A bareknuckle fight in the grounds of Ally Pally

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Police constables Rudkin (696Y) and Mitchell (467Y) had got a tip off that an illegal prize fight was happening on their patch, which covered the area around Alexandra Palace in north London. So, on the morning of Sunday 18 November 1883 they hurried off to investigate.

As the officers were coming along a public footpath from Muswell Hill to Mr Cotton’s fields they saw a lot of male heads gathered in a large circle and the sounds of ‘blows and scuffling’. They were close to a railway bridge and some observers had stationed themselves up their to get a better view of proceedings.

This also allowed several people to see the approaching policemen and the cry went up:

‘Look out! here’s the police!’

The crowd scattered in all directions with the two bobbies in pursuit. PC Mitchell saw one of the men that had been fighting and chased him into a field, catching him up and arresting him. His name was William Rearden and he was stripped to waist and wearing only ‘slippers’ on his feet. The other boxer managed to get away so the coppers had to be satisfied with breaking up the fight and the capture of just one of the fighters.

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Rearden could hardly deny being in a fight. He was bleeding from his mouth and ears and there was a large and recent bruise developing on his chest. This was bare-knuckle boxing, not a fight sanctioned by the Queensbury rules.

Rearden was adamant that he’d done nothing wrong. When captured he surrendered immediately and promised to ‘go quietly’ to the police station. He insisted it was just a fight to settle a dispute he had with his adversary, no ‘prize’ was involved. The police had found no evidence of a ‘professional’ fight: no ring, no gloves or seconds and of course, no second fighter was in custody.

In the end the case came before Mr Bodkin at the Highgate Police court. Rearden told the magistrate that he was an ex-soldier who had served in Egypt and South Africa, He’d been decorated for his service and proudly wore his medal ribbons in court.  He was able to produce a certificate of his service and good character and was still on the Army Reserve list.

Moreover, he was in work, as a bricklayer, and he had no record of being in trouble with the law previously. All this counted in his favour and persuaded the justice that a ticking off would suffice. Fighting in public was unlawful Mr Bodkin told him but in light of his record he would merely bind him over to keep the peace for six months. Having agreed to enter into recognizances of £20 Rearden (known as ‘Roberts’ in the Army) was released to his friends.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, November 20, 1883]

Soldiers are caught stealing from the stores as amateur football is eclipsed by the professionals

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An impression of the 1892 FA Challenge Cup final at Kennington Oval between West Bromwich Albion and Aston Villa

Yesterday Manchester City completed an unprecedented clean sweep of the domestic trophies for men’s football in England. In beating Watford 6-0 at Wembley they emphasized their dominance in professional football in this country and equaled the record for the largest winning margin in an FA Cup final (held by Bury who beat Derby by the same score in 1903). City epitomize the modern game: they are a team of millionaires playing for club that is owned by an oil rich nation, who play in a league that is funded to a large extent by the revenue it draws from selling the TV rights to subscription media companies like Sky and BT Sport.

Never before have the players and fans of football clubs been so distant (economically and socially) from each other. In 1883 Blackburn Olympic won the old FA Cup final, beating the Old Etonians 2-1 at the Kennington Oval after extra time. The final was significant because for the very first time a working-class team (and a northern one at that) had won against a team of  ‘gentlemen’ amateurs. In fact the Old Etonians were the last amateur club to win what was then the most prestigious trophy in English football. Thereafter football changed and northern or midlands teams went on to win the prize until 1901 when a little known southern non-league side won it, beating Sheffield United after a replay at Burnden Park in Bolton. Spurs’ victory in 1901 was a rare one for southern teams and the north and midlands dominated the history of the FA cup, at least until the modern era.

While today’s newspaper will be full of pictures of celebrating Manchester City players (and images from last night’s Eurovision song contest – something our Victorian ancestors did not have to suffer!) the papers in 1883 would have given much less space to football than ours do. It was a very popular working-class pastime but the 1883 final drew a crowd of just 8,000 to south London, and of course it wasn’t on television or the radio. Instead perhaps contemporaries would have lapped up the latest news from the police courts in 1883 as they digested their breakfast or supper, or sat around with their friends in the pub.

