‘I think you are a fool, nothing more’; playground insults in Hyde Park

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The reports of the Victorian police courts reveal much about society in the 1800s. Some of this is very familiar to us and we can imagine ourselves in their world. In other instances it seems a world apart, almost ‘another country’ entirely.

Take this case, from the Marlborough Street Police Court in the early years of Queen Victoria’s reign. This suggests a society that is riven with deep concerns regarding status and reputation. The two men involved are prepared to use the law to challenge assaults not on their person, but on their public image. Personal slights and insult is treated so seriously that it requires redress before a magistrate. I’m not sure that would be the case today.

Mr Dunn and Mr Smyth were well-to-do members of London’s middle class. Richard Dunn was a barrister while Smyth was a surgeon. Both were Irish and (in Victorian popular culture at least) the Irish had a reputation for being hot headed.

The pair were not formally acquainted with each other but met often, as they walked through Hyde Park. For some unknown (or undeclared) reason they didn’t like each other and a sort of feud had been established.

On January 9 January 1846 Dunn was strolling across the park when he saw the surgeon walking towards him. As the men crossed each other’s path Smyth blew a raspberry or made some similar noise with his mouth.

It was a pathetic thing for a grown man of quite high social status to do to another. In fact it was the sort of behaviour we’d associate with the school playground. But the barrister was determined that this insult should not pass unchallenged. Instead of ignoring it he went to his local police court, at Marlborough Street, and obtained a summons against Mr Smyth to bring him in to answer a charge.

On the 13 January the pair were up before Mr Maltby and Smyth was accused of behaviour that was intended to cause a breach of the peace. Dunn’s allegation was then, that by continually making rude noises or gestures towards him the medical man was actually attempting to make his lose his temper and provoke a fight between them.

Smyth didn’t deny making the rude noise but counter-claimed that Dunn had started it by ‘thrusting his tongue out at him as he passed’. ‘I had no wish to insult the complainant’, Smyth told the magistrate; ‘I only meant to say to him, by what I did, I think you are a fool, nothing more’.

‘Such conduct does appear likely to cause a breach of the peace’, the magistrate declared and fined Smyth 40s. This enraged the surgeon who refused to pay. He then threatened to sue Mr Maltby ‘for daring to fine him’ but he calmed down  and paid up when the justice had him locked up in the cells for a while. We might imagine the frustration of the sitting justice, to have his time wasted by such a pair of self-important middle-class men.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, January 14, 1846]

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A heartless debt collector at Battersea and a sighting of the Ripper in Poplar?

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So another Christmas is upon us and today thousands of people (well men mostly) will be rushing around trying to secure that last minute present for the ‘significant other’ in their lives. Meanwhile I am sitting smugly, safe in the knowledge that I had this all wrapped up (literally) by Wednesday evening. Which means I have today free to write about the past at my leisure.

This blog is based on reading  section of news reports of the cases heard before London’s Police Court magistrates in the reign of Queen Victoria. Much before 1837 reports exist but are fewer in number and so you’ll find most of mine bunch between about 1850 and 1900. I use today’s date and pick a year – this morning it is 1888, a year I often return to because it was in that late summer and autumn that London was terrorised by a killer known only as ‘Jack the Ripper’. I teach a whole module based around the Whitechapel murders of 1888 at the University of Northampton where I am currently head of the History department.

Whilst looking at the regular courts reports for the 24 December 1888 I noticed an additional ‘crime news’ item about a murder case that was occupying the attention of readers. I’ll return to that story after my usual report from the police courts. Today the court in question is Wandsworth, south of the River Thames and to the west. The man in the dock was Arthur Baldwin who was accused of violently assaulting a woman in Battersea.

On the 13 December Baldwin, a debt collector, turned up at the home of Elizabeth Leonard at 12 Gwynn Road in Battersea. Baldwin was accompanied by a bailiff from the county court and they demanded the rent she owed on the property. She said she hadn’t got the money for the rent, and clutching her purse she turned to her little boy and took out a shilling for him to go and buy some bread.

At this Baldwin reached across and snatched her purse and the pair wrestled with it. He took out several pawn tickets and as Elizabeth fought with him the tickets were ripped up and she was thrown violently against the large copper kettle on the stove. Baldwin and the bailiff (a Mr Hewett) picked up several items of Elizabeth’s furniture, ‘including three chairs and a Dutch clock’, and left with them.

The debt itself amounted to just 8s and Baldwin had obtained a warrant, but there was no evidence that he’d shown it to Elizabeth. The magistrate (Mt Curtis Bennett)  thought he was acting illegally and ‘had no right to go to the house at all’. He fined the debt collector 20awarded Elizabeth 30s costs which should have covered the rent arrears and her pawned goods. I’d like to think that the fact that the case came up as Christmas was approaching was in the justice’s mind. Here was a poor woman and child, with no husband, in debt and probably dreading what the New Year would bring. Perhaps with Scrooge and Tiny Tim in mind Mr Curtis Bennett did the right thing on this occasion.

Meanwhile, under the report of the heartless debt collector was one which caught my eye entitled ‘The Poplar Murder’.

In the morning of Thursday 20 December 1888 a woman’s body had been found in Clarke’s Yard, Poplar. Next to her was a glass bottle which at first was believed to contain poison. It looked initially like a suicide. But the bottle had actually held sandalwood oil and it quickly became evident that the woman had been strangled. A doctor’s report suggested she had been attacked from behind:

‘Dr Brownfield’s opinion is that the murderer stood behind the woman on her left side, and having the ends of a cord wrapped around his hands, threw it around  her throat, and crossing his hands so strangled her’.

The report went on the say that there was considerably ‘conjecture’ about the nature of the cord and the way it was used. In America the police used a similar cord to restrain those they had arrested instead of handcuffs – with the nickname “Come along”. ‘The more a prisoner struggles the tighter is drawn the cord’, the paper added.

The woman had marks on her neck which were consistent with such a weapon being used and the reporter stated that there had been recent speculation that the Whitechapel murder was an American. Indeed some reports suggested the killer might be a native American from Buffalo Bill Cody’s travelling Wild West show and the quack doctor, Francis Tumblety, has also been closely associated with the killings. It also noted that descriptions of the man seen with the woman before she was found murdered ‘pointed to an individual of a distinctly American type’.

The murder in question was, as all Ripperologists will know, that of Rose Mylett a ‘known prostitute’. Rose is not normally considered to be a ‘Ripper’ victim (and the police even tried to suggest she’d died by natural causes or, as we’ve heard, by her own hands). Wynne Baxter and George Bagster Phillips (both closely involved in the Whitechapel murder case) and the coroner were clear that it was a homicide however but one that had to be added to the roll of unsolved murders that year.

Robert Anderson and CID never accepted the coroner’s verdict of wilful murder, however, and in 1910 wrote in his memoirs:

‘the Poplar case of December, 1888, was death from natural causes, and but for the ‘Jack the Ripper’ scare, no one would have thought of suggesting that it was a homicide’.

In my own investigation of the Ripper case (made in collaboration with a former student of mine who served with the police) we felt that Rose Mylett’s killing bears close scrutiny as a possible addition to the murder series. If we manage to get our thesis into print in 2018 I will then be able to shed a little more light on why we’ve reached this conclusion. Until then it will have to remain a mystery, just as it was to the readers of the Victorian papers in 1888.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, December 24, 1888]

Ever fallen in love with someone you shouldn’t have fallen in love with? (especially a queen)

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Queen Victoria in the Royal Box of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane (after the oil painting by E. T. Parris, 1837)

At Christmas 1837 the young Queen Victoria had been on the throne for just six months. She was not to marry until 1840 and so remained an object of desire, and for one person at least, a fantasy. James Ash was certainly smitten by her. He had visited Windsor and caught a glimpse of the eighteen year-old monarch and had fallen her over heels in love with her. It would do him no go at all.

Sadly for James he was a pretty unsuitable candidate. He was ‘about forty years of age, rather ill-favoured and something above the mechanic class’, as the reporter at Marlborough Street Police court described. He had been brought into court at the request of the parish authroories of St Giles who wanted to send Ash to a lunatic asylum.

Mr Dyer, presiding as magistrate on the 22 December 1837, was unclear why he was being asked to adjudicate in this case. It would normally, he said, be a decision for ‘a medical man’ whether someone was sent to an asylum or not.

victoria-jenna-louise-colemanA surgeon gave evidence to say that Ash was, by all accounts quite normal and rational with the notable exception that he had declared not only that he was love with the queen but insisted that his affections were returned in full.

Mr Dyer questioned Ash about his lifestyle. Did he drink? Not at all, Ash insisted. Was he married or otherwise involved with any other woman? Ash declared that he:

‘was deeply in love with her Majesty , and he had the happiness of knowing that the passion was mutual’.

I suspect at this point the magistrate was convinced of the man’s delusional state but he asked him to continue. Had he expressed his affection by letter perhaps? He hadn’t but as  soon as the queen and her ministers had completed the ‘arduous task of setting the Pension and Civil Lists he should apply to them for suitable provision, in order that he might be enabled to throw himself at the feet of her Majesty’.

Mr Dyer had no intention of letting James Ash anywhere near the young queen and was entirely satisfied that he was ‘mad’. He signed  a warrant  to have Ash confined in the Hanwell lunatic asylum* where he might tell his story to all the other residents until the authorities there decided it was safe or expedient to let him go.

I suspect that might have been some time in the future. Meanwhile Victoria married Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha and the couple had nine children who married across the European continent earning the queen the epithet of ‘grandmother of Europe’.  Victoria’s reign was peppered with attempts on her life, the earliest in 1840 when Edward Oxford shot at her carriage as it made its way on Constitution Hill. There were a further six assassination attempts, none of which succeeded. So perhaps Mr Dyer and the St Giles authorities were right to err on the side of caution and lock poor James away.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, December 23, 1837]

*For more about the asylum at Hanwell see Mike Paterson’s post for the London Historians blog.

Boxing twins at Westminster are thwarted by a new act to prevent cruelty to children

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When I think of boxing twins I always think of Ronnie and Reggie Kray, the East End’s premier gangsters of the twentieth century. There was something about being twins and taking on all-comers in the post war clubs and fairgrounds that helped immortalise the pair. Their mother was not at all happy when they chose to fight each other though, but most of the rest of the audience were; seeing brothers, twins even, attempt to knock the living daylights out of each other was a proper spectacle.

Maybe this lay at the heart of William Gamgee’s desire to see his boys fight on stage at the the London Aquarium.  He’d brought them special costumes and gloves and they had already started to learn the skills they needed to become boxers.

There was a problem however, the boys were only 8 or 9 years old and so Gammage had to apply for a licence from a magistrate if he wanted them to appear on stage at the Aquarium. To this end he’d approached Mr Partridge at Westminster Police Court and applied for a license under the Better Protection of Children Act (1889) also better known as the Children’s Charter. The act had only just become law and reflected a growing feeling that children needed protection from adults. The NSPCC had adopted its name in that year, having previously been founded as the Liverpool Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children in 1883. This organisation (inspired by an American equivalent) soon formed branches in London (founded by Lord Shaftesbury) and elsewhere. In 1895 it was granted a Royal charter.

The magistrate was amused by the application and perhaps it reminded him of a childhood desire to box at school. He quizzed the father, a hairdresser, and then called the boys to the stand. The father was asked what whether he was to receive any reward from the twins appearance on stage. No, he said, all they would get was a pair of gold medals if they won.

What about the gloves they were using? Gammage handed them over and the magistrate amused the watching court by making a fist with them as if he wanted to put them on. He agreed they seemed fit for purpose but were unlikely to hurt the children. Mr Gammage also produced a certificate from the boys’ schoolmaster to say they were good attendees at school and making progress with their lessons.

Gammage said they only fought for three rounds and he decided when they should stop. A police inspector said he’d witnessed the boys fighting and said it wasn’t ‘vicious’ and he didn’t believe anyone was getting hurt.

When the twins were questioned they said they enjoyed boxing very much. They didn’t get hurt and their father was always with them.

‘Would you rather be hairdressers, like your father, when you grow up, or fighters?’ he asked them.

‘Fighters’ was their emphatic reply, drawing laughter from the public gallery.

So now it came down to the magistrate’s opinion and his interpretation of the law. Dr Pearce, A Division’s police surgeon said he’d examined the boys and could see no ill-effects so far. A little exercise was fine he added, but ‘if it were continued night after night at their present age, he thought it would be injurious’.

That was enough for Mr Partridge. Whilst I suspect he secretly enjoyed seeing the two young pugilists in his court and fancied their sparring was perfectly safe and probably a ‘good thing’, his position as an interpreter of new laws made him err on the side of caution. He told the disappointed hairdresser and his sons that he would not be issuing a license to let them box anytime soon. They’d have to wait until they were a little bit older.

[from The Standard, Thursday, December 05, 1889]

The sad story of an elderly seamstress and her Majesty

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In the light of yesterday’s happy announcement of a royal engagement I thought I’d feature a (sort of) royal story from Victorian London’s Police courts.

In 1871 Queen Victoria had been on throne for 34 years. Her husband Albert had been dead for a decade and she was yet to adopt the title of Empress of India. Victoria had a big influence on her subjects but her withdrawal from much of public life following the loss of her consort increasingly isolated her from public affection. 1870 had seen the overthrow of the French monarchy and the creation of the Third Republic, dark echoes in England called for a similar revolution, one that never transpired. In late November Victoria’s eldest son, Albert Edward, fell ill with typhoid (probably the same disease that had killed his father) and Victoria must have feared she would lose him as well.

Meanwhile, for ordinary Londoners life went on as usual. The ‘widow of Windsor’ was almost an abstract concept since she’d ducked out of view but her name, and what she symbolised, mattered  considerably.

It certainly mattered to an elderly seamstress called Mrs Lyons. She told the magistrate at Clerkenwell that she had been promised work by her Majesty but ‘court intrigues’ were preventing her from pursuing it. Mrs Lyons lived off the Caledonian Road in north London, close to where the new St Pancras terminal was being constructed. She was poor and in ‘want of money’ she explained, but was confident that with the queen’s patronage she would be fine.

Sadly Mrs Lyons was not very well; she suffered from some form of mental illness, as a police inspector told Mr Cooke, the justice sitting on her case at Clerkenwell Police Court.

‘About two years since the poor woman began to get strange at times in her speech, said that her room was full of rats, that she had an interview with the Queen and members of the royal family, and that her Majesty had promised her money, but that she was prevented from getting it by court intrigues’ .

He went on to say that up until recently Mrs Lyons had lived quietly but in the last few months her condition had worsened and she had started threatening people, including her landlady. A doctor had been called to examine her and he’d declared she was ‘not right in her head’ and she’d been carried off to Islington workhouse. From there she was to be sent to the Colney Hatch Asylum, Europe’s largest such institution.*

She had left her room with rent arrears and her landlady was refusing to give her sister leave to take away her sibling’s few possessions until that was paid. Mr Cooke said he was glad the woman was now in safe hands (although I’m not sure I’d consider being in the ‘care’ of a Victorian asylum ‘safe’. I suppose he might have meant the public were safe from her). He ordered the court to pay the arrears so she could be reunited with her ‘things’ and dismissed the case.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, November 28, 1872]

*(and now my gym!)

for another story that feature Queen Victoria see: “Let me see the Queen, I know who the ‘Ripper’ is!”

 

The odds are stacked against a young wife, hemmed in as she was by the demands of patriarchy and the cruelty of her abusive husband

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This week my undergraduate students at Northampton will be looking at marital violence in history. I’ve set them reading by a variety of historians that will (hopefully) allow them to look at the way spousal abuse was perpetrated and prosecuted in the 18th and 19th centuries. Much of it was predicated on the prevailing ideology of patriarchy.

English society in the 1800s was fundamentally male dominated. Men held all the positions of power (save one, that of monarch after 1837) and women were effectively excluded from most decision-making.

All the Police Court magistrates I write about were men, as were all the judges and jurors at the Old Bailey. Policeman were exclusively male, most other parish officials were men, and almost all senior employers were male as well. In the household the man was dominant too; while the ‘rule of thumb’ can be over-stressed men did have (or believed they had) the right to discipline their wives and children if they thought it necessary.

Police Court magistrates dealt with a huge amount of domestic violence, nearly all of it directed at the wives or common-law partners of working-class males. Men like James Bridgeman clearly believed they were entitled to hit their wives. This had been instilled in them from childhood as they witnessed their fathers beating their mothers for the most trivial of reasons. Often the men were drunk and simply resented being questioned as to the time they were coming in. On other occasions they complained about the food they’d been presented with, or about how long they’d had to wait to get it.

Abuse was frequent but women less frequently did much about it. Some fought back and London women were a tough lot by most accounts. But the scales were hardly balanced and years of abuse took its toll. Some wives fled, others were cowed and suffered up in silence. A few took their husbands before a magistrate, often hoping he would give them a divorce. It was a forlorn hope; justices had no power to permanently separate married couples.

Many, presented with the choice of seeing their abusive husband go to prison for beating them chose instead to take them back, fearing worse punishment if they didn’t or a worsening of their economic situation (and that of their children) if he was ‘sent down’. A ‘bad’ husband was sometimes better than no husband at all some must have reckoned.

James Bridgeman was a ‘bad husband’. He beat his young wife often despite them being relatively newly wed. He had spent two ‘unhappy years’ married to Ellen, as she told the Police Court magistrate at Clerkenwell. Then, one day in November 1884 things got worse.

On the 10 November they quarrelled and Ellen left to go back to her mother in Elsted Street, Walworth. On the next morning James turned up at his mother-in-law’s house and asked Ellen to come back to the family home in Newington Causeway.

She refused and he asked her if she would at least go to court to ‘get a separation’. ‘No, I have not got time’ was her reply. The next thing she felt was a sharp pain in her neck as her husband stepped her with his clasp knife.

The witnesses that saw the attack or saw him before he stabbed her said the knife was already open; he had intended this violence or anticipated her rejection at least. She was saved by the appearance of her mother and another man who pulled Bridgeman off her.

