A chance theft adds insult to a widow’s grief

300px-Victoria_Docks_1872

London was an extremely busy port city in the Victoria period. Goods came in and out of the docks and the river teamed with shipping, bringing travellers to and and from the various parts of the British Empire, and the rest of the world. This provided all sorts of opportunities for criminal activity: from smuggling, to pilfering from the docks, or the theft of sailor’s wages, and all sorts of frauds. The Thames Police and the Thames Police office then, were kept just as busy as the port and river was.

In June 1859 Susan Breeson appeared in the dock at Thames to be questioned about her possession of a pair of gold framed spectacles we she insisted had been given to her in part payment of a debt.

Breeson had taken the spectacles to a pawnbroker in mid May but he’d become suspicious and refused to give her the money she’d asked for. This wasn’t the first time apparently; another ‘broker had refused to lend her the 7s she asked for them.

Breeson’s story was that her husband worked on the docks as a ‘searcher’ (literally a man working for the Customs who searched ships for contraband etc.) He’d found the, she said, at Victoria Dock in Plaistow but she didn’t know their value or even whether they were gold or brass. Samuel Redfern, who ran the pawn shop in Cannon Street Road with his father-in-law, didn’t believe her story and so he retained the glasses and alerted the police.

Questioned before Mr Yardley at Thames Susan now changed her account and said that the spectacles had been given to her by a sailor. However, the court now discovered that Breeson wasn’t married to a customs officer at all, instead – according to the police – she ran a brothel in Stepney. the specs were given to her, but in payment of money owed, for lodgings or something else it seems.

Sergeant John Simpson (31K) deposed that Breeson was well-known to the police of K Division. She was a ‘bad character, and she cohabited with a man who worked in the docks many years’.  So some elements of her story had a hint of truth about them but now she elaborated and embellished it. The sailor in question, she explained, had been given the spectacles as a gift from a poor dying parson on board a ship ‘for kindness exhibited, towards him in his illness’.

Now the hearing took a more interesting turn. From a simple case of a brothel madam trying to pawn goods either lifted from a client, or pilfered from the docks and used as payment for sexual services or drink, it now became clear that the spectacles were part of a larger and more serious theft.

The next witness was Mrs Barbara Wilson Morant and she had travelled up from Sittingbourne in Kent to give her evidence. She testified that the glasses and the case they were in had belonged to her husband, who had died in the East Indies. She had been in the Indies with him but had traveled back overland, sending the spectacles and other things by sea. She told Mr Yardley that she had arrived in England by screw steamer after a voyage of several months (she’d left the East Indies in August).

The keys of her luggage were sent to Mr Lennox, her agent‘, she explained, and now ‘she missed a diamond ring, a gold pencil-case, a pair of gold-mounted spectacles, and other property‘.

The sergeant conformed that Mrs Morant’s luggage had been examined at Victoria Dock on its arrival, where it was then repacked ready for her to collect it. It would seem that someone pinched the items in the process. Samuel Lennox worked as a Custom House agent and confirmed that he had collected 15 pieces of the Morants’ luggage and checked them off to be collected but he couldn’t say who had unloaded them or carried out any other searches. The company employed casual workers who were hired without checks being made on them. Perhaps one of these was Breeson’s partner in crime?

Mr Yardley recognised that this was serious. While Breeson may not have stolen the spectacles (and perhaps the other items) but she was certainly involved in disposing of it. He remanded her for further enquiries for a week but said he would take bail as long as it was substantial and was supported by ‘reputable sureties’. It would be very hard to prove that anyone had stolen the Morants’ possessions or that Breeson was involved. She doesn’t appear at the Old Bailey although a ‘Susan’ and a ‘Susannah’ Breeson do feature in the records of the prisons and courts of London throughout the 1850s and 60s.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, June 9, 1859]

The most ‘savage and wonton outrage I ever did see’.

weller46a

As John Holland was walking along the Back Road in Shadwell he saw a man attacking an elderly man and his wife. He rushed over and remonstrated with him, pulling him off the old man. He told him he should be ashamed of himself assaulting someone old enough to be his father. The man was unmoved by the dressing down, landed a blow that knocked his victim to the ground and then set upon Holland as well.

