‘Violence only creates victims, that’s all it ever has done’: the aftermath of the ‘Clerkenwell outrage’ of 1867

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At about a quarter to four in the afternoon of Friday 13 December 1867 a bomb went off in London. A barrel of gunpowder, hidden under tarpaulin, positioned next to the wall of Clerkenwell house of detention , exploded blowing a large hole in the prison wall. The bomb also destroyed a row of houses opposite killing a dozen of more occupants, sending at least one mad, and precipitating the premature births of up to 40 babies, half of whom subsequently died. In all at least a further 120 people were injured by the blast, and 15 were disabled for life.1

The incident, which was known by contemporaries as the ‘Clerkenwell Outrage’ is often considered the first serious act in the Irish Republican war against the British state. The bombers’ intention was to affect a prison break – rescuing comrades that had been captured in London earlier that year. In that respect they failed and six people were eventually put on trial for the ‘outrage’, charged with murder. On 26 May 1868 Michael Barrett was executed, the last man to be publically hanged in England, even though there was considerable doubt as to his guilt.

The problem the authorities had was in finding reliable witnesses who would testify. They had someone who turned Queen’s evidence (in other words agreed to inform on his colleagues in return for his own life) but doubts were raised as to the reliability of testimony secured in that way. The wife of Charles Page had given evidence in court in April 1868 and what happened in the days following the trial give us a sense of the difficulties the police and prosecution had in convicting those responsible for the bombing.

Charles Page was locking up his pawnbroker’s shop at 1 Pulteney Court on a Saturday night. He was chatting to his neighbour Mrs Cook when a voice cried out: ‘Let him have it!” A man rushed up to him and punched him in the eye, without any provocation. The police arrived and arrested the man, who appeared before the Marlborough Street Police court magistrate on the following Monday morning.

Here the defendant, who gave his name as James Cosgrove, offered an alternative explanation for his actions that night. He said he had seen Page abusing the woman and had intervened to defend her. Cosgrove was able to produce several witnesses that supported his version of events but Mrs Cook took the stand to swear she was the only woman present and confirm Page’s account.

PS Page of C Division said he ‘had no doubt whatsoever that the assault arose out of the Clerkenwell outrage’. He added that:

ever since the complainant’s wife had given evidence both husband and wife had been subject to such annoyance by persons in the neighbourhood that it had been found necessary to place an extra constable in the court for their protection’.

Cosgrove, he insisted, was ‘connected with the class of persons who committed the outrage’, meaning presumably, that Cosgrove was an Irishman or part of London’s large ethnic Irish community.

Mr Mansfield had heard all he needed to convict Cosgrove of violent assault. In normal circumstances I suspect he would have handed down a small fine of perhaps a few shillings with a week or two in goal for non-payment.  But these were not ‘normal circumstances’, London was still feeling the effects of the tragedy that left so many dead. The Queen had issued a letter of condolence and £10,000 had been raised to help the victims rebuild their homes.

This was a big moment in London’s history, its first real brush with terrorism. So Cosgrove was fined the huge sum of £4 18plus costs and warned he’d go to prison for two months if he didn’t pay. A woman who had made a scene in the court and had shouted abuse at Mrs Cook (no doubt calling her a liar) was bound over to keep the peace as well.

I pick these stories fairly randomly: the only link I have to today is the date. So it is a coincidence, but a sad one, that I find myself writing about Republican terrorism (or freedom fighting if you prefer) on the morning that news of Lyra McKee’s murder in Derry last night is reported.  The 29 year-old journalist was shot and later died of her wounds while she was covering an outbreak of rioting in the Creggan area of Londonderry. The ‘troubles’ were supposedly ended by the Good Friday Agreement but tensions in Northern Ireland are never far from the surface.  One local politician, the SDLP’s Mark Durkan tweeted:

Violence only creates victims, that’s all it ever has done. The thoughts and prayers of our city are with the young woman’s family and friends, may she rest in peace.’

That sentiment could equally well apply to those killed or injured by the Clerkenwell bomb, and indeed to Michael Barrett who most likely was hanged in error for it. Now, more than ever it seems, we need our politicians to dampen down on the rhetoric of division, and stop playing politics with people’s lives and economic futures.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, April 19, 1868]

1. K.R.M. Short, The Dynamite War: Irish-American Bombers in Victorian Britain, (Gill & Macmillan, 1979), pp.8-10

Drew Gray is the joint author of Jack and the Thames Torso Murders, published by Amberley Books in June 2019. Details available here

“Well, you needn’t make all this fuss. I only did it to frighten the children”: child abuse in mid Victorian London

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The police had their work cut out for them in ensuring Edward Smith reached the Marylebone Police court safely. A large crowd had gathered outside the police station that was holding the ‘ruffianly looking fellow’ – a 26 year-old sawyer who lived in Paul Street, Lisson Grove. Had the crowd been able to get to him the press reported, ‘he would no doubt have been subjected to much violence’.

