An unfortunate cabbie picks a fight he can’t win

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On Saturday 7 October 1854 Henry Young, a currier from Westminster, hired a hansom cab to take him to a number of appointments across London. He was picked up in Victoria Street and finally set down at the Royal Military College in Chelsea.

The cab driver, John Blake, then asked him for 7s and 6d for the fare. Young now attempted to bargain with him, offering just 5s instead, which Blake refused. Either not wishing to pay more, or not having the money, the currier offered to leave the driver his name and address and made to walk away.

However, as he moved away from the Royal College Blake followed after him and started to attract a crowd around him. In the end there were upwards of 50 or 60 people harassing the currier, and presumably plenty of verbal abuse was directed at him. When Young hailed another cab Blake told the driver that he wouldn’t get paid, recounting what had heaped to him. Not surprisingly the cabbie refused to take the fare and poor Young was obliged to continue on foot.

When he reached the King’s Arms on Sloane Square the currier ducked inside, followed by the cabbie. Now Blake demanded his address, which Young wrote down on a  piece of paper for him, and then smacked him in the face with his fist and called him ‘an _______ thief’, who ‘wanted to cheat him’.

This was both a physical assault and a public insult and so Young was determined to prosecute his assailant. The case was brought beforeMr Arnold at Westminster Police Court. Despite there being some reasonable grounds for provocation (Young hadn’t paid the cabbie the full fare – or any fare it seems) the magistrate suspended his license for three months and sent him to prison for four weeks.

This is an example of the courts displaying a clear class bias; had Young not been a ‘respectable’ merchant with probably links to the City guilds I suspect he would have been prosecuted for not payment of his fare and Blake merely admonished for resorting to violence. As it was it the cabbie had overstepped the bounds of deference, and had assaulted one of his ‘betters’. We should remember that cab drivers then had a very poor reputation in certain quarters – especially amongst the magistracy and police who saw them as surly at best and disrespectful of ‘polite society’.

How things have changed…

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, October 12, 1854]

p.s The Kings Arms is no longer a pub but the building still exists next to Sloane Square tube station; I think it is a restaurant today.

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‘A monstrous thing’ is avoided in Bethnal Green

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The most common charges heard at the London police courts were those of being drunk and disorderly or drunk and incapable. In fact, whilst being drunk was not in itself an offence, once another misdemeanour was added (assault, using obscene language, refusing to quite licensed premises, etc.) you were likely to whisked off to the police station and produced in court in the morning.

Because such charges were so common and generally not very newsworthy, the press rarely reported them. Much better, they presumably believed, to offer their readers a staple fare of wife beaters, fraudsters, juvenile thieves, and robbers than a depressing catalogue of London’s inebriates. Just occasionally however, a case was reported because it had something out of the ordinary, as this one does.

Thomas Phillips (50) from Clarkson Street, Bethnal Green, and Robert Cable (64) from Millwall, were charged before the magistrate at Worship Street Police Court with being ‘drunk and incapable in the public thoroughfare’. Both men were described as ‘master greengrocers’ and they had clearly been out drinking at the end of the working week. They had been arrested by PC Kitchener (630K) as he made his beat along Green Street in Bethnal Green.

He had found them in a cart at about 10 o’clock at night. Phillips was sitting (or rather sat slumped) in the driver’s seat holding the reins but ‘quite unable to take care of the horse’, according to PC Kitchener. Cable was asleep (or passed out from drink) and face down in the back of the cart.

In court the constable and his sergeant (Johnson KR) fully proved the charge to the satisfaction of the magistrate, Mr Hannay,  who imposed a fine of 10s on Phillips.  Neither men had denied the charge anyway but Hannay was unsure whether the law applied to Cable. After all what had he done wrong? He was merely drunk in someone else’s cart, he wasn’t causing a nuisance or attempting to drive the vehicle.

He declared that:

‘It would be a monstrous thing if a gentleman going home in his carriage from a dinner was to be taken out and charged because he had drunk too much wine’.

So applying the law and common sense he discharged Cable without penalty than the night in the cells he had already ‘enjoyed’.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, September 23, 1877]

‘An extraordinary story’ of a missing boy in North London

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Mrs Ada Wigg was clearly at her wits end when she presented herself at the North London Police Court in early September 1898. She said she needed the magistrate’s helping in finding her missing son, Frank. The Wiggs lived in Shrubland Grove, Dalston and on Saturday 3 September she had despatched Frank (who was aged 11 and a half) to Sailsbury Square in the City on business.

