A baby on the tracks and a child in a dustbin; two horror stories from the 1880s

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Lloyd’s weekly round up of ‘Police intelligence’ on Sunday 13 July 1884 contains a fascinating variety of human greed, misery and criminal artfulness. There are possibly a dozen or more cases from a betting scam in the City of London to an assault in Highgate, and the stories reveal the diversity of life in the Victorian capital. Two cases stand out amongst the petty thefts, domestic violence, fraud and juvenile crime reported. Both involve some form of child abuse, and both are quite shocking examples.

Clara Wardle was prosecuted at Thames Police court in the East End of London in very strange circumstances. Clara was seen to place a small child, her own baby, on the tram lines on Commercial Road and then run away. Luckily for the infant John Kerr saw what happened and rushed over and snatched up the child before a rapidly approaching hose and van crushed it under its hooves and wheels. The young lad handed the baby over the police.

Meanwhile another man who had seen what Clara had done chased after her and caught her in a side street. He marched her off to find a policeman and PC Newport (44H) took her into custody and ensured she appeared before Mr Lushington in court the next day.

Clara stood in the dock clutching her baby to her breast and listened as the evidence against her was read out. She told the magistrate that she never intended to hurt the child. She was ‘merely laid the child down to frighten her husband, who she thought would have picked the baby up’.

A report of the incident in a provincial newspaper gives us a little more insight into the case. John Kerr (the rescuer) is reported as telling the magistrate that he saw Clara and a man (presumably her husband) ‘running after a tram-car in Commercial Road’ at about 6 o’clock in the evening. The man boarded the tram ‘leaving the prisoner [Clara] standing in the road. She then deliberately laid her baby on the rails and ran away’.

So her action was part of an argument between her and her husband that almost led to the death of a baby. Perhaps he was leaving her, or simply had had enough of the row and saw an opportunity to escape quickly. Lushington remanded her for further inquiries, presumably to bring her husband in to see what he had to say about the matter.

South of the river, at Lambeth, two young boys were placed in the dock once more having been remanded a few days earlier by Mr Chance. Their crime was arguably even worse than Clara, since they acted deliberately and with malice. The lads were about 10-12 years of age and they were accused of having taken away a boy of 7 or 8 and forcing him inside a dustbin.

George Steeden and Stephen Murphy had taken Henry Douglas to a house in Penge and imprisoned him in a dustbin by loading bricks on the lid so he couldn’t climb out again. They’d trapped him in the 4 ½ foot deep bin at around five in the evening and by their own confession had left him there ‘to be found dead, so they might afterwards get a reward for the discovery of the body’.

Young Henry was locked into his intended tomb for nearly 17 hours, being discovered around one in the afternoon of the following day. It must have been a terrifying and traumatizing experience for the child. The magistrate said it was one of the ‘most serious cases he had ever had before him with regard to boys’. Steeden had been in trouble with the law before so Mr Chance ordered that he be given ‘six strokes of the rod’ before being sent to an Industrial School until he reached 16. Murphy was sent back to the workhouse where he’d been held on remand while the court decided what to do with him.

Despite the newsworthiness of both of these stories the papers seemed to have lost interest at this point. I’ve therefore no idea whether Stephen Murphy was considered the lesser of the two ‘evils’ and allowed to go home or if he too was sent to a reformatory or industrial school. Clara clearly needed help or at least a reconciliation with her husband. The court might have had her examined to determine the state of her mental health; if she was found to be insane then she risked being sent to an asylum. If her husband had abandoned her then the 28 year-old women might end up destitute and in the workhouse. Either way her future looked uncertain at best.

For many of those reading the ‘Sundays’ over their breakfast or supper these were the lives ‘others’; part of the world outside their comfortable homes and about people that they did not know, nor wanted to know. They would have been shocked certainly, disgusted and angered probably, but amused and entertained as well, such was the purpose of the ‘crime news’ in the nineteenth century.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, July 13, 1884; The Hampshire Advertiser, Saturday, July 12, 1884]

Dangerous dogs or well loved pets? Two magistrates, two very different interpretations of the law.’

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The law is, of course, open to interpretation. In the 1880s the law concerning the control of pet dogs was, seemingly, as a clear as mud and so we can see that two magistrates chose to apply it in two different ways.

At Lambeth Mr Biron was in the chair on 8 June 1886. The clerk produced a string of dog owners were charged, by the treasury, with failing to keep their dogs under control. For the magistrate the law depended on how one interpreted the word ‘control’.

