How contraband found its way into the Scrubs

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One of the big issues with the modern justice system is the easy availability of drugs in English prisons. According to reports drugs such as cannabis, crack cocaine and spice. In a 2018 report for Ministry of Justice it was found that 1 in 5 prisoners tested positive for some form of illegal substance.

Attempts to control what is allowed inside prisons have a long history, going back at least as far at the 1877 Prison Act. Under this legislation it became illegal to bring, or to attempt to bring, ‘any spirituous or fermented liquor or tobacco’ into English or Welsh gaols.

Even in the late 1800s it was difficult to control the flow of contraband into prisons. Prisons required contact with the outside world; food, medicine, laundry, and other goods all had to come and go, brought in my external partners, and there was always a steady stream of new inmates, police and prison staff, and visitors.

In October 1888 John Carr was brought before the Hammersmith Police court charged with bringing tobacco into Wormwood Scrubs. The Scrubs had opened in 1875 but it wasn’t fully finished then. The builders finally left in 1891, just five years before the man who had played a key role in its creation – Edmund Du Cane – retired. Du Cane oversaw the shift in control of prisons from local administration to a national service, formalized by the 1877 act, and it is fair to say that the late Victorian prison was very much his creation.

He believed that prisons had to be a deterrent to criminals and he moved away from the beleifs held earlier in the century that prisoners could be (or should be) reformed. His motto was ‘hard bed, hard fare, hard labour’ and the resulting ‘mark system made it very hard for prisoners to resist the strict enforcement of petty rules. He would have had no truck with those smuggling tobacco into his prisons.

By the 1880s the Scrubs was a local prison filled with petty offenders serving short sentences. John Carr was accused of bringing in money as well, another item prohibited under the standing orders of the gaol. The main witness appearing against Carr was a young lad working for Pickford’s the carriers (and today’s modern home removal firm). Thomas Embers, a van boy, testified that Carr had got him to carry the goods in. However, while it was pretty clear Carr was guilty of something the magistrate was less sure that the charge had been brought under the correct act.

In his view Carr should have been charged under section 39 of the 1877 act rather than section 38 (which is the clause that the governor’s representative had cited). Either way Carr was committed to face trial for his crime, although bail was allowed. The boy was cautioned and told that he would have to find  sureties for his good behavior in future.

[from The Standard, Thursday, October 04, 1888]

Gin Lane revisited in 1888

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One the most powerful images of the negative effects of alcohol is William Hogarth’s ‘Gin Lane’. The engraving is Hogarth’s attack on the evils of imported ‘foreign’ liquor – ‘jenever’ or Dutch gin. He produced this to contrast with ‘Beer Street’ drawing a clear comparison between ‘honest’ English beer and the stronger more dangerous spirit that gripped so many Londoners in the 1700s. London suffered a  ‘gin craze’ at mid century that forced government to act against it, passing the last of several gin acts in 1751 aimed at reducing consumption by raising prices through taxation. Actually it was rising prices for grain that weaned Londoners off gin by the 1760s, coupled with higher food costs people simply couldn’t afford it.

Hogarth’s Gin Lane (above) has a woman holding (or rather dropping) a baby at its centre. It is this image that sums up the affect of alcoholism on the addict; a total abdication of responsibility in pursuit of the next ‘fix’ of gin. Anyone familiar with modern drug addiction will recognize this as having very similar consequences.

Gin did not go away in the 1760s and remained a popular and cheap way to get drunk in the 1800s. By then campaigners against alcohol had developed more sophisticated ways to encourage abstinence – as the Temperance movement and the Salvation Army attest. Sadly, they don’t seem to have been able to do much for Mary Sullivan.

In September 1888 Sullivan, a 44 year old mother, was found dead drunk in Woolwich High Street by PC Williams (127R). The policeman had been alerted to Sullivan by the large crowd that was quickly gathering around her. She was drunk and had a baby in her arms, which she was flailing about. The child was crying and Mary was angry with it.

As he approached her he saw her dash the baby’s head against a nearby wall. He rushed over, secured her and the child and asked her where she lived. Mary had no home; homeless, impoverished and probably abandoned by the child’s father, she was at her wits end. It was not uncommon in the poorer districts of London in 1888.

A woman standing nearby offered to pay for a night’s lodging for Mary but she refused the charity. The baby seemed ok so PC Williams warned her and carried on his beat. Some time later he found her again, sitting on a  doorstep holding the child in front of her. The child was naked and another crowd were berating her, some threatening to lynch her for her cruelty.

