Student prank that takes the biscuit…

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A big fire was always likely to bring people onto the streets in Victorian London. In August 1888 a fire at the docks would have been the news item in the papers the next day had not the mutilated body of Mary Ann (‘Polly’) Nicholls been found in Bucks Row, Whitechapel in the early hours.

Fires were dangerous, and appalling but they were also exciting, especially for London’s youth.

As PC Robert Beavis (283 M division, Metropolitan Police) was watching the fire service tackle a blaze at the Peak Frean’s biscuit factory on Mill Street, south of the river, he claimed he saw three youths ‘larking and pushing one another about’.

As he moved towards them one of them knocked another’s hat  off (a fairly common prank for London youth). As PC Beavis was closest the lad whose hat had been tipped off span round and confronted him. This was a young man named M’Cullock Torrens,  who accused the policeman of knocking his hat off. Beavis denied do anything of the kind and turned away. Presumably angered by this, Torrens then punched the policeman twice in the chest and ran off.

All three men attempted to escape, climbing into a hansom cab before PC Beavis managed to alert the driver to stop. He took his prisoners back to the station and the next day brought Torrens to the Southwark Police Court to be charged with assault.

Several other policeman were on duty that night and corroborated Beavis’ version of events in court. Torrens, who was clearly of ‘respectable’ stock and who was described in court as a ‘student’ living off Eccelston Square, near Victoria, told Mr Partridge (the magistrate) that he had taken a cab with two friends to witness the fire.

They had left the West End and stopped for a few drinks (but were sober, if excited). At the fire he had met up with the police and ‘treated’ the to a few drinks in a nearby pub. He insisted that it was the policeman that had knocked his hat off and when he asked him why the officer had walked off, ignoring him. When he put it back on the copper tipped it off again, so yes, he had hit him, ‘but not very hard’.

One of Torrens’ companions, Charles J Ware confirmed his friend’s account and said he did not consider that Torrens’ actions amounted to an assault. The magistrate disagreed, further more he chose to blame the young men for tempting police constables ‘from their duties and into public-houses at that hour in the morning’, rather than criticise the police for drinking on duty.

He added that ‘no doubt they got to larking, and someone knocked the prisoner’s hat off, but he had no right to assault the constable. An example must be made in such a case, consequently he fined him £10, or two months’ hard labour’. Torrens paid up and left the court with his mates.

The police magistrate was protecting the authority of the police in this case; he could have chosen to side with the young ‘gentlemen’ but that would very publicly have undermined PC Beavis and the collective voice of his colleagues. Torrens could easily afford £10 and was able to leave the court will little damage to his reparation – in fact, in the eyes of his peer group he may well have emerged as something of a ‘hero’.

[from the Morning Post, April 24, 1873]

P.S Peak, Frean & Company Ltd (known later as Peak Freans) were founded in 1857 in Bermondsey, London. According to reports the fire of 23 April 1873 was so spectacular it drew huge crowds, including the Prince of Wales. In 1921 the firm amalgamated with Huntley & Palmers and created the less interestingly named, Amalgamated Biscuit Manufacturers Limited. Several other buyouts over the next few decades mean that now both famous brands are under the umbrella of United Biscuits.

A father meets out his own brand of ‘justice’ on the man that ‘defiled’ his daughter

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Many of the cases prosecuted and heard by the magistrates of the Victorian metropolis were fairly mundane and soon forgotten.

Everyday across London drunks, disorderly prostitutes, pub brawlers, petty thieves and swindlers, took their place in the Police Court dock along with the occasional middle-class trader charged with selling meat unfit for human consumption or for adulterating milk or other goods. Landlords were fined for failing to maintain premises and cab passengers summoned for failing to pay their fares. Sad stories of suicide, poverty and child neglect were tempered by amusing tales involving country ‘bumpkins’, cross-dressing entertainers and defendants who showed a bit of bravado in the face of adversity.

Just occasionally however, the cases were quite serious and reflected the courts’ role as a court of first hearing for many of the trials that reached the Old Bailey.

In 1888 (the year that ‘Jack the Ripper’ perpetrated a series of brutal murders in the East End) Robert James Matthews stepped into the dock at Worship Street Police Court charged with wounding and attempted murder.

His victim was Henry Blaming, a 22 year-old ‘potman’ who had previously worked for Matthews at his pub in Brick Lane. Matthews ran the the Two Old Brewers and lived there with his wife, son and two daughters. Blaming took a fancy to one of his employer’s daughter and in January of 1888 there was some kind of incident and Blaming was sacked.

