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

St-Pauls-Blackfriars

As PC 99 L Division made his usual patrol by the Surrey side of Blackfriars Bridge  (i.e south of the River Thames) he saw a woman sitting on the steps by the water. As he approached he could see that she was in condsiderable distress and asked her what she was up to.

The elderly lady, who gave her name as Elizabeth Briant, admitted that she had been so ‘cruelly beaten by the man whom she had lived with for thirty-eight years that she was tired of her existence’. Elizabeth was working up the courage to throw herself into the river to drown.

Attempting suicide was a crime and so the policeman arrested her and, the next day, brought her before the magistrate at Southwark Police Court.

Elizabeth cut a forlorn figure in the dock: her arms were covered with bruises, as was her face. She told the magistrate that her husband had ‘ill used her to a great extent’ in recent weeks. On the previous Saturday he had ‘knocked her down, kicked her, and blackened both eyes’. Having assaulted her the man then ‘thrust her out of the house, and left her to starve in the streets’. She had run down the steps at Blackfriars and it was only the lucky intervention of the beat bobby that had saved her from ending her miserable life.

The magistrate asked her if she had any children, and she told him she had eight, ‘but only one was living, and she hoped he was serving Her Majesty in India’. So this poor old lady had lost seven sons or daughters and her only surviving son was in the imperial army thousands of miles away.

It was a desperately sad story but also a fairly typical one for the time. There was little the justice could do expcept order the arrest of the husband (who might expect a short prison sentence if summarily convicted, hardly benefiiting Elizabeth) and send the poor woman to the workhouse to be cared for. Once there, she could hardly expect to leave and was effectively being condemned to live out the remainder of her days as an inmate before being given a pauper burial when she finally passed away.

Nevertherless, Elizabeth looked up from the dock and thanked ‘his Worship for his kindness’. She had probably lived most of her life in grinding poverty and could now expect to see out her remaining days in a ‘pauper bastille’. It would be another 45 years before the government of the day introduced the Old Age Pension and, since she would have been a recipient of Poor Law funds, Elizabeth would not have been entitled to it anyway.

For me, the Victorian period is a savage reminder of what our society looked like before we had a welfare system; it was a society that often left women like Elizabeth Briant to choose the only option that ended the pain of everyday life. For all the calls for belt-tightening in the face of self-imposed austerity we should remember that today this country is one of the top 25 richest countries in the world and we can well afford a decent welfare system, whatever politicians tell us in the next few weeks and months. The divide between rich and poor is as wide as it has ever been and it is frankly appalling that so many ‘ordinary working people’ have to resort to food banks in the 21st century. So before we look back with horror at a Victorian age that drove women like Elizabeth to attempt suicide which she take a long hard look at ourselves.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, May 1, 1860]

 

Three lads in a boat, bound for Australia with ‘tea, cheese’ and a sense of adventure.

poverty

Thomas Stead was only a young boy when he was brought to the Bow Street Police Court, the most senior of the summary courts of the capital. He was charged with stealing two bank cheques and a dagger.

Thomas was only 14 and had been arrested with two other lads in an open boat by officers from the Thames Police , who patrolled London’s arterial river. When they were seized they were found to be well equipped, with tea, cheese, candles, etc., and a pair of revolvers’. The boys’ stated plan was to row to Australia!

I’ve no idea why it was only Thomas that appeared at Bow Street, or what happened to the others, but perhaps he was the only one without a family to look after him.

The sitting magistrate was clearly somewhat impressed by the spirit and determination of this young thief, but at the same felt it necessary to try and cure him of his ‘stealing propensities’ (as he put it). He sent him to the reformatory at Feltham – a young offenders  institution that still exists (and I recall visiting when my father used to play football for the London Probation Service team).

The justice hoped, he said, that the 10 days he would have to spend in prison before Feltham (as was required with all reformatory sentences, quite against the wishes of Mary Carpenter who had champion this form of rehabilitation for youthful felons), and the spell in the Reformatory itself, would affect a change in the boy.

Then, ‘perhaps, if he still desired to be a sailor, he would be assisted in doing so, and would be able to go to Australia, not in an open boat, but in a legitimate, and in a much more safe way’.

He went on to tell Thomas that he:

 ‘was an intelligent lad, and if he only acted properly a bright future might be in store for him’. Australia was no longer the place where Britain disposed of its unwanted criminals and political prisoners, that had slowed in the 1850s and come to an end in 1868. Only ‘honest, industrious people were wanted’ there now he concluded.

