“Go on, little one; pay him out”: mindless violence on the City Road claims another life.

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The City Road in London, c.1885, complete with trams

Last night my wife and I drove down the City Road in London on our way to a very glamorous party in Stoke Newington. Both of us were dressed up as passengers on the ill-fated RMS Titanic which struck an iceberg on its maiden voyage in 1912. As we crawled in traffic along the City Road through Shoreditch the pavements were thronged with bright young things intent of having a good time. Pubs and clubs were heaving and everywhere the sound of partying crowds was audible above the cars, buses and motorcycle noise.

Today that area of London might still look a little shabby but it is far from being the dangerous and impoverished district it was in the late 1800s.  North East London in the 1880s was not as bad as Whitechapel and Spitalfields, or indeed the Borough and Lambeth, but it was rife with crime, gangs, and casual violence as this case from 1883 shows.

On the 20th January 1883 a fight broke out on the City Road when three young men confronted an older man, a 27 year old painter named William Johnston and his brother,  George.

The alteration seems to have taken place in a pub called the Duke of Bridgewater where the pair had gone to play skittles (although it may have been seeded earlier in the evening at The Dock public house). A teenage lad named Edward Jackson had approached George Johnston and asked him for a penny to set up the skittles, as was customary. When George refused to pay him a scuffle ensued. George got punched in the mouth and told the lad: “If you were big enough I would give you a good hiding”. The brothers then left.

Two other lads, Daniel Daniels (19) and Charles Wilsdon (18) joined Jackson (who was just 16) in following the Johnstons out of the pub. Jackson taunted George, declaring to his mates that he had punched jim in the mouth and would happily do so again. George was enraged, turned and hit out at the youngster.

There are conflicting results of what happened that night but drink was certainly involved. George’s brother William was a big man and at first the lads were wary of him. A scuffle began with William and Daniels squaring up to each other. Jackson and Wilsdon seemed to have been egging their mate on – daring him to prove himself against an such a large opponent: “Go on, little one; pay him, little one” they shouted. Daniels allegedly said to William Johnston:

“Do you think I am going to fight a man of 25. and I am only 18? I will put a knife through you”.

Despite this threat the episode was unfolding as a so-called ‘fair fight’ until Daniels and Jackson decided to get involved. They rushed in and topped the big man over, throwing him into the street and onto the tram lines, fracturing his skull.

As the lads tried to melt away the police were called and they were picked up. On the following day, worried about his condition, George took his brother to the Royal Free Hospital where he was examined by Dr Mihanda Barrigea, the house surgeon at 8 in the evening. We now know that head injuries need to be treat quickly and sadly for William it was too late. He died on the Monday morning as a result of the injuries he’d received in the street brawl. The three young men were formally committed to trial at the Old Bailey by the sitting justice at Clerkenwell Police Court. There was insufficient evidence for the jury to convict them of manslaughter however, so they all walked free from court at the end of the month.

This is my last visit to 1883 for a while. I have tried to follow one week in the past and the stories of a couple of individuals in particular. One of these was Henry Harcourt who claimed to a distant relative of the Home Secretary, Sir William Harcourt. In early February the papers were full of reaction to the assassination in Dublin of the newly appointed Chief Secretary to Ireland and a top ranking civil servant. Following the stabbings of Lord Cavendish and Thomas Henry Burke the press reported that extra security had been given to prominent public figures, like Harcourt, to protect them from the ‘Assassination Society’. According to one report Sir William had a detective ‘sleeping in his house’ at all times.

On Wednesday 7 February Henry Harcourt made his final appliance at the Lambeth Police Court before Mr Chance. This time his aunt turned up to give evidence. She confirmed they had worked together as bar staff but had no recollection of Henry being either deaf or dumb at that time. As for Henry’s claim that he had been left £600 in a will only to have his ‘name scratched out’ by others, that was entirely false she said. The will was produced and the magistrate could see that it was entirely in order but made no mention of Henry anywhere.

Henry seems to have been a troubled soul and the court was told of information from Salford that suggested he fitted the description of man named Downey who had until recently made his living by telling people’s fortunes. He disappeared at the same time Henry showed up at the Lambeth casual ward seeking shelter. Harcourt denied any knowledge of this.

Mr Chance asked Harcourt’s aunt whether she would be prepared to help her nephew get back to sea. That seemed the best course of action for him so she agreed as did Henry. On that basis Mr Chance was prepared to release him without further charge or penalty.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, February 4, 1883; The Sheffield & Rotherham Independent , Monday, February 05, 1883; Daily News , Thursday, February 8, 1883]

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A daring jewel thief on Houndsditch

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An old clothes shop in the Jewish community of Houndsditch 

In 1883 Mr Samuel Morris Samuels ran a jewellers shop at 157 Houndsditch in the City of London. The street was to become infamous in the early twentieth century when a gang of politically-motivated robbers raided a similar establishment at number 119 killing three City policeman in the ensuing attempt to arrest them. The criminals escaped and were later surrounded the following January leading to what has become known as the Siege of Sidney Street.

Samuel Morris Samuels was a member of East London’s large jewish community in the late 1800s. The great synagogue was close by, at Bevis Marks, and thousands of his co-religionists lived in the crowded houses of nearby Spitalfields. The 1800s saw waves of Jewish immigration from the Russian Pale of Settlement but Samuels family had probably been in England for decades, if not centuries.

He knew a man called George Wyatt quite well. Wyatt, who dressed well and so was fairly comfortably off, worked for the Electric Light Company as an engine fitter. Im190102Cass-Edi1883 was the year that the Edison & Swan Electric Light Company was founded in London and Sunderland but Wyatt may have worked for a lesser known firm. Edison bulbs (like the one in this advertisement from 1901) have become fashionable again today – they must have seemed like ‘magic’ for our Victorian ancestors.

Wyatt was a regular customer at Samuels’ shop and so the jeweller didn’t pay that much attention to him when he came in at about one o’clock on Sunday 14 January 1883 and asked to look at some watch movements. He bought one for 2s and left. While he was browsing however, the jeweller was busy with another customer who he was ‘showing a parcel of jewellery and other things’. He soon realised after the engineer had left that he was missing a number of things from his counter. Locking up, he chased after Wyatt, caught him and took him back to the shop and called for the police.

At 1.30 PC Foc (55 City) arrived and Mr Samuels handed him a number of things that Wyatt had admitted having in his possession. It was quite a haul:

‘Six gold weddings rings,  which had been stolen from a  tray of eight, a silver watch, and two sets of watch movements’ were surrendered.

When he got him back to the police station PC Fox searched him and found another four watch movements, all later identified as belonging to the Houndsditch jeweller. But this was not the extent of Wyatt’s light-fingered activity.

When detective Robert Leeman searched Wyatt’s rooms he found: ‘a large quantity of miscellaneous property, consisting of gold and silver watches, watch cases, watch movements, and earrings’.

Not surprisingly this haul landed Wyatt in court before the alderman magistrate at Guildhall Police Court. There he was asked to explain himself. He provoked considerable laughter in court when he admitted taking the goods but stated that the prosecutor had ‘sold him £90 of worthless goods, and he was only serving him as he had been served’. The magistrate remanded him in custody while he decided what to do with him.

This week I am going to attempt an experiment in my methodology. I have selected the year 1883 because its calendar corresponds with our own and so I should be able to track a week’s reportage of the Police Courts just as a contemporary reader would have done. So let’s see if Mr Wyatt turns up again as he is not in the Old Bailey that month.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, January 28, 1883]

You can use this site to search for specific crimes or use the Themes link in the menu on the left to look for areas or topics that interest you. If you are interested in a particular court (such as Bow Street or Marylebone) you can also limit your search to one court in particular. Please feel free to comment on anything you read and if something in particular interests you then please get in touch. You can email me at drew.gray@northampton.ac.uk

Casual violence in Whitechapel as a char is ‘brutally’ kicked on the ground

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When Isaac Sinclair appeared at Worship Street police court on 12 January 1854 it was his second time in a fortnight. He had been remanded the week before, by Mr D’Eyncourt, for an assault on a local char woman who was too poorly to appear to testify against him.

Char women collected dirty laundry to wash for others and were at the bottom of the domestic service ladder in the nineteenth century. The women in question, Hannah Dighton, was evidently very poor and lived in Flower and Dean Street in one of the roughest parts of the capital. In fact later in the century Flower and Dean Street would become synonymous with the Whitechapel murders of 1888, with several of the victims lodging in houses along the street and those nearby (like Wentworth Street or Thrawl Street).

The assault that brought Sinclair (described as ‘a mulatto’ – or more properly, mixed race – and a ‘strolling player’) before first Mr D’Eyncourt and then Mr Hammill, was caused by an altercation between the himself and Hannah. He had accused the char woman of stealing a shirt she had taken to wash for him. He said she had pawned it but this was hotly denied.

