Bullying, touts and the London cab trade: the forgotten role of the waterman  

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You might be forgiven for thinking that a London waterman was someone that worked on the river in the Victorian period. This is certainly what these men did in the 1700s but by the nineteenth century the cabmen of the Thames had almost entirely disappeared from the water. Instead they set themselves up at hansom cab stands across the city, providing water for the horses and opening doors to assist fares to and from the streets. They earned a living from the cabbies (who paid for the water) and the passengers (who tipped them for their service).

Watermen don’t seem to have had a particularly good reputation however.  In 1853 Charles Manby Smith painted a comic and somewhat melancholic picture of them: poor, disheveled, the but of the cabbies’ jokes, standing out in all weathers, frequently splashed by ‘mud and mire’. Life was hard for the waterman and not infrequently short.

But perhaps this case demonstrates that watermen had a little more power than Smith credits them with, and suggests that they could, to some degree at least, control which cab drivers were able to ply their trade successfully.

In November 1847 John Cooke was charged with assault at Bow Street Police court. On the previous evening he’d been working as a waterman on the Strand, keeping the pitch at the Spotted Dog rank where two cabs were stood. Cooke helped a fare into the second cab, ignoring the one in front and presumably dispending with cab etiquette.

The driver of the first cab, Edward White, complained at this and asked him what he was doing. Cooke replied that he could ‘do what he chose and if [White] was cheeky he should not have a fare all night’.

White must have said something to him because the waterman now strode over to the cab and thrust his fist through the window, smashing it, and then hit the driver and dragged him out onto the street. He started to beat him up before a policeman intervened and arrested him.

In court the story was told and Mr Hall ordered Cooke to pay a fine of 40(with the threat of 14 days in prison if he did not) and added compensation of 1s 8d for White for the damage done to his cab window. Two of Cooke’s fellow watermen tried to argue that the cabbie had made up the story but the magistrate didn’t believe them. In terms of social status the policeman and hansom drivers were a class above the watermen who stood by the road and watered the horses, and Mr Hall wasn’t about to take their side. The papers described Cooke as ‘one of those persons known as “bucks” and “touts”’, suggesting his actions were well-known but not approved of.

So did watermen have some power here? Was this an example of them trying to extract some more money from the cabbies, or being used by certain cab drivers to control who got fares and where? The Strand would have been a prime position for hansoms after all, with its proximity to London’s clubs and theatres. Do doormen today have a role in which drivers get which fares? Do they get tips? Was this all part of the informal economy of Victorian London  and does it still exist?

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, November 19, 1847]

A young lad is ‘too sharp for his prosecutors’, and swallows the evidence

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Mrs Sarah Cameron ran a tobacconist shop on the Broadway in Westminster, central London. One evening in November 1840 a young man  called William Meeton entered the ‘snuff and tobacco’ shop and asked for a cigar. He handed over half a crown and she gave him the cigar and his change (which consisted of ‘two shillings and four pennyworth of halfpences’).

Meeton scraped up the coin but after examining carefully it ‘threw down a shilling alleging it was bad’. He accused the tobacconist of trying to fob him off with forgeries but Mrs Cameron was sure the coins she had handed over were fine, and she said so. Now she suspected him of committing a crime and called for a policeman who soon arrived and arrested the lad.

William Meeton was charged at Queen’s Square Police Court with uttering – a variant of the wider crime of coining and forgery. While forging meant making false notes (and coming, fake coins), uttering described the practice of using or distributing counterfeit money.

The magistrate demande to see the coin in question. Sadly Mrs Cameron didn’t have it. Why not, Mr Burrell asked?

The young man had swallowed it she told him, along with several other shillings he had in his possession. It was a common enough ploy to get rid of the evidence (albeit temporarily). The chief usher of the Police Court informed his worship that that the accused was ‘well known’ to the court, which would have counted against him. However, without the proof that the shillings were bad there was little the justice could do. After some conferring Mr Burrell and his clerk agreed that no case could be made without the coins as evidence.