It seems that Blaming was accused of indecently assaulting Eliza Matthews and he was formally charged and tried at the Old Bailey, but acquitted. Blaming later claimed that Eliza was 14 years old at the time, but the Old Bailey puts her age as under 13. Whether there was simply insufficient evidence of Blaming’s guilt or he was indeed as innocent as the jury found him is impossible to know. The proceedings of the Old Bailey rarely went into any detail in publishing accounts of rape trials and this is typically uninformative.

After leaving the Old Bailey at noon Blaming decided to celebrate his acquittal by going for a drink with two of his friends. All fair enough we might think, except that the former pub worker chose to rub his old boss’ nose in the mud by opting to have his celebration at his old place of work. He took a position at the bar and asked to be served.

Matthews saw him smiling at him and demanded: ‘who are you laughing at?’

‘I have nothing to cry for’, was the younger man’s response. Things now escalated fairly swiftly. Matthews reached behind the bar and grabbed his revolver. He levelled it at Henry and fired.

Blaming was hit in the stomach and tried to run away. A second shot caught him in the buttocks before he escaped into the street. The wounded man was soon treated by a doctor and then taken to the London Hospital were he was an in patient for ten weeks.

In the meantime Matthews was arrested and taken to the station by a young detective, Walter Dew. Dew was to go on to serve on the ‘Ripper’ case (supposedly being the first policeman into Mary Kelly’s home) and, more famously, to catch the murderer Dr Crippen in a chase across the Atlantic.

Matthews told Inspector Bavington, who had questioned the landlord at the pub, that he had fired two shots but that he was provoked. He clearly believed that Blaming was guilty of raping his daughter and had gotten away with it.

On the way to the police station Dew said to Matthews: ‘This is a bad job;” only for his prisoner to reply: ‘What! I wish I had killed him, there would be an end to the b——then’.

There was a third bullet because when the police examined the gun they found one remaining in the chamber. Blaming had been lucky: the first bullet had entered his thigh but had missed his abdomen by a ‘faction of an inch’. The first bullet had been removed but the other remained lodged in his buttock and he was still receiving ongoing treatment.

When it came up to the Old Bailey Matthews was, unsurprisingly, convicted. The jury was sympathetic to him however and strongly recommended mercy on the grounds of provocation. The judge was lenient, sending him to prison for six weeks at hard labour she he could easily have spent much longer inside. If he was able to return to his management of the pub one imagines Blaming gave him a wide berth in future.

[from The Standard, Thursday, April 12, 1888]

“Let me see the Queen, I know who the ‘Ripper’ is!”

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In the years following the murders of several women in Whitechapel in 1888, rumours of ‘Jack the Ripper’ continued to haunt the capital. The police investigation remained open because no one was conclusively proven to be the killer and he was assumed to have remained at large, if dormant. The discovery of a human torso in Pinchin Street in 1889 and then the murder of Frances Coles (in February 1891) fuelled popular fears that the murderer was still active in the East End.

In March 1890 a man presented himself at Buckingham Palace and demanded to see the Queen. A policeman on duty (constable 64A) told the Westminster Police Court that at 4 o’clock on the 18 March Charles Cooper , a ‘well-dressed’ railway sub-contractor, had walked up to the gates of the palace asking to be admitted.

He told the officer that his ‘particular business with her majesty was to inform her where “Jack the Ripper” was to be found, and where he had had his photograph taken’.

When he was refused entry he tried to force his way past the guards and was arrested. At Westminster he was charged with being a ‘lunatic at large’.

In court his wife told Mr D’Eyncourt (the magistrate) that her husband ‘had been drinking to excess lately’, and three weeks ago, when ‘quite out of his mind’, he was taken to the workhouse at Edmonton. Clearly Cooper was suffering from some form of mental illness and perhaps the ‘Ripper’ panic had exacerbated this.

He repeated his desire to talk to Queen Victoria but Mr D’Eyncourt ignored him and instead remanded him in custody for a week.

I’ve looked forward to see if Cooper reappeared in the pages of the London press but he doesn’t. The  provincial papers carried the same story – lifted word for word from The Standard – but I can see no record of him resurfacing at Westminster (which he must have done).

Sadly, the most likely outcome for Charles was that he was either readmitted to the workhouse or sent to one of London’s ‘lunatic’ asylums, such as the one near me at Colney Hatch. If he was sent to Colney Hatch then he may even have met one of those suspected of being the elusive serial killer – David Cohen, a ‘homicidal lunatic’ identified by Dr Scott Bonn in 2014.

[from The Standard, Thursday, March 20, 1890]

The ‘people of the East End: a distinct class’ in need of ‘exceptional kindness’

Wentworth Street 1895 postcard

Middlesex Street (‘Petticoat Lane’) market c.1894

On most occasions London’s police  magistrates (men from a legal background with clear middle class roots) upheld the law the of the land without question. Men like Mr Lushington at Thames had little time for petty thieves, drunken brawlers, or wife beaters and dealt with then swiftly and dismissively. But now and then they displayed a level of good sense tinged with human kindness that reminds us that they were, as justices had been for hundreds of years, figures of authority whose overriding role was to maintain social cohesion in their communities, as far as that was possible.

Worship Street Police court (along with Thames) served the poor districts of the East End of London. Here were the overcrowded dwellings of tens of thousands of native and immigrant working-class Londoners, many living in what Charles Booth had identified as poverty. Here was the crime and degradation that Victorian ‘slummers’ went to gawp at on their visits to the area, here too were the dirty trades of slaughter men and tanners that had made their home in the east since medieval times. This was Whitechapel and Spitalfields and the killing grounds of ‘Jack the Ripper’, who preyed on the ‘unfortunates’ who plied their desperate trade on its ill-lit streets.

It is easy to depict the East End as down trodden and degenerate – and that is almost always the picture that emerges from contemporary reporters and later historians – but while the poverty and overcrowding was very real, so was the famed East End spirit and toughness. Nor was the entire area poor and forgotten. Booth’s poverty maps reveal plenty of ‘red’ streets where ‘respectable’ traders and the middle classes lived and worked. The Charity Organisation Society and the Salvation Army were active and local priests like Canon Barnett worked amongst their ‘flocks’.

There was also a vibrant street culture, which centred around the markets in Wentworth Street and ‘Petticoat Lane’ (Middlesex Street), which catered for all the ethnicities and pockets in the East End.

Markets, however, were also a bone of contention because the traders who set up their stalls, and stood individually elsewhere, often competed for use of the streets with other road users. The job of the keeping the streets clear for traffic and so moving on these traders – London’s costermongers – fell to the parish officials and then to the police.

As Stephen Inwood has shown, from their earliest days the Metropolitan Police soon released that resources meant that they needed to pick their battles. While their middle-class leaders wished them to enforce the law, close down Sunday markets and move on barrows, the local populace resisted and so for the sake of good relations many a blind eye was turned.

In 1889 a representative of the local parish authority appeared at the Worship Street Police court to complain about a number of costermongers who he had summoned to court for obstructing the streets with their barrows and stalls. The cases were heard by Mr Montagu Williams, the sitting magistrate.

Mr Besley, on behalf of the parish, told the court that several traders were in the habit of placing their stalls on the streets of Bethnal Green ‘where  a sort of fair was held every Sunday morning’. The market set up early but was often still there long past 11 in the morning. This was an infringement of the by-laws but the police were doing little or nothing about it.

The traders complained that they had been earning their living in this way for years, some for 25 or even 40 years; it was a tradition and the local people approved of it. Mr Besley argued that many of the costers were not ‘local’ at all, but came from other parts of the capital to sell their wares.

Mr Williams said he had himself walked the streets and seen the market, and those at Middlesex Street and Wentworth Street, and saw no harm in it. While it might infringe the by-laws of the parish it was of use.

He was convinced ‘that the people of the neighbourhood found it a great boon to be able to buy food in the markets on Sundays. One heard a great deal about the “Sweating” life led by the East-End poor, and it was precisely those people who, kept at work till midnight perhaps, needed to get their food on a Sunday’.

He thought that the vestry were being rather hard on the traders and while he recognised that laws were laws a little discretion was in order for the people of the area. He declared that the ‘people of the East End had a harder time of it than any class in the Metropolis, and therefore required an exceptional kindness’.

Mr Besley went off frustrated, quite possibly muttering under his his breath.

[from The Standard, Thursday, March 14, 1889]

A native of Merthyr is berated at Bow Street

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Merthyr Tydfil in the mid 1800s

I have been writing about the London Police courts for nearly a year, looking at a different case every day. Additionally I have also spent several weeks in the London Metropolitan Archive near Farringdon which holds the official records of these summary courts. Sadly very little archival material survives; at Bow Street, for example, there are only records from the 1890s onwards – most of the earlier material being lost or destroyed).

The best kept records are the the two sets of registers for Thames Police Court, which run from 1881 and cover the late summer and autumn of 1888 when ‘Jack the Riper’ terrorised the East End. The registers contain useful information for the historian: names of defendants, their ages, gender, the offence with which they were charged, the police officer that brought the to court, and the complainant (if that wasn’t the policeman). We also have an outcome; the adjudication of the sitting magistrate.

I spoke at the Ripperologist’s 21st birthday conference in Algdate last year, where I outlined the functions of the police courts and the role they performed; hopefully later this year I will be ready to provide a more detailed analysis based on the research I have been doing.

At this stage in my research I have almost completed a detailed analysis of the registers at Thames for 1881 and can begin to share some of my findings. It will probably come as no surprise to historians of crime and professionals working in policing, social work or probation, to read that many of those brought into Thames were charged with an alcohol related offence. This might be drunk and disorderly, drunk and using obscene language, drunk and assaulting a policeman, or many other combinations – all involving some form of drunkenness with disorderly behaviour.

