Hard choices for an unmarried mother in Spitalfields

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Spitalfields (in the early 20th century) by the photographer C. A. Mathew 

Sophia Higgins, the wife of a chemist in Spicer Street, Spitalfields was making her way home at 11 at night when something caught her attention.  She was crossing the market when she heard what she thought was a baby crying.

Moving towards the sound she soon discovered an infant ‘lying on the pavement, wrapped in a piece of blanket’. Horrified she stopped it up, went to find a person nearby to care for it, and then rushed off to the nearest police station.

The police arrived and collected the child, taking it to the Whitechapel workhouse to make enquiries there. Having established from the porter who they thought the mother was, another officer was despatched to find her and arrest her.

Eventually Ellen Lehain was identified as the child’s mother and questioned by the police before being summoned before the magistrate at Worship Street Police Court in October 1853. A witness, Ann Buskin (described as an ‘unmarred female’) said she had lodged with Ellen at a property in Holborn and testified that she had recently given birth to an illegitimate child.

Ann explained that her fellow lodger had ‘nursed it for a few weeks, when she left there to go into the union house’ (meaning the local workhouse for the poor).

The child was produced in court and  Ellen admitted it was hers. When the policeman had asked her what she had done with it she had told him she’d left the baby at the door of the workhouse. So how did it come to be in the middle of Spitalfields market the court wanted to know? Ellen’s response to this question is not recorded.

In her defence the girl simply pleaded poverty and distress as the reason for abandoning her new born baby. Mr D’Eyncourt sent her to the house of correction for three months, the fate of her child was not something the newspaper reporters seems to have thought important enough to write down. Perhaps it was obvious: the child would become another mouth for the parish union to feed, until at least he or she could be apprenticed out into service.

No one seemed to be in the least bit interested in the fate of its mother, who must have been in considerable distress to give up a child she had been caring for for several weeks.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, October 14, 1853]

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An H Division policeman gets away with brutality towards a defenceless immigrant

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The Kind Hearted Policeman by  L Huard (1864). This was the image of policing the Met were keen to promote but it did not always reflect the reality

Under the headline ‘More outrages of young women’, The Era newspaper (which was aimed primarily at the entertainment industry and licensed traders) carried a story of what appeared to be police brutality in the East End of London.

A respectable married woman (aged about 30) named Sarah Gompertz was walking towards Spitalfields at four o’clock in the afternoon. One imagines Sarah lived here as part of the area’s large Jewish community as her name suggests a Russian, Polish or German origin. There was always tension between the immigrant population and the indigenous one (even allowing for the fact that London has been home to migrating peoples for as long as it has existed), but this was not as pronounced as it was to become in the last two decades of the nineteenth century.

As she made her way along a policeman from H Division was patrolling his beat ahead of her. As the constable came alongside her he allegedly spat a mouthful of half-chewed carrot at her as he passed. Outraged Sarah protested. Instead of apologising the officer, PC William Gulley, responded by telling her to move along. When she refused to move he manhandled her violently, as the paper described:

‘this valiant constable of the H Division seized Mrs Gompertz by the back hair with one hand, and grasping her dress with the other, violently propelled her forward by the length of several houses, expediting her movements with brutal blows from behind with his knees, tearing open her dress by the force used, and exposing both her shoulders and her neck and bosom in a most indecent, and to the sufferer, most humiliating, manner’.

And, the report continued,

‘in this disgraceful way, with her dress unfastened, her shawl and bonnet streaming behind, she was pushed and dragged to the station, like a common troll or drunken prostitute, charged with taking part in a street disturbance, and refusing to move on at the voice of authority’.

Back at the police station the inspector on duty refused to register the charge and related the poor woman immediately but did little else to publicly  admonish the constable. The woman had walked home in a state of distress and collapsed. A doctor was called and he noted that her exhaustion and stress was compounded by the fact that she was pregnant. Its not clear whether witnesses saw the constable’s actions or merely saw the effects when she reached home but the paper was clearly convinced that the assault had happened.

Mrs Gompertz later pressed a charge of assault against PC Gulley at Worship Street but the constable was able to find three fellow officers who were prepared to testify in his defence. It went to the Old Bailey in November but the constable was acquitted and no details were recorded. In the end it was probably the word of an immigrant against that of a ‘guardian of the public’ backed up by three colleagues who had not seen what had happened. The inspector must have believed Mrs Gompertz’s account but was presumably too timid to take on his own men.

