‘I don’t want to ask a favour from swindlers’ : making a stand on a point of principle.

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An early gas stove

James Connell was a fine upstanding member of his local community. He lived with his wife in New Cross Road, Deptford and was a member of the local vestry. So it is something of a surprise to find him summoned before Mr Kennedy, the sitting magistrate at Greenwich Police court in late May 1895.

The reason for the summons was non-payment of his gas bill but the case is interesting because it reveals the new forms of fuel supply that were just coming on line in the late Victorian period. Connell was summoned by representatives of the  South Metropolitan Gas Company who insisted that the vestryman owed them the not inconsiderable sum of  £10 10sand ninepence. In today’s money that probably amounts to around £865, which explains their desire to recover the debt.

Mr Connell disputed that he owed that amount and set out his case before the Greenwich justice. He stated that in 1892 the couple had purchased a new gas oven to replace their old coal one having been persuaded to do so by one of the company’s salesmen. Mrs Connell had been assured that the new device was cheaper and more effective than her old one and they were given an estimate of the amount of gas that it would consume in the course of a year. This figure was estimated at 27 feet per hour.

In 1892 the gas consumption figure was 29,300 ft, in 1893 it was a little higher (29,390ft) but in 1894 it leapt to 69,400 ft. Mr Connell clearly felt the gas salesman had misrepresented the true cost of the oven and so was refusing to pay for the huge increase in gas. As a result the company disconnected their supply and the current impasse was established.

‘You have a meter, and what it register you have to pay?’ asked Mr Kennedy. ‘Unfortunately I have no meter’, Connell replied, as the company had taken that away when the company cut them off. He didn’t trust what it said and now he had no meter he couldn’t check it anyway: ‘how did he know the meter was correct, or what had been done with it since it was taken away?’

The gas company’s representative insisted the bill was accurate and suggested that all devices varied in their consumption. It was a fairly lame if predictable response and sadly for Connell the law was not in his favour. Mr Kennedy said he would indeed have to pay the bill with 3costs added but suggested he took his complaint about the salesman’s ‘misrepresentation’ of the oven’s performance to the County Court.

Connell felt he shouldn’t have to pay anything until the company had answered any prosecution he brought but again he was disabused of that and told he must pay up. Could the magistrate allow him more time for the payment to be made, he asked? That was up to the company and he could certainly request it, Mr Kennedy told him.  ‘I don’t want to ask a favour from swindlers’ was the man’s riposte.

In the end Mr Connell left court with his head held high convinced that he had, in his words, ‘exposed a fraud’. At the very least he had alerted others that might be fooled into switching from coal to gas on the back a visit from a silver-tonged gas salesman. I suppose this reminds us that in the 1890s the middle class were being tempted to spend their hard earned money on new technologies, like gas ovens, and that having the latest kitchen accessory also demonstrated that you were ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ and were fashionably ‘modern’.

Gas ovens first appeared in the 1840s and were exhibited at Crystal Palace in 1851 but they took a while to become popular with ‘ordinary’ people, being a  luxury at first reserved for the very rich.  It was the introduced of rented ovens like that ‘owned’ by the Connells with an attached meter that helped extend their use more widely in the 1880s. So the Connells were early adopters and gas ovens only really took off in England in the late Edwardian period.

I have a lot of sympathy for Mr Connell because he and his wife were sold something that ended up costing them considerably more than they had been promised, and we’ve probably all been there.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, May 30, 1894]

A child is beaten and half-starved for the theft of some cakes

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The NSPCC was founded in 1884 with a mission (that it continues today) to protect children from cruelty. The cruelty that is most difficult to detect is domestic; that perpetrated by parents or other relatives of children, because it is often hidden within the family.

This was the case with Ethel Newberry, a child of ten who was abused and half starved by the father and aunt at the family home in Sydenham in May 1889. The case came to the attention of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children who brought a prosecution at Greenwich Police court. In the dock were Phillip Newberry, the child’s father, and Mary Phillips, her aunt. The details are quite distressing.

