The young lady that placed her faith in a fortune teller, and got thumped for her pains

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Mrs Maria Grace was taking tea at home in Rotherhithe in May 1845 when there was a caller at the door. She opened the door and admitted a fashionably dressed pretty young woman.  It all seemed very normal until the visitor stepped forward, seized a cup of tea from the table and threw it in Maria’s face!

This assault was followed by more violence as the young woman attacked, scratching Maria’s face and then stuck her baby (who was sat in her lap) causing its mouth to bleed.  Then, without any explanation the girl departed leaving the chaos she had caused behind her.

Some days later Maria and the mysterious visitor appeared before Mr Grove, the sitting magistrate at Greenwich Police court. Mr Evans conducted the prosecution case and Mr May represented the defendant whose named was Mrs Headlewick. Mr May cross-examined Maria and soon discovered that some time ago she had lost a valuable gold ring and had taken an unusual course of action to retrieve it. Maria told the solicitor that she had paid 2sto a fortuneteller to ascertain its whereabouts. This had revealed (if that the teller was to be believed) that:

‘the person who had taken the ring was a fair young woman, who was now gone into the country either by steam-boat or railway, and would remain away some time’.

While this might apply to quite a lot of people (as is often the case with fortune telling) Maria was sure that this applied to the person that had visited her. She explained that she was convinced that her assailant had not only taken her jewelry but had stolen from her own aunt, and she made a point of telling the young woman’s relatives this.

The court heard that for the last three months Mrs Headlewick had indeed been away, in Burton-upon-Trent, and it was only when she returned with her husband to London that she got wind of Maria’s accusation that she was a thief. So now the assault makes sense. Mrs Headlewick was angry that Maria was defaming her to her family and had gone round to confront her.

The magistrate was clear that an assault had occurred even if there had been  understandable provocation. However the more serious crime of robbery was harder to resolve. He told Mrs Headlewick that she would have to pay a fine of 5or go to prison. Given that both ladies were able to hire lawyers to represent them there was never any danger that the defendant was going inside for the assault. The fine was paid and the two women left court but neither were satisfied with the outcome. The fine was paltry and the accusation of theft was left unresolved.

For me it is a reminder that in the mid Victorian age people were prepared to place their trust in charlatans who promised to tell their future and solve mysteries in the present. Then again, do we actually live in a much more enlightened time ourselves?

[from Lloyd’s Weekly London Newspaper, Sunday, May 25, 1845]

If you enjoy this blog series you might be interested in Drew’s jointly authored study of the Whitechapel (or ‘Jack the Ripper’) murders which is published by Amberley Books on 15 June this year. You can find details here:

“Stab me you b——if you are a man, stab me, stab me”: Drink and domestic violence end in tragedy

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John Wicks and his wife had both been drinking on the 14 April. John was well known in the community as a drinker and for being violent when he was under the influence. His wife, Elizabeth, could also resort to violence when her temper flared. The couple lived in Kensal New Town in northwest London and Wicks earned his money as a chimney sweep.

When John came home on the 14than argument flared about money. He was drunk and Elizabeth had shared two or three pints with a friend, so she wasn’t sober either. Wicks complained that he had nothing and demanded she hand over the money she’d sewed into the pocket of her skirt. She refused and they came to blows.

Reports are mixed with conflicting evidence from Wicks, his mother-in-law, and other witnesses (domestic fights like this were quite often public affairs, given the crowded accommodation of late Victorian London). It is possible that in order to defend herself Elizabeth picked up the fender from the fire and threatened her husband with it. He pulled a knife and she threw the fender at him as he retreated out of the room. His wife then seized the next available weapon she could find, a large spoon, and came after him.

The pair ended up in the garden which was where George Abbott, a van boy who lived opposite, saw them. He’d been drawn to the quarrel by the noise, as had Henry Stacey (another neighbour) and both saw Elizabeth strike John with the spoon. Stacey later testified that Elizabeth was in a rage and was shouting: “stab me you b——if you are a man, stab me, stab me” at John. Soon afterwards the sweep aimed a blow at her neck and when his hand came away blood spurted from the wound.

