A mother’s anguish at her inability to send her children to school

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One of the many functions of the Police Court magistrate in London was to deal with parents who refused to send their children to school. School boards had been created by the Elementary Education Act (1870) also termed Forster’s Act. In addition boards could seek to have bye laws passed that allowed for the fining of parents whose children played truant. By the late 1870s about 40% of the population lived in areas where school attendance (to the age of 10) was compulsory.

However, while the state and many parents recognised the importance of an elementary education  for children aged 5 and over, not everybody agreed or was able to comply with the law. Children were useful around the home as helpmeets and carers, they could earn money in all sorts of ways, and so supplement the family purse.

Moreover sending children was not without complications and costs. The school boards made some exceptions for parents who lived a long way from the nearest school, but this was unlikely to have affected those living in London where schools were plentiful. Nevertheless parents who could not afford to provide shoes or even proper clothes for their offspring would choose to keep them at home, our of embarrassment as much as anything else.

Finally for all but the poorest school was not free; parents had to pay for it so this added a further disincentive. In 1880 schooling was made compulsory everywhere and in 1891 education became free in all board and church schools for children up to the age of 10.

Margaret Godfrey lived in Nine Elms, was widowed and therefore extremely vulnerable to poverty. She also had a son of school age, and another below the age of five. Margaret didn’t have the money to feed her children, let alone clothe them and buy shoes so she hadn’t sent the elder boy to school.

As a result she was summoned to attend Wandsworth Police court by the local school board and asked to explain herself in front of the magistrate. Her son, the court was told, was ‘nearly naked’ and she had approached the Charity Organisation Society for help. They had given her 5s ‘in kind, but no clothes for the children’.

Margaret said they had been living on dry bread for six weeks. She would be happy for the boy to attend school but she couldn’t send him without shoes. The superintendent asked the magistrate (Mr Bridge) to help with money from the poor box and he agreed.

Margaret would have enough money to buy clothes and the boy would attend Sleaford Street board school. No mention was made of helping provide the family with enough money to eat properly; if Mrs Godfrey wanted of course they could all enter the workhouse. That would have signalled the end of her family however, and having lost her husband I can imagine how desperately she wanted to avoid that outcome.

Now we have a free education system for all children that need it and a benefit system to help mothers like Margaret. Yet we still have children attending school without having had a proper breakfast or evening meal afterwards, and plenty of truancy and a  state system that attempts to punish the parents for it – on occasion by sending them to prison. Plus ça change.

[from The Standard, Friday, February 21, 1879]

A ‘not so old’ septuagenarian defends his property

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Charles Wehrfritz was on his way back home from the pub after enjoying his ‘supper beer’ following a day’s work when he ran into his son and daughter in law. The pair lodged with him at his house at 109 New North Road,  Islington. Wehrfritz was an German immigrant who spoke passable English. He was also 73 years old, but ‘still vigorous’.

As he neared his home he saw two men trying to get in. He assumed they were after his other lodgers upstairs, so indicated they should go up and see if anyone was at home. Moments later the men came down and said no one was in, so he showed them to the door and let them out.

Charles was sitting down to take his supper when he heard a noise in the passage way. When his cry of ‘who’s there?’ went unanswered he opened his door and found the two men back in his house.

‘What do you want here?’ he demanded, and ‘how did you get back in?

‘We want your money, old man’, said the younger of the two men.

At this Charles lunged toward and tried to stab the robber with the knife he’d been using to eat his supper. He connected with the man’s chest but to no avail, the knife was totally blunt and didn’t penetrate the thief’s jacket. Instead Charles now suffered a fearsome attack, being thrown backwards by the man and hit on the head by the other one.

He was knocked senseless for a moment to two and came to in time to see the men ‘splitting open a door’ to gain entry. Now the younger man picked up a door mat and tried to stop the German’s mouth with it to prevent him raising the alarm. In the struggle that followed Charles was once again hit on the head, this time with something heavy, made of metal he thought.

He fell in and out of consciousness before he was finally able to cry ‘murder!’ and see the men run out of the property as fast as they could. The police were called and later picked up the men and took them to Clerkenwell police station. Having been patched up at hospital (his life being feared for) Charles was later able to identify the two robbers in a parade at the station.

William Smith (24 and a box maker), and Arthur Leslie (a 22 year-old clerk from Pentonville) denied all the charges against them when they were set in the dock at Worship Street Police Court a few days later. Nothing was missing from the house as Charles had effectively scared them off. His brave display could have ended his life the court was told, he had been lucky. Charles’ main objection however, was that he had been called old; at 73 he didn’t think he was ‘that old’. This must have amused the watching audience and the paper’s readers.

