Jealousy erupts in violence as accusations of ‘husband stealing’ fly around Mile End.

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Mary Adams was at home with her young son when she heard a knock at the door. ‘Go and answer it’, she instructed her lad, ‘it will be the greengrocer’s boy’. However, when the boy opened the door two women rushed past him up the stairs and burst into Mrs Adams’ room.

One was only little but the other was a ‘tall, dark woman’ who demanded:

‘where is my husband?’

‘I don’t know where he is, or who he is’ replied Mary, apparently completely mystified as to why her home had suddenly been invaded by the pair.

‘You do know, you _____!’ the tall intruder said, and attacked her. She grabbed her by the hair and hit her about the head with a sharp weapon, which Mary thought might have been a knife (but which was probably a large key). The other woman joined in and poor Mary received a considerable beating before a policeman arrived in response to her cries of ‘police!’ and ‘murder!’

PC Thomas Hurst (553K) found Mary ‘partially insensible’ and covered in her own blood. He did what he could for her and searched the two women for weapons, but found no knives. The victim was taken to be patched up by the police surgeon while her abusers were arrested and locked up overnight. In the morning (Tuesday 13 August, 1872) all three appeared at the Thames Police court in front of Mr Lushington.

Mary Adams was the wife of a cab ‘proprietor’ and lived in relative comfort at 355 Mile End Road. The couple had one servant, a young girl named Caroline Padfield, who saw what happened and backed up her mistress. Mary’s boy also told the magistrate about the attack on his mother.

Lushington now turned his attention to the two women in the dock. The smaller defendant was Elizabeth Row and she was clearly just the other’s helper. The real perpetrator was Ester Millens and she explained why she was there and gave an alternative version of events.

According to Esther’s evidence she had found her husband at Mary’s house and when she had ‘upbraided him’ about it he had turned round and told her she was no longer his wife and that he intended to make Mary his wife. She said that Mary and her (Millens’) husband were having supper together and the room was full of Esther’s furniture. It must have looked as if he’d moved out and acquired a new family. Quite where Mr Adams was (if he was indeed still alive) isn’t at all clear.

As to the violence, Millens claimed that Mary was quite drunk when she arrived and must have injured herself by falling over. She added that she was a victim herself, having been locked up in the room by the prosecutrix, and then arrested (unfairly) by PC Hurst.

It sounds like quite a tall tale; where was the estranged Mr Millens for example, and why should the little boy lie about the attack on his mother? Mr Lushington released Elizabeth Row but remanded Millens in custody so enquiries could be made.

The papers widely reported the case (but not its eventual outcome, of which I can find no record) even as far as Dundee. They linked it to another example of ‘female savagery’ that week – a vicious fight between a charwoman and a neighbour in Islington which nearly ended in tragedy. Male violence was commonplace and so I expect examples like these, of women fighting each other, were somehow more newsworthy.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, August 14, 1872]

A report from 1890 shows little difference in casual racism today: an (historical) note to Mr B. Johnson.

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Racism takes many forms, (as the comments of a former secretary of state for foreign and commonwealth affairs demonstrated yesterday). When we look back at the past we are apt to comment that ‘it was another country’ where ‘they did things differently’. London was a multi-cultural city in the late Victorian period and while there were pockets or moments of racial tension (such as during the Whitechapel murder panic in 1888) for the most part the different communities got along.

Nevertheless the idea that white Britons were superior to pretty much anyone else was a persistent trope in contemporary discussions. Britain ‘ruled the waves’ after all and had an Empire ‘on which the sun never set’. This was a time when the world map was heavily tinged with pink and when we, and not the USA or Russia, were the World’s chief ‘superpower’.

I do wonder how much of today’s angst about Europe is born of a desire to regain our imperial past. The EU leave campaign’s slogan ‘we want our country back’ is a curious one; what country were they talking about? The one that stood alone at the start of WW2? The one that was experiencing economic disaster in the mid 1970s? Or perhaps the nation that operated an empire on five continents?

The newspapers were certainly ‘casually racist’ in the 1800s. Most ‘foreigners’ are either seen as inferior, dangerous, or amusing. This seems to have persisted right up to the 1980s when things began to change in the way people described others. It is no longer acceptable to poke fun at people on account of their race, ethnicity or religion now, but that doesn’t seem to have filtered down to Mr Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, that American born champion of British liberties.

In 1890 no such ‘political correctness’ existed and so the The Illustrated Police News ‘headlined’ its report of a case of domestic violence at the Thames Police court ‘The Heathen Chinee all over’. The case concerned two Chinese immigrants: Ah Wei (a young ship’s steward) and Ah Tuing (a fireman). Both worked on the ships coming in and out of the London Docks and belonged to the small but well established Chinese community in Limehouse.

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It was this community that inspired Sax Rohmer’s ever-so-slightly racialist crime series about the criminal mastermind Fu Man Chu. Contemporary depictions of Limehouse as an area overrun by the ‘yellow peril’ and clouded in opium smoke owe much to Rohmer and Dickens’ Mystery of Edwin Drood, but the reality was that most people there lived in reasonable harmony with each other, regardless of their background.

Ah Tuing had accused the ship’s steward of assaulting him and was asked to swear an oath before he gave his evidence. Speaking through an interpreter (interpreters were common in the police courts, given the proliferation different languages spoken from Chinese to Yiddish, to German or Italian) Ah Tuing explained that as a Buddhist the ‘only oath he respected was the extinguishing of a lighted candle’.

This meant that ‘if he did not speak the truth his soul would be blown away in the same way as was the light’.

