‘A child having been stolen the detectives were looking for its clothes, not its body!’ The police and press criticism in Victorian Islington

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The police are never far from criticism by the media in this country. In the late twentieth century there has been widespread condemnation of their handling of the Miners Strike, the Peace Convoy near Stonehenge, the tragedy at Hillsborough 30 years again this week, and the murder of Stephen Lawrence. We can add to that the botched investigation into the serial murders committed by Peter Sutcliffe in West Yorkshire, the ‘kettling’ of student protesters, various deaths in police custody, and the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes in 2005.

The nineteenth-century police was far from immune to newspaper criticism; indeed from the very creation of the Metropolitan Police in 1829 sections of the press leapt at every opportunity to pour scorn on them or expose their inefficiencies. The police represented – for some at least – an imposition on the freedom and the wallet of decent and respectable Britons. In London and in many midlands and northern towns the police became a symbol of an ever more oppressive state as they were deployed to prevent protests against the hated Poor Law.

But it is often the ‘little things’ that annoy the public just as much and it seems from this anti-police report in The Era from 1870 that it was their actions against publicans that got under the skin of middle-class newspaper editors. The licensing laws were an easy target because they seemingly unnecessary imposed rules on people who were doing ‘northing wrong’.  As The Era put it the police’s purpose seemed to be little more than:

annoying respectable Licensed Victuallers and their customers under the colourable pretence of seeing that men who have a large stake in their property are not jeopardizing it by evading the law and encouraging bad characters’.

In other words the police were interfering unnecessarily in the lives of business men and women and it might have been better if the police concentrated on catching ‘real criminals’, rather than the odd landlord who stayed open after hours or served alcohol on a Sunday. Today we hear very similar complaints about the police, especially from grumpy motorists pulled over for speeding.

In 1870 The Era opted to illustrate its point by reference to a child abduction that the local police (in this case Islington’s Y Division) quite spectacularly (in the opinion of the paper) failed to investigate properly.

When Mrs Chinnery (the wife of a respectable Horney Road tradesman) required a new domestic servant she approached the Poor Law authorities. They found her a widow named Mary O’Connor who happily swapped the workhouse for her new live-in role and, at first at least, she pleased her new mistress and seemed very happy to have this new chance in life. Things soured however when she was unable to visit her daughter (who lived in an orphanage in Kensington) because she’d not finished her duties at home in time.

That was Sunday 3 April and on the following Monday when her mistress sent her out on an errand Mary took Mrs Chinnor’s 18 month old son with her.

She never came back.

Mrs Chinnor ‘naturally alarmed’ went to the police who issued a description of the servant and the infant child. However, despite the best efforts of the ‘active and intelligent Police of Y Division’ (as the press reported it) neither the woman nor the baby could be found. Then, a week later on the 11 April one of Mrs Chinnor’s suplliers ran into Mary in the street. Knowing that she was a fugitive she made a citizen’s arrest, but not without a struggle. She fought with the servant for twenty minutes before any policemen arrived and then they struggled again to ward off a large crowd that wanted to string the child abductor up on the nearest lamppost.

Meanwhile the poor little boy was still missing and despite the efforts of the division’s detectives no one could find him. No one that is until he turned up in the care of the Islington workhouse. In fact the infant had been there for a day and half, having been found – by the police – on the doorstep of the local police station. The baby was almost naked, swaddled in a cloth, and not dressed as the mother had described it in ‘its pelisse and hat’. The police didn’t recognize it nor, seemingly, did they cross check one inquiry with another. Mary had simply taken the child out of spite but thought better of it and left it where she knew it would be safe.

The Era was scathing:

There’s intelligence – there’s activity of intellect; a child having been stolen the detectives were looking for its clothes, not its body!

‘’Where was the child found? On the steps of Islington Police-station; and though the intelligent and active officers of that Division had circulated a description of the child to all other Metropolitan Police-stations  they had had never thought of examining it to see whether it had the markes [sic] described’ by its mother.

