An act of kindness or a juvenile prank?

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Westminster Bridge and the new Houses of Parliament, 1858

As a mother and her daughter walked along the banks of the Thames in October 1858 two young men hailed them from their cart and asked them if they’d like a ‘ride to the new bridge’.

I imagine the ‘new bridge’ in question was Westminster which was under construction in 1858. By the middle of the 1800s the old Westminster Bridge (which dated from the middle of the previous century) was in a bad state of repair. Thomas Page was commissioned to design a new bridge and the structure, with decorations by Charles Barry (the architect of the new Gothic Houses of Parliament) opened in May 1862.

The young men, named Shearing and Lloyd may have an ulterior motive in picking up the women but it certainly wasn’t robbery. The women were poor, being alter described as of ‘very humble position’. Moreover the younger woman was carrying an infant and so they gratefully accepted the lads’ offer and climbed aboard.

The men were smoking and probably showing off, or ‘larking about’ to use a term contemporaries would have understood. One of them threw his pipe away once he had finished with it and the cart rattled on towards the bridge.

Suddenly to their horror the women realised that there was a fire in the cart and their clothes quickly ignited. It seemed to have spread from a piece of paper, maybe lit from the discarded pipe. Since it was so shocking and had burned right through the women’s clothes to their undergarments they decided to press charges at the Westminster Police Court.

Mr Arnold, the sitting justice, was told that ‘the old lady’s hands were burnt in extinguishing the fire, and she and her daughter, who appeared very creditable people, were much grieved by the loss they had sustained to their clothes, amounting to at least £2’.

So the case turned on whether the fire was an accident, or set deliberately, perhaps as a prank.

Was that the reason the men had offered the women a lift, to lure them into the cart to play an unpleasant joke on them? It is certainly possible but Mr Arnold was unsure. Had he been sure, he said, that the fire was intentional ‘he would have visited it with the severest punishment of the law’. But there was not enough evidence against the pair so he was unable to order compensation, and so the lads were released. Regardless of whether there was any intent or not this judgement did nothing at all to help the poor women who probably could ill afford to lose their clothes to a fire, however accidental.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, October 05, 1858]

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