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:

‘You nearly killed this old woman’: ‘If not, I  ________ will soon!’ Jealousy and violence is fuelled by a night of heavy drinking

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Most of the domestic violence cases that I have written about over the last three years of this blog have involved men beating their wives. The majority of attackers were younger men or men in their 30s or 40s, their wives similarly, but today’s example is a man in his late 50s who brutally assaulted his elderly partner who was 63 years of age.

Timothy and Mary Reece had been married for 30 years, a considerable achievement in any age but perhaps especially in the harsh conditions of working-class life in Victorian London. They lived in the East End, in Edward Street, Hoxton and on a Saturday night in May 1854 that the attack happened.

PC Austin (224N) was alerted to the assault by the noise coming from a crowd of around 150 persons that had gathered outside the couple’s home. Shouts of ‘murder!’ had rang out and the constable forced his way through the throng to find Mary lying on her back in the passage of the house. Timothy was dragging her by the legs, intending to throw her into the street and – symbolically – out of his life. He stopped when he saw the policeman.

Mary was falling out of consciousness;

her tongue was protruding and quite black, and her mouth was full of blood. Her face also was black and much bruised, and it was some time before she recovered her senses, and she then complained of being injured in the ribs’.

PC Austin told Reece that he had ‘nearly killed this old woman’, to which he merely grumbled ‘If not, I  ________ will soon’.

Timothy Reece was arrested and his wife was taken to hospital to have her injuries assessed and treated. A few days later Reece was in court at Worship Street and his wife, still recovering and using a stick to support herself, was summoned to give evidence against him.

He said that the altercation was her fault, that she had misbehaved in some way. A neighbour, Elizabeth Guterfield, suggested that he was jealous of her and the landlord, something she found ridiculous. On the night in question both parties had been drunk she testified. Timothy had been pushing her along the street as they made their way back from drinking in Bishopsgate and his wife was swearing at him.

She wasn’t sure why or how the jealousy had arisen but she insisted that in her day Mary had been a beautiful woman. She went on to describe Mary’s ‘departed charms’ to the court while the court observed the victim in court who ‘certainly bore no present trace of them’.

Mary herself said she could remember very little of the events of Saturday night as she was out of her senses. Even in court she was under the influence. She did say she’d borne 15 children in her life, six of whom were still alive. According to Timothy the couple had had eight children so whether the other seven were from another relationship or he was simply unaware of them is impossible to say.

Mr D’Eyncourt sentenced Timothy Reece to three month’s hard labour and bound him over to keep the peace to his wife for six months on his release. It was a common enough punishment for a wife beater and evidently well deserved. Whether it would do any good however, is debatable. Mary had to be summoned to court, I doubt she wanted to press charges and her situation was not really helped by losing her husband for 12 weeks. I also doubt whether this was the first time he’d hit her, although perhaps it was the most serious of a number of smaller assaults.

Working class life in mid nineteenth-century London was hard, extremely hard. Grinding poverty was a fact of daily life there and it seems both of them self-medicated with alcohol to alleviate the pain of it. Both seemed older than they really were: the newspaper reporter thought Mary was over 70 and described Timothy Reece as ‘elderly’. She was 63 and he was several years younger, so perhaps my age. Alcohol and poverty had taken its toll on both of them, physically and emotionally, and they had little hope of any improvement as they headed towards their dotage. There were no old age pensions to collect (those arrived in 1908, too late for Timothy and Mary) and little support outside the hated workhouse. Cheap drink – gin and beer – was their only comfort but alcohol (as we all know) fuels jealousy and violence and domestic violence in particular.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, May 18, 1854]

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:

A cheeky guest and a runaway wife: all in a day’s work for the Marlborough Street beak

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Today I shall mostly be at a one-day conference at the Open University near Milton Keynes. For those that don’t know the OU is home to the Centre for the History of Crime, Policing and Justice and some eminent historians of the police such as Clive Emsley, Chris Williams and Paul Lawrence. I’m not speaking but I am chairing a panel, which means I have to stay awake and take notes, so I can ask poignant questions and (most importantly) make sure nobody goes over time. The conference is called The Architecture of the State: Prisons, Courts & Police Stations in Historical Perspective and my panel has two excellent looking talks on courts.

