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

Mendicity and casual racism in 19th century Bloomsbury

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Just who Samuel Sharp really was, the police court report of The Morning Post was not sure. Sharp had also been heard to call himself Thomas Thompson, Frederick Augustin and even William Williams.

It is much clearer what he was however: a charlatan – at least in the eyes of the reporter and the officers of the Mendicity Society that engineered his appearance in Marlborough Street Police Court.

Sharp presented himself as Christian missionary. He was also ‘a man of colour, with the habiliments of the clerical cut’, it was reported. He earned his living by going door-to-door and obtaining sums of money for his stated aim of returning to Africa to preach the Gospel.

The Mendicity Society (or the Society for the Suppression of Mendicity) had been founded in 1818 to bring the practice of begging to an end. It was a fairly futile purpose in a city with thousands of paupers, vagrants and the destitute. One of its officers, a Mr. Horsford, saw through what he thought was Sharp’s facade and decided to set a trap for the so-called missionary.

Horsford discovered (from letters of complaint sent to the society) that as well as calling on householders and asking for money, Sharp also promenaded with a lady friend . So Horsford assumed the disguise of a ‘sporting character’ (complete with ‘cigar in mouth’) and began to watch his prey. Sharp (‘the sable defendant’ as the paper dubbed him) and ‘his white lady set out on their morning excursion’. The pair stopped at a pub and ordered food. While the ‘beefsteaks’ were being cooked Sharp left his companion (who was dripping with jewellery and sporting a ‘handsome watch at her side’) to ‘try his luck in Fitzroy Square’.

Horsford watched as the fake missionary called at one a house and left a pamphlet and then made as if he was returning to his own home just as Sharp approached. Turning to him and and asking his ‘business’, Horsford pretended that he was the homeowner.

Immediately Sharp, who was completely fooled by this ruse, presented the officer with a printed petition for funds and added, in ‘a canting tone’:

‘A penny, or as much more as he might please to give, to enable him to enter on his blessed ministration of enlightening the heathen blacks with the truth of the Gospels’.

Before the would-be man of the cloth could react Horsford and another officer seized him. There was a struggle and Sharp temporality escaped but was recaptured and taken to a police station. His dwelling was searched and he was found to own a ‘handsome carpet bag’ along with other  luxury items including a ‘silk umbrella’ and ‘a good silver watch and chain’, the proceeds it was assumed of a life of impersonation.

I suspect Sam Sharp was everything the mid Victorians detested: a man who exploited the ‘goodwill’ of Christian Englishman; a foreigner (and a ‘savage’ black at that) who consorted with a white woman of dubious reputation (she had rings on all her fingers); and a mendicant to boot.

He was remanded in custody so that his victims could be traced and a case built against him.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, January 31, 1845]

Two incorrigible beggars at Bow Street get no help and little sympathy

 

Mr. and Mrs Philips were well known to their parish officers and to the local charity groups that attempted to intervene in the lives of London’s poor in the 1880s.

The Charity Organisation Society was founded in London in 1869 with the intention to support ‘self-help’ and thrift over state intervention. At its head were two strong women – Helen Bosanquent (neé Dendy) and Octavia Hill (who went on to be a founder of the National Trust). The COS wanted people to help themselves and viewed poverty (as many did in the 1800s) as largely a personal failing.

Supporters of the COS disliked ‘outdoor relief’ (where families were given handouts without being required to enter the workhouse) and argued that the ‘workhouse test’ was a proper way of separating the needy from the work-shy.

However, it was often accepted that there were those who could not work and, at face value at least, Mr. and Mrs Philips seem to have fallen into that category.

Mr. Philips was blind and his wife had lost her right arm. In late January 1887 the pair made their way to the Bow Street Police Court in Covent Garden to ask for help.

Mr. Vaughan, the sitting magistrate, sent out for information about the couple, to ascertain what sort of people they were and what he might do to assist them. It didn’t take long for the various charity groups and local parish officials to get back to him. On the 27th the husband and wife attended his court to hear the results of his investigations.

