The boy that tried to set fire to the Bank of England

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The Royal Exchange and Bank of England

(you can see the railings and the gas lamps on the left hand side) 

PC Batchelor was on his beat in Threadneedle Street at one in the morning when he saw smoke coming through the railings by the Bank of England. Was the ‘old lady’ on fire? He quickly discovered a fire at the base of column that connected to one of the gas lamps that lit the street. As the policeman set about tackling the small blaze he saw a figure leap over the railings and run off.

He ran after the escapee and collared him. His quarry was a young lad of 13 named Michael Buckley. He arrested him and took him before the magistrate at Mansion House in the morning.

The boy explained that he and several other lads had taken to sleeping rough within the boundaries of Bank and tended to curl up near the base of the lamp columns. They dragged in straw to make beds that were a little more comfortable than the hard stone floors or pavements. I imagine this was their version of the cardboard boxes that modern homeless people use to create a crude mattresses.

However, Micheal told the Lord Mayor (who presided as the City’s chief magistrate) that one of the lads had fallen out with the others and left, but had set fire to the straw bedding ‘in revenge’.

The court heard that had the fire melted the pipe that carried gas to the  street light ‘much damage might have been caused to the interior of the building’, hence the paper’s overlay dramatic headline that read:

Setting fire to the Bank of England’.

The Bank was not inclined to prosecute the lads for their trespassing but this didn’t stop the Lord Mayor – Sir Thomas Dakin – from sending the lad to prison for a week at hard labour. He said something had to be done to prevent boys from sleeping rough on the Bank’s property but his concern seemed to be with the potential risks of fire or other damage, not with the poor lads’ welfare.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, June 19, 1870]

Road rage on the Holborn Viaduct

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Victorian era tricycles (these ones are American however)

Anyone that knows Holborn Viaduct will realise how busy it can be at any time of the day. Most of the images we have of it from the late 1800s show it as being crammed with omnibuses, carriages, carts and pedestrians just as today it is full of buses, cars, taxis and vans. I’m not sure ‘road rage’ was a thing in the 1880s but even if the term didn’t exist it seems that the phenomenon did.

John Breece was a middle-class man who worked as a shipping agent in Cornhill in the City fo London. On the evening of the 15 May 1882 he was crossing the Viaduct on his way home from work when he was almost run over by a man riding a tricycle. In the 1800s tricycles were a popular form of transport, and not merely reserved for children.

The man who nearly collided with Breece was Mr Charles Abraham Mocatta and he cycled inland out of the City every day, as many thousands do today, and was on his way home. These sort of near misses (and actual collisions) are commonplace in the 21st century city as cyclists whizz through red lights or neglect to look out for pedestrians as they cross the road.

Breece was so angry at nearly being run over that he thrust his walking cane through the spokes of Mocatta’s wheels, capsizing the bike and sending its rider to the ground. A furious Mocatta found out his assailant’s name and issued a summons to bring him before a magistrate.

The pair were reunited at the Guildhall Police court on Saturday 27 May where Breece was formally charged with assault. He countered that Mocatta was going so fast and heading straight for him that he merely used his stick to defend himself. The cyclist insisted that he ‘was going very slowly or the injury to himself [being thrown from his bike] might have been very serious’.

Sir Robert Carden presiding found Breece guilty and fined him 10s but refused Mocatta’s request for damages on a technicality: he had summoned the other man for an assault, not criminal damage. If he wanted compensation he would have to pursue the case through the civil courts. I’m sure he was legally correct but I wonder also if he had seen the cyclists hammering up and down London’s streets and felt some sympathy with the defendant here.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, May 28, 1882]

For other cases involving cyclists at the Police Courts see:

The menace of cyclists in Victorian London

Two wheels bad, four wheels good? Cyclists in peril on the roads of Victorian England

Crossed wires in the early days of telecommunications.

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Earlier this week, as I drove out of north London on my way to the motorway, I passed a mother and child waiting at a bus stop. The child was about 6 or 7 and she was looking intently at a mobile phone, playing a game I imagine. I looked to her mother who was also completely absorbed in her device, with no obvious connection to her daughter at all. This is modern Britain I thought.

We all rely on our phones today, but rarely actually as devices to speak to anyone on. Instead we communicate by text, direct message, emojii, or post and respond to updates on social media. Our ‘smart phones’ are powerful computers that allow us access to more information than even our recent ancestors could imagine as well as a host of entertainment in the form of films, music, games and reading material. Indeed, you may well be reading this blog post on your mobile device.

