The magistrate tells a mentally ill mother to ‘remember to the end of her life what disgrace and danger she brought upon herself’.

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Today the British government has decided to mark World Mental Health Day by appointing a government minister to prevent suicide. The Health Secretary has admitted that under successive governments there has been too little focus of resources on tackling the problems of mental illness but, speaking on BBC Radio’s Today programme he stopped shorted of promising more money or specifying exactly how he intended to address the issue of mental health in the coming months and years.

The PM said this: ‘We can end the stigma that has forced too many to suffer in silence and prevent the tragedy of suicide taking too many lives’. They have pledged £1.8 to the Samaritans to help them run their free helpline. That is certainly something of course, but then we spend £38 billion on defence and about £45m on the Queen. The costs of mental health care do come out of the NHS budget of course and that budget is £124.7 billion and about 10% of that goes towards treating mental illness.

What all of these figures show is that mental illness is a massive problem in modern society and helps explain why upwards of 4,500 people take their own lives every year. Anyone visiting this blog over the last couple of years will probably have come across one or more story of attempted suicide prosecuted at the Metropolitan Police courts.  London was just as unforgiving and uncaring in the 1800s as it has proved to be in the 1900s and early 2000s. Policemen frequently prevented suicides simply by being on the streets (and bridges) at the right times.

Beat bobbies rescued men and women from the river, pulled them from canals, and cut them down from railings where they found them hanging. On more than one occasion a quick thinking guard or passenger saved a life on the overground or underground railways. Unlike today few of those attempting to end their lives received any help afterwards and all of them ended up facing prosecution for their ‘crime’.

Take the example of Maria Ford, a 28 year old married woman from Henry Street in Marylebone. She was charged before Mr Mansfield with attempting to murder her baby boy and then take her own life with poison. The magistrate was told that Maria was a drunkard with a history of being found incapable in the streets. After numerous appearances before  the courts she had recently promised to refrain from alcohol and had ‘signed the pledge’.

As a convert to the Temperance movement Mr Mansfield was prepared to give her the benefit of the doubt. The chaplain of the house of detention had written to him to attest to Maria’s attempt at reformation and he was keen to encourage her. He decided to treat the attempt on her son’s life as an accident occasioned by her being drunk but warned her against slipping ‘off the wagon’ in future:

‘He did not think she intended to injure her child’ he said, ‘but in her drunken madness she might have killed both the child and herself’.

He would therefore discharge her but now she had signed the pledge she had best keep it and ‘remember to the end of her life what disgrace and danger she brought upon herself by her drunken habits’.

I’m not sure anyone asked her why she drank or why there was no husband in court to support her. At least in that respects our society has made some significant strides forward even if, as Matt Hancock admits, there is still plenty of distance to travel.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, October 10, 1883]

for other cases that touch on attempted suicide see:

A man is driven to attempt suicide because of his ‘reduced circumstances’

‘She has been very low spirited lately’: The early casebook of the ‘Ripper’ surgeon reveals the extent of mental illness in London

A bad week in London, full of personal tragedy

‘She has been very low spirited lately’: The early casebook of the ‘Ripper’ surgeon reveals the extent of mental illness in London

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One of the most recognisable names in the Whitechapel murder case is that of Dr George Bagster Phillips, H Division’s divisional surgeon. Dr Phillips carried out the post mortem examinations of Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Kate Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly. He famously noted of Chapman that:

‘the work was that of an expert- or one, at least, who had such knowledge of anatomical or pathological examinations as to be enabled to secure the pelvic organs with one sweep of the knife’.

This, and other remarks by doctors examining the victims, have led some to suggest that the murderer was a member of the medical profession (a ‘Dr Jack’) and has fuelled the ‘royal conspiracy’ theory that links the killings to Prince Albert Edward, the grandson of Queen Victoria, and Dr William Gull, her majesty’s surgeon.

For all sorts of reasons many (myself included) dismiss the idea that the killings were carried out by a doctor, but it is possible (probable even) that the murderer has some ‘knowledge of anatomical or pathological examinations’.

Dr Phillips started his career with H Division in 1865 and so these cases, in late September, are from the very beginning of his time in the East End. On Thursday 28 September that year there were three charges of attempted suicide heard at Worship Street Police court and Dr Phillips gave evidence in at least two of them.

James Munday (a 42 year-old french polisher) apparently swallowed oxalic acid in an attempt on his own life. He took the poison because his wife had left him but fortunately he had coughed it all up at the police station after his son had called for help. Dr Bagster Phillips (misreported as ‘Baxter’) told the court that Munday was lucky that he’d swallowed the poison on top of a ‘much larger quantity of some more palatable fluid’ (probably alcohol). His son’s quick think also helped. James was sorry for what he’d done and promised not to repeat it but the magistrate remanded him, just to be safe.

