Charles Dickens is charged at Bow Street (for spreading a disease!)

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Charles Dickens, perhaps unusually for a novelist, was extremely popular in his own time with his stories being devoured  in serial form by tens of thousands of readers and his live performances drawing many others to the the theatre. His fame and admiration may well have led those who shared his surname to name their offspring after the great novelist. This would appear to be the background behind a rather unusual appearance at Bow Street Police court in September 1893 and perhaps explain why the editor of The Standard chose it as one of the few summary court cases he published that day.

Charles A. Dickens was a clerk working for a large firm based in Gloucester. On the 19 August 1893 Dickens had arrived in London with two of his sons, and they checked in to the West Central Temperance Hotel in Southampton Row.  As a 1927 guide tells us: ‘Temperance Hotels (especially in Bloomsbury), in which alcoholic liquors are not consumed, often afford comfortable quarters at very reasonable rates’, so perhaps this why Dickens (a clerk minding his pennies) selected it as a sensible place to stay.

On Sunday and Monday one of the children (also named Charles) was ill. On Tuesday he said he felt a little better but Mr Dickens was still concerned enough to call for a doctor. Having examined the boy the doctor (named Steggall) informed the clerk that his son was suffering from scarletina, the medical term for scarlet fever. As a highly infectious and potentially fatal illness Dickens should have isolated his son from others and informed the authorities; however he did neither of these things which is why he ended up facing a court case.

The magistrate at Bow Street (Mr Lushington – who had been promoted from the less the prestigious court at Thames) heard from Dickens’ lawyer (as the clerk himself did not  appear to testify in person) who spoke in defence of a charge brought by Mr H. C. Jones of the St. Giles Board of Works.

Mr Jones alleged that Dickens had breached the terms of the Public Health London Act (1891) by  exposing the sufferer of a contagious disease to others. The Dickens family had left the hotel without informing the proprietor of the boy’s illness. Mr Jones said that had the doctor not taken it upon himself to tell the hotel the room might have been let to other guests. As it was, once Dr Steggall had let them know of Charles’ condition,  the room was fumigated in accordance with the terms of the act.

Nevertheless, he said, the boy had still mingled with other guests in the ‘public coffee room’. Moreover they had then traveled back ‘on a public carriage and then a train to  Gloucester. How many people might have been infected was impossible to say’. Once back in Gloucester it appeared that Dickens had not even informed the medical authorities there, something Jones had checked with Dr Lovett at the Gloucester Sanitary commission.

Dr Francis Bond, from the Gloucester medical board, thought it serious enough to appear at Bow Street to back up Mr Jones’ case and help bring this to the attention of the press (and public). He explained that there was a ‘popular delusion’ that scarlet fever was only infectious in its later stages when in fact, he continued’, it was infectious from the beginning. As a result young Charles should have been isolated immediately and the relevant medical authorities informed.

In his defence Dickens’ lawyer argued that his client was unaware that scarletina was in fact scarlet fever and confirmed that the clerk wasn’t aware that the disease was contagious until ‘the peeling stage’. Thus he had ‘adopted the natural course of taking the child home to be nursed’. He hadn’t even been aware of the 1891 legislation (which is perhaps hardly surprising given that it was new and only applied to the capital).

However, ignorance is no defence in law and while Lushington was prepared to accept that it was a mistake and not a deliberate attempt to evade his responsibilities, he still fined the clerk two guineas with a  further five guineas costs. If Mr Dickens was unable to pay he added, he would go to prison for a month. Hopefully the clerk was able to produce the fines which were not insignificant. As for the author whose name both the clerk and his son shared, he knew all about the dangers of scarletina. His son (also Charles) contracted the illness in Paris in 1847. Scarlet fever was a dangerous disease, particularly for the children of the poor in Victorian England, and wasn’t really eradicated until the discovery of penicillin in the 20th century. That said, in recent years, it seems to have made a comeback.

The case here then reveals not only the celebrity of Charles Dickens (and his wide influence) but also the use of the papers as a way to inform the wider public of the law and the consequences of breaking it. This story served to remind readers (many of whom were working class) that the magistracy had the power to intervene in private lives, and that all citizens had responsibilities, not only for the health of their own family members but a also had duty of care to others. These then were not simply ‘criminal’ courts, they had a much wider purview.

