A ‘demented’ socialist picks a fight with the police

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Throughout the late 1880s Trafalgar Square was the site of numerous political demonstrations, protests and gatherings of the poor and homeless. It is hard for us to imagine the capital without the square; it is one of the top ten tourist sites that visitors flock to now, but it was only laid out in the 1830s and Nelson’s Column wasn’t erected until 1839-42 and the base sculptures were not completed until 1849. By then the square had already borne witness to Chartist demonstrations in 1848. What Nelson himself would have made of the political rhetoric than unfolded below him is hard to say. England’s greatest naval hero would probably have disapproved though, since he was an arch conservative and no champion of liberty or democracy.

In 1886 demonstrations in the square had been badly mishandled by the police and groups of rioters had caused chaos in nearby Pall Mall. Shortly afterwards the commissioner of the Metropolitan Police had resigned amid calls for a parliamentary enquiry. Determined that a similar chain of events should not engulf him the new commissioner, Sir Charles Warren, tried to ban gatherings in the square the following year (in November 1888) but without success. When protesters did congregate in large numbers Warren resorted to excessive force and several people were injured and 2 or 3 killed in the melee that resulted from police baton charges and the use of the military.

Earlier in the year, in July 1887, Trafalgar Square had become a sort of temporary shantytown, occupied by London’s homeless who spilled over from the square into the parks close by. Local residents complained about the sight and radical politicians railed about the poverty that had caused them to flock to the centre of the city in such numbers and desperation. The police were ordered to sluice the bench with cold water, to discourage rough sleepers, and to clear the parks of the human detritus that ‘infested’ it.

In May 1888 meetings were back on, and the newspapers reported that there had been a ‘Conversational meeting’ in the square on Saturday 12th. These had been organized to assert the rights of free speech in the face of Warrens’ attempts in the previous year to close the square to public gatherings. Members of the Bloomsbury branch of the Socialist League (which included William Bartlett, a prominent figure in the British Labour movement) deliberately held meetings in the square to discuss the issues of the day and the importance of being to air their views in a public space.

However, police attempts to curtail this supposed freedom led to scuffles and occasionally to accusation of assault on both sides. At the meeting on 12 May Walter Powell was arrested by the police in the square and charged at Bow Street Police court with disorderly conduct.

Evidence was presented that he had been followed into the square by ‘a crowd of roughs’, whom he had then attempted to address. The term ‘roughs’ was applied widely in the late 1800s, to mean youth gang members, political ‘muscle’, or simply members of the ‘residuum’ or ‘underclass’. It was always used disparagingly and Powell was being depicted as a ‘rabble rouser’ who probably deserved to be arrested for inciting crowd trouble.

Since he had been locked up in the cells overnight the magistrate decided he’d been suitably punished already and let him go with a warning.

Whenever crowds gathered in London however, there was always the possibility of other forms of criminality taking place. Once Powell had been discharged tow others were stood in the dock accused of picking pockets. Both men were remanded in custody so the police could continue their enquiries.

The last appearance related to Trafalgar Square that morning was Alexander Thompson, who was charged with disorderly conduct and assaulting the police. He was probably a member or supporter of the Socialist League that had insisted on championing the right of citizens to occupy the square for political protest but he had run foul of the police stationed to prevent trouble.  By 1888 the Socialist League, which had been founded by Henry Hyndeman and had included William Morris, was suffering from internal schisms. The Bloomsbury branch would split in the face of a takeover from anarchists who were more revolutionary in their outlook.

Back at Bow Street Mr. Vaughan looked the man up and down and must have decided he was very far from being a dangerous and ‘disorderly’ ruffian.

He said that ‘unless the man was demented he could not imagine his attacking a man of the constable’s calibre’ and dismissed the charge.

This was a backhanded compliment to the police officer, and a dismissal of the threat posed by ‘revolutionaries’ like Thompson. It was probably also an attempt to diffuse tensions in the spring of 1888 so as to avoid a repeat of the very real violence of the previous autumn.

