Three cheers for health and safety as the ‘filthy’ reality of Bermondsey is exposed.

Russell-Street

Mr. A’Beckett’s courtroom at Southwark was packed in late September 1854 as the Bermondsey Improvement Commissioners brought a series of ‘health and safety’ actions against local businesses. We tend to think of ‘H&S’ as being a modern thing, often something forced on society by European bureaucracy. The reality is that it has a very long history in Britain, at least as far back as the Victorians.

The complaints, presented by Mr Ballantine of Messrs. Drew and Gray, solicitors, lasted several hours and focused on activities being carried out underneath the railway arches of the South Eastern Railway Company, near Russell Street.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth century this area of south London was associated with the leather trade. There were numerous tanneries and curriers in this ‘Land of Leather’ and some of these trades, such as Garner’s jappanning workshop, were operating from under the arches of the railway.

This was a problem for locals because the fumes were, according to the commissioners, causing a nuisance. By nuisance Mr Ballantine meant illness, injury and death. Not only to locals but to anyone travelling on the railways above, and especially those coming into London from the countryside.

James Oates operated a bone boiling works under the arches and this was particularly unpleasant to travellers. At present it was, the prosecution alleged, ‘dangerous in the extreme’:

‘and parties coming in from the pure air in the country […] were sickened by the noisome effluvia emitted from the defendant’s premises below’.

Jane Prior’s work involved melting used cooking fat and the smell was obnoxious. The commissioners condemned her trade as ‘filthy in the extreme, and dangerous to the health of the locality’. Ralf Sockhart had a similar business. His involved boiling offal to make pet food and was equally disgusting and offensive to locals.

The magistrate listened carefully as a string of cases were brought against the occupants of the arches, many of whom must have been practicing their trades for several years. The second half of the nineteenth century was witnessing a coordinated effort to remove ‘nuisances’ from the densely occupied parts of the capital. The cattle market at Smithfield – part of London life since the medieval period – was moved out of the centre to clear the thoroughfares. This series of actions against the ‘dirty trades’ of Bermondsey has to be seen in the context then of ‘improvement’.

In all the cases the magistrate sided with the Commissioners even if he sympathized with the businesses, none of whom were rich.  All were given time – a month – to find new premises, hopefully far away from the homes of residents. Mr Ballantine hoped that press coverage of the proceedings would also warn the railway companies that they were expected to take more responsibility in letting out the arches they owned.

‘It was monstrous’, he declared, ‘that these arches should be kept for such purposes, merely for their profit, much to the injury of the public health’.

And there of course was the point of these proceedings and, I might suggest, the point of health and safety legislation. The laws existed (indeed exist) to protect the public from dangerous practices. When chemicals and gases are being used in enclosed premises there is a risk of diseases, fire, explosions and the Victorians recognized that some trades had to be separated out and placed a long way from peoples’ homes. The people concerned were, more often than not, those that could not afford to bring private prosecutions against large companies and rich businessmen. So the Commissioners, for all their interference and accusations of ‘nannying’, were standing up for those who were otherwise rendered silent.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, September 28, 1854]

‘I’m a teetotaller and don’t like to see him drink spirits’ says a thieving 14 year-old poisoner

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In early September 1888, just before real panic set in across London as a result of the Jack the Ripper (or Whitechapel) murders, a 14 year-old lad was brought before the Lambeth police court charged with theft and poisoning.

John Voisey accused the lad, Alfred Ellis, who was employed alongside him at  a cabinet makers in Peckham, of drugging his drink and stealing a sovereign from his pocket. He said that on the 29 August he’d entered the workshop on Victoria Road, and hanged his waistcoat in the ‘back shop’. In the pockets were three sovereigns, worth around £80 each in today’s money.

At half twelve he sent Alfred off to fetch him a quartern of gin (a quarter of a pint), and gave him one of the sovereigns to pay for it with. The boy soon returned with the gin and the change. However, when he checked his money one of the sovereigns in his waistcoat was missing.

Moreover when he tasted the gin it wasn’t right, and he suspected something else had been added to it. That something, he resumed, was ‘spirits of salts’ which were used in the workshop and a bottle of which was kept in the backroom, where he’d stored his waistcoat. Spirits of salts was actually hydrochloric acid, a dangerous poison but one with a quite distinctive smell.

Fortunately Voisey hadn’t imbibed much of it but he clearly thought  Alfred was responsible and collared him. Had the boy stolen his money and tried to distract him by making him ill? This was what Mr Chance at Lambeth had to decide.

The magistrate asked for medical evidence, which was provided by a chemist named Barithwaite. He declared that the gin was indeed adulterated with spirits of slats but not to degree that would kill. It could give the victims severe stomach cramps however. More seriously even for Alfred was the fact that a police search found that he had 17s6on his person that he couldn’t account for.

Alfred denied stealing but confessed to poisoning John Voisey’s drink. He didn’t mean any harm he said, but didn’t approve of him drinking. ‘I am teetotaler’ he declared (mindful perhaps of winning magisterial approval) ‘and don’t like to see him drink spirits’. Mr Chance said he would consider the case for a day or so and wanted a second opinion on the poisoning from the police surgeon. He remanded Alfred in custody in the meantime.