[from The Standard, Saturday, September 16, 1893]

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“Give her a good hiding”: marital violence and a lack of a sisterly support

Recently Married Woman With Bandage Across Her Face.

Poor Eliza Taylor.

East End women had, by all accounts, a hard life. Poverty was rife, childbirth dangerous, work hard to find and poorly paid, and husbands that were often drunk and not infrequently violent. The saving grace was usually other women and the extended family that helped keep communities together. Women looked out for each other,  patched up cuts and tended to bruises, and offered tea and sympathy.

Not in all cases it seems and perhaps this reveals the role of the police and local courts in acting as a ‘last resort’ when the community sanctions and support mechanism broke down.

As they clearly did for Eliza Taylor.

Eliza was married but like many relationships in the area hers was seemingly tempestuous. Perhaps her husband drank; maybe he was work-shy; in all likelihood he hit her. Poverty can place a huge strain on marriage, especially when the pressures of life mean  there is little time for caring about each other.

In September 1880 Eliza’s sister-in-law, Anna Desmond, called at the Taylor’s home. It was about 5 o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon and Mr Taylor was also at home, suggesting he was out of work. Perhaps Eliza had been berating him for his lack of employment, or for being out since lunchtime drinking with his mates. Historians aren’t supposed to speculate in the way that novelists can but sometimes I think it is useful.

Anna hadn’t come come round (as Eliza might have hoped) to empathise with her sister-in-law. Instead she had come round to mete out some family discipline to a disobedient wife and mother. Quit complaining about my brother and this family, she might well have said.

Poor Eliza.

The next thing she knew Anna had attacked her and her husband had joined in:

‘taking Desmond’s part, he held her down, and said, “Give her a good hiding now you have got her”.

Anna had punched her in the head, cutting it open and knocking her to the ground and now Taylor piled in himself. Both assailants kicked and thumped the stricken woman until somehow she managed to get away and escape into the street where she was soon found by a local policeman.

Having told him what happened he arrested Anna Desmond and she was produced before the Thames magistrate on the Thursday morning following the incident. The court was told by the doctor that had treated Eliza’s injuries that she ‘was so weak from loss of blood she had to be taken home in a cart’.

Anna Desmond was notorious in the area it seems; the Poplar resident had been in court several times before, including on a warrant for biting another woman and for trying to kill herself in a police cell. There was clearly something very wrong with Anna Desmond. There was no sign of Mt Taylor in the courts, either as a witness or for the beating he had handed out to his wife.

Eliza probably didn’t want to prosecute her husband. Charging him would probably make things worse in her mind. If he was sent to prison then any chance he would find work afterwards was undermined; if Mr Lushington fined him then that was just another expense the family would have to bear. And of course, merely by dragging him through the courts Eliza would have angered him and made the possibility of further beatings more likely. Best to keep quiet and try and hope he took his frustrations out on someone else.

Mr Lushington was presented with a very easy case to deal with according to law. He didn’t need to look into the other details today. Anna Desmond was violent, abusive, quite possibly a regular drunk and disorderly ‘customer’ and clearly ‘deserved’ the full force of the justice system. He sent her to prison for three months hard labour.

In three months time she would out and back in Poplar. Her brother, fuming from the punishment handed down to his sister and the shame it brought on him and his family was already free.

Poor Eliza.

[from The Standard, Friday, September 10, 1880]

A little local knowledge helps prevent ‘the grossest frauds and impositions’.

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When the Rev. Henry Burton, vicar of Atcham near Shrewsbury received a letter asking for his help he was immediately suspicious. Whether this was because he had be sent such missives or before and was wise to them, or perhaps on account of him being on the list of magistrates for Shropshire, we will never know but Rev. Burton decided to forward the letter to London. He sent it on to Mr Elliot, one of the capital’s Police Court magistrates, then looking after the Lambeth court.

