‘If you attempt to go to work today, I will tear you to pieces’. Dark threats of eviction at the Arsenal

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This is a case of conflicting versions of ‘the truth’, which has probably been lost somewhere in between.

On 25 November 1888 four people appeared at Woolwich Police court in South East London. John and Ellen Moore had been summoned for threats that they were alleged to have made towards George and Charlotte Tuffnell, from whom they rented an upstairs room in their house.

George Tuffnell explained that he and his wife lived at 2 Stanley Villas in Bullfields, Woolwich and that he worked at the Royal Arsenal. As he was leaving for work at 9 o’clock on Saturday morning John Moore confronted him.

‘If you attempt to go to work today’, he warned him, ‘I will tear you to pieces’.

Mr Marsham, the incumbent magistrate, wanted to know why on earth Moore would say such a thing, what had Tuffnell done – if anything – to provoke that reaction?

‘Well, you shall judge for yourself sir’, Tuffnell continued, ‘when I tell you what happened on the previous night’.

He went on to describe how he and his wife had returned home at 11.30 on the Friday night with the determination to evict their lodgers. We don’t know why, they didn’t say, but very few if any protections were in place for tenants in the 1880s and so while the Moores might have been behind with their rent, their landlords might simply have taken against them for no good reason.

Either way, Tuffnell loudly turned to Charlotte and declared, ‘Are the lodgers in?’, adding, ‘I mean to have them out’.

At this the Moores, who’d overheard (as I’m sure they were meant’) came rushing downstairs ‘like a couple of tigers in their nightshirts’. This dramatic description brought laughter from the court but covered the fact that a family was about to be turned out in the cold just a month before Christmas.

Tuffnell presented the altercation as one that threatened his wife and family: ‘Our three children were in a bedroom upstairs’, he said, ‘frightened out of their wits’, and he and his wife couldn’t get to them.

One wonders why they had gone out and left them in the first place if they cared so much.

John Moore presented an alternative version of the situation. He said he and his wife were ‘decent people, while the Tuffnell family were given to strife and mischief’. On Friday night he and Ellen were asleep in bed when they were rudely awakened by someone banging on their door.  Tuffnell was ‘raving and roaring like a caged animal’ and ‘battering the staircase with a hammer to emphasise his threats and imprecations’.

He and Ellen got up and opened the door and asked him to keep quite until morning when they would answer his requests for them to leave. At this Tuffnell said:

‘What did you say [to me]?’

‘I said, “Go in, Looney!”’ Moore admitted (and once more Mr Masham’s courtroom collapsed into laughter).

The magistrate turned to Moore and demanded to know if he nad his wife had vacated their rooms. ‘Not yet’, Moore told him. ‘We are going next week’. In that case, the justice replied, ‘I will adjourn the case until Thursday, and if you have left the house you need not appear again’.

Regardless of the truth of that’s night’s events it seems evident that the couples did not get on and so it was probably best that they went their separate ways.

[from The Standard, Monday, November 26, 1888]

The ‘Swell mob’ is undone by two ‘intrepid’ females

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Samuel Harris and George Edwards were, it was alleged, members of a notorious gang of smartly dressed criminals who targeted the  pockets of the wealthy at fairs and other large public gatherings. In July 1855 the two were out and about in Whitechapel and Harris had just taken a purse from a woman’s pocket when a sharp voice rang out:

‘You vagabond, you have just picked the lady’s pocket!’

The cry came from a servant girl, Emma Shearman, who was walking out with her mistress the widowed Mrs Whittaker. Emma moved swiftly to try and catch hold of Harris and in the process he dropped the purse he’d stolen. As he tried to pick it up she stood on it. Harris and Edwards fled with the two women in hot pursuit.

One of them grabbed Harris by the collar and spun him round, he lashed out with his cane hitting her on the head. The women persisted despite the violence and were eventually assisted by the arrival of PC H66 and the High Constable of Tower Hamlets, Thomas Reynolds. The two thieves were removed to the station house.

