‘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!)

Laudanum, primroses and mental health collide as the millennium approaches.

Primrose Day 1885 by Frank Bramley 1857-1915

Primrose Day, by Frank Bramley (1885) Tale Gallery, London

By late April 1899 the old queen was nearing the end of her long reign and Britain was just six months away from the debacle of the second South African (Boer) war. The birth of Duke Ellington (on the 29 April) is an indicator that the ‘modern’ age was just around the corner, and all the horror and cataclysm that accompanied the ‘Great War’ less than a generation away. Yet as the millennium approached London was still very much a Victorian city where people looked backwards as much as forwards, and where ‘respectability’ ‘character’ and social class remained as ingrained as they had been for the last 100 years.

The Police courts of the capital continued to deal with the dregs of society; with the petty thieves, wife abusers, and disorderly prostitutes. Here was also where the poor came for advice or charity, and it was where those that manifestly could not cope with life sometimes turned up.

Jannie McDonald was one of those that struggled with life at the end of the century. Just 18 years of age Jannie was a young woman living in Notting Hill Gate. On the 26 April a policeman was called to her lodgings in Silver Street where he found her collapsed on the floor. She was clutching an empty bottle of laudanum that she has swallowed in an attempt to end her life. When she recovered she admitted that she had tried to kill herself on account of the abuse she received from her husband. The couple had been married less than a year but she preferred death to the prospect of returning to him. In court at West London Police court she changed her story and said she had only taken the drug to ‘procure some sleep and to ease pain’. The magistrate remanded her so that further enquiries could be made into the state of her mental health.

Over at Westminster William Lewis was re-examined having been remanded just over a week earlier. He was accused of criminal damage; he had allegedly ‘damaged the floral decorations at the Beaconsfield statue on Primrose Day’. Until April of this year 2018 (when the statue of Milicent Fawcett was installed) there were several famous people commemorated in Parliament Square, all of them men, one of which was Benjamin Disraeli, the Earl of Beaconsfield.

Disraeli, always Victoria’s favourite prime minister, died on 19 April 1881 and his followers marked his passing each year on Primrose Day. Perhaps Lewis was not a fan or held some grudge against the politician who pioneered what we now call ‘One nation Conservatism’. Like Jannie however, William was suffering from some form of mental illness. In fact enquiries in his case revealed that he had ‘three times been confined in a lunatic asylum’ and was currently out on ‘probation’. This didn’t refer to probation as we understand it within the criminal justice system today, as the first Probation orders were not issued until after August 1907. A district reliving officer from Rickmansworth (where William ‘belonged’) now appeared and he was discharged into his custody to be taken ‘home’ and re-confined.

Both these cases reveal that this was a society that was actually quite similar to our own with people that simply couldn’t cope with day-to-day life for whatever reason. What is noticeably different, one hopes at least, is that today both of these individuals would get more support from the state and local authorities than they did in 1899 at the end of the Victorian period. This change was not about to happen in 1899 of course; it took two world wars to finally overhaul the nature of the British state and create a society, which valued all of its citizens at least a little more equally than it had before. Two wars and the extension of the franchise (something Disraeli experimented with to win greater support for the Conservative Party) led to the election of ‘socialist’ government and the creation of a welfare state that remains (for all its flaws) the envy of the world to this day.

[from The Standard , Friday, April 28, 1899

‘A very noble and intelligent dog’ saves a life the ‘owner’ had given up on

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In late March 1883 Thomas Lyford was walking his dog along the Victoria Embankment when the animal suddenly headed off towards Cleopatra’s Needle. It raced down the steps to the water, turned, ran up, ‘barked twice and ran back’. Lyford followed quickly afterwards instantly realising that something was wrong.

The dog was a retriever/Newfoundland cross, and the latter were bred for rescuing people from the water. The dog had seen a woman in the Thames and swam out towards her. When the animal reached her it used its large jaws to pull her back towards the river side a where Lyford was able to grab her by her dress and haul her onto the steps at the foot of the Egyptian monument.

The police and a surgeon arrived soon afterwards. They had been alerted earlier when a patrolling constable (PC 281) had noticed the woman acting strangely near the Needle. To his horror he’d seen her launch herself into the Thames in what appeared to be an act of self-destruction. The constable ran as fast has he could towards the Thames Police Office (which was at the foot of Waterloo Bridge on the north side of the river) to raise the alarm and have a boat launched to save her.

It was half past eight at night when the policeman had seen the woman jump so without the quick reactions of  Lyford and his dog she may well have drowned. Instead the woman was taken to the workhouse infirmary where, after some time, she made a full recovery.

