I start teaching my third year module on London in the late nineteenth century, which looks at crime, popular culture and social history in the 1880s. It will be the 10th year since I devised this module and its run in 9 of those. Over the years it has evolved and I’ve developed the context and assessments but the focus remains the same: using the ‘Jack the Ripper’ murders of 1888 as a prism through which to explore a range of contemporary topics. It prompted my 2010 book (London’s Shadows) and my continuing interest in the ‘Ripper’ case.
While the Ripper case dominated ‘crime news’ in 1888 the police courts continued almost as if nothing was happening in the East End. The same range of petty thefts, domestic and public violence, fraudulent scams, drunks, disorderly prostitutes, and vagrants continued to be the stock of most lower court reports.
So take today in 1888 for example, the first case (from Bow Street) featured an elderly man who had tried to pass counterfeit currency in a central London pub. He was caught along with two accomplices and remanded in custody. Over at Westminster Police court two newspaper sellers were prosecuted for robbing a man in the street. Francis Hoare (a pub landlord on a visit to the capital) had fallen over in the street. William Turner and Edward Lynch rushed to help but then used that as cover to lift his pocket watch; both men were ‘known’ to the police and the magistrate remanded them for further enquires.
Across the river Thames at Greenwich Police court Thomas Pettitt was accused of mistreating a horse. Mr Sheil was told that Pettitt, a potato dealer, had been working a horse that was clearly ill. The case was brought by an officer of the RSPCA who testified that the beast was ‘suffering from several sores and partly fractured fetlocks’.
Pettitt’s poor defence was that he had only taken up dealing in potatoes recently; he was previously a draper, and didn’t understand horses. Mr Shiel countered that excuse with:
‘any fool must have known the horse was not fit for work’.
He added – the RSPCA’s officer – that in future individuals shouldn’t be summoned but instead they should be arrested and the animal impounded so a magistrate could look at it and come to an opinion about its state of health. That, he said, was ‘better than the evidence of the whole College of Veterinary Surgeons’ (which I doubt went down well with that august body of men).
Any inspection of the horse was now impossible as Pettitt told Mr Sheil he thought it was dead. The magistrate fined him £3 with 2s costs and gave him a week to find the money or he would send him to prison for a fortnight. London was served by thousands of horses in the Victorian period, and very many of them were simply worked till they dropped.
At that point their masters called for a horse slaughterer to dispatch them and this usually meant someone from the firm of Harrison & Barber, who held a virtual monopoly in the capital. Not surprisingly, as men used to cutting up animals, some of the first people the police questioned in the aftermath of Polly Nichol’s murder in August 1888 were slaughterer’s from the nearby Barber’s yard.
[from The Morning Post, Friday, October 05, 1888