‘Oh Freddy, where’s mammy?’: a tragedy on the Hackney Marshes

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This is a very sad story which really seems to have been the result of an accident rather than any intent on the part of the perpetrator. However, it is a useful reminder that the oft maligned Health & Safety laws we have established today are there for a reason.

John Squibb was a 24 year-old carman (the nineteenth century’s equivalent of a modern van driver). He was taking dust to Hackney Marshes to dispose of it. This was a daily task as the capital’s fires produced tonnes of unwanted waste which was collected weekly by dustmen. These characters have all but disappeared from our streets but I can remember  them back in the early 1970s, now they have been replaced by modern refuse operatives with their high viz jackets and automated collection vehicles. Modern ‘rubbish’ is more varied than the dust from fires and stoves that occupied most the trade in the 1800s.

Squibb drove his cart to Hackney Marshes and began to unload it into a prepared hole. I suppose this was the Victorian version of landfill; literally filling the earth with unwanted ashes and coal dust. As he worked a small group of children watched him, probably fascinated by the process but also keen to see if they could glean anything of value from the ‘rubbish’. As the illustration at the top of the page shows our poorer ancestors were obliged to scavenge from the rubbish pits in just the same way as we see in modern developing countries.

One of the children, three year-old Henry Walton, was standing close to the cart, too close in fact. His older brother was with him but possibly not looking after him as he should have been. As Squibb turned the cart to finish unloading it the wheel clipped little Henry and knocked him over. Before anyone could react quickly enough the cart moved forward, crushing the boy under the wheel.

The carman realised what had happened and rushed to drag the child out but it was too late. Henry cried out to his brother: ‘Freddy, where’s mammy?’, and died in Squibb’s arms. It was terribly sad but probably an accident and at Worship Street Police court that is how Mr Hannay saw it. He remanded Squibb so that the necessary checks could be made by the police and the licensing authorities but it was unlikely that the man would be prosecuted.

You have to wonder at a three year old being able to be on Hackney Marshes on a Friday morning with only other small children to supervise. We may have become overprotective of our children (to the extent that they hardly seem to pay outdoors at all) but incidents like this remind us of why some laws and controls are necessary. It is also a reminder of the poverty that existed in late Victorian London; many of these children would have been sent out to find things the family could use, eat or sell – this was recycling nineteenth-century style.

[from The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, 14 November, 1885]

‘Well sor, this ‘ere perliceman comes rushing in, and, with “Out you go, missus,” capsizes me into the street’: one drunk’s story a year on from the Dorset Street horror.

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Today is the 130 anniversary of the discovery of the body of Mary Jane Kelly in Miller’s Court, Dorset Street, Spitalfields in November 1888. Mary Kelly was the fifth ‘canonical’ victim of the killer known only as ‘Jack the Ripper’ and hers was the most brutal of all the murders in the series.

Mary (or Marie) was found lying on her bed when her landlord’s man came calling for her back rent. He peered through the window at the horror inside and rushed to find his boss and then the police. No one that saw Mary’s mutilated corpse ever forgot how awful it was.

However, within a year the room in Miller’s Court had been re-let and the landlord, McCarthy, merely sent someone round to scrub the blood off the walls and floors. Rooms in Dorset Street were cheap and new tenants could hardly afford to be too picky if all they could afford was a room in the ‘worst street in London’.

A year after the murders seemed to have ceased although many researchers are far from convinced the killer had stopped with Kelly. My own research suggests he continued into the early 1890s only stopping when his own body succumbed to the disease that killed him.

Meanwhile the day-to-day business of the Police courts rumbled on. Over at Marlborough Street Mary Jones appeared in early November 1889, charged with being drunk and disorderly, a commonplace offence at this level of justice.

Mary had been arrested after she had resisted arrest. Mr Newton (the presiding magistrate) was told that she had entered the King’s Arms in Titchfield Street late the previous night and had caused a scene. She’d asked for ‘two of unsweetened and a bit of sugar’ but the landlord refused to serve her as she was already quite inebriated and he had a care to his license.

He called in the passing street bobby, PC 282D to eject her and she squabbled with them both. She shouted abuse at both men and had to be restrained. In court she was apologetic (presumably having sobered up) and begged the magistrate’s “parding”.

