Perhaps it was the proliferation of cheap ‘penny dreadfuls’ or childhood retellings of the Arabian Nights that inspired Maurice Rooch and his pals. Or maybe theirs was an homage to the kings and queens of the Victorian underworld. Either way, in 1881 it landed them in court at Lambeth, and it probably wasn’t the first (or last) time.
Rooch worked for a Mr J. N. Bate, a tobacco manufacturer at Denmark Hill in Camberwell, South London. One day in February 1881 the company horse and trap was parked outside the premises, its precious cargo locked inside, ready to be distributed across London.
Maurice Rooch had a key and he also some mates; a small gang of juvenile depredators – the self-styled ‘Forty Thieves’. Rooch used his key to open the back of the locked trap and help himself to several ‘packet of tobacco’. He also shared the information with his chums as to where and when the trap would be stopping to make deliveries. As a result numerous shops suffered similar losses and others of Mr Bate’s deliveries were pilfered from.
In the end, and because Rooch was known to his employer and his companions conspicuous enough to the police, the little group of robbers was arrested and squashed into the dock at Lambeth before Mr Ellison, the sitting magistrate.
Rooch was 15 years of age and he was joined by George Pedlingham (15), William Lloyd (14), William Lester (14), Arthur Robinson (14), William Webb (14), Joseph Davis (11), John Dye (10) and George Joseph How (14). They were all charged with ‘being concerned with others not in custody in stealing some tobacco from a traveller’s trap’.
The name the ‘forty thieves’ is well known in the history of crime. Gangs (or networks) operating under that name are known to have existed as early at the 1700s in London. From the 1870s both male and female ‘gangs’ used that moniker alongside the ‘Forty Elephants’. They were probably inspired by the tales of Ali Baba that had been in circulation from at least the early 18th century, but also the New York City gang of the same name that existed from the 1820s.
Maurice Rooch was remanded to the house of detention for robbing his master, there to await a possible trial once police investigations were concluded. His co-defendants were all released on bail, George Pedlingham admitting that most of them had some of the stolen tobacco in their possession.
In the following week the Standard carried an advert for the Gaiety Theatre which was staging (at 8.30 that evening) a burlesque performance in three acts of ‘Forty Thieves’ – a reminder of the power of popular culture to inspire young minds.
Like a fleeting mirage in the desert this gang of ‘forty thieves’ disappear from the newspaper records at this point so I don’t know what happened to them. It is likely that Rooch (or Roach) lost his job and probably his liberty for a week or two. The other may well have escaped punishment on this occasion but, unless they found gainful employment or their parents intervened, were possibly destined for a life of petty or more serious crime thereafter.
Lambeth was to become the centre of the ‘Hooligan panic’ in the following decade, again a mixture of fact and fiction as the character of ‘Alf’ a ‘Lambeth Lad’ was published as a semi-fictional biography of a young tear way. Well before then, and a year after Maurice and his pals appeared in court, the Pall Mall Gazette had run a feature on the ‘the Fighting Gangs of London’. This article cited a popular serial novel (The Wild Boys of London, or the Children of the Night) which, the paper said, ‘served as a text-book of crime for the younger generations of London roughs’.
Not for the first time then we can observe that modern obsession with what ‘pop culture’ our young people are consuming, and the (negative) effect it has on them, is hardly ‘modern’ at all.
[from The Standard Saturday 19 February 1881]
This week I will begin teaching my third year module at Northampton which focuses on the Whitechapel Murders and East End society in the 1880s.
It is going to be different this year: with a full national lockdown in place all of my classes will be remote, online. The way we do this at Northampton University is to host online teaching sessions – live, not recorded (although there is always plenty of pre-recorded content for students to access before and after sessions). So I will be in my ‘virtual classroom’ with my normal seminar group, who will all be tuning in from their homes.
It isn’t ideal, it makes discussion harder, but not impossible. There are the inevitable tech problems, and issues with WiFI and simply having a suitable space to study. I’m lucky, I have a home office and a decent chair and desk; some of my students are using the kitchen table in their parental home, with parents trying to use the internet to work, while their younger siblings are home schooled.
