A distraught wife declares: ‘I intended to do for him, for his brutality and for leaving me’.


A Southwark street in the 1890s

Serious violence such as attempted and actual murder was rarer in the nineteenth century than we might think from all the concentration of sensation literature and ‘murder news’ that has survived. Excellent work by Judith Flanders and Rosalind Crone has illuminated our understanding of the Victorians’ fascination with murder and gore but we shouldn’t conclude from this that homicides were an everyday occurrence.

Sadly, domestic and spousal violence was commonplace and the Police Courts were regularly witness to tales of wife beating as tensions in the home were brought into the public sphere. Magistrates tried to take a firm line with abusers but were often frustrated by the fact that survivors frequently refused to condemn their abusers in court; they were prepared to take them to law but not prosecute them fully, for fear of future retribution or losing the main breadwinner.

Nearly all of these victims were women but women did initiate violence sometimes and fight back when attacked. Men rarely prosecuted their wives however, because this would have suggested they had lost control of the household and that would have been a social catastrophe for their reputation.

So it is rare to see a woman in front of the courts for assaulting her husband or partner, unless there is a very clear and obvious reason, as there is with the case of Elizabeth Penning.

Elizabeth Penning had been living with John Walthe for several years. The couple weren’t married but lived as if they were. This sort of arrangement – normal today – was much more common than me might expect in the nineteenth century. Marriage was expensive and working class society did not demand that couples tied the knot officially, especially in large urban centres such as London.

It wasn’t a happy marriage however. John was having an affair and abused his wife. By his own admission he had ‘ill-treated [her] while he lived with her. He had broken three of her ribs, [and] struck her with a chopper, for which he had been punished’.

In late January 1860 he had been out drinking late and was on his way home. As he approached the Sir John Falstaff pub on Kent Street he noticed Elizabeth sitting on the step outside.

She challenged him, calling out: ‘What have you done with your woman?’

The pair rowed and John walked on. He hadn’t gone far when he heard female screams and rushed back and down Falstaff Yard, near the pub. There he found Elizabeth armed with a knife. She rushed at him and aimed  stab at his neck. The kitchen knife went in deep and blood flowed. John was taken to St Thomas’ Hospital and his life was in danger. He didn’t recover form his wounds for a month. Meanwhile Elizabeth was arrested while the courts waited to find out whether she would be charged with attempted or actual murder.

Fortunately for all concerned John survived and the case came initially before the Southwark Police Court magistrate, Mr Burcham in February.

Now that Waltin could give evidence more detail of what happened that night emerged. He’d not been alone when he passed Elizabeth at the pub. He’d had a woman on his arm and that was how the row had started. Elizabeth had threatened him and he’d dismissed this, telling her she ‘had not pluck to do it’.

PC 171M had been first on the scene, responding to the shouts from Falstaff Yard. He saw Elizabeth brandishing a bloodied kitchen knife and arrested her. She admitted stabbing her husband and said ‘she intended to do for him, for his brutality and for leaving her’. John was reluctant to testify against his wife, and admitted his own fault in the matter. Elizabeth said nothing before the justice, preferring to keep her defence for the jury trial that would inevitably follow.

The case did come before the Old Bailey and Elizabeth was convicted of wounding her partner. The trial unfolded with little more detail than we have from the pre-trial hearing. We do get to hear from Elizabeth however, who issued a written statement at the end of the case. This repeats some of the facts John admitted to at Southwark but adds considerably to a picture of his brutality and callous disregard for her. I’m not for a moment suggesting she was justified in stabbing him but it helps explain why she did so:

The prisoner put in a written defence, stating that she had lived with the prosecutor for seven years and suffered much ill treatment; that she had charged him at Southwark Police-court with cutting her head open with a chopper, for which he was imprisoned for three months; since when he has fractured three of her ribs, cut her eye open, and given her two severe wounds on the head with a pickaxe, which caused her at times not to know what the did or said; that he had kept her for three months without boots or shawl, so that she could not seek work, and got involved in debt, and that when she spoke to him about it he struck her; that she saw him on Saturday night with the woman in question, whom he told to give her a good hiding.

Having been found guilty Elizabeth was sentenced to six months imprisonment by the Common Sergeant.

[from The Standard, Monday, February 27, 1860]


No ‘land fit for heroes’ for one wounded survivor of the Crimea, just a ‘rolling’ in Westminster


In January 1856 the Crimean War was nearly at an end. The battle of Balaklava (25/10/1854) and Inkerman (25/1/1855) had both taken place and as Austria threatened to enter the war on the side of the Allies (France, Britain and Turkey) Russia sued for peace.  Nearly a million soldiers died, many from disease not the actions of the enemy. Britain and the Empire lost 21, 097 men but 16,000 of these died from disease; this was the war in which Florence Nightingale rose to prominence and Britain agonised over the poor state of health of its troops.

