‘If the trucks had been thrown off the line they would have been dashed into the bridge’: an East End train disaster narrowly avoided

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In mid June 1888, in what was to become a dreadful late summer and autumn of terror in the East End, a young man appeared at the West Ham Police court accused of an act of willful damage that might have caused a localized tragedy.  Henry William Fox (19, and a described as a labourer) was put in the dock to answer a charge that he, and some persons unknown, had placed a large piece of wood on tracks of the railway that served the Victoria Docks.

Robert Clayden, a signalman on the London and St Katherine’s Dock Company railway, testified that at 4 o’clock on Friday 15 June he had been in his box when he noticed Fox and three other men ‘playing around’ on the tracks. They had a large section of wood made up of two scaffold planks bolted together to make about a foot square. They had eased this onto the tracks, just after a bend and before a sharp decline. Claydon stated that, in his opinion, the driver of the next train (due in 30 minutes) would not have seen the obstruction in time to apply the brake.

The signalman immediately left his box and ran off to apprehend the trespassers, shouting ‘do you want any help there?’ The quartet scattered but deciding that Fox was the most responsible Clayden pursued and captured him with the help of a dock constable, Henry Kimpton. Inspector Hamilton was shown the obstruction before it was removed and Fox was taken away to be charged.

In court Fox’s defense – conducted by a Mr Willis (jun) – the bench was told that it was a case of mistaken identity; Fox was one of four others and he wasn’t the person responsible for blocking the railway. His solicitor applied for bail, which was refused, as the case ‘too serious’.

On 22 July Fox appeared at the Old Bailey where the case against him was heard before a jury. Claydon was the first witness and explained that his job was to control the swing bridge that served Bridge Docks. The planks used to block the line were those deployed in the painting of ships at dock. When not in use, as this one wasn’t, they ‘lie about in the dock and are washed about by the water’ he told the court.

He said that when he asked Fox and his friend s if they wanted ‘any help’, the accused told him to ‘Go and f— yourself’. At this Claydon blew his whistle (to frighten them off) and clambered down from his box. A chase then ensued and Fox was arrested, question by the dock inspector (George Hamilton) before being handed over to PC William Richardson (280K) of the Met. Fox’s maintained his defense that it wasn’t him but someone else and said he’d been in the area because he was looking for bird’s nests.

One of the company’s drivers, John Sherlock, took the stand to tell the court that 10-15 trains used that line every day and agreed that the position of the timber would have made it impossible for any driver to stop in time.

‘The curve is sharp’ he explained, ‘if the trucks had been thrown off the line they would have been dashed into the bridge’.

Fortunately the quick action of the signalman had averted a disaster and almost certain loss of life. Fox was young and was given a good character. As a result the judge went easy on him: he was sentenced to six months at hard labour.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday 17 June, 1888]

A bareknuckle fight in the grounds of Ally Pally

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Police constables Rudkin (696Y) and Mitchell (467Y) had got a tip off that an illegal prize fight was happening on their patch, which covered the area around Alexandra Palace in north London. So, on the morning of Sunday 18 November 1883 they hurried off to investigate.

As the officers were coming along a public footpath from Muswell Hill to Mr Cotton’s fields they saw a lot of male heads gathered in a large circle and the sounds of ‘blows and scuffling’. They were close to a railway bridge and some observers had stationed themselves up their to get a better view of proceedings.

This also allowed several people to see the approaching policemen and the cry went up:

‘Look out! here’s the police!’

The crowd scattered in all directions with the two bobbies in pursuit. PC Mitchell saw one of the men that had been fighting and chased him into a field, catching him up and arresting him. His name was William Rearden and he was stripped to waist and wearing only ‘slippers’ on his feet. The other boxer managed to get away so the coppers had to be satisfied with breaking up the fight and the capture of just one of the fighters.

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Rearden could hardly deny being in a fight. He was bleeding from his mouth and ears and there was a large and recent bruise developing on his chest. This was bare-knuckle boxing, not a fight sanctioned by the Queensbury rules.

