‘If you had been pursued all over London and were hated by the government, you would wish to shoot yourself’: drama at Bow Street as a respectable citizen tries to take his own life.

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This story is both sad and dramatic as it concerns a man’s very public attempt at suicide. Most of the cases that I’ve written about previously that have involved suicide have been women and most of those have chosen to end their lives by throwing themselves into the River Thames or one of the canals that ran through the capital. Most were prevented by quick-thinking policemen or passers-by and ended up before magistrates because attempting to take one’s life was against the law in the 1800s.

In this example the defendant was a man, and a respectable one at that. Robert H. Rhodes lived in St John’s Wood and worked for the Land Revenue Record Office. So Robert was a middle class white-collar worker, he was married and he had children and so was a very long way, it would seem, from the desperation of the usually poor and destitute women (and men) who chose to throw themselves from the various bridges that crisscrossed the Thames.

Appearances can be deceptive of course, and mental illness is no respecter of class or wealth. Rhodes was under some sort of pressure: in his appearance that Bow Street he told Mr Bridge (sitting as the duty magistrate) that he had ‘been pursued all over London, and [was] hated by the Government and bullied by everyone’.

While we don’t know why exactly Robert decided to end his life we do know how. In mid September 1886 the revenue man walked into a gunmaker’s shop in Cockspur Street near Trafalgar Square. He showed the assistant a cartridge he’d brought with him and asked to see some revolvers that might fit it. The shopkeeper brought out some examples and Rhodes calmly selected one and loaded it with his cartridge.

Then he ‘turned the revolver round till the muzzle pointed to his head and was trying to pull the trigger when the shopkeeper seized his arm’, and saved his life. The police were called and Rhodes was led away. As the constable took him to the nearest police station Rhodes begged him to let him end his life saying that otherwise ‘his wife and family would be forever ruined’.

We get no further clues as to what had led Robert Rhodes to make this terrible decision to kill himself but perhaps he was about to lose his position, or owed a large amount of money, or was suffering in some other way with the pressures of his job? Two gentlemen approached the bench and said they would take care of him and be responsible for his future conduct. I presume these were his friends or colleagues.  They agreed to be bound for six months as sureties at £250 each (about £16,500 today, so a huge sum of money) and Mr Bridge duly released Robert on the condition he did not repeat his attempt within that period.

[from The Standard , Tuesday, September 21, 1886]

For other cases involving attempted suicide see:

A man is driven to attempt suicide because of his ‘reduced circumstances’

A bad week in London, full of personal tragedy

A destitute Essex girl in London makes the news

A circus artist for whom the show cannot go on alone

Pickett climbs a fence and saves a life

A mother’s cruelty and a son’s desperate violence as news of the latest Whitechapel ‘horror’ emerges.

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On the 9 September 1888 London was still digesting the news of Annie Chapman’s murder in Hanbury Street, Spitalfields. The full details of this latest ‘horror’ wouldn’t become public knowledge until after the inquest on the 13 September but there was sufficient rumour and speculation to throw the capital into a panic in the meantime.

There was no mention of Chapman’s killing in Lloyd’s Weekly’s daily summary of the police courts of the metropolis but there was plenty of reference to violence. Frederick Percival was charged at Lambeth Police court with shooting at his own father with a revolver. The incident had followed an argument during which Fred, a clerk, had thrown a cup and then ran out of the room, turning once to fire his weapon at the door. It seems that suicide was actually uppermost in the young man’s thoughts and he was remanded so the doctors could examine him.

Also at Lambeth Henry Baker was fully committed to trial for the attempted murder of Mary Cowan whom, it was alleged, he had stabbed in the chest and back in July. The case had taken so long to come before a magistrate because Mary had been dangerously ill in hospital.

At Woolwich PC Williams (127R) reported that he had been called to an incident in the High Street where a woman was mistreating her child. It was late at night and when he arrived he found Mary Sullivan, quite drunk, in the processing of dashing her baby’s head against a wall. He intervened to stop her and told her to go home. She had no home, she replied. A few onlookers had gathered and one offered to pay for bed for the night, something Mary indigently declined.

PC Williams moved her on but when his beat brought him round again he found her ‘sitting on a doorstop with the child exposed’. A crowd had gathered and was berating her for her conduct, and some ‘threatened to lynch her’. As she should probably have done on the first occasion he now took her into custody and escorted her back to the station. After being checked out by the police surgeon her child was taken to the workhouse. Mary was brought before the magistrate in the morning and sent to prison for 14 days.

There were a number of other assaults, acts of cruelty, and an attempted suicide by a woman throwing herself into the Thames. All of this was recorded as part and parcel of everyday life in the city. So we should consider the Whitechapel murders in context; they were exceptionally brutal killings but their victims – poor working-class women – were the usual recipients of casual violence in late Victorian London.

