An anti-slavery ‘missionary’ is exposed as a fraud

Thomas C. Cook was an American. In fact he described himself as a “a missionary from America for the abolition of slavery”. This was a noble purpose so one wonders why it had landed him at the bar of the Union Hall Police Court in November 1839.

Britain had abolished the slave trade in 1807 and thereafter the Royal Navy intercepted slaving vessels and policed the now illegal trade. In 1834 slavery itself was formally abolished in all of Britain’s colonies and territories, and hundreds of thousands of slaves were freed. So by 1839 slavery had been abolished in Britain and its empire yet it persisted in the United States. Within a few decades the defenders of slavery would find themselves engaged in a bitter civil war that left America divided and millions thousands dead or wounded.

Cook had come over to either lend his support to the opponents of slavery or to learn from them so he could continue to campaign against the practice in the US. Sadly its not really clear what his position was because his appearance in court suggests he was something of a charlatan.

The landlord of a pub in Camberwell (The Perseverance) brought Cook to court to answer a charge of not paying for his drunks and dinner. Richard Petch told the Union Hall magistrate that Cook had entered his establishment and ordered a rump steak with oyster sauce. Having enjoyed his meal he supped on beer and smoked a cigar, while the the public bar filled up.

He soon engaged the locals in conversation and got involved in a long argument on ‘theological matters’ which , at some point, he then declared himself the winner of. He drank heavily and told anyone who would listen that he was an American recently arrived in London to ‘lend the aid of his talents to the abolition of slavery’.

As he became louder Mr Petch suggested he had drunk  enough and might like to settle his bill and leave. At this the missionary replied that ‘he had no cash on him’ but that he was promised some money by the Lord mayor of London. He promised to pay what he owed just as soon at his lordship settled with him. Petch was not inclined to wait on such a nebulous promise however and demanded payment; when that was refused he called for the police and Cook was taken into custody.

The magistrate asked him where he lived and how he maintained himself. ‘I have no home’, Cook replied, ‘I go about from place to place and sleep at those places that suit my convenience’. He added that, ‘I have been driven to great extremities since I landed on British shores, and my funds are all expended’.

When the justice admonished him for living way beyond his means and at others’ expense Cook claimed that he had come over with a manuscript to publish but had not the funds to do so. He had presumably intended (or hoped) that he could live off the proceeds of his polemic writing.

A police inspector testified that Cook had been seen going from place to place behaving in a similar manner, eating and drinking and claiming to be destitute at the end or promising to pay later when in a better situation. In legal terms it turned on whether Cook at wilfully committed fraud, in making the landlord believe he had the funds when he did not. In the end the magistrate (Mr Jeremy) gave the American the benefit of the doubt and possibly did so because Cook promised to endeavour to return to the US as soon as possible if he was released.

However, Mr Jeremy warned him that he came before him again for a similar action he would prosecute him under the Vagrancy Laws and he would face gaol. He advised the landlord to pursue a civil claim for the loss of payment.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, November 15, 1839]H

Grave robbing in Southwark

As a policeman on his beat passed St Olave’s church in Southwark he heard noises in the graveyard. On investigation he found a man digging a grave. As it was one in the morning the policeman approached the man and asked him to stop what he was doing.

The grave digger carried on digging what had been the grave of a child that had recently died in the parish. The policeman questioned him about it and the man, ‘a tall gaunt-looking fellow’ said he was dis-entering the body of a child ‘for anatomical purposes’. He added that he was employed to do the job. Employed by whom one wonders?

However, having given such a wealth of information the man (named Edmund Williams) clammed up and refused to answer any further questions, even when he was taken to the police station.

He was similarly uncommunicative when brought before the magistrate at Union Hall and so the justice sent him to the house of correction for six weeks.

[From The Morning Post, Saturday, August 15, 1835]

Fishy goings on at Union Hall Police Office


Poverty was rife in nineteenth-century London and, just as today, beggars were a familiar sight on the capital’s streets. The 1824 Vagrancy Act (5 Geo. 4. c. 83) was a wide ranging piece of legislation that effectively caught up anyone who was on the streets and acting in a way that might draw suspicion. It made it an offence to sleep rough or to beg and allowed the authorities to sweep up any ‘undesirables’ and imprison them with very little evidence. Readers might be interested to know that this draconian piece of legislation has not been completely abandoned (as this recent case shows).