Rearden was adamant that he’d done nothing wrong. When captured he surrendered immediately and promised to ‘go quietly’ to the police station. He insisted it was just a fight to settle a dispute he had with his adversary, no ‘prize’ was involved. The police had found no evidence of a ‘professional’ fight: no ring, no gloves or seconds and of course, no second fighter was in custody.

In the end the case came before Mr Bodkin at the Highgate Police court. Rearden told the magistrate that he was an ex-soldier who had served in Egypt and South Africa, He’d been decorated for his service and proudly wore his medal ribbons in court.  He was able to produce a certificate of his service and good character and was still on the Army Reserve list.

Moreover, he was in work, as a bricklayer, and he had no record of being in trouble with the law previously. All this counted in his favour and persuaded the justice that a ticking off would suffice. Fighting in public was unlawful Mr Bodkin told him but in light of his record he would merely bind him over to keep the peace for six months. Having agreed to enter into recognizances of £20 Rearden (known as ‘Roberts’ in the Army) was released to his friends.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, November 20, 1883]

A drunken musician suffers has an embarrassing day in court

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It was probably quite an embarrassing appearance in court for Mr Chamberlain. On Saturday, November 13 1858 he was out late in Bridgewater Gardens  in the City, and on his way home. He’d had a lot to drink but thought he was in control of himself (don’t we all!)

Two women approached him on the street and asked him if they’d like to ‘treat them to some gin’.  This was a common enough solicitation by prostitutes and there is little doubt that Chamberlain, a musician by trade, understood this.  He took them up on the offer and the trio headed for Spurgeon’s public house where they drank together.

Some time afterwards they all left the pub and the women (he says) dragged him reluctantly across the square. Having got him into a dark corner of the gardens two men rushed up and robbed him while the women held him and unbuttoned his clothes. He tried to resist but one of the women hit him in the face and knocked him down. He lost a fob watch in the process.

At least this is the story he told the Guildhall Police court magistrate Alderman Lawrence. Only one defendant was in court to hear the charge. Mary Blake had been picked up by police at a pub in Goswell Street the following day, but denied any knowledge of the crime. She had been in Bridgewater Gardens that evening but hadn’t met with the prosecutor.

Her lawyer said it was a case of mistaken identity and Chamberlain, who was by his admission drunk at the time, was an unreliable witness. The alderman was inclined to agree but Blake was a ‘bad character’ and reportedly ran a brothel so he decided to remand her in custody to see him more evidence could be found in the meantime.

It doesn’t look like any more evidence was forthcoming because there’s no record of a trial or prosecution for Mary. This is hardly surprising; this sort of encounter was common and very hard to prosecute successfully. Without the watch being found on Mary, with the victim effectively admitting he’d chosen to go for a drink with known prostitutes,  and his drunken state (which impaired both his judgment and his ability to make a clear identification of the culprits), no jury would have convicted her.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, November 16, 1858]

‘I will go faster to ruin if I go with my mother’: teenage defiance as tensions run high in Westminster

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I am not sure what Margaret Brown hoped to achieve when she prosecuted Matthew Max Plimmer for an assault at Westminster Police court. Margaret (a 32 year-old woman who lived in a property on the Brompton Road), explained that her daughter had run off with Plimmer, who was already married, and had been living in sin with him. Anxious to ‘rescue her’ as she put it, Margaret turned up at the house and demanded that her daughter come home with her. Plimmer refused to allow this, remonstrated with the woman and then assaulted her. According to the prosecutrix he ‘seized her, and bit her wrist so it bled’.

The daughter was in court and was interviewed by the magistrate, Mr Paget. She told him she had left Plimmer (a Belgian national who had apparently worked, briefly it seems, for the C.I.D) and had set herself up at digs on the Marylebone Road. She wasn’t doing very well however, and was surviving only by pawning her own clothes.

Mr Paget advised her to go back home to her mother but the headstrong nineteen year-old refused. She would ‘do as she liked’ she told him. In that case ‘she was going fast to ruin’, the magistrate said; why on earth would she not return home?

The young woman offered an ‘insolent’ (but unrecorded) response and said ‘she would go to ruin faster if she went with her mother’.

Ouch.

That was a telling comment on Mrs Brown’s character and her relationship with her daughter. If she had hoped to use the leverage of the court to separate her daughter from a married man (and a foreigner to boot) in an effort get her to return to the fold she had failed. Plimmer was initially remanded for further examination but then released on sureties of £50 to reappear if required.

