The Mansion House has no sympathy with those bent on ‘destroying themselves’.

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When an unnamed woman was charged with disorderly conduct at Mansion Police Police court in December 1841 the sitting justice took it upon himself to make a statement to the press. Sir Peter Laurie, the incumbent Lord Mayor, didn’t inflict further punishment on the woman because she had already been locked up overnight in the City’s compter (a old term for a prison). However, all leniency stopped there.

The Lord Mayor had previously punished her for attempting to ‘destroy herself’ (in other words for attempting suicide) by jumping off one of the capital’s bridges. Sir Peter said that there had been considerable numbers of suicide attempts in the past few months. No less than 26 people had been charged with the offence at Guildhall  and a further five at Mansion House from September to October.

As a result he had determined to deal with all future cases more severely. In November he had sent a man to Bridewell in an attempt to check ‘so revolting an offence’ by ‘a little wholesome severity’. That individual had tried to cut his own throat because he was suffering from ‘poverty and idleness’. A day later he sent a woman to the Old Bailey to face a jury trial. His fellow justice, Sir Chapman Marshall, followed his lead and committed a man for ‘attempting to drown himself’. In both cases the accused pleaded guilty and received a sentence of 14 days imprisonment.

Since then there had been a notable falling off in persons attempting to take their own lives so Sir Peter commended the actions of the bench.

The clerk of the court ‘observed that several desperate imposters had made money by the experiment of tumbling into the Thames. The infliction of imprisonment and hard labour for the offence would certainly check the practice as far as pretenders were concerned, whatever effect it might have on those that seriously wished to get rid of life.’ He added that the ‘great majority’ were imposters in his opinion.

Sir Peter concluded by warning ‘every man and woman brought before me jumping or trying to jump into the river shall most positively walk off to Newgate [gaol] , and I am very much mistaken if the Judges do not henceforward inflict upon offenders very heavy punishments’.

It hardly needs to be said that such draconian attitudes to what may well have been genuine mental health issues would not be applied today. Attempting suicide is no longer an offence under law although persons displaying suicidal tendencies may well be sectioned, and forcibly confined. So the Victorian bench looks particularly uncaring in this regard. But before we congratulate ourselves on living in more enlightened times we might note the report of the parliamentary commission created by the late Jo Cox that has revealed the worrying extent of loneliness in modern Britain.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, December 15, 1841]

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‘A very miserable story’ of the path to disgrace and ruin for a lady writer in Bayswater

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This case is curious because it sheds some light on late Victorian attitudes towards mental health, alcoholism and class.

Mrs Maria Wilkin was the widow of an army officer, a major no less. She was just 53 years of age and lived in rented rooms in Bayswater. It seems she tried to support herself by writing, a precarious way to earn one’s living, especially for a woman in the late 1800s.

She was up before Mr Plowden at Marylebone Police court on a charge of stealing a bottle of brandy from her landlady, Mrs Street. At first the hearing and been postponed so  that Mrs Wilkin could call witnesses in her defence and now, in early December 1893, she had one person to speak for her and a legal advocate.

The case was again presented, and Mrs Wilkin’s defence offered. Her character witness simply said she knew her, but not well. It was hardly a glowing reference and probably reflected the embarrassment the witness felt at being brought into public courtroom to defend someone whose behaviour she found objectionable.

Her barrister told Mr Plowden that Mrs Wilkin received regular visits from her family and was well cared for by them. At this point the accused woman objected, ‘denying she under the care of anybody’. She asserted her independence and  assured the magistrate she could support herself, by writing. Her previous landlady had ben quite happy to let her rent the rooms, so long as the rent ‘was guaranteed’.

‘Well, yes’, said Mr Plowden, ‘there’s the difficulty’. The rent clearly was not guaranteed and Mrs Wilkin was struggling to cope. He said it ‘was a most lamentable and painful’ case.

