From Kennington Common in 1848 to the People’s Vote in 2019; 171 years of democracy in action

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A nation divided against itself, unhappy with its political masters; tens of thousands of people marching though the capital with banners held aloft; a petition signed by thousands of ordinary people which the Prime Minster chooses to ignore. We’ve been here before haven’t we, in 1842 with Chartism. In May of that year a 100,000 people (Maybe 150,000) turned out to accompany a petition supporting the Charter on its way to Parliament. This was a ‘good-humoured and “teetotal”’ procession but later that year, and subsequently, things turned ugly as the Victorian state not only rejected the six demands of the people but deployed the police and military to guard against insurrection.1

By March 1848 Chartism was in decline but radical revolution was very much in the air in continental Europe. 1848 was the ‘year of revolutions’  and in March 1848 London witnessed large gatherings of Chartists in places with long histories of popular protest (like Clerkenwell and Bethnal Green) and a mass demonstration on Kennington Common later that spring, on 10 April. kenningtoncommon-standardThis drew another 150,000 people (right) but the authorities made sure it didn’t go anywhere: troops were stationed throughout the capital at hot spots and no one was allowed to cross the Thames to march on Parliament.

The Charter demanded the following reforms, all but one of which have been achieved today:

  1. Universal suffrage
  2. Abolition of property qualifications for members of parliament
  3. Annual parliamentary elections
  4. Equal representation
  5. Payment of members of parliament
  6. Vote by secret ballot

I doubt anyone (especially Brenda) wants to see annual general elections but in 1848 the government was not inclined to grant any of the Chartists’ demands. The 1832 Great Reform Act had extended the franchise to the middle class but the idea of making it universal was not properly contemplated until the 1860s when Disraeli took his ‘leap in the dark’ and enfranchised very many more working class men.

The 1848 petition was claimed to have 5m signatures but it reality it had fewer than 2m and some of these were faked (it was apparently signed very many times by Queen Victoria). This undermined the Chartists just as much as the violence that some Chartists deployed (in the Newport Rising of 1839 for example) hardened some hearts against them and divided the leadership.

Yesterday (23 March 2019), 171 years after 1848 something like a 1,000,000 people marched through central London and tried to squeeze into Parliament Square. There was no violence and it was all very good humoured.032319-london-brexit-march-01

The police presence on the ground was minimal (the police have other ways to watch crowds these days, evidenced by the helicopters that circled overhead and the ubiquitous CCTV). People came from all over Britain not just from ‘Remoaning’ London, and they brought their children and pets with them.

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There was a carnival, pro-European, feel to the march albeit with a lot of deep felt anger and frustration at the cavalier attitude of the ruling party (and indeed the opposition in Parliament). This was a protest with a very similar purpose to that of the Chartists in that both wanted to see a shift in power from the executive to the people, and both would argue that they were not being listened to.

The petition to revoke Article 50 had passed 4.5m signatures by teatime Saturday (as most of the marchers were making their way home) and the woman that had posted it was hiding in Cyprus after receiving death threats for having the audacity to call for a democratic vote by the people. Today the government doesn’t need to send in the troops to break up demonstrations or have the secret service infiltrate political groups, there are enough trolls and anti-democratic keyboard warriors to do their dirty work for them.

Everything we have achieved as a people in terms of winning concession from our royal or our political masters has been achieved through protest and campaigning. The rich and powerful did not (and will not) give up their privileges easily but we the people are many and they are few, and ultimately they recognize this and bow to pressure when they have to.

From the Peterloo massacre and the first mass movement for electoral reform, through the Chartists to the Suffragettes and beyond this country has a proud history of social protest aimed at holding our rulers to account. A lot has been said recently about what democracy is and what it means to be democratic. Understandably the present occupant of 10 Downing Street believes she is democratically obliged to deliver the will of the people as expressed in June 2016 in the referendum.

At what point however, did anyone sign up to a democracy in which we were are only asked for our opinion once?