He turned to Meeton and told him that while today he ‘had been too sharp for his prosecutors’ his card was marked, and warned him about his future conduct. He was discharged, presumably to find the nearest privy!

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, November 18, 1840]

NB a half-crown was worth 2 shillings and 6 pence so you can work out for yourselves just how much Mrs Cameron was selling her cigars for. No age is given for Meeton but this wouldn’t matter anyway in the context of the 19th century. There was no age restriction on buying or selling tobacco to minors until 1933. It still isn’t illegal for children to smoke but under 16 it is subject to parental control. 

Interfering mothers-in-law at Westminster give the ‘beak’ a headache

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Some of the cases that came before the Police Court magistrates seem particularly unimportant or trivial. It must have been quite frustrating, if not downright annoying, to have to listen to a never ending stream of petty disputes and grumbles on a daily basis, but moments of humour will probably have helped to lift the mood.

On the morning of the 16 November 1888 while Francis Tumblety (a suspect in the Ripper murders case) was being bailed at Marlborough Street, a young wife appeared at Westminster in answer to a summons taken out against her by her husband.

No names were given (perhaps to protect the couple and give them a chance to ‘move on’ with their lives) but they were newly wed and, it seems, barely mature enough for this life-long commitment.

The wife – described as a ‘mere girl’ – broke down in the dock, ‘cried and seemed greatly distressed’. She had been summoned for attacking her husband with a broom (which caused much laughter in the courtroom). She denied doing so and said she loved him and wouldn’t never hurt him.

However this public investigation into their married revealed the influence of each of the couple’s mothers, both of whom seemed unable to let their offspring go.

The husband was just 21 years of age and a sorter in the Post Office. Recently his mother had encouraged him to come back to his old home and declared that ‘the poor boy looked  bad’; implying that she (and not his wife) needed to look after him properly.

The poor wife complained that while he earned nearly a pound a week she was struggling to cope with paying the rent, and managing the family budget on the 13 a week he gave her. My students struggle to cope with their first year away from home, why should we expect it to be that much easier for Victorian newlyweds on a similarly limited income?

The situation was not helped by the fact, revealed in court, that the wife’s mother lived with them. She was a nurse and it was inferred that she was staying close to them as her daughter was pregnant. Had they married because she was with child? It is not unlikely.

In denying that she’d hit her partner with a broom the young wife did admit that she was ‘subject to fainting fits’. She explained that ‘when I have felt myself “going off” I may have seized my husband’s wrists and dug my nails into his flesh “unconsciously”‘.

The magistrate, (Mr Partridge) waived her away. Her husband had not attended to press the summons nor had he declared his intention to renew it. So as far as he was concerned it was at an end. He hoped that she would go home to him and advised them to ‘make up their differences’. As for her mother-in-law, he urged her to ‘live apart from them, and not interfere’.

If this marriage was going to work it required both mothers to accept that their children were adults now, with their own lives to lead.

[from The Standard, Saturday, November 17, 1888]

Milking it in at Hyde Park

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If you visit Hyde Park this weekend you will see many things: couples strolling arm in arm, dog owners walking their pets, cyclists clad in lycra and joggers sipping from water bottles; there will be ducks and geese and squirrels, and plenty of pigeons; and of course at this time of year there will crowds of people attending the Winter Wonderland.

What you are very unlikely to see is cattle. However, in 1829 cows grazed on the parklands, reminding us that early nineteenth-century London was a lot more rural than we might expect.

Cows were pastured on the grass by the ‘cow keepers’ who helped supply milk to the thirsty population of London in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Research has shown that there was a herd of about 30-40 cows in the park and that other herds were grazed across the capital and on its perimeter. Of course as London expanded much of the green space was gradually built upon and by the middle of the 1800s many of these herds were disappearing. The Victorian period also experienced a change in the tolerance of animals on the city streets and increasingly cattle and sheep were directed away from centres such as Smithfield to the outskirts of London. This has been described as ‘improvement’ by historians.

In 1829 one man was clearly enjoying the benefits of having milk cows nearby. Joseph  Nicholas had taken to milking the cows himself under cover of night and taking home a couple of bottles for himself and his family.

