A snake trader charms the Mansion House

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The summary courts of the capital didn’t always deal with crime or antisocial behaviour; some of those that came before so did so for advice or to ask for help. One such person, named, was a traveler from the Caribbean, who appeared before the Chief Clerk at Mansion House in some distress.

The unnamed visitor, described by the press reports as a ‘respectable-looking young negro’, said he had arrived in London from his native Demerara via a circuitous route. He told  Mr Oke, the clerk that he had left Demerara (in what was then British Guiana and is now Guyana) in an attempt to make some money.

Whilst ‘out in the woods’ in Demerara he ‘had discovered a nest of boa-constrictors that had only just been hatched, and having heard that such objects were of value in foreign countries, he carefully secured his prize… and resolved to take the “little strangers” to the Zoological Gardens at Moscow, where he was told he would be paid a good price for them’.

It seems that there was nothing deemed wrong in the young man’s actions, the Victorians hadn’t yet determined that trading in live exotic animals was cruel. The RSPCA (who are concerned about such a trade in snakes today) had been in existence for around 50 years by 1873 (when this application came before the Mansion House Police Court) but perhaps they were busy enough dealing with cruelty to domestic animals.

Unfortunately for the adventurous snake dealer things didn’t go quite to plan however. He made his way to Hamburg where he was supposed to make a connection to take him on to Russia but the boas fell sick. Despite ‘all his endeavours’ the ‘young “boas” all died’.

With nothing to trade and most of his money gone the lad used the rest of his funds to get himself to England and the capital where he now asked for the Empire’s help to secure a boat back home. He had found ship at the West India dock that was prepared to carry him back to Guiana in return from him working his passage but he had no clothes. He asked the court therefore, if he might have some money from the poor box to purchase the necessary clothes for the voyage.

Mr Oke sent an assistant to check his story and, having ascertained that he was telling the truth, agreed to help. He was given a small sum and ‘left the court apparently highly delighted with the result of his application’.

There is a footnote to this story: Mr George Colwell OKe (1821-1874) served as the Chief Clerk to the magistrates in the City from 1864 onwards having started as a clerk in 1855. He was widely respected for his knowledge of the criminal law and assisted many aldermen and lord mayors in their decision making. Moreover, as a result of his deep understanding of statue law and practice Oke produced several volumes on the subject.

The best selling and most well-known of these was his Synopsis of Summary Convictions,(1858) which ran to 8 volumes and was popularly known as Oke’s Magisterial. You can find this online and while it is hardly an exciting read, it is invaluable to historians in understanding the legal structure under which all Police Court business was conducted. Oke rarely appears in the pages of the newspapers so it is nice to see such an influential figure pop up and act in a charitable way, demonstrating the alternative function of these central summary courts.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, October 23, 1873]

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A little local knowledge helps prevent ‘the grossest frauds and impositions’.

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When the Rev. Henry Burton, vicar of Atcham near Shrewsbury received a letter asking for his help he was immediately suspicious. Whether this was because he had be sent such missives or before and was wise to them, or perhaps on account of him being on the list of magistrates for Shropshire, we will never know but Rev. Burton decided to forward the letter to London. He sent it on to Mr Elliot, one of the capital’s Police Court magistrates, then looking after the Lambeth court.

The letter was from a  man named Henry Dewhurst who described himself as a doctor and begged the vicar to help him financially by placing an order (with payment) for a book that he had written. The book was entitled ‘The Moral Philosopher‘ and was priced at 8s and 6d (about £25 today). Dewhurst added that:

‘Diseased heart, want of employment, and the almost fatal effects of typhus fever to himself, wife, and two out of four children, have plunged them into the deepest distress. For two days they have not tasted food. Wife is fast sinking from consumption and want of nutriment. All they had is in pledge, even his clothes, for 56d. An early reply is humbly supplicated’.

Rev. Burton wanted to see if the magistrate at Lambeth could make some local enquires (as Dewhurst gave his address as 25 William Street, Nelson Square, Lambeth) and so Mr Elliot despatched the court officer, Sergeant Goff to see what he could find out.

