A servant so drunk she could hardly stand up

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We are now, thanks to Downton Abbey and (previously) Upstairs Downstairs  pretty familiar with the dynamics of master/servant relationships in the Victorian period. Even if those dramas might distort realities in some respects they offer us a view of a world that ceased to exist about a 100 years ago. 

For the most part, above stairs at least, servants were deferential and obedient, and households ran fairly smoothly.  Of course these dramas focus on the ‘big house’ scenario where a hierarchy of servants  – from butler to scullery maid – have clearly defined roles to perform ‘above stairs’. 

In reality very many households in the 1800s had just one or two servants to help them with their daily lives, and relationships here might have been a little different to those depicted in TV and film dramas. 

Madeline Brett was not your typical well-behaved servant. She had joined Mrs Mary Jane Snell’s service on 23 December 1880, just before Christmas. This should have been an opportunity for young Madeline. At just 18 she now had a position in a house on Bonchurch Lane, North Kensington. In 1890 this area was marked as mostly pink to red on Charles Booth’s poverty maps, so ‘fairly comfortable’, to ‘Middle class: well-to do’. 

It seems Madeline liked a drink, and this was soon very obvious to her mistress. 

A few days after Christmas, on 29 December, Madeline broke a bottle she was trying to place on the table. Her speech was slurred and she could hardly walk. Mrs Snell was shocked, but she said nothing. It seems the servant had a temper and her mistress was already a little afraid of her. 

However, when Madeline announced she was going to wash the china Mrs Snell begged her not to, afraid that she would break it all. This provoked the servant who pulled on a coat and went out of the front door to fetch a passing milk boy. She told him to go and get a policeman to arrest her mistress!

When the constable arrived she ranted at him and the officer was forced to subdue her; Mrs Snell then dismissed her from her service and asked her to leave. But instead of collecting her things Madeline simply stormed out returning some hours later, even more intoxicated than she had been earlier. 

Mrs Snell was in her drawing room when Madeline entered carry a watering can. At first she demanded her mistress take the can upstairs, then fell over, got up, made her way to the small kitchen, and collapsed again. Mrs Snell told her to go to bed but the girl refused. Clutching some paper she said she was going to light the gas. 

When Mrs Snell investigated she found pieces of burnt paper all over the house where Madeline had tried, and failed, to ignite the gas lighting. When Mrs Snell upbraided her employee Madeline ran out into the street, shouting and knocking at doors until a policeman quickly arrived and arrested her for being drunk and disorderly . 

She appeared at Hammersmith Police court on 30 December where she pleaded not guilty and accused her employer of unreasonable conduct. The magistrate remanded her and she was up again three days later when Mrs Snell appeared to give her evidence. Madeline continued to protest her innocence – it ‘was a false charge’ she insisted, ‘she was drunk for the want of drink’ she told Mr Paget. 

The justice not surprisingly chose to believe Mrs Snell over her servant. Madeline was sentenced to 21 days in prison with hard labour. She took this badly, fighting with the gaoler and police as they led her away, and issuing a stream of threats to her – now former – mistress as she went.    

[from Lloyd’s Illustrated Newspaper, Sunday 2 January 1881]

No happy ending for buttons in this East End pantomime

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Throughout the history of crime the roles of ‘fences’ (receivers of stolen goods), pawnbrokers, and those involved in the second hand clothes market, are frequently cited by commentators as problematic. Put simply, if thieves didn’t have somewhere to easily dispose of their ill-gotten goods then they might not steal in the first place. 

This was certainly the underlying theme in the Morning Post’s report of a theft hearing at the Worship Police court in late December 1870. Elizabeth Brown (aged 22), Charlotte Quigly (20) and her 45 year-old mother, also called Charlotte, were presented before Mr Bushby accused of stealing and selling a quantity of buttons from the younger Quigly’s employer. 

Mr Williamson, a wholesale manufacturer of buttons based in Hackney, East London, had noticed that his stock was going missing. Having been unable to pinpoint where the theft was occurring he called in the police. Detective Chapman of W Division (which was the Clapham force) soon discovered that a large quantity (‘several gross’) of buttons had been sold to traders in Bethnal Green, Shoreditch, Hoxton, and Hackney by younger Charlotte Quigly’s sister. This gave him a clear link to the source of the depredations. 

