A ‘common evil’? London’s police in their early years

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I have referred previously to criticism of the police in the decades after their creation in June 1829. Historians such as Robert Storch have pointe out that far from the smooth transition described by early historians of the force, the ‘New Police’ were openly abused, distrusted and despised by ‘ordinary’ working-class men and women.

It wasn’t just the lower order that disliked the ‘boys in blue’. The upper and middle classes resented them as burdens on the rates and for overstepping their class position. In short the wealthy were not at all keen on being told what to do by their social inferiors.

The working classes were equally disgruntled about being told off or told to to ‘go home’ by someone of their own class who seemingly lauded it over them. The p’liceman who earned a steady wage where others of his class struggled, was bound to attract some unfriendly comments at the very least. Policeman were also recruited from outside the capital, often former agricultural labourers (who could be relied upon to be strong, dependable, and not ask too many questions).

This case illustrates some of the underlying tensions that existed in the first 20 or so years of the Met and reflects the awkward position of both the police officer on the beat and the ‘Police’ Magistrate (who was not a part of the same organisation). It also gives the paper an opportunity to aim some fairly typical racist barbs at the Irish.

One of Mr Greenwood’s cases at Clerkenwell Police Court on the weekend of the 18th-19th June 1842 concerned a man (unnamed) of ‘decent-looking’ appearance. He appeared with the policeman (also anonymous here) who had arrested him and accompanied him to court. The PC was Irish and possibly a new recruit. This, it was explained, might have accounted for his behaviour.

There was no obvious charge levelled against the man and it soon became apparent that there was little reason for him to be in court at all. He had been arrested, effectively, for loitering on Grove Lane, Holloway.

The policeman testified that he had seen him standing in Grove Lane two days in succession, presumably passing him on his beat. On the second occasion he asked hi what he was doing there but the man refused to answer.

He then asked him where he lived, and was told ‘Islington’.

‘”Where” ses I’ continued the policeman.

‘What’s that to you?’ replied the man.

“Be the powers, are yer respectable?” I thin [sic] remarked’, the officer told the court, ‘and he still refusing to give any satisfactory explanation, I marched him off to the station-house’.

The magistrate now examined the policeman directly:

‘What was he doing?’ he asked. ‘Nothing at all’ responded the bobby, to peels of laughter from the courtroom.

‘And that was why he was locked up?’ enquired a clearly puzzled Mr Greenwood.

Yes, yer Worship. He wouldn’t say anything about himself but told me to mind my own business’.

Well, that was as it should be the magistrate chided him. He told the policeman that he had no more right locking up this person than would have in arresting him or anyone ales for that matter. The man had done nothing wrong; had broken no law and was simply being locked up for being slightly impertinent to a copper.

He said that this should not have resulted in a charge and for that the policeman was less to blame than the desk sergeant. However, he added, ‘I have frequently of late had to complain of the conduct of the police, and if there is not an alteration, they will be become a common evil’.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Monday, June 20, 1842]

A mysterious case of arson in Mile End

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The spinning room in the Shadwell rope works c1880

This week I am looking at the business of just one of London’s police courts, Thames (in East Arbour Lane) over the course of seven days in June 1881. After yesterday’s wounding at sea and violent assault at home we have another two cases from the East London courtroom.

Francis Kearns and Thomas Risdale were accused of assaulting Henry Osborn. All three were milkmen, the former worked for the Farmers’ Dairy Company (based in Stepney) and while Osborn was employed by an unnamed rival. They clashed in a pub in Cotton Street, Limehouse and Kearns hurled a can containing eight quarts of milk at Osborn. As a fight began to escalate the police were called and the men arrested. Mr Saunders, the magistrate presiding that day, sent both defendants to prison for a month at hard labour.

However it was the other story I found more interesting because it involved arson, a crime historians have , relatively speaking, largely ignored.

At 4 o’clock on Saturday 11 June the gates of Joseph Johnson’s rope and twine factory in Wade’s Place on the Mile End Road were locked. All the hands had gone home at 2 having finished for the day, as was the normal pattern of working in the 1800s. Workers generally worked Monday to Saturday afternoon, having the latter off along with Sunday.  Joseph Johnson ran the factory with his brother William but they didn’t live there. At 11 at night William checked the premises, as he always did, and found everything in order and nothing out of the ordinary. He returned to his home which was close by the business.

However, at one o’clock on Sunday morning a fire was seen burning in the factory and the alarm was raised. William rushed over accompanied by his carman (effectively a nineteenth-century van driver) and they found the whole place on fire. They also discovered a man lying on the ground, ‘face downwards, close to the shed door’. William asked him what he was doing there but his reply was inaudible and Johnson and the carman left him and ran off to try and save the horses that were stabled there.

When they had secured the horses – all safe and well I’m glad to say – they looked for the mysterious man but he had gone. He hadn’t gone far however, and they soon caught up with him near the gates. Johnson and his employee seized the man and handed him over to the police. On the way to East Arbour Square Police station the man, who gave his name as John Redding (a cooper from Stratford), desperately tried to escape his situation.

