A strange encounter at the British Museum (Natural History)

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I recently visited the Natural History Museum in South Kensington and while it is one of my favourite collections I’d never before gone into the minerals sections. The old cabinets full of precious metals, rocks and crystals were beautiful and fascinating, even if they looked as if they’d been placed there more than a 100 years ago and had never been disturbed. It was in stark contrast to much of the rest of the museum which has seen a series of modernization which appear to aimed at attracting its core visitor, small children.

The Natural History Museum opened its doors in 1881 after a building project that lasted eight years. It was really an offshoot of the British Museum but the natural history element of that collection, which had its roots in a large donation of items by Sir Hans Sloan in the mid 1700s, were being lost, sold off or damaged and the decision was made to find a new home for them.

It retained its link to the British Museum until 1963 when it became fully independent. Until then it was termed the British Museum (Natural History) which explains the puzzling context of this curious case from 1861, which would have taken place in Bloomsbury, not South Kensington.

Edward Stokes worked as an attendant at the museum and was keeping an eye on visitors to the minerals collection when he noticed an agitated man approach one of the cabinets. To his horror the large man suddenly smashed the glass of the display with his elbow, exposing the valuable crystals it contained. It was the act of thief but the man made no attempt to escape, and just stood there gazing at the wondrous items below.

Stokes rushed over and seized the would-be thief who claimed his arm had slipped and he had no intention to cause any damage. He didn’t seem drunk to the attendant but he was ‘a little strange in his manner’. The arrest led to the man being charged with damage and the intent to steal items valued at £15. The case was heard at Bow Street Police court before Mr Corrie, the sitting magistrate.

The museum was represented by a solicitor, Harding, and he explained that the prisoner in the dock was well known to the staff there. The man, who gave his names as George Gates, a one time butcher from Brighton, had been seen early  in the morning on more than one occasion, waiting to be admitted into the museum. As he was being led away by police after the incident on the 23 May he was recognized by two of his friends and they promised to let his relatives on the south coast know what had happened to him. Clearly there was some concern that Gates was suffering from a form of mental illness.

With its usual tact Reynolds Newspaper referred to Gates as a ‘lunatic at large’ and described him as ‘half-crazy looking’ as he stood in the Bow Street dock. However there had been nothing from his relatives to suggest that he was undergoing any treatment for his mental health and while he had been held in police custody he’d been examined by ‘a medical gentleman’ who had ‘declined to certify that he was insane’.

Once again Gates insisted that it was an accident; his foot had slipped, he told the magistrate, just as he was calling out to a friend to come and look at a particularly beautiful diamond, and he’d fallen onto the glass. Mr Corrie accepted that there had been no intent to steal the rock and he suggested the man was ‘probably half stupid from previous drink’.

He decided that Gates would have to pay for the damage, which was valued at 5sor else go to prison for 14 days. Searching his pockets Gates could only produce half that amount so he was duly committed. He handed the gaoler a note which said:

‘dear gal, have dinner ready for six’. It had no address, and he was taken down.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, June 2, 1861]

On June 15 Drew’s new book (co-authored by Andy Wise) is published by Amberley Books. It is a new study of the Whitechapel murders of 1888 which offers up a new suspect, links the ‘Jack the Ripper’ killings to the unsolved ‘Thames Torso’ crimes, and provides the reader with important contextual history of Victorian London. The book is available to order on Amazon here

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