A bareknuckle fight in the grounds of Ally Pally

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Police constables Rudkin (696Y) and Mitchell (467Y) had got a tip off that an illegal prize fight was happening on their patch, which covered the area around Alexandra Palace in north London. So, on the morning of Sunday 18 November 1883 they hurried off to investigate.

As the officers were coming along a public footpath from Muswell Hill to Mr Cotton’s fields they saw a lot of male heads gathered in a large circle and the sounds of ‘blows and scuffling’. They were close to a railway bridge and some observers had stationed themselves up their to get a better view of proceedings.

This also allowed several people to see the approaching policemen and the cry went up:

‘Look out! here’s the police!’

The crowd scattered in all directions with the two bobbies in pursuit. PC Mitchell saw one of the men that had been fighting and chased him into a field, catching him up and arresting him. His name was William Rearden and he was stripped to waist and wearing only ‘slippers’ on his feet. The other boxer managed to get away so the coppers had to be satisfied with breaking up the fight and the capture of just one of the fighters.

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Rearden could hardly deny being in a fight. He was bleeding from his mouth and ears and there was a large and recent bruise developing on his chest. This was bare-knuckle boxing, not a fight sanctioned by the Queensbury rules.

Rearden was adamant that he’d done nothing wrong. When captured he surrendered immediately and promised to ‘go quietly’ to the police station. He insisted it was just a fight to settle a dispute he had with his adversary, no ‘prize’ was involved. The police had found no evidence of a ‘professional’ fight: no ring, no gloves or seconds and of course, no second fighter was in custody.

In the end the case came before Mr Bodkin at the Highgate Police court. Rearden told the magistrate that he was an ex-soldier who had served in Egypt and South Africa, He’d been decorated for his service and proudly wore his medal ribbons in court.  He was able to produce a certificate of his service and good character and was still on the Army Reserve list.

Moreover, he was in work, as a bricklayer, and he had no record of being in trouble with the law previously. All this counted in his favour and persuaded the justice that a ticking off would suffice. Fighting in public was unlawful Mr Bodkin told him but in light of his record he would merely bind him over to keep the peace for six months. Having agreed to enter into recognizances of £20 Rearden (known as ‘Roberts’ in the Army) was released to his friends.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, November 20, 1883]

Help for heroes in 1870

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A veteran of the Crimean War

Whilst today is Hallo’een and this evening we will be inundated with small children flying high on sugar and commercialized excitement this is also the week that poppy sellers really began to make an appearance.  I’m not going to engage in the debate as to whether or not anyone should wear a poppy (or what colour that poppy should be); I believe that men and women have died in wars to preserve our freedoms and the freedom to wear a poppy (or not) is part and parcel of that.

Poppies were first sold in Britain in 1921, the year the Royal British Legion was formed. It sold 9,000,00 of them and raised £106,000 for veterans from the First World War. Last year 40,000,000 were sold worldwide and now the Legion helps veterans from all wars in the 20th and 21st century. The FWW was meant to be the ‘war to end all wars’, sadly it wasn’t.

What struck me about the reportage from the London Police courts for hallo’ween 1870 was a story about six young lads who had been collecting money for veterans, just as the Legion’s poppy sellers do today. The boys (part of a wider group of 36 they said) had approached Sir Robert Carden at the Guildhall just as the court was closing for the day.

A spokesman for the group piped up to say that they were asking for the magistrate’s help as they hadn’t been paid. When asked they said they took a stand in the street and collected money in a box which they then returned to the clerks in ‘the office’. Depending on the amount they raised they were paid between 2s6dand 4sa week. However, when they went to collect their money that day the office was closed and they had gone away empty handed.

It seems they were collecting considerable sums of money from the public. They knew how much because the opening used to remove cash was kept sealed. Nevertheless the boys could feel the weight of the boxes and could see the money being put in them. One lad, who stood outside Bow Church on Cheapside said that he seen a gentleman put in a sovereign and two other men donate half sovereigns. Each box must have amounted to a considerable sum and so for just a few shillings a week the lads were doing great work in drumming up money for the charity.

Sir Richard was sympathetic to their plight but thought that it might just be  a temporary error on the behalf of the clerks to forget to pay these six individuals. He advised them to try once more the next day but to return to see him they remained unpaid. In that case, he said, he would take more formal action against the charity.

So this shows us that the courts were used for more than just crime, they were arenas for negotiation, advice and support. It also reveals that there was some sort of charity to support old soldiers in the late 1800s, perhaps a recognition that the Victorian state (as Kipling later observed) was not doing enough.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, October 31, 1870]

Down and out in a Chelsea back garden

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Homelessness is very much a part of life in London in the 21st century, something, I feel, we should – as a society – feel ashamed of.  London is the capital of one of the world’s richest countries; by GDP we are the ninth wealthiest country in the world, we have 54 billionaires (ranking us 7th in the world), and London is the sixth richest city on the planet.

However, in the 1870s Britain was THE richest nation on earth. In terms of GDP Great Britain far outstripped the US and generated more wealth than Germany, France, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Italy put together.  London was the premier city of empire in the 1900s with more goods and wealth passing through here than anywhere else.

So for there to be rampant poverty and homelessness in Victoria’s capital was even more of a national disgrace. And, just like today, no everyone that was homeless had started life in poverty, or had led a ‘dissolute’ life.

Take James Russell for example. James was a 58 year-old man, quite close to my own age. He was well educated and described himself as a tutor. He had studied at Trinity College, Cambridge and had earned a living teaching in various schools and most recently for the army and navy.

Yet despite this he found himself destitute and homeless in 1877, living a migratory existence sleeping on benches, in a baker’s barrow, and even an empty hansom cab. In September 1877 he was discovered sleeping in a garden in Pond Place, Chelsea by a policeman on patrol. The officer, PC Henry Skeats (328B) asked him his business and, since he couldn’t give a satisfactory account of himself, he arrested him.

Standing in the dock at Westminster Police court James Russell told Mr Woolrych his story.

He had a note from Dr Thompson, his master at Trinity, confirming his attendance there,  and promised that his situation was merely temporary; he hoped to get gainful employment soon. The magistrate sympathized with him: after all here was an educated man, a member of the upright middle classes, not the usual underclass he had to deal with. Russell promised that he would not return to sleeping rough on the constable’s patch (he made no such vow about alternatives however) and that was good enough for Mr Woolrych who released him.

Homelessness is not always a product of simple economics; mental illness plays it part, as does drug and alcohol abuse. If you want to help end homelessness in this country (or any country) then I would urge you to look to political solutions that favour a more equal distribution of wealth. Poverty is nothing new but then neither is wealth inequality that is controlled by the richest in society. For a more immediate and practical action you might consider, if indeed you can afford it, supporting one of the many homeless charities like Shelter or St Mungo’s.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, September 23, 1877]

Outrage at the Houses of Parliament as a lunatic is let loose

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It was just before 5 o’clock on the 16 July 1894 when Mr John Sandys, the public orator (literally the voice) of the University of Cambridge, arrived at the Houses of Parliament with his wife.  He and his wife Mary were supposed to be meeting Sir Richard Temple, the Conservative MP for Kingston a privy councilor.

Mary stepped out of the cab and as her husband settled the fare a ‘rough looking man’ rushed up to her shouting incoherently. Some witnesses claimed to have heard him shout ‘I’ll do for you’, or ‘Now I’ve got you’, but none were clear. What was certain was that he was brandishing a clasp knife and seemed intent on doing her some harm.

He lunged forward and slashed at her, slightly damaging her dress but thankfully not Mrs Sandys’ person. A quick thinking passer-by came to her assistance and two police officers helped wrestle him to the ground before taking him into custody. He was marched to King Street Police station where Mrs Sandys officially identified him as her attacker and signed the charge sheet. The man refused to give his name and nothing was found on his person that might explain who he was or why he had attempted to stab Mary.

At his first hearing at Westminster Police court his name emerged. He was Watson Hope Scott, also known as Samuel Strange – which seems an appropriate nom de plume. The magistrate expected that Strange or Scott was quite mad and could discern no connection between him and Mrs Sandys. He remanded the prisoner for further enquiries.

On 24 July he was again brought before the Westminster magistrate and a certificate was handed over (by Detective Inspector Waldock) that established that Scott was indeed insane.  He had discovered that Scott had served in the army in China but had been discharged in 1884 after suffering a severe bout of sunstroke. This had left him mentally damaged and unfit to serve. On his return to England he had found work with a medical herbalist but that only lasted three years before his employer dismissed him, because of his mental health problems.