Smith did make it to court that day and Mr Broughton’s courtroom was crowded as the public crammed in to see that justice was done to Smith. The exact details of his offence were alluded to rather than described in detail by the Morning Post and that was because they involved the attempted rape of a young girl.

That child was Sarah Harriett Cooper and she was also in court that morning. Today Sarah would have been spared another direct confrontation with her abuser but in the mid Victorian period there were no such considerations for the welfare of the vulnerable. Sarah, aged 11 or 12, was stood in the witness box and asked a series of probing questions about her experience.

She told the magistrate that while her mother was a work she and some other girls were playing in a piece of open ground on the Harrow Road which was owned by a nurseryman. The little girls were trespassing but doing nothing more than running about and having fun. Suddenly Smith appeared and seized hold of Sarah and the three other children ran away in fear. Sarah said she pleaded with him to ‘let me go home to my mother’ but the sawyer put his hand over her mouth, told her not to make a noise, and threatened to cut her throat.

What happened next was not recorded by the press except to state that it amounted, if proven, to the committal of a ‘capital offence’. By 1852 adult rape was no longer capital but Sarah was under the age of consent (which was 13 until 1885) so perhaps that was a hanging offence. Sarah testified that she had ‘cried all the while he was ill-using me’ until ‘he at last lifted me up and brushed down my clothes, which were dirty’ [and] I ran away’. A crowd had gathered near the gates of the gardens and she told them what had happened.

Smith had hurt the child in other ways; he’d used a knife to cut a wound in her hand and she held it up to show the magistrate the puncture mark on her left palm. If this wasn’t evidence enough of Smith’s cruelty there other witnesses appeared to add their weight to the charge.

George Ashley had been walking past the gates to the nursery with friend when a small boy ran out shouting that his sister had been taken away by a man there. Ashley entered the gardens and saw Smith lifting the child up. Sarah was screaming at the top of her voice and the man was telling her to be silent. He sent his companion to fetch a policeman.

PC Lane (372A) arrived soon afterwards, finding a large crowd gathered around Sarah, who hand was bleeding badly. He soon discovered Edward Smith hiding in an outside privy at one end of the nursery grounds. The door was locked but PC Lane burst it open and arrested the sawyer. Questioned about his actions Smith simply declared:

‘Well, you needn’t make all this fuss. I only did it to frighten the children, knowing they had no business in the garden’.

The accused was taken back to the police station house and a search was made of the water closet. PC Cookman (55D) found a large bladed knife buried in the loose soil by the WC, which was open (suggesting it had been recently used and abandoned in a hurry). The girls’ mother described Sarah’s injuries and trauma when she’d got home, and a certificate from the surgeon that had treated her was read out in court detailing her injuries.

Finally the magistrate turned his attention to the man in the dock. Smith denied using violence against Sarah, or at least denied acting in an unlawful way. She and her friends were trespassing and he insisted he was only intending to ‘pull up her clothes for the purpose of giving her a smack, when she began to cry, and ran off’. He said the knife wasn’t his and he had no idea why it was found by the closet. He’d been drinking he said, and because he rarely touched alcohol, that had affected his head. Mr Broughton remanded him for a week and he was taken away to Clerkenwell Prison in a police van, followed all the way by a baying crowd of angry locals.

Just under a month later Smith was formally tried at the Middlesex Sessions of the Peace for an aggravated assault with the intent to rape. Smith was convicted by the jury and sentenced to 18 months imprisonment.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, March 30, 1852; The Morning Post, Wednesday, April 14, 1852]

A Victorian tale to bring a gleam to Mr Duncan Smith’s eyes

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The Victorians – and especially those who signed up to the Mendicity Society – had a real hatred of imposture when it came to poverty. The society was determined to root out and expose (and thence to punish) anyone who pretended to be in need of poor relief or charity when they were fit and able to work. We seem to have inherited this distrust of the poor and now frame those we would like to see exposed as ‘benefit scroungers’.

It is fairly common for highly paid, privately educated, and well-connected, privileged members of Parliament to condemn those that claim they cant survive on the little the state provides.  In these hard times there has also been a focus on denying benefits to the disabled, by reinterpreting what it means to be ‘unfit to work’. Withholding benefits or making the hoops that the impoverished need to jump through to get them more complicated or time consuming is another, well practiced, tactic of modern ‘caring’, Conservative Britain.