All’s well that ends well of course and mother and child were reunited safely but Mrs Chinnor brought a complaint against the servant to Clerkenwell Police court. Mr Cooke – the magistrate presiding – expressed his ‘astonishment at the intelligence displayed’ by the police. For the press it was an opportunity to comment on the inefficiency of policing in London and to reinforce the opinion of its members that resources were being deployed in the wrong areas.

The paper didn’t bother to say what happened to Mary O’Connor but I imagine a cold prison cell awaited her, which would have meant her daughter would have waited even longer for that visit.

[from The Era, Sunday, April 17, 1870]

‘He has been in the habit of knocking me about’, until one day he went too far.

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This is one of those frustrating cases where you really feel you should be able to find out more than you can about it. On Thursday 12 April 1883 a 45 year-old labourer named Thomas Ward was brought up before Mr Barstow for the second time, having previously been remanded in custody for an assault.

His victim was a widow, Mrs Elizabeth Wynn, who had been living with Ward as his housekeeper for the past year. Ward was evidently a violent man and was partial to knocking the poor woman about when he was drunk. Nothing about this would have surprised the late Victorian magistracy since domestic violence was endemic in working-class communities in the 1800s. It was probably more widespread in middle class homes than society was prepared to recognize but genteel ‘ladies’ were more accustomed to covering up the signs of it and more invested in keeping their husbands’ dirty secrets.

The assault had taken place on the 5 April and Elizabeth had been taken to St Bartholomew’s Hospital to be treated for her injuries. It quickly became apparent that she wasn’t going to recover from the beating she’d sustained so the police secured a dying deposition which makes for difficult reading:

‘Yesterday afternoon I was at our street door, and knocked several times. The prisoner would not open it, but at last he did, and struck me on the nose and mouth with his fist. I was covered with blood, and do not remember any more. I feel very sore in the stomach, and I am black all over from falling. He was sober. He has been in the habit of knocking me about, and I have been in Highgate Infirmary with fractured ribs, which he did. I stayed away on that night because he swore he would do for me’.  

Elizabeth died on the morning of the 6 April.

The magistrate remanded Ward for another week but that is where he seems to disappear from history. I find no trace of a murder or manslaughter trial at the Old Bailey involving either Ward or Elizabeth Wynn, nor any entry in the Digital Panopticon.

The newspapers are equally silent on whether Ward was ever formally prosecuted for the killing of his housekeeper.  That leads me to suspect that the police had insufficient evidence to press charges and that, if anything, all Ward got was a short prison sentence for the assault, and I suspect that was unlikely as well (or he would have been recorded as being inside on the DP site). As ever, if someone else can enlighten me I’d be grateful (after all today is my birthday).

[from The Standard, Friday, April 13, 1883]

A young Turpin is nipped in the bud

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William Roseblade was 13 years old when he was stood in the dock at Clerkenwell Police court accused of stealing money from his employer, Mr Thompson. Described as ‘a sharp, intelligent-looking boy’ it was alleged that William had stolen the princely sum of £10 and ran away. The boy was tasked with errand running for the Islington watchmaker and was regularly sent out with sovereigns to change to get changed for smaller silver coins. One day in March 1864 he simply didn’t come back.

PC William Kempson (304R) was on the platform at Lewisham railway station when he noticed  a lad acting suspiciously, putting money in a purse and he moved in and grabbed him. When he asked the boy (who was William) just where he’d got such a lot of cash he was given three different, and equally implausible answers.  The policeman took young William by the collar and marched him to the local police station. There he was searched and £5 14d, a pistol, some percussion caps, powder and a bullet mould were found on him.

This was more serious than the usual juvenile delinquency the police encountered daily, just where had William got a gun from and how had he ended up in Lewisham when his stated home address was in Norfolk Street, Islington?

William now gave a dramatic and bizarre story to the police. He said he’d been waylaid by gipsies and forced to join their gang. At first they threatened his life if he didn’t do as he was told but soon he won the confidence of their leader and became his second in command. He said the gang had stopped several gentleman on the roads and demanded ‘their money or their lives’. William held the gun and was told that if they didn’t hand over the money, or were violent, he was to shoot them. He added that the gang ‘never ill-used them if they did not make a noise and at once complied with their wishes’.  He declared that he had already shot several people who hadn’t done as they were asked.

