A thief is nabbed at the Tower and a cross-dresser is arrested for dancing: all in a day’s work for Mr Lushington

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Visitors to the Victorian Tower of London Armouries

Two contrasting cases from the Thames Police court today, one of who courts that served the East End and the river from the Tower of London. The first concerned the Tower itself, or rather the collection of arms and armour it displayed there.

The Tower Armouries was always one of my favourite places to visit when I went to the Tower as a boy. Housed in the White Tower (the original Norman keep) the collection of edged weapons, guns and suits and armour fascinated me just as it has so many other visitors before and since. Now it has been removed from the Tower and sent to the north of England to a purpose built museum in Leeds. It’s great there too, but not quite the same.

John Passmore was only a young man when he visited the Tower in 1877. He worked as a labourer and had gone to see the armouries with some mates. As he was coming out he noticed some horse pistols hanging on hooks, easy to reach and not behind bars. Without really knowing why he snatched one and hid it under his jacket.

Several such pistols had gone missing in recent weeks and David Deedy, one of the armories’ attendants, was keeping his eyes peeled for further depredations. Something about John caught his eye, was that a bulge under his jacket, or a smudge of dirt on his lapels? He moved forward, stopped the young man and searched him. John pleased with him not to have him arrested but, given the recent thefts, Deedy was understandably keen to prosecute. John Passmore apologized for his momentary act of recklessness and paid for it with seven days imprisonment at hard labour.

The other reported case that Mr Lushington (who known to be harsh) dealt with that day was distinctly different. John Bumberg was a foreign sailor (his precise nationality was not stated, he was just ‘foreign’) and he was in court for causing a disturbance.

PC George Carpenter (102H) told Mr Lushington that he had been on duty in St George’s Street when he’d heard what sounded like a large crowd up ahead. Hurrying along he discovered that there were about 200 boys and girls gathered around a dancing figure, who was being accompanied by a barrel organ. The dancer was dressed in woman’s clothing but was quite clearly a man. PC Carpenter approached and questioned him, established he was sober (if a little ‘excited’) and then arrested him.

Causing a nuisance and obstructing the streets were both misdemeanors so Carpenter was within his rights but it seems a fairly unnecessary action to take. I think that Mr Lushington   might have agreed because on this occasion he was fairly lenient. Given that Bumberg had been locked up all night he simply told him he had acted ‘foolishly’ and ‘advised him to behave more decently in the future’ before letting him go. The man left the dock carrying ‘a bundle of female wearing apparel in his arms’.

Was John Bumberg a frustrated female impersonator who wanted to be on the stage like the starts of the musical halls?  Was he perhaps a transvestite or cross-dresser? Whatever he was and whatever his motivation for entertaining the children of the East End that night I don’t believe he was doing anybody any harm and I think H Division’s finest might have found more suitable targets for their attention.

In 1881 George Carpenter was still in the force and on 14 May that year he brought Catherine Scannel into the Thames court charged with being drunk and disorderly. She was 46, quite possibly a streetwalker and Mr Lushington sent her to prison for 7 days, mostly likely because she gave the policeman some well-aimed verbal abuse. A week later he was back with another woman, Julia Hayes, who was charged with fighting. This time the magistrate let her off with a warning. PC Carpenter brought in a couple more drunks that May, this was after all, much of the traffic of the police courts, most of which the papers didn’t bother recording. We only of this because a few archival records survive.

[from The Standard, Monday, June 18, 1877]

H Division was, of course, the main police district tasked with catching the Whitechapel murder 11 years after these two defendants appeared before Lushington at Thames.  Drew’s new book (co-authored with Andy Wise) is published by Amberley Books this week. It is a new study of the Whitechapel murders of 1888 which offers up a new suspect, links the ‘Jack the Ripper’ killings to the unsolved ‘Thames Torso’ crimes, and provides the reader with important contextual history of Victorian London. The book is available to order on Amazon here:

A woman who wanted to see the world through a man’s eyes

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Following yesterday’s story about a German man arrested for cross-dressing at King’s Cross, today’s story is of a woman who preferred to live as a man. While the German performer was perhaps simply a female impersonator, the subject of today’s blog appears to be much closer to the modern transgender community. Her story clearly excited those that heard it in 1868 and the editor of The Illustrated Police News gave it plenty of space.

One Saturday night in late March PC Bonner (35H) was walking his beat along Cable Street in the East End when he heard a woman singing. What he saw was a man however, and he approached ‘him’. When he was close enough, and allowing for the fact that it was dark, PC Bonner was able to discern that the singer was female even though she was dressed in a man’s clothes.

He arrested her, not for ‘assuming male attire’ but for begging, and took her back to the police station. On the Monday following she was produced at the Thames Police Court in front of the magistrate, Mr Benson.

Mary Walker was a 38 year-old woman with quite a story to tell. She had already been prosecuted several times and so was a familiar face at the police courts of the capital where she was known as the ‘female barman’. She had been to prison for robbing her master (a pub landlord) and presumably had struggled to find work since.

Using the names John Walker and John Thum she had sailed on a Cunard liner as a stoker and worked as a porter on the Great Western Railways, before on each occasion her sex was discovered and she was dismissed. Mary had once even proposed marriage to another woman. Mary (or John) was not living in a society that was prepared to accept her for what she was or what wanted to be. Historians have demonstrated that there was nothing new in what Mary (or countless men and women) was doing in the Victorian period; ‘people had been crossdressing, and getting arrested for it, for many, many, many centuries’ Jeanne de Montbaston tell us.

Gender had become more clearly defined in the Victorian period so while the pervious century had seen the exploits of the female pirates Anne Bonney and Mary Read the prevailing ideology of ‘separate spheres’ supposedly attempted to keep women as tightly constrained by societal norms as their were by their corsets.

Clearly for Mary Walker the laces were drawn far too tight.

She had been born in Bedfordshire, a largely rural county where any attempt at ‘being different’ would have attracted attention. At some point she chose to leave and pursue an alliterative life.

She told Mr Benson that it was then that she ‘indulged the foolish freak of changing her clothes. The desire to act the part of a man and to adopt the garb and condition of the sterner sex grew into a passion’. It was then she went to sea but her ‘sex was discovered by her shipmates’.

The magistrate asked her why she had ‘degraded her sex’ in this way? Why not simply take a position on a ship suited to women? Mary said that it was not possible, but in reality I suspect it was simply not what she wanted. Mary wanted the freedom that came with a  male persona, the freedom, as she put it, to fulfil her ‘desire of seeing foreign lands’.

Not surprisingly the magistrate called for medical expertise and Inspector Holloway of H Division said a surgeon had declared that she was ‘very much out of health’. Mary had also been in Elizabeth Fry’s Refuge at Hackney, and she didn’t want to be sent back there, because the conditions were too bleak. I rather suspect also that she would have found the regime too restrictive and the attempts of the matrons to enforce femininity claustrophobic.

The magistrate was clearly conflicted; he had little sympathy for her actions but she hadn’t committed a serious crime either. Her choice of a  lifestyle had, he stated, been too hard for the frailties of a woman and had left her in  a ‘lamentable condition’. He sent her to the House of Detention for a week, where he trusted she would be properly looked after.

The only place where women could safely assume the identity of a man was the stage and women like Vesta Tilley (pictured above) made a career out of it. Tilley appeared most famously as ‘Burlington Bertie’ as she trod the boards in the popular musical halls. This, of course, was a temporary reversal of gender identities and so allowed the Victorian and Edwardians to poke fun at each other gently in safety. That tradition continued through the 20th and 21st centuries with performers like Dick Emery and, more recently, David Walliams. Anyone, like Mary Walker, who actually wished to redefine her own gender was threatening.

We shouldn’t be too surprised at this though, even in the ‘enlightened’ world of 2017 society remains fairly uncomfortable about those that wish to adopt a gender they find more comfortable and natural than the one they were born into.

[from The Illustrated Police News etc, Saturday, April 4, 1868]

Cross-dressing in late Victorian London draws the wrong sort of attention in King’s Cross

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Where yesterday’s post (on a tragedy averted) reveals the human interest nature of the reporting of the Police Courts, today’s has much more to do with an editor’s decision to find something that amused his readership.

At half past three in the morning of the Tuesday 2 April 1895 PC Day (262E) heard shouts of ‘police!’ on the Euston Road and he hurried towards the entrance to the Great Northern Terminal at King’s Cross.

There he found what appeared to be a man and woman grappling together. As he tried to intervene he soon became aware that the ‘woman’ was no woman at all, but a man in female costume. Regardless of who had started the fight in the first place or indeed as to whether an assault had taken place, PC Day arrested the ‘woman’ and let the other assailant go.

When he had successfully removed him to the Police station Day discovered that his prisoner was indeed a man, a German by the name of Otto Schmitt. Still dressed as  woman he was presented to the magistrate at Clerkenwell Police Court on the next morning.

The newspaper reporter described the man in the dock in detail:

Schmitt wore a black skirt and bodice of the same colour, with velvet sleeves, black fur cape, and a small black bonnet and figured veil. His wig was of a rich golden colour, and hung in curls down his back. He carried in his hands a pair of dull red cotton gloves‘.

An interpreter was fetched to court and , through him, Schmitt explained that he was ‘character vocalist’ and had been employed by the Harmony Club in Fitzroy Square. According to one author the club was a well-known haunt of Germans in London in the 1890s and up to the outbreak of war in 1914.*

Schmitt said after he had left the club and was making his way home to an address in Pentonville the other man had attacked him. It is quite possible that he was mistaken for a street walker given the time of the night, for no ‘respectable’ woman would have been walking the streets at 3 in the morning alone.

The Clerkenwell magistrate decided to look into Schmitt’s claims that he has a valid reason for dressing up in women’s clothes, and remanded him in custody.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, April 03, 1895]

*  Panikos Panayi,  Enemy in our midst: Germans in Britain during the First World War, (Bloomsbury, 1991),