Bovril in hot water over its ‘dangerous’ method of advertising

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In the autumn of 1890 the London press had received a number of letters concerning a new method of advertising. Companies (especially those that did not have a high street presence) had begun to put up ‘sky signs’ that loomed over the metropolis atop tall buildings.

These signs ‘used the sky of heaven as a background for their advertisements’ and were particularly useful for businesses that were located ‘in back streets and out of reach of the public eye’. One such sign that had recently been erected advertised the merits of Bovril, ‘a thick and salty meat extract paste similar to a yeast extract, developed in the 1870s by John Lawson Johnston’ (wikipedia, 4/10/17).

The Clerkenwell vestry opposed the the installation of such sky signs because they felt they presented a risk to health and safety, and summoned the representatives of Bovril Ltd to Clerkenwell Police Court and prosecuted them under the Metropolis Management Act, 18 and 19 Victoria, cap 120 (1855) section 119. The section of legislation made it unlawful for anyone to block a passage or erect a sign that endangered road users and the vestry’s concern was that the Bovril sign (in particular the letter ‘B’)  might fall and crush passers by below.

The case for the vestry was presented by Mr Bodkin and he argued that since the letters were made of wood, and weighed ‘on average one hundredweight’ they constituted a real risk to those below. As noted above the letter B projected over Lever Street and so the vestry had ordered the firm to take them down. This request had been refused or ignored and so it ended up before Mr Bros at Clerkenwell. Bodkin argued that there was a very real risk the sign could fall and added that its elevated position made it entirely possible that it could be struck by lightning, fall or ignite the rest of the building in fire.

Defending Bovril, Mr Forrest Fulton suggested the concerns were overblown. He called Mr George Sage (of messrs. Sage), whose company had made the letters. Sage attempted to convince the magistrate (and the vestry) that there was no danger to anyone:

‘The letters were erected with the greatest care and every precaution was taken to avoid accidents’.

They had even attached a lightning conductor to the building as extra protection for the signage. Challenged by the vestry’s spokesman he said that he accepted that ‘London’s atmosphere might, in the course of years, weaken the structure’, but he called forward another member of Sage’s team who reassured the court that ‘no pressure of wind could bring the letter B down’. Mr Fulton also insisted that any fire risk was applicable to the building anyway, and not exacerbated by wooden letters above its roof.

An architect was produced who also testified that the structure was safe and Fulton confirmed that Bovril had agreed to have the sign inspected annually to ensure it was well maintained and presented no risk to the public. So, was this really about public safety or about the increasing presence of advertising? London was awash with commercial signage in the late nineteenth century; indeed it is one of things that first strikes you when you look at pictures of the capital like this Kilburn omnibus below (from c.1890).

LGOC bus Kilburn c1890

In the end I suspect Mr Bros the magistrate compromised because while he fined Bovril 40 for not complying with the vestry’s order this was a nominal amount and not a real disincentive to the advertisers. The paper noted that an appeal was likely and one imagines it would have considerable commercial support. Late Victorian and Edwardian England thrived on commerce and entrepreneurship and companies such as Bovril had deep pockets.

The days of the vestry as an influential body were also numbered, they would soon lose what little power they had to councils. One only has to take a ride through central London and along the river today to recognise that business has triumphed over the aesthetic desires of those that would prefer a less cluttered skyline or a more low-key use of advertising. This process started in the 1800s and has been relentless ever since.

[from The Standard, Saturday, October 04, 1890]

Delays at Clapham Junction lead to a punch up in the bar

Starzina Z Railways Direct Line Clapham Junction station 1889

Sometimes the press reports from the Police Courts inadvertently reveal elements of the summary process which are not otherwise made obvious. For example, in the case I’ve selected today, the sitting magistrate cautioned a police witness for remaining in court while evidence is being heard. This undermined the authority of his testimony and ultimately led to the discharge of the accused (who were clearly guilty as charged). This may seem like a minor detail, but it is exactly this sort of detail that helps me establish exactly how these courts operated in the 1800s.

Henry Clark (an architect) , John Lumsden (no trade given, so perhaps an ‘independent man’) and Thomas Oliver (engineer) had been watching the cricket at the Oval and had returned to Clapham Junction to catch a train home. Having just missed one they were forced to wait an hour for the next service and headed for the station’s ‘refreshment bar’ for a few drinks.

Here two very different stories emerge.

According to constable White of the South Western Railway Police the men arrived at the bar to find it closed. Annoyed, they complained loudly and constable White was called to intervene. However, his appearance just irritated them more and as he approached Oliver the engineer attempted to grapple him to the floor. The constable’s helmet was knocked off and rolled over to Clark who picked it up and threw it.

White managed to retrieve it and now attempted to regain his authority, placing the damaged helmet on his head and demanding they all leave at once, as he wanted to lock up. The men were having none of it however, and Clark hit the railway policeman and the pair wrestled. As they were down Lumsden came up and started aiming kicks at the stricken officer.

Either because the noise they made alerted a local bobby, or perhaps because a nearby passenger witnessed the assault and went for help, because soon afterwards a Metropolitan Police constable (PC Hooper of V division) turned up and arrested all three men and took them to the nearest police station.

Appearing in court at Wandsworth the next day the trio, all respectable lower middle class men it would seem, were represented by a lawyer, Mr Haynes. His version of events different somewhat to constable White’s. Haynes explained that the three had arrived at the station and gone to the bar. There White had joined them for a few drinks and had got quite drunk in the process.

The drinking led to horse play (or ‘larking’ to use the contemporary term for rough house behaviour). When constable White felt things had  gone too far he called for help and PC Hooper appeared.

So the magistrate, Mr Dayman, was presented with conflicting testimony; did he believe PC Hooper and the railway constable, or the three cricket fans? He clearly thought there was fault on both sides. He told White that it was clear that he ‘had been larking, and, getting the worst of it, he gave the prisoners in charge fancying his uniform would protect him’.

But it was also pretty obvious that the men had assaulted a police man (albeit a railway policeman not a member of the Met), so what to do with them? I think he fell back on a procedural dodge here by turning his attention to PC Hooper’s evidence (or rather his actions). He may well have suspected the two men were in cahoots, as ‘brothers in arms’ so to speak. PC Hooper had stated that as he took the men into custody they had tried to bribe him. The men ‘had offered him a sovereign to swear that White was drunk’, yet he insisted that he was sober.

However, Mr Dayman remarked that the policeman had ‘remained in court though all the witnesses had been ordered outside during the hearing of the case’.

‘By remaining inside’, he explained, ‘he saw the point of the case, and therefore he (Mr Dayman) could not place that reliance on his evidence as he should otherwise have done. He was always ready to uphold railway officials as they had an arduous duty to perform, but they must come into court with clean hands’.

The three men were discharged and thus cleared of any wrongdoing and as a result both White and Hooper were effectively reprimanded and reminded that their authority was conditional on them maintaining the highest standards of conduct. For me though, the real interest in this story is in what it tells me about the process of summary court hearings. If we can extrapolate from this example it would seem that those giving evidence that was important to a given case would be expected (at least when they were instructed) to wait outside the court to be called in and sworn. This may sound obvious from a modern context but, given that we have little in the way of printed material on the procedural nature of the summary courts, it is nice to see this recorded.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, September 26, 1866]