‘Marry in haste and repent at leisure’ as one man learn’s to his (considerable) cost

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There was, for the working classes at least, no effectual form of divorce in the nineteenth century. Divorce was expensive (as it can still be) and there was no such thing as a ‘quick divorce’. Couples that couldn’t solve the problems of their marriage (in a time before Relate or other marriage counsellors) would either have to put up and make the best of it, or separate and live independently.

This was much easier for men than it was for women, socially and economically. As a result it was fairly common for men to desert their wives, and many did. An abandoned wife could, if she chose (and if she could find him), take her estranged husband to a police court and demand maintenance if he wouldn’t return to her.

This is what the young wife of William Clarke did. A court made an order against him and he started to pay her 10sa week towards her keep. However, as was usual, no payments materialised and Mrs Clarke had to go to law again to get the maintenance order enforced. So, on Saturday 28 May 1887 Mr and Mrs William Clarke were reunited, if only briefly, before Mr Bushby at Worship Street Police court.

William, who said he was a joiner, decided that now was the time to come up with an elaborate explanation for his behaviour, an explanation which owed more to the realms of popular melodrama than it did to reality.

Clarke said that eh should never have married his young bride at all. When he’d met her she had been a lady’s maid in the employ of ‘a wealthy lady named Le Compte’. And it was to Lady Le Compte that William was betrothed he insisted.

However, while he stayed at the lady’s London house he was systematically drugged and for a fortnight lost track of events, and had no real memory of them. During that time he was bundled into a hansom cab and driven to east London and forcibly married to the woman ‘who now called herself his wife’.

It was a incredible (if not incredulous) tale and Clarke didn’t manage to convince the magistrate of his version of events. Mr Busby had also heard from Mrs Clarke’s father who told him that he clearly recalled William coming to ask for his daughter’s hand, and that the couple had gone to Brighton after the wedding.

Mr Bushby declared that while the couple had only lived together as man and wife for two days they were still clearly, and properly married and so William had a responsibility towards her. She had received no money since the court order for maintenance had been made so he ordered William to find £59 plus £3 6scosts. This was a lot of money (about £5,000 today) but William paid it on the spot.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, May 30, 1887]

Is tea the cure for alcoholism? One poet swears by it.

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Lest we be in any doubt about the problems caused by alcohol in the late nineteenth century the reports from the Police courts bear testimony to them. They are all of individuals (men and women) who are there because they are addicted to alcohol or are at least unable to control the amount they drink, or the affects it has on them.

The last quarter of the 1800s saw the rise of the Temperance Movement which strove to ween individuals off the ‘demon drink’ and to get them to sign the ‘pledge’ of abstinence. Out of this came the Police Court Missionary Service, the forerunner of Probation, which helped those brought into the courts, but only if they would promise to remain sober in future.

Drunkenness led to disorderly behaviour, to the verbal abuse of officials and police; to the physical abuse of partners and children; to poverty and homelessness; and ultimately to a debilitating death. The police courts were full of it, as these cases from Thames Police court (in London’s East End) in 1899 demonstrate.

The first person up before Mr Mead (the magistrate) was Mr William (or ‘Spring’) Onions. William was a self-styled poet who had struggled for years with a drink problem. Recently he’d overcome it and was in in May 1899 not because of any misdemeanour he committed but for a much more positive reason. He’d come to tell the justice that he’d been sober for six months.

How had he managed it, everyone (including Mr Mead) wanted to know? What was the secret of his sobriety?

It was simple, ‘Spring’ Onions declared. He’d exchanged beer for tea.

 ‘Tea is the thing, sir‘ he explained: ‘I take four or five pints of it everyday, instead of four and twenty pints of beer‘.

He heaped some fulsome praise on the bench, shared some anecdotes about his ‘companions’ in drink, and reminded everyone that he was a poet before leaving the courtroom.

The next person to take the stand was Samuel Freeman, a ‘tailor’s dresser’ from Mile End. He was charged with selling illicit alcohol door-to-door. He’d been under surveillance by the Inland Revenue (this was an offence of tax – or duty – avoidance so fell under their purview) and detective inspector Arthur Llewellyn had stopped him in Anthony Street as he made his deliveries.

