Refections on VE day – looking back over 150 years of change and continuity

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Today marks 75 years since VE Day (Victory in Europe) 1945. Historians and commentators are writing all sorts of things about the significance of this anniversary and about celebrating it at a time when the country (and the world) is experiencing the most serious health emergency for 100 years.

I thought – with my Victorian social history hat on – that I would reflect on what life was like in Britain 150 years ago; or 75 years prior to VE Day 1945.

As we look back at the footage of 75 years ago (as we’ve all been doing recently) we can see a world, and a UK, that, while it is different from our own in many ways, is not that unfamiliar.

In 1945 most people got their news from the BBC (via the radio or ‘wireless’), most would have read a newspaper that still exist today (such as The Times, Daily Telegraph or the Daily Mirror). Fashions were different but not dramatically so – the zip fastener was a fairly new innovation from the late 1930s, hats were widespread, lycra unheard of (thankfully!).

The country was (as it is today) a parliamentary democracy and everyone over 21 had the vote (meaning that many of those that fought in the war couldn’t have a say in who ran the country in the election of 1945) . Women’s rights were not recognized as they are today, gay rights were hardly discussed, and racism was endemic (and the Empire still existed). The car was well established in society but not ubiquitous as it is today; most people in London got about on public transport. Nationally we still enjoyed rail travel in the pre-Beeching days. Holidays were taken at home (by which I mean in the UK, not as they are now – at home) not abroad; airplanes existed but commercial air transport was still largely in the future.

My point is that if we landed (Dr Who-like) in 1940s Britain we would recognize and feel mostly at home in it (as least if we were white British). Many social changes would come in the next 15-20 years – from the Welfare State to Windrush to sexual equality – but it is not ‘another country’.

Or at least it is not as much of ‘another country’ as May 1870 would seem to any of us landing there nor, even, to anyone from 1945 looking back 75 years.

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In 1870 Queen Victoria was in the 33rd year of her long reign and William Gladstone was her prime minister. This was his first term as PM, having taken over from Victoria’s favourite – Disraeli – in 1868. In 1870 the American Civil War was in recent memory; there were plenty alive who fought in the Crimean, and others who remembered Waterloo.

The horrors of the Western Front were nearly 50 years in the future.

1870 was the year that the elementary education act was passed allowing local authorities to provide education for all children aged 5-12. Despite the fact that this was not a compulsory piece of legislation and historians have debated its effects it does mark an important milestone in state provision of education. We take free education for granted now, as many in 1945 would have (if not with the opportunities that students of all classes have today).

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1870 also saw another significant statue pass into law: the Married Women’s Property Act. This allowed married women to own their own property (both that they had earned and inherited). Previously on marriage all of this was legally surrendered to their husbands; a case of ‘what’s mine is mine, and what’s yours, is mine too’!

Of course women still did not have the vote, let alone equal pay, but it was step in the right direction.

Competition was introduced into recruitment to the civil service in 1870, presumably to tackle claims of nepotism and favoritism. I wonder to what extent that has really changed anything (then or now). That year also saw the establishment of the Red Cross (known then as the British National Society for Aid to the Sick and Wounded in War). It would very busy in the decades to come, as it remains so today.

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The Oval hosted the first ever international football match – a 1-1 draw – Wembley was not even conceived of and television coverage way off in the future. Nowadays we seem to obsessed with football, so much so that government ministers make statements about the need to get it back on our TVs so the nation can better cope with this lockdown. Football was very far from being a national obsession in 1870, but its popularity was on the rise.

With no television and no radio in 1870 entertainment was live (like the music hall for the masses or opera and theatre for the well-to-do) or provided in print. In May 1870 readers avidly sought out the latest Dickens novel – The Mystery of Edwin Drood – in regular instalments. Sadly they were to be disappointed: Charles Dickens passed away on the 9 June 1870 leaving the ‘Mystery’ unfinished.  As one great entertainer died two others were born: Marie Lloyd (on 12 February) and Harry Lauder (4 August).

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In London the Tower subway opened – offering Londoners a route underneath the Thames – linking east and southeast London by means of the very first passenger ‘tube’ railway. The underground – such a powerful image of the 1940s capital – was seeded 75 years previously.

On Friday 6 May 1870 the front page of the Morning Post (as was normal) carried mostly adverts and short notices. Page two reported parliamentary news in detail – including items on the ‘Scotch lunacy commission’, ‘Betting on Horse Races’, and the Irish Land Bill (a big political story throughout the later 1800s). Politics continued over the page, all delivered with minimal headlines, discussion, and in tight close type with no pictures.

On the next page readers could learn what was on at the opera and the capital’s West End theatres (although it was really a listing of performers and plays etc, not a review of them). The police intelligence – the news from the capital’s courts – was relegated to page 7 (of 8) although of course we have no real idea of how people read the papers then.

