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]

An excitable militia man and the shadow of Napoleon III

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In mid July 1859 there was something of a panic about a potential French invasion of Britain. This had been stirred up by the press after Louis Napoleon had become Emperor Napoleon III in 1852 and had operated as an autocrat for the first six or so years of his reign. As Louis Napoleon (the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte), he had been elected president in 1848 but had seized power in a coup d’etat when he was denied the opportunity to run for a second term.

Invasion fears may well have prompted some in England to enlist in the army or the local militias. The latter were not ‘proper’ soldiers although they played an important role in defending the state throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. They never enjoyed the popularity that the Navy or Army did however, even in the hey day of Victorian militarism.

In July 1859 Reynold’s Newspaper reported several views from other papers about the situation in France. Reynold’s was notably more radical than many of its competitors and often served an audience that was more plebeian in character. The Morning Advertiser warned that ‘the country is in imminent danger of invasion from the ruler of France’ and a force of over 100,000 men. The Daily News wrote of ‘Louis Napoleon’s perfidy’ and noted that the governments ‘of Europe regard him with increased suspicion and dislike’. Even the sober Times claimed that ‘war and peace hang by a thread’.

Meanwhile in Bethnal Green the over excited militia seem to have been trying out their martial skills on the local passers-by.

On Monday 18 July an iron merchant named James Webster appeared in court to complain about a brutal assault he had suffered on the previous Saturday evening. Webster, who worked at premises in Digby Street, stood in the witness box at Worship with his head bandaged in black cloth.

He told Mr D’Eyncourt, the sitting magistrate, that he was on his way home from work at about half past 5 o’clock when he encountered several members of the Tower Hamlets Militia. They might have been a bit ‘tipsy’ he said, but he wasn’t sure. One of them threw a hat at him which hit him in the face and fell to the floor. He reacted by kicking it out of his way and carryied on walking.

As he went a few yards he felt a ‘heavy blow’ on the back of his neck, which knocked him off his feet. He got up and grabbed hold of the man he thought was to blame, a militia private by the name of Charles Lowe. As the two grappled others joined in and he described a scene of chaos with several men rolling around on the ground before he was overpowered and subjected to what seems to have been a pretty brutal kicking.

Webster told Mr D’Eyncourt that:

‘As I lay on the ground I was beaten and kicked so badly about the body that I am covered all over with bruises and cannot lie down with ease, and also, while I lay on the ground’ a woman had ‘somehow got her ear into my mouth and so nearly bit the upper part of it off that it only hung by a mere thread, and I have been since obliged to have it sewn on’.

This woman was Anne Sherrard who was described as married and living in Old Ford, a poor area of Bethnal Green associated with the new industries on the River Lea and the railways. Both Ann and Charles Lowe appeared in court to answer the charges against them.

Mr D’Eyncourt clearly thought this was a particularly serious assault because he chose not to deal with it summarily, as most assaults were, but instead sent it on for jury trial at the next sessions.  He noted for the record that:

‘This is a most brutal assault and it is high time that these raw recruits should be taught better; men like these fancy that as soon as they have a soldier’s coat they must commence fighting someone immediately, whereas an actual soldier would not be guilty of such infamous conduct’.

D’Eyncourt then was drawing a clear line between the professionals and the amateurs and finding the latter a much poorer specimen overall. History tells us that there was no invasion in 1859 or indeed ever again in British history to date. Had there been we might have been able to see how private Lowe and his companions fared when confronted by a real enemy rather than a perceived one. As for Napoleon III, his reign was the longest in French history after 1789 but came to the end in ignominious defeat by the Prussians at the battle of Sedan in September 1870. He ended up living out the rest of his life in England, but not as an all conquering victor but as a former head of state in exile.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, July 24, 1859]

This one is for Bill and Jim, and their family – I can only think that Charles must have been a very distant relative, and not at all like his modern ancestors.

