A ‘suspicious person’ at Woolwich, but ‘not clever enough’ to be a terrorist.

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In the 1880s Woolwich was home to the Royal Arsenal, as it had been since the 17th century (and in fact earlier as there had been used for gun storage from the mid 1500s). After 1886 it was also home to what was to become one of London’s most successful football clubs, Arsenal FC.

Given that artillery and shells were manufactured at Woolwich in the 1800s the site was an important one for the Victorian military, but also a target for the enemies of the state. Security, then, as now, was an issue of national importance and the Victorian state was concerned about internal threats just as much as it was about  those posed by rival imperial powers.

In the 1880s there were  a series of terrorist incidents in London, all part of a long running campaign by Irish nationalists in the cause of independence. It is a subject I have looked at as part of my research into late Victorian London and I drew heavily on the capital’s newspapers and the work of K. M. Short, whose study of Fenian terrorism remains the most comprehensive one out there, despite its age.

So, given the background, we might expect the authorities at Woolwich to be on the look out for potential terrorists, and in April 1881 they thought they might have caught one.

Two constables from the Arsenal were patrolling by the river front when they saw a man rowing up and down, seemingly watching the shoreline. It was particularly suspicious because this was at just after one o’clock int he morning and they could not see what legitimate purpose he had for being there so late (or early). At three he was still there so they called to him and asked him what he was about.

He replied that he was lost and was it possible for him to land. The constables directed him to a pier, and when he docked and climbed the steps they arrested him. The police were called and they questioned him. It was soon discovered that the boat he was in had been stolen from an MP who lived at North Woolwich, Mr (later Sir) Thomas Brassey the member for Hastings.

The man’s name was Michael Sullivan and his peculiar behaviour and Irish background raised concerns that he was a Fenian bent on mischief at the Arsenal. However, when Inspector McElligot was called to give evidence he ‘repudiated any supposition that Fenianism had anything to do with the case, and complained that the most extravagant and unfounded rumours had been circulated’.

The magistrate agreed, he commented: ‘I agree with you that he is not a Fenian. I doesn’t look clever enough’, which was met with much laughter in the Woolwich Police Court, before his worship (Mr Balgey) sent him to prison for a for a month at hard labour.

1884 saw a number of terrorist outrages in London. A bomb was placed at Victoria Railway Station and other London termini, and a fairly inept attempt to blow up London Bridge resulted in the death of the bombers. In May 1884 two boys kicking an abandoned briefcase attracted the attention of a policeman who found they were playing with a case containing dynamite, fuses and a detonator! These incidents followed attacks in 1882 (at the Lord Mayor’s residence, Mansion House) and at the offices of The Times newspaper in 1883. In January 1885 the Houses of Parliament were targeted  along with he Tower of London, and the new underground railway was also subject to a bomb attack, as the Hammersmith train left Aldgate station.

There were few deaths and nothing like the serious level of injury that modern terrorists have inflicted recently, but it still reminded Victorian society that as long as Britain insisted on claiming Ireland as a colony Victoria’s subjects would not be safe in their homes or their streets. It also contributed to wider prejudice and the stereotyping of Irish immigrants in London and elsewhere, something that we see repeated in the demonisation of moslems today.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, April 20, 1881]

Cholera arrives in London and one woman finds herself in court as a result.

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From early 1832 to the last outbreak in June 1866 Londoners experience the full horror of cholera as it ravaged communities in the nineteenth century. Cholera spread quickly and those infected, if not teated swiftly soon developed the unpleasant and debilitating symptoms associated with the disease (dehydration, diarrhoea and vomiting), before death almost inevitably followed. Thousands died in London and other British cities during the three decades that the water-borne infection affected the British Isles, and many more died overseas, especially in India where the disease first appeared.

In late March 1832 the London press reported  cholera infections daily. On the 28th the were 89 new cases of which 49 people died. Since the outbreak started there had been over 1500 cases with 854 fatalities. The locations of the deaths were also listed, with the highest number for a single parish (16) in Southwark. This was not unconnected as Southwark was close by the river and was London’s poorest area. Three bodies were found ‘floating in the river’ and were added to the 25 the authorities had already dragged from the Thames.

On the same day, over at Guildhall Police Court, Mary Mahoney (a ‘poor Irish woman’) was brought up on a charge of ‘feigning an attack of cholera morbus at the foot of Blackfriars Bridge’. A local watchman (Easley) had found her and told the alderman magistrate, Mr Laurie, that this wasn’t the first time Mary had acted in this way. In fact it was the ‘fifth or sixth time’ she had tried it, and since on each occasion she was revived with a drink of brandy and water one might imagine she kept trying the same thing.

Mr Laurie turned to the prisoner and asked her how many times she had had the disease.