He hit the good Samaritan over the head, which pitched him to the street and, just as he saw the old man trying to get to his feet behind him, turned and kicked him full in the face. Meanwhile as Holland struggled to stand up the violence continued as his assailant kicked him in the groin, ‘which completely disabled him’.

It was a brutal attack on two entirely innocent people and there were witnesses to it. A passing gentleman told Holland he should press charges and a policeman was called for. Running hard from the nearby King David Lane police station PC Joseph Harrad (263K) was first on the scene and he arrested the attacker who later gave his name as Henry Dixon, a tailor.

Dixon, a small man, was still boiling with rage and shrugged the policeman off him.

Don’t hold me by the collar’, he snarled, ‘I will walk quietly with you’.

He only walked so far however, stopping after a few yards near a waterspout and declaring:

I’ll be damned if I go any further’.

When PC Harrad insisted, Dixon seized the waterspout and refused to move. The pair wrestled and the spout broke, tumbling policeman and his quarry into the street. The tailor was up first and ran at Harrad and hit him. Undeterred the copper grabbed him and dragged him into a nearby greengrocer’s shop, which was close to the police station.

Here Dixon landed a severe blow on the policeman’s face and gave him a bloody nose and mouth. Mr Longlands, the grocer, saw what happened and came to the aid of the officer and got knocked back with a fist to his chest for his pains. As Dixon kicked out at Longlands’ shins his cries brought the grocer’s daughter out from the back of the shop. She assumed the attacker was PC Harrad and piled into him with her hands, pulling him off the tailor. The poor copper finally managed to explain that it was Dixon who was the problem and she desisted.

The fight carried on for several minutes and both ‘parties were alternatively up and down’ before sergeant Derrig (27K) arrived and Dixon was finally subdued and frog-marched to the nick. PC Harrad was covered in bruises and Holland and the grocer had both sustained a number of injuries. Dixon was charged with assault and presented at Thames Police court the next day to be examined by Mr Broderip the magistrate.

The magistrate praised the conduct of the policeman and said he’d acted bravely and with ‘great forbearance’. Dixon cut a sorry figure in court, his clothes (which were described as ‘seedy habiliments’) ripped and torn and had little to say in his defence. He alleged that he was defending himself and that he been shoved by the old couple as he passed along the street but that was a weak excuse for such violence.

In fact it was the worst case of assault Mr Broderip had seen in a long time and handed out multiple fines for the various offences that totaled £8 and 40s(or around £600 today, probably two month’s salary for him at the time). I doubt the tailor had the funds for these so probably ended up serving the alternative of serving nearly six months in prison at hard labour.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Saturday, June 6, 1840]

Is tea the cure for alcoholism? One poet swears by it.

3

Lest we be in any doubt about the problems caused by alcohol in the late nineteenth century the reports from the Police courts bear testimony to them. They are all of individuals (men and women) who are there because they are addicted to alcohol or are at least unable to control the amount they drink, or the affects it has on them.

The last quarter of the 1800s saw the rise of the Temperance Movement which strove to ween individuals off the ‘demon drink’ and to get them to sign the ‘pledge’ of abstinence. Out of this came the Police Court Missionary Service, the forerunner of Probation, which helped those brought into the courts, but only if they would promise to remain sober in future.

Drunkenness led to disorderly behaviour, to the verbal abuse of officials and police; to the physical abuse of partners and children; to poverty and homelessness; and ultimately to a debilitating death. The police courts were full of it, as these cases from Thames Police court (in London’s East End) in 1899 demonstrate.

The first person up before Mr Mead (the magistrate) was Mr William (or ‘Spring’) Onions. William was a self-styled poet who had struggled for years with a drink problem. Recently he’d overcome it and was in in May 1899 not because of any misdemeanour he committed but for a much more positive reason. He’d come to tell the justice that he’d been sober for six months.

How had he managed it, everyone (including Mr Mead) wanted to know? What was the secret of his sobriety?

It was simple, ‘Spring’ Onions declared. He’d exchanged beer for tea.

 ‘Tea is the thing, sir‘ he explained: ‘I take four or five pints of it everyday, instead of four and twenty pints of beer‘.

He heaped some fulsome praise on the bench, shared some anecdotes about his ‘companions’ in drink, and reminded everyone that he was a poet before leaving the courtroom.

The next person to take the stand was Samuel Freeman, a ‘tailor’s dresser’ from Mile End. He was charged with selling illicit alcohol door-to-door. He’d been under surveillance by the Inland Revenue (this was an offence of tax – or duty – avoidance so fell under their purview) and detective inspector Arthur Llewellyn had stopped him in Anthony Street as he made his deliveries.

He was found with two remaining bottles of spirt which he said he sold for 1s 6d at a profit of sixpence a bottle. He admitted to being able to shift 7-8 pints of this a week and at his home the officers found two gallons of unlicensed spirits ready to be sold. This was a racket that exposed the desperate desire locally for cheap booze; the sort of drink that wrecked the lives like those of William Onions.

Mr Mead gave him the option of paying  a 40s fine or going to prison for fourteen days.

Finally William Pocklingstone was brought up to face the court. He was an old man and admitted his crime of ‘being drunk and disorderly’. He had a ready-made excuse however (possibly one he’d ventured before).

He said he ‘was an old Navy man, and got drinking the health of Britain’s pride – the Queen, God bless her!’

What has Britain’s pride got to do with May 19?’ the magistrate asked him.

I had an idea it was the Queen’s birthday,’ the old salt explained, ‘and made a day of it‘.

It wasn’t Victoria’s birthday at all (she was born on the 20 June) but the magistrate decided to take pity on the old man so long as he promised to address his drink problem. He would let him go today without penalty if he swore to keep sober for the monarch’s actual birthday in a month. William said he certainly would (although I doubt anyone believed him) and he was released.

All three cases show that drink and alcoholism had deep roots in Victorian society and remind us that our concerns (about ‘binge drinking’, super strength lager and cider, and supposedly rising levels of alcohol consumption) are nothing new. Nor has anything that has been done to curb the British love affair with booze had that much effect.

Cheers!

[from The Illustrated Police News etc, Saturday, May 27, 1899]

‘I am absolutely lost in London’: bureaucracy and callousness combine to mistreat a servant of the Empire.

137408342

A Hindu temple in Bangalore in the 1880s

 This week the news is rightly dominated by the scandalous treatment of the Windrush generation. This country had a proud history of supporting and welcoming immigrants because it recognized the tremendous value they brought to these islands. The first discordant voices in the immigration debate were raised in the late 1800s as large numbers of Eastern European Jews arrived in London, fleeing persecution in the Russian Empire. Anti-Semitism mixed with protectionism meant that politicians on the right (like Arnold White) and left (H. M. Hyndman) used immigration as a political weapon and argued that Britain was too full, and needed to look after its own people first.

Racism and anti-immigration rhetoric often raises its ugly head when there is an economic crisis. We saw this in the 1880s, in the 1930s, the 1970s and today, in this prolonged period of austerity and concern around our impending exit from the European Union. Blaming immigrants focuses attention on the symptoms not on the causes of economic hardships and helps keep the working classes divided. Moreover it also reveals that when times are hard governments attempt to save money by reducing the amount of benefits that are paid out to those at the bottom of society, rather than raising the contributions made by those at the top. There are lot more people at the bottom than there are at the top and those in power (at national, local and parochial levels) have always been closer, in terms of social class, to those at the top.

Consider this case from 1889, a time of serious economic downturn if not quite a depression. The payments for poor relief had been rising across the second half of the 1880s and London was receiving thousands of political and economic migrants from Europe as well as very many from across the UK and wider Empire. If these migrants arrived (as many of them did) without much or any money; without jobs to go to: without homes or friends and family to stay with, then they had few choices but to appeal to charity or the state for help. The reaction they got was often uncaring and unhelpful even, as in this case from Westminster, they seemingly had every right to assistance.

In April 1889 a ‘poorly-dressed woman’ (we are not told her name) presented herself at Westminster Police court asking for help. She was Irish and she had been married to a serving British soldier in India, a sergeant major in the Nilgiri Rifles. The Rifles was a volunteer regiment raised in Madras in 1878 and while she had lived with him she had drawn a small government allowance as she was deemed to be ‘on the staff’ of the regiment.

However, at some point the couple had separated (‘through no fault of her own’ she told the magistrate at Westminster, Mr Partridge) and he, on leaving the regiment at the red of his period of service, had returned to England with their two children. The woman had followed him, taking a boat a Bangalore in March 1888 after gaining a certificate from the District Staff Officer there, which entitled her to free passage. She had just eight rupees left for the whole of the voyage and arrived in London on the 14 April. She headed to the War Office with her papers with the intention of being sent on to Ireland where ‘her friends were’.

However, there she was met with a similarly uncaring bureaucracy as that has recently confronted the Windrush generation. She was entitled to help from the British state but the paperwork had not arrived or could not be validated. Until ‘the order’ came from India nothing could be done for her. Even the certificate from the ship’s captain that declared she had forgone her beer allowance (and was thus entitled to some money for that) could not be processed. She ‘was transferred from one to the other, only to be told that nothing could be done for her at present’.

The previous night she had slept at the workhouse casual ward in Buckingham Palace Road and now she asked Mr Partridge for help. ‘She was absolutely lost in London’, she said, ‘having never been here before’. Without some temporary help she said would have to ‘walk the streets or starve’ – suggesting her only alternative was to beg or to prostitute herself.

The magistrate was cold. There was nothing he could or would do for her he said. He told the clerk to give her the fare to get to Thames Police court so she could plead her case there. ‘The docks are in that district’ he added, suggesting that since she’d arrived by boat she wasn’t his problem. The poor woman was dispatched with a shilling, not knowing what to do or where to go.

[from The Standard, Thursday, April 18, 1889]

‘A Reckless Blackguard’ in the dock for a murder on the Isle of Dogs

1840_w600_h642

Today’s case took up almost the entirety of the Morning Chronicle’s  crime news coverage when it was published in April 1838. The story concerned a murder and, if that was not sensational enough for the paper’s readers, a murder that had taken place nearly a year earlier. The case had surfaced on the previous Monday when it had been brought before the magistrates at Greenwich, but when it was determined that the victim had been murdered by the banks of the River Thames, they transferred it to the Thames Police Court.

The victim was an engine smith named Duncan Crawford and he had met his death opposite Greenwich, on the Isle of Dogs on the 9 April 1837. His killer had remained unknown and at liberty ever since but on 10 April 1838 Thomas Paul (alias Scott) was placed in the dock at Thames to be formally examined by two justices: Mr Ballantine and Mr Greenwood.

Paul looked rough but the paper wanted to show him as suitable murder suspect. He was bruised and battered from some recent scuffle (suggestive of his violent tendencies) but he still cut a ‘tall, athletic’ figure in the courtroom. However the reporter was at pains to point out that the prisoner at the bar had the appearance of ‘a reckless blackguard’. He was clearly agitated by his public examination:

‘he betrayed considerable emotion, and his legs and arms frequently crossed and re-crossed each other, and his countenance underwent several changes’.

Here was a man ill at ease with himself, was his failure to control his emotions and sign of inner turmoil and his guilt? I think that is what the writer wanted his audience to think. Murderers had to look different from the rest of civilised society; a monster amongst us and Paul’s inability to keep control over his own body was surely a sign of his animalistic nature desperately trying to break out.

The arrest had been made by PS Benjamin Lovell (15R) who’d picked him up at his lodgings in Deptford. He had given the name Paul but apparently this was  alive, his ‘real name was Scott’ and he went by the nickname locally of ‘Scottey’. It seems as if ‘Scottey’s downfall was that after attacking Crawford and robbing him, he sent a female friend off to pawn the gold watch seals he’d  stolen. She took them to a pawnbroker but this had been discovered by the police and the watch identified as the victim’s. When sergeant Lovell arrested Paul/Scott he admitted giving a woman a watch to pawn.

