Crossed wires in the early days of telecommunications.

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Earlier this week, as I drove out of north London on my way to the motorway, I passed a mother and child waiting at a bus stop. The child was about 6 or 7 and she was looking intently at a mobile phone, playing a game I imagine. I looked to her mother who was also completely absorbed in her device, with no obvious connection to her daughter at all. This is modern Britain I thought.

We all rely on our phones today, but rarely actually as devices to speak to anyone on. Instead we communicate by text, direct message, emojii, or post and respond to updates on social media. Our ‘smart phones’ are powerful computers that allow us access to more information than even our recent ancestors could imagine as well as a host of entertainment in the form of films, music, games and reading material. Indeed, you may well be reading this blog post on your mobile device.

The telephone was invented (as every school pupil used to be taught*) by Alexander Graham Bell in 1875. He applied for a patent in the US and brought his invention to England in 1878 and tried it out on Queen Victoria, making calls from her house at Osborne on the Isle of Wight. Thomas Edison developed the technology at much the same time so we have two men vying for the accolade of inventing the telephone.

In 1879 the Telephone Company Ltd opened two exchanges in London (one in the City on Leadenhall Street, the other at 3 Palace Chambers in Westminster). A telephone service then, was up and running in the Metropolis and rivals soon started to get in on the game.

Most of the technological advances we associate with ‘modern’ Britain were born out of intense competition (the train, tram, and omnibus for example) and London was at the heart of capitalist innovation. So it is no surprise to find that as early as 1883 (just 6 or 7 years after Bell’s breakthrough) that this competition resulted in prosecutions at London’s Police courts.

In May 1883 Theodore Torrey , the manager of the Globe Telephone Company, and two of his employees – William Goodfellow and James Molyneaux – appeared to answer a summons at the Guildhall. The summons had been taken out by the United Telephone Company (UTC) and accused Torrey and his team of ‘wilfully and maliciously tying up their wires’.

This then, was an early case of industrial sabotage with the aim of putting a rival out of business (or at least stealing a march on their custom).

Both firms were represented by legal teams and it was made clear that this situation was already the subject of a civil case in the court of Chancery. There an injunction had been granted against the Globe Company which ordered the wires to be untied. Globe had appealed this decision and the case rattled on (as they tended to in Chancery).

However, at Guildhall the lawyers for the UTC argued that this was actually a criminal case (one of damage) and so should be heard separately. The two sets of legal minds argued this out for a while before Sir Robert Carden (sitting as magistrate in Guildhall) before he decided that he couldn’t see enough daylight between the two points of view to make a judgement at this time.

The lawyer for the prosecution – a Mr Grain – said that the company wanted to get the situation resolved because at present the United Company’s customers were being inconvenienced. They had literally got their wires crossed he stated. For the defence Mr Lewis countered that the reason the wires were tied by his clients was because they were in the way, pointing out that the UTC had sent them over the Wool Exchange ‘purposely to interfere with their wires’. In fact, he said, they weren’t even genuine wires but dummy ones, simply placed there to cause inconvenience. If they were removed then the case in Chancery might proceed more quickly.

The magistrate could not untangle this tricky legal argument and so he adjourned the case for a few days, perhaps so heads might cool and private lines of communication between the warring firms might succeed where the public ones had failed. This was one of those ‘first world’ problems for most Londoners of course; very few people had access to a telephone in 1883 or even knew how to use one. How things have changed.

[from The Standard, Friday, May 25, 1883]

* Now they can just ‘google it’.

Knocked down in the street a week before her wedding.

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Yesterday I visited Highgate cemetery. This is the first time I’ve been to the West cemetery – the oldest part – which you can only access as part of a guided tour. Myself and about a dozen others avoided the royal nuptials by spending a fascinating 90 minutes or so with Stuart, one of the Friends of Highgate Cemetery’s volunteers. He showed us around the cemetery, up into the catacombs and around the Egyptian style tombs, pointing out some of the famous people buried there (like Michael Faraday) and telling us about the history of site.

I was most touched by the stories of ordinary people like Elizabeth Jackson – the very first burial at Highgate after it opened in 1839 – whose husband must have saved every penny he had to ensure his wife was interned in a crowded graveyard in central London but instead was buried in the quite peace of the suburbs. He later died of cholera but his second wife made sure he was interred with his first love, and possibly their daughter who died (as so many did) in infancy.

