The menace of fireworks (a lesson from the past?)

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Bonfire night is upon us again and, despite the ongoing pandemic, dusk is ushered in by the sound of fireworks as it has been for the last few weeks.

This means that my social media feed is also full of people complaining about fireworks: children and young adults throwing them, pets being distressed by them, and our peace being shattered by them. But before we get carried away by thinking that this is in any way a modern problem, let me assure you that we’ve been complaining about fireworks for well over 150 years.

In 1846, for example, the London Daily News reported a case from the Edmonton Petty Sessions under the headline: ‘A caution to dealers in fireworks’.

Mary Emmune was summoned to court to explain why she had sold ‘a quantity of catherine wheels, squibs, etc.’ to a child. She faced a penalty of £5, which seems quite lenient but was the equivalent of around £300 today. Despite having a solicitor to represent her the bench still levied the full amount.

In doing this the chair (the magistrate in charge on the day) was probably mindful of his own experience of Guy Fawkes night that year. He told the dealer’s lawyer that his own horse had ‘nearly run away with him’ in fright at all the explosions around him, and that one of his friend’s animals had been ‘severely injured in consequence of fireworks’.

This is clear echo through time of the distress caused by loud bangs and flashes to our pets and work animals. In the past of course horses were ubiquitous in Victorian society. Pretty much everything we rely on motorised transport for (commuting, goods delivery, public transport) was provided by horse power in the 1800s.

So there was plenty of risk of animals being ‘spooked’ by fireworks (either those just ‘going off’ and those more mischievously thrown by youths. Youths were not allowed to be sold fireworks (which is why Mrs Emmune was prosecuted) and that is the case today. It is illegal to sell them to under 18s and it is against the law for anyone under 18 to be in possession of a firework in a public space.

In the following year there was tragedy in Exeter when an eighteen year-old apprentice was killed when two rockets exploded in his trouser pockets. The coroner’s jury returned a verdict of ‘accidental death’ with a strong recommendation ‘against the use of fireworks being permitted by the authorities’.

The same paper also reported that a curate and his assistant were prosecuted in Topsham, Devon, for ‘rolling lighted tea-barrels through the streets’, despite this practice having been banned by local magistrates. The Rev. Cooke was fined £2 plus expenses.

The same problems continue to blight Guy Fawkes today of course. Fatalities are rare but they do happen, but between 2000-2005 (the last year that statistics were taken) an average of 1,650 people a year were bring injured by fireworks.

Two more fatalities in 1851 were the result of illegal firework manufacture in the Clerkenwell, London. William Phillips and James Prickett (both in their late teens) died at St Bartholomew’s hospital in early November of wounds sustained when testing fireworks they were making. The other man involved was ‘dangerously ill’ and so evidence was scarce but it seems the trio were employed by a chemist named Thomas Herring in Aldersgate Street. Unbeknown to Herring the lads were making fireworks ‘solely for the amusement of themselves’.

‘They had made a lot of squibs’, the court was told, ‘but they would not go off properly’. As they tried again one ended up in the fire, popped out of the grate and set off others. There was an explosion which blew out the windows, and a fire engulfed the premises, leaving all three lads severely burned.  The coroner concluded that the house might have exploded, taking down the nearby properties. He added that manufacturing fireworks was illegal, because it was deemed a ‘nuisance’ by law.

Your opinion on fireworks will probably be influenced by your age, where you live, and whether you have pets. I like displays but clearly that is problematic at the moment, especially as this year’s Bonfire Night marks the start of a new month long lockdown. In almost any other context they are nuisance at best. But, given that, as  history tells us, this is an issue with deep roots, I doubt we are going to solve it until retailers are banned form selling fireworks completely (or choose to refrain from doing so independently).

So whatever you do do, do it safely and with regard for the people (and animals) you live close to.

[From Daily News, Friday 13 November 1846; Examiner, Saturday 27 November 1847; Morning Chronicle, Thursday 6 November 1851).  

