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]

Is this freedom? The ‘Adventures of a Slave’ at Worship Street Police Court

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Margaret Clayton was 50 years of age, or so she thought, when she appeared at Worship Street Police Court in June 1847, seeking the magistrate’s help and advice. Margaret was married to a soldier but she wanted a divorce.

Divorce was no easy thing in mid-Victorian England, particularly for a working-class woman of limited means. Until 1857 the Church of England conducted divorces and were very reluctant to grant them, and only on the grounds of adultery. As a result the number of divorces were small, around 300 a year even as late at the 1870s.

In some parts of the country working class men and women got around this by conducting ‘wife sales’ (as described by Thomas Hardy in the Mayor of Casterbridge). This form of plebeian divorce, which Hardy’s novel exposed to a disbelieving and shocked public, were often the only way for couples to legitimately separate and move on.

There was little the magistrate at Worship Street could do for Margaret, but he was interested in her background because she was not not like most of the women that came before him.

Margaret Clayton was ‘a woman of colour’. She was black, and Mr Broughton wanted to know her history.

She had been a slave she told him. She born into slavery as her mother was a slave also, and was first sold at 15 years of age, to ‘a captain’s lady at St Helena’. This would have been in 1812 during the long wars between the French 1st Empire and the Allies, led by Britain. These had ended at Waterloo in June 1815, and the French emperor, Napoleon, was sent into exile – on St Helena.

Margaret recounted how the lady had bought her for £50 to serve as a nurse for her children. Her mistress was good to her, she ‘was kindly treated but she was thoughtless and giddy, she said, as girls would be, and she ran away’.

She was soon found and brought back but sold on to another mistress who was far less considerate. She was treated ‘brutally’, she explained, before she was again sold – this time for £33 – to a soldier. He married her and set her free.

Sadly her husband, who seems to have cared for her, died and so she was free but without any support, and already having a family, she married another private in the St Helena Regiment. When this husband decided to return to England, Margaret and her children went with him. By 1847 they were living in London and he was working at the London Docks, and clearly they were not getting along very well. The eldest of Margaret’s five children was a man of 20, the youngest a baby just18 months old.

The magistrate was curious to know if she had known or met Napoleon. The Corsican ‘Ogre’ had been a prisoner on the small South Atlantic Island from October 1815 to his death (rumored to have been hastened along by his captors) in May 1821. Yes, she said, she had seen him but added nothing further the reporter could embellish his article with.

Napoleon remained a powerfully iconic figure in European history and politics. When he had died there were calls to repatriate his ashes (‘cendres’) to France but the ruling monarch Louis XVIII and his government feared a popular uprising of Bonapartist sentiment. Napoleon’s supporters would have to wait until 1840, seven years before Margaret appeared at Worship Street, to see their hero’s remains entombed in the magnificent structure at Les Invalides in Paris, where they rest to this day.

Having satisfied his curiosity about the woman there was nothing much more Mr Broughton could do. He asked one of the warrant officers present to enquire into the case and speak to the husband, to see if anything could be done to reconcile the (or perhaps even arrange a mutually acceptable separation) and ordered that Margaret be given some money from the poor box.

The Standard‘s reporter wrote it up as the ‘adventures of a slave’ as if it was somehow a tale of a woman’s exciting life upon the high seas. But in reality of course Margaret – who had been ”sold many times’ (as she had told the court) – had very little choice in where these ‘adventures’ led her. She had been taken to St Helena as a slave, sold again as a slave, and then bought against her will as a wife. Free or enslaved it made little difference; as the wife of a serving soldier she went where he went.

Her appearance (at 50) in a summary court in the capital of the nation that had abolished slavery and the slave trade was probably her first real opportunity to declare her independence. Unfortunately as a poor woman, legally married with no rights to property of her own, she found there was nothing the law could do for her except to hope that her husband ‘let her’ go, or treated her better in the future. We might ask ourselves then, from Margaret’s perspective, whether she was ‘free’ at all?

[from The Standard , Monday, June 28, 1847]

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]

A postman is ‘bitten’ by an angry magistrate

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Londoners puzzled at the arrival of new ‘post box’ mistake it for a stove, (Punch , January 1855)

The postman seems to have been a British institution for as long as we can remember. Every day (except Sundays and Bank Holidays), all over the country, the Royal Mail deliver letters and parcels (and a considerable amount of waste paper) in a system that has its roots in the 15th century. The first mention of the term ‘postman’ was in 1526 (according to the OED) and literally means someone who delivers a message by post.

The English postman really rose to prominence in popular culture after the introduction of the penny post by Rowland Hill in 1840. Hill’s innovation – to create a standard rate for letters – was followed up by the adoption of a (whisper it) French invention, the pillar box in the 1850s. Now ‘ordinary’ people could stay in touch with loved ones wherever they were in the country, just as long as they could read and write (or find someone that could) and had a penny for the stamp.

