Beware the sleepwalking arsonist!

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John Everett Millais, The Somnambulist, 1871

Police constable Dowding (198E) was pounding his beat in the early hours of the morning of July 15th 1878 when he smelt fire. He could hear the ‘crackling noise of something burning’, and rushed over to the rear of 23 Great Coram Street. There he could see that there was pile of burning clothes on top of the conservatory which seemed as if they had been thrown out of a window above.

PC Dowding ‘sprang his rattle’ (these were the days before police were issued with whistles) to call for help and quickly moved to alert the residents in the house. He ran straight upstairs towards the fire and found a room about to be engulfed in flames. Some clothes, the bed sheet and the lower part of the mattress of the bed were all on fire, but there was thankfully no one inside. He looked in the next room and found a 15 year-old girl cowering under a bed quilt.

He grabbed her and escorted her out, asking her what had happened. She told him that a man had entered her room, stayed briefly, then ran out and downstairs. PC Dowding was skeptical; he’d not seen anyone run past him, or run out of the building and he suspected the girl was lying.

He interviewed the landlady, Maria Goodhall who told him the girl’s name was Matilda Hayes and she worked for her as a maid of all work. She’d been with her for four months and ‘was a very good girl’. However, she also suspected that Matilda might have been responsible for the fire. She’d seen the clothes on fire by the bed and thought it likely that the girl had thrown some of the window in panic before being forced back by the flames.

In court at Bow Street Matilda was charged with arson and the source of the fire was found to be a spirit lamp which she kept with her when she went to bed. The lamp had been knocked over and the handle had come off. When Matilda had been found she seemed to be half asleep, as if she’d just woken in a panic. It was also suggested that Matilda and her sister (who often stayed with her) would walk in their sleep. So perhaps this had happened when the girl had been sleepwalking? Mrs Goodhall told the magistrate, Mr Vaughan, that she was sure that Matilda meant no ill will towards her or any of the other residents. It was accident, and nothing more.

Mr Vaughan was probably minded to agree but he decided to remand the serving girl for a week, just to be sure. When she appeared again Mr Vaughan was satisfied she was innocent and discharged her. This drew praise from one newspaper that used the case to write a longish piece on somnambulism and its perils. They also hinted that the young man that supposedly ran out of the girl’s room might have been there as her guest, and it was probably just as well that he was not discovered or it might have damaged her reputation.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, July 16, 1878]

The milk man, the general, and his trousers.

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General Robert Onesiphorus Bright (above) was an unlikely occupant of a Police Court dock but that is where he found himself in June 1888. General Bright had enjoyed an illustrious military career since he’d joined the 19 Regiment of Foot in 1843. He had seen service in Bulgaria in 1854 before taking command of the 2nd Brigade of the Light Division in the Crimea. According to the regimental record Bright was one of the very few officers who remain in service throughout, never succumbing to the disease that ravaged the forces fighting and Russians.

After the Crimean War Bright went on to see service on India’s northwest frontier and was cited in despatches. When he left the 19thFoot in 1871 he was given a commemorative silver cup engraved with a scene from the battle of Granicus, one of Alexander’s victories over the Persians. Bright fought in the 2nd Afghan War of 1878-80 and again was mentioned in despatches. He became colonel of the Green Howards/19th Foot in 1886 and then was raised to the knighthood by Victoria in 1894.

So how did a man with his pedigree end up in front of Mr De Rutzen at Marlborough Street? Well, perhaps not that surprisingly the general was there for losing his temper.

He was summoned to court by Charles Heffer who had been pushing ‘a milk perambulator’ in Oxford Street and he made his way towards Hyde Park. He was waiting to cross Duke Street and the general was waiting in front of him. As a carriage came close by the general stepped back to avoid it and collided with Heffer’s barrow. The wheel scraped against Bright’s leg, soiling his trousers with the mud from the road.

It was an unfortunate accident but the military man’s instincts took over and he swiveled in the street, raised his walking cane and ‘dealt [Heffer] a severe blow across the face’. Whether he had apologized at the time or not is unknown but clearly Heffer had been hurt enough to demand satisfaction from a magistrate.

In court the general was apologetic and admitted the fault was his. Mr De Rutzen said he would take into account the fact that the assault was committed in ‘the heat of the moment’ but regardless of the general’s status he had to treat this case as he would any other. He fined General Bright £4 and awarded costs to Heffer of £1. Having faced the Russians and the Afghans I doubt this was the worst moment of Robert Bright’s life, he paid and left with his head held high.

Today is Queen Elizabeth II’s official birthday and, as I type this, the regimental colour of the 1st battalion Grenadier Guards is being ‘trooped’ on Horse Guards Parade in London.  The Grenadiers have a long history, being the first guards regiment to wear the bearskin following their actions at Waterloo when, under the command of Major General Peregrine Maitland, they repulsed the attack of Napoleon’s elite ‘Old Guard’. Wellington supposedly gave the command for the guard to stand and face the French, crying ‘Up Guards, and at them!’ although like so many moments in history the exact words are disputed.

Trooping the colour has been linked to monarch’s official birthday since 1748 (when George II was on the throne) but no one has done it as many times as the present queen, and I doubt anyone ever will. It wasn’t always held, partly because the British weather is so unreliable, and this caused Edward VII to move the day to June when (hopefully) the watching crowds might not get soaked.

Happy (official) birthday maam.

[from The Standard, Friday, June 08, 1888]

On June 15 Drew’s new book (co-authored by Andy Wise) is published by Amberley Books. It is a new study of the Whitechapel murders of 1888 which offers up a new suspect, links the ‘Jack the Ripper’ killings to the unsolved ‘Thames Torso’ crimes, and provides the reader with important contextual history of Victorian London. The book is available to order on Amazon here

A strange encounter at the British Museum (Natural History)

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I recently visited the Natural History Museum in South Kensington and while it is one of my favourite collections I’d never before gone into the minerals sections. The old cabinets full of precious metals, rocks and crystals were beautiful and fascinating, even if they looked as if they’d been placed there more than a 100 years ago and had never been disturbed. It was in stark contrast to much of the rest of the museum which has seen a series of modernization which appear to aimed at attracting its core visitor, small children.

The Natural History Museum opened its doors in 1881 after a building project that lasted eight years. It was really an offshoot of the British Museum but the natural history element of that collection, which had its roots in a large donation of items by Sir Hans Sloan in the mid 1700s, were being lost, sold off or damaged and the decision was made to find a new home for them.

It retained its link to the British Museum until 1963 when it became fully independent. Until then it was termed the British Museum (Natural History) which explains the puzzling context of this curious case from 1861, which would have taken place in Bloomsbury, not South Kensington.

Edward Stokes worked as an attendant at the museum and was keeping an eye on visitors to the minerals collection when he noticed an agitated man approach one of the cabinets. To his horror the large man suddenly smashed the glass of the display with his elbow, exposing the valuable crystals it contained. It was the act of thief but the man made no attempt to escape, and just stood there gazing at the wondrous items below.

Stokes rushed over and seized the would-be thief who claimed his arm had slipped and he had no intention to cause any damage. He didn’t seem drunk to the attendant but he was ‘a little strange in his manner’. The arrest led to the man being charged with damage and the intent to steal items valued at £15. The case was heard at Bow Street Police court before Mr Corrie, the sitting magistrate.

The museum was represented by a solicitor, Harding, and he explained that the prisoner in the dock was well known to the staff there. The man, who gave his names as George Gates, a one time butcher from Brighton, had been seen early  in the morning on more than one occasion, waiting to be admitted into the museum. As he was being led away by police after the incident on the 23 May he was recognized by two of his friends and they promised to let his relatives on the south coast know what had happened to him. Clearly there was some concern that Gates was suffering from a form of mental illness.

With its usual tact Reynolds Newspaper referred to Gates as a ‘lunatic at large’ and described him as ‘half-crazy looking’ as he stood in the Bow Street dock. However there had been nothing from his relatives to suggest that he was undergoing any treatment for his mental health and while he had been held in police custody he’d been examined by ‘a medical gentleman’ who had ‘declined to certify that he was insane’.

Once again Gates insisted that it was an accident; his foot had slipped, he told the magistrate, just as he was calling out to a friend to come and look at a particularly beautiful diamond, and he’d fallen onto the glass. Mr Corrie accepted that there had been no intent to steal the rock and he suggested the man was ‘probably half stupid from previous drink’.

He decided that Gates would have to pay for the damage, which was valued at 5sor else go to prison for 14 days. Searching his pockets Gates could only produce half that amount so he was duly committed. He handed the gaoler a note which said:

‘dear gal, have dinner ready for six’. It had no address, and he was taken down.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, June 2, 1861]

On June 15 Drew’s new book (co-authored by Andy Wise) is published by Amberley Books. It is a new study of the Whitechapel murders of 1888 which offers up a new suspect, links the ‘Jack the Ripper’ killings to the unsolved ‘Thames Torso’ crimes, and provides the reader with important contextual history of Victorian London. The book is available to order on Amazon here

An elderly lady is sent flying by a drunken cabbie

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Traffic accidents seemed to be fairly common in Victorian London and so to were prosecutions of drivers (particularly hansom cab drivers) for dangerous driving. The most usual outcome was a fine, and occasionally a short spell in prison if the cabbie was unable to pay the fine. However, cab drivers were also prosecuted for being drunk in charge of a cab, especially when they were abusive towards a passenger or a policeman. In this case one driver was arrested after he drove his cab into two women who were walking on the King’s Road, nearly killing one of them. The driver was drunk and ended up before the magistrate at Westminster Police court.

George Thompson stood in the dock as the evidence of his actions was recounted before Mr Mansfield, the sitting magistrate. Emmelie Ullarbane said that she was walking along the King’s Road with her elderly companion Mrs Martha White on the previous evening. As they were crossing the road a cab driven by Thompson hit them, knocking Mrs White to the ground and trampling her. Emmelie was hurt but not too badly.

A policeman came rushing up and asked if they were injured; Mrs White was quite badly hurt so she was taken to be treated by a doctor. Mr. Mansfield asked him if either woman had been drinking, to which the officer – PC Langford (344B) – answered that they had not. That might seem an odd question to have asked but perhaps I can make sense of it later.

Having checked on the injured parties PC Langford set off in pursuit of the driver who hadn’t stopped after the accident. The policeman called to him but was ignored, so he raced along and managed to catch up with the cab. Langford leapt up onto the back of the cab, seized the reins, and stopped the horse. It was obvious to him when he confronted Thompson that the driver had been drinking and was quite incapable.

The policeman arrested Thompson and took him back to the station before heading off to Brompton to visit Mrs White to see how she was. According to the doctor’s report she was in a bad way, her petticoats ‘were torn to pieces by the tramping of the horse’, and she was not yet ‘out of danger’. It must have been a huge shock to an elderly lady and Mansfield remanded Thompson (who had two previous convictions for drunkenness) in custody for a week.

I wondered why the magistrate had enquired as to whether the women were themselves drunk. Two women walking in the early evening on the King’s Road did not necessarily suggest anything unusual. One on her own might have raised eyebrows but given Mrs White was described as being ‘elderly’ we might assume Ms Ullarbane was her companion or servant and so I can’t see anything odd here. Until that is we learn that Mrs Martha White was a ‘West India lady’.

I take this to mean that she was a part of London’s black community in the late 1800s a group rarely mentioned but ever present in the nineteenth-century capital. Perhaps Mansfield was simply expressing contemporary racism and imperialist views in assuming, or merely suggesting, that two black women out and about on a Tuesday evening had been drinking and were, therefore, partly to blame for the accident that had occurred.

This case rumbled on for several months, maybe as a result of the injuries Mrs White received. A jury had held the cab company liable and Martha had been awarded £100 in compensation. Thompson was finally brought back before the Westminster magistrate in August 1869. This time it was Mr Arnold and he declared that he was not going to be influenced by that civil judgment but determine punishment on it merits. He was convinced, he said, that Thompson had been drunk that night but wasn’t sure that had caused the accident. Instead he held Mrs White partly to blame stating that the accident:

‘was caused by the nervousness of the injured lady and her friend, who did not know whether to advance or recede’.

So he imposed a fine of just 10on Thompson who might have expected worse (especially given his previous convictions for being drunk in charge of a cab). The police were not so sanguine as the magistrate however, and informed his worship that the renewal of the driver’s license had been refused. George Thompson would not be driving a hansom in London again, or not at least in the near future.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, April 01, 1869; The Morning Post, Wednesday, August 18, 1869]

‘These cabmen always drive furiously’: Lord Rothschild has a lucky escape

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An 1891 caricature of Nathan (‘Natty’) Rothschild by Lockhart Bogle in The Graphic

It seems as if traffic accidents were just as likely to occur in late nineteenth-century London as they are in the modern capital, and that the roads were just as crowded. Moreover the image of the policeman directing the flow of vehicles – one we probably now associate with the 1950s and 60s – may be just as appropriate for the 1890s.

In early March 1890 Nathan, the first Baron de Rothschild, was being driven in brougham coach along Queen Victoria Street in the City. A policeman was holding the traffic and had his arm extended up, palm out to signal this. Lord Rothschild’s driver eased his horses to a halt to wait for the officer’s signal to continue.

Suddenly, and seemingly without warning, the coach was hit from behind by a hansom cab. One of the shafts of the cab broke through the brougham, narrowly missing its occupants. Rothschild was shaken, but unhurt. The baron stepped down from the damaged coach and approached the policeman. He handed him his card and said, possibly angrily:

‘These cabmen always drive furiously. Take my card and give it to the Inspector. It will be all right’.

The incident ended up with the cabbie, James Povey, being summoned before the alderman magistrate at Guildhall Police court where he was charged with ‘driving a hansom cab wantonly’. Povey pleaded ‘not guilty’ and one of his passenger that day, a gentleman named Palmer, was in court to support him.

Mr Palmer testified that the baron and his driver could not possibly have seen what happened as they were facing the wrong way. He said that Povey had tried to stop and it was entirely an accident, not ‘wanton’ or dangerous driving. The alderman agreed and dismissed the summons, adding that a claim for the damage to the brougham could be made in the civil courts. There was no need, Povey’s representative (a Mr Edmonds, solicitor for the Cab Union) explained, as that had already been settled.

Rothschild was an important figure in late nineteenth-century Britain, a banker and the financial backer of Cecil Rhodes, he was a noted philanthropist as well, helping fund housing (in the form of model dwellings) for poor Jews in Spitalfields and Whitechapel.

Rothschild sat in parliament for the Liberals, although he had been a close friend of the Conservative Prime Minster Benjamin Disraeli. By 1896 he was a peer, sitting in the Lords (as he had since 1885) an honour bestowed by that other great Victorian premier, William Gladstone. He then left the Liberals in 1886, joining forces with Joseph Chamberlain’s Liberal Unionists as the Liberal Party split over Home Rule for Ireland. He died in 1915 and the current baron, Jacob, is the 4th to hold the title.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, March 11, 1896]

The fight to get to work

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Since Friday I have been following one week’s ‘police intelligence’ in the London newspapers in 1884, a year which followed the same calendar as 2019. On Monday the newspapers reported a selection of cases heard at the capital’s Police courts on the preceding Saturday (since the courts were closed on a Sunday).

On Saturday 24 January 1884 one of these was the reappearance after a couple of days of Henry Brayne, a clerk from Leytonstone who worked in the City. Brayne had been accused of assault by his (unnamed) victim, another City worker. The pair had been walking independently along the Poultry – one of the City streets that leads past Mansion House to the Bank of England – when they bumped into each other.

The other man was carrying some parcels and nearly toppled over. He turned on Brayne and said that had he got both his hands free he would ‘teach him better’ than to nearly knock people over in the street. Brayne took exception to this and punched the man in the eye.

When the pair had appeared in court on the Thursday the Lord Mayor (who sat as Chief Magistrate for the City of London) advised the pair to settle their differences by negotiating some compensation for the wounded man’s injury. Failing that, he said, he would hear the action for assault against the clerk.

It now transpired that the pair had agreed a financial arrangement that was mutually acceptable. The amount of this was not disclosed in court (or at least it was not reported) but given that Brayne’s attack had left the other party without the ability to see in one eye (albeit, we hope, temporarily) it must have been a fairly hefty settlement.

It reminds us that London was an exceptionally busy place in the Victorian period. The streets were as rammed with traffic as they are today and all the photos we see of the capital’s centre show thousands of commuters fighting (clearly sometimes literally) to make their ways to and from work.

Plus ça change, eh?

[from The Morning Post, Monday, 26 January, 1884]

The booze does the talking as a business transaction ends in injury

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Accidents do happen but they can still result in court cases, especially if injury is involved. This was the case with Thomas Clossy, a traveller who wound up in bed with a London prostitute one night in late December 1858.

Clossy had been drinking with a woman he’d met in the City Road. Earlier Fanny Herd (described in court as a ‘handsome and well-dressed female of the “unfortunate” class’) had ‘entertained him at her rooms on Westmorland Road. Now the pair were in the Eagle Tavern sipping glasses of ‘port wine-negus’ (which is port mixed with orange or lemon, species and hot water).

At her rooms Clossy had enjoyed a simple meal and a bottle of stout (along with the other ‘entertainment’) but he seemed reluctant to pay her for that. The pair argued and Fanny threw the contents of her glass on the floor, with some of it going over the traveller’s clothes. Clossy retaliated and hurled his drink at her, losing his grip of the glass in the process. The vessel broke as it hit the woman on the head and she was rushed off to be treated in hospital.

Appearing in court at Worship Street Clossy was sorry for what he’d done; it was an accident and probably the result of how he’d been holding the glass (by its base, presumably because it was hot). It took several days before Fanny was able to attend court but when she did she seemed content to accept the man’s apology so long as it was accompanied by a suitable compensation. The pair left the court together after Clossy agreed to pay whatever he owed her along with something extra by way of compensation for the injury he’d caused.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, 7 January, 1859]