A teenage girl gets the benefit of the doubt

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Since 1908 we have had separate courts for juvenile defendants and even before then there was a recognition that young children at least needed to be dealt with differently when they were caught up in the criminal justice system.

Today we wouldn’t think of placing a child of 13 in the dock of a magistrate’s court. Instead they would be brought before a youth court (if they are aged 10-17) and a parent or guardian would have to be present. The public are excluded from youth courts (but allowed in Magistrates’ courts) and defendants are called by their first name, and the presiding magistrates are specially trained.

The emphasis is on the welfare of the child, rather than their supposed criminality or deviant behaviour. Serious charges (murder for example) will potentially  end up before a judge and jury but nearly all other youth crime is heard in a Youth court where the legal process is more relaxed and less intimidating.

In the mid nineteenth century things were a little different. Welfare was not uppermost in the minds of the penal authorities and children were routinely imprisoned and even transported for a whole series of offences. Earlier in the century children (those aged below 16) could still end up on the gallows if they were convicted of murder, although this was extremely rare. So in 125 John Smith was hanged for burglary, he was 15; more infamously John Any Bird Bell was executed in 1831 for murdering a 13 year-old child, John was only a year older himself.

So when Anne Mabley appeared in the dock at Southwark Police court it’s no wonder she sobbed through her entire hearing. Anne was 13 and was accused of stabbing a younger child, nine year-old Richard Sparrowhall in the face.

The court was told that as Richard had passed Anne at ten that morning (the 19 September 1847) in Bermondsey she called to him. As he turned she asked him ‘how he should like to have his head cut off!’

Not surprisingly Richard replied that he wouldn’t like it, not at all!

But Anne produced a knife and tapped him on the shoulder with it. He pushed her roughly away, presumably in defence, and she stabbed him in the face. The blade cut his cheek below his eye and, very fortunately,  did little damage. Anne panicked and ran away but several witnesses saw what happened and caught hold of her.

While the lad was taken to have his wound looked at Anne was questioned by a policeman. She denied do anything and swore she had no knife but PC 159M soon found it and arrested her. He brought her straight to court as a day charge and her mother was sent for.

In between her tears Anne swore it was an accident, a joke that went wrong and said she’d been using the knife to trim her nails. The magistrate was inclined to believe and since Richard had escaped serious injury common sense prevailed and Anne was released into the care of her mother. So this story has a happy ending but on another day the 13 year-old girl could have faced a custodial sentence, of several weeks or even months, in an adult prison. The consequences of that experience may well have mentally scarred her for life, just as her attack on Richard might have scarred him physically.

[from The Standard, Monday, September 20, 1847]

‘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]

The perils of coming up to ‘the smoke’; highway robbery in the Borough

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John Roots had come to London in the late summer of 1848 to get treatment at Guy’s Hospital. The elderly labourer traveled first to Rochester (four miles form his home), where he caught a stage to London, arriving on the 22 August with 29sto his name. Arriving at the Borough, near London Bridge, he first took himself off to an inn to eat and drink. He stayed till the pub’s clock struck 6 and went off in search of lodgings, as the inn had no rooms available. At that point he had about half his money left having spent the rest on his fare, food and drink.

He was walking in the general direction of the St George’s Circus and as he sat down to rest for a while on Blackman Street, near the gates of the Mint, he met three men who hailed him.

What are you doing here? let us see what you have got about you’, one of them asked him.

Roots ignored them, and then told them to go away. They didn’t, instead they seized him and his inquisitor punched him hard in the face. The others grabbed him as he tried to recover, and rifled his pockets before running off. It was a classic south London highway robbery, and seemingly one carried out by a notorious gang of known criminals.

The Kent labourer’s cries had alerted the local police and very soon Police sergeant John Menhinick (M20) was on the scene and listened to Roots’ description of what had happened. He ran off in pursuit of the gang and managed to catch one of them and Roots later identified the man as the one that had hit him.

Appearing in court at Southwark a week later (Roots had been too sick from his injury and general ill health to attend before) the man gave his name as Edward Sweeny. Sweeny said he had nothing to do with the robbery; he was entirely innocent and had seen Roots lying on the pavement and had tried to help him, but he’d collapsed. When the policeman came up he said he’d told him to run away lest he was blamed for it, which he did.

