A curious child gets a knockout blow

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Not all stories are exactly what they seem when you start reading them. I found this one, about a Thames lighterman – one of the men that operated the flat bottomed barges ferrying goods up and down London’s central river – assaulting an eight year-old boy, and assumed it was a simple case of child abuse.

However, the incident – unpleasant as it was –  actually revealed that something else was going on in the capital at the end of November 1889.

Matthew Petter should have been at Sunday school on the 24 November. But, like many young boys, he was curious and as he crossed Vauxhall Bridge he got distracted watching the boats go up and down. As he watched he noticed a small group of men who were having an argument with a lighterman.

Henry Bliss (28) was a lighterman and when some of his fellows had recently downed tools and gone on strike, he carried on working. This hardly endeared him to his colleagues and today they were showing him how they felt.

Their hoots and cries of ‘blackleg’ escalated from verbal into physical brickbats being thrown; rubbish, bricks and stones were lobbed in his direction and Bliss lost his temper. He picked up a half-brick and threw it back, aiming at his tormenters. The brick missed them and struck a railing, bounced off and smacked young Matthew on the head, and knocked him senseless.

The crowd of angry rivermen roared in outrage and rushed forward to seize Bliss. He turned his boat and headed out into the river. The mob chased him along the bank and some took to other crafts. Finally Bliss gave himself up to river police, asking for their protection, as he clearly feared for his life.

The boy was hospitalised and when Bliss appeared to answer a summons at Westminster Police Court he was very apologetic, offering to compensate Mrs Petter for the cost of treating the little lad’s injuries. Mr D’Eyncourt probably sympathized with the lighterman – magistrates tended to side against striking union men – so he fined him a nominal 26and Mrs Petter accepted a payment of 50sin compensation.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, December 8, 1889]

A cowardly attack on the wrong victim

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Elizabeth Couldry was standing at her door in Sugarloaf Court in the City of London (which led into Leadenhall Street, above) watching a group of boys play. They were up to mischief – as small boys often are – and the object of their attention was another resident of the court, Catherine Branman.

Catherine was drunk and crying out that she’d lost a shilling, claiming someone had stolen it. She’d worked herself up into a rage and was carrying a large stick. One of the boys picked up a farthing from the dirt and gave it to her, telling her that was what she’d dropped. This only enraged her further and she started hitting out at the boys who scattered.

Another door had opened by now, and a woman on crutches appeared with an elderly man behind her.  He called to her to go home and be quiet but this only provoked Catherine to confront the pair. The invalid was Jane Barham and the old man was her father. Catherine told Mr Barham that if she had been a man she would have knocked his lights out. Jane told her to calm down and come inside for a moment.

Catherine did neither. Instead she lifted her stick and smashed it down on the poor woman’s head.

Jane was rushed to the infirmary at Bow workhouse where she was treated for serious wounds to her head. It was serious enough to keep her in hospital for six days. In the meantime Catherine was arrested and the stick she’d used confiscated to be used in evidence. There must have been real concern that Jane might not recover.

Fortunately she did and on the 25 August she gave evidence before the Lord Mayor at mansion House, although she did so sitting down and with her head swathed in plaster and bandages. Catherine denied intent and said she was drunk at the time. She had been wound up by the little boys and had only struck Jane by accident. It was a risible excuse but the Lord Mayor was prepared to let her settle the matter with her victim. He gave leave for the two women to use the affidavit room to come to a financial settlement; if Catherine paid some compensation and the cost of the court case then the law need take no further action.

The women were soon back in court and Catherine was back in the dock. She’d pleaded poverty and so refused to pay anything (or anything of substance at least). As a result the Lord Mayor said he had no choice but to fine her 20which of course she couldn’t pay. The gaoler led her away to start a month’s prison sentence and Jane went home to complete her recovery in peace.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, August 26, 1859]

A rapist offers ‘atonement’ to buy off his victim’s father

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A warning, this is a most unpleasant case, because it concerns the alleged rape of a 14 year-old girl.

Rachael Potts worked as a domestic servant in a household at 30 Grosvenor Park South, Camberwell, south London. In mid April her mistress went off to her country home for a few days so it was decided that Racheal would lodge with her father in Camberwell and travel the short distance to work each morning, not staying there overnight. Her father was a tradesman, a furniture broker on Southampton Street and probably saw his daughter’s employment as a respectable occupation and education for a young girl. He also expected her to be safe there, but he was wrong.

While Rachael’s mistress was away Montague Musgrave, her brother, was not. He lived with his sister at number 30 and one Wednesday evening he noticed that the young serving girl had scratched her arm. He offered to bandage it and as he was doing so he pulled her towards him onto his knee. Rachael wriggled free and ran off into the kitchen but Musgrave followed.

With no one about in the kitchen (presumably because most of the staff had gone to the country) Musgrave was able to catch Rachael, force her to the floor and rape her. He then made her a present of some ribbons and urged her to say nothing of what had happened. The teenage girl went home to her mother and kept her silence until she realized she had contracted a sexually transmitted infection or, as the press at the time put it: ‘a loathsome disease’.

The mother complained, Musgrave was arrested and the whole sordid affair came before Mr Elliott at Lambeth Police court. Musgrave was represented by his attorney but Rachael had to give her evidence herself. The prejudice of the papers was apparent as she was described as ‘precocious’ and ‘indifferent’, while Musgrave was ‘gentlemanly’. The accused lawyer argued that no jury would convict his client based on the evidence of a young girl (and by implication at least, a young girl of lower social status) and so offered some ‘atonement’.

In reality he was probably offering Rachael (or rather her father) some financial compensation in the hope that the charge would be dropped and further embarrassment could be avoided.  Unfortunately for Musgrave the magistrate did not feel that ‘atonement’ was an appropriate thing to discuss at this stage and bailed the suspected rapist to appear a week later.

At this point both Rachael and her alleged abuser vanish from the records. I doubt a trial took place; it is much more likely that an out of court settlement was made and Rachael left her position as a domestic in Camberwell and returned to her father. No doubt he received some money and the girl received some medical care but Musgrave would have walked away without any further taint on his reputation.

One expects however, that his sister may well have recognised that  her brother was not to be trusted with the young female staff and that is why she tried to keep Rachael away when she was not at home to supervise him. Let’s hope she was more careful in the future for leopards rarely change their spots.

[From The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, May 7, 1856]

An elderly lady is sent flying by a drunken cabbie

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Traffic accidents seemed to be fairly common in Victorian London and so to were prosecutions of drivers (particularly hansom cab drivers) for dangerous driving. The most usual outcome was a fine, and occasionally a short spell in prison if the cabbie was unable to pay the fine. However, cab drivers were also prosecuted for being drunk in charge of a cab, especially when they were abusive towards a passenger or a policeman. In this case one driver was arrested after he drove his cab into two women who were walking on the King’s Road, nearly killing one of them. The driver was drunk and ended up before the magistrate at Westminster Police court.

George Thompson stood in the dock as the evidence of his actions was recounted before Mr Mansfield, the sitting magistrate. Emmelie Ullarbane said that she was walking along the King’s Road with her elderly companion Mrs Martha White on the previous evening. As they were crossing the road a cab driven by Thompson hit them, knocking Mrs White to the ground and trampling her. Emmelie was hurt but not too badly.

A policeman came rushing up and asked if they were injured; Mrs White was quite badly hurt so she was taken to be treated by a doctor. Mr. Mansfield asked him if either woman had been drinking, to which the officer – PC Langford (344B) – answered that they had not. That might seem an odd question to have asked but perhaps I can make sense of it later.

Having checked on the injured parties PC Langford set off in pursuit of the driver who hadn’t stopped after the accident. The policeman called to him but was ignored, so he raced along and managed to catch up with the cab. Langford leapt up onto the back of the cab, seized the reins, and stopped the horse. It was obvious to him when he confronted Thompson that the driver had been drinking and was quite incapable.

The policeman arrested Thompson and took him back to the station before heading off to Brompton to visit Mrs White to see how she was. According to the doctor’s report she was in a bad way, her petticoats ‘were torn to pieces by the tramping of the horse’, and she was not yet ‘out of danger’. It must have been a huge shock to an elderly lady and Mansfield remanded Thompson (who had two previous convictions for drunkenness) in custody for a week.