As James ran off, Ellen was taken to the police station where her wound was dressed. Soon afterwards James gave himself up at the station and Ellen charged him with the attack on her. In court before the Clerkenwell magistrate Ellen deposed that he had threatened her when he visited her at her mother’s.

He told her: ‘If you don’t live with me, I’ll do for you’.

The magistrate first remanded him then committed him for trial at the Old Bailey. There Bridgeman tried to claim that his wife stayed out late and was ‘living an immoral life’. It was an easy slur to make and Ellen vehemently denied it.

He also tried to argue that it was an accident, that Ellen had walked into him as he was using his knife to trim his nails. She had a inch deep cut in her neck and bruising around her throat where he had grabbed her.  Bridgeman had told the police and the magistrate that he acted as he had because he was entitled to do so, and this was reported in court.

Why had he stabbed her?

‘Only for her stopping out all night as she has done I should not have done what I have done’, was his defence.

It was the defence of all violent abusive men in the 1800s. The jury found him guilty of lesser offence than that with which he was charged. He was young (just 22) and the judge respited sentence. In the end he seems to have gone unpunished, no record exists that I can find of any sentence, so maybe some leniency was shown to him. The fact that the police surgeon didn’t think Ellen’s wounds were ‘dangerous’, and she recovered soon afterwards probably helped his cause. And the fact that the jury was male and he had publicly accused her of being a disobedient spouse.

I hope that ultimately she escaped him, because the chances are that such a brutish man would be quite prepared to make good on his threat in the future.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, November 23, 1884]

Echoes of Oliver Twist as an Islington apprentice complains of being abused

Noah Claypole from Oliver Twist

By the mid 1840s the Victorian reading public were familiar with the work of Charles Dickens and his stories of everyday life. Between 1837 (when the young Queen Victoria ascended the throne) and 1839 Bentley’s Miscellany serialised the adventures of Oliver Twist as he escaped from the home of the Sowerberrys and the abuse he’d suffered at the hands of Noah Claypole and Charlotte, the serving maid.

Of course that escape was short lived as Oliver was plunged into the criminal underworld of the metropolis and the lives and crimes of Fagin and his gang of pickpockets. Happily of course ‘all’s well that ends well’, and Oliver finds redemption and peace in the home of Mr Brownlow, even if the plot does have a few more twists and turns along the way.

Oliver was a parish apprentice. He was placed first with a chimney sweep and then with Mr Sowerberry (an undertaker) as a way to get him out of the workhouse and off the parish books. Apprenticeship was not as popular as it had been 100 years earlier but it was still seen as a route to a respectable trade and steady income. Young people were apprenticed in their teens and learned a skill from their master before leaving to set up as journeyman in their early 20s.

The system was open to abuse of course; Dickens was not making up the characters of Noah and Charlotte, or Gamfield the brutish sweep. These sorts of individuals existed, even if Dickens exaggerated them for dramatic or comic effect. In the 1700s in London apprentices who felt aggrieved could take their complaints (or not being trained, being exalted, or even abused) to the Chamberlain of London in his court at Guildhall. Failing that they might seek advice and mediation from a magistrate.

Both sides approached the Chamberlain and magistrate in the Georgian period and apprentices were released from their contracts or admonished in equal measure. For a master the courts were often a useful way to discipline unruly teenagers who simply refused to obey their ‘betters’.  However, other masters resorted to physical chastisement in their attempts to discipline their disobedient charges.

Sometimes this went too far, as in this case that reached the Police Court magistrate at Clerkenwell.

Joseph Mitchely was a parish apprentice, just like the fictional Oliver. He was aged 14 or 15 and had been bound to an Islington  ‘master frame maker and french polisher’ named Wilton. In early November he had complained to the court that Henry Wilton was beating him unfairly and the magistrate ordered an investigation to be made. He called in the parish authorities (in the person of Mr Hicks) who made some enquiries into the case.

Having completed his investigation Mr Hicks reported back to Mr Tyrwhitt, the sitting justice at Clerkenwell. He declared that the boy had exaggerated the extent of the ‘abuse’ he’d supposedly suffered and was now apologetic. Apparently, young Joseph now ‘begged his master’s forgiveness’.

Mr Tyrwhitt discharged the master frame maker and told the boy to return with him and make his peace. He added that in it might be better if any further disputes between them were brought before him or one of his fellow magistrates, and suggested that Mr Wilton avoid ‘moderate correction’ in future. Hopefully both parties had learnt a valuable lesson   and were able to move forward in what was a crucial relationship (for Joseph at least).

[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, November 21, 1848]