Cholera and charity in mid-nineteenth century London


Between 1848-9 some 14, 137 Londoners died of Cholera. It was the second major outbreak of the disease to hit the capital in the 19th century and it was not to be the last. At first it was thought that cholera was spread by ‘bad air’ (a ‘miasma’) but later the pioneering work of John Snow established that it was water borne. This led Jospeh Bazalgette to overhaul the capital’s sewage system and ensure that Londoners have had safe drinking water since the late 1800s.

The newspaper reports of the London Police courts were (as regular readers will have seen)  generally concerned with the petty criminals, drunks and brawlers that were trouped before the capital’s ‘beaks’ to be sent for trial at Old Bailey or the Surrey Assizes, imprisoned in a house of correction for a few months, fined or otherwise admonished. Just occasionally however, they paused to reflect some of the other tasks these courts performed as part of their wider role as administrators of social relations in London.

In October 1849 there were two reports of the use of charity at the courts (one of which that related directly to the distress caused by the recent cholera outbreak). The disease not only killed thousands but it also left others bereaved, orphaned and weakened by its ravages. Many of the those that died were members of the urban poor; weakened by years of endemic poverty they often lacked the strength to fight disease. They were also the people that (as Snow’s investigation in Broad Street later in 1854 demonstrated) were forced to share a communal tap.

One report (from Westminster) informed the readers of the Morning Chronicle that the presiding magistrate had managed to distribute money to over 140 people or families, giving them 5 to 10 shillings each. By my calculation that suggests that the people of Westminster had donated something in the region of £100 (or around £5000 in today’s money) to the Westminster magistracy for the relief of those suffering the effects of cholera and its repercussions. Quite apart from the loss of breadwinners or the need to leave work to nurse the sick the poor would also have had to find money to bury their loved ones. This charity must have been very welcome.

A second report, from Thames, detailed individual donations ‘to the poor man Bushell’. These included ‘half a 5L note from a poor sailor’, the same from ‘a lady’, plus smaller offerings of 2s 6d from several people (some who gave names or initials, and others who wished to be anonymous).

Bushell had appeared before the Thames magistrate on the 19th October to ask for help. He had been Custom’s House officer in the City but had fallen on hard times. He spoke in court of his misfortune and his inability to support his wife and five children (the youngest of whom was a ‘babe in arms’). His landlord was trying to take possession of his property and evict them and his wife was now too ill to look after the children. He had approached the Poor Law authorities but what they offered was too little for the family to survive on.

This approach must have cost him plenty in terms of his pride and social standing and perhaps because of this when the readers of the The Morning Post  or Chronicle read his story they reacted so positively, sending small and large sums to him via the magistrate’s office.

This shows us that the Victorian public – like so many in today’s society – were willing to dig deep to her others deemed worse off than themselves. It also illustrates the multi-functional role that the Police Courts played in 19th century society.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, October 24, 1849]

On Friday 28 October I will be talking about the London Police Courts and the cases heard there at the National Archives in Kew. The archives are having  Night in the Archives Event (tickets only) contact the NA directly for details

The (literal) suspension of a worker by his colleagues


Dulwich College c.1869

A large group of workmen were engaged, in October 1867, in work at Dulwich School (also know as Dulwich college). The college had been in existence since the early 17th century and in the late 1860s it moved to its present site in south east London and a purpose built school, designed by Charles Barry (jnr) was  constructed.

This was a large project and today’s case (from the Lambeth Police Court) reveals that somewhere around 30-40 carpenters and plasterers alone worked on it the buildings. In any large group of men it is likely that tensions will arise for time to time and this is exactly what happened here.

A ‘slater’s boy’ was climbing a long ladder carrying his slates on his head when he met George Saffell, another worker, wanting to come down. The older man insisted that the boy descend the ladder to make way for him.

This was ‘considered unfair conduct’ by Saffell’s workmates and they applied their own rules to ‘punish’ him. He was charged ‘half a gallon’ as a fine. The court reporter did not specify what that meant but it probably referred to his daily or weekly allowance of alcohol in some way or another. They thought he was out of order and they inflicted a small fine to show their collective displeasure.

Saffell was in no mood to accept his punishment however, but this was a mistake on his part.