At Bow Street a man was committed for trial for stealing £9 from the Royal Commissioners of the Patriotic Fund, which gave money to the widows of soldiers serving abroad. I suppose the modern equivalent would be pinching the funds from an organization like Help For Heroes so I hope he got what was coming to him. At Marlborough Street a cab driver was cleared of a charge of ‘furious driving’ and his loss of earnings for the day compensated to him by his accuser.

Finally I noted that the press reported that the Prince and Princess of Wales had attended a charity concert at the Guards’ Institute. Then, as now, the royal family was the subject of press attention – if with (generally at least) more deference than is shown today.

So, I would conclude that 1870 would have seemed much more alien to folk in 1945 than 1945 would appear to us should me visit it. This reminds us of the incredible pace of change in the twentieth century, particularly from the outbreak of war in 1914.

It was a terrible century for very many people and the years of war between 1939 and VE Day in May 1945 saw millions die across the world.  The UK alone (not counting our allies in the Empire) suffered just under 400,000 direct causalities in the war, with a further 67,200 deaths on the home front. For context that represents 0.94 of the population as a whole. Other countries much more badly than we did: the Soviet Union lost 20m (13.7% of its populace), Germany 4-5.5m soldiers alone.

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And six million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust.

The Second World War was a tragedy for everyone involved and victory in 1945 was won by a combined effort of many nations and peoples. I think the lesson I take from it is that never again should we allow hate to dominate politics on a national or world stage, and that only by coming together and sharing our resources can we – as humanity – hope to defeat those that would endanger our lives and freedoms.

If we forget those lessons then I fear we will have let down all of those that gave their lives in the Second World War, and those that survived, in trying to ensure we could live in a society free from tyranny and race hatred.

I’ll raise a glass to them at 3 o’clock with pleasure.

Happy VE Day!

The ‘irrepressible’ Tottie Fay, the ‘wickedest woman in London’.

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On 7 March 1887 the readers of the ‘occasional notes’ section of the Pall Mall Gazette were introduced to the ‘wickedest woman in London’, an epithet bestowed on a colourful character who went by several names. In the article she is referred to as Lily Cohen but also ‘Tottie Fay, Lilian Rothschild, Violet St. John, Mabel Gray, Maud Legrand, [and] Lily Levant’.

The writer goes on to add:

‘She is just thirty years of age. It would be interesting to have an accurate biographical and scientific diagnosis of this superlative specimen of human depravity’.

Well I’m not sure I can satisfy all of that request but I thought it might be possible to trace ‘Tottie Fay’ through the courts in the pages of the newspaper archive. And, I’m glad to say, she appears quite frequently.

In March Tottie (or Lily) had been sent to prison for a month, officially for being ‘disorderly’ but in reality for being one of the capital’s many prostitutes. Indeed ‘Tottie’ was described as the ‘wickedest woman in London’ by the magistrate. Millbank Prision, where he sent her, was an awful place to be incarcerated; damp, frequently flooded by the nearby Thames, and considered only fit to house short-term prisoners by this time.  It was closed just three years later (in 1890) demolished thereafter to make way for the new National  Gallery of British Art (now the Tate).

In her appearance at Marlborough Street Police court in March 1887 the sitting justice, Mr Mansfield, noted that she ‘had more than once perjured herself by making false accusations against men, and had for a ling time persisted in a life of vice and crime’. He regretted that he was only allowed to send her away for a month or fine her 40s. Since she didn’t have the money, off to gaol she went.

If that was supposed to teach her a lesson it failed. Not that we should be surprised by this. It seems Tottie had been in and out of prison on several occasions before 1887 and had probably been up ‘before the beak’ too many times to count. Offenders like her knew that the best strategy was not to be caught too many times in the same place and set before the same magistrate. If you became ‘known’ to the police and the magistracy your chances of avoiding heavy fine and/or prison were slim indeed.

In January 1889 Tottie was back at Marlborough Street but this time Mr Hannay was in the chair. He’d not encountered her before which gave her the opportunity to try and convince him that she was victim of a malicious prosecution and police brutality.

By this time the paper noted that she had acquired several new aliases, taking he rally past 20, and adding Blanche Herbert, Florence Larade, and Amy St Clair to those listed earlier. She was charged with being ‘drunk and riotous in Piccadilly’ on the New Year’s Eve. She was dressed smartly, if in a rather ‘gaudy dress’, suggesting that she looked like a ‘woman of the town’, a West End prostitute not one of her poorer East End sisters.

She’d been arrested at the Bath Hotel on Piccadilly after the proprietor had thrown her out for her disreputable behaviour. He testified that Tottie had been ‘running undressed all over the hotel’. When approached she locked herself in a room and refused to come out. The door was forced and she was dragged out and led away by the police. It seems she’d been using a room there to meet clients, on this occasion a West End gentleman (who didn’t appear in court).

