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]

A teenager learns a hard life lesson

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The Blewcoat School in Caxton Street

William Gillman had managed to secure a solid position for himself at a merchant’s offices in Mansion House Street in the City. He was 16 years of age and had been educated at the Blewcoat School in Caxton Street. The charity school, established in 1688 and situated in Caxton Street from 1709, served to help poor boys and girls in ‘reading, writing, religion, and trades’. The education he received there allowed Gillman to work for Mr Charles Ede as a clerk.

It should have been the basis for a long and respectable career had young William taken his opportunity. Sadly, and as if so often the case, he didn’t appreciate at 16 just what his life could be if he knuckled down and worked at it; maturity comes to all of us at different stage of life after all.

William was entrusted with Mr Ede’s postage stamps, amongst which were a ‘certain number of foreign’ ones which were kept in a book. The book was in a box which was locked away at night but to which William had access during the day. So when Mr Ede noticed that the foreign (at a shilling value each) stamps were running out faster than normal his suspicions fell on the lad.

The merchant decided to set a trap for his young employee, marking some of the stamps so he’d be able to recognize them later. One day soon afterwards he called for a stamp but since no one answered him he went to fetch one himself.  When he opened the box he found there were no shilling stamps left so he called William over, gave him 10and sent him to the post office to get some more.

When the teenager returned and handed him the stamps Ede noticed that some of them bore the secret marks he’d inscribed on them. Clearly William had pocketed some of the money for himself and fobbed his master off with the stamps he’d previously stolen. The merchant confronted the boy and asked him if he stolen from him. At first William lied and said he was innocent but capitulated when his boss told him about the markings.

Mr Ede resolved to write to the boy’s father and have him dismissed from his service and taken home. That would have been the end of it (and reminds us that very many petty thefts like this would never have reached the courts) had not William tried to justify his actions. Theft was bad enough but to couple it with deception and a refusal to acknowledge one’s guilt was too much for the merchant who was determined that the boy needed to be taught a lesson.

On Monday 4 February 1861 William Gillman appeared before the Lord Mayor at Mansion House police court where he was formally charged with theft. He could have been sent to prison for his crime but neither the magistrate or Mr Ede wanted that. The boy’s father was present and was willing to take the lad back into his care so, after ‘a severe reprimand’ he was discharged.

Let’s hope he learned that hard life lesson and quickly moved on.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, 5 February, 1861]

The fight to get to work

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Since Friday I have been following one week’s ‘police intelligence’ in the London newspapers in 1884, a year which followed the same calendar as 2019. On Monday the newspapers reported a selection of cases heard at the capital’s Police courts on the preceding Saturday (since the courts were closed on a Sunday).

On Saturday 24 January 1884 one of these was the reappearance after a couple of days of Henry Brayne, a clerk from Leytonstone who worked in the City. Brayne had been accused of assault by his (unnamed) victim, another City worker. The pair had been walking independently along the Poultry – one of the City streets that leads past Mansion House to the Bank of England – when they bumped into each other.

The other man was carrying some parcels and nearly toppled over. He turned on Brayne and said that had he got both his hands free he would ‘teach him better’ than to nearly knock people over in the street. Brayne took exception to this and punched the man in the eye.

When the pair had appeared in court on the Thursday the Lord Mayor (who sat as Chief Magistrate for the City of London) advised the pair to settle their differences by negotiating some compensation for the wounded man’s injury. Failing that, he said, he would hear the action for assault against the clerk.

It now transpired that the pair had agreed a financial arrangement that was mutually acceptable. The amount of this was not disclosed in court (or at least it was not reported) but given that Brayne’s attack had left the other party without the ability to see in one eye (albeit, we hope, temporarily) it must have been a fairly hefty settlement.

It reminds us that London was an exceptionally busy place in the Victorian period. The streets were as rammed with traffic as they are today and all the photos we see of the capital’s centre show thousands of commuters fighting (clearly sometimes literally) to make their ways to and from work.

Plus ça change, eh?

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

‘You talk so fast, you flower girls’: more Eliza Doolittles in the Police courts

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We’ve met London’s small ‘army’ of flower girls before in this blog. The young women that sold flowers at Covent Garden or St Paul’s were not considered ‘respectable’ and that may well have been the reason Professor Higgins chose one of their number for his experiment in elocution. For his ‘Eliza Doolittle’ we have – in January 1886 – three girls all of whom were prosecuted at the Guildhall Police court for obstructing the streets of the City of London.

Kate Moore, Julia Moore (presumably her sister) and Anne Smith were summoned to the City magistrate court for ‘exposing flowers for sale on the footway’ and thereby causing an obstruction to passers-by. The girls were selling flowers on Paternoster Row, near Cheapside, and they’d caught the attention of police constable Francis of the City force.

He seemed to have made it his mission to move them on and told the alderman magistrate that he’d received ‘a great number of complaints’ from ‘ladies of being’ that the girls had been selling their wares aggressively on the street. I suspect that PC Francis was also fairly convinced that the flowers were not only thing the women were offering for sale.

The association of flowers girls with prostitution was  well established in the 1800s as was the location of St Paul’s and Covent Garden. As Kate protested in court that they’d been doing nothing wrong and merely trying to support themselves and their families the alderman (Sir Andrew Lusk) interrupted her:

‘You talk so fast, you flower girls; I don’t know whether you are fast yourselves, but you talk very fast’.

His implication was that the young women were immoral at best; morally corrupt at worst and, either way, in the wrong.  The City chief police inspector, Tillock, added that the women had chosen a particularly poor place to trade, especially as they stood together. To them this may have represented strength in numbers, to the police it looked intimidating and for the public it created an obstruction.

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Sir Andrew (right) was clearly enjoying the opportunity to show off his comedic side to the watching public and press:

‘You think you make a nice bunch of flowers, I suppose’ he told them before fining them 2s costs and warning them that a sliding scale of penalties awaited them if they didn’t heed this warning. Next time they would pay a fine of 26d, rising to 5(with costs of 2s each time to be added). He probably thought that be letting them off a fine on this occasion he was being lenient but it mattered little to the trio of young women as they had no money anyway.

Kate told the court that they had not earned 2 shillings in the whole week. Sir Andrew was unmoved, ‘pay the money, or go to prison’ he warned them.

[from The Standard, Monday, January 11, 1886]

‘No home, no parish, and nothing to eat’: But there is little Christmas cheer from the City bench

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In some of the interviews with homeless people and reports of their plights this winter one of the depressing strategies that emerged is that some individuals would prefer to commit a crime and go to prison for a few days or weeks than suffer the cold and hunger of living on the streets at this time of the year. British prisons are not nice places; they are overcrowded, dangerous, drugged fueled and brutalizing – no one would choose to go there if they had a choice.

Yet even modern prisons compare well with those of Victorian London. In 1845 London was still being served by some of the institutions that had survived from the Georgian period – the houses of correction  like Clerkenwell that had last been rebuilt in 1775, the extant Newgate Gaol had been reconstructed after the Gordon Riots in 1780, and even Bridewell, one of the oldest gaols in the capital, was not to close until 1855.

Brixton Prison opened in 1820 but despite been new it was described as ‘one of the unhealthiest prisons in London’.* Four young girls had spent 10 days inside the gaol, on a diet of basic food and set to hard labour. Their crime was breaking windows but their intention had been to get off the streets so when they were released they set about finding a way back inside again.

Eliza Jones, Mary Hayes, Eliza Montague and Martha Pike attacked Mr Inglis’ biscuit shop on St Paul’s Churchyard, pelting it with stones. They broke several panes and were promptly arrested and brought before the alderman magistrate at Guildhall Police court.

The girls had used heavy stones – at least a pound each – one of which was produced in court as evidence of their ‘mischief’. Poor Mr Inglis was out of pocket to the tune of £12 which, at about £700 in today’s money, was a considerable sum. He said that the girls had originally come in to ask if he could spare them any stale buns as they were starving. When he said he had none they broke his windows.

The four girls pleaded that they ‘had no home, no parish, and they were hungry’. Alderman Hughes was not sympathetic however, what they had done was an outrage: ‘they had wantonly inflicted a grievous loss on a tradesman’. Inglis was contributing to the poor rates so, indirectly, he was supporting individuals just like them (although since they had ‘no parish’ he wasn’t really).

If the girls thought their actions would secure them a bed and festive food for the Christmas period he would make sure they were disappointed. They would go to gaol, for two months at hard labour, but he gave orders that ‘they should be strictly excluded from partaking of the Christmas fare’.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, 23 December, 1845]

* B. Wienreb and C. Hibbert, The London Encylopaedia

If you feel like helping end homelessness (or at least making the lives of those living rough on our streets a little more comfortable) you might consider a donation to St Mungo’s

‘Such things are a disgrace there’: A Dutchman tries to save his father’s shame by dumping his grandchild on the streets of London

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Lower Thames Street in the late 1800s

One of the subjects that continues to fascinate my undergraduate students is infanticide. Almost invariably they approach the topic wanting to understand how a mother could deliberately murder her newborn baby. Looking through the very many cases that came before the Old Bailey they are understandably shocked at the stories of women who cut their infant child’s throat, or smothered it at birth, before dumping the body in the nearest privy.

Without wishing to deny the reality that some mothers did kill their newborn babies I think most historians would agree that this was probably the exception rather than the rule in infanticide cases. Babies died in childbirth much more often in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, before advancements in medical care arrived in the 1900s. Most importantly the women accused were invariably single, poor, young and from the servant class. These young women had fallen pregnant and then had tried to conceal this from their families and employers, for fear of being condemned as immoral and, in the case of servants, being dismissed from service.

Illegitimacy is not an issue in most Western societies today. Very many people choose to live together before they marry and some do not marry at all yet still have children. This has been widely accepted in most communities in Britain since the 1970s if not a little earlier and the word ‘bastard’ has almost lost its original meaning.

However this was far from true in the 1800s, even if – as this case perhaps implies – London was seen as a more progressive city than some in Europe.

In December 1875 Samuel Whiffin was walking towards London Bridge on Lower Thames Street when he noticed a parcel lying near a doorway. As a policeman was approaching from the opposite direction Whiffin called him over and pointed out the package. PC Holly examined it and realized that it contained the body of an infant.

To his relief the baby was alive but very cold, so PC Holly carried it off to the Home for the Houseless Poor. This charity provided ‘nightly shelter and sustenance to the absolutely destitute working- classes, who are suddenly thrown out of employment by inclement weather’.* Having been looked after by the charity the child was next taken to the Homerton Workhouse and the search for its parents began.

Three days later Jans Hans, a Dutch labourer living at 3, Walburgh Street, St George-in-the-East, was brought before Sir Robert Carden at  Mansion House to be examined concerning the abandonment of the child. He was accused along with his sister, who was in St George’s hospital and too ill to attend.

The court heard the evidence of PC Holly as to the finding of the baby and then from a Mrs Plaggenine, a German woman who was landlady to Hans and his sister. Sir Robert was interested in the revelation that the siblings shared a single room in the property, and intimated that this was not normal. Mrs Plaggenine ignored, or did not understand, the magistrate’s question, but the suggestion of incest was left hanging in the air.

The policeman that had arrested Jan Hans questioned him about the child and reported that the man had admitted leaving it in the street on the previous Thursday. Hans told him that he had set the child down then retired to a safe spot where he could watch to see that someone stopped and rescued the baby. He had tried advertising the baby for adoption but had no success.

Hans and his sister were desperate, the Dutchman now explained to the alderman. They were very poor and couldn’t afford to raise a child. His sister had traveled from Holland ‘to be confined’ (to give birth) because the father refused to take responsibility for it. He added that ‘such things were a disgrace there’.

Presumably because Jan lived and worked in London this seemed like a good solution to Hans senior. If he sent his daughter to England she could give birth and the child would be brought up by strangers in a strange country but at least his family’s reputation would be protected. The child had a lucky escape and it is hard to imagine the mental state of Hans’ sister who seems to have been almost entirely left out of the decision-making process. She was ill in hospital while her brother disposed of her baby and the alderman magistrate cast further doubt on her morality by suggesting it was the product of an incestuous relationship.

Jan Hans was remanded in custody so that the courts could decide what to do with him and his sister. If they couldn’t and wouldn’t care for the baby (and no adopted family could be found) then it would grow up in the workhouse like Oliver Twist, perhaps never knowing of it Dutch heritage.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, 20 December, 1875]

The City’s charity will not be given to ‘worthless people’ a magistrate assures the public.

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Goldsmiths’ Hall in the mid-ninetenth century, by Thomas Shepherd

It is the time of the year when charities do so much to raise awareness of poverty and homelessness. People are homeless all year round of course, and poverty is endemic in our society, but there is something particularly poignant about seeing someone sleeping rough at Christmas which helps charities prick the consciences of the general public.

At the Guildhall Police court in December 1855 the suffering of the poorest was on the mind of Alderman Finnis, the duty magistrate, but so were the attempts of the poor to help themselves. He notified the press that his court had received a cheque for £20  from the Goldsmiths’ Company which was to be added to the Poor Box. This enabled him and his fellow magistrates ‘to relieve many deserving cases’ in the City but he assured readers (and potential donors) that the money ‘was not given to worthless people’. The Goldsmiths could well afford it, as the painting of their headquarters above suggests.

Among those he might consider ‘worthless’ were Martha Gilbert and Mary Murphy. They had entered a bakery at 49, Old Bailey and had asked for a loaf of bread. When Mrs Fore, the shopkeeper, had placed it on the counter the women ripped it in half and rushed out, stuffing into their mouths as they ran. They were soon captured  and brought before the alderman.

In their defense they said they were starving which only earned them a rebuke.

‘That is no excuse, for you should have applied to the union’, Alderman Finnis told them.

They had, he was told, but St George’s had refused them poor relief. This was probably true the reliving officer of the West London Poor Law Union admitted,

‘for the metropolitan parishes were refusing to relieve the poor for the purpose of driving them into the City, where it was well known they were all relieved’.

Only the day before he had had no less than 153 applications, many from paupers living outside the City’s boundaries.

Alderman Finnis was outraged. ‘It is a pity they [meaning the Poor Law Unions in Middlesex] are not prosecuted for it’ he grumbled. Turning to the two women, who had clearly been honest in claiming their theft was entirely motivated by hunger, he sent them to the house of correction for seven days.

At least they would get fed.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, December 13, 1855]

If you would like to give to charity this winter then perhaps consider St Mungo’s who have been doing great work in London with the homeless since 1969.