‘I hope you will not swear against me’ he pleaded with Johnson, ‘I did not intend to do any hard. If £1000 will get me out of it, I can get it’.

£1000 in 1881 was a huge sum of money, the equivalent to nearly £50,000 today so I’ve no idea how a cooper thought he would lay his hands on that amount, and it all adds to the mystery.

At Thames Police Court Mr Saunders was told the police thought Redding had been drinking and was sporting a black eye. Was this an explanation of his behaviour or evidence of him seeking some ‘dutch courage’ to carry out a deliberate act of arson, perhaps one inspired by revenge? When he was searched no ‘lucifers’ (matches) were found on him; in fact nothing (not even a pipe) was found that might have enabled him to start the blaze. It was a curious case and clearly there was more to be discovered. As a result Mr Saunders remanded him in custody for further examination.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, June 12, 1881]

Does the lack of the vote excuse you from obeying the law?

My method of research for this blog is quite simple. I use today’s date to search back through the newspaper records for a police court hearing with a corresponding date. I thought I might look for a day in June where there was a previous general election given the turmoil of the last few weeks, but there were only two elections in June in the 1800s  (1807 and 1826) both a little too early for the reportage of the Police Courts. So instead I’ve opted for 1859 when the election was held just a few weeks earlier, on 31 May.

That election was won by the Liberal Party and returned Lord Palmerston – he of gunboats fame – as Prime Minister. Palmerston won a significant majority of 59; a figure either Mrs May or Mr Corbyn would have been delighted with on Thursday. However it represented a decline for the Liberals (or Whigs as they were then) from the previous ballot in 1857 when their lead was 100 seats.

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‘A leap in the dark’ (Punch cartoon)

This political cartoon refers to Lord Derby’s comment that Disraeli was taking a ‘leap in the dark’ when he sponsored the second Reform Act – which he considered an astute political move. By using popular support for reform to introduce a Bill extending the vote to urban working-class electors, he believed the Tories would stand to gain in subsequent elections.
Catalogue reference: LIBRARY Punch, p. 47 (3 August 1867)

[from http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/pathways/citizenship/struggle_democracy/docs/punch1867.htm%5D

Perhaps the writing was on the wall because in 1865 the Tories got back in. This was the last general election under the system introduced after the Great Reform Act of 1832, a new reform act in 1867 extended the suffrage (see cartoon reference above) to include many more people and arguably set in motion the move towards the one-person-one-vote system we have in place today. In took the reforms of 1884, 1918 and 1928 to finally do that however.

I doubt any of this concerned Charles Webb in the weeks after the 1859 general election. As a ‘ruffianly looking, middle-aged’ man dressed as a ‘builder’s labourer’, Webb almost certainly did not have the right to exercise his vote whether he wanted to or not. Like most of the poorer class in Victorian society he was unenfranchised, not being considered fit to vote as he did not own property.

We can speculate as to whether this bothered him or not, or indeed whether this lack of a political voice in some way disconnected him from a sense of social belonging. Does a person who has no political rights in a society therefore have no social responsibilities? If you are not part of the mechanism of making laws then can you perhaps be excused for not obeying them?

These are philosophical questions and again I doubt they crossed Webb’s mind as he watched a procession of charity school children march down Cheapside towards St Paul’s Cathedral. Webb was seen by a policeman, PC Legg, who observed him walk into Post Office Yard with another man. He watched as Webb took a purse out of his pocket, extracted a few silver coins (which he gave to the other man) then threw the purse away. The implication was that Webb had stolen the purse (with the aid of his accomplice) and was disposing of the evidence. He moved in and arrested Webb but the other man got away.

At the police station Webb refused to give his address and denied all knowledge of the purse. When the case came before the magistrate at Mansion House, (which was the Lord Mayor, as the City’s chief lawman), Webb explained why:

‘Well of course I did, but I never saw that purse before and I never touched it’. He then aimed a verbal swipe at the policeman: ‘Ain’t you paid for not telling the truth?’

The clearly frustrated copper then told the Lord Mayor that he had searched the prisoner and found that he has specially adapted his coat for picking pockets, an accusation that Webb vehemently denied.

‘My Lord’ began PC Legg, ‘he shoves his hands through his pockets which are open at the bottom, and work in that way’, demonstrating to the court with the accused’s coat.

‘Why what do you mean by that?’ responded Webb, ‘D’ye mean to say I’m a thief? I am as honest as you are, and works hard for my living. Can’t yer see that them ere pockets is worn away at the bottom?’, he finished, prompting laughter in the courtroom.

When the policeman insisted his version of events was correct (as it undoubtedly was) Webb returned to his theme of accusing the officer of lying. ‘Yes I dare say you’ll say so; but you’ll say anything , cos of how your’e paid for it’

This was probably an opinion shared by many of London’s criminal fraternity who had little love of the New Police and saw them as an extension of the old semi-professional watch, their-takers and informers of the previous century. Magistrates generally took the word of a policeman over that of a working-class man, especially if he looked (as Webb did) like a ‘ruffianly’ individual.

