A misguided printer arms himself against the ‘roughs’

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Well, today is exciting! The first editorial queries for my new book have arrived. Jack and the Thames Torso Murders  is due to be published by Amberley in the summer and this morning the copyeditors questions have landed in my inbox for me and my co-author to deal with. The book offers up a new suspect in the Ripper murder case and packs in plenty of social history at the same time. I’ll keep you posted with its progress.

Given that the Whitechapel murders took place in the summer of 1888 let us now go back to February of that year and see what was happening in the Police courts.

At Clerkenwell George Dickson, a 19 year-old printer was convicted of firing  pistol in Castle Street, Hackney on the previous Saturday night. Dickson was lame in one leg and so probably walked with a limp. Sadly this attracted the unwanted attention of the local youth who teased and taunted him as he made his way along the streets.

Like many areas of London in the late 1880s ‘gangs’ of youths walked the streets, acting aggressively towards passers-by, pushing and shoving, and using crude language.  George was just one of their targets and had taken to arming himself against the threat he felt they posed. He was overreacting, the magistrate at Clerkenwell insisted, who declared that the ‘practice of carrying loaded revolvers was a very dangerous one’, and something parliament should act against.

Clearly in 1888 it wasn’t against the law to carry a gun in England (although you did need a license), but it was an offence to fire one. In court Dickson was contrite and because he agreed to surrender his pistol to the police the justice (Mr Bennett) simply bound him over in the sum of £10 against any future misconduct, and let him go.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, February 12, 1888]

A ‘rabble rouser’ or someone standing up for his fellow man? Unemployment and hardship in 1880s Deptford

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In today’s case (from January 1888) a man was summoned for ‘using abusive language’ and inciting a crowd in Deptford. It is interesting for several reasons, because it brings up issues of class, unemployment, and because one of the principal witnesses was a journalist who was reporting on the incident for the local press.

We very rarely hear the names of those writing reports for the newspapers but in this case we have the name Harold A. Hargreaves (although it is not clear whether which paper he was reporting to, or whether he was freelance).

Hargreaves was in the Greenwich Police court to testify in the case of John Elliott who had been brought in on a summons for abusing Major J.C. Cox in Deptford Broadway on the 10 January. The reporter explained that a large crowd had gathered and Elliott was addressing them. It was, he said, a ‘mass meeting of the unemployed’ and the mood was grim. We don’t know where the men used to work or why they were laid off but at some point major Cox arrived.

Elliott was blaming Cox for the situation the men and their families found themselves in, declaring that ‘He (Major Cox) promised them payment, but defrauded them’. As the crowd became aware that the major was present they turned their anger towards him. According to Hargreaves and Elliott, the speaker (Elliott) did his best to clam the crowd down but Cox was not in a conciliatory mood and strode up to the speaker and blew cigar smoke in his face.

John Elliott defended himself and said he wasn’t frightened of anyone, and certainly not Cox. There were scuffles and a suggestion (made by Elliott) that Cox had made unpleasant remarks about Elliott and the wives of the men gathered there, before squaring up to him and challenging him to a fight.

Under examination by Mr Marsham (the sitting justice at Greenwich) Major Cox denied any such behaviour but the bulk of witnesses supported the notion that it was he that was acting badly, in a disorderly manner in fact, not the convener of the meeting. It was said that it was only Elliott’s control of the crowd that prevented things turning very ugly and the major from being set upon. The major’s behaviour was insulting, Elliot insisted, towards him and the man that the major had promised unemployment relief to.

The late 1880s were a difficult time for working class Londoners. The British economy was experiencing a slump, if not a full-blown depression, and very many people struggled to find work, and opportunistic employers cut wages. It was the period in which the term  ‘unemployment’ entered the dictionary and there were large demonstrations across the capital and encampments of the poor in Trafalgar Square and London’s parks. Dark voices raised the ‘spectre’ of socialist revolution and strikes broke out at Bryant and May (in July) and then at various places before the Great Dock strike in the following year seemingly defined the mood of resistance to rampant uncaring capitalism.

For John Elliott however, the magistrate had little sympathy. Ignoring the testimony that suggested he was more peacemaker than trouble maker Mr Marsham told him that his behaviour towards a social superior was reprehensible. However, so long as he promised not to repeat it he would only fine him a nominal sum with costs. Elliot agreed and paid just 7s, leaving court with his head held high and his reputation amongst his peers at least, enhanced. As for Major Cox, I rather suspect he took care to watch his back around the streets of Deptford.

[from The Standard, Saturday, January 21, 1888]

“Oh what would mamma say?”: an old drunk at Marlborough Street

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Drunk and disorderly was by far the most common offence to be dealt with at the Police courts of the metropolis in the Victorian period. Thousands of men and women were brought before the city’s magistracy, usually after an uncomfortable night in the cells of a station house, to be admonished, fined and/or sent to prison for a few days or weeks. The worst nights for drunkenness were Friday or Saturday but it was a perennial problem, one we have not managed to solve today either.

Some of the drunks encountered by police officers would have sloped off to their homes when politely but firmly asked to do so, and quite a few of them were otherwise ‘respectable’ gentlemen and clerks who had just enjoyed one or two many beers or glasses of wine. These weren’t really the  concern of the magistrates, they concentrated their attention for the most part on the regular offenders, on those women for whom ‘disorderly behaviour’ was  simply code for prostitution, and the violent brawlers who squared up to police (or each other) outside one of the capital’s very many waterholes.

The catch-all offence of ‘disorderly’ brought defendants into court who, whilst clearly drunk, would probably today be seen as need to help, not punishment. Mental illness was not as well understood in the 1800s as it is today and society was certainly not as tolerant of ‘difference’ as we are. So the case of Amy Anderson is instructive.

Amy was a young woman, perhaps in her twenties, who was constantly in and out of prison in the last quarter of the century. In January 1888 she was put up before Mr Newton at Marlborough Street Police court on a charge of disorderly behaviour in Regent Street. This was a normal experience for Amy who gave a different name every time she was arrested. This time it was Lillie Herbert, a few months earlier it had been Tot Fay, but there were plenty of others. Giving a false name was a common enough ruse for criminals and streetwalkers who hoped that they would avoid a stiffer penalty if convicted (calculating that the courts would not link their previous convictions together).

I’m not sure Amy (Or Lillie or Fay) was a prostitute but she may have been. Regent Street was a notorious haunt for sex workers in the nineteenth century but it was also a place where single women would go shopping (and so sometimes be mistaken for prostitutes). Amy was dressed elaborately and this had drawn the attention of two other women. An argument had ensued and words and blows had been exchanged. At the point the police arrived – in the person of PC James (37 CR) – it appeared that Amy was the aggressor and she was arrested.

In court under questioning Amy’s responses suggest a person struggling with mental illness. She denied any wrongdoing and told Mr Newton that the other women had picked on her because of her ‘conspicuous dress’. She angrily declared that ‘her mamma would not tolerate such conduct, she was sure, and she would be sorry if she got to know about it’. This exchange – and most of the hearing in fact – was met with laughter in the court, clearly poor Amy was not being taken seriously and was held up by the paper at least as a figure of fun.

The gaoler was called forward to be asked if he recognized her.

‘Oh yes’, he testified, ‘she has been here very many times, as well as at Marylebone, Westminster, and other courts. On the 3rd of last month she was fined 40s for drunkenness and disorderly conduct in the streets and in default she was sent to prison for a month’.

So Amy had spent most of December 1887 in gaol and it had taken her less than a fortnight to find herself up on a charge again in the New Year. Mr Newton turned to her and dismissed her protests, telling her to find two sureties of £10 each to ensure she behaved herself for six months. There was no way Amy could provide such assurances or such wealthy ‘patrons’.

‘Oh what will mamma say?’ she sighed and was led skipping out of the dock with the laughter of the court ringing in her ears.  As the report put it: ‘in the afternoon she returned to her old quarters in Millbank’, meaning of course, the prison by the Thames (where the Tate Gallery now stands).

[from The Standard, Thursday, January 12, 1888]

A deceptively simple tale of lingerie, scandal, and theft

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If one of the aims of late Victorian press was to provide some titillation for their readers over breakfast then this tale, from the end of 1888 (a year which we might consider to have had more than enough sensation), certainly fits the bill. It concerns female criminality, exotic foreigners in London, underwear, and the hint of sexual scandal.

When Maria Becherette appeared before Mr Newton at Marlborough Street she commanded the attention of the court and the reporter from Lloyd’s Weekly. She was 23 years old, spoke English with a German accent, and was fashionably well dressed. She gave no address or occupation but nor was she pressed to do so by the magistrate.

Maria was accused of a number of thefts from West End stores, including Liberty’s and Lewis & Allenby in Regent Street. Her modus operandi was simple but effective. On the 14 November she spent two hours at Liberty’s and, having finally selected a number of items of ladies’ underwear, she arranged to have them delivered on account. Giving her name as ‘Lady Coencerl’ she asked for the goods to be sent to the Bath Hotel in Piccadilly.

At Messrs. Lewis & Allenby she had done similarly on the day before; this time giving the name ‘Lady Gorskey’ and directing the items to be delivered to the Continental Hotel. On both occasions after she had left the shop assistants discovered that several expensive items were missing. Mlle. Becherette it seems was a sophisticated shoplifter.

She might have got away with it as well had she not pushed her luck. In the 15 November she was seen in Regent Street by one of Liberty’s staff, who alerted a concierge at the store and set off to follow her. The assistant, Mrs Elizabeth Nicholls, had served the thief and tried to keep her in her sights with the intention of finding where she went. The young German was too alert however, and spotted that she had a tail. She hailed a cab and was about to escape when the concierge leapt into the hansom with her and told the driver to take them both to Marlborough Mews police station.

There she said she was a governess and had recently arrived from Vienna, and denied the accusations of shoplifting. She was charged and presented at Marlborough Street where she was remanded on more than one occasion (for the police to investigate) and then brought up again at the end of the year. In court before Mr Newton Maria cut a sad figure. She stood in the dock with tears in her eyes as the prosecution was presented by Mr Humphreys.

As he now explained that there were allegedly multiple other similar cases against her she broke down and sobbed, finally admitting her crimes. She told the magistrate that while she had stolen the underwear it was ‘not for her own benefit but for the benefit of “the gentleman” she had been living with at Queenborough’.

Before she could go on to add that something the justice stopped her, perhaps mindful that she might reveal his name or add to the implication that the underwear in question was part of some elaborate sexual fetish. Mr Newton remanded her again so that she could, he suggested, give whatever information she had to the police. It might help her defence by mitigating her crime, but it would serve no one for it to be heard publicly.

On the 29 December she was brought back up into court to be dealt with by the magistrate. Mr Newton had presumably decided that despite the relative seriousness of her crimes (in stealing expensive items on several occasions and giving false names each time) it was best to try her summarily. This avoided any further public scrutiny of  the case or her motivations. She was denied the opportunity to name and shame her mysterious ‘gentleman’  or to use her charm on a jury of middle-case men. Instead she was sent to prison for four months and taken away immediately. The reading public were left, like us, to speculate over their toast and marmalade, as to what really lay behind this simple case of shoplifting.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, 30 December, 1888; Daily News, Monday, December 31, 1888]

December 1888: Whitechapel is quiet again,but ‘Jack’ is still at large.

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Today finds me, weather permitting, stumping around Whitechapel with my third year undergraduates. This is an annual occurrence for me; in the past 12 years I’ve only missed one year of taking students around the area to visit the sites of the ‘Ripper’ murders and the associated places of interest.

This year my route has again been carefully worked out to take in as many places that might prove interesting (from Flower & Dean Street, to Wilton’s Music Hall, to the Pinchin Street arches, and back up to Mitre Square and then Christ’s Church, Spitalfields). It will take us the best part of four hours with stops for lunch and refreshments. At the end of it I hope they will have learned something as well as getting slightly fitter!

130 years ago the shadow of the Ripper still lay across Whitechapel. Following Mary Kelly’s death in early November the case began to lose its interest for the newspapers but no killer had been caught and the police patrols continued. There had been an attempt of the life of one woman (Annie Farmer) on 20 November, just eleven days after Kelly’s murder, and there was another homicide that can be associated with ‘Jack’ on December 20 that year (Rose Mylett), but things were more or less back to ‘normal’ in East London.

On Thursday 13 November 1888 the proprietors of Batey & Company Limited, ginger beer manufacturers, were summoned to appear at Worship Street Police court accused of infringing the factories act. It was alleged that the company had employed 21 young women who were set to work beyond 2 o’clock on Saturday afternoon at the company’s factory in Kingsland Road.

Under the terms of the act they should have been released at 11.30 that morning but the company was hard pressed. There had been, its representative explained, an ‘extra demand for aerated waters, owing to the late summer’. They admitted their culpability and Mr Bushey fined them £21 (£1 for each girl) plus £2 2scosts. It was an expensive day in court for the Bateys and one wonders if an employee had blown the whistle on them or whether a factory inspector had been watching them. Often these prosecutions followed repeated infringements of the law, rather than being isolated incidents.

The paper that day also chose another similar case to remind its readers (who would have come from the same class as the owners of the factory in Kingsland Road) that the laws must be respected. Hannah Bender, who worked as a French polisher, was fined £1 plus 4sfor employing two young women after eight in the evening, against the statute. The Match Girls strike had happened in 1888 and so labour rights were fresh in everyone’s memory, perhaps that was why these cases were prosecuted, or at least highlighted by the Standard.

[from The Standard, Friday, December 14, 1888]

In June next year my own solution to the Whitechapel murders is due for release. Based on several years of research it is a collaborative effort with an independent researcher, Andy Wise. We hope to offer a new angle on the killings that terrified Londoners in the late 1880s. 

Interfering mothers-in-law at Westminster give the ‘beak’ a headache

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Some of the cases that came before the Police Court magistrates seem particularly unimportant or trivial. It must have been quite frustrating, if not downright annoying, to have to listen to a never ending stream of petty disputes and grumbles on a daily basis, but moments of humour will probably have helped to lift the mood.

On the morning of the 16 November 1888 while Francis Tumblety (a suspect in the Ripper murders case) was being bailed at Marlborough Street, a young wife appeared at Westminster in answer to a summons taken out against her by her husband.

No names were given (perhaps to protect the couple and give them a chance to ‘move on’ with their lives) but they were newly wed and, it seems, barely mature enough for this life-long commitment.

The wife – described as a ‘mere girl’ – broke down in the dock, ‘cried and seemed greatly distressed’. She had been summoned for attacking her husband with a broom (which caused much laughter in the courtroom). She denied doing so and said she loved him and wouldn’t never hurt him.

However this public investigation into their married revealed the influence of each of the couple’s mothers, both of whom seemed unable to let their offspring go.

The husband was just 21 years of age and a sorter in the Post Office. Recently his mother had encouraged him to come back to his old home and declared that ‘the poor boy looked  bad’; implying that she (and not his wife) needed to look after him properly.

The poor wife complained that while he earned nearly a pound a week she was struggling to cope with paying the rent, and managing the family budget on the 13 a week he gave her. My students struggle to cope with their first year away from home, why should we expect it to be that much easier for Victorian newlyweds on a similarly limited income?

The situation was not helped by the fact, revealed in court, that the wife’s mother lived with them. She was a nurse and it was inferred that she was staying close to them as her daughter was pregnant. Had they married because she was with child? It is not unlikely.

In denying that she’d hit her partner with a broom the young wife did admit that she was ‘subject to fainting fits’. She explained that ‘when I have felt myself “going off” I may have seized my husband’s wrists and dug my nails into his flesh “unconsciously”‘.

The magistrate, (Mr Partridge) waived her away. Her husband had not attended to press the summons nor had he declared his intention to renew it. So as far as he was concerned it was at an end. He hoped that she would go home to him and advised them to ‘make up their differences’. As for her mother-in-law, he urged her to ‘live apart from them, and not interfere’.

If this marriage was going to work it required both mothers to accept that their children were adults now, with their own lives to lead.

[from The Standard, Saturday, November 17, 1888]

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]