A sad confession at Bow Street


At ten past eleven on Friday March 1 1883 PC Pilling (428 City) was patrolling his evening beat on the Victoria Embankment. A rough-looking man with a wooden leg approached him and made a startling declaration:

‘I want to give myself up for murder’.

The policeman accompanied the man back to Bow Street Police where he supposedly made the following statement to Inspector Husted, the inspector on duty that night.

‘My name is Dennis Driscoll. About 5 or 6 years ago, at Christmas time, I killed a man named Brennan, at a lodging-house in New Church Court, Strand, by hitting him on the head with a piece of iron – the iron frame of my wooden leg. I went away for some weeks, and he died.  At times I have been very unhappy about it, and so I have given myself up’.

It was a dramatic confession and Driscoll was taken before the Bow Street magistrate the following day, Saturday 2 March, to be formally indicted for the murder. However, once he was there Driscoll claimed that the confession had been fabricated; he’d never said any such thing.

Mr Flowers was told that Driscoll was well known in the area as an aggressive and unpleasant individual. He had been ‘repeatedly charged and convicted for violent assaults’ many of which involved him taking off his false leg and using it as weapon. Thus the idea that he had murdered someone in 1877 was not implausible despite his physical disability. The magistrate decided that since this was all very odd and the prisoner was acting ‘in a very strange manner’ he would at least remand him in custody so that further enquiries could be made.

Driscoll was back before Mr Flowers on the 10 March where a few more details emerged. The Inspector Hustead confirmed that a man named Brennan had died following a quarrel in 1879 (not 1877) and that it was believed that Driscoll was the other party. However, Brennan had not been at all badly injured and went back to work as a flower seller straight away. It was only a few weeks later that he fell ill and was admitted to St Giles’ Infirmary where he died soon afterwards. His death was attributed to his destitution (flowers sellers were often, in effect, beggars) and it was formally registered as death by ‘natural causes’.

Driscoll then was off the hook. He may have believed he’d caused another man’s death but there was no proof to take him to trial for it. He was however, quite destitute himself and so Mr Flowers ordered him to be discharged but offered to recommend him as a suitable candidate for the workhouse.

It is a very sad case and indicative I think of the lack of care in Victorian society for the disabled poor. Clearly Dennis Driscoll struggled with life and may well have been a violent person who struck out at those around him. He quite probably drank and if, as is likely, he found work hard to come by then he must have supported himself by begging in the streets. Evidently he was in and out of the justice system, regularly turning up in the Police Courts and quite likely spending small amounts of time locked up. We have no idea how he’d lost his leg but an accident, or an injury sustained in the forces are possible explanations.

His confession may have been the result of guilt, of a drunken urge to get something off his chest, or even of a fatalistic desire to end his miserable existence. Convicted killers were still executed in Victorian England and while that is unlikely to have been Dennis’ fate he might have thought that was a way out of his misery.

[from The Standard, Monday, March 05, 1883; The Standard , Monday, March 12, 1883]


A fraudster is exposed at a West London court as a possible copycat killer strikes in the East End


At 2.15 in the morning on 13 February 1891 the last of the Whitechapel murder victims was discovered, by a raw police constable on his first unsupervised beat patrol. PC Thompson of H Division heard retreating footsteps in front of him as Chamber Street curved away in the near distance and stumbled over the dying body of a woman whose throat had been slashed three times.

The woman was Frances Coles and experts continue to argue as to whether she was killed by ‘Jack the Ripper’ or a copycat killer. In the wake of her murder one man, James Sadler, was arrested and questioned, but cleared of all involvement in her mystery. Coles’ is the last name in the police file at the National Archives, one of nine associated with the as yet unknown serial killer that terrorised East London between 1888-91.

Coles’ murder didn’t trouble the Police Courts on Valentine’s Day 1891, Sadler would appear but later in the week. Over at the quieter West London Police court business went ahead as normal. We should remember that most of the work that the Police Courts did was routine; they dealt with day-to-day petty crime: assaults, thefts, frauds, domestic violence, street disputes, trading violations, drunks and paupers. Murder was unusual, serial murder (outside of 1888) almost unheard of.

