History in the making as the Match Girls’ strike meets the Police courts

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On occasion ‘bigger’ history touches the reports from the metropolitan police courts as the magistracy sought to deal with everyday issues in London. This is one of those.

Lewis Lyons appeared at Worship Street Police court in July 1888 to answer a charge that he had obstructed the highway in Fairford Row, Bow. The law of obstruction was one of the most frequently prosecuted actions at summary level since it was a misdemeanor that was usually brought by the police. They patrolled the streets and so anyone blocking the road, whether by selling from a coster’s barrow, gambling with dice, busking with an organ and monkey, or lecturing the public on politics or religion, was liable to be asked to ‘move on’ by a policeman. If they refused then they would have their name and address taken and be escorted to the nearest police station.

Lyons was addressing the crowd that had gathered there to listen, most of them young women who worked nearby. He was talking to them about their conditions of work, how they were being exploited by their employers and, presumably, urging them to resist. He was a well-known socialist agitator who counted Annie Besant amongst its circle of acquaintances. Fairford Road was the home of Bryant and May, the match manufacturers. The firm paid their workers very little and forced them to work in appalling conditions. Lyons told the gathered crowd that Bryant and May were ‘sweaters’, who ‘employed girls who had no organization at low wages, and reduced that wage by fines’.

Trouble had started in June when Annie Besant’s article on conditions in the factory had been published in The Link, a radical newspaper. The article had been informed by whistle blowers amongst the match girls and when Bryant and May reacted by sacking an employee a strike committee was organized.

Lyons was speaking on the 6 July 1888 which was the day when nearly the whole factory had downed tools and come out in solidarity to protest the conditions and poor pay they had to put up with. While Besant’s article might had helped precipitate the action she wasn’t the leader of the Match Girl’s strike. As Louise Raw has shown this was an action organized by the working-class women of Bryant and May themselves, although with support from middle class Fabians and socialists like Besant, Lyons and Charles Bradlaugh, the Northampton MP. Besant helped broker a deal with Bryant and May’s management and on 16 July the strike ended with the employers acquiescing on all of the women’s demands. Meals would be taken off the ‘shop floor’ (and so away from the noxious phosphorus that was central to the manufacturing process), unfair deductions and fines were stopped, and grievances were no longer to filtered through the male foreman on the shop floor but would go directly to management.

Lyons was unable to persuade the magistrate at Worship Street that he was not guilty of obstruction. He claimed that the crowd was caused by the police not by himself, that the crowd was already there, and that anyway the police had ensured that carts and wagons could get in and out of the factory the whole time. He had plenty of support in court, including a woman named Sarah Goslin who several of the watching match girls in court mistook for Besant, rushing over to say ‘It’s all true!’.

Mr Bushby was unmoved, perhaps unsurprisingly given the challenge to his class that the Match Girls strike represented. He fined Lyons 20s or 14 days imprisonment. I imagine he paid because he wasn’t a poor man. He later bailed out Besant when she was arrested. The strike was an inspiration for the trade union movement and the 6 July 1888 was a key point in that ongoing battle between workers and bosses, with the following year saw the successful Great Dock Strike, which also started in the East End of London.

The scenes of police grappling with protestors in Fairford Street must have shocked the reading public, especially those with property and businesses but within a few weeks a new story would dominate the newsstands of the capital. By the end of August 1888 it was clear that a brutal serial killer was stalking the streets of the East End, the killer known to history as ‘Jack the Ripper’.

[from The Standard, Saturday, July 14, 1888]

Drew’s new book (co-authored by Andy Wise) . It is a new study of the Whitechapel murders of 1888 which offers up a new suspect, links the ‘Jack the Ripper’ killings to the unsolved ‘Thames Torso’ crimes, and provides the reader with important contextual history of Victorian London. The book is is published by Amberley Books and is available on Amazon

‘White van man’ in the dock as his horse falls sick and endangers life in Stoke Newington

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Today the internal combustion engine (and its electric equivalent) is ubiquitous, but the horse dominated nineteenth-century London. Horses were everywhere: pulling Hanson cabs, coaches, omnibuses, trams, carts, traps, and individual riders. Until quite late in the century there was hardly a form of transport that didn’t involve horses.

This meant that there were tens of thousands of horses on the streets, tons of manure to clean up, thousands of horse shoes to make and fit, hundreds of vets to treat animals that got sick, and even more knackers to dispatch them when they could work no longer.

There were rules to govern the care of animals and to prevent the spread of contagious diseases that might affect other beasts and, in some cases, the human population. Ultimately these laws were enforced by the police and the magistracy. James Witney had fallen foul of the law when he appeared before Mr Bushby at Worship Street Police court in London’s East End in July 1879. Witney was a carman; a man that owed or rented a small cart and was employed to carry goods or materials across the capital. He was the equivalent of the modern ‘white van man’ and was probably held in equal esteem.

He owned a horse to pull his cart but it had fallen sick and couldn’t work. He should have notified the authorities and called a vet, but he did neither. Instead he sent Frederick Wright with the horse to Stoke Newington common to leave it somehow get better on its own. In doing so he had not only endangered the life of his own animal he had put other horses and cattle at risk because the common was used by lots of people to graze their animals.

The problem was quickly identified by a constable employed by the local Board of Works. He found the horse suffering from what he suspected was ‘farcy’ and he reported it to the police. Two government inspectors of cattle were sent to examine the animal and they agreed with his suspicions and ordered that it be slaughtered. Witney was informed and tried to get the animal removed to be treated but a local vet refused and insisted it be slaughtered before it infected any other beasts in the vicinity. When a post mortem was completed ‘farcy’ was discovered and the action of the authorities was justified.

Glanders and Farcy, according to the DAERA website, is ‘a serious bacterial disease of the respiratory tract and skin, affecting mainly horses and other equine animals’. It remains a notifiable disease in the UK even though it is thought to have been eradicated here and in most of Europe and North America. It is fatal to animals and humans and has been used a biological weapon in wars (notably by the Germans in the First World War, and the Japanese in WW2). There is currently no vaccine for glanders or farcy.

Mr Bushby was satisfied that the Board of Works had proved that Witney had broken the law and endangered both the public and animals on the common. He fined him £21 5s plus costs and handed down an additional fine of 10s to Fred Wright for ‘leading a horse afflicted with glanders through the streets’.

[from The Standard, Saturday, July 12, 1879]

The horse trade, especially the slaughtering business and the trade in horsemeat, forms part of Drew’s new history of the Whitechapel (Jack the Ripper) murders of 1888. This new study offers up a new suspect, links the ‘Jack the Ripper’ killings to the unsolved ‘Thames Torso’ crimes, and provides the reader with important contextual history of Victorian London. It is available on Amazon now.

 

If it looks too good to be true it probably is: the confidence trick, 1880s style

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Daniel Risbey was in East London to visit his wife, who was an inmate at the London Hospital on Whitechapel High Street. The fifty year-old fisherman from Essex was unfamiliar with the capital and certainly a stranger to the dodges and pitfalls that often befell the unwary. He must have stuck out like sore thumb.

As he left the hospital and was making his way along Mile End Road a man stopped and chatted to him. As they conversed he noticed another person just ahead stop and appear to drop some pieces of paper on the street. The first man, who had introduced himself as Thomas Windsor, picked them up and showed them to Risbey.

‘Why’, Windsor declared, ‘these are £5 notes!’ and he called the other man back. He now joined them and said his name was George Boyce and that he’d recently come into money following a payout for an incident on the railway. Boyce had received the princely sum of £300 and declared that ‘he meant to do some good with the money, and would lend to any deserving man’.

What a stroke of luck then, for Risbey to run into two such generous chaps on his visit to London. The pair now said that they trusted him enough to have some of the money up front while they sorted out the ‘usual arrangements’ of a loan and suggested he wait in a local pub while they did so. This proved, they said, that they had ‘confidence’ in him. To show them that he was worthy of that confidence they asked him to hand over his purse and money while they sorted things out. He had several £5 notes, they had his money – which only amounted to about 5s anyway.