But this is a national (an international) emergency and needs must. As Tony Soprano would say, ‘what a ya gonna do?’
This week we will start by looking at the East End through the maps of Charles Booth, who mapped poverty in the capital in the 1880s and 1890s. He famously colour coded individual streets according to their levels of wealth or deprivation: black or dark blue for the ‘worst’ parts, red or yellow for the ‘best’. Much of Whitechapel, Stepney, and Bethnal Green was black or blue. There were red streets – signifying commercial or middle class relative affluence – but these tended to be along the main thoroughfares (like Commercial Road/Street or the High Street). The very heart of the ‘abyss’ (as the American writer jack London later termed it) was very dark and here poverty was endemic.
Charles Booth undertook his investigation into poverty as a result of what he thought were spurious claims, by the socialist leader Henry Hyndman, that poverty was rife in the capital. In fact he discovered the situation was much worse than even Hyndman had alleged.
Alongside Booth’s maps my students will study contemporary accounts of poverty and the very many views of the ‘the poor’ expressed by (mostly) middle-class ‘well-to-do’ (to borrow a phrase from Booth) commentators.
These are revealing because they show us what some middle class people felt about the inhabitants of the East End; it reveals their prejudices, their fears, and how these all came together to shape their thoughts about what could be done about poverty. For example, one report – in the Pall Mall Gazette from January 1888 – of an interview with the Rev. G. S. Reaney is illuminating. Reaney had run the Stepney Congregational Church in the East End for six years by 1888, and was leaving the church for pastures new. He was both ‘hopeful and hopeless’ about the people he was leaving behind.
One section of the populace, the native Londoners of the East End, he described as ‘a hopeless class’. He had no idea how they managed to survive the poverty that engulfed them. ‘I imagine they eat a great deal less than we think necessary’, he told the Gazette as he continued packing up his effects to move. ‘I think they occupy very little house room’ and ‘by constant flitting [i.e. moving at night when they were in rent arrears] they escape a good deal of rent’.
‘They have so little character’, he continued, and were ‘the most drunken and dissolute class of people’. In fact, ‘were it not for their physical and mental feebleness they would form a dangerous class’.
This gets to the heart of one of the themes I explore with my students: the threat posed by endemic poverty in the late nineteenth century, as seen by the wealthy and elite. Should a state intervene to help these people out of poverty, help give them the ability to support themselves, educate them, pay they better? Or was it hopeless to even try? Would the provision of state support undermine their independence, and help create a dependence culture?
These continue to be questions we ask today.
The Rev. Reaney – a Christian man we must assume – suggested that while the ‘hopeless class’ of the East End was possibly beyond saving we might take away their children (following the example of the ‘splendid’ Dr Barnado) and provide them with an education, preferably a long way from the slums of the East End.
Reaney, not surprisingly, had more faith in religion to change society than in politics. Socialism was on everyone’s lips in the 1880s, Marx was in London and the waves of central European immigrants that arrived in the East End brought radical political beliefs with them. These are also things we discuss in the module.
Perhaps this year, with everyone suffering in so many ways under this pandemic, the struggles of ordinary people in the 1880s will chime more loudly than they normally would. Hopefully, our discussions and debates, albeit fractured by the difficulties of the online platform, will be even more focused and interesting than they usually are.
[from The Pall Mall Gazette, Wednesday 4 January 1888]
We are now, thanks to Downton Abbey and (previously) Upstairs Downstairs pretty familiar with the dynamics of master/servant relationships in the Victorian period. Even if those dramas might distort realities in some respects they offer us a view of a world that ceased to exist about a 100 years ago.
For the most part, above stairs at least, servants were deferential and obedient, and households ran fairly smoothly. Of course these dramas focus on the ‘big house’ scenario where a hierarchy of servants – from butler to scullery maid – have clearly defined roles to perform ‘above stairs’.
In reality very many households in the 1800s had just one or two servants to help them with their daily lives, and relationships here might have been a little different to those depicted in TV and film dramas.
