A ‘passenger incident’ on the late Victorian Underground

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As someone who lives in London and regularly uses the ‘tube’ (the underground railway,  for those unfamiliar with the metropolis) I am used to the occasional delay in services caused by that saddest of announcements, a ‘passenger incident’. This can mean that someone is ill and a carriage has been stopped so that medical assistance can be sought, but it can also indicate that a person has thrown themselves in front of a train.

While I can just about imagine what motivates someone to do this I can’t begin the understand how the poor driver of a train must feel when he or she sees someone fall out the racks in front of his eyes, and they are unable to stop the vehicle from crushing them. Between 1993 and 2015 over 1400 people attempted to take their own lives on the Underground, that is an average of 64 a year, and over one a week.

The London Underground has been operating since the 1860s and it has been used for suicides attempts throughout that time. According to one piece of research, suicide on the railway increased after 1868 (just three years after the first train ran) when newspapers published details of the methods would-be suicides used.*

If that was the case then this example, from The Standard in 1893, was probably just as unhelpful.

Isaac Shelton was a 63 year-old ‘house decorator’ who lived on the Edgware Road.  At a quarter to six in the evening on 27 June (a Tuesday) Isaac was seen entering the tunnel at Baker Street underground station, heading for Edgware Road. A fellow passenger shouted to him but he was ignored. At the same time a train was arriving in the station and the driver was alerted and the service was detained.

The station inspector, Mr Coleman, was summoned but in the meantime a young man named Albert Swift set off in pursuit of Shelton.

‘In the darkness he could hear somebody scrambling about on the ballast, and going in the direction of the noise, he found [Shelton] about 150 yards into the tunnel, lying across the metals of the upline’.

Albert tried to get the man’s attention and lift him up, but all he got back was the request: ‘leave me alone, I’m going home’. Fortunately the young man was soon joined by Mr Coleman and a porter and eventually the three manhandled Shelton up and off the tracks and back out to safety.

He seemed ‘sober, but excited’, they later testified.

The case came before the Marylebone Police magistrate, Mr Plowden. Shelton claimed she had no recollection of how he had got where he was. He said he had been having epileptic fits for twenty years and one had come on as he made his way home that evening. His wife appeared and confirmed that her husband suffered from epilepsy, and was subject to fits.

I’m not an expert on epilepsy but I have known people who suffer. This seems something quite unlike a fit and more akin to an desperate act by someone who did not wish to carry on. It seems this was also the opinion of the justice, who remanded Shelton in custody, perhaps to seek a medical opinion on his condition. Fortunately his attempt (if thats what it was) failed, because someone was quick witted enough to spot him and do something about it.

I imagine that is how most attempts are foiled today – by someone caring enough to see what their fellow passengers are doing and to notice when a person looks like they need a gentle word or two to bring them back from the edge, literally and figuratively.

[from The Standard, Thursday, June 29, 1893]

*O’Donnell, I.; Farmer, R. D. T. ‘The epidemiology of suicide on the London underground’. Social Science & Medicine 38 (3): 409–418. February 1994

 

 

Did a ‘wife’ take poison to escape her abuser? Or did her cry for help go unnoticed?

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On Wednesday this week I related the story of a man who was woken by his wife hitting him. In hitting her back too hard he caused her death. He was sent to face trial at the Old Bailey and convicted of manslaughter. The culprit seems to have had a history of domestic violence and so while he was treated gently by the court (since his wife was a drunk and a sloven, in the eyes of the society they lived in I hasten to add) we should not be quite so understanding. As one correspondent to me on Twitter noted, ‘domestic violence is tragedy’.

Today’s case, from 1862 (some 27 years earlier) also involves a man being accused of causing the death of his partner, and he too seems to have gotten away with what must have been deemed routine and ‘normal’ violence.

John Lemon made ‘base coin’. Now whether this was a legitimate trade or a variation on illegal coining I’m unsure at the present. However, the Bow Street Police court where he appeared in May 1862 was interested in the death of his common law wife, not his occupation.

Lemon lived with Ann Gedling in a property on White Hart Street, off Drury Lane. When he got home late one evening, possibly the worse for drink, he and Ann argued. Lemon hit her ‘a severe blow on the head with a flat iron’ before staggering off to bed.

In the morning, in an echo of Charles Mills’ case from Wednesday, Ann was feeling sick and she called for him to help her. He found that she had swallowed a quantity of poison; namely cyanide, which they pair used in the coin manufacturing process. He told the magistrate it was used in extra-plating coins.