‘He had heard a great deal about the prisoner and her antecedents, and he did not know whether to blame or pity her, but it was a very miserable story. He had no doubt that she did steal the brandy. In her sober senses she would, no doubt, have shrank from doing such an act. But, under the influence of a craving for drink, she took the bottle of spirits’.

He would prefer it if her relatives would ‘take care of her’, in other words take her away from Mrs Street’s rooms and look after her at home. This would represent a move from independent living into care, something that we all may have to contemplate at one point in our lives, or the lives of our nearest and dearest. For the vast majority of Victorians care was not something they could contemplate; the working classes had the workhouse or the insane asylum, hopefully Mrs Wilkin, as a member of the middle classes, would be able to either continue her independent lifestyle or move in with her extended family.

The alternative was made starkly clear to her by the magistrate however. He would release her on the promise (guaranteed by her recognisances) that if necessary she would be recalled to court to face the consequences of her theft. It was a warning to her: if she was not able to resist the temptation to steal again then she faced prison where she ‘would be disgraced and ruined for life’.

Finally he told her that  he’d like her to enter a ‘retreat’ for a time, so that she could rid herself of her addiction to alcohol. Such retreats for ‘inebriate women of the better class’ had been established in England, Australia and the US in the second half of the nineteenth century. Whether Maria could afford one is a moot point however, and the court was offering her no financial assistance. Alcoholism was widely believed to be a working class issue and that is where most of the Temperance Movement’s efforts were concentrated, but this demonstrates that it was a problem at all levels of society in the 1890s.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, December 12, 1893]

A strange man at Worship Street – was he the ‘Ripper’?

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Today I am spending most of my time in Whitechapel planning out a history trip for my undergraduate students. This is something I do every year – take a party of students studying my third year module on ‘Crime and Popular Culture’ in the nineteenth century to visit the sites associated with the ‘Jack the Ripper’ murders. Plenty of commercial walking tours exist of course, some much better than others.

Personally I’m not a fan of the exploitative type that thinks that projecting an image of a dead woman onto the brick walls of modern Spitalfields is appropriate. I’d much rather listen to an expert who can impart some context and tell the audience about the history of the area and its peoples as well as treat the murder victims with the respect they deserve. Those tours do exist, so if you want to take one do some research before you make your choice.

I don’t have the luxury of being able to pay for a commercial tour so I do it myself. But Whitechapel is constantly changing so I need to revisit the place regularly to see what changes I need to make to my route. This time however there is added piquancy to my trip because I have almost finished making the edits to my first draft of a new ‘Ripper’ book. This has been written in collaboration with a former student of mine who thought he had a new solution to the world’s most infamous cold case. Andy has done the research on the murders and has added several to the original police file, while I have concentrated on the social history to provide context. We have a draft manuscript, all we need now is a publisher…

Anyway, back to Whitechapel and back to 1888 and a month after Mary Kelly became the fifth canonical (but not , we argue, the last) victim of ‘Jack’, what was happening at the Worship Street Police Court? Worship Street (along with Thames) served the East End and several of the murdered women in the ‘Ripper’ series appeared here on a variety of cares relating to prostitution, disorderly behaviour and drunkenness in the late 1880s.

Joseph Isaacs, a 30 year-old cigar maker, was charged with theft. His name suggests he belonged to the large immigrant Jewish population of the area which have been closely associated with the murders. Quite early on a man named John Pizer was arrested on suspicion of being the killer. Pizer (who was also known as ‘leather apron’ – a local man with a reputation for threatening prostitutes). Pizer was able to provide an alibi and was released but some experts still believe he may have been the killer.

The idea that the murderer was a Jew was helped by widespread anti-semitism and the belief that ‘no Englishman could do such a thing’. Xenophobia, racism and anti-immigrant tension suffused society in the 1880s and the killings brought all of this to the surface.