When Goff returned he said it was a scam, or a ‘system of imposture’ as he put it. He had visited Mr Dewhurst and confirmed that he was someone who had previously been exposed as a fraud at the Lambeth Police Court. About a year earlier he had tried exactly the same method of parting gullible individuals from their money with a hard luck story and the promise of a book that never materialised.

Goff discovered that Dewhurst had also written other begging letters recently including one to another vicar (this time in Canterbury) where he tried to pass himself off as a having in MA in astronomy. That had also failed to convince the reverend gentleman who had asked a lady friend in Lambeth to check its validity.

Mr Elliot asked Goff if he was satisfied that Dewhurst was an imposter. Goff replied that he was, adding:

‘He has not his wife living with him, and whenever he is asked for the book he states he publish, his excuse is that it is at the binder’s, but who the binder is he does not say’.

The magistrate declared that if everyone was as careful as the Rev. Burton the ‘grossest frauds and impositions might be prevented’.

Interestingly in 1835 a man named William Henry Dewhurst did publish a pamphlet or book entitled the The Moral Philosopher, so perhaps he wasn’t such a fraud after all? 

[from The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, September 7, 1848]

A destitute Essex girl in London makes the news

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Fetter Lane, Farringdon c.1880

I have discussed the tragedy of suicide on this blog before because it features quite regularly in the pages of the London press. While cases in the papers often featured women it would probably be wrong to see this as particularly female; it is just more likely that when a woman (especially a young woman) attempted or succeeded in ending her life it made a more affecting news story.

Given that suicide (or its attempt) was illegal in the 1800s those whose efforts to kill themselves failed or were in some other way interrupted (often by the police) would be brought before a magistrate where the circumstances of their actions were investigated. In some instances this could mean they got some help (and perhaps this was their intention) while in others they simply received an admonition from the justice and even a spell of imprisonment.

It is hard to say whether Sarah Esther was fortunate in getting help from the Bow Street justice or merely thrown from one desperate situation into another. She appeared before  Mr Twyford at London’s senior Police Court having been found by a  policeman on Waterloo Bridge at 7 in the morning. According to the constable she was about to throw herself into the Thames.

When he stopped her and demanded to know what she was up to she told him that she was desperate because she had lost her job. Sarah had come to London from Essex and had secured work as a domestic servant in a house in Fetter lane, Farringdon. She found the work hard and her mistress even harder to please and so she had been dismissed. Destitute and unable to return home to Essex she had seen no other way out than the river.

The alternative for Sarah was the workhouse but according to the relieving officer for the area, Mr Kirby, she seemed ‘disinclined to go herself’. Mr Twyford decided to make the decision for her, thinking it better she went into the workhouse (whatever the horrors it held for the Victorian working class) than to prison. Neither was an attractive option but with no other system of social support aside from charity Sarah’s choice were limited. She could go to gaol for a few days, or enter the workhouse for a similar period. Either way without further help in getting work her future looked bleak.

Girls like Sarah were prey to ‘bullies’ (pimps) and brothel madams, both of whom would sell them into prostitution without a second thought. From there the slide into criminality, desperate poverty, disease and death was pretty much inevitable.

The magistrate determined that the workhouse was best for her because there she would receive ‘every attendance’. But he wanted to make sure the girl was not insane so he sent her off with Mr Kirby but insisted that she be examined by a surgeon as soon as possible. So there was one option remaining for Sarah, if the medical man deemed her to be mad then she might be committed not to a workhouse or a prison but to an asylum. Once there she would have little or no opportunity to leave until her doctors decided she was well again.

So Mr Twyford’s actions, in following the paths open to him by what was a bad law could hardly be said to have helped the poor girl. A one way ticket to Essex and her family would have been a much more sensible and probably cheaper option in the long run. Sadly, that wasn’t the choice the Police Magistrate made.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, September 3, 1839]

for other cases of attempted suicide from the Police courts see:

A ‘passenger incident’ on the late Victorian Underground

Did a ‘wife’ take poison to escape her abuser? Or did her cry for help go unnoticed?

