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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Sunday drinking lands a German landlord in court

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John Henry Fielding, (somewhat surprisingly) described as a German and who spoke with a German accent, had only been running his local pub for three weeks but soon found himself hauled before the Thames magistrate for breaking the licensing laws.

On Sunday 27 September at around  lunchtime detective Dunaway of H division, Metropolitan Police, was passing by the White Hart pub in Chamber Street, Whitechapel. He may have been watching the establishment because it had a long established reputation for out of hours drinking, and detective Dunaway (129H) soon noticed that something wasn’t quite right.

Fielding kept opening the door of the pub to admit customers or let them out, always urging them to be quick about it. Seeing Dunaway watching him Fielding assumed he was another customer. He called over to him that he couldn’t let him in because it was already too crowded inside.

The detective called to a uniformed officer nearby, Patrick Geraghty (20H), who crossed over and banged on the pub door.

‘Who ish dat knocking at mine door?’ [sic], demanded the German.

‘The police’ replied PC Geraghty, throwing the landlord and his drinking den into a panic.

According to Geraghty (and one wonders how he was able to know this since he was outside at the time):

‘There was a rush of people into the cellars, and upstairs rooms immediately. Pots of beer, gin, and rum were hastily poured into he sink under the beer machine, and after a delay of two minutes, Geraghty was admitted, and found the defendant “hussing” the people down the cellar stairs’.

Several people tried to escape being caught in an illegal drinking session by rushing past the policeman and some even leapt from the first floor windows. Two or three of these fell awkwardly and ended up in hospital.

The magistrate, Mr Partridge admonished the landlord: ‘This really is too bad – an open defence of the law’, he told him. Fielding was suitably chastened. He apologised and promised it would never happen again. This is when it emerged that he was new to running this pub. His saviour was Inspector Holloway, who had sought the summons to bring him to court in the first place. The pub was notorious he told the justice, but the German was new and this was his first offence. Mr Partridge took this into consideration and instead of the £5 he had intended to impose he fined Fielding 40s. The penalty was paid immediately and the German publican hurriedly left the court.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, October 08, 1863]

A migrant woman’s lament: ‘He drinks very hard, and I can’t get rid of him’.

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Today’s post is a sadly typical tale of domestic violence but one that also sends some light on immigrant communities and working-class attitudes towards marriage and illegitimacy in the 1860s. We shouldn’t assume, for example, that everyone married in the past, even when they wanted to start a family. Nor does it follow that migrant families were more socially conservative than those of the indigenous English population. Instead what we can find is that there was a much greater degree of continuity in relationships than a discourse that sees the 1960s’ ‘sexual revolution’ as a dramatic catalyst for changing moralities.

At the beginning of October 1867 a German shoemaker named John Martz was brought before the magistrate at Thames Police Court in the East End. Martz may have been a Jewish immigrant but we can’t determine that with any certainty from his surname. We do know that he was cohabiting with a woman who also came from Germany however, Sarah Leiss and given they have migrated to East London it is at least plausible that  they were members of the growing German Jewish population of Whitechapel.

Whilst John and Sarah were not married they did have two children, one of them an infant. On 1 October Sarah appeared in court with her baby in her arms to accuse Martz of beating her. He had come home drunk on the previous night and ‘scolded and swore at her little boy, and threatened to beat him’. When she tried to take the boy away he grabbed it and threw the child down the stairs. Thankfully the boy was uninjured but it was this act of violence that probably prompted her to come to court.

It was not the first time he had hit her or threatened the children and it always occurred when he had been out drinking. It was a familiar story and Mr Benson, the justice, had heard it all hundreds of times before.

‘Why don’t you leave him?’ he asked.

‘I have left him several times’ Sarah replied, ‘and he comes after me again. He drinks very hard, and I can’t get rid of him’.

When sober, she added, he was a ‘very good man’ but when he was intoxicated, he ‘was furious and cruel’.

On the night in question Martz had been seen coming out of his house Merton Place, St George’s-in-the-East, brandishing a knife. PC Joseph Newman (166H) had shouted to him as the shoemaker approached, warning him to drop the weapon. Drawing his truncheon he declared:

‘If you advance another step with that knife I will murder you’.

This had the intended effect and a terrified Martz dropped his knife in the street.

In court Martz needed a translator to make sense of everything that had been said and in his defence merely said he had been drunk and wasn’t aware of what he was doing. Mr Benson instructed the interpreter to explain carefully to the shoemaker that he was clearly responsible for more than one act of violence and that he must now find sureties for his good behaviour towards his wife for three months. If he failed to find two persons that would vouch for him and pledge money then he would go to prison for 14 days.

If Martz was (and I expect he was)  the main breadwinner then a term of imprisonment, whilst giving Sarah some peace, would have severe consequences for her and her children. Hopefully this brush with the law would chasten the German and provoke a change in his behaviour. But it does have the feeling of trying to place a sticking plaster over an open wound; a case of doing the minimum without really trying to solve the situation.

It is the other elements of the case that I find useful as a social historian; the detail that John and Sarah were not married, the open statement that they had children together nevertheless and cohabited, with no comment being passed by either magistrate or the papers. This seems very ‘modern’ but perhaps the reality is that marriage (and divorce) were luxuries that many very poor working class Londoners could not afford in the Victorian period.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, October 02, 1867]

An attack in Berner Street in 1888, but not the one you’ve all heard about

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On Saturday 29 September 1888 a man appeared at Thames Police Court on a charge of attempted murder. It wasn’t William Seaman’s first appearance, he had previously been remanded in custody because his victim was too weak to attend court.

Seaman was a builder who gave his address as 11 Princess Street, St George-In-theEast. He was accused of attacking Thomas Simpkin, a chemist, by  ‘striking him on the head with a hammer’. In court Inspector Thresher of H Division, Metropolitan Police informed the magistrate that the chemist was still unable to come to court and requested a further period of remand. The justice agreed to the request and the builder was taken back to police custody.

On the following Tuesday the case resumed, as Simpkin had recovered sufficiently to give evidence. He explained that at about 10 minutes to midnight on Saturday 8 September (some three weeks earlier) the builder had entered his shop and asked to buy some zinc ointment and then some alum powder. Then suddenly, and seemingly without provocation, Seaman leaned across the shop counter and struck the chemist violently with a hammer.

A warehouseman,  Henry John Smith (who lived at 6 Chamber Street) said he was across the road from the chemist’s shop at the time and heard a scream. The chemist’s daughter then came running out into the street shouting:

‘They are murdering my father!’

When Smith ran over and entered the shop he found Seaman covered in blood with one hand around Simpkin’s throat, while he punched him in the chest. The man was clearly drunk he said, and extremely violent. Despite this he managed (with the help of another passer-by, Charles McCarthy) to get him off the chemist and hold him until a police constable (PC 85H) arrived.

Dr Francis Allen (1 Dock Street) told the court that the injuries were serious and consistent with being caused by a hammer. He added that at one point the chemist’s life had been in danger.

The dispute seems to have been over the price of alum powder, or presumably the amount you got for  penny (as that is what Seaman asked for). It was a pretty poor excuse for such a brutal onslaught but Seaman was drunk and perhaps agitated by something else that night. As we will see, however, Seaman was a violent man and perhaps had some underlying psychological condition.

The justice, Mr Saunders, committed him for jury trial.

That trial took place at the Old Bailey on 22 October 1888 and Seaman was duly convicted and sentenced to 7 years penal servitude. The long sentence was probably because he had previously been convicted before at the Bailey, something he admitted in court. Seaman was 38 at the time but the experience of imprisonment didn’t have the deterrent effect society might have hoped for. In 1896 he was back at the Central Criminal Court, and this time he had taken his violence a step further.

On Good Friday (April 3, 1896) he broke into the home of John Goodman Levy, in Turner Street (Whitechapel) presumably with the intention of burgling it. In the early hours of Saturday morning the dead body of Mr Levy was found with his throat cut. When the police arrived they soon discovered that the burglar was still on the premises and a chase began. Eventually Seaman fell through a ceiling, was badly injured and apprehended. The police reportedly found the following on his person:

‘a lady’s gold watch, a gold diamond and turquoise pin, a watch-chain, a gilt half-crown brooch, a pair of gilt threepenny piece earrings, another imitation gold ring set with rubies and pearls, two cigars, a plated caddy spoon, a wedding ring, a single-stone diamond ring, a piece of wash-leather thereon, 10s. 6d. in silver and a penny, the works of a watch, an old purse, a pocket knife, an old comb, and a brass stud ‘.

Quite a haul.

This time penal servitude wasn’t an option and William Seaman was sentenced to death.  Before the judge passed sentenced however, Seaman was asked if he had anything he wanted to say.

[He] stated that he had nothing to say about the case, but that he desired to complain about a statement in a newspaper to the effect that he had previously been charged with an attempt to murder, and assault and theft, and that that statement was false.

William Seaman was hanged at Newgate prison on the 9 June 1896, he was 48.

