‘I’ll knock your brains out, Policeman’: the perils of being a ‘grass’ in Victorian London’

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Working class communities were tightly packed in Victorian London. This meant that everyone knew everyone else’s business and gossip was rife. Communities also tended to band together against outsiders, be they immigrants, newcomers, or the police.

Stephen Dempsey had broken one of the cardinal rules of working-class communities: he had given information to police that had led to the arrest and prosecution of some of his near neighbours. That act had marked him out as a ‘grass’, a ‘snitch’, a police informant and the consequences were dire.

He was regularly abused, verbally and physically, and on Saturday the 8 June 1872 he was in his room when he heard a shout outside his door:

‘I’ll knock your brains out, Policeman’.

This was followed a crash and yelp as a pail of water was thrown at his wife as she climbed the stairs to their room. Then the door was kicked in and a man was standing there armed with a poker. The man, William Reardon, rushed at him and hit him twice about the head before another neighbor helped subdue and wrestle him clear.

The affair ended up with Reardon in the dock at Marlborough Street charged with assault. He denied the charge but admitted throwing water over Mrs Dempsey, but alleged it was in retaliation for her swearing at him.  She corroborated her husbands’ version of events and Dempsey’s role in informing on Reardon’s associates was revealed. Dempsey had earned the nickname ‘policeman’ for being a well-known police informer. Mr. Newton accepted bail but committed the prisoner for a jury trial. Reardon was indicted for wounding but acquitted on that charge and released.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, June 16, 1872]

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