An elderly lady is driven to despair in a society that didn’t care

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]

A distressed mother hits out at Great Ormond Street Hospital

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Great Ormond Street Hospital, c.1858 from The Illustrated Times 

Most if us are familiar with the amazing work that Great Ormond Street hospital does today. Great Ormond Street (or GOSH) opened in 1852 with a mission to treat  sick children. At the start it only had 10 beds and treated the sick poor from the local area. It was founded by Dr Charles West, who had written and lectured extensively on the particular diseases of children and how to treat them.

GOSH was a charity, and so relied on donations to survive. Within a few years it was in trouble, unable to treat the number of patients that applied to it. In 1858 Dickens gave a performance at a charity dinner, raising enough money to buy the property next door and extend provision to 75 beds. In 1871 readers of a popular children’s magazine, Aunt Judy’s Magazine, donated £1,000 to sponsor a cot; this set a trend for future sponsorships.

So by 1872 the hospital had survived an early crisis and was now well established. it treated the children of the poor, providing a much needed service not available before. In the Victorian age children were increasingly valued and legislation was passed to protect them. The idea of ‘childhood’ (something limited largely tot the children of the wealthy) was extended to all children in the later 1800s.

GOSH was a pioneer from the start, and the hospital has seen many advances in paediatric medicine. In 1872 surgeons began to experiment with the use of electricity to treat paralysis and other ailments.  There years later GOSH’s first purpose built 100 bed hospital opened to the public and in 1878 a dedicated paediatric nursing college started training future nurses.

The extent of medical knowledge in the 1800s had improved considerably from the previous century but it was still very limited by today’s standards. In June 1872 a ‘respectable’ mechanic’s wife came to the Clerkenwell Police court to complain about the hospital to Mr Barker, the sitting magistrate.

Mrs Sarah Hornblower lived at 52 Johnson Street, Somers Town, and when one of her children fell ill she took it to the hospital. The child was an out patient at GOSH from April 1872 but on June 7th it fell dangerously ill and she took it in again.

While she waited to be seen to the poor child died in her arms, and she left it with the hospital while she went to make arrangements for its burial. When she returned later she discovered, to her horror, that a post mortem had been performed.

While this was, it was later established, standard procedure, it came as a terrible shock to Susan. When she complained to the justice she told him that:

‘the surgeons, without her authority or sanction, had cut open her child from the throat downwards’, and no one it seems had apologised or explained it to her.

Later that day Mr Barker was able to discuss the complaint with the hospital’s house surgeon, Mr Beach. He explained that Mrs Hornblower’s child had been suffering from croup or diphtheria and it was important to establish which had proved fatal. Croup (or laryngotracheobronchitis) is caused by a virus and affects the lungs. It causes a ‘barking’ cough and today it very rarely proves fatal.

Croup was not contagious but diphtheria is. Today diphtheria is rare in the UK because children are vaccinated against it, but in the 1870s it was a disease that could and did kill children in London.

So Dr Beach was being sensible he said, in checking for the cause of the child’s death so he ‘better attend to the applicant’s other children’. He was asked if there was any other way to ascertain what had killed the child, short of performing a partial autopsy. There was not he replied, and he had only done what was absolutely necessary.

Dr Beach added that Mrs Hornblower should not seen her child in that state. When she had entered the room where the body lay she had ‘in the most hasty manner pulled the sheet off the body, and thus it became exposed’. Mr Hornblower had been consulted and had agreed to the post mortem so the hospital was covered.

We can only feel sympathy for Susan Hornblower, the loss of a child is always a tragedy however it happens and she was probably shocked to see her son or daughter like that, and understandably in  distress she hit out. The magistrate told her that no one had done anything wrong and while she was upset there was nothing to support a summons.

He added that there ‘was a great deal of difference  between anatomy and making a post-mortem examination’, a possible reference to popular fears of the anatomisation of pauper bodies in the nineteenth century following the passage of Anatomy Act (1832), which allowed hospitals access to the cadavers of the dead poor.

We aren’t told in this report whether the child died of croup or diphtheria. Hopefully the Hornblowers’ other children survived and none were affected as badly as their sibling. We do know that GOSH remains at the forefront of paediatric care nearly 150 years later.

[from The Illustrated Police News etc, Saturday, June 22, 1872]

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]