John Roberts, a jeweller who lived and worked on Westmorland Road, appeared to answer a charge of obtaining money under false pretences. The prosecutor was a coffee house keeper named John Sparks who explained that he’d answered an advertisement in the newspapers.

The advert offered an incentive for investing in a business via a loan. For anyone putting up £15 a ‘bonus of £7’ was offered and this was unwritten by a security of £160 in jewellery and watches. Thinking that he had nothing to lose Sparks wrote the address given in the advert in early September 1890 and arranged to meet with Roberts. Roberts came to his house and assured him that he had plenty of backers and had ‘a large contract for a city firm’. His business was growing, he employed seven men and he gave him ’19 [pawnbrokers’] duplicates relating to watches and jewellery’. Confident that the offer was genuine the coffee man handed over £18 and was given a promissory note for £25, to be cashed in 14 days later.

Six days later Roberts came to see Sparks requesting a further loan, this time of just £10. Again he offered a premium (£3 on this occasion) and handed him 21 duplicates as security. Sparks gave him the money but, not surprisingly (yo us at least) the jeweller was back again on the 16 September to borrow a further £2. All he got this time was an IOU.

Time passed and there was no sign of Roberts so Sparks, understandably anxious about his investment, went to the address he’d written to expecting to find a jeweller’s shop with Roberts in place but he was disappointed. Instead of a jeweller’s he found a tobacconist, and there was no sign of Roberts at all.

Eventually Roberts was traced and arrested and (five months after the affair began) he was presented at West London in front of Mr Curtis Bennett the sitting magistrate. Was this his first foray into money lending the justice asked? It was, Sparks replied, and ‘likely to be the last’ Mr Bennett quipped. The pawnbroker duplicates were produced and seemed to be genuine, but were all in different handwriting and signatures. Mr Bennet wanted this investigated and granted a remand so that Roberts could be held while further police investigations were made.

Sparks was out of pocket and, unless it could be proven that Roberts had scammed him and, more to the point, the value of the duplicates that covered the loan could be realised, he was at least £30 out of pocket. £30 in 1891 is about £1,800 in today’s money so a not inconsiderable sum to lose. Mr Bennett looked over to the coffee house keeper and advised that in future:

‘to place his money in the Post Office Savings Bank, and not try to make himself rich by lending money to sharks’.


[from The Standard, Saturday, February 14, 1891]

A heartless debt collector at Battersea and a sighting of the Ripper in Poplar?


So another Christmas is upon us and today thousands of people (well men mostly) will be rushing around trying to secure that last minute present for the ‘significant other’ in their lives. Meanwhile I am sitting smugly, safe in the knowledge that I had this all wrapped up (literally) by Wednesday evening. Which means I have today free to write about the past at my leisure.

This blog is based on reading  section of news reports of the cases heard before London’s Police Court magistrates in the reign of Queen Victoria. Much before 1837 reports exist but are fewer in number and so you’ll find most of mine bunch between about 1850 and 1900. I use today’s date and pick a year – this morning it is 1888, a year I often return to because it was in that late summer and autumn that London was terrorised by a killer known only as ‘Jack the Ripper’. I teach a whole module based around the Whitechapel murders of 1888 at the University of Northampton where I am currently head of the History department.

Whilst looking at the regular courts reports for the 24 December 1888 I noticed an additional ‘crime news’ item about a murder case that was occupying the attention of readers. I’ll return to that story after my usual report from the police courts. Today the court in question is Wandsworth, south of the River Thames and to the west. The man in the dock was Arthur Baldwin who was accused of violently assaulting a woman in Battersea.

On the 13 December Baldwin, a debt collector, turned up at the home of Elizabeth Leonard at 12 Gwynn Road in Battersea. Baldwin was accompanied by a bailiff from the county court and they demanded the rent she owed on the property. She said she hadn’t got the money for the rent, and clutching her purse she turned to her little boy and took out a shilling for him to go and buy some bread.

At this Baldwin reached across and snatched her purse and the pair wrestled with it. He took out several pawn tickets and as Elizabeth fought with him the tickets were ripped up and she was thrown violently against the large copper kettle on the stove. Baldwin and the bailiff (a Mr Hewett) picked up several items of Elizabeth’s furniture, ‘including three chairs and a Dutch clock’, and left with them.

