A ‘very hard and cruel case’ as a mother nearly loses everything

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The very last case heard at Guildhall Police court on 19 September 1864 was a tragic one, and one that might have been written by the capital’s greatest narrator, Charles Dickens.

Mrs Samuel Smith came to ask the magistrate’s help in a dispute she was having with a firm of ship owners. In January she had placed an advert in the newspapers looking for an apprenticeship for her son, who ‘wanted to go to sea’. A Mr Edward West, who ran a company of shipbuilders and said he knew a firm that was prepared to take on young master Smith, for a fee, answered that advert.

The fee (or premium) he required was quite high at £20 and more than Mrs Smith could afford in one go. Her husband was an invalid and unable to work so the family’s funds were limited. Nevertheless she offered to pay in two instalments and Lang & Co. (West’s firm) said they would accept £11 up front with £10 in the form of a ‘note of hand’ (an obligation to pay later in other words).

This was all agreed and the lad left London and sailed off to start his new life and career with the firm of Powell & Co, shipowners, where Mr. West had secured an apprenticeship for him.

Then tragedy struck. The ship ran into a storm and was wrecked with the loss of everyone on board, including Mrs Smith’s boy.

This was not the end of her troubles however; Mr West (or rather Powell & Co.) still demanded the balance of the premium, and had signaled their intention to sue Mrs Smith for it. Thus, she had come to the Guildhall to ask for advice.

Alderman Hale sent for Mr West who explained that the issue was between Mrs Smith and Mr Powell, he was simply an intermediary in all of this. He had brokered the deal, so Powell owed him the money, and Mrs Smith owed Powell. He wasn’t budging despite agreeing with the alderman declaring that it was ‘ a most harsh and cruel proceeding’.

Mrs Smith said she was prepared to pay the £10 she owed but not the costs that had subsequently been incurred by the issuing of a writ. She was in danger of losing her furniture and other possession as the debt mounted and the bailiffs circled. She needed this to end here before her debts spiraled.  The magistrate thought this fair and said she had suffered enough, it was, he added, a ‘very hard and cruel case’. This probably forced West to accept the woman’s offer and the money was paid there and then.

This case was harsh and cruel and quite Dickensian. I can quite imagine the great story teller sitting in court and creating a pen portrait of the avaricious Mr West and pale and weeping figure of Mrs Smith.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, September 20, 1864]

‘A most mischievous piece of fun’: a lawyer gets his comeuppence.

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Richard Thursgill and his family were awakened by someone ringing violently on their doorbell.  It was about a quarter past one in then morning of the 18 September 1878 and, in that respectable part of Ludgate Hill alarms like this usually meant one thing: fire! Despite being ill the whole family rose from their beds and rushed downstairs.

There was no fire however, and no one to be seen in the street outside either. Then, around five minutes later PC Martin of the City force appeared at the door with a young man. He’d caught him hiding near by after watching him ringing on the bell pull. The pull itself was almost wrenched clean off, so violent had the man’s actions been. The PC wanted to see if Mr Thursgill wanted to press charges.

He did and so the case ended up before Sir Andrew Lusk at the Guildhall Police court. There the young man gave his name as Arthur Stapleton, a solicitor of 62 Bishopsgate Street-without. He denied the charge and his lawyer assured the magistrate that his client was a respectable young law graduate and not the sort of person to do such a thing.

Really, the magistrate asked? In his experience this sort of ‘abominable’ behavior – ringing people’s doorbells and worrying them into thinking a fire had broken out – was exactlythe sort of thing ‘young solicitors and students did for a “lark”.

He had no doubt Stapleton was ‘respectable’ (and did not need him to produce the character witnesses he promised to prove it), but the only question he was concerned with was identification. Could PC Martin be sure that it was this person that had caused the annoyance?

Quite sure the policeman replied, there was no one else in the vicinity at that time and he’d seen him do it. In that case Sir Andrew said, he had no choice. For his ‘most mischievous piece of fun’ young Stapleton would have to pay the princely sum of 20s. He would have charged him less had been less ‘respectable’, merely 10s, but under the circumstances he could well afford 20s.

Let’s pause for a moment to share our collective sorrow for a solicitor being overcharged…

[from The Standard, Wednesday, September 18, 1878]

‘I don’t convict a man for stealing a turnip and I won’t convict a man for stealing an empty champagne case, worth nothing’: A lucky escape in Mitre Square

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Yesterday’s blog concerned a violent assault in Berner Street, where Liz Stide was murdered on 30 September 1888. Today’s is about a theft committed in Mitre Square, the other killing site on the night of the so-called ‘double event’.

A night watchman – whose name wasn’t given in the newspaper’s report – testified at Guildhall Police court to hearing a noise on the International Tea Company’s premises in Aldgate. He went off to investigate and discovered a man trying to carry off a packing case. He called the police and the man was arrested.

On 11 September the man was placed in the dock and gave his name as Andrew Birke, he said he was a shoemaker. The magistrate, Sir Andrew Lusk, asked the night watchman what the value of the packing case –which had been entirely empty when Birke stole it – was.

‘I don’t know sir’, he replied.

‘It isn’t worth much, say 1d’, Sir Andrew suggested.

‘It is worth more than 1d, the man insisted, ‘but its not the value. This man has been convicted before, and I have known a man to be sent to prison for stealing a turnip’.

‘Well, I don’t convict a man for stealing a turnip’ said the justice; ‘and I won’t convict a man for stealing an empty champagne case, worth nothing’.

He then turned to the prisoner and told him ‘ I shall discharge you; but mind you don’t touch anybody’s property, in case you get into trouble’.

Two weeks later PC Watkins found Catherine Eddowes’ body in Mitre Square and one of the first people he spoke to was George Morris, an ex-policeman who worked as a night watchman for Kearly & Tonge, wholesale grocers in the square (see the 1887 map of the square, right). 10Mitre_Square_1887Morris had seen nothing untoward that night and entirely missed the killer brutally murdering Kate and removing her kidney and uterus.

However Kearly & Tonge were tea merchants so perhaps the unnamed watchman was Morris. This would make sense of his desire to see Birke prosecuted and punished as a thief despite the petty nature of the crime. Morris might have known him to be a villain and his comment about knowing someone convicted of stealing a turnip also rings true if he was formally a police officer. Sir Andrew Lusk was – as far as I am aware – no relation to George Lusk, the chair of the Whitechapel Vigilance society who was to receive a portion of a human kidney in the post a few days after the murder. Whether this came from Kate Eddowes is impossible to say.

So, first Berner Street then Mitre Square, it is strange how these coincidental connections appear just before the ‘double event’ happened.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, September 12, 1888]

The ‘modern Babylon’ exposed: pornography in an age of prudery

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Holywell Street, central London, late 1800s 

One of the things ‘we think we know’ about the Victorians is that they were very prudish and straight-laced, even going to the bizarre lengths of covering up their piano legs so as not to shock or titillate. This view of the age is sometimes confirmed by depictions of a sour faced Queen Victoria proclaiming: ‘we are not amused’.

The reality is that the Victorians were hardly much less lascivious and fun-loving than their Georgian predecessors. Perhaps the emphasis on family (best epitomized by Royal Family) and the work of Samuel Smiles in setting out so-called ‘Victorian values’, combined with a post war desire to look back  to the past to make comparisons with the present, have skewed our views.

Anyone strolling around London in the 1800s would have seen plenty of evidence that the Victorians liked to enjoy themselves.  This age saw the rise of the musical theatre, the novel and popular newspapers; it witnessed the invention of the railways, cheap travel and the weekend excursion. Here too was the Great Exhibition, great ceremonial pageants, and military parades. And with all of this (largely) wholesome entertainment came vice at a level the Georgians could only have imagined.

The invention of photography offered new opportunities for pornography and the increasingly economic cost of printing and distribution made the printed vice trade even more profitable. This was not lost on the ‘moral majority’; those that railed against vice and crime. London became the ‘modern Babylon’; a sink of iniquity and place where domestic missionaries sought new converts in the dark alleys of Whitechapel and Southwark. In Holywell Street, off the Strand, there was a roaring trade in indecent literature to suit every taste.

In 1841, early in the young queen’s reign, a barrister representing the Society for the Suppression of Vice appeared at the Guildhall Police court in the City to apply for a warrant against a local bookseller. St Paul’s Churchyard (close by Wren’s cathedral) had long been associated with the print trade, and with obscene publications and prostitution to boot.

