Echoes of Oliver Twist as an Islington apprentice complains of being abused

Noah Claypole from Oliver Twist

By the mid 1840s the Victorian reading public were familiar with the work of Charles Dickens and his stories of everyday life. Between 1837 (when the young Queen Victoria ascended the throne) and 1839 Bentley’s Miscellany serialised the adventures of Oliver Twist as he escaped from the home of the Sowerberrys and the abuse he’d suffered at the hands of Noah Claypole and Charlotte, the serving maid.

Of course that escape was short lived as Oliver was plunged into the criminal underworld of the metropolis and the lives and crimes of Fagin and his gang of pickpockets. Happily of course ‘all’s well that ends well’, and Oliver finds redemption and peace in the home of Mr Brownlow, even if the plot does have a few more twists and turns along the way.

Oliver was a parish apprentice. He was placed first with a chimney sweep and then with Mr Sowerberry (an undertaker) as a way to get him out of the workhouse and off the parish books. Apprenticeship was not as popular as it had been 100 years earlier but it was still seen as a route to a respectable trade and steady income. Young people were apprenticed in their teens and learned a skill from their master before leaving to set up as journeyman in their early 20s.

The system was open to abuse of course; Dickens was not making up the characters of Noah and Charlotte, or Gamfield the brutish sweep. These sorts of individuals existed, even if Dickens exaggerated them for dramatic or comic effect. In the 1700s in London apprentices who felt aggrieved could take their complaints (or not being trained, being exalted, or even abused) to the Chamberlain of London in his court at Guildhall. Failing that they might seek advice and mediation from a magistrate.

Both sides approached the Chamberlain and magistrate in the Georgian period and apprentices were released from their contracts or admonished in equal measure. For a master the courts were often a useful way to discipline unruly teenagers who simply refused to obey their ‘betters’.  However, other masters resorted to physical chastisement in their attempts to discipline their disobedient charges.

Sometimes this went too far, as in this case that reached the Police Court magistrate at Clerkenwell.

Joseph Mitchely was a parish apprentice, just like the fictional Oliver. He was aged 14 or 15 and had been bound to an Islington  ‘master frame maker and french polisher’ named Wilton. In early November he had complained to the court that Henry Wilton was beating him unfairly and the magistrate ordered an investigation to be made. He called in the parish authorities (in the person of Mr Hicks) who made some enquiries into the case.

Having completed his investigation Mr Hicks reported back to Mr Tyrwhitt, the sitting justice at Clerkenwell. He declared that the boy had exaggerated the extent of the ‘abuse’ he’d supposedly suffered and was now apologetic. Apparently, young Joseph now ‘begged his master’s forgiveness’.

Mr Tyrwhitt discharged the master frame maker and told the boy to return with him and make his peace. He added that in it might be better if any further disputes between them were brought before him or one of his fellow magistrates, and suggested that Mr Wilton avoid ‘moderate correction’ in future. Hopefully both parties had learnt a valuable lesson   and were able to move forward in what was a crucial relationship (for Joseph at least).

[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, November 21, 1848]

‘I like the workhouse, they give me good food there’: two stray waifs on London Bridge

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George W. Martin was a music teacher with a social conscience, a man that comes across as a real-life ‘Mr Brownlow’, the benevolent savior of ‘Oliver Twist’. In early November 1872 Mr Martin was walking across London Bridge when he spotted two street urchins begging.

They were tiny, virtually without clothes, and seemed to be siblings. One of them – a boy of 7 named Patrick Davey – asked him for a halfpenny and George bought them both some food. As they ate he asked them why they were out on the streets begging they told him that they had no choice; ‘they must take money home or [their] father would thrash them’.

The kindly gentleman now called over a constable who took them to a police station house so investigations could be made. Once their address was determined an officer was dispatched to fetch their father and the following day the trio were brought before Mr Benson at Southwark Police court.

Whilst Patrick and his sister Bridget (6) shivered in the dock ‘almost in a state of nudity’, they did not seem to be starving. Their father – ‘a tall powerful man’ – promised his worship that the children were well-fed, and he assured him he never sent them out to beg.

