Mindless male violence in Bermondsey?

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Victorian Bermondsey

Sometimes even when you have a full trial account at Old Bailey in addition to the initial report of a pre-trial hearing before a Police Court magistrate it is hard to work out what happened. Ultimately this is often because there were contested narratives and a lack of hard evidence.

Let’s take this case, from December 1856, as an example.

On Thursday 4 December three men were presented before the sitting justice at Southwark charged with attempted murder. Richard Burchall, Abraham Burchall (his brother) and Patrick Ryan were accused of beating and stabbing Patrick Griffin and almost causing his death. The incident had occurred back in late October that year but Griffin’s injuries were so severe that he had been unable to attend court before this time.

At Southwark the court was told, by Edmund Valentine (the house surgeon at Guy’s Hospital) that Griffin had been brought in just after 11 at night on a police stretcher.

‘He was under the influence of liquor and his left side was besmeared with blood. On being undressed’ [Valentine] ‘discovered that he had been stabbed on the left side, between the eight and ninth rib’. The wound was an inch long and two inches deep and ‘matter [was flowing] from it like vomit’.

Once he was sufficiently well enough to identify his attackers Griffin pointed the finger at the men now occupying the Southwark dock. He also managed to identify a ‘black-handled clasp knife’ as the weapon that had been used against him.

On this evidence (and that already heard by a number of witnesses at previous hearings) the tree men were committed for trial at the Bailey.

The case came up on the 15 December (there was a much quicker turn around in the Victorian justice system than there is today) where two barristers (Mr J. W. Payne for the prosecution , and Mr Lilley for the defence) conducted matters.

However, what actually occurred that night in late October is far from clear. Patrick Griffin and his brother John had visited the Burchalls’ house on what appears to be a mission for revenge. Some weeks earlier Richard (or Dick) Burchall had beaten up John Griffin and now the brothers wanted to ‘pay him out’ for it.

Before they went however, they paid a visit to a local beer shop or pub (or both) and drank four or five pots of beer between them. They claimed not to be drunk but they were certainly under the influence. Fueled with ‘dutch courage’ they set off to seek their vengeance on the Burchalls.

When they reached the house they apparently got no reply at first and so may have knocked a little louder. According to the defendants version of events the brothers’ shouted abuse, threats and hammered on the door. It was late at night and with two drunken young men calling the odds outside their house it is not surprising that Richard Burchall and his brother came out ready for a fight.

Both Patrick and John were attacked as a fracas ensued; a brick was thrown and hit Patrick Griffin in the head and eye and he went down. He received a sharp kick in his backside and and someone (possibly Dick Burchall) stabbed him with a knife.

At that point it all became something of a blur and so the idea that either Griffin could really describe what went on is somewhat fanciful. A policeman arrived (though no one could be sure who’d called him) and he found John cradling his brother and kissing his head – he believed he was dead or mortally wounded. The Burchalls and Ryan were arrested and Griffin taken to hospital as the surgeon had testified.

In the end the jury were just as confused as the modern reader is and acquitted the threesome as charged. Clearly Griffin had been stabbed but who knows what he might have done had he got his retaliation in first, so to speak. It was a confusing and confused case of drink fueled male violence between young working-class men in a Bermondsey street, nothing remarkable and sadly quite in character with this rough part of the capital in the mid 1800s.

[from The Morning Chronicle , Friday, December 5, 1856]

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