I’ve been spending a lot of time in courts recently, albeit ones convened well over 100 years ago. This morning I’m at Marlborough Street in the year following the creation of the Metropolitan Police, 1830. No policemen feature in either of the cases I’m looking at today which probably reflects the fact that Londoners were still getting used to the idea of turning to them when a crime occurred.

When William Grant knocked at the door of Mr William Holmes MP in Grafton Street the footman let him in. After all he was ‘fashionably dressed’ and had asked to see Lady Stronge, the politician’s wife. William Holmes was a Conservative member of parliament for Grampound in Cornwall, a rotten borough which returned two MPs before the Great Reform Act of 1832 swept such corrupt practices away. Lady Stronge was the widow of Sir James Stronge, an Irish baronet who had died in 1804, and she was 10 years older than her second husband.

Grant was asked to wait in the dining room while the footman went up to announce him. While he waited he pocketed three silver spoons from the sideboard. He was discovered as he ascended the stairs because the footman heard them clanking his jacket. He was taken before Mr Dyer at Marlborough Street who remanded him in custody.

Earlier that session Mr Dyer had a strange request for help from ‘an elderly gentleman’ about his missing wife. The man, whose name was kept out of the newspapers, told the justice that about a month ago his wife had left home complaining of ill health. She had promised him that she would go to the country, to visit to her friends, and presumably to take the air and recover.

She’d not been gone long however when he realized that a ‘considerable quantity of valuable property’ had disappeared as well. The old man wrote a letter to her relatives to ask after her and received a reply that they hadn’t seen her for ages!

The poor man now made some enquiries and discovered that she was living in St John’s Wood with another man. Far from retiring to the county for the good of her health she’d run off to begin an adulterous relationship with a younger man. He had tried to see her but was prevented from doing so. His only contact had been when he saw her walking with her new beau on Fleet Street.

The elderly husband was clearly at his wits end but laboring under the misconception that his wife had been abducted and so he asked Mr Dyer for his help in rescuing her. The magistrate explained that there was little he could do in this situation but if he truly believed that  she was bring held against her will then he could apply for a writ of habeas corpus and serve it on his rival. Satisfied with this answer the old man left the court, no doubt in search of a lawyer.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, May 17, 1830]

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:

‘It is really quite dreadful to see young children standing in the dock charged with drunkenness’. Two young girls are led astray

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We might like to believe that children grow up faster these days or lose their innocence at an earlier age than they did in the past, but how true is this? There is a temptation to believe that everything was better in the past when prices were lower, the elderly were respected, and there was less crime. Often this mythical ‘golden age’ is associated with the 1950s the last decade before standards dropped as the ‘swinging sixties’ turned society upside down.

In reality of course the problems we face today are not really new ones just old ones in modern packaging. There were, for example, concerns about youth gangs in the Victorian period, and fears about the feckless nature of working-class youth go back to the end of the Napoleonic wars and beyond, as Geoffrey Pearson showed in his seminal study of youth crime Hooligans in 1983. So it is not at all surprising to find Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper reporting on ‘rival gangs of roughs’ staging pitch battles in the capital in 1887.

Members of ‘gangs’ from Child’s Hill and Hendon fought with ‘lads’ from Maida Vale, Kilburn and Lisson Grove that autumn, arriving in ‘forces of 50 to 100, armed with sticks and belts’. According to the police ‘quite a riot followed’. Two of the combatants ended up before the magistrate at  Marylebone where they were charged with assault on a policeman that intervened in the battle. Edward Martell (17) was sent to gaol for 21 days and Arthur Hillman (19) for two weeks. But it was two other young people that caught my attention in the report of cases heard at Marylebone that week, Mary Ann Cook and Helen Cawthorn.

Mary was 12 and Helen 13 and they were brought in for being found drunk and incapable. The magistrate, Mr De Rutzen, was told that Mary Cook was lying in the gutter late on Sunday night when PC Miles (122S) discovered her as he patrolled Camden High Street. He picked her up and took her to the police station. Helen Cawthorn had already been taken to the Temperance Hospital on Hampstead Road and PC Sinclair (302S) had been called to collect her by officials there. Once they were both at the police station the desk sergeant sent for a doctor to examine the girls and he confirmed that they were both quite drunk.