For her own safety, and that of her baby, PC Williams now arrested her (as he probably should have done earlier). At the station the child was examined by the police surgeon and was taken away from Mary and sent to the workhouse infirmary to be cared for. At Woolwich Police court Mary Sullivan was sent to prison for 14 days hard labour. At least there she might have a chance to sober up.

[fromLloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, September 9, 1888]

A life destroyed by the ‘demon drink’

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Alcoholism is a debilitating addiction than ruins not only the life of the person affected but that of those around them. Since the Second World War most of the attention of the police, courts, and prison service has been on  drugs such as cannabis, heroin, cocaine, and MDMA (with all the various derivatives and combinations) and with good reason. All these drugs have the capacity to destroy lives as well. But while all of the above are proscribed and subject to sanctions under the criminal law, alcohol remains legal and freely available. Like tobacco, alcohol is recognized as being harmful but is simply taxed, not banned.

In the 1800s the negative effects of drink were well understood; drink was blamed for all manner of society’s problems form unemployment to fecklessness, poverty to mental illness, domestic violence to mental illness and suicide. All of these social issues were linked to the excessive consumption of the ‘demon drink’. In the early years of Victoria’s reign the Temperance movement established itself; from small beginnings in the late 1820s it had grown into a significant lobbying group by the 1850s. It attempted, unsuccessfully, to  get parliament to pass a prohibition bill in 1859 but it continued to promote abstinence by urging working men and women to sign the pledge.

It was recognized from the middle of the century that alcoholism was a disease and not simply a vice. Since it was not merely a weakness of character it was possible to treat it, and cure it and this was the beginning of modern efforts to deal with addiction to all sorts of substances.

Margaret Malcolm was a good (or perhaps ‘bad’) example of the evils of drink. She was brought before the sitting magistrate at Westminster Police court in August 1878 for being found drunk and disorderly in the Vauxhall Bridge Road. She’d been carried to the local police station on one of the new Bischoffsheim hand drawn ambulances, being incapable of walking.

That was Friday 16 August and the magistrate fined her 8which her husband  paid to keep her out of gaol. On Monday (the 19th) she was back in court and this time Mr Woolrych fined her 21sand told her she was an ‘incorrigible drunkard’. Margaret pulled out a card to show that she had ‘joined the teetotalers’ and promised that she ‘would never drink again’.

Her pledge didn’t last the day: at around five in the afternoon PC Charles Everett (185B) found her drunk, ‘stopping the vehicles in the street, [and] making a great noise’. When he went to arrest her she threw herself to the ground and refused to budge. It took some time to get her up and into custody and in the meantime a large crowd had gathered to see what all the fuss was about.

Back in court before Mr Woolrych she had nothing to say for herself. The magistrate was told that Margaret had been in court on at least fifty occasions previously. Her long-suffering husband had paid nearly £200 in fines in just a few years. To put that in context £200 in 1878 is about £13,000 today. It would have represented almost two years wages for a skilled tradesman, or you could have bought 7 horses with it. Margaret must have had a loving husband (more than many working-class women had in the 1870s) and one who was, whenever possible, determined to keep her out of prison.

He hadn’t always succeeded; she’d been to prison several times when magistrates like Mr D’Eyncourt had refused the option of a fine in the forlorn hope that it would curb her drinking. On this occasion the law continued to be a blunt instrument: with no option available to him to send Margaret for treatment (as a court might today) she was fined 25(£80) or three weeks’ hard labour. The court report doesn’t tell us whether Mr Malcolm dipped into his pocket this time.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, August 25, 1878]

Prison for the mother who couldn’t support her babies

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Today Haille Rubenhold’s new book on the five canonical victims of ‘Jack the Ripper’ is published in the UK. I’ve chatted with Haille about her work but haven’t read it yet. I am well aware that its publication (or at least the publicity surrounding its publication) has caused a stir and led to Haille being attacked in some quarters by those that believe she has misrepresented ‘Ripperologly’ (the name given to the study of this, the most famous of all ‘cold cases’).

I haven’t read it yet (my copy is on order and I’ll review here when I have) but while I recognize very many people might be upset that she has (supposedly) claimed that the stories of the ‘Ripper’s’ victims have never been told when they have, I think it is also very good that an independent and credible researcher such as Haille has chosen to write about this topic. She had important things to say about prostitution, women’s lives, poverty and homelessness, and I’m keen to read it. She may not be as well informed on the details of the case as those that have studied it for decades and that may undermine some of her findings but she deserves to be ‘heard’.

She also deserves to be treated with respect, as do respected Ripperologists like Paul Begg. Name-calling is never appropriate. We can critique, argue and disagree with each other without chucking unpleasantness about.

One of issues Haille’s work highlights is the desperate poverty that women (and of course men) endured in Victorian London. This wasn’t something new in 1888, it was endemic throughout the 1800s. The magistrate courts could provide temporary relief for those caught in the poverty trap but they could just as frequently criminalize paupers, especially when outside agencies were involved.

Nance (or Nancy) Donovan was a pauper with two children who had only just got out of prison when she appeared before the Lord Mayor at Mansion House Police court in late February 1853. She stood in the dock, in ‘filthy rags’ and with one of her children – a babe in arms – clutched closely to her.

She should have perhaps inspired charity but there was no sympathy on display in the Lord Mayor’s courtroom that cold February morning. Nancy had been brought in from the streets by a City policeman after she’d been pointed out by a an officer from the Mendicity Society. Nancy had been begging from the steps at the end of King William Street with one child in front of her, the other in her arms. The suspicion was that she had drugged them both with laudanum so they looked ill and starving.

Of course Nancy denied this and begged the magistrate to let her off this time.

‘I’ll never bother yez any more if you let me off this once. Upon my sowl I wasn’t begging a farthing from anyone. I was only just sitting down to nurse the babby in this cowld weather, and sure enough it wanted a dhrop of suck’.

The Lord Mayor was unmoved, clearly believing that Nancy was a mendicant (a beggar) that was using and abusing her offspring to feed her idle lifestyle. He sent her to gaol once again, to bridewell for a months, and her children to the workhouse to be ‘cared for’ by the parish.

This was Victorian ‘justice’ and ‘welfare’ policy and it is hardly surprising that women turned to prostitution, alcohol and the streets, as Rubenhold’s important new study highlights.

[from The Standard, Monday, February 28, 1853]

My own study of the Whitechapel or ‘Jack the Ripper’ murders is due to be published in June 2019.

A bad week in London, full of personal tragedy

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George Cruikshank, ‘A destitute girl throws herself from a bridge, her life ruined by alcoholism’, (1848)

Sometimes the London press seems to have chosen to focus on a particular theme. In the third week of July 1864 it appears to have been the personal tragedy of suicide. I can think of no reason why acts of self-destruction should have been higher in that period than in any other year. In America civil war was tearing that nation apart but the only noteworthy event in London was the murder of Thomas Briggs by Franz Muller, the first ever murder on the railways. Perhaps the relative lack of news stories in July prompted the newspapers to concentrate on the personal drama of those that decided they could no longer cope with life.

Attempted suicide was a crime in the 1800s and so those caught in the process were liable to be prosecuted. On the 19 July The Morning Post reported that three individuals had appeared before the city’s magistracy charged with this offence.

The first of these was an elderly man called James Gander. PC 244 of B Division told Mr Selfe at Westminster Police court that he’d been alerted to the fact that a person was seen drowning in the River Thames. It was about 8 o’clock on Sunday night (17 July) and when the policeman reached the water he and a bargeman managed to affect a rescue, pulling the 60 year-old out of the river.

Searching him he found three large stones in his pocket wrapped in a handkerchief. When he recovered his senses Gander told the constable that ‘trouble of mind and family misfortunes had driven him to it’.  Gander was also quite drunk, or at least appeared to have been drinking heavily and in court his son told the magistrate that his father had taken to drinking recently.

He went on to say that his father had been a fairly successful master carman but some time ago that business had floundered and gone under. His wife had been away from the family for the last few months looking after her daughter-in-law and it seems Gander wasn’t coping well. The magistrate wasn’t particularly sympathetic; he remanded the old man for a week so he could reappraise the case but said he was minded to send him for trial for the crime.

At Southwark on the other side of the river Mr Woolrych had two unconnected attempted suicides to consider. PC 133M told the magistrate that at half-past five on the previous Friday afternoon (15 July) he had found Henry John Arnold lying on the pavement in Swan Street. A gentleman was standing over him and called the officer’s attention to him, saying he feared the young man was dead.

Arnold was alive, but ‘totally insensible’. The gentleman handed the policeman a bottle marked ‘laudanum’ which he had prized from the stricken man’s hand. Arnold was taken to Guy’s Hospital and his stomach was pumped to try and save him. He was lucky but it took a few days for him to recover sufficiently to be brought before the magistrate at Southwark to answer for his actions.

Mr Woolrych asked him if he been trying to kill himself and why. Arnold admitted he had and explained it was because he ‘truly unhappy’ having fallen out with his wife. This prompted a ‘decent-looking female’ to step forward and state that she was Mrs Arnold. She said they had argued about a young girl that worked with him, but she’d forgiven him. Arnold had taken it badly and had wandered off for a while and she’d not known where he was. She worried because he was often in ‘bad health’, and perhaps she meant in poor mental health.

This time the magistrate decided he would keep Arnold in gaol until ‘he was in a better frame of mind’, perhaps conscious that the young man had told the  arresting officer that ‘next time he would do it better’.

The final case was that of Mary Ann Willis. She was also brought to Mr Woolwrych at Southwark and charged with attempting to end her own life. A young lad named Samuel Carden testified that on Saturday afternoon (16 July) at 3 o’clock he’d been on Waterloo Bridge stairs where he worked assisting the watermen. Mary Ann came down the stairs and remarked to him that ‘it would be a nice place to commit suicide’.

Carden told her to be careful that she didn’t accidently fall in and said he would ensure no one tried to kill themselves while he was there. Regardless of this, she pushed past him and ‘slipped off the logs and went under’. Samuel acted quickly, grabbed her and pulled her back on to dry land, before she could be caught under the logs of the platform and be drowned.

In court Mary Ann denied all of this and said she’d fallen in by accident. The magistrate asked Samuel if he thought the woman had been entirely sober when he’d seen her. The lad said he was pretty sure she had been drinking as she looked unsteady on her feet when she came down to the jetty. Faced with this evidence and Mary Ann’s denial the magistrate had a decision to make. Whom did he believe?

Finally he decided that he would believe the ‘respectable young woman’ but probably because he felt she had acted on the spur of the moment and had planned to kill herself. Unlike Carden or Gander this seemed to be a life that could be turned around. But young Samuel had acted bravely and deserved a reward for saving her, so Mr Woolrych ordered that he been given five shillings from the poor box. Mary Ann he discharged.

Today none of these individuals would be prosecuted for what they had done or had attempted to do and hopefully all three would have been given some support from the mental health services. This doesn’t prevent thousands of people from trying and succeeding in ending their own lives of course and stories like these remind us that everyday people struggle with their personal demons and pressures, and some of them lose those battles.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, July 19, 1864]

A sailor narrowly avoids having his drink spiked in Tower Hamlets

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The reports of the Police Courts of Victorian London provide a useful reminder that there is very little that is properly ‘new’ in our supposedly ‘modern’ society. The sorts of things that people did in the past might look different in style to us, but rarely in content.

So we find that Londoners worked and played hard, fought and loved, laughed and cried, and argued over just about anything. The streets were extremely busy, accidents frequent, and buses and trains crowded. There were thousands of shops selling a huge range of consumer goods, the parks and gardens were trampled by promenading feet at weekends and holidays, and the capital was a melting pot of multiculturalism.

As for crime (the main business of the Police Courts) it is hard to find things here that would not be found in a modern magistrate’s court. Certainly we deal with some things differently; many more offenders were sent straight to gaol in the 1800s for relatively minor property crimes than would be the case today for example.  But the same crimes come up time again: petty theft, picking pockets, assault, drunk and disorderly behavior, dangerous driving, fraud and deception.

One offence that I did assume was very ‘modern’ was the spiking of someone’s drink in a pub or bar. This is now most often associated with date rape, where a person (most often a man) adds a chemical to a woman’s drink in order to take advantage of them later. In recent years the preferred drug has been rohypnol but victims have had their drinks spiked with other substances such as ketamine or GHB (which is ecstasy in liquid form).

However, it seems there is indeed nothing new even in this apparently ‘modern’ form of crime. In June 1876 two women appeared at the Thames Police court charged with ‘attempting to drug a seaman’. They failed and ended up in front of the notoriously harsh magistrate, Mr Lushington.

Lushington was told that on the evening of Friday 23 June 1876 Sarah Murray and Mary Spencer were in the Blue Anchor pub in Dock Street, off the Ratcliffe Highway. They had picked out a sailor who’d recently returned from a voyage (and so probably had all his wages on him) and got friendly with him.

This was a common tactic for local prostitutes and thieves: find a likely looking punter, render him insensible through drink (that he paid for) then take him upstairs or nearby for sex and steal all his money and possessions while slept off the effects of the alcohol. A simpler method was to skip the sex altogether and knock him over the head in a dark alley as he lowered his guard along with his breeches.

Mary and Sarah were more sophisticated however. As Sarah distracted his attention her partner removed a paper slip from her clothes and poured a powder into the sailor’s fresh glass of ale. Unfortunately for the young women the seaman was more alert than they thought and saw the move to drug him.

‘He snatched the glass of ale off the counter, and in doing so upset the contents on the floor’. Mary tried to grab the glass but he was too quick for her and rinsed it out before she could stop him.

William Burr was working the bar that night and saw what happened. He tried to seize the woman and Sarah went for him, hitting him with her fists and anything she could find. Both women were eventually subdued and taken to the local police station. Mr Lushington said it was a shame that the barman or sailor hadn’t kept the glass with the drug in it as that would have been evidence against Mary. As it was all he could do was warn both of them that the attempt to poison another person was a serious offence which brought, on conviction, a sentence of penal servitude for life.

He could deal with the assault however and sent Sarah Murray to prison for two months at hard labour. Her accomplice got away with it on this occasion, but knew she’d better avoid appearing in Lushington’s court in the near future. The sailor was unnamed because he didn’t come to court, perhaps because he was embarrassed or maybe because as far as he was concerned the matter was done with.

The publication of the story in a working class paper like Reynolds’s would also serve to warn others of this ‘new’ means of rendering unwary individuals unconscious so that they could be robbed blind by the local women of Tower Hamlets.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, June 25, 1876]

Drug dealing in Rotherhithe, an age-old problem

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Most of the drugs that are prohibited by law today were legal in the nineteenth century but contemporaries recognized that there was a problem with drug use. Opium eating and smoking was widely condemned and attempts were made to restrict its use after 1868 by only allowing its sale by registered pharmacists. However, it wasn’t until 1908 that opium, morphine, cocaine, and some morphine derivatives were classified as ‘poisons’.

Most of the concern was with alcohol, not recreational drugs, and the real moves against cocaine, cannabis, psychedelics and heroin came well into the twentieth century.  Cocaine was prohibited in 1916 amid concerns about its use in the armed forces, and after the First World War Britain had to take steps to introduce a dangerous act under the terms of the Hague Convention in 1920 and later when we became a full member of the League of Nations. Amphetamines were not controlled until 1964, heroin three years later, while cannabis (which had been banned as an amendment to the Dangerous Drugs Act in 1928) use grew in the 1960s and many prosecutions followed.

Nineteenth-century London didn’t have a problem with drugs but there were prosecutions in relation them. In June 1883 William Dell, a druggist’s assistant, was brought up at the Guildhall Police court accused to stealing over £25 worth of drugs from his employer. In today’s money the amount he’d stolen (£25-30) would be around £2,000, so it was not an inconsiderable sum.

We have no idea from the report exactly what drugs Dell was supposed to have taken from Messrs. Evans, Lescher, and Webb at 60 Bartholomew Close, or whether he was planning on selling them around Rotherhithe where he lived. His lodgings on Ilderton Road were raided after he was searched by the pharmacy manager as he left work.

Mr. Forsyth (the manager) said all employees were subjected to a search after a stock take revealed that chemicals were missing. Dell was clean but he hadn’t got his usual bag and when that was brought down about £2 worth of drugs were discovered inside. Much more of the company’s property was discovered when lodgings were searched.

In court Dell pleaded guilty and asked the magistrate to deal with him summarily, so he could avoid a jury trial and a stiffer sentence. Alderman Fowler acceded to his requests and sent him to prison for four months at hard labour.

Everyone will have their own opinion of drug prohibition. Today there is a well-established drug culture in Britain which has survived 100 years of attempts at restricting it. While many young (and older) people die of drug-related conditions and many more suffer from the mental health related effects of non-prescription drugs, the main consequence of 100 years of prohibition has been to criminalize tens of thousands of drug users and to allow a criminal network of drug pushers to develop. Just as the 18thamendment to the Constitution of the United States in effect created the Mafia, the banning of recreational drugs has created the gang culture and levels of organized crime in the UK (and abroad) that we see today.

People will take drugs, and people will be damaged by taking drugs, but there is nothing the state can do to prevent this happening by prohibition. Education and a safe (or safer) environment for drug use is the only way that society can hope to beat addiction and the crime that flows from it.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, June 21, 1883]