The fisherman took out a few pennies for a beer, handed over his purse and walked over to the nearest pub to wait. After an hour they hadn’t returned and he was about to leave when a police sergeant appeared and asked him to accompany him to the station. When he got there Boyce and Windsor were in custody and Sergeant Rolfe explained the situation.

The officer had seen the two men talking to Risbey, knew them as ‘sharpers’ (or confidence tricksters) and watched them. He followed them after they left Risbey and, with some assistance, arrested them. When searched all they had was three pence, the notes, a few Hanoverian medals, and the Essex man’s purse. Both were charged with theft and presented at Worship Street Police court on the following morning, Thursday 6 July 1882.

The whole episode was related to Mr Hannay the sitting magistrate. The notes were fake – from the ‘Bank of Engraving’ Sergeant Rolfe explained. The medals were used to represent sovereign coins and the two men were well known to the police. On this occasion Daniel Risbey was lucky, thanks to the sharp eyes and wits of the local police all he lost was his innocence and he left London a little wiser than he arrived. At least on the next occasion he visited his wife in hospital he’d have a tale to tell, if he chose to tell it at all. As for the two ‘sharpers’, Mr Hannay committed them for trial.

I think we’ve all heard of the confidence trick but it isn’t often that it is so clearly described in those terms. The paper was reporting this as news, as a warning to readers, and as gentle dig at the expense of the ‘country bumpkin’ come up to town and taken for a fool. We might nod sagely at how gullible he was (as many of those reading the Standard in 1882 would have done) but how many of us have fallen, or come close to falling, for internet scams that have promised us easy money or other benefits that have few strings attached. Remember folks, if it looks too good to be true then it probably is.

[from The Standard, Friday, July 07, 1882]

Drew’s new book (co-authored by Andy Wise) is published by Amberley Books. It is a new study of the Whitechapel murders of 1888 which offers up a new suspect, links the ‘Jack the Ripper’ killings to the unsolved ‘Thames Torso’ crimes, and provides the reader with important contextual history of Victorian London. The book is available on Amazon here

An excess of zeal as a man tries to avoid the shame of a court appearance.

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This is one of those unremarkable cases, which, at the same time, serves to illustrate how the police courts of Victorian London actually operated. Most of the time the press does not discuss the various functions of the court. Partly this was because it is unlikely that the reading public were interested but also presumably because most people knew anyway. After all these were popular arenas for negotiating social issues and held few secrets for most of the people of Victoria’s capital.

On Thursday 24 June 1880 a number of people were brought to the Worship Street Police court charged with keeping dogs without paying for license to do so. We might have forgotten but until 1987 anyone owning a dog had to buy an annual license.  In 1880 this cost 7s 6d (equivalent to about £25 today) so while not a huge sum it was still a cost on the stretched income of the workingman. So it is not surprising that large numbers of people tried to avoid it.

This meant that periodically the capital’s police courts were filled with defaulters, most of whom were expected to pay up on the spot or face a possible fine and/or imprisonment if they couldn’t pay. Being sent to gaol for not having a dog license was not impossible but it was extremely unlikely.

On this occasion one man seemed keen to pay what he owed but then get out of court quickly and without drawing attention to the fact that he’d been there. This was understandable; no one wants his neighbours to know that he has been in court or in trouble with the law, it was potentially embarrassing. So he popped his 5fine on the ledge of the dock and tried to leave by the main entrance. A warrant officer stopped him and told him he had to go out by the door marked ‘prisoners’, which he was reluctant to do.

When the fellow refused point blank the officer picked up his coins and shoved the man towards the exit door. However, the poor man clung to the dock and continued to refuse to be expelled via the prisoners’ exit. Two more officers arrived, and a police sergeant, and a struggle ensured which ended in an unseemly wrestling match on the court floor.

Finally the man was dragged out of court by his collar and thrown into the street. If he wanted to avoid attention he’d failed quite spectacularly but it was the behaviour of the police and court officers that upset Mr Bushby, the presiding magistrate.

