Skipping their way to court: prosecuting games in the ‘People’s Park’

Vic Park

In 1874 Easter fell over the weekend of the 4thand 5thApril and the weather was fair in London. On Easter Sunday lots of Londoners headed to the parks to take the air and promenade in the spring sunshine. Victoria Park in East London (dubbed the ‘people’s park’) was particularly busy; an estimated 20,000 people visited, many dressed in their ‘Sunday best’. The police were on hand as always, to keep an eye on any troublemakers and to ward off thieves and drunks.

The park had first been opened to the public in 1845 and a Chartist demonstration in 1848 gave the police their first public order challenge. That passed without incident as the thousands who gathered soon dispersed when a heavy rain shower broke above them. So much for a British revolution eh?

Victoria Park fell under the aegis of the Royal Parks and Gardens Regulations Act (1872) which restricted the use of the park. All ‘games’ were banned for example, although interpretations of what a ‘game’ meant was disputed. A week after Easter two men were brought to the Worship Street Police court and prosecuted under the act by a representative of the Royal Parks.

Park constable Blazer (no.21) reported that on Easter Sunday he’d been on patrol in the park when he’d noticed a number of men with skipping ropes. The men were holding long ropes and charging men and women a halfpenny or a penny to skip within them while they twirled them. It seemed like harmless fun but the constable said that it was damaging the grass (presumably by the tramping of very many pairs of feet jumping up and down). Moreover, charging money was an infringement of the rules.

He approached two of the men and told them desist but they laughed at him and carried on. Blazer then decided he had to arrest them. The men were charged at the nearest station and released to appear before Mr Hannay at the police court. There the magistrate asked their names and occupations. Henry Neale was a brass finisher and his companion, James Mortimer said he was a labourer. Both were simply earning a little extra by their entrepreneurial use of a skipping rope.

Inspector Condon of K Division was on hand to support the park constable. He explained that under the regulations defined in the act no person was allowed to play at ‘any game’  or ‘sell or let any commodity’. Arguably then the men had broken two rules but Mr Hannay doubted whether selling a go on a skipping rope constituted selling a ‘commodity’. However, by the same token they were clearly engaged in ‘a game’, which did infringe the rules. The constable piped up to say that he always ignored children who were skipping with their own ropes,. he was sure that shouldn’t be restricted under the spirit of the act.

Today our parks are full of people running, skipping, playing football or cricket, doing yoga or pilates, or using the myriad exercise machines that have sprung up in recent years. Exercise is part of the mantra of daily life and the idea that we would prosecute people for encouraging a little of it seems odd, the say the least. But while the Victorian recognized the benefits of fresh air and a brisk walk they also wanted to keep their green spaces free from commercial exploitation, especially on holy days. Mr Hannay duly fined the pair for causing a nuisance. They handed over half a crown each and were discharged.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, April 12, 1874]

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