In court the police deposed that enquiries were made and it had been discovered that the pair had ‘been with some ‘low rough boys’ from the neighbourhood and it was them that had led them astray and encouraged them to drink. They suspected that the boys had taken them to a public house but they couldn’t find out yet which one that was. Presumably they would have brought a prosecution against the landlord if they had.

Both girls’ parents were in court to speak up for their children. Mrs Cook said that her daughter had asked to go out to play on Sunday evening and she had allowed it. The first she heard of any trouble was when the police informed her that Mary was in custody. The mother was clearly shocked as she and her husband ‘were abstainers and encouraged their children in temperance principles’. Mr Cawthorn also said his daughter was usually very well behaved and that this was out of character.

The magistrate addressed the girls and said that ‘really quite dreadful to see two young children standing in the dock charged with drunkenness’. He accepted that the local boys had led them on but they should have known better than to go to a pub with them.  ‘It was the first step down hill’ he declared but fining them would do not good (since they’d have no money to pay)  and prison would ‘only make them worse’. So he discharged them into the care of their parents and hoped the disgrace of a court appearance would serve as sufficient warning for the future.

At this point a Mr Thompson steeped forward. He was a police court missionary, a member of a charitable organization that acted to help defendants if they promised to take the pledge and abstain from alcohol. He stated that it was his belief that both girls had once belonged to a Band of Hope, a temperance organization that had been established  mid century in Leeds. Children could join at the age of six and were taught to avoid the evils of drink. Thompson said he would try to get the pair reinstated in the group so they could be steered away from the dangerous path they had set themselves upon.

The police court missionaries started as an offshoot of the Temperance  movement but established themselves as an important part of the life of the police courts. They advised magistrates who came to trust them, especially where  (as was often the case) the offence the accused was up for involved drunkenness. In 1887 parliament passed the Probation of First Offenders Act which allowed a person charged on a first offence to be released without punishment if the court deemed it appropriate. There was no supervision order at first but this followed in subsequent legislation and eventfully, in 1907, the Probation service was created. Not only did probation offer the first real alternative to a custodial sentence it also signaled a new welfare approach to offenders, once aimed at helping them to reform rather than simply locking them up and hoping they learned the appropriate message.

It was an important breakthrough in offender management so it is deeply troubling that 112 years later probation has been allowed to fall into such a parlous state that the justice secretary has had to admit today that its experiment with part privatization has failed. David Gauke has effectively reversed the 2014 decision of one of his predecessors, the woefully incompetent Chris Graying, and returned the supervision of those on probation to public sector control. Grayling’s mistake has cost the taxpayer close to £500,000,000 and Dame Glenys Stacey (Chief probation inspector) said it was ‘irredeemably flawed’. It is not just the financial cost of course, Grayling’s bungling has had a negative effect on the lives of those realised into supervision and the general public who have suffered because of poor or insufficient supervision.

In May this year Grayling cancelled was forced to cancel ferry contracts he’d sanctioned to ‘ensure critical imports could reach the UK in the event of a no-deal Brexit’ costing us £50,000,000. He had already been forced to pay £33,000,000 in compensation for not including Eurotunnel in the bidding for the same contracts. £1,000,000 was paid to consultants in seeking to make a contract with a ferry company (Seaborne Freight) who had no ships.

Chris Grayling is still a minister in Her Majesty’s government.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, September 25, 1887]

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 took the shawl from distress, for I had no money to buy one and was perishing with cold’: desperation or conspiracy as two old offenders appear at Wandsworth

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John Rogers kept a beer tent at Wandsworth fair. We’ve probably all encountered a beer tent at music festival or county show but this was likely to have been a little smaller and I doubt today that the landlord and his staff would sleep overnight in it! This, however, is exactly what Rogers did in May 1845. Presumably, as the fair went on for a number of days, he was obliged to sleep in his tent to protect his stock and his taking. If this was the case he failed completely, because overnight he was robbed of 17(about £50 today).

