A small tragedy averted as over 600 drown in the Thames’ foul waters

FeaturedA small tragedy averted as over 600 drown in the Thames’ foul waters

On Saturday 14 September 15, 1878 Henry Sharpe, whose occupation was simply recorded as ‘labourer’ , was set in the dock at Mansion House and charged with trying to kill himself. 

On Friday night (ominously perhaps, the 13th) a City policeman was on patrol by London Bridge when a man rushed up and grabbed him. The man (Sharpe) was clearly at his wits end and very drunk. He tried, incoherently, to explain that his wife and two children were dead – both drowned in the sinking of the Princess Alice earlier that month. 

The SS Princess Alice  was a Thames paddle steamer that sank after a collision with a collier, (the Bywell Castle) on 3 September. It was a terrible tragedy that claimed the lives of over 600 people: men, women, and children. The steamer went down in a stretch of the river that was heavily polluted with raw sewerage; many of those that died must have suffered an awful death. 

Having poured out his grief to the policeman Sharpe was persuaded to go home and sleep off his sorrow. Convinced he’d averted another tragedy (however small by comparison) the policeman resumed his beat. Imagine his surprise then when 30 minutes later he saw Sharpe scrambling up the parapet of the bridge, seemingly intent on launching himself in the Thames’ murky waters. 

With the help of some passers-by the lawman affected a rescue, dragging the drunken labourer back from the precipice by his ankles. He was taken back the station, charged and left to sober up. 

Sharpe was joined in court by his wife in children who had clearly not perished in the disaster and must have been shocked that Henry would suggest such a thing. His desperate actions perhaps reveal a deep seated mental illness but he told the magistrate – Sir Thomas Dakin, Lord Mayor of London – that he had been drinking with a close friend that evening, consoling him for the loss of his family in the sinking. 

Who knows if that was the truth either; we have no passenger list for the Princess Alice  we don’t know exactly how many souls perished or what all of their names were. One of Jack the Ripper’s victims claimed to have lost her husband in the tragedy; Elizabeth Stride may have been hoping to gain the sympathy of others for her loss, or perhaps even to benefit from the generosity of Londoners who raised thousands of pounds for the bereaved families.  In Liz’s case as in Henry’s it was a false claim but it shows how this disaster touched so many lives in the late Victorian capital. 

The Lord Mayor declared that Sharpe was ‘a dissipated fellow’ and decided the best course of action was to lock him on remand for a few days so the alcohol could work through his system. It wasn’t a conviction or a sentence as such, but at least it was some sort of intervention that might have saved his life.  

From Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday 15 September 1878

‘Drown the bugger!’ A policeman is pitched into the canal

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At half past one on the morning of Saturday 3 November 1849 police constable Henry Hewitt (164N) was on his beat in Islington, proceeding along Thornhill Road and adjacent to the towpath of the Regent’s Park Canal.

He noticed two men, one carrying a large sack over his shoulder and he became suspicious that they were up to no good. PC Hewitt moved over and stopped them, asking to see what they had in the bag. Even by the dim light of his lantern he could see that the bag was stained with fresh blood.

The blood was from the remains of four dead geese and when the men failed to provide a satisfactory answer for why they had four dead birds he attempted to arrest them. The men were desperate however, knowing they’d been caught, and decided that attack was the best form of defense. They pushed him and tripped him up, turned tail and ran, dropping the sack in to the process.

PC Hewitt recovered himself and set off in pursuit, quickly catching one of the men. His captive shouted for help, calling on his accomplice to ‘drown the b_____r!’ At first the other man did help his mate, but as a battle raged between the policeman and his captive the other took the opportunity to make his escape.

Now Hewitt was left fighting with one thief and the pair tumbled into the canal. The policeman might have drowned in the water but he had a firm grip on his assailant’s neckerchief and in the end the noise of their fight and the officer’s cries for help drew assistance to the towpath and both men were dragged out of the water.

The next morning the prisoner was set in the dock at Clerkenwell Police court and identified as James Knight, alias ‘Macclesfield Bill’, and charged with theft and attempted murder. The court was packed and listened with horror as the policeman described his narrow brush with death.