The tour costs £12 but is well worth every penny and includes the £4 admission to the East cemetery, where you can visit Marx, Elgar, Douglas Adams and my early historical hero, Eric Hobsbawm.

Today I’ve picked a tragedy from the Police Court in the year Highgate opened. As Charles Aymer drove his butcher’s cart along Old Bailey in May a young woman stepped out into the traffic. London was as busy then as it is today, although where we have cars, vans and buses, they had coaches, cabs and carts.

Aymer saw the woman – Jane Lang – and reined in his horse, but couldn’t stop in time. The horse knocked her down and the wheels of the chaise cart ran right over her stricken body. She died where she lay.

The butcher was brought up before the alderman at Guildhall Police Court where he gave his evidence. The alderman accepted that it was mostly likely to have been an accident but said he would have to remand him in custody until an inquest had taken place the following week. The court was also told that Jane had been due to get married that week as well. It was an awful thing to happen, but there was probably little the butcher could have done to prevent it.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, May 20, 1839]

The ‘extraordinary life of an ungovernable girl’.

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Silena Salter was by all accounts an ‘extraordinary’ young woman, By the age of 18 she was already a well known character at the Guildhall Police court in the City of London. She had appeared there on no fewer than 19 occasions charged with disorderly conduct but although she was possessed of a ‘violent and uncontrollable temper, that amounts almost to madness’ she was otherwise ‘honest, sober, and virtuous’.

On the 24 April 1866 she had again rung the bell in the vagrant ward at the West London Union workhouse despite promising never to do so again. This was the charge that kept on bringing her before a justice and it seemed the authorities were completely unable to prevent this young woman from misbehaving. One magistrate had refused to even take the case and left it for Alderman Waterloo, to whom she had last made her pledge to behave. He saw her on the 28 April and was joined in court by the governor of the City Prison, Mr Weatherhead.

The governor handed the justice a pamphlet detailing the ‘Sad Story’ of Silena’s life. The girl had been born in Bath, the daughter of a gardener and her mother had died when she was very young. Her father remarried but Silena’s stepmother ‘possessed little, or no, control over her’ and she was ‘left to her own inclinations’.

She went to school and then into service as a domestic but she didn’t take to either of these attempts at improving her character. She ran away, stealing money from her stepmother and came to London in search of a new life. A young man who was sweet on her followed after her but she wanted nothing to do with him. Left alone she ended up homeless on the streets of the capital, wandering from workhouse to workhouse until her ‘refractory’ behaviour earned her a spell in Holloway Prison.

Several times the authorities sent her back home to Bath, but each time she ‘escaped’ and returned to London. This girl was a force of nature and it seemed no one was going to tame her rebellious spirit. A drastic situation called for drastic measures and the authorities in London decided to send her abroad, to America.

On the 29 November 1865 she sailed from Liverpool to New York where ‘hopes were entertained that in another country she would become a better girl’. But ‘such hopes were futile’ the pamphlet observed.

Silena upped sticks and worked her passage back to Britain and to London.

Despite the best efforts of the magistracy, the Poor Law authorities and several well-meaning ‘charitable ladies’ it seemed that the obstinacy of this young woman was such that she was determined not to be ‘saved’ from herself. She was ‘a living witness to the waywardness of the human heart’ and Alderman Waterloo said there was really nothing else he could do for her but to send her to Holloway once more.

He did so ‘not in the expectation that the punishment would do her any good, but I the hope that some of the kind friends who visited the prison might devise some means of reclaiming her’.

Silena was taken down to the cells where she kept up a steady protest by kicking at the doors until the van came to take her to prison. 

[from The Standard , Monday, April 30, 1866]

Sex and the Alderman: Besant & Bradlaugh at the Guildhall in 1877

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On most days the reports from the Metropolitan Police courts concerned the lives of very ordinary Londoners. The criminal, the mentally ill, the aged, the poor, the abused and the frightened all appeared in the witnesses box or dock from Mansion House to Thames, Southwark to Marylebone to be dealt with swiftly by the magistrates that sat there. In many cases hearings were completed in a few minutes whilst in others prisoners were remanded or bailed so that a fuller investigation could be undertaken.

