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

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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.

‘None will doubt but that our emigration, has proved most useful to the British nation’*. A lack of opportunity at the end of transportation.

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In April 1867 two teenagers appeared at the Greenwich Police court accused of the possession of  a variety of items that didn’t belong to them and being unable to ‘give a satisfactory account; of where they acquired them. Basically then, it was assumed they’d stolen them.

Arthur Edmonds was just 13 and lived in Birdcage Walk, Hackney while Thomas Taylor was older (at 16) and gave his address as Oakford Terrace, Boston Street, Goldsmith’s Row close to what is now Haggerston Park. So what were these two doing south of the river in Greenwich?

Well, as the court was told at 5 o’clock on Friday evening, 26 April, Thomas walked into a pawnbroker’s shop in Deptford and attempted to pledge 13 silver spoons. The assistant was suspicious and called the police. When PC Savage (484A) arrived he quizzed Thomas about the spoons and didn’t believe the lad’s explanation that he had found them while across Blackheath.

Thomas was arrested and Arthur picked up soon afterwards. When they were searched Thomas was found to have a small clock on him while his younger partner in crime was in possession of a huge haul. The police found:

‘an eye glass, £1 12s6d. in money, seven silver, and four brass coins, a syringe’ plus ‘a watch, [and] eight shirt studs’.

The pair were charged before Mr Traill and Edmonds’ father identified most of the goods his son had on him as his own. He explained that Arthur had run away on the previous Thursday (25/4) taking with him a writing desk in which most of those items had been stored. He’d also taken some clothes and the watch, which belonged to one of his other sons.

Taylor had previously been before the magistrates at Worship Street, which was much closer to home, so perhaps his desire to pawn the goods in South London was a deliberate move to avoid detection. Thomas told the court that he’d met Arthur and the younger boy had asked if he could join up with him. It sounds as if Arthur Edmonds was an unhappy youth or perhaps just a troublesome one. Did he run away for the adventure or because home was a place he feared?

The magistrate decided that the state needed to intervene here and sent both lads for trial at the next Sessions so that Arthur could be committed to a juvenile reformatory where he might learn some discipline and be removed from bad influences. Thomas was too old for a reformatory so if was convicted he’d face prison and probably lose all chances of leading an ‘honest’ life in the future.

One option for the pair might have been to transport them to the Australia and earlier in the century it is entirely possible that this is where they might have wound up, Thomas Taylor especially. But by the 1860s fewer and fewer convicts were being transported overseas and the last ship (the Houguomont) sailed in October 1867 with 280 ‘passengers’ on board.

Taylor is not an uncommon surname and Thomas a very frequently used first name but in December 1867, just 8 months after this incident, a Thomas Taylor was committed for trial at the Old Bailey by justice Newton at Worship Street. The17 year-old brushmaker was convicted of stealing 4 pairs of boots and sentenced to 4 months in Cold Bath Fields house of correction. The age is about right as is the area, so this may well be the same young man. His brush with the law at Greenwich clearly didn’t do enough to put him off.

Last night I went to the theatre, the Theatre Royal at Stratford to be precise. There I watched a production of Our Country’s Good by Timberlake Wertenberger performed by the Ramps on the Moon players in collaboration with the Nottingham Playhouse. The play is focused on the experience of a group of convicts transported to New South Wales in 1787 as part of the First Fleet to reach Botany Bay. In what is a play within a play a small number of transported felons battle prejudice and systemic abuse to put on a performance of Farquhar’s The Recruiting Sergeant, a restoration comedy that involves nearly all the cast playing more than one role.

It is based on a true story and is a reminder that it was those banished to Australia in the late 1700s and early 1800s that carved out a new life for themselves that did so much to establish the colony on the other side of the world. Transportation officially ended as a punishment in 1868, with the Houguomont being the very last transport ship to arrive in Western Australia in January that year. Thereafter most of those convicted by English courts would be sentenced to varying terms of imprisonment in the increasingly rigid British penal system. The opportunity for a new life, despite the fears it brought with it, would have to wait until British society was sufficiently affluent – about 100 years later – for some members of the working classes to choose to emigration ‘down under’.