The magistrate, Mr Tyrwhitt, wanted to know if the owner of the geese had ben traced. They had, the constable told him: two belonged to a Mr Millard of Salisbury Street, Agar Town, while the other pair were the property of a gentleman named Caxton.  In both cases the thieves had broken into buildings to steal the animals. This was a very serious crime – robbery and breaking and entering, plus attempted murder and violence. The justice had no hesitation in sending Knight to trial and Inspector Thatcher promised that ‘every exertion would be made to discover the prisoner’s confederate’.

Seemingly they never did find the other man nor was a jury convinced that Knight was guilty of attempted murder. At his trial on 26 November James (or William) Knight was found guilty of common assault, which usually attacted a small fine or short period of imprisonment. Since he’d been remanded in custody for the best part of a week he was released.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, November 05, 1849]

A brave man saves a young life

Rotherhithe early 1811

William Whitlock was a brave man and a humanitarian; someone who was prepared to risk his own life to save others. While we should always be sensible about wading in to disputes or rushing into burning houses to rescue people I would hope our society still has people like William in it. Sadly, if the reports from some of the emergency services are to be believed, we have become a society that would rather record an accident or calamity on our mobile phones than take an active role in helping out.

William lived at 1 Canal Row, Albany Road close by the banks of the Surrey Canal. The canal was built in the early nineteenth century to transport cargo to the Surrey Commercial Docks and its long towpath provided opportunities for recreation and for those with darker intentions.

On the evening  of Tuesday 20 August 1844 William was walking along the canal, as he often did, when he heard raised voices ahead. Two young people, a man  and a woman, were arguing. The woman saw him and ran over.

‘For God’s sake, Sir’, he pleaded, ‘use your endeavours to prevent that young man [indicating the other person] from destroying himself, for he has threatened to drown himself’.

William spoke to the man and advised him to go home. The other, whose name was Edward Hornblow, was clearly distressed and perhaps a little under the influence of alcohol, at first seemed to agree and started to walk away. Then suddenly he turned and ran headlong towards the canal, leaping into the water.

At that point the canal was about 8-9 feet deep and Edward disappeared into the depths. William stripped off his jacket and dived in after him. He was a strong swimmer and he needed to be because as he surfaced the young man grabbed hold of him, suddenly desperate to live. At first the pair sunk like a stone but when they came back up gasping for air, William managed to drag himself and Edward to the canal bank. By then the woman had got into the water where it was shallower and together she and Mr Whitlock struggled but got Edward to safety.

Edward Hornblow was in a sorry state and he was carried, insensible, to the parish workhouse to be treated. The young woman, whose name was kept out of the subsequent newspaper report, was also badly affected by the experience. She suffered ‘violent fits afterwards’.

Two days later William was in court at Union Hall to testify to Edward Hornblow’s attempted suicide. Hornblow had recovered sufficiently but the woman was not in court. William Whitlock said that he had rescued a number of people from the canal and the magistrate asked him if he had ever had a reward for it.   The Humane Society was formed to help prevent suicide and it often gave monetary rewards to those that saved lives. No, William told Mr Cottingham, he had never been rewarded for his actions even though on the previous occasion that he’d leapt into the canal (to save a young woman) he’d had to remain in his wet clothes for hours, and had a caught a chill as a result.

Mr Cottingham now turned his attention to the defendant and asked him why he’d taken the action he had. It was a fairly typical story of unrequited love. William had been ‘paying his attentions’ to the young woman in question and was trying to move their relationship on by discussing marriage. She wasn’t ready or she wasn’t interested. Either way, having taken some ‘Dutch courage’ before he popped the question the young man was sufficiently traumatized by the rejection to attempt his own life. He was sorry for what he’d done and promised not to repeat his actions in future.

