No help (or sympathy) for an old ‘hero’ who lashes out

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Thomas Cooney was a crossing sweeper on the Bayswater Road. Sweepers were ‘beggars of a sort, demanding alms in return for a useful, almost essential public service’: clearing a path through the mud that covered most of the capital’s streets and paths.Cooney asked for tips from the ladies and gentlemen that preferred not to drag their crinolines or trouser legs through the filth churned up by countless road users. He could probably find no other work since service in the army had left him crippled with two wooden legs. He drew an army pension of 10s 6a week but that wouldn’t have gone very far in 1859.

Today I doubt that even Esther McVey or Ian Duncan Smith would expect Thomas to work for a living but the Victorian state was much less considerate in giving benefits to those that so obviously needed them. As a result the man with (literally) no legs to stand on was forced to do exactly that, day after day, in all weathers.

Moreover, the local youth had identified him as a figure of fun, worthy of their abuse. Most days a pack of them would taunt him, fling stones and mud at him, and occasionally be brave enough to get close enough to prod him and try to knock him over. What larks!

Cooney retaliated by shouting at them, waving his sticks, throwing stones back, and threatening to ‘do for them’. One day in April 1859 the boys were teasing him and he was chucking stones back when a little girl, just 11 years of age was passing on her way home from school. As she passed Cooney he wacked her with his stick, hitting her in the face, and she ran off home in tears.

Her father was a respectable tradesman living in Blandford Street, just off Manchester Square (where the Wallace Collection is housed today). Mr Woolter was so outraged by the attack on his daughter Anne that he set out at once to confront the crossing sweep. He gave him a piece of his mind but Cooney was far from repentant, instead of an apology all Woolter got was a punch in the mouth. The blow dislodged a tooth and unsettled the rest. Cooney was arrested and produced before Mr Broughton at Marylebone Police court.

The magistrate heard that Cooney had a long history of hitting out at anyone – youths, members of the public, and the police – that encountered him. He was described as a ‘brutal fellow’ and ‘a most desperate character’. I’m sure he was but perhaps he had his reasons. PC Reed (60D) said Cooney had been drinking and had resisted arrest. All Cooney offered by way of a defense was the unceasing abuse he’d received from the boys.

That didn’t wash with Mr Broughton. A respectable citizen and his little girl had been assaulted and the latter was fortunate not to have ‘been killed on the spot’ he declared. The justice requested a certificate from the surgeon that had treated Anne so he could assess the severity of her injuries before passing judgment on Cooney. In the meantime the sweeper was sent to the nearest house of correction to await his fate.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, April 20, 1859]

1 Lee Jackson, Dirty Old London: The Victorian Fight Against Filth, (Yale University Press, 2014), pp.32-3

Drew Gray is the joint author of Jack and the Thames Torso Murders, published by Amberley Books in June 2019. Details available here

Shoplifting and false imprisonment in 1850s Holborn : the case of the missing sovereign

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Before I entered the heady world of academia I had mostly earned my money working in shops. Indeed, I partly funded my studies at undergraduate and postgraduate level by working for Waterstones’ the booksellers.

So I have a reasonable idea and experience of how the law works around shoplifting and just how careful retail staff have to be if they suspect an individual of stealing from them. You cannot, for example, just grab hold of someone and accuse them of theft; you have to have seen them take an item and be absolutely sure that intend to walk away with without paying. Shop security guards are allowed to ask to see inside a person’s bag but if they refuse then the guards are obliged to call the police to organize a search.

In the mid nineteenth century shopping was a fashionable pastime amongst ladies of the upper and middle classes but the problem of shoplifting was still rife as it had been in the previous century. Shopkeepers were well aware that, as had been the case in the 1700s, female thieves were well known to dress up to resemble wealthier and ‘respectable’ shoppers in order to perpetrate their crimes. In this context the ‘extraordinary conduct’ of one City of London shopkeeper can be much better understood, even if it would have never happened in today’s world.

When a ‘respectably attired’ lady and her sister entered Mr. Meeking’s shop on Holborn Hill she had the intention to buy a dress for a forthcoming occasion. The woman (who was not named in the newspapers, for reasons that will become evident) was obliged to wait for an assistant to serve her as two ladies were already being served. One placed a £5 note on the counter with a sovereign coin on top, the payment for the items she’d chosen. The assistant turned over the note and asked her to endorse it, then walked off to the other side of the shop to fetch the cashier.

