Gang fights and assaults on the police – taking the long view

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With all the trouble surrounding the release of Blue Story, Andrew Onwubolu’s (aka ‘Rapman’) new film about love and friendship amongst rivals London gangs the issue of youth violence is back in the news. As this blog has touched on several times already in last few years, none of this is anything new. London has a history of gang violence that stretches back at least 150 years.

Plenty of the early concerns about youth violence and gangs focused on the ‘roughs’ and (later, in the 1890s) ‘hooligans’ who terrorized districts such as Southwark. Marylebone and the East End.

Christopher Eaton and John Marr (both just 16 years of age) were apparently connected to ‘a gang of roughs’ that were ‘infesting Bermondsey New Road’ in November 1875.

An elderly man named Richard Carney testified before the magistrate at Southwark Police court that on Friday 23 November he was walking home when he saw two boys fighting with a crowd gathered around them. He – rather unwisely it had to be said – pushed his way through the throng to try and separate them.

The crowd now turned on him and started to kick and punch him. As he collapsed a reserve policeman came running up to help, only to be subjected to the same treatment by the lads.

As the youths ran away PC Robert Atkins managed to secure the two boys and, having summoned a fellow officers to help, got them to the station and Mr Carney to Guy’s Hospital. Fortunately neither man was badly hurt although the youths had attempted to escape, kicking out at the officers that arrested them.

Mr Benson in the chair commented that ‘these street outrages must be put a stop to, as the peaceable inhabitants of Bermondsey could not pass along the streets without being assaulted after dark’. He sentenced Eaton to 21 days hard labour and Marr to 10.   Whether it did any good is anyone’s guess but given that several police were injured as gang’s clashed in Birmingham just this weekend it would seem that 144 years later little has improved.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, November 28, 1875)

A case mistaken feline identity

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Alfred Mackness was insistent that Robert Couldry had stolen his prize-winning show cat. So convinced was he that he took out a summons to bring the other man to court at Lambeth to answer his charge.

The case was heard before a Police Court magistrate and Mackness attempted to prove that Couldry had somehow obtained the cat illegally after it had won a 25s  prize and had been ‘highly commended’ at a show at Birmingham.

He said he’d seen the cat, a striking white female with distinctive blue eyes, at cat shows at Alexandra Palace and Crystal Palace and had challenged Couldry about it.  Couldry denied any wrongdoing and insisted by turn that the cat – who he called (ironically perhaps) ‘Charcoal’ – was and had always been his.

The court then witnessed the curious spectacle of a number of white cats being brought before the bench for inspection. Three cats were taken out of baskets and examined by Mackness but none could he identify as his own. C

ouldry swore on oath that the cat he had exhibited at the shows in question were his property and, without any clear evidence to the contrary, the justice agreed.

The summons was dismissed and poor Alfred went home empty handed.

[from The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, November 25, 1876]

‘Sisters’ show solidarity as their bigamist husband is gaoled

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One of the more unusual crimes to reach the Central Criminal court at Old Bailey was bigamy. I say ‘unusual’ because amongst all the violence, theft and fraud it appears to represent a more ‘civil’ offence (legally speaking). Like divorce, or breach of promise, we might have expected it to be dealt with by the civil courts rather than the criminal. But unusual also, because it was rare.

Bigamy was contained within the Offences Against the Person Act of 1861 (14 and 15 Vict. c.100) which stated:

Whosoever, being married, shall marry any other person during the life of the former husband or wife, whether the second marriage shall have taken place in England or Ireland or elsewhere, shall be guilty of felony, and being convicted thereof shall be liable to be kept in penal servitude for any term not exceeding seven years.

 In 1878 Walter Horace Bartlet, a 22 year-old carpenter living in Friern Park, North London, appeared at Hampstead Police court charged with that offence. Both his wives were in court to witness the hearing but Emma Bartlett (his first and only legal spouse) was not permitted to give evidence under the terms of the legislation on bigamy.

Bartlet’s sister was also present, having been subpoenaed by the police, and she told the court that her brother had married Emma ( neé Hughes) at Handsworth Old Church in  Birmingham in May 1878. Walter had left the midlands and come to London for work and had found digs in Finchley where he met Emily Young. Emily was a domestic servant who lived with her mother in North Finchley.

The pair had courted ‘for three or four months’ before Walter popped the question. He never once told Emily he was already married and on the 7 December the couple were wed at St John the Baptist’s church, Hoxton. Poor Emily was informed on her wedding night that her husband was already married and it was her that got in touch with Emma in Birmingham.

In court the women stood side by side in solidarity, both having been wronged by a man that had deceived them. Mrs Emma Bartlett signed the charge sheet and the magistrate formally committed the young carpenter to take his trial at the Old Bailey. On the 13 January Walter pleaded guilty as charged and was sent to prison for twelve months.

The law has changed little since 1861: it is still an offence that carries a prison sentence (although there is now an allowable defence for the person that genuinely believed their former spouse was dead). In 2008 Roderick Sangster (a former Church if Scotland minister) was sent to prison for three years for marrying one woman while still being married to another. He probably didn’t help his case by skipping bail and going on the run, he also ran up large debts in his wife’s name, forging her name on a loan agreement.

