A maid runs off to the theatre to see the minstrels (and we get a reminder of our racist past).

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Isabella Parker was a servant at a house in Piccadilly. White domestic service brought a level of security as well as a bed and regular meals it must also have been a life of fairly monotonous drudgery. Every day was much the same and, if your were a maid of all work or one of few or even the only servant in a household you would have had almost no time for yourself.

So we can perhaps understand why Isabella chose to escape her dull life for an evening by clambering out of a window to find some entertainment. Having climbed on the roof she headed over several adjacent ones to reach the St James’ Hall near Regent Street and Piccadilly.  

On the night of the 6 June 1870 the Christy Minstrels were performing their ‘blackface’ routine, as they had since the early 1860s. Isabella made her way through a window and either consumed drink she brought with her or was already drunk when she left home. As a consequence she was loud and kept interrupting the act until the police were called and an officer managed to pull her down and escort her outside.

This wasn’t easy as Isabella struggled with him, ‘set to screaming, became quite infuriated, said that she was a Fenian [an Irish republican] and would shoot the lot’ [of them].

It was not the first time she had got drunk and snuck into the theatre; she was a big admirer of the Minstrels and clearly a lover of drink. At Marlborough Street Police court her previous record was read out and Mr Tyrwhitt fined her 5(or four days in gaol). That may have been the least of her problems for unless she had very forgiving employers Isabella may well have lost her position as a servant.

The original Christy Minstrels were formed in the USA in 1843, at Buffalo. They had a very structured show built around white men ‘blacking up’ and performing jokes, songs and dances that downplayed the horrors of slavery for a white audience.

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The Minstrels that Isabella risked her employment to see were a British tribute act (to use a modern term), not the American originals. There were more than one troupe of minstrels touring Britain in the 1800s and the one at St James’ Hall may have originated in Dublin, perhaps explaining Isabella’s mentioning of the Fenians.  

The St James show lasted until 1904 although the group had become the ‘Moore & Burgess Minstrels’ well before then.

The Black abolitionist Frederick Douglas described minstrel shows as:

‘the filthy scum of white society, who have stolen from us a complexion denied them by nature, in which to make money, and pander to the corrupt taste of their white fellow citizens’.

Despite this and despite abolition minstrel shows continued to exist well into the twentieth century. I can remember watching the Black and White Minstrel Show on the BBC in the 1970s with my family; it was only finally cancelled in 1978, despite being the subject of complaints and accusation that it was racist.

I think this is useful reminder of how recently our television screens used to depict Black faces for comedic value – not in some minority or niche programming but on primetime for a family audience. Now I hear discordant voices complain that ‘allowing’ Black actors (as the BBC have done) to play roles in period dramas and other programing is some sort of ‘political correctness’ and an affront to indigenous ‘White Britons’. It is the same voices that challenge the message of the Black Lives Matter movement, those that don’t believe Britain is a racist country and either deny that prejudice exists or argue that it doesn’t matter.

If racism wasn’t a problem in this country we wouldn’t need the BLM movement. The fact that it is only in the last decade that positive images of Black people have routinely appeared on our television screen (the ubiquitous form of popular entertainment in this country) when negative ones have been common currency for well over a 100 years before then, should remind us to guard against complacency.

There is no place for racism in the world. 

From Lloyd’s Illustrated Newspaper, Sunday 12 June 1870

A small tragedy averted as over 600 drown in the Thames’ foul waters

FeaturedA small tragedy averted as over 600 drown in the Thames’ foul waters

On Saturday 14 September 15, 1878 Henry Sharpe, whose occupation was simply recorded as ‘labourer’ , was set in the dock at Mansion House and charged with trying to kill himself. 

On Friday night (ominously perhaps, the 13th) a City policeman was on patrol by London Bridge when a man rushed up and grabbed him. The man (Sharpe) was clearly at his wits end and very drunk. He tried, incoherently, to explain that his wife and two children were dead – both drowned in the sinking of the Princess Alice earlier that month. 

The SS Princess Alice  was a Thames paddle steamer that sank after a collision with a collier, (the Bywell Castle) on 3 September. It was a terrible tragedy that claimed the lives of over 600 people: men, women, and children. The steamer went down in a stretch of the river that was heavily polluted with raw sewerage; many of those that died must have suffered an awful death. 

