Terrorism in London: an echo from the 1880s

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In the light of this weekend’s terrorist attack in London I was reminded of a graphic I saw recently detailing the state of terror in Britain in the 50 odd years I’ve been alive. This graph is for Europe not simply the UK but it quite clearly shows that we have been through worse times than this in terms of numbers of people killed and wounded. I am not in the business of belittling the current state of emergency, I live in London and have friends all over the country. We need to vigilant and we need to carry on and show solidarity and strength; this sort of extremist terrorism is a real threat to our lives and our beliefs.

However, its not new, even if it comes in a new form.

In the 1970s and 80s terrorism at home came from Ireland in the guise of nationalists. Abroad it was middle-eastern or closely related to organised political crime. But even seventies terrorism wasn’t a new phenomena; we had terrorism in the 1800s as well.

In Europe political extremists (to use a modern term) committed terrorist ‘outrages’ with alarming regularity. They planted bombs, through bombs, and stated assassination attempts. In 1881 three bombers attempted the life of Tsar Alexander II. The first failed (Alexander was protected by his bullet-proof carriage), the second succeeded, and so the third assassin didn’t need to use his improvised suitcase bomb.

The killing didn’t achieve anything useful, it merely brought about a crackdown on extremists and put back the cause of political reform in Russia many years.

From the 1860s onwards Irish nationalists engaged in what was termed the ‘dynamite war’ with the  British State. In 1867 bombers attempted to blow a hole in Clerkenwell prison to allow their fellow nationalists to escape. Twelve people were killed and many more injured. In the end one man was convicted and held accountable, even though he may have been a fall guy for the Victorian state. Michael Barrett has the dubious honour of being the last man to be hanged publicly in England as a result of the bombing.

In the wake of the bombing at Clerkenwell Karl Marx recognised that the Irish national cause was not helped by blowing up innocent civilians in London. In fact he suggested that he actually helped the government. His 1867 comment is eerily prescient in 2017:

“The London masses, who have shown great sympathy towards Ireland will be made wild and driven into the arms of a reactionary government”. Karl Marx (1867)

In the 1880s the war led to several terrorist attacks in the capital, none of which were very successful or had the effect of Clerkenwell. At the end of May 1884 the  Pall Mall Gazette reported a number of related incidents in London under the headline, ‘Dynamite outrages in London’.

Scotland Yard, the headquarters of the Metropolitan Police, was attacked. A bomb was left in a toilet block behind the Rising Sun pub, and when it went off it knocked out all the lights in the pub and the nearby police lodgings. Several people were hurt, mostly by flying glass and other debris, no one seems to have been killed. The target was said to be the Detective Division HQ nearby or (and this is more likely) that of the Special Irish Branch.

Almost instantaneously another explosion rocked Pall Mall. A bomb went off outside the Junior Carlton Club, in St James’ Square, a smart gentleman’s club which was a favourite of London’s elite. Nearby however, were the offices of the Intelligence Department of the War Office who may have bene the real quarry of the bombers. Again, there was lots of broken glass and superficial damage but few casualties.

A second bomb, in St James Square seems to have had similarly limited effects. Several people were treated for cuts but no one died.

The paper also reported that a terrorist attack on Trafalgar Square had been foiled:

‘While all this excitement was going on , some boys, passing close to Nelson’s Column, noticed a carpet bag reclining against the base of the pedestal.’ The bag was seized by a vigilant policeman (who I believe thought the boys were trying to pinch it). He saw one of the boys aim a kick at the bag and probably thought they were about to run off with it. When the bag was examined it was found to contain ‘seventeen and a half cakes of what is believed to be dynamite, and a double fuse’. The boys had a lucky escape.

Earlier that year there had been similar attacks at Victoria  Station and other London termini, on the London Underground and later, in 1885 at the Tower of London and the Houses of Parliament. In 1884 a gang of Irish republicans blew themselves up on London Bridge, but not deliberately, they were trying to set a fuse which detonated accidentally. They were intent on sending Westminster a message and an attack on the iconic heart of the capital (note, Tower Bridge was not yet completed), would have made that message very clear: we are here and we can get to you.

