‘You cannot possibly know her history’ A policeman gets a flea in the ear for his lack of compassion

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As PC Olding (269D) patrolled the streets in central London in September 1888 he may have counted his blessings that he had not been seconded to Whitechapel, as many officers were later that autumn. No part of the capital was ‘safe’ but few were as dangerous as the East End. By contrast with the men of H and K division, PC Olding had it easy.

Sadly that didn’t mean he held much sympathy for his fellow human beings and when he found an old woman asleep on a doorstep he shoved her roughly so that she woke up.

Margaret Elmore screamed.

Woken from sleep in the early hours of the morning she was probably disorientated and scared. after all news of the Whitechapel murderer’s attacks in the east were common knowledge throughout London.

Shouting ‘murder!’ and ‘police!’ Margaret flailed about and it took the officer some time to get her under control. Since, by his definition she was now ‘disorderly’ he arrested her and took her to the station. The next day she was up before the Police court magistrate at Marlborough Street.

There she told him a convoluted and quite possibly invented story of her troubles. She said she had out late searching for her daughter who’d been trafficked to Belgium but had latterly, she’d heard, returned. It was well known that English girls were sometimes taken to the continent to work in brothels (indeed that was one of the stories associated with Mary Kelly, the ‘Ripper’s fifth canonical victim). Margaret had even seen her daughter she claimed, twice it seems on the streets but hadn’t been able to catch up with her.

The policeman had told to go to the workhouse if she was homeless, to a casual ward, but she had no need of that she insisted. Her brother was a merchant in Cuba and gave her an allowance of £25 a year, while she ‘received £15 from another source, and a gentleman paid her rent’. If all that was true she was doing pretty well and her tale of searching the streets made some sense.

Of course it might all have been a fantasy but, as the magistrate told the policeman, ‘he could not possibly know her history’. It appeared, to him at least, to ‘be a sad one’ and he wasn’t about to penalize her for it. However, she should have gone home when the constable told her to. If she had then all of this trouble could have been avoided. He discharged her and ticked the constable off for his excessive zeal in arresting a 69 year-old woman who was doing no harm to anyone.

This concludes my two-week experiment in following the reports of the police courts in the newspapers of 1888. Tomorrow I’ll go back to a more random survey of the business of the courts. But if you have enjoyed these stories you might like to read my own analysis of the Jack the Ripper murder case which is available now from Amazon, and all good bookstores. 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.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, September 15, 1888]

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