A foolish young man amongst the ‘roughs’: police and protest in late Victorian London

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This morning my History and Criminology undergraduates sit their exam on my third year module on the Whitechapel murders. The module uses the ‘Jack the Ripper’ case as a prism through which to explore a number of themes in the social and cultural history of late Victorian London. We look at the murders, think about the representations of ‘Jack’, of the mythmaking that surrounds the case, and consider policing, prostitution, poverty and popular culture (among other things). I am considering creating an online version of the module that the public might be able to sign up, so do send me an email if you think this is the sort of thing that might interest you.

One of the events we cover is ‘Bloody Sunday’ in November 1887 when a demonstration in Trafalgar Square was broken up by police and elements of the military on the order of Sir Charles Warren, the chief commissioner of the Metropolitan Police. Many people were injured and two or three killed as the police charged protestors. It was a mixed day for Warren who was castigated in the radical and popular press but praised by establishment organs such as The Times. He’d acted firmly following a debacle in 1886 when demonstrators had run amok in Pall Mall, smashing shops and the smart West End gentleman’s clubs that were situated there.

Demonstrations of all sorts happened in the 1880s: for Irish Home rule, or socialism, against unemployment, or for free trade – all brought hundreds and thousands of people onto the streets. The 1880s was a turbulent decade or poverty and austerity, and hundreds slept rough in the streets, squares and parks of the capital. Police soused the benches in Trafalgar Square to  deter the homeless from using them as beds and local residents demanded action to clear the area of the unwanted ‘residuum’ or ‘dangerous classes’.

There must have been some sort of protest or demonstration in Trafalgar Square close to May Day 1888 because two men appeared at Bow Street Police court on charges connected to disturbances there. First up was Alexander Thompson, a ‘respectably dressed youth’ who was accused by the police of being ‘disorderly’. PC 82A deposed that on Saturday evening (5 May) at about 6 o’clock Thompson was being arrested by two sergeants when a group of ‘roughs’ tried to affect an impromptu rescue.

According to the police witness Thompson was egging them on  by ‘groaning and hooting’ and some stones were thrown at the officers. As the constable tried to hold back the crowd Thompson lashed out at him, striking him on the shoulder. His escape was prevented by another PC who rushed in to help but it was devil of job to get him to the station house. The young man had enough money to be represented by a lawyer, a Mr E Dillon Lewis, who secured bail of £5 for his appearance at a later date.

Next to step into the dock was Walter Powell and he was charged similarly with disorderly behaviour. Powell had been selling ‘a weekly periodical’ in the square. He’d drawn a crowd of ‘roughs’ about him and the policeman who arrested him said that while he couldn’t hear what he was saying it was clear he was addressing them, and possibly exhorting them to some sort of nefarious action. The police sergeant from A Division told Powell to go home and when he refused, or at least did not comply, he took him into custody. He’d been locked up overnight and all day Sunday and for Mr Vaughan, the magistrate presiding, that was punishment enough. He told him he was foolish but let him go with a flea in his ear.

Hopefully today my students will not have been ‘foolish’ and will have prepared themselves for the 90-minute examination I’ve set them. They have to write one essay (from four choices) and analyse  one of two contemporary sources. If they’ve done their revision and paid attention all year I should get some interesting papers to mark. I wish them all the best of luck, but hope they don’t need it.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, May 08, 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 which is published by Amberley Books on 15 June this year. You can find details here:

Representing the Ripper: some lessons from Whitechapel and West Yorkshire

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If, like me, you watched the BBC’s recent three-part documentary on the Yorkshire Ripper case you might have been left pondering some of the conclusions that might be drawn from that awful episode in our recent history.  Tonight the BBC offers a less in-depth and more problematic documentary, which has already been criticized for its approach. At 9 o’clock Silent Witness star Emilia Fox presents a forensic reexamination of the  ‘Jack the Ripper’ with the help of criminologist Professor David Wilson. So the question I’d like to ask is what, if anything, can we learn from this sudden flurry of serious television aimed at two of the most high profile serial murder cases of the last 150 years?

Haille Rubenhold tweeted that documentaries like the one Fox will front this evening:

‘only feed the exploitative Ripper industry’, adding: ‘Trying out modern tech on some of the most defamed women in history just for the sake of entertainment is pretty low’.

So if exploiting the murders of five or more women in 1888 was ‘pretty low’ can we accuse Liza Williams of doing something similar in her recent series on Peter Sutcliffe’s crimes? I don’t think we can; Williams’ documentary was very careful not to ape some of the voyeuristic tendencies of modern ‘true crime’ programmes. The victims were placed centre stage and considered as real people (somebody’s mother, daughter, or friend) not as bodies to be dissected yet again. She stressed that all of Sutcliffe’s victims (the 13 he killed and the seven or more he attacked) left behind families that were and still are being affected by his casual inhumanity. It was extremely moving to hear interviews with Olive Smelt’s daughter, Wilma McCann’s son, and one of his earliest victims,  Tracey Browne who was just 14 when he hit her five or more times with a hammer in a country lane at Silsden.

Williams also focused her study on the police investigation and its failure to catch Sutcliffe. Although the investigation, led by Assistant Chief Constable Godfrey Oldfield and DCS Dennis Hoban, did eventually take credit for catching the killer Williams shows that Sutcliffe was caught despite the police team chasing him not because of it.

West Yorkshire police questioned Sutcliffe on no fewer than nine occasions and five times in the context of following up a lead directly linking him to one of the murders.  They ignored Tracey Browne’s description of her attacker as they didn’t believe the man they were hunting could have attacked her. This was because Oldfield and Hoban were convinced the murderer was only targeting prostitutes (despite him killing six women with no connection to the sex industry) and then because they believed that a tape sent to them was from the killer, and he had a Sunderland accent not a Yorkshire one.

In 1888 the police failed to catch the killer of five or more women (I believe the number he murdered was certainly in double figures, and that there were at least three non-fatal assaults). Again this might have been because the Victorian police were focusing on the wrong sort of killer, someone from outside of the community he terrorized. In this they were ably abetted by the media, just as the West Yorkshire force were in the late ‘70s and early 1980s. What Williams’ revealed was the way in which the British press (local and national) helped create an image of a monster – a master criminal with supernatural powers that helped him avoid capture.

When Sutcliffe appeared in the dock at Number One Court, Old Bailey in 1981 several journalists commented that he didn’t look or sound like the character they had imagined him to be. Instead Sutcliffe was a very ordinary sort of man, not larger than life at all.

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In 1888 the terror created by the original ‘Ripper’ was fueled by the intense press coverage of his attacks and the speculation as to his identity and his motives. Whitechapel and Spitalfields was overrun by journalists all searching for angles on the case and, just as the media did 100 years later, all intent of finding witnesses to interview, regardless of how it might undermine any future case the police might be trying to build against the culprit.

Moreover the press played its part in judging the victims by the prevailing standards of the day. In 1888 The Timespretty much stated that since the women killed by ‘Jack’ were ‘unfortunates’ (a contemporary euphemism for  prostitutes) they were culpable in their own demise. As Ripperologist Donald Rumbelow  has sometimes stated the Ripper killings were viewed as ‘so much street cleaning’ by some sections of Victorian society. Liza Williams’ documentary on the Yorkshire case reveals that a very similar mindset persisted there; the women killed by Sutcliffe were divided into ‘respectable’ and ‘immoral’ women when, after all, they were all simply innocent women.

Rubenhold’s new book on the victims (which has its flaws, be in no doubt) champions the lives of the women the Victorian Ripper murdered, just as Williams tries to do in her work. Both remind us that in every murder the killer is only one small part of the story. His name (and it is usually a ‘he’) is often the one that best remembered however, even if that name is often confused and (as with ‘Jack’) mythologized.

So what can we take from these two cases and the way they’ve been presented recently? I would say this: both reveal how hard it is to catch someone who preys on the most vulnerable in society. All of the victims of the Victorian killer were very poor women found out on the street at night, some of them intoxicated or at least befuddled by drink. Many of Sutcliffe’s victims were engaged in prostitution for the simply fact that society had failed them and they believed it was the only way they had to feed their families. Inequality and poverty runs through both these cases.

Moreover, the way these women were viewed also coloured the way the press reported their deaths and the police investigations that tried lamely to catch their killers. Frankly then society let these women down in the first place and then compounded that failure by blaming them for becoming victims.

We need to get away from the societal condemnation of anyone who sells sex for whatever reason. Prostitution is rarely a positive life choice; it is born of desperation, poverty, and (usually male) exploitation of women. A woman that is forced (by circumstances or someone else) to prostitute herself is no less of a woman than anyone else. She deserves the right to live every bit as much as we all do; no one has the right to take away her life and the sooner society recognizes this the better. Where I disagree with Rubenhold’s thesis that the five ‘canonical’ victims of the Whitechapel murderer were not all prostitutes is this: why does it even matter?  That there is evidence for or against them being prostitutes is immaterial in my view; they were all innocent regardless.

Finally what Liza Williams reminded me was that Peter Sutcliffe was no mythological demon possessed of supernatural abilities to evade capture. He was an ordinary nonentity – someone you’d not look at twice in the street. A quiet neighbour who lived with his wife and went to work each day driving a lorry. No one suspected him, not even the police when they interviewed him.

This very much fits the profile of the man Andy Wise and I think responsible for the Whitechapel series of murders between 1887 and 1891. A man we think hid in plain sight and melted away into the alleys and courts of the East Ed which knew like the back of his hand.  The police may have arrested and questioned him as they did many others, but they let him go off to kill again because he didn’t fit the false profile of the monster they were hunting.

‘Jack and the Thames Torso Murders’, by the author and Andy Wise, is published by Amberley in June 2019

A lazy policeman, ‘regaling himself with coffee and cold meat,’ reveals early resistance to the New Police

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It is easy to think that the police have always been with us, so much a part of society have they become. Although we may not see them as often on our streets as our parents and grandparents did, a police presence of sorts is everywhere if only at the end of a surveillance camera. Moreover we accept this and (for the most part) value the police and the work they do to keep us safe from criminals, terrorists and others that would do us harm.

However, as I have been outlining to my second year History and Criminology undergraduates at Northampton, it took some time for the police to establish this place in our hearts. Very many people, including those in the upper echelons of society, resisted the creation of a professional Police force in the early years of the nineteenth century.

For much of the previous century the idea of a uniformed police was anathema to an English people schooled in ‘liberty’ and opposed to continental (French) forms of state run policing.  “I had rather half a dozen people’s throats should be cut in Ratcliffe Highway every three or four years than be subject to domiciliary visits, spies, and all of the rest of Fouché’s connivances’, commented one skeptic at the time.

Even after Robert Peel successfully (and quietly) steered his Metropolitan Police Bill through Parliament the New Police (as they were dubbed) struggled to gain acceptance. The working classes resented their interference in their street activities (like gambling or trading from stalls), the middle classes disliked the burden they placed on their pockets and the upper class feared the loss of localised control over law and order as these ‘bobbies’ answered directly to the Home Secretary, not the magistracy.

Some of these tensions can be seen in the early reports police actions that resulted in cases heard before the capital’s Police courts. In February 1830 for example, the magistrates at Bow Street sided with a parish constable (the ‘old police’) against two officers from the New Police in a dispute over a fire at the Covent Garden opera house.

Following this brief case was a longer one, also at Bow Street where a ‘wretched-looking young woman’ was accused of being ‘riotous and disorderly’ by PC 104. The officer appeared to give evidence stating that between 2 and 3 o’clock in the morning the girl had been in a coffee shop in Phoenix Alley and had refused to pay for her drinks. He’d been called to ‘turn her out’ and, since he was adamant that she was going nowhere, he arrested her.

Mr Halls, the sitting justice, turned on the officer and upbraided him for arresting the woman when he should have been more concerned that a coffee house was still open after hours.  What hadn’t he applied for a summons against the coffee house owner, he asked?

Here the young woman leaped in, the reason ‘was obvious’ she said. The constable hadn’t been ‘called in as he had stated, but was at the time seated in one of the boxes, regaling himself with coffee and cold meat’.

While the policeman denied this Mr Halls seems to have believed the woman because he discharged her and demanded that the police inspector, who had attended court to hear the case, immediately applied for ‘an information […] against the keeper of the coffee-house’. He added that the girl might prove a useful witness.

In the first year of the New Police accusations of corruption and collusion (with coffee house and beer shop owners, petty crooks, and prostitutes), as well as laziness and drunkenness, were commonly thrown at the new force. Some of this criticism was valid, some malicious, and there was a large turnover of men between 1829 and the early years of the 1830s. It probably took the police until the 1860s to be accepted, albeit grudgingly, by the public, and to the 1950s to be ‘loved’.

A Policeman’s lot, as the song goes, is not a happy a one.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, February 18, 1830]

No news of the “Ripper” as London carries on as normal in the 1880s

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Charles Booth’s poverty map of London, areas coloured blue or black represent the worst level of poverty in the capital; red and gold indicated relative comfort or wealth

I thought today I’d peer into the pages of the London press a year after the so-called ‘Ripper’ murders reached their height. In late September 1888 the killer struck twice in one night (30 September), murdering Elizabeth Stride in Berner Street before he later killed and savagely mutilated Catherine Eddowes in Mitre Square. The ‘double event’ and the infamous ‘dear boss’ letter raised the level of public engagement with the Whitechapel murder series to fever pitch and helped to make it a global news event.

Researchers do not agree on when the murders ceased. There is some consensus that the last victim was Mary Kelly but three other homicides have been attributed (by some) to the unknown assassin known only as ‘Jack the Ripper’. These are are the headless body a woman found in Pinchin Street in 1889, and the murders of Alice McKenzie and Frances Coles (in July 1889 and February 1891). So given that ‘Jack’ was not (officially at least) in custody in September 1889 is there anything in the Police Court reportage that might link at all to the killer that had terrorised London in the autumn of 1888?

The answer for the 28 September 1889 is no, not really.

At Guildhall a general merchant was prosecuted for obtaining 400 sponges by false pretences. The case was complicated and the magistrate adjourned it for further enquiries. A salesman at the London Poultry market was charged with cruelty to chickens and was reprimanded several by the justice and fined 5s.

At Marlborough Street three men were charged with running a disorderly gaming house in St Martin’s Street. The court heard that the Cranborne Club was, despite appearance sot the contact, a ‘common gambling house’. The men were released on substantial recognises to appear again at a later date.

At Dalston a 22 year-old wood turner was committed for jury trial for assaulting and robbing a vicar. The Rev. Matthew Davison had just got home to his house in Downs Park Road, Clapton when Walter Taylor rushed up and rifled his pockets. The vicar lost a valuable watch and chain and worse, when he set off in pursuit one of Taylor’s associates attacked him from behind knocking him to the ground. Taylor was also charged with a similar theft, that of robbing a young woman named Lucy Millard in Hackney. Taylor (and two others) eventually faced a jury at Old Bailey in October 1889, where they were convicted and sent to prison for between 12 and 18 months.

At the West London Police Court violence was the subject of the newspaper report that day but not stranger violence (as the ‘Ripper’s murders were). James Cook was sent down for four months for for beating his common law wife, Caroline Moore. Cook had fractured his partner’s ribs by jumping on them but Caroline was still very reluctant to bring charges.

Over at Bow Street, the senior police court, four men were brought up to answer a charge of conspiracy to burgle the premises of the Railway Press Company. The men were tracked down by undercover detectives to a house in White Hart Street. The four were all in their twenties but a young girl of 16 was found to be living with them. This may have been what prompted the newspaper editor to choose this story from amongst all the others at Bow Street that day. Rose Harris said she ‘had neither money nor any friends’, and had lived in the sam room as the thieves for three weeks. She was, therefore, a possible witness, and  while the men were remanded in custody Rose was taken to the St Giles Mission to be cared for.

Finally there was a case from the Thames Police Court, one of two (with Worship Street) that covered the East End, the area that has since become synonymous with Jack the Ripper. Thomas Booth, a beer and wine retailer, was prosecuted for selling adulterated beer. Booth’s premises had been inspected by an officer from the Inland Revenue and his beer tested. On two occasions his beer was found to contain too much water. Booth tried to argue that his pipers were faulty and this had led to ‘washings’ (the beer slops) ending up back in his barrels. Mr Kennedy, the sitting magistrates, accepted his excuse in part but not in full and fined him 5s plus 10s costs. Watering down beer was inexcusable.

So a casual reading of the police court news from a year after the most notorious murder series in British history had unfolded would perhaps leave us to think that London carried on as normal. The everyday crimes and misdemeanours continued to occupy the columns of the London press and here was to be found ‘all sorts and conditions of men’ (and women).

The only footnote to this was a letter to the editor of the Standard, published in full at the end of the court reports section. It was from a R. C. Bedford, Bishop Suffragan* for East London. It was a long letter and concerned the ‘East End Poor’. He noted that the levels of poverty in the area were higher than usual by the docks, although had improved from the period of the Great Dock Strike earlier in the year. He was particularly concerned for the plight of the casual labourer in the wake of the strike, because while the workers had secured better pay (the ‘dockers’ tanner’) and some security of employment, those reliant on turning up for the ‘call’ in the early morning probably faced a more unpredictable future.

Bishop Bedford was asking for charitable help to be distributed through his church, and not indiscriminately.  However, he clearly believed that charity was not the solution, the real way to help the poor was to provide them with proper work not ‘doles and shelters’. The letter serves to remind us that late nineteenth-century Britain was a desperate place to live if you were poor and that in the 1880s unemployment was rife, and few areas were as badly affected as the East End. It is no coincidence in my mind that the editor of The Standard choose to position the bishop’s letter on the same page as the Police Court news. Here it would seen by the working and middle classes that read these reports (albeit for slightly different reasons). But it also serves to draw a link between crime, environment and poverty; something that was increasingly recognised in the later 1800s.

[from The Standard, Saturday, September 28, 1889]

*’A suffragan bishop is a bishop subordinate to a metropolitan bishop or diocesan bishop. They may be assigned to an area which does not have a cathedral of its own’ (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suffragan_bishop#Anglican_Communion)

Mr Tyrwhitt sends a message

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I am coming to recognise the names of several of the men that served as Police Court magistrates in the second half of the nineteenth century. Some, like Mr Lushington at Thames seemed to have little time for wife beaters or drunks, while others reveal a tender side to their nature when presented with cases of genuine need and despair.

Magistrates had considerable discretion in determining what to do with those brought before them; a ‘rule book’ existed (they might use Richard Burn’s Justice of the Peace and Parish Officer, or Oke’s Magisterial) but within the penalties available for a variety of offences there was considerable room for manoeuvre. Indeed while the prosecutor had the ultimate choice of bringing a case in the first place, the magistrate chose then whether to dismiss a charge, convict summarily, or send the prisoner up to a jury court (where they might expect a much more serious form of punishment).

Over at Marlborough Street, one of the busier police courts in London, Mr Tyrwhitt presided in the late 1860s. In late September 1867 two cases were reported at his court which suggest that he had a low tolerance level for nuisance and repeat offenders.

First up was Alice Smith, a ‘young woman’ who refused to give her address in court. I doubt this endeared her to the justice who may well have assumed she had something to hide or was a ‘down and out’. Alice had been caught picking flowers from a bed near the Serpentine in Hyde Park. PC William Cowell had seen the woman take the flowers but as soon as she saw him she hurriedly dropped them. Alice pleaded with the constable not to take her in and charge her, ‘offering to give him whatever he liked to let her go’.

She was probably intending to sell them for the few pennies she might get. It was a petty offence, hardly a serious crime but the magistrate was in an unforgiving mood. He told Alice that she was:

‘one of those mischievous persons that must be restrained. The business of that court was much increased by people that did mischief in the park’.

He fined her 5s or four days imprisonment and let it be known that in future he would hand down a fine of 40s (a significant amount in 1867) to anyone caught ‘plucking flowers’ belonging to the Board of Works.

Having dealt with such a serious theft of the capital’s flora Tyrwhitt was presented with three juvenile felons. George Vial (17), Frederick Williams (15) and James Brougham (14) had been seen loitering around Piccadilly by a plain clothes detective. Phillip Shrives, of C Division Metropolitan Police, said he had been watching the lads follow railway vans (‘evidently for the purpose of robbing them’) and arrested them.

With no other evidence presented against them another justice might have warned them or considered sending them to a reformatory school, but not Mr Tyrwhitt; he sent them all to prison for three months at hard labour.

And so, in this way, were ‘criminal careers’ created.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, September 25, 1867]

p.s I would add that despite what must come across as a rather liberal attitude towards these nineteenth-century offenders I do think we should recognise that for many of those caught up in the justice system, terrible as it could be in the 1800s, a considerable proportion of them had committed an offence that had left behind a victim or victims. On Sunday (yesterday that is) my brother-in-law and sister-in-law’s home was broken into in the early hours while they were away at a family gathering in Manchester.

The thieves broke in through the back patio doors, made a considerable mess as they ransacked all the upstairs room, and stole a small amount of personal and irreplaceable jewellery. The burglary meant I spent half the day waiting for the police and the glass replacement man but it was of course much worse for my in-laws who returned home to find their home violated. Historians of crime need to start to recognise the very real effect of crime on those that were victim to it; as one fellow historian of crime noted to me today:

‘There’s temptation to treat it as colourful history from below with juicy sources and too little recognition that many criminals hurt the poor and vulnerable. Time for the Victim Turn?’