The debt itself amounted to just 8s and Baldwin had obtained a warrant, but there was no evidence that he’d shown it to Elizabeth. The magistrate (Mt Curtis Bennett)  thought he was acting illegally and ‘had no right to go to the house at all’. He fined the debt collector 20awarded Elizabeth 30s costs which should have covered the rent arrears and her pawned goods. I’d like to think that the fact that the case came up as Christmas was approaching was in the justice’s mind. Here was a poor woman and child, with no husband, in debt and probably dreading what the New Year would bring. Perhaps with Scrooge and Tiny Tim in mind Mr Curtis Bennett did the right thing on this occasion.

Meanwhile, under the report of the heartless debt collector was one which caught my eye entitled ‘The Poplar Murder’.

In the morning of Thursday 20 December 1888 a woman’s body had been found in Clarke’s Yard, Poplar. Next to her was a glass bottle which at first was believed to contain poison. It looked initially like a suicide. But the bottle had actually held sandalwood oil and it quickly became evident that the woman had been strangled. A doctor’s report suggested she had been attacked from behind:

‘Dr Brownfield’s opinion is that the murderer stood behind the woman on her left side, and having the ends of a cord wrapped around his hands, threw it around  her throat, and crossing his hands so strangled her’.

The report went on the say that there was considerably ‘conjecture’ about the nature of the cord and the way it was used. In America the police used a similar cord to restrain those they had arrested instead of handcuffs – with the nickname “Come along”. ‘The more a prisoner struggles the tighter is drawn the cord’, the paper added.

The woman had marks on her neck which were consistent with such a weapon being used and the reporter stated that there had been recent speculation that the Whitechapel murder was an American. Indeed some reports suggested the killer might be a native American from Buffalo Bill Cody’s travelling Wild West show and the quack doctor, Francis Tumblety, has also been closely associated with the killings. It also noted that descriptions of the man seen with the woman before she was found murdered ‘pointed to an individual of a distinctly American type’.

The murder in question was, as all Ripperologists will know, that of Rose Mylett a ‘known prostitute’. Rose is not normally considered to be a ‘Ripper’ victim (and the police even tried to suggest she’d died by natural causes or, as we’ve heard, by her own hands). Wynne Baxter and George Bagster Phillips (both closely involved in the Whitechapel murder case) and the coroner were clear that it was a homicide however but one that had to be added to the roll of unsolved murders that year.

Robert Anderson and CID never accepted the coroner’s verdict of wilful murder, however, and in 1910 wrote in his memoirs:

‘the Poplar case of December, 1888, was death from natural causes, and but for the ‘Jack the Ripper’ scare, no one would have thought of suggesting that it was a homicide’.

In my own investigation of the Ripper case (made in collaboration with a former student of mine who served with the police) we felt that Rose Mylett’s killing bears close scrutiny as a possible addition to the murder series. If we manage to get our thesis into print in 2018 I will then be able to shed a little more light on why we’ve reached this conclusion. Until then it will have to remain a mystery, just as it was to the readers of the Victorian papers in 1888.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, December 24, 1888]

‘There is a remedy for almost every wrong in this country’, a magistrate explains, if one knows where to look.

O it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Tommy, go away”;
But it’s “Thank you, Mister Atkins”, when the band begins to play, 

             Rudyard Kipling, ‘Tommy’ (1892)

Kipling published his Barrack-Room Ballads in 1892 which included one of his most famous poems, Tommy. The poem highlights the reality of solders’ situations in late Victorian Britain; eulogised as ‘heroes’ when there were enemies to defeat, and condemned as ‘bar-room brawlers’ when they were cooped up in garrison towns like Aldershot or Colchester. Not that much has changed in the intervening 100 plus years, ‘squaddies’ are still a cause for concern on Saturday nights in Colchester, but every serviceman and woman is deemed a hero at the point they are killed or wounded in action.

Kipling’s poem calls for change and an acceptance that ‘tommy’ was simply an ordinary man called upon to do extraordinary things. Within a quarter of  a century the ranks of Britain’s small professional armed forces were swelled by millions of citizen volunteers and (from 1916) conscript ‘tommies’. This weekend we remember the millions that died in that war and those that have given their lives since, as well as all those that were wounded, both physically and mentally, in conflicts since 1914.