Joseph Isaacs was accused of stealing a watch. He had entered a shop in the West End of London holding a violin bow. He asked the shop’s proprietor, a Mr Levenson, if he could repair the bow. As they discussed the transaction however, Isaacs suddenly ‘bolted out’ of the shop. Mr Levenson quickly realised that he stolen a gold watch and raised the alarm.

Isaacs was arrested some time later in Drury lane but not in connection to this offence. He’d been picked up because his appearance seemingly matched the description offered of a man seen near Mary Kelly’s home on the night of her murder. At Worship Street Police court Mary Cusins, the deputy of a lodging house in Paternoster Row, Spitalfields, testified that Isaacs had stayed there for ‘three or four nights’ around the time of Kelly’s murder.

‘On the night of the murder she heard him walking about the room’. She added that ‘he disappeared after that murder, leaving the violin bow behind’.

All this had emerged as the police made house-to house enquiries in the wake of the murders. The police have ben widely criticised for their failure to catch ‘Jack’ but most experts now acknowledge that they did all the right things things at the time. Without forensics, and chasing a man that attacked strangers, they had very little to go on and were really dependent on the killer making a mistake. Jack didn’t really make any mistakes, however, and eluded the growing cordon that the combined force of the Met and the City Police threw out to trap him.

Isaacs was remanded by the sitting magistrate at Worship Street (Mr Bushby). He had allegedly stolen a watch but there was no sign of it. But more importantly Detective Record said that he still had some questions to answer with regards to his movements around the time of Mary Kelly’s murder. Isaacs appeared a week later, again in the company of Detective Record. He had been cleared of any involvement in the Ripper murders was convicted of stealing Julius Levenson’s watch and sent to prison for three months at hard labour.

Another possible suspect eliminated and another line of enquiry completed, the men of H Division’s search for the world’s first serial killer continued…

[from The Standard, Saturday, December 08, 1888]

A ‘grossly profligate young blackguard’ at Bromley

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All this week at my university we are running a series of events designed at raising awareness of issues surrounding sexual assault, harassment and consent. It is the third year running such activities have happened and this time I’m pleased to be aligning my second year teaching with it, by giving  special lecture and linked seminar workshop on the prosecution of rape in the 18th and 19th centuries.

One of the issues that any study of sexual assault in the past (and indeed the present) highlights is the difficulty survivors have in bringing their abusers to court and gaining any sort of justice. This remains an extremely difficult thing to do today and Time Magazine’s collective award of their Person of the Year 2017 to the ‘silence braekers’ reflects the courage of the women and men who have come forward to speak out.

Sexual assault and harassment takes many forms of course. Take this case for example, from December 1864. Amelia Harrison, a married woman who lived in Nelson Street, Bromley, was crossing the fields near her home at 10 at night when she was attacked.

A young lad rushed up to her from behind, raised her skirts and grabbed her ‘in a grossly indecent manner’. In the witness box at Thames Police Court Mrs Harrison was naturally reticent to go into much detail but Mr Paget pressed her. Reluctantly she ‘described the infamous outrage committed upon her , and said the prisoner hurt her’. She then told the court she was five months pregnant.

We don’t know exactly what happened but clearly some form of sexual assault had been committed. The lad in the dock, a ‘rough-looking boy’ named George Thomas wasn’t yet 15 years of age and cut a sorry figure. At first he denied doing anything and counter claimed saying Mrs Harrison had hit him and cut his lip.

He may have sustained an injury but it was soon clear that it must have come as  result of her resistance to his assault. Given the prisoner’s detail and the seriousness of the charge Mr Paget said he would have to formally commit him to a jury trial at the Sessions.

At this Thomas broke down and started to sob. He called for his mother, admitted his crime, and ‘begged forgiveness’. The magistrate paused and consulted with his chief clerk. He was minded, he said, to send Thomas for trial but decided in the end to punish him summarily. The prisoner was ‘a grossly profligate young blackguard’, he said, ‘and must be punished for laying his hands on a woman so indecently’. He would go to prison for two months at hard labour.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, December 07, 1864}

‘Every member of the force has a watch and chain, of course, How he got it, from what source?’ A policeman in the dock at Thames

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If you want to know the time, ask a policeman.
The proper city time, ask a policeman,
Every member of the force has a watch and chain, of course,
How he got it, from what source? ask a policeman.