Having poured out his grief to the policeman Sharpe was persuaded to go home and sleep off his sorrow. Convinced he’d averted another tragedy (however small by comparison) the policeman resumed his beat. Imagine his surprise then when 30 minutes later he saw Sharpe scrambling up the parapet of the bridge, seemingly intent on launching himself in the Thames’ murky waters. 

With the help of some passers-by the lawman affected a rescue, dragging the drunken labourer back from the precipice by his ankles. He was taken back the station, charged and left to sober up. 

Sharpe was joined in court by his wife in children who had clearly not perished in the disaster and must have been shocked that Henry would suggest such a thing. His desperate actions perhaps reveal a deep seated mental illness but he told the magistrate – Sir Thomas Dakin, Lord Mayor of London – that he had been drinking with a close friend that evening, consoling him for the loss of his family in the sinking. 

Who knows if that was the truth either; we have no passenger list for the Princess Alice  we don’t know exactly how many souls perished or what all of their names were. One of Jack the Ripper’s victims claimed to have lost her husband in the tragedy; Elizabeth Stride may have been hoping to gain the sympathy of others for her loss, or perhaps even to benefit from the generosity of Londoners who raised thousands of pounds for the bereaved families.  In Liz’s case as in Henry’s it was a false claim but it shows how this disaster touched so many lives in the late Victorian capital. 

The Lord Mayor declared that Sharpe was ‘a dissipated fellow’ and decided the best course of action was to lock him on remand for a few days so the alcohol could work through his system. It wasn’t a conviction or a sentence as such, but at least it was some sort of intervention that might have saved his life.  

From Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday 15 September 1878

A drunken mother loses her temper and then her liberty

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Royal Army Clothing Factory 21/6/1918 during a visit by King George V and Queen Mary (IMW collection)

On Wednesday 28 July 1875 Emma Leven was set in the dock at Westminster Police court to face a charge that she had tried to kill her own baby. She was remanded overnight by the sitting magistrate Mr Arnold, who wanted to hear from a number of people, including the key witness, who had not appeared that day.

The case hadn’t been reported at the time but we should read nothing into that. Hundreds of summary hearings took place every day at London’s police courts and the papers only carried reports of one or two from each of them daily. This case was ‘of interest’ however, so when Emma was brought back from the cells on Thursday a scribbler from the Morning Post described the hearing for his readers.

Emma was married and – according to Mrs Elizabeth Turner, Thomas Tullogh, and William Rush – on the night of 27 July she was drinking in the Eagle public house on Grosvenor Road¹ and was ‘very drunk’. Her baby had been left outside and it was crying its eyes out. One imagines Emma was under some pressure to deal with the crying infant, and no doubt felt a mixture of anger, resentment, and embarrassment as all the eyes of the pub were turned on her.

Suddenly he declared that she would throw the child in the Thames, and rushed out of the pub. She lifted the child into her arms and set off at a run in the general direction of the river. Alarmed, Mrs Turner hurried after her and managed to catch up with Emma just before she hurled the poor thing over the railings and into the water.

A policeman was summoned and Mrs Turner took charge of the baby as Emma was led away. While Mrs Turner suckled her child Emma screamed abuse at her all the way back to the police station. For some reason however, Mrs Turner did not appear in court on the Wednesday, while Tullogh and Rush did. Turner somehow managed to sign the register of witnesses attending that day, despite not doing so, this would impact on her, as we shall see.

In court on the Thursday Emma Leven had sobered up and was contrite. She was ‘too fond of her children’ to ever intend to hurt them she told Mr Arnold. She had gone to the pub that evening to meet her husband and some friends; one drink had led to another and she had drunk too much. She was sorry.

Her husband was more belligerent. He told the magistrate that he didn’t believe a word of what Mrs Turner had said. Perhaps there was some bad blood there; local jealousies and neighbor disputes were all too common, feuds could develop out of the smallest slights amplified over time.

What mattered here though was not what  Mr Leven believed but what Mr Arnold (as presiding magistrate) did. And he believed the case was proven.

