Inconsistency and the legacy of slavery as two assaults come before the courts

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Memorial to the Demerara slave rebellion of 1823, which commemorates the Guyanan resistance hero, Quamnina.

I suppose it is too much to ask for consistency from the criminal justice system when cases come in all sorts of shapes and sizes and the circumstances of each can be quite different. This is especially true when it concerns violence, specifically violence which fell under the very broad terms of ‘assault’ in the nineteenth century.

Assault was always a very fluid term in law, made clear in instructions to magistrates from Dalton to Burn from the 17th to the early 19th century. Even the advent a professional police and the creation of a Police Code book did little to cement a clear understanding of what assault really was. By the later 1800s there was at least distinction between ‘common’ and ‘aggravated’ assault, but the former definition was as vague as it had been in the 1700s:

‘A common assault is the beating, or it may be only the striking, or touching of a person’.

Police were advised not to arrest aggressors in these cases, ‘but leave the party injured to summons’ them. If actual violence was evident (wounds were obvious for example) the officer was obliged to take culprits into custody, even if they hadn’t seen the incident themselves.1

This allowed a lot of leeway and makes it quite hard for us, as historians, to compare assault cases. When we add to this the fact that most – almost all in reality – were prosecuted before the magistracy (where records are scant at best) we are at a severe disadvantage in understanding the contexts and causes of non-fatal violence in history. It makes it equally difficult to understand why some cases resulted in fines and others led to long prison sentences. It isn’t always as simple as looking at the level of violence used, as this pair of cases from 1843 illustrate.

Violence was often associated with drunkenness, and this took many forms. Mary Denyer was strolling along the Mile End Road, minding her own business one afternoon, when two young men approached her.

Thomas Webb and George Todd had been drinking, enjoying a holiday from work. They grabbed hold of Mary and ‘twirled her abou, but rather too vigourously. Perhaps this was ‘high jinks’, or two boorish young men behaving badly towards a vulnerable female that happened to cross their path.

Regardless of their motives – sinister, or simply crass and stupid – the young tailoress was pregnant and the shock and rough handling she received by being ‘twirled about’ caused her to faint to the pavement.

The men quickly ran off instead of helping her, not the best idea under the circumstances because they’d been seen by a policeman. The officer, having left Mary in the care of a passerby, set off in pursuit. The pals were quickly captured and when brought before the Thames magistrate, were very apologetic, but said they were  only having ‘a lark’. They were drunk, they’d seen a pretty girl and they’d had a dance with her. They didn’t intend to hurt her, and they had no idea she was with child.

None of this cut much ice with the magistrate, Mr Broderip. He condemned their behaviour and said they had committed a ‘gross outrage’ on the poor girl. As a result he fined them £5 each, money he almost certainly knew they didn’t have. That condemned them to spend the next two months in prison. 

I’ve no defence for Todd and Webb, they acted very badly and deserved punishment. But I am interested in justice Broderip’s seemingly inconsistent treatment of assault in his courtroom.

Broderip’s fury at the action of two ‘ruffians’ towards a pregnant women was not matched by his reaction to an assault on a sailor who complained at his court the following day.

Joseph Beale has signed up as an ordinary seaman on the Ludlow a merchant vessel sailing from Demerara (modern day Guyana) to London. On more than one occasion the captain, William Johnson, had abused Beale and accused him of failing to do his job properly.

There were two key incidents that Beale accused his master of:

beating him with a stick and punching him and smashing him in the face with a ‘spitting-box’ (a spittoon).

The violence he’d suffered was, by his own account, severe and certainly aggravated. It was also deliberate, related and sustained. Beale told Mr Broderip he had been struck more than a dozen times with a stick. Had he counted the blows he’d received the magistrate asked him Yes, the sailor replied, he had, or at least until he reached 12 when he stopped counting.

The captain was defended in court by Mr Price, a barrister who cross examined Beale and  discovered that the captain had also lowered his wages, on the grounds that he was only a ‘ordinary’ season not an ‘able’ one (as Beale had apparently claimed).

Beale said he’d never claimed any such thing but perhaps the damage was done and it certainly convinced the magistrate that the man was full of resentment towards his superior.