John Wicks had stabbed his wife in the neck.

He was arrested and she was taken to hospital where despite the best efforts of the surgeons at St Mary’s, Paddington, she died 10 days later. ‘Inflammation of the throat’ had ‘set in the same night as she was stabbed, and she was unable to swallow anything except iced water’. She died as a result of ‘exhaustion caused through not taking food and inflammation of the lungs’. It must have been a terrible and extremely distressing way to die.

On 23 May after a number of appearances before him Mr D’Eyncourt formally committed John Wicks to take his trial for murder at the Central Criminal Court. He had pleaded not guilty and claimed that she must ‘have fallen against the knife’. He admitted he’d been drunk, and offered that in mitigation.

The police detective that interviewed Elizabeth in hospital confirmed the pattern of events as she described them but added that she had, at the last, described her husband as a gentle man when he was sober. ‘There is not a kinder man or a better husband’ she had insisted.

It is a familiar story for anyone who has looked at domestic violence in the past or worked with abuse survivors in the present. Women only went to the law when they had tried all other means to curb their partner’s violence. The courts fined or locked men up but little else was done to support the victims and in a society where women so often depended on men to survive there were few alternatives open to a wife than to take her man back again and hope for the best.

In court after the evidence of witnesses had been heard the house surgeon at St Mary’s testified. He described the wound and speculated on it cause. The court wanted to know if it could have caused by accident, as John had suggested. He doubted it was likely but admitted that it was possible: ‘it is unusual to get such a wound in that way, but it might be’ he observed.

That was enough for the all male jury. Despite the glaring evidence that John Wicks had killed his wife in a drunken rage while he was holding a sharpened knife in his hands, the jury acquitted him of all charges, manslaughter included. He walked free from the Old Bailey exonerated by men who clearly believed that he was provoked and that his incapacitation due to alcohol absolved him of the responsibility for his wife’s death.

Wicks died a few years later in 1884 at the relatively young age of 54. I like to think that the guilt he felt played a role in his death but it is more likely that he succumbed early to the ravages of alcoholism which had already consumed him in 1877 and must have got worse following this tragic sets of events.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, May 24, 1877]

This case is not untypical of many cases of domestic violence in the nineteenth century, not all of course ended in tragedy. For me though it is indicative of the prevailing attitudes towards women, attitudes which I believe directly fuelled the Whitechapel (or ‘Jack the Ripper’) murders. My co-authored study of those murders is published by Amberley Books on 15 June this year. You can find details here:

‘It was an impulsive theft, and I beg for mercy’: the sad fall of an unemployed clerk

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Robert Stevens been out of work for some time when he entered a baker’s shop in Mile End in May 1859. Stevens had previously earned a living as a clerk, a gateway situation for someone hoping to move up the social ranks from the working to the middle classes.

The nineteenth century saw the establishment of the middling classes as the solid centre of Victorian life with their values of hard work, education, thrift, and family life. The social climbing of members of the middle classes were gently mocked in the 1892 novel The Diary of a Nobody where the character of Mr Pooter struggles to be taken seriously by superiors, friends and tradesmen alike.

In an unfortunate coincidence another clerk was in Mr Bradbrook’s  bakery that day and he was collecting money on behalf a firm of coal merchants. The baker had opened his till and placed four gold sovereigns on the counter just as Stevens approached to buy some bread. As the collections clerk and the shopkeeper discussed the account Stevens dashed in and swept the money from the counter and ran out of the shop.

The baker and John Griffiths (the clerk) recovered from their initial shock and rushed off after him, catching him up a few streets away. He had one coin on him having lost the others in his haste, these were picked up by Griffiths  in the chase. The unfortunate young man was handed over to the police and brought before the magistrate at Worship Street Police court to be dealt with by the law.

Robert Stevens pleaded guilty and apologized for his crime. ‘I went into the shop to buy’, he told Mr Hammill, ‘but but catching sight of the gold lying close to my hand, was seized with an irresistible desire of appropriating it to my own service, and unfortunately did so.

It was, I assure you, an impulsive theft, and I beg for mercy, having long been out of employment as a clerk’.