In the 1800s beggars were often referred to as mendicants and correspondents frequently complained about the problems caused by ‘widespread mendacity’ in the metropolis. In June 1828  an unusual  case of mendacity came to the Union Hall Police Court.

A ‘fellow’ was brought up for begging on the streets by the Mendacity officers of the local parish. He had often been found eating raw cabbage in an attempt to elicit sympathy for his situation. His aim was, it was said, ‘to induce people to believe he was starving’ and so get them to offer him money or more palatable foodstuffs.

The man was well known for doing this and had recently been released from prison for this offence. Since regaining his freedom he had apparently eschewed the cabbage and taken to picking up offal from the streets and pretending to consume this instead. The reason he was now in court was that officers had decided to watch him and had seen him take a mackerel’s head from a nearby kennel and pretend to to eat it. He had smeared the blood of the fish around his mouth to make it look like he had swallowed it but when he was arrested and searched the fish’s head was found in his pocket!

We might hope that a modern magistrate would have some sympathy with the man and his condition and  point him in the direction of social services or mental health practitioners but neither were available (or even considered suitable) in the 1820s and so the poor fellow was sent back to prison for three months.

[From The Standard , Thursday, June 05, 1828]

An attempted poisoning in Bermondsey

The 1840s were famous for the trial of Francois Courvoisier for the murder of his master, Lord William Russell. Courvoisier was executed, in public and his hanging was watched by Thackeray who condemned the behaviour of the crowd that day. Russell’s murder led to a reform of the Detective Branch and the hanging of his killer prompted more calls for the end of public execution in England (not achieved until after 1868).

unknown broadside B20070 22

However, while the papers mostly concentrated on the high profile murder of a member of the Peerage other, lesser, crimes continued to fill columns in the daily and weekly news sheets.

In May 1844 John Lever was hauled before the magistrate at Union Hall charged with attempting to murder his wife, Margaret, with poison. This was his second appearance and he was represented by a lawyer who challenged some of the evidence given earlier that week.

The court heard that Leaver, a hairdresser from Bermondsey, often purchased arsenic ‘for the purpose of destroying rats’ in his house. His son (George, aged 11) – who had triggered the case by reporting seeing his father put something in his mother’s tea (and so warning her not to drink it) – was cross examined by the defence.

He admitted seeing his father skim the top of the cup rather than add anything to it. The court was told that Lever was ‘in the habit of putting carbonate of soda into the teapot of a morning, to extract all the juice out of the tea leaves’. The boy had witnessed quarrels between the couple and his father threaten his mother on at least one occasion, but he admitted that was a while ago.

Margaret told the court she had taken the cup to Guy’s Hospital to discover if her husband had indeed poisoned it as her son feared. A witness form the hospital confirmed this and said that white sediment had been discovered in the cup, which proved later to be arsenic. It wasn’t enough to kill but was certainly sufficient to cause injury and illness.

However, she added had taken no more than sip and finding it burnt had stopped. She hadn’t wanted to take the drink to the hospital and would not have done so had she realized he would have ended up in court for it. This is perhaps indicative of the difficultly women had in prosecuting their spouses in the period, and the potential of losing the main breadwinner if he was convicted.

John Lever denied the charge of attempted murder and said ‘his wife and her acquaintances’ had fabricated it. At his trial (in June 1844) he was formally acquitted of the charge, we have no idea what happened to the relationship after that but Margaret had already left him to stay with friends in the ‘country’.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, May 31, 1844]

A mysterious encounter on Blackfriars Bridge

It would seem that  our modern moral panic about peadophile priests is not that ‘modern’ at all. This report from the Morning Chronicle of 1831 does not use the term nor indeed does it spell out the offence, but it is nevertheless quite clear what was being alleged.

On 13 May 1831 the Rev. W_____ P______ (his name was not given in the press) was charged before the magistrate at Union Hall  with ‘taking unbecoming liberties’ with a  young lad named Magee. The priest had been seen on Blackfriars Bridge at night by a hat-tip maker called Benjamin Ryder. Ryder deposed that he saw the anonymous clergyman stooping to talk to the boy, who was ragged and barefoot, and that he was leading him across the bridge and into  the dark streets south of the river.

Ryder was concerned and followed them, when he saw them stop he called for a policeman. The PC (one of Peel’s new created force) approached and the clergyman ran off. When the policeman caught up with him the priest’s clothes were in a ‘loose and suspicious state’. Back at the station his name was discovered by examining a ‘valuable silver  snuff box’ which was engraved with Latin inscription – a present from a  ‘Society in Devon’.

The mysterious priest denied any wrongdoing and claimed his was trying to help the boy, who had approached him asking for ‘charity’. He went on to say that he had been quizzing the boy about his parents and his employment, as any good reforming clergyman might have done. However, the boy ‘gave a somewhat different version of their conversation’ and the magistrate committed him to prison on remand as he couldn’t meet the bail, set at £200, a huge amount for 1831.

[from The Morning Chronicle , Saturday, May 14, 1831]

Pray do tell, which is the fairest part of Erin?

The Irish had earned a reputation in eighteenth-century England for drinking and fighting; numerous press reports attest to this and Irish men (and women) appeared in the London courts in fairly large numbers accused of riotous behavior, drunkenness and assault.  The historian Peter King has shown that while the English courts weren’t prejudiced against the Irish per se they did tend to be more likely to find Irishmen  guilty when they were charged with violent crimes – so this reputation (fair or otherwise) seems to have had a real impact in the criminal justice system.

In my own work on the summary courts of London I found considerable numbers of prosecutions for violence with most being settled between the warring parties or dismissed by the magistracy as trivial. However, it was quite often hard to work out why the fights had started in the first place. Sometimes, however, the newspapers are quite enlightening, as in this case from 1802.

Two men appeared before the sitting justice at Union Hall public office in May 1802 charged with riotous behavior. The men were not deemed to be serious offenders and were released on bail but the paper reported the circumstances. They had been arrested when brawling broke out in the Borough, around Gravel Lane on the previous Sunday night. Most of those involved were Irish and the cause of the trouble was reported as being ‘fermented by some women’.

The quarrel was over which part of Ireland was ‘most honourable’, Cork or Limerick. This was such a hot topic that the dispute spread to Deptford and as far as St. Giles (one of London’s most notorious ‘rookeries’ with a large Irish population). The paper did not record what the outcome was, nor what happened to the two brawlers who went to court. The Irish continued to be synonymous with drink and fighting throughout the nineteenth century, but from the 1840s they were characterized as paupers after the Famine, and then tainted by  association with Fenian nationalism from the 1860s. It is fair to say that the Irish have been the butt of English humour and prejudice for centuries and this report, as neutral as it may seem, is one example of many that has helped to perpetuate this.


[from The Morning Chronicle , Tuesday, May 11, 1802]

A charge of ‘furious’ driving


In May 1820 Mr and Mrs Lewis were returning home to the Haymarket in London after visiting the countryside. They had just passed the Marsh Gate when the Greenwich stage coach rammed into them from the side. The coach driver was in a hurry and in attempting to pass the couple’s gig he crashed into them, turning them so round so they faced the opposite direction.

The Regency gig wasn’t a particularly safe form of transport – indeed some early forms earned the nickname of ‘suicide gig’ due to the groom’s high riding position.


a Regency gig

When the two vehicles collided Mrs Lewis, who was several months pregnant, was thrown from her seat. The coach driver was brought before the sitting magistrate at Union Hall in Southwark. There Mr Lewis told the court that his wife’s condition was serious and the ‘most fearful apprehensions are entertained for her safety’. The coachman, William Court, was committed to prison for want of bail, to await the justice’s decision in a few days time.

The eighteenth and nineteenth-century capital was a very busy place with all manner of horse drawn vehicles competing for space. The newspapers and caricaturists regularly drew attention to the ‘miseries of London’ or the perils of traversing the city. Hogarth’s etchings shows carts running over children and animals, while the City of London operated a sort of early one way system.

Hopefully Mrs Lewis (and her unborn child) recovered; unfortunately we don’t know because the papers did not follow up their story. As for William Court, his lack of bail suggests he wasn’t a wealthy individual and his desire to pass the Lewis’ indicates his awareness that his job depended on getting people from A to B as fast as possible. One hopes this was a chastening experience.

[Freeman’s Journal and Daily Commercial Advertiser , Tuesday, May 2, 1820]