‘I don’t want to ask a favour from swindlers’ : making a stand on a point of principle.

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An early gas stove

James Connell was a fine upstanding member of his local community. He lived with his wife in New Cross Road, Deptford and was a member of the local vestry. So it is something of a surprise to find him summoned before Mr Kennedy, the sitting magistrate at Greenwich Police court in late May 1895.

The reason for the summons was non-payment of his gas bill but the case is interesting because it reveals the new forms of fuel supply that were just coming on line in the late Victorian period. Connell was summoned by representatives of the  South Metropolitan Gas Company who insisted that the vestryman owed them the not inconsiderable sum of  £10 10sand ninepence. In today’s money that probably amounts to around £865, which explains their desire to recover the debt.

Mr Connell disputed that he owed that amount and set out his case before the Greenwich justice. He stated that in 1892 the couple had purchased a new gas oven to replace their old coal one having been persuaded to do so by one of the company’s salesmen. Mrs Connell had been assured that the new device was cheaper and more effective than her old one and they were given an estimate of the amount of gas that it would consume in the course of a year. This figure was estimated at 27 feet per hour.

In 1892 the gas consumption figure was 29,300 ft, in 1893 it was a little higher (29,390ft) but in 1894 it leapt to 69,400 ft. Mr Connell clearly felt the gas salesman had misrepresented the true cost of the oven and so was refusing to pay for the huge increase in gas. As a result the company disconnected their supply and the current impasse was established.

‘You have a meter, and what it register you have to pay?’ asked Mr Kennedy. ‘Unfortunately I have no meter’, Connell replied, as the company had taken that away when the company cut them off. He didn’t trust what it said and now he had no meter he couldn’t check it anyway: ‘how did he know the meter was correct, or what had been done with it since it was taken away?’

The gas company’s representative insisted the bill was accurate and suggested that all devices varied in their consumption. It was a fairly lame if predictable response and sadly for Connell the law was not in his favour. Mr Kennedy said he would indeed have to pay the bill with 3costs added but suggested he took his complaint about the salesman’s ‘misrepresentation’ of the oven’s performance to the County Court.

Connell felt he shouldn’t have to pay anything until the company had answered any prosecution he brought but again he was disabused of that and told he must pay up. Could the magistrate allow him more time for the payment to be made, he asked? That was up to the company and he could certainly request it, Mr Kennedy told him.  ‘I don’t want to ask a favour from swindlers’ was the man’s riposte.

In the end Mr Connell left court with his head held high convinced that he had, in his words, ‘exposed a fraud’. At the very least he had alerted others that might be fooled into switching from coal to gas on the back a visit from a silver-tonged gas salesman. I suppose this reminds us that in the 1890s the middle class were being tempted to spend their hard earned money on new technologies, like gas ovens, and that having the latest kitchen accessory also demonstrated that you were ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ and were fashionably ‘modern’.

Gas ovens first appeared in the 1840s and were exhibited at Crystal Palace in 1851 but they took a while to become popular with ‘ordinary’ people, being a  luxury at first reserved for the very rich.  It was the introduced of rented ovens like that ‘owned’ by the Connells with an attached meter that helped extend their use more widely in the 1880s. So the Connells were early adopters and gas ovens only really took off in England in the late Edwardian period.

I have a lot of sympathy for Mr Connell because he and his wife were sold something that ended up costing them considerably more than they had been promised, and we’ve probably all been there.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, May 30, 1894]

‘I wish I could avoid the drink sir, but it’s too tempting’. The Inebriate Act in action in the East End

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Minnie O’Shea was a drunk, an alcoholic with a problem, and when she appeared at Worship Street Police court in May 1899 it was very clear that she needed help. Minnie admitted as much herself, telling Mr Cluer the magistrate that ‘she wished she could avoid the drink; but it was too tempting for her’.

It wasn’t her first time in the dock; Minnie had three previous convictions for drunkenness in the past year alone, and according to police she’d been arrested and charged on least 20 occasions. She was a serial drunk and in 1899 that meant she had made herself liable to a new initiative aimed at dealing with the problem of alcohol abuse in society.

1898 had seen the passing of the Inebriates Act which allowed justices like Mr Cluer to send defendants like Minnie to a reformatory to dry out. A similar scheme had been attempted in 1879 but no funds had been provided for it. If a person was sent to a retreat under that legislation they had to fund their stay themselves. There was no way that a poor woman like Minnie could afford to do that. This new legislation supposedly expected the local authority (in this case the London County Council) to foot the bill.

Minnie was given the option of having her case heard summarily or to go to trial before a jury. Having been told that if she agreed to have the magistrate decided her fate at Worship Street that she would be sent for a home, she wanted to know for how long? If she behaved herself, the justice told her, she’d be out in a few months, so Minnie gladly accepted her fate. She’d get fed and a roof over her head so it wasn’t so bad, she must have thought.

It came as a bit of shock then when Mr Cluer handed down a sentence of three months confinement in a inebriate reformatory, albeit a Roman Catholic one that would suit her cultural background. ‘Three years!’ Minnie objected. ‘Then I’d better not consent, I won’t go’, she told him from the dock. Too late, Mr Cluer countered, ‘you cannot help it now’, and she was dragged out of the court to begin her enforced period of reformation.

Minnie was exactly the sort of person confined under this and the previous legislation.  Victorian society viewed alcoholism as a sort of moral individual failing and associated it particularly with women. Women were viewed as weak in nineteenth-century rhetoric and thus ill equipped with the requisite willpower needed to abstain from ‘the drink’. Minnie seemed to affirm this widely held view telling the justice as we’ve heard that ‘it was too tempting’ to turn to the bottle. In the late 1800s the ‘drunkard was an individual considered to pose a threat to wider society as well as to themselves’ and as Jennifer Wallis has shown this enabled so-called charity workers and reformers to treat alcoholics appallingly.1

Not only were some inmates treated badly the legislation was largely ineffectual. Few local authorities could afford to build reformatories and by 1900 the state hadn’t met demand either. In the first year of the act becoming law just 82 persons were sent to homes, 61 of them in London so Minnie may have been one of that handful. Most were women (for the dubious reason given above) and thereafter nearly all the reformatories that were established (9 from 11) catered exclusively for women.

Alcoholism was a problem in the late 1800s and this was particularly true in poor working class areas like the East End. That is why the Temperance Movement arose and why Police Court Missionaries strove to help those ‘that helped themselves’ by pledging to abstain from ‘the drink’. But it was an uphill battle because life on the bottom rungs of society was desperately hard and for many Londoners drink was a form of anesthetic, muting the pain that they daily felt in their struggle simply to survive.

The middle classes that swelled the ranks of the Charity Organisation Society might have seen drink as a symptom of moral weakness but they didn’t have to suffer the privations that the capital’s poor did every day. They judged women like Minnie O’Shea, I don’t think we should.

[from The Standard, Monday, May 22, 1899]

  1. Wallis, J. ‘A Home or a Gaol? Scandal, Secrecy and the St James’s Inebriate Home for Women’, Social History of Medicine, Vol. 31, No. 4 pp. 774-795

Hooligans battle with cyclists and come off worse

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In the 1890s a new word entered the lexicon: ‘hooligan’. It was used to refer to gangs of youth, mostly men, who engaged in petty crime and acts of anti-social behaviour. We’ve taken the word and applied it more broadly to any group of badly behaved people, and in the 1970 and 80s, largely those associated with football ‘fans’.

Of course the ‘hooligan menace’ was not a new thing in the 1890s it was more that the period witnessed one another media generated ‘moral panic’ about youth, and specifically youth in Britain’s large urban areas. This fear of youth, and preoccupation with gangs, re-emerged in the 1890s and then again at various points in the twentieth century (in 1920s London, in the 50s with Teddy boys, 1960s with Mods and Rockers) before it changed its focus to concentrate on knife and gun crime in the late 1900s and early 21stcentury.

Before the term ‘hooligan’ was coined most youth gangs were identified as ‘roughs’ or ‘ruffians’; fairly generic terms that could be used against any group of ill-mannered people gathered in small to larger crowds, such as could be found at a political rally or demonstration.  If you look at the context of reports in the media however it is fairly easy to spot where the ‘roughs’ in question are young men (and women) behaving badly.

In May 1890 Lloyd’s Weekly included a report of a ‘ruffianly attack on cyclists’. Lewis Smead (a licensed victualer), William Harbert (a skate maker) and Edward march (an engineer) were enjoying a day out with their cycle club on the Fulham Road. Rather like today’s lycra clad enthusiasts that clog up the country lanes on the edges of the capital and throughout the Home Counties, these three ‘respectable’ members of lower middle class society were taking the air and indulging their passion for two wheels.

They belonged to a club and were cycling slowly and in single file along the Fulham Road when they passed a group of young people. Almost immediately they were subjected to a tirade of verbal abuse. This soon escalated into physical violence as random youths rushed into the street to try and knock a rider off his bike, perhaps daring each other to do so.

The police quickly got involved as they had already been trying to move on the ‘gang of disorderly youths and girls’ who had been pushing pedestrians off the pavement as they strutted their way down the road.

One lad, later identified as Lewis Rogers, a 19 year-old coachman, knocked Mr Smead off his vehicle and then punched him in the jaw, swearing at him for good measure. Then a full blown battle ensued which the police were hard pressed to do much about. One of the club’s bicycles was ‘completely smashed up’ and as Harbert tried to apprehend the perpetrator he was assaulted. Rogers allegedly told him that ‘he would boot him up’.

March’s lip was split open as he struggled with several youths and at least one of the girls, and noted that the females were ‘helping [the boys] in every possible way’. The girls it seems were every bit as ‘ruffianly’ as their male companions. The whole episode ended with Rogers being arrested and brought before Mr Sheil at Westminster Police court. One young woman testified in his defense, swearing on oath that Rogers had collided with Mr Smead’s machine by accident.

The magistrate dismissed her evidence out of hand. Rogers, he said, was:

‘evidently one of those troublesome young roughs who could not let a decent person pass without interference, and he would go to hard labour for a month’.

He added that the lad was lucky it wasn’t the longer sentence that he would have preferred to hand down had it not been for the punishment meted out to him already by members of the club. It transpired that Rogers had been knocked against a wall and his head cut open by the angry cyclists that his ‘gang’ of ‘ruffians’ had chosen to abuse. It was justice of a sort and the magistrate made no effort to condemn the violence of the ‘respectable’ men of the cycle club.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, May 11, 1890]

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

‘Brutal in the extreme’: one woman’s courage to stand up for herself against the odds

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It is probably fair to say that the marriage of Albert and Martha Sykes was doomed to fail. Albert was a labourer when the couple first got together and began to cohabit. Getting married may have been desirable, especially for working class women keen to uphold their reputations, but it was not always an inevitable consequence of cohabitation.

At some point in 1887 Martha gave birth to a baby girl but by then Albert was nowhere to be seen. Like many men he’d decided to shirk his responsibilities and deserted his partner. Martha though was a strong woman and insistent that her daughter should have a father to support her, so she went to law and obtained a summons to bring Albert to court.

When next she saw him in the dock at Marylebone Police court he was dressed as a sailor and stated that he was now an able seaman in the navy. The court determined that as he was  girl’s father he was obliged to pay towards her keep. However, Albert attempted to dodge this responsibility as well and never paid a penny. Martha stuck to her guns and summoned him for non-payment, so Albert found himself back in front of a magistrate in October 1889.

He promised to make good on the arrears and the case was adjourned for him to make a first payment. That never materialized (surprise, surprise) and so back to Marylebone he and Martha went. This time she had new offer for her estranged sailor: if he would agree to marry her and return home she would ‘forgive him the amount he was in arrears’. I think this tells us something about Martha, if not more about the reality of some working-class relationships in the late Victorian period. She had a small child and limited opportunities to bring in income. Therefore, as unreliable as Albert was he was of use to her. His wages would put food on the table and pay the rent and marriage would give Martha the respectability she felt she needed having born a child out of wedlock.

Albert agreed and the couple were married but they didn’t live happily ever after. Within months he’d deserted her again and she had summoned him back to court. That forced him to return to the marital home but he was a reluctant husband and things only got worse.

In May 1890 Albert was brought up before Mr De Rutzen at Marylebone and charged with assaulting Martha, who was pregnant again. He was serving with navy at Chatham, attached to H.M.S Forte (which was under construction)¹, but was brought in on a warrant that Martha had taken out against him. Once again we can admire her determination to use the law to  prosecute her husband and to try to bring him to book, however futile it seems to have been.

Martha testified to his cruelty saying that she had putting her daughter’s boots on in the morning at their rented rooms at 3 Dickenson Street, Kentish Town when the little girl had started crying that she was hungry. Albert was annoyed at the noise and hit the child. Martha told him he had no right to strike the girl and an argument flared. The couple was poor despite Sykes’ navy salary and Martha was often obliged to pawn items. It seems she’d recently pawned a firearm belonging to Albert simply so she could pay the rent.

The argument escalated and he grabbed her by the throat and began to strangle the life out of her. Martha managed to fight back and free herself but he pushed her to the floor and knee’d her in the stomach. She screamed, in pain and in fear of losing her unborn baby, and the landlady came running upstairs. But Albert was already on his way out, running away from trouble as he always did.

He was back that night though and the fight started again. He took the hat she was wearing and threw it in the fire; Martha had to run from the house, in fear of her life, taking her little girl with her. It was a sadly typical example of male violence in the late 1800s but here we can see it escalate over time. Most women killed in the period were killed by their spouse or partner and often after years of non-fatal attacks. Abused women rarely went to court early in the cycle, choosing instead to believe they could calm or amend violent behavior. In reality once a man started hitting his wife he didn’t stop until the pair were separated by legal means or by the woman’s death.

In this case Martha was a strong woman who stood up for herself and her daughter in court, refuted the counter claims of antagonizing Albert which were leveled by his lawyer, and she convinced the magistrate that he was guilty as charged. Mr De Rutzen described Albert Sykes (who seemed destined to live down to the behaviour of his fictional namesake) as ‘brutal in the extreme’. Albert was sentenced to two months in prison, an outcome that seemed to surprise him. As he was led away he was heard to ask to see his mother.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, May 11, 1890]

¹ HMS Forte was launched in 1893, one of eight cruisers commissioned by the navy in the 1890s. She saw service off the coast of Africa but was decommissioned in 1913 as the navy needed a very different class of warship for the coming fight with Imperial Germany. 

Two deserters and a lad that upset an apple cart

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Three prisoners appeared at the North London Police court in early May 1899 and each of their cases was affected by new legislation, passed the previous year. According to the reporter from The Standard this was the Criminals Act of 1898 but I’m struggling to find the exact piece of legislation referred to.

1898 did see the passing of the Criminal Evidence Act which allowed defendants to testify (and which allowed wives, for example, to give evidence against husbands) but I don’t believe that is the act in question. That act was mostly concerned with the veracity of witness testimony but in the report I’ve selected today the magistrate was more concerned with discriminating between ‘habitual and casual’ criminals.

None of the prisoners were named but two of them were accused of deserting their wives and children, leaving them chargeable to the parish (and thus making them a burden on the ratepayers). Mr Cluer, the sitting magistrate, made a point of saying that while he intended to send both men to prison this was a much ‘more lenient punishment than probably they deserved’.

They owed money for the non-payment of maintenance to their wives and that was why they would be locked up but even then they would probably enjoy a better lifestyle behind bars than their wives and children and even by comparison to many of the poorer ratepayers in the area who lived honestly. He was clearly disgusted that he couldn’t throw the proverbial book at them.

The third prisoner mentioned in this report was a young man who had upset a costermonger’s cart and assaulted a policeman. As a result he’d been charged with a breach of the peace. On this occasion however, the police officer who had had his coat torn by the young man’s act ‘of ruffiansim’ was in forgiving mood and have the lad a good character.

In consequence of this the magistrate said he would treat him as a ‘second-class misdemeanant’ and that while he would also go to gaol, it would be for a shorter period and without some of the attached conditions (presumably hard labour) that he would have handed down had he ‘absolute control’ of the law.

So it seems that this new law tempered the ability of magistrates to exercise discretion and signaled another turn in the longer move towards allowing more and more offences to be dealt with summarily and with more lenient sentences. Arguably this process began in the 1840s and 1850s with Summary Jurisdiction Acts that removed petty thieves and younger offenders from the jury courts. It continued into the twentieth century and our own 21st. If someone can send me a link to details of the Criminals Act (1898) I will be grateful.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, May 2, 1899]

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

An ‘infernal din’ disturbs the peace on the Sabbath and lands the Salvation Army in court

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It was 10.30 on a Sunday morning in late April 1896 and Mr Eamonson had settled down to write in his study when, once again, his peace was broken by the sound of music playing in the street outside. He set aside his work and went outside to remonstrate with those responsible, as he’d done more than once before.

There were six or eight members of the Salvation Army assembled on the opposite side of Burdett Road in East London, and they had drawn a small crowd around them. He approached John Murfitt who was banging a large drum and asked him, ‘please to stop, or go away’.

Murfitt took no notice and the band played on.

Eamonson tried again, cupping his hands and shouting for them to stop or play somewhere else.

Ignored three times he set off in search of a policeman to complain to. Eventually he found one and accompanied him back to Burdett Road to ask the Army band to desist.  The officer tried to take their names and addresses on the grounds that they were causing a nuisance and obstructing the pavement but it was difficult given the ‘infernal din’ they were making.

In the end two of the band (Murfitt the drummer and Charles White) were summoned before Mr Mead at Thames Police court on the dual accusations of refusing to stop making a disturbance after having being requested to, and of obstruction of the thoroughfare. The men denied both charges.

In essence the men of William Booth’s ‘army’ tried to argue that they couldn’t hear what was being said to them, so weren’t aware that Eamonson had requested them to stop. Their solicitor, a Mr Frost, told the court that the Army ‘always cheerfully acquiesced in any suggestion’  that they should refrain from disturbing the peace but hinted that on this occasion his clients were the victims of an ‘organized attack’. Perhaps Eamonson was a serial complainer and simply didn’t like the Salvation Army.

He would not have been alone; in its early years Salvationists like Murfitt and White suffered considerable abuse from all classes in Victorian society. They were ridiculed, chased down the street, and prosecuted as a nuisance. It is quite hard to imagine the global success and acceptance that they have today.

Mr Mead was a stickler for the law and so he trod a careful path around this pair of summons. He agreed with the lawyer that the playing of music was not illegal and that any obstruction caused was minor, technical in fact, but not worthy of a summons. However, he was also clear that Mr Eamonson had been disturbed by a band playing loudly outside his home on a Sunday morning.

In many persons’ eyes the essence of the Sabbath is quietness’, he stated, and so he could ‘quite understand the Complainant being annoyed’.

He told Frost that if his clients gave an undertaking not to play there in the future he would dismiss the summonses. The lawyer waivered, not wanting to commit the Army to signing up to self-enforced restrictions, but Mr Mead pressed him.

‘Perhaps you would like to consider your position’, he told him. Further prosecutions could follow if others objected to the Army setting up a band outside their homes but hopefully if they took sensible cognizance of this action they could continue their form of recruitment without the need to defend themselves in court.

It was an invitation to common sense: leave Mr Eamondson and others like him alone, and the Salvation Army band could continue to play. Persist in disturbing his peace and the law would probably find for the complainant. Mead decided to end proceedings by adjourning the hearing sine die, meaning that it was effectively postponed indefinitely. Like Mr Eamonson the worthy magistrate had no desire to hear from the Salvation Army in his court again and, if they followed the advice he’d give, he wouldn’t have to.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, April 28, 1896]

‘Chops, kidneys and the Queen’: An unusual magic lantern show advertises a butcher’s wares

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Advert for a magic lantern. c.1885

Have you ever stood and watched the rolling advertisement we now get in some underground and other railway stations? These have moved beyond the static poster advertising a new film, holiday destination or fashion retailer, and catch our attention with moving images. On some escalators you can watch the same advert appear and disappear before your eyes as to ascend or descend the stairway.

If you had assumed this is another example of the innovative and all pervading reach of modern marketing – think again! As with so many things the Victorians were at over a hundred years ago.

In early April 1891 William Harris appeared before the chief magistrate for London at Bow Street Police court. Mr Harris, a prominent butcher, was charged with causing an obstruction on the pavement opposite his shop on the Strand. The butcher was a colourful and flamboyant character and brought his three sons (simply known as “no. 1, No. 2, and No. 3”) into court dressed in ‘white slops, etc, to resemble miniature pork butchers’. He had also hired a defense attorney, Mr Wildey Wright, to represent him.

Chief Inspector Willis of the local police said that at around 9 o’clock on the 28 March last a crowd of around 50 people had gathered across the Strand from Harris’ butcher’s shop and they were staring at his roof. The crowd had become so large that passers-by had to step out into the road to avoid it. Those standing on the street were watching a magic lantern display that Harris had installed above his premises as advertising.

As a constable tried to move the crowd on CI Willis watched as the display passed though several images of the Queen and other members of the royal family followed by cuts of meat and sausages, and then back to scenes from politics and public life.

The inspector agreed that there was ‘nothing objectionable’ about the images shown it was just that people were entranced by it and stood watching, thus blocking the passage of the street. It was a Bank Holiday, he explained, and the crowds were bigger than they normally were. This suggests that the butcher regularly used a magic lantern show to advertise his ‘chops and kidneys’.

Sir John Bridge, the magistrate, said Harris was a ‘very good Englishman and a good neighbour no doubt, and very fond of pigs; but there seemed to be some evidence of obstruction’. The defense lawyer said his client would certainly withdraw the images of the Queen and politicians of the day if that is what his neighbours demanded but he had invested a lot of money in the display.

The justice decided to suspend judgment for a month to take some soundings from local people and the police. Mr Harris meanwhile (to rising laughter in the courtroom) promised he would only show pictures of his meat products in future, and not Her Majesty or her cabinet.

[from The Standard, Friday, April 10, 1891]