She protested her innocence and complained about her treatment:

‘Even the chambermaids shed tears when they saw a lady like me being taken away by a rough policeman’, she told the magistrate. ‘I am truly innocent, although I have been here lots of times. Do give me a chance and I shall give up this unhappy life’,

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‘I will go into a servants’ home, a monastery, or even to America – anywhere in the world if you will let me go’.

She pleaded with the justice, imploring him that she was a ‘poor motherless orphan, a real young lady, whose mother lies in her grave’.

‘Do let me go, and you shall never see me again. Oh, do! do! do!’

She might have saved her breath because Mr Hannay fined her 40or another month inside.

It did no good.

In April that year the ‘irrepressible Tottie’ was back up before Mr Hannay. The court reporter noted that she’d been at Marlborough Street so many times that they had a special book just to record all her appearances.

Again the charge was disorderly behaviour, this time with drunkenness. She’d been arrested in St James’ Square after a large crowd had gathered to hear her tell a sad story about the death of her mistress. A policeman arrived having been alerted by a reports of a woman ‘misbehaving herself’.

She was dressed in her finery in court:  ‘a cream-coloured bodice trimmed with lace, a black shirt, and a large dress-improver’ (which was too large for the dock so became ‘much disarranged’). Over her gloves she wore five rings.

Again she claimed to be ‘a lady’ and complained about the rough way the policeman had treated her. She admitted to having a drink but only because she was so upset at the loss of a woman who had been ‘just like a mamma in every respect’. Hannay fined her 40with the option of prison if she couldn’t pay.

In June Tottie was back again. But now she gave her age as 22 (shaving a decade off if the other reports are accurate), and was calling herself Lily de Terry with an address in Grosvenor Square. PC Evans (316F) had arrested her on the 8th June 1889 after he found her  with a crowd around her protesting that someone had stolen her purse.

She was ‘very drunk’ and as he questioned her she tried to get away, saying ‘Oh, I have got it now, thank you’. When he stopped her she gave him a mouthful of verbal abuse and threw herself to the floor. He and another constable removed her and, the next day, she was brought up before Mr De Rutzen who questioned her. Tottie gave a very similar tale of being a lady, not being guilty, apologizing, and promising not to err in future. This magistrate took pity and gave her a small fine or a day in gaol by default . She tanked him with a ‘heaven bless you!’ and was removed.

By now she was so famous that the Illustrated Police News even included an artist’s impression of her arrest.

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In August the ‘stylishly-dressed’ and ‘so well known’ Tottie Fay was in court at Westminster accused, under the name of Mabel Granville (22) with using obscene language. PC Orebard (220B) was called to a pastrycook’s shop on Belgrave Street after she’d refused to pay for her purchases of ‘two pots of tea, four eggs, and a considerable quantity of bread’. She was drunk and her language was ‘shocking’. Mr D’Eyncourt ignored her (now well worn sob story) and fined her 14s or 14 days imprisonment.

I suspect she paid that fine because within a few weeks she was back in court, this time at Bow Street. A Mr Armstrong testified that Tottie had tried ‘to push into his house’ and was ‘otherwise molesting him’. Once again she was well dressed, with ‘a profusion of rings’, and presented herself in what one paper described as ‘her usual simpering semi-hysterical manner’. The court ordered her to find two sureties of £20 each for her ‘good behaviour for six months’. A tall order one imagines.

That was not the end of Tottie, in April 1890 she was back at Marlborough Street (as Dolly Leblane) where she was remanded on a charge of drunk and disorderly. Sergeant Brewer, the court’s gaoler, told Mr Newton that this was Tottie’s 31stappearance in court. She’d racked up well over 31 by May that year, appearing on a simailr charge having been arrested ‘amongst a lot of disorderly women’ in Piccadilly and telling the same story about her ‘mamma’ having ‘brought her out and lost her’. Sergeant Brewer not totaled her charges at 45 and gave Mr Newton (and us) some background to her story.

‘Her father was a costermonger’, the gaoler explained. ‘and for many years he resided in the Seven Dials, and was a member of the gang known as “The Forty Thieves,” ‘.

At this Tottie spoke up from the dock.

‘Oh, how can you say so? If I am a gay woman [i.e a prostitute] , you have no right to say that I am not a lady’.

She was remanded, as charges of theft were also alleged. He asked for a plain clothes officer to ‘see what he can find out’. On the 18 May she was up again charged with stealing clothes from a Mrs Green valued at £2. Her criminal career was catching up with her and Mr Newton was determined that ‘I must be stopped’. He committed her for a jury trial; things were getting ominous for Tottie.

On the 27 May 1890 Tottie (as Dolly Le Blanc) was tried at Clerkenwell Green in the London County Sessions on a charge of stealing with intent to defraud. She claimed to be an actress at the Alhambra Theatre but the manager appeared to deny this was the case. Her fantasies continued, and she wove an elaborate story of taking a train from Paris, having breakfast with her daughter, forgetting her luggage at Victoria and denying both charges of stealing clothes and food. Despite a ‘tearful appeal to the Court’ the jury convicted her and she was sent to prison for six months with hard labour.