Caroline Cleal – in a separate incident – had also tried to kill herself with oxalic acid. Oxalic acid was used in a variety of applications mostly in cleaning products. It wasn’t as lethal as some other potions but in quantity it could cause death from kidney failure. Caroline was also a french polisher. She was also having problems at home and had bought a pennyworth of the acid at chemist in Whitecross Street. Dr Phillips told the court that such a small amount wouldn’t harm her and the magistrate remanded her for a week so that the police could make some enquiries and keep an eye on her.

Finally that day Ellen Read was brought up charged with trying to cut her own throat with a razor. PC Horne (178H) reported that he had been called to Read’s home in Dorset Street where he found her ‘bleeding frightfully from a wound in her throat’. Dorset Street was perhaps ‘the worst street’ in London and was where the body of Mary Kelly was to be found, brutally mutilated, in November 1888.

Ellen had been depressed her husband told the justice, and he’d tried to take her away for a few days to the country (probably hop picking in Kent, as many Eastenders did) but it hadn’t effected a change in her spirits. Ellen said nothing in court and the magistrate had little choice but the remand her as well.

What this shows us I think is that mental illness was endemic in Victorian London. Alcoholism, poverty, domestic violence and a range of other pressures undoubtedly contributed to making poor people’s lives incredibly challenging. Dr Phillips was provably called to more than one suicide or attempted suicide on a weekly basis and that, along with the street attacks, wife beatings, road traffic accidents, and more deliberate murders, must have inured him to violence by the late 1880s. Whether that prepared him for the horrors perpetrated that summer however, is debatable.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, September 29, 1865]

‘If you had been pursued all over London and were hated by the government, you would wish to shoot yourself’: drama at Bow Street as a respectable citizen tries to take his own life.

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This story is both sad and dramatic as it concerns a man’s very public attempt at suicide. Most of the cases that I’ve written about previously that have involved suicide have been women and most of those have chosen to end their lives by throwing themselves into the River Thames or one of the canals that ran through the capital. Most were prevented by quick-thinking policemen or passers-by and ended up before magistrates because attempting to take one’s life was against the law in the 1800s.

In this example the defendant was a man, and a respectable one at that. Robert H. Rhodes lived in St John’s Wood and worked for the Land Revenue Record Office. So Robert was a middle class white-collar worker, he was married and he had children and so was a very long way, it would seem, from the desperation of the usually poor and destitute women (and men) who chose to throw themselves from the various bridges that crisscrossed the Thames.

Appearances can be deceptive of course, and mental illness is no respecter of class or wealth. Rhodes was under some sort of pressure: in his appearance that Bow Street he told Mr Bridge (sitting as the duty magistrate) that he had ‘been pursued all over London, and [was] hated by the Government and bullied by everyone’.

While we don’t know why exactly Robert decided to end his life we do know how. In mid September 1886 the revenue man walked into a gunmaker’s shop in Cockspur Street near Trafalgar Square. He showed the assistant a cartridge he’d brought with him and asked to see some revolvers that might fit it. The shopkeeper brought out some examples and Rhodes calmly selected one and loaded it with his cartridge.

Then he ‘turned the revolver round till the muzzle pointed to his head and was trying to pull the trigger when the shopkeeper seized his arm’, and saved his life. The police were called and Rhodes was led away. As the constable took him to the nearest police station Rhodes begged him to let him end his life saying that otherwise ‘his wife and family would be forever ruined’.

We get no further clues as to what had led Robert Rhodes to make this terrible decision to kill himself but perhaps he was about to lose his position, or owed a large amount of money, or was suffering in some other way with the pressures of his job? Two gentlemen approached the bench and said they would take care of him and be responsible for his future conduct. I presume these were his friends or colleagues.  They agreed to be bound for six months as sureties at £250 each (about £16,500 today, so a huge sum of money) and Mr Bridge duly released Robert on the condition he did not repeat his attempt within that period.

[from The Standard , Tuesday, September 21, 1886]

For other cases involving attempted suicide see:

A man is driven to attempt suicide because of his ‘reduced circumstances’

A bad week in London, full of personal tragedy

A destitute Essex girl in London makes the news

A circus artist for whom the show cannot go on alone

Pickett climbs a fence and saves a life

A mother’s cruelty and a son’s desperate violence as news of the latest Whitechapel ‘horror’ emerges.