In the afternoon he called the sergeant and officers before him and upbraided them. He told them that they had exceeded their authority and had shown too much ‘zeal’. Given the minor nature of the man’s offence there was no need for rough stuff. He was not supposed to leave his money on the ledge nor was the warrant officers supposed to pick it up from there. They should have told him to pay it to the ‘proper officer’ and, had he refused, they were required to let him leave. There was no requirement that he be imprisoned in default of payment and the proper procedure was for a distress warrant to have been issued if he continued to default on payment.

The man had been injured in the kerfuffle and Mr Bushby wanted it made clear to the officers that he didn’t want to see that sort of incident in his courtroom ever again, and he wrote a letter to the police inspector for K Division to place that on record.

So this uninteresting case becomes interesting (to me at least) because it shows how the courts operated when a fine was due to be paid. It also reveals that there was an exit designated for prisoners (or anyone presumably who had been charged, regardless of whether they came in from the street or from the cells). These were multi-purpose courts; they didn’t simply deal with ‘crime’ and we can all appreciate that some of those that found themselves there were hardly ‘criminals’ by any measure of that term. So making them walk out of a door marked ‘prisoners’ was probably likely to upset those that felt they had done little to deserve the blemish on their character.

[from The Standard, Friday, June 25, 1880]

No joke as a comedian finds himself in the dock of an East End court

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In 1888 the comedian Walter Groves appeared, not on stage this time, but in the dock at Worship Street Police court. He had been summoned by his former manager and fellow comedian Henry Bruce who accused him of assaulting him after the pair had fallen out in a dispute over what we would probably term ‘intellectual property’.

Back in February 1888 Bruce had employed Groves to perform as part of his theatre company. The comedian had written (or perhaps co-written) a sketch act that brought the house down on Easter Monday. On the basis of that success they decided to carry on performing the act and, Bruce insisted in court, had agreed to share the proceeds.

As seems so often to be the case in show business however, the pair fell out and eventually Bruce was forced to let Groves go but seemingly carried on using his material. This clearly irked the other man and on 14 May that year Groves found his former collaborator deep in conversation with the manager of the Forester’s Music hall (also known locally as Lusby’s after its owner, William Lusby). He strode up to the seated pair and loudly accused Bruce of stealing his idea and denying him the profits of it.

The court was shown evidence of playbills listing some of the sketches performed by ‘Harry Bruce’s Company of Comedians’ such as: ‘A sweep for king’ and ‘the Tin Soldier’ that Groves presumably claimed were originally his. It also heard that when Bruce denied any wrongdoing and insisted Groves leave the comedian challenged him to step outside and fight him, man to man. When the other man declined this invitation to a fist fight Groves thumped him in the face and gave him a black eye.

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This was corroborated by Frederick Clarence, a comedian in Bruce’s troupe, and by Charles Barber who worked for Bruce as clerk. In defence of Groves Neal Dryden (himself a comic) said his friend was sorely provoked, adding that he understood that Mr Lusby had wanted to employ Groves to perform in the act but Bruce had told him not to, saying the other man was ‘no good’. So with his character and talents impugned and his creative ideas ‘stolen’ from him it was hardly a surprise that Groves lashed out. It didn’t convince the magistrate however who ordered the comedian to find two sureties of £25 each to ensure that he kept the peace towards Bruce for the next twelve months at least.

William Lusby was a minor local celebrity in the 1880s and his first music hall was a popular venue on the Mile End Road. He had taken over the premises in 1868 and rebuilt the theatre, reopening it in April 1877 as Lusby’s Summer and Winter Palace. When it opened a gushing press review stated:

‘This new place of amusement, which, both on account of its great size and the splendid appearance of its interior, deserves to be described as “grand,” was opened to the public for the first time on Easter Monday evening. It affords accommodation for five thousand visitors, and there must have been nearly that number of persons who availed themselves of the earliest opportunity to see the magnificent building which Mr William Lusby has had erected for the use of the pleasure-seekers of the Mile End-road and its vicinity, as well as to witness the performances of the large and talented company of artistes which he has engaged’.

(The Era, 8 April 1877)

However, by 1888 Lusby had sold the theatre and it later burned down in a fire in 1884.  A new music hall rose from the ashes, the Paragon which opened in 1885 but by then Lusby had moved on, opening the Forester’s Music Hall where Bruce and his fellow comedians performed their sketch act.

