‘Oh don’t be so hard on me,’ pleads an Irish philosopher and gentleman of the road

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I had a ‘conversation’ yesterday on social media with someone asking how he should act when homeless people ask for money in the street. Should he give money, or buy them food or a coffee, or should he simply take the time to chat to them? It is a complex question and I quite understood his dilemma; some charities (like the Salvation Army) tell us not to give money, believing it perpetuates the problem. Others suggest we should to help them get the basic necessities of life.

I’m also often told that ‘they will spend it on drink or drugs’, not that it is any of my business how they spend whatever money they have.

Homelessness, vagrancy and begging are not modern social issues, they have been with us for as long as humans have lived in societies. The ‘modern’ vagrancy laws in Britain have their roots in the Tudor period with laws to punish ‘sturdy beggars’ and the building of houses of correction to enforce them. By the Victorian period poverty was endemic and being dealt with by the Poor Law, with workhouses operating as a deterrent to the ‘work-shy’ in the belief that poverty was a personal failing, not a product of society or a capitalist economic system.

There was also limited understanding of mental health and very little state provision for those that suffered. That much is obvious form so many of the cases I’ve written about on this site. I am reluctant to say that nineteenth-century society didn’t care about the poor and homeless and mentally ill, just that it didn’t really understand them and the underlying reasons for their actions.

St. George Gregg was someone who often found himself in trouble with the authorities in the late 1830s and early 40s. He’d come up before the Police court magistrates at Queen Square on more than one occasion in 1840 and was there again in early May that year.

Gregg was an Irishman and was frequently charged for being drunk. He was about to be convicted and fined by Mr Burrell when he raised his hand and asked if he could say a few words. The justice agreed and listened.

The defendant held out a small book, offering it to the chief usher to give to the magistrate. He explained that he’d been writing a book ‘on the currency question’ and thought his worship might like a copy. Mr. Burrell wasn’t interested.

I don’t want your book. What have you to say to the charge against you?’

I walk frequently thirty miles a day’, replied Gregg, ‘That fatigues me, and if I have nothing to eat the liquor has an effect sooner. I had no dinner yesterday, in fact I had no “tin”.’

The magistrate didn’t know what he meant by ‘tin’, so asked him.

Tin is money’, the man explained, ‘and having no  money I had no dinner’.

He’d tried to sell his books for money but seemingly had no takers to he’d started to sing in the streets and that way he’d raised a few pennies which he spent on drink.

‘You might have purchased victuals with that’, Mr Burrrell remarked.

‘Oh, sure, I wasn’t victuals hungry, I was grog hungry’ Gregg shot back. ‘I was like the captivating chandler, wanted I wanted in starch, I made up in blue’, he said, warming to his theme.

So I had toddy till I had but a single copper left, then devil a bed had I, and was making my way to the church-yard to go to bed on a tombstone, when the police found me quarters’.

He added that he’d written a study of ‘ambition’ and would send the magistrate a copy.

‘I don’t want your book. You are fined 5s’ was Mr. Burrell’s response.

Gregg hadn’t got one shilling let alone five and the justice must have realised this. What was the point of fining a homeless tramp anyway? Gregg attempted to barter with the justice, offering him books that he probably hadn’t written (and certainly hadn’t ‘published’ as he’d insisted he had) as part payment of the penalty. Burrell was having none of it and ordered him to be taken away; if he couldn’t pay the fine he’d have to go to prison.

Oh don’t be so hard on me’, pleaded the Irishman, ‘I want to finish a poem’. He was led away protesting his freedom.

Society didn’t understand George Gregg. He didn’t, couldn’t or wouldn’t conform to what was expected of him. He chose to live by his wits and on his own terms. Perhaps he was a ‘popular philosopher’, who wrote tracts in notebooks or scraps of paper that nobody read. His logical response to accusations of being drunk (drinking on an empty stomach) or his choice of how to spend the money he’d earned (on drink because he was thirsty after singing and walking) would be quite reasonable if he was a ‘normal’ member of society. Because he was an outsider and had chosen to live differently to others, the law treated him as a problem. It punished him rather than helped him. I’m not entirely sure we have made much progress in the last 180 odd years.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, May 7, 1840]

The unwanted dinner guest

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Let’s not beat about the bush, James Bull was an alcoholic. In 1840 the papers referred to him as ‘dissipated’ by they meant that he was a drunk. Bull was, technically at least, a married man with an eleven year old child, but he had separated from his wife some time ago.

Mrs Bull was a ‘woman of steady and trustworthy principles’ and whether she had thrown him out or he had simply left isn’t clear. What is evident is that James was on his uppers; out of money he needed to rely on his long suffering wife to support him. She worked as a domestic servant in the Earl of Darlington’s London home at Upper Brook Street.

James was in the habit of visiting his estranged spouse and demanding money with menaces. He had developed a strategy of calling when he knew the house had guests for dinner, forcing his way into the kitchens and threatening to prevent her from overseeing the dinner service.

This would not only have been an embarrassment to Mrs Bull, it could have put her employment in jeopardy. In mid April 1840 James went too far, and caused a disturbance at the house which was brought to the attention of the Earl (or the head of his household staff at least). James Bull was arrested and taken before the magistrate at Marlborough Street Police court on a charge of creating a disturbance.

Mrs Bull told the justice, Mr Long, that she allowed her husband six shillings a week from her wages but it was ‘quite impossible’ for her to do more for him. She had her child to look after and James was perfectly capable of finding work. He was ‘strong, able-bodied , and capable, if so disposed, of keeping himself’.

In his defence James said he was ‘without money, and he had not tasted food for some time’ which was why he’d visited his wife at her work.

After all, he added, he ‘had a right to’ ask her for help.

That was as maybe but he had no right to abuse her, or impact her work and endanger her employment. And things were worse than this the court discovered. Mr Long pressed her and she admitted that in the past few weeks James had threatened and assaulted her.  Having ‘elicited’  this information from Mrs Bull the magistrate decided to intervene in this domestic squabble. He committed James to the Sessions where he would have to answer for his actions, and find bail in the meantime to avoid being remanded in prison.

It was a serious message to James to leave his wife alone and accept the small amount of charity she had volunteered. It was also an injunction to him to give up his ‘dissipated’ lifestyle and find honest work. If not he could expect to be seeing the inside of many more police and prison cells in the future and could kiss goodbye to seeing his wife and child ever again.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, April 16, 1840]

This policeman’s lot is particularly unhappy at home.

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Yesterday we heard about a domestic abuse case from Holloway involving a bricklayer who set about his drunken wife with an iron poker. Today the roles are reversed as it is the woman who is in the dock accused of using violence against her husband. To add spice to this story of marital strife the victim was a policeman and his wife ended up in prison, which must have made life very uncomfortable for the remainder of their married life.

PC Arthur Moss, stationed at Forest Gate station in K Division, was at home at 7 o’clock in the evening of the 11 February 1891. His wife Elizabeth came home much the worse for drink and Arthur probably upbraided her for it. The couple had a number of small children and they witnessed and got involved in the fight that followed.

Presumably annoyed that her husband, the symbolic head of the house and ‘arm of the law’, had criticised her drinking (again) Elizabeth reacted violently. According to the report in the newspaper:

‘She picked up a full cup of tea and threw it over him, then hurled a saucer at his head. Going to the dresser, she hurled a dozen plates, one at a time, at him. One of them hit him on the side of his face, cutting his nose;  others struck him about the body’.

As she picked up a lamp to strike him with Arthur managed to grab her and wrestled her to the ground, and one of the children removed the weapon from her hands before she could do any more damage with it. Enraged by this Elizabeth contented herself with biting her spouse’s hand.

PC Moss reported the incident at Forest Gate to Inspector Death and Elizabeth was arrested and brought before the magistrate at Stratford Police Court. The bench were told that the inspector had visited and found that the children ‘were terrified’ by the experience. PC Moss testified that his wife was often drunk and had threatened to set light to his bed and to ‘kill you before the night is out’.

The policeman had sustained cuts and bruises as a result of the attack and Elizabeth had apparently threatened to harm the children if they did not come and speak up for her in court; Moss would ‘find them weltering in their blood’ she had warned him.

Elizabeth had little to say in her defence only stating that she ‘had had a lot of trouble recently’ as ‘her children were ill and the place in uproar’. Perhaps what she was intimating was that her husband wasn’t around much and she wasn’t coping very well. Policemen worked long hours and marriages were often strained. Not that this was an excuse for her drinking or for her violence and the bench was not inclined to be lenient.

Elizabeth was sent to prison at hard labour for a month, how this helped PC Moss is not very clear. Hopefully he had a sister or mother that could help out, otherwise he’d need a very considerate station sergeant. Going forward this not only affected the relationship between Arthur and Elizabeth, and their children; by challenging his authority and it being dragged through open court Arthur’s public reputation had been affected adversely. A man that could not control his wife was a lesser man in many people’s eyes in the Victorian period, for a policeman this must have been particularly hard to take.

[from The Standard , Monday, February 16, 1891]

‘A murderous outrage’ in Holloway

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We are staying in 1891 today to see if any there were any Police Court developments in the wake of Frances Coles’ murder on the 13 February of that year. Lloyd’s Weekly  carried reports from seven of the capital’s courts but there was no mention here of Coles, the ‘Ripper’ or the man who became associated with this killing, James Sadler.

Instead the paper covered a complaint about the mis-labelling of Turkish cigarettes, theft from a theatre district club, two different frauds (one by a nine year-old boy), a gold robbery, a so-called ‘fair fight’ that turned nasty, and the case I’d like to focus on today, which was described as ‘a murderous outrage’ .

The case had come up before at North London Police Court and the accused, a 35 year-old bricklayer named Daniel Shannon, had been remanded for further enquiries. He was charged with assaulting Jessie Bazely with whom he cohabited in Chapel Road, Holloway. Jessie had been too poorly to attend on the first occasion Shannon had appeared and the court was told she remained in that state, if not a worse one.

The paper reminded its readers of the basic details of the case: Shannon had objected to his partner’s drinking and they had argued. In the scuffle that followed Shannon had grabbed a poker and smashed her over the head with it. In his defence the bricklayer argued that it was an accident:

‘he said that ‘the woman took up the poker to strike him, and in struggling they fell on the floor, the woman’s head coming in contact with the fender’.

The police investigated the assault and Inspector Charles Bradley of Y Division was present in court to report on their findings so far, and in particular the condition of Jessie. Her evidence would be crucial in determining what happened to Shannon next.

The inspector told the magistrate that the poor woman was being held in the workhouse infirmary and had gone quite mad as a result of her injuries and her previous addiction to drink. When asked what evidence he had for this the policeman declared that he had seen her there ‘being held down by five nurses’. Moreover, she had attempted her own life and had bitten several of the staff there. Dr George Wright, the divisional police surgeon, then confirmed the inspector’s report.

From the dock of the court the prisoner asked for the fender to be produced. He said he wanted to demonstrate what had happened so he could clear his name. Inspector Bradley said that he had asked for this previously, but had been denied. The magistrate also refused his request and remanded him in custody once more.

We shall see if the case is picked up later in the week, or if the attention of the press became fixated on events in the East End instead.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, February 15, 1891]

Pickett climbs a fence and saves a life

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It was about midnight on the 3 February 1866 and James Pickett was walking home along a path that ran parallel to the tow path of the Regent’s canal. It must have been a dark night because there was no full moon that February (itself a rare occurrence) so what happened next was all the more exceptional.

Pickett heard a sound, perhaps a splash or a gasp, and must have realised that someone was in the water. He clambered over the railings and rushed to the water’s edge, jumping in without pausing to remove his clothes.

James, a mechanic, was a strong man and after a struggle he managed to secure the person in the canal (a woman named Elizabeth Groves) and bring her safely out of the water. She lay on the bank ‘insensible and apparently dead’ but the mechanic picked her up and found a way to get her to hospital. Although Elizabeth had gone under the water to a depth of 8 feet and was feared drowned, she made a full recovery in the Royal Free Hospital.

However, this was no accident and it soon became evident that Elizabeth had attempted to put an end to her own life by throwing herself in the canal. The Regent’s Canal (like the Thames river) was a popular spot for suicides like Elizabeth (and indeed for anyone who wished to dispose of a dead body – as was to become apparent in the Thames Torso murder series of 1887-8).

Suicide was against the law and so once she was well enough Elizabeth was produced at Clerkenwell Police Court and asked to explain herself by Mr D’Eyncourt. Elizabeth, an artificial flower maker, told the magistrate that:

‘she was very sorry for what she had done. She included to attempt to take her life because she had separated from her husband’.

Either the shame of a failed marriage or her despair at losing someone she loved had driven Elizabeth to her desperate decision. Her husband appeared in court to say that he had parted from her because of her drinking but was prepared to have her back if the ‘magistrate would allow it’. That was the best course of action for everyone; a term of imprisonment was not likely to help Elizabeth and as long as she embraced this ‘second chance’ they was some hope that the Roves could make a decent fist of their marriage.

The real hero here, as Mr D’Eyncourt made  appoint of recognising, was James Pickett. He had ‘behaved in a very gallant manner’ the magistrate told him and declared that he should be rewarded with the sum of £2 from the  court’s poor box.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, February 05, 1866]

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A feckless husband and father is brought to book

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Today I start my third year classes at the University of Northampton teaching and working with students on a module entitled ‘Crime and Popular Culture in the late Victorian City’. The City in question is London and we concentrate on the last quarter of the 1800s. In particular the module uses the Whitechapel murders of 1888 as a prism through which to explore crime, poverty, and a variety of other topics, using different sorts of popular culture along the way.

Naturally this aligns quite neatly with this blog that looks at the work of the Victorian Police Courts. As is evident to anyone who regularly dips into these stories, ‘all human life is here’.

Poverty is one of the fundamental defining characteristics of many of those that ended up before a police magistrate in the nineteenth century. Poverty was a prime cause of criminal activity; poverty often went hand-in-hand with alcohol abuse and gambling; poverty and domestic spousal abuse were also strongly interlinked. In addition many (if not most) of those seeking advice from the Police Courts were poor, vulnerable, or elderly.

Poverty and the police courts then, were inseparable.

Walter Crump was described by the court reporter as an ‘able-bodied young man’ when he was examined before the magistrate at Westminster Police court on 11 January 1888. He was brought in by the guardians of the poor at St George’s, Hanover Square, for deserting his wife and children. His absence had left them in poverty and had meant they had turned to the parish for support, meaning their upkeep fell on the ratepayers.

They had been in the Fulham Road workhouse since July when Crump had left them and the parish officials had tried, and failed, to get him to take responsibility for them. They had written to him, the magistrate was told, warning him that a prosecution would follow if he did nothing to help them, but he:

‘took no heed of this, but went to races and hopping [as many Londoners did in the late summer], returning to Westminster and living in lodging houses as a single man’.

Walter denied trying to evade the authorities and said that previously he had been unable to support his family. Now, with some improvement in his condition, he might be able to ‘pay something weekly’.

Mr Eyncourt, the sitting magistrate at Westminster, was unimpressed. He had cost the ratepayers the sum of £30 by neglecting his familial duties (perhaps as much as £1,800 in today’s money). He had only offered to do anything about it when ‘he was in custody’. he added, and it had taken a great deal of time and effort to track him down. As a result he was sent to prison for a month at hard labour, just how useful that was in supporting the family is less clear but I presume it was intended as a message to others.

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

You can use this site to search for specific crimes or use the Themes link in the menu on the left to look for areas or topics that interest you. If you are interested in a particular court (such as Bow Street or Marylebone) you can also limit your search to one court in particular. Please feel free to comment on anything you read and if something in particular interests you then please get in touch. You can email me at drew.gray@northampton.ac.uk

You are ‘ruining my brains’:the effects of imprisonment on one Londoner

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Kate Driscoll was a regular in the Clerkenwell Police Court. The 25 year-old book folder* of ‘no fixed abode’ had been sent to prison on numerous occasions in the late 1890s for acts of violence or criminal damage, usually when she was much the worse for drink.

On Saturday, the 7 January 1899 she was entered Frederick Glover’s music shop at 185 Upper Islington. It was just before midnight (and so we learn that in those days shops were sometimes still open, even very later a night) and, as usual, Kate was drunk. This time her ‘poison’ was rum but I imagine she drank whatever she could get her hands on.

Having pushed her way into the shop she collided with a music stand sending it, and the musical score on it, tumbling to the floor. Mr Glover, understandably concerned for his merchandise, remonstrated with her and got a mouthful of abuse for his trouble. As Kate tried to pull over another display Glover grabbed her and managed to manhandle her off of his premises and in to the street.

Kate sat down on the pavement, and removed one of her boots. Slowly pulling herself upright she turned and aimed the heel at the window to express her displeasure at being so rudely ejected. As the boot made contact with the shop window it smashed the plate glass, doing an estimated £4 10s worth of damage.

The sound alerted PC Jones (222C) who arrested her and marched Kate off to the station, but not before she had managed to land him a punch in the face. On Monday she was back in court at Clerkenwell before Mr Bros, the sitting magistrate. There Kate admitted the damage and the assault on the constable.

‘I admit I struck him and knocked his helmet off’, she told Mr Bros, ‘but the officer threw me down. What I did was in self defence’, adding that ‘the drink was in me’.

‘I have no doubt about that’, countered the magistrate, ‘what have you to say’?

”Well these long terms of imprisonment you are giving me are ruining my brains’ was Kate’s riposte; ‘I only came out after doing six months on Saturday last, and, you see, the least drop [of alcohol] upsets me’.

There was little alternative to prison for Kate in 1899; the Police Court Missionary Service had been attending courts for the last couple of decades but they only really helped those willing to ‘take the pledge’ to abstain from alcohol and Kate wasn’t quite ready for that. After 1887 courts could release offenders convicted of certain crimes on their recognisances but this applied only to first offenders, and Kate Driscoll hardly qualified.

So Mr Bros, whether happily or against his better judgement, did what he had to do and sent her to gaol once more. She got two months for the criminal damage and three for the assault.’Five months, oh my heart!’ cried Kate, ‘I can do it’ she added, before she was taken away to start her latest period of incarceration.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, January 10, 1899]

*someone employed by a printer or bookbinder to fold sheets of paper to form the pages of a book. We can now do this mechanically. 

You can use this site to search for specific crimes or use the Themes link in the menu on the left to look for areas or topics that interest you. If you are interested in a particular court (such as Bow Street or Marylebone) you can also limit your search to one court in particular. Please feel free to comment on anything you read and if something in particular interests you then please get in touch. You can email me at drew.gray@northampton.ac.uk