‘I’ll knock your brains out, Policeman’: the perils of being a ‘grass’ in Victorian London’

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Working class communities were tightly packed in Victorian London. This meant that everyone knew everyone else’s business and gossip was rife. Communities also tended to band together against outsiders, be they immigrants, newcomers, or the police.

Stephen Dempsey had broken one of the cardinal rules of working-class communities: he had given information to police that had led to the arrest and prosecution of some of his near neighbours. That act had marked him out as a ‘grass’, a ‘snitch’, a police informant and the consequences were dire.

He was regularly abused, verbally and physically, and on Saturday the 8 June 1872 he was in his room when he heard a shout outside his door:

‘I’ll knock your brains out, Policeman’.

This was followed a crash and yelp as a pail of water was thrown at his wife as she climbed the stairs to their room. Then the door was kicked in and a man was standing there armed with a poker. The man, William Reardon, rushed at him and hit him twice about the head before another neighbor helped subdue and wrestle him clear.

The affair ended up with Reardon in the dock at Marlborough Street charged with assault. He denied the charge but admitted throwing water over Mrs Dempsey, but alleged it was in retaliation for her swearing at him.  She corroborated her husbands’ version of events and Dempsey’s role in informing on Reardon’s associates was revealed. Dempsey had earned the nickname ‘policeman’ for being a well-known police informer. Mr. Newton accepted bail but committed the prisoner for a jury trial. Reardon was indicted for wounding but acquitted on that charge and released.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, June 16, 1872]

Hogwash and a bad smell in Kensington

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It may be a little out of fashion nowadays but you may be familiar with the expression ‘hogwash’, as in: ‘that is a load of hogwash’, (i.e a load of rubbish). Indeed quite recently John Brennan, the former director of the CIA stated that Russia denials of involvement in US elections and collusions with the Trump campaign team were ‘in a word, hogwash’.

Maria Dunning knew all about hogwash. In fact she dealt in it, collecting kitchen waste to sell as pigs swill (from where the term originated in the 1400s). Unfortunately for her (and the residents of Princes Gardens, Kensington) the kitchen waste she’d collected had an unpleasantly pungent smell. Since she had taken to storing it on the street, albeit temporarily, locals had complained and this had summoned the good men of the Westminster board of works to investigate.

It wasn’t the first time that Maria had been prosecuted for infringing local bye laws and it ended up with her being summoned before a magistrate at Westminster Police court. The sanitary inspector explained that traders like Maria went door-to-door to collect the kitchen waste which ‘they carried away in tubs’ and this caused problems:

the liquor overflowed, and ran out the carts into the street, and in Ennismore-gardens and Princes-gate the smell was often very offensive. The defendant had been cautioned more than once, but on the day in question allowed more than two quarts of this offensive liquor to run over into the road. It was sour and smelt very bad’.

Maria disagreed; she held that the smell was actually quite sweet and anyway she couldn’t be held responsible for what other hogwash sales people did, she only collected form one property, that belonging to Judge Blackburn. This was Baron Colin Blackburn, an eminent legal mind of his day but sadly one who was not available in court to defend Maria. In his absence the magistrate fined her 10s plus costs and warned her not to repeat the offence if she wanted to avoid a much stiffer penalty in the future.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, May 28, 1875]

“Stab me you b——if you are a man, stab me, stab me”: Drink and domestic violence end in tragedy

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John Wicks and his wife had both been drinking on the 14 April. John was well known in the community as a drinker and for being violent when he was under the influence. His wife, Elizabeth, could also resort to violence when her temper flared. The couple lived in Kensal New Town in northwest London and Wicks earned his money as a chimney sweep.

When John came home on the 14than argument flared about money. He was drunk and Elizabeth had shared two or three pints with a friend, so she wasn’t sober either. Wicks complained that he had nothing and demanded she hand over the money she’d sewed into the pocket of her skirt. She refused and they came to blows.