Mr Cluer (the magistrate) asked if a ‘wax vesta’ (a match) would ‘do as well’ and reached into his pocket to fetch one. No, the interpreter insisted, it had to be a candle so one was fetched and Ah Tuing was ‘sworn’.

The case now unfolded and Mr Cluer was told that the prosecutor had lent Ah Wei a waterproof coat to protect him from a shower of rain, extracting a promise of sixpence for the loan. The steward refused to pay up when the rain ceased and an argument ensued. This descended into a fight in which Ah Wei was deemed to be the aggressor. One witness – most of whose evidence was given in translation – saved some English for the man in the dock. Turning to him he shouted:

‘You _______ liar. You one loafer!’

All the evidence then pointed to Ah Wei being guilty of assault but then all the evidence had come from the Chinese community. The key witness (for Mr Cluer at least) was Joseph Brown, a greengrocer on Limehouse Causeway. He testified that Ah Wei had been in in his shop when Ah Tuing entered carrying a child in his arms. He thrust the child in the steward’s face and ‘kept irritating him’ and then ‘afterwards [they] had a fair fight’.

The English of course, had very clear ideas about what a ‘fair fight’ was. This did not involve weapons and usually meant the two parties were roughly equally matched. Mr CLuer wasn’t interested in what the Chinese community’s idea of a ‘fair fight’ was, just as he seemingly dismissed the evidence of those that came in to back Ah Tuing’s version of events. An Englishman’s word was of much higher value than a foreigner’s and so he dismissed the charge.

The press reportage reminded the reader that ‘Johnny foreigner’ was a strange and exotic creature, and Boris Johnson’s equation of Muslim women wearing the Burkas with ‘bank robbers’ or  ‘letter boxes’ belongs to this tradition of English xenophobia; one ‘tradition’ we could do with ditching as soon as possible.

[from The Illustrated Police News etc, Saturday, August 7, 1897]

A sailor narrowly avoids having his drink spiked in Tower Hamlets

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The reports of the Police Courts of Victorian London provide a useful reminder that there is very little that is properly ‘new’ in our supposedly ‘modern’ society. The sorts of things that people did in the past might look different in style to us, but rarely in content.

So we find that Londoners worked and played hard, fought and loved, laughed and cried, and argued over just about anything. The streets were extremely busy, accidents frequent, and buses and trains crowded. There were thousands of shops selling a huge range of consumer goods, the parks and gardens were trampled by promenading feet at weekends and holidays, and the capital was a melting pot of multiculturalism.

As for crime (the main business of the Police Courts) it is hard to find things here that would not be found in a modern magistrate’s court. Certainly we deal with some things differently; many more offenders were sent straight to gaol in the 1800s for relatively minor property crimes than would be the case today for example.  But the same crimes come up time again: petty theft, picking pockets, assault, drunk and disorderly behavior, dangerous driving, fraud and deception.

One offence that I did assume was very ‘modern’ was the spiking of someone’s drink in a pub or bar. This is now most often associated with date rape, where a person (most often a man) adds a chemical to a woman’s drink in order to take advantage of them later. In recent years the preferred drug has been rohypnol but victims have had their drinks spiked with other substances such as ketamine or GHB (which is ecstasy in liquid form).

However, it seems there is indeed nothing new even in this apparently ‘modern’ form of crime. In June 1876 two women appeared at the Thames Police court charged with ‘attempting to drug a seaman’. They failed and ended up in front of the notoriously harsh magistrate, Mr Lushington.

Lushington was told that on the evening of Friday 23 June 1876 Sarah Murray and Mary Spencer were in the Blue Anchor pub in Dock Street, off the Ratcliffe Highway. They had picked out a sailor who’d recently returned from a voyage (and so probably had all his wages on him) and got friendly with him.

This was a common tactic for local prostitutes and thieves: find a likely looking punter, render him insensible through drink (that he paid for) then take him upstairs or nearby for sex and steal all his money and possessions while slept off the effects of the alcohol. A simpler method was to skip the sex altogether and knock him over the head in a dark alley as he lowered his guard along with his breeches.

Mary and Sarah were more sophisticated however. As Sarah distracted his attention her partner removed a paper slip from her clothes and poured a powder into the sailor’s fresh glass of ale. Unfortunately for the young women the seaman was more alert than they thought and saw the move to drug him.

‘He snatched the glass of ale off the counter, and in doing so upset the contents on the floor’. Mary tried to grab the glass but he was too quick for her and rinsed it out before she could stop him.

William Burr was working the bar that night and saw what happened. He tried to seize the woman and Sarah went for him, hitting him with her fists and anything she could find. Both women were eventually subdued and taken to the local police station. Mr Lushington said it was a shame that the barman or sailor hadn’t kept the glass with the drug in it as that would have been evidence against Mary. As it was all he could do was warn both of them that the attempt to poison another person was a serious offence which brought, on conviction, a sentence of penal servitude for life.

He could deal with the assault however and sent Sarah Murray to prison for two months at hard labour. Her accomplice got away with it on this occasion, but knew she’d better avoid appearing in Lushington’s court in the near future. The sailor was unnamed because he didn’t come to court, perhaps because he was embarrassed or maybe because as far as he was concerned the matter was done with.

The publication of the story in a working class paper like Reynolds’s would also serve to warn others of this ‘new’ means of rendering unwary individuals unconscious so that they could be robbed blind by the local women of Tower Hamlets.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, June 25, 1876]

A chance theft adds insult to a widow’s grief

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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’.

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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.

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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.

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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]