A cab driver hits rock bottom as he plunges into the Thames’ polluted waters.

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Constable William Hanson (103F) was on duty on Waterloo Bridge when a hansom cab pulled up. Nothing unusual in that of course but what followed was.

The driver leapt down from the cab, rushed to the side of the bridge and then, before PC Hanson could react, threw himself over the side. The officer shouted for help as he heard the splash, and charged down the steps to the riverside.

Charles Field’s life must have swirled around him as he plunged into the Thames’ murky waters and poisonous waters. In July and August of that year the pollution in the Thames, always bad, had reached new heights, as raw sewage emptied into the river in unprecedented quantities bring death and disease in its wake. The ‘Great Stink’ closed Parliament and forced the authorities to take action. Eventually new sewers were designed and built and a monument to their creators, Charles Bazalgette, can still be seen on London’s Embankment.

This was all in the future as Charles Field struggled and sank through the filthy waters. Twice he touched the riverbed before rough hands lifted him clear and into a boat. A waterman had been passing under the bridge at just the right moment, heard the splash, and pulled his oars hard to reach the drowning man.

Between them the waterman and the policeman managed to save the cab driver’s life and PC Hanson helped him to Charing Cross Hospital where he remained for the best part of two weeks as he recovered.

Attempting suicide was a crime however, and so, on the 2 November 1858, Charles Field was set in the dock at Bow Street and formally charged. Having heard the circumstances Mr Jardine, London’s most senior magistrate,  asked him to explain himself.

Field was full of regret for his actions and said he never intended to ‘destroy himself’.  For weeks he had suffered with ‘rheumatic gout’ and that had affected his ability to work. Since he couldn’t take his cab out his family suffered, and his wife was ‘afflicted with paralysis’ so she was unable to help either.

It was desperate but with no social security or health service to fall back on there was little Charles could do but carry on. The 50 year-old cut a sad figure in the dock, looking ‘extremely ill’ and clearly at his wits end. He said that on the day he jumped he had finally managed to go out in the cab, things looked like they might start to improve at last.

But then disaster struck. He was so far behind with his rent that his landlord turned them all out on the street and seized his furniture and effects. His brother gave them a room but he had no money for food. Field went out with his cab but had a ‘bad day’, took little money and found himself on Waterloo Bridge facing the prospect of going home empty handed.

Which is why something broke inside him and he decided to take his own life.

The magistrate turned to the police constable and asked him whether all of this was true. It was, PC Hanson confirmed. He had made enquiries and discovered that the defendant’s wife and children were ‘actually starving’. Given this, and Field’s very obvious remorse, Mr Jardine said he would not punish him. He reprimanded him, reminding the cab driver that suicide was a crime as well as a sin, but discharged him. He ordered that Charles Field be given 10s from the poor box ‘for his present relief’ and told him to ‘call again’ if he needed further help.

Charles Field was a working man; he’d probably been a cab driver for many years. Tough work, driving a cab in all weathers, rarely having a day off, putting up with abuse from customers and other road users. His wife was sick, his children hungry, he had a mountain of responsibilities and no means of support. He got no sick leave, no holiday pay, no unemployment benefit if he couldn’t work, no means to get credit to pay his bills. Like many poor Victorian Londoners when the fragile house of cards he had built came tumbling down he and his family were tipped into poverty.

This is why we have a system to help those that need it. Whether it be medical care that is free at the point of need, or state benefits for periods of unemployment or when work is short. This doesn’t always help of course: those working in the so-called ‘gig economy’ are rarely guaranteed pay and self-employed men like Charles Field still suffer by comparison to those of us that enjoy the benefits of sick pay and annual leave allowances.

That is why the rights of workers matter so much, and why our modern British social security system should be a source of pride, not something for politicians and wealthy press barons to sneer at and undermine.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, November 03, 1858]

Tragedy in the Temple and a stabbing by a Dorset Street resident; all part of daily life in 1880s London

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Lloyd’s Weekly newspaper offered its readers (as the title suggests) a way to catch up with all the news, scandal, gossip, and ‘police intelligence’ that had been carried by the dailies in the preceding week. This Sunday paper had a little more time to frame stories or to carry features than the time limited Daily News or Morning Post did.

It was a very popular newspaper, selling over 1m copies on one day in February 1896, more than its closest rivals the News of the World and Reynold’s Newspaper. It lasted until the 1920s but didn’t survive the financial crisis at the end of that decade.

At the end of June 1889 Lloyds carried a full page of reports from the Metropolitan Police courts, ranging from a case of tea merchant obtaining credit by false pretenses to a valet that stole two gold sovereign coins. By the late 1880s the method of court reporting was well established and the typology of crime and social issues (such as poverty, unemployment, suicide) were very familiar to readers. Individual cases were routinely given a headline (such as ‘Strange Case’ or ‘An Unfortunate Visit to London’), which was not always the case earlier in the century.

Two in particular caught my eye this morning, an attempted suicide in the City and the stabbing of a woman in Deptford. The Deptford case involved was heard at Greenwich Police court but the accused – James Collins – was a resident of Whitechapel. Collins, a 68 year-old wood carver had previously cohabited with Emma Edwards in rooms at 17 Dorset Street, Spitalfields.

