Health and safety ‘gone mad’, as a child narrowly avoids being roasted alive

The Great Western Railway

On the 19 March 1873 The Morning Post reported its daily selection of reports from the Metropolitan Police Courts. At Marylebone there was a complicated ‘health and safety’ case (or at least that is how we would probably describe it today). Nowadays these sorts of cases don’t tend to come up before a magistrate, being dealt with elsewhere, but in the 1800s these were part and parcel of a local justice’s workload.

A summons had been taken out by James Henderson, a factory inspector, who was bringing a charge against the Great Western (Railway) company. He was represented in  court  by a barrister, Mr Henderson, while the company was defended by another lawyer, Mr Thesiger. The case was heard by Mr D’Eyncourt.

The fact were briefly restated: a young lad working for the company during the day had:

‘imprudently crept into the fire-box of a [steam] engine, and whilst asleep the fire was lifted by the fireman in ignorance of the poor boy being there’.

Crucially the report doesn’t say  what happened to the ‘poor boy’ but I am assuming he was fine, or this would have been a very different sort of prosecution. As it was Mr Henderson was attempting prosecute under the terms of the Factory Acts while the company’s counsel argued that these acts didn’t cover the railway company’s premises.

As I suggested, the case was complex and turned on a number of key points of law involving the definition of the engine sheds in the context of the Factory legislation. In the end Mr D’Eyncourt ruled that since the work carried out there involved repairs and maintenance to the rolling stock and locomotives owned by the railway, rather than any manufacturing per se, the acts did not apply and so he dismissed the summons.

I think we would all be more interested in the welfare of the boy and how he came to be sleeping in a fire box but the editor clearly thought his readers would prefer to hear the minutiae of a legal debate. What was more interesting (to me at least) was its remark that exactly a year earlier the Marylebone court had been much busier than it was this week in 1873. In March 1872 there had been 49 charges heard on the corresponding day whereas a year later there were just 23.

The paper listed them:

‘Drunk and incapable, 8; drunk and disorderly, 13; drunk and assault, 1; throwing stones, 1’.

All the offenders that were known to the court were fined 26d or sent to prison for seven days. These types of cases were much more typical of the London Police Courts in the 1800s; and thankfully much more typical than cases involving the accidental roasting of children in locomotive sheds.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, March 19, 1873]


Pickett climbs a fence and saves a life


It was about midnight on the 3 February 1866 and James Pickett was walking home along a path that ran parallel to the tow path of the Regent’s canal. It must have been a dark night because there was no full moon that February (itself a rare occurrence) so what happened next was all the more exceptional.

Pickett heard a sound, perhaps a splash or a gasp, and must have realised that someone was in the water. He clambered over the railings and rushed to the water’s edge, jumping in without pausing to remove his clothes.

James, a mechanic, was a strong man and after a struggle he managed to secure the person in the canal (a woman named Elizabeth Groves) and bring her safely out of the water. She lay on the bank ‘insensible and apparently dead’ but the mechanic picked her up and found a way to get her to hospital. Although Elizabeth had gone under the water to a depth of 8 feet and was feared drowned, she made a full recovery in the Royal Free Hospital.

However, this was no accident and it soon became evident that Elizabeth had attempted to put an end to her own life by throwing herself in the canal. The Regent’s Canal (like the Thames river) was a popular spot for suicides like Elizabeth (and indeed for anyone who wished to dispose of a dead body – as was to become apparent in the Thames Torso murder series of 1887-8).

Suicide was against the law and so once she was well enough Elizabeth was produced at Clerkenwell Police Court and asked to explain herself by Mr D’Eyncourt. Elizabeth, an artificial flower maker, told the magistrate that:

‘she was very sorry for what she had done. She included to attempt to take her life because she had separated from her husband’.

Either the shame of a failed marriage or her despair at losing someone she loved had driven Elizabeth to her desperate decision. Her husband appeared in court to say that he had parted from her because of her drinking but was prepared to have her back if the ‘magistrate would allow it’. That was the best course of action for everyone; a term of imprisonment was not likely to help Elizabeth and as long as she embraced this ‘second chance’ they was some hope that the Roves could make a decent fist of their marriage.

The real hero here, as Mr D’Eyncourt made  appoint of recognising, was James Pickett. He had ‘behaved in a very gallant manner’ the magistrate told him and declared that he should be rewarded with the sum of £2 from the  court’s poor box.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, February 05, 1866]

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The actress and her ‘lunatic’ husband

L0011787 Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum, Southgate, Middlesex: panoramic

Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum in the late 1800s. Munster House was much smaller but I can’t find a surviving image of it.