Sinclair then ‘struck her a blow on the mouth with his fist’, and when she ran out of the house to find a policeman he chased after her and knocked her to the street. Not content he continued to kick at her while she was prone and caused her to become lame in one leg. Her eye was cut and she bled so much she was taken to the London Hospital and held there for several days before she was released.

When he was asked to speak for himself Sinclair alleged that the woman had struck first, hitting him with a pot. It was a plausible story; women did tended to use weapons close at hand and a chamber pot or a cooking pot (the report is not specific) would fit the bill. But Hannah denied instigating the violence and she was able to produce a another female lodger to corroborate her evidence.

Mr Hammill also heard from PC Michael Duffey (85A) who testified to helping Hannah and to her injuries. The assault had clearly taken place and regardless of its cause or the exact circumstances Sinclair was in the wrong. There must have been a spate of such attacks in recent weeks or days because the newspaper reporter entitled his article ‘More assaults upon females’. papers tended to return to themes that interested, alarmed or informed their readership and violence to women was  a standard one.

Having been detained in custody for over a week Sinclair might have hoped for leniency. He was unlucky however, Mr Hammill made a point of stressing his ‘brutality’ and imposed a sentence of six months imprisonment at hard labour.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, January 13, 1854]

‘I’m afraid that I will actually have to keep him’. A newly wed wife’s complaint at Westminster

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1888 was an horrendous year for the people of London, especially the denizens of Whitechapel and Spitalfields. From August to November there had been at least six unsolved murders and the whole of that area of East London remained caught under the ‘spell of terror’ the killer known only as ‘Jack the Ripper’ had cast. The police patrols had been wound down and most of the world’s press had lost interest by the end of year but the district would forever be associated with the case.

The role of the press reporting of the metropolitan police courts was partly to inform, to warn and highlight, but also to entertain. On New Year’s eve 1888 (after such a dreadful five months) the first story readers were presented with fell firmly into the last category.

An unnamed married ‘middle-aged’ woman presented herself at Westminster Police Court and asked for Mr Partridge’s help in solving a domestic issues. She had wed an old soldier – an army pensioner infant – just before Christmas but was regretting her decision to do so. Just like so many of us at Christmas (judging by the crowds filling the exchange queues at the shops on the 26 December) she had got something she no longer wanted.

She asked the magistrate if he would help her get back the furniture she had brought into the marriage, having left her new husband a few days ago.

‘And you have only been married a fortnight?’ Mr Partridge asked her.

‘Yes. He has not turned out what I expected. I can’t do with him at all’, she replied (prompting peals of laughter in the courtroom).

‘But you have not given him much of a trial’, protested the magistrate.

‘It’s long enough. What he said on Boxing Day was quite sufficient. He’s getting on in years, and I’m afraid the end of it might be that I should actually have to keep him’.

She was happy for him to go ‘where he likes’ she just wanted her possessions back. Mr Partridge was in no mood to assist however, he told her go home and try and patch things up. ‘I don’t wish to’, she replied. Then she would have to go to the County Court he explained, he could not do anything for her.

As the disgruntled wife and a younger women (her daughter it transpired) withdrew and elderly man shuffled forward to present himself, wearing ‘a cast-off military overcast’. This was the woman’s husband and he too had come to ask for Mr Partridge’s help.

He was a widower with three three children and had married the lady in question, presumably hoping for some comfort and support in his final years. She had one daughter of her own and it seemed a reasonable match. It very quickly became clear however that it was a mistake.

The Boxing Day squabble arose, he explained, ‘over a spoon’.

‘One of my children asked for a spoon [a teaspoon to be precise] to eat his dinner, and my wife said to me: “Do you want one too?”.’ At this the public gallery collapsed into ‘loud laughter’.

The old soldier tried to carry on with his narrative.

“Father is not a child”, his son replied. ‘She took offence at that, and began to storm away at a fine rate, so that I said I should have to hit her. But I did not’.

This statement prompted the woman to walk back towards the dock and challenge her husband’s version of events.

‘He’s a wicked man, your worship, and don’t you believe him. The fact is, he said he would blind me; he called me a cow, and I am not used to it. I am not, indeed; and if I had not had my daughter with me I am sure I should have  had a pair of black eyes’.

The army pensioner carried on. He told Mr Partridge that his wife had left him on Boxing Day and he’d tried to persuade her to come home and try again, but she’d refused. He had pawned his medals to pay for the wedding ring and had ‘done his best for her’. If she wanted the furniture back then she was welcome to it; he ‘did not want any unpleasantness’. He just wanted a quite life and so must also have regretted marrying in haste. Mr Partridge again admonished them to reconcile their differences and leave his court in peace. There was nothing he could do for either of them.

It was a non-story in terms of the usual domestic abuse tales the papers reported. No one had been hurt or robbed, or even deeply traumatised. But it was an amusing cautionary tale for the reading public to consume over their toast and marmalade and a fairly mundane and gentle  one to finish a year that had been anything but.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, December 31, 1888]

A strange man at Worship Street – was he the ‘Ripper’?

Illustrated Police News Jack the Ripper

Today I am spending most of my time in Whitechapel planning out a history trip for my undergraduate students. This is something I do every year – take a party of students studying my third year module on ‘Crime and Popular Culture’ in the nineteenth century to visit the sites associated with the ‘Jack the Ripper’ murders. Plenty of commercial walking tours exist of course, some much better than others.

Personally I’m not a fan of the exploitative type that thinks that projecting an image of a dead woman onto the brick walls of modern Spitalfields is appropriate. I’d much rather listen to an expert who can impart some context and tell the audience about the history of the area and its peoples as well as treat the murder victims with the respect they deserve. Those tours do exist, so if you want to take one do some research before you make your choice.

I don’t have the luxury of being able to pay for a commercial tour so I do it myself. But Whitechapel is constantly changing so I need to revisit the place regularly to see what changes I need to make to my route. This time however there is added piquancy to my trip because I have almost finished making the edits to my first draft of a new ‘Ripper’ book. This has been written in collaboration with a former student of mine who thought he had a new solution to the world’s most infamous cold case. Andy has done the research on the murders and has added several to the original police file, while I have concentrated on the social history to provide context. We have a draft manuscript, all we need now is a publisher…

Anyway, back to Whitechapel and back to 1888 and a month after Mary Kelly became the fifth canonical (but not , we argue, the last) victim of ‘Jack’, what was happening at the Worship Street Police Court? Worship Street (along with Thames) served the East End and several of the murdered women in the ‘Ripper’ series appeared here on a variety of cares relating to prostitution, disorderly behaviour and drunkenness in the late 1880s.

Joseph Isaacs, a 30 year-old cigar maker, was charged with theft. His name suggests he belonged to the large immigrant Jewish population of the area which have been closely associated with the murders. Quite early on a man named John Pizer was arrested on suspicion of being the killer. Pizer (who was also known as ‘leather apron’ – a local man with a reputation for threatening prostitutes). Pizer was able to provide an alibi and was released but some experts still believe he may have been the killer.

The idea that the murderer was a Jew was helped by widespread anti-semitism and the belief that ‘no Englishman could do such a thing’. Xenophobia, racism and anti-immigrant tension suffused society in the 1880s and the killings brought all of this to the surface.

Joseph Isaacs was accused of stealing a watch. He had entered a shop in the West End of London holding a violin bow. He asked the shop’s proprietor, a Mr Levenson, if he could repair the bow. As they discussed the transaction however, Isaacs suddenly ‘bolted out’ of the shop. Mr Levenson quickly realised that he stolen a gold watch and raised the alarm.

Isaacs was arrested some time later in Drury lane but not in connection to this offence. He’d been picked up because his appearance seemingly matched the description offered of a man seen near Mary Kelly’s home on the night of her murder. At Worship Street Police court Mary Cusins, the deputy of a lodging house in Paternoster Row, Spitalfields, testified that Isaacs had stayed there for ‘three or four nights’ around the time of Kelly’s murder.

‘On the night of the murder she heard him walking about the room’. She added that ‘he disappeared after that murder, leaving the violin bow behind’.

All this had emerged as the police made house-to house enquiries in the wake of the murders. The police have ben widely criticised for their failure to catch ‘Jack’ but most experts now acknowledge that they did all the right things things at the time. Without forensics, and chasing a man that attacked strangers, they had very little to go on and were really dependent on the killer making a mistake. Jack didn’t really make any mistakes, however, and eluded the growing cordon that the combined force of the Met and the City Police threw out to trap him.

Isaacs was remanded by the sitting magistrate at Worship Street (Mr Bushby). He had allegedly stolen a watch but there was no sign of it. But more importantly Detective Record said that he still had some questions to answer with regards to his movements around the time of Mary Kelly’s murder. Isaacs appeared a week later, again in the company of Detective Record. He had been cleared of any involvement in the Ripper murders was convicted of stealing Julius Levenson’s watch and sent to prison for three months at hard labour.

Another possible suspect eliminated and another line of enquiry completed, the men of H Division’s search for the world’s first serial killer continued…

[from The Standard, Saturday, December 08, 1888]

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]

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]