The beer seller was taken in by two criminals – Daniel Sullivan and Kesiah Edwards – who presented to be cousins that had just been reunited after an absence of 14 years. There may have been some truth in their separation as Sullivan had only recently returned from transportation to Australia, but I doubt he told that story to John Rogers. Sullivan and been in and out of the tent all-day, eating and drinking but not always paying. He’d returned with Kesiah in the evening and she’d told the tale of them meeting by chance at the fair after so many lost years.

As Rogers was closing up the couple asked if they could sleep overnight in the tent having nowhere else to go. He took pity of them (a mistake) and he and his two staff settled down to rest after their long day. In the morning Rogers woke to find that his pocket had been cut open and all his money stolen. Edwards was still curled up in one corner of the beer tent but Sullivan was nowhere to be seen.

Kesiah Edwards now denied knowing Sullivan at all. However, she was certain it was him that had taken the money as she’d seen him using a razor blade to cut up his food. In fact, she declared, wasn’t that the blade over there? –picking up a razor from the ground. The beer seller must have realized that he’d been played and he had her arrested before setting off to see if he could find the other thief.

He had an inkling of Sullivan’s likely haunts and eventually found him in a pub at the Elephant & Castle (the Alfred’s Head) where he was treating all his mates to a drink, at Roger’s expense. The former convict came quietly and Rogers deposited him at the nearest police station. The next day he and his two captives appeared at Wandsworth Police court where the pair were charged with robbery.

Sullivan cut an imposing figure in the dock with the court reporter describing him as having ‘a most forbidding appearance’; Kesiah Edwards was ‘decently attired in black’ and she was the only one to offer a defense to the charge presented, Sullivan said nothing at all.

She claimed that she’d met Sullivan at the fair and he’d ‘treated her’. He then asked her to be his common law wife. None of this was what she wanted but she had nowhere to sleep that night so went along with his suggestion that they shelter in the beer tent. Her instance that there was no conspiracy between was slightly undermined by the evidence of PC Griffiths (126M) who had looked into the tent on his rounds and had noticed Sullivan and Edwards lying together, evidently deep in quite conversation.

Mr Paynter – the magistrate at Wandsworth that day – was in no doubt that the pair were in this together and committed them both for trial. After Sullivan had ben taken back down to the cells a second charge was brought against the female prisoner. Kesiah was now accused of stealing a shawl from an inmate at the Wandsworth workhouse. Her claims of being homeless at the fair seemed accurate now as it was established that she’d spent the previous Saturday night in the poor house. She offered no defense this time, admitting her crime:

‘I do not deny this robbery’, Kesiah told the court, ‘but I had nothing to do with the other’. ‘I took the shawl from distress, for I had no money to buy one and was perishing with cold’.

She was asked where she was from and gave a sad tale of being the widow of a ‘respectable tradesman’ who had ‘buried my five children all within a twelvemonth’.  It was a ‘pitiable’ story the beak agreed but that did not excuse her dishonesty or criminality. She was led away sobbing to face trial on both charges.

At the Old Bailey that May Edwards was acquitted of the robbery in the beer tent but having pleaded guilty to stealing the shawl she was sent to prison for six months. The jury rejected Sullivan’s defense that he had been ‘drinking all night, and knew nothing about it’ and convicted him. The judge sentenced him to be transported back to Australia, this time for 10 years. He had stolen 17(£50) and she had confessed to taking a shawl valued at 4(or £12 now).

It was a very harsh sentence for Sullivan but he’d had his chance and blown it.  Recidivists  were not tolerated if their former crimes were brought up against them in the Victorian justice system. I have more sympathy though for Edwards. Her story may have been a fabrication but it echoes with the lives of many poor women in the nineteenth century – recently highlighted by Hallie Rubenhold’s study of the five canonical victims of Jack the Ripper. Women like Kesiah had to live by their wits if they were to survive in an unforgiving world. Some turned to prostitution, others stole or begged, still more stayed with abusive partners simply because a bad man was better than no man if it meant you had a roof over your head and food in your belly.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, May 15, 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: