A brothel madam falls foul of the law

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In Victorian London overcrowding was common and tensions often flared between occupants of lodging houses and those that owned them. Disputes over non payment of rent were frequent and overcrowding and the demand for somewhere to sleep meant that landlords were able to kick out their tenants with relative ease. If they didn’t immediately evict those who were behind with the rent it was rarely out of any consideration for their welfare. More likely they were aware that if someone owed several weeks’ rent then evicting them was hardly likely to get the debt settled.

One option was to distrain their goods against the value of the debt. This was what happened to a young woman that lived in a house owned by Mary Lawson near the Gray’s Inn Road.

Mary’s unnamed tenant owed her the small sum of 2s 6d, or about £5 today. It wouldn’t buy you that much and helps illustrate how cheap the lodgings Mary ran were. Was this a week’s money, a month’s, we don’t know. What we do know is that the girl didn’t have the money to pay it and so Mary Lawson employed a broker named Chase (from nearby Saffron Hill) to seize her possessions.

The girl was obviously poor but she also had a child to support and so ‘was driven to wander about in great want’, until her former neighbours undertook to support her. The property she lived in at George Court,  Gray’s Inn Lane was home to many other people. Nothing remains of this property today and the space is occupied by Fox Court a modern office building which is home, a little ironically perhaps, to Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service (Social Security and Child Support).

In 1845 George Court was a brothel, and a large one. It had ‘accommodation for 46 girls’ in no less than seven houses, all of them owned by Mary Lawson. This ‘elderly woman’ was a madam on a large scale. The girl who she was in dispute with was a prostitute; we know this because when she came to the Clerkenwell Police Court to complain that Lawson had assaulted her she was described as ‘unfortunate’, Victorian code for a sex worker.

When Mary had heard how the other residents had clubbed together to help the girl she went into a rage, shouting at them and threatening to evict them all or seize their property. She couldn’t have her authority undermined in so direct a manner.

In court the magistrate, Mr Greenwood, saw an angle to challenge both Mary and her practice of extorting money with menaces. He called the broker over and told him, as one lawyer to another, ‘that no money can be due arising out of such places of immorality’. In short, Mary Lawson couldn’t charge her residents rent or distrain their goods for non payment because she was in effect living off their immoral earrings. He said he would inform the parish authorities (at St Andrew’s, Holborn) and have them put ‘down the nuisance’.

He added that it had already been allowed to be ‘carried on for too long a period, to the annoyance of the more peaceable and respectable inhabitants in the vicinity, as disturbances and robberies were the constant result of the nuisance, which had frequently been complained of’.

As for Mary Lawson, he took note of her relative wealth and how she had come by it and fined her the princely sum of 50s for the assault plus costs, and sent her on her way.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly London Newspaper, Sunday, July 20, 1845]

A ‘mysterious’ lost boy is ‘saved’ from the slums

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Bangor Street, Notting Hill

Lilian Edward was brought up before Mr Curtis Bennett at the Hammersmith Police Court charged with ‘being in the unlawful possession of a child’. The little boy was also called to court and questioned by the magistrate, even though he was only four years old. Lilian herself was just 18 and the circumstances suggested that the little boy, who was not named, may have originally have been lost (or indeed kidnapped)  as far away as Scotland.

Lillian cohabited with a man named McSweeney at a property in Bangor Street, Notting Hill (or Notting Dale as it was then known), but they were not married. According to one source Bangor Street :

Originally called George Street, it was the most notorious road of the Notting Dale ‘Special Area’ slum.
It was more colloquially known as ‘Do as you like Street’, a place where ‘no one left their door closed’, and the venue of the Rag Fair.

McSweeney was also in court and claimed the child as his, but Lilian testified that the boy did ‘not belong to him’. Who’s was he then, the magistrate wanted to know.

The child had been brought from the local workhouse at the special request of Mr Bennet because, as he explained in court, he had received a letter from Liverpool with a photo and description of a child who had gone missing in Dundee. The sender had presumably got wind (perhaps from some earlier hearing reported in the press) that a ‘mysterious child’ had been discovered and was living in a poor part of west London.

This reminds us that the provincial press regularly reported the goings on at the London Police courts along with entries about their own sessions. This sharing of crime news has a very long history with reports of cases at Old Bailey and the county assizes being  staple of early newspapers in the 1700s.

Mr Bennett wanted to see if the boy in his witness box was the same one that was described in the paper, and so he ‘questioned the little fellow’. PC Brown was unconvinced; he said that while ‘inquiries had been made’ (he was not very specific) they had not proved that this child and the one in the photo were the same. His eyes, he continued, were not there same colour as the description in the newspaper report. The magistrate was not sure though, he felt he might be the lost boy.