However, events overtook the police in 1888 and the right to protest, while remaining a key issue, was subsumed by the murders of five or more women in the East End of London, where many of the rough sleepers had tramped from the previous summer. Warren, who was so determined not to be brought low by criticism of his failure to act against  protestors was soon to face much more serious criticism of his ability to run a police force capable of catching a brutal serial killer. In November 1888, just a  year after ‘Bloody Sunday’, Warren resigned as Commissioner.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper , Sunday, May 13, 1888]

Officer down! Two policemen are stabbed with a sword stick by a crazed revolutionary

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Giuseppe Mazzini

A crowd had gathered outside 7 Hardington Place, Portman Market in Marylebone. It was about 10.30 at night and a man was at a first floor window in a highly agitated state. He was hurling ‘bricks and missiles in all directions’ and several policemen were soon on the scene.

Two officers, PC Robert Dobell (237D) and PC Thomas Tice (40D) entered the building and rushed upstairs accompanied by some others, possibly from the ‘mob’ outside. The door to room in which the man had been seen was locked so they put their shoulders to it, and broke it down.

At this the man came charging towards them brandishing a walking cane which he thrust at them. PC Dobell cried ‘I am stabbed’ and then fell in front of his colleague. PC Tice was also wounded but in the chaos and with his adrenaline pumping he didn’t realise this at first.

The policemen shouted for help and the man was soon overpowered. The weapon, a sword stick, was picked up from the floor where the attacker had dropped it. PC Dobell was taken to hospital and the prisoner to the station. When he removed his uniform top coat PC Tice discovered his injury, a stab wound to the ‘fleshy part of my right arm, between the elbow and the shoulder’.

The following morning PC Tice was in court at Marylebone to give his evidence in front of Mr Long, the sitting magistrate. He showed the court his bloody coat and testified that PC Dobell was still gravely ill, and not yet out of danger.

Their attacker was also in court and gave his name as John Phillips, occupation – painter. He’d been brought to court in a cab, handcuffed with two other officers guarding him. He was clearly a dangerous man.

Not only was he dangerous it was also evident that he was suffering from a mental illness or, as the court reporter described him, demonstrating ‘unsoundness in his intellect’. He raved in court, shouting out:

‘Kossuth, Mazzini, let me have justice. It was not a Roman dagger or a poisoned dagger, and I stand upon the liberties of my country. Had Prince Albert have been there at the time his blood would have flowed, and so would yours (alluding to the magistrate), had you been there’.

Lajos Kossuth was a Hungarian revolutionary who briefly ruled his nation in the tumultuous period of 1848-9, he was widely revered amongst British radicals and so may have been an inspiration for Phillips. Similarly Giuseppe Mazzini was a well known Italian political activist who was driving force in Italian Unification.

Philips was eventually sent for trial at the Old Bailey but his ‘madness’ was deemed too great and the jury found him unfit to plead. He was therefore found not guilty by dint of being non compos mentis. I believe that PC Doble survived the attack but he was lucky if he did, because the stab wound was very close to his heart. Philips, one imagines, was confined to an asylum.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, April 14, 1853]

Much ado about nothing? Cheesy goings on at Smithfield at Easter

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Easter fell on the 1 April on only four occasions in the nineteenth century: 1804, 1866, 1877, and 1888. On Easter Sunday 1877 there were the usual series of reports from the Police Courts of the metropolis. There was ‘brutality’ at Lambeth as a 28 year-old labourer was charged and convicted of beating his wife; he went to prison for three months. At Hammersmith, in a report captioned ‘ruffianism’, John Slade was sent away for four months for assaulting a policeman in the course of his duty.

At Bow Street there was a most unpleasant accusation of child rape (under the title ‘alleged bestiality’), while at Clerkenwell a costermonger’s wife was in the dock for attacking her husband. But the case I’m going to recount today is a less unpleasant one; something cheery for this Easter Sunday for  change. And as it headed up all the reports on that day perhaps that was the intention of the editor of Reynold’s Newspaper, to bring a little ‘good news’ to his readers.

Under the title, ‘a singular charge of theft’, the paper described the appearance at the Guildhall Police Court of Ruth Thornton who was accused of stealing a cheese from a shop in the City.

The charge was brought by Charles Parsons, a butcher working at the London Central Meat Market (Smithfield). He told the magistrate, Mr Alderman Ellis, that at times he worked for Mr Turner who ran a cheese shop at number 254 in the market. He explained that:

‘it was their practice to have cheese exposed for sale in pieces on the shop-board, from which customers selected those they liked, and then took them into the shop to get weighed and then to pay for them’.

