‘I didn’t mean to knock it out of his mouth’: an old hand gets another month inside

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Some cases are best left to the imagination of the reader, and this, I think, is one of those.

Harriett Jackson was a regular at the Marylebone Police court. When she was hauled up before Mr Rawlinson in October 1840 the gaoler said it was ‘at least’ her hundredth appearance in the last ‘six of seven years’.

This charge was the same as most of those: being found drunk and disorderly and (by implication at least) soliciting prostitution. This time her accuser was a police constable of D Division who said he’d found her propositioning a man in the New Road.

Harriett, he said, had abused the man then struck him, knocking his cigar clean out of his mouth and into the street. Since the man didn’t press assault charges I think its fair to suggest that either the constable was exaggerating her violence or the victim was too embarrassed to come to court.

Instead of assault she was prosecuted for drunkenness and the magistrate questioned her about her behavior.

‘What have you to say now?’ he asked.

‘I’d got a bit of bacco and a pipe in my buzzom’,

Harriett replied,

‘and as the gentleman was smoking his cigar I thought I could get a light from that, but I didn’t mean to knock it out of his mouth’.

For her drunkenness or for her cheek, it isn’t clear which, Harriett was sent to prison for a month. It was a week off the street with regular food and water, perhaps even some weak tea or chocolate. Not the end of the world for oe of London’s many impoverished street women.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, October 08, 1840]

An old hand plays to the gallery

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Samuel Owen was (like Norman Stanley Fletcher) an ‘old hand’ in terms of the law. The 56 year-old Owen had a string of convictions reaching back to his first in 1863 (when he must have been 24 or younger), its quite likely he had brushes with the police before then as well. Owen had served ‘a total of 26 years imprisonment’; almost half his life had therefore been spent ‘inside’.

It doesn’t seem to have have taught him anything much and certainly didn’t deter him from further offending.

In October 18995 he was up before the magistrate at Marylebone charged with stealing a pair of trousers and trying to pawn them back at the very shop he stole them from. His victim, John Davis, kept a pawnbrokers’ shop on Hampstead Road and he brought the prosecution against Owen for goods valued at 4s and 6d.

It was an ordinary case but Owen decided to make it newsworthy but behaving ‘in an outrageous manner’ in court. The Standard’s court reporter wrote that he ‘flung his arms about in the air and shouted ‘at the top of his voice’. He demanded the gaoler bring him his glasses: “I want my glasses.. and I won’t be quite till I have them”, he exclaimed. “How can I see the prosecutor, or how can I read my Bible or Prayer-Book” (this provoked much laughter in the public court).

The gaoler stepped forward to restrain him but Owen shrugged him off declaring: “Don’t touch me, don’t touch me. I’m a crack-pot and won’t stand being played with!”

Eventually Owen was reunited with his spectacles and he turned to survey the court. Identifying the pawnbroker in the witness stand Owen said:

” Ah yes, he’s the bloke. Now I am ready, come on!”

The case against him now preceded and the evidence, such as it was, was read. Owen had been suspected and was followed by a police constable who arrested him. The copper was crossed examined (with Owen adding:

“Ain’t he innocent? I told him I got the trousers from the New Cut and he said ‘Do you mean the canal?’ (laughter) He don’t know the New Cut…is he from the country? It makes me roar” (more laughter).

Owen was alluding to the reality that many of the Met’s finest hailed from outside the capital; former agricultural labourers who had swapped the fields for the streets and a uniform. They were not often credited with great intelligence but were good at following orders; a rather unfair stereotyping it has to be said.

Finally the prisoner added that he had actually been ‘caught’ by a little girl (who had presumably seen what he had done) who he described as a ‘mite of a girl, alleluiah, alleluiah!’

Owen had little to say in his defence and pleaded guilty but at the same time demanded a jury trial, and the magistrate duly obliged him.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, October 02, 1895]

A bit of good luck quickly turns into a personal disaster for one London plumber

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An 1865 issue Victorian florin (not actual size…)

I suppose that in these days of contactless payment fewer and fewer of us use real money any more. Even when I go the pub I rarely pay with case, and never do so in shops any more. Am I unusual, I doubt it?

If you do use cash and a barman or shop assistant gives you change, do you check it? If its short I imagine you’d say something but what if they give you back too much? I expect most of us would quietly offer a prayer to  the gods of good fortune and walk away.

That may be what Edward Pearce did in September 1892 as he paid for drinks at the bar of the Orange Tree pub in the Euston Road. The 48 year old plumber insisted that he’d handed over a florin for two glasses of ale, for which he was given 16in silver, and a further 4d in bronze as change. A florin was worth around 24 old pence, or a tenth of a pound. Since a shilling was 12 pence, we can assume his drinks cost him twopence. Today in my favourite pub I’ll pay about £10 for two ‘glasses of ale’.  Edward was paying around 68p in today’s money.

However, the barman quickly realized his mistake when he saw that instead of a florin Edward had only given him 2d  and so wasn’t entitled to any change at all. He demanded the money back but Pearce refused, insisting he’d handed over a two-shilling piece (the florin).

The police were called and since Pearce stuck to his story and the barman stuck to his the case came before the magistrate at Marylebone Police court where the plumber was tried for theft. It may have been an honest mistake or simply a cheeky attempt to get away with a bit of good luck. Sadly for Pearce all he ended up with was a week’s incarceration with hard labour. A little harsh even by late Victorian standards.

[from The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, September 17, 1892]

‘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]