‘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!)

Stockings, lace and a muff: The reluctant haberdasher and the fashionable shoplifter

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A rather brief entry today, as I have 40 exam scripts to mark!

In 1832 the ‘New Police’ force was still rather new. The public were probably getting used to seeing the ‘bluebottles’ on the streets, with their swallow-tailed coats and tall stovepipe hats. The individual victims of crime remained key to prosecutions however: the police largely acting as the old watch and parish constabulary had done, as a reactive force.

5300d2bf0b864dced8880d3c673cad3bOn May 11 (a Friday) Joanna Garth entered a haberdasher’s shop in Percy Street, Marylebone and bought a piece of lace for 2s 7d. Having made her purchase she then asked the shopman if she might have a look at some stockings, and some things. He obliged her and Joanna took a seat by the counter to examine the goods, but didn’t buy any of them.

The assistant had noted that she was ‘middle-aged’ and ‘fashionably-dressed’ and was carrying a muff. Others might tell me whether this was normal for this time of the year, but May can be cool out of the sun or perhaps it was on trend to carry such an accessory in the 1830s.

As he watched her the shopman noticed her pull a pair of the stockings into the muff and as she rose and made to leave the shop he challenged her. He found the stockings in the muff, and another pair balled up in her hand and, when he looked back to the chair she’d sat on, found a card of lace discarded by the chair leg which she’d possibly also been trying to steal.

The haberdasher’s assistant went to the door of the shop and called for a policeman. PC Hancock of S Division appeared and accompanied the woman to the nearest police station. She was charged at Marylebone Police Court on the 16 May with shoplifting at Harris’ premises where all this evidence was heard.

It was a pretty clear case but the haberdasher was reluctant to prosecute. Did he know Joanna? Was she a regular customer? Her lack of title suggests she was unmarried, was this an example of what the late Victorians termed kleptomania? Shoplifting by ‘respectable’ middle-class ‘ladies’ was not infrequently attributed to the supposed mental ‘weakness’ of the female sex, rather than being deemed ‘criminal’. Had Joanna been a working-class woman things might have been very different. Harris would have been quite likely to have wanted her prosecuted and punished but in this case he tried quite hard to have the case settled summarily and without penalty.

The magistrate was less keen to let it go however. He did let her leave his court on the promise she would return when requested, but set bail at the huge sum of £200. This in itself speaks to the wealth of the woman, an heiress perhaps, independently wealthy at least? £200 in 1832 is the equivalent of about £13,000 today so that gives you some idea of the level of bail the magistrate set. By comparison the goods she was accused of pilfering were worth about £9 in today’s money.

The case doesn’t seem to have made it to a jury trial and I’ve found no further mention of it at Marylebone so it is quite likely that Harris dropped his prosecution and settled the matter. The police were not obliged to press charges and there seems little to gain by anyone doing so. Joanna Garth was not the sort of offender that late Georgian society was concerned about or that the Metropolitan Police were created to combat. Hopefully she kept her ‘kleptomania’ under control after that and simply used her muff to warm her hands.

[from The Morning Post , Thursday, May 17, 1832]

A boot and shoe fraud exposed by the fear of terrorism

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While I was born and live in London I teach history at the University of Northampton, so I’m always on the lookout for stories which link the capital to the east Midlands. Not surprisingly – well at least not surprisingly to someone that knows Northampton’s history – this case from Westminster concerns the boot and show trade, for which Northampton was (and remains) mostly famous.

Three people appeared in the dock at Westminster Police court on the 15 May 1883, two women and a man. They were charged with ‘unlawfully conspiring with other persons to obtain goods … by false and fraudulent representations’.  The ‘goods’ in question was a quantity of leather and boots and the trio were apprehended as the result of a targeted police investigation into fraud.

Detective sergeant Arthur Standing was on watch outside the Life Guards barracks in Knightsbridge (which had recently been the subject of a bomb threat) watching a house opposite.  The house was rented in the name of Edmund O’Connor, a commercial traveller in the boot trade. His Irish surname may also have raised suspicions given the proximity of the barracks and the spectre of the ‘dynamitards’.