The arrival of the post (so much more exciting than the arrival of an email) was an event; if you had a relative or friend living far away, or serving in the armed forces, how special must it have been (in the days before telephones) to get a letter from them? As one contemporary remarked:

Who has not heard with pleasure the sharp, loud, firm ‘ rat-tat’ of the postman? What a stir it causes in the house!

                 Uncle Jonathan, Walks in and Around London, 1895 (3 ed.)*

I am struggling to find out whether ‘postman’ is or was an official term. The title ‘letter-carrier’ seems to be interchangeable with postman and it certainly appears to mean the same thing. Given that postmen (and women these days) are out in all weathers, walking long distances, carrying heavy loads, and fighting off the attentions of over-anxious canine guards, they have retained our affection.

However, as this case shows not all ‘posties’ were held in high esteem, at least not by everyone, and not when they ‘let the side down’.

Senior Stoker (which sounds more like a job description than a name) was charged before Mr Newton at Marlborough Street Police Court with being ‘drunk and incapable while employed as a letter-carrier for the General Post-office’.

Stoker, the court was told, had been working for the post office for five years. He had been found, as the PO’s solicitor (Mr Breton Osborn) testified, ‘helplessly drunk while in charge of a bag containing several post letters which should have been delivered’. The charge was ‘serious’ he said, and ‘of great public importance’.

The postman had been found ‘staggering about helplessly drunk’ by PC Knighton (230C) in Greek Street, Soho at half-past three in the afternoon, the bag over his shoulder. The policeman stopped him and asked what he had in the sack. ‘Only some cold boiled beef’ replied Stoker. PC Knighton didn’t believe him, checked, and found it actually contained about 30 letters.

Imagine the consternation in the Police Court; here was a public servant who should have been delivering the missives and messages of love, hope and congratulations to homes in the West End when instead he was as a drunk as a lord and swaying through the streets.

Not only that but Stoker had apparently got himself inebriated fast. One witness, Edward Powell (the assistant overseer of the Western District post-office) declared that Stoker had left the office at 2.15 and then he was sober. If he hadn’t been, he wouldn’t have been allowed to start his deliveries.

In his (albeit very weak) defence Stoker said that he ‘was short of food’ and ‘some drink he had in the morning took effect on him later in the day’. That must have been some delayed reaction if he was telling the truth. More likely he had met some ‘pals’ and stopped for some refreshment in a local beer-house.

The magistrate, Newton, asked Mr Osborn if Stoker would be dismissed from his job. That did ‘not always follow’, the Post Office’s solicitor explained, it was ‘at the discretion of the Postmaster-General’.  Mr Newton was pretty convinced that this sort of behaviour should mean that Stoker lost his job, and said so, but in the meantime he fined him £5 or one month in prison.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, April 08, 1880]

*http://www.victorianlondon.org/index-2012.htm [accessed 7 April 2017]

A most ungallant forger and the plundering of the ‘dark’ continent

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Henry and Eliza Hendry appeared in the dock at Mansion House Police court as a married couple. The pair were charged with ‘forging and uttering a transfer of shares’ in a South African gold mining company. While both seemed to have been involved, Henry hadn’t planned for both of them to benefit from the crime, as the court was soon to discover.

The prosecution was opened by Mr Abraham on behalf of the Luipaard’s Vlei Estate and Gold Mining Company Limited . He alleged that while Hendry had been a clerk in the Consolidated Goldfields of South Africa he had stolen two certificates belonging to share holders. The documents represented 400 and 26 shares each, and so were of considerable value.

Mr Abraham went on to say that Hendry, ‘with the collusion of his wife’, had sold the shares certificates on the stock exchange, making the huge sum of £2,500 (£140,000 today).

Eliza was represented in court by her own lawyer, Mr Myers, and he told the Lord Mayor that his client was the very much the junior party in the crime. In the previous century the principle of coverture (femme couvert) may well have protected Mrs Hendry from prosecution as a wife acting with her husband was deemed to be following his lead, as any ‘good wife’ was expected to do. By 1900, however, I doubt that this rather surprising aspect of patriarchy would have worked for Eliza in front of a jury.

Fortunately for Eliza it never came to that. The Lord Mayor was told that once Henry Hendry had successfully sold the share certificates he left his wife and ran off with another woman. He had compounded his serious crime by acting like a pantomime villain. The City’s chief magistrate remanded him in custody but bailed his wife.

A case like this was probably complicated and evidence needed to be gathered. As a result it took several months for this to reach the Old Bailey. When it did there was no sign of Eliza, so she must have been released. As for Henry, the 30 year-old clerk pleaded guilty at the Old Bailey in May but judgement on him was respited. This probably means that there was some doubt over his conviction, possibly on some points of the law. Before 1907 (when the Court of Criminal Appeal was established) the Twelve Judges of England in the Court for Crown Cases Reserved, so they could lend their expert wisdom to the case.

