Little sympathy for an old sea dog who served his country

Rare original image showing a black Greenwich Pensioner in Greenwich Hospital uniform

The accusation of forgery that was  levelled against Dixon Dawson at the Mansion House Police court in 1850 was serious and complex, and it reveals a story of bravery, service and a fall from grace that might well be common to thousands of veterans in mid nineteenth-century Britain.

The long wars with Revolutionary and then Napoleonic France had raged from 1790 to 1815 with only small breaks in-between. Before then England had been embroiled in war with its former colony in America from 1776-1787. Throughout that time the Royal Navy had played a pivotal role in operations; helping to move troops, block enemy ports, and ultimately preventing Napoleon’s Grand Armée from invading in 1805.

Following The emperor Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in June 1815 very many soldiers and sailors were returned to civilian life as Britain did not keep a large standing army in the early 1800s. Many of these were wounded, physically or psychologically (although there was little understanding of this at the time). Some of the old soldiers would have found a bed at the Chelsea Hospital while the former ‘tars’ could apply to be helped at Greenwich.

Dixon Dawson ended up at Greenwich where he lived for a while after working as a domestic servant for several years after he left the Navy. Dawson seems to have wanted to start a business, perhaps to provide security for himself and his daughter (we presume his wife was dead, as she is not mentioned), but lacked the funds. He then set upon a course that would have dire consequences because at some point he managed to forge a series of cheques in the name of his former master’s daughter in an attempt to defraud them of upwards of £300.

Dawson was caught and committed by the sitting magistrate at Mansion House (Alderman Gibbs) to take his trial at the Old Bailey in August 1850.

From the trial record it seems likely that Dawson was guilty. He’d tried to gain money he wasn’t entitled to and had involved others in his criminal actions. He’d abused the trust of his master and the kindness of the staff at Greenwich. Not surprisingly then he was found guilty.

But no one seems to have disputed Dawson’s back story, and several people spoke up for him and made it plain that he had never been a problem to society before. He had no previous criminal convictions, nor was he a drunk. There were occasions in the hospital when his behaviour was somewhat erratic and it seems likely that Dawson, at 71, was suffering both the effects of his increasing age and of the wounds he had sustained in his naval career.

Dawson had been wounded several times and once in the head. In his own statement to the court he explained that he’d been wounded at Cape Legat in 1803 and this:

caused me to be in a deranged state of mind now I have advanced in years, and at times to be very troublesome‘.

If his story is true (and no one seemed to doubt at the time, and some confirmed it) Dawson saw service from 1790 to the end of the wars in 1815. He served with Nelson and was wounded on the deck of HMS Victory fighting close to the Admiral. He fought for his country in Italy, the Caribbean, Africa and Europe and should have been able to look forward to a peaceful retirement. Sadly of course, old servicemen had to work in the 1800s and there was little in the way of support for most of them. Many ended up as beggars, vagrants, or worse, as Britain certainly wasn’t a ‘home fit for heroes’ in the early Victorian period.

Dixon Dawson offered a heartfelt plea for mercy to the court, citing his service history and the wounds he sustained.

‘My Lord, I am innocent of the crime laid to my charge; I have only been six weeks discharged from the strong-room in the Infirmary of Greenwich Hospital, which can be proved by Sir John Liddell, the doctor of Greenwich Hospital; I trust in God, my Lord, you and my prosecutors will show me mercy, and send me down to Greenwich, and they will keep me confined at the hospital; I have an only daughter; I am afraid it will break her heart if I am sent to prison; I hope, my Lord, you will show me mercy for God’s sake, as we all expect mercy from God; I can assure you I know not what I have done, or what has been done.—Your humble petitioner, Dixon Dawson.’

Perhaps he was a good con man but I suspect his mind was affected by the years of service, the wounds and old age. He was probably guilty and that is what the jury decided but I think the state should have helped him and certainly not allowed him to be punished for what he’d tried to do.

There was little room for sympathy in the early Victorian justice system however. This story doesn’t really have a happy ending. The jury did express their sympathy for Dixon and the judge took this into consideration. Instead of sending him to prison he ordered him to transported to Australia for ten years. This old sailor would have to make one last journey on a wooden ship, one that would take him halfway around the world and separate him from his daughter and his friends for ever.

I’m not sure he ever made it to Australia. The Digital Panopticon has no record of him arriving there, nor of him being in prison after the trial. Perhaps there was a happy outcome after all but I doubt it. I rather fear that the stress and anxiety caused by his confinement and trial was the last straw for this old salt.

