A drunken cabbie crashes into a fire escape

Metropolitan Fire Brigade scaling ladder drill, 1873

I thought I knew what a fire escape was. A long ladder or staircase attached to a building that allowed those inside to escape down it should there be a fire. However in the 1860s these ladders were not fixed, but mobile. Scalable ladders (escapes) were positioned about every half a mile throughout London so that they could be moved quickly to wherever they were needed.

The escapes were funded and organized by the Royal Society for the Protection of Life from Fire (RSPLF) which had been founded in 1836 because London’s other main firefighting organization (the London Fire Engine Establishment) was only really concerned with saving insured property in the city.

As well as proving escape ladders the RSPLF also offered rewards to firefighters who demonstrated particular bravery in saving people from fire, as today’s fire brigade does on a daily basis.  The efforts of the RSPLF eventually led to the formation – in 1865 – of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade and a year later the new service acquired all of the LFEE’s equipment, gratis. By contrast, the RSPLF charged the MFB the significant sum of £2,500 for its escapes and insisted that the new organization employed all of its ‘escape men’.

Quite possibly the escapes situated across the capital were a reassuring sight for Londoners, but they may also have constituted a hazard, as this case at Marlborough Street Police court suggests.

A fire escape conductor named Bennett was standing next to his box and ladders when he saw a hansom cab careering towards him. It was about two in the morning and Bennett jumped aside as the cab crashed into the ladders, doing about £18 worth of damage. That may not sound much but in today’s money it is about £1,000.

As a policeman watched the driver, rather than untangling himself, tried to press on dragging the ladders with him. PC Carpenter (219C) ran over and dragged the man from his cab. The driver was clearly drunk at the reins and wasn’t even able to stand up straight. PC Carpenter arrested him and took him back to the nearest police station.

On the morning of Tuesday 31 January 1865 Edward Whitford appeared in court before Mr Tyrwhitt charged with being drink in charge of a cab and of committing criminal damage. The RSPLF were represented in court and listened as the magistrate fined the driver 20(or a month in gaol). He couldn’t expect the driver to pay for the damage to the escape however, but reassured the RSPLF that ‘he had a remedy elsewhere’. Perhaps he was aware that within a matter of months the new Fire Brigade would be taking to the streets and the RSPLF’s property would be being transferred to them, albeit at a cost to the public purse.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, February 01, 1865]

A deceptively simple tale of lingerie, scandal, and theft

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If one of the aims of late Victorian press was to provide some titillation for their readers over breakfast then this tale, from the end of 1888 (a year which we might consider to have had more than enough sensation), certainly fits the bill. It concerns female criminality, exotic foreigners in London, underwear, and the hint of sexual scandal.

When Maria Becherette appeared before Mr Newton at Marlborough Street she commanded the attention of the court and the reporter from Lloyd’s Weekly. She was 23 years old, spoke English with a German accent, and was fashionably well dressed. She gave no address or occupation but nor was she pressed to do so by the magistrate.

Maria was accused of a number of thefts from West End stores, including Liberty’s and Lewis & Allenby in Regent Street. Her modus operandi was simple but effective. On the 14 November she spent two hours at Liberty’s and, having finally selected a number of items of ladies’ underwear, she arranged to have them delivered on account. Giving her name as ‘Lady Coencerl’ she asked for the goods to be sent to the Bath Hotel in Piccadilly.

At Messrs. Lewis & Allenby she had done similarly on the day before; this time giving the name ‘Lady Gorskey’ and directing the items to be delivered to the Continental Hotel. On both occasions after she had left the shop assistants discovered that several expensive items were missing. Mlle. Becherette it seems was a sophisticated shoplifter.

She might have got away with it as well had she not pushed her luck. In the 15 November she was seen in Regent Street by one of Liberty’s staff, who alerted a concierge at the store and set off to follow her. The assistant, Mrs Elizabeth Nicholls, had served the thief and tried to keep her in her sights with the intention of finding where she went. The young German was too alert however, and spotted that she had a tail. She hailed a cab and was about to escape when the concierge leapt into the hansom with her and told the driver to take them both to Marlborough Mews police station.