Now, however, he had grown tired of the life of a highwayman and a burglar and wanted to go to sea ‘so that he could be a pirate and a bold buccaneer, and sweep the seas and be his own master, and forever free’.

It was a romantic tale and, of course, a complete fantasy from beginning to end. The magistrate asked the police if any crimes fitting William’s description had occurred in the area he mentioned but they had not, the lad had made it up. What had inspired him then? Well, it seems young William had a passion for penny dreadfuls, for the cheap publications like “Dick Turpin”, “The Gentleman Highwayman,” and “Tales of the Daring and Bravery of Pirates”. He’d filled his head with heroic criminality and was unable to separate this from the reality of his own life.

His mother was distraught. She told the justice that she’d raised him properly, ‘religiously and respectably’ and he had brought disgrace on a  family that had never been in trouble with the law before. She urged the magistrate to send her son to a reformatory school: ‘He was young’ she said, ‘and he might turn out a bright man’.

The magistrate upbraided William for his behaviour and his attitude but the lad was unrepentant and seemingly unfazed by his appearance in court. He was living the dream of being a highwayman, acting up to authority and ‘dying game’ as Turpin did. Whether he felt the same way once he had spent a month in a cell at the Clerkenwell house of correction is anyone’s guess however.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, April 3, 1864]

‘Iron filings clippings, gritty matter, and foreign stalks’: some of the things found in a very British cup of tea

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I am writing this on Monday and at this point we still don’t know what is going to happen with regards to Brexit. As it stands though, unless the PM has managed to persuade enough MPs to back her deal, we are still scheduled to leave the European Union at 11 o’clock tonight.  We joined the EU (or rather the European Common Market as it was then) on 1 January 1973 after a referendum was held to test the public’s desire to enter or not.  Today we may leave on the basis of another such referendum, or we may not.

I thought it might be interesting to find out what was happening in the Metropolitan Police courts 100 years before we joined the European club. After all in March 1873 Britain was a very different place. Instead of being a declining world power we were THE world power, an empire upon which ‘the sun never set’. Queen Victoria had been on the throne for almost 36 years and had been a widow for 12 of those. William Gladstone was Prime Minster in his first ministry and he was opposed at the dispatch box by Benjamin Disraeli who he had beaten by 100 seats in the 1868 election. Oh what Mrs May would give for a majority of 100 seats, or any majority for that matter

Britain was stable, powerful, rich and successful in 1873 and Europe was a collection of individual nation states of which republican France, under Adophe Thiers, and Germany, (under Kaiser Wilhelm I and his able chancellor Bismark), were dominant. Russia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire represented the old guard  by comparison. No one was talking about a European union in 1873 but the slide to European war (in 1914) could already be predicted by those able to read the runes.

1873 in Britain saw the opening of the Alexandra Palace in London, and Londoners watched in horror as it burned down a fortnight later. The Kennel Club was created in April , the first of its kind in the world. Another first was the opening of Girton in Cambridge, as an all female college.

220px-Elizabeth_Garrett_Anderson,_MElizabeth Garrett Anderson (right) also became the first woman to be admitted to the British Medical Association, an honor she retained uniquely for almost 20 years. In Africa British colonial troops went to war with Ashanti king, ostensibly because of the latter’s continued trade in human slaves.  Mary_Ann_Cotton

On the 24 March Mary Ann Cotton (left) , one of history’s most unpleasant murderers, was hanged in Durham goal for the murder of her stepson (and the presumed murder of three former husbands); her motive was to cash in on their life insurance money.

Over at Clerkenwell Police court things were a little less dramatic as a tea dealer named Brown was set in the dock before Mr Barker, the incumbent police magistrate. James Neighbour, the sanitary inspector for St Luke’s, testified that he had purchased tow sample of tea from Brown’s shop and had taken them away for analysis. Dr Parry certified that both had been adulterated.

The adulteration of food was common in Victorian Britain and the authorities were keen to prevent it, not least because of the risk it posed to the health of population. Dr Parry’s verdict was that one sample of tea contained ‘iron filings and clippings, gritty matter, and foreign stalks’ while the other was made up of ‘tea dust’ and ‘small fragments of wood’ as well as all the other substances found in the first one. The tea was described variously in signs in the shop window as ‘capital’ and ‘noted’ mixtures but they were very far from it.

However, when pressed the doctor would not or could not say that the tea was ‘injurious to health’, it just wasn’t what it was advertised to be.  Whether it had been adulterated by the defendant or had arrived in that state from China was also something he couldn’t comment on with authority.  This led Brown’s defense lawyer (Mr Ricketts) to argue that the prosecution had failed to prove its case against his client. Mr Barker disagreed. He said it was self-evident that the tea dealer either knew his product was adulterated with ‘foreign matter’ even if he hadn’t adulterated it himself. This was done, he declared, to bulk up the actual tea and cheat the customer. Had it been dangerous to health he would have fined him £20 but as it was not he let him off with a £10n and ordered him to pay the inspector’s costs.

Of course one of the things the EU protects is our consumer and environmental rights, through its stringent laws on trade. Indeed one of the fears some have is that if we open ourselves up to a genuine free market we might have to accept products (such as bleached American chickens) that would not pass EU food standards. We might also note that in 1873 that Britain dominated world trade and that most trade passed through British ports, making money and creating work as it did so.  But in 1873 we had an empire and a navy that was the envy of the world.

Today not only do we longer have an empire but we also have a navy that has been stripped back to the bare bones, to the extent that we only have one aircraft carrier and that is unable to launch the sort of planes we have available. In 1873 we were the major power in the world, truly GREAT Britain. In 1973 we joined a trading community to ensure our future prosperity. In 2019 we may be about to leave that club having grown frustrated with its attempts to evolve into something that resembles a United States of Europe rather than the trade club we signed up to.

Who knows where we go from here and whether this will prove to be a smart move or a disaster that will haunt us forever. History will judge us, and those that made the decisions that led us to this point.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, March 29, 1873]

A fracas in an Islington fish and chip shop

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This story reveals that London was very much ‘open all hours’ in the Victorian period, but also that violence could erupt at any time, and not necessarily from the sources one might expect.

Mary Ann Keeley was one of the capital’s ‘unfortunates’. By this description the Standard’s newspaper reporter meant that she was a prostitute, a problematic term then and now. Did this mean Mary Ann identified herself as a sex worker or that she resorted to prostitution when times were hard? It may also mean that this is how the police at the time identified her others like her, who were out on the streets late at night without an obvious male escort.

In the early hours of Saturday 19 March 1870 Keeley and some of her friends or associates were eating ‘supper’ at a ‘fried fish shop’ in Pierpoint Row, Islington. While they were chatting and eating Ada Hatwell came into the shop and became the focus of the women’s attention. They commented unfavorably on her appearance, teasing her about her ‘chignon’ (the way she’d tied up her hair in a bun) and she reacted badly. Ada hit out at them with her umbrella and then seized a fork from the counter at flew at Keeley with it.

In the fracas that followed Mary Ann was stabbed no less than nine times with the fork and knocked unconscious by the younger woman’s attack. The police were called but it took considerably effort to restrain her and march her to the nearest police station. Keeley was taken to get medical help and Hatwell was brought before the Clerkenwell magistrate later than morning.

Dr Francis Buckell sent a note detailing the victim’s injuries that included puncture wounds to her temple and arms, all of which were consistent, he added, to her being attacked with a fork. Ada was adamant that she’d done nothing wrong; the fault lay, she insisted, with the complainant and her companions who ‘were low women’ who had provoked her. The justice decided to lock her up for a week to see how Keeley’s injuries developed.

No Ada Hatwell appears after that in the pages of the newspapers or the court records so either Keeley dropped the charge or the magistrate dismissed it for lack of a belief that there was enough proof to sustain a conviction for assault. This was pretty normal for casual non-lethal violence in the 1800s.

[from The Standard, Monday, March 21, 1870].

A Victorian tale to bring a gleam to Mr Duncan Smith’s eyes

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The Victorians – and especially those who signed up to the Mendicity Society – had a real hatred of imposture when it came to poverty. The society was determined to root out and expose (and thence to punish) anyone who pretended to be in need of poor relief or charity when they were fit and able to work. We seem to have inherited this distrust of the poor and now frame those we would like to see exposed as ‘benefit scroungers’.

It is fairly common for highly paid, privately educated, and well-connected, privileged members of Parliament to condemn those that claim they cant survive on the little the state provides.  In these hard times there has also been a focus on denying benefits to the disabled, by reinterpreting what it means to be ‘unfit to work’. Withholding benefits or making the hoops that the impoverished need to jump through to get them more complicated or time consuming is another, well practiced, tactic of modern ‘caring’, Conservative Britain.

I think Mrs May, Jeremy Hunt, Amber Rudd, Ester McVey and (especially) Iain Duncan Smith would have relished living the 1800s. Workhouses, ‘less eligibility’ and mendicity officers would have been right up their street (although they may have struggled with this county’s open doors policy on immigration – at least until the end of the century that is).

They would have liked Mr Turner, who gave evidence at Clerkenwell Police court in March 1866. He was there to investigate Johanna (or Ellen) Shields who had been brought up by the curate of St George’s, Queen Square, for begging at his door. The curate (presumably a  ‘good Christian’) had found Johanna knocking on his door asking for money as her husband was sick and out of work and she had six children to feed.

He asked her name and where she lived. Johanna gave a false name (Ellen Thomas) and an address in Little Ormond Yard, in Bloomsbury. He didn’t believe her and to confirm his suspicions he donned his hat and said he’d accompany her home to see for himself. This unnerved Johanna who tried to put him off, saying she would go and get her certificate to prove she was registered in the parish (and so entitled to relief). Instead the curate summoned a constable and had her arrested.

In court at Clerkenwell Mr Barker (the magistrate) was told (by the curate, whose name is never revealed) that Johanna had changed her story when he’d said he’d go with her, which led him to involving the police. The woman now said she lived in Church Street, St Giles, had six children (one of whom was blind) and a sick husband. When he subsequently visited her address he found her husband, and three children, none of whom was blind. He also testified that she had asked his fellow rector at St George’s for help and he’d refused also. He said he was ‘determined to give all imposters into the custody of the police’.

So what was Mr Barker to do with Johanna? She denied the charge but the evidence against came from a respectable source. Moreover the justice expected she’d done it before, and so had ‘form’. She was being treated as if she was a criminal when her only ‘crime’ was being poor and asking for help.

This is where Mr Turner from the Mendicity Society came in. He was tasked with discovering whether she had a history of ‘shamming’ so the bench could decide what punishment (if any) to hand down. This would take a week and Mr Barker decided that regardless of the outcome Johanna would spend the next seven days locked up on remand. The gaoler escorted her back to the cells to be transferred to the Clerkenwell house of detention where she would subsist on bread and water and pick oakum with all the other ‘offenders’.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, March 06, 1866]

‘The stench was horrible, and seemed as if from burnt bones or flesh’: the Spa Fields scandal of 1845

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Clerkenwell Police court was crowded on the morning of the 25 February 1845 and the magistrate must have quickly realized that local passions were running high. Most of those present either lived or worked in the near vicinity of Exmouth Street, close by the Spa Fields burial ground.

Burials no longer take place in Spa Fields and nowadays the gardens are an inner-city paradise on summer days as visitors eat their lunch, walk their dogs, or sunbathe on the grass. The London Metropolitan Archives is nearby and in Exmouth Market gourmands can enjoy a wide variety of food from the stalls and cafés that trade there.

The crowd in Mr Combe’s courtroom were represented by a pawnbroker and silversmith called Watts. He stepped forward to explain that he and his fellow ratepayers were there to seek an end to ‘practices of an abominable nature’ that had been taken place in the graveyard.

What exactly were these ‘abominable practices’?

The magistrate listened as  Mr Watts told him that while the burial ground was less than two acres in size and was estimated to be able to hold 3,000 bodies. In reality however, in the 50 years of its existence on average some 1,500 internments were taking place annually. In sum then, something like 75,000 people had been buried in a space for 3,000 and more and more burials were taking place, indeed there had recently been 36 in one day the pawnbroker said.

