A drunken cabbie crashes into a fire escape

Metropolitan Fire Brigade scaling ladder drill, 1873

I thought I knew what a fire escape was. A long ladder or staircase attached to a building that allowed those inside to escape down it should there be a fire. However in the 1860s these ladders were not fixed, but mobile. Scalable ladders (escapes) were positioned about every half a mile throughout London so that they could be moved quickly to wherever they were needed.

The escapes were funded and organized by the Royal Society for the Protection of Life from Fire (RSPLF) which had been founded in 1836 because London’s other main firefighting organization (the London Fire Engine Establishment) was only really concerned with saving insured property in the city.

As well as proving escape ladders the RSPLF also offered rewards to firefighters who demonstrated particular bravery in saving people from fire, as today’s fire brigade does on a daily basis.  The efforts of the RSPLF eventually led to the formation – in 1865 – of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade and a year later the new service acquired all of the LFEE’s equipment, gratis. By contrast, the RSPLF charged the MFB the significant sum of £2,500 for its escapes and insisted that the new organization employed all of its ‘escape men’.

Quite possibly the escapes situated across the capital were a reassuring sight for Londoners, but they may also have constituted a hazard, as this case at Marlborough Street Police court suggests.

A fire escape conductor named Bennett was standing next to his box and ladders when he saw a hansom cab careering towards him. It was about two in the morning and Bennett jumped aside as the cab crashed into the ladders, doing about £18 worth of damage. That may not sound much but in today’s money it is about £1,000.

As a policeman watched the driver, rather than untangling himself, tried to press on dragging the ladders with him. PC Carpenter (219C) ran over and dragged the man from his cab. The driver was clearly drunk at the reins and wasn’t even able to stand up straight. PC Carpenter arrested him and took him back to the nearest police station.

On the morning of Tuesday 31 January 1865 Edward Whitford appeared in court before Mr Tyrwhitt charged with being drink in charge of a cab and of committing criminal damage. The RSPLF were represented in court and listened as the magistrate fined the driver 20(or a month in gaol). He couldn’t expect the driver to pay for the damage to the escape however, but reassured the RSPLF that ‘he had a remedy elsewhere’. Perhaps he was aware that within a matter of months the new Fire Brigade would be taking to the streets and the RSPLF’s property would be being transferred to them, albeit at a cost to the public purse.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, February 01, 1865]

One man throws acid at his wife, while another threatens his with a pistol

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Today I want to compare two separate but related cases heard this week in 1884 before the police magistrate courts of London. Both concern men acting against their wives, and both quite violently.

At Guildhall Police court, in the City of London, George Steel, a metal worker, was charged with threatening to shoot his wife Charlotte. Mrs Steel appeared in court to testify against him and the only other witness of the policeman that arrested him.

According to Charlotte her husband had come home in the morning ‘the worse for drink’ (in other words he was drunk, and we might presume she meant the ‘early hours’ of the morning). The couple rowed, and, as was depressingly common in working-class marriages at the time, came to blows. For some reason George owned a pistol and he seized it and thrust it in her face, threatening to ‘settle her’.

The alderman magistrate was told that it wasn’t the first time the metal worker had used force and threats against his spouse, and that too was very familiar. Wives and partners tended to put up with quite a lot of abuse before they were finally driven by desperation and fear of what might happen to take their complaints to law.

George said he only wanted to scare his wife, and that he only loaded the gun with the intention of firing up the chimney. The justice remanded him in custody to see what might emerge from other witnesses in the next couple of days.

Meanwhile at the Marlborough Street court George Ballard was brought up for second appearance having previously been remanded by Mr Newton for an assault on his (Ballard’s) wife. Ballard was a 38 year-old bootmaker living with Mrs Ballard in Berwick Street, Soho. The couple argued at lot and Ballard was another drinker. The officer of the court who had investigated the case described his wife as ‘a hard working woman’.  He added that he’d been told that the defendant had often threatened his wife and her sister.

George Ballard’s crime was to have thrown vitriol (acid) over his wife in a fit of anger. When questioned his only defense was that she had threatened his life. Mr Newton dismissed this excuse, saying that even if it was true (which he clearly doubted) it was no reason to attack her in such a cowardly way. He sent the bootmaker to prison for six months at hard labour and, ‘as she was capable of maintaining herself’, he granted Mrs Ballard a judicial separation. Hopefully when George got out she would have found somewhere a long way away from him.

