A riot caused by a clergyman’s violence


Mary Barrow surrendered her bail and appeared before the magistrate at Highgate Police court to answer a charge of being ‘drunk and riotous’. However, what was often a fairly straightforward example of working-class inebriation clashing with police attempts to ‘keep the peace’ seems to have been rather more complicated in this case.

Sergeant Fickling was called to an incident in the Archway Road on the 11 November 1885 because a woman, much the worse for drink, was creating a disturbance outside the house of Major Platt. A crowd had gathered and some bricks had been thrown at the major’s windows, breaking some of them.

The police sergeant asked the crowd to disperse and told Mary to go home. When she refused he arrested her, taking her back to the station where she was charged. Oddly it seemed that major Platt did not want to press any charges of damage against the woman and the reasons for this only became clear when the case was heard in court.

Mary denied being drunk that night and instead accused a clergymen (not present) of assaulting her. She said that she’d been standing at her gate on Landsdowne Terrace when a man of the cloth had run up to her, used offensive language, and kicked her to the ground. As he ran away she followed after, a crowd joining in with the pursuit. He’d taken refuge in the major’s property.

Major Platt explained that the clergyman in question was his brother, Thomas, who had been staying with him that week and had indeed come home chased by a mob led by Mary.  Given this new information Mary was bailed, the sum put up by her husband, and the case adjourned while a summons was issued to bring the Reverend Thomas Platt before the court to answer Mary’s allegation.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, November 29, 1885]

A mysterious shooting in Belgravia


Sometimes there is just no obvious reason behind people’s actions and this is one of those cases. In early February 1844 the magistrate at Queen Square Police court was about to shut the court and leave for home when the police brought in a young man named Philip Macholland.

Macholland, who was seemingly in all accounts, ‘respectable’ and ‘of sound mind’, was set in the dock and charged with firing a pistol into a house in Lower Belgravia Place. The ball from the gun narrowly missed the Reverend Charles Chapman who appeared in court with the policeman that had arrested the youth.

Rev. Chapman testified that earlier that afternoon, at about four o’clock, he had been dressing in a room which overlooked his garden at the rear of the house at 20 Lower Belgravia Place. To his horror he heard a gun discharged and felt the ball pass close by him before lodging in the wainscot.

Looking out the window he saw a man (evidently Macholland) appear from a property three doors down holding a gun. Either the cleric or one of his staff had already called for the police and PC Hobbs (166B) quickly arrived and secured the gunman.

Macholland tried to deny firing the gun but when the clergyman assured him that ‘he might be forgiven’ if he admitted his actions he confessed to it, but gave no reason. In court before Mr Bond Macholland said he was sorry for what he’d done and promised not to do it again. All he would add under questioning was that he was apprenticed to a modeler and sculptor; he couldn’t (or wouldn’t) say why he had a gun or had used it that day.

The magistrate was quite perplexed but given that the Rev. Chapman was in no mood to press serious charges against the lad he simply reprimanded Macholland, warning him that the consequences could have been fatal, and bound him over to keep the peace for the next twelve months. Having extracted a promise (backed up with nearly £150 worth of sureties) he released the young man. Congratulating the reverend on his lucky escape from an untimely death the magistrate went home to reflect on an unusual end to his working day.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, February 10, 1844]

p.s curiously, and amusingly, just around the corner from Lower Belgravia Street is Ebury Street where, at number 22 Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond, once lived. A blue plaque marks the house today. 

‘An awful responsibility rests on those that who have brought this war about’, a vicar tells an angry crowd in London


This morning we remember the fallen of all conflicts but with particular focus on the 100 year anniversary of the end of the First World War. There has been a great deal of emphasis on those that lost their lives in the so-called ‘war to end wars’ with a powerful lightshow at the Tower of London and a count of the dead across the advertising screens in Piccadilly Circus. Across the country and across the world ordinary people, politicians, and members of the armed forces (serving ones and veterans) have been marking the armistice that was signed in 1918 on a railway carriage in France.