This did not go unnoticed by the cow keepers who began  to suspect that the dwindling yield form some of their animals was not occasioned by a problem with the animals themselves. They contacted the police (quite possibly Peel’s newly created body) and set them to watch the park at night.

Sure enough, in mid November 1829 at 10 at night two officers saw a man waking in the park. It was Nicholas and they stopped and asked him his business.

‘Halloa there’, they enquired, ‘what are you doing?”

‘Nothing particular’ the middle aged man replied, ‘only inhaling a little fresh air, for the benefit of my health’.

The constables thought it an odd time to be taking the air so they searched him. In either of his long coat pockets they found a bottle of warm milk, freshly squeezed from the teats of one the fine beasts in the park. They arrested him and presented the man at Queen’s Square Police court the next day.

Nicholas was very sorry for what he’d done and promised not to reoffend in future. The magistrate, Mr Gregorie, was anxious to hear from the cow keepers to see if they wished to press charges. So poor old Nicholas was remanded in custody for a couple of days.

Nicholas doesn’t feature in the Old Bailey Proceedings or in the records that survive for those transported in the 1800s. So perhaps his apology was enough or maybe when he reappeared Mr Gregories handed down a small fine. His actions were hardly a major crime and were probably replicated up and down rural England in the 1800s. With the police on the case the cow keepers now had some chance to protect their stock, before that it seems the milk could be taken past their eyes without them even noticing…

[from The Morning Post, Monday, November 16, 1829]

 

“The last descendant of the Bruce”?: madness and the magistracy in mid Victorian London

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This is another example of mid-nineteenth century attitudes towards mental illness. At the time mental health was not as well understood as it is today but it seems to have been, if not as prevalent, then still quite significant as a societal problem.

Ms Wetherall (if indeed that was her real name) was quite well know to the staff and magistracy at Marlborough Street Police court. The respectably dressed middle-aged woman had appeared at the court to ask the magistrates’ advice on more than one occasion.

On her previous visit she had told the bench that she was about to be married to Earl of Carlisle and had been summoned by ‘various tradesmen’ upon she had imposed in order to get herself the necessary wedding outfit on credit, something they had declined to do.

In a separate incident  she apparently declared she was ‘the last descendent of the Bruce’ (meaning Robert the Bruce, the victor of the battle of Bannockburn and a Scottish national hero). She had made this extraordinary assertion outside the gates of Buckingham Palace and was led away by a policeman. The magistrate then had sent her to be assessed by the medical authorities in St Martin’s to see if she was quite in her right mind.

Now she appeared before Mr Hardwick (the parish officials at St Martin’s clearly not wanting anything to do with her) to make an application to retrieve some property that she claimed her former landlady was withholding from her. It was a common enough application for a magistrate to decide on but given her history Mr Hardwick chose to fob her off. He said that as she had previously applied for similar things to his colleague Mr Bingham, she would have to direct this application to him on the following Monday.

Ms Wetherell was unhappy with this decision as she said she may not be able to make Monday. She told the justice she was sailing to Australia on Monday and may well have already sailed by the time the court opened. Having stated her case she upped and left the court leaving everyone wondering what her story would be when she next appeared.  She was clearly suffering with some form of mental illness which Victorian society was unable to help. However, she was not abusive or dangerous, the nineteenth-century’s equivalent of the early modern ‘village idiot’ perhaps, so off she went, no doubt with the laughter of the court ringing in her ears.

[from The Morning Chronicle, 15 November, 1849]

‘Oh Freddy, where’s mammy?’: a tragedy on the Hackney Marshes

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This is a very sad story which really seems to have been the result of an accident rather than any intent on the part of the perpetrator. However, it is a useful reminder that the oft maligned Health & Safety laws we have established today are there for a reason.

