A sailor narrowly avoids having his drink spiked in Tower Hamlets

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The reports of the Police Courts of Victorian London provide a useful reminder that there is very little that is properly ‘new’ in our supposedly ‘modern’ society. The sorts of things that people did in the past might look different in style to us, but rarely in content.

So we find that Londoners worked and played hard, fought and loved, laughed and cried, and argued over just about anything. The streets were extremely busy, accidents frequent, and buses and trains crowded. There were thousands of shops selling a huge range of consumer goods, the parks and gardens were trampled by promenading feet at weekends and holidays, and the capital was a melting pot of multiculturalism.

As for crime (the main business of the Police Courts) it is hard to find things here that would not be found in a modern magistrate’s court. Certainly we deal with some things differently; many more offenders were sent straight to gaol in the 1800s for relatively minor property crimes than would be the case today for example.  But the same crimes come up time again: petty theft, picking pockets, assault, drunk and disorderly behavior, dangerous driving, fraud and deception.

One offence that I did assume was very ‘modern’ was the spiking of someone’s drink in a pub or bar. This is now most often associated with date rape, where a person (most often a man) adds a chemical to a woman’s drink in order to take advantage of them later. In recent years the preferred drug has been rohypnol but victims have had their drinks spiked with other substances such as ketamine or GHB (which is ecstasy in liquid form).

However, it seems there is indeed nothing new even in this apparently ‘modern’ form of crime. In June 1876 two women appeared at the Thames Police court charged with ‘attempting to drug a seaman’. They failed and ended up in front of the notoriously harsh magistrate, Mr Lushington.

Lushington was told that on the evening of Friday 23 June 1876 Sarah Murray and Mary Spencer were in the Blue Anchor pub in Dock Street, off the Ratcliffe Highway. They had picked out a sailor who’d recently returned from a voyage (and so probably had all his wages on him) and got friendly with him.

This was a common tactic for local prostitutes and thieves: find a likely looking punter, render him insensible through drink (that he paid for) then take him upstairs or nearby for sex and steal all his money and possessions while slept off the effects of the alcohol. A simpler method was to skip the sex altogether and knock him over the head in a dark alley as he lowered his guard along with his breeches.

Mary and Sarah were more sophisticated however. As Sarah distracted his attention her partner removed a paper slip from her clothes and poured a powder into the sailor’s fresh glass of ale. Unfortunately for the young women the seaman was more alert than they thought and saw the move to drug him.

‘He snatched the glass of ale off the counter, and in doing so upset the contents on the floor’. Mary tried to grab the glass but he was too quick for her and rinsed it out before she could stop him.

William Burr was working the bar that night and saw what happened. He tried to seize the woman and Sarah went for him, hitting him with her fists and anything she could find. Both women were eventually subdued and taken to the local police station. Mr Lushington said it was a shame that the barman or sailor hadn’t kept the glass with the drug in it as that would have been evidence against Mary. As it was all he could do was warn both of them that the attempt to poison another person was a serious offence which brought, on conviction, a sentence of penal servitude for life.

He could deal with the assault however and sent Sarah Murray to prison for two months at hard labour. Her accomplice got away with it on this occasion, but knew she’d better avoid appearing in Lushington’s court in the near future. The sailor was unnamed because he didn’t come to court, perhaps because he was embarrassed or maybe because as far as he was concerned the matter was done with.

The publication of the story in a working class paper like Reynolds’s would also serve to warn others of this ‘new’ means of rendering unwary individuals unconscious so that they could be robbed blind by the local women of Tower Hamlets.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, June 25, 1876]

The perils of unfettered competition: a ‘desperate contention’ in the Mile End Road

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One of the ‘big ideas’ of the late twentieth century was privatization. The principle was that all things are made better by competition. The Conservative government of the 1980s believed in the power of the market to deliver better services more cheaply than the state could. As a result Britain saw the privatization of gas, electricity and water supply, telecommunications, the buses and railways, and a number of other formerly state run concerns (even prisons and, more recently and to seemingly disastrous effect: probation).