Whether Ann had taken it in an attempt to end her life (and rid herself of an abusive partner) is unknown but it saved Lemon from further prosecution for her death. A doctor was unable to help her as she passed away the moment he stepped through the door.

In court expect testimony was provided by a surgeon called Lovett. He pronounced that death was due to the ingestion of cyanide of potassium and that effectively trumped the blow that Lemon had landed. She may have died from the abuse she had received, and indeed her death could certainly be attributed to the coin maker, at least in terms of him provoking her to kill herself.

But the law, in the person of Mr Corrie the Bow Street magistrate, didn’t see it like that. Since he had not directly killed her Lemon was discharged.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, June 02, 1862]

A drug dealer’s brush with death earns him some sympathy in court

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Drugs were legal in the Victorian period, so when Hartmann Henry Saltzberger appeared in court it was not because he was described as a ‘dealer in opium’. Instead he was charged with attempting to take his own life, a state it was assumed he had been driven to by the collapse in his business.

Saltzberger traded in opium from premises in Anerley Park, in south-east London. Recently however, the war between Bolivia and Peru and Chile (the so-called War of the Pacific, 1879-1883) had given him problems in getting supplies of the drug.

As his supplies dwindled so did his business and this brought his creditors to his door. One of these was Thomas Swabey, from whom Saltzberger rented his property at Anerley. He had called in the bailiffs after the opium dealer filed for bankruptcy at Croydon. When the official receiver called at Salzberger’s house he found the tenant’s door bolted shut.

The police were called and when PC 271P forced entry he discovered the dealer lying senseless on his bed. A doctor was summoned and its ascertained that Saltzberger had administered a large dose of opium in an attempt to kill himself.

Appearing at Lambeth the 54 year-old explained that he was in ‘pecuniary circumstances’ and admitted taking his own drugs to end his life. His son testified that his father’s mind had been affected by his fall in fortunes and that his relatives had been worried about him for some time. They may have been worried but not enough to help, Hartmann complained, as they had time and again refused his requests for money. The bankruptcy may have been the catalyst for his suicide attempt, but the business had been in trouble for some time.

A doctor stated that Saltzberger wasn’t so ill that he needed to be sent to an asylum. He was a regular opium user and this would have taken its toll, but as yet he was not quite ‘mad’ enough to be confined. Mr Chance, the sitting magistrate was not convinced however, and asked for the drug dealer to be remanded so that a second opinion could be sought from the prison’s medical officer and the chaplain. He described the situation as ‘sad’ and showed considerably more sympathy for Saltzberger than we might have expected.

In many ways this was quite an enlightened approach to the effects of drug use; while Saltzberger’s problem was the failure of his livelihood, it was clearly exacerbated by his reliance on a mind altering substance. Drugs weren’t made illegal in Britain until after 1912 when an international agreement attempted (and of course failed) to stem the trade in narcotics.

[from The Standard, Friday, May 07, 1886]

From glad rags and riches to a prison cell: one Victorian lady’s fall from grace

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Rose Cleveland had once been a lady of substance but by May 1873 she had fallen very far indeed. She still retained some of her old contacts and acquaintances, and was managing to keep up the appearance of a ‘person of quality’, but the facade was dropping away.

On 1 May that year she had called on an old friend of hers in Pimlico. When she knocked at the door of Mrs Elizabeth Palmer Parker at Forwood House, Winchester Street she was met by Mrs Parker’s sister, Phoebe. Miss Phoebe Taylor was unmarried and served her sibling as housekeeper. She admitted Rose and showed her into the back dining room.

Mrs Parker vaguely recalled her visitor and was reminded that she had once had some suspicions of her when the pair had dined, four years ago. On that occasion Rose had invited her to dine at the Grosvenor Hotel but attempted to walk off with her guest’s sealskin coat and watch. In consequence, on this occasion Elizabeth asked her sister to stay and keep an eye on their visitor.

However, despite some care being taken to watch Ms Cleveland she managed to purloin two brushes from a ‘valuable set’ in the room. They were missed soon after Rose took her leave of the ladies and a servant was despatched to catch up with her and bring them back. The police were involved and the next day Rose found herself in the Westminster Police Court facing a charge of theft.

Here her life and for fall from grace was broadcast for all to hear and the papers to record. She gave her names as Rose Cleveland, but the court added her other known names (her aliases) as ‘Lady Clinton’ and ‘Lady Grey’. Detective Squire White (a B Division detective) testified that she was well known to him and his colleagues.

