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]

A ‘foolish country gentleman’ is scammed at London Bridge

In January 1877 Mr Fletcroft Fletcher had come up to London from his estate at Ash in Kent for the cattle show. Having completed his business in the capital he headed to London Bridge station to take his train home.

As he waited for the train he ‘got into conversation with a ‘respectable looking man’. The men talked first about the ‘cattle show and farming’ before his new acquaintance turned the discussion to charity.

The pair had decided to settle down in a public on Southwark High Street for some food and drink. While they were there another man appeared who gave his name as Richard Snowball. Snowball, who was in ‘a very excited state’, told the gentlemen  that he had just come into some money having won a law suit. In fact ‘he had so much money he intended to give some to the poor’. However, he wanted to find someone ‘with confidence to distribute it’. Fletcher and his companion seemed like just the men to help him with his philanthropy.

Snowball added that as well as giving money to the needy he thought he would also like to give each of the gentlemen  a gold ring (as a token of his gratitude and a mark of their new found friendship), unfortunately however, ‘all the shops were shut’ (as it was now well past seven in the evening).

So he reached into his waistcoat pocket and handed what appeared to be a large sum of money to the man Mr Fletcher had met at the station. ‘I have confidence in you’ he told him.

Turning to Fletcher he asked if, in a return of confidence, he would entrust him with his watch. The country gentleman obliged, handing over a gold watch and chain worth around £60 (perhaps £2,000 in today’s money). The two men then rose and left, requesting than Fletcher wait for them to return in a few minutes.

The ‘few minutes’ turned into ‘nearly an hour’ and there was no sign of either of them. When Fletcher realised that he had been conned he called a policeman and ‘laid an information’ against the the pair.

A week later he picked Snowball out amongst those detained at Stone’s End Police Station and he was charged at Southwark Police Court with theft. In court the investigating officer, Detective Inspector Ricahrd Stevens (of M Division) asked for Snowball to be remanded so they had more time to catch the other (unknown) party. The magistrate granted his application.

The case doesn’t appear to have reached a trial so the police probably didn’t catch the mysterious ‘other’ man. If they failed to find the watch or secure any other witnesses then they would have probably have had little to hold Snowball (if that was indeed his name) on.

Mr Fletcher, as an ‘foolish country gentleman’  had been caught by the ‘confidence trick’ (the paper described it). This was the nineteenth-century version of the email scam that promises a reward for doing good at no risk to oneself. If you are being promised ‘something for nothing’ be wary because if it seems ‘too good to be true’ then it probably is.

[from The Illustrated Police News etc, Saturday, January 13, 1877]

Charity, mendacity and malingering; what are we to do about poverty and begging?

Do you give money to beggars in the street? Or buy the Big Issue?  Or do you walk on by thinking that by ‘helping’ them with money you are doing more harm than good (as we are often told). Perhaps you pop into the nearest coffee shop and purchase them a hot drink and a sandwich?

We all have our opinions about poverty and begging and often we react emotionally to the person we see. I was particularly struck by the number of beggars I saw in Venice last summer, amidst the crowds of wealthy sightseers gazing at canal views and wearing designer clobber while old women in layers of rags held out their hands or a cup for change.

I have a problematic relationship with beggars; sometimes I give them money, other times I chat to them, but most of the time I think its not my problem, that is is what the state is there for. I’m not comfortable with this and mostly I just feel impotent.

It is often said that there are professional beggars, or shammers that trick us into feeling sorry for them when actually they ‘earn’ plenty of money from begging and choose this form of malingering over actual work. I imagine its true for one in a hundred but hardly widespread.

I suspect the same conflicting emotions faced our Victorian ancestors. In the 1800s charity was a way for upper and middle-class women to find a public role in society. The prevailing patriarchal ideology meant that  they were unable to work or pursue a career  as they are today and confined to running the household and directing the care and education of their children they must have craved something else.

Lady Richardson was one such well-heeled Victorian lady. From her fashionable London home at 42 Bedford Square she played a role in helping ‘deserving cases’ like Jane Alexander and Maria Bogice.

Lady Richardson was aware of and way even have been involved with  the Mendicity Society. Their purpose (as set down in an 1850 note) was thus:

The society gives meals and money, supplies mill and other work to applicants, investigates begging-letter cases, and apprehends vagrants and impostors. Each meal consists of ten ounces of bread, and one pint of good soup, or a quarter of a pound of cheese. The affairs of the Society are administered by a Board of forty-eight managers. The Mendicity Society’s tickets, given to a street beggar, will procure for him, if really necessitous, food and work. They are a touch-stone to impostures: the beggar by profession throws them aside.

In January 1837 Sir John had passed a letter on to his wife which purported to be a request for help from one Maria Bogice. It was delivered to the house in Bedford Square by Jane Alexander.

Lady Richardson was at once suspicious. She had already ‘relieved’ (in the other words, helped) Maria by donating to her daughter some clothes so she would be able ‘to take a position’ (as a servant or shop girl most likely). So she thought it odd that she would write her a begging letter so soon afterwards.

When challenged about this Jane suggested that it was probably a mistake and went to leave. But Lady Richardson added it was a ‘very wilful and wicked’ mistake if mistake it was and decided to look into the matter. She referred the letter to the  Mendicity Society for their thoughts.

When Mr Kynvett replied that Jane Alexander was well known to them and that she had been concocting letters like this since 1834 (using a variety of names) the case was sent to the summary courts.

Jane appeared at Hatton Garden Police Court charged with attempting to ‘practice a gross imposition’ on Sir John* and Lady Richardson. Jane admitted her guilt but ‘begged hard for forgiveness’, she had acted, she said, out of extreme distress.

The justice was unmoved by her act of contrition. He told her that ‘such tricks steeled the heart of charity’ (a reaction perhaps familiar to modern readers). Lady Richardson added her own thoughts, saying that:

‘There are so many frauds committed in this way upon individuals who are anxious to do good that it is difficult to tell whether you are helping a needy person or one who gains his or her living by obtaining sums from the benevolent’.

Poor Lady Richardson, while she had to return to her town house in Bedford Square (below) to lick her wounds over a dinner prepared for her and her family by a staff of cooks and servants, Jane Alexander had the luxury of being sent to prison for 21 days to reflect on her ‘crime’ of being poor. Her children were removed from her and sent to the workhouse.

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Ian Duncan Smith would presumably have wept buckets.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, January 09, 1837]

*Sir John Richardson was familiar with the legal system. He was a judge at the Court of Common Pleas in the 1830s.

A disaster for Crystal Palace is an opportunity for someone else

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In 1851 the Great Exhibition opened at the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park. The glass structure was built to remain (like the Olympic Park at Stratford) as a resource for Londoners long beyond the duration of the exhibition itself, and after 1851 it was moved to South London, to a site at Sydenham. But the Crystal Palace was beset by misfortune; in 1861 it was badly damaged in a storm and in December 1866 part of it burned down in a massive fire.

During the fire in 1866 it seems that many visitors stopped to help those fighting the fire. One of these was the husband of Mary Chant and their lodger. On the afternoon of the 30 December 1866 they had visited the Palace as they were shareholders in the venture.

On hearing that a fire had broken out Mr Chant and their young friend handed their coats to Mary and rushed to assist. Mary was waiting when she heard a rumour some ‘wild animals had been let loose, and becoming much alarmed’ she turned to a ‘respectable-looking’ young man nearby, named Richard Rolls, who she assumed worked for the Palace company.

She asked him to show her to safety in the garden and he agreed. However, it soon became clear he was taking her downstairs, not to the garden at all.

Once they were underground he demanded she give him the coats and a gold watch (belonging to the lodger). When she refused he grabbed her by the throat and strangled her, seizing the items from her. She tried to scream for help but suspected that no one in that ‘dismal and lonely’ place would hear her. He must have thought much the same because now he tried to steal a chain she was wearing.

Realising her peril Mary turned and ran away from him. She found a policeman and reported the incident. From the description she gave Rolls was later arrested and the case came before the magistrate at Lambeth Police Court in early January 1867.

In his defence Rolls claimed he was not the man that had attacked Mrs Chant. Before his arrest he had changed out of the coat he was wearing and had donned a leather work apron. He still had a distinctive hat on however, and Mary was sure it was him.

The coats were found but the watch remained missing. With Rolls protesting his innocence the police asked for him to be remanded while they appealed for witnesses and looked for the watch. The justice remanded him ‘for a few days’.

Given the chaos of the fire and the difficulty of a clear identification I suspect Rolls might either have been innocent as charged or able to evade conviction on the basis of a lack of evidence. He doesn’t appear at the Old Bailey in any case in 1867. There were 8 other persons prosecuted that day for minor thefts or other incidents during the fire at the Crystal Palace, which is useful reminder that some people will always seek to profit from the opportunity presented by disasters.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, January 6, 1867]