In a number of cases dogs had been found by police, wandering 20-30 yards from their owners or their owner’s home. If the dogs were muzzled, not on a lead, or no one appeared to be in control of them, more often than not a policeman would take their collars and take them back to the station. In those instances, if they had a name on the collar the owner was summoned to collect them.

In several of the cases brought before him Mr Biron dismissed the charge. If, for example, the owner said that the dog had just been let out in the morning (to do its ‘business’ one supposes) and was within 20 yards of the house then that was ‘under control’. In another case the owner said his animal was ‘within call’ and the justice accepted that. Indeed he accepted most explanations for why dogs were not on leads or muzzled and only one case, where a dog had bitten a child, did he find strongly against the owner who was penalised with a 10fine.

In this case though the owner had already been warned about the behaviour of his beast so perhaps that was more about demonstrating that the law had to be obeyed than anything else. The courts were quite strict on those that ignored instructions previously handed down by the magistracy.

Overall Mr Biron declared that it was ‘doubtless right to take dogs unmuzzled and without owners to the station, but when animals were within a few yards of the owner or his premises he could not see much good sense in it’.

North of the river at Clerkenwell Mr Bartsow took a different line on ‘dangerous’ dogs. John Adams was brought before him charged with not keeping his good ‘under proper control’ contrary to police regulations. Adams said that the dog was walking a yards ahead of him and that ‘some magistrates held this to be “under proper control”.’

Mr Barstow told him that ‘he could be bound by the decisions of other magistrates’ and fined him 5s. If it was off the leash and without a muzzle, it wasn’t under control. I suspect the newspapers focused on this because it was a law that was commonly interpreted differently, something that must have been confusing for dog owners and policemen alike.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, June 09, 1886]

On June 15 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 to order on Amazon here

A rapist offers ‘atonement’ to buy off his victim’s father

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A warning, this is a most unpleasant case, because it concerns the alleged rape of a 14 year-old girl.

Rachael Potts worked as a domestic servant in a household at 30 Grosvenor Park South, Camberwell, south London. In mid April her mistress went off to her country home for a few days so it was decided that Racheal would lodge with her father in Camberwell and travel the short distance to work each morning, not staying there overnight. Her father was a tradesman, a furniture broker on Southampton Street and probably saw his daughter’s employment as a respectable occupation and education for a young girl. He also expected her to be safe there, but he was wrong.

While Rachael’s mistress was away Montague Musgrave, her brother, was not. He lived with his sister at number 30 and one Wednesday evening he noticed that the young serving girl had scratched her arm. He offered to bandage it and as he was doing so he pulled her towards him onto his knee. Rachael wriggled free and ran off into the kitchen but Musgrave followed.

With no one about in the kitchen (presumably because most of the staff had gone to the country) Musgrave was able to catch Rachael, force her to the floor and rape her. He then made her a present of some ribbons and urged her to say nothing of what had happened. The teenage girl went home to her mother and kept her silence until she realized she had contracted a sexually transmitted infection or, as the press at the time put it: ‘a loathsome disease’.

The mother complained, Musgrave was arrested and the whole sordid affair came before Mr Elliott at Lambeth Police court. Musgrave was represented by his attorney but Rachael had to give her evidence herself. The prejudice of the papers was apparent as she was described as ‘precocious’ and ‘indifferent’, while Musgrave was ‘gentlemanly’. The accused lawyer argued that no jury would convict his client based on the evidence of a young girl (and by implication at least, a young girl of lower social status) and so offered some ‘atonement’.

In reality he was probably offering Rachael (or rather her father) some financial compensation in the hope that the charge would be dropped and further embarrassment could be avoided.  Unfortunately for Musgrave the magistrate did not feel that ‘atonement’ was an appropriate thing to discuss at this stage and bailed the suspected rapist to appear a week later.

At this point both Rachael and her alleged abuser vanish from the records. I doubt a trial took place; it is much more likely that an out of court settlement was made and Rachael left her position as a domestic in Camberwell and returned to her father. No doubt he received some money and the girl received some medical care but Musgrave would have walked away without any further taint on his reputation.

One expects however, that his sister may well have recognised that  her brother was not to be trusted with the young female staff and that is why she tried to keep Rachael away when she was not at home to supervise him. Let’s hope she was more careful in the future for leopards rarely change their spots.

