The jilted rifleman, the gipsy and the ungrateful lodger’: ‘a shockingly immoral case’ at Thames

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A murderer and a villain,
A slave that is not twentieth part the tithe
Of your precedent lord, a vice of kings,
A cutpurse of the empire and the rule,
That from a shelf the precious diadem stole,
And put it in his pocket—
                             Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 4

When Samuel Ford stood in the dock at the Thames Police Court he was flanked on one side by the prosecutor, Peter Stephens, and on the other by a woman whose name was given as Mrs Bullock. Ford was charged with theft; specifically the theft of ‘a shirt and other articles belonging to Stephens. In court Ford was defended by Mr Pelham while the prosecution was conducted by Stephens himself.

Stephens explained that until recently he had lived with Mrs Bullock (who was not his wife) at his home in Eltham Place, Stepney. Ford was a friend of his, he told the magistrate (Mr Yardley) and when he heard that he had been turned out of his lodgings he invited him to come and live in his rooms until he got another place.

It was an act of kindness but it rebounded on him. It very soon became clear that Ford and Mrs Bullock were getting closer and within a short space of time, he had ‘undermined him’ in her ‘affections’.

However, this had not been noticed at by Stephens and so when he left home early on a Saturday morning and did not return until midnight on the Sunday he had no real suspicions about the couple. Imagine his shock then when he got back to find that ‘his friend and his mistress had taken French leave’*. Not only had they fled but they had taken some of his property with them.

As Pelham cross-examined the prosecutor an alternative view of the relationship between Mrs Bullock and Stephens emerged. It seems that her mother had given them quite a lot of help in the form of (quite possibly money) and domestic goods and other ‘gifts’. Ford’s lawyer suggested that Mrs Bullock’s mother had recently given them a clock  and other things, which the eloping couple had taken with them.

Mrs Bullock was, it seems, something of a character. In court she was described as a ‘handsome, well-dressed’ but rather bold-looking woman, whose beauty was of the gipsy kind’. She intervened in the course of the cross-examination and at several points reportedly shook her parasol in Stephens’ direction. Mr Yardley was forced eventually to tell her to be restrain herself.

Mr Yardley didn’t appear to have much more time for the prosecutor though. He discovered that Stephens had met up with Mrs Bullock (a widow with three children) whilst he was on his travels with a rifle show. Perhaps the magistrate felt that he had reaped what he’d sown by picking up a gipsy woman at a travelling fair; maybe he simply regards the whole sordid thing as a ménage à trois which he would have preferred never to have demeaned his courtroom.

In the end there was little the justice could do anyway. It was clear that Mrs Bullock did not want to live any longer with Stephens and had instead chosen Ford as her new ‘paramour’. Stephens had benefited from the relationship materially and in other ways for nine months, but had never made the woman his wife. Ford had stepped up and asked her to marry him so she and her children would have the respectability and stability she desired.

As for the stolen property well, ‘the shirt alleged in the charge-sheet was made and sent up by Mrs Bullock, and as that lady has made her selection [in choosing Ford over Stephens]’ the magistrate declared, ‘she has a right to dispose of it as she pleases’.

‘It is a shockingly immoral case altogether’, he concluded. ‘Let them go away. Give the prosecutor the shirt, the woman the clock, and the prisoner his liberty’.

The reporter finished his article by stating:

‘The woman went away in triumph, hanging on the arm of her new paramour, who, in outward appearance, was not a “twentieth part of the tithe of her precedent lord”.’

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, August 21, 1853]

*French leave: ‘to go away without permission’ (OED)

A father’s choice of bride upsets his daughters

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Plumstead in the 1880s

George Warren was blessed with three grown daughters, and doubly blessed in that each had managed to secure a marriage and so were no longer a ‘burden’ to him. His joy was not complete, however, because his wife of many years had passed away and he had been left alone for nearly two years.

After two years George thought it reasonable that, having left a suitable period for grieving, he should take a new wife. He might have hoped that his daughters would have been happy to see their father married once again, and living out his approaching dotage with a companion and helpmeet.

