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.