‘diseased, unsound, unwholesome, and unfit’: a Norfolk knacker falls foul of the law

The Cats' Meat Man

Regular readers of this blog will know that alongside the very many cases of theft, drunkenness and assault the Police Courts dealt with a great deal of business that today would not get before a magistrate. London justices of the peace in the eighteenth century and their Victorian counterparts (the Police Court Magistrates) in effect regulated the daily life of Britain’s capital city.

So disputes over transport, employment, the provision of poor relief, the education of children, weights and measures, the sale of alcohol, and excise duty, all came under the purview of the magistracy. As a result the Police Courts are an ideal place to see how the metropolis functioned (or didn’t) in the past; all human (and often animal) life was here, and all manner of trades and occupations appear for the historian to study.

In a city as huge as London was (approximately 1/10th of the British population lived here in the 1800s) one perennial concern was the health and wellbeing of its citizens. The capital devoured vast amounts of food from all over the British Isles  and beyond and all of this had to fit for human consumption.

Meat was a particular concern and it fell to the market inspectors at Smithfield and the other city markets, as well as other officials to inspect meat and poultry that was offered for sale to the public. If suppliers (whether butchers, costermongers or slaughter men) attempted to foist unhealthy or rancid meat on an unsuspecting consumer they might well find themselves in front of a police court magistrate on a charge.

This is what happened to a Norfolk slaughterman named Thomas Fisher.

Fisher appeared before Sir Sydney Waterlow at Guildhall accused of ‘sending three quarters and a half of beef to the London Market for sale as human food’, when it was ‘diseased, unsound, unwholesome, and unfit for the food of man’. The case was brought by Mr Bayliss representing the Commissioners of Sewers (created in 1848 following concerns about public health in the wake of cholera outbreaks).

Bayliss told the Guildhall court that the animal concern had belonged to a grazier in the same area of Norfolk as Fisher. The cow had become sick and was diagnosed with a lung disease. Nowadays we are aware that bovine TB can be transmitted to humans and so is a significant health risk. Whether they knew this in 1870 is unlikely but an animal with the ‘lung disease’ as this beast had should not have made it to market.

The grazier was aware of this and so called for Fisher to take it away for slaughter and the meat to fed only to dogs. However, when Fisher collected the animal and started to ‘drive it home’, it collapsed on the road and he ‘was obliged to kill it there and then’. Afterwards he took the carcass to a slaughter yard were it was stripped and prepared and later sent on to London for sale as human food.

Once all this had been presented and verified in court Thomas Fisher had the opportunity to speak up for himself. The knacker argued that in his opinion the meat was fine when he sent it south. When ‘it dropped down he did think it was the lung disease, but when it was opened he saw that it had fallen from having a nail in its heart’. The meat was far too good, he insisted, to be wasted as dog food and if it was putrid when it reached London it must have been because of the hot weather.

A butcher was produced (presumably on behalf of the prosecution) to testify that he had seen beasts live for months with a nail in their hearts. In ‘one case an animal had a small roll of wire in its heart’ and still survived. The contention was that Fisher knew full well that the animal was diseased but chose to ignore this (and the implications for the health of Londoners) in order to profit from the carcass.

Sir Sydney was sympathetic to the knacker; he didn’t want, he said, to send a man like him to prison but he had clearly breached the laws around food safety and so he must fine him ‘the full penalty’. The full penalty in this case was £20 and £5s costs, the considerable sum of £925 in today’s money. Thomas Fisher was a relatively poor knacker who had probably spent a not insignificant sum of money in answering the summons by travelling to the capital from the Norfolk countryside. He certainly didn’t have £25 on his person (and probably not to his name).

In consequence, despite Sir Syndey’s sympathy he was sent to prison by default. After this was stated in court the gaoler led him away to the cells to begin await transfer to one of the capital’s prisons, probably Clerkenwell, to serve a month inside. If and when he emerged he faced the prospect of having to tramp back to Norfolk again under his own steam or to try and make a new life in London.

Given the tens of thousands of horses that vied with pedestrians on the capital’s crowded streets he might well have made a new career in the ‘Wen’ despatching the poor animals that reached their use-by date. Many of those animals then ended up being sold piecemeal on barrows by ‘cats-meat’ men. Horse meat sold as such was intended for cars and dogs but, as Dickens observed, sometimes graced the tables of not so discerning diners amongst the poorer classes.

So Fisher, having been accused and found guilty of trying to pass off diseased meat as fit for human consumption may well have ended up legitimately supplying horse flesh to the same consumers anyway.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, August 17, 1870]

If you are interested in this tale of the regulation of food in Victorian London then you might enjoy this post as well: A butcher is hooked

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A Stabbing on the High Seas (and other tales from Thames Police Court)

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This week I am going to take a slightly different approach to my selection of cases. Instead of taking them from across a range of Police Courts I am going to concentrate on just one, the Thames Police Court, which was one of two courts serving the East End of London*. I am also going to stick to one year, 1881 (a year when there are also manuscript records for Thames**). Hopefully then, I will be able to chart the business of Thames Police court from Saturday 11 June 1881 to Friday 17 June.

There are two cases reported from Saturday’s sitting, the first concerned a man named George Braithwaite who was accused of assaulting Elizabeth Grub, a ‘young woman’ living on the Isle of Dogs. She was too ill to attend court and the magistrate remanded Braithwaite in custody for a week to ‘see how the complainant progressed’.

The second concerned a ‘stabbing on the high seas’. Tobias Rosenfelt was brought up in Thames on a charge of ‘unlawfully wounding Harry Price, chief steward on board the steamship “Libra”.’ The Libra was one of the vessels run by the General Steam Navigation Company between London and Hamburg. The company (formed in 1824) carried both passengers and cargo across the Channel and North Sea, and later (after 1882) began operations in the Mediterranean. The Libra was launched in 1869 but sank in 1889 following a collision at sea.

According to the report of the case in 1881 Rosenfelt, a 29 year-old horse dealer who lived in Whitechapel (in Half Moon Passage), was on board the Libra on May 1st as it steamed towards Hamburg. He was in boisterous mood and entered the saloon, calling loudly for a bottle of lemonade. When Price, the ship’s steward, asked him to be  little more restrained Rosenfelt gave him a mouthful of abuse.

Price then asked him to leave but he refused. When the steward attempted to throw him out of the saloon he was attacked. He took a knife (or ‘some other sharp instrument’) from his pocket and aimed it at the steward’s chest. Price put up his hands to defend himself and was stabbed in his palm. Rosenfelt fled with the steward in pursuit. When he reached the middle of the ship Price caught up with him but Rosenfelt snatched hold of a ‘camp chair’ and bashed Price over the head with it.

Presumably at some point the horse dealer was arrested or detained onboard and returned to England to face the music in June. At the hearing the prosecutor told Mr Lushington (the Thames magistrate) that Rosenfelt had previously been charged with manslaughter in Hamburg, and wounding, and was clearly a ‘dangerous man’. The magistrate remanded him in custody to see if more evidence emerged. We can see if he reappeared later that week.

[from The Illustrated Police News etc , Saturday, June 11, 1881]

*the other was Worship Street in Shoreditch

**held by the London Metropolitan Archives (LMA)

Terrorism in London: an echo from the 1880s

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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]

A man is driven to attempt suicide because of his ‘reduced circumstances’

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This blog has covered the difficult topic of suicide in several posts over the past year; Londoners in despair quite frequently attempted to ‘destroy’ themselves by jumping off one the capital’s bridges or by hanging themselves. Luckily in all the cases I covered they were prevented by the quick actions of a policeman or a passer-by. Suicide was technically a crime until 1961 and so anyone attempting, but failing, to kill themselves would be arrested and presented before a magistrate.

Joseph Nadall was just such an unfortunate person. After he failed to kill himself in March 1866 he found himself instead the dock of the Worship Street Police Court before Mr Ellison the sitting magistrate.

Naval was described as a 35 year old labourer, who was ‘without hope’. He had taken poison, the court was told, and when he was found he was taken to the police station where he was examined by Mr James Sequira, a surgeon.* The doctor found him in a ‘very prostrate condition and suffering greatly’. He administered an emetic and then an antidote.

When his patient had received sufficiently he asked what had happened and related this to the court. Nadall told him he had gone to a rag shop where he had bought a small bottle and ‘two pennyworth’ of oxalic acid. He took these to a water pump in the street and added some water. Having mixed his potion he ‘drank it off’.

The magistrate inquired as to exactly how much oxalic aside was required for a dose to be fatal. ‘About half an ounce’ replied the surgeon. And what would that cost? Between a penny and twopence said Dr Sequira, so the amount Nadall had could easily have been fatal. It would seem this is fairly accurate because today it is estimated that a dose of 15-30 grams could be lethal if injected orally.

Now the hearing turned to whom had supplied it.

A young lad (who looked about 15 but was nearly 17 the court heard) stepped into the witness box and admitted selling Nadall the acid. He told the justice that he was ‘in the habit of serving these packets to shoemakers and others, who use it in their trade. The packets are 1d. each, and I have him two of them’. The magistrate was then shown a similar blue packet labelled as ‘Shoemaker’s poison’.

Mr Ellison was surprised and concerned that the young assistant had not asked any questions of Nadall and had not objected to selling him poison when he clearly didn’t look like a shoemaker. The lad’s master, Mr Blackwell, now presented himself and felt the full force of the magistrate’s anger.

‘This boy of yours has acted with great incautiousness – very great’ he declared. ‘Poisons should never be sold without at least inquiry being made as to the purpose for which they are wanted’. 

Blackwell mumbled that he always told the lad to ask questions before he sold anything, but without much conviction. He and his boy had not broken any laws and so having been publicly rebuked they were free to go.

As for Joseph Nadall he explained that he was ‘impelled to the attempt on his life by reduced circumstances’. Poverty and unemployment had driven him to such drastic action.

Mr Ellison had little sympathy. ‘You should have applied to the parish’, he told him and remanded him in custody while he decided what to do with him. I except that a few days later he would have been released. Whether he then visited the workhouse, found work or threw himself off the nearest bridge we will probably never know.

Nineteenth-century London was an unforgiving place if you were poor.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, March 24, 1866]

*James Scott Sequira was a prominent London surgeon of Portuguese ancestry, who seems to have appeared as an expert witness in several poisoning trials during the second half of the nineteenth century.

Evidence of the ‘female malady’ on Westminster Bridge

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Alongside petty crime, disorderly behaviour and violence the Police magistrates of the capital heard a considerable number of cases of distress and desperation. None more so than charges levelled against people (mostly women) who had attempted suicide by throwing themselves into the River Thames to drown.

It seems to have been a regular occurrence in the 1800s and featured recently in the BBC’s drama Taboo, where James Delany’s half-sister (Zilpha Geary, played by Oona Chaplin) leaps to her death. From the 13th century right up to 1961 ‘self-murder’ was a crime and a sin in the eyes of the church. Those accused of attempting to ‘destroy’ themselves frequently came before the metropolis’ magistracy.

While it was a largely accepted ‘truth’ that the ‘weakness’ of women’s minds was more likely to drive them to take their own lives, the reality was that men ‘committed’ (or attempted) suicide more frequently. However, gendering suicide in this way to make it a ‘female malady’ (as Elaine Showalter has dubbed madness in the 1800s) fitted contemporary tropes more closely. While men do feature in newspaper reports of attempted suicide it is more common for the examples to be of young women, like Zilpha and for the act to be one of drowning rather than hanging or other forms of self-harm.