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On the 9 September 1888 London was still digesting the news of Annie Chapman’s murder in Hanbury Street, Spitalfields. The full details of this latest ‘horror’ wouldn’t become public knowledge until after the inquest on the 13 September but there was sufficient rumour and speculation to throw the capital into a panic in the meantime.

There was no mention of Chapman’s killing in Lloyd’s Weekly’s daily summary of the police courts of the metropolis but there was plenty of reference to violence. Frederick Percival was charged at Lambeth Police court with shooting at his own father with a revolver. The incident had followed an argument during which Fred, a clerk, had thrown a cup and then ran out of the room, turning once to fire his weapon at the door. It seems that suicide was actually uppermost in the young man’s thoughts and he was remanded so the doctors could examine him.

Also at Lambeth Henry Baker was fully committed to trial for the attempted murder of Mary Cowan whom, it was alleged, he had stabbed in the chest and back in July. The case had taken so long to come before a magistrate because Mary had been dangerously ill in hospital.

At Woolwich PC Williams (127R) reported that he had been called to an incident in the High Street where a woman was mistreating her child. It was late at night and when he arrived he found Mary Sullivan, quite drunk, in the processing of dashing her baby’s head against a wall. He intervened to stop her and told her to go home. She had no home, she replied. A few onlookers had gathered and one offered to pay for bed for the night, something Mary indigently declined.

PC Williams moved her on but when his beat brought him round again he found her ‘sitting on a doorstop with the child exposed’. A crowd had gathered and was berating her for her conduct, and some ‘threatened to lynch her’. As she should probably have done on the first occasion he now took her into custody and escorted her back to the station. After being checked out by the police surgeon her child was taken to the workhouse. Mary was brought before the magistrate in the morning and sent to prison for 14 days.

There were a number of other assaults, acts of cruelty, and an attempted suicide by a woman throwing herself into the Thames. All of this was recorded as part and parcel of everyday life in the city. So we should consider the Whitechapel murders in context; they were exceptionally brutal killings but their victims – poor working-class women – were the usual recipients of casual violence in late Victorian London.

This violence was frequently punished and often condemned but little if anything was done to prevent it, or to prevent the associated causes of violence, or improve the environment in which so many Londoners lived. The ‘Ripper’ shone a spotlight on East London in the autumn of 1888, and so is credited with forcing the ruling class to act to clean up the appalling poverty and housing conditions of the East.

That this ‘improvement’ was both half-hearted and temporary is less often reported. Inequality, unemployment and want continued and within a few years the authorities turned their attention elsewhere; it took two world wars and a socialist government to really tackle the endemic problems of poverty in British society and, some might say, even that progress has largely been lost given the prevalence of food banks and homelessness in modern Britain today.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, September 9, 1888]

A bad week in London, full of personal tragedy

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George Cruikshank, ‘A destitute girl throws herself from a bridge, her life ruined by alcoholism’, (1848)

Sometimes the London press seems to have chosen to focus on a particular theme. In the third week of July 1864 it appears to have been the personal tragedy of suicide. I can think of no reason why acts of self-destruction should have been higher in that period than in any other year. In America civil war was tearing that nation apart but the only noteworthy event in London was the murder of Thomas Briggs by Franz Muller, the first ever murder on the railways. Perhaps the relative lack of news stories in July prompted the newspapers to concentrate on the personal drama of those that decided they could no longer cope with life.

Attempted suicide was a crime in the 1800s and so those caught in the process were liable to be prosecuted. On the 19 July The Morning Post reported that three individuals had appeared before the city’s magistracy charged with this offence.

The first of these was an elderly man called James Gander. PC 244 of B Division told Mr Selfe at Westminster Police court that he’d been alerted to the fact that a person was seen drowning in the River Thames. It was about 8 o’clock on Sunday night (17 July) and when the policeman reached the water he and a bargeman managed to affect a rescue, pulling the 60 year-old out of the river.

Searching him he found three large stones in his pocket wrapped in a handkerchief. When he recovered his senses Gander told the constable that ‘trouble of mind and family misfortunes had driven him to it’.  Gander was also quite drunk, or at least appeared to have been drinking heavily and in court his son told the magistrate that his father had taken to drinking recently.

He went on to say that his father had been a fairly successful master carman but some time ago that business had floundered and gone under. His wife had been away from the family for the last few months looking after her daughter-in-law and it seems Gander wasn’t coping well. The magistrate wasn’t particularly sympathetic; he remanded the old man for a week so he could reappraise the case but said he was minded to send him for trial for the crime.

At Southwark on the other side of the river Mr Woolrych had two unconnected attempted suicides to consider. PC 133M told the magistrate that at half-past five on the previous Friday afternoon (15 July) he had found Henry John Arnold lying on the pavement in Swan Street. A gentleman was standing over him and called the officer’s attention to him, saying he feared the young man was dead.