Lusby, an East End lad made good, had built his success on property speculation and had, he claimed, only got into show business to help a young relative get a foot on the ladder. The Foresters was on Cambridge Road East, in Bethnal Green and in 1885 it gave Dan Leno his first big break in the entertainment industry. The legendary music hall star performed two comic songs and a clog dance and was paid £5 a week for doing so. Leno is credited with inventing stand up comedy which is probably why his name is still remembered today while Harry Bruce and Walter Groves have disappeared from history.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, May 31, 1888]

If you enjoy this blog series you might be interested in Drew’s jointly authored study of the Whitechapel (or ‘Jack the Ripper’) murders that is published by Amberley Books on 15 June this year. You can find details here:

‘I wish I could avoid the drink sir, but it’s too tempting’. The Inebriate Act in action in the East End

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Minnie O’Shea was a drunk, an alcoholic with a problem, and when she appeared at Worship Street Police court in May 1899 it was very clear that she needed help. Minnie admitted as much herself, telling Mr Cluer the magistrate that ‘she wished she could avoid the drink; but it was too tempting for her’.

It wasn’t her first time in the dock; Minnie had three previous convictions for drunkenness in the past year alone, and according to police she’d been arrested and charged on least 20 occasions. She was a serial drunk and in 1899 that meant she had made herself liable to a new initiative aimed at dealing with the problem of alcohol abuse in society.

1898 had seen the passing of the Inebriates Act which allowed justices like Mr Cluer to send defendants like Minnie to a reformatory to dry out. A similar scheme had been attempted in 1879 but no funds had been provided for it. If a person was sent to a retreat under that legislation they had to fund their stay themselves. There was no way that a poor woman like Minnie could afford to do that. This new legislation supposedly expected the local authority (in this case the London County Council) to foot the bill.

Minnie was given the option of having her case heard summarily or to go to trial before a jury. Having been told that if she agreed to have the magistrate decided her fate at Worship Street that she would be sent for a home, she wanted to know for how long? If she behaved herself, the justice told her, she’d be out in a few months, so Minnie gladly accepted her fate. She’d get fed and a roof over her head so it wasn’t so bad, she must have thought.

It came as a bit of shock then when Mr Cluer handed down a sentence of three months confinement in a inebriate reformatory, albeit a Roman Catholic one that would suit her cultural background. ‘Three years!’ Minnie objected. ‘Then I’d better not consent, I won’t go’, she told him from the dock. Too late, Mr Cluer countered, ‘you cannot help it now’, and she was dragged out of the court to begin her enforced period of reformation.

Minnie was exactly the sort of person confined under this and the previous legislation.  Victorian society viewed alcoholism as a sort of moral individual failing and associated it particularly with women. Women were viewed as weak in nineteenth-century rhetoric and thus ill equipped with the requisite willpower needed to abstain from ‘the drink’. Minnie seemed to affirm this widely held view telling the justice as we’ve heard that ‘it was too tempting’ to turn to the bottle. In the late 1800s the ‘drunkard was an individual considered to pose a threat to wider society as well as to themselves’ and as Jennifer Wallis has shown this enabled so-called charity workers and reformers to treat alcoholics appallingly.1

Not only were some inmates treated badly the legislation was largely ineffectual. Few local authorities could afford to build reformatories and by 1900 the state hadn’t met demand either. In the first year of the act becoming law just 82 persons were sent to homes, 61 of them in London so Minnie may have been one of that handful. Most were women (for the dubious reason given above) and thereafter nearly all the reformatories that were established (9 from 11) catered exclusively for women.

Alcoholism was a problem in the late 1800s and this was particularly true in poor working class areas like the East End. That is why the Temperance Movement arose and why Police Court Missionaries strove to help those ‘that helped themselves’ by pledging to abstain from ‘the drink’. But it was an uphill battle because life on the bottom rungs of society was desperately hard and for many Londoners drink was a form of anesthetic, muting the pain that they daily felt in their struggle simply to survive.

The middle classes that swelled the ranks of the Charity Organisation Society might have seen drink as a symptom of moral weakness but they didn’t have to suffer the privations that the capital’s poor did every day. They judged women like Minnie O’Shea, I don’t think we should.