1.Jerry White, London in the Nineteenth Century, (London, Jonathan Cape, 2007), p.365

‘A fever amongst people living under the mockery of a poor-law which recognizes no right to relief in destitution’: reflections on the Irish Potato Famine from 1846

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Today is St Patrick’s Day and there will be drinking galore in Dublin, London and Boston and throughout the Irish diaspora. The island of Ireland is small, just 32, 500 square miles, and today it is home to around 6.5m people, but it bats above its average in terms of political importance and influence. This is due in no small part to its strategic significance, situated as it is between continental Europe, Britain and the Atlantic, and also of course, because of its long and troubled history. It is not for nothing that the Brexit wrangling in recent months has focused so much on the so-called ‘Irish backstop’; the determination not to recreate a hard border between Eire (the Irish Republic) and the six counties of Northern Ireland.

The Irish influence is widespread however, because of the waves of Irish emigration from the ‘emerald isle’ that took place, for the most part at least, in the nineteenth century. Millions of Irish men and women left their homes to travel in search of food, shelter and work – a better life – in the wake of famine, persecution, and religious intolerance.

St. Patrick's Day Parade in America, Union Square, 1870s (colour litho)

Many went to their nearest neighbours, settling in England and Scotland (in London, Liverpool and Glasgow in particular) while many others traveled to the United States (especially New York and Boston). They took their culture with them, hence the St Patrick’s Day parades in US cities today (as above from Boston in the 1870s).

The famine began in September 1845 so by the winter and spring of 1846 it effects could be felt throughout Ireland and the British Isles. England had always had a large Irish immigrant population and they were generally regarded as second-class cousins at best and dangerous Catholic troublemakers at worst. Most of all perhaps the Irish were generally poor and considered to be ‘feckless’ ‘work-shy’ and a burden on the rates. When the numbers of the existing populations were swelled by tens of thousands of new migrants in the mid 1840s antagonisms were heightened.

The Police courts of the English capital were often visited by members of the Irish community, who gravitated to the poorer areas around St Giles, Covent Garden, Whitechapel and Southwark. The Irish had a reputation for hard drinking and ‘fair fights’ (when they were drunk). Brawls in pub spilled over into the streets and there altercations with the police were inevitable.  So arrests would be made for drunken and disorderly behaviour, refusing to quit licensed premises, and assaults on the constabulary. Many Irish ended up in the workhouse or as vagrants and beggars and this could also lead to an appearance before a magistrate.

The situation in Ireland was caused by the failure of the potato crop but exacerbated by the actions of the English landowners, poor law authorities  and government that failed to help the people affected. This was hotly debated in Parliament (just as today’s MPs debate Brexit and the ‘backstop’). Discussions turned around debates between those seeking trade tariffs for imported corn and those opposed to them. Peel wanted to repeal the Corn Laws but this split the Tory party (rather like Brexit has) meanwhile Irish people were literally starving to death. This is a flavor of the debate as reported in the Daily News on the day following St Patrick’s Day 1846:

This measure is an impressive commentary on the time occupied by the Protectionists [those that wanted to keep tariffs] in their long protests. It is fever against which Parliament has to provide. An infliction of fever so national, that Government must interpose to prevent the dying and dead from making the Green Isle a very Golgotha.

It is fever induced by starvation; and hastening on, with giant strides, while week after week is wasted in describing and deprecating the horrors of a superabundant influx of food from foreign countries. Moreover it is a fever amongst people living under the mockery of a poor-law which recognizes no right to relief in destitution’.

Peel’s early attempt to import American corn in secret failed because the quality of the grain was so poor that it was virtually inedible, causing widespread digestive problems so it became known derogatively as ‘Peel’s brimstone’.    At least 800,000 Irish men, women and children died as a direct result of the famine and the failure of the British government to support them, the figure is probably closer to 1-1.5m. A further million (at least) emigrated. If you ever wondered why anti-English feeling remains prevalent at all in the Ireland and amongst Irish communities elsewhere perhaps a reflection on the events of 1845-49 would be instructive.

And that is without considering the actions of the early modern rules of England, the atrocities committed by Oliver Cromwell’s troops, the long battle over Home Rule in the late 1800s, the brutal repression following the Easter Rising in 1916, the ‘black and tans’, ‘Bloody Sunday’, Diplock courts and all the other measures used to govern the northern counties in the Troubles, and of course decades of jokes at their expense.

Happy St Patrick’s Day folks – God save Ireland!

