‘Let finish the bastard!’ : Drunkenness and violence in the Victorian capital

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Seven Dials, a Victorian slum 

It was drunkenness and its consequences that filled the first column of reports on the Police Courts in the Morning Post on 6 August 1863. Drunk and disorderly behaviour, especially if it involved any form of violence, was regularly punished by the city’s magistrates and featured often in newspaper reports. This morning the reports, while they had a common theme, involved a range of defendants and circumstances.

The most serious (at least in the eyes of the law at the time) was heard at Bow Street before Mr Henry. Two ‘young rough fellows’ – Reardon and Sullivan – were accused of being drunk and assaulting a police officer. The officer involved was a Inspector Brimmacombe of F Division Metropolitan Police. Brimmacombe was on duty in Seven Dials, one of the capital’s poorer and more criminal districts.

What he was doing there is unclear but he wasn’t operating under cover because when he came upon Reardon and Sullivan and a half dozen other men who were drunk and disturbing the peace, he instructed them to go home quietly.

They laughed in his face, refused to comply, and attacked him. Sullivan swung at the officer but missed, striking a nearby carthorse on the nose instead. Sullivan now tried to grab at the policeman and spat full in his face, cursing him. Brimmacombe seized the man’s collar and made to drag him way but he called for his mate’s to help him ‘throw him down’.

The ‘mob’ now piled in on the policeman, joined he said by many more so that he was kicked on the ground as he was surrounded by upwards of 20 assailants. Inspedctor Brimmacombe was kicked, ‘beaten, and dragged about, his coat and cape covered with mud, and so torn as to be unserviceable’. The assault continued for about 10 minutes and Reardon then drew a knife and muttered darkly:

‘Let’s finish the __________’.

Just then the Westminster Police court prison van drove by, on its may to the House of Detention. The sergeant driving the van saw what was happening and rushed to help the inspector. The crowd of roughs scattered but Sullivan was arrested. Reardon was identified and picked up in a pub later that evening. In court both prisoners apologized but it didn’t save them from punishment: Mr Henry ordered them to pay a hefty £3 fine each or go to gaol for a month.

The next two cases are from the City of London, which had two courts – at Mansion House (where the Lord Mayor presided, unless he was unavailable) and Guildhall, which was staffed by aldermen in rotation.

Ellen Murray was charged before Alderman Gabriel with being drunk and causing criminal damage. She was prosecuted by a Mr Hough, who kept a licensed public house on Giltspur Street. Hough said that Ellen had come to his house and had been drinking until he decided she’d had enough. Ellen was becoming rowdy and landlords were mindful of running orderly establishments for dear of losing custom and their licenses.  When she wouldn’t calm down he threw her out.

The young woman was drunk and enraged and put her fist through his window, breaking what he described as a ‘valuable pane of embossed glass’. He called for a policeman and had her arrested. In court he told the alderman magistrate that he was particularly upset because he had helped Ellen in the recent past. She was poor and he had approached the West London Union on her behalf to secure her some outdoor relief, meaning she could stay out of the workhouse. He thought it very ungrateful of her to repay him in this way.

Ellen apologized but again; it wasn’t enough to save her. She had no money to pay a fine or the damages she owed for the window so she was sent to prison for a fortnight.

Our final case concerned a young man at the other end of the social scale. James Wilson was the name he gave at Mansion House but that may not have been his real name. He was a – he said – a solicitor and had a ‘genteel’ appearance as he stood in the dock before the Lord Mayor.

He too was charged with being drunk and, in addition, with ‘assaulting several females’. This was his second appearance that week but when he was set in the dock on Tuesday he’d been too drunk to stand and so was remanded overnight. Wilson had been seen by a 15 year-old boy in Bucklersbury (a street in the city quite close to the Bank of England – pictured right c.1845 ) with a young girl. It was reported that he had assaulted her in ‘an indecent manner’ and the witness had gone off to fetch a policeman.

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Meanwhile Wilson ran off and groped a passing woman before boarding a moving omnibus where he assaulted another female passenger. The bus was stopped and Wilson removed and warned by a constable. Taking no notice – presumably because he was so drunk – Wilson ran up to another women in the street and threw his arms around her neck.

That was his lot and the police took him into custody. On Wednesday, sober and repentant, he apologized although he said he was so drunk he could hardly remember anything from that night. He begged not to be sent to gaol, as ‘it would ruin him mentally, he was sure’. The Lord Mayor said drunkness was no excuse and he’d have to be punished in some way.

Wilson said he was ‘a poor man’, living off his friends with very little funds of his own but he’d happily make a donation to the poor box if His Lordship requested him to. The Lord Mayor fined him 40but warned him that a failure to pay would earn him a month in prison. Hopefully for him – if not for his victims – his friends rallied round and paid his fine.

So, three cases of drunken behaviour, three different sorts of victim and quite different circumstances, but all ‘rewarded’ in much the same way. Violence, often fuelled by drink, was endemic in the Victorian capital and must have proved depressingly repetitive to the  men who served as Police Court magistrates.

[from Morning PostThursday, 6 August 1863]

Two lads are charged ‘with getting an honest living’ as the press attack the police.

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The City of London’s Green Yard

Victorian newspapers did not use headlines as we know them today but quite often they deployed a sort of headline at the start of an article. I think we can see the development of the modern headline here, aimed at catching the attention of the reader and giving a sense of what the article was about.

On the 10 July 1858 one of the entries under the coverage of the Metropolitan Police Courts news declared:

HOW WE ENOURAGE INDUSTRY!

What followed was a direct criticism of a new police policy, which the writer clearly believed did exactly the opposite.

Michael Welsh and Morris Haven were two young entrepreneurs  (or at least that is how The Morning Chronicle’s reporter viewed them. They had bought a quantity of cherries and had been selling them from a barrow in the streets around the Guildhall in the old City of London.

They were not alone in this, several independent hawkers were operating throughout the area selling fresh fruit as it was now in season. They drew large crowds, particularly of young boys, who ‘swarmed round’ the barrows, ‘each eager to invest his halfpence in cherries’.

Buying from a coster’s barrow was popular, and some people who seldom visited fruiterers did stop and buy from a barrow. It was cheaper and more convenient and the City magistracy thought this a ‘good thing’. Sadly it seems the police did not.

New regulations had been put into force regarding street sellers and the City Police seems to have decided that anyone selling goods from a barrow constituted an obstruction that had to be removed. As a consequence the paper reported:

great numbers of fruit sellers have been brought up on the same frivolous pretext. Alderman Hale discharged several so charged during the last few days, and remarked that it was a pity the police did not show a little more indulgence to persons earning a reputable loving, particularly as the fruit season would not last long’.

Sitting in judgement on Welsh and Haven, Alderman Gabriel broadly agreed with his colleague’s actions earlier in the week but he wanted to uphold the law at the law time. After all he agreed, ‘the streets must be kept clear’. He told the young businessmen he would let them off on this occasion but they must refrain from breaking the regulations in future or he would punish them.

They didn’t get away scot-free however; their barrows had been impounded by the police and they had to pay 2s 6deach to liberate them from the Green Yard at Whitecross Street (where all stray animals and vehicles had been taken by the police and their predecessors for centuries).

[from The Morning Chronicle, Saturday, July 10, 1858]