‘I looked after them as well as I could’: a mother’s plea as her children are taken away.

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This morning I am working on the latest draft of my next book, which offers a (hopefully) plausible solution to the Whitechapel murders of 1888. So I’m currently sitting (fairly comfortably) in the National Archives at Kew. The sun is shining, the lake is full of geese, and the air conditioning in on. This is a world away, of course, from the trials and tribulations of the folk that were brought before or sought help or redress from London’s Police courts in the nineteenth century.

I’ve taken this case from July 1888, just before the series of murders associated with an unknown killer given the sobriquet of ‘Jack the Ripper’, began in August. I think it reveals the poverty and desperation of some Londoners at the time, and the casual cruelty that sometimes accompanied it.

However, this wasn’t a case that occurred in Whitechapel, but instead in Soho, in the West End. The area in which the murders of 1888 is so often portrayed as a degraded, godless, and immoral place that it can be easy to forget that other parts of the capital were equally poor, and that thousands of our ancestors lived hand-to-mouth in grinding poverty. It took two world wars to create a system that attempted to deal humanely with poverty; in 1888 this was still a long long way ahead.

Patrick and Mary Ann Lynch were tailors but they were also very poor. They lived in one room in a rented house in Noel Street, Soho. They had four children who lived with them, all crowded together in circumstances we would be shocked to discover in London today. In fact their circumstances, while not uncommon in late nineteenth-century Britain, still had the power to shock contemporaries. This was especially so when evidence of cruelty or neglect towards children was shown, as it was here.

The Lynch’s situation was brought to the attention of a local medical man, Dr Jackson, by neighbours of the couple. He visited and found the four children ‘in a wretched state’. He informed the police, and Inspector Booker of C Division paid them a visit. This is what he later told the Marlborough Street Police Magistrate:

The children ‘were in a filthy state. Three of them – Charlotte, aged four years, Michael, two years and ten months – were lying on a dirty old mattress. On the other side of the room was Henry James, aged ten months. They looked haggard and weak, especially Frank. They were so filthy that he could scarcely recognize their features. Frank seemed to be gasping’.

These were the days before social services and child protection but the policeman didn’t wait for permission from anyone, as soon as he could he had the children removed to the nearest workhouse in Poland Street. He arrested Mary Ann and charged her with neglecting her children. Mrs Lynch was taken to the police station where she was reunited with her husband, who had been arrested earlier the same evening for drunkenness  – it wasn’t his first time.

At the station Mary Ann said she’d tried to look after her kids but her husband hadn’t let her. ‘I looked after them as well as I could’, she pleaded, but ‘I had to work, and if I left off to look after them, my husband would kick me out of the place’.

In court the Inspector said that he’d tried to get the poor law relieving officer to intervene but he’d refused; no one wanted to help the family it seems. Another policeman, sergeant Castle, added that the relieving officer didn’t seem to think the Lynchs case was one of ‘actual destitution’, so weren’t inclined to act.

Mrs Lynch’s position was typical of many at the time. She had to work because he husband’s wages didn’t provide enough for the family to live on, especially as he chose to drink much of them away. Dr Jackson also gave evidence in court, telling the magistrate (Mr Hannay) that when he’d visited Patrick Lynch was lying on a mattress in drunken stupor, next to his son Henry. When he rose to his feet he pushed down on the little boy hurting him, and making him cry.

At this point little Henry was produced in court. This caused quite a stir as the child ‘appeared to be no bigger than a child’s shilling doll’. Mr Hannay was amazed the Poor Law Guardians hadn’t taken up the case adding that he was sure that the authorities would either realize that they had a duty to intervene, or would find themselves being prosecuted for neglect. For the meantime he remanded the couple and sent the children back to the workhouse.

[from The Standard , Tuesday, July 17, 1888]

A clash of beliefs as religion and the Music hall collide in the East End

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For a change of scene today’s case comes not from the Police courts but from the High Courts of Justice on the Strand. It was a civil case, brought by the owners of William Lusby’s Music Hall, in the Mile End Road, who were represented by Mr Ince QC.

The complaint here was that a local preacher named Charrington had been attempting to prevent people going into the Hall because he believed the entertainments there were immoral and unsuitable. Charrington, accompanied by a number of his acolytes, was in the habit of ‘parading in front of [the hall], and intercepting persons going in by handing them leaflets and warning them that by going in to that place they were going straight to perdition’ [to hell in other words].

If any one wanted to go to perdition they could do so without paying sixpence’, they added.

The leaflets were fairly graphic and pictured ‘an unfortunate man walking along between an angel and a devil’. The message was pretty clear and not at all good for business.

Not content with the leaflets the priest and his followers serenaded the visitors with a stream of poetic verse which blamed the venue for:

Sowing the seed of a lingering pain,

Sowing the seed of a maddened brain,

Sowing the seed of a tarnished name,

Sowing the seed of eternal shame,

and asked the question:

Oh! What shall the harvest be?

Having presented the case Mr Ince produced a number of affidavits signed by local people to testify that the area around the Hall was peaceful and the only disturbance caused were those orchestrated by Carrington and his followers. The High Court also heard an allegation that those women that refused to take one of the preacher’s leaflets were labeled as prostitutes and as a result, ‘many respectable women’ were staying away.

In defence of his client, Charrington’s barrister declared that the preacher was well meaning and was trying to ‘do good’ in an area that needed it. Lusby’s was ‘in the worst part of Tower Hamlets’ where there were severe problems with poverty, alcoholism and prostitution. However, he conceded that his client had acted against the interests of the proprietors and would (mostly) desist.

Mr Ince wanted Charrington to give ‘an undertaking not to address the people going to and from within ten houses on each side of the hall’. Mr Romer (QC for Charrington) agreed that his client would not stand right outside, but refused to agree to much more. This was accepted without prejudice, with the proprietors reserving the right to return to court if there was any breach of the agreement.

The presiding judge summed up the arrangement (to the amusement of those present) by suggesting ‘that Mr Charrington would take to keep away from the mouth of the pit’.

William Lusby had bought the hall in 1868 when it was a pub called The Eagle. Lusby refurbished it as a Music Hall and opened his ‘Summer and Winter Palace’ in April 1877. It could take an audience of up to 5,000 people who could watch a variety of acts popular at the time. Moral reformers generally hated the music hall, seeing them as a places where alcohol was served, crude jokes were told, and risqué dancing took place. There were also close associations between the music halls and prostitution.

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A year after Lusby opened his Hall he sold it to Crowder and Payne (the plaintiffs in the case we’ve heard). In January 1884, just six months after the case, the hall burned down and rebuilt, opening as the Paragon Theatre in May 1885. It served the area for many years afterwards and most of the stars of the Victorian and Edwardian music hall performed there including Dan Leno, Little Tich, and Daisy Le Row.

So, unlike Wilton’s near Cable Street, it survived the attempts of reformers to close it down and it was only the coming of the moving picture that finally brought its long run to an end. Even that was not a disaster for the premises, as the Paragon changed its name to the Mile End Empire and started to show films. That building was demolished in 1938 and a new ‘picture palace’ (The Empire Cinema) opened in June 1939 on the eve of the Second World War. The Empire survived the war, and later years of neglect and still exists as the Genesis Cinema today.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper , Sunday, July 15, 1883]

Stealing from John Lewis earns a ‘respectable’ woman an unwelcome day in court.

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John Lewis’ Oxford Street store, c.1885

Given the proliferation of shops in the capital it is not surprising that shoplifting was much more of a problem here than in most other towns in England. London was the shopping capital of northern Europe in the late 1800s and the concept of large department stores had been imported from America.

Shoplifting had always been associated with female offering. That’s not to say than men and boys didn’t do it, they did of course, but this was a crime which was more evenly distributed by gender. Robbery and burglary were crimes which were overwhelmingly committed by males, picking pockets and stealing from shops were much more likely to be undertaken by women and girls.

In the second half of the 1800s the idea that some women  (generally ‘respectable’ women) might steal because of a weakness, a compulsion to thieve, gained ground. Kleptomania was coined and became a way of explaining the theft of items (often small luxuries) by women who could easily afford to pay for them.

Of course this dent make it any less annoying for the poor shopkeeper. Nor did necessarily excuse such behaviour. In July 1888, just before the Whitechapel murderer began his atrocities in the East End, a ‘respectably connected’ woman was brought before the magistrate at Marlborough Street caused of stealing from Messers. Lewis in Oxford Street.

Ellen Harris (or possibly Ellen Barker as the court reporter noted she had an alias – often a sign of previous criminal connections) – was charged with stealing a black silk jersey from the store (the forerunner of the John Lewis Partnership we all know today). Ellen had ben in the shop on the Monday in the mantle department and had bought and paid for some items. An assistant the saw her select the jersey and hide it under her waterproof jacket and walk away.

The assistant told the store manager (Walter Cryer) and he followed her. Ellen left the store and started to stroll down Oxford Street. In the classic mode of a store detective Cryer tapped her on the shoulder and asked if she would accompany him back to the shop. Once inside and at the foot of the first staircase Cryer challenged her with the fact that she’d taken the jersey without paying for it.

Ellen denied it and started back up the stair. She stopped halfway, putting her hand inside her jacket and asked him:

‘If I give it to you now, will that do?’

It would not, Mr Cyrer replied and said he’d already summoned a detective to investigate. When he failed to show up Cryer went and found a policeman on the street and handed the woman over. She pleaded with them not to take her in saying she was ‘respectably connected’. In court her solicitor suggested that it was a mistake, that Ellen was ‘absent minded’ and ‘vacant’ when stopped by the store manger. He was trying to paint a picture of a woman who was not entirely in her right mind, one suffering from a compulsion she could not control.

The constable that took her into custody rather supported this interpretation but the store manager disagreed. In the end Mr Hannay, the police court magistrate, denied he could not deal with the case and remanded her with a view to sending her for trial.  At the last moment another witness appeared; the manager of another large store, Gask and Gask’s. He identified a number of handkerchiefs that the police had found in Ellen’s possession as the property of his shop. Things didn’t look good for Ellen.

In the end Ellen was prosecuted at the Middlesex Sessions and convicted of theft from John Lewis and Gask’s.  She was 40 years of age and described simply as ‘married’. The judge didn’t send her prison so perhaps he thought there was grounds for accepting a plea that she was ‘distracted’ in some way. The court took sureties as to her future behaviour, and perhaps these were guaranteed by her husband or wider family. If she’d been younger, or unmarried, or working class, I doubt she’d have got off so lightly.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, July 11, 1888]

A little bit of clarity on Sunday trading

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One of the delights of the Police Court reportage is the additional information it gives me about the way society operated in the Victorian period. Because Police Court magistrates were called upon to deal with such a large amount of ‘civil’ business we get a real insight into how people lived and worked.

One of the things that interested me when I was writing about immigration to the East End in the 1880s was the patterns of work for Jewish businessmen and their employees. Because Jewish law forbids the faithful from working after sunset on Fridays and all day Saturday I wondered if they closed their shops and factories or employed gentile (non Jewish) workers to keep them running. Moreover since the laws forbade Sunday trading did this seriously impact Jewish businesses which would have had to shut?

I was also interested to know whether Jews would be able to work for non-jewish businesses given the restrictions their religion placed on them. This matters because accusations of ghettoisation often stem from fears that migrant groups stick together and don’t integrate. However, its quite hard to integrate if you were unable to find work that allows you to have time off to practice your religion.

Isaac Rishfield was a cap maker. He ran a workshop on Houndsditch, on the edge of the City of London close to the large Jewish community in Whitechapel and Spitalfields. In July 1884 Rishfield was summoned to appear at the Guildhall Police Court charged with ‘having contravened the Factory and Workshops Act’.

Prosecuting, Mr Lakeman told the court that under law Jewish businesses were entitled to employ people to work for them on Sundays, for half a day. This mirrored the time lost on Saturdays when workers tended only to work from early morning to the afternoon.

Very many Jewish owners took advantage of this legal loophole, Lakeman explained, and some, like Rishfield, were exceeding the regulations by employing too many. This, he continued, gave them an unfair advantage over gentile businesses in the area and complaints were made. The cap maker had employed ‘one Gentile on the Saturday and two Jewesses on the Sunday, which he was not entitled to do’.

Rishfield didn’t dispute the facts and pleaded guilty to the charge. He said he wasn’t aware he’d done anything wrong but ignorance is no defence in law so he was fined 20for each breach with 10s costs. In total he was fined the equivalent of £300 in today’s money. We know that Jewish households in the East End employed non-Jewish women as casual servants and now I’ve confirmed that this extended to other areas of the world of work and business.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, July 08, 1884]

A mutiny at the Royal Albert & Victoria Docks reveals the hidden DNA of the capital

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Since the 1980s London has lost what remained of its working port on the Thames. The massive docklands development wiped away the last vestiges of warehouses and quays and transformed the area into smart housing, commercial centres and leisure outlets. It is still possible to see some of the buildings that survived the Luftwaffe and the developers but often they are little more than a façade and their function has changed.

In the 1880s however London was still a bustling port, the greatest in Europe if not the world. Thousands of ships were loaded and unloaded here, and teams of stevedores directed gangs of dockers in hard manual labour to bring in products from all over the Empire and the rest of the globe.

It wasn’t only the goods that were imported: the docks teamed with people from all over the world – Portuguese, Cypriots, Chinese, Arabs, American, Africans and south east Asians amongst them – a reminder that London has been a multi-cultural society for well over 150 years.

Most of those that were not white were collectively known as Lascars. Most of these were from India and many from Gujarat and Malabar or from what is now Bangladesh. They were recruited in large numbers to serve on British registered ships but often treated poorly by comparison to white European sailors. Lascars were paid less and often left virtually homeless while they waited to get a ship back home. The shipping companies treated them so badly because the lascars had a reputation for being ‘trouble free’. I would imagine that contemporary racism played a part in all of this as well.

Before we dismiss the lascars as submissive however here is an example of them standing up en masse and, while it was ultimately unsuccessful, it demonstrates that they were more than capable of doing so.

In early July 1884 four lascars sailors were brought before Mr Philips at West Ham Police court charged with being the ringleaders of a mutiny on a British vessel docked in London. The formal charge was that they had refused to obey their captain, William Turner of the Duke of Buckingham, a steamer operated by the Ducal Line Company.

The ship’s crew was made up of 45 seaman, all ‘coloured’ who had signed articles in January 1884 to serve on the Hall Line’s steamer Speke Hall, for a year. The ship docked at Liverpool for repairs and the owners decided to transfer the men to the Duke of Buckingham while they were completed. When the crew reached London and discovered that this ship was headed for India via Australia they protested. Some argued that their contract (articles) was with the Hall Line not the Ducal Line while others complained that the journey would be too long, and they would be beyond their 12 months of employment.

18 of the 45 men refused to work and four were identified as ringleaders and arrested, hence the court appearance in West Ham. The four were: ‘Amow Akoob a serang, Manged Akoob, a tindal, and Fukeera Akoob and  Adam Hussein, Lascars’. ‘Serang’ probably meant that Amow Akoob was a captain or boatswain while Tindal is a town in Tamil Nadu in southern India.

Perhaps unsurprisingly the English magistrate wasn’t about to get deeply involved in an industrial dispute. He pointed out to the men that at the current time they were under contract and warned them that they were liable to ‘penalties’ if they and they rest of the crew continued to refuse to work. In the end the four men decided that they’d made their point and had little to gain by continuing their protest. They agreed to return to work and were discharged.

We have heard a lot about Caribbean migration this year, with the anniversary of the arrival of the Empire Windrushand the revelations of the Home Office’s scandalous treatment of some of their descendants. Immigration is often seen as a mid to late 20thcentury phenomenon, a product of the end of empire. But for London, and other port cities like Bristol and Liverpool, immigration has been part of the fabric of our history and our success for hundreds of years. London is built on the backs of migrant labour – migrants from all over Britain, Europe and the World; migrants of all nations, all races and all faiths. If we could analyze London’s dna it would reveal us to be the children of a global trading people and that is why it is the greatest city in the world.

[from The Morning Post , Monday, July 07, 1884]

Dozens of noses broken as a policeman loses his cool on a hot July evening.

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In today’s post the normal tables are turned and as a policeman finds himself standing in a Police Court dock. PC Labram (186T) was up before Mr Newton at Marlborough Street on a charge accused of causing malicious damage. The case was brought by Peter Chambers of Harriet Street, Lower Marsh on south side of the river Thames, an artificial flower maker who had been trying to sell his wares outside the Reform Club in Pall Mall.

It was Jubilee night in July 1887 and London had been celebrating Queen Victoria’s fifty years on the throne. Presumably Chambers was intent on selling a range of novelty items to the patriotic crowds of passers not far from Buckingham Palace. As far as PC Labram was concerned however, Chambers was a street nuisance and when he found him on the street he asked him ‘pack up’ and ‘slope’ away.  The peddler obeyed but not quickly enough for the officer, who aimed at kick as his departing rear which propelled him several yards up the street.

When Chambers objected – saying ‘you have no cause to do that, policeman’ –  the bobby pushed him ‘so violently that he had to drop his basket’ to stop himself from falling over. This scattered some of the flower sellers ‘noses, scratchers and squirts’ over the paving slabs, and again Chambers complained loudly that he was trying to comply with the officer’s request and he needn’t shove him.

PC Labram’s response was to place his size nines on the man’s goods and stamp them into pieces. When Chambers protested the policeman threatened to do to him what he’d done to his false noses, back scratchers and water squiters, and so he hurried away. Several onlookers saw what had happened and berated the constable with cries of ‘shame!’

Five or so minutes later Chambers was in nearby James Square and he saw PC Labram had followed on, presumably tracing his beat. He confronted him and said he intended to report him at King Street police station. This simply provoked the officer to push his basket off his shoulders, throwing the contents on to the ground, where he stamped on them for good measure. A group of ‘roughs’ saw what was happening and ran to join in the fun, jumping up and down on the poor man’s goods.

In court Mr Poland defended the constable and asked him if he had also been selling the ‘squirts’ he had with him. This was apparently prohibited and Chambers said that while he had them he was not selling them.

What did he have asked Mr. Newton, and what was their value.

Twelve shillings’ worth of scent-fountains, ten dozens of holiday noses, and about the same number of back scratchers’, he replied. The noses had moustaches on them but many of these had now been torn off. He estimated the damage at 32s.

Mrs Eliza Jackson of Great Smith Street corroborated Chambers’ evidence and said that the ‘constable treated the man like a dog’. Her husband also testified against the officer.

The defense argued that men like Chambers went about the crowded streets ‘selling squirts, and so procuring and aiding persons to commit assaults upon others by throwing dirty water over their dress. The police did all they could to prevent the nuisance, and bills cautioning the public were issued before Jubilee Day’.

The magistrate was not unsympathetic to this view and declared that:

it was a mischievous and cruel thing to sell such things and, and if people chose to pay out their money in such articles they must take the consequences’.

Nevertheless the constable had acted disproportionately and it would have been better if he’d arrested Chambers rather than kicking him and breaking his stock. He asked Chambers and Labram to withdraw while he assessed the real value of the damage done. Instead of the 32s the man claimed Mr Newton awarded him just 7s 6d. He also vindicated the constable by saying he was (however aggressively) just following out his orders for the day.

I get the feeling that PC Labram was simply grumpy at having to police the crowds that day; while everyone else was having fun he was patrolling the streets and perhaps he resented it. Seeing an opportunity he did what all bullies do and acted like a little tyrant. A fine was the least he deserved and if he’d directed his frustration at one of the ‘toffs’ at the Reform Club he might have been drummed out of the force. Chambers was a nobody though, so he got away with it.

Shame on him, and shame of the magistrate for not standing up for the ‘little man’.

[from The Standard , Wednesday, July 06, 1887]

A simple case of imposture or a glimpse into the transgender community of Victorian London?

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I often wonder what the Victorians would make of our society if they could visit it. I imagine they’d be both awed and shocked if they were able to time travel forward to 21stcentury London. Awed by the technology perhaps: the cars, neon lights, television, mobile phones. Shocked by what they would see as irreligion, immorality and a lack of deference.

Of course the idea that the Victorians were prudish and all went to church has been successfully challenged by historians but it remains a fact that they were more conservative and less tolerant of some behaviours than we are today. Homosexuality was made illegal in 1885, and men could be sent to prison for engaging in sexual relationships with other men, as Oscar Wilde was. Suicide was a crime and there was considerably less understanding of mental illness throughout the period. The criminal justice system was harsh: many more people were incarcerated for relatively minor property offences and the death penalty existed, and was used, for murderers.

The newspaper reports of the metropolitan Police Courts are an excellent way to peer into this world. To quote Hartley, ‘the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there’, and we can see this at Bow Street, Lambeth, Marylebone and all the other magistrate courts.

At the end of June 1886 two individuals were brought up at Lambeth Police court charged with begging. Begging remains an offence punishable under nineteenth-century legislation (the Vagrancy Act of 1824) but it no longer carries the risk of prison and is often ignored by the police unless it is aggressive or causing a particular nuisance. So while retain the power to prosecute beggars we rarely use it. Instead the emphasis is on helping those that beg, or (more cynically) in arguing about how best we should help them.

In 1886 there was a Mendicity Society; an organisation dedicated to the prevention of begging, especially by those it deemed to be imposters. I’ve written about them before  and their officers crop up frequently in cases that came to court. Joseph Boseley was one such officer and on the evening of Monday 28 June he was watching two beggars in Church Street, Camberwell.

Both appeared to be women and they held a Bible out to read from. As passers-by approached they would ask for a donation and if it was forthcoming they would reward the donor with a verse of scripture. However, if they were refused money, then, ‘as soon as the person walked on [they] made use of foul language to one another’. Boseley smelled a rat and he arrested them for impersonation.

Boseley knew this pair well and was watching them to gather sufficient evidence against them to prosecute. He knew also that they weren’t both women: one of them was a man dressed up as a woman, and this was assumed, I think, to be a ruse to separate pedestrians from their hard earned cash, as a pair of females asking for charitable donations to a ‘good cause’ seemed more believable.

In court the pair cut a sorry looking vision in the dock. Mary Ann Saunders was 55 and her partner, Henry Bennett ten years younger. Bennett was set in the dock still wearing ‘female clothing, with hat and ribbons, and hair hanging down his back’. When questioned he continued to speak in a high-pitched impersonation of a female voice, as he had being doing as he stood beside the kerb in Camberwell.

Boseley told the magistrate (Mr Biron) that there had been multiple complaints about the duo and that they ‘were old mendicants’. Saunders could often be seen pushing Bennett around in ‘a perambulator’, always dressed as a woman, and always begging for money. He saw them as a couple of charlatans who were entirely underserving of the public’s sympathy, let alone their money.

Today however, I wonder what we would make of them. Was Bennett merely donning female attire as a ruse to con people, or was he cross-dressing because he felt more comfortable in women’s clothes? We have only very recently begun to accept that gender is more fluid and the term ‘transgender’ wasn’t coined until 1971. In 1870 two men were put on trial for transvestism, but there was insufficient evidence to convict them.After 1885 men who dressed as women were sometimes prosecuted as homosexuals, again demonstrating a contemporary misunderstanding of those that cross gender boundaries.

The beginnings of attempts to understand transgender issues can be seen in the late nineteenth century but for a sympathetic understanding we have to wait till late into the twentieth century. Even now those that feel uncomfortable in the gender they were born into and who are brave enough to present themselves as the person they know and believe themselves to be can find it a very tough experience. We are only very slowly adjusting to the idea of all gender toilets and allowing people to be whom they want to be.

Was Henry Bennett ‘trans’? It is impossible to know of course. Mr Biron was convinced he was a beggar and said he would remand the pair for further enquiries. At this Bennett fainted in the dock, although the papers saw this as a yet another example of imposture and an opportunity to poke fun at him for the amusement of its readership. On the 9 July they were brought up again and the magistrate sent them both to prison for a month for begging, declaring them to be ‘rank imposters’.

As he was led away Bennett cried out: ‘A month, what for? I didn’t beg; I only give bits of scripture comfort’.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, June 30, 1886; Reynolds’s, Sunday, July 11, 1886]