When they appeared for their hearing at the Worship House police court the station gaoler told the magistrate that the two were well-known to the police as members of the ‘swell mob’ who with a ‘gang’ of others turned up to races and the like, dressed in fine clothes and in a hired ‘stylish-looking chaise’ so they pass themselves off as moneyed and ‘respectable’. This ruse allowed them to get close to their victims. He added that recently one of them had a attended a confirmation at church where a man  was robbed of a £50 gold watch.

They were fully committed for trial.

The ‘swell mob’ was a term in common usage during the nineteenth century. It was applied to those criminals that lived well off the pickings they made as thieves and con-men. They saw themselves as the ‘elite’ of criminals and dressed to ape the habits of the middle-class. They were part of the so-called ‘criminal class’ of Victorian London – a term that historians of crime have warned us to not take too literally.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Saturday, July 14, 1855]

This post first appeared in July 2016

Gin Lane revisited in 1888

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One the most powerful images of the negative effects of alcohol is William Hogarth’s ‘Gin Lane’. The engraving is Hogarth’s attack on the evils of imported ‘foreign’ liquor – ‘jenever’ or Dutch gin. He produced this to contrast with ‘Beer Street’ drawing a clear comparison between ‘honest’ English beer and the stronger more dangerous spirit that gripped so many Londoners in the 1700s. London suffered a  ‘gin craze’ at mid century that forced government to act against it, passing the last of several gin acts in 1751 aimed at reducing consumption by raising prices through taxation. Actually it was rising prices for grain that weaned Londoners off gin by the 1760s, coupled with higher food costs people simply couldn’t afford it.

Hogarth’s Gin Lane (above) has a woman holding (or rather dropping) a baby at its centre. It is this image that sums up the affect of alcoholism on the addict; a total abdication of responsibility in pursuit of the next ‘fix’ of gin. Anyone familiar with modern drug addiction will recognize this as having very similar consequences.

Gin did not go away in the 1760s and remained a popular and cheap way to get drunk in the 1800s. By then campaigners against alcohol had developed more sophisticated ways to encourage abstinence – as the Temperance movement and the Salvation Army attest. Sadly, they don’t seem to have been able to do much for Mary Sullivan.

In September 1888 Sullivan, a 44 year old mother, was found dead drunk in Woolwich High Street by PC Williams (127R). The policeman had been alerted to Sullivan by the large crowd that was quickly gathering around her. She was drunk and had a baby in her arms, which she was flailing about. The child was crying and Mary was angry with it.

As he approached her he saw her dash the baby’s head against a nearby wall. He rushed over, secured her and the child and asked her where she lived. Mary had no home; homeless, impoverished and probably abandoned by the child’s father, she was at her wits end. It was not uncommon in the poorer districts of London in 1888.

A woman standing nearby offered to pay for a night’s lodging for Mary but she refused the charity. The baby seemed ok so PC Williams warned her and carried on his beat. Some time later he found her again, sitting on a  doorstep holding the child in front of her. The child was naked and another crowd were berating her, some threatening to lynch her for her cruelty.

For her own safety, and that of her baby, PC Williams now arrested her (as he probably should have done earlier). At the station the child was examined by the police surgeon and was taken away from Mary and sent to the workhouse infirmary to be cared for. At Woolwich Police court Mary Sullivan was sent to prison for 14 days hard labour. At least there she might have a chance to sober up.

[fromLloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, September 9, 1888]

The sad end of a champion ‘mouser’

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Are you a cat person or a dog one? I have cats but love dogs too; I just don’t have time in my life for them at the moment. Cats are more self-contained after all, they pretty much do what they like and interact with us when they want food or attention. These days cats are – at least in urban areas – simply pets. Their role is solely to provide companionship. In the past people kept cats for other reasons, most often to keep down pests like mice.

That’s why Benjamin Carter and his wife had a cat. They had ‘no end of mice’ and so when their cat disappeared in June 1890 they were both upset and angry to find that a neighbour had killed it.  Carter obtained a summons and brought James Butterfill to court at Woolwich.

There he explained the situation to Mr Marsham, the sitting magistrate. The cat had vanished on June 28 and, having heard rumours that Butterfill was responsible, he confronted him. James admitted taking the cat but said he had put it into a basket (intending to give it ‘a hiding’) but it escaped.

The cat never returned and Carter carried on with his investigations, finding a little girl who said she saw Mrs Butterfill take the cat from the Carter’s door and carry it into her own house. This girl told the magistrate the same story and it became clear that the cat was now dead, killed by the Butterfills. The question was why?

James Butterfill told Mr Marsham that he and his brother-in-law kept pigeons, trained ones (so perhaps racing pigeons or ones used to carry messages). The Carter’s cat had killed several of these by June and they decided enough was enough.

‘You should have sued the owner in the county court’, the justice told him.

‘We did, and were nonsuited’, Butterfill replied.

Nonsuiting means that the case was stopped in court, either because the plaintiff (Carter) withdrew – unlikely here, or because the judge decided there was insufficient evidence for the case to carry on. However, the judge at the time declared that if he’d found a cat killing his pigeons he would have destroyed it. That was enough for the Butterfills who resolved to deal with the problem themselves should it happen again.

It did happen again. The Butterfills lost four pigeons and then six more a few days later.

Robert Ashdown, the brother-in-law, said that his pigeons were worth £5. They had acted to defend their property and Mr Marsham had some sympathy with them. He added that if anyone was directly to blame it was probably Mrs Butterfill, not James and so the summons was incorrectly directed. He thought the action taken was justified and dismissed the summons on a technicality.

The Carters would have to find a new ‘mouser’ (apparently they were readily available for about 10s– £40 today) but hopefully one that didn’t attack birds. They could do with one of my two. They will kill mice if they catch them but just sit and stare at pigeons, making that strange noise that cats make.

The pigeons are not at all bothered by them.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, August 30, 1890]

The parrot sketch is played out in Woolwich, to amusement of the court

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This is one of those cases that the newspapers probably chose to report because it would have amused their readership, so I hope it amuses you.

William Harris kept a parrot (a ‘parroquet’ as the reporter from The Standard described it in February 1888) at his house at Paget Road in Plumstead. In June 1887 the parrot disappeared and he saw and heard nothing of it until New Year’s Eve. Then he received intelligence that one of his near neighbours – Herbert Mackavoy, of 41 Llanover Road  – has somehow acquired a very similar bird at exactly the time his had vanished.

His suspicions aroused, Harris set off to confront his neighbour.

At first Mackavoy refused to let him see the parrot, demanding that he both describe it carefully and give some detail as what the bird could say (give parrots well-known ability as mimics). Harris described it as a young bird, not yet in full plumage when he’d lost it, and just beginning to moult. He said it knew the phrase ‘Polly wants her breakfast’ and the name ‘Toby’. When he saw the bird and recognized it as his own he demanded its return, and when Mackavoy refused he summoned him to court to settle the matter.

At Woolwich Police court several witnesses testified to seeing the parrot in the gardens between the two rival ‘owners’ houses, which were only 100 yards apart. William Mackavoy said his brother had caught the bird on the 3 June and thereafter Herbert had taught it to speak a great deal more than it had done previously.

Now it could say: ‘Oh dear doctor, Polly is sick; run for the doctor, quick, quick, quick’ and ‘the doctor’s gone away; why the Devil didn’t he stay?’

All of this caused laughter in the courtroom and the whole case was in danger of turning into a farce, something Mr Marsham had no desire to see. The magistrate could see that the bird was the property of Harris but that there was no real evidence that his neighbour had stolen it. The parrott should be returned he decided but since the Mackavoys had purchased a cage for it they should be compensated to its value, which was 10s.

The defendant’s solicitor tried to argue that a further 5should be billed to cover the keep of the parrot during the past eight months but Mr Marsham rejected that:

‘He [Mackavoy] has had the pleasure of its company’, he declared, ‘and that outsets the keep’.

In a gracious end to the case Herbert Mackavoy handed the 10s that Harris gave him back to the court and this was paid into the poor box to be distributed to the needy, those that couldn’t afford the luxury of a speaking pet.

[from The Standard, Monday, February 27, 1888]

A dead baby found by a nurse in Woolwich: A mother is accused

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There are few crimes that generate so much emotion as the killing of a child. Every year at least one of my students is likely to come forward to suggest doing a dissertation or small research project on infanticide. It is an act so awful that we struggle to understand which makes it, seemingly at least, all the more fascinating.

