Skipping their way to court: prosecuting games in the ‘People’s Park’

Vic Park

In 1874 Easter fell over the weekend of the 4thand 5thApril and the weather was fair in London. On Easter Sunday lots of Londoners headed to the parks to take the air and promenade in the spring sunshine. Victoria Park in East London (dubbed the ‘people’s park’) was particularly busy; an estimated 20,000 people visited, many dressed in their ‘Sunday best’. The police were on hand as always, to keep an eye on any troublemakers and to ward off thieves and drunks.

The park had first been opened to the public in 1845 and a Chartist demonstration in 1848 gave the police their first public order challenge. That passed without incident as the thousands who gathered soon dispersed when a heavy rain shower broke above them. So much for a British revolution eh?

Victoria Park fell under the aegis of the Royal Parks and Gardens Regulations Act (1872) which restricted the use of the park. All ‘games’ were banned for example, although interpretations of what a ‘game’ meant was disputed. A week after Easter two men were brought to the Worship Street Police court and prosecuted under the act by a representative of the Royal Parks.

Park constable Blazer (no.21) reported that on Easter Sunday he’d been on patrol in the park when he’d noticed a number of men with skipping ropes. The men were holding long ropes and charging men and women a halfpenny or a penny to skip within them while they twirled them. It seemed like harmless fun but the constable said that it was damaging the grass (presumably by the tramping of very many pairs of feet jumping up and down). Moreover, charging money was an infringement of the rules.

He approached two of the men and told them desist but they laughed at him and carried on. Blazer then decided he had to arrest them. The men were charged at the nearest station and released to appear before Mr Hannay at the police court. There the magistrate asked their names and occupations. Henry Neale was a brass finisher and his companion, James Mortimer said he was a labourer. Both were simply earning a little extra by their entrepreneurial use of a skipping rope.

Inspector Condon of K Division was on hand to support the park constable. He explained that under the regulations defined in the act no person was allowed to play at ‘any game’  or ‘sell or let any commodity’. Arguably then the men had broken two rules but Mr Hannay doubted whether selling a go on a skipping rope constituted selling a ‘commodity’. However, by the same token they were clearly engaged in ‘a game’, which did infringe the rules. The constable piped up to say that he always ignored children who were skipping with their own ropes,. he was sure that shouldn’t be restricted under the spirit of the act.

Today our parks are full of people running, skipping, playing football or cricket, doing yoga or pilates, or using the myriad exercise machines that have sprung up in recent years. Exercise is part of the mantra of daily life and the idea that we would prosecute people for encouraging a little of it seems odd, the say the least. But while the Victorian recognized the benefits of fresh air and a brisk walk they also wanted to keep their green spaces free from commercial exploitation, especially on holy days. Mr Hannay duly fined the pair for causing a nuisance. They handed over half a crown each and were discharged.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, April 12, 1874]

Boxing twins at Westminster are thwarted by a new act to prevent cruelty to children

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When I think of boxing twins I always think of Ronnie and Reggie Kray, the East End’s premier gangsters of the twentieth century. There was something about being twins and taking on all-comers in the post war clubs and fairgrounds that helped immortalise the pair. Their mother was not at all happy when they chose to fight each other though, but most of the rest of the audience were; seeing brothers, twins even, attempt to knock the living daylights out of each other was a proper spectacle.

Maybe this lay at the heart of William Gamgee’s desire to see his boys fight on stage at the the London Aquarium.  He’d brought them special costumes and gloves and they had already started to learn the skills they needed to become boxers.

There was a problem however, the boys were only 8 or 9 years old and so Gammage had to apply for a licence from a magistrate if he wanted them to appear on stage at the Aquarium. To this end he’d approached Mr Partridge at Westminster Police Court and applied for a license under the Better Protection of Children Act (1889) also better known as the Children’s Charter. The act had only just become law and reflected a growing feeling that children needed protection from adults. The NSPCC had adopted its name in that year, having previously been founded as the Liverpool Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children in 1883. This organisation (inspired by an American equivalent) soon formed branches in London (founded by Lord Shaftesbury) and elsewhere. In 1895 it was granted a Royal charter.

The magistrate was amused by the application and perhaps it reminded him of a childhood desire to box at school. He quizzed the father, a hairdresser, and then called the boys to the stand. The father was asked what whether he was to receive any reward from the twins appearance on stage. No, he said, all they would get was a pair of gold medals if they won.

What about the gloves they were using? Gammage handed them over and the magistrate amused the watching court by making a fist with them as if he wanted to put them on. He agreed they seemed fit for purpose but were unlikely to hurt the children. Mr Gammage also produced a certificate from the boys’ schoolmaster to say they were good attendees at school and making progress with their lessons.

Gammage said they only fought for three rounds and he decided when they should stop. A police inspector said he’d witnessed the boys fighting and said it wasn’t ‘vicious’ and he didn’t believe anyone was getting hurt.

When the twins were questioned they said they enjoyed boxing very much. They didn’t get hurt and their father was always with them.

‘Would you rather be hairdressers, like your father, when you grow up, or fighters?’ he asked them.

‘Fighters’ was their emphatic reply, drawing laughter from the public gallery.

So now it came down to the magistrate’s opinion and his interpretation of the law. Dr Pearce, A Division’s police surgeon said he’d examined the boys and could see no ill-effects so far. A little exercise was fine he added, but ‘if it were continued night after night at their present age, he thought it would be injurious’.

That was enough for Mr Partridge. Whilst I suspect he secretly enjoyed seeing the two young pugilists in his court and fancied their sparring was perfectly safe and probably a ‘good thing’, his position as an interpreter of new laws made him err on the side of caution. He told the disappointed hairdresser and his sons that he would not be issuing a license to let them box anytime soon. They’d have to wait until they were a little bit older.

[from The Standard, Thursday, December 05, 1889]