thames Police Court in front of the magistrate, Mr Benson.

Mary Walker was a 38 year-old woman with quite a story to tell. She had already been prosecuted several times and so was a familiar face at the police courts of the capital where she was known as the ‘female barman’. She had been to prison for robbing her master (a pub landlord) and presumably had struggled to find work since.

Using the names John Walker and John Thum she had sailed on a Cunard liner as a stoker and worked as a porter on the Great Western Railways, before on each occasion her sex was discovered and she was dismissed. Mary had once even proposed marriage to another woman. Mary (or John) was not living in a society that was prepared to accept her for what she was or what wanted to be. Historians have demonstrated that there was nothing new in what Mary (or countless men and women) was doing in the Victorian period; ‘people had been crossdressing, and getting arrested for it, for many, many, many centuries’ Jeanne de Montbaston tell us.

Gender had become more clearly defined in the Victorian period so while the pervious century had seen the exploits of the female pirates Anne Bonney and Mary Read the prevailing ideology of ‘separate spheres’ supposedly attempted to keep women as tightly constrained by societal norms as their were by their corsets.

Clearly for Mary Walker the laces were drawn far too tight.

She had been born in Bedfordshire, a largely rural county where any attempt at ‘being different’ would have attracted attention. At some point she chose to leave and pursue an alliterative life.

She told Mr Benson that it was then that she ‘indulged the foolish freak of changing her clothes. The desire to act the part of a man and to adopt the garb and condition of the sterner sex grew into a passion’. It was then she went to sea but her ‘sex was discovered by her shipmates’.

The magistrate asked her why she had ‘degraded her sex’ in this way? Why not simply take a position on a ship suited to women? Mary said that it was not possible, but in reality I suspect it was simply not what she wanted. Mary wanted the freedom that came with a  male persona, the freedom, as she put it, to fulfil her ‘desire of seeing foreign lands’.

Not surprisingly the magistrate called for medical expertise and Inspector Holloway of H Division said a surgeon had declared that she was ‘very much out of health’. Mary had also been in Elizabeth Fry’s Refuge at Hackney, and she didn’t want to be sent back there, because the conditions were too bleak. I rather suspect also that she would have found the regime too restrictive and the attempts of the matrons to enforce femininity claustrophobic.

The magistrate was clearly conflicted; he had little sympathy for her actions but she hadn’t committed a serious crime either. Her choice of a  lifestyle had, he stated, been too hard for the frailties of a woman and had left her in  a ‘lamentable condition’. He sent her to the House of Detention for a week, where he trusted she would be properly looked after.

The only place where women could safely assume the identity of a man was the stage and women like Vesta Tilley (pictured above) made a career out of it. Tilley appeared most famously as ‘Burlington Bertie’ as she trod the boards in the popular musical halls. This, of course, was a temporary reversal of gender identities and so allowed the Victorian and Edwardians to poke fun at each other gently in safety. That tradition continued through the 20th and 21st centuries with performers like Dick Emery and, more recently, David Walliams. Anyone, like Mary Walker, who actually wished to redefine her own gender was threatening.

We shouldn’t be too surprised at this though, even in the ‘enlightened’ world of 2017 society remains fairly uncomfortable about those that wish to adopt a gender they find more comfortable and natural than the one they were born into.

[from The Illustrated Police News etc, Saturday, April 4, 1868]

The grass is not always greener on the other side of the Channel

As PC Martin (406B) patrolled his beat in Grosvenor Place he saw a man going from door to door begging for money or food. As each front door turned him away he started to try at the lower, or trade door. The policeman now decided to move in an arrest the beggar, as he was branch of the vagrancy laws.

The man was not English and once an interpreter was found it was discovered that his name was Adophe Blesche and that he came from Austria. Blesche was produce din court at Westminster in early March 1881 charged with begging.

He admitted his offence but said he didn’t know what else to do. He was starving and had nowhere to turn. He told the magistrate that he was a labourer and had been working in Lille in France at a picture frame manufacturers. He had left, he said, ‘because they told him a foreigner could get a living and money in England’. Adoplhe was one of millions of migrants that traveled to Brain and America in the the late 1800s, attracted by the prospect of a better life in a more stable society.

The Westminster magistrate was curious however, as to what had driven him from his native Austria. The chief clerk suggested enquiries should be made with he Austrian authorities in London; he thought Blesche might be an army deserter.

When this was relayed to him by the interpreter Blesche admitted as much; he had served in Bohemia (his birth place) for 12 months but had run away from his unit. Given that the punishment for such an offence was six years’ imprisonment, it was not surprising that he didn’t want to return home.

Mr D’Eyncourt, the sitting justice, remanded him in custody and asked for the Austrian consul to be informed. Sadly for Adolphe he had pinned too many of his hopes on British hospitality. I wonder how many current refugees and economic migrants are similarly regretting their decision to cross the Channel.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, March 07, 1881