That ought to have been the end of it but she appears again, several times in 1891 (in April at Marlborough Street for example, charged with fraud and theft). This time a pen portrait of Tootie by the artists ‘P.I.P’  was reproduced in the Illustrated Police News alongside a lengthy account of her life and crimes. In May she was on trial for obtaining goods by false pretenses and sentenced to 12 months. She gave her name as Dorothy Le Blanc and the court recorded her age as 42. The papers referred to its as her ‘temporary retirement’.

In September, while the real Tottie Fay languished in prison a stage comedy focused on a police court included her as a ‘notorious’ character, ‘creating hearty laughter and applause’. I’m not sure Tottie would have liked that. She might have enjoyed the attention but I think she really did see herself as a victim of a hard life and a society which didn’t support her. She had a great sense of self-respect despite her drinking, evidenced by her desire always to look as glamorous as she could. As she went from being a high-class prostitute to a drunk reduced to stealing small amounts of food and drink, she also fell foul of the  criminal justice system.

1891 wasn’t the last time Tottie Fay appeared in court but, for now, it is where I am going to leave her. Not perhaps the ‘wickedest women’ in London but perhaps one of the most colourful.

It is hard not to like her.

[from The Pall Mall Gazette, Monday 7 March, 1887; Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser, Saturday 12 March, 1887; Birmingham Daily Post, Wednesday 2 January 1889; Portsmouth Evening News, April 9 1889; Illustrated Police News, 22 June 1889; Sheffield Evening Telegraph, 20 August 1889; Reynolds’s Newspaper, 25 August 1889; Morning Post, 3 September 1889; Reynolds’s Newspaper, 8 September 1889; Portsmouth Evening News, April 26 1890; Cornishman, 1 May 1890; Lloyd’s Illustrated Newspaper, 11 May 1890; Sheffield Evening Telegraph19 May 1890; Morning Post, 28 May 1890; The Standard, 11 April 1891; Illustrated Police News, 25 April 1891; Daily News, 7 May 1891; The Vaudeville, 12 September 1891.

A murder confession, 13 years too late

The "Rookery", St. Giles's, 1850

Nineteenth-century St Giles

The reporter from Reynold’s newspaper, or his editor, captioned George Skinner’s behavior as ‘EXTRAORDINARY CONDUCT’.

Skinner, a 39 year-old resident of south London was brought before Mr Chance at Lambeth Police court charged with being drunk. It wasn’t his first appearance in court and had only recently been released from prison where he’d served a month inside for being an ‘habitual drunkard’.

On this occasion Skinner had presented himself at the desk of Gypsy Hill Police station, telling the sergeant that he was responsible for a murder that took place 13 years earlier. The station inspector sat him down and took a statement from him. He confessed to killing a ‘woman named Jackson’ in 1863 but when he was handed the statement to sign, he refused.

He was ‘very drunk’ when he spoke to the police and subsequent enquiries had ‘ascertained that the prisoner had before given himself up at Bow Street in a similar manner’.

But had a woman named Jackson been murdered in 1863, the magistrate asked? Indeed they had.

Sergeant 4ER gave evidence that a woman named Jackson had been murdered in George Street, Bloomsbury in 1863 and that in 1870 George Skinner had confessed to the crime. The police had investigated his confession however, and found it to be false.

Whoever had killed Ms Jackson the police didn’t believe it was Skinner, even if he seemed to. Mr Chance turned to the prisoner and told him that he had acted in a ‘most disgraceful manner’, presumably by being drunk and wasting police time. What had he to say for himself?

‘Commit me for trial’, Skinner replied. ‘I don’t care what you do. Let it go for trial’.

‘Let what go for trial?’, the magistrate demanded to know.

‘Send me for trial as an habitual drunkard. You know you can do it if you like. That’s the law’.

Mr Chance may well have had considerable discretionary power in 1880 but he could hardly send someone before a jury for being a drunk, however annoying the man’s behaviour was. Instead he was able to send him back to prison and/or fine him and this is what he did. Skinner, described as an able if ‘lazy’ shoemaker, was fined 20s  and told if he did  not pay up he would go to prison for 14 days at hard labour.

‘Only fourteen days for confession of a murder?’ Skinner quipped, ‘All right’.

In April 1863 a carpenter was charged at Bow Street with the murder of an Emma Jackson in St Giles. The court was crowded as the locals clearly felt this was the killer. They were mistaken however, as the police quickly established that the man confessing to murder, John Richards (a 31 year old carpenter) was, like Skinner, a drunken fantasist. He had confessed whilst drunk but later retracted and the magistrate, a Mr Broddick, warned him but let him go without further penalty.

The murder of Emma Jackson excited ‘intense interest in the miserable neighbourhood in which it took place’, Reynold’s  had reported at the time. As a result the tavern where the inquest was held was as crowded at the police court where Richards was examined a few days later. St Giles was a notoriously poor area (below), on a par with Whitechapel and Southwark in the 1800s, and a byword for degradation and lawlessness.