Sergeant Menhinick dismissed this as rubbish but nothing had been found on Sweeny that could link him to the crime. All the prosecution had was Roots’ identification and given his age, his unfamiliarity with the capital, and his own admission that he’d spent two and half hours in a pub on Borough High Street (and so might have been a little the worse for ale) it wasn’t an easy case to prove.

The magistrate, Mr Cottingham, said that he’d rarely heard of ‘a more desperate robbery’ and declared he intended to commit Sweeny for trial at the Bailey. However, given the poor state of the victim’s health he said he would hold off doing so for a week so he could recover sufficiently to make his depositions.

Eventually the case did come to the Old Bailey where Sweeny was now refereed to by another name: Edward Shanox. Given the poor evidence against him it is not surprising that he was acquitted. Shanox/Sweeny was 21 years old and makes no further appearances in the records that I can see. Perhaps he was a good Samaritan after all, and not a notorious gang member.

As for Roots, he was still left penniless by the robbery and presumably unable to pay his hospital fees, so his future, as a elderly man and a stranger to ‘the smoke’, must have looked bleak.

[from The Standard, Monday, August 28, 1848]

 

 

‘Here are people dying of cholera owing to the most foul and disgusting nuisance’: an East End landlady is brought to book.

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In August 1849 Mrs Isabella Blaby was summoned before the magistrate at Thames Police court to answer a charge that she was exposing her neighbours to a most ‘intolerable odour’.

The now widowed Mrs Blaby was well known to the court as her husband had worked there until his death a few years earlier. But any sympathy that Mr Combe (the sitting magistrate) might have had for her quickly evaporated as he heard the evidence against her. Mrs Blaby ran a number of lodging houses in East London: one in Batty Street (a street later to become infamous as home to Israel Lipski, hanged for murder in 1887, and Francis Tumblety, a suspect in the ‘Ripper’ case) and two others in Charles Street.

A cess pit at the rear of her properties in Charles Street was overflowing into the yards at Phillip Street nearby via damaged wall, and the stench was unbearable. This caused the tenants there to complain and Thomas Overton, the local inspector of nuisances, was sent round to investigate.

He had already had dealings with Isabella having previously ordered her to deal with a similar problem at her Batty Street tenement, but she clearly hadn’t taken his orders seriously enough. He now discovered that as well as the smell there were potentially fatal health consequences associated with the ‘nuisance’. Given that there had been several outbreaks of cholera in the area, and she seemingly wasn’t  dealing quickly enough with the problem, Overton had no alternative but to bring Mrs Blaby to court.

At the Thames Police court hearing Mr Combe was told that two people were in hospital and the surgeons had warned that unless the cesspit was emptied immediately, and thereafter more regularly, there was a very real risk of further outbreaks.

In her defence Mrs Blaby said she had ‘compoed’ the wall that surrounded the pit (which was was found to be in a poor state of disrepair thus causing it to leak into the adjoining yards) and added that the cess pit had been emptied just six months earlier.

Six months ago? Asked the justice, that was ‘too long, too long’, he told her. ‘Empty them immediately, or you will be liable to a fine of 10s a day’.

Mrs Blaby said was happy to get someone to empty the cess pit of ‘night soil’ the following day, but this was not good enough for Mr Combe.

‘I can’t give you authority to remove night soil in the day time’, he insisted, ‘You must do it this very night, and before five o’clock tomorrow morning. Here are people dying of cholera owing to the most foul and disgusting nuisance’.

The landlady left court agreeing to sort out the issue straight away but her cavalier attitude towards her tenants and her neighbours can’t have filled the bench or the local health inspectors with confidence and it speaks volumes about the conditions people in the East End were living in at the time.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, August 17, 1849]

The odd couple: An unsympathetic pair of thieves in the dock in South London

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I can certainly begin to discern a qualitative difference in the style of Police court reporting over the course of the nineteenth century. The later reports (those from the 1890s in particular) are more ‘serious’ or less inclined to find amusement in the day-to-day happenings at the courts. The very early ones are quite short and factual, more akin to the reporting of crime in the previous century. But the ones around mid century (from the 1840s to the 1860s) show, I think, a desire to entertain. This would fit with the rise of ‘new journalism’ and the beginning of the ‘modern’ newspaper industry in this country.

