The menace of fireworks (a lesson from the past?)

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Bonfire night is upon us again and, despite the ongoing pandemic, dusk is ushered in by the sound of fireworks as it has been for the last few weeks.

This means that my social media feed is also full of people complaining about fireworks: children and young adults throwing them, pets being distressed by them, and our peace being shattered by them. But before we get carried away by thinking that this is in any way a modern problem, let me assure you that we’ve been complaining about fireworks for well over 150 years.

In 1846, for example, the London Daily News reported a case from the Edmonton Petty Sessions under the headline: ‘A caution to dealers in fireworks’.

Mary Emmune was summoned to court to explain why she had sold ‘a quantity of catherine wheels, squibs, etc.’ to a child. She faced a penalty of £5, which seems quite lenient but was the equivalent of around £300 today. Despite having a solicitor to represent her the bench still levied the full amount.

In doing this the chair (the magistrate in charge on the day) was probably mindful of his own experience of Guy Fawkes night that year. He told the dealer’s lawyer that his own horse had ‘nearly run away with him’ in fright at all the explosions around him, and that one of his friend’s animals had been ‘severely injured in consequence of fireworks’.

This is clear echo through time of the distress caused by loud bangs and flashes to our pets and work animals. In the past of course horses were ubiquitous in Victorian society. Pretty much everything we rely on motorised transport for (commuting, goods delivery, public transport) was provided by horse power in the 1800s.

So there was plenty of risk of animals being ‘spooked’ by fireworks (either those just ‘going off’ and those more mischievously thrown by youths. Youths were not allowed to be sold fireworks (which is why Mrs Emmune was prosecuted) and that is the case today. It is illegal to sell them to under 18s and it is against the law for anyone under 18 to be in possession of a firework in a public space.

In the following year there was tragedy in Exeter when an eighteen year-old apprentice was killed when two rockets exploded in his trouser pockets. The coroner’s jury returned a verdict of ‘accidental death’ with a strong recommendation ‘against the use of fireworks being permitted by the authorities’.

The same paper also reported that a curate and his assistant were prosecuted in Topsham, Devon, for ‘rolling lighted tea-barrels through the streets’, despite this practice having been banned by local magistrates. The Rev. Cooke was fined £2 plus expenses.

The same problems continue to blight Guy Fawkes today of course. Fatalities are rare but they do happen, but between 2000-2005 (the last year that statistics were taken) an average of 1,650 people a year were bring injured by fireworks.

Two more fatalities in 1851 were the result of illegal firework manufacture in the Clerkenwell, London. William Phillips and James Prickett (both in their late teens) died at St Bartholomew’s hospital in early November of wounds sustained when testing fireworks they were making. The other man involved was ‘dangerously ill’ and so evidence was scarce but it seems the trio were employed by a chemist named Thomas Herring in Aldersgate Street. Unbeknown to Herring the lads were making fireworks ‘solely for the amusement of themselves’.

‘They had made a lot of squibs’, the court was told, ‘but they would not go off properly’. As they tried again one ended up in the fire, popped out of the grate and set off others. There was an explosion which blew out the windows, and a fire engulfed the premises, leaving all three lads severely burned.  The coroner concluded that the house might have exploded, taking down the nearby properties. He added that manufacturing fireworks was illegal, because it was deemed a ‘nuisance’ by law.

Your opinion on fireworks will probably be influenced by your age, where you live, and whether you have pets. I like displays but clearly that is problematic at the moment, especially as this year’s Bonfire Night marks the start of a new month long lockdown. In almost any other context they are nuisance at best. But, given that, as  history tells us, this is an issue with deep roots, I doubt we are going to solve it until retailers are banned form selling fireworks completely (or choose to refrain from doing so independently).

So whatever you do do, do it safely and with regard for the people (and animals) you live close to.

[From Daily News, Friday 13 November 1846; Examiner, Saturday 27 November 1847; Morning Chronicle, Thursday 6 November 1851).  

‘I ain’t scared of no ghosts…’: Halloween traditions in the Victorian press

Tonight is Hallowe’en when the borders to the spirit world are at their thinnest and the dead walk the earth…

Or it is All Hallow’s Eve, an important Christian date marking the night before All Saints Day (or it has been since Pope Gregory III moved it from its original date in May).

It has now become a highly commercialised and largely secular festival: a chance for retailers to sell sweets and inedible pumpkins, for the very young to dress up and go out ‘trick or treating’, and for the not-quite-so-young to dress up and go partying.

It is – and it seems it has long been – a night for misrule, for chaos, for turning the word upside down.

It is often viewed as an American import. ‘Trick or treat’, pumpkins, the whole commercial element of Hallowe’en was almost entirely absent form my childhood in the 1970s. Now it is hard to imagine October 31 without a constant stream of miniature shots, devils, and witches knocking on our doors while their slightly embarrassed parents lurk by the gate.

But the truth is that it is actually returning export. The traditions of Hallowe’en, developed out of Celtic paganism and the celebration of Samhain and arrived in America with Irish and other British immigrants.

There were several closely linked traditions in Celtic nations – such as ‘nutcrack night’ in Scotland for example. There young people would throw nuts into a fire to see if they lie still and burn (signifying happy marriage) or pop and burst (meaning your matrimony was doomed to be tempestuous).

In Ireland people would gather food and drink in the days before October 31, beginning the process of hunkering down for the winter. This marked the end of the growing season when the land appeared to die and all that farming communities could do was bring in their crops and animals and wait for the spring.

In 1846 some of these traditions were reported in the newspapers, quoting from older folklore texts and were presented with a general sneering undertone which reflected mainstream English Christian distaste aimed at the Irish. But in doing so we can see the origins of the trick or treat custom that is so popular today.

‘The peasants in Ireland’, we are told, ‘assemble with sticks and clubs, going from house to house, collecting money, bread-cake, butter, cheese, eggs, etc. for the feast [of Samhain]’.

Candles are ‘sent from house to house in vicinity, and are lighted up on the next day, before which they pray, or are supposed to pray, for the departed soul of the donor’.

On the night there is feasting, apples and nuts ‘are devoured’, ‘cabbages torn up by the root’. There is divination from nuts again and from hemp seeds. These are ‘sown by maidens, and they believe that, if they look back, they will see the apparition of man intended for their future spouse’.

In Celtic beliefs a man named ‘Stingy Jack’ or ‘Jack the lantern’ roamed the wild at night, having tricked the devil to keep his soul. Unable to enter Heaven or Hell he was condemned to walk abroad at night and he was remembered in the carving of turnips, which were then illuminated with a candle.

When immigrants arrived in north America they found pumpkins much easier to carve than turnips, and a new tradition was born. The tradition of going house to house continued and, probably at some point in the 1920s, was formalised into a sort of annual festival – the ‘American’ Hallowe’en to have today.

So all those ‘ghosts’ and ‘witches’ with their hopeful buckets and their scary costumes are actually a reminder of our deep rooted pagan history. Pope Gregory III wanted to obliterate a pagan autumn festival by superimposing a Christian one.

Just as churches were built on pagan shrines and sites of worship, and Easter and Christmas replaced the existing pagan festivals (of Eostre and Yule) Samhain was relegated to a mere folk story, belonging to a superstitious peasant community, all in an attempt to stamp out any remaining traces of pre-Christian religion.

Given the current pandemic Hallowe’en will be very different this year. Children will not be able knock doors and demand a treat, parties will not happening, the night of misrule will have to be suspended in lockdown but I shall still carve my (entirely edible) pumpkin and mark the passing of autumn and the early onset of winter.

Happy Hallowe’en!

[from The Morning Post, Saturday 31 October 1846]

A small tragedy averted as over 600 drown in the Thames’ foul waters

FeaturedA small tragedy averted as over 600 drown in the Thames’ foul waters

On Saturday 14 September 15, 1878 Henry Sharpe, whose occupation was simply recorded as ‘labourer’ , was set in the dock at Mansion House and charged with trying to kill himself. 

On Friday night (ominously perhaps, the 13th) a City policeman was on patrol by London Bridge when a man rushed up and grabbed him. The man (Sharpe) was clearly at his wits end and very drunk. He tried, incoherently, to explain that his wife and two children were dead – both drowned in the sinking of the Princess Alice earlier that month. 