However, it was not the first time Davey had been summoned about his wandering offspring. The man agreed and apologized but said their was little he could do. He had to go to work early each day and they children had no mother at home to look after them.

Patrick had lost his jacket and told the magistrate he’d sold it. Overnight the children had been kept in the workhouse and Patrick said he quite liked the place because, he explained, ‘they give me good food there’. Clearly food was his driving force.

Mr Benson ordered that they be taken back to the workhouse for a week and hoped (perhaps as a result of the coverage of the story by the press) that ‘some benevolent person’ might help support getting them into school. Perhaps Mr Martin would, having already shown a willingness to get involved where other had not.

Of course they should never have been in such a situation. Two small children should not have been out unaccompanied and begging in the streets of the capital. This was exactly the sort of social problem that Dickens was keen to expose in his writings. Patrick and Bridget deserved an education and a proper childhood, goodness knows what might have happened to them had not the music teacher intervened.

Two years earlier, in 1870, the Forster (or Elementary Education) Act had introduced compulsory primary education for children aged 5-13 but attendance was only enforced by school boards and it wasn’t free. After 1876 the poorest pupils could get free education if they were provided with a certificate by the parish. In 1880 the rules on attendance were tightened, putting the responsibility for ensuring it on local authorities and not simply the school boards.

In 1884 a commission reported that 50,000 London school age children were hungry. Free primary education arrived in 1891 when the Elementary Education Act required the government to pay a ‘fee grant’ of 10for each child aged 5-13 and prohibited schools from charging fees themselves.

So before 1891 education was a luxury that many families could not afford. Moreover, there was nothing provided in terms of childcare or nurseries for the poor, and many families relied on their children’s labour to supplement low incomes or help with caring responsibilities.

This Victorian lack of education is however, a thing of the past. Now children can be educated at the state’s expense in state of the art schools up and down the country. Yes they lack facilities, and many still go to school hungry, and truancy levels and exclusions remains a problem, but we do have free schools.

If only the poverty that Bridget and Patrick experienced – with a father that was in work remember – was also a thing of the past. It is not of course; over the last decade child poverty rates have risen to the point that we now have something like 4,000,000 UK children living in poverty. This is one of the worst rates of poverty in the industrialized world, not my words but those of the Children’s Society.

The election that is looming is one of the most important in a generation, and more important for the future of our children than any I can remember. We have the thorny subject of Brexit and our economic prosperity; we have the climate emergency and the need to take urgent radical action; and we have child care, health care and social care – three key issues that help support families in the UK.

This is an election about the future not about narrow and limited party political battles or the individual careers of over privileged politicians. Like 1945 this is an opportunity to change society for the better, and to change it so it works for the many, not the few.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, November 02, 1872]

A ‘very hard and cruel case’ as a mother nearly loses everything

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The very last case heard at Guildhall Police court on 19 September 1864 was a tragic one, and one that might have been written by the capital’s greatest narrator, Charles Dickens.

Mrs Samuel Smith came to ask the magistrate’s help in a dispute she was having with a firm of ship owners. In January she had placed an advert in the newspapers looking for an apprenticeship for her son, who ‘wanted to go to sea’. A Mr Edward West, who ran a company of shipbuilders and said he knew a firm that was prepared to take on young master Smith, for a fee, answered that advert.

The fee (or premium) he required was quite high at £20 and more than Mrs Smith could afford in one go. Her husband was an invalid and unable to work so the family’s funds were limited. Nevertheless she offered to pay in two instalments and Lang & Co. (West’s firm) said they would accept £11 up front with £10 in the form of a ‘note of hand’ (an obligation to pay later in other words).

This was all agreed and the lad left London and sailed off to start his new life and career with the firm of Powell & Co, shipowners, where Mr. West had secured an apprenticeship for him.

Then tragedy struck. The ship ran into a storm and was wrecked with the loss of everyone on board, including Mrs Smith’s boy.

