‘Fake news’ or fools’ news?’: a drunken news vendor in the dock

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Tomorrow is April Fools’ Day, the one day in the year when ‘fake news’ is supposed to be disseminated by the news media. In the past we’ve had the amazing Swiss spaghetti harvest of 1957, the invention of instant water pills that could save lives in droughts, and of course the discovery of the dead body of the Loch Ness monster (in 1972). Now, sadly, false or fake news has become ubiquitous with the advent of social media, the click-bait culture of the internet, and the ridiculous Trumpery of certain politicians.  In fact given the political events in England over the last few weeks it is quite hard to think what the press could tell us that we wouldn’t believe, regardless of its veracity.

In 1889 Frederick Stubbs decided to go early with the whole April Fools thing. At midnight on Sunday 24 March 1889 he was found marching about at Piccadilly Circus  (not under the gaze of Eros of course, as it was not installed until 1894) shouting “Death of Mr. Gladstone” ‘with the utmost strength of his lungs’.

He was carrying the following morning’s Sunday Edition and the 19 year-old newsvendor was as drunk as a lord, and reeling about. Drunks were routinely rounded up by beat policemen and asked to go home  if they were capable or, taken to the nearest station house if they were not. Stubbs was not and so PC 16 C (reserve) took him by the arm and escorted him to ‘the nick’.

The next day Stubbs was brought up, possibly still the worse for his excesses and with a sore head, to face Mr Hannay’s inquisition. The magistrate noted that the eminent statesman was very much alive but Stubbs was adamant that he’d seen an article in the paper marking his death. That was Gladstone’s brother, Mr Hannay explained, not the ‘Grand Old Man’ himself.

220px-Gladstone_being_kicked_in_the_air_by_angry_men_Wellcome_V0050369Gladstone, who had split the  Liberal Party three years earlier (in 1886) over Irish Home Rule, would be in opposition until 1892 when he regained the keys to Downing Street for the fourth and final time at the age of 82. He died on 19 May 1898 at Hawarden in Wales, aged 88.

In March 1889 Mr Gladstone was ‘enjoying excellent health’ the paper had actually said.  So Stubbs had made a mistake and not deliberately tried to fool anyone, and the justice recognized this. However, he had also got drunk and caused a disturbance in a public place and for that he would pay a fine of 5 shillings (or about £20 today).

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper , Sunday, March 31, 1889]

“Well, you needn’t make all this fuss. I only did it to frighten the children”: child abuse in mid Victorian London

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The police had their work cut out for them in ensuring Edward Smith reached the Marylebone Police court safely. A large crowd had gathered outside the police station that was holding the ‘ruffianly looking fellow’ – a 26 year-old sawyer who lived in Paul Street, Lisson Grove. Had the crowd been able to get to him the press reported, ‘he would no doubt have been subjected to much violence’.

Smith did make it to court that day and Mr Broughton’s courtroom was crowded as the public crammed in to see that justice was done to Smith. The exact details of his offence were alluded to rather than described in detail by the Morning Post and that was because they involved the attempted rape of a young girl.

That child was Sarah Harriett Cooper and she was also in court that morning. Today Sarah would have been spared another direct confrontation with her abuser but in the mid Victorian period there were no such considerations for the welfare of the vulnerable. Sarah, aged 11 or 12, was stood in the witness box and asked a series of probing questions about her experience.

She told the magistrate that while her mother was a work she and some other girls were playing in a piece of open ground on the Harrow Road which was owned by a nurseryman. The little girls were trespassing but doing nothing more than running about and having fun. Suddenly Smith appeared and seized hold of Sarah and the three other children ran away in fear. Sarah said she pleaded with him to ‘let me go home to my mother’ but the sawyer put his hand over her mouth, told her not to make a noise, and threatened to cut her throat.

What happened next was not recorded by the press except to state that it amounted, if proven, to the committal of a ‘capital offence’. By 1852 adult rape was no longer capital but Sarah was under the age of consent (which was 13 until 1885) so perhaps that was a hanging offence. Sarah testified that she had ‘cried all the while he was ill-using me’ until ‘he at last lifted me up and brushed down my clothes, which were dirty’ [and] I ran away’. A crowd had gathered near the gates of the gardens and she told them what had happened.

