The uninvited guest who was under the bed

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We’ve all heard strange noises at night and wondered if an intruder is in the house. Mostly it is the wind, or mice, or our imagination, but, just occasionally, it might actually be a burglar.

One young lady in a City pub near the Mansion House was convinced that there was someone in the room upstairs. She was in the first floor kitchen and was sure that someone (or something) was moving in the floor above so she went to investigate.

She knew no one was supposed to in any of the upstairs guest bedrooms since none had been let so she proceeded with caution. As she entered one room there was nobody there but she heard a  ‘slight rustling’. She said nothing but as she looked down she saw a man’s arm sticking out from under the bed.

The young woman now left the room, locking the door behind her and removing the key, and headed downstairs. Without saying anything to anyone she went out on the street and found a policeman. Having been appraised of the situation the officer took the key and went up to the room.

First the policeman knocked the door and announced himself. The intruder now came out and tried to leave. Finding the door locked he began knocking to be let out. The bobby opened the door and asked him his business. The man – who name was Samuel Sale – claimed that it was all a mistake, that he’d ended up in the room by accident and had got locked in. When he’d heard people in the house he had hidden under the bed for fear of being taken for a thief. He gave the policeman a false address and said he had gone upstairs instead of downstairs after being misdirected by a waiter in the house.

The policeman believed none of this and took him into custody. He was brought before Alderman GIbbs at Mansion House police court on the following day. There the magistrate listened to the prisoner’s version of events (it was all a mistake, he had no intention to intrude let alone steal anything) before asking him why he had given a false address.

‘The officer mistook me’, Sale replied. In other words the policeman had taken the address down incorrectly.

‘Then we are all in a mistake’, the alderman declared.

‘You mistook the bedchamber, the officer mistook another address for your address, and I mistake you for a thief who had an intention to rob this house’.

After the laughter that this caused had subsided he went on:

‘The young lady has acted with a great deal of presence of mind and prudence in completing the business without terrifying her mother, and you shall go to Bridewell for three calendar months with hard labour’.

With that the unfortunate man was led away to start his sentence.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, October 27, 1850]

“Oh Monsieur, if you don’t take care you will lose your handkerchief out of your pocket!’: A Frenchman amuses the reading audience at Mansion House

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I was watching the news a week or so ago and (surprise, surprise) Brexit was being discussed. The BBC had sent a roaving reporter to Stoke to ask locals what they felt about Britain leaving the EU and at the delays that seemed to be undermining the process. One elderly couple (who self-identified as Leave voters) reflected a fairly common view that it was ‘about time’ the politicians just got on it with, and executed the will of the 52% that voted out.

When asked why he thought it was taking so long the man replied that it was the fault of the Europeans, in particular the French. ‘I’ve never liked the French’ he said.

This version of Francophobia has a long history in British (or rather English) culture.   As our nearest European neighbours France has been perceived as an enemy and economic rival for much of the last 1000 years. This is despite the reality that the long wars of the medieval period were dynastic (effectively French French kings versus English French kings) and the wars with the Bourbons were as much about religion as they were about nationalism, and those that benefited from them were the wealthy, not the poor that fought them.

Similarly the wars with Revolutionary and Napoleonic France were fought to preserve the power and wealth of the English aristocracy and mercantile class, not the ‘scum of the earth’ (as Wellington dubbed some of his infantry) who died in their thousands on foreign soil. Napoleon was a ‘monster’ and the revolutionary ideas of the French were supposedly inimical to English ‘liberty’. The reality was that had the revolution been exported to Britain we’d be quite a different nation today, arguably one without the House of Lords, the monarchy and all the trappings of class privilege.

In the early 1830s Waterloo was still a recent memory. Napoleon had died in 1821 (in exile on St Helena, possibly as a result of poison). France was no longer an enemy, even if it was still an economic rival, but Francophobic views persisted. London was home to plenty of Frenchmen and women and, in March 1835, one of the appeared at the Mansion House Police court to prosecute a pickpocket he’d caught red-handed on the street. The report of the case before the Lord Mayor reveals the casual anti-French sentiment which, I think, (as that man in Stoke demonstrates), continues to this day.

Monsieur Colliard had captured Edward Brown as he attempted to steal a handkerchief from his pocket in Lombard Street near the Bank of England. He described what happened in excellent English but with a heavy French accent. The Morning Post’s reporter wrote it up for the amusement of his readership so that both the working-class thief and his intended French victim  appeared as comic characters in a popular music hall skit.

