Prison for the mother who couldn’t support her babies

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Today Haille Rubenhold’s new book on the five canonical victims of ‘Jack the Ripper’ is published in the UK. I’ve chatted with Haille about her work but haven’t read it yet. I am well aware that its publication (or at least the publicity surrounding its publication) has caused a stir and led to Haille being attacked in some quarters by those that believe she has misrepresented ‘Ripperologly’ (the name given to the study of this, the most famous of all ‘cold cases’).

I haven’t read it yet (my copy is on order and I’ll review here when I have) but while I recognize very many people might be upset that she has (supposedly) claimed that the stories of the ‘Ripper’s’ victims have never been told when they have, I think it is also very good that an independent and credible researcher such as Haille has chosen to write about this topic. She had important things to say about prostitution, women’s lives, poverty and homelessness, and I’m keen to read it. She may not be as well informed on the details of the case as those that have studied it for decades and that may undermine some of her findings but she deserves to be ‘heard’.

She also deserves to be treated with respect, as do respected Ripperologists like Paul Begg. Name-calling is never appropriate. We can critique, argue and disagree with each other without chucking unpleasantness about.

One of issues Haille’s work highlights is the desperate poverty that women (and of course men) endured in Victorian London. This wasn’t something new in 1888, it was endemic throughout the 1800s. The magistrate courts could provide temporary relief for those caught in the poverty trap but they could just as frequently criminalize paupers, especially when outside agencies were involved.

Nance (or Nancy) Donovan was a pauper with two children who had only just got out of prison when she appeared before the Lord Mayor at Mansion House Police court in late February 1853. She stood in the dock, in ‘filthy rags’ and with one of her children – a babe in arms – clutched closely to her.

She should have perhaps inspired charity but there was no sympathy on display in the Lord Mayor’s courtroom that cold February morning. Nancy had been brought in from the streets by a City policeman after she’d been pointed out by a an officer from the Mendicity Society. Nancy had been begging from the steps at the end of King William Street with one child in front of her, the other in her arms. The suspicion was that she had drugged them both with laudanum so they looked ill and starving.

Of course Nancy denied this and begged the magistrate to let her off this time.

‘I’ll never bother yez any more if you let me off this once. Upon my sowl I wasn’t begging a farthing from anyone. I was only just sitting down to nurse the babby in this cowld weather, and sure enough it wanted a dhrop of suck’.

The Lord Mayor was unmoved, clearly believing that Nancy was a mendicant (a beggar) that was using and abusing her offspring to feed her idle lifestyle. He sent her to gaol once again, to bridewell for a months, and her children to the workhouse to be ‘cared for’ by the parish.

This was Victorian ‘justice’ and ‘welfare’ policy and it is hardly surprising that women turned to prostitution, alcohol and the streets, as Rubenhold’s important new study highlights.

[from The Standard, Monday, February 28, 1853]

My own study of the Whitechapel or ‘Jack the Ripper’ murders is due to be published in June 2019.

The parrot sketch is played out in Woolwich, to amusement of the court

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This is one of those cases that the newspapers probably chose to report because it would have amused their readership, so I hope it amuses you.

William Harris kept a parrot (a ‘parroquet’ as the reporter from The Standard described it in February 1888) at his house at Paget Road in Plumstead. In June 1887 the parrot disappeared and he saw and heard nothing of it until New Year’s Eve. Then he received intelligence that one of his near neighbours – Herbert Mackavoy, of 41 Llanover Road  – has somehow acquired a very similar bird at exactly the time his had vanished.

His suspicions aroused, Harris set off to confront his neighbour.

At first Mackavoy refused to let him see the parrot, demanding that he both describe it carefully and give some detail as what the bird could say (give parrots well-known ability as mimics). Harris described it as a young bird, not yet in full plumage when he’d lost it, and just beginning to moult. He said it knew the phrase ‘Polly wants her breakfast’ and the name ‘Toby’. When he saw the bird and recognized it as his own he demanded its return, and when Mackavoy refused he summoned him to court to settle the matter.

At Woolwich Police court several witnesses testified to seeing the parrot in the gardens between the two rival ‘owners’ houses, which were only 100 yards apart. William Mackavoy said his brother had caught the bird on the 3 June and thereafter Herbert had taught it to speak a great deal more than it had done previously.

Now it could say: ‘Oh dear doctor, Polly is sick; run for the doctor, quick, quick, quick’ and ‘the doctor’s gone away; why the Devil didn’t he stay?’