Between 8 and 9 at night DS Standing and another officer waited as two women approached the house, each carrying a large bundle. Standing stopped the women and searched their bags. These were found to contain leather, which was later traced to wholesalers in Northampton and Leicester. Both women – Mary O’Connor and her daughter Elizabeth were arrested and Edmund followed soon afterwards.

The magistrate, Mr St John Poynter, was told by the police that they were investigating a number of other thefts connected with this case and asked for the three prisoners to be remanded. Poynter complied with their request and committed them to trial at Old Bailey and sent them back into custody in the meantime.

When it came to trial a couple of weeks later it became clear that Mary was the mother of the two other defendants, not Edmund’s (or indeed Edward as the Old Bailey court recorded his name) wife. Edward was the principal here and the goods stolen were in fact a large number of boots. O’Connor had apparently been trying to establish a boot and shoe shop on Knightsbridge High Street   and had obtained the lease to rent the premises from a solicitors in Jermyn Street at £120 a year. However, when he didn’t pay the money as agreed the solicitor’s cashier went looking for him in Knightsbridge, finding only his mother who said he was travelling on business.

Meanwhile O’Connor had been busy ordering samples under the name of ‘Andrews’ and placing an order with a manufacturer in Bethnal Green.  A succession of creditors and unhappy traders gave evidence and Matthew O’Brien of CID reported that he’d entered the premises (searching for the elusive explosives they’d been tipped off about) and found it empty, dirty and with ‘no sign of business’. This must have rung alarm bells and prompted him to alert DS Standing.

In the end it was a complex case in which it seems that O’Connor was possibly trying to set up a legitimate business in town based on his wider contacts but was short of ready cash. That’s the generous explanation of course. He may well have been conducting a sort of ‘long firm’ scam where he pretended to be a genuine businessman in order gain credit and goods before clearing out before he paid a penny for anything he’d obtained.

That was what the jury thought although the element of doubt possibly worked in his favour as he only received a twelve-month prison sentence. His mother and sister fared better; found guilty of conspiracy by recommended to mercy by the jurors they were sent down for two months’ each.

The name ‘O’Connor’ would have chimed with the secret services of the day; a James O’Connor had been a prominent member of Clan na Gael who had been arrested in 1881. Special Branch was formed later in 1883 to combat Fenian terror and anyone with an Irish name would have aroused suspicion that close to a military target. In October 1883 Clan na Gael planted a bomb on a District Line underground train heading for Gloucester Road station. Thankfully no one was hurt and little damage was done but more attacks on the network followed.

We forget that London was targeted by terrorism in the 1880s but this case, of a fairly mundane if ambitious fraud, reminds us that the capital’s police (like their colleagues today) had to fight and political violence at one and the same time, with limited resources.  Who knows, if O’Connor’s name really had been ‘Andrews’ he may not have aroused suspicion and his gamble might have paid off.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, May 16, 1883]

‘Oh, mother, have I killed him?’ Manslaughter as two boys go toe-to-toe.

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Greenwich Pier, c.1850

Today’s story will unfold in two parts and starts at the Greenwich Police court in April 1858.

William Sellis, aged just 12, was brought up before Mr Traill charged with causing the death of another boy in a fight. John Thomas Bolton (who was 13) had died following a clash in Wellington Street. What made this tragedy all the more interesting (from a newspaper’s point of view) was that Sellis was not some street urchin but the son of ‘respectable parents’ from Rotherhithe and that a police inspector was also charged as an accessory.

It was not the first hearing in the case and so some of the details were already in the public domain. Inspector Henry Hambrook of the Thames Police was accused of egging Sellis on, and urging him to target his victim:

“Give it him right and left, and hit him once under the ear, and he won’t want to fight again” he was alleged to have told the youngster.

The boys were fighting toe-to-toe as in a prizefight and Bolton was slightly taller. Two more rounds elapsed before Sellis applied the advice the inspector had given him and connected with his opponent just below the ear. According to witnesses Bolton fell to the ground, screamed and curled himself into a defensive ball. Sellis was horrified at what he’d done running home and yelling ‘Oh, mother, have I killed him?’ before going on to the doctors to see how his victim was.