Arnold was alive, but ‘totally insensible’. The gentleman handed the policeman a bottle marked ‘laudanum’ which he had prized from the stricken man’s hand. Arnold was taken to Guy’s Hospital and his stomach was pumped to try and save him. He was lucky but it took a few days for him to recover sufficiently to be brought before the magistrate at Southwark to answer for his actions.

Mr Woolrych asked him if he been trying to kill himself and why. Arnold admitted he had and explained it was because he ‘truly unhappy’ having fallen out with his wife. This prompted a ‘decent-looking female’ to step forward and state that she was Mrs Arnold. She said they had argued about a young girl that worked with him, but she’d forgiven him. Arnold had taken it badly and had wandered off for a while and she’d not known where he was. She worried because he was often in ‘bad health’, and perhaps she meant in poor mental health.

This time the magistrate decided he would keep Arnold in gaol until ‘he was in a better frame of mind’, perhaps conscious that the young man had told the  arresting officer that ‘next time he would do it better’.

The final case was that of Mary Ann Willis. She was also brought to Mr Woolwrych at Southwark and charged with attempting to end her own life. A young lad named Samuel Carden testified that on Saturday afternoon (16 July) at 3 o’clock he’d been on Waterloo Bridge stairs where he worked assisting the watermen. Mary Ann came down the stairs and remarked to him that ‘it would be a nice place to commit suicide’.

Carden told her to be careful that she didn’t accidently fall in and said he would ensure no one tried to kill themselves while he was there. Regardless of this, she pushed past him and ‘slipped off the logs and went under’. Samuel acted quickly, grabbed her and pulled her back on to dry land, before she could be caught under the logs of the platform and be drowned.

In court Mary Ann denied all of this and said she’d fallen in by accident. The magistrate asked Samuel if he thought the woman had been entirely sober when he’d seen her. The lad said he was pretty sure she had been drinking as she looked unsteady on her feet when she came down to the jetty. Faced with this evidence and Mary Ann’s denial the magistrate had a decision to make. Whom did he believe?

Finally he decided that he would believe the ‘respectable young woman’ but probably because he felt she had acted on the spur of the moment and had planned to kill herself. Unlike Carden or Gander this seemed to be a life that could be turned around. But young Samuel had acted bravely and deserved a reward for saving her, so Mr Woolrych ordered that he been given five shillings from the poor box. Mary Ann he discharged.

Today none of these individuals would be prosecuted for what they had done or had attempted to do and hopefully all three would have been given some support from the mental health services. This doesn’t prevent thousands of people from trying and succeeding in ending their own lives of course and stories like these remind us that everyday people struggle with their personal demons and pressures, and some of them lose those battles.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, July 19, 1864]

A series of mini tragedies as Londoners welcome another summer

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Lambeth Bridge in the 1800s

The Standard‘s coverage of the Police Courts of the Metropolis at the engining of June make fairly grim reading. At Lambeth two brothers were arrested for being drunk and disorderly whilst daring each other to jump off Lambeth Bridge. When the case came to court their elderly mother revealed that the wife of one of them had died earlier week, having thrown herself off Shot Tower Wharf.

Suicide was the theme of the day it seems: along at Southwark in the Borough Isabella Soof (a 46 year-old married woman) was charged with attempting to end her own life. She had leapt into the river at London Bridge but a passing labourer heard her scream and dragged her out. As he pulled her to safety she said:

The grave is my home. I have no husband. Let me go and drown myself‘.

Her husband appeared in court and told Mr Slade he could think of no reason why she’d do such a thing. The magistrate, rather unsympathetically, sent her to prison for a week.

He was perhaps mindful that there was something of an epidemic of women trying to do away with themselves and was trying to issue a warning that the action was a crime that would be punished. Ellen Dalman (38) was also charged with attempting suicide. A policeman saw the book folder running down the stairs at London Bridge and intercepted her before she was able to plunge into the murky waters of the Thames.

Slade remanded her for a week so that enquiries could be made into her domestic circumstances and mental health.

At Wandsworth a former major in the army tried to avoid the disgrace of being arrested for drunk and disorderly behaviour by giving a false name. The justice – Mr Paget – saw through his subterfuge and fined him 10s for the drunkenness and gave him a dressing down for not admitting to who he really was.

Over at Bow Street (where the reporter offered a short recap of the cases there rather than any detail) another woman was prosecuted for attempting to drown herself; her mother promised she would ensure no further attempts were made and she was released. A clearly disturbed woman who’d smashed up the windows and property of a man she described as ‘disreputable’ was sent to a hospital instead of being imprisoned, showing some level of appreciation for her condition at least.

Finally a drunken man was prosecuted at Thames before Mr Saunders for beating up a young woman who was his neighbour and damaging property to the value of £4. She might have suffered a worse fate had not several locals ‘rushed in and released her’ from his clutches. The man, Michael Lynch, was sent to prison at hard labour for three months.

All of this was published in the Tuesday morning edition of the paper. The Standard was a daily paper with a morning and evening edition by the 1880s. It was broadly conservative in its outlook and reached an audience of over 200,000 by the turn of the 20th century. It has a long history, surviving into the 21st century under its current Russian owners and becoming a free paper for Londoners.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, June 03, 1879]

‘labouring under considerable depression of spirits’: a young woman throws herself and her baby into the canal

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The Grand Surrey Canal on Davies’ Pocket Map of London, 1852

On Sunday 17 May 1840 a policeman (32P) was walking his beat, which took him along the Surrey Canal. This ran through Camberwell and Peckham to the Surrey Docks at Rotherhithe, but no longer exists.

It was between one and two in the morning and the moon (which had been full three days earlier) was waning. The copper thought he heard a splash and hurried to the bank. As he peered across the water he thought he saw something, a woman’s bonnet, floating in the canal. Without a thought, he ‘threw off his coat and cape and jumped into the water’.

The water engulfed him and he was soaked through as he thrashed about to find the woman he presumed had fallen in. The canal was nine feet deep at this point, quite deep enough for someone to drown in, but fortunately the policeman soon found a body in the water. He grabbed it and pulled the person to safety, hauling them up onto the towpath.

When he’d recovered himself he realized he had rescued a young woman and her infant child that she had ‘closely clasped in her arms’. He took them both to the station house and then on to the Camberwell workhouse where they were able to get a change of clothes. The next morning he collected her and brought her to the Union Hall Police court to face questions about her actions from the magistrate.

After PC 32P had given his evidence another officer testified to having seen the woman, Mary Doyle, walking by the canal late at night. He had assumed she was lost and accompanied her back to safety. Mary told the justice she had no idea how she had ended up in the water and said that whatever feelings she had about her own life she would never have endangered her child.

Attempting suicide was an offence in 1840 as of course was attempting to kill your own child. It was evident however, that Mary was not herself. The paper reported that:

 ‘she was labouring under considerable depression of spirits’ and there was a suggestion that the child was illegitimate, and so perhaps Mary was trying to end her own life, and that of her infant, in order to escape the shame of ‘an illicit intercourse’.

The magistrate decided to remand her for further enquiries. He added that if she could find bail he’d be happy to release her to her friends. Sadly, no friends had appeared in court that morning so she was taken back to the cells.

Now PC 32P asked the court if anything could be done for him. He had risked his life, he pointed out, and had got soaked through and his uniform soiled in the process. Could he be ‘recompensed for what he had done?’

While it may sound a little ungallant in the circumstances, he did have a point. Policemen were responsible for their own uniforms and he would have to get his cleaned, presumably at his own expense. Unfortunately for him the clerk explained that there was no fund available for him, and suggested he apply to the Humane Society which paid out rewards for those that ‘saved the lives of others’.

The Humane Society (now ‘Royal’) was founded in 1774 by two doctors who wanted to promote resuscitation, and made awards to those that rescued others from the ‘brink of death’. They set up ‘receiving houses’ throughout the capital where people could be brought to recover. It still exists and continues its work recognizing the efforts of lifesavers, but it no longer offers rewards.

If the policeman did approach them he was likely to have been given around £5 (or £300 in today’s money), quite sufficient for him to get his tunic cleaned and pressed, and to be able to dine out on the story for months afterwards. As for Mary, she disappears from the records at this point so hopefully she survived and avoided being prosecuted. Who knows, perhaps the shock of her brush with death was enough of a prompt to turn her life around.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, May 19, 1840]

p.s. On 10 February 1840 Queen Victoria married her prince, Albert to begin what was undoubtedly one of the few ‘love matches’ in the history royal marriages at the time. Today of course is the wedding of Prince Harry to Meghan Markle. I’m no royalist – quite the opposite in fact – but this is clearly a marriage based on love and not dynastic expedience. This is also a revolutionary marriage in its own small way: Harry, an English prince descended from Victoria, is marrying an American commoner, and a person of mixed race. This is (almost) then a ‘normal’ marriage, and continues the modernisation of the royal family that began under Harry’s mother, Diana. I will doff my red cap to them both today, and wish them well (but I shan’t be watching on television!)