This well-known music hall ditty (which I’ve mentioned before) reflects a contemporary working-class distrust of the police by suggesting that they weren’t always as honest as they should have been.

When William Harris, a Ratcliff wine cooper, and his wife got home from a night out they found the door of their house open and a policeman guarding it. It was half-past midnight and the couple must have been both surprised and concerned.

The officer quickly moved to reassure them. He told them he’d found it ajar and had investigated. There may have been a burglary but he wasn’t sure, no one was on the premises, but they had better check if anything was missing.

Mr Harris rushed upstairs and looked around to see if anything had been disturbed. It didn’t seem as if it had but then he realised his pocket watch and chain was missing from the dressing table. He went down to report it the loss to the constable.

Earlier that evening PC Patrick Barry (382K) and PC John Prestage (also K Division), were patrolling on Broad Street in Ratcliffe when the latter called Barry’s attention to a door that seemed open. PC Prestage told his colleague to wait outside while he investigated. He went upstairs but reported that no one was in the the house. He then sent Barry off to  to report a suspected robbery, telling him he would stand guard in the meantime.

Barry soon returned with sergeant Richard Plumsett, who had been checking the patrols of his constables as was normal practice. Sergeants would set constables off on their beats and time them to ensure they were  in the right place at the right time. He came over the the house in Broad Street and spoke to both officers. This was about 11.45 at night.

Just after 12.30 Sergeant Plumsett was back and now he found Barry, Prestage and Mr Harris embroiled in an argument. Harris was complaining about the loss of his watch but wasn’t keen on going along to the police station to officially report it. PC Prestage told his superior that:

‘Mr Harris does not seem satisfied about losing his watch: I don’t know whether he wants to blame the police for it’.

The sergeant then noticed that Prestage was drunk, or at least under the influence of alcohol. He immediately instructed the pair of them to return to the station with him.

Back at the King David Lane police station the situation developed. Mr Harris arrived later on and accused the policeman of robbing him. With a drunken officer and an unhappy local resident the desk sergeant, Robert Smith, told Prestage that he’d better turn out his pockets to satisfy the cooper’s suspicions.

‘Have you got a watch?’ Sergeant Smith asked.

‘Yes, I am in the habit of carrying two watches’, replied PC Prestage, and unbuttoned his great coat to reveal a watch on a chain around his neck.

‘Where is the other watch?’ the sergeant continued, and it was handed over.

When Mr Harris was shown the watch he immediately identified at the one he had lost from his dressing table. The police had no choice and the next morning PC Prestage found himself in the dock at Thames Police Court in front of the imposing figure of Mr Lushington.

The magistrate asked him to explain himself but all he could say was that he was ‘under the influence of liquor and was not aware he had taken the watch’. This was too serious for Mr Lushington to deal with there and then so he remanded him for a week with a view to committing him for trial at the Middlesex Sessions.

On 17 December 1877 John Prestage (described as a baker, not a policeman) was tried and convicted of theft at Middlesex Sessions and sentenced to nine years imprisonment. He was 20 years old and pleaded guilty. He was sent, as so many of those sentenced were, to Cold Bath Fields prison. I’m curious to know why he wasn’t described as a policeman when the newspaper report is very clear that he was.  The Daily Gazette (a Middlesbrough paper) reported the case at Middlesex as that of a ‘Dishonest Policeman’ so there seems to be no doubt as to his occupation.

[from The Standard, Monday, December 03, 1877]

A pair of well-read rogues at the Mansion House

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The New Police (created in London in 1829) spent most of their time on patrol. They were tasked with knowing their beat inside out; all the locals, shops, warehouses and dwellings while keeping an eye out for suspicious characters, open windows and broken locks. The aim of the police was crime prevention and deterrence and in this they were a ‘modern’ extension of the old watchmen of early modern and eighteenth-century London.

