A case mistaken feline identity


Alfred Mackness was insistent that Robert Couldry had stolen his prize-winning show cat. So convinced was he that he took out a summons to bring the other man to court at Lambeth to answer his charge.

The case was heard before a Police Court magistrate and Mackness attempted to prove that Couldry had somehow obtained the cat illegally after it had won a 25s  prize and had been ‘highly commended’ at a show at Birmingham.

He said he’d seen the cat, a striking white female with distinctive blue eyes, at cat shows at Alexandra Palace and Crystal Palace and had challenged Couldry about it.  Couldry denied any wrongdoing and insisted by turn that the cat – who he called (ironically perhaps) ‘Charcoal’ – was and had always been his.

The court then witnessed the curious spectacle of a number of white cats being brought before the bench for inspection. Three cats were taken out of baskets and examined by Mackness but none could he identify as his own. C

ouldry swore on oath that the cat he had exhibited at the shows in question were his property and, without any clear evidence to the contrary, the justice agreed.

The summons was dismissed and poor Alfred went home empty handed.

[from The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, November 25, 1876]

Upper-class rough stuff at the Aquarium


The Royal Aquarium & Winter Garden, Westminster

The 1890s were infamous for the creation of the ‘hooligan’ menace. The papers reported the antisocial behaviour of working class boys and young men, and their fights with rival gangs across the capital. These gangs of youths came from the poorer areas of London, like Lambeth (where Clarence Rook’s character Alf hailed from) or from Whitechapel or the rougher bits of Marylebone.

While they were dubbed ‘hooligans’ in London in the 1890s these sorts of youth gangs were not a new phenomena; there had been an ongoing public concern about ‘roughs’ since the 1870s if not earlier. In Liverpool ‘cornermen’ terrorised passers-by, in Salford ‘scuttlers’ had running fights in the streets. In 2015 I published an article about a murder at the gates of Regent’s Park, which arose out of a feud between two groups of ‘lads’ that claimed territorial ‘rights’ along the  Marylebone Road.

What marked out most of the public furore and moral panic about anti-social youth in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century however, was that it was entirely focused on young working-class men. The behaviour of the elites was rarely considered to be a concern, at least not a concern that reached the pages of the London and national  press.

So this story, published in Lloyd’s Weekly, gives us an interesting and unusual example of balance. Lloyd’s  was a broadly Liberal paper by 1890 although it did have more radical political roots, if not the radical beliefs of its early rival Reynold’s. It was a paper for the masses, not for the upper classes or well-to-do however, and these might help explain why it took this opportunity to point out the bad behaviour of those nearer the top of the social ladder.

The court reporter at Westminster Police Court chose, as his story for the day, to focus on the case of James Weil and Simon Skockock. Weil was a 23 year-old ‘dealer’ and his colleagues a diamond broker aged 29. Weil lived in St John’s Wood while Skockock resided in Compton Road, Highbury.

Neither were your typical ‘roughs’ or ‘hooligans’. They found themselves before a magistrate however, for causing a disturbance at the Royal Aquarium and acting in a ‘disorderly’ manner.

By 1890 the aquarium had been open for 14 years and was an interesting London attraction. It was built to stage plays and other theatrical productions but also to house art exhibitions, almost as a rival to the Crystal Palace built in Sydenham. As this interesting item from ‘know your London’ describes it was quite a different sort of venue:

The main hall was 340 feet (104 m) long and 160 feet (49 m) wide. It was covered with a roof of glass and iron and decorated with palm trees, fountains, pieces of original sculpture, thirteen large tanks meant to be filled with curious sea creatures and an orchestra capable of accommodating 400 performers. Around the main hall were rooms for eating, smoking, reading and playing chess, as well as an art gallery, a skating rink and a theatre (see Imperial Theatre below). The Aquarium adopted an expensive system of supplying fresh and sea-water from four cisterns, sunk into the foundations. This quickly ran into operating problems. The large tanks for fish were never stocked and they became a standing joke. The directors did display a dead whale in 1877.*

One Saturday evening in  June 1890 up to a dozen young men, including Weil and Skockock, were ‘perambulating the Aquarium’ in an aggressive and drunken manner. According to the report of Police Inspector Bird of A Division, they were seen to be:

‘pushing against people, flourishing walking sticks, and knocking hats off’.

Police and security at and around the venue warned them about their behaviour but were ignored. Finally some of them were ejected and the trouble spilled out into the streets. Some of them started to wander off, as instructed by the police, but Weil refused to nom home quietly. As a result he was arrested and as he was being marched off to Rochester Row Police Station his friends followed boisterously after him.

Skockock was the most vociferous  and when the police got fed up of listening to him he was also charged with being disorderly. The pair thus ended up in court before Mr Shiel the sitting magistrate.

Shiel waived away their attempts to say it was all something about nothing and that they had simply been arguing over the amount of bail that should exposited to gain their mate’s release. Nor was he sympathetic to the suggestion that they were simply ‘larking’ about. They were, he told them, ‘too old for that sort of folly’.

‘It is extraordinary to me’, the magistrate declared, ‘that the amusement and pleasure of other people should be interfered with by well-dressed roughs like you’, before binding them over in surety of £20 each for their good behaviour over the next six months, and asking them to produce others who would stand surety for another £10 a head. A failure to produce either would land them in prison for 14 days.

I doubt that it would have been hard for them to find the sureties or produce evidence that they themselves were ‘good for it’, but it was dent in their reputations. Had they been working-class roughs they might have gained some status amongst their fellows, but then again working class hooligans wouldn’t have been given the option to pay their pay out of gaol time.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, June 8, 1890]


Technology and pornography clash in the summary courts of the capital


Today’s story from the London Police Courts combines two changes in the mid nineteenth century; one technological and the other legal.

In 1851 David Brewster exhibited his stereoscope at the Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace. His stereoscope, invented by an Edinburgh mathematics teacher named Elliot and developed by  Jules Dobosqc, was not the first but it became very popular very quickly. The stereoscope allowed people to view 3D images on a handheld device, and had obvious entertainment and educational possibilities (sound familiar?).


Brewster’s stereoscope

However, as with the still relatively new science of photography, some people soon realised that the stereoscope had other, less high brow or wholesome applications. In short, it opened new avenues for pornography.

The problem of pornography and its capacity to corrupt the morals of the population (especially young minds) was not lost on the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Campbell. While he presided over a trial for the sale of pornographic material Campbell was also involved in a  Lords’ debate on the restrictions of poisons. He recognised parallels between them and condemned pornography as ‘a poison more deadly than prussic acid, strychnine or arsenic’.

He introduced a bill of parliament that became law in 1857 as the Obscene Publications Act, the first of its kind. The sale of offending material was now an offence and powers were given to seize and destroy obscene publications. The offence came under the powers of summary jurisdiction and was therefore dealt with in the Police Courts before a Police magistrate.

Lord Campbell may not have had the stereoscope in mind when he conceived his legalisation but technology and the obscene publications law were soon interwoven at Bow Street Police Court.

In February 1858 Sidney Powell of Chandos Street, Covent Garden appeared at London’s senior Police Court charged with the sale of obscene ‘representations’ in stereoscopic form.

The court report doesn’t detail exactly what these slides contained but Powell was adamant that they weren’t pornographic. He argued that they were intended for ‘medical men, being of an artistic nature’. They were no more explicit, he contended, than the poses adopted by artists models.

He assured his worship that he had plenty of experience of selling images and of the law and he was ‘well known amongst artists, who told him that the representation of a single figure would not be deemed “obscene”.’

Mr Henry, the magistrate, rejected his case out of hand. He had seen the slides. There was, he concluded, ‘a very wide distinction between the representation of a nude in a  graceful attitude, and the coarse disgusting pictures produced in this case’. While he gave Powell leave to appeal his decision he ordered the slides to be destroyed. The unhappy Powell accepted the decision and made his exit from the court.

He was not the only person prosecuted under the term of Lord Campbell’s act that morning. Two men were prosecuted for selling pipe heads which were indecent. One of the sellers, a Mr Bush, complained that the pipes were not covered by the act and had been licensed for sale by Customs House. Henry was having none of it and order the entire stock destroyed.

One wonders why someone would want to own (or smoke from) a pipe with ‘indecent’ images on it, but then again our society uses sexually explicit images of women to sell just about anything so who are we to judge our Victorian ancestors? We might also reflect that the invention of new technology, from the printing press to photography, to moving pictures and the internet, has allowed pornographers to find new and creative ways to exploit a new medium.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, February 18, 1858]

A disaster for Crystal Palace is an opportunity for someone else


In 1851 the Great Exhibition opened at the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park. The glass structure was built to remain (like the Olympic Park at Stratford) as a resource for Londoners long beyond the duration of the exhibition itself, and after 1851 it was moved to South London, to a site at Sydenham. But the Crystal Palace was beset by misfortune; in 1861 it was badly damaged in a storm and in December 1866 part of it burned down in a massive fire.

During the fire in 1866 it seems that many visitors stopped to help those fighting the fire. One of these was the husband of Mary Chant and their lodger. On the afternoon of the 30 December 1866 they had visited the Palace as they were shareholders in the venture.

On hearing that a fire had broken out Mr Chant and their young friend handed their coats to Mary and rushed to assist. Mary was waiting when she heard a rumour some ‘wild animals had been let loose, and becoming much alarmed’ she turned to a ‘respectable-looking’ young man nearby, named Richard Rolls, who she assumed worked for the Palace company.

She asked him to show her to safety in the garden and he agreed. However, it soon became clear he was taking her downstairs, not to the garden at all.

Once they were underground he demanded she give him the coats and a gold watch (belonging to the lodger). When she refused he grabbed her by the throat and strangled her, seizing the items from her. She tried to scream for help but suspected that no one in that ‘dismal and lonely’ place would hear her. He must have thought much the same because now he tried to steal a chain she was wearing.

Realising her peril Mary turned and ran away from him. She found a policeman and reported the incident. From the description she gave Rolls was later arrested and the case came before the magistrate at Lambeth Police Court in early January 1867.

In his defence Rolls claimed he was not the man that had attacked Mrs Chant. Before his arrest he had changed out of the coat he was wearing and had donned a leather work apron. He still had a distinctive hat on however, and Mary was sure it was him.

The coats were found but the watch remained missing. With Rolls protesting his innocence the police asked for him to be remanded while they appealed for witnesses and looked for the watch. The justice remanded him ‘for a few days’.

Given the chaos of the fire and the difficulty of a clear identification I suspect Rolls might either have been innocent as charged or able to evade conviction on the basis of a lack of evidence. He doesn’t appear at the Old Bailey in any case in 1867. There were 8 other persons prosecuted that day for minor thefts or other incidents during the fire at the Crystal Palace, which is useful reminder that some people will always seek to profit from the opportunity presented by disasters.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, January 6, 1867]

A very ‘strange robbery’ on the railway to Crystal Palace


The Crystal Palace, in its new home in Sydenham, Kent

When the London train steamed into Victoria from Sydenham one afternoon in early August 1872 a porter was astonished at the state of one of the first class carriages. The curtains were missing and there was nothing on the bare boards. A well dressed woman descended from the carriage and set off towards the line of waiting hansom cabs. The porter, a Mr Nash, went after her and stopped her before she got into a coach. Nash asked her to return with him to the station office where one of the inspectors, Frederick Bird examined her belongings.

The woman, whose name was Mrs Emily Willows (32), was distracted and seemed unsure of herself. She was carrying an umbrella and a rolled up length of fabric which turned out to be a rug, Inside the rug was a curtain, removed by Emily from the train she had just left. When her umbrella was opened two other curtains were found inside it! In addition Mrs Willows had a great number of rail tickets, all but one of which were stamped for use on that particular day.

Emily was handed over to the authorities, her husband called for and she was then presented at Westminster Police Court. Mr Willows told the magistrate that his wife had recently suffered a ‘paralytic stroke’ and three weeks later she had gone ‘quite out of her mind’. In his opinion she could not be held accountable for her actions, nor could he explain any of them, especially the large collection of tickets.

The justice said she would be remanded for trial for the theft but assured her husband she would be looked after. Mr Willows ‘begged that he might be allowed to take her home’ but the court was insistent she stay locked up. I doubt she ever stood trial for the theft and I wonder whatever became of her afterwards.

Sydenham was home to the Crystal Palace from 1854 following its removal there after the Great Exhibition (1851). It was a big attraction and drew large numbers of people to  south London. This created a mini boom in the area, transforming Sydenham from a small village to a major suburb. Now it is in the borough of Lewisham but in 1872 (indeed until 1889) it was in Kent.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, August 4, 1872]

Pilfering at the Great Exhibition of 1851

In 1851 the Great Exhibition opened at Crystal palace in London. It was the event of its age, a glittering and marvelous demonstration of the Empire’s wealth and reach which drew in visitors from all over Britain, Europe and the wider world. Of course with all those people the exhibition also attracted some less savoury visitors and police detectives were deployed to keep order and watch for thieves.

One of the many visitors was Charles Forn, a Frenchman who was charged at the Marlborough Street Police Court in June of stealing ‘numerous small articles…portions of wood, cotton. Wheat, coal and stone’ from exhibition displays. He had drawn attention to himself and the police were watching him. An officer saw him in the south gallery moving between the exhibits of wheat. He lifted up glass shades and took handfuls of wheat specimens placing them in his pocket.

He then moved on to ‘France’ and helped himself to some handkerchiefs, before entering the American section and taking some ‘Indian corn’ and some samples of cotton and wool. He was challenged by the officer and told them he was a jeweller at the exhibition, and this seemed to be borne out by the red ribbon he had sticking out of his pocket (‘a distinctive mark of the jewellers at the exhibition’). But he then he was seen trying to get rid of the ribbon and the policeman arrested and searched him.

He had ‘half a pint’ of grain on him and two ounces of cotton, and about half that of wool. None of this amounted to anything of value so the police were curious as to his intentions. Forn claimed to be a student and said he took the items as samples for his studies. The magistrate agreed the items were hardly worth the trouble and accepted the man’s motive was unlikely to have been profit. In fact he felt there was no intent to commit felony (or, as he put it, Forn did not take the various articles ‘animo furandi’) and so he could deal with him summarily without the need for jury trial.

I’m not sure this benefitted the French scholar as he sent him to prison for six weeks!

[From Reynolds’s Newspaper , Sunday, June 29, 1851]