A ‘common evil’? London’s police in their early years

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I have referred previously to criticism of the police in the decades after their creation in June 1829. Historians such as Robert Storch have pointe out that far from the smooth transition described by early historians of the force, the ‘New Police’ were openly abused, distrusted and despised by ‘ordinary’ working-class men and women.

It wasn’t just the lower order that disliked the ‘boys in blue’. The upper and middle classes resented them as burdens on the rates and for overstepping their class position. In short the wealthy were not at all keen on being told what to do by their social inferiors.

The working classes were equally disgruntled about being told off or told to to ‘go home’ by someone of their own class who seemingly lauded it over them. The p’liceman who earned a steady wage where others of his class struggled, was bound to attract some unfriendly comments at the very least. Policeman were also recruited from outside the capital, often former agricultural labourers (who could be relied upon to be strong, dependable, and not ask too many questions).

This case illustrates some of the underlying tensions that existed in the first 20 or so years of the Met and reflects the awkward position of both the police officer on the beat and the ‘Police’ Magistrate (who was not a part of the same organisation). It also gives the paper an opportunity to aim some fairly typical racist barbs at the Irish.

One of Mr Greenwood’s cases at Clerkenwell Police Court on the weekend of the 18th-19th June 1842 concerned a man (unnamed) of ‘decent-looking’ appearance. He appeared with the policeman (also anonymous here) who had arrested him and accompanied him to court. The PC was Irish and possibly a new recruit. This, it was explained, might have accounted for his behaviour.

There was no obvious charge levelled against the man and it soon became apparent that there was little reason for him to be in court at all. He had been arrested, effectively, for loitering on Grove Lane, Holloway.

The policeman testified that he had seen him standing in Grove Lane two days in succession, presumably passing him on his beat. On the second occasion he asked hi what he was doing there but the man refused to answer.

He then asked him where he lived, and was told ‘Islington’.

‘”Where” ses I’ continued the policeman.

‘What’s that to you?’ replied the man.

“Be the powers, are yer respectable?” I thin [sic] remarked’, the officer told the court, ‘and he still refusing to give any satisfactory explanation, I marched him off to the station-house’.

The magistrate now examined the policeman directly:

‘What was he doing?’ he asked. ‘Nothing at all’ responded the bobby, to peels of laughter from the courtroom.

‘And that was why he was locked up?’ enquired a clearly puzzled Mr Greenwood.

Yes, yer Worship. He wouldn’t say anything about himself but told me to mind my own business’.

Well, that was as it should be the magistrate chided him. He told the policeman that he had no more right locking up this person than would have in arresting him or anyone ales for that matter. The man had done nothing wrong; had broken no law and was simply being locked up for being slightly impertinent to a copper.

He said that this should not have resulted in a charge and for that the policeman was less to blame than the desk sergeant. However, he added, ‘I have frequently of late had to complain of the conduct of the police, and if there is not an alteration, they will be become a common evil’.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Monday, June 20, 1842]

Little charity for the Irish at Marlborough Street

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1843 could certainly be viewed as one of the low points of welfare policy in this country. 1834 saw the passing of the Poor Law Amendment Act, an act designed to force anyone seeking support from the state (in those days this meant the parish) to enter a workhouse  rather than be relieved outside. A previous piece of catch-all legislation, the Vagrancy Act (1824) also deserves mention as an instrument designed both to clamp down on beggars and vagrants and allow the arrest of pretty much anyone the local authorities took a dislike to but were otherwise unable to pin a specific offence on.

Thomas Lakey was exactly the sort of person the middle classes in Victorian society disliked. Lacey was unemployed, he was poor, homeless and, probably worst of all, he was Irish. When he appeared at Marylebone Police Court in June 1835 he was described as a ‘sturdy Irish beggar, accused of being a ‘common vagrant’.

The prosecution was brought by the Mendicity Society, an organisation formed in 1818 to ‘stop people begging’. The society was well organised and used careful record keeping to track mendicants, whom they helped financially on the understanding that they stopped begging and/or left the area.