[from Reynolds’s Weekly News, Sunday, August 4, 1850]

‘Tis good enough for such as thee’: one landlord’s resistance to a billeting order

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The Royal London Militia dept, Finsbury, 1857

Thomas Cole ran a pub on Shoreditch High Street called the Star and Garter. No doubt it was a fairly rough and ready establishment, popular with the locals but nothing special. Cole’s business was in selling drink (and some food) and providing paying accommodation for those that needed it. However, under the law he was also obliged – when required – to provide beds for soldiers for the militia.

This was a much resented obligation because it cost landlords money; in food and drink, laundry and candles, and of, in lost revenue as they couldnt let theses spaces to paying guests. It had caused problems in the American colonies in the preamble to the War of Independence and had been initially banned under the terms of the 1689 Bill of Rights. It was clearly still happening in 1855 however because three militia men turned up at Cole’s pub with the paperwork that said he was to put them up for a few nights.

Cole accepted the charge with bad grace and showed the trio from the Royal London militia upstairs to a ‘miserable room’ which he’d prepared for them. It wasn’t exactly 4 star accommodation, as two of them later explained at the Worship Street Police court.

Nothing could exceed the discomfort of the apartment, which was destitute of a chair, stool, table, washing stand, or a single peg to hang their clothes on‘.

At least there was a bed, just one however, but the mattress itself was rotten and

torn down the middle, and the framework so dilapidated that it would inevitably have broken down under their weight‘.

The men companied, but to no effect as Cole said the room was ‘good enough for such as they’, and so they returned to their headquarters to inform their officers who billeted them elsewhere.

That was on the 10 July and a few days later Captain Connor and Sergeant Brooks visited The Star and Garter to see the situation for themselves. They also received a rough welcome from the landlord who seemed determined that all soldiers were ‘a set of thieves and rogues’ , regardless of regiment or rank. Cole was very reluctant to let them inspect the room but eventually they did, finding it just as their men had described it.

Cole tried to say that the trio had exaggerated so that they could extort one from him to buy their silence but the sitting magistrate, Mr D’Eyncourt, didn’t buy his half hearted excuse. He said he understood he was unhappy at having to provide accommodation for the militia but the law was the law and he was obliged to. He fined him 40s and warned him about his future conduct.

Cole was adamant he wouldn’t  pay a penny and was prepared to go to gaol for it. Mr D’Eyncourt didn’t offer him that alternative though, telling him that unless the money was paid by the following day a distress warrant would be issued for the debt. In other words, pay up or the bailiffs would turn up and starting taking his possessions away.

The 1850s were a time of international tension for the British Empire with war in the Crimea and, two years later, the Indian revolution (or ‘Mutiny’) in 1857. Soldiers, and the militia, were very much a part fo the fabric of Victorian life but clearly not welcomed by everyone.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Saturday, July 21, 1855]

‘He trampled on me, and I am suffering from pains all over’; a wife’s testimony sends her husband to gaol

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After yesterday’s light diversion into the music halls we return to the grim reality of the Metropolitan Police courts in the middle of the nineteenth century. Here we find Henry Kirby Turton stood in the dock at Lambeth Police court accused of a brutal attack on his common-law wife.

The case – which is typical of many others I’ve written about – was flagged by the newspaper reporter because the magistrate was empowered to act using recently passed legislation to protect women. Mr Elliot, presiding, took full advantage of this, and applied the maximum sentence.

In June 1853 parliament had passed an ‘Act for the better Prevention and Punishment of aggravated Assaults upon Women and Children’. This was directly concerned with attacks on females and on children under 14 and was aimed at punishing men that committed these sorts of domestic assaults.

The legislation allowed a Police Court magistrate (or two JPs sitting outside of the capital) to deal with aggravated assault summarily (i.e without sending it to jury trial) and this was much more likely to result in a conviction. It was also much easier for a wife to go before a magistrate than to have to cope with the expense and inconvenience of attending the sessions.

So this power was very new in July 1853 although I suspect magistrates had been exercising a similar power unofficially for some time. One of the realities of criminal justice history is that practice usually preceded policy changes, something I try to get my undergraduates to understand.

Elizabeth Lambert was in a dreadful state when she appeared at Lambeth to evidence against her partner.  Her face was:

‘one entire mass of swollen purple coloured flesh, presenting fearful proofs of the most savage ill-usage’.

Elizabeth said she had lived with Turton as his wife (although they’d never formally married) and he’d mistreated her for years, and had recently knocked out one of her teeth. On the previous Monday she’d come from work and he had attacked her. Without the ‘slightest provocation’ she said, Turton had ‘struck her with his clenched fist on her face, and knocked her down’. When she rose, he hit her again and again until she passed out.

