The police magistrate as a teaching tool

Today was the first time that I’ve used this blog in my own teaching. I’ve discussed it at conferences and with colleagues but thus far I hadn’t exposed undergraduates to it.

I am coming to the end of a 10 week module for third year undergraduates at Northampton University which explores the social and cultural history of late Victorian London. It takes the 1888 Jack the Ripper murders as it focal point and verse off to look at a variety of interconnecting themes.

So we start with London in the late nineteenth century (the ‘infernal wen’) as the capital of Empire and the expanding metropolis that seemed to many contemporaries to represent everything they feared about society in the later 1800s. Here was a huge urban area, densely packed with hundreds of thousands of people, many drawn from outside of London, living cheek by jowl, and struggling for air beneath the coal smog.

Here were colourful migrants and visitors from every corner of the Empire and the globe, bringing the riches of other lands along with their culture, language and radical politics. Tensions rose with unemployment – a new word in the 1880s – and competition for space. So we explore the themes of immigration and anti-alienism as well as poverty, charity, and housing reform.

We look at the Ripper murders and the impact they had; at the way the press manipulated the story and how this fitted with other contemporary concerns about violence, prostitution, immorality and the plight of the poor. Hopefully the module challenges some preconceptions about the Victorian age (and about who might have been the ‘Ripper’) and next week we are tackling the mythology associated with the case and its impact on history and Ripperology, head on.

This week I chose to concentrate on the notion that a criminal ‘class’ existed in the Victorian period. This is how contemporaries like Henry Mayhew and James Greenwood described the ‘underclass’ (the residuum); a class below the ‘respectable’ and ‘honest’ working class who were eulogised in Ford Maddox Brown’s painting ‘Work’. These were the Londoners who ‘will not work’ and earned their living instead by thievery and deception.

We discussed how this view was created by writers like Mayhew and Greenwood (and others0 and perpetuated by a media driven by a  mix of sensationalism and early investigative journalism. I asked them to search through this blog to see the ways in which I’d interpreted the newspapers that contributed to the rhetoric of criminality and got some others to mine the database of nineteenth-century newspapers to discover the reportage of the police courts for themselves.

It was interesting to see my own research reflected back at me, (and to have my typos pointed out!) and to hear their own interpretations of what they read and found. I’m trying to use more digital resources in teaching as I recognise that this is how this generation access historical material. Where I once spent hours, days and weeks hunched over dusty volumes in a archive, the next cohort of historians are turning to the computer screen to make their own discoveries.

There’s a instant quality to this method of data searching but it all still requires context: some of the things they found didn’t make sense to them – in places I was able to draw on what is now over three years of looking at the London Police courts to help them make sense of it. In the end I thought it was a useful expertise which I will repeat next year, and perhaps in the spring with my second years (who study a longer broader period of crime history).

Ghostly goings on in Westminster : everybody needs good neighbours.

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The act of going to law was often a last resort, a necessary act to put an end to a problem that had resisted all attempts resolution. While it was sometimes suggested that the poorer classes enjoyed their ‘day in court’ it was equally observed that the middle classes feared the taint by association of appearing before a magistrate.

Mr Henry Payne seems to have been one of those who would rather not have resorted to law, and who was keen to avoid a repeat appearance. The respectable dyer was not in trouble with the police, instead he was the victim of persistent and escalating intimidation. The cause was unknown but the middle aged dyer, who lived in Rochester Row in Westminster, was pretty clear who was the culprit.

He blamed his young well-to-do neighbor, George Champion. For several weeks Mr Payne had been ‘annoyed by mysterious stone throwing’. When he tried to find out who was responsible his neighbour muttered darkly about his house being haunted, and this rumour soon spread amongst the other nearby occupants of Rochester Row.

Payne’s house was sandwiched between Champion’s and that of Mr Cocks, an undertaker. He too had suffered from stones and broken bricks being tossed into his back yard or small items hitting his windows. Both men had complained to the police who sent an officer to keep watch.

Payne had boarded his yard to protect his family from the missiles that sailed over, mostly during the night. His wife and children didn’t dare set foot out there, and poor Henry was going out of his mind with ‘the annoyance’.

Finally, when a large stone broke a skylight in his roof he had enough and opted to take legal action. He applied for a summons to bring Champion before the magistrate at Westminster Police court where he appeared, smartly and fashionably dressed, on the 28 November 1890.

Mr De Rutzen questioned all of those involved. Payne gave his evidence in a rush, clearly perturbed by the whole affair. Inspector Webber for the police, said that his men had seen nothing thrown but had felt one! This brought a moment of levity to the court as everyone imagined the poor policeman being struck by a ‘ghostly’ missile.