All of this caused laughter in the courtroom and the whole case was in danger of turning into a farce, something Mr Marsham had no desire to see. The magistrate could see that the bird was the property of Harris but that there was no real evidence that his neighbour had stolen it. The parrott should be returned he decided but since the Mackavoys had purchased a cage for it they should be compensated to its value, which was 10s.

The defendant’s solicitor tried to argue that a further 5should be billed to cover the keep of the parrot during the past eight months but Mr Marsham rejected that:

‘He [Mackavoy] has had the pleasure of its company’, he declared, ‘and that outsets the keep’.

In a gracious end to the case Herbert Mackavoy handed the 10s that Harris gave him back to the court and this was paid into the poor box to be distributed to the needy, those that couldn’t afford the luxury of a speaking pet.

[from The Standard, Monday, February 27, 1888]

‘The stench was horrible, and seemed as if from burnt bones or flesh’: the Spa Fields scandal of 1845

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Clerkenwell Police court was crowded on the morning of the 25 February 1845 and the magistrate must have quickly realized that local passions were running high. Most of those present either lived or worked in the near vicinity of Exmouth Street, close by the Spa Fields burial ground.

Burials no longer take place in Spa Fields and nowadays the gardens are an inner-city paradise on summer days as visitors eat their lunch, walk their dogs, or sunbathe on the grass. The London Metropolitan Archives is nearby and in Exmouth Market gourmands can enjoy a wide variety of food from the stalls and cafés that trade there.

The crowd in Mr Combe’s courtroom were represented by a pawnbroker and silversmith called Watts. He stepped forward to explain that he and his fellow ratepayers were there to seek an end to ‘practices of an abominable nature’ that had been taken place in the graveyard.

What exactly were these ‘abominable practices’?

The magistrate listened as  Mr Watts told him that while the burial ground was less than two acres in size and was estimated to be able to hold 3,000 bodies. In reality however, in the 50 years of its existence on average some 1,500 internments were taking place annually. In sum then, something like 75,000 people had been buried in a space for 3,000 and more and more burials were taking place, indeed there had recently been 36 in one day the pawnbroker said.

However, while the graveyard was crowded and this would have meant digging into extant graves and disturbing them, ‘not a bone was seen on the surface’. He (Mr Watts) would provide his Worship with evidence that the bodies of interned persons were routinely being dug up and burned to make room for fresh burials. Moreover many of those coffins removed were new, the wood ‘was fresh’ he added, and witnesses had seen human body parts hacked off by diggers.

The desecration of graves was one thing but the root of the complaint was actually the effect that this practice had on local people and their businesses. According to Watts:

‘The stench proceeding from what was called the “bone-house” in the graveyard was so intolerable that many of the residents in Exmouth–street, which abutted on the place, had been obliged to leave it altogether’.

Surely, the magistrate asked him, a prosecution could be brought against the parochial authorities that had responsibility for the place? Mr Watts said that the parish of St James’ was well aware of what was happening but were doing nothing to stop it.

‘The custom is’ he explained, ‘to disinter the bodies after they have been three or four days buried, chop them up, and burn them in this bone-house’.

Then he should certainly bring a charge against them Mr Combe advised. The clerk to the local Board of Poor Law Guardians was less sure however; since the burial ground was not subject to rates he didn’t think the parochial authorities could be held liable for it. The magistrate said that if the Guardians couldn’t interfere the matter should go to the Poor Law Commissioners and, if they didn’t not help, he would apply directly to the Homes Secretary (who, in February 1845, was Sir James Graham – a politician who, by his own admission, is only remembered by history as ‘the man who opened the letters of the Italians’ in the Mazzini case).

Police Inspector Penny (G Division) testified that he had visited the bone house after being presented with a petition signed by 150 locals.

He found ‘a large quantity of coffins, broken up and some of them burning…the smell was shocking, intolerable. There were coffins of every size there, children’s and men’s’.

The court heard from Reuben Room, a former gravedigger who’d left two year’s previously after ‘a dispute’. He said he’d often been asked to disinter bodies after a couple of days to make room for fresh burials. John Walters, who kept the Clerkenwell fire engine, gave evidence that he had twice had to attend fires at the bone house. He had found it hard to gain admission (suggesting that the authorities there were not keen for people to see what was going on inside) but when he had he’d seen ‘as many coffins as three men could convey, and a great deal of pitch was fastened to the chimney’ [i.e. blackening it], resulting from the burning of coffins.

The smell, he agreed, was ‘horrible, and seemed as if from burnt bones or flesh’. A large crowd had gathered that night and were ready to pull the place to the ground.

More witnesses came forward to testify to the horror of the bone house and the ‘abominable practices’ carried out there. Catherine Murphy, who lived in a house which overlooked the graveyard had seen grave diggers chop up a body with their shovels, and had intervened to admonish them when one of the men had lifted the ‘upper part of a corpse by the hair of the head’.