Cruelty to bears is not ‘entertainment’

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Given the Victorians’ love of animals and the efforts (from 1824) of the RSPCA to stamp out animal cruelty, I was a little surprised to see that dancing bears were still a sight seen on London streets in the last decade of the 1800s.

It must have been quite a sight as well which explains why over 200 people were drawn to Bridge Street in Homerton in May 1890. Two Frenchmen – De Love Chamary and Agas Jean – who both gave addresses in Edmonton – were charged at the Dalston Police court with obstructing the highway and refusing to ‘move along’.

A huge crowd had gathered on Bridge Street to see the  men prod the muzzled animal into performing, which had blocked the street entirely. PC Munro asked them to move along but they only went a few yards before starting up the entertainment again. When they failed to comply again he arrested them. Goodness know what they did with the bar but presumably the poor animal had to be taken into custody as well. I can well imagine the desk servant’s face when the trio arrived at the station!

A gentleman named Edward Young took the stand at Dalston to complain that along with the obstruction the bear represented a threat to the public. He himself had seen the beast ‘make for a servant girl twice that morning’. The bear was, he conceded, muzzled, but he wanted to let the court know that with bears it was ‘the hug that did it’. His intervention added to the entertainment element of this prosecution and prompted some laughter.

The defendants were ‘picturesquely-dressed’ as French ‘peasants’ and were, the reporter suggested, of ‘the gipsy class’. It is likely them that they lived in the countryside north of the capital, in caravans and tents at Edmonton rather than in suburban housing.

They assured Mr Haden Corser that the bear was harmless, and so the magistrate said there was little he could do to them beyond making them aware that were to obey the police’s instructions in future.  He cautioned them and let them go.

The practice of forcing captive bears dance was prohibited in Britain in 1911 but sadly continues in many countries in the world, even after prohibition. An organisation called Bear Conservation monitors the abuse of these magnificent animals worldwide and you find out how to support their efforts here

Daily News, Saturday 3 May 1890; Illustrated Police News, Saturday 10 May 1890

A ‘very gross case of cruelty’ to a cat

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I am (sadly) rarely supervised at the cruelty that some human are capable of showing to others and to defenseless animals, but this case is extreme and so comes with a warning that it may be upsetting to some readers.

In September 1872 the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (later to be come the RSPCA) brought a prosecution against John Kelloch. The case came before Mr Woolrych at Westminster Police court and concerned the killing of a cat.

Charles Rogers testified that on Tuesday 20 September he was a passing Kelloch’s house in Warwick Street, Pimlico when he noticed ‘a little cat’ enter the elderly man’s home. Two minutes later he saw Kelloch emerge chasing the cat, and then watched in horror as he struck at it with a large stick.

Kelloch seemed to be trying to break the cat’s back and when it was lying still on the ground he picked it up and started to whirl it around his head by its tail. The poor animal was hurled 20 feet into the air and fell back down again on to the earth. Kit took a further two hours for it to die, Rogers explained.

When Rogers challenged Kelloch about his actions he was warned that he’d do the same for any other cat that entered his cellar and for Rogers if he tried to intervene. Instead Rogers decided to tell the officers at the SPCA who obtained a warrant to arrest the culprit.

It was, Mr Woolrych the justice agreed, a ‘very gross case of cruelty’ and he fined Kelloch £5 plus costs, telling him he would go to prison for two months at hard labour if he failed to pay. He paid in full.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, September 26, 1872]

The sad end of a champion ‘mouser’

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Are you a cat person or a dog one? I have cats but love dogs too; I just don’t have time in my life for them at the moment. Cats are more self-contained after all, they pretty much do what they like and interact with us when they want food or attention. These days cats are – at least in urban areas – simply pets. Their role is solely to provide companionship. In the past people kept cats for other reasons, most often to keep down pests like mice.

That’s why Benjamin Carter and his wife had a cat. They had ‘no end of mice’ and so when their cat disappeared in June 1890 they were both upset and angry to find that a neighbour had killed it.  Carter obtained a summons and brought James Butterfill to court at Woolwich.

There he explained the situation to Mr Marsham, the sitting magistrate. The cat had vanished on June 28 and, having heard rumours that Butterfill was responsible, he confronted him. James admitted taking the cat but said he had put it into a basket (intending to give it ‘a hiding’) but it escaped.

The cat never returned and Carter carried on with his investigations, finding a little girl who said she saw Mrs Butterfill take the cat from the Carter’s door and carry it into her own house. This girl told the magistrate the same story and it became clear that the cat was now dead, killed by the Butterfills. The question was why?

James Butterfill told Mr Marsham that he and his brother-in-law kept pigeons, trained ones (so perhaps racing pigeons or ones used to carry messages). The Carter’s cat had killed several of these by June and they decided enough was enough.

‘You should have sued the owner in the county court’, the justice told him.

‘We did, and were nonsuited’, Butterfill replied.

Nonsuiting means that the case was stopped in court, either because the plaintiff (Carter) withdrew – unlikely here, or because the judge decided there was insufficient evidence for the case to carry on. However, the judge at the time declared that if he’d found a cat killing his pigeons he would have destroyed it. That was enough for the Butterfills who resolved to deal with the problem themselves should it happen again.

It did happen again. The Butterfills lost four pigeons and then six more a few days later.

Robert Ashdown, the brother-in-law, said that his pigeons were worth £5. They had acted to defend their property and Mr Marsham had some sympathy with them. He added that if anyone was directly to blame it was probably Mrs Butterfill, not James and so the summons was incorrectly directed. He thought the action taken was justified and dismissed the summons on a technicality.

The Carters would have to find a new ‘mouser’ (apparently they were readily available for about 10s– £40 today) but hopefully one that didn’t attack birds. They could do with one of my two. They will kill mice if they catch them but just sit and stare at pigeons, making that strange noise that cats make.

The pigeons are not at all bothered by them.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, August 30, 1890]

Lessons from history : we don’t want your Chlorinated chicken America

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The crowd that had gathered around Thomas Masters on Houndsditch one early evening in August 1867 looked angry. Angry enough at least to worry one passerby who took it upon himself to find out what was going on.

As he pushed his way through he saw an old man holding a cockerel. The bird was dripping blood and had lost a lot of its feathers along with its claws and spurs, but was alive. The man seemed drunk and the crowd was berating him.

The ‘good Samaritan’ (a Mr Moore) decided to act quickly lest the crowd used violence against their quarry. He called a policeman over and had the elderly man arrested on suspicion of animal cruelty.

The next day the man was brought before the Lord Mayor at Mansion House police court. He gave his name and admitted being a little drunk that day. He said he had clipped the bird’s spurs and claws, and removed some feathers ‘to improve his appearance and make him look younger’. One wonders why he would go to such drastic lengths, was trying to use the bird for cock fighting (illegal by the 1860s having been banned in 1835) or was he hoping to sell him?

The Lord Mayor fined him 5for the cruelty but Masters had no money so was sent to prison for three days in default.

I think this story tells us that the British have a low tolerance for animal cruelty, at least when it is flaunted in front of us. The RSPCA was founded quite early in the nineteenth century, in 1824, and long before a charity to protect children from cruelty. We have been a nation of animal lovers for a very long time and pets are much more closely integrated into out way of life than they are in many other countries.

I think that the Americans might do well to remember this as they make sweeping statements about post-Brexit trade deals. When it comes to animal welfare the States do not have standards that are anything like as rigorous as ours or the European Union’s. Chlorinated chicken may be safe but that is to miss the point. British consumers want to know that their food is both safe and – to a large degree at least – ethically sourced. We may not ask too many questions about where our meat comes from at first, especially if it cheaper. But campaigners will soon let the public know if animals were being abused to put cheap food on our tables and then, I believe, a very British sense of fair play will demand that our supermarkets source produce elsewhere.