He rebuked Mr Leven for ‘having little regard for his child’ and challenged Emma’s declaration of ‘fondness’ for her child. If, he said, ‘she chose to get so drunk that she rushed to the side of the river to throw the child in she must put up with the consequences’.  She had been drunk and disorderly and he would send her to prison for a month. On her release she would have to find sureties of £20 against her good behavior for the following six months.

Having dealt quite severely with Emma Leven he turned his attention to the witnesses.

He was full of praise for Turlough and Rush but very disappointed to hear that their employer had stopped their wages for coming to court the previous day. The pair worked at the Royal Army Clothing Factory on Grosvenor Road in Pimlico (where the Eagle pub was) and he instructed the chief inspector of B Division to pay the factory a visit.

‘The men had attended in the performance of a public duty’, he said, and ‘if they were stopped of their wages it would have the effect of deterring people from coming forward and giving evidence in the public cause’.

Arnold recognised that justice relied on the participation of the general public. The men deserved praise not a penalty.

The same was not the case for Mrs Turner however. When she asked for her expenses (presumably for attending court and looking after Emma’s baby) Mr Arnold dismissed her abruptly. He had ‘no fund at his disposal expect the poor box; he told her but as she ‘had not attended the court on Wednesday, although she had signed the sheet, he should not allow her expenses’. The suspicion is then that the magistrate, while keen to recognize public spiritedness was less impressed by self-interest and dishonesty.

The Royal Army Clothing Factory was established in Pimlico in the 1850s to make and supply the British Army. It was part of the Royal Army Ordnance Corps and remained in Grosvenor Road until 1932, when it closed.

Today the site is covered by the private housing development Dolphin Square which was erected in the 1930s following the factory’s demolition. In recent years it has been home to a number of famous people (including the tennis star Rod Laver and Princess Ann – not together I hasten to add) and several politicians including Harold Wilson and David Steel. Oswald Mostly, the most prominent British fascist of his generation, was living in the Square in 1940 when he was detained as an enemy of the state during the Second World War. Having once stayed in an apartment in Dolphin Square I can attest to its general air of opulence, but I never met any celebrities

from Morning Post Friday 30 July 1875

¹ The Eagle is still operational in Pimlico, now renamed the Grosvenor though.

‘A very good idea’? Charity and race in mid nineteenth-century London

Some Inmates of the Strangers' Home for Asiatics, Africans, and South Sea Islanders

Anyone familiar with print culture in the nineteenth century will probably be able to testify to its underlying racism expressed most often in statements of white (or rather British) racial superiority and in ‘ethnological studies’ of the many ‘others’ found in British society or in the vast reaches of the Empire.

This is most evident in the colourful descriptions of immigrant Jews in East London and in reports of the port communities that stretched the length of the Thames and its docks.

The racism may be familiar but it still has the capacity to shock. Take for example an article from the Daily News published in May of 1872 that was headlined ‘“Darkies” from the Deep’. What followed was a fairly sympathetic report of a visit to the Strangers Home for Asiatics,  Africans, and South Sea Islanders, which was then situated in the West India Dock Road.

The home was established in the 1850s; set up by charitable donations to create a haven for destitute Chinese and Indian (Lascar) seamen who, abandoned by ship-owners, struggled to find work in the capital. According to the author they fell prey to ‘crimps, mostly of their own colour’, who fleeced them of their meagre wages and left them nothing with which to support themselves.

‘Their bodies were found in out-of-the-way corners, under railway arches, or in common yards, whither the poor creatures, enfeebled by hunger, and their marrow chilled in their bones by the rigours of our climate, had crept to die’.

In three years (1854-56) hundreds had died and many more had been admitted to hospital. A huge donation by the Maharajah Duleep Singh was followed by donations from the Queen, Indian merchants and others, before Prince Albert laid the foundation stone for the Home, which opened its doors in 1857.

When the Daily News’ reporter visited in May 1872 he described it thus:

‘A group of Lascars, with their bushy looks and swarthy skins, contrasts strangely with the solitary Chinaman who leans thoughtfully against the wall, his pigtail over his shoulder; a Malay with yellow eyes, long straight hair, and strong jaw, is conversing pantomimically with a tall, straight, hawk-eyed New Zealander, whose cheeks and forehead are fantastically tattooed. There are full-blood negroes from Gambia, and half-caste Portuguese from Goa, natives of the Friendly Islands, and lissome Cingalese [Singhalese], and representatives of perhaps a dozen other races neither easy to be distinguished at a glance, nor capable of being understood by any Englishman not endowed with the gift of tongues’.

