An unexpected intruder tests a housekeeper’s nerves

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When the housekeeper turned up to work at 5 Queen Street on Wednesday 13 August 1873 she didn’t expect to be surprised. The house was unoccupied at the time, as the family were out of London and so the unnamed ‘keeper simply worked there in the day and locked it up  again at night. So as far as she was concerned the place was empty.

Imagine her astonishment then when, as she approached the property she saw a ‘wild-looking’ man staring out of a third-floor window. The housekeeper gathered her courage and headed upstairs to confront him.

He was clearly a disturbed individual and after he had given her a very incoherent explanation of being in the house, she urged him downstairs and out of the building, found a policeman, and had him arrested. On Thursday it went before the alderman magistrate at Mansion House, who remanded him to Newgate so his situation could be looked into.

On Friday the man was back, giving his name as John Smith, and repeating a claim he’d made earlier that 5 Queen Street had been his home for the past two years. This was palpably untrue and suggested that Smith was not in his right mind.

He was examined at Newgate prison by the surgeon, Dr Gibson, who declared him insane, violent and dangerous. He said he was ‘quite unfit to be at large’. Sir Robert Carden, the presiding magistrate, had no hesitation in committing the man to Bow Street workhouse from where he would be moved to a lunatic asylum at the earliest convenience.

No one seemed to know however, just how John Smith (if that was his name) had managed to gain access to the property when it had apparently been secured by the housekeeper.

[from The Morning Post , Saturday, August 16, 1873]

‘You must have a go at the treadmill’ a regular visitor to the courts is told.

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Beggars and vagrants were an endemic problem for the police and magistrates of nineteenth-century London. The Vagrancy Act (1824) empowered the New Police to sweep anyone begging from the streets and the Poor Law allowed for the repatriation of the unentitled back to their place of last settlement. But once arrested what could be done with ‘sturdy beggars’ like Thomas Costello? A spell in prison held little fear for them and if they had lived and worked in a town for a year at least then they could claim it was their home and be hard to get rid of.

This was the Lord Mayor’s problem as he peered down at Costello standing in the dock at Mansion House Police court in August 1837. A policeman had brought the Irishman in because he’d been upsetting sensibilities by begging ‘in a most importune style’ the court was told.

His way was to fix himself shivering and shaking against the wall, and his deplorable appearance, for he could make is very eyes almost start out of his head, soon brought customers to him’.

The officer had tried to get him to leave the city’s boundaries but Costello refused, so he took him into custody.

He wasn’t an unfamiliar sight in the police courts and the Lord Mayor was sure he recognized him. ‘We have often told you to leave the city’ he grumbled, ‘why do you persevere in annoying us?’

‘Ah, please your honour’, came the reply, ‘I’m all over pains and aches; I’m afraid I’ll never get well’.

‘You are sick with idleness’, the Lord Mayor quipped, seeing what appeared to be a strong man in the dock before him. Thomas claimed to be suffering from a bad fall from a horse, but the magistrate clearly didn’t believe him. Nor did he buy the man’s complaint that his eyesight was failing and the policeman agreed saying that:

‘there was not a beggar in the city – able and active as they were – who had better use of his eyes and hands than the defendant, who could see an officer at any distance, and get out of sight in a twinkling’.

‘Oh yes they ought to put me up as a tellygraph [sic]’ joked the prisoner, beginning to enjoy his moment in the spotlight perhaps. ‘You’d swear that I could read the newspaper from this to Portsmouth in a fog’!

Keen to determine whether Costello had been up before the bench recently (and so perhaps worthy of a more serious penalty) the Lord Mayor asked him. The beggar said he’d not been in trouble for three years which caused the police officer to comment that it couldn’t be less than six months. Guessing that he’d been in and out of gaols all over the place and that they’d proved to be no deterrent the Lord Mayor made one last effort to persuade Costello to leave London, or at least the city itself.

Oh! dear no; I won’t disgrace myself by going out of your jurisdiction’ Costello answered, no doubt with a smile, ‘I’ve got no parents, God help me, but yourself and the likes of you’.

London was his home and he wasn’t going to leave it for anyone.

