‘Twas Christmas Eve in the Police Court and lots of drunken women were lying all around…

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I don’t often feel sorry for members of the establishment, let alone the privileged few that served as magistrates in the nineteenth century. I some cases I see moments of compassion and leniency, but these are really few and far between. Most of the members of London’s impoverished working class could expect little truck from men like Montagu Williams or Thomas Saunders; anyone presented as a disorderly drunk would get little sympathy from them, or their colleagues.

But I do have some sympathy for Mr Benson, tasked as he was with clearing the cells at Thames Police court on Christmas Eve 1867. I expect he just wanted to get home to his wife and family, or maybe just to the port and stilton. Instead he was faced with a procession of drunken women, not all of them of the most ‘depraved’ class either.

The first up was Matilda Walker who appeared in court with her face shield by a black veil. She was charged with being drunk and incapable, a common charge for much less ‘respectable’ women than Matilda. Mr Benson pointedly rebuked her.

‘You are described as a married woman, and call yourself a lady, Mrs Walker. It is not ladylike to be drunk’.

The defendant was keen to point out that she had not intended to get drunk at all.

‘I went home with an old lady, and, as it was Christmas-time, I took a glass of the very best Jamaica pine-apple rum diluted with cold water; nothing upon my honour, sir. The rum just elevated me’.

With excellent comic timing the magistrate declared:

‘And lowered you; you were on the ground’.

Warning her to lay off the rum in future he discharged her.

Next into the dock was Mary Stevens, also for being incapable under the influence. Mary’s only defence was that it was ‘Christmas time’. ‘That’s no reason you should degrade yourself,’ Mr Benson told, dismissing her from the courtroom with a flea in her ear.

Mary was swiftly followed by the next prisoner, Margaret MacDonald who had also tried to pass herself off under another name – Ann Corradine. She told the magistrate that she had been a teetotaller for almost 12 months, slipping ‘off the wagon’ just three days short of a full year.

Mr Benson wanted to know why she’d failed to keep the Pledge.

‘Iver [sic] since last Boxing Day, I have been solid and sober, but last night I met with a few friends from the ould country, and we drank bad luck to Fenianism, until….’

‘You were drunk’, Mr Benson interrupted her, ‘Go away and keep sober in future’. The Irish woman made a hasty exit before he changed his mind.

Finally the last of this group of inebriates was brought into court, and these two  were by far the worst. Ann Jones had been carried to a police station on a stretcher as she was incapable of walking by herself. According the police witness she was singing a popular music-hall ditty called ‘Strapped on a stretcher were Sarah and I’, but this didn’t endear her to Mr Benson.

‘I am very ill’ she told him.

‘Ill? I wonder you are not dead!’ he said, before dismissing her.

As for the last occupant of the dock, Jane Fry, she was either still very drunk or simply more combative than the others. She had behaved so badly and presumably was not at repentant that Mr Benson sentenced her to a day in prison. ‘It is Christmas time’ moaned the woman. ‘Lock her up till 5 o’clock this evening’ the magistrate ordered.

‘What a scandal it is to find so many women brought here for drinking to excess’ he thundered and headed home for his own favourite (but controlled) tipple.

Merry Christmas one and all. Have a lovely day whatever you are doing and thank you for reading this blog over the last 12 months.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, December 25, 1867]

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