She had been in hospital that day she said and explained that after she’d been released she’d felt dizzy. She’d gone into the pub to rest she insisted, and was as surprised as anyone when ‘this ‘ere perliceman comes rushing in, and, with “Out you go, missus,” capsizes me into the street’.

Mr Newton asked her where she lived.

‘Lisson Grove, your Wurchip’ she replied.

‘Then go back to Lisson Grove sharp, and don’t come back here again’ he told her.

And with that she stumbled gratefully out of court as the public gallery collapsed in laughter.

[from The Standard, Saturday, November 09, 1889]

Making explosives at home is a very bad idea

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It is that time of the year again. The period when all the supermarkets stock fireworks for Guy Fawkes and Diwali. Last Wednesday I was walking out of Finsbury Park station on my way to the football when there was a loud bang, the sound of crackers going off, and screams of fear and delight. Suddenly a young man in a hoodie came charging away from the noise followed soon after by three other excited teenagers.

He had thrown a parcel of fireworks into the street by the traffic lights, causing chaos and amusing himself and his friends. Its hardly the worst crime in the world but perhaps, in these dark days of urban terrorism, it wasn’t the most sensible thing to do.

Kids eh?

Such irresponsibility isn’t restricted to children or young adults of course and in 1888 it landed William Seal in court. Seal – who was described as ‘a cripple’ (meaning he was disabled in some way) – was hailed before Mr Bros at Dalston Police court for manufacturing fireworks in a  private house.

He was prosecuted under the Explosives Act (1875) and the case was brought by James Gibbons of the Metropolitan Board of Works and their solicitor, Mr Roberts. The court heard that Seal lived in the upstairs room of a house in Dunster Square, Hackney. The square was home to several houses, each of four rooms, and formed a cul de sac. It was a densely populated area and so very many families lived nearby to where Seal made his pyrotechnics.

Seal lived in a room that was just 9 feet by 7, not much different, in fact, than a standard cell in a Victorian prison. The room was heated by an open fire which was unprotected by any screen or grate, and the table on which Gibbons found Seal’s explosives being made was less than 4 feet away. The table very close to the open fire but the bed was even closer, and Seal stored fireworks under this as well.

The risk of a catastrophic accident, he figured, was very high indeed.

Seal’s landlady was called to give evidence and she testified that she believed he was a toy maker, she never knew he made fireworks and was shocked by the news. She lived downstairs and was ‘very indigent when she discovered the peril in which she and her four children had been placed’.

Mr Bros ordered that all Seal’s stock and manufacturing equipment be seized and brushed aside the defendant’s complaints that it would take away his meagre livelihood. He only made a shilling day from selling fireworks which was barely ‘enough to keep himself out of the workhouse’.

The magistrate was insistent and told the man that by breaking the terms of the act he had rendered himself liable to a fine of £100 a day, and endangered the lives of dozens of people nearby. He fined him £5 or a month’s imprisonment. Shaking his head Seal sloped away from the dock, ‘its the workhouse for me then’, he declared.

[from London Evening Standard, Monday, 5 November 1888]

A woman pulls a gun in court

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It must have caused quite a stir at Wandsworth Police court when a respectably dressed woman stepped into the witness box and placed a loaded revolver in front of her. Mr Plowden, the sitting magistrate, asked her why she was carrying it and she told it it was for protection against her husband, who had threatened her.

The unnamed lady was ‘respectable’ (which is probably why her name was left out of the paper’s report) but was living away from her partner as he had ‘put her in fear of her life’. Mr Plowden was sympathetic to the woman’s request for protection (which is why she had appeared that day) but advised her to seek legal advice for a formal separation.

He added that carrying a loaded gun around in her handbag was dangerous: for herself, her husband and and the wider public and he cautioned her to leave it at home. The court clerk took the revolver from the lady and extracted the bullets before handing it to a ‘legal gentleman’. She left court in the company of that solicitor to begin the process of legal separation from her man.