Madeline Brett was not your typical well-behaved servant. She had joined Mrs Mary Jane Snell’s service on 23 December 1880, just before Christmas. This should have been an opportunity for young Madeline. At just 18 she now had a position in a house on Bonchurch Lane, North Kensington. In 1890 this area was marked as mostly pink to red on Charles Booth’s poverty maps, so ‘fairly comfortable’, to ‘Middle class: well-to do’.
It seems Madeline liked a drink, and this was soon very obvious to her mistress.
A few days after Christmas, on 29 December, Madeline broke a bottle she was trying to place on the table. Her speech was slurred and she could hardly walk. Mrs Snell was shocked, but she said nothing. It seems the servant had a temper and her mistress was already a little afraid of her.
However, when Madeline announced she was going to wash the china Mrs Snell begged her not to, afraid that she would break it all. This provoked the servant who pulled on a coat and went out of the front door to fetch a passing milk boy. She told him to go and get a policeman to arrest her mistress!
When the constable arrived she ranted at him and the officer was forced to subdue her; Mrs Snell then dismissed her from her service and asked her to leave. But instead of collecting her things Madeline simply stormed out returning some hours later, even more intoxicated than she had been earlier.
Mrs Snell was in her drawing room when Madeline entered carry a watering can. At first she demanded her mistress take the can upstairs, then fell over, got up, made her way to the small kitchen, and collapsed again. Mrs Snell told her to go to bed but the girl refused. Clutching some paper she said she was going to light the gas.
When Mrs Snell investigated she found pieces of burnt paper all over the house where Madeline had tried, and failed, to ignite the gas lighting. When Mrs Snell upbraided her employee Madeline ran out into the street, shouting and knocking at doors until a policeman quickly arrived and arrested her for being drunk and disorderly .
She appeared at Hammersmith Police court on 30 December where she pleaded not guilty and accused her employer of unreasonable conduct. The magistrate remanded her and she was up again three days later when Mrs Snell appeared to give her evidence. Madeline continued to protest her innocence – it ‘was a false charge’ she insisted, ‘she was drunk for the want of drink’ she told Mr Paget.
The justice not surprisingly chose to believe Mrs Snell over her servant. Madeline was sentenced to 21 days in prison with hard labour. She took this badly, fighting with the gaoler and police as they led her away, and issuing a stream of threats to her – now former – mistress as she went.
[from Lloyd’s Illustrated Newspaper, Sunday 2 January 1881]
Two contrasting cases today – both involving violence and both from 1880. The first of these brought Daniel McCarthy to court at the Guildhall in the City of London.
Mr and Mrs Fisher were eating their dinner on Saturday afternoon. It was between 1 and 2 o’clock and Mr Fisher had probably spent the morning at his work as a chimney sweep. He had left his ‘sweeping machine’ outside their home in Herring Court, Redcross Street while he settled to eat the meal his wife Ellen had prepared. All of sudden their repast was interrupted by a noise outside.
Ellen got up to investigate and found man in the street chucking a sackful of soot all over the courtyard, with two other men standing nearby. He had knocked over her husband’s machine and when she asked him what he was doing he gave her a mouthful of abuse. Ellen Fisher strode off to find a policeman but none was to be found and she quickly returned. To her horror she now found her husband being beaten up by the man’s mates.
When she loudly protested and threatened to call the police the first man – McCarthy – attacked her. He punched her in mouth, knocking her to the ground. When she hailed herself up he knocked her back down and started kicking her. His heavy boots opened a cut in her head, which bled profusely. Throughout she tried to call for the police but no one came.
Later, after she had reported it to the station and had given a description of the man involved. McCarthy was picked up. One of Mrs Fisher’s neighbors corroborated her testimony and McCarthy was sent to prison for 14 days with hard labour.
Was McCarthy drunk? Did he hold a grudge against the Fishers? Sometimes it is frustratingly difficult to understand why incidents like this happen. We don’t even know McCarthy’s age or his occupation; perhaps he was a rival sweep or maybe Fisher owed him (or someone he worked for) money. The attack seems random and unmotivated, but there may be more to it.
