‘Weel, your honour, I was three sheets to the wind, and that’s all about it’: A Tyneside collier in the Thames Police court

Unloading coal at the London docks 1871

The London press delighted in occasionally giving their readership a flavor of the drama that unfolded in the metropolitan police courts. There was plenty of pathos but also humour for balance, and if a reporter could poke fun at a regional or foreign accent, so much the better.

John Leslie was a seaman. He was master of the Sarah, a collier that brought coal down from the north east of England to unload at the London docks. It was a tough life but he was his own man and earned a decent wage for the fuel he delivered to the capital.

In early November 1863 he had unloaded his cargo and so he headed for pubs and lodging houses close by the docks, in Ratcliffe and Wapping. At some point, and it is not clear why, Leslie, much the worse for drink, went in search of his mother.

He turned up at the home of Mrs Elizabeth Farrier at 131 Wapping High Street, Banging on the door he demanded to be let in shouting ‘I want my mother!’ Mrs Farrier said that no one answering to his mother’s name lived there, he was mistaken and should go away. But John was determined and in his drunken rage he pushed past her into the house. As she tried to stop him he punched her in the face and swore at her.

The tumult alerted the house and Mrs Farrier’s neighbours and a policeman was summoned. PC Palmer managed to arrest Leslie and dragged him off to the station. The next morning he was stood in the dock at Thames Police court charged with violent assault.

In his defense a chastened Leslie said he was merely looking for his mother.

‘You should prosecute the search for your mother at reasonable hours, and when you are sober’,

the magistrate (Mr Partridge) admonished him.

‘Weel, your honour, I was three sheets to the wind, and that’s all about it’,

the man replied in a strong north eastern accent.

When asked if he had been ‘paid off’ Leslie countered that he was not a mere sailor but his own boss:

‘Eh mon! I am not paid off at all. I am master of my own ship’.

That didn’t do him any favours with the justice who, determining that he was a man of means (despite his rough appearance) fined 40for the assault, a considerable sum by the standards of assault prosecutions in the 1860s. However, Leslie was a ‘man of means’ and he paid the money immediately and went on his way leaving the mystery of his mother’s location unsolved.

[from The Globe, 13 November 1863]

Making explosives at home is a very bad idea

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It is that time of the year again. The period when all the supermarkets stock fireworks for Guy Fawkes and Diwali. Last Wednesday I was walking out of Finsbury Park station on my way to the football when there was a loud bang, the sound of crackers going off, and screams of fear and delight. Suddenly a young man in a hoodie came charging away from the noise followed soon after by three other excited teenagers.

He had thrown a parcel of fireworks into the street by the traffic lights, causing chaos and amusing himself and his friends. Its hardly the worst crime in the world but perhaps, in these dark days of urban terrorism, it wasn’t the most sensible thing to do.

Kids eh?

Such irresponsibility isn’t restricted to children or young adults of course and in 1888 it landed William Seal in court. Seal – who was described as ‘a cripple’ (meaning he was disabled in some way) – was hailed before Mr Bros at Dalston Police court for manufacturing fireworks in a  private house.

He was prosecuted under the Explosives Act (1875) and the case was brought by James Gibbons of the Metropolitan Board of Works and their solicitor, Mr Roberts. The court heard that Seal lived in the upstairs room of a house in Dunster Square, Hackney. The square was home to several houses, each of four rooms, and formed a cul de sac. It was a densely populated area and so very many families lived nearby to where Seal made his pyrotechnics.

Seal lived in a room that was just 9 feet by 7, not much different, in fact, than a standard cell in a Victorian prison. The room was heated by an open fire which was unprotected by any screen or grate, and the table on which Gibbons found Seal’s explosives being made was less than 4 feet away. The table very close to the open fire but the bed was even closer, and Seal stored fireworks under this as well.

The risk of a catastrophic accident, he figured, was very high indeed.

Seal’s landlady was called to give evidence and she testified that she believed he was a toy maker, she never knew he made fireworks and was shocked by the news. She lived downstairs and was ‘very indigent when she discovered the peril in which she and her four children had been placed’.

Mr Bros ordered that all Seal’s stock and manufacturing equipment be seized and brushed aside the defendant’s complaints that it would take away his meagre livelihood. He only made a shilling day from selling fireworks which was barely ‘enough to keep himself out of the workhouse’.