Just occasionally however, a case appears that touched history because of its national significance. One of these happened in April 1877 when Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant were summoned to appear before the aldermen magistrates at Guildhall in the City of London.

On Thursday 19 April Bradlaugh and Besant (two of the most significant radical figures of late nineteenth-century society) were called to defend themselves against a charge of publishing an obscene publication. The case had been reconvened that day and Alderman Figgins presiding heard final statements of defence from both Besant and Bradlaugh; Alderman Sir Robert Carden and Sir James Lawrence MP sat with him as this was such an important case. It was prosecuted by Douglas Straight and the Mr. Collette from the Society for the Suppression of Vice observed the proceedings.

The Guildhall Police court was packed, as it had been for the previous appearance of the pair a week earlier for the start of the hearings. Everyone liked a good sex scandal.

The publication in question was ‘The Fruits of Philosophy: Or the private Companion of Young Married People ’ by a Dr Charles Knowlton, a ‘physician of high standing and position, residing in Boston, U.S.A’. It had originally been published in 1832 in America, where it was ‘circulating widely’ in 1877 the court was told, and had first been published in England in 1834 and no one had then been prosecuted for so doing Ms Besant explained (erroneously as it turned out).

Knowlton was an atheist (as was Bradlaugh who famously refused to swear on the Bible when elected MP for Northampton three years later in 1880.) and his pamphlet advocated birth control. Knowlton had initially been prosecuted and fined (and later imprisoned) in Massachusetts for obscenity but was afterwards acquitted. So Besant and Bradlaugh, strong advocates of birth control, whilst aware that the subject was highly controversial, were probably confident that opinion was turning.

From the start Alderman Figgins was determined that his court was not about to be party to a discussion of the topic of birth control, for or against, which probably disappointed some of those in the public gallery. As with crim.con(divorce) cases, the subtext of sexual relations (rarely spoken of publicly in Victorian society) had probably brought many of them to the Guildhall.

At this news Bradlaugh announced that he could now send away the very many medical experts who he’d gathered to speak in his defence. They could now wait for the full jury trial that took place later that year. The most prominent scientist of the day, Charles Darwin, did not support Bradlaugh and Besant however. Darwin pleaded ill-health on the week of the trial but in his apologetic letter to Bradlaugh he said he wasn’t himself an advocate of birth control.

Many were however, because the Victorians were worried about rapid population growth and the impact this had on society and the poor in particular. The Malthusian League was established in 1877 to promote contraception and family planning believing that poverty was caused directly but the inability of the working classes to control the size of their families. But for most people the discussion of birth control – as with the discussion of anything to do with sex – was taboo, hence the prosecution.

In the end Alderman Figgins was always going to commit the pair for a jury trial which took place later at the High Court. The jury ‘were unanimous in the opinion that the book was calculated to deprave public morals, but at the same time said that they “entirely exonerate the defendants from any corrupt motives in publishing it.”’* However while the foreman responded to the judge’s question as to guilt in the affirmative, a juror told Annie Besant afterwards that they had not actually agreed a guilty verdict. She thereafter interpreted this as ‘not guilty, but don’t do it again’.

Six months later the cases was overturned in the Court of Appeal and the defendants were effectively vindicated by the fact that the exposure gained from the case saw sales of Knowlton’s pamphlet rise from ‘fewer than 1,000 to more than 250,000 per year’.** The genii was out of the bottle.

Bradlaugh went on to represent Northampton from 1880-1891 although it took him years to take his seat because of his refusal to swear. Because of him the rules of Parliament were changed and members were allowed to affirm, a privilege that was also then extended to those giving evidence in court. Annie_Besant,_LoCAnnie Besant also continued to champion the rights of the underprivileged. A socialist, she  was present at ‘Bloody Sunday’ in November 1887 and played a significant role in the 1888 matchgirls’ strike at Bryant & May.

Poor Alderman Figgins was probably quite glad to get back to the ordinary flotsam and jetsoms of the City streets however, when his court was less full and the proceedings less controversial.

 

Annie Besant in later life

[from The Morning Post, Friday, April 20, 1877]

* [from http://what-when-how.com/birth-control/bradlaugh-besant-trial-birth-control/]

** [https://www.britannica.com/biography/Charles-Knowlton#ref69378]

‘He is a good son and I have done no more than any mother would do’.

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When William Bennett was first brought before a magistrate at the Guildhall Police court he was remanded in custody for a few days. The justice, Alderman Stone, had wanted to hear from a key witness who had failed to turn up to give evidence. He remanded Bennett and issued a summons to bring the witness to court.

On Monday 8 April 1872 Bennett was brought up from the cells and once more faced his accuser, a shopkeeper named Mr Edgar who traded from premises on Fann Street, off Aldersgate Street. Bennett was charged with stealing a swing mirror which, according to Edgar, he had brazenly stolen  on the 25 March. Bennett, in company with another man had simply walked into Edgar’s shop  at two 2 in the afternoon and walked out with the mirror.

There was a shop right opposite that of Mr Edgar, run by a woman named Emily Hollingsworth. She was supposed to come to give her evidence but had not appeared. Now she was in court because of the summons and testified that she had seen Bennett and another man take the mirror as Edgar alleged.

The alderman magistrate demanded to know why she hadn’t appeared when the case was first heard. Emily replied that she had in fact come to give evidence before but had met Bennett’s mother in the  courtroom. Mrs Bennett asked her:

‘to throw doubt on the identity of the prisoner, and she refused to falsify her evidence, but said she would rather leave the court altogether than tell a falsehood’.

Next to appear was one of the warders from Cold Bath Fields prison who identified Bennett as someone who been previously convicted. Herbert Reeves said that Bennett had served a two year sentence recently with hard labour and added that a gaoler at the City prison would attest to him being in there on more than one occasion as well. This probably sealed the man’s fate and Alderman Stone fully committed him to take his trial before a jury.

He then turned his ire on Mrs Bennett, reprimanding her for ‘tampering with the witness’. She was unrepentant, telling the magistrate that her boy was a ‘good son to her, and she had done no more than any mother would do’.

When it came to the Old Bailey William pleaded guilty as charged. His previous convictions did count against him and he was sentenced to seven years’ penal servitude by the judge, for stealing a mirror valued at 5s 6d (about  £17 today).

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, April 09, 1872]

Much ado about nothing? Cheesy goings on at Smithfield at Easter

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Easter fell on the 1 April on only four occasions in the nineteenth century: 1804, 1866, 1877, and 1888. On Easter Sunday 1877 there were the usual series of reports from the Police Courts of the metropolis. There was ‘brutality’ at Lambeth as a 28 year-old labourer was charged and convicted of beating his wife; he went to prison for three months. At Hammersmith, in a report captioned ‘ruffianism’, John Slade was sent away for four months for assaulting a policeman in the course of his duty.

At Bow Street there was a most unpleasant accusation of child rape (under the title ‘alleged bestiality’), while at Clerkenwell a costermonger’s wife was in the dock for attacking her husband. But the case I’m going to recount today is a less unpleasant one; something cheery for this Easter Sunday for  change. And as it headed up all the reports on that day perhaps that was the intention of the editor of Reynold’s Newspaper, to bring a little ‘good news’ to his readers.

Under the title, ‘a singular charge of theft’, the paper described the appearance at the Guildhall Police Court of Ruth Thornton who was accused of stealing a cheese from a shop in the City.

The charge was brought by Charles Parsons, a butcher working at the London Central Meat Market (Smithfield). He told the magistrate, Mr Alderman Ellis, that at times he worked for Mr Turner who ran a cheese shop at number 254 in the market. He explained that:

‘it was their practice to have cheese exposed for sale in pieces on the shop-board, from which customers selected those they liked, and then took them into the shop to get weighed and then to pay for them’.

He said he saw Mrs Thornton pick up a cheese and walk into the crowded shop. There were lots of customers pressing to get to the counter to pay but Parsons was sure he saw the lady place the cheese in her basket then, as she got close to the counter, turn around and walk out without paying.

He followed quickly and stopped her, demanding to know what she had in her basket.

‘Why cheese, to be sure’, she replied.

Parsons then accused her of theft which she denied. She said she’d paid for it with half a crown and received one and half pence change. The cheese weighed 4lbs 2oz and was priced at six and half pence a pound. She was very precise about this but Parsons didn’t believe her and instead of taking her back to the shop to verify her version of events he handed her over to the first police constable her found.