John Griffiths spoke up for the prisoner and urged the justice to show mercy and be lenient. As a fellow clerk he perhaps understood better than most how easy it was to lose a ‘respectable’ position whether because of the precarious state of the economy or the capricious  nature of employers.

It did little or no good however, Mr Hammill ignored the request for compassion and sent Stevens to prison for four months at hard labour. Having served a sentence in a mid nineteenth-century goal I doubt that Robert would have found white-collar work easy to come by afterwards. He was dogged by a criminal record, albeit one of his own making, and the stain of the prison would be on him. Hopefully he recovered and found a new path but this is another example of how a lack of real support for those that find themselves unemployed can have catastrophic and life changing consequences.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Monday, May 23, 1859]

If you enjoy this blog series you might be interested in Drew’s jointly authored study of the Whitechapel (or ‘Jack the Ripper’) murders which is published by Amberley Books on 15 June this year. You can find details here:

‘I wish I could avoid the drink sir, but it’s too tempting’. The Inebriate Act in action in the East End

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Minnie O’Shea was a drunk, an alcoholic with a problem, and when she appeared at Worship Street Police court in May 1899 it was very clear that she needed help. Minnie admitted as much herself, telling Mr Cluer the magistrate that ‘she wished she could avoid the drink; but it was too tempting for her’.

It wasn’t her first time in the dock; Minnie had three previous convictions for drunkenness in the past year alone, and according to police she’d been arrested and charged on least 20 occasions. She was a serial drunk and in 1899 that meant she had made herself liable to a new initiative aimed at dealing with the problem of alcohol abuse in society.

1898 had seen the passing of the Inebriates Act which allowed justices like Mr Cluer to send defendants like Minnie to a reformatory to dry out. A similar scheme had been attempted in 1879 but no funds had been provided for it. If a person was sent to a retreat under that legislation they had to fund their stay themselves. There was no way that a poor woman like Minnie could afford to do that. This new legislation supposedly expected the local authority (in this case the London County Council) to foot the bill.

Minnie was given the option of having her case heard summarily or to go to trial before a jury. Having been told that if she agreed to have the magistrate decided her fate at Worship Street that she would be sent for a home, she wanted to know for how long? If she behaved herself, the justice told her, she’d be out in a few months, so Minnie gladly accepted her fate. She’d get fed and a roof over her head so it wasn’t so bad, she must have thought.

It came as a bit of shock then when Mr Cluer handed down a sentence of three months confinement in a inebriate reformatory, albeit a Roman Catholic one that would suit her cultural background. ‘Three years!’ Minnie objected. ‘Then I’d better not consent, I won’t go’, she told him from the dock. Too late, Mr Cluer countered, ‘you cannot help it now’, and she was dragged out of the court to begin her enforced period of reformation.

Minnie was exactly the sort of person confined under this and the previous legislation.  Victorian society viewed alcoholism as a sort of moral individual failing and associated it particularly with women. Women were viewed as weak in nineteenth-century rhetoric and thus ill equipped with the requisite willpower needed to abstain from ‘the drink’. Minnie seemed to affirm this widely held view telling the justice as we’ve heard that ‘it was too tempting’ to turn to the bottle. In the late 1800s the ‘drunkard was an individual considered to pose a threat to wider society as well as to themselves’ and as Jennifer Wallis has shown this enabled so-called charity workers and reformers to treat alcoholics appallingly.1

Not only were some inmates treated badly the legislation was largely ineffectual. Few local authorities could afford to build reformatories and by 1900 the state hadn’t met demand either. In the first year of the act becoming law just 82 persons were sent to homes, 61 of them in London so Minnie may have been one of that handful. Most were women (for the dubious reason given above) and thereafter nearly all the reformatories that were established (9 from 11) catered exclusively for women.

Alcoholism was a problem in the late 1800s and this was particularly true in poor working class areas like the East End. That is why the Temperance Movement arose and why Police Court Missionaries strove to help those ‘that helped themselves’ by pledging to abstain from ‘the drink’. But it was an uphill battle because life on the bottom rungs of society was desperately hard and for many Londoners drink was a form of anesthetic, muting the pain that they daily felt in their struggle simply to survive.