He was found with two remaining bottles of spirt which he said he sold for 1s 6d at a profit of sixpence a bottle. He admitted to being able to shift 7-8 pints of this a week and at his home the officers found two gallons of unlicensed spirits ready to be sold. This was a racket that exposed the desperate desire locally for cheap booze; the sort of drink that wrecked the lives like those of William Onions.

Mr Mead gave him the option of paying  a 40s fine or going to prison for fourteen days.

Finally William Pocklingstone was brought up to face the court. He was an old man and admitted his crime of ‘being drunk and disorderly’. He had a ready-made excuse however (possibly one he’d ventured before).

He said he ‘was an old Navy man, and got drinking the health of Britain’s pride – the Queen, God bless her!’

What has Britain’s pride got to do with May 19?’ the magistrate asked him.

I had an idea it was the Queen’s birthday,’ the old salt explained, ‘and made a day of it‘.

It wasn’t Victoria’s birthday at all (she was born on the 20 June) but the magistrate decided to take pity on the old man so long as he promised to address his drink problem. He would let him go today without penalty if he swore to keep sober for the monarch’s actual birthday in a month. William said he certainly would (although I doubt anyone believed him) and he was released.

All three cases show that drink and alcoholism had deep roots in Victorian society and remind us that our concerns (about ‘binge drinking’, super strength lager and cider, and supposedly rising levels of alcohol consumption) are nothing new. Nor has anything that has been done to curb the British love affair with booze had that much effect.

Cheers!

[from The Illustrated Police News etc, Saturday, May 27, 1899]

‘I’ll steal from you Mr Robinson’: pilfering in the Victorian department store

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Edith Oliver’s appearance at Marlborough Street Police court in May 1876 gives us a glimpse back at the beginnings of the department store in London. Edith was accused of stealing ‘a bonnet shape’ from her employer and when her lodgings were searched several other items were found, including ‘lace, silk, and velvet materials used in the workroom’ on Oxford Street.

The bonnet pattern had been discovered concealed under Edith’s clothes so she must been the subject on suspicion, perhaps based on information from another employee. The firm employed 500 workers and there were notices posted up all over the building warning the staff of the consequences of taking home things that belonged to the company without permission.

Wages for workers in the clothing trades in the late 1800s weren’t large and Edith (like many others) was probably keen to supplement them by doing private work or making and repairing clothes for her family. There was nothing new in this of course, workers had been taking home offcuts as ‘perks’ (perquisites) of the job for centuries. It was in the previous century that the owners of businesses had started to clamp down in such pilferage, and parliament had obliged by passing hundreds of laws to prohibit thefts from the workplace with the threat of capital punishment for those that persisted.

By 1876 Edith wasn’t going to face such a severe penalty but if convicted she would almost certainly lose her liberty, and her job. Mr Addrett, the works manager, said that they were vulnerable to pilfering an so it was necessary to make an example of her. William Franklin, a timekeeper at the firm, testified that Edith had told him she was setting herself up in business privately and that the goods found at her home belonged to her and weren’t stolen.

Mr Newton, the sitting magistrate, found Edith quietly and sentenced her to 14 days hard labour. She would also lose her job but he didn’t think that would affect her too much, and fully believed she would find work again afterwards somewhere else. He hinted that there should be a tighter control of such staff and that character references should be taken as they were for domestics. Otherwise someone like Edith might walk into employment and start pilfering all over again.

Now we routinely take references which often ask questions about the prospective employee’s honesty and suitability. Edith would have found it hard to get similar work without the Mr Addrett’s recommendation  but I’m sure if she was a talented seamstress she would have had no problem getting piece work away from the bright lights of Oxford Street and over in the East End.

Which brings me to reveal where Edith worked. She was employed by Mr Peter Robinson, silk mercer, on Oxford Circus. Robinson had run a business in the West End from the 1830s and opened his department store on Oxford Street in 1850. By 1876 he was dead and since he had no male children the store must have been run by someone else. It wasn’t run by his younger assistant, John Lewis, because he turned down the opportunity to go into business with his mentor, opting instead to open his own shop in 1864. I wonder how he got on?

[from The Morning Post, Friday, May 26, 1876]

‘He said he would have her life, and break every bone in her body’.

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It took a lot for women to stand up to their husbands in the Victorian period. Theoretically the law protected victims of abuse but this often meant that violent men were fined, bound over to the keep the peace, or imprisoned if they beat their wives or partners. None of these options was ideal for the women involved; two of them directly impacted the family budget and the third was often deemed to be ineffectual. Poor Londoners believed that magistrates could enforce separation orders or sanction a divorce of sorts but this wasn’t in their power however much they might have liked to use it.

This didn’t stop women bringing their partners to court however and throughout the 1800s they came in their droves. One such woman was Mary Norris. Mary was a bricklayer’s wife living in the East End of London. She was probably in her late 30s (as her husband Henry was 40 in 1879) and she was regularly abused and beaten by him.

Women put up with a lot before they went to law. This was very much a last resort because taking your husband to court was a drastic move that often had unwanted consequences. Quite apart from the financial consequences of losing a breadwinner or incurring a fine, or the public shame of admitting that your marriage was in trouble, a woman could expect retribution from her partner immediately or soon after the return to the family home.

So Mary was not only desperate for the abuse to stop she was also brave. She explained to the Worship Street magistrate that Henry had come home on Monday night late from work, having been out drinking for several hours. As soon as he stepped through the door the abuse began.

‘he took up a knife and threatened to stab her; said he would have her life, and break every bone in her body’.

It was nothing new, she told Mr Newton (the magistrate), she

was dreadfully afraid of him doing her some violence, as he had repeatedly beaten and threatened her with the same knife. She went in bodily fear’ she added.

Other witnesses testified to Henry being drunk that night, and to his threats and an officer of the Associate Institute for Improving and Enforcing the Laws for the Protection of Women and Children appeared. Mr Moore stated that he believed Norris already carried a previous conviction for assaulting Mary. This is interesting because it tells us that there were organizations involved in prosecuting violent husbands and father at this time, charities that took on a role that is now performed by social services.

His evidence was confirmed by an officer at the court who said Norris had been up before the justice on four previous occasions, ‘three times sent to prison’, and once bound over. The message was clearly not getting through to him and Mary was still at risk. But there was little the magistrate could do. He ordered the bricklayer to find two sureties to ensure he kept the peace for three months (at £10 each) but Henry refused. He opted for prison and was taken away.

Mary’s best option was to leave him and get as far away as possible, but that was almost impossible. The law would only really act when things had gone too far. If Norris did his wife more serious harm – by wounding or killing her – then he would be locked up for a long time, for life or be executed. Not that those outcomes were likely to be of any use to Mary if she was dead.

[from The Morning Post , Friday, May 21, 1869]

Acid throwing in the East End, an echo from the 1880s

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This is a shocking case with echoes of recent acid attacks on London streets. Derryck John has just been sentenced to 10 and a half years in prison for spraying a corrosive liquid into the faces of moped riders as part of an attempt to steal their vehicles. The 17 year old refused to name his accomplice, the Wood Green court was told, and he remains at large.

In 1889 The Worship Street Police Court witnessed a case that was almost as alarming, and certainly resulted in similar ‘life changing’ injuries as suffered by John’s victims. William Green was just 14 years of old but he stood accused of ‘throwing corrosive liquid’ over another young lad because the pair had an argument in the street.

Green worked as walking stick maker and on the 2 April 1889 his master sent him out to purchase a pint of nitric acid. As he approached the workshop he met the other boy, Jacob Rosenberg. The pair were acquainted but hardly friends. Within moments Green started abusing the other lad, one imagines Rosenberg replied in kind.

The name calling escalated and Green ‘flung some of the acid he had in the bottle full in Rosenberg’s face’. The liquid went over his face, hands and his clothes and burned terribly. Rosenberg appeared in court as a witness, his face ‘hidden by bandages’. The magistrate committed Green for trial.

At the Old Bailey Jacob testified that anti-Semitism was at the heart of the dispute. Green had shouted that he was a ‘Jew bastard’ and ‘should be at home in my own country’ and challenged him to a fight. When he declined to fight Green hurled the act and ran away. Rosenberg, who had already lost an eye to smallpox, was left in agony and taken to the police station to have his wounds dressed.

However, there was a counter allegation that Rosenberg had been the aggressor, perhaps because Green regularly tormented him. It was suggested that he had either provoked Green or had shoved him, spilling the liquid over himself.

Green was given a good character and the injuries to Rosenberg were described as being ‘nothing serious’. There was enough doubt placed as to Green’s intent and so he was acquitted of the intent to cause injury and a lesser charge of common assault. One can’t help but feel that the court didn’t want to take the side of the Jew against an ‘honest’ English working lad. Anti-Semitism was rife in the 1880s, especially in the crowded East End of London where so many immigrants had arrived in the last few years.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, April 10, 1889]

‘Lor bless you, 5s indeed! Why there is 18 gallons of Truman Hanbury’s Treble X ale. I wouldn’t take 40s for it’. Mr Selfe’s first day at the office.

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The Truman, Hanbury, Buxton, & Co. brewery, c.1842

Thursday 3 April 1856 was Mr Selfe’s first morning as a London Police court magistrate.

Born in Worcester in 1810 at the age of 24 he had been called to bar and ‘practised [as a barrister] at the Oxford Circuit and Parliamentary bar’ until he took up his position on the London benches.* All Police Court magistrates in London were former barristers and, unlike their equivalents outside the capital, had the power to hear cases on their own. They had a good working knowledge of the law and several years of experience of court practice.

Mr Selfe had bene given Thames Police court in the East End of London. He replaced Mr Ingham who had moved on to the more salubrious environments of Westminster and Hammersmith. Magistrates did move around it seems, and some covered more than one court. In the 1880s there were at least two justices at Thames who sat for a few days each. This probably helped spread the workload but also stopped anyone getting too comfortable and warded off corrupt practice. The Middlesex magistracy in the 1700s had earned an unwanted reputation for venality, being derided by commentators as ‘trading justices’.

Mr Selfe’s first reported case was a beer thief, and quite an ambitious one at that. John Reynolds was 19 and his exploits were relayed to the newly appointed magistrate as he stood in the dock at Thames.

Catherine Driscoll testified that she was working for her employer at 51 Rosemary Lane where, at around 4 in the afternoon she saw Reynolds steal a barrel of beer from a drayman’s cart. She told the court that:

‘after he had launched it on the ground he rolled it along the street and up a court, and deposited in a yard at the back of a house in Rosemary Lane’.

Rosemary Lane had a long history of criminality stretching back into the eighteenth century, as Janice Turner’s work has shown. The drayman – a Mr Bullock – was delivering beer to a public house for his employers, Truman, Hanbury, Buxton, and Co., brewers in Hanbury Street and Brick Lane since 1666. The brewery no longer exists but some of the buildings do, including the iconic chimney and the Truman eagle.

Bullock explained that he had come back to his cart to discover that a kilderkin of ale was missing before someone (perhaps Ms Driscoll) pointed out its whereabouts and the person that took it. Reynolds was nearby and Bullock tried to catch him but he ran off. A policeman (Thomas Britton 161H) was soon in hot pursuit and caught him after ‘a long chase’.

When Reynolds was asked to explain himself he simply denied all knowledge of the barrel of beer. ‘Then why did you run away?’ Mr Selfe asked him. ‘I do not know sir’, was the young man’s reply, adding simply, ‘I am innocent’.

‘If you protest your innocence I shall send the case before a jury’, the magistrate warned him. A conviction before a judge would bring done much more serious punishment than Mr Selfe was able to hand out, as the magistrate knew from recent experience. The clerk of the court asked Bullock the drayman whether the beer was worth at least 5s. The drayman laughed:

‘Lor bless you, 5s indeed! Why there is 18 gallons of Truman Hanbury’s Treble X ale. I wouldn’t take 40s for it’. 

‘I suppose not’ commented Mr Selfe, ‘I shall commit the prisoner for trial’.

In the meantime however he remanded Reynolds as an officer at the court said he believed that the lad had a previous conviction that would need to be taken into consideration.

It was bad news for John. His opportunist theft would most likely end in a fairly hefty prison sentence, especially if a previous record could be shown against him. Mr Selfe might have been minded to show leniency if the lad had pleaded guilty but it was out of his hands now. Either way, his career at the Thames office was up and running and by using a keyword search for Selfe you can look for other cases over which he presided.

‘Disagreeable’ but not quite mad enough to be locked up: a violent husband at Marlborough Street

Two ‘dangerous female thieves’ opt for the best ‘worst case’ scenario

Smallpox brings death and difficult decisions to the Westminster Police Court

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, April 4, 1856]

p.s for those wondering, a kilderkin of beer or ale is an old Dutch term for a barrel that contained 18 gallons of liquid at the time. Today CAMRA still prefer to use kilderkin as a measure at beer festivals which equates to 144 pints. Truman’s is brewing again, in Hackney Wick, so you can still sip a local pint in and around Rosemary Lane (although Rosemary lane has gone, knocked down to make way for the railway. Now Royal Mint Street, running from Cable Street, follows much the same route).

*_from A. H. McLintock (ed.), An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand (1966) via [https://teara.govt.nz/en/1966/selfe-henry-selfe]

A drunken attack on a compassionate ‘bobby’ or an example of police brutality? You decide

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Given that the Victorian police patrolled set beats across London late into the night it is hardly surprising that they spent a considerable amount of their time dealing with those they found drunk and disorderly or drunk and incapable. While some were happy to go home quietly others resisted the police, with mouthfuls of abuse or by resorting to physical violence. Sometimes the offender would be allowed to sleep off his or her inebriation at the ‘nick’ but if they had added to their offence by attacking the officer that arrested them they could expect an appearance before a Police Court magistrate in the morning.

This was the fate that awaited Daniel Donnell, a ‘rough looking fellow’ who had been found dead drunk in the gutter by PC Colville of H Division (the police division that would later head the investigation to capture ‘Jack the Ripper’). PC Colville was making his way through Roberts Place when he noticed a man lying off the pavement and ‘foaming at the mouth’.

The constable knelt down and helped the man to sit up before undoing his shirt collar and scarf so he could breath more easily. It took a few moments before Donnell achieved consciousness but when he did he reacted badly. When the PC asked him where he lived he refused to say and ‘commenced to make use of most disgusting language’ before punching the policeman hard in the face.

As the copper reeled Donnell attacked again, punching him and knocking him to the floor where he started kicking him in the side. Another offer was soon on the scene and he struggled with the drunk. In the end it took several officers to secure Donnell and frog-march him to the station.

When the case came before Mr Saunders at Thames Police Court Donnell claimed he’d only been defending himself. He alleged that PC Colville had attacked him with his truncheon first, something the policeman denied. This defence might have had more credence if Donnell had reported it to an inspector when he arrived at the station house but there was no record of him doing so.

Mr Saunders didn’t believe his story and with more than one policeman lining up to verify each others’ account of that night Donnell had little chance of being believed anyway.

The magistrate told him that ‘such scandalous conduct as he had been guilty of could not be tolerated, and he would go to prison for seven days with hard labour’.

This is one of those cases in which two very different accounts are possible but only one emerges as being plausible to the press and magistracy. It is deemed inconceivable that the police would use violence against a working class man found drunk in the street who resisted attempts to move him on. The police present themselves as the victims in a situation where they acted out of concern for a drunk’s welfare and were met with violence and abuse as a result of this.  There is clearly a possible alternative scenario here but given that the policemen of H Division could present a united front there was zero chance that anyone would believe it. How many more ‘drunk and incapable’ or ‘assaults on the police’ could be interpreted differently if independent witnesses had been around to validate them?

That said it is equally possible that Donnell was simply a violent, foul-mouthed drunk who did exactly as described  and fully deserved the week’s incarceration he received from the ‘beak’.

[from The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, March 26, 1881]