One of these new ‘Peelers’ (after Sir Robert Peel, the home secretary that created them) was walking his beat on Liverpool Street in early December 1851 when he noticed two men acting suspiciously. One seemed to be trying to hide something under his coat while the other glanced about, as if checking whether anyone had seen them.

Perhaps noticing the policeman they turned into a street and the ‘bobby’ (another nickname derived from Peel) watched as one stopped and trued to time a pair of books up with a piece of string.  The officer (named in the newspaper report) approached and stopped them and asked what they were doing.

The men, Henry Robinson and Henry Hamper, said they had been given the books by a beer-shop owner to take to a pawn shop on her behalf. The books in question were two volumes of the Waverley Novels by Sir Walter Scott. They were ‘elegantly bound’ and the policeman was unconvinced by the pair’s explanation.

It wasn’t hard to trace the beer shop owner, who doubled as the men’s landlady, and she and the would-be thieves all appeared at the Mansion House in front of the Lord Mayor. She explained that she had bought the books at £1 8 a volume and had a set of them.  There were a lot of the Waverley novels, published by Scott (anonymously at first) from 1814 to 1831. The novels (which included Ivanhoe, a work I have at home) were extremely popular with readers in the nineteenth century. The landlady’s set must have been worth quite a bit, as just one of them would be the equivalent of about £80 today.

In recent weeks she’d found that four of the books had been stolen from the trunk she kept them in. When challenged in court one of the Henrys admitted taking two books out of the trunk and selling them in Petticoat Lane for 5s, a fraction of their value.

The Lord Mayor chose not to send them for trial before a jury, possibly because the evidence was not as concrete as it might be. A jury might not be convinced that both of them had taken the items or that they hadn’t simply found them. Better then to use his summary powers and convict them as ‘rogues and vagabonds’ which required much less of a burden of proof. He sent them to prison for two months.

Sadly I don’t think they were allowed to take the books with them as reading matter.

[from The Morning Post , Tuesday, December 02, 1851]

The student who thought he knew the law better than a magistrate

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John Williamson was a Law student who lived in Queen’s Road, Bayswater. In November 1874 he entered the Spread Eagle pub  accompanied  by a soldier he’d spent the afternoon drinking with, and demanded to be served.

The publican, Mr Barwell, took one look at Williamson and his companion and decided they were drunk and so refused to serve them. Victorian landlords were wary of serving drunks because they were obliged (under the terms of their licenses) to keep ‘orderly’ houses and overly inebriated customers could be troublesome.

The law student took this refusal badly however, and when he got outside he took out his anger on the landlord by smashing one of his windows before running away. The police were called and Williamson was arrested in Davies Street nearby and taken into custody.  He was then held overnight at a police station before being presented at Marlborough Police Station in the morning charged with being drunk and causing criminal damage to the value of £4.

Williamson, as a student of the law, decided (unwisely it has to be said) to challenge the legal basis for his arrest. He declared the arrest was unlawful because the ‘constable did not see him break the window’. Instead of arresting him and holding him in custody the policeman should have taken his name and address so that Mr Barwell could have applied for a summons.

Mr Newton (the sitting justice at Marlborough Street) told him he was wrong. The constable had acted correctly; the young man was drunk and acting in a disorderly manner. He convicted him of the damage and ordered him to pay for the damage he’d caused. In addition to the £4 for replacing the window he fined him 20s (a not inconsiderable amount) for being found drunk. The magistrate warned him that if he failed to pay either of the sums owing he would go to prison for six weeks.

It was an object lesson in presuming to know more than one’s ‘betters’ and I’m fairly sure the experienced legal professional enjoyed making his point absolutely clear to the precocious young undergraduate. Whether the  lesson was learned is a moot point.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, November 24, 1874]