It wasn’t good news.

The COS reported that that had initially being paying the pair 12s a week (about £35 or the equivalent of a day’s wages for a craftsman) but when they discovered that Mrs Philips was ‘constantly drunk’ and that Mr. Philips continued to go out begging, they stopped all support. The parish officers described them as ‘incorrigible beggars’ who they were constantly having to remove from the streets around their home in Euston Road.

They added that Mrs Philips drinking had reached such a point that her mental health was affected. According to one witness: ‘she ‘showed symptoms of softening of the brain through excessive drinking’.

Mr. Vaughan looked down at the couple from the bench and told them that there was nothing he could do for them while they continued to disobey the laws surrounding vagrancy and begging. In order to get help in late Victorian Britain paupers – whatever their situation – had to either submit themselves to the horrors of the workhouse or attempt to live up to the standards set by demanding middle ladies like Mrs Bosanquet and Octavia Hill; there was no middle ground if you couldn’t support yourself.

[from The Morning Post , Friday, January 28, 1887]

Poverty, sympathy and the school of ‘hard knocks’

In January 1867 three young boys were charged at the Marylebone Police Court, with begging. Churchill Long was 11, his brother Stephen 10 and their friend Thomas Fields just 8.

A passing policeman, Sergeant Bunce (50 C Division) found the trio sheltering in the doorway of confectioner’s shop at 8 in the evening. According to Sgt. Bunce’s testimony they were asking passers-by on Coventry Street for change in and looked ‘to be nearly dropping from want’.

He took them back to the police station and left them eating a meal while he made inquiries about their families. Thomas had no father but his mother lived in Soho and was a washerwoman (a very lowly poorly paid class of servant). The Longs had a father barely alive and in such a ‘poor state of health that he was unable to work’. Their mother was in an even worse condition – she ‘was hourly expected to die’.

Tom Field’s mother then appeared in the courtroom in floods of tears. She told the magistrate that she had been in such a state that Tom had asked if he could go ‘with some fuses to get a few halfpence”. In other words he was offering to  take some small items to sell (but in reality, to go begging on the streets). She was trying to work when she could but had other children to care for; her situation had worsened after the recent death of her husband.

It was  sad story and on this occasion the ‘beak’ was sympathetic. Mr Knox (the justice)asked if she would like her son to go to school. She said she did. He then decided that Tom should be sent to Feltham Industrial School (the predecessor of the modern young offenders’ prison).

This took him away from his mother and siblings and reduced their outgoings, but whether Tom would have thanked him for it is open to question. Industrial schools were strict institutions and linked to the Reformatory School movement that had arisen in the 1850s. It represented a chance for the lad to ‘reform’ but I doubt he would have received much we would understand as ‘care’.

As for the Long children, their father – although clearly gravely ill – also turned up at court to explain his circumstances and to confirm that he feared for his wife’s health. He too wanted his children to attend a school and the magistrate asked him to return again when he was more able to do so. In the meantime Mr Knox ordered that the family be given some charitable support from the poor box.

This case demonstrates the multifaceted role of the police court in Victorian society; the case arose out of a ‘police’ issues (begging and vagrancy were ‘crimes’, and punishable) but exposed a wider social problem (poverty). As magistrate Mr Knox ‘helped’ the families cope with the pressures of surviving and bringing up their children. But he did this by removing the boys to a disciplinary environment where they would no longer see their parents. They would gain an education of sorts and be cared for (in the most rudimentary of ways at least).

So he helped save them from starvation and the abject poverty they were otherwise seemingly doomed to experience, but at the same time the justice acted for the benefit of the state; he intervened to prevent the children growing up to become members of London’s ‘criminal class’.

From the distance of history we might judge this as a drastic form of intervention and reflect that we have in place much kinder ways of dealing with child poverty today. But can we really rush to congratulate ourselves when even the government acknowledges that we have 2.3 million children living in poverty in the UK today?