Further east, at the Thames Police court, another case of violence was being heard. Ada Goodchild, (45) was accused of cutting and wounding her 77 year-old husband John.
It wasn’t the first either, as was so often the case with domestic violence there was a history of abuse. What was unusual here was that the abuse was female, and the victim male. It is likely that ‘husband beaters’ such as Ada Goodchild were (and are) more common than records suggest; even today the pressures of conventional ideas of masculinity are likely to put off some men from reporting incidents where their partners have bested them.
John Goodchild stood in court with his head bandaged and testified that Ada had assaulted him a few days previously with a candlestick, but he’d forgiven her and she had promised never to do it again. Her promise didn’t last long.
On Saturday night she had come home drunk, ‘dragged him out of bed, and [had] pelted him with every conceivable item she could lay her hands on’. Ada then seized a knife and went for him with it, cutting him just above his right eye. Bleeding and battered, John Goodchild staggered out of the house in Wells Place and went to find a policeman. Ada was arrested and brought before Mr Saunders at Thames on the following Monday morning.
The magistrate upbraided her and said that if he carried on like this she would end up hanging for the murder of her spouse. For wounding John she was sentenced to two months imprisonment with hard labour. The couple was separated and we can only hope that the justice’s lesson was learned.
Again, we have no idea what caused the rift between Ada and her husband. The age gap was huge and perhaps that was an issue – John perhaps wanted his wife to stay at home, while she sought company and perhaps extramarital relations with men younger than her husband. We can try and imagine her motives but it may be as simple as her being unable to control her temper when she was drunk.
Whatever the case for the next 2 months John would have to cope without his wife at home. Just as female survivors of domestic violence often had to weigh up the consequences of prosecuting their abusers, John Goodchild’s decision to go to
law may have temporarily given him peace but he would have to face Ada’s possible wrath when she retuned, and make his own supper and wash his own clothes while she was incarcerated.
Lloyd’s Illustrated Newspaper, Sunday 10 October 1880
Clarence Lewis was in a poor state when he appeared at Guildhall Police court in September 1880 to tell the sitting alderman what had happened to him.
He was only a young man – just 18 years of age – and apprenticed to a grocer with premises in Aldgate and Kensington. On 21 August he was working at the Aldgate shop when his master, Mr Barham, instructed him to travel to Kensington to pick up the takings there. He arrived at 9.30 and collected a bag containing neatly £100 in cash.
In 1880 £100 was a considerable sum of money (around £7,000 at today’s prices), so his master certainly placed a lot of trust in young Clarence. Stowing the package in his pocket he headed for High Street Kensington station to catch the train back to the City.
Clutching his third-class return ticket he rushed to catch the train. As he passed the ticket office a man a little older called his name. The young man was Henry Perry and he claimed the pair knew each other. ‘Don’t you know me?’ he demanded and, when Clarence replied that he didn’t, said:
‘I am Perry, of Aldgate; I thought you were too proud to speak to me’.
This must have triggered the apprentice’s memory because he now recognized the young man as someone who had once worked behind the counter at Barham’s shop in Aldgate. Perry insisted that Clarence join him in a first-class carriage and waived aside the younger man’s protest that he didn’t have the fare:
‘Never mind’, he said, ‘I will pay it’.
The compartment they entered was empty and, as the train moved off, Perry peered into the next one and laughed, saying that there were only a few ‘girls over there’. The train rattled through a couple of stations before Clarence’s companion produced a small phial of liquid which he said was Zoedone, offering it to him.
Described as ‘the king of non-alcoholic beverages’ ‘Zoedone’ was said to have powerful ‘elements essential for the building up and reproduction of the human body’.
It was a tonic drink which was available throughout the late 1800s and Perry claimed to have obtained a small sample. Warning his new friend not to take more than half he watched as Clarence upended the bottle. Clarence swallowed about an eighth of the phial and it tasted awful and fizzed in his nose. He immediately felt sleepy and resisted as Perry poured some onto his handkerchief and suggested he sniff it.
