On Saturday 14 September 15, 1878 Henry Sharpe, whose occupation was simply recorded as ‘labourer’ , was set in the dock at Mansion House and charged with trying to kill himself.
On Friday night (ominously perhaps, the 13th) a City policeman was on patrol by London Bridge when a man rushed up and grabbed him. The man (Sharpe) was clearly at his wits end and very drunk. He tried, incoherently, to explain that his wife and two children were dead – both drowned in the sinking of the Princess Alice earlier that month.
The SS Princess Alice was a Thames paddle steamer that sank after a collision with a collier, (the Bywell Castle) on 3 September. It was a terrible tragedy that claimed the lives of over 600 people: men, women, and children. The steamer went down in a stretch of the river that was heavily polluted with raw sewerage; many of those that died must have suffered an awful death.
Having poured out his grief to the policeman Sharpe was persuaded to go home and sleep off his sorrow. Convinced he’d averted another tragedy (however small by comparison) the policeman resumed his beat. Imagine his surprise then when 30 minutes later he saw Sharpe scrambling up the parapet of the bridge, seemingly intent on launching himself in the Thames’ murky waters.
With the help of some passers-by the lawman affected a rescue, dragging the drunken labourer back from the precipice by his ankles. He was taken back the station, charged and left to sober up.
Sharpe was joined in court by his wife in children who had clearly not perished in the disaster and must have been shocked that Henry would suggest such a thing. His desperate actions perhaps reveal a deep seated mental illness but he told the magistrate – Sir Thomas Dakin, Lord Mayor of London – that he had been drinking with a close friend that evening, consoling him for the loss of his family in the sinking.
Who knows if that was the truth either; we have no passenger list for the Princess Alice we don’t know exactly how many souls perished or what all of their names were. One of Jack the Ripper’s victims claimed to have lost her husband in the tragedy; Elizabeth Stride may have been hoping to gain the sympathy of others for her loss, or perhaps even to benefit from the generosity of Londoners who raised thousands of pounds for the bereaved families. In Liz’s case as in Henry’s it was a false claim but it shows how this disaster touched so many lives in the late Victorian capital.
The Lord Mayor declared that Sharpe was ‘a dissipated fellow’ and decided the best course of action was to lock him on remand for a few days so the alcohol could work through his system. It wasn’t a conviction or a sentence as such, but at least it was some sort of intervention that might have saved his life.
From Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday 15 September 1878
There were some curious and sad stories from the police courts on 30 August 1864.
At Bow Street a man was sent for trial for stealing his landlady’s shawl (value £1) but the circumstances were most peculiar.
She had found him drunk in her room, sitting on one chair with his feet up on another. When she asked him to leave he dropped to all fours and started barking like a dog and meowing like a cat. A policeman gave evidence that just days before the same man had been seen trying to persuade soldiers in uniform to desert to join ‘the Federals’ (meaning the Northern ‘Union’ army fighting the American Civil War against the Southern ‘Confederates’).
At Worship Street Maurice Lawrence cut a sad figure in the dock. Described as ‘a general dealer’ who lived on Plumbers Row, Whitechapel, he was clearly down on his luck. He struggled to stand on his one good leg, the other was ‘withered’ and ‘about to be amputated’ the court was told.
He had been discovered by Michael Mahon, allegedly stealing flowers from Victoria Park. Mahon was an old soldier – a sergeant major who’d seen service in the Crimean War – and he caught Lawrence plucking ‘three dahlias and two geraniums’ and, in his new position as park constable, arrested him. As he was bring led away to the station house Lawrence begged to be set free, offering Mahon 5s for his liberty.
In court he admitted taking the flowers but denied attempting to bribe the park constable, and then threw himself on the mercy of the magistrate. He rolled up his trousers to reveal his withered limb ‘which was seen to be no thicker than an ordinary walking stick’.
If he hoped the magistrate would let him off he was disappointed. The magistrate declared that unless people that stole flowers were punished ‘the beds will very speedily be destroyed’.
‘You are manifestly in a state of suffering’, he said, ‘but I am not certain that this should be taken into consideration’.
So for stealing a small bunch of flowers from a public park Maurice Lawrence was fined a shilling and the cost of the flowers. Since he was unable or unwilling to pay this he was sent to prison for a day instead. Perhaps that represented leniency, but it seems a fairly unkind punishment for a man that was so obviously in a state of extreme poor health.
