A befuddled old man ends up in the wrong bed

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It was about 10 o’clock at night and Jane Black was feeling unwell. Her husband worked in a nightclub and was often late home so she decided to take herself to bed. An hour later she work up, conscious that someone had joined her but as she moved to greet her partner she was instead shocked to find that she was in bed with a complete stranger!

Mary screamed and raced down the stairs in her nightclothes. The commotion woke the house and brought several other lodgers out of their rooms. The landlord went up to Mary’s room and found Edward Williams, an elderly man of 65 years, sitting on the edge of the bed in only his shirt. He was drunk and admitted:

‘I fancy I may have made a mistake. Well if I can’t sleep in the bed , let me sleep on the floor’.

The police were called and the uninvited ‘guest’ was arrested.

A prosecution for assault followed at Bow Street on the next morning and Mr Vaughan was told that Williams had been let in by the landlord. The landlord said he and his wife had retired to bed but later heard someone fumbling at the door, trying to get into the house. He had opened the door and asked who the person wanted. ‘Mary Ann Black, of course’, the stranger replied, so he’d let him in. It was dark, and he assumed it was Mary’s husband.

The magistrate decided that he needed to know more about Williams and so he remanded him in custody that enquiries could be made into his character and mental health.

This case really shows us that we have to be careful about how we read a newspaper report. What is written above is how the incident was recorded in Lloyd’s Weekly, and there is no real hint that this is anything other than an amusing and not very serious case of a drunken old man getting confused and finding the wrong door.

But on the 25 October Edward Williams, a 40 year-old labourer, was sent to Pentonville Prison for 12 months for indecently assaulting Jane Black. He was committed to trial by Mr Vaughan so we can sure this is one and the same man. Not a 65 year-old who lost his way but a would-be rapist that tricked his way into Mrs Black’s bed while her husband was at work.

That is quite a different story to the one the newspaper presented.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, October 14, 1888]

The man who was flogging a dead horse

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I start teaching my third year module on London in the late nineteenth century, which looks at crime, popular culture and social history in the 1880s. It will be the 10th year since I devised this module and its run in 9 of those. Over the years it has evolved and I’ve developed the context and assessments but the focus remains the same: using the ‘Jack the Ripper’ murders of 1888 as a prism through which to explore a range of contemporary topics. It prompted my 2010 book (London’s Shadows) and my continuing interest in the ‘Ripper’ case.

While the Ripper case dominated ‘crime news’ in 1888 the police courts continued almost as if nothing was happening in the East End. The same range of petty thefts, domestic and public violence, fraudulent scams, drunks, disorderly prostitutes, and vagrants continued to be the stock of most lower court reports.

So take today in 1888 for example, the first case (from Bow Street) featured an elderly man who had tried to pass counterfeit currency in a central London pub. He was caught along with two accomplices and remanded in custody. Over at Westminster Police court two newspaper sellers were prosecuted for robbing a man in the street. Francis Hoare (a pub landlord on a visit to the capital) had fallen over in the street.  William Turner and Edward Lynch rushed to help but then used that as cover to lift his pocket watch; both men were ‘known’ to the police and the magistrate remanded them for further enquires.

Across the river Thames at Greenwich Police court Thomas Pettitt was accused of mistreating a horse. Mr Sheil was told that Pettitt, a potato dealer, had been working a horse that was clearly ill. The case was brought by an officer of the RSPCA who testified that the beast was ‘suffering from several sores and partly fractured fetlocks’.

Pettitt’s poor defence was that he had only taken up dealing in potatoes recently; he was previously a draper, and didn’t understand horses. Mr Shiel countered that excuse with:

‘any fool must have known the horse was not fit for work’.

He added – the RSPCA’s officer – that in future individuals shouldn’t be summoned but instead they should be arrested and the animal impounded so a magistrate could look at it and come to an opinion about its state of health. That, he said, was ‘better than the evidence of the whole College of Veterinary Surgeons’ (which I doubt went down well with that august body of men).

Any inspection of the horse was now impossible as Pettitt told Mr Sheil he thought it was dead. The magistrate fined him £3 with 2s costs and gave him a week to find the money or he would send him to prison for a fortnight. London was served by thousands of horses in the Victorian period, and very many of them were simply worked till they dropped.

At that point their masters called for a horse slaughterer to dispatch them and this usually meant someone from the firm of Harrison & Barber, who held a virtual monopoly in the capital. Not surprisingly, as men used to cutting up animals, some of the first people the police questioned in the aftermath of Polly Nichol’s murder in August 1888 were slaughterer’s from the nearby Barber’s yard.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, October 05, 1888

The ‘exorbitant’ cost of a West End hotel

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We all know that staying overnight in a London hotel can be expensive. The closer you are to the centre the higher the prices and I’ve talked to people who have booked ‘cheaper’ accommodation in London only to find that they are actually commuting in from Hertfordshire!

So it is well known today that the capital is expensive but what about in the past? Was London a trap for visitors in the nineteenth century as well?

Well, if this case from 1830 is anything to go by then yes, it was.

An unnamed gentleman and his wife had come up to London for the night and checked in to a ‘well known hotel and the west end of town’. They took their room and ordered some food and drink, stout for the lady and a brandy and soda for her husband. When room service arrived the waiter brought them a pair of wax candles and the gentleman attempted to send them away.

‘My wife and I are very moderate persons, and have no desire to pay for extravagances, so common candles [i.e tallow ones] will do for us quite as well as wax’.

The waiter said they could do as they liked but they would be charged for wax ones whether he left them or not, so they might as well enjoy them. The hotel clearly had a policy of charging customers for ‘extras’ (a bit like the way that some hotels today add hidden items to your bill).

In the morning the guests were presented with a bill that they felt was extortionate:

1830, 29 September

One bed – waiter, chambermaid, and porter, 6s

two suppers, 5s ; stout 1s, brandy and water 24d;

Apartment, 76d; wax lights 2s 6d; two breakfasts, 4s; ham with breakfast, 2s;

Total £1 10s4d.

So the overnight stay had cost the couple about £100    in today’s money, the candles alone were £8.50. Now £100 for one night in the west end may not sound too much given  that included breakfast, drinks and supper but in 1830 that represented a week’s wages for a skilled tradesman whereas today £100 might buy you a plumber or carpenter for a day. In reality then the hotel had charged them about £500 for their night’s accommodation; today you might easily pay that or more.

The gentleman refused to pay his bill on the grounds that he was being overcharged so the hotel manager seized his luggage. The man took his complaint to Bow Street and Mr Halls. The magistrate agreed that the bill was excessively high but there was nothing he could do about it, the hotel was well within its rights to charge whatever they liked and told him that ‘persons that went to houses like the one in question went with their eyes open’.

The gentlemen left in a grump muttering that he would put the matter in the hands of his solicitor.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, October 01, 1830]

 

‘If you had been pursued all over London and were hated by the government, you would wish to shoot yourself’: drama at Bow Street as a respectable citizen tries to take his own life.

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This story is both sad and dramatic as it concerns a man’s very public attempt at suicide. Most of the cases that I’ve written about previously that have involved suicide have been women and most of those have chosen to end their lives by throwing themselves into the River Thames or one of the canals that ran through the capital. Most were prevented by quick-thinking policemen or passers-by and ended up before magistrates because attempting to take one’s life was against the law in the 1800s.

In this example the defendant was a man, and a respectable one at that. Robert H. Rhodes lived in St John’s Wood and worked for the Land Revenue Record Office. So Robert was a middle class white-collar worker, he was married and he had children and so was a very long way, it would seem, from the desperation of the usually poor and destitute women (and men) who chose to throw themselves from the various bridges that crisscrossed the Thames.

Appearances can be deceptive of course, and mental illness is no respecter of class or wealth. Rhodes was under some sort of pressure: in his appearance that Bow Street he told Mr Bridge (sitting as the duty magistrate) that he had ‘been pursued all over London, and [was] hated by the Government and bullied by everyone’.

While we don’t know why exactly Robert decided to end his life we do know how. In mid September 1886 the revenue man walked into a gunmaker’s shop in Cockspur Street near Trafalgar Square. He showed the assistant a cartridge he’d brought with him and asked to see some revolvers that might fit it. The shopkeeper brought out some examples and Rhodes calmly selected one and loaded it with his cartridge.

Then he ‘turned the revolver round till the muzzle pointed to his head and was trying to pull the trigger when the shopkeeper seized his arm’, and saved his life. The police were called and Rhodes was led away. As the constable took him to the nearest police station Rhodes begged him to let him end his life saying that otherwise ‘his wife and family would be forever ruined’.

We get no further clues as to what had led Robert Rhodes to make this terrible decision to kill himself but perhaps he was about to lose his position, or owed a large amount of money, or was suffering in some other way with the pressures of his job? Two gentlemen approached the bench and said they would take care of him and be responsible for his future conduct. I presume these were his friends or colleagues.  They agreed to be bound for six months as sureties at £250 each (about £16,500 today, so a huge sum of money) and Mr Bridge duly released Robert on the condition he did not repeat his attempt within that period.

[from The Standard , Tuesday, September 21, 1886]

For other cases involving attempted suicide see:

A man is driven to attempt suicide because of his ‘reduced circumstances’

A bad week in London, full of personal tragedy

A destitute Essex girl in London makes the news

A circus artist for whom the show cannot go on alone

Pickett climbs a fence and saves a life

‘I thought it would give a man a job’; one man’s weak excuse for breaking windows

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George Jackson had a strange way of helping the late Victorian economy. On Sunday 19 August 1883 he picked up a handful of stones in the Strand and put them in his pocket. He walked on down the Strand in the direction of what was then the Charing Cross railway and foot bridge, heading for Whitehall. In 1883 this was where the majority of the government buildings were, including the Home Office on the corner of Charles Street and parliament Street.

At ten to one in the morning he was seen by PC 31 of A Division who watched as the young man lobbed two stones at the windows of the Home Office building. As the plate glass window smashed the police officer rushed over and seized the culprit as he calmly walked away. Jackson was taken away and brought before the sitting magistrate at Bow Street on the Monday morning after.

Mr Flowers wanted to know why he had thrown the stones, telling him he ‘had acted like an idiot’. The magistrate declared that:

I cannot understand a man willfully breaking a window and walking off’, adding: ‘You are not a glazier, are you?’

No, but I thought it would give a man a job’, was Jackson’s reply.

Yes, and you a month’s imprisonment’, quipped Mr Flowers.

It was a case of willful damage to government property but not overly serious. Certainly it was something the magistrate was well within his power to deal with summarily. However, he was inclined, he said, to send Jackson for trial where he could expect a more severe sentence. The prisoner’s situation wasn’t helped by the appearance of a policeman from L Division who said that he’d previously been convicted for breaking windows in Lambeth. The justice there had sent him down for a month but he’d not learned from his experience.

Mr Flowers decided to remand his for a few more days ‘for enquiries’. George would have to sweat it out in a cell for the time being as he waited to find out his fate.

In the end Jackson turned up at the Middlesex Sessions having been committed for trial almost a year later on a separate charge by one of Flowers’ fellow magistrates, Mr Vaughan. He was tried on the 5 February 1884 for ‘maliciously damaging three panes of glass, the property of Her Majesty’s Commissioners of Works’.

George Jackson clearly had a problem with authority and government. He pleaded guilty but despite this, and probably because his previous convictions now counted hard against him, the judge sentenced him to eight years in prison. Jackson was listed as being 33 years old and a carpenter. Perhaps he was a disgruntled former government employee, now out of work (as many were in the 1880s (the decade that coined the word ‘unemployment’).

Maybe also he was suffering from some form of mental illness. Either way, eight years was a very stiff penalty for breaking windows and reflects both the harshness of the late Victorian ‘justice’ system and contemporary fears associated with terror attacks in the capital, of which there were several in the 1883-5.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, August 26, 1883]

A Dickensian tale of two drinking buddies who confound the ‘old bill’.

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There are moments of genuine comedy in the newspaper reporting of the police courts that offer a clear and (I expect) deliberate palliative to all the domestic violence, callous villainy, and desperately sad tales of poverty and attempted suicide that otherwise filled the daily columns. You can also see the influence of Charles Dickens and indeed the inspiration for many of his characters. Dickens was an observer of life as his saw it on his long walks around the capital and the crowded courtrooms of London must have been a rich source for the writer.

I’m sure that the readers of the Chronicle on Monday 23 August 1858 were well aware that the previous sitting at Bow Street Police court had heard the cases of 50-100 or more drunks, thieves, disorderly women, wife beaters, fraudsters and juvenile delinquents, let alone the ‘jumpers’, ‘crazies’ and numerous homeless beggars, but the first story they saw was one designed as ‘light relief’ from the grim reality of criminality and poverty in mid Victorian London.

Mary Ann Glover was brought up from the cells at Bow Street to answer a charge of stealing a watch and chain. The victim was Charles Johnson, and the two were apparently well acquainted. The evidence against Glover was presented by the arresting officer, PC Rook of F Division, Metropolitan Police.

PC Glover described how he was on beat near Clare Market at about 5 or 6 in the morning when he heard cries of ‘police!’. Hurrying towards the sounds he entered a house in Plough Court and found Glover and a man (Johnson) locked in an embrace and it appeared that she was trying to remove his watch and chain from his neck.

When the policeman intervened Mary said she was only going ‘to mind it’ for him but PC Rook grabbed it from her and said he would look after it and arrested Mary for the attempted theft.

In her defence Mary told Mr Hall (the Bow Street magistrate on duty) that she and ‘Charley’ were old friends, and called across for Charley’s confirmation:

‘Haven’t we Charley?’ ‘Yes’, said the victim (‘in a sleepy tone’) ‘we have’.

‘And I should never think of robbing Charley any more than I should you, please your worship. But I was out in St. Paul’s Churchyard* last night with the woman as keeps the house where I live, and she, poor thing, suddenly dropped down dead, and I ought to be at the inquest, please your worship, at this very moment, I did’.

Mary then began to recount the full events of that night and how she, with Charley, went on a drinking spree around several of the local pubs.

‘we went and had some drink at the Dark House, and then a little more at the Green Dragon; and after that…’

Here Mr Hall cut her short.

I don’t want to know the names of all the places where you drank. No doubt you drank at every public-house that was open’, he grumbled.

Mary went on to explain that Charley had got so drunk she thought she’d better look after him (‘there being so many bad characters in the district’) which was why she was helping back home and relieving him of his valuables. She would have continued to defend herself with a blow-by-blow account of her life and times but the justice had heard enough.

‘Stop. Stop. Hold your tongue for two minutes’ he told her and turned to the supposed victim.

Do you think she meant to rob you’, he asked.

Lord, no sir; she wouldn’t do it’.

Then what did you give her in custody for?’ Mr Hall demanded.

 

Charley started at him, amazed: ‘I did not give her into custody’ he spluttered.

The policeman had of course, and whether Mary was actually robbing her old acquaintance’ or protecting his valuables was moot; they saw themselves as fellow travellers on one side of the law and in their world the police were most definitely on the other. The last laugh then was on poor PC Rook who had effectively wasted the court’s time by bringing a charge ‘that never was’.

Mary was discharged and the pair waddled off together towards the inquest which with another little story to tell their chums down the Green Dragon (or wherever) later. Dickens might have written it himself.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Monday, August 23, 1858]

A remarkable woman challenges the patriarchy

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Mrs Georgina Weldon

In August 1883 a woman appeared at the Bow Street Police court to ask for a summons against a psychiatrist whose name is perhaps family to researchers interested in the ‘Jack the Ripper’ case. Lyttelton Forbes Winslow was born in London in 1844 and trained as a physician, like his father. He became a psychiatrist like his father but was a controversial figure, falling out with his family and making seemingly spurious claims about his knowledge of who the Whitechapel murderer was.

Winslow believed the killer was the Canadian born G. Wentworth Smith who had arrived in London for work and lodged with a couple in Finsbury Square. Smith was apparently overheard declaring that ‘all prostitutes should be drowned’ and this was reported to Winslow by Mr Callaghan, the Canadian’s landlord.

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Winslow told the police, who investigated and dismissed his thesis, but the doctor persisted to talk it up at every opportunity. When he was eventually interviewed by Chief Inspector Swanson Winslow crumbled and said he’d been misrepresented in the press (which had carried the story). One Ripper theorist (Donald McCormick) suggested that the police even suspected Winslow himself of being the murderer.

Forbes Winslow’s real notoriety however, and his rejection by the mainstream medical community, was down to events before 1888 and linked in fact to this case at Bow Street. In 1878 he had attempted to commit Mrs Wheldon to a lunatic asylum at the request of her husband. This ended up in a long running court battle of which this request for a summons seems to have been a part.

Georgina Weldon was an opera singer who led a colourful life and become estranged from her husband Harry, a former officer in the Hussars. She’d filled her house with orphan children and when Weldon became increasing exasperated at the expense of keeping his ex-wife (at £1,000 a year) he tried to do what many Victorian men did and have his wife put away as a lunatic on account of her interest in spiritualism (which was increasingly popular at the end of the 1800s).

Her examination was conducted in an underhand manner by doctors who pretended they were interviewing her about her orphanage and Georgina soon realised something as amiss. She couldn’t sue her husband directly until the law changed in 1882 but seems to have sued everyone involved at some point and to have been a champion of litigation (‘the Portia of the Law Court’s as she was dubbed).

At this appliance in August 1883 Georgina had requested a summons to bring Dr Forbes Winslow to court to prove she was not insane. Mr Flowers, the Bow Street magistrate, declined her a summons but stated that he was entirely satisfied she was not mad. He added that she could of course apply at a higher court to bring Dr Winslow to book, which of course she went on to do.

Georgina Weldon went to prison, gave public lectures, wrote a number of books and articles about her experiences and sang and published songs. She died just over six months before the outbreak of the First World War and perhaps deserves to be better known than she is. She certainly stands out as a woman who was not prepared to accept the lot that life dealt her; that is (or was) to be a submissive wife of a Victorian military man.

She carved out her own destiny and challenged the medical and legal patriarchy at every turn and its a shame she didn’t make it to the end of the war to see the sisterhood win the right to vote. She was a quite remarkable Victorian lady.

[from Morning Post, Monday 13 August 1883]