One evening soon afterwards he was sent for by his ‘mates’ and taken to the ‘shop’ where he was seized and his legs tied together. The men then hauled him up on a beam and suspended him 15 feet above the shop floor for 25 minutes. Saffell complained that this had caused him to have a rupture and that he was now in pain and incapacitated.

The magistrate quizzed several fellow workmen who admitted (much to the shock of the justice) that this was ‘common practice’ for those that broke their rules or refused to pay the fines. When pressed Saffell admitted that he had already been carrying an injury so his vociferous complaints about his inability to work were somewhat diluted. Nevertheless, the magistrate agreed that (despite the ‘rules’ of the shop floor) he had clearly been ‘assaulted’ in some respects.

The problem was in formally identifying those responsible from out of a large group of work mates. For the time being the court had two men ( William Steer and Frederick Coffey) in custody and so these two were fully committed for trial.

No case seems to have reached the Old Bailey so I suspect it was heard at Southwark or at the Surrey Assizes, or perhaps dropped for lack of evidence. Whether Saffell ever returned to work – let alone to that workforce – is equally unclear, but had he done so I rather suspect he might have avoided ladders in the future.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, October 23, 1867]

A far sighted optician thwarts a spectacle thief


When Mr Anderson, an optician who traded from premises at 151 High Holborn*, finished his dinner on a Thursday in October 1859, he went through to check on his shop. As he cast his eyes over his stock he immediately noticed that a string of spectacles was missing. He had left these on his counter the night before but now they were nowhere to be seen.

Fortunately for the optician these were marked ‘with a number on the glass’ (rather than on the rim) and so he hoped they would be ‘easily identified’. Anderson now set about advertising the loss amongst his fellows in the trade and this quickly brought results.

On the next day an ‘elderly man, of shabby appearance’ walked into an optician’s shop at 2 Cranborne Street, near Leicester Square. He approached the owner, Mr Whitehouse, and offered him ‘half a dozen eye-glasses for sale’.

Whitehouse recognised the numbers on the glass as those listed on the handbill Mr Anderson had circulated the previous afternoon and secured the goods and the old man. The police were called and he was taken into custody.

Back at the police station the thief was searched and more glasses were found on him. Now he admitted selling to other opticians in and around the area and officers were despatched to retrieve the goods. All of this was revealed at Bow Street Police Court and the unnamed ‘elderly man’ was fully remanded for the theft of over £6 worth (over £250 in today’s money) of spectacles.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, October 22, 1859]

The US have a Museum of Vision with a  large collection of spectacles (many online) – its fair to say that these were a world away from the designer pairs we see (no pun intended) today.

  • in 1860 (a year later than this case, these premises are listed as being occupied by a ‘brass letter and glass letter cutter’  called Nicholas Flogny. Whether he and Anderson were connected or shared a premises is unclear. Cranbourne Street is at the heart of London’s West End, close by the busy Leicester Square (there is no sign today of Mr Whitehouse’s shop.

A beggar who was not so ‘armless after all

Joseph White was a charlatan who pretended to be disabled when in reality he was as able-bodied as many another working-class man in late Victorian London.

In October 1885 White had positioned himself on Camden High Street so as to beg money from the many passer-by. He wore no boots and one sleeve of his jacket was empty, suggesting that he had lost a limb in an accident or while serving his country.

However, White was not all he seemed (or was in fact, more!) His begging attracted the attention of the local beat constable, PC BOxall of Y Division, who was reacting to complaints made by several pedestrians nearby.

PC Boxall asked him how he had lost his arm. ‘In an accident’ the man replied. Regardless of his injuries the constable decided that he ‘was imposing himself on people’ and so made to arrest him. As the policeman pulled him along towards Somers Town police station White slipped his (entirely healthy) arm from inside of his trousers and attempted to wriggle free of his captor.

PC Boxall called for help and a second copper appeared to convey the fraudulent beggar to the station. Once there it was discovered that far from having nothing to wear on his feet White had secreted his boots in ‘in the seat of his trousers’!

The magistrate asked White what he had to say for himself. All he could do was deny it and say the policemen had made it all up. The beak was falling for that; ‘you are a regular imposter’ he told him, before seeing him to prison for 21 days.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, October 20, 1885]

A sadly typical tale of domestic abuse



Thomas Looker was a cabinet maker who lived in Bethnal Green with his wife Matilda and their four children. In October 1854 Matilda appeared before the magistrate at Worship Street, battered and bruised and with her youngest child in her arms.