In the end, and probably because Mr Payne was reluctant to take it further and since Champion was clearly a member of the wealthier class, the justice opted for a ‘common-sense’ approach. He suggested that so long as the nuisance stopped there was no need to do anything else. Mr Payne was not asking for compensation for the skylight, he just wanted some peace from ‘the ghosts’. Champion walked free from court but with a reminder that if the stone throwing restarted Mr De Rutzen was very open to issuing a second summons, and then the dyer and his neighbours might not be so reasonable.

[from The Standard , Saturday, November 29, 1890]

“The girls sent me to see the guvnor”: a burglar’s weak excuse.

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Henry Morris was woken in the middle of the night by a cry from his brother. Getting up he noted that it was four in the morning and he shuffled his way downstairs and headed towards the kitchen of his house in Chicksand Street, Spitalfields, because that was where his sibling tended to sleep.

The house was home to Morris, who was a tailor, his family and another couple who used the shop at the front for their millinery business. He usually locked up before he retired for the night but on this occasion he’d neglected to secure the back door, which opened into a yard at the rear.

The tailor pushed open the kitchen door and peering in he saw a stranger moving about the room. Morris challenged the intruder, who said that ‘he had come to see the guv’nor’, adding that ‘the girls’ had sent him. Morris  shouted out for help, raising his wife and the people at the top of the house, and a policeman (PC George Tooth – 151H) was soon on the scene. The unwanted guest was searched but found to have nothing on him. Nor was anything missing from the house, but the police constable still escorted his charge back to the nearest station.

In the morning William Wren was presented at Worship Street Police court on a charge of ‘burglarously entering’ the premises with an intention to steal. Wren, who said he was a labourer, denied any attempt at burglary; he said ‘he’d only lifted the latch and walked in’. He added that he had been taken to the house by two women he’d picked up (the mysterious ‘girls’ mentioned earlier) and had been drinking.

Mr Bushby didn’t care much for his explanation, there was little legal distinction in his mind. In his opinion Wren was an opportunist thief who, but for Morris’ intervention, may well have pocketed what he could find from amongst the possessions of the house’s occupants.

PC Tooth also thought that Wren was up to no good. He’d found a rope outside which would have allowed Wren to drop down into the yard behind the Morris’ property. This opinion was shared by a detective attached to H Division who also stated that he was sure he knew Wren as a previous offender. The magistrate wanted to check this information as it would certainly influence his decision making. As a precaution he remanded the labourer in custody for a few days so enquiries could be made.

It seems the hunch that Wren was a criminal was correct. In his trial at the Old Bailey in mid December the suggestion that he was a little drunk was brought up in his defence but did him no good. The jury found him guilty of breaking in with intent to steal and he confessed to his previous conviction from May 1884. Having been in court just seven months earlier under a different name (John Gregg) he could expect no mercy from the judge. He was soon led away to start a five year sentence of penal servitude, despite having stolen absolutely nothing – on this occasion at least.

[from The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, 28 November 1885]

The mad lady and the Queen

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In 1871 Queen Victoria had been on throne for 34 years. Her husband Albert had been dead for a decade and she was yet to adopt the title of Empress of India. Victoria had a big influence on her subjects but her withdrawal from much of public life following the loss of her consort increasingly isolated her from public affection. 1870 had seen the overthrow of the French monarchy and the creation of the Third Republic, dark echoes in England called for a similar revolution, one that never transpired. In late November Victoria’s eldest son, Albert Edward, fell ill with typhoid (probably the same disease that had killed his father) and Victoria must have feared she would lose him as well.

Meanwhile, for ordinary Londoners life went on as usual. The ‘widow of Windsor’ was almost an abstract concept since she’d ducked out of view but her name, and what she symbolised, mattered  considerably.

It certainly mattered to an elderly seamstress called Mrs Lyons. She told the magistrate at Clerkenwell that she had been promised work by her Majesty but ‘court intrigues’ were preventing her from pursuing it. Mrs Lyons lived off the Caledonian Road in north London, close to where the new St Pancras terminal was being constructed. She was poor and in ‘want of money’ she explained, but was confident that with the queen’s patronage she would be fine.

Sadly Mrs Lyons was not very well; she suffered from some form of mental illness, as a police inspector told Mr Cooke, the justice sitting on her case at Clerkenwell Police Court.

‘About two years since the poor woman began to get strange at times in her speech, said that her room was full of rats, that she had an interview with the Queen and members of the royal family, and that her Majesty had promised her money, but that she was prevented from getting it by court intrigues’ .