Lacey came before the magistrate at Marylebone accused on being a ‘common drunken vagabond’ for the last 20 years. He had his own particular modus operandi, according to the officers bringing the case to court:

‘Having lost a hand, it was his practice to accost females in the street, and thrusting his stump before them, to demand charity in a menacing tone’.

If his appeal was not successful on the basis of his disability then ‘in his other hand he carried a stick, which he employed with great dexterity when drunk, or when pursued by a constable’.

For 20 years Thomas had received a pension of 15 pence a day from the East India Company. Given that this seemed enough to live on the magistrate (a Mr Chambers) was surprised the Irishman needed to beg at all. Mr Chambers told him that his pension (amounting to about 21 pence in today’s money, the equivalent of 2 days wages for a labourer) should allow him to live while he could also do some work, since he had a perfectly usable hand despite his injury.

We have no idea of how Thomas lost his hand, an accident working for the Company is most likely, but it may have happened after that. Clearly Mr Chambers had little sympathy for him. He turned to the Mendicity Society officers and suggested they speak to the East India Company. Perhaps if they were informed how Lacey was abusing the pension he had been given they might see fit to stop it.

The poor Irishman now work up to the reality of what was being proposed in court, the loss of the small dole he had to keep himself together. He told the court that if he was released he would immediately return to Kilkenny, where he was born, and no longer be a burden on London’s ratepayers or a threat to its inhabitants. Mr Chambers sent him to prison for two months to think it over.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, June 19, 1835]

An American Private I at Bow Street, on the trail of silk smugglers

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In the mid 1870s America was still recovering from the horrors of its civil war. Its president was the victorious Union general, Ulyssess S. Grant, serving his second term after an election which the Democrats did not field their own candidate. It was less than century, of course, from the War of Independence but America now enjoyed fairly good relations with its former colonial master, Great Britain. The two countries even had an extradition agreement after 1870, which allowed the USA to request the return of suspected offenders against US law so long as it could provide prima facie evidence of the person’s alleged guilt.

Which is why, in April 1875, the Bow Street Police Court was visited by a celebrated New York private detective, James Mooney, who was on the trail of a gang involved in smuggling contraband goods through US customs.

In 1872 Mooney and sheriff John Boland had set up a detective agency at 176 Broadway, New York, with the specific purpose of investigating business fraud. In 1874 they were hired by some prominent NYC merchants to look into falling silk prices that they suspected were being caused by an influx of cheap, untaxed materials on the US market.* Over the next few years they chased down smuggling operations all over the US, Canada, Europe and Britain.

In April 1875 Mooney appeared at Bow Street with a request to extradite Charles Lewis Lawrence. The case had  been delayed several times while evidence was being prepared but when it finally came before Sir Thomas Henry the charge laid was that Lawrence had used forged bonds to ‘pass goods through the customs at much lower duty than ought to have been imposed’.

In practice what thus meant was that Lawrence had set up a dummy company, Blanding & Co., and created fake labels for boxes of silk. The silk was labelled as cotton which drew a much lower duty ($18,000 lower in fact) than silk. One or two boxes containing cotton were then sent through customs for examination and the rest were waived through, allowing the American marked to be swamped with cheap silk. The whole operation anted to a fraud valued at ‘upwards of half a million dollars’.

Mooney, an Irishman who, like so many had emigrated to New York as a young man in search of a new life, was able to bring a number of witnesses to court to support his application. Frederick Brooks,  a US customs clerk, confirmed that there was no such firm as Blandings and a London-based handwriting expert, Mr Netherclift, testified that the forged bonds were indeed written by Lawerence.

The private detective explained that he had tracked 10 cases of ‘so-called cotton’ that had arrived in New York on the Pomerania merchant vessel. A customs officer named Des Anges had assigned just one of them for inspection. This one contained cotton, the others silk. Mooney found the crates in a  warehouse and seized them, arresting Des Anges in the process.