The remand was not good news for little Alf; on the 17 September 1888 he was tried at the Old Bailey and pealed guilty. The jury strongly recommended him to mercy on account of his youth and this probably saved him from further punishment. Judgment was respited by the judge and I can find no record of him ending up in prison.

[from The Standard, Saturday, September 08, 1888]

It was on Saturday 8 September 1888 that Annie Chapman’s mutilated body was discovered in the rear of a property in Hanbury Street, off Brick Lane in Spitalfields. 29 Hanbury Street was home at the time to Harriet (sometimes ‘Annie’) Hardiman, who ran a cat’s meat shop from a room on the ground floor. In my recent study of the Whitechapel murders I suggest that Harriett was even more closely linked to the ‘Ripper’ murders than being living on the premises where one of the victims was found.

The 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

Dodgy meat on sale at Smithfield and is a cat’s meat man in the frame for the Whitechapel murders?

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On Thursday 27 June 1889 Frederick Miller was summoned to appear at the Guildhall Police court in the City of London. His alleged offence was selling meat unfit for human consumption and the prosecution was brought by the Commissioners of Sewers who policed food safety at the Central Meat Market, Smithfield.

Alderman Evans, the presiding magistrate, was told that Miller had brought a cow carcass to market from his home in Norfolk and attempted to sell four pieces from it. That animal had been slaughtered and then prepared for sale on Whit Sunday, the day after Pentecost (which is usually 50 days after Easter Sunday). Since Easter fell on the 21 April in 1889 the likely date the meat was prepped was probably around the 2 June, or three weeks before it reached market in London.

While Miller pleaded not guilty the inspectors (and the Medical Officer of Health, Dr saunders) were able to convince the alderman that the meat was bad and that the public would have been at risk had they not spotted and confiscated it. Alderman Evans fined Miller 50plus £3 3costs, warning him that if he did not pay up he’d go prison for two months.

Miller was described as horse slaughterer and butcher, living at North Walsham and was well-to-do enough to employ a solicitor. London’s horse slaughtering business at this time was dominated by the firm of Harrison, Barber who had premises across the capital. They fed the market in horse meat that supplied the cat’s meat men that catered to Londoner’s love of pets. The history of this little known industry is something I address in some depth in my recent investigation into the Jack the Ripper murders of 1888. In June 1889 body parts were found floating in the Thames near Horselydown steps; they were the forth of the so-called ‘Thames Torso mysteries’ that baffled police between 1887 and 1889. In my book I suggest that one man – a cat’s meat seller no less – might have been responsible for these and the Whitechapel murders.

For more details visit:

[from The Standard, Friday, June 28, 1889]

‘The poor animal was dreadfully exhausted’. Animal cruelty as a cabbie is prosecuted at Marylebone

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To some very real extent Victorian London was powered by the horse. Horses pulled cabs and carts, coaches, trams and omnibuses, and where today an individual might use a car to get around in the 1800s our ancestors would have ridden (if they had the wealth to afford it). The capital’s streets were thronged with horses then, as well as with people, and no doubt the streets were also well fertilized with the animals’ ‘leaving’s (although some drivers fitted bags to collect the manure their beasts expelled).

The use of horses is something we’ve left behind as the internal combustion engine has replaced them: better perhaps for them if not for us given the unprecedented levels of pollution that have now made central London’s air quite literally lethal. Today we think of horses as a luxury or as pets, animals more associated with the countryside than with the town. Yet even a short walk around the city would remind of the horse’s ubiquitous presence in the past, remembered today in the frequent existence of horse troughs and mews.

It was a hard life being a working horse in Victorian London. Cabbies, coachmen, carters and bus and tram companies worked their animals for long hours in all weathers. The average horse might work for 11 years and no peaceful retirement to pasture awaited them at the end of that, just one of Harrison Barber’s knackers. The firm of Harrison Barber had, by the 1880s at least, come to dominate the horse slaughtering business – something myself and Andy Wise discuss in our new history of the Whitechapel and Thames Torso murders. Most of the horses that ended up one of the company’s many yards across London were destined to serve the capital in another way, as pet food sold door to door by a ‘cat’s meat man’.

Many of those who kept a horse must have cared deeply for them; bonds between us and animals are deep rooted and not a ‘modern’ phenomena. But cruelty was also a feature of the relationships then as it is today. In May 1884 Charles Ramsden was brought up at Marylebone Police court and charged with ‘cruelly torturing a horse’. The 22 year-old cab driver worked for a cab proprietor named Barrell.

Mr Barrell was in court to testify that the young man had left his yard at six on Saturday evening and did not return until eight the following morning. Throughout the intervening 38 hours Ramsden had worked his horse constantly and as a result the poor animal had developed a wound on its back ‘so deep that he could have buried an egg in it’ the owner explained.

Now, however, it had swollen considerably, and was as big as his (prosecutor’s) head. The animal was dreadfully exhausted, trembled, and was very stiff in its joints from overwork’.

Ramsden had apparently refused to say where he’d been that night when Barrett has asked him but in court he told Mr De Rutzen that he’d had no choice but to keep working as he was unable to get a fare and so ‘was determined to stay out until he did get one’. The two policemen that arrested him gave supporting evidence as to the state of the animal as did William Peacock, a vet living on Westbourne Park Villas.

The magistrate was clear that this was a ‘very gross case of cruelty’ and he sent Ramsden to prison for a month with hard labour. Hopefully the animal recovered but I fear that its future looked bleak and that a visit to a knacker’s yard was not that far away.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, May 20, 1884]

‘diseased, unsound, unwholesome, and unfit’: a Norfolk knacker falls foul of the law

The Cats' Meat Man

Regular readers of this blog will know that alongside the very many cases of theft, drunkenness and assault the Police Courts dealt with a great deal of business that today would not get before a magistrate. London justices of the peace in the eighteenth century and their Victorian counterparts (the Police Court Magistrates) in effect regulated the daily life of Britain’s capital city.

So disputes over transport, employment, the provision of poor relief, the education of children, weights and measures, the sale of alcohol, and excise duty, all came under the purview of the magistracy. As a result the Police Courts are an ideal place to see how the metropolis functioned (or didn’t) in the past; all human (and often animal) life was here, and all manner of trades and occupations appear for the historian to study.

In a city as huge as London was (approximately 1/10th of the British population lived here in the 1800s) one perennial concern was the health and wellbeing of its citizens. The capital devoured vast amounts of food from all over the British Isles  and beyond and all of this had to fit for human consumption.

Meat was a particular concern and it fell to the market inspectors at Smithfield and the other city markets, as well as other officials to inspect meat and poultry that was offered for sale to the public. If suppliers (whether butchers, costermongers or slaughter men) attempted to foist unhealthy or rancid meat on an unsuspecting consumer they might well find themselves in front of a police court magistrate on a charge.

This is what happened to a Norfolk slaughterman named Thomas Fisher.

Fisher appeared before Sir Sydney Waterlow at Guildhall accused of ‘sending three quarters and a half of beef to the London Market for sale as human food’, when it was ‘diseased, unsound, unwholesome, and unfit for the food of man’. The case was brought by Mr Bayliss representing the Commissioners of Sewers (created in 1848 following concerns about public health in the wake of cholera outbreaks).

Bayliss told the Guildhall court that the animal concern had belonged to a grazier in the same area of Norfolk as Fisher. The cow had become sick and was diagnosed with a lung disease. Nowadays we are aware that bovine TB can be transmitted to humans and so is a significant health risk. Whether they knew this in 1870 is unlikely but an animal with the ‘lung disease’ as this beast had should not have made it to market.

The grazier was aware of this and so called for Fisher to take it away for slaughter and the meat to fed only to dogs. However, when Fisher collected the animal and started to ‘drive it home’, it collapsed on the road and he ‘was obliged to kill it there and then’. Afterwards he took the carcass to a slaughter yard were it was stripped and prepared and later sent on to London for sale as human food.

Once all this had been presented and verified in court Thomas Fisher had the opportunity to speak up for himself. The knacker argued that in his opinion the meat was fine when he sent it south. When ‘it dropped down he did think it was the lung disease, but when it was opened he saw that it had fallen from having a nail in its heart’. The meat was far too good, he insisted, to be wasted as dog food and if it was putrid when it reached London it must have been because of the hot weather.

A butcher was produced (presumably on behalf of the prosecution) to testify that he had seen beasts live for months with a nail in their hearts. In ‘one case an animal had a small roll of wire in its heart’ and still survived. The contention was that Fisher knew full well that the animal was diseased but chose to ignore this (and the implications for the health of Londoners) in order to profit from the carcass.

Sir Sydney was sympathetic to the knacker; he didn’t want, he said, to send a man like him to prison but he had clearly breached the laws around food safety and so he must fine him ‘the full penalty’. The full penalty in this case was £20 and £5s costs, the considerable sum of £925 in today’s money. Thomas Fisher was a relatively poor knacker who had probably spent a not insignificant sum of money in answering the summons by travelling to the capital from the Norfolk countryside. He certainly didn’t have £25 on his person (and probably not to his name).

In consequence, despite Sir Syndey’s sympathy he was sent to prison by default. After this was stated in court the gaoler led him away to the cells to begin await transfer to one of the capital’s prisons, probably Clerkenwell, to serve a month inside. If and when he emerged he faced the prospect of having to tramp back to Norfolk again under his own steam or to try and make a new life in London.

Given the tens of thousands of horses that vied with pedestrians on the capital’s crowded streets he might well have made a new career in the ‘Wen’ despatching the poor animals that reached their use-by date. Many of those animals then ended up being sold piecemeal on barrows by ‘cats-meat’ men. Horse meat sold as such was intended for cars and dogs but, as Dickens observed, sometimes graced the tables of not so discerning diners amongst the poorer classes.

So Fisher, having been accused and found guilty of trying to pass off diseased meat as fit for human consumption may well have ended up legitimately supplying horse flesh to the same consumers anyway.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, August 17, 1870]

If you are interested in this tale of the regulation of food in Victorian London then you might enjoy this post as well: A butcher is hooked