The SS Princess Alice  was a Thames paddle steamer that sank after a collision with a collier, (the Bywell Castle) on 3 September. It was a terrible tragedy that claimed the lives of over 600 people: men, women, and children. The steamer went down in a stretch of the river that was heavily polluted with raw sewerage; many of those that died must have suffered an awful death. 

Having poured out his grief to the policeman Sharpe was persuaded to go home and sleep off his sorrow. Convinced he’d averted another tragedy (however small by comparison) the policeman resumed his beat. Imagine his surprise then when 30 minutes later he saw Sharpe scrambling up the parapet of the bridge, seemingly intent on launching himself in the Thames’ murky waters. 

With the help of some passers-by the lawman affected a rescue, dragging the drunken labourer back from the precipice by his ankles. He was taken back the station, charged and left to sober up. 

Sharpe was joined in court by his wife in children who had clearly not perished in the disaster and must have been shocked that Henry would suggest such a thing. His desperate actions perhaps reveal a deep seated mental illness but he told the magistrate – Sir Thomas Dakin, Lord Mayor of London – that he had been drinking with a close friend that evening, consoling him for the loss of his family in the sinking. 

Who knows if that was the truth either; we have no passenger list for the Princess Alice  we don’t know exactly how many souls perished or what all of their names were. One of Jack the Ripper’s victims claimed to have lost her husband in the tragedy; Elizabeth Stride may have been hoping to gain the sympathy of others for her loss, or perhaps even to benefit from the generosity of Londoners who raised thousands of pounds for the bereaved families.  In Liz’s case as in Henry’s it was a false claim but it shows how this disaster touched so many lives in the late Victorian capital. 

The Lord Mayor declared that Sharpe was ‘a dissipated fellow’ and decided the best course of action was to lock him on remand for a few days so the alcohol could work through his system. It wasn’t a conviction or a sentence as such, but at least it was some sort of intervention that might have saved his life.  

From Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday 15 September 1878

‘Let finish the bastard!’ : Drunkenness and violence in the Victorian capital

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Seven Dials, a Victorian slum 

It was drunkenness and its consequences that filled the first column of reports on the Police Courts in the Morning Post on 6 August 1863. Drunk and disorderly behaviour, especially if it involved any form of violence, was regularly punished by the city’s magistrates and featured often in newspaper reports. This morning the reports, while they had a common theme, involved a range of defendants and circumstances.

The most serious (at least in the eyes of the law at the time) was heard at Bow Street before Mr Henry. Two ‘young rough fellows’ – Reardon and Sullivan – were accused of being drunk and assaulting a police officer. The officer involved was a Inspector Brimmacombe of F Division Metropolitan Police. Brimmacombe was on duty in Seven Dials, one of the capital’s poorer and more criminal districts.

What he was doing there is unclear but he wasn’t operating under cover because when he came upon Reardon and Sullivan and a half dozen other men who were drunk and disturbing the peace, he instructed them to go home quietly.

They laughed in his face, refused to comply, and attacked him. Sullivan swung at the officer but missed, striking a nearby carthorse on the nose instead. Sullivan now tried to grab at the policeman and spat full in his face, cursing him. Brimmacombe seized the man’s collar and made to drag him way but he called for his mate’s to help him ‘throw him down’.

The ‘mob’ now piled in on the policeman, joined he said by many more so that he was kicked on the ground as he was surrounded by upwards of 20 assailants. Inspedctor Brimmacombe was kicked, ‘beaten, and dragged about, his coat and cape covered with mud, and so torn as to be unserviceable’. The assault continued for about 10 minutes and Reardon then drew a knife and muttered darkly:

‘Let’s finish the __________’.

Just then the Westminster Police court prison van drove by, on its may to the House of Detention. The sergeant driving the van saw what was happening and rushed to help the inspector. The crowd of roughs scattered but Sullivan was arrested. Reardon was identified and picked up in a pub later that evening. In court both prisoners apologized but it didn’t save them from punishment: Mr Henry ordered them to pay a hefty £3 fine each or go to gaol for a month.