The reporter noted the sounds and smells of the Home, the peculiar foods (’curry and rice’) that mingled with more familiar stuffs (like bread and butter and tea). He commented on the arrangements for bathing (‘the Oriental takes his bath every morning as religiously […] as he says his prayers’). And the article ended by noting that the Home had a good stock of Bibles and New testaments ‘in a variety of Eastern languages’.

A newspaper report from June 1857 described the opening of the Home (on 3 June) and noted that it had space for 230 inmates plus a superintendent and various officers and staff. The opening was formally marked by the singing of the psalm 67 (‘May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face shine on us— so that your ways may be known on earth, your salvation among all nations’), and a scripture reading.

This underpinned the Christian missionary ethos of the charity.

Almost all Victorian charity which operated to help the poor, the homeless, or the friendless, did so under the aegis of the church (in one form or another). There was a space for Muslim prayer in the back yard of the Home but while the writer of the 1872 article noted this, it seems clear that the hopes of those involved in this ’mission’ was that here were ready coverts to Christian religion and (perhaps even) Western ‘civilization’.

In the 1850s and throughout the century London was home to very many people of all races and creeds. It is likely that in the eighteenth century there had been many more, and that while they were denied the limited support available to the indigenous poor, they were not subject to the racism that developed from the end of the 1700s. With the expanse of Empire in the Victorian period that racism became more entrenched as white superiority was increasingly held up as a justification for subjugating ‘inferior’ races.

I am reminded of what Mahatma Gandhi supposedly replied when asked what he thought of Western civilization?

‘I think it would be a very good idea’, he said.

[from Daily News, Wednesday 29 May, 1872; Daily News, Thursday 4 June, 1857 ]

Barrow wars: competing for territory in the world of fruit and veg

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The difference between a fixed trader – generally but not always a shopkeeper – and a costermonger became the key distinction in a case heard before Mr Woolrych at Westminster Police court in early December 1870.

William Haynes, a fruiter and potato dealer with premises on  Churton Street and Tachbrook Street in Pimlico, was summoned to explain why he had obstructed the carriageway. He was prosecuted under the ‘new Street Act’ for ‘allowing two barrows to rest longer than necessary for loading or unloading’. The court heard he had left them there for five hours.

His defense lawyer (Mr Doveton Smyth) accepted the facts of the case but tried to argue that since his client sold apples from these barrows he might be classed as a costermonger, and therefore be allowed to do so.

Mr Woolrych might have admired the creativity of the brief but he rejected his reasoning. The word ‘costermonger’ might have derived from “costard,” a large apple’, as the lawyer suggested but ‘that term had become obsolete’.

There was ‘no doubt the present acceptation of the word costermonger was an itinerant trader who hawked perishable articles, such as fruit, vegetables , and fish, etc., and in the course of that vocation went from place to place’.

The magistrate pointed out that Mr Haynes owned two shops and didn’t move them around. Mr Woolrych left the fruiterer off the fine but insisted he pay the costs of the summons. The lawyer said he would take the question of ‘whether a tradesman cannot be a costermonger if he please’ to the Court of Queen’s Bench for a higher authority to determine.

Two weeks later Haynes was back in court and again defended by Mr Doveton Smyth. Again the charge was the same, as was the defense. This time the defendant was fined.

Two years later, in April 1872 William Haynes was one of three Pimlico greengrocers brought before the Westminster magistrate for obstructing the pavements.

The court heard that they occupied premises ‘where costermongers are allowed to assemble in accordance with the  provisions of the Metropolitan Street Act’ and that the area was a ‘a regular market on a Saturday night’. Once again Mr Smythe presented the argument that his clients had as much right to trade from stalls outside their shops as the costermongers did to sell from barrows nearby, so long as ‘did not infringe the police regulations’.

But it seems they did infringe the law.

Inspector Turpin from B Division said that Haynes’ stall was fully 50 feet long while Joseph Haynes (possibly his son or brother), had one that was 35 feet long. Both stalls forced pedestrians to walk out into the road to get past.

