A ‘miserable lad’ and a ‘monster’: contrasting fortunes revealed in the press

57 Coke works & Pickford's c1840 edited

The Regent’s Canal in the early 1840s

On Saturday night my wife and I were crossing Blackfriars Bridge in the early evening. We were on our way to eat out at a fancy restaurant on the south side of the Thames on what was a lovely early autumn evening. The Thames was lit up and locals and tourists were strolling back and forth across the river and along the embankment. As we passed one of the inset buttresses of the bridge I noticed the rescue equipment attached the wall and, close by, a notice from the Samaritans offering a phone number for anyone in distress.

This was a reminder that people still jump from bridges like Blackfriars as they have done for centuries. It’s easy to do, there is little to stop you on Blackfriars for example and the pages of the Victorian press regularly recorded the discovery of floating corpses or the efforts of the police and passers-by to drag distraught ‘jumpers’ from the water.

Not everyone chose the Thames however, as this case shows.

Joseph Davis was described in court as ‘miserable, half-starved, and wretchedly clad’. A young man, Joe was down on his luck and at 10 o’clock on the 23 October 1846 PC 323K found him climbing the parapet of a bridge over the Regent’s Canal. As the policeman watched the lad launched himself into the water and the bobby had to rush to get help in dragging him out again.

Fortunately medical help was swiftly found and after a good meal Joseph was locked up overnight in the station house and taken before Mr Bingham at Worship Street Police court. The policeman said he knew the lad and one of his brothers, so a messenger was dispatched to find him and bring the family together to support the poor boy. Hopefully this was a one-off and Joseph Davis went on to lead a happy life.

Sadly this was not the case for the next person Mr Bingham saw that day. The newspaper reporter described William Clarke as ‘a monster’ and it sounds to have been well deserved. The ‘respectable’ watchmaker was brought up from the cells on a charge of rape and additional charges of sexual assault. He was committed to Newgate to take his trial at the Old Bailey.

The report of that trial in the Proceedings is scant; it merely records that he was found guilty and sentenced to transportation for life. As with nearly all cases of indecent assault and rape the details were withheld from the public, for fear of corrupting morals. One fact was recorded however: Clarke’s victim was his daughter Ann, who was just 12 years of age. Moreover her younger sister (not named) had also been assaulted by her father.

So that day the magistrate had two very different cases to deal with and both have disturbing echoes to our own ‘modern’ society as stories of child abuse and suicidal teenagers continue to dominate the newspapers.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly London Newspaper, Sunday, October 25, 1846]

Police made to look sheepish in a case of mistaken identity

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By the 1860s London was a very modern city, boasting many of the ‘modern’ features that we take for granted today. It had department stores, theatres and music halls, trains (including an underground railway), buses and trams, and its streets were crammed with tens of thousands of commuters rushing to and fro to work and back. It was a commercial centre and the seat of government; a social and cultural capital and the largest one in Europe.

However, for all its modernity it still represented a nineteenth century city with elements that have long gone today. For example, cattle and sheep and were still driven into the capital to be sold at markets like Smithfield and then slaughtered in the East End for the meat trade. Today our beef and lamb arrives in temperature controlled vans and lorries, and the only animal hooves that touch our streets are those belonging to the police and horse guards.

This process of cleaning our streets of animals (‘urban improvement’ as our ancestors termed it) began in the 1800s and was completed, largely, by the end of the century. Markets were moved out of the centres to the peripheries, streets became the preserve of  people, not beast, and politeness reigned. Of course they were soon replaced by vehicles and London’s streets soon echoed to the sounds of horse drawn trams, omnibuses and hansoms, all eventually to be supplanted by motorised versions.

In 1868 Henry Goodwin came before the alderman at Guildhall Police court. Goodwin was a drover and his job was to bring sheep into London for sale. Goodwin was licensed by the City of London and wore his badge on his coat. However, his ‘crime’ that day was to have driven more sheep into London than the regulations allowed.

PC William Kenward (426 City Police) said that he was on duty on the 21 September just before 8 in the evening when he saw the defendant coming over Blackfriars Bridge with a drove of sheep. He thought the man had too many sheep and asked him what the head count was. The drover grumbled that ‘he had better count them himself’. PC Kenward counted 160. That was too many so he took the drover’s number (which was 1543) but the man refused to give his address.