Next up was John Pike of the Children’s Aid Fund (founded as early as the 1850s) at Charing Cross who requested that the boy be sent to school in the meantime as ‘he was not under proper control’. McSweeney tried to intervene to demand the boy was given back to him but the magistrate refused to allow him to speak .

The whole hearing has the feel of a scene from a Dickens’ novel, with the ‘little fellow’ as another runaway like Oliver Twist. Mr Bennet clearly did’t want to send him back to the squalor of Bangor Street and the ‘care’ of McSweeney. He requested that the child be ‘remanded’ to the workhouse to give Mr Pike the time to draw up the necessary paperwork to have him admitted to the Industrial School at Milton. There he would he educated and cared for (in a fashion) but no further attempt was likely to be made to reunite him with his parents.

As for Lilian Edward, she was released to the relative freedom of Mr McSweeney’s company and his home in Bangor Street.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, July 14, 1889]

Sad tales from the Police courts, and the hunt for the men that shot a policeman hots up.

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Islington High Street, c.1890

On June 27 1884 The Morning Post reported on several London’s police courts as well as updating their readers on an ongoing story concerning the shooting of a policeman. At Southwark a man named Hill was brought up for the second time, having been remanded on a charge of fraud. Hill had supposedly cashed fake cheques on at least two separate individuals for over £15 a time. That might not sound like much but a rough calculation for 1884 makes that around £700 in today’s money. The magistrate further remanded him for the Public Prosecutor to get involved.

At Westminster an Irish woman named Catherine Fagan was accused of begging but the case touched on her supposed involvement with the cause of Irish Nationalism. A membership card for the “W. P. Boyton” branch of the Irish National Land League was found in her possession. The INLL championed the rights of poor tenant farmers in Ireland and it was hardly a revolutionary organisation, but the 1880s were a difficult decade for Anglo-Irish relations, and saw several Fenian terrorist attacks in England (as I’ve written about previously on this blog). Fagan was eventually allowed to go, with some charity from the poor box.

But the story that touched me this morning concerned another woman in distress, Sarah Ann Cocksedge. Sarah Ann was presented at Lambeth Police Court charged with attempting to take her own life. This was, as I’ve written about on several occasions, a sadly regular charge before the magistracy. Even more tragic of course, was the fairly routine discovery of drowned bodies floating in or washed up on the banks of the River Thames. London was an unforgiving and hard place to live in the 1800s and Victorian society’s understanding of mental illness was far from as advanced as our own is.

Sarah Ann had tried to take a poison, ‘spirits of salts’ (which is hydrochloric acid) but had been prevented. In custody she told a policeman that she wanted to kill herself because  had been asked her to cover up the death of an infant child.

She said a ‘former mistress had given her a child to get rid of, which she had put into a garden (mentioning the place) and this had preyed on her mind’.

A detective from CID appeared in court to say that he had enquired into her claims but had been unable to substantiate them. The chaplain of the goal that had been holding her since her suicide attempt sent a letter to the court asking the justice to remand her back into his care, as he felt he could help her find a new home.

Sarah Ann continued to declare that she had spoken the truth regarding the dead child but it seems no one wanted to listen. She was again remanded and sent back to prison.

Finally, the paper reported that the police were closing in on two men wanted for shooting a police constable in Islington. PC Chamberlain had been shot in Park Street, ‘whilst in pursuit of two men suspected go burglary’. They had got away and the constable was injured, but not fatally it was thought. Two days later it was reported that he was ‘somewhat better’ and that the manhunt was focused on Hampstead.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, June 27, 1884]

A distressed mother hits out at Great Ormond Street Hospital

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Great Ormond Street Hospital, c.1858 from The Illustrated Times 

Most if us are familiar with the amazing work that Great Ormond Street hospital does today. Great Ormond Street (or GOSH) opened in 1852 with a mission to treat  sick children. At the start it only had 10 beds and treated the sick poor from the local area. It was founded by Dr Charles West, who had written and lectured extensively on the particular diseases of children and how to treat them.

GOSH was a charity, and so relied on donations to survive. Within a few years it was in trouble, unable to treat the number of patients that applied to it. In 1858 Dickens gave a performance at a charity dinner, raising enough money to buy the property next door and extend provision to 75 beds. In 1871 readers of a popular children’s magazine, Aunt Judy’s Magazine, donated £1,000 to sponsor a cot; this set a trend for future sponsorships.

So by 1872 the hospital had survived an early crisis and was now well established. it treated the children of the poor, providing a much needed service not available before. In the Victorian age children were increasingly valued and legislation was passed to protect them. The idea of ‘childhood’ (something limited largely tot the children of the wealthy) was extended to all children in the later 1800s.