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Emma was murdered in a brothel, although it was also described as a lodging house; in some respects it was hard to discern much difference between the two. Jackson had arrived there with a client (a man wearing a cap was all the description the landlady could manage) and asked for a room for two hours.

It was a very brutal murder, there was blood everywhere, but no sign of the killer. Perhaps it was intensity of this murder and the lack of a suspect that prompted some disturbed individuals to confess to it, just as several people confessed to being the Whitechapel murderer in 1888.  That they were drunk when they did so might also indicate that they ware suffering from a form of mental illness, understood today but not in the 1800s.

Skinner had confessed to a murder in 1863 in Bloomsbury, Jackson was killed in St Giles, which is near enough to allow it to be the same murder.

[from Reynold’s Newspaper, Sunday 7 March 1880; Daily NewsThursday 23 April, 1863; Reynold’s Newspaper, Sunday 19 April 1863 ]

The case of the missing bridegroom and his distraught newlywed wife

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You have to feel sorry for Mrs Alice Lisle. The ‘petite, fair, blue-eyed, young lady’ appeared at the Bow Street Police Magistrates court in late August 1897 to ask for help. Her husband, she explained, had disappeared.

As she explained to Mr Lushington Alice, then Alice Elizabeth Hunt, had married Edward Montague Balmerino Lisle (33) at St. George’s Church, Bloomsbury (pictured above) on 14 July 1897. He was, she said, a gentleman of ‘independent means’ that she’d met at Bunhill Fields Coffee Tavern near Aldersgate Station (now Barbican underground) where she was working behind the counter. Having ‘paid his attentions’ to her for two months he proposed and they married.

It had been a very happy (if short) marriage. They honeymooned in Windsor, in sight of the castle, and on 11 August he returned in advance to London to settle some financial business.

Alice hadn’t seen him since.

I do wonder at Mr Lisle’s honesty. Apparently he liked to gamble (if not excessively) and his letters to her suggest he spent most of his time at the races. His full name was – slightly unbelievably – Just Henry Edward Montague Elphinstone Balmerino Lisle – and he claimed to have been a pupil at the Marlborough School and to have returned there to look up an old friend shortly after leaving Windsor.

The magistrate could not help much beyond recommending that the newspapers – starting with the Daily Mail (who had a reporter in court that day) – should publicise the case in the hopes that someone knew something. In the meantime, all Alice could do was go back to her lodgings at Hunter Street, Brunswick Square and wait.

That really was the last Alice saw of her bridegroom. Whether he ran away to avoid a previous marriage (bigamy was not uncommon at the time), or to outrun his creditors (debt was equally familiar to many men of his generation), he doesn’t seem to met a sticky end. At least not in 1897 that is. Oddly I did find a mention of man with his name being fished out of the Thames, presumed dead by his own efforts, 30 years later

[from Sheffield Evening Telegraph, 28 August, 1897]

‘The more I look at you the more convinced I am that you are the man that tricked me’

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William Hurley admitted to being a thief.  However, on this occasion, as he stood in the Bow Street dock on 21 November 1898 he strongly denied he had committed the crime for which he’d been charged. He brought in a lawyer to represent him but in the course of his examination he dismissed him and took over his own defense.

His accuser was a Miss Alice Bull who gave her address as Haverstock Hill in northwest London. She had traveled into central London on the train, stopping at Charing Cross where she deposited a black box at the cloakroom. As she was leaving the office a man came running up to her and said:

‘Excuse me; you have just left a black box in the cloak-room, and I have left a Gladstone bag. Unfortunately, you have taken my ticket, and I have got yours’.

He showed her his ticket and suggested they swap. Alice was wary:

‘How am I to know that your story is correct’, she asked.

‘’It’s all correct’, he assured her. ‘If you have any doubt about it, come back to the cloak-room with me’.

Reassured, Alice handed over the ticket and went off to spend the day in the capital. However, when she returned to the station in the evening and produced what she thought was her ticket she was given a brown paper parcel, which contained nothing other than a daily newspaper. Her box, and the watch and chain, three gold brooches, and clothing – valued at around £30 – was nowhere to be seen.

She reported the theft and the police investigated. The box turned up in a railway carriage at Action, lodged under a seat and devoid of its contents. The police did track down and arrest a suspect – William Hurley (23) and Alice picked him out in an identity parade at Old Kent Road police station.

Thomas Jones, the porter at the Charing Cross cloak room having at first failed to identify Hurley was more sure it was him when he saw him at Bow Street Police court. However, since he admitted that since 12,000 parcels were deposited each day at the station (a staggering amount when one thinks about it) there must have been some degree of doubt in his mind.

Alice went on the offensive in court, clearly annoyed that she had been robbed in this way. The only thing that had been found in her box was a ball of string.

