Death at Archway goes unpunished

Highgate Archway

On the 11 February 1866 John Loveman was standing with his omnibus at the Archway Tavern on Highgate Hill. Loveman was a driver for John Wilson, whose ‘Favourite’ ‘buses were some of the earliest on the capital’s streets.

As he waited a drunken man tried to barge his way onto the omnibus, but Loveman prevented him from doing so. Witnesses watched as the man, Thomas Brown, tried and failed three more times to get onto the vehicle. Frustrated he lashed out at the driver, grabbing him and, ‘with great force throwing him to the ground’.

The attack caused Loveman to break his leg and at his own request he was immediately taken to the King’s College Hospital, in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. The house surgeon, Mr Thomas Howell, treated him on arrival and he was held there until the 7 March, when he passed away. He had died, it was recorded, ‘from exhaustion caused by a succession of fits of an epileptic character, and inflammation of the right leg’.

Brown was summoned for assault and later presented at Clerkenwell Police court on a charge of manslaughter.

The key to this turned on whether the injury to Loveman inflicted by the drunken Brown had led directly to his death. Before his death the court was told that the omnibus driver was a ‘strong, healthy man, and there did not seem to be anything the matter with’. At the coroner’s inquest (which were, it must be said, often hasty and somewhat casual affairs with little medical examination beyond the cursory), Brown was named as the cause of the driver’s death.

However, a later post mortem failed to find any link between the injury Loveman had sustained and his death just under a month later. The prosecutor, Mr Beard, felt sure proof would emerge if only the original house surgeon at King’s (Howell) could be asked to appear and testify. The magistrate, Mr Barker, was less convinced. He said there was very little evidence to charge Brown with at the moment and he was minded to let him go.

However, he asked Inspector Westlake (Y Division, Metropolitan Police) if a warrant had been issued for Brown’s arrest by the coroner. It had, he was told and the prisoner would have been arrested earlier if he had turned up at the inquest.

Mr Barker agreed to release Brown on bail (the figure was not reported) but he was immediately rearrested by Inspector Westlake, and conveyed to Newgate gaol. Given that a man had died and Brown had committed an assault (albeit under the influence of alcohol) I would have expected there to be a trial at the Old Bailey and for Brown, if convicted, to face  short spell in prison. But no such trial is recorded so I am left to presume that at a subsequent hearing before the magistracy the prosecution offered insufficient evidence to persuade the bench to formally indict Thomas Brown for manslaughter.

[from The Morning Post (London, England), Wednesday, March 21, 1866]

NB I have a framed black and white print of the image of the Highgate Archway that once belonged to my maternal grandfather, Percy. It belongs to my mother but graces my office and reminds me my roots everyday (I was born in the Whittington Hospital, not far from the old pub or the former omnibus stop. 





The Lord mayor drops into the Police Courts to discuss the problem of prison reform


Eastern State Penitentiary (Philadelphia) as it is today

Today’s tale from the Police Courts is less of a particular crime and more a report of how contemporaries felt about the criminal justice system of the late 1830s. In 1839 the Metropolitan Police had been in existence for a decade, the transportation of felons to Australia was in full flood and London’s first ‘national’ prison (Millbank on the Thames) had been open for 20 years. After the turbulent years of the late teens and 1820s Britain was moving towards stability and peace but the threat of political unrest had not entirely gone away, as Chartism (c.1836-48) showed.

The problem of crime was ever present of course, because each successive generation tends to believe that life was less criminal in the previous one and any outbreak of criminality (like the ‘garrotting’ panics of the 1850s and 60s, or the ‘hooligan’ panic of the 1890s) had reporters and correspondents to the newspapers rushing to their quills to complain about the state of law and order.

In December 1839  appeared at the Guildhall Police Court and discussed the state of crime with the sitting magistrate, Alderman White. Sir Peter had an interest in law and order, having served as Lord Mayor (the City’s chief magistrate in 1832) and had written two books on prison reform.

He informed Alderman White that he had seen the reports of the prisons of the metropolis  and shared its contents. These revealed that no less than 58 ‘desperate destitute persons’ were being ‘let loose to prey upon the public from the several prisons of the metropolis’ every morning.

The debate about what to do with criminals had raged in the first decades of the nineteenth century as Robert Peel’s reform of the justice system removed capital punishment from all property crimes meaning that hanging was now reserved for murderers and (until 1842) rapists. The state still transported thousands to Australia but increasingly it was the prison (the penitentiary prison, with an emphasis on reform) that provided the backbone of the penal system.Within prisons there was also a highly contested debate about how to treat convicts with some advocating a ‘silent’ system (where inmates could mingle but not talk) and others opting for the more draconian ‘separate’ system which was in effect, solitary confinement.