However, when a few minutes later the cashier arrived the sovereign was missing. The customer swore she’d put it there and the assistant was just as adamant that he had taken it. Suspicion now fell on anyone who was in the general area, including the two sisters who were waiting to be served.

The lady customer who’s sovereign had disappeared now turned to them and asked them not to leave until the matter had been settled. A policeman was summoned so that the four women could be searched. However, our ‘respectably attired’ shopper refused to be searched by a man and demanded that the female searcher (employed by the police) be brought to the store. The policeman told her that the searcher was currently busy at Smithfield Police Station and she’d have to accompany him there if she wished to be searched by a woman.

Our lady refused to be marched through the streets by a policeman like a common criminal and insisted any search took place there and then in store. There was nothing to do then but wait. Having given her name and address she was then forced to wait for three hours before the store closed and Mr Meeking returned from business elsewhere so that the four women could be taken into a private room where they were stripped of all their clothes (save ‘their shoes and stocking’) by one of Meeking’s female servants.

Nothing was found on any of them.

The woman was so outraged by this invasion of her privacy and by being held against her will for several hours that she applied to Sir Robert Carden at the Guildhall Police Court to complain. She said she had fainted twice during her ordeal and had been quite ill ever since. Indeed, so ill, she said, that it had taken her several weeks to gather the courage and energy to come to court. She was a respectable married woman and the whole episode was a disgrace, which explains why she did not wish her name to appear in the pages of the press.

Sir Robert was sympathetic but otherwise impotent. No crime had been committed in said, but she would certainly have a case for a civil prosecution for false imprisonment should she wish to pursue it. Taking the case further may have risked the lady’s good name being dragged through the civil courts (and newspapers) but perhaps that would be unnecessary now. After all the public airing of her experience would most likely have an adverse affect on Meeking’s business, deterring others from risking a similar one, and this might explain why she chose this path.

That is always the risk for a shopkeeper if they are not absolutely certain that a person is guilty of stealing; make a false accusation and you risk a loss of business and a loss of face. Which is why the odds are always stacked in favour of the shop thief.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, April 16, 1854]

‘I’ll teach you to have a little hussy here while I’m away’: The troubles of a broken marriage are aired in public

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Map of Bethnal Green (from Cross’ London Guide 1844)

The marriage between Thomas and Lucretia Gates was not a happy one. The relationship had soured with the passing of time and Thomas’ poor treatment of his wife had provoked her to move out of the marital home in Bethnal Green. Thomas,  described in the press as a ‘tradesman’, had then employed a female servant to look after him. This seems to have been a bone of contention for his estranged wife.

On the 14 April 1852 the consequences of that broken marriage reached the Worship Street Police Court as Thomas summoned Lucretia to answer a charge that she had assaulted him. This was rare; whilst many men might have been attacked by their wives and partners, very few were prepared to risk the damage to the reputations by admitting so in public.

Thomas Gates arrived with a police escort. He had so stirred up the community that a ‘great crowd, chiefly of women,  followed him to court’. This probably reflected both a show of solidarity with Lucretia by the ‘sisterhood’ and a degree of contempt for Thomas for running to the authorities instead of asserting his patriarchal rights and position.

The scene certainly enlivened the court reporter’s morning, however, and he must have regarded it as a welcome, if unexpected, bonus.

Thomas started by declaring that: ‘this woman is my wife, but we live apart, she in fact, having run away with another man‘.

Lucretia was not having this; having vehemently denied this version of events she ‘reproached her husband with having taken a  young hussy home to supply her place‘.

Thomas rejected this accusation and described how the assault he had accused her of had happened. He was at his home in Turk Street, Bethnal Green, when Lucretia had called on him. She took him by surprise and rushed in, shouting abuse at him and the young serving girl, Sarah Hartlett. Both were assaulted by the angry wife before Lucretia turned her rage on the room.

She ‘swept all the china and glass from the shelves and cupboards, and having smashed them to pieces, set to work to demolish the furniture and everything she could lay her hands on‘.

But she didn’t stop there, he said.

She tore the shirt entirely to pieces from his back, and tore the dress of the other woman also, exclaiming, “I’ll teach you to have a ____ here while I’m away,” and accusation which he assured the magistrate was quite unfounded‘.