The telephone was invented (as every school pupil used to be taught*) by Alexander Graham Bell in 1875. He applied for a patent in the US and brought his invention to England in 1878 and tried it out on Queen Victoria, making calls from her house at Osborne on the Isle of Wight. Thomas Edison developed the technology at much the same time so we have two men vying for the accolade of inventing the telephone.

In 1879 the Telephone Company Ltd opened two exchanges in London (one in the City on Leadenhall Street, the other at 3 Palace Chambers in Westminster). A telephone service then, was up and running in the Metropolis and rivals soon started to get in on the game.

Most of the technological advances we associate with ‘modern’ Britain were born out of intense competition (the train, tram, and omnibus for example) and London was at the heart of capitalist innovation. So it is no surprise to find that as early as 1883 (just 6 or 7 years after Bell’s breakthrough) that this competition resulted in prosecutions at London’s Police courts.

In May 1883 Theodore Torrey , the manager of the Globe Telephone Company, and two of his employees – William Goodfellow and James Molyneaux – appeared to answer a summons at the Guildhall. The summons had been taken out by the United Telephone Company (UTC) and accused Torrey and his team of ‘wilfully and maliciously tying up their wires’.

This then, was an early case of industrial sabotage with the aim of putting a rival out of business (or at least stealing a march on their custom).

Both firms were represented by legal teams and it was made clear that this situation was already the subject of a civil case in the court of Chancery. There an injunction had been granted against the Globe Company which ordered the wires to be untied. Globe had appealed this decision and the case rattled on (as they tended to in Chancery).

However, at Guildhall the lawyers for the UTC argued that this was actually a criminal case (one of damage) and so should be heard separately. The two sets of legal minds argued this out for a while before Sir Robert Carden (sitting as magistrate in Guildhall) before he decided that he couldn’t see enough daylight between the two points of view to make a judgement at this time.

The lawyer for the prosecution – a Mr Grain – said that the company wanted to get the situation resolved because at present the United Company’s customers were being inconvenienced. They had literally got their wires crossed he stated. For the defence Mr Lewis countered that the reason the wires were tied by his clients was because they were in the way, pointing out that the UTC had sent them over the Wool Exchange ‘purposely to interfere with their wires’. In fact, he said, they weren’t even genuine wires but dummy ones, simply placed there to cause inconvenience. If they were removed then the case in Chancery might proceed more quickly.

The magistrate could not untangle this tricky legal argument and so he adjourned the case for a few days, perhaps so heads might cool and private lines of communication between the warring firms might succeed where the public ones had failed. This was one of those ‘first world’ problems for most Londoners of course; very few people had access to a telephone in 1883 or even knew how to use one. How things have changed.

[from The Standard, Friday, May 25, 1883]

* Now they can just ‘google it’.

Knocked down in the street a week before her wedding.

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Yesterday I visited Highgate cemetery. This is the first time I’ve been to the West cemetery – the oldest part – which you can only access as part of a guided tour. Myself and about a dozen others avoided the royal nuptials by spending a fascinating 90 minutes or so with Stuart, one of the Friends of Highgate Cemetery’s volunteers. He showed us around the cemetery, up into the catacombs and around the Egyptian style tombs, pointing out some of the famous people buried there (like Michael Faraday) and telling us about the history of site.

I was most touched by the stories of ordinary people like Elizabeth Jackson – the very first burial at Highgate after it opened in 1839 – whose husband must have saved every penny he had to ensure his wife was interned in a crowded graveyard in central London but instead was buried in the quite peace of the suburbs. He later died of cholera but his second wife made sure he was interred with his first love, and possibly their daughter who died (as so many did) in infancy.

The tour costs £12 but is well worth every penny and includes the £4 admission to the East cemetery, where you can visit Marx, Elgar, Douglas Adams and my early historical hero, Eric Hobsbawm.

Today I’ve picked a tragedy from the Police Court in the year Highgate opened. As Charles Aymer drove his butcher’s cart along Old Bailey in May a young woman stepped out into the traffic. London was as busy then as it is today, although where we have cars, vans and buses, they had coaches, cabs and carts.

Aymer saw the woman – Jane Lang – and reined in his horse, but couldn’t stop in time. The horse knocked her down and the wheels of the chaise cart ran right over her stricken body. She died where she lay.