Ultimately Irish Republican (or ‘Fenian’) terrorism was not successful in the 1880s or the 1970s. The Good Friday Agreement which ended the decades (if not centuries) of war between nationalists and the British State was the result of negotiation by diplomacy, not a forced surrender of the British state. Indeed there was recognition that the Republican movement was not going to force the British to agree to ‘freedom’ through the armalite  or the bomb, and that’s why they agreed to talks.

I doubt we can hope that the current crop of terrorists will come to the same conclusion anytime soon but we can at least demonstrate to them that we won’t be cowed, or beaten, or surrender to their vicious brand of hate. In the meantime they will keep trying to terrify us and we will keep carrying on with our lives, knowing this is the best way to show them that they can’t win.

Meanwhile, in 1885, some of those responsible for the bomb attacks in London over the previous year were brought to trial at the Old Bailey. James Gilbert (alias Cunningham) and Harry Burton were convicted after a long trial, of treason, and sentenced to penal servitude for life. For those of you with a fascination for the Jack the Ripper case you will be interested to know that detective inspector Frederick Abberline (along with two others) was mentioned by the judge for his efforts in bringing the case to court.*

If you want to read more about Fenian ‘outrages’ in 1880s’ London then a section of my 2010 book London Shadows: the dark side of the Victorian City, deals with it in more depth.

[from The Pall Mall Gazette, Saturday, May 31, 1884]

*MR. JUSTICE HAWKINS  called attention to a presentment by the Grand Jury, expressing their strong approval of the conduct of the Police in this case, and particularly mentioning Inspectors Abberline, Jarvis, and Hagan, and desire that the attention of the proper authorities should be called to the same.

Another avoidable shooting in Hackney

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Frederick James was an anxious man. He kept a loaded revolver under his pillow in his Cumberland Street address, where he worked as a machine sewer in the shoe trade. There had been several burglaries in recent weeks and Fred, who didn’t trust the banks, kept just under £300 in his room and had the gun as his protection against robbery. But he was also a considerate man; his sister, Annie, lived at the property and she cleaned and cooked for him. He always took the pistol out from under his pillow in the morning and laid it close by him at his desk, so as not to alarm her when she turned the bed down.  Sadly, as we know from bitter experience of hundreds of modern tragedies, owning a gun often means that someone gets hurt or worse, especially when pride and machismo are involved.

James employed two other men – William Tripp and Thomas Hannibal – and took in work from larger operatives. On the 1 April 1872 a man named Charles Starkie turned up at 103 Cumberland Street, (off Great Cambridge Street, Hackney)  as he had done several times before, with a  pair of boots that required repair. As it was 5.15 the men were having their tea and so Starkie chose to wait.

There was clearly some underlying tension between the younger man (Starkie was about 28) and Frederick James (who was 39). The pair quarrelled and a lot of unpleasant words were exchanged. Starkie (according to Annie, Tripp and Hannibal) called the other man a ‘bloody thief’, a ‘bloody rogue, and a bloody shit, and a bloody swine’ (although the word ‘bloody’ was rendered in the Old Bailey Proceedings as ‘b_____’, so as not to give offence to the readers).

It isn’t clear exactly what happened after that but Starkie appears to have been taunting the cobbler, and threatening to take business away from him to give to someone else. It sounds like these were empty threats as James’ team enjoyed the confidence of their suppliers, but Frederick was still angered by the abuse he received.

A scuffle was heard upstairs and it may be that while James tried to walk away from the argument Starkie chose to continue it. Three shots were heard and when Annie and the others went to see what they were about, they found Starkie dead or dying.

When the police arrived – in the person of PC Edward Dunt (152H) – Fred admitted shooting the man but not intentionally. He had fired twice into the wall, which suggests he was either frustrated or wanted to send a strong warning. Starkie, as those in the house later  testified, poured scorn on James, saying he was just firing blanks.

Whether he was or not the third shot hit Starkie, entering his head via the jaw, fracturing his skull and ‘smashing’ his spinal cord. He probably died instantly and was dead before Dr Wallace reached the scene.

PC Dunt told Fred he must come with him to the station. James then asked to be allowed to change his shirt and promised to come quietly. He seemed to be very sorry for what had occurred and this was continued when he appeared some days later in the Worship Street Police Court. The charge was ‘wilful murder’ but there was clearly some doubt surrounding it. At Worship Street, on what was his second appearance his solicitor asked for  further remand so that James would not go before the next sitting of the Old Bailey. The higher court was busy, Mr Straight (the defence solicitor) told Mr Hannay (the magistrate) and it would not be fair to ‘hurry his defence on’ in such circumstances.

Hannah agreed and remanded him for a week, presumably meaning that he missed the sessions. The court reporter described James as looking ‘pale, and as if suffering much from the charge hanging over him’.

As well he might. If he were to be convicted of murder then he was quite likely to hang.

When it came to it however, the Old Bailey jury were lenient. There decided that there was ample evidence of provocation and insufficient evidence of intent. They found him ‘not guilty’ of murder but guilty of the second count of manslaughter. Frederick James escaped the noose and went to prison for 12 months.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, April 10, 1872]

The Mint’s finest foils a counterfeiting conspiracy

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James Brennan had been a detective in the Metropolitan Police (for G Division) but had left the force to join a specialist team at the Royal Mint. Their role was to actively pursue inquires and prosecutions against those involved in forging and distributing counterfeit currency.

In April 1860 Brennan and his team, acting on information received, visited the Penton Arms beer shop in Islington looking for suspected coiners. He saw his target, Harry Mason, talking with two or three others. Brennan went directly up to him and said:

‘Harry, I am instructed by the Mint authorities to take you into custody. You are suspected of dealing in counterfeit coin’.

With that he reached into Mason’s pocket and removed a small bag. Inside were ‘several little packets’ containing ’31 florins and 25 shilling piece, all of them counterfeit’. There was also a tobacco tun within which was a ‘good’ florin, evidently used to make the mould for the ‘bad’ ones.

The idea that people would bother to forge fake coins of such relatively small value might seem a risk not worth taking; much less obvious perhaps than counterfeiting a high denomination bank note. But look at what has just occurred in 21st century Britain? The Mint has just issued a brand new one pound coin, complete with all sorts of anti-forgery technology. Apparently 1 in 30 of the the old ‘Thatchers’ is fake, hence the desire to crate something that can’t be forged.

Back in Islington in 1860 Mason was bundled into a cab as a ‘mob’ was gathering and inspector Brennan presumably feared they might help him affect and escape. The Mint’s inspector took his prisoner to his last known address – 2 Pembroke Street, near Caledonian Road – where they found one of his known accomplices, Margaret Sawyer. Brennan told Mason that the Mint had been watching him for several weeks; this was a carefully conceived operation.

A search of the premises revealed plenty of evidence of coining: they found a mould in a cupboard, ‘two galvanic batteries fully charged, another mould, two or three cylinders, a number of bottles containing acid, and all the necessary implements for making and colouring counterfeit coin’.

Mason was, as they say, ‘bang to rights’.

Brennan took his charges before the Police Magistrate at Clerkenwell where it was revealed that Mason was a milkman by trade, and was well known to the police, having been charged and convicted of a felony more than once before. He tried of course to deny the charges, and said the florin in the tobacco tin was also ‘bad’; Margaret said she knew nothing about any of it and hoped the magistrate would discharged her.

He did nothing of the sort and remanded them both for a week, so the Mint’s solicitor could appear. Bail was refused.

The pair appeared at the Old Bailey just under  a month later to face their trial. Margaret Sawyer was acquitted as she’d hoped, Mason though was convicted. A century earlier, a little over 40 years even, he would have faced the gallows but by 1860 the death penalty had been abolished for all crimes except murder. Harry Mason was sent into penal servitude for 8 years.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, April 09, 1860]

Extortion and an accusation of rape in 1830s Shoreditch

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“Even if I keep on runnin’, I’ll never get to Orange street”, (The Prince, Madness)*

Mrs Thomas was the wife of a respectable surgeon living and working at 225 Shoreditch in East London. When the door was knocked on 8th December 1833 she much have assumed the caller had come to inquire after her husband for a medical matter.

She was half right.

Samuel Hewson, a bricklayer from Orange Street in Bethnal Green, presented himself at her door and declared that her husband had sexually assaulted his wife.

‘This is a bad job between my wife and Mr Thomas’ Hewson explained, ‘he has violated my wife; I must have means to leave London’.

Mrs Thomas was horrified and refused to believe it. Hewson was undeterred and insisted it was true. He added darkly that ‘unless he had money to take himself and wife from town , he go and make a charge before Mr Broughton [the sitting magistrate] at Worship Street’. Until 1842 rape was a capital offence and so Hewson was correct in warning Mrs Thomas that her husband ‘could be tried for his life’.

Faced with this threat (regardless of whether she believed what her husband was alleged to have done) Mrs Thomas broke down and asked what amount Hewson required.

He said it was up to her, effectively inviting her to make him and offer for his silence. She offered him £20 (close to £1000 in today’s money) but he angrily rejected that.

‘That’s not enough’ Hewson complained,, ‘If you wish to see your husband where I said he should go [i.e. in court] you may do so. If you like to make it £20 more, that will do. I will take £40 but not less’.

She handed over the money and he went away. Mrs Thomas said nothing of this to her husband but at the end of January she again heard from the bricklayer. As is common with blackmailers they don’t stop when you pay up. He now demanded an extra £5 for his continued silence about her husband’s supposed crime.

Eventually she told her husband what had happened and he immediately declared that he would prosecute Hewson for extortion. The bricklayer was tracked down (having left his address for Mrs Thomas to send money to) and he and Mr Thomas met. The surgeon denied any indiscretion with Mrs Hewson whom he had treated for a four month period in 1833. Hewson apologised but having conned the Thomas’ out of at least £45 the surgeon was in no mood to let it rest.

On the 16 February 1834 Hewson was formally charged at Worship Street – the very police court he had threatened to bring the medical man before – and whilst he said he was sorry and begged forgiveness the magistrate remanded him in custody to face a later trial.

There are no trials recorded at Old Bailey involving a surgeon named Thomas or a Samuel Hewson (for rape or deception or extortion) so perhaps the case was not written up (not all of them were published) or , more likely, it was settled by Hewson apologising and agreeing to repay what he had extorted. It is a reminder that those that place themselves in one-to-one private situations with others risk being the victim of false accusations.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, February 17, 1834]

*Madness’ homage to Prince Buster in their first single on 2-Tone (in 1979) name checked the legendary singer-songwriter and producer’s home in Jamaica. The B-side of that early release was a cover of Buster’s (real name Cecil Bustamante Campbell) 1960s hit ‘Madness’. Madness, along with the Specials, Beat and a number of other UK bands helped bring Jamaican Ska and Rocksteady to a new audience and developed in the wake of a political movement opposed to racism in society.

 

A draper’s maid conceals her secret in the chimney

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When Mary Ann Shinn took up a position as a ‘general servant’ with the family of Charles Debenham, a draper in Upper Clapton she attracted some attention because of her appearance. What was so special about her appearance is not spelled out but a few weeks later Mr. Debenham drew his wife’s attention to the 20 year-old maid. A doctor was summoned and he ‘quickly ascertained that a birth had occurred in her bedroom’.

Mary Ann had been pregnant when she arrived from ‘the country’ to take up work in London. One wonders at her mental state and whether she knew she was carrying an illegitimate child.

When challenged with the allegation she admitted giving birth and the dead body of an infant was later found in the chimney of her room. When examined it was found to have a wound in the throat ‘whereby the jugular had ben divided’.