He said he saw Mrs Thornton pick up a cheese and walk into the crowded shop. There were lots of customers pressing to get to the counter to pay but Parsons was sure he saw the lady place the cheese in her basket then, as she got close to the counter, turn around and walk out without paying.

He followed quickly and stopped her, demanding to know what she had in her basket.

‘Why cheese, to be sure’, she replied.

Parsons then accused her of theft which she denied. She said she’d paid for it with half a crown and received one and half pence change. The cheese weighed 4lbs 2oz and was priced at six and half pence a pound. She was very precise about this but Parsons didn’t believe her and instead of taking her back to the shop to verify her version of events he handed her over to the first police constable her found.

The police called for Mr Turner to come to the station to give his account but he refused, saying he knew nothing of the affair. In court Mrs Thornton’s lawyer, a Mr Chapman, pressed the butcher as to whether Turner had said he didn’t know whether the cheese had been paid for or had said he couldn’t recall it being paid for. The defence was trying attempting (successfully it seems) to create some doubt about the butcher’s insistence that Ruth had not paid for the cheese in her basket.

The shop was busy, he explained, his client was adamant that she’d paid and her story was entirely consistent; to the butcher, the police and now here, in the Guildhall. Moreover she had been willing to go back to the shop with the assistant when he had stopped her but he had insisted on taking this to law.

Parsons had acted prematurely and had had a respectable woman taken into custody. Mrs Turner had given a correct address to the police (5 Charles Villas, Stratford). Moreover she had plenty of money on her that day (£1 13s 6d) so there was no reason for her to have stolen the cheese. Mr Ellis was of the opinion that there was insufficient evidence to convict the prisoner before him and so he discharged her.

His decision was ‘met with applause’. The only person unhappy about it was Parsons, who had to go back to his employer to break the bad news that first, he’d lost the case (and so if she had stolen the cheese, the value of it) and second (and worse) that Mr Turner’s good reputation had been a little tarnished in the process.

Happy Easter, Passover or Eostre to all of you.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, April 1, 1877]

A drunken attack on a compassionate ‘bobby’ or an example of police brutality? You decide

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Given that the Victorian police patrolled set beats across London late into the night it is hardly surprising that they spent a considerable amount of their time dealing with those they found drunk and disorderly or drunk and incapable. While some were happy to go home quietly others resisted the police, with mouthfuls of abuse or by resorting to physical violence. Sometimes the offender would be allowed to sleep off his or her inebriation at the ‘nick’ but if they had added to their offence by attacking the officer that arrested them they could expect an appearance before a Police Court magistrate in the morning.

This was the fate that awaited Daniel Donnell, a ‘rough looking fellow’ who had been found dead drunk in the gutter by PC Colville of H Division (the police division that would later head the investigation to capture ‘Jack the Ripper’). PC Colville was making his way through Roberts Place when he noticed a man lying off the pavement and ‘foaming at the mouth’.

The constable knelt down and helped the man to sit up before undoing his shirt collar and scarf so he could breath more easily. It took a few moments before Donnell achieved consciousness but when he did he reacted badly. When the PC asked him where he lived he refused to say and ‘commenced to make use of most disgusting language’ before punching the policeman hard in the face.

As the copper reeled Donnell attacked again, punching him and knocking him to the floor where he started kicking him in the side. Another offer was soon on the scene and he struggled with the drunk. In the end it took several officers to secure Donnell and frog-march him to the station.

When the case came before Mr Saunders at Thames Police Court Donnell claimed he’d only been defending himself. He alleged that PC Colville had attacked him with his truncheon first, something the policeman denied. This defence might have had more credence if Donnell had reported it to an inspector when he arrived at the station house but there was no record of him doing so.

Mr Saunders didn’t believe his story and with more than one policeman lining up to verify each others’ account of that night Donnell had little chance of being believed anyway.

The magistrate told him that ‘such scandalous conduct as he had been guilty of could not be tolerated, and he would go to prison for seven days with hard labour’.

This is one of those cases in which two very different accounts are possible but only one emerges as being plausible to the press and magistracy. It is deemed inconceivable that the police would use violence against a working class man found drunk in the street who resisted attempts to move him on. The police present themselves as the victims in a situation where they acted out of concern for a drunk’s welfare and were met with violence and abuse as a result of this.  There is clearly a possible alternative scenario here but given that the policemen of H Division could present a united front there was zero chance that anyone would believe it. How many more ‘drunk and incapable’ or ‘assaults on the police’ could be interpreted differently if independent witnesses had been around to validate them?

That said it is equally possible that Donnell was simply a violent, foul-mouthed drunk who did exactly as described  and fully deserved the week’s incarceration he received from the ‘beak’.

[from The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, March 26, 1881]

‘A dangerous imposter’ on Rosslyn Hill spells trouble for DS Fox

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The Victorian criminal justice had been developing a much more effective means of keeping records on those that passed through it doors than had been the case in the Georgian period. As a result criminals routinely gave false names to the police and magistrates in the hope that their previous convictions would not dog their footsteps for ever. Being ‘known to the police’ or the courts was dangerous; a magistrate or trial court judge was very likely to hand down a much stiffer sentence if he knew you’d failed to learn your lesson in the past.

I some cases of course the problem ran much deeper and this is particular true in cases of those that committed offences in part because they were suffering from mental illness. The law recognised that mental health was a factor and the principal of acting with ‘diminished responsibility’ had been debated throughout the nineteenth century following a handful of high profile cases that shocked society. In 1863 the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum had opened in 1863 to take those convicted as being guilty but insane.

This would have been too early for John Gough. He had been convicted of ‘assault with intent to murder’ at Exeter Assizes in 1856 and had sentenced to life imprisonment. In 1873 he was freed on a ticket of leave (effectively parole) and had then been admitted (or admitted himself, it is not clear) to a lunatic asylum. Gough must also have moved from the south west to London because in 1883 he turned up at the Marylebone Police Court charged with assaulting a police detective.

Detective Sergeant Fox saw Gough wandering at Rosslyn Hill in Hampstead in late February 1883. Gough looked in serious trouble and was soliciting for charity, as Fox described in court:

‘The prisoner was bandaged about the the head and arms, as though suffering from injuries, and while walking along praying aloud begged for alms of people’.

Begging was illegal and so DS Fox arrested him, only to attacked and verbally abused (with ‘profane language’) by his charge. Back at the station Gough was examined and it was found that there was nothing whatsoever wrong with him; his show of injury was just that, a show. The man was ‘an imposter’ Mr De Rutzen (the magistrate) was told and the police added the information regarding Gough’s previous conviction.

While Gough was clearly suffering from mental illness he had checked out of the asylum in 1877 and hadn’t been in contact with the police either. This was a breach of his release license and this, coupled with the assault on the detective sergeant, earned him a another spell inside. De Rutzen declared Gough was ‘a dangerous man’ and sentenced him to two months at hard labour. It might have bene more sensible to send him to Broadmoor or even to the Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum which had opened in 1851 which held over 2000 patients in the 1880s, including (just possibly) a candidate for Jack the Ripper.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, March 07, 1883]

This policeman’s lot is particularly unhappy at home.

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Yesterday we heard about a domestic abuse case from Holloway involving a bricklayer who set about his drunken wife with an iron poker. Today the roles are reversed as it is the woman who is in the dock accused of using violence against her husband. To add spice to this story of marital strife the victim was a policeman and his wife ended up in prison, which must have made life very uncomfortable for the remainder of their married life.

PC Arthur Moss, stationed at Forest Gate station in K Division, was at home at 7 o’clock in the evening of the 11 February 1891. His wife Elizabeth came home much the worse for drink and Arthur probably upbraided her for it. The couple had a number of small children and they witnessed and got involved in the fight that followed.

Presumably annoyed that her husband, the symbolic head of the house and ‘arm of the law’, had criticised her drinking (again) Elizabeth reacted violently. According to the report in the newspaper:

‘She picked up a full cup of tea and threw it over him, then hurled a saucer at his head. Going to the dresser, she hurled a dozen plates, one at a time, at him. One of them hit him on the side of his face, cutting his nose;  others struck him about the body’.