Many women wouldn’t have gone as far as Mrs Ballard did in getting the court to remove her husband and bread winner, but she was perhaps in a better position than most, and able – as the justice noted – to look after herself. It was more usual for wives and partners, seemingly regardless of the hurt done to them, to forgive their abusers or retract their evidence, sometimes after the man had spent a few days in a cell.

This was the case with Charlotte Steel. When George Steel was again presented at Guildhall Police court on the 3 February 1884  Charlotte said she was not frightened of him and that he’d never threatened her before. Her sister backed her up, saying she didn’t believe George ever meant to hurt anyone. Alderman Isaac could do little but warn George about his future behaviour telling him that he:

‘had placed himself in a very serious position, for he might have been committed for trial for  threatening to commit murder. He advised him not to have anything to do with firearms again’, and then released him.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, 30 January, 1884; The Morning Post), Monday, 4 February, 1884]

“Oh what would mamma say?”: an old drunk at Marlborough Street

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Drunk and disorderly was by far the most common offence to be dealt with at the Police courts of the metropolis in the Victorian period. Thousands of men and women were brought before the city’s magistracy, usually after an uncomfortable night in the cells of a station house, to be admonished, fined and/or sent to prison for a few days or weeks. The worst nights for drunkenness were Friday or Saturday but it was a perennial problem, one we have not managed to solve today either.

Some of the drunks encountered by police officers would have sloped off to their homes when politely but firmly asked to do so, and quite a few of them were otherwise ‘respectable’ gentlemen and clerks who had just enjoyed one or two many beers or glasses of wine. These weren’t really the  concern of the magistrates, they concentrated their attention for the most part on the regular offenders, on those women for whom ‘disorderly behaviour’ was  simply code for prostitution, and the violent brawlers who squared up to police (or each other) outside one of the capital’s very many waterholes.

The catch-all offence of ‘disorderly’ brought defendants into court who, whilst clearly drunk, would probably today be seen as need to help, not punishment. Mental illness was not as well understood in the 1800s as it is today and society was certainly not as tolerant of ‘difference’ as we are. So the case of Amy Anderson is instructive.

Amy was a young woman, perhaps in her twenties, who was constantly in and out of prison in the last quarter of the century. In January 1888 she was put up before Mr Newton at Marlborough Street Police court on a charge of disorderly behaviour in Regent Street. This was a normal experience for Amy who gave a different name every time she was arrested. This time it was Lillie Herbert, a few months earlier it had been Tot Fay, but there were plenty of others. Giving a false name was a common enough ruse for criminals and streetwalkers who hoped that they would avoid a stiffer penalty if convicted (calculating that the courts would not link their previous convictions together).

I’m not sure Amy (Or Lillie or Fay) was a prostitute but she may have been. Regent Street was a notorious haunt for sex workers in the nineteenth century but it was also a place where single women would go shopping (and so sometimes be mistaken for prostitutes). Amy was dressed elaborately and this had drawn the attention of two other women. An argument had ensued and words and blows had been exchanged. At the point the police arrived – in the person of PC James (37 CR) – it appeared that Amy was the aggressor and she was arrested.

In court under questioning Amy’s responses suggest a person struggling with mental illness. She denied any wrongdoing and told Mr Newton that the other women had picked on her because of her ‘conspicuous dress’. She angrily declared that ‘her mamma would not tolerate such conduct, she was sure, and she would be sorry if she got to know about it’. This exchange – and most of the hearing in fact – was met with laughter in the court, clearly poor Amy was not being taken seriously and was held up by the paper at least as a figure of fun.

The gaoler was called forward to be asked if he recognized her.

‘Oh yes’, he testified, ‘she has been here very many times, as well as at Marylebone, Westminster, and other courts. On the 3rd of last month she was fined 40s for drunkenness and disorderly conduct in the streets and in default she was sent to prison for a month’.

So Amy had spent most of December 1887 in gaol and it had taken her less than a fortnight to find herself up on a charge again in the New Year. Mr Newton turned to her and dismissed her protests, telling her to find two sureties of £10 each to ensure she behaved herself for six months. There was no way Amy could provide such assurances or such wealthy ‘patrons’.

‘Oh what will mamma say?’ she sighed and was led skipping out of the dock with the laughter of the court ringing in her ears.  As the report put it: ‘in the afternoon she returned to her old quarters in Millbank’, meaning of course, the prison by the Thames (where the Tate Gallery now stands).

[from The Standard, Thursday, January 12, 1888]

No help for heroes at Westminster, just a prison cell

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In 1892 Rudyard Kipling published a collection of poems called ‘Barrack Room Ballads’. This included ‘Tommy’ which he’d penned a coupe of years earlier and contrasted the public view of the Victorian soldier in wartime and peace. This is best summed up by this line:

O it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Tommy, go away”;

But it’s “Thank you, Mister Atkins”, when the band begins to play,.

Soldiers – as Kipling’s poem suggested – were to be valued when there was fighting to be done but were considered a nuisance at other times. I grew up watching the annual Festival of Remembrance that honours the dead of two world wars (and subsequent conflicts) but while the British Legion have done much for ex-servicemen and their families it was still deemed necessary to create the Help for Heroes charity in 2007 to support men and women wounded in the course of serving in the armed forces.

We might well ask why such a charity is needed in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, a country which is a founder member of NATO and that has an arms trade that generates billions from the sale of lethal weapons across the globe. Then again we might ask ourselves why over half a million people used food banks in Britain last year, or why the DWP (Department for work and pensions) concluded that in 2016 over 21m Britons were living in ‘relative poverty’.

But back to ‘Tommy Atkins’ and public attitudes in the 1800s. There was no ‘help for heroes’ then, or a British Legion. All the ex-soldier without work could rely on at mid century was his army pension (if he had one) charity, the Poor Law, and his wits. George Hill had no pension because he’d been kicked out of the army for getting drunk and assaulting an officer.

Hill was lucky; if he’d attacked the officer whilst on active service he’d have faced a court martial and the possibility of a firing squad. Instead he’d been released ‘with ignominy’ and no pension and had subsequently found it difficult or impossible to secure gainful employment. As a result Hill sat himself on the streets of London with a painted sign that read:

9th Regiment of foot.

I have served 22 years in the 9thFoot – 20 years in India, and have been in eight general engagements, and am now discharged without a pension’.

Begging was a summary offence and so when PC James Light (128B) discovered him on his beat he asked him to move along and, when this request was ignored, arrested him. The former infantryman was brought before Mr Broderip at Westminster Police court where his previous military indiscretion was revealed. In the eyes of Victorian society Hill was a violent drunk who deserved nothing from a society he had served for 22 years expect condemnation and a prison cell. The magistrate duly obliged and sent him down for three months.

George Hill may well have been a ‘impudent, violent beggar’ and he certainly had previous convictions for vagrancy but today we recognize that ex-servicemen suffer mental as well as physical wounds as a consequence of what they’ve been through. Perhaps Hill’s 22 years in the colours had left him similarly scarred and unable to function as a part of ‘normal’ Victorian society.

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He had probably fought at the battles of Mudki and Ferozeshah during the First Anglo-Afghan War and so, like many modern soldiers, had been to Kabul. He would also have been with the colours at the battle of Soprano (right) in the First Anglo-Sikh war. Technically of course he was fighting under the general banner of the East India Company but that matters little, the danger and suffering is the same.

In 1852 then soldiers like George Hill were not valued by the society they had served. Within two years however thousands of then were fighting for ‘Queen and Country’ once more as Britain took on the might of Imperial Russia in the Crimea and then the challenge to the Empire in India in 1857. So once again it was ‘ “Thank you, Mister Atkins”, when the band begins to play’.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, 5 January, 1852]

‘You have most grossly ill-used this girl, and you will pay a fine of £5 to the Queen’: violence, theft and late night drinking dominate the news from  the early Victorian police courts

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The Police courts of the Victorian metropolis did not sit on Christmas Day but the newspapers were printed on Boxing day and they carried the stories of the week’s crime news. In the early days of the reportage of the ‘doings’ of these magistrates’ hearings the storytelling can be more elaborate than is the case later in the century. Dickens cut his teeth as a court reporter and you can certainly see some novelistic flourishes in the articles that were published under the header of ‘police intelligence’.

In the Boxing Day edition of The Morning Chronicle for 1838, in the first full year of Victoria’s long reign, there were three reports, all of the hearings heard on Christmas Eve before the courts closed for the holiday. At Worship Street Robert Terry was charged with breaking into a property in Hoxton with the intent to steal. As he entered the yard at the rear he was heard and a lodger went to investigate. Seeing a stranger in the dark the resident attempted an arrest and was badly beaten for his pains.

Fortunately a policeman was on hand to capture Terry and bring him before Mr Broughton at the East End police court. The intruder was well known to the police, having been ‘summarily conicted no less than six times’. On his way to the station Terry had told the officer (41N) ‘Well, you _____, you can’t hang me now: you can only give me two or three months for this’.

The magistrate told him he was mistaken: he would send to prison for two months for the attempted burglary and then on for trial as a ‘an incorrigible rogue’, for which he fully expected him to get a further year at hard labour.