I really wonder what happened to Thomas Stead. For all his faults he seems to me (as he did to the Bow Street magistrate) exactly the sort of youngster Victorian society celebrated. He was resourceful, brave and adventurous and had he been born into a wealthy family (instead of most likely being an orphan and condemned to living hand-by-mouth on the streets) he might be a name we all remember as well as Livingstone, Stanley, Scott or Rhodes.

The last convict ship, HMS Hougoumont (named for one of the key buildings that allied troops fought so hard to keep at the battle of Waterloo) sailed to Australia in 1867, with 281 passengers. It marked the end of a system of forced migration that had lasted nearly 80 years.

[from The Standard, Saturday, April 25, 1885

It has been a year since I started writing this daily blog. It began as an exercise in forcing myself to undertake a piece of research writing on  daily basis to keep myself ‘fit’ (in a sense) admit the routines associated with being a senior lecturer in a busy teaching university. It has grown (largely thanks to all the people that bother to read it and tell me they enjoy or find it useful) into a body of research that I will now attempt to use to form part of a couple of larger written projects over the the next few years. So, thank you for the positive comments made via the site, twitter and Facebook, and I hope you continue to enjoy reading the day-to-day stories from the police courts of London.

                                                                                                                           Drew 

 

Student prank that takes the biscuit…

PeakFreans

A big fire was always likely to bring people onto the streets in Victorian London. In August 1888 a fire at the docks would have been the news item in the papers the next day had not the mutilated body of Mary Ann (‘Polly’) Nicholls been found in Bucks Row, Whitechapel in the early hours.

Fires were dangerous, and appalling but they were also exciting, especially for London’s youth.

As PC Robert Beavis (283 M division, Metropolitan Police) was watching the fire service tackle a blaze at the Peak Frean’s biscuit factory on Mill Street, south of the river, he claimed he saw three youths ‘larking and pushing one another about’.

As he moved towards them one of them knocked another’s hat  off (a fairly common prank for London youth). As PC Beavis was closest the lad whose hat had been tipped off span round and confronted him. This was a young man named M’Cullock Torrens,  who accused the policeman of knocking his hat off. Beavis denied do anything of the kind and turned away. Presumably angered by this, Torrens then punched the policeman twice in the chest and ran off.

All three men attempted to escape, climbing into a hansom cab before PC Beavis managed to alert the driver to stop. He took his prisoners back to the station and the next day brought Torrens to the Southwark Police Court to be charged with assault.

Several other policeman were on duty that night and corroborated Beavis’ version of events in court. Torrens, who was clearly of ‘respectable’ stock and who was described in court as a ‘student’ living off Eccelston Square, near Victoria, told Mr Partridge (the magistrate) that he had taken a cab with two friends to witness the fire.

They had left the West End and stopped for a few drinks (but were sober, if excited). At the fire he had met up with the police and ‘treated’ the to a few drinks in a nearby pub. He insisted that it was the policeman that had knocked his hat off and when he asked him why the officer had walked off, ignoring him. When he put it back on the copper tipped it off again, so yes, he had hit him, ‘but not very hard’.

One of Torrens’ companions, Charles J Ware confirmed his friend’s account and said he did not consider that Torrens’ actions amounted to an assault. The magistrate disagreed, further more he chose to blame the young men for tempting police constables ‘from their duties and into public-houses at that hour in the morning’, rather than criticise the police for drinking on duty.

He added that ‘no doubt they got to larking, and someone knocked the prisoner’s hat off, but he had no right to assault the constable. An example must be made in such a case, consequently he fined him £10, or two months’ hard labour’. Torrens paid up and left the court with his mates.

The police magistrate was protecting the authority of the police in this case; he could have chosen to side with the young ‘gentlemen’ but that would very publicly have undermined PC Beavis and the collective voice of his colleagues. Torrens could easily afford £10 and was able to leave the court will little damage to his reparation – in fact, in the eyes of his peer group he may well have emerged as something of a ‘hero’.

[from the Morning Post, April 24, 1873]

P.S Peak, Frean & Company Ltd (known later as Peak Freans) were founded in 1857 in Bermondsey, London. According to reports the fire of 23 April 1873 was so spectacular it drew huge crowds, including the Prince of Wales. In 1921 the firm amalgamated with Huntley & Palmers and created the less interestingly named, Amalgamated Biscuit Manufacturers Limited. Several other buyouts over the next few decades mean that now both famous brands are under the umbrella of United Biscuits.

A ‘suspicious person’ at Woolwich, but ‘not clever enough’ to be a terrorist.

paold_postcard_Arsenal02

In the 1880s Woolwich was home to the Royal Arsenal, as it had been since the 17th century (and in fact earlier as there had been used for gun storage from the mid 1500s). After 1886 it was also home to what was to become one of London’s most successful football clubs, Arsenal FC.

