Winter is coming and for one mother that means a spell inside

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Winter is coming.

Hallowe’en has come and gone and Bonfire Night is looming. The clocks have gone back and the air has turned distinctly chilly. Yesterday in town I noticed more rough sleepers than usual around King’s Cross and St Pancras and reflected once again that our modern society still hasn’t solved the problem of poverty.

The reports from the Victorian Police Courts provide ample evidence that desperation and poverty were endemic in the 1800s. This was a society without a welfare state, with no old age pension scheme, or National Health Service, or social services. Where we have a benefits system (however flawed) they had the workhouse or charity and recourse to either meant shame and failure.

In our ‘modern’ world we have people whose lives have been destroyed by drink or drugs and both provide the really desperate with the anaesthetic they need to simply survive on day-to-day basis. I saw a notice yesterday that said, ‘would you smash up a phone box to get 24 hours in a dry cell with food?’

This is a reality for some people in ‘modern’ Britain.

In October 1865 Mary M’Grath was charged at Thames Police Court with being drunk and disorderly and punching a policeman. Mary was about 30 years old and had a baby with her in court. PC John Mansfield (393K) testified that on the previous afternoon he had seen Mary rolling about, quite drunk, on the East India Dock Road.

She was carrying her infant and staggering about so badly that she kept banging into the nearby ‘walls and houses’. The child was ‘injured and screamed fearfully’, he added. Mary kept up a stream of the most unpleasant language, so disgusting that several onlookers complained to him about it.

Eventually  she fell heavily and a man rushed up to save the child and a police sergeant arrived to help  PC Mansfield take her to the police station. Once there she rewarded him with more abuse and landed a blow on his face, blackening his eye and impairing his sight.

The next day they appeared in court before Mr Paget, the magistrate, who asked the constable what had become of the child.

‘It was taken to the workhouse’, the policeman replied.

‘How old is it?’ the magistrate asked him.

‘Four months old’.

‘It is eight months old’, piped up Mary from the dock.

Mr Paget declared that nothing was more disgraceful than seeing a mother so drunk in public. Didn’t she have a husband at home he enquired.

‘No sir, my husband died seven years ago’, came the reply. So her baby was illegitimate and presumably the product of new relationship or a casual encounter, and no father was present in court. Drunk, riotous and promiscuous the magistrate was probably thinking, a suitable object not for pity but for condemnation.

In reality of course Mary’s life became that much more difficult when her husband had passed away. She would have lost the main bread winner and her partner. It is likely she already had children so they would have added to her problems. Perhaps this explains her descent into alcoholism.

She told him that she couldn’t remember what had happened the previous day, so drunk had she been. She had been inside the workhouse, and therefore destitute as no one went inside iff they could possibly help it.

‘I was there long enough’ she explained, and ‘I was half starved’ and ‘discharged myself. I took a drop [of alcohol] and lost myself’.

So in her version of events  she had been so malnourished in the ‘house’ that a small amount of drink (probably gin) had affected her much more than it would normally. It was probably an exaggeration of the truth but it did her no good. Instead of opting to find her some help in the form of money, food and shelter Mr Paget sent her to prison for a month at hard labour.

She had merely swapped one uncaring institution for another. As for the child, well as a ‘suckling’ Mr Paget decided it needed to stay with its mother, so off to goal it went as well.

This was an oft repeated story in Victorian London. Children were growing up affected by alcoholism, grinding poverty, homelessness, and sometimes, prison. No wonder reformers demanded change and some turned to ‘extreme’ politics (like socialism or anarchism). Men like Paget had comfortable lives and sat in judgement for the most part on those that scraped by.

Can we, hand on heart, say that 150 years later everything is so much better? Yes, of course to an extent we have provided a much better safety net for Mary M’Grath and her baby. But have we really tackled the root causes of her poverty? No, I don’t think we have  and while we pursue a form of economics and politics that allows some people to live in epic luxury while others sleep rough on the streets I don’t think we can sit in judgement of our ancestors either.

Winter is coming.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, November 01, 1865]

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Two ‘dangerous female thieves’ opt for the best ‘worst case’ scenario

Poplar High Street in the late 1800s

Thomas Thomas had only recently docked in London from a long voyage out of Adelaide, Australia. The steamship fireman had picked up his wages on the Monday and headed from his digs to a beer shop in Poplar to relax.

As he sat drink ‘some ale’ two women approached him and asked him to join them. This was a fairly standard approach for the area’s prostitutes and I expect Thomas knew what he was letting himself in for when he accepted their invitation.

Ellen White and Elizabeth Johnson, (described in the report as ‘dangerous thieves’) were clearly well-know to the police and courts and were soon deploying diversionary tactics to rob the sailor.