The boy came home in a hansom cab paid for by a ‘gentleman’ he had met. This man had apparently bought the young boy dinner, given him a shilling and told him that if he came again he would  ‘keep him and make a gentleman of him’.

For a young lad from East London (even one from a family that sounds like they were doing ok) this might have sounded very tempting, to his mother it must have been horrifying. Ada told her son that he was forbidden from ever seeing the man again and hoped that was that. Unfortunately on Sunday Frank went off to church as usual at 10.30 in the morning, but hadn’t been seen since. Mrs Wigg went to the police and they followed up enquiries around the boy’s known haunts, even sending a telegraph to Lichfield where they had friends, but to no avail.

It is hard to look back in time with any degree of certainty but it looks from here as if young Frank was being groomed. Mr D’Eyncourt thought it an ‘extraordinary story’ and hoped that by reporting in the newspapers the boy might be noticed and found. His mother gave a description that was carefully recorded by the court reporter. Frank was:

‘Tall, fair and good looking, with blue eyes. He was wearing a light Harrow suit and patent shoes, and carried a silver lever watch and chain’.

Mrs Wigg had not seen the gentleman concerned but the boy had told he was aged ‘about 50, tall and grey’.

Two days later The Standard carried  brief follow up to the story. The reporter at North London said a telegram had been received at the court which read:

“Frank Gent Wigg found safe at Clapham. Grateful thanks to Magistrate, Police and Press”, Mrs A Wigg.

So the publicity worked on this occasion and whatever the mysterious gentleman had in store for Frank – even if it was simply a benign desire to give him a leg up in life – was averted.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, September 06, 1898; The Standard, Thursday, September 08, 1898]

A heckler gets ejected from the Old Vic

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The Coburg Theatre c.1820 (renamed  the Victoria after 1832)

In modern times actors have had to deal with noises and interruptions from their audience, some accidental (like the SatNav that started giving directions during a performance I saw in Kilburn), others more deliberate (such as the heckling that provoked Lawrence Fox to react with a  string of expletives). It would seem that heckling in the theatre is nothing new however, as this case from 1847 shows.

In August Robert Dixon appeared in the dock at the Southwark Police Court charged with  ‘making a disturbance in the Victoria Theatre’ and assaulting the constable  on duty. The magistrate heard that during the evening performance ‘a noise was heard from the gallery, which rendered it impossible for the audience to hear what was going forward’.

Murray, the constable, (whether an official Metropolitan police constable or the name given to what we might term ushers is not clear) made his may up in the direction of the disturbance and found Dixon who was:

‘standing up on one of the benches hissing the performance, and doing everything in his power to excite a disturbance , and to prevent the play from going on’.

The constable told him to be quite several times but he was ignored. Eventually he moved in to try and remove him from the auditorium. Dixon wasn’t happy about being ejected and resisted; in fact he resisted so much that it constituted an assault and he was arrested.

In court Robert Dixon was asked to explain himself. He told the justice that he was perfectly justified in expressing his displeasure at the performance he had paid to see. He felt it entirely improper that ‘the constable had dragged him out’.

Constable Murray added that this sort of disturbance was quite common in the theatre. There were ‘a number of young fellows like the defendant [who] were in the habit of frequenting the gallery, and out of mere wantonness interrupting the performance’.

The magistrate agreed that it was outrageous behaviour and had to be ‘repressed’ as he put it. He decided to send Dixon for a jury trial at the next sessions and asked him to find bail. If he was unable to do so he would have to go to gaol in the meantime. This didn’t go down well with the young man. He complained that he had already been ‘locked up since ten o’clock the night before, and he thought that was punishment enough for hissing an actor’.

The magistrate ignored his plea and Dixon’s father came forward to post bail for his son. I imagine the outcome would have been that Dixon would have had to promise to keep the peace, and possibly avoid the theatre for a period of time; entering into a personal recognisance (or one supplied by his family) to enforce it.

The Victoria Theatre (called the Coburg until it was acquired by Egerton in 1832) was on the New Cut and we know it as the ‘Old Vic’. According to an advert in Lloyd’s Weekly London Newspaper the entertainment that Dixon was objecting to might have been part of variety show that included the Tremont American Serenaders (who sang ‘Ethiopian melodies’) , a magician named King, and a demonstration of a chromatrope. It would only have cost him 3d (75p) to sit in the gallery.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, August 11, 1847; Lloyd’s Weekly London Newspaper , Sunday, August 8, 1847]

Medals count for little in class warfare

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George Walters was a hero of the Crimean War. At Inkerman on 5 November 1857 his quick thinking and bravery saved the life of an officer in the heat of battle. Sadly although he carried the Brigadier General to safety he later died of his wounds in the military hospital at Scutari. He was awarded the Victoria Cross for his gallantry and later left the army (and his home town of Newport Pagnell) to start a new career with the Metropolitan Police.

His mini biographer (in the link above) noted that he soon left the police and ‘joined the Regents Park Police, and little is known of what happened to him before the 1871 Census’. Well, thanks to the newspaper coverage of the Police Courts, I can fill in a small amount of detail, at least as to what he was up to in 1865 when he was about 36 years of age.

George was indeed working in Regent’s Park as a Parks constable and on 20 July a well-heeled group of men and women were enjoying a boat trip on the lake. At about twenty to nine in the evening ‘the whole party’ made their way to the exit gates close to the Zoo. The gates were locked and had been for some time it seems, as a small crowd of people were gathered there hoping to get out.

Henry Percy Berry, a ‘young gentleman’ of 81 Adelaide Road in fashionable St John’s Wood took matters into his own hands.

‘Being desirous that the ladies should not wait there for an indefinite period of time he got up over the gate and, as he was getting over a second gate for the purpose of going to the inspector’s lodge’, he was seized by constable Walters.

The park constable grabbed him by the throat, ‘and after shaking him violently said he should take him into custody and charge him with an assault’. Berry offered the man his card but he was ignored. Walter summoned another constable and together, with the help of ‘a drunken cabman who said he was a detective’ the young man was unceremoniously dragged to the nearest police station.

Berry claimed to have been beaten and kicked on the way and had the bruises and a torn coat to show for it. After a night in the cells he was presented before a magistrate in the morning (for assault) but the case was discharged.

Now, several weeks later he counter sued the constable for assault and so it was George Walters who found himself in front of a ‘beak’. The former soldier wore his medals with pride; the VC and Crimean Medal (with four bars) making a very clear statement as to his character. He was defended by counsel, Mr Johnson, and the case was observed by Inspector Caunt of the Commissioners for Her Majesty’s Works (who looked after the Park and employed the constable).

Berry’s testimony (that he was an innocent and the victim of an aggressive attack by Walters) was challenged in court and he was forced to deny swearing at the constable or throwing any punches. He admitted climbing the gate but didn’t consider that it had made him a ‘wrong doer’ in the eyes of the law. He was also ‘perfectly sober at the time’ he insisted.

The young gentleman’s evidence was backed up by two  ‘well dressed young named Edward Castle and Matthias Milner’. Neither knew Berry personally they swore, but they said that they had seen the event unfold.

The constable brief now called his own witness, a retired policeman turned cabdriver named John Holder. He painted an alternative account to Berry’s and it was one which corroborated our hero’s. Berry had used bad language he said, and was violent. He had been called to lend assistance as a former police colleague. As to the term coat he argued that the damage had been done by Berry himself and Walter had warned him about it at the time. His warnings had been treated with contempt and abuse by the young man however.

As for the former soldier, Holder declared that:

‘He never saw a man exhibit more civility and forbearance than did the defendant on this occasion, and he never saw a man behave more violently than the complainant did’.

Holder’s account was supported by the other park constable. So in the end it came down to who the magistrate would choose to believe. Would it be the working-class constable who was a decorated war hero, or a rich young man with a fashionable address?

I think you can probably guess.

Mr Mansfield had tried the previous case when Berry had appeared on a charge of assaulting the constable and had dismissed it. He was hardly going to admit he was wrong in open court. He declared that the defence that had been offered by Walters was a fiction and he ‘could not adequately give expression to his feeling of indignation at the manner in which the cabman had given his evidence’.

He turned to George Walters and fined him the huge sum of £4 for the ‘outrageous’ assault on a respectable young man and warned him that failure to pay would result in him going to prison for  a month.

England, a home fit for heroes? Not in 1865 it seems, not when the reputation of the ruling class was at stake anyway. It reminds me of Kipling’s Tommy:

For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an` Chuck him out, the brute! “
But it’s ” Saviour of ‘is country ” when the guns begin to shoot;

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, August 10, 1865]

A ‘knocker wrencher’ is nabbed!

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William Kilminster was presented in the dock at Worship Street Police Court in July 1837 charged with ‘wrenching off the brass knob from a door in Shoreditch’.

The court reporter treated the story lightly, as though it were amusing and perhaps this was on account of language he used to describe it, or instead because it revealed the different ways in which working-class and elite behaviours were judged. We should remember that in the 1830s most of those buying a daily or weekly newspaper would have been at least lower middle class or aspirational working class who aped those above them.

Kilminster had been seen at 1 in the morning by a policeman on his beat. The reporter recorded what the policeman had described to the magistrate:

‘he observed the prisoner working away at the knob of one of the doors with all the vigour and dexterity of the lordly personages that have heretofore monopolized this respectable recreation’. 

So was ‘knocker wrenching’ a thing? (His phrase, not mine I hasten to add). Indeed it was as this blog post from earlier this year shows. We find yet more information about this form of anti-social behaviour (or theft, which is what it is) here. It sounds like a Benny Hill sketch waiting to happen!

William Kilminster had been nicked and quickly thrown into prison when he’d first came before a magistrate. Now several of his friends had come to plead for clemency on the grounds that he was ‘an honest hard-working man who had acted under the influence of liquor, and too probably under the pernicious influence laid before him by crayon members of the aristocracy’.

Mr Grove was sympathetic to their appeals and released the ‘inoffensive and quite’ mechanic from gaol on condition that he paid a fine of 5s ‘to Her Majesty’ and a further 2s for the damage he had done to the door. With both monies secured William was free to go, with a small stain on his character and the admonition of the justice ringing in his ears.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, July 21, 1837]

Today is Graduation Day for my History students at the University of Northampton, I’m very proud of all of their achievements but every year there are one of two that stand out. We had several firsts this year and lots of upper seconds. Students get a bad press sometimes but I have to say that anyone gaining a degree from any university in England has earned it and deserves all the credit they get. As do all of those that help and support them, which includes family, friends and their lecturers 🙂

The Southwark magistrate helps two wives obtain a brief respite from their abusive spouses

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George Wright so badly mistreated his young wife, Emma, that after 18 months of marriage she had walked out of his life, and had gone to live with her mother. During that time she had not taken a penny of his money but had ‘maintained herself’ independently of him. In July 1881 however, the pair had run into each other on the New Kent Road, and this had ended badly.

George Wright may have gone looking for Emma; he was aware that she had a new man in her life and was accustomed to ‘walking out’ with him and her sister, something that annoyed him greatly. When they met he assaulted her, knocking her to the street and kicking at her while she lay there helpless.

Emma was badly hurt and her sister helped her get some medical attention before making a formal complaint to the police about George’s behaviour. In court even George’s own sister testified to her brother’s cruelty and this helped make it an easy case for the Southwark magistrate to adjudicate on. He awarded Emma a judicial separation (as close as he could get to granting her a divorce under his powers), and ordered her husband to pay her 10s a week in maintenance.

Both this case and the next one reported that day at Southwark Police Court , that of  a 33 year-old ironmonger named Stafford, accused of assaulting his wife, were presented under the headline ‘Matrimonial Causes’. This referred to the Matrimonial Causes Act (1857) which was the first piece of legislation to give wives some semblance of control over their marriages. It hardly offered equality in marriage as we might recognise or understand it today but it was a hard fought victory for women nevertheless and it made some small difference to women of the middle or upper classes. For poorer women like Emma Wright or Mrs Stafford it did little but perhaps did at least establish some legal grounds for separation in abusive situations.

Wife beating was widespread in the nineteenth century and not just in working-class homes. It was here however that the spotlight tended to fall with drink and fecklessness being attributed as causal factors in so many women being attacked in their own homes.  Wllliam Stafford was sent to prison for three months at hard labour for the beating he handed out to Eliza, his wife. The justice also separated the couple and similarly ordered William to pay her a regular sum of 7s and 6d for the support of her and her children.

Emma Wright then was lucky, she had escaped from George’s violence, for the time being at least. But a full divorce and the opportunity to be a ‘respectable’ married woman with someone else (rather than simply being a ‘common law’ partner) was still a relative pipe dream. Moreover, while she had bene awarded 10s a week, there was little to ensure that it was paid other than to constantly be prepared to drag her husband back to court time after time.

So it was a victory of sorts, but possibly a short-lived one.

[from The Standard, Monday, July 18, 1881]