The last story that caught my eye (leaving aside a man that tried to kill himself with a dose of laudanum) was that of two landlords prosecuted for keeping unlicensed lodging houses. Both prosecutions were at Greenwich Police court before Mr Traill, the sitting justice. John Buckley (in absentia) and Johanna Keefe were both accused of renting rooms (although the term is hardly apt, ‘space’ would be more accurate) without a license.
The cases were brought by Sergeant Pearson (45A) the inspector of lodging houses in the district’. He testified to visiting both properties (in Mill Lane) and describing the scene he found there.
At Buckley’s he found a room with:
‘with beds, each occupied by a two men, three of whom paid 4d a night each, and the other 2s a week; and in a cupboard in the same room he found a bed on the floor occupied by two men, each paying 1d a night. The size of the cupboard, which had neither light nor ventilation, was about 6 feet in length, by 4 feet in width and 5 feet high’.
There were other rooms with similarly cramped lodgings within them. At Johanna Keefe’s he found a room that had:
‘three beds, each occupied by two men, five of whom paid 2s per week each, the sixth being the defendant’s son’.
‘What!’, interjected Mr Traill, ‘Ten shillings a week rent for one room?’
‘Yes, your worship’, the sergeant replied, ‘and a small room, not being more than 12 feet square’.
The magistrate issued a warrant for Buckley’s arrest (he had form for this offence) and fined Keefe 20s. Hearing that she had eight years worth of previous convictions he warned her that if she persisted in taking lodgers without obtaining a license he would start fining her 20 shillings a day.
All in all the day’s reports made a fairly depressing read and reminded Londoners that their city had plenty of social problems in the mid 1860s.
[from Morning Post Tuesday 30 August 1864]
Just after nine o’clock on Wednesday morning, 8 January 1884, a man’s dead body was recovered from a reservoir at Stoke Newington. George Jaggers, employed by the New River Company, had dredged the reservoir after several personal items had been found nearby by a group of boys and two men walking to work. The objects, which included a hat, coat, ‘a pearl pin, an earring, a watch key, a bar of gold, a watch chain’ plus some money, were formally identified as belonging to a Mr John Broome Tower.
At a coroner’s inquest held at the vestry hall in Stoke Newington several witnesses testified to finding the possessions of Broome Tower in the vicinity of the reservoir, which was situated (as it is now) north of Lordship Park, in the space between Green Lanes and the Seven Sisters Road.
The hat and coat had been seen first by William Palmer, an engineer’s assistant, who saw them as he went to work for the New River Company on the Tuesday. At 8 o’clock, as he came back for his breakfast he saw two policeman carrying them and went over to tell them he’d seen them earlier that morning. Palmer lived in Queen Elizabeth’s Walk which ran down from the reservoir at Lordship Road, then along the edge of Clissold Park to the rear of St Mary’s old church on Church Street.
In Booth’s late 1890s map of the area the top end of the Walk is not mapped or categorized at all, the project not covering the very north of the capital. Around the old church, where there was a mortuary near Edwards Lane and Meadow Street, the housing was poor and coloured blue, but the properties along Queen Elizabeth’s Walk were comfortably red. There were pockets of pink on the map above Clissold Park but Lordship Park and the other streets bordering the pumping station on Green Lanes were solid red in colour.
Detective Inspector Glass of CID told the inquiry that his men had found footprints and other marks close to the reservoir and had made casts of them. George Jaggers explained that the water was about 6 foot deep where he found the body and that the edge sloped down from the top. He did not think someone could have thrown a dead body in from the top, he would have had to enter the water as well if the intention was to cover it sufficiently so it was hidden.
The coroner said that on the information they had heard thus far ‘there was no doubt that the young man had been murdered’. He said the likeliest theory was that Broome Tower had been attacked, dragged into the eater, strangled and drowned. The jury recorded a verdict of ‘willful murder against some person or person unknown’.
John Broome Tower had not been seen since New Year’s Eve and his disappearance was followed by that an unnamed young woman, the press reported. The police were trying to trace her whereabouts as they wanted to question her in relation to the man’s death. As of the 12 January 1884 however, they were clueless and the papers were describing the discovery of a body in the reservoir as the ‘Stoke Newington Murder’.
Broome Tower was buried at Abney Park Cemetery in a service that was attended by a small number of people, including Miss Alice Drage, who had identified most of the items found as belonging to the deceased, his mother and father, and his old school master. In the late 1890s the cemetery, which still lies behind Church Street had a small female prison at its southeast corner. This was the London Female Penitentiary which later became the London Female Guardian society, and housed ‘fallen women’ (Victorian and Edwardian code for prostitutes).