The magistrate ended by praising William Whitlock’s heroics and ordered that Edward Hornblow provide financial sureties against any repeat of his behaviour. He would be locked up until these were secured. This case is a reminder that suicide (and its attempt) was fairly common in the 1800s with canal and the Thames being regular scenes of these human tragedies. In many cases the thing that stopped attempts from being successful was the quick and brave actions of passersby, the ‘have a go heroes’ of the nineteenth century. I do hope we haven’t entirely lost that spirit in our modern ‘me first’ society.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, August 23, 1844]

The RSPCA exposes appalling cruelty to a cat

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By 1883 the Society for the Protection of Animals had received royal approval and so carried the name we know it by today – the RSPCA. Britain prides itself on being a nation of animal lovers, and pets are very much a part of family life in this country. I’m on holiday at the moment and our villa is overrun with the local feral cats which we – as cat lovers – dutifully feed morning and night. As a result the pair of cats that turned up on day one has grown to a pride of 5-6 daily.

Not everyone shares our affection for cats however and plenty of people would rather not share the planet (or at least their neighbourhood) with our feline friends. There are still daily instances of animal neglect and animal cruelty which necessitates having an organisation dedicated to protecting them.

The RSPCA was founded in 1824 (more than half a century before the NSPCC, indicating , perhaps, where British priorities lie) and campaigned to protect animals from routine exploitation and cruelty. Officers of the charity investigated and brought prosecutions against abusers, as this example from 1883 shows.

Thomas Scoines, a bookmaker living near Berkeley Square in central London, was summoned before Mr Mansfield at Marlborough Street Police court, accused of maltreating a cat. The summons was taken out by John White, an RSPCA inspector and he produced three witness to testify to Scoines’ cruelty.

Mrs Hannah Beattie said that she’d seen the bootmaker beating a cat to try to get it out of his rooms. She challenged him and said such violence was unnecessary. It was also ineffective, as the cat kept coming back (as the one’s round our holiday home do). Here they try to sneak into the building and we shoo them out (in Greek!) but they still try. She added that Scoines had finally drowned the cat in a copper kettle.

Scoines was much less tolerant than us however, and William Stone declared that he’d seen the defendant knocking a cat out through a window with a broomstick. Another witness said he’d later seen that the poor animal’s back legs had been broken, allegedly as a result of Scoines’ violence.

In court he defended himself, denying cruelty but admitted he’d killed the animal. The cat’s legs had been broken as he shoved it into the kettle, but he clearly didn’t think he’d done anything wrong. The cruelty was appalling and the magistrate saw it for what it was. Mr Mansfield told Scoines that he was guilty of cruelty and declared that the ‘unfortunate cat had been brutally treated’. He fined him 20with 126d costs, so the RSPCA was not out of pocket for bringing the prosecution.

I can understand that stray cats can be a nuisance but I can’t understand why people feel the need to hurt them. Cats can be chased away with a simple spray of water and if you don’t feed them they will quickly realise that there might well be better pickings somewhere else.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, September 2, 1883]

A series of mini tragedies as Londoners welcome another summer

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Lambeth Bridge in the 1800s

The Standard‘s coverage of the Police Courts of the Metropolis at the engining of June make fairly grim reading. At Lambeth two brothers were arrested for being drunk and disorderly whilst daring each other to jump off Lambeth Bridge. When the case came to court their elderly mother revealed that the wife of one of them had died earlier week, having thrown herself off Shot Tower Wharf.

Suicide was the theme of the day it seems: along at Southwark in the Borough Isabella Soof (a 46 year-old married woman) was charged with attempting to end her own life. She had leapt into the river at London Bridge but a passing labourer heard her scream and dragged her out. As he pulled her to safety she said:

The grave is my home. I have no husband. Let me go and drown myself‘.

Her husband appeared in court and told Mr Slade he could think of no reason why she’d do such a thing. The magistrate, rather unsympathetically, sent her to prison for a week.

He was perhaps mindful that there was something of an epidemic of women trying to do away with themselves and was trying to issue a warning that the action was a crime that would be punished. Ellen Dalman (38) was also charged with attempting suicide. A policeman saw the book folder running down the stairs at London Bridge and intercepted her before she was able to plunge into the murky waters of the Thames.

Slade remanded her for a week so that enquiries could be made into her domestic circumstances and mental health.

At Wandsworth a former major in the army tried to avoid the disgrace of being arrested for drunk and disorderly behaviour by giving a false name. The justice – Mr Paget – saw through his subterfuge and fined him 10s for the drunkenness and gave him a dressing down for not admitting to who he really was.

Over at Bow Street (where the reporter offered a short recap of the cases there rather than any detail) another woman was prosecuted for attempting to drown herself; her mother promised she would ensure no further attempts were made and she was released. A clearly disturbed woman who’d smashed up the windows and property of a man she described as ‘disreputable’ was sent to a hospital instead of being imprisoned, showing some level of appreciation for her condition at least.

Finally a drunken man was prosecuted at Thames before Mr Saunders for beating up a young woman who was his neighbour and damaging property to the value of £4. She might have suffered a worse fate had not several locals ‘rushed in and released her’ from his clutches. The man, Michael Lynch, was sent to prison at hard labour for three months.

All of this was published in the Tuesday morning edition of the paper. The Standard was a daily paper with a morning and evening edition by the 1880s. It was broadly conservative in its outlook and reached an audience of over 200,000 by the turn of the 20th century. It has a long history, surviving into the 21st century under its current Russian owners and becoming a free paper for Londoners.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, June 03, 1879]

‘labouring under considerable depression of spirits’: a young woman throws herself and her baby into the canal

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The Grand Surrey Canal on Davies’ Pocket Map of London, 1852

On Sunday 17 May 1840 a policeman (32P) was walking his beat, which took him along the Surrey Canal. This ran through Camberwell and Peckham to the Surrey Docks at Rotherhithe, but no longer exists.

It was between one and two in the morning and the moon (which had been full three days earlier) was waning. The copper thought he heard a splash and hurried to the bank. As he peered across the water he thought he saw something, a woman’s bonnet, floating in the canal. Without a thought, he ‘threw off his coat and cape and jumped into the water’.

The water engulfed him and he was soaked through as he thrashed about to find the woman he presumed had fallen in. The canal was nine feet deep at this point, quite deep enough for someone to drown in, but fortunately the policeman soon found a body in the water. He grabbed it and pulled the person to safety, hauling them up onto the towpath.

When he’d recovered himself he realized he had rescued a young woman and her infant child that she had ‘closely clasped in her arms’. He took them both to the station house and then on to the Camberwell workhouse where they were able to get a change of clothes. The next morning he collected her and brought her to the Union Hall Police court to face questions about her actions from the magistrate.

After PC 32P had given his evidence another officer testified to having seen the woman, Mary Doyle, walking by the canal late at night. He had assumed she was lost and accompanied her back to safety. Mary told the justice she had no idea how she had ended up in the water and said that whatever feelings she had about her own life she would never have endangered her child.

Attempting suicide was an offence in 1840 as of course was attempting to kill your own child. It was evident however, that Mary was not herself. The paper reported that:

 ‘she was labouring under considerable depression of spirits’ and there was a suggestion that the child was illegitimate, and so perhaps Mary was trying to end her own life, and that of her infant, in order to escape the shame of ‘an illicit intercourse’.

The magistrate decided to remand her for further enquiries. He added that if she could find bail he’d be happy to release her to her friends. Sadly, no friends had appeared in court that morning so she was taken back to the cells.

Now PC 32P asked the court if anything could be done for him. He had risked his life, he pointed out, and had got soaked through and his uniform soiled in the process. Could he be ‘recompensed for what he had done?’

While it may sound a little ungallant in the circumstances, he did have a point. Policemen were responsible for their own uniforms and he would have to get his cleaned, presumably at his own expense. Unfortunately for him the clerk explained that there was no fund available for him, and suggested he apply to the Humane Society which paid out rewards for those that ‘saved the lives of others’.

The Humane Society (now ‘Royal’) was founded in 1774 by two doctors who wanted to promote resuscitation, and made awards to those that rescued others from the ‘brink of death’. They set up ‘receiving houses’ throughout the capital where people could be brought to recover. It still exists and continues its work recognizing the efforts of lifesavers, but it no longer offers rewards.

If the policeman did approach them he was likely to have been given around £5 (or £300 in today’s money), quite sufficient for him to get his tunic cleaned and pressed, and to be able to dine out on the story for months afterwards. As for Mary, she disappears from the records at this point so hopefully she survived and avoided being prosecuted. Who knows, perhaps the shock of her brush with death was enough of a prompt to turn her life around.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, May 19, 1840]

p.s. On 10 February 1840 Queen Victoria married her prince, Albert to begin what was undoubtedly one of the few ‘love matches’ in the history royal marriages at the time. Today of course is the wedding of Prince Harry to Meghan Markle. I’m no royalist – quite the opposite in fact – but this is clearly a marriage based on love and not dynastic expedience. This is also a revolutionary marriage in its own small way: Harry, an English prince descended from Victoria, is marrying an American commoner, and a person of mixed race. This is (almost) then a ‘normal’ marriage, and continues the modernisation of the royal family that began under Harry’s mother, Diana. I will doff my red cap to them both today, and wish them well (but I shan’t be watching on television!)

A young mother is driven by ‘wretchedness and starvation’ to throw her boy into the canal

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The entrance to the Regent’s Canal at Limehouse in 1823

A few days ago I wrote up the case of mechanic that rescued a woman from drowning herself in the Regent’s canal. That case was from 1866 but lest we suppose that it was an isolated incident today I’ve found another attempted suicide in the canal, and this one ended being prosecuted at the Old Bailey in 1849.

In February 1849 a woman was placed in the dock at the Worship Street Police court before Mr Hammill, the sitting magistrate. Her name was Anne Mallandine and she was charged with attempting to murder her own by throwing him to the Regent’s canal. The chief witness was John Stoddart, a clerk employed by a Haggerstone builder, who was looking out over the canal from his boss’ counting house at four o’clock in the afternoon of the 6 February.

He saw Anne walking along canal tow path pulling a small boy along by the hand. The child was resisting and saying ‘don’t mother, don’t!’. Anne ignored him and propelled him towards the edge of the path clearly determined to throw him into the water. Suddenly, to Stoddart’s horror,  she picked him up and threw him in.

As the boy struggled and moved away from the bank Anne started to undress. She had taken off her bonnet and shawl before the clerk could reach her but he was able to stop her jumping in after her boy. Another man arrived on the scene and secured the woman while Stoddart bravely plunged into the water to rescue the little lad.

The clerk and the other man managed to get both parties to a nearby pub where they were cleaned up and handed over to the police. The boy was taken from his mother and placed in the workhouse while Anne was locked up for the magistrate to decide  what to do with her in the morning.

After Stoddart gave his testimony a young man named John Wilding said he had seen the incident and noticed Anne earlier. He said she had been trying to ‘lure the boy to the bank by showing him some ducks that were swimming in the water’ but he had got wind of her real purpose and tried to get away.

PC Heath (N48) told Mr Hammill that on arrest Anne had expressed regret that the witnesses had arrived as quickly as they had since ‘then she would have been spared the trouble of going before a magistrate or anybody else’.

Mr Hammil wanted to know what had brought her to do such a dreadful thing. Anne told him that she and her son were starving and had not eaten anything for at least a day. She was probably also trying to avoid the shame of going to the parish for help and clearly dreaded the workhouse more than she feared death.

Anne was committed to take her trial at the Old Bailey and imprisoned in Newgate gaol in the meantime. On the 5 March she was formally tried for attempting to kill  her little boy Mason. Anne (or Hannah as she was named in the Old Bailey Proceedings) was described as 28 years old and unmarried; she cried throughout the trial as the witnesses recounted the events of that afternoon. The court was told that the water was about five feet deep at the part of the canal and that probably helped save Mason’s life.

Her defence counsel accepted that she had done as was alleged but had only acted out of desperation. He stopped short of declaring her insane but  argued that she had been brought to do what she did from ‘wretchedness and starvation’ and suggested that at the time she was not in a state of mind that allowed her to act rationally. This probably did just enough to convince the jury , who found her not guilty.

[from The Morning Chronicle , Thursday, February 8, 1849; The Morning Post , Tuesday, March 06, 1849]

Pickett climbs a fence and saves a life

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It was about midnight on the 3 February 1866 and James Pickett was walking home along a path that ran parallel to the tow path of the Regent’s canal. It must have been a dark night because there was no full moon that February (itself a rare occurrence) so what happened next was all the more exceptional.

Pickett heard a sound, perhaps a splash or a gasp, and must have realised that someone was in the water. He clambered over the railings and rushed to the water’s edge, jumping in without pausing to remove his clothes.

James, a mechanic, was a strong man and after a struggle he managed to secure the person in the canal (a woman named Elizabeth Groves) and bring her safely out of the water. She lay on the bank ‘insensible and apparently dead’ but the mechanic picked her up and found a way to get her to hospital. Although Elizabeth had gone under the water to a depth of 8 feet and was feared drowned, she made a full recovery in the Royal Free Hospital.

However, this was no accident and it soon became evident that Elizabeth had attempted to put an end to her own life by throwing herself in the canal. The Regent’s Canal (like the Thames river) was a popular spot for suicides like Elizabeth (and indeed for anyone who wished to dispose of a dead body – as was to become apparent in the Thames Torso murder series of 1887-8).

Suicide was against the law and so once she was well enough Elizabeth was produced at Clerkenwell Police Court and asked to explain herself by Mr D’Eyncourt. Elizabeth, an artificial flower maker, told the magistrate that:

‘she was very sorry for what she had done. She included to attempt to take her life because she had separated from her husband’.

Either the shame of a failed marriage or her despair at losing someone she loved had driven Elizabeth to her desperate decision. Her husband appeared in court to say that he had parted from her because of her drinking but was prepared to have her back if the ‘magistrate would allow it’. That was the best course of action for everyone; a term of imprisonment was not likely to help Elizabeth and as long as she embraced this ‘second chance’ they was some hope that the Roves could make a decent fist of their marriage.

The real hero here, as Mr D’Eyncourt made  appoint of recognising, was James Pickett. He had ‘behaved in a very gallant manner’ the magistrate told him and declared that he should be rewarded with the sum of £2 from the  court’s poor box.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, February 05, 1866]

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The Mansion House has no sympathy with those bent on ‘destroying themselves’.

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When an unnamed woman was charged with disorderly conduct at Mansion Police Police court in December 1841 the sitting justice took it upon himself to make a statement to the press. Sir Peter Laurie, the incumbent Lord Mayor, didn’t inflict further punishment on the woman because she had already been locked up overnight in the City’s compter (a old term for a prison). However, all leniency stopped there.

The Lord Mayor had previously punished her for attempting to ‘destroy herself’ (in other words for attempting suicide) by jumping off one of the capital’s bridges. Sir Peter said that there had been considerable numbers of suicide attempts in the past few months. No less than 26 people had been charged with the offence at Guildhall  and a further five at Mansion House from September to October.

As a result he had determined to deal with all future cases more severely. In November he had sent a man to Bridewell in an attempt to check ‘so revolting an offence’ by ‘a little wholesome severity’. That individual had tried to cut his own throat because he was suffering from ‘poverty and idleness’. A day later he sent a woman to the Old Bailey to face a jury trial. His fellow justice, Sir Chapman Marshall, followed his lead and committed a man for ‘attempting to drown himself’. In both cases the accused pleaded guilty and received a sentence of 14 days imprisonment.

Since then there had been a notable falling off in persons attempting to take their own lives so Sir Peter commended the actions of the bench.

The clerk of the court ‘observed that several desperate imposters had made money by the experiment of tumbling into the Thames. The infliction of imprisonment and hard labour for the offence would certainly check the practice as far as pretenders were concerned, whatever effect it might have on those that seriously wished to get rid of life.’ He added that the ‘great majority’ were imposters in his opinion.

Sir Peter concluded by warning ‘every man and woman brought before me jumping or trying to jump into the river shall most positively walk off to Newgate [gaol] , and I am very much mistaken if the Judges do not henceforward inflict upon offenders very heavy punishments’.

It hardly needs to be said that such draconian attitudes to what may well have been genuine mental health issues would not be applied today. Attempting suicide is no longer an offence under law although persons displaying suicidal tendencies may well be sectioned, and forcibly confined. So the Victorian bench looks particularly uncaring in this regard. But before we congratulate ourselves on living in more enlightened times we might note the report of the parliamentary commission created by the late Jo Cox that has revealed the worrying extent of loneliness in modern Britain.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, December 15, 1841]