[from Daily News, Wednesday, March 18, 1846]

‘No income tax, no monarchy!’ The cry of protestors in Trafalgar Square

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G W M. Reynolds

In March 1848 (a year noted for turbulence throughout Europe) there was a demonstration called in Trafalgar Square to protest about income tax. The protest had already been ruled ‘illegal’ by the commissioners of police and and the convener, Charles Cochrane, had tried to call it off. Men carrying placards were dispatched by the police to instruct the gathering crowds to disperse and go home. By this time however, 1,500 to 2,000 had gathered and didn’t seem to be in the mood to go anywhere.

According to the Daily News reporter very few (‘not above 50’) would have been affected by the imposition of income tax on incomes of over £30 a year and soon it became apparent that elements of the assembled had their own agendas. One man mounted the balustrade in front of the National gallery and started to harangue the ‘mob’ with calls for the end of the monarchy. He was quickly hauled down. The self-appointed ‘president of the meeting’, G W M (William) Reynolds, then took the stand and denounced ‘the income tax’ and let several other speakers add their voices to the protest. Reynolds was a major figure in the Chartist movement, an advocate of republicanism, and the founder of Reynold’s  newspaper.

By 3 o’clock the police, who had been watching but not acting decided it was time to bring the whole thing to a close. As the police moved in to clear the crowd trouble flared. There were scuffles and the officers under Commissioner Mayne’s command had to use force.

‘Resistance was offered’, the reporter noted, ‘and they had recourse to their staves, which they found it necessary to exercise somewhat roughly, stones being thrown at them, in addition to manual violence used’.

There were injuries on both sides and several arrests were made. The protest had taken place on the Monday and on Wednesday two young men, James Turner and William Allis, appeared at Bow Street Police court before Mr Henry to answer charges of unlawful assembly.

Commissioner Mayne was in court to press the case and testified that the men had acted to obstruct his officers and had ‘conducted themselves in a very rude and disorderly manner’. They’d been arrested and when searched later at the police station Turner was discovered to be carrying a pistol, with ‘a powder flask, balls, and wadding’.

Turner denied refusing to quit the square as charged but admitted to being rude to the police. As for the weapon he carried he said he always did, having been the victim of a highway robbery in Fulham Fields some time ago. He armed himself, he argued, against common footpads that infested some areas of the capital. I think this suggests that the police were still establishing their control in the 1840s and were far from being accepted as the city’s bulwark against criminality.

The men were released on their own sureties (and those of Turner’s master and Allis’ father) but because they verbally abused the police inspector as they were leaving, they were hauled back in and find 30each. There are times, they hopefully learned, when it is better to keep your mouth shut.

Banning a protest in Trafalgar Square was deemed controversial (as a future commissioner of the Met – Sir Charles Warren – was to discover in 1887) but the press noted that in 1848 it was illegal for assemblies to be held there whilst Parliament was sitting).

[from Daily News, Tuesday, March 7, 1848; The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, March 9, 1848]

‘The stench was horrible, and seemed as if from burnt bones or flesh’: the Spa Fields scandal of 1845

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Clerkenwell Police court was crowded on the morning of the 25 February 1845 and the magistrate must have quickly realized that local passions were running high. Most of those present either lived or worked in the near vicinity of Exmouth Street, close by the Spa Fields burial ground.

Burials no longer take place in Spa Fields and nowadays the gardens are an inner-city paradise on summer days as visitors eat their lunch, walk their dogs, or sunbathe on the grass. The London Metropolitan Archives is nearby and in Exmouth Market gourmands can enjoy a wide variety of food from the stalls and cafés that trade there.

The crowd in Mr Combe’s courtroom were represented by a pawnbroker and silversmith called Watts. He stepped forward to explain that he and his fellow ratepayers were there to seek an end to ‘practices of an abominable nature’ that had been taken place in the graveyard.

What exactly were these ‘abominable practices’?

The magistrate listened as  Mr Watts told him that while the burial ground was less than two acres in size and was estimated to be able to hold 3,000 bodies. In reality however, in the 50 years of its existence on average some 1,500 internments were taking place annually. In sum then, something like 75,000 people had been buried in a space for 3,000 and more and more burials were taking place, indeed there had recently been 36 in one day the pawnbroker said.

However, while the graveyard was crowded and this would have meant digging into extant graves and disturbing them, ‘not a bone was seen on the surface’. He (Mr Watts) would provide his Worship with evidence that the bodies of interned persons were routinely being dug up and burned to make room for fresh burials. Moreover many of those coffins removed were new, the wood ‘was fresh’ he added, and witnesses had seen human body parts hacked off by diggers.

The desecration of graves was one thing but the root of the complaint was actually the effect that this practice had on local people and their businesses. According to Watts:

‘The stench proceeding from what was called the “bone-house” in the graveyard was so intolerable that many of the residents in Exmouth–street, which abutted on the place, had been obliged to leave it altogether’.

Surely, the magistrate asked him, a prosecution could be brought against the parochial authorities that had responsibility for the place? Mr Watts said that the parish of St James’ was well aware of what was happening but were doing nothing to stop it.

‘The custom is’ he explained, ‘to disinter the bodies after they have been three or four days buried, chop them up, and burn them in this bone-house’.

Then he should certainly bring a charge against them Mr Combe advised. The clerk to the local Board of Poor Law Guardians was less sure however; since the burial ground was not subject to rates he didn’t think the parochial authorities could be held liable for it. The magistrate said that if the Guardians couldn’t interfere the matter should go to the Poor Law Commissioners and, if they didn’t not help, he would apply directly to the Homes Secretary (who, in February 1845, was Sir James Graham – a politician who, by his own admission, is only remembered by history as ‘the man who opened the letters of the Italians’ in the Mazzini case).

Police Inspector Penny (G Division) testified that he had visited the bone house after being presented with a petition signed by 150 locals.

He found ‘a large quantity of coffins, broken up and some of them burning…the smell was shocking, intolerable. There were coffins of every size there, children’s and men’s’.

The court heard from Reuben Room, a former gravedigger who’d left two year’s previously after ‘a dispute’. He said he’d often been asked to disinter bodies after a couple of days to make room for fresh burials. John Walters, who kept the Clerkenwell fire engine, gave evidence that he had twice had to attend fires at the bone house. He had found it hard to gain admission (suggesting that the authorities there were not keen for people to see what was going on inside) but when he had he’d seen ‘as many coffins as three men could convey, and a great deal of pitch was fastened to the chimney’ [i.e. blackening it], resulting from the burning of coffins.

The smell, he agreed, was ‘horrible, and seemed as if from burnt bones or flesh’. A large crowd had gathered that night and were ready to pull the place to the ground.

More witnesses came forward to testify to the horror of the bone house and the ‘abominable practices’ carried out there. Catherine Murphy, who lived in a house which overlooked the graveyard had seen grave diggers chop up a body with their shovels, and had intervened to admonish them when one of the men had lifted the ‘upper part of a corpse by the hair of the head’.

‘Oh, you villain’, she cried, ‘to treat the corpse so!’

Mr Combe  again advised Mr Watts and his fellow petitioners to make a full statement of their complaint to the board of guardians so that they could take action against whomsoever was to blame. Satisfied with this, the crowd emptied out of the courtroom.

Even by early 1800s the pressure on London’s graveyards was acute. The small parish burial grounds simply were not designed to cope with the huge numbers of burials that a rapidly growing population required. The local authorities recognised that larger cemeteries needed to be laid out so that room could be found for new internments. In 1824 a campaign began to build large municipal cemeteries on the edge of London, away from crowded housing and the danger of disease.

From 1837 to 1841 Parliament agreed to ‘the building of seven commercial cemeteries’ at Kensal Green, West Norwood, Highgate, Nunhead, Abney Park, Brompton and Tower Hamlets. By mid century (not long after the horror of Spa Fields) these were already filling up.* Acts in the 1850s caused most of the old seventeenth century burial grounds to be formally closed, some of these are now public gardens.

So the next time you take a stroll in Spa Fields enjoying your lunch or coffee, and taking in the antics of the local canines, you might try to imagine what this place smelled like when the bone house’s fires were in full operation.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, February 26, 1845]

*Weinrebb & Hibbert, The London Encyclopædia (p.129)

for other posts about the problems of London’s dead see:

Knocked down in the street a week before her wedding.