[from The Morning Post, Monday, January 14, 1867]

Charity, mendacity and malingering; what are we to do about poverty and begging?

Do you give money to beggars in the street? Or buy the Big Issue?  Or do you walk on by thinking that by ‘helping’ them with money you are doing more harm than good (as we are often told). Perhaps you pop into the nearest coffee shop and purchase them a hot drink and a sandwich?

We all have our opinions about poverty and begging and often we react emotionally to the person we see. I was particularly struck by the number of beggars I saw in Venice last summer, amidst the crowds of wealthy sightseers gazing at canal views and wearing designer clobber while old women in layers of rags held out their hands or a cup for change.

I have a problematic relationship with beggars; sometimes I give them money, other times I chat to them, but most of the time I think its not my problem, that is is what the state is there for. I’m not comfortable with this and mostly I just feel impotent.

It is often said that there are professional beggars, or shammers that trick us into feeling sorry for them when actually they ‘earn’ plenty of money from begging and choose this form of malingering over actual work. I imagine its true for one in a hundred but hardly widespread.

I suspect the same conflicting emotions faced our Victorian ancestors. In the 1800s charity was a way for upper and middle-class women to find a public role in society. The prevailing patriarchal ideology meant that  they were unable to work or pursue a career  as they are today and confined to running the household and directing the care and education of their children they must have craved something else.

Lady Richardson was one such well-heeled Victorian lady. From her fashionable London home at 42 Bedford Square she played a role in helping ‘deserving cases’ like Jane Alexander and Maria Bogice.

Lady Richardson was aware of and way even have been involved with  the Mendicity Society. Their purpose (as set down in an 1850 note) was thus:

The society gives meals and money, supplies mill and other work to applicants, investigates begging-letter cases, and apprehends vagrants and impostors. Each meal consists of ten ounces of bread, and one pint of good soup, or a quarter of a pound of cheese. The affairs of the Society are administered by a Board of forty-eight managers. The Mendicity Society’s tickets, given to a street beggar, will procure for him, if really necessitous, food and work. They are a touch-stone to impostures: the beggar by profession throws them aside.

In January 1837 Sir John had passed a letter on to his wife which purported to be a request for help from one Maria Bogice. It was delivered to the house in Bedford Square by Jane Alexander.

Lady Richardson was at once suspicious. She had already ‘relieved’ (in the other words, helped) Maria by donating to her daughter some clothes so she would be able ‘to take a position’ (as a servant or shop girl most likely). So she thought it odd that she would write her a begging letter so soon afterwards.

When challenged about this Jane suggested that it was probably a mistake and went to leave. But Lady Richardson added it was a ‘very wilful and wicked’ mistake if mistake it was and decided to look into the matter. She referred the letter to the  Mendicity Society for their thoughts.

When Mr Kynvett replied that Jane Alexander was well known to them and that she had been concocting letters like this since 1834 (using a variety of names) the case was sent to the summary courts.

Jane appeared at Hatton Garden Police Court charged with attempting to ‘practice a gross imposition’ on Sir John* and Lady Richardson. Jane admitted her guilt but ‘begged hard for forgiveness’, she had acted, she said, out of extreme distress.

The justice was unmoved by her act of contrition. He told her that ‘such tricks steeled the heart of charity’ (a reaction perhaps familiar to modern readers). Lady Richardson added her own thoughts, saying that:

‘There are so many frauds committed in this way upon individuals who are anxious to do good that it is difficult to tell whether you are helping a needy person or one who gains his or her living by obtaining sums from the benevolent’.

Poor Lady Richardson, while she had to return to her town house in Bedford Square (below) to lick her wounds over a dinner prepared for her and her family by a staff of cooks and servants, Jane Alexander had the luxury of being sent to prison for 21 days to reflect on her ‘crime’ of being poor. Her children were removed from her and sent to the workhouse.

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Ian Duncan Smith would presumably have wept buckets.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, January 09, 1837]

*Sir John Richardson was familiar with the legal system. He was a judge at the Court of Common Pleas in the 1830s.