In court the inspector’s lawyer pleaded on behalf of his client, emphasising his long service and the effect that any stain on his character would have on his pension and retirement. He’d served at Thames for 15 or 16 years and was currently off work on sick leave.

None of this cut much ice with the magistrate. Mr Traill said that someone with Hambrook’s knowledge of the law and position in the community should have known better than to encourage such violence.

‘It was a most abominable act’ he said adding that ‘it was the duty of every person to prevent a breach of the peace; and when an officer of the peace, who had been connect with the police’ for such a long time ‘took no steps to prevent such an act, but assisted, he thought it a most shameful proceeding’.

However, Traill didn’t seem inclined to formally commit the policeman as an accessory as he wasn’t sure the evidence of intent was there. Mr Solomon, Hambrook’s lawyer, wanted his client to speak in his own defence but the justice was not inclined to hear him. Solomon pressed his case saying that if only Handbrook could explain he was sure he would be exonerated. Finally Mr Traill agreed, and it proved to be a mistake on the defence’s part.

Hambrook chose to challenge the various witnesses that had already testified to his involvement but each one stuck to their evidence and left the inspector high and dry. The magistrate now committed both the lad and the police inspector to trial for the killing of John Bolton. Hambrook was bailed but Sellis, despite the coroner being happy to allow, was refused bail and taken away to a cell to await his transfer to trial later in the year.

I will look at that trial and its aftermath in tomorrow’s blog.

[from The Standard , Monday, April 26, 1858]

The unwanted dinner guest

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Let’s not beat about the bush, James Bull was an alcoholic. In 1840 the papers referred to him as ‘dissipated’ by they meant that he was a drunk. Bull was, technically at least, a married man with an eleven year old child, but he had separated from his wife some time ago.

Mrs Bull was a ‘woman of steady and trustworthy principles’ and whether she had thrown him out or he had simply left isn’t clear. What is evident is that James was on his uppers; out of money he needed to rely on his long suffering wife to support him. She worked as a domestic servant in the Earl of Darlington’s London home at Upper Brook Street.

James was in the habit of visiting his estranged spouse and demanding money with menaces. He had developed a strategy of calling when he knew the house had guests for dinner, forcing his way into the kitchens and threatening to prevent her from overseeing the dinner service.

This would not only have been an embarrassment to Mrs Bull, it could have put her employment in jeopardy. In mid April 1840 James went too far, and caused a disturbance at the house which was brought to the attention of the Earl (or the head of his household staff at least). James Bull was arrested and taken before the magistrate at Marlborough Street Police court on a charge of creating a disturbance.

Mrs Bull told the justice, Mr Long, that she allowed her husband six shillings a week from her wages but it was ‘quite impossible’ for her to do more for him. She had her child to look after and James was perfectly capable of finding work. He was ‘strong, able-bodied , and capable, if so disposed, of keeping himself’.

In his defence James said he was ‘without money, and he had not tasted food for some time’ which was why he’d visited his wife at her work.

After all, he added, he ‘had a right to’ ask her for help.

That was as maybe but he had no right to abuse her, or impact her work and endanger her employment. And things were worse than this the court discovered. Mr Long pressed her and she admitted that in the past few weeks James had threatened and assaulted her.  Having ‘elicited’  this information from Mrs Bull the magistrate decided to intervene in this domestic squabble. He committed James to the Sessions where he would have to answer for his actions, and find bail in the meantime to avoid being remanded in prison.

It was a serious message to James to leave his wife alone and accept the small amount of charity she had volunteered. It was also an injunction to him to give up his ‘dissipated’ lifestyle and find honest work. If not he could expect to be seeing the inside of many more police and prison cells in the future and could kiss goodbye to seeing his wife and child ever again.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, April 16, 1840]

‘You rascal you’: An early tale from Bow Street reveals contemporary prejudices

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This case is amongst the earliest I’ve looked at for the Metropolitan Police Courts predating in fact, both the beginning of Victoria’s reign and the creation of the Metropolitan Police. The style of the early reports from the Police Courts seem to suggest that the writers are working out how to present their stories in an entertaining way, while by 50 or 60 years later a more formulaic style of reporting has developed.

In the 1820s and 30s the audience for newspapers was smaller and less demographically brand;  papers were generally read by the well-do-do and wealthy. By the second half of Victoria’s reign the improvements that technology brought both to the production of newspapers and their distribution, along with a rise in literacy, meant that the reports of the summary courts (along will all other news) reached a much larger and better read audience.

Many of those reading the reports from the Police Courts in the 1880s (where I have spent much of this year so far) were members of the working class and they were often reading about people just like them. In the 1820s I suspect most of those reading about the goings on at Bow Street and elsewhere were reading about people  not like them, unless they were the prosecutors in these courts.

Regardless, editors still operated on the principle of mixing information with entertainment and a heavy dose of social comment. Class is clearly important, as is the maintenance of social position and ‘respect’. This case provides plenty of opportunity to smirk at the pretensions of youth, at respectability, and class, all served with a dash of prejudice on top.

Mr Merix was a ‘dashingly dressed young man’ who appeared at Bow Street to make a complaint about another young man that he said had assaulted him. For no obvious practical reason the The Morning Post’s reporter tells us that Merix was ‘a Jew’ and describes him as self-obsessed and vain: ‘no man or boy ever appeared on better terms with himself’, notes the writer. In addition Merix spoke with a mild stutter which the report delights in rendering in print.

It is pretty clear then from the start of this short court report that the editor is using this story as entertainment and an opportunity to poke fun at Merix and those like him.

The person accused of assaulting Merix was a Mr Zinc, a ‘Musician in the Orchestra at Covent Garden Theatre’. He appeared ‘voluntarily’ we are told, and this helps establish where the paper’s sympathy lies.

Merix complained that on the previous Thursday evening he had met Zinc in the street and the other man had knocked him down without the slightest provocation.

Mr Halls, again for no obvious reason, asked him who he was.

‘Why, Sir – a – I, Sir – a – the fact is, Sir – I am – a – no – thing, Sir’

he answered, provoking a laugh in the court.

‘How do you live’, asked the magistrate, ‘are you of any business or profession?’

‘I am – under the protection of – a – my father – who is a diamond merchant’, stammered the complainant.

At this point we might well remember that Mr Merix was the supposed victim in this case, yet it seems to be him who is on trial.

Next the magistrate turned his attention to the defendant who seemed perfectly relaxed and happy to be in court. He admitted knocking Merix down but said he had plenty of good reasons to do so.

He told Mr Halls that he had lodged with the prosecutor and after a quarrel, Merix had challenged him to a duel which he declined ‘with silent contempt’. Thereafter Merix never missed an opportunity, he said, to insult him. This happened regularly at Zinc’s place of work, the theatre, as he described in detail:

He (Merix) ‘sometimes placed himself in a  conspicuous situation in the Theatre and curled his nose, and directed the most offensive gestures towards him, and when he met him in the street, it was his constant practice to spit on the ground in a marked manner, and turn up his nose as he passed’.

Given Merix’s ethnic background I think it is pretty clear that Zinc is making as much of the young man’s physical appearance as he could to denigrate him. Nearly every depiction of Jews in nineteenth-century popular culture make a point of emphasising the size and curl of their noses (see Fagin in Oliver Twist as just one example).

On the night in question Zinc says he reacted to Merix’s now routine insults by threatening to pull his nose, prompting the other man to call him a ‘rascal’. This was enough for Mr Halls; the magistrate thought it outrageous that a respectable citizen like Zinc should be called a ‘rascal’ and said Merix deserved the treatment he had received.

‘Any man who called another rascal, deserved to have his nose pulled’ he declared, ‘or to be knocked down, and still more did he merit punishment who could be guilty of such a filthy, low, blackguard trick as that which was ascribed to the Complainant’.

He would not remand or even bail Zinc for the assault but if Merix wished he could indict him at the next Session of the Peace, not that he thought he ‘was likely to get any good by it’. He dismissed the case and left Merix looking ‘very crestfallen’ as a result’.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, April 15, 1826]

‘They have treated my young lady shamefully’: a schoolmaster has his day in court

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In the early modern period the Church (consistory) courts were sometimes used to prosecute individuals for defamation. Tim Meldrum (who taught me when I was an undergraduate) discussed how the London consistory courts were used by women who wanted to defend themselves against accusations of sexual misconduct – the oft heard cries of ‘whore!’ By the eighteenth century libels such as this were being dealt with by the magistracy within a wider application of the laws surrounding assault. Assault, which we normally associate with violence, could also involve threats and words deemed to cause an offence.