There she said she was a governess and had recently arrived from Vienna, and denied the accusations of shoplifting. She was charged and presented at Marlborough Street where she was remanded on more than one occasion (for the police to investigate) and then brought up again at the end of the year. In court before Mr Newton Maria cut a sad figure. She stood in the dock with tears in her eyes as the prosecution was presented by Mr Humphreys.

As he now explained that there were allegedly multiple other similar cases against her she broke down and sobbed, finally admitting her crimes. She told the magistrate that while she had stolen the underwear it was ‘not for her own benefit but for the benefit of “the gentleman” she had been living with at Queenborough’.

Before she could go on to add that something the justice stopped her, perhaps mindful that she might reveal his name or add to the implication that the underwear in question was part of some elaborate sexual fetish. Mr Newton remanded her again so that she could, he suggested, give whatever information she had to the police. It might help her defence by mitigating her crime, but it would serve no one for it to be heard publicly.

On the 29 December she was brought back up into court to be dealt with by the magistrate. Mr Newton had presumably decided that despite the relative seriousness of her crimes (in stealing expensive items on several occasions and giving false names each time) it was best to try her summarily. This avoided any further public scrutiny of  the case or her motivations. She was denied the opportunity to name and shame her mysterious ‘gentleman’  or to use her charm on a jury of middle-case men. Instead she was sent to prison for four months and taken away immediately. The reading public were left, like us, to speculate over their toast and marmalade, as to what really lay behind this simple case of shoplifting.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, 30 December, 1888; Daily News, Monday, December 31, 1888]

A small success in the war on drugs (the nineteenth-century version)

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Plan of the London Docks, by Henry Palmer (1831)

Sergeant Aram of H Division Metropolitan Police (18H) was stationed in Flower and Dean Street, one of the most notoriously rough addresses in Victorian London. Now the street is altered beyond recognition; all that remains is an archway that used to mark the entrance to model dwellings built in 1886. By the 1880s Flower & Dean Street was lined with low lodging houses and several of the Whitechapel murder victims dossed there at some point.

It wasn’t much better in the 1850s and was a almost a ‘no-go’ area for the police who preferred to patrol here in strength. The sergeant may have been positioned here to receive information from his constables as walked their beat. There were fixed points like this throughout the police district but in this case it seems Aram may have been keeping an eye out for criminal activity himself, perhaps on the basis of information he’d received.

At about five o’clock in the morning a hansom cab pulled up and two men got out. One lobbed a bundle into the passageway of number 33 and then turned to see the police officer approaching him. Before sergeant Aram had a chance to ask him what he was up to the man fled.

Seeing his fare disappearing into the night the cabbie started to run after him but sergeant Aram called to him and instructed him to follow the other passenger, a man wearing a smock frock. It took a little while but both men were soon apprehended. At a first hearing at Worship Street both the cab driver (a man named William Perry) and the smock coated man were questioned before being released; the other individual, William Watchem, was remanded for further enquiry.

Two days later Watchem (also known as Will Watch or simply, ‘the Captain’) was brought up from the cells and set in the dock to be examined in the presence of an official from the Customs. He had been formally identified by Inspector White from H Division who clearly knew him (or knew of his reputation).  The Customs were involved because the bundle Watchem had lobbed into 33 Flower & Dean Street contained no fewer than 213 packages of tobacco with a street value of over £50 (about £4,000 today).

Perry, the cabbie, testified that Watchem had flagged him down in the Minories and said he wanted to transport a sack of potatoes. The magistrate was content that the driver was not otherwise involved and perhaps the other man was a police informer (and so was not prosecuted). I imagine the court could have prosecuted this as theft  but it may have proved difficult to gain a conviction. So instead the police and magistrate opted to deal with Watchem under legislation aimed at those that avoided paying the required taxes on imported goods.  So, ‘The Captain’ (described in the press report as ‘the Bold Smuggler’) now faced a hefty fine for non-payment of the duty owed on the tobacco.

The magistrate decided that Watchem should pay a fine of £100 which, at twice the value of the tobacco, was clearly unrealistic and he can’t ever have been expected to do so. Instead, in default, he was sent to prison for six months.