[From The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, May 7, 1856]

‘You are one of Colonel Henderson’s ruffians!’:one of the ‘Devil’s Own’ takes his anger out on the police

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The Albert Embankment under construction in 1869

As two police constables patrolled the Albert Embankment on Saturday evening in May 1879 they heard and then saw a horse and rider approaching. The man was smartly dressed but seemed to be swaying in the saddle as if a little the worse for drink. PC Vaughan (143L) commented to his companion that they should keep an eye on him.

Soon afterwards, as the coppers watched, the equestrian turned off the embankment into Gloucester Street, a dead end street that led only to some dust yards. They followed him into the dimly lit street and saw that a large crowd of dustmen and small boys had gathered around him. He was throwing them silver coins which they were scrambling for the in dirt of the street.

This was a potentially dangerous situation; if the man was drunk it was quite possible, PC Vaughan thought, that he might be hauled off his mount and robbed. The officers moved in through the throng and advised the rider, firmly, to desist and go home. Instead of obeying the constable’s request however, the man growled at him:

You are one of Colonel Henderson’s ruffians, I should like to have a turn with him in Belgium, choose our own weapons, and stand six yards apart’.

Sir Edmund Henderson was commissioner of the metropolitan police from 1869 to 1886. He resigned following the embarrassment of the West End (or ‘Pall Mall’) riots of 1886. He had a military background (as did his successor, Charles Warren) and had also served in Australia with a responsibility for the government of convicts before returning to England to run the prison system. henderson2

The police themselves did not enjoy the affection of the public that they do today and this clearly extended beyond the lower working class. The rider was a barrister, William Belt, aged 53, and resident in Bedford Square. As a man of some means and position he had no obvious reason to dislike the police but referring to them as ‘ruffians’ was fairly unambiguous. His comment about ‘six yards’ suggested he was spoiling for a fight  (since it referenced the classic duel) and when he hit PC Vaughan over the head with his riding whip all doubt of his belligerence towards the police was dispelled. I imagine he was cheered by the assembled dustmen but not by the two policemen who grabbed the reins of the horse and pulled him away.

With difficulty, and with Mr Belt refusing to dismount, the two constables escorted their captive to a police station and charged him with being drunk and with assaulting a police officer. Belt gave his name, address and occupation (barrister) and appeared in court at Lambeth before Mr Chance where he denied everything.

He said he had been riding on the Embankment to meet up with his old regiment – the ‘Devil’s Own’ – at Wimbledon. He wasn’t drunk he said, but ill. He had nothing more than ‘two spoonsful of brandy’  that day and despite the fact that – as PC Vaughan reported – he was riding without the use of his stirrups he was entirely in control of his horse. Medical evidence was heard which supported both his and the police’s claim about him being inebriated that night so it was left to Mr Chance to decide the outcome.

The magistrate was pretty clear an assault had taken place, and sure that the police were justified in trying to remove the barrister from a tricky situation where he might have been the victim of crime. But in part because the man had managed to ride so far without the use of his stirrups and because he was, after all, a gentleman, he dismissed the charge of drunkenness. Belt was ordered to pay a fine of £3, which he did, and discharged.

I wondered about the ‘Devil’s Own’ that Belt referred to as his old regiment. During the Napoleonic Wars the Connaught Rangers (88thRegiment of Foot) were nicknamed the ‘Devil’s Own’ and earned a fearsome reputation in the Peninsula. But William Belt was too young to have served in the wars against Napoleon, being born in 1826. There was, however, a volunteer corps of Inns of Court troops that had been formed during the Crimean War – the 23rd Middlesex Rifles – and this may have been the barrister’s regiment.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, May 06, 1879]

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

‘He would have been alive only for my giving him what I did’: an 11 year-old admits to murder

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In April 1883 a lad of 11 named Arthur Harris Syres was brought before the Lambeth Police court magistrate where he confessed to causing the death of his little brother in early February. Arthur admitted that he had given his infant brother – who was just 12 months old – rat poison and gave the address of the shop that he bought it from. The magistrate decided that the full details of the case needed more careful investigation and remanded Arthur to the care of the local workhouse so they could be carried out.

A week later Arthur was back in court and more details emerged. His home address was given as Park Row, Peckham and his dead brother was named as Alexander Syres. A police sergeant (26P) deposed that Arthur had been brought to the station house by his stepmother. She explained that he child had been taken ill and had been vomiting. The poor thing had died soon afterwards but the doctor she consulted initially thought it might have been a complication of teething. It was only after this that Arthur admitted that he had given Alexander some rat poison that he’d purchased specifically for that purpose.

