‘He is excited when he gets anything to drink, and is not responsible for his actions’; arson and sibling rivalry in Victorian Limehouse

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When PC Walter Stratford (K 376) arrived at Nesbit’s Rents, off Three Colt Street, Limehouse he found chaos and confusion. The property was owned by Mary Charlton and her husband and there were three other families living there. PC Stratford was directed up to the room occupied by the Cullens (two brothers – John and Micheal – and their sister, Elizabeth).

Elizabeth was screaming her head off and a small fire had engulfed one of the two beds. Michael Cullen was sitting quietly on a chair smoking his pipe. Soon afterwards a second officer arrived and he tried to calm the situation as the household, many of them dressed only in their nightgowns milled around outside.

The policemen, John Cullen and Mary Charlton all helped beat out the flames and then the finger of blame was pointed at Michael who was arrested and taken to the nearest police station for questioning. There he apparently admitted setting the fire in the bed because he wanted more space. He shared with his brother while Elizabeth slept in her own bed. When John had refused to move over, Michael had set light to the bed clothes to force him to. John had been woken by his sister’s cries of ‘fire!’ and had leapt up, grabbed his brother, and punched him hard.

By all accounts Michael was drunk and when he was drunk he changed from being the quiet and inoffensive character his married sister, Ellen, later testified to, into a very different person. ‘He is excited when he gets anything to drink, and is not responsible for his actions’, she told an Old Bailey judge when her brother was eventually tried for arson in April 1889.

Fortunately tragedy was avoided and no one was hurt by Michael’s reckless desire to have a more comfortable sleep that night but at the Thames Police court the 12 year-old cabinet maker was still formally indicted for the offence by Mr Lushington.

Michael Cullen apologised for his actions at the Old Bailey and claimed he never intended to do anyone any harm. He admitted his inebriated state and claimed to remember little of what had happened. He added that it was the first time he’d been in trouble with the law. The jury believed his version of events and acquitted him.

The circumstances reveal the reality of living conditions for many of those living in the East End of London in the later 1800s. Three siblings, all in their early twenties, shared one room in  house of multiple occupation. In total somewhere between nine and 15 or more individuals lived in Nesbit’s rents, and tensions must have flared at times.

In the late 1800s Limehouse had a poor reputation as a centre for drugs and crime and Three Colt Street, where the Cullens lived, was at the heart of London’s Chinese quarter. More recently Limehouse has featured in a major film version of Peter Ackroyd’s novel Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem. The film is fun but the book is much better.

[from The Standard, Monday, March 25, 1889]

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