A very different sort of entertainment in Covent Garden

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Covent Garden in 1864

If you are familiar with the modern Covent Garden then I expect you are fairly used to the sorts of entertainment on offer there. Much to the amusement of two of my nieces I became part of a circus act last year when I was plucked from the crowd to help support a knife juggler. I have seen her since but have never made the mistake of watching her act from the front row again!

Along with jugglers, busking musicians and magic acts there are always a ‘gallery’ of human statues (invariably including at least one Yoda) vying for our attention and any loose change. Quite possibly there are others mingling with the crowds with much less honest desires on our pennies, and Covent Garden has long associations with petty criminality as this blog has noted before.

I’m not sure when the ‘modern’ phenomenon of human statues first emerged but I don’t believe they existed in the Victorian age. Covent Garden was a much less wealthy area in those days when the poverty of Seven Dials and the district’s reputation for vice were much more widely known and discussed than its attractiveness as popular tourist destination. It had ceased to be a ‘market’ in 1974 when the old flower market moved, and fell into disuse thereafter before being rescued later in the twentieth century. What we see now is far removed (except for the buildings) from how it would have looked to our Victorian ancestors.

One building that still remains today is St Paul’s church, which provides a haven of peace in this busy London space. In 1859 the land outside the church was owned by the duke of Bedford and he had granted use of it to the church and its vicar to preach sermons to the public. Thus, on Saturday afternoon, the 9th July 1859, the Rev. Hutton was preaching to an assembled crowd close to the market.

Nearby another preacher was attempting to make his voice heard but he was having some problems with the local police. PC Vernor (of F Division) interrupted the man, later named as Dr William Evans, to ask him to stop. When Evans asked him why he was allowing the Rev. Hutton to continue but interfering with his own lecture. PC Vernor simply explained that the reverend had permission to do so, while he did not.

Dr Evans ‘did not seem to understand the distinction’ and carried on regardless. The policeman, ‘in order to put a stop to the disorder’  arrested him and took him back to the station house where he was later bailed by two of his friends.

Appearing in front of Mr Henry, the sitting justice at Bow Street, Evans eschewed a defence of his actions in favour of an opportunity to carry on his lecture to a captive audience.  He drew out a pamphlet entitled ‘A prophetic declaration by W. Evans‘ which he preceded to read aloud.

While he claimed to have ‘a mission’, his delivery was ‘so rambling and unintelligible that it afforded no cause’ as to what that ‘mission’ was, reported the Chronicle‘s hack.

‘It commenced by comparing the Emperor of the French [presumably Napoleon III] to our Saviour, and the prisoner himself to several historical characters, and contained a denunciation against England and the English; first because he (Dr. Evans) had been imprisoned; and secondly, because the people, while they would not listen to his counsel, “wise counsels, the counsels of God”, yet were ready to “receive bastard prophets and false Christs.”

England, he declared, had but a short time for repentance, and even America should not escape the “general judgements”.

It was quite a speech but the magistrate was not at all impressed. He reminded the doctor that they were there to consider his breach of the law and asked him to cut short his ‘ramblings’. Dr Evans simply declared he had as much right as the Rev. Hutton to preach in public but added that his own suffering under the law were comparable to the sufferings of Christ himself.

Mr Henry begged to differ and bound him over to keep the peace and refrain from speaking in Covent Garden again. In future, if he wished to avoid arrest that is, the good doctor would have to rely on passers-by buying and reading his religious tracts whilst remaining as silent as one of the ‘Yodas’ that infest the Piazza today.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, July 12, 1859]

An infringement of the licensing laws reveals the last knockings of the Pelican Club

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In 1867 the adoption of the Queensbury Rules had transformed the popular sport of pugilism into modern professional boxing. Previously prize fights had been bare-knuckle affairs, vicious and brutalising, so much so that they were made illegal. But as with many illegal pastimes that involved gambling they were hard to police, operating as they did in secret behind closed doors.