At the coroner’s inquest the jury returned a verdict that the child had died from the injury caused by the wound to the neck, ’inflicted by the mother accidently in attempting to deliver it herself’.

It was a human tragedy that must have been played out hundreds of times across the nineteenth century as young women who found themselves pregnant and unmarried attempted to hide the shame and gave birth in private at terrible risk to themselves and their babies.

Until 1803 the law had insisted that unmarried women who gave birth in private had to prove that their babies had been born dead or face conviction for infanticide. Lord Ellenborough’s Act of 1803 changed that and placed the onus of proof on the prosecution (as it was for all other offences). Thereafter juries had the option to find women guilty of ‘concealment of birth’ (which carried a 2 year prison sentence) rather than infanticide which, like murder, attracted the death penalty.

In the Worship Street Police court Mary’s case was heard before the magistrate. She was, unusually as the paper recorded, allowed to sit through the evidence. Having heard the case against her the justice, Mr. Ellison asked if her parents were present. The police inspector was in the process of explaining that he did not believe she had any living relatives when ‘her stepfather and a friend’ appeared. They did not say anything however and Mary ‘after taking some stimulants’ (presumably because she had fainted under the pressure and humiliation) was taken away to the prison infirmary in a cab.

Mary was later tried for infanticide at the Old Bailey where she pleaded guilty to concealment and was given a good character by her employers. She went to prison for six months.

p.s I wondered if Charles Debenham was one of the Debenham family of drapers that established their business in the early 1800s. He was a draper but whether he was related to William Debenham (who joined forces with Thomas Clark in 1813 to establish Clark & Debenham – the forerunner of the modern department store) I cannot discover. If you know, please share.

[from The Illustrated Police News etc, Saturday, January 12, 1867]

Burglary tops the bill in the early records of the London Police Courts

The newspapers did report the comings and goings at the Police Court almost from their inception in 1792 but the early reports are fewer, less detailed, and harder to find with a simple keyword search. Gradually the papers seem to have settled on a heading of ‘police intelligence’ by the later 1820s but before that its use is somewhat sporadic.

The press also appear to have been working out exactly what to record (the London Police Courts heard hundreds of cases each week between them, so the reporters couldn’t include everything). By mid century this had settled into a pattern where the usual types of hearing (assault and petty theft, fraud and embezzlement, drunkenness and disorderly behavior) were augmented by ‘human interest’ stories (pleas for protection, abject poverty, attempted suicides), or the humorous, funny, or just plain bizarre.

On 11 January 1817 the Morning Post (which was, by the early 1800s, a ‘conservative’ daily which had started life in 1772) published a short summary of ‘police intelligence’ which included the following cases:

At Hatton Garden William Grant was brought up accused of burgling the home of Joseph Fisher, a tobacconist. Fisher prosecuted the thief himself and alleged that he, and other not yet in custody, had stolen ‘upwards of £100 in bank notes and cash’ from his ‘counting-house’. The justice remanded Grant for further examination.

John Davies was charged at Queen’s Square Police court with robbing the premises of Robert Smith who ran the Nag’s Head public house in Knightsbridge (which is still trading 200 years later ). The accused supposedly stole a ‘looking glass’ (a mirror) and was committed for trial. Neither Davies nor Grant are recorded as having trials at the Old Bailey so the prosecutions may have collapsed or perhaps they were acquitted and the cases not written up for the Proceedings.

Mary Johnston was not as lucky as these two however. She also appeared at Queen’s Square on a charge of burglary. She had entered the property of a blind woman named Eliza Bond, at 10 at night. This was quite unusual; female thieves rarely committed burglary, preferring to act with others as conspirators or to steal from homes or shops during the day, when they might pass as servants on errands.

Mary was tried at the Old Bailey on the 15 January and convicted by the jury. She was sentenced to death but recommended to mercy. She was 25 years old and pleaded ‘distress’. I can’t find Mary amongst those convicts transported to Australia in 1817 and she certainly wasn’t executed either so she, like so many ‘ordinary’ working-class people, disappears from the public record after her brief appearances in 1817.