The next two cases are from the City of London, which had two courts – at Mansion House (where the Lord Mayor presided, unless he was unavailable) and Guildhall, which was staffed by aldermen in rotation.

Ellen Murray was charged before Alderman Gabriel with being drunk and causing criminal damage. She was prosecuted by a Mr Hough, who kept a licensed public house on Giltspur Street. Hough said that Ellen had come to his house and had been drinking until he decided she’d had enough. Ellen was becoming rowdy and landlords were mindful of running orderly establishments for dear of losing custom and their licenses.  When she wouldn’t calm down he threw her out.

The young woman was drunk and enraged and put her fist through his window, breaking what he described as a ‘valuable pane of embossed glass’. He called for a policeman and had her arrested. In court he told the alderman magistrate that he was particularly upset because he had helped Ellen in the recent past. She was poor and he had approached the West London Union on her behalf to secure her some outdoor relief, meaning she could stay out of the workhouse. He thought it very ungrateful of her to repay him in this way.

Ellen apologized but again; it wasn’t enough to save her. She had no money to pay a fine or the damages she owed for the window so she was sent to prison for a fortnight.

Our final case concerned a young man at the other end of the social scale. James Wilson was the name he gave at Mansion House but that may not have been his real name. He was a – he said – a solicitor and had a ‘genteel’ appearance as he stood in the dock before the Lord Mayor.

He too was charged with being drunk and, in addition, with ‘assaulting several females’. This was his second appearance that week but when he was set in the dock on Tuesday he’d been too drunk to stand and so was remanded overnight. Wilson had been seen by a 15 year-old boy in Bucklersbury (a street in the city quite close to the Bank of England – pictured right c.1845 ) with a young girl. It was reported that he had assaulted her in ‘an indecent manner’ and the witness had gone off to fetch a policeman.

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Meanwhile Wilson ran off and groped a passing woman before boarding a moving omnibus where he assaulted another female passenger. The bus was stopped and Wilson removed and warned by a constable. Taking no notice – presumably because he was so drunk – Wilson ran up to another women in the street and threw his arms around her neck.

That was his lot and the police took him into custody. On Wednesday, sober and repentant, he apologized although he said he was so drunk he could hardly remember anything from that night. He begged not to be sent to gaol, as ‘it would ruin him mentally, he was sure’. The Lord Mayor said drunkness was no excuse and he’d have to be punished in some way.

Wilson said he was ‘a poor man’, living off his friends with very little funds of his own but he’d happily make a donation to the poor box if His Lordship requested him to. The Lord Mayor fined him 40but warned him that a failure to pay would earn him a month in prison. Hopefully for him – if not for his victims – his friends rallied round and paid his fine.

So, three cases of drunken behaviour, three different sorts of victim and quite different circumstances, but all ‘rewarded’ in much the same way. Violence, often fuelled by drink, was endemic in the Victorian capital and must have proved depressingly repetitive to the  men who served as Police Court magistrates.

[from Morning PostThursday, 6 August 1863]

Cowboys in the dock at Westminster as the ‘Whitechapel fiend’ makes his first appearance.

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On the 3 August 1888 two Americans appeared before the magistrate at Westminster Police court. John Dunn was probably every small boy’s idea of an American – a cowboy and ‘professional horseman’, part of Buffalo Bill’s travelling Wild West Show, he would have cut an exotic figure in the dock. The other man was darker skinned, described as a Mexican and giving the name Richard Chester Dare.

Dare (described as ‘a powerful man’ with the press) was charged with assault, and Dunn with aiding him. On the Thursday night both had been drinking at a pub on the Broadway when they had fell into an argument with a gun maker’s assistant called William Head. We can probably imagine the nature of the dispute, two US citizens in London arguing with a local about the merits of American vs British firearms.

Head left the pub but Dare hadn’t finished the quarrel and took it outside. As the gun maker walked home Dare and two others came up behind him and pushed him. A fight ensued and Head was knocked to the ground. Head and Dare grappled together before William escaped and made his way home.

