Yesterday’s post concerned the disorderly and violent behaviour of youth gangs in late nineteenth-century London. Given that it is still something Londoners are worried about (only this week there was a report of more stabbings and a shooting in south London) I’m bound to wonder if this is a new phenomenon, or sadly just a continuation of a form of bad behaviour that has existed for decades, if not centuries.
Perhaps today it is the fact that violence is so often associated with teenagers and young men in the early 20s that is so shocking; the waste of young life makes it all the more tragic. But everyday violence on the street is always (or should always) be shocking, simply because there is never any justification for it. If the court reports from the Victorian period are in any way an accurate guide to that society we can also be sure that mindless and routine violence was every bit a part of daily life then as it seems to be now.
In August 1855 Frederick Mountford, a provisions merchant, was walking home from work along Shepperton Road in Islington. It was about six in the evening and Mountford was looking forward to his tea. Up ahead of him he saw two men, one younger and one older, having an argument. As he approached he witnessed the younger one, who seemed rather the worse for drink, strike the other, knocking his pipe from his mouth.
As the victim staggered away his assailant pursued him, seized him around the waist and wrestled him to the pavement where he proceeded to beat him. When he began to kick him in the head Mountford rushed up to stop him, earning a mouthful of abuse for his trouble:
‘You ______’, the man said, ‘I will serve you the same way’, carrying out his threat immediately and knocking the merchant senseless to the ground.
Mountford was saved by the intervention of another young man who arrived and punched his attacker hard in the face. Two nearby witnesses called the police and the man was led away to face a hearing at Clerkenwell Police court in the morning.
James Bright was described in the paper as ‘ a short, thick-set ruffian’. The magistrate (Mr Tyrwhitt) praised the young man who’d helped capture him. His name was Charles Miller and he explained that he would have happily have thumped Bright multiple times had he not ‘sprained my thumb with the first blow’.
‘Then you did not approve of his brutal conduct?’ Mr Tyrwhitt enquired.
‘I did not, sir’, Miller replied, ‘and I would have given him a good trimming; such vagabond roughs deserve it’.
The court heard from the witnesses who had seen the assault on the pipe man and the merchant unfold from their windows, and was told that Mr Mountford was still recovering from the beating he had sustained.
After commending Miller for ‘his courage’ the magistrate turned to the prisoner in the dock.
‘Such as you imagine that you can “run a-muck” indiscriminately in the public streets. You will have to pay a fine of £5, or go to two month’s hard labour’.
The ruffian didn’t have £5 (which was almost a month’s wages for a skilled tradesmen in 1855, and probably more like 2 or 3 months’ pay for young Bright) so he was led back to the cells and taken away in the van to start his sentence.
[from The Morning Post (London, England), Wednesday, August 22, 1855]