So the Americans can demand whatever they like in terms of access to UK markets for their agriculture, it doesn’t mean we are going to buy it. We’ve had consumer boycotts before (in the Apartheid years for example) and the US might soon learn that we are capable of saying ‘no thank you’ to a vast range of American goods.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, August 22, 1867]

Someone tries to steal ‘Mr Slater’s parrot’

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It was about 2 o’clock in the morning when Henry Preston heard a loud commotion coming from the parrot house at London Zoo. The keeper rushed over to investigate and saw a man running away from one of the cages, which had been opened.

The bird it contained – a rare Bell Bird (native to Brazil) – was missing, and so Preston set off in pursuit of the mysterious intruder.

It took him a while to catch up with him, but eventually he had him and demanded to know where the missing bird was. The man was silent but the keeper noticed a feather on his coat. Another keeper arrived and questioned him and five more feathers were found.

Then Mr Jeffcoat, the keeper of the elephant house arrived and said he had seen a man leaving the gentleman’s lavatories, obviously in something of a hurry. Leaving the others to hold onto their prisoner Jeffcoat went to search the toilets for the missing bird.

Sadly he found it; quite dead, drowned in a w.c and wrapped in a handkerchief with the name ‘Goodfellow’ embroidered on it. The keepers took the suspected culprit to Mr Bartlett, the superintendent of the Zoological Gardens who accused him of stealing it. The man now tried to buy his way out of the risk and embarrassment of a court appearance, offering Bartlett £20 if would let him go. He would not and then man was handed over to the police.

The next day (Friday 27 July, 1888) he appeared before Mr Cook at Marylebone Police court and gave his name as Walter Hamilton. There the magistrate was told the events of the night as the keepers had witnessed it and informed that the dead parrot was ‘the only specimen of the bell tribe in this country’. It belonged to Mr Slater (the secretary of Zoological Society) was valued at £10 and Mr Cook decided that Hamilton must stand trial for its theft (if not its murder).

The neotropical bellbird in question was probably the white bellbird or the bare-throated member of the species. Both live in Brazil. They both have a call that resembles the sound of a bell being rung.

Those of you of a certain age (and perhaps a certain musical background) will recall that the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band recorded a song called ‘Mr Slater’s Parrot’ on their 1969 album Keynsham. It is one of my favorites, with the line:

‘When Mr. Slater’s parrot says, “Hello!”

A geezer likes to get one on the go.

We hope to hear him swear.

We love to hear him squeak.

We like to see him biting fingers in his horny beak.’

Was it inspired by the attempted theft of a bell bird in 1888, or by the secretary of the Zoological Society? I doubt its more than a coincidence but it made me chuckle this morning.

[from The Standard, Saturday, July 28, 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 here

A ‘mad cat lady’ is ordered to make the ultimate sacrifice

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We are a nation of pet lovers and one supposes that this has ever been so. But this does not mean that everyone, everywhere, sees pets as a ‘good thing’. Moreover within almost every community I have lived in I can remember at least one ‘mad cat lady’, the sort of person who keeps a number of feline friends for company and is often (albeit gently) mocked for it. The case of Louisa Bragg brings both of these statements together and shows, once again, that the range of a magistrate’s work in the 1800s was quite wide.

In July 1889 Miss Bragg (she was described as an ‘elderly maiden lady’ so we must presume she was still a ‘miss’) was brought before Mr D’Eyncourt at Westminster Police court on a ‘peremptory summons’. The summons was issued by the court because Louisa had failed to comply with a previous ruling regarding her large collection of cats.

She lived at 65 Marsham Street, Westminster, in a house of multiple occupation. The other residents had complained about the old lady and her cats, saying that they were a source of disease and that several of them had died and were decaying in her rooms!

The case was presented by Mr Rogers, who prosecuted on behalf of the vestry, and he brought in the sanitary inspector to support his case. Thomas Dee testified ‘to the filthy conditions of the defendant’s room, where he saw seven cats on the table’. Sergeant Edwards, the court’s warrant officer, also reported on the state of things he’d seen when he served the summons on Miss Bragg.

