Gang fights and assaults on the police – taking the long view

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With all the trouble surrounding the release of Blue Story, Andrew Onwubolu’s (aka ‘Rapman’) new film about love and friendship amongst rivals London gangs the issue of youth violence is back in the news. As this blog has touched on several times already in last few years, none of this is anything new. London has a history of gang violence that stretches back at least 150 years.

Plenty of the early concerns about youth violence and gangs focused on the ‘roughs’ and (later, in the 1890s) ‘hooligans’ who terrorized districts such as Southwark. Marylebone and the East End.

Christopher Eaton and John Marr (both just 16 years of age) were apparently connected to ‘a gang of roughs’ that were ‘infesting Bermondsey New Road’ in November 1875.

An elderly man named Richard Carney testified before the magistrate at Southwark Police court that on Friday 23 November he was walking home when he saw two boys fighting with a crowd gathered around them. He – rather unwisely it had to be said – pushed his way through the throng to try and separate them.

The crowd now turned on him and started to kick and punch him. As he collapsed a reserve policeman came running up to help, only to be subjected to the same treatment by the lads.

As the youths ran away PC Robert Atkins managed to secure the two boys and, having summoned a fellow officers to help, got them to the station and Mr Carney to Guy’s Hospital. Fortunately neither man was badly hurt although the youths had attempted to escape, kicking out at the officers that arrested them.

Mr Benson in the chair commented that ‘these street outrages must be put a stop to, as the peaceable inhabitants of Bermondsey could not pass along the streets without being assaulted after dark’. He sentenced Eaton to 21 days hard labour and Marr to 10.   Whether it did any good is anyone’s guess but given that several police were injured as gang’s clashed in Birmingham just this weekend it would seem that 144 years later little has improved.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, November 28, 1875)

A cunning thief who finally runs out of luck

Doctor examines the patient's state of health during home visits - 1896

Joe Jackson was a thief with a clever modus operandi. Operating in the late 1880s he perfected a ruse whereby he approached the houses of ‘well-known physicians’, knocked on the door, and claimed that his mother (or elderly aunt) was ill. In the days before GP waiting rooms he would be shown into the library or study.

He would then ask for a pen and paper, so that he could write known his relative’s symptoms for the doctor, and while this was fetched by the servants, he’d quickly steal anything of value he could and leave.

On the 22 November 1888 Jackson’s mini spree came to an end when he was brought up before Mr Shiel at Southwark Police court. There he was formally charged with stealing a silver salver from the home of Dr Taylor in Thomas’ Street, the Borough.

He’d taken the salver while the butler was out of the room but the servant had chased after him and nabbed him. Thereafter he was handed over the police, in the person of PC Greenwood.  Jackson commented to the officer that ‘it was rather hard that he should be given into custody, as the article he stole was not silver, ‘it was “only plated”.

He told Mr Shiel that his mother really was ill, he himself was ‘hard up’ and so he only stole to ‘get a little money’. Sergeant Hardy informed the magistrate that Jackson was wanted for at least 20 similar cases and that 16 pawn tickets, all traceable to items stolen in similar robberies, were found when they searched him.

The magistrate fully committed him to trial.

[from The Standard, Friday, November 23, 1888]

Doctors were very much in the news in 1888. North of the river from the Borough, in Whitechapel, a series of brutal murders had shaken Victorian Britain. The killer was never caught but in our recent book myself and Andy Wise believe we might have a new suspect to discuss. If you are looking for a good new read or  present for a family member that enjoys True Crime and Victorian history can I nudge you towards Jack and the Thames Torso Murders? Published by Amberley Books it is available on Amazon now, ideal for Christmas! 

‘I like the workhouse, they give me good food there’: two stray waifs on London Bridge

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George W. Martin was a music teacher with a social conscience, a man that comes across as a real-life ‘Mr Brownlow’, the benevolent savior of ‘Oliver Twist’. In early November 1872 Mr Martin was walking across London Bridge when he spotted two street urchins begging.

They were tiny, virtually without clothes, and seemed to be siblings. One of them – a boy of 7 named Patrick Davey – asked him for a halfpenny and George bought them both some food. As they ate he asked them why they were out on the streets begging they told him that they had no choice; ‘they must take money home or [their] father would thrash them’.

The kindly gentleman now called over a constable who took them to a police station house so investigations could be made. Once their address was determined an officer was dispatched to fetch their father and the following day the trio were brought before Mr Benson at Southwark Police court.

Whilst Patrick and his sister Bridget (6) shivered in the dock ‘almost in a state of nudity’, they did not seem to be starving. Their father – ‘a tall powerful man’ – promised his worship that the children were well-fed, and he assured him he never sent them out to beg.

However, it was not the first time Davey had been summoned about his wandering offspring. The man agreed and apologized but said their was little he could do. He had to go to work early each day and they children had no mother at home to look after them.

Patrick had lost his jacket and told the magistrate he’d sold it. Overnight the children had been kept in the workhouse and Patrick said he quite liked the place because, he explained, ‘they give me good food there’. Clearly food was his driving force.

Mr Benson ordered that they be taken back to the workhouse for a week and hoped (perhaps as a result of the coverage of the story by the press) that ‘some benevolent person’ might help support getting them into school. Perhaps Mr Martin would, having already shown a willingness to get involved where other had not.

Of course they should never have been in such a situation. Two small children should not have been out unaccompanied and begging in the streets of the capital. This was exactly the sort of social problem that Dickens was keen to expose in his writings. Patrick and Bridget deserved an education and a proper childhood, goodness knows what might have happened to them had not the music teacher intervened.

Two years earlier, in 1870, the Forster (or Elementary Education) Act had introduced compulsory primary education for children aged 5-13 but attendance was only enforced by school boards and it wasn’t free. After 1876 the poorest pupils could get free education if they were provided with a certificate by the parish. In 1880 the rules on attendance were tightened, putting the responsibility for ensuring it on local authorities and not simply the school boards.

In 1884 a commission reported that 50,000 London school age children were hungry. Free primary education arrived in 1891 when the Elementary Education Act required the government to pay a ‘fee grant’ of 10for each child aged 5-13 and prohibited schools from charging fees themselves.

So before 1891 education was a luxury that many families could not afford. Moreover, there was nothing provided in terms of childcare or nurseries for the poor, and many families relied on their children’s labour to supplement low incomes or help with caring responsibilities.

This Victorian lack of education is however, a thing of the past. Now children can be educated at the state’s expense in state of the art schools up and down the country. Yes they lack facilities, and many still go to school hungry, and truancy levels and exclusions remains a problem, but we do have free schools.

If only the poverty that Bridget and Patrick experienced – with a father that was in work remember – was also a thing of the past. It is not of course; over the last decade child poverty rates have risen to the point that we now have something like 4,000,000 UK children living in poverty. This is one of the worst rates of poverty in the industrialized world, not my words but those of the Children’s Society.

The election that is looming is one of the most important in a generation, and more important for the future of our children than any I can remember. We have the thorny subject of Brexit and our economic prosperity; we have the climate emergency and the need to take urgent radical action; and we have child care, health care and social care – three key issues that help support families in the UK.

This is an election about the future not about narrow and limited party political battles or the individual careers of over privileged politicians. Like 1945 this is an opportunity to change society for the better, and to change it so it works for the many, not the few.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, November 02, 1872]

A paedophile walks free, despite the evidence against him

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On 27 October 1863 a ‘well-dressed’ man, who gave his name as Thomas Martin, appeared in the dock at Southwark Police court accused of molesting a child. Well that is how I think we would see the case today but in 1863 the law was a little different.

For a start the age of consent was 13. It was not raised to 16 until 1885 following a long campaign and a sensational intervention by the editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, William Stead. Stead had run a weeklong exposé of the trafficking of underage girls for prostitution under the headline ‘The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon’. While Stead ended up going to prison for his part in the ‘kidnapping’ of Eliza Armstrong the scandal of the case helped force Parliament to pass legislation which has existed to this day.

The complaint against Thomas Martin was brought by a spirited young girl called Martha Wells. Martha was aged between 12 and 13 and described by the newspaper writer as ‘rather precocious looking’. This was probably an attempt to undermine her testimony; the hack was perhaps suggesting that she was bringing a spurious complaint against a social superior. The girl could certainly expect to be closely examined by the magistrate, Mr Combe, no concessions being made to her age or her gender.