The defendants pleaded guilty, promised to ‘make better arrangements’ in the future, and were fined between 10 and 40s each, plus costs. They paid up but with some protest.

This was not something that was going to go away however. The greengrocers could afford to keep paying fines and may well have thought it a necessary expense to be able to compete for trade with the costermongers.

Ultimately, as we know, the grocer in his shop would win the battle for the streets with the coster and his barrow. The latter were eventually restricted from selling wherever they liked and confined to fixed markets; the grocers developed a network of independent shops that ultimately grew into small and then larger chains, displacing very many of the independent traders that they competed with.

Today we have a high street  with very few independent grocers and greengrocers; most of that business has been captured by the supermarkets.

[from Morning Post, Wednesday 7 December 1870; Morning Post, Friday 19 April 1872]

 

A cheeky fraud that reveals the deep roots of British industry

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Twining’s Bank, at 215 The Strand 

On 6 June 1870 Elizabeth Smith pleaded guilty at the Central Criminal Court to ‘feloniously forging and uttering’ a cheque for £120 with intend to defraud. She gave her age as 32 years and said she was unmarried: the judge respited her sentence. No reason is given for this but respites were commonly applied to women who were pregnant or in cases where the law was in some way in doubt.

Elizabeth had first appeared before the Lord Mayor at Mansion House on 22 April 1870 where this charge was laid. The prosecution was conducted by Mr Samuel Mullens on behalf of his client, the Banker’s Protection Association.

The victim (the bank) was Smith, Payne, and Smith of 1 Lombard Street, City of London and the cheque was drawn in the name of William Longman, the ‘well-known publisher’.

The Lord Mayor was told how the fraud was perpetrated. Smith (calling herself Mary Simson) had presented herself at Twining & Co.’s bank in the Strand and had handed over a letter of introduction. This was supposedly written by a Dr Charles Brooke of Fitzroy Square, and described Elizabeth as a ‘dear old friend of mine’.

Elizabeth explained that she would like to open an account and handed Mr Twining a cheque for £120 ‘purporting to be drawn by Mr Longman upon Messrs. Smith, Payne, and Smith’. ‘Mary’ had endorsed it with her own signature. She asked for some money there and then and she was given a chequebook from which she cashed a cheque for £50. The cashier (as was customary) made a record of the bank notes (five at £5 each) he issued. The balance was in sovereign coins.

The bank only realized something was wrong when Dr Brooke arrived later that day and told them the letter was a forgery and that he’d nothing to do with it or any ‘Mary Simpson’. Three days later the cashier that had served Elizabeth – Donald King – recognized her in Fleet Street. She’d just left a ‘refreshment house’ with another woman and King decided to follow them.

As they reached Temple Bar (pictured below in 1870) Elizabeth stopped and turned around. Was he following her, she asked?

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King admitted he was and said that she must now accompany him to Twining’s Bank or he would call a policeman to arrest her. After a brief hesitation she agreed and the pair returned to the Strand where Elizabeth was shown into a private room at the bank. Interviewed there she caved in and promised to return all the money if only they would ‘overlook the matter’. Mr Twining told he could not possibly do that and sent for the police. While they waited Elizabeth took out some papers and letters and tore them up.

As detective sergeant Hancock led her away Elizabeth denied forging the letter and told him she’d been forced to signed the cheque by someone else, but gave no name he could trace. At Bow Lane police station Elizabeth was searched (by a female searcher) and three of the £5 notes that Donald King had issued to her were discovered. In addition Mts Johnson (the searcher) found:

‘three sovereigns, a gold watch, chain, and three lockets, an opera glass, an eye-glass, a gentleman’s ring, a brooch, penknife, [and] three keys’.

It would seem that Elizabeth Smith was not only a fraudster and forger, she was a practiced ‘finger smith’ (pickpocket) as well.

In court at the mansion House Mr Longman appeared and said he knew Elizabeth and her family. She had written to him, he stated, in great distress and asking for money. He’d sent her a cheque for £5 but when she failed to acknowledge it he wrote again, complaining about her ingratitude. This prompted her to write back apologizing and making excuses, before asking for more money. Longman wrote to the local parish priest who was unable to verify the story Elizabeth told about her desperate situation. Nevertheless the publisher sent her another £5.