‘Had he used anything but his fists?’ the magistrates wanted to know. At first she said he hadn’t but when prompted by Mr Elliot she testified that while she couldn’t recall him kicking her (which aggravated the assault) he ‘trampled on me, and I am suffering from pains all over me, as well as internally’.

The couple’s landlady appeared to support Elizabeth describing Monday’s attack as ‘wanton and brutal’. Finally the justice turned to Turton and asked him to explain himself. The man seemed surprised to find himself in court and tried to justify his actions. He had come home to an empty house, ‘without a fire, and neither dinner nor tea prepared for him’. In his mind then he was perfectly entitled to beat his wife for her neglect of her responsibilities.

Mr Elliot was disgusted by the man and said so. He then sent him to prison for six months at hard labour. Turton, ‘who seemed somewhat astonished at the sentence, was removed from the bar’ and taken to the cells to begin his imprisonment. Elizabeth would then had had six months of peace and perhaps an opportunity to find a better person to share her life with.

[From The Morning Post , Saturday, July 16, 1853]

Two lads are charged ‘with getting an honest living’ as the press attack the police.

GreenYard

The City of London’s Green Yard

Victorian newspapers did not use headlines as we know them today but quite often they deployed a sort of headline at the start of an article. I think we can see the development of the modern headline here, aimed at catching the attention of the reader and giving a sense of what the article was about.

On the 10 July 1858 one of the entries under the coverage of the Metropolitan Police Courts news declared:

HOW WE ENOURAGE INDUSTRY!

What followed was a direct criticism of a new police policy, which the writer clearly believed did exactly the opposite.

Michael Welsh and Morris Haven were two young entrepreneurs  (or at least that is how The Morning Chronicle’s reporter viewed them. They had bought a quantity of cherries and had been selling them from a barrow in the streets around the Guildhall in the old City of London.

They were not alone in this, several independent hawkers were operating throughout the area selling fresh fruit as it was now in season. They drew large crowds, particularly of young boys, who ‘swarmed round’ the barrows, ‘each eager to invest his halfpence in cherries’.

Buying from a coster’s barrow was popular, and some people who seldom visited fruiterers did stop and buy from a barrow. It was cheaper and more convenient and the City magistracy thought this a ‘good thing’. Sadly it seems the police did not.

New regulations had been put into force regarding street sellers and the City Police seems to have decided that anyone selling goods from a barrow constituted an obstruction that had to be removed. As a consequence the paper reported:

great numbers of fruit sellers have been brought up on the same frivolous pretext. Alderman Hale discharged several so charged during the last few days, and remarked that it was a pity the police did not show a little more indulgence to persons earning a reputable loving, particularly as the fruit season would not last long’.

Sitting in judgement on Welsh and Haven, Alderman Gabriel broadly agreed with his colleague’s actions earlier in the week but he wanted to uphold the law at the law time. After all he agreed, ‘the streets must be kept clear’. He told the young businessmen he would let them off on this occasion but they must refrain from breaking the regulations in future or he would punish them.

They didn’t get away scot-free however; their barrows had been impounded by the police and they had to pay 2s 6deach to liberate them from the Green Yard at Whitecross Street (where all stray animals and vehicles had been taken by the police and their predecessors for centuries).

[from The Morning Chronicle, Saturday, July 10, 1858]

The wife of the Lord mayor is found sleeping rough in Islington.

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When Sergeant Gillett (31N) found Amelia Cooke and her children sleeping under the stars he decided to act. It wasn’t the first time the woman and her family had been picked up by the police – she was well know as a homeless person who refused to go into the workhouse.

On this occasion however, it being 2.30 in the morning, the police sergeant was concerned for the health of her children and decided to take them, and her, into custody. On Thursday 12 June 1851 he brought them and their mother to the Clerkenwell Police Court for Mr Tyrwhitt to decide what to do with them.

The magistrate was told that Amelia (27 years of age and described by the  Morning Chronicle’s reporter as ‘a sun-burnt haggard looking woman’) was regularly to be found around Islington sleeping in doorways or on the pavements. When quizzed as to why she would not take the help of the parish poor law authorities she explained that it would damage her case, as ‘she was entitled to considerable property’.

She told the desk sergeant that far from being destitute she was actually the wife of the sitting Lord Mayor of London, Alderman Musgrove. He had changed his name, she added, because ‘Cooke’ was far too common for a man of his status. The pair had been married at St. Nicholas’ Church in Liverpool and she had previously lived at 17 Wellington House, St. Pancreas where a sum of £350 (£28,000 in today’s money) had been left for her but she was refused access to.