Lawrence had been caught on a ship leaving Dublin bound for London from America and the detective sergeant, Edward Shore, that took him into custody found a damning piece of evidence on his person. This was a note from Des Anges which read:

‘All is up. I am followed, and you are followed. Export all you can, and leave me to save myself’.

None of the evidence presented in court was challenged by Lawrence’s lawyer, Mr Lewis, but when the prosecution had finished its presentation he rose and addressed the magistrate. He explained that while he had not chosen to cross-examine the witnesses this was not because his client accepted the ‘facts’, merely that ‘the question of guilty or not guilty was not to be decided by this court’. All that the Bow Street court had to decide was whether he should be extradited.

Sir Thomas was satisfied that a prima facie [lit. “on the face of it”] case had been established; there was sufficient cause to send Lawrence for trial so he granted the extradition request. However, he added that in accordance with British law the American would be committed to a house of detention for 14 days. Lawrence ‘asked to be sent back at once’ (presumably not keen on experiencing any more British hospitality) but the magistrate refused.

Mooney & Boland were one of several US detective agencies, the most famous of which of course was Alan Pinkerton’s which still exists (if in a  slightly different capacity). James Mooney died in March 1892 at the age of 44. He moved his NYC office to Chicago where he was involved in a number of very successful investigations of business related fraud. The firm continued to operate well into the next century from its Chicago offices.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, April 16, 1875]

*Andrew Wender Cohen, Contraband: Smuggling and the Birth of the American Century, (W. W. Norton & Company, 2015)

Smallpox brings death and difficult decisions to the Westminster Police Court

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Watercolour of a hand with smallpox by Robert Carswell in 1831 (Wellcome Library, London)

Mr Selfe had only just taken his seat at Westminster Police Court on the morning of the 12 April 1863 when the officer of health for the parish of St George’s, Hanover Square approached him. As a magistrate Selfe had to deal with all sorts of problems and issues of everyday life, but few were as sensitive as this.

The health officer, Dr Aldis of Chester Place, explained to the magistrate that a three year-old child had died of smallpox, a disease that remained widespread in poorer communities in the nineteenth century despite Edward Jenner’s best efforts to promote vaccination against it.

The unnamed child was lying in his cot so people could pay their respects, as tradition dictated, at a room in a house in Pimlico and Dr Aldis was worried about the public health consequences of this. The ‘small back room’ was home to the ‘boy’s father and mother and three other children’ and no fewer than 26 other persons lived in the property. Moreover, the doctor insisted, this was a crowded locality ‘in which the smallpox is very prevalent’.

He wanted to have the child buried quickly to avoid contagion but the mother was resistant. She wanted to grieve for her son and to do so in the customary way. The family were part of London’s large immigrant Irish community and they fully supported the bereaved mother.

Mr. Badderly, the overseer of the poor for the parish, had attempted arrange the funeral and had sent a man named Osborne to the house to try and remove the dead boy. He brought a small coffin and with the father’s permission placed the child within it. When the mother found it however, she removed her son and placed him back in his cradle. When Osborn objected a group of local Irish gathered and ‘intimidated him with their threats [so that] he felt compelled to retire’.

Here then was a clash between the parish and its obligations towards the health of the community and the very personal wishes of one grieving mother and her friends and family. Since the child’s father either agreed with the health officer or simply felt much less strongly that his wife, the court was bound to side with the parish. Mr. Selfe agreed that the child needed to be buried immediately, for the sake of public health, and since the father had no objection the mother’s wishes were of no consequence. The magistrate said that in his opinion ‘there could be impropriety in the police accompanying the parish officers to see that there was no breach of the peace from the removal of the child’.

It is a desperately sad story which reveals both the reality of infant mortality in the Victorian period and the poverty and overcrowding that condemned so many to a premature death. It also demonstrates the difficult decisions that some magistrates had to make when faced with evidence that ran counter to the wishes of individuals who had not done anything wrong or in any way ‘criminal’.