Mother and daughter went their separate ways.

[from The Standard, Friday, April 11, 1879]

The perils of unfettered competition: a ‘desperate contention’ in the Mile End Road

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One of the ‘big ideas’ of the late twentieth century was privatization. The principle was that all things are made better by competition. The Conservative government of the 1980s believed in the power of the market to deliver better services more cheaply than the state could. As a result Britain saw the privatization of gas, electricity and water supply, telecommunications, the buses and railways, and a number of other formerly state run concerns (even prisons and, more recently and to seemingly disastrous effect: probation).

In the nineteenth century most of society was run privately however and Britain supposedly thrived on the competition for business that entrepreneurial capitalism provided. Margaret Thatcher’s love of ‘Victorian values’ is well documented and her government looked back to a time when Britain stood on its own two feet at the forefront of world trade and enterprise.

However, while competition is usually healthy we have found that the privatization project doesn’t always bring the benefits we were promised. Our utility bills seem to keep on rising, we are paying more for our television and phone use than ever before, the railways are expensive and more inefficient than ever, and our part privatized prison and probation service is in chaos.

Perhaps the reality of competition is then that sometimes the customer suffers rather than benefits from it, and in this case we can see that very clearly.

One Friday in late June 1843 an elderly man was waiting near the police station house on Mile End Road in the hope of catching an omnibus home. Throughout the 1800s several rival omnibus companies plied their trade throughout the capital and were not averse to some rough or otherwise underhand tactics in their competition for passengers.

Two omnibuses were travelling fast on the Mile End Road and both saw the gentlemen up ahead. As he waived his stick to flag them down the two drivers engaged in a furious dash to reach him first.

Thomas Evans was the owner and driver of his Victoria Stratford ‘bus while James Corney drove an omnibus called Monarch for Mr Giles’s company. Both raced towards the old man watched with growing concern by a pair of police constables who had just left the station house.

Corney was quickest and reached the fare first. Evans was close behind though; so close in fact that the pole of his vehicle nearly ran through the Monarch in the process and an accident was narrowly avoided. Both men leapt down from their buses to try and secure their passenger.

When the incident was tried at the Lambeth Street Police court the policemen testified that:

Here a desperate contention took place as to who should have the passenger, and such was the determination of each, that they actually laid hold of the old gentleman, and dragged him too and fro for some minutes’, only stopping when the police became involved.

Before Mr Norton (the justice), Corney admitted he had been driving too fast but blamed Evans. Evans placed the blame on one of his passengers (‘a gentleman who sat on the box seat stamping violently with his feet and hissing at the driver of the other vehicle’). This had caused his own horses to gallop off he said, and it took a while for him to regain control of them.

Crucially the police gave Corney a good character reference as a ‘careful and steady driver’ but condemned Evans as a frequent offender, and said he’d been fined several times for ‘furious driving’ in the past. The magistrate found fault in both their actions but more in Evans’. He fined Corney 10and the other driver 20. Both paid, Evans with much less good grace however.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, June 24, 1843]

The red mist descends as a coachman gets tangled with an Italian organ

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It was half past five on a Friday afternoon in May 1876 and George Athersford, who was employed by Lady Scott of Cromwell Road, South Kensington, was driving the empty family brougham along Westbourne Place in Pimlico. As he turned into the road he came suddenly on a pair of musicians playing a street organ.

It was a common enough sight in London and a not inconsiderable nuisance to some people, but for whatever reason the coachman didn’t see the pair until he was upon them. The brougham was about the collide with organ when one of the musicians, Pietro Cordani, grabbed hold of the footboard to try and slow the coach down.

At this Athersford brought his whip down on the head of the poor Italian and hit him until he let go. The coachman drove away leaving two angry organ grinders in his wake.

Soon afterwards however, Athersford was back, this time with two lady passengers – Lady Scott and her daughter – on board. Seeing the driver that had attacked his colleague the other musician, Giacomo Malvicé, made a grab for the halter on the horse’s head and tried to pull the coach to a halt.

