‘Oh Freddy, where’s mammy?’: a tragedy on the Hackney Marshes


This is a very sad story which really seems to have been the result of an accident rather than any intent on the part of the perpetrator. However, it is a useful reminder that the oft maligned Health & Safety laws we have established today are there for a reason.

John Squibb was a 24 year-old carman (the nineteenth century’s equivalent of a modern van driver). He was taking dust to Hackney Marshes to dispose of it. This was a daily task as the capital’s fires produced tonnes of unwanted waste which was collected weekly by dustmen. These characters have all but disappeared from our streets but I can remember  them back in the early 1970s, now they have been replaced by modern refuse operatives with their high viz jackets and automated collection vehicles. Modern ‘rubbish’ is more varied than the dust from fires and stoves that occupied most the trade in the 1800s.

Squibb drove his cart to Hackney Marshes and began to unload it into a prepared hole. I suppose this was the Victorian version of landfill; literally filling the earth with unwanted ashes and coal dust. As he worked a small group of children watched him, probably fascinated by the process but also keen to see if they could glean anything of value from the ‘rubbish’. As the illustration at the top of the page shows our poorer ancestors were obliged to scavenge from the rubbish pits in just the same way as we see in modern developing countries.

One of the children, three year-old Henry Walton, was standing close to the cart, too close in fact. His older brother was with him but possibly not looking after him as he should have been. As Squibb turned the cart to finish unloading it the wheel clipped little Henry and knocked him over. Before anyone could react quickly enough the cart moved forward, crushing the boy under the wheel.

The carman realised what had happened and rushed to drag the child out but it was too late. Henry cried out to his brother: ‘Freddy, where’s mammy?’, and died in Squibb’s arms. It was terribly sad but probably an accident and at Worship Street Police court that is how Mr Hannay saw it. He remanded Squibb so that the necessary checks could be made by the police and the licensing authorities but it was unlikely that the man would be prosecuted.

You have to wonder at a three year old being able to be on Hackney Marshes on a Friday morning with only other small children to supervise. We may have become overprotective of our children (to the extent that they hardly seem to pay outdoors at all) but incidents like this remind us of why some laws and controls are necessary. It is also a reminder of the poverty that existed in late Victorian London; many of these children would have been sent out to find things the family could use, eat or sell – this was recycling nineteenth-century style.

[from The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, 14 November, 1885]

Blood is thicker than water on Hackney Marshes


One disturbing report from the London papers on this day in 1888 reads reminds of the panic caused by the actions of an unknown killer on the streets of the capital:

At Clerkenwell, Frederick Dunbar, 48, a hair-dresser, of King-street, Somer’s Town, was charged with drunkenness, and disorderly conduct, in Bayham-street, Camden Town, on Sunday night. – Police-constable 493 Y, said that prisoner, who was surrounded by a crowd of people, was drunk, and he loudly shouted several times, “I am ‘Jack the Ripper.'” He was taken to the police-station, and about 1,000 persons gathered around. – Dunbar, in defence, said he was sorry for what had occurred. He had taken too much to drink. – Mr. Bros: You have made a fool of yourself, and I will send you to prison for twenty-one days’ imprisonment with hard labour.

That was from the Evening News and is one of many such ‘snippets’ posted as part of a huge amount of material on the excellent casebook site for the Ripper murders. London was gripped by the murders and one might think that this pushed all other ‘time news’ out of the news hole, fortunately (for readers here at least) this was far from the case.

While Fred Dunbar was being charged for his disorderly behaviour over at Dalston Police Court a ‘young gipsy’ called Daniel Gumble was brought before the sitting magistrate charged with a violent assault on his father-in-law, John Roster.

Neither man were prepared to be sworn on ‘that book’ (meaning the Bible) because they were gypsies. Roster actually stood up for his son-in-law, describing him as a ‘good father to his three children’ and adding that the assault had occurred when they were both drunk.

Mr Bros (the magistrate that had also appeared at Clerkenwell to deal with Dunbar) turned to the police for details of the crime. Police sergeant Nolleth said he had been informed of the assault at 2.30 in the morning when Roster turned up at the station asking to have his head wound dressed. Nolleth then went to the gypsy camp on Hackney Marshes and arrested Gumble.

He confirmed that Roster had complained that the younger man had hit him over the head with a clothes prop. But Roster again intervened on behalf of his son-in-law, repeating that he was a good man but poor,  he was a hard worker and that only the other night he had declared that Roster was the best father-in-law in the world.

‘You told a very different tale last night’, responded the police sergeant. ‘Oh a man says anything when drunk’ replied Roster. Since there seemed no desire on behalf of the prosecutor to press charges the case was dismissed and Daniel was released.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, October 29, 1888]

NB it seems that true Romani people follow a variety of faiths including Christianity and Islam. For more information see this interesting site