Scott then worked at a cement factory but they couldn’t cope with hi either and let him go. Just recently he had found work in a City factory (doing what isn’t clear) but he suffered from fits and so the manager sacked him, fearing he might fall into the one of the machines and injure himself.

Throughout his hearing Scott sat in the dock looking dejected, ‘his face buried in his hands’. The magistrate declared him to be a lunatic and sent him to the workhouse asylum in Poland Street.  It is a desperately sad story. I doubt the sunstroke (more properly heatstroke) caused Scott’s mental health problems but it may well have exacerbated them. Once he lost his military career he was on a downwards spiral and the state would have done little to support him. He clearly did try to support himself, this was someone who wanted to work, wanted to contribute to society. But no one it seems was prepared to do anything for him.

Perhaps that’s why he ended up at Parliament – the place where British citizens might hope to get their problems heard and dealt with. After all, as Mr Johnson said yesterday, politicians are there to serve us, not themselves. This is not to excuse his attack on an entirely innocent woman but more to understand that it was probably born of a deep frustration and therefore represented a cry for help not a serious desire to do anyone harm. Sadly he didn’t really get any help, just a bed in an workhouse asylum, a slow death sentence if ever there was one.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, July 25, 1894; The Standard  Tuesday, July 17, 1894]

An extraordinary tale of the escaped convict who panned for Australian gold

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On Saturday 20 July 1867 the dock at Lambeth Police court was occupied by a ‘miserably-attired man’ of about 40 years of age. Thomas Nugent, of no fixed abode, was charged with having escaped from the penal colony at Van Diemen’s Land 15 years earlier.

PC Waghorn (101L) said that Nugent had walked into the Kennington Lane Police station to give himself up. He was, he declared to the desk sergeant, ‘without home or friends and perfectly destitute’. He felt he had no other option that to surrender to justice.

Nugent explained that he had been convicted of committing at burglary in Manchester and sentenced to ten years transportation at the assizes held for Kirkdale, Lancashire. He’d gone to Norfolk Island, a notorious penal settlement, but escaped during a mutiny there. For a time he’d found work prospecting in the Australian gold rush and earned enough money to buy his passage back to England. He stayed with his father, a navy pensioner, at Greenwich, before enlisting in the army.

He served in the 64thfoot in Persia (modern Iran) and during the Indian war of independence (or ‘Mutiny’) of 1857. He was discharged with a small pension after suffering a series of injures and being declared unfit. Since then he’d found work on the docks but it was back breaking and his body couldn’t cope with it.  As a result he was forced onto the streets to fend for himself as best he could.

It was an extraordinary story, as the newspaper report stated, and the magistrate was keen to discover whether it was a fantasy or not. He remanded Nugent in custody and requested the police and clerk to very the man’s tale.  At least in the meantime he’d get food, a bed and shelter for a few days.

It seems he was telling the truth, at least about his transportation, or at least in part. The Digital Panopticon reveals that in August 1843 a Thomas Nugent was convicted at Lancaster of a burglary. He had one previous conviction for ‘offences against property’. Nugent arrived in Norfolk Island in May 1846 but absconded in July 1849. He was caught, but ran away several more times before he disappears from the records in 1850. So while he got his dates wrong it is possible, likely even, that this was the same Thomas Nugent. By 1867 transportation to Australia had all but ended so perhaps now he felt safe in handing himself in.

[from The Standard, Monday, July 22, 1867]

The soldier who found it all too much to bear

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This is one of those stories that could make a mini drama series all of its own, despite there being very little detail to go on. All it needs is a storyteller with a vivid imagination.

In July 1861 a ‘tall, military-looking man; named James Moxham was set in the dock at Southwark Police court. He was charged with two counts of theft and one of attempting to kill himself in his cell. How on earth had he come to this desperate state?

It seems that Moxham, a soldier in the army, had been courting a young woman named Jane Clerk. The court heard that he was accused of stealing two gold rings and a pawnbroker’s duplicate (ticket) for a gold chain. The jewelry belonged to Jane but one wonders if the rings had been intended for the two of them at some future wedding ceremony.