These were also the cases that mostly came up first in the registers, so I am imagining that the cells were cleared of those held overnight before the ‘day charges’ or the ‘remands’ (usually more serious offences) were brought in.

The registers provide us with plenty of information. For example, in the 1881 register for the 16 March there are 9 people charge with some variety of disorderly behaviour (one as ‘incapable’, three with violence) 8 of whom are women and one man, William Ethridge. The justice, Mr Saunders, either fined them or sent them to prison for a short period of hard labour. Those fined either paid or risked being incarcerated like the others.

However, despite this information we don’t know the circumstances or detail of their crimes, for that we can only hope to find them in the newspapers, which reported selective cases more descriptively. So today’s case is one of those common drink related ones; a man brought before the courts for being drunk and disorderly.

Timothy McCarthy was a migrant worker. He had travelled from his native Merthyr Tydvil [sic] in Wales in search of work. He told the Bow Street magistrate that there was no work at home and no poor relief either; ‘it was no use stopping there’.

However, it wasn’t that much better in London but he had met with some of his fellow countrymen, who, like him, were out of work, and they had some ‘jollification’. The result was that he was arrested for being drunk on the streets. Fortunately he was bailed rather than being locked up and set at liberty. Unfortunately he chose to carry on drinking as soon as he was liberated.

The magistrate was unimpressed to have him back in court. He turned to the Welshman and said: ‘I know something of Merthyr, and if you were charged with drunkenness there you would be fined 10s costs plus the penalty imposed on you for the offence’.

McCarthy admitted that this was true.

The magistarte admonished him for replaying the ‘indulgence’ of the court in releasing him by offending straight away adding, ‘indeed, you are hardly sober now’. He continued:

 ‘To me it is a matter of wonderment always that you men who say you cannot get work can invariably find the means of getting drunk’. A presumably shamefaced McCarthy meekly responded that ‘it is friends as treat us’, before he was instructed to pay a 3s fine or go to prison for 3 days.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, March 12, 1878]

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]

Casual violence: an everyday occupational hazard for London’s ‘unfortunates’

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In late February 1865 Elizabeth Smith and Emma Harrington were standing at the corner of Gardener’s Lane at one in the morning. Clearly the two women were prostitutes although they were later referred to in court as ‘unfortunates’. Smith was particularly ‘unfortunate’ that night because she was about to become the victim of a nasty attack by a soldier.

Corporal Cornelius Ford, of the 1st battalion Scots Fusilier Guards, approached the girls and demanded to know if Smith knew the address of a woman he was looking for. When Elizabeth replied that she couldn’t help him he flew into a rage.

He said ‘You lie you _____’ and struck her, knocking her to the floor. Then he drew his bayonet and stabbed her just above the eye, causing her to ‘become insensible’. This was according to the evidence given to the policeman that attended and arrested the corporal; the wounded woman was taken to hospital.

Police constable Aitchison (PC A1) had already encountered Ford and the two street girls, they had been arguing and he had told the soldier to be on his way quietly. He ran back to the scene when he had heard Emma shout ‘murder!’ – the standard alarm for any attack in Victorian London it seems.

He removed the bayonet from the soldier’s hand and returned it to the scabbard at his belt before calling a colleague to take the woman to hospital and conveying his charge to the police station.

At Bow Street Police Court Ford was charged with assault and denied drawing his weapon or attacking Smith. Instead he accused her of trying to steal his watch. He suggested she was the aggressor and that she had run into a nearby pub, grabbed a pint pot, and came out and tried to hit him with it. As she did so she fell and that was how she cut her head.

His sergeant appeared in court to back him up by giving him and excellent character reference. Sergeant Parsons added that corporals were entitled to carry their bayonets when off duty, something that the magistrate felt was a mistake. Mr Henry noted that this ‘was one of the dangers of letting men wear their bayonets’. There ‘is no doubt that he used’ it and because of that, he added, he had to ‘go before a jury’.

In 1888 another street walker, this time in Whitechapel, was stabbed multiple times by a person or persons unknown. She was Martha Tabram (or Turner) and at the time two off duty guardsmen were suspected. It is quite likely (but hard to prove) that Martha was an early victim of ‘Jack the Ripper’.

‘Jack’ wasn’t around in 1865 however, when this case was heard. Corporal Ford would have been sent to the Middlesex Sessions that year, for a jury to decide if he was guilty of the assault on Elizabeth. I doubt he would have been convicted; it is more likely the ‘respectable’ men of the jury would have sided with a servant of the Queen than with a common ‘unfortunate’.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Saturday, February 23, 1861]