I wondered why the magistrate had enquired as to whether the women were themselves drunk. Two women walking in the early evening on the King’s Road did not necessarily suggest anything unusual. One on her own might have raised eyebrows but given Mrs White was described as being ‘elderly’ we might assume Ms Ullarbane was her companion or servant and so I can’t see anything odd here. Until that is we learn that Mrs Martha White was a ‘West India lady’.

I take this to mean that she was a part of London’s black community in the late 1800s a group rarely mentioned but ever present in the nineteenth-century capital. Perhaps Mansfield was simply expressing contemporary racism and imperialist views in assuming, or merely suggesting, that two black women out and about on a Tuesday evening had been drinking and were, therefore, partly to blame for the accident that had occurred.

This case rumbled on for several months, maybe as a result of the injuries Mrs White received. A jury had held the cab company liable and Martha had been awarded £100 in compensation. Thompson was finally brought back before the Westminster magistrate in August 1869. This time it was Mr Arnold and he declared that he was not going to be influenced by that civil judgment but determine punishment on it merits. He was convinced, he said, that Thompson had been drunk that night but wasn’t sure that had caused the accident. Instead he held Mrs White partly to blame stating that the accident:

‘was caused by the nervousness of the injured lady and her friend, who did not know whether to advance or recede’.

So he imposed a fine of just 10on Thompson who might have expected worse (especially given his previous convictions for being drunk in charge of a cab). The police were not so sanguine as the magistrate however, and informed his worship that the renewal of the driver’s license had been refused. George Thompson would not be driving a hansom in London again, or not at least in the near future.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, April 01, 1869; The Morning Post, Wednesday, August 18, 1869]

‘These cabmen always drive furiously’: Lord Rothschild has a lucky escape

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An 1891 caricature of Nathan (‘Natty’) Rothschild by Lockhart Bogle in The Graphic

It seems as if traffic accidents were just as likely to occur in late nineteenth-century London as they are in the modern capital, and that the roads were just as crowded. Moreover the image of the policeman directing the flow of vehicles – one we probably now associate with the 1950s and 60s – may be just as appropriate for the 1890s.

In early March 1890 Nathan, the first Baron de Rothschild, was being driven in brougham coach along Queen Victoria Street in the City. A policeman was holding the traffic and had his arm extended up, palm out to signal this. Lord Rothschild’s driver eased his horses to a halt to wait for the officer’s signal to continue.

Suddenly, and seemingly without warning, the coach was hit from behind by a hansom cab. One of the shafts of the cab broke through the brougham, narrowly missing its occupants. Rothschild was shaken, but unhurt. The baron stepped down from the damaged coach and approached the policeman. He handed him his card and said, possibly angrily:

‘These cabmen always drive furiously. Take my card and give it to the Inspector. It will be all right’.

The incident ended up with the cabbie, James Povey, being summoned before the alderman magistrate at Guildhall Police court where he was charged with ‘driving a hansom cab wantonly’. Povey pleaded ‘not guilty’ and one of his passenger that day, a gentleman named Palmer, was in court to support him.

Mr Palmer testified that the baron and his driver could not possibly have seen what happened as they were facing the wrong way. He said that Povey had tried to stop and it was entirely an accident, not ‘wanton’ or dangerous driving. The alderman agreed and dismissed the summons, adding that a claim for the damage to the brougham could be made in the civil courts. There was no need, Povey’s representative (a Mr Edmonds, solicitor for the Cab Union) explained, as that had already been settled.

Rothschild was an important figure in late nineteenth-century Britain, a banker and the financial backer of Cecil Rhodes, he was a noted philanthropist as well, helping fund housing (in the form of model dwellings) for poor Jews in Spitalfields and Whitechapel.

Rothschild sat in parliament for the Liberals, although he had been a close friend of the Conservative Prime Minster Benjamin Disraeli. By 1896 he was a peer, sitting in the Lords (as he had since 1885) an honour bestowed by that other great Victorian premier, William Gladstone. He then left the Liberals in 1886, joining forces with Joseph Chamberlain’s Liberal Unionists as the Liberal Party split over Home Rule for Ireland. He died in 1915 and the current baron, Jacob, is the 4th to hold the title.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, March 11, 1896]

The parrot sketch is played out in Woolwich, to amusement of the court

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This is one of those cases that the newspapers probably chose to report because it would have amused their readership, so I hope it amuses you.

William Harris kept a parrot (a ‘parroquet’ as the reporter from The Standard described it in February 1888) at his house at Paget Road in Plumstead. In June 1887 the parrot disappeared and he saw and heard nothing of it until New Year’s Eve. Then he received intelligence that one of his near neighbours – Herbert Mackavoy, of 41 Llanover Road  – has somehow acquired a very similar bird at exactly the time his had vanished.

His suspicions aroused, Harris set off to confront his neighbour.

At first Mackavoy refused to let him see the parrot, demanding that he both describe it carefully and give some detail as what the bird could say (give parrots well-known ability as mimics). Harris described it as a young bird, not yet in full plumage when he’d lost it, and just beginning to moult. He said it knew the phrase ‘Polly wants her breakfast’ and the name ‘Toby’. When he saw the bird and recognized it as his own he demanded its return, and when Mackavoy refused he summoned him to court to settle the matter.

At Woolwich Police court several witnesses testified to seeing the parrot in the gardens between the two rival ‘owners’ houses, which were only 100 yards apart. William Mackavoy said his brother had caught the bird on the 3 June and thereafter Herbert had taught it to speak a great deal more than it had done previously.

Now it could say: ‘Oh dear doctor, Polly is sick; run for the doctor, quick, quick, quick’ and ‘the doctor’s gone away; why the Devil didn’t he stay?’

All of this caused laughter in the courtroom and the whole case was in danger of turning into a farce, something Mr Marsham had no desire to see. The magistrate could see that the bird was the property of Harris but that there was no real evidence that his neighbour had stolen it. The parrott should be returned he decided but since the Mackavoys had purchased a cage for it they should be compensated to its value, which was 10s.

The defendant’s solicitor tried to argue that a further 5should be billed to cover the keep of the parrot during the past eight months but Mr Marsham rejected that:

‘He [Mackavoy] has had the pleasure of its company’, he declared, ‘and that outsets the keep’.

In a gracious end to the case Herbert Mackavoy handed the 10s that Harris gave him back to the court and this was paid into the poor box to be distributed to the needy, those that couldn’t afford the luxury of a speaking pet.

[from The Standard, Monday, February 27, 1888]

The fight to get to work

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Since Friday I have been following one week’s ‘police intelligence’ in the London newspapers in 1884, a year which followed the same calendar as 2019. On Monday the newspapers reported a selection of cases heard at the capital’s Police courts on the preceding Saturday (since the courts were closed on a Sunday).

On Saturday 24 January 1884 one of these was the reappearance after a couple of days of Henry Brayne, a clerk from Leytonstone who worked in the City. Brayne had been accused of assault by his (unnamed) victim, another City worker. The pair had been walking independently along the Poultry – one of the City streets that leads past Mansion House to the Bank of England – when they bumped into each other.

The other man was carrying some parcels and nearly toppled over. He turned on Brayne and said that had he got both his hands free he would ‘teach him better’ than to nearly knock people over in the street. Brayne took exception to this and punched the man in the eye.

When the pair had appeared in court on the Thursday the Lord Mayor (who sat as Chief Magistrate for the City of London) advised the pair to settle their differences by negotiating some compensation for the wounded man’s injury. Failing that, he said, he would hear the action for assault against the clerk.

It now transpired that the pair had agreed a financial arrangement that was mutually acceptable. The amount of this was not disclosed in court (or at least it was not reported) but given that Brayne’s attack had left the other party without the ability to see in one eye (albeit, we hope, temporarily) it must have been a fairly hefty settlement.

It reminds us that London was an exceptionally busy place in the Victorian period. The streets were as rammed with traffic as they are today and all the photos we see of the capital’s centre show thousands of commuters fighting (clearly sometimes literally) to make their ways to and from work.

Plus ça change, eh?

[from The Morning Post, Monday, 26 January, 1884]