Reports are mixed with conflicting evidence from Wicks, his mother-in-law, and other witnesses (domestic fights like this were quite often public affairs, given the crowded accommodation of late Victorian London). It is possible that in order to defend herself Elizabeth picked up the fender from the fire and threatened her husband with it. He pulled a knife and she threw the fender at him as he retreated out of the room. His wife then seized the next available weapon she could find, a large spoon, and came after him.

The pair ended up in the garden which was where George Abbott, a van boy who lived opposite, saw them. He’d been drawn to the quarrel by the noise, as had Henry Stacey (another neighbour) and both saw Elizabeth strike John with the spoon. Stacey later testified that Elizabeth was in a rage and was shouting: “stab me you b——if you are a man, stab me, stab me” at John. Soon afterwards the sweep aimed a blow at her neck and when his hand came away blood spurted from the wound.

John Wicks had stabbed his wife in the neck.

He was arrested and she was taken to hospital where despite the best efforts of the surgeons at St Mary’s, Paddington, she died 10 days later. ‘Inflammation of the throat’ had ‘set in the same night as she was stabbed, and she was unable to swallow anything except iced water’. She died as a result of ‘exhaustion caused through not taking food and inflammation of the lungs’. It must have been a terrible and extremely distressing way to die.

On 23 May after a number of appearances before him Mr D’Eyncourt formally committed John Wicks to take his trial for murder at the Central Criminal Court. He had pleaded not guilty and claimed that she must ‘have fallen against the knife’. He admitted he’d been drunk, and offered that in mitigation.

The police detective that interviewed Elizabeth in hospital confirmed the pattern of events as she described them but added that she had, at the last, described her husband as a gentle man when he was sober. ‘There is not a kinder man or a better husband’ she had insisted.

It is a familiar story for anyone who has looked at domestic violence in the past or worked with abuse survivors in the present. Women only went to the law when they had tried all other means to curb their partner’s violence. The courts fined or locked men up but little else was done to support the victims and in a society where women so often depended on men to survive there were few alternatives open to a wife than to take her man back again and hope for the best.

In court after the evidence of witnesses had been heard the house surgeon at St Mary’s testified. He described the wound and speculated on it cause. The court wanted to know if it could have caused by accident, as John had suggested. He doubted it was likely but admitted that it was possible: ‘it is unusual to get such a wound in that way, but it might be’ he observed.

That was enough for the all male jury. Despite the glaring evidence that John Wicks had killed his wife in a drunken rage while he was holding a sharpened knife in his hands, the jury acquitted him of all charges, manslaughter included. He walked free from the Old Bailey exonerated by men who clearly believed that he was provoked and that his incapacitation due to alcohol absolved him of the responsibility for his wife’s death.

Wicks died a few years later in 1884 at the relatively young age of 54. I like to think that the guilt he felt played a role in his death but it is more likely that he succumbed early to the ravages of alcoholism which had already consumed him in 1877 and must have got worse following this tragic sets of events.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, May 24, 1877]

This case is not untypical of many cases of domestic violence in the nineteenth century, not all of course ended in tragedy. For me though it is indicative of the prevailing attitudes towards women, attitudes which I believe directly fuelled the Whitechapel (or ‘Jack the Ripper’) murders. My co-authored study of those murders is published by Amberley Books on 15 June this year. You can find details here:

Heartache for one couple as their baby boy disappears with his nurse

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The state of mind of George Augustus Mahon can only be guessed at when he turned up at Bow Street Police court to seek the help of the magistrate. His appearance there is a reminder that not everyone that came to court was brought by the police or a summons. Mahon and his wife had suffered a terrible shock and they turned to the magistrate as the most obvious person to advise and assist them.

Mahon was a commercial clerk, an upright member of the middle class, who lived at 15 Serle Street in Lincoln’s Inn, in London’s legal quarter. Two months earlier the Mahons had employed a new servant, Kate Curly, a steady sober woman of 26 years of age and she had served them well thus far. Families like theirs would probably only have afforded one or two domestics but Kate was hired as a nurse to look after their infant son, who was just a few months old.

On Monday 9 May 1870 Kate requested permission leave to visit her mother who lived locally.  She wanted to show her the baby she said and Mr Mahon granted her request. He had no doubts about Kate as she her behaviour and work had been exemplary up to then. However, when it got to 4 o’clock and Kate had not returned home Mrs Mahon began to get concerned. 5 o’clock came and went and still there was no sign of the servant. In the evening, when George returned from his office he went in search of her.

Mahon visited Kate parents and they told him that she had left their house around 7 or 8 in the evening that they had walked with her as far as the Gray’s Inn Road where they had said their goodbyes. No one had seen Kate or the baby boy since. If they were telling the truth then the servant and the child had disappeared close to Holborn. Had something happened or had Kate abducted the baby boy?

The clerk went to the police and detective sergeant Kerly of E Division sent a description to every police station and had dispatched men to enquire at the local hospitals to see him Kate had met with an accident. The chief clerk at Bow Street asked the sergeant if he had placed a notice in the Police Gazette. He hadn’t but he would consider it. Sir Thomas Henry, the Bow Street magistrate, suggested that the following description of Kate and the child be placed in all the newspapers:

The child is described to have been dressed in long clothes, and a white cloak trimmed with blue silk. The nurse [Kate Curly], was 26 years of age, and about five feet three inches in height, with dark complexion and black hair. She wore a black and white cotton dress, black cloth jacket, and black lace bonnet with white flowers’.

Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper reported this as ‘another case of child stealing suggesting that there had been a spate of abductions in the capital, but then it was a more sensational publication that the sober Morning Post.  I wish I could say what happened to the Mahon’s baby and their nurse but I haven’t managed to find anything that follows up on this story. I hope they both turned up or were found, perhaps having been involved in some minor accident as the police suspected. If not one can only imagine the heartache of the Mahon’s, who entrusted their child to someone they’d only know a matter of months.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, May 13, 1870; Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper , Sunday, May 15, 1870]

‘A lawless rabble’: A jeweller is charged as guardsmen riot in Knightsbridge

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Police constable James Jacobs (404B) was on his beat in Knightsbridge at 11.30 on Tuesday 8 May 1877. He was quickly alerted to the behaviour of a large group of soldiers who were abusing passers-by and causing a breach of the peace. The 15 or 16 men of the Coldstream Guards were drunk and Jacobs ordered them to move along and go back to their barracks as quietly as possible.

The guardsmen were in no mood to obey a policeman’s order or cut short their fun and games so instead they headed for the nearest pub, the Queen and Prince tavern. As soon as they pushed their way in though the landlord refused to serve them, ordered them out, and closed up. PC Jacobs once again told them to go home and they again refused him.

A confrontation was now brewing and another officer came to assist his colleague. PC Smith (273B) waded into the dispute and got his ears boxed for his trouble. He seized the solider that had hit him and the pair fell to the ground wrestling. As the officer was down a solder kicked him in the head and another attacked Jacobs, punching him in face, splitting open his cheek and temporarily stunning him.

More police arrived and several of the soldiers were arrested and dragged off towards the police station. By now a crowd of onlookers had gathered and decided to hiss and boo the police and call them names. Shouts of  ‘cowardly beasts’ were heard and sticks and stones were hurled at the backs of the officers who were trying to escort their captives to custody. A jeweler named Frederick Buxton tried to haul an officer away from his charge and was himself arrested.

James Vince, a groom, also intervened trying to rescue one of the guards and swearing at the policeman holding him. A woman named Harriett Ansell rushed up and struck a policeman over the head with one of the sticks the soldiers had discarded. Both she and Vince were also arrested.

It had turned into a riot with dozens of people involved and utter chaos on the streets. Eventually the soldiers and the three civilians were brought back to the station house but at least one of the guardsmen had to be carried face down ‘kicking and biting like a wild beast’. The soldiers were probably collected in the morning by their regimental sergeant at arms to face whatever punishment the army had in store for them. Meanwhile the three civilians were set in the dock at Westminster to be summarily tried by Mr Woolrych the sitting Police Court magistrate.

