The odd couple: An unsympathetic pair of thieves in the dock in South London

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I can certainly begin to discern a qualitative difference in the style of Police court reporting over the course of the nineteenth century. The later reports (those from the 1890s in particular) are more ‘serious’ or less inclined to find amusement in the day-to-day happenings at the courts. The very early ones are quite short and factual, more akin to the reporting of crime in the previous century. But the ones around mid century (from the 1840s to the 1860s) show, I think, a desire to entertain. This would fit with the rise of ‘new journalism’ and the beginning of the ‘modern’ newspaper industry in this country.

Several of the cases reported by The Morning Post  on Monday 9 August 1841 have journalistic flourishes: descriptive remarks which are often absent from reports at the end of the century. They also seem partly aimed at provoking an emotional reaction in the reader – of horror, or sadness, shock, or sympathy. Whilst the language is old fashioned the approach seems very ‘modern’. It might, perhaps, reflect the influence of Charles Dickens, whose stories were popular at the time.

The Morning Post regaled its readers with the antics of a group of juvenile thieves who used even younger children to sneak into properties and secrete valuables in bags, which they then carried out to the waiting gang. The idea being that these kids were too young to prosecute, and perhaps so small as be undetected or unsuspected. One other lad (‘a little fellow’ as the paper described him) stole a pair of gloves and slammed a door in the face of his pursuers. When caught he boldly denied the theft saying ‘he never wore such things’ so why would he steal them? He may have got away with this attempted theft (the gloves were found discarded nearby) but two years later George (aged 17) was tried at the Old Bailey for stealing cloth and sent to prison.

Over at Union Hall Police court, south of the river, James Lewis appeared in court alongside his wife Harriet, both of them charged with stealing (James from his employer, a linen draper in Walworth) and Harriet from a local pawnbroker.

The reporter was fascinated by Harriet and gave his readers a pen portrait of her:

The female prisoner, who was dressed in the first style, with satin gown and rich velvet shawl, cut a very curious figure in the dock, when seated amongst a motely group of persons, consisting of low prostitutes and ragged mendicants’.

So we learn, incidentally, that in the early 1840s the prisoners mostly sat together at Union Hall, and weren’t brought up one by one from the cells to be dealt with.

Harriet clearly loved clothes but perhaps her husband’s salary wasn’t sufficient for her to indulge her passion, so she helped herself at the pawnbroker’s expense while he was fetching a waistcoat she had asked him about. Mr Cottingham committed for trial by jury at the Surrey assizes. During the trial she ‘appeared dreadfully excited, and wept bitterly’ as the details of the case were described. She protested her innocence and seems to have convinced the jury that it was all a mistake, she never intended to steal anything and they let her off.

As for James, her husband, he had apparently being suspected of stealing from William Wharton’s linen drapery for some time. When his lodgings were searched a great deal of stolen property was discovered, including many shawls. The court heard that James Lewis was paid £40 a year plus board and lodging so the shopman must have come across as an ungrateful thief to the readers of The Morning Post.

I doubt he endeared himself either by then telling the court that he would happily give the names of other employees at Mr Wharton’s who had also been pilfering from him. He said he did it ‘make what reparation he could’ to his master but he probably came across as a sneak to the reading public, and one who was trying to wriggle out of a situation he got himself into because of his greed and that of his wife.

Mr Cottingham issued summonses for the men he named and remanded Lewis is custody to appear with them when they were found. What happened to him I’ve not been able to discover, as he disappears from the records. At the very least I imagine he lost his position and that, along with his wife’s brush with the law, must have undermined their relatively happy existence. For the readers of the The Morning Post then this served as a cautionary tale and a peek into the lives to others, people unlike but then again, just like, them.  Which is often why we like to read the ‘crime news’ after all.

[from The Morning Post , Monday, August 09, 1841]

A real life Dickensian story of one girl’s descent from respectability to ruin.

 

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Yesterday evening I had the pleasure of visiting the Charles Dickens museum in Doughty Street and then going on a walking tour of the area led by Lee Jackson, an expert in all things Victorian. The tour was inspired by Dickens love of walking – he walked several miles every day and his observations gave him inspiration for his writing. Lee stopped frequently and referred extensively to Sketches by Boz, the collected writings that Dickens produced between 1833 and 1836 and which helped secure his contract to write The Pickwick Papersand then Nicholas Nickleby(and thus his breakthrough as an author). His pen portraits of people and places have helped fix the idea of early Victorian London in our heads with a host of characters from everyday life.

Many of these appear in the various Police Courts of the metropolis throughout the 1800s and the way in which certain characters or situations are described probably owes something to Dickens and his journalistic style. The reporters that attended the police courts were quick to choose cases that had drama, humor or a level of pathos – as well as those of course that offered a moral message or warning to the readership.

Dickens must have been familiar with the courts (he was after all, a legal clerk in his early years) and may have been inspired by some of the stories he heard there. I think the following case is a good example of the sort of tale that might lend itself to a short story or a scene in a Dickensian novel.

On the 31 May 1836 an ‘elderly, respectable looking’ man attended the Union Hall Police court to ask for the magistrate’s help.  He explained to Mr Wedgewood (who was the sitting justice that day) that he had an eighteen year-old daughter who had eloped with her lover three weeks previously.

She left without saying a word, taking her possessions in two packed suitcases. He’d sent out messages to find her and bring her home but without success. And then, as if this could not get any worse for the man, he went on to describe how the ‘seducer’ of his child had then abandoned her and left her disgraced and ruined at the mercy of a landlady of a house of ‘ill-fame’ in Anne Street, off the Waterloo Road.

The poor father had made enquiries at the house and was told that his ‘unfortunate and misguided’ had turned up there with a story that she had recently arrived from the Continent, and took rooms at £1 14sa week. Presumably unable to pay her rent the girl had fled leaving her luggage in lieu of her debt. He asked the magistrate if he could compel the landlady to hand over his daughter’s possessions.

Mr Wedgewood said he had no such powers under law; the woman was within her rights to keep the clothes and other goods since his daughter owed her money. However, if the gentleman could track down his missing girl she may well be able to testify to being abducted which could help bring a prosecution against the house (which clearly seems to have been some sort of brothel) and those that ran it. In response to this the old man said he’d asked the landlady where she was likely to have gone and was told:

I suppose if you look after her you will find her of an evening in the Strand or Fleet-street’ and ‘evinced the utmost unconcern in the course of the questions put to her respecting the unfortunate girl’.

She didn’t care what had happened her to. She’d lost a potential money earner but had her clothes; she must have hoped or excepted that the girl would return to her when she’d had enough of walking the streets. If the man didn’t find her soon however her ruin would be complete and a (short) life of exploitation, violence poverty, disease and death probably awaited her.

Mr Wedgewood could only sympathize with the unnamed father, she could do nothing for him except advise him to keep looking and hope to eventually bring her abusers to justice.  The man left court ‘evidently much depressed in spirits’.

A desperate and elderly father, a callous brothel madam, a young girl seduced by the charms of a duplicitous young man and the ultimate descent from respectability to poverty and public disgrace: this story has it all, it just needs a Dickensian quill to bring it to life.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, June 01, 1836]

 

‘labouring under considerable depression of spirits’: a young woman throws herself and her baby into the canal

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The Grand Surrey Canal on Davies’ Pocket Map of London, 1852

On Sunday 17 May 1840 a policeman (32P) was walking his beat, which took him along the Surrey Canal. This ran through Camberwell and Peckham to the Surrey Docks at Rotherhithe, but no longer exists.

It was between one and two in the morning and the moon (which had been full three days earlier) was waning. The copper thought he heard a splash and hurried to the bank. As he peered across the water he thought he saw something, a woman’s bonnet, floating in the canal. Without a thought, he ‘threw off his coat and cape and jumped into the water’.

The water engulfed him and he was soaked through as he thrashed about to find the woman he presumed had fallen in. The canal was nine feet deep at this point, quite deep enough for someone to drown in, but fortunately the policeman soon found a body in the water. He grabbed it and pulled the person to safety, hauling them up onto the towpath.

When he’d recovered himself he realized he had rescued a young woman and her infant child that she had ‘closely clasped in her arms’. He took them both to the station house and then on to the Camberwell workhouse where they were able to get a change of clothes. The next morning he collected her and brought her to the Union Hall Police court to face questions about her actions from the magistrate.

After PC 32P had given his evidence another officer testified to having seen the woman, Mary Doyle, walking by the canal late at night. He had assumed she was lost and accompanied her back to safety. Mary told the justice she had no idea how she had ended up in the water and said that whatever feelings she had about her own life she would never have endangered her child.

Attempting suicide was an offence in 1840 as of course was attempting to kill your own child. It was evident however, that Mary was not herself. The paper reported that:

 ‘she was labouring under considerable depression of spirits’ and there was a suggestion that the child was illegitimate, and so perhaps Mary was trying to end her own life, and that of her infant, in order to escape the shame of ‘an illicit intercourse’.

The magistrate decided to remand her for further enquiries. He added that if she could find bail he’d be happy to release her to her friends. Sadly, no friends had appeared in court that morning so she was taken back to the cells.

Now PC 32P asked the court if anything could be done for him. He had risked his life, he pointed out, and had got soaked through and his uniform soiled in the process. Could he be ‘recompensed for what he had done?’

While it may sound a little ungallant in the circumstances, he did have a point. Policemen were responsible for their own uniforms and he would have to get his cleaned, presumably at his own expense. Unfortunately for him the clerk explained that there was no fund available for him, and suggested he apply to the Humane Society which paid out rewards for those that ‘saved the lives of others’.

The Humane Society (now ‘Royal’) was founded in 1774 by two doctors who wanted to promote resuscitation, and made awards to those that rescued others from the ‘brink of death’. They set up ‘receiving houses’ throughout the capital where people could be brought to recover. It still exists and continues its work recognizing the efforts of lifesavers, but it no longer offers rewards.

If the policeman did approach them he was likely to have been given around £5 (or £300 in today’s money), quite sufficient for him to get his tunic cleaned and pressed, and to be able to dine out on the story for months afterwards. As for Mary, she disappears from the records at this point so hopefully she survived and avoided being prosecuted. Who knows, perhaps the shock of her brush with death was enough of a prompt to turn her life around.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, May 19, 1840]

p.s. On 10 February 1840 Queen Victoria married her prince, Albert to begin what was undoubtedly one of the few ‘love matches’ in the history royal marriages at the time. Today of course is the wedding of Prince Harry to Meghan Markle. I’m no royalist – quite the opposite in fact – but this is clearly a marriage based on love and not dynastic expedience. This is also a revolutionary marriage in its own small way: Harry, an English prince descended from Victoria, is marrying an American commoner, and a person of mixed race. This is (almost) then a ‘normal’ marriage, and continues the modernisation of the royal family that began under Harry’s mother, Diana. I will doff my red cap to them both today, and wish them well (but I shan’t be watching on television!)

A drunk explains how ‘Going native’ in New Zealand saved his life

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When a man named Burns appeared before the Union Hall Police magistrate on a  charge of being drunk and disorderly, he caused quite a stir. Burns (his first name was not recorded by the court reporter) declared himself as English, and he spoke perfect English, but his appearance was that of Maori warrior.

His face was tattooed in the Maori fashion so that he resembled ‘a New Zealand chief’. How had he come to allow himself to ‘be so disfigured’, the Chief Clerk wanted to know. Well, he replied, ‘it was better than being eaten’. With that dramatic start Burns then gave a brief account of his life and travels, and of what had brought him to London in July 1835.

In 1829 Burns was a sailor on a ship that ran into trouble and was wrecked off the New Zealand coast. He and six others made it to shore but everyone of his companions were killed by the natives. For some reason however, Burns’ life was saved on the intervention of one of their captors and he quickly adopted the local ‘manners and customs’ in order to survive, with, he added, one exception. He refused to eat ‘the bodies of the enemies of his tribe slain in war’.

There were contemporary reports that the Maoris practised cannibalism up until the early 1800s so Burns may have witnessed this. He may also have been playing on popular representations of the savage for effect.

Having settled into the community, he continued, he was soon adopted as a chief. In order to take up this new position he ‘was compelled to undergo the painful operation of tattooing, which was performed with such skill that it is now impossible to distinguish his visage from that of a native’.

As a senior member of the tribe he also learned to master the Maori war canoe and this led to his escape. One day, when he and several other canoes were patrolling along the coast looking for enemies, he spotted a western ship in the distance. He tricked the others into canoeing  off in one direction before turning his own canoe towards the sailing vessel and paddling hard. He quickly got himself out of reach of his former companion’s spears and made it to the ship. The crew helped him on board but it took him some time to convince the Spanish captain that he was indeed and Englishman and not the Maori warrior he appeared to be.

Eventually the Spanish ship had dropped him off in England and he had made his way to London where he now intended to exhibit himself at the Surrey Zoological Gardens. He told the justice at Union Hall that he would be dressed in the ‘costume of New Zealander, and [would] display his dexterity in the management of the canoe, and perform other feats which he had acquired during his six years residence amongst them’.

The magistrate declared that he could not deprive the public of such an entertainment and dismissed the charge against him.

The early 1800s were a time of war for the Maori peoples. Much of this was bloody internal fighting as the rival tribes acquired and used Western guns on each other. ‘Tens of thousands’ died in the so-called ‘musket wars’ of the 1810s, 20s and 30s, at just the time Burns was shipwrecked. Western weaponry was not the only killer however: disease also took its toll of the native population.

From the 1840s onwards tribal rivalry was expressed less in warfare and more in economics but by then New Zealand was increasingly being dominated by European interests. After the purchase of land at Auckland in 1840 the European population grew steadily, and many Maoris left. By 1858 there were more white faces than Maori ones. British policy was to acquire land the Maori deemed worthless or ‘wasteland’, and while there was continued fighting between the Maori settlers and the newer European colonists for most of the rest of the century, there was only ever going to be one final victor.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, July 23, 1835]

A returning hero of the Syrian war is robbed and left in a London gutter

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HMS Powerful

In 1840 Britain was embroiled in war in the middle east, fighting at sea off the coast of Syria in the Egyptian-Ottoman War (1839-41). Britain was allied to Turkey and when the the Ottoman fleet surrendered to the Egyptians at Alexandria the Royal navy entered the fray. A naval blockade, led by the British with support from the Austrian Empire, eventually secured a truce and the return of the Turkish vessels. A peace treaty followed in which the chief British negotiator was Admiral Charles Napier who managed to get the Egyptian ruler, Muhammed Ali, to renounce his claims to Syria in return for British recognition of his legitimate right to rule Egypt.

Napier had established his reputation in June 1839 (when he was plain Captain Napier) by bringing his command, HMS Powerful, to the defence of Malta when it was threatened by Egyptian forces. HMS Powerfulan 84-gun second rate ship of the line went on to lay a significant role in the war, being part of the force that bombarded Acre ultimately allowing Allied force to occupy the city.

So the Powerful  and the men that served on her were valorised as heroes and one of those men was Henry Collier, who returned to England in 1841 after being wounded in the conflict. Collier had been treated at the navy Haslar hospital at Gosport ‘in consequence of wounds sustained in actions on the coast of Syria, but by July 1841 he was in London.

As part of his recuperation able-seaman Collier decided he would take in the sights of the capital and headed for the Surrey Theatre with ‘a messmate’. He took his naval kitbag with him which contained some new clothes he had bought in town to ‘take into the country’, and his retirement from service.

Collier found the entertainment boring however, and left the theatre hailing a cab. He got talking to the cabman and the latter invited the sailor to join him and a fellow driver for a few drinks. Soon Collier was on a pub cruise with William Collison and John Stone and quite the worse for drink. He anded over a guinea to Collison to pay for his travel but only got 56s in change, not nearly enough. However by this stage the sailor was ‘so groggy’ that he didn’t really notice.

He was soon abandoned by the pair and when he was found, dead drunk on the street by a policeman, he had no money and no bundle of clothes. He described the men and they were soon apprehend and the whole case was taken before the police magistrate at Union Hall.

When the evidence was presented to him, the magistrate (Mr Cottingham) described it as a ‘scandalous robbery’ and asked if any of Collier’s possessions had been found in the possession of the cab drivers. They hadn’t the police replied, but Collison was discovered to have considerable funds on him, 10s 6d in fact. The cabbie, never the most popular figure in the pages of the Victorian press, claimed that this was simply his daily earnings for his trade. He not only denied stealing the sailor’s money or bundle of clothes but said that when he had picked him up he had nothing but the clothes he stood up in.

Had the sailor already lost his kit bag, was he drunk before he met up with the drivers? Both were possible of course but Collier ‘persisted in the truth of his account’. It was a familiar story of an unwary visitor to the capital being parted from his wealth by the locals and sadly, there was little in the way of proof on either side. It would probably come down to reputation and the appearance of anyone that could verify either of the conflicting accounts. Mr Cottingham therefore chose to remand the cabbies while other witnesses for the prosecution (or defence) could be found.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Monday, July 5, 1841]

A rough ‘raffle’ in Whitechapel

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One of the things that fascinates me about exploring the reports of cases in the old newspapers is the references to London landmarks (famous and mundane) and to street names. Whenever I am researching for a paper or a book I like to visit the ‘scene of the crime’ so to speak. When I was using the old Corporation of London Archives to read the notebooks of the eighteenth-century magistracy I burned off my lunch tramping the streets of the City, always looking up above the shop fronts and windows. You see much more that way.

Close to the Whitechapel Art Gallery and on the corner of Gunthorpe Street, is the White Hart public house. The pub is next to the archway that leads into what, in the 1880s, was the entrance to the ‘Abyss’ – the dark nether world of alleys, courts, and now lodging houses described by Jack London (1903), and others.

Many of the ‘Ripper’ tours start here and the pub trades on its association with London’s most notorious serial killer, Jack the Ripper. A plaque on the side informs customers that a ‘Ripper’ suspect (George Chapman – or Seweryn Klosowski) lived there for a time during the murders. Indeed a murder took place just a few yards from the pub – Martha Tabram’s in August 1888.

Chapman was hanged in 1903 for the murder of three women who he poisoned with arsenic. Apparently Inspector Abberline (one of the lead detectives in the Whitechapel murder case) believed Chapman was the killer because when he had interviewed his wife she had told him her husband was often out late at night for no reason.

Personally I doubt he was the ‘Ripper’ but its interesting to see how suspicions fall and the fact that he lodged at the White Hart certainly fits my belief that the killer was a local man.

The White Hart has clearly been around for a very long time, at least since the eighteenth century. Other pubs come and go and their names change. So when I saw that a fight had started at the White Horse pub in Whitechapel in 1852, I wondered if the court reporter had misheard or incorrectly recorded the details. It wouldn’t be the first (or last) time a journalist got his facts wrong.

In December 1852 John Quin and Julia Haggerty were accused (at Worship Street Police Court) with assaulting Jones Jones, the landlord of the White Horse, Whitechapel.

The assault charge uncovered what seems to have been a mass brawl in the pub, mostly involving members of the large Irish community. There had been a raffle on the Monday night and although (as the paper noted) there ‘could be only one winner amongst the number that stood the hazard of the die’, several of those that lost claimed they had been cheated and started a ‘row.

According to witnesses Quin was the instigator of the brawl and led his fellows in the destruction of glasses and furniture. The landlord was set upon and one witness testified that he feared for the fellow’s life. Haggerty attacked Mrs Jones.

Counter claims from Catherine Ryan and another witness said that the landlord had started it.

She told an incredulous courtroom that Jones attacked the ‘whole of the party (74 in number), and pitched them down stairs, at the bottom of which the witness Ryan said the defendant Quin was lying stone dead, never lifting an arm to man, woman, or child’.

The magistrate didn’t believe a word of it and convicted both defendants. Each was fined 20s, which they paid.

Was the White Horse actually the White Hart? A White Horse pub did exist in the 1800s, but it was at Poplar not in Whitechapel. Now Whitechapel means the area around Leman Street, and either side of Commercial Road and Commercial Street, up to Whitechapel tube in the east and the borders of the City of London to the west. So maybe the reporter got it wrong or perhaps it was meant in a broader geographical sense?

 

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, December 29, 1852]

 

A punch-up at St Thomas’ hospital as medical students protest their exclusion

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The operating theatre at St Thomas’ Church in London [http://thegarret.org.uk]

In December 1836 the Union Hall police magistrate was presented with two competing charges of assault. Both related to an incident in St Thomas’ hospital where a number of operations were being carried out.

At this time it was common for operations to take place in public, in a theatre which was, in many respects, just that. Medical students from St Thomas’ and St Guy’s were joined by ‘foreigners’ and other invited guests to see the surgeons perform their craft. On this occasion they were to have witnessed Mr Travers perform a series of lithotomy operations*.

However, the operations were cancelled because a disturbance broke out involving a number of student dressers from St Guy’s. These were the junior doctors of the day; having served an apprenticeship for 5 to 7 years they now shadowed a surgeon for up to a year on the wards.

Attending operating theatres was therefore a vital part of their education.

It seems that in the recent past there had been some trouble at St Thomas’ and that trouble was blamed on the St Guy’s students. So, as Mr Travers told the court, a decision (an ‘extraordinary’ one he added) to exclude their sister hospital’s students from the theatre. The hospital porters were therefore deployed to stop any unauthorised people from getting in.

This did not go down well with the student doctors; two dressers from Guy’s (a Mr Linguard and Mr Carrington) determined to go anyway. They ignored the signage banning them and tried to push past one of the doormen.

As he tried to enter Linguard was seized by the collar by a porter named Williams and told he could not go in. Rather than take no for an answer the junior doctor struck out at Williams and his friends piled in. In the process the door of the theatre was ‘smashed in pieces’ and the unfortunate porter was nearly thrown over a balustrade to his death.

The cases were heard before two magistrates and they quickly dismissed Linguard’s charge that Williams had assaulted him by grabbing his collar. They said they could not adjudicate on whether the students had any right to be admitted and decided that the assault on Williams was of so serious a nature that it should be heard before a judge and jury at the next Sessions of the Peace.

Carrington and Linguard were bailed for the assault and another student, named Musgrove, similarly bailed for the damage to the door of the operating theatre. St Guy’s has excellent records but sadly these are not available for me to look at online to find out whether the three young doctors got over this obstacle to their medical careers or not. It’s probably fair to say though that, like today, surgeon’s dressers were overworked and underpaid.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, December 22, 1837]

*the surgical removal of a calculus (stone) from the bladder, kidney, or urinary tract