A bit of good luck quickly turns into a personal disaster for one London plumber

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An 1865 issue Victorian florin (not actual size…)

I suppose that in these days of contactless payment fewer and fewer of us use real money any more. Even when I go the pub I rarely pay with case, and never do so in shops any more. Am I unusual, I doubt it?

If you do use cash and a barman or shop assistant gives you change, do you check it? If its short I imagine you’d say something but what if they give you back too much? I expect most of us would quietly offer a prayer to  the gods of good fortune and walk away.

That may be what Edward Pearce did in September 1892 as he paid for drinks at the bar of the Orange Tree pub in the Euston Road. The 48 year old plumber insisted that he’d handed over a florin for two glasses of ale, for which he was given 16in silver, and a further 4d in bronze as change. A florin was worth around 24 old pence, or a tenth of a pound. Since a shilling was 12 pence, we can assume his drinks cost him twopence. Today in my favourite pub I’ll pay about £10 for two ‘glasses of ale’.  Edward was paying around 68p in today’s money.

However, the barman quickly realized his mistake when he saw that instead of a florin Edward had only given him 2d  and so wasn’t entitled to any change at all. He demanded the money back but Pearce refused, insisting he’d handed over a two-shilling piece (the florin).

The police were called and since Pearce stuck to his story and the barman stuck to his the case came before the magistrate at Marylebone Police court where the plumber was tried for theft. It may have been an honest mistake or simply a cheeky attempt to get away with a bit of good luck. Sadly for Pearce all he ended up with was a week’s incarceration with hard labour. A little harsh even by late Victorian standards.

[from The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, September 17, 1892]

A brave man saves a young life

Rotherhithe early 1811

William Whitlock was a brave man and a humanitarian; someone who was prepared to risk his own life to save others. While we should always be sensible about wading in to disputes or rushing into burning houses to rescue people I would hope our society still has people like William in it. Sadly, if the reports from some of the emergency services are to be believed, we have become a society that would rather record an accident or calamity on our mobile phones than take an active role in helping out.

William lived at 1 Canal Row, Albany Road close by the banks of the Surrey Canal. The canal was built in the early nineteenth century to transport cargo to the Surrey Commercial Docks and its long towpath provided opportunities for recreation and for those with darker intentions.

On the evening  of Tuesday 20 August 1844 William was walking along the canal, as he often did, when he heard raised voices ahead. Two young people, a man  and a woman, were arguing. The woman saw him and ran over.

‘For God’s sake, Sir’, he pleaded, ‘use your endeavours to prevent that young man [indicating the other person] from destroying himself, for he has threatened to drown himself’.

William spoke to the man and advised him to go home. The other, whose name was Edward Hornblow, was clearly distressed and perhaps a little under the influence of alcohol, at first seemed to agree and started to walk away. Then suddenly he turned and ran headlong towards the canal, leaping into the water.

At that point the canal was about 8-9 feet deep and Edward disappeared into the depths. William stripped off his jacket and dived in after him. He was a strong swimmer and he needed to be because as he surfaced the young man grabbed hold of him, suddenly desperate to live. At first the pair sunk like a stone but when they came back up gasping for air, William managed to drag himself and Edward to the canal bank. By then the woman had got into the water where it was shallower and together she and Mr Whitlock struggled but got Edward to safety.

Edward Hornblow was in a sorry state and he was carried, insensible, to the parish workhouse to be treated. The young woman, whose name was kept out of the subsequent newspaper report, was also badly affected by the experience. She suffered ‘violent fits afterwards’.

Two days later William was in court at Union Hall to testify to Edward Hornblow’s attempted suicide. Hornblow had recovered sufficiently but the woman was not in court. William Whitlock said that he had rescued a number of people from the canal and the magistrate asked him if he had ever had a reward for it.   The Humane Society was formed to help prevent suicide and it often gave monetary rewards to those that saved lives. No, William told Mr Cottingham, he had never been rewarded for his actions even though on the previous occasion that he’d leapt into the canal (to save a young woman) he’d had to remain in his wet clothes for hours, and had a caught a chill as a result.

Mr Cottingham now turned his attention to the defendant and asked him why he’d taken the action he had. It was a fairly typical story of unrequited love. William had been ‘paying his attentions’ to the young woman in question and was trying to move their relationship on by discussing marriage. She wasn’t ready or she wasn’t interested. Either way, having taken some ‘Dutch courage’ before he popped the question the young man was sufficiently traumatized by the rejection to attempt his own life. He was sorry for what he’d done and promised not to repeat his actions in future.

The magistrate ended by praising William Whitlock’s heroics and ordered that Edward Hornblow provide financial sureties against any repeat of his behaviour. He would be locked up until these were secured. This case is a reminder that suicide (and its attempt) was fairly common in the 1800s with canal and the Thames being regular scenes of these human tragedies. In many cases the thing that stopped attempts from being successful was the quick and brave actions of passersby, the ‘have a go heroes’ of the nineteenth century. I do hope we haven’t entirely lost that spirit in our modern ‘me first’ society.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, August 23, 1844]

‘Take me back to prison; take me to my dungeon and my chains!’

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In most assault cases heard before the Metropolitan Police courts the magistrates had the option to fine or to imprison defendants. There was clear class bias in operation  and not simply because wealthier defendants could afford fines while poorer ones could not. There seems to have been an unwritten understanding that ‘respectable’ persons would be fined for their indiscretions while the ‘rougher’ element needed to be taught a harsher lesson.

Fines were levied on a sliding scale that also appears largely to have been at the discretion of the magistrate. For disorderly behaviour and drunkenness you might receive a penalty of a few shillings, for assault this could rise into towards a few pounds. If a justice wanted to punish someone severely he could impose a fine that he didn’t expect the prisoner to be able to pay, meaning that the culprit would end up serving a prison sentence by default.

Mr Schmidt (of the firm of Schmidt and Co. music publishers) was not your usual drunk or street brawler but in August 1869 he found himself facing a charge of assault at Marlborough Street Police court. What will quickly become clear is that Schmidt, while a respectable businessman, was clearly not in full command of his senses. This was to have dire consequences, especially so given his social rank.

The publisher was attending a performance (of what is not stated) at the Judge and Jury club in Leicester Square. This club (or these, as I think there might have been more than one in the capital) were gatherings where you might enjoy a fairly disreputable evening’s entertainment as this clipping describes:

‘The one I speak of met in an hotel not far from Covent-garden, and was presided over by a man famous in his day for his power of double entendre. About nine o’clock in the evening, if you went up-stairs you would find a large room with benches capable of accommodating, I should think, a hundred, or a hundred and fifty persons. This room was generally well filled, and by their appearance the audience was one you would call respectable. The entrance fee entitled you to refreshment, and that refreshment, in the shape of intoxicating liquor, was by that time before each visitant.

After waiting a few minutes, a rustle at the entrance would cause you to turn your eyes in that direction, when, heralded by a crier with a gown and a staff of office, exclaiming, “Make way for my Lord Chief Baron,” that illustrious individual would be seen wending his way to his appointed seat. […] the Lord Chief Baron called for a cigar and glass of brandy and water, and, having observed that the waiter was in the room and that he hoped gentlemen would give their orders, the proceedings of the evening commenced. A jury was selected; the prosecutor opened his case, which, to suit the depraved taste of his patrons, was invariably one of seduction or crim. con. Witnesses were examined and cross-examined, the females being men dressed up in women’s clothes, and everything was done that could be to pander to the lowest propensities of depraved humanity. 

These Judge and Jury Clubs after all are but an excuse for drinking. They are held at public-houses – there is drinking going on all the time the trial lasts, – nor could sober men listen unless they had the drink.’ 

                                       The Night Side of London, by J. Ewing Ritchie, 1858

The emphasis on the heavy consumption of alcohol might explain Schmidt’s behaviour that night. According to the chief witness against him – Mr Brooks, the ‘Chief Baron’ himself – the publisher was acting in a very disorderly way, so much so that the Baron had to have a word with him. However, if he hoped that this would calm him down he was sadly mistaken. Schmidt leaped up from his seat, grabbed Brooks by the throat and screamed ‘I’m the vulture, I’m the vulture!’ at him.

It was a bizarre display and as Brooks tried to wrestle himself away he was knocked to the floor and his watch was trampled on. Eventually half a dozen other people rushed in to help pull the music publisher off him and Schmidt was subdued and handed over to the police.

The magistrate had heard enough to declare that this was a case that demanded a prison sentence not a fine and was about to hand that down when a man came into court waving his hands to get the justice’s attention. Edward Lewis said he was a friend of the accused and said that Schmidt was ‘labouring under a temporary aberration of intellect’.

In other words he was not himself and Lewis promised that he and others would take him under their care and look after him while he recovered. He was, he added, a ‘most respectable man’. Mr Knox turned to the wronged party to ask his opinion on the matter. The ‘Chief Baron’ was gracious: he said he would ‘very sorry to press severely on a respectable person under such circumstances’. He would leave to the magistrate to decided what to do with Mr Schmidt.

Mr Knox relented and ordered that  a fine of £5 be paid. Schmidt was removed to the cells while a messenger was sent to fetch his business partner and his cheque book. When he returned Schmidt was brought up and asked to make his payment to the court. This is where it could have all ended reasonably happily but Mr Schmidt was still possessed with whatever rage had caused him to overact in the Judge and Jury club.

He ‘seized the cheque book, flung it to the end of the room, shouting, “Take me back to prison; take me to my dungeon and my chains”.’

His wish was granted and the gaoler led him away to start a month’s incarceration in the local house of correction. It was a dreadful fall from grace and one, I fear, he will have struggled to recover from, despite the best efforts of his friends.

[from The Standard, Monday, August 16, 1869]

‘You are one of Colonel Henderson’s ruffians!’:one of the ‘Devil’s Own’ takes his anger out on the police

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The Albert Embankment under construction in 1869

As two police constables patrolled the Albert Embankment on Saturday evening in May 1879 they heard and then saw a horse and rider approaching. The man was smartly dressed but seemed to be swaying in the saddle as if a little the worse for drink. PC Vaughan (143L) commented to his companion that they should keep an eye on him.

Soon afterwards, as the coppers watched, the equestrian turned off the embankment into Gloucester Street, a dead end street that led only to some dust yards. They followed him into the dimly lit street and saw that a large crowd of dustmen and small boys had gathered around him. He was throwing them silver coins which they were scrambling for the in dirt of the street.

This was a potentially dangerous situation; if the man was drunk it was quite possible, PC Vaughan thought, that he might be hauled off his mount and robbed. The officers moved in through the throng and advised the rider, firmly, to desist and go home. Instead of obeying the constable’s request however, the man growled at him:

You are one of Colonel Henderson’s ruffians, I should like to have a turn with him in Belgium, choose our own weapons, and stand six yards apart’.

Sir Edmund Henderson was commissioner of the metropolitan police from 1869 to 1886. He resigned following the embarrassment of the West End (or ‘Pall Mall’) riots of 1886. He had a military background (as did his successor, Charles Warren) and had also served in Australia with a responsibility for the government of convicts before returning to England to run the prison system. henderson2

The police themselves did not enjoy the affection of the public that they do today and this clearly extended beyond the lower working class. The rider was a barrister, William Belt, aged 53, and resident in Bedford Square. As a man of some means and position he had no obvious reason to dislike the police but referring to them as ‘ruffians’ was fairly unambiguous. His comment about ‘six yards’ suggested he was spoiling for a fight  (since it referenced the classic duel) and when he hit PC Vaughan over the head with his riding whip all doubt of his belligerence towards the police was dispelled. I imagine he was cheered by the assembled dustmen but not by the two policemen who grabbed the reins of the horse and pulled him away.

With difficulty, and with Mr Belt refusing to dismount, the two constables escorted their captive to a police station and charged him with being drunk and with assaulting a police officer. Belt gave his name, address and occupation (barrister) and appeared in court at Lambeth before Mr Chance where he denied everything.

He said he had been riding on the Embankment to meet up with his old regiment – the ‘Devil’s Own’ – at Wimbledon. He wasn’t drunk he said, but ill. He had nothing more than ‘two spoonsful of brandy’  that day and despite the fact that – as PC Vaughan reported – he was riding without the use of his stirrups he was entirely in control of his horse. Medical evidence was heard which supported both his and the police’s claim about him being inebriated that night so it was left to Mr Chance to decide the outcome.

The magistrate was pretty clear an assault had taken place, and sure that the police were justified in trying to remove the barrister from a tricky situation where he might have been the victim of crime. But in part because the man had managed to ride so far without the use of his stirrups and because he was, after all, a gentleman, he dismissed the charge of drunkenness. Belt was ordered to pay a fine of £3, which he did, and discharged.

I wondered about the ‘Devil’s Own’ that Belt referred to as his old regiment. During the Napoleonic Wars the Connaught Rangers (88thRegiment of Foot) were nicknamed the ‘Devil’s Own’ and earned a fearsome reputation in the Peninsula. But William Belt was too young to have served in the wars against Napoleon, being born in 1826. There was, however, a volunteer corps of Inns of Court troops that had been formed during the Crimean War – the 23rd Middlesex Rifles – and this may have been the barrister’s regiment.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, May 06, 1879]

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

“Well, you needn’t make all this fuss. I only did it to frighten the children”: child abuse in mid Victorian London

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The police had their work cut out for them in ensuring Edward Smith reached the Marylebone Police court safely. A large crowd had gathered outside the police station that was holding the ‘ruffianly looking fellow’ – a 26 year-old sawyer who lived in Paul Street, Lisson Grove. Had the crowd been able to get to him the press reported, ‘he would no doubt have been subjected to much violence’.

Smith did make it to court that day and Mr Broughton’s courtroom was crowded as the public crammed in to see that justice was done to Smith. The exact details of his offence were alluded to rather than described in detail by the Morning Post and that was because they involved the attempted rape of a young girl.

That child was Sarah Harriett Cooper and she was also in court that morning. Today Sarah would have been spared another direct confrontation with her abuser but in the mid Victorian period there were no such considerations for the welfare of the vulnerable. Sarah, aged 11 or 12, was stood in the witness box and asked a series of probing questions about her experience.

She told the magistrate that while her mother was a work she and some other girls were playing in a piece of open ground on the Harrow Road which was owned by a nurseryman. The little girls were trespassing but doing nothing more than running about and having fun. Suddenly Smith appeared and seized hold of Sarah and the three other children ran away in fear. Sarah said she pleaded with him to ‘let me go home to my mother’ but the sawyer put his hand over her mouth, told her not to make a noise, and threatened to cut her throat.

What happened next was not recorded by the press except to state that it amounted, if proven, to the committal of a ‘capital offence’. By 1852 adult rape was no longer capital but Sarah was under the age of consent (which was 13 until 1885) so perhaps that was a hanging offence. Sarah testified that she had ‘cried all the while he was ill-using me’ until ‘he at last lifted me up and brushed down my clothes, which were dirty’ [and] I ran away’. A crowd had gathered near the gates of the gardens and she told them what had happened.

Smith had hurt the child in other ways; he’d used a knife to cut a wound in her hand and she held it up to show the magistrate the puncture mark on her left palm. If this wasn’t evidence enough of Smith’s cruelty there other witnesses appeared to add their weight to the charge.

George Ashley had been walking past the gates to the nursery with friend when a small boy ran out shouting that his sister had been taken away by a man there. Ashley entered the gardens and saw Smith lifting the child up. Sarah was screaming at the top of her voice and the man was telling her to be silent. He sent his companion to fetch a policeman.

PC Lane (372A) arrived soon afterwards, finding a large crowd gathered around Sarah, who hand was bleeding badly. He soon discovered Edward Smith hiding in an outside privy at one end of the nursery grounds. The door was locked but PC Lane burst it open and arrested the sawyer. Questioned about his actions Smith simply declared:

‘Well, you needn’t make all this fuss. I only did it to frighten the children, knowing they had no business in the garden’.

The accused was taken back to the police station house and a search was made of the water closet. PC Cookman (55D) found a large bladed knife buried in the loose soil by the WC, which was open (suggesting it had been recently used and abandoned in a hurry). The girls’ mother described Sarah’s injuries and trauma when she’d got home, and a certificate from the surgeon that had treated her was read out in court detailing her injuries.

Finally the magistrate turned his attention to the man in the dock. Smith denied using violence against Sarah, or at least denied acting in an unlawful way. She and her friends were trespassing and he insisted he was only intending to ‘pull up her clothes for the purpose of giving her a smack, when she began to cry, and ran off’. He said the knife wasn’t his and he had no idea why it was found by the closet. He’d been drinking he said, and because he rarely touched alcohol, that had affected his head. Mr Broughton remanded him for a week and he was taken away to Clerkenwell Prison in a police van, followed all the way by a baying crowd of angry locals.

Just under a month later Smith was formally tried at the Middlesex Sessions of the Peace for an aggravated assault with the intent to rape. Smith was convicted by the jury and sentenced to 18 months imprisonment.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, March 30, 1852; The Morning Post, Wednesday, April 14, 1852]

Polish ‘moonshine’ and a police stakeout in Whitechapel 1888

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Detective supervisor Llewhellin [sic] had organised a stakeout to watch two properties in Whitechapel in March 1888. This had nothing to do with the infamous murders in that district because, in the spring of that year, no one suspected that the name ‘Jack the Ripper’ was about to become a byword for brutality against women.

Instead Llewhellin and the two detective constables under his orders were acting on information that a number of people were involved in buying and selling spirits without paying the tax due on them. As they waited they saw two men – Aaron Klausner (34) and Aaron Cohen Zeitlin (17) – enter the house in the middle of the night, carrying ‘a hamper partially filled with straw’. Not long afterwards they reappeared outside 72 Whitechapel High Street with the same hamper, but this time it seemed to be a lot heavier, as they were struggling a little to support it.

As the men moved off Llewhellin and his team followed at a distance tracking them to a house known to be the home of a local Rabbi. Just as they were about to go inside Llewhellin pounced, ordering his men to arrest them. Zeitlin took to his heels but was picked up soon afterwards, hiding in a nearby loft. The rabbi was Zeitlin’s father but he seemed to know nothing about his boy’s activities. The place was searched nevertheless and a quantity of wine was found there.

More wine (some being made) and two barrels of spirits were discovered at Klausner’s home and it was clear some sort of illegal operation had been exposed. In court Klausner admitted that he had been making a white spirit distilled from plums. This could be a ‘moonshine’ version of slivovitz, which is widely drunk in Central and Eastern Europe. It is a plum brandy which has very long association with Jewish cultural traditions in Poland, where many of the Jewish community living in Spitalfields and Whitechapel had emigrated from.

Aaron Klausner dealt in spirits and the police undercover team had purchased nine bottles from him only days before as part of their operation. However, in court Klausner claimed that he’d paid duty for the spirit and hadn’t known it was against the law to take it from one place to another without paying additional excise charges. According to an officer from the Inland Revenue who was present it was, and of course ignorance of the law is no defense for breaking it.

Mr Hannay, who was the duty magistrate at Worship Street Police court, took pity on the pair however. The fine they were both liable to was substantial but the prosecution was, he said, ‘somewhat novel and unusual’ so he would mitigate it. The minimum fine of £10 each would be levied, but that was still a very large sum for them to find.

At first both men were taken away to begin the 21 days imprisonment that was the default punishment for those unable to pay that fine  but Klausner was later released, his friends and relative shaving brought the money to court. Young Zeitlin would have to stay where he was for three weeks and then explain himself to his father on his release. One imagines that would be the most difficult of conversations.

[from The Standard, Thursday, March 22, 1888]

‘I shouldn’t have been here now, only I was dhrunk, yer Honour’.

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Although they feature relatively rarely in the written reports that were published in the newspapers the most common occupants of the Police court dock were those accused of being drunk. ‘Drunk and disorderly’ and ‘drunk and incapable’ were subtly different: the former meant that an offender had probably challenged a policeman’s direct order that they ‘go home quietly’ whilst the latter reflected the reality that they couldn’t.

Anne Murphy fell into the second category. She was found lying on her back in Cleveland Street, until to stand and seemingly having some sort of fit. The constable that discovered her helped her to her feet and walked her, with some difficulty, to the Middlesex Hospital in Mortimer Street, which was just nearby. After a quick examination to make sure she was medically fit and well she was released.

Anne was still far too drunk to walk far however and the police officer was obliged to fetch the station’s Bischoffsheim hand ambulance. He then wheeled her back there to spend a night sobering up in a cell. In the morning she was one of the many drunks that took their turn to be processed before the magistrate at Marlborough Street.

In her defense she told Mr Hannay that she was ‘subject to fits, yer honour’.

‘Drunken’ ones, the justice muttered under his breath. Anne’s hearing was good however, and she denied it.

‘Upon my word, I had none of the creature yesterday. I only had had a share of a pint and a half of four ale, and that was between my daughter, my daughter-in-law, another woman, myself, and a gipsy woman, and we were all sober as aldermen – Lord love ye’.

The court was laughing now, either at Anne’s performance or the idea that aldermen were sober. Mr Hannay spoke to the gaoler saying ‘I see she is not know’. The prisoner in the dock heard him and took offence:

‘Not known, indeed” Oh yes I am. I’ve been in one situation two years’. She meant she had a job, but Mr Hannay was establishing that she had not been in trouble with the law before. ‘I mean you are not known to the police’, he explained.

‘Certainly not, never; why, bless you, I’m a widder of the highest respectability’.

As the court collapsed in laughter the magistrate told her he would let off this time with a warning to behave herself in future, and keep off the drink.

‘I shouldn’t have been her now’, she replied, ‘only I was dhrunk, yer Honour’.

Anne then left the dock, curtsied to the bench and went home, her day in dock to no doubt be retold several times over several glasses of beer.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, March 03, 1891]