Broderip accepted that an assault had occurred but decided (with no corroborating evidence at all – indeed at least one crew mate corroborated Beale’s account) that Beale was exaggerating it. As a result the magistrate imposed a small fine and advised Captain Jonson to not ‘strike a man in the heat of passion’ in future or get involved in arguments with his crew on deck.

Compare this fine (10s) for actual and severe violence from a person in authority with the (relatively) minor assault that landed two working class men in gaol the day before.

There was another factor here though, Demerera had been a slave colony. In 1823 a rebellion of 10,000 slaves was crushed by the authorities and many of those accused of involvement were hanged. The revolt probably helped finally undermine slavery and the callous treatment of those involved and the horrors it exposed it undoubtedly ruled the abolition movement. In 1834 slavey was officially abolished in Demerera (under the terms of the 1834 abolition act), so just 9 years before this incident reached Broderip’s court.

We might note that while slavery was an abomination in many people’s eyes parliament still saw fit to compensate the plantain owners for the loss of their ‘property’. In Demerara this amounted to £4,297,117 10s. 6½d (or close to £300m in today’s money).

Joseph Beale was ‘a man of colour’, and so maybe one of those freed in 1843, or the son of freed slaves at least. So just perhaps, in the eyes of Mr Broderip, he was not worthy of more ‘justice’ in his courtroom, especially not when the subject of his complaint was a white man in a position of authority.

[From Morning Post, Wednesday 11 January 1843; The Standard, Thursday 12 January 1843]

  1. Sir Howard Vincent’s Police Code 1889 edited by Neil R A Bell and Adam Wood, (Mango Books, 2015), p. 25

Drew’s latest book, Murder Maps: Crime Scenes Revisited is available from all good bookshops (if you can find one open!) and online via various outlets: e.g Waterstones and Amazon

A chimney sweep’s wife is assaulted and an elderly man abused: two cases of everyday violence from 1880

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Two contrasting cases today – both involving violence and both from 1880. The first of these brought Daniel McCarthy to court at the Guildhall in the City of London.

Mr and Mrs Fisher were eating their dinner on Saturday afternoon. It was between 1 and 2 o’clock  and Mr Fisher had probably spent the morning at his work as a chimney sweep. He had left his ‘sweeping machine’ outside their home in Herring Court, Redcross Street while he settled to eat the meal his wife Ellen had prepared. All of sudden their repast was interrupted by a noise outside. 

Ellen got up to investigate and found man in the street chucking a sackful of soot all over the courtyard, with two other men standing nearby. He had knocked over her husband’s machine and when she asked him what he was doing he gave her a mouthful of abuse. Ellen Fisher strode off to find a policeman but none was to be found and she quickly returned. To her horror she now found her husband being beaten up by the man’s mates. 

When she loudly protested and threatened to call the police the first man – McCarthy – attacked her. He punched her in mouth, knocking her to the ground. When she hailed herself up he knocked her back down and started kicking her. His heavy boots opened a cut in her head, which bled profusely. Throughout she tried to call for the police but no one came.

Later, after she had reported it to the station and had given a description of the man involved. McCarthy was picked up. One of Mrs Fisher’s neighbors corroborated her testimony and McCarthy was sent to prison for 14 days with hard labour. 

Was McCarthy drunk? Did he hold a grudge against the Fishers? Sometimes it is frustratingly difficult to understand why incidents like this happen. We don’t even know McCarthy’s age or his occupation; perhaps he was a rival sweep or maybe Fisher owed him (or someone he worked for) money. The attack seems random and unmotivated, but there may be more to it. 

Further east, at the Thames Police court, another case of violence was being heard. Ada Goodchild, (45) was accused of cutting and wounding her 77 year-old husband John. 

It wasn’t the first either, as was so often the case with domestic violence there was a history of abuse. What was unusual here was that the abuse was female, and the victim male. It is likely that ‘husband beaters’ such as Ada Goodchild were (and are) more common than records suggest; even today the pressures of conventional ideas of masculinity are likely to put off some men from reporting incidents where their partners have bested them. 

John Goodchild stood in court with his head bandaged and testified that Ada had assaulted him a few days previously with a candlestick, but he’d forgiven her and she had promised never to do it again. Her promise didn’t last long. 

On Saturday night she had come home drunk, ‘dragged him out of bed, and [had] pelted him with every conceivable item she could lay her hands on’. Ada then seized a knife and went for him with it, cutting him just above his right eye. Bleeding and battered, John Goodchild staggered out of the house in Wells Place and went to find a policeman. Ada was arrested and brought before Mr Saunders at Thames on the following Monday morning. 

The magistrate upbraided her and said that if he carried on like this she would end up hanging for the murder of her spouse.  For wounding John she was sentenced to two months imprisonment with hard labour. The couple was separated and we can only hope that the justice’s lesson was learned.

Again, we have no idea what caused the rift between Ada and her husband. The age gap was huge and perhaps that was an issue – John perhaps wanted his wife to stay at home, while she sought company and perhaps extramarital relations with men younger than her husband. We can try and imagine her motives but it may be as simple as her being unable to control her temper when she was drunk.  

Whatever the case for the next 2 months John would have to cope without his wife at home. Just as female survivors of domestic violence often had to weigh up the consequences of prosecuting their abusers, John Goodchild’s decision to go to 

law may have temporarily given him peace but he would have to face Ada’s possible wrath  when she retuned, and make his own supper and wash his own clothes while she was incarcerated. 

Lloyd’s Illustrated Newspaper, Sunday 10 October 1880

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

A birching for two boys as Arsenal get their first manager

The gate at Woolwich Arsenal

Charles Robinson was packing up his butcher’s stall at Woolwich Market on Saturday evening when he spied a couple of boys acting suspiciously. They ran off and Charles thought no more of it. 

Until he checked his cash box that is. The box was about 15 shillings light but there was little he could do, the lads were nowhere to be seen. 

The following evening PC Shove (445R) was stopped by a tram conductor in Plumstead. The conductor told him that he’d seen two boys moving in between the passengers queuing for the trams on the High Street. He was pretty sure they were up to no good and he gave PC Shove a description of the pair. 

Later on, at about 10.30 at night, the officer spied his quarry and collared them. He asked them to turn out their pockets and discovered two purses and about 12s in loose coins. Neither lad could give the policeman an adequate explanation as of how they came to be in possession of so much money and eventually owned up to stealing it from Mr. Robinson’s stall the previous day. 

The boys were taken to court at Woolwich and charged with theft. They gave their names as George Bell (11) of Lower Robert Street, and William Igglesden (10) who said he lived in Ann Street. Both addresses were in Plumstead but there was no mention of their parents appearing in court. 

Sergeant Gilham, the gaoler at Woolwich Police court, recognized the boys: the younger child. William Igglesden had been sent to a truant school on two previous occasions he told the magistrate, while the pair had also been in trouble together in the recent past.  

The gaoler informed the magistrate (Mr Taylor) that George and William had been caught in ‘the refreshment bar of the Arsenal football ground’. They’d broken in, helped themselves to whisky, and had got quite drunk. All that brought was a telling off and a warning not to offend again. 

Perhaps it was thought that a warning would suffice and a lesson would be learned, but that leniency was not about to be repeated.  

Mr Taylor told the pair that if they continued to misbehave they risked being sent to prison, regardless of how young they were. To reinforce the message he ordered that a police sergeant beat the pair of them with a birch rod.  

Maybe that did the trick because there’s no prison record for anyone with either name from the 1890s onwards. Of course names could be changed but one can only hope that George and William realised that they were pushing their luck too far. 

1897 was an important year for Woolwich Arsenal, the club whose bar the boys had raided earlier that year.  

On 2 April Thomas Mitchell became the club’s first full-time manager, beating 53 others who had applied for the position. Mitchell had previously managed Blackburn Rovers and been a referee, so he was an experienced football man. He knew about winning as well, having led Rovers to no less than four FA Cup victories.

Presumably the board hoped Mitchell would bring success; after all in January local rivals Millwall Athletic had knocked the Arsenal out of that season’s competition with a 4-2 away defeat. Mitchell never really got the chance to show what he could do at Arsenal because he felt the board of directors was constantly meddling in his efforts to improve the team. So in March 1898, just under a year after he took the job, he resigned, one of the shortest managerial reigns in the club’s 134-year history. 

Arsenal would have to wait a long time to win their first FA Cup, with victory over Huddersfield in 1930. Today of course the modern Arsenal Football Club holds the record for the most FA Cup wins (14) and the most cup final appearances (21). Today they take on all conquering Liverpool in the ‘largely meaningless friendly’/’first trophy of the season’ (delete as applicable) behind closed doors at Wembley in the FA Community Shield. 

I like to hope that the ancestors of William and George are watching somewhere, cheering the Gunners on. Who know eh? 

[from Morning Post, Monday 1 February 1897]

For more on Arsenal’s history visit the excellent Arsenal History Society site. The Arsenal History Society is an integral part of AISA (the Arsenal Independent Supporters Association) and you can find out more about their work here.

‘Let finish the bastard!’ : Drunkenness and violence in the Victorian capital

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Seven Dials, a Victorian slum 

It was drunkenness and its consequences that filled the first column of reports on the Police Courts in the Morning Post on 6 August 1863. Drunk and disorderly behaviour, especially if it involved any form of violence, was regularly punished by the city’s magistrates and featured often in newspaper reports. This morning the reports, while they had a common theme, involved a range of defendants and circumstances.

The most serious (at least in the eyes of the law at the time) was heard at Bow Street before Mr Henry. Two ‘young rough fellows’ – Reardon and Sullivan – were accused of being drunk and assaulting a police officer. The officer involved was a Inspector Brimmacombe of F Division Metropolitan Police. Brimmacombe was on duty in Seven Dials, one of the capital’s poorer and more criminal districts.

What he was doing there is unclear but he wasn’t operating under cover because when he came upon Reardon and Sullivan and a half dozen other men who were drunk and disturbing the peace, he instructed them to go home quietly.

They laughed in his face, refused to comply, and attacked him. Sullivan swung at the officer but missed, striking a nearby carthorse on the nose instead. Sullivan now tried to grab at the policeman and spat full in his face, cursing him. Brimmacombe seized the man’s collar and made to drag him way but he called for his mate’s to help him ‘throw him down’.

The ‘mob’ now piled in on the policeman, joined he said by many more so that he was kicked on the ground as he was surrounded by upwards of 20 assailants. Inspedctor Brimmacombe was kicked, ‘beaten, and dragged about, his coat and cape covered with mud, and so torn as to be unserviceable’. The assault continued for about 10 minutes and Reardon then drew a knife and muttered darkly:

‘Let’s finish the __________’.

Just then the Westminster Police court prison van drove by, on its may to the House of Detention. The sergeant driving the van saw what was happening and rushed to help the inspector. The crowd of roughs scattered but Sullivan was arrested. Reardon was identified and picked up in a pub later that evening. In court both prisoners apologized but it didn’t save them from punishment: Mr Henry ordered them to pay a hefty £3 fine each or go to gaol for a month.

The next two cases are from the City of London, which had two courts – at Mansion House (where the Lord Mayor presided, unless he was unavailable) and Guildhall, which was staffed by aldermen in rotation.

Ellen Murray was charged before Alderman Gabriel with being drunk and causing criminal damage. She was prosecuted by a Mr Hough, who kept a licensed public house on Giltspur Street. Hough said that Ellen had come to his house and had been drinking until he decided she’d had enough. Ellen was becoming rowdy and landlords were mindful of running orderly establishments for dear of losing custom and their licenses.  When she wouldn’t calm down he threw her out.

The young woman was drunk and enraged and put her fist through his window, breaking what he described as a ‘valuable pane of embossed glass’. He called for a policeman and had her arrested. In court he told the alderman magistrate that he was particularly upset because he had helped Ellen in the recent past. She was poor and he had approached the West London Union on her behalf to secure her some outdoor relief, meaning she could stay out of the workhouse. He thought it very ungrateful of her to repay him in this way.

Ellen apologized but again; it wasn’t enough to save her. She had no money to pay a fine or the damages she owed for the window so she was sent to prison for a fortnight.

Our final case concerned a young man at the other end of the social scale. James Wilson was the name he gave at Mansion House but that may not have been his real name. He was a – he said – a solicitor and had a ‘genteel’ appearance as he stood in the dock before the Lord Mayor.

He too was charged with being drunk and, in addition, with ‘assaulting several females’. This was his second appearance that week but when he was set in the dock on Tuesday he’d been too drunk to stand and so was remanded overnight. Wilson had been seen by a 15 year-old boy in Bucklersbury (a street in the city quite close to the Bank of England – pictured right c.1845 ) with a young girl. It was reported that he had assaulted her in ‘an indecent manner’ and the witness had gone off to fetch a policeman.

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Meanwhile Wilson ran off and groped a passing woman before boarding a moving omnibus where he assaulted another female passenger. The bus was stopped and Wilson removed and warned by a constable. Taking no notice – presumably because he was so drunk – Wilson ran up to another women in the street and threw his arms around her neck.

That was his lot and the police took him into custody. On Wednesday, sober and repentant, he apologized although he said he was so drunk he could hardly remember anything from that night. He begged not to be sent to gaol, as ‘it would ruin him mentally, he was sure’. The Lord Mayor said drunkness was no excuse and he’d have to be punished in some way.

Wilson said he was ‘a poor man’, living off his friends with very little funds of his own but he’d happily make a donation to the poor box if His Lordship requested him to. The Lord Mayor fined him 40but warned him that a failure to pay would earn him a month in prison. Hopefully for him – if not for his victims – his friends rallied round and paid his fine.

So, three cases of drunken behaviour, three different sorts of victim and quite different circumstances, but all ‘rewarded’ in much the same way. Violence, often fuelled by drink, was endemic in the Victorian capital and must have proved depressingly repetitive to the  men who served as Police Court magistrates.

[from Morning PostThursday, 6 August 1863]

A drunken mother loses her temper and then her liberty

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Royal Army Clothing Factory 21/6/1918 during a visit by King George V and Queen Mary (IMW collection)

On Wednesday 28 July 1875 Emma Leven was set in the dock at Westminster Police court to face a charge that she had tried to kill her own baby. She was remanded overnight by the sitting magistrate Mr Arnold, who wanted to hear from a number of people, including the key witness, who had not appeared that day.

The case hadn’t been reported at the time but we should read nothing into that. Hundreds of summary hearings took place every day at London’s police courts and the papers only carried reports of one or two from each of them daily. This case was ‘of interest’ however, so when Emma was brought back from the cells on Thursday a scribbler from the Morning Post described the hearing for his readers.

Emma was married and – according to Mrs Elizabeth Turner, Thomas Tullogh, and William Rush – on the night of 27 July she was drinking in the Eagle public house on Grosvenor Road¹ and was ‘very drunk’. Her baby had been left outside and it was crying its eyes out. One imagines Emma was under some pressure to deal with the crying infant, and no doubt felt a mixture of anger, resentment, and embarrassment as all the eyes of the pub were turned on her.

Suddenly he declared that she would throw the child in the Thames, and rushed out of the pub. She lifted the child into her arms and set off at a run in the general direction of the river. Alarmed, Mrs Turner hurried after her and managed to catch up with Emma just before she hurled the poor thing over the railings and into the water.

A policeman was summoned and Mrs Turner took charge of the baby as Emma was led away. While Mrs Turner suckled her child Emma screamed abuse at her all the way back to the police station. For some reason however, Mrs Turner did not appear in court on the Wednesday, while Tullogh and Rush did. Turner somehow managed to sign the register of witnesses attending that day, despite not doing so, this would impact on her, as we shall see.

In court on the Thursday Emma Leven had sobered up and was contrite. She was ‘too fond of her children’ to ever intend to hurt them she told Mr Arnold. She had gone to the pub that evening to meet her husband and some friends; one drink had led to another and she had drunk too much. She was sorry.

Her husband was more belligerent. He told the magistrate that he didn’t believe a word of what Mrs Turner had said. Perhaps there was some bad blood there; local jealousies and neighbor disputes were all too common, feuds could develop out of the smallest slights amplified over time.

What mattered here though was not what  Mr Leven believed but what Mr Arnold (as presiding magistrate) did. And he believed the case was proven.

He rebuked Mr Leven for ‘having little regard for his child’ and challenged Emma’s declaration of ‘fondness’ for her child. If, he said, ‘she chose to get so drunk that she rushed to the side of the river to throw the child in she must put up with the consequences’.  She had been drunk and disorderly and he would send her to prison for a month. On her release she would have to find sureties of £20 against her good behavior for the following six months.

Having dealt quite severely with Emma Leven he turned his attention to the witnesses.

He was full of praise for Turlough and Rush but very disappointed to hear that their employer had stopped their wages for coming to court the previous day. The pair worked at the Royal Army Clothing Factory on Grosvenor Road in Pimlico (where the Eagle pub was) and he instructed the chief inspector of B Division to pay the factory a visit.

‘The men had attended in the performance of a public duty’, he said, and ‘if they were stopped of their wages it would have the effect of deterring people from coming forward and giving evidence in the public cause’.

Arnold recognised that justice relied on the participation of the general public. The men deserved praise not a penalty.

The same was not the case for Mrs Turner however. When she asked for her expenses (presumably for attending court and looking after Emma’s baby) Mr Arnold dismissed her abruptly. He had ‘no fund at his disposal expect the poor box; he told her but as she ‘had not attended the court on Wednesday, although she had signed the sheet, he should not allow her expenses’. The suspicion is then that the magistrate, while keen to recognize public spiritedness was less impressed by self-interest and dishonesty.

The Royal Army Clothing Factory was established in Pimlico in the 1850s to make and supply the British Army. It was part of the Royal Army Ordnance Corps and remained in Grosvenor Road until 1932, when it closed.

Today the site is covered by the private housing development Dolphin Square which was erected in the 1930s following the factory’s demolition. In recent years it has been home to a number of famous people (including the tennis star Rod Laver and Princess Ann – not together I hasten to add) and several politicians including Harold Wilson and David Steel. Oswald Mostly, the most prominent British fascist of his generation, was living in the Square in 1940 when he was detained as an enemy of the state during the Second World War. Having once stayed in an apartment in Dolphin Square I can attest to its general air of opulence, but I never met any celebrities

from Morning Post Friday 30 July 1875

¹ The Eagle is still operational in Pimlico, now renamed the Grosvenor though.

A ‘ferocious looking woman’ and a distraught wife: female violence in 1840s Clerkenwell

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White Horse Alley, Clerkenwell  in the 1800s

Domestic violence (however it is defined) was a depressingly regular occurrence in nineteenth-century London. Most of the victims were women; beaten, kicked, and sometimes stabbed by (invariably) drunken husbands or common law partners, in the midst of arguments usually caused by the return of the man from the pub having spent the household budget on beer.

There were occasions when the woman was at fault (even if this did not justify the violence meted out on her body), through being drunk herself. Not that most men needed much of an excuse – a cross word from a ‘sharp tongue’, or dinner that was cold or ‘late’ – could earn you a beating.

Only a handful of these acts of assault ended up in the police courts and most of those were resolved quickly when the victim spoke up for her abuser or chose to forgive him. A working class woman (married or not) had more to lose than her partner if he was separated from her by imprisonment, or made to pay a fine.

Taking ‘your man’ to court might earn you respect amongst your long-suffering sisters, it might alert family and friends to his mistreatment of you, it might even shame him into behaving better (for a time). But it risked reprisals as well.

It was even rarer for men to take their spouses to court. For a man to stand up in court and declare that a woman had bested him was a humiliating experience. If things got that far then the situation at home had to be very bad.

Or the violence had to be very serious.

Women did instigate violence though, and were prosecuted for it. Most often their victims were other women. But here are a couple of examples – both from Clerkenwell in May 1844 – where female violence resulted in a court hearing.

On Tuesday 7 May Margaret Kelly was accused of stabbing John Dimmock. Dimmock lived with his wife at 13 White Horse Court in Turnmill Street. Kelly shared an address with the Dimmocks, living in a room below them. One the Monday night Kelly had argued with Mary Dimmock and it turned nasty.

Mary ran upstairs to her rooms where her husband was in bed, and Margaret followed her. She ran over to the bed, seizing a knife from the table as she did. Before John could raise himself she attacked, stabbing him just below the eye.

Horrified, Mary ran downstairs to fetch help.

Soon afterwards PC 38G arrived and found John Dimmock in bed, ‘bleeding profusely from a dreadful wound o his face’, the bed, he reported, was ‘saturated with blood’. Dimmock was taken to hospital (St Bart’s) but despite the surgeon’s efforts his life was still in danger.

In court Margaret Kelly admitted she had rowed with Mary and that she had thrown a basin of water at John but denied using a knife. The policeman said he had a witness that would swear she did. Kelly scoffed at this prompting the magistrate to tell her that this ‘was no laughing matter’. Mr Combe added that if Dimmock died she’d be on trial for her life.

She was remanded for a week.

Just under a week later – on Monday 13 May a different woman was accused of violence at Clerkenwell Police court. In an unconnected case Caroline King was charged with cutting and wounding her husband George at their lodgings in Little Warner Street.

The incident happened around midnight on Saturday 11 May. George –a  brassfounder – told the magistrate that they had quarreled. Caroline was drunk and she threw a ‘glass goblet at his head’. As the goblet smashed ‘several pieces of the glass entered close to [his] jugular, and severed a number of the smaller blood vessels’.

He (and Caroline) were lucky that his injuries were not more serious.

She didn’t try to deny her actions and the justice remanded her in custody for a few days while he decided what to do with her. In this it is probable that he would have been guided by the wishes of her husband, but he also would have wanted to make sure that the brassfoudner’s injuries were not any more serious than they appeared.

Three days later she was brought back to court. George was there but quite weak, so he was offered a seat in court. Caroline King was ‘convulsed in grief’ the paper reported, clearly distraught that she had so nearly killed her husband. She ‘begged his forgiveness’ and he told the magistrate he didn’t wish to press charges against her. They ‘went away arm in arm, apparently on affectionate terms’.

In this case then, all’s well that ends well.

Meanwhile Margaret Kelly reappeared on remand at Clerkenwell on the Monday (13 May). She was described as a ‘ferocious looking woman’ and a little more detail of the argument she’d had with Mary (or Anne as she was now called) Dimmock was provided. The pair had met in Sutton Street and Kelly had called her names. She ignored her but when she got home Kelly was there, and confronted her.

There was no more detail on the assault although the argument was apparently ‘a grudge’ carried over from Easter. Since John Dimmock (Or Dymmock) was still too weak to attend court Kelly was again remanded. On Monday 27 May  Dimmock was fit enough to attend. He gave his side of things and Kelly was committed to trial.

In June the case came before a jury at the Old Bailey. The court heard that Mary and Margaret had ‘been quarrelling for months’. Kelly accused John Dimmock of kicking at her down but he, Mary and some other witnesses all denied this. She aslo said she reacted when Mary threw a basin at her. No one denied that Margaret had been drinking, and it is likely that many of the rows had occurred when both women were under the influence.

In the end the jury found the prisoner guilty and she was sentenced to twelve months in prison. She was 42 years of age.

[from Morning Post, Wednesday 8 May 1844; The Standard, Tuesday 14 May 1844; Morning Post, Friday 17 May 1844; Lloyd’s Illustrated Paper, Sunday 14 May 1844; Morning Post, Tuesday 28 May 1844]

A murder confession, 13 years too late

The "Rookery", St. Giles's, 1850

Nineteenth-century St Giles

The reporter from Reynold’s newspaper, or his editor, captioned George Skinner’s behavior as ‘EXTRAORDINARY CONDUCT’.

Skinner, a 39 year-old resident of south London was brought before Mr Chance at Lambeth Police court charged with being drunk. It wasn’t his first appearance in court and had only recently been released from prison where he’d served a month inside for being an ‘habitual drunkard’.

On this occasion Skinner had presented himself at the desk of Gypsy Hill Police station, telling the sergeant that he was responsible for a murder that took place 13 years earlier. The station inspector sat him down and took a statement from him. He confessed to killing a ‘woman named Jackson’ in 1863 but when he was handed the statement to sign, he refused.

He was ‘very drunk’ when he spoke to the police and subsequent enquiries had ‘ascertained that the prisoner had before given himself up at Bow Street in a similar manner’.

But had a woman named Jackson been murdered in 1863, the magistrate asked? Indeed they had.

Sergeant 4ER gave evidence that a woman named Jackson had been murdered in George Street, Bloomsbury in 1863 and that in 1870 George Skinner had confessed to the crime. The police had investigated his confession however, and found it to be false.

Whoever had killed Ms Jackson the police didn’t believe it was Skinner, even if he seemed to. Mr Chance turned to the prisoner and told him that he had acted in a ‘most disgraceful manner’, presumably by being drunk and wasting police time. What had he to say for himself?

‘Commit me for trial’, Skinner replied. ‘I don’t care what you do. Let it go for trial’.

‘Let what go for trial?’, the magistrate demanded to know.

‘Send me for trial as an habitual drunkard. You know you can do it if you like. That’s the law’.

Mr Chance may well have had considerable discretionary power in 1880 but he could hardly send someone before a jury for being a drunk, however annoying the man’s behaviour was. Instead he was able to send him back to prison and/or fine him and this is what he did. Skinner, described as an able if ‘lazy’ shoemaker, was fined 20s  and told if he did  not pay up he would go to prison for 14 days at hard labour.

‘Only fourteen days for confession of a murder?’ Skinner quipped, ‘All right’.

In April 1863 a carpenter was charged at Bow Street with the murder of an Emma Jackson in St Giles. The court was crowded as the locals clearly felt this was the killer. They were mistaken however, as the police quickly established that the man confessing to murder, John Richards (a 31 year old carpenter) was, like Skinner, a drunken fantasist. He had confessed whilst drunk but later retracted and the magistrate, a Mr Broddick, warned him but let him go without further penalty.

The murder of Emma Jackson excited ‘intense interest in the miserable neighbourhood in which it took place’, Reynold’s  had reported at the time. As a result the tavern where the inquest was held was as crowded at the police court where Richards was examined a few days later. St Giles was a notoriously poor area (below), on a par with Whitechapel and Southwark in the 1800s, and a byword for degradation and lawlessness.

A_Scene_in_St_Giles's_-_the_rookery,_c._1850

Emma was murdered in a brothel, although it was also described as a lodging house; in some respects it was hard to discern much difference between the two. Jackson had arrived there with a client (a man wearing a cap was all the description the landlady could manage) and asked for a room for two hours.

It was a very brutal murder, there was blood everywhere, but no sign of the killer. Perhaps it was intensity of this murder and the lack of a suspect that prompted some disturbed individuals to confess to it, just as several people confessed to being the Whitechapel murderer in 1888.  That they were drunk when they did so might also indicate that they ware suffering from a form of mental illness, understood today but not in the 1800s.

Skinner had confessed to a murder in 1863 in Bloomsbury, Jackson was killed in St Giles, which is near enough to allow it to be the same murder.

[from Reynold’s Newspaper, Sunday 7 March 1880; Daily NewsThursday 23 April, 1863; Reynold’s Newspaper, Sunday 19 April 1863 ]

One wedding, a broken jaw, and a prison sentence

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On Saturday 30 November William Mellish appeared at the Greenwich Police court accused of assaulting his a sister Caroline at their cousin’s wedding. Caroline, married to man named Hannen, was present in court with her swathed in bandages.

Mr Marsham was told that the wedding party had retired to Mellish’s home in Deptford where the drinking had continued. A sing song had resulted in arguments as Caroline’s sister apparently omitted some words from a popular ditty and the celebration descended into a full-blown fistfight.

Caroline poked her sister in the eye, the sisters went at each other no holds barred and William reached across the table and punched out at the pair of them. His blow landed on Caroline, breaking her jaw.

He tried to claim that Caroline had hurt herself by banging her head against the table but the magistrate wasn’t convinced. Everyone had been ‘the worse for drink’ and I suspect he wanted to make an example of such working-class excess.

Mellish was sent to prison for three months, meaning he would miss the family Christmas that year. In retrospect that was probably no bad thing.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, December 1, 1889]