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Sir John Musgrove was born in Hackney and had made his money by property speculation in the mid 1820s. While he may have travelled to Liverpool there is no record of him marrying there. In fact there is no record of him marrying at all, and when he died (in 1881) his baronetcy died with him, suggesting he had no male heirs.

Mr Tyrwhitt thought that Amelia was possibly ‘deluded’ and sergeant Gillet agreed. He wondered if the sufferings she’d been through in sleeping rough and hardly eating had ‘impaired her faculties’ and added that it was certainly ‘injuring her children’s health’.

The magistrate despatched an officer of the court to Mr Perch, one of the overseers of Clerkenwell, to make enquiries as to their future care.

Perch soon returned and said he advised taking the family into the workhouse so enquiries could be made into Amelia’s story (not that I think anyone apart from her believed it).  He’d spoken to the poor woman and was convinced that she was delusional. That made up Mr Tyrwhitt’s mind and he ordered Turner (the officer) to accompany the woman and her ‘miserable’ children to the workhouse.

But Amelia was a spirited woman and convinced of the truth of her story. She grabbed her children as they left the curt and tried to run away. When Turner caught hold of her she fought him at first before eventually being overpowered and led away to the ‘house. I doubt the Lord Mayor was even informed of the case, unless he chanced upon it over his breakfast of course.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, June 13, 1851]

 

A chance theft adds insult to a widow’s grief

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London was an extremely busy port city in the Victoria period. Goods came in and out of the docks and the river teamed with shipping, bringing travellers to and and from the various parts of the British Empire, and the rest of the world. This provided all sorts of opportunities for criminal activity: from smuggling, to pilfering from the docks, or the theft of sailor’s wages, and all sorts of frauds. The Thames Police and the Thames Police office then, were kept just as busy as the port and river was.

In June 1859 Susan Breeson appeared in the dock at Thames to be questioned about her possession of a pair of gold framed spectacles we she insisted had been given to her in part payment of a debt.

Breeson had taken the spectacles to a pawnbroker in mid May but he’d become suspicious and refused to give her the money she’d asked for. This wasn’t the first time apparently; another ‘broker had refused to lend her the 7s she asked for them.

Breeson’s story was that her husband worked on the docks as a ‘searcher’ (literally a man working for the Customs who searched ships for contraband etc.) He’d found the, she said, at Victoria Dock in Plaistow but she didn’t know their value or even whether they were gold or brass. Samuel Redfern, who ran the pawn shop in Cannon Street Road with his father-in-law, didn’t believe her story and so he retained the glasses and alerted the police.

Questioned before Mr Yardley at Thames Susan now changed her account and said that the spectacles had been given to her by a sailor. However, the court now discovered that Breeson wasn’t married to a customs officer at all, instead – according to the police – she ran a brothel in Stepney. the specs were given to her, but in payment of money owed, for lodgings or something else it seems.

Sergeant John Simpson (31K) deposed that Breeson was well-known to the police of K Division. She was a ‘bad character, and she cohabited with a man who worked in the docks many years’.  So some elements of her story had a hint of truth about them but now she elaborated and embellished it. The sailor in question, she explained, had been given the spectacles as a gift from a poor dying parson on board a ship ‘for kindness exhibited, towards him in his illness’.

Now the hearing took a more interesting turn. From a simple case of a brothel madam trying to pawn goods either lifted from a client, or pilfered from the docks and used as payment for sexual services or drink, it now became clear that the spectacles were part of a larger and more serious theft.

The next witness was Mrs Barbara Wilson Morant and she had travelled up from Sittingbourne in Kent to give her evidence. She testified that the glasses and the case they were in had belonged to her husband, who had died in the East Indies. She had been in the Indies with him but had traveled back overland, sending the spectacles and other things by sea. She told Mr Yardley that she had arrived in England by screw steamer after a voyage of several months (she’d left the East Indies in August).

The keys of her luggage were sent to Mr Lennox, her agent‘, she explained, and now ‘she missed a diamond ring, a gold pencil-case, a pair of gold-mounted spectacles, and other property‘.

The sergeant conformed that Mrs Morant’s luggage had been examined at Victoria Dock on its arrival, where it was then repacked ready for her to collect it. It would seem that someone pinched the items in the process. Samuel Lennox worked as a Custom House agent and confirmed that he had collected 15 pieces of the Morants’ luggage and checked them off to be collected but he couldn’t say who had unloaded them or carried out any other searches. The company employed casual workers who were hired without checks being made on them. Perhaps one of these was Breeson’s partner in crime?

