A ‘murderous affray’ at the Arsenal

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Sometimes the newspaper ‘headlines’ above a story have a tendency to exaggerate. Now I’m sure that comes as no surprise to anyone reading the modern newspapers. But they presence of sensational headings in reports from the Police Courts suggest to me that the late nineteenth-century press was still evolving ways in which to present news to their readers. Newspapers had reacted to the rise of the serialised novel, and of ever more ‘sensational’ theatre productions, the ‘penny dreadful’ and other cheap prints that competed for the Victorian public’s attention and hard earned cash.

In an article entitled ‘the murderous affray at Woolwich Barracks’ The Standard reported a fight between three members of the Royal Artillery and  a civilian working at the barracks. The case came up before the Woolwich Police Court magistrate and ultimately ended in a  trial at the Old Bailey. No one was badly hurt and all parties were eventually acquitted of any crime.

Two gunners, Francis Murphy and William Dewdney, were attacked by Jeremiah Maher (a fellow gunner) at the barracks. Maher was deep in conversation with William Baldwin who worked there but was not a soldier. A quarrel broke, possibly because Murphy and Dewdney were both a little the worse for drink. and Maher took down and drew a sword. In the resulting skirmish both gunners were stabbed and ended up in hospital, although none of their wounds were deemed life threatening.

The magistrate quickly dismissed Baldwin as he was clearly just an innocent bystander, he’d taken no part in the assault. The wounds, whilst not likely to result in serious long term injury, were at first considered ‘dangerous’ however and so Maher was remanded and later committed for trial.

The only evidence presented in defence of Maher came from Baldwin who supported his allegation that the two gunners had started the row and he was only acting in self-defence. Apparently Baldwin had heard the pair say: ‘Don’t stab them; but shoot them’. The case was no clearer in the report from the Old Bailey a week later. There Maher was found not guilty after a handful of persons gave evidence, most of which would seemingly have supported the case for the prosecution. The surgeon, for example, didn’t think the wounds the men had sustained were commensurate with self-defence.

It didn’t matter because Maher was given a good character but someone unnamed by the court reporter, and walked free. In the end then, it was a much less ‘murderous’ affair than the paper suggested. A few years later they could all have simply taken their aggression out on the football pitch, watching the Woolwich works’ team, the Royal Arsenal.

[from The Standard, Thursday, January 08, 1880]

You can use this site to search for specific crimes or use the Themes link in the menu on the left to look for areas or topics that interest you. If you are interested in a particular court (such as Bow Street or Marylebone) you can also limit your search to one court in particular. Please feel free to comment on anything you read and if something in particular interests you then please get in touch. You can email me at drew.gray@northampton.ac.uk

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