A little local difficulty: ‘political’ violence in early Victorian Stepney

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Politics, as we have seen recently, can sometimes get a little heated and nothing gets more heated than local politics. Having stood as a candidate for local elections in the recent past I can attest to long running petty squabbles between party workers, elected and defeated councilors, and their friends and families.

In one large east Midlands town there were dark mutterings about a Conservative councilor who had defected from Labour several years earlier simply because he thought it more likely to be re-elected if he stood for ‘the other side’.  The suggestion (made by his Conservative colleague, against whom I was contesting a seat) was that he only entered politics for the rewards it brought in terms of his local standing in the community; it mattered not whether he was part of a left or right political party, what mattered was being in government.

I’ve no idea if this was accurate or fair (and indeed I wondered at the time if there was a smack of racism in the comment) but historically the exercise of local government has involved a deal of self aggrandizement. It is also accurate to say that local politics has probably always been fractious though it doesn’t always end in violence as this particular example from 1847 did.

Charles Williams, a general dealer from Mile End, was attending  meeting of the Stepney parish vestry on Easter Monday 1847 when a man rushed into the room and interrupted them. Williams and his colleagues were tasked with electing parish officers when James Colt (a local undertaker and carpenter) interrupted them.  Colt pulled the chair out from underneath one of the candidates for the role of churchwarden, tipping him on to the floor, before slamming shut the room’s shutters – plunging it into darkness – and throwing the ink pot into the fire. He called everyone present ‘the most opprobrious names’ and challenged them all to a fight.

It was a quite bizarre episode and it seemed that Colt’s intention had been to close down proceedings because he believed they were being conducted either illegally or unfairly. An argument then ensued about the manner of the meeting and whether it conformed to the rules as they were understood. James Colt was, like the man he’d tipped out of the chair, been seeking election as parish officer (an overseer in Colt’s case) and he may have believed he was being excluded form the meeting so as to have missed this chance at a bit of local power.  Perhaps he was, and perhaps with good reason.

Eventually Colt was summoned before the magistrate at Thames to face a charge of assault. The paper concentrated on the shenanigans at the parish meeting and heard several claims and counter claims regarding the legitimacy or otherwise of the proceedings but for Mr Ballantine the magistrate the question was simple: had Colt committed an assault or not? It was fairly obvious to all present that he had and so the justice fined him £5 and let him go. I would suggest James Colt had demonstrated by his histrionics that he was entirely unfit for public office.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, April 9, 1847]

An enterprising mother and daughter team come unstuck

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St Botolph’s, Aldgate from the Minories

Cordelia Johnson ran a small manufacturing workshop in the Minories, on the borders of the East End of London and the City. The wife of a commercial traveller, Mrs Johnson employed a number of women to make up work shirts which were sold to a number of ‘outfitters and slopsellers’ in the City.  For weeks now items of her stock had been going on a daily basis and Cordelia was unable to discover how.

Eventually she turned to one of her most trusted employees, a young woman named Mary Ann Cantwell who she trusted to run errands for her as well as in the workshop sewing shirts. Mary Ann promised to help by keeping her eyes open and her ear to the ground for any hints of who was responsible for the pilfering.

Unfortunately for Mrs Johnson however, Mary Ann was the culprit. She was in league with her mother Harriet and the pair of them were engaged in a clever racket by which they stole material or fully made up shirts and pawned them at one or more of East London’s many pawnbrokers’ shops.  Mary Ann must have felt untouchable when her boss trusted her with the effort to trace the thieves and it emboldened her.

On Saturday 14 March 1857 Mary Ann spoke to one of the other younger women in the workshop and suggested she steal a pile of clothes and pawn them in Poplar. The girl, like Mary Ann, was Irish and the funds raised, she said, could be used to fuel the forthcoming St Patrick’s Day festivities. The girl was not so easily tempted however and went straight to her boss and told her what had happened. Mrs Johnson went to see the police and Police Sergeant Foay (7H) – ‘an intelligent detective officer’ – decided to follow Mary Ann to see what she was up to.

From his hiding place in Mrs Johnson’s house Sergeant Foay watched the young woman leave the factory take a pile of shirts from a cupboard and walk out of the building. He tracked her to Cannon Street Road, on the Ratcliffe Highway where she met her mother and handed over the clothes. Foay pounced and grabbed at the pair of them. HE got hold of Mary Ann but Harriett put up ‘a most determined resistance’ hitting and biting him in the process. Eventually he had them both under arrest and when they were safely locked up the police went off to search their lodgings at 13 Cannon Street Road.

There they found more evidence, namely a great number of pawnbrokers’ duplicates. These were cross checked with several ‘brokers who confirmed that they had been exchanged for shirts and materials brought by Harriet or Mary Ann. Four duplicates were found on the younger woman who, in front of Mr Selfe at Thames Police court, tried to take all the blame herself, saying her mother knew nothing of the crime.