The mother’s desire to mourn for dead boy in her own way is completely understandable, but when this was countered by what was (at the time) understood to be a risk to the health of very many others, the justice’s decision is also easily understood. This week we have had the heart-rending story of the struggle of Connie Yates and Chris Gard who have lost the latest stage of their battle to keep their son, Charlie, alive in Great Ormond Street Hospital.

Mr. Justice Francis, who made the decision knew, as everyone in the court did, that when he told doctors ‘at Great Ormond Street that they could withdraw all but palliative care, was to all intents and purposes delivering a death sentence’.* He acted in what he considered to be the best interest of the child and against the interests of the parents. Time alone will tell whether he was right to do so.

At Westminster court in 1863 Mr. Selfe may have done the right thing, and saved many other lives. Given what we now know about smallpox it is unlikely that anyone would have caught it unless they had physical contact with the child whilst his exposed scabs still covered him, but the magistrate was not necessarily aware of that and so his actions were perhaps the best thing he could do in the circumstances.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, April 13, 1863]

*www.guardian.com [accessed 13/4/17]

Poverty, a pig and no small amount of pathos; a day in the life of London’s Police Courts

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Today’s post takes a handful of hearings from the Police Courts in early April 1834 to show the variety of both the reporting, and the types of cases that came before them. We should remember that while the press reports served as a source of information for the public about the ways in which crime and general ‘bad behaviour’ was being dealt with, they were also a source of amusement and diversion for many.

Firstly, at Bow Street, the dock was crowded as around eight Irish men took their place in front of the magistrate. Cornelius Donovan and his brother Timothy were the only defendants named by the reporter from the Morning Postperhaps because it was these two that spoke up in court.

The men were charged with assaulting a group of their fellow countrymen, the O’Neils. The fight had broken out as a result of dispute over the ownership of a property in St Giles. St Giles in the 1800s was synonymous with poverty, crime and was home to a large Irish population, now of course it is a much more fashionable part of the modern city, where the only evidence you’ll find of poverty are the Big Issue sellers and the rough sleepers in shop doorways.

The justice told all the men that he could not determine who had the legal entitlement to the house, they ‘would have to fight it out’. At this Tim Donovan ‘(interrupting His Worship)’, said ‘There, do you hear that? Come out of this, all of ye, and settle this at once’.

The poor magistrate had to raise his voice to correct the misunderstanding; what he meant was that the warring parties would have to ‘fight out’ their competing claims in a court of law, not on the street!. As he left the court Tim was heard to say, ‘By Jasus, we have got to begin all over again’.

From the amusing story of the fighting Irish (a familiar theme for the nineteenth-century press) we move to Marylebone Police Court. Here Thomas Allingham was accused of ill-treating a pig.

PC 117T (one of Peel’s new force) told the magistrate that he had been on his beat at 7 in the morning when he saw Allingham riding the large animal around a field off the Bayswater Road. According to the copper Allingham was ‘beating and spurring the poor animal in the most unmerciful manner, until it at last sunk down under its load and appeared nearly dead’.

When the policeman remonstrated with the lad he leapt off the pig and attacked him with a knife. He was charged with almost ‘boring’ the pig  to death and with assaulting a police officer. The magistrate ordered him to find bail against an appearance at the next sessions of the peace.

Finally, and perhaps appropriately for 1834 we have a case of destitution. This was the year which saw the passing of Poor Law Amendment Act; the piece of legislation which had the cruel intention of forcing the unemployed and sick to seek relief in a workhouse (rather than being assisted in the community). It was the brainchild of Edwin Chadwick who often gets a better press (as a social reformer and champion of pubic health) than I think he deserves. The New Poor Law was an awful imposition on the lives of the most vulnerable in English society and it has left a long dark stain on this nation’s history.