The letter was from a  man named Henry Dewhurst who described himself as a doctor and begged the vicar to help him financially by placing an order (with payment) for a book that he had written. The book was entitled ‘The Moral Philosopher‘ and was priced at 8s and 6d (about £25 today). Dewhurst added that:

‘Diseased heart, want of employment, and the almost fatal effects of typhus fever to himself, wife, and two out of four children, have plunged them into the deepest distress. For two days they have not tasted food. Wife is fast sinking from consumption and want of nutriment. All they had is in pledge, even his clothes, for 56d. An early reply is humbly supplicated’.

Rev. Burton wanted to see if the magistrate at Lambeth could make some local enquires (as Dewhurst gave his address as 25 William Street, Nelson Square, Lambeth) and so Mr Elliot despatched the court officer, Sergeant Goff to see what he could find out.

When Goff returned he said it was a scam, or a ‘system of imposture’ as he put it. He had visited Mr Dewhurst and confirmed that he was someone who had previously been exposed as a fraud at the Lambeth Police Court. About a year earlier he had tried exactly the same method of parting gullible individuals from their money with a hard luck story and the promise of a book that never materialised.

Goff discovered that Dewhurst had also written other begging letters recently including one to another vicar (this time in Canterbury) where he tried to pass himself off as a having in MA in astronomy. That had also failed to convince the reverend gentleman who had asked a lady friend in Lambeth to check its validity.

Mr Elliot asked Goff if he was satisfied that Dewhurst was an imposter. Goff replied that he was, adding:

‘He has not his wife living with him, and whenever he is asked for the book he states he publish, his excuse is that it is at the binder’s, but who the binder is he does not say’.

The magistrate declared that if everyone was as careful as the Rev. Burton the ‘grossest frauds and impositions might be prevented’.

Interestingly in 1835 a man named William Henry Dewhurst did publish a pamphlet or book entitled the The Moral Philosopher, so perhaps he wasn’t such a fraud after all? 

[from The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, September 7, 1848]

Mr Barstow brooks no excuse for truancy

‘No equally powerful body will exist in England outside Parliament, if power is measured by influence for good or evil over masses of human beings’. The Times, 29 November 1870.*

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The school holidays are over again and millions of children are returning to their classrooms. Since 1918 (and the controversial Fisher Act) secondary school education has been compulsory for all children in England and Wales, initially up to age 14 and now, effectively to 18. Parents that allow their children to miss school (to be truant) can be prosecuted, fined and even imprisoned in rare cases. In  2015 alone almost 20,000 parents were prosecuted for allowing their offspring to miss school and there has been the highly publicised case of Jon Platt who was fined £120 plus costs for choosing to take his children away on a family holiday to Florida. Mr Platt successfully appealed the decision to the High Court before it went on to a Supreme Court hearing which upheld the Isle of Wight council’s original decision.

The case turned on the rights of parents over the desire to protect children’s education. The law insists that children attend school regularly so that they can benefit from the free education system provided by the state. This has a long history in England with  early attempts to provide schooling for the children of poor families (wealthy parents had long been able to educate their kids) going back to the eighteenth century. It was in 1833 that the state first became directly involved in school education with parliament voting money for the creation of schools for the poor.

Educating the poor was considered to be a crucial tool in fighting crime and poverty in the nineteenth century. Commentators from the end of the Napoleonic Wars onwards equated delinquency with a lack of formal education, moral guidance, and opportunities for gainful employment. If children could be taught to read and write, and learn to respect their ‘betters’ then society could go a long way toward eradicating the so-called ‘criminal class’ that Henry Mayhew and others wrote so much about.

In 1870 the Forster Act attempted to address the perennial  problem of inadequate supply of schools for the children of the poor. It created board schools (fee paying but with fee waivers for the poorest families) for children aged 5-13 (or 10 if if the child could demonstrate they had reached a certain level of education by then). Attendance was compulsory on the basis that there would now be a school within range of the child’s home.

One of the consequences of creating a compulsory system of course was that the new School Boards had to enforce it. The parents of children that failed to send their youngsters to school would be prosecuted, and those prosecutions ended up before a Police Magistrate.

In some cases children were hard to police (just as they are today), parents may well have simply been unaware that their sons or daughters were playing truant. In other cases there was considerable complicity on the part of the adults; children were useful as helpmeets at home, or as extra hands at work. And inevitably poverty and illness took its toll. I have read cases of mothers not wishing to send their children to school without shoes, too poor were they to properly cloth them but too proud to ask for charity.

