‘A very bad woman’ in Shadwell

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Bluegate Fields by Gustave Doré (1872)

Bluegate Fields in Shadwell was, by all accounts, ‘a terrible place’ in the 1800s. Gustave Doré included it in his famous set of London etchings, a picture of desperate poverty, dark and foreboding. In 1863 it was inhabited by ‘thieves, ruffians, prostitutes, and other bad characters’ and was a place where ‘numberless outrages and robberies had been perpetrated’.

It was on PC Robert Thimbleby’s beat. The policeman (119H) was patrolling Shadwell High Street at 2.30 in the morning of August 20th1863 when he heard a disturbance. Cries of ‘murder’ and ‘police’ rang out and the bobby ran towards to the noise.

As he entered Bluegate Fields he saw a second floor window open and a man tumble out. The man was dressed only in is nightclothes and his fall have left him ‘dreadfully mutilated’. PC Thimbleby helped him and a cab was found to take him to the London Hospital.

The house was notorious as a brothel and soon after the man had fallen out of the window a woman appeared at the front door. She was Irish and rough looking, with a quite masculine, ferocious appearance. She squared up to the policeman, abused him verbally using ‘foul language’ and exposed herself ‘in a most flagrant manner’. With some difficult he arrested her.

On the next day PC Thimbleby brought her before Mr Patridge at Thames Police court where she gave her name as Mary Ann Mahony. The man who’d fallen was too unwell to give evidence against her but his story had been gathered by the police. Mr. Partridge listened to his version of events.

The wounded man was a sailor and had gone to the brothel with Mahony. In the middle of the night he awoke to find she’d stolen his trousers and his money – around £5 in gold and silver – and was making her way out of the room. When he grabbed her, she fought back, seizing a poker and chasing him round the room with it. Fearing for his life (and perhaps not realizing exactly where he was) he jumped out of the window.

Given that the man was not in court to press charges of attempted robbery all the justice could do was deal with the charge of being drunk and disorderly. Mr Partridge was quite satisfied that this had been established and he sent Mary Ann to gaol for 21 days warning her that when her punter recovered she was likely to be back to face a charge of attempted theft. She was, he added, a ‘very bad woman’ who had had a string of previous convictions to her name.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, August 21, 1863]

The press ride to the rescue of a baby ‘bitten by rats’

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The Council of the Rats by Gustave Doré (1867)

This case demonstrates the power of the Victorian press in highlighting social issues, albeit on a local matter. The fact that the newspaper (in this example the popular Illustrated Police News) reported the circumstances of this particular case engaged the public and directly benefitted one poor woman and her child.

In late January 1872 The Illustrated Police News carried a story from the Worship Street Police Court about another who had complained about her living conditions. The woman, who was not named in the report, had appeared at the Police court to ask for the magistrate’s help. She told Mr Bushby that her lodgings, in Wilson Street, Finsbury, were ‘infested with rats’ and her child had been attacked by the animals.

She described how the rats ‘were in the habit of coming up from their holes and running about the room in midday. The child she held had, while left lying down, been bitten three times by them, and at length, by the directions of the doctor to whom she had taken it for treatment, she had come to the magistrate to inform him of the facts’.

It was testimony to the poverty she lived in and the dreadfully poor state of housing in some parts of the coastal, especially the East End. Mr Bushby told her to report the situation to the Sanitary Inspectors with the intention of getting the building condemned. He also advised her to move house as soon as possible.

The latter may have been sensible counsel but the woman was unable to go anywhere she said, because she owed two weeks rent and her husband was out of work. This was hardly an unusual situation in East London at the time; many people fell behind with the rent and faced eviction or were trapped in poor conditions while they struggled to make ends meet.

The doctor she had taken her baby to, Dr Timothy of Worship Street, had come to give evidence in her support and testified that she was a ‘deserving cause’. The middle classes of Victorian England had quite clear ideas about who did (and who did not) deserve the support of society and his opinion helped the woman’s case in the end.

A week later the newspaper told its readers that as  a consequence of their coverage of the story the court had received a large number of public donations for the woman. Individuals had read the horror story of rats and had sent in small sums of money that totalled £1 15s 6d (or about £80 today). Moreover, the landlord was shamed into saying he would allow her to move and accept her arrears in instalments. She was handed the money by the court  and expressed her gratitude to everyone involved. In the meantime, the paper added, the family had moved to a new home in Lisson Grove and the woman’s husband had also  found work.

For once then, the papers had a ‘good news’ story to tell and could take some of the credit for it. The readership could also feel suitably proud that they had helped a member of the ‘deserving poor’ escape a desperate domestic situation.

[from The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, January 27, 1872]

‘That sink of iniquity Bluegate Fields, where so many outrages and robberies’ occur.