Ethel had been beaten on her back by her father with a cane, on numerous occasions. When she’d been examined by a doctor the extent of her injuries were considerable, with several scars and abrasions. Her aunt had hit her over the head with a copper stick and smacked her wrists with a cane. The treatment she’d been receiving had alerted neighbours who had complained about it to the local Poor Law relieving officers, who’d visited the house. He had discovered that Ethel was almost emaciated, weighing just 30lb when should have been at least 50-60lb at her age.

The child was taken to the local workhouse where she was treated for her injuries and fed properly; slowly she was beginning to recover. The case came before Mr Marsham at the police court and he quizzed the father and aunt about their treatment of little Ethel. The court also heard from Ethel herself.

The whole episode seems to have resolved around food. Ethel was given meals but presumably these were so scant as to leave her continuously hungry. The doctor that checked her over at the workhouse could find no explanation for her emaciation that suggested a disease, so the only conclusion was that the family had not been giving her enough to eat. This may have been an attempt on their behalf to discipline the child for behaving ‘badly’ but if it was it only made things worse.

Ethel now began to steal food. She admitted to the magistrate that she had taken cakes from a shop and this was why her aunt had ‘whacked’ her. She was clearly desperate. The justice decided that while there was little evidence to prove that Mary Phillips had done more than was deemed normal in terms of chastisement, the cruelty of the father was excessive and so he was committed for trial at the Old Bailey.

The London SPCC was successful in portioning Parliament for a change in the law to protect children from abuse and this was passed in 1889. Under the terms of the Prevention of Cruelty to Children Act (52 & 53 Vict., c.44) the police wwre authorized to remove  a child from its parents  if cruelty was suspected and give it into the care of the parish. On conviction for cruelty anyone ‘who willfully treats or neglects any boy under fourteen years of age, or any girls under sixteen, in a manner likely to cause unnecessary suffering’ was liable to a £50 fine or three months in prison.

However, this is where this case disappears. There is no record of a Phillip Newberry standing trial at the Old Bailey or appearing in the prison system either. The newspapers (from those digitized by Gale for the British Library) don’t mention this case after he was committed and his sister discharged. So perhaps, in the end, the society decided that there was insufficient evidence to take the case before a jury. Hopefully, though, they also managed to removed Ethel from her abusers.

[from The Standard, Monday, May 27, 1889; Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper , Sunday, June 9, 1889]

The young lady that placed her faith in a fortune teller, and got thumped for her pains

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Mrs Maria Grace was taking tea at home in Rotherhithe in May 1845 when there was a caller at the door. She opened the door and admitted a fashionably dressed pretty young woman.  It all seemed very normal until the visitor stepped forward, seized a cup of tea from the table and threw it in Maria’s face!

This assault was followed by more violence as the young woman attacked, scratching Maria’s face and then stuck her baby (who was sat in her lap) causing its mouth to bleed.  Then, without any explanation the girl departed leaving the chaos she had caused behind her.

Some days later Maria and the mysterious visitor appeared before Mr Grove, the sitting magistrate at Greenwich Police court. Mr Evans conducted the prosecution case and Mr May represented the defendant whose named was Mrs Headlewick. Mr May cross-examined Maria and soon discovered that some time ago she had lost a valuable gold ring and had taken an unusual course of action to retrieve it. Maria told the solicitor that she had paid 2sto a fortuneteller to ascertain its whereabouts. This had revealed (if that the teller was to be believed) that:

‘the person who had taken the ring was a fair young woman, who was now gone into the country either by steam-boat or railway, and would remain away some time’.

While this might apply to quite a lot of people (as is often the case with fortune telling) Maria was sure that this applied to the person that had visited her. She explained that she was convinced that her assailant had not only taken her jewelry but had stolen from her own aunt, and she made a point of telling the young woman’s relatives this.

The court heard that for the last three months Mrs Headlewick had indeed been away, in Burton-upon-Trent, and it was only when she returned with her husband to London that she got wind of Maria’s accusation that she was a thief. So now the assault makes sense. Mrs Headlewick was angry that Maria was defaming her to her family and had gone round to confront her.

