A ‘miserable lad’ and a ‘monster’: contrasting fortunes revealed in the press

57 Coke works & Pickford's c1840 edited

The Regent’s Canal in the early 1840s

On Saturday night my wife and I were crossing Blackfriars Bridge in the early evening. We were on our way to eat out at a fancy restaurant on the south side of the Thames on what was a lovely early autumn evening. The Thames was lit up and locals and tourists were strolling back and forth across the river and along the embankment. As we passed one of the inset buttresses of the bridge I noticed the rescue equipment attached the wall and, close by, a notice from the Samaritans offering a phone number for anyone in distress.

This was a reminder that people still jump from bridges like Blackfriars as they have done for centuries. It’s easy to do, there is little to stop you on Blackfriars for example and the pages of the Victorian press regularly recorded the discovery of floating corpses or the efforts of the police and passers-by to drag distraught ‘jumpers’ from the water.

Not everyone chose the Thames however, as this case shows.

Joseph Davis was described in court as ‘miserable, half-starved, and wretchedly clad’. A young man, Joe was down on his luck and at 10 o’clock on the 23 October 1846 PC 323K found him climbing the parapet of a bridge over the Regent’s Canal. As the policeman watched the lad launched himself into the water and the bobby had to rush to get help in dragging him out again.

Fortunately medical help was swiftly found and after a good meal Joseph was locked up overnight in the station house and taken before Mr Bingham at Worship Street Police court. The policeman said he knew the lad and one of his brothers, so a messenger was dispatched to find him and bring the family together to support the poor boy. Hopefully this was a one-off and Joseph Davis went on to lead a happy life.

Sadly this was not the case for the next person Mr Bingham saw that day. The newspaper reporter described William Clarke as ‘a monster’ and it sounds to have been well deserved. The ‘respectable’ watchmaker was brought up from the cells on a charge of rape and additional charges of sexual assault. He was committed to Newgate to take his trial at the Old Bailey.

The report of that trial in the Proceedings is scant; it merely records that he was found guilty and sentenced to transportation for life. As with nearly all cases of indecent assault and rape the details were withheld from the public, for fear of corrupting morals. One fact was recorded however: Clarke’s victim was his daughter Ann, who was just 12 years of age. Moreover her younger sister (not named) had also been assaulted by her father.

So that day the magistrate had two very different cases to deal with and both have disturbing echoes to our own ‘modern’ society as stories of child abuse and suicidal teenagers continue to dominate the newspapers.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly London Newspaper, Sunday, October 25, 1846]

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