A Stabbing on the High Seas (and other tales from Thames Police Court)

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This week I am going to take a slightly different approach to my selection of cases. Instead of taking them from across a range of Police Courts I am going to concentrate on just one, the Thames Police Court, which was one of two courts serving the East End of London*. I am also going to stick to one year, 1881 (a year when there are also manuscript records for Thames**). Hopefully then, I will be able to chart the business of Thames Police court from Saturday 11 June 1881 to Friday 17 June.

There are two cases reported from Saturday’s sitting, the first concerned a man named George Braithwaite who was accused of assaulting Elizabeth Grub, a ‘young woman’ living on the Isle of Dogs. She was too ill to attend court and the magistrate remanded Braithwaite in custody for a week to ‘see how the complainant progressed’.

The second concerned a ‘stabbing on the high seas’. Tobias Rosenfelt was brought up in Thames on a charge of ‘unlawfully wounding Harry Price, chief steward on board the steamship “Libra”.’ The Libra was one of the vessels run by the General Steam Navigation Company between London and Hamburg. The company (formed in 1824) carried both passengers and cargo across the Channel and North Sea, and later (after 1882) began operations in the Mediterranean. The Libra was launched in 1869 but sank in 1889 following a collision at sea.

According to the report of the case in 1881 Rosenfelt, a 29 year-old horse dealer who lived in Whitechapel (in Half Moon Passage), was on board the Libra on May 1st as it steamed towards Hamburg. He was in boisterous mood and entered the saloon, calling loudly for a bottle of lemonade. When Price, the ship’s steward, asked him to be  little more restrained Rosenfelt gave him a mouthful of abuse.

Price then asked him to leave but he refused. When the steward attempted to throw him out of the saloon he was attacked. He took a knife (or ‘some other sharp instrument’) from his pocket and aimed it at the steward’s chest. Price put up his hands to defend himself and was stabbed in his palm. Rosenfelt fled with the steward in pursuit. When he reached the middle of the ship Price caught up with him but Rosenfelt snatched hold of a ‘camp chair’ and bashed Price over the head with it.

Presumably at some point the horse dealer was arrested or detained onboard and returned to England to face the music in June. At the hearing the prosecutor told Mr Lushington (the Thames magistrate) that Rosenfelt had previously been charged with manslaughter in Hamburg, and wounding, and was clearly a ‘dangerous man’. The magistrate remanded him in custody to see if more evidence emerged. We can see if he reappeared later that week.

[from The Illustrated Police News etc , Saturday, June 11, 1881]

*the other was Worship Street in Shoreditch

**held by the London Metropolitan Archives (LMA)

The case of the ‘detonating grave digger’

The object of today’s post had a rather Dickensian name, Mr Wackett.

Wackett (no first name was given, if indeed he had one) declared himself to be a grave digger in Bethnal Green. One Sunday evening in early June 1839 Police constable Smith (171G) was strolling his beat in Shoreditch when he heard screams up ahead.

Moving along he quickly came upon several alarmed if not terrified persons, mostly women, who were trying to get away from a man in the street. Wackett was in the thick of things, apparently hurling small bags at passers-by, which appeared to explode on contact.

As the bags landed they ‘exploded with a report that could be heard at a considerable distance’, he later told the Worship Street court.

PC Smith arrested the grave digger and took him back to the station to search him. A number of bags, containing what seemed to contain gravel, were found on his person . On the orders of a magistrate these were taken away and examined by a local chemist.

When Wackett appeared before the Worship Street justice (Mr Broughton)  it was reported that:

‘intermixed with the gravel [was] a detonating powder which,  when thrown at any person, particularly a female, might create much alarm, but was not likely to destroy, or sensibly damage the dress’.

So it was an unpleasant thing to do, but one designed to upset and alarm and not to hurt or damage clothing. As a result Mr Broughton gave the grave digger a lecture on behaving more decently in future and let him go with a small fine.