The poor lady begged for leniency and to be allowed to keep her animals who she said were dear to her. She appeared in court armed with copies of acts of parliaments and attempted to defend herself, saying the law was wrong. The question was, she implored the magistrate, one of whether ‘a happy home should be broken up’.

Mr. D’Eyncourt dismissed this as mere sentiment and suggested she get rid of the cats and take a ‘nice little dog’ instead. Miss Bragg huffed at this suggestion and begged for more time so she could find a bigger room elsewhere. D’Eyncourt was in no mood to sympathize with her however, insisting that unless she cleared out the cats and cleaned up her room she would be levied with a fine of a £5 for refusing to obey the order of his court. Since she had already breached the first order he fined her a sovereign for good measure.

Clearly he was no cat lover and one imagines that Miss Bragg’s fellow tenants were heartily sick of having to share their dwelling with half a dozen or more flea ridden moggies. One only has to travel to southern Europe or to Cyprus to see what a society where stray or semi-feral cats are allowed to roam free looks like. Lovely as they are (and I am most certainly a cat lover) they bring an associated risk of disease if they are not controlled.

However, for Miss Bragg, an elderly lady living on her own and seemingly without any living relatives close by, her cats were her only companions and so while others might dismiss her as the ‘mad cat woman’ they were all the friends she had in the world and to ask her to get rid of them smacks of heartlessness.

[from The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, July 6, 1889]

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 (including the life of pet food salesman…).

The book is available on Amazon here

Cruelty to a cat, or a dog, or both. Either way Mr Paget and the RSPCA were not happy about it.

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I’m not quite sure what to make of this story so offer it up as an example of how difficult it must have been on occasions, for a magistrate to know who was telling the truth or how he should proceed.

On Friday 4 June 1880 the manager of the Ladbroke Hotel in Notting Hill Gate was brought before Mr Paget at Hammersmith Police court. The defendant, William Gimlett, was represented by a lawyer (a Mr Claydon) and the case was brought by the RSPCA and presented by their lawyer, Mr R Willis.

The matter at hand was cruelty to a cat but there seems to have been some abuse of a dog as well, even though the case turned on the actions of the dog itself. The RSPCA accused Gimlett of cruelty by ‘urging a dog to worry a cat’. According to one or more witnesses the hotel manager was seen trying to get the dog to ‘worry’ a cat, presumably to make it go away but possibly out of simple base cruelty.

One witness testified to seeing Gimlett on the morning of the 13 May outside the hotel. He was allegedly ‘hissing a brown bull dog, which had the cat by the throat’. The cat escaped but only temporarily, the dog soon caught it again, and this tie it dragged it down into the coal cellar where it was discovered, ‘three-parts dead’ by one of the hotel’s footmen.

For the defence Claydon argued that the dog could not have harmed the cat ‘as it had lost its front teeth’. Mr Paget wanted to see for himself and asked the lawyer if he would open the animal’s mouth so he could check the veracity of the defence. The lawyer happily obliged, lifting the dog onto a small table and prizing its jaws open. Presumably satisfied that this wasn’t a dangerous beast the magistrate turned his attention to the barmaid of the hotel who gave evidence to support her manager.

Emily Mawley told the justice that the cat was a stray, and that again may well have meant it was unwelcome and needed to be shooed away. She added that her boss was nervous of the dog since he didn’t know it, and so ‘he threw a brick at it’. Was this intended to incite the dog or scare it away? This bit I find odd and without a more detailed report it is quite frustrating. Especially as the defence lawyer then went on to explain that the dog had been left to the house by a previous landlord and Mr Gimlett had inherited it, taking ‘the dog as one of the fixtures’.

Mr Paget wasn’t convinced by the barmaid’s testimony. He said she had ‘attributed to the defendant a degree of timidity which he would not impute to him’.  He found for the prosecution and fined Gimlett 40swith £1 18scosts. While this was confusing I think it does show the growing effectiveness of the RSPCA by the last quarter of the century. By 1880 they had been around over 50 years and had presumably become adept at bringing cruelty cases.

