‘The only way we have of earning bread for our families is by selling fruit in the streets’: a costermonger’s lament

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This week, just ahead of the next round of marking that will fall due in mid July, I’ve managed to return to my current research project. Nether World is a study of late Victorian London through the lens of the Police Magistrate courts. Commissioned by Reaktion Books it will explore the rich culture of everyday life in the metropolis in the period c.1840-1900.

Today I have mostly been looking into the lives of costermongers, the people that sold fruit and veg and other ‘perishables’ from barrows. Increasingly their tradition of wheeling and then stationing their barrow on the street, so their customers could easily come and buy from them, came into conflict with property owners and local authorities who wanted to keep the thoroughfares of the city free and open to a growing commercial and private transport network.

From 1829 onwards the capital had a new weapon to use against this form of itinerant trading: the men of Peel’s Metropolitan Police. Given that the ‘New’ Police were tasked with patrolling the streets during the day (when the old watch had only done so at night) it was inevitable that they would quickly clash with these traditional street vendors.

Costermongers were fiercely independent, rebellious in their dress and outlook, and had little time for ‘middle class moralizing’ and attempts to suppress or restrict their way of life. As a result the police engaged in a long running battle to force them to conform to set pitches and markets rather than be allowed to trade where they liked. Using the wide-ranging powers given by the highways acts costers were constantly being asked to move along and were arrested or summoned to court if they refused.

This caused considerable resentment within the costermonger community and  it is hardly surprising that one trader admitted to Henry Mayhew (the celebrated journalist and social investigator) that it was considered legitimate to punch a policeman.

‘To serve out a policeman is the bravest act by which a coster-monger can distinguish himself. Some […] have been imprisoned upwards of a dozen times for this offense […]’, one explained.

Henry Mayhew, London Labour And The London Poor, (London, 1851),

In November 1858 Lloyd’s Newspaper reported the sitting magistrate at Clerkenwell was ‘engaged for some considerable time’ in processing the costermongers that the police had arrested on the preceding Saturday evening. No less than 17 costermongers had been brought before Mr Corrie. They had been locked up and their barrows and stock removed to the Green Yard.

One defendant had been locked up for 36 hours before being bailed at 11 in the morning. When he went to collect his barrow he was at first refused it and then later, when he returned, he found all his stock of apples had been carelessly thrown into a sack so that they were now bruised and unsalable. Another man, that sold fish, got out of lock-up to find is stock left in the yard without any care and so, similarly, spoiled and valueless.

‘Some of the defendants’, the paper reported, ‘remarked that the only way they had of earning bread for their families was by selling fruit in the streets’.

They were given little or no notice by the police to move along, and most times their barrows were ‘causing no obstruction’ and yet they were ‘treated and pushed about like felons’.  Despite having some sympathy for their situation the magistrate still found for the police and although he waived the fines for those locked up for hours, imposed a shilling fine on everyone else.

No wonder them that the costermongers of London viewed the capital’s police with contempt. In their eyes they were only trying to earn a living, which was being thwarted by the police who they must have seen as the friends of their rivals, the lower middle class grocers that had fixed places to sell their wares.

Nowadays of course we are used to the idea that most trade takes place in shops and while markets exist, these are mostly periodic not daily concerns. The modern retailer’s grumbles about the unrestricted and low-cost competition offered online might find an echo in the grumbles of costers forced off the streets by Victorian shopkeepers and their ‘friends’, the police.

[from Lloyd’s Illustrated Newspaper, Sunday 7 November 1858]

A ‘ferocious looking woman’ and a distraught wife: female violence in 1840s Clerkenwell

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White Horse Alley, Clerkenwell  in the 1800s

Domestic violence (however it is defined) was a depressingly regular occurrence in nineteenth-century London. Most of the victims were women; beaten, kicked, and sometimes stabbed by (invariably) drunken husbands or common law partners, in the midst of arguments usually caused by the return of the man from the pub having spent the household budget on beer.

There were occasions when the woman was at fault (even if this did not justify the violence meted out on her body), through being drunk herself. Not that most men needed much of an excuse – a cross word from a ‘sharp tongue’, or dinner that was cold or ‘late’ – could earn you a beating.

Only a handful of these acts of assault ended up in the police courts and most of those were resolved quickly when the victim spoke up for her abuser or chose to forgive him. A working class woman (married or not) had more to lose than her partner if he was separated from her by imprisonment, or made to pay a fine.

Taking ‘your man’ to court might earn you respect amongst your long-suffering sisters, it might alert family and friends to his mistreatment of you, it might even shame him into behaving better (for a time). But it risked reprisals as well.

It was even rarer for men to take their spouses to court. For a man to stand up in court and declare that a woman had bested him was a humiliating experience. If things got that far then the situation at home had to be very bad.

Or the violence had to be very serious.

Women did instigate violence though, and were prosecuted for it. Most often their victims were other women. But here are a couple of examples – both from Clerkenwell in May 1844 – where female violence resulted in a court hearing.

On Tuesday 7 May Margaret Kelly was accused of stabbing John Dimmock. Dimmock lived with his wife at 13 White Horse Court in Turnmill Street. Kelly shared an address with the Dimmocks, living in a room below them. One the Monday night Kelly had argued with Mary Dimmock and it turned nasty.

Mary ran upstairs to her rooms where her husband was in bed, and Margaret followed her. She ran over to the bed, seizing a knife from the table as she did. Before John could raise himself she attacked, stabbing him just below the eye.

Horrified, Mary ran downstairs to fetch help.

Soon afterwards PC 38G arrived and found John Dimmock in bed, ‘bleeding profusely from a dreadful wound o his face’, the bed, he reported, was ‘saturated with blood’. Dimmock was taken to hospital (St Bart’s) but despite the surgeon’s efforts his life was still in danger.

In court Margaret Kelly admitted she had rowed with Mary and that she had thrown a basin of water at John but denied using a knife. The policeman said he had a witness that would swear she did. Kelly scoffed at this prompting the magistrate to tell her that this ‘was no laughing matter’. Mr Combe added that if Dimmock died she’d be on trial for her life.

She was remanded for a week.

Just under a week later – on Monday 13 May a different woman was accused of violence at Clerkenwell Police court. In an unconnected case Caroline King was charged with cutting and wounding her husband George at their lodgings in Little Warner Street.

The incident happened around midnight on Saturday 11 May. George –a  brassfounder – told the magistrate that they had quarreled. Caroline was drunk and she threw a ‘glass goblet at his head’. As the goblet smashed ‘several pieces of the glass entered close to [his] jugular, and severed a number of the smaller blood vessels’.

He (and Caroline) were lucky that his injuries were not more serious.

She didn’t try to deny her actions and the justice remanded her in custody for a few days while he decided what to do with her. In this it is probable that he would have been guided by the wishes of her husband, but he also would have wanted to make sure that the brassfoudner’s injuries were not any more serious than they appeared.

Three days later she was brought back to court. George was there but quite weak, so he was offered a seat in court. Caroline King was ‘convulsed in grief’ the paper reported, clearly distraught that she had so nearly killed her husband. She ‘begged his forgiveness’ and he told the magistrate he didn’t wish to press charges against her. They ‘went away arm in arm, apparently on affectionate terms’.

In this case then, all’s well that ends well.

Meanwhile Margaret Kelly reappeared on remand at Clerkenwell on the Monday (13 May). She was described as a ‘ferocious looking woman’ and a little more detail of the argument she’d had with Mary (or Anne as she was now called) Dimmock was provided. The pair had met in Sutton Street and Kelly had called her names. She ignored her but when she got home Kelly was there, and confronted her.

There was no more detail on the assault although the argument was apparently ‘a grudge’ carried over from Easter. Since John Dimmock (Or Dymmock) was still too weak to attend court Kelly was again remanded. On Monday 27 May  Dimmock was fit enough to attend. He gave his side of things and Kelly was committed to trial.

In June the case came before a jury at the Old Bailey. The court heard that Mary and Margaret had ‘been quarrelling for months’. Kelly accused John Dimmock of kicking at her down but he, Mary and some other witnesses all denied this. She aslo said she reacted when Mary threw a basin at her. No one denied that Margaret had been drinking, and it is likely that many of the rows had occurred when both women were under the influence.

In the end the jury found the prisoner guilty and she was sentenced to twelve months in prison. She was 42 years of age.

[from Morning Post, Wednesday 8 May 1844; The Standard, Tuesday 14 May 1844; Morning Post, Friday 17 May 1844; Lloyd’s Illustrated Paper, Sunday 14 May 1844; Morning Post, Tuesday 28 May 1844]

Sheep rustling in Holloway; a reminder of our rural past

The new Metropolitan Cattle Market, Copenhagen Fields

Today I am starting a new blog series which will look at the smaller events (and some larger ones) associated with London’s streets and the people that lived in them in the past.

I am going to start with Tufnell Park Road in north London because it very close to where I was born and my family lived. Today it is a very urban, built up area, with some fairly well heeled residents living alongside rougher areas of relative deprivation. In that respect then Tufnell Park and Holloway is quite like a lot of the capital in the 21st century.

In May 1867 Richard Allcock was walking along Kentish Town Road at about 10 or 11 at night when he saw a man approaching, driving a ‘drove’ of lambs towards him. He knew the man, John (or ‘Jack’) Read as a fellow drover from the Highgate area. He counted 30 lambs and recognized as a breed native to the Isle of Wight.

He hailed his colleague who replied with a cheery,  ‘holloa Dick, is that you? Will you have a glass of ale?’ Allcock happily agreed and the pair enjoyed a few beers at a nearby public house.

On the following Thursday Allcock ran into Read again, this time at the Metropolitan Cattle Market at Copenhagen Fields by Caledonian Road. The market had moved there just a dozen years earlier from Smithfield as the City authorities attempted to ‘improve’ the built up centre of London. This, and the fact that Allcock later stated that flocks of lambs were regularly graved in Tufnell Park reminds us that, in the mid Victorian period, the area was very far from being as urban as it is today.

At market Allcock was speaking to another drover about his conversation with Jack when he came over and took his mate to one side. ‘Don’t say anything to anyone that you saw me on Monday night’, he said. If Allcock was puzzled it all soon became clear. On the night in question the lambs, part of a larger flock of 71 belonging to John Fuller, had vanished. Police sergeant David Older (16Y) had arrested Read following a tip off.

Read denied stealing them and said he was in bed by 5 o’clock that night, and didn’t get up again that day. Allcock’s evidence undermined that because he’d been drinking with him between 10 and 11. The police were sure they had their man but he wasn’t acting alone. Read himself came close to admitting his crime but muttered that he was ‘not going to take this all alone’.

His solicitor asked for bail when he appeared before the magistrate at Clerkenwell but Mr Cooke refused. Apparently Read had previous for stealing livestock and the police were reluctant to see him at liberty. Off to prison he went while the investigation continued.

Looking at George W. Bacon’s map of London for 1888 Tufnell Park Road is much less built up that it is today. There is a cricket ground and considerable open space on the north side, in Upper Holloway, although there are buildings along most of the street. By the early 1900s the cricket ground is surrounded by housing and other property; all the green space has gone and a railway (the Tottenham and Hampstead Junction) runs across its northern edge.

In Charles Booth’s 1889/90 map of the northern suburbs Tufnell Park Road is solidly red in colour, marking it out as a comfortable middle class area with, as one might expect for a major thoroughfare, plenty of commercial property. Tufnell Park Road looks then, like a respectable street in a mixed working-class area but the situation does vary across Holloway, something I’ll pick in more detail by looking at Booth’s notebooks in the next blog.

[from Daily News, Thursday, June 6, 1867]

Echoes of Oliver Twist as an Islington apprentice complains of being abused

Noah Claypole from Oliver Twist

By the mid 1840s the Victorian reading public were familiar with the work of Charles Dickens and his stories of everyday life. Between 1837 (when the young Queen Victoria ascended the throne) and 1839 Bentley’s Miscellany serialised the adventures of Oliver Twist as he escaped from the home of the Sowerberrys and the abuse he’d suffered at the hands of Noah Claypole and Charlotte, the serving maid.

Of course that escape was short lived as Oliver was plunged into the criminal underworld of the metropolis and the lives and crimes of Fagin and his gang of pickpockets. Happily of course ‘all’s well that ends well’, and Oliver finds redemption and peace in the home of Mr Brownlow, even if the plot does have a few more twists and turns along the way.

Oliver was a parish apprentice. He was placed first with a chimney sweep and then with Mr Sowerberry (an undertaker) as a way to get him out of the workhouse and off the parish books. Apprenticeship was not as popular as it had been 100 years earlier but it was still seen as a route to a respectable trade and steady income. Young people were apprenticed in their teens and learned a skill from their master before leaving to set up as journeyman in their early 20s.

The system was open to abuse of course; Dickens was not making up the characters of Noah and Charlotte, or Gamfield the brutish sweep. These sorts of individuals existed, even if Dickens exaggerated them for dramatic or comic effect. In the 1700s in London apprentices who felt aggrieved could take their complaints (or not being trained, being exalted, or even abused) to the Chamberlain of London in his court at Guildhall. Failing that they might seek advice and mediation from a magistrate.

Both sides approached the Chamberlain and magistrate in the Georgian period and apprentices were released from their contracts or admonished in equal measure. For a master the courts were often a useful way to discipline unruly teenagers who simply refused to obey their ‘betters’.  However, other masters resorted to physical chastisement in their attempts to discipline their disobedient charges.

Sometimes this went too far, as in this case that reached the Police Court magistrate at Clerkenwell.

Joseph Mitchely was a parish apprentice, just like the fictional Oliver. He was aged 14 or 15 and had been bound to an Islington  ‘master frame maker and french polisher’ named Wilton. In early November he had complained to the court that Henry Wilton was beating him unfairly and the magistrate ordered an investigation to be made. He called in the parish authorities (in the person of Mr Hicks) who made some enquiries into the case.

Having completed his investigation Mr Hicks reported back to Mr Tyrwhitt, the sitting justice at Clerkenwell. He declared that the boy had exaggerated the extent of the ‘abuse’ he’d supposedly suffered and was now apologetic. Apparently, young Joseph now ‘begged his master’s forgiveness’.

Mr Tyrwhitt discharged the master frame maker and told the boy to return with him and make his peace. He added that in it might be better if any further disputes between them were brought before him or one of his fellow magistrates, and suggested that Mr Wilton avoid ‘moderate correction’ in future. Hopefully both parties had learnt a valuable lesson   and were able to move forward in what was a crucial relationship (for Joseph at least).

[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, November 21, 1848]

A mother’s grief as her son’s rejection condemns her to the workhouse

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Having just formally committed William Herbert to the Old Bailey to face trial for murder the Clerkenwell magistrate then had to deal with a string of applications from impoverished petitioners who needed help.

One of these was an elderly widow who said that her son had abandoned her. She wanted to know if Mr Barstow (the magistrate) could compel her son to support her?

The justice asked her to explain the situation, which she did. Her son had recently married, and that had been the start of ‘her troubles’ because at almost the same time her husband had died. Except that he wasn’t actually her husband. In common with many working-class couple in the 1800s they hadn’t officially married.

But no one knew this, not even her children, so it must have come as something of a shock to the young man when his new wife (‘through her inquisitiveness’) found out and told him. Up until then the widow had been allowing her son ‘to have what part of the house he pleased’ and he had agreed to pay her 26a week in maintenance.

However, as soon as he discovered the family secret he changed; he called her a ‘fallen woman, a woman of sin’ and refused to have anything more to do with her. She didn’t complain or censure him but simply reminded her son that he ‘had been brought up respectably’ and she hoped he would at least continue to pay her the weekly allowance.

He refused outright and (and here was the clue to his change of heart) told her that ‘his wife ashamed of her past conduct, and would not allow him to do anything for her’.

‘In fact’, he continued, ‘he had got orders from his wife not to speak to her’.

She had come to terms with his rejection of her but she needed that money which was why she had come to see the magistrate for his help. Unfortunately Mr Barstow told her that there was nothing he could do for her; ‘an illegitimate son was not bound to keep his mother’. With that the ‘poor woman, who seemed much affected’ left the court probably knowing that her next port of call must be the parish workhouse.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, November 15, 1880]

‘Drown the bugger!’ A policeman is pitched into the canal

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At half past one on the morning of Saturday 3 November 1849 police constable Henry Hewitt (164N) was on his beat in Islington, proceeding along Thornhill Road and adjacent to the towpath of the Regent’s Park Canal.

He noticed two men, one carrying a large sack over his shoulder and he became suspicious that they were up to no good. PC Hewitt moved over and stopped them, asking to see what they had in the bag. Even by the dim light of his lantern he could see that the bag was stained with fresh blood.

The blood was from the remains of four dead geese and when the men failed to provide a satisfactory answer for why they had four dead birds he attempted to arrest them. The men were desperate however, knowing they’d been caught, and decided that attack was the best form of defense. They pushed him and tripped him up, turned tail and ran, dropping the sack in to the process.

PC Hewitt recovered himself and set off in pursuit, quickly catching one of the men. His captive shouted for help, calling on his accomplice to ‘drown the b_____r!’ At first the other man did help his mate, but as a battle raged between the policeman and his captive the other took the opportunity to make his escape.

Now Hewitt was left fighting with one thief and the pair tumbled into the canal. The policeman might have drowned in the water but he had a firm grip on his assailant’s neckerchief and in the end the noise of their fight and the officer’s cries for help drew assistance to the towpath and both men were dragged out of the water.

The next morning the prisoner was set in the dock at Clerkenwell Police court and identified as James Knight, alias ‘Macclesfield Bill’, and charged with theft and attempted murder. The court was packed and listened with horror as the policeman described his narrow brush with death.

The magistrate, Mr Tyrwhitt, wanted to know if the owner of the geese had ben traced. They had, the constable told him: two belonged to a Mr Millard of Salisbury Street, Agar Town, while the other pair were the property of a gentleman named Caxton.  In both cases the thieves had broken into buildings to steal the animals. This was a very serious crime – robbery and breaking and entering, plus attempted murder and violence. The justice had no hesitation in sending Knight to trial and Inspector Thatcher promised that ‘every exertion would be made to discover the prisoner’s confederate’.

Seemingly they never did find the other man nor was a jury convinced that Knight was guilty of attempted murder. At his trial on 26 November James (or William) Knight was found guilty of common assault, which usually attacted a small fine or short period of imprisonment. Since he’d been remanded in custody for the best part of a week he was released.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, November 05, 1849]

‘You are not here to cross examine me’: a magistrate condemns a Friendly Society’s failure to support an elderly member

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In October 1889 the secretary of the Hope Teetotal Friendly Society* was summoned before Mr Montagu Williams at Clerkenwell to explain why he was refusing to pay sick money to one of his members. His argument, which was rejected by the magistrate, reminds us that until 1908 there was no statutory relief for the elderly, no Old Age Pensions as there are today. As a result very many working-class men and women had to keep working well into their 70s and 80s, however infirm or incapable they became.

Indeed William Cox was too ill to attend court and so the complaint was brought by his wife, Caroline, herself ‘an old woman’. She told Mr Williams that her husband had been paying his dies to the Society since 1857 and now, at the ripe old age of 82, she believed he was entitled to weekly payments. He was suffering from ‘bodily infirmities, aggravated by old age’.

In defense of the decision not to pay William the Society’s solicitor, Rendall Moore, said that he was not suffering from any disease so they were not obliged to pay. He didn’t believe ‘old age’ was an illness and a similar request from Cox had been dismissed only five years earlier.

