No help (or sympathy) for an old ‘hero’ who lashes out

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Thomas Cooney was a crossing sweeper on the Bayswater Road. Sweepers were ‘beggars of a sort, demanding alms in return for a useful, almost essential public service’: clearing a path through the mud that covered most of the capital’s streets and paths.Cooney asked for tips from the ladies and gentlemen that preferred not to drag their crinolines or trouser legs through the filth churned up by countless road users. He could probably find no other work since service in the army had left him crippled with two wooden legs. He drew an army pension of 10s 6a week but that wouldn’t have gone very far in 1859.

Today I doubt that even Esther McVey or Ian Duncan Smith would expect Thomas to work for a living but the Victorian state was much less considerate in giving benefits to those that so obviously needed them. As a result the man with (literally) no legs to stand on was forced to do exactly that, day after day, in all weathers.

Moreover, the local youth had identified him as a figure of fun, worthy of their abuse. Most days a pack of them would taunt him, fling stones and mud at him, and occasionally be brave enough to get close enough to prod him and try to knock him over. What larks!

Cooney retaliated by shouting at them, waving his sticks, throwing stones back, and threatening to ‘do for them’. One day in April 1859 the boys were teasing him and he was chucking stones back when a little girl, just 11 years of age was passing on her way home from school. As she passed Cooney he wacked her with his stick, hitting her in the face, and she ran off home in tears.

Her father was a respectable tradesman living in Blandford Street, just off Manchester Square (where the Wallace Collection is housed today). Mr Woolter was so outraged by the attack on his daughter Anne that he set out at once to confront the crossing sweep. He gave him a piece of his mind but Cooney was far from repentant, instead of an apology all Woolter got was a punch in the mouth. The blow dislodged a tooth and unsettled the rest. Cooney was arrested and produced before Mr Broughton at Marylebone Police court.

The magistrate heard that Cooney had a long history of hitting out at anyone – youths, members of the public, and the police – that encountered him. He was described as a ‘brutal fellow’ and ‘a most desperate character’. I’m sure he was but perhaps he had his reasons. PC Reed (60D) said Cooney had been drinking and had resisted arrest. All Cooney offered by way of a defense was the unceasing abuse he’d received from the boys.

That didn’t wash with Mr Broughton. A respectable citizen and his little girl had been assaulted and the latter was fortunate not to have ‘been killed on the spot’ he declared. The justice requested a certificate from the surgeon that had treated Anne so he could assess the severity of her injuries before passing judgment on Cooney. In the meantime the sweeper was sent to the nearest house of correction to await his fate.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, April 20, 1859]

1 Lee Jackson, Dirty Old London: The Victorian Fight Against Filth, (Yale University Press, 2014), pp.32-3

Drew Gray is the joint author of Jack and the Thames Torso Murders, published by Amberley Books in June 2019. Details available here

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