He went on to say that up until recently Mrs Lyons had lived quietly but in the last few months her condition had worsened and she had started threatening people, including her landlady. A doctor had been called to examine her and he’d declared she was ‘not right in her head’ and she’d been carried off to Islington workhouse. From there she was to be sent to the Colney Hatch Asylum, Europe’s largest such institution.

She had left her room with rent arrears and her landlady was refusing to give her sister leave to take away her sibling’s few possessions until that was paid. Mr Cooke said he was glad the woman was now in safe hands (although I’m not sure I’d consider being in the ‘care’ of a Victorian asylum ‘safe’. I suppose he might have meant the public were safe from her). He ordered the court to pay the arrears so she could be reunited with her ‘things’ and dismissed the case.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, November 28, 1872]

for another story that features Queen Victoria see: “Let me see the Queen, I know who the ‘Ripper’ is!”

 

Little boys should not play with guns: a cautionary tale from West Ham

Vintage engraving from 1864 of showing a victorian Revolver

William Slade wasn’t a bad lad but like many nine year old boys he was fascinated with guns. His father kept a loaded revolver in his desk and, while he was supposed to keep this locked he had lost the key some time ago. William knew where the gun was and in November 1885 he took it out of the drawer to play with.

On the 18 November he took the pistol down to the river bank at Plaistow where he showed it off to his friends who used it to shoot at the pigeons and wildfowl. He must have enjoyed being the centre of attention so the next day he and his mates were back by the river again, getting through his father’s arsenal of 30 live cartridges.

At half past one he was back at school where no doubt more small children wanted to see the now famous weapon in action. William loaded the chamber with a fresh bullet and thought he’d carefully fixed the firing hammer so it couldn’t go off.

But then tragedy struck. He was ‘swinging the revolver about when it went bang’. A boy next to him fell to the ground and William rushed off home to his father. In the meantime the stricken lad, another nine year-old named Henry Leach, was taken to Poplar Hospital where he died of his wounds.

When William admitted what he’d Mr Slade took him by the arm and delivered him to the police station to face the music. Inspector Golding  attended the inquest into Henry Leach’s death where a verdict of misadventure was recorded.

Later that month father, son and police inspector were all present at West ham Police court to hear the magistrate (Mr Phillips) express his sorrow for the death of Henry and the trauma suffered by both families. As the coroner had determined that the death was an accident he discharged William into the care of his father.

One hopes that Mr Leach secured the revolver and young William never handled a gun again.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, 26 November, 1885]

A fruity case: a man sacrifices his character for ‘a trumpery consideration’.

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Mr Adams had employed George Groves in his warehouse for 14 years. In that time the man had been a model employee, never late, never any trouble, always carrying out his work loading and unloading fruit, efficiently and without any hint of dishonesty. Adams’ wholesale fruiterers operated from premises in Pudding Lane (where the Great Fire had started over 200 years earlier) and supplied all manner of produce to the markets, shops and restaurants of the capital.

Groves was paid reasonable well: he earned 4a day basic, but could make this up to 6s with overtime. As a senior member of staff he had the owner’s trust and the ‘greatest confidence was placed in him’. In short George Groves was just the sort of chap every small businessman wanted: honest, reliable and loyal.

So it must have come as a tremendous shock and personal betrayal to find that his man had stolen from him. It must have been tempting when working with easily disposable items such as apples, oranges and the occasional exotic pineapple, for a worker to snaffle something into a pocket to take home for the wife and kids, or indeed to munch themselves. But Groves had filched 5lbs of grapes which he had hidden (not very well it turned out) ‘about his person’.

He was walking home from work on Friday night when something about his appearance or movements alerted the suspicions of a City police constable  on Fish Street Hill. The officer stopped him and searched him, finding the grapes. He marched him back to Pudding Lane where the foreman identified the fruit as being missing. Groves was arrested and held overnight in the cells before being taken before the Lord Mayor in the morning.

At Mansion House Groves admitted his crime but could provide no explanation for it. The grapes sold at retail for 6d per pound (making them about £1.50 per pound in today’s money) but he reckoned he’d have only realised 1d so it was hardly worth his while). It was so out of character and the Lord Mayor was amazed that a man would ‘sacrifice [his] character for such a trumpery consideration’. The crime was theft but the justice was feeling charitable on the grounds of his previous good conduct. He decided to convict him of unlawful possession, which was a lesser offence and carried a punishment of seven day’s hard labour.