A grave legal dispute in Essex

Of unrequited love and the pledging of china, not troths: a valentine’s day post from the Police Courts

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Today it is Valentine’s Day, and so all the shops are fun of heart themed gifts, chocolates and cards. If you try to buy a bunch of red roses this week you can guarantee that they will be double what you’d pay at any other time of the year, and if you choose to eat out on Thursday night the menus will be ‘special’ and the tables set up for couples.

Valentine’s Day is now a commercial opportunity, just like Mother’s Day, Christmas and Easter but has it always been thus?

It is likely that Valentine’s Day celebrates the martyrdom of one or more individuals in ancient Christianity who were associated in some way with romance. The positioning of the holiday in February however has much more to do with the early Church’s campaign to eradicate paganism.

In Roman pagan tradition mid February was a time to celebrate fertility and the god Faunus. During the festival of Lupercalia the unmarried young women of Rome would place their names in a  large urn  to be drawn out by the city’s bachelors. The couples were paired for a year but often (it is said) married their ‘chosen’ partners. There were other more bawdy elements to the festival, supposedly including nudity and the spanking of bottoms!

The romantic element (as opposed to the more overtly sexual one) of Valentine’s can be traced back to the 14th century when courtly love was very much in vogue amongst European nobility. By the early modern period the practice of sending love tokens on the 14 February seems to have been well established; Shakespeare references it in Hamlet for example. The late eighteenth century saw pamphlets published to help individuals write their own messages and the introduction of the penny post in 1840 opened up the possibly for the masses to exchange anonymous love letters.

The Victorians soon became hooked on the practice and card manufactures began to mass produce valentine cards in the 1840s. In 1847 the first commercial cards appeared in the United States and we can probably date the modern obsession with Valentine’s Day from then.

Of course the 14 February is just another day for many, and can quite a lonely place if you are on your own. There are hundreds of hits for a Google search of ‘Valentine’s Blues’ and the overhyping of this one day as a ‘time for lovers’ can be very challenging for those without a partner. There is also considerable pressure on those who are in relationships to make the day ‘special’, to spend lots of money, or simply to be ‘romantic’. Ir would probably be better to encourage a loving supportive relationship for 365 days of the year rather than just one.

Meanwhile back in 1847 in London one young woman was certainly not about to enjoy her Valentine’s Day, and her reaction to this ended up in a court case at one of London’s Police Magistrate Courts.

Thomas Frisk was a young saddler living in Fore Street in the City of London. For several months he had been courting a young lady named Mary. Mary (whose full name was Mary Martha Mills) lived in Somers Place West, St Pancras and for the past nine months Thomas had sent her his ‘addresses’ and had showered her with gifts and money.

He did so in the hope that they would be married and Mary had given him some encouragement. So confident (or hopeful) was he that they would be wed that Thomas sent her money to buy a fine china dinner service. The magistrate at Clerkenwell Police Court was told that Thomas did this in anticipation of the ‘happy day’ …when they would ‘be made one’.

Sadly for Mary Thomas was not a very patient young man and soon became keen on ‘another charmer’ and broke off the relationship with Mary. He then rather ungallantly  heaped scorn on her unhappiness by demanding the return of the china she had bought to grace their marital home.

Mary reacted as many might and refused to return his gifts. Instead she pawned the dinner service and send him back the ‘duplicate’ (the  pawn ticket). I’m sure Bridget Jones would empathise with Mary Martha Mills.

We all act differently when we are unlucky in love, or rejected by the object of our affections. Few of us will be so lucky to go through life without this happening.

Thomas was upset but his reaction was extreme. Instead of taking the hit to his pocket he chose instead to take his former amour to court. Not surprisingly the magistrate was less than sympathetic; the reporter in the paper noted that ‘Mr Wakeling [the magistrate] questioned the compliant, who cut a very sorry figure in court’, and dismissed the case without costs.

Love and marriage was one of several themes the court reporters of the Victorian press liked to cover for the ‘human interest’ nature of the stories. I’ve found a handful of stories that detail cases of eloping lovers, angered fathers, and broken relationships – all of which that end badly in the summary courts of the capital. They go to show us that our Victorian ancestors are much more closely linked to our modern lives than the passage of 150 or more years might suggest.

[from The Morning Post (London, England), Friday, February 12, 1847]

A mysterious shooting in Belgravia

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Sometimes there is just no obvious reason behind people’s actions and this is one of those cases. In early February 1844 the magistrate at Queen Square Police court was about to shut the court and leave for home when the police brought in a young man named Philip Macholland.

Macholland, who was seemingly in all accounts, ‘respectable’ and ‘of sound mind’, was set in the dock and charged with firing a pistol into a house in Lower Belgravia Place. The ball from the gun narrowly missed the Reverend Charles Chapman who appeared in court with the policeman that had arrested the youth.

Rev. Chapman testified that earlier that afternoon, at about four o’clock, he had been dressing in a room which overlooked his garden at the rear of the house at 20 Lower Belgravia Place. To his horror he heard a gun discharged and felt the ball pass close by him before lodging in the wainscot.

Looking out the window he saw a man (evidently Macholland) appear from a property three doors down holding a gun. Either the cleric or one of his staff had already called for the police and PC Hobbs (166B) quickly arrived and secured the gunman.

Macholland tried to deny firing the gun but when the clergyman assured him that ‘he might be forgiven’ if he admitted his actions he confessed to it, but gave no reason. In court before Mr Bond Macholland said he was sorry for what he’d done and promised not to do it again. All he would add under questioning was that he was apprenticed to a modeler and sculptor; he couldn’t (or wouldn’t) say why he had a gun or had used it that day.

The magistrate was quite perplexed but given that the Rev. Chapman was in no mood to press serious charges against the lad he simply reprimanded Macholland, warning him that the consequences could have been fatal, and bound him over to keep the peace for the next twelve months. Having extracted a promise (backed up with nearly £150 worth of sureties) he released the young man. Congratulating the reverend on his lucky escape from an untimely death the magistrate went home to reflect on an unusual end to his working day.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, February 10, 1844]

p.s curiously, and amusingly, just around the corner from Lower Belgravia Street is Ebury Street where, at number 22 Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond, once lived. A blue plaque marks the house today. 

A ‘flasher’ in the theatre is exposed

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Mr Hope was enjoying a night out at the theatre with his wife in early January 1842 when  his attention was caught by a young man in a nearby box. He was ‘fashionably dressed’ and appeared to be a little the worse for drink. This was not an uncommon sight at the Haymarket (or any other) Theatre, but Mr Hope felt there was something about the way that the young gentleman behaved that concerned him.

As he watched from the comfort of his private box he noticed that the other man seemed to be focused on a couple in a nearby box. When the man in that box rose and left briefly, the young man stood up, opened his trousers and ‘indecently exposed his person’. The poor woman had been ‘flashed’ and wasn’t sure what to do. Mr Hope reacted quickly, moving over and into her box and taking her hand to lead her back to the safety of his own. Leaving her in the reassuring company of his wife, he went in search of a policeman.

Having found one he returned to the box and explained to the woman’s husband exactly what had happened. The culprit – Thomas Sale Pennington – was pointed out and the constable asked him to come along quietly and without disturbing the other theatregoers or the performance. Pennington refused and suffered the indignity of being dragged from the venue by his collar before being frog marched to a police station.

On the following day Pennington was stood in the dock at Marlborough Street and charged with ‘an unparalleled act of indecency’. Whilst he didn’t deny exposing himself the young man did try to excuse himself on account of being drunk. Pennington said he had no recollection of the couple concerned and could hardly remember what he was supposed to have done. He also said he’d been a student at Oxford for the past four years and could provide plenty of character witnesses who would testify on his behalf.

If he thought this would go down well with Mr Maltby the magistrate he was sadly mistaken. The only issue for the justice was in establishing his guilt. For the victim and her husband (who were not named in the newspaper report, no doubt to save their blushes) the most important thing was in protecting her from having to relive the incident.  Mr Hope pleaded that his evidence and that of the lady’s husband were sufficient to save the lady from taking the stand but the magistrate and his chief clerk said she would have to answer a few questions.

Having satisfied himself that Pennington was guilty as charged and that his drinking did not mitigate his actions Mr Maltby turned to him. The justice told him that he was guilty of ‘committing a willful and intentional insult’. The public, he continued, ‘must be protected from such disgusting conduct’ and he sent him to prison for three months ‘as a rogue and vagabond’. He gave him leave to appeal to the Sessions but since there he might have been handed an even longer sentence had a jury convicted him, I doubt he took that up.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, 6 January, 1842]