A ‘mad cat lady’ is ordered to make the ultimate sacrifice

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We are a nation of pet lovers and one supposes that this has ever been so. But this does not mean that everyone, everywhere, sees pets as a ‘good thing’. Moreover within almost every community I have lived in I can remember at least one ‘mad cat lady’, the sort of person who keeps a number of feline friends for company and is often (albeit gently) mocked for it. The case of Louisa Bragg brings both of these statements together and shows, once again, that the range of a magistrate’s work in the 1800s was quite wide.

In July 1889 Miss Bragg (she was described as an ‘elderly maiden lady’ so we must presume she was still a ‘miss’) was brought before Mr D’Eyncourt at Westminster Police court on a ‘peremptory summons’. The summons was issued by the court because Louisa had failed to comply with a previous ruling regarding her large collection of cats.

She lived at 65 Marsham Street, Westminster, in a house of multiple occupation. The other residents had complained about the old lady and her cats, saying that they were a source of disease and that several of them had died and were decaying in her rooms!

The case was presented by Mr Rogers, who prosecuted on behalf of the vestry, and he brought in the sanitary inspector to support his case. Thomas Dee testified ‘to the filthy conditions of the defendant’s room, where he saw seven cats on the table’. Sergeant Edwards, the court’s warrant officer, also reported on the state of things he’d seen when he served the summons on Miss Bragg.

The poor lady begged for leniency and to be allowed to keep her animals who she said were dear to her. She appeared in court armed with copies of acts of parliaments and attempted to defend herself, saying the law was wrong. The question was, she implored the magistrate, one of whether ‘a happy home should be broken up’.

Mr. D’Eyncourt dismissed this as mere sentiment and suggested she get rid of the cats and take a ‘nice little dog’ instead. Miss Bragg huffed at this suggestion and begged for more time so she could find a bigger room elsewhere. D’Eyncourt was in no mood to sympathize with her however, insisting that unless she cleared out the cats and cleaned up her room she would be levied with a fine of a £5 for refusing to obey the order of his court. Since she had already breached the first order he fined her a sovereign for good measure.

Clearly he was no cat lover and one imagines that Miss Bragg’s fellow tenants were heartily sick of having to share their dwelling with half a dozen or more flea ridden moggies. One only has to travel to southern Europe or to Cyprus to see what a society where stray or semi-feral cats are allowed to roam free looks like. Lovely as they are (and I am most certainly a cat lover) they bring an associated risk of disease if they are not controlled.

However, for Miss Bragg, an elderly lady living on her own and seemingly without any living relatives close by, her cats were her only companions and so while others might dismiss her as the ‘mad cat woman’ they were all the friends she had in the world and to ask her to get rid of them smacks of heartlessness.

[from The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, July 6, 1889]

Drew’s new book (co-authored by Andy Wise) is published by Amberley Books. 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 (including the life of pet food salesman…).

The book is available on Amazon here

The great Clerkenwell stink of 1862: a warning for modern Londoners

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Just occasionally the reports from the Police courts of the Metropolis don’t report a crime – a theft, stabbing, fraud or domestic abuse – or even a tragedy such as an attempted suicide or abandoned baby. Instead the police courts are used as a place where the visitor knows he or she will be able to grab the attention of the reading public if their story is sensational enough to make the newspapers.

This was what happened in February 1862 when a ‘respectably attired man’ presented himself at Clerkenwell Police court and asked the magistrate to help him. He wanted to raise awareness of an issue that affected everyone in London, but the children of the poor in particular.

The man, whose name wasn’t recorded, stated that ‘should any person wonder why the mortality amongst children runs so high at the present time, they have only to take a walk to the church of St Peter, Great Saffron Hill’.

If they carried on towards the rear of St Peter’s – ‘across the ruins of to the arches of Victoria Street’ they would find ‘an issue of sewerage of the most abominable description, not a mere oozing but a bona fide flowing out at the rate of several gallons per minute’.

The effluence had filled the arches around Victoria Street for 100 yards  and created a ‘pool of large dimensions, into which has been thrown dead dogs, cats, fish, etc., till no words can convey an idea of the abomination that exists’.

The pool was next to a school and daily 100 or more school children breathed in the ‘fever-engendering miasma’ from the swamp. Of course in the 1850s and early 60s the Victorians did not yet quite understand how disease was speared but had a belief that airborne particles might spread disease.