It was quite a display of anger and Lucretia did not deny it. Instead she explained that her husband had driven her away with his abuse and violent threats. On one occasion, she said, he ‘had stood over her with a knife, threatening to kill her’. She also repeated her accusation that Hartlett was his mistress.

It was now the servant’s turn to be questioned by the justice (Mr Ingham)  and she denied any impropriety on her part. She only worked there during the day and always left him alone  in the night. Thomas may have been having an affair but Sarah claimed it was not with her.

Several of the woman that had accompanied the couple to court testified to seeing or hearing Thomas’ abuse of his wife. One recalled her being thrown out of a window, while another said she had seen Thomas Gates chase his wife down the street brandishing an iron poker. Mr Ingham turned to the pair and told them that it was clear their relationship was in tatters but that did not give either of them to right to turn to violence or to disturb the public peace. He cautioned them both and dismissed Thomas’ charge against his wife. They then presumably left the court and returned to their, separate, lives.

Divorce was not really available to the majority of people in the 1850s. The government (through a Royal Commission established in 1850) were looking at a reform of the law to allow the upper middle class to gain a full divorce, whilst at the same time making the cost of judicial separations prohibitively expensive to everyone else. In 1857 Parliament passed the Matrimonial Causes Act which removed divorce from the church (ecclesiastical) courts to the civil. The new law, not surprisingly (since it was created by men) favoured men over women. A man could sue for divorce on the grounds of his wife’s adultery whereas a woman would have to show an additional cause (such as as incest, cruelty, bigamy, or desertion) or prove cruelty on its own.

Thomas and Lucretia could not hope to get divorced, they simply could not have afforded it. Instead the best they could aim for was either to patch up their broken marriage or live apart and agree to ignore each other’s infidelities. Given Lucretia’s passion and temper, I think this might have been unlikely.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, April 15, 1852]

“Well, you needn’t make all this fuss. I only did it to frighten the children”: child abuse in mid Victorian London

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The police had their work cut out for them in ensuring Edward Smith reached the Marylebone Police court safely. A large crowd had gathered outside the police station that was holding the ‘ruffianly looking fellow’ – a 26 year-old sawyer who lived in Paul Street, Lisson Grove. Had the crowd been able to get to him the press reported, ‘he would no doubt have been subjected to much violence’.

Smith did make it to court that day and Mr Broughton’s courtroom was crowded as the public crammed in to see that justice was done to Smith. The exact details of his offence were alluded to rather than described in detail by the Morning Post and that was because they involved the attempted rape of a young girl.

That child was Sarah Harriett Cooper and she was also in court that morning. Today Sarah would have been spared another direct confrontation with her abuser but in the mid Victorian period there were no such considerations for the welfare of the vulnerable. Sarah, aged 11 or 12, was stood in the witness box and asked a series of probing questions about her experience.

She told the magistrate that while her mother was a work she and some other girls were playing in a piece of open ground on the Harrow Road which was owned by a nurseryman. The little girls were trespassing but doing nothing more than running about and having fun. Suddenly Smith appeared and seized hold of Sarah and the three other children ran away in fear. Sarah said she pleaded with him to ‘let me go home to my mother’ but the sawyer put his hand over her mouth, told her not to make a noise, and threatened to cut her throat.

What happened next was not recorded by the press except to state that it amounted, if proven, to the committal of a ‘capital offence’. By 1852 adult rape was no longer capital but Sarah was under the age of consent (which was 13 until 1885) so perhaps that was a hanging offence. Sarah testified that she had ‘cried all the while he was ill-using me’ until ‘he at last lifted me up and brushed down my clothes, which were dirty’ [and] I ran away’. A crowd had gathered near the gates of the gardens and she told them what had happened.

Smith had hurt the child in other ways; he’d used a knife to cut a wound in her hand and she held it up to show the magistrate the puncture mark on her left palm. If this wasn’t evidence enough of Smith’s cruelty there other witnesses appeared to add their weight to the charge.

George Ashley had been walking past the gates to the nursery with friend when a small boy ran out shouting that his sister had been taken away by a man there. Ashley entered the gardens and saw Smith lifting the child up. Sarah was screaming at the top of her voice and the man was telling her to be silent. He sent his companion to fetch a policeman.