Given that many parents might well have had reasonable (or at least understandable) grounds for keeping children at home this report of cases before the Clerkenwell Police magistrate is instructive.

Mr Barstow presided over a series of School Board truancy cases heard in September 1874, just four years after Forster’s Act. He was pretty ruthless in upholding all the School Board officer’s complaints.

In one case a ‘poor woman’ told him that:

‘the small average attendance made by her two children was caused by the illness of her husband, which had extended over 14 weeks’. During that time, when he could not work she had gone out to earn enough to keep the home together. She had tried to send one child to school in the morning and one in the afternoon, so that he should never be left uncared for.

Mr Barstow fined her 2s 6s, plus 2s costs.

Next was another poor woman who carried a baby in her arms. She too had failed to make sure her other children attended school and was fined the same amount. Sadly she didn’t have 2s and sixpence so she was sent to the house of correction for five days. Presumably she took her children with her or they went tot he workhouse, there didn’t seem to be a husband at home to stand with her.

There were several parents prosecuted that morning, nearly all of them ‘of the poorest class’ and the magistrate fined them all without exception. His final case was a ‘respectably-dressed’ man however, who claimed that he had not sent his boy to the school as it wasn’t ‘very effective’. Mr Barstow asked him to provide proof of the inefficiency of the school in question which the man was unable to do. In future, Barstow said, he would need to see evidence of a school’s failings if he was to excuse any non-attendance.

The man was clearly frustrated at being dragged through the courts in this manner. He declared that he thought the act was designed to deal with ‘the “gutter” children and street Arabs’, not with respectable families such as his own. Mr Barstow paid him no heed and handed him the standard 2s 6s fine plus costs. 

Men like Mr Barstow probably believed in the project of public education and were well placed to see the results of poverty, ignorance and crime on London’s population. Education then wasn’t about empowering children or providing them with an opportunity to develop and grow. Rather it was an exercise in social control and social engineering, churning out ‘good citizens’ who knew their place in the unequal hierarchy of Victorian society.

Plus ça change

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, September 05, 1874]

A destitute Essex girl in London makes the news

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Fetter Lane, Farringdon c.1880

I have discussed the tragedy of suicide on this blog before because it features quite regularly in the pages of the London press. While cases in the papers often featured women it would probably be wrong to see this as particularly female; it is just more likely that when a woman (especially a young woman) attempted or succeeded in ending her life it made a more affecting news story.

Given that suicide (or its attempt) was illegal in the 1800s those whose efforts to kill themselves failed or were in some other way interrupted (often by the police) would be brought before a magistrate where the circumstances of their actions were investigated. In some instances this could mean they got some help (and perhaps this was their intention) while in others they simply received an admonition from the justice and even a spell of imprisonment.

It is hard to say whether Sarah Esther was fortunate in getting help from the Bow Street justice or merely thrown from one desperate situation into another. She appeared before  Mr Twyford at London’s senior Police Court having been found by a  policeman on Waterloo Bridge at 7 in the morning. According to the constable she was about to throw herself into the Thames.

When he stopped her and demanded to know what she was up to she told him that she was desperate because she had lost her job. Sarah had come to London from Essex and had secured work as a domestic servant in a house in Fetter lane, Farringdon. She found the work hard and her mistress even harder to please and so she had been dismissed. Destitute and unable to return home to Essex she had seen no other way out than the river.

The alternative for Sarah was the workhouse but according to the relieving officer for the area, Mr Kirby, she seemed ‘disinclined to go herself’. Mr Twyford decided to make the decision for her, thinking it better she went into the workhouse (whatever the horrors it held for the Victorian working class) than to prison. Neither was an attractive option but with no other system of social support aside from charity Sarah’s choice were limited. She could go to gaol for a few days, or enter the workhouse for a similar period. Either way without further help in getting work her future looked bleak.

Girls like Sarah were prey to ‘bullies’ (pimps) and brothel madams, both of whom would sell them into prostitution without a second thought. From there the slide into criminality, desperate poverty, disease and death was pretty much inevitable.