The magistrate was clear that an assault had occurred even if there had been  understandable provocation. However the more serious crime of robbery was harder to resolve. He told Mrs Headlewick that she would have to pay a fine of 5or go to prison. Given that both ladies were able to hire lawyers to represent them there was never any danger that the defendant was going inside for the assault. The fine was paid and the two women left court but neither were satisfied with the outcome. The fine was paltry and the accusation of theft was left unresolved.

For me it is a reminder that in the mid Victorian age people were prepared to place their trust in charlatans who promised to tell their future and solve mysteries in the present. Then again, do we actually live in a much more enlightened time ourselves?

[from Lloyd’s Weekly London Newspaper, Sunday, May 25, 1845]

If you enjoy this blog series you might be interested in Drew’s jointly authored study of the Whitechapel (or ‘Jack the Ripper’) murders which is published by Amberley Books on 15 June this year. You can find details here:

A ‘rabble rouser’ or someone standing up for his fellow man? Unemployment and hardship in 1880s Deptford

the-unemployed

In today’s case (from January 1888) a man was summoned for ‘using abusive language’ and inciting a crowd in Deptford. It is interesting for several reasons, because it brings up issues of class, unemployment, and because one of the principal witnesses was a journalist who was reporting on the incident for the local press.

We very rarely hear the names of those writing reports for the newspapers but in this case we have the name Harold A. Hargreaves (although it is not clear whether which paper he was reporting to, or whether he was freelance).

Hargreaves was in the Greenwich Police court to testify in the case of John Elliott who had been brought in on a summons for abusing Major J.C. Cox in Deptford Broadway on the 10 January. The reporter explained that a large crowd had gathered and Elliott was addressing them. It was, he said, a ‘mass meeting of the unemployed’ and the mood was grim. We don’t know where the men used to work or why they were laid off but at some point major Cox arrived.

Elliott was blaming Cox for the situation the men and their families found themselves in, declaring that ‘He (Major Cox) promised them payment, but defrauded them’. As the crowd became aware that the major was present they turned their anger towards him. According to Hargreaves and Elliott, the speaker (Elliott) did his best to clam the crowd down but Cox was not in a conciliatory mood and strode up to the speaker and blew cigar smoke in his face.

John Elliott defended himself and said he wasn’t frightened of anyone, and certainly not Cox. There were scuffles and a suggestion (made by Elliott) that Cox had made unpleasant remarks about Elliott and the wives of the men gathered there, before squaring up to him and challenging him to a fight.

Under examination by Mr Marsham (the sitting justice at Greenwich) Major Cox denied any such behaviour but the bulk of witnesses supported the notion that it was he that was acting badly, in a disorderly manner in fact, not the convener of the meeting. It was said that it was only Elliott’s control of the crowd that prevented things turning very ugly and the major from being set upon. The major’s behaviour was insulting, Elliot insisted, towards him and the man that the major had promised unemployment relief to.

The late 1880s were a difficult time for working class Londoners. The British economy was experiencing a slump, if not a full-blown depression, and very many people struggled to find work, and opportunistic employers cut wages. It was the period in which the term  ‘unemployment’ entered the dictionary and there were large demonstrations across the capital and encampments of the poor in Trafalgar Square and London’s parks. Dark voices raised the ‘spectre’ of socialist revolution and strikes broke out at Bryant and May (in July) and then at various places before the Great Dock strike in the following year seemingly defined the mood of resistance to rampant uncaring capitalism.

For John Elliott however, the magistrate had little sympathy. Ignoring the testimony that suggested he was more peacemaker than trouble maker Mr Marsham told him that his behaviour towards a social superior was reprehensible. However, so long as he promised not to repeat it he would only fine him a nominal sum with costs. Elliot agreed and paid just 7s, leaving court with his head held high and his reputation amongst his peers at least, enhanced. As for Major Cox, I rather suspect he took care to watch his back around the streets of Deptford.

[from The Standard, Saturday, January 21, 1888]

The man who was flogging a dead horse

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I start teaching my third year module on London in the late nineteenth century, which looks at crime, popular culture and social history in the 1880s. It will be the 10th year since I devised this module and its run in 9 of those. Over the years it has evolved and I’ve developed the context and assessments but the focus remains the same: using the ‘Jack the Ripper’ murders of 1888 as a prism through which to explore a range of contemporary topics. It prompted my 2010 book (London’s Shadows) and my continuing interest in the ‘Ripper’ case.

While the Ripper case dominated ‘crime news’ in 1888 the police courts continued almost as if nothing was happening in the East End. The same range of petty thefts, domestic and public violence, fraudulent scams, drunks, disorderly prostitutes, and vagrants continued to be the stock of most lower court reports.

So take today in 1888 for example, the first case (from Bow Street) featured an elderly man who had tried to pass counterfeit currency in a central London pub. He was caught along with two accomplices and remanded in custody. Over at Westminster Police court two newspaper sellers were prosecuted for robbing a man in the street. Francis Hoare (a pub landlord on a visit to the capital) had fallen over in the street.  William Turner and Edward Lynch rushed to help but then used that as cover to lift his pocket watch; both men were ‘known’ to the police and the magistrate remanded them for further enquires.

Across the river Thames at Greenwich Police court Thomas Pettitt was accused of mistreating a horse. Mr Sheil was told that Pettitt, a potato dealer, had been working a horse that was clearly ill. The case was brought by an officer of the RSPCA who testified that the beast was ‘suffering from several sores and partly fractured fetlocks’.

Pettitt’s poor defence was that he had only taken up dealing in potatoes recently; he was previously a draper, and didn’t understand horses. Mr Shiel countered that excuse with:

‘any fool must have known the horse was not fit for work’.

He added – the RSPCA’s officer – that in future individuals shouldn’t be summoned but instead they should be arrested and the animal impounded so a magistrate could look at it and come to an opinion about its state of health. That, he said, was ‘better than the evidence of the whole College of Veterinary Surgeons’ (which I doubt went down well with that august body of men).

Any inspection of the horse was now impossible as Pettitt told Mr Sheil he thought it was dead. The magistrate fined him £3 with 2s costs and gave him a week to find the money or he would send him to prison for a fortnight. London was served by thousands of horses in the Victorian period, and very many of them were simply worked till they dropped.

At that point their masters called for a horse slaughterer to dispatch them and this usually meant someone from the firm of Harrison & Barber, who held a virtual monopoly in the capital. Not surprisingly, as men used to cutting up animals, some of the first people the police questioned in the aftermath of Polly Nichol’s murder in August 1888 were slaughterer’s from the nearby Barber’s yard.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, October 05, 1888

Milking the profits in 1880s Rotherhithe

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There is still a ‘proper’ milkman who delivers in the early hours of the morning in our street. Milkman used to be ubiquitous though; this was how nearly everyone got their milk until the supermarkets and convenience stores usurped the trade.

In the 1970s and 80s (when I was growing up in north London) milk was delivered in glass bottles which were then left as ‘empties’ to be returned to and refilled by the dairy. In the Victorian period a milkman brought his milk in pails and sold it by the pint, decanting it into whatever container the housewife produced.

Just as we have a foods standards agency to protect consumers Victorian society had sanitary inspectors who checked the quality of meat, dairy, and other consumables, visiting the various shops, markets and street traders to ensure their produce was both safe and unadulterated.  Throughout the 1800s food was adulterated (adding chalk to bread to make it ‘white’ for example) and beer watered down. This was all down to improve margins and increase profits but the last quarter of the century it was illegal and offenders could be prosecuted before a magistrate.

Joseph King fell foul of the law in late July 1881. The Bermondsey milkman was driving his cart in Rotherhithe and crying ‘milk, oh!’ to attract his customers, when Joseph Edwards approached him. Edwards was a sanitary inspector and King clearly recognized him. When Edwards asked him for a pint of milk the milkman refused his request. When he continued to refuse the inspector withdrew and applied for a summons to bring him before a magistrate.

On Friday 29 July King was up before Mr Marsham at Greenwich Police court. Edwards presented the case as he saw it. He’d had his suspicions about King so had approached him as described. When he’d asked for some milk King initially said he didn’t have any, but Edwards ignored him and opened up on of the cans on the cart. There was plenty left inside it.