Several of the cases reported by The Morning Post  on Monday 9 August 1841 have journalistic flourishes: descriptive remarks which are often absent from reports at the end of the century. They also seem partly aimed at provoking an emotional reaction in the reader – of horror, or sadness, shock, or sympathy. Whilst the language is old fashioned the approach seems very ‘modern’. It might, perhaps, reflect the influence of Charles Dickens, whose stories were popular at the time.

The Morning Post regaled its readers with the antics of a group of juvenile thieves who used even younger children to sneak into properties and secrete valuables in bags, which they then carried out to the waiting gang. The idea being that these kids were too young to prosecute, and perhaps so small as be undetected or unsuspected. One other lad (‘a little fellow’ as the paper described him) stole a pair of gloves and slammed a door in the face of his pursuers. When caught he boldly denied the theft saying ‘he never wore such things’ so why would he steal them? He may have got away with this attempted theft (the gloves were found discarded nearby) but two years later George (aged 17) was tried at the Old Bailey for stealing cloth and sent to prison.

Over at Union Hall Police court, south of the river, James Lewis appeared in court alongside his wife Harriet, both of them charged with stealing (James from his employer, a linen draper in Walworth) and Harriet from a local pawnbroker.

The reporter was fascinated by Harriet and gave his readers a pen portrait of her:

The female prisoner, who was dressed in the first style, with satin gown and rich velvet shawl, cut a very curious figure in the dock, when seated amongst a motely group of persons, consisting of low prostitutes and ragged mendicants’.

So we learn, incidentally, that in the early 1840s the prisoners mostly sat together at Union Hall, and weren’t brought up one by one from the cells to be dealt with.

Harriet clearly loved clothes but perhaps her husband’s salary wasn’t sufficient for her to indulge her passion, so she helped herself at the pawnbroker’s expense while he was fetching a waistcoat she had asked him about. Mr Cottingham committed for trial by jury at the Surrey assizes. During the trial she ‘appeared dreadfully excited, and wept bitterly’ as the details of the case were described. She protested her innocence and seems to have convinced the jury that it was all a mistake, she never intended to steal anything and they let her off.

As for James, her husband, he had apparently being suspected of stealing from William Wharton’s linen drapery for some time. When his lodgings were searched a great deal of stolen property was discovered, including many shawls. The court heard that James Lewis was paid £40 a year plus board and lodging so the shopman must have come across as an ungrateful thief to the readers of The Morning Post.

I doubt he endeared himself either by then telling the court that he would happily give the names of other employees at Mr Wharton’s who had also been pilfering from him. He said he did it ‘make what reparation he could’ to his master but he probably came across as a sneak to the reading public, and one who was trying to wriggle out of a situation he got himself into because of his greed and that of his wife.

Mr Cottingham issued summonses for the men he named and remanded Lewis is custody to appear with them when they were found. What happened to him I’ve not been able to discover, as he disappears from the records. At the very least I imagine he lost his position and that, along with his wife’s brush with the law, must have undermined their relatively happy existence. For the readers of the The Morning Post then this served as a cautionary tale and a peek into the lives to others, people unlike but then again, just like, them.  Which is often why we like to read the ‘crime news’ after all.

[from The Morning Post , Monday, August 09, 1841]

An unhappy drunk ‘falls’ out of a window

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Amelia Glover was a woman of her word and not someone to mess around with. Unfortunately for Thomas Norris he ignored the former and committed the latter and after a brief encounter with Glover, found himself face down in the street outside her lodgings being stared at by a number of bemused and concerned passers by.

It was about midnight on Saturday 29 July 1848 and Norris was drunk. He’d met Amelia in the street and she’d agreed to take him to her rooms for sex. This was a financial transaction not a casual date however, and Amelia was an experienced prostitute. When she got Norris upstairs to her first floor room – at 10 Old Kent Road – she demanded money up front probably knowing only too well that some clients lacked the money to pay for her services, especially when they’d been out all night drinking.

Norris refused to cough up the necessary money however, perhaps either regretting his decision to engage her or simply hoping he could wheedle his way out of paying for it. It was a bad move on his part because Amelia got cross. She told him to pay up or she would throw him out of the window.

When he refused again she pushed table in front of the door, blocking his escape and manhandled him to the open window. Since he still seemed reluctant to empty his pockets she tipped him over the windowsill and he fell on his face in the street. Several witnesses apparently saw what happened but were reluctant to intervene: Amelia Glover was clearly well known in the area as someone you didn’t want to get on the wrong side of.