Martha said that she had left her father’s house in Southwark to visit her uncle in Greenwich. A man had ‘annoyed’ her on the train to Greenwich but she did her best to ignore him. In court she wasn’t sure that it was Martin but he looked familiar.

After she arrived at her uncle’s shop (he was a fruiterer) she noticed a man outside peering in through the window. He was looking directly at her and indicted she should come out to talk to him. That man was Martin and she ignored his request.

At eight in the evening she left her uncle’s and made her way back to the station for the train home. As she walked Martin accosted her. She told him to go away but he followed her. She boarded the train and he entered the same carriage and sat next to her. Martha again tried ignoring him and steadfastly looked out of the window as the train made its way to London.

Now Martin had her close to him he made his assault. He put his hand on her leg and then slipped it up her skirts. The magistrate wanted to know if anyone else was in the carriage who might be able to confirm this.

‘Yes, sir’, Martha told him. ‘I think a lady and a gentleman. I was, however, ashamed to speak to them’.

She had at least one ally in court who was able to testify to Martin’s behavior. PC Alfred White (427P) was on duty on Southwark High Street that evening. When Martha left the train Martin again pursued her and the policeman saw him tap the girl on the back and then lift her skirts.

That was enough evidence for Mr Combe. He committed Martin for trial but agreed to bail, taking two sureties of £100 and one from Martin (for £200). The battle would now be to actually bring the man before a jury when the girl’s father might have preferred to take a cash settlement and avoid his daughter’s reputation being dragged through the courts.

Martin was brought to the Surrey sessions of the peace in mid November, surrendering to his bail. The case against him was outlined and his brief did his best to undermine Martha and the policeman’s evidence. The jury was told that Martin could not have been the man that hassled and insulted Martha on the train to Greenwich or outside her uncle’s shop as he was at work in the City until 5 o’clock. Moreover if he had assaulted her on the rain as she’d suggested why hadn’t she alerted the other passengers or the guard?

PC White reiterated the evidence he’d given at the Police Court hearing adding that when he had arrested Martin the man had attempted to bribe him. ‘For God’s sake let us compromise this affair’, he said; ‘if £50 will do it?’. The officer had been in plain clothes having been on duty at the Crystal palace during the day. Whether this hurt his credibility or not is unclear but the jury close not to believe him.

In the end the jurors acquitted Thomas Martin of the charge of indecent assault and he walked free from court with the applause of his friends being hurriedly suppressed by the court’s officers. It was a victory for middle-class respectability over a ‘precocious’ working-class girl who travelled third class on the railway. The jurors saw themselves in Martin’s situation rather than seeing their daughter in Martha’s.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, October 28, 1863; The Standard, Tuesday, November 17, 1863]

‘What a shame for four men to beat one’: One woman’s brave but foolish intervention

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Violence was topic for most of the cases reported in the evening Standard newspaper on 13 October 1877. Just as modern readers are shocked by hearing of stabbings and attacks on defenseless elderly people and children, our ancestors must have shaken their heads and wondered what the world was coming to.

Of course the accounts of assaults and domestic violence were both real and relatively unusual; it was this that made them newsworthy. So we do have to be aware that when we read the nineteenth-century papers we are looking at a selection of ‘crime news’ that the editor thought his readership would ‘enjoy’. Plenty of less sensational news was generated by the ‘doings’ of  the metropolis’ police magistrate courts.

But let’s return to October 1877.

The first report that evening was of ‘an unprovoked assault’ on Mrs Jane Nash. Jane was walking out with a friend to meet her husband for Friday night drinks. As she made her way along Newington Causeway a drunken man collided with her, and ‘nearly knocked her down’. Jane gave him a piece of her mind, telling him to watch where he was going.

The man turned round, punched her in face twice, and would have started kicking her as she lay on the ground if two men hadn’t intervened and pulled him off her. At Southwark Police court he was sent to prison for 14 days by Mr Benson.