In the nineteenth century most of society was run privately however and Britain supposedly thrived on the competition for business that entrepreneurial capitalism provided. Margaret Thatcher’s love of ‘Victorian values’ is well documented and her government looked back to a time when Britain stood on its own two feet at the forefront of world trade and enterprise.

However, while competition is usually healthy we have found that the privatization project doesn’t always bring the benefits we were promised. Our utility bills seem to keep on rising, we are paying more for our television and phone use than ever before, the railways are expensive and more inefficient than ever, and our part privatized prison and probation service is in chaos.

Perhaps the reality of competition is then that sometimes the customer suffers rather than benefits from it, and in this case we can see that very clearly.

One Friday in late June 1843 an elderly man was waiting near the police station house on Mile End Road in the hope of catching an omnibus home. Throughout the 1800s several rival omnibus companies plied their trade throughout the capital and were not averse to some rough or otherwise underhand tactics in their competition for passengers.

Two omnibuses were travelling fast on the Mile End Road and both saw the gentlemen up ahead. As he waived his stick to flag them down the two drivers engaged in a furious dash to reach him first.

Thomas Evans was the owner and driver of his Victoria Stratford ‘bus while James Corney drove an omnibus called Monarch for Mr Giles’s company. Both raced towards the old man watched with growing concern by a pair of police constables who had just left the station house.

Corney was quickest and reached the fare first. Evans was close behind though; so close in fact that the pole of his vehicle nearly ran through the Monarch in the process and an accident was narrowly avoided. Both men leapt down from their buses to try and secure their passenger.

When the incident was tried at the Lambeth Street Police court the policemen testified that:

Here a desperate contention took place as to who should have the passenger, and such was the determination of each, that they actually laid hold of the old gentleman, and dragged him too and fro for some minutes’, only stopping when the police became involved.

Before Mr Norton (the justice), Corney admitted he had been driving too fast but blamed Evans. Evans placed the blame on one of his passengers (‘a gentleman who sat on the box seat stamping violently with his feet and hissing at the driver of the other vehicle’). This had caused his own horses to gallop off he said, and it took a while for him to regain control of them.

Crucially the police gave Corney a good character reference as a ‘careful and steady driver’ but condemned Evans as a frequent offender, and said he’d been fined several times for ‘furious driving’ in the past. The magistrate found fault in both their actions but more in Evans’. He fined Corney 10and the other driver 20. Both paid, Evans with much less good grace however.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, June 24, 1843]

Ice cream wars in Camberwell end in a near fatal stabbing

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Pasquelio Cascarino ran an ice cream shop at 1 Neate Street, Camberwell with other members of his family. Italians in London were closely associated with two occupations in the nineteenth century: selling ice cream (a relative novelty at the time) and performing music in the street. Several disputes involving Italian organ grinders came before the Police Magistrates of the capital – usually for causing a nuisance – but this case is much more serious.

Pasquelio licensed members of his extended family to sell ice cream from barrows in the city streets. It must have been amazing for Londoners to taste genuine gelato for the first time, especially as the majority of them would not have had a fridge let alone a freezer, things we take for granted today.

So ice cream selling was profitable and Pasquelio’s brother-in-law (Antonio Pitussi) wanted some of the action. He took a barrow from his relation and started to sell ice cream in Avenue Road nearby. However, he neglected to pay his brother-in-law Pasquelio for the hire of the barrow and refused to do so when asked. So Cascarino hit him where it hurts by declaring he would open another shop right on Pitussi’s patch.

This angered the other man who remonstrated with his brother and threatened him. Things came to a head and Pitussi stabbed Pasquelio, and the pair ended up in court at Lambeth where the full story unfolded.

Seated in court (as he was too ill to stand) Pasquelio testified that it was ten days before the near fatal stabbing when he’d told Pitussi that he was intending to open a new shop in Avenue Road. His brother-in-law said that if he did so ‘he would be dead’ and that they would ‘settle the dispute with knives’.