There have been some discordant voices; criticism has been aimed at those not wearing poppies and the president of the USA chose to avoid getting his hair wet rather than attending a ceremony to mark the sacrifice of the ‘doughboys’ who did so much to bring the conflict to an end on the Western Front.

boer war

In 1899 (21 years before the end of the First World War) Britain was embroiled in a smaller colonial conflict in South Africa. The Boer War (as it was called then) ended up in a  victory for the Queen’s forces but for a while the irregular farmers of southern Africa embarrassed the finest army in the world. At home patriotism was high and there were joyful celebrations of victories, along with outpourings of sadness at the loss of life amongst the troops that sailed halfway across the world to defend the Empire.

The Reverend Francis Allen Minnitt was someone who objected to the sacrifice and believed, as a significant minority did, that the war was unnecessary. These sentiments were to voiced in 1914 and throughout the ‘Great War’ by those who for political, religious or moral reasons argued that war was wrong, or that ‘this war’ was wrong.

Rev. Minnitt had set himself up to speak in Betterton Street, Westminster and a crowd of (mostly) boys had surrounded him. The minister had been working with young boys in London for some time, trying to help the poorest avoid the temptations of crime and immorality, through education and work. But now he was also condemning the war and the men at the top of society that had sent so  many men off to fight and die in the Transvaal.

‘An awful responsibility rests on those that who have brought this war about’, he told the crowd.

The crowd didn’t like it. Several of them started heckling him, and two women argued and started fighting each other. Several of the boys had been at the Lord Mayor’s Show earlier and tossed a few of the apples they had filched at him. PC 352E was perambulating his beat and soon realised that the reverend was in trouble. Pushing his way through the crowd he grabbed hold of the cleric and asked him, none too politely, to ‘come along’ with him.

Rev. Minnitt was unhappy about the constable’s then but was eventually pulled away and then arrested  for causing an obstruction. On the next morning (the 10 November 1899) he was presented at Bow Street Police court where he protested taht he’d been doing nothing wrong. Mr Marsham (the presiding magistrate) told him that he had been chasing an obstruction  and, if the constable’s testimony was accurate, was also at serous risk of injury himself.

The cleric said he thought the officer ‘might have spoken in gentle tones’

‘He spoke too harshly. He pushed me along, and I wanted to retire with modesty and dignity’.

Unfortunately for him he got little sympathy from the court and the public gathered there, who struggled to stifle laughter as the clergyman spoke.

‘You were making a speech which was not agreeable to the people that heard it’, Mr Marsham explained, ‘and the constable took you into custody to prevent you being attacked’.

He went on to add:

‘I think the constable was quite right. Our soldiers in the Transvaal are fighting their country’s battles , and it was indiscreet of you in a mixed assembly of this kind to say anything about the war’.

The reverend made another little speech and again complained that the policeman might have been gentler to him but promised not to repeat his offence in future, and so he was discharged.

In 1902 there were large celebrations in London and other British cities to mark the final victory against the Boers. The war caused serious concerns at home at the state of the health and fitness of those recruited to serve in the armed forces. Poverty and its consequences were evident in the men and boys that went to war, and no amount of jingoism could cover the fact that it was a costly and far from certain victory. Within just 12 years Britain was again at war, this time in a conflict that would claim many many more young lives.

At the going down of the sun, we will remember them.

[from London Evening Standard, Saturday 11 November, 1899]

A magistrate woefully out of touch with reality but who founded a legal dynasty


Sir Henry Curtis-Bennett might be forgiven for not really knowing ‘how the poor live[d]’ in 1888. He had been appointed a magistrate for Westminster just two years previously at the age of 40. In 1888 in fact he was ‘Mr’ as the king didn’t knight him until May 1913 just a few weeks before he died. He was the son of an Essex  vicar and read law at university. He was called to the Bar in 1870 and so had plenty of experience (as all the metropolitan magistrates did) in the legal system, if not in the day-to-day life of ordinary Londoners.