As Johnson held his attention in conversation White,’thrust her hand in his trousers pocket and took from it a bag containing three half sovereigns’.

Thomas felt the attempt on his purse and grabbed her, but wasn’t quick enough to prevent her passing ‘something’ (his money most likely) to her confederate. Both women rose and quickly tried to get away with their prize. But Thomas maintained a firm grip on White and ‘called out lustily for the police’. Within moments both women were in custody and were taken to the police station.

A ‘female-searcher’ was employed to search both prisoners but nothing was found on them. She reported, however, that while she conducted the search she thought she saw both women swallow something. One of the police constables present at the search also said that he believed each defendant had swallowed at least one coin to prevent any evidence being found on them.

In court at Thames both women protested their innocence before Mr Selfe, the sitting magistrate. He told them them that in the circumstances he was going to commit them for trial before a jury. At this the women asked him instead to deal with them summarily, as they would receive a much reduced sentence if he did.

‘Oh, settle it here. Settle it here, sir; pray do, Mr Selfe’ they pleaded.

‘You say you are innocent, and I can’t settle it here’ replied the justice. ‘If you plead guilty I will settle it now. Are you guilty or not guilty? You may plead now or be committed for trial.’

White and Johnson were clearly upset at being put in this situation and continued to protest their innocence, presumably knowing that the lack of any hard evidence against them meant there at least was some doubt whether a jury would convict. ‘It was very hard to be charged with a crime they did not commit’, they argued. Mr Selfe was adamant however: they had to plead guilty if they wanted him to determine their fate, otherwise a jury would decide.

The women now conferred and must have been weighing up the chances that a jury might convict them anyway, and that they risked a much more severe prison term from the Middlesex sessions if convicted. Eventually they reluctantly agreed to confess to the theft and take their punishment.

Now a policeman piped up and said that Ellen White had a previous conviction for stealing and had served a month in prison for it. Mr Selfe said he was not interested and declared that he knew both of them well as defendants in his court.  Since Thomas Thomas was soon going to return to the sea he said he would deal with them today and sentenced both women to three months imprisonment with hard labour.

I think this demonstrates the problem facing petty thieves in court in the period: arguably they had committed the crime anyway but there was no hard evidence to convict them. Any lawyer worth his salt would have got them off but they hadn’t the funds to employ one and must have thought they’d been clever enough to avoid being convicted.

Mr Selfe could have dismissed the case but he knew them, as did the police. There was a good chance that a jury might have acquitted them for lack of evidence and because it was hardly likely that Thomas would have stuck around to press charges and appear in court; his occupation meant he would at sea for months at a time.

So this was a case of risk assessment and brinkmanship. In this case the women blinked first and chose a short spell in prison as a better alternative to the longer one they might have suffered had a jury found them guilty. As to the missing sovereigns, well, everything passes eventually…

[from The Morning Chronicle , Wednesday, October 26, 1859]

A tale of two drunks at Westminster

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The London Police Court magistracy spent most of their time disciplining those brought in as drunk and disorderly by the officers of the Metropolitan police. Most were admonished and fined a small sum, but repeat offenders or those that resisted arrest, and used bad language or violence, were fined more heavily or sent to prison.

The press rarely bothered to report these sort of cases because they were hardly newsworthy but occasionally, perhaps to remind their readership of the dangers of alcohol or because a particular case merited it, they included it. In October 1877 two cases from Westminster Police Court were set out side by side and reflect the ‘usual suspects’ when it came to D&D charges.

Martin Sharp, a ‘carpet planner’ from Chelsea, had just left a club in Radnor Street off the King’s Road with some companions. They had made a bit of noise and this had alerted the attention of the local beat constable, PC Walter Cousins (243B). The policeman politely asked the men to go home quietly and, ‘to give them the opportunity to of doing so, walked on’.

However, while the others dispersed as requested Sharp leaned against a doorway and showed no sign of budging. PC Cousins insisted he leave but was ignored. Then, according to the constable’s report, Sharp ran at him full tilt and grabbed him by his whiskers. The attack was so violent that the carpet man managed to pull clumps of the policeman’s facial hair out; traces of this were later found in his pockets.

With difficulty Sharp was taken to the nearest police station and charged with being drunk and disorderly and with assaulting the officer. In court he denied being drunk and said that he had merely been sheltering in the portico from the rain when PC Cousins had ‘manhandled him very roughly’. Naturally, he added, he had resisted.

Since he could produce no witnesses to support his version of events Mr D’Eyncourt chose to take the constable’s word and fined Sharp 20s or ten days imprisonment. Placing his hat on his head Sharp paid his fine and left court.

According to the headline of the press report Sharp had had a ‘lucky escape’ but Eliza Smith was not so fortunate. She was brought in by another policeman, Isaac Sculpher (260B) who accused her of being drunk and violent. Eliza was well-known to the police and courts as a disorderly prostitute.

In this instance Eliza had apparently been quarrelling with two other street walkers and again, like Sharp and his mates, this had brought them to the attention of the police. When PC Sculpher attempted to ‘remove her’ Eliza resisted arrest and spat in his face. She was described in court as ‘the most violent and foul-mouthed prostitute in the neighbourhood of Knightsbridge’  and Sculpher had to enlist the help of three other officers to drag her to the police station.

In the course of this the policeman alleged that his prisoner had ‘hit him in the hand’ and had injured him. In court Eliza vehemently denied this saying that the reason that the man’s hand was marked was because he had struck her in the mouth, ‘loosening her teeth’. Once again the magistrate opted to believe the policeman not the drunk and sent her down for six weeks. Eliza left the court ‘uttering the most horrible threats and blasphemy to the magistrate, and was with difficulty conveyed to the cells’.

I wonder if her anger was justified on this occasion? It does seem a little odd that the only injury that PC Sculpher sustained was to his hand; that’s a odd place to hit someone. In fact in both cases while the police were evidently ‘doing their duty’ in attempting to clear the streets of late night revellers and unwanted prostitutes, they were both a little heavy handed in the process.

[from The Illustrated Police News etc, Saturday, October 20, 1877]

A case of French ‘immigrants’ coming over here and conducting themselves disgracefully

Prostitution on the Haymarket, c.1861

We are fairly use to the modern tabloid complaint that ‘this country is being ruined’ by an influx of foreign workers. Much of the rhetoric of Brexit concerned arguments about immigration and competition for jobs and resources. There is nothing very new in this of course, the first piece of anti-immigration legislation (the Aliens Act 1905) came about after a long anti-immigrant campaign which targeted poor European migrants like Jews from the Russian Pale.

Foreigners (broadly defined) are also often blamed for a range of social problems from bad driving, to overcrowded housing, to child abuse, and international terrorism. The reality is that while immigrants can and have been associated with all of these things, so are British born natives, from all parts of the country.

In October 1851 the Marlborough Street Police Court magistrate was exercising his particular example of the sort of casual racism and xenophobia that continues to form the basis of much anti-immigrant sentiment. In dealing with a large number of women brought in for soliciting prostitution and acting in a disorderly manner on the Haymarket, Mr Hardwick turned most of his ire on the non-English women before him.

The increased number of prostitutes in court had been the result of a clampdown by the police, as The Morning Chronicle’s readership were informed:

‘it appeared that owing to the great increase of loose women, principally foreign, and their shameless conduct in the public streets, the inhabitants had made complaints to the Police Commissioners, and instructions had, in consequence, been issued to the constables to apprehend all persons so offending’.

Mr Hardwick first dealt with the indigenous ‘disorderlies’ and then addressed the ‘foreign’ French contingent directly. He lectured them, ‘remarking that they well knew that in France they would not be permitted to conduct their profession openly, or to outrage public decency in the streets’. He fined each of them 7s and warned them that if they came before him again ‘severe measures would be resorted to’.

I’m not sure that his facts were correct; prostitution was just as much  problem in Paris as it was in London and was as likely to be prosecuted here as much as there. France was about to experience another political upheaval, as Louis-Napoleon launched his coup d’etat in December of 1851 to make himself Napoleon III, but I hardly believe that is why so many French sex workers chose to ply their trade in London. The Haymarket was notorious in the period as a place where prostitutes openly touted for business, on the streets and in the bars and theatres of the West End.

That so many of these women were foreign nationals should come us no surprise, as today many of those working London’s streets and clubs are migrants, most trafficked by criminal gangs and forced in what is effectively slave labour. I’m not sure what ‘severe measures’ Mr Hardwick had in mind, but I doubt it would have deterred the demoiselles of the Haymarket, well not for long anyway.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Saturday, October 18, 1851]

A Dartmoor prison warder has an expensive encounter with a ‘lady of the town’.

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Tothill Street, Westminster in the early 1800s (from http://spitalfieldslife.com/2014/04/01/more-long-forgotten-london/)

London was a huge draw for visitors in the nineteenth century, especially after the nation’s railway network was built. London was also the country’s criminal justice hub and many of those sentenced to terms of penal servitude were processed in the capital before being sent to institutions as far away as Devon or the Isle of wight. So Daniel Mahoney, a principal warder (prison officer in today’s terminology) at Dartmoor may have been in the capital for work or pleasure. Regardless of which it was he soon fell victim to one of the oldest tricks in the book.

As he was walking in Tothill Street (not far from where St James’ Park station is today) he was ‘accosted’ (his words) by Mary Brown. Mary was a ‘woman of the town’, a prostitute, but Mahoney (who was wearing his uniform) later made out that he didn’t realise this at first. According to the warder Mary asked him if he was looking for somewhere to stay and when he said he was she ‘told him she would take him to a nice clean place’ and went with him to an address in Orchard Street (near Marble Arch).

Once at the house she asked him if ‘he would treat her with some gin’. This was part of the usual transaction of prostitution and for Mahoney to later pretend otherwise was risible. Gin was fetched and two other women joined the party. The warder relaxed and took off his neck-stock (an uncomfortable early version of the stiff collar) and placed it on the table along with his handkerchief, watch and a purse of money.

Without detailing what happened next it must have been pretty obvious to the readership of The Morning Chronicle that Mahoney was enjoying the company of these ‘ladies’ and not paying attention to the danger he was in. London’s prostitutes had been decoying men into low lodging houses, getting them tipsy and parting them from their valuables for hundreds of years and a prison officer must have offered a particularly tempting prospect.

Before he realised what was going on the women had seized his goods and ran off with them. The next day (after Mahoney had reported the theft to the police) one officer made his way undercover to Orchard Street to make some enquiries. He probably had a fair idea from the warder’s description of who he was looking for even if Mary had not revealed her real name.

As police constable John Toomer (221B) strolled along Orchard Street Mary Brown came out into the street from her lodging at number 57 and spoke to him. Seemingly not realising who he was she started to brag about her successful exploits the night before.

Clutching a glass of brandy, ‘She told him she’d had  “a good pull” on the previous night’, that her victim was  ‘one of the Penitentiary officers; and she had got £3 10s in money, a beautiful watch and gold guard, and other things’.

The policeman asked her what she had done with he things and she admitted passing them on to one of her ‘companions’, Emma and spending some of the cash.  She then invited the policeman to go and have a drink with her. He agreed so he could pump her for more information and they walked on for a while. However, as soon as they got within striking distance of the nearest police station PC Toomer revealed himself and took her into custody.

Charged with robbery before the Westminster magistrate (Mr Paynter) Mary denied everything. In her version of events she had summoned by the warder to a house in Almonry. He had apparently paid a lad a shilling to fetch her, for sex one presumes. He had left his handkerchief there she told the justice. Thereafter they had continued on to Tothill Street where they met up with some other women and the warder bought them all something to drink. The last time she had seen Mahoney he was enjoying the company of one these women in a room in Orchard Street but Mary had left and knew nothing of the robbery.

Whatever the truth was the weight of evidence was fairly damning for Mary; especially her supposed confession to the plain-clothes policeman. But Mahoney did not come out of this very well either. The magistrate said he ‘was sorry to see a person of the prosecutor’s official position capable of such conduct’. He remanded Mary for a week for further enquiries.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, September 24, 1857]

A policeman and a magistrate (accidentally) save a woman’s life

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It was half-past midnight on the morning of Friday 7 September 1888 and police constable Henry Matthews (of H Division, Metropolitan Police) was walking his beat. It was a fairly normal duty for PC Matthews but he must have been on some level of heightened awareness given that just a few week earlier the mutilated body of Mary ‘Polly’ Nichols had been found in Buck’s Row.

If the death of ‘Polly’ had deterred some local women from trying to earn a small amount of money by prostituting themselves it certainly hadn’t had that effect on Margaret Sullivan and her companion. When PC Matthews turned into Church Lane Whitechapel he found the pair talking loudly and probably soliciting trade. Matthews told them both to move along or go home and while one did, Margaret refused and gave him a mouthful of invective.

She was apparently a well-known character to the police and was alter described in court as ‘violent and dangerous’. She certainly was violent on this occasion, launching an attack on the policeman and forcing him to call for help. When PC 354H arrived they were able to get under control and took her to the station.

It was not without a struggle though in which PC Matthews was bitten and both men were kicked as they manhandled Margaret into custody. When up before the Thames magistrate in the morning, Margaret’s previous criminal record was revealed; she had once served 18 months for assaulting a warder (presumably while already in gaol for some form of drunken and disorderly behaviour). The charge this time was assault and using foul and obscene language, a very common prosecution heard at Thames.

Mr Lushington sent her to prison for a further six months and inadvertently saved her life. The very next morning (the 8th September) another dead woman was found, this time in a backyard of a property in Hanbury Street. Her name was Annie Chapman, the second canonical victim of ‘Jack the Ripper’.

As a postscript I have found a Margaret Sullivan in the Thames Court Register I have been using for some research closely related to this blog. In May 1881  a ‘Margaret Sullivan’  was brought before Mr Saunders charged with being drunk and incapable. He fined her 26d which she paid. She was 21 years of age. If this was the same Margaret Sullivan then by 1888 she was probably 28 and clearly not much wiser. She was off the streets though and safe from ‘Jack’.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, September 08, 1888]

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