The magistrate acknowledged this act of selfless filial duty but dismissed it. The evidence against both of them was overwhelming and both would be punished. Mary Ann was fined £6 for illegally pawning items (with a default of two months’ imprisonment if she was unable to pay, which I suspect meant she did go to gaol). If so she might have joined her 40 year-old mother whom the magistrate sent straight to prison for two months’ hard labour without even the option of paying a fine.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, March 20, 1857]

The gin craze in 1890s Mile End

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It is a great time to be a gin connoisseur; there are new brands or artisanal gin popping up seemingly every week and a collection of tonics that complement them beautifully. I think I’ve currently got about eight different sorts of gin in my cabinet but until the weather improves that’s probably where they’ll stay.

Gin is relatively easy to produce and since it is a white spirit it can be flavoured with pretty much any sort of botanical. In Victorian London gin was a cheap alcohol favoured by the masses (rather like the cheap nasty gin that Winston Smith and everyone below the elite ranks of the Party consume in Orwell’s 1984). Gin palaces sold cheap liquor to working-class Londoners, many of whom drank it to drown out the depressing reality of their impoverished daily lives.

As a result there was always a market for cheap ‘booze’ and in 1899 Louis Wormker and his mates decided they might as well profit from it. Wormker, along with Solomen Rosenbloom, Abraham Rosenbloom, his wife Sarah, and their friend Levi Kalhan were immigrants or the descendants of immigrants living in East London’s Mile End district.

They had set up an illegal still at 1, Bohn Street which held 10-15 gallons of spirit. In the back parlour the gin was flavored with caraway and other essences while being stored in large casks each holding 36 gallons. At nearby Ellen Street (where Abraham Rosenbloom lived) investigators from the Inland Revenue found more evidence of the illegal operation to bottle and distribute unlicensed alcohol to clubs and pubs in the area.

The four men and one woman were brought before Mr Mead at Thames Police court and prosecuted on behalf of the Inland Revenue Commissioners (since this was a case of the evasion of tax and duty). The IRC employed its own detectives  to investigate the case and, at this stage, wanted the culprits to enter into bail to appear at a later date. Sarah Rosenbloom was asked to find £50 bail, the others £100 each. This done they were all released.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, March 01, 1899]

‘It was a tolerably fine night for a walk’:a freezing night in London brings little humanity from the parish

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Ratcliffe Highway in the late 1800s

Robert Mace was a former solider, discharged from the army in 1853 having previously served in India. He was 31 years of age, had no job and no home to speak of. He was in London, in Ratlciffe, on the night of the 3 February 1860 and was intending to make his way back to his last place of settlement, Maidstone in Kent. However, it was cold, it was getting dark and he was hungry so he knocked at the door of the Ratcliffe workhouse and asked for relief.

Mr Snelling,  the porter at the union workhouse opened the door and told him to go away. He would t be admitted there and that was the end of it. Mace did go away for a bit but unable to find shelter and still starving from lack of food he tried again, with the same response from Snelling. As he walked away from the workhouse gates he saw a policeman, PC Polter (276K) and asked him to help. The constable said he was sorry but he couldn’t make the workhouse admit him.

Mace bent down, picked up a stone from the street and lobbed it at a gas lamp that illuminated the gates of the poor house. The lamp smashed and since he’d committed criminal damage right in front of him PC Polter had no option but to the arrest the man and take him before a magistrate.

Robert Mace appeared before Mr Selfe at Thames Police court on the following morning. He explained his situation  and the magistrate had some sympathy with him. Since the workhouse porter was also summoned to give evidence Mr Selfe wondered why he hadn’t simply admitted the man as he’d requested?

Because. the porter insisted, the man was perfectly capable of making his way to Maidstone. Mr Selfe was amazed at this, did the porter rally think this man could make that trip and find shelter and ‘refreshment’ on the way?

‘There are half a dozen workhouses between ours and Greenwich’ Snelling stated, ‘He could have called at any of them on the way to Maidstone’.

‘Well you might have taken him into the house, I think, and given him some bread and a night’s lodging’ Selfe said, adding ‘he is a poor, emaciated fellow’.

Snelling dismissed this:

‘The weather was fine last night. He could have got several miles on his road between three o’clock and eight’.

‘Not so fine’, the magistrate countered, ‘I walked home in the snow from this court at five o’clock, and I was very cold, although I had an overcoat on, and was well wrapped up’.

‘It was tolerably fine for a walk’ the porter insisted.

The lack of humanity the porter displayed was clearly staggering even to a contemporary audience – the reporter ‘headlined’ the piece as ‘The model union’ with deep sarcasm. Regardless of whether the Ratcliffe workhouse should have admitted him or not Mace was guilty of criminal damage although the victim was the Commercial Gas Company not the union.

