No help (or sympathy) for an old ‘hero’ who lashes out

Adult-Crossing-Sweeper-x350-M-1257

Thomas Cooney was a crossing sweeper on the Bayswater Road. Sweepers were ‘beggars of a sort, demanding alms in return for a useful, almost essential public service’: clearing a path through the mud that covered most of the capital’s streets and paths.Cooney asked for tips from the ladies and gentlemen that preferred not to drag their crinolines or trouser legs through the filth churned up by countless road users. He could probably find no other work since service in the army had left him crippled with two wooden legs. He drew an army pension of 10s 6a week but that wouldn’t have gone very far in 1859.

Today I doubt that even Esther McVey or Ian Duncan Smith would expect Thomas to work for a living but the Victorian state was much less considerate in giving benefits to those that so obviously needed them. As a result the man with (literally) no legs to stand on was forced to do exactly that, day after day, in all weathers.

Moreover, the local youth had identified him as a figure of fun, worthy of their abuse. Most days a pack of them would taunt him, fling stones and mud at him, and occasionally be brave enough to get close enough to prod him and try to knock him over. What larks!

Cooney retaliated by shouting at them, waving his sticks, throwing stones back, and threatening to ‘do for them’. One day in April 1859 the boys were teasing him and he was chucking stones back when a little girl, just 11 years of age was passing on her way home from school. As she passed Cooney he wacked her with his stick, hitting her in the face, and she ran off home in tears.

Her father was a respectable tradesman living in Blandford Street, just off Manchester Square (where the Wallace Collection is housed today). Mr Woolter was so outraged by the attack on his daughter Anne that he set out at once to confront the crossing sweep. He gave him a piece of his mind but Cooney was far from repentant, instead of an apology all Woolter got was a punch in the mouth. The blow dislodged a tooth and unsettled the rest. Cooney was arrested and produced before Mr Broughton at Marylebone Police court.

The magistrate heard that Cooney had a long history of hitting out at anyone – youths, members of the public, and the police – that encountered him. He was described as a ‘brutal fellow’ and ‘a most desperate character’. I’m sure he was but perhaps he had his reasons. PC Reed (60D) said Cooney had been drinking and had resisted arrest. All Cooney offered by way of a defense was the unceasing abuse he’d received from the boys.

That didn’t wash with Mr Broughton. A respectable citizen and his little girl had been assaulted and the latter was fortunate not to have ‘been killed on the spot’ he declared. The justice requested a certificate from the surgeon that had treated Anne so he could assess the severity of her injuries before passing judgment on Cooney. In the meantime the sweeper was sent to the nearest house of correction to await his fate.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, April 20, 1859]

1 Lee Jackson, Dirty Old London: The Victorian Fight Against Filth, (Yale University Press, 2014), pp.32-3

Drew Gray is the joint author of Jack and the Thames Torso Murders, published by Amberley Books in June 2019. Details available here

A misguided printer arms himself against the ‘roughs’

wild-boys-fight

Well, today is exciting! The first editorial queries for my new book have arrived. Jack and the Thames Torso Murders  is due to be published by Amberley in the summer and this morning the copyeditors questions have landed in my inbox for me and my co-author to deal with. The book offers up a new suspect in the Ripper murder case and packs in plenty of social history at the same time. I’ll keep you posted with its progress.

Given that the Whitechapel murders took place in the summer of 1888 let us now go back to February of that year and see what was happening in the Police courts.

At Clerkenwell George Dickson, a 19 year-old printer was convicted of firing  pistol in Castle Street, Hackney on the previous Saturday night. Dickson was lame in one leg and so probably walked with a limp. Sadly this attracted the unwanted attention of the local youth who teased and taunted him as he made his way along the streets.

Like many areas of London in the late 1880s ‘gangs’ of youths walked the streets, acting aggressively towards passers-by, pushing and shoving, and using crude language.  George was just one of their targets and had taken to arming himself against the threat he felt they posed. He was overreacting, the magistrate at Clerkenwell insisted, who declared that the ‘practice of carrying loaded revolvers was a very dangerous one’, and something parliament should act against.

Clearly in 1888 it wasn’t against the law to carry a gun in England (although you did need a license), but it was an offence to fire one. In court Dickson was contrite and because he agreed to surrender his pistol to the police the justice (Mr Bennett) simply bound him over in the sum of £10 against any future misconduct, and let him go.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, February 12, 1888]

Making explosives at home is a very bad idea

014EVA000000000U04228000[SVC1]

It is that time of the year again. The period when all the supermarkets stock fireworks for Guy Fawkes and Diwali. Last Wednesday I was walking out of Finsbury Park station on my way to the football when there was a loud bang, the sound of crackers going off, and screams of fear and delight. Suddenly a young man in a hoodie came charging away from the noise followed soon after by three other excited teenagers.