A father uses the police courts to accuse the police of taking work away from his boy

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Before alarm clocks were widely available (let alone radio alarms or digital alarms on mobile phones) most people were reliant on being ‘knocked up’ by a tap on the window in the early hours of the morning. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth century this role was sometimes played by men from the night watch who patrolled the streets in the days before professional police forces were established. Private individuals also acted as ‘knocker uppers’ and continued to wake communities up until the 1950s, charging a few pennies a week for the service.

In 1881 young William Clutterbuck was employed to wake people in the streets around his home in Manchester Place, Bethnal Green but he had somehow got into a local policeman’s bad books and in July this landed both of them in court.

The boy’s father took out a summons against police constable 383K for assaulting his lad. Mr Clutterbuck admitted the assault was  minor but that was not the reason he had brought it; he was upset because the police were ‘interfering with the boy to take away his work’. That impacted on the family income and had therefore to be challenged.

This is an interesting example of working people using the summary courts to complain about the police and acts therefore, as a small test of how effective the metropolitan police courts were as arenas of negotiation for ‘ordinary’ people.

Young William was sworn and then gave his evidence to Mr Hannay, the Worship Street magistrate. He told him that ‘he went out very early in the morning, calling men who lived in his immediate neighbourhood to their work’. He charged sixpence a week for waking them but had lost one client because a policeman (PC 201H) had made them stop employing him.

PC 150K had also threatened him and said he would lock him up if he found him on the streets. When he and his father went to the station house to complain about this and other instances when the local police had tried to interfere with his work he was called a thief by PC 383K (the defendant). This was repeated three times in front of the inspector although there seems little justification for it.

The next morning William was out on the streets when he ran into the same copper who ‘abused him, asked why his father did not put a better coat on his back, threatened to lock him up and get him sent to a reformatory, and took him by the collar and twisted him around’.

This was the last straw for Mr Clutterbuck who took out the summons that brought the policeman to court. He also produced a ‘long list of persons’ who were prepared to testify on his sons’ behalf. Now it was for the magistrate to consider the evidence he had heard and decide whether the police had a case to answer.

Mr Hannay did seem minded to take it seriously. The assault ‘was of no matter’, but the allegation that the police were colluding with each other to ‘terrorise the boy’ was a grave one. He asked Clutterbuck to come back to court in a few days with some of those that had said they were willing to be sworn to give evidence.

This was a challenge to the police’s authority in the East End, an area where they were perhaps least popular in the capital as a whole. The local costermongers resented them for moving them and their barrows along, and when it came to the ‘Ripper’ murders in 1888 the community felt it necessary to form their own vigilance committees and patrol the streets themselves, so little faith did they have in the police to protect their womenfolk from the murderer.

The final resolution of this case does not seem to be recorded in the London press (or to have survived if it did). This is not surprising, the papers liked to offer their readers ‘tit bits’ of news from the Police Courts and this would have served to amuse or concern readers in equal measure. It was a dig at the ‘boys in blue’ and a reminder that working-class boys needed to contribute to the family income as well as go to school to learn the ‘thee Rs’.

I doubt much would have happened to PC 383K even if several local men had backed up the complaint against him, but if he then left young William alone to carry on his early morning work then that would have achieved all that his father set out to do. Why did the policeman do it? Perhaps they were able to earn a few extra pennies themselves whilst on their beats (as the old watchmen had) and resented the competition William provided. Whatever the truth this is perhaps an example of the police courts operating as the ‘people’s courts’ as some historians have suggested they did, working for local people against the authorities rather than simply being an arm of the disciplinary state.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, July 17, 1881]

The case of the ‘detonating grave digger’

The object of today’s post had a rather Dickensian name, Mr Wackett.

Wackett (no first name was given, if indeed he had one) declared himself to be a grave digger in Bethnal Green. One Sunday evening in early June 1839 Police constable Smith (171G) was strolling his beat in Shoreditch when he heard screams up ahead.

Moving along he quickly came upon several alarmed if not terrified persons, mostly women, who were trying to get away from a man in the street. Wackett was in the thick of things, apparently hurling small bags at passers-by, which appeared to explode on contact.

As the bags landed they ‘exploded with a report that could be heard at a considerable distance’, he later told the Worship Street court.

PC Smith arrested the grave digger and took him back to the station to search him. A number of bags, containing what seemed to contain gravel, were found on his person . On the orders of a magistrate these were taken away and examined by a local chemist.

When Wackett appeared before the Worship Street justice (Mr Broughton)  it was reported that:

‘intermixed with the gravel [was] a detonating powder which,  when thrown at any person, particularly a female, might create much alarm, but was not likely to destroy, or sensibly damage the dress’.

So it was an unpleasant thing to do, but one designed to upset and alarm and not to hurt or damage clothing. As a result Mr Broughton gave the grave digger a lecture on behaving more decently in future and let him go with a small fine.

[from The Operative, Sunday, June 9, 1839]

I hadn’t heard of the The Operative before, but it seems to have come out of Chartism. The paper’s ‘mission statement’ was “Established by the working classes for the defence of the rights of labour. Also for a ‘fair day’s wages for a fair day’s work.’

Two metal thieves are ‘bagged’ in Bethnal Green

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There was a market for pretty much anything stolen in the Victorian period. Today we are familiar with the character of ‘knock-off Nigel‘ who sells ‘dodgy’ DVDs and electrical equipment in the local pub, but the trade in stolen property is timeless. Victorian London had a well-established second hand clothes trade, and pawn shops allowed the honsest (and dishonest) to pledge items in return for cash. In recent years we have seen an increase in the mdoern version of pawnbrokers – stores like Cash Converters have appeared on many high streets.

While thieves stole almost anything they could in the 1800s some things were cleary worth more – or were more salebale – than others. Cash was easily used, and had to trace back to the owner; watches were valauble, but much more easily identified. Handkerchiefs were easy to pinch, but you had to steal a lot of them to make any real money; larger goods (burgled from homes) might make a much better return but the risks were greater.

Edward Phillips and Samuel Prior were opportunistic thieves. The two lads (aged about 17 or 18) were stopped late one evening in April 1877 by two detectives in the East End. When they were intercepted on York Street, Bethnal Green, Phillips was carrying a carpet bag. The policemen searched it and found a brass door plate and one from a window, which was  tarnished, as if it had been in a fire.

The door plate was engraved ‘Miller and Co. Wine Merchants’, and so certainly seemed not to belong to the teenagers. They were arrested and enquiries were made.

The door plate had been taken from the wine merchants’ premises in Welbeck Street, while the brass window surround (which had been broken into four pieces to fit in the bag) came from the Brown Bear public house in Worship Street, Finsbury.

When the lads were searched at the station officers found ‘a knife, a screw-driver, and a pocket-pistol’. The bag had also been stolen. The pair admitted their crimes rather than face potentially more serious punishment at the Old Bailey. Their were probably intending to trade in the metal for money but on this occasion they had been foiled; the Worship Street Police magistarte sent the to prison for six months, with hard labour.

[from The Illustrated Police News etc, Saturday, May 5, 1877]

 

Exposed – a profitable trade in stolen dogs in Victorian London

 
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In June 2016 the BBC reported that the theft of pet dogs was on the rise. Figures showed that over 100 dogs were being stolen in England and Wales each month, an increase in the past two years of around 22%. The loss of a pet is distressing and the Ministry of Justice told the BBC that this is taken into account by the courts, presumably in sentencing. Like many things of course, there is nothing new in animals being pinched, nor in the close relationship between the British and our pets.

In April 1873 the editor of the Morning Post chose to feature two dog thefts as part of his paper’s coverage of the metropolitan police courts.

