An unlucky thief is caught as the nation buries the hero of Waterloo

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The morning after the Duke of Wellington’s funeral was a busy time for the Guildhall Police court. By all accounts the funeral was a extraordinary affair, snaking its way through the City streets and drawing huge crowds. Whether we see Wellington as the hero of Waterloo or a deeply conservative and out of touch politician no one can deny his impact on the nineteenth century. He may not have been widely loved but he was respected, and the state gave him the biggest send off since Nelson’s.

As a consequence of the procession that accompanied the ‘Iron Duke’s cortege to St Paul’s Cathedral the court had been closed for the day so the cells had filled up with overnight charges for the aldermen to deal with later.

When the court reopened on the Friday morning Sir John Key had over 30 night charges plus the usual flow of men, women and juveniles brought in by the police and private prosecutors during the day.

Of the 30 or so night charges the magistrate sent eight of them to prison (for picking pockets or assaulting police officers), and fined others for drunkenness and damaging property. This was pretty standard fare for those swept up by the police during the small hours.

Sir John remanded Alfred Povah for further examination after he was accused of stealing clothes to the value of £3 from the Inns of Court in Holborn. When the police had searched Porch they had found a set of skeleton keys on his person, suggesting he was a ‘professional’ thief.

Povah had been spotted heading up the stairs to Mr Rotch’s chambers in Furnivall Inn by one of the clerks. He called the firm’s beadle who nabbed the thief and handed him over to the police. PC McMath (77 City) undertook the search and later told an Old Bailey court that the keys were known as ‘Bramah keys’ and were considered to be ‘more dangerous’ by the police, suggesting perhaps that they were more effective at opening locked doors.

The thief’s professionalism marked him out as a member of the ‘criminal class’ within which the burglar was considered to be the arch enemy of respectable society. The burglar had replaced the highwayman as the symbol of serious crime as the Victorians increasingly saw their homes as sacred places.

Moreover Povah had a criminal record, having appeared at the Bailey two year’s previously for a similar crime. He was just 18 at the time and the judge sent him away for three months, the leniency shown perhaps prompted by his full confession in court. This time the Common Sergeant was not so generous and ordered that Alfred, not yet 20, be transported to Australia for seven years.

He never went however, by that time the colony was resisting the continued import of Britain’s unwanted felons. Instead Alfred served three years in an English prison before being released, on 22 November 1855, at the age of  22.

Had Alfred been 19 in 1815 he might have had the chance to be a hero like the thousands of men and boys that served under the Duke at Waterloo. When they returned to England having helped defeat Napoleon they received little or no help from an indifferent state. Wellington by contrast was feted as a war hero, the savior of Europe, and (a rich man already) was granted a reward of £200,000 (possibly £11m today).

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, November 20, 1852]

One man’s complaint reveals ‘considerable excitement’ about the trade in pauper bodies at Lambeth

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In December 1857 a poor man appeared at the Lambeth Police court to ask the magistrate’s advice. In November his elderly sister was so sick with consumption (TB as we know know it) she was ordered to be admitted to the sick ward at the Newington workhouse. There, on the 3 December, she died.

Before she died she had begged her friends and family to give her a decent burial because rumours were swirling around the parish about what happened to the bodies of those that died inside the ‘house.

The next day her husband and friends presented themselves at the workhouse to collect her but she was ‘nowhere to be found’. They asked the undertaker there, and all he could tell them was she had been buried by mistake the body mistaken for that of another pauper, a Mr Bazely. Deeply unsatisfied, and understandably upset, they decided to pursue the matter with Mr Norton at Lambeth.

A local parish constable named Cook was called to give evidence of local practice. He told the court that the workhouse master ‘had been in the habit of disposing of the bodies of deceased paupers for anatomical purposes’. This had caused ‘considerable excitement’ amongst the poor of the parish’.

‘Persons who supposed they were following a deceased relative or friend to the grave not infrequently followed  perfect stranger, brought from other parishes, while that over which they supposed they were mourning had been disposed of in a  different way; and the thought of such deception created great dissatisfaction’.

