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

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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]

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Tenants 1 rent collectors 0: Justice is done at Southwark

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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?

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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]

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]