The middle classes that swelled the ranks of the Charity Organisation Society might have seen drink as a symptom of moral weakness but they didn’t have to suffer the privations that the capital’s poor did every day. They judged women like Minnie O’Shea, I don’t think we should.

[from The Standard, Monday, May 22, 1899]

  1. Wallis, J. ‘A Home or a Gaol? Scandal, Secrecy and the St James’s Inebriate Home for Women’, Social History of Medicine, Vol. 31, No. 4 pp. 774-795

Charles Dickens celebrates the newspaper industry and its portrayal of ‘modern’ British society

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Given that surviving archival records of the Metropolitan Police courts of the Victorian period are very few are far between for the past few years I’ve spent a considerable amount of my time reading nineteenth-century newspapers. While I stick mostly to the ‘police intelligence’ it is impossible not to occasionally get distracted by the other news stories they covered. Living, as we do, in a society where news is now 24/7 and delivered instantly via tiny super powerful computers that fit in our pockets, it is hard to imagine sometimes how important the  Victorian press was to the dissemination of news and ideas to our ancestors. So, in a break from the norm today I want to highlight a speech that was reported in 1862 in the Daily News by none other than Charles Dickens, arguably England’s greatest ever novelist.

In May 1862 the Newsvendors Benevolent Institution celebrated their 23rdanniversary with a banquets at the Freemason’s Tavern in Great Queen Street (below right). Freemasons'_TavernThis is not the current Freemason’s Hall which is just further up the street but was on the site of what is now the Connaught Hotel. Regardless, it was a grand affair and with Dickens in the chair, no doubt an entertaining evening was had by all.

The famous author and public speaker opened by praising the man that had deputized for him the year before, Wilkie Collins. In 1861 Dickens had toothache and so had handed the chair to his friend but now expressed some regrets so well had his fellow novelist performed. ‘If I ever find myself obliged to provide a substitute again’, Dickens declared, ‘they may implicitly rely on my sending them the most speechless man of my acquaintance!’.

He then went, at some length, to list the ways in which the newspaper covered the whole gamut of life in Victorian Britain and the world. He did this by imagining himself peering over the shoulder of a reader, just as many of us will have done on a tube train or bus, trying to catch a story that has made the headlines.

The newspapers, Dickens noted, tell us who is born, who married, and who has died, and how. Other points and events in our lives are also recorded, especially if they are the lives of royalty or the famous. I’m struck by the fact that just the other week a baby was born in London and this made the news, even though millions of babies are born every day, all over the world. This baby was special of course, because Archie Windsor was the son of a prince and his new American born spouse.

Dickens noted that it was in the newspaper that the reader discovered that ‘there are great fleets bound to all the ports of the  world’ and here that they would find what these fleets carried, what space they had, where you might purchase a ticket to travel on them, and even find out what the ships were made of. Here were adverts for almost anything you could want (and many things you certainly wouldn’t need):

Still glancing over the shoulder of my newsman, I find I am offered all kinds of houses, lodgings, clerks, servants, and situations which I can possibly or impossibly want. I learn to my intense gratification that I need never grow old, that I may always preserve the juvenile bloom of complexion, that if I ever become ill it is entirely my own fault, that I may have no more grey hair. If I have any complaint and want brown cod liver oil or a Turkish bath I am told where I can get it, and that if I want an income of £7 a week I have only to send for it enclosing half-a-crown’s worthy of postage stamps’.

Along with the adverts (spurious and genuine) Dickens cited the political news that the papers reported. Here, he said, you could find out what the Home Secretary had to say about the ‘last outrage, the last railway accident, or the last mine explosion’, only to be told that the minster of state had said that ‘he knew nothing of the occurrence beyond what he had read in the newspapers’!

Dickens himself had reported from the law courts before he had ‘made it’ as an author of popular stories. He told his captive audience at the Freemason’s Tavern that the reporting of the police courts of the capital would inform the reader that:

if I have a propensity to indulge, I may very cheaply bite off a human being’s nose, but that if I presume to take off from a butcher’s window the nose of a dead calf or pig, it will cost me exceedingly dear’.

