‘She had no doubt the prisoner would have murdered her’: violence and crime in the St. Giles rookery

PC Baker (108G) was on duty in Buckeridge Street, St Giles in mid April 1844 when he heard a shout of ‘murder!’ In the mid nineteenth century Buckeridge Street (also known as Buckbidge) was a part of the notorious St. Giles ‘rookery’. aaa445A place full of  ‘lodging-houses for thieves, prostitutes, and cadgers’ (according to Henry Mayhew) and somewhere the New Police generally proceeded with caution.

Shouts of ‘murder’ were hardly uncommon here, and were probably often ignored (as they were in Whitechapel in the 1880s). However, PC Baker chose not to ignore this and entered the yards of number 26, following the noise he’d heard. There he found a man and a woman grappling with each other, and saw that the man had a life pressed to the woman’s throat.

Seeing the policeman the man turned and ran into the house and Baker followed as fast as he could. He could see the woman was bleeding from two cuts on her neck but the wounds weren’t too serious.

Inside he found her assailant in the apartment and immediately noticed a frying pan on the fire in which it seemed that metal was being melted. ‘You have been melting pewter pots’, PC Baker accused the man. ‘Yes, that is the way I get my living’ the other admitted. Pewter pots were frequently stolen from the numerous pubs in the capital and once melted down they were very hard to identify, so it was the normal practice of thieves to dispose of them this – turning stolen goods into saleable metal.

Looking across the dark room Baker now noticed that a woman was in bed there. At first she seemed asleep but then he realised she was merely drunk and lying in a comatose state. Her name was Bishop and the man he had caused (and arrested) was called James Robinson. Robinson was searched and the knife was found on in.

On the following day (the 16 April 1844) Robinson was up before the ‘beak’ at Clerkenwell Police court. He was charged attempted murder by the girl he’d attacker, Mary Ann Macover  ‘a well-looking, but dissipated’ nineteen year-old. She alleged that the three of them (Robinson, herself and Bishop) and been drinking before a quarrel had broken out. Robinson had dared her to drink half a pint of gin in one go and when she’d refused he abused her.

He chased her out into the yard with the knife, nearly bit off her ear in the struggle, and had it not been for the timely arrival of the policeman ‘she had no doubt the prisoner would have murdered her’. The wounds to her throat were visible to all those watching in court but I don’t get the feeling that the magistrate had that much sympathy with her or was that interested in the assault.

What was interesting to the law however was the melting down of (probably) stolen pewter pint pots. Moreover Robinson was familiar to the police and courts in the area having been previously convicted. He also went under the name of Lewis and this made it very likely that the justice, Mr Combe, would take the opportunity to lock him away.

Robinson denied the assault but it was much harder for him to explain away the pan of pewter melting on the fire. Mr Combe decide to send him to the Clerkenwell house of correction for two months at hard labour adding that he would grant Mary Ann a warrant for his arrest for the assault. This was not to be executed until he had served his full sentence however, meaning he would be rearrested as he was released from the gaol. It was then up to her to prosecute the supposed attempt on her life at the Sessions.

This seems the wrong way around for us today. The desire to punish a man for an implied property crime (the theft of pewter pint pots), instead of what seems very clearly to have been an actual violent crime (assault or attempted murder), is the opposite of what a magistrate would do now. But in 1844 assault had not been codified and the term covered a wide range of actions and was invariably prosecuted as a ‘civil’ action at the Sessions (or before a magistrate if it was less serious). It was the 1861 Offences against the Person Act that brought in the offences (such as GBH, wounding) that we are familiar with today and ushered in a less tolerant attitude towards casual violence.

St Giles was also a dreadful place with a terrible reputation for violence, crime, poverty and immorality. I doubt Mr Combe was as bothered by the violence (which he probably thought he could do nothing about) as he was by the property crime. By locking up Robinson for a couple of months, and putting him on notice thereafter, he at least took one thief off the streets  for a while and gave the local landlords some relief from the loss of their drinking vessels.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, April 17, 1844]

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