A bit of good luck quickly turns into a personal disaster for one London plumber

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An 1865 issue Victorian florin (not actual size…)

I suppose that in these days of contactless payment fewer and fewer of us use real money any more. Even when I go the pub I rarely pay with case, and never do so in shops any more. Am I unusual, I doubt it?

If you do use cash and a barman or shop assistant gives you change, do you check it? If its short I imagine you’d say something but what if they give you back too much? I expect most of us would quietly offer a prayer to  the gods of good fortune and walk away.

That may be what Edward Pearce did in September 1892 as he paid for drinks at the bar of the Orange Tree pub in the Euston Road. The 48 year old plumber insisted that he’d handed over a florin for two glasses of ale, for which he was given 16in silver, and a further 4d in bronze as change. A florin was worth around 24 old pence, or a tenth of a pound. Since a shilling was 12 pence, we can assume his drinks cost him twopence. Today in my favourite pub I’ll pay about £10 for two ‘glasses of ale’.  Edward was paying around 68p in today’s money.

However, the barman quickly realized his mistake when he saw that instead of a florin Edward had only given him 2d  and so wasn’t entitled to any change at all. He demanded the money back but Pearce refused, insisting he’d handed over a two-shilling piece (the florin).

The police were called and since Pearce stuck to his story and the barman stuck to his the case came before the magistrate at Marylebone Police court where the plumber was tried for theft. It may have been an honest mistake or simply a cheeky attempt to get away with a bit of good luck. Sadly for Pearce all he ended up with was a week’s incarceration with hard labour. A little harsh even by late Victorian standards.

[from The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, September 17, 1892]

Gin Lane revisited in 1888

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One the most powerful images of the negative effects of alcohol is William Hogarth’s ‘Gin Lane’. The engraving is Hogarth’s attack on the evils of imported ‘foreign’ liquor – ‘jenever’ or Dutch gin. He produced this to contrast with ‘Beer Street’ drawing a clear comparison between ‘honest’ English beer and the stronger more dangerous spirit that gripped so many Londoners in the 1700s. London suffered a  ‘gin craze’ at mid century that forced government to act against it, passing the last of several gin acts in 1751 aimed at reducing consumption by raising prices through taxation. Actually it was rising prices for grain that weaned Londoners off gin by the 1760s, coupled with higher food costs people simply couldn’t afford it.

Hogarth’s Gin Lane (above) has a woman holding (or rather dropping) a baby at its centre. It is this image that sums up the affect of alcoholism on the addict; a total abdication of responsibility in pursuit of the next ‘fix’ of gin. Anyone familiar with modern drug addiction will recognize this as having very similar consequences.

Gin did not go away in the 1760s and remained a popular and cheap way to get drunk in the 1800s. By then campaigners against alcohol had developed more sophisticated ways to encourage abstinence – as the Temperance movement and the Salvation Army attest. Sadly, they don’t seem to have been able to do much for Mary Sullivan.

In September 1888 Sullivan, a 44 year old mother, was found dead drunk in Woolwich High Street by PC Williams (127R). The policeman had been alerted to Sullivan by the large crowd that was quickly gathering around her. She was drunk and had a baby in her arms, which she was flailing about. The child was crying and Mary was angry with it.

As he approached her he saw her dash the baby’s head against a nearby wall. He rushed over, secured her and the child and asked her where she lived. Mary had no home; homeless, impoverished and probably abandoned by the child’s father, she was at her wits end. It was not uncommon in the poorer districts of London in 1888.

A woman standing nearby offered to pay for a night’s lodging for Mary but she refused the charity. The baby seemed ok so PC Williams warned her and carried on his beat. Some time later he found her again, sitting on a  doorstep holding the child in front of her. The child was naked and another crowd were berating her, some threatening to lynch her for her cruelty.

For her own safety, and that of her baby, PC Williams now arrested her (as he probably should have done earlier). At the station the child was examined by the police surgeon and was taken away from Mary and sent to the workhouse infirmary to be cared for. At Woolwich Police court Mary Sullivan was sent to prison for 14 days hard labour. At least there she might have a chance to sober up.

[fromLloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, September 9, 1888]

A lucky counterfeiter or a young man with deeper problems? Mercury and bad money at Bow Street

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William Collins was lucky. In 1841 he had a brush with the law that might have ended in a quite serious prosecution and, most likely, a prison sentence. As it was the sitting magistrate at Bow Street chose to believe his version of events over that of the police, and he walked out of court a free man. With a different magistrate, and in previous decades, he may not have been so fortunate.

Collins was charged with passing counterfeit money (‘uttering’ as it was often described). He had entered a butcher’s shop in Charles Street and attempted to pay for a ‘quarter pound of beef’ with a ‘bad’ fourpenny piece. The butcher (George Garland) rejected the young man’s coin and demanded another. Colins produced a shilling and a sixpence from the same pocket and handed them over. Garland carefully examined each, told him the shilling was also ‘bad’ but accepted the sixpence. Collins left with his supper and 2din change.

Next he went to the Anchor and Crown pub in King Street and ordered a pint of beer. When Edward Hoey the landlord asked him to pay he handed him the shilling that had been refused earlier. Hoey refused it and Collis tried another coin, a halfpenny which was fine. He drank his pint and left.

Some moments later a man approached the bar and spoke to the landlord. He asked if a person fitting Collins’ description had been in and when he was told he had said he had him under surveillance for some time. The man was an early police detective named Roberts and having been informed that his quarry was  close by he rushed off after him, arresting him soon afterwards and taking him to the nearest police station.

Detective Roberts questioned his prisoner and sent for the landlord and the butcher. On the following Saturday both men and the detective were in court to give evidence against Collins.

The young ‘strenuously denied’ knowing that the money was counterfeit and was very clear about how he had acquired it. He can’t have come across as a criminal and Mr Jardine seemed ready to believe he was innocent. The justice asked the policeman who’d searched him at the station whether any other ‘bad’ coins had been found on him. The constable replied that none had but the lad did possess a bottle of quicksilver, which he kept in the same pocket as his money. The quicksilver (mercury) would have tarnished the coins he owed. This seems to have convinced Mr Jardine of his innocence although the other witnesses were less sure that they hadn’t narrowly avoided being ripped off by a fraudster. They insisted the coins were fake.

So the magistrate sent the constable off with the coins to be tested by a nearby jeweler. The expert opinion was that the coins were indeed ‘genuine, but discolored in consequence of being placed with quicksilver’. The magistrate turned to the young man in the dock and apologized to him for having held him in custody while the facts were checked. He said he hoped he understood that while he was now cleared of any suggestion of criminal behavior the ‘affair [looked] very suspicious’ based on the witnesses produced in court.

But why might Collins have had a phial of mercury on his person? In the 1800s there were plenty of uses for a metal that we would be rather concerned to find someone wandering the streets of London with. Mercury is highly toxic. However in the Victorian period plenty of substance we would consider dangerous were readily available and used in everyday operations at home and at work.  Collins might have been self-medicating with mercury; it was used as disinfectant, diuretic and even as a laxative.

At points in history mercury was used to treat syphilis, a disease that was rife in nineteenth-century London. However, the treatment could be as bad as, worse even, than the disease itself. Mercury can induce mental illness (that was the – possibly apocryphal – story behind Lewis Carroll’s ‘Mad Hatter’ – as mercury was used in the manufacture of hats) and cause other, physical, problems for the user.

So perhaps William Collins wasn’t that lucky after all?

[from The Morning Post, Monday, May 03, 1841]

The problem of syphilis and its treatment is something I cover in my new co-authored book on the Whitechapel (‘Jack the Ripper’) murders. This is published by Amberley Books on 15 June this year. You can find details here:

‘I shouldn’t have been here now, only I was dhrunk, yer Honour’.

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Although they feature relatively rarely in the written reports that were published in the newspapers the most common occupants of the Police court dock were those accused of being drunk. ‘Drunk and disorderly’ and ‘drunk and incapable’ were subtly different: the former meant that an offender had probably challenged a policeman’s direct order that they ‘go home quietly’ whilst the latter reflected the reality that they couldn’t.

