The case of the ‘explosive’ honey at the London Docks

South Dock warehouses and hydraulic capstan

All sorts of things come up in the reports of cases at the Metropolitan Police courts. These really were quite diverse in the areas they covered; while the bulk of the reported cases were thefts, assaults, drunk and disorderly behaviour and vagrancy there are also numerous examples of the regulation of trade in the capital and at its docks. These may not be as ‘sexy’ or as exciting as murders, robberies and cunning frauds, but they do offer us an insight into contemporary life in a way that isn’t often repeated elsewhere.

Take this case for example: In September the presiding alderman at Guildhall Police court called the attention of the superintendent of the City of London police to a practice he had heard about and thought needed investigating.

220px-Andrew_Lusk,_Vanity_Fair,_1871-10-07

Sir Andrew Lusk (left, from Vanity Fair) told Superintendent Foster that a complaint had been made to him about a firm importing honey which had deliberately mislabelled the crates containing their produce. Clearly worried about dockers and porters casually throwing the boxes around without due care and attention they had inscribed the cases with the legend ‘Dynamite: handle with care’.

The magistrate could see the purpose behind the subterfuge but was worried none the less that ‘it was the old story of the wolf’; once it was realised that the crates contained honey and not explosives there was a very real danger that actual imports of dynamite would be treated with reckless abandon!

He ordered the superintendent to ask the Customs staff to investigate the matter and have a word with the honey importers to ensure such misdirection didn’t lead to a potentially disastrous accident on the docks.

I’m sure today that honey and dynamite are not imported in the same sorts of containers or unloaded in the same manner. Those were less health and safety conscious times of course.

[from The Standard, Friday, September 12, 1879]

The case of the ‘detonating grave digger’

The object of today’s post had a rather Dickensian name, Mr Wackett.

Wackett (no first name was given, if indeed he had one) declared himself to be a grave digger in Bethnal Green. One Sunday evening in early June 1839 Police constable Smith (171G) was strolling his beat in Shoreditch when he heard screams up ahead.

Moving along he quickly came upon several alarmed if not terrified persons, mostly women, who were trying to get away from a man in the street. Wackett was in the thick of things, apparently hurling small bags at passers-by, which appeared to explode on contact.

As the bags landed they ‘exploded with a report that could be heard at a considerable distance’, he later told the Worship Street court.

PC Smith arrested the grave digger and took him back to the station to search him. A number of bags, containing what seemed to contain gravel, were found on his person . On the orders of a magistrate these were taken away and examined by a local chemist.

When Wackett appeared before the Worship Street justice (Mr Broughton)  it was reported that:

‘intermixed with the gravel [was] a detonating powder which,  when thrown at any person, particularly a female, might create much alarm, but was not likely to destroy, or sensibly damage the dress’.

So it was an unpleasant thing to do, but one designed to upset and alarm and not to hurt or damage clothing. As a result Mr Broughton gave the grave digger a lecture on behaving more decently in future and let him go with a small fine.

[from The Operative, Sunday, June 9, 1839]

I hadn’t heard of the The Operative before, but it seems to have come out of Chartism. The paper’s ‘mission statement’ was “Established by the working classes for the defence of the rights of labour. Also for a ‘fair day’s wages for a fair day’s work.’