Upper class boisterousness Bloomsbury Square and a reminder that double standards persist

Bullies

Police constable Fisher (32E) was on duty in Great Russell Street in the early hours of Friday morning, 26 July 1867. As he approached Bloomsbury Square on his beat he heard what sounded like gunshots, and he rushed towards the sound. Nearby PC Vindon (34E) had also heard the sounds and was hurrying to investigate.

As the two officers converged on the square they saw two young men aiming rifles at the gas lamps. They had missed more than once but had now succeeded in putting out two of the square’s lamps. When they saw PC Vindon they turned tail and ran, one of them running straight into the arms of constable Fisher.

‘That is nice conduct for a young man like you – firing off powder and putting the lamps out’, PC Fisher admonished his prisoner.

‘There you are mistaken’, the young man replied, ‘it was only caps’.

Looking down PC Fisher saw 12 exploded caps on the ground, six by each lamppost. He arrested the lad, who gave his name as Frank Hughes, and took him back to the police station to be charged.

At the station he explained that he’d just returned from Wimbledon where he’d won a prize for shooting. He claimed he didn’t know there was any powder in the rifle (which seems unlikely). However, he was clearly ‘respectable’, being described as having a ‘gentlemanly appearance’ and this probably helped him when he was brought before Sir Thomas Henry at Bow Street Police court.

There he apologize and said he hoped the magistrate might overlook his indiscretion. No, said Sir Thomas, he could not possibly do that but he only fined him. The sum was large, 40s, but not hard to find for someone with deep pockets like young Frank. He paid up at once and was released.

This is a reminder that class determined outcomes in the summary courts of the capital. Working class ruffians were mostly sent to prison (many would not have afforded such a fine anyway) because their behavior was deemed disorderly and a sign of latent criminal intent. By contrast the transgressions (however serious) of the upper class were put down to ‘youthful excess’ and deemed in some way ‘natural’.

I’d like to say we’d left those class distinctions behind but when we have our second Old Etonian and ex-Bullingdon Club Prime Minister in a decade I doubt we have.

Today my current cohort of students graduate from the University of Northampton with degrees in History. Young people, students especially, can get a very bad press but that is unfair and unjustified. I’ve taught most of these students over the past three years and while I know some better than others they are all a bright, hardworking and thoughtful bunch of young people. I wish them all the best for their future and hope they take some of the things they’ve learned forward with them, whatever they do, and stay in touch with us here.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, July 26, 1867]

Drew’s new book (co-authored by Andy Wise) is published by Amberley Books. It is a new study of the Whitechapel murders of 1888 which offers up a new suspect, links the ‘Jack the Ripper’ killings to the unsolved ‘Thames Torso’ crimes, and provides the reader with important contextual history of Victorian London. The book is available on Amazon here

A strange encounter at the British Museum (Natural History)

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I recently visited the Natural History Museum in South Kensington and while it is one of my favourite collections I’d never before gone into the minerals sections. The old cabinets full of precious metals, rocks and crystals were beautiful and fascinating, even if they looked as if they’d been placed there more than a 100 years ago and had never been disturbed. It was in stark contrast to much of the rest of the museum which has seen a series of modernization which appear to aimed at attracting its core visitor, small children.

The Natural History Museum opened its doors in 1881 after a building project that lasted eight years. It was really an offshoot of the British Museum but the natural history element of that collection, which had its roots in a large donation of items by Sir Hans Sloan in the mid 1700s, were being lost, sold off or damaged and the decision was made to find a new home for them.

It retained its link to the British Museum until 1963 when it became fully independent. Until then it was termed the British Museum (Natural History) which explains the puzzling context of this curious case from 1861, which would have taken place in Bloomsbury, not South Kensington.

Edward Stokes worked as an attendant at the museum and was keeping an eye on visitors to the minerals collection when he noticed an agitated man approach one of the cabinets. To his horror the large man suddenly smashed the glass of the display with his elbow, exposing the valuable crystals it contained. It was the act of thief but the man made no attempt to escape, and just stood there gazing at the wondrous items below.

Stokes rushed over and seized the would-be thief who claimed his arm had slipped and he had no intention to cause any damage. He didn’t seem drunk to the attendant but he was ‘a little strange in his manner’. The arrest led to the man being charged with damage and the intent to steal items valued at £15. The case was heard at Bow Street Police court before Mr Corrie, the sitting magistrate.