Given that artillery and shells were manufactured at Woolwich in the 1800s the site was an important one for the Victorian military, but also a target for the enemies of the state. Security, then, as now, was an issue of national importance and the Victorian state was concerned about internal threats just as much as it was about  those posed by rival imperial powers.

In the 1880s there were  a series of terrorist incidents in London, all part of a long running campaign by Irish nationalists in the cause of independence. It is a subject I have looked at as part of my research into late Victorian London and I drew heavily on the capital’s newspapers and the work of K. M. Short, whose study of Fenian terrorism remains the most comprehensive one out there, despite its age.

So, given the background, we might expect the authorities at Woolwich to be on the look out for potential terrorists, and in April 1881 they thought they might have caught one.

Two constables from the Arsenal were patrolling by the river front when they saw a man rowing up and down, seemingly watching the shoreline. It was particularly suspicious because this was at just after one o’clock int he morning and they could not see what legitimate purpose he had for being there so late (or early). At three he was still there so they called to him and asked him what he was about.

He replied that he was lost and was it possible for him to land. The constables directed him to a pier, and when he docked and climbed the steps they arrested him. The police were called and they questioned him. It was soon discovered that the boat he was in had been stolen from an MP who lived at North Woolwich, Mr (later Sir) Thomas Brassey the member for Hastings.

The man’s name was Michael Sullivan and his peculiar behaviour and Irish background raised concerns that he was a Fenian bent on mischief at the Arsenal. However, when Inspector McElligot was called to give evidence he ‘repudiated any supposition that Fenianism had anything to do with the case, and complained that the most extravagant and unfounded rumours had been circulated’.

The magistrate agreed, he commented: ‘I agree with you that he is not a Fenian. I doesn’t look clever enough’, which was met with much laughter in the Woolwich Police Court, before his worship (Mr Balgey) sent him to prison for a for a month at hard labour.

1884 saw a number of terrorist outrages in London. A bomb was placed at Victoria Railway Station and other London termini, and a fairly inept attempt to blow up London Bridge resulted in the death of the bombers. In May 1884 two boys kicking an abandoned briefcase attracted the attention of a policeman who found they were playing with a case containing dynamite, fuses and a detonator! These incidents followed attacks in 1882 (at the Lord Mayor’s residence, Mansion House) and at the offices of The Times newspaper in 1883. In January 1885 the Houses of Parliament were targeted  along with he Tower of London, and the new underground railway was also subject to a bomb attack, as the Hammersmith train left Aldgate station.

There were few deaths and nothing like the serious level of injury that modern terrorists have inflicted recently, but it still reminded Victorian society that as long as Britain insisted on claiming Ireland as a colony Victoria’s subjects would not be safe in their homes or their streets. It also contributed to wider prejudice and the stereotyping of Irish immigrants in London and elsewhere, something that we see repeated in the demonisation of moslems today.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, April 20, 1881]

Pirates on the Thames? Intellectual property theft at the University Boat Race

N1300871513T

 

If you are a British reader then you are probably familiar with the annual University Boat Race, where teams from the county’s top two academic institutions (Cambridge and Oxford) compete over a course of 4.2 miles (6.8km) on the River Thames, starting at Putney and ending at Mortlake.

The race was first staged in 1829 and has been run annually since 1856 (the only breaks being for the two world wars). In that time there have been 82 wins for Cambridge (the light blues) and 80 for Oxford (the dark blues). In 1877 there was a dead heat, and on five occasions one of the boats sank.

The boat race has been part of the London sporting calendar from the early Victorian people and continues to draw large crowds to the river on race days. In fact, it became so enmeshed in London culture that it gave its title to a popular phrase in cockney rhyming slang (‘boat race’ = face).

In 1871 (when Cambridge won by a length) the contest also featured in the daily ‘doings’ of the Police Courts. Just over a week after the race Theresa Conroy was brought before the Mansion House Police court accused of selling ‘pirated photographs of the last Oxford crew’. Detective Sergeant Funnell of the Metropolitan Police accompanied the prisoner and Mr George Lewis prosecuted; Conroy was represented by a Mr Merriman.

The charge laid was that the defendant was involved (with her son) in selling pirated images of the Oxford crew that had been created by her husband, who was sending them to her from his workshop on Jersey in the Channel Islands.