In 1891 the National Sporting Club was founded out ‘of the ashes of its roistering predecessor, the Pelican Club’ in Covent Garden. The NSC took over the Pelican’s venue which had space for 1,300 punters. The Pelican’s guests had been ‘a mixture of peers, gentlemen, journalists and actors’, but this had not prevented it going bankrupt during 1891.*

In July 1891 the Pelican Club may have already folded (as Andrew Horrall’s study suggests)  but its proprietor, a Mr Wells, was still summoned to Marlborough Street Police Court charged with selling intoxicating liquors and tobacco without a license.

The case had been brought by a detective supervisor of Excise, Mr Llewellyn, who had posed as an ordinary member of the public and had gained access to the venue on 7 March 1891. He had ‘donned evening dress, and without being challenged by anyone’ entered through a side door.

There was a ‘glove contest’ that night and so Llewellyn watched ‘some boxing and asked for some drinks, and remained there until about two the next morning’. The case had been up before the magistrate on at least one previous occasion and the defendant’s counsel had raised a point of law which the magistrate, Mr Cooke, now saw fit to adjudicate on.

He told Mr Wells that under the law selling ‘excisable articles’ (i.e alcohol and tobacco) to members of a bona fide club was not as such a sale and so was permitted without a license. However, ‘where a club was carried on by a proprietor without a reference to members it was a sham club’, and a license was most certainly required.

In this case Llewellyn was not a member of the Pelican Club, nor was he challenged or asked to prove that he was, so in selling him alcohol and cigars Mr Wells and his staff were at fault under the law. In Mr Cooke’s opinion he felt that the Pelican Club required a license to sell alcohol even to its members so either way, Wells was in breach of the law regardless of the clever arguments of his lawyer, Mr Poland QC.

He fined Wells a total of £35 plus costs (about £2,000 today) and the obviously frustrated and disappointed club manager asked him if ‘every proprietary club in London was illegal’. Mr Cooke declined to comment but granted him leave to appeal. If the club had indeed folded by this time poor Mr Well must have felt this was a yet another blow to his business prospects.

[from The Standard, Thursday, July 09, 1891]

*Andrew Horrall, Popular Culture in London C.1890-1918: The Transformation of Entertainment c.1890-1918: the transformation of entertainment, (Manchester, Manchester UP, 2001), pp. 124-5

A not so ‘jolly Jack’ at Bow Street

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The Police Courts of London were established in the late eighteenth century, after the passing of the Middlesex Justices Act (1792). The press reported the goings on at these courts from the start but their coverage in the early decades was patchy and much less regular than it became by the 1840s and 50s. It seems that the newspapers were working out how to use the information and stories that these summary courts provided. The tales of prosecuted thieves and fraudsters offered opportunities to demonstrate the efficacy (or otherwise) of the criminal justice system, to critique (or laud) the ‘New Police’, and, to alert Londoners to the threat posed by particular sorts of criminal.

However, the overriding purpose of publishing a half dozen or more of these daily reports from the Police ‘offices’ (as they were first called) or courts was entertainment. The everyday stories of ordinary folk, sometimes rendered in their own words or dialect, presented what we might now call a ‘Dickensian’ view of life in Victorian Britain.

This story, with its depiction of an Nelsonian Naval ‘hero’, is a good example of the court report as a entertaining distraction from the serious news that the papers contained.

In June 1830 the superintendent of Police, Mr Thomas, was at the Covent Garden watch house. These buildings were the forerunners of the police stations that were built following the establishment of the Metropolitan Police after 1829. The watch house was where the old watchmen set off from to patrol their beats and where those they arrested at night were brought back to to be charged or left to sober up.

On Wednesday morning (the 23 June) a sailor came into the watch house to make a complaint. He was a larger than life character and the Morning Post‘s reporter delighted in his representation of him for his readers. He described him as a ‘jolly-looking  weather-beaten tar, who came ‘tripping along with true sailor-like step’. He asked to be directed to the ‘captain’. In the watch house this meant the ‘super’, and Mr Thomas asked him what he wanted.