She said that on the previous Saturday night she had got to fetch her husband from the public house (where he usually was) at midnight. The pair had returned home but almost as soon as he got in, Thomas turned around and went out again.

When he came back he set about her, abusing and berating her because ‘his supper was not ready’. Matilda had, she insisted , merely been waiting for his return to prepare him some bacon and potatoes, but this fell on drunken ears and she took a fearful beating.

While she struggled with him she had her baby ‘at her breast’ and he tried to pull it away from her. He hit her about the head and blackened one of her eyes (which was all too evident in court).The attack only stopped when a female lodger nearby intervened.

The justice, Mr Hammond, asked if this was a regular occurrence and Matilda confirmed that it was. Her husband drank all the money he earned so she and children had little for food or clothes (the reporter described her as ‘careworn and scantily-clad’). She ended by saying she and kids would be better in the workhouse, so much did she fear her partner’s violence.

The magistrate agreed and told the authorities to make arrangements for accepting her and the children at the Parish Workhouse. He added that before they left they should be given a proper hot meal. As for Thomas, he sent him to the House of Correction for six months at hard labour.


[from The Morning Post, Thursday, October 19, 1854]

Washerwoman ‘steals away’ two lads in revenge


Emily Brown, a 36 year-old ‘laundress and  hawker’ was summoned before the magistrate at Thames Police Court along with her husband Charles. The pair were charged with the unusual offence of enticing away two young boys from their parents and then getting them to rob them. The motive is unclear but might well have been revenge, as we shall see.

The first by named was William Francis Chesterton (aged 14) who, it was claimed, was included to leave his father’s house and to steal ‘three blankets and two sheets’, which were later pawned by Emily.

The other lad, just over 14, was called Myers (no Christian name was recorded) and he too had been taken ‘unlawfully’ from his ‘very respectable’ family by the ‘artifices of the prisoners’.

It seems that having separated them from their parents Mrs Brown persuaded them to head south west on their own. While the boys were traveling towards  Whitstable  (in Devon) Myers was arrested for throwing stones and breaking a window. He was brought to Greenwich Police court and sentenced to 14 days imprisonment. This ‘brought the journey of the two lads to a standstill, and Chesterton returned to London alone’. He was then eventually reunited with his parents, who presumably investigated his abduction and brought charges against the Browns.

Young Myers confirmed the evidence heard and his father also appeared in court to add some insight or explanation to the case. The boy’s father then appeared. Mr Myers lived off the Commercial Road in Whitechapel at no. 14 Hereford Place, the Chesterton lived next door at 14. Myers testified that he had employed the female prisoner as a laundress earlier in the year. However, in July he had brought her to court to accused her of ‘detaining some linen he had entrusted to her to wash for him’. He therefore thought she had taken his son in revenge for him bringing a prosecution against him.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, October 18, 1870]

Stealing His Grace’s kippers

John Williams was a ‘labourer of no fixed abode’ when he was charged at Clerkenwell Police Court with stealing a hamper. The charge was brought by the Great Northern Railway Company, whose representative testified that Williams had been seen removing a hamper of fish from one of its  delivery vans parked in Charles Street, Farringdon.

Williams approached the front of the vehicle, reached in and took up the hamper and ran off pursued by a member of railway’s staff. He was soon captured and handed over to the police.

The hamper was addressed to the Duke of Northumberland* and while its contents were not disclosed in court one imagines they included smoked haddock and salmon, both staples of a good breakfast or supper for those that could afford them.

John Williams clearly could not but saw an opportunity to make some money or put some food in his belly. Williams was described as a ‘man of colour, and a native of Jamaica’ which reminds us that London had a diverse population at the turn of the 19th century (as indeed it had at the beginning of it).

Williams did not get to eat the sea fruits of his opportunism, but he was soon to taste prison food; the magistrate sent him to gaol at hard labour for a month.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, October 17, 1897]

  • this would have been the 6th Duke, Algernon Percy who had succeeded to the title in 1867 and who had a long political career, serving under Disraeli and Lord Derby. He was also a Garter Knight and by 1897 was in the twilight years of his life, dying as he did two years later.