PC Lane (372A) arrived soon afterwards, finding a large crowd gathered around Sarah, who hand was bleeding badly. He soon discovered Edward Smith hiding in an outside privy at one end of the nursery grounds. The door was locked but PC Lane burst it open and arrested the sawyer. Questioned about his actions Smith simply declared:

‘Well, you needn’t make all this fuss. I only did it to frighten the children, knowing they had no business in the garden’.

The accused was taken back to the police station house and a search was made of the water closet. PC Cookman (55D) found a large bladed knife buried in the loose soil by the WC, which was open (suggesting it had been recently used and abandoned in a hurry). The girls’ mother described Sarah’s injuries and trauma when she’d got home, and a certificate from the surgeon that had treated her was read out in court detailing her injuries.

Finally the magistrate turned his attention to the man in the dock. Smith denied using violence against Sarah, or at least denied acting in an unlawful way. She and her friends were trespassing and he insisted he was only intending to ‘pull up her clothes for the purpose of giving her a smack, when she began to cry, and ran off’. He said the knife wasn’t his and he had no idea why it was found by the closet. He’d been drinking he said, and because he rarely touched alcohol, that had affected his head. Mr Broughton remanded him for a week and he was taken away to Clerkenwell Prison in a police van, followed all the way by a baying crowd of angry locals.

Just under a month later Smith was formally tried at the Middlesex Sessions of the Peace for an aggravated assault with the intent to rape. Smith was convicted by the jury and sentenced to 18 months imprisonment.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, March 30, 1852; The Morning Post, Wednesday, April 14, 1852]

An enterprising mother and daughter team come unstuck

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St Botolph’s, Aldgate from the Minories

Cordelia Johnson ran a small manufacturing workshop in the Minories, on the borders of the East End of London and the City. The wife of a commercial traveller, Mrs Johnson employed a number of women to make up work shirts which were sold to a number of ‘outfitters and slopsellers’ in the City.  For weeks now items of her stock had been going on a daily basis and Cordelia was unable to discover how.

Eventually she turned to one of her most trusted employees, a young woman named Mary Ann Cantwell who she trusted to run errands for her as well as in the workshop sewing shirts. Mary Ann promised to help by keeping her eyes open and her ear to the ground for any hints of who was responsible for the pilfering.

Unfortunately for Mrs Johnson however, Mary Ann was the culprit. She was in league with her mother Harriet and the pair of them were engaged in a clever racket by which they stole material or fully made up shirts and pawned them at one or more of East London’s many pawnbrokers’ shops.  Mary Ann must have felt untouchable when her boss trusted her with the effort to trace the thieves and it emboldened her.

On Saturday 14 March 1857 Mary Ann spoke to one of the other younger women in the workshop and suggested she steal a pile of clothes and pawn them in Poplar. The girl, like Mary Ann, was Irish and the funds raised, she said, could be used to fuel the forthcoming St Patrick’s Day festivities. The girl was not so easily tempted however and went straight to her boss and told her what had happened. Mrs Johnson went to see the police and Police Sergeant Foay (7H) – ‘an intelligent detective officer’ – decided to follow Mary Ann to see what she was up to.

From his hiding place in Mrs Johnson’s house Sergeant Foay watched the young woman leave the factory take a pile of shirts from a cupboard and walk out of the building. He tracked her to Cannon Street Road, on the Ratcliffe Highway where she met her mother and handed over the clothes. Foay pounced and grabbed at the pair of them. HE got hold of Mary Ann but Harriett put up ‘a most determined resistance’ hitting and biting him in the process. Eventually he had them both under arrest and when they were safely locked up the police went off to search their lodgings at 13 Cannon Street Road.

There they found more evidence, namely a great number of pawnbrokers’ duplicates. These were cross checked with several ‘brokers who confirmed that they had been exchanged for shirts and materials brought by Harriet or Mary Ann. Four duplicates were found on the younger woman who, in front of Mr Selfe at Thames Police court, tried to take all the blame herself, saying her mother knew nothing of the crime.