The crime had come to light because the official photographer for the Oxford crew, Mr Henry William Taunt, was surprised that his sales – having started briskly – were now dwindling. He had already sold 500 copies (of six different prints) at 1s a go, in fact he’d sold 14 dozen on the first day of issue. Puzzled and suspicious he himself investigated what was going on and was soon able to purchase five copies of his own work for 5s. The copies were of one particular shot he’d taken (of F.E.H Payne, one of the crew without his hat on), and it appears that the Conroys had stolen, or otherwise managed to get hold of the negative.

When the police looked into the matter they searched Conroy’s home and found over 120 copies there along with copies of the Cambridge crew. Moreover, they found a letter from Mr Conroy to his wife asking if the official photos of the crew ‘were out yet’ and also telling her that in Jersey there were demands for other popular images, such as ‘the King of Prussia (presumably Wilhelm I ) on his knees’.

This was a small but profitable business and demonstrates the popularity of owning such mementos of major events and of popular or significant individuals. The Victorians popularised the photograph and this was also the era with saw the rise of the popular newspaper, including some with illustrations. So in many ways this was a very ‘modern’ form of crime and of course something that is still a problem today. Now it is pirated music and film rather than photos but the effect is the same, in that the creator is deprived of the fruits of his or her labour.

The  magistrate took a dim view of this species of theft or fraud (intellectual property theft as we would understand it). He told the court that Conroy had ‘knowingly and audaciously carried on a trade that had inflicted a serious injury upon other persons, and which was a species of robbery of the worst kind, men of skill and talent being thus deprived of what was due to them’.

In consequence he handed down a hefty financial penalty, which fell directly on Theresa but ultimately on the whole Conroy family. She was fined £5 (or two months imprisonment) for the first copy sold and a further £3 each (or 21 days) for the other copies. Given that Theresa and her son were selling these for 3d each this would have crippled them financially.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, April 11, 1871]

Today is also my brother Roland’s birthday, he was born 100 years after Theresa appeared in the Mansion House dock and, as someone trained in the law, I’m sure he would appreciate the need to protect the property rights of someone like Mr Taunt. Happy birthday Rol!

Cholera arrives in London and one woman finds herself in court as a result.

8774c9e7b266c4ebbc527b2298f32ff2

From early 1832 to the last outbreak in June 1866 Londoners experience the full horror of cholera as it ravaged communities in the nineteenth century. Cholera spread quickly and those infected, if not teated swiftly soon developed the unpleasant and debilitating symptoms associated with the disease (dehydration, diarrhoea and vomiting), before death almost inevitably followed. Thousands died in London and other British cities during the three decades that the water-borne infection affected the British Isles, and many more died overseas, especially in India where the disease first appeared.

In late March 1832 the London press reported  cholera infections daily. On the 28th the were 89 new cases of which 49 people died. Since the outbreak started there had been over 1500 cases with 854 fatalities. The locations of the deaths were also listed, with the highest number for a single parish (16) in Southwark. This was not unconnected as Southwark was close by the river and was London’s poorest area. Three bodies were found ‘floating in the river’ and were added to the 25 the authorities had already dragged from the Thames.

On the same day, over at Guildhall Police Court, Mary Mahoney (a ‘poor Irish woman’) was brought up on a charge of ‘feigning an attack of cholera morbus at the foot of Blackfriars Bridge’. A local watchman (Easley) had found her and told the alderman magistrate, Mr Laurie, that this wasn’t the first time Mary had acted in this way. In fact it was the ‘fifth or sixth time’ she had tried it, and since on each occasion she was revived with a drink of brandy and water one might imagine she kept trying the same thing.

Mr Laurie turned to the prisoner and asked her how many times she had had the disease.

‘Not at all, your Honour, and I hope I never will’, she replied. ‘But this man says you exhibited symptoms of it’, the justice remarked. The poor watchman was perplexed: ‘Yes’, he interjected, ‘she lies down and moans, and won’t speak, and draws her nose and knees together’. 

‘Then you should take her to the Board of Health’, advised the magistrate, ‘they might give you a premium, for some of them are sadly at a discount for want of cases’.

He clearly wasn’t taking cholera very seriously, and certainly not as seriously as he should. He concluded by saying that:

Everything is imitated in this country, from a pound note to the cholera morbus‘, which triggered a laugh from someone in the courtroom.

Fearing that his wife would be punished Mary’s husband pushed himself forward. He was an old army pensioner, and quite blind. He told Mr Laurie that she was his only support and that if she were sent to Bridewell it would ‘ruin the family’. Mary chipped in to say that she really had been ill, albeit not with the cholera, and the justice let her go with just a telling off.

Mary had probably done nothing to warrant a spell in the house of correction; she hadn’t claimed to have cholera but the watchman – on edge and on the lookout for cases, especially by the river – probably misinterpreted the symptoms. This shows us, perhaps, that the arrival of this new and deadly disease in London quickly became the focus of conversation, press coverage, and rumour. As with many things that frighten us the truth of the situation (and therefore the best course of action to follow), often become obscured under in a fog of popular misconception. It took the medical profession several decades to arrive at a better understanding of cholera and a means to prevent it.

In 1854, after an outbreak in Soho, Dr John Snow (who had been investigating cholera since the late 1830s) was able to test a theory he had posited in 1849. Conventional belief held that cholera was spread by air  as a miasma (‘bad air’). Snow rejected this thesis and instead argued (correctly) that the disease was contracted by mouth through water. In Broad Street, Soho a street pump brought water to the local community (these were the days before Londoners had supplies of fresh running water). John Snow studied the outbreak and correctly concluded that the pump was the source of the cholera infections. Having stopped the use of the pump the area saw a significant fall in new cases. While he didn’t convince the medical profession until after his death (in 1858, John Snow’s name will always be synonymous with an effective medical and public health solution to the problem of cholera.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, March 29, 1832]

Evidence of the ‘female malady’ on Westminster Bridge

history-ireland-deadly-sensationalism-female-suicide-by-drowning-in-the-victorian-era-the-drunkard_s-children-by-george-cruckshank

Alongside petty crime, disorderly behaviour and violence the Police magistrates of the capital heard a considerable number of cases of distress and desperation. None more so than charges levelled against people (mostly women) who had attempted suicide by throwing themselves into the River Thames to drown.

It seems to have been a regular occurrence in the 1800s and featured recently in the BBC’s drama Taboo, where James Delany’s half-sister (Zilpha Geary, played by Oona Chaplin) leaps to her death. From the 13th century right up to 1961 ‘self-murder’ was a crime and a sin in the eyes of the church. Those accused of attempting to ‘destroy’ themselves frequently came before the metropolis’ magistracy.

While it was a largely accepted ‘truth’ that the ‘weakness’ of women’s minds was more likely to drive them to take their own lives, the reality was that men ‘committed’ (or attempted) suicide more frequently. However, gendering suicide in this way to make it a ‘female malady’ (as Elaine Showalter has dubbed madness in the 1800s) fitted contemporary tropes more closely. While men do feature in newspaper reports of attempted suicide it is more common for the examples to be of young women, like Zilpha and for the act to be one of drowning rather than hanging or other forms of self-harm.

So when Sarah Keyworth tried to jump off Westminster Bridge she was providing the Morning Post’s reporter with exactly the copy he needed to reinforce the weakness of the ‘fairer sex’ in the minds of his readership.

Sarah, ‘a respectable-looking young woman’ was seen running along Westminster Bridge by a gentleman named Houghton. Mr Houghton told the court at Southwark that she was ‘calling out in  a frantic manner’ before she ‘suddenly stopped and climbed over the railings of the bridge’.

He must have feared that she was about to jump so he reacted quickly and grabbed hold of her. She struggled, saying ‘let me go, let me go!’ but he held on until a policeman arrived to help. Sarah was taken to the local police station and brought up before the magistrate in the morning.

At her first hearing she was ‘sullen’ and said she had fully intended to have ‘destroyed herself and was sorry the gentleman had interfered’. The magistrate (Mr Woolrych) had remanded her and instructed the prison chaplain to visit her.

A week later and she was back up in court and this time her sister appeared with her to support her. Now Sarah was in repentant mood, through floods of tears she said ‘she was very sorry for such an attempt on her life. She knew the wickedness of it, and promised never to do it again’. Her sister told Mr Woolrych that she could only imagine she had been driven to it after ‘words with her young man’. She promised to look  after her and so the magistrate admonished Sarah and let them both go.

Sadly, attempting to drown oneself in the Thames is still one of the favoured options for those who feel that life is something they can no or longer wish to cope with. In 2014 over 100 calls were made to the City of London police on account of people trying to jump from one of the five bridges along the stretch of river covered by the City’s jurisdiction. Given that London has over a dozen more bridges (not including railway ones) that pedestrians can access the numbers of places where potential human tragedies could occur probably raises that figure considerably.

A 2016 report from the City noted that there were 20-25 suicides by drowning alone in the Thames and attempts have bene made to prevent further deaths by installing information boards with the Samaritans phone number and even patrols on some bridges to look out for those in need. London can be a lonely place and it would seem that it always has been.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, March 11, 1865]