‘Not at all, your Honour, and I hope I never will’, she replied. ‘But this man says you exhibited symptoms of it’, the justice remarked. The poor watchman was perplexed: ‘Yes’, he interjected, ‘she lies down and moans, and won’t speak, and draws her nose and knees together’. 

‘Then you should take her to the Board of Health’, advised the magistrate, ‘they might give you a premium, for some of them are sadly at a discount for want of cases’.

He clearly wasn’t taking cholera very seriously, and certainly not as seriously as he should. He concluded by saying that:

Everything is imitated in this country, from a pound note to the cholera morbus‘, which triggered a laugh from someone in the courtroom.

Fearing that his wife would be punished Mary’s husband pushed himself forward. He was an old army pensioner, and quite blind. He told Mr Laurie that she was his only support and that if she were sent to Bridewell it would ‘ruin the family’. Mary chipped in to say that she really had been ill, albeit not with the cholera, and the justice let her go with just a telling off.

Mary had probably done nothing to warrant a spell in the house of correction; she hadn’t claimed to have cholera but the watchman – on edge and on the lookout for cases, especially by the river – probably misinterpreted the symptoms. This shows us, perhaps, that the arrival of this new and deadly disease in London quickly became the focus of conversation, press coverage, and rumour. As with many things that frighten us the truth of the situation (and therefore the best course of action to follow), often become obscured under in a fog of popular misconception. It took the medical profession several decades to arrive at a better understanding of cholera and a means to prevent it.

In 1854, after an outbreak in Soho, Dr John Snow (who had been investigating cholera since the late 1830s) was able to test a theory he had posited in 1849. Conventional belief held that cholera was spread by air  as a miasma (‘bad air’). Snow rejected this thesis and instead argued (correctly) that the disease was contracted by mouth through water. In Broad Street, Soho a street pump brought water to the local community (these were the days before Londoners had supplies of fresh running water). John Snow studied the outbreak and correctly concluded that the pump was the source of the cholera infections. Having stopped the use of the pump the area saw a significant fall in new cases. While he didn’t convince the medical profession until after his death (in 1858, John Snow’s name will always be synonymous with an effective medical and public health solution to the problem of cholera.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, March 29, 1832]

When drunk and disorderly behaviour almost results in an attack on the police

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Yesterday a tragedy unfolded in central London. I am writing this in the evening of the 22 March 2017 as the news of what seems to have been a major terrorist incident is still unfolding. What I know now (at 8 o’clock) is that at least 5 people are dead, and many more are injured, some critically. I’m not going to comment on the attack and its consequences because I only know what I’ve heard on the BBC and Channel 4. But I feel much as I did after 7/7: outraged, saddened, disgusted, and determined that this sort of inhuman, indiscriminate, and cowardly attack should not, and will not, change the way myself and millions of other Londoners behave as we go about our daily lives. I am proud to live in a liberal democracy which supports free speech, free association and the rights of  everyone.

One of those that died today was a policeman, PC Keith Palmer and today’s blog is respectfully dedicated to his memory.

PC Palmer was unarmed and standing on duty at Carriage Gates, outside the Palace of Westminster. He was simply doing his job and in the process he was stabbed to death in front of his colleague. The fact that he was unarmed is significant because it demonstrates that in this country, from their inception in 1829, the Metropolitan Police do not routinely carry firearms. The British ‘bobby’ is armed with a truncheon (albeit a modern version), just as they have been for 188 years. Questions are bound to be asked this week about whether in future such officers should be equipped with lethal weapons; personally I hope they are not but I will understand why that question is posed.

In 1884 (in a period when a different terrorist threat plagued London – that of Irish nationalism) another policeman was attacked in the capital – this time not fatally, although it could have been worse.

PC Shananhan (36XR) was on his beat in Kilburn at about 20 to 10 in the evening when he heard a disturbance ahead. He came across a crowd of people outside a public house on Cambridge Street and tried to calm things down.

Several of the angry group of persons were complaining that they and been assaulted by a woman. The woman was identified as Mary Ann Howley, an ironer, was clearly drunk and very disorderly. PC Shananhan arrested her and then tried to convey back to the police station.

However, as he took her by the arm and started to walk her away a man rushed up to him to try and affect a rescue. He drew a knife and threatened the constable, but the alert policeman simply knocked the weapon out of the assailant’s hand with his truncheon.

Having secured both offenders PC Shanahan duly appeared with his captives at Marylebone Police court on the following morning. There the sitting justice was told that Howley had started the affray by knocking some coins out of the hand of another drinker , Mary Grace Nottle. She complained and Howley then spat out some unpleasant invective and a full-on ‘barney’ ensued. Probably at the this point the publican intervened and the whole dispute escalated on to the streets, drawing the attention of the police.