He had been wounded quite badly, sustaining a bruise to the side of his face which had closed his left eye and had been stabbed in his side. It is likely that in the chaos of the moment and being a little the worse for drink he hadn’t noticed the American pull out a knife at the time. However, in court before Mr Partridge he testified to seeing a knife in the cowboy’s hand.

Both men were remanded to appear again but on application Dunn was granted bail. His was the less serious charge and Mr Partridge was told that Dare was supposed to be on his way to Brussels to join up with ‘Mexican Joe’s’ troupe, so perhaps the chance that he might slip away from justice was uppermost in the magistrate’s mind. He also instructed the police to inform the American consul of the men’s arrest.

William ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody toured Europe several times between 1887 and 1906, the first in 1887 which coincided with Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. One of the reviews of the 1887 show in London (at the American Exhibition) gives us a flavour of the event:

The size of the enclosure was one element of the impressiveness of the coup d’œil and this was cleverly increased by the picturesque scenery which enclosed half of the circle. At the edge of the ash-covered circle in the center were drawn up on parade the whole strength of the Wild West company. There were the various tribes of Indians in their war-paint and feathers, the Mexicans, the ladies, and the cowboys, and a fine array they made, with the chiefs of each tribe, the renowned Sergeant Bates, the equally celebrated Buffalo Bill, the stalwart Buck Taylor, and others who were introduced by Mr. Frank Richmond who, from the top of an elevated platform, described the show as it proceeded. 

Cody took his troupe back to the USA in May of 1887 having performed for both the Queen and the Prince of Wales. Yet some of the performers stayed behind, enjoying the life they found in London’s bustling city streets. Presumably two of these were Dare and Dunn. Sadly, at this point they both vanish from the pages of the Victorian newspapers so we don’t know what happened to them.

A few days later the body of Martha Tabram was discovered on a landing in George Yard, in the heart of the Whitechapel slum. She had been viciously stabbed and her killer was nowhere to be seen. Although there is considerable dispute as to whether Martha was the first victim of ‘Jack the Ripper’ a consensus is developing that suggests she was killed but he same person that murdered five or more women that summer and autumn.

As the police searched for a serial killer in 1888 the idea that the killings might have been perpetrated by a native American or another member of Buffalo Bill’s travelling Wild West circulated. After all, it was said, what Englishman could do such a terrible thing?

[from The Standard Saturday 4 August 1888]

A drunken mother loses her temper and then her liberty

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Royal Army Clothing Factory 21/6/1918 during a visit by King George V and Queen Mary (IMW collection)

On Wednesday 28 July 1875 Emma Leven was set in the dock at Westminster Police court to face a charge that she had tried to kill her own baby. She was remanded overnight by the sitting magistrate Mr Arnold, who wanted to hear from a number of people, including the key witness, who had not appeared that day.

The case hadn’t been reported at the time but we should read nothing into that. Hundreds of summary hearings took place every day at London’s police courts and the papers only carried reports of one or two from each of them daily. This case was ‘of interest’ however, so when Emma was brought back from the cells on Thursday a scribbler from the Morning Post described the hearing for his readers.

Emma was married and – according to Mrs Elizabeth Turner, Thomas Tullogh, and William Rush – on the night of 27 July she was drinking in the Eagle public house on Grosvenor Road¹ and was ‘very drunk’. Her baby had been left outside and it was crying its eyes out. One imagines Emma was under some pressure to deal with the crying infant, and no doubt felt a mixture of anger, resentment, and embarrassment as all the eyes of the pub were turned on her.

Suddenly he declared that she would throw the child in the Thames, and rushed out of the pub. She lifted the child into her arms and set off at a run in the general direction of the river. Alarmed, Mrs Turner hurried after her and managed to catch up with Emma just before she hurled the poor thing over the railings and into the water.

A policeman was summoned and Mrs Turner took charge of the baby as Emma was led away. While Mrs Turner suckled her child Emma screamed abuse at her all the way back to the police station. For some reason however, Mrs Turner did not appear in court on the Wednesday, while Tullogh and Rush did. Turner somehow managed to sign the register of witnesses attending that day, despite not doing so, this would impact on her, as we shall see.