At Lambeth Mary Byrne was brought before Mr Coombe charged with stealing nine pairs of gloves from a hosier in the Mile End Road. She was seen dropping a parcel containing the gloves into her basket soon after she entered the shop on the previous Saturday evening. Mary said she had travelled to the shop from Charing Cross and was so cold and wet (it had rained heavily that day) that her hands had ‘become so benumbed, that she was perfectly unconscious of what she did with them’. Her husband was a policeman, and had served since the formation of the force in 1829. He was an honest man but it didn’t save his wife who was sent back to gaol to await a trial in the new year.

Finally, the reporter from Thames Police court described the scene and exchange in court as Peter Murphy, a boilermaker, was prosecuted for a vicious attack on a young woman.

Sarah Douglas was assaulted by Murphy as she made her way home from a concert in a beer house called the Bee Hive. Murphy, quite drunk it seems, had caught up with Sarah and had knocked her to the ground. More than one witness (including PC William Wood of K Division) watched in horror as the man grappled with his victim and tore her clothes off. Poor Sarah was left with just her stays and a petticoat. The policeman rushed to her rescue but a mob of onlookers stole her clothes and ran away.

She must have known the young man that attacked her because in court she at first refused to press charges against him. Mr Ballantine, the sitting justice and a county justice sitting with him, were adamant however that the man must be punished. ‘That is very kind of you’, Mr Thistleton told her, ‘but we must punish him unless he has a very good defence’. All the boilermaker could say was that he was ‘very tipsy’.

‘But whether drunk or sober’, Mr Ballantine berated him,‘men don’t ill-use women and knock them down. It appears that you most grossly ill-used this girl, who had given you no provocation’.

He went on to add that:

‘If you had any manhood about you, you would not have done it. You will pay a fine of £5 to the Queen, or be imprisoned for two months’.

He then directed the police to look into the concert at the beer house, which, he suggested, was less than reputable.  The Bee Hive had been open much later than its license allowed and inspector Valentine of the Metropolitan Police promised he would give this his urgent attention.

Thus, the middle class reading public was suitably entertained by the bad behavior of the lower orders, but reassured that three near-do-wells (from the roughest areas of the capital) were safely locked up over Christmas.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, 26 December 1838]

‘An assault of an unmanly character’ as a trio of ‘gentlemen’ drag a Turk about by his beard

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I imagine that most owners of Indian curry houses have had to put up with a lot of bad behaviour from drunken customers who stumble into their establishments late on a Friday night demanding ‘the hottest thing on the menu’. The boorish actions of English men was satirized wonderfully in the BBC comedy sketch show, Goodness Gracious Mewhere the team talked about ‘getting tanked up and going for an English’.

It plays on the reality that for many immigrants to Britain being abused or made fun of by the native population has only recently been deemed unacceptable both in law and by the majority of the British populace. Until now those running curry houses (and other shops and eateries) have pretty much had to take whatever they were given.

Thankfully that past is (largely) behind us, although the spectre of xenophobia has re-emerged emboldened perhaps by Brexit and the ongoing debate about migration. Looking back we can find plenty of examples of racism and nationalism in British history, especially in the heady days of Empire when Great Britain really did rule half the globe and the map of the world was covered in swathes of pink.

Three friends, overtly respectable and well-dressed men, had been out drinking in central London in the run up to Christmas 1855. It was a Friday night and Charles Bowley, Henry Nation and John Tickell weren’t quite ready to call for a cab home to their wives. They were on the Haymarket, in London’s entertainment district and they decided to head for a tobacco house, or divan, where they could relax, smoke a cigar to two, and perhaps enjoy a brandy. There were several of these ‘cigar divans’ in the centre of London and they provided a range of entertainment for men with money to pay for it.

But being intoxicated and full of British swagger and arrogance they barged their way into Youssef Ben Ibrahim’s divan and upset the prevailing calm atmosphere of the club. Concerned for her establishment’s reputation and the peace of her customers, Youssef’s wife, Ayesha, told them to be quiet or leave.

It was a reasonable request but, in liquor, these were not reasonable men. Ayesha Youssef was  verbally abused with ‘course epithets’ and Nation (a Naval officer) struck her in chest and almost sent her flying. Her husband leapt to her assistance and was assaulted by the trio.

One of the men grabbed him by his beard and then the tree amused themselves by pulling him to and fro ‘by that honoured appendage’. It was both violent and insulting, and deliberately so; the men clearly thought very little of Youssef and his wife, dismissing them as mere foreigners not worthy of the respect due to Englishmen.