The magistrate acknowledged this act of selfless filial duty but dismissed it. The evidence against both of them was overwhelming and both would be punished. Mary Ann was fined £6 for illegally pawning items (with a default of two months’ imprisonment if she was unable to pay, which I suspect meant she did go to gaol). If so she might have joined her 40 year-old mother whom the magistrate sent straight to prison for two months’ hard labour without even the option of paying a fine.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, March 20, 1857]

She said, “You are a couple of old wh—s,” and hit me in the forehead with the brush! Violence in mid century Whitechapel

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Yesterdays’ blog detailed the everyday mundane violence meted out to working class women by men in the capital in the year of the Whitechapel murders, 1888. Today I’ve chosen a case from mid century, which involves violence committed by a woman on another woman.

Margaret Griffin was placed in the dock at Worship Street Police court (in the East End) charged with assaulting Mary Bryan (or Bryant). Griffin was described as a ‘decent looking Irishwoman’ and the alleged assault had taken place in mid January, some two months before the case came up before Mr Hammill, the justice on duty.

The reason for the delay was that Mary had been so badly hurt in the attack that she’d been hospitalized and was only now out of danger and sufficiently recovered to face her abuser.  The magistrate was told that Griffin – who worked as a cleaner – had forced her way into a house in Whitechapel and had demanded to see a women that lived or worked there. She was brandishing a scrubbing brush and calling for the ‘bitch’ to be sent out to confront her. When Mary Bryan got in her way she beat her severely with the scrubbing brush and denounced her (and the other woman) as a ‘ couple of old whores’.

Given the state of Mary’s injuries (which had been treated at the London Hospital on Whitechapel High Street) Mr Hammill decided this was far too serious a case to be dealt with summarily and he fully committed Griffin to take her trial at the Old Bailey.

The case was heard on 7 April 1851 and she was acquitted by the jury. It seems that Margaret was set upon in the house and the injuries handed out were in part deemed to be in self defense by the all male jury.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, March 14, 1851]

The peril of children running errands on London’s streets

Boys exercising at Tothill Fields Prison

I recall being dispatched to buy cigarettes for my father on several occasions in my youth, or to return ‘pop’ bottles for the deposit. Both involved a long walk (or run) down (and then back up) the hill where we lived. Running ‘errands’ like this was a common enough thing in the past but I suspect it is one of those things that no longer happens, especially with small children, given the perceived perils of modern society.

In the nineteenth century sending a child (even one as young as 7) out to fetch food or drink, or to deliver a message, was very normal. After all children worked at a much younger age and until mid century school was really only for the sons and daughters of the better off.

But the streets could be just as dangerous a place for children in the 1800s as they are today. Carts and coaches rumbled along the cobbled thoroughfares at great speed and could rarely stop in time to avoid a running child if they stepped into its path; thieves and villains lurked around every corner, and child prostitution rackets operated in the capital.

Sometimes the threat came from young people not much older than themselves, as in this case from 1855. In early March Ann Jane Hatley had been sent out with sixpence to buy some butter. She was 7 years of age and lived with her parents in Exeter Street, Chelsea. As she walked along a small boy, about 12 or 13 came up to her and asked where she was going. When she explained he said she needed to be careful of lest she drop the 6in the mud of the street.

The lad, whose name was William Smith, produced a piece of paper and said the best thing was for her to wrap her coin in it to protect it. When Ann handed over the money for him to do so he promptly ran off with it. Fortunately, a passer-by had seen what happened and set off in pursuit. William was captured and brought before the magistrate at Westminster.

In court several other children were produced who reported similar robberies on them whilst out running errands. Susannah Welsh (who was 9 or 10) had been sent to buy flour. William had followed her for ‘some distance’ before he suddenly pounced and wrestled the money she was carrying (2s) from her grasp.

Thomas Mursell (just 8) had been entrusted with 9to pay a baker’s bill when Smith approached him and asked what he was doing. When he discovered the boy had money Smith contrived to knock it out of his hand, as ‘if by accident’, and then offered him some paper to wrap it in as they pair collected it from the street. It was only when Thomas got to the baker’s shop that he realized that William had managed to steal over half of it.

There were a string of other small boys and girls with similar tales to tell but the magistrate (Mr Arnold) had heard enough. He duly committed the ‘expert juvenile highwayman’ (as Reynold’s Newspaper dubbed him) for trial before a jury.

William went for trial at the Westminster Quarter Sessions where he was convicted of two thefts (from Ann and Susannah) and sentenced to a spell in the house of detention.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, March 4, 1855]