The Lord Mayor remanded her and we know of course that that remand eventually resulted in a trial at Old Bailey where, perhaps unsurprisingly given the evidence against her, she pleaded guilty.

Thomas Twining had opened a teashop – London’s first – on The Strand in 1706. It did well and the company braced out into banking in 1824. By 1835 banking was successful enough to warrant building a new property next to the teashop. Twining’s Bank lasted until 1892 when Richard and Herbert Twining sold it to Lloyds.

Smith, Payne, & Smiths bank had been established in 1758 as a collaboration between Abel Smith (a Nottingham banker) and John Payne, a London merchant and line draper, and chairman of the East India Company. The bank moved to new premises in Lombard Street in 1837, just two years after Twinings opened their new doors. In 1902 Smiths (which owned 5 family banks in the chain) merged with the Union Bank of London to form Union of London & Smiths Bank Ltd. This new bank lasted until the end of the First World War when it became the National Provident & Union Bank of England, eventually turning into first, the Westminster Bank (1968) and then the National Westminster Bank (Natwest) in 1970.

Thomas Longman founded his publishing house in Paternoster Row in 1724, buying a shop owned by William Taylor who had published Jonathan Swift’s Robinson Crusoe. The firm prospered through the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth, most famously publishing Maclaulay’s Lays of Ancient Romeand then his History of England(which sold in excess of 40,000 copies). Longman’s continued into the 1900s, survived a direct hit during the Blitz (which destroyed their premises and their stock), before Pearson bought it in 1968.

I suppose what this little story of fraud and forgery from 1870 reveals is the deep roots that some of our household names have, even if very many of them are now owned by global multinational companies. Elizabeth Smith, by contrast, leaves very little behind her, just one of many who came before the courts in the 1800s accused of stealing or defrauding those with much deeper pockets than she had.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, 28 April 1870]

While Elizabeth Smith is hardly an unusual name for the Victorian (or any other) period there is another mention of someone with that name in the Digital Pantopticon for 1870. An Elizabeth Smith was tried at Clerkenwell (the quarter sessions for Middlesex) in October 1870 and sentenced to seven years. She was sent to Millbank Prison from where she was released, on license, on 19 May 1874. Did Elizabeth have a baby between June and October and find a home for it? Or was it taken away so the law could take its course?

‘Ringing the changes’ in a City pub, has nothing to do with campanology

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The Castle & Falcon Inn in Aldersgate Street, c.1827

What does ringing the changes mean to you? I’d always thought it was a phrase that suggested we might try something new, maybe originating from bell ringing, but it appears that in the 1870s it had another, less innocent, meaning.

In April 1879 Thomas James was brought before the alderman magistrate at the Guildhall Police court in the City of London. James was a young man who lived with his mother in Hoxton and may well have been suffering with some sort of illness. He said he was a sailor but his mother, who came to court to speak up for him, said he was ‘subject to fits and not accountable for his actions’.

Thomas was in court because he had been arrested by a policeman at the Falcon Tavern in Aldersgate Street. According to a number of witnesses  he had approached the barman there and ordered a half pint of beer. The beer cost a penny and the youth handed over a shilling, receiving ‘6d. in silver and 5d. in copper’ in his change.

‘Young man’, James addressed the barman, ‘you have given me only 5 1/4d.’ The barman apologized and handed over another sixpence.

It was a scam, a trick known as ‘ringing the changes’. Thomas was well practiced at it and had conned Ada Slap, a barmaid at the Bell Tavern in Falcon Square out of 2s, and another (Ann Gale, barmaid at the Royal Mail in Noble Street) said he’d tried (and failed) to play her for a fool for a shilling.

Unbeknown to the conman however, a policeman had been alerted to his fraud by the staff at the Royal Mail and followed him to the Falcon. He watched him approach the bar and, as he began to walk away the officer asked the barman if he’d been tricked. When the man confirmed his suspicions PC Hickman (170 City) followed him out and nabbed him.

A search revealed that James was in possession of 8s 6d  in silver, 17in copper and a few farthings. At the Guildhall he was charged with obtaining money by false pretenses, with intent to defraud. He admitted the charge at the Falcon (he could hardly do otherwise) but denied the others. Alderman Hadley sent him to prison for a month at hard labour.

According to Partridge’s Dictionary of the Underworld (1949) to ‘ring in’ or ‘ringing the changes’ was to exchange ‘bad’ currency (i.e. forgeries) for ‘good’. That expression dates back to at least 1811. ‘When a person receives silver in change, to shift some good shillings and put bad ones in their place’ says the dictionary. The term ‘ringing’ (for doing the same thing) can be traced to the middle of the previous century.

Ringing the changes,  as it was by Thomas James (to con people – generally tradesmen), is still a common enough fraud, as this warning from the Devon & Cornwall Policeshows.

The Falcon (or Castle and Falcon Inn) used to stand at 5 Aldersgate Street but was demolished many years ago. The Royal Mail (originally the Coachmakers Arms then the Royal Mail Coach) stood at 17 Noble Street. It was rebuilt in 1898 but I think it too has vanished.  After this current health crisis I wonder how many other London pubs will finally fall victim to the wrecking ball?

[from Morning Post, Monday 14 April, 1879]

 

A routine mugging reveals a Freemason connection

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John Palmer was an ordinary sort of bloke. He gave his occupation as ‘labourer’ (frequently a default term for those appearing before the courts in Victorian London, suggesting he was a casual worker). He certainly wasn’t a rich man, by any stretch of the imagination and, as he walked home one late evening in March 1870, he only had a few shillings in his pocket.

This didn’t stop him falling victim to violence and robbery however. Palmer may have enjoyed a few pints after work, which would have made him more vulnerable to being attacked. He was hardly a prize though, but to James Tyson and John Sadler that didn’t matter. Tyson was a trained boxer – a pugilist to give the contemporary term – and so was well suited to a bit of ‘rough stuff’. Sadler was a betting agent, so also probably quite able to mix it when he needed to.

The pair fell on Palmer as he made his way home; Sadler jumped him, knocking him to the ground before Tyson used his weight to hold him down. They rifled his pockets and extracted 7 shillings and ran off. Palmer reported the incident to a nearby policeman who took descriptions and set a search in motion. The culprits were caught just a few hours later, one of them by a detective.

When Sadler was searched he was found to have quite a haul. The police discovered  a number of pawn tickets (often evidence of theft) all for ‘valuable gold and silver watches’ as well as gold Albert chains and some broken watch-bows. Some of these might be able to be identified but even more significant a find was a gold locket ‘with a ruby heart at the centre’ and a Freemason’s gold medal. The medal was inscribed:

The Most Noble Augustus Frederick, Duke of Leinster, Grand Master of the order in Ireland, 3rdJanuary, 1848’.

Augustus Frederick, the Marquess of Kildare (right, below pictured in 1859) was an old man by 1870. Born in the previous century by the time his medal turned up in the pocket of a petty thief in London he was close to 80 years of age and would only live another three. He became head of the Grand Lodge of Ireland in 1813 and apparently kept a tight rein on how all Freemasonary operated on the Emerald Isle. 2911106-09

In court at Marlborough Street the police reported that both James Tyson and John Sadler were well known to them. Mr Mansfield, the sitting Police Court magistrate, was told that there were ‘frequenters of racecourses’ and known to be ‘magsmen’ and ‘welshers’.

Eric Partridge’s 1949 Dictionary of the Underworld defines a ‘magsman’ thus:

‘Swell mobites’; ‘a fashionably dressed swindler’; or ‘fellows who are too cowardly to steal, but prefert o cheat confiding persons by acting upon the cupidity’. It included ‘card-sharpers, confidence tricksters, begging letter writers, and ‘bogus ministers of religion’.

Perhaps by 1870 ‘magsmen’ was being used more broadly to apply to a member of the more fashionably dressed ‘criminal class’. As for ‘welsher’, Partridge lists:

‘passer of counterfeit money’ or (in the USA) an informer.

However the terms were being applied Mr Mansfield was pretty confident that he had two ‘bad eggs’ in his dock and he acquiesced to the police request to remand them in custody while they continued their enquiries.

Whatever results these enquiries yielded we are, sadly, in the dark about. I can find no record of either man in the higher courts in the immediate aftermath of their appearance before Mr Mansfield. This suggests the police’s evidence was thin or that they were able to buy off Palmer as a potential witness against them. They might have argued they’d ‘found’ the items discovered in their possession at the racecourse they ‘frequented’. Who knows, but like so many of the stories of the police courts carried by the London press this one lacks a conclusion.

[from The Pall Mall Gazette, Thursday 31 March 1870]

Today I have started work on my next book, which is a history of these courts, provisionally titled Nether World: Crime and the Police Courts in Victorian London.  My most recent book (Jack and the Thames Torso Murders: A New Ripper), is available on Amazon and the next one in the pipeline, Murder Maps, will be published by Thames & Hudson later this year. I’ll keep you all posted.

Take care of yourselves in these difficult times.

‘Ring the bell, and put the child on the doorstep’: a young mother is handed a stark ultimatum

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There have been plenty of examples in the pages of this blog of quite stark reminders that the past was ‘a different country’. Periodically today there are news reports of babies being found abandoned. In late January this year for example, a postman found a newborn child on a doorstep in Hackney as he made his rounds. The baby was taken into care and the police ‘appealed to his mother to come forward, assuring her she is not in trouble and will be helped’.

That is invariably the message to mothers who, for whatever reason, feel unable to keep a child they have just given birth to. Come forward, you’re not in any trouble, we are just worried about you.

This was not the way society viewed mothers that abandoned their babies in the nineteenth century however; something clearly illustrated by this cautionary take from 1871.

Elizabeth Fisher was working as a servant when she fell pregnant. She had the child and at first her sister agreed to care for it. Elizabeth’s employer, a Mrs Cruise (of Arthur Road, Brixton), made it abundantly clear that she was not willing for an illegitimate child to be raised under her roof.

Fisher either had to get rid of her baby or leave her service.

That was normal in the 1800s. Servants who got pregnant would often be dismissed and so many hid their pregnancies and then gave away or farmed out their children to relatives or women who they paid to take them in.

This worked for Elizabeth for a while but then in December 1870 her sister explained that she could no longer care for the baby.  With what one imagines was a heavy heart Elizabeth took her baby to the Camberwell workhouse (below right) and asked them to care for it.

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The workhouse refused telling her they were ‘neither a nursery nor a baby-farming establishment, and they could not separate mother and child’. If Elizabeth wanted to place her baby in their care she’d have to admit herself at the same time. Even when Fisher offered to pay a weekly sum for the child’s acre the workhouse authorities turned her away.

She was back to square one.

Her mistress, Mrs Cruise, now suggested she take the child to its father. While Fisher wasn’t married she did know where the father was. Cruise told her to go to Gloucester Terrace, Hyde Park (where the man lived), ‘ring the bell, and put the child on the doorstep for the father to take in’.

So it was that Elizabeth, her sister, and Mrs Cruise set off, taking an omnibus towards Haymarket (where Cruise was going to attend the theatre). The sisters hopped off but seemingly never made it to Gloucester Terrace. The baby was found on a shop doorstep in the Haymarket by a policeman.

It took some time for the police to trace the child back to Elizabeth Fisher who by this time had left Cruise’s employment. The police obtained a summons to bring Fisher, her sister (Mrs Brown,, who lived in Hoxton) and Mrs Cruise to court at Marlborough Street. Mr Tyrwhitt, the sitting Police magistrate, listened carefully to the stories all three women told before reaching his judgment.

Despite her telling her employer to leave the child on a doorstep or leave her employment, the justice exonerated Mrs Cruise. She’d apparently acted ‘only with kindness’ her lawyer had argued, and Mr Tyrwhitt agreed. Nor did he condemn the workhouse for not receiving the child and refusing the mother’s money. The father was not summoned as Elizabeth’s sister did not want to ‘disgrace’ him. Instead he reserved his opprobrium for Elizabeth Fisher. He sent her to prison for 10 days with hard labour.

I doubt she took her child with her and I imagine she would have found it hard to find similar employment thereafter, with the stain of imprisonment added to that of bastard bearing. Elizabeth was ‘ruined’ and yet no fault or responsibility was set at the door of the man that she had conceived her baby boy with.

This was the reality of being poor, female, and a single mother in nineteenth-century London. It may not be easy today, but at least it is unlikely to land you in gaol.

[from Morning Post, Wednesday, 22 February 1871]