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Bluegate Fields by Gustave Doré, 1872

‘Walter Hill aged 26, a man of colour and late cook and seaman on board the ship Ben Nevis, from Surinam, was charged with attempting to murder Honara Morris, a woman of this town, better known as Mad Norah, on Sunday morning in that sink of iniquity, Bluegate Fields, Shadwell, where so many outrages and robberies have been committed’.

So began the Daily Newsreport on the proceedings of the Thames Police Court on July 29, 1862. There is so much information here for the social historian before we even get to grips with the case itself.  Bluegate Field features in Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray: 

‘Then, suddenly, some night he would creep out of the house, go down to dreadful places near Blue Gate Fields, and stay there, day after day, until he was driven away. On his return he would sit in front of the picture, sometimes loathing it and himself…”

The Picture of Dorian Gray, (1890)  p.112

The area was a byword for vice and crime, with opium dens and brothels, the haunts of seamen, thieves and those seeking the seedier side of life, like Dorian. Nowadays it is only remembered in the name of nearby school but in the 1860s it was a slum district over which Nicholas Hawksmoor’s impressive church of St George’s in the East loomed.

So we learn that this attempted murder took place in a notoriously rough and criminal area, and that its supposed victim, ‘Mad’ Norah was quite likely to have been closely connected with prosecution.

The ship, the Ben Nevis, is listed in a catalogue of fast sailing ships for the period 1775-1875 and the fact that it had sailed out of Surinam might give us a clue to its cargo. Surinam (or Dutch Guiana) was an economy built on the labour of slaves and then indented workers (by the late 1800s from Java) to replace the supply of slaves once that trade was abolished. In fact slavery was only abolished in 1863, a year after this case appeared in the London press and it took another decade for slaves to be emancipated. The slaves and later free workers farmed sugar, cotton and indigo so we might imagine the Ben Nevis was bringing these to the London docks.

We also learn of course that the defendant in this case was black. As a ‘man of colour’ the reporter felt it necessary to distinguish him from other ‘cooks’ and ‘seamen’ either as a conscious act of Victorian racism or simply because it was newsworthy, as something ‘different’. Either way it reminds us that in the second half of the nineteenth century London was a melting pot of peoples from all over the world.

According to one witness, a local labourer named James Hayward, Walter lived in Ratcliffe Highway where many sailors had lodgings close to the docks. Hayward saw him arguing with Norah outside her house in Bluegate Fields. He had accused her of stealing clothes and money, something she vehemently denied. It was 5 in the morning and must have wakened many nearby. Hayward said he saw Hill land a punch on the woman before running off.

He came back about two hours later armed with a knife. Grabbing Norah from behind he threatened to murder her. Hayward, addressing the magistrate at Thames, described how he saw Hill strike:

‘her blow after blow with the knife  until it stuck into her shoulder, and he could not get it out again’.

Hill fled but was chased and caught. His clothes had been stolen, Hayward agreed, but not by Norah. Someone else had snuck into the room while the seaman and the woman (clearly a prostitute) slept off the drink they had consumed the night before.

The police were called and PC Edward Dillon (18K) arrived. He fetched a surgeon and Norah was taken to the London Hospital where she was treated for multiple stab wounds. When she had received sufficiently to be questioned by the police she confirmed she had entertained Hill but had not pinched his belongings. She knew who had however, ‘Irish Annie and Black Sall’, and said she told Hill that he had better go home (since he was pretty much naked) and come back later. She must have been shocked when he had returned with a  knife.

The house surgeon at the London, David Hyman Dyte, testified that Norah’s wounds were serious but hopefully not life threatening, as all her organs had been missed in the stabbing. It had also taken ‘enormous force’ to extract the 5 inch blade from her shoulder. She had lost a lot of blood, and was not fit to appear in court. This would mean Hill would be remanded to wait for her to recover and the next appearance was set for the 5 August. Hill was held in Clerkenwell and when he came before the Thames court again he was again remanded by Mr Woolrych as Norah, although recovering, was still too ill to come to court.

The case eventually made it to the Old Bailey later that month and we get a little more detail from Honora (who was recorded as Myers not Morris, these mistakes are common in the press). She said that Hill had been brought to the house by Sank Smith (a ‘coloured girl’) and it was her that had taken his money. Her landlady had pinched his clothes she added, so perhaps these were ‘Irish Annie’ and ‘Black Sall’ who were mentioned earlier.

We don’t learn much else new about the incident and there were only the same witnesses as before, but the jury were told that while Hill admitted attacking Norah he was provoked and didn’t mean to cause her as much harm as he did. He added that it was his first time in England.

Whether this swayed them much is unlikely, but the reputation that the area had and the trade that Norah followed possibly did. They found him guilty but recommend him to mercy. The judge sent him to prison for a year.

[from Daily News, Tuesday, July 29, 1862]