There is a footnote to this story. The chemist’s shop was at 82 Berner Street, off the Commercial Road, Whitechapel. That little detail may seem insignificant for the case but for the fact that on the 30 September 1888 (the day I took this story from the newspapers)  another violent act took place in Berner Street. Between houses at 42 and 44 Berner Street (now renamed Henriques Street) was what was ‘colloquially known as Dutfield’s  Yard’* and home to the International Working Man’s Educational Club.

At just after 1 am Louis Diemshitz (club steward and ‘jewellery hawker’) turn this horse and cart into the yard when the animal shied at something lying beyond the gates. When Diemshitz investigated he found the body of a woman. She had been attacked and her throat had been cut.

Her name was Elizabeth Stride (or ‘Long Liz”) and she was to be the first of two women murdered that night by a killer whose identify remains a mystery. He will forever be known to history however, as ‘Jack the Ripper’.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, September 30, 1888; Birmingham Daily Post, Wednesday, October 3, 1888]

*Neil R.A. Bell, Capturing Jack the Ripper, (Amberley, Stroud, 2016), p.158

No news of the “Ripper” as London carries on as normal in the 1880s

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Charles Booth’s poverty map of London, areas coloured blue or black represent the worst level of poverty in the capital; red and gold indicated relative comfort or wealth

I thought today I’d peer into the pages of the London press a year after the so-called ‘Ripper’ murders reached their height. In late September 1888 the killer struck twice in one night (30 September), murdering Elizabeth Stride in Berner Street before he later killed and savagely mutilated Catherine Eddowes in Mitre Square. The ‘double event’ and the infamous ‘dear boss’ letter raised the level of public engagement with the Whitechapel murder series to fever pitch and helped to make it a global news event.

Researchers do not agree on when the murders ceased. There is some consensus that the last victim was Mary Kelly but three other homicides have been attributed (by some) to the unknown assassin known only as ‘Jack the Ripper’. These are are the headless body a woman found in Pinchin Street in 1889, and the murders of Alice McKenzie and Frances Coles (in July 1889 and February 1891). So given that ‘Jack’ was not (officially at least) in custody in September 1889 is there anything in the Police Court reportage that might link at all to the killer that had terrorised London in the autumn of 1888?

The answer for the 28 September 1889 is no, not really.

At Guildhall a general merchant was prosecuted for obtaining 400 sponges by false pretences. The case was complicated and the magistrate adjourned it for further enquiries. A salesman at the London Poultry market was charged with cruelty to chickens and was reprimanded several by the justice and fined 5s.

At Marlborough Street three men were charged with running a disorderly gaming house in St Martin’s Street. The court heard that the Cranborne Club was, despite appearance sot the contact, a ‘common gambling house’. The men were released on substantial recognises to appear again at a later date.

At Dalston a 22 year-old wood turner was committed for jury trial for assaulting and robbing a vicar. The Rev. Matthew Davison had just got home to his house in Downs Park Road, Clapton when Walter Taylor rushed up and rifled his pockets. The vicar lost a valuable watch and chain and worse, when he set off in pursuit one of Taylor’s associates attacked him from behind knocking him to the ground. Taylor was also charged with a similar theft, that of robbing a young woman named Lucy Millard in Hackney. Taylor (and two others) eventually faced a jury at Old Bailey in October 1889, where they were convicted and sent to prison for between 12 and 18 months.

At the West London Police Court violence was the subject of the newspaper report that day but not stranger violence (as the ‘Ripper’s murders were). James Cook was sent down for four months for for beating his common law wife, Caroline Moore. Cook had fractured his partner’s ribs by jumping on them but Caroline was still very reluctant to bring charges.

Over at Bow Street, the senior police court, four men were brought up to answer a charge of conspiracy to burgle the premises of the Railway Press Company. The men were tracked down by undercover detectives to a house in White Hart Street. The four were all in their twenties but a young girl of 16 was found to be living with them. This may have been what prompted the newspaper editor to choose this story from amongst all the others at Bow Street that day. Rose Harris said she ‘had neither money nor any friends’, and had lived in the sam room as the thieves for three weeks. She was, therefore, a possible witness, and  while the men were remanded in custody Rose was taken to the St Giles Mission to be cared for.

Finally there was a case from the Thames Police Court, one of two (with Worship Street) that covered the East End, the area that has since become synonymous with Jack the Ripper. Thomas Booth, a beer and wine retailer, was prosecuted for selling adulterated beer. Booth’s premises had been inspected by an officer from the Inland Revenue and his beer tested. On two occasions his beer was found to contain too much water. Booth tried to argue that his pipers were faulty and this had led to ‘washings’ (the beer slops) ending up back in his barrels. Mr Kennedy, the sitting magistrates, accepted his excuse in part but not in full and fined him 5s plus 10s costs. Watering down beer was inexcusable.

So a casual reading of the police court news from a year after the most notorious murder series in British history had unfolded would perhaps leave us to think that London carried on as normal. The everyday crimes and misdemeanours continued to occupy the columns of the London press and here was to be found ‘all sorts and conditions of men’ (and women).

The only footnote to this was a letter to the editor of the Standard, published in full at the end of the court reports section. It was from a R. C. Bedford, Bishop Suffragan* for East London. It was a long letter and concerned the ‘East End Poor’. He noted that the levels of poverty in the area were higher than usual by the docks, although had improved from the period of the Great Dock Strike earlier in the year. He was particularly concerned for the plight of the casual labourer in the wake of the strike, because while the workers had secured better pay (the ‘dockers’ tanner’) and some security of employment, those reliant on turning up for the ‘call’ in the early morning probably faced a more unpredictable future.

Bishop Bedford was asking for charitable help to be distributed through his church, and not indiscriminately.  However, he clearly believed that charity was not the solution, the real way to help the poor was to provide them with proper work not ‘doles and shelters’. The letter serves to remind us that late nineteenth-century Britain was a desperate place to live if you were poor and that in the 1880s unemployment was rife, and few areas were as badly affected as the East End. It is no coincidence in my mind that the editor of The Standard choose to position the bishop’s letter on the same page as the Police Court news. Here it would seen by the working and middle classes that read these reports (albeit for slightly different reasons). But it also serves to draw a link between crime, environment and poverty; something that was increasingly recognised in the later 1800s.

[from The Standard, Saturday, September 28, 1889]

*’A suffragan bishop is a bishop subordinate to a metropolitan bishop or diocesan bishop. They may be assigned to an area which does not have a cathedral of its own’ (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suffragan_bishop#Anglican_Communion)

‘There’s more milk drank in London in a fortnight than all the cows in England give in a month’, a milkman tells the Thames magistrate.

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London, in fact, knows nothing of real milk, which differs as thoroughly as chalk is unlike cheese, from the spurious stuff we are at present contented with. Commercial milk is a compound which any conscientious cow would indignantly repudiate, 

Punch, 1849

When George Day was charged with stealing milk at Thames Police court it revealed the wholesale adulteration of milk in the capital, something the sitting magistrate was clearly unaware of. The ‘audience’ at Thames however, laughed throughout the hearing, suggesting that they were well aware of the practice and were amused by both the candour of the various witnesses and the ignorance of ‘his Worship’.

The prosecution was brought by Thomas Stevens who ran a dairy and kept cows at Dock Street in Whitechapel. George Day was a regular customer but Stevens had his suspicions about him. The dairyman was pretty certain that the milkman was pinching his milk by the fairy subterfuge of paying for one pail whilst collecting two.

On Thursday morning (18th September 1845) Day appeared as usual (carry two emptily pails) and asked for six quarts of milk. John Knott was milking a cow and when he’d filled one pail (with around 11 quarts) he handed it to Day. Normally those buying milk wholesale like this would have it taken to be strained in the dairy but Day said he was in a hurry so told Knott that he would carry in himself. However, Knott noticed that the milkman had set it down nearby and headed into the dairy without it.

All of this had been seen by Stevens who had hidden himself in a room above one of the cow houses and was spying on him from a window. He saw Day stroll into the dairy carry his empty pail where he was served by another of Steven’s employees, Mrs Gilbert. She gave him six quarts of strained milk, which he paid for.

So the con was pretty obvious: Day presumably appeared each morning with two empty pails which could hold up to about 12 quarts each. He asked and paid for six quarts of fresh milk and ended up with more than twice that amount by the simply tactic of getting his milk directly from the cow and hoping no one noticed. He was caught because the dairy was more alert than he thought it was.

However, the case was made much more interesting because of what George Day did next.

Having received the six quarts for strained milk (i.e. ready to sell to his customers) he carried it over to a pump and topped it up with water. When he admitted this before Mr Broderip at Thames Police Court the place collapsed in laughter (with the exception of the magistrate that is).

‘Is that usual?’ the justice asked him.

‘For him to do so it is sir’, explained the dairy owner.

‘I have regally bobbed it – it’s all right’, confirmed Day, seemingly unembarrassed by his admission that he watered down his milk.

Mr Broderip was confused, what did ‘bobbing’ mean? That was, he was told, the term used to describe adding milk and chalk to strained milk to make it go further. Far from being ashamed to have been caught out George Day was quite happy to tell his worship ‘a few secrets of the milk trade’.

‘We never sell it without water. Of course warm water is the best, ’cause then the people believe it’s just been yielded by the cow. Nothing like it, sir. We adds a little chalk to the score sometimes, and the customers don’t mind it’.

As he had made to leave the dairy, with his two pails balanced carefully over his shoulders with a yoke, Thomas Stevens had run after him and accused him of stealing his milk. Despite Day’s loud denials he was given into the custody of a nearby policeman and so had ended up before the Thames magistrate.

He denied his crime and continued to argue he had done nothing wrong in ‘bobbing’ the milk he sold on the streets.

‘Law bless your worship, its not the first time it’s been done by thousands’ (prompting yet more roars of laughter in court). It was ‘and old saying’ Day told the court, ‘that more milk was drank in London in a fortnight than all the cows in England give in a month’.

The practice of adulteration (or ‘bobbing’) was evidently widespread and well known.

Mr Broderip was satisfied that a felony had been committed but before he could draw up the indictment to send Day for trial he needed formally to hear Mrs Gilbert’s evidence. Therefore he remanded Day overnight for the dairywoman to appear. As for ‘bobbing’ he suggested that the public (via the newspapers) needed to be made aware of this sharp practice, and after this report they certainly were. My suspicions however are that most working class Londoners were already well aware of the reality of what their milk contained, although it may have come as a shock to polite society. Regardless the magistrate declared that it was one of the most ‘impudent’ defences he had heard for a long time.

Day was eventually tried for the theft of 11 quarts of milk but I’m unsure of the outcome. He was listed as being in the Middlesex House of Detention awaiting trial (probably at the Middlesex Sessions). Given the extent of evidence against him I rather suspect he would have been convicted and then imprisoned for a few months.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, September 19, 1845]

Food adulteration was a massive problem for the Victorians: ‘As late as 1877 the Local Government Board found that approximately a quarter of the milk it examined contained excessive water, or chalk, and ten per cent of all the butter, over eight per cent of the bread, and 50 per cent of the gin had copper in them to heighten the colour’. (1) 

(1) Adulteration and Contamination of Food in Victorian England, Professor Anthony S. Wohl, Professor of History, Vassar College [http://www.victorianweb.org/science/health/health1.html]

A policeman and a magistrate (accidentally) save a woman’s life

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It was half-past midnight on the morning of Friday 7 September 1888 and police constable Henry Matthews (of H Division, Metropolitan Police) was walking his beat. It was a fairly normal duty for PC Matthews but he must have been on some level of heightened awareness given that just a few week earlier the mutilated body of Mary ‘Polly’ Nichols had been found in Buck’s Row.

If the death of ‘Polly’ had deterred some local women from trying to earn a small amount of money by prostituting themselves it certainly hadn’t had that effect on Margaret Sullivan and her companion. When PC Matthews turned into Church Lane Whitechapel he found the pair talking loudly and probably soliciting trade. Matthews told them both to move along or go home and while one did, Margaret refused and gave him a mouthful of invective.

She was apparently a well-known character to the police and was alter described in court as ‘violent and dangerous’. She certainly was violent on this occasion, launching an attack on the policeman and forcing him to call for help. When PC 354H arrived they were able to get under control and took her to the station.

It was not without a struggle though in which PC Matthews was bitten and both men were kicked as they manhandled Margaret into custody. When up before the Thames magistrate in the morning, Margaret’s previous criminal record was revealed; she had once served 18 months for assaulting a warder (presumably while already in gaol for some form of drunken and disorderly behaviour). The charge this time was assault and using foul and obscene language, a very common prosecution heard at Thames.

Mr Lushington sent her to prison for a further six months and inadvertently saved her life. The very next morning (the 8th September) another dead woman was found, this time in a backyard of a property in Hanbury Street. Her name was Annie Chapman, the second canonical victim of ‘Jack the Ripper’.

As a postscript I have found a Margaret Sullivan in the Thames Court Register I have been using for some research closely related to this blog. In May 1881  a ‘Margaret Sullivan’  was brought before Mr Saunders charged with being drunk and incapable. He fined her 26d which she paid. She was 21 years of age. If this was the same Margaret Sullivan then by 1888 she was probably 28 and clearly not much wiser. She was off the streets though and safe from ‘Jack’.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, September 08, 1888]