The man in the dock was Henry Goodwin, senior (and he wore badge number 263). He declared he’d not driven sheep through the city for 18 months. The police had issued the summons to the wrong Goodwin. This was easily done as both of them were Henrys. It was also quite dark and both PC Kenward and his colleague (PC Clark 489 City) admitted they couldn’t be sure in the poor light that the man in the dock was the person they’d seen on the bridge. The older man was also able to produce a witness who testified that Henry senior was drinking with him in the Three Stags pub on the Kennington Road at the time the drove was crossing into London.

All in all it was a case of mistaken identity by the police and Alderman Causton felt there was insufficient evidence for him to proceed against the drovers. Father and son were released without further action and probably had a chuckle at the policemen’s expense. Nevertheless it shows us that even as late as 1868, just 150 years ago, one of London’s busy bridges was being blocked by a flock of sheep 160 strong. It is the sort of scene we associate with rural Britain, not the modern city. The image above is of Dingwall (in Ross Shire, Scotland) in the 1950s. We might imagine this is not that far from how London might have looked in the 1860s, as the Goodwins brought their flock to market.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, October 07, 1868]

An elderly lady is driven to despair in a society that didn’t care

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As PC 99 L Division made his usual patrol by the Surrey side of Blackfriars Bridge  (i.e south of the River Thames) he saw a woman sitting on the steps by the water. As he approached he could see that she was in condsiderable distress and asked her what she was up to.

The elderly lady, who gave her name as Elizabeth Briant, admitted that she had been so ‘cruelly beaten by the man whom she had lived with for thirty-eight years that she was tired of her existence’. Elizabeth was working up the courage to throw herself into the river to drown.

Attempting suicide was a crime and so the policeman arrested her and, the next day, brought her before the magistrate at Southwark Police Court.

Elizabeth cut a forlorn figure in the dock: her arms were covered with bruises, as was her face. She told the magistrate that her husband had ‘ill used her to a great extent’ in recent weeks. On the previous Saturday he had ‘knocked her down, kicked her, and blackened both eyes’. Having assaulted her the man then ‘thrust her out of the house, and left her to starve in the streets’. She had run down the steps at Blackfriars and it was only the lucky intervention of the beat bobby that had saved her from ending her miserable life.

The magistrate asked her if she had any children, and she told him she had eight, ‘but only one was living, and she hoped he was serving Her Majesty in India’. So this poor old lady had lost seven sons or daughters and her only surviving son was in the imperial army thousands of miles away.

It was a desperately sad story but also a fairly typical one for the time. There was little the justice could do expcept order the arrest of the husband (who might expect a short prison sentence if summarily convicted, hardly benefiiting Elizabeth) and send the poor woman to the workhouse to be cared for. Once there, she could hardly expect to leave and was effectively being condemned to live out the remainder of her days as an inmate before being given a pauper burial when she finally passed away.

Nevertherless, Elizabeth looked up from the dock and thanked ‘his Worship for his kindness’. She had probably lived most of her life in grinding poverty and could now expect to see out her remaining days in a ‘pauper bastille’. It would be another 45 years before the government of the day introduced the Old Age Pension and, since she would have been a recipient of Poor Law funds, Elizabeth would not have been entitled to it anyway.

For me, the Victorian period is a savage reminder of what our society looked like before we had a welfare system; it was a society that often left women like Elizabeth Briant to choose the only option that ended the pain of everyday life. For all the calls for belt-tightening in the face of self-imposed austerity we should remember that today this country is one of the top 25 richest countries in the world and we can well afford a decent welfare system, whatever politicians tell us in the next few weeks and months. The divide between rich and poor is as wide as it has ever been and it is frankly appalling that so many ‘ordinary working people’ have to resort to food banks in the 21st century. So before we look back with horror at a Victorian age that drove women like Elizabeth to attempt suicide which she take a long hard look at ourselves.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, May 1, 1860]

 

Cholera arrives in London and one woman finds herself in court as a result.

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From early 1832 to the last outbreak in June 1866 Londoners experience the full horror of cholera as it ravaged communities in the nineteenth century. Cholera spread quickly and those infected, if not teated swiftly soon developed the unpleasant and debilitating symptoms associated with the disease (dehydration, diarrhoea and vomiting), before death almost inevitably followed. Thousands died in London and other British cities during the three decades that the water-borne infection affected the British Isles, and many more died overseas, especially in India where the disease first appeared.

In late March 1832 the London press reported  cholera infections daily. On the 28th the were 89 new cases of which 49 people died. Since the outbreak started there had been over 1500 cases with 854 fatalities. The locations of the deaths were also listed, with the highest number for a single parish (16) in Southwark. This was not unconnected as Southwark was close by the river and was London’s poorest area. Three bodies were found ‘floating in the river’ and were added to the 25 the authorities had already dragged from the Thames.

On the same day, over at Guildhall Police Court, Mary Mahoney (a ‘poor Irish woman’) was brought up on a charge of ‘feigning an attack of cholera morbus at the foot of Blackfriars Bridge’. A local watchman (Easley) had found her and told the alderman magistrate, Mr Laurie, that this wasn’t the first time Mary had acted in this way. In fact it was the ‘fifth or sixth time’ she had tried it, and since on each occasion she was revived with a drink of brandy and water one might imagine she kept trying the same thing.

Mr Laurie turned to the prisoner and asked her how many times she had had the disease.

‘Not at all, your Honour, and I hope I never will’, she replied. ‘But this man says you exhibited symptoms of it’, the justice remarked. The poor watchman was perplexed: ‘Yes’, he interjected, ‘she lies down and moans, and won’t speak, and draws her nose and knees together’. 

‘Then you should take her to the Board of Health’, advised the magistrate, ‘they might give you a premium, for some of them are sadly at a discount for want of cases’.

He clearly wasn’t taking cholera very seriously, and certainly not as seriously as he should. He concluded by saying that:

Everything is imitated in this country, from a pound note to the cholera morbus‘, which triggered a laugh from someone in the courtroom.

Fearing that his wife would be punished Mary’s husband pushed himself forward. He was an old army pensioner, and quite blind. He told Mr Laurie that she was his only support and that if she were sent to Bridewell it would ‘ruin the family’. Mary chipped in to say that she really had been ill, albeit not with the cholera, and the justice let her go with just a telling off.

Mary had probably done nothing to warrant a spell in the house of correction; she hadn’t claimed to have cholera but the watchman – on edge and on the lookout for cases, especially by the river – probably misinterpreted the symptoms. This shows us, perhaps, that the arrival of this new and deadly disease in London quickly became the focus of conversation, press coverage, and rumour. As with many things that frighten us the truth of the situation (and therefore the best course of action to follow), often become obscured under in a fog of popular misconception. It took the medical profession several decades to arrive at a better understanding of cholera and a means to prevent it.

In 1854, after an outbreak in Soho, Dr John Snow (who had been investigating cholera since the late 1830s) was able to test a theory he had posited in 1849. Conventional belief held that cholera was spread by air  as a miasma (‘bad air’). Snow rejected this thesis and instead argued (correctly) that the disease was contracted by mouth through water. In Broad Street, Soho a street pump brought water to the local community (these were the days before Londoners had supplies of fresh running water). John Snow studied the outbreak and correctly concluded that the pump was the source of the cholera infections. Having stopped the use of the pump the area saw a significant fall in new cases. While he didn’t convince the medical profession until after his death (in 1858, John Snow’s name will always be synonymous with an effective medical and public health solution to the problem of cholera.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, March 29, 1832]

A circus artist for whom the show cannot go on alone

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Very sadly suicides seem to feature quite frequently in the reports of the London police courts. The Thames offered those in despair plenty of opportunities to take their lives and we must remember that in the Victorian period there were not the social services, health care or even many of the modern charities that support those with depression or other forms of mental illness. Nor were nineteenth-century asylums places one would want to end up in.

Ellen Whitby was brought up to be re-examined before the sitting magistrate at Mansion House in late September 1873. Ellen had tried to jump from London Bridge into the river below and this had not been the first time. She had attempted suicide ‘no fewer than four times’, once been dragged out of the Thames after falling from Blackfriars Bridge. After this most recent attempt she was locked up in Newgate for her own safety.

Ellen was a former circus performer. Under the stage name Lottie Marcella she had performed as an ‘equestrienne’ with her husband. But three years previously he had been killed in an accident and their act had come to an end. A public subscription had raised £400 for the widow but it seems she took his loss and the end of her career hard, turning to drink.

This ‘intemperance’ was accompanied by what today we would probably identify as depression and so led her to attempt her own life.

The ordinary of Newgate (the prison’s chaplain) appeared at court to speak on her behalf. He said he believed she would no longer try to kill herself if released. He added that ‘arrangements had been made to send the prisoner to an institution where she would be taken care of’ (an asylum one imagines). There she might be able to ‘regain her position’ he hoped.

I fear the ordinary might have been being a tad optimistic as Victorian ‘lunatic asylums’ had ‘a reputation as dehumanising, prison-like institutions‘, and I doubt ‘Lottie’ would have had much ‘care’ there.

 

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, September 27, 1873]

Two little urchins embark on a life of crime

The age of criminal responsibility in England stands at ten years old, below that children are not deemed responsible for their actions. Up to 1998 they were not considered capable of criminal intent (doli incapax) until the age of 14 but the Bulger case led to a change in the law in the face of widespread horror at the actions of the two boys involved. In 1836 the law held those aged over 7 accountable with the caveat that those under 14 were obliged to demonstrate that they knew the difference between right and wrong.

Two little boys, James Branston and James Oxford, found themselves in court at the Guildhall in July of that year. The ‘little urchins’ (as they were described by the newspaper reporter) had been accused of breaking into a silk manufacturer’s shop and stealing four pair of gloves. This was a serious crime with potentially serious consequences. An adult criminal might expect to be transported to Australia or to suffer a lengthy prison spell at best.

Branston had been brought to the local beadle by his parents when they discovered the stolen items. Presumably they hoped the parish officer would admonish the child and scare him out of future criminality. He questioned the lad who spun a few lies before he spoke the truth. At first he said he’d picked up the parcel of gloves in Puddle Dock (near Blackfriars’ bridge), then that he had pinched them from a shop on Blackfriars’ Road.

The truth was that he and his mate had climbed over the board that protected Mr Ellis’ silk shop (on Ludgate Street) at six in the evening of Sunday last, where they had found some carpentry tools. They used the tools to cut a hole around the lock and break in. The beadle checked the story and found it to be accurate. It was quite an accomplished burglary for children and all the more so given that Branston was 7 and Oxford just 6 years of age!

Nor was it the first time they had raided a shop in this way; a witness testified that they had been seen giving away pairs of gloves to their little friends before.The magistrate could do little with them because he noted they were too young to ‘be held accountable for their acts in a criminal court’. Instead he said that their parents would have to ‘watch them closely, and punish them when they did wrong’.

The hope that they might change their ways seems to have been unlikely in the eyes of the paper’s correspondent, who noted that the two showed no sign that they found being arrested or presented in court in the least bit troubling.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, July 12, 1836]

A mysterious encounter on Blackfriars Bridge

It would seem that  our modern moral panic about peadophile priests is not that ‘modern’ at all. This report from the Morning Chronicle of 1831 does not use the term nor indeed does it spell out the offence, but it is nevertheless quite clear what was being alleged.

On 13 May 1831 the Rev. W_____ P______ (his name was not given in the press) was charged before the magistrate at Union Hall  with ‘taking unbecoming liberties’ with a  young lad named Magee. The priest had been seen on Blackfriars Bridge at night by a hat-tip maker called Benjamin Ryder. Ryder deposed that he saw the anonymous clergyman stooping to talk to the boy, who was ragged and barefoot, and that he was leading him across the bridge and into  the dark streets south of the river.

Ryder was concerned and followed them, when he saw them stop he called for a policeman. The PC (one of Peel’s new created force) approached and the clergyman ran off. When the policeman caught up with him the priest’s clothes were in a ‘loose and suspicious state’. Back at the station his name was discovered by examining a ‘valuable silver  snuff box’ which was engraved with Latin inscription – a present from a  ‘Society in Devon’.

The mysterious priest denied any wrongdoing and claimed his was trying to help the boy, who had approached him asking for ‘charity’. He went on to say that he had been quizzing the boy about his parents and his employment, as any good reforming clergyman might have done. However, the boy ‘gave a somewhat different version of their conversation’ and the magistrate committed him to prison on remand as he couldn’t meet the bail, set at £200, a huge amount for 1831.

[from The Morning Chronicle , Saturday, May 14, 1831]