The magistrate, Mr Ellison, thought it all sounded very strange and once again remanded Arthur in custody. One of the first reforms of juvenile justice in the nineteenth century had been to stop sending children to adult prisons whilst they were on remand, which was why he was secured at a workhouse.

Another week passed before the case returned to Lambeth. More details emerged: the police now believed that it was ‘vermin poison’ that was used and that Arthur had bought ‘a pennyworth’ at a doctor’s shop. The doctor appeared and said the boy’s confession didn’t hold up because he’d said he’d purchased it from another boy working there. He denied that any lad dispensed poisons on his counter but of course he might have been trying to distance himself from the tragedy.

The discussion returned to the initial hypothesis that Alexander had died as a result of complications in teething. Mr Ellison wanted to know if the symptoms of this might be similar to those caused by poison. Dr Hemmings, who treated the child, agreed that they might.  Since little Alex had already been buried the only way to establish the truth for certain was to have his body examined and for that the justice would have to apply to the Home Secretary for a legal exhumation.

On May 4 Arthur learnt that while no decision had yet been made as to digging up his brother’s body it had been decided that he had a case to answer. It was now likely that the 11 year-old would face trial for causing the death of his brother and he was remanded in custody once more. This meant that he had now been in custody and separated from his family for three weeks, not knowing the outcome of the case against him and most likely not having any meaningful legal support. It is hard to imagine the torments he was going through.

On Friday 25 May Arthur was again set in the dock at Lambeth and again asked whether he had given his brother poison.  The lad continued to admit his guilt and so although no independent verification of his story could confirm this to be true the justice, this time Mr Chance, had little choice but to formally commit him to take his trial at the Old Bailey.

The trial took place on the 28 May and was quite short. Sergeant Ledger gave evidence as did Arthur’s stepmother, Margaret Syres. She told the court how while they had all believed that baby Alex had died as a result of his teething Arthur had admitted his role in the baby’s death to his sister Ada.

‘He would have been alive only for my giving him what I did’, he reportedly said and, when questioned by his parents, said he’d taken rat poison himself before.

However, doubts remained as to whether Arthur had administered rat poison or red precipitate poison (mercurite oxide) and Dr Butters (where Arthur claimed to have bought a twist of powder from an errand boy) was adamant that his servant would not have been able to have sold the boy the former.

It then emerged that on New Year’s Eve 1882  Arthur had been charged with attempting to take his own life. Inspector Thomas Worth told the Old Bailey court that on that occasion Arthur had ingested phosphorous paste (which was sometimes used as a rat poison). When asked why he replied that he’d run away from home because his parents ‘ill used him’.

Arthur’s confession was again given in court but when asked the defendant had nothing to say for himself. The jury acquitted him of manslaughter and he was free to go after several weeks of trauma. Whether he was able to return home however, or wanted to, is quite another matter. While the court was unable (and perhaps unwilling) to prove that an 11 year-old boy was a killer it is clear that Arthur Syres was a very troubled youth. His mother had died and his father had remarried and started a new family. It seems as if he was struggling to cope with the adjustment and acted up in the most extreme of ways.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, April 14, 1883; The Hull Packet and East Riding Times, Friday, April 20, 1883; The Standard (London, England), Friday, April 27, 1883;The Standard, Saturday, May 05, 1883; Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, May 27, 1883]

NB: 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 practised finger-smith on Hungerford Bridge

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I.K. Brunel’s Hungerford Suspension Bridge, which opened in 1845

Samuel Hughes was operating the toll on the Hungerford suspension bridge when he saw a young woman running towards his booth. As she came closer she slowed her run, and walked slowly past him. Hughes was stationed on the Surrey side of the bridge and it was about half past one in the morning of the 29 March 1849, and he had been in the middle of a conversation with another – unnamed -man.

About five minutes earlier a drunk had staggered past his gate, making for the Middlesex (north) side of the bridge. Hughes gave the man more than the usual cursory glance simply because he appeared to be so drunk. He was able to state later that the man was properly dressed, and there was a scarf around his neck.

Soon after the woman left the bridge in the direction of Southwark, south London, the tollbooth keeper heard the heavy steps of a man trying to run towards him. The drunk he’d seen earlier now loomed into view but he was clearly struggling to hold his trousers up as he approached.