Sir Peter was not a fan of the modern penitentiary prison; he said that he had read a study of the penitentiary at Philadelphia (a model of the American penal system) which showed its ineffectiveness.

He told the magistrate that ‘so far from the Penitentiary at Philadelphia reforming and making useful citizens of thieves, it breaks down their bodies as well as their minds. He saw a number of prisoners who had been confined for two years, and he never before beheld such a collection of emaciated, miserable looking objects, with lack-lustre eyes. Such an approach’ he argued, ‘did men no good’.

Alderman White commented that prison reform was one of those topics that everyone seemed to have an opinion about but no one really understood; it needed much more research in his opinion. For me this is a comment that could easily be applied in the 21st century. Too much of our penal policy seems to be based on the reactions of the government of the day to public opinion expressed in the tabloid press and not on a scientific understanding of the problem.

Sir Peter ended his visit to the court by reading the report of releases from the London prisons. This showed that in the past 49 weeks 16,940 persons had been discharged from institutions in the capital (at an average  rate of 345 a week). This report did not include Millbank, Newgate, or the New Prison at Clerkenwell however; if it had I think the numbers would have been considerably higher.

This shows then that the numbers being related were in the public domain (I wonder if they are so prominent today) and so Londoners could see the effect of the move away from capital punishment and transportation on the streets. This was to become much more pronounced in the 1850s as transportation to Australia slowed and then stoped in the next decade. Thereafter, the prison, however, ineffectual it might have been, was the only form of punishment available until the experiments with probation in the early Edwardian period.


[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, December 18, 1839]

Clerkenwell on the eve of an ‘outrage’, 1867



The 13 December 1867 saw a massive terrorist attack in London. Irish republicans (‘Fenians’ as they were called) exploded a bomb at Clerkenwell Prison in an attempt to free members of their organization imprisoned inside. The attack failed in its intention as no prisoners escaped, but the bomb caused damage and killed 12 people and wounded more than a hundred more. I cover the attack and the related terrorist ‘war’ that followed in the 1880s in London’s Shadows, so I won’t revisit it here except to say that the bombing led to the arrest and trial of six men in April 1868. Michael Barrett was the only person convicted despite claiming to have been in Scotland at the time the bomb was exploded. He became the last man to be publically hanged in England when he was executed outside Newgate on the 26 May that year.

On the morning of the 13 December 1867 the Clerkenwell Police Court met as normal. The newspaper reported the proceedings on all London courts that day, choosing cases they thought might interest their readers.

In this case it was the story of three young thieves and their uncle, and an older ‘fence’. Henry Mason (18) and their younger sister Emma (just 14) were accused of stealing china and glass. William Mason (40) and William Bridge (aged 43) were charged with receiving the stolen items.

Emma Mason worked for a china and glass dealer named Ward who kept two shops on the Holloway Road. On the 2 December Emma was seen (by a passing policeman on his beat) coming out of one of the shops with a box of china, which she handed over to a young lad (later identified as her brother, Henry).

As the PC approached Henry scarpered with the constable in pursuit. He got away but the policeman returned to the shop and arrested Emma and William Mason. He soon extracted the address where their brother could be found and proceeded to Hope Cottage in Holloway with a fellow officer.

When they entered the house they found it stuffed with china and glass. There were ‘cut glass decanters, chimney ornaments, glasses, china plates, a set of tea trays, some tinware, and numerous other articles’, all belonging to Mr. Ward.

The ‘elder Mason’ (the uncle of the younger ones) was now arrested and when his room was searched the police found 43 pawnbroker’s duplicates, which presumably led them to William Bridge and a charge of receiving. The magistrate committed them all to trial.

They appeared at the Middlesex Sessions of the Peace in January 1868 and William Mason pleased guilty as charged. The court heard that he a criminal record already, including two separate terms of penal servitude. He was the chief instigator of the crime and ‘had signaled to the girl in Mr. Ward’s shop, so ‘she might know when to hand out articles to her little brother’. This girl was not Emma but her older sister Mary Ann (who did not appear in the summary hearing).