The magistrate determined that the workhouse was best for her because there she would receive ‘every attendance’. But he wanted to make sure the girl was not insane so he sent her off with Mr Kirby but insisted that she be examined by a surgeon as soon as possible. So there was one option remaining for Sarah, if the medical man deemed her to be mad then she might be committed not to a workhouse or a prison but to an asylum. Once there she would have little or no opportunity to leave until her doctors decided she was well again.

So Mr Twyford’s actions, in following the paths open to him by what was a bad law could hardly be said to have helped the poor girl. A one way ticket to Essex and her family would have been a much more sensible and probably cheaper option in the long run. Sadly, that wasn’t the choice the Police Magistrate made.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, September 3, 1839]

for other cases of attempted suicide from the Police courts see:

A ‘passenger incident’ on the late Victorian Underground

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

An elderly lady is driven to despair in a society that didn’t care

A sadly typical story of an ‘unfortunate’ girl in Victorian London

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The Victorians condemned prostitution. They saw it as a vice, a personal failure of character, and a step on the slippery slope to damnation. Yet prostitutes also occupied a special place in contemporary debates being both victims deserving of pity and agents of corruption at the same time.

In the nineteenth century the idea that there was a class of society that existed on the proceeds of crime (‘those that will not work’ as Henry Mayhew described them) gained credence. The so-called ‘criminal class’ identified by Mayhew and others conveniently allowed all the ills of the society to be lumped onto a section of the working class, and prostitutes were part of this ‘class’.

In the 1860s in the wake of the Crimean War (when more British soldiers succumbed to disease than to wounds inflicted by the enemy) there was a moral panic about the prevalence of sexually transmitted infection. This led to the passing of the Contagious Diseases Acts which attempted to regulate prostitution and halt the spread of syphilis  and gonorrhoea. Working-class women were dragged off the street and forcibly examined for signs of disease, and then effectively imprisoned in ‘lock’ hospitals until they were ‘clean’. Men were not subjected to the same treatment but were encouraged to seek medical help. It was a classic Victorian ‘double standard’.

But the CDAs also provoked resistance by women and a campaign, led by Josephine Butler, eventually led to their repeal. Butler sought to understand the women that felt it was necessary to sell their bodies to survive and she brought some of them into her own home to ‘rescue’ them. These women were ‘unfortunate’ contemporary rhetoric said, they could be helped, and reclaimed from the awful class they had ‘fallen’ into.

Which brings me to the Police Courts and the magistrates that presided there. The capital’s police court magistracy probably saw more ‘unfortunates’ than anyone else (with the exception of the police). I’m not impugning their reputation, but one of the most common (if not the most common) charge heard in these summary courts was ‘drunk and disorderly’, and when this was applied to a woman it was likely she was a prostitute picked up on the street the night before by a beat constable.

Mary Anne Griffin was just such a girl. She probably attracted the attention of the papers because of her age – she was just 17 – and because she had a ‘genteel appearance’. Mary Anne had been found staggering along the Fulham Road by PC Stevens (266B) in a state of complete intoxication. As she approached the road the policeman saw her trip and fall down in a ‘fit’. He revived her with salt water and she promised to go home.

Half an hour later though he encountered her again and when he cautioned her for not doing as she was told she attacked him. Mary Ann ‘flew at him’, he explained to Mr Arnold at Westminster Police Court:

‘She made use of very disgusting language, and said she would tear his eyes out. She threw herself down on the ground, and  endeavoured to kick him, and in doing so, necessarily much exposed herself’.

PC Stevens got her back to the police station but it took three constables to bring her under control  and get her confined in a cell.

Mr Arnold turned to the girl and asked her what she had to say for herself.

‘I am very sorry’, she answered (with ‘her head down and […] in a very meek voice’) ‘I was so drunk I did not know what I did’.

The court gaoler said he had seen her before and that when she had been in the cells she was a quiet and ‘well conducted girl’. She was not like the ‘hardened girls of her class’ that usually came before him Mr Arnold agreed, and perhaps this was an opportunity for intervention (as a modern social worker or probation officer might term it). Sadly no. Mr Arnold completely misunderstood the reason why Mary Ann was drunk in the first place, which was to inure herself to the awful situation she found herself in. Alcohol acted as a sort of anaesthetic to the degradation she was subjected to on a daily basis.

What Mr Arnold should have done was to help Mary Ann find a path out of poverty and prostitution because, at 17 she was (as he noted) very far from being the  hardened criminal she would most likely become. If, that is, she lived that long. Many working girls died young, killed by disease, the brutality of men, or at their own hands.

What Mr Arnold did do of course, was to send her to the house of correction for 14 days; not for being a prostitute (that was not a crime) but for being drunk and resisting the policeman’s well-meant instruction to go home quietly. She probably didn’t have a ‘home’ as such, merely a bed in cheap lodgings which she may well not have had the money to pay for. That’s why she stayed out and ignored him in the first place.

[from The Standard , Monday, August 13, 1860]

Finders keepers? A diamond bracelet arouses the suspicions of a pawnbroker

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In 1871 Mr Tomlinson ran a pawnbrokers on the Kentish Town Road. Pawnbrokers served the whole community but mostly acted as a form of money lending for those unable to get credit elsewhere. For most people in Victorian London credit was very limited. Ordinary people didn’t have bank accounts as we routinely do today, and so lived week by week (sometimes day to day) on the small amounts of money they earned in cash paid work.

Rent, food and fuel consumed most of what they brought in and families were particularly at risk if they had children below working age (11-12 or under) and the mother had to stay at home to care for them. Many used pawnbrokers as a way of extending credit and coping with financial hardship. You could take an article of clothing, or some item of jewels (a watch say) to a pawnbrokers and pledge it against cash for a week. So long as you returned the money in the time allowed you would get your possessions back. If you did not then they became the property of the broker and he was allowed to sell them.

Pawnbrokers have not gone away but today they tend to be called something like Cashconverters and are a familiar sight alongside the fried chicken restaurants and betting shops on our depleted and decaying modern high streets.

On Monday 7 August a woman entered Mr Tomlinson’s shop and asked to pledge an expensive looking piece of jewellery. It was a ‘gold bracelet, set with diamonds and rubies’ and he estimated its value at over £40 (£1,800 today). Tomlinson’s foreman, Lewis obviously didn’t think the woman, Catherine Dickinson (a 48 year-old waistcoat maker who lived locally) was the sort of person to own such an item.

He wasn’t satisfied with her explanation of how she came by it so she promised to return later with her daughter, who had told her that her ‘young man’ had found it and had given it to her to pledge. About an hour later Catherine returned with Henry Benson, a 19 year-old cabman, who said he’d picked it up near a cab rank at Cremorne Gardens on the 22 July. The pleasure gardens were a fashionable spot for the wealthy (and not so wealthy) in the mid 1800s and it was entirely possible that a lady might have lost her bracelet there.

It was equally possible that Benson (or another) might have pinched it from her late at night or found it left in his cab,Either way he should have reported it to the police and handed the bracelet in but he hadn’t and the sharp actions of the pawnbroker had stopped him profiting from it. Pawnbrokers didn’t always have a good reputation and for over a century had been accused of facilitating the trade in stolen goods.

Tomlinson and his employee were no doubt aware of this and acted to make sure they weren’t tainted by the association with criminality. Mr Lewis reported the incident to the police and two detectives were despatched to make enquires. Detective constables John Dalton and Charles Miller of Y Division tracked down Benson and Mrs Dickenson and brought them before Mr D’Eyncourt at Marylebone Police Court.

The magistrate decided that both the young cabman Benson and his sweetheart’s mother should be held accountable for the potential theft of the bracelet so he bailed the former and accepted Catherine’s own recognisance to appear in a  week’s time. In the meantime the newspaper alerted its readers that the jewellery was available to view at Kensal Green police station in case anyone had recently lost it.

Presumably if no one claimed it at the very least Benson would be free to carry on as a cab driver, at best the bracelet would be returned to them and perhaps Mr Tomlinson would then be happy to hand over some cash (I doubt as much as £40 though) so the Dickensons could enjoy a bountiful summer for once.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, August 09, 1871]