An act of kindness or a juvenile prank?

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Westminster Bridge and the new Houses of Parliament, 1858

As a mother and her daughter walked along the banks of the Thames in October 1858 two young men hailed them from their cart and asked them if they’d like a ‘ride to the new bridge’.

I imagine the ‘new bridge’ in question was Westminster which was under construction in 1858. By the middle of the 1800s the old Westminster Bridge (which dated from the middle of the previous century) was in a bad state of repair. Thomas Page was commissioned to design a new bridge and the structure, with decorations by Charles Barry (the architect of the new Gothic Houses of Parliament) opened in May 1862.

The young men, named Shearing and Lloyd may have an ulterior motive in picking up the women but it certainly wasn’t robbery. The women were poor, being alter described as of ‘very humble position’. Moreover the younger woman was carrying an infant and so they gratefully accepted the lads’ offer and climbed aboard.

The men were smoking and probably showing off, or ‘larking about’ to use a term contemporaries would have understood. One of them threw his pipe away once he had finished with it and the cart rattled on towards the bridge.

Suddenly to their horror the women realised that there was a fire in the cart and their clothes quickly ignited. It seemed to have spread from a piece of paper, maybe lit from the discarded pipe. Since it was so shocking and had burned right through the women’s clothes to their undergarments they decided to press charges at the Westminster Police Court.

Mr Arnold, the sitting justice, was told that ‘the old lady’s hands were burnt in extinguishing the fire, and she and her daughter, who appeared very creditable people, were much grieved by the loss they had sustained to their clothes, amounting to at least £2’.

So the case turned on whether the fire was an accident, or set deliberately, perhaps as a prank.

Was that the reason the men had offered the women a lift, to lure them into the cart to play an unpleasant joke on them? It is certainly possible but Mr Arnold was unsure. Had he been sure, he said, that the fire was intentional ‘he would have visited it with the severest punishment of the law’. But there was not enough evidence against the pair so he was unable to order compensation, and so the lads were released. Regardless of whether there was any intent or not this judgement did nothing at all to help the poor women who probably could ill afford to lose their clothes to a fire, however accidental.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, October 05, 1858]

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A Waterman’s narrow escape from death

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The Silvertown India-rubber works and the the nearby WT Henley Telegraph cable Works, in North Woolwich in the second half of the nineteenth century

At half past 11 on Thursday, 19 September 1872 Thomas James was approached by two men as he stood by his boat at by the river near Woolwich (on the Surrey side of the river Thames). They told James, who was a waterman, that they had missed the last ferry over to North Woolwich and asked him if he would carry them over in his craft. James agreed, saying it would cost them 6d each.

The pair conferred for a few minutes and James was sure he heard one say to the other:

‘Promise him the shilling, and when we get to the middle of the river we will throw him overboard, and sell his boat tomorrow morning’.

The waterman thought it must have been a joke and the three set off. However, when they reached the middle of the Thames the pair seized him and manhandled the startled waterman overboard and into the river. Despite him being a strong swimmer he was almost drowned, encumbered as he was by a heavy coat and a large bag he was carrying.

He later told the Woolwich Police court magistrate that it was only the thought of his wife and children that made ‘him desperate’ and allowed him to recover ‘his presence of mind’ and make it to the shore. As soon as he was able he reported the theft of his boat and the attempt on his life and requested a summons to bring the men to court to answer  for it. Presumably he had some sort of description and had been told they lived at Silvertown (in West Ham), because the astounded magistrate granted his request.

One of the men was subsequently named as Thomas Pryce, a mechanic at Henley’s Telegraph Factory at North Woolwich. The case was called at Woolwich but neither Pryce nor his accuser appeared to hear it. The Pall Mall Gazette reported that ‘matter had been compromised by the defendant paying the  complainant a sum of money in compensation’.

This form of settlement was not uncommon in nineteenth century London (and indeed earlier in history). For all his presumed anger at being nearly drowned in the Thames, James wanted a form of justice that benefited him. Since he seems to have been able to identify Pryce it made sense (to him) to track him down and extract a pecuniary advantage from the whole situation. As for Pryce, having been caught he must have realised that a charge of theft with violence would lead to penal servitude for several years and the loss of his job at the telegraph factory. Settling their difference, as Londoners often did, made much more sense for both parties.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, September 21, 1872; The Pall Mall Gazette , Wednesday, September 25, 1872]

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

A sorry pond dipper is saved by the local bobby

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Dulwich College in the mid-nineteenth century

Police constable Milne (163P) was walking his beat close to Dulwich College, south of the River Thames when he heard a noise. It was about 10.30 at night and so he clearly wasn’t expecting to here sound near the school and set off to investigate. The sound seemed to have come from close to a pond near the college and to his horror PC Milne now saw a pair of feet and ankles sticking up from the water.

Removing his helmet and stripping to the waist the policeman dived into the pond and made his way towards the feet. ‘With difficulty he managed to reach the place where he had noticed the feet’ [they had since disappeared beneath the water], and was then able to drag the person out and on to the bank. The pond, he observed, was about nine feet deep.

Using the first aid he had been taught as a police trainee he revived the man he had rescued but he was far from grateful. As soon as he came to the bedraggled pond dipper ‘made a rush for the water’. Constable Milne secured him and conveyed him back to the nearest police station.

At the station the prisoner revealed that he was ‘a hackney carriage proprietor’ named Mitchell who lived in Lower Norwood. He admitted that he had been trying to kill himself and was promptly charged with the same. At Lambeth Police Court he again confessed his fault and said that he hoped the magistrate, Me Ellison, would send him to prison for a year as it was all he deserved. Instead Ellison remanded him in custody so that enquiries could be made as to his mental health.

He commented PC Milne for his quick thinking and his bravery and said he deserved a reward. Hopefully Mr Mitchell recovered and perhaps recognised that the copper had saved his life, and maybe even rewarded him himself. At least for PC Milne he had a story to dine out on for the rest of his career.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, August 25, 1880]

Robbery but not ‘the usual suspects’ in Albert Square

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Reynolds Map of East London (1882)

Fans of the BBC’s Eastenders soap will be interested to know that there actually was an Albert Square in East London in the past, even if it has long gone today. Census returns from 1871 reveal it as a dangerous place, home to prostitutes (‘fallen women’) and sailors. It was close to the Ratcliffe Highway, the scene of a pair of notorious murders in 1811, and shared much of the reputation for overcrowding and poverty as its near neighbour Whitechapel. The Shadwell area was covered by the Thames Police Court, the only magistrate court for which records survive in any real depth for the late Victorian period.

Prostitution (which was not a crime as such) and theft (which of course was) were interconnected  in the 1800s. Many of the women prosecuted at Old Bailey or before summary courts for stealing were prostitutes who took the opportunity of their clients’ drunkenness or exhaustion to remove their purses, pocket books, watches or other property of value. Some women used the ‘cover’ of prostitution to get close enough to men in pubs or in crowded streets to be able to pick their pockets whilst distracting them with their ‘charms’.

The Ratcliffe Highway and Albert Square and its environs were notorious areas for this sort of petty offending and so we might expect that the defendants in this case of theft might have been denizens of this East End district and that their unfortunate victim was an unwary traveler into their web. But this was not the case for William Collins and Richard Carthy who came up before the Thames magistrate in July 1863, or at least at face value it did not seem to be the case.

Both men lived in the Blackfriars district, further west along the Thames river. Collins was described in court as an engineer and Carthy as a musician. They were both reasonably well-do-do or at least had some wealth of their own because they had representation in court from a lawyer, Mr Joseph Smith.

Their victim (Margaret Taylor) on the other hand was a much less ‘respectable’ individual although we can only guess at this from the description of the circumstances of case she laid against them.  Mr Woolwich was told that Collins and Carthy had visited her rooms at 12 Albert Square after meeting her in Shadwell. She was not alone there, as ‘other persons were present, and a great deal of drinking was going on’.

Margaret testified that she had been sitting on her bed with the two men (which certainly does not suggest she was a ‘respectable’ woman in nineteenth-century terms) when Collins handed her  glass of beer. As she took it he purloined her silver watch and quickly palmed it to his companion. Margaret saw him do it and accused him of theft, a row broke out and it soon escalated.

There were several other men and women in the house and this makes it fairly clear that it was a brothel.  Perhaps it was one that was well known to the police and one where they turned  a ‘blind eye’; police corruption in the 1860s was entirely possible, or they may simply have wished to restrict prostitution on the street by containing it indoors. The men’s solicitor established that there were at least 25 other men and women in Margaret’s room at the time so the picture that emerges is one of considerable debauchery.  The fact that 12 Albert Square was a brothel may have influenced the magistrate’s decision-making and attitude towards the offenders Collins and Carthy who had visited it.

PC George Coleman (270K) was first on the scene and he rushed upstairs to Margaret’s room where the two men still were. He reported seeing Carthy pass the watch back to Collins who then lobbed it out of the window and ‘over the houses’, intent in getting rid of any evidence against him. He arrested both of them.

No one could find the watch. PC Coleman said they had searched for it but it might ‘have gone down the chimney of one of the houses’ and it was also likely that someone had picked it up and taken it for their own. He was convinced however, that the men were guilty as charged.

Mr Woolrych agreed and declared that ‘there never was a clearer case’. He told the pair that he would commit them for trial by jury and that they would be remanded in the meantime so further depositions could be taken. So it would seem that in this instance that the law was protecting the sex workers of East London (or at least, their property) from their wealthier clientele. It is not beyond possibility of course that Collins and Carthy were dupes. The case never came to Old Bailey and while it may well have been heard elsewhere it may also have been dropped if the men had found a way to pay off Ms Taylor. Perhaps then, what we see here was a more sophisticated form of robbery than it at first appears.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, July 16, 1863]

 

 

 

 

The polluter pays in an early version of the ‘clean air’ act.

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On Friday, July 6 1855, a foreman operating one of the companies of river boats on the Thames appeared in court at Bow Street. Henry Styles was charged under an Act for the Prevention of Smoke in the Metropolis (or more properly, the Smoke Nuisance Abatement (Metropolis) Act 1853), which was the first attempt to tackle the problem of air pollution in the UK.

The company Styles worked for ran ‘halfpenny steam-boast’ between London Bridge and the Adelphi (or what would now be the Embankment) so their route is replicated today by the modern Thames Clippers. Styles explained that he was in court on behalf of the captain of the Curlew, the boat that had been accused of breaking the terms of the act. He told the Bow Street justice, Mr Jardine, that he would be pleading guilty to the charge.

Mr Bodkin, the counsel for the prosecution, was not content to let the matter rest however because, as he went to explain, this was not the first time that the Curlew’s captain, Thomas Shearman, had broken the law in this regard.

‘the boat in question had repeatedly been cautioned before any proceedings were taken…  [but still] the nuisance was permitted to continue, and thick volumes of black smoke were suffered to escape from the funnel in open defiance of the law, to the disgust and annoyance of all whose avocations took them to the vicinity of the river’.

Moreover, Bodkin, continued, none of this was necessary. A ‘very simple apparatus’ used by other steam boats that worked the river could have been deployed on the Curlew.  The company had even fitted it to some of their other vessels but not this one. So the captain could not plead ignorance, or argue that nothing could be done. The act had been in place for over a year and so their was simply no excuse for non-compliance with it.

The foreman agreed and said they had been experimenting with a device but so far it wasn’t working properly. The only way they could avoid the noxious smoke that polluted the river was to ‘use more expensive coal’, and they evidently didn’t want to do that all the time.

They were evading the act and hoping they wouldn’t get caught and having found themselves in court they tried to ‘come clean’ and hope for mitigation. In doing so they probably avoided a heavy fine as Mr Jardine imposed one of just £3, at the bottom end of the scale available to him. Styles was warned that the nuisance must stop however, or further charges and penalties would follow.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, July 07, 1855]

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

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Islington High Street, c.1890

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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