If Mr Adams (as was likely) refused to take him back afterwards then the period of imprisonment was the least of his troubles. For a man in his 30s or 40s, most probably with a family, to find himself unemployed a month before Christmas with little or no chance now of getting a letter of recommendation finding such well paid work would be difficult. If he was lucky he’d find casual labour, if not he was staring at the prospect of the workhouse.

All for what, a large bunch of grapes?

[from The Morning Post, 24 November, 1873]

The odds are stacked against a young wife at the mercy of her cruel and abusive husband

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This week my undergraduate students at Northampton have been looking at marital violence in history. I’ve set them reading by a variety of historians that will (hopefully) allow them to look at the way spousal abuse was perpetrated and prosecuted in the 18th and 19th centuries. Much of it was predicated on the prevailing ideology of patriarchy.

English society in the 1800s was fundamentally male dominated. Men held all the positions of power (save one, that of monarch after 1837) and women were effectively excluded from most decision-making.

All the Police Court magistrates I write about were men, as were all the judges and jurors at the Old Bailey. Policeman were exclusively male, most other parish officials were men, and almost all senior employers were male as well. In the household the man was dominant too; while the ‘rule of thumb’ can be over-stressed men did have (or believed they had) the right to discipline their wives and children if they thought it necessary.

Police Court magistrates dealt with a huge amount of domestic violence, nearly all of it directed at the wives or common-law partners of working-class males. Men like James Bridgeman clearly believed they were entitled to hit their wives. This had been instilled in them from childhood as they witnessed their fathers beating their mothers for the most trivial of reasons. Often the men were drunk and simply resented being questioned as to the time they were coming in. On other occasions they complained about the food they’d been presented with, or about how long they’d had to wait to get it.

Abuse was frequent but women less frequently did much about it. Some fought back and London women were a tough lot by most accounts. But the scales were hardly balanced and years of abuse took its toll. Some wives fled, others were cowed and suffered up in silence. A few took their husbands before a magistrate, often hoping he would give them a divorce. It was a forlorn hope; justices had no power to permanently separate married couples.

Many, presented with the choice of seeing their abusive husband go to prison for beating them chose instead to take them back, fearing worse punishment if they didn’t or a worsening of their economic situation (and that of their children) if he was ‘sent down’. A ‘bad’ husband was sometimes better than no husband at all some must have reckoned.

James Bridgeman was a ‘bad husband’. He beat his young wife often despite them being relatively newly wed. He had spent two ‘unhappy years’ married to Ellen, as she told the Police Court magistrate at Clerkenwell. Then, one day in November 1884 things got worse.

On the 10 November they quarrelled and Ellen left to go back to her mother in Elsted Street, Walworth. On the next morning James turned up at his mother-in-law’s house and asked Ellen to come back to the family home in Newington Causeway.

She refused and he asked her if she would at least go to court to ‘get a separation’. ‘No, I have not got time’ was her reply. The next thing she felt was a sharp pain in her neck as her husband stepped her with his clasp knife.

The witnesses that saw the attack or saw him before he stabbed her said the knife was already open; he had intended this violence or anticipated her rejection at least. She was saved by the appearance of her mother and another man who pulled Bridgeman off her.

As James ran off, Ellen was taken to the police station where her wound was dressed. Soon afterwards James gave himself up at the station and Ellen charged him with the attack on her. In court before the Clerkenwell magistrate Ellen deposed that he had threatened her when he visited her at her mother’s.

He told her: ‘If you don’t live with me, I’ll do for you’.

The magistrate first remanded him then committed him for trial at the Old Bailey. There Bridgeman tried to claim that his wife stayed out late and was ‘living an immoral life’. It was an easy slur to make and Ellen vehemently denied it.

He also tried to argue that it was an accident, that Ellen had walked into him as he was using his knife to trim his nails. She had a inch deep cut in her neck and bruising around her throat where he had grabbed her.  Bridgeman had told the police and the magistrate that he acted as he had because he was entitled to do so, and this was reported in court.

Why had he stabbed her?

‘Only for her stopping out all night as she has done I should not have done what I have done’, was his defence.

It was the defence of all violent abusive men in the 1800s. The jury found him guilty of lesser offence than that with which he was charged. He was young (just 22) and the judge respited sentence. In the end he seems to have gone unpunished, no record exists that I can find of any sentence, so maybe some leniency was shown to him. The fact that the police surgeon didn’t think Ellen’s wounds were ‘dangerous’, and she recovered soon afterwards probably helped his cause. And the fact that the jury was male and he had publicly accused her of being a disobedient spouse.

I hope that ultimately she escaped him, because the chances are that such a brutish man would be quite prepared to make good on his threat in the future.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, November 23, 1884]