October 21 1855 was the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar and the death of Nelson but the England that emerged from the long wars with France looked quite a different place from the world Horatio Nelson was born into. By the 1850s his Norfolk descendants would have been able to take the train to the capital rather than the bone-shaking stage coach, and the Navy office might have been able to summon the admiral by telegraph instead of a despatch rider.
Nelson’s flagship HMS Victory was the largest ship of the line in the Royal Navy in 1805 but it was powered by sail and built of oak. In 1859 the very first ironclad warship was launched in France, and in the American Civil War (1861-65) floating ironclads helped usher in a new sort of warfare that had more in common with the Great War of 1914-18 than the battlefields of Austerlitz, Salamanca or Waterloo.
Britain had demonstrated its military might during the Napoleonic wars but the much less ‘glorious’ Crimean War (1853-56) had exposed the extent of disease in the army and poor command and infrastructure of the British forces, despite its victory. Nelson (and Wellington) would most probably have been horrified that the nation’s armed forces had been allowed to reach such a parlous state by mid century.
Meanwhile of course the business of fighting crime and dealing with the everyday regulation of the capital continued despite the nation being at war with Russia. Nelson would never had seen a ‘bobby’ on the beat nor been very family with a Police Court Magistrate. Nor it seems was young Miss Eliza Greaves, yet she found herself in the dock at Marlborough Street accused of a very serious offence.
At about 7.30 in the evening of 16 October 1855 Eliza, a ‘respectable’ dressmaker who resided 11 Bruton Street, near Berkley Square – a fashionable address – entered a haberdasher’s shop at 272 Regent Street. She asked the assistant for some ‘riband and blonde’ and paid with two half-crowns and coated for her change. However, when the assistant handed the money to the cashier he immediately declared they were ‘bad’ (i.e they were counterfeit).
The cashier, John Wilson, took the coins over to where the young woman was seated and asked her where she had got the coins from. She told him they came from her sister, who lived in Hanover Square. Wilson then enquired whether she had any other money and she handed over a shilling which he again realised was counterfeit.
Poor Eliza was now in some difficulty because she was seemingly committing the offence of passing (or ‘uttering’) false coins. The police were called and Eliza was taken away by PC 27 of E Division. On the next day Eliza was produced in court to answer a charge of trying to pass ‘bad’ coins and so defraud Messers. Sowerby &. Co of the value of their property.
Enquiries were made and Eliza’s sister was consulted about the money she had given her her sibling. It transpired that she ‘had put a small packet of quicksilver [mercury] in her pocket, in which was her purse, and some silver’. It was this that had caused the discolouration of the coins. The magistrate’s chief clerk examined the coins carefully and declared that he ‘very much doubted if they were bad’. Mr Bingham (the magistrate) sent a police inspector off to have them properly tested and he returned to state for the record that the coins were ‘good’. To everyone’s relief (not least Eliza’s) she was cleared of any wrongdoing and set at liberty to return with her friends, who were people of ‘the greatest respectability’.
Just what her sister was doing with mercury in her pocket is far less clear. Mercury was used to treat syphilis and other forms of venereal disease but I hardly think the other Miss Greaves bought it for that purpose. It had some use in making dental fillings, and of course was used in thermometers, but why Miss Greaves needed it remains a mystery to me. Please enlighten me if you know!
[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, October 21, 1855]