[from The Standard, Monday, May 22, 1899]

  1. Wallis, J. ‘A Home or a Gaol? Scandal, Secrecy and the St James’s Inebriate Home for Women’, Social History of Medicine, Vol. 31, No. 4 pp. 774-795

‘You nearly killed this old woman’: ‘If not, I  ________ will soon!’ Jealousy and violence is fuelled by a night of heavy drinking

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Most of the domestic violence cases that I have written about over the last three years of this blog have involved men beating their wives. The majority of attackers were younger men or men in their 30s or 40s, their wives similarly, but today’s example is a man in his late 50s who brutally assaulted his elderly partner who was 63 years of age.

Timothy and Mary Reece had been married for 30 years, a considerable achievement in any age but perhaps especially in the harsh conditions of working-class life in Victorian London. They lived in the East End, in Edward Street, Hoxton and on a Saturday night in May 1854 that the attack happened.

PC Austin (224N) was alerted to the assault by the noise coming from a crowd of around 150 persons that had gathered outside the couple’s home. Shouts of ‘murder!’ had rang out and the constable forced his way through the throng to find Mary lying on her back in the passage of the house. Timothy was dragging her by the legs, intending to throw her into the street and – symbolically – out of his life. He stopped when he saw the policeman.

Mary was falling out of consciousness;

her tongue was protruding and quite black, and her mouth was full of blood. Her face also was black and much bruised, and it was some time before she recovered her senses, and she then complained of being injured in the ribs’.

PC Austin told Reece that he had ‘nearly killed this old woman’, to which he merely grumbled ‘If not, I  ________ will soon’.

Timothy Reece was arrested and his wife was taken to hospital to have her injuries assessed and treated. A few days later Reece was in court at Worship Street and his wife, still recovering and using a stick to support herself, was summoned to give evidence against him.

He said that the altercation was her fault, that she had misbehaved in some way. A neighbour, Elizabeth Guterfield, suggested that he was jealous of her and the landlord, something she found ridiculous. On the night in question both parties had been drunk she testified. Timothy had been pushing her along the street as they made their way back from drinking in Bishopsgate and his wife was swearing at him.

She wasn’t sure why or how the jealousy had arisen but she insisted that in her day Mary had been a beautiful woman. She went on to describe Mary’s ‘departed charms’ to the court while the court observed the victim in court who ‘certainly bore no present trace of them’.

Mary herself said she could remember very little of the events of Saturday night as she was out of her senses. Even in court she was under the influence. She did say she’d borne 15 children in her life, six of whom were still alive. According to Timothy the couple had had eight children so whether the other seven were from another relationship or he was simply unaware of them is impossible to say.

Mr D’Eyncourt sentenced Timothy Reece to three month’s hard labour and bound him over to keep the peace to his wife for six months on his release. It was a common enough punishment for a wife beater and evidently well deserved. Whether it would do any good however, is debatable. Mary had to be summoned to court, I doubt she wanted to press charges and her situation was not really helped by losing her husband for 12 weeks. I also doubt whether this was the first time he’d hit her, although perhaps it was the most serious of a number of smaller assaults.

Working class life in mid nineteenth-century London was hard, extremely hard. Grinding poverty was a fact of daily life there and it seems both of them self-medicated with alcohol to alleviate the pain of it. Both seemed older than they really were: the newspaper reporter thought Mary was over 70 and described Timothy Reece as ‘elderly’. She was 63 and he was several years younger, so perhaps my age. Alcohol and poverty had taken its toll on both of them, physically and emotionally, and they had little hope of any improvement as they headed towards their dotage. There were no old age pensions to collect (those arrived in 1908, too late for Timothy and Mary) and little support outside the hated workhouse. Cheap drink – gin and beer – was their only comfort but alcohol (as we all know) fuels jealousy and violence and domestic violence in particular.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, May 18, 1854]

If you enjoy this blog series you might be interested in Drew’s jointly authored study of the Whitechapel (or ‘Jack the Ripper’) murders which is published by Amberley Books on 15 June this year. You can find details here: