Little sympathy for an old sea dog who served his country

Rare original image showing a black Greenwich Pensioner in Greenwich Hospital uniform

The accusation of forgery that was  levelled against Dixon Dawson at the Mansion House Police court in 1850 was serious and complex, and it reveals a story of bravery, service and a fall from grace that might well be common to thousands of veterans in mid nineteenth-century Britain.

The long wars with Revolutionary and then Napoleonic France had raged from 1790 to 1815 with only small breaks in-between. Before then England had been embroiled in war with its former colony in America from 1776-1787. Throughout that time the Royal Navy had played a pivotal role in operations; helping to move troops, block enemy ports, and ultimately preventing Napoleon’s Grand Armée from invading in 1805.

Following The emperor Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in June 1815 very many soldiers and sailors were returned to civilian life as Britain did not keep a large standing army in the early 1800s. Many of these were wounded, physically or psychologically (although there was little understanding of this at the time). Some of the old soldiers would have found a bed at the Chelsea Hospital while the former ‘tars’ could apply to be helped at Greenwich.

Dixon Dawson ended up at Greenwich where he lived for a while after working as a domestic servant for several years after he left the Navy. Dawson seems to have wanted to start a business, perhaps to provide security for himself and his daughter (we presume his wife was dead, as she is not mentioned), but lacked the funds. He then set upon a course that would have dire consequences because at some point he managed to forge a series of cheques in the name of his former master’s daughter in an attempt to defraud them of upwards of £300.

Dawson was caught and committed by the sitting magistrate at Mansion House (Alderman Gibbs) to take his trial at the Old Bailey in August 1850.

From the trial record it seems likely that Dawson was guilty. He’d tried to gain money he wasn’t entitled to and had involved others in his criminal actions. He’d abused the trust of his master and the kindness of the staff at Greenwich. Not surprisingly then he was found guilty.

But no one seems to have disputed Dawson’s back story, and several people spoke up for him and made it plain that he had never been a problem to society before. He had no previous criminal convictions, nor was he a drunk. There were occasions in the hospital when his behaviour was somewhat erratic and it seems likely that Dawson, at 71, was suffering both the effects of his increasing age and of the wounds he had sustained in his naval career.

Dawson had been wounded several times and once in the head. In his own statement to the court he explained that he’d been wounded at Cape Legat in 1803 and this:

caused me to be in a deranged state of mind now I have advanced in years, and at times to be very troublesome‘.

If his story is true (and no one seemed to doubt at the time, and some confirmed it) Dawson saw service from 1790 to the end of the wars in 1815. He served with Nelson and was wounded on the deck of HMS Victory fighting close to the Admiral. He fought for his country in Italy, the Caribbean, Africa and Europe and should have been able to look forward to a peaceful retirement. Sadly of course, old servicemen had to work in the 1800s and there was little in the way of support for most of them. Many ended up as beggars, vagrants, or worse, as Britain certainly wasn’t a ‘home fit for heroes’ in the early Victorian period.

Dixon Dawson offered a heartfelt plea for mercy to the court, citing his service history and the wounds he sustained.

‘My Lord, I am innocent of the crime laid to my charge; I have only been six weeks discharged from the strong-room in the Infirmary of Greenwich Hospital, which can be proved by Sir John Liddell, the doctor of Greenwich Hospital; I trust in God, my Lord, you and my prosecutors will show me mercy, and send me down to Greenwich, and they will keep me confined at the hospital; I have an only daughter; I am afraid it will break her heart if I am sent to prison; I hope, my Lord, you will show me mercy for God’s sake, as we all expect mercy from God; I can assure you I know not what I have done, or what has been done.—Your humble petitioner, Dixon Dawson.’

Perhaps he was a good con man but I suspect his mind was affected by the years of service, the wounds and old age. He was probably guilty and that is what the jury decided but I think the state should have helped him and certainly not allowed him to be punished for what he’d tried to do.

There was little room for sympathy in the early Victorian justice system however. This story doesn’t really have a happy ending. The jury did express their sympathy for Dixon and the judge took this into consideration. Instead of sending him to prison he ordered him to transported to Australia for ten years. This old sailor would have to make one last journey on a wooden ship, one that would take him halfway around the world and separate him from his daughter and his friends for ever.

I’m not sure he ever made it to Australia. The Digital Panopticon has no record of him arriving there, nor of him being in prison after the trial. Perhaps there was a happy outcome after all but I doubt it. I rather fear that the stress and anxiety caused by his confinement and trial was the last straw for this old salt.

[from Reynolds’s Weekly News, Sunday, August 4, 1850]

‘De ombrella, he fall down’; the British press amuse themselves at the Europeans’ expense.

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Amid all the squabbling and back-biting that surrounds the UK’s prolonged exit from the European Union one of the more depressing traits that has arisen is a revival of anti-European sentiment. Even the newly appointed Foreign Secretary was quick off the mark in warning the Brussels negotiators that any failure to achieve a good deal for both sides, leading to the “very real risk of a Brexit no deal by accident’, would be blamed on the EU by the British people.

Anti-European rhetoric has been stoked up over the past few years building on decades of often fake news stories peddled by some sections of the English press. All those tales of straight bananas, renaming ‘Bombay mix’ or there being more words on cabbage regulation than there are in the Gettysburg Address were false. If that is added to the drip feed of tabloid articles blaming ‘foreigners’ for an upsurge in crime, pressure on the NHS or even the number of traffic jams on English motorways and you have the underlying xenophobia that fueled the rise of UKIP and, ultimately, won the Brexit referendum.

Not that any of this is new of course; being unpleasant to, or making jokes at the expense of our European neighbours is as a British as fish and chips (which was probably invented by Jewish migrants but let’s not go there). In 1828 Londoners at least remembered a time when they or their parents had fought a war in Europe; a decade after Waterloo the scars of the Napoleonic Wars were still quite angry even if the chief protagonist had been dead for 7 years.

In July of 1828 two men appeared before the magistrate at Marlborough Street Police court, one French and the other German, following an altercation in the street. Louis Courquin was a ‘French cook and confectioner’ and he accused Philipe Bohn, a German tailor, with assaulting him. The magistrate, Sir George Frannat, asked the pair to explain what had gone on between them. The Morning Post’s reporter chose to render the exchange in dialect, for maximum comic effect, something we still see in the occasional tabloid headline.

Bohn told the court that he was standing in the street talking to an English friend when Courquin approached. His friend supposedly said to him, ‘here is one oder fereigner, you can talk together’. Bohn then addressed the chef in German which he didn’t understand, speaking only French (and Bohn said he spoke no French).

Bohn’s English pal presumably thought that all ‘foreigners’ would be able to understand each other, because the English couldn’t understand any of them.

As the pair tried to communicate it seems that the Frenchman’s umbrella fell over and either hit the German or Bohn was blamed for tipping it over (Bohn said that ‘de ombrella, he fall down’ when Courquin ‘he schict his ombrella on de iron shpike, to take a pinch of shnoff’). The argument – if it even was an argument – carried over as both men proceeded to a nearby washhouse.

A parish constable saw the two of them quarrelling, decided the German was to blame, and took him in charge. In court Louis denied bringing  a charge against the other man but did say that he’d now lost his ‘parapluie’ (his umbrella) and his hat. In the confusion both men had left their possessions at the public washhouse and Sir George thought the best solution to it all was for the pair to go back together to retrieve them.

They discovered that they had lived close to each other for several years, with the Frenchman resident in London for nine years and Bohn for five. They were part of a European community in the British capital, and of a wider immigrant populace that included migrants from all over the known world. Nineteenth-century London was, like the modern city, a multi-cultural society.

I like to think they wandered off, arm in arm, muttering about the peculiarities of ‘ze Engleesh’.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, July 26, 1828]

No ‘land fit for heroes’ for one wounded survivor of the Crimea, just a ‘rolling’ in Westminster

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In January 1856 the Crimean War was nearly at an end. The battle of Balaklava (25/10/1854) and Inkerman (25/1/1855) had both taken place and as Austria threatened to enter the war on the side of the Allies (France, Britain and Turkey) Russia sued for peace.  Nearly a million soldiers died, many from disease not the actions of the enemy. Britain and the Empire lost 21, 097 men but 16,000 of these died from disease; this was the war in which Florence Nightingale rose to prominence and Britain agonised over the poor state of health of its troops.

When the troops came home they might have expected a better reception but the concept of a ‘land fit for heroes’ was still in the distant future. While the Royal Navy had usually enjoyed a positive public  profile the army was not so well thought of. The many hundreds of wounded ex-servicemen found it hard to adjust to ‘civvy street’ when they returned.

Walter Palmer had served in the Coldstream Guards in the Crimea. The regiment fought at Alma, Sebastopol and Balaklava and won four of the newly minted Victoria  Crosses. Palmer was a man with a tale to tell then. He’d been badly wounded and returned to London missing three fingers from his right hand. With his army pay burning a hole in his jacket pocket he had set himself up at a table in the Star and Garter pub in Westminster, regaling all who would listen with his tales of the war.

Apparently he attracted quite an audience; ‘entertaining a party of ardent lovers of military glory with his recital of his adventures and exploits at the seat of war, and liberally standing treat for his patriotic hearers’.

As Palmer boasted of his life with the guards he flashed his money about and this caught the attention of some of the less patriotic members of the crowd. As he left, arm in arm with a ‘lady’ he’d met, a couple of them followed him along King Street.

One of these was Thomas French and Palmer was not so drunk that he hadn’t noticed the ‘dissipated young man’ watching him intently in the pub. French and the other man, later identified as Philip Ryan, rushed him and robbed him. The damage to his hand meant the soldier was unable to defend himself and thrown down to the ground. French reached inside his tunic and cut away his inside pocket, stealing 15 in silver coin.

Ryan ran off at the sound of an approaching policeman but French stopped and pretended to have just arrived to help the soldier. He consoled him about his ‘treatment by “those villainous rogues”‘ and helped him to his feet. Palmer went along with the ruse until the policeman arrived and then gave him into custody. Ryan returned to try and rescue his mate and wrestled with the copper. French shoved a handful of money at his pal urging him to swallow it.

Ryan got away but after French was secured at the station the police quickly apprehended him. In court at Bow Street Ryan’s solicitor defended his client saying there was little evidence of his involvement in the crime. The magistrate, Mr Henry reluctantly agreed, accepting that since the young man had since spent a week in custody that was perhaps sufficient punishment for now. Ryan was released.

Thomas French was much more clearly involved and it was revealed that he had string of previous convictions. He was minded to send him for jury trial and a possible long period of imprisonment or worse. French was alive to the possibility that he might fare badly in front of a jury and so he made a last ditch attempt to plead for leniency.

He asked to be dealt with summarily, promising that if ‘His worship could give him one more chance, he would reform and “become a new character altogether”. I suspect Mr Henry had heard that one  a hundred times before but he allowed the youngster’s plea and sent him to prison for three months. Harsh maybe, but not as bad as being locked up for years or sent to Australia.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, January 17, 1856]

You can use this site to search for specific crimes or use the Themes link in the menu on the left to look for areas or topics that interest you. If you are interested in a particular court (such as Bow Street or Marylebone) you can also limit your search to one court in particular. Please feel free to comment on anything you read and if something in particular interests you then please get in touch. You can email me at drew.gray@northampton.ac.uk

A case of cold feet or something more sinister? Child abduction in 1880s Hoxton and an echo of the ‘Maiden Tribute’.

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William T. Stead in his prison uniform

At Worship Street Police Court in late November 1887 a man was brought up on a charge of abducting an under-age girl. Harriet Regan was allegedly just 17 when she was enticed to leave her step father’s house in Hoxton to travel to Fulham to live with William Wilkinson.

Wilkinson was a 40 year-old traveler who had some friends living in the same house as  Harriet’s step father, George Hubbard. They had plied the girl with drink so that she was rendered (by her own account) ‘partially stupefied’. Nevertheless the court heard that she had lived quietly with Wilkinson in his home at Fulham for several weeks and so there was some doubt as to whether she had left willingly or not.

It was now nine weeks since she’d left and the couple had fallen out and quarrelled. Harriet had written to her mother, apologising for leaving and begging to be taken back and away from Wilkinson. She got away and was ‘restored to her friends’, but in the meantime a warrant was issued for Wilkinson’s arrest.

The case was brought by the Treasury and there was some debate as to exactly who should be charged and for what. Mr Hannay, the sitting magistrate, declared that while there was some suggestion that Wilkinson’s accomplices might have a case to answer for the abduction, there was not enough of a case to proceed with. The Director of Public Prosecutions, on the other hand, made it known that he didn’t think there was sufficient evidence to proceed against the 40 year-old traveller on the grounds that there was some doubt as the the girl’s age, and left it up to Worship Street magistrate’s own judgement.

Mr Hannay was clear that a prosecution was appropriate. A certificate was produced that confirmed that Harriet was just 17 years and 11 months old. She was under age therefore and should not have been taken away without her parents’ consent. Mr Hanney formally committed Wilkinson for trial. As he put it, ‘if a man abducted a girl under eighteen he must take his chances’.

This has echoes for me of modern cases where older men have run away with teenage girls, such as that of Jeremy Forrest who tried to escape to France with a 15 year-old pupil. We don’t know the circumstances of Wilkinson’s relationship with Harriet. It may have legitimate in their eyes but Harriet clearly got ‘cold feet’ quite quickly. Then again it might have been something much more sinister.

Wilkinson was being prosecuted under the terms of the Criminal Law Amendment Act (1885) which had been forced through Parliament after a campaign by Benjamin Scott supported by William T. Stead, the editor of the Pall Mall Gazette (pictured above). The legislation was aimed at tackling the problem of the sexual exploitation of young girls in London and elsewhere and Stead crewed a sensation by organising the abduction of Eliza Armstrong, a 13 year-old girl who he ‘bought’ for £5.

The action cost Stead his liberty (he spent three months in prison) but it was effective. The expose (entitled ‘the Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon’) was a media sensation and whelped force the bill through the House of Commons and into law. It raised the age of consent from 13 to 16 and also made it illegal to abduct to abduct a girl under the age of 18 for the purposes of carnal knowledge. I can find no record of Wilkinson’s prosecution before a jury but this doesn’t mean he wasn’t tried and convicted. Cases with a sexual content weren’t aways reported.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, November 29, 1887]

NB: the Director of Public Prosecutions role was relatively new in 1887. The post had been created in 1879 under the Prosecution of Offences Act and emerged with the Treasury Solictor’s Department in 1884. So in this case we see both these new roles in action, the case was brought a Treasury solicitor and an opinion on the public prosecution of Wilkinson was expressed by the DPP. 

 

 

The sad story of an elderly seamstress and her Majesty

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In the light of yesterday’s happy announcement of a royal engagement I thought I’d feature a (sort of) royal story from Victorian London’s Police courts.

In 1871 Queen Victoria had been on throne for 34 years. Her husband Albert had been dead for a decade and she was yet to adopt the title of Empress of India. Victoria had a big influence on her subjects but her withdrawal from much of public life following the loss of her consort increasingly isolated her from public affection. 1870 had seen the overthrow of the French monarchy and the creation of the Third Republic, dark echoes in England called for a similar revolution, one that never transpired. In late November Victoria’s eldest son, Albert Edward, fell ill with typhoid (probably the same disease that had killed his father) and Victoria must have feared she would lose him as well.

Meanwhile, for ordinary Londoners life went on as usual. The ‘widow of Windsor’ was almost an abstract concept since she’d ducked out of view but her name, and what she symbolised, mattered  considerably.

It certainly mattered to an elderly seamstress called Mrs Lyons. She told the magistrate at Clerkenwell that she had been promised work by her Majesty but ‘court intrigues’ were preventing her from pursuing it. Mrs Lyons lived off the Caledonian Road in north London, close to where the new St Pancras terminal was being constructed. She was poor and in ‘want of money’ she explained, but was confident that with the queen’s patronage she would be fine.

Sadly Mrs Lyons was not very well; she suffered from some form of mental illness, as a police inspector told Mr Cooke, the justice sitting on her case at Clerkenwell Police Court.

‘About two years since the poor woman began to get strange at times in her speech, said that her room was full of rats, that she had an interview with the Queen and members of the royal family, and that her Majesty had promised her money, but that she was prevented from getting it by court intrigues’ .

He went on to say that up until recently Mrs Lyons had lived quietly but in the last few months her condition had worsened and she had started threatening people, including her landlady. A doctor had been called to examine her and he’d declared she was ‘not right in her head’ and she’d been carried off to Islington workhouse. From there she was to be sent to the Colney Hatch Asylum, Europe’s largest such institution.*

She had left her room with rent arrears and her landlady was refusing to give her sister leave to take away her sibling’s few possessions until that was paid. Mr Cooke said he was glad the woman was now in safe hands (although I’m not sure I’d consider being in the ‘care’ of a Victorian asylum ‘safe’. I suppose he might have meant the public were safe from her). He ordered the court to pay the arrears so she could be reunited with her ‘things’ and dismissed the case.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, November 28, 1872]

*(and now my gym!)

for another story that feature Queen Victoria see: “Let me see the Queen, I know who the ‘Ripper’ is!”

 

A den of dangerous anarchists in North London

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In  November 1895 two women living in and around Harringay Park received disturbing letters in the post.  The letters contained threats and were written in black and red ink, with ‘rude drawings of skulls and cross bones’, reminiscent of some of the missives sent to the police during the Whitechapel (or ‘Jack the Ripper’) murder case a few years earlier.

The first person affected was a Mrs E. Brooks, of Green Lanes. She received two letters, the first of which read:

“We find you are no longer wanted in the world. We are going to blow you up, house and all. You may not believe it. You may laugh at it. But sure as there is a God, your end will come. We shall not name the day when we shall carry out the deed; and all the detectives in London will not stop us. You can laugh, but beware”.

The letter was signed “the Captain” and written on paper with the heading, ‘the Anarchists Secret Society’.

Mrs Brooks received a second letter, this time from the ‘Anarchists Society’, written in red ink, which warned that ‘we have resolved to blow you up with dynamite  next Saturday‘.

Needless to say poor Mrs Brooks was unnerved by the threats so contacted the police. Detective sergeant Alexander, of Y Division, investigated and found that another woman had had a similar communication.

Mrs Amy Fisk’s letter purported to come from the ‘Red Cross Society’ and said:

‘We have been watching your house , 93, Umfreville-road, Harringay, for some weeks past; in fact, since your husband’s death… some months ago. And we have had a meeting at our den in in France, and, as your husband was a member of our Society at Holloway, when he, in a fit of temper, murdered one of our band, we have made up out mind to avenge him by taking your life’.

Eventually the letter writer was traced and found to be a young lad, aged 16, who lived in the same street as Mrs Fisk. On 18 November William Ross, a ‘well-dressed boy’ appeared in the North London Police Court, accompanied by his father. The two women he was accused of threatening were also present and when they realised who the letter writer was, they both declared that they were not inclined to wish him any harm.

It seems that the boy had threatened Mrs Brooks because she ran a sweet shop and William owed her money. She had said she would be obliged to inform his parents if he didn’t pay up. She ‘was not alarmed’ by the letters but did want the ‘annoyance’ to stop.

The boy was defended in court by a lawyer who accepted that his actions were wrong but said they were ‘a boyish freak’. DS Alexander said that William had ‘partially admitted the allegation, but added that he did not do it single-handily’. He didn’t think that he had done anything wrong.

Mr Fenwick, the magistrate, thought otherwise. This was a serious affair and the lad would stand trial for it, regardless of the fact that his father was a ‘most respectable man’ who had lived in Umfreville Road for 25 years. He committed him to trial but accepted bail to keep him out of prison in the meantime.

The 1890s were rife with stories of anarchist cells and bomb-throwing terrorists and this must have fired young Bill’s imagination. The Pall Mall Gazette commented that:

‘It is sad that this finished stylist should be wasting his time in being committed to trail when the British public is clamouring for high-class fiction’.

A decade later two great thrillers were published which drew on some of the themes highlighted by fears of anarchists and others: G. K. Chesterton’s The Man who was Thursday (1908) and Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent (1907). Both are worth the time and trouble to rediscover.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, November 19, 1895; The Pall Mall Gazette, Tuesday, November 19, 1895}

A poor woman pleads not to be sent to ‘a country which was foreign to her’

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1848 was a tumultuous year in Europe. There were revolutions in Italy, Germany,  Denmark and the Habsburg Empire (in Hungary). Louis-Phillips was forced from his throne in France and fled to England, while there was rioting in Sweden and a short civil war in Switzerland. Britain didn’t escape trouble as Chartists assembled across the country in large numbers including a ‘monster’ rally in Kennington Park in April when tens of thousands demanded the vote.

Over in Ireland the ‘great famine’ was forcing thousands to flee the island and leaving almost  million dead; reducing the population overall by 20-25%. Many of these travelled to England finding their way to London or one of the other other large urban areas of Victorian Britain.

So 1848 saw political unrest, nationalism, poverty, and the mass migration of peoples fleeing all these events. We get an inclining of how this might have impacted society in a brief report of business from the Thames Police Court in October of that year.

‘THAMES – Complaints are almost daily made by aged natives of Ireland, whose necessities compel them to apply for parochial relief, of the hardship of being sent back to Ireland after a long stay in England’.

One case in particular was brought to the attention of the Thames Police Court magistrate, Mr Yardley. A ‘poor Irish widow’ who had been resident in England for 40 years applied to the Stepney Poor Law Union for relief only to be refused help and told to go home to Ireland. She explained to Mr Yardley that she had been away so long she ‘did not know a soul there. She hoped the magistrate would interpose , and prevent her being sent to a country which was foreign to her’.

The woman had been before him to ask for help a week earlier and he had directed a letter to the union on her behalf, so he asked what had happened in the interim. A police officer attached to the court confirmed that the letter had been delivered but one of the reliving officers said they were only following the instructions handed down to them by the board of guardians of the poor.

The policy in a time of huge pressure on the parish purse was, it seems, to try and get rid of as many unwanted paupers as possible. The court was told that while this woman  claimed she had lived in England for 40 years her ‘residence was a broken one, and not continued for five years in any one parish’. In short she had moved around and so did not ‘belong’ anywhere.

Mr Yardley was sympathetic to the woman’s plight but could only assure her that he would intercede on her behalf and hope the guardians relented. She thanked him for his time and left the court.

I think this reveals some of the problems facing the authorities in mid Victorian Britain but also the callous lack of care for the people of the wider empire. Stepney was poor, as was most of the East End in the 1800s. Poor relief fell on the parish rather than the national purse. So it was individual ratepayers who were supporting the huge numbers of impoverished East Londoners whose ranks were undoubtedly swollen by migrants from Ireland (and perhaps from further afield in such a troubled decade).

Poverty, war and famine always lead to migration and this inevitably puts pressure onto communities that are themselves often struggling to survive. Whether migration is fuelled by economic necessity, or by persecution, or simply a desire to get away to a ‘better place’, it is part of the human condition. Human beings have always migrated in search of better land, greater resources, improved living conditions, or a more tolerant society. Whether it was the Irish in the 1840s or Polish Jews in the 1880s, or South Asian Kenyans in the 1970s, or indeed Syrians in the last decade; all of these people have left their homes, sometimes their families, everything they know and love, to find a refuge overseas.

That this puts pressure on the country and community that receives them is self-evident. Tensions flare, xenophobia rears its ugly head, and people make political capital out of the situation. But the answer is not to close the borders, to turn one’s back on people in need, to refuse to help. The attempt of the Stepney guardians to send a poor Irish woman back to her country of birth and therefore into a situation where thousands were dying every week was simply wrong. It was wrong in 1848 and it remains wrong today.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, October 24, 1848]