Clearly something had gone very wrong for Jane to bring a charge of felonious theft against her paramour but what exactly happened isn’t revealed in this report. All we are told was that in court Jane pleaded for leniency on the grounds that Moxham had since returned the stolen items and she’d forgiven him.

The soldier had also tried to hang himself in his cell, though whether this was because he believed he’d lost his chance at love or could not cope with the public shame of a court hearing for theft, is again, open to question. He told the sitting justice, Mr Maude, that he deeply regretted his actions and it was evident he was still traumatized from his experience.

Since Jane no longer wished to bring a prosecution and the jewelry had been reunited with its owner, Mr Maude admonished the soldier for his bad behaviour but directed the clerk of the court to discharge him. That should have been that but a policeman piped up that Moxham was wanted by the army, as a deserter. That may have been the real shame he was trying to escape from. He was immediately re-arrested and taken back to the cells to await the visit of his company sergeant.

So there you have it, a drama in several acts: a tale of unrequited love or star-crossed lovers? An attempt to run away from the army to marry the woman he loved? A mental crisis occasioned by the impending doom of public shame? Over to you novelists!

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, July 5, 1861]

Soldiers are caught stealing from the stores as amateur football is eclipsed by the professionals

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An impression of the 1892 FA Challenge Cup final at Kennington Oval between West Bromwich Albion and Aston Villa

Yesterday Manchester City completed an unprecedented clean sweep of the domestic trophies for men’s football in England. In beating Watford 6-0 at Wembley they emphasized their dominance in professional football in this country and equaled the record for the largest winning margin in an FA Cup final (held by Bury who beat Derby by the same score in 1903). City epitomize the modern game: they are a team of millionaires playing for club that is owned by an oil rich nation, who play in a league that is funded to a large extent by the revenue it draws from selling the TV rights to subscription media companies like Sky and BT Sport.

Never before have the players and fans of football clubs been so distant (economically and socially) from each other. In 1883 Blackburn Olympic won the old FA Cup final, beating the Old Etonians 2-1 at the Kennington Oval after extra time. The final was significant because for the very first time a working-class team (and a northern one at that) had won against a team of  ‘gentlemen’ amateurs. In fact the Old Etonians were the last amateur club to win what was then the most prestigious trophy in English football. Thereafter football changed and northern or midlands teams went on to win the prize until 1901 when a little known southern non-league side won it, beating Sheffield United after a replay at Burnden Park in Bolton. Spurs’ victory in 1901 was a rare one for southern teams and the north and midlands dominated the history of the FA cup, at least until the modern era.

While today’s newspaper will be full of pictures of celebrating Manchester City players (and images from last night’s Eurovision song contest – something our Victorian ancestors did not have to suffer!) the papers in 1883 would have given much less space to football than ours do. It was a very popular working-class pastime but the 1883 final drew a crowd of just 8,000 to south London, and of course it wasn’t on television or the radio. Instead perhaps contemporaries would have lapped up the latest news from the police courts in 1883 as they digested their breakfast or supper, or sat around with their friends in the pub.

In May 1883 they might have read about the antics of three members of the Army Commissariat and Transport Corps who were set in the dock at Westminster  and charged with stealing from the stores at the Chelsea barracks. Joseph Maslin, William Earl and James Lane were accused of pinching 47 pairs of boots, 10 pairs of gloves and ‘other articles’, all valued at £46 11(or around £3,000 at today’s prices). All three men had previously unblemished service records and wore ribbons that indicated they had earned the Egypt medal for their efforts in the recent conflict with insurgents opposed to the British backed Khedive, Twefik Pasha (pictured right).   220px-MohamedTewfik

All three were remanded and sent for trial at the Old Bailey. There, on 28 May 1883 Earl was acquitted of all charges, Maslin was convicted of theft and Law of receiving stolen goods. Their previous good conduct and military service went in their favour as the jury recommended leniency: Law was sent to gaol for four months, and his partner Maslin for six, both were ordered to do hard labour whilst in prison.  Presumably both men were also dishonorably discharged from the army and the stores, which was described as being run in a ‘lax way’ by the judge at the Central Criminal court, underwent a reorganization.

[From The Morning Post, Saturday, May 19, 1883]

If you enjoy this blog series you might be interested in Drew’s jointly authored study of the Whitechapel (or ‘Jack the Ripper’) murders which is published by Amberley Books on 15 June this year. You can find details here: