Picking pockets under the eyes of God

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The interior of St Stephen’s Church, Westminster in the nineteenth century 

I think we imagine Victorian Britain as a much more religious place than our current society. That may be true, but as with many of our assumptions or impressions of the past it doesn’t always stand up to examination. In 1851 a religious census was taken which included Jewish and Christian non-conformist and Catholic chapels alongside the established Church of England churches.

It showed that on average that year 10.8m people attended some sort of religious service, about 69% of the population (of nearly 18,000,000). The census itself has been criticized as being inaccurate and therefore worthless as a statistical exercise but we can read in a number of ways. About half of the number attended CoE services, but there were nearly 400,000 Catholics in a country where Catholicism had been under extreme pressure for centuries. There were also very many more non-conformists (Methodists for example) despite the Anglican Church being the official church of the crown and state.

Yet even in such a supposedly religious country almost a third of Britons did not attend church at all, which should cause us to question its supposedly dominant role in shaping Victorian society and morality. And some of those attending church were not there for their spiritual enlightenment either, as this report from April 1853 (just two years after the census) shows.

James McMachlin and George Wilson were practiced pickpockets. They infested the crowds that gathered at any event in mid Victorian London and a church service, especially a prominent one, was as good a place as any for them. In April the Bishop of London was presiding over a large conformation ceremony at St Stephen’s Church in Rochester Row, and the locals filled the venue. It gave the two thieves ample opportunity to mingle with the congregation and ‘dip’ the pockets of the unwary.

Among those targeted were Jane Elizabeth West and the Honorable Miss Georgina Colville, but they were not alone. Mr Childerson the churchwarden was robbed, as was an unnamed lady who lost the huge sum of £25 from her purse. Miss Burdetts Coutts was not so naive however and managed to keep an eye on her valuables as she attended another service (this time conducted by the Archbishop of York at St John’s, Smith’s Square, Westminster)  where the same pair of crooks were operating. smith-square-18282

Unfortunately for McMachlin and Wilson Sergeant Loom of B Division, Metropolitan Police, was on duty in the church in plain clothes. He was on the look out for thieves (which suggests a church service was a not uncommon place for crime) and he noticed the pair. Wilson had a coat draped loosely over his arm, to cover his actions. He watched as the other thief (McMachlin) got close to Miss West and placed his hand near her pocket. He rushed over and grabbed him and the young woman soon realized she’d been robbed (although she’d not felt her purse get lifted).  He removed McMachlin with some difficulty and then went back into the throng to search for Wilson, who was in the process of robbing Miss Colville. When cornered he dropped her purse and protested his innocence.

Both men were brought before the magistrate at Westminster Police court and a crowd of churchgoers, including Rev. Tennant from St Stephens and two of his curates, were present to witness the hearing. McMachlin and Wilson denied the crimes they were accused of and denied knowing each other but they were still fully committed for trial by a jury. I doubt that they were ever tried though, gaining convictions against such operators was notoriously difficult unless the victims could swear that they had seen the theft happen. Not surprisingly then neither man appears in the published records of the Old Bailey or in the Digital Panopticon.

Today less than half of the UK’s population describe themselves as ‘belonging’ to a religion. This number has been rising as well. In 1983 65.2% people identified themselves as Christian, by 2014 this had fallen to just 41.7%. Moreover, only 16.3% of the population were declared as members of the CoE in 2014. Where worship is up is in the Catholic Church and in other churches where immigrant communities gather.

I am an atheist but I attend a Greek Orthodox church at important points in the year out of love and respect  for my wife’s family. Every time I go – regardless of whether this is Easter or ‘just a Sunday’ – it is packed, with standing room only. Strangely then it is the immigrants to this country that are upholding its Christian ‘tradition’, despite ‘Christianity’ being waved as a symbol of Britishness by some of the discordant voices of the Far (and not so far) Right.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, April 25, 1853]

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

Of unrequited love and the pledging of china, not troths: a valentine’s day post from the Police Courts

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Today it is Valentine’s Day, and so all the shops are fun of heart themed gifts, chocolates and cards. If you try to buy a bunch of red roses this week you can guarantee that they will be double what you’d pay at any other time of the year, and if you choose to eat out on Thursday night the menus will be ‘special’ and the tables set up for couples.

Valentine’s Day is now a commercial opportunity, just like Mother’s Day, Christmas and Easter but has it always been thus?

It is likely that Valentine’s Day celebrates the martyrdom of one or more individuals in ancient Christianity who were associated in some way with romance. The positioning of the holiday in February however has much more to do with the early Church’s campaign to eradicate paganism.

In Roman pagan tradition mid February was a time to celebrate fertility and the god Faunus. During the festival of Lupercalia the unmarried young women of Rome would place their names in a  large urn  to be drawn out by the city’s bachelors. The couples were paired for a year but often (it is said) married their ‘chosen’ partners. There were other more bawdy elements to the festival, supposedly including nudity and the spanking of bottoms!

The romantic element (as opposed to the more overtly sexual one) of Valentine’s can be traced back to the 14th century when courtly love was very much in vogue amongst European nobility. By the early modern period the practice of sending love tokens on the 14 February seems to have been well established; Shakespeare references it in Hamlet for example. The late eighteenth century saw pamphlets published to help individuals write their own messages and the introduction of the penny post in 1840 opened up the possibly for the masses to exchange anonymous love letters.

The Victorians soon became hooked on the practice and card manufactures began to mass produce valentine cards in the 1840s. In 1847 the first commercial cards appeared in the United States and we can probably date the modern obsession with Valentine’s Day from then.

Of course the 14 February is just another day for many, and can quite a lonely place if you are on your own. There are hundreds of hits for a Google search of ‘Valentine’s Blues’ and the overhyping of this one day as a ‘time for lovers’ can be very challenging for those without a partner. There is also considerable pressure on those who are in relationships to make the day ‘special’, to spend lots of money, or simply to be ‘romantic’. Ir would probably be better to encourage a loving supportive relationship for 365 days of the year rather than just one.

Meanwhile back in 1847 in London one young woman was certainly not about to enjoy her Valentine’s Day, and her reaction to this ended up in a court case at one of London’s Police Magistrate Courts.

Thomas Frisk was a young saddler living in Fore Street in the City of London. For several months he had been courting a young lady named Mary. Mary (whose full name was Mary Martha Mills) lived in Somers Place West, St Pancras and for the past nine months Thomas had sent her his ‘addresses’ and had showered her with gifts and money.

He did so in the hope that they would be married and Mary had given him some encouragement. So confident (or hopeful) was he that they would be wed that Thomas sent her money to buy a fine china dinner service. The magistrate at Clerkenwell Police Court was told that Thomas did this in anticipation of the ‘happy day’ …when they would ‘be made one’.

Sadly for Mary Thomas was not a very patient young man and soon became keen on ‘another charmer’ and broke off the relationship with Mary. He then rather ungallantly  heaped scorn on her unhappiness by demanding the return of the china she had bought to grace their marital home.

Mary reacted as many might and refused to return his gifts. Instead she pawned the dinner service and send him back the ‘duplicate’ (the  pawn ticket). I’m sure Bridget Jones would empathise with Mary Martha Mills.

We all act differently when we are unlucky in love, or rejected by the object of our affections. Few of us will be so lucky to go through life without this happening.

Thomas was upset but his reaction was extreme. Instead of taking the hit to his pocket he chose instead to take his former amour to court. Not surprisingly the magistrate was less than sympathetic; the reporter in the paper noted that ‘Mr Wakeling [the magistrate] questioned the compliant, who cut a very sorry figure in court’, and dismissed the case without costs.

Love and marriage was one of several themes the court reporters of the Victorian press liked to cover for the ‘human interest’ nature of the stories. I’ve found a handful of stories that detail cases of eloping lovers, angered fathers, and broken relationships – all of which that end badly in the summary courts of the capital. They go to show us that our Victorian ancestors are much more closely linked to our modern lives than the passage of 150 or more years might suggest.

[from The Morning Post (London, England), Friday, February 12, 1847]

‘I may be wrong but I think a man can be a Christian and march along without a uniform’: theft and imposture brings the Salvation Army into court

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The Salvation Army was founded in 1865 but only adopted its current name in 1878, so in January 1884 (the subject of this week’s series of posts) it was still a fairly new organization. I’ve written about the ‘Army’ several times in this blog and elsewhere and I think it would be fair to say that in its infancy the Sally Army (and it is now affectionately known) was not as well-thought of as it is today.

As a deeply religious Protestant sect it attracted criticism from middle-of-the-road members of the established Church of England. This criticism (which was often sneering) from above was matched by ridicule and antagonism from ‘below’; members of the working class resented the temperance message the Army preached. Many others simply disliked the awful row they made when they marched through London playing brass instruments badly and singing hymns off key.

A quiet Sunday in London; Or, the day of rest.

Cartoon in Punch (1886) showing some of the contemporary ridicule of salvation Army members 

Some of this underlying resentment and  contempt can be seen in the prosecution of a letter carrier at Bow Street Police court towards the end of January 1884. William Hartley, employed in the Chelsea district of London, was brought before Mr Flowers accused of stealing a letter that contained a £5 note. Hartley, it was alleged, had stolen the money and used it to buy a Salvation Army uniform.

When the police traced the missing money and found a trail leading to Hartley he was arrested and held for questioning. He then wrote to the Army at its headquarters in Queen Victoria Street, saying he was attached to ‘211 Blood and Fire Division, Chelsea Detachment’. As a result both the detachment’s commander –a ‘Captain’ Isaac Anderson – and the Army’s solicitor – Mr Bennett – appeared in court also.

The reporter was amused that Bennett, a lawyer, appeared in the uniform of the Army rather than civil clothes and this theme ran through the Morning Post’s article. The lawyer said he regretted any association between the prisoner and the Army and suggested the man was an imposter. After all, he said, ‘any person could have a uniform by paying for it, if he liked to represent himself as a soldier’.

This drew a strong rebuke from the magistrate:

‘The country provides its soldiers with a uniform’ Mr Flowers told him, adding that he ‘didn’t see the use of a uniform, but I may be wrong. I think a man can be a Christian and march along without one, and all the better’.

While he said this ‘warmly’ it was met with applause in the court, indicating that many of those gathered shared his dim view of the Army’s obsession with dressing up and adopting a military outlook. That said it was clear to him that Hartley was guilty of stealing the bank note (and, as it was revealed a 20spostal order and since the theft was both serious (£5 in 1884 is about £300 today, 20 shillings equates to £65) and from her Majesty’s Post Office, he committed him to take his trial before a jury.

Today the Salvation Army has over 1.6 million members across the globe and does a great deal of worthwhile charity work. William Booth, the Army’s founder, wanted a more direct religion for the masses, feeling that the C of E was far too ‘middle class’ to appeal to ordinary people. I suppose the rise of evangelicalism  in the modern period is a reflection of this as well, the idea that Anglicanism is less about God and more about keeping up appearances and retaining social barriers (rather than  breaking them down).

As someone with no organized religion of my own I find them all equally strange but at the same time am happy when Christians (as the Sally Army’s legions of members are) actually practice what they preach rather than simply paying lip service to the sermon on the Mount by their occasional attendance at harvest festivals or carols at Christmas.  The Salvation Army may be odd but it is not full of hypocrites.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, 26 January, 1884]

‘My God, what I say is true’; how should a ‘Hindoo’ swear an oath in court?

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In the 1800s those giving evidence in the Police courts were sworn on the Bible. This worked fine for most prosecutors and witnesses but occasionally someone stepped into the box who was clearly not a Christian, so what happened then?

Nowadays those swearing can do so on a religious text of their choice if the Bible is not appropriate, and those without a religion can affirm. In 2013 the courts rejected a move to abandon the oath in favour of a promise to tell the truth and it remains core to all trials and summary hearings in England.

In 1879 two men were charged at Marylebone Police court with stealing 100 rabbit skins, and with conspiring with another (not in custody) to sell them. The skins weren’t of particularly high value (just 8s) but the novelty of the case was that the chief witness was Indian.

Ballee Bhatter was described as a ‘Hindoo cook’ working at the home of ‘his Highness Suchait Singh of Chumla’. The Chumla valley is in the Punjab and British troops passed through here in 1863 what one officer described as a ‘frontier war’. By the 1870s the Imperial project in India was complete; the British had survived the 1857 Indian revolution, the Sikhs had been defeated and turned into allies, but some pockets of resistance continued from hill tribes in the far north. Afghanistan had never been successfully subdued and after the debacle of 1842 and loss of so many British and Indian troops the empire chose to avoid any major campaigns north of the Punjab until the late 1870s.

The question for Mr Cooke, the sitting magistrate at Marylebone, was whether it was appropriate for Ballee Bhatter to swear on the Bible before giving his evidence. Although described in court as a ‘Hindoo’ Mr Cooke thought he ought to swear on the Koran. The Rajah’s secretary confirmed that the cook wasn’t a Christian, but did that make him a Muslim? Was this a case of contemporary English ignorance or was the prince’s servant a Muslim working in the kitchens of a Sikh household? While today we would normally associate the word with the Hindu religion (for which the Koran would be an inappropriate text) in 1879 it may simply have been (mis)used to mean any native of the Indian sub-continent.

A police detective suggested that it was proper for the man to be able to swear the following oath: ‘My God, what I say is true’, but the justice wanted to be clear that Bhatter understood what was being asked of it. He decoded to adjourn the case so that a translator could be called for; someone that spoke ‘Hindostanee’.

Later that day the cook returned and the situation was explained in his native language. He swore an oath (on which text it is not stated) and explained that on the 7 April one of the prisoners and another man came to the Rajah’s house in Richmond Road, Paddington, and ‘asked him if he had any rabbit skins to sell’. Bhatter told him he had 100 and he was offered 2deach for them. Well, that is what he understood they’d offered, he added, his English wasn’t that good.

Since he wanted to be sure he went next door to find someone to translate for him but when he got back the men and the skins were gone. Two other local servants testified to seeing the two men and a barrow that day and Mr Cooke remanded the prisoners for a week.

This shows us that there were Indians living in London in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. The British Empire involved a migration in both direction then, not simply a movement of British troops and administrators to India but families and their servants in the other direction. They would have added to the cultural melting pot that was London in the late 1800s and act as a reminder that this country (and particularly our capital) has been a multi-racial community for a very long time.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, May 14, 1879]

The ‘Peculiar People’ and the tragic death of little Alice

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After yesterday’s bank holiday violence and drunken disorder the reports from the London police courts returned to more criminal topics. At Bow Street a fugitive from Cape Town in British South Africa was refused bail on a charge of stealing diamonds and £1300 in cash. while at Mansion House John Thompson was committed to face trial at Old Bailey for several thefts in and around the Inner Temple law chambers. In the end he was convicted of stealing a hat brush and a coat, while seven similar charges were taken into consideration. He was gaoled for nine months.

Over at Lambeth an unusual case unfolded. It had come before the magistrates before but was now to be resolved the paper reported. It concerned the death of a child and the suggestion of negligence on behalf of the parents.

Robert Cousins, a 27 year-old man living in Orient Street, West Square, Lambeth was presented before Mr Chance and charged with the manslaughter of Alice Maria Cousins, his 11 month old daughter. Dr Price from Guy’s Hospital said that his post mortem examination revealed that baby Alice had died from tuberculosis and pneumonia. The magistrate quizzed him as to whether the child might have lived had the father summoned a doctor, which he clearly hadn’t. She may have, the doctor confirmed, but it was far from certain.

Why hadn’t Cousins sought medical help? Was he too poor or was there another reason?

This became apparent when the next witness took the stand. She was Matilda Taylor and she said she belonged to a Christian sect called the ‘Peculiar People’. A branch of Wesleyanism, the Peculiar People (sometimes conflated with Quakers) did not believe in medicine. Instead Matilda insisted, they chose instead to pray for Alice’s recovery and leave her fate to God.

‘Supposing your leg is broken’ Mr Chance demanded, what would she do then? ‘The Lord has not told us what to do in that case, but he does tell us in sickness what to do’.

So we must presume that the Cousins were also members of this branch of Christianity.

Mr Chance was not impressed:

‘It is really wonderful how persons can have such narrow-minded fanaticism’ he quipped, before adding that ‘it is a most guilty and unfeeling conduct to adopt. You take just one passage or so from the Bible, instead of taking it as a whole’.

Nevertheless he dismissed the charge of manslaughter on legal grounds, suggesting instead that the Public Prosecutor might wish to bring a case of endangering life by neglect, which brought a sentence of six months upon conviction. The ‘peculiar people’ then upped and left his court, presumably followed by dark looks and murmurings of righteous indignation from the public gallery.

[from The Standard, Thursday, March 29, 1883]

This isn’t the only reference to the Peculiar People and clashes with the legal system in Victorian London as this blog suggests

Whitecross Street, ‘one of the most disgraceful streets in the metropolis’.

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In today’s Britain we are used to a 24/7 retail culture. We can shop every day of the week from dawn to early evening and beyond and the notion of keeping Sunday ‘special’ has long gone. Yet I can remember when Sunday trading was not ubiquitous and even a time when most shops still shut for a half day or closed early during the week.

Victorian London was a busy commercial city and shops and businesses opened early and shut late. The working day was long and, for much of the century, there was little protection for workers who had few rights. The rights we enjoy today were hard won in the twentieth century by the trades unions and the emerging Labour Party.

Nevertheless Victorian Britain was also a more religious society than is the case today. Even if fewer people regularly attended church than we might assume, there were laws in place – some going back to the reign of King Charles II – to maintain Sunday as a day of rest as stipulated in Christian teaching.

It would seem though that the laws surrounding Sunday trading were only partially obeyed or enforced. The New Police had fought a long running battle with small businessmen from the 1830s onwards to keep the Sabbath sacred, and it was a battle (according to Stephen Inwood) in which they frequently had to concede defeat.

Edward Varuvain and George Martin were shopkeepers who fell foul of the law in February 1873. The men ran shops in Whitecross Street and were summoned at the request of the St Luke’s vestry for ‘pursuing a worldly avocation on the Lord’s day’. Charities and essential services were exempt from the laws but Varuvain and Martin did not come under that category.

Whitecross Street had been a problem for the vestry for some time. There were several shops there and plenty of costermongers who plied their trade there. There had been a market there for centuries (and there is still a thriving food market there today and lots of trendy shops and eateries). The police had tried to move the costers off and shut the shops, but tensions had flared. Eventually an uneasy truce had broken out. The costers were allowed to operate up until 11 on a Sunday morning and the shopkeepers agreed to stay closed.

Then in early 1873 some of the retailers began to open on the sabbath and others, presumably emboldened or simply not wishing to miss out, followed suit. The costermongers, seeing their compromise agreement being effectively abandoned, resumed trading all day long.

The local sanitary inspector visited the street on the previous Sunday and found it cluttered with barrows and with several shops open. Martin was out in the street crying his wares, shouting ‘buy! buy! buy! What will you buy?’ and so ‘rendered the street a Babel’ as the inspector put it.

Mr Pedder from the vestry said it had become ‘one of the most disgraceful streets in the metropolis’ and the case against the two men was proved. However, given that Mr Ricketts (the sitting magistrate at Clerkenwell) only fined them 1s each plus costs, I doubt it deterred them from similar behaviour in the future. After all, they had a living to make.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, February 9, 1873]

Brickbats and stones ‘welcome’ the Salvation Army to Hackney

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Congress Hall, Clapton – a Salvation Army mission

None of the London papers reported the business of the Thames Police Court in their editions on the 14th June 1881, but fortunately The Standard did include a report from Worship Street, Thames’ sister court in the East End. Given that the Morning Post did have reports from other courts, this helps me understand that reportage was (as I was fairly certain it was) highly selective.

I have written before about the unpopularity of the Salvation Army in its early days. The Army marched up and down London’s streets and held meetings to draw attention to the moral plight of the working classes. Whether it was the moralising people didn’t appreciate or the supposedly awful row their amateur musicians made, is not clear, but they suffered a great deal of abuse.

What I found most interesting was not the brickbats of the working poor but the relatively lukewarm support they drew from the middle-class magistrates that served in the Police Courts. I would have expected them to approve of the Army’s message but it seems that they saw them as at best a nuisance and at worst an unwelcome example  of radical non-conformism.

On Sunday 12 June 1881 a Salvation Army procession was marching, four abreast, though Hackney on the way to a gathering at the Mission hall in Havelock Road(which they soon outgrew, moving in and adapting a former orphanage to build Congress Hall in the later 1880s).

As the marchers processed they were assailed with all sorts of missiles along the route and when they reached the hall some of them found their path barred by a group ‘of rough young fellows’ who had been dogging their progress through Hackney.

Edgar Lagden, a porter and member of the Army was attacked. James Elvidge saw two lads, later named as Israel Stagg and Henry Abbot assault his fellow marcher. Stagg hit Lagden with a stick which drew blood, Abbot had been throwing stones, some of which hit Elvidge and others.

Elvidge broke free and grappled with the boys and seized Stagg, but as he tried to get him under control several men attacked him to release the lad.  In giving evidence before the magistrate at Worship Street Elvidge explained that he and his section of the march had been waiting and making space for the female marchers (the ‘sisters’) to get through unmolested when the main trouble flared. He ‘admitted that the crowd appeared to object to their possession of the road’.

That didn’t excuse the violence shown towards them of course, and the magistrate, Mr Hannay was quite clear on that point. Stagg was apparently well known as a troublesome lad in the district  and he was described as being ‘in league with the street fighters’. His actions and those of the others who objected to the marching band of the Army was unacceptable, he was told, and ‘very nearly [constituted] a riot’. Mr Hannay sent Stagg to prison for two months and Abbot for seven days, ‘both with hard labour’.

But he wasn’t happy about the tactics of the Salvation Army either, he noted that the ‘course pursued’ by them was ‘such as to induce disturbance’. One gets the distinct impression that he wished they would find some other way to practice their faith, one that didn’t involve marching or the cacophony of brass instruments that accompanied it.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, June 14, 1881]