In November 1888 he was presiding at Wandsworth when young George Thomas Bellenger was brought before him, charged with ‘living beyond the control of his parents’. The gaoler brought him up from the day cells and informed his worship that the lad was half starved. Until that morning he’d not eaten for days and so had been glad of the meal that Mr Ironmonger, a local Industrial School officer had provided.

The officer had been to George’s parent’s home and found it to be in a terrible state. There were several children there, all ‘crying for food’ and he reported that the place lacked the basic ‘necessaries of life’ (by which I presume he meant food and heating).

If the family were destitute then surely they should have gone to the workhouse Mr Curtis-Bennett declared. The gaoler said his worship was correct but added that many of the poor were ‘disinclined to become inmates of the workhouse’.

The magistrate said he was aware of this but couldn’t understand it. After all in England the poor were looked after better than in any other country in the world. Here there were ‘workhouses, infirmaries, and dispensaries’. This was the extent of the ‘welfare state’ in 1888: there was no unemployment benefit, no state pension, no NHS. Instead if you unable to feed yourself or find shelter you could enter the ‘house’ where you would treated (despite the former barrister’s opinion) little better than prisoners were.

George’s mother was called forward to explain her situation. She told the magistrate that her husband was out of work. He had been employed by a mineral water company as a delivery man but he had been sacked after eight years’ service. The reason, she was asked?

‘He trotted the horses’.

‘For no other reason?’

‘No sir’.

So because he pushed the horses to get his rounds done more quickly they company had sacked him. Workers had few, if any, rights in the 1880s and unemployment was high so there were always people to fill gaps if employers wished to get rid of people or pay them lower wages.

At this Mr Curtis-Bennett had a temporary rush of charitable understanding. He awarded the woman 10from the poor box. Then he sent her little boy to the workhouse.

Henry Curtis-Bennett died in office. He had become the Chief Magistrate at Bow Street and in July 1913 he was a attending a meeting at Mansion House (seat of the Lord Mayor of London) when he fell ill. He had survived a bomb attack in 1908 orchestrated by militant suffragettes (and other attempts as he was a lead magistrate in suppressing their ‘outrages’) but he didn’t survive this latest assault on his constitution. curtiss-bennett-1He died soon afterwards and was succeeded by his eldest son, also Henry, who went on to be a more famous lawyer than his father and a Conservative politician.

His son – Derek Curtis-Bennett) followed in his father and grandfather’s footsteps and entered the law. As a defence barrister he famously defended (if not successfully) the traitor William Joyce (Lord Haw-Haw) and the murderer John Christie.

No one knows what happened to little George or his siblings, or if they even survived the winter of 1888.

[from The Standard, Friday, November 02, 1888]

The ‘madman’ who refused to do as he was told.


St John’s Church, Holloway

Not for the first time I’m struck by how frequently the police courts of the metropolis (the forerunners of modern magistrates courts) prosecuted individuals who exhibited clear sign of mental ill health. Victorian society not only lacked the resources to care for the mentally ill, they also had a much less well-developed understanding of them.

As a result the ‘mad’ and ‘insane’ were locked up in institutions like Bedlam (which gives us a popular term for chaos), small private asylums, or, later in the century, larger public ones such as Colney Hatch. The treatment individuals received in such institutions varied but it very far from being ‘caring’.

This was probably the sort of place that John Hassalt ended up in after his brush with Mr Laing, the sitting magistrate at Hatton Garden, in May 1837. At the start of Victoria’s reign John may have been sent to Hanwell in Middlesex, which opened in May 1831. But he might equally simply have been housed in one of the capital’s many workhouses, especially if he was poor. There he would have had virtually nothing that might be described today as ‘specialist mental health care’.

So what had John Hassalt done to earn his appearance in court and a possible relocation to an asylum or workhouse?