The alleged pickpocket was remanded in custody while the owner of the purse, or more information or evidence, was sought. We don’t know what happened to him after that, but I would expect he spent some time off the streets at society’s expense.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, June 10, 1859]

The case of the ‘detonating grave digger’

The object of today’s post had a rather Dickensian name, Mr Wackett.

Wackett (no first name was given, if indeed he had one) declared himself to be a grave digger in Bethnal Green. One Sunday evening in early June 1839 Police constable Smith (171G) was strolling his beat in Shoreditch when he heard screams up ahead.

Moving along he quickly came upon several alarmed if not terrified persons, mostly women, who were trying to get away from a man in the street. Wackett was in the thick of things, apparently hurling small bags at passers-by, which appeared to explode on contact.

As the bags landed they ‘exploded with a report that could be heard at a considerable distance’, he later told the Worship Street court.

PC Smith arrested the grave digger and took him back to the station to search him. A number of bags, containing what seemed to contain gravel, were found on his person . On the orders of a magistrate these were taken away and examined by a local chemist.

When Wackett appeared before the Worship Street justice (Mr Broughton)  it was reported that:

‘intermixed with the gravel [was] a detonating powder which,  when thrown at any person, particularly a female, might create much alarm, but was not likely to destroy, or sensibly damage the dress’.

So it was an unpleasant thing to do, but one designed to upset and alarm and not to hurt or damage clothing. As a result Mr Broughton gave the grave digger a lecture on behaving more decently in future and let him go with a small fine.

[from The Operative, Sunday, June 9, 1839]

I hadn’t heard of the The Operative before, but it seems to have come out of Chartism. The paper’s ‘mission statement’ was “Established by the working classes for the defence of the rights of labour. Also for a ‘fair day’s wages for a fair day’s work.’

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]

Terrorism in London: an echo from the 1880s

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Daring robbery’ on an American ship (and some causal racism in the London press).

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Thomas Connell was described in the Greenwich Police Court, as a seaman. He had been charged with stealing clothes and boots belonging to two sailors serving on an American merchant ship lying at dock in London.

Connell had been employed on the ship, the Chaos, but when it returned to London to offload its cargo of timber, he was laid off, ‘his services no longer being required’. He headed off into the notorious sailor’s quarter – the Ratcliffe Highway – to spend his pay and reacquaint himself with the delights of the land. However, it seems he also took advanatge of some of his fellows doing similarly to filch some of their possessions to add to his own.

Martin Hunshon had been out on the town and when he got back to his bunk on the Chaos he carefully stowed his ‘best’ clothes. When he woke in the morning however he found that his trunk had been forced open and some of his possessions were missing, including the clothes he had worn the night before and some money he had left in a waistcoat pocket.

He clearly had his suspicions about his shipmate because when he reported the theft to the local police he gave them Connell’s name. PC Bigover (163K) acted on this and visited him at his lodgings. Connell then reluctantly accompanied  the copper to a nearby pawnbroker where he was quickly identified as having pledged some of the items Hunshon was missing, for money. Back at the police station he was searched and found to have on him two portraits, one of which belonged to Hunshon.

We then have a bit of contemporary English racism as the court reporter described the appearance of the other man from the Chaos who claimed to have lost items, possibly stolen by Connell. Rather than analyze or represent it I’ll set it down exactly as it was written in 1858:

‘Maurice Mitchell, with face shining like a piece of polished ebony , dressed à la negligèe, with a splendid open worked shirt front, and carrying in his hand a dandy white hat, then stood at the entrance to the witness box.

Mr Secker [the magistrate] ‘Well, my man, and who are you?’

Mitchell (laughing) : ‘Me sar: oh I’m de ship’s cook, I am’.

Mr Secker: ‘Well stand forward, or you won’t see those beautiful red tops. I want you to examine those boots’.

Mitchell (laughing) :Oh, I see dem sar. I bought dem, sar, in a America. I know ’em. I wore dem on Sunday, and on Monday dey was gone. Oh yes sar, dem boots are mine.’

This then brought a response from Connell, who was Irish, as the continued use of colloquial language makes clear:

‘How sur, could I shtale the dock walls. I found the bundle outside the wall, and ye don’t think I’d let it lay there. I didn’t stale it but I pleaded guilty to the pawning’.

As was the correct procedure, the magistrate offered Connell the chance to take his trial in front of a jury rather than being dealt with. summarily, by himself. Connell  at first agreed but when he was told he was be remanded in custody he changed his mind.

‘I don’t want, sur, to lay by. So I’ll plade guilty. You can jist now settle it you plase, sur’

The magistrate looked at him and told him that the offence was serious, as he had not only stolen items but had broken open the chest to do so. He should, therefore, send it up for a trial but since he had pleaded guilty he was going to give him five months imprisonment at hard labour, a considerable sentence for a relatively petty crime.

The two victims were happy as they got back most of their property. ‘Blackey’ (the press referred to Mitchell) seized the handle of the bundle of goods, and declared: ‘Thar, we can go now’ and the pair quit the court, leaving their former shipmate to his fate.

[from The Morning Post, 3 June 1858]