And perhaps here we can point to some improvement in the way in which we look after  our damaged servicemen. Although we still need charities like Help for Heroes to augment government provision we have become much better at rehabilitating the injured. This is especially true in the area of mental health. Before the First World War the notion that soldiers were adversely affected mentally by war was not properly considered even though it must have been evident to some.

It was the work of Dr W. H. R Rivers, a psychiatrist in Craiglockhart Medical Hospital in Scotland during the war that did much to help society understand mental illness in the context of war, even if this treatment was not really adopted at the time.

Today’s tale from the Police Courts doesn’t feature soldiers but it is related to the problem of mental health and its treatment in the 1800s. I’ve chosen 1892 because of the publishing of Kipling’s poem.


A man named Smythe appeared at the West London Police Court to ask for a summons. The request was for a summons to bring the superintendent of a private lunatic asylum to court for unlawfully detaining a prisoner called ‘Carter’.  Mr W. Doveton Smythe explained that Carter had been imprisoned for five years for shooting at a man but, just four months before he was due to be released, he had been transferred to Broadmoor Prison in Berkshire, where criminals deemed to be ‘insane’ were confined.

From Broadmoor he was later taken to a pauper lunatic asylum (presumably being thought no longer to be dangerous) and then, at the request of his mother, he was placed in a private mental asylum. So, this prisoner, who had served his sentence, was now effectively being held against his will in a secure institution and Mr Smythe (whose relationship to the Carters is not made clear) was trying to get him out.

Mr Smythe told the magistrate, Mr Curtis Bennett, that Carter had been examined by an independent specialist  (Dr Flood) and visited by several friends. They all felt that he was ‘perfectly sane’. He wanted a summons against the superintendent for assault, since (as he was sure the magistrate was aware) ‘illegal detention is, technically, an assault’.

Mr Bennett was unconvinced. ‘Friends are really the worst people to form an opinion in such a case’, he told the complainant. ‘Unfortunately that has been the cause of many murders being committed’.

Moreover, this wasn’t the right place to make his request. Removing Carter from the private asylum would not overthrow the original decision to send him to Broadmoor or the pauper asylum. Therefore he advised Mr Smythe to take his complaint to the Lunacy Commissioners instead, and if he got no joy there he suggested the [Chancery] Master in Lunacy instead.

‘There is a remedy for almost every wrong in this country’, he declared, ‘though many people do not seek the right remedy’.

Mr Smythe thanked him and left, meanwhile poor Carter remained locked up in a private asylum.

[from The Standard, Friday, November 11, 1892]

A brutal husband is saved by his terrified wife


This week my masters students at the University of Northampton will be looking at the subject of domestic violence. This 14 week module concentrates on Violence and the Law and we discuss all forms of violence (including state violence inflicted as punishment). Historians and criminologists have shown that, in history, the vast majority of all violent crime (homicide, assault, wounding, and robbery) was committed by men.

It is also true that the most likely relationship between murderer and victim was domestic or at least involved parties that were known to each other. Despite the concentration of ‘true crime’ histories and television dramas on ‘stranger’ murders, the reality was (and is) that most people know the people that injure or kill them.

Many of the domestic murders that were eventually prosecuted at the Old Bailey in the nineteenth century started their journey in the summary courts. Moreover, these courts heard countless incidents of male violence towards their wives and partners, some of which may well have been steps on the way to a later homicide. Working-class women in the victorian period put up with a considerable amount of abuse before they went to law since the consequences of involving the police or magistracy could make a bad situation worse.

Several of the  Police Magistrates who wrote about their careers expressed their frustration at the abused wives who continually summoned their spouses for their violence only to forgive them or plead for leniency when they appeared in court. This is one such example of the almost impossible situation some married found themselves in in the 1800s.

William Collins was described as a ‘powerful and ruffianly-looking fellow’ when he stood in the dock at Lambeth before Mr Norton. His wife, Elizabeth, was unable to appear at first, so injured was she by her husband’s violence. In her place the constable dealing with the case told the magistrate what had happened.

He explained that he was called to a house in Caroline Place, Walworth Road where the couple lived. He found Elizabeth ‘in her night dress, with two or three deep wounds on her arms and one on her chest, from each of which the blood was streaming’.