The magistrate was insistent and told the man that by breaking the terms of the act he had rendered himself liable to a fine of £100 a day, and endangered the lives of dozens of people nearby. He fined him £5 or a month’s imprisonment. Shaking his head Seal sloped away from the dock, ‘its the workhouse for me then’, he declared.

[from London Evening Standard, Monday, 5 November 1888]

The Police Court: a progress report

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I thought I’d do something a little different this morning. I’ve been writing reports from the Victorian Police courts for over two years now and have collected several hundred stories which were beginning to give me some historical findings that I might be able to analyse more broadly.

There is a difference I’ve found, both in the nature of cases, the way the courts are used by the public, and the way in which they are reported by the press, and this seems to move in patterns across the period 1830-1900. I’m not at a stage where I can be completely sure about this but it does seem that the newspapers are clearly highlighting particular sorts of case or crime in much the same way as we see ‘hot topics’ appearing in our own papers today.

Sometimes that is a sort of criminal activity (and notably this is fraud of some sort when the Mansion House or Guildhall courts are reported). Other times it is begging and vagrancy – real concerns of the mid Victorians who had reframed the Poor Law to treat the ‘undeserving’ poor more harshly. Later see we plenty of domestic violence cases highlighted as this was something that certainly concerned several of the late Victorian magistrates who wrote up their memoirs. Child neglect, abject poverty, and suicide were also topics that come up time and again with varying degrees of shock, sympathy and distaste.

One of the key problems I’ve faced in undertaking this sort of research is that the papers only ever offer us a snapshot of the magistrates’ work. The daily or weekly newspapers run about a half page on the Police Courts and that means they cover about 5-8 courts and report on one (sometimes two or three) cases from each of them. But we know that these courts were busy places, dealing with hundreds of cases daily, especially on Monday mornings when the police cells emptied of the weekend’s drunks, brawlers, petty thieves and wife beaters.

Judging by the archival records I have looked at from Thames Police court (one of the few places where records from the 1800s have survived) most of those prosecuted there were fined for being drunk and disorderly, or drunk and incapable. Very many others were in for some form of assault and received fines or short prison sentences. Cases which were complicated and led to serious charges being heard at the Old Bailey were relatively few by comparison but were more often reported by the papers, because of course they were often more interesting for the readership.

So what we get is a fairly lopsided view of the police courts and I have been aware that I am also engaging in a selection process in offering up the ones for you to read. Once I realised that dozens if not hundreds of people were reading my blog did that affect they way I chose which cases to cover? It is a difficult question to answer; there are all sorts of factors that determine what I write about. I am drawn to certain types of case because they seem to offer insights into Victorian society at different points, but other times I just find the story sad, amusing or unusual.

Today I am speaking at the 2018 East End Conference, a gathering of largely amateur historians who have a fascination with the Whitechapel Murders and the context in which they occurred. I on quite late in the day and as this is the 130th anniversary of the so-called ‘Jack the Ripper’ murders I thought I’d take the opportunity to reflect on the phenomenon of ‘Ripperologly’ (the study of the murders) and the problems of historical evidence. This is because the Ripper case and the character of ‘Jack’ has been manipulated from the beginning of any interest in it. He has been used by tour guides, entertainers, politicians, social reformers, historians, video game makers and others for all sorts of purposes. Each generation has shaped their own ‘Ripper’ to suit contemporary concerns or tastes.

In the process we have lost touch with the reality of the murders which were brutal in the extreme. The Ripper figure has become separated from the real killer and an entertainment industry has grown which has exploited the victims and the area in which the killings took place. In the light of recent movements that oppose misogyny (like the ‘Me Too’ movement) I believe Ripperology needs to reflect carefully on the sometime casual way in which the killer has been turned into some sort of cult comic book figure – the mysterious topped hat gent with a knife and a Gladstone bag swirling his cape through foggy backstreets.

This characterisation has arisen from the lack of hard evidence we have for who ‘Jack’ really was. The vacuum has been filled by speculation – which is not in itself a bad thing – and by a vert partial reading of what evidence we do have. Much of this is gleaned from the Victorian press in the 1880s and I can see (simply by reading them every day for this blog) how careful we need to be about that material.

So writing this blog and writing and researching my own ‘Ripper solution’ book has helped me think more carefully about how we use and present ‘history’ and that will form part of what I have to say this afternoon. Normal service – in the form of the reports of the magistracy – will return tomorrow with a tale of pyromaniac who risked the lives of those he lived with. A tale appropriate for Guy Fawkes I thought.

Drew

A Scots Grey is charged…

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Lady Elizabeth Butler, Scotland Forever, (1881)

A porter at Shoreditch station was walking along the platform when he saw a man on the tracks. It was about 10.30 at night and the passenger was running down the slope at the end of the platform on to the rails. The porter called out a warning and when this was ignored he quickly ran to alert the signalman so he could stop the incoming train.

The man on the tracks was behaving reactively, jumping and running between the lines and he only stopped when he saw the train approaching. Fortunately for him the driver was able to halt the locomotive just in time just as the young man threw himself of it.

The porter helped the man up from the track and it soon became obvious that the man was drunk. He was arrested by a policeman and held overnight in the cells before being taken before Mr Hannay at Marlborough Street Police court the next day.

The man gave his name as John McIntyre and appeared dressed in his army uniform as a private in the Scots Grey, he was charged with being drunk and disorderly and with attempting to take his own life. McIntyre was too old to have been involved in the famous charge of the Scots Greys at Waterloo (so famously rendered in oils by Lady Elizabeth Butler just a few years after this incident) but many would associate him with the heroism of his regiment. He denied trying to kill himself but admitted being drunk and out of control, so much so that he couldn’t remember anything.

The magistrate  (perhaps mindful of McIntyre’s military background) was sympathetic and accepted that his actions had been merely stupid not suicidal. As a result he fined him 10s. The soldier didn’t have the money to pay his fine however, and so the gaoler led him away to start a default sentence of seven days in prison. Hopefully that was the end of his troubles and he could return to the Greys.

Two years after the private’s personal disgrace the Greys were renamed  as the 2nd Dragoons (Royal Scots Greys), making the nickname they had enjoyed for so long official. McIntyre may never have seen battle since the battalion enjoyed 50 years of peace between the Crimean War and the second Anglo-Boer War in 1899. If he had gone to the Cape then John may have seen service in the relief of Kimberly and the battle of Diamond Hill. By then he would have been an old trooper, and perhaps – in 1875 – he was simply sick and tired of the tales of heroism told by veterans of Waterloo and the Crimea, and bored at having nothing much to do. If you signed up for glory and all you got was barrack room banter, endless parades and drilling, and mucking out the horses perhaps we can understand  his drunken brush with death.

[from The Morning Post, Friday 22 October, 1875]

“I think you are in my seat sir”: A Row in the Dress Circle

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Today if you decide to go to see a West End show, concert or play you will always buy tickets, usually in advance, and sometimes on the door. The tickets will indicate where your seat is and that seat is yours regardless of whether you choose to sit and watch the performance of spend the entire evening propping up the bar. We might imagine it was ever thus but this story from October 1855 reveals that while you might pay to access a certain section of the theatre buying a ticket did not necessarily guarantee a particular seat.

Henry Burroughs and William Horner had decided to spend a night at the Drury Lane Theatre. They had paid to sit in dress circle and had occupied seats in one of the boxes there. They’d arrived around seven o’clock but at some point after that had gone down to the bar for some refreshment. When they returned (at about nine) with a friend they found two men sitting in their seats.

They politely asked the newcomers to leave but were (just as politely) rebuffed:

‘If the box-keeper says they are yours, we will give them up’, William Burt (one of the two occupants) replied, otherwise he was staying put. The theatre assistant (the ‘box-keeper’) was called over but assured them that no one had asked him to mind the gentlemen’s’ seats. Nor had any of the theatre-goers in the neighbouring seats. As far as William Burt (and his friend Seymour, a City solicitor) the seats were vacant and they were entitled to sit there.

Burroughs and Horner thought otherwise however and one of them leant foreword and grabbed Burt by his shirt collar, pulling his head back. His companions joined in and a fight broke out between the five men. The theatre erupted into chaos and the playhouse’s inspector was summoned. With some difficulty all the men were arrested and led away so the performance could continue in peace.

The next day Burroughs and Horner, ‘smartly-dressed young men’, were presented at Bow Street Police court to answer for their actions. They complained that they were the victims in all this: they’d only vacated their seats for a ‘few minutes’ and others had unfairly occupied them. They’d politely requested them to leave but they hadn’t. The row was regrettable but not entirely their fault.

Inspector Hancock from the theatre said he’d never had such a dreadful disturbance in all his four years of service. Nor was it normal for the box-officers to reserve seats in the outer circle, you took your chance and the men should have asked others to keep their seats for them while they sought refreshment. Mr Jardine the sitting magistrate agreed. While the fight had involved all five of them it was Burroughs and Horner that had started it and so he fined them 40s each, which they paid.

So next time you are sitting in a West End theatre make sure you are sitting in the right seat but if someone is in yours, be careful to ask the attendant to make them move.

[from Reynold’s Newspaper, Sunday, 21 October, 1855]

‘Nothing could be more disgraceful than for a man of your profession to be intoxicated’: An East End clergyman in disgrace.

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Drunkness (often combined with disorderly conduct or incapability) was the most common things for anyone to be prosecuted for at a Metropolitan Police court in the late 1800s. In the mornings (particularly Monday morning) the cells were full of recovering drunks, nursing sore heads and bumps and bruises from falling down in the street. The vast majority of these were fined and released with a flea in their ears from the magistrate, some (those who resisted arrest or had no money to pay a fine) were sent to prison for a few days or weeks. Overwhelmingly they were poor working class men and women.

Henry Hurgill was different.

Hurgil had been found drunk and incapable, lying on the pavement outside the Dog and Partridge pub in Bow Road. PC Robert Clarke (529K) had dragged him to his feet, ascertained that he was hardly able to stand and so had escorted him back to the station to sober up.

When he was presented at Thames Police court the magistrate asked him his profession.

‘I am a clergyman’, Hurgil told him.

‘In holy orders?

‘Yes sir’.

‘And found in this beastly condition, dead drunk?’ Mr Paget demanded.

‘It don’t often happen’, apologized the clergyman, but this only brought more opprobrium down on his shoulders.

‘Often happen, sir?’, the justice thundered. ‘It ought never to happen at all. Can anything be more disgraceful than a drunken clergyman?’

Hurgil tried to say that he only drank occasionally but clearly he was in denial; he was a regular drunk and Mr Paget was disgusted by him. ‘Nothing could be more disgraceful than for a man of the prisoner’s profession to be intoxicated’, he said, and he only wished he had the power to punish him more severely than the law allowed. But his hands were tied and he could only hand down the maximum fine of 5s.

Henry couldn’t pay this however, as he was a clergyman without a ‘duty’ at present. ‘Duty!’ spluttered the justice, ‘I should hope not’. The gaoler led his prisoner back to the cells to hope that his friends had a whip round to keep him out of prison where he was bound to go if the money could not be found.

[from The Illustrated Police News etc, Saturday, October 17, 1868]

A man is told to beat his wife behind doors so as not to disturb the public peace

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If you want to know how gender biased societal attitudes towards domestic violence were in the Victorian era I think this case illustrates them perfectly.

PC Massey of the City Police was walking his beat in October 1871. It was the early evening and he was on Jewry Street in Aldgate when he heard a commotion. James Daley was laying into his wife, abusing her verbally and physically and so the policeman intervened.

He told Daley that if ‘he had any differences to settle with his wife’ he should ‘do it at home’. In his eyes then it wasn’t the violence that was the problem, buy the fact that the noise the pair were making was disturbing the peace.

Daley, a local tailor, was drunk and in mood to listen to the advice from a copper and pushed the officer to aside. The man then raised his fists and punched his wife hard in the face twice. Again the policeman merely asked him to take the matter off the streets. The tailor ignored him and proceeded to thump Mrs Daley even harder.

PC Massey had no choice now. The man wouldn’t go home quietly so he had to arrest him and so, with difficultly, he took both parties into custody and presented the tailor at the Mansion House Police court the following morning.

Mrs Daley refused to prosecute her husband, despite the beating she had received and the bruises that resulted from it. Her eye may have been blackened but she refrained from further blackening her partner’s reputation, keeping quiet. For his part Daley justified his assault on her on the grounds that she had been out drinking and he’d had ‘to fetch her home’. It was only when she’d refused to return that he had ‘slapped her face’.

Domestic violence like this was commonplace and magistrates were powerless to do much if anything about it. Wives and partners rarely prosecuted, or withdrew their prosecutions after an initial complaint. The police didn’t want to get involved, and society seemingly accepted that such abuse was acceptable so long as it didn’t go ‘too far’. Exactly how far was ‘too far’ wasn’t an exact science of course and most female homicide victims were killed by their lovers or husbands.

PC Massey wasn’t bothered by the violence Daley showed towards his wife, and nor, I doubt, was the Lord Mayor. What was a problem however, was the tailor’s refusal to comply with a direct request by a serving policeman to go home quietly. That, and not his abuse of his wife, earned him a 10fine or seven days in prison.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, October 11, 1871]