[from The Era , Sunday, September 4, 1864]

Seven immigrant workers are caught gambling for their supper

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Seven men were sat around a table in house in Whitechapel at 10.30 at night, playing at cards when there was a loud knock at the door. The knock was followed by the cry of ‘Police, open up!’ and the arrival of Inspector Frederick Abberline and H Division’s finest.

Abberline was acting on a tip off that the house was being used as an illegal gambling den, which sounds quite exotic but was actually very far from that. The seven men were poor ‘jobbing tailors’. All were Polish Jews, recently arrived from the Russian Pale, escaping from economic misery and religious persecution. They had come to the East End (as so many of their fellow congregationalists had, before and since) because there was an established Ashkenazi community there where they could find work, kosher food and others that spoke their language. Many dreamed of making the longer journey to the ‘golden medina’, the promised land of America, land of the free.

They worked very long hours, often in cramped conditions for little pay. The ‘sweating system’ of small workshops was endemic in Whitechapel and Spitalfields and drew the attention of Parliament and campaigners like Annie Besant. On this occasion however, they had drawn a different sort of attention and it had brought the police to the house that Harris Straus owned in New Castle Street.

The men were arrested and brought before the Police Magistrate at Worship Street on the following Monday morning. Straus (a 36 year-old tailor) was charged with keeping a gaming house’ and the others, with being found there, ‘contrary to the Act’.

None of the men spoke English and so an interpreter (Mr Carameli) was called to translate proceedings. The lack of English amongst the Jewish community was something which frustrated the local police during the Ripper investigation, and a few officers were eventually trained to speak Yiddish. The seven men were named as Barnett Coplin (28), Morris Green (18), Louis Gasoniviter (19), Morris Friedman (25), Abraham Lewis (28), Simon Nathan (19) and Hyman Lawer (19).

Nearly all of them lived at the house and they insisted they were only playing cards to pay for their supper.

The police case was presented in court by superintendent T. Arnold. Arnold explained that men Abberline and his men had gained entry they had found the men sat around a table in a back room. ‘Money and cards were on the table’, and in a drawer they found yet more cards and ‘about the room more cards’. This was not then, simply a case of some friends meeting at home to pass the time with a harmless game, he argued, this was organised gambling.

Arnold said the police had received an anonymous letter informing them of the gambling den, which Abberline had acted upon. He understood the game they were playing was called ‘sixty-six’ (or schnapsen, a game of German origin). If you want to know how to play it (not for money of course!) then the rules are here.

Straus admitted allowing players to gamble in his house and further admitted to charging them to do so. He didn’t ask for much, ‘a penny or a halfpenny from each of them to use the room’, was all, but that was illegal just the same. A witness appeared for the police, named Albert Stern, and he said he had played  other games such as Faro and Bank there, for upwards of four hours for ‘stakes of 1d up to 4d‘.

Mr Busby, the magistrate, said it was clear all were guilty as charged and Straus would be fined £5 for running the house. He accepted that most of the others lived there and were only playing for small stakes, so would be lenient. He fined them 20s each. To put this in some sort of context this meant that the arrest had cost each man about £25 in today’s money, and their host 10 times that amount. For the police it was a victory in the ongoing war against illegal gambling but I hope that Abberline and his team were just as assiduous in busting employers that forced their staff to work in sweated industry for long hours at substance pay; sadly I doubt it.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, July 08, 1879]

A father meets out his own brand of ‘justice’ on the man that ‘defiled’ his daughter

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Many of the cases prosecuted and heard by the magistrates of the Victorian metropolis were fairly mundane and soon forgotten.

Everyday across London drunks, disorderly prostitutes, pub brawlers, petty thieves and swindlers, took their place in the Police Court dock along with the occasional middle-class trader charged with selling meat unfit for human consumption or for adulterating milk or other goods. Landlords were fined for failing to maintain premises and cab passengers summoned for failing to pay their fares. Sad stories of suicide, poverty and child neglect were tempered by amusing tales involving country ‘bumpkins’, cross-dressing entertainers and defendants who showed a bit of bravado in the face of adversity.

Just occasionally however, the cases were quite serious and reflected the courts’ role as a court of first hearing for many of the trials that reached the Old Bailey.

In 1888 (the year that ‘Jack the Ripper’ perpetrated a series of brutal murders in the East End) Robert James Matthews stepped into the dock at Worship Street Police Court charged with wounding and attempted murder.

His victim was Henry Blaming, a 22 year-old ‘potman’ who had previously worked for Matthews at his pub in Brick Lane. Matthews ran the the Two Old Brewers and lived there with his wife, son and two daughters. Blaming took a fancy to one of his employer’s daughter and in January of 1888 there was some kind of incident and Blaming was sacked.

It seems that Blaming was accused of indecently assaulting Eliza Matthews and he was formally charged and tried at the Old Bailey, but acquitted. Blaming later claimed that Eliza was 14 years old at the time, but the Old Bailey puts her age as under 13. Whether there was simply insufficient evidence of Blaming’s guilt or he was indeed as innocent as the jury found him is impossible to know. The proceedings of the Old Bailey rarely went into any detail in publishing accounts of rape trials and this is typically uninformative.

After leaving the Old Bailey at noon Blaming decided to celebrate his acquittal by going for a drink with two of his friends. All fair enough we might think, except that the former pub worker chose to rub his old boss’ nose in the mud by opting to have his celebration at his old place of work. He took a position at the bar and asked to be served.

Matthews saw him smiling at him and demanded: ‘who are you laughing at?’

‘I have nothing to cry for’, was the younger man’s response. Things now escalated fairly swiftly. Matthews reached behind the bar and grabbed his revolver. He levelled it at Henry and fired.

Blaming was hit in the stomach and tried to run away. A second shot caught him in the buttocks before he escaped into the street. The wounded man was soon treated by a doctor and then taken to the London Hospital were he was an in patient for ten weeks.

In the meantime Matthews was arrested and taken to the station by a young detective, Walter Dew. Dew was to go on to serve on the ‘Ripper’ case (supposedly being the first policeman into Mary Kelly’s home) and, more famously, to catch the murderer Dr Crippen in a chase across the Atlantic.

Matthews told Inspector Bavington, who had questioned the landlord at the pub, that he had fired two shots but that he was provoked. He clearly believed that Blaming was guilty of raping his daughter and had gotten away with it.

On the way to the police station Dew said to Matthews: ‘This is a bad job;” only for his prisoner to reply: ‘What! I wish I had killed him, there would be an end to the b——then’.

There was a third bullet because when the police examined the gun they found one remaining in the chamber. Blaming had been lucky: the first bullet had entered his thigh but had missed his abdomen by a ‘faction of an inch’. The first bullet had been removed but the other remained lodged in his buttock and he was still receiving ongoing treatment.

When it came up to the Old Bailey Matthews was, unsurprisingly, convicted. The jury was sympathetic to him however and strongly recommended mercy on the grounds of provocation. The judge was lenient, sending him to prison for six weeks at hard labour she he could easily have spent much longer inside. If he was able to return to his management of the pub one imagines Blaming gave him a wide berth in future.

[from The Standard, Thursday, April 12, 1888]

The ‘people of the East End: a distinct class’ in need of ‘exceptional kindness’

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Middlesex Street (‘Petticoat Lane’) market c.1894

On most occasions London’s police  magistrates (men from a legal background with clear middle class roots) upheld the law the of the land without question. Men like Mr Lushington at Thames had little time for petty thieves, drunken brawlers, or wife beaters and dealt with then swiftly and dismissively. But now and then they displayed a level of good sense tinged with human kindness that reminds us that they were, as justices had been for hundreds of years, figures of authority whose overriding role was to maintain social cohesion in their communities, as far as that was possible.

Worship Street Police court (along with Thames) served the poor districts of the East End of London. Here were the overcrowded dwellings of tens of thousands of native and immigrant working-class Londoners, many living in what Charles Booth had identified as poverty. Here was the crime and degradation that Victorian ‘slummers’ went to gawp at on their visits to the area, here too were the dirty trades of slaughter men and tanners that had made their home in the east since medieval times. This was Whitechapel and Spitalfields and the killing grounds of ‘Jack the Ripper’, who preyed on the ‘unfortunates’ who plied their desperate trade on its ill-lit streets.

It is easy to depict the East End as down trodden and degenerate – and that is almost always the picture that emerges from contemporary reporters and later historians – but while the poverty and overcrowding was very real, so was the famed East End spirit and toughness. Nor was the entire area poor and forgotten. Booth’s poverty maps reveal plenty of ‘red’ streets where ‘respectable’ traders and the middle classes lived and worked. The Charity Organisation Society and the Salvation Army were active and local priests like Canon Barnett worked amongst their ‘flocks’.

There was also a vibrant street culture, which centred around the markets in Wentworth Street and ‘Petticoat Lane’ (Middlesex Street), which catered for all the ethnicities and pockets in the East End.

Markets, however, were also a bone of contention because the traders who set up their stalls, and stood individually elsewhere, often competed for use of the streets with other road users. The job of the keeping the streets clear for traffic and so moving on these traders – London’s costermongers – fell to the parish officials and then to the police.

As Stephen Inwood has shown, from their earliest days the Metropolitan Police soon released that resources meant that they needed to pick their battles. While their middle-class leaders wished them to enforce the law, close down Sunday markets and move on barrows, the local populace resisted and so for the sake of good relations many a blind eye was turned.

In 1889 a representative of the local parish authority appeared at the Worship Street Police court to complain about a number of costermongers who he had summoned to court for obstructing the streets with their barrows and stalls. The cases were heard by Mr Montagu Williams, the sitting magistrate.

Mr Besley, on behalf of the parish, told the court that several traders were in the habit of placing their stalls on the streets of Bethnal Green ‘where  a sort of fair was held every Sunday morning’. The market set up early but was often still there long past 11 in the morning. This was an infringement of the by-laws but the police were doing little or nothing about it.

The traders complained that they had been earning their living in this way for years, some for 25 or even 40 years; it was a tradition and the local people approved of it. Mr Besley argued that many of the costers were not ‘local’ at all, but came from other parts of the capital to sell their wares.

Mr Williams said he had himself walked the streets and seen the market, and those at Middlesex Street and Wentworth Street, and saw no harm in it. While it might infringe the by-laws of the parish it was of use.

He was convinced ‘that the people of the neighbourhood found it a great boon to be able to buy food in the markets on Sundays. One heard a great deal about the “Sweating” life led by the East-End poor, and it was precisely those people who, kept at work till midnight perhaps, needed to get their food on a Sunday’.

He thought that the vestry were being rather hard on the traders and while he recognised that laws were laws a little discretion was in order for the people of the area. He declared that the ‘people of the East End had a harder time of it than any class in the Metropolis, and therefore required an exceptional kindness’.

Mr Besley went off frustrated, quite possibly muttering under his his breath.

[from The Standard, Thursday, March 14, 1889]

A thief opts for the lesser of two evils

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The Criminal Justice Act (1855) allowed defendants in court to have their cases heard by a justice of the peace in a summary court, or elect to go before a judge and jury. This act was intended to speed up the prosecution system by enabling more smaller property crimes (larcenies) to be dealt with by the magistracy. Many of those brought before the ‘beak’ may well have thought it beneficial to give up their ‘right’ to a jury in return for escaping the longer sentence that judges could hand down.

In March 1872 there were a couple of cases before the Guildhall Police Court where defendants chose this option. One of them concerned the theft of a silver watch – a fairly serious crime which in previous years might have attracted a sentence  of death (before the 1820s) or transportation.

Charles Cordell gave a false address in court when he was accused of stealing Joseph Cook’s silver watch on Ludgate Hill on Thanksgiving Day*. Cook and his wife were walking on Ludgate Hill at about 4 o’clock when he saw Cordell  next to him and felt him try to take something from his waistcoat pocket. As he looked he claimed he saw the man steal is pocket watch, and immediately  grabbed hold of  him.

‘You have stolen my watch’, he cried, ‘You are mistaken’ replied Cordell, struggling to get free but the prosecutor and his wife held him tight by the hands. Cook called out for help and a policeman soon arrived on the scene. As Cordell protested his innocence the watch fell from his trousers onto the street.

Mr Cook bent down and retrieved his property and the policeman took Cordell prisoner and marched him to the station house. There he was searched and found to have ‘six handkerchiefs, a breast pin and a knife’ on him.

In court he gave an address in Spitalfields, an area synonymous with crime, and admitted having been charged with felony in the past. He pleaded guilty and waived his rights to a jury trial. The magistrate sentenced him to six months imprisonment, with hard labour.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, March 05, 1872]

*If this is the traditional feast day  celebrated by the Americans then this means early November, or it may be what we tend to call the Harvest Festival, but perhaps readers may know of another festival more applicable to late February/early March.

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]