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]

A mother’s cruelty and a son’s desperate violence as news of the latest Whitechapel ‘horror’ emerges.

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On the 9 September 1888 London was still digesting the news of Annie Chapman’s murder in Hanbury Street, Spitalfields. The full details of this latest ‘horror’ wouldn’t become public knowledge until after the inquest on the 13 September but there was sufficient rumour and speculation to throw the capital into a panic in the meantime.

There was no mention of Chapman’s killing in Lloyd’s Weekly’s daily summary of the police courts of the metropolis but there was plenty of reference to violence. Frederick Percival was charged at Lambeth Police court with shooting at his own father with a revolver. The incident had followed an argument during which Fred, a clerk, had thrown a cup and then ran out of the room, turning once to fire his weapon at the door. It seems that suicide was actually uppermost in the young man’s thoughts and he was remanded so the doctors could examine him.

Also at Lambeth Henry Baker was fully committed to trial for the attempted murder of Mary Cowan whom, it was alleged, he had stabbed in the chest and back in July. The case had taken so long to come before a magistrate because Mary had been dangerously ill in hospital.

At Woolwich PC Williams (127R) reported that he had been called to an incident in the High Street where a woman was mistreating her child. It was late at night and when he arrived he found Mary Sullivan, quite drunk, in the processing of dashing her baby’s head against a wall. He intervened to stop her and told her to go home. She had no home, she replied. A few onlookers had gathered and one offered to pay for bed for the night, something Mary indigently declined.

PC Williams moved her on but when his beat brought him round again he found her ‘sitting on a doorstop with the child exposed’. A crowd had gathered and was berating her for her conduct, and some ‘threatened to lynch her’. As she should probably have done on the first occasion he now took her into custody and escorted her back to the station. After being checked out by the police surgeon her child was taken to the workhouse. Mary was brought before the magistrate in the morning and sent to prison for 14 days.

There were a number of other assaults, acts of cruelty, and an attempted suicide by a woman throwing herself into the Thames. All of this was recorded as part and parcel of everyday life in the city. So we should consider the Whitechapel murders in context; they were exceptionally brutal killings but their victims – poor working-class women – were the usual recipients of casual violence in late Victorian London.

This violence was frequently punished and often condemned but little if anything was done to prevent it, or to prevent the associated causes of violence, or improve the environment in which so many Londoners lived. The ‘Ripper’ shone a spotlight on East London in the autumn of 1888, and so is credited with forcing the ruling class to act to clean up the appalling poverty and housing conditions of the East.

That this ‘improvement’ was both half-hearted and temporary is less often reported. Inequality, unemployment and want continued and within a few years the authorities turned their attention elsewhere; it took two world wars and a socialist government to really tackle the endemic problems of poverty in British society and, some might say, even that progress has largely been lost given the prevalence of food banks and homelessness in modern Britain today.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, September 9, 1888]

‘The people in this part of the world are not acquainted with the Manchester language’: a stowaway at the Royal Arsenal.

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PC Monaghan was on patrol at the Royal Arsenal in Woolwich in the early hours of the morning on Tuesday 21 April 1880. As the constable entered the canon cartridge factory site he thought he heard something and went to investigate. The area was restricted since, being ‘devoted to the manufacture and storage of explosives’ it was one ‘of the most dangerous areas of the Arsenal’. Even the workforce at the Arsenal was not permitted inside without a special order but somehow someone had got in.

The arsenal’s store was about two miles from any inhabited buildings but it was accessible from the river, and this is how a man had gained entry and was now hiding inside. PC Monaghan secured him and asked him his business there. The man told him his name was William Smith and that lived at an address in Kennington and was a blacksmith by trade. He ‘was quite sober’ but could not give a satisfactory explanation for being there.

The policeman took his prisoner back to the station where he was formally charged with ‘being in the Royal Arsenal for a felonious purpose’. The police took the details he’d given them and visited an address at Park Street, off the Kennington Road. The address appeared to be a false one however, as no one knew of him there. Later that day William Smith (if that was indeed his name) was presented at Woolwich Police Court before the sitting magistrate, Mr. Balguy.

Smith explained, ‘in a provincial accent’ that he had come down from Manchester looking for work at the arsenal, but he’d got lost. Why had he given a false address to the inspector at the station house then? Smith insisted he hadn’t but the inspector testified that the address he’d heard was ‘on Kennington Lane’. Perhaps it was the prisoner’s accent that was causing the problem Mr. Balguy suggested:

‘Perhaps you did not understand him? The people in this part of the world are not acquainted with the Manchester language’, adding that he would remand him overnight so more enquiries could be made.

Smith doesn’t reappear in the newspaper gleanings over the next few days so perhaps he was able to verify his address or was simply sent to prison as a vagrant, perhaps even despatched back to the North West. The Royal Arsenal employed workers from all over Britain and when these men weren’t building the armaments to defend the Empire they enjoyed a relaxed a game of football from time to time. In September 1886 they played ‘one or two games’ as Dial Square Cricket Club. In January 1887 they played their first game (against Erith) as the Royal Arsenal and the rest, as they say, is history.

[from The Standard (London, England), Wednesday, April 21, 1880]

If you want to know more about Arsenal’s history there is no better place to go than the AISA Arsenal History Society’s website, run by Tony Attwood. As I write this the news has emerged that the modern Arsenal Football Club, now based in North London since it moved there in 1913 (but still called ‘Woolwich’ Arsenal) have decided that this season will be the last under Arsene Wenger’s management. I am a season ticket holder at Arsenal and this is a sad day but also an exciting one. I’m sure he reads this blog so I’d like to say thank you and all the very best for whatever you do next Arsene, you will be a very hard act to follow.

 

“The labourer has learned that combination can lead him to anything and everything” (John Burns). Sadly, 1889 was a false dawn for unionism.

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Resting stevedores on the London Docks, c.1890

1889 has gone down in Trade Union history as one of the most significant. This was the year of the Great Dock Strike in London where dock labourers led by Ben Tillet, Tom Mann and Will Thorne; with support from prominent socialists such as John Burns, Eleanor Marx, and the Catholic archbishop of London, Cardinal Manning, emerged victorious.

The strike secured an extra penny an hour (the ‘dockers’ tanner’), along with the recognition of their newly formed union and most of their other demands. For the Labour movement the Dock Strike (and the Match girls strike which inspired it) was huge; recruitment soared and by 1899 over 2,000,000 Britons had joined a trade unions.

However, it didn’t take the employers long to regroup and fight back. Further disputes occurred and companies were now more aware of strikers’ tactics and the methods required to confront them. In addition, infighting and jealousies emerged within unions and between competing workers to undermine the collectivity that had been so vital to success in 1889.

In 1891 a dispute broke out between seaman on ships and the unionised stevedores who controlled the unloading of goods. This allowed the owners of the shipping companies to drive a wedge between two sets of working men and prosecute the fightback against organised union labour. A strike in the Cardiff docks by seamen was defeated and they were forced to accept the terms of the employers. This was between January and March 1891 and affected the London docks as well.

In February 1891 Edward Polton, a 29 year-old stevedore working at Silvertown in docklands, appeared before Mr Kennedy at Woolwich Police Magistrate Court.

Bolton was charged with: ‘throwing missiles from the steam ship Egyptian Monarch, in the Royal Albert Docks, at the Shipping Federation men’.

The missiles in question were nuts and bolts but the case didn’t turn on the danger caused to the Federation’s men (non-union labour employed by the Dock Company) but on whether the large had been accurately laid or not. The original charge was that Polton had been throwing missiles into a public space and therefore endangering ‘the common public’.

The court learned that the docks were closed off by gates and a sign declared that no one was to be admitted ‘except on business’. Dock constables guarded the docks to prevent non-authorised persons from entering (a result it seems of the experiences of the port authorities in the 1889 dispute), and the docks were staffed by non-union men.