Our Country’s Good is an excellent play and the Ramps on the Moon troupe are fantastic players, so do go and see it if you can, in London or elsewhere.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, April 29, 1867]

*Wisehammer’s prologue to The Recruiting Sergeant, Our Country’s Good, (1988)

‘They fought very severely for little boys’; tragedy in Rotherhithe.

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Today’s story picks up on where we left it yesterday, with a young lad of 12 being committed for trial for killing another youth in a fist fight at Rotherhithe. A police inspector from the Thames office was also charged with being an accessory, as he was seen to encourage the boy to strike down his opponent. The trial took place on 10 May 1858 in the Central Criminal Court at the Old Bailey.

Martha Warren was the first witness to take the stand. She swore that she saw the fight taking place in Cross Street, Rotherhithe at 1 in the afternoon. There was a ring of boys surrounding the pair, but only three adults were present, one of whom was Henry Hambrook a police inspector although at the time he was on sick leave and was quite close to retiring from the force.

Martha testified that she had heard the policeman utter the words ‘Give it him right and left, and hit him once under the ear, and he won’t want to fight again’, and soon afterwards saw the victim, Thomas Boulton, fall down after William Selless landed just such a blow under his ear. It was clearly a shock to William to see what effect his assault had had on the other boy, and as we saw yesterday he ran all the way home to his mother scared of what would happen next.

Martha was able to identify one of the three men gathered at the scene, his name was John Ventham, and she must have known him as a local man. Under cross examination she was clear that none of the men had tried to separate the lads, instead they watched and encouraged the fight. She heard Hambrook tell Sellers:

‘Keep up to him, young one, and give him right and left’ before whispering something else in his ear. 

When Boulton fell to the floor with a scream Hambrook did nothing to help she added, but simply ‘put up his hand and went away’. Others did come to help, including a woman who rushed over to fetch some water in a tub. The stricken lad was carried off by one of the bystanders, a Mr. Kitchen, but died of his injury.

James Francis also witnessed the fight and heard the policeman offer his advice to Selless. He gave some background to the fight as well, telling the court that the two lads were actually friends and that the quarrel between them had arisen over ‘three buttons’ and an accusation that Selless had failed to look after the other boy’s goat. Boulton had started it and he was, as others had noted, the taller and slightly older of the pair (Boulton was 13, Selless just 12).

The fight was conducted like a boxing match – the pair traded blows and they fought in rounds. Selless had been knocked down early in the conflict, but regained his feet. Perhaps the crucialy part of Francis’ testimony was when he said that ‘they fought very severely for little boys, [but] not so violently as they did when Hambrook came’.

This suggested that the police inspector, who should surely have put a stop to the fight actually chose to escalate it and his actions had a direct impact on the tragedy that happened that day.

The fight seems to have been quite well balanced for the most part, Selless went down twice, his opponent three times, as they squared up to each other. It must have gone on for 15 minutes or more before Selless landed his fatal blow. Thomas Simpson, a local surgeon, who testified that the cause of death was a ruptured blood vessel close to the lad’s ear, examined Boulton. He suspected that the injury was caused by the fall however, not the blow itself. It was an accident born out of the fight, nothing deliberate or malicious.

‘The sudden fall would be quite sufficient to rupture the blood vessel’ he said, ‘considering the excited state the vessels were in—it was what would be called an apoplectic fit—there was not the slightest mark under the ear’.

Simpson then offered Hambrook a character witness saying he was ‘a kindly disposed, humane person’. Several others stepped up to give similar testimonials for the policeman including the officer that arrested him, who added that he was about to be pensioned out of the force on account of his failing health.

The jury were directed to convict both defendants on the strength of the facts given in court and they duly did. Both were recommend to mercy however, and the judge took this into account in sentencing.

He sent Sellers to prison for just three days, accepting that he had no intention to cause the death of his friend. As for Hambrook he also accepted that the man had no desire to encourage the boy to kill and that if he had ‘he should pass a very different sentence’ upon him. However, he was a police officer and his had a duty to uphold the law and keep the peace.