Smith had hurt the child in other ways; he’d used a knife to cut a wound in her hand and she held it up to show the magistrate the puncture mark on her left palm. If this wasn’t evidence enough of Smith’s cruelty there other witnesses appeared to add their weight to the charge.

George Ashley had been walking past the gates to the nursery with friend when a small boy ran out shouting that his sister had been taken away by a man there. Ashley entered the gardens and saw Smith lifting the child up. Sarah was screaming at the top of her voice and the man was telling her to be silent. He sent his companion to fetch a policeman.

PC Lane (372A) arrived soon afterwards, finding a large crowd gathered around Sarah, who hand was bleeding badly. He soon discovered Edward Smith hiding in an outside privy at one end of the nursery grounds. The door was locked but PC Lane burst it open and arrested the sawyer. Questioned about his actions Smith simply declared:

‘Well, you needn’t make all this fuss. I only did it to frighten the children, knowing they had no business in the garden’.

The accused was taken back to the police station house and a search was made of the water closet. PC Cookman (55D) found a large bladed knife buried in the loose soil by the WC, which was open (suggesting it had been recently used and abandoned in a hurry). The girls’ mother described Sarah’s injuries and trauma when she’d got home, and a certificate from the surgeon that had treated her was read out in court detailing her injuries.

Finally the magistrate turned his attention to the man in the dock. Smith denied using violence against Sarah, or at least denied acting in an unlawful way. She and her friends were trespassing and he insisted he was only intending to ‘pull up her clothes for the purpose of giving her a smack, when she began to cry, and ran off’. He said the knife wasn’t his and he had no idea why it was found by the closet. He’d been drinking he said, and because he rarely touched alcohol, that had affected his head. Mr Broughton remanded him for a week and he was taken away to Clerkenwell Prison in a police van, followed all the way by a baying crowd of angry locals.

Just under a month later Smith was formally tried at the Middlesex Sessions of the Peace for an aggravated assault with the intent to rape. Smith was convicted by the jury and sentenced to 18 months imprisonment.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, March 30, 1852; The Morning Post, Wednesday, April 14, 1852]

‘Iron filings clippings, gritty matter, and foreign stalks’: some of the things found in a very British cup of tea

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I am writing this on Monday and at this point we still don’t know what is going to happen with regards to Brexit. As it stands though, unless the PM has managed to persuade enough MPs to back her deal, we are still scheduled to leave the European Union at 11 o’clock tonight.  We joined the EU (or rather the European Common Market as it was then) on 1 January 1973 after a referendum was held to test the public’s desire to enter or not.  Today we may leave on the basis of another such referendum, or we may not.

I thought it might be interesting to find out what was happening in the Metropolitan Police courts 100 years before we joined the European club. After all in March 1873 Britain was a very different place. Instead of being a declining world power we were THE world power, an empire upon which ‘the sun never set’. Queen Victoria had been on the throne for almost 36 years and had been a widow for 12 of those. William Gladstone was Prime Minster in his first ministry and he was opposed at the dispatch box by Benjamin Disraeli who he had beaten by 100 seats in the 1868 election. Oh what Mrs May would give for a majority of 100 seats, or any majority for that matter

Britain was stable, powerful, rich and successful in 1873 and Europe was a collection of individual nation states of which republican France, under Adophe Thiers, and Germany, (under Kaiser Wilhelm I and his able chancellor Bismark), were dominant. Russia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire represented the old guard  by comparison. No one was talking about a European union in 1873 but the slide to European war (in 1914) could already be predicted by those able to read the runes.

1873 in Britain saw the opening of the Alexandra Palace in London, and Londoners watched in horror as it burned down a fortnight later. The Kennel Club was created in April , the first of its kind in the world. Another first was the opening of Girton in Cambridge, as an all female college.