Given that this incident took place in November 1888, when across London in the East End a serial killer was stalking victims around Whitechapel it is interesting that no mention of this was made by the press here. After all it might seem quite appropriate for a woman to arm herself for protection, even if, on this occasion at least, the threat she faced was much closer to home. Perhaps the heightened tension caused by the Ripper had prompted her to take such drastic precautions?

[from London Evening Standard, Monday, 5 November 1888]

A magistrate woefully out of touch with reality but who founded a legal dynasty

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Sir Henry Curtis-Bennett might be forgiven for not really knowing ‘how the poor live[d]’ in 1888. He had been appointed a magistrate for Westminster just two years previously at the age of 40. In 1888 in fact he was ‘Mr’ as the king didn’t knight him until May 1913 just a few weeks before he died. He was the son of an Essex  vicar and read law at university. He was called to the Bar in 1870 and so had plenty of experience (as all the metropolitan magistrates did) in the legal system, if not in the day-to-day life of ordinary Londoners.

In November 1888 he was presiding at Wandsworth when young George Thomas Bellenger was brought before him, charged with ‘living beyond the control of his parents’. The gaoler brought him up from the day cells and informed his worship that the lad was half starved. Until that morning he’d not eaten for days and so had been glad of the meal that Mr Ironmonger, a local Industrial School officer had provided.

The officer had been to George’s parent’s home and found it to be in a terrible state. There were several children there, all ‘crying for food’ and he reported that the place lacked the basic ‘necessaries of life’ (by which I presume he meant food and heating).

If the family were destitute then surely they should have gone to the workhouse Mr Curtis-Bennett declared. The gaoler said his worship was correct but added that many of the poor were ‘disinclined to become inmates of the workhouse’.

The magistrate said he was aware of this but couldn’t understand it. After all in England the poor were looked after better than in any other country in the world. Here there were ‘workhouses, infirmaries, and dispensaries’. This was the extent of the ‘welfare state’ in 1888: there was no unemployment benefit, no state pension, no NHS. Instead if you unable to feed yourself or find shelter you could enter the ‘house’ where you would treated (despite the former barrister’s opinion) little better than prisoners were.

George’s mother was called forward to explain her situation. She told the magistrate that her husband was out of work. He had been employed by a mineral water company as a delivery man but he had been sacked after eight years’ service. The reason, she was asked?

‘He trotted the horses’.

‘For no other reason?’

‘No sir’.

So because he pushed the horses to get his rounds done more quickly they company had sacked him. Workers had few, if any, rights in the 1880s and unemployment was high so there were always people to fill gaps if employers wished to get rid of people or pay them lower wages.

At this Mr Curtis-Bennett had a temporary rush of charitable understanding. He awarded the woman 10from the poor box. Then he sent her little boy to the workhouse.

Henry Curtis-Bennett died in office. He had become the Chief Magistrate at Bow Street and in July 1913 he was a attending a meeting at Mansion House (seat of the Lord Mayor of London) when he fell ill. He had survived a bomb attack in 1908 orchestrated by militant suffragettes (and other attempts as he was a lead magistrate in suppressing their ‘outrages’) but he didn’t survive this latest assault on his constitution. curtiss-bennett-1He died soon afterwards and was succeeded by his eldest son, also Henry, who went on to be a more famous lawyer than his father and a Conservative politician.

His son – Derek Curtis-Bennett) followed in his father and grandfather’s footsteps and entered the law. As a defence barrister he famously defended (if not successfully) the traitor William Joyce (Lord Haw-Haw) and the murderer John Christie.

No one knows what happened to little George or his siblings, or if they even survived the winter of 1888.

[from The Standard, Friday, November 02, 1888]

It was a great pity they did not go to school’ : truancy and the Victorian state’s motivation to educate the masses.

RAGGED TRUANTS CAPTURED

Truancy is not a new problem. In the pages of the Thames Police court in the late 1880s huge numbers of parents appear to answer charges of not sending their children to school. Most are fined small amounts and dismissed. It is rare to know why children were not attending school or whether a brush with the law meant that future attendance improved.

In late October 1880 Mr Paget was sitting in judgment at Hammersmith Police court as a number of summonses for truancy were presented to him. They were brought by a superintendent of schools, Mr Cook, who had the power (should the magistrate require it) to place children in Truant Schools for a period of weeks or months. It was generally thought that this (presumably harsher) environment encouraged children to go to normal day schools thereafter.

Of course while it is often assumed that kids play truant because they don’t like school (for all sorts of reasons we better understand today) it was often the parents that kept their offspring at home. Children could help with domestic duties, with the care of younger siblings or elderly or sick relatives, freeing parents to go to work. Children also worked, especially when that was piece work (like making matchboxes or mending shoes or clothes). In short for many poor families children from about 10 were useful in the family economy and weighed against the opportunities presented by a basic education (which were, let’s face it, few) having them at home was probably better.

One mother told the justice that her truant daughter was 12 and had secured a position as a servant, which was why she wasn’t at school. She appeared in court with her youngest child in her arms, as if to emphasize the necessity of moving her children on to make space for the new ones. Another explained that her son had not been to school for nine months because he was needed to take lunch to his father who worked in a brickfield.

In one case the magistrate wanted to know why it was the mother in court when the summons had required the presence of her husband.  He could read she said. Nor could she, or her truant son. Mr Paget declared that ‘it was a great pity they did not go to school’ but adjourned the hearing so the summons could be read and the father given time to attend.

In the end many cases were similarly adjourned while enquires were made into the reasons given (ill-health, lack of money or shoes) for truancy. Mr Cook the schools superintendent said he would try to find places in Truant Schools but few were available. He wanted the parish to build a second one. That would cost money, and money was probably at the root of the problem.

The Victorian state wanted the children of the poor to be educated, up to a point. They wanted them to be better-educated factory hands, soldiers and servants, not educated so they challenged their place in society. This was often moral education that shaped a nation rather than improved the lot of its poorest.

Thankfully (I say, tongue firmly in cheek) we’ve left all that behind…

[from The Standard, Thursday, October 28, 1880]

Hardly the perfect ‘gentleman’: a waiter is ‘coshed’ by an impatient toff.

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The Café Royal, by William Orpen, 1912)

It was not the sort of behaviour one expected to see at the Café Royal on Regent’s Street, so other diners must have been shocked when Henry Fitzgerald rose from his seat and smashed a glass bottle over the head of a waiter.

As another waiter ran to intervene the assailant warned him to back off:

‘If you come near me I will smash one on your head as well’, he threatened.

The police were called and Fitzgerald was led away, admitting his crime but muttering darkly that the fellow had deserved it for his insolence.

At Marlborough Street Police court Henry Fitzgerald gave his address as 75 Chester Square in Begravia, his victim was Otto Kettler, a German national living in London and working at the café. The case reveals the cosmopolitan nature of late Victorian London: Kettler was supported in court by a fellow waiter (Fritz Temme – also most probably German or Austrian) and his manager M. Eugene Lacoste who was certainly French.

According to Fitzgerald’s defense counsel Mr Abrahams his client had been provoked. The waiter had not served him quickly enough, telling him instead that he was busy at another table. The policeman (PC Walters 187C) deposed that the man wasn’t drunk, just ‘excited’; perhaps he objected to being made to wait for his drinks by a foreigner, perhaps (more likely even) he was a just a very rude and self-entitled oaf.

The lawyer knew his client was in the wrong and offered (on his behalf)  a half-hearted apology and compensation for any harm done. Mr Newton, the magistrate, was in no mood for financial settlements however; a man had been assaulted violently with a glass bottle and Mr Fitzgerald – regardless of his fashionable address and clothes – would face trial at the Old Bailey.

However, I’m not sure it came to that. No Henry Fitzgerald appears in the printed records of the Bailey. Perhaps it was not published in the Proceedings or perhaps he was acquitted, but I rather suspect he came to an agreement outside of court – a hefty financial one at that – to keep his ‘good name’ out of the criminal courts.

The press did enjoy this fall from grace. The Hampshire Telegraph reported the incident as an amusing anecdote commenting that ‘after this we shall not be particularly anxious to be called “a gentleman” – it will sound roughish’.

Quite.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, October 26, 1880; Hampshire Telegraph and Sussex Chronicle etc , Saturday, November 6, 1880]