GOSH was a pioneer from the start, and the hospital has seen many advances in paediatric medicine. In 1872 surgeons began to experiment with the use of electricity to treat paralysis and other ailments.  There years later GOSH’s first purpose built 100 bed hospital opened to the public and in 1878 a dedicated paediatric nursing college started training future nurses.

The extent of medical knowledge in the 1800s had improved considerably from the previous century but it was still very limited by today’s standards. In June 1872 a ‘respectable’ mechanic’s wife came to the Clerkenwell Police court to complain about the hospital to Mr Barker, the sitting magistrate.

Mrs Sarah Hornblower lived at 52 Johnson Street, Somers Town, and when one of her children fell ill she took it to the hospital. The child was an out patient at GOSH from April 1872 but on June 7th it fell dangerously ill and she took it in again.

While she waited to be seen to the poor child died in her arms, and she left it with the hospital while she went to make arrangements for its burial. When she returned later she discovered, to her horror, that a post mortem had been performed.

While this was, it was later established, standard procedure, it came as a terrible shock to Susan. When she complained to the justice she told him that:

‘the surgeons, without her authority or sanction, had cut open her child from the throat downwards’, and no one it seems had apologised or explained it to her.

Later that day Mr Barker was able to discuss the complaint with the hospital’s house surgeon, Mr Beach. He explained that Mrs Hornblower’s child had been suffering from croup or diphtheria and it was important to establish which had proved fatal. Croup (or laryngotracheobronchitis) is caused by a virus and affects the lungs. It causes a ‘barking’ cough and today it very rarely proves fatal.

Croup was not contagious but diphtheria is. Today diphtheria is rare in the UK because children are vaccinated against it, but in the 1870s it was a disease that could and did kill children in London.

So Dr Beach was being sensible he said, in checking for the cause of the child’s death so he ‘better attend to the applicant’s other children’. He was asked if there was any other way to ascertain what had killed the child, short of performing a partial autopsy. There was not he replied, and he had only done what was absolutely necessary.

Dr Beach added that Mrs Hornblower should not seen her child in that state. When she had entered the room where the body lay she had ‘in the most hasty manner pulled the sheet off the body, and thus it became exposed’. Mr Hornblower had been consulted and had agreed to the post mortem so the hospital was covered.

We can only feel sympathy for Susan Hornblower, the loss of a child is always a tragedy however it happens and she was probably shocked to see her son or daughter like that, and understandably in  distress she hit out. The magistrate told her that no one had done anything wrong and while she was upset there was nothing to support a summons.

He added that there ‘was a great deal of difference  between anatomy and making a post-mortem examination’, a possible reference to popular fears of the anatomisation of pauper bodies in the nineteenth century following the passage of Anatomy Act (1832), which allowed hospitals access to the cadavers of the dead poor.

We aren’t told in this report whether the child died of croup or diphtheria. Hopefully the Hornblowers’ other children survived and none were affected as badly as their sibling. We do know that GOSH remains at the forefront of paediatric care nearly 150 years later.

[from The Illustrated Police News etc, Saturday, June 22, 1872]

Little charity for the Irish at Marlborough Street

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1843 could certainly be viewed as one of the low points of welfare policy in this country. 1834 saw the passing of the Poor Law Amendment Act, an act designed to force anyone seeking support from the state (in those days this meant the parish) to enter a workhouse  rather than be relieved outside. A previous piece of catch-all legislation, the Vagrancy Act (1824) also deserves mention as an instrument designed both to clamp down on beggars and vagrants and allow the arrest of pretty much anyone the local authorities took a dislike to but were otherwise unable to pin a specific offence on.

Thomas Lakey was exactly the sort of person the middle classes in Victorian society disliked. Lacey was unemployed, he was poor, homeless and, probably worst of all, he was Irish. When he appeared at Marylebone Police Court in June 1835 he was described as a ‘sturdy Irish beggar, accused of being a ‘common vagrant’.

The prosecution was brought by the Mendicity Society, an organisation formed in 1818 to ‘stop people begging’. The society was well organised and used careful record keeping to track mendicants, whom they helped financially on the understanding that they stopped begging and/or left the area.

Lacey came before the magistrate at Marylebone accused on being a ‘common drunken vagabond’ for the last 20 years. He had his own particular modus operandi, according to the officers bringing the case to court:

‘Having lost a hand, it was his practice to accost females in the street, and thrusting his stump before them, to demand charity in a menacing tone’.

If his appeal was not successful on the basis of his disability then ‘in his other hand he carried a stick, which he employed with great dexterity when drunk, or when pursued by a constable’.