I think Mrs May, Jeremy Hunt, Amber Rudd, Ester McVey and (especially) Iain Duncan Smith would have relished living the 1800s. Workhouses, ‘less eligibility’ and mendicity officers would have been right up their street (although they may have struggled with this county’s open doors policy on immigration – at least until the end of the century that is).

They would have liked Mr Turner, who gave evidence at Clerkenwell Police court in March 1866. He was there to investigate Johanna (or Ellen) Shields who had been brought up by the curate of St George’s, Queen Square, for begging at his door. The curate (presumably a  ‘good Christian’) had found Johanna knocking on his door asking for money as her husband was sick and out of work and she had six children to feed.

He asked her name and where she lived. Johanna gave a false name (Ellen Thomas) and an address in Little Ormond Yard, in Bloomsbury. He didn’t believe her and to confirm his suspicions he donned his hat and said he’d accompany her home to see for himself. This unnerved Johanna who tried to put him off, saying she would go and get her certificate to prove she was registered in the parish (and so entitled to relief). Instead the curate summoned a constable and had her arrested.

In court at Clerkenwell Mr Barker (the magistrate) was told (by the curate, whose name is never revealed) that Johanna had changed her story when he’d said he’d go with her, which led him to involving the police. The woman now said she lived in Church Street, St Giles, had six children (one of whom was blind) and a sick husband. When he subsequently visited her address he found her husband, and three children, none of whom was blind. He also testified that she had asked his fellow rector at St George’s for help and he’d refused also. He said he was ‘determined to give all imposters into the custody of the police’.

So what was Mr Barker to do with Johanna? She denied the charge but the evidence against came from a respectable source. Moreover the justice expected she’d done it before, and so had ‘form’. She was being treated as if she was a criminal when her only ‘crime’ was being poor and asking for help.

This is where Mr Turner from the Mendicity Society came in. He was tasked with discovering whether she had a history of ‘shamming’ so the bench could decide what punishment (if any) to hand down. This would take a week and Mr Barker decided that regardless of the outcome Johanna would spend the next seven days locked up on remand. The gaoler escorted her back to the cells to be transferred to the Clerkenwell house of detention where she would subsist on bread and water and pick oakum with all the other ‘offenders’.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, March 06, 1866]

‘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

‘There’s no justice for a ticket-of-leave man’: Fenians, Police and the ‘Manchester Outrage’.

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In the 1850s transportation to Australia slowly declined before being abandoned in the 1860s. Transportation, which had been the most effective alternative to hanging for the Georgians, was now itself replaced by incarceration at home. In 1865 the Prisons Act consolidated control of prisons under a government agency (rather than being left to local control) and penal servitude replaced transportation as the most serious of non-capital punishments.

One of the innovations of the colonial transportation system had been the mark system. This allowed convicts to earn points for good behaviour; points that might lead to better conditions, food and, ultimately, early release. The principle was sound: convicts would be easier to control if they understood that it was in their interest to get their heads down, accept their punishment and strive to win their freedom. The ultimate goal was a ticket-of-leave, which allowed convicts to live as free men within the colony, so long as they did not offend again.

The ticket-of-leave system (which in modern terms is parole) was exported back to England and applied to criminals locked up in the country’s various gaols. Here too offenders could earn the points that would enable them to be released on license before the end of their sentences. There were conditions of course, and these were easily broken, at which point a convict might find himself up before a magistrate and, ultimately, back in prison.

In May 1867 John Jones had been released on a ticket-of-leave and came back to his friends and family in London. The license required that he report to the police with 48 hours of being released and that he carried his ticket-of-leave on him at all times. Moreover, every moth Jones was required to report in to his nearest police station and confirm his address. He was then expected always to sleep at this address, and no other. The police were supposed to able to find him if they needed to. If he moved home Jones had 48 hours to inform the local police or he would be in breech of the terms of his release.

This close relationship with the local police must have made it pretty difficult for a convicted criminal to return to normal life. The prison stamp would have been on Jones following his release: the deathly pallor, close cropped hair, poor constitution, and sunken eyes (all products of the ‘hard labour, hard bed, hard fare’ policies of the prison system under Edmund Du Cane) would have marked him out as an ex-con. With little opportunity to rejoin ‘straight’ society Jones would naturally have gravitated back to the ‘criminal class’ that Mayhew and Binney had described in their writings.