So when Sarah Keyworth tried to jump off Westminster Bridge she was providing the Morning Post’s reporter with exactly the copy he needed to reinforce the weakness of the ‘fairer sex’ in the minds of his readership.

Sarah, ‘a respectable-looking young woman’ was seen running along Westminster Bridge by a gentleman named Houghton. Mr Houghton told the court at Southwark that she was ‘calling out in  a frantic manner’ before she ‘suddenly stopped and climbed over the railings of the bridge’.

He must have feared that she was about to jump so he reacted quickly and grabbed hold of her. She struggled, saying ‘let me go, let me go!’ but he held on until a policeman arrived to help. Sarah was taken to the local police station and brought up before the magistrate in the morning.

At her first hearing she was ‘sullen’ and said she had fully intended to have ‘destroyed herself and was sorry the gentleman had interfered’. The magistrate (Mr Woolrych) had remanded her and instructed the prison chaplain to visit her.

A week later and she was back up in court and this time her sister appeared with her to support her. Now Sarah was in repentant mood, through floods of tears she said ‘she was very sorry for such an attempt on her life. She knew the wickedness of it, and promised never to do it again’. Her sister told Mr Woolrych that she could only imagine she had been driven to it after ‘words with her young man’. She promised to look  after her and so the magistrate admonished Sarah and let them both go.

Sadly, attempting to drown oneself in the Thames is still one of the favoured options for those who feel that life is something they can no or longer wish to cope with. In 2014 over 100 calls were made to the City of London police on account of people trying to jump from one of the five bridges along the stretch of river covered by the City’s jurisdiction. Given that London has over a dozen more bridges (not including railway ones) that pedestrians can access the numbers of places where potential human tragedies could occur probably raises that figure considerably.

A 2016 report from the City noted that there were 20-25 suicides by drowning alone in the Thames and attempts have bene made to prevent further deaths by installing information boards with the Samaritans phone number and even patrols on some bridges to look out for those in need. London can be a lonely place and it would seem that it always has been.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, March 11, 1865]

‘the course of true love never did run smooth’ when the law is involved.

Calais circa 1830 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

Calais, c.1830 by J.M. Turner

Towards the end of January 1830 a flustered man rushed into the Bow Street Police Court in some distress. He gained an audience with the sitting magistrate and told him his story.

The man (a widower who was not named in the press report) had traveled from Calais where he ran a ‘respectable English Tavern’. His main source of help was his 17 year-old daughter and a  couple of other servants, one of which was a young man ‘of rather low connexions and habits’.

An ‘intimacy’ had developed between the innkeeper’s daughter and the serving lad which was becoming something of a concern to her father. I imagine he expressed this on several occasions and the young lovers must have realised there was little hope of them being allowed to continue their fledgling relationship.

So they did what all romantic early nineteenth-century couples did, they decided to elope.

The young man forged a draft for money and secured £80 from a local tradesman the landlord dealt with regularly; the girl squirrelled away all of the day’s takings. They made their escape late one Sunday night, chartering a small boat from Calais harbour to England. They arrived in Dover and headed for London. When he discovered them gone the father set off in hot pursuit.

When he had finished telling his tale at Bow Street the principal officer (or ‘Runner’ as we more commonly term the men that served the Bow Street court) set off to find them. J.J. Smith tracked them down to a lodging house in Holborn where he secured the girl and told the lad he was free to go, ‘the sole object being to recover [the landlord’s] daughter’.

But the young beau was not so easily put off. He followed Smith and the girl back to Bow Street and even into the building. Here he was ‘very unceremoniously ejected’ and warned to stay away unless he fancied prison and a turn on the treadmill. Still he lingered, seeing the father and daughter climb into the carriage that would take them back to Dover and thence to France. As the coach pulled away ‘the “lovers” were observed to exchange parting signals’.

There really is a story to be written here, for anyone out there with more imagination than me.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, January 30, 1830]