He then told the milk seller who and what he was (as if King didn’t know) and this prompted King to say that what he had there was milk mixed with water, which he sold for 4a pint. He added that his customers knew what it was and there was no deception on his part. If they wanted pure milk they could have it, at 5a pint.

Edwards then walked across to where he’d seen the milkman last make a sale and asked the woman there what she’d bought. She vehemently denied being told that the milk she’d bought had been mixed with water. He was bang to rights and the inspector told the court that a ‘very fair profit was got out of pure milk sold at 4d’.  Mr Marsham agreed and fined Joe King 20splus 2s costs for trying to deceive his customers and  drive up his margins.

Perhaps he should have suggested that milk with less fat and a higher water content might have been a healthier option for the good folk of Rotherhithe, but I don’t think we had progressed to skimmed or semi-skimmed (let alone almond or oat) milk by then.

[from The Standard, Saturday, July 30, 1881]

Prison doesn’t work, and history has the proof.

It is what we all dread when we wake up in the night and hear a noise we can’t place. Was that the wind? Perhaps a cat? Or is there someone in our house?

Mrs North, the landlady of the Duke of Cambridge pub in Lewisham High Street, awoke to see a strange man in her bedroom.  He was staring directly at her and she shouted, ‘who are, and what do you want?’

At this he panicked and rushed towards the open widow, escaping into the night as Mrs North’s husband work and gave chase. He shouted ‘stop him’ from the window but he was gone.

When she’d recovered from the shock the landlady found that the burglar had carefully sorted a pile of their property to take away, including ‘some money’ and their pet canary. He’d left empty handed on this occasion but robberies were reported from other local pubs in late April 1883 and the same individual was suspected.

The police investigated break-ins at the Pelton Arms in East Greenwich on 24 April, where William Davis, the landlord, said he’d woken up to find the place burgled and clothes and a bag containing £2 and 10 shillings missing. The Rose of Lee (at Lee)* had been broken into on the same night as the Duke of Cambridge, and ‘property to the value of £6’ stolen.

The police had some leads and on the day after the Lewisham and Lee thefts PC Drew (75R) was watching a man named Edward Toomey and alerted his sergeant, Hockley. They seized Toomey, who was wearing some of the clothes identified as being stolen from the Pelton Arms, and pretty much admitted his crimes. As they led him off to the station Toomey reached into his pocket and pulled out the North’s canary, letting it fly off into the London skies. He’d got rid of the evidence and freed a caged creature just as he faced up to seven years’ for his own offences.

The case came up before the Police Court magistrate at Greenwich where one of Toomey’s associates turned informer to save his own skin and Mr Balguy committed Toomey to face trial at the Old Bailey.

Edward Toomey was tried at the Central Criminal court in May 1883 along with two others (Thomas Prosser and Cornelius Shay). Toomey was just 17 years of age and his accomplices were 38 and 18 respectively. Only Toomey was convicted and he was sentenced to 18 months at hard labour.

This early brush with the law and punishment did nothing to curb Edward’s criminality, nor indeed his MO. In 1885 (just after he came out of gaol) he was back in again after being convicted of burgling the Lord Nelson pub in East Greenwich. He got another year inside.

Did he learn from this one? Well no, he didn’t.

In January 1887 (just over a year after his conviction, and soon after his release) he was sent back to prison for burgling a jeweller’s shop in Lee High Street. This time the judge gave him a more severe sentence: five years penal servitude. At least that was that for Edward’s criminal career we might think, but no. In 1903 now aged 37, Toomey broke into the ‘counting house of the managing committee of the South Eastern and Chatham railway company’ and robbed the safe, taking away over £80 in cash. For this latest crime he went to prison for another five years. He was released on license in 1907 aged 41.

Edward’s experience is proof (if proof is needed) of the ineffectiveness of prison as a punishment for crime. It did him no good whatsoever and failed to protect the property of the persons he robbed. Sadly home secretaries and justice ministers are unlikely to read histories of crime and punishment, if they did perhaps they’d come up with some more innovative forms of dealing with serial criminals.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, May 09, 1883]

*where, many years later Kate Bush played her first gig.