That Polton was lobbing missiles at the Fed’s men was not in doubt but he wasn’t guilty of doing so ‘in public’ but instead in private. Mr Kennedy therefore ordered that the stevedore be discharged but recommend to the Dock Company that they bring a new prosecution for assault. If convicted (and the suggestion must have been that Polton would have been convicted) he would face two months in prison, taking an active union man out of action for a considerable period of time and potentially deterring others from following his example. His decision was met with cheers in court, whether from Bolton’s supporters or the Federation men is not made clear.

This little incident from the Police Courts gives us a brief window into the ongoing struggle between workers and employers in the late nineteenth century. Each side learned lessons from the disputes they entered into but the ‘bosses’ had the distinct advantage of being supported by the law. That law, of course, was not written by (or even for) the vast majority of the population but instead was created to protect wealth and privilege from the very people that wanted to see it distributed more evenly.

The battles between unions and owners continued into the next century but ultimately it was always the unions that lose. There have been high points and moral victories, but today the union movement is largely powerless to prevent the continued exploitation of working men and women by rapacious capitalism and a government which listens first to company executives and last to the people on the ‘shop floor’.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, February 18, 1891]

A ‘perfectly honest’ man is cleared at Woolwich

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Today we move south of the river and up to Woolwich, home of the Arsenal (the ordnance factory that is, it would be another three years until the football club of that name was founded). Henry Rollings, a tramcar conductor, was charged at the Woolwich Police Court ‘for neglecting to deposit an article of lost property within 24 hours’.

The charge was brought by a tramway inspector, a Mr Naudi, and he appeared in court to press the case while Rollings was supported by a number of people who spoke up for him as being an honest man.

On the 18th January 1883 Agnes Brookes was riding on Rollings’ tram as she often did. Rollings knew her well but not well enough to know where she lived. When Agnes got off to her rooms in Thomas Street, Plumstead, she was upset to discover that she had lost her brooch. It must have fallen off as she traveled on the tramcar, and thinking this she later applied to the Woolwich and Greenwich tramcar company’s office to see if anyone had found it.

She was in luck. The clerk told her that it had been handed in and sent to Scotland Yard, as was their standard procedure. The brooch had been found by another passenger, Eliza  Payne, who gave it to the conductor, Rollings. However, Rollings thought he recognised it as belonging to Agnes and so hoped to be able to return it in person, rather than simply sending it off to lost property as he was supposed to. He told Eliza this and she believed him.

So how did this case of lost property end up before Mr Balguy, the Woolwich Police magistrate?

Well it seems that when Miss Brooks first went to the office to enquire about her missing brooch Rollings hadn’t told anyone he’d got it, nor did he say that he knew her. It was only when he heard she was looking for it that he handed it over at the office. This was the story that Mr Nuadi told at least, and it placed Rollings in a difficult position. He was effectively being accused of keeping the jewellery for himself and only owning to finding it when forced to.

A police inspector explained that the tramway inspector had deposited the brooch with him on Sunday morning (three days after Agnes lost it) and Rollings turned up a few hours later to sign the record sheet. The brooch was then sent on to Scotland Yard to wait for its owner to claim it.

Luckily for the conductor the magistrate chose to believe his version of events. The man had acted foolishly, but not criminally and he doubted Mr Nuadi’s testimony. In fact he said that the tramway inspector was ‘famous for his incredulity in the honesty of people’. Rollings would have been liable to a penalty of £10 or even a term of imprisonment but he would only impose a fine of 10s on this occasion.

The traffic manager (possibly Rollings’ boss) was in court and Mr Balguy hoped that this incident and his appearance in court would not cost the conductor his job. No, said Mr Huddlestone, it would not. Rollings was, in his view, a ‘perfectly honest’ man. Which seems like the sensible outcome. Agnes got her brooch back, Rollings was fined but kept his job, and the tram company protected their reputation as a safe means of transport in public.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, January 31, 1883]

You can use this site to search for specific crimes or use the Themes link in the menu on the left to look for areas or topics that interest you. If you are interested in a particular court (such as Bow Street or Marylebone) you can also limit your search to one court in particular. Please feel free to comment on anything you read and if something in particular interests you then please get in touch. You can email me at drew.gray@northampton.ac.uk