The menace of fireworks (a lesson from the past?)

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Bonfire night is upon us again and, despite the ongoing pandemic, dusk is ushered in by the sound of fireworks as it has been for the last few weeks.

This means that my social media feed is also full of people complaining about fireworks: children and young adults throwing them, pets being distressed by them, and our peace being shattered by them. But before we get carried away by thinking that this is in any way a modern problem, let me assure you that we’ve been complaining about fireworks for well over 150 years.

In 1846, for example, the London Daily News reported a case from the Edmonton Petty Sessions under the headline: ‘A caution to dealers in fireworks’.

Mary Emmune was summoned to court to explain why she had sold ‘a quantity of catherine wheels, squibs, etc.’ to a child. She faced a penalty of £5, which seems quite lenient but was the equivalent of around £300 today. Despite having a solicitor to represent her the bench still levied the full amount.

In doing this the chair (the magistrate in charge on the day) was probably mindful of his own experience of Guy Fawkes night that year. He told the dealer’s lawyer that his own horse had ‘nearly run away with him’ in fright at all the explosions around him, and that one of his friend’s animals had been ‘severely injured in consequence of fireworks’.

This is clear echo through time of the distress caused by loud bangs and flashes to our pets and work animals. In the past of course horses were ubiquitous in Victorian society. Pretty much everything we rely on motorised transport for (commuting, goods delivery, public transport) was provided by horse power in the 1800s.

So there was plenty of risk of animals being ‘spooked’ by fireworks (either those just ‘going off’ and those more mischievously thrown by youths. Youths were not allowed to be sold fireworks (which is why Mrs Emmune was prosecuted) and that is the case today. It is illegal to sell them to under 18s and it is against the law for anyone under 18 to be in possession of a firework in a public space.

In the following year there was tragedy in Exeter when an eighteen year-old apprentice was killed when two rockets exploded in his trouser pockets. The coroner’s jury returned a verdict of ‘accidental death’ with a strong recommendation ‘against the use of fireworks being permitted by the authorities’.

The same paper also reported that a curate and his assistant were prosecuted in Topsham, Devon, for ‘rolling lighted tea-barrels through the streets’, despite this practice having been banned by local magistrates. The Rev. Cooke was fined £2 plus expenses.

The same problems continue to blight Guy Fawkes today of course. Fatalities are rare but they do happen, but between 2000-2005 (the last year that statistics were taken) an average of 1,650 people a year were bring injured by fireworks.

Two more fatalities in 1851 were the result of illegal firework manufacture in the Clerkenwell, London. William Phillips and James Prickett (both in their late teens) died at St Bartholomew’s hospital in early November of wounds sustained when testing fireworks they were making. The other man involved was ‘dangerously ill’ and so evidence was scarce but it seems the trio were employed by a chemist named Thomas Herring in Aldersgate Street. Unbeknown to Herring the lads were making fireworks ‘solely for the amusement of themselves’.

‘They had made a lot of squibs’, the court was told, ‘but they would not go off properly’. As they tried again one ended up in the fire, popped out of the grate and set off others. There was an explosion which blew out the windows, and a fire engulfed the premises, leaving all three lads severely burned.  The coroner concluded that the house might have exploded, taking down the nearby properties. He added that manufacturing fireworks was illegal, because it was deemed a ‘nuisance’ by law.

Your opinion on fireworks will probably be influenced by your age, where you live, and whether you have pets. I like displays but clearly that is problematic at the moment, especially as this year’s Bonfire Night marks the start of a new month long lockdown. In almost any other context they are nuisance at best. But, given that, as  history tells us, this is an issue with deep roots, I doubt we are going to solve it until retailers are banned form selling fireworks completely (or choose to refrain from doing so independently).

So whatever you do do, do it safely and with regard for the people (and animals) you live close to.

[From Daily News, Friday 13 November 1846; Examiner, Saturday 27 November 1847; Morning Chronicle, Thursday 6 November 1851).  

Cruelty to bears is not ‘entertainment’

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Given the Victorians’ love of animals and the efforts (from 1824) of the RSPCA to stamp out animal cruelty, I was a little surprised to see that dancing bears were still a sight seen on London streets in the last decade of the 1800s.