The museum was represented by a solicitor, Harding, and he explained that the prisoner in the dock was well known to the staff there. The man, who gave his names as George Gates, a one time butcher from Brighton, had been seen early  in the morning on more than one occasion, waiting to be admitted into the museum. As he was being led away by police after the incident on the 23 May he was recognized by two of his friends and they promised to let his relatives on the south coast know what had happened to him. Clearly there was some concern that Gates was suffering from a form of mental illness.

With its usual tact Reynolds Newspaper referred to Gates as a ‘lunatic at large’ and described him as ‘half-crazy looking’ as he stood in the Bow Street dock. However there had been nothing from his relatives to suggest that he was undergoing any treatment for his mental health and while he had been held in police custody he’d been examined by ‘a medical gentleman’ who had ‘declined to certify that he was insane’.

Once again Gates insisted that it was an accident; his foot had slipped, he told the magistrate, just as he was calling out to a friend to come and look at a particularly beautiful diamond, and he’d fallen onto the glass. Mr Corrie accepted that there had been no intent to steal the rock and he suggested the man was ‘probably half stupid from previous drink’.

He decided that Gates would have to pay for the damage, which was valued at 5sor else go to prison for 14 days. Searching his pockets Gates could only produce half that amount so he was duly committed. He handed the gaoler a note which said:

‘dear gal, have dinner ready for six’. It had no address, and he was taken down.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, June 2, 1861]

On June 15 Drew’s new book (co-authored by Andy Wise) is published by Amberley Books. It is a new study of the Whitechapel murders of 1888 which offers up a new suspect, links the ‘Jack the Ripper’ killings to the unsolved ‘Thames Torso’ crimes, and provides the reader with important contextual history of Victorian London. The book is available to order on Amazon here

A Victorian tale to bring a gleam to Mr Duncan Smith’s eyes

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The Victorians – and especially those who signed up to the Mendicity Society – had a real hatred of imposture when it came to poverty. The society was determined to root out and expose (and thence to punish) anyone who pretended to be in need of poor relief or charity when they were fit and able to work. We seem to have inherited this distrust of the poor and now frame those we would like to see exposed as ‘benefit scroungers’.

It is fairly common for highly paid, privately educated, and well-connected, privileged members of Parliament to condemn those that claim they cant survive on the little the state provides.  In these hard times there has also been a focus on denying benefits to the disabled, by reinterpreting what it means to be ‘unfit to work’. Withholding benefits or making the hoops that the impoverished need to jump through to get them more complicated or time consuming is another, well practiced, tactic of modern ‘caring’, Conservative Britain.

I think Mrs May, Jeremy Hunt, Amber Rudd, Ester McVey and (especially) Iain Duncan Smith would have relished living the 1800s. Workhouses, ‘less eligibility’ and mendicity officers would have been right up their street (although they may have struggled with this county’s open doors policy on immigration – at least until the end of the century that is).

They would have liked Mr Turner, who gave evidence at Clerkenwell Police court in March 1866. He was there to investigate Johanna (or Ellen) Shields who had been brought up by the curate of St George’s, Queen Square, for begging at his door. The curate (presumably a  ‘good Christian’) had found Johanna knocking on his door asking for money as her husband was sick and out of work and she had six children to feed.

He asked her name and where she lived. Johanna gave a false name (Ellen Thomas) and an address in Little Ormond Yard, in Bloomsbury. He didn’t believe her and to confirm his suspicions he donned his hat and said he’d accompany her home to see for himself. This unnerved Johanna who tried to put him off, saying she would go and get her certificate to prove she was registered in the parish (and so entitled to relief). Instead the curate summoned a constable and had her arrested.

In court at Clerkenwell Mr Barker (the magistrate) was told (by the curate, whose name is never revealed) that Johanna had changed her story when he’d said he’d go with her, which led him to involving the police. The woman now said she lived in Church Street, St Giles, had six children (one of whom was blind) and a sick husband. When he subsequently visited her address he found her husband, and three children, none of whom was blind. He also testified that she had asked his fellow rector at St George’s for help and he’d refused also. He said he was ‘determined to give all imposters into the custody of the police’.

So what was Mr Barker to do with Johanna? She denied the charge but the evidence against came from a respectable source. Moreover the justice expected she’d done it before, and so had ‘form’. She was being treated as if she was a criminal when her only ‘crime’ was being poor and asking for help.

This is where Mr Turner from the Mendicity Society came in. He was tasked with discovering whether she had a history of ‘shamming’ so the bench could decide what punishment (if any) to hand down. This would take a week and Mr Barker decided that regardless of the outcome Johanna would spend the next seven days locked up on remand. The gaoler escorted her back to the cells to be transferred to the Clerkenwell house of detention where she would subsist on bread and water and pick oakum with all the other ‘offenders’.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, March 06, 1866]

‘We got a little list’:’SmartWater – nineteenth-century style – foils a burglar

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A news report last week suggested that Londoners were up in arms because the police had concentrated so much of their attention on knife crime that burglars were able to loot properties with impunity. Of course the police refuted this but it does seem that given the huge cuts that the Home Office have made to the Met’s budget over the past decade have impacted the force’s ability to fight crime in England’s capital. Quite obviously the police can’t be everywhere all at the same time, and so they have to prioritize. However frustrating that might be for victims of burglary (and having been burgled in the past I can appreciate how they feel) tackling record levels of knife crime must come first.

The solution, some say, is in preventing burglary and much of that responsibility lies with the homeowner. From the last quarter of the nineteenth century burglar alarms (which were advertised in the national press) have been on the market for those than can afford them. Now we are also being urged to use ‘smart water’. According to the website of the leading manufacturer of this anti-theft technology:

SmartWater contains a ‘unique code within the traceable liquid [which] provides an irrefutable forensic link back to the owner of stolen goods and also links criminals with the scene of their crime’.

So if thieves do break in to your home and steal your stuff you stand a reasonable chance of getting it back and seeing them caught and prosecuted.

Wind back to the 1880s however and no such technology existed. If the police wanted to catch burglars they had to do so through traditional policing methods (such as information gleaned from informers, surveillance, and the alertness of ‘bobbies’ on the beat) and a good deal of luck.

Fortunately thieves weren’t always that ‘smart’ themselves. Having stolen goods they then had to get rid of it, usually via a ‘fence’ (a receiver like Fagin in Oliver Twist) or at a pawnbrokers. Some pawnbrokers probably turned a blind to a watch or bracelet’s provenance, happy to make a bit of money themselves.  Others were much more honest, tipping off the police when something (or someone) ‘dodgy’ turned up.

And it seems the police also had a list of stolen items, which they circulated amongst the trade (‘brokers, jewelers, chandlers, and other dealers who might be offered stolen property for resale). This was the undoing of one burglar, Henry Moore, who was charged at Bow Street with the unlawful possession of an aluminum watch.

Moore had gone to a pawnbrokers in Broad Street, in Bloomsbury, and tried to pawn the watch which had a resale value of 10s. The ‘broker quickly identified it as being on the ‘Police List’ and called out for an officer.  The watch belonged to a haul of 120 watches that had been stolen from John Lock’s jewelry shop at 78 Tottenham Court Road on 10 January 1884. Moore was arrested and taken before Sir James Ingram at the Bow Street office on 26 January, a little over a fortnight after the raid.

The police couldn’t prove that Moore had carried out the burglary but he couldn’t explain how he had come to have one of the missing watches in his possession. Unlawful possession was an offence in its own right, albeit a lesser one than burglary. It came under the jurisdiction of the magistrate, meaning he didn’t need to test Moore’s guilt before a jury. Instead he sentenced him to three month’s imprisonment and the gaoler led him away.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly, Sunday, 27 January 1884]

A theatre heckler makes a pantomime of himself

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The Grecian Theatre, Shoreditch (1875) – (Islington Public Library)

Reginald H. Burkett of 1 Field Court, Gray’s Inn Road was that most ‘pooterish’ of nineteenth-century characters, a lower middle-class clerk. In mid January 1878 he and some friends had taken a box near the stage at the Grecian Theatre (a music hall on the City Road) to enjoy the festive pantomime.

However, it would seem they had enjoyed plenty of drink as well, as they were in a very boisterous mood, Burkett especially so.

The stage manager (a Mr Gillet) had his eye on them because of the noise and disorderly behaviour coming from their seats and when he observed that Burkett was smoking he moved in to tell him it was not allowed.

For a while there was calm and the pantomime continued but when the ballet dancers took the stage Burkett started to interrupt the performance. According to Mr Gillet, Burkett ‘behaved in a disgusting way, making motions to the dancers’ and, when they came in range, ‘he leaned out of his box and with his stick tried to hook the legs of one of the ballet women’. She burst into tears and ran from the stage.

When Mr Nicholls, one of the actors the show, began to sing Burkett started to abuse him, ‘using some nasty expressions’. Nicholls wasn’t having this and approached Burkett demanding to know exactly what he was insinuating.

Burkett swore at him and then leapt out of his box, onto the stage! Nichols aimed a punch at him and suddenly there was a full-blown fist-fight on stage. This almost brought the house down and the stage manager was quick to lower the curtain, ending the performance prematurely.

Burkett was held until the police could come and take him away and a few days later he appeared at the Worship Street Police Court. Here Mr Bushby, the presiding magistrate considered the case. He could see that Burkett had been disorderly but technically Mr Nicholls (the actor) had assaulted him first. In the end he decided to bind the clerk over and find sureties against his good behaviour in the future. A friend of his, a Bloomsbury-based solicitor named Warren stepped up to stand surety for him.

One imagines the Grecian took note of his name and appearance and barred him from all future performances.

[from The Standard, Monday, January 21, 1878]

A scandal in Fitzrovia, or a simple case of under age drinking?

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At seven o’clock in the evening of Thursday 15 December 1887 police constable 432D was on duty in Cleveland Street, Fitzrovia. As the officer walked his beat he noticed a young girl ‘reeling about’ and seemingly unwell. He approached her and caught her by the arm and soon ascertained that she was drunk. He asked her name and she told him it was Betsy.

Betsy Embery was just 14 years of age and worked as a servant in Bloomsbury High Street, not far away. The constable took her to the police station and her father was summoned. When Mr Embery arrived he was shocked to see his daughter in such a state and declared that someone must have drugged and assaulted her.

This was a serious allegation that the police were bound to investigate. Betsy was examined by the divisional surgeon, who quickly decided that there had been no assault; in his opinion the girl had just been drinking. The next day she was brought before Mr Mansfield at Marlborough Street Police court on a charge of being drunk and incapable.

‘Where did you get the drink, little girl?’ the magistrate enquired.

‘’My sister and a woman gave it to me in a public-house near to Drury Lane’, the girl replied.

Her sister was 23 years old but Betsy didn’t know much more about her than that, not whether she was married, or the name of her drinking companion. Betsy was released into the care of her father but it all seems a little fishy to me. How had she got from Drury lane to Cleveland Street and what was she doing there anyway?

Cleveland Street was about to become notorious in the late 1880s. In 1889 the chance arrest of a 15 year-old boy for a suspected theft uncovered a male brothel that catered to an elite clientele. The Cleveland Street scandal resulted in no prosecutions of anyone ‘in society’ (merely light sentences for some of the male prostitutes that worked there) but it sent shock waves through the establishment.

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It has been suggested, but never proven, that Prince Albert Victor (Queen Victoria’s grandson) was a customer. The scandal fuelled contemporary homophobia which culminated in the prosecution of Oscar Wilde two years later for having an affair with Lord Alfred Douglas.

So I wonder if young Betsy was simply there by accident or whether she had been ‘drugged’ as her father claimed, and taken to Cleveland Street to be used as a child prostitute. This was only a couple of years after William Stead has exposed the extent of child prostitution in ‘The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon’; an article that had helped push through legislation to raise the age of consent.

Was Betsy set up by a predatory procuress or had she simply wandered into Cleveland Street after an afternoon of drinking with her big sister? Was her father’s claim correct or was he just trying to rescue his daughter’s (and his own) reputation?

[from The Standard, Saturday, 17 December, 1887]

A ‘demented’ socialist picks a fight with the police

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Throughout the late 1880s Trafalgar Square was the site of numerous political demonstrations, protests and gatherings of the poor and homeless. It is hard for us to imagine the capital without the square; it is one of the top ten tourist sites that visitors flock to now, but it was only laid out in the 1830s and Nelson’s Column wasn’t erected until 1839-42 and the base sculptures were not completed until 1849. By then the square had already borne witness to Chartist demonstrations in 1848. What Nelson himself would have made of the political rhetoric than unfolded below him is hard to say. England’s greatest naval hero would probably have disapproved though, since he was an arch conservative and no champion of liberty or democracy.

In 1886 demonstrations in the square had been badly mishandled by the police and groups of rioters had caused chaos in nearby Pall Mall. Shortly afterwards the commissioner of the Metropolitan Police had resigned amid calls for a parliamentary enquiry. Determined that a similar chain of events should not engulf him the new commissioner, Sir Charles Warren, tried to ban gatherings in the square the following year (in November 1888) but without success. When protesters did congregate in large numbers Warren resorted to excessive force and several people were injured and 2 or 3 killed in the melee that resulted from police baton charges and the use of the military.

Earlier in the year, in July 1887, Trafalgar Square had become a sort of temporary shantytown, occupied by London’s homeless who spilled over from the square into the parks close by. Local residents complained about the sight and radical politicians railed about the poverty that had caused them to flock to the centre of the city in such numbers and desperation. The police were ordered to sluice the bench with cold water, to discourage rough sleepers, and to clear the parks of the human detritus that ‘infested’ it.

In May 1888 meetings were back on, and the newspapers reported that there had been a ‘Conversational meeting’ in the square on Saturday 12th. These had been organized to assert the rights of free speech in the face of Warrens’ attempts in the previous year to close the square to public gatherings. Members of the Bloomsbury branch of the Socialist League (which included William Bartlett, a prominent figure in the British Labour movement) deliberately held meetings in the square to discuss the issues of the day and the importance of being to air their views in a public space.

However, police attempts to curtail this supposed freedom led to scuffles and occasionally to accusation of assault on both sides. At the meeting on 12 May Walter Powell was arrested by the police in the square and charged at Bow Street Police court with disorderly conduct.

Evidence was presented that he had been followed into the square by ‘a crowd of roughs’, whom he had then attempted to address. The term ‘roughs’ was applied widely in the late 1800s, to mean youth gang members, political ‘muscle’, or simply members of the ‘residuum’ or ‘underclass’. It was always used disparagingly and Powell was being depicted as a ‘rabble rouser’ who probably deserved to be arrested for inciting crowd trouble.

Since he had been locked up in the cells overnight the magistrate decided he’d been suitably punished already and let him go with a warning.

Whenever crowds gathered in London however, there was always the possibility of other forms of criminality taking place. Once Powell had been discharged tow others were stood in the dock accused of picking pockets. Both men were remanded in custody so the police could continue their enquiries.

The last appearance related to Trafalgar Square that morning was Alexander Thompson, who was charged with disorderly conduct and assaulting the police. He was probably a member or supporter of the Socialist League that had insisted on championing the right of citizens to occupy the square for political protest but he had run foul of the police stationed to prevent trouble.  By 1888 the Socialist League, which had been founded by Henry Hyndeman and had included William Morris, was suffering from internal schisms. The Bloomsbury branch would split in the face of a takeover from anarchists who were more revolutionary in their outlook.

Back at Bow Street Mr. Vaughan looked the man up and down and must have decided he was very far from being a dangerous and ‘disorderly’ ruffian.

He said that ‘unless the man was demented he could not imagine his attacking a man of the constable’s calibre’ and dismissed the charge.

This was a backhanded compliment to the police officer, and a dismissal of the threat posed by ‘revolutionaries’ like Thompson. It was probably also an attempt to diffuse tensions in the spring of 1888 so as to avoid a repeat of the very real violence of the previous autumn.

However, events overtook the police in 1888 and the right to protest, while remaining a key issue, was subsumed by the murders of five or more women in the East End of London, where many of the rough sleepers had tramped from the previous summer. Warren, who was so determined not to be brought low by criticism of his failure to act against  protestors was soon to face much more serious criticism of his ability to run a police force capable of catching a brutal serial killer. In November 1888, just a  year after ‘Bloody Sunday’, Warren resigned as Commissioner.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper , Sunday, May 13, 1888]