Collins had apparently attacked his wife with a broken wine bottle, ripping her flesh with the jagged edges of the glass. The PC arrested Collins and put Elizabeth in a cab so she could be taken to hospital to have her wounds dressed. The court heard from the surgeon that treated her that she was ‘within a hair’s breath’ of dying from her wounds; fortunately for her the cuts had avoided any major organs.

The constable reported that when he had gone to fetch Mrs Collins to appear he was unable to find her and believed she was unlikely to press the case against her husband. Mr Norton chose to remand Collins in custody until Elizabeth could be found and encouraged to appear.

A few hours later she did come to court, but was clearly (the paper reported) ‘under great terror of the prisoner’. To no one’s surprise despite the horrific attack Collins had inflicted on her she ‘used every possible effort to get her husband off’. The magistrate was hamstring by her reaction and did as much as he could to help her by bailing Collins to appear ‘on a future day’.

He was presumably hoping that this brush with the law would serve as  session to the man, effectively warning him that if he hurt Elizabeth again in the meantime he would face the full force of the law. Sadly, I doubt this would have had much, if any affect on someone who was prepared to slash his wife with such casual cruelty.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Monday, November 5, 1855]

Since it is November 5th, ‘bonfire night’, you might enjoy this blog post I wrote for our ‘Historians at Northampton’ blog site which looks at the BBC drama series about the Gunpowder Plot.

“Good-bye, Tom, I have done for my missis, and I am going to do for myself”; murder in the East End 1888


The Isle of Dogs, 1899 (Manchester Road runs south-east parallel to Blackwall Reach)

In early October 1888 London was gripped by the ‘Ripper’ murders. As far as the press and public were concerned an unknown assassin had brutally murdered six women in a small area of East London and the police had no clue as to his identity. Police patrols had been stepped up and the newspapers were becoming inundated with fake letters from people purporting to be the murderer, and correspondence offering advice on how to catch him. Between the end of September (when both Elizabeth Stride and Katherine Eddowes were murdered on one night) and the 9th November (when Mary Kelly’s body was found in Miller’s Court) the killer seems to have lain low, avoiding the redoubled attentions of the police.

Meanwhile over at the Thames Police Court Mr Lushington was hearing the case of a man accused of murdering his wife. Levi Bartlett was a 57 year-old general dealer who lived and worked in Poplar. He and his wife, Elizabeth, ran a small shop on Manchester Road on the Isle of Dogs, selling mostly milk. He had been held on remand since the incident had happened back in August, because after killing his wife he had attempted to cut his own throat with a razor.

Even by October he was a weak man and was allowed to sit in court rather than stand through the evidence. Elizabeth’s sister, Emma Mears, testified that Levi and her sister had live together for many years before they married, and had now been married for about five years. During all of that time, she said, the dealer was ‘nearly always drunk’.

By all accounts when he was sober, Levi was a good man but that was rare. When in his cups he was abusive and violent and dipped into the shop’s till to feed his drinking habit.  Not surprisingly then quarrels between him and Elizabeth were frequent and loud.

On the 18th August 1888 Emma visited Elizabeth and found her sitting crying. When she asked what the matter was her long suffering sibling said:

‘Can’t you see the old villain is drunk again, and hasn’t been to bed since two this morning’. This was punctuated by the dealer’s loud denials, ‘don’t you believe her’ he shouted. He then asked for 2d for gin.

‘No, you villain, you have had enough now’ was his wife’s response. This provoked Bartlett to threaten her: ‘I will mark you for this tonight’, he declared.

More abuse was exchanged and before she left Emma told her her sister to fetch a policeman if her husband hit her again. Perhaps because Levi was so frequently drunk and abusive no one really expected what was to happen next, although the sights were there. At some point on Sunday morning (19 August) the former stevedore attacked his wife with a hammer, fatally wounding her,  before admitting his crime to George Jones who he had employed as a milk delivery man.

