‘Wanton mischief’ and criminal damage earns a recidivist drunk a month in gaol

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While the Victorians didn’t have fingerprint technology or the data gathering capacities of modern police forces this didn’t mean that it was always easy for repeat offenders to avoid the repercussions of their past indiscretions.

Policemen were expected to get to know their beats and areas, and the local populations they served. From the end of the 1860s ‘habitual’ offenders were monitored more closely, making it even harder for them to ‘go straight’ and then,  when photography was invented, ‘mug shots’ added to a criminal’s woes.

Alongside the police were the gaolers, court officers and, of course, the magistrates themselves. These authority figures were adept at recognising old or frequent visitors to their court rooms and were far less likely to be lenient if someone had been up before them time after time before.

James Oaks was just the sort of frequent visitor that Mr Arnold at Westminster Police court was hearty sick of seeing in the dock. He was a drunk and probably turned up among the night charges that were paraded before the magistrates most mornings to be admonished, fined or sent to prison for a few days or weeks.

This time Oaks was accused of criminal damage. On the previous evening he had stumbled into a gentleman’s outfitters on Brompton Row. He was the worse for drink and flailing about. He tripped over his own feet and grabbed at a shirt hanging on a nail. Struggling to regain his balance he pulled on the shirt, tearing it and earning the wrath of the shop assistant.

The police were called, Oaks arrested, processed at the police station, and locked up overnight. In the morning at Westminster he tried to say he’d been pushed over and it was all an accident not of his making but Mr Arnold didn’t believe him.

First of all a clerk at Doyle & Foster’s outfitters gave a very damning and clear report of the prisoner’s actions and declared the damage done as the nail ripped the cotton amounted to 7s 6d. In 1869 that equated to a day’s pay for a skilled labourer (and Oaks was very far from being one of the those) so this was no cheap shirt.

More importantly I suspect, Mr Arnold recognised Oaks as someone he’d cautioned for being drunk and disorderly previously and so he was hardly likely to believe his version of events over that of a sober and respectable clerk.

The magistrate looked down at the man in the dock and told him ‘he had no doubt this was a piece of wanton mischief’ and for that he was sending him to the house of correction for a month. No fine, no warning, but straight to gaol.

That was a heavy sentence for the relatively trivial ‘crime’ James had committed and it would probably further impair his chances of finding legitimate employment on his release; presuming, of course, that gainful employment was something he wanted.

In the opinion of men like Mr Arnold the likes of Oaks were near-do-well drunks and loafers for whom second (or third) chances were a waste of his time. Better to keep locking them up than bothering to help them find work, or quit drinking. Sadly this attitude continued until well into the next century when social work and probation began to challenge it.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, August 18, 1869]

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]

‘Oh don’t be so hard on me,’ pleads an Irish philosopher and gentleman of the road

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I had a ‘conversation’ yesterday on social media with someone asking how he should act when homeless people ask for money in the street. Should he give money, or buy them food or a coffee, or should he simply take the time to chat to them? It is a complex question and I quite understood his dilemma; some charities (like the Salvation Army) tell us not to give money, believing it perpetuates the problem. Others suggest we should to help them get the basic necessities of life.

I’m also often told that ‘they will spend it on drink or drugs’, not that it is any of my business how they spend whatever money they have.

Homelessness, vagrancy and begging are not modern social issues, they have been with us for as long as humans have lived in societies. The ‘modern’ vagrancy laws in Britain have their roots in the Tudor period with laws to punish ‘sturdy beggars’ and the building of houses of correction to enforce them. By the Victorian period poverty was endemic and being dealt with by the Poor Law, with workhouses operating as a deterrent to the ‘work-shy’ in the belief that poverty was a personal failing, not a product of society or a capitalist economic system.

There was also limited understanding of mental health and very little state provision for those that suffered. That much is obvious form so many of the cases I’ve written about on this site. I am reluctant to say that nineteenth-century society didn’t care about the poor and homeless and mentally ill, just that it didn’t really understand them and the underlying reasons for their actions.

St. George Gregg was someone who often found himself in trouble with the authorities in the late 1830s and early 40s. He’d come up before the Police court magistrates at Queen Square on more than one occasion in 1840 and was there again in early May that year.

Gregg was an Irishman and was frequently charged for being drunk. He was about to be convicted and fined by Mr Burrell when he raised his hand and asked if he could say a few words. The justice agreed and listened.

The defendant held out a small book, offering it to the chief usher to give to the magistrate. He explained that he’d been writing a book ‘on the currency question’ and thought his worship might like a copy. Mr. Burrell wasn’t interested.

I don’t want your book. What have you to say to the charge against you?’

I walk frequently thirty miles a day’, replied Gregg, ‘That fatigues me, and if I have nothing to eat the liquor has an effect sooner. I had no dinner yesterday, in fact I had no “tin”.’

The magistrate didn’t know what he meant by ‘tin’, so asked him.

Tin is money’, the man explained, ‘and having no  money I had no dinner’.

He’d tried to sell his books for money but seemingly had no takers to he’d started to sing in the streets and that way he’d raised a few pennies which he spent on drink.

‘You might have purchased victuals with that’, Mr Burrrell remarked.

‘Oh, sure, I wasn’t victuals hungry, I was grog hungry’ Gregg shot back. ‘I was like the captivating chandler, wanted I wanted in starch, I made up in blue’, he said, warming to his theme.

So I had toddy till I had but a single copper left, then devil a bed had I, and was making my way to the church-yard to go to bed on a tombstone, when the police found me quarters’.

He added that he’d written a study of ‘ambition’ and would send the magistrate a copy.

‘I don’t want your book. You are fined 5s’ was Mr. Burrell’s response.

Gregg hadn’t got one shilling let alone five and the justice must have realised this. What was the point of fining a homeless tramp anyway? Gregg attempted to barter with the justice, offering him books that he probably hadn’t written (and certainly hadn’t ‘published’ as he’d insisted he had) as part payment of the penalty. Burrell was having none of it and ordered him to be taken away; if he couldn’t pay the fine he’d have to go to prison.

Oh don’t be so hard on me’, pleaded the Irishman, ‘I want to finish a poem’. He was led away protesting his freedom.

Society didn’t understand George Gregg. He didn’t, couldn’t or wouldn’t conform to what was expected of him. He chose to live by his wits and on his own terms. Perhaps he was a ‘popular philosopher’, who wrote tracts in notebooks or scraps of paper that nobody read. His logical response to accusations of being drunk (drinking on an empty stomach) or his choice of how to spend the money he’d earned (on drink because he was thirsty after singing and walking) would be quite reasonable if he was a ‘normal’ member of society. Because he was an outsider and had chosen to live differently to others, the law treated him as a problem. It punished him rather than helped him. I’m not entirely sure we have made much progress in the last 180 odd years.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, May 7, 1840]

‘I won’t have a month, you must give me more’: an unhappy drunk at Westminster

The late Mr L C Tennyson d'Eyncourt

On Friday I recounted the story of a man who was clearly very unhappy at being brought before a magistrate and locked up, particularly because he’d had nothing to eat or drink that morning.  John Betts disturbed the court proceedings and smashed up his cell before he finally accepted his lot.

By contrast Eliza Hastings was unhappy because the magistrate refused to lock her up for longer.

The ‘wild looking and wretchedly clad’ woman was stood in the dock at Westminster to face Mr D’Eyncourt, a well established Police Court justice in the late 1800s. Eliza was charged with being drunk and disorderly and it wasn’t the first time she’d been up before the ‘beak’.

The court was told that she had ‘been repeatedly locked up’ and that ‘prison was the only home she has besides the streets’. She was homeless and presumably preferred not to enter the casual wards of London’s several workhouses.

No less than 30 conviction could be proven against the woman and the last of these had been on the 31 March, Mr D’Enycourt was told, when she was sent to prison for a month.

‘You keep on giving me a wretched month, that’s no good to me‘ Eliza grumbled from the dock, ‘give me a long time in prison‘ she pleaded.

However, Mr D’Eyncourt gave her another month and Eliza lost it. She raged at the magistrate and his court, ‘I won’t have a month, you must give me more’ before tearing off one of her boots and throwing it ‘with violence’ at the bench.

She was then led out of the court by the officers, screaming at the injustice of it all.

The magistrate might have wanted to give her longer but rules were rules and the guidelines he worked to suggested 30 days was the appropriate sentence for the offence she’d committed. She’d not used violence, or resisted arrest, or stolen anything. She was a drunk, a vagrant and quite possibly suffering from mental illness. I suspect that today she’d be a case for probation or social services and helped rather than locked up.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, May 6, 1888]

For other cases heard by Mr D’Eyncourt see:

Mr D’Eyncourt sends his own message after a telegraph boy is attacked

Health and safety ‘gone mad’, as a child narrowly avoids being roasted alive

Pickett climbs a fence and saves a life

The actress and her ‘lunatic’ husband

Bank Holiday drunkenness and violence drives the press narrative at Easter 1883.

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No sign today of the return of the cake scandal from yesterday but we’ll stay rooted in the police court reports from 1883, 135 years ago. These reports reference the preceding bank holiday (Monday 26 March) which must have been Easter Monday. In the late Victorian period England only enjoyed four bank holidays (Easter, Whit Monday, the 1st Monday in August and Boxing Day). These had been introduced in 1871 and were in addition to the Good Friday and Christmas Day closures that existed before Sir John Lubbock brought his legislation before parliament that year.

The press frequently commented on the effect public holidays had on the working population, an effect it seems they thought far from positive. Public holidays were associated with crowds gathering in the parks and at the coast and, more detrimental to the public good, the consumption of alcohol in large amounts.

At Worship Street Police Court ‘exactly half’ the day charges were related to drink: ‘such as disorderly conduct, drunk whilst in charge of horses and vehicles etc, common assaults…’ A policeman brought in one belligerent who he said was responsible for an assault using a belt marked with words ‘skeleton army’ which implied gang membership. Since there was no real proof the fellow had done nothing that he could be charged with Mr Hannay released him.

Over at Southwark three other gang members were paraded before the magistrate, Mr Bridge. Edward Walters (20) James Walters (19) and William Robinson (20) were alleged to be affiliated to the Black Gang. There were accused of a violent street robbery carried out in Union Street in the Borough. Their victim was William White who had sustained injuries too severe to allow him to attend court in person until now.

Between 12 and one in the morning of Sunday 4 March 1883 the three gangsters had jumped White in the street and knocked him to the ground.

‘One man placed his foot across his eyes, while another put his hands in his pockets’ the court was told. ‘While struggling with them he received such a brutal kick in the side of the head that he became insensible, and he had no recollection of anything after that until he found himself in Guy’s Hospital’.

White was still in pain and hadn’t been too clear about the identities of the men that had attempted to rob him. He’d given some information to the police who had apprehended the men quite quickly with the help of a witness, who’d helped out at the scene. The three men were fully committed to take their trial at the next sessions.

Over at Thames the story was similar to that at Worship Street: 36 cases mostly involving alcohol that included ‘drunk and disorderly conduct, wilful damage, refusing to quit licensed premises when requested, assaults, and attempted suicide’.

The picture the press gathered then was a sorry one. The working class, left to their own devices, used the extra day off work to get drunk, fight, challenge authority, and even fall so far into inebriation that in despair they attempted to take their own lives. The appearance of gang violence sandwiched within this tale of low-life degradation was quite probably deliberate. It reminded the readers of the press that at its worst the working class of England were animalistic and violent, especially when they were allowed to indulge their passion for ‘the demon drink’.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, March 28, 1883]

Health and safety ‘gone mad’, as a child narrowly avoids being roasted alive

The Great Western Railway

On the 19 March 1873 The Morning Post reported its daily selection of reports from the Metropolitan Police Courts. At Marylebone there was a complicated ‘health and safety’ case (or at least that is how we would probably describe it today). Nowadays these sorts of cases don’t tend to come up before a magistrate, being dealt with elsewhere, but in the 1800s these were part and parcel of a local justice’s workload.

A summons had been taken out by James Henderson, a factory inspector, who was bringing a charge against the Great Western (Railway) company. He was represented in  court  by a barrister, Mr Henderson, while the company was defended by another lawyer, Mr Thesiger. The case was heard by Mr D’Eyncourt.

The fact were briefly restated: a young lad working for the company during the day had:

‘imprudently crept into the fire-box of a [steam] engine, and whilst asleep the fire was lifted by the fireman in ignorance of the poor boy being there’.

Crucially the report doesn’t say  what happened to the ‘poor boy’ but I am assuming he was fine, or this would have been a very different sort of prosecution. As it was Mr Henderson was attempting prosecute under the terms of the Factory Acts while the company’s counsel argued that these acts didn’t cover the railway company’s premises.

As I suggested, the case was complex and turned on a number of key points of law involving the definition of the engine sheds in the context of the Factory legislation. In the end Mr D’Eyncourt ruled that since the work carried out there involved repairs and maintenance to the rolling stock and locomotives owned by the railway, rather than any manufacturing per se, the acts did not apply and so he dismissed the summons.

I think we would all be more interested in the welfare of the boy and how he came to be sleeping in a fire box but the editor clearly thought his readers would prefer to hear the minutiae of a legal debate. What was more interesting (to me at least) was its remark that exactly a year earlier the Marylebone court had been much busier than it was this week in 1873. In March 1872 there had been 49 charges heard on the corresponding day whereas a year later there were just 23.

The paper listed them:

‘Drunk and incapable, 8; drunk and disorderly, 13; drunk and assault, 1; throwing stones, 1’.

All the offenders that were known to the court were fined 26d or sent to prison for seven days. These types of cases were much more typical of the London Police Courts in the 1800s; and thankfully much more typical than cases involving the accidental roasting of children in locomotive sheds.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, March 19, 1873]

A ‘riot in church’? Drunkenness and disorder at St. George’s-in-the-East

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We credit the Victorians with being much more regular churchgoers than we are today. In 1851 a census was taken of all religious observance in Britain and it produced some interesting results. The report showed that only about 40-45% of those able to attend church did so, with numbers higher in rural areas. Moreover it noted that if everyone who could attend did, there wouldn’t be room for them all.

This was worrying as church was seen as the best way of inculcating good morals and discipline in the populace. Universal education was still in its infancy and its reach was limited, the church (and particularly the established Church of England)

There does also seem to have been a concern about behaviour in church, especially the behaviour (or misbehaviour) of the lower classes and this is evident in the report of cases before the Thames Police Court magistrate in March 1860, nine years after the census was taken.

John March, who had a ‘respectable appearance’ and carried on a trade as an umbrella maker, was charged with disturbing the Rev. Thomas Dove as he presided over service at St George’s-in-the-East on Sunday morning.

He told Mr Yardley that the accused he ‘was interrupted during the Litany service by the saying of supplications in a different tone from that in which he was singing them’. There was also some ‘unnecessary coughing’ he complained.

I found it surprising that there was a policeman on duty in the church. PC Charles Pearce (382K) said he was alerted to a young man in a pew who was coughing loudly. He said that March ‘related the coughing several times , and out his hand over his mouth and held his head down’. It ‘was an artificial cough’ PC Pearce concluded, and March was obviously trying to put the minister off his stride. March’s neighbour could also be heard to tell him to ‘hush’.

The policeman moved in and spoke to the young man, saying:

‘You must go. You have been coughing and laughing all the morning’. March was reluctant to oblige, declaring it ‘was only a mistake’.

Mr Yardley was told that there was plenty more evidence of March’s attempts to undermine the curate but no one turned up in court to testify so he discharged the prisoner. This decision was met with ‘a murmur of satisfaction and applause’.

Next up was Eliza Fenwick who, by contrast with the ‘respectable’ John March was described as ‘dirty and dissipated’. She was also charged with disturbing Rev. Dove’s service but, more seriously, by being drunk and disorderly.

Here Mr Yardley was on firmer legal ground. He said she had been proven guilty of ‘most improper conduct’ which was ‘aggravated by the fact of her being drunk’. Drinking was bad enough but drinking on the Sabbath, and being drunk in church was the action of a dissolute individual. However, there was no evidence that Eliza had gone to Rev. Dove’s service with the express intention of disturbing it so he simply fined her 10s for being drunk and disorderly. So long as she paid she was free to go, if she didn’t have the funds however she’d go to prison.

St George’s-in-the-East was one of several churches built by Nicholas Hawksmoor in the early 1700s to bring the church into the lives of the capital’s poorest communities. Driven by legislation (the New Churches in London and Westminster Act, 1710) the intent was to build 50 new churches across the metropolis. There was a real concern at the time that a lack of places of worship would undermine attempts to spread good discipline and morality amongst London’s poor, so the religious census of 1851 was an echo of this initiative.

I find it interesting that Reynolds’s Newspaper, which served a more radical working-class readership than most, chose to caption this report ‘Rioting in church’. There was no rioting as such which  that the paper had its tongue firmly in its cheek, and was pouring some scorn on the actions of the Rev. Dove in bringing such trivial complaints to court. Alternatively if might have been using the ‘headline’ technique (not something we associate with Victorian papers) as a means to catch the eye, regardless of the real content of the article below.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, March 4, 1860]

St George’s remains (along with Christ’s Church Spitalfields) an example of Hawksmoor’s magnificent architectural ability. It was hit by German bombs during the WW2 but has mostly survived and is well worth a visit.