‘Oh nonsense, I scarcely touched you’: a gentle nudge out of the door

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It can’t have been much fun being a solicitor’s clerk in the Victorian period. In fact I doubt its that much fun now but at least you probably aren’t as exposed to causal violence as Albert Jones was in 1886.

He was sent out to serve a writ and demand for money on a publisher and arrived at Messrs Eyre Bros at 4 in the afternoon of the 18 October. The writ was made out against a Mr G Butcher and Albert duly served it at his office in Paternoster Square, close by St Paul’s Cathedral.

Mr Butcher was not amused. Having asked a series of questions about the writ (which seems to have been part of a long running legal dispute) he said:

‘Can you convey a message to Mr. Kelly?’

Albert replied that he could but said he had been instructed by his superior to tell Butcher that ‘if he had anything to say he had better see him in person’.

‘Does Mr. Kelly expect me to pay this?’ Butcher asked.

Having been told that he did the publisher went on to say:

‘’He wont get a halfpenny of it, and tell him from me that if ever there was a liar in the world he is one’.

As Albert turned to leave, placing his hat back on his head, Butcher kicked him sharply in the rear, propelling him forwards and out of the door. This prompted the clerk (or perhaps his employer) to press charges for assault, and so Butcher found himself up before an alderman at the Guildhall Police court.

‘Did the kick hurt you?’ Jones was asked.

‘It did hurt for a few moments’, the clerk replied.

‘Oh nonsense, I scarcely touched you’, came the response from the dock. ‘I simply put my foot up to assist you getting out of the office a little faster’.

With laughter ringing out in court Butcher might have enjoyed this small victory had the magistrate not then handed him a fine of 40s.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, November 17, 1886]

A drunken musician suffers has an embarrassing day in court

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It was probably quite an embarrassing appearance in court for Mr Chamberlain. On Saturday, November 13 1858 he was out late in Bridgewater Gardens  in the City, and on his way home. He’d had a lot to drink but thought he was in control of himself (don’t we all!)

Two women approached him on the street and asked him if they’d like to ‘treat them to some gin’.  This was a common enough solicitation by prostitutes and there is little doubt that Chamberlain, a musician by trade, understood this.  He took them up on the offer and the trio headed for Spurgeon’s public house where they drank together.

Some time afterwards they all left the pub and the women (he says) dragged him reluctantly across the square. Having got him into a dark corner of the gardens two men rushed up and robbed him while the women held him and unbuttoned his clothes. He tried to resist but one of the women hit him in the face and knocked him down. He lost a fob watch in the process.

At least this is the story he told the Guildhall Police court magistrate Alderman Lawrence. Only one defendant was in court to hear the charge. Mary Blake had been picked up by police at a pub in Goswell Street the following day, but denied any knowledge of the crime. She had been in Bridgewater Gardens that evening but hadn’t met with the prosecutor.

Her lawyer said it was a case of mistaken identity and Chamberlain, who was by his admission drunk at the time, was an unreliable witness. The alderman was inclined to agree but Blake was a ‘bad character’ and reportedly ran a brothel so he decided to remand her in custody to see him more evidence could be found in the meantime.

It doesn’t look like any more evidence was forthcoming because there’s no record of a trial or prosecution for Mary. This is hardly surprising; this sort of encounter was common and very hard to prosecute successfully. Without the watch being found on Mary, with the victim effectively admitting he’d chosen to go for a drink with known prostitutes,  and his drunken state (which impaired both his judgment and his ability to make a clear identification of the culprits), no jury would have convicted her.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, November 16, 1858]

Jack the Ripper appears in court at last

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In late October 1888 a man appeared in court at the Guildhall after admitting to multiple murders. The fact that the magistrate let him go probably tells us quite a bit about the furor that surrounded the so-called ‘Jack the Ripper’ killings that autumn.

By the time Benjamin Graham was brought up before the alderman justice for the second time the unknown killer had struck at least four times and maybe more. Graham had admitted to the crimes and had been escorted to Snow Hill police station by a concerned member of the public. His confessor reported that he’d declared that:

‘he was the murderer of the women in Whitechapel, and that he supposed he must suffer for it with a bit of rope’.

At his first summary hearing he was remanded in custody so enquiries could be made into his mental health. Graham had been examined and the chief clerk at the Guildhall, Mr Saville, now furnished the magistrate with his report. According to the medical man there was nothing wrong with Graham’s mind except that he ‘suffered from excessive drinking’. He was hardly alone in that in late nineteenth-century London, but not all of the capitals inebriates were running off their mouths claiming to be Jack the Ripper.

The alderman was furious, even more so because he really couldn’t see what crime Graham had committed. He told him he would gladly give ‘some punishment for his behaviour, which gave the police no end of trouble’. But since he could not (perhaps at this time there was no such offence as ‘wasting police time”) he simply discharged him with a flea in his ear.

With all the false leads and spurious letters and notes that the police had to take seriously, the last thing they needed was an idiot like Benjamin Graham.

[from The Standard, Friday, October 26, 1888]

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 on Amazon

 

‘I merely pushed accidentally against her’; the lame excuse of a sex pest.

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Indecent assault takes many forms, and in the rather staid newspaper reports of the 1800s, detail is rarely given. This case therefore is a little unusual in that we do discover what happened to make one woman bring a prosecution against her abuser.

Anne Green (whom the paper was at pains to point was a ‘respectable woman’) was waiting for her husband in Newgate Street. She was standing with her back to a lamppost and perhaps in Henry Branson’s inebriated state she have seemed ‘fair game’.

It was 10 o’clock at night, she was under a gaslight and maybe he mistook her for a prostitute. That doesn’t excuse his actions however. To Anne’s horror she suddenly felt Brandon’s cold palms on her knees and his knelt behind her and ran his hands up inside her dress.

She fought him off, grabbed him and called for the police. Branson swore at her and when her husband arrived he challenged him to a fistfight in the street. A policeman was soon on the scene and as he tried to arrest the man Branson’s rage increased and he struck out at the copper as well. He told anyone that would listen that he would happily ‘be hung for  such scoundrel’ as he was dragged off to the nick.

In front of Alderman Challis at the Guildhall Police court Branson denied all of it. ‘It is all false’, he said, ‘I merely pushed accidentally against her’. He claimed that the indecent assault was a fabrication added at the police station by vindictive police officers. He was a married man, he added, as if that proved he could not possibly have done such a thing.

The alderman was not inclined to believe him and thought the whole case was ‘very gross’. He was minded to send him for trail where he might get a year’s imprisonment if convicted. However, he decided instead to summarily convict him and told him he would send him ‘for one month to the treadmill’, meaning he would go to prison with hard labour.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, October 9, 1864]

Street gambling and the law in 1850s London

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The nature of the law is at the centre of discussions this morning. Yesterday judges sitting in the highest court in the land – the Supreme Court – ruled that the highest political figure in the country (the Prime Minister) had acted unlawfully (illegally) in proroguing Parliament. The proroguing was declared null and void  and parliament will reconvene this morning at 11.30 to hold the executive to account.

This – despite what some newspaper editorials and unhappy government representatives might say – is democracy in action. We are not a dictatorship, and no one is above the law. This means that the law protects us – the people – from misrule by those that govern us.

This may be a frustration to the small majority of voters who voted to leave the European Union in 2016 but I hope they will recognize that the alternative – giving the executive carte blanche to ride rough-shod over parliamentary sovereignty – would have set an extremely dangerous precedent for the future. Many people voted to be free of the constraints of rule from Brussels (however misguided that might have been) I’m not sure they voted to ‘take back control’ only to surrender it to a modern day Hitler or Stalin.

This blog is concerned not with the highest court of the land but with some of the lowest. The Police Magistrates courts of Victorian London tended to deal with the more trivial problems of daily life in the capital. But here too law was important and central, and its application was supposed to be given without fear or favour, regardless of class.

In 1857 two justices sat in judgment on a man accused of organizing gambling in public. This was an unusual case; in part because two City magistrates were present but also because they quite clearly disagreed with each other.

Davis was arrested by City constable 325 for obstructing the footway at Bride Lane. Davis was with two other men and when the officer searched him he found betting books and £5 17sin coin on him. The case turned then on whether Davis (or the other men) were using the books and actually taking bets at the time. It was established that he wasn’t so the question arose of why the constable had arrested him. Alderman Copeland thought it a ‘monstrous interference with the liberty of the subject’ that the policeman  had arrested a ‘gentleman’ for doing nothing illegal at all.

He went on to say that not far away the officer might have found persons selling goods on the street and trading illegally by the Stock Exchange, yet they were not being arrested.  Abraham Davis had been stopped, moved on, and searched on several occasions by the same City policeman and alderman Copeland was clearly implying that the constable was enforcing the law selectively, and with bias.

Alderman Hale took a different view. He noted that gambling was a problem. It led to idleness, to debt, and to crime as well as causing large crowds to gather and block the streets. There were laws against it and he was determined to enforce them regardless of the class of individual brought in front of him.

Alderman Copeland agreed that gambling was a public nuisance but argued as well that other infringements of the law – such as the illegal trade in tallow (carried out just yards from where Davis was arrested, and ignored by the police) must also be prosecuted. He also felt that having a betting book in one’s possession was not the same thing as organizing illegal gambling and he clearly felt that the policeman had overstepped by searching a gentleman’s pockets on the street.

In the end alderman Hale agreed that while the officer was within his rights to attempt to suppress the ‘evil’ of street gambling Abraham Davis had not been found to be doing anything illegal. Under the law he was innocent and so he discharged him. The law was, even at this level, supposed to be applied  fairly and it seems that this is what the officer had been doing. Had he brought in some working class men for illegal trading I wonder whether alderman Copeland would have tried to defend them as vociferously as he attempted to defend a ‘gentleman’?

[from The Morning Post, Friday, September 25, 1857]

A ‘very hard and cruel case’ as a mother nearly loses everything

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The very last case heard at Guildhall Police court on 19 September 1864 was a tragic one, and one that might have been written by the capital’s greatest narrator, Charles Dickens.

Mrs Samuel Smith came to ask the magistrate’s help in a dispute she was having with a firm of ship owners. In January she had placed an advert in the newspapers looking for an apprenticeship for her son, who ‘wanted to go to sea’. A Mr Edward West, who ran a company of shipbuilders and said he knew a firm that was prepared to take on young master Smith, for a fee, answered that advert.

The fee (or premium) he required was quite high at £20 and more than Mrs Smith could afford in one go. Her husband was an invalid and unable to work so the family’s funds were limited. Nevertheless she offered to pay in two instalments and Lang & Co. (West’s firm) said they would accept £11 up front with £10 in the form of a ‘note of hand’ (an obligation to pay later in other words).

This was all agreed and the lad left London and sailed off to start his new life and career with the firm of Powell & Co, shipowners, where Mr. West had secured an apprenticeship for him.

Then tragedy struck. The ship ran into a storm and was wrecked with the loss of everyone on board, including Mrs Smith’s boy.

This was not the end of her troubles however; Mr West (or rather Powell & Co.) still demanded the balance of the premium, and had signaled their intention to sue Mrs Smith for it. Thus, she had come to the Guildhall to ask for advice.

Alderman Hale sent for Mr West who explained that the issue was between Mrs Smith and Mr Powell, he was simply an intermediary in all of this. He had brokered the deal, so Powell owed him the money, and Mrs Smith owed Powell. He wasn’t budging despite agreeing with the alderman declaring that it was ‘ a most harsh and cruel proceeding’.

Mrs Smith said she was prepared to pay the £10 she owed but not the costs that had subsequently been incurred by the issuing of a writ. She was in danger of losing her furniture and other possession as the debt mounted and the bailiffs circled. She needed this to end here before her debts spiraled.  The magistrate thought this fair and said she had suffered enough, it was, he added, a ‘very hard and cruel case’. This probably forced West to accept the woman’s offer and the money was paid there and then.

This case was harsh and cruel and quite Dickensian. I can quite imagine the great story teller sitting in court and creating a pen portrait of the avaricious Mr West and pale and weeping figure of Mrs Smith.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, September 20, 1864]

The ‘modern Babylon’ exposed: pornography in an age of prudery

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Holywell Street, central London, late 1800s 

One of the things ‘we think we know’ about the Victorians is that they were very prudish and straight-laced, even going to the bizarre lengths of covering up their piano legs so as not to shock or titillate. This view of the age is sometimes confirmed by depictions of a sour faced Queen Victoria proclaiming: ‘we are not amused’.

The reality is that the Victorians were hardly much less lascivious and fun-loving than their Georgian predecessors. Perhaps the emphasis on family (best epitomized by Royal Family) and the work of Samuel Smiles in setting out so-called ‘Victorian values’, combined with a post war desire to look back  to the past to make comparisons with the present, have skewed our views.

Anyone strolling around London in the 1800s would have seen plenty of evidence that the Victorians liked to enjoy themselves.  This age saw the rise of the musical theatre, the novel and popular newspapers; it witnessed the invention of the railways, cheap travel and the weekend excursion. Here too was the Great Exhibition, great ceremonial pageants, and military parades. And with all of this (largely) wholesome entertainment came vice at a level the Georgians could only have imagined.

The invention of photography offered new opportunities for pornography and the increasingly economic cost of printing and distribution made the printed vice trade even more profitable. This was not lost on the ‘moral majority’; those that railed against vice and crime. London became the ‘modern Babylon’; a sink of iniquity and place where domestic missionaries sought new converts in the dark alleys of Whitechapel and Southwark. In Holywell Street, off the Strand, there was a roaring trade in indecent literature to suit every taste.

In 1841, early in the young queen’s reign, a barrister representing the Society for the Suppression of Vice appeared at the Guildhall Police court in the City to apply for a warrant against a local bookseller. St Paul’s Churchyard (close by Wren’s cathedral) had long been associated with the print trade, and with obscene publications and prostitution to boot.

Mr Clarkson, the barrister, explained that officers from the Society wanted to draw the magistrate’s attention to the fact that this bookseller (at this point unnamed) was displaying ‘five indecent little pamphlets in his window’. Under the terms of the Vagrancy Act he had tried to summons the man to court but this had been ignored, now he wanted a warrant which carried more force (since it was executed by a policeman).

The lawyer argued that the act ‘1 and 2 Victoria, c.38’ (the Vagrancy Act) declared that anyone exposing to view obscene images was liable to be dealt with as a ‘rouge and a vagabond’ and so was punishable by a fine or, if unable to pay, imprisonment. This toughened up the previous act of George IV (5 Geo. IV. c.83. 1824) and he wanted to use it.

Alderman Copeland was in the chair at Guildhall that day and Mr Clarkson handed over some of the obscene pamphlets in question. These had titles such as ‘The Wanton Widow’, ‘The Petticoat Pensioner’ and ‘Venus in the Cloister’*.

UnknownI suspect by modern standards of indecency they were pretty mild but in a society where ‘nakedness’ often meant that someone was dressed only in their undergarments, and where a glimpse of ankle was evidence of a woman’s immoral character, the alderman was suitable disgusted. He issued the warrant and the barrister rushed off to find an officer to execute it.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, August 20, 1841]

*You can still find this today. Published in 1683 as Vénus dans le cloître, ou la Religieuse en chemise, it is a work of erotic fiction as the illustration above shows. .