The ‘madman’ who refused to do as he was told.

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St John’s Church, Holloway

Not for the first time I’m struck by how frequently the police courts of the metropolis (the forerunners of modern magistrates courts) prosecuted individuals who exhibited clear sign of mental ill health. Victorian society not only lacked the resources to care for the mentally ill, they also had a much less well-developed understanding of them.

As a result the ‘mad’ and ‘insane’ were locked up in institutions like Bedlam (which gives us a popular term for chaos), small private asylums, or, later in the century, larger public ones such as Colney Hatch. The treatment individuals received in such institutions varied but it very far from being ‘caring’.

This was probably the sort of place that John Hassalt ended up in after his brush with Mr Laing, the sitting magistrate at Hatton Garden, in May 1837. At the start of Victoria’s reign John may have been sent to Hanwell in Middlesex, which opened in May 1831. But he might equally simply have been housed in one of the capital’s many workhouses, especially if he was poor. There he would have had virtually nothing that might be described today as ‘specialist mental health care’.

So what had John Hassalt done to earn his appearance in court and a possible relocation to an asylum or workhouse?

John was a bricklayer – or so he was described in court – and he was charged, by the churchwarden of St. John’s in Holloway, with ‘having disturbed the congregation in church on Sunday’.

Mr Povey, the churchwarden, explained that on that morning he’d entered the church just as the curate was reading prayers. Hassalt had approached the pulpit and was about to enter it and take over the service when Povey and several other parishioners seized him and led him away. It was not the first time John had tried to interrupt proceedings he added, but enough was clearly enough for the exasperated churchman.

Apparently all John Hassalt wanted to do was ‘expound the holy truths of religion’ to the gathered audience. When questioned by the magistrate he said nothing other than this in defence and clearly thought he was entitled to do just that. He had written to the curate to express his wish and determination to preach and thought that would or should suffice as explanation.

Povey piped up to say that Hassalt was clearly ‘touched in his intellect’ (in other words he was ‘mad’).

No, I am right enough’ countered the bricklayer.

To which the justice declared that:

his notions of religion could not be very correct or he would not disturb a Minister of the Gospel in the performance of his duty’. He must promise not to do so again.

Hassalt would make no such promise. Indeed he solemnly swore notto! At this the magistrate lectured him on his conduct at some length and warned that if he was brought before him again he would be forced to send him to prison.

I doubt that would have done much good – the warning or a prison sentence – because Hassalt was convinced of the rightness of his beliefs. I fear the only logical outcome of this was likely to be his future confinement, not to a prison, but a mental hospital, either on the command of the state or at the expense of his family, if he had any.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, May 23, 1837]

This has similarities to another tale over interruptions to church services (this one at St Paul’s) and for other stories that involve mental illness see:

A lack of ‘care in the community’ at Lambeth Police Court

‘I won’t have a month, you must give me more’: an unhappy drunk at Westminster

‘I wish I had finished the pair of them’: dark threats at Clerkenwell

Laudanum, primroses and mental health collide as the millennium approaches.

 

‘A murderous outrage’ in Holloway

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We are staying in 1891 today to see if any there were any Police Court developments in the wake of Frances Coles’ murder on the 13 February of that year. Lloyd’s Weekly  carried reports from seven of the capital’s courts but there was no mention here of Coles, the ‘Ripper’ or the man who became associated with this killing, James Sadler.

Instead the paper covered a complaint about the mis-labelling of Turkish cigarettes, theft from a theatre district club, two different frauds (one by a nine year-old boy), a gold robbery, a so-called ‘fair fight’ that turned nasty, and the case I’d like to focus on today, which was described as ‘a murderous outrage’ .

The case had come up before at North London Police Court and the accused, a 35 year-old bricklayer named Daniel Shannon, had been remanded for further enquiries. He was charged with assaulting Jessie Bazely with whom he cohabited in Chapel Road, Holloway. Jessie had been too poorly to attend on the first occasion Shannon had appeared and the court was told she remained in that state, if not a worse one.

The paper reminded its readers of the basic details of the case: Shannon had objected to his partner’s drinking and they had argued. In the scuffle that followed Shannon had grabbed a poker and smashed her over the head with it. In his defence the bricklayer argued that it was an accident:

‘he said that ‘the woman took up the poker to strike him, and in struggling they fell on the floor, the woman’s head coming in contact with the fender’.

The police investigated the assault and Inspector Charles Bradley of Y Division was present in court to report on their findings so far, and in particular the condition of Jessie. Her evidence would be crucial in determining what happened to Shannon next.

The inspector told the magistrate that the poor woman was being held in the workhouse infirmary and had gone quite mad as a result of her injuries and her previous addiction to drink. When asked what evidence he had for this the policeman declared that he had seen her there ‘being held down by five nurses’. Moreover, she had attempted her own life and had bitten several of the staff there. Dr George Wright, the divisional police surgeon, then confirmed the inspector’s report.

From the dock of the court the prisoner asked for the fender to be produced. He said he wanted to demonstrate what had happened so he could clear his name. Inspector Bradley said that he had asked for this previously, but had been denied. The magistrate also refused his request and remanded him in custody once more.

We shall see if the case is picked up later in the week, or if the attention of the press became fixated on events in the East End instead.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, February 15, 1891]

A man is attacked for complaining about the noise

Assault was one of the most frequently prosecuted offences at summary level in the police courts of London, as it was in all the studies we have to date on the activities of justices of the peace in England and Wales throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. My own work has shown that magistrates in the City of London in the second half of the 1700s spent just under a third of their time hearing individual complaints of assault, most of which ended in a settlement between the warring parties, often brokered by the justice.

It has been suggested that as the 19th century unfolded the state increasingly intervened in what had been a largely ‘civil’ prosecution process for assault, to assert society’s growing distaste for interpersonal violence. However, violence (particularly spousal or ‘domestic’ violence) remained a prominent feature of everyday life, especially in the poorer areas of London.

In March 1867 John Angus, a ‘young man’ who lived in a court off Windmill Street, near King’s Cross, was charged with attacking and wounding Randell Payne, a local bricklayer.

Payne, who also lived on Windmill Street,  had come out of his house to remonstrate with  group of youths that were making a noise. He told the magistrate at  Marlborough Street that:

‘he was much annoyed by a number at boys at night in the court he lived in, and requested they go away. They refused to do so, and he then took hold of one boy and pushed him to get him away, when the prisoner [Angus] came and struck him two violent blows on the head with something sharp he had in his hand, inflicting two severe wounds’.

In his defence Angus denied using a weapon but admitted striking the bricklayer. He said he had only done so because Payne was ‘ill-using his brother’.

With some doubt as to whether a sharp edged weapon had been used (which would have the more serious charge of wounding could have been proved) the justice requested that Angus be remanded until medical evidence could be produced.

Some time later Dr Peter Duncan of Marlborough Street testified that he had examined Payne’s  wounds some 48 hours after the incident had occurred (another doctor, Harris, had conducted the initial inquiry but he was not available to speak in court apparently). Dr Duncan told the court that while he had found two contused wounds, which were certainly serious, they were not incised ones and so not caused by a weapon of any sort.

Mr Knox, the sitting magistrate, turned to the accused and told him that while he would not proceed against him for wounding he had ‘struck harder than he should have done’. In consequence he convicted him of common assault and fined him £5 or a month in prison.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, March 16, 1867]