A destitute Essex girl in London makes the news

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Fetter Lane, Farringdon c.1880

I have discussed the tragedy of suicide on this blog before because it features quite regularly in the pages of the London press. While cases in the papers often featured women it would probably be wrong to see this as particularly female; it is just more likely that when a woman (especially a young woman) attempted or succeeded in ending her life it made a more affecting news story.

Given that suicide (or its attempt) was illegal in the 1800s those whose efforts to kill themselves failed or were in some other way interrupted (often by the police) would be brought before a magistrate where the circumstances of their actions were investigated. In some instances this could mean they got some help (and perhaps this was their intention) while in others they simply received an admonition from the justice and even a spell of imprisonment.

It is hard to say whether Sarah Esther was fortunate in getting help from the Bow Street justice or merely thrown from one desperate situation into another. She appeared before  Mr Twyford at London’s senior Police Court having been found by a  policeman on Waterloo Bridge at 7 in the morning. According to the constable she was about to throw herself into the Thames.

When he stopped her and demanded to know what she was up to she told him that she was desperate because she had lost her job. Sarah had come to London from Essex and had secured work as a domestic servant in a house in Fetter lane, Farringdon. She found the work hard and her mistress even harder to please and so she had been dismissed. Destitute and unable to return home to Essex she had seen no other way out than the river.

The alternative for Sarah was the workhouse but according to the relieving officer for the area, Mr Kirby, she seemed ‘disinclined to go herself’. Mr Twyford decided to make the decision for her, thinking it better she went into the workhouse (whatever the horrors it held for the Victorian working class) than to prison. Neither was an attractive option but with no other system of social support aside from charity Sarah’s choice were limited. She could go to gaol for a few days, or enter the workhouse for a similar period. Either way without further help in getting work her future looked bleak.

Girls like Sarah were prey to ‘bullies’ (pimps) and brothel madams, both of whom would sell them into prostitution without a second thought. From there the slide into criminality, desperate poverty, disease and death was pretty much inevitable.

The magistrate determined that the workhouse was best for her because there she would receive ‘every attendance’. But he wanted to make sure the girl was not insane so he sent her off with Mr Kirby but insisted that she be examined by a surgeon as soon as possible. So there was one option remaining for Sarah, if the medical man deemed her to be mad then she might be committed not to a workhouse or a prison but to an asylum. Once there she would have little or no opportunity to leave until her doctors decided she was well again.

So Mr Twyford’s actions, in following the paths open to him by what was a bad law could hardly be said to have helped the poor girl. A one way ticket to Essex and her family would have been a much more sensible and probably cheaper option in the long run. Sadly, that wasn’t the choice the Police Magistrate made.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, September 3, 1839]

for other cases of attempted suicide from the Police courts see:

A ‘passenger incident’ on the late Victorian Underground

Did a ‘wife’ take poison to escape her abuser? Or did her cry for help go unnoticed?

An elderly lady is driven to despair in a society that didn’t care

A native of Merthyr is berated at Bow Street

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Merthyr Tydfil in the mid 1800s

I have been writing about the London Police courts for nearly a year, looking at a different case every day. Additionally I have also spent several weeks in the London Metropolitan Archive near Farringdon which holds the official records of these summary courts. Sadly very little archival material survives; at Bow Street, for example, there are only records from the 1890s onwards – most of the earlier material being lost or destroyed).

The best kept records are the the two sets of registers for Thames Police Court, which run from 1881 and cover the late summer and autumn of 1888 when ‘Jack the Riper’ terrorised the East End. The registers contain useful information for the historian: names of defendants, their ages, gender, the offence with which they were charged, the police officer that brought the to court, and the complainant (if that wasn’t the policeman). We also have an outcome; the adjudication of the sitting magistrate.

I spoke at the Ripperologist’s 21st birthday conference in Algdate last year, where I outlined the functions of the police courts and the role they performed; hopefully later this year I will be ready to provide a more detailed analysis based on the research I have been doing.

At this stage in my research I have almost completed a detailed analysis of the registers at Thames for 1881 and can begin to share some of my findings. It will probably come as no surprise to historians of crime and professionals working in policing, social work or probation, to read that many of those brought into Thames were charged with an alcohol related offence. This might be drunk and disorderly, drunk and using obscene language, drunk and assaulting a policeman, or many other combinations – all involving some form of drunkenness with disorderly behaviour.

These were also the cases that mostly came up first in the registers, so I am imagining that the cells were cleared of those held overnight before the ‘day charges’ or the ‘remands’ (usually more serious offences) were brought in.

The registers provide us with plenty of information. For example, in the 1881 register for the 16 March there are 9 people charge with some variety of disorderly behaviour (one as ‘incapable’, three with violence) 8 of whom are women and one man, William Ethridge. The justice, Mr Saunders, either fined them or sent them to prison for a short period of hard labour. Those fined either paid or risked being incarcerated like the others.

However, despite this information we don’t know the circumstances or detail of their crimes, for that we can only hope to find them in the newspapers, which reported selective cases more descriptively. So today’s case is one of those common drink related ones; a man brought before the courts for being drunk and disorderly.