At Marlborough Street a young man named Walter Handley, who said he was  a poulterer, appeared in court accused of stealing a French poodle. The dog belonged to Captain Randolph Stewart, who had a fashionable address at 85 Eaton Place, Pimlico. The dog was a pedigree and valued at the princely sum of £50 (or over £2,000 today).

The captain told Mr Knight, the sitting magistrate, that the dog had gone missing on the 17 March. He had reported it stolen to the police at Vine Street but 10 days later it had come home on its own. Meanwhile Sir John Sebright, a broker in Bond Street was sold a dog at Leadenhall Market. The man selling it was identified as the prisoner, Handley, who had asked £20 for it. Sir John paid him just £10 and took the dog home with him, giving it into the care of his butler.

That was on the 21st March but in less than a week the animal had escaped and made it way back to its original owner. The captain then visited Sir John to explain that the dog was his and that it had returned home. The mystery of how Captain Stewart came to visit the man that had bought his dog is explained by the actions of the police.

Today it is very unlikely that the police will give over much if any time to investigating the theft of family pets unless it is connected to a more serious case of dog smuggling. In 1873 however a detective was assigned to look for the captain’s missing poodle. Did the fact that this was an expensive pedigree dog belonging to a bona fide ‘gentleman’ influence their actions? Or was it because the theft of digs was often connected to an illegal dog fighting and betting circle that involved more serious forms of criminality?

Detective-sergeant Butcher of C Division investigated the theft and presumably introduced Captain Stewart and Sir John. When the latter explained how he had come by the dog he accompanied him to Leadenhall Market and they found Walter Handley. Sir John told him he had sold him a stolen dog and asked him for his money back. Walter panicked and tried to run off, unsuccessfully.

In court he told Mr Knight that he had bought the dog himself from another man (who, of course, he could not identify). The poor animal had been shaved to make it harder to trace, and when Handley was searched at Vine Street the police had found a piece of liver on him. This was termed ‘pudding’ DS Butcher told the magistrate, and was commonly used to tempt dogs into the clutches of thieves. The detective added that Handley had been seen ‘in the company of dog-stealers, one of who had only just come out of prison after being their for 18 months’. Dogs were often stolen to be used in fights or for rat baiting, he said. This one was not destined for the pits however, its value was as a luxury pet.

Captain Stewart had been determined to prosecute he said, because several of his friends had lost animals to thieves in recent months, and he wanted to stop the trade in stolen dogs. So did the magistrate, he found Handley guilty and sent him to prison for six months at hard labour.

Over at Westminster Police Court another serial offender was produced, but he had a much better outcome than Walter Handley. Charles Burdett was well known to the police and the courts; the court reporter even described him as ‘an old dog stealer’.  Burdett, who was from Bethnal Green, was accused of stealing a ‘valuable Russian retriever dog’ from a gentleman in South Kensington.

A few days after the dog disappeared a note was delivered to the owner’s house at 7 Cromwell Road. The missive was opened by the butler on behalf of his employer, Mr Reiss, and he followed the instructions which were to pay £10 for the safe return of the animal. Accordingly the butler went to a pub in Bishopsgate Street, met with Burdett and handed over the money. Burnett vanished almost immediately while the dog just as miraculously appeared.

The police soon caught up with Burdett and he was, like Walter Handley, accused of theft. The court was told he had a string of convictions and had served time in prison. This time, however, the magistrate was uncomfortable with the procedure. He suggested that the previous convictions appeared to be suspect, and he could not proceed against Burdett under the charge that had been laid. He decided to convict him under the Police Act which allowed him to level a fine £20 or 3 months imprisonment. Burnett ‘heartedly thanked his worship’, paid his fine, and ‘left the dock smiling at his lucky escape and rubbing his hands’.

