Violence: its time we listened to the experts and not the politicians

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The Phoenix in East Smithfield

Yet again this week we have witnessed some terrible examples of violence in the domestic news. Yesterday a policeman was killed while investigating a burglary, last week an officer was hacked with a machete when stopping a suspected stolen vehicle. Knife crime is reportedly on the rise in several smaller provincial towns and there have been some horrific stories about two different mothers killing their children (one because her husband had left her, the other simply because they interfered with her social life). In one incident an immigrant was nearly killed in his car by a racist right wing thug who wanted to emulate the murderous actions of a terrorist in New Zealand. It is hard to listen to the news then, without wondering what on earth has happened to our society.

Sadly history tells us that the answer to that question is that this is actually pretty normal for British society; violence is part of life and vicious, uncaring and cruel individuals exist today as they have always existed. Moreover, while we have made important advances in treating mental illness we have not been able to prevent some of those so affected from causing harm to others in the community.

This case from Lambeth Police court in 1839 (fully 220 years ago) was labeled by the press as ‘Disgraceful conduct’ and by witnesses who saw what occurred as ‘the most unmanly and disgraceful they had ever beheld’. On Friday 16 August that year two young women were having a drink of porter at the Phoenix pub in East Smithfield, in Aldgate. As Mary Ann Ryan and Catherine Kitton left they noticed stall selling artificial flowers, and stopped to have a look.

A sailor was also perusing the stock and was holding a stem in his hand. Catherine stood next to him and leaned in to look at his flower, touching it as she did so. The man exploded with rage, completely overreacting to this contact and punched her in the face, knocking her over, and then kicking her while she lay on the ground. Catherine managed to crawl away, rise and stumble towards the pub but fainted clean away.  It took some time before she could be revived.

Mary now remonstrated with the seaman, telling him he was ‘most unmanly’, shaming him in public. The man didn’t like this and turned on her, threatening to ‘serve her ten times worse’. When she continued to berate him he struck her in the mouth, almost knocking her unconscious. Recovering her wits she ran away and up a nearby alley but he chased her. He hit on the temple, drawing blood and forcing her to fall to the ground. Now he kicked her in the side as she curled up to protect herself.

It was horrific and several people saw it happen and so the police were called and the sailor arrested. The man was brought before Mr Coombe at Lambeth and said he was a sailor attached to a ship docked at St Katherine’s Dock near the tower. He gave his name as James Boardman and his vessel as the President American.

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Both young women were in court to give evidence but Mary was in such a state that the magistrate ordered her to be sent to the London Hospital to have her injuries treated. She’d been waiting in the ‘outer office’ and had fainted several times from the loss of blood she’d sustained as a result of the head wound. Amazingly she’d been able to tell some of her story which was corroborated by Catherine and a number of witnesses. Mr Coombe ordered the prisoner to be taken down to the cells while the court waited for news of Mary Ann’s condition from hospital.

A little while later a policeman returned with a  note from the house surgeon at the London. It read:

‘I hereby certify that Mary Ryan, just brought to the hospital laboring under a fractured rib, a cut to her forehead, and several contusions on different parts of her body, is in great danger’.

Boardman was once more set at the bar of the court and the magistrate glowered at him. Mr Coombe told him that he would be remanded in custody for the assault but that if Mary died ‘he would be placed on his trial for her murder, and in all probability hanged’.

I can’t see a trial for Boardman and so I am hopeful that Mary survived. If that was case then I suspect Boardman would have been sent to gaol for a while and then released back to go to sea again. It is remainder though that senseless brutality is not a new thing or a product of ‘modern’ society and so all the bleating about tougher sentences and threats to make criminals ‘feel afraid’ ring pretty hollow. Education, proper levels of street policing, and zero tolerance for violence , weapons, intimidation (online and in person) and hate speech are the only ways to stamp out violence in society.

Locking violent offenders up for even longer in prisons which entirely fail to rehabilitate them is a very expensive waste of time and does absolutely no good for the poor individual who has been critically injured or killed. talking tough on crime is the easiest thing in the world, actually doing something useful about it is much harder and will cost real money. Its time we demanded that our politicians stopped paying lip service to the issues and listened to the experts in policing, law, probation, psychoanalysis, and yes, even history.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Saturday, August 17, 1839]

  1. It is possible that the President was the same ship lost at sea two years later in 1841 with all hands. The packets were equipped with paddles and entirely unsuited to the Atlantic crossing.

Pickett climbs a fence and saves a life

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It was about midnight on the 3 February 1866 and James Pickett was walking home along a path that ran parallel to the tow path of the Regent’s canal. It must have been a dark night because there was no full moon that February (itself a rare occurrence) so what happened next was all the more exceptional.

Pickett heard a sound, perhaps a splash or a gasp, and must have realised that someone was in the water. He clambered over the railings and rushed to the water’s edge, jumping in without pausing to remove his clothes.

James, a mechanic, was a strong man and after a struggle he managed to secure the person in the canal (a woman named Elizabeth Groves) and bring her safely out of the water. She lay on the bank ‘insensible and apparently dead’ but the mechanic picked her up and found a way to get her to hospital. Although Elizabeth had gone under the water to a depth of 8 feet and was feared drowned, she made a full recovery in the Royal Free Hospital.

However, this was no accident and it soon became evident that Elizabeth had attempted to put an end to her own life by throwing herself in the canal. The Regent’s Canal (like the Thames river) was a popular spot for suicides like Elizabeth (and indeed for anyone who wished to dispose of a dead body – as was to become apparent in the Thames Torso murder series of 1887-8).

Suicide was against the law and so once she was well enough Elizabeth was produced at Clerkenwell Police Court and asked to explain herself by Mr D’Eyncourt. Elizabeth, an artificial flower maker, told the magistrate that:

‘she was very sorry for what she had done. She included to attempt to take her life because she had separated from her husband’.

Either the shame of a failed marriage or her despair at losing someone she loved had driven Elizabeth to her desperate decision. Her husband appeared in court to say that he had parted from her because of her drinking but was prepared to have her back if the ‘magistrate would allow it’. That was the best course of action for everyone; a term of imprisonment was not likely to help Elizabeth and as long as she embraced this ‘second chance’ they was some hope that the Roves could make a decent fist of their marriage.

The real hero here, as Mr D’Eyncourt made  appoint of recognising, was James Pickett. He had ‘behaved in a very gallant manner’ the magistrate told him and declared that he should be rewarded with the sum of £2 from the  court’s poor box.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, February 05, 1866]

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