No joke as a comedian finds himself in the dock of an East End court

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In 1888 the comedian Walter Groves appeared, not on stage this time, but in the dock at Worship Street Police court. He had been summoned by his former manager and fellow comedian Henry Bruce who accused him of assaulting him after the pair had fallen out in a dispute over what we would probably term ‘intellectual property’.

Back in February 1888 Bruce had employed Groves to perform as part of his theatre company. The comedian had written (or perhaps co-written) a sketch act that brought the house down on Easter Monday. On the basis of that success they decided to carry on performing the act and, Bruce insisted in court, had agreed to share the proceeds.

As seems so often to be the case in show business however, the pair fell out and eventually Bruce was forced to let Groves go but seemingly carried on using his material. This clearly irked the other man and on 14 May that year Groves found his former collaborator deep in conversation with the manager of the Forester’s Music hall (also known locally as Lusby’s after its owner, William Lusby). He strode up to the seated pair and loudly accused Bruce of stealing his idea and denying him the profits of it.

The court was shown evidence of playbills listing some of the sketches performed by ‘Harry Bruce’s Company of Comedians’ such as: ‘A sweep for king’ and ‘the Tin Soldier’ that Groves presumably claimed were originally his. It also heard that when Bruce denied any wrongdoing and insisted Groves leave the comedian challenged him to step outside and fight him, man to man. When the other man declined this invitation to a fist fight Groves thumped him in the face and gave him a black eye.

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This was corroborated by Frederick Clarence, a comedian in Bruce’s troupe, and by Charles Barber who worked for Bruce as clerk. In defence of Groves Neal Dryden (himself a comic) said his friend was sorely provoked, adding that he understood that Mr Lusby had wanted to employ Groves to perform in the act but Bruce had told him not to, saying the other man was ‘no good’. So with his character and talents impugned and his creative ideas ‘stolen’ from him it was hardly a surprise that Groves lashed out. It didn’t convince the magistrate however who ordered the comedian to find two sureties of £25 each to ensure that he kept the peace towards Bruce for the next twelve months at least.

William Lusby was a minor local celebrity in the 1880s and his first music hall was a popular venue on the Mile End Road. He had taken over the premises in 1868 and rebuilt the theatre, reopening it in April 1877 as Lusby’s Summer and Winter Palace. When it opened a gushing press review stated:

‘This new place of amusement, which, both on account of its great size and the splendid appearance of its interior, deserves to be described as “grand,” was opened to the public for the first time on Easter Monday evening. It affords accommodation for five thousand visitors, and there must have been nearly that number of persons who availed themselves of the earliest opportunity to see the magnificent building which Mr William Lusby has had erected for the use of the pleasure-seekers of the Mile End-road and its vicinity, as well as to witness the performances of the large and talented company of artistes which he has engaged’.

(The Era, 8 April 1877)

However, by 1888 Lusby had sold the theatre and it later burned down in a fire in 1884.  A new music hall rose from the ashes, the Paragon which opened in 1885 but by then Lusby had moved on, opening the Forester’s Music Hall where Bruce and his fellow comedians performed their sketch act.

Lusby, an East End lad made good, had built his success on property speculation and had, he claimed, only got into show business to help a young relative get a foot on the ladder. The Foresters was on Cambridge Road East, in Bethnal Green and in 1885 it gave Dan Leno his first big break in the entertainment industry. The legendary music hall star performed two comic songs and a clog dance and was paid £5 a week for doing so. Leno is credited with inventing stand up comedy which is probably why his name is still remembered today while Harry Bruce and Walter Groves have disappeared from history.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, May 31, 1888]

If you enjoy this blog series you might be interested in Drew’s jointly authored study of the Whitechapel (or ‘Jack the Ripper’) murders that is published by Amberley Books on 15 June this year. You can find details here:

‘Here’s a man who is able to buy an inspector for a shilling, a sergeant for sixpence, a constable for sixpence’. The great cake controversy of 1883

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I am going back to 1883 for the next few days. Regular readers will recall that I sampled a week’s news from the Police Courts of the metropolis earlier this year and traced a number of cases that came up more than once. Today’s story may be another of those as it ended with the defendants being required to reappear, bound over on their own recognizances. This case is also interesting because it hints at contemporary concerns about police corruption or, at best, favouritism, and at how this affected those that plied their trade in the local streets and markets – a regular battleground between costermongers and ‘the boys in blue’.

In March 1883 James Williams and Samuel Stephenson were charged before Mr Shiel at Wandsworth Police court with ‘playing at a game of chance and causing an obstruction’ in Battersea Park Road. They had been brought in by Detective Gilby who said he’d been alerted to the crowd that had gathered around the pair’s barrow as it stood on the road on Saturday evening. He and his fellow detective, DS Vagg, watched the men operate what they believed to be a swindle.

The men appeared to be auctioning cakes using a ticket system. Detective Gilby described what he saw:

‘The prisoner Williams took eight tickets from a box, pretended to shuffle them, and sold them at  penny each. After the tickets were collected he called out a number, and pointed to a person as having won a cake’.

The police officers explained that Williams then called out to the crowd that they could swap the cakes for sixpence if they preferred, making this possibility now to win money rather than cake by gambling on your ticket coming up. A boy working for the men handed out several cakes, three of whom were returned to him, presumably in the hope of turning their pennies into sixpences.

Detective Sergeant Vagg bought three tickets to test the system and catch the men red handed. When he had handed the tickets over to Stephenson he had effectively proved they were operating a ‘game of chance’ (rather than simply selling cakes) and he arrested them and took them back to the station. He accused them of swindling the public by placing stooges in the crowd to make it seem as if it was a fair raffle, when in reality the whole thing was staged (as so many street swindles were – or are).