This was not the end of her troubles however; Mr West (or rather Powell & Co.) still demanded the balance of the premium, and had signaled their intention to sue Mrs Smith for it. Thus, she had come to the Guildhall to ask for advice.

Alderman Hale sent for Mr West who explained that the issue was between Mrs Smith and Mr Powell, he was simply an intermediary in all of this. He had brokered the deal, so Powell owed him the money, and Mrs Smith owed Powell. He wasn’t budging despite agreeing with the alderman declaring that it was ‘ a most harsh and cruel proceeding’.

Mrs Smith said she was prepared to pay the £10 she owed but not the costs that had subsequently been incurred by the issuing of a writ. She was in danger of losing her furniture and other possession as the debt mounted and the bailiffs circled. She needed this to end here before her debts spiraled.  The magistrate thought this fair and said she had suffered enough, it was, he added, a ‘very hard and cruel case’. This probably forced West to accept the woman’s offer and the money was paid there and then.

This case was harsh and cruel and quite Dickensian. I can quite imagine the great story teller sitting in court and creating a pen portrait of the avaricious Mr West and pale and weeping figure of Mrs Smith.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, September 20, 1864]

‘The water rushed in with such violence’: the flooding of Southwark workhouse

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Southwark workhouse c.1910

It always seems strange to be looking at the news and seeing scenes of devastation caused by flooding in the summer. The situation at Whaley Bridge in Derbyshire is awful and surely yet another example of how climate change is affecting the planet. But it is August and I associate torrential rain and flooding with the autumn and winter, not the summer.

Clearly I’m no meteorologist and even a casual glance back at the past reveals that sudden downpours and extreme weather is not a new phenomenon (even if the climate emergency we are now facing most certainly is).

In August 1846 three young girls were brought before the magistrate at Southwark Police court to be disciplined for their disobedience. The girls, who are not named in the newspaper report, were all inmates of the Southwark workhouse on Mint Street. Their crime – such as it was – appears to have been a refusal to do the work that was allocated to them by the institution’s porter, who was in court to testify against them.

He explained that on the previous Saturday (the last one in July) there had been a storm that had caused severe flooding in the basement. He had instructed the trio to help carry several beds from the ward to the upper stories of the building. Southwark workhouse was built in 1782 as a three story structure with a new section added in 1844. The ward in the basement was called the ‘probationary ward’ and it housed some of the sick female residents.

The flood was frightening, one inmate told Mr Secker: ‘the water rushed in with such violence, that before she could escape with her child it rose up as high as her waist, and it was only providential that some of them were not drowned’.

The three girls were asked to explain their refusal to carry the beds upstairs. They stated that the beds were simply too heavy for them and ‘above their strength’. Had the porter and workhouse staff allowed the beds to be separated (i.e. taken apart rather than left whole) then they could have managed it and been happy to do it. They added that they were then punished by the porter by being forced to remain in the flooded basement and ‘treated with much rigour’.

We know that workhouses were terrible places often run by cruel overseers who treated the inmates appallingly. Oliver Twist may be a novel but it is not a fantasy. In 1865 a report by the medical journal the Lancet condemned the state of Southwark workhouse stating that it ‘ought to be removed, and one built better adapted to fulfil its duties to the poor and sick of the neighbourhood’. Regardless of this it continued to serve the area until 1920.

‘Pauper bastilles’ like Southwark were designed to be places you did not want to enter. Under the principle of less eligibility’ set out in the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act going into a workhouse was supposed to be a least resort. The aim was to deter anyone who was able bodied from seeking poor relief. Only the sick and old would ask for help from the parish, everyone else would try to find work, any work, rather than enter the ‘house’.

Mr Secker could see that the three little girls had done nothing wrong, at least not in the eyes of the law. He stopped short of admonishing the cruelty of the porter who had tried to make children carry heavy iron beds up from a flooded basement and then locked them in a dark wet ‘prison’ as a punishment. Instead he simply said that no further punishment was necessary or appropriate and discharged them, presumably back into the ‘care’ of the parish authorities.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, August 04, 1846]

A poor lad is exposed to shame and ridicule by the callous workhouse system

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The Victorian period is synonymous with the harsh treatment of paupers in the workhouse. We draw much of our popular imagery of the workhouse from Dickens (and film and television adaptions of Oliver Twist in particular) and from now fading folk memories of the dreaded ‘house’. There are good late nineteenth century descriptions of the workhouse from men – social reformers and journalists – who visited them, sometimes in disguise. These give us an idea of the deprivations that those forced through poverty to enter them were exposed to.

The newspaper reports of proceedings at the Police Courts of the metropolis are another excellent way to ‘experience’ the reality of these cold and uncaring institutions and assess wider attitudes towards poverty and paupers. On many occasions malingerers and ‘shammers’ were brought before the magistracy to be punished for begging. Vagrants were rounded up by the police and given short sentences by the courts. The Mendicity Society brought prosecutions against those they thought were faking their injuries, and sometimes of course they were right. Just as today not every beggar with a hard luck story is telling the truth. But the courts also helped the poor, handing out small sums of money and, as in today’s case, taking to task or even punishing those that abused paupers in their care.

In late May 1868 the Thames Police court was graced with the presence of the 5th Marquis of Townshend. John Villiers Townshend (whose Vanity Fair caricature can be seen right), was the member of parliament for Tamworth and enjoyed a reputation as ‘the pauper’s friend’. Townshend was a social reforming politician who made it his business to know what was happening in the capital’s workhouses.  He was in court in 1868 to point out the mistreatment of a young lad in causal ward of the Ratcliffe workhouse. mw06374

The young man, who’s name is not given, had been released on to the streets wearing a rough canvas suit of clothes which was printed with the following text:

‘Jack from the country’ (on the back of the jacket) and ‘Lazy scamp’ on one trouser leg.

The intention was clear: when the lad left the ward he would be exposed to ridicule in the streets and, presumably, this was done deliberately to deter him from ever seeking asylum there again. After all one of the driving principles of the poor law was to deter the ‘undeserving’ poor from seeking help from the parish. The workhouse had to be awful, the logic ran, so that the last and feckless would not think of going there. Instead the workhouse was to be a place of last resort, used by the ‘deserving’ or genuinely impoverished who really had no alternatives.

Having been presented with this disturbing scene Mr Paget, the Thames magistrate, sent a runner to bring Wilding, the labour master and superintendent of the Ratcliffe workhouse, to the court to answer for himself. Wilding said he’d followed the rules. The lad had been given food and shelter I the ward but he’d chosen to cut up his own clothes and so had nothing to wear. That’s why he’d given him the rough canvas suit, what else was he to do? He marked the suit accordingly as what he clearly felt was an appropriate punishment.

The pauper explained that the reason he had ripped up his clothes was that ‘that he could not wear them any longer, they were very dirty and covered with vermin’.

Mr Paget took the side of the lad (or perhaps more obviously that of the marquis). He instructed the clerk of the court to send a letter to the Poor Law Board to report the misconduct of the labour master. Lord Townshend said he would also bring the matter up with the board. ‘If paupers were thrust into the streets with such extraordinary comments and inscriptions on their garments it would’, he declared, ‘give rise to inconvenience and breeches of the peace’.

More practically the marquis also undertook to provide the lad with a new set of clothes and a pair of stout boots. The canvas suit would be returned to the Ratcliffe workhouse, hopefully for disposal. The watching public gave him a rousing cheer as he left the courtroom, here was one small victory for the ordinary man over the hated keepers of the pauper ‘bastilles’

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, May 26, 1868]

If you enjoy this blog series you might be interested in Drew’s jointly authored study of the Whitechapel (or ‘Jack the Ripper’) murders that is published by Amberley Books on 15 June this year. You can find details here:

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]

‘Brutal in the extreme’: one woman’s courage to stand up for herself against the odds

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It is probably fair to say that the marriage of Albert and Martha Sykes was doomed to fail. Albert was a labourer when the couple first got together and began to cohabit. Getting married may have been desirable, especially for working class women keen to uphold their reputations, but it was not always an inevitable consequence of cohabitation.

At some point in 1887 Martha gave birth to a baby girl but by then Albert was nowhere to be seen. Like many men he’d decided to shirk his responsibilities and deserted his partner. Martha though was a strong woman and insistent that her daughter should have a father to support her, so she went to law and obtained a summons to bring Albert to court.

When next she saw him in the dock at Marylebone Police court he was dressed as a sailor and stated that he was now an able seaman in the navy. The court determined that as he was  girl’s father he was obliged to pay towards her keep. However, Albert attempted to dodge this responsibility as well and never paid a penny. Martha stuck to her guns and summoned him for non-payment, so Albert found himself back in front of a magistrate in October 1889.

He promised to make good on the arrears and the case was adjourned for him to make a first payment. That never materialized (surprise, surprise) and so back to Marylebone he and Martha went. This time she had new offer for her estranged sailor: if he would agree to marry her and return home she would ‘forgive him the amount he was in arrears’. I think this tells us something about Martha, if not more about the reality of some working-class relationships in the late Victorian period. She had a small child and limited opportunities to bring in income. Therefore, as unreliable as Albert was he was of use to her. His wages would put food on the table and pay the rent and marriage would give Martha the respectability she felt she needed having born a child out of wedlock.

Albert agreed and the couple were married but they didn’t live happily ever after. Within months he’d deserted her again and she had summoned him back to court. That forced him to return to the marital home but he was a reluctant husband and things only got worse.

In May 1890 Albert was brought up before Mr De Rutzen at Marylebone and charged with assaulting Martha, who was pregnant again. He was serving with navy at Chatham, attached to H.M.S Forte (which was under construction)¹, but was brought in on a warrant that Martha had taken out against him. Once again we can admire her determination to use the law to  prosecute her husband and to try to bring him to book, however futile it seems to have been.

Martha testified to his cruelty saying that she had putting her daughter’s boots on in the morning at their rented rooms at 3 Dickenson Street, Kentish Town when the little girl had started crying that she was hungry. Albert was annoyed at the noise and hit the child. Martha told him he had no right to strike the girl and an argument flared. The couple was poor despite Sykes’ navy salary and Martha was often obliged to pawn items. It seems she’d recently pawned a firearm belonging to Albert simply so she could pay the rent.

The argument escalated and he grabbed her by the throat and began to strangle the life out of her. Martha managed to fight back and free herself but he pushed her to the floor and knee’d her in the stomach. She screamed, in pain and in fear of losing her unborn baby, and the landlady came running upstairs. But Albert was already on his way out, running away from trouble as he always did.

He was back that night though and the fight started again. He took the hat she was wearing and threw it in the fire; Martha had to run from the house, in fear of her life, taking her little girl with her. It was a sadly typical example of male violence in the late 1800s but here we can see it escalate over time. Most women killed in the period were killed by their spouse or partner and often after years of non-fatal attacks. Abused women rarely went to court early in the cycle, choosing instead to believe they could calm or amend violent behavior. In reality once a man started hitting his wife he didn’t stop until the pair were separated by legal means or by the woman’s death.

In this case Martha was a strong woman who stood up for herself and her daughter in court, refuted the counter claims of antagonizing Albert which were leveled by his lawyer, and she convinced the magistrate that he was guilty as charged. Mr De Rutzen described Albert Sykes (who seemed destined to live down to the behaviour of his fictional namesake) as ‘brutal in the extreme’. Albert was sentenced to two months in prison, an outcome that seemed to surprise him. As he was led away he was heard to ask to see his mother.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, May 11, 1890]

¹ HMS Forte was launched in 1893, one of eight cruisers commissioned by the navy in the 1890s. She saw service off the coast of Africa but was decommissioned in 1913 as the navy needed a very different class of warship for the coming fight with Imperial Germany.