The ‘gospel according to the nineteenth century moralists’ brings the end of a popular entertainment

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I have often wondered what the Victorians would make of our society should a character like H G Wells’ ‘time traveller’ actually manage to create a machine to visit the future. While one imagines that he would probably find some things to be predicable (motorized transport, even airplanes), others largely unchanged (like Parliament and the judiciary), it would be the leveling of daily life and the permissive nature of relationships that might give cause for shock.

Victorian society was not as buttoned up and prudish as it has sometimes been perceived. In fact, as Matthew Sweet argues in Inventing the Victorians (2001) even that oft repeated suggestion that they covered up the legs of their pianos is a myth; a joke aimed at themselves and at Americans (whom they felt were more obsessed with suppressing sexuality).

Nevertheless vice and obscenity were prosecuted in the courts and their definitions of what constituted ‘obscene’ were certainly narrower than our own. This is where I think the ‘time traveller’ would struggle to make sense of society: when he viewed television, looked at a tabloid newspaper, causally searched the internet, or simply walked down a busy London street, he would have been assaulted by images of (in his mind) semi-nudity everywhere.

In 1872 Frederick Shore was summoned to Bow Street Police court to answer accusations that he had published an indecent periodical. Shore, who was represented by a barrister, Mr Laxton, was the publisher of Days Doings and short-lived sensational magazine that carried all sorts of stories, romances, gossip, sports and entertainment news. The prosecution, brought by the Society for the Suppression of Vice, alleged that it was obscene.

Shore had been in court three months previously and had then promised that ‘all nude pictures and matters suggestive of indecency’ would be removed from all future editions of the paper. This then was a hearing designed, in part, to ensure he had kept his word.

Mr Bealey, the barrister instructed by the Society, argued that he had not. He produced a copy of the latest edition and read a selection of it to the court before showing the magistrate (Sir Thomas Henry) a nude image. The defense argued that the image in question was ‘a well known picture’ and that the editors had ‘added drapery to it’ to ‘decrease its nudity’. Sir Thomas said this only made it worse, it was now ‘even more obscene’.

He concluded that the proprietors of Days Doingshad  ‘not kept good faith’. ‘There was no doubt’ he declared, ‘that the proprietors of the periodical pandered to a depraved taste’. He bound the witnesses form the Society over to prosecute and accepted bail of £150 from the defendant. The whole sorry issue would now have to go before a higher court.

Just how ‘obscene’ was  Days Doings?Well not very would be the conclusion of a modern audience. It was risqué certainly, and humorous, catering for  amiddle-class decadent readership. On its May 1871 cover it featured ‘Derby Night at Cremorne’ [Gardens] with a sensational scene of well dressed gentlemen drinking with women that might well have been prostitutes. Cremorne Gardens enjoyed a reputation as a lively and disreputable entertainment venuewhere the classes could mix. The 1871 article in the Days Doings supported Cremorne in the face of a sustained attack by organisations like the Society for the Suppression of Vice and the Cheslea Vestry who wanted it closed down.

This brought Shore into the cross hairs of anti-vice campaigners who saw his periodical as part of the problem. In early 1872 Days Doings was (as this case shows) under constant attack and eventually caved in. It remerged as ‘Here and There’ a much milder version of itself but it still had room to comment on the attempts to close down Cremorne Gardens. It condemned the threats to popular entertainment ‘by the prudery of aldermen, ministers and police inspectors. Dancing is banned at Cremorne’ and other venues it stated, ‘for this “is the gospel according to the nineteenth century moralists”.*

Goodness knows what those same moralists would have made of most Britain today.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, February 02, 1872]

*quoted in Lynda Nead, Victorian Babylon (2005), p.139

A lucky escape (or just a delayed one?)

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Catherine Johnson was a fortunate thief. Fortunate that is, because the mid nineteenth-century criminal justice system and police was unable to build a tight enough case to send her to trial.

In early January 1853 she was brought before the magistrates at Marlborough Street to be examined as a suspect in a series of jewel thefts in New Bond Street. She was remanded for further enquiry twice before finally being discharged for lack of evidence.

Catherine was initially charged as an accessory, the main culprit being her husband who had seemingly fled the country. Mr Johnson (no first name was given) was an American citizen and following a raid on Hunt & Roskell’s jewelers where items valued at £1,500 were stolen, he evaded the police search and escaped to France leaving Catherine to face the music.