‘Is that yours?’ she asked the man in the dock.

The magistrate (Mr Sydney) reminded her that she was not allowed to cross-examine the defendant, but she was not to be put off. When Hurley claimed it was a case of mistaken identity and that he knew who had stolen her property, and it wasn’t him, she said:

‘Why don’t you bring him here so that I might compare you? The more I look at you the more convinced I am that you are the man’.

Hurley, having dismissed his lawyer, again denied the charge, told the court he was a tailor and said he ‘had ten or eleven witnesses that he was at Gatwick Races on the day of the this occurrence, and did not return to London until 10 o’clock that night’.

The justice committed him to take his trial.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, November 22, 1898]

A cab driver hits rock bottom as he plunges into the Thames’ polluted waters.

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Constable William Hanson (103F) was on duty on Waterloo Bridge when a hansom cab pulled up. Nothing unusual in that of course but what followed was.

The driver leapt down from the cab, rushed to the side of the bridge and then, before PC Hanson could react, threw himself over the side. The officer shouted for help as he heard the splash, and charged down the steps to the riverside.

Charles Field’s life must have swirled around him as he plunged into the Thames’ murky waters and poisonous waters. In July and August of that year the pollution in the Thames, always bad, had reached new heights, as raw sewage emptied into the river in unprecedented quantities bring death and disease in its wake. The ‘Great Stink’ closed Parliament and forced the authorities to take action. Eventually new sewers were designed and built and a monument to their creators, Charles Bazalgette, can still be seen on London’s Embankment.

This was all in the future as Charles Field struggled and sank through the filthy waters. Twice he touched the riverbed before rough hands lifted him clear and into a boat. A waterman had been passing under the bridge at just the right moment, heard the splash, and pulled his oars hard to reach the drowning man.

Between them the waterman and the policeman managed to save the cab driver’s life and PC Hanson helped him to Charing Cross Hospital where he remained for the best part of two weeks as he recovered.

Attempting suicide was a crime however, and so, on the 2 November 1858, Charles Field was set in the dock at Bow Street and formally charged. Having heard the circumstances Mr Jardine, London’s most senior magistrate,  asked him to explain himself.

Field was full of regret for his actions and said he never intended to ‘destroy himself’.  For weeks he had suffered with ‘rheumatic gout’ and that had affected his ability to work. Since he couldn’t take his cab out his family suffered, and his wife was ‘afflicted with paralysis’ so she was unable to help either.

It was desperate but with no social security or health service to fall back on there was little Charles could do but carry on. The 50 year-old cut a sad figure in the dock, looking ‘extremely ill’ and clearly at his wits end. He said that on the day he jumped he had finally managed to go out in the cab, things looked like they might start to improve at last.

But then disaster struck. He was so far behind with his rent that his landlord turned them all out on the street and seized his furniture and effects. His brother gave them a room but he had no money for food. Field went out with his cab but had a ‘bad day’, took little money and found himself on Waterloo Bridge facing the prospect of going home empty handed.

Which is why something broke inside him and he decided to take his own life.

The magistrate turned to the police constable and asked him whether all of this was true. It was, PC Hanson confirmed. He had made enquiries and discovered that the defendant’s wife and children were ‘actually starving’. Given this, and Field’s very obvious remorse, Mr Jardine said he would not punish him. He reprimanded him, reminding the cab driver that suicide was a crime as well as a sin, but discharged him. He ordered that Charles Field be given 10s from the poor box ‘for his present relief’ and told him to ‘call again’ if he needed further help.

Charles Field was a working man; he’d probably been a cab driver for many years. Tough work, driving a cab in all weathers, rarely having a day off, putting up with abuse from customers and other road users. His wife was sick, his children hungry, he had a mountain of responsibilities and no means of support. He got no sick leave, no holiday pay, no unemployment benefit if he couldn’t work, no means to get credit to pay his bills. Like many poor Victorian Londoners when the fragile house of cards he had built came tumbling down he and his family were tipped into poverty.

This is why we have a system to help those that need it. Whether it be medical care that is free at the point of need, or state benefits for periods of unemployment or when work is short. This doesn’t always help of course: those working in the so-called ‘gig economy’ are rarely guaranteed pay and self-employed men like Charles Field still suffer by comparison to those of us that enjoy the benefits of sick pay and annual leave allowances.

That is why the rights of workers matter so much, and why our modern British social security system should be a source of pride, not something for politicians and wealthy press barons to sneer at and undermine.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, November 03, 1858]

The celebrated ‘Soapy Fits King’ appears at the Lyceum

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When PC 64E reached the small crowd gathered outside the Lyceum Theatre on the Strand he found a man writhing around on the pavement, and frothing at the mouth. He whistled for help and PC 53E waited while his colleague took the man to hospital on an ambulance.

Once there however, the surgeon in charge declared that there was nothing wrong with the patient, expect that is that he had evidently been eating soap. Realizing that he’d been conned, the police constable arrested the man and took him back to the station before presenting him before the magistrate at Bow Street in the morning.

