‘You are manifestly in a state of suffering, but I am not certain that this should be taken into consideration’. No pity for a East End thief

Mill Lane, Deptford c.1890s

There were some curious and sad stories from the police courts on 30 August 1864. 

At Bow Street a man was sent for trial for stealing his landlady’s shawl (value £1) but the circumstances were most peculiar. 

She had found him drunk in her room, sitting on one chair with his feet up on another.  When she asked him to leave he dropped to all fours and started barking like a dog and meowing like a cat. A policeman gave evidence that just days before the same man had been seen trying to persuade soldiers in uniform to desert to join ‘the Federals’ (meaning the Northern ‘Union’ army fighting the American Civil War against the Southern ‘Confederates’). 

At Worship Street Maurice Lawrence cut a sad figure in the dock. Described as ‘a general dealer’ who lived on Plumbers Row, Whitechapel, he was clearly down on his luck. He struggled to stand on his one good leg, the other was ‘withered’ and ‘about to be amputated’ the court was told. 

He had been discovered by Michael Mahon, allegedly stealing flowers from Victoria Park. Mahon was an old soldier – a sergeant major who’d seen service in the Crimean War – and he caught Lawrence plucking ‘three dahlias and two geraniums’ and, in his new position as park constable, arrested him. As he was bring led away to the station house Lawrence begged to be set free, offering Mahon 5for his liberty. 

In court he admitted taking the flowers but denied attempting to bribe the park constable, and then threw himself on the mercy of the magistrate. He rolled up his trousers to reveal his withered limb ‘which was seen to be no thicker than an ordinary walking stick’.  

If he hoped the magistrate would let him off he was disappointed. The magistrate declared that unless people that stole flowers were punished ‘the beds will very speedily be destroyed’. 

‘You are manifestly in a state of suffering’, he said, ‘but I am not certain that this should be taken into consideration’.

So for stealing a small bunch of flowers from a public park Maurice Lawrence was fined a shilling and the cost of the flowers. Since he was unable or unwilling to pay this he was sent to prison for a day instead.   Perhaps that represented leniency, but it seems a fairly unkind punishment for a man that was so obviously in a state of extreme poor health. 

The last story that caught my eye (leaving aside a man that tried to kill himself with a dose of laudanum) was that of two landlords prosecuted for keeping unlicensed lodging houses.  Both prosecutions were at Greenwich Police court before Mr Traill, the sitting justice. John Buckley (in absentia) and Johanna Keefe were both accused of renting rooms (although the term is hardly apt, ‘space’ would be more accurate) without a license. 

The cases were brought by Sergeant Pearson (45A) the inspector of lodging houses in the district’. He testified to visiting both properties (in Mill Lane) and describing the scene he found there. 

At Buckley’s he found a room with:

‘with beds, each occupied by a two men, three of whom paid 4d a night each, and the other 2s a week; and in a cupboard in the same room he found a bed on the floor occupied by two men, each paying 1d a night. The size of the cupboard, which had neither light nor ventilation, was about 6 feet in length, by 4 feet in width and 5 feet high’. 

There were other rooms with similarly cramped lodgings within them.  At Johanna Keefe’s he found a room that had: 

‘three beds, each occupied by two men, five of whom paid 2s per week each, the sixth being the defendant’s son’. 

‘What!’, interjected Mr Traill, ‘Ten shillings a week rent for one room?’

‘Yes, your worship’, the sergeant replied, ‘and a small room, not being more than 12 feet square’. 

The magistrate issued a warrant for Buckley’s arrest (he had form for this offence) and fined Keefe 20s. Hearing that she had eight years worth of previous convictions he warned her that if she persisted in taking lodgers without obtaining a license he would start fining her 20 shillings a day.

All in all the day’s reports made a fairly depressing read and reminded Londoners that their city had plenty of social problems in the mid 1860s.

[from Morning Post Tuesday 30 August 1864]

‘You talk so fast, you flower girls’: more Eliza Doolittles in the Police courts

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We’ve met London’s small ‘army’ of flower girls before in this blog. The young women that sold flowers at Covent Garden or St Paul’s were not considered ‘respectable’ and that may well have been the reason Professor Higgins chose one of their number for his experiment in elocution. For his ‘Eliza Doolittle’ we have – in January 1886 – three girls all of whom were prosecuted at the Guildhall Police court for obstructing the streets of the City of London.

Kate Moore, Julia Moore (presumably her sister) and Anne Smith were summoned to the City magistrate court for ‘exposing flowers for sale on the footway’ and thereby causing an obstruction to passers-by. The girls were selling flowers on Paternoster Row, near Cheapside, and they’d caught the attention of police constable Francis of the City force.

He seemed to have made it his mission to move them on and told the alderman magistrate that he’d received ‘a great number of complaints’ from ‘ladies of being’ that the girls had been selling their wares aggressively on the street. I suspect that PC Francis was also fairly convinced that the flowers were not only thing the women were offering for sale.

The association of flowers girls with prostitution was  well established in the 1800s as was the location of St Paul’s and Covent Garden. As Kate protested in court that they’d been doing nothing wrong and merely trying to support themselves and their families the alderman (Sir Andrew Lusk) interrupted her:

‘You talk so fast, you flower girls; I don’t know whether you are fast yourselves, but you talk very fast’.

His implication was that the young women were immoral at best; morally corrupt at worst and, either way, in the wrong.  The City chief police inspector, Tillock, added that the women had chosen a particularly poor place to trade, especially as they stood together. To them this may have represented strength in numbers, to the police it looked intimidating and for the public it created an obstruction.

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Sir Andrew (right) was clearly enjoying the opportunity to show off his comedic side to the watching public and press:

‘You think you make a nice bunch of flowers, I suppose’ he told them before fining them 2s costs and warning them that a sliding scale of penalties awaited them if they didn’t heed this warning. Next time they would pay a fine of 26d, rising to 5(with costs of 2s each time to be added). He probably thought that be letting them off a fine on this occasion he was being lenient but it mattered little to the trio of young women as they had no money anyway.

Kate told the court that they had not earned 2 shillings in the whole week. Sir Andrew was unmoved, ‘pay the money, or go to prison’ he warned them.

[from The Standard, Monday, January 11, 1886]

Mr Tyrwhitt sends a message

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I am coming to recognise the names of several of the men that served as Police Court magistrates in the second half of the nineteenth century. Some, like Mr Lushington at Thames seemed to have little time for wife beaters or drunks, while others reveal a tender side to their nature when presented with cases of genuine need and despair.

Magistrates had considerable discretion in determining what to do with those brought before them; a ‘rule book’ existed (they might use Richard Burn’s Justice of the Peace and Parish Officer, or Oke’s Magisterial) but within the penalties available for a variety of offences there was considerable room for manoeuvre. Indeed while the prosecutor had the ultimate choice of bringing a case in the first place, the magistrate chose then whether to dismiss a charge, convict summarily, or send the prisoner up to a jury court (where they might expect a much more serious form of punishment).

Over at Marlborough Street, one of the busier police courts in London, Mr Tyrwhitt presided in the late 1860s. In late September 1867 two cases were reported at his court which suggest that he had a low tolerance level for nuisance and repeat offenders.

First up was Alice Smith, a ‘young woman’ who refused to give her address in court. I doubt this endeared her to the justice who may well have assumed she had something to hide or was a ‘down and out’. Alice had been caught picking flowers from a bed near the Serpentine in Hyde Park. PC William Cowell had seen the woman take the flowers but as soon as she saw him she hurriedly dropped them. Alice pleaded with the constable not to take her in and charge her, ‘offering to give him whatever he liked to let her go’.

She was probably intending to sell them for the few pennies she might get. It was a petty offence, hardly a serious crime but the magistrate was in an unforgiving mood. He told Alice that she was:

‘one of those mischievous persons that must be restrained. The business of that court was much increased by people that did mischief in the park’.

He fined her 5s or four days imprisonment and let it be known that in future he would hand down a fine of 40s (a significant amount in 1867) to anyone caught ‘plucking flowers’ belonging to the Board of Works.

Having dealt with such a serious theft of the capital’s flora Tyrwhitt was presented with three juvenile felons. George Vial (17), Frederick Williams (15) and James Brougham (14) had been seen loitering around Piccadilly by a plain clothes detective. Phillip Shrives, of C Division Metropolitan Police, said he had been watching the lads follow railway vans (‘evidently for the purpose of robbing them’) and arrested them.

With no other evidence presented against them another justice might have warned them or considered sending them to a reformatory school, but not Mr Tyrwhitt; he sent them all to prison for three months at hard labour.

And so, in this way, were ‘criminal careers’ created.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, September 25, 1867]

p.s I would add that despite what must come across as a rather liberal attitude towards these nineteenth-century offenders I do think we should recognise that for many of those caught up in the justice system, terrible as it could be in the 1800s, a considerable proportion of them had committed an offence that had left behind a victim or victims. On Sunday (yesterday that is) my brother-in-law and sister-in-law’s home was broken into in the early hours while they were away at a family gathering in Manchester.

The thieves broke in through the back patio doors, made a considerable mess as they ransacked all the upstairs room, and stole a small amount of personal and irreplaceable jewellery. The burglary meant I spent half the day waiting for the police and the glass replacement man but it was of course much worse for my in-laws who returned home to find their home violated. Historians of crime need to start to recognise the very real effect of crime on those that were victim to it; as one fellow historian of crime noted to me today:

‘There’s temptation to treat it as colourful history from below with juicy sources and too little recognition that many criminals hurt the poor and vulnerable. Time for the Victim Turn?’