Mr Selfe decided that  it would probably do the former soldier more good to be incarcerated in a prison than a workhouse so sentenced him to five days. He hoped that the bed and board he’d receive there would be sufficient to set him up for the long walk to Maidstone which, depending which route he took, was considerable being about 50 miles from London.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Saturday, 4 February, 1860]

A warning: if you have a sense of fair play and justice this may annoy you.

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Lewis Wills was a respectable small businessman who ran a trimming workshop in Mile End. At premises in Raven Row he employed a large number of women  who undertook piece work there and from home. One of these women was Mrs Emma Davis and on the 22 December 1847 she had an unfortunate meeting with her employer.

Emma and her husband, like many in the East End, were poor and lived a hand-to-mouth existence, relying on what ever the pair of them could bring in by working every possible hour and hope it was enough to meet the rent, feed their children, and heat their rooms. Winter was always harder and in the run up to Christmas Richard Davis was unemployed.

Richard was no slouch however and (as Norman Tebbit would have no doubt approved) he got on his metaphorical ‘bike’ and traveled to Southampton to look for work. Meanwhile Emma continued to take in trimming work to keep the family solvent. One of the advantages she had enjoyed was that Mr Wills was generous enough to advance money to his workers, to help them meet their obligations to landlords and local shopkeepers.

As a result Emma, and others in the workshop, were literally indebted to him. Sadly, surrounded by young women this proved quite a temptation to Wills, and one he could not resist. On the 22nd Emma came to him to ask for the advance of a shilling against her wages.

Knowing her husband was away Wills decided to turn this encounter to his advantage and he suggested to Emma that if she was willing to allow him to take what she described as ‘improper liberties’ with her he would lend her a half sovereign. Emma was deeply shocked and offended, especially when Wills pressed his case and grabbed hold of her. She had been propositioned and sexually assaulted by her employer and she ran home as fast as she could.

When her husband came back she told him and he was furious, wanting to press charges against Wills but Emma was cautious. She still owed him money and had work to complete; she was worried she’d lose her job and then how would they cope. Richard went to see Wills and remonstrated with him but the man denied doing anything and sent him away. Emma decided to go and see Mrs Wills, to plead with her woman to woman but at first she was prevented from doing so by the trimmings manufacturer and then, when she did finally see her, she was dismissed out of hand. Wills had got to his wife first and warned her that a hysterical woman was about to make false accusations against him.

Unless the couple formally went to law they were unlikely to get any justice from the situation. So in January, when all the work was completed and no debts were owing, Richard applied for a warrant to bring Lewis Wills before the magistrate at Thames Police court. To get such a warrnat the case was recounted to Mr Yardley (the magistrate on duty) and Wills was defended by his lawyer, Mr Pelham.

Pelham went on the attack demanding to know why it had taken so long to bring his client to court. Emma and Richard explained (as detailed above) but it fell on deaf ears. The lawyer rejected the suggestion that Wills effectively exploited his female workforce for sexual favours by inveigling them into his debt and dismissed Emma’s testimony as nonsense.

Then Emma produced another worker, this time a much younger girl, who was being led to the witness box to support a claim that Wills’ predatory sexual behavior was widespread when Mr Yardley stopped her. He said ‘the girl would not assist the case, and he refused to examine her. It was quite impossible’, he added, ‘to trust to the evidence’. As far as he was concerned Richard Davis was at fault here: he should have brought the case immediately and implied that he’d only done so when Wills had refused his wife any more work.

Thus in his view this was a malicious prosecution and he dismissed it.

Emma and Richard left court without ever being able to bring her abuser to a public hearing to defend himself. That was exactly what his lawyer intended and in this he had the full cooperation of the magistrate, a man drawn from a similar social class. The court was in effect deciding, without a ‘trial’, that such a person could not be deemed to have done such a thing and that, therefore, Emma was a liar.

This was a crushing defeat for the Davis family and probably meant that Emma would have to seek work elsewhere, but with all local businessmen knowing she was marked out as a ‘troublemaker’. In the meantime a ‘sex pest’ was free to exploit and abuse his small army of female   workers, who were made even more vulnerable by the failure of the law to protect one of their own. This kind of behaviour has recently been called out by the ‘MeToo’ movement but it is nothing new of course, and men like Wills continue to take advantage of the power they have over vulnerable women.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, January 19, 1848]

‘I have murdered my wife, and I shall be hanged for it’: An old man’s sad confession 

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PC Edward Steward (319K) was on duty in Devons Road, Bromley-by-Bow on the morning of Tuesday 26 December 1871, Boxing Day, when he heard a cry of ‘Police! Murder!’ Shouts like that were not uncommon in the East End of London but the constable quickly ran towards the cry.

The noise had come from a house at 5 Bromley High Street and as the policeman entered he found an elderly man, splashed with blood, sitting forlornly in the doorway. PC Steward asked what had happened and the man replied:

‘I have done it at last. I have cut my wife’s throat’.

Pushing past him the officer into what was the couple’s marine store, where he found the victim sitting on a chair with a nasty long cut running down the side of her face. Her dress was ‘completely saturated with blood’ and he asked if she knew what had happened to her.

She said she didn’t, but probably to protect her husband who was clearly not at all well himself. The policeman followed the blood that stained the floor to the bedroom where there was a large pool of it congealing by the bed. A knife lay discarded nearby and he collected this and made his way back downstairs to the man and wife. When the man saw the knife he said:

‘That’s what I did it with. I have murdered my wife, and I shall be hanged for it’.

Their name was Hurley and having got help to have Mrs Hurley taken to hospital on a stretcher, he brought the old man, James, back to the police station to be questioned and charged. The next morning Hurley, PC Steward, and a doctor all appeared before Mr Lushington at Thames Police court.

The officer told the magistrate that before she’d been sent to hospital Catherine Hurley had finally told him the truth of what happened that morning. She was helping James to bed; he was an invalid she explained, and she had her arm around his neck. Suddenly he ‘flung his arms around quickly and struck me. I put my hands up to my face and felt blood trickling down it’.

The doctor said the wound, although not fatal, was dangerous. Catherine had sustained a wound that was 3 and half inches in length and she’d lost a lot of blood. He was keeping her in for the time being but he expected her to recover fully.

Mr Lushington (who had a reputation for dealing harshly with drunks, especially those that beat their wives, enquired as to whether James Hurley had been drunk at the time of the attack. The policeman testified that no, he seemed to be ‘perfectly  sober’ as did Mrs Hurley. Given the victim’s absence and because she was not yet completely out of danger the magistrate remanded Hurley in custody for a week to see how things unfolded.

I would seem Catherine made a full recovery and declined to press charges against her spouse. Although this was certainly an assault and possibly an act of attempted murder no James Hurley appears in the records of the Old Bailey Proceedings in the early 1870s for such a crime. He may have dealt with summarily later but I suspect Catherine knew her husband was not well in his mind or his body and accepted the outburst as a unavoidable consequence of whatever ailed him. Without her to press the case it is unlikely the police or courts would do much more.

One can only imagine the life Catherine Hurley had to endure, running a home, a business, and caring for an elderly husbands who retained the strength to hurt her, or worse, even if that might not have been his intention.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday 3 January, 1872]

An avoidable tragedy at Christmas

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James Arthur and Timothy Howard worked together at a charcoal factory in New Gravel Lane, Shadwell. They were workmates and drinking buddies but not close friends. That said, they rarely quarreled and both were hard workers who were well spoken of by their employer.

They were employed to work on a platform which stood 18 feet above the factory floor and on Christmas Eve 1868 both were working there even though it was late in the evening. Perhaps with their minds on how they would celebrate Christmas and the Boxing Day holiday they started to talk about beer and how much they might drink. A ‘chaffing match’ ensued as each man boasted about the amount of drink he could get on credit (a measure of their financial worth of sorts) and this escalated into a row.

Howard taunted Arthur, suggesting that in the past he’d used a woman poorly and run up a debt on her behalf before leaving her. What had began as friendly ‘banter’ quickly descended into open hostility and Arthur looked dagger at his mate. He reached for a shovel and threatened Howard with it.

Realising he’d gone too far Howard tried to calm things and told his workmate to put the makeshift weapon down. When Arthur declined the two came to blows and the pair swore at each other. Howard struck him once or twice without return and Arthur staggered backwards. He missed his footing, slipped, and tumbled over the edge of the platform, plummeting the 18 feet down to the floor.

Howard clambered down the ladder and ran over to his mate, ‘who was quite dead’, his neck broken.

The foreman arrived on the scene and, seeing what had occurred, called the police. Howard was arrested while the police surgeon examined the deceased. Howard tried to say he’d not hit his friend but there had been at least two witnesses who’d been drawn to the noise the pair had made in their arguing.  Mr Benson (the magistrate at Thames Police court) remanded Howard in custody so that these witnesses could be brought to give their testimony.

At a later hearing Timothy Howard (described as an ‘Irish labourer’) was fully committed to trial for the manslaughter of his work colleague. On the 11 January 1869 he was convicted at the Old Bailey but ‘very strongly’ recommended to mercy by the jury who accepted that it was really a tragic accident, their was no intent on Howard’s part. The judge clearly agreed as he only sent the man to prison for a fortnight, a shorter term than many drunker brawlers would have received at Thames before the magistrates.

[from The Standard, Monday, 28 December, 1868]