When the troops came home they might have expected a better reception but the concept of a ‘land fit for heroes’ was still in the distant future. While the Royal Navy had usually enjoyed a positive public  profile the army was not so well thought of. The many hundreds of wounded ex-servicemen found it hard to adjust to ‘civvy street’ when they returned.

Walter Palmer had served in the Coldstream Guards in the Crimea. The regiment fought at Alma, Sebastopol and Balaklava and won four of the newly minted Victoria  Crosses. Palmer was a man with a tale to tell then. He’d been badly wounded and returned to London missing three fingers from his right hand. With his army pay burning a hole in his jacket pocket he had set himself up at a table in the Star and Garter pub in Westminster, regaling all who would listen with his tales of the war.

Apparently he attracted quite an audience; ‘entertaining a party of ardent lovers of military glory with his recital of his adventures and exploits at the seat of war, and liberally standing treat for his patriotic hearers’.

As Palmer boasted of his life with the guards he flashed his money about and this caught the attention of some of the less patriotic members of the crowd. As he left, arm in arm with a ‘lady’ he’d met, a couple of them followed him along King Street.

One of these was Thomas French and Palmer was not so drunk that he hadn’t noticed the ‘dissipated young man’ watching him intently in the pub. French and the other man, later identified as Philip Ryan, rushed him and robbed him. The damage to his hand meant the soldier was unable to defend himself and thrown down to the ground. French reached inside his tunic and cut away his inside pocket, stealing 15 in silver coin.

Ryan ran off at the sound of an approaching policeman but French stopped and pretended to have just arrived to help the soldier. He consoled him about his ‘treatment by “those villainous rogues”‘ and helped him to his feet. Palmer went along with the ruse until the policeman arrived and then gave him into custody. Ryan returned to try and rescue his mate and wrestled with the copper. French shoved a handful of money at his pal urging him to swallow it.

Ryan got away but after French was secured at the station the police quickly apprehended him. In court at Bow Street Ryan’s solicitor defended his client saying there was little evidence of his involvement in the crime. The magistrate, Mr Henry reluctantly agreed, accepting that since the young man had since spent a week in custody that was perhaps sufficient punishment for now. Ryan was released.

Thomas French was much more clearly involved and it was revealed that he had string of previous convictions. He was minded to send him for jury trial and a possible long period of imprisonment or worse. French was alive to the possibility that he might fare badly in front of a jury and so he made a last ditch attempt to plead for leniency.

He asked to be dealt with summarily, promising that if ‘His worship could give him one more chance, he would reform and “become a new character altogether”. I suspect Mr Henry had heard that one  a hundred times before but he allowed the youngster’s plea and sent him to prison for three months. Harsh maybe, but not as bad as being locked up for years or sent to Australia.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, January 17, 1856]

You can use this site to search for specific crimes or use the Themes link in the menu on the left to look for areas or topics that interest you. If you are interested in a particular court (such as Bow Street or Marylebone) you can also limit your search to one court in particular. Please feel free to comment on anything you read and if something in particular interests you then please get in touch. You can email me at drew.gray@northampton.ac.uk

‘Dastardly outrage in the Royal Hospital Grounds’


Sometimes I find that the original ‘headline’ is just too tempting not to use. This one, from Lloyd’s Weekly in 1885 sets up a case of highway robbery in the grounds of the Royal Hospital, home to the Chelsea Pensioners.

Mrs Mary Keown was walking with her children in Ranelagh Gardens in January when she saw a elderly man coming towards her. As they passed she noticed he was carrying a stone in the flat of his hand. Hurrying on she was soon disturbed to discover that he was following them with a menacing expression.

Mary turned and faced him, but now he raised a stick to her. She grabbed at it and wrestled him for it. Until then he’d said nothing but as she won the stick from his grasp he drew a knife and threatened her:

‘Your money or your life!’ he cried forcing her to drop the stick and hand over her purse which contained a half sovereign and about 5 in silver coin. He ran off and Mrs Keown went to find a policeman. The man, who name was Walter Denham, was later arrested and appeared at Westminster Police Court before Mr D’Eyncourt.

Mrs Keown was generous to her attacker. Despite the evidence she gave, which was confirmed by the officer who captured him and found a ‘large knife’ in his possession, she pleaded for the case to be heard summarily. This would have meant that the magistrate could only have dealt with it as a theft or assault, not as the violent robbery it clearly seemed to be. Mr D’Eyncourt wasn’t having that however, he told her it was ‘too serious’ for that and committed the old man for trial.

That trial took place at the Old Bailey and Walter was duly convicted and sentenced to twelves months in prison. There is a technical issue with this story however. The Old Bailey case is dated the 29 December 1884 and yet the news report of the summary hearing is the 11 January 1885. Likewise the Old Bailey case refers to the attack taking place on the 7 January (which is consistent with the newspaper report). So which source is wrong? I would have to suggest that the Old Bailey report is somehow wrong or the transcription or digitising of it is.

Not that this matters for Walter of course, but it might for those that study (and tend to rely upon) the records of the Old Bailey, like me.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, January 11, 1885]

You can use this site to search for specific crimes or use the Themes link in the menu on the left to look for areas or topics that interest you. If you are interested in a particular court (such as Bow Street or Marylebone) you can also limit your search to one court in particular. Please feel free to comment on anything you read and if something in particular interests you then please get in touch. You can email me at drew.gray@northampton.ac.uk

Gang violence in Dalston as a new year dawns : an echo from 1877


Joseph Allen was walking out with his ‘sweetheart’ on Kingsland Road in Dalston in early January 1878. It was just after midnight when the couple found their route barred by a large group of youths, about 20 strong. According to Allen’s report the gang of ‘roughs’ were: ‘occupying the breadth of the pavement , and pushing all persons into the road’.

This is quite familiar as the behaviour of youth groups or gangs in the late nineteenth century. In the 1870s and 80s they were usually referred to as ‘roughs’ (although that term was also applied to agitators in political crowds and other unruly elements of society). By the turn of the century the word ‘hooligan’ was used, being coined in the early 1890s, and immortalised by ‘Alf’, from Lambeth, in Clarence Rook’s Hooligan Nights

As the gang of youths reached Allen and his girl they pushed him about as they had done everyone else. When he objected he was surrounded, beaten about the head and knocked to the ground. He was forced to ‘fight his way out’ he later explained, but that was not the end of his troubles.

One of the ‘roughs’, a 22 year-old man named Thomas Robson, ‘rushed upon him and struck him two blows on the lest side of the head above the temple’. As he took his hand away from his wounded head Allen realised he was ‘bleeding freely’. Robson ran away but Allen chased after him and wrested with him. Despite the efforts of his fellows Robson was eventually handed over to a nearby policeman who took him into custody.

In front of the Police Magistrate at Worship Street Robson challenged Allen’s version of events. He suggested instead that Allen had sustained his wounds ‘by falling in a fair fights’ and asked those present to back him up. The magistrate decided to believe the victim in this case, who appeared in court with his head heavily bandaged. Robson was committed to take his trial before a jury.

Tried at the Sessions on 8th January Thomas Robson was convicted of wounding and sentenced to nine years imprisonment. The case has echoes of the Regent’s Park murder of 1888, when Joseph Rumbold was stabbed to death outside the gates of the park in a gang related incident. It is also a timely reminder that youth violence has a very long history in the capital. In the last few days we have heard that four young people were murdered on New Year’s Eve which brought the total of knife killings in London in 2017 to 80, the highest number in a decade.

Sir Craig Mackay, Deputy Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police made a statement, saying:

‘We need to find out why some young people think it is acceptable to carry knives, and this is where community organisations and local initiatives, charities, schools and educators, youth workers and families all have an important role to play in changing this mindset’.

I agree with his message but wonder what exactly we have been doing for the past 10, 20, 50 or even 100 years? Youth violence isn’t something we are suddenly going to understand or easily be able to solve. When my wife and I got home from a quiet New Year’s Eve with family we were disturbed by cries for help from two young men in the street. The pair were wrestling in the road and we called 999. Fortunately it was a case alarm; the pair were simply drunk and incapable and not killing each other. We aborted the call and apologised to the operator.

Joseph Allen was lucky, he survived being stabbed in the street. Joseph Rumbold was not so fortunate, dying in his girlfriend’s arms. As for the protagonists, Thomas Robson would have served most of his nine years and found work very hard to come by ever after. The consequences of his brutish behaviour would very likely dog his future. Joseph Rumbold was stabbed to death by George Galletly. He was sentenced to death at the Old Bailey in 1888 but reprieved on account of his age, he was just 18 years old.

Those murdered last Sunday night were 17, 18 and 20 years of age. The killers were probably young men of a similar age, and their lives have also been dramatically changed as a result of what they’ve done.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, January 03, 1878]

Rossini’s ‘cat song’ provokes uproar at the theatre and medical students threaten to give the police the Bartholomew “touch”.


Medical students have a long established reputation for high jinx and drink related antics. They study hard, so the saying goes, and play hard so it is no surprise to see a number of them appearing before the London magistracy in the 1800s. This case involves several medical students from St Bartholomew’s Hospital but in particular a young man named Charles Astley, who lived in Ealing.

Astley was charged before Mt Knox at Marlborough Street for assaulting a man at the Oxford Music Hall on the corner of Oxford Street and Tottenham Court Road. Mr Knox’s court was packed with Astley’s fellow students, some of whom were also charged with a range of less serious offences related to Astley’s arrest and the circumstances of it. As a result the magistrate had to continually insist they behaved themselves or he would have them all ejected.

The complaint was brought by a Mr Freame (or possibly Freene), an employee of the theatre, and prosecuted in court by his counsel, who had the suitably festive name of Mr Sleigh. He explained that on several occasions large numbers of students had turned up at the music hall and had caused a disturbance. Their behaviour was riotous, disorderly and drunken. In the end the proprietor, Mr Syers, had been obliged to call on the police for support in keeping order.

On the night in question there were no less than 18 police constable deployed at the venue (which held around 1,800 paying customers. All was well until just before 11 o’clock at night when Signor Aldine took to the stage and began to sing. He sang the ‘Cat Song’ (which may well have been Duetto buffo di due gate or “humorous duet for two cats”, sometimes attributed to Rossini). I’m no expert on opera but it appears to be a song about two cats meowing to each other. At this point the medical students started to make a lot of noise, Astley ‘principal among them’. The musical director asked for quite but they ignored him, carrying on their commotion and shouting out things like ‘splendid’.

The Oxford Music Hall had undergone a rebuild after a fire in 1872, reopening in 1873 not long before the medical students caused such a fracas there.* So perhaps its not surprising that the owners were keen to avoid too much disturbance as they established themselves as a major nighttime venue when there was plenty of competition in the 1870s.

As the police moved in blows were thrown and abuse was shouted. Mr Freame said he made a grab for Astley, who he saw as a ringleader, and the medical student grabbed hold of his collar and manhandled him. Eventually Astley was whisked away to the nearest police station but about 500 students gathered outside the music hall threatening to ‘give the police the Bartholomew “touch” [and shouting] ‘let the bobbies have it’. Four of them were subsequently arrested and also appeared in court with their chum.

One of the Middlesex hospital’s teaching fellows, a lecturer on physiology, appeared to speak up for the young men and to say that if the charges were all dropped he had been assured that there would be no further instances of bad behaviour at the music hall. Mr Knox was not minded to take this case lightly however. He had, he said, already warned about excessive disorderly behaviour and drunkenness at the hall and would now carry through on his threat to deal harshly with offenders.

Ashley would go to the Central Criminal Court to face  a trial by jury and he insisted the other young men keep the peace in the meantime. One of them, John Pogose, he fined 40s (or one month in prison) for his part in the disturbances that followed Astley’s arrest. The other three were bound by their own recognizances to appear in January. Ashley appeared at the Old Bailey on 10 January on a charge of wounding but the jury couldn’t reach a verdict and he was discharged.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, December 21, 1875]

*Those of you of a certain age you will be familiar with the site of the music hall, which was where Virgin Records stood on Oxford Street from the 1970s. If you are a little older you may recall the same premises as belonging to Lyon’s Corner House (which opened in 1927).

A ‘grossly profligate young blackguard’ at Bromley


All this week at my university we are running a series of events designed at raising awareness of issues surrounding sexual assault, harassment and consent. It is the third year running such activities have happened and this time I’m pleased to be aligning my second year teaching with it, by giving  special lecture and linked seminar workshop on the prosecution of rape in the 18th and 19th centuries.

One of the issues that any study of sexual assault in the past (and indeed the present) highlights is the difficulty survivors have in bringing their abusers to court and gaining any sort of justice. This remains an extremely difficult thing to do today and Time Magazine’s collective award of their Person of the Year 2017 to the ‘silence braekers’ reflects the courage of the women and men who have come forward to speak out.

Sexual assault and harassment takes many forms of course. Take this case for example, from December 1864. Amelia Harrison, a married woman who lived in Nelson Street, Bromley, was crossing the fields near her home at 10 at night when she was attacked.

A young lad rushed up to her from behind, raised her skirts and grabbed her ‘in a grossly indecent manner’. In the witness box at Thames Police Court Mrs Harrison was naturally reticent to go into much detail but Mr Paget pressed her. Reluctantly she ‘described the infamous outrage committed upon her , and said the prisoner hurt her’. She then told the court she was five months pregnant.

We don’t know exactly what happened but clearly some form of sexual assault had been committed. The lad in the dock, a ‘rough-looking boy’ named George Thomas wasn’t yet 15 years of age and cut a sorry figure. At first he denied doing anything and counter claimed saying Mrs Harrison had hit him and cut his lip.

He may have sustained an injury but it was soon clear that it must have come as  result of her resistance to his assault. Given the prisoner’s detail and the seriousness of the charge Mr Paget said he would have to formally commit him to a jury trial at the Sessions.

At this Thomas broke down and started to sob. He called for his mother, admitted his crime, and ‘begged forgiveness’. The magistrate paused and consulted with his chief clerk. He was minded, he said, to send Thomas for trial but decided in the end to punish him summarily. The prisoner was ‘a grossly profligate young blackguard’, he said, ‘and must be punished for laying his hands on a woman so indecently’. He would go to prison for two months at hard labour.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, December 07, 1864}

Mindless male violence in Bermondsey?


Victorian Bermondsey

Sometimes even when you have a full trial account at Old Bailey in addition to the initial report of a pre-trial hearing before a Police Court magistrate it is hard to work out what happened. Ultimately this is often because there were contested narratives and a lack of hard evidence.

Let’s take this case, from December 1856, as an example.

On Thursday 4 December three men were presented before the sitting justice at Southwark charged with attempted murder. Richard Burchall, Abraham Burchall (his brother) and Patrick Ryan were accused of beating and stabbing Patrick Griffin and almost causing his death. The incident had occurred back in late October that year but Griffin’s injuries were so severe that he had been unable to attend court before this time.

At Southwark the court was told, by Edmund Valentine (the house surgeon at Guy’s Hospital) that Griffin had been brought in just after 11 at night on a police stretcher.

‘He was under the influence of liquor and his left side was besmeared with blood. On being undressed’ [Valentine] ‘discovered that he had been stabbed on the left side, between the eight and ninth rib’. The wound was an inch long and two inches deep and ‘matter [was flowing] from it like vomit’.

Once he was sufficiently well enough to identify his attackers Griffin pointed the finger at the men now occupying the Southwark dock. He also managed to identify a ‘black-handled clasp knife’ as the weapon that had been used against him.

On this evidence (and that already heard by a number of witnesses at previous hearings) the tree men were committed for trial at the Bailey.

The case came up on the 15 December (there was a much quicker turn around in the Victorian justice system than there is today) where two barristers (Mr J. W. Payne for the prosecution , and Mr Lilley for the defence) conducted matters.

However, what actually occurred that night in late October is far from clear. Patrick Griffin and his brother John had visited the Burchalls’ house on what appears to be a mission for revenge. Some weeks earlier Richard (or Dick) Burchall had beaten up John Griffin and now the brothers wanted to ‘pay him out’ for it.

Before they went however, they paid a visit to a local beer shop or pub (or both) and drank four or five pots of beer between them. They claimed not to be drunk but they were certainly under the influence. Fueled with ‘dutch courage’ they set off to seek their vengeance on the Burchalls.

When they reached the house they apparently got no reply at first and so may have knocked a little louder. According to the defendants version of events the brothers’ shouted abuse, threats and hammered on the door. It was late at night and with two drunken young men calling the odds outside their house it is not surprising that Richard Burchall and his brother came out ready for a fight.

Both Patrick and John were attacked as a fracas ensued; a brick was thrown and hit Patrick Griffin in the head and eye and he went down. He received a sharp kick in his backside and and someone (possibly Dick Burchall) stabbed him with a knife.

At that point it all became something of a blur and so the idea that either Griffin could really describe what went on is somewhat fanciful. A policeman arrived (though no one could be sure who’d called him) and he found John cradling his brother and kissing his head – he believed he was dead or mortally wounded. The Burchalls and Ryan were arrested and Griffin taken to hospital as the surgeon had testified.

In the end the jury were just as confused as the modern reader is and acquitted the threesome as charged. Clearly Griffin had been stabbed but who knows what he might have done had he got his retaliation in first, so to speak. It was a confusing and confused case of drink fueled male violence between young working-class men in a Bermondsey street, nothing remarkable and sadly quite in character with this rough part of the capital in the mid 1800s.

[from The Morning Chronicle , Friday, December 5, 1856]