In court on the Thursday Emma Leven had sobered up and was contrite. She was ‘too fond of her children’ to ever intend to hurt them she told Mr Arnold. She had gone to the pub that evening to meet her husband and some friends; one drink had led to another and she had drunk too much. She was sorry.

Her husband was more belligerent. He told the magistrate that he didn’t believe a word of what Mrs Turner had said. Perhaps there was some bad blood there; local jealousies and neighbor disputes were all too common, feuds could develop out of the smallest slights amplified over time.

What mattered here though was not what  Mr Leven believed but what Mr Arnold (as presiding magistrate) did. And he believed the case was proven.

He rebuked Mr Leven for ‘having little regard for his child’ and challenged Emma’s declaration of ‘fondness’ for her child. If, he said, ‘she chose to get so drunk that she rushed to the side of the river to throw the child in she must put up with the consequences’.  She had been drunk and disorderly and he would send her to prison for a month. On her release she would have to find sureties of £20 against her good behavior for the following six months.

Having dealt quite severely with Emma Leven he turned his attention to the witnesses.

He was full of praise for Turlough and Rush but very disappointed to hear that their employer had stopped their wages for coming to court the previous day. The pair worked at the Royal Army Clothing Factory on Grosvenor Road in Pimlico (where the Eagle pub was) and he instructed the chief inspector of B Division to pay the factory a visit.

‘The men had attended in the performance of a public duty’, he said, and ‘if they were stopped of their wages it would have the effect of deterring people from coming forward and giving evidence in the public cause’.

Arnold recognised that justice relied on the participation of the general public. The men deserved praise not a penalty.

The same was not the case for Mrs Turner however. When she asked for her expenses (presumably for attending court and looking after Emma’s baby) Mr Arnold dismissed her abruptly. He had ‘no fund at his disposal expect the poor box; he told her but as she ‘had not attended the court on Wednesday, although she had signed the sheet, he should not allow her expenses’. The suspicion is then that the magistrate, while keen to recognize public spiritedness was less impressed by self-interest and dishonesty.

The Royal Army Clothing Factory was established in Pimlico in the 1850s to make and supply the British Army. It was part of the Royal Army Ordnance Corps and remained in Grosvenor Road until 1932, when it closed.

Today the site is covered by the private housing development Dolphin Square which was erected in the 1930s following the factory’s demolition. In recent years it has been home to a number of famous people (including the tennis star Rod Laver and Princess Ann – not together I hasten to add) and several politicians including Harold Wilson and David Steel. Oswald Mostly, the most prominent British fascist of his generation, was living in the Square in 1940 when he was detained as an enemy of the state during the Second World War. Having once stayed in an apartment in Dolphin Square I can attest to its general air of opulence, but I never met any celebrities

from Morning Post Friday 30 July 1875

¹ The Eagle is still operational in Pimlico, now renamed the Grosvenor though.

The artist’s model who left no trace

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An incident in the Revolutionary War of America (The Fraser Highlanders at Stone Ferry) – Robert Ronald McIan (1854)

Robert McIan probably thought he was doing someone else and himself a good turn when he ‘rescued’ John Coster from his perilous condition on the streets of central London. It was the dawn of the Victorian age – 1837 – and the comedian and artist was strolling near his home on Newman Street, off Oxford Street, he saw a man in ‘a wretched state of constitution and starvation’. He decided to take him home and feed him.

McIan would later admit that his motivation was more than just that of a good Samaritan; he recognized that Coster’s ‘picturesque appearance’ made him a perfect subject for artist study. Coster was an Indian from the Bengal, who had been born a ‘Mohametan’ but had converted to Catholicism. He spoke English, but with a heavy Indian accent.

He was treated with some compassion by McIan who made him a servant in his household but he was also a ‘curiosity’ and was shown to the artist’s friends, several of whom painted him themselves. Coster then was drawn and painted by no lesser figures than ‘Sir David Wilkie, Landseer, Etty, Ewins, and most of the celebrated painters of the day’.

In McIan’s head he had done the man a great service so it must have come a terrible betrayal of trust to discover that the man he had saved from the streets had robbed him. Yet in March 1840 that is exactly what he alleged. A pistol had disappeared from his painting room and, since Coster (who had also vanished) was familiar with the room and its contents, and the door had been forced open, suspicion fell on him.

