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


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


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?).


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]

A ungentlemanly young man refuses to pay his fare or give his name

The young man who appeared in Marylebone Police Court in August 1844 refused to give the magistrate his real name. When pressed he said it was ‘John Jones’.  The knowing justice asked ‘where do you live?’ ‘I’d rather not give that information, unless you insist on me doing so’ came the reply.

Why was he so embarrassed and reluctant to be identified? His crime was assaulting a cabbie and refusing to pay his fare. However, he had also been out  with a young lady when the incident occurred. The cab driver, Edward Pheby, testified that he had picked up ‘John Jones’ (a ‘tall gentlemanly looking young man’) and the young lady in Covent Garden and had been instructed to drive to Westbourne Park.

At several points he had heard the woman cry out for him to stop the cab only for ‘Jones’ to countermand her order. When he got to the Bayswater Road the young man got out and told the driver to take the woman back to Covent Garden. When Pheby asked him for his fare he was met by a refusal (‘No, I never pay my cab fare’, he said) and was assaulted, being struck on the head with a stick.

He took the unnamed woman back but she too refused to pay him and so he had summoned Jones to court. The young man continued to refuse to give his real name or his address but did admit to being ashamed at his conduct. The magistrate fined him £3 for the assault and made him pay the fare (of £5s 4d) plus an extra 3s for the cabman’s trouble.

I wonder who the ‘lady’ was but knowing that Covent Garden and Seven Dials was synonymous with prostitution in the 19th century perhaps that explains his reluctance to say who he was.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, August 20, 1844]

Business as usual at Bow Street while the Red Barn murder mystery unfolds elsewhere


In  1828 crime news in England was dominated by one story: the trial and execution of William Corder in Bury St Edmunds. Corder shot his lover, Maria Marten, after they had arranged to meet and then elope together. They met at the Red Barn in Polstead, Suffolk, having decided to run away because of fears that the parish officers were going to prosecute Maria for bearing at least two bastard children (one by Corder).

Corder was a fraudster and a Don Juan character and after murdering and burying Maria he fled to London, marrying  a woman who answered an advertisement he placed in the papers, and setting up home with her in Brentford. This is where he was when he was eventually tracked down by the police in 1828. He was brought back to Suffolk and his trial began on the 7 August.

The murder story became a sensation, it filled the newspapers and was copied widely into murder broadsides and cheap ‘penny dreadfuls’. Corder’s skull went on display in Suffolk and a play and melodrama was written about the tragedy. The Red Barn murder had become a murder mystery with a number of twists and sub plots.

Meanwhile at London’s police courts the more everyday business of law or order were given less coverage by the papers as a result. The entry for ‘Police Intelligence’ in The Morning Post is almost cursory. It mentions a counterfeiter at Hatton Garden who was remanded while two men at Marlborough Street were prosecuted for ‘furious driving’ and an assault on another road user (‘road rage’ in the 1820s?).

Finally from Bow Street, several women were brought in and charged by the proprietor of the English Opera House in Covent Garden. He complained to the Bow Street magistrate, Sir Richard Birnie, about the ‘disgraceful conduct of the depraved characters of both sexes who frequent the avenues of this theatre’. Covent Garden was synonymous with prostitution in the  period and this was a constant problem for the bench. Mr Birnie and his colleague, Mr Minshull sent the parcel of females to prison for a few days or weeks to ‘prevent their reappearance in that quarter for some time'(but not for ever).

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, August 09, 1828]

A ‘persevering tormentor’ from Seven Dials

Catherine Johnson was a middle-aged women who lived in court off Long Acre, Covent Garden. In the nineteenth century Covent Garden was a much rougher and poorer district than it is today, containing as it did the notorious rookery of Seven Dials. John Keats described Seven Dials as the place ‘…where misery clings to misery for a little warmth, and want and disease lie down side-by-side, and groan together.’

Dudley street, seven dials: 1872
Gustave Dore. Dudley street, seven dials. Busy street scene with sets of shops which can be seen on the right. The shops are selling shoes which are lining up on the floor around the opening from under the ground. Children and their mothers are in front of them. This image was first published in ‘London, a Pilgrimage’ 1872, on p.158.

In the summer of 1849 Catherine was brought before the magistrate at the City of London’s Guildhall to answer the complaint of a Mr Wheeler, a proctor* whose offices were in Godliman Street (near St Paul’s cathedral).

Wheeler complained that Catherine had forced her way into his offices and had refused to leave unless she was given three sovereigns. It wasn’t the first time Catherine had demanded money from Wheeler, he had (he told the alderman justice) been plagued by her for years.

The pair had been close some 21 years ago but he had ‘ceased all connexion [sic] with her about 17 years back’. Since then she had constantly harangued him for money. She came to his work, stopped him in the street, ‘even watching him to or from his private residence’. She simply would not leave him alone and now he was seeking the protection of the law.

Wheeler said he had given he plenty of money over the years and so had discharged ‘ his obligations’ towards her. He was determined to give her not a penny more he said.One of Wheeler’s clerks supported his employer’s evidence that Catherine was a frequent visitor to the office, even coming in via a private door when refused entry at the front. On this occasion he had been forced to call a policeman to get her taken away.

It is hard not to feel sorry for Catherine and to wonder about the situation she had found herself in. Without knowing what ‘connection’ the pair had had some 20 years previously  it seems likely that they had a relationship of sorts. Did Catherine think they would marry? Did she have a child to support? Was she living in relative poverty in the area of Seven Dials when she might have expected a more fashionable address?

Unsurprisingly the magistrate took the man’s part in this. Alderman Challis bound her over to keep the peace for 3 months, on a bond of £5. She was then released and we have no idea if she kept to the agreement she had made.

*proctor could mean Wheeler was employed by a school or university but it is more likely that he was some sort of solicitor.

[from Daily News, Friday, July 27, 1849]