Detective inspector Morgan of G Division said Smith was well known at the station as a ‘suspicious person’ and they had bene watching him for some time. He was also on the radar of N Division, as Inspector Smith testified in court. The magistrate granted a request from the police to remand the men for further enquiries and they were taken away.

On the 23 February the robbers were back in court and fully committed for trial. Smith turned out to be the brother of one of Wehrfritz’s lodgers. At the County of London Sessions held at Clerkenwell on 7 March 1899, Smith and Leslie were convicted of breaking and entering the property and of ‘severely wounding’ Mr Wehrfritz. Leslie got 21 months in prison, Smith 18, and their victim was described as ‘making a plucky stand against his assailants’. I hope he pinned the cutting to his wall to remind him that he wasn’t ‘so old’ after all.

[from The Standard, Monday, February 20, 1899; Daily News , Wednesday, March 8, 1899]

The ‘artful urchin’ and the 8th Baronet; a contrast in mid Victorian fortunes

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Sir Alexander Grant had a long lineage. In 1852 he was 69 years of age and would die two years later. Grant had served as an MP for various constituencies until the early 1830s and had acceded to his family baronetcy in 1825. Grant had made his money in the West Indies, as a plantation owner. Whether he was an advocate of slavery or a campaigner for its abolition is unknown to me, but either way he profited from the trade and had a smart address in London at Portman Square.

Thomas Dwyer, by contrast, has no known lineage. In 1852 he was just 12 years of age but already had a criminal record for picking pockets. We don’t know where he lived or who his father or mother was; he may have had none and probably slept where he could on the street, in doorways, or any form of rough shelter. Thomas had no stated trade (and clearly no inherited wealth) and we don’t know what happened to him after he briefly made the pages of the newspapers in February 1852.

Sir Alexander was walking on Duke Street, by Manchester Square (in the wealthy West End) when a man tapped him on the shoulder. He turned to see a man holding a young boy firmly by the hand and preferring him a handkerchief.

‘This boy’, the man declared, ‘has stolen your handkerchief’. He handed the lad and the hankie over and then walked off.

Sir Alexander seized the boy (Thomas Dwyer) and marched him off to find the nearest policeman, and gave him into custody. A day or so later the pair were reunited in the Marylebone Police Court.

PC Steel (33C) testified to receiving the prisoner and stated that the boy had pleaded for leniency and begged ‘that he might be forgiven’. He added that the ‘young delinquent’ had previously been prosecuted for a similar offence and, when caught, was found to wearing a black silk ‘kerchief (‘nearly new’) around his neck.

Sir Alexander complained that he lost at least six handkerchiefs to thieves like Thomas while walking the streets of the capital. There was no inclination to leniency from the bench that day and Thomas Dwyer was sentenced to two months’ imprisonment at hard labour, and to be privately whipped on one occasion.

These were the very different fates that resulted from the accident of birth. Alexander Grant had his life mapped out for him; from birth to his education (at Cambridge), then a successful business enterprise from his inherited money, to a position of power and influence in parliament, to a quite retirement in a fashionable quarter of London. Thomas Dwyer was born into poverty and stayed there; even his attempts to survive (by stealing small items of value from those way above his social status) were thwarted and ultimately ‘rewarded’ by punishment which would have made it more difficult to survive in any other way in the future.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, February 19, 1852]

“The labourer has learned that combination can lead him to anything and everything” (John Burns). Sadly, 1889 was a false dawn for unionism.

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Resting stevedores on the London Docks, c.1890

1889 has gone down in Trade Union history as one of the most significant. This was the year of the Great Dock Strike in London where dock labourers led by Ben Tillet, Tom Mann and Will Thorne; with support from prominent socialists such as John Burns, Eleanor Marx, and the Catholic archbishop of London, Cardinal Manning, emerged victorious.

The strike secured an extra penny an hour (the ‘dockers’ tanner’), along with the recognition of their newly formed union and most of their other demands. For the Labour movement the Dock Strike (and the Match girls strike which inspired it) was huge; recruitment soared and by 1899 over 2,000,000 Britons had joined a trade unions.

However, it didn’t take the employers long to regroup and fight back. Further disputes occurred and companies were now more aware of strikers’ tactics and the methods required to confront them. In addition, infighting and jealousies emerged within unions and between competing workers to undermine the collectivity that had been so vital to success in 1889.

In 1891 a dispute broke out between seaman on ships and the unionised stevedores who controlled the unloading of goods. This allowed the owners of the shipping companies to drive a wedge between two sets of working men and prosecute the fightback against organised union labour. A strike in the Cardiff docks by seamen was defeated and they were forced to accept the terms of the employers. This was between January and March 1891 and affected the London docks as well.

In February 1891 Edward Polton, a 29 year-old stevedore working at Silvertown in docklands, appeared before Mr Kennedy at Woolwich Police Magistrate Court.

Bolton was charged with: ‘throwing missiles from the steam ship Egyptian Monarch, in the Royal Albert Docks, at the Shipping Federation men’.

The missiles in question were nuts and bolts but the case didn’t turn on the danger caused to the Federation’s men (non-union labour employed by the Dock Company) but on whether the large had been accurately laid or not. The original charge was that Polton had been throwing missiles into a public space and therefore endangering ‘the common public’.

The court learned that the docks were closed off by gates and a sign declared that no one was to be admitted ‘except on business’. Dock constables guarded the docks to prevent non-authorised persons from entering (a result it seems of the experiences of the port authorities in the 1889 dispute), and the docks were staffed by non-union men.

That Polton was lobbing missiles at the Fed’s men was not in doubt but he wasn’t guilty of doing so ‘in public’ but instead in private. Mr Kennedy therefore ordered that the stevedore be discharged but recommend to the Dock Company that they bring a new prosecution for assault. If convicted (and the suggestion must have been that Polton would have been convicted) he would face two months in prison, taking an active union man out of action for a considerable period of time and potentially deterring others from following his example. His decision was met with cheers in court, whether from Bolton’s supporters or the Federation men is not made clear.

This little incident from the Police Courts gives us a brief window into the ongoing struggle between workers and employers in the late nineteenth century. Each side learned lessons from the disputes they entered into but the ‘bosses’ had the distinct advantage of being supported by the law. That law, of course, was not written by (or even for) the vast majority of the population but instead was created to protect wealth and privilege from the very people that wanted to see it distributed more evenly.

The battles between unions and owners continued into the next century but ultimately it was always the unions that lose. There have been high points and moral victories, but today the union movement is largely powerless to prevent the continued exploitation of working men and women by rapacious capitalism and a government which listens first to company executives and last to the people on the ‘shop floor’.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, February 18, 1891]

‘All his trouble brought on by drinking’; a suspected burglar at Southwark

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We know that London was a cosmopolitan city in the Victorian age, and that it sat at the heart of Empire and world trade. Ships brought cargoes from all over the globe and Britons traveled far and wide to work and seek their fortunes in foreign lands.

Charles Conran was one such individual. In February 1865, as the American Civil was coming to an end, Conran had recently returned from Brazil where he had been working as a navvy. He had been contracted by a firm in Victoria Street to help build ‘a railway near Rio Janeiro’ [sic] and had been abroad for three years.* Once home In London it had gone on what we might today describe as ‘a bender’; drinking heavily and spending the wages he had accumulated abroad.

This had not ended well for Charles. At half past one in the morning he had been discovered trying to break into a premises on Newington Causeway by a policeman on his beat. PC 163M had heard ‘a rattling noise’ outside a glove dealer’s shop and stopped Conran as he attempted to ‘force the bolt of a shutter box’ to gain entry. Since the man couldn’t give a satisfactory explanation of his conduct the constable arrested him and presented him before the Southwark magistrate in the morning.

The Police court was told that had Conran managed to shoot the bolt he would have been able to access the shop via a set of steps and could have plundered Mr Solomon Myers’ stock with impunity. Conrad insisted however that he was no thief; he had got drunk and lost his way, he had no intention to break in to Mrs Myers’ shop at all.

The police had conducted some enquiries and discovered that Conran was telling the truth about his return from Brazil. That added up, and his employers state that while they had given him some of his salary there was still more to come. So Conran wasn’t completely broke (and therefore motivated to steal from the glover’s) and this helped his case.

The magistrate was inclined to believe that this was an honest error on his part, that perhaps all he wanted was some shelter in the doorway of the shop, not to burgle it. When he was arrested all he had on him was ‘an old knife’ the policeman said. As for money, ‘he had not a farthing’. He wasn’t drunk but had clearly been drinking the justice was told, so he couldn’t be prosecuted as drunk and disorderly either.

The magistrate looked down from the bench and instructed the court officer to discharge Conran, suggesting to the former navvy that ‘he keep sober for the future’.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, February 17, 1865]

*The British had been active in the building of the Brazilian railways between 1840 and the 1880s. Schemes funded by the City of London and private investors had helped open up Brazil thought the period and into the 1900s

This policeman’s lot is particularly unhappy at home.

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Yesterday we heard about a domestic abuse case from Holloway involving a bricklayer who set about his drunken wife with an iron poker. Today the roles are reversed as it is the woman who is in the dock accused of using violence against her husband. To add spice to this story of marital strife the victim was a policeman and his wife ended up in prison, which must have made life very uncomfortable for the remainder of their married life.