Mary Ann Davis, ‘a miserable-looking being clothed in rags, and carrying an infant in her arms’, was presented before Mr Shutt. A policeman said he had found the two of them sleeping rough in a doorway on Oxford Street between 10 and 11 the previous night. Given that they were in breach of the Vagrancy Laws he had escorted them to the police station.

Mr Shutt wanted to know if the woman had been drinking. ‘I don’t think she was’ the policeman reported,  but ‘she was shivering with cold, and the infant was crying’.

The magistrate turned to the mother and asked her when she had last slept in a bed. Some time ago, admitted Mary, and in St Giles so she was clearly down on her luck. She had been to Marlborough Street police office (the police courts were termed offices until later in the century) but had been sent away again.

No one there seemed to want to help her.

This justice was more sympathetic; he instructed an officer to take Ann and her child to the overseers of the poor at St Giles so they could receive her. She ‘must not’, he insisted, ‘be suffered to perish in the streets’. Whether the overseers did as they were asked is impossible to know for certain. Many thousands passed through their hands in the first half of the 1800s; this was a period where very many suffered from poverty and unemployment.

Chadwick’s ‘reform’ of the old poor law system was based on a recognition that rising population numbers were putting an increased pressure of the public purse. Sadly, as the continued presence of rough sleepers testifies, even our modern nation, with its extensive welfare provision, still fails a proportion of its citizens.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, April 07, 1834]

A rough ‘raffle’ in Whitechapel

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One of the things that fascinates me about exploring the reports of cases in the old newspapers is the references to London landmarks (famous and mundane) and to street names. Whenever I am researching for a paper or a book I like to visit the ‘scene of the crime’ so to speak. When I was using the old Corporation of London Archives to read the notebooks of the eighteenth-century magistracy I burned off my lunch tramping the streets of the City, always looking up above the shop fronts and windows. You see much more that way.

Close to the Whitechapel Art Gallery and on the corner of Gunthorpe Street, is the White Hart public house. The pub is next to the archway that leads into what, in the 1880s, was the entrance to the ‘Abyss’ – the dark nether world of alleys, courts, and now lodging houses described by Jack London (1903), and others.

Many of the ‘Ripper’ tours start here and the pub trades on its association with London’s most notorious serial killer, Jack the Ripper. A plaque on the side informs customers that a ‘Ripper’ suspect (George Chapman – or Seweryn Klosowski) lived there for a time during the murders. Indeed a murder took place just a few yards from the pub – Martha Tabram’s in August 1888.

Chapman was hanged in 1903 for the murder of three women who he poisoned with arsenic. Apparently Inspector Abberline (one of the lead detectives in the Whitechapel murder case) believed Chapman was the killer because when he had interviewed his wife she had told him her husband was often out late at night for no reason.

Personally I doubt he was the ‘Ripper’ but its interesting to see how suspicions fall and the fact that he lodged at the White Hart certainly fits my belief that the killer was a local man.

The White Hart has clearly been around for a very long time, at least since the eighteenth century. Other pubs come and go and their names change. So when I saw that a fight had started at the White Horse pub in Whitechapel in 1852, I wondered if the court reporter had misheard or incorrectly recorded the details. It wouldn’t be the first (or last) time a journalist got his facts wrong.

In December 1852 John Quin and Julia Haggerty were accused (at Worship Street Police Court) with assaulting Jones Jones, the landlord of the White Horse, Whitechapel.

The assault charge uncovered what seems to have been a mass brawl in the pub, mostly involving members of the large Irish community. There had been a raffle on the Monday night and although (as the paper noted) there ‘could be only one winner amongst the number that stood the hazard of the die’, several of those that lost claimed they had been cheated and started a ‘row.

According to witnesses Quin was the instigator of the brawl and led his fellows in the destruction of glasses and furniture. The landlord was set upon and one witness testified that he feared for the fellow’s life. Haggerty attacked Mrs Jones.

Counter claims from Catherine Ryan and another witness said that the landlord had started it.