It must have been quite a sight as well which explains why over 200 people were drawn to Bridge Street in Homerton in May 1890. Two Frenchmen – De Love Chamary and Agas Jean – who both gave addresses in Edmonton – were charged at the Dalston Police court with obstructing the highway and refusing to ‘move along’.

A huge crowd had gathered on Bridge Street to see the  men prod the muzzled animal into performing, which had blocked the street entirely. PC Munro asked them to move along but they only went a few yards before starting up the entertainment again. When they failed to comply again he arrested them. Goodness know what they did with the bar but presumably the poor animal had to be taken into custody as well. I can well imagine the desk servant’s face when the trio arrived at the station!

A gentleman named Edward Young took the stand at Dalston to complain that along with the obstruction the bear represented a threat to the public. He himself had seen the beast ‘make for a servant girl twice that morning’. The bear was, he conceded, muzzled, but he wanted to let the court know that with bears it was ‘the hug that did it’. His intervention added to the entertainment element of this prosecution and prompted some laughter.

The defendants were ‘picturesquely-dressed’ as French ‘peasants’ and were, the reporter suggested, of ‘the gipsy class’. It is likely them that they lived in the countryside north of the capital, in caravans and tents at Edmonton rather than in suburban housing.

They assured Mr Haden Corser that the bear was harmless, and so the magistrate said there was little he could do to them beyond making them aware that were to obey the police’s instructions in future.  He cautioned them and let them go.

The practice of forcing captive bears dance was prohibited in Britain in 1911 but sadly continues in many countries in the world, even after prohibition. An organisation called Bear Conservation monitors the abuse of these magnificent animals worldwide and you find out how to support their efforts here

Daily News, Saturday 3 May 1890; Illustrated Police News, Saturday 10 May 1890

‘Let me see the Queen, I know who the ‘Ripper’ is!’

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In the years following the murders of several women in Whitechapel in 1888, rumours of ‘Jack the Ripper’ continued to haunt the capital. The police investigation remained open because no one was conclusively proven to be the killer and he was assumed to have remained at large, if dormant. The discovery of a human torso in Pinchin Street in 1889 and then the murder of Frances Coles (in February 1891) fuelled popular fears that the murderer was still active in the East End.

In March 1890 a man presented himself at Buckingham Palace and demanded to see the Queen. A policeman on duty (constable 64A) told the Westminster Police Court that at 4 o’clock on the 18 March Charles Cooper , a ‘well-dressed’ railway sub-contractor, had walked up to the gates of the palace asking to be admitted.

He told the officer that his ‘particular business with her majesty was to inform her where “Jack the Ripper” was to be found, and where he had had his photograph taken’.

When he was refused entry he tried to force his way past the guards and was arrested. At Westminster he was charged with being a ‘lunatic at large’.

In court his wife told Mr D’Eyncourt (the magistrate) that her husband ‘had been drinking to excess lately’, and three weeks ago, when ‘quite out of his mind’, he was taken to the workhouse at Edmonton. Clearly Cooper was suffering from some form of mental illness and perhaps the ‘Ripper’ panic had exacerbated this.

He repeated his desire to talk to Queen Victoria but Mr D’Eyncourt ignored him and instead remanded him in custody for a week.

I’ve looked forward to see if Cooper reappeared in the pages of the London press but he doesn’t. The  provincial papers carried the same story – lifted word for word from The Standard – but I can see no record of him resurfacing at Westminster (which he must have done).

Sadly, the most likely outcome for Charles was that he was either readmitted to the workhouse or sent to one of London’s ‘lunatic’ asylums, such as the one near me at Colney Hatch. If he was sent to Colney Hatch then he may even have met one of those suspected of being the elusive serial killer – David Cohen, a ‘homicidal lunatic’ identified by Dr Scott Bonn in 2014.