The only evidence that the police had was that Johnson had pledged two rings at a pawnbrokers in Newington Causeway before he fled and that ‘some articles of jewelry resembling some of the stolen propriety’ had been seen in Catherine’s possession. Crucially however, nothing had been found on her by the police, so that evidence was, at best, circumstantial.

At the hearing on the 7 January Mr Bingham was told that no new evidence had emerged that would justify pursuing a case against Catherine for the theft.  Since Mr Hardwick had dealt with case initially he had asked his opinion but his fellow justice agreed that little could be done. The real villain was somewhere on the Continent by now and unlikely to return so, on this occasion, Catherine would walk free from court.

Neither Catherine  nor Johnson are unusual names for the mid 1800s but in 1853 a Catherine Johnson was sent to gaol for stealing a earthenware pint pot. Later, in 1855, a Catherine Donovan (alias Johnson) was sentenced to penal servitude for picking the pocket of a man and taking his watch. I wonder…

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, January 08, 1853]

The old ‘money changing’ scam on the Docks

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For many people arriving in London in the 1880s the capital was a stopover en route to somewhere else; for many European Jews that ‘somewhere else’ was the golden medina, the United States of America. This had been the case for thousands of Irish migrants in the 1840s, fleeing famine and poverty after potato blight devastated their lives. Very many settled in London, Liverpool and Birmingham but plenty had the ambition to make a fresh start outside of the British Empire, an empire that had palpably failed to support them when they needed it.

London’s docks must have heaved with people looking for a passage across the Atlantic in the 1800s and a similar scene would have played out at Liverpool. Men like Messers, Koosch and Schack, two German travellers, asked around to find a berth on a steamer bound for Ellis Island. These two had struck lucky and secured a place on the Etna which had been built and launched in Greenock in August 1854.

However their luck was soon to run out when they were taken in by a fairly straightforward conman. John Louis befriend the pair and explained that he was a provisons dealer and was also travelling on the Etna. They had plenty of English money but no American dollars. That was no problem, Louis assured them, he was in an ideal position to change the money for them so they’d welcomed on to US soil with open arms.

Delighted, the two friends handed over all their money (about £10)  and arranged to meet Louis the following day. Of course he never showed up and they soon realised they’d been scammed and  robbed.

With the help of the local police Koosch and Schack traced Louis and he was arrested and brought before the Lord Mayor at Mansion House Police court. He was represented by a solicitor and he promised to return every penny that his client had taken. This must have been a relief for the two Germans whose chances of making a new life in America would have been devastated before they’d even arrived had they been force to travel with nothing.

But for the Lord Mayor this wasn’t enough; he needed to demonstrate to the public that anyone behaving in such a ‘villainous and disgraceful way’ could expect no mercy in his court. He sent Louis to prison for four months with hard labour.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, September 18, 1883]

The Marlborough Street magistrate helps Big Ben’s missus deliver a knock-out blow

In the 1840s the biggest name in English boxing was Benjamin Caunt. Ben Caunt (pictured below) was one of the first English prize-fighters to seek international acclaim. In 1841 he traveled to the USA to look for rivals to fight for a world title but ended up bringing an American boxer home with him to manage instead. Caunt was so famous that some have suggested the bell within the clock tower at the Palace of Westminster was named after him, which seems unlikely.

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By 1846 ‘Big Ben’ was running a pub in St Martin’s Lane with his wife, although he continued to box well into the 1850s.

John Gill was a baker who lived in Cumming Street, Pentonville. On Saturday 19 December 1846 he had been drinking in the Caunts’ pub and got up to leave. Mrs Caunt asked him to settle his bill of 5s and at this point the baker made some wrong choices.

First, while he acknowledged the debt, he argued that since  her husband owed him 5 guineas it was a bit unfair of her to ask him to pay up in full when ‘Ben’ was already in his debt.

Such familiarity didn’t go down terribly well with Mrs Caunt. She came around from the other side of the bar and stood toe-to-toe with him.

‘Does Ben owe you anything?’ she asked, ‘Then I’ll pay you this way’, and punched him twice in the face.

Regaining his feet if not his composure, and finding his mouth full of blood, Gill staggered to the bar and launched a stream of abusive words at the landlady.

That was his second mistake.

Ben Caunt heard the foul language aimed at his wife and loomed into view, hauling the baker to his feet and throwing him out on to the street.

All of this of course landed Mrs Caunt in court before Hardwick at Marlborough Street. In her the dock Mrs Caunt didn’t deny the assault but said she had been provoked. She alleged that Gill had used bad language towards her before she had thrown any punches and was able to produce a witness to that effect.

The newspaper reporter for Lloyd’s Weekly clearly enjoyed the story and its associations with the English champion. Mrs Caunt had delivered a punch that ‘would have done no discredit to her husband’s powers’. The hapless baker was the butt of the story and that is how the magistrate saw it as well.  So Gill’s third mistake was in not simply putting the whole episode down to experience and going home quietly. Mr Hardwicke told him that he had ‘provoked the assault, by using language that was almost certain to cause a breach of the peace’, and he dismissed the summons.

Gill was beaten again, this time by a justice system and a magistrate that favoured the ‘weaker’ sex (who was clearly not the weaker one on this occasion).

[from Lloyd’s Weekly London Newspaper, Sunday, December 27, 1846]

A heartless debt collector at Battersea and a sighting of the Ripper in Poplar?

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So another Christmas is upon us and today thousands of people (well men mostly) will be rushing around trying to secure that last minute present for the ‘significant other’ in their lives. Meanwhile I am sitting smugly, safe in the knowledge that I had this all wrapped up (literally) by Wednesday evening. Which means I have today free to write about the past at my leisure.

This blog is based on reading  section of news reports of the cases heard before London’s Police Court magistrates in the reign of Queen Victoria. Much before 1837 reports exist but are fewer in number and so you’ll find most of mine bunch between about 1850 and 1900. I use today’s date and pick a year – this morning it is 1888, a year I often return to because it was in that late summer and autumn that London was terrorised by a killer known only as ‘Jack the Ripper’. I teach a whole module based around the Whitechapel murders of 1888 at the University of Northampton where I am currently head of the History department.

Whilst looking at the regular courts reports for the 24 December 1888 I noticed an additional ‘crime news’ item about a murder case that was occupying the attention of readers. I’ll return to that story after my usual report from the police courts. Today the court in question is Wandsworth, south of the River Thames and to the west. The man in the dock was Arthur Baldwin who was accused of violently assaulting a woman in Battersea.

On the 13 December Baldwin, a debt collector, turned up at the home of Elizabeth Leonard at 12 Gwynn Road in Battersea. Baldwin was accompanied by a bailiff from the county court and they demanded the rent she owed on the property. She said she hadn’t got the money for the rent, and clutching her purse she turned to her little boy and took out a shilling for him to go and buy some bread.

At this Baldwin reached across and snatched her purse and the pair wrestled with it. He took out several pawn tickets and as Elizabeth fought with him the tickets were ripped up and she was thrown violently against the large copper kettle on the stove. Baldwin and the bailiff (a Mr Hewett) picked up several items of Elizabeth’s furniture, ‘including three chairs and a Dutch clock’, and left with them.

The debt itself amounted to just 8s and Baldwin had obtained a warrant, but there was no evidence that he’d shown it to Elizabeth. The magistrate (Mt Curtis Bennett)  thought he was acting illegally and ‘had no right to go to the house at all’. He fined the debt collector 20awarded Elizabeth 30s costs which should have covered the rent arrears and her pawned goods. I’d like to think that the fact that the case came up as Christmas was approaching was in the justice’s mind. Here was a poor woman and child, with no husband, in debt and probably dreading what the New Year would bring. Perhaps with Scrooge and Tiny Tim in mind Mr Curtis Bennett did the right thing on this occasion.

Meanwhile, under the report of the heartless debt collector was one which caught my eye entitled ‘The Poplar Murder’.

In the morning of Thursday 20 December 1888 a woman’s body had been found in Clarke’s Yard, Poplar. Next to her was a glass bottle which at first was believed to contain poison. It looked initially like a suicide. But the bottle had actually held sandalwood oil and it quickly became evident that the woman had been strangled. A doctor’s report suggested she had been attacked from behind:

‘Dr Brownfield’s opinion is that the murderer stood behind the woman on her left side, and having the ends of a cord wrapped around his hands, threw it around  her throat, and crossing his hands so strangled her’.

The report went on the say that there was considerably ‘conjecture’ about the nature of the cord and the way it was used. In America the police used a similar cord to restrain those they had arrested instead of handcuffs – with the nickname “Come along”. ‘The more a prisoner struggles the tighter is drawn the cord’, the paper added.

The woman had marks on her neck which were consistent with such a weapon being used and the reporter stated that there had been recent speculation that the Whitechapel murder was an American. Indeed some reports suggested the killer might be a native American from Buffalo Bill Cody’s travelling Wild West show and the quack doctor, Francis Tumblety, has also been closely associated with the killings. It also noted that descriptions of the man seen with the woman before she was found murdered ‘pointed to an individual of a distinctly American type’.

The murder in question was, as all Ripperologists will know, that of Rose Mylett a ‘known prostitute’. Rose is not normally considered to be a ‘Ripper’ victim (and the police even tried to suggest she’d died by natural causes or, as we’ve heard, by her own hands). Wynne Baxter and George Bagster Phillips (both closely involved in the Whitechapel murder case) and the coroner were clear that it was a homicide however but one that had to be added to the roll of unsolved murders that year.

Robert Anderson and CID never accepted the coroner’s verdict of wilful murder, however, and in 1910 wrote in his memoirs:

‘the Poplar case of December, 1888, was death from natural causes, and but for the ‘Jack the Ripper’ scare, no one would have thought of suggesting that it was a homicide’.

In my own investigation of the Ripper case (made in collaboration with a former student of mine who served with the police) we felt that Rose Mylett’s killing bears close scrutiny as a possible addition to the murder series. If we manage to get our thesis into print in 2018 I will then be able to shed a little more light on why we’ve reached this conclusion. Until then it will have to remain a mystery, just as it was to the readers of the Victorian papers in 1888.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, December 24, 1888]

A very different sort of entertainment in Covent Garden

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Covent Garden in 1864

If you are familiar with the modern Covent Garden then I expect you are fairly used to the sorts of entertainment on offer there. Much to the amusement of two of my nieces I became part of a circus act last year when I was plucked from the crowd to help support a knife juggler. I have seen her since but have never made the mistake of watching her act from the front row again!

Along with jugglers, busking musicians and magic acts there are always a ‘gallery’ of human statues (invariably including at least one Yoda) vying for our attention and any loose change. Quite possibly there are others mingling with the crowds with much less honest desires on our pennies, and Covent Garden has long associations with petty criminality as this blog has noted before.

I’m not sure when the ‘modern’ phenomenon of human statues first emerged but I don’t believe they existed in the Victorian age. Covent Garden was a much less wealthy area in those days when the poverty of Seven Dials and the district’s reputation for vice were much more widely known and discussed than its attractiveness as popular tourist destination. It had ceased to be a ‘market’ in 1974 when the old flower market moved, and fell into disuse thereafter before being rescued later in the twentieth century. What we see now is far removed (except for the buildings) from how it would have looked to our Victorian ancestors.

One building that still remains today is St Paul’s church, which provides a haven of peace in this busy London space. In 1859 the land outside the church was owned by the duke of Bedford and he had granted use of it to the church and its vicar to preach sermons to the public. Thus, on Saturday afternoon, the 9th July 1859, the Rev. Hutton was preaching to an assembled crowd close to the market.

Nearby another preacher was attempting to make his voice heard but he was having some problems with the local police. PC Vernor (of F Division) interrupted the man, later named as Dr William Evans, to ask him to stop. When Evans asked him why he was allowing the Rev. Hutton to continue but interfering with his own lecture. PC Vernor simply explained that the reverend had permission to do so, while he did not.

Dr Evans ‘did not seem to understand the distinction’ and carried on regardless. The policeman, ‘in order to put a stop to the disorder’  arrested him and took him back to the station house where he was later bailed by two of his friends.

Appearing in front of Mr Henry, the sitting justice at Bow Street, Evans eschewed a defence of his actions in favour of an opportunity to carry on his lecture to a captive audience.  He drew out a pamphlet entitled ‘A prophetic declaration by W. Evans‘ which he preceded to read aloud.

While he claimed to have ‘a mission’, his delivery was ‘so rambling and unintelligible that it afforded no cause’ as to what that ‘mission’ was, reported the Chronicle‘s hack.

‘It commenced by comparing the Emperor of the French [presumably Napoleon III] to our Saviour, and the prisoner himself to several historical characters, and contained a denunciation against England and the English; first because he (Dr. Evans) had been imprisoned; and secondly, because the people, while they would not listen to his counsel, “wise counsels, the counsels of God”, yet were ready to “receive bastard prophets and false Christs.”

England, he declared, had but a short time for repentance, and even America should not escape the “general judgements”.

It was quite a speech but the magistrate was not at all impressed. He reminded the doctor that they were there to consider his breach of the law and asked him to cut short his ‘ramblings’. Dr Evans simply declared he had as much right as the Rev. Hutton to preach in public but added that his own suffering under the law were comparable to the sufferings of Christ himself.

Mr Henry begged to differ and bound him over to keep the peace and refrain from speaking in Covent Garden again. In future, if he wished to avoid arrest that is, the good doctor would have to rely on passers-by buying and reading his religious tracts whilst remaining as silent as one of the ‘Yodas’ that infest the Piazza today.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, July 12, 1859]

Seven immigrant workers are caught gambling for their supper

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Seven men were sat around a table in house in Whitechapel at 10.30 at night, playing at cards when there was a loud knock at the door. The knock was followed by the cry of ‘Police, open up!’ and the arrival of Inspector Frederick Abberline and H Division’s finest.

Abberline was acting on a tip off that the house was being used as an illegal gambling den, which sounds quite exotic but was actually very far from that. The seven men were poor ‘jobbing tailors’. All were Polish Jews, recently arrived from the Russian Pale, escaping from economic misery and religious persecution. They had come to the East End (as so many of their fellow congregationalists had, before and since) because there was an established Ashkenazi community there where they could find work, kosher food and others that spoke their language. Many dreamed of making the longer journey to the ‘golden medina’, the promised land of America, land of the free.

They worked very long hours, often in cramped conditions for little pay. The ‘sweating system’ of small workshops was endemic in Whitechapel and Spitalfields and drew the attention of Parliament and campaigners like Annie Besant. On this occasion however, they had drawn a different sort of attention and it had brought the police to the house that Harris Straus owned in New Castle Street.

The men were arrested and brought before the Police Magistrate at Worship Street on the following Monday morning. Straus (a 36 year-old tailor) was charged with keeping a gaming house’ and the others, with being found there, ‘contrary to the Act’.

None of the men spoke English and so an interpreter (Mr Carameli) was called to translate proceedings. The lack of English amongst the Jewish community was something which frustrated the local police during the Ripper investigation, and a few officers were eventually trained to speak Yiddish. The seven men were named as Barnett Coplin (28), Morris Green (18), Louis Gasoniviter (19), Morris Friedman (25), Abraham Lewis (28), Simon Nathan (19) and Hyman Lawer (19).

Nearly all of them lived at the house and they insisted they were only playing cards to pay for their supper.

The police case was presented in court by superintendent T. Arnold. Arnold explained that men Abberline and his men had gained entry they had found the men sat around a table in a back room. ‘Money and cards were on the table’, and in a drawer they found yet more cards and ‘about the room more cards’. This was not then, simply a case of some friends meeting at home to pass the time with a harmless game, he argued, this was organised gambling.

Arnold said the police had received an anonymous letter informing them of the gambling den, which Abberline had acted upon. He understood the game they were playing was called ‘sixty-six’ (or schnapsen, a game of German origin). If you want to know how to play it (not for money of course!) then the rules are here.

Straus admitted allowing players to gamble in his house and further admitted to charging them to do so. He didn’t ask for much, ‘a penny or a halfpenny from each of them to use the room’, was all, but that was illegal just the same. A witness appeared for the police, named Albert Stern, and he said he had played  other games such as Faro and Bank there, for upwards of four hours for ‘stakes of 1d up to 4d‘.

Mr Busby, the magistrate, said it was clear all were guilty as charged and Straus would be fined £5 for running the house. He accepted that most of the others lived there and were only playing for small stakes, so would be lenient. He fined them 20s each. To put this in some sort of context this meant that the arrest had cost each man about £25 in today’s money, and their host 10 times that amount. For the police it was a victory in the ongoing war against illegal gambling but I hope that Abberline and his team were just as assiduous in busting employers that forced their staff to work in sweated industry for long hours at substance pay; sadly I doubt it.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, July 08, 1879]