‘Your honour’, he began, ‘I am an old seaman and am come to you for redress’.

He went to explain that he had served his country for 15 years, seen many battles, including Navarino where he was part of the crew of the Asia. This battle, the last of the sailing ship age, had effectively decided the outcome of the War of Greek independence as the allied fleet (made up of Britain, France and Russia, led by Admiral Codrington) destroyed a superior Turkish one.

Navarino took place in 1827, and our hero had returned home some years later. He was ready to settle down it seems and, having ‘nothing particular to do’, he thought he’d travel to Windsor to ‘see the King, Lord protect him’. The king in question was George IV who was in the last few weeks of his reign at the time, because, on 26 June George died, at the age of 67. He was succeeded by the last Hanoverian king, his brother, William IV, who reigned for just under seven years.

In his patriotic fervour our unnamed sailor had made his way to Windsor and decided he liked it but that he needed a wife to complete his retirement from the sea.

He soon met up with a ‘jolly wench’ who’s name was ‘Fair-haired Poll’. It soon becomes clear that Poll was not your average Windsor maiden, but an experienced local prostitute who saw a sailor, recently discharged with deep pockets, as a profitable investment. The two soon became intimate.

The sailor told Mr Thomas: ‘I don’t like to be under any obligation, so I thought I’d buy her out and out’. They pair ‘struck a bargain’, and she was ‘his’ for ‘fifteen pounds’. They ‘got on comfortably well together’ at first, the tar explained, but he was getting bored in Windsor so decided to return to London.

‘So we tacked about, and got a-board a coach for town. Well, we comes to a place they call Piccadilly, or some such name, but my Poll thinks proper to bolt while I was treating the Jarvy, and she not only takes herself off but also £60 of my money, and all my toggery’.

So (to translate)  while the sailor had a drink with the coachman Poll ran off with his money and his trunk of clothes. Outraged, he headed for the nearest watch house to demand some help in finding her and his property. Mr Thomas, having listened to his tale brought him to Bow Street Police Court, to make a formal complaint.

There the magistrates sympathised with him (and were amused by the ‘naive style in which he presented it’) but could offer little real help. The man showed them several documents to prove he was who he said he was, but these were unnecessary, ‘as he completely embodied the appearance of a regular built tar’. He was told his best option was to return to Windsor as Poll would most probably have gone back to her old haunts.

The police superintendent promised to keep an eye out for her and his money but they all clearly thought it fairly useless. He was not the first ‘old salt’ to be separated from his prize money by a ‘privateer’ nor was he likely to be the last. Hopefully he found Poll in Windsor, if not then he was likely to end up as another of the hundreds of discharged seamen that struggled to survive in post-war nineteenth-century England.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, June 24, 1830]

Two ungrateful sons take out their anger on their mother’s effects

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Mercer Street, Seven Dials c.1890

When Mrs Lang lost her husband she also lost the main breadwinner and the driving force for the family business. The Langs had run a coppersmith business in Mercer Street, close to  Covent Garden. Fortunately for Mrs Lang she had two grown up sons and they undertook to help out in the running of the workshop.

However, the brothers, William and George, were not keen to take on the business for ever and soon began to resent working for their mother. They hit on the idea to emigrate and decided to seek their fortunes in Australia. Australia, which had once been deemed only fit as a dumping ground for Britain’s unwanted criminals, was now flourishing. It had enjoyed its own gold rush and the transportation of felons had come to a halt in the 1860s. Now, in May 1890, it looked like an attractive destination for the Lang brothers, but they needed to the funds to get there and establish themselves.

They began by asking their mother for money, above and beyond what they earned from working in the shop. The requests soon turned to demands, and eventually to demands with menaces. So concerned was Mrs Lang that she told her solicitor who wrote to the men warning them to desist.