On conviction the judge postponed sentence on Mary so we might hope she escaped further punishment, perhaps because the court realized she would need to look after her younger sister (the children seem to have been orphans). Henry Mason was sent to Feltham (somewhere I remember well from the days when my father used to play football for a Probation Service team). Feltham opened as an Industrial School in 1854 but became the country’s second Borstal in 1910. It still holds young offenders aged 15-18.

But stiffest penalty was reserved for their uncle: the judge sent him away for ten years penal servitude as he was deemed ‘incorrigible’.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, December 14, 1867, and Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper , Sunday, January 12, 1868]

A circus artist for whom the show cannot go on alone



Very sadly suicides seem to feature quite frequently in the reports of the London police courts. The Thames offered those in despair plenty of opportunities to take their lives and we must remember that in the Victorian period there were not the social services, health care or even many of the modern charities that support those with depression or other forms of mental illness. Nor were nineteenth-century asylums places one would want to end up in.

Ellen Whitby was brought up to be re-examined before the sitting magistrate at Mansion House in late September 1873. Ellen had tried to jump from London Bridge into the river below and this had not been the first time. She had attempted suicide ‘no fewer than four times’, once been dragged out of the Thames after falling from Blackfriars Bridge. After this most recent attempt she was locked up in Newgate for her own safety.

Ellen was a former circus performer. Under the stage name Lottie Marcella she had performed as an ‘equestrienne’ with her husband. But three years previously he had been killed in an accident and their act had come to an end. A public subscription had raised £400 for the widow but it seems she took his loss and the end of her career hard, turning to drink.

This ‘intemperance’ was accompanied by what today we would probably identify as depression and so led her to attempt her own life.

The ordinary of Newgate (the prison’s chaplain) appeared at court to speak on her behalf. He said he believed she would no longer try to kill herself if released. He added that ‘arrangements had been made to send the prisoner to an institution where she would be taken care of’ (an asylum one imagines). There she might be able to ‘regain her position’ he hoped.

I fear the ordinary might have been being a tad optimistic as Victorian ‘lunatic asylums’ had ‘a reputation as dehumanising, prison-like institutions‘, and I doubt ‘Lottie’ would have had much ‘care’ there.


[from The Morning Post, Saturday, September 27, 1873]

Cato Street revisited


In early 1820 London was excited by the unveiling of a plot to overthrow the government. In May of that year Arthur Thistlewood, Richard Tidd, James Ings, William Davidson and John Brunt  were executed outside Newgate Gaol for conspiring to murder the Prime Minister (Liverpool) and his cabinet.

The men were radicals, members of the so-called Speancean Philanthropists, and the plot they hatched has gone down in history as the Cato Street Conspiracy because of the location of their meetings in a property near Edgware Road. The plot was foiled because the group had been infiltrated by a government agent (George Edwards) and they were arrested after a struggle in which one of the Bow Street Runners, Richard Smithers, was fatally wounded by Thistlewood.

Fast forward to 1852 and one of those who was involved in the capture of the conspirators appeared at the Guildhall on a charge of theft.

James Gains, who was described as being between 70 and 80 years of age, was accused of stealing a set of horse reins from a man who had allowed him to sleep rough in his stables. Having heard the charge and evidence against him Gains was invited to speak up for himself.

The elderly man dismissed his theft as nothing important and was roundly reprimanded by the justice for his ingratitude towards the man that had given him shelter. Gains turned to the magistrate and said:

‘Oh never mind that, your Worship, (laughter in court) but give him the reins’

‘That is what I intend to do’ said the magistrate, ‘but what shall I do with you, for I know something of you’.

“I don’t know you though, for you are a new magistrate; but I’ll tell you what old boy (great laughter) I got this cut on the crown of my head, and this at the back, in taking Thistlewood and his gang in Cato Street,  in ’19.’

The justice agreed he had served his country well in the past. Gains laughed and added:

‘Yes sir, I have served my country for 51 years’, at which point the Newgate gaoler said he had been in and out of the prison for the last 10 on various charges. ‘Ah, Mr. Springate, you are always at your fun with me’, countered Gains, to much more laughter in the court.

In the end the justice had little choice but to send him back to prison for the theft, as the old man hardly attempted to deny it. But he added that when he came out he would make provision for him to enter the union workhouse. Gains was not happy  with that decision: ‘Oh, don’t do that’, he said, ‘You’d better give me 6d and turn me adrift’. Nevertheless, he was taken down.