The anonymous complainant said the pool had now existed for over a month and nothing was being done about, and it was a disgrace.   The magistrate agreed but merely told him to take up his complaint with the parish. Meanwhile the gaoler told him that fever had broken out in the nearby house of correction. One prisoner, Jemima Smith who was being held for a felony, was too sick to be brought up to court to be charged.

Clearly this was a wider problem but it took the Victorians into the second half of the century to properly address it.  A lot of children and adults died in the meantime.

I think there is an echo here with today’s polluted air in the capital. Plenty of activists have been campaigning about it but it has taken Sadiq Khan’s mayoralty to really address it. This year a new ultra low emission zone comes into place in April with the aim of helping a long-term project to improve air quality. Every year thousands of Londoners die from respiratory problems that can be directly related to pollution. We need to ban traffic from the capital as much as is possible and clean up the underground. If not we are simply dirtying our own backyard in a modern version of the Clerkenwell sewerage pool of 1862.

[from Daily News, Thursday, 6 February, 1862]

The ‘Peculiar People’ and the tragic death of little Alice

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After yesterday’s bank holiday violence and drunken disorder the reports from the London police courts returned to more criminal topics. At Bow Street a fugitive from Cape Town in British South Africa was refused bail on a charge of stealing diamonds and £1300 in cash. while at Mansion House John Thompson was committed to face trial at Old Bailey for several thefts in and around the Inner Temple law chambers. In the end he was convicted of stealing a hat brush and a coat, while seven similar charges were taken into consideration. He was gaoled for nine months.

Over at Lambeth an unusual case unfolded. It had come before the magistrates before but was now to be resolved the paper reported. It concerned the death of a child and the suggestion of negligence on behalf of the parents.

Robert Cousins, a 27 year-old man living in Orient Street, West Square, Lambeth was presented before Mr Chance and charged with the manslaughter of Alice Maria Cousins, his 11 month old daughter. Dr Price from Guy’s Hospital said that his post mortem examination revealed that baby Alice had died from tuberculosis and pneumonia. The magistrate quizzed him as to whether the child might have lived had the father summoned a doctor, which he clearly hadn’t. She may have, the doctor confirmed, but it was far from certain.

Why hadn’t Cousins sought medical help? Was he too poor or was there another reason?

This became apparent when the next witness took the stand. She was Matilda Taylor and she said she belonged to a Christian sect called the ‘Peculiar People’. A branch of Wesleyanism, the Peculiar People (sometimes conflated with Quakers) did not believe in medicine. Instead Matilda insisted, they chose instead to pray for Alice’s recovery and leave her fate to God.

‘Supposing your leg is broken’ Mr Chance demanded, what would she do then? ‘The Lord has not told us what to do in that case, but he does tell us in sickness what to do’.

So we must presume that the Cousins were also members of this branch of Christianity.

Mr Chance was not impressed:

‘It is really wonderful how persons can have such narrow-minded fanaticism’ he quipped, before adding that ‘it is a most guilty and unfeeling conduct to adopt. You take just one passage or so from the Bible, instead of taking it as a whole’.

Nevertheless he dismissed the charge of manslaughter on legal grounds, suggesting instead that the Public Prosecutor might wish to bring a case of endangering life by neglect, which brought a sentence of six months upon conviction. The ‘peculiar people’ then upped and left his court, presumably followed by dark looks and murmurings of righteous indignation from the public gallery.

[from The Standard, Thursday, March 29, 1883]

This isn’t the only reference to the Peculiar People and clashes with the legal system in Victorian London as this blog suggests

A drunk explains how ‘Going native’ in New Zealand saved his life

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When a man named Burns appeared before the Union Hall Police magistrate on a  charge of being drunk and disorderly, he caused quite a stir. Burns (his first name was not recorded by the court reporter) declared himself as English, and he spoke perfect English, but his appearance was that of Maori warrior.

His face was tattooed in the Maori fashion so that he resembled ‘a New Zealand chief’. How had he come to allow himself to ‘be so disfigured’, the Chief Clerk wanted to know. Well, he replied, ‘it was better than being eaten’. With that dramatic start Burns then gave a brief account of his life and travels, and of what had brought him to London in July 1835.