This violence was frequently punished and often condemned but little if anything was done to prevent it, or to prevent the associated causes of violence, or improve the environment in which so many Londoners lived. The ‘Ripper’ shone a spotlight on East London in the autumn of 1888, and so is credited with forcing the ruling class to act to clean up the appalling poverty and housing conditions of the East.

That this ‘improvement’ was both half-hearted and temporary is less often reported. Inequality, unemployment and want continued and within a few years the authorities turned their attention elsewhere; it took two world wars and a socialist government to really tackle the endemic problems of poverty in British society and, some might say, even that progress has largely been lost given the prevalence of food banks and homelessness in modern Britain today.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, September 9, 1888]

An ‘accidental’ assault in the City as a sex-pest gets above himself

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Mrs Sarah Ann Mott had just come out of a shop in Fenchurch Street and was heading home with her partner to their home in Ratcliffe, east London when she told her husband to walk on and she’d catch him up. She had noticed a confectioner’s and had decided to pick up ‘some cakes for my baby’ and popped inside. Having made her purchases she hurried on after Mr Mott.

She’d not gone far when a well-dressed man veered into her path and made a grab at her thighs. ‘How do you do, my dear’ he leered and moved around behind her. As she turned to face him he laughed loudly, right in her face.

The man’s actions elicited a cry from Sarah that brought her husband running to her rescue.

How dare you insult my wife in the public streets, do you think she is a common prostitute?’

‘She may be for what I know’ said the stranger, prompting Mr Mott to place his hand on his shoulder and shout for a policeman. Not wishing to be arrested the man aimed a punch at Mott but missed, connecting with Sarah instead.

When the police arrived and Mott explained what had happened the man, who gave his name as Edmund Henshaw, a wine merchant living in Mincing Lane in the City, denied everything and called Mott ‘a ______ liar’.

They all went to the nearest police station where Mott demanded an apology. Henshaw’s attempt at an apology was so clearly a sham that Mott insisted on charging him and bringing him before the Lord Mayor at Mansion House. There he again denied the charge, said he’d brushed against Sarah’s leg by accident and was only defending himself when he’d hit her.

Despite the difference in class – Henshaw being a supposedly ‘respectable’ merchant and the Motts mere ‘slopsellers’ from the rough part of town – the magistrate found for the complainants. Henshaw, a sex pest who clearly thought himself above the law, was convicted and fined 20s, a small victory for ‘the little man’ (and woman).

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, August 25, 1853]

Transport woes mean a bad start to the week for one Victorian worker

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London Railways, 1899

In the 1800s increasing numbers of people commuted to work five or six days a week. Trams and railways were the preferred option for the working classes, as horse drawn omnibuses ran a little later and were a bit more expensive. Most working men had to be at their place of employment very early, by 7 o’clock, so they either needed to live close by (as the dockworkers in the East End did) or required reliable public transport to get them there.

Given that wages were low transport had to be cheap, which is why men like Alfred Shepperson took the train. Thousands used the workmen’s trains from the beginning of the 1860s, these usually ran early and charged just two pence return (instead of the flat rate of a penny per mile that was the cost of third class travel on the railways). It was an imperfect system however, some train services ran too late, others too early, and casual workers were particularly badly affected by this. Calls for better transport echoed down the century as the government recognized that this was crucial if they were to encourage migration to the developing suburbs north and south, and so clear the crowded slums of central, south and east London.

On Monday 27 July 1868 Alfred Shepperson had a bad Monday morning. He arrived at Walworth Road station at 7 am as usual, ready to start work nearby as a sawyer. He presented his ticket (a workman’s ticket) to Henry Ricketts at the gate but the Chatham & Dover Railway employee refused it. It had expired on Saturday he told him, and he’d need to pay 4d for his travel.

Shepperson growled at him declaring he see him damned first and an altercation seemed inevitable. Then a man stepped forward, smart and of a higher social class, who paid the sawyer’s fare. This might have been the end of it but Shepperson’s blood was up and he was in no mood to be reasonable. He continued to protest and was asked to leave the station quietly.

Unfortunately ‘he refused, made a great disturbance, calling [Ricketts] foul names, and threatening to have his revenge on him at the first opportunity’.

The ticket inspector was called and when be tried to steer the sawyer out of the station Shepperson’s rage intensified and he became ‘extremely violent’ assaulting both men and ripping the inspector’s coat in the process. Bystanders intervened before Shepperson could throw the man down some stairs. Eventually he was subdued and hauled off to a police station.

On the following morning he was up before Mr Selfe at Lambeth Police court where Shepperson claimed he didn’t know the ticket was out of date.

Can you read?’ the magistrate asked him.

Yes, sir

Then you must have seen the ticket was not available, for it is plainly printed on it’.