It would seem then, that dog stealing was just as prevalent in the 1800s as it is today and that it was a lucrative industry; so lucrative in fact that a criminal like Burdett could afford to pay the odd hefty fine.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, April 18, 1873]

‘Matrimonial miseries’ in the East End of London

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The marriage between Thomas and Lucretia Gates was not a happy one. The relationship had soured over time and Thomas’ poor treatment of his wife had provoked her to move out of the marital home in Bethnal Green. Thomas, who was described in the press as a ‘tradesman’, then employed a female servant to look after him. This seems to have been a bone of contention for his estranged wife.

On the 14 April 1852 the broken marriage reached the Worship Street Police Court as Thomas summoned Lucretia to answer a charge that she had assaulted him. This was rare; whilst many men might have been attacked by their wives and partners, very few were prepared to risk the damage to the reputations by admitting so in public.

Thomas Gates arrived with a police escort. He had so stirred up the community that a ‘great crowd, chiefly of women,  followed him to court’. This probably reflected both a show of solidarity with Lucretia by the ‘sisterhood’ and a degree of contempt for Thomas for running to the authorities instead of asserting his patriarchal rights and position.

The scene certainly enlivened the court reporter’s morning, however, and he must have regarded it as a welcome, if unexpected, bonus.

Thomas started by declaring that: ‘this woman is my wife, but we live apart, she in fact, having run away with another man’.

Lucretia was not having this; having vehemently denied this version of events she ‘reproached her husband with having taken a  young hussy home to supply her place’.

Thomas rejected this accusation and described how the assault he had accused her of had happened. He was at his home in Turk Street when Lucretia had called on him. She took him by surprise and rushed in, shouting abuse at him and the young serving girl, Sarah Hartlett. Both were assaulted by the angry wife before Lucretia turned her rage on the room.

She ‘swept all the china and glass from the shelves and cupboards, and having smashed them to pieces, set two work to demolish the furniture and everything she could lay her hands on’.

But she didn’t stop there, he said.

‘She tore the shirt entirely to pieces from his back, and tore the dress of the other woman also, exclaiming, “I’ll teach you to have a ____ here while I’m away,” and accusation which he assured the magistrate was quite unfounded’.

It was quite a display of anger and Lucretia did not deny it. Instead she explained that her husband had driven her away with his abuse and violent threats. On one occasion, she said, he ‘had stood over her with a knife, threatening to kill her’. He also repeated her accusation that Hartlett was his mistress.

It was now the servant’s turn to be questioned by the justice (Mr Ingham)  and she denied any impropriety on her part. She only worked there during the day and always left him alone  in the night. Thomas may have been having an affair but Sarah claimed it was not with her.

Several of the woman that had accompanied the couple to court testified to seeing or hearing Thomas’ abuse of his wife. One recalled her being thrown out of a window, while another said she had seen Thomas Gates chase his wife down the street brandishing an iron poker. Mr Ingham turned to the pair and told them that it was clear their relationship was in tatters but that did not give either of them to right to turn to violence or to disturb the public peace. He cautioned them both and dismissed Thomas’ charge against his wife. They then presumably left the court and returned to their, separate, lives.

Divorce was not really available to the majority of people in the 1850s. The government (through  a Royal Commission established in 1850) were looking at a reform of the law to allow the upper middle class to gain a full divorce, whilst at the same time making the cost of judicial separations prohibitively expensive to everyone else. In 1857 Parliament passed the Matrimonial Causes Act which removed divorce from the church (ecclesiastical) courts to the civil. The new law, not surprisingly (since it was created by men) favoured men over women. A man could sue for divorce on the grounds of his wife’s adultery whereas a woman would have to show an additional cause (such as as incest, cruelty, bigamy, or desertion) or prove cruelty on its own.

Thomas and Lucretia could not hope to get divorced, they simply could not have afforded it. Instead the best they could aim for was either to patch up their broken marriage or live apart and agree to ignore each other’s infidelities. Given Lucretia’s passion and temper, I think this might have been unlikely.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, April 15, 1852]