Staying south of the river Edward Richards surrender his bail and appeared at Wandsworth Police court charged with ‘a gross outrage’. He was accused, along with three other men not in custody, of attacking a man at a farm in Merton. John Ebliss, a ‘native of Bengal’, was sleeping at Baker’s End farm when Richards and the others hauled him out in a blanket and threw him in a ditch. Whether this was a prank or they had discovered Richards sleeping rough on their property wasn’t made clear in the report. The magistrate, Mr Paget, remanded Richards for a week so that the other men could be apprehended.

At Marlborough Street George Webster was charged with assaulting William Bowden, one of the surgeons attached to St John’s Hospital in Leicester Square. Webster had been making a disturbance in the hospital, probably drunk, and was thrown out. This sort of behavior still happens in hospitals today and every  night NHS are abused and assaulted by members of the public who’ve had too much to drink. Webster had come back into the hospital and in an argument with the surgeon he punched him in the ear. Mr Cooke warned him that behaviour like that could get him a prison sentence but on this occasion, and with the surgeon’s agreement, he merely bound him over to keep the peace for a year.

The final case was the worse. At half past midnight on the previous Friday (the 5 October) Emily Withers was passing the corner of Cannon Street Road when she saw a street robbery in progress. Four young men had set on another. When they discovered he had no money that started beating him up and Emily, unwisely decided to intervene.

‘What a shame for four men to beat one’, she cried, drawing the attention of one of them.

‘What is it to do with you?’ Robert Martin asked, moving over to her.

He kicked out at her, landing a blow on her knee. As the young man struggled free of his attackers and ran for help Martin now kicked Emily in the stomach. The violence knocked her off her feet and ‘she was in such agony that she could neither move nor speak’. It took some moments before a policeman came running up and arrested Martin.

Emily spent four days confined to bed as a result of the attack but recovered sufficiently by the following Friday to give evidence against her abuser in court. Mr Chance, the presiding magistrate at Thames Police court sentenced the 17-year-old lad to six month’s hard labour.

So here were four acts of violence to unsettle the readers of the Standard as they digested their supper. It would remind them that while crime had fallen considerably since the early decades of the century there was still plenty to fear on the capital’s streets. However, the reports were also reassuring  in that in each case someone was in custody or was being punished for their acts of violence. They were off the streets and no threat any more.

Today I think we operate in a similar way. I live in London and stabbings are reported weekly, sometimes more.  Every death is a tragedy, a young life cut short, and a family bereaved.  It is made worse because the culprits are rarely caught and so remain at large, as an ongoing danger. But are they are a danger to me and my life? The news reports suggest that this sort of violence – knife crime committed by teenagers on each other – is unlikely to affect me directly because I am a white man in my fifties. That said local reports suggest that there was a stabbing just up the road from us, and several muggings (by youths on scooters) had also been reported.

London can be dangerous; anywhere can be dangerous, just ask the victims of the recent assaults in Manchester. But violence is still rare and reported because it is rare, and therefore newsworthy. As Nick Ross always used to say, ‘don’t have nightmares’.

[from The Standard, Saturday, October 13, 1877]

Pay your bills young man, or face the consequences!

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On Saturday 8 October 1853 Henry Julian, a young ‘gentleman’, took delivery a new suit of clothes. He had ordered a week earlier, from Thomas Dando’s tailor’s shop close to the Blackfriars Road.  He was quite specific in his instructions; the suit was to be in black as he needed to go to a funeral.

As soon as Dando’s shop lad arrived at Julian’s home on Stamford Street he handed the bundle over and waited while his customer tried them on. Julian came down dressed in his new suit and immediately declared that he was unhappy. They weren’t to his satisfaction and so he wouldn’t be paying Dando’s bill, which was £5 8s (or around £450 today).

In that case, the boy said, he would have to take them back as his master had told him not to leave the goods without receiving full payment. Julian again refused. He needed the suit as the funeral was that day. He instructed the lad to return to Dando and tell him he’d pay the bill within six months; like many middle class and wealthier people in the 1800s he was demanding credit.

Having said his piece he placed a hat on his head, escorted the young lad off his property, and set off for the funeral, closely followed by the boy. The route Julian took went directly past Dando’s shop on Charlotte Street, off Blackfriars Road.

Thomans Dando saw him coming and his lad behind and perceived something was wrong. He stepped out and pulled the young man into his shop and demanded to know what was going on. Julian repeated his desire to enter into a credit arrangement and again refused to pay cash there and then.

Dando was furious and seizing his customer by the collar marched him to the nearest constable, demanding he be arrested for fraud. The local police duly obliged and later that day he was set in the dock at Southwark Police court where Mr Combe remanded him in custody. He was taken down to the cells, his new suit swapped for prison clothes and he was left to reflect on his actions for a few days.

On the 11thhe was back in court, wearing his prison outfit and facing Mr. Combe’s interrogation.

Having been reapprised of the details of the case the magistrate was told that Dando no longer wished to press charges. He’d got his property back and as far as he was concerned that was that. Mr Combe now told the prisoner that he was free to go but warned him that he might not be so lucky next time. However, he would have to return the prison clothes he was wearing and, since he could hardly walk naked through the streets, the gaoler would accompany him back to his home at 110 Stamford Street to affect the exchange.

One can imagine the shame he now experienced; walking through the streets of Southwark, dressed in prison garb, like a penitent in sackcloth, while all his neighbours watched. The message to the reading public was clear: settle your bills, especially if you shop at Thomas Dando’s!

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, October 12, 1853]

Three cheers for health and safety as the ‘filthy’ reality of Bermondsey is exposed.

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Mr. A’Beckett’s courtroom at Southwark was packed in late September 1854 as the Bermondsey Improvement Commissioners brought a series of ‘health and safety’ actions against local businesses. We tend to think of ‘H&S’ as being a modern thing, often something forced on society by European bureaucracy. The reality is that it has a very long history in Britain, at least as far back as the Victorians.

The complaints, presented by Mr Ballantine of Messrs. Drew and Gray, solicitors, lasted several hours and focused on activities being carried out underneath the railway arches of the South Eastern Railway Company, near Russell Street.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth century this area of south London was associated with the leather trade. There were numerous tanneries and curriers in this ‘Land of Leather’ and some of these trades, such as Garner’s jappanning workshop, were operating from under the arches of the railway.

This was a problem for locals because the fumes were, according to the commissioners, causing a nuisance. By nuisance Mr Ballantine meant illness, injury and death. Not only to locals but to anyone travelling on the railways above, and especially those coming into London from the countryside.

James Oates operated a bone boiling works under the arches and this was particularly unpleasant to travellers. At present it was, the prosecution alleged, ‘dangerous in the extreme’:

‘and parties coming in from the pure air in the country […] were sickened by the noisome effluvia emitted from the defendant’s premises below’.

Jane Prior’s work involved melting used cooking fat and the smell was obnoxious. The commissioners condemned her trade as ‘filthy in the extreme, and dangerous to the health of the locality’. Ralf Sockhart had a similar business. His involved boiling offal to make pet food and was equally disgusting and offensive to locals.

The magistrate listened carefully as a string of cases were brought against the occupants of the arches, many of whom must have been practicing their trades for several years. The second half of the nineteenth century was witnessing a coordinated effort to remove ‘nuisances’ from the densely occupied parts of the capital. The cattle market at Smithfield – part of London life since the medieval period – was moved out of the centre to clear the thoroughfares. This series of actions against the ‘dirty trades’ of Bermondsey has to be seen in the context then of ‘improvement’.

In all the cases the magistrate sided with the Commissioners even if he sympathized with the businesses, none of whom were rich.  All were given time – a month – to find new premises, hopefully far away from the homes of residents. Mr Ballantine hoped that press coverage of the proceedings would also warn the railway companies that they were expected to take more responsibility in letting out the arches they owned.

‘It was monstrous’, he declared, ‘that these arches should be kept for such purposes, merely for their profit, much to the injury of the public health’.

And there of course was the point of these proceedings and, I might suggest, the point of health and safety legislation. The laws existed (indeed exist) to protect the public from dangerous practices. When chemicals and gases are being used in enclosed premises there is a risk of diseases, fire, explosions and the Victorians recognized that some trades had to be separated out and placed a long way from peoples’ homes. The people concerned were, more often than not, those that could not afford to bring private prosecutions against large companies and rich businessmen. So the Commissioners, for all their interference and accusations of ‘nannying’, were standing up for those who were otherwise rendered silent.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, September 28, 1854]