As she picked up a lamp to strike him with Arthur managed to grab her and wrestled her to the ground, and one of the children removed the weapon from her hands before she could do any more damage with it. Enraged by this Elizabeth contented herself with biting her spouse’s hand.

PC Moss reported the incident at Forest Gate to Inspector Death and Elizabeth was arrested and brought before the magistrate at Stratford Police Court. The bench were told that the inspector had visited and found that the children ‘were terrified’ by the experience. PC Moss testified that his wife was often drunk and had threatened to set light to his bed and to ‘kill you before the night is out’.

The policeman had sustained cuts and bruises as a result of the attack and Elizabeth had apparently threatened to harm the children if they did not come and speak up for her in court; Moss would ‘find them weltering in their blood’ she had warned him.

Elizabeth had little to say in her defence only stating that she ‘had had a lot of trouble recently’ as ‘her children were ill and the place in uproar’. Perhaps what she was intimating was that her husband wasn’t around much and she wasn’t coping very well. Policemen worked long hours and marriages were often strained. Not that this was an excuse for her drinking or for her violence and the bench was not inclined to be lenient.

Elizabeth was sent to prison at hard labour for a month, how this helped PC Moss is not very clear. Hopefully he had a sister or mother that could help out, otherwise he’d need a very considerate station sergeant. Going forward this not only affected the relationship between Arthur and Elizabeth, and their children; by challenging his authority and it being dragged through open court Arthur’s public reputation had been affected adversely. A man that could not control his wife was a lesser man in many people’s eyes in the Victorian period, for a policeman this must have been particularly hard to take.

[from The Standard , Monday, February 16, 1891]

The occupational hazards of operating a Victorian ‘Black Maria’

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The Bow Street Police court in 1881, with a Police van (or ‘black Maria’)

In most of the reports of the ‘doings’ of the Victorian Police courts it is taken for granted that the reader understands the process of court and how the system works at this level. This is presumably because the readership would have been familiar with the police courts, either from personal experience or through a regular consumption of the reportage.

For us, of course, there is no such easy familiarity and, while much of what occurs is straightforward it does help when explanations are given or light is shone on the working practice of these important day-to-day centres of summary justice. So, for example, we know that prisoners were transferred to and from the courts (to face hearings or be transported to prisons) but how?

Today those on trial are brought in security vans operated by private companies licensed by the Prison service. We have probably all the white high sided vehicles with small windows that deposit and collect from the various courts and prisons up and down the country. What though was the situation in the Victorian period? Perhaps unsurprisingly they had their nineteenth-century horse-drawn equivalents and in 1869 we get a description of one in the report of case heard at Bow Street.

William Watkins (a man of about 40) was charged at Bow Street in February with assaulting Sergeant James Phelps (A21) who was responsible for the Bow Street police van. Watkins had been remanded in custody accused of loitering outside the Adelphi Theatre ‘with the intention of picking pockets’. The justice had remanded him for a few days so that his character could be enquired into.
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Sergeant Phelps told the court that as he was ushering the prisoner Watkins into the waiting van the accused ‘resisted him’. The court reporter gave his readers some detail:

‘The interior of the van is divided into cells, with a passage down the middle’. As the sergeant was ‘putting the prisoner into the last cell – the one next to the door – [the prisoner] endeavoured to prevent him from closing the door by setting his foot against it’.

The policeman retaliated by stamping on Watkins’ foot but this simply provoked the man into violence. Watkins now kicked the sergeant ‘on the shin with such violence as to inflict a severe wound through his trousers, Wellington boots, and stockings’ [so now we know what policemen wore on duty].

The attack was painful and had left a scar on Phelp’s shin. He said he was used to prisoners who resisted arrest or being transported but never had he suffered an assault as bad as this.

PC Rice (75F) now reported on the man’s character and it wasn’t great. He said he’d arrested Watkins in 1864 for stealing a silk handkerchief from a pocket in High Holborn. Watkins had received a 12 month prison sentence for that crime and his actions five years later didn’t exactly endear him to the police or the magistracy. Mr Flowers, the Bow Street magistrate on this occasion, gave him three months for the charge of loitering with intend to steal, and an additional month for kicking out at the police sergeant. Presumably he was then taken away in a ‘black maria’, albeit carefully.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, February 11, 1869]