He dismissed the charge against Harriett for lack of concrete evidence and suggested that the young groom had been set a ‘bad example’ by Buxton who, as a respectable jeweler, should have known better. Buxton was fined £4 (or two months goal) and Vince was told he would have to pay £2 or go to prison for a month. He described the soldiers, who were members of one of the finest regiments in the British army, as a ‘lawless rabble’ who had attacked two policeman who were only doing their duty. It was the soldiers  who were ‘cowardly’ that night, not the police.

Twenty years earlier the Coldstream Guards had distinguished themselves in service in the Crimean War, fighting at the battles of Alma, Inkerman and the siege of Sebastopol. Four soldiers won the Victoria Cross, the highest award for gallantry, in that conflict. So I like to think the army punished the men that disgraced the uniform of such a famous regiment, the oldest in the history of the army, for brawling drunkenly in the streets of the capital of Empire.

[from The Standard, Thursday, May 10, 1877]

If you enjoy this blog series you might be interested in Drew’s jointly authored study of the Whitechapel (or ‘Jack the Ripper’) murders which is published by Amberley Books on 15 June this year. You can find details here:

‘You are one of Colonel Henderson’s ruffians!’:one of the ‘Devil’s Own’ takes his anger out on the police

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The Albert Embankment under construction in 1869

As two police constables patrolled the Albert Embankment on Saturday evening in May 1879 they heard and then saw a horse and rider approaching. The man was smartly dressed but seemed to be swaying in the saddle as if a little the worse for drink. PC Vaughan (143L) commented to his companion that they should keep an eye on him.

Soon afterwards, as the coppers watched, the equestrian turned off the embankment into Gloucester Street, a dead end street that led only to some dust yards. They followed him into the dimly lit street and saw that a large crowd of dustmen and small boys had gathered around him. He was throwing them silver coins which they were scrambling for the in dirt of the street.

This was a potentially dangerous situation; if the man was drunk it was quite possible, PC Vaughan thought, that he might be hauled off his mount and robbed. The officers moved in through the throng and advised the rider, firmly, to desist and go home. Instead of obeying the constable’s request however, the man growled at him:

You are one of Colonel Henderson’s ruffians, I should like to have a turn with him in Belgium, choose our own weapons, and stand six yards apart’.

Sir Edmund Henderson was commissioner of the metropolitan police from 1869 to 1886. He resigned following the embarrassment of the West End (or ‘Pall Mall’) riots of 1886. He had a military background (as did his successor, Charles Warren) and had also served in Australia with a responsibility for the government of convicts before returning to England to run the prison system. henderson2

The police themselves did not enjoy the affection of the public that they do today and this clearly extended beyond the lower working class. The rider was a barrister, William Belt, aged 53, and resident in Bedford Square. As a man of some means and position he had no obvious reason to dislike the police but referring to them as ‘ruffians’ was fairly unambiguous. His comment about ‘six yards’ suggested he was spoiling for a fight  (since it referenced the classic duel) and when he hit PC Vaughan over the head with his riding whip all doubt of his belligerence towards the police was dispelled. I imagine he was cheered by the assembled dustmen but not by the two policemen who grabbed the reins of the horse and pulled him away.

With difficulty, and with Mr Belt refusing to dismount, the two constables escorted their captive to a police station and charged him with being drunk and with assaulting a police officer. Belt gave his name, address and occupation (barrister) and appeared in court at Lambeth before Mr Chance where he denied everything.

He said he had been riding on the Embankment to meet up with his old regiment – the ‘Devil’s Own’ – at Wimbledon. He wasn’t drunk he said, but ill. He had nothing more than ‘two spoonsful of brandy’  that day and despite the fact that – as PC Vaughan reported – he was riding without the use of his stirrups he was entirely in control of his horse. Medical evidence was heard which supported both his and the police’s claim about him being inebriated that night so it was left to Mr Chance to decide the outcome.