For 20 years Thomas had received a pension of 15 pence a day from the East India Company. Given that this seemed enough to live on the magistrate (a Mr Chambers) was surprised the Irishman needed to beg at all. Mr Chambers told him that his pension (amounting to about 21 pence in today’s money, the equivalent of 2 days wages for a labourer) should allow him to live while he could also do some work, since he had a perfectly usable hand despite his injury.

We have no idea of how Thomas lost his hand, an accident working for the Company is most likely, but it may have happened after that. Clearly Mr Chambers had little sympathy for him. He turned to the Mendicity Society officers and suggested they speak to the East India Company. Perhaps if they were informed how Lacey was abusing the pension he had been given they might see fit to stop it.

The poor Irishman now work up to the reality of what was being proposed in court, the loss of the small dole he had to keep himself together. He told the court that if he was released he would immediately return to Kilkenny, where he was born, and no longer be a burden on London’s ratepayers or a threat to its inhabitants. Mr Chambers sent him to prison for two months to think it over.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, June 19, 1835]

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]

Negligent landlords in Bermondsey are held to account

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Bermondsey in the 1880s

In the 1880s London was the capital city of the greatest empire in the world. Yet amongst all the wealth London was witness to some of the worst living conditions in the British Empire. We often associate the ‘abyss’ of Whitechapel with that squalor and in the lodging houses around Flower and Dean Street and Dorset Street poverty was indeed rife. But if you look at Charles Booth’s poverty maps (published in the early 1890s) it is evident that South East London was as bad, if not worse.

Despite there being no council housing the authorities did have a role to play in regulating the conditions people lived in and the quality of properties that were rented out. This task fell under the responsibilities of the London Police Courts and the magistrates that sat in judgement there.

Building regulation may not have been the most exciting work of the magistracy but it was important, and by reporting it the newspapers rogue landlords were put on notice that they might be prosecuted, and tenants were emboldened to report similar problems. For the historian these reports also serve a useful purpose in revealing living conditions in the capital.

Charles Randell owned several houses in Farncombe Street, Bermondsey, and in May 1885 he was summoned to Southwark Police Court for neglecting his properties. The Bermondsey Vestry charged him with ‘neglecting to put in proper habitable repair five houses, which were in a filthy state and unfit for habitation’.

The Sanitary Inspector for the district, a Mr Thomas, gave evidence in court in support of the prosecution. He told the magistrate that he had visited the properties in March, finding them in a ‘filthy state’.

‘The drains were stopped up with filth, the yards unpaved [and so simply muddied areas], and without water’.

He had been ordered to take action but nothing happened, at least not until now when the summons was executed on him. There was still no water supply, the court was told. Clearly Randall had ignored the original report and was now only doing the minimum possible under threat of prosecution.

The case revealed that he took 12s a week for each house, which each served as homes to two families. It is hard to be exact about family size without consulting the census but on average women had six children in the late 1800s. So with extended family members it is not unreasonable to suggest that these five small properties opening on to one court were home to around 20-30 people, all with a supply of water or property sanitation.

Randall blamed the problem on the man he employed to undertake repairs, who had, he said, ‘deceived him’. The magistrate was unmoved and fined him a total of £46 (or £2,200 in today’s money).

Another ‘house agent’ Drummond Palmer, who owned property in the same street was also brought to court for the same offence He too had ignored the Sanitary Inspector’s report and he too was fined £5 for each of his courses plus a shilling a day for the 81 days he had failed to make the repairs required. He left court with a bill of £18 and 6s.

Henry Illingworth was also in the sights of the Inspector. The boot maker was charged with failing to clean and repair two shops he owned on Grange Road, also in Bermondsey. Inspector Thomas said that they in a ‘very foul state’:

‘The stench from the houses was intolerable. There was no door or pan to the closet [the outside toilet], and it was without a water supply. They were devoid of dustbins, and the houses were unfit for anyone to live in in such a state’.

Palmer was fined £14 and 6s.

In Booth’s map Farncombe  Street is a mix of commercial (red) property and (at the end nearest the Thames) black and dark blue (‘semi-criminal’ and ‘very poor’ in Booth’s categories. Whether the families that lived in Randall and the other landlords’ houses saw the benefit of the fines levied on them is very doubtful. The work would probably have been carried out but there was little to prevent rents from being raised to cover the costs. The 1880s was a period of economic deflation if not outright depression; times were hard and work hard to come by. Until the advent of proper social housing schemes in the next century the poorest in Victorian and Edwardian society continued to suffer from the greed of others.

[from London Evening Standard, Thursday 4th June 1885]