He had thrown a parcel of fireworks into the street by the traffic lights, causing chaos and amusing himself and his friends. Its hardly the worst crime in the world but perhaps, in these dark days of urban terrorism, it wasn’t the most sensible thing to do.

Kids eh?

Such irresponsibility isn’t restricted to children or young adults of course and in 1888 it landed William Seal in court. Seal – who was described as ‘a cripple’ (meaning he was disabled in some way) – was hailed before Mr Bros at Dalston Police court for manufacturing fireworks in a  private house.

He was prosecuted under the Explosives Act (1875) and the case was brought by James Gibbons of the Metropolitan Board of Works and their solicitor, Mr Roberts. The court heard that Seal lived in the upstairs room of a house in Dunster Square, Hackney. The square was home to several houses, each of four rooms, and formed a cul de sac. It was a densely populated area and so very many families lived nearby to where Seal made his pyrotechnics.

Seal lived in a room that was just 9 feet by 7, not much different, in fact, than a standard cell in a Victorian prison. The room was heated by an open fire which was unprotected by any screen or grate, and the table on which Gibbons found Seal’s explosives being made was less than 4 feet away. The table very close to the open fire but the bed was even closer, and Seal stored fireworks under this as well.

The risk of a catastrophic accident, he figured, was very high indeed.

Seal’s landlady was called to give evidence and she testified that she believed he was a toy maker, she never knew he made fireworks and was shocked by the news. She lived downstairs and was ‘very indigent when she discovered the peril in which she and her four children had been placed’.

Mr Bros ordered that all Seal’s stock and manufacturing equipment be seized and brushed aside the defendant’s complaints that it would take away his meagre livelihood. He only made a shilling day from selling fireworks which was barely ‘enough to keep himself out of the workhouse’.

The magistrate was insistent and told the man that by breaking the terms of the act he had rendered himself liable to a fine of £100 a day, and endangered the lives of dozens of people nearby. He fined him £5 or a month’s imprisonment. Shaking his head Seal sloped away from the dock, ‘its the workhouse for me then’, he declared.

[from London Evening Standard, Monday, 5 November 1888]

One of the waifs and strays that Barnardo’s couldn’t help

barnardo2

There were very many prosecutions for begging heard at the Victorian Police courts. Begging was an offence that fell under laws that had been amended over the centuries but had been in place in some form since at least the Tudor period. In the nineteenth century you weren’t supposed to beg, you were supposed to present yourself at the workhouse gates if you really had no means of supporting yourself, and take the consequences.

The consequences (as contemporary writers like Jack London or George Sims discovered) were grim. On admittance to the workhouse causal ward the newcomer would be stripped and washed in cold water. His  possessions would be bundled up and taken away, he was given a token with a number on for safe keeping. It was assumed that if a pauper kept anything of value (even his clothes) they would be stolen by his companions.   A member of staff (or fellow inmate) would dole out a lump of hard bread and the new arrival would be shown to the ‘shed’ – a cold unlit room where the poor slept. Bedding was minimal and the mattress token; London found that his was blood stained for the warden turned it over.

If they managed to sleep at all it was either a miracle or a result of being so exhausted they could do little else. In the morning they were rudely awakened and their clothes etc were returned. Now they were led out into the yard to be fed and to pay for their keep. Food was basic: a swill that vaguely resembled oatmeal porridge. Work was backbreaking and usually involved smashing up rocks. Paupers were treated much like criminals and the stain attached to poverty followed them around for life.

No wonder then that people would rather beg, or even turn to crime. A little boy known only by his surname (‘Hall’) had been arrested by the police in central London. He was presented at Marlborough Street Police court to face Mr Mansfield. The magistrate heard that the boy had turned to begging after his father had taken him out of a Barnardo’s Home. Mr Hall inferred that he would rather have the lad with him than in one of the charity’s institutions but we are not told why.

However Mr Mansfield seemed to suggest that this was the fault of Barnardo and other similar ‘public institutions’ that had closed ‘their doors to those [children] who lame or in ill-health’. The consequence of this policy was that they had to return to their homes ‘or their haunts of vice, to be more neglected and cruelly ill-treated than before’.

He thought it ‘monstrous that those little waifs and starts should be cast aside in that matter’. Having said his piece he discharged little Hall into the care of his father.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, October 20, 1886]

A man with (literally) no legs to stand on gets little sympathy from the ‘beak’.

b8cd7c0055edc89a212926bc6358bf39

Richard Wright had lost both his legs. How, is not made clear but he may have lost them in an accident, war or through disease. Wright was also elderly and struggled about the East End on two sticks. His only remedy for the pain and ill humour his disability and advanced age brought him was alcohol. However when he drank he became drunk and disorderly and sometimes quite violent, which brought him no end of abuse and considerable trouble with the law.

He had been court on a number of occasions, once for smashing the windows of a doctor’s shop with his walking supports.

Wright had become the butt of local jokes and pranks, especially those of the street children of East London. A policeman reported that on one occasion he’d come across Wright, back to the wall, fending off 300-400 youths swinging his sticks towards them as they teased and berated him.

In August 1867 he was drunk and facing down another group of children who were ‘shouting, jeering, and laughing at him’. The group had followed him as he staggered his way through Stratford, Bromley and Bow and he’d had enough of them. As he flourished his sticks again, one struck a lad on the head, tearing his cap and drawing blood. The boys scarpered as the police arrived and arrested the old man.

In front of Mr Benson at Thames Police Wright was unrepentant. Some of the boys had pelted him with mud and pulled him around, so he was provoked. He told the magistrate that the boys ‘would never let him alone’.

Because you get drunk and make a fool of yourself’, the beak told him.

Mr Benson had little or no sympathy with the old man and told him he was:

a dangerous, ill-conducted man, and that if did not get drunk, and make a nuisance of himself he would be an object of pity, not of violence’.

He then sentenced him to three days in prison for the assault on one of his tormentors. Wright grumbled a response:

What am I to do, your Worship, when I come out of prison? The boys won’t leave me alone’.

Keep sober’, was the justice’s response, ‘and the boys will not molest you’.

‘Fat chance’ Wight might have replied, but he wisely kept his mouth shut and shuffled off to the cells. I can imagine this happening today but I would have expected to find the lads in the dock not an old man with no legs to stand on.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, August 27, 1867]

‘You must have a go at the treadmill’ a regular visitor to the courts is told.

cropped_MI_Punch_height_of_impudence_Irishman_to_John_bull

Beggars and vagrants were an endemic problem for the police and magistrates of nineteenth-century London. The Vagrancy Act (1824) empowered the New Police to sweep anyone begging from the streets and the Poor Law allowed for the repatriation of the unentitled back to their place of last settlement. But once arrested what could be done with ‘sturdy beggars’ like Thomas Costello? A spell in prison held little fear for them and if they had lived and worked in a town for a year at least then they could claim it was their home and be hard to get rid of.

This was the Lord Mayor’s problem as he peered down at Costello standing in the dock at Mansion House Police court in August 1837. A policeman had brought the Irishman in because he’d been upsetting sensibilities by begging ‘in a most importune style’ the court was told.

His way was to fix himself shivering and shaking against the wall, and his deplorable appearance, for he could make is very eyes almost start out of his head, soon brought customers to him’.

The officer had tried to get him to leave the city’s boundaries but Costello refused, so he took him into custody.

He wasn’t an unfamiliar sight in the police courts and the Lord Mayor was sure he recognized him. ‘We have often told you to leave the city’ he grumbled, ‘why do you persevere in annoying us?’

‘Ah, please your honour’, came the reply, ‘I’m all over pains and aches; I’m afraid I’ll never get well’.

‘You are sick with idleness’, the Lord Mayor quipped, seeing what appeared to be a strong man in the dock before him. Thomas claimed to be suffering from a bad fall from a horse, but the magistrate clearly didn’t believe him. Nor did he buy the man’s complaint that his eyesight was failing and the policeman agreed saying that:

‘there was not a beggar in the city – able and active as they were – who had better use of his eyes and hands than the defendant, who could see an officer at any distance, and get out of sight in a twinkling’.

‘Oh yes they ought to put me up as a tellygraph [sic]’ joked the prisoner, beginning to enjoy his moment in the spotlight perhaps. ‘You’d swear that I could read the newspaper from this to Portsmouth in a fog’!

Keen to determine whether Costello had been up before the bench recently (and so perhaps worthy of a more serious penalty) the Lord Mayor asked him. The beggar said he’d not been in trouble for three years which caused the police officer to comment that it couldn’t be less than six months. Guessing that he’d been in and out of gaols all over the place and that they’d proved to be no deterrent the Lord Mayor made one last effort to persuade Costello to leave London, or at least the city itself.

Oh! dear no; I won’t disgrace myself by going out of your jurisdiction’ Costello answered, no doubt with a smile, ‘I’ve got no parents, God help me, but yourself and the likes of you’.

London was his home and he wasn’t going to leave it for anyone.

And for the next couple of months he definitely wasn’t going anywhere. ‘You must have a go at the treadmill’ the justice told him.

‘I know where the mill is precious well’, Costello responded, ‘It ain’t out of the city, is it, my lord?’ And off to Bridewell he went, where he’d be fed and watered at the ratepayers’ expense but at least he wouldn’t be bothering the good citizens of London for a while.

[from The Morning Chronicle , Friday, August 11, 1837]

Little sympathy for an old sea dog who served his country

Rare original image showing a black Greenwich Pensioner in Greenwich Hospital uniform

The accusation of forgery that was  levelled against Dixon Dawson at the Mansion House Police court in 1850 was serious and complex, and it reveals a story of bravery, service and a fall from grace that might well be common to thousands of veterans in mid nineteenth-century Britain.

The long wars with Revolutionary and then Napoleonic France had raged from 1790 to 1815 with only small breaks in-between. Before then England had been embroiled in war with its former colony in America from 1776-1787. Throughout that time the Royal Navy had played a pivotal role in operations; helping to move troops, block enemy ports, and ultimately preventing Napoleon’s Grand Armée from invading in 1805.

Following The emperor Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in June 1815 very many soldiers and sailors were returned to civilian life as Britain did not keep a large standing army in the early 1800s. Many of these were wounded, physically or psychologically (although there was little understanding of this at the time). Some of the old soldiers would have found a bed at the Chelsea Hospital while the former ‘tars’ could apply to be helped at Greenwich.

Dixon Dawson ended up at Greenwich where he lived for a while after working as a domestic servant for several years after he left the Navy. Dawson seems to have wanted to start a business, perhaps to provide security for himself and his daughter (we presume his wife was dead, as she is not mentioned), but lacked the funds. He then set upon a course that would have dire consequences because at some point he managed to forge a series of cheques in the name of his former master’s daughter in an attempt to defraud them of upwards of £300.

Dawson was caught and committed by the sitting magistrate at Mansion House (Alderman Gibbs) to take his trial at the Old Bailey in August 1850.

From the trial record it seems likely that Dawson was guilty. He’d tried to gain money he wasn’t entitled to and had involved others in his criminal actions. He’d abused the trust of his master and the kindness of the staff at Greenwich. Not surprisingly then he was found guilty.

But no one seems to have disputed Dawson’s back story, and several people spoke up for him and made it plain that he had never been a problem to society before. He had no previous criminal convictions, nor was he a drunk. There were occasions in the hospital when his behaviour was somewhat erratic and it seems likely that Dawson, at 71, was suffering both the effects of his increasing age and of the wounds he had sustained in his naval career.

Dawson had been wounded several times and once in the head. In his own statement to the court he explained that he’d been wounded at Cape Legat in 1803 and this:

caused me to be in a deranged state of mind now I have advanced in years, and at times to be very troublesome‘.

If his story is true (and no one seemed to doubt at the time, and some confirmed it) Dawson saw service from 1790 to the end of the wars in 1815. He served with Nelson and was wounded on the deck of HMS Victory fighting close to the Admiral. He fought for his country in Italy, the Caribbean, Africa and Europe and should have been able to look forward to a peaceful retirement. Sadly of course, old servicemen had to work in the 1800s and there was little in the way of support for most of them. Many ended up as beggars, vagrants, or worse, as Britain certainly wasn’t a ‘home fit for heroes’ in the early Victorian period.

Dixon Dawson offered a heartfelt plea for mercy to the court, citing his service history and the wounds he sustained.

‘My Lord, I am innocent of the crime laid to my charge; I have only been six weeks discharged from the strong-room in the Infirmary of Greenwich Hospital, which can be proved by Sir John Liddell, the doctor of Greenwich Hospital; I trust in God, my Lord, you and my prosecutors will show me mercy, and send me down to Greenwich, and they will keep me confined at the hospital; I have an only daughter; I am afraid it will break her heart if I am sent to prison; I hope, my Lord, you will show me mercy for God’s sake, as we all expect mercy from God; I can assure you I know not what I have done, or what has been done.—Your humble petitioner, Dixon Dawson.’

Perhaps he was a good con man but I suspect his mind was affected by the years of service, the wounds and old age. He was probably guilty and that is what the jury decided but I think the state should have helped him and certainly not allowed him to be punished for what he’d tried to do.

There was little room for sympathy in the early Victorian justice system however. This story doesn’t really have a happy ending. The jury did express their sympathy for Dixon and the judge took this into consideration. Instead of sending him to prison he ordered him to transported to Australia for ten years. This old sailor would have to make one last journey on a wooden ship, one that would take him halfway around the world and separate him from his daughter and his friends for ever.

I’m not sure he ever made it to Australia. The Digital Panopticon has no record of him arriving there, nor of him being in prison after the trial. Perhaps there was a happy outcome after all but I doubt it. I rather fear that the stress and anxiety caused by his confinement and trial was the last straw for this old salt.

[from Reynolds’s Weekly News, Sunday, August 4, 1850]