Very many women, most of them young, the vast majority unmarried, were accused of killing their babies or children in the Victorian era. For most I believe, killing was never their intention; the infant died because of problems at birth or poverty and neglect soon afterwards.  The image of the ‘evil’ mother is almost certainly a myth.

Jane Ward was just such a mother. In November 1860 Jane appeared before Mr Maude at Woolwich Police court accused of causing the death of newborn baby girl. She was remanded for a week after which she was sent for trial at the Old Bailey.

Matilda Wyatt was a nurse working at the Royal Military Academy by Woolwich Common. As she walked in the garden of the army medical school she saw something on the ground, close by the road. As she bent down she realized that it was the body of a baby wrapped in calico, and horrified, she took it to the police.

The police made some enquiries and this led them to the home of Jane Ward’s father, a dairyman in Shooter’s Hill. PC Turner (61R) made a search of the house and found one of Jane’s dresses with a square of fabric cut from it, a square that matched the piece of calico exactly.

A Blackheath surgeon, Mr Tyler, performed a post mortem on the dead child. He checked the lungs (an increasingly outdated method of determining whether a baby had been stillborn or not) and judged it had been born alive. This suggested that Jane must have killed it, deliberately or otherwise. A second doctor examined Jane and confirmed that she had recently given birth. The evidence against her seemed conclusive.

Jane admitted that the baby was hers but denied its murder.

At the Old Bailey later that year Jane was charged, not with infanticide but the less serious charge of concealing a birth. This carried a maximum two-year prison sentence. In the event Jane was acquitted but no details are given beyond establishing that she had a defense barrister arguing her case in court. Sadly then we have no idea of the circumstances that explain what happened to Jane’s baby or why she left it in the academy grounds. All we can say is that it must have been as traumatic for her as it was for the poor nurse who discovered it.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, November 23, 1860]

‘She is a most dangerous woman, your Worship, I assure you’. A butcher’s warning at the Guildhall.

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William Brennan made a robust defence of his actions when he appeared before Alderman Lawrence at Guildhall Police court in September 1848. The City of London butcher had been summoned for detaining property belonging to Mrs Low, a ‘tall, good looking, elderly woman’ who had lived at a house in Lamb’s Passage.

Mrs Low stated for the record that eleven weeks previously she had left London to work in the country. Having been living with Brennan she told the court that he had asked her to leave behind several items of her property, including a table and chairs and a number of boxes. The butcher would be able to use them but not lend or rent them to anyone else. When she came back she took away some of her things but he refused to allow her all of them, hence the summons. The relationship between Mrs Low and the butcher was confusing and led to some amusement in the Guildhall.

Brennan denied withholding Mrs Low’s property but said she had come to lodge with him 15 months ago. She was a widow but had been ‘courting a bit’ before she took up her position outside of the capital.  He said she’d left some things in his shed and sold the rest; he denied unlawfully retaining anything.

Alderman Lawrence questioned the butcher:

how did you become acquainted with her, and what sweethearting took place between you?

Brennan was horrified.

Sweethearting with me, your worship! No, no not so bad as that , although I had enough of her [which prompted laughter in court]. I have a delicate little wife of my own, and this ere woman has frightened her out of her wits [more laughter].’

He continued:

Why, this woman lodged with me, and I couldn’t get quit of her; she would stop in my house whether I would go or no, and so to get quit of her I had to leave the house. She stole my saw, my chopper and other things, and fixed herself in my house like a post.

He again denied holding on to her property and said that in all the time she’d stayed with him and his wife she’d ‘never paid a farthing’ in rent. ‘She is a most dangerous woman, I assure your Worship’.

The gathered audience in court was probably in fits by now, delighting in Brennan’s discomfort as he revealed that he – a butcher – had been bested by a supposedly weaker older woman. The alderman couldn’t pick a winner here however and sent one of the court’s officers to investigate who owned what and whether there was any truth in the accusation leveled against the city butcher. One imagines that either way Brennan was not going to live this down anytime soon.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, September 14, 1848]