Dorset Street was an address that was all too familiar to readers who had been following the news story of 1888. The desperate poverty of Dorset (or ‘dosset’) Street had been highlighted after the brutally mutilated body of Mary Kelly was discovered in a room there in November 1888. Many researchers believe that Kelly was the final victim of the killer known only as ‘Jack the Ripper’, but other (myself included) beg to differ.

Emma Edwards told the magistrate at Greenwich (a Mr Kennedy) that she was walking along Griffin Street in Deptford when she saw her former lover in the street. She noticed ‘the gleam of a knife’ in his hand and suddenly she ‘felt herself stabbed’. She survived and Collins was arrested. In his defense he said it was an accident; he carried knives for his work and she must had fallen against one in his pocket.

The police were able to provide testimony that Collins had threatened Emma on more than one occasion, promising to ‘settle’ her ‘at the first opportunity’. Mr Kennedy sent him to prison for six months for aggravated assault.

The newspaper reports are full of accounts of casual male violence towards women and we should remember this in the context of the ‘Ripper’ murders. However you wish to depict the Whitechapel killings the perpetrator was a misogynistic serial murderer who operated in a society where working class women were placed firmly at the bottom of the social ladder; a reality that enabled him to kill almost without impunity. He was no caped crusader or criminal mastermind, as some versions of the mystery continue to suggest.

At the Mansion House along with the fraudulent tea merchant Sir Andrew Lusk was sitting in for the Lord Mayor. Lusk (no relation I think to the famous ‘Mishter Lusk’ who was sent a piece of human kidney during the Whitechapel murders) served as an MP until 1885 and was Lord Mayor in 1874/5. He was quite old in 1889, being in his late 70s.

By contrast Florence Ross was a young woman with her life ahead of her. An actress or dancer in the music hall, Ross was living with her sister in 1889 while she went through a period of ‘rest’. Whether that ‘rest’ implied she was ill, had fallen pregnant, or was simply unemployed, is not made clear from the report but I think we might speculate.

Florence Ross was rescued from a fountain in Middle Temple gardens where she had tried to drown herself. A policeman saw her rush to the water and jump in and so acted quickly to pull her out. The gardens are close by the Embankment and what is now Temple underground station.

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Whatever the reality she was lucky and survived but attempted suicide was an offence and so she was placed in the dock at Mansion House to answer for it. She said little or nothing by way of explanation but the magistrate decided to see what ways the court could find to help her. He remanded her for a week while enquiries were made. The Illustrated Police News later included its artist’s impression of her attempt in its 6 July edition. Sadly no paper seems to have recorded the outcome of those enquiries. Florence’s was one story amongst many, one human tragedy in a city which was witnesses to countless acts of violence, desperation, and cruelty each and every day, only a handful of which made the pages of the metropolitan press.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, June 30, 1889; The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, July 6, 1889]

 

 

 

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 here

The polluter pays in an early version of the ‘clean air’ act.

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On Friday, July 6 1855, a foreman operating one of the companies of river boats on the Thames appeared in court at Bow Street. Henry Styles was charged under an Act for the Prevention of Smoke in the Metropolis (or more properly, the Smoke Nuisance Abatement (Metropolis) Act 1853), which was the first attempt to tackle the problem of air pollution in the UK.

The company Styles worked for ran ‘halfpenny steam-boast’ between London Bridge and the Adelphi (or what would now be the Embankment) so their route is replicated today by the modern Thames Clippers. Styles explained that he was in court on behalf of the captain of the Curlew, the boat that had been accused of breaking the terms of the act. He told the Bow Street justice, Mr Jardine, that he would be pleading guilty to the charge.

Mr Bodkin, the counsel for the prosecution, was not content to let the matter rest however because, as he went to explain, this was not the first time that the Curlew’s captain, Thomas Shearman, had broken the law in this regard.

‘the boat in question had repeatedly been cautioned before any proceedings were taken…  [but still] the nuisance was permitted to continue, and thick volumes of black smoke were suffered to escape from the funnel in open defiance of the law, to the disgust and annoyance of all whose avocations took them to the vicinity of the river’.

Moreover, Bodkin, continued, none of this was necessary. A ‘very simple apparatus’ used by other steam boats that worked the river could have been deployed on the Curlew.  The company had even fitted it to some of their other vessels but not this one. So the captain could not plead ignorance, or argue that nothing could be done. The act had been in place for over a year and so their was simply no excuse for non-compliance with it.

The foreman agreed and said they had been experimenting with a device but so far it wasn’t working properly. The only way they could avoid the noxious smoke that polluted the river was to ‘use more expensive coal’, and they evidently didn’t want to do that all the time.

They were evading the act and hoping they wouldn’t get caught and having found themselves in court they tried to ‘come clean’ and hope for mitigation. In doing so they probably avoided a heavy fine as Mr Jardine imposed one of just £3, at the bottom end of the scale available to him. Styles was warned that the nuisance must stop however, or further charges and penalties would follow.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, July 07, 1855]