It was a common enough disturbance in Victorian London, what elevated it to being newsworthy was probably the use of a knife. Police magistrates were as seldom tolerant of attacks on the police as they were on ‘civilians’ (at least as long as a so-called ‘fair fight’ was the outcome); assault that involved weapons were quite another thing, and an attempt to stab a policeman doing his duty was anathema.

Mr de Rutzen sentenced Mary to 14 days in prison for her behaviour but committed her would be saviour to hard labour for two months.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, March 23, 1884]

The wrong sort of military violence

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The Crimean War had raised some concerns about the quality of recruits to the British army and about the diseases they were exposed to at home and abroad. Large numbers of soldiers were admitted to military hospitals suffering from sexually transmitted conditions, and in the aftermath of the war attempts were made to control prostitution  and general disease with the passing of the (ultimately ineffectual) Contagious Diseases Acts (1864, 1866, and 1869).

Disease and prostitution went had-in-hand with off-duty drinking, another problem for the military authorities. Not infrequently soldiers fell foul of the civil authorities as a result of their commitment to ‘boozing’, and many of them found their way into the Police Courts. In March 1859 (three years after the Crimean War ended) a number of soldiers appeared in front of London magistrates.

At Lambeth Police Court George Robinson and Richard Burns (privates in the Grenadier Guards) were charged with being drunk and disorderly at the Crown pub. The story is interesting for one of the details which then links this to another case, at Southwark, on the same day.

The pair had entered the Crown on the evening of 17 March and while they weren’t Irish they were ‘keeping up’ St Patrick’s Day. They were already drunk however, and the landlord, a Mr Broadhurst, refused to serve them. Landlords were obliged to keep good order and refusing more alcohol to the already semi-inebriated was a wise move. Unfortunately for Broadhurst and his son, who was also serving behind the bar, this only provoked trouble from the soldiers.

Having been denied beer they attempted to get over the bar and help themselves. As the Broadhursts tried to stop them they were attacked. Burns took off his heavy leather belt and started to strike young master Broadhurst with it.

The police were called and they were marched off to the station, but not before several panes of glass had been smashed and a number of people injured, including the police who arrested them. The magistrates fined them 10s or 10 day in prison for wilful damage and a further 10s for the violence.

Over at Southwark a similar case of drunken military violence was being heard. John Whitsey (of the Coldstream Guards) was accused of assaulting a policeman and a member of the public, whilst drunk on Borough High Street.

PC James McCarthy (134M) was on his beat at 11.15 at night when he heard a disturbance. He saw Whitsey punch a man, knocking him to the floor. When the man got up, the guardsman hit him again, returning him to the street. When PC McCarthy tried to intervene Whitsey turned don him, kicking out and trying to take his legs from under him. All the time the guardsman was using ‘the most disgusting language’ McCarthy had ever heard.

The soldier was clearly drunk and belligerent. McCarthy was forced to call for help and ‘sprang his rattle’ (these were the days before the police were issued with whistles). In the scuffle that ensued the rattle was broken before the solider was eventually subdued.

The reporter noted that in court Whitsey appeared without his belt – ‘a sign of former bad conduct’ – and the belt seems significant to me in another way. In the last quarter of the 1800s young hands in London and Salford (but also in other towns) were using belts as a weapon. The Salford ‘scuttlers’ decorated heavy leather belts with horse brasses and wielded these as effective flails to beat their opponents and cause previous wounds. The belt (like the slipper’) was the weapon of choice for domestic violence – whether against spouses, children or servants, and since braces actually did the job of holding up one’s trousers it was an easy item to use in a fight.

Whether Whitsey had been divested of his belt at the the station to prevent further violence or whether the military had taken it away as a sharing punishment is a mystery, but either way it demonstrated he was ‘a bad sort’.

The man that Whitsey had knocked to the ground didn’t appear in court. The PC told the magistrate, Mr Coombe, that he was a ‘working man’ and probably couldn’t take the time to attend. Mr Coombe told the soldier that he was lucky; without a victim prepared to testify against him he would only be dealt with for the assault on the policeman. He fined him 5s, or seven days in prison.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Saturday, March 19, 1859]

English Authorities 0 Irish poor 1: a Whitechapel beadle is thwarted

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It seems appropriate, on the day after St Patrick’s Day, to tell the story of an Irish pauper who appeared in court on her nation’s saint’s day and triumphed. It must have been a rare victory for London’s poorest who faced a daily battle with the poor law authorities and the criminal justice system.

Biddy (probably short for Bridget) Brick was well known to the courts of the capital and a was a thorn in the flesh of the poor law officers of East London. She was, the Worship Street Police court was told, ‘a source of constant plague and annoyance, from her clamorous mode of demanding relief, and her pertinacious refusal to be passed to her native country’. [I had to look ‘pertinacious’ up; it means obstinate and determined and I’m going to use it more often!]