Again the driver reacted violently, lashing down at the musician and his friend. But this time a policeman was nearby and quickly intervened. Athersford was pulled down from his seat and the ladies got out of the carriage. George was clearly quite drunk, certainly too drunk to be driving in the officer’s opinion, so he summoned a cab for the ladies.

Athersford was taken into custody and brought before the magistrate at Westminster charged with assaulting the musicians and with being drunk and incapable whilst driving. In his defence the coachman said that he’d had a few beers and no food with them, but ‘he knew what he was about’. He admitted hitting Cordon but only lightly, so as to get him to let go of his vehicle. He asked Mr Arnold (the magistrate) to remand him while he called for some witnesses to support his version of events.

The case came back a few days later and the same evidence was repeated by the two musicians and by Lady Scott. Her husband gave the driver a good character reference (he’d worked for them for six months and had proved himself to be ‘steady and sober’ so his behaviour was a surprise to him).

Mr Arnold, the magistrate, said that Athersford had no right to use the force he had but said if he was prepared to settle the matter with the two Italians (by apologising and paying then some compensation I presume) that would be the end of the assault charge. The driver agreed which just left the small matter of the drunk driving. Here Athersford was fortunate to have an indulgent employer. In consequence of his previous good conduct (as testified by Mr Scott) the justice only imposed a small fine of 5s (or seven days in prison) which Athersford paid at once.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, May 29, 1876; Daily News , Saturday, June 3, 1876]

‘A pack of untruths’ in the case of the missing diamond

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When Mr Abrahams returned from a visit to the music hall on the 2nd of January he realised he’d lost a scarf pin. It was a valuable item, set with a diamond, and worth around £7 (or about £300 in today’s money). The Clapham jeweller reported the item missing, presumed stolen, and enquiries were made.

Some time later the pin turned up at a pawnbrokers, presented by Joseph Smith, an elderly cook who lived in Caversham Street, Chelsea. Unfortunately for Smith the ‘broker had seen notices warning that a stolen diamond pin was in circulation and he detained the jewel and alerted the police.

When the case eventually came before the magistrate at Westminster Smith denied stealing it and instead mounted a convoluted defence. He said that he’d received the pin in the post as a present, so had obtained it lawfully. Since such a valuable parcel would have been sent by registered post Richard Dyer, the local letter carrier was summoned to give evidence.

Dyer stated that ‘he knew the prisoner but did not recollect leaving a registered letter at his house about the time named’. Moreover, ‘there was no signature for a registered letter on the day in question’.

Smith’s story then, didn’t add up.

The 70 year-old cook now called his son in to back him up. The younger man confirmed that he had received the parcel but had burned the wrapper. I’ve no idea whether this was a normal thing to do but it didn’t convince the magistrate that Smith’s story was true. In fact it did quite the opposite and angered him in the process.

‘Mr Partridge said the prisoner had aggravated the case by calling his son to tell a pack of untruths, which he (the magistrate) did not believe’.

But he was minded to be lenient with someone who bore a previously good character and where there was ‘some doubt about the matter’. After all, it had not been proved that Smith had stolen the pin; he may have found it at the theatre. So Mr Partridge decided not to send him to prison as he might have done, but instead fined him 40s and let him go. Mr Abrahams had been reunited with his property and there was little to gain (in terms of deterrence) in sending an old man to gaol. However, if he failed to pay the fine that is where he would go for a month.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, January 21, 1885]

‘A gross outrage’ on a young woman reveals the commonplace nature of sexual harassment in London

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Farringdon station under construction in the 1860s

The news feed is still dominated by the Westminster ‘sex pest’ scandal with a growing list of male MPs having to deny, admit or explain their poor behaviour towards female colleagues in the palace or outside. What has emerged is that sexual harassment (from the relatively minor to the extremely serious) is endemic in British politics.

As I discussed last week the Victorians experienced this problem, especially when the new railways began to break down the barriers between the sexes (and classes).  The busy railway carriages of Victorian London provided men with an opportunity to get close to women in ways that were usually denied them. We have seen this replicated in the modern world with attacks on female commuters on the London Underground.

