‘I always do what I say I will do’: the dark murmurings of a troubled mind

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The owner of Deacon’s Coffee House and Tavern on Walbrook in the City was disturbed by the sound of shattering glass. It was nine in the evening and Mr. Howell rushed out into the front room of his establishment to see to his horror that his window was completely destroyed. His clientele were in uproar and outside a small group of onlookers were gathering around a ‘little old woman’.

A policeman had arrived in a hurry and a small boy pointed out the elderly lady as the culprit. The constable arrested her and led her off to the nearest police station to be questioned and charged. She had already admitted throwing a brick through Mr. Howell’s window telling the proprietor:

‘I said I would break your window and I have done it. I always do what I say I will do’.

While in custody the woman, who gave her name as Emily Howard, told the police should would have liked to have smashed ‘every ______ pane of glass in the house’, and would make good on her promise when they released her. The constable later told the Lord Mayor at Mansion House that she was swearing throughout the interview but seemed perfectly sober.

In court the Lord Mayor heard that Emily had previous for criminal damage. The court’s gaoler (a man named Partridge) said he’d known her for 20 years and that she was someone who’d been in and out of gaol for doing similar things in the past. Emily’s only defense was that someone had thrown water over her but no one seemed to believe her.

The Lord Mayor sent her back to prison for two months at hard labour and she was led away ‘uttering threats of vengeance’ against the coffee house owner and the policeman that arrested her. She sounds to be like someone that needed help not a month or two picking oakum.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, October 16, 1875]

A man is told to beat his wife behind doors so as not to disturb the public peace

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If you want to know how gender biased societal attitudes towards domestic violence were in the Victorian era I think this case illustrates them perfectly.

PC Massey of the City Police was walking his beat in October 1871. It was the early evening and he was on Jewry Street in Aldgate when he heard a commotion. James Daley was laying into his wife, abusing her verbally and physically and so the policeman intervened.

He told Daley that if ‘he had any differences to settle with his wife’ he should ‘do it at home’. In his eyes then it wasn’t the violence that was the problem, buy the fact that the noise the pair were making was disturbing the peace.

Daley, a local tailor, was drunk and in mood to listen to the advice from a copper and pushed the officer to aside. The man then raised his fists and punched his wife hard in the face twice. Again the policeman merely asked him to take the matter off the streets. The tailor ignored him and proceeded to thump Mrs Daley even harder.

PC Massey had no choice now. The man wouldn’t go home quietly so he had to arrest him and so, with difficultly, he took both parties into custody and presented the tailor at the Mansion House Police court the following morning.

Mrs Daley refused to prosecute her husband, despite the beating she had received and the bruises that resulted from it. Her eye may have been blackened but she refrained from further blackening her partner’s reputation, keeping quiet. For his part Daley justified his assault on her on the grounds that she had been out drinking and he’d had ‘to fetch her home’. It was only when she’d refused to return that he had ‘slapped her face’.

Domestic violence like this was commonplace and magistrates were powerless to do much if anything about it. Wives and partners rarely prosecuted, or withdrew their prosecutions after an initial complaint. The police didn’t want to get involved, and society seemingly accepted that such abuse was acceptable so long as it didn’t go ‘too far’. Exactly how far was ‘too far’ wasn’t an exact science of course and most female homicide victims were killed by their lovers or husbands.

PC Massey wasn’t bothered by the violence Daley showed towards his wife, and nor, I doubt, was the Lord Mayor. What was a problem however, was the tailor’s refusal to comply with a direct request by a serving policeman to go home quietly. That, and not his abuse of his wife, earned him a 10fine or seven days in prison.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, October 11, 1871]

The man who threw away 17 years of his life in a desperate gamble

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What motivates someone to commit a crime? It is one of the key questions that criminologists ask themselves and its often quite a hard one to answer. Policemen, probation officers and social workers can all question a culprit and try to see what underlies their offending but even then the cause can be complex and hard to pinpoint exactly. So imagine how hard it is for historians of crime to understand the causal factors behind individual acts of criminality in the past. After all, we can hardly ask the perpetrators, can we?

I really want to know what brought Thomas Hughes to decide to steal from his employer, the Bank of England. Thomas was 35 years of age when he stole £65 from the bank. He had joined when he was just 17 and so he had worked for the ‘old lady of Threadneedle Street’ for 17 years.