Anne Murphy fell into the second category. She was found lying on her back in Cleveland Street, until to stand and seemingly having some sort of fit. The constable that discovered her helped her to her feet and walked her, with some difficulty, to the Middlesex Hospital in Mortimer Street, which was just nearby. After a quick examination to make sure she was medically fit and well she was released.

Anne was still far too drunk to walk far however and the police officer was obliged to fetch the station’s Bischoffsheim hand ambulance. He then wheeled her back there to spend a night sobering up in a cell. In the morning she was one of the many drunks that took their turn to be processed before the magistrate at Marlborough Street.

In her defense she told Mr Hannay that she was ‘subject to fits, yer honour’.

‘Drunken’ ones, the justice muttered under his breath. Anne’s hearing was good however, and she denied it.

‘Upon my word, I had none of the creature yesterday. I only had had a share of a pint and a half of four ale, and that was between my daughter, my daughter-in-law, another woman, myself, and a gipsy woman, and we were all sober as aldermen – Lord love ye’.

The court was laughing now, either at Anne’s performance or the idea that aldermen were sober. Mr Hannay spoke to the gaoler saying ‘I see she is not know’. The prisoner in the dock heard him and took offence:

‘Not known, indeed” Oh yes I am. I’ve been in one situation two years’. She meant she had a job, but Mr Hannay was establishing that she had not been in trouble with the law before. ‘I mean you are not known to the police’, he explained.

‘Certainly not, never; why, bless you, I’m a widder of the highest respectability’.

As the court collapsed in laughter the magistrate told her he would let off this time with a warning to behave herself in future, and keep off the drink.

‘I shouldn’t have been her now’, she replied, ‘only I was dhrunk, yer Honour’.

Anne then left the dock, curtsied to the bench and went home, her day in dock to no doubt be retold several times over several glasses of beer.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, March 03, 1891]

A mini riot at an RHS fête

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1829 was the year that the Metropolitan Police Act was passed bringing a fully regulated and hierarchical system of police to the capital’s streets. However, we shouldn’t assume that London was unpoliced before Peel’s initiative, nor believe everything early police historians have told us about the inefficiency or corrupt nature of the measures that existed before the ‘Peelers’ began to patrol their beats.

London had been policed by amateurs and part-time paid police from the medieval period and the networks of parish watchmen and constables had improved markedly in the second half of the 1700s. One of the key improvements in ‘policing’ (and I use that term more broadly than it is used today) was the passing of the Middlesex Justices Act in 1792. This created seven ‘police offices’ across London and complemented the existing ones at Bow Street and the City of London’s Guildhall and Mansion House justicing rooms.

Based on the Bow Street model established by Henry and John Fielding, these police offices were set up as courts with police magistrates (justices of the peace) and court officers (or ‘runners’ as they were known at Bow Street). These institutions later evolved into the Police Magistrates courts and their officers were effectively replaced by Peel’s New Police after 1829.

In July 1829 there was no Metropolitan Police Force and so Londoners were reliant on the old system. And we can get a glimpse of the sort of things they had to deal with in this case that came before the Marlborough Street Office on first Wednesday in the month.

Edward Perry, a coachman, was charged ‘with violently whipping and endangering the lives’ of two Marlborough Street officers. His case was heard by all three appointed police magistrates: Sir George Farrant, H. M. Dyer senior, and his son, H. M. Dyer, junior. The court was packed with several gentlemen who had either witnessed or heard about the events that led to the violence that was alleged to have been meted out to the court’s officers.

One of the officers, Schofield, gave his evidence before the bench. He testified that at 7 o’clock on the previous Saturday evening (27 June) he had been stationed opposite the entrance to Royal Horticultural Society’s annual Fete, which was held in gardens on Wavendon Road on land leased by the Duke of Devonshire. We might have thought that an RHS event (like the modern one at Chelsea) would have been a sober and civilized occasion, but it seems that in 1829 ended in a mini riot.

A queue of coaches had developed, as they waited to collect their ladies and gentlemen from the fete, and this caused some tension as patience worn thin and tempers rose. Perry was employed by Sir Astley Cooper and as he waited outside the gates of the gardens a man approached him and asked him to ‘drive on, and take them up in a few minutes’. At first Schofield assumed this was Sir Astley himself but later established that it was one of the knight’s ‘near relations’, a Dr Patterson.

As the doctor departed into the gardens Schofield, aware of the queue behind, asked Perry to move along. Perry replied that he wasn’t going to move for anybody. The officer took the reins of the horses to lead them away and Perry struck him hard with his whip.

Seeing this one of Schofield’s fellow officers (Goddard) rushed to help his mate. Schofield tried to clamber onto the coach via the running board but Perry pulled it up fast, meaning the officer fell back onto the street. Undeterred he got up, dusted himself down and grabbed at the reins. The driver and officer struggled for some moments before, eventually, Perry was unseated and the coach secured.

In court Perry challenged this account, saying he’d not heard anyone tell him to move and that the officers were aggressive and he’d been injured in the process. He also denied a suggestion that he was drunk, something often leveled at coach drivers who probably drank plenty of beer in the course of their work but were not expected to be get inebriated.

Mr Dyer senior was present at the fete and said that since he could corroborate Perry’s evidence perhaps he should step down from the bench. Another gentleman witness, a Mr Creswell, also supported the coachman. The younger Mr. Dyer had also seen the ‘riot’ but his account verified that of the court officers.

The confusion here is probably explained by the fact that as the incident occurred a throng of servants, attached to various notables visiting the fete, got involved on to try and rescue the coachman as he was led away. A riot ensued and another court officer (Ballad) said that because some of these men were ‘following the officers in a fighting attitude, he was compelled to take out his pistols to keep the mob off’.

This reveals then, that the officers of the courts (or some of them at least) were routinely armed, whereas Peel’s men were only equipped with truncheons establishing the tradition that British police are only given firearms under special circumstances.

Several other witnesses came forward to testify against the officers but this did them little good. Perry was convicted of assaulting Schofield and was fined 40s. The bench agreed that there was less evidence that he’d assaulted Goddard but still fined him 20s anyway. In 1829 60s was a lot of money, around £200 at today’s prices, or two week’s salary for a skilled tradesman.

He wasn’t the only one punished for involvement in a riot that had spoiled the quite peace of Chiswick that night. James Smith, a groom employed by a coal merchant at the Adelphi was fined 20s ‘for attempting to ride over Boothman, a special constable’, and John Wichens, another coachman, had to find £4 as a result of being convicted of whipping two other Marlborough Street officers, Avid and Stone.

While the Bow Street runners wore red waistcoats to identify them it must have been hard to determine exactly who was a policing agent in the early 1800s. One of the advantages of the New Police then was their unambiguous visibility; with their blue swallow-tailed coats and tall stove pipe hats they quickly became a recognized figure of authority on London streets. This didn’t mean that coach drivers became any more respectful of them, but it did make it harder for defendants to claim they hadn’t realized who they were.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, July 02, 1829]

Two terrible cases of scalding, one accidental and other deliberate

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On Saturday 4 June 1887 The Illustrated Police News carried a story from the regional press of a unfortunate brewery worker in Sheffield who died of injuries he sustained at work. John Thompson was employed at the Spring Line brewery and had climbed a ladder to turn off  tap when he lost his balance and pitched into a tank of boiling water. He suffered terrible scaldings and died in hospital.

That was a terrible accident, the sort of thing that probably happened more frequently than it would today with all our health and safety restrictions. But in the same week a non-fatal, but equally traumatic incident involving boiling water ended in life changing injuries and a court case.

Emily Westbrook was sitting quietly at her needlework in her employer’s house. She worked for Mrs Harriet Grant at her home at 30 Coldharbour Lane, possibly as a servant but maybe as a seamstress. Either way she wasn’t expecting what happened next.

Mrs Grant entered the room, quite the worse for drink.  She was carrying a jug of water and, without any warning, she came up to Emily and tipped its contents all over her neck and arms. The water had been taken from a kettle that had just boiled and so poor Emily was badly scalded. A doctor was called and Emily was treated but she was likely to be scarred for life.

Defending the prisoner, Mr Maye said that it was entirely an accident, but this was quite at odds with what the girl alleged. The magistrate was Mr Chance and he said that the case was too serious for him to resolve summarily, especially as Mrs Grant did not admit the charge. He bailed her to appear at the next Surrey Sessions of the Peace and took two promises of £25 to ensure she turned up.

If it wasn’t an accident I wonder what prompted the elder woman’s attack. Was it jealousy of  younger woman? Perhaps Mr Grant had been paying the girl too much attention, or Harriet merely suspected him of something similar. She had been drinking, and one wonders why and whether it was because she was unhappy and took it out on Emily. I have no record of what happened next but I rather suspect that a jury of men may well have dismissed the complaint as a little more than two women quarrelling over something trivial. Regardless it probably signalled the end of Emily’s employment.

[from The Illustrated Police News etc, Saturday, June 4, 1887]

Is tea the cure for alcoholism? One poet swears by it.

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Lest we be in any doubt about the problems caused by alcohol in the late nineteenth century the reports from the Police courts bear testimony to them. They are all of individuals (men and women) who are there because they are addicted to alcohol or are at least unable to control the amount they drink, or the affects it has on them.

The last quarter of the 1800s saw the rise of the Temperance Movement which strove to ween individuals off the ‘demon drink’ and to get them to sign the ‘pledge’ of abstinence. Out of this came the Police Court Missionary Service, the forerunner of Probation, which helped those brought into the courts, but only if they would promise to remain sober in future.

Drunkenness led to disorderly behaviour, to the verbal abuse of officials and police; to the physical abuse of partners and children; to poverty and homelessness; and ultimately to a debilitating death. The police courts were full of it, as these cases from Thames Police court (in London’s East End) in 1899 demonstrate.

The first person up before Mr Mead (the magistrate) was Mr William (or ‘Spring’) Onions. William was a self-styled poet who had struggled for years with a drink problem. Recently he’d overcome it and was in in May 1899 not because of any misdemeanour he committed but for a much more positive reason. He’d come to tell the justice that he’d been sober for six months.

How had he managed it, everyone (including Mr Mead) wanted to know? What was the secret of his sobriety?

It was simple, ‘Spring’ Onions declared. He’d exchanged beer for tea.

 ‘Tea is the thing, sir‘ he explained: ‘I take four or five pints of it everyday, instead of four and twenty pints of beer‘.

He heaped some fulsome praise on the bench, shared some anecdotes about his ‘companions’ in drink, and reminded everyone that he was a poet before leaving the courtroom.

The next person to take the stand was Samuel Freeman, a ‘tailor’s dresser’ from Mile End. He was charged with selling illicit alcohol door-to-door. He’d been under surveillance by the Inland Revenue (this was an offence of tax – or duty – avoidance so fell under their purview) and detective inspector Arthur Llewellyn had stopped him in Anthony Street as he made his deliveries.

He was found with two remaining bottles of spirt which he said he sold for 1s 6d at a profit of sixpence a bottle. He admitted to being able to shift 7-8 pints of this a week and at his home the officers found two gallons of unlicensed spirits ready to be sold. This was a racket that exposed the desperate desire locally for cheap booze; the sort of drink that wrecked the lives like those of William Onions.

Mr Mead gave him the option of paying  a 40s fine or going to prison for fourteen days.

Finally William Pocklingstone was brought up to face the court. He was an old man and admitted his crime of ‘being drunk and disorderly’. He had a ready-made excuse however (possibly one he’d ventured before).

He said he ‘was an old Navy man, and got drinking the health of Britain’s pride – the Queen, God bless her!’

What has Britain’s pride got to do with May 19?’ the magistrate asked him.

I had an idea it was the Queen’s birthday,’ the old salt explained, ‘and made a day of it‘.

It wasn’t Victoria’s birthday at all (she was born on the 20 June) but the magistrate decided to take pity on the old man so long as he promised to address his drink problem. He would let him go today without penalty if he swore to keep sober for the monarch’s actual birthday in a month. William said he certainly would (although I doubt anyone believed him) and he was released.

All three cases show that drink and alcoholism had deep roots in Victorian society and remind us that our concerns (about ‘binge drinking’, super strength lager and cider, and supposedly rising levels of alcohol consumption) are nothing new. Nor has anything that has been done to curb the British love affair with booze had that much effect.

Cheers!

[from The Illustrated Police News etc, Saturday, May 27, 1899]