The police called for Mr Turner to come to the station to give his account but he refused, saying he knew nothing of the affair. In court Mrs Thornton’s lawyer, a Mr Chapman, pressed the butcher as to whether Turner had said he didn’t know whether the cheese had been paid for or had said he couldn’t recall it being paid for. The defence was trying attempting (successfully it seems) to create some doubt about the butcher’s insistence that Ruth had not paid for the cheese in her basket.

The shop was busy, he explained, his client was adamant that she’d paid and her story was entirely consistent; to the butcher, the police and now here, in the Guildhall. Moreover she had been willing to go back to the shop with the assistant when he had stopped her but he had insisted on taking this to law.

Parsons had acted prematurely and had had a respectable woman taken into custody. Mrs Turner had given a correct address to the police (5 Charles Villas, Stratford). Moreover she had plenty of money on her that day (£1 13s 6d) so there was no reason for her to have stolen the cheese. Mr Ellis was of the opinion that there was insufficient evidence to convict the prisoner before him and so he discharged her.

His decision was ‘met with applause’. The only person unhappy about it was Parsons, who had to go back to his employer to break the bad news that first, he’d lost the case (and so if she had stolen the cheese, the value of it) and second (and worse) that Mr Turner’s good reputation had been a little tarnished in the process.

Happy Easter, Passover or Eostre to all of you.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, April 1, 1877]

The late Victorian magistracy knew how to deal with sexual assault when they saw it

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Dalston Junction station c.1905 (about 8 years after the events recounted below took place) 

Our society is quite rightly agitated about sexual assault and misconduct. There has been a well documented campaign about sexual harassment and worse which as touched the television and film industry, politics, professional sports, and even charities. I suspect we have not heard the end of this and that the empowerment of women (and men) via the sharing of stories of abuse will result in many more industries and ares of public and private life being exposed to accusations of bad behaviour, sexual misconduct and rape.

It seems to me that the abuse of women, men and vulnerable children by those having positions of power and influence is endemic in modern society and until some prominent people are very publicly made to pay the consequences of this we are unlikely to see things improve. Sadly, of course, none of this is very ‘new’ and men (and it is usually men) have been getting away with sexual harassment for centuries.

However, not everyone got away with it and in some circumstances – notably when the abuser was a member of a lower social class than his victim – the Victorian courts were prepared to act to defend the defenceless. Even when these distinctions were not obvious the Police Court magistrates could often be relied upon to make a stand.

Florence Day was a domestic servant. On Tuesday 17 March 1897 she was travelling on the North London Railway between Dalston Junction and Broad Street in a third class carriage. It was the day before St Patrick’s Day  and the carriage was also being used by three Irishmen, one of whom took it upon himself to impose himself upon the young servant girl.

As soon as the train moved off Morris Deerey, a cattleman, began to speak to her. Florence was not interested and move her seat to get away from him. He’d been drinking and he and his friends were probably quite drunk. Undeterred Morris rose and follow her, sitting down opposite the girl.

Again he tried to engage her in conversation and when she ignored him he moved his muddy boot across and lifted her skirt. This was not only an invasion of space it was a sexual assault in the context of Victorian attitudes towards the female gender. Even today it would be considered as such.

When the train pulled in to Broad Street Florence, with the help of a fellow passenger who had seen everything that occurred, had Deerey taken into custody. She went to Moorgate Station and was examined by a female ‘searcher’ (who  I imagine was employed by the railways to search women brought in accused of picking pockets).  She confirmed that there was mud on the servant’s stockings and the whole case sent before the alderman magistrate at Guildhall Police court.

Deerey denied the accusation against him and produced his two fellow cattlemen to back him up. Both admitted to being drunk and claimed that Deerey’s foot had got accidentally entangled with the girl’s dress. William Holloway had acted to support Florence and had been watching the men warily since they’d boarded the train at Chalk Farm. He confirmed Florence’s story and dismissed the friends’ version of events.

Alderman Newton had heard enough. Bad behaviour from the working classes was meat and drink to him; drunken and loutish conduct by the Irish was particularly to be condemned. He told the listening press and public that:

‘the traveling public must be protected, especially unprotected females’.

He sent Deerey to prison for 14 days hard labour meaning that he missed the St Patrick’s Day celebrations that year. ‘Poor Paddy’, as the Dubliners (and the Pogues) once sung.

[from The Standard , Thursday, March 18, 1897]