Cook’s evidence was damning and must have been shocking to the reading public. Dr Elizabeth Hurren (at Leicester University) has demonstrated that there was a lively trade in the bodies of the poor in Victorian England after the the passing of the Poor Law Amendment Act in 1834. Elizabeth has also suggested that the Whitechapel murders of 1888 may well be connected to this dark history in London. The trade was exposed by a series of articles in the popular press leading, as Hurren explains, to the arrest and prosecution of Albert (or Alfred) Feist at the Old Bailey in May 1858. Feist had broken the terms of the Anatomy Act (1832) which had prohibited the sale of dead bodies for profit. That act had been the government’s reaction to the illegal trade in the dead which was exposed by the Burke and Hare murders in Edinburgh and that of the ‘Italian boy’ in London in 1831.

Feist was convicted but sentence was reserved. The case then went for review and he was subsequently acquitted. The use of pauper bodies for the training of surgeons was legal under the Anatomy Act but the practice was effetely concealed from the public and, most importantly, from the poor themselves. As Hurren’s work show:

‘Summaries of the Anatomy Act, just like the New Poor Law, were supposed to be available to the poor, pinned on walls in places they might congregate. However, in such pieces of legislation, the word “dissection” itself was often concealed behind that of “anatomical examination”.’*

The families of paupers were often unaware of what had happened or unable to do anything about it afterwards. The pressure of finding enough body parts to train all the new doctors increased after 1858 when legislation required that all medical students must study anatomy for two years. Whole bodies were now routinely cut up into their composite parts so students could practice, explore and understand.

It must have made grim reading over breakfast and supper and its interesting to see the story unfold within the reportage of the summary courts. At Lambeth Mr Norton told the complainant that the workhouse master (who was of course Mr Feist) had been guilty of a misdemeanour in allowing his sister’s body to be buried so quickly after death. He was required, by law, to keep it for 48 hours so the family could arrange a funeral themselves. He told him he was happy to issue a summons.

As we now know Alfred Feist would face trial for this and a total of 62 other instances of supplying dead pauper bodies for the anatomy trade. In the end of course he, and his accomplice in the trade – the undertaker Robert Hogg – escaped scot free. Hurren estimates that a staggering 125,000 pauper bodies were sold in the Victorian period to benefit the study of medicine.

Poor lives didn’t matter in the 1800s but the reading public didn’t really want to be reminded of that too often. The exposure of the body trade, like the scandals surrounding the treatment of paupers in the Andover workhouse in 1845-6 reminded society of the harsh realities of being poor in Victoria’s Britain in perhaps a similar way that the tragedy at Grenfell Tower has caused a considerable amount of soul searching this year. Ultimately, it seems, even today poor lives don’t matter as much as rich ones.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, December 16, 1857]

*Review by Laurence Talairach-VielmasElizabeth T. Hurren, Dying for Victorian Medicine: English Anatomy and Its Trade in the Dead Poor, c. 1834–1929, in Miranda [http://journals.openedition.org/miranda/4586] accessed 16/12/17

One funeral and two pickpockets

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In July 1881 the dean of Westminster Abbey, the Rev Arthur Stanley, died. He had served as dean since 1863 and wrote several religious articles. His burial in the Abbey was recorded in a contemporary work about the Abbey written by Stanley and published (posthumously) in 1886.

“Arthur Penrhyn Stanley (author of this volume) … was followed by the Prince of Wales, as representative of the Sovereign, by other members of the Royal Family, by representatives of the three Estates of the Realm, of the Cabinet Ministers, the literature, arts, science, and religion of the country, and by a large concourse of the working-men of Westminster—the majority mourning for one who had been their personal friend.”

Arthur Penrhyn Stanley, Historical memorials of Westminster Abbey, (London, 1886).

Sadly it would seem that while many people turned out to mourn the dean’s passing others saw it as an opportunity for easy profit. Funerals draw a crowd and crowds (as any unwary visitor to Covent Garden ought to realise) draw pickpockets.

Two people were caught in the act of picking pockets amongst the mourners that afternoon and both appeared at Westminster Police Court in early August.

