It was a Thursday afternoon in March 1888 and two men were trying to make their way through the gate at Portland Road underground railway station, having arrived on a train from the City. They didn’t know each other but their paths were about to become inextricably linked and this eventually led both of them to an embarrassing appearance at Marlborough Street Police Court.
Portland Road (now Great Portland Street) opened on 10 January 1863 as a station on the world’s first underground railway, the Metropolitan (you can see it in the illustration above). By all accounts it was a busy station with throngs of people struggling to make their way to trains or to exit from the platforms.
Frederick Pitts was just one of these commuters; a ‘carver and gilder’ living in Bolsover Street, Fitzrovia and thus a member of London’s growing ‘respectable’ middle class. Pitts was close to home and probably keen to get back for a late lunch or some tea.
Reuben Holmes was also on the platform that day. A teacher who lived in Kensington Gardens Square, Holmes was a lot further from his place of residence so was perhaps on his way to a tutorial or another meeting. Both men were in a hurry and probably not in the best of tempers.
As Pitts reached the gates he was pushed from behind. Some level of pushing was inevitable but he felt he’d shoved in ‘an unnecessarily violent manner’ and he turned round to complain about it. Holmes was behind him and so he deemed him to be the culprit. Mr Pitts asked him to desist. Holmes, however, denied pushing anyone and the pair carried on their journey to the exit.
When they got upstairs to the ticket hall an argument flared up between the two men. Holmes told Pitts that ‘he must be in a bad temper’ to accuse him (wrongly) of pushing him.
‘It’s a lie’ declared Frederick Pitts, ‘you certainly did push me’.
‘Do you mean to say I am liar’, retorted the teacher, clearly angry at being called out by the other man in public.
‘I said nothing of the sort’ replied Pitts, ‘but I say you did push me’.
At this repeated slur on his character Holmes lost his temper and thumped the gilder on the nose. Outraged, Pitts called for help and a policeman was summoned and both men marched off to the nearest police station.
Once there the situation was calmed down. Holmes apologised and offered to pay for any ‘expenses incurred’ by his victim. In court the next day he said he’d not been aware of pushing anybody and, by way of defence, complained that Pitt had ‘spoken to him in a very disagreeable manner’. The pushing was a result of the crowd behind him he added, there was no intent to target Mr Pitts at all.
Most of all he objected to being called a liar, and having that repeated ‘several times and in a most offensive manner’. This speaks to late Victorian middle class concerns about status and character and was more important here than any violence.
The magistrate, Mr Mansfield, did the equivalent of ‘knocking their heads together’. Both had behaved badly and let down their class by squabbling in public. Holmes should have apologised for inadvertently pushing Holmes and the latter should have accepted it. Pitts should not have called the other man a liar and Holmes should have kept his temper in check and not struck out. He hoped both would have learned a lesson from the encounter. He then dismissed them both so he could return his court to more serious business.
[from The Standard , Saturday, March 17, 1888]