He pursued this line of inquiry and found out that Charlotte and Elizabeth Brown had both sold parcels of buttons to shopkeepers in Bethnal Green Road. Armed with this evidence he arrested and questioned the two young women. Brown had left Williamson’s employment a year earlier and quickly admitted her crime; she had been driven to it by poverty she declared, and threw herself on the mercy of the detective.

With the two younger women in custody Chapman continued his investigation and soon arrested Mrs Quigly, charging her with selling some of the buttons in the full knowledge that they were stolen. Why her younger daughter was not arrested is not clear, but perhaps she was considered to have been acting on instructions from her mother or older sister, or there was simply insufficient evidence against her. Whatever the truth the three women appeared in the dock at Worship on the 29th having been remanded for the theft a few days earlier. 

The remand gave time for Willaimson’s solicitor to bring a motely collection of shopkeepers to court as witnesses. Isaac Levine (of 17 Bethnal Green Road) and tailor, and  Mr Hyams of Brushfield Street, Hoxton (a tailors’ trimming seller), plus another half-dozen traders were called to confirm the detective’s evidence. 

Examined by Mr Beard (the prosecuting solicitor) they said they had been offered the goods as ‘job lots’, as damaged or faulty, or some other story to explain why the buttons were available so cheaply. Few of them had asked any questions, or sent the women away, let alone pass on any suspicions to the police. Moreover, none of them wrote down their purchases in their account books. Clearly they must have known that the stock they were buying was ‘dodgy’ at best, but chose to do nothing and profit from it regardless. 

Mr Bushby was suitably appalled at their behavior, and said so.

‘[T]he system they pursued was  eminently calculated to foster crime like this’ he thundered, and ‘he fervently hoped the time would come when they and such as they would be looked after by the police’.  

‘The were as much answerable for the crime of the prisoners as the prisoners themselves’, he added, and told them he was astounded that they had the nerve to come to his court and swear that they had believed these goods were merely ‘damaged’ and not – as they clearly were – stolen.   In future they had better start recording all purchases in their logs books or they would find themselves in the dock as receivers. 

Having finished his tirade he granted the police a further remand to continue to gather evidence against the three defendants.  Sadly, this is where their trail goes cold. None of them appear in the papers after that and I can see no jury trial either. I suspect they were either summarily punished or that Charlotte Quigly (the younger) was simply dismissed from Mr Williamson’s employ. 

Here then was one Christmas season story involving buttons that didn’t have a happy ending. 

[from The Morning Post Thursday 29 December 1870]

‘I ain’t scared of no ghosts…’: Halloween traditions in the Victorian press

Tonight is Hallowe’en when the borders to the spirit world are at their thinnest and the dead walk the earth…

Or it is All Hallow’s Eve, an important Christian date marking the night before All Saints Day (or it has been since Pope Gregory III moved it from its original date in May).

It has now become a highly commercialised and largely secular festival: a chance for retailers to sell sweets and inedible pumpkins, for the very young to dress up and go out ‘trick or treating’, and for the not-quite-so-young to dress up and go partying.

It is – and it seems it has long been – a night for misrule, for chaos, for turning the word upside down.

It is often viewed as an American import. ‘Trick or treat’, pumpkins, the whole commercial element of Hallowe’en was almost entirely absent form my childhood in the 1970s. Now it is hard to imagine October 31 without a constant stream of miniature shots, devils, and witches knocking on our doors while their slightly embarrassed parents lurk by the gate.

But the truth is that it is actually returning export. The traditions of Hallowe’en, developed out of Celtic paganism and the celebration of Samhain and arrived in America with Irish and other British immigrants.

There were several closely linked traditions in Celtic nations – such as ‘nutcrack night’ in Scotland for example. There young people would throw nuts into a fire to see if they lie still and burn (signifying happy marriage) or pop and burst (meaning your matrimony was doomed to be tempestuous).