Her favourite method of gaining both the attention and the financial support she craved was to drop her infant child outside the workhorse door and leave it. Presumably she thought this would mean that the poor law authorities would have to support it, and herself. The tactic could backfire however, and she had seen the inside of a London gaol several times as a consequence of her actions.

Mr Bennet, the beadle of St Luke’s in Whitechapel was at his wits end and had pursued a campaign to finally get Biddy sent back to Ireland as her place of legal settlement. Parishes had an obligation to support only those paupers who were legally entitled to settle in the parish; anyone falling ‘chargeable’ who was settled elsewhere was supposed to be ‘passed’ to their native parish.

The settlement laws were complex and you could gain settlement in a variety of ways such as marriage, work, or through renting a rateable property. Biddy however, filled none of these criteria. Eventually Bennet succeeded and escorted Biddy to a ‘pauper ship’ that would carry her to Ireland. As they parted however, the Irishwoman offered a parting shot:

‘Good bye for the present old chap, I’ll be returnable by May’.

In fact she returned much more quickly than that; within days a City of London officer appeared at the beadle’s door with Biddy and her child in tow. She had attempted her old truck of dumping her baby on the workhouse steps at Cripplegate and had been dragged before the Lord Mayor at Mansion House. He heard her starry and sent her back to St Luke’s.

Distressed and confounded Bennet took her to court to ask Mr Greenwood at Worship Street what he should do with her. He presumably hoped the magistrate would help him get her sent back to Ireland as soon as possible. Unfortunately for him Mr Greenwood told him the law was against him.

‘The child, I suppose, is illegitimate?’ ask the justice.

‘Yes, your Worship’, replied the beadle.

‘And the mother has no legal settlement in England?’

‘She has not, your Worship’.

‘Then the law is in the woman’s favour’, Mr Greenwood explained, ‘for the clause in the New Poor Act [1834] that relates to the subject merely says that a bastard child takes the settlement of its mother; but the mother in this case having no settlement, the law remains as it was before, and the child belongs to the parish in which it was born’.

‘But then the mother, sir….’

‘The chid being under seven years of age, the mother by law in inseparable  from it, and must partake in the settlement’, concluded the magistrate.

Poor Mr Bennet, all his efforts had unraveled and Biddy enjoyed her victory over the local authorities. She blessed the magistrate and wished that he ‘might never die’ before she ‘shouldered her chid and hurried off, sticking close to the gold-laced skirts of the functionary’. The newspaper report, in its tone and eloquence, might have been written by Dickens himself.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, March 18, 1840]

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]

The butler did it (and more than once)

A frenchman, with the colourful name of Emile Delessert, was a butler, but a disgraced one. In 1884 (two years before he appeared on a charge of theft and fraud at the Westminster Police Court) Delessert had been sacked by his then employer the Marquis of Clanricarde, for being drunk.

Being dismissed without a reference was serious because it was unlikely that anyone would employ him as a servant after that, but this did not stop Emile. He wrote his own letter of introduction and forged the Marquis’ signature. This he used to gain employment with an  officer in the British Army.

Major Sangster was taken in by Delessert’s ruse and he became a butler in his London home at 66 St George’s Road. However, he didn’t last long being dismissed a few days later  ‘for stealing liquor’. Delessert clearly had a drink problem.

He also had an issue with other people’s property because when his luggage was examined before he left the major’s house several items were found that did not belong to him, but instead to Sangster’s stepson, Captain Goldfrap of the 10th regiment of foot.

The police were called and a detective searched Delessert’s last known lodgings. Here he found pawn tickets that led him to a pawnshop where he discovered two gold rings (that were identified by the Marquis of Clanricarde as items he’d lost soon after he dismissed his butler) as well as a ‘yachting cap, a flannel jacket’ and other things believed stolen from persons unknown.

Emile Delessert was exposed as a serial thief and fraudster and now he confessed to the charges and Mr D’Eyncourt sentenced him to nine months at hard labour.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, November 03, 1886]

NB The 2nd Marquis of Clanricarde was Hubert George de Burgh-Canning, an anglo-irish politician who had a dreadful reputation in Ireland as an absentee landlord. The Chicago Tribune reported (in  1906) that: ‘Never had Clanicarde visited his estates, despite the many thousands of families that had been evicted from them during that time, resulting in mass destitution. “So universal is the execration in which this particular nobleman is held by people of every political party that when the question of this bill was put to the vote by the speaker, liberals, liberal unionists and conservatives all voted with the Irish party, only three of the nearly 700 members of the house of Commons opposing the vote, which would otherwise have been unanimous.”