Instead ‘he had incited the boy Sellers [sic] to continue the contest; and there was no doubt that owing to his suggestion the fatal result had taken place’.  He would therefore go to prison with hard labour for three months.

At this Hambrook pleaded for mercy. He was ill, suffering he said from heart disease and wouldn’t cope with hard labour. The judge, Baron Martin, was implacable, there was no way he could reduce the sentence he said and the policeman was taken down.  Hambrook was 52 in 1858 so while not old, he was not young either and he might have expected a hard time in prison (as all coppers can). Moreover his disgrace would have meant the loss of his pension along with his liberty and livelihood. As for William Selless he seems to have stayed out of trouble after this but didn’t live a long life. Records suggest he died in March 1892 at the age of just 46.

This fight between two friends who fell out over something ill defined and certainly trivial ended in tragedy. Thomas Boulton lost his life and a police inspector with many years of good service lost his reputation and his future economic security. As for William Selless we should remember he too was just a child and he would have to live his life forever haunted by the sound of his friend screaming as his blow sent him crashing to the floor.

What a senseless waste of three lives.

[from The Standard, Thursday, May 13, 1858]

‘Oh, mother, have I killed him?’ Manslaughter as two boys go toe-to-toe.

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Greenwich Pier, c.1850

Today’s story will unfold in two parts and starts at the Greenwich Police court in April 1858.

William Sellis, aged just 12, was brought up before Mr Traill charged with causing the death of another boy in a fight. John Thomas Bolton (who was 13) had died following a clash in Wellington Street. What made this tragedy all the more interesting (from a newspaper’s point of view) was that Sellis was not some street urchin but the son of ‘respectable parents’ from Rotherhithe and that a police inspector was also charged as an accessory.

It was not the first hearing in the case and so some of the details were already in the public domain. Inspector Henry Hambrook of the Thames Police was accused of egging Sellis on, and urging him to target his victim:

“Give it him right and left, and hit him once under the ear, and he won’t want to fight again” he was alleged to have told the youngster.

The boys were fighting toe-to-toe as in a prizefight and Bolton was slightly taller. Two more rounds elapsed before Sellis applied the advice the inspector had given him and connected with his opponent just below the ear. According to witnesses Bolton fell to the ground, screamed and curled himself into a defensive ball. Sellis was horrified at what he’d done running home and yelling ‘Oh, mother, have I killed him?’ before going on to the doctors to see how his victim was.

In court the inspector’s lawyer pleaded on behalf of his client, emphasising his long service and the effect that any stain on his character would have on his pension and retirement. He’d served at Thames for 15 or 16 years and was currently off work on sick leave.

None of this cut much ice with the magistrate. Mr Traill said that someone with Hambrook’s knowledge of the law and position in the community should have known better than to encourage such violence.

‘It was a most abominable act’ he said adding that ‘it was the duty of every person to prevent a breach of the peace; and when an officer of the peace, who had been connect with the police’ for such a long time ‘took no steps to prevent such an act, but assisted, he thought it a most shameful proceeding’.

However, Traill didn’t seem inclined to formally commit the policeman as an accessory as he wasn’t sure the evidence of intent was there. Mr Solomon, Hambrook’s lawyer, wanted his client to speak in his own defence but the justice was not inclined to hear him. Solomon pressed his case saying that if only Handbrook could explain he was sure he would be exonerated. Finally Mr Traill agreed, and it proved to be a mistake on the defence’s part.

Hambrook chose to challenge the various witnesses that had already testified to his involvement but each one stuck to their evidence and left the inspector high and dry. The magistrate now committed both the lad and the police inspector to trial for the killing of John Bolton. Hambrook was bailed but Sellis, despite the coroner being happy to allow, was refused bail and taken away to a cell to await his transfer to trial later in the year.

I will look at that trial and its aftermath in tomorrow’s blog.

[from The Standard , Monday, April 26, 1858]