‘Gin Lane’ uncovered in the 1850s


The Victorian’s love of gin, immortalised by Dickens in Sketches by Boz

When Benjamin Elmy, and offer of Her Majesty’s Excise, knocked at the door of number 20, New Compton Street it was opened, ‘after a short pause’, by a woman. Elmy asked her if she lived there.

‘No’, the woman replied, ‘I have nothing to do with the house’.

It was a strange response for someone answering the door, unless she was a visitor on her way out. Benjamin entered through the door and made his way downstairs. He was acting on information and presumably knew what he was expecting to find there. He wasn’t disappointed because he found ‘the lower rooms fitted out as a distillery’.

‘A still was at work on the fire, and there was a quantity of manufactured spirits in large bottles’. Elmy also found about ’60 gallons of wash, and all the apparatus of a private still’.

This was clearly an operation to make liquor and avoid the duty on it. Londoners had a huge appetite for cheap alcohol in the nineteenth century and especially for gin (which is what I suspect was being made at No. 20).

Benjamin had not gone on his own and one of his colleagues had decided to follow the woman that had let Elmy in. He caught up whether and brought her back to the illegal distillery. Her name was Eliza Nash and she denied all knowledge of the still or the people involved with it.

Unfortunately for her she was overheard by the landlady of the house who pushed into the room and set the proverbial cats amongst the pigeons.

‘How can you tell the officer that’, she exclaimed, ‘I have seen you constantly about here, and have you lately fetched a great deal of water for the house?”

Eliza was unable to give a satisfactory explanation of what she’d been doing so the excise men took her, and the contents of the room, into custody. The next day they brought her to the Marlborough Street Police Court where Mr Bingham found her guilty of running an illicit still. He was lenient on this occasion, fining her the lower amount of 30 but warning she would go to prison for three months if she failed to pay.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, March 15, 1855]


‘Nothing but skin and bone’; animal cruelty on Putney Fields


The British are, as everyone knows, a nation of animal lovers. The RSPCA was formed in 1824, fully 60 years before an equivalent society was founded to protect children. Of course we are also a nation of meat eaters, we just don’t like see animals abused before they become the centre piece of our Sunday roast or that morning breakfast bacon sandwich.

There were clear guidelines and rules to protect animals and humans in the Victorian meat industry. Inspectors regularly prosecuted butchers and market traders at the Police Courts and in 1858 the RSPCA helped the police bring a prosecution against an amateur  pig farmer from Putney.

William Watts was described as a tailor when he appeared before the police court magistrate at Wandsworth. He was accused of cruelty to animals; in this case several pigs that he kept on Putney Fields.

Several locals had complained to the police about the state of the animals and a policeman, Sergeant Backing (V Division) paid a visit to the piggery. He found the animals there in a dreadful state:

‘There were 2 pigs in a most miserable condition’ he reported. The animals were housed in 4 compartments and in these there ‘was a large quantity of stagnant water and a quantity of dung in each compartment, but there was no straw on which the pigs could lie’.

Worse still, the ‘animals appeared almost starved, and two of them stood up in a corner perfectly paralysed with cold and hunger’.

Watts promised to feed them better in future and the sergeant went away. When he visited again a few days later things seemed to have improved slightly but it was a false dawn. On a subsequent inspection Sergeant Backing found that the animals had been attacking each other. Watts claimed they had been fighting as pigs do, but the policeman was sure that they had been trying to eat each other, so starved were they.

He declared that he’d never seen pigs in such a poor condition; they were ‘perfect skeletons’ he said and averaged only 3 stone in weight even though they were at least 17 months old. Either he or the public alerted the RSPCA who sent an inspector named Knight to take a look.

Knight arrived too find one of the sows dead in the stye.

‘It was quite a skeleton’, he reported, ‘the carcase being nothing but skin and bone’. As for the other animals:

They were ‘large pigs, and their hind quarters were drawn quite to a point, and nothing remained but their frames’.

It was awful and Watts was fully convicted of animal cruelty at Wandsworth Police Court. He said he’d fallen ill himself and with no one to look after the pigs they’d been left to starve. He claimed to have looked after them well before that but Mr Dayman was not interested in his excuses. He wasn’t sure which was worse, the man’s ‘folly or his cruelty in withholding the food’. The animals would hardly be worth anything now in the state they were in, he’d get no meat from them even if they were now improving as Watts had argued.

He fined the tailor 50s and 2s costs which the man could not pay. Thus, for failing to feed his animals and allowing them to live in squalor William Watts was sent to prison for a month. One wonders who fed the pigs in the meantime.

[from The Standard, Monday, March 01, 1858]

An episode of ‘officious bumbledom’ as an 1890s dustman gets into hot water


John Rooney had ‘parked’ his dust cart as he often did while he went to see he if there was any need for his services. The Lambeth based dustman had not been gone long but when he returned he found it had moved. As he looked around he saw the horse and cart being led away slowly by another man in the direction of the Vestry Hall.

Rooney ran after the cart and remonstrated with the man. The pair wrestled as the dustman attempted to get hold of the reins and the other resisted. In the melee the other man claimed he was ‘struck a violent blow in the chest and also behind the ear’. As a result he pressed charges against the dustman and Rooney found himself in court at Clerkenwell in front of Mr Bros the sitting magistrate.

His victim was a vestryman, a member of local (parish) government whose name was Joseph Walton. Walton explained that he had seen the dustcart standing unattended and had watched it for 10 minutes. When no one returned to it he decided to impound it and drew it away to the Vestry Hall.

Rooney’s lawyer, a Mr Cowdell, said his client had no idea who Walton was and so was understandably annoyed to see him ‘stealing’ his cart. It was normal custom for dustmen to leave their carts unattended ‘in a manner difficult for the horse to run off’ while they searched out work. In his client’s view, ‘it was a piece of “officious bumbeldom” for [Walton] to inferrer’ in this way.

We’ve all encountered a jobsworth at one point or other in our lives and know how annoying they can be. Walton was probably just following procedure however, and he could count on the support of the magistrate. Mr Bros determined that it was a violent assault and sentenced the prisoner to 21 days in prison. He later relented and changed this to a 40s fine.

I doubt it made Rooney much happier though; he had been dragged through the courts and fined for reacting to seeing his livelihood being taken away. I suspect Harold Steptoe would have sympathised with him.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, February 28, 1892]

Police rivalry as a City man busts a man from the Met


Henry Morey served in the City of London Police, a separate institution to the Metropolitan Police created by Robert Peel in 1829. The City jealousy guarded its independence from central control and resisted calls to reform its policing in the long eighteenth century. In 1839 an act of Parliament gave the existing day and night watch full legal authority to act as the square mile’s police force and effectively ended attempt to merge them with the Met. To this day the City retains its own independent police who wear slightly different uniforms to their colleagues in the rest of the capital.

I suspect that as with regional forces outside of London, there is some tension between the City Police and the Met. This was certainly evident in 1888 when the Whitechapel murderer strayed onto City territory to murder Catherine Eddowes in Mitre Square. Now there were two sets of detectives hunting the killer and almost immediately they clashed over the finding of evidence in Goulston Street.

This rivalry or jealousy may well have manifested itself in small scale personal moments of friction between City police and their brothers in the Met. So when PC Morey found that he had a member of the Met in custody he must, at least, have felt a certain sense of superiority if not triumph. This is his story from February 1869.

Morey was watching a man named Smith who he suspected of smuggling. George Smith was a seaman and just before 9 o’clock in the evening of Wednesday 14 February PC Morey saw the sailor in King’s Head Court, Fish Street Hill. The hill ran down from the Monument towards London Bridge and was close to Billingsgate Market. Now it is all fairly quiet at night and few residents live there; in 1869 it is likely to have been a livelier place.

The policeman watched as Smith met with two others and handed over a package of goods. Calling for assistance the policeman moved in and arrested the trio. Back at the police station he established that Smith had been passing them contraband goods that he’d smuggled from the quays with the intention of avoiding the duty on them. There was some brandy, a bottle of Holland (jenever or Dutch gin) and a quantity of Cavendish tobacco.

Smith owned up to the offence at the station but claimed that the men, who were his brothers-in-law, were unaware that there was anything illegal about the transaction. He said he’d given the others the goods to say thank you for their support while he’d been in hospital recovering from an accident.

James Salmon was a local carpenter but the third man was James Brand, a Metropolitan policeman with 21 years service in the force. He had the most to lose from this court appearance, as his lawyer explained. Mr St. John Wontner told the magistrate (Sir William Anderson Rose) that:

‘there was sufficient doubt his [client’s] knowledge that the goods were contraband to justify the alderman in discharging him. He had been in the police force for a long period of years, and on quitting it would be entitled to a considerable pension (about 15s a week), but if convicted that pension would be forfeited’.

Brant’s station inspector appeared to vouch for his man, saying he’d had nothing said against the officer for 13 years (suggesting a not unblemished record however). Smith again pleaded in court that he was entirely to blame and the others knew nothing of it.

Sir William wasn’t convicted however. He declared that they must have know something was wrong, especially Brant who, as a police officer, knew the law. However, he was minded to be lenient where the man from the Met was concerned; he would only fine him £1 12s as his ‘conviction would be followed with serious results’ (i.e the loss of his pension most likely). Salmon and Smith were also fined similarly, with the threat of seven days in prison if they failed to pay.

I suspect there were some harsh words or long stares exchanged between PC Brant and his supporters and the members of the City Police gathered in the Mansion House Police Court. PC Morey was just doing his job, preventing the evasion of tax, but PC Brant had hardly been guilty of a heinous crime. For him, however, the result was potentially catastrophic. Not only did he lose his job and his reputation, he risked losing around £40 a year (just about £2,000 today) if the police canceled his pension.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, February 26, 1869]

A ‘perfectly honest’ man is cleared at Woolwich


Today we move south of the river and up to Woolwich, home of the Arsenal (the ordnance factory that is, it would be another three years until the football club of that name was founded). Henry Rollings, a tramcar conductor, was charged at the Woolwich Police Court ‘for neglecting to deposit an article of lost property within 24 hours’.

The charge was brought by a tramway inspector, a Mr Naudi, and he appeared in court to press the case while Rollings was supported by a number of people who spoke up for him as being an honest man.

On the 18th January 1883 Agnes Brookes was riding on Rollings’ tram as she often did. Rollings knew her well but not well enough to know where she lived. When Agnes got off to her rooms in Thomas Street, Plumstead, she was upset to discover that she had lost her brooch. It must have fallen off as she traveled on the tramcar, and thinking this she later applied to the Woolwich and Greenwich tramcar company’s office to see if anyone had found it.

She was in luck. The clerk told her that it had been handed in and sent to Scotland Yard, as was their standard procedure. The brooch had been found by another passenger, Eliza  Payne, who gave it to the conductor, Rollings. However, Rollings thought he recognised it as belonging to Agnes and so hoped to be able to return it in person, rather than simply sending it off to lost property as he was supposed to. He told Eliza this and she believed him.

So how did this case of lost property end up before Mr Balguy, the Woolwich Police magistrate?

Well it seems that when Miss Brooks first went to the office to enquire about her missing brooch Rollings hadn’t told anyone he’d got it, nor did he say that he knew her. It was only when he heard she was looking for it that he handed it over at the office. This was the story that Mr Nuadi told at least, and it placed Rollings in a difficult position. He was effectively being accused of keeping the jewellery for himself and only owning to finding it when forced to.

A police inspector explained that the tramway inspector had deposited the brooch with him on Sunday morning (three days after Agnes lost it) and Rollings turned up a few hours later to sign the record sheet. The brooch was then sent on to Scotland Yard to wait for its owner to claim it.

Luckily for the conductor the magistrate chose to believe his version of events. The man had acted foolishly, but not criminally and he doubted Mr Nuadi’s testimony. In fact he said that the tramway inspector was ‘famous for his incredulity in the honesty of people’. Rollings would have been liable to a penalty of £10 or even a term of imprisonment but he would only impose a fine of 10s on this occasion.

The traffic manager (possibly Rollings’ boss) was in court and Mr Balguy hoped that this incident and his appearance in court would not cost the conductor his job. No, said Mr Huddlestone, it would not. Rollings was, in his view, a ‘perfectly honest’ man. Which seems like the sensible outcome. Agnes got her brooch back, Rollings was fined but kept his job, and the tram company protected their reputation as a safe means of transport in public.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, January 31, 1883]

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 drew.gray@northampton.ac.uk

‘A pack of untruths’ in the case of the missing diamond


When Mr Abrahams returned from a visit to the music hall on the 2nd of January he realised he’d lost a scarf pin. It was a valuable item, set with a diamond, and worth around £7 (or about £300 in today’s money). The Clapham jeweller reported the item missing, presumed stolen, and enquiries were made.

Some time later the pin turned up at a pawnbrokers, presented by Joseph Smith, an elderly cook who lived in Caversham Street, Chelsea. Unfortunately for Smith the ‘broker had seen notices warning that a stolen diamond pin was in circulation and he detained the jewel and alerted the police.

When the case eventually came before the magistrate at Westminster Smith denied stealing it and instead mounted a convoluted defence. He said that he’d received the pin in the post as a present, so had obtained it lawfully. Since such a valuable parcel would have been sent by registered post Richard Dyer, the local letter carrier was summoned to give evidence.

Dyer stated that ‘he knew the prisoner but did not recollect leaving a registered letter at his house about the time named’. Moreover, ‘there was no signature for a registered letter on the day in question’.

Smith’s story then, didn’t add up.

The 70 year-old cook now called his son in to back him up. The younger man confirmed that he had received the parcel but had burned the wrapper. I’ve no idea whether this was a normal thing to do but it didn’t convince the magistrate that Smith’s story was true. In fact it did quite the opposite and angered him in the process.

‘Mr Partridge said the prisoner had aggravated the case by calling his son to tell a pack of untruths, which he (the magistrate) did not believe’.

But he was minded to be lenient with someone who bore a previously good character and where there was ‘some doubt about the matter’. After all, it had not been proved that Smith had stolen the pin; he may have found it at the theatre. So Mr Partridge decided not to send him to prison as he might have done, but instead fined him 40s and let him go. Mr Abrahams had been reunited with his property and there was little to gain (in terms of deterrence) in sending an old man to gaol. However, if he failed to pay the fine that is where he would go for a month.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, January 21, 1885]

Dodging the Police and skating on thin ice in St James’s Park

St James Park Frozen

In the Victorian period the ornamental lake in St James’ Park was occasionally turned into an impromptu  skating rink. There are reports of Londoners donning their skates and taking to the ice in large numbers.  This was despite the fact that it was a dangerous thing to do and the park authorities and police took measures to stop them.

This rarely prevented them however, as one writer noted in 1853:

They invariably prefer testing the ice themselves, by walking on to it, or under it, as may happen: and it is for the sake of checking this precocious spirit of experiment, that the edge of the ice all round the lake has been broken every morning since the frost set in, by men appointed for the purpose; and hence it is that now, when it will bear, bridges of plank have to be laid down that they may get on and off. You may observe, likewise, that ropes are laid across the ice from one bank to the other, in readiness to be drawn instantly to any part that may give way.

Charles Manby Smith, Curiosities of London Life (1853)

In January 1879 the weather was cold enough for the lake to freeze over and dozens took to the ice. In desperation the park authorities and police resorted to the law to try to deter the thrill seekers. One morning at Bow Street a ‘number of young men’ were brought in before Mr Ingram charged with ‘sliding and skating on the ornamental water’ despite ‘the caution of the police and the printed notices forbidding the same’.

The case was prosecuted by the representatives of the Commissioners of Her Majesty’s Works, who ran the parks, in the person of Mr Golden, a Treasury Solicitor. Golden regretted having to bring the case but said the Commissioners had been exasperated by pleasure seekers simply ignoring all the signs and even attempting to cut the rope that was used to clear them off.

Several policemen had been deployed to thwart the skaters but their attempts had become something of an entertainment in itself. The skaters amused themselves by ‘dodging’ the bobbies who found it ‘no easy task’ to catch them. Mr Golden told the magistrate that the ‘tumbling of an officer was a special source of delight to the mob’.  I can well imagine it was.

The magistrate, satisfied that the Treasury solicitor had proved his case, turned to one of the young men in the dock and asked him if he thought it was ‘fun’ to act as he had been accused of doing. ‘Certainly’, replied the youth, ‘and I think so still’. The appearance in court hadn’t cowed him or his fellows at all. I suspect they were respectable young men because their names were not recorded in the paper and Mr Ingram fined them the considerable sum of £1 each and let them go.

[from The Standard, Friday, January 17, 1879]

For other posts relating to London’s parks see:

Pram (and class) wars in Regent’s Park

Indecency and rough behaviour spoil the tranquility of London’s Royal Parks

Riotous behaviour in Hyde Park and a cobbler is sent packing

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 drew.gray@northampton.ac.uk