‘Oh, you villain’, she cried, ‘to treat the corpse so!’

Mr Combe  again advised Mr Watts and his fellow petitioners to make a full statement of their complaint to the board of guardians so that they could take action against whomsoever was to blame. Satisfied with this, the crowd emptied out of the courtroom.

Even by early 1800s the pressure on London’s graveyards was acute. The small parish burial grounds simply were not designed to cope with the huge numbers of burials that a rapidly growing population required. The local authorities recognised that larger cemeteries needed to be laid out so that room could be found for new internments. In 1824 a campaign began to build large municipal cemeteries on the edge of London, away from crowded housing and the danger of disease.

From 1837 to 1841 Parliament agreed to ‘the building of seven commercial cemeteries’ at Kensal Green, West Norwood, Highgate, Nunhead, Abney Park, Brompton and Tower Hamlets. By mid century (not long after the horror of Spa Fields) these were already filling up.* Acts in the 1850s caused most of the old seventeenth century burial grounds to be formally closed, some of these are now public gardens.

So the next time you take a stroll in Spa Fields enjoying your lunch or coffee, and taking in the antics of the local canines, you might try to imagine what this place smelled like when the bone house’s fires were in full operation.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, February 26, 1845]

*Weinrebb & Hibbert, The London Encyclopædia (p.129)

for other posts about the problems of London’s dead see:

Knocked down in the street a week before her wedding.

A grave legal dispute in Essex

‘An habitual offender who accepts imprisonment as an occupational hazard’: the sadly typical story of Lydia Lloyd

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There are those moments in research when your own work links with that of others working in a similar area. Because I know several of the wonderful people behind the Digital Panopticon website and database and was present when they launched in 2016 I remember the exhibition that accompanied it. The site allows you to trace individuals caught up in the English criminal justice system from the later 1780s to the beginning of the twentieth century through their prison and transportation records. Within the site the team have managed to create ‘life archives’ of a number of criminals which reveal the mishaps and opportunities that led them to feature in a number of institutional records.

One of these was Lydia Lloyd who first appears in the DP in 1865. Her life story reveals a woman who first got in trouble in her teens and went to on prostitution and a number of encounters with the summary courts before, in 1870, she was sent to prison for eighteen months for theft. As Dr Lucy Williams notes, Lydia was one of ‘many women living on the margins of society, trapped in prison’s ‘revolving door’.

Whilst in prison she continued to break the rules, and the system was hard on those that it didn’t break quickly. Lydia (pictured in 1879 below) was punished for laughing in chapel, and for striking another inmate with her tin mug. Both infringements resulted in her being denied daily exercise for three days.  She didn’t learn from this and continued to offend inside, and then again once she’d been released.

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Lydia turns up in my daily search of the Police court, in February 1879. She appeared at the Hampstead Police court, described as a laundress, accused of burglary and the theft of a shawl. The alleged victim was Charles Augustus Mackness, the landlord of the Railway Inn, Church End, Finchley in north London.

Mr Mackness told the magistrate (Mr Marshall) that between half past five and six that morning he’d been awakened by a ring on his doorbell. A policeman was at the door and explained that he’d been alerted to a light passing several windows and thought he might have an intruder. Mackness searched and found Lydia under the bed in the tavern’s ‘best bed-room, which they kept for visitors’. Lydia was arrested.

Looking around the room it was evident that she’d been through several drawers and the wardrobe and had stolen a shawl and possibly, a blanket that had been on the bed. I wonder if the latter was just to keep her warm as I doubt the room was heated and it was February.

Lydia denied taking the shawl but she could hardly explain why she was in the landlord’s rooms. Moreover her ticket of leave, which she carried with her, was produced in court showing she had been given seven years imprisonment in 1873, with a further five years’ of police supervision. That was six year’s earlier and Lydia had failed to comply with the terms of her parole. Not that it was easy for a former offender to ‘go straight’ even if she’d wanted to. For Lydia there was only going to be one outcome here: the magistrate remanded her and she was later formally indicted to appear at the Old Bailey for breaking in to Mr Mackness’ house.

The jury convicted her in early March and the judge handed down another custodial sentence, this time ten years’ penal servitude. Once inside Lydia again continued with her disruptive behaviour, fighting, talking in chapel, arguing with other inmates, and damaging prison property. None of this would have helped her, fighting the system was pointless, as the prison diarist Austin Bidwell recognized:

‘An English prison is a vast machine’, he wrote. ‘Move with it and all is well. Resist, and you will be crushed as inevitably as the man who plants himself on the railroad track when the express is coming’.