PC Lewis Bray (105P) realized what had happened and on the Sunday, after making some enquiries, he arrested Amelia, taking her before a magistrate at Lambeth on the Monday morning. There she denied the assault, suggesting Norris had fallen out the window in his attempt to evade paying her. Unfortunately apart from Norris (who appeared in court with his face ‘awfully disfigured’) there was no one to challenge Amelia’s alternative version of events. PC Bray said there were witnesses but they were too scared to testify.

The justice, Mr Elliott said it was clearly a case that needed to go to trial and he instructed the constable to enter summonses for the witnesses. He remanded Amelia in custody in the meantime.

A few days later Amelia was brought back to Lambeth Police court as at least one witness had been found. Henry Humphries was a shoemaker who lived close by and had heard the disturbance that night. He heard Norris fall and ran to help, throwing water over him to revive him. He looked up and saw Glover at the window, but he hadn’t seen her push or throw him out. Norris was unconscious for at least 10 minutes and he feared he was dead.  A doctor testified that the injuries were serious and Amelia was fully committed for trial.

In the end however this was probably one person’s word against another and while Amelia’s reputation was hardly exemplary, Norris’ was compromised by admitting to having been drunk and to visiting a known prostitute at her lodgings. If the case did go to trial I cant find a record of it in the newspapers or in the Digital Panopticon, so perhaps it was quietly dropped. Without solid witnesses it was unlikely to succeed and Norris may have decided it was better if he withdrew and put it the whole affair all down to experience.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, August 01, 1848; The Morning Post , Thursday, August 03, 1848]

Lessons from the 1840s should remind us that refugees are welcome here

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1848 was another hard year for the Irish people. The potato blight continued to bring famine to Ireland and tens of thousands left their homes and communities to make the journey to England and Scotland or America. The impact of this on a city like London is evident in the newspaper reports of poor relief in the capital and elsewhere.

The Marylebone vestry was told that between December 1846 and December 1847 huge numbers of migrants had appeared in London needing to be supported by the city’s parishes. 5,941 had arrived in St George’s-in-the East, 2,761 in the East London Union, 6,253 in Whitechapel and 7,783 in Stepney.

In central London the numbers were similarly high. There were almost 5,000 arrivals in St. Giles and 7,864 in Marylebone and a staggering 11,574 in St Martin’s-in-the-fields. In total in that one year the parochial poor law authorities spent thousands of pounds in relieving around 80,000 to 100,000 migrants from Ireland.

The vestry heard that several parishes hadn’t kept records of those they’d helped (or those records were not available) and noted that a further 30,000 Irish men and women had been relieved in Glasgow.

The Irish potato famine killed about one in eight of the population and forced two million others to leave. It was also entirely unnecessary. A combination of high grain prices, over dependence on the potato crop, and a deeply rooted and ideological resistance by the English landowners and government to help the poor led to the death of a million people, and the migration of many more.

The British Imperial state failed to deal with a humanitarian disaster on its own doorstep, allowing grain to be exported from Ireland when it could have used to feed its people, and refusing to intervene when Irish landlords turfed impoverished families off the land. The Poor Law system was rooted in deterring pauperism rather than helping those in need and the prevailing economic doctrine was laissez-faire ruled out government interference. Underlying all of this was Protestant evangelism that believed in ‘divine providence’ and underscored a deep-seated anti-Catholic prejudice in large sections of British society.

When the Marylebone vestry heard that St Martin’s-in-the-fields had relieved 11,574 Irish at the cost of £144 13s6d(or about £12,000 today, £1 for each person) ‘laughter followed’. Were they laughing at the fact that St. Martin’s ratepayers were paying out so much, or that so many had ended up there? Why were they laughing at all?

Today the news is filled with images of refugees and economic migrants huddled into overflowing boats, or carrying their belongings along dusty roads, fleeing war or disaster. We shouldn’t forget that in the 1840s this was the reality within the British Isles.

Disasters like Ireland in the 1840s or Syria in the 21st Century are not simply ‘natural’ disasters. They are often caused by, or exacerbated by the actions of governments or individuals, sometimes motivated by religion, ideology or greed, but the people most affected are invariably the poorest and least able to cope. For that reason migration is a World issue where borders are irrelevant. We should have helped the Irish in the 1840s and we should help the Syrians today.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, July 31, 1848]