Of course sexual  harassment is not (and was not) confined to the tube or other forms of transport. The Westminster scandal is just the tip of the iceberg; the Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey revelations have opened a can of worms in the movie and wider entertainment industry and I fully expect that over the course of the next year or so we are going to see more and more women come forward to complain that they have been assaulted at work or pressured into having unwanted sexual relations by men in positions of power.

This is because we don’t live in an equal society in terms of gender, despite the progress that has been made since the end of the last world war. There needs to be a reckoning and I rather suspect that it is just beginning. But let us return to the nineteenth century and to an incident that was reported, if not in great detail.

Miss Mary Ann Newell was ‘quietly walking along the street’ minding her own business one afternoon in November 1866. Mary Ann was quite close to her lodgings in Northampton Square, Clerkenwell (close to where the London Metropolitan Archives are located today) when a young man came up behind her.

Without warning or introduction he reached around her with his arms and ‘assaulted her in a  very indecent manner’. The newspaper report does not give any more details than this but I think it is quite clear that he must have touched her breasts. Such an action was of course as outrageous then as it would be today. Mary Ann escaped from his grasp and ran home where she told her landlord.

He set off in pursuit of the young man, capturing him a few streets away and taking him to a police station. The next day all three appeared at the Clerkenwell Police Court in front of Mr D’Eyncourt.

The young man, whose name was William Sparrow Cumber was just 16 years of age, and described as a bookbinder. Several of his friends appeared to give him a good character but the offence was proven against him. The magistrate made no comment that was recorded by the reporter but fined him the significant sum of £2 10(about £240 today). Mr D’Eyncourt warned him that if he failed to pay the money he would go to prison in the house of correction for a week at hard labour.

Did this represent ‘justice’ for Mary Ann or an effective deterrent to William and those inclined to behave similarly? I suppose the proof would in what happened next. If this served to let the young bookbinder know that he couldn’t treat women as objects, then a hefty fine (rather than gaol) allowed him to keep his job whilst being effective in protecting women locally. If his mates helped pay his fine and his ruffianism and day in court was considered a ‘badge of honour’ then more young women were likely to fall victim to similar assaults.

Given the deeply gendered nature of Victorian society and the generally subservient position of women in it, and the experience of modern women in a society which is supposedly so much more ‘enlightened’ where equality is concerned, I rather fear Mary Ann was forced to tread much more carefully when she left her home, with more than half an eye on who was behind her from then on.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, November 07, 1866]

A cheeky bit of fraud from a former police clerk goes unpunished

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Henry Thomas Spooner joined the Metropolitan Police in August 1874. He was assigned to V Division  but resigned from the force just two years later. In October 1876 he was prosecuted at Bow Street Police Court for stealing a form from Scotland Yard. So what caused Spooner’s fall from grace?

Spooner was employed as a ‘clerk under witness’ in V Division but ‘owing to indifferent conduct’ he was demoted back to constable. On 28 August he resigned, presumably because he resented the return to beat duty and perhaps a drop in salary.

When Spooner left the police he was given a certificate that confirmed his 16 months of employment but ‘was spinet as to his character’. In other words he had a minimal reference; the sort that simply said that he had worked for the police and nothing more. Any potential employer could have read between the lines and formed a negative opinion of the former police clerk.

As a result Spooner decided that he needed something more than this and according to the police’s prosecution counsel at Bow Street, Mr Poland, he returned to Scotland Yard to steal a blank reference form from the Commissioners of Police. He then filled this in and forged the signature of a senior officer before sending it to the Newcastle Police in his attempt to find employment with them.

Unfortunately for Spooner the Newcastle ‘authorities prudently communicated with the London police, when of course it was discovered that the certificate was a forgery’. PC Samuel Gibbs arrested Spooner and charged him with the theft. At Bow Street Police Court he was committed to trial.

This seemed like a fairly obvious case of fraud and all the evidence seemed to point to the dishonesty of the former policeman. After all the police had the certificate (on which the Commissioner’s signature was clearly forged), they knew Spooner had left under  cloud (and his conduct not been considered ‘first class’ as the certificate suggested). Yet when the case came before a jury at Old Bailey Spooner received a ‘good character’ and he was acquitted. Whether the Newcastle force then employed him is (to me at least) still a mystery.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, October 16, 1876]