(From P. Priestley, Victorian Prison Lives, (London, 1985. p.229)

Lydia came out of gaol in September 1884 when she was 43 years of age, again released on license. The Panopticon believes she died just seven years later at the age of 50, she’d spent much of the past 28 years inside. At some point she managed to have three children but her brushes with the law, and a lifetime addicted to alcohol, meant she must hardly have known them.

This sort of construction of a ‘criminal life’ is invaluable in demonstrating the affect that the criminal justice system had on the lives of ordinary working-class men and women who while far from perfect individuals, never really did much more than break the laws surrounding petty theft. Today our prisons are full of very similar neglected and damaged people, who have ‘failed at life’ and/or been let down by society.

As a footnote, I grew up in Church End, Finchley. The Railway Tavern was demolished in 1962, the year before I was born. The Minstrel pub was built on that site and my friends and I used to drink in there in the early 1980s. It too has gone now, and another bar has taken its place. Dr Williams studied for her first degree in History at Northampton, where I taught her.

It is a very small world.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday 25 February, 1879]

‘His whole time belongs to the public’: the lot of the Victorian policeman

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London Police (c.1891) – you can see their duty armlets on their left wrists.

A Victorian policeman was expected to wear his uniform at all times of the day, regardless of whether he was on duty or not. According to the Police Code book an officer can ‘never be strictly off duty, for his whole time belongs to the public’.* To indicate he was on duty a policeman wore the striped armlet, the removal of which – in duty hours – was considered a very serious offence.

PC Josiah Norton  (770 City) was a good example of a police officer who took his vows of service seriously. He lived in digs above a watchmaker’s shop at 11 Barking Alley on the wonderfully named Seething Lane. On the night of the 22/23 February 1869 Norton was asleep then, around one in the morning, he was woken by ‘a slight noise’. His police sense told hi something was wrong and he got up and, dressed only in his nightshirt, went to investigate. As he descended the stairs to Mr Miller’s watch shop he saw an intruder who, seeing the other man, ran off with the policeman in pursuit.

The burglar ran out of the house and towards nearby Barking Church, tripping on some steps as he fled. Unfortunately for him two policemen were nearby, Inspector Harrison and Sergeant Hartopp. The running man looked suspicious so they questioned him. As they did PC Norton came running up, still dressed only in his night wear, and told them the fugitive was wanted for attempted burglary. Norton said he would have been with them quicker but the escaping felon had the presence of mind to bar one of the exits behind him.

In the Mansion House Police court the following day the man gave his name as James Cottrell, labourer but the police described him as the member of a ‘gang of burglars, all of whom are now in custody’. The magistrate, Sir Robert Carden, granted their request for a remand so that Cottrell’s character and circumstances might be investigated further.

Cottrell came to trial at the Old Bailey on the 1 March 1869. He pleaded guilty but tried to argue that he’d only entered Miller’s watch shop by accident: ‘I was making a convenience of the place, and fell in,’ he said. In other words he was using the doorway as a toilet when it opened unexpectedly. The judge was no more convinced than I imagine you are and, since he had a previous conviction from 1865, he handed down a seven-year sentence of penal servitude.  Cottrell was just 21 years of age; he served six years being released on license in February 1875.

As for PC Norton his heroics had not passed unnoticed by the City magistracy and police. Sir Robert Corden made a point of commending his dedication to duty in pursuing a criminal despite being undressed and said ‘he hoped his conduct would be reported to the commissioner’. It already had been, Inspector Harrison confirmed.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, 24 February, 1869]

*Neil A. Bell and Adam Wood, Sir Howard Vincent’s Police Code 1889, (Mango Books, 2015), p.24

‘He wants to go to a reformatory your worship’. ‘He cannot do that, he is too old’: one mistake and a life is ruined.

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Robert Rayhnam cut a miserable figure in the dock at Mansion House Police court. The 14 year-old kept his head down, hardly spoke, and struggled under the withering glare of the Lord Mayor who sat as the City’s chief magistrate.

Young Robert, who was dressed respectably, had squandered a chance in life denied to very many boys of his class. He’s secured a position at Hackett & Co. a firm of ship agents as a messenger. It was a low paid but responsible job and Robert was trusted with money and cheques and so he had access to the company safe.

Sadly one day temptation got the better of him and he pinched a bag containing £11 and 10s. The bag, which also held notes and memos, was soon lost and Robert was questioned. He denied taking it but a search of the premises turned up some of the bag’s correspondence alongside private papers that belonged to the lad. Confronted with this Robert broke down, admitted his crime and begged for mercy.

