A sad end for an unwanted baby: clubbed to death in a Southwark toilet


In May 1848 a young woman presented herself at the door of Sarah Potter’s house in Jane Street, Southwark asking if she might take a room. She told her she was a ‘servant out of place’, temporarily she hoped, and that her name was Ann Brightwell.

Ann seemed like a ‘decent young woman’ so the mechanic’s wife took her in. About a month later however, Sarah began to have some suspicions about her new tenant and confronted her. Mrs Potter clearly thought that there was more to Ann’s story than she had revealed at first, and she ‘charged her with being enciente‘ (or in other words, pregnant).

For a servant to get pregnant in the 1800s was common but still unacceptable in the eyes of a disproving society. Ann’s plan was to hide herself away from the shame but despite her denials, Mrs Potter had found her out. Whether this changed her plans or not it is impossible to say. Ann might have intended to have the baby in her room in Southwark and then leave it at the workhouse door or try and raise it alone.

Perhaps then this discovery precipitated a terrible chain of events, or maybe the shock of being found out brought added stress which quickened her pregnancy. Either way things soon became much worse for the young servant.

On the 2 July Mrs Potter saw Ann leaving the ‘water-closet’ carrying an umbrella, ‘in a hurried state’. When Sarah investigated she was in no doubt that a new born baby had been  disposed of inside.

The police and a surgeon were summoned and Ann arrested. In the Southwark Police Court Dr Robert Tebbett deposed that in his opinion there was no doubt the child had been born alive. Mrs Potter told the magistrate that she had heard Ann admit that she ‘had destroyed her child by casting it into the water-closet, and striking it with the end of the umbrella’.

Ann denied all of the evidence brought against her, as well she might. She was being accused of infanticide, a crime that carried a capital charge until 1938. While women continued to sentenced to death throughout the later 1800s none were executed in London but Ann could not rely on that. The magistrate committed her for trial and at that point she disappears from the records.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, July 31, 1848]


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


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]

Of disorderly elections, drunkeness, and a ‘borrowed’ Hanson cab

In February 1880 the death of John Locke, the sitting Liberal MP for Southwark seat brought about a by-election. In due course 15,312 eligible voters turned out to cast their ballot and the seat was won by the Conservative candidate,  Edward (later Sir Edward) Clarke. Clarke is most famous for being the barrister that represented Oscar Wilde in his unsuccessful prosecution of the Marquis of Queensbury for libel (which ultimately ended with Wilde being tried and then imprisoned for ‘gross indecency’ in 1895.

Elections can be rowdy affairs even today and in the past (especially in the 18th century) they were raucous, sometimes fairly corrupt and drink tended to play a significant role. It seems the by-election in Southwark led to at least two Police Court appearances that month.

The first was a bricklayer named Frederick Evans, who ‘borrowed’ a Hanson cab when he was drunk. Evans admitted to having ‘got too much drink’ at the election (which caused much laughter in Wandsworth Police Court. He noticed that William Cheeney (a cab driver) was slumped in a chair in the Ballot room the worse for alcohol, and presumably thought he wouldn’t mind if he borrowed his vehicle.

Cheeney did mind. He appeared in court to give evidence that he wasn’t drunk at all and had only stopped off in the Ballot room to collect his fees for the night (presumably he had been ferrying voters of the receiving officers).

Mr Paget, the magistrate, wasn’t convinced by his story and while he fined Evans for being drunk in charge of a vehicle (so drunk in fact, that he fell off the cab!), he refused the cabbie’s request for expenses and told him to expect a summons from the police for ‘leaving his cab unattended’.

The second case was heard at Southwark and again involved drunkenness.

Ellen Harley (a 49-year old ‘stalwart Irishwoman’), was charged with being drunk and disorderly at the by-election, and ‘causing a mob to assemble’. PC Anker (305 M) was on duty outside a polling station in Fair Street, Horselydown, and witnessed Harley ‘on several occasions’ whipping up the voting public.

She marched up and down shouting ‘Home rule and Irish independence’ (a hot topic in the late 19th century) and the policeman asked her to go away and stop causing an obstruction and a nuisance. At six o’clock she was back and clearly quite inebriated and had gathered a ‘mob’ around her. PC Anker felt ‘obliged to take her into custody’.

In court she apologised and said she had been plied with drink by ‘some of her countrymen; and had got ‘rather excited’. The justice asked if she was known to the court or the gaoler. Fortunately it was found that she wasn’t; this was her first time in court. She was fined 10s or 7 days in prison.

Having stood for my local council at the last general election in 2015 I can attest that the process is a lot more sober these days but the campaigns can be quite lively for all that. Of course poor Ellen couldn’t vote. Although about 2.5 million more Britons had been enfranchised by the Parliamentary Reform Act (1867) this didn’t include women, she would have to wait to 1918 , if she lived that long (she would have been 87 so I doubt it).

p.s The loss of Southwark was temporary. in the 1880 general election (where Disraeli’s Conservatives were trounced by Gladstone, the Liberals regained the seat under Arthur Cohen MP)

[from The Standard , Monday, February 16, 1880]

‘A lenient decision’ at Borough Market


Borough Market in the 1860s

Later today I’m off to doing my Christmas food shopping at Borough Market in Southwark.  Today its a cosmopolitan place, full of tourists and Londoners, all mingling amongst the wonderful smells of Asian, Indian, Spanish and Italian cookery or eyeing up the beautiful displays of fresh fruit and vegetables, meat and fish. It’s probably a little pricier than it needs to be and die-hards will tell you its not a authentic as it once was, but I love it.

Borough is ancient as well; there’s been a market here for at least a 1000 years, nobody knows for sure. In the medieval period the market at Southwark was a rival to those in London (across the river) and attempts were made to suppress or or even to forbid Londoners to shop there. In the 15th century the Borough came completely under City governance, and as London expanded south the market became an institution.

In the nineteenth century Borough developed from a ‘parochial market’ into a wholesale fruit and vegetable market of national importance. The railway (the South Eastern) brought noise and smoke but customers as well. The development of New Covent Garden in the 1970s nearly killed off Borough but today it is thriving, if not as a wholesale market but a  place to buy anything from purple Brussel sprouts to a Kangaroo burger.

In 1883 Mary Ann Richards was in the market.A policeman saw her standing outside a butcher’s shop wearing a shawl and watched as she lifted a ‘hand of pork off the stall board, and put it under her shawl’.

The copper arrested her and on 22 December she appeared at the Southwark Police Court charged with theft. One of her two daughters came to court to plead for leniency. The court was told that Mary Ann was married and had never been trouble with the law before.

The policeman had made his own inquiries and confirmed that Mary Ann’s husband was ‘respectable’ and their two daughters were ‘industrious’. They were, in other words, a suitable object for mercy.

The magistrate turned to the daughter and tried to reassure her. Mr Marsham said he would deal with her mother not as a felon but instead convict her of unlawful possession. This carried a more lenient sentence; Mary Ann Richards was ordered to pay a fine of 10s or spend 7 days in prison.


[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, December 23, 1883]

a ‘murderous attack’ in the year of the ‘Ripper’

1888 is a year which has gone down in criminal infamy for the unsolved murders committed by the person known to history as ‘Jack the Ripper’. Despite over 120 years of police and private investigation no one has ever been conclusively proven to be ‘Jack’ to the satisfaction of the legions of professional and amateur ‘Ripperologists’ who contribute to the message boards of the excellent casebook site.

I have my own pet theory and, with the help of a friend, have been researching the case for sectoral years. When I go public with my findings, be assured readers of this blog will be amongst the first to know!

But of course the Whitechapel murders were not the only homicides in 1888, nor the only ones to remain unsolved. There were also the more mundane (but still unpleasant and serious) assaults, often on women and usually committed by men.

On the 15 December William Atkins was charged at Southwark with a violent assault. He was accused of ‘feloniously cutting and wounding’ Lucretia Pembroke (a waitress aged 15)  with the ‘intent to commit grievous bodily harm’. At the time of the hearing Lucretia was in hospital, and her condition described as ‘dangerous’.

Grievous bodily harm (GBH) had been made a specific offence under the Offences against the Person Act (1861) which had been passed in an attempt to simplify the law. ‘Assault’ had been a catch-all phrase throughout the early 1800s but the 1861 act (and the 1828 act that preceded it) sought to differentiate and make certain forms of violence liable to stiffer penalties.

Detective Sergeant Bradford (of M Division, Metropolitan Police) was the investigating officer. He had arrested Atkins at Limersole Street, Bermondsey having been informed of the attack. DS Bradford told Atkins that a girl had been attacked,, her throat cut, and that he was the chief suspect.

‘Is she dead?’ Atkins asked. ‘No, but she is very dangerously ill in Guy’s Hospital’ the policeman replied. He then asked Atkins if he owned a knife and the prisoner handed him a penknife from his pocket.

Having deposited his captive at the police station Bradford went to see Lucretia in hospital. He asked her if she recognized the man that attacked her.

‘Yes’, she said, ‘It was Bill Atkins. We call him Silly Bill’.

She added that Atkins had been employed to do some painting and decorating for  her employer at the coffee house where she worked and that afterwards he had asked her for ‘a pennyworth of tea’ which she gave him. As she turned away she said he came up behind her and slashed at her throat. She screamed and he ran away.

In court Atkins confirmed the part of the girl’s story about being employed to do some whitewashing and wallpapering but nothing else. The knife the policeman found was a small pocket knife (a penknife we’d call it) and there was no blood on the blade. Atkins, who may (by the girl’s description) have been suffering with some form of mental health problem, was remanded for further inquiries and to see if the young lady recovered.

Lucretia did survive and in January 1889 she testified against Atkins at the Old Bailey. William was charged with GBH and attempted murder where the chief medical witness (Dr Gilbert, the surgeon at Holloway Prison) reported that in his opinion Atkins was ‘very weak-minded, almost imbecile’. The jury acquitted him of attempted murder but convicted him of GBH. He was sent to prison for 7 years.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, December 16, 1888]

A noxious business in Southwark

Those familiar with this blog might recall that some weeks ago I wrote about a prosecution brought as a result of the manufacture of soap in a factory south of the River Thames. A similar case from 1869 once again illustrates how industrial London was in the 1800s.

Charles James Clarkson, described as a ‘Government pontoon manufacturer and waterproofer’ was brought up from remand to appear at Southwark Police Court charged with ‘carrying on business of an offensive nature’ and endangering the health of local inhabitants. That business was coating corks and cloth (for making pontoons) and hats with a mixture of naphtha and petrol – presumably to make them waterproof.

Clarkson worked out of a premises at 49 Cornwall Road, now not that far from Waterloo Station and the National Theatre, but in the late 1800s a mixed area of houses and workplaces. The charges was brought by the Lambeth Board of Works in the person of its medical officer, Dr Puckle.

Acting on information from several local residents Dr Puckle visited Clarkson’s workshop ‘and found a filthy odour emanating’ from it. The smell, he attested, ’caused sickness, and was decidedly dangerous to the local inhabitants’.

The magistrate had looked into the case prior to hearing it (showing that on occasion magistrates did investigate some of the actions brought before them). He had visited government works at Pimlico where the process was also carried out and declared that ‘he had no doubt it was a nuisance, and injurious to the inhabitants’ health’. In consequence he levied a fine of £5 on Clarkson and told him to close down his operation within the week.

[from The Morning Post , Friday, October 01, 1869]

Drink: the curse of the working classes…



Throughout the nineteenth century the problem of drink (especially the drinking habits of the working classes) were the subject of intense discussion. The Temperance Movement began in the early 1820s and while it began by advocating ‘moderation’ it became more radical, demanding the prohibition of the sale of alcohol and urging people to take the pledge of abstinence. The Band of Hope was founded in Leeds in 1847 and a national organization grew from this in 1855. In 1864 William Booth founded the Salvation Army with temperance one of its key tenets.

Of course while many people agreed that moderation and even abstinence were a ‘good thing’, others either resented the attack on their lifestyle and ‘freedoms’ or saw temperance as a threat to their business and livelihood. Publicans and brewers in particular can’t have welcomed the emergence of an anti-alcohol movement.

In 1850 Mr. William Townsend was due to speak on the subject of the ‘social. moral and religious condition of the working classes’ at the Temperance Hall at Horsleydown, in Bermondsey. Before the meeting placards were printed and distributed announcing the lecture. He rose to speak but had not got very far into his lecture before he was interrupted.

A group of people close to the podium stepped forward and threw red paint at him, covering the front of his clothes. The men then left and Mr. Townsend, to his credit, finished his speech.

However, as he was leaving and stepping into a cab ‘his assailants’, who had been waiting for him nearby, rushed forward and chucked a quantity of flour all over him; he was now, as the paper dubbed him, the ‘red and white lecturer’!

Townsend told the magistrate he knew who his attackers were and his worship issued a summons for them to appear to answer the charge. Perhaps they were members of the ‘skeleton crew’ supposedly hired by landlords to thwart the efforts of the prohibitionists.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, September 28, 1850]