Shepperson had no answer for this so tried to deny the violence he was accused of, and hoped the magistrate would ‘overlook it’.

It is quite clear to me you have acted in a disgraceful manner’, Mr Selfe told him, ‘and I shall certainly not overlook such conduct. You are fined 20s., or 14 days’ imprisonment’.

The sawyer didn’t have 20(about £60 today, but 4-5 days’ wages at the time) so he was led away to the cells to start his sentence, one that might have had more serious repercussion if he had then (as was likely) lost his job.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, July 29, 1868]

‘Marry in haste and repent at leisure’ as one man learn’s to his (considerable) cost

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There was, for the working classes at least, no effectual form of divorce in the nineteenth century. Divorce was expensive (as it can still be) and there was no such thing as a ‘quick divorce’. Couples that couldn’t solve the problems of their marriage (in a time before Relate or other marriage counsellors) would either have to put up and make the best of it, or separate and live independently.

This was much easier for men than it was for women, socially and economically. As a result it was fairly common for men to desert their wives, and many did. An abandoned wife could, if she chose (and if she could find him), take her estranged husband to a police court and demand maintenance if he wouldn’t return to her.

This is what the young wife of William Clarke did. A court made an order against him and he started to pay her 10sa week towards her keep. However, as was usual, no payments materialised and Mrs Clarke had to go to law again to get the maintenance order enforced. So, on Saturday 28 May 1887 Mr and Mrs William Clarke were reunited, if only briefly, before Mr Bushby at Worship Street Police court.

William, who said he was a joiner, decided that now was the time to come up with an elaborate explanation for his behaviour, an explanation which owed more to the realms of popular melodrama than it did to reality.

Clarke said that eh should never have married his young bride at all. When he’d met her she had been a lady’s maid in the employ of ‘a wealthy lady named Le Compte’. And it was to Lady Le Compte that William was betrothed he insisted.

However, while he stayed at the lady’s London house he was systematically drugged and for a fortnight lost track of events, and had no real memory of them. During that time he was bundled into a hansom cab and driven to east London and forcibly married to the woman ‘who now called herself his wife’.

It was a incredible (if not incredulous) tale and Clarke didn’t manage to convince the magistrate of his version of events. Mr Busby had also heard from Mrs Clarke’s father who told him that he clearly recalled William coming to ask for his daughter’s hand, and that the couple had gone to Brighton after the wedding.

Mr Bushby declared that while the couple had only lived together as man and wife for two days they were still clearly, and properly married and so William had a responsibility towards her. She had received no money since the court order for maintenance had been made so he ordered William to find £59 plus £3 6scosts. This was a lot of money (about £5,000 today) but William paid it on the spot.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, May 30, 1887]

Two classes collide in central London

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An 1850s omnibus

Recently I have become quite interested in the dynamics of traffic in Victorian London. I’m not normally so fascinated about the minutiae of everyday life but I’m writing a book which explores the Whitechapel murders of 1888 and posits a potential solution. Myself and my co-researcher suggest that the transport network of the capital might well be an important factor in the murder series for reasons which, well, I just cant go into before the book goes to print. I’ll keep you informed.

With transport in mind today’s story concerns a collision, between an old form of transport (an open carriage – not unlike that which carried Harry and Meghan away from their wedding) and a ‘modern’ one (an omnibus). It took place at mid century and also brings together members of very different classes in Victorian society.

Lady Thesiger, the wife of Sir Frederick Thesiger the Conservative politician (and future Lord Chancellor) was sitting in an open carriage while it moved slowy along on Cockspur Street. It was a Tuesday afternoon and it was clear and dry, as the carriage’s hood was down and Lady Thesiger had a good view of the street around her.

As her coachman began a manoeuvre to cross the road and ‘park’ outside Strongi’th’arm’ the engraver’s shop, she saw an omnibus travelling quite fast in their direction. Her coach driver waived at the ‘bus driver but he either didn’t see the signal or ignored it. She later described what happened to the sitting magistrate at Marlborough Street Police court:

 ‘She saw the omnibus coming along very fast, and her impression at that moment was that the omnibus would run into the carriage. In an instant afterwards she found the pole of the omnibus across her chest and the head of one of the horses in her lap. It was a miracle she escaped serious injury’.

That a collision took place was not in doubt but when it came to court, and the omnibus driver – Roberts – was charged, a debate ensued as to whose fault it was.

After Lady Thesiger had given her testimony Mr Bingham heard from several other witnesses who corroborated her version of events. They deposed that the carriage was travelling at a sedate 5 miles and hour while the omnibus was doing nearly twice that. We might note that neither vehicle was going very fast by modern standards.

Roberts offered an alterative explanation of what had happened. He said the he’d been going downhill at ‘a moderate pace’ when the carriage had moved over to the wrong side of the road and into his path. The coachman had not indicated what he was doing and by then it was impossible for him to avoid the collision. It wasn’t his fault; it was Lady Thesiger’s driver’s.

He brought witnesses that backed him up including a local baker who had seen the whole thing unfold. He refuted the evidence about the speed of the vehicles, arguing that it was carriage that was moving more quickly. He said that the carriage driver should have waited until it was safe to cross the street and not have simply turned into the flow of the traffic.

Mr Bingham now had a couple of things to consider, one of law and one of fact, as he put it. The point of law was who had the right to cross the road in this case, while the fact referred to whether the coachman had given a signal or not, and if this signal had been seen or ignored by the omnibus driver ‘because he had more weight of metal with him’.

I think by that he meant simply that the omnibus driver was larger and so less bothered about a collision because it wasn’t his vehicle that was likely to get damaged by it. As someone who drives up and down the motorway several days a week in a small car I am quite aware of the careless driving of some larger vehicles who clearly think they are unlikely to come off as badly as me if I fail to avoid hitting them when they’ve pulled out in front of me.

So in the end the magistrate reserved judgement so he could make some enquiries. He promised an early verdict and was back in court the very next day to deliver it. He gave a lengthy explanation of his judgement which basically concluded that had the omnibus driver acted carelessly or wilfully then it would have constituted an act of ‘wilful and  perverse recklessness’ and he could impose a penalty. However, Mr Bingham didn’t believe that had been proved in court and so he dismissed the complaint but said that the Thesigers could of course take this before the civil courts.

Interestingly at that moment Sir Frederick was also in the courts, as a defence lawyer in a libel case. He lost that one too.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, May 24, 1850; The Morning Chronicle , Saturday, May 25, 1850]

Stockings, lace and a muff: The reluctant haberdasher and the fashionable shoplifter

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A rather brief entry today, as I have 40 exam scripts to mark!

In 1832 the ‘New Police’ force was still rather new. The public were probably getting used to seeing the ‘bluebottles’ on the streets, with their swallow-tailed coats and tall stovepipe hats. The individual victims of crime remained key to prosecutions however: the police largely acting as the old watch and parish constabulary had done, as a reactive force.

5300d2bf0b864dced8880d3c673cad3bOn May 11 (a Friday) Joanna Garth entered a haberdasher’s shop in Percy Street, Marylebone and bought a piece of lace for 2s 7d. Having made her purchase she then asked the shopman if she might have a look at some stockings, and some things. He obliged her and Joanna took a seat by the counter to examine the goods, but didn’t buy any of them.

The assistant had noted that she was ‘middle-aged’ and ‘fashionably-dressed’ and was carrying a muff. Others might tell me whether this was normal for this time of the year, but May can be cool out of the sun or perhaps it was on trend to carry such an accessory in the 1830s.

As he watched her the shopman noticed her pull a pair of the stockings into the muff and as she rose and made to leave the shop he challenged her. He found the stockings in the muff, and another pair balled up in her hand and, when he looked back to the chair she’d sat on, found a card of lace discarded by the chair leg which she’d possibly also been trying to steal.

The haberdasher’s assistant went to the door of the shop and called for a policeman. PC Hancock of S Division appeared and accompanied the woman to the nearest police station. She was charged at Marylebone Police Court on the 16 May with shoplifting at Harris’ premises where all this evidence was heard.

It was a pretty clear case but the haberdasher was reluctant to prosecute. Did he know Joanna? Was she a regular customer? Her lack of title suggests she was unmarried, was this an example of what the late Victorians termed kleptomania? Shoplifting by ‘respectable’ middle-class ‘ladies’ was not infrequently attributed to the supposed mental ‘weakness’ of the female sex, rather than being deemed ‘criminal’. Had Joanna been a working-class woman things might have been very different. Harris would have been quite likely to have wanted her prosecuted and punished but in this case he tried quite hard to have the case settled summarily and without penalty.

The magistrate was less keen to let it go however. He did let her leave his court on the promise she would return when requested, but set bail at the huge sum of £200. This in itself speaks to the wealth of the woman, an heiress perhaps, independently wealthy at least? £200 in 1832 is the equivalent of about £13,000 today so that gives you some idea of the level of bail the magistrate set. By comparison the goods she was accused of pilfering were worth about £9 in today’s money.

The case doesn’t seem to have made it to a jury trial and I’ve found no further mention of it at Marylebone so it is quite likely that Harris dropped his prosecution and settled the matter. The police were not obliged to press charges and there seems little to gain by anyone doing so. Joanna Garth was not the sort of offender that late Georgian society was concerned about or that the Metropolitan Police were created to combat. Hopefully she kept her ‘kleptomania’ under control after that and simply used her muff to warm her hands.

[from The Morning Post , Thursday, May 17, 1832]