In 1829 Burns was a sailor on a ship that ran into trouble and was wrecked off the New Zealand coast. He and six others made it to shore but everyone of his companions were killed by the natives. For some reason however, Burns’ life was saved on the intervention of one of their captors and he quickly adopted the local ‘manners and customs’ in order to survive, with, he added, one exception. He refused to eat ‘the bodies of the enemies of his tribe slain in war’.

There were contemporary reports that the Maoris practised cannibalism up until the early 1800s so Burns may have witnessed this. He may also have been playing on popular representations of the savage for effect.

Having settled into the community, he continued, he was soon adopted as a chief. In order to take up this new position he ‘was compelled to undergo the painful operation of tattooing, which was performed with such skill that it is now impossible to distinguish his visage from that of a native’.

As a senior member of the tribe he also learned to master the Maori war canoe and this led to his escape. One day, when he and several other canoes were patrolling along the coast looking for enemies, he spotted a western ship in the distance. He tricked the others into canoeing  off in one direction before turning his own canoe towards the sailing vessel and paddling hard. He quickly got himself out of reach of his former companion’s spears and made it to the ship. The crew helped him on board but it took him some time to convince the Spanish captain that he was indeed and Englishman and not the Maori warrior he appeared to be.

Eventually the Spanish ship had dropped him off in England and he had made his way to London where he now intended to exhibit himself at the Surrey Zoological Gardens. He told the justice at Union Hall that he would be dressed in the ‘costume of New Zealander, and [would] display his dexterity in the management of the canoe, and perform other feats which he had acquired during his six years residence amongst them’.

The magistrate declared that he could not deprive the public of such an entertainment and dismissed the charge against him.

The early 1800s were a time of war for the Maori peoples. Much of this was bloody internal fighting as the rival tribes acquired and used Western guns on each other. ‘Tens of thousands’ died in the so-called ‘musket wars’ of the 1810s, 20s and 30s, at just the time Burns was shipwrecked. Western weaponry was not the only killer however: disease also took its toll of the native population.

From the 1840s onwards tribal rivalry was expressed less in warfare and more in economics but by then New Zealand was increasingly being dominated by European interests. After the purchase of land at Auckland in 1840 the European population grew steadily, and many Maoris left. By 1858 there were more white faces than Maori ones. British policy was to acquire land the Maori deemed worthless or ‘wasteland’, and while there was continued fighting between the Maori settlers and the newer European colonists for most of the rest of the century, there was only ever going to be one final victor.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, July 23, 1835]

A tragic accident at the door of the Police Court

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HMS Warrior at Woolwich

Rachel Scott was 13 years of age and was walking in the street outside the Worship Street Police Court one afternoon in April 1841. At the same time a heavily laden cart belonging to the G Wells carrier firm from Hackney and Homerton was making its slow and steady progress towards the City Road.

The driver, Samuel Banks, called out to the girl but she seemed not to hear him. For whatever reason Banks was unable to stop or shift direction and the cart ran over the girl. An officer of the police court rushed to pick her up and Rachel was taken to her parents’ home at 22 Worship Street.

The surgeon that examined Rachel could only ‘proscribe lotions’ and warn that ‘serious effects might ensue’. The magistrate bailed the driver to appear again in three days, and at that point Banks and young Rachel disappear from history. The paper reported that the landlord of the house where Rachel lived with her family had experienced his own tragedy recently when a part of the cellar collapsed on his daughter, who was crushed to death.

In fact the Morning Post was full of ‘bad’ news that Saturday morning. At Islington a woman (the wife of a clergyman)  had been found face down on her bed, quite dead with a  small medicine bottle close by. In another report an inquest was held at University Hospital in Bedford Square into the death of a patient who had burned to death in a  private room.

The largest space was given over, however, to a story of four convicts from the convict ship Warrior, moored in the dock at Woolwich, who had apparently died of influenza. The four were taken to the dead house at the Royal Arsenal where they were examined by the coroner. Influenza was ‘very prevalent’ in the town and had affected the Justicia prison hulk as well as Warrior. The two ships were crowded, Warrior had twice as many convicts on board as it normally did and this was given as a potential cause of the spread of the epidemic. However, the verdict of the coroner’s court was not that overcrowding or poor sanitary conditions had led to the mens’ deaths but that they had died ‘by the visitation of God’.

The men were Edward Sheffield, from Hertford who was just 18 and under sentence of transportation for seven years; Michael Westal from Liverpool (also facing seven years); Samuel Medlam (29) from Warwick and David Owen, another teenager, who died 12 days after being admitted to the hospital at Woolwich.

It is a reminder to those of you researching your family trees that a sentence of transportation did not always mean that your ancestor made the long sea journey to Australia. Many died en route, and some, like the four men listed here, never left England. Warrior  had been a receiving ship until 1840, meaning that she served as a new home for sailors who had been recruited (or were ‘pressed’ – i.e forcibly recruited) into the Navy. In 1840 she started a new life as a prison hulk (a floating prison). Conditions on the hulks (like Justicia) were awful, worse men than prisons. Convicts were not supposed to stay there for the duration of their sentences, but just until a fleet sailed for Australia. Some. however, as we have seen, never made it that far.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, April 17, 1841]

Smallpox brings death and difficult decisions to the Westminster Police Court

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Watercolour of a hand with smallpox by Robert Carswell in 1831 (Wellcome Library, London)

Mr Selfe had only just taken his seat at Westminster Police Court on the morning of the 12 April 1863 when the officer of health for the parish of St George’s, Hanover Square approached him. As a magistrate Selfe had to deal with all sorts of problems and issues of everyday life, but few were as sensitive as this.

The health officer, Dr Aldis of Chester Place, explained to the magistrate that a three year-old child had died of smallpox, a disease that remained widespread in poorer communities in the nineteenth century despite Edward Jenner’s best efforts to promote vaccination against it.

The unnamed child was lying in his cot so people could pay their respects, as tradition dictated, at a room in a house in Pimlico and Dr Aldis was worried about the public health consequences of this. The ‘small back room’ was home to the ‘boy’s father and mother and three other children’ and no fewer than 26 other persons lived in the property. Moreover, the doctor insisted, this was a crowded locality ‘in which the smallpox is very prevalent’.

He wanted to have the child buried quickly to avoid contagion but the mother was resistant. She wanted to grieve for her son and to do so in the customary way. The family were part of London’s large immigrant Irish community and they fully supported the bereaved mother.

Mr. Badderly, the overseer of the poor for the parish, had attempted arrange the funeral and had sent a man named Osborne to the house to try and remove the dead boy. He brought a small coffin and with the father’s permission placed the child within it. When the mother found it however, she removed her son and placed him back in his cradle. When Osborn objected a group of local Irish gathered and ‘intimidated him with their threats [so that] he felt compelled to retire’.

Here then was a clash between the parish and its obligations towards the health of the community and the very personal wishes of one grieving mother and her friends and family. Since the child’s father either agreed with the health officer or simply felt much less strongly that his wife, the court was bound to side with the parish. Mr. Selfe agreed that the child needed to be buried immediately, for the sake of public health, and since the father had no objection the mother’s wishes were of no consequence. The magistrate said that in his opinion ‘there could be impropriety in the police accompanying the parish officers to see that there was no breach of the peace from the removal of the child’.

It is a desperately sad story which reveals both the reality of infant mortality in the Victorian period and the poverty and overcrowding that condemned so many to a premature death. It also demonstrates the difficult decisions that some magistrates had to make when faced with evidence that ran counter to the wishes of individuals who had not done anything wrong or in any way ‘criminal’.

The mother’s desire to mourn for dead boy in her own way is completely understandable, but when this was countered by what was (at the time) understood to be a risk to the health of very many others, the justice’s decision is also easily understood. This week we have had the heart-rending story of the struggle of Connie Yates and Chris Gard who have lost the latest stage of their battle to keep their son, Charlie, alive in Great Ormond Street Hospital.

Mr. Justice Francis, who made the decision knew, as everyone in the court did, that when he told doctors ‘at Great Ormond Street that they could withdraw all but palliative care, was to all intents and purposes delivering a death sentence’.* He acted in what he considered to be the best interest of the child and against the interests of the parents. Time alone will tell whether he was right to do so.

At Westminster court in 1863 Mr. Selfe may have done the right thing, and saved many other lives. Given what we now know about smallpox it is unlikely that anyone would have caught it unless they had physical contact with the child whilst his exposed scabs still covered him, but the magistrate was not necessarily aware of that and so his actions were perhaps the best thing he could do in the circumstances.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, April 13, 1863]

*www.guardian.com [accessed 13/4/17]