Daniel Green was just 17 but had already earned himself a ‘bad character’. He was seen attempting ‘to pick several ladies’ pockets’ before he was arrested by Sergeant Reader of E Division. He was probably there as a member of the crowd himself but when he had been a constable in A Division he had learned to recognise many of the ‘known thieves’ in the vicinity. When he was searched Green was found to have several handkerchiefs on him but the owners could not be traced. Mr D’Eyncourt  sent the youth to prison for three months at hard labour.

Jane Thomas was 53 years old – so should presumably have known better than to attempt to pick pockets inside the Abbey. There was less evidence against her so the magistrate used the Vagrancy Laws to have her convicted as a rogue and vagabond. She too got three months hard labour for her pains.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, August 03, 1881]

Smallpox brings death and difficult decisions to the Westminster Police Court

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Watercolour of a hand with smallpox by Robert Carswell in 1831 (Wellcome Library, London)

Mr Selfe had only just taken his seat at Westminster Police Court on the morning of the 12 April 1863 when the officer of health for the parish of St George’s, Hanover Square approached him. As a magistrate Selfe had to deal with all sorts of problems and issues of everyday life, but few were as sensitive as this.

The health officer, Dr Aldis of Chester Place, explained to the magistrate that a three year-old child had died of smallpox, a disease that remained widespread in poorer communities in the nineteenth century despite Edward Jenner’s best efforts to promote vaccination against it.

The unnamed child was lying in his cot so people could pay their respects, as tradition dictated, at a room in a house in Pimlico and Dr Aldis was worried about the public health consequences of this. The ‘small back room’ was home to the ‘boy’s father and mother and three other children’ and no fewer than 26 other persons lived in the property. Moreover, the doctor insisted, this was a crowded locality ‘in which the smallpox is very prevalent’.

He wanted to have the child buried quickly to avoid contagion but the mother was resistant. She wanted to grieve for her son and to do so in the customary way. The family were part of London’s large immigrant Irish community and they fully supported the bereaved mother.

Mr. Badderly, the overseer of the poor for the parish, had attempted arrange the funeral and had sent a man named Osborne to the house to try and remove the dead boy. He brought a small coffin and with the father’s permission placed the child within it. When the mother found it however, she removed her son and placed him back in his cradle. When Osborn objected a group of local Irish gathered and ‘intimidated him with their threats [so that] he felt compelled to retire’.

Here then was a clash between the parish and its obligations towards the health of the community and the very personal wishes of one grieving mother and her friends and family. Since the child’s father either agreed with the health officer or simply felt much less strongly that his wife, the court was bound to side with the parish. Mr. Selfe agreed that the child needed to be buried immediately, for the sake of public health, and since the father had no objection the mother’s wishes were of no consequence. The magistrate said that in his opinion ‘there could be impropriety in the police accompanying the parish officers to see that there was no breach of the peace from the removal of the child’.

It is a desperately sad story which reveals both the reality of infant mortality in the Victorian period and the poverty and overcrowding that condemned so many to a premature death. It also demonstrates the difficult decisions that some magistrates had to make when faced with evidence that ran counter to the wishes of individuals who had not done anything wrong or in any way ‘criminal’.

The mother’s desire to mourn for dead boy in her own way is completely understandable, but when this was countered by what was (at the time) understood to be a risk to the health of very many others, the justice’s decision is also easily understood. This week we have had the heart-rending story of the struggle of Connie Yates and Chris Gard who have lost the latest stage of their battle to keep their son, Charlie, alive in Great Ormond Street Hospital.

Mr. Justice Francis, who made the decision knew, as everyone in the court did, that when he told doctors ‘at Great Ormond Street that they could withdraw all but palliative care, was to all intents and purposes delivering a death sentence’.* He acted in what he considered to be the best interest of the child and against the interests of the parents. Time alone will tell whether he was right to do so.

At Westminster court in 1863 Mr. Selfe may have done the right thing, and saved many other lives. Given what we now know about smallpox it is unlikely that anyone would have caught it unless they had physical contact with the child whilst his exposed scabs still covered him, but the magistrate was not necessarily aware of that and so his actions were perhaps the best thing he could do in the circumstances.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, April 13, 1863]

*www.guardian.com [accessed 13/4/17]

When authority figures clash in the Thames Court there can be only one winner

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St George’s in the East, London

Today’s case is of a complaint about the hearing of a complaint and, if that is not confusing enough, the complaint was levelled against a magistrate who then refused to listen to it!

Unpacking the story I think what happened was this:

In very early January 1847 the sister of a man named as Haggerty Jenson threw herself off the London Dock and drowned in the Thames. Suicides such as this were all too common in the 1800s and the reports from the Police Courts regularly  cover attempted suicides, almost all of them by women.

Haggerty Jenson then approached Reverend Bryan King, the rector of St George’s in the East , to arrange a funeral. His request was refused and Haggerty went to the Thames Police Court to complain to the sitting justice. The case was written in up in the newspaper where the rector was also accused of taking a fee and refusing to reimburse the family.

However, either the press seem to have misinterpreted the story or the one presented in court was not accurate, or at least did not fit the Rev. King’s version of events, and so he too went to the Thames Court to set the record straight. However, he probably went about it the wrong way.

He must have bristled with indignation as he stood before the magistrate to condemn the behaviour of his brother JP, a Mr Yardley. He told the bench that he had not refused Haggerty’s request and had certainly not taken his money.

The report in the paper was also wrong in recording the coroner’s verdict as ‘found drowned’. In fact the inquest had concluded that poor Miss Haggerty  had thrown ‘herself into the waters of the London Dock, but in  what  state of mind she was at the time there was not sufficient evidence before the jury’.

When he had heard that verdict he despatched the parish clerk to inform Haggerty that ‘I could not, consistently with my sacred calling and the Christian feelings I possess, perform the burial rights’.

The Victorian church did not always bury suicides, and certainly not in the churchyard. In the early century those who took their own life were interred outside of graveyards, at crossroads, and sometimes even with a stake through their heart, and even after rules were relaxed suicides were still buried at night until 1882. It wasn’t until the change in Canon law in 2015 that the Anglican church allowed for the full rites to be given to those that had taken their own lives, another example if one is needed, of how slowly religion adapts to changing attitudes in society.

The rector stood before the magistrate at Thames railing against the actions of his fellow justice, and tried to thrust a copy of the newspaper at him before the ‘beak’ silenced him and said:

‘I am Mr. Yardley, the person you complain of…I think any person of common sense, on reading the report you complain of, would come to a very different conclusion to the one you have arrived at’.

The rector was not not done however and tried to press his complaint arguing that the press report was false and that Yardley had allowed its publication. The magistrate denied that he had anything to do with its publication (‘I deny it sir! It’s false!’, he responded).

More than this Yardley added that ‘I saw nothing in the report that was incorrect or unfair, and I shall not listen to anymore you say’. The Rev. King ‘hastily withdrew’, well beaten in that particular engagement.

Perhaps Mr Yardley reflected a changing attitude towards suicides or maybe he simply saw far too many poor young and desperate women come through his courtroom who could have ended up like Haggerty’s sister. He may of course have merely been outraged that someone was challenging his authority, and a rival authority figure at that.

St George’s in the East was one of the churches built in the 18th century to bring Christianity (and the Anglican form of it particularly) to the ‘Godless’ people of the East End. Designed (like Christ’s Church, Spitalfields) by Nicholas Hawksmoor it dominates the skyline along Cannon Street between Cable Street to the north and what was the notorious Ratcliffe Highway below.

In 1850 (a few years after Rev. King;s appearance in court) the Church appointed a lay preacher as rector at St George’s. This didn’t go down very well with the congregation. According to the London Encyclopaedia (Weinreb & Hibbert, 1983):

‘As a protest, there were catcalls and horn blowing, and some male members of the congregation went into the church smoking their pipes, keeping their hats on, and leading barking dogs. Refuse was thrown onto the altar. The church was closed for a while in 1859, and the rector, owing to his poor health, was persuaded by the author Tom Hughes [the author of Tom Brown’s Schooldays] to hand over his duties to a locum’.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly London Newspaper, Sunday, January 10, 1847]