His father was called who took him home. In looking through the boy’s papers Mr Hackett found a receipt for £9 for three month’s board and lodging, paid in advance. When he investigated further Hackett  discovered that these lodgings were in the house of man whose daughter Robert had been ‘courting’. So he wanted the money to impress his sweetheart’s father and demonstrate he was a worthy candidate for her  hand. Instead he merely showed himself to be dishonest and unreliable.

Robert’s employer was not ‘vindictive’ (in his words) but the boy had to be corrected. He asked the Lord Mayor if it would be possible to send Robert to a reformatory school. The Lord Mayor asked the boy’s age.

‘He was 14 in August’ Robert’s father replied.

‘Then he is too old for a reformatory’, intoned the magistrate.  ‘What have you to say to this charge?’ he demanded of Robert.

‘Nothing’.

‘Are you desirous that the case should be dealt with here, and that you should not be sent to the Old Bailey for trial?’

Robert said nothing, keeping his head bowed, and probably hoping the ground would swallow him up. The court’s officer leant in and Robert said something to him. ‘He wants to go to a reformatory your worship’, said the officer. ‘He cannot do that, he is too old’, said The Lord Mayor. Robert pleaded guilty and was remanded for three days so they could decide what to do with him.

Despite his crime it is hard not to feel sorry for Robert. He made a bad mistake and paid the price for it. The minimum he could expect was the loss of his job and any reference that might allow him to secure a similar one. He’d undermined his relationship with his father, the father of the girl he loved, and probably ended that relationship in the process (as it was unlikely that her father would allow the pair to see each other). Prison probably awaited him, if only for a few months.

Thereafter he’d be scarred by his experience. His best line of action probably lay in leaving the area he grew up in and seeking a fresh start somewhere else, perhaps with the forces, or on one of the many merchant ships that plied their trade at the London docks. Let’s hope there was a happy ending.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday 23 February, 1859]

The punishment fits the crime as a cab driver is prosecuted for cruelty

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Animal cruelty is nothing new sadly. In recent weeks there have been reports of dog fighting gangs, hare coursing, even the re-emergence of cockfights; and there countless small acts of human cruelty towards animals, most of which don’t get reported. One area which has decreased is cruelty towards working animals, notably horses. This is chiefly because we don’t employ horses as we used to.

In my forthcoming book on the Whitechapel (or ‘Jack the Ripper’) murders I look in some detail at London’s meat trade and at the role of the Victorian horse slaughterer. Horses were ubiquitous in the nineteenth-century capital: the pulled hansom cabs, omnibuses, trams, carriages for the wealthy and carts for tradesmen, individuals rode horses and horses were everywhere. Horses died or grew old or sick and were slaughtered and invariably their carcasses were processed and reused as meat or glue or some other by-product.

Legislation in 1849 and 1850 allowed prosecutions of those that willfully mistreated animals and many of these prosecutions were brought by, or with the support of, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) which had been founded as early as 1824. Sometimes however, accusations of cruelty were linked to other issues, as this case from 1839 (and before the acts applied) reveals.

In February 1839 Thomas Green was brought before Mr Rawlinson at Marylebone Police court charged with ‘being drunk and cruelly using his master’s horse’. Green was one of London’s cabbies, men who never enjoyed a very good reputation amongst the magistracy, police and press in the period.  Cab drivers like Green drove for others rather than owning their cabs and animals as independent businessmen. Theirs was a hard life with long hours in all weathers, and often with drunken or otherwise belligerent and difficult customers.

Hansom drivers had a reputation for being awkward, aggressive, and for drinking and all of these combined in Thomas Green to find him arraigned before a court of law. His boss was William Green (no relation) who lived in Dorset Square. William was too ill that day to attend court so his wife went along in his stead. Mrs Green told the magistrate that the prisoner had brought his horse home the previous night in a terrible state:

The poor beast was ‘covered in weals and sweat, and so weak it could hardly stand’. Moreover Green was drunk and when she berated him for this he turned on her and ‘called her the most disgusting names’.

Mrs Green called the police and had Thomas arrested.

There were plenty of offences that cabmen could be charged with, of which one was being drunk in charge of a vehicle. He might also be prosecuted for bad language, or assault. I suspect in this case Mr Rawlinson wasn’t clear exactly what he was going to do the man with but was intent on punishing in for something.

He decided to send Thomas Green to prison for a month and as he saw him as ‘a very bad offender’ he added ‘hard labour’ to the punishment: Green would spend a month on the treadmill, pointlessly walked and climbing until he literally fell down with exhaustion. Given that this is pretty much how he had treated his horse the punishment, for once, seems fitting.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, February 22, 1839]