220px-Elizabeth_Garrett_Anderson,_MElizabeth Garrett Anderson (right) also became the first woman to be admitted to the British Medical Association, an honor she retained uniquely for almost 20 years. In Africa British colonial troops went to war with Ashanti king, ostensibly because of the latter’s continued trade in human slaves.  Mary_Ann_Cotton

On the 24 March Mary Ann Cotton (left) , one of history’s most unpleasant murderers, was hanged in Durham goal for the murder of her stepson (and the presumed murder of three former husbands); her motive was to cash in on their life insurance money.

Over at Clerkenwell Police court things were a little less dramatic as a tea dealer named Brown was set in the dock before Mr Barker, the incumbent police magistrate. James Neighbour, the sanitary inspector for St Luke’s, testified that he had purchased tow sample of tea from Brown’s shop and had taken them away for analysis. Dr Parry certified that both had been adulterated.

The adulteration of food was common in Victorian Britain and the authorities were keen to prevent it, not least because of the risk it posed to the health of population. Dr Parry’s verdict was that one sample of tea contained ‘iron filings and clippings, gritty matter, and foreign stalks’ while the other was made up of ‘tea dust’ and ‘small fragments of wood’ as well as all the other substances found in the first one. The tea was described variously in signs in the shop window as ‘capital’ and ‘noted’ mixtures but they were very far from it.

However, when pressed the doctor would not or could not say that the tea was ‘injurious to health’, it just wasn’t what it was advertised to be.  Whether it had been adulterated by the defendant or had arrived in that state from China was also something he couldn’t comment on with authority.  This led Brown’s defense lawyer (Mr Ricketts) to argue that the prosecution had failed to prove its case against his client. Mr Barker disagreed. He said it was self-evident that the tea dealer either knew his product was adulterated with ‘foreign matter’ even if he hadn’t adulterated it himself. This was done, he declared, to bulk up the actual tea and cheat the customer. Had it been dangerous to health he would have fined him £20 but as it was not he let him off with a £10n and ordered him to pay the inspector’s costs.

Of course one of the things the EU protects is our consumer and environmental rights, through its stringent laws on trade. Indeed one of the fears some have is that if we open ourselves up to a genuine free market we might have to accept products (such as bleached American chickens) that would not pass EU food standards. We might also note that in 1873 that Britain dominated world trade and that most trade passed through British ports, making money and creating work as it did so.  But in 1873 we had an empire and a navy that was the envy of the world.

Today not only do we longer have an empire but we also have a navy that has been stripped back to the bare bones, to the extent that we only have one aircraft carrier and that is unable to launch the sort of planes we have available. In 1873 we were the major power in the world, truly GREAT Britain. In 1973 we joined a trading community to ensure our future prosperity. In 2019 we may be about to leave that club having grown frustrated with its attempts to evolve into something that resembles a United States of Europe rather than the trade club we signed up to.

Who knows where we go from here and whether this will prove to be a smart move or a disaster that will haunt us forever. History will judge us, and those that made the decisions that led us to this point.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, March 29, 1873]

When it is the victim’s character that is really on trial, and that is what really matters in a male dominated courtroom

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Sometimes what might seem to be a fairly straightforward prosecution can reveal all sorts of other things, including contemporary prejudices and assumptions. Take this case as an example: in March 1895 George Brown was charged with stealing ‘a metal bracelet and brooch’ from Mollie Dashwood. The location of the theft and the behaviour of the victim both gave the accused (and the newspapers writing up the story) the opportunity to attack the woman’s character rather than treat her as someone who had been robbed.

Mollie (or Mrs Dashwood as she presented herself) told the sitting magistrate at Westminster Police court that on the previous Saturday evening (23 March) she had suddenly felt faint so had dropped in to the Black Horse pub for ‘a drop of brandy’. It was there she met George Brown who was known to the landlord and described as his friend.

George was there with some chums and they invited Mollie to join them in a few drinks. George showed an interest in her bracelet and began to play with it on her arm; flirting with her is how we might see it. After a while he managed to persuade her to go into the billiard room with him, perhaps because it was quieter, and there he helped her off with her boa (her feather scarf that she would have worn as a sort of collar accessory). According to the barmaid at some point Mollie removed the bracelet and her brooch and asked her to look after them, but she refused.

Things were getting a little intimate and the landlord had noticed.  This was what was concentrated on in court as Mollie was cross-examined by the magistrate and the prisoner’s counsel. She was married and gave a (false) address in Catherine Street where she said she lived with her husband. Dashwood was her stage name: she was a former ‘serio-dancer’ who had ‘roved’ (i.e. travelled) a lot. This may have meant that Mollie performed on the stage at the music hall, dancing to popular songs like ‘Tar ra ra boon de ay!’ and showing rather more of herself than was always considered to be ‘respectable’. She had married in May 1883 at a Kensington registry office but she refused to share her husband’s name with the court (or indeed her real address) for ‘strong family reasons’. Maybe he didn’t really exist, the pair were estranged, or, more probably, he didn’t approve of her going out drinking.

It was all very mysterious and was made more salacious when William Temple, the landlord of the Black Horse, said he remembered Mollie calling at his house and borrowing sixpence. She had been a little the worse for drink and had told him ‘he was the only man in the world she loved’. This brought the courtroom out in shared laughter and might have undermined Mollie’s case had not the bracelet and brooch seemingly really been stolen. Where were they and who had them?

Whilst Mollie Dashwood’s reputation was being dragged through the mud in open court and all sorts of conclusions were being leapt to, it was also revealed that Brown had a previous conviction for theft and so the justice decided to send the case before a jury. Brown is hardly an unusual name and nor is George so perhaps it is no surprise that I have so far been unable to see if this case ever came to trial. Given the lack of any concrete evidence against Brown and the level of doubt created by Mollie Dashwood’s ‘unladylike’ behaviour (in entering a pub on her own and drinking with a group of men at the bar) I suspect a jury would have thrown it out anyway.

[from The Standard, Thursday, March 28, 1895]

‘Never was there such a bad season for cabs’: A case of non payment requires a magisterial solution

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William Capon had sold his hansom cab and horse to William Crouch because he needed the money, being unable to earn a living from cabbing. Crouch had agreed to pay for the cab in installments but by March 1835 Capon had hardly received more than a ‘farthing’ of the £30 owed to him. In desperation he issued a notice that his goods had been stolen and offered a reward for information about it.

George Hooper saw the notice and later saw the cab parked a cab rank in the City of London. He approached the driver, asked to be taken to the Green Yard where he called for the cab and horse to be impounded. The Green yard had been the City’s pound for centuries and it was here that loose animals – often beasts from Smithfield Market – were taken , to be retrieved on payment of a penalty fee. So it worked very much like a modern car pound.

The cab driver, Crouch, was arrested and taken before Alderman Pirie at Mansion House and Capon came to court to give evidence. The alderman magistrate, having heard the circumstances of the  sale of the cab and the lack of money paid so far confronted Crouch as he stood in the dock:

‘Why don’t you pay this poor man?’

‘It’s all right, sir’, said Crouch, ‘There’s an agreement in writing about the business. I’m sure to pay him’.

‘I’m sure you will never pay him; you don’t go the right way about it’, countered the justice, clearly appalled at the man’s attitude to debt.

‘I would have paid him’ Crouch answered, ‘but there’s been no business doing lately. The right time’s a coming on now, and he shall have his money’. Adding, ‘he [Capon] promised me further time, on account of the badness of the season. Never was a such a season for cabs’, he declared.

March 1835 may well have been a ‘bad season’ for cab drivers but, in the magistrate’s opinion, that didn’t give him the right to cheat (as he put it) the other man out of his money. He ordered the cab driver to return the vehicle and horse forthwith in return for any money he’d already paid over. In court Crouch agreed, but very reluctantly, but when he got outside he reneged on this and refused, citing the written agreement he had with Capon.