She told an incredulous courtroom that Jones attacked the ‘whole of the party (74 in number), and pitched them down stairs, at the bottom of which the witness Ryan said the defendant Quin was lying stone dead, never lifting an arm to man, woman, or child’.

The magistrate didn’t believe a word of it and convicted both defendants. Each was fined 20s, which they paid.

Was the White Horse actually the White Hart? A White Horse pub did exist in the 1800s, but it was at Poplar not in Whitechapel. Now Whitechapel means the area around Leman Street, and either side of Commercial Road and Commercial Street, up to Whitechapel tube in the east and the borders of the City of London to the west. So maybe the reporter got it wrong or perhaps it was meant in a broader geographical sense?

 

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, December 29, 1852]

 

Inhumanity towards migrants is nothing new

In 1819 Parliament passed the Irish and Scotch Vagrant Act (59 Geo III, c.12) as a reaction to complaints from parishes in England that they were being swamped by impoverished migrants.  It was meant to make it easier to pass (to expel) paupers from a place where they had arrived or attempted to settle and back to their place of birth (or last settlement). Settlement law was complicated but in essence you were only entitled to poor relief in the parish where you were born, or where you had settled (through work, marriage or by paying rent or rates).

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Migrants from Scotland and Ireland traveled to England (in particular to London) for the prospect of a better life and the hope of work. Such movement increased at times of economic hardship so when the Irish potato harvest failed in 1821 and famine gripped the country in the following year thousands made the journey across the Irish Sea.* This placed extra pressure on local resources and in particular on the poor rates so it is not surprising that English ratepayers complained bitterly about the effect on their pockets, especially as the country had recently come out of a long period of hardship caused by the wars with Napoleon’s French Empire.

England was a tense place in the early decades of the nineteenth century. There were agricultural and industrial disputes in reaction to the introduction of new technologies; political turmoil focused on the right to vote; and conspiracies that threatened the monarchy and government.

So all in all we might be forgiven for assuming that a law that served to kick a few thousand desperate Scots and Irish out of the kingdom and off of the rates would be universally welcome (with the exception of the poor migrants, of course). But this example from the press in 1824 reveals that despite all the trouble they seemed to cause not everyone was anti-migrant in the 1820s.

In July Mary McCarthy appeared at  Southwark town hall to make her complaint to the sitting magistrate, Alderman J. J. Smith. She told him that the Overseers of St Olave’s had stopped her money. ‘Some time ago’ the same magistrate had directed the parish to pay her 1s a day in poor relief. On that occasion the officers had brought her to him so that he would enact the terms of the Irish and Scotch Vagrant Act , and send her back to Ireland. Instead he had decided that to do so would have been cruel and inhuman so he refused their request and ordered her to be relieved by the parish. This they had done, reluctantly, until now.

Mary was old. At 77 years of age and ‘tottering upon the very verge of the grave’ the magistrate felt it was his responsibility to apply the act with his discretion something the overseers cleared disagreed with. He told the Beadle who appeared on behalf of the parish that to send her back to Ireland at her age, to ‘a country  she had been separated from for years, and where she probably had no living soul that knew her’, would be an ‘act of the greatest inhumanity’.

Instead he advised the Beadle that the magistrates of Union Hall had equal jurisdiction to him so the overseers could apply there if they so chose. However, he added that it would not reflect well on a ‘respectable’ parish if they decided to follow that route. The Beadle promised to convey his decision to the officers of the parish and he and Mary left.

It shows us that negative and positive attitudes to migrants and refugees have existed for centuries and there is little new in contemporary rhetoric. Sadly it also suggests, to me at at least, that our presence of being a ‘Christian’ nation is stretched to the limit at the very moments when we should be holding out a helping hand to our neighbours within and without of the borders of our islands.

[From The Morning Chronicle, Saturday, July 3, 1824]

 

* Arthur Redford (ed), Labour Migration in England, 1800-50, p.110