The man gave his name as Peter McDermott but Mr De Rutzen was informed by the gaoler (Sergeant Bush) that he was commonly known as the ‘Soapy Fits King’. McDermott was a beggar that had appeared ‘at nearly every police court in London’  and been sentenced numerous times as a rogue and vagabond.

Joseph Bosley of the Mendicity Society – the organization that took it upon themselves to police street begging – said that McDermott was well known to him as well. He’d watched McDermott for 18 years. He would appear at hospitals across the capital, sometimes twice in one day, ‘apparently suffering from fits, but he never had anything the matter with him’.

On the day in question McDermott had a glass of water in on hand and a brandy in the other and one wonders whether his audience genuinely believed him to be ill or were just amused by his antics. He denied using soap of course, and pointed to his extremely dirty face. ‘Do I look like it?’ he asked, to laughter in court.

‘I say it is not English’, he complained, ‘[that] I am not allowed to beg, and I have had nothing to eat for three days’.

He had a point of course. Society offered little for McDermott beyond the workhouse casual ward and that was in many ways worse than prison. This was a man who clearly had quite severe mental health issues that no one seemed to want to recognize. He was only a risk to himself and a more charitable society might have recognized his need for support. Mr De Rutzen decided to remand him in custody while he decided what to do with him.

A week later ‘the King’ was brought up again and more evidence as to his past misdemeanors was presented. Mr De Rutzen now ordered that he face trial as ‘an incorrigible rogue and vagabond’.

[from The Standard, Saturday, September 22, 1900; The Standard, Saturday, September 29, 1900]

‘Nobody could say any good of him’: A stateless German at Bow Street

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Map of Prussia and the German States in 1862 (nine years before Unification)

Mrs Lavinia Roberts lived with her husband above his photographer’s studio in Charing Cross. One evening in August 1862 she went upstairs to their bedroom around 7 or 8 o’clock. To her horror a man was in the room, rifling through her drawers. Clothing was strewn all over the floor and he was holding some of her jewelry in his hands.  She demanded to know what he was doing there.

Ich spreche kein Englisch. Ich verstehe nicht’, he replied.

Mrs Roberts knew just enough German to make sense of this. The burglar didn’t speak English and so couldn’t understand what she’d said.

He understood that he’d been discovered though and was now in trouble and he fled. Lavinia followed him downstairs and called for a policeman. Another resident of the house heard the commotion and came out of a room and helped restrain the unwanted visitor. When the police arrived – in the person of PC Killick  (511A) the German thief was escorted to the nearest police station and charged with attempted burglary.

The man’s name was Fritz Tuell and he said he was from Prussia. Fortunately A Division had a German born officer on the strength – PC Reimers (595A) – and he was able to translate for the prisoner. When the case came before Mr Henry at Bow Street Police court the next day PC Reimers explained that Tuell was fairly recently arrived from Prussia.

After Mrs Roberts had described the events that night as she experienced them PC Killick deposed that he found a bracelet, chain and a French coin dropped just close to where the gentleman was detaining Tuell on the stairs.  All of this was translated so the German could understand and he was asked if he wished to cross-examine either of the witnesses. He did not and admitted stealing the items in question, which were valued in total at over £5.

Tuell now spoke (via PC Reimers) to explain that he was a nail maker who had arrived in London 10 days earlier. He’d not had any work in Prussia or Germany for the past three years and had moved around that country, going from place to place (presumably seeking work). He had come to England when his options seemed to have run out there.

Mr Henry asked to see his passport but Tuell didn’t have one. That was odd the magistrate said, why was this?

‘He has sold it’, Reimer told him. Apparently it was common practice for foreigners to sell their passports to someone who wanted to travel back to the continent but had lost (or sold) their own.

There are a good many foreign thieves in this country’ he explained; ‘and when one of wants to go to his own country he buys a passport from some one newly arrived – taking care that the description answers. He then returns to his own country, and pretends he has only been in England a few days, and that the passport is his own’.

He added that he wasn’t sure that this is what Tuell had done, nor was he suggesting he was a bad character with any previous convictions; it was just that he was aware ‘that there is such a system’.

It was news to Mr Henry and he was clearly disturbed to find it out. It added to his conviction that the Prussian nail maker should stand trial in London for his attempted theft and not be dealt with summarily – which was the man’s preference  and the reason he’d confessed so readily.  Having said that he intended to indict Tuell Mr Roberts piped up, saying that it would be inconvenient for him to attend a trial as he was travelling abroad very soon. That was ok, the justice said, it was his wife’s testimony that was required. Unfortunately Mrs Roberts was going with her husband he was told.

Really the case must go for trial’, Mr Henry insisted, ‘it is much too important to be dealt with summarily’.

Tuell had broken into a house and raided a bedroom, despite only arriving in London a few days earlier. It was a ‘daring’ robbery attempt and would have to be judged before the sessions because that court could hand down a much stuffer sentence.

