“Go on, little one; pay him out”: mindless violence on the City Road claims another life.

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The City Road in London, c.1885, complete with trams

Last night my wife and I drove down the City Road in London on our way to a very glamorous party in Stoke Newington. Both of us were dressed up as passengers on the ill-fated RMS Titanic which struck an iceberg on its maiden voyage in 1912. As we crawled in traffic along the City Road through Shoreditch the pavements were thronged with bright young things intent of having a good time. Pubs and clubs were heaving and everywhere the sound of partying crowds was audible above the cars, buses and motorcycle noise.

Today that area of London might still look a little shabby but it is far from being the dangerous and impoverished district it was in the late 1800s.  North East London in the 1880s was not as bad as Whitechapel and Spitalfields, or indeed the Borough and Lambeth, but it was rife with crime, gangs, and casual violence as this case from 1883 shows.

On the 20th January 1883 a fight broke out on the City Road when three young men confronted an older man, a 27 year old painter named William Johnston and his brother,  George.

The alteration seems to have taken place in a pub called the Duke of Bridgewater where the pair had gone to play skittles (although it may have been seeded earlier in the evening at The Dock public house). A teenage lad named Edward Jackson had approached George Johnston and asked him for a penny to set up the skittles, as was customary. When George refused to pay him a scuffle ensued. George got punched in the mouth and told the lad: “If you were big enough I would give you a good hiding”. The brothers then left.

Two other lads, Daniel Daniels (19) and Charles Wilsdon (18) joined Jackson (who was just 16) in following the Johnstons out of the pub. Jackson taunted George, declaring to his mates that he had punched jim in the mouth and would happily do so again. George was enraged, turned and hit out at the youngster.

There are conflicting results of what happened that night but drink was certainly involved. George’s brother William was a big man and at first the lads were wary of him. A scuffle began with William and Daniels squaring up to each other. Jackson and Wilsdon seemed to have been egging their mate on – daring him to prove himself against an such a large opponent: “Go on, little one; pay him, little one” they shouted. Daniels allegedly said to William Johnston:

“Do you think I am going to fight a man of 25. and I am only 18? I will put a knife through you”.

Despite this threat the episode was unfolding as a so-called ‘fair fight’ until Daniels and Jackson decided to get involved. They rushed in and topped the big man over, throwing him into the street and onto the tram lines, fracturing his skull.

As the lads tried to melt away the police were called and they were picked up. On the following day, worried about his condition, George took his brother to the Royal Free Hospital where he was examined by Dr Mihanda Barrigea, the house surgeon at 8 in the evening. We now know that head injuries need to be treat quickly and sadly for William it was too late. He died on the Monday morning as a result of the injuries he’d received in the street brawl. The three young men were formally committed to trial at the Old Bailey by the sitting justice at Clerkenwell Police Court. There was insufficient evidence for the jury to convict them of manslaughter however, so they all walked free from court at the end of the month.

This is my last visit to 1883 for a while. I have tried to follow one week in the past and the stories of a couple of individuals in particular. One of these was Henry Harcourt who claimed to a distant relative of the Home Secretary, Sir William Harcourt. In early February the papers were full of reaction to the assassination in Dublin of the newly appointed Chief Secretary to Ireland and a top ranking civil servant. Following the stabbings of Lord Cavendish and Thomas Henry Burke the press reported that extra security had been given to prominent public figures, like Harcourt, to protect them from the ‘Assassination Society’. According to one report Sir William had a detective ‘sleeping in his house’ at all times.

On Wednesday 7 February Henry Harcourt made his final appliance at the Lambeth Police Court before Mr Chance. This time his aunt turned up to give evidence. She confirmed they had worked together as bar staff but had no recollection of Henry being either deaf or dumb at that time. As for Henry’s claim that he had been left £600 in a will only to have his ‘name scratched out’ by others, that was entirely false she said. The will was produced and the magistrate could see that it was entirely in order but made no mention of Henry anywhere.

Henry seems to have been a troubled soul and the court was told of information from Salford that suggested he fitted the description of man named Downey who had until recently made his living by telling people’s fortunes. He disappeared at the same time Henry showed up at the Lambeth casual ward seeking shelter. Harcourt denied any knowledge of this.

Mr Chance asked Harcourt’s aunt whether she would be prepared to help her nephew get back to sea. That seemed the best course of action for him so she agreed as did Henry. On that basis Mr Chance was prepared to release him without further charge or penalty.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, February 4, 1883; The Sheffield & Rotherham Independent , Monday, February 05, 1883; Daily News , Thursday, February 8, 1883]

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