‘My Lor’ said M. Colliard, ‘I vas going doing Lombar-street, Friday veek, and I felt tug, tug; and ven I turned to see vat it vas, I saw a vera leetle garçon run away with my handkerchief’.

I am now imagining the gentleman in his club or the worker at the bar of the pub amusing his friends by reading this aloud, with perfect comic timing.

Having lost one hankie Colliard was on his guard the following day.

‘So, I thought [this time] I would pin my handkerchief to my pocket, so de leetle garcon should not get him out. So when I go to the place were I vas tugged I felt another tug, and I turned about, and this garcon had a hold of my handkerchief. “Ah” I says, “I have caught you!”

“Oh Mounsier, “ says he, “if you don’t take care you will lose your handkerchief out of your pocket;” but I says to him, ‘I vill take care not to lose you,” and I held him fast, and I bring him here for your Lordship to try him’.

Young Edward Brown attempted to wriggle out of the charge by saying he was only trying to warn the Frenchman that he was in danger of dropping his ‘wipe’ or having it pinched by one of the many ‘bad characters’ that lurked around the Bank.

His show of altruism fooled no one, especially not the Lord Mayor, who told him that if he made ‘the communication without the slight of hand all would have been all right, but he must go to Bridewell for two months for going too far in in his endeavour to protect his neighbour’s property’.

So in the end a very ordinary story of petty theft was dressed up as an amusing tale that allowed the readers to chuckle at the funny accent of our continental neighbours and the misfortune of a ‘street arab’ whose poverty had probably driven him to steal in the first place. For me it is a reminder that some elements of our society continue to enjoy demonizing or ridiculing ‘foreigners’ even at the same time as we enjoy their wine, cheese, countryside, and culture and benefit from the trade between our countries.

The ‘little Englander’ has become a little more prominent as a result of Brexit and, regardless of whether being a member of the EU is a good or bad thing in your opinion, anything which serves to divide peoples who have much more in common than they have in difference, is a sad thing which does no one any good.

Expect, of course, for those that profit from nationalism and division. And that little club contains the real enemies of the people, the far right, religious extremists, and arms traders.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, March 02, 1835]

Prison for the mother who couldn’t support her babies

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Today Haille Rubenhold’s new book on the five canonical victims of ‘Jack the Ripper’ is published in the UK. I’ve chatted with Haille about her work but haven’t read it yet. I am well aware that its publication (or at least the publicity surrounding its publication) has caused a stir and led to Haille being attacked in some quarters by those that believe she has misrepresented ‘Ripperologly’ (the name given to the study of this, the most famous of all ‘cold cases’).

I haven’t read it yet (my copy is on order and I’ll review here when I have) but while I recognize very many people might be upset that she has (supposedly) claimed that the stories of the ‘Ripper’s’ victims have never been told when they have, I think it is also very good that an independent and credible researcher such as Haille has chosen to write about this topic. She had important things to say about prostitution, women’s lives, poverty and homelessness, and I’m keen to read it. She may not be as well informed on the details of the case as those that have studied it for decades and that may undermine some of her findings but she deserves to be ‘heard’.

She also deserves to be treated with respect, as do respected Ripperologists like Paul Begg. Name-calling is never appropriate. We can critique, argue and disagree with each other without chucking unpleasantness about.

One of issues Haille’s work highlights is the desperate poverty that women (and of course men) endured in Victorian London. This wasn’t something new in 1888, it was endemic throughout the 1800s. The magistrate courts could provide temporary relief for those caught in the poverty trap but they could just as frequently criminalize paupers, especially when outside agencies were involved.

Nance (or Nancy) Donovan was a pauper with two children who had only just got out of prison when she appeared before the Lord Mayor at Mansion House Police court in late February 1853. She stood in the dock, in ‘filthy rags’ and with one of her children – a babe in arms – clutched closely to her.

She should have perhaps inspired charity but there was no sympathy on display in the Lord Mayor’s courtroom that cold February morning. Nancy had been brought in from the streets by a City policeman after she’d been pointed out by a an officer from the Mendicity Society. Nancy had been begging from the steps at the end of King William Street with one child in front of her, the other in her arms. The suspicion was that she had drugged them both with laudanum so they looked ill and starving.