Gains said he was one of the ‘police’ that seized the Cato Street gang and that’s possible as there were 12 ‘runners’ along with a handful of other agents. But perhaps his memory failed him about the exact date. The conspiracy was exposed in January 1820 not 1819, but of course James may have been involved in the lead up because Thistlewood and his colleagues were set up and their plot was never likely to succeed.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper , Sunday, September 12, 1852]

A firebrand preacher angers the Guildhall magistrate

The magistrate at Guildhall on July 17 1829 must have wished it was someone else’s turn to sit the justice room when James Yandall was brought before him. Yandall was described as a ‘singular looking diminutive old man, with white hair’. He came in clutching a box that was strapped to his front and seemed to contain candle snuffers.

Far from being what he at first appeared – a candle extinguisher street vendor – Yandall was actually a fire-brand Presbyterian preacher. The street-keeper of St. Sepulchre’s in the City of London had fetched him in for obstructing the pathways around Newgate prison by drawing a crowd.

The street keeper, a man named Gittens, had tried to move the fellow on but had been told, in no uncertain terms, that he was standing on his ‘Father’s ground, and he would not move for anybody’.The alderman magistrate warned him that if he ‘persisted in assembling mobs on the pavement, it  would be necessary to put an extinguisher on him‘.

Yandall was not in the least bit cowed by the justice’s words and retaliated. He announced to the court that  he had no fear of ‘dust and ashes, but only of hell’. As far as he was concerned he was doing God’s work and no man, not even those of the la, could or should intervene. He was, he continued, ‘a joint heir to the use of the ground given by his Heavenly Father, and he should stand upon it where and when he pleased’.

The alderman threatened to fine him £5 if he gathered ‘mobs in the City’ again. Yandall replied that it would the justice that paid, not him. ‘Then I will lock you up’ the magistrate told him. ‘If you lock me up, you cannot lock out God’ was the prisoner’s response.

While the magistrate thought about the issue the preacher was quietly led away.


[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, July 17, 1829]

Smuggling into Millbank Penitentary is exposed

Millbank Prison opened in 1821, the first purpose built convict prison in England. Situated on the banks of the River Thames near where the current Tate Britain art gallery  sits, the gaol was notoriously unhealthy subject as it was to flooding from the nearby river. It was built at a huge cost (£500k) and never fulfilled the vision of  men like Jeremy Bentham who advocated the panopticon (‘all seeing’) design of prison and it ended up being a transit point for all prisoners sentenced to transportation to Australia in the 1800s. It was  a grim place, especially in the ‘darks’ the underground cells reserved for punishing offenders who broke the rules. If you would like an idea of  Millbank Sarah Water’s novel Affinity gives us a vivid and disturbing picture of the place.


Millbank Prison from an 1867 London map

In the eighteenth century prison officers (as we term them) were called gaolers or turnkeys. They earned their money directly from those they locked up. Prisoners (those convicted, remanded and debtors) were obliged to pay for their own upkeep. As a result your access to wealth determined your prison experience. If you had the cash you could live inside somewhere like Newgate Gaol (London’s  largest and most forbidding prison) reasonably comfortably; if you were poor then you existed on bread and water and slept with the rats and lice and your chances of surviving for very long were limited.

In the reforms of the early 1800s (prompted by the work of men like John Howard and the Quaker Elizabeth Fry) led to cleaner prisons and largely saw an end to the entrepreneurial system that existed in gaol.  But it was hard to prevent corruption in what were increasingly becoming ‘closed’ institutions. Turnkeys were poorly paid and worked in conditions that few would relish. It is no surprise that corruption remained a problem.

In July 1848 John Birket, a warder at Millbank, was brought before the justice at Westminster Police Court. Birkett was charged with corruption; to be precise he was accused of accepting money from prisoners to take a letter out and smuggle wine, spirits and tobacco in.

He’d been caught inside the penitentiary and at first his supervisor had thought to warn him and do nothing further but changed his mind. Birket did have a previous good character and the Inspector of Prison for the Home Circuit, a Mr Williams, was clearly prepared to forgive him this transgression. But Williams also wanted to issue a wider warning and that required Birket to made an example of.

He told the court that it was ‘their painful duty to come forward in this case, as the warders took money from the friends of prisoners under pretence of providing things for which there was no necessity, as the government provided amply, and then put it in their own pocket’. Birket confessed his crime, probably urged to do so by his superiors. The magistrate took pity he said, and sent him to prison for ‘ten days only, and without hard labour’.

The problem of corruption in prisons remains.

           [from Daily News, Monday, July 10, 1848]