As with the Victorian case it was Sangster’s wives that were the victims here, which perhaps help explain why this offence is dealt with alongside others which leave someone hurt, emotionally, physically or financially.

[from Reynold’s Newspaper, Sunday, 29 December, 1878]

Bigamy was rare but for other articles in which it features see:

Is it better to plead guilty to bigamy than risk prison for debt?

The sailor and his two wives (or is it the wife and her three husbands?)

‘Matrimonial miseries’ in the East End of London

September 1888: A killer in the East overshadows the everyday reality of domestic abuse in Victorian London    

Catching Jack

I have just completed the final draft of my ‘Ripper’ solution book and its now off with my co-author for his last amendments. We have to do a little work on the images and maps but it looks like we will comfortably meet our end of September deadline. Having put down my pen (so to speak) on the project I thought I’d return to Whitechapel in 1888 to see what was going on in the Police Courts of the capital in the midst of the most infamous murders London has ever known.

For context, by Wednesday September 18 1888 the murders of four women were being investigated by the police: Emma Smith (4/4/88), Martha Tabram (7/8/88), Mary Ann Nichols (31/8/88), and Annie Chapman (8/9/88). Within  less than two weeks both Elizabeth Stride and Catherine Eddowes would be added to that list, their murders occurring within an hour of each other.

Very few people (including me) believe Smith to have been a ‘Ripper’ victim and some dispute whether Tabram was. Either way, by this time 130 years ago the police were desperate to catch a murderer who was mutilating defenseless women in the heart of the East End.

Meanwhile over the river at Lambeth Henry Baker (alias Williams) was being charged with the attempted murder of Mary Cowen. The attack had taken place in mid July but Mary was dangerously ill in St Thomas’ Hospital, and was too weak to attend court until early September. However, on the day of the first committal hearing she failed to appear in court to prosecute the case against Henry.

The policeman in charge of the case, Chief Inspector Chisholm, had then told the magistrate at Lambeth Police court that he was convinced that friends of the prisoner had conspired to prevent Mary giving evidence that day. Mr Biron had granted the police a warrant to force her to attend at a subsequent date, and therefore she was in court on the 18 September to start the case against her attacker.

Mary Cowen was still suffering the effects of the assault: ‘she appeared very ill, and evidently was most reluctant to give evidence against the prisoner’, the paper reported. The case was opened by the Treasury solicitor Mr Pollard. He ascertain (‘with some difficulty’) that Mary had lived with Henry in Birmingham but they had been separated ‘for some time’. As was the case much more frequently than we might imagine today, many working class couples lived as man and wife without ever formally marrying.

In July the couple had met in London and had a violent argument. She admitted striking her ex-partner in the face with her bag and calling him ‘foul names’. That was the 10 July 1888 and on the following Monday, the 16th, he found her again and this time he attacked her, stabbing her two or three times with a knife. Mary collapsed and lost consciousness. Someone must have helped her because she woke up in hospital.

Henry Baker denied the attack and objected when the solicitor played his trump card and produced a written statement, from Baker, admitting his guilt. Baker said no one could prove it was his handwriting but Mr Pollard begged to differ. The crucial witness was Mary however, and having finally persuaded (or forced) her to testify against her former lover the police must have ben relatively confident of securing a conviction. Mr Biron now fully committed the man to trial at Old Bailey for the attempted murder of his common-law wife.

The trial did take place, on 22 October 1888 and ‘Harry’ Baker was convicted, not of attempted murder but of the lesser offence of wounding. The court report stated at the end that:

the prisoner, ‘in his defence stated that he had been subjected to great annoyance by the prosecutrix, whose habits were very intemperate, and that he pleaded guilty to assaulting her after great provocation’.

An all male jury clearly agreed with him and even when he’d admitted having a previous conviction (from 1887 in Chester) the judge merely sent him away for a year’s imprisonment.

This is the surgeon’s report of the injuries Mary had sustained (and that Baker admitted inflicting):

The prosecutrix was brought there [St Thomas’ Hospital] with a deep incised wound on the right side of the chest, penetrating into the cavity of the chest, between 3 and 4 inches long and 1 inch deep or more, and another wound in her back behind the right shoulder blade an inch and a half long and half or three-quarters of an inch deep; there was considerable bleeding from the wound in front, a large artery was divided—she was in very great danger for some time—she remained in the hospital till September 3rd and after having recovered to some extent was allowed to go—her life was in danger till July 22nd

When juries were prepared to accept as mitigation the accusation that a ‘wife’ was ‘intemperate’ and that being called ‘foul names’ and slapped in the face with a bag counted as ‘provocation’ it is quiet easy to understand why women were so reluctant to prosecute their husbands and partners in the late Victorian period.

We should also see the actions of a misogynistic serial killer in the context of the way women were treated everyday in the 1880s, and not view him as an aberration (a ‘monster’) or some sort of criminal mastermind. Women were beaten up, stabbed, abused, raped and murdered on a very regular basis in the nineteenth century and ‘Jack’ wasn’t the only one to get away with it.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, September 19, 1888]