As regular readers will know this was not the end of the story because very many people chose to attempt suicide in the 1800s and since it was against the law those that failed in their efforts were brought before the metropolitan Police Courts to answer for it. This woman’s name was Amelia Crickland and she was placed in the dock at Bow Street before Mr Vaughan while the case against her was heard.

We get no real sense of why she threw herself into the river but this is probably because the court reporter was more interested in the canine rescue story, which was described in detail. Thomas Lyford stood in the witness box with his dog. The animal ‘placed its fore paws on the ledge of the box, looking round the court in a most intelligent manner’.

‘It is a very noble and intelligent dog’ Mr Vaughan commented.

‘Yes, he came and told me that something was wrong as plainly as any Christian could,’ the proud dog owner replied.

The unnamed dog was the hero of the hour, poor Amelia (who could only put her decision to drown herself down to ‘some trouble she had’) was sent to the house of detention to wait final judgement on her punishment. ‘Some trouble’ may have meant she was pregnant, or had lost her employment, or some other disgrace she found too awful to bear. Sadly society wasn’t that interested in what had driven her to despair and the reality was likely to be that when she got the chance again she’d make sure there were no eagle-eyed policemen or rescue dogs nearby.

[from The Standard, Friday, March 30, 1883]

Cleopatra’s Needle (which had little or nothing to do with the Egyptian queen) had arrived in the capital in 1878 and so was still a fairly new attraction on the Embankment. It was paid for by public subscription to commemorate victory over Napoleon in Egypt and it had survived a tempestuous journey to reach London. I wonder how many visitors to London stop think of the number of people that ended (or attempted to end) their lives in the water that lay just beyond this symbol of British military power? 

‘A murderous outrage’ in Holloway

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We are staying in 1891 today to see if any there were any Police Court developments in the wake of Frances Coles’ murder on the 13 February of that year. Lloyd’s Weekly  carried reports from seven of the capital’s courts but there was no mention here of Coles, the ‘Ripper’ or the man who became associated with this killing, James Sadler.

Instead the paper covered a complaint about the mis-labelling of Turkish cigarettes, theft from a theatre district club, two different frauds (one by a nine year-old boy), a gold robbery, a so-called ‘fair fight’ that turned nasty, and the case I’d like to focus on today, which was described as ‘a murderous outrage’ .

The case had come up before at North London Police Court and the accused, a 35 year-old bricklayer named Daniel Shannon, had been remanded for further enquiries. He was charged with assaulting Jessie Bazely with whom he cohabited in Chapel Road, Holloway. Jessie had been too poorly to attend on the first occasion Shannon had appeared and the court was told she remained in that state, if not a worse one.

The paper reminded its readers of the basic details of the case: Shannon had objected to his partner’s drinking and they had argued. In the scuffle that followed Shannon had grabbed a poker and smashed her over the head with it. In his defence the bricklayer argued that it was an accident:

‘he said that ‘the woman took up the poker to strike him, and in struggling they fell on the floor, the woman’s head coming in contact with the fender’.

The police investigated the assault and Inspector Charles Bradley of Y Division was present in court to report on their findings so far, and in particular the condition of Jessie. Her evidence would be crucial in determining what happened to Shannon next.

The inspector told the magistrate that the poor woman was being held in the workhouse infirmary and had gone quite mad as a result of her injuries and her previous addiction to drink. When asked what evidence he had for this the policeman declared that he had seen her there ‘being held down by five nurses’. Moreover, she had attempted her own life and had bitten several of the staff there. Dr George Wright, the divisional police surgeon, then confirmed the inspector’s report.

From the dock of the court the prisoner asked for the fender to be produced. He said he wanted to demonstrate what had happened so he could clear his name. Inspector Bradley said that he had asked for this previously, but had been denied. The magistrate also refused his request and remanded him in custody once more.

We shall see if the case is picked up later in the week, or if the attention of the press became fixated on events in the East End instead.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, February 15, 1891]

A young mother is driven by ‘wretchedness and starvation’ to throw her boy into the canal

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The entrance to the Regent’s Canal at Limehouse in 1823

A few days ago I wrote up the case of mechanic that rescued a woman from drowning herself in the Regent’s canal. That case was from 1866 but lest we suppose that it was an isolated incident today I’ve found another attempted suicide in the canal, and this one ended being prosecuted at the Old Bailey in 1849.

In February 1849 a woman was placed in the dock at the Worship Street Police court before Mr Hammill, the sitting magistrate. Her name was Anne Mallandine and she was charged with attempting to murder her own by throwing him to the Regent’s canal. The chief witness was John Stoddart, a clerk employed by a Haggerstone builder, who was looking out over the canal from his boss’ counting house at four o’clock in the afternoon of the 6 February.

He saw Anne walking along canal tow path pulling a small boy along by the hand. The child was resisting and saying ‘don’t mother, don’t!’. Anne ignored him and propelled him towards the edge of the path clearly determined to throw him into the water. Suddenly, to Stoddart’s horror,  she picked him up and threw him in.

As the boy struggled and moved away from the bank Anne started to undress. She had taken off her bonnet and shawl before the clerk could reach her but he was able to stop her jumping in after her boy. Another man arrived on the scene and secured the woman while Stoddart bravely plunged into the water to rescue the little lad.

The clerk and the other man managed to get both parties to a nearby pub where they were cleaned up and handed over to the police. The boy was taken from his mother and placed in the workhouse while Anne was locked up for the magistrate to decide  what to do with her in the morning.

After Stoddart gave his testimony a young man named John Wilding said he had seen the incident and noticed Anne earlier. He said she had been trying to ‘lure the boy to the bank by showing him some ducks that were swimming in the water’ but he had got wind of her real purpose and tried to get away.

PC Heath (N48) told Mr Hammill that on arrest Anne had expressed regret that the witnesses had arrived as quickly as they had since ‘then she would have been spared the trouble of going before a magistrate or anybody else’.

Mr Hammil wanted to know what had brought her to do such a dreadful thing. Anne told him that she and her son were starving and had not eaten anything for at least a day. She was probably also trying to avoid the shame of going to the parish for help and clearly dreaded the workhouse more than she feared death.

Anne was committed to take her trial at the Old Bailey and imprisoned in Newgate gaol in the meantime. On the 5 March she was formally tried for attempting to kill  her little boy Mason. Anne (or Hannah as she was named in the Old Bailey Proceedings) was described as 28 years old and unmarried; she cried throughout the trial as the witnesses recounted the events of that afternoon. The court was told that the water was about five feet deep at the part of the canal and that probably helped save Mason’s life.

Her defence counsel accepted that she had done as was alleged but had only acted out of desperation. He stopped short of declaring her insane but  argued that she had been brought to do what she did from ‘wretchedness and starvation’ and suggested that at the time she was not in a state of mind that allowed her to act rationally. This probably did just enough to convince the jury , who found her not guilty.

[from The Morning Chronicle , Thursday, February 8, 1849; The Morning Post , Tuesday, March 06, 1849]

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]

Dear reader, are you a teacher or student, or a university of college lecturer? If you use this site in education I’d love to know how I might improve it for you. If you have any suggestions please get in touch at drew.gray@northampton.ac.uk

The Mansion House has no sympathy with those bent on ‘destroying themselves’.

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When an unnamed woman was charged with disorderly conduct at Mansion Police Police court in December 1841 the sitting justice took it upon himself to make a statement to the press. Sir Peter Laurie, the incumbent Lord Mayor, didn’t inflict further punishment on the woman because she had already been locked up overnight in the City’s compter (a old term for a prison). However, all leniency stopped there.

The Lord Mayor had previously punished her for attempting to ‘destroy herself’ (in other words for attempting suicide) by jumping off one of the capital’s bridges. Sir Peter said that there had been considerable numbers of suicide attempts in the past few months. No less than 26 people had been charged with the offence at Guildhall  and a further five at Mansion House from September to October.

As a result he had determined to deal with all future cases more severely. In November he had sent a man to Bridewell in an attempt to check ‘so revolting an offence’ by ‘a little wholesome severity’. That individual had tried to cut his own throat because he was suffering from ‘poverty and idleness’. A day later he sent a woman to the Old Bailey to face a jury trial. His fellow justice, Sir Chapman Marshall, followed his lead and committed a man for ‘attempting to drown himself’. In both cases the accused pleaded guilty and received a sentence of 14 days imprisonment.

Since then there had been a notable falling off in persons attempting to take their own lives so Sir Peter commended the actions of the bench.

The clerk of the court ‘observed that several desperate imposters had made money by the experiment of tumbling into the Thames. The infliction of imprisonment and hard labour for the offence would certainly check the practice as far as pretenders were concerned, whatever effect it might have on those that seriously wished to get rid of life.’ He added that the ‘great majority’ were imposters in his opinion.

Sir Peter concluded by warning ‘every man and woman brought before me jumping or trying to jump into the river shall most positively walk off to Newgate [gaol] , and I am very much mistaken if the Judges do not henceforward inflict upon offenders very heavy punishments’.

It hardly needs to be said that such draconian attitudes to what may well have been genuine mental health issues would not be applied today. Attempting suicide is no longer an offence under law although persons displaying suicidal tendencies may well be sectioned, and forcibly confined. So the Victorian bench looks particularly uncaring in this regard. But before we congratulate ourselves on living in more enlightened times we might note the report of the parliamentary commission created by the late Jo Cox that has revealed the worrying extent of loneliness in modern Britain.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, December 15, 1841]