[from The Standard, Thursday, March 20, 1890]

This post first appeared in March 2017

Drew’s new book (co-authored by Andy Wise) is published by Amberley Books. It is a new study of the Whitechapel murders of 1888 which offers up a new suspect, links the ‘Jack the Ripper’ killings to the unsolved ‘Thames Torso’ crimes, and provides the reader with important contextual history of Victorian London. The book is available on Amazon

A Factory fight in Edmonton ends in tragedy

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Wharf on the River Lea, c.1890

When William Clark arrived at the Ridley, Whiteley & Co. factory on Angel Road Edmonton he was already drunk. It was Christmas Eve 1894 and about 9 in the morning. Clark drove a cart which conveyed canvases (the firm were floorcloth manufacturers*) from the barges at the wharf to the nearby River Lea workshop.

Alfred Green was a ganger at the wharf so his job was to supervise the labourers unloading and loading goods there. He had worked for the firm for 15 years and was well-liked and respected. Clark on the other hands was something of a loose cannon, mouthy and prone to drinking.

As soon as he arrived at the wharf Clark started on Green. He demanded he move the load of material to the workshop himself and when he was ignored, ‘he called him all manner of foul names, and went on from nine to twelve’. Eventually the pair came to blows and Green, who apparently showed great restraint beforehand, punched or shoved his man who fell onto the hard ground and cracked his skull.

At first Clark refused attempts to help him but was eventually persuaded to go the nearest hospital, at Tottenham suffering from concussion. His head was bandaged and he was released but on Boxing Day he died and Green was now facing a charge of manslaughter.

Detective Inspector Nairn arrested Green at the factory on the 2 January 1895 and he was presented at Wood Green Police Court. His solicitor, Mr Avery, applied for bail but this was refused and he was committed to take his trial at Old Bailey. There, on the 7 January 1895 the 30 year old labourer from Folkestone Road, Edmonton, was acquitted of the manslaughter of the carter and released. It was an accident resulting from one man’s drunkenness and refusal to back down and see reason. Nevertheless Alfred Green would have to live with the fact that he had killed man and done so in front of his fellow workers, and at Christmas to boot.

[from The Illustrated Police News etc, Saturday, January 5, 1895]

*’Messrs. Ridley, Whitley and Co., [was] established by 1865 at Angel Road works between the river and the New Cut. (fn. 347) The factory, which manufactured floor-cloths, employed 900 workers in its heyday but had only 100 by 1914, shortly before its closure’. (http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/middx/vol5/pp161-172)

“Let me see the Queen, I know who the ‘Ripper’ is!”

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In the years following the murders of several women in Whitechapel in 1888, rumours of ‘Jack the Ripper’ continued to haunt the capital. The police investigation remained open because no one was conclusively proven to be the killer and he was assumed to have remained at large, if dormant. The discovery of a human torso in Pinchin Street in 1889 and then the murder of Frances Coles (in February 1891) fuelled popular fears that the murderer was still active in the East End.

In March 1890 a man presented himself at Buckingham Palace and demanded to see the Queen. A policeman on duty (constable 64A) told the Westminster Police Court that at 4 o’clock on the 18 March Charles Cooper , a ‘well-dressed’ railway sub-contractor, had walked up to the gates of the palace asking to be admitted.

He told the officer that his ‘particular business with her majesty was to inform her where “Jack the Ripper” was to be found, and where he had had his photograph taken’.

When he was refused entry he tried to force his way past the guards and was arrested. At Westminster he was charged with being a ‘lunatic at large’.

In court his wife told Mr D’Eyncourt (the magistrate) that her husband ‘had been drinking to excess lately’, and three weeks ago, when ‘quite out of his mind’, he was taken to the workhouse at Edmonton. Clearly Cooper was suffering from some form of mental illness and perhaps the ‘Ripper’ panic had exacerbated this.

He repeated his desire to talk to Queen Victoria but Mr D’Eyncourt ignored him and instead remanded him in custody for a week.

I’ve looked forward to see if Cooper reappeared in the pages of the London press but he doesn’t. The  provincial papers carried the same story – lifted word for word from The Standard – but I can see no record of him resurfacing at Westminster (which he must have done).

Sadly, the most likely outcome for Charles was that he was either readmitted to the workhouse or sent to one of London’s ‘lunatic’ asylums, such as the one near me at Colney Hatch. If he was sent to Colney Hatch then he may even have met one of those suspected of being the elusive serial killer – David Cohen, a ‘homicidal lunatic’ identified by Dr Scott Bonn in 2014.

[from The Standard, Thursday, March 20, 1890]