John Squibb was a 24 year-old carman (the nineteenth century’s equivalent of a modern van driver). He was taking dust to Hackney Marshes to dispose of it. This was a daily task as the capital’s fires produced tonnes of unwanted waste which was collected weekly by dustmen. These characters have all but disappeared from our streets but I can remember  them back in the early 1970s, now they have been replaced by modern refuse operatives with their high viz jackets and automated collection vehicles. Modern ‘rubbish’ is more varied than the dust from fires and stoves that occupied most the trade in the 1800s.

Squibb drove his cart to Hackney Marshes and began to unload it into a prepared hole. I suppose this was the Victorian version of landfill; literally filling the earth with unwanted ashes and coal dust. As he worked a small group of children watched him, probably fascinated by the process but also keen to see if they could glean anything of value from the ‘rubbish’. As the illustration at the top of the page shows our poorer ancestors were obliged to scavenge from the rubbish pits in just the same way as we see in modern developing countries.

One of the children, three year-old Henry Walton, was standing close to the cart, too close in fact. His older brother was with him but possibly not looking after him as he should have been. As Squibb turned the cart to finish unloading it the wheel clipped little Henry and knocked him over. Before anyone could react quickly enough the cart moved forward, crushing the boy under the wheel.

The carman realised what had happened and rushed to drag the child out but it was too late. Henry cried out to his brother: ‘Freddy, where’s mammy?’, and died in Squibb’s arms. It was terribly sad but probably an accident and at Worship Street Police court that is how Mr Hannay saw it. He remanded Squibb so that the necessary checks could be made by the police and the licensing authorities but it was unlikely that the man would be prosecuted.

You have to wonder at a three year old being able to be on Hackney Marshes on a Friday morning with only other small children to supervise. We may have become overprotective of our children (to the extent that they hardly seem to pay outdoors at all) but incidents like this remind us of why some laws and controls are necessary. It is also a reminder of the poverty that existed in late Victorian London; many of these children would have been sent out to find things the family could use, eat or sell – this was recycling nineteenth-century style.

[from The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, 14 November, 1885]

‘Weel, your honour, I was three sheets to the wind, and that’s all about it’: A Tyneside collier in the Thames Police court

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The London press delighted in occasionally giving their readership a flavor of the drama that unfolded in the metropolitan police courts. There was plenty of pathos but also humour for balance, and if a reporter could poke fun at a regional or foreign accent, so much the better.

John Leslie was a seaman. He was master of the Sarah, a collier that brought coal down from the north east of England to unload at the London docks. It was a tough life but he was his own man and earned a decent wage for the fuel he delivered to the capital.

In early November 1863 he had unloaded his cargo and so he headed for pubs and lodging houses close by the docks, in Ratcliffe and Wapping. At some point, and it is not clear why, Leslie, much the worse for drink, went in search of his mother.

He turned up at the home of Mrs Elizabeth Farrier at 131 Wapping High Street, Banging on the door he demanded to be let in shouting ‘I want my mother!’ Mrs Farrier said that no one answering to his mother’s name lived there, he was mistaken and should go away. But John was determined and in his drunken rage he pushed past her into the house. As she tried to stop him he punched her in the face and swore at her.

The tumult alerted the house and Mrs Farrier’s neighbours and a policeman was summoned. PC Palmer managed to arrest Leslie and dragged him off to the station. The next morning he was stood in the dock at Thames Police court charged with violent assault.

In his defense a chastened Leslie said he was merely looking for his mother.

‘You should prosecute the search for your mother at reasonable hours, and when you are sober’,

the magistrate (Mr Partridge) admonished him.

‘Weel, your honour, I was three sheets to the wind, and that’s all about it’,

the man replied in a strong north eastern accent.

When asked if he had been ‘paid off’ Leslie countered that he was not a mere sailor but his own boss:

‘Eh mon! I am not paid off at all. I am master of my own ship’.

That didn’t do him any favours with the justice who, determining that he was a man of means (despite his rough appearance) fined 40for the assault, a considerable sum by the standards of assault prosecutions in the 1860s. However, Leslie was a ‘man of means’ and he paid the money immediately and went on his way leaving the mystery of his mother’s location unsolved.

[from The Globe, 13 November 1863]