‘Don’t you like it?’ Perry asked. ‘No, if all teetotalers’ drinks are like that I’d rather not be a teetotaler’ Clarence told him.
He turned down the other man’s offer of port to take the taste away.
The pair carried on the journey for a few stops, with one female passenger getting on at Gower Street and then off at Kings Cross. Then, just before they reached Farringdon Perry pounced on his victim, hitting him with a stick and knocking to the carriage floor. He knelt on his chest and put his hand over his mouth as Clarence tried to shout for help. His assailant demanded to know where the money was and Clarence was forced to tell him.
Having lost the shop taking the beaten apprentice hid his head under the seat for safety; when the train pulled into Aldersgate station he emerged to find that Perry was nowhere to be seen.
It took several weeks for Clarence to be fit enough to attend court and, even when he was, he stood in the witness box swathed in bandages to his head. He had been helped at the station by a bricklayer and his brother who saw him staggering out of the compartment covered in blood. Perry had not fled and as a policeman approached the crowd around the stricken apprentice he appeared clutching the parcel he had stolen.
When Clarence accused him of doping him with laudanum and chloroform (the phial he claimed to be a tonic being quite the opposite), and then assaulting and robbing him, Perry brazenly denied everything. ‘We are friends’ he told Clarence and the police that now collared him, ‘and you know me; I have not robbed you; that is my own money’.
The alderman at Guildhall had heard enough to commit Perry for trial at the Old Bailey where he appeared on 13 September. The court heard evidence from a number of witnesses as well as testimonials to Perry’s general good character in his employment with another grocer on Aldgate. He had left there in May but his boss only had good things to say of him.
Nevertheless this couldn’t save him. He was found guilty of violent robbery and was probably fortunate to avoid a charge of attempted murder. The judge sentenced him to 30 lashes and a crippling 20 years of penal servitude. Perry didn’t do 20 years because he died just 15 years later in 1895 at the age of 39, not long after being discharged from prison.
From Nottinghamshire Guardian Friday 3 September 1880
I have been writing and teaching the history of crime for over a decade and continue to find it fascinating. Whether it is the stories of everyday life in Victorian London that I uncover for this blog, the mystery of the ‘Jack the Ripper’ killings, or murders and attempted murders like this one, I am always discovering new ways to look at crime and its representation.
Fortunately very few of us will experience murder directly in our lives; instead we engage at a distance, through the news, or, more often, via a television drama or a holiday crime novel. When we do it is invariably shocking murder that captures our attention. Indeed if we took popular cultural representation of crime at face value we could be forgiven for believing that murder was an everyday occurrence, when, in reality, it is extremely rare.
This week my most recent book – Murder Maps– is published by Thames & Hudson. This takes a 100 years of murder news in a global context, exploring via short entries, dozens of homicides across Europe, the USA, and Australia from 1811-1911.
In the stories of Jack the Ripper, Henry H. Holmes, Joseph Vacher, Ned Kelly, Belle Gunness, and the other murderers I show the myriad motivations and underlying causal factors that led men and women to kill. Jealousy, greed (like Perry), politics, and severe mental illness were all factors that resulted in newspaper headlines that shocked and titillated readers in equal measure.
Hopefully some of you will take a look at Murder Maps and find it as fascinating to read as I did to research and write. But don’t have nightmares, we are all pretty safe in our beds today.
On the 3 August 1888 two Americans appeared before the magistrate at Westminster Police court. John Dunn was probably every small boy’s idea of an American – a cowboy and ‘professional horseman’, part of Buffalo Bill’s travelling Wild West Show, he would have cut an exotic figure in the dock. The other man was darker skinned, described as a Mexican and giving the name Richard Chester Dare.
Dare (described as ‘a powerful man’ with the press) was charged with assault, and Dunn with aiding him. On the Thursday night both had been drinking at a pub on the Broadway when they had fell into an argument with a gun maker’s assistant called William Head. We can probably imagine the nature of the dispute, two US citizens in London arguing with a local about the merits of American vs British firearms.
Head left the pub but Dare hadn’t finished the quarrel and took it outside. As the gun maker walked home Dare and two others came up behind him and pushed him. A fight ensued and Head was knocked to the ground. Head and Dare grappled together before William escaped and made his way home.
He had been wounded quite badly, sustaining a bruise to the side of his face which had closed his left eye and had been stabbed in his side. It is likely that in the chaos of the moment and being a little the worse for drink he hadn’t noticed the American pull out a knife at the time. However, in court before Mr Partridge he testified to seeing a knife in the cowboy’s hand.
Both men were remanded to appear again but on application Dunn was granted bail. His was the less serious charge and Mr Partridge was told that Dare was supposed to be on his way to Brussels to join up with ‘Mexican Joe’s’ troupe, so perhaps the chance that he might slip away from justice was uppermost in the magistrate’s mind. He also instructed the police to inform the American consul of the men’s arrest.
William ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody toured Europe several times between 1887 and 1906, the first in 1887 which coincided with Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. One of the reviews of the 1887 show in London (at the American Exhibition) gives us a flavour of the event:
The size of the enclosure was one element of the impressiveness of the coup d’œil and this was cleverly increased by the picturesque scenery which enclosed half of the circle. At the edge of the ash-covered circle in the center were drawn up on parade the whole strength of the Wild West company. There were the various tribes of Indians in their war-paint and feathers, the Mexicans, the ladies, and the cowboys, and a fine array they made, with the chiefs of each tribe, the renowned Sergeant Bates, the equally celebrated Buffalo Bill, the stalwart Buck Taylor, and others who were introduced by Mr. Frank Richmond who, from the top of an elevated platform, described the show as it proceeded.
Cody took his troupe back to the USA in May of 1887 having performed for both the Queen and the Prince of Wales. Yet some of the performers stayed behind, enjoying the life they found in London’s bustling city streets. Presumably two of these were Dare and Dunn. Sadly, at this point they both vanish from the pages of the Victorian newspapers so we don’t know what happened to them.
A few days later the body of Martha Tabram was discovered on a landing in George Yard, in the heart of the Whitechapel slum. She had been viciously stabbed and her killer was nowhere to be seen. Although there is considerable dispute as to whether Martha was the first victim of ‘Jack the Ripper’ a consensus is developing that suggests she was killed but he same person that murdered five or more women that summer and autumn.
As the police searched for a serial killer in 1888 the idea that the killings might have been perpetrated by a native American or another member of Buffalo Bill’s travelling Wild West circulated. After all, it was said, what Englishman could do such a terrible thing?
[from The Standard Saturday 4 August 1888]
I’m sure we have all had to put up with annoying disturbances at some point in our lives; last year an inconsiderate neighbour chose to party hard until the wee hours as she celebrated her 40th birthday. At about 4 in the morning I was obliged to ask her guests (she had retired to bed) to turn the music off.
I might have expected it from a student house but not a group of middle aged professionals.
If you live in a big city (like London or Paris, or New York) you are likely to be disturbed by the sound of traffic, railways, the sirens of emergency vehicles, and the refuse collectors. These are the normal everyday sounds of urban living however, and we get used to them or accept them as necessary. It is quite different then if someone sets up a band outside your house and plays music incessantly for hours on end.
This was the scenario that brought a vet to seek help from Mr Shiel at Westminster Police court in June 1889.
The vet (described only as a ‘gentleman’, his name not being recorded in the newspaper report) lived in Turk’s Row, Chelsea where he ran ‘an infirmary for horses and dogs’. He told the magistrate that a ‘band of Salvationists’ (meaning the Salvation Army) had congregated outside his property on several occasions recently to perform.
‘There were’, he explained, ‘at least 20 persons singing to a tambourine accompaniment’ and he had called the police after they refused to stop. A policeman had intervened and ‘begged the people to go further off’ but they refused. Instead they just continued making more of their ‘hideous’ noise than they had previously.
The poor vet described how he had told the group’s leader that his wife was ‘lying dangerously ill’ having had complications in her pregnancy. He just wanted her to be able to rest but the officer in charge of the Salvation Army band refused to believe him, and called him a liar.
He asked for a summons to bring the ‘Army’ to court.
Mr Sheil was sympathetic but not very helpful. Couldn’t the police have done more, he asked? ‘They have no power’, the vet replied, or at least ‘they don’t like to interfere’. Had an (often Italian) organ grinder stood opposite his house the police would have happily taken them away, but not, it seems, the men and women of the ‘Sally Army’, however disruptive they were being.
The magistrate would not grant a summons and instead suggested the applicant visit the ‘headquarters of this so-called Salvation Army, and see, in the name of religion, they will continue to disturb a person who is ill’. In other words, challenge their Christian principles and beliefs rather than apply the same rules to them as would have applied to itinerate street musicians.
If it seems hypercritical to us it certainly did to the vet. He left court muttering that ‘he did not see why he should not have a summons, and that the he considered the law ought to protect him’.
It is very hard not to agree with him. Once again it is a case of one rule for some, and another for others.
Today of course the Salvation Army is a well respected charity organization with branches all over the world; in the late 1880s it was an embryonic and divisive group which found itself in court quite frequently on charges of disturbing the peace or obstructing the streets. How times change eh?
[from The Standard, Wednesday 26 June, 1889]
For an interesting blog post on the involvement of Black Britons in the Salvation Army see Jeffrey Green’s post here
For other stories from me about the Salvation Army see these related posts:
In mid June 1888, in what was to become a dreadful late summer and autumn of terror in the East End, a young man appeared at the West Ham Police court accused of an act of willful damage that might have caused a localized tragedy. Henry William Fox (19, and a described as a labourer) was put in the dock to answer a charge that he, and some persons unknown, had placed a large piece of wood on tracks of the railway that served the Victoria Docks.
Robert Clayden, a signalman on the London and St Katherine’s Dock Company railway, testified that at 4 o’clock on Friday 15 June he had been in his box when he noticed Fox and three other men ‘playing around’ on the tracks. They had a large section of wood made up of two scaffold planks bolted together to make about a foot square. They had eased this onto the tracks, just after a bend and before a sharp decline. Claydon stated that, in his opinion, the driver of the next train (due in 30 minutes) would not have seen the obstruction in time to apply the brake.
The signalman immediately left his box and ran off to apprehend the trespassers, shouting ‘do you want any help there?’ The quartet scattered but deciding that Fox was the most responsible Clayden pursued and captured him with the help of a dock constable, Henry Kimpton. Inspector Hamilton was shown the obstruction before it was removed and Fox was taken away to be charged.
In court Fox’s defense – conducted by a Mr Willis (jun) – the bench was told that it was a case of mistaken identity; Fox was one of four others and he wasn’t the person responsible for blocking the railway. His solicitor applied for bail, which was refused, as the case ‘too serious’.
On 22 July Fox appeared at the Old Bailey where the case against him was heard before a jury. Claydon was the first witness and explained that his job was to control the swing bridge that served Bridge Docks. The planks used to block the line were those deployed in the painting of ships at dock. When not in use, as this one wasn’t, they ‘lie about in the dock and are washed about by the water’ he told the court.
He said that when he asked Fox and his friend s if they wanted ‘any help’, the accused told him to ‘Go and f— yourself’. At this Claydon blew his whistle (to frighten them off) and clambered down from his box. A chase then ensued and Fox was arrested, question by the dock inspector (George Hamilton) before being handed over to PC William Richardson (280K) of the Met. Fox’s maintained his defense that it wasn’t him but someone else and said he’d been in the area because he was looking for bird’s nests.
One of the company’s drivers, John Sherlock, took the stand to tell the court that 10-15 trains used that line every day and agreed that the position of the timber would have made it impossible for any driver to stop in time.
‘The curve is sharp’ he explained, ‘if the trucks had been thrown off the line they would have been dashed into the bridge’.
Fortunately the quick action of the signalman had averted a disaster and almost certain loss of life. Fox was young and was given a good character. As a result the judge went easy on him: he was sentenced to six months at hard labour.
[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday 17 June, 1888]