Alderman Pirie  was on weak ground legally; it wasn’t really a case of theft, and no jury would ever convict Crouch. Yet he wanted to do something and so he insisted that the cab and horse be handed over from the Green Yard to Capon and not to Crouch. If the latter wished to pursue his claim to the hansom he would have to take it up with the magistrate directly via the law, and not with Capon. This decision, controversial as it was, went down extremely well with everyone in court (William Crouch excepted  one assumes).

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, March 27, 1835]

The bravery of one young man saves another from a terrible beating at the hands of his father

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Battersea, in Charles Booth’s poverty maps of 1889-90

John Hobart had just got home to the house his mother ran in Gywnn Road, Battersea when she called to him. Eliza Hobart rented rooms to a family who lived upstairs, a father (William Williams) and his young son. Eliza was worried because she’d heard screams from upstairs and it seemed as if Williams was beating his young lad half to death.

‘Go upstairs and stop it’, she shouted to her own lad, who hurried upstairs at once. He reached the Williams’ door and tried it but it was locked. He could hear dreadful noises from within so put his shoulder to the portal and forced it open. As he fell into the room he saw Williams brandishing a heavy rope and raining down blows on his boy. When he saw the intruder Williams let go of his victim and went for Hobart swinging his rope.

Fortunately before he could do any damage a policeman arrived and subdued him, taking him away to the station while the little boy was carried off to the infirmary, bleeding from wounds to his head and face. The rope and a piece of wood was recovered from the room as evidence and the police constable reported that when he examined Williams at the station he noticed blood on his cuffs.

In court at Wandsworth Williams admitted beating the lad with the rope but denied the accusation that he’d hit with a piece of wood. He justified his actions by saying that the boy had played truant from school but had kept the money his father had given him for his fees. The justice, Mr Sheil, remanded Williams in custody while he decided what to do with him.

And that, I’m afraid, is the last we hear of him. If Williams came back to be punished or released by a Police court magistrate the papers didn’t report it. If he was sent for a jury trial or imprisoned or fined, again, we have no record. All we can hope is that his little boy survived and that may be due entirely to the determination of his landlady to interfere and the bravery of her son to intervene.

[from The Standard, Thursday, March 26, 1885]

The not-so-perfect employee

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Fleet Street in the 1850s

When Sarah Morgan left Mr Williamson’s employment on 1 February 1869 she did so with such a ringing written endorsement that she soon secured a job at a lawyer’s chambers in Gray’s Inn. Williamson was sorry to see her go as she had been an excellent servant to him and his wife at the Fleet Street premises where he carried on the business of a London hosier, supplying gloves, stockings, and other goods to his City customers. It must have come as something of a shock to him when the police contacted him about her in late March of the same year.

Sarah had started work at the chambers and she was seemingly doing very well, everyone was happy with her and she was living up to the reference the hosier had provided.  It all went wrong for her when, on 23 March a young man was found hiding in her room. The police were called, initially because he was suspected of robbing the place. He was taken away but nothing was found on him to suggest he’d committed a crime. He was later charged at Bow Street but cleared of any wrong doing. This turned the attention back on Sarah.

Mr Saltmarsh, her new employer, asked to search her things and she willing agreed. He went though the two boxes she indicated were hers and he found nothing within that belonged to the Chambers. However he did find two boxes she hadn’t pointed out to him and opened these. Inside was a treasure of hosiery:

’27 pairs of kids gloves, 10 cambric handkerchiefs, and other things’ all belonging to her previous master, Mr Williamson.

In all there were goods valued at over £7 (or around  £450 in today’s money). In court before two aldermen at the Guildhall Sarah claimed these had been given to her by James Oakes, the hosier’s shopman, but he denied it when asked and  when pressed on this Sarah admitted this was a lie. She threw herself on the mercy of the court and asked to be dealt with summarily, under the terms of the Criminal Justice Act (probably the 1855 Administration of Justice Act which allowed magistrates to deal with petty thefts and some other offences if the accused agave their permission to being dealt with – and pleaded guilty to the charge).

The aldermen (Gibbons and Causton) agreed and after a brief consultation sent her to prison for three months with hard labour.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, March 25, 1869]