Two tragedies narrowly averted as life takes its toll on two Londoners

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April 1889 must have been a hard month for those living in London. The 1880s were a period of economic slump, if not a full-blown depression, and unemployment, homelessness and poverty were all rife. A year today I wrote up the story of a young woman that arrived from India, penniless and in need of kind advice and support, who got little of either from the Westminster magistrate. In the same set of daily reports from the Police courts two more tales of personal distress and tragedy caught my eye today.

Mr Bros was the sitting magistrate at Dalston Police court in northeast London when George King was brought before him. King was a 48 year-old stonemason but he was out of work. He’d lost his wife some years ago and was attempting to support his family on his own. Recently however, the state of trade meant he’d little or no money coming in and his sons and daughters were going hungry.

At some point in the spring it all became too much for George and he decided to end his own life. He swallowed a quantity of oxalic acid (used to bring a shine to marble, so something he’d have used in his work) and almost died. Fortunately oxalic acid is one of the least toxic of acids and while it causes considerable harm (notably to the kidneys) its misuse is survivable.

George King did survive but was later arrested and charged with attempting to take his own life. Mr Bros said he was inclined to make an example of the stonemason since ‘such cases were too frequent’ but thought better of it. Taking the circumstances of his plight into consideration he bound him over on his own recognizes (of £5) to never try to do such a thing again.

If George King’s story was a narrowly tragedy avoided then Thomas Burrows was equally distressing. Thomas was only 14 years of age when he attempted to kill himself by lying on the tracks of the North London Railway. At midday on the 10 April Thomas had been seen jumping ‘excitedly’ off the platform at Mildmay Park station onto the tracks below. Observers rushed to pull him up and a constable was called to take him home to his parents. He was later summoned before Mr Bros at Dalston.

The magistrate asked him if he knew it ‘was an extremely wicked thing to attempt to take your life?’  ‘Yes, sir’, Thomas replied meekly.

The boy’s father explained that he understood that the lad had had a ‘tiff’ with his sister. It was something minor, involving carrying home a basket of work in the rain, but it had upset the boy and he had taken this drastic course of action. Normally Thomas was ‘a very good boy, and was fond of his home and of his brothers and sisters’. This had been out of character and he was sure it would never be repeated.

Mr Bros was shocked but also recognized that it was a ‘one off’. Indeed, he said he was almost inclined to laugh’ had there not been ‘such a serious aspect to the case’. He decided to reserve judgment but released Thomas to his father’s care and set bail  (set at £5 again) to ensure the pair returned again to hear what the court decided.

Both these cases are revealing of a society where mental health care was nothing like as advanced as it is today. The attitude of the courts was to punish those that struggled with their personal demons not to support them. Nor was their the state support for men like King who wanted to work but couldn’t; he had at least four other mouths to feed and the only recourse he had was the workhouse (where he’d most likely lose his children altogether).

We are understandably concerned about the mental health of our children in today’s multi-media society where they are exposed to all sorts of challenges on a daily basis. It is often suggested that mental health problems amongst teenagers are more widespread than ever before. This may be true but cases like Thomas’ suggest that such problems existed in the past, but were treated very differently or simply not recognized at all.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, April 18, 1889]

Making explosives at home is a very bad idea

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It is that time of the year again. The period when all the supermarkets stock fireworks for Guy Fawkes and Diwali. Last Wednesday I was walking out of Finsbury Park station on my way to the football when there was a loud bang, the sound of crackers going off, and screams of fear and delight. Suddenly a young man in a hoodie came charging away from the noise followed soon after by three other excited teenagers.

He had thrown a parcel of fireworks into the street by the traffic lights, causing chaos and amusing himself and his friends. Its hardly the worst crime in the world but perhaps, in these dark days of urban terrorism, it wasn’t the most sensible thing to do.

Kids eh?

Such irresponsibility isn’t restricted to children or young adults of course and in 1888 it landed William Seal in court. Seal – who was described as ‘a cripple’ (meaning he was disabled in some way) – was hailed before Mr Bros at Dalston Police court for manufacturing fireworks in a  private house.