The men denied it and Williams went further, alleging police corruption.

‘Here’s a man who is able to buy an inspector for a shilling, a sergeant for sixpence, a constable for sixpence’ he said, although it is unclear who he meant to be the target of that remark. Quite possibly it was the informant that had told the detective Gilby about the illegal game in the first place. Perhaps this was a rival coster who wanted to reduce the competition or even a trader that paid a premium to ensure that he wasn’t the subject of unwanted police attention.

Mr Shiel was not keen to have this kind of talk in his court and tried to close down that particular line of enquiry. Williams was glad to have the case taken before the magistrate he claimed, as he had long ‘been persecuted by the police’.

The pair claimed merely to be selling cakes at sixpence a go and said they’d not used a ticket system since they’d been arrested and charged with doing so by the same officers some time ago. The suggestion was that the police were either making the whole thing up or prosecuting them for misdemeanours in the past, in order to persecute them. It sounded pretty far fetched but they were able to produce a witness of sorts who backed them up.

Charles Lloyd was described as a comedian, living in Bermondsey. He told the court that he’d been standing at the corner of the street near to where the men’s barrow was when he overheard “two gentlemen” (indicating the two detectives in court) say ‘they meant to have a cakeman, whether he had any tickets or not’. Lloyd said he watched for 15 minutes and saw Williams and Stephenson selling cakes by auction but saw no tickets. When the men were arrested the crowd rushed forward to take their cakes.

Mr Shiel said he would like to speak to the boy that had supposedly been collecting the tickets and Williams told him he was sure he could produce him. At that point the pair of ‘cakemen’ were released to appear at a later date. We shall see if they make the pages of the newspapers before the end of this week.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, March 27, 1883]

Late Victorian humour in the Police Courts

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The London Police Courts were the equivalent of today’s magistrates’ courts although they dealt with considerable more ‘civil’ and non-criminal business than the modern courtrooms do. In London Police magistrates (not members of the Police it should be said) sat alone not as  bench of three, and had considerable power to punish offenders. This was quick and faulty rough justice but it had its amusing moments and so the newspapers despatched their reporters daily to record the goings on in these summary courts.

The Illustrated Police News (which was not an official ‘police’ paper) was ‘one of Britain’s very first tabloids and one of the first periodicals to tap into the British public’s morbid appetite for crime and sensation’.* It had dramatic printed covers and carried news from all over Britain about murders, robberies, accidents and disasters.

When the infamous Whitechapel murderer struck in the late summer of 1888 the IPL was on hand to provide a gruesome commentary on the horrors and alert its readers to possible sightings of the suspect.

It was a sensational newspaper in a period in which ‘sensation’ came to the fore in popular culture; the papers began life in the 1840s and benefitted from the rise in newspaper consumption, the development of ‘New Journalism’, as well as the Music hall, melodrama and much faster communications (with railways and the telegraph).

In February 1897 the IPN reported on the daily round of cases at the Police Courts as usual. There was a case of domestic  violence at Guildhall in the City, one of child neglect at Marylebone; violence between neighbours in the Borough was dealt with at Southwark; and a jealous lover was jailed for a week for beating up a young woman who spurned his attention.

All of this was fairly typical of the sorts of hearings magistrates conducted during the 1800s and, as again was normal, the press were careful to place some light relief amongst all these tales of human misery.

On 20 February 1897 there were two cases that served this purpose.

Patrick Sweeney was a 27 year-old comedian who was of ‘no fixed abode’. He had been charged with stealing a ‘safety bicycle’ belonging to an actor named George Power. Sweeney had taken the bike and then tried to sell it to a cycle manufacturer in Battersea for £5.

He was arrested by Detective Stephens and when asked his name he handed over his calling card. On this was printed: Patrick Sweeney: The Champion Clog and Jog Dancer’. In the South West London Police court Power testified to being the owner of the bicycle but when it was pointed out that Sweeney was a fellow entertainer he said: ‘Really? I don’t know him’, drawing considerable laughter from the public gallery. Poor Patrick clearly wasn’t as famous as Dan Leno.

The clog dancing comedian was committed for trial for the theft despite his protests that he had bought the bike in Scotland and knew nothing of what he was accused of.

Meanwhile over at Thames another case tickled the editor of the Illustrated Police News.

A man (unnamed) was summoned for an unspecified offence (probably domestic violence). The defendant (who was the husband of the complainant), told the magistrate – Mr Mead – that his stepfather had married his wife’s mother and that they had had a family.

‘Then you are married to your sister?’observed the magistrate.

‘Well I suppose its something like that; its a kind of dual relationship’ the man replied.

‘And you sister is your wife?’ Mr Mead continued, clearly enjoying the man’s discomfort and so playing to his audience. ‘It seems so’ came the ‘despairing’ response.

‘And you married your father’s daughter?’ Mr Mead continued, ‘I suppose I did – in law’.

‘Then your stepfather’s daughter is your sister, and she is also  your wife?’ concluded the justice.

‘Oh I don’t know. It beats me’ declared the defendant to raucous laughter.

We all need some cheering up from time to time and, as the Victorians knew, nothing beats laughing at the discomfort of others.

[from The Illustrated Police News etc,  Saturday, February 20, 1897]

*’The Illustrated Police News: “The worst newspaper in England”’, by BNA (http://blog.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/author/violetmacdonald/) [accessed 20/2/2017]