Mr Clarkson, the barrister, explained that officers from the Society wanted to draw the magistrate’s attention to the fact that this bookseller (at this point unnamed) was displaying ‘five indecent little pamphlets in his window’. Under the terms of the Vagrancy Act he had tried to summons the man to court but this had been ignored, now he wanted a warrant which carried more force (since it was executed by a policeman).

The lawyer argued that the act ‘1 and 2 Victoria, c.38’ (the Vagrancy Act) declared that anyone exposing to view obscene images was liable to be dealt with as a ‘rouge and a vagabond’ and so was punishable by a fine or, if unable to pay, imprisonment. This toughened up the previous act of George IV (5 Geo. IV. c.83. 1824) and he wanted to use it.

Alderman Copeland was in the chair at Guildhall that day and Mr Clarkson handed over some of the obscene pamphlets in question. These had titles such as ‘The Wanton Widow’, ‘The Petticoat Pensioner’ and ‘Venus in the Cloister’*.

UnknownI suspect by modern standards of indecency they were pretty mild but in a society where ‘nakedness’ often meant that someone was dressed only in their undergarments, and where a glimpse of ankle was evidence of a woman’s immoral character, the alderman was suitable disgusted. He issued the warrant and the barrister rushed off to find an officer to execute it.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, August 20, 1841]

*You can still find this today. Published in 1683 as Vénus dans le cloître, ou la Religieuse en chemise, it is a work of erotic fiction as the illustration above shows. .

‘You are a disgrace to human nature’: the meanness of the Poor Law exposed

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The Police Courts were places where people could bring their grievances on all manner of things in the 1800s. It is easy to get the impression that their main purpose was to deal with crime – petty and serious. However, this view is often reinforced by the newspapers’ selection of cases to bring to the attention of their readers: they often chose the outrageous, amusing, shocking, and heart ringing stories as well as regular examples of cases which reminded the public that working class men were brutal, that theft was common, and fraud to be avoided by the wary.

When Ellen Potts came to the Guildhall Police court to ask for Alderman Moon’s help it gave the court reporter of The Morning Post the perfect opportunity to expose an old chestnut: the misuse of authority by a lowly public servant. It helped that Ellen was pretty (‘a good-looking girl’ of ‘about 18 years of age’) and the public servant had a reputation locally for meanness.  Immediately then there was a melodramatic backstory that readers could relate to with a villain and a young heroine that needed saving.

Miss Potts told the court that she had been thrown out of her home after a row with her mother (‘over a shawl’). With nowhere to go that night Ellen knocked on the door of the West London Union workhouse at St Bride’s on Shoe Lane. The relieving officer, Mr Miller, refused her entry however, on the grounds that her mother took in lodgers at her house on Cloth Lane and so was perfectly capable of supporting her daughter.

Alderman Moon was angry with the officer whose only (and sustained) defense was to say he was only following orders. He quickly established that Mrs Potts was receiving poor relief herself and that Miller knew this.

‘Then how can she support her daughter?’ the magistrate demanded to know.

‘You have discretionary power, and I think it is a most cruel act of a man to refuse shelter to a girl under such circumstances, and your conduct is most disgraceful’.

When Miller tried once more to say it that Ellen was her mothers responsibility Alderman Moon cut him off.

‘Don’t talk to me about the mother. You may be a good badger for the guardians, but at the same time a disgrace to human nature. No wonder, when females  are thus cruelly refused an asylum, so many should become prostitutes for the sake of obtaining that relief for which the ratepayers are rated so heavily. There are constant complaints of your hard-hearted conduct, which is a disgrace to your nature’.

This brought cries of ‘hear, hear’ from all sections of the courtroom and Miller must have looked up miserably from the dock, as he continued to say that he was only doing what he’d been told to do by his employers.

The chief clerk whispered to the alderman that Miller was liable to a hefty fine for his actions. The magistrate told Miller that he was going to levy that penalty, £5, for disobeying the general rule that ‘relief shall be given to all person in urgent distress’. After one more forlorn attempt to shift responsibility from himself to the guardians the relieving officer finally work up to what was required of him.

‘Is it your wish she be taken into the house?’ he asked the alderman. ‘If so I will do it willingly’.

‘It is so’, Alderman Moon told him. ‘There’s an end of the case’.

So Miller avoided a fine and Ellen was admitted to the workhouse so she didn’t have to walk the streets and risk falling into an even worse fate.  Arguably the real villains here were the Poor Law Guardians that set the rules that Miller was expected to enforce, and Mrs Potts who was prepared to let her teenage daughter take her chances on the streets. At least this mini melodrama ended happily.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, August 10, 1849]

Drew’s new book (co-authored by Andy Wise) is published by Amberley Books. It is a new study of the Whitechapel murders of 1888 which offers up a new suspect, links the ‘Jack the Ripper’ killings to the unsolved ‘Thames Torso’ crimes, and provides the reader with important contextual history of Victorian London. The book is available on Amazon here

‘And you thought that dressing yourself in women’s attire was the best way of avoiding those abominations?’ Homosexuality in the dock at Guildhall

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We live in a liberal society, albeit one that is under attack from the forces of conservatism. Not only is it legal to form sexual relationships with persons of whoever gender we choose (so long as both parties are 16 years of age or more and consenting) but the rights of those who identify as homosexual are protected by law. Moreover in recent years this has been widened to include those that identify as transgender. For me, as a heterosexual male this is a very good thing. I enjoy living in a society where difference is not accepted, it is valued and championed. For me this makes us stronger, not weaker, as a nation and as a community.

However, it was not always like this – as the recent anniversaries of the Stonewall Riots in New York and LGBT helpline in central London testify. Gay and Lesbian rights have been hard one and when we see LGBT marchers heckled and verbally abused by other Londoners in 2019 it is a reminder that not everyone feels the way I do about diversity.

In the 1800s being different in this way was dangerous. After 1885 it became more dangerous, as Oscar Wilde found to his cost. Wilde was locked up as a result of his sexuality and until relatively recently being homosexual – and practicing that sexuality – could earn you a prison sentence and, in the case of Alan Turing, even worse.

I was interested by the following case heard at the Guildhall Police court in late July and August 1854. On 26 July two men – John Challis, in his sixties and George Campbell (35) – were set in the dock and ‘charged with being found dressed as women… for the purposes of exciting others to commit an unnatural offence’.

The pair were arrested by Inspector Teague of the City Police whose men had raided an illegal dance club in Turnagain Lane. The club was in the Druid’s  Hall and was packed with around 100 men and women, about 20 of these were men dressed as women. Teague had been watching the club for a while and had seen Challis there before. On this occasion he was dressed ‘in the garb of a shepherdess of the golden age’. He nabbed Campbell as he was coming out of the club, pulling him aside and decaling; ‘that is a man!’.

This alerted the other revelers who rushed to escape. The police were too few in number to arrest very many people and had to settle for the capture of Challis and Campbell. In court Teague also tried to bring a charge of pickpocketing against Campbell but the evidence was limited. It was enough, however, for the magistrate to agree to a remand. Challis is released on bail of £100 (£50 for himself and two sureties of £25 from others).  As the men were led away to the police van a crowd yelled abuse at them and struggled against he police line who tried to keep them safe. Homophobia is not a new thing after all.

On 1 August Campbell was back in court at Guildhall, but there was no sign of Challis, who had failed to surrender his bail as required. Sir Richard Carden was furious; he had only allowed bail out of pity for his age and apparent exhaustion’. Campbell claimed to have no idea where the older man was but assured the magistrate that he had been in ‘such a wretched condition in prison that another day’s confinement would, I think, have killed him’. He then asked for the court to cleared of the public while he told his own version of events.

Inspector Teague stepped forward to say that the only fresh evidence was that Campbell’s real name was Holmes  – the Reverend Edward Holmes to be precise, a minister in the Church of Scotland. He had apparently told the police that he had entered the club dressed as a woman to witness for himself the state of vice in London, all the better for warning his parishioners against it.

In court Holmes now claimed he was not priest but a lawyer instead. He had wanted to see ‘London life’ but without ‘mixing with its abominations’ he told Sir Richard.

‘And you thought that dressing yourself in women’s attire was the best way of avoiding those abominations. I must say it was a very imprudent course’, the justice told him.

Campbell (or Holmes) agreed and said he was truly sorry for it. Yet he was at pains to say that he hadn’t robbed anyone and thankfully the magistrate agreed. He was a foolish man, Sir Richard continued, but he was willing to accept that there was nothing more serious to deal with than that. In fact Carden wasn’t in the chair on that occasion, he had presumably appeared to allow some continuity. The sitting magistrate at Guildhall on 1 August was Alderman Carter and he was just as disgusted by Campbell’s behavior, if not more so.

‘If it had not been for Richard’s closing remarks’, he told him, ‘I should have felt inclined to commit you to prison as a rogue and a vagabond. You may go now, and I hope I may never see your face here again’.

A day later a Mr Edward Holmes (of the Middle Temple) made a statement to the court to the effect that he was the only member of the bar with that name and he was certainly notthe person who was also known as ‘George Campbell’. As if a lawyer would ever be caught dressing in women’s clothes…

I don’t know what happened to John Challis (or even if that was his real name). Druid’s Hall was home to ancient order of druids but could be hired for events. The event that Challis and Campbell had attended was a masked ball and, according to witnesses, this was a fairly regular thing. This was London’s gay community coming to together as it had in the previous century (when Molly Houses were the locus for homosexuality).

The police may have wanted to suppress them but it was hard for them to do so without more resources. ‘It is very difficult to catch them in the act, as they have men placed at every outlet to keep a lookout’, Inspector Teague had told Sir Richard Carden. ‘Unless someone attending these parties made an accusation against another man, they remained private spaces’, and the police were limited in what action they could take.1

The Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885 effectively changed this. Sodomy was illegal in 1854 (and punishable by death until 1861, although prosecutions were rare because of this). But section 11 of the 1885 act made ‘gross indecency’ a crime and what constituted this was left deliberately vague. Oscar Wilde was sent to gaol for two years under the terms of the act and Alan Turing (the brains behind Bletchley Park and so someone directly responsible for Allied victory in the Second World War) was sentenced to chemical castration. He took his own life a consequence of this.

Intolerance of sexual difference is now a thing of the past, in legal terms at least. And that is where such intolerance belongs, in the past and not in the present.

[from Daily News, Thursday, July 27, 1854; The Morning Post, Wednesday, August 02, 1854]

 

1.Charles Upchurch, Before Wilde: Sex between Men in Britain’s Age of Reform, p.76

‘Drunken fellows like you should not be allowed to give all this trouble’: An Irishman in the dock in the City

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By far the largest element of a Victorian Police Court magistrate’s business was dealing with those arrested for being drunk, drunk and disorderly, drunk and incapable: – or a variation of these charges that might include using foul and abusive language or violence when resisting arrest.

Every morning (but particularly Monday morning) across the capital police cells were emptied as the various offenders were taken to the Police Courts to be reprimanded, fined, or sent to gaol for a few days or weeks. Many were repeat offenders, others were ‘Saturday night drunks’ – normally ‘respectable’ individuals who just overdid it on a night out.

I’m not sure which category Patrick Sullivan fell into but he was fast asleep on the pavement in Lower Thames Street when a City policeman found him and nudged him with his boot. Sullivan woke with a start and gave the officer a mouthful of drunken abuse. It was clear he could hardly stand up and when the policeman told him to go home he refused. Instead he declared that the only place he would go was to a police station house.

The officer was only too happy to oblige and started to pull him up off the street when the man objected. He now told the policeman that he would have to carry him, and threw himself to the floor. The City man called for help and eventually he and another officer carried Sullivan back to the station. Even now he caused as much trouble as he could, refusing to stand at the desk while the sergeant took his details and read the charge, and then once more throwing himself on the floor of the station. It took a couple more officers to carry him to a cell where he was left to sober up for the night.

In the morning he was taken before Alderman Abbiss at Guildhall Police court where he gave his name and his occupation, a tailor. Sullivan was an Irishman, a nation with a reputation in Victorian society for their love of alcohol and belligerence. This probably counted against him in Mr Abbiss’ courtroom. Not surprisingly perhaps Sullivan could remember little or nothing of the previous night and had nothing to say in his defence.

The alderman told him that ‘drunken fellows like him’ should ‘not be allowed to give all this trouble for nothing’. He fined him 10s or ten days inside. If is was a tailor I suspect he was able to pay his fine, if not he wouldn’t be the first person to spend a long week in a Victorian house of correction for an inability to control his drinking.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, July 17, 1860]