Once the laughter had settled down he went on to add:

and also find that if I allowed myself to be betrayed into the folly of killing an inoffensive tradesman upon his own doorstop, that little incident will not affect the testimonials to my character, but that I shall be described as a most amiable young man, and above all things, remarkable for the singular inoffensiveness of my character and disposition’.

Dickens was an astute observer of course and in many of the reports of court cases the defendants are described in flattering terms despite the crimes they are accused of, especially if they are drawn from the ranks of ‘respectable’ society.

He then went on to list the theatrical and other arts news that could be found in the papers, even though he noted that it was hardly ‘news’ at all. He ended with a tour around foreign and international news suggesting that the London press reported incidents and events that in some countries (he mentioned Japan as an example) would never be reported. This echoes today’s world news  where British and European readers may well be better informed of what is happening in some closed societies (like China, Saudi Arabia or North Korea) than the people living there.

News, after all, is power.

Charles Dickens finished his speech with a toast to the men (and ladies) of the institution who raised funds for those vendors who fell on hard times. The evening raised around £100 for the charity which would be used to provide pensions for the men who sold the newspapers that carried all of this news to the public. £100 in 1862 amounts to about  £6,000 today, and so it was a significant sum of money.

I’m struck by the comparison we might make with the way Dickens characterized the reach and variety of the newspaper in 1862 and today’s internet or ‘world wide web’. Our first instinct now if we want to find something out is to reach for our phones, tablets or PCs and to ‘Google it’. In seconds we find an answer (if not always ‘the’ answer) to our question.

But for all this technology our desire to know and understand the world around us is much the same. Moreover the Internet has really only replaced print news as the vehicle to inform, deceive, manipulate and exploit our desires and prejudices. Had the Victorians invented the worldwide web they would have probably have used it for all the things we use it for.

Once again I am left wondering just how ‘modern’ we really are.

[from Daily News, Wednesday, May 21, 1862]

‘The poor animal was dreadfully exhausted’. Animal cruelty as a cabbie is prosecuted at Marylebone

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To some very real extent Victorian London was powered by the horse. Horses pulled cabs and carts, coaches, trams and omnibuses, and where today an individual might use a car to get around in the 1800s our ancestors would have ridden (if they had the wealth to afford it). The capital’s streets were thronged with horses then, as well as with people, and no doubt the streets were also well fertilized with the animals’ ‘leaving’s (although some drivers fitted bags to collect the manure their beasts expelled).

The use of horses is something we’ve left behind as the internal combustion engine has replaced them: better perhaps for them if not for us given the unprecedented levels of pollution that have now made central London’s air quite literally lethal. Today we think of horses as a luxury or as pets, animals more associated with the countryside than with the town. Yet even a short walk around the city would remind of the horse’s ubiquitous presence in the past, remembered today in the frequent existence of horse troughs and mews.

It was a hard life being a working horse in Victorian London. Cabbies, coachmen, carters and bus and tram companies worked their animals for long hours in all weathers. The average horse might work for 11 years and no peaceful retirement to pasture awaited them at the end of that, just one of Harrison Barber’s knackers. The firm of Harrison Barber had, by the 1880s at least, come to dominate the horse slaughtering business – something myself and Andy Wise discuss in our new history of the Whitechapel and Thames Torso murders. Most of the horses that ended up one of the company’s many yards across London were destined to serve the capital in another way, as pet food sold door to door by a ‘cat’s meat man’.

Many of those who kept a horse must have cared deeply for them; bonds between us and animals are deep rooted and not a ‘modern’ phenomena. But cruelty was also a feature of the relationships then as it is today. In May 1884 Charles Ramsden was brought up at Marylebone Police court and charged with ‘cruelly torturing a horse’. The 22 year-old cab driver worked for a cab proprietor named Barrell.

Mr Barrell was in court to testify that the young man had left his yard at six on Saturday evening and did not return until eight the following morning. Throughout the intervening 38 hours Ramsden had worked his horse constantly and as a result the poor animal had developed a wound on its back ‘so deep that he could have buried an egg in it’ the owner explained.

Now, however, it had swollen considerably, and was as big as his (prosecutor’s) head. The animal was dreadfully exhausted, trembled, and was very stiff in its joints from overwork’.

Ramsden had apparently refused to say where he’d been that night when Barrett has asked him but in court he told Mr De Rutzen that he’d had no choice but to keep working as he was unable to get a fare and so ‘was determined to stay out until he did get one’. The two policemen that arrested him gave supporting evidence as to the state of the animal as did William Peacock, a vet living on Westbourne Park Villas.

The magistrate was clear that this was a ‘very gross case of cruelty’ and he sent Ramsden to prison for a month with hard labour. Hopefully the animal recovered but I fear that its future looked bleak and that a visit to a knacker’s yard was not that far away.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, May 20, 1884]

Soldiers are caught stealing from the stores as amateur football is eclipsed by the professionals

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An impression of the 1892 FA Challenge Cup final at Kennington Oval between West Bromwich Albion and Aston Villa

Yesterday Manchester City completed an unprecedented clean sweep of the domestic trophies for men’s football in England. In beating Watford 6-0 at Wembley they emphasized their dominance in professional football in this country and equaled the record for the largest winning margin in an FA Cup final (held by Bury who beat Derby by the same score in 1903). City epitomize the modern game: they are a team of millionaires playing for club that is owned by an oil rich nation, who play in a league that is funded to a large extent by the revenue it draws from selling the TV rights to subscription media companies like Sky and BT Sport.

Never before have the players and fans of football clubs been so distant (economically and socially) from each other. In 1883 Blackburn Olympic won the old FA Cup final, beating the Old Etonians 2-1 at the Kennington Oval after extra time. The final was significant because for the very first time a working-class team (and a northern one at that) had won against a team of  ‘gentlemen’ amateurs. In fact the Old Etonians were the last amateur club to win what was then the most prestigious trophy in English football. Thereafter football changed and northern or midlands teams went on to win the prize until 1901 when a little known southern non-league side won it, beating Sheffield United after a replay at Burnden Park in Bolton. Spurs’ victory in 1901 was a rare one for southern teams and the north and midlands dominated the history of the FA cup, at least until the modern era.

While today’s newspaper will be full of pictures of celebrating Manchester City players (and images from last night’s Eurovision song contest – something our Victorian ancestors did not have to suffer!) the papers in 1883 would have given much less space to football than ours do. It was a very popular working-class pastime but the 1883 final drew a crowd of just 8,000 to south London, and of course it wasn’t on television or the radio. Instead perhaps contemporaries would have lapped up the latest news from the police courts in 1883 as they digested their breakfast or supper, or sat around with their friends in the pub.

In May 1883 they might have read about the antics of three members of the Army Commissariat and Transport Corps who were set in the dock at Westminster  and charged with stealing from the stores at the Chelsea barracks. Joseph Maslin, William Earl and James Lane were accused of pinching 47 pairs of boots, 10 pairs of gloves and ‘other articles’, all valued at £46 11(or around £3,000 at today’s prices). All three men had previously unblemished service records and wore ribbons that indicated they had earned the Egypt medal for their efforts in the recent conflict with insurgents opposed to the British backed Khedive, Twefik Pasha (pictured right).   220px-MohamedTewfik

All three were remanded and sent for trial at the Old Bailey. There, on 28 May 1883 Earl was acquitted of all charges, Maslin was convicted of theft and Law of receiving stolen goods. Their previous good conduct and military service went in their favour as the jury recommended leniency: Law was sent to gaol for four months, and his partner Maslin for six, both were ordered to do hard labour whilst in prison.  Presumably both men were also dishonorably discharged from the army and the stores, which was described as being run in a ‘lax way’ by the judge at the Central Criminal court, underwent a reorganization.

[From The Morning Post, Saturday, May 19, 1883]

If you enjoy this blog series you might be interested in Drew’s jointly authored study of the Whitechapel (or ‘Jack the Ripper’) murders which is published by Amberley Books on 15 June this year. You can find details here: