‘a malicious and vindictive woman’: Oysters and domestic abuse on the Portobello Road

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Domestic assault was endemic in late Victorian London. The summary (Police) courts were full of men being prosecuted by their wives or partners for acts of violence. In many cases the victim stopped short of following through with the prosecution, wanting to bring her errant husband to court but not to have him sent to gaol or fined. She knew that would have repercussions for her and her children, had she any. In some instances though the woman’s motivation was to gain a legal separation; divorce was difficult and expensive and effectively out of the question for the working classes. The alternative was a judicial separation, which, it was widely believed at least, was at the gift of the magistracy.1

Of course not all victims of domestic violence then (or now) were women. Women assaulted their husbands and not always in self-defense. It was rare by comparison but probably more common than court records suggest. If women were reluctant to prosecute their spouses then men had even more to lose, namely their reputation as a man. For a man who had to resort to the law to control his wife in the nineteenth century was no man at all.

However this is exactly the situation that John Spurgin found himself in in late July 1886. Spurgin and his wife ran oyster stalls, one on Portbello Road and one near Westbourne Park. Harriet Spurgin suddenly announced that she was leaving him to live with another man. The couple rowed and she left their home at 3 Carlton Bridge at four in the morning.

They may well have fought that night, as Harriett ended up with a black eye, which she claimed, had come from John. As far as he was concerned however, she was gone and he was on his own. Her property – her clothes and effects – were still in his rooms however, and under the law of the day he probably regarded them as belonging to him.  Harriett thought differently.

A dew days later she turned up at his oyster stall and demanded he return her things. He refused, they argued and she threw a large oyster and then a vinegar bottle at him. As he struggled with her she kicked him in the groin and declared she would ‘ruin him’ and that one or both of them would find themselves in a police cell that night.

He called a policeman over but because he hadn’t seen what happened he refused to intervene. Harriett went away but then returned a little while later to continue her abuse. Now she hit and kicked at him, drawing blood from a wound to his head. This time, fortunately, a constable did see the fracas and intervened. Harriett was taken into custody and the next day she was brought before Mr Cook at Marylebone Police court.

She protested her innocence, claimed that her ex had started it, and that he was withholding her property from her. All she wanted ‘was a separation order and her clothes’. Not surprisingly the magistrates sided with the man. He told her she was ‘a malicious and vindictive woman’ and sent her to prison for seven weeks with hard labour. I suspect that in the meantime John Sprrgin would have ruined her business and secured the oyster trade from both stalls. Harriett would have to hope that her new man was just as keen to live with her when she got out of gaol or her life was about to take a precipitous turn for the worse.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, August 03, 1886]

  1. This was probably an erroneous belief. Until 1895 and the passing of the 1895 Summary Jurisdiction (Married Women) Act, magistrates did not have any legal power to order couples to part. It seems they may have exercised some discretionary power though andperhaps, as with many changes to English law, the 1896 act simply legalized something that was already being practiced.

On the buses: Mr D’Arcy’s close encounter with John Bull

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There were two important innovations launched in 1829, both of which have become iconic London institutions. As we enter the height of the tourist season in the capitals, tens of thousands of visitors will be heading home with souvenirs and amongst them are likely to be images of London buses and policemen. The Metropolitan Police Force was created by statute in 1829 and on 4 July that year the very first omnibuses set off from the New Road (now the Marylebone Road) at the start of their journey to Bank in the City.

‘Buses weren’t an English invention – Parisians had been enjoying them for a few years already – but it was a Londoner named George Shillibeer who established the first routes in the capital. They weren’t large, carrying just 22 people at first, but as the mode of transport caught on more and more companies followed Shillibeer’s lead and soon there was fierce competition for passengers.

I imagine that omnibuses were quite a novelty at the start and just as tourists today might want to ride on a double decker Viscount D’Arcy (who sounds as if he might have stepped from the pages of Jane Austin novel) was keen to experience it for himself. He was staying at Mivart’s Hotel on Lower Brook Street (which is now quite famously renamed as Claridge’s) so could have taken a hansom anywhere but chose to ride with ‘everyman’.

He hailed a ‘bus bound for Paddington but the driver was reluctant to let him sit outside (where he wanted to) telling him instead to sit inside, where there was lots of room. The viscount wanted to ride outside (like I always want to ride upstairs, where you can see) but the man was abusive and insisted he couldn’t. D’Arcy wasn’t used to being denied what he wanted and got on anyway, making his way up to the roof.

The driver, William Davison, saw that he’d been ignored and raised his fist and waived it at the viscount, shouting more abuse. ‘Disgusted at this strange and unwarrantable conduct’, the viscount ‘determined on alighting as soon as possible’. As the omnibus stopped at St Pancras church he stepped down and was just about to place his foot on the street when Davison spurred his horse and took off at speed. Luckily D’Arcy was uninjured as he tumbled towards the ground but he was angry and made a note of the vehicle’s number (3912). He applied for a summons and, on the last day of July 1833, William Davison was summoned before the magistrate at Marylebone Police court to answer for his actions.

Viscount D’Arcy said he was ‘as much astonished as annoyed’ by Davison’s conduct, ‘from whom, from his round far face and complete “John Bull” appearance, he expected much civility’. Davison denied the charge and told Mr Rawlinson that it was D’Arcy that had started it by calling him a ‘damned fellow’. He brought along a witness but either they lost their nerve or hadn’t been paid enough and failed to back him up. The magistrate sent him off with a flea in his ear and a £5 fine.  The whole experience would have given the viscount a story to regale his friends and family when he returned home from London, something much better than a toy bus or a plastic police helmet

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, August 01, 1833]

Someone tries to steal ‘Mr Slater’s parrot’

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It was about 2 o’clock in the morning when Henry Preston heard a loud commotion coming from the parrot house at London Zoo. The keeper rushed over to investigate and saw a man running away from one of the cages, which had been opened.

The bird it contained – a rare Bell Bird (native to Brazil) – was missing, and so Preston set off in pursuit of the mysterious intruder.

It took him a while to catch up with him, but eventually he had him and demanded to know where the missing bird was. The man was silent but the keeper noticed a feather on his coat. Another keeper arrived and questioned him and five more feathers were found.

Then Mr Jeffcoat, the keeper of the elephant house arrived and said he had seen a man leaving the gentleman’s lavatories, obviously in something of a hurry. Leaving the others to hold onto their prisoner Jeffcoat went to search the toilets for the missing bird.

Sadly he found it; quite dead, drowned in a w.c and wrapped in a handkerchief with the name ‘Goodfellow’ embroidered on it. The keepers took the suspected culprit to Mr Bartlett, the superintendent of the Zoological Gardens who accused him of stealing it. The man now tried to buy his way out of the risk and embarrassment of a court appearance, offering Bartlett £20 if would let him go. He would not and then man was handed over to the police.

The next day (Friday 27 July, 1888) he appeared before Mr Cook at Marylebone Police court and gave his name as Walter Hamilton. There the magistrate was told the events of the night as the keepers had witnessed it and informed that the dead parrot was ‘the only specimen of the bell tribe in this country’. It belonged to Mr Slater (the secretary of Zoological Society) was valued at £10 and Mr Cook decided that Hamilton must stand trial for its theft (if not its murder).

The neotropical bellbird in question was probably the white bellbird or the bare-throated member of the species. Both live in Brazil. They both have a call that resembles the sound of a bell being rung.

Those of you of a certain age (and perhaps a certain musical background) will recall that the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band recorded a song called ‘Mr Slater’s Parrot’ on their 1969 album Keynsham. It is one of my favorites, with the line:

‘When Mr. Slater’s parrot says, “Hello!”

A geezer likes to get one on the go.

We hope to hear him swear.

We love to hear him squeak.

We like to see him biting fingers in his horny beak.’

Was it inspired by the attempted theft of a bell bird in 1888, or by the secretary of the Zoological Society? I doubt its more than a coincidence but it made me chuckle this morning.

[from The Standard, Saturday, July 28, 1888]

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

A real life ‘Fletch’: The man who had (too many) convictions

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One of the innovations of the Victorian criminal justice system was its ability to track offenders over many years. In the second half of the eighteenth century the Bow Street Police court had (under the leadership of the Fielding brothers, Henry and John) pioneered the collection of data in relation to crime. John, who was blind, was supposedly able to identify an offender that had appeared before him previously by voice alone. The Bow Street Runners collected information on criminals in an early form of the modern police database, but much of this was lost when the office was destroyed in the Gordon Riots of June 1780.

Effective use of data would have to wait for the second half of the nineteenth century, and was supported by the invention of photography and the creation of a professional police force. The ‘garroting panic’ of 1862 led to the passing of the Habitual Offenders Act in 1869. This created a register of offenders who were obliged to check in with police on their release from prison, and continue to do so for the next seven years. Records now noted all previous convictions, physical characteristics, as well as age, occupation, place of birth etc.

It had now become very difficult for anyone who had been in trouble with the law to escape the consequences of their past, something modern offenders and probation and prisoner support services are only too aware of.

John McCann was just such a ‘habitual’ offender. Like ‘Fletcher’’, the anti-hero of the popular British TV comedy Porridge, John McCann was a criminal who ‘seemed to treat arrest as an occupational hazard’. By 1881 he had already noticed up 16 previous convictions when he appeared at Marylebone Police court in mid July.

On this occasion he had been found lurking around the rear of a property in Charles Street by a constable on his beat. PC David West (160D) discovered McCann hiding by a workshop door at two in the morning and, suspecting he was up to no good, challenged him.

McCann ‘became very violent’ and hit out at the policeman, punching and kicking him, and running away. PC West managed, with difficulty, to secure him and take him into custody.

At Marylebone Mr Cooke was told that McCann had convictions for assault, theft, and other offences. He’d served several prison sentences but none seem to have deterred him from his chosen life course. He had, the justice declared, ‘been guilty of almost every kind of offence and spent nearly all his time in prison’. He would now go to gaol again, this time for six months with hard labour.

I am no apologist for violence or the burglary that McCann was probably about to commit and it is hard to see him as anything other than a serial offender. But what chance did he have once he was in the system? Tracked by the police and subject to periodic shakedowns by officers whenever a crime fitting his MO occurred we might imagine that John McCann was a target for the police whenever he showed his face. His chances of ‘going straight’ (as ‘Fletcher’ eventually did) were limited at best.

[from The Standard, Monday, July 18, 1881]

The Victorian gang murder that was eclipsed by the ‘Ripper’

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In mid June 1888 the dock at Marylebone Police court was crowded, as were the public spaces. This was a hearing that plenty of people wanted to see and hear and not just because it involved a lots of defendants. This was one of the most high profile cases of homicide that the press reported on in 1888 and, had it been another year, maybe we would have heard more about it.

But 1888 as many if not every schoolchild knows of course, was the year that ‘Jack the Ripper’ terrorized the East End of London. While other stories made the news (and many other murders were committed), after August the newspapers were almost exclusively dominated by the ‘news from Whitechapel’.

So let us return to Mr De Rutzen’s courtroom to ‘hear’ the voices of those that stood in front of him to give evidence that day.

In the dock were several young men, all allegedly members of a youth gang which was associated with the area around Lisson Grove and Marylebone. George Galletly was the only one who was unemployed. This is important because contemporary rhetoric about youth (and indeed more modern views) have tended to associate youth crime and gang membership with idle unemployment.

Galletly was joined in the dock by William Elvis (16), Micheal Doolan (15) and Fancis Cole (16) were all porters. Peter Lee (19) was a sailor, William Graefe (19) a cutter, William Henshaw (16) was a french polisher, and Charles Govier (16) a farrier’s boy. Collectively they were all accused of involvement in the murder of Joseph Rumbold, a printer’s machinist, as he strolled with his sweetheart Elizabeth (‘Lizzie’) Lee in Regent’s Park.

The killing had already made the papers and so the reporter didn’t need to refresh his audience’s knowledge of events too much. Thomas Brown, a member of the ‘gang’ but not present on the night Rumbold died, testified that Galletly had admitted stabbing the victim by York Gates. Whether he told his mate out of sense of shame or, more likely, from bravado is impossible to say, but it was to be damning evidence.

Alonzo Byrne (or Burns) was a friend of Rumbold and a fellow machinist. He was out with Joe, double dating with his own girl (Elizabeth’s sister Emily) and the four had been walking around the park as they often did. The couples had separated and Alonzo and Emily were walking together when about half-a-dozen ‘chaps’ ran past, stopped and then one said, ‘I know them’, and they hurried on.

Up ahead he heard one person shout ‘that is the one’ which was followed by sounds of scuffle. The lads had caught up with Joe and Lizzie who now tried to run off to escape. When he caught up to the couple he was far too late; Rumbold was being helped into a cab to be taken to hospital.

He didn’t make it, dying in Lizzie’s arms on the way.

Byrne recalled that he’d asked one of the lads why they attacked Joseph. They explained that they were members of ‘The Deck’ (a gang from Seven Dials) and were meting out vengeance on Rumbold as they believed he was a member of the ‘[Lisson] Grove Lads’ whom they held responsible for an attack on one of their own the previous night.

All the prisoners pleaded not guilty and Mr De Rutzen committed them all to take their trials at the Central Criminal Court. He allowed bail just for Henshaw and Graefe, the rest were taken back to the cells to be transferred back to prison.

It came up at Old Bailey at the end of July that year. The report here is more accurate for ages and it was revealed that Galletly was in fact under 18, as was Lee who must have lied when he gave his age as 19, he was just 17. The jury had quite a job to pick through the events of that fateful night in Regent’s Park but eventually they decided that George Galletly was most responsible for killing Rumbold. All of the others were acquitted of murder or manslaughter but pleaded guilty to unlawful assembly and were given varying prison sentences from six to fifteen months.

George Galletly was sentenced to death.

He was reprieved however, on account of his age and the recommendation of the jury. He served just 10 years for the killing, being released on license in July 1898 and being recorded on the habitual offenders register. I haven’t look but there is supposedly a photo of George in the MEPO6/009/0022 (228) files at the National Archives, Kew. I must go and see it sometime as this is case I’ve written about before and one that, given all the current concern with gangs and violence, I continue to find fascinating.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, June 17, 1888]

1888 was of course the year of the ‘Ripper’, that unknown killer that stalked the streets of the capital seemingly without any fear of being caught. Nobody knows who ‘Jack’ was or do they? Drew’s new book (co-authored by Andy Wise) is published by Amberley Books this week. 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

“Stab me you b——if you are a man, stab me, stab me”: Drink and domestic violence end in tragedy

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John Wicks and his wife had both been drinking on the 14 April. John was well known in the community as a drinker and for being violent when he was under the influence. His wife, Elizabeth, could also resort to violence when her temper flared. The couple lived in Kensal New Town in northwest London and Wicks earned his money as a chimney sweep.

When John came home on the 14than argument flared about money. He was drunk and Elizabeth had shared two or three pints with a friend, so she wasn’t sober either. Wicks complained that he had nothing and demanded she hand over the money she’d sewed into the pocket of her skirt. She refused and they came to blows.

Reports are mixed with conflicting evidence from Wicks, his mother-in-law, and other witnesses (domestic fights like this were quite often public affairs, given the crowded accommodation of late Victorian London). It is possible that in order to defend herself Elizabeth picked up the fender from the fire and threatened her husband with it. He pulled a knife and she threw the fender at him as he retreated out of the room. His wife then seized the next available weapon she could find, a large spoon, and came after him.

The pair ended up in the garden which was where George Abbott, a van boy who lived opposite, saw them. He’d been drawn to the quarrel by the noise, as had Henry Stacey (another neighbour) and both saw Elizabeth strike John with the spoon. Stacey later testified that Elizabeth was in a rage and was shouting: “stab me you b——if you are a man, stab me, stab me” at John. Soon afterwards the sweep aimed a blow at her neck and when his hand came away blood spurted from the wound.

John Wicks had stabbed his wife in the neck.

He was arrested and she was taken to hospital where despite the best efforts of the surgeons at St Mary’s, Paddington, she died 10 days later. ‘Inflammation of the throat’ had ‘set in the same night as she was stabbed, and she was unable to swallow anything except iced water’. She died as a result of ‘exhaustion caused through not taking food and inflammation of the lungs’. It must have been a terrible and extremely distressing way to die.

On 23 May after a number of appearances before him Mr D’Eyncourt formally committed John Wicks to take his trial for murder at the Central Criminal Court. He had pleaded not guilty and claimed that she must ‘have fallen against the knife’. He admitted he’d been drunk, and offered that in mitigation.

The police detective that interviewed Elizabeth in hospital confirmed the pattern of events as she described them but added that she had, at the last, described her husband as a gentle man when he was sober. ‘There is not a kinder man or a better husband’ she had insisted.

It is a familiar story for anyone who has looked at domestic violence in the past or worked with abuse survivors in the present. Women only went to the law when they had tried all other means to curb their partner’s violence. The courts fined or locked men up but little else was done to support the victims and in a society where women so often depended on men to survive there were few alternatives open to a wife than to take her man back again and hope for the best.

In court after the evidence of witnesses had been heard the house surgeon at St Mary’s testified. He described the wound and speculated on it cause. The court wanted to know if it could have caused by accident, as John had suggested. He doubted it was likely but admitted that it was possible: ‘it is unusual to get such a wound in that way, but it might be’ he observed.

That was enough for the all male jury. Despite the glaring evidence that John Wicks had killed his wife in a drunken rage while he was holding a sharpened knife in his hands, the jury acquitted him of all charges, manslaughter included. He walked free from the Old Bailey exonerated by men who clearly believed that he was provoked and that his incapacitation due to alcohol absolved him of the responsibility for his wife’s death.

Wicks died a few years later in 1884 at the relatively young age of 54. I like to think that the guilt he felt played a role in his death but it is more likely that he succumbed early to the ravages of alcoholism which had already consumed him in 1877 and must have got worse following this tragic sets of events.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, May 24, 1877]

This case is not untypical of many cases of domestic violence in the nineteenth century, not all of course ended in tragedy. For me though it is indicative of the prevailing attitudes towards women, attitudes which I believe directly fuelled the Whitechapel (or ‘Jack the Ripper’) murders. My co-authored study of those murders is published by Amberley Books on 15 June this year. You can find details here:

‘The poor animal was dreadfully exhausted’. Animal cruelty as a cabbie is prosecuted at Marylebone

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To some very real extent Victorian London was powered by the horse. Horses pulled cabs and carts, coaches, trams and omnibuses, and where today an individual might use a car to get around in the 1800s our ancestors would have ridden (if they had the wealth to afford it). The capital’s streets were thronged with horses then, as well as with people, and no doubt the streets were also well fertilized with the animals’ ‘leaving’s (although some drivers fitted bags to collect the manure their beasts expelled).

The use of horses is something we’ve left behind as the internal combustion engine has replaced them: better perhaps for them if not for us given the unprecedented levels of pollution that have now made central London’s air quite literally lethal. Today we think of horses as a luxury or as pets, animals more associated with the countryside than with the town. Yet even a short walk around the city would remind of the horse’s ubiquitous presence in the past, remembered today in the frequent existence of horse troughs and mews.

It was a hard life being a working horse in Victorian London. Cabbies, coachmen, carters and bus and tram companies worked their animals for long hours in all weathers. The average horse might work for 11 years and no peaceful retirement to pasture awaited them at the end of that, just one of Harrison Barber’s knackers. The firm of Harrison Barber had, by the 1880s at least, come to dominate the horse slaughtering business – something myself and Andy Wise discuss in our new history of the Whitechapel and Thames Torso murders. Most of the horses that ended up one of the company’s many yards across London were destined to serve the capital in another way, as pet food sold door to door by a ‘cat’s meat man’.

Many of those who kept a horse must have cared deeply for them; bonds between us and animals are deep rooted and not a ‘modern’ phenomena. But cruelty was also a feature of the relationships then as it is today. In May 1884 Charles Ramsden was brought up at Marylebone Police court and charged with ‘cruelly torturing a horse’. The 22 year-old cab driver worked for a cab proprietor named Barrell.

Mr Barrell was in court to testify that the young man had left his yard at six on Saturday evening and did not return until eight the following morning. Throughout the intervening 38 hours Ramsden had worked his horse constantly and as a result the poor animal had developed a wound on its back ‘so deep that he could have buried an egg in it’ the owner explained.

Now, however, it had swollen considerably, and was as big as his (prosecutor’s) head. The animal was dreadfully exhausted, trembled, and was very stiff in its joints from overwork’.

Ramsden had apparently refused to say where he’d been that night when Barrett has asked him but in court he told Mr De Rutzen that he’d had no choice but to keep working as he was unable to get a fare and so ‘was determined to stay out until he did get one’. The two policemen that arrested him gave supporting evidence as to the state of the animal as did William Peacock, a vet living on Westbourne Park Villas.

The magistrate was clear that this was a ‘very gross case of cruelty’ and he sent Ramsden to prison for a month with hard labour. Hopefully the animal recovered but I fear that its future looked bleak and that a visit to a knacker’s yard was not that far away.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, May 20, 1884]