Of course Nancy denied this and begged the magistrate to let her off this time.

‘I’ll never bother yez any more if you let me off this once. Upon my sowl I wasn’t begging a farthing from anyone. I was only just sitting down to nurse the babby in this cowld weather, and sure enough it wanted a dhrop of suck’.

The Lord Mayor was unmoved, clearly believing that Nancy was a mendicant (a beggar) that was using and abusing her offspring to feed her idle lifestyle. He sent her to gaol once again, to bridewell for a months, and her children to the workhouse to be ‘cared for’ by the parish.

This was Victorian ‘justice’ and ‘welfare’ policy and it is hardly surprising that women turned to prostitution, alcohol and the streets, as Rubenhold’s important new study highlights.

[from The Standard, Monday, February 28, 1853]

My own study of the Whitechapel or ‘Jack the Ripper’ murders is due to be published in June 2019.

‘You must have a go at the treadmill’ a regular visitor to the courts is told.

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Beggars and vagrants were an endemic problem for the police and magistrates of nineteenth-century London. The Vagrancy Act (1824) empowered the New Police to sweep anyone begging from the streets and the Poor Law allowed for the repatriation of the unentitled back to their place of last settlement. But once arrested what could be done with ‘sturdy beggars’ like Thomas Costello? A spell in prison held little fear for them and if they had lived and worked in a town for a year at least then they could claim it was their home and be hard to get rid of.

This was the Lord Mayor’s problem as he peered down at Costello standing in the dock at Mansion House Police court in August 1837. A policeman had brought the Irishman in because he’d been upsetting sensibilities by begging ‘in a most importune style’ the court was told.

His way was to fix himself shivering and shaking against the wall, and his deplorable appearance, for he could make is very eyes almost start out of his head, soon brought customers to him’.

The officer had tried to get him to leave the city’s boundaries but Costello refused, so he took him into custody.

He wasn’t an unfamiliar sight in the police courts and the Lord Mayor was sure he recognized him. ‘We have often told you to leave the city’ he grumbled, ‘why do you persevere in annoying us?’

‘Ah, please your honour’, came the reply, ‘I’m all over pains and aches; I’m afraid I’ll never get well’.

‘You are sick with idleness’, the Lord Mayor quipped, seeing what appeared to be a strong man in the dock before him. Thomas claimed to be suffering from a bad fall from a horse, but the magistrate clearly didn’t believe him. Nor did he buy the man’s complaint that his eyesight was failing and the policeman agreed saying that:

‘there was not a beggar in the city – able and active as they were – who had better use of his eyes and hands than the defendant, who could see an officer at any distance, and get out of sight in a twinkling’.

‘Oh yes they ought to put me up as a tellygraph [sic]’ joked the prisoner, beginning to enjoy his moment in the spotlight perhaps. ‘You’d swear that I could read the newspaper from this to Portsmouth in a fog’!

Keen to determine whether Costello had been up before the bench recently (and so perhaps worthy of a more serious penalty) the Lord Mayor asked him. The beggar said he’d not been in trouble for three years which caused the police officer to comment that it couldn’t be less than six months. Guessing that he’d been in and out of gaols all over the place and that they’d proved to be no deterrent the Lord Mayor made one last effort to persuade Costello to leave London, or at least the city itself.

Oh! dear no; I won’t disgrace myself by going out of your jurisdiction’ Costello answered, no doubt with a smile, ‘I’ve got no parents, God help me, but yourself and the likes of you’.

London was his home and he wasn’t going to leave it for anyone.

And for the next couple of months he definitely wasn’t going anywhere. ‘You must have a go at the treadmill’ the justice told him.

‘I know where the mill is precious well’, Costello responded, ‘It ain’t out of the city, is it, my lord?’ And off to Bridewell he went, where he’d be fed and watered at the ratepayers’ expense but at least he wouldn’t be bothering the good citizens of London for a while.

[from The Morning Chronicle , Friday, August 11, 1837]

The Mansion House has no sympathy with those bent on ‘destroying themselves’.

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When an unnamed woman was charged with disorderly conduct at Mansion Police Police court in December 1841 the sitting justice took it upon himself to make a statement to the press. Sir Peter Laurie, the incumbent Lord Mayor, didn’t inflict further punishment on the woman because she had already been locked up overnight in the City’s compter (a old term for a prison). However, all leniency stopped there.

The Lord Mayor had previously punished her for attempting to ‘destroy herself’ (in other words for attempting suicide) by jumping off one of the capital’s bridges. Sir Peter said that there had been considerable numbers of suicide attempts in the past few months. No less than 26 people had been charged with the offence at Guildhall  and a further five at Mansion House from September to October.

As a result he had determined to deal with all future cases more severely. In November he had sent a man to Bridewell in an attempt to check ‘so revolting an offence’ by ‘a little wholesome severity’. That individual had tried to cut his own throat because he was suffering from ‘poverty and idleness’. A day later he sent a woman to the Old Bailey to face a jury trial. His fellow justice, Sir Chapman Marshall, followed his lead and committed a man for ‘attempting to drown himself’. In both cases the accused pleaded guilty and received a sentence of 14 days imprisonment.

Since then there had been a notable falling off in persons attempting to take their own lives so Sir Peter commended the actions of the bench.

The clerk of the court ‘observed that several desperate imposters had made money by the experiment of tumbling into the Thames. The infliction of imprisonment and hard labour for the offence would certainly check the practice as far as pretenders were concerned, whatever effect it might have on those that seriously wished to get rid of life.’ He added that the ‘great majority’ were imposters in his opinion.

Sir Peter concluded by warning ‘every man and woman brought before me jumping or trying to jump into the river shall most positively walk off to Newgate [gaol] , and I am very much mistaken if the Judges do not henceforward inflict upon offenders very heavy punishments’.

It hardly needs to be said that such draconian attitudes to what may well have been genuine mental health issues would not be applied today. Attempting suicide is no longer an offence under law although persons displaying suicidal tendencies may well be sectioned, and forcibly confined. So the Victorian bench looks particularly uncaring in this regard. But before we congratulate ourselves on living in more enlightened times we might note the report of the parliamentary commission created by the late Jo Cox that has revealed the worrying extent of loneliness in modern Britain.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, December 15, 1841]

A ‘poor man’ and ‘a most depraved and incorrigible beggar’: Contrasting attitudes at Mansion House as winter sets in

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We’ve just had a weekend of severe weather in which snow caught much of southern England by surprise. Many parts of London were covered in a white coating yesterday, all very attractive and fun for kids but a nightmare for commuters come Monday morning. My university is effectively closed as teaching is suspended and all the trains into central London are running slow or late or both. Mind you, I’m not sure how much difference that is to a normal day!

So winter is well and truly upon us and this is the season which hits the homeless and the poor the hardest. For those that have to decide between food and heating, or those sleeping rough in the capital, December through to the spring is particularly challenging.

That is why Shelter and the  other homeless charities campaign so hard to help people at this time of the year. We will all see the adverts on the tube or get a leaflet through the door asking for a one-off donation or a regular contribution. Each year the BBC supports the St Mungo’s charity, which does such good work with the homeless.

The early Victorians were certainly aware of the problem of poverty and homelessness. They had charities and dedicated people who worked, often through the church, to support those in need. What they didn’t have, as we know, is a system of poor relief that allowed people to be supported within their own homes. There was no housing benefit or  income support. If you needed ‘relief’ you went to the workhouse, and this was increasingly true after 1834 and the passing into law of the Poor Law Amendment Act.

Attitudes towards poverty had hardened in the 1830s and poverty, which had always been viewed in part as a personal failing, was now frequently associated with moral bankruptcy. At Mansion House Police court two cases came up in early December which highlight contrasting contemporary attitudes towards poverty and homelessness.

Peter Jordan was described as an ‘imbecile’. Today we would understand this as someone with learning difficulties and now, as then, we would have some sympathy with him. The sitting magistrate at Mansion House that morning was Alderman Pirie, who was deputising for the Lord Mayor. He certainly looked on Jordan’s case with compassion but he was fairly limited in what he could do.

Jordan had been brought it by Duncan Campbell, a parish officer for the City. He had found the man ‘soliciting for charity’. In other words he was begging and that was against the wide-ranging vagrancy laws. However, Campbell’s aim wasn’t to have him punished for begging but to help him. He wanted to ‘prevent him perishing in the streets’.

Had he applied for relief, the alderman wanted to know. This was complicated; there was no help to had at Cannon Street he was told, and the London workhouse had recently closed and a new one was not yet built. The City had also closed a house of refuge so that was no option either.

All that was left to the justice was to send Jordan to prison for begging. And so the ‘poor man, […] who used formerly to work in the coal pits, was removed to Bridewell, under particular directions’ (presumably not to be whipped or set to hard labour, but instead to be looked after).

The next defendant in the dock received far less sympathy. Maria Butcher and her two children were also presented for begging in the streets. A policeman testified that he had found the two children at five in the evening on the Saturday.

He said ‘he saw the poor children, half naked and shivering on the steps leading to London Bridge. He took them to the Station-house and found in their pockets eighteen-pence halfpenny.  Their mother, who was up to all the tricks of vagrancy, the officer said, was in the justice-room’.

Maria denied any knowledge of what her children got up to when she wasn’t around but no one believed her. She took in washing and had, she said, very ‘little to give them’. The alderman said he was sure she was happy to take any money they ‘earned’ by begging nevertheless.

‘I’d be very glad to get any’ she replied, ‘and I assure you I’d make good use of it’.

The magistrate was horrified:

‘What a wretch you must be to send out these poor infants in such dreadful weather’.

His feelings were echoed by a street keeper who said he knew Maria as a ‘most depraved and incorrigible beggar’ who exploited her children to avoid doing any work herself. She often sent then out without hardly any clothes or shoes, in all weathers, to beg for her. Another witness, a Poor Law Union official said the children were well known beggars and the police were obliged to bring them in under the law.

In the end although she begged for clemency Mr Pirie sent her and the children to Bridewell but – for her at least – there was no similar instructions for them to go easy on her. The children could expect some level of care but she would bread and water and the drudgery of hard labour, picking oakum most likely.

So that winter all four of the people brought before the Mansion House court ended up in prison. Their ‘crime’? Poverty. Today there will still be hundreds of men, women and young people sleeping rough and begging on London’s streets. So before we congratulate ourselves too much on creating a fairer and more civilised society than our early Victorian ancestors perhaps we should take a moment to reflect on that uncomfortable fact.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, December 11, 1838]

A well-read thief hides his plunder in his hat

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A Victorian coffee house, note the lack of female customers.

Francis Nicholls was a young man of about 25 years of age. He sounds like he possessed a certain degree of cunning and a great deal of cheek. At the end of October 1845 Nicholls was brought before the magistrate at Greenwich Police Court and charged with a number of counts of theft.

On Tuesday afternoon (28th October) Francis visited a beer shop on Blackheath Road (run by William Gentry.  He sat himself down and ordered ‘some bread and cheese and a pint of beer’. Having downed his pint he called for another and for a “screw of tobacco” to enjoy with it. He then took out a notebook and asked for a pencil and proceeded to write something in it.

Mr Gentry now had ‘occasion to go out’ of his shop so asked his customer to settle his account, at which point the young man ‘rummaged in his pockets’ and admitted he had no money and couldn’t pay. He handed over his waistcoat and handkerchief in lieu of his bill (saying the publican could pawn them) and left.

Soon after he’d gone Gentry realised he had taken the pewter pint post he had been drinking out, so made a complaint to the nearest policeman.

Later, in the early evening, Francis entered the Victoria Coffee Rooms, also on Blackheath Road, and this time asked the serving woman, Mary Ann Wells, for ‘some coffee, a rasher of bacon, and a roll’. Having served him Mary Ann asked him to pay and again he pleaded poverty and apologised for having nothing to give her.

The servant called her mistress, Mrs Atkinson, who immediately sent for a police constable. The policeman, who happened to be passing by, was detective constable  John Evans (189R) and he secured the young man. Suspecting that Nicholls was concealing something DC Evans asked him to remove his hat. Nicholls refused and so Evans swept it from his head, whereupon out fell a squashed up piece of metal that had once been Mr Gentry’s pewter pint pot.

Back at the station a proper search was conducted and  a copy of The Times newspaper tucked inside Nicholls’ trousers, which was subsequently identified as belonging to the coffee house’s owner, Mr Atkinson. The young thief was locked up for the night.

Brought before Mr Grove at Greenwich it looked like a fairly straightforward case of theft and of the non payment of bills. But the magistrate suspected that Nicholls was a serial offender so ordered that he be locked up for a week so that the officers of the Toothily Fields Bridewell could come down and identify him. If he was a recidivist thief then he faced a few months in gaol rather than a few days of weeks.

Let’s hope he had a ready supply of newspapers or paper, because he was, unusually for London’s so-called ‘criminal class’, seemingly quite well educated.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly London Newspaper, Sunday, November 2, 1845]

‘Well, I’m sure, if a man acts bad once in his life, he never gets over it’, complains a young member of the ‘swell mob’.

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One of the key themes that is emerging from the Digital Panopticon conference in Liverpool (where I am at the moment) is the critical importance of being identified as someone with previous criminal convictions, however petty. In the nineteenth century the British state’s ability to track ‘known offenders’ increased and while defendants might try to avoid being recognised as such (by offering a false name or denying being convicted previously) the arrival of professional police forces and a more bureaucratic justice system gradually entrapped the late Victorian and Edwardian offender in ways that his or her Georgian ancestors might have escaped.

The police and magistracy were important agents in this process as the summary courts of London (the police magistrate courts) were the arenas were criminal careers were established. We can illustrate this in the case on on young man who was brought before the Mansion House in September 1839, the year that the nomenclature of ‘police magistrate’ was official established.

William Jones was reported to be a ‘notorious pickpocket’ when he appeared before Sir Peter Laurie in the City of London’s premier magistrate court. Sir Peter, who later served as Lord Mayor was sitting in on this occasion for the incumbent office holder, Sir Chapman Marshall. The Charter‘s reporter recorded that William was:

‘One of those well-dressed thieves whose appearance never excites attention’.

In other words William blended in with the crowds in central London which enabled him to get close to his victims and get away without being noticed. On this occasion however, he had not been so lucky and had been arrested by a City police officer.

Whilst the PC was taking Jones and another suspected thief into custody however, he managed to slip his custodian and escape. His bid for freedom didn’t last long though, being ‘known to the police’ meant that William was soon tracked down to a well-known haunt of his, a public house associated with local criminals.

He was brought before the Sir Peter at Mansion House charged, it seems, with running away from the policeman. The magistrate asked him what he had to say for himself.

‘I couldn’t help running away’, William told the alderman, adding: ‘It was my business to run away if I could. It was the officer’s business to prevent it’.

‘But you know it is an offence to make an escape from an officer?’ he was asked.

‘Please you, my Lord, if you were in my place wouldn’t you try to get away yourself? I’m blessed if you jist [sic] wouldn’t’.

Sir Peter turned to the collection of police officers gathered in the court and declared: ‘I suppose this young man is well known?’

This was confirmed by the police who said he was known for ‘constantly parading about the streets with other well-dressed thieves, and sometimes thieves of the other sex’. This sounds to be very like a description of the so-called ‘swell mob’ described by Dickens and many others as a mid nineteenth-century phenomenon.

William knew what was coming; even though he had not been convicted of a crime as such (he was not charged with theft from the person for example) his mere association with the ‘swell mob’ and identification as a local thief meant he could expect to be sent to prison as a suspected criminal.

‘Aint a body to go to draw a breath of air on a warm day but he must be pulled [i.e. arrested] for it?’ William complained. ‘Well, I’m, sure, if a man acts bad once in his life, he never gets over it’.

And of course this was true, lads like William Jones were in and out of the justice system over the course of their (often short) lives being arrested on suspicion, prosecuted for petty thefts, being fined, imprisoned (often by default of not having the money to pay the fine), and then progressing to more serious crime and, ergo, longer prison terms. Before the late 1850s many might have ended up being transported to Australia or, later, serving long periods of penal servitude in a convict prison. After 1869 the habitual offenders register dogged the footsteps of convicted felons and eventually photography and then fingerprints (from the early 1900s) made it even harder for those caught up in the justice system to ‘go straight’ and avoid future convictions.

Sir Peter sent William Jones to the City Bridewell, or house of correction, telling him (and the newspaper’s readership) that ‘this shows the value of never having acted dishonestly’. This of course was a luxury young men like William could hardly afford growing up poor in an unforgiving city like London.

Several of the historians gathered for the Digital Panopticon launch have made the point that history has a lot to say about recidivism and the ‘making’ of a criminal. The ‘convict stain’ and the albatross of previous convictions made (indeed continue to make) it hard for those who make one or two mistakes in life to get back on track. Sadly, policy makers today don’t seem to want to listen to the evidence of history.

[from The Charter , Sunday, September 15, 1839]

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]