Timothy McCarthy was a migrant worker. He had travelled from his native Merthyr Tydvil [sic] in Wales in search of work. He told the Bow Street magistrate that there was no work at home and no poor relief either; ‘it was no use stopping there’.

However, it wasn’t that much better in London but he had met with some of his fellow countrymen, who, like him, were out of work, and they had some ‘jollification’. The result was that he was arrested for being drunk on the streets. Fortunately he was bailed rather than being locked up and set at liberty. Unfortunately he chose to carry on drinking as soon as he was liberated.

The magistrate was unimpressed to have him back in court. He turned to the Welshman and said: ‘I know something of Merthyr, and if you were charged with drunkenness there you would be fined 10s costs plus the penalty imposed on you for the offence’.

McCarthy admitted that this was true.

The magistarte admonished him for replaying the ‘indulgence’ of the court in releasing him by offending straight away adding, ‘indeed, you are hardly sober now’. He continued:

 ‘To me it is a matter of wonderment always that you men who say you cannot get work can invariably find the means of getting drunk’. A presumably shamefaced McCarthy meekly responded that ‘it is friends as treat us’, before he was instructed to pay a 3s fine or go to prison for 3 days.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, March 12, 1878]

A thief can’t wait to get back inside

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Cowcross Street, Farringdon, c.1870

George Wood (also known to the police and the community as ‘Gentleman Jack’) was presented at Clerkenwell Police Court in late September 1881 charged with stealing a gold chain valued at £5.

Wood was described as a ‘general dealer’ who lived at Bath Street, off the City Road. The watch belonged to Mr Thomas Matthews, an engraver at the Albion Works on Cow Cross Street (near Farringdon station, Clerkenwell). Matthews was walking to work one morning when Wood ‘got in front of him, tugged at his chain’ and ran off with the watch.

He was soon arrested by a police detective (DS Maroney) and charged. Woods, somewhat surprisingly perhaps, immediately confessed to the robbery. He told the detective that ‘he should like to be sentenced at once, so that he could be doing his time and [therefore the sooner] be at large again’.

His worship did not oblige however, he decided the case was too serious for a short summary imprisonment and committed him for a jury trial at the Middlesex sessions of the peace.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, September 26, 1881;]

Daily doings at Thames Police Court

Three cases today that demonstrate the wide variety of hearings that police magistrates covered in the late 1800s.   These were all reported in late August 1888 at the Thames Police Court.

First a Mr Saunders applied to the court for a summons against the East London Waterworks Company for failing to supply him with water. The company had previously stated that his cistern was not large enough. They told him that under law they were allowed to stipulate how large his cistern was. Six years ago Saunders had encountered the same problem but had disputed it successfully  in court. The magistrate granted him a summons. This sort of dispute was not uncommon; the registers of the Thames Court (held by the LMA  near Farringdon) have many such complaints.

Next up Emma Stiles was prosecuted by George Stiff, a conductor for the North Metropolitan Tram Company. Stiles was traveling on a tram when Stiff asked her for her fare. She refused and then struck  him when he tried to turf her off the car. The magistrate discharged her when he found out her husband was also on the tram stating that he should have paid the fare on her behalf.

Finally George Smith was sent to prison for a month fro breaking into Mr Peter Bamman’s shop on Leman Street. The tailor had locked up at a quarter past midnight and gone home. At just after two PC Cook (263H) was passing by when he heard a noise. He called for Bamman and the two entered the property to find Smith inside, hiding under a table. All he had stolen was a vase.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, August 29, 1888]

An accident on the streets of London

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William Hogarth;s Second Stage of Cruelty

The thoroughfares of the metropolis were crowded with traffic in the later nineteenth century; thousands of horse-drawn vehicles competed with pedestrians and handcarts to make their way across and around the city. Accidents were, as today, a fact of life.

In May 1868 a car-man (the van drivers of their day) was brought up at Guildhall Police Court on a charge of dangerous driving. Andrew White, aged 23, was a van driver for a corn chandler and he had been driving his vehicle along the Farringdon Road at great speed at about 6 in the early evening.

He was seen by a witness just as he was passing the workhouse, it looked like he was losing control as he was trying to pull the horse to a stop. The horse seemed frightened and despite the best efforts of the driver he couldn’t stop the horse and van from careering across the street.

Another man (John Blunt) and his son were riding in the van and, seeing that the van might turn over, the man dropped his son to the road and leapt after him. They were unharmed but the van ran into two labourers, knocking them over. It then crashed over the kerb and knocked down a small child, the wheels running over his neck.

When he had eventually stopped the van the driver climbed down and ‘said he was very sorry for what he had done, but he could not help it’. The boy was killed but everyone seemed to agree it was a tragic accident, not a crime. White was described a ‘sober, hard working’ individual and the magistrate decided that it was a ‘sad accident’ but he ‘could see no blame attaching to the defendant, and at once discharged him’.

[from Daily News , Thursday, May 28, 1868]