However, while the graveyard was crowded and this would have meant digging into extant graves and disturbing them, ‘not a bone was seen on the surface’. He (Mr Watts) would provide his Worship with evidence that the bodies of interned persons were routinely being dug up and burned to make room for fresh burials. Moreover many of those coffins removed were new, the wood ‘was fresh’ he added, and witnesses had seen human body parts hacked off by diggers.

The desecration of graves was one thing but the root of the complaint was actually the effect that this practice had on local people and their businesses. According to Watts:

‘The stench proceeding from what was called the “bone-house” in the graveyard was so intolerable that many of the residents in Exmouth–street, which abutted on the place, had been obliged to leave it altogether’.

Surely, the magistrate asked him, a prosecution could be brought against the parochial authorities that had responsibility for the place? Mr Watts said that the parish of St James’ was well aware of what was happening but were doing nothing to stop it.

‘The custom is’ he explained, ‘to disinter the bodies after they have been three or four days buried, chop them up, and burn them in this bone-house’.

Then he should certainly bring a charge against them Mr Combe advised. The clerk to the local Board of Poor Law Guardians was less sure however; since the burial ground was not subject to rates he didn’t think the parochial authorities could be held liable for it. The magistrate said that if the Guardians couldn’t interfere the matter should go to the Poor Law Commissioners and, if they didn’t not help, he would apply directly to the Homes Secretary (who, in February 1845, was Sir James Graham – a politician who, by his own admission, is only remembered by history as ‘the man who opened the letters of the Italians’ in the Mazzini case).

Police Inspector Penny (G Division) testified that he had visited the bone house after being presented with a petition signed by 150 locals.

He found ‘a large quantity of coffins, broken up and some of them burning…the smell was shocking, intolerable. There were coffins of every size there, children’s and men’s’.

The court heard from Reuben Room, a former gravedigger who’d left two year’s previously after ‘a dispute’. He said he’d often been asked to disinter bodies after a couple of days to make room for fresh burials. John Walters, who kept the Clerkenwell fire engine, gave evidence that he had twice had to attend fires at the bone house. He had found it hard to gain admission (suggesting that the authorities there were not keen for people to see what was going on inside) but when he had he’d seen ‘as many coffins as three men could convey, and a great deal of pitch was fastened to the chimney’ [i.e. blackening it], resulting from the burning of coffins.

The smell, he agreed, was ‘horrible, and seemed as if from burnt bones or flesh’. A large crowd had gathered that night and were ready to pull the place to the ground.

More witnesses came forward to testify to the horror of the bone house and the ‘abominable practices’ carried out there. Catherine Murphy, who lived in a house which overlooked the graveyard had seen grave diggers chop up a body with their shovels, and had intervened to admonish them when one of the men had lifted the ‘upper part of a corpse by the hair of the head’.

‘Oh, you villain’, she cried, ‘to treat the corpse so!’

Mr Combe  again advised Mr Watts and his fellow petitioners to make a full statement of their complaint to the board of guardians so that they could take action against whomsoever was to blame. Satisfied with this, the crowd emptied out of the courtroom.

Even by early 1800s the pressure on London’s graveyards was acute. The small parish burial grounds simply were not designed to cope with the huge numbers of burials that a rapidly growing population required. The local authorities recognised that larger cemeteries needed to be laid out so that room could be found for new internments. In 1824 a campaign began to build large municipal cemeteries on the edge of London, away from crowded housing and the danger of disease.

From 1837 to 1841 Parliament agreed to ‘the building of seven commercial cemeteries’ at Kensal Green, West Norwood, Highgate, Nunhead, Abney Park, Brompton and Tower Hamlets. By mid century (not long after the horror of Spa Fields) these were already filling up.* Acts in the 1850s caused most of the old seventeenth century burial grounds to be formally closed, some of these are now public gardens.

So the next time you take a stroll in Spa Fields enjoying your lunch or coffee, and taking in the antics of the local canines, you might try to imagine what this place smelled like when the bone house’s fires were in full operation.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, February 26, 1845]

*Weinrebb & Hibbert, The London Encyclopædia (p.129)

for other posts about the problems of London’s dead see:

Knocked down in the street a week before her wedding.

A grave legal dispute in Essex