Was John Broome Tower murdered, or did he take his own life? I’ll continue my investigations and let you know.
[from The Herald, Saturday, January 12 1884)
Constable William Hanson (103F) was on duty on Waterloo Bridge when a hansom cab pulled up. Nothing unusual in that of course but what followed was.
The driver leapt down from the cab, rushed to the side of the bridge and then, before PC Hanson could react, threw himself over the side. The officer shouted for help as he heard the splash, and charged down the steps to the riverside.
Charles Field’s life must have swirled around him as he plunged into the Thames’ murky waters and poisonous waters. In July and August of that year the pollution in the Thames, always bad, had reached new heights, as raw sewage emptied into the river in unprecedented quantities bring death and disease in its wake. The ‘Great Stink’ closed Parliament and forced the authorities to take action. Eventually new sewers were designed and built and a monument to their creators, Charles Bazalgette, can still be seen on London’s Embankment.
This was all in the future as Charles Field struggled and sank through the filthy waters. Twice he touched the riverbed before rough hands lifted him clear and into a boat. A waterman had been passing under the bridge at just the right moment, heard the splash, and pulled his oars hard to reach the drowning man.
Between them the waterman and the policeman managed to save the cab driver’s life and PC Hanson helped him to Charing Cross Hospital where he remained for the best part of two weeks as he recovered.
Attempting suicide was a crime however, and so, on the 2 November 1858, Charles Field was set in the dock at Bow Street and formally charged. Having heard the circumstances Mr Jardine, London’s most senior magistrate, asked him to explain himself.
Field was full of regret for his actions and said he never intended to ‘destroy himself’. For weeks he had suffered with ‘rheumatic gout’ and that had affected his ability to work. Since he couldn’t take his cab out his family suffered, and his wife was ‘afflicted with paralysis’ so she was unable to help either.
It was desperate but with no social security or health service to fall back on there was little Charles could do but carry on. The 50 year-old cut a sad figure in the dock, looking ‘extremely ill’ and clearly at his wits end. He said that on the day he jumped he had finally managed to go out in the cab, things looked like they might start to improve at last.
But then disaster struck. He was so far behind with his rent that his landlord turned them all out on the street and seized his furniture and effects. His brother gave them a room but he had no money for food. Field went out with his cab but had a ‘bad day’, took little money and found himself on Waterloo Bridge facing the prospect of going home empty handed.
Which is why something broke inside him and he decided to take his own life.
The magistrate turned to the police constable and asked him whether all of this was true. It was, PC Hanson confirmed. He had made enquiries and discovered that the defendant’s wife and children were ‘actually starving’. Given this, and Field’s very obvious remorse, Mr Jardine said he would not punish him. He reprimanded him, reminding the cab driver that suicide was a crime as well as a sin, but discharged him. He ordered that Charles Field be given 10s from the poor box ‘for his present relief’ and told him to ‘call again’ if he needed further help.
Charles Field was a working man; he’d probably been a cab driver for many years. Tough work, driving a cab in all weathers, rarely having a day off, putting up with abuse from customers and other road users. His wife was sick, his children hungry, he had a mountain of responsibilities and no means of support. He got no sick leave, no holiday pay, no unemployment benefit if he couldn’t work, no means to get credit to pay his bills. Like many poor Victorian Londoners when the fragile house of cards he had built came tumbling down he and his family were tipped into poverty.
This is why we have a system to help those that need it. Whether it be medical care that is free at the point of need, or state benefits for periods of unemployment or when work is short. This doesn’t always help of course: those working in the so-called ‘gig economy’ are rarely guaranteed pay and self-employed men like Charles Field still suffer by comparison to those of us that enjoy the benefits of sick pay and annual leave allowances.
That is why the rights of workers matter so much, and why our modern British social security system should be a source of pride, not something for politicians and wealthy press barons to sneer at and undermine.
[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, November 03, 1858]
Augustus Guerrier was a troubled soul. In October 1883 the cook was charged with stealing and set in the dock at Wandsworth Police court where it was revealed he had taken drastic action to avoid this disgrace.
Guerrier had followed his father into catering but perhaps it wasn’t his desire to do so. Like so many sons he may have felt pressured into walking in his father’s footsteps, despite having little appetite for the trade. In October 1883 M. Guerrier senior was abroad and at some point young Augustus finally went of the rails.
Mrs Janet Guerrier held an account with the Capital and Counties Bank in Aldershot and, needing funds while her husband was working away, wrote a cheque for £99 and gave it to Augustus to get cashed. On the first October he left for Aldershot but he didn’t return.
It took several days to find him and when he was finally caught by a detective he was carrying a bag containing £71 in notes and £3 10sin coin. The police took him to Battersea Park station house to charge him but he suddenly reached into his jacket and produced a revolver, which he pointed at his head.
Pandemonium broke out in the station and it took five police officers to subdue Guerrier and restore order. In the chaos Augustis managed to pull the trigger but the gun misfired and the ball dripped harmlessly to the station floor. On examination the gun barrel was found to have seven chambers, and each one loaded had been with a bullet. This was no cry for help, Augustus really did want to end his own life.
Mrs Guerrier must have been distraught and angry with her son, who must also have feared his father’s reaction when he returned to London. But Janet Guerrier did not want to heap further shame on Augustus or her family so she told Mr Paget that she declined to press charges.
There was, however, the issue of the missing money, the details of the cheque and its validity, and the young man’s mental state, so the magistrate remanded him for a few days so further enquiries could be made with the bank. It was also reported that Janet was ‘penniless’ and so £5 was given to her from the cash that had been seized from her son. I don’t see him facing a court trial at any point so I think we can assume that the Guerriers resolved up their family difficulties, at least in the short term.
[from The Morning Post, Thursday, October 11, 1883; The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, October 20, 1883]
William Whitlock was a brave man and a humanitarian; someone who was prepared to risk his own life to save others. While we should always be sensible about wading in to disputes or rushing into burning houses to rescue people I would hope our society still has people like William in it. Sadly, if the reports from some of the emergency services are to be believed, we have become a society that would rather record an accident or calamity on our mobile phones than take an active role in helping out.
William lived at 1 Canal Row, Albany Road close by the banks of the Surrey Canal. The canal was built in the early nineteenth century to transport cargo to the Surrey Commercial Docks and its long towpath provided opportunities for recreation and for those with darker intentions.
On the evening of Tuesday 20 August 1844 William was walking along the canal, as he often did, when he heard raised voices ahead. Two young people, a man and a woman, were arguing. The woman saw him and ran over.
‘For God’s sake, Sir’, he pleaded, ‘use your endeavours to prevent that young man [indicating the other person] from destroying himself, for he has threatened to drown himself’.
William spoke to the man and advised him to go home. The other, whose name was Edward Hornblow, was clearly distressed and perhaps a little under the influence of alcohol, at first seemed to agree and started to walk away. Then suddenly he turned and ran headlong towards the canal, leaping into the water.
At that point the canal was about 8-9 feet deep and Edward disappeared into the depths. William stripped off his jacket and dived in after him. He was a strong swimmer and he needed to be because as he surfaced the young man grabbed hold of him, suddenly desperate to live. At first the pair sunk like a stone but when they came back up gasping for air, William managed to drag himself and Edward to the canal bank. By then the woman had got into the water where it was shallower and together she and Mr Whitlock struggled but got Edward to safety.
Edward Hornblow was in a sorry state and he was carried, insensible, to the parish workhouse to be treated. The young woman, whose name was kept out of the subsequent newspaper report, was also badly affected by the experience. She suffered ‘violent fits afterwards’.
Two days later William was in court at Union Hall to testify to Edward Hornblow’s attempted suicide. Hornblow had recovered sufficiently but the woman was not in court. William Whitlock said that he had rescued a number of people from the canal and the magistrate asked him if he had ever had a reward for it. The Humane Society was formed to help prevent suicide and it often gave monetary rewards to those that saved lives. No, William told Mr Cottingham, he had never been rewarded for his actions even though on the previous occasion that he’d leapt into the canal (to save a young woman) he’d had to remain in his wet clothes for hours, and had a caught a chill as a result.
Mr Cottingham now turned his attention to the defendant and asked him why he’d taken the action he had. It was a fairly typical story of unrequited love. William had been ‘paying his attentions’ to the young woman in question and was trying to move their relationship on by discussing marriage. She wasn’t ready or she wasn’t interested. Either way, having taken some ‘Dutch courage’ before he popped the question the young man was sufficiently traumatized by the rejection to attempt his own life. He was sorry for what he’d done and promised not to repeat his actions in future.
The magistrate ended by praising William Whitlock’s heroics and ordered that Edward Hornblow provide financial sureties against any repeat of his behaviour. He would be locked up until these were secured. This case is a reminder that suicide (and its attempt) was fairly common in the 1800s with canal and the Thames being regular scenes of these human tragedies. In many cases the thing that stopped attempts from being successful was the quick and brave actions of passersby, the ‘have a go heroes’ of the nineteenth century. I do hope we haven’t entirely lost that spirit in our modern ‘me first’ society.
[from The Morning Post, Friday, August 23, 1844]
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]
Lloyd’s Weekly newspaper offered its readers (as the title suggests) a way to catch up with all the news, scandal, gossip, and ‘police intelligence’ that had been carried by the dailies in the preceding week. This Sunday paper had a little more time to frame stories or to carry features than the time limited Daily News or Morning Post did.
It was a very popular newspaper, selling over 1m copies on one day in February 1896, more than its closest rivals the News of the World and Reynold’s Newspaper. It lasted until the 1920s but didn’t survive the financial crisis at the end of that decade.
At the end of June 1889 Lloyds carried a full page of reports from the Metropolitan Police courts, ranging from a case of tea merchant obtaining credit by false pretenses to a valet that stole two gold sovereign coins. By the late 1880s the method of court reporting was well established and the typology of crime and social issues (such as poverty, unemployment, suicide) were very familiar to readers. Individual cases were routinely given a headline (such as ‘Strange Case’ or ‘An Unfortunate Visit to London’), which was not always the case earlier in the century.
Two in particular caught my eye this morning, an attempted suicide in the City and the stabbing of a woman in Deptford. The Deptford case involved was heard at Greenwich Police court but the accused – James Collins – was a resident of Whitechapel. Collins, a 68 year-old wood carver had previously cohabited with Emma Edwards in rooms at 17 Dorset Street, Spitalfields.
Dorset Street was an address that was all too familiar to readers who had been following the news story of 1888. The desperate poverty of Dorset (or ‘dosset’) Street had been highlighted after the brutally mutilated body of Mary Kelly was discovered in a room there in November 1888. Many researchers believe that Kelly was the final victim of the killer known only as ‘Jack the Ripper’, but other (myself included) beg to differ.
Emma Edwards told the magistrate at Greenwich (a Mr Kennedy) that she was walking along Griffin Street in Deptford when she saw her former lover in the street. She noticed ‘the gleam of a knife’ in his hand and suddenly she ‘felt herself stabbed’. She survived and Collins was arrested. In his defense he said it was an accident; he carried knives for his work and she must had fallen against one in his pocket.
The police were able to provide testimony that Collins had threatened Emma on more than one occasion, promising to ‘settle’ her ‘at the first opportunity’. Mr Kennedy sent him to prison for six months for aggravated assault.
The newspaper reports are full of accounts of casual male violence towards women and we should remember this in the context of the ‘Ripper’ murders. However you wish to depict the Whitechapel killings the perpetrator was a misogynistic serial murderer who operated in a society where working class women were placed firmly at the bottom of the social ladder; a reality that enabled him to kill almost without impunity. He was no caped crusader or criminal mastermind, as some versions of the mystery continue to suggest.
At the Mansion House along with the fraudulent tea merchant Sir Andrew Lusk was sitting in for the Lord Mayor. Lusk (no relation I think to the famous ‘Mishter Lusk’ who was sent a piece of human kidney during the Whitechapel murders) served as an MP until 1885 and was Lord Mayor in 1874/5. He was quite old in 1889, being in his late 70s.
By contrast Florence Ross was a young woman with her life ahead of her. An actress or dancer in the music hall, Ross was living with her sister in 1889 while she went through a period of ‘rest’. Whether that ‘rest’ implied she was ill, had fallen pregnant, or was simply unemployed, is not made clear from the report but I think we might speculate.
Florence Ross was rescued from a fountain in Middle Temple gardens where she had tried to drown herself. A policeman saw her rush to the water and jump in and so acted quickly to pull her out. The gardens are close by the Embankment and what is now Temple underground station.
Whatever the reality she was lucky and survived but attempted suicide was an offence and so she was placed in the dock at Mansion House to answer for it. She said little or nothing by way of explanation but the magistrate decided to see what ways the court could find to help her. He remanded her for a week while enquiries were made. The Illustrated Police News later included its artist’s impression of her attempt in its 6 July edition. Sadly no paper seems to have recorded the outcome of those enquiries. Florence’s was one story amongst many, one human tragedy in a city which was witnesses to countless acts of violence, desperation, and cruelty each and every day, only a handful of which made the pages of the metropolitan press.
[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, June 30, 1889; 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. The book is available on Amazon here