Two Frenchman and the case of the missing umbrella

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Cannon Street Station, 1878

It was a chance meeting, the sort of thing that can happen on a long train journey. Cesar Blancher was newly arrived in England having taken the boat from France that morning. As he sat on the train to London his carriage door opened and a head appeared. The new arrival (who’s name was Emille Iron) asked if he might join the occupants and Blancher noticed his unmistakable French accent. Before long the two fellow countrymen had struck up a friendship as they travelled through the countryside of southern England.

When they got to London leaving their luggage at the railway station, they decided to dine together and, one thing leading to another, they ended up at the Royal Hotel in Blackfriars where they slept in the same room together. Iron was up early and woke his companion to tell him he was going to fetch their luggage from Cannon Street station.  Blancher acknowledged this but then rolled over and went back to sleep.

When he finally rose he wandered over to check the time on his watch. He had left his timepiece on the dressing table but now discovered it was missing. Soon he found that his purse and money (103 francs and £4 3s) was gone , along with a portmanteau and his umbrella.

Having dressed quickly he rushed downstairs to the concierge and found that there had been no sightings of M. Irons so he headed for Cannon Street. There he saw Irons leaving the station and about to step into a cab. Blancher approached him and immediately demanded he hand over his watch and chain, and other affects. Irons produced the watch but said he would give him the other items when they reached the hotel.  Blancher insisted on having his property straight away and when the other man refused he called over a policeman who arrested him.

The case ended up before Mr Vaughan at Bow Street where Irons denied stealing anything. He said he’d taken the watch so he’d know what time it was, and the purse so he could change the francs into sterling. The portmanteau he was taking to lodgings (presumably some he had found for the pair of them?).

And the umbrella Mr Vaughan asked, why had he taken that? Why, he thought it might rain the Frenchman replied to laughter in court.  The magistrate wanted to check both men’s version of events at the station so asked the clerk to track down the cabbie for his evidence. In the meantime M. Irons was remanded in custody and taken off to enjoy a slightly less grand accommodation for a few nights.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, December 04, 1878]

Bullying, touts and the London cab trade: the forgotten role of the waterman  

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You might be forgiven for thinking that a London waterman was someone that worked on the river in the Victorian period. This is certainly what these men did in the 1700s but by the nineteenth century the cabmen of the Thames had almost entirely disappeared from the water. Instead they set themselves up at hansom cab stands across the city, providing water for the horses and opening doors to assist fares to and from the streets. They earned a living from the cabbies (who paid for the water) and the passengers (who tipped them for their service).

Watermen don’t seem to have had a particularly good reputation however.  In 1853 Charles Manby Smith painted a comic and somewhat melancholic picture of them: poor, disheveled, the but of the cabbies’ jokes, standing out in all weathers, frequently splashed by ‘mud and mire’. Life was hard for the waterman and not infrequently short.

But perhaps this case demonstrates that watermen had a little more power than Smith credits them with, and suggests that they could, to some degree at least, control which cab drivers were able to ply their trade successfully.

In November 1847 John Cooke was charged with assault at Bow Street Police court. On the previous evening he’d been working as a waterman on the Strand, keeping the pitch at the Spotted Dog rank where two cabs were stood. Cooke helped a fare into the second cab, ignoring the one in front and presumably dispending with cab etiquette.

The driver of the first cab, Edward White, complained at this and asked him what he was doing. Cooke replied that he could ‘do what he chose and if [White] was cheeky he should not have a fare all night’.

White must have said something to him because the waterman now strode over to the cab and thrust his fist through the window, smashing it, and then hit the driver and dragged him out onto the street. He started to beat him up before a policeman intervened and arrested him.

In court the story was told and Mr Hall ordered Cooke to pay a fine of 40(with the threat of 14 days in prison if he did not) and added compensation of 1s 8d for White for the damage done to his cab window. Two of Cooke’s fellow watermen tried to argue that the cabbie had made up the story but the magistrate didn’t believe them. In terms of social status the policeman and hansom drivers were a class above the watermen who stood by the road and watered the horses, and Mr Hall wasn’t about to take their side. The papers described Cooke as ‘one of those persons known as “bucks” and “touts”’, suggesting his actions were well-known but not approved of.

So did watermen have some power here? Was this an example of them trying to extract some more money from the cabbies, or being used by certain cab drivers to control who got fares and where? The Strand would have been a prime position for hansoms after all, with its proximity to London’s clubs and theatres. Do doormen today have a role in which drivers get which fares? Do they get tips? Was this all part of the informal economy of Victorian London  and does it still exist?

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, November 19, 1847]

‘An awful responsibility rests on those that who have brought this war about’, a vicar tells an angry crowd in London

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This morning we remember the fallen of all conflicts but with particular focus on the 100 year anniversary of the end of the First World War. There has been a great deal of emphasis on those that lost their lives in the so-called ‘war to end wars’ with a powerful lightshow at the Tower of London and a count of the dead across the advertising screens in Piccadilly Circus. Across the country and across the world ordinary people, politicians, and members of the armed forces (serving ones and veterans) have been marking the armistice that was signed in 1918 on a railway carriage in France.

There have been some discordant voices; criticism has been aimed at those not wearing poppies and the president of the USA chose to avoid getting his hair wet rather than attending a ceremony to mark the sacrifice of the ‘doughboys’ who did so much to bring the conflict to an end on the Western Front.

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In 1899 (21 years before the end of the First World War) Britain was embroiled in a smaller colonial conflict in South Africa. The Boer War (as it was called then) ended up in a  victory for the Queen’s forces but for a while the irregular farmers of southern Africa embarrassed the finest army in the world. At home patriotism was high and there were joyful celebrations of victories, along with outpourings of sadness at the loss of life amongst the troops that sailed halfway across the world to defend the Empire.

The Reverend Francis Allen Minnitt was someone who objected to the sacrifice and believed, as a significant minority did, that the war was unnecessary. These sentiments were to voiced in 1914 and throughout the ‘Great War’ by those who for political, religious or moral reasons argued that war was wrong, or that ‘this war’ was wrong.

Rev. Minnitt had set himself up to speak in Betterton Street, Westminster and a crowd of (mostly) boys had surrounded him. The minister had been working with young boys in London for some time, trying to help the poorest avoid the temptations of crime and immorality, through education and work. But now he was also condemning the war and the men at the top of society that had sent so  many men off to fight and die in the Transvaal.

‘An awful responsibility rests on those that who have brought this war about’, he told the crowd.

The crowd didn’t like it. Several of them started heckling him, and two women argued and started fighting each other. Several of the boys had been at the Lord Mayor’s Show earlier and tossed a few of the apples they had filched at him. PC 352E was perambulating his beat and soon realised that the reverend was in trouble. Pushing his way through the crowd he grabbed hold of the cleric and asked him, none too politely, to ‘come along’ with him.

Rev. Minnitt was unhappy about the constable’s then but was eventually pulled away and then arrested  for causing an obstruction. On the next morning (the 10 November 1899) he was presented at Bow Street Police court where he protested taht he’d been doing nothing wrong. Mr Marsham (the presiding magistrate) told him that he had been chasing an obstruction  and, if the constable’s testimony was accurate, was also at serous risk of injury himself.

The cleric said he thought the officer ‘might have spoken in gentle tones’

‘He spoke too harshly. He pushed me along, and I wanted to retire with modesty and dignity’.

Unfortunately for him he got little sympathy from the court and the public gathered there, who struggled to stifle laughter as the clergyman spoke.

‘You were making a speech which was not agreeable to the people that heard it’, Mr Marsham explained, ‘and the constable took you into custody to prevent you being attacked’.

He went on to add:

‘I think the constable was quite right. Our soldiers in the Transvaal are fighting their country’s battles , and it was indiscreet of you in a mixed assembly of this kind to say anything about the war’.

The reverend made another little speech and again complained that the policeman might have been gentler to him but promised not to repeat his offence in future, and so he was discharged.

In 1902 there were large celebrations in London and other British cities to mark the final victory against the Boers. The war caused serious concerns at home at the state of the health and fitness of those recruited to serve in the armed forces. Poverty and its consequences were evident in the men and boys that went to war, and no amount of jingoism could cover the fact that it was a costly and far from certain victory. Within just 12 years Britain was again at war, this time in a conflict that would claim many many more young lives.

At the going down of the sun, we will remember them.

[from London Evening Standard, Saturday 11 November, 1899]

“I think you are in my seat sir”: A Row in the Dress Circle

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Today if you decide to go to see a West End show, concert or play you will always buy tickets, usually in advance, and sometimes on the door. The tickets will indicate where your seat is and that seat is yours regardless of whether you choose to sit and watch the performance of spend the entire evening propping up the bar. We might imagine it was ever thus but this story from October 1855 reveals that while you might pay to access a certain section of the theatre buying a ticket did not necessarily guarantee a particular seat.

Henry Burroughs and William Horner had decided to spend a night at the Drury Lane Theatre. They had paid to sit in dress circle and had occupied seats in one of the boxes there. They’d arrived around seven o’clock but at some point after that had gone down to the bar for some refreshment. When they returned (at about nine) with a friend they found two men sitting in their seats.

They politely asked the newcomers to leave but were (just as politely) rebuffed:

‘If the box-keeper says they are yours, we will give them up’, William Burt (one of the two occupants) replied, otherwise he was staying put. The theatre assistant (the ‘box-keeper’) was called over but assured them that no one had asked him to mind the gentlemen’s’ seats. Nor had any of the theatre-goers in the neighbouring seats. As far as William Burt (and his friend Seymour, a City solicitor) the seats were vacant and they were entitled to sit there.

Burroughs and Horner thought otherwise however and one of them leant foreword and grabbed Burt by his shirt collar, pulling his head back. His companions joined in and a fight broke out between the five men. The theatre erupted into chaos and the playhouse’s inspector was summoned. With some difficulty all the men were arrested and led away so the performance could continue in peace.

The next day Burroughs and Horner, ‘smartly-dressed young men’, were presented at Bow Street Police court to answer for their actions. They complained that they were the victims in all this: they’d only vacated their seats for a ‘few minutes’ and others had unfairly occupied them. They’d politely requested them to leave but they hadn’t. The row was regrettable but not entirely their fault.

Inspector Hancock from the theatre said he’d never had such a dreadful disturbance in all his four years of service. Nor was it normal for the box-officers to reserve seats in the outer circle, you took your chance and the men should have asked others to keep their seats for them while they sought refreshment. Mr Jardine the sitting magistrate agreed. While the fight had involved all five of them it was Burroughs and Horner that had started it and so he fined them 40s each, which they paid.

So next time you are sitting in a West End theatre make sure you are sitting in the right seat but if someone is in yours, be careful to ask the attendant to make them move.

[from Reynold’s Newspaper, Sunday, 21 October, 1855]

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]