Jones later related the dramatic scene to the Old Bailey court as he was woken up by his master:

‘between 4 and 5 in the morning I was awoke by the prisoner coming into my room—he asked French if he had got any drink—French said no, he had forgot to bring any; the prisoner shook hands with French and said “Good-bye, you won’t see me no more alive”—he then went back to his own room, he seemed sober then—in about twenty minutes he came into our room again, and again bid French good-bye; he then came to me and said “Good-bye, Tom, I have done for my missis, and I am going to do for myself”—he shook hands with me and went out of the room’.

Bartlett then visited his old friend Benjamin French who had lodged with the Bartlett’s for 14 years. He also bids him ‘goodbye’ which left the dock labourer perplexed and not a little concerned. It was French that finally fetched a policeman, police sergeant Doe (30KR), who found Bartlett sitting on his bed ‘in his shirt, bleeding from the throat; the front of his shirt was covered with blood—he had a razor in his right hand’. Having taken the razor from him he summoned a doctor and then took him to hospital.

Bartlett, who had earned the nickname ‘Mad Dick the jockey’ (his middle name was Richard) was fully committed for trial at the Old Bailey. There, on the 22nd October 1888 he was convicted of murdering Elizabeth. Elizabeth’s sister testified to the years of abuse that she had suffered at Levi’s hands while the former dock worker’s best friend Benjamin said he had never heard a cross word between them. Drink was Bartlett’s downfall and it seems he simply could not function with it or without it. Ultimately this cost both him and his wife their lives; having recovered from his own suicide attempt Levi Richard Bartlett was hanged at Newgate Gaol on 13 November 1888.

Such a tragic event may well have created many more ‘headlines’ than it did in 1888 had there not been a supposedly crazed serial killer on the loose. This was, of course, a much more typical homicide for nineteenth century London than the series that has occupied the attention of researchers for over 120 years. Most murderers are men, and most of their victims (many of whom are women) are close to them – as wives, partners, lovers and acquaintances. The ‘Ripper’ killed strangers, and that made him all the more difficult (indeed almost impossible) to catch.

[from The Standard, Saturday, October 06, 1888]

A ‘have a go hero’ is fined for his trouble


It took quite a long time for Arthur Joyce to be brought before the magistrate at Woolwich Police Court. On the night of the 25 July the confectioner, who had a business at Shooter’s Hill in south-east London, was in bed when he heard a scream of ‘murder’ outside his window. When these were followed by several more he leapt out of bed, pulled on some clothes, grabbed his revolver and headed out into the street.

He soon saw a man ‘savagely beating a woman’ and shouted to him to stop. When the man turned his anger on Joyce the tradesman fired his pistol five times in the air to, as he later explained, ‘to attract the attention of the police’.

Immediately after the incident Joyce was brought before the nearest police court but any charges against him (for firing a gun) were dismissed by the magistrate. Presumably on that occasion his worship felt this vigilante act, while not exactly legal, was appropriate and in pursuit of a higher goal.

However, Joyce had no license for his revolver and this was an offence which came under the jurisdiction of the Inland Revenue in 1888. As a result a summons was issued for the confectioner to appear again and on 29 September 1888 he was up before Mr Fenwick at Woolwich.

The prosecution was brought by the Commissioners of the Inland Revenue in the person of a Mr Power who called Joyce’s neighbour, Frederick Hoare, to testify. He had seen Joyce running excitedly up the street, blood coming from a wound he had received from the wife beater. In defence Joyce’s lawyer told the court that his client was a ‘respectable tradesman’ and ‘could not be expected to take out a license for a revolver which was intended solely for protection in his own house’.

Mr Power was sympathetic to the confectioner’s situation but pressed his case; there had been a number of similar incidents he said, and several complaints, so he must insist on a fine. I rather suspect that while the magistrate agreed to the legal truth of the matter he also felt that Joyce had acted with honourable intent. He fined him 1s with 2s costs, possibly the minimum he could so that ‘justice’ could be done without unduly penalising the actions of a ‘have a go hero’.

We should remember that this was London in 1888 in the midst of ‘autumn of terror’ when the Whitechapel murderer killed at least five women in the streets of East London. One of the debated ‘facts’ of the ‘Ripper’ case is that no one seems to have heard anything as the killer struck and it has been said that cries of ‘murder!’ were so common that nobody would have reacted anyway. Well, perhaps Arthur Joyce, had he lived in Whitechapel, might have bothered.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, October 01, 1888]