‘Fracas in the Seven Dials’: Police hurt as a mob runs riot in London

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Street fight in Seven Dials, by George Cruikshank c.1839

Seven Dials was notorious in the 1800s as a place of desperate poverty and criminality. It was an area that the police were not inclined to go, full of rookeries with traps set for the unwary and locals whose antipathy towards anyone in authorities made it a very dangerous place for the ‘boys in the blue’.

To give just one example of the risks officers took in entering the district we can look at this case from the middle of June 1883.

Officers were called out from the police station at Great Earl Street to tackle a riotous crowd that had gathered in the Dials. One of those involved had apparently been thrusting a muddied cloth into the faces of random passers-by in an aggressive manner. When the police moved in to arrest this man they were attacked and pelted with stones, ‘ginger beer bottles, and pieces of iron’.

The instigator of the violence – the man with the muddy cloth – was rescued by the crowd and it took police reinforcements to recapture him along with another man that had been identified as a ringleader in the riot.

Eventually, and not without a struggle, the two of them were conveyed to the station house. On the way the officers were kicked at, bitten and wrestled with as their prisoners ‘behaved like wild beasts’. A passing solicitor and an off duty police officer came to the aid of the lawmen and helped subdue their charges.

All the while the crowd had followed from Seven Dials and continued to try to affect a rescue of their friends. Stones rained down on the officers and one struck the off duty copper, PC Bunnion, on the ear. He was hurt so badly that he lost his hearing (hopefully only temporarily) and was placed on the police sick list. A woman rushed in and grabbed one of the officers’ truncheons and started to beat them with it – she too was eventually arrested.

After a night in the cells both men and the woman were brought up before Mr Vaughan at Bow Street Police court. William Learey was given four months at hard labour for his part in the assaulting on the police but the other man was cleared. John Hurley’s solicitor was able to persuade the magistrate that his client had taken ‘any part in the original disturbance’. He’d been falsely arrested therefore, and so was excused his subsequent behaviour.

Mary Taylor – the woman who’d used the police’s own weapon against them – didn’t escape justice however. She was given 21 days for one assault and 14 for another, a total of just over a month in prison. An unnamed gentleman who gave evidence in court challenged this decision. He alleged that the police had used unnecessary force in arresting Mary but Mr Vaughan upheld his decision while suggesting that the man take his complaint to the Commissioners of Police.

It is always hard to know who is to blame in a riot. The very nature of the event makes its hard to identify those who are active participants and those who are innocent bystanders, or even individuals whose motive is simply to stop the riot escalating.  One of the functions of the New Police after 1829 was to deal with exactly this sort of disorder but it was not until over 100 years later that the police began to receive the sort of specialist training and equipment they needed to be able to do so.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, June 17, 1883]

‘You rascal you’: An early tale from Bow Street reveals contemporary prejudices

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This case is amongst the earliest I’ve looked at for the Metropolitan Police Courts predating in fact, both the beginning of Victoria’s reign and the creation of the Metropolitan Police. The style of the early reports from the Police Courts seem to suggest that the writers are working out how to present their stories in an entertaining way, while by 50 or 60 years later a more formulaic style of reporting has developed.

In the 1820s and 30s the audience for newspapers was smaller and less demographically brand;  papers were generally read by the well-do-do and wealthy. By the second half of Victoria’s reign the improvements that technology brought both to the production of newspapers and their distribution, along with a rise in literacy, meant that the reports of the summary courts (along will all other news) reached a much larger and better read audience.

Many of those reading the reports from the Police Courts in the 1880s (where I have spent much of this year so far) were members of the working class and they were often reading about people just like them. In the 1820s I suspect most of those reading about the goings on at Bow Street and elsewhere were reading about people  not like them, unless they were the prosecutors in these courts.

Regardless, editors still operated on the principle of mixing information with entertainment and a heavy dose of social comment. Class is clearly important, as is the maintenance of social position and ‘respect’. This case provides plenty of opportunity to smirk at the pretensions of youth, at respectability, and class, all served with a dash of prejudice on top.

Mr Merix was a ‘dashingly dressed young man’ who appeared at Bow Street to make a complaint about another young man that he said had assaulted him. For no obvious practical reason the The Morning Post’s reporter tells us that Merix was ‘a Jew’ and describes him as self-obsessed and vain: ‘no man or boy ever appeared on better terms with himself’, notes the writer. In addition Merix spoke with a mild stutter which the report delights in rendering in print.

It is pretty clear then from the start of this short court report that the editor is using this story as entertainment and an opportunity to poke fun at Merix and those like him.

The person accused of assaulting Merix was a Mr Zinc, a ‘Musician in the Orchestra at Covent Garden Theatre’. He appeared ‘voluntarily’ we are told, and this helps establish where the paper’s sympathy lies.

Merix complained that on the previous Thursday evening he had met Zinc in the street and the other man had knocked him down without the slightest provocation.

Mr Halls, again for no obvious reason, asked him who he was.

‘Why, Sir – a – I, Sir – a – the fact is, Sir – I am – a – no – thing, Sir’

he answered, provoking a laugh in the court.

‘How do you live’, asked the magistrate, ‘are you of any business or profession?’

‘I am – under the protection of – a – my father – who is a diamond merchant’, stammered the complainant.

At this point we might well remember that Mr Merix was the supposed victim in this case, yet it seems to be him who is on trial.

Next the magistrate turned his attention to the defendant who seemed perfectly relaxed and happy to be in court. He admitted knocking Merix down but said he had plenty of good reasons to do so.

He told Mr Halls that he had lodged with the prosecutor and after a quarrel, Merix had challenged him to a duel which he declined ‘with silent contempt’. Thereafter Merix never missed an opportunity, he said, to insult him. This happened regularly at Zinc’s place of work, the theatre, as he described in detail:

He (Merix) ‘sometimes placed himself in a  conspicuous situation in the Theatre and curled his nose, and directed the most offensive gestures towards him, and when he met him in the street, it was his constant practice to spit on the ground in a marked manner, and turn up his nose as he passed’.

Given Merix’s ethnic background I think it is pretty clear that Zinc is making as much of the young man’s physical appearance as he could to denigrate him. Nearly every depiction of Jews in nineteenth-century popular culture make a point of emphasising the size and curl of their noses (see Fagin in Oliver Twist as just one example).

On the night in question Zinc says he reacted to Merix’s now routine insults by threatening to pull his nose, prompting the other man to call him a ‘rascal’. This was enough for Mr Halls; the magistrate thought it outrageous that a respectable citizen like Zinc should be called a ‘rascal’ and said Merix deserved the treatment he had received.

‘Any man who called another rascal, deserved to have his nose pulled’ he declared, ‘or to be knocked down, and still more did he merit punishment who could be guilty of such a filthy, low, blackguard trick as that which was ascribed to the Complainant’.

He would not remand or even bail Zinc for the assault but if Merix wished he could indict him at the next Session of the Peace, not that he thought he ‘was likely to get any good by it’. He dismissed the case and left Merix looking ‘very crestfallen’ as a result’.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, April 15, 1826]

Young love triumphs as the old police give way to Peel’s bluebottles

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Today’s post takes us further back into the nineteenth century than this blog usually ventures. We step out of the Victorian period and into the last months of the reign of George IV. The newspapers had been reporting the ‘doings’ of the Metropolitan Police Courts for  several years but their coverage was still quite patchy, and there was no systematic attempt to report from all of the capital’s magistrate courts. This report, from Bow Street in March 1830 – the capital’s premier summary court – is of interest because it shows the public and private role of the police courts in the early 1800s. It also mentions the New Police, created by Robert Peel in 1829, who had just started their their dual mission to protect the ‘person and property’ of Londoners and ‘preserve the public tranquility’*.

In the months following the creation of the Met existing parochial policing arrangements seemingly continued in some manner. The Watch were largely disbanded and replaced by the ‘boys in the blue’ but parish constables continued in some places in London as they did outside the capital. These men were possibly amateurs serving the communities in rotation or entrepreneurial thief-takers acting like modern private investigators. One of these of was a man named Wright (we don’t have his first name) who was described as ‘a constable of Chiswick’ by the Morning Post in March 1830.

Wright was summoned to Bow Street to answer a charge of assault. He had allegedly attacked two brothers – George and Charles Ideyman – in an attempt to ‘rescue’ a young woman. When the case came before the magistrate (Mr Minshull) it quickly became clear that this was not a ‘public’ or criminal matter (of theft or violence) but instead a ‘private’ (or civil) one.

Charles Ideyman was in love with a 16 year-old heiress who lived in Chiswick. The girl is named only as Miss Smith and her mother was in court to hear the case and give evidence. Miss Smith was due to inherit £7,000 when she reached the age of maturity at 21 and her parents had very clear ideas about who would be a suitable match for their daughter. They made it abundantly clear to her that Charles Ideyman was not marriage material.

The Smiths did everything they could ‘to prevent the match; but on Sunday evening last [the paper reported] Miss Smith ‘contrived to escape from home, and on the following morning she was married at Chiswick church to [Charles] Ideyman’.

Having lost their daughter (and her marriage value) the Smith employed constable Wright to get her back. He went to the Ideyman family home and demanded access. When he was refused entry he turned violent , punched George Ideyman and:

‘broke down every door in the house with a pair of tongs, and demolished several windows’. When Charles confronted him he too was attacked and so scared was his younger sister that she remained in a ‘precarious state’ for several days afterwards.

Under questioning Wright said he was only doing what he thought was appropriate to fulfil the task he had been sent. He believed he was ‘authorised in adopting the best means he could in effecting his object’.

When the magistrate suggested that it must have been a ‘love match’ Mrs Smith declared that while it was it was ‘in decided opposition to her daughter’s best friends’. She and her husband did not accept the marriage and would never be reconciled to their daughter or her new husband. The Ideyman’s solicitor pleaded for calm and reconciliation. He urged Charles to be good husband to his young wife and added: ‘do not permit any one to widen the breach which you have already been the making of in the family’.

Wright was bailed to appear at the next Sessions of the Peace to answer for the assault. Bail was set at 40s for himself and two sureties of 20each. Hopefully his employers (the Smiths) stood these. We might hope also that Charles and his bride lived happily ever after and perhaps were even reconciled to her parents. Mr Minshull clearly didn’t think it was any business of his to interfere however.

The footnote to this report of a private quarrel was the appearance in the dock of a ‘miserable-looking man’ named Daniel Hobbs. Hobbs, without even ‘a shoe to his foot’ was brought before Mr Minshull having been arrested the evening before by a constable of the New Police for being drunk. Hobbs had been ‘lying in one of the kennels in the neighbourhood of Long-acre’ [Covent Garden]. He was taken to a watch house (the predecessors of police stations) and searched.

Amazingly he had loads of money on him, including a £50 note and several gold sovereigns. In court Hobbs was recognised as someone who was often found drunk and sleeping rough, sometimes with as much as £400 in his possession. Who was this person and what was his story? Sadly (and typically) the paper doesn’t tell us so you’ll have to make up your own. What these two reports do show is that in 1830 the ‘old’ police and the New were operating at the same time (if not, it seems, side-by-side) as Londoners adjusted to the coming of the professionals and the courts worked out who now had the authority to act as law men and when.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, March 13, 1830]

*to quote Charles Reith, A New Study of Police History, (1956)

The sweep’s boy who wasn’t all he appeared

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London’s police magistrate courts were created (officially) by the passing of the Middlesex Justices Act (1792). This established seven new ‘Police Offices’ throughout the capital in addition to Bow Street (and Mansion House and Guildhall in the old City of London). The press reported on these courts as they reported on all the other criminal and civil courts, but it took them a little while to start doing so in a systematic way.

As a result the earliest reports are patchy, not always easy to find, and short on detail. Thereafter, and especially from the 1840s onwards, court reporting settled into a pattern that hardly changed throughout the century. Reports became longer; those from Lambeth and the East End often involved poverty or drunken violence, those based at Guildhall or Mansion House dealt with fraud and other financial themes. As the senior magistrate court Bow Street often had the most serious cases, but Clerkenwell, Marylebone, and Westminster were all very busy.

Everyday the reader would be exposed to a mixture of information, cautionary tales, pathos, and humour.

On January 1st 1818, 200 years ago today, underneath a report from Argentina of the retreat of  Spanish forces in Chile, was a short item of new from the police courts. Spain had suffered a ‘complete defeat’ the paper noted, in a war that had raged since 1810. 1818 was to see the end of the war which culminated in the battle of Maipu on 5 April. Argentina, Chile and Peru all won their independence from Bourbon Spain.

Meanwhile in London The Morning Post  reported from just two police courts: Bow Street and Marlborough Street.

John Cook was charged with robbing a woman at the pit entrance to Covent Garden theatre. The court was told that he had cut ‘her pelisse and other clothes to get at her purse’. He then removed a ‘Bank-note, a half-Sovereign and six shillings’. The Bow Street justice committed him for trial.

A ‘familiar’ face appeared at Marlborough Street charged with being drunk and riotous. John McNaughton had been a Commissary General in the Peninsula (linking this story to that of the South American war of independence above). The charge was brought by Mr Molloy, who ran the Grosvenor Coffee House in Bond Street. McNaughton was a regular customer but a troublesome one. Having once held a position demanding respect and authority the magistrate was lenient with him; he awarded damages to Molloy but released the former army man on his promise to stay away from the coffee house in future.

Finally, after tales of serious crime and drunken behaviour the paper ended on a whimsical story to amuse its readers. A Mr Brown had called in a sweep to clean his chimney. Westwood, based in St Pancras, sent his ‘boy’ who climbed up and cleaned the chimney. Brown remarked that it had never been cleaned as well by anyone previously and took the time to praise and question the lad that had done it. It soon became clear that this was no boy at all, but ‘a poor girl of 12’.

She explained that ‘her uncle had turned her out of doors to look for work, and she had engaged herself to a sweep rather than be chided, as she could get no other work’.

The paper doesn’t tell us what happened to the young girl, whom Mr Brown had brought to Marlborough Street to hear the advice of the magistrate on the issue. I suspect a summons for the uncle or her being placed in the parish workhouse were both possible outcomes. Perhaps however, such a sad and touching story might have prompted someone reading to offer her a place in service. Maybe even Mr Brown might have taken her in.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, January 01, 1818]

A City Road ‘Fagin’ gets away with it

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We are all probably familiar with the character of Fagin, created by Charles Dickens as the central villain of Oliver Twist. Fagin is a receiver of stolen goods, who trains a gang of juvenile thieves (led by the Artful Dodger) to go out and pick the pockets of unwary Londoners. In his ‘den’ the boys bring him the proceeds of their escapades in the form of hundreds of silk handkerchiefs, pocket books (wallets) and watches and chains.

Fagin was a fictional character of course, he didn’t actually exist. But Dickens was very familiar with the Police Courts (he had reported from them as a journalist before he became famous) and he had probably seen plenty of ‘Fagin’ in his time. Fagin was a ‘fence’, a receiver of stolen goods, and may even have been based on a real life Jewish criminal called Ikey Solomons.

In 1854 a man named Mark Isaacs appeared at the Worship Street Police Court in Shoreditch. He had ben remanded in custody a few days later on a charge of receiving ‘£50 worth of silk damask’ a high value material belonging to a wholesale upholsterer based in the City Road.

The upholsterer, a Mr Thomas Farnham, had ordered the material especially and had taken delivery in late September and had locked it in a closet. Within two days it had gone, stolen it seems by a person or persons unknown. However, a month later it resurfaced, being offered for sale – by Isaacs – to an auctioneer in St. Paul’s Churchyard at 4s a yard.

At the sale – which Farnham was soon made aware of – Isaacs (and another man) told the purchaser (Mr Barnes) that he had bought the cloth from Debenham and Storrs, who traded from King Street, Covent Garden (and are the ancestors of the modern Debenhams who still exist today). It was a lie of course, they were trading in stolen goods, the problem Farnham had was in proving it.

However, Mr Barnes was in on the act. He was working with Farnham and carefully paid for the cloth with a crossed cheque. This meant that Isaacs would have to pay it into a bank, he couldn’t change it up for cash and this allowed the police investigation to trace him.

Isaacs was apprehend by the police and inspector Brennan of the met asked him where he had got the damask. Isaacs told him that he’d bought it off a man named Vann who had since gone to America.

How convenient.

Another witness at Worship Street recognised Isaacs as the brother of a man he knew called Coleman Isaacs, who had been hawking samples of silk damask at the City of London Theatre. Faced with what appeared to be mounting and damning evidence the magistrate committed him for trial.

Isaacs appeared at the Old Bailey on 27 November but was accused of theft, not receiving. Perhaps this was a mistake on the prosecution’s part. It was very hard to prove, beyond reasonable doubt, that Isaacs had stolen the goods that he said he had legitimately purchased from Mr Vann. The case was short and the jury were unconvinced. Mr Isaacs was acquitted and Mr Farnham left with justice or his 184 yards of silk.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, November 15, 1854]

One funeral and two pickpockets

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In July 1881 the dean of Westminster Abbey, the Rev Arthur Stanley, died. He had served as dean since 1863 and wrote several religious articles. His burial in the Abbey was recorded in a contemporary work about the Abbey written by Stanley and published (posthumously) in 1886.

“Arthur Penrhyn Stanley (author of this volume) … was followed by the Prince of Wales, as representative of the Sovereign, by other members of the Royal Family, by representatives of the three Estates of the Realm, of the Cabinet Ministers, the literature, arts, science, and religion of the country, and by a large concourse of the working-men of Westminster—the majority mourning for one who had been their personal friend.”

Arthur Penrhyn Stanley, Historical memorials of Westminster Abbey, (London, 1886).

Sadly it would seem that while many people turned out to mourn the dean’s passing others saw it as an opportunity for easy profit. Funerals draw a crowd and crowds (as any unwary visitor to Covent Garden ought to realise) draw pickpockets.

Two people were caught in the act of picking pockets amongst the mourners that afternoon and both appeared at Westminster Police Court in early August.

Daniel Green was just 17 but had already earned himself a ‘bad character’. He was seen attempting ‘to pick several ladies’ pockets’ before he was arrested by Sergeant Reader of E Division. He was probably there as a member of the crowd himself but when he had been a constable in A Division he had learned to recognise many of the ‘known thieves’ in the vicinity. When he was searched Green was found to have several handkerchiefs on him but the owners could not be traced. Mr D’Eyncourt  sent the youth to prison for three months at hard labour.

Jane Thomas was 53 years old – so should presumably have known better than to attempt to pick pockets inside the Abbey. There was less evidence against her so the magistrate used the Vagrancy Laws to have her convicted as a rogue and vagabond. She too got three months hard labour for her pains.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, August 03, 1881]

A very different sort of entertainment in Covent Garden

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Covent Garden in 1864

If you are familiar with the modern Covent Garden then I expect you are fairly used to the sorts of entertainment on offer there. Much to the amusement of two of my nieces I became part of a circus act last year when I was plucked from the crowd to help support a knife juggler. I have seen her since but have never made the mistake of watching her act from the front row again!

Along with jugglers, busking musicians and magic acts there are always a ‘gallery’ of human statues (invariably including at least one Yoda) vying for our attention and any loose change. Quite possibly there are others mingling with the crowds with much less honest desires on our pennies, and Covent Garden has long associations with petty criminality as this blog has noted before.

I’m not sure when the ‘modern’ phenomenon of human statues first emerged but I don’t believe they existed in the Victorian age. Covent Garden was a much less wealthy area in those days when the poverty of Seven Dials and the district’s reputation for vice were much more widely known and discussed than its attractiveness as popular tourist destination. It had ceased to be a ‘market’ in 1974 when the old flower market moved, and fell into disuse thereafter before being rescued later in the twentieth century. What we see now is far removed (except for the buildings) from how it would have looked to our Victorian ancestors.

One building that still remains today is St Paul’s church, which provides a haven of peace in this busy London space. In 1859 the land outside the church was owned by the duke of Bedford and he had granted use of it to the church and its vicar to preach sermons to the public. Thus, on Saturday afternoon, the 9th July 1859, the Rev. Hutton was preaching to an assembled crowd close to the market.

Nearby another preacher was attempting to make his voice heard but he was having some problems with the local police. PC Vernor (of F Division) interrupted the man, later named as Dr William Evans, to ask him to stop. When Evans asked him why he was allowing the Rev. Hutton to continue but interfering with his own lecture. PC Vernor simply explained that the reverend had permission to do so, while he did not.

Dr Evans ‘did not seem to understand the distinction’ and carried on regardless. The policeman, ‘in order to put a stop to the disorder’  arrested him and took him back to the station house where he was later bailed by two of his friends.

Appearing in front of Mr Henry, the sitting justice at Bow Street, Evans eschewed a defence of his actions in favour of an opportunity to carry on his lecture to a captive audience.  He drew out a pamphlet entitled ‘A prophetic declaration by W. Evans‘ which he preceded to read aloud.

While he claimed to have ‘a mission’, his delivery was ‘so rambling and unintelligible that it afforded no cause’ as to what that ‘mission’ was, reported the Chronicle‘s hack.

‘It commenced by comparing the Emperor of the French [presumably Napoleon III] to our Saviour, and the prisoner himself to several historical characters, and contained a denunciation against England and the English; first because he (Dr. Evans) had been imprisoned; and secondly, because the people, while they would not listen to his counsel, “wise counsels, the counsels of God”, yet were ready to “receive bastard prophets and false Christs.”

England, he declared, had but a short time for repentance, and even America should not escape the “general judgements”.

It was quite a speech but the magistrate was not at all impressed. He reminded the doctor that they were there to consider his breach of the law and asked him to cut short his ‘ramblings’. Dr Evans simply declared he had as much right as the Rev. Hutton to preach in public but added that his own suffering under the law were comparable to the sufferings of Christ himself.

Mr Henry begged to differ and bound him over to keep the peace and refrain from speaking in Covent Garden again. In future, if he wished to avoid arrest that is, the good doctor would have to rely on passers-by buying and reading his religious tracts whilst remaining as silent as one of the ‘Yodas’ that infest the Piazza today.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, July 12, 1859]