‘A most mischievous piece of fun’: a lawyer gets his comeuppence.

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Richard Thursgill and his family were awakened by someone ringing violently on their doorbell.  It was about a quarter past one in then morning of the 18 September 1878 and, in that respectable part of Ludgate Hill alarms like this usually meant one thing: fire! Despite being ill the whole family rose from their beds and rushed downstairs.

There was no fire however, and no one to be seen in the street outside either. Then, around five minutes later PC Martin of the City force appeared at the door with a young man. He’d caught him hiding near by after watching him ringing on the bell pull. The pull itself was almost wrenched clean off, so violent had the man’s actions been. The PC wanted to see if Mr Thursgill wanted to press charges.

He did and so the case ended up before Sir Andrew Lusk at the Guildhall Police court. There the young man gave his name as Arthur Stapleton, a solicitor of 62 Bishopsgate Street-without. He denied the charge and his lawyer assured the magistrate that his client was a respectable young law graduate and not the sort of person to do such a thing.

Really, the magistrate asked? In his experience this sort of ‘abominable’ behavior – ringing people’s doorbells and worrying them into thinking a fire had broken out – was exactlythe sort of thing ‘young solicitors and students did for a “lark”.

He had no doubt Stapleton was ‘respectable’ (and did not need him to produce the character witnesses he promised to prove it), but the only question he was concerned with was identification. Could PC Martin be sure that it was this person that had caused the annoyance?

Quite sure the policeman replied, there was no one else in the vicinity at that time and he’d seen him do it. In that case Sir Andrew said, he had no choice. For his ‘most mischievous piece of fun’ young Stapleton would have to pay the princely sum of 20s. He would have charged him less had been less ‘respectable’, merely 10s, but under the circumstances he could well afford 20s.

Let’s pause for a moment to share our collective sorrow for a solicitor being overcharged…

[from The Standard, Wednesday, September 18, 1878]

Charles Dickens celebrates the newspaper industry and its portrayal of ‘modern’ British society

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Given that surviving archival records of the Metropolitan Police courts of the Victorian period are very few are far between for the past few years I’ve spent a considerable amount of my time reading nineteenth-century newspapers. While I stick mostly to the ‘police intelligence’ it is impossible not to occasionally get distracted by the other news stories they covered. Living, as we do, in a society where news is now 24/7 and delivered instantly via tiny super powerful computers that fit in our pockets, it is hard to imagine sometimes how important the  Victorian press was to the dissemination of news and ideas to our ancestors. So, in a break from the norm today I want to highlight a speech that was reported in 1862 in the Daily News by none other than Charles Dickens, arguably England’s greatest ever novelist.

In May 1862 the Newsvendors Benevolent Institution celebrated their 23rdanniversary with a banquets at the Freemason’s Tavern in Great Queen Street (below right). Freemasons'_TavernThis is not the current Freemason’s Hall which is just further up the street but was on the site of what is now the Connaught Hotel. Regardless, it was a grand affair and with Dickens in the chair, no doubt an entertaining evening was had by all.

The famous author and public speaker opened by praising the man that had deputized for him the year before, Wilkie Collins. In 1861 Dickens had toothache and so had handed the chair to his friend but now expressed some regrets so well had his fellow novelist performed. ‘If I ever find myself obliged to provide a substitute again’, Dickens declared, ‘they may implicitly rely on my sending them the most speechless man of my acquaintance!’.

He then went, at some length, to list the ways in which the newspaper covered the whole gamut of life in Victorian Britain and the world. He did this by imagining himself peering over the shoulder of a reader, just as many of us will have done on a tube train or bus, trying to catch a story that has made the headlines.

The newspapers, Dickens noted, tell us who is born, who married, and who has died, and how. Other points and events in our lives are also recorded, especially if they are the lives of royalty or the famous. I’m struck by the fact that just the other week a baby was born in London and this made the news, even though millions of babies are born every day, all over the world. This baby was special of course, because Archie Windsor was the son of a prince and his new American born spouse.

Dickens noted that it was in the newspaper that the reader discovered that ‘there are great fleets bound to all the ports of the  world’ and here that they would find what these fleets carried, what space they had, where you might purchase a ticket to travel on them, and even find out what the ships were made of. Here were adverts for almost anything you could want (and many things you certainly wouldn’t need):

Still glancing over the shoulder of my newsman, I find I am offered all kinds of houses, lodgings, clerks, servants, and situations which I can possibly or impossibly want. I learn to my intense gratification that I need never grow old, that I may always preserve the juvenile bloom of complexion, that if I ever become ill it is entirely my own fault, that I may have no more grey hair. If I have any complaint and want brown cod liver oil or a Turkish bath I am told where I can get it, and that if I want an income of £7 a week I have only to send for it enclosing half-a-crown’s worthy of postage stamps’.

Along with the adverts (spurious and genuine) Dickens cited the political news that the papers reported. Here, he said, you could find out what the Home Secretary had to say about the ‘last outrage, the last railway accident, or the last mine explosion’, only to be told that the minster of state had said that ‘he knew nothing of the occurrence beyond what he had read in the newspapers’!

Dickens himself had reported from the law courts before he had ‘made it’ as an author of popular stories. He told his captive audience at the Freemason’s Tavern that the reporting of the police courts of the capital would inform the reader that:

if I have a propensity to indulge, I may very cheaply bite off a human being’s nose, but that if I presume to take off from a butcher’s window the nose of a dead calf or pig, it will cost me exceedingly dear’.

Once the laughter had settled down he went on to add:

and also find that if I allowed myself to be betrayed into the folly of killing an inoffensive tradesman upon his own doorstop, that little incident will not affect the testimonials to my character, but that I shall be described as a most amiable young man, and above all things, remarkable for the singular inoffensiveness of my character and disposition’.

Dickens was an astute observer of course and in many of the reports of court cases the defendants are described in flattering terms despite the crimes they are accused of, especially if they are drawn from the ranks of ‘respectable’ society.

He then went on to list the theatrical and other arts news that could be found in the papers, even though he noted that it was hardly ‘news’ at all. He ended with a tour around foreign and international news suggesting that the London press reported incidents and events that in some countries (he mentioned Japan as an example) would never be reported. This echoes today’s world news  where British and European readers may well be better informed of what is happening in some closed societies (like China, Saudi Arabia or North Korea) than the people living there.

News, after all, is power.

Charles Dickens finished his speech with a toast to the men (and ladies) of the institution who raised funds for those vendors who fell on hard times. The evening raised around £100 for the charity which would be used to provide pensions for the men who sold the newspapers that carried all of this news to the public. £100 in 1862 amounts to about  £6,000 today, and so it was a significant sum of money.

I’m struck by the comparison we might make with the way Dickens characterized the reach and variety of the newspaper in 1862 and today’s internet or ‘world wide web’. Our first instinct now if we want to find something out is to reach for our phones, tablets or PCs and to ‘Google it’. In seconds we find an answer (if not always ‘the’ answer) to our question.

But for all this technology our desire to know and understand the world around us is much the same. Moreover the Internet has really only replaced print news as the vehicle to inform, deceive, manipulate and exploit our desires and prejudices. Had the Victorians invented the worldwide web they would have probably have used it for all the things we use it for.

Once again I am left wondering just how ‘modern’ we really are.

[from Daily News, Wednesday, May 21, 1862]

The not-so-perfect employee

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Fleet Street in the 1850s

When Sarah Morgan left Mr Williamson’s employment on 1 February 1869 she did so with such a ringing written endorsement that she soon secured a job at a lawyer’s chambers in Gray’s Inn. Williamson was sorry to see her go as she had been an excellent servant to him and his wife at the Fleet Street premises where he carried on the business of a London hosier, supplying gloves, stockings, and other goods to his City customers. It must have come as something of a shock to him when the police contacted him about her in late March of the same year.

Sarah had started work at the chambers and she was seemingly doing very well, everyone was happy with her and she was living up to the reference the hosier had provided.  It all went wrong for her when, on 23 March a young man was found hiding in her room. The police were called, initially because he was suspected of robbing the place. He was taken away but nothing was found on him to suggest he’d committed a crime. He was later charged at Bow Street but cleared of any wrong doing. This turned the attention back on Sarah.

Mr Saltmarsh, her new employer, asked to search her things and she willing agreed. He went though the two boxes she indicated were hers and he found nothing within that belonged to the Chambers. However he did find two boxes she hadn’t pointed out to him and opened these. Inside was a treasure of hosiery:

’27 pairs of kids gloves, 10 cambric handkerchiefs, and other things’ all belonging to her previous master, Mr Williamson.

In all there were goods valued at over £7 (or around  £450 in today’s money). In court before two aldermen at the Guildhall Sarah claimed these had been given to her by James Oakes, the hosier’s shopman, but he denied it when asked and  when pressed on this Sarah admitted this was a lie. She threw herself on the mercy of the court and asked to be dealt with summarily, under the terms of the Criminal Justice Act (probably the 1855 Administration of Justice Act which allowed magistrates to deal with petty thefts and some other offences if the accused agave their permission to being dealt with – and pleaded guilty to the charge).

The aldermen (Gibbons and Causton) agreed and after a brief consultation sent her to prison for three months with hard labour.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, March 25, 1869]

A ‘flasher’ in the theatre is exposed

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Mr Hope was enjoying a night out at the theatre with his wife in early January 1842 when  his attention was caught by a young man in a nearby box. He was ‘fashionably dressed’ and appeared to be a little the worse for drink. This was not an uncommon sight at the Haymarket (or any other) Theatre, but Mr Hope felt there was something about the way that the young gentleman behaved that concerned him.

As he watched from the comfort of his private box he noticed that the other man seemed to be focused on a couple in a nearby box. When the man in that box rose and left briefly, the young man stood up, opened his trousers and ‘indecently exposed his person’. The poor woman had been ‘flashed’ and wasn’t sure what to do. Mr Hope reacted quickly, moving over and into her box and taking her hand to lead her back to the safety of his own. Leaving her in the reassuring company of his wife, he went in search of a policeman.

Having found one he returned to the box and explained to the woman’s husband exactly what had happened. The culprit – Thomas Sale Pennington – was pointed out and the constable asked him to come along quietly and without disturbing the other theatregoers or the performance. Pennington refused and suffered the indignity of being dragged from the venue by his collar before being frog marched to a police station.

On the following day Pennington was stood in the dock at Marlborough Street and charged with ‘an unparalleled act of indecency’. Whilst he didn’t deny exposing himself the young man did try to excuse himself on account of being drunk. Pennington said he had no recollection of the couple concerned and could hardly remember what he was supposed to have done. He also said he’d been a student at Oxford for the past four years and could provide plenty of character witnesses who would testify on his behalf.

If he thought this would go down well with Mr Maltby the magistrate he was sadly mistaken. The only issue for the justice was in establishing his guilt. For the victim and her husband (who were not named in the newspaper report, no doubt to save their blushes) the most important thing was in protecting her from having to relive the incident.  Mr Hope pleaded that his evidence and that of the lady’s husband were sufficient to save the lady from taking the stand but the magistrate and his chief clerk said she would have to answer a few questions.

Having satisfied himself that Pennington was guilty as charged and that his drinking did not mitigate his actions Mr Maltby turned to him. The justice told him that he was guilty of ‘committing a willful and intentional insult’. The public, he continued, ‘must be protected from such disgusting conduct’ and he sent him to prison for three months ‘as a rogue and vagabond’. He gave him leave to appeal to the Sessions but since there he might have been handed an even longer sentence had a jury convicted him, I doubt he took that up.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, 6 January, 1842]

The red mist descends as a coachman gets tangled with an Italian organ

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It was half past five on a Friday afternoon in May 1876 and George Athersford, who was employed by Lady Scott of Cromwell Road, South Kensington, was driving the empty family brougham along Westbourne Place in Pimlico. As he turned into the road he came suddenly on a pair of musicians playing a street organ.

It was a common enough sight in London and a not inconsiderable nuisance to some people, but for whatever reason the coachman didn’t see the pair until he was upon them. The brougham was about the collide with organ when one of the musicians, Pietro Cordani, grabbed hold of the footboard to try and slow the coach down.

At this Athersford brought his whip down on the head of the poor Italian and hit him until he let go. The coachman drove away leaving two angry organ grinders in his wake.

Soon afterwards however, Athersford was back, this time with two lady passengers – Lady Scott and her daughter – on board. Seeing the driver that had attacked his colleague the other musician, Giacomo Malvicé, made a grab for the halter on the horse’s head and tried to pull the coach to a halt.

Again the driver reacted violently, lashing down at the musician and his friend. But this time a policeman was nearby and quickly intervened. Athersford was pulled down from his seat and the ladies got out of the carriage. George was clearly quite drunk, certainly too drunk to be driving in the officer’s opinion, so he summoned a cab for the ladies.

Athersford was taken into custody and brought before the magistrate at Westminster charged with assaulting the musicians and with being drunk and incapable whilst driving. In his defence the coachman said that he’d had a few beers and no food with them, but ‘he knew what he was about’. He admitted hitting Cordon but only lightly, so as to get him to let go of his vehicle. He asked Mr Arnold (the magistrate) to remand him while he called for some witnesses to support his version of events.

The case came back a few days later and the same evidence was repeated by the two musicians and by Lady Scott. Her husband gave the driver a good character reference (he’d worked for them for six months and had proved himself to be ‘steady and sober’ so his behaviour was a surprise to him).

Mr Arnold, the magistrate, said that Athersford had no right to use the force he had but said if he was prepared to settle the matter with the two Italians (by apologising and paying then some compensation I presume) that would be the end of the assault charge. The driver agreed which just left the small matter of the drunk driving. Here Athersford was fortunate to have an indulgent employer. In consequence of his previous good conduct (as testified by Mr Scott) the justice only imposed a small fine of 5s (or seven days in prison) which Athersford paid at once.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, May 29, 1876; Daily News , Saturday, June 3, 1876]

‘They fought very severely for little boys’; tragedy in Rotherhithe.

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Today’s story picks up on where we left it yesterday, with a young lad of 12 being committed for trial for killing another youth in a fist fight at Rotherhithe. A police inspector from the Thames office was also charged with being an accessory, as he was seen to encourage the boy to strike down his opponent. The trial took place on 10 May 1858 in the Central Criminal Court at the Old Bailey.

Martha Warren was the first witness to take the stand. She swore that she saw the fight taking place in Cross Street, Rotherhithe at 1 in the afternoon. There was a ring of boys surrounding the pair, but only three adults were present, one of whom was Henry Hambrook a police inspector although at the time he was on sick leave and was quite close to retiring from the force.

Martha testified that she had heard the policeman utter the words ‘Give it him right and left, and hit him once under the ear, and he won’t want to fight again’, and soon afterwards saw the victim, Thomas Boulton, fall down after William Selless landed just such a blow under his ear. It was clearly a shock to William to see what effect his assault had had on the other boy, and as we saw yesterday he ran all the way home to his mother scared of what would happen next.

Martha was able to identify one of the three men gathered at the scene, his name was John Ventham, and she must have known him as a local man. Under cross examination she was clear that none of the men had tried to separate the lads, instead they watched and encouraged the fight. She heard Hambrook tell Sellers:

‘Keep up to him, young one, and give him right and left’ before whispering something else in his ear. 

When Boulton fell to the floor with a scream Hambrook did nothing to help she added, but simply ‘put up his hand and went away’. Others did come to help, including a woman who rushed over to fetch some water in a tub. The stricken lad was carried off by one of the bystanders, a Mr. Kitchen, but died of his injury.

James Francis also witnessed the fight and heard the policeman offer his advice to Selless. He gave some background to the fight as well, telling the court that the two lads were actually friends and that the quarrel between them had arisen over ‘three buttons’ and an accusation that Selless had failed to look after the other boy’s goat. Boulton had started it and he was, as others had noted, the taller and slightly older of the pair (Boulton was 13, Selless just 12).

The fight was conducted like a boxing match – the pair traded blows and they fought in rounds. Selless had been knocked down early in the conflict, but regained his feet. Perhaps the crucialy part of Francis’ testimony was when he said that ‘they fought very severely for little boys, [but] not so violently as they did when Hambrook came’.

This suggested that the police inspector, who should surely have put a stop to the fight actually chose to escalate it and his actions had a direct impact on the tragedy that happened that day.

The fight seems to have been quite well balanced for the most part, Selless went down twice, his opponent three times, as they squared up to each other. It must have gone on for 15 minutes or more before Selless landed his fatal blow. Thomas Simpson, a local surgeon, who testified that the cause of death was a ruptured blood vessel close to the lad’s ear, examined Boulton. He suspected that the injury was caused by the fall however, not the blow itself. It was an accident born out of the fight, nothing deliberate or malicious.

‘The sudden fall would be quite sufficient to rupture the blood vessel’ he said, ‘considering the excited state the vessels were in—it was what would be called an apoplectic fit—there was not the slightest mark under the ear’.

Simpson then offered Hambrook a character witness saying he was ‘a kindly disposed, humane person’. Several others stepped up to give similar testimonials for the policeman including the officer that arrested him, who added that he was about to be pensioned out of the force on account of his failing health.

The jury were directed to convict both defendants on the strength of the facts given in court and they duly did. Both were recommend to mercy however, and the judge took this into account in sentencing.

He sent Sellers to prison for just three days, accepting that he had no intention to cause the death of his friend. As for Hambrook he also accepted that the man had no desire to encourage the boy to kill and that if he had ‘he should pass a very different sentence’ upon him. However, he was a police officer and his had a duty to uphold the law and keep the peace.

Instead ‘he had incited the boy Sellers [sic] to continue the contest; and there was no doubt that owing to his suggestion the fatal result had taken place’.  He would therefore go to prison with hard labour for three months.

At this Hambrook pleaded for mercy. He was ill, suffering he said from heart disease and wouldn’t cope with hard labour. The judge, Baron Martin, was implacable, there was no way he could reduce the sentence he said and the policeman was taken down.  Hambrook was 52 in 1858 so while not old, he was not young either and he might have expected a hard time in prison (as all coppers can). Moreover his disgrace would have meant the loss of his pension along with his liberty and livelihood. As for William Selless he seems to have stayed out of trouble after this but didn’t live a long life. Records suggest he died in March 1892 at the age of just 46.

This fight between two friends who fell out over something ill defined and certainly trivial ended in tragedy. Thomas Boulton lost his life and a police inspector with many years of good service lost his reputation and his future economic security. As for William Selless we should remember he too was just a child and he would have to live his life forever haunted by the sound of his friend screaming as his blow sent him crashing to the floor.

What a senseless waste of three lives.

[from The Standard, Thursday, May 13, 1858]

‘She must have fallen among bad companions’: a servant in trouble at Clerkenwell

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Under the terms of the Married Women’s Property Act (1882) the law stated that:

A married woman shall, in accordance with the provisions of this Act, be capable of acquiring, holding, and disposing by will or otherwise, of any real or personal property as her separate property.*

The act built upon a previous (and more famous) one from 1870 which is credited as one of the first moves towards the emancipation of wives from the total control of their husbands. That the legislation was new in 1884 is evident from this report of a hearing at Clerkenwell Police court in April of that year.

A Mr. A Peartree came to court to prosecute a teenage domestic servant on behalf of his wife. Mrs Dinah Peartree operated a shop at  181 Caledonian Road in north London, and the girl – Lydia Pye – was employed by her. Mr. Peartree acted as the manager but it was his wife’s enterprise, and he was at pains to say so in court.

He told the magistrate (Mr. Hosack) that over the past six weeks things had been going missing from the business and suspicion had fallen a boy that also worked there. He had been dismissed but ‘goods still continued, however, to disappear’ and eventually Mrs Peartree spoke to Lydia about it.

The young girl denied the suggestion that she’d stolen and decided to brazen it out with her employers. She produced her box – wherein all servants seemed to have kept their own possessions – and it was opened in the presence of a policeman. Lydia must have been hoping that her bluff would not be called because when the box’s lid was lifted several of the missing items were revealed. These were ‘a number of tumblers, jugs, and other tableware’ belonging to Mrs Peartree.

In court a ‘painful scene unfolded’. Lydia had come with excellent references and now her mother appeared in court to see her daughter’s shame. She (Mrs Pye) was horrified that Lydia should have stolen from her mistress.

She told the justice that ‘she never could have believed that her daughter would be guilty of dishonesty. Her parents were known to be honest people, and had trained her to the best of their power to be honest too. She must have fallen among bad companions’, she added, ‘or it never could have happened’.

Reluctantly, Mr. Hosack decided to be lenient on this occasion.  As it was a first offence he gave Lydia the option of paying a fine (of 20s) or she would go to prison for 10 days.

I’m not condoning the theft but it strikes me that what Lydia was doing was starting a collection of household goods that would serve her if she had to set up a home in the next few years. Servants and shop girls earned very little, hardly enough to save for a future marriage and perhaps she thought that the Peartree’s wouldn’t miss such relatively trivial accouterments of everyday life. I wonder also if the boy who was falsely accused and sacked was enquired after and given his job back (if he wanted it) because he seems to be the real victim in all of this.

I’m also curious that while the new legislation seemed to empower a wife to act independently it was her husband that pressed the charge in court. Maybe she had the shop to run and it was a practical decision, but maybe the business was in her name but he controlled their affairs.

[from The Illustrated Police News etc, Saturday, April 19, 1884]

* 18 August 1882 45 Vic. C. 75