Over at Bow Street one man (William Brennau) was committed for trial for stealing lead from the roof of a house belong to a law stationer in Chancery Lane (but this led to no trial at Old Bailey).

Finally, William Crowder was set before the magistrate accused of conspiring with others to burgle a warehouse in Bucklesbury (in the City of London). Crowder was clearly a man of means and the magistrate must have believed his claims of innocence because despite the man having only recently returned from a trip to France, he set him at liberty on his solicitor promising to appear for him if charges were presented at a later date.

Given that only one of these London hearings resulted in a trial at the Old Bailey it helps demonstrate that previous (and future) studies of crime and punishment which rely overmuch on the records of the Central Criminal Court should be treated with some caution at least. Much more ‘crime’ came before the summary courts in London and elsewhere (as I argue in my first book).

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, January 11, 1817]

Clerkenwell on the eve of an ‘outrage’, 1867

 

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The 13 December 1867 saw a massive terrorist attack in London. Irish republicans (‘Fenians’ as they were called) exploded a bomb at Clerkenwell Prison in an attempt to free members of their organization imprisoned inside. The attack failed in its intention as no prisoners escaped, but the bomb caused damage and killed 12 people and wounded more than a hundred more. I cover the attack and the related terrorist ‘war’ that followed in the 1880s in London’s Shadows, so I won’t revisit it here except to say that the bombing led to the arrest and trial of six men in April 1868. Michael Barrett was the only person convicted despite claiming to have been in Scotland at the time the bomb was exploded. He became the last man to be publically hanged in England when he was executed outside Newgate on the 26 May that year.

On the morning of the 13 December 1867 the Clerkenwell Police Court met as normal. The newspaper reported the proceedings on all London courts that day, choosing cases they thought might interest their readers.

In this case it was the story of three young thieves and their uncle, and an older ‘fence’. Henry Mason (18) and their younger sister Emma (just 14) were accused of stealing china and glass. William Mason (40) and William Bridge (aged 43) were charged with receiving the stolen items.

Emma Mason worked for a china and glass dealer named Ward who kept two shops on the Holloway Road. On the 2 December Emma was seen (by a passing policeman on his beat) coming out of one of the shops with a box of china, which she handed over to a young lad (later identified as her brother, Henry).

As the PC approached Henry scarpered with the constable in pursuit. He got away but the policeman returned to the shop and arrested Emma and William Mason. He soon extracted the address where their brother could be found and proceeded to Hope Cottage in Holloway with a fellow officer.

When they entered the house they found it stuffed with china and glass. There were ‘cut glass decanters, chimney ornaments, glasses, china plates, a set of tea trays, some tinware, and numerous other articles’, all belonging to Mr. Ward.

The ‘elder Mason’ (the uncle of the younger ones) was now arrested and when his room was searched the police found 43 pawnbroker’s duplicates, which presumably led them to William Bridge and a charge of receiving. The magistrate committed them all to trial.

They appeared at the Middlesex Sessions of the Peace in January 1868 and William Mason pleased guilty as charged. The court heard that he a criminal record already, including two separate terms of penal servitude. He was the chief instigator of the crime and ‘had signaled to the girl in Mr. Ward’s shop, so ‘she might know when to hand out articles to her little brother’. This girl was not Emma but her older sister Mary Ann (who did not appear in the summary hearing).

On conviction the judge postponed sentence on Mary so we might hope she escaped further punishment, perhaps because the court realized she would need to look after her younger sister (the children seem to have been orphans). Henry Mason was sent to Feltham (somewhere I remember well from the days when my father used to play football for a Probation Service team). Feltham opened as an Industrial School in 1854 but became the country’s second Borstal in 1910. It still holds young offenders aged 15-18.

But stiffest penalty was reserved for their uncle: the judge sent him away for ten years penal servitude as he was deemed ‘incorrigible’.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, December 14, 1867, and Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper , Sunday, January 12, 1868]