He was prosecuted under the Explosives Act (1875) and the case was brought by James Gibbons of the Metropolitan Board of Works and their solicitor, Mr Roberts. The court heard that Seal lived in the upstairs room of a house in Dunster Square, Hackney. The square was home to several houses, each of four rooms, and formed a cul de sac. It was a densely populated area and so very many families lived nearby to where Seal made his pyrotechnics.

Seal lived in a room that was just 9 feet by 7, not much different, in fact, than a standard cell in a Victorian prison. The room was heated by an open fire which was unprotected by any screen or grate, and the table on which Gibbons found Seal’s explosives being made was less than 4 feet away. The table very close to the open fire but the bed was even closer, and Seal stored fireworks under this as well.

The risk of a catastrophic accident, he figured, was very high indeed.

Seal’s landlady was called to give evidence and she testified that she believed he was a toy maker, she never knew he made fireworks and was shocked by the news. She lived downstairs and was ‘very indigent when she discovered the peril in which she and her four children had been placed’.

Mr Bros ordered that all Seal’s stock and manufacturing equipment be seized and brushed aside the defendant’s complaints that it would take away his meagre livelihood. He only made a shilling day from selling fireworks which was barely ‘enough to keep himself out of the workhouse’.

The magistrate was insistent and told the man that by breaking the terms of the act he had rendered himself liable to a fine of £100 a day, and endangered the lives of dozens of people nearby. He fined him £5 or a month’s imprisonment. Shaking his head Seal sloped away from the dock, ‘its the workhouse for me then’, he declared.

[from London Evening Standard, Monday, 5 November 1888]

‘Oh don’t do that. It is I and not he who should be punished’: A wife’s desperate plea to save her abusive husband

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North-east London, almost a year from the start of the Whitechapel murders and the newspapers reports of the Police courts are full of violence. On the Commercial Road a blind man was repeatedly stabbed in the face, at Wandsworth two lads were summoned for beating up a newsboy so badly he was left hospitalized and unable to walk. In Islington a mother punished her 7 year-old son for losing the money she’d sent him to by bread with. Not content with a clip round the ear she pressed a red hot poker in his mouth, burning his tongue.

Over in Hackney two policemen were patrolling near Cross Street late on Sunday night (4 August 1889) when they heard cries of ‘murder!’ and ‘police!’ They hurried towards the sounds and found a small crowd by a house and a woman bleeding from cuts to her arms. A domestic dispute had occurred – something the police were generally rather keen to avoid but perhaps the heightened tensions in the wake of the ‘Ripper’ caused these officers to intervene.

William Elvidge was standing close to his wife Alice and it seemed he had attacked her. Both parties were taken to the police station to be examined and for Alice’s wounds to be dressed.  She’d suffered two cuts only one of which was at all serious, cutting her muscle but she didn’t want to press charges against William.

‘The police, however, thought themselves justified in taking the responsibility of the charge’, and so the case came before Mr Horace Smith, the sitting magistrate at Dalston Police court. Magistrates were often frustrated by the reluctance of women to prosecute their partners; too frequently they simply dropped the charges before their hearing came on, refused to give evidence against husbands in court, or pleaded for mercy for the when they were convicted.

Alice was a woman in this mould.

The court was told that the incident had resulted from William being ‘late for his tea’. An argument had begun and Alice had thrown a plate at her husband who had retaliated by seizing a knife and threatening to ‘cut her throat’.

The magistrate said this was a case that needed to go before a jury and indicted Elvidge to appear at the next Sessions of the Peace. This sent Alice into ‘violent hysterics’ as she pleaded with the justice not to send her man to trial.

Oh don’t do that. It is I and not he who should be punished’, she cried. ‘He is a good, kind, affectionate husband, and good to his children’.

As she was led away by a policeman she screamed:

Oh, dear, it’s all through me!’

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, August 06, 1889]

Police break up a ‘prize fight’ in Dalston as the Ripper case reaches its apogee.