In Ireland people would gather food and drink in the days before October 31, beginning the process of hunkering down for the winter. This marked the end of the growing season when the land appeared to die and all that farming communities could do was bring in their crops and animals and wait for the spring.

In 1846 some of these traditions were reported in the newspapers, quoting from older folklore texts and were presented with a general sneering undertone which reflected mainstream English Christian distaste aimed at the Irish. But in doing so we can see the origins of the trick or treat custom that is so popular today.

‘The peasants in Ireland’, we are told, ‘assemble with sticks and clubs, going from house to house, collecting money, bread-cake, butter, cheese, eggs, etc. for the feast [of Samhain]’.

Candles are ‘sent from house to house in vicinity, and are lighted up on the next day, before which they pray, or are supposed to pray, for the departed soul of the donor’.

On the night there is feasting, apples and nuts ‘are devoured’, ‘cabbages torn up by the root’. There is divination from nuts again and from hemp seeds. These are ‘sown by maidens, and they believe that, if they look back, they will see the apparition of man intended for their future spouse’.

In Celtic beliefs a man named ‘Stingy Jack’ or ‘Jack the lantern’ roamed the wild at night, having tricked the devil to keep his soul. Unable to enter Heaven or Hell he was condemned to walk abroad at night and he was remembered in the carving of turnips, which were then illuminated with a candle.

When immigrants arrived in north America they found pumpkins much easier to carve than turnips, and a new tradition was born. The tradition of going house to house continued and, probably at some point in the 1920s, was formalised into a sort of annual festival – the ‘American’ Hallowe’en to have today.

So all those ‘ghosts’ and ‘witches’ with their hopeful buckets and their scary costumes are actually a reminder of our deep rooted pagan history. Pope Gregory III wanted to obliterate a pagan autumn festival by superimposing a Christian one.

Just as churches were built on pagan shrines and sites of worship, and Easter and Christmas replaced the existing pagan festivals (of Eostre and Yule) Samhain was relegated to a mere folk story, belonging to a superstitious peasant community, all in an attempt to stamp out any remaining traces of pre-Christian religion.

Given the current pandemic Hallowe’en will be very different this year. Children will not be able knock doors and demand a treat, parties will not happening, the night of misrule will have to be suspended in lockdown but I shall still carve my (entirely edible) pumpkin and mark the passing of autumn and the early onset of winter.

Happy Hallowe’en!

[from The Morning Post, Saturday 31 October 1846]

One wedding, a broken jaw, and a prison sentence

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On Saturday 30 November William Mellish appeared at the Greenwich Police court accused of assaulting his a sister Caroline at their cousin’s wedding. Caroline, married to man named Hannen, was present in court with her swathed in bandages.

Mr Marsham was told that the wedding party had retired to Mellish’s home in Deptford where the drinking had continued. A sing song had resulted in arguments as Caroline’s sister apparently omitted some words from a popular ditty and the celebration descended into a full-blown fistfight.

Caroline poked her sister in the eye, the sisters went at each other no holds barred and William reached across the table and punched out at the pair of them. His blow landed on Caroline, breaking her jaw.

He tried to claim that Caroline had hurt herself by banging her head against the table but the magistrate wasn’t convinced. Everyone had been ‘the worse for drink’ and I suspect he wanted to make an example of such working-class excess.

Mellish was sent to prison for three months, meaning he would miss the family Christmas that year. In retrospect that was probably no bad thing.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, December 1, 1889]

A young postman is overwhelmed by Valentine’s Day

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Amidst all the commercial celebration of Valentine’s day, with every supermarket making special ‘dine in’ offers, shops filling their windows with hearts and chocolates, and florists selling red roses at double the normal price, it is easy to see that for some of these traders this has become one of the key income generating weeks of the year.

Once Christmas and the sales are over there is usually a slump in trade before Easter that [St] Valentine’s Day has now assumed such an importance to the retail industry. But do we have an idea of how busy it was in the past I wonder? We know the Victorians celebrated the occasion and sent love tokens as we do, but what effect did that have on everyday life?

Well we can get an idea of how it affected the people that delivered those messages, the postmen of the Victorian capital, in this case from 1871. An unnamed postman was prosecuted at Westminster Police court for drunkenness whilst on duty. His offence was minor but had the potential for serious consequences, his defense however, was most illuminating.

Mr Woolrych, the sitting magistrate at Westminster that day, was told that a crowd of ‘disorderly persons’ had gathered around a postman, drawing the attention of a passing police officer. As the bobby pushed his way through the throng he found the postman sorting a pile of letters under a lamppost. It was late at night, past 10.30, which was why he needed the gaslight to read the addresses on the mail.

Most of the letters ‘were valentines’ and they should have been delivered much earlier in the day by a colleague but that postie had failed to find the addresses and so they had gone back in the system, and our man was now tasked with uniting them with the correct (and probably by now quite desperate) recipients.

As the postman at last moved off to make his deliveries the policeman noticed that he was rather unsteady on his feet, and stopped him. He quickly realized that the man was under the influence of alcohol and he arrested him. In court the postman apologized but said he had been on duty since four in the morning, had had very little if anything to eat all day, and so when a kindly woman had treated him to a ‘tumbler of sherry’ it had ‘produced an effect over which [he] had no control’.

His supervisor appeared to confirm that the young man had an exemplary record in his four and a half years with the Post Office:

‘He was a steady, honest, and industrious servant, against whom no complaint had ever been made; and should he be convicted…dismissal from the service would certainly follow’.

In this case common sense prevailed. Mr Woolrych accepted that while drinking on duty rendered the man  ‘blamable’ for the offence there were mitigating factors. There was no need to ruin a young man with such a previously unblemished record and so he discharged him (which is probably why the papers decided not to reveal his name).

The evidence revealed that (as noted earlier):

the ‘defendant had been on duty since four o’clock in the morning without intermission or opportunity of taking a meal, as the valentine delivery was very heavy, and the reserve men had even been called upon to perform the duties of letter-carriers’.

Valentine’s Day was a big day then in Victorian England with very many people using the postal service to send their tokens of affection to their sweethearts. After Christmas this was probably the busiest period of the year for the men of the Post Office, just as it is today for the florists, chocolatiers and restaurateurs of the capital.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, February 16, 1871]

Spare the rod and spoil the child? Not if the vicar has his way

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Legislation in 1847 and 1850 brought nearly all no violent crime committed by juveniles under the jurisdiction of the magistrate. Developments in the 1850s then empowered justices to send boys and girls from 8-14 to reformatory or industrial schools to be disciplined and to learn some basic life skills. This did a lot to remove young people from the adult courts where, for centuries, they had been dealt with alongside all other offenders. It took another half century (to 1908) before separate courts were created for juveniles but we can see the mid century acts as an improvement of sorts.

William Frewen wasn’t in a reformatory in 1863 but he could well have been. William attended Barnes National School in South London. He was listed as a scholar and lived near by. In early January 1863 the school was still closed up for the Christmas holiday but a break-in had been discovered. The schoolmaster’s desk had been forced open and a small money box was missing.

The box (described as the ‘missionary box’) was used to hold donations for charity and at the time contained about 10s). Young William had already gained an unwelcome (if not unwarranted) reputation for pilfering and it was to him that the school master turned when he learned of the theft.

William denied everything but he was taken to see the local vicar, the Rev. Coplestone where, after another boy said he’d seen William enter the office by an open window, he confessed. Perhaps because of the confession or maybe out of a sense of Christian forgiveness the reverend told the magistrate at Wandsworth Police court that he was reluctant to press charges.

After some discussion the vicar and Mr Ingham (the magistrate presiding) decided that while they would not take this further (and send the boy away) he did require some form of punishment, if only to deter future acts of criminality. Mr Ingham ordered that he be given over to the local police sergeant so he could ‘receive eight strokes with a rod’.

Hopefully that short, sharp, lesson would be quickly learned and William would mend his ways. If not then it is likely that he would become a fairly regular occupant of a Police Court dock.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, January 09, 1863]

A landlady receives an unwanted seasonal gift: slap in the face with a wet fish

DORE: BILLINGSGATE, 1872. Billingsgate fish market in the early morning. Wood engraving after Gustave Dore from 'London: A Pilgrimage,' 1872.

Billingsgate Marketing the morning by Gustave Doré, 1872

Drunkenness is usually associated with this time of year. People have plenty of time off work and numerous social occasions in which drink plays an important role. Whether it is sherry before Christmas dinner, beer on Boxing Day in the pub, or champagne and whiskey on New Year’s Eve, the season tends to lead some to imbibe excessively.

Not surprisingly then the Victorian police courts were kept busier than usual with a procession of drunkards, brawlers, and wife beaters, all brought low by their love of alcohol. Most of the attention of the magistracy was focused on the working classes, where alcohol was seen as a curse.

By the 1890s the Temperance Movement had become a regular feature at these courts of summary justice, usually embodied in the person of the Police Court Missionaries. These missionaries offered support for those brought before the ‘beak’ in return for their pledge to abstain from the ‘demon drink’ in the future. These were the forerunners of the probation service which came into existence in 1907.

In 1898 Lucas Atterby had been enjoying several too many beers in the Birkbeck Tavern on the Archway Road, Highgate. As closing time approached he and his friends were dancing and singing and generally making merry but the landlord had a duty to close up in accordance with the licensing laws of the day. Closing time was 11 o’clock at night (10 on Sundays) but Atterby, a respectable solicitor’s clerk, was in mood to end the party. So when Mr Cornick, the pub’s landlord, called time he refused to leave.

Mrs Cornick tried to gentle remonstrate with him and his mates but got only abuse and worse for her trouble. The clerk leered at her and declared: ‘You look hungry’, before slapping her around the face with ‘a kippered herring’ that he’d presumably bought to serve as his supper or breakfast.

It was an ungallant attack if only a minor one but if was enough to land Atterby in court before Mr Glover at Highgate Police court. The magistrate saw it for what it was, a drunken episode like so many at that time of year. He dismissed the accusation of assault with ‘a Billingsgate pheasant’ (as kippers – red herrings – were apparently called) but imposed a fine of 10splus costs for refusing to quit licensed premises.

The clerk would probably have been embarrassed by his appearance in court (and the pages of the Illustrated Police News) and if he wasn’t he could be sure his employer would have been less than impressed. It was a lesson to others to show some restraint and to know when to stop. A lesson we all might do well to remember as we raise a glass or three this evening.

A very happy (and safe) New Year’s Eve to you all. Cheers!

[from The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, 31 December, 1898]

An avoidable tragedy at Christmas

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James Arthur and Timothy Howard worked together at a charcoal factory in New Gravel Lane, Shadwell. They were workmates and drinking buddies but not close friends. That said, they rarely quarreled and both were hard workers who were well spoken of by their employer.

They were employed to work on a platform which stood 18 feet above the factory floor and on Christmas Eve 1868 both were working there even though it was late in the evening. Perhaps with their minds on how they would celebrate Christmas and the Boxing Day holiday they started to talk about beer and how much they might drink. A ‘chaffing match’ ensued as each man boasted about the amount of drink he could get on credit (a measure of their financial worth of sorts) and this escalated into a row.

Howard taunted Arthur, suggesting that in the past he’d used a woman poorly and run up a debt on her behalf before leaving her. What had began as friendly ‘banter’ quickly descended into open hostility and Arthur looked dagger at his mate. He reached for a shovel and threatened Howard with it.

Realising he’d gone too far Howard tried to calm things and told his workmate to put the makeshift weapon down. When Arthur declined the two came to blows and the pair swore at each other. Howard struck him once or twice without return and Arthur staggered backwards. He missed his footing, slipped, and tumbled over the edge of the platform, plummeting the 18 feet down to the floor.

Howard clambered down the ladder and ran over to his mate, ‘who was quite dead’, his neck broken.

The foreman arrived on the scene and, seeing what had occurred, called the police. Howard was arrested while the police surgeon examined the deceased. Howard tried to say he’d not hit his friend but there had been at least two witnesses who’d been drawn to the noise the pair had made in their arguing.  Mr Benson (the magistrate at Thames Police court) remanded Howard in custody so that these witnesses could be brought to give their testimony.

At a later hearing Timothy Howard (described as an ‘Irish labourer’) was fully committed to trial for the manslaughter of his work colleague. On the 11 January 1869 he was convicted at the Old Bailey but ‘very strongly’ recommended to mercy by the jury who accepted that it was really a tragic accident, their was no intent on Howard’s part. The judge clearly agreed as he only sent the man to prison for a fortnight, a shorter term than many drunker brawlers would have received at Thames before the magistrates.

[from The Standard, Monday, 28 December, 1868]

‘You have most grossly ill-used this girl, and you will pay a fine of £5 to the Queen’: violence, theft and late night drinking dominate the news from  the early Victorian police courts

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The Police courts of the Victorian metropolis did not sit on Christmas Day but the newspapers were printed on Boxing day and they carried the stories of the week’s crime news. In the early days of the reportage of the ‘doings’ of these magistrates’ hearings the storytelling can be more elaborate than is the case later in the century. Dickens cut his teeth as a court reporter and you can certainly see some novelistic flourishes in the articles that were published under the header of ‘police intelligence’.

In the Boxing Day edition of The Morning Chronicle for 1838, in the first full year of Victoria’s long reign, there were three reports, all of the hearings heard on Christmas Eve before the courts closed for the holiday. At Worship Street Robert Terry was charged with breaking into a property in Hoxton with the intent to steal. As he entered the yard at the rear he was heard and a lodger went to investigate. Seeing a stranger in the dark the resident attempted an arrest and was badly beaten for his pains.

Fortunately a policeman was on hand to capture Terry and bring him before Mr Broughton at the East End police court. The intruder was well known to the police, having been ‘summarily conicted no less than six times’. On his way to the station Terry had told the officer (41N) ‘Well, you _____, you can’t hang me now: you can only give me two or three months for this’.

The magistrate told him he was mistaken: he would send to prison for two months for the attempted burglary and then on for trial as a ‘an incorrigible rogue’, for which he fully expected him to get a further year at hard labour.

At Lambeth Mary Byrne was brought before Mr Coombe charged with stealing nine pairs of gloves from a hosier in the Mile End Road. She was seen dropping a parcel containing the gloves into her basket soon after she entered the shop on the previous Saturday evening. Mary said she had travelled to the shop from Charing Cross and was so cold and wet (it had rained heavily that day) that her hands had ‘become so benumbed, that she was perfectly unconscious of what she did with them’. Her husband was a policeman, and had served since the formation of the force in 1829. He was an honest man but it didn’t save his wife who was sent back to gaol to await a trial in the new year.

Finally, the reporter from Thames Police court described the scene and exchange in court as Peter Murphy, a boilermaker, was prosecuted for a vicious attack on a young woman.

Sarah Douglas was assaulted by Murphy as she made her way home from a concert in a beer house called the Bee Hive. Murphy, quite drunk it seems, had caught up with Sarah and had knocked her to the ground. More than one witness (including PC William Wood of K Division) watched in horror as the man grappled with his victim and tore her clothes off. Poor Sarah was left with just her stays and a petticoat. The policeman rushed to her rescue but a mob of onlookers stole her clothes and ran away.

She must have known the young man that attacked her because in court she at first refused to press charges against him. Mr Ballantine, the sitting justice and a county justice sitting with him, were adamant however that the man must be punished. ‘That is very kind of you’, Mr Thistleton told her, ‘but we must punish him unless he has a very good defence’. All the boilermaker could say was that he was ‘very tipsy’.

‘But whether drunk or sober’, Mr Ballantine berated him,‘men don’t ill-use women and knock them down. It appears that you most grossly ill-used this girl, who had given you no provocation’.

He went on to add that:

‘If you had any manhood about you, you would not have done it. You will pay a fine of £5 to the Queen, or be imprisoned for two months’.

He then directed the police to look into the concert at the beer house, which, he suggested, was less than reputable.  The Bee Hive had been open much later than its license allowed and inspector Valentine of the Metropolitan Police promised he would give this his urgent attention.

Thus, the middle class reading public was suitably entertained by the bad behavior of the lower orders, but reassured that three near-do-wells (from the roughest areas of the capital) were safely locked up over Christmas.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, 26 December 1838]