Pickett climbs a fence and saves a life


It was about midnight on the 3 February 1866 and James Pickett was walking home along a path that ran parallel to the tow path of the Regent’s canal. It must have been a dark night because there was no full moon that February (itself a rare occurrence) so what happened next was all the more exceptional.

Pickett heard a sound, perhaps a splash or a gasp, and must have realised that someone was in the water. He clambered over the railings and rushed to the water’s edge, jumping in without pausing to remove his clothes.

James, a mechanic, was a strong man and after a struggle he managed to secure the person in the canal (a woman named Elizabeth Groves) and bring her safely out of the water. She lay on the bank ‘insensible and apparently dead’ but the mechanic picked her up and found a way to get her to hospital. Although Elizabeth had gone under the water to a depth of 8 feet and was feared drowned, she made a full recovery in the Royal Free Hospital.

However, this was no accident and it soon became evident that Elizabeth had attempted to put an end to her own life by throwing herself in the canal. The Regent’s Canal (like the Thames river) was a popular spot for suicides like Elizabeth (and indeed for anyone who wished to dispose of a dead body – as was to become apparent in the Thames Torso murder series of 1887-8).

Suicide was against the law and so once she was well enough Elizabeth was produced at Clerkenwell Police Court and asked to explain herself by Mr D’Eyncourt. Elizabeth, an artificial flower maker, told the magistrate that:

‘she was very sorry for what she had done. She included to attempt to take her life because she had separated from her husband’.

Either the shame of a failed marriage or her despair at losing someone she loved had driven Elizabeth to her desperate decision. Her husband appeared in court to say that he had parted from her because of her drinking but was prepared to have her back if the ‘magistrate would allow it’. That was the best course of action for everyone; a term of imprisonment was not likely to help Elizabeth and as long as she embraced this ‘second chance’ they was some hope that the Roves could make a decent fist of their marriage.

The real hero here, as Mr D’Eyncourt made  appoint of recognising, was James Pickett. He had ‘behaved in a very gallant manner’ the magistrate told him and declared that he should be rewarded with the sum of £2 from the  court’s poor box.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, February 05, 1866]

Dear reader, are you a teacher or student, or a university of college lecturer? If you use this site in education I’d love to know how I might improve it for you. If you have any suggestions please get in touch at drew.gray@northampton.ac.uk


Three hearty fellows from Horselydown fall foul of Mr Coombe’s benevolence


In January 1861 three ‘hearty-looking men’ appeared at the Southwark Police court in front of Mr Combe, the magistrate presiding. The trio were dressed in agricultural labourers’ clothes and said they come from Horsleydown, by Wapping, where they claimed to earn a living by  working on the river front. However, there had been a severe winter and the frost had prevented them from doing any paid work. They told the magistrate that their ‘wives and families were at home starving’.

That the winter of 1860/61 was a hard one is evidenced by several donations listed in the papers to the local poor relief funds. At Southwark alone over a dozen people had left sums of money, postal orders or postage stamps for the magistrate to distribute as they saw fit. However, these three men had been arrested for begging and that was met with strong disapproval from Mr Combe. He enquired the circumstances in which they had been picked up by the police and PC Duff (216M) stepped forward to make his report.

PC Duff explained that he was on duty in Bermondsey Street at four in the afternoon when he saw the three men walking down the road. They were carrying spades and singing a song. As they sang ‘Got no work to do’ they waived their spades on which was written the words “Relieve the distressed poor” in chalk.

Several people did part with money, although the constable felt they were often in worse straights than the three river workers. It was also suggested that there was more than a air of menace about the way they presented themselves and how they persuaded passers-by to help them.

After they had been shaken down at the police station six shillings and eleven pence was discovered so they had managed to extract a small amount of loose change from the Southwark locals at least. Mr Combe was not inclined to leniency in this case; he saw the men as imposters – and declared ‘he would not be doing his duty if he didn’t send them to prison’.

And prison was where they went next, sentenced to seven days hard labour in the house of correction. That seems to have come as something of a shock to the three of them, who perhaps hoped for help not brickbats. Mr Combe was making it quite clear that this was a society who helped those it deemed deserved it and these three ‘hearty’ fellows from Horselydown did not fit that description.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, January 24, 1861]

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


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]

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tenants 1 rent collectors 0: Justice is done at Southwark


Many of those that appeared in the dock at London’s many Police Magistrate courts were charged with assault. The registers at Thames Police Court are some of the very few that survive and there you will find literally hundreds of cases of assault every month. However, what you won’t discover is any context that will enable to you to understand why these cases came to court. Summary court records (unlike jury courts like Old Bailey) are sadly lacking in qualitative information. We might discover that someone went to court charged with assaulting someone else, and find out that they were fined or imprisoned, but we rarely know exactly what happened or why.

That is why the newspaper coverage of the police courts is so useful; it gives us the detail that we are lacking elsewhere and allows us to comment on the motivations of those accused of hitting, kicking or pushing their fellow Londoners, and ask whether they had (or believed they had) any justification for so doing.

Let’s take William Howard for instance. Howard was a ‘respectable mechanic’ living in rented rooms in Market Street, Borough, (just south of the river) with his wife and family. On the 19 November 1867 James Stephens called at his door. His youngest son answered the door and Howard called from indoors for the man to be let in.

Stephens worked for a man named Linfield, who was a landlord’s agent tasked with collecting the rent from a number of houses in the area. Rents were collected along with the rates (which went towards the Poor law for example).

The rent collector had come to ask Howard for 10 and 3d, which was two weeks’ rent plus 3s for the rates. William Howard handed the collector a receipt he had for 82d for money he had already paid towards the Poor Rate. He asked this amount to be deducted from his bill but Stephens refused and the pair argued.

Accounts of what append next differ but it is likely that the mechanic manhandled the rent collector out of his house and told him that before he settled any difference in what he owed he wanted to discuss it directly with his landlord first. Howard clearly felt aggrieved that the minion was demanding money he felt he didn’t owe or was possibly asking  him to pay his rates in advance.

All of this ended up in a summons for assault that was heard at the Southwark Police Court. It doesn’t seem to be an issue about not being able to pay, but more about the underlying principle of when he was supposed to pay, and how much. In this the magistrate had quite a lot of sympathy with him.

Mr Partridge (the magistrate) asked Stephens if the occupants of the houses were ‘on the rate books’. Stephens wasn’t sure. But ‘he knew that the landlord paid all the rates in a lump , thereby saving the parish some trouble in collecting the rates. The tenants were all aware of this’, he added.

The magistrate said that all tenants had a right to be rated and entered into the ledgers. Moreover, he ‘considered it very unfair of the landlords of these small tenements in raising rents for a future tax’. The relevant act, he stated, ‘specifies that the occupiers should pay the rates themselves, and if there is no other agreement deduct the same from the rent’. It seems this was what William Howard was doing and he saw nothing wrong with it. As for the assault, well he could see fault on both sides and so dismissed the charge against the mechanic who was free to go, his reputation intact.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, December 13, 1867]

An act of kindness or a juvenile prank?


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]

A Waterman’s narrow escape from death


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]