There had been a spate of robberies on and around the bridge in recent weeks and, putting two and two together, Hughes urged his companion to follow the young woman whom he believed might have just robbed the drunken man who stumbled after her. A pursuit was then joined but it was police constable Thomas Crosby (189L) that made the arrest.

He was on his beat in Salton Road when he saw a woman running from Belvedere Road (which ran parallel with the river) with a gentleman chasing her. He shouted out ‘stop her!’ and as she darted into Howley Street he grabbed her and took her into custody. Another officer, PC Bradley, found a scarf and purse in the street where the woman was apprehended.

The woman’s name was Ann Philips and she was well known to the police and magistracy as a local prostitute. At Lambeth Police Court she was charged with robbing a man on the Hungerford bridge. Her alleged victim was John Brookes, a blacksmith from Paddington who deposed that he was walking over the bridge that morning, heading north.

He said he’d not got far when he met the prisoner.

‘She stopped and talked to him for two or three minutes, when she left, and in a moment afterwards he missed his scarf from his neck. He also missed his watch, guard, and purse, and discovered that his waistcoat was unbuttoned and his braces cut’.

She had worked fast as only a practised finger-smith could.

Ann denied it, offering an alternative version of events where she was approached by a very drunk man on the bridge whose clothes were already in a state of disarray. She was scared by him and ran away.

It was hardly a creditable response and the magistrate (the Hon. G. C. Horton) believed not a word of it and sent her for trial for the robbery. The paper reported that several similar robberies had been committed on the bridge recently and were thought to be the work of a man and woman acting together.

‘As soon as they are accomplished’ the report continued, ‘one of the thieves starts for Middlesex and the other for the Surrey side’, making the pursuit that much harder.

Having an accomplice also made it much easier to dispose of the stolen loot so that nothing was found if one of the pair was arrested. So it was with Ann, as nothing was found on her person, just the scarf and empty purse abandoned in the street.

Ann may have gone to the Surrey Assizes for this offence but I’m interested to find that another woman named Ann Phillips turning up at Old Bailey two years later for a very similar theft. This time the crime was committed in Freeman’s Passage, near Honey Lane in the City and a watch was stolen when a man stopped to speak to a woman.

If Ann ranged as far as Hungerford Bridge (between Westminster Bridge and Waterloo) its not too much of a leap to imagine that she could have looked for trade in the City at times. In 1851 Ann was 23 which would make her about 21 in 1849, an typical age for a young prostitute/thief in mid Victorian London. The judge sent her to gaol for six months and one imagines that this wasn’t her last brush with the law.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, April 6, 1849]

“For God’s sake, Jack, get this fellow off me or he’ll eat my head off”: ‘Knocked’ in the Old Kent Road

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I find all sorts of violent acts being prosecuted at the Police courts of Victorian London but few were as savage and, at the same time, bizarre, as this one.

Patrick Kieffe was drinking with several workmates in a pub on the Old Kent Road when the beer got the better of them and they fell to arguing. All of them worked at the gasworks and one of them, John Baxter, had the task of stoker – which demanded strength and courage – had the reputation of the hard man in the group.

As the beer overcame any inhibitions Kieffe had he started to shout the odds and challenge all and sundry, but especially Baxter, to a fist fight. Baxter ignored him and dismissed the challenge as bravado; Kieffe was a young man, Baxter more mature in years. Enraged Kieffe flew at his co-worker as he stood at the bar nursing a pint, knocking him to the floor. He leapt on him and started to pummel him with fists and, before the others could intervene, he bit him and tried to tear off one of his eyebrows.

One of the group, John Montague, rushed in to help as Baxter called out:

‘For God’s sake, Jack, get this fellow off me or he’ll eat my head off’.

Kieffe had Baxter’s eyebrow in his teeth and, like a dog with a bone, he was refusing to release him. Montague threatened to break his jaw and finally the younger man relented. The police arrived and PC  90P arrested Kieffe and took him away. Baxter’s wounds were dressed by a local doctor who later testified that ‘nearly the whole of the left eyebrow was bitten off’.

The case ended up before the Police magistrate at Lambeth, Mr Elliott, who was shocked at the violence of the act. He told Kieffe that he had acted ‘like a perfect savage’ and remanded him in custody until his father could be found.

The South Metropolitan Gasworks on the Old Kent Road were built in the 1830s and the old gasholder (now disused) stills remains. The Old Kent Road is synonymous with South-East London working-class life, as immortalized in the old music hall song, “Wot Cher! Knocked ’em in the Old Kent Road”.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, February 20, 1862]