The butcher was brought up before the alderman at Guildhall Police Court where he gave his evidence. The alderman accepted that it was mostly likely to have been an accident but said he would have to remand him in custody until an inquest had taken place the following week. The court was also told that Jane had been due to get married that week as well. It was an awful thing to happen, but there was probably little the butcher could have done to prevent it.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, May 20, 1839]

‘The devil finds work for idle hands to do’: a youngster pays the price for his temptation

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William Barham was only 11 years of age when he stood in the dock at mansion House Police court. His experience is a reminder that attitudes towards children (especially juvenile offenders) have changed enormously in the past 150 years.

William’s father worked in a local market close to Mark Lane as a ‘sampler of corn’. He was well respected having held the post for many years. His lad often went into work with him and was allowed to play and run about the offices at the New Corn Exchange. The beadle had an office there, where the boy was allowed occasionally to wash himself.

On the 8 May William was watching Mr Wise the beadle tie up some bags of silver coin. The temptation  must have been too great because when the beadle left the room William helped himself to one of the bags. Wise spotted the loss on his return and his suspicions immediately fell on young William.

This was compounded by the eleven year-old’s absence and so on the following morning, when he reappeared, he was questioned closely about the missing money (which amounted to £5). William denied all knowledge of it and the matter was handed over to the police. Now William cracked; handling questions from his father and a man he knew was one thing, but being interrogated by police detective, perhaps in a cell nearby clearly unsettled the child.

Accompanied by his father, the beadle and the detective, William took them across the river to ‘an orchard in a retired part of Bermonsdsey’ where he’d buried his loot. They dug up the bag which still contained most of the silver; William had spent 36but wouldn’t say on what.

At his first appearance in court, soon after the discovery of the theft, William was remanded in custody at the request of his father. Mr Barham said he wanted his son to be placed in a juvenile reformatory, for his own good. The magistrate agreed but sent the child back to a police cell while the arrangements were made. This had taken about a week and now father and son were reunited at the Mansion House, along with the boy’s mother.

Alderman Challis, sitting as magistrate, asked the parents what they wanted to happen to William. They said they were ‘both anxious that some steps should be taken to reclaim their son from the dangerous career on which he had entered’.

Detective Monger explained that his enquiries had established that William had be led on by an older boy, a common trope in juvenile crime.

This other lad had persuaded William to ‘steal anything he could lay his hands on’ and, as a result, ‘he had frequently robbed his father and mother’.

Today William would have been seen as a troubled child, perhaps one that played truant or had been excluded from school. William didn’t go to school in 1860, nor, it seems, did he work. As the proverb suggests, ‘the devil finds work for idle hands to do’.

The alderman agreed that a reformatory school was the best place for William but the law required that he face a spell in prison first. William was sentenced to 14 days in Holloway gaol so that he could face the full consequences of his criminal actions and hopefully learn from it. Thereafter he would be sent to the Home in the East School for the Reformation of Criminal Boys at Bow, for four years. His father was obliged to pay 2sa week towards his keep, the intention being that parents should not evade their responsibilities entirely.

William was led away in tears and ‘for some minutes after was heard shrieking loudly for his father and mother’. It was a harsh system and we can only hope that William emerged in his early teens unscathed by it and perhaps one step removed from the influences that had led him to steal in the first place.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Saturday, May 19, 1860]

Be careful who you drink with, and how much you imbibe! A cautionary tale from the 1820s.

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Bow Street Police Office, c.1825 (by J. Winston)

In 1827 the Metropolitan Police were still a pipe dream; Peel may well have envisaged them but there was still considerable resistance to the idea of a state run uniformed police force in England. In London policing was still the responsibility of the parish and the Police Offices staffed by ‘runners’, the principal one being at Bow Street.

In May of that year several persons turned up at the Registrar’s Office in Chancery Lane, to receive the confirmation and certificates for a legacy that had been rumbling through the civil court for some time. William Jones had finally got his hands on his inheritance, a sum of £355 16and 2d. That was a considerable and potentially life-changing amount of money in 1827, representing about £24,000 today. That equated to about 6 years’ wages for a skilled craftsman.

William was accompanied to the registrars (and then to the Bank of England) by his wife, his younger brother, and a Thomas Jones (who ‘was in some degree related to him’). The group were joined by Jones’ solicitor and his clerk. At the bank the legacy was paid out in five £50 notes, some £20 and a large amount of coin.

Having secured his fortune William Jones now invited his family and friends to dine with him at a chophouse in Mansion House street before some of the party went on to a pub in Welbeck Street, off Cavendish Square. There the celebrations began in earnest and it seems the drink was flowing. until late in the evening.

Finally William, much the worse for drink, was bundled into a cab with his wife, brother and Thomas Jones and ferried back to his home in Draper’s Court, London Wall where he was helped to his bed.

In the morning he awoke with a sore head. That much was expected but much worse was the discovery that some of his money was missing. He’d lost one £50 note and two £20s. That might not sound much to us but it was about £6,000; he certainly hadn’t run up that sort of a bill in the pub!

He immediately went back to the Bank of England and, having been wise enough to note down the numbers of the bank notes, had the stopped. later that day one of the notes was tendered in payment for some boots at a shop in Oxford Street and the notes were traced because the purchaser had been required to give his name and address.

All of this investigation was carried out by Mr Jones not by the police, and he managed to find out that the thief was none other than his ‘some degree’ relative, Thomas Jones.  Since Thomas gave his real address, in Praed Street, Paddington, he was quickly apprehended by an officer from Bow Street (a ‘runner’) and brought before the magistrate. He was committed for trial at the Old Bailey where he was acquitted.

I can only imagine the jury were unconvinced by the evidence presented which, while it seemed to prove that Jones had tried to spend the missing money, did not really show that he had stolen it. It therefore wasn’t beyond ‘all reasonable doubt’ and the young man got away with it.  Of course it may be that the jury were simply jealous of Jones’ good fortune and, with typical English mean spiritedness, quite glad to see that he’d lost his money when he’d allowed himself to be robbed whilst in a state of inebriation. ‘Serves him right’, they might have concluded.

[from The Morning Post , Thursday, May 10, 1827]

A deserter faces a double punishment: for his crimes against society and the Queen’s colours.

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The 1850s was a busy time for the British armed forces. The major conflict was that with Russia in the Crimea, but 1857 had seen rebellion in India, which was eventually crushed with heavy reprisals. Britain and France had joined forces in the Crimea and did so again in an imperialist war in China, which resulted in the destruction of the Qing army and the looting of the imperial palaces in Beijing. The British expedition in China was led by the 8thLord Elgin who had inherited not only his father’s name but also his lack of scruples in stealing other peoples’ heritage. Along with the Crimea, India and China, British troops were also involved in conflicts in Persia (modern Iran), and then later in Burma (Myanmar) Bhutan and Abyssinia (Ethiopia).

Being a soldier in the British Army certainly offered you the chance to see the world then, but perhaps with a higher degree of risk and much more travelling than some might have liked.

William Parsons had clearly had enough by 1856 and he deserted his regiment and escaped their attention for three years. His downfall was his inability to stay out of trouble with the law (which was often the reason that some joined the colours in the first place, because it offered discipline, food and shelter, and a steady income).

In May 1859 Parsons was arrested after he stole a handkerchief from a sailor in Billingsgate market. Arthur Ewes had recently docked at Fresh Wharf with his ship and had decided to explore Billingsgate. Feeling a hand in his pocket he spun around to find Parsons holding his handkerchief.

He demanded the man give him back his handkerchief:

What handkerchief?’ Parsons replied. ‘That one which you just took out of my pocket’, the seaman told him before making a grab for it as Parsons dropped it and ran off.

He was quickly apprehended in the busy market and produced before Alderman Cubitt at the Mansion House Police court on the Saturday morning following the arrest.

Parsons said he’d never been in trouble with the law before but the gaoler scoffed at this, saying he’d been there ‘several times’. More importantly perhaps, a soldier now took the stand and declared that Parsons was a deserter, missing, as we’ve heard, since 1856.

At this point William probably realized his choices were limited; he could go to prison for the theft (and if previous convictions were proved this might be a lengthy spell) or he could try and rejoin his regiment and face the disciplinary consequences (hardly likely to be pleasant) that would entail. He opted for the army and stated his willingness to return to the Queen’s service.

That was all very well Alderman Cubitt remarked but he would have to pay for the crime he’d committed first: he would go to prison with hard labour for three months and then he handed over to the commanding officer of his regiment. If he was lucky I imagine he would have been simply given menial duties for a few months on his return to the army.  However, he may have been flogged for his desertion as this was not abolished for servicemen at home until 1868, and persisted in active service abroad until 1881.

So William’s inability to keep his head down and find paid work was what undid him in the end. Deserters were sometimes tattooed (with a ‘D’) when they were caught, to make it clear to everyone that they had abandoned their comrades and let down their country. But joining the army (or the navy) was not the career choice we see it as today. For large numbers of poor young men in Victorian Britain it represented the lesser of two evils; a chance to escape grinding poverty and just the sort of hand by mouth existence that led William Parsons to filch a ‘wipe’ in a London fish market.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper , Sunday, May 8, 1859]