A description of the missing servant and the gun – a ‘Highland pistol’ – were circulated and several months later both were recovered. The pistol had been pawned on Tottenham Court Road and it was easy to trace that back to Coster given his distinctive appearance as an Asian in London.

At his appearance at Hatton Garden Police court Coster was also accused of a second robbery. Since he’d quit McIan’s service he had been living in lodgings St Giles and his landlady deposed that he had plundered her rooms before running out on her as well. Coster admitted stealing the pistol but vehemently denied any knowledge of the other charge.

Mr Combe, the sitting magistrate that day, told Coster he would be remanded in custody while further enquiries were made and other witnesses sought. But he informed the prisoner that if he was convicted all of his luxurious long black hair would be shaved off.

‘No!’, Coster exclaimed from the dock, ‘da neber sall; me die first before da sal cut de hair off’.

Robert Ronald McIan (1802-1856) was a popular artist in the Victorian period known for his romanticized depictions of Highland life and history. He had trod the boards in the theatre in his youth (which may explain why he still described himself as a ‘comedian’ in 1840). He is most well known for his “Battle of Culloden’ and ‘A Highland Feud’ (both 1843) and in the same year he exhibited ‘An Encounter in Upper Canada’ which depicted the heroic fight between Clan Fraser and a larger French and American Indian force. The Highland pistol that Coster probably featured in some of these paintings and, who knows, maybe his former servant did as well in some way.

Edwin Landseer (1802-1873) also had his Scottish connections – his ‘Monarch of the Glen’ (1851) is one of the most famous images of nineteenth century art. In 1858 he was commissioned to create the four bronze lions that guard Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square.

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Sir David Wilkie (1785-1841) was, famous for his historical paintings. Like McIan he was a Scot, born in Fife the son of a clergyman. Soon after the court case that involved Coster and his acquaintance McIan he travelled abroad, painting the portrait of the Sultan in Constantinople and various others on including Mehemet Ali in Alexandria, Egypt. He fell ill at Malta and died on the return voyage.

As for John Coster I’m afraid history doesn’t record what happened to him. There’s no record of a jury trial for this theft of an artist’s pistol or the robbery of a St Giles lodging house. Once again, the mysterious Indian with the ‘long black hair and dark piercing eyes’ vanished.

Above right: ‘General Sir David Baird Discovering the Body of Sultan Tippoo Sahib after having Captured Seringapatam, on the 4th May, 1799,’ by Sir David Wilkie (1839) – National Gallery of Scotland

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday 10 March 1840]

Cruelty to bears is not ‘entertainment’

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Given the Victorians’ love of animals and the efforts (from 1824) of the RSPCA to stamp out animal cruelty, I was a little surprised to see that dancing bears were still a sight seen on London streets in the last decade of the 1800s.

It must have been quite a sight as well which explains why over 200 people were drawn to Bridge Street in Homerton in May 1890. Two Frenchmen – De Love Chamary and Agas Jean – who both gave addresses in Edmonton – were charged at the Dalston Police court with obstructing the highway and refusing to ‘move along’.

A huge crowd had gathered on Bridge Street to see the  men prod the muzzled animal into performing, which had blocked the street entirely. PC Munro asked them to move along but they only went a few yards before starting up the entertainment again. When they failed to comply again he arrested them. Goodness know what they did with the bar but presumably the poor animal had to be taken into custody as well. I can well imagine the desk servant’s face when the trio arrived at the station!

A gentleman named Edward Young took the stand at Dalston to complain that along with the obstruction the bear represented a threat to the public. He himself had seen the beast ‘make for a servant girl twice that morning’. The bear was, he conceded, muzzled, but he wanted to let the court know that with bears it was ‘the hug that did it’. His intervention added to the entertainment element of this prosecution and prompted some laughter.

The defendants were ‘picturesquely-dressed’ as French ‘peasants’ and were, the reporter suggested, of ‘the gipsy class’. It is likely them that they lived in the countryside north of the capital, in caravans and tents at Edmonton rather than in suburban housing.

They assured Mr Haden Corser that the bear was harmless, and so the magistrate said there was little he could do to them beyond making them aware that were to obey the police’s instructions in future.  He cautioned them and let them go.

The practice of forcing captive bears dance was prohibited in Britain in 1911 but sadly continues in many countries in the world, even after prohibition. An organisation called Bear Conservation monitors the abuse of these magnificent animals worldwide and you find out how to support their efforts here

Daily News, Saturday 3 May 1890; Illustrated Police News, Saturday 10 May 1890

A beggar fights back and racism rears its ugly head in 1830s London

Slaves-plantation-passage-West-Indian-Slavery-Abolition

Slaves on a West Indian plantation being freed following passage of the Slavery Abolition Act (1833)

Assaults were prosecuted frequently in London’s police courts in the 1800s, and many of them involved attacks on the police or other authority figures. So the violence meted out to Samuel Daniels, a Mendicity Society officer, is, on the surface at least, not particularly notable.  What makes this case – from 1836 – noteworthy is the language used to describe the attack and perpetrator of it. Because, as we shall see, this was shot through with early Victorian notions of race and prejudice.

The Mendicity Society had been founded in 1818 with the intention of preventing begging in London. It gave out alms to those that agreed to move away and brought prosecutions against those that did not. As a charity it relied on donations but was doing very well by the 1820s, to the extent that it drew down criticism that not all of its funds were reaching those it purported to help. By the time this case came before a magistrate at Marlborough Street, the society had acquired a corn mill where some of those swept from the streets could be given work.

Mr Daniels had been looking for beggars in Soho in September 1836 and found Domingo de Sousa. De Sopusa was known to him as an ‘incorrigible vagabond’ and ‘imposter’ and presumably that meant he had tried to ‘help’ him off the streets previously, without success. Now he determined to take him into custody and have him taken before a magistrate to be charged under the Vagrancy Act. He did not count of de Sousa’s resistance however.

The officer was sensible enough to recognize that the beggar was a powerful man and so enlisted a nearby policeman for support. The presence of the constable failed to have the desired effect and de Sousa declared that:

‘Me no go wid mendacity ________!’ and then thumped Daniels hard on his chest.

He grappled with him trying to throw the charity officer the ground as the police tried to pull him off. In the process PC Sullivan received a bite wound which drew blood and the beggar was only subdued when a second constable arrived.

It wasn’t the end of the violence; a few yards down the road de Sousa escaped the clutches of the law and turned on the Medicity man. He through him down so violently that he broke his right leg in two places. He then attacked PC Sullivan, kneeing him in the groin before the other officer managed to secure him once more.

It was clearly a violent attack but it is the language used to describe it that reveals contemporary prejudice.

PC Marchant (the second officer) was ‘attacked with all the activity and ferocity of a tiger’, the report stated. De Sousa ‘sprang away’ and his attack resembled that of a ‘wild beast than of a human being’. While the policeman was ‘strong and resolute’ de Sousa was described in animalistic terms:

‘His physiognomy, which closely resembled an ouran-outang’s [sic] , was hideously distorted; his eyes rolled furiously, and he bit at his opponents, using a kind of growl’.

De Sousa was a ‘black man of horrid aspect and powerful structure’. He was clearly seen as a threat to public safety just as many nineteenth-century people feared that freed slaves would be a threat to their former masters and the communities around the plantations on which they worked.   It seems that rhetoric was in use in London in the 1830s just as slavery was being abandoned after centuries of exploitation.

In 1834 the British parliament finally agreed to abolish slavery in British colonies but the process took another four years to complete. When the slaves were freed they did not rise up and slaughter their former abusers, they went to church to give thanks to God though the religion they had adopted in captivity.

Domingo de Sousa was treated not just as a violent beggar – cause enough to bring him to court – but as a member of an ‘inferior’ and ‘sub-human’ race. Mr Dyer, the sitting magistrate, committed him for trial at the next sessions and as he was led away he had one last blow to strike against his oppressors:

‘Me berry glad me break de medicity’s man’s leg’ he shouted as the gaoler dragged him back to the cells.

[from London Dispatch, Sunday 9 September 1836]