Mr Ballantine wanted to be sure that Lovell had not tricked his man into revealing what he’d done. He hadn’t the policeman assured him. He had arrested him (on a tip off from a woman – the woman who pledged the watch perhaps?) and when he’d searched him he’d found a number of suspicious items including one or two more duplicated for items pledged at Mr Perry’s pawnshop in Flagon Row.

All of this evidence was backed up by James Cooper (191R) another police officer who’d been present at the arrest and presumably involved in the Greenwich police’s investigation. The court now heard from Anna Philips who lived in the same street where Paul had lodged, Dock Street.

Anna recalled that a year earlier a young woman named Jane McCarthy had popped in to ask her advice. Jane had three gold watch seals and she wanted to find out if they were genuinely gold, of just fake. Jane was Thomas Paul’s lover, the pair cohabited Anna explained, and so it must have been her (Anna Philips) who’d given the information that led to Paul’s arrest.

Why had it taken her a year though? Well it seems she had quarrelled with Thomas Paul a few weeks after the seals were brought to her house. Paul had thrown a jug at her and in her rage she’d said she knew that the watch seals were stolen and had heard they came from a  man that had been murdered. Paul then seized her and ‘swore he would murder her if she said so again’, so she said she’d keep her thoughts to herself.

Two other women had been involved with Paul: Mary Davis had taken the watch to Perry’s (where the pawnbroker had ‘stopped it’ – in other words seized it because he thought it to be stolen). She reported this to Paul. Elizabeth Tiller had lived with Jane McCarthy and so knew her side of the story. Paul had told her he’d found the seals in the river, she had nothing to do with the robbery. Not that it mattered much anyway, since Jane had died four months earlier, how or of what Elizabeth didn’t reveal in court (although we do discover this later).

Possibly the most dramatic moment in court was when the next witness came forward. She was Mrs Charlotte Johnson, a respectable woman that lived in Rotherhithe Street with her elderly father. Duncan Crawford had lodged with them for seven months, so she knew him well. Mr Ballantine handed her a silver watch case inscribed with the initials ‘J.R.K’.

‘Now look carefully at this watch-case’ the magistrate told her, ‘and don’t let me mislead you. Tell me whether this is the deceased’s watch-case or not’.

The case produced was that detained at the pawnbrokers and so it could be traced back to Paul and the murder. The public in court must have held their collective breath.

‘That is it, sir’ replied Mrs Johnson, ‘He had it on the day he left my father’s house’.

She was handed several other items found at the ‘brokers and believed to be Crawford’s. She identified some of them but couldn’t swear to everything there. There seemed to be enough evidence though that these things were Crawford’s, but that didn’t mean that Paul/Scott had killed him. He had claimed he’d found the items in the river and Crawford had ben found dead in a pond by the river, maybe Paul had simply robbed an already dead body? Callous yes, but criminal? Not clearly.

The magistrate asked what the coroner’s verdict had been. After some hesitation he was informed that the victim had ‘been found drowned, with marks of violence on his person, but how or by what means they were caused was unknown’. This was long before effective forensics remember.

Mrs Johnson’s father had identified Crawford’s body in the Poplar dead house. He aid he ‘had no doubt he’d been robbed and murdered’.

‘He had received a tremendous blow under the left ear, another on the forehead, and the legs were bruised from the ankles up to the knees, as if they had been trodden upon’.

Mr Ballantine thanked him and turned to the prisoner. Did he wish to say anything at this stage? The matter was serious and ‘affected his life’. Paul was well aware of that and declined to offer a defence at this point. Mr Ballantine remanded him to appear again, with all the witnesses and the pawnbroker Mr Perry, on the following Wednesday.

It was left for the reporter to paint his readers a picture of the discovery of Crawford’s body and reflect on what was known about the murder (if that’s what it was, and the Morning Chronicle had no doubt it was). Crawford’s body had been found ‘in a lonely spot’ on the island, covered in mud close to the muddy pond.

‘It was extraordinary’ the report continued, ‘that the facts relating to the murder of Crawford have not come to light before’. Scott (Paul) had many quarrels with his neighbours, and with Jane McCarthy and it was said that his violent outbursts ‘hastened her death’. Two days before Jane died she told one of the women who gave evidence that day that Scott had confessed to the murder.

In the end however, the magistrates must have decided there was insufficient evidence to charge Paul with Crawford’s murder. He was indicted instead for simply larceny and tried at the Old Bailey in mid May of that year. The jury convicted him and the judge sentenced him to be transported to Australia for seven years. He was 36 years old and, if the records are accurate, he did ok ‘down under’ living to the ripe old age of 88. As for Duncan Crawford, he must go down as one of thousands of murder victims in the Victorian period whose killers escaped ‘justice’ as contemporaries would have understood it.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, April 11, 1838]

‘Lor bless you, 5s indeed! Why there is 18 gallons of Truman Hanbury’s Treble X ale. I wouldn’t take 40s for it’. Mr Selfe’s first day at the office.

SONY DSC

The Truman, Hanbury, Buxton, & Co. brewery, c.1842

Thursday 3 April 1856 was Mr Selfe’s first morning as a London Police court magistrate.

Born in Worcester in 1810 at the age of 24 he had been called to bar and ‘practised [as a barrister] at the Oxford Circuit and Parliamentary bar’ until he took up his position on the London benches.* All Police Court magistrates in London were former barristers and, unlike their equivalents outside the capital, had the power to hear cases on their own. They had a good working knowledge of the law and several years of experience of court practice.

Mr Selfe had bene given Thames Police court in the East End of London. He replaced Mr Ingham who had moved on to the more salubrious environments of Westminster and Hammersmith. Magistrates did move around it seems, and some covered more than one court. In the 1880s there were at least two justices at Thames who sat for a few days each. This probably helped spread the workload but also stopped anyone getting too comfortable and warded off corrupt practice. The Middlesex magistracy in the 1700s had earned an unwanted reputation for venality, being derided by commentators as ‘trading justices’.

Mr Selfe’s first reported case was a beer thief, and quite an ambitious one at that. John Reynolds was 19 and his exploits were relayed to the newly appointed magistrate as he stood in the dock at Thames.

Catherine Driscoll testified that she was working for her employer at 51 Rosemary Lane where, at around 4 in the afternoon she saw Reynolds steal a barrel of beer from a drayman’s cart. She told the court that:

‘after he had launched it on the ground he rolled it along the street and up a court, and deposited in a yard at the back of a house in Rosemary Lane’.

Rosemary Lane had a long history of criminality stretching back into the eighteenth century, as Janice Turner’s work has shown. The drayman – a Mr Bullock – was delivering beer to a public house for his employers, Truman, Hanbury, Buxton, and Co., brewers in Hanbury Street and Brick Lane since 1666. The brewery no longer exists but some of the buildings do, including the iconic chimney and the Truman eagle.

Bullock explained that he had come back to his cart to discover that a kilderkin of ale was missing before someone (perhaps Ms Driscoll) pointed out its whereabouts and the person that took it. Reynolds was nearby and Bullock tried to catch him but he ran off. A policeman (Thomas Britton 161H) was soon in hot pursuit and caught him after ‘a long chase’.

When Reynolds was asked to explain himself he simply denied all knowledge of the barrel of beer. ‘Then why did you run away?’ Mr Selfe asked him. ‘I do not know sir’, was the young man’s reply, adding simply, ‘I am innocent’.

‘If you protest your innocence I shall send the case before a jury’, the magistrate warned him. A conviction before a judge would bring done much more serious punishment than Mr Selfe was able to hand out, as the magistrate knew from recent experience. The clerk of the court asked Bullock the drayman whether the beer was worth at least 5s. The drayman laughed:

‘Lor bless you, 5s indeed! Why there is 18 gallons of Truman Hanbury’s Treble X ale. I wouldn’t take 40s for it’. 

‘I suppose not’ commented Mr Selfe, ‘I shall commit the prisoner for trial’.

In the meantime however he remanded Reynolds as an officer at the court said he believed that the lad had a previous conviction that would need to be taken into consideration.

It was bad news for John. His opportunist theft would most likely end in a fairly hefty prison sentence, especially if a previous record could be shown against him. Mr Selfe might have been minded to show leniency if the lad had pleaded guilty but it was out of his hands now. Either way, his career at the Thames office was up and running and by using a keyword search for Selfe you can look for other cases over which he presided.

‘Disagreeable’ but not quite mad enough to be locked up: a violent husband at Marlborough Street

Two ‘dangerous female thieves’ opt for the best ‘worst case’ scenario

Smallpox brings death and difficult decisions to the Westminster Police Court

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, April 4, 1856]

p.s for those wondering, a kilderkin of beer or ale is an old Dutch term for a barrel that contained 18 gallons of liquid at the time. Today CAMRA still prefer to use kilderkin as a measure at beer festivals which equates to 144 pints. Truman’s is brewing again, in Hackney Wick, so you can still sip a local pint in and around Rosemary Lane (although Rosemary lane has gone, knocked down to make way for the railway. Now Royal Mint Street, running from Cable Street, follows much the same route).

*_from A. H. McLintock (ed.), An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand (1966) via [https://teara.govt.nz/en/1966/selfe-henry-selfe]

Bank Holiday drunkenness and violence drives the press narrative at Easter 1883.

3

No sign today of the return of the cake scandal from yesterday but we’ll stay rooted in the police court reports from 1883, 135 years ago. These reports reference the preceding bank holiday (Monday 26 March) which must have been Easter Monday. In the late Victorian period England only enjoyed four bank holidays (Easter, Whit Monday, the 1st Monday in August and Boxing Day). These had been introduced in 1871 and were in addition to the Good Friday and Christmas Day closures that existed before Sir John Lubbock brought his legislation before parliament that year.

The press frequently commented on the effect public holidays had on the working population, an effect it seems they thought far from positive. Public holidays were associated with crowds gathering in the parks and at the coast and, more detrimental to the public good, the consumption of alcohol in large amounts.

At Worship Street Police Court ‘exactly half’ the day charges were related to drink: ‘such as disorderly conduct, drunk whilst in charge of horses and vehicles etc, common assaults…’ A policeman brought in one belligerent who he said was responsible for an assault using a belt marked with words ‘skeleton army’ which implied gang membership. Since there was no real proof the fellow had done nothing that he could be charged with Mr Hannay released him.

Over at Southwark three other gang members were paraded before the magistrate, Mr Bridge. Edward Walters (20) James Walters (19) and William Robinson (20) were alleged to be affiliated to the Black Gang. There were accused of a violent street robbery carried out in Union Street in the Borough. Their victim was William White who had sustained injuries too severe to allow him to attend court in person until now.

Between 12 and one in the morning of Sunday 4 March 1883 the three gangsters had jumped White in the street and knocked him to the ground.

‘One man placed his foot across his eyes, while another put his hands in his pockets’ the court was told. ‘While struggling with them he received such a brutal kick in the side of the head that he became insensible, and he had no recollection of anything after that until he found himself in Guy’s Hospital’.

White was still in pain and hadn’t been too clear about the identities of the men that had attempted to rob him. He’d given some information to the police who had apprehended the men quite quickly with the help of a witness, who’d helped out at the scene. The three men were fully committed to take their trial at the next sessions.

Over at Thames the story was similar to that at Worship Street: 36 cases mostly involving alcohol that included ‘drunk and disorderly conduct, wilful damage, refusing to quit licensed premises when requested, assaults, and attempted suicide’.

The picture the press gathered then was a sorry one. The working class, left to their own devices, used the extra day off work to get drunk, fight, challenge authority, and even fall so far into inebriation that in despair they attempted to take their own lives. The appearance of gang violence sandwiched within this tale of low-life degradation was quite probably deliberate. It reminded the readers of the press that at its worst the working class of England were animalistic and violent, especially when they were allowed to indulge their passion for ‘the demon drink’.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, March 28, 1883]