And for the next couple of months he definitely wasn’t going anywhere. ‘You must have a go at the treadmill’ the justice told him.

‘I know where the mill is precious well’, Costello responded, ‘It ain’t out of the city, is it, my lord?’ And off to Bridewell he went, where he’d be fed and watered at the ratepayers’ expense but at least he wouldn’t be bothering the good citizens of London for a while.

[from The Morning Chronicle , Friday, August 11, 1837]

Little sympathy for an old sea dog who served his country

Rare original image showing a black Greenwich Pensioner in Greenwich Hospital uniform

The accusation of forgery that was  levelled against Dixon Dawson at the Mansion House Police court in 1850 was serious and complex, and it reveals a story of bravery, service and a fall from grace that might well be common to thousands of veterans in mid nineteenth-century Britain.

The long wars with Revolutionary and then Napoleonic France had raged from 1790 to 1815 with only small breaks in-between. Before then England had been embroiled in war with its former colony in America from 1776-1787. Throughout that time the Royal Navy had played a pivotal role in operations; helping to move troops, block enemy ports, and ultimately preventing Napoleon’s Grand Armée from invading in 1805.

Following The emperor Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in June 1815 very many soldiers and sailors were returned to civilian life as Britain did not keep a large standing army in the early 1800s. Many of these were wounded, physically or psychologically (although there was little understanding of this at the time). Some of the old soldiers would have found a bed at the Chelsea Hospital while the former ‘tars’ could apply to be helped at Greenwich.

Dixon Dawson ended up at Greenwich where he lived for a while after working as a domestic servant for several years after he left the Navy. Dawson seems to have wanted to start a business, perhaps to provide security for himself and his daughter (we presume his wife was dead, as she is not mentioned), but lacked the funds. He then set upon a course that would have dire consequences because at some point he managed to forge a series of cheques in the name of his former master’s daughter in an attempt to defraud them of upwards of £300.

Dawson was caught and committed by the sitting magistrate at Mansion House (Alderman Gibbs) to take his trial at the Old Bailey in August 1850.

From the trial record it seems likely that Dawson was guilty. He’d tried to gain money he wasn’t entitled to and had involved others in his criminal actions. He’d abused the trust of his master and the kindness of the staff at Greenwich. Not surprisingly then he was found guilty.

But no one seems to have disputed Dawson’s back story, and several people spoke up for him and made it plain that he had never been a problem to society before. He had no previous criminal convictions, nor was he a drunk. There were occasions in the hospital when his behaviour was somewhat erratic and it seems likely that Dawson, at 71, was suffering both the effects of his increasing age and of the wounds he had sustained in his naval career.

Dawson had been wounded several times and once in the head. In his own statement to the court he explained that he’d been wounded at Cape Legat in 1803 and this:

caused me to be in a deranged state of mind now I have advanced in years, and at times to be very troublesome‘.

If his story is true (and no one seemed to doubt at the time, and some confirmed it) Dawson saw service from 1790 to the end of the wars in 1815. He served with Nelson and was wounded on the deck of HMS Victory fighting close to the Admiral. He fought for his country in Italy, the Caribbean, Africa and Europe and should have been able to look forward to a peaceful retirement. Sadly of course, old servicemen had to work in the 1800s and there was little in the way of support for most of them. Many ended up as beggars, vagrants, or worse, as Britain certainly wasn’t a ‘home fit for heroes’ in the early Victorian period.

Dixon Dawson offered a heartfelt plea for mercy to the court, citing his service history and the wounds he sustained.

‘My Lord, I am innocent of the crime laid to my charge; I have only been six weeks discharged from the strong-room in the Infirmary of Greenwich Hospital, which can be proved by Sir John Liddell, the doctor of Greenwich Hospital; I trust in God, my Lord, you and my prosecutors will show me mercy, and send me down to Greenwich, and they will keep me confined at the hospital; I have an only daughter; I am afraid it will break her heart if I am sent to prison; I hope, my Lord, you will show me mercy for God’s sake, as we all expect mercy from God; I can assure you I know not what I have done, or what has been done.—Your humble petitioner, Dixon Dawson.’

