A tale of two drunks at Westminster

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The London Police Court magistracy spent most of their time disciplining those brought in as drunk and disorderly by the officers of the Metropolitan police. Most were admonished and fined a small sum, but repeat offenders or those that resisted arrest, and used bad language or violence, were fined more heavily or sent to prison.

The press rarely bothered to report these sort of cases because they were hardly newsworthy but occasionally, perhaps to remind their readership of the dangers of alcohol or because a particular case merited it, they included it. In October 1877 two cases from Westminster Police Court were set out side by side and reflect the ‘usual suspects’ when it came to D&D charges.

Martin Sharp, a ‘carpet planner’ from Chelsea, had just left a club in Radnor Street off the King’s Road with some companions. They had made a bit of noise and this had alerted the attention of the local beat constable, PC Walter Cousins (243B). The policeman politely asked the men to go home quietly and, ‘to give them the opportunity to of doing so, walked on’.

However, while the others dispersed as requested Sharp leaned against a doorway and showed no sign of budging. PC Cousins insisted he leave but was ignored. Then, according to the constable’s report, Sharp ran at him full tilt and grabbed him by his whiskers. The attack was so violent that the carpet man managed to pull clumps of the policeman’s facial hair out; traces of this were later found in his pockets.

With difficulty Sharp was taken to the nearest police station and charged with being drunk and disorderly and with assaulting the officer. In court he denied being drunk and said that he had merely been sheltering in the portico from the rain when PC Cousins had ‘manhandled him very roughly’. Naturally, he added, he had resisted.

Since he could produce no witnesses to support his version of events Mr D’Eyncourt chose to take the constable’s word and fined Sharp 20s or ten days imprisonment. Placing his hat on his head Sharp paid his fine and left court.

According to the headline of the press report Sharp had had a ‘lucky escape’ but Eliza Smith was not so fortunate. She was brought in by another policeman, Isaac Sculpher (260B) who accused her of being drunk and violent. Eliza was well-known to the police and courts as a disorderly prostitute.

In this instance Eliza had apparently been quarrelling with two other street walkers and again, like Sharp and his mates, this had brought them to the attention of the police. When PC Sculpher attempted to ‘remove her’ Eliza resisted arrest and spat in his face. She was described in court as ‘the most violent and foul-mouthed prostitute in the neighbourhood of Knightsbridge’  and Sculpher had to enlist the help of three other officers to drag her to the police station.

In the course of this the policeman alleged that his prisoner had ‘hit him in the hand’ and had injured him. In court Eliza vehemently denied this saying that the reason that the man’s hand was marked was because he had struck her in the mouth, ‘loosening her teeth’. Once again the magistrate opted to believe the policeman not the drunk and sent her down for six weeks. Eliza left the court ‘uttering the most horrible threats and blasphemy to the magistrate, and was with difficulty conveyed to the cells’.

I wonder if her anger was justified on this occasion? It does seem a little odd that the only injury that PC Sculpher sustained was to his hand; that’s a odd place to hit someone. In fact in both cases while the police were evidently ‘doing their duty’ in attempting to clear the streets of late night revellers and unwanted prostitutes, they were both a little heavy handed in the process.

[from The Illustrated Police News etc, Saturday, October 20, 1877]

Another avoidable shooting in Hackney

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Frederick James was an anxious man. He kept a loaded revolver under his pillow in his Cumberland Street address, where he worked as a machine sewer in the shoe trade. There had been several burglaries in recent weeks and Fred, who didn’t trust the banks, kept just under £300 in his room and had the gun as his protection against robbery. But he was also a considerate man; his sister, Annie, lived at the property and she cleaned and cooked for him. He always took the pistol out from under his pillow in the morning and laid it close by him at his desk, so as not to alarm her when she turned the bed down.  Sadly, as we know from bitter experience of hundreds of modern tragedies, owning a gun often means that someone gets hurt or worse, especially when pride and machismo are involved.

James employed two other men – William Tripp and Thomas Hannibal – and took in work from larger operatives. On the 1 April 1872 a man named Charles Starkie turned up at 103 Cumberland Street, (off Great Cambridge Street, Hackney)  as he had done several times before, with a  pair of boots that required repair. As it was 5.15 the men were having their tea and so Starkie chose to wait.

There was clearly some underlying tension between the younger man (Starkie was about 28) and Frederick James (who was 39). The pair quarrelled and a lot of unpleasant words were exchanged. Starkie (according to Annie, Tripp and Hannibal) called the other man a ‘bloody thief’, a ‘bloody rogue, and a bloody shit, and a bloody swine’ (although the word ‘bloody’ was rendered in the Old Bailey Proceedings as ‘b_____’, so as not to give offence to the readers).

It isn’t clear exactly what happened after that but Starkie appears to have been taunting the cobbler, and threatening to take business away from him to give to someone else. It sounds like these were empty threats as James’ team enjoyed the confidence of their suppliers, but Frederick was still angered by the abuse he received.

A scuffle was heard upstairs and it may be that while James tried to walk away from the argument Starkie chose to continue it. Three shots were heard and when Annie and the others went to see what they were about, they found Starkie dead or dying.

When the police arrived – in the person of PC Edward Dunt (152H) – Fred admitted shooting the man but not intentionally. He had fired twice into the wall, which suggests he was either frustrated or wanted to send a strong warning. Starkie, as those in the house later  testified, poured scorn on James, saying he was just firing blanks.

Whether he was or not the third shot hit Starkie, entering his head via the jaw, fracturing his skull and ‘smashing’ his spinal cord. He probably died instantly and was dead before Dr Wallace reached the scene.

PC Dunt told Fred he must come with him to the station. James then asked to be allowed to change his shirt and promised to come quietly. He seemed to be very sorry for what had occurred and this was continued when he appeared some days later in the Worship Street Police Court. The charge was ‘wilful murder’ but there was clearly some doubt surrounding it. At Worship Street, on what was his second appearance his solicitor asked for  further remand so that James would not go before the next sitting of the Old Bailey. The higher court was busy, Mr Straight (the defence solicitor) told Mr Hannay (the magistrate) and it would not be fair to ‘hurry his defence on’ in such circumstances.

Hannah agreed and remanded him for a week, presumably meaning that he missed the sessions. The court reporter described James as looking ‘pale, and as if suffering much from the charge hanging over him’.

As well he might. If he were to be convicted of murder then he was quite likely to hang.

When it came to it however, the Old Bailey jury were lenient. There decided that there was ample evidence of provocation and insufficient evidence of intent. They found him ‘not guilty’ of murder but guilty of the second count of manslaughter. Frederick James escaped the noose and went to prison for 12 months.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, April 10, 1872]

A theatre heckler makes a pantomime of himself

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The Eagle Pub (Grecian Theatre Music Hall, c.1841)

Reginald H. Burkett of 1 Field Court, Gran’s Inn Road was that most ‘pooterish’ of nineteenth-century characters, a lower middle-class clerk. In mid January 1878 he and some friends had taken a box near the stage at the Grecian Theatre (a music hall on the City Road) to enjoy the festive pantomime.

However, it would seem they had enjoyed plenty of drink as well, as they were in a very boisterous mood, Burkett especially so.

The stage manager (a Mr Gillet) had his eye on them because of the noise and disorderly behaviour coming from their seats and when he observed that Burkett was smoking he moved in to tell him it was not allowed.

For a while there was calm and the pantomime continued but when the ballet dancers took the stage Burkett started to interrupt the performance. According to Mr Gillet, Burkett ‘behaved in a disgusting way, making motions to the dancers’ and, when they came in range, ‘he leaned out of his box and with his stick tried to hook the legs of one of the ballet women’. She burst into tears and ran from the stage.

When Mr Nicholls, one of the actors the show, began to sing Burkett started to abuse him, ‘using some nasty expressions’. Nicholls wasn’t having this and approached Burkett demanding to know exactly what he was insinuating.

Burkett swore at him and then leapt out of his box, onto the stage! Nichols aimed a punch at him and suddenly there was a full-blown fist-fight on stage. This almost brought the house down and the stage manager was quick to lower the curtain, ending the performance prematurely.

Burkett was held until the police could come and take him away and a few days later he appeared at the Worship Street Police Court. Here Mr Bushby, the presiding magistrate considered the case. He could see that Burkett had been disorderly but technically Mr Nicholls (the actor) had assaulted him first. In the end he decided to bind the clerk over and find sureties against his good behaviour in the future. A friend of his, a Bloomsbury-based solicitor named Warren stepped up to stand surety for him.

One imagines the Grecian took note of his name and appearance and barred him from all future performances.

[from The Standard, Monday, January 21, 1878]

An overcharging bus conductor ends up inside

John Rogers was a conductor on the Blackwall omnibus whose vehicle served the route to the Great Exhibition of 1851. He found himself in court in October of that year accused of overcharging a customer and of using foul and abusive language.

Mrs Margaret Clifton was waiting at Sloane Street with a group of other passengers to catch a bus towards Bank. She claimed to have heard him shout ‘fourpence for the bank’ and so she got onboard and asked for Southampton Street. When she reached her destination  she got off and handed him 4d, as required.

Rogers however, refused her money and demanded sixpence instead. When she in turn refused to pay the extra he called her names (the report merely stating he called her ‘a _____ and _____ cat’) * which drew a crowd of concerned people around them.

Rogers then severely overstepped the mark by asking her ‘what she would have thought, on taking him to a room, he offered her only a tanner – would she not demand a shilling?’ It was an outrageous thing to say because Rogers was implying she was a prostitute, or was at least willing to act as one.

The crowd was suitably disgusted as was a local shopkeeper who, a police witness stated, was unable to appear in court but was happy to testify at a later date.

Rogers was reprimanded by the magistrate despite at least one (working class) witness appearing to support the conductor’s defence that he had said no such thing. The Bow Street justice sentenced Rogers to a month’s imprisonment and suspended his license for a further two months harsh indeed.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, October 9, 1851]

  • make up your own mind what he might have said