Skipping their way to court: prosecuting games in the ‘People’s Park’

Vic Park

In 1874 Easter fell over the weekend of the 4thand 5thApril and the weather was fair in London. On Easter Sunday lots of Londoners headed to the parks to take the air and promenade in the spring sunshine. Victoria Park in East London (dubbed the ‘people’s park’) was particularly busy; an estimated 20,000 people visited, many dressed in their ‘Sunday best’. The police were on hand as always, to keep an eye on any troublemakers and to ward off thieves and drunks.

The park had first been opened to the public in 1845 and a Chartist demonstration in 1848 gave the police their first public order challenge. That passed without incident as the thousands who gathered soon dispersed when a heavy rain shower broke above them. So much for a British revolution eh?

Victoria Park fell under the aegis of the Royal Parks and Gardens Regulations Act (1872) which restricted the use of the park. All ‘games’ were banned for example, although interpretations of what a ‘game’ meant was disputed. A week after Easter two men were brought to the Worship Street Police court and prosecuted under the act by a representative of the Royal Parks.

Park constable Blazer (no.21) reported that on Easter Sunday he’d been on patrol in the park when he’d noticed a number of men with skipping ropes. The men were holding long ropes and charging men and women a halfpenny or a penny to skip within them while they twirled them. It seemed like harmless fun but the constable said that it was damaging the grass (presumably by the tramping of very many pairs of feet jumping up and down). Moreover, charging money was an infringement of the rules.

He approached two of the men and told them desist but they laughed at him and carried on. Blazer then decided he had to arrest them. The men were charged at the nearest station and released to appear before Mr Hannay at the police court. There the magistrate asked their names and occupations. Henry Neale was a brass finisher and his companion, James Mortimer said he was a labourer. Both were simply earning a little extra by their entrepreneurial use of a skipping rope.

Inspector Condon of K Division was on hand to support the park constable. He explained that under the regulations defined in the act no person was allowed to play at ‘any game’  or ‘sell or let any commodity’. Arguably then the men had broken two rules but Mr Hannay doubted whether selling a go on a skipping rope constituted selling a ‘commodity’. However, by the same token they were clearly engaged in ‘a game’, which did infringe the rules. The constable piped up to say that he always ignored children who were skipping with their own ropes,. he was sure that shouldn’t be restricted under the spirit of the act.

Today our parks are full of people running, skipping, playing football or cricket, doing yoga or pilates, or using the myriad exercise machines that have sprung up in recent years. Exercise is part of the mantra of daily life and the idea that we would prosecute people for encouraging a little of it seems odd, the say the least. But while the Victorian recognized the benefits of fresh air and a brisk walk they also wanted to keep their green spaces free from commercial exploitation, especially on holy days. Mr Hannay duly fined the pair for causing a nuisance. They handed over half a crown each and were discharged.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, April 12, 1874]

The peril of children running errands on London’s streets

Boys exercising at Tothill Fields Prison

I recall being dispatched to buy cigarettes for my father on several occasions in my youth, or to return ‘pop’ bottles for the deposit. Both involved a long walk (or run) down (and then back up) the hill where we lived. Running ‘errands’ like this was a common enough thing in the past but I suspect it is one of those things that no longer happens, especially with small children, given the perceived perils of modern society.

In the nineteenth century sending a child (even one as young as 7) out to fetch food or drink, or to deliver a message, was very normal. After all children worked at a much younger age and until mid century school was really only for the sons and daughters of the better off.

But the streets could be just as dangerous a place for children in the 1800s as they are today. Carts and coaches rumbled along the cobbled thoroughfares at great speed and could rarely stop in time to avoid a running child if they stepped into its path; thieves and villains lurked around every corner, and child prostitution rackets operated in the capital.

Sometimes the threat came from young people not much older than themselves, as in this case from 1855. In early March Ann Jane Hatley had been sent out with sixpence to buy some butter. She was 7 years of age and lived with her parents in Exeter Street, Chelsea. As she walked along a small boy, about 12 or 13 came up to her and asked where she was going. When she explained he said she needed to be careful of lest she drop the 6in the mud of the street.

The lad, whose name was William Smith, produced a piece of paper and said the best thing was for her to wrap her coin in it to protect it. When Ann handed over the money for him to do so he promptly ran off with it. Fortunately, a passer-by had seen what happened and set off in pursuit. William was captured and brought before the magistrate at Westminster.

In court several other children were produced who reported similar robberies on them whilst out running errands. Susannah Welsh (who was 9 or 10) had been sent to buy flour. William had followed her for ‘some distance’ before he suddenly pounced and wrestled the money she was carrying (2s) from her grasp.

Thomas Mursell (just 8) had been entrusted with 9to pay a baker’s bill when Smith approached him and asked what he was doing. When he discovered the boy had money Smith contrived to knock it out of his hand, as ‘if by accident’, and then offered him some paper to wrap it in as they pair collected it from the street. It was only when Thomas got to the baker’s shop that he realized that William had managed to steal over half of it.

There were a string of other small boys and girls with similar tales to tell but the magistrate (Mr Arnold) had heard enough. He duly committed the ‘expert juvenile highwayman’ (as Reynold’s Newspaper dubbed him) for trial before a jury.

William went for trial at the Westminster Quarter Sessions where he was convicted of two thefts (from Ann and Susannah) and sentenced to a spell in the house of detention.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, March 4, 1855]

The great Clerkenwell stink of 1862: a warning for modern Londoners

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Just occasionally the reports from the Police courts of the Metropolis don’t report a crime – a theft, stabbing, fraud or domestic abuse – or even a tragedy such as an attempted suicide or abandoned baby. Instead the police courts are used as a place where the visitor knows he or she will be able to grab the attention of the reading public if their story is sensational enough to make the newspapers.

This was what happened in February 1862 when a ‘respectably attired man’ presented himself at Clerkenwell Police court and asked the magistrate to help him. He wanted to raise awareness of an issue that affected everyone in London, but the children of the poor in particular.

The man, whose name wasn’t recorded, stated that ‘should any person wonder why the mortality amongst children runs so high at the present time, they have only to take a walk to the church of St Peter, Great Saffron Hill’.

If they carried on towards the rear of St Peter’s – ‘across the ruins of to the arches of Victoria Street’ they would find ‘an issue of sewerage of the most abominable description, not a mere oozing but a bona fide flowing out at the rate of several gallons per minute’.

The effluence had filled the arches around Victoria Street for 100 yards  and created a ‘pool of large dimensions, into which has been thrown dead dogs, cats, fish, etc., till no words can convey an idea of the abomination that exists’.

The pool was next to a school and daily 100 or more school children breathed in the ‘fever-engendering miasma’ from the swamp. Of course in the 1850s and early 60s the Victorians did not yet quite understand how disease was speared but had a belief that airborne particles might spread disease.

The anonymous complainant said the pool had now existed for over a month and nothing was being done about, and it was a disgrace.   The magistrate agreed but merely told him to take up his complaint with the parish. Meanwhile the gaoler told him that fever had broken out in the nearby house of correction. One prisoner, Jemima Smith who was being held for a felony, was too sick to be brought up to court to be charged.

Clearly this was a wider problem but it took the Victorians into the second half of the century to properly address it.  A lot of children and adults died in the meantime.

I think there is an echo here with today’s polluted air in the capital. Plenty of activists have been campaigning about it but it has taken Sadiq Khan’s mayoralty to really address it. This year a new ultra low emission zone comes into place in April with the aim of helping a long-term project to improve air quality. Every year thousands of Londoners die from respiratory problems that can be directly related to pollution. We need to ban traffic from the capital as much as is possible and clean up the underground. If not we are simply dirtying our own backyard in a modern version of the Clerkenwell sewerage pool of 1862.

[from Daily News, Thursday, 6 February, 1862]

Four go wild in Kilburn, until the police spoil their fun

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For anyone that has read the Famous Five books, or Swallows and Amazons  this story might chime with memories of childhoods past. Today children seem to be hard wired to televisions, computers, or mobile devices, playing video games or ‘chatting’ with friends via social media. In the past – in the days before ‘technology’ – kids played in the street, built tree houses, and had ‘adventures’.

For the record I’m not sure exactly how trueand of that is, it may yet another myth of a British past that never existed (the same one where everyone could leave their front doors unlocked, you could see a film and get fish and chips all for tuppence, the trains ran on time, and England were good at football).

Whether or not this ‘golden age’ ever existed I do suspect that working-class children and youth had a very different experience of life than their wealthier compatriots. Most working class children in the 1800s would have worked, few would have gone to school beyond a basic primary education, and very few would have enjoyed much in the way of ‘luxuries’. Sadly, it seems, a decade or more of austerity is bringing that experience of the past back to some working class communities today.

Children (in any period of history) will find ways to amuse themselves if they are not otherwise engaged in tasks or education by adults. They will also ape adults, and seek to find space away from adults to act our their own fantasies of life.

Ernest Digwood, George Cronin, James Harwood, and William Wallace (probably no relation) were four small boys intent on creating their own world within the adult one. If they’d lived in the countryside they’d have played in the woods and fields, climbing trees, stealing eggs for nests, swimming in ponds or rivers, and running through corn fields.

But they didn’t grow up in rural Essex, or Buckinghmashire, or anywhere very green at all. Instead they had to make their fun in West London, among the streets and houses of one of the world’s busiest cities. Boys being boys they explored their patch and found an empty house on Kensal Road, at number 174, close to the canal. Today the area has little trace of its Victorian past, rows of modern social housing and warehouse space make this part of London indistinguishable from many others. But in 1892 these four boys found a place to play.

They had established a den, built a fire in kitchen grate and had brought provisions. I say ‘brought’ because they certainly hadn’t ‘bought’ them. The quartet had been out in the surrounding streets and had found a delivery van with an ample supply of food. Helping themselves, they returned to the house with ‘eggs, two loaves [of bread], some sugar, liver, steak, and four bottles of gingerade’. It was a veritable feast but they never got to enjoy it.

Someone must have seen them or heard them in the property and reported it to the police. PC 412X arrived and arrested them, taking them before Mr Plowden at the West London Police court. James Harwood was known to the court, having been in trouble there before. The birching he’d received then clearly hadn’t acted as the deterrent it was intended. He and Ernest were sent to the workhouse, probably to be beaten again. George Cronin and William Wallace were released into the care of their parents but could hardly expect to get away without a slippering from their respective fathers.

They stole and the broke into an empty house, and of course that’s wrong. But at least they had an adventure, which is something, surely?

[from The Standard, Friday, January 15, 1892]

It was a great pity they did not go to school’ : truancy and the Victorian state’s motivation to educate the masses.

RAGGED TRUANTS CAPTURED

Truancy is not a new problem. In the pages of the Thames Police court in the late 1880s huge numbers of parents appear to answer charges of not sending their children to school. Most are fined small amounts and dismissed. It is rare to know why children were not attending school or whether a brush with the law meant that future attendance improved.

In late October 1880 Mr Paget was sitting in judgment at Hammersmith Police court as a number of summonses for truancy were presented to him. They were brought by a superintendent of schools, Mr Cook, who had the power (should the magistrate require it) to place children in Truant Schools for a period of weeks or months. It was generally thought that this (presumably harsher) environment encouraged children to go to normal day schools thereafter.

Of course while it is often assumed that kids play truant because they don’t like school (for all sorts of reasons we better understand today) it was often the parents that kept their offspring at home. Children could help with domestic duties, with the care of younger siblings or elderly or sick relatives, freeing parents to go to work. Children also worked, especially when that was piece work (like making matchboxes or mending shoes or clothes). In short for many poor families children from about 10 were useful in the family economy and weighed against the opportunities presented by a basic education (which were, let’s face it, few) having them at home was probably better.

One mother told the justice that her truant daughter was 12 and had secured a position as a servant, which was why she wasn’t at school. She appeared in court with her youngest child in her arms, as if to emphasize the necessity of moving her children on to make space for the new ones. Another explained that her son had not been to school for nine months because he was needed to take lunch to his father who worked in a brickfield.

In one case the magistrate wanted to know why it was the mother in court when the summons had required the presence of her husband.  He could read she said. Nor could she, or her truant son. Mr Paget declared that ‘it was a great pity they did not go to school’ but adjourned the hearing so the summons could be read and the father given time to attend.

In the end many cases were similarly adjourned while enquires were made into the reasons given (ill-health, lack of money or shoes) for truancy. Mr Cook the schools superintendent said he would try to find places in Truant Schools but few were available. He wanted the parish to build a second one. That would cost money, and money was probably at the root of the problem.

The Victorian state wanted the children of the poor to be educated, up to a point. They wanted them to be better-educated factory hands, soldiers and servants, not educated so they challenged their place in society. This was often moral education that shaped a nation rather than improved the lot of its poorest.

Thankfully (I say, tongue firmly in cheek) we’ve left all that behind…

[from The Standard, Thursday, October 28, 1880]

An avoidable tragedy as a builder’s misplaced retaliation ends in death.

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James Hall was working as a builder in a yard on Manresa Road in Westminster. He was climbing the scaffolding to readjust it when a piece of wood sailed past his ear. The wood had been thrown by one of his mates, as a prank no doubt, but he couldn’t see whom at the time and then he noticed a group of small boys playing nearby.

Grabbing a flint stone from he found lying by the poles he aimed it at the boys and let fly. It hit one of them, a lad named Frederick Littlewood, who  fell the ground. As his friends gathered round him he simply groaned ‘take me home’ and they ran for help.

Fred passed away the next morning, he was eight years old.

The inquest heard what had happened and the police arrested Hall and on the 10 June 1891 he was stood in the dock at the Westminster Police court for Mr Sheil to decided what to do with him. Hall was desperately sorry for what had happened; he clearly had no intention of killing the boy, or anyone for that matter. He said he only wanted to frighten the boys.

The magistrate decided he needed more information, more witnesses if possible, and so he released Hall on his promise to return to court in seven days and took his own recognizance to the value of £10.

It was a stupid thing to do but ultimately it was an accident. Hall himself was only 18, not that that would prevent him from hanging if a jury deemed that he had committed murder.

[from The Standard, Thursday, June 11, 1891]

 

‘Clothed in the dirtiest of rags’; three little urchins at Worship Street.

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Alice and Rosina Purcell were homeless. The sisters survived on whatever they could scavenge around Spitalfields Market, living on ‘rotten fruit and begging of the salesmen’ there. Thomas Williams was also destitute and had no other means of supporting himself besides begging. All three of them fell foul of the laws against vagrancy and begging and in late April 1872 were arrested and taken before Mr Hannay at Worship Street Police court.

Alice and Rosina must have struggled to see over the dock because they were just children, aged between 6 and 8 years. A school board officer named Mr Gear had picked them and enquiries were made by the local police. The girls’ mother was dead and their father, who worked as labourer at the London docks, ‘left nothing for them’. They were both ‘clothed in the dirtiest of rags, although they looked cheerful and intelligent’.

The magistrate wanted to send them to school but they were Protestants Mr Gear told him, and at present there were no vacancies in Protestant schools so the pair were remanded for a week and sent to the nearest workhouse.

As for Thomas (who was 13), he had been brought in by police constable Barker (141N) and had also been remanded to a workhouse and in the meantime a school had been found for him. Here the school option was complicated however.  The choice of a Catholic school was based on information given to the court when first the case was aired a week ago.  It was claimed, by the landlord where his family had formally lived, that the lad had been brought up a Catholic. Thomas, who had lost both his parents, hadn’t contradicted him. However now Thomas objected to being sent to a Catholic school and said that he had in fact been a pupil at St Mark’s Protestant school in Hoxton.

Mr Hannay asked him why he hadn’t said this earlier to save the confusion? Thoams admitted he hadn’t wanted to say anything in court, possibly because the poor lad was simply bewildered or afraid.

Religion was important and so even though these children were paupers with no parents to speak for them (or at least as in the girls’ case who were prepared to take responsibility for them) Mr Hannay was determined that they should be educated within the tenets of their faith, and where possible, I expect, he would always have favoured the reformed church over the Roman one.

If only society was as bothered about the fact that three children were wandering the streets of the world’s largest city starving and living on their wits quite as much as they cared which version of the Christian doctrine was used to educate them. It smacks, to me at least, of gross hypocrisy.

[from The Morning Post , Wednesday, May 01, 1872]