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The Havelock Arms in Albion Drive, Dalston in the 20th century

On the morning of the 10 November 1888 the reports from the London Police Courts in The Standard made no mention of the latest ‘Ripper’ murder (that of Mary Kelly, who’s eviscerated body was discovered at her lodgings in Miller’s Court, Dorset Street). But then no one had been arrested, and no one charged for the killing and the court reports concerned appearances not general reports of criminality. There was plenty of  newspaper coverage of Mary’s murder of course, as the extensive links on the most useful ‘Ripper’ site (Casebook.org) testify.

One case that day did catch my eye because highlighted the existence of illegal prize fighting in late Victorian London. The Marquess of Queensbury had published his rules to govern boxing in 1867 (although previous attempts to regulate the sport had been tried in 1838 and even earlier, in the 18th century). But, as both Ripper Street, and Guy Ritchie’s take on Sherlock Holmes in recent years suggest, illegal prize fights, with the gambling that was associated with it, continued.

Like dog fighting (also the subject of attention from the writers of Ripper Street)  such illegal fights were hard to stop; they took place at night in out of the way places and news of them was spread by word of mouth to avoid police informers if possible. Despite this in November 1888 police inspector Alcock and his men successfully raided a premises in Dalston and arrested several of those taking part.

Thomas Avis and Thomas Porter, labourers at the small arms factory at Enfield (which made rifles) and John Hicks, a carriage builder from Mile End, were charged at Dalston Police Court with ‘being unlawfully concerned in a prize fight’.

The raid had taken place on the Havelock Gymnasium on Albion Road, attached to a pub that bore the same name. Avis and Porter had been the ring fighting while a crowd watched,Mr but the case turned on whether this was merely practice (sparring) or an actual fight. The men had excellent characters, the inspector admitted, and a future fight had been arranged and was waiting for official approval.

The police had a ‘spy’ in the gym; a former detective named Rolfe was embedded and keeping an eye on proceedings. The court was told he was ready to give evidence if required but wasn’t called. The Enfield pair were defended in court by Mr C. V. Young who explained that they headed up ‘rival gymnasiums, and were only trying conclusions in a friendly manner’.

The magistrate, Mr Bros, was content that nothing illegal had occurred, or at least nothing that could be conclusively proven.

‘The evidence shows’, he explained, ‘that the men were engaged with boxing gloves or the ordinary character and in an ordinary boxing match, which is no offence in law. The lowering of the gas, however, gave the affair a suspicious aspect, which was intensified by the rush of the people’.

In other words, whilst they had been doing nothing that was technically illegal they were sailing fairly close to the wind and ought, in future at least, to ensure they observed both the letter and spirit of the law. Damage had been caused to the property, which had been attributed to the large numbers who wanted to get into the see the fight, but this, it was accepted, had actually been the result of the police raid itself. All the defendants were dismissed to go back to their places of work and training for the main event.

[from The Standard, Saturday, November 10, 1888]

No news of the “Ripper” as London carries on as normal in the 1880s

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Charles Booth’s poverty map of London, areas coloured blue or black represent the worst level of poverty in the capital; red and gold indicated relative comfort or wealth

I thought today I’d peer into the pages of the London press a year after the so-called ‘Ripper’ murders reached their height. In late September 1888 the killer struck twice in one night (30 September), murdering Elizabeth Stride in Berner Street before he later killed and savagely mutilated Catherine Eddowes in Mitre Square. The ‘double event’ and the infamous ‘dear boss’ letter raised the level of public engagement with the Whitechapel murder series to fever pitch and helped to make it a global news event.

Researchers do not agree on when the murders ceased. There is some consensus that the last victim was Mary Kelly but three other homicides have been attributed (by some) to the unknown assassin known only as ‘Jack the Ripper’. These are are the headless body a woman found in Pinchin Street in 1889, and the murders of Alice McKenzie and Frances Coles (in July 1889 and February 1891). So given that ‘Jack’ was not (officially at least) in custody in September 1889 is there anything in the Police Court reportage that might link at all to the killer that had terrorised London in the autumn of 1888?

The answer for the 28 September 1889 is no, not really.

At Guildhall a general merchant was prosecuted for obtaining 400 sponges by false pretences. The case was complicated and the magistrate adjourned it for further enquiries. A salesman at the London Poultry market was charged with cruelty to chickens and was reprimanded several by the justice and fined 5s.

At Marlborough Street three men were charged with running a disorderly gaming house in St Martin’s Street. The court heard that the Cranborne Club was, despite appearance sot the contact, a ‘common gambling house’. The men were released on substantial recognises to appear again at a later date.

At Dalston a 22 year-old wood turner was committed for jury trial for assaulting and robbing a vicar. The Rev. Matthew Davison had just got home to his house in Downs Park Road, Clapton when Walter Taylor rushed up and rifled his pockets. The vicar lost a valuable watch and chain and worse, when he set off in pursuit one of Taylor’s associates attacked him from behind knocking him to the ground. Taylor was also charged with a similar theft, that of robbing a young woman named Lucy Millard in Hackney. Taylor (and two others) eventually faced a jury at Old Bailey in October 1889, where they were convicted and sent to prison for between 12 and 18 months.

At the West London Police Court violence was the subject of the newspaper report that day but not stranger violence (as the ‘Ripper’s murders were). James Cook was sent down for four months for for beating his common law wife, Caroline Moore. Cook had fractured his partner’s ribs by jumping on them but Caroline was still very reluctant to bring charges.

Over at Bow Street, the senior police court, four men were brought up to answer a charge of conspiracy to burgle the premises of the Railway Press Company. The men were tracked down by undercover detectives to a house in White Hart Street. The four were all in their twenties but a young girl of 16 was found to be living with them. This may have been what prompted the newspaper editor to choose this story from amongst all the others at Bow Street that day. Rose Harris said she ‘had neither money nor any friends’, and had lived in the sam room as the thieves for three weeks. She was, therefore, a possible witness, and  while the men were remanded in custody Rose was taken to the St Giles Mission to be cared for.

Finally there was a case from the Thames Police Court, one of two (with Worship Street) that covered the East End, the area that has since become synonymous with Jack the Ripper. Thomas Booth, a beer and wine retailer, was prosecuted for selling adulterated beer. Booth’s premises had been inspected by an officer from the Inland Revenue and his beer tested. On two occasions his beer was found to contain too much water. Booth tried to argue that his pipers were faulty and this had led to ‘washings’ (the beer slops) ending up back in his barrels. Mr Kennedy, the sitting magistrates, accepted his excuse in part but not in full and fined him 5s plus 10s costs. Watering down beer was inexcusable.

So a casual reading of the police court news from a year after the most notorious murder series in British history had unfolded would perhaps leave us to think that London carried on as normal. The everyday crimes and misdemeanours continued to occupy the columns of the London press and here was to be found ‘all sorts and conditions of men’ (and women).

The only footnote to this was a letter to the editor of the Standard, published in full at the end of the court reports section. It was from a R. C. Bedford, Bishop Suffragan* for East London. It was a long letter and concerned the ‘East End Poor’. He noted that the levels of poverty in the area were higher than usual by the docks, although had improved from the period of the Great Dock Strike earlier in the year. He was particularly concerned for the plight of the casual labourer in the wake of the strike, because while the workers had secured better pay (the ‘dockers’ tanner’) and some security of employment, those reliant on turning up for the ‘call’ in the early morning probably faced a more unpredictable future.

Bishop Bedford was asking for charitable help to be distributed through his church, and not indiscriminately.  However, he clearly believed that charity was not the solution, the real way to help the poor was to provide them with proper work not ‘doles and shelters’. The letter serves to remind us that late nineteenth-century Britain was a desperate place to live if you were poor and that in the 1880s unemployment was rife, and few areas were as badly affected as the East End. It is no coincidence in my mind that the editor of The Standard choose to position the bishop’s letter on the same page as the Police Court news. Here it would seen by the working and middle classes that read these reports (albeit for slightly different reasons). But it also serves to draw a link between crime, environment and poverty; something that was increasingly recognised in the later 1800s.

[from The Standard, Saturday, September 28, 1889]

*’A suffragan bishop is a bishop subordinate to a metropolitan bishop or diocesan bishop. They may be assigned to an area which does not have a cathedral of its own’ (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suffragan_bishop#Anglican_Communion)

A fishmonger takes extreme measures to protect his stock

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A brief entry today, if I may be permitted, but an odd one.

We are a nation of animal lovers. I am not sure when that started but it seems to have been in place for much of the Victorian period. Whether this ‘love’ extended past our pets (predominately cats and dogs and small birds) to livestock is a moot point but the RSPCA were founded early in the century (in 1824).

Cruelty to animals has been highlighted in several posts in this blog because on many occasions people were taken before Police Magistrates to answer for their behaviour. Such incidents included stolen dogs (a supposedly ‘modern’ phenomenon), horses worked until they literally died in the streets, or monkeys mistreated as they helped musicians beg for money.

But this one struck me as particularly unpleasant and unusual.

A summons was applied for at the Dalston Police Court in north east London to bring in a fishmonger who lived in Hackney-Wick. The tradesman was not named in the newspaper report but Mr Bros (the sitting magistrate) asked what the summons was for.

The applicant was a woman (also unmanned) and she told him that the fishmonger used a gun to scare off cats that came into his garden, no doubt attracted by the smell of fish.

According to her ‘he frightened everybody by firing across the gardens at the cats that went after his fish. On a recent afternoon the man fired at a cat two gardens off, the shot going through the cats head and killing it’.

This was a regular activity, she complained, and she was ‘afraid to go into the back yard’ for fear of being shot herself.

Mr Bros granted the summons. I have two cats and they roam across the neighbours’ gardens (and we are visited by several other local felines). It can be a nuisance, they are a danger to local wildlife, especially birds, and they have an unpleasant habit of digging holes in the beds and filling them. So I understand people wanting to keep them out.

The fishmonger undoubtedly wanted to scare them away for good reason, but shooting them two gardens away? I hope he got his just desserts.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, August 5, 1888]

An ‘eye for an eye’ in Whitechapel

Mr Lushington, the notoriously harsh magistrate who presided over Thames Police Court during the 1880s, was said to have little toleration of domestic abusers or of those that resisted the authority of the police, especially when they did so with violence. He sat at Thames during the ‘autumn of terror’ when at least five poor working-class women were brutally murdered by ‘Jack the Ripper’.

On the 15 January 1888 a woman came to see him with her son. One of his eyes was bandaged and she complained that he had been attacked by an older boy in the neighbourhood.

On the previous Wednesday she had sent her ‘little boy’ out on an errand. As he walked along the street there was another lad in front of him who was carrying a lighted torch. I presume this was at night or at least in the early evening. The streets around the Thames Court area were dimly lit if they were lighted at all, so perhaps torch carrying like this was common.

The leading boy turned on the younger one and challenged him:

‘Are you following me, for if you are, I’ll put this torchlight in your eye’, he declared.

The smaller lad denied he was but this did not stop the attack on him. The lit torch was poked into one of his eyes and it was all he could do to stumble home. When his mother saw him she asked what had happened and ‘he fainted away on a chair’.

The unnamed mother, having cared for her son, now went to find the culprit. She spoke to his father who promised to take his own retribution on the lad by giving him a ‘sound chastisement’. This would seem to have been enough for the mother because she didn’t think her son was that badly hurt but when a doctor finally examined him he told her that his sight was likely to be affected for some time.

The boy that carried out this attack was 15 years of age, as she told Mr Lushington when he asked. This was important because it made his father liable to paying some compensation the magistrate told her. He instructed one of the officers of the court to look into the matter and she left court. I wonder whether there was any action to punish the boy through the legal system because despite his relatively young age, 15 was old enough to be charged with assault and this was clearly a lot more serious than ‘fisticuffs’ between two youngsters of equal ability.

Maybe the justice didn’t see it as being serious, or perhaps the unnamed mother didn’t want to make any more it knowing that the boy had been punished by a beating from his father. If her boy was in need of medical help however, it was important to get some compensation so that that seems to have been her reason to take it to court.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, January 16, 1888]