Mr Yardley recognised that this was serious. While Breeson may not have stolen the spectacles (and perhaps the other items) but she was certainly involved in disposing of it. He remanded her for further enquiries for a week but said he would take bail as long as it was substantial and was supported by ‘reputable sureties’. It would be very hard to prove that anyone had stolen the Morants’ possessions or that Breeson was involved. She doesn’t appear at the Old Bailey although a ‘Susan’ and a ‘Susannah’ Breeson do feature in the records of the prisons and courts of London throughout the 1850s and 60s.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, June 9, 1859]

Two classes collide in central London

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An 1850s omnibus

Recently I have become quite interested in the dynamics of traffic in Victorian London. I’m not normally so fascinated about the minutiae of everyday life but I’m writing a book which explores the Whitechapel murders of 1888 and posits a potential solution. Myself and my co-researcher suggest that the transport network of the capital might well be an important factor in the murder series for reasons which, well, I just cant go into before the book goes to print. I’ll keep you informed.

With transport in mind today’s story concerns a collision, between an old form of transport (an open carriage – not unlike that which carried Harry and Meghan away from their wedding) and a ‘modern’ one (an omnibus). It took place at mid century and also brings together members of very different classes in Victorian society.

Lady Thesiger, the wife of Sir Frederick Thesiger the Conservative politician (and future Lord Chancellor) was sitting in an open carriage while it moved slowy along on Cockspur Street. It was a Tuesday afternoon and it was clear and dry, as the carriage’s hood was down and Lady Thesiger had a good view of the street around her.

As her coachman began a manoeuvre to cross the road and ‘park’ outside Strongi’th’arm’ the engraver’s shop, she saw an omnibus travelling quite fast in their direction. Her coach driver waived at the ‘bus driver but he either didn’t see the signal or ignored it. She later described what happened to the sitting magistrate at Marlborough Street Police court:

 ‘She saw the omnibus coming along very fast, and her impression at that moment was that the omnibus would run into the carriage. In an instant afterwards she found the pole of the omnibus across her chest and the head of one of the horses in her lap. It was a miracle she escaped serious injury’.

That a collision took place was not in doubt but when it came to court, and the omnibus driver – Roberts – was charged, a debate ensued as to whose fault it was.

After Lady Thesiger had given her testimony Mr Bingham heard from several other witnesses who corroborated her version of events. They deposed that the carriage was travelling at a sedate 5 miles and hour while the omnibus was doing nearly twice that. We might note that neither vehicle was going very fast by modern standards.

Roberts offered an alterative explanation of what had happened. He said the he’d been going downhill at ‘a moderate pace’ when the carriage had moved over to the wrong side of the road and into his path. The coachman had not indicated what he was doing and by then it was impossible for him to avoid the collision. It wasn’t his fault; it was Lady Thesiger’s driver’s.

He brought witnesses that backed him up including a local baker who had seen the whole thing unfold. He refuted the evidence about the speed of the vehicles, arguing that it was carriage that was moving more quickly. He said that the carriage driver should have waited until it was safe to cross the street and not have simply turned into the flow of the traffic.

Mr Bingham now had a couple of things to consider, one of law and one of fact, as he put it. The point of law was who had the right to cross the road in this case, while the fact referred to whether the coachman had given a signal or not, and if this signal had been seen or ignored by the omnibus driver ‘because he had more weight of metal with him’.

I think by that he meant simply that the omnibus driver was larger and so less bothered about a collision because it wasn’t his vehicle that was likely to get damaged by it. As someone who drives up and down the motorway several days a week in a small car I am quite aware of the careless driving of some larger vehicles who clearly think they are unlikely to come off as badly as me if I fail to avoid hitting them when they’ve pulled out in front of me.

So in the end the magistrate reserved judgement so he could make some enquiries. He promised an early verdict and was back in court the very next day to deliver it. He gave a lengthy explanation of his judgement which basically concluded that had the omnibus driver acted carelessly or wilfully then it would have constituted an act of ‘wilful and  perverse recklessness’ and he could impose a penalty. However, Mr Bingham didn’t believe that had been proved in court and so he dismissed the complaint but said that the Thesigers could of course take this before the civil courts.

Interestingly at that moment Sir Frederick was also in the courts, as a defence lawyer in a libel case. He lost that one too.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, May 24, 1850; The Morning Chronicle , Saturday, May 25, 1850]