Hendry disappears from the ‘bailey at this point so perhaps he too escaped the consequences of his grand scheme to defraud.

In March 1899  the area in which the Luipoards Vlei Estate was situated (the Witwatersrand) was firmly under British rule. This was to be (unsuccessfully) challenged in the coming year, as the second  South African (or Boer) war broke out in late 1899.  Britain’s imperial interest in Africa, in part driven by competition with other European powers (such as France and Germany) was underpinned by the desire to exploit the rich mineral wealth of the southern part of the continent. In trying to profit from the wider exploitation of Africa’s natural resources Henry Hendry was merely acting as he had seen many others do, and in the end, who can really condemn him for that?

As for leaving his wife however, now that really does mark him out to be a ‘bad lot’.

[from The Standard , Tuesday, March 28, 1899]

p.s The Luipoards Vlei Estate and Gold Mining Company had been formed in London in 1888 and successfully traded until the mid-20th century. It extracted gold and then, after this dried up in the 1950s, it continued to mine uranium. It ceased to be a going concern in 1970.

The grass is not always greener on the other side of the Channel

As PC Martin (406B) patrolled his beat in Grosvenor Place he saw a man going from door to door begging for money or food. As each front door turned him away he started to try at the lower, or trade door. The policeman now decided to move in an arrest the beggar, as he was branch of the vagrancy laws.

The man was not English and once an interpreter was found it was discovered that his name was Adophe Blesche and that he came from Austria. Blesche was produce din court at Westminster in early March 1881 charged with begging.

He admitted his offence but said he didn’t know what else to do. He was starving and had nowhere to turn. He told the magistrate that he was a labourer and had been working in Lille in France at a picture frame manufacturers. He had left, he said, ‘because they told him a foreigner could get a living and money in England’. Adoplhe was one of millions of migrants that traveled to Brain and America in the the late 1800s, attracted by the prospect of a better life in a more stable society.

The Westminster magistrate was curious however, as to what had driven him from his native Austria. The chief clerk suggested enquiries should be made with he Austrian authorities in London; he thought Blesche might be an army deserter.

When this was relayed to him by the interpreter Blesche admitted as much; he had served in Bohemia (his birth place) for 12 months but had run away from his unit. Given that the punishment for such an offence was six years’ imprisonment, it was not surprising that he didn’t want to return home.

Mr D’Eyncourt, the sitting justice, remanded him in custody and asked for the Austrian consul to be informed. Sadly for Adolphe he had pinned too many of his hopes on British hospitality. I wonder how many current refugees and economic migrants are similarly regretting their decision to cross the Channel.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, March 07, 1881

An English Valjean in Lambeth Palace

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Charles Jeram was a night watchman, working for the Archbishop of Canterbury at Lambeth Palace. In the early hours of March 6, 1866 he was on duty and heard a noise of a door shutting upstairs. This must have seemed unusual to him because he quickly made his way up to the drawing room (which must have been on the ground floor – meaning Pearson was ‘below stairs’) where he found an intruder.

The man, Charles Pearson, was holding a carpet bag in one hand and a ‘small cloak in the other’. When challenged Pearson said nothing and the security guard asked him to come with him (which he did without a struggle). The police were called and the supposed burglar was taken into custody.

After he had handed over his captive Jeram checked the drawing room and found that  ‘a great many articles [had] been removed from their proper places’. Pearson had presumably been working out what he wanted to steal before wrapping items in his cloak or placing them in the bag he carried.

His route into the house was also clear: a ‘pane of glass had been removed from [a] window’ enabling anyone outside to lift the catch and achieve entry. Jeram had checked this window on his rounds at 2 so Pearson must have broken in.

Pearson continued his silence in Lambeth Police Court so he was remanded in custody for the time being.

I was interested by the fact that Charles Pearson was described in court as ‘shabby genteel’, an epithet applied by one of the witnesses who might have seen ‘Jack the Ripper’ 22 years later. Mrs Long saw Annie Chapman talking to a man she said looked ‘happy genteel’ in Hanbury Street not long before Chapman’s body was discovered. Of course I’m not suggesting that Pearson was ‘Jack’ but the phrase is interesting. ‘Shabby genteel’ suggests someone down on their luck but trying to keep up appearances,  as Thackeray’s George Brandon does in A Shabby Genteel Story (1857).

It also made me think of Les Miserables (1862) and the way that Jean Valjean repays his saviour, Digne’s bishop, by taking his candlesticks. M. Myriel lets him keep them, a gesture that he hopes will set the convict on a more righteous path in the future.

There is no recorded trial of a Charles Pearson for burglary at the Old Bailey in 1866 so perhaps the archbishop followed the example of his fictious French counterpart and took pity on his uninvited guest.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, March 6, 1866]