On the 31 May Pitussi turned up at the Neate Street shop and Pasquelio again said he was intending on going ahead with his plan. Turning on him, Pitussi said he’d kill him under the nearby railway bridge and, when Mrs Cascarino argued with him, said he’d do for her as well right outside the shop.

Pitussi was in a rage and, pulling a dagger from his sleeve, leapt at the Cascarinos. Pasquelio was stabbed several times, in the arm and the abdomen, and his wife was punched as she tried to help him. One of Pasquelio’s brothers (Angelo) rushed to their help and eventually the trio managed to subdue the attacker. Pasquelio was taken to Guy’s Hospital where he was in danger for several days and took a few weeks to recover sufficiently to come to court. Pitussi was arrested and held until him could be brought before Mr Siren at Lambeth Police Court.

This was a family dispute and despite the serious nature of it Pasquelio Cascarino didn’t want to press charges against his sister’s brother. In the popular imagination Italians (especially Neapolitans) were quick to anger and just as quick to resort to knives. But these passions soon subsided it was said, and everyone could be friends again afterwards. The magistrate wasn’t so sure however and remanded the Italian for a week to decided what to do with him.

Later in June the case came up at Old Bailey where Pitussi (now formally identified as Antiono Pitazzi, 28) was inducted for wounding with intent to murder, and a second count of causing GBH. The case was short and Pitazzi was convicted of the lesser offence of unlawful wounding. Even now his brother-in-law spoke up for him telling the judge ‘I will forgive all he has done to me’. Pitazzi’s version of events (even in his broken English) suggests that he felt very hard done by and that there was fault on both sides. Perhaps because of all of this the court sentenced him to just six months in prison with hard labour.

The Italians’ love of knives led some to believe that the brutal Whitechapel murders, which took place a few months after this event, where the work of an immigrant. It was often said that ‘no Englishman could do this’. So instead of ‘Jack the Ripper’ there had to have been a Giovanni or a Giacomo.

[from The Illustrated Police News etc, Saturday, June 23, 1888]

Henry Cooper: serial fraudster or plucky entrepreneur?

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We’ve met Henry Cooper before on this site. No, not the boxing legend who once floored Mohammed Ali, but a serial fraudster who got himself locked away on more than one occasion in the 1860s and 70s. In 1872 Cooper was sent to prison for five years for fraud but he had more than one opportunity to mend his ways before then, sadly he didn’t take them.

The Digital Panopticon shows that a Henry Cooper was gaoled in 1867 for forging a warrant for goods; he got five years then and spent his time at Portland quarrying stone. It is quite likely that he would have had a number of less serious convictions before this and so this court appearance – in June 1860 – fits quite nicely and suggests it is the same individual.

On Thursday 21 June (on the longest day of the year) Henry was up before the magistrate at Guildhall facing a charge of ‘absconding from his liabilities’. Described as a ‘boot and shoe manufacturer’ (interestingly, as on one of his prison records he is shown as having worked as a shoemaker inside). Cooper was bankrupt, and it was alleged that he’d tried to obtain goods on credit just three months after being declared so.

He’d run up debts of around £1,000 which, in 1860, was the equivalent of a vast sum of money (about £60,000 today). Cooper had been trying to run a business on Great Cambridge Street, Hackney Road, which he’d started with just £9 a year earlier. By the end of the first year he was £500 in the red. By May 1860 things had got so bad that Henry decided his best move was to shirk his responsibilities and emigrate to New Zealand.

Naturally he didn’t inform his creditors of his decision and the first they heard of it was when their representatives turned up at his shop and found it boarded up and Cooper gone. They made some enquires and tracked him down to Liverpool where he’d booked passage to New Zealand on the Northern Bride. Henry had managed to pull together about £300 in gold and a further £700 in disposable goods to sell when he arrived.

It was a bold move and had it worked Cooper may well have made a new life for himself on the other side of the world. As it was the alderman magistrate committed him for trial for fraud and he lost his chance. He pleaded guilty at the Old Bailey and judgement was respited on the 37-year old. The Digital Panopticon has a life archive for a Henry Cooper which includes this case and suggests he died in 1876.

If this really is Henry then it shows what a strain prison and hard labour put on this man. He was just 53 when he died but he’d possibly quarried stone for several years and been locked up in the ‘separate system’ at Pentonville in a regime of ‘hard bed, hard fare, hard labour’.  I feel kind of sorry for Henry; yes he was a fraudster but he was, in his own way, an entrepreneur of sorts.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, June 22, 1860]

Drug dealing in Rotherhithe, an age-old problem

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Most of the drugs that are prohibited by law today were legal in the nineteenth century but contemporaries recognized that there was a problem with drug use. Opium eating and smoking was widely condemned and attempts were made to restrict its use after 1868 by only allowing its sale by registered pharmacists. However, it wasn’t until 1908 that opium, morphine, cocaine, and some morphine derivatives were classified as ‘poisons’.

Most of the concern was with alcohol, not recreational drugs, and the real moves against cocaine, cannabis, psychedelics and heroin came well into the twentieth century.  Cocaine was prohibited in 1916 amid concerns about its use in the armed forces, and after the First World War Britain had to take steps to introduce a dangerous act under the terms of the Hague Convention in 1920 and later when we became a full member of the League of Nations. Amphetamines were not controlled until 1964, heroin three years later, while cannabis (which had been banned as an amendment to the Dangerous Drugs Act in 1928) use grew in the 1960s and many prosecutions followed.

Nineteenth-century London didn’t have a problem with drugs but there were prosecutions in relation them. In June 1883 William Dell, a druggist’s assistant, was brought up at the Guildhall Police court accused to stealing over £25 worth of drugs from his employer. In today’s money the amount he’d stolen (£25-30) would be around £2,000, so it was not an inconsiderable sum.

We have no idea from the report exactly what drugs Dell was supposed to have taken from Messrs. Evans, Lescher, and Webb at 60 Bartholomew Close, or whether he was planning on selling them around Rotherhithe where he lived. His lodgings on Ilderton Road were raided after he was searched by the pharmacy manager as he left work.

Mr. Forsyth (the manager) said all employees were subjected to a search after a stock take revealed that chemicals were missing. Dell was clean but he hadn’t got his usual bag and when that was brought down about £2 worth of drugs were discovered inside. Much more of the company’s property was discovered when lodgings were searched.

In court Dell pleaded guilty and asked the magistrate to deal with him summarily, so he could avoid a jury trial and a stiffer sentence. Alderman Fowler acceded to his requests and sent him to prison for four months at hard labour.

Everyone will have their own opinion of drug prohibition. Today there is a well-established drug culture in Britain which has survived 100 years of attempts at restricting it. While many young (and older) people die of drug-related conditions and many more suffer from the mental health related effects of non-prescription drugs, the main consequence of 100 years of prohibition has been to criminalize tens of thousands of drug users and to allow a criminal network of drug pushers to develop. Just as the 18thamendment to the Constitution of the United States in effect created the Mafia, the banning of recreational drugs has created the gang culture and levels of organized crime in the UK (and abroad) that we see today.

People will take drugs, and people will be damaged by taking drugs, but there is nothing the state can do to prevent this happening by prohibition. Education and a safe (or safer) environment for drug use is the only way that society can hope to beat addiction and the crime that flows from it.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, June 21, 1883]

An expensive day out in the capital for two east midlands butchers

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The Metropolitan Meat Market at Smithfield 

The City of London actively policed the market at Smithfield so as to protect the citizens of the capital from the ill effects of diseased meat. Prosecutions were brought to the Guildhall Police court by the Commissioners of Sewers who used inspectors backed up by doctors from the Medical Board of Health. Those caught selling or supplying meat deemed unfit for human consumption could expect hefty fines.

The process means that we get a rare chance to see how the meat trade operated in the late nineteenth century when of course nearly all animals were farmed outside of London (as it true today). In the earlier part of the century farmers would have driven their cattle into London to be sold at Smithfield and then slaughtered in the East End but drovers were increasingly being prevented from driving cattle and sheep though the crowded city streets, which were dominated by pedestrians, omnibuses, and cabs by 1889.

There were two prosecutions at Guildhall on the 19 June 1889 when Alderman Phillips was in the magistrate’s chair.

The first was John Stafford, a butcher from Wharf Street in Leicester who had sent four pieces of beef to the market on the 16 may that year. These had been inspected and found to be unfit. Stafford pleaded his innocence saying the meat was fine when he’d dispatched it but Dr Sedgewick of the Board of Health disagreed. He testified that he’d seen the meat and it was:

 ‘wet and emaciated, was very dark, and had a very offensive odour. It had’, he added, ‘the appearance of coming from an animal that had been ill for some time’.

The butcher had been brought south by an officer from the Leicestershire constabulary, detective-sergeant George Crisp, who had been asked to make inquiries by the Commissioners in London. Stafford said he’d bought the animal at a local fair then had killed it, and prepared the cuts himself.  The alderman was convinced the butcher had known the meat was bad and fined him a huge sum – £60 (£15 for each piece) – and added 3 guineas costs on top.

The next defendant was also from the east midlands. Francis Height was a butcher who gave his address as Polebrook in Northamptonshire. He was accompanied by Dennis Andrews, an police inspector in the Northants constabulary.

Height had sent a sheep to the market for sale and this had been seized by one of the market inspectors. Dr Saunders, for the Board, said the animal suffered from a lung disease and the meat was not fit to be eaten by people. The Northampton man admitted sending the sheep but again declared that he thought the meat was fine when he let it go. It was no defense and he was fined £20 and costs.

So that day the Commissioners of Sewers and the Guildhall court pulled in £80 in fines, a whopping £6,500 in today’s money. That would have bought you eight cows in 1889 so those butchers had a very expensive trip to the ‘smoke’ that week.

[from The Standard, Thursday, June 20, 1889]

The boy that tried to set fire to the Bank of England

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The Royal Exchange and Bank of England

(you can see the railings and the gas lamps on the left hand side) 

PC Batchelor was on his beat in Threadneedle Street at one in the morning when he saw smoke coming through the railings by the Bank of England. Was the ‘old lady’ on fire? He quickly discovered a fire at the base of column that connected to one of the gas lamps that lit the street. As the policeman set about tackling the small blaze he saw a figure leap over the railings and run off.

He ran after the escapee and collared him. His quarry was a young lad of 13 named Michael Buckley. He arrested him and took him before the magistrate at Mansion House in the morning.

The boy explained that he and several other lads had taken to sleeping rough within the boundaries of Bank and tended to curl up near the base of the lamp columns. They dragged in straw to make beds that were a little more comfortable than the hard stone floors or pavements. I imagine this was their version of the cardboard boxes that modern homeless people use to create a crude mattresses.

However, Micheal told the Lord Mayor (who presided as the City’s chief magistrate) that one of the lads had fallen out with the others and left, but had set fire to the straw bedding ‘in revenge’.

The court heard that had the fire melted the pipe that carried gas to the  street light ‘much damage might have been caused to the interior of the building’, hence the paper’s overlay dramatic headline that read:

Setting fire to the Bank of England’.

The Bank was not inclined to prosecute the lads for their trespassing but this didn’t stop the Lord Mayor – Sir Thomas Dakin – from sending the lad to prison for a week at hard labour. He said something had to be done to prevent boys from sleeping rough on the Bank’s property but his concern seemed to be with the potential risks of fire or other damage, not with the poor lads’ welfare.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, June 19, 1870]