The magistrate declared that just because the complainant was not entitled to payments previously he clearly seemed to be entitled now and he ordered the Society to pay William Cox 15s weekly from now on. A solicitor for Mrs Cox now requested that the Society also pay the costs of the case and when even the Society’s own doctor admitted that William had been left ‘broken up’  by the delay in paying his relief Montague Williams was happy to award them.

The Society’ s lawyer now unwisely chose to question the decision asking the magistrate ‘whether he considered that mere old age was sickness?’

‘You are not here to cross examine me’, thundered the magistrate and the order to pay was immediately entered into and Mr Moore left court with his tail between his legs.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, October 30, 1889]

*amusingly the Society held its meetings in the local pub.

A specialist thief on the Great Northern Railway

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King’s Cross station, c.1862

When, in October 1868, a customer reported losing several of his possessions on a train the Great Northern Railway company called in their own in-house detective team. In 1868 this meant that William Thorogood was immediately set on the trail of the thief.

It didn’t take the private detective long to spot a young man strolling quickly across the platform at King’s Cross. The man was sporting a ‘portmanteau, rug, umbrella and [walking] stick’, all matching the description given by Mr William Kingsworth, the traveler that had complained he had fallen victim to a robbery.

The detective quickly moved to fall in step behind the thief and watched as he hailed a cab. As the young man entered the hansom in St Pancras Road, Thorogood clambered in beside him. The man was ‘fashionably dressed’, not obviously then, a thief,  and he gave  name as Robert Johnson. When challenged he emphatically denied stealing anything and asked how Thorogood could possibly prove that he had.

The detective took his prisoner back to the station superintendent’s office where Mr Kingsworth positively identified his property. In court at Clerkenwell the passenger said he’d never seen Johnson before that day and had missed his items after he’d left then briefly on his seat. Johnson denied everything, refused to give his address, and cried throughout the entire hearing. Mr Clarke remanded him for a week and he was led away to the cells.

Johnson was tried at the Bailey on the 26 October 1868. He pleaded guilty to stealing Mr Kingsworth’s property and asked for several other offences to be dealt with at the same time. He seemed to specialise in stealing portmanteaus (briefcases) from railway trains. The judge sent him to prison for 18 months.

[from The Illustrated Police News etc, Saturday, October 17, 1868]

A cross-dressing copper and the Whitechapel murderer?

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The ‘From Hell or ‘Lusk’ letter 

In mid October 1888 the London, national and even the world’s press were full of the news of the Whitechapel murders. It was the sensation story of its day and has remained one of the most discussed crime news stories of all time.

On the evening of the 16 October George Lusk, a builder and head of the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee, received a disturbing parcel in the post. The parcel contained a badly written letter and a piece of human kidney. The so-called ‘From Hell’ or ‘Lusk’ letter has been the subject of fierce speculation amongst those interested in the case. It was not signed ‘Jack the Ripper’ and the portion of kidney gave it extra credence, since it was commonly known that the killer had removed one of Kate Eddowes in Mitre Square.

Ultimately we can’t be sure if the ‘From Hell’ letter, or any of the communications received by the press and police, were from the murderer or the work of attention seekers and cranks. They all, however, demonstrate just how much public interest there was in the Ripper case.

The police hunt for the killer was at its apogee in October and may have contributed to the fact that there was a lull in murders that lasted just over a month. The police were out in force and watching anyone they suspected might be involved. Evidence of this can found in all sorts of places including this report of proceedings in the Clerkenwell Police court.

James Phillips and William Jarvis, two cab washers, were brought before Mr Bros charged with a serious assault on a police detective. The court heard that on the 9 October detective sergeant Robinson was on duty in Phoenix Place. DS Robinson was in disguise, dressed in women’s clothing so he could watch ‘a man supposed to be the Whitechapel murderer’.

According to the report Jarvis attacked him, throwing him to the ground and stabbing him before Phillips rushed in and started kicking him. A man named Doncaster came to assist the policeman and he was also wounded. Eventually the pair were arrested and charged.  Mr Bros committed the men for trial, accepting £20 each in bail. Jarvis was tried at the Middlesex quarter sessions where he was convicted and sent to Pentonville prison for six weeks.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, October 17, 1888]