‘At one time she owned horses and carriages’, he told the magistrate, ‘but had gradually been reduced in circumstances, and had lately been in the habit of visiting persons’ [like Mrs Parker], and ‘laying her hands on whatever she could carry off’.

The final humiliation was that she ‘had married her former coachman, and he had done nothing for a living for some time’.

Rose admitted her crime and asked to be judged summarily rather than go before a jury. The magistrate agreed to her request and sent her to prison at hard labour for two months. Yesterday’s story was that of an elderly woman who tried to kill herself to escape poverty and an abusive husband. Today’s reminds us that desperation came in many forms in the 1800s, and could affect those were supposedly protected by their wealth or the social status provided by birth or marriage.

In the end Rose had neither.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, May 02, 1873]

An elderly lady is driven to despair in a society that didn’t care

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As PC 99 L Division made his usual patrol by the Surrey side of Blackfriars Bridge  (i.e south of the River Thames) he saw a woman sitting on the steps by the water. As he approached he could see that she was in condsiderable distress and asked her what she was up to.

The elderly lady, who gave her name as Elizabeth Briant, admitted that she had been so ‘cruelly beaten by the man whom she had lived with for thirty-eight years that she was tired of her existence’. Elizabeth was working up the courage to throw herself into the river to drown.

Attempting suicide was a crime and so the policeman arrested her and, the next day, brought her before the magistrate at Southwark Police Court.

Elizabeth cut a forlorn figure in the dock: her arms were covered with bruises, as was her face. She told the magistrate that her husband had ‘ill used her to a great extent’ in recent weeks. On the previous Saturday he had ‘knocked her down, kicked her, and blackened both eyes’. Having assaulted her the man then ‘thrust her out of the house, and left her to starve in the streets’. She had run down the steps at Blackfriars and it was only the lucky intervention of the beat bobby that had saved her from ending her miserable life.

The magistrate asked her if she had any children, and she told him she had eight, ‘but only one was living, and she hoped he was serving Her Majesty in India’. So this poor old lady had lost seven sons or daughters and her only surviving son was in the imperial army thousands of miles away.

It was a desperately sad story but also a fairly typical one for the time. There was little the justice could do expcept order the arrest of the husband (who might expect a short prison sentence if summarily convicted, hardly benefiiting Elizabeth) and send the poor woman to the workhouse to be cared for. Once there, she could hardly expect to leave and was effectively being condemned to live out the remainder of her days as an inmate before being given a pauper burial when she finally passed away.

Nevertherless, Elizabeth looked up from the dock and thanked ‘his Worship for his kindness’. She had probably lived most of her life in grinding poverty and could now expect to see out her remaining days in a ‘pauper bastille’. It would be another 45 years before the government of the day introduced the Old Age Pension and, since she would have been a recipient of Poor Law funds, Elizabeth would not have been entitled to it anyway.

For me, the Victorian period is a savage reminder of what our society looked like before we had a welfare system; it was a society that often left women like Elizabeth Briant to choose the only option that ended the pain of everyday life. For all the calls for belt-tightening in the face of self-imposed austerity we should remember that today this country is one of the top 25 richest countries in the world and we can well afford a decent welfare system, whatever politicians tell us in the next few weeks and months. The divide between rich and poor is as wide as it has ever been and it is frankly appalling that so many ‘ordinary working people’ have to resort to food banks in the 21st century. So before we look back with horror at a Victorian age that drove women like Elizabeth to attempt suicide which she take a long hard look at ourselves.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, May 1, 1860]

 

Evidence of the ‘female malady’ on Westminster Bridge

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Alongside petty crime, disorderly behaviour and violence the Police magistrates of the capital heard a considerable number of cases of distress and desperation. None more so than charges levelled against people (mostly women) who had attempted suicide by throwing themselves into the River Thames to drown.

It seems to have been a regular occurrence in the 1800s and featured recently in the BBC’s drama Taboo, where James Delany’s half-sister (Zilpha Geary, played by Oona Chaplin) leaps to her death. From the 13th century right up to 1961 ‘self-murder’ was a crime and a sin in the eyes of the church. Those accused of attempting to ‘destroy’ themselves frequently came before the metropolis’ magistracy.

While it was a largely accepted ‘truth’ that the ‘weakness’ of women’s minds was more likely to drive them to take their own lives, the reality was that men ‘committed’ (or attempted) suicide more frequently. However, gendering suicide in this way to make it a ‘female malady’ (as Elaine Showalter has dubbed madness in the 1800s) fitted contemporary tropes more closely. While men do feature in newspaper reports of attempted suicide it is more common for the examples to be of young women, like Zilpha and for the act to be one of drowning rather than hanging or other forms of self-harm.

So when Sarah Keyworth tried to jump off Westminster Bridge she was providing the Morning Post’s reporter with exactly the copy he needed to reinforce the weakness of the ‘fairer sex’ in the minds of his readership.

Sarah, ‘a respectable-looking young woman’ was seen running along Westminster Bridge by a gentleman named Houghton. Mr Houghton told the court at Southwark that she was ‘calling out in  a frantic manner’ before she ‘suddenly stopped and climbed over the railings of the bridge’.

He must have feared that she was about to jump so he reacted quickly and grabbed hold of her. She struggled, saying ‘let me go, let me go!’ but he held on until a policeman arrived to help. Sarah was taken to the local police station and brought up before the magistrate in the morning.

At her first hearing she was ‘sullen’ and said she had fully intended to have ‘destroyed herself and was sorry the gentleman had interfered’. The magistrate (Mr Woolrych) had remanded her and instructed the prison chaplain to visit her.

A week later and she was back up in court and this time her sister appeared with her to support her. Now Sarah was in repentant mood, through floods of tears she said ‘she was very sorry for such an attempt on her life. She knew the wickedness of it, and promised never to do it again’. Her sister told Mr Woolrych that she could only imagine she had been driven to it after ‘words with her young man’. She promised to look  after her and so the magistrate admonished Sarah and let them both go.

Sadly, attempting to drown oneself in the Thames is still one of the favoured options for those who feel that life is something they can no or longer wish to cope with. In 2014 over 100 calls were made to the City of London police on account of people trying to jump from one of the five bridges along the stretch of river covered by the City’s jurisdiction. Given that London has over a dozen more bridges (not including railway ones) that pedestrians can access the numbers of places where potential human tragedies could occur probably raises that figure considerably.

A 2016 report from the City noted that there were 20-25 suicides by drowning alone in the Thames and attempts have bene made to prevent further deaths by installing information boards with the Samaritans phone number and even patrols on some bridges to look out for those in need. London can be a lonely place and it would seem that it always has been.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, March 11, 1865]

An unhappy man is rescued, just in time

George Miles was an unhappy man.

In January 1860 PC 569 from the City police was patrolling London Bridge when he saw Miles ‘leaning forward on the parapet, with his hands clasped, as if in the act of prayer’. Miles then stood up and stepped forward as if he was about to throw himself into the river Thames below, saying (apparently to no one in particular) ‘Oh! There you are, are you? I see you and I’ll soon come to you’.

As he prepared to launch himself the policeman acted quickly and grabbed hold of his coat and pulled him back to safety. As he struggled with the officer he shouted ‘the Lord bids me come, the Lord bids me come!’.

He was quite drunk and the PC had to ask several bystanders to help him bring George under control. But the man was not easily subdued, as hands grasped at him him he grabbed at them and tried to force them into his mouth. It wasn’t until a second policeman arrived  that Miles was finally subdued.

When he was back at the station and beginning to sober up he told the police that it was all his wife’s fault that he had tried to kill himself. The next day he was presented before the Lord Mayor at Mansion House Police Court charged with attempting his own life. Suicide was illegal  until 1961 and ‘successful’ suicides were denied a Christian burial until late in the 19th century.

Miles admitted to being ‘tipsy’ at the time he decided to end his life and at the first the magistrate told he he ought to be ashamed of himself and asked whether he was a habitual drunk. ‘No, my lord, indeed I am not!’

Now a witness appeared to support Miles. A Mr Coombes told the Lord Mayor that he had employed George Miles as a superintendnent at a ragged school for 15 years. Throughout that time he had been a ‘strictly sober man’ but recently he had fallen into ‘despondency’ after a bad row with his wife.

The dispute had undermined the marriage to such an extent that the couple had split up, with Miles paying his estranged partner 5s a week from his wages. This was not enough for Mrs Miles however, and she had recently (and vindictively) spread a false rumour that Miles was robbing his master.

It wasn’t true and luckily Mr Coombes was happy to stand by his employee. The Lord Mayor told Miles that while his behaviour had been shameful he recognised the underlying reasons and added that ‘he need not fear anything his wife might say while he possessed the confidence of his employer’.

Gorge Miles was discharged and hopefully his failed attempt on  his life had shocked him and alerted those that cared about him (including his wife who was in court).

 

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, January 22, 1860]