The magistrate was pretty clear an assault had taken place, and sure that the police were justified in trying to remove the barrister from a tricky situation where he might have been the victim of crime. But in part because the man had managed to ride so far without the use of his stirrups and because he was, after all, a gentleman, he dismissed the charge of drunkenness. Belt was ordered to pay a fine of £3, which he did, and discharged.

I wondered about the ‘Devil’s Own’ that Belt referred to as his old regiment. During the Napoleonic Wars the Connaught Rangers (88thRegiment of Foot) were nicknamed the ‘Devil’s Own’ and earned a fearsome reputation in the Peninsula. But William Belt was too young to have served in the wars against Napoleon, being born in 1826. There was, however, a volunteer corps of Inns of Court troops that had been formed during the Crimean War – the 23rd Middlesex Rifles – and this may have been the barrister’s regiment.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, May 06, 1879]

If you enjoy this blog series you might be interested in Drew’s jointly authored study of the Whitechapel (or ‘Jack the Ripper’) murders which is published by Amberley Books on 15 June this year. You can find details here

‘Picking up rotten fruit from the ground’: Two small waifs struggle to survive in a society that doesn’t care

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The fact that Alice and Rosina Purcell were charged at Worship Street Police court under legislation intended to prosecute beggars and vagrants is not, in itself, unusual in the 1870s. Policemen, officers of Mendicity Society, and other public servants were all obliged to point out and have arrested those who wandered the streets destitute and begged for alms.

No, what makes this case so upsetting is the fact that that Alice and Rosina were aged just 6 and 8 respectfully. They were found wandering around Spitalfields Market begging ‘and picking up rotten fruit from the ground’. They were dressed in ‘the dirtiest of rags’ when James Gear, a school board inspector, decided to intervene. He took them to the nearest police station and then brought them before Mr Hannay at the east London police magistrate’s court.

The pair were clearly poor and hungry but through the filth the reporter still described them as ‘cheerful and intelligent’. They told the justice that their mother was dead and their father, who worked as a dock labourer, ‘left nothing for them at home’. They had no choice but to try and beg or find food for themselves.

This is a good example of the reality of life for very many people – young and old – in late Victorian Britain. Without a welfare system that supported families effectively girls like Alice and Rosina had to literally fend for themselves. We can criticize and condemn their father but with no wife at home to care for his children he was obliged to go out to work all day. Moreover dock work was not guaranteed – he’d be expected to be there very early in the morning for the ‘call on’ and such seasonal work that he would have got was very badly paid.

Mr Hannay was told that the girls were protestants and it was hoped that they might be sent away to the Protestant School. That would provided a solution of sorts but sadly there were no places available. Instead the magistrate ordered that the little sisters be taken to the workhouse until a better option could be found.

We might congratulate ourselves on having left such poverty behind. Children as young as Alice and Rosina should not have to beg for food in the modern capital of Great Britain. After all we are one of the richest countries in the world and have a well established welfare system that, we are told, people travel to the UK from all over the planet to exploit.

Yet poverty still exists in Britain and to a much higher rate than any of us should be comfortable with.  In March it was revealed that 4,000,000 children live in poverty in the UK, an increase of 500,000 since 2012. Last night’s news detailed the impact this is having in schools where almost half of all teachers surveyed said they had given children food or money out of their own pockets such is the degree of want they experience among pupils. The news report stated:

‘Children reaching in bins for food, homes infested with rats, five-year-olds with mouths full of rotten teeth. The reality of poverty in Britain, according to teachers who say they’re having to deal with it every day’.

This is not that far removed from the case above, the key difference being we no longer prosecute children for vagrancy or separate families in the workhouse. But it is absolutely scandalous that in a country that can waste £33,000,000 on ‘botched no-deal ferry contracts’ or spends £82,000,000 annually on the Royal family, and allows directors of FTSE companies to earn (on average) £2,433,000 each year (without bonuses) any child is going without sufficient food.

[From The Morning Post, Wednesday, May 01, 1872]

If you enjoy this blog series you might be interested in Drew’s jointly authored study of the Whitechapel (or ‘Jack the Ripper’) murders which is published by Amberley Books on June 15th this year. You can find details here.