In late November 1867 PC Harry Shaw (77G) saw Jones in Golden Lane, Clerkenwell. Jones was with a group of men the officer knew to be convicted thieves and he understood that he had gone there to express his sympathy ‘with the relatives of three men who had been hanged at Manchester on the previous day’.

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This was a infamous case, that of the ‘Manchester Martyrs’. William Philip Allen, Michael Larkin and Michael O’Brian were Fenians, members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, and they had been part of crowd of over 30 who had attacked a police van carrying fellow Fenians to gaol. In the attempt to release their prisoners a policeman, Sergeant Charles Brett, was killed.

Five men were convicted of Brett’s murder but two had their sentences overturned. Allen, Larkein and O’Brian were not so fortunate and were ‘turned off’ in front of a huge crowd above Salford Gaol on 23 November 1867. This was one of the very last public hangings to take place in England. Karl Marx remarked that the hangings served the cause of Irish nationalism better than many an act of terrorism had because it gave them martyrs to act as inspiration for the next generation of freedom fighters.

Naturally anyone celebrating those that had killed a police officer was unlikely to earn much sympathy from a serving constable. John Jones had joined a procession of men and women who marched from Clerkenwell Green to Hyde Park and PC Shaw followed, watching them. As they ‘dodged’ in and out of the crowd the constable suspected they were trying to pick pockets but he had no definite proof, just suspicion.  In the end he collared Jones and cautioned him, demanding to see his ticket-of-leave. Since he didn’t have it on him, Jones was told he must appear at Clerkenwell Police court to explain himself.

In early December, looking ‘rough’ John Jones presented himself before the sitting justice. He said little, saying ‘it was no use for him to speak, as there was no justice for a ticket-of-leave man’. The police, added, ‘had entered into a conspiracy to injure him, and he could do nothing’. The magistrate asked to see his license but he didn’t have it on him so he was remanded in custody so that one of his friends could fetch it.

Within days Clerkenwell itself experienced the full force of Fenian terror as conspirators attempted to break their fellow nationalists out of prison by blowing open the gate.  On 13 December 12 people were killed and over a hundred were injured in what The Timesdescribed as ‘a crime of unexampled atrocity’. Eight men were charged but two gave Queen’s evidence against the others. Two more were acquitted by the Grand jury and , in the end, only Michael Barrett was held responsible for the bomb. On the 26 May 1868 Barrett earned the dubious honour of being the last man to be publicly hanged in England as William Calcraft ‘dropped’ him outside Newgate Gaol.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, 11 December, 1867]

The drunken Bobby who joined the Lincolns

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Recruiting sergeants at St George’s barracks
When Sir Robert Peel created the New Police in 1829 he envisaged a force of men that would be uniformed, follow orders, and operate under a clear hierarchy. Some of those serving as members of the old watch or parish constables joined up in the first months of the Metropolitan Police but many of these were soon weeded out as unsuitable.
The call then went out to the sorts of men that had served the British army so well in the wars against Napoleon – the agrarian working class men of England, Wales and Scotland.
The New Police concentrated on the beat system, a dull routine of daily and nightly meanders along a set route which was carefully supervised by sergeants. London was divided into police districts (Divisions) with each division broken up into station houses from which patrols were despatched daily and nightly.
When one of the duty sergeants for N Division (Sgt 37N) paraded his men ahead of the night patrol at 10 o’clock on the evening of the 8 December 1874 one of his team was missing. PC William Pitcher (193N) , who was just 23 years old, was nowhere to be seen and so some quick enquiries were made.
Asking around the sergeant soon discovered that the constable had been to the St George’s Street military barracks  and had joined the 10 (North Lincoln) Regiment of Foot. He was traced to Colchester where his battalion (the second) were billeted and fetched back to London by warrant to face the music at the Clerkenwell Police Court.
When he was arrested PC Pitcher held his hands up. He said he expected nothing less. In court he explained that he ‘had gone out with some friends, had taken a little too much to drink, and then had enlisted for a soldier’.
The magistrate fined him 40s (or 14 days in the house of correction at Clerkenwell) and dismissed him. Did he remain a soldier or return to the police? Sadly, this source doesn’t tell me that.
[from The Morning Post, Friday, December 18, 1874]
Between 1868-1871 the 1st battalion of the 10th had seen service in Japan but private Pickering would not have been part of that having joined the 2nd battalion, and later at that. The 1st battalion also served at Omdurman in 1898 while the 2nd battalion took part in the 2nd South African (Boer) war of 1899-1902. Nowadays army reforms have seen the Lincolnshires amalgamate with the Northamptonshire Regiment and others to create the modern Royal Anglians.

‘diseased, unsound, unwholesome, and unfit’: a Norfolk knacker falls foul of the law

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Regular readers of this blog will know that alongside the very many cases of theft, drunkenness and assault the Police Courts dealt with a great deal of business that today would not get before a magistrate. London justices of the peace in the eighteenth century and their Victorian counterparts (the Police Court Magistrates) in effect regulated the daily life of Britain’s capital city.

So disputes over transport, employment, the provision of poor relief, the education of children, weights and measures, the sale of alcohol, and excise duty, all came under the purview of the magistracy. As a result the Police Courts are an ideal place to see how the metropolis functioned (or didn’t) in the past; all human (and often animal) life was here, and all manner of trades and occupations appear for the historian to study.

In a city as huge as London was (approximately 1/10th of the British population lived here in the 1800s) one perennial concern was the health and wellbeing of its citizens. The capital devoured vast amounts of food from all over the British Isles  and beyond and all of this had to fit for human consumption.

Meat was a particular concern and it fell to the market inspectors at Smithfield and the other city markets, as well as other officials to inspect meat and poultry that was offered for sale to the public. If suppliers (whether butchers, costermongers or slaughter men) attempted to foist unhealthy or rancid meat on an unsuspecting consumer they might well find themselves in front of a police court magistrate on a charge.

This is what happened to a Norfolk slaughterman named Thomas Fisher.

Fisher appeared before Sir Sydney Waterlow at Guildhall accused of ‘sending three quarters and a half of beef to the London Market for sale as human food’, when it was ‘diseased, unsound, unwholesome, and unfit for the food of man’. The case was brought by Mr Bayliss representing the Commissioners of Sewers (created in 1848 following concerns about public health in the wake of cholera outbreaks).

Bayliss told the Guildhall court that the animal concern had belonged to a grazier in the same area of Norfolk as Fisher. The cow had become sick and was diagnosed with a lung disease. Nowadays we are aware that bovine TB can be transmitted to humans and so is a significant health risk. Whether they knew this in 1870 is unlikely but an animal with the ‘lung disease’ as this beast had should not have made it to market.

The grazier was aware of this and so called for Fisher to take it away for slaughter and the meat to fed only to dogs. However, when Fisher collected the animal and started to ‘drive it home’, it collapsed on the road and he ‘was obliged to kill it there and then’. Afterwards he took the carcass to a slaughter yard were it was stripped and prepared and later sent on to London for sale as human food.

Once all this had been presented and verified in court Thomas Fisher had the opportunity to speak up for himself. The knacker argued that in his opinion the meat was fine when he sent it south. When ‘it dropped down he did think it was the lung disease, but when it was opened he saw that it had fallen from having a nail in its heart’. The meat was far too good, he insisted, to be wasted as dog food and if it was putrid when it reached London it must have been because of the hot weather.

A butcher was produced (presumably on behalf of the prosecution) to testify that he had seen beasts live for months with a nail in their hearts. In ‘one case an animal had a small roll of wire in its heart’ and still survived. The contention was that Fisher knew full well that the animal was diseased but chose to ignore this (and the implications for the health of Londoners) in order to profit from the carcass.

Sir Sydney was sympathetic to the knacker; he didn’t want, he said, to send a man like him to prison but he had clearly breached the laws around food safety and so he must fine him ‘the full penalty’. The full penalty in this case was £20 and £5s costs, the considerable sum of £925 in today’s money. Thomas Fisher was a relatively poor knacker who had probably spent a not insignificant sum of money in answering the summons by travelling to the capital from the Norfolk countryside. He certainly didn’t have £25 on his person (and probably not to his name).

In consequence, despite Sir Syndey’s sympathy he was sent to prison by default. After this was stated in court the gaoler led him away to the cells to begin await transfer to one of the capital’s prisons, probably Clerkenwell, to serve a month inside. If and when he emerged he faced the prospect of having to tramp back to Norfolk again under his own steam or to try and make a new life in London.

Given the tens of thousands of horses that vied with pedestrians on the capital’s crowded streets he might well have made a new career in the ‘Wen’ despatching the poor animals that reached their use-by date. Many of those animals then ended up being sold piecemeal on barrows by ‘cats-meat’ men. Horse meat sold as such was intended for cars and dogs but, as Dickens observed, sometimes graced the tables of not so discerning diners amongst the poorer classes.

So Fisher, having been accused and found guilty of trying to pass off diseased meat as fit for human consumption may well have ended up legitimately supplying horse flesh to the same consumers anyway.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, August 17, 1870]

If you are interested in this tale of the regulation of food in Victorian London then you might enjoy this post as well: A butcher is hooked