PC Arthur Moss, stationed at Forest Gate station in K Division, was at home at 7 o’clock in the evening of the 11 February 1891. His wife Elizabeth came home much the worse for drink and Arthur probably upbraided her for it. The couple had a number of small children and they witnessed and got involved in the fight that followed.

Presumably annoyed that her husband, the symbolic head of the house and ‘arm of the law’, had criticised her drinking (again) Elizabeth reacted violently. According to the report in the newspaper:

‘She picked up a full cup of tea and threw it over him, then hurled a saucer at his head. Going to the dresser, she hurled a dozen plates, one at a time, at him. One of them hit him on the side of his face, cutting his nose;  others struck him about the body’.

As she picked up a lamp to strike him with Arthur managed to grab her and wrestled her to the ground, and one of the children removed the weapon from her hands before she could do any more damage with it. Enraged by this Elizabeth contented herself with biting her spouse’s hand.

PC Moss reported the incident at Forest Gate to Inspector Death and Elizabeth was arrested and brought before the magistrate at Stratford Police Court. The bench were told that the inspector had visited and found that the children ‘were terrified’ by the experience. PC Moss testified that his wife was often drunk and had threatened to set light to his bed and to ‘kill you before the night is out’.

The policeman had sustained cuts and bruises as a result of the attack and Elizabeth had apparently threatened to harm the children if they did not come and speak up for her in court; Moss would ‘find them weltering in their blood’ she had warned him.

Elizabeth had little to say in her defence only stating that she ‘had had a lot of trouble recently’ as ‘her children were ill and the place in uproar’. Perhaps what she was intimating was that her husband wasn’t around much and she wasn’t coping very well. Policemen worked long hours and marriages were often strained. Not that this was an excuse for her drinking or for her violence and the bench was not inclined to be lenient.

Elizabeth was sent to prison at hard labour for a month, how this helped PC Moss is not very clear. Hopefully he had a sister or mother that could help out, otherwise he’d need a very considerate station sergeant. Going forward this not only affected the relationship between Arthur and Elizabeth, and their children; by challenging his authority and it being dragged through open court Arthur’s public reputation had been affected adversely. A man that could not control his wife was a lesser man in many people’s eyes in the Victorian period, for a policeman this must have been particularly hard to take.

[from The Standard , Monday, February 16, 1891]

‘A murderous outrage’ in Holloway

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We are staying in 1891 today to see if any there were any Police Court developments in the wake of Frances Coles’ murder on the 13 February of that year. Lloyd’s Weekly  carried reports from seven of the capital’s courts but there was no mention here of Coles, the ‘Ripper’ or the man who became associated with this killing, James Sadler.

Instead the paper covered a complaint about the mis-labelling of Turkish cigarettes, theft from a theatre district club, two different frauds (one by a nine year-old boy), a gold robbery, a so-called ‘fair fight’ that turned nasty, and the case I’d like to focus on today, which was described as ‘a murderous outrage’ .

The case had come up before at North London Police Court and the accused, a 35 year-old bricklayer named Daniel Shannon, had been remanded for further enquiries. He was charged with assaulting Jessie Bazely with whom he cohabited in Chapel Road, Holloway. Jessie had been too poorly to attend on the first occasion Shannon had appeared and the court was told she remained in that state, if not a worse one.

The paper reminded its readers of the basic details of the case: Shannon had objected to his partner’s drinking and they had argued. In the scuffle that followed Shannon had grabbed a poker and smashed her over the head with it. In his defence the bricklayer argued that it was an accident:

‘he said that ‘the woman took up the poker to strike him, and in struggling they fell on the floor, the woman’s head coming in contact with the fender’.

The police investigated the assault and Inspector Charles Bradley of Y Division was present in court to report on their findings so far, and in particular the condition of Jessie. Her evidence would be crucial in determining what happened to Shannon next.

The inspector told the magistrate that the poor woman was being held in the workhouse infirmary and had gone quite mad as a result of her injuries and her previous addiction to drink. When asked what evidence he had for this the policeman declared that he had seen her there ‘being held down by five nurses’. Moreover, she had attempted her own life and had bitten several of the staff there. Dr George Wright, the divisional police surgeon, then confirmed the inspector’s report.

From the dock of the court the prisoner asked for the fender to be produced. He said he wanted to demonstrate what had happened so he could clear his name. Inspector Bradley said that he had asked for this previously, but had been denied. The magistrate also refused his request and remanded him in custody once more.

We shall see if the case is picked up later in the week, or if the attention of the press became fixated on events in the East End instead.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, February 15, 1891]