‘A dangerous imposter’ on Rosslyn Hill spells trouble for DS Fox

Middlesex_County_Lunatic_Asylum,_Colney_Hatch,_Southgate,_Mi_Wellcome_L0012311

The Victorian criminal justice had been developing a much more effective means of keeping records on those that passed through it doors than had been the case in the Georgian period. As a result criminals routinely gave false names to the police and magistrates in the hope that their previous convictions would not dog their footsteps for ever. Being ‘known to the police’ or the courts was dangerous; a magistrate or trial court judge was very likely to hand down a much stiffer sentence if he knew you’d failed to learn your lesson in the past.

I some cases of course the problem ran much deeper and this is particular true in cases of those that committed offences in part because they were suffering from mental illness. The law recognised that mental health was a factor and the principal of acting with ‘diminished responsibility’ had been debated throughout the nineteenth century following a handful of high profile cases that shocked society. In 1863 the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum had opened in 1863 to take those convicted as being guilty but insane.

This would have been too early for John Gough. He had been convicted of ‘assault with intent to murder’ at Exeter Assizes in 1856 and had sentenced to life imprisonment. In 1873 he was freed on a ticket of leave (effectively parole) and had then been admitted (or admitted himself, it is not clear) to a lunatic asylum. Gough must also have moved from the south west to London because in 1883 he turned up at the Marylebone Police Court charged with assaulting a police detective.

Detective Sergeant Fox saw Gough wandering at Rosslyn Hill in Hampstead in late February 1883. Gough looked in serious trouble and was soliciting for charity, as Fox described in court:

‘The prisoner was bandaged about the the head and arms, as though suffering from injuries, and while walking along praying aloud begged for alms of people’.

Begging was illegal and so DS Fox arrested him, only to attacked and verbally abused (with ‘profane language’) by his charge. Back at the station Gough was examined and it was found that there was nothing whatsoever wrong with him; his show of injury was just that, a show. The man was ‘an imposter’ Mr De Rutzen (the magistrate) was told and the police added the information regarding Gough’s previous conviction.

While Gough was clearly suffering from mental illness he had checked out of the asylum in 1877 and hadn’t been in contact with the police either. This was a breach of his release license and this, coupled with the assault on the detective sergeant, earned him a another spell inside. De Rutzen declared Gough was ‘a dangerous man’ and sentenced him to two months at hard labour. It might have bene more sensible to send him to Broadmoor or even to the Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum which had opened in 1851 which held over 2000 patients in the 1880s, including (just possibly) a candidate for Jack the Ripper.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, March 07, 1883]

‘There is a remedy for almost every wrong in this country’, a magistrate explains, if one knows where to look.

O it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Tommy, go away”;
But it’s “Thank you, Mister Atkins”, when the band begins to play, 

             Rudyard Kipling, ‘Tommy’ (1892)

Kipling published his Barrack-Room Ballads in 1892 which included one of his most famous poems, Tommy. The poem highlights the reality of solders’ situations in late Victorian Britain; eulogised as ‘heroes’ when there were enemies to defeat, and condemned as ‘bar-room brawlers’ when they were cooped up in garrison towns like Aldershot or Colchester. Not that much has changed in the intervening 100 plus years, ‘squaddies’ are still a cause for concern on Saturday nights in Colchester, but every serviceman and woman is deemed a hero at the point they are killed or wounded in action.

Kipling’s poem calls for change and an acceptance that ‘tommy’ was simply an ordinary man called upon to do extraordinary things. Within a quarter of  a century the ranks of Britain’s small professional armed forces were swelled by millions of citizen volunteers and (from 1916) conscript ‘tommies’. This weekend we remember the millions that died in that war and those that have given their lives since, as well as all those that were wounded, both physically and mentally, in conflicts since 1914.

And perhaps here we can point to some improvement in the way in which we look after  our damaged servicemen. Although we still need charities like Help for Heroes to augment government provision we have become much better at rehabilitating the injured. This is especially true in the area of mental health. Before the First World War the notion that soldiers were adversely affected mentally by war was not properly considered even though it must have been evident to some.

It was the work of Dr W. H. R Rivers, a psychiatrist in Craiglockhart Medical Hospital in Scotland during the war that did much to help society understand mental illness in the context of war, even if this treatment was not really adopted at the time.

Today’s tale from the Police Courts doesn’t feature soldiers but it is related to the problem of mental health and its treatment in the 1800s. I’ve chosen 1892 because of the publishing of Kipling’s poem.

***

A man named Smythe appeared at the West London Police Court to ask for a summons. The request was for a summons to bring the superintendent of a private lunatic asylum to court for unlawfully detaining a prisoner called ‘Carter’.  Mr W. Doveton Smythe explained that Carter had been imprisoned for five years for shooting at a man but, just four months before he was due to be released, he had been transferred to Broadmoor Prison in Berkshire, where criminals deemed to be ‘insane’ were confined.

From Broadmoor he was later taken to a pauper lunatic asylum (presumably being thought no longer to be dangerous) and then, at the request of his mother, he was placed in a private mental asylum. So, this prisoner, who had served his sentence, was now effectively being held against his will in a secure institution and Mr Smythe (whose relationship to the Carters is not made clear) was trying to get him out.

Mr Smythe told the magistrate, Mr Curtis Bennett, that Carter had been examined by an independent specialist  (Dr Flood) and visited by several friends. They all felt that he was ‘perfectly sane’. He wanted a summons against the superintendent for assault, since (as he was sure the magistrate was aware) ‘illegal detention is, technically, an assault’.

Mr Bennett was unconvinced. ‘Friends are really the worst people to form an opinion in such a case’, he told the complainant. ‘Unfortunately that has been the cause of many murders being committed’.

Moreover, this wasn’t the right place to make his request. Removing Carter from the private asylum would not overthrow the original decision to send him to Broadmoor or the pauper asylum. Therefore he advised Mr Smythe to take his complaint to the Lunacy Commissioners instead, and if he got no joy there he suggested the [Chancery] Master in Lunacy instead.

‘There is a remedy for almost every wrong in this country’, he declared, ‘though many people do not seek the right remedy’.

Mr Smythe thanked him and left, meanwhile poor Carter remained locked up in a private asylum.

[from The Standard, Friday, November 11, 1892]