Perhaps he was frustrated at a lack of opportunities. As a lowly clerk he may not have seen a career path opening up in front of him. Maybe he resented his better paid colleagues, or thought the bank’s systems so lax it would be easy to steal and get away with it? Or he might have reached a pinch point in his life – another child to feed, or a daughter’s marriage perhaps? We can’t rule out the possibility of course that he was a gambler or had otherwise run up debts he could no longer sustain.

Maybe Thomas had been stealing from the bank for years, embezzling small but ever increasing sums that led him to grow bolder and attempt to take the significant sum of £65 (or £4,000 in today’s money) all in one go?

This time he was caught and brought before the Lord Mayor at Mansion House Police court in early October 1875. The City’s chief magistrate committed him for trial at the Old Bailey and on 25 October he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to six months in prison. It was the end of his career and quite possibly the end of gainful employment for some time. He would lost is good reputation along with his job and the means to support himself and his family (if he had one).

I would really like to know why he took that risk at all?

[from The Morning Post, Friday, October 08, 1875]

A man just wants to have Fun, but forgets you always have to pay.

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William Helps was standing watching the concourse at Ludgate Hill railway station when a gentleman attracted his attention. Helps was a station inspector and the man explained that he’s just seen respectably dressed individual appear to steal a book from a book stall. Helps asked where the man was now and the passenger pointed him out as he boarded a third class carriage. The inspector followed him and noticed him hide the book under his coat.

Helps went back to the  stall (W H Smith’s no less) and asked the lad serving there if he’d lost anything.

‘Yes, a shilling number of Fun’, William Robinson replied.

Fun was a humorous, satirical magazine that rivaled the more famous Punch. It had launched in 1861 and offered prose and verse alongside travel writing and reviews of popular theatre and music hall.  It cost just a penny per edition so this must have been a compendium of covers, entitled ‘Essence of Fun’ which sold for a 1s.

Mr Helps approached the man who’d taken the book and confronted him:

‘What have you done with the book?’ he demanded.

‘What book?’

‘Do not misunderstand me – the book you took off the book stall’.

‘I do not know what you mean’ said the man, getting up from his seat and heading off towards W H Smith’s. He started to fumble around under his waistcoat where the book was hidden but Helps was losing patience with him.

‘It is of no use putting it down on the stall again’, he said, ‘you had better give it to me’.

Sheepishly, the man handed it over and said he would happily pay for it but the inspector had him arrested and consequently, a few days later he was summoned to appear at the Guildhall Police court charged with theft.

The man’s name was Henry White and he worked for Pontifex and Co as a coppersmith. He’d previously worked for Price’s candles and he had never been in trouble before in his life. White’s solicitor (Mr Buchanan) assured the court that his client had never intended to steal the copy of Fun but the lad was busy serving customers and he was worried he would miss his train.

It was a poor excuse but the policeman who took him into custody said he was searched and he plenty of money on him so doubted theft was the intention. White had given a correct address, and ‘bore a very respectable character in his neighbourhood’, and so Alderman Whetham was prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt.

The magistrate found him not guilty of stealing but instead treated the case as one of unlawful possession. White was fined 10s, which he paid, and walked free from court, poorer but hopefully wiser.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, September 25, 1872]

Is there ‘anything more shocking than a woman teaching a child to rob its parents’?

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When Mr and Mrs Thomas French began to notice money was missing from the till they scratched their heads for an explanation. The couple ran the Chequers pub in Worship Street, Finsbury and the only other person they thought could be responsible was their young son, a child of just nine years of age.

Ada French decided to collar her boy and make him tell her the truth: had he been stealing, and if so, why? The poor lad confessed but said a woman named Bencker who lived in Fitzrovia had put him up to it. Ada resolved to find out if he was lying so set a trap for him (and his partner in crime).

Acting on the advice of the police she marked a handful of sixpence pieces and put them in the till. Soon afterwards she saw her son take coins from it and leave the pub. She followed afterwards  with a police constable and tracked the lad to Windmill Street, Fitzrovia, where Louise Bencker lived.

Ada found her boy inside the 36 year-old fur sewer’s home and the policeman discovered the two marker coins in Bencker’s possession. She was arrested and brought before Mr Bushby at Worship Street Police court in the morning. The magistrate was horrified:

He told the prisoner

that anything more shocking than a woman teaching a child to rob its parents he could not conceive’,

and he sentenced Louisa to three months at hard labour.

But what exactly did Louise Bencker have on the unnamed nine year-old? What do she say or do to induce him to risk a beating at the very least, and possibly worse, by stealing from his family? And what was he doing all the way over in Fitzrovia? Sadly of course, that bit of the story we will probably never know.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, September 16, 1877]

The case of the ‘explosive’ honey at the London Docks

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All sorts of things come up in the reports of cases at the Metropolitan Police courts. These really were quite diverse in the areas they covered; while the bulk of the reported cases were thefts, assaults, drunk and disorderly behaviour and vagrancy there are also numerous examples of the regulation of trade in the capital and at its docks. These may not be as ‘sexy’ or as exciting as murders, robberies and cunning frauds, but they do offer us an insight into contemporary life in a way that isn’t often repeated elsewhere.

Take this case for example: In September the presiding alderman at Guildhall Police court called the attention of the superintendent of the City of London police to a practice he had heard about and thought needed investigating.

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Sir Andrew Lusk (left, from Vanity Fair) told Superintendent Foster that a complaint had been made to him about a firm importing honey which had deliberately mislabelled the crates containing their produce. Clearly worried about dockers and porters casually throwing the boxes around without due care and attention they had inscribed the cases with the legend ‘Dynamite: handle with care’.

The magistrate could see the purpose behind the subterfuge but was worried none the less that ‘it was the old story of the wolf’; once it was realised that the crates contained honey and not explosives there was a very real danger that actual imports of dynamite would be treated with reckless abandon!

He ordered the superintendent to ask the Customs staff to investigate the matter and have a word with the honey importers to ensure such misdirection didn’t lead to a potentially disastrous accident on the docks.

I’m sure today that honey and dynamite are not imported in the same sorts of containers or unloaded in the same manner. Those were less health and safety conscious times of course.

[from The Standard, Friday, September 12, 1879]

A quick-thinking signalman saves an impatient commuter at Swiss Cottage.

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Anyone who travels regularly on London’s underground and overground railway system will have seen people risking injuring themselves and others by rushing to catch trains just before the doors close. People get shoved, bumped into, pushed aside and generally manhandled as impatient commuters attempt to barrel their way through crowds or squeeze onto carriage as the closing ‘beeps’ sound to announce ‘this rain is now ready to depart, mind the closing doors’.

Sometimes the late arrival gets stuck in the doors, which open and close again while the assembled passengers glare at them. On more than one occasion I’ve heard the driver (often with heavy sarcasm) offer a few words of advice for the future to whomsoever has just boarded his or her train.

We’ve all done it and we’ve all seen it done.

George Sorrell was tired and his wife was unwell. In fact she was ‘dangerously ill’ and after a very long day at work for the General Omnibus Company (14 hours in fact) all George wanted to do was get home to her. So when he arrived at Swiss Cottage station late one evening and saw a train departing he ran to catch it.

The doors then were manual and swung open so he reached up and grabbed the handle and hauled himself aboard. However, the train was moving and he got stuck half in and half out. This was perilous because in a matter of seconds the train would enter a tunnel and the bus employee risked being thrown from the carriage and mangled under its wheels.

Fortunately for him a signalman had noticed him and the danger he was in – apparently it had been become all too common for commuters to risk life and limb in this way – and rushed out of his box and pushed Sorrell bodily into the compartment and safety.

At the next station Sorrell was reprimanded by the guard and asked for his name and address. George gave a false address in Chelsea but the company were persistent and eventually traced him. He was summoned to appear at Marylebone Police court in September 1873 where the charge against him – that ‘of entering a train in motion’  – was heard by Mr Mansfield, the sitting police magistrate.

Mr Gooden, the chief inspector leading the case, explained that incidents of this type were becoming commonplace and so the railway company had decided to prosecute each and every one, in an attempt to deter passengers from carrying on with this dangerous behaviour.

The magistrate listened to Sorrell’s excuse but agreed with the railway that this needed to be stopped before anyone was killed. He also noted that the defendant had put the company to considerable expense and trouble by lying about where he lived. So he fined him 10with an additional 2costs and sent him on his way with a flea in his ear.

[from The Standard, Monday, September 08, 1873]

PS. Swiss Cottage underground station had opened just 5 years before George Sorrell had his brush with death. It was the norton terminus for the Metropolitan and St John’s Wood Railway so Sorrel would have realised that his ride into central London was disappearing fast. A new station opened in 1939 so the one he used closed in 1940 and the old station building was demolished 20 years later.