In May 1883 they might have read about the antics of three members of the Army Commissariat and Transport Corps who were set in the dock at Westminster  and charged with stealing from the stores at the Chelsea barracks. Joseph Maslin, William Earl and James Lane were accused of pinching 47 pairs of boots, 10 pairs of gloves and ‘other articles’, all valued at £46 11(or around £3,000 at today’s prices). All three men had previously unblemished service records and wore ribbons that indicated they had earned the Egypt medal for their efforts in the recent conflict with insurgents opposed to the British backed Khedive, Twefik Pasha (pictured right).   220px-MohamedTewfik

All three were remanded and sent for trial at the Old Bailey. There, on 28 May 1883 Earl was acquitted of all charges, Maslin was convicted of theft and Law of receiving stolen goods. Their previous good conduct and military service went in their favour as the jury recommended leniency: Law was sent to gaol for four months, and his partner Maslin for six, both were ordered to do hard labour whilst in prison.  Presumably both men were also dishonorably discharged from the army and the stores, which was described as being run in a ‘lax way’ by the judge at the Central Criminal court, underwent a reorganization.

[From The Morning Post, Saturday, May 19, 1883]

If you enjoy this blog series you might be interested in Drew’s jointly authored study of the Whitechapel (or ‘Jack the Ripper’) murders which is published by Amberley Books on 15 June this year. You can find details here:

‘A very noble and intelligent dog’ saves a life the ‘owner’ had given up on

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In late March 1883 Thomas Lyford was walking his dog along the Victoria Embankment when the animal suddenly headed off towards Cleopatra’s Needle. It raced down the steps to the water, turned, ran up, ‘barked twice and ran back’. Lyford followed quickly afterwards instantly realising that something was wrong.

The dog was a retriever/Newfoundland cross, and the latter were bred for rescuing people from the water. The dog had seen a woman in the Thames and swam out towards her. When the animal reached her it used its large jaws to pull her back towards the river side a where Lyford was able to grab her by her dress and haul her onto the steps at the foot of the Egyptian monument.

The police and a surgeon arrived soon afterwards. They had been alerted earlier when a patrolling constable (PC 281) had noticed the woman acting strangely near the Needle. To his horror he’d seen her launch herself into the Thames in what appeared to be an act of self-destruction. The constable ran as fast has he could towards the Thames Police Office (which was at the foot of Waterloo Bridge on the north side of the river) to raise the alarm and have a boat launched to save her.

It was half past eight at night when the policeman had seen the woman jump so without the quick reactions of  Lyford and his dog she may well have drowned. Instead the woman was taken to the workhouse infirmary where, after some time, she made a full recovery.

As regular readers will know this was not the end of the story because very many people chose to attempt suicide in the 1800s and since it was against the law those that failed in their efforts were brought before the metropolitan Police Courts to answer for it. This woman’s name was Amelia Crickland and she was placed in the dock at Bow Street before Mr Vaughan while the case against her was heard.

We get no real sense of why she threw herself into the river but this is probably because the court reporter was more interested in the canine rescue story, which was described in detail. Thomas Lyford stood in the witness box with his dog. The animal ‘placed its fore paws on the ledge of the box, looking round the court in a most intelligent manner’.

‘It is a very noble and intelligent dog’ Mr Vaughan commented.

‘Yes, he came and told me that something was wrong as plainly as any Christian could,’ the proud dog owner replied.

The unnamed dog was the hero of the hour, poor Amelia (who could only put her decision to drown herself down to ‘some trouble she had’) was sent to the house of detention to wait final judgement on her punishment. ‘Some trouble’ may have meant she was pregnant, or had lost her employment, or some other disgrace she found too awful to bear. Sadly society wasn’t that interested in what had driven her to despair and the reality was likely to be that when she got the chance again she’d make sure there were no eagle-eyed policemen or rescue dogs nearby.

[from The Standard, Friday, March 30, 1883]

Cleopatra’s Needle (which had little or nothing to do with the Egyptian queen) had arrived in the capital in 1878 and so was still a fairly new attraction on the Embankment. It was paid for by public subscription to commemorate victory over Napoleon in Egypt and it had survived a tempestuous journey to reach London. I wonder how many visitors to London stop think of the number of people that ended (or attempted to end) their lives in the water that lay just beyond this symbol of British military power? 

A returning hero of the Syrian war is robbed and left in a London gutter

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HMS Powerful

In 1840 Britain was embroiled in war in the middle east, fighting at sea off the coast of Syria in the Egyptian-Ottoman War (1839-41). Britain was allied to Turkey and when the the Ottoman fleet surrendered to the Egyptians at Alexandria the Royal navy entered the fray. A naval blockade, led by the British with support from the Austrian Empire, eventually secured a truce and the return of the Turkish vessels. A peace treaty followed in which the chief British negotiator was Admiral Charles Napier who managed to get the Egyptian ruler, Muhammed Ali, to renounce his claims to Syria in return for British recognition of his legitimate right to rule Egypt.

Napier had established his reputation in June 1839 (when he was plain Captain Napier) by bringing his command, HMS Powerful, to the defence of Malta when it was threatened by Egyptian forces. HMS Powerfulan 84-gun second rate ship of the line went on to lay a significant role in the war, being part of the force that bombarded Acre ultimately allowing Allied force to occupy the city.

So the Powerful  and the men that served on her were valorised as heroes and one of those men was Henry Collier, who returned to England in 1841 after being wounded in the conflict. Collier had been treated at the navy Haslar hospital at Gosport ‘in consequence of wounds sustained in actions on the coast of Syria, but by July 1841 he was in London.

As part of his recuperation able-seaman Collier decided he would take in the sights of the capital and headed for the Surrey Theatre with ‘a messmate’. He took his naval kitbag with him which contained some new clothes he had bought in town to ‘take into the country’, and his retirement from service.

Collier found the entertainment boring however, and left the theatre hailing a cab. He got talking to the cabman and the latter invited the sailor to join him and a fellow driver for a few drinks. Soon Collier was on a pub cruise with William Collison and John Stone and quite the worse for drink. He anded over a guinea to Collison to pay for his travel but only got 56s in change, not nearly enough. However by this stage the sailor was ‘so groggy’ that he didn’t really notice.

He was soon abandoned by the pair and when he was found, dead drunk on the street by a policeman, he had no money and no bundle of clothes. He described the men and they were soon apprehend and the whole case was taken before the police magistrate at Union Hall.

When the evidence was presented to him, the magistrate (Mr Cottingham) described it as a ‘scandalous robbery’ and asked if any of Collier’s possessions had been found in the possession of the cab drivers. They hadn’t the police replied, but Collison was discovered to have considerable funds on him, 10s 6d in fact. The cabbie, never the most popular figure in the pages of the Victorian press, claimed that this was simply his daily earnings for his trade. He not only denied stealing the sailor’s money or bundle of clothes but said that when he had picked him up he had nothing but the clothes he stood up in.

Had the sailor already lost his kit bag, was he drunk before he met up with the drivers? Both were possible of course but Collier ‘persisted in the truth of his account’. It was a familiar story of an unwary visitor to the capital being parted from his wealth by the locals and sadly, there was little in the way of proof on either side. It would probably come down to reputation and the appearance of anyone that could verify either of the conflicting accounts. Mr Cottingham therefore chose to remand the cabbies while other witnesses for the prosecution (or defence) could be found.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Monday, July 5, 1841]

A not so ‘jolly Jack’ at Bow Street

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The Police Courts of London were established in the late eighteenth century, after the passing of the Middlesex Justices Act (1792). The press reported the goings on at these courts from the start but their coverage in the early decades was patchy and much less regular than it became by the 1840s and 50s. It seems that the newspapers were working out how to use the information and stories that these summary courts provided. The tales of prosecuted thieves and fraudsters offered opportunities to demonstrate the efficacy (or otherwise) of the criminal justice system, to critique (or laud) the ‘New Police’, and, to alert Londoners to the threat posed by particular sorts of criminal.

However, the overriding purpose of publishing a half dozen or more of these daily reports from the Police ‘offices’ (as they were first called) or courts was entertainment. The everyday stories of ordinary folk, sometimes rendered in their own words or dialect, presented what we might now call a ‘Dickensian’ view of life in Victorian Britain.

This story, with its depiction of an Nelsonian Naval ‘hero’, is a good example of the court report as a entertaining distraction from the serious news that the papers contained.

In June 1830 the superintendent of Police, Mr Thomas, was at the Covent Garden watch house. These buildings were the forerunners of the police stations that were built following the establishment of the Metropolitan Police after 1829. The watch house was where the old watchmen set off from to patrol their beats and where those they arrested at night were brought back to to be charged or left to sober up.

On Wednesday morning (the 23 June) a sailor came into the watch house to make a complaint. He was a larger than life character and the Morning Post‘s reporter delighted in his representation of him for his readers. He described him as a ‘jolly-looking  weather-beaten tar, who came ‘tripping along with true sailor-like step’. He asked to be directed to the ‘captain’. In the watch house this meant the ‘super’, and Mr Thomas asked him what he wanted.

‘Your honour’, he began, ‘I am an old seaman and am come to you for redress’.

He went to explain that he had served his country for 15 years, seen many battles, including Navarino where he was part of the crew of the Asia. This battle, the last of the sailing ship age, had effectively decided the outcome of the War of Greek independence as the allied fleet (made up of Britain, France and Russia, led by Admiral Codrington) destroyed a superior Turkish one.

Navarino took place in 1827, and our hero had returned home some years later. He was ready to settle down it seems and, having ‘nothing particular to do’, he thought he’d travel to Windsor to ‘see the King, Lord protect him’. The king in question was George IV who was in the last few weeks of his reign at the time, because, on 26 June George died, at the age of 67. He was succeeded by the last Hanoverian king, his brother, William IV, who reigned for just under seven years.

In his patriotic fervour our unnamed sailor had made his way to Windsor and decided he liked it but that he needed a wife to complete his retirement from the sea.

He soon met up with a ‘jolly wench’ who’s name was ‘Fair-haired Poll’. It soon becomes clear that Poll was not your average Windsor maiden, but an experienced local prostitute who saw a sailor, recently discharged with deep pockets, as a profitable investment. The two soon became intimate.

The sailor told Mr Thomas: ‘I don’t like to be under any obligation, so I thought I’d buy her out and out’. They pair ‘struck a bargain’, and she was ‘his’ for ‘fifteen pounds’. They ‘got on comfortably well together’ at first, the tar explained, but he was getting bored in Windsor so decided to return to London.

‘So we tacked about, and got a-board a coach for town. Well, we comes to a place they call Piccadilly, or some such name, but my Poll thinks proper to bolt while I was treating the Jarvy, and she not only takes herself off but also £60 of my money, and all my toggery’.

So (to translate)  while the sailor had a drink with the coachman Poll ran off with his money and his trunk of clothes. Outraged, he headed for the nearest watch house to demand some help in finding her and his property. Mr Thomas, having listened to his tale brought him to Bow Street Police Court, to make a formal complaint.

There the magistrates sympathised with him (and were amused by the ‘naive style in which he presented it’) but could offer little real help. The man showed them several documents to prove he was who he said he was, but these were unnecessary, ‘as he completely embodied the appearance of a regular built tar’. He was told his best option was to return to Windsor as Poll would most probably have gone back to her old haunts.

The police superintendent promised to keep an eye out for her and his money but they all clearly thought it fairly useless. He was not the first ‘old salt’ to be separated from his prize money by a ‘privateer’ nor was he likely to be the last. Hopefully he found Poll in Windsor, if not then he was likely to end up as another of the hundreds of discharged seamen that struggled to survive in post-war nineteenth-century England.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, June 24, 1830]

Who on earth was Countess Nelson?

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In early 1838 a man appeared at Marlborough Street Police Court charged with embezzling ‘sums of money’ from Countess Nelson.

This caught my eye because my boyhood was Horatio Nelson. From an early age (I think I remember having a Ladybird book on Nelson) I was fascinated by his story. I suspect much of Nelson’s history is suffused with myth; a result of distortions by his early biographers (like Southey) and the repetition of heroic tales over time. But I liked the fact that this man from relatively humble origins in Norfolk rose to be the greatest warrior that England has produced.

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Whether he shot a polar bear as a teenage midshipman is unimportant, as is the exact story behind him ‘turning a blind eye’; the brilliance of his victory at Aboukir Bay and the vital importance of defeating the combined French and Spanish fleet at Trafalgar were thrilling to me as a young boy.

There is an adage of course that one should never meet your heroes. The closest I have ever got to Nelson is his tomb at St Paul’s or his memorial in Trafalgar Square (although I have made the pilgrimage to Burnham Thorpe in Norfolk where he was born and trod the decks of HMS Victory  at Portsmouth).

As an adult the biographies I have read of this greatest of English heroes have been careful to present his other side. The vanity of the man must have been awful, his treatment of Frances Nisbet his wife, his galavanting with the wife of his friend Lord Hamilton, and his oppression of popular uprising in Naples; all jar against the popular image of Horatio Nelson.

Ultimately I remain a fan. I can separate the sea captain, the patriot, the strategist and the brave leader who cared for his troops, from the arrogant, illiberal, self-centred man who cheated on his wife. But while we have had a recent exhibition focused on the life of Nelson’s love, Emma Hamilton, what of the lady she replaced?

Nelson married Frances Nisbet in 1787 after they had met on the Caribbean island of Nevis. Frances had been married before but her husband, a doctor, had died. Military marriages are difficult to maintain over distances, and naval ones in the 18th century even more so given that men were at sea for months on end. When Nelson met Emma at Naples the writing was on the wall for Frances and his marriage.

After the admiral’s death in 1805 at Trafalgar she herself fell ill but made a recovery. She moved to Paris for a while (to live with her son) before returning to England and setting down in Exeter. She died in 1831 in London, in Harley Street.

So who, I wonder, was the Countess Nelson who appeared as part of a court case in January 1838?

Francis Wright, ‘a respectable looking man’ was brought before the magistrate at Marlborough Street for embezzlement. The court heard that Wright had left the Countess’ service some weeks before and had set himself up in business with a beer shop on the Clapham Road.

Wright was charged with ‘forging a certain receipt with intent to defraud Lady Nelson’ and a warrant was executed to bring him in. He was asked to produce his account book but told the justice he was unable to as he had torn it up to ‘make pipe-lights for his customers’. How convenient. He was remanded for further enquiries.

The case didn’t reach the Old Bailey but it may have been too trivial for that and been dealt with later by the summary process. The nature of the court reportage means its not always possible to trace these cases further.

However, I can reveal who Countess Nelson was. She was most probably Hilare (more properly Mrs George) Knight. She had previously been married to William Nelson, Horatio’s brother. William had been given his more famous brother’s title (including that of the Duke of Bronte, Sicily) and so when the couple married in 1829 she adopted the title of Countess Nelson.

In 1835 William died and in 1837 (one year before this case) she remarried, to George Knight, a relative of Jane Austen – so as one researcher noted she was well connected with two famous literary names!

Interestingly as a footnote, neither the original Lady Nelson or Emma Hamilton would live to see the monument to the admiral open in their lifetime. Nelson’s column was erected between 1840-3 at a cost of £47,000 (over £2m today), much of it from public subscription. Frances Nelson died in 1831 and Emma died, penniless, in 1815. Countess Nelson however lived until 1857 so may have strolled beneath the gaze of her illustrious relative by marriage.

[from The Morning Post, Sunday, January 29, 1838]