[from The Operative, Sunday, June 9, 1839]

I hadn’t heard of the The Operative before, but it seems to have come out of Chartism. The paper’s ‘mission statement’ was “Established by the working classes for the defence of the rights of labour. Also for a ‘fair day’s wages for a fair day’s work.’

An angry husband waits up for a wife who comes home late, ‘exhibiting manifest symptoms of intoxication’.

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Hackney in the 1840s

There were plenty of assault cases heard before the professional police magistrates of London in the nineteenth century and it was rare for any of them to be pushed on up through the justice system. Most ended in a reconciliation between the warring parties, with apologies made, or were punished with a fine. In some cases, for example if the defendant did not have the money for  fine or the assault was deemed serious enough (or it was against the police) prison was used as a deterrent for future violence.

Assaults were generally perpetrated by men. Men fought other men outside pubs, and drink was often the catalyst. Men hit their wives (drink and jealousy, frustration, or dissatisfaction being the underlying causes) and women sometimes hit back. Most of this violence (at least that which reached the summary courts) was committed by working class Londoners on other working-class Londoners; appearances by the ‘respectable’ or ‘well-to-do’ while not entirely absent, were rare.

This is one such rare case, both because its protagonists were members of the lower middle class and one at least was an elderly man, not often the subject of assault accusations or counter-claims.

Thomas Wicher was a  ‘respectable’ master builder who had taken rooms at an address in Dalston, Hackney, East London. However, he didn’t live there most of the week, leaving that space for his wife, and only ‘occasionally’ sleeping there . Richer was an elderly man – at least that is how he was described by the court reporter that wrote up his case – and perhaps his wife was much younger. We can’t know that from the newspaper report but we can perhaps infer it.

The builder clearly entertained some suspicions  about his wife’s conduct, in particular involving a former friend of his called George Minor. Minor was a linen draper, another member of the capital’s growing middle classes. The men had known each other for years, indeed they had lived together and been ‘intimate’ in the past. I take this to mean that they were (or had been) close ‘chums’ at one stage. This friendship was about to be sorely tested, however.

Thomas Wicher, having as I’ve said, either having been tipped off or otherwise suspecting all was not right in his relationship with his wife, headed for her lodgings in Shrubland Grove, Dalston. He got there at 10 o’clock at night and was concerned when his servant told him that his wife was not at home.

Thomas waited in the parlour for her return in a ‘state of considerable agitation and anxiety’ until about one in the morning when he heard a hansom cab pull up. The builder opened his front door and went outside. He could see his wife ‘reclining in the back’ of the cab and then saw George Minor alight from the vehicle. Minor was ‘evidently surprised’ to see Wicher but ‘recovered himself’, smiled and offered him his hand to shake.

The builder refused the hand of friendship and instead went straight up the cab to look at the state of his wife, who was clearly quite drunk. In fact Mrs Wicher presented a ‘dreadful spectacle’:

Her ‘bonnet was crushed and broken, her hair and dress [were] in a most disordered condition, one of her ear-rings gone, and herself exhibiting manifest symptoms of intoxication’.

Wicher lifted his drunken wife from the cab and proceeded to carry her into their house, followed by Minor. The linen draper insisted on entering despite Wicher’s attempt to prevent him. The pair soon struggled and a fight broke out.

Minor alleged that his former friend now beat and hit him with great violence, striking his face and landing a blow on his chest which meant that he ‘spat blood for upwards of an hour afterwards’. Thomas Wicher was evidently in a jealous rage and had it not been for the intervention of a local policeman he may have caused more harm to the draper, and possibly his wife.

Fortunately he was arrested and presented at the Worship Street Police Court in Shoreditch on the following day. There, Mr D’Eyncourt  pronounced his doubt that he could deal with such a serious assault summarily, and bailed Wicher to appear at the Sessions of the Peace. The terms of the bail were set at £100 for himself, and two sureties of £50 each. Normally one would approach close friends or business associates as sureties, we can probably be fairly confident that Wicher didn’t ask George Minor.

I haven’t got around to matching up the sessions of the peace records with the summary courts yet, but after September (on the release of the Digital Panopticon project) I am hopeful that these will become available digitally, making that task a lot easier.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, May 30, 1852]

A beer shop owner’s gamble fails to pay off

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Just this week, in the wake of the professional footballer Joey Barton being banned for placing bets on his own team, the Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, declared that he thought there was too much gambling in modern society. He told the press:

‘It is a little bit I must say the general problem in our society. You you have everywhere, on every advert, bet … bet on Sky … bet on here and there, so you have not to be surprised when people get addicted to betting’.

Gambling and indeed, concerns about gambling are nothing new. There were worries about the effects of the lottery in eighteenth-century London, and plenty of pamphlets and tracts were written condemning games of chance such as cards or dice. It was especially concerning when apprentices or other young people were involved.

Georgian worries turned into Regency ones, and then into Victorian ones; what we see today is perhaps only the inevitable slide towards everyday betting on anything, that all those previous commentators had warned us about.

Nineteenth-century critics of gambling condemned the practice for the same reasons they (for it was often the same people) attacked the consumption of alcohol – at least to excess. Gambling, like the ‘demon drink’, drained the pockets of the poor and brought destitution and moral collapse. As a result most gambling was highly regulated, just like the sale of alcohol.

Which is why James Knott found himself in front of the police magistrate at Worship Street in late April 1857.

Knott ran a beer shop in Shoreditch which had aroused the suspicions of the police. Inspector Cole thought Knott was engaged in an illegal betting operation and had the shop watched. Having assured himself that the shop keeper was up to mischief he called on him one afternoon to ask some questions.

Inspector Cole wanted to look inside a desk which was nailed to the floor but Mrs Knott was reluctant. She told him that ‘the key had been taken away by her husband’ and she couldn’t open it. Cole’s response was to say he was quite happy to break it open.

Knott then appeared and miraculously produced the key and opened the desk. Inside (to Knott’s apparent ‘surprise’) the inspector found what he was looking for: ‘various documents relating to races, amongst which were telegraphic messages from York and Doncaster, and numerous betting cards and books’, with details of races run since September 1856.

Knott had explained when questioned by Cole that a man known only as ‘Jemmy’ ran the betting organization, but so far the police had been unable to apprehend him. Knott had a lawyer to speak for him in court who told the sitting magistrate, Mr D’Eyncourt, that his client was innocent, that at worst he had acted in ignorance of the law, and since he was ‘impoverished’ he hoped the justice would be lenient with him.

Mr D’Eyncourt wasn’t inclined to leniency however, and fined him the full amount – £25 (or nearly £1,500 in today’s money) – warning him that failure to pay would earn him three months in the house of correction. At first the ‘impoverished’ beer shop owner looked destined for a spell of hard labour but then, as miraculously as he had found the key to a desk the contents of which he claimed to be entirely ignorant of, he paid his fine and left.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, April 30, 1857]

Extortion and an accusation of rape in 1830s Shoreditch

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“Even if I keep on runnin’, I’ll never get to Orange street”, (The Prince, Madness)*

Mrs Thomas was the wife of a respectable surgeon living and working at 225 Shoreditch in East London. When the door was knocked on 8th December 1833 she much have assumed the caller had come to inquire after her husband for a medical matter.

She was half right.

Samuel Hewson, a bricklayer from Orange Street in Bethnal Green, presented himself at her door and declared that her husband had sexually assaulted his wife.

‘This is a bad job between my wife and Mr Thomas’ Hewson explained, ‘he has violated my wife; I must have means to leave London’.

Mrs Thomas was horrified and refused to believe it. Hewson was undeterred and insisted it was true. He added darkly that ‘unless he had money to take himself and wife from town , he go and make a charge before Mr Broughton [the sitting magistrate] at Worship Street’. Until 1842 rape was a capital offence and so Hewson was correct in warning Mrs Thomas that her husband ‘could be tried for his life’.

Faced with this threat (regardless of whether she believed what her husband was alleged to have done) Mrs Thomas broke down and asked what amount Hewson required.

He said it was up to her, effectively inviting her to make him and offer for his silence. She offered him £20 (close to £1000 in today’s money) but he angrily rejected that.

‘That’s not enough’ Hewson complained,, ‘If you wish to see your husband where I said he should go [i.e. in court] you may do so. If you like to make it £20 more, that will do. I will take £40 but not less’.

She handed over the money and he went away. Mrs Thomas said nothing of this to her husband but at the end of January she again heard from the bricklayer. As is common with blackmailers they don’t stop when you pay up. He now demanded an extra £5 for his continued silence about her husband’s supposed crime.

Eventually she told her husband what had happened and he immediately declared that he would prosecute Hewson for extortion. The bricklayer was tracked down (having left his address for Mrs Thomas to send money to) and he and Mr Thomas met. The surgeon denied any indiscretion with Mrs Hewson whom he had treated for a four month period in 1833. Hewson apologised but having conned the Thomas’ out of at least £45 the surgeon was in no mood to let it rest.

On the 16 February 1834 Hewson was formally charged at Worship Street – the very police court he had threatened to bring the medical man before – and whilst he said he was sorry and begged forgiveness the magistrate remanded him in custody to face a later trial.

There are no trials recorded at Old Bailey involving a surgeon named Thomas or a Samuel Hewson (for rape or deception or extortion) so perhaps the case was not written up (not all of them were published) or , more likely, it was settled by Hewson apologising and agreeing to repay what he had extorted. It is a reminder that those that place themselves in one-to-one private situations with others risk being the victim of false accusations.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, February 17, 1834]

*Madness’ homage to Prince Buster in their first single on 2-Tone (in 1979) name checked the legendary singer-songwriter and producer’s home in Jamaica. The B-side of that early release was a cover of Buster’s (real name Cecil Bustamante Campbell) 1960s hit ‘Madness’. Madness, along with the Specials, Beat and a number of other UK bands helped bring Jamaican Ska and Rocksteady to a new audience and developed in the wake of a political movement opposed to racism in society.

 

A man throws his wife out of a window – and she begs the justice for leniency

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Mile End, c.1910

Mile End in East London had a reputation as a hard working-class area in the late nineteenth century; indeed it maintained that reputation throughout the twentieth. At Mile End Waste Charles Booth (the founder of the Salvation Army) lectured crowds about the evils of alcohol – not surprising given the proliferation of beer houses and breweries in the area. Mile End  was so-named because of the presence of a turnpike that marked the distance (exactly one mile) from the countries of the affluent City of London; in between lay the less wealthy areas of Whitechapel and Spitalfields, home to so many of London’s poor in the 1800s.

The area was served by the Worship Street Police Court in Shoreditch and Thames Police Court in East Arbour Lane. Both courts were kept busy with police prosecutions for drunkeness, petty theft, and violence – much of it spousal.

In early February 1872 Owen Flynn, a 28 year-old coffin maker, was brought to Worship Street charged with assaulting his wife.

The couple lived on Preston Street which is now part of Hanbury Street, where Annie Chapman was murdered by ‘Jack the Ripper’ in 1888. Indeed there may be another ‘Ripper’ connection because I am working on a theory that may place the killer as living in Mile End at about the time that Flynn appeared at Worship Street (he would have been a small boy then however).

Mrs Flynn testified in court that on the previous Saturday night her husband had come home drunk and demanding his supper. As he ate the meal she had prepared he managed to knock over his glass of beer which sent him into a rage.

He took it out on his poor wife, punching her twice in the face and blackening her eye. She tried to get away from him but he prevented this by grabbing her and throwing her to the floor. He then attempted to strangle her.

She wriggled free and rushed over to the window, throwing it open and leaning out tom yell for help. He came up behind her and toppled her out. As she fell she grabbed at the roofing and tiles and managed to slow her fall down into the yard below.

Flynn was arrested and taken to the police station. There Mrs Flynn, although ‘much bruised’ was able to give the police a statement.

Now she had him in the dock however, Mrs Fynn asked the magistrate to be lenient. Presumably she didn’t want him to attack her again (and I doubt this was the first time, many women put up with a lot of abuse before they called the police) but nor did she want him put away. An abusivee husband that earned enough to pay the rent and put food on the table was better, sadly, than no breadwinner at all.

Flynn missed the mood of the occasion; instead of expressing his regret and promising to behave better in future he decided to brazen it out. He informed Mr Hannay (the justice) that his wife was making it all up, and what she said was untrue. This angered the magistrate who told him that ‘by calling his wife a liar he had made bad worse’.

He sent him to prison for four months, so neither of them would have been happy.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, February 4, 1872]

Trying to eat for free in the late 19th-century City

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One of the joys of writing a blog based on the reportage of the summary court system in 19th-century London is the discovery of bits of social history I’d never really thought about before. The London Police courts had plenty of theft and violence, tales of poverty and desperation, alongside more serious hearings that led to trials for murder at the Old Bailey. But the the court reporters also entertained their readers with tales of peculiar or amusing incidents with colourful characters that give us a very real insight into the day-to-day lives of our Victorian ancestors.

Sometimes the cases are quite hard to understand at such a distance and that leads me to research them in a little more depth. Today’s case is just such an example.

In January 1895 a young man (18 years of age) called George Townsend was brought before the alderman magistrate at Guildhall Police Court accused of forgery. This would seem to be quite a serious offence until I worked out what he had been charged with forging.

George was a regular at the British Tea Table Company’s café at 68 Aldersgate Street. The café had been opened in 1879 by John Pearce. Pearce was a self-made man in the classic entrepreneurial tradition which has in modern times given us men like Sir Alan Sugar. Pearce had been born in poverty in Shoreditch and had worked since he was a boy of nine.

As a porter at Covent Garden Pearce spotted a gap in the market, which was the ‘difficulty that workmen had in procuring good food early in the morning’.* He first hired a barrow and then a stall before earning enough money selling hot food to open his first restaurant for the working man. By the early 1880s Pearce had several premises trading under the Pearce & Plenty brand.

I suppose these were the forerunners of the transport café (sometimes referred to a s a ‘greasy spoon’) , like the excellent Hope Worker’s Café on the Holloway Road.

Anyway back to George Townsend and his criminal activity. In late December 1894 he had visited the café and bought some food. The assistant that served him gave him a ticket (his bill ) for 11s and 1/2d. George sat at his table to eat his meal but someone noticed him produce a pencil with a rubber on the top and then proceed to edit his ticket. He changed the 11 to a 1 and so reduced his bill considerably.

Moreover when he presented this to the cashier she asked him for ‘three halfpence’ and he gave her a shilling. She then gave him back the balance in change. Not only had he conned them out of the real price of his meal, he had pocketed an extra 10s and a halfpenny!

The customer that saw him do this pointed it out to the assistant but it was too late by then as he had paid and left. But she decided to keep an eye out.

On the 12 January of the following year he was seen again. This time when he tried to alter his bill (from 7s to just 1 and a half) they caught him and called the police. When confronted he denied do anything but PC Savall (221 City) found a ‘lead pencil with a rubber attached to it’ on his person.

It was a relatively minor offence but the managing director of the company told the magistrate that ‘in consequence of many similar tricks played on the Company he desired to press the charge’. As a result Townsend appeared at the Old Bailey on the 28 January and was convicted. He was given a good character and released on his recognisances with his ‘character’ (a Mrs Wingfield – his stepmother) standing surety for him.

I’ve often wondered how many times cafés and restaurants are caught by customers that try and evade paying for their meals but Townsend’s actions take that to a new level.

[The Morning Post, Tuesday, January 15, 1895]

*www.letslookagain.co,/tag/british-tea-table/ [accessed 16/1/17]