There is a kind of logic here: insults and attacks on the character of individuals undermined good social relations and it was the key role of the magistrate in the long eighteenth century to preserve the peace within society. Libel is often deemed to be more serious because it usually involves written statements of defamation. In the late 1800s it carried the possibility of a hefty fine or imprisonment by default and so we are more likely to find these cases at the Old Bailey or pursued privately through the civil courts if the plaintiffs had the money to do so.

In 1878 Robert John Pitt placed an advertisement in the papers for a nurse. Pitt was an agent (we don’t know in what business) operating out of premises in Bread Street in the City of London. John Minton, a schoolmaster, saw the advert and called at the address listed to say that he knew of a suitable candidate for the post.

The young woman in question lived in Wales but was keen to come to the capital. The reason she was so eager to come it seems, was because she and Minton were in a relationship. Whether this was made clear to Mr Pitt at the time is unknown.

The woman was taken on but very soon dismissed on the grounds, Pitt said, that she ‘was not at all what he expected’. Pitt complained to Minton that:

‘she was dirty in her habits, and he asked her to remonstrate with her’.

She emerged in a hearing at the Mansion House Police court in April 1883, where it was reported in The Standard. The case was presented by Mr Nicholls, a lawyer engaged on behalf of Mr Pitt. The Lord Mayor was in the chair and he made it clear that it wasn’t his role to judge the case, simply to determine whether a libel had occurred and so the charge should be passed to be heard by a jury.

Following the dismissal of the unnamed Welsh girl from the Pitt household nothing had been heard from Minton or the woman Mr Nicholls told the court. Then, in late 1882 a number of letters began to arrive in Bread Street. These affected ‘the character of himself and his wife’ and at first he simply burned them.

When they started to become more frequent he took it more seriously and kept them. The letters contained statements that could not be repeated in court, the lawyer declared, so we might assume the language used was defamatory or the accusations made scandalous. The reading public probably did want to know but, like us, they were kept in the dark to preserve public decency and the good name of Mr Pitt and his spouse.

Mr Pitt appeared and proved the receipt of the letters by producing some of them in court. The case was serious enough for the police to pursue it and detective-sergeant Brett testified that he had been despatched to Wales to arrest Minton and bring him to London. He’d served a warrant on him at West Street, Pembroke Dock on the previous Wednesday and he had accompanied him back to the capital, he now produced him before the Lord Mayor.

Minton had come quietly and happily stating:

‘Yes, I have been expected this; I have the whole of my defence ready. I will fight it out, as they have treated my young lady shamefully’, adding, ‘I do not wish to evade the matter, two of the letters are signed in my own name’.

The nurse, it was revealed, was now Mrs Minton. The case was adjourned until the following week while the Lord Mayor considered what he’d heard. A week later Minton was back up before the Lord Mayor and a handwriting expert confirmed that the letters and postcards sent were written by the schoolmaster. After a lengthy cross-examination of the witnesses involved the Lord Mayor decided there was enough evidence to send this for a formal trial and committed Minton but bailed him on his own recognizances of £40.

He appeared at the Old Bailey on the 30 April that year where he pleaded guilty to libelling MRs Elizabeth Pitt. He was sent to prison for a month, fined £30 and ordered to enter into recognizances (of a further £30) not to repeat the offence again. Imprisonment must had meant that he too would lose his job, and his reputation – important for even a lowly schoolmaster – so the future for this married couple must have been an uncertain one. One does wonder what exactly he wrote about Mrs Pitt and what his future wife’s experience was of working there. What exactly were the ‘dirty habits’ that the Pitts complained of? Sadly, since he pleaded guilty and no details were therefore given in court, we can only imagine.

[from The Standard, Saturday, April 07, 1883; The Standard, Saturday, April 14, 1883]