And Hepzibah, Harriet and Lucy would probably have welcomed a new Mrs Warren as a stepmother, if only George hadn’t opted for someone who was apparently not much older than they were. As it was his decision to marry a much younger woman was greeted with considerable disapproval. Nor did the sisters keep their disquiet at his choice to themselves; instead they brought their concerns directly to his door and in doing so ended up before a magistrate on a charge brought by their father.

In early July 1880 Hepzibah Randle, Harriet Unsworth and Lucy Nicholls were brought up before the Woolwich Police magistrate charged with ‘wantonly disturbing their father’.

According to George the trio had marched up to his home at 136 Burrage Road, Plumstead, and started knocking the door violently. They kept this up for twenty minutes at a time and soon a crowd had gathered to see what all the fuss was about. George said that they demanded to see his wife and made such a commotion that it ‘scandalised the neighbourhood’.

This action reminds me very much of ‘rough music’; a proactive whereby communities showed their contempt or disapproval of individuals that offended popular morality. Whole villages might congregate outside the home of a wife beater, scold or adulterers and bang pots and pans to keep them awake and express their disgust.

Perhaps this was what the women in Plumstead were doing; showing their father in a very demonstrative way that in choosing to marry someone so much younger than himself he was in some way embarrassing them and himself, and bring the family name into disrepute.

George didn’t see it that way of course, he felt he was entitled to marry whomsoever he liked, and the magistrate agreed. He rejected the daughters collective and individual efforts to explain that they simply wanted to meet the new Mrs Warren, or to visit their father in the wake of his nuptials.

Mr Bagley made them each promise not to disturb  their ‘father’s happiness’ again or visit him in ‘an unfriendly spirit’, and award George Warren the costs of bringing the case to court. Finally he expressed the ‘hope that shortly the might be at peace and harmony, not only with their father but their stepmother also’.

I fear this might have been a little too much to ask.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, July 06, 1880]

An ‘exceedingly painful case’ at Bow Street

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Charing Cross station in the nineteenth century 

Mrs Ann Leonardi (or Lee as she was also known) was, by her own description,  an ‘independent lady’. This probably meant she was unmarried, or widowed, or even an heiress (the latter seems less likely in these circumstances however) but whatever the reality she found herself in the dock at Bow Street charged with theft.

Ann had visited the ‘refreshment bar’ at Charing Cross railway station because, she later claimed, she felt unwell.  Ann had asked for a little brandy, that well known pick-me-up for ladies of a certain class. The barmaid placed a glass and two flasks of the spirit on the counter and Ann (‘with some little hesitation’) handed over enough money for a glass.

However, when the barmaid returned Ann had gone and so had both flasks.

It seems the station employed its own private detective, a man named Tom Toby, who was informed of the theft and went in search of Ann armed with her description. He soon caught up with her and discovered the brandy flasks in her possession. Ann offered to pay with a cheque for £5 but this was refused, she was arrested and handed over to the police.

When she was brought before Mr Vaughan at Bow Street she was bailed to reappear in a week’s time. For whatever reason (and Ann put this down to ‘foolishness’) she failed to appear and so a warrant was issued for her arrest. In the meantime however, Ann handed herself in to the nearest police station and apologised for her behaviour.

So in early July 1873 Ann Leonardi was in court and she pleaded guilty to the theft but with the mitigation that she had no idea she had the flasks as ‘her head was completely lost through trouble and too much drink that she had taken that day’. What was the cause of this ‘trouble’ and why was Ann so upset? Unfortunately we can never know this but a novelist might speculate. Was she unlucky in love? Or distraught about the death of a child or other relative?

Ann had some friends though, and several came to Bow Street to offer her a ‘good character’. They told the magistrate (Mr Vaughan again), that sometimes she ‘was not in her right mind’. So perhaps Ann suffered from some form of mental illness or, and this maybe more likely, she was an alcoholic.

Ann’s situation was about to get worse. Mr Vaughan expressed his opinion that this was an ‘extremely painful case’ but since she had broken the law and skipped bail, he had no choice but to send her to prison for a month at hard labour. In doing so he may have been influenced by the implication that she was in some way addicted to alcohol. Perhaps he felt this shock would be the necessary cure for her problem.

Personally I can’t see how a month in a Victorian prison would have done much for her well-being and the consequences would be felt by Ann for years afterwards. She had stolen two small bottles of brandy, which she had subsequently offered to pay for; the magistrate’s actions here seem to fall far short of ‘justice’.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, July 02, 1873]

A not so ‘jolly Jack’ at Bow Street

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The Police Courts of London were established in the late eighteenth century, after the passing of the Middlesex Justices Act (1792). The press reported the goings on at these courts from the start but their coverage in the early decades was patchy and much less regular than it became by the 1840s and 50s. It seems that the newspapers were working out how to use the information and stories that these summary courts provided. The tales of prosecuted thieves and fraudsters offered opportunities to demonstrate the efficacy (or otherwise) of the criminal justice system, to critique (or laud) the ‘New Police’, and, to alert Londoners to the threat posed by particular sorts of criminal.

However, the overriding purpose of publishing a half dozen or more of these daily reports from the Police ‘offices’ (as they were first called) or courts was entertainment. The everyday stories of ordinary folk, sometimes rendered in their own words or dialect, presented what we might now call a ‘Dickensian’ view of life in Victorian Britain.

This story, with its depiction of an Nelsonian Naval ‘hero’, is a good example of the court report as a entertaining distraction from the serious news that the papers contained.

In June 1830 the superintendent of Police, Mr Thomas, was at the Covent Garden watch house. These buildings were the forerunners of the police stations that were built following the establishment of the Metropolitan Police after 1829. The watch house was where the old watchmen set off from to patrol their beats and where those they arrested at night were brought back to to be charged or left to sober up.

On Wednesday morning (the 23 June) a sailor came into the watch house to make a complaint. He was a larger than life character and the Morning Post‘s reporter delighted in his representation of him for his readers. He described him as a ‘jolly-looking  weather-beaten tar, who came ‘tripping along with true sailor-like step’. He asked to be directed to the ‘captain’. In the watch house this meant the ‘super’, and Mr Thomas asked him what he wanted.

‘Your honour’, he began, ‘I am an old seaman and am come to you for redress’.

He went to explain that he had served his country for 15 years, seen many battles, including Navarino where he was part of the crew of the Asia. This battle, the last of the sailing ship age, had effectively decided the outcome of the War of Greek independence as the allied fleet (made up of Britain, France and Russia, led by Admiral Codrington) destroyed a superior Turkish one.

Navarino took place in 1827, and our hero had returned home some years later. He was ready to settle down it seems and, having ‘nothing particular to do’, he thought he’d travel to Windsor to ‘see the King, Lord protect him’. The king in question was George IV who was in the last few weeks of his reign at the time, because, on 26 June George died, at the age of 67. He was succeeded by the last Hanoverian king, his brother, William IV, who reigned for just under seven years.

In his patriotic fervour our unnamed sailor had made his way to Windsor and decided he liked it but that he needed a wife to complete his retirement from the sea.

He soon met up with a ‘jolly wench’ who’s name was ‘Fair-haired Poll’. It soon becomes clear that Poll was not your average Windsor maiden, but an experienced local prostitute who saw a sailor, recently discharged with deep pockets, as a profitable investment. The two soon became intimate.

The sailor told Mr Thomas: ‘I don’t like to be under any obligation, so I thought I’d buy her out and out’. They pair ‘struck a bargain’, and she was ‘his’ for ‘fifteen pounds’. They ‘got on comfortably well together’ at first, the tar explained, but he was getting bored in Windsor so decided to return to London.

‘So we tacked about, and got a-board a coach for town. Well, we comes to a place they call Piccadilly, or some such name, but my Poll thinks proper to bolt while I was treating the Jarvy, and she not only takes herself off but also £60 of my money, and all my toggery’.

So (to translate)  while the sailor had a drink with the coachman Poll ran off with his money and his trunk of clothes. Outraged, he headed for the nearest watch house to demand some help in finding her and his property. Mr Thomas, having listened to his tale brought him to Bow Street Police Court, to make a formal complaint.

There the magistrates sympathised with him (and were amused by the ‘naive style in which he presented it’) but could offer little real help. The man showed them several documents to prove he was who he said he was, but these were unnecessary, ‘as he completely embodied the appearance of a regular built tar’. He was told his best option was to return to Windsor as Poll would most probably have gone back to her old haunts.

The police superintendent promised to keep an eye out for her and his money but they all clearly thought it fairly useless. He was not the first ‘old salt’ to be separated from his prize money by a ‘privateer’ nor was he likely to be the last. Hopefully he found Poll in Windsor, if not then he was likely to end up as another of the hundreds of discharged seamen that struggled to survive in post-war nineteenth-century England.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, June 24, 1830]

Yet more casual violence towards women in the East End

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Limehouse, Tower Hamlets. This photo is early 1900s but the scene would have been quite similar in the 1880s

There were two reported cases from the Thames Police court in the Morning Post on the 15 June 1881. The first was an awful case of domestic abuse that I will consider shortly, while the second was a case of fraud.

A compositor (someone that worked in the printing trade) named Jacob Marks was brought up before Mr Saunders charged with obtaining money by false pretences. It was alleged that Marks pretended to be a broker ’employed by the Inland Revenue to levy distress when the Queen’s taxes were not paid’.

He went around Tower Hamlets suggesting that he had some influence in registering people as tax collectors, a steady form of employment. He demanded a registration fee of 1 to 2 guineas but it was a scam. Several people parted with money but no one was appointed as a result and Marks promptly disappeared. Mr Saunders committed him for trial for fraud.

It was the other case that was more shocking however. Thomas Leigh , a 23 year-old ship’s cooper who lived in Limehouse, was accused of assaulting his wife, Ellen. Mrs Leigh was so badly hurt that she was unable to attend the court in person and there were fears over her life as a result of the injuries she had sustained.

I suspect no one is any doubt of how difficult the Victorian period was for women; domestic violence was a daily experience for many women and men resorted to violence in a routine manner. Moreover much of this was simply accepted by society as appropriate or even necessary. The law did little to protect females from abuse by fathers, husbands, lovers or employers and the prevailing rhetoric of patriarchy validated a man’s ‘correction’ of his ‘disobedient’ or ‘bad’ wife.

Proportionally very few women ever tried to prosecute their husbands in court and when they did it was probably after suffering silently or meekly for years. When they did go before a magistrate it was often because they feared that the ‘next time’ they were were assaulted might be the ‘last time’; and given the strong correlation between domestic violence and domestic murder this is not at all surprising.

Thomas Leigh was probably a man that sent considerable time away from home. As a  ship’s cooper he may have worked on land at the docks but it is more likely he traveled often, leaving his wife to cope at home and coming back periodically to (hopefully) share his wages.

The couple lived at Fuller’s Rents, Cotton Street in the East End and on Monday 13 June they rowed. We don’;t know what about but Leigh claimed that he was provoked into hitting his spouse.

‘She tore my shirt, and gave me a great deal of provocation before I struck her’, he told Mr Saunders in his defence.

The row and subsequent fight was loud enough to alert the neighbours (and presumably violent enough for them to not simply ignore it as many routinely did). One aspect of the later ‘Ripper’ murders (in 1888) was the fact that no one seemed to hear anything, or if they did, they chose not to intervene. One witness supposedly heard Mary Kelly shout ‘murder’ but that was so common in the dark courts of Whitechapel that she thought nothing of it.

When PC Robert Wells (346D) arrived he found Ellen in a terrible state. Her husband had beaten her and kicked her ‘five times about the body’. She was, the court heard, ‘enciente at the time’. In other words she was pregnant. Was it his child, did he even know? Was that what they had rowed about? At this stage we can’t know.

It was clear that this was serious but Thomas Leigh seemed ‘indifferent’ in court. PC Wells told Mr Saunders that two women had stayed up with Ellen all night but she was in a ‘dangerous’ condition. Leigh asked for bail which was refused; Saunders remanded him for a week and told him that he was facing a charge of assault that might easily become worse if his victim failed to recover.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, June 15, 1881]

Routine assault is punished but it unveils a darker problem in London’s crowded lodging houses.