The Victorian Police Courts acted as a place of public record in two key ways. First there was a formal method of recording the business that took place there (although sadly very few of these records survive). Secondly, the newspapers reported on what went on in court (even if this was partial and somewhat anecdotal). So if you wanted to make an announcement or a statement of fact relating to the law the police court was a good place to do it.This was clearly the intention of Mr W. Doveton Smyth, a solicitor, when he approached the bench at Westminster in late January 1888.

Mr D’Eyncourt gave Doveton Smith permission to make a statement in relation to a complaint that had come before the court on the previous day. That had been brought by a Mrs Lloyd, who was described as an actress. She had complained that following her marriage to Mr Lloyd he had been whisked away by his family and placed in a lunatic asylum for his own good. Mr Smyth had investigated the circumstances and had come to report on what had transpired since.

The background appears to have been that Mr Lloyd’s family did not approve of his choice of bride. Despite the fact that he was 30 years of age (and she was 25) and so capable of ‘knowing his own mind’ they had moved to separate the couple. The disapproval stemmed not from any difference in age but instead in class. The Lloyds were a wealthy and very respectable family, Mr Smyth explained, and the new Mrs Lloyd was an actress – something that at the time was not deemed to be ‘respectable’ at all.

The pair had married at St. Mary’s church, Clerkenwell on the 17 December 1887 and had known each other for at least two years. Mrs Lloyd had been married previously, to an army officer who had died. The widow was also the sister of a solicitor, a very respectable profession as Mr Smyth was keen to point out. Since all Police Magistrates were trained barristers at law Mr D’Eyncourt was hardly going to disagree with his analysis.

Following the wedding, Smyth continued,  the ‘bridegroom seems to have indulged heavily in stimulants, and he was brought to such a condition that it was thought desirable that he should be put in confinement for a short time’.

This sounds a bit like a modern celebrity checking himself into the Priory to detox but I don’t think Mr Lloyd was given a choice in the matter. Two weeks after the wedding he was taken to Munster House Lunatic Asylum in Fulham where he remained until Mr Smyth visited him the day before his appearance in Westminster Police Court. The solicitor said that he spoke with Mr Lloyd for about an hour:

‘I must say, sir, that he has entirely recovered; and I think that all parties admit that if he was insane, he is now perfectly sane. I am bound to say he appears to be treated with the utmost kindness and consideration: but naturally he is anxious to obtain his liberty’.

D’Eyncourt enquired if he was asking for any help from him that day.

‘No sir’, replied the solicitor. He had met with the Commissioners of Lunacy which oversaw the care of the mentally ill in Victorian asylums, and they had agreed to look at Mr Lloyd’s case forthwith. Had they not I suspect Mr Smyth would have asked the magistrate’s help in taking the case to a Judge in Chambers so a court order could be obtained to secure the man’s release.

Having made his statement Mr Smyth withdrew but was back a few hours later clutching a telegram. This was from the Commissioners to Mrs Lloyd and it confirmed that they had authorised the ‘complete discharge of her husband from the asylum’. So it seems that Mrs Lloyd’s determination to get her new husband out of an institution where his family had imprisoned him had borne fruit. He was to be freed and Mr Smyth saw this as a very ‘happy termination of the case’.

Mr D’Eyncourt seems less sanguine about it; ‘I hope so’ he concluded, perhaps suspecting that a family so determined to go to such lengths to thwart what they saw as a social climber marrying into their clan were unlikely to make life easy for the newlyweds. Time would tell and now the whole affair was in the public domain, and a good name dragged through the newspapers.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, January 25, 1888]

Casual violence in Whitechapel as a char is ‘brutally’ kicked on the ground


When Isaac Sinclair appeared at Worship Street police court on 12 January 1854 it was his second time in a fortnight. He had been remanded the week before, by Mr D’Eyncourt, for an assault on a local char woman who was too poorly to appear to testify against him.

Char women collected dirty laundry to wash for others and were at the bottom of the domestic service ladder in the nineteenth century. The women in question, Hannah Dighton, was evidently very poor and lived in Flower and Dean Street in one of the roughest parts of the capital. In fact later in the century Flower and Dean Street would become synonymous with the Whitechapel murders of 1888, with several of the victims lodging in houses along the street and those nearby (like Wentworth Street or Thrawl Street).

The assault that brought Sinclair (described as ‘a mulatto’ – or more properly, mixed race – and a ‘strolling player’) before first Mr D’Eyncourt and then Mr Hammill, was caused by an altercation between the himself and Hannah. He had accused the char woman of stealing a shirt she had taken to wash for him. He said she had pawned it but this was hotly denied.

Sinclair then ‘struck her a blow on the mouth with his fist’, and when she ran out of the house to find a policeman he chased after her and knocked her to the street. Not content he continued to kick at her while she was prone and caused her to become lame in one leg. Her eye was cut and she bled so much she was taken to the London Hospital and held there for several days before she was released.

When he was asked to speak for himself Sinclair alleged that the woman had struck first, hitting him with a pot. It was a plausible story; women did tended to use weapons close at hand and a chamber pot or a cooking pot (the report is not specific) would fit the bill. But Hannah denied instigating the violence and she was able to produce a another female lodger to corroborate her evidence.

Mr Hammill also heard from PC Michael Duffey (85A) who testified to helping Hannah and to her injuries. The assault had clearly taken place and regardless of its cause or the exact circumstances Sinclair was in the wrong. There must have been a spate of such attacks in recent weeks or days because the newspaper reporter entitled his article ‘More assaults upon females’. papers tended to return to themes that interested, alarmed or informed their readership and violence to women was  a standard one.

Having been detained in custody for over a week Sinclair might have hoped for leniency. He was unlucky however, Mr Hammill made a point of stressing his ‘brutality’ and imposed a sentence of six months imprisonment at hard labour.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, January 13, 1854]

A feckless husband and father is brought to book


Today I start my third year classes at the University of Northampton teaching and working with students on a module entitled ‘Crime and Popular Culture in the late Victorian City’. The City in question is London and we concentrate on the last quarter of the 1800s. In particular the module uses the Whitechapel murders of 1888 as a prism through which to explore crime, poverty, and a variety of other topics, using different sorts of popular culture along the way.

Naturally this aligns quite neatly with this blog that looks at the work of the Victorian Police Courts. As is evident to anyone who regularly dips into these stories, ‘all human life is here’.

Poverty is one of the fundamental defining characteristics of many of those that ended up before a police magistrate in the nineteenth century. Poverty was a prime cause of criminal activity; poverty often went hand-in-hand with alcohol abuse and gambling; poverty and domestic spousal abuse were also strongly interlinked. In addition many (if not most) of those seeking advice from the Police Courts were poor, vulnerable, or elderly.

Poverty and the police courts then, were inseparable.

Walter Crump was described by the court reporter as an ‘able-bodied young man’ when he was examined before the magistrate at Westminster Police court on 11 January 1888. He was brought in by the guardians of the poor at St George’s, Hanover Square, for deserting his wife and children. His absence had left them in poverty and had meant they had turned to the parish for support, meaning their upkeep fell on the ratepayers.

They had been in the Fulham Road workhouse since July when Crump had left them and the parish officials had tried, and failed, to get him to take responsibility for them. They had written to him, the magistrate was told, warning him that a prosecution would follow if he did nothing to help them, but he:

‘took no heed of this, but went to races and hopping [as many Londoners did in the late summer], returning to Westminster and living in lodging houses as a single man’.

Walter denied trying to evade the authorities and said that previously he had been unable to support his family. Now, with some improvement in his condition, he might be able to ‘pay something weekly’.

Mr Eyncourt, the sitting magistrate at Westminster, was unimpressed. He had cost the ratepayers the sum of £30 by neglecting his familial duties (perhaps as much as £1,800 in today’s money). He had only offered to do anything about it when ‘he was in custody’. he added, and it had taken a great deal of time and effort to track him down. As a result he was sent to prison for a month at hard labour, just how useful that was in supporting the family is less clear but I presume it was intended as a message to others.

[from The Standard, Thursday, January 12, 1888]

You can use this site to search for specific crimes or use the Themes link in the menu on the left to look for areas or topics that interest you. If you are interested in a particular court (such as Bow Street or Marylebone) you can also limit your search to one court in particular. Please feel free to comment on anything you read and if something in particular interests you then please get in touch. You can email me at

‘Dastardly outrage in the Royal Hospital Grounds’


Sometimes I find that the original ‘headline’ is just too tempting not to use. This one, from Lloyd’s Weekly in 1885 sets up a case of highway robbery in the grounds of the Royal Hospital, home to the Chelsea Pensioners.

Mrs Mary Keown was walking with her children in Ranelagh Gardens in January when she saw a elderly man coming towards her. As they passed she noticed he was carrying a stone in the flat of his hand. Hurrying on she was soon disturbed to discover that he was following them with a menacing expression.

Mary turned and faced him, but now he raised a stick to her. She grabbed at it and wrestled him for it. Until then he’d said nothing but as she won the stick from his grasp he drew a knife and threatened her:

‘Your money or your life!’ he cried forcing her to drop the stick and hand over her purse which contained a half sovereign and about 5 in silver coin. He ran off and Mrs Keown went to find a policeman. The man, who name was Walter Denham, was later arrested and appeared at Westminster Police Court before Mr D’Eyncourt.