This did nothing to deter them however and after their mother rejected demand for a sum of £500 they threatened to ‘do for her’ and then went to her home and smashed it up. The damage they did was considerable. While the elderly lady sheltered in her bedroom the pair set to work on her effects. When she felt it was safe to emerge she found a trail of devastation:

All ‘her pictures and ornaments had been smashed, and were lying about in atoms. The damage would amount to quite £30’ [£1,800 today]. A week later William went further, assaulting his mother by striking her ‘several blows’.

After appearing in court at Marlborough Street William was formally committed for trial while George, although acquitted of causing the damage, was ordered to find sureties (to the tune of £50) to keep the peace towards his mother for six months.

[from The Standard, Friday, May 16, 1890]

Technology and pornography clash in the summary courts of the capital

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Today’s story from the London Police Courts combines two changes in the mid nineteenth century; one technological and the other legal.

In 1851 David Brewster exhibited his stereoscope at the Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace. His stereoscope, invented by an Edinburgh mathematics teacher named Elliot and developed by  Jules Dobosqc, was not the first but it became very popular very quickly. The stereoscope allowed people to view 3D images on a handheld device, and had obvious entertainment and educational possibilities (sound familiar?).

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Brewster’s stereoscope

However, as with the still relatively new science of photography, some people soon realised that the stereoscope had other, less high brow or wholesome applications. In short, it opened new avenues for pornography.

The problem of pornography and its capacity to corrupt the morals of the population (especially young minds) was not lost on the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Campbell. While he presided over a trial for the sale of pornographic material Campbell was also involved in a  Lords’ debate on the restrictions of poisons. He recognised parallels between them and condemned pornography as ‘a poison more deadly than prussic acid, strychnine or arsenic’.

He introduced a bill of parliament that became law in 1857 as the Obscene Publications Act, the first of its kind. The sale of offending material was now an offence and powers were given to seize and destroy obscene publications. The offence came under the powers of summary jurisdiction and was therefore dealt with in the Police Courts before a Police magistrate.

Lord Campbell may not have had the stereoscope in mind when he conceived his legalisation but technology and the obscene publications law were soon interwoven at Bow Street Police Court.

In February 1858 Sidney Powell of Chandos Street, Covent Garden appeared at London’s senior Police Court charged with the sale of obscene ‘representations’ in stereoscopic form.

The court report doesn’t detail exactly what these slides contained but Powell was adamant that they weren’t pornographic. He argued that they were intended for ‘medical men, being of an artistic nature’. They were no more explicit, he contended, than the poses adopted by artists models.

He assured his worship that he had plenty of experience of selling images and of the law and he was ‘well known amongst artists, who told him that the representation of a single figure would not be deemed “obscene”.’

Mr Henry, the magistrate, rejected his case out of hand. He had seen the slides. There was, he concluded, ‘a very wide distinction between the representation of a nude in a  graceful attitude, and the coarse disgusting pictures produced in this case’. While he gave Powell leave to appeal his decision he ordered the slides to be destroyed. The unhappy Powell accepted the decision and made his exit from the court.

He was not the only person prosecuted under the term of Lord Campbell’s act that morning. Two men were prosecuted for selling pipe heads which were indecent. One of the sellers, a Mr Bush, complained that the pipes were not covered by the act and had been licensed for sale by Customs House. Henry was having none of it and order the entire stock destroyed.

One wonders why someone would want to own (or smoke from) a pipe with ‘indecent’ images on it, but then again our society uses sexually explicit images of women to sell just about anything so who are we to judge our Victorian ancestors? We might also reflect that the invention of new technology, from the printing press to photography, to moving pictures and the internet, has allowed pornographers to find new and creative ways to exploit a new medium.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, February 18, 1858]

The Bow Street Runners have the tables turned on them

The Bow Street Runners was the contemporary (and slightly disparaging) name given to the officers attached to the Bow Street Police Office. These proto-policemen had been established in the late eighteenth century by the Fielding brothers, Henry and John, and by the early 1800s they were regularly bringing criminals before the magistrate in Covent Garden and helping prosecute cases at the Old Bailey. The Runners were also being sent outside of the capital to help with provincial crime fighting.

They were not professional police has we understand them however, they were more akin to the thief-takers of the early to mid-eighteenth century if less corrupt. Runners were paid a basic stipend for their service but relied mostly on rewards from government and from those victims whose cases they pursued. I think it’s fair to say that if we are to see them (as Professor Beattie does) as England’s ‘first detectives’ then we should recognise that they were just as flawed and open to accusations of heavy handiness and corrupt practice as many of those that have come after them.

The Metropolitan Police were founded in 1829 and there was much discussion of the need (or otherwise) of professionals in London in the years leading up to Peel’s initiative. The Runners were part of that conversation and incidents like today’s news story from 1824, reflect concerns about the way the Bow Street officers operated on occasion and perhaps the need to replace them with a more accountable group of men.

The landlord of the Star & Garter public house in St. Martin’s Lane, Mr. Sbrinzi, had recently been the victim of a robbery. As a consequence two Bow Street Runners had been in and out of his house on a regular basis, presumably making enquiries.

They were there late on Sunday night. At about midnight one of his lodgers knocked him up to let them in and as Sbrinzi opened the door two Runners forced their way in demanding to know who was in the house. Despite the landlord answering their queries in full the men dragged him out of his property by the collar and marched hi to the watch house. There they tried to have him locked up overnight but the constable of the night refused them.

On the way he complained that ‘they had used him so roughly that he was obliged, in his own defence’, to seize on them (by the name of Donald) by the hand and tried to shake him off. At this the officer shouted to his colleague: ‘Hollick, give your knife, and I’ll cut his __________ hand off’. Not surprisingly then the publican pressed a charge of assault at the Bow Street office.

The two Runners arrived in the building as Sbrinzi was giving his evidence and immediately countered with their own version of events. They accused him of assayult but when an independent witness verified the landlord’s story the magistrate, Mr. Birnie, dismissed their accusations out of hand. He ‘strongly censured the conduct of the patrole’ (meaning Hollick and Donald) and recommend that Mr. Sbrinzi prosecute them at the Sessions of the Peace, which he said he would do.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, September 14, 1824]

‘Dastardly conduct’ in Covent Garden

Sarah Williams approached the magistrate at Bow Street for his help. She asked him for protection against her husband, William, who had deserted her for another woman.

Mrs Williams was sworn on oath as her husband had turned up in court to hear the case made against him. She told Mr justice Flowers that some ago Mr Williams had introduced her to a barmaid he knew. Now it appeared he was living was with her.

What made it worse was that Williams had been asking his wife to help support him (and his new love)  financially. Apparently the ‘authorities’ in Covent Garden (where he and the girl now lived) would not allow him to work. Sarah deposed that she already worked hard to keep herself and her  two children, she could hardly be expected to support her absent husband as well.

Mr. Flowers sympathized with her; he told Williams that he ‘did not know of any conduct more dastardly than for a man to run away with another woman and then deliberately demand support from his wife’. He said he would grant her request for a protection order.

Now Williams spoke up in his own defence. He said he had returned home only to be kicked out again. He claimed that Sarah had also been unfaithful (she ‘had been guilty of the same sin that she imputed to him’).

Sarah denied the charge and told the court it had been leveled by a drunken man in the market and there was no truth in it and Williams knew that. She wasn’t cold hearted either, when her husband told her he was ‘starving’ she offered to send him bread and meat, she only refused him money.

Mr. Flowers clearly felt this matrimonial dispute should be dealt with elsewhere but he acted to help Sarah, binding her husband over on his own recognizances of £10  for six months so he would (hopefully) not bother her any more.

[From The Morning Post, Friday, September 04, 1874]