Given some of the acts of animal abuse which I have seen on social media recently I really hope that modern magistrates are as quick to side with the ‘dumb’ animals as Mr Paget was. After all in 1880 the fine and costs that was awarded against this abuser amounts to about £270 in today’s money but was almost two week’s wages for skilled tradesman then. No small sum at all and so, hopefully, a lesson not to be so quick to harm a stray cat (or dog) in the future.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, June 05, 1880]

P.S in Victorian London pets were popular, just as they are today. The image at the top of the post is of a cats-meat man; someone that sold cheap pet food door-to-door. The meat was horse meat  a  by-product of the horse slaughtering trade and if you are interested in discovering what connection there is between cats-meat, horse slaughtering, and the Jack the Ripper murders of 1888 then you might like to read Drew’s jointly authored study of the killings  which is published on June 15 by Amberley Books. It is available to pre-order on Amazon now

‘The poor animal was dreadfully exhausted’. Animal cruelty as a cabbie is prosecuted at Marylebone

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To some very real extent Victorian London was powered by the horse. Horses pulled cabs and carts, coaches, trams and omnibuses, and where today an individual might use a car to get around in the 1800s our ancestors would have ridden (if they had the wealth to afford it). The capital’s streets were thronged with horses then, as well as with people, and no doubt the streets were also well fertilized with the animals’ ‘leaving’s (although some drivers fitted bags to collect the manure their beasts expelled).

The use of horses is something we’ve left behind as the internal combustion engine has replaced them: better perhaps for them if not for us given the unprecedented levels of pollution that have now made central London’s air quite literally lethal. Today we think of horses as a luxury or as pets, animals more associated with the countryside than with the town. Yet even a short walk around the city would remind of the horse’s ubiquitous presence in the past, remembered today in the frequent existence of horse troughs and mews.

It was a hard life being a working horse in Victorian London. Cabbies, coachmen, carters and bus and tram companies worked their animals for long hours in all weathers. The average horse might work for 11 years and no peaceful retirement to pasture awaited them at the end of that, just one of Harrison Barber’s knackers. The firm of Harrison Barber had, by the 1880s at least, come to dominate the horse slaughtering business – something myself and Andy Wise discuss in our new history of the Whitechapel and Thames Torso murders. Most of the horses that ended up one of the company’s many yards across London were destined to serve the capital in another way, as pet food sold door to door by a ‘cat’s meat man’.

Many of those who kept a horse must have cared deeply for them; bonds between us and animals are deep rooted and not a ‘modern’ phenomena. But cruelty was also a feature of the relationships then as it is today. In May 1884 Charles Ramsden was brought up at Marylebone Police court and charged with ‘cruelly torturing a horse’. The 22 year-old cab driver worked for a cab proprietor named Barrell.

Mr Barrell was in court to testify that the young man had left his yard at six on Saturday evening and did not return until eight the following morning. Throughout the intervening 38 hours Ramsden had worked his horse constantly and as a result the poor animal had developed a wound on its back ‘so deep that he could have buried an egg in it’ the owner explained.

Now, however, it had swollen considerably, and was as big as his (prosecutor’s) head. The animal was dreadfully exhausted, trembled, and was very stiff in its joints from overwork’.

Ramsden had apparently refused to say where he’d been that night when Barrett has asked him but in court he told Mr De Rutzen that he’d had no choice but to keep working as he was unable to get a fare and so ‘was determined to stay out until he did get one’. The two policemen that arrested him gave supporting evidence as to the state of the animal as did William Peacock, a vet living on Westbourne Park Villas.

The magistrate was clear that this was a ‘very gross case of cruelty’ and he sent Ramsden to prison for a month with hard labour. Hopefully the animal recovered but I fear that its future looked bleak and that a visit to a knacker’s yard was not that far away.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, May 20, 1884]