A strange encounter at the British Museum (Natural History)

2070822379_d3d6251a0f

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

An young Indian is taken for a ride by a beguiling fraudster

0ccf3072e34d0020021ac454d591f5bc

Mr Tahrir-ud-din Ahmed was an Indian student studying in England. He had taken up residence at 1 Colville Gardens in fashionable Kensington and so must have come from a wealthy family in British India. He would have made an impression in his fine clothes and he certainly caught the eye of one young woman at London Bridge station. However, her intentions towards him were far from honourable, as Tahrir was about to find out.

Tahrir had gone to the station on the 13 July to bid farewell to a friend who was travelling back to Brighton. As he entered the waiting room he noticed a fashionably dressed young lady sitting on her own. He enquired after her and she explained that she was waiting for her parents to arrive, as they were expected on an incoming train from Brighton.

She gave her name as Blanche Coulston and said she’d recently arrived from Australia and knew no-one in the capital. She then asked Tahrir if he would mind waiting with her until her parents arrived; the young man could hardly refuse such a request, and agreed to look after her.

One can imagine the scene: two young people, of probably equal social standing, enjoying each others’ company regardless of any presumed cultural differences. Tahrir was acting like a gentleman in protecting a lone woman from any potential dangers and sharing the company of an attractive young lady of fashion and style in the process. So when Miss Coulston’s parents failed to appear and she suggested they dine together, Tahrir agreed straight away.

They took the young lady’s landau to the Temple and back, and when Mr and Mrs Coulston still failed to make an appearance Blanche suggested they continued their friendship by retiring to her family’s rooms near Regent’s Park. Tahrir and Blanche climbed back into the coach and headed to 3 Stanhope Terrace where the Coulstons had a suite. After a supper Tahrir slept in Blanche’s father’s room and the next morning they breakfasted together.

It was all going very well, except, of course, for the mystery of the missing parents. The pair headed for the Grosvenor Hotel as Blanche thought they might have arrived while she and her new friend were absent for the night and had checked in there instead. When they discovered they hadn’t Tahrir suggested she send them a telegram and they returned to his lodgings to do so.

Having sent her message the pair returned to Stanhope Gardens as Blanche said she needed to collect some things she had left at a school nearby. I presume like many young ladies of quality, she had worked as a teacher or governess. The pair went back to her rooms and she said there would be a short delay while her landau was made ready. They had lunch and Blanche suggested that Tahrir might like to freshen up in her father’s rooms.

The Indian student thanked her and was about to head off to bathe when she asked him if she might admire his gold rings. He had three on his fingers and he gladly handed them over to her.

That was a mistake.

When Tahrir had washed and shaved he returned to the family’s drawing room to find Blanche, but she wasn’t there. He rang the bell and summoned the landlady who informed him that she had left sometime ago. Tahrir took a hansom cab to London Bridge, assuming perhaps that she had news from her parents.

She wasn’t there so he returned to Stanhope Gardens. At 10 the carriage came back without her. Tahrir went home requesting that the landlady wire him should Miss Coulston return. In the morning he’d heard nothing and so he informed the police.

A month later Tahrir was at the Fisheries exhibition when he saw Blanche in company with a man. He found a policeman and had her arrested. On Wednesday 15 August 1883 Blanche was brought before the sitting magistrate at Marylebone to face a charge of stealing three rings worth £20. She had the rings but claimed he had gifted them to her, something he strongly denied.

The court heard from Henry Selby who ran a livery stable with his brother. He deposed that Miss Coulston had approached him to hire a carriage and had offered two gold rings as security. She had taken the carriage but failed to pay for the hire, so he’d kept the rings and told the police. Detective sergeant Massey had tracked the third ring to a pawnbroker’s on Buckingham Palace Road. He’d established that Miss Coulston claimed (to several people it seems) to have bene the daughter of a Brighton doctor who was in the process of relocating to London.

On the strength of this, and her plausible persona, she was defrauding all sorts of people in the capital. The magistrate had little choice but to commit her for trial.

I rather suspect that everything about Miss Coulston was fake, including her name. No one of her name appears at the Old Bailey and perhaps that is because she gave a false name. Or perhaps the prosecution case was weak or Tahrir, having recovered his property, chose not to press charges. Maybe he put it all down to experience and decided to forgive her. The lesson is clear however, people aren’t always exactly what they seem.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, August 19, 1883]

‘The very image of the Devil himself, with horns and eyes of flame’; Spring Heeled Jack in Kentish Town

440px-Jack4

At some point in the late 1830s a new monster appeared in the public consciousness. A humanoid figure with glowing eyes, that breathed fire and leap over walls attacked and frightened women across the capital. The fearsome creature – dubbed ‘Spring Heeled Jack’ – disappeared almost as quickly as it arrived, leaving the police baffled and the public in terror.

In February 1838 Lucy Scales and her sister were terrified by ‘Jack’ as they walked home in Limehouse. The cloaked monster shot ‘a quantity of blue flame’ into a face, temporarily blinding her and bringing on what sound like epileptic fits for several hours.

In Kentish Town in March 1838 PC Markham (S24) was walking his beat one Saturday evening when he screams and shouts ahead of him. Suddenly he saw ‘women and children running in all directions, screaming out “Here’s Spring-heel’d Jack’.

The constable drew his ‘staff’ (his truncheon) gathered his wits and courage and set off to confront the demon. Several women who had run to the policeman for safety pointed at a man in the street as the ‘terror of London’ in person.

‘Perceiving that a sort of blue froth was at his mouth, and his features were not altogether natural, [PC Markham] went up to him, and seizing him by the collar, dragged him to a butcher’s shop, by the light of which he discovered that he wore a mask, embellished at the mouth with blue glazed paper’.

The brave constable grabbed his man by the collar and frog-marched him off to the nearest police station. The next morning the monster, who went by the name of Daniel Granville, was set in the dock at Marylebone Police Court. He cut a strange and sorry figure: ‘a simple-looking fellow, with a most bewitching obliquity of vision’ as the paper described him. Granville apologised for frightening the public and said it was never his intention. The magistrate dismissed him with a warning, presumably as a sad rather than bad individual who was trading on the publicity that the real ‘devil’ had generated.

Sightings of Spring Heeled Jack multiplied across the 1830s and into the 1840s, and the phenomenon spread beyond the capital. Jack was spotted in Brighton later in 1838 and by the 1840s had traveled to East Anglia and Northampton Jack became a feature of contemporary popular culture – headlining in several penny dreadfuls and a number of plays and melodramas. ‘Jack’ eventually passed into myth (if he even existed at all) and by the 1950s was appearing in popular comics as a sort of dark vigilante, a caped anti-hero rather similar to Gotham’s Batman.

No one has ever been formally identified at the culprit and the reality may be that there were several ‘Jacks’. For me it is an example of how a growing urban populace retained some of the folk beliefs and ‘monsters’ from their rural past and merged them with the threats posed by the modern city environment. ‘Spring Heel’d Jack’ was embodiment then of the fears of the City at the beginning of Queen Victoria’s reign just as ‘Jack the Ripper’ was to become symbolic of urban degradation towards its end.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, March 20, 1838]

An inside job

William Edwards probably felt guilty when he sent his former employer a number of bills of exchange from his Brighton address by the Two-Penny Post. It was, however, a calamitous decision on his part.

A few days previously the London agent of Haddon & Sons, an Aberdeen based company who had warehouse premises in Bow Churchyard Lane, discovered that his small safe had been opened and emptied. More than £30 worth of gold and silver was missing along with bills amounting to over £1,000.

The spotlight fell on Edwards who had disappeared. He had known about the money and had been let into the building on the night of the theft by Ann Neal, the company’s housekeeper. Edwards claimed that the ‘gentlemen’ had forgotten a package and he needed access to the counting house to collect it. Knowing his face Ann trusted his word.

The case was sent to the Old Bailey where Edwards pleaded his innocence and said he had left the employee of Haddon & Sons a week earlier. It was a pathetic attempt to escape justice and the jury saw right through it. Had he not had the decency to return the cheques (which were useless to him anyway) he might have escaped with his cash. But his employer recognised his handwriting on the envelope which sealed his fate.

He was transported to Australia for life.

           [From The Morning Chronicle , Saturday, May 6, 1837]