Perhaps he was a good con man but I suspect his mind was affected by the years of service, the wounds and old age. He was probably guilty and that is what the jury decided but I think the state should have helped him and certainly not allowed him to be punished for what he’d tried to do.

There was little room for sympathy in the early Victorian justice system however. This story doesn’t really have a happy ending. The jury did express their sympathy for Dixon and the judge took this into consideration. Instead of sending him to prison he ordered him to transported to Australia for ten years. This old sailor would have to make one last journey on a wooden ship, one that would take him halfway around the world and separate him from his daughter and his friends for ever.

I’m not sure he ever made it to Australia. The Digital Panopticon has no record of him arriving there, nor of him being in prison after the trial. Perhaps there was a happy outcome after all but I doubt it. I rather fear that the stress and anxiety caused by his confinement and trial was the last straw for this old salt.

[from Reynolds’s Weekly News, Sunday, August 4, 1850]

A returning ‘hero’ is given the benefit of the doubt

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The Battle of Magdala, 1868

When PC William Towsey of the City constabulary turned into Bishopsgate Churchyard on his beat he saw a man and young girl on Alderman’s Walk opposite. It was 10 at night and the man was dressed in a soldier’s uniform while the little girl appeared to be about ten years of age. She also seemed uncomfortable in the man’s company and to be trying to get away from him. When he saw the soldier assault her, he quickly moved towards them and seized the man.

PC Towsey took the pair back to the police station but there the girl took advantage of her attacker incapacitation and escaped, running out into the night. The next morning the constable and his prisoner appeared at the Mansion House Police court in front of the incumbent Lord Mayor.

Thomas Nidlet was stood in the dock and accused of being drunk and committing an assault on the girl. There are no details given the newspaper report so we don’t know what sort of assault this was, or who the girl was. Nidlet said he was from the 33rd regiment of foot and that he had arrived back from Abyssinia, landing in Portsmouth just over a month ago. He’d been on furlough for a month and had come to the capital.

Nidlet had been at the police station before that evening; at around 8 he’d turned up, a little tipsy, with ‘a gentleman’ and had enquired about a place to stay.  The mysterious gentleman had given the soldier a sovereign, on the strength of him producing a payment order for £5, presumably his accumulated wages. By the time of the incident at the churchyard Nidlet was reportedly very drunk, so he and the other man had seemingly been drinking heavily for another couple of hours.

The Lord Mayor asked the soldier if he knew the man’s name and address. He did but the newspaper didn’t record it. This almost satisfied the magistrate but he wanted to hear from this potential witness so he remanded Nidlet for a few days but indicated that he would discharge him after that. As he gave his judgment the Lord Mayor advised the soldier to return to his regiment as soon as possible, to avoid any further trouble in the capital.

I do wonder at this story. Who was the little girl? Was she one of the capital’s homeless street children? Was the soldier’s attempted assault sexual? What role did the gentleman play in all of this, and was he even a ‘gentleman’? The mystery must remain unsolved however, as that is the last time he troubles history in the capital. After this report he disappears without a trace.

The 33rd regiment (West Yorkshire) of foot had been commanded by the Duke of Wellington and after the duke’s death in 1852 Queen Victoria recognized their association with  the nation’s greatest land commander by renaming them the 33rd(or Duke of Wellington’s Regiment). In 1868 the 33rdwere sent to Ethiopia (then Abyssinia) to effect a rescue of some British, European and native hostages that were held by Emperor Tewodros II. Despite the later release of the Europeans Tewodros’ refusal to accept surrender terms led to an assault on the fortress of Magdala (now Amba Mariam) and its seizure. Although the force was described as Britsih it was mostly made up of Indian troops and was commanded by General Sir Robert Napier, from the Royal Engineers.

It was an incredible expedition, involving a 400-mile march over challenging terrain. Napier built 20 miles of railway, a harbor and warehouses to ensure he kept his communication lines open and his men supplied. The assault began on the 13 April 1868 and lasted just an hour and half. The emperor’s men were no match for the well equipped troops under Napier’s command. Tewodros (or Theodore) was found dead just inside the gates; he had taken his own life with a pistol that had been a present from Queen Victoria.

Theodore

Napier’s men looted Magdala and it required 15 elephants to carry the booty back to the coast for transport to England. It was hailed as a great victory, Napier was feted and the men that served awarded ‘Abyssinia’ as a battle honour. All of this would have played to Nidlet’s advantage one imagines. It may be why the ‘gentleman’ was quick to befriend him and help explain why the Lord Mayor was minded to forgive his drunkenness in the City and overlook an alleged attack on one of the capital’s many street ‘urchins’.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, July 13, 1868]

The boy that tried to set fire to the Bank of England

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The Royal Exchange and Bank of England

(you can see the railings and the gas lamps on the left hand side) 

PC Batchelor was on his beat in Threadneedle Street at one in the morning when he saw smoke coming through the railings by the Bank of England. Was the ‘old lady’ on fire? He quickly discovered a fire at the base of column that connected to one of the gas lamps that lit the street. As the policeman set about tackling the small blaze he saw a figure leap over the railings and run off.

He ran after the escapee and collared him. His quarry was a young lad of 13 named Michael Buckley. He arrested him and took him before the magistrate at Mansion House in the morning.

The boy explained that he and several other lads had taken to sleeping rough within the boundaries of Bank and tended to curl up near the base of the lamp columns. They dragged in straw to make beds that were a little more comfortable than the hard stone floors or pavements. I imagine this was their version of the cardboard boxes that modern homeless people use to create a crude mattresses.

However, Micheal told the Lord Mayor (who presided as the City’s chief magistrate) that one of the lads had fallen out with the others and left, but had set fire to the straw bedding ‘in revenge’.

The court heard that had the fire melted the pipe that carried gas to the  street light ‘much damage might have been caused to the interior of the building’, hence the paper’s overlay dramatic headline that read:

Setting fire to the Bank of England’.

The Bank was not inclined to prosecute the lads for their trespassing but this didn’t stop the Lord Mayor – Sir Thomas Dakin – from sending the lad to prison for a week at hard labour. He said something had to be done to prevent boys from sleeping rough on the Bank’s property but his concern seemed to be with the potential risks of fire or other damage, not with the poor lads’ welfare.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, June 19, 1870]

‘The devil finds work for idle hands to do’: a youngster pays the price for his temptation

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William Barham was only 11 years of age when he stood in the dock at mansion House Police court. His experience is a reminder that attitudes towards children (especially juvenile offenders) have changed enormously in the past 150 years.

William’s father worked in a local market close to Mark Lane as a ‘sampler of corn’. He was well respected having held the post for many years. His lad often went into work with him and was allowed to play and run about the offices at the New Corn Exchange. The beadle had an office there, where the boy was allowed occasionally to wash himself.

On the 8 May William was watching Mr Wise the beadle tie up some bags of silver coin. The temptation  must have been too great because when the beadle left the room William helped himself to one of the bags. Wise spotted the loss on his return and his suspicions immediately fell on young William.

This was compounded by the eleven year-old’s absence and so on the following morning, when he reappeared, he was questioned closely about the missing money (which amounted to £5). William denied all knowledge of it and the matter was handed over to the police. Now William cracked; handling questions from his father and a man he knew was one thing, but being interrogated by police detective, perhaps in a cell nearby clearly unsettled the child.

Accompanied by his father, the beadle and the detective, William took them across the river to ‘an orchard in a retired part of Bermonsdsey’ where he’d buried his loot. They dug up the bag which still contained most of the silver; William had spent 36but wouldn’t say on what.

At his first appearance in court, soon after the discovery of the theft, William was remanded in custody at the request of his father. Mr Barham said he wanted his son to be placed in a juvenile reformatory, for his own good. The magistrate agreed but sent the child back to a police cell while the arrangements were made. This had taken about a week and now father and son were reunited at the Mansion House, along with the boy’s mother.

Alderman Challis, sitting as magistrate, asked the parents what they wanted to happen to William. They said they were ‘both anxious that some steps should be taken to reclaim their son from the dangerous career on which he had entered’.

Detective Monger explained that his enquiries had established that William had be led on by an older boy, a common trope in juvenile crime.

This other lad had persuaded William to ‘steal anything he could lay his hands on’ and, as a result, ‘he had frequently robbed his father and mother’.

Today William would have been seen as a troubled child, perhaps one that played truant or had been excluded from school. William didn’t go to school in 1860, nor, it seems, did he work. As the proverb suggests, ‘the devil finds work for idle hands to do’.

The alderman agreed that a reformatory school was the best place for William but the law required that he face a spell in prison first. William was sentenced to 14 days in Holloway gaol so that he could face the full consequences of his criminal actions and hopefully learn from it. Thereafter he would be sent to the Home in the East School for the Reformation of Criminal Boys at Bow, for four years. His father was obliged to pay 2sa week towards his keep, the intention being that parents should not evade their responsibilities entirely.

William was led away in tears and ‘for some minutes after was heard shrieking loudly for his father and mother’. It was a harsh system and we can only hope that William emerged in his early teens unscathed by it and perhaps one step removed from the influences that had led him to steal in the first place.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Saturday, May 19, 1860]

A deserter faces a double punishment: for his crimes against society and the Queen’s colours.

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The 1850s was a busy time for the British armed forces. The major conflict was that with Russia in the Crimea, but 1857 had seen rebellion in India, which was eventually crushed with heavy reprisals. Britain and France had joined forces in the Crimea and did so again in an imperialist war in China, which resulted in the destruction of the Qing army and the looting of the imperial palaces in Beijing. The British expedition in China was led by the 8thLord Elgin who had inherited not only his father’s name but also his lack of scruples in stealing other peoples’ heritage. Along with the Crimea, India and China, British troops were also involved in conflicts in Persia (modern Iran), and then later in Burma (Myanmar) Bhutan and Abyssinia (Ethiopia).

Being a soldier in the British Army certainly offered you the chance to see the world then, but perhaps with a higher degree of risk and much more travelling than some might have liked.

William Parsons had clearly had enough by 1856 and he deserted his regiment and escaped their attention for three years. His downfall was his inability to stay out of trouble with the law (which was often the reason that some joined the colours in the first place, because it offered discipline, food and shelter, and a steady income).

In May 1859 Parsons was arrested after he stole a handkerchief from a sailor in Billingsgate market. Arthur Ewes had recently docked at Fresh Wharf with his ship and had decided to explore Billingsgate. Feeling a hand in his pocket he spun around to find Parsons holding his handkerchief.

He demanded the man give him back his handkerchief:

What handkerchief?’ Parsons replied. ‘That one which you just took out of my pocket’, the seaman told him before making a grab for it as Parsons dropped it and ran off.

He was quickly apprehended in the busy market and produced before Alderman Cubitt at the Mansion House Police court on the Saturday morning following the arrest.

Parsons said he’d never been in trouble with the law before but the gaoler scoffed at this, saying he’d been there ‘several times’. More importantly perhaps, a soldier now took the stand and declared that Parsons was a deserter, missing, as we’ve heard, since 1856.

At this point William probably realized his choices were limited; he could go to prison for the theft (and if previous convictions were proved this might be a lengthy spell) or he could try and rejoin his regiment and face the disciplinary consequences (hardly likely to be pleasant) that would entail. He opted for the army and stated his willingness to return to the Queen’s service.

That was all very well Alderman Cubitt remarked but he would have to pay for the crime he’d committed first: he would go to prison with hard labour for three months and then he handed over to the commanding officer of his regiment. If he was lucky I imagine he would have been simply given menial duties for a few months on his return to the army.  However, he may have been flogged for his desertion as this was not abolished for servicemen at home until 1868, and persisted in active service abroad until 1881.

So William’s inability to keep his head down and find paid work was what undid him in the end. Deserters were sometimes tattooed (with a ‘D’) when they were caught, to make it clear to everyone that they had abandoned their comrades and let down their country. But joining the army (or the navy) was not the career choice we see it as today. For large numbers of poor young men in Victorian Britain it represented the lesser of two evils; a chance to escape grinding poverty and just the sort of hand by mouth existence that led William Parsons to filch a ‘wipe’ in a London fish market.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper , Sunday, May 8, 1859]