He then concluded by asking PC Reimer to explain to the prisoner that he could send to Germany for character witnesses to support him in court. The prisoner looked just as dismayed as he had for the whole of the proceedings and responded to the policeman in his own language.  Translating Reimer said ‘nobody could say any good of him’, and he was taken down to wait for his trial.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, August 07, 1862]

A runaway slave at Bow Street has a fascinating story to tell the magistrate

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In yesterday’s post I discussed the casual racism and anti-Semitism that was endemic in late nineteenth-century London and led to the passing of the Aliens Act in 1905 (the first legislation aimed at controlling immigration). Throughout the 1800s Britain was a beacon of hope for refugees from persecution on political, religious or other grounds. It was also in Britain that the campaign to abolish slavery had found its political leadership.

Of course England and Britain more broadly had arguably profited most from the use of slave labour and the ‘triangular trade’. The passing of the Slave Trade Act in 1807 abolished slavery in all British Colonies, but compensated slave owners heavily. It was an important first step.

In the 1860s slavery still existed in the USA and in 1861 war broke out in America, in part as a result of efforts to abolish the practice. A year after England had abolished the trade in African slaves the US passed a law to prevent importation of slaves to America, but this did not free those slaves already working on (mostly) southern plantations. In fact Northern owners simply started to sell their slaves to southerners. Gradually a situation emerged (made law after 1820) that divided America into southern slave owning and northern ‘free’ states.

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In 1860 Abraham Lincoln was elected President of the USA, the 16th to hold that office. A Republican and a dedicated abolitionist, Lincoln did not win a single southern state. A month later South Carolina seceded (left) from the Union and cited Northern ‘hostility to slavery’ as a reason for doing so. Between January and February 1861 Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas  followed and the Confederacy was born.

War followed in April that year with the attack on Fort Sumpter and it raged until the south was finally surrendered at Appomattox courthouse on 9 April 1865. Slavery was finally abolished in all US states by the 13thAmendment to the  constitution, passed on 18 December 1865. By that time its key champion, Lincoln, was dead, shot in Washington by John Wilkes Booth.

Britain watched the Civil war with interest. America was slowly becoming a rival economic power and British merchants continued to trade with the south after secession. But anti-slavery was also now written into the English legislature and voices here supported the North in its ambition to end the inhuman practice once and for all.

In July 1863 as war continued across the Atlantic a former slave appeared in court at Bow Street. George Washington was a young black man that had arrived in London with his father, fleeing from the war and slavery. He was in court because he’d been arrested whilst begging in Whitehall. He was stood in the street with a placard around his neck that explained his fate and aimed to draw sympathy from passersby.

He was having some success it seems because PC William Waddrupp noticed that a crowd had gathered around him and were placing money in his cap. Begging was illegal and so he took him into custody.

At Bow Street it emerged that Washington and his father had found lodgings with a costermonger in Mint Street, in the Borough. The coster had arranged for the placard to be printed and ‘managed’ the ‘appeal’ for funds. Whether he did so out of the goodness of his heart or because he saw an opportunity to take a slice of the income is a question we’ll have to keep hanging in the air. He wasn’t prosecuted for anything at Bow Street anyway.

Mr Hall was keen to hear how George and his father had come to be in London. Mr Washington senior said that he had been a drummer in the Confederate army and that his son had been servant to ‘one of the rebel captains’. In the aftermath of the battle of Bull Run (probably the first one in July 1861) they escaped and ran to the north making their way to New York.

They hoped to find a sympathetic ear and help but got neither until they met a man named General Morgan. He told them to go to England ‘where they had a great affection for slaves, and would no doubt provide for them comfortably’. Working their passage they found a ship and landed in London at some point in 1863. There they met the costermonger and he suggested the strategy of asking for alms in public. They had no idea it was against the law to beg in England and said they would be happy to return to New York if a ship could be found to take them under the same terms as they had arrived.

Mr Hall was minded to believe them. They were in breach of the law but he accepted that they had been badly advised (here and by General Morgan) so he discharged them. I wonder if by highlighting their plight they might have got someone to help them – either to return to the US or to stay and prosper in London.

There was sympathy and no obvious racism on show at Bow Street (in stark contrast to Mr Williams’ comments on Jews appearing at Worship Street nearly 30 years later. This is possibly explained by the relative lack of black faces in 1860s London. Black people were a curiosity and not a threat in the way waves of Eastern European immigrants were seen in the 1880s. Moreover the politics of anti-slavery were still very strong in London at mid century and while some merchants and sections of government might have had economic or geopolitical reasons for supporting the Confederacy there was widespread sympathy for the plight of the slaves.

For these reasons , and perhaps simply for the fact that George Washington and his father had entertained Mr Hall and his court with a fascinating story of courage and ‘derring-do’, they won their freedom all over again.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, July 31, 1863]