John was a bricklayer – or so he was described in court – and he was charged, by the churchwarden of St. John’s in Holloway, with ‘having disturbed the congregation in church on Sunday’.

Mr Povey, the churchwarden, explained that on that morning he’d entered the church just as the curate was reading prayers. Hassalt had approached the pulpit and was about to enter it and take over the service when Povey and several other parishioners seized him and led him away. It was not the first time John had tried to interrupt proceedings he added, but enough was clearly enough for the exasperated churchman.

Apparently all John Hassalt wanted to do was ‘expound the holy truths of religion’ to the gathered audience. When questioned by the magistrate he said nothing other than this in defence and clearly thought he was entitled to do just that. He had written to the curate to express his wish and determination to preach and thought that would or should suffice as explanation.

Povey piped up to say that Hassalt was clearly ‘touched in his intellect’ (in other words he was ‘mad’).

No, I am right enough’ countered the bricklayer.

To which the justice declared that:

his notions of religion could not be very correct or he would not disturb a Minister of the Gospel in the performance of his duty’. He must promise not to do so again.

Hassalt would make no such promise. Indeed he solemnly swore notto! At this the magistrate lectured him on his conduct at some length and warned that if he was brought before him again he would be forced to send him to prison.

I doubt that would have done much good – the warning or a prison sentence – because Hassalt was convinced of the rightness of his beliefs. I fear the only logical outcome of this was likely to be his future confinement, not to a prison, but a mental hospital, either on the command of the state or at the expense of his family, if he had any.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, May 23, 1837]

This has similarities to another tale over interruptions to church services (this one at St Paul’s) and for other stories that involve mental illness see:

A lack of ‘care in the community’ at Lambeth Police Court

‘I won’t have a month, you must give me more’: an unhappy drunk at Westminster

‘I wish I had finished the pair of them’: dark threats at Clerkenwell

Laudanum, primroses and mental health collide as the millennium approaches.


A brave young woman resists a sexual assault on Hackney Downs



Earlier this month we lost Jill Saward, one of the vociferous and determined campaigners for the rights of victims of sexual assault. Jill was the 21 year-old daughter of a vicar when she was raped by intruders in their Ealing vicarage home in 1986. Jill’s courage and persistence was instrumental in bringing about important cages to the way rape is prosecuted in this country.

Rape is still underreported and far too many women (and some men) suffer in silence but things have improved since the 1980s. In the 19th century rape and sexual assault were just as hard to prove but in addition women and girls were hamstrung by the prevailing patriarchal philosophy that saw women as inferior and subject to the care and ‘protection’ of men.

When the courts did act on rape it was often in reaction to the sexual assault of young girls and women of the middle-class; poor working-class girls were not often protected by the law even after the death penalty was removed from rape after 1841.

So when a foreigner – a lascar sailor named ‘John Williams’ – was set in the dock at Worship Street for committing a ‘daring outrage’, I was not surprised to learn that his victim was only 14.

Catherine Mather (a ‘remarkably fine and sedate-looking little girl’) was walking with her father to visit her grandmother, who lived near Hackney Downs. As they passed the Downs   her father (a dissenting minister who kept a house at Welbeck Street, Cavendish Square) stopped for a moment while she carried on.

I think what happened next would be every parent’s nightmare.

As she turned a corner and went up a lane she was now out of sight of her father. There she saw a young man who had the appearance of a lascar, south east Asian sailors who had made their homes in several English cities, London and Liverpool in particular.

Williams was eating from a  biscuit and as Catherine approached he held out his hand and offered her some of his meal. ‘Will you have a bit?’ he asked. But before she could refuse he grabbed at her, threw her to the ground and thrust his hand up her skirts.

This was the evidence Catherine gave in court while her father stood watching her. It must have taken great maturity for the young girl to compose herself, and this was not lost on the court reporter.

Williams then attempted ‘further indecencies’ which Catherine managed to resist by ‘seizing his long black hair with one hand, and his hairy lip with the other’. He bit her but she held on long enough for her father to catch up and help. She rushed off to find a policemen while the Reverend tussled with her attacker.

In court Rev. Mather (as a member of a dissenting church) refused to swear on the Bible and so was unable to give his version; the sailor tried to pretend he spoke no English and so couldn’t understand what he was charged with. Catherine was very clear that he had addressed her in English by the Downs and the court believed her.

Williams was indicted for assault with intent to have carnal knowledge of Catherine and appeared at the Old Bailey on 4 February 1850. In common with reporting of cases of a sexual nature the Proceedings merely relates the charge, the verdict (guilty) and the sentence. Williams was sent to prison for 6 months.


[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, January 23, 1850]

Cabbies get a raw deal at Westminster


The sitting magistrate at the Westminster Police Court in 1870 was a Mr Woolrych and it would be fair to say he didn’t much like Hansom cab drivers. These vehicles were the Victorian equivalent of the modern black cab with the ‘knowledge’ of the city streets and the license to trade upon them. There were rules about routes and about charges and about the places where cabs could ‘stand’ and wait for customers. In the eighteenth century there even seems to have been a one-way system in place in the City of London.

So cabs were regulated and this supposedly protected the public and the drivers themselves. But given that complaints brought for and against cabbies were usually heard by the capital’s magistracy, who sat alone and with considerable summary powers, the drivers often found themselves at the mercy of the justice’s prejudices.

This was especially the case when the complaints about cabbies were brought by ‘the better sort’ and where the drivers were attempting to prosecute someone of a social station above them (which was of course, often).

In December 1872 Westminster Police Court was thronged with cab drivers as two separate cases unfolded that concerned them.

First up was Harris Seaton, a driver who brought a charge against the Reverend Graham of Hawkhurst Lodge in Sydenham, for not paying his fare. There were some unusual circumstances behind the clergyman’s fare dodging. It had been raining hard when Seaton picked up his fare outside Burlington Arcade on Piccadilly a month previously. As they approached Hyde Park Corner the reverend requested that the driver stop and raise his window so he might get some air.

By now it was ‘raining and hailing’ and Seaton was concerned that his carriage would get wet making it serviceable for any other customers that night, so he refused. The Rev. Graham insisted but Seaton stuck to his guns, ‘as he did not wish to damage his master’s property and wet the cushions’. Angry, the clergyman alighted from the cab and walked off without paying. Seaton  had summoned him for the fare (1s) and so the pair found themselves in court.

The vicar complained that he had no air and ‘he was nearly stifled’. He had an umbrella with him and would have kept the cab dry with it. It was only a short ride (200 yards from Piccadilly), so he had hardly avoided much of a fare anyway he insisted. The magistrate sided with the reverend Graham. He thought it reasonable to allow him some air (so long as he took precautions to protect the can from damage), and if wilful damage was caused, well then the driver might prosecute him for that, but not for the fare. He dismissed the case much to the annoyance of the assembled cabmen in the public gallery.

If they were unhappy about Mr Woolrych’s decision making in the case of the fare dodging vicar then the next case did little to cheer them up.

Three cab drivers answered summonses charged with leaving their vehicles unattended at a cab rank on Stockbridge Terrace, Pimlico. Cabbies were supposed to remain with their cabs and be ready to pick up fares but it seems that on a fairly regular basis drivers vacated their cabs to go and get some refreshment.

A fellow magistrate, Mr Newton, had found cabs unattended before so he reported it to the police who set a watch on the stand. On the evening of the 28 November 1872 three drivers pulled up, left their cabs tethered and went into a nearby public house. They were observed going in and not reappearing for 25 minutes the court was told.

‘During this time’ Mr Woolrych was informed, ‘cabs were wanted and drivers could not be found, and among the gentlemen that complained was Sir Edward Cunyngham’. When the drivers came out fo the pub the PC on watch confronted them and was given a mouthful of abuse by two of them. The drivers’ solicitor defended them saying they had only been inside for a few minutes and it was reasonable that they sought some much needed sustenance. He also calimed that none had sworn at the constable.

Mr Woolrych thought it outrageous that the drivers should behave like this and fined them 4s 2d each, or threatened  them with five days in prison. They paid.

If I was the magistrate I’d have been inclined to make sure I didn’t need a hansom cab anytime soon.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, December 12, 1872]

P.S In 1876 Sir Edward Cunyngham, was accused along with two other men  (Charles de Chasterlaine and Nathan Wetherall, with conspiracy to defraud. Sir Edward was locked up in Newgate for want of bail and he died before he could be tried at the Old Bailey. The other two men were convicted and sent to gaol.

A vicar caught short in Highgate

The Victorian press is full of euphemism. This fits quite neatly with our supposed impression of the Victorian as stuffy and prudish of course, an impression that doesn’t really stand up to more focused historical research. However, the men of the press tended to err on the side of caution when mentioning stories of a sexual nature or those that involved bodily functions. They were far less discrete when describing the injuries suffered by murder or accident victims however, and we might reflect on this change in attitudes by the press – ours are much less reticent about showing or describing nudity or the sexual deviations of celebrities but details of gruesome crimes are generally less graphically portrayed.

In May 1847 PC Worman of S Division was patrolling his beat along Southwood Lane in Highgate when he saw a man urinating in a doorway. The policeman asked him to desist which provoked fury from the man, and a physical assault on the constable. PC Worman ‘sprang his rattle’ (in the days before whistles policeman carried rattles not unlike those seen at football matches until the late 1970s) and another officer ran to assist him.

They were now both attacked by the defendant and had some trouble in arresting him. In court at Marylebone he was revealed as a man of the cloth. Reverend Joseph Summers Brockhurst denied that he had assaulted the policemen and instead insisted he had been ‘roughly treated by the police’. He claimed that he suffered from a ‘complaint which compelled him to act as he had done’.

The magistrate, Mr Long, was appalled at the vicar’s conduct which he felt needed to be dealt with ‘severely’. As Rev. Brockhurst could offer no supporting evidence that he was innocent as charged the justice denied him the opportunity of paying a fine and sent him to the house of correction for a month.


[The Morning Chronicle (London, England), Monday, May 24, 1847]

A mysterious encounter on Blackfriars Bridge

It would seem that  our modern moral panic about peadophile priests is not that ‘modern’ at all. This report from the Morning Chronicle of 1831 does not use the term nor indeed does it spell out the offence, but it is nevertheless quite clear what was being alleged.

On 13 May 1831 the Rev. W_____ P______ (his name was not given in the press) was charged before the magistrate at Union Hall  with ‘taking unbecoming liberties’ with a  young lad named Magee. The priest had been seen on Blackfriars Bridge at night by a hat-tip maker called Benjamin Ryder. Ryder deposed that he saw the anonymous clergyman stooping to talk to the boy, who was ragged and barefoot, and that he was leading him across the bridge and into  the dark streets south of the river.

Ryder was concerned and followed them, when he saw them stop he called for a policeman. The PC (one of Peel’s new created force) approached and the clergyman ran off. When the policeman caught up with him the priest’s clothes were in a ‘loose and suspicious state’. Back at the station his name was discovered by examining a ‘valuable silver  snuff box’ which was engraved with Latin inscription – a present from a  ‘Society in Devon’.

The mysterious priest denied any wrongdoing and claimed his was trying to help the boy, who had approached him asking for ‘charity’. He went on to say that he had been quizzing the boy about his parents and his employment, as any good reforming clergyman might have done. However, the boy ‘gave a somewhat different version of their conversation’ and the magistrate committed him to prison on remand as he couldn’t meet the bail, set at £200, a huge amount for 1831.

[from The Morning Chronicle , Saturday, May 14, 1831]