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The Aggravated Assaults Act (1853) was brought in to address the very real problem of domestic violence. Under the terms of the act an abusive husband could be fined up to £20 or sent to prison for up to six months, at hard labour.

However it seems the act was more widely interpreted by the magistracy because one Southwark Police Court magistrate in 1862 used it to send a young man to gaol for what actually seems to have been an attempted rape.

Robert Armstrong, described as a ‘decent-looking young man’, was presented before Mr Burcham at Southwark and accused of assaulting a 15 year-old girl. The court heard that Hannah Ford, the alleged victim, lived were her ‘hard-working’ parents in York Street. The family were poor and occupied just one room in the house; Hannah slept in a makeshift bed on the floor with her sister, while her parents had the only proper bed.

At 5 am both parents went out to work leaving hannah and her older, married sister behind. Her sister was ‘just out of her confinement’, presumably meaning she had just given birth, and her husband was away in the country, perhaps for work.

Soon after her parents left Hannah was rudely awakened by a Armstrong, who was undressed and on top of her. She struggled with him and her sister woke up and screamed. The noise alerted neighbours and eventually Armstrong was overpowered and handed to a policeman to be dealt with.

When he apparel in court Armstrong denied everything and claimed he had been out drinking ‘with some girls’ who had robbed him of his money and his clothes. A police inspector told the court that he had called in a divisional surgeon to examine the girl. He concluded that Hannah had been harmed, which may have meant he didn’t believe that she had been raped or otherwise sexually assaulted. This probably saved Robert from a trial and a more serious outcome.

In the end the magistrate used the terms of the 1853 act to send him to prison for three months at hard labour. This case also illustrates the nature of overcrowded slum housing in the 1800s where several families and individuals shared single properties. There was precious little privacy and nothing in the way of security. Writing about Whitechapel in the late 1800s the Rev. Andrew Mearns warned that ‘incest was rife’ in the homes of the poor. He was probably deliberately exaggerating for journalistic effect but it is easy to see how this opinion could be taken seriously by a shocked middle-class readership.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, May 07, 1862]

Did a ‘wife’ take poison to escape her abuser? Or did her cry for help go unnoticed?

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On Wednesday this week I related the story of a man who was woken by his wife hitting him. In hitting her back too hard he caused her death. He was sent to face trial at the Old Bailey and convicted of manslaughter. The culprit seems to have had a history of domestic violence and so while he was treated gently by the court (since his wife was a drunk and a sloven, in the eyes of the society they lived in I hasten to add) we should not be quite so understanding. As one correspondent to me on Twitter noted, ‘domestic violence is tragedy’.

Today’s case, from 1862 (some 27 years earlier) also involves a man being accused of causing the death of his partner, and he too seems to have gotten away with what must have been deemed routine and ‘normal’ violence.

John Lemon made ‘base coin’. Now whether this was a legitimate trade or a variation on illegal coining I’m unsure at the present. However, the Bow Street Police court where he appeared in May 1862 was interested in the death of his common law wife, not his occupation.

Lemon lived with Ann Gedling in a property on White Hart Street, off Drury Lane. When he got home late one evening, possibly the worse for drink, he and Ann argued. Lemon hit her ‘a severe blow on the head with a flat iron’ before staggering off to bed.

In the morning, in an echo of Charles Mills’ case from Wednesday, Ann was feeling sick and she called for him to help her. He found that she had swallowed a quantity of poison; namely cyanide, which they pair used in the coin manufacturing process. He told the magistrate it was used in extra-plating coins.

Whether Ann had taken it in an attempt to end her life (and rid herself of an abusive partner) is unknown but it saved Lemon from further prosecution for her death. A doctor was unable to help her as she passed away the moment he stepped through the door.

In court expect testimony was provided by a surgeon called Lovett. He pronounced that death was due to the ingestion of cyanide of potassium and that effectively trumped the blow that Lemon had landed. She may have died from the abuse she had received, and indeed her death could certainly be attributed to the coin maker, at least in terms of him provoking her to kill herself.

But the law, in the person of Mr Corrie the Bow Street magistrate, didn’t see it like that. Since he had not directly killed her Lemon was discharged.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, June 02, 1862]