Mrs Keown was generous to her attacker. Despite the evidence she gave, which was confirmed by the officer who captured him and found a ‘large knife’ in his possession, she pleaded for the case to be heard summarily. This would have meant that the magistrate could only have dealt with it as a theft or assault, not as the violent robbery it clearly seemed to be. Mr D’Eyncourt wasn’t having that however, he told her it was ‘too serious’ for that and committed the old man for trial.

That trial took place at the Old Bailey and Walter was duly convicted and sentenced to twelves months in prison. There is a technical issue with this story however. The Old Bailey case is dated the 29 December 1884 and yet the news report of the summary hearing is the 11 January 1885. Likewise the Old Bailey case refers to the attack taking place on the 7 January (which is consistent with the newspaper report). So which source is wrong? I would have to suggest that the Old Bailey report is somehow wrong or the transcription or digitising of it is.

Not that this matters for Walter of course, but it might for those that study (and tend to rely upon) the records of the Old Bailey, like me.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, January 11, 1885]

You can use this site to search for specific crimes or use the Themes link in the menu on the left to look for areas or topics that interest you. If you are interested in a particular court (such as Bow Street or Marylebone) you can also limit your search to one court in particular. Please feel free to comment on anything you read and if something in particular interests you then please get in touch. You can email me at

‘A gross outrage’ on a young woman reveals the commonplace nature of sexual harassment in London


Farringdon station under construction in the 1860s

The news feed is still dominated by the Westminster ‘sex pest’ scandal with a growing list of male MPs having to deny, admit or explain their poor behaviour towards female colleagues in the palace or outside. What has emerged is that sexual harassment (from the relatively minor to the extremely serious) is endemic in British politics.

As I discussed last week the Victorians experienced this problem, especially when the new railways began to break down the barriers between the sexes (and classes).  The busy railway carriages of Victorian London provided men with an opportunity to get close to women in ways that were usually denied them. We have seen this replicated in the modern world with attacks on female commuters on the London Underground.

Of course sexual  harassment is not (and was not) confined to the tube or other forms of transport. The Westminster scandal is just the tip of the iceberg; the Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey revelations have opened a can of worms in the movie and wider entertainment industry and I fully expect that over the course of the next year or so we are going to see more and more women come forward to complain that they have been assaulted at work or pressured into having unwanted sexual relations by men in positions of power.

This is because we don’t live in an equal society in terms of gender, despite the progress that has been made since the end of the last world war. There needs to be a reckoning and I rather suspect that it is just beginning. But let us return to the nineteenth century and to an incident that was reported, if not in great detail.

Miss Mary Ann Newell was ‘quietly walking along the street’ minding her own business one afternoon in November 1866. Mary Ann was quite close to her lodgings in Northampton Square, Clerkenwell (close to where the London Metropolitan Archives are located today) when a young man came up behind her.

Without warning or introduction he reached around her with his arms and ‘assaulted her in a  very indecent manner’. The newspaper report does not give any more details than this but I think it is quite clear that he must have touched her breasts. Such an action was of course as outrageous then as it would be today. Mary Ann escaped from his grasp and ran home where she told her landlord.

He set off in pursuit of the young man, capturing him a few streets away and taking him to a police station. The next day all three appeared at the Clerkenwell Police Court in front of Mr D’Eyncourt.

The young man, whose name was William Sparrow Cumber was just 16 years of age, and described as a bookbinder. Several of his friends appeared to give him a good character but the offence was proven against him. The magistrate made no comment that was recorded by the reporter but fined him the significant sum of £2 10(about £240 today). Mr D’Eyncourt warned him that if he failed to pay the money he would go to prison in the house of correction for a week at hard labour.

Did this represent ‘justice’ for Mary Ann or an effective deterrent to William and those inclined to behave similarly? I suppose the proof would in what happened next. If this served to let the young bookbinder know that he couldn’t treat women as objects, then a hefty fine (rather than gaol) allowed him to keep his job whilst being effective in protecting women locally. If his mates helped pay his fine and his ruffianism and day in court was considered a ‘badge of honour’ then more young women were likely to fall victim to similar assaults.

Given the deeply gendered nature of Victorian society and the generally subservient position of women in it, and the experience of modern women in a society which is supposedly so much more ‘enlightened’ where equality is concerned, I rather fear Mary Ann was forced to tread much more carefully when she left her home, with more than half an eye on who was behind her from then on.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, November 07, 1866]