In the end a member of Youssef’s waiting staff got involved and, despite being hit several times, managed to pull his master free. The men were later arrested and brought before the sitting magistrate at Marlborough Street on the following day.

Mr Hardwick didn’t believe the men’s protestations of innocence and sided entirely with the Turkish couple. He was ‘satisfied that an assault of an unmanly character had taken place’ and he fined each of the men £3. That made their evening out that little bit more costly but, and more importantly, the declaration that the assault was ‘unmanly’ and the description of the attack on a defenseless woman were both made public in the papers. That would have made uncomfortable reading for the trio, their families, and their circle of friends. That was probably a better punishment than the fine which no doubt they each found in their deep pockets.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Saturday, 22 December, 1855]

The estranged husband, his drunken wife, and the bent policeman

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Bishop’s Walk, Lambeth (sometime in the later 1800s – it must be before the 1860s as the police are still wearing stove pipe hats). 

This is an unusual case that arose from the all too usual complaint of desertion. In this example a ‘respectable tradesman’ named Mason was summoned to appear at Lambeth Police court to answer a charge that he had deserted his wife and left her chargeable to the parish. In many cases of this sort the husband was effectively forced to maintain his wife because the alternative was that the ratepayers would have to.

However, this case was a little different as Mr Mason was not held accountable and the actions of a policeman who was involved in the process were distinctly questionable. This is probably why this otherwise mundane example of the daily work of the police courts made it into the papers.

Mrs Mason appeared in court in late November 1848 and was described as being ‘showily-dressed’ (which gives us an indication of the reporter’s opinion of her. She told Mr Elliot (the sitting magistrate) that two years previously her husband had sold off all the family furniture and had turned her out into the street. He had initially allowed her 10 shillings a week and she had returned to friends in Carshalton, but in August he stopped the payments to her. Since her husband lived in Lambeth that parish now became liable for her maintenance under the terms of the poor law.

Her husband explained that he had claimed a legal exemption to the support of his wife on the grounds that she was adulterous and called a witness to prove it. This man, another tradesman who knew Mason and his wife, admitted spending time alone with the woman but said he had no idea the pair were married. Mrs Mason vehemently denied she had done anything of the sort  but her estranged husband’s solicitor vowed that he could prove her a liar.

Given this development Mr Elliott adjourned the case and the parties returned to court on the 6th.

Now the tradesman’s brief produced a police constable – Samuel Booker (125P) who testified that on the night after the Mrs Mason had first appeared in court (which would have been Wednesday 29 November) he had found Mrs Mason much the worse for drink outside the Flying Horse pub in Walworth Road. She was, he added, ‘surrounded by bad characters’ and asked the officer to find her a bed for the night. Instead he lifted her up and accompanied her back to the police station. On the next morning (Thursday 30/11) she was brought up at Lambeth on a charge of being drunk and incapable.

PC Booker was now cross-examined and it was put to him that he had seen Mrs Mason earlier that evening, at about 9 pm. He said he had not but did recall talking to another lady who asked him to ‘procure a Carshalton bus’ for her. Surely this was one and the same person, the magistrate enquired. No, said the constable, he was quite sure this was a different woman.

I suspect he was lying, perhaps to conceal some relationship (however temporary) between them. He came unstuck when a gentleman appeared to say that he had seen PC Booker and a woman that looked remarkably similar to  Mrs Mason at seven that evening, outside a gin shop near Newington Church. He watched as the woman entered the shop and was followed in by the policeman a few minutes later.

The witness swore that a short time afterwards the man left by a different door. He challenged the officer as to his conduct and said he would report him. He was ‘not a little surprised on the next day to find that the policeman brought the same woman to court on a charge of drunkenness’.

So, what had the policeman been up to? Drinking with a woman while on duty? It wouldn’t be the first time.

But why did he arrest her, and then not let her go without a court appearance? Was he after a bribe, (monetary of otherwise) and are we meant to consider the possibility that Mrs Mason was prostituting herself to make ends meet? Again, she would not be the first poor woman to resort to this when her husband had left her penniless.

Mr Elliott judged that further enquiries should be made into the conduct of PC Booker, who would have to wait nervously on his sergeant and inspector’s decisions. As for Mr Mason however, there was no reason – the magistrate determined – why he should support a woman who behaved as badly as his wife had. Her claim for support was rejected and she left court as poor as when she arrived. With her reputation in tatters, little hope of divorce, and what seems like ‘the drink habit’, her future looked bleak.

[From The Morning Chronicle (London, England), Thursday, December 7, 1848]