A smuggler was taken off the streets for a while and the police had demonstrated that their information networks were capable of penetrating the underworld of organized crime. It was a small success for sergeant Aram and the men of H Division.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, 16 December, 1852]

Bullying, touts and the London cab trade: the forgotten role of the waterman  

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You might be forgiven for thinking that a London waterman was someone that worked on the river in the Victorian period. This is certainly what these men did in the 1700s but by the nineteenth century the cabmen of the Thames had almost entirely disappeared from the water. Instead they set themselves up at hansom cab stands across the city, providing water for the horses and opening doors to assist fares to and from the streets. They earned a living from the cabbies (who paid for the water) and the passengers (who tipped them for their service).

Watermen don’t seem to have had a particularly good reputation however.  In 1853 Charles Manby Smith painted a comic and somewhat melancholic picture of them: poor, disheveled, the but of the cabbies’ jokes, standing out in all weathers, frequently splashed by ‘mud and mire’. Life was hard for the waterman and not infrequently short.

But perhaps this case demonstrates that watermen had a little more power than Smith credits them with, and suggests that they could, to some degree at least, control which cab drivers were able to ply their trade successfully.

In November 1847 John Cooke was charged with assault at Bow Street Police court. On the previous evening he’d been working as a waterman on the Strand, keeping the pitch at the Spotted Dog rank where two cabs were stood. Cooke helped a fare into the second cab, ignoring the one in front and presumably dispending with cab etiquette.

The driver of the first cab, Edward White, complained at this and asked him what he was doing. Cooke replied that he could ‘do what he chose and if [White] was cheeky he should not have a fare all night’.

White must have said something to him because the waterman now strode over to the cab and thrust his fist through the window, smashing it, and then hit the driver and dragged him out onto the street. He started to beat him up before a policeman intervened and arrested him.

In court the story was told and Mr Hall ordered Cooke to pay a fine of 40(with the threat of 14 days in prison if he did not) and added compensation of 1s 8d for White for the damage done to his cab window. Two of Cooke’s fellow watermen tried to argue that the cabbie had made up the story but the magistrate didn’t believe them. In terms of social status the policeman and hansom drivers were a class above the watermen who stood by the road and watered the horses, and Mr Hall wasn’t about to take their side. The papers described Cooke as ‘one of those persons known as “bucks” and “touts”’, suggesting his actions were well-known but not approved of.

So did watermen have some power here? Was this an example of them trying to extract some more money from the cabbies, or being used by certain cab drivers to control who got fares and where? The Strand would have been a prime position for hansoms after all, with its proximity to London’s clubs and theatres. Do doormen today have a role in which drivers get which fares? Do they get tips? Was this all part of the informal economy of Victorian London  and does it still exist?

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, November 19, 1847]

The Great (Northern) Train Robbery

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When a customer reported losing several of his possessions on a train the Great Northern Railway company called in their own in-house detective team. In 1868 this meant that William Thorogood was immediately set on the trail of the thief.

It didn’t take him long to spot a young man strolling quickly across the platform at King’s Cross sporting a ‘portmanteau, rug, umbrella and [walking] stick’ matching the description given by Mr William Kingsworth, the traveller that had complained he had fallen victim to a robbery.

The detective fell in step behind the thief and watched as he hailed a cab. As the young man entered the hansom in St Pancras Road, Thorogood clambered in beside him. The man was ‘fashionably dressed’ and said his name was Robert Johnson. He emphatically denied stealing anything and asked how Thorogood could possibly prove that he had.

The detective took his prisoner back to the station superintendent’s office where Mr Kingsworth positively identified his property. In court at Clerkenwell the passenger said he’d never seen Johnson before that day and had missed his items after he’d left then briefly on his seat. Johnson denied everything, refused to give his address, and cried throughout the entire hearing. Mr Clarke remanded him for a week and he was led away to the cells.

Johnson was tried at the Bailey on the 26 October 1868. He pleaded guilty to stealing Mr Kingsworth’s property and asked for several other offences to be dealt with at the same time. He seemed to specialise in stealing portmanteaus (briefcases) from railway trains. The judge sent him to prison for 18 months.

[from The Illustrated Police News etc, Saturday, October 17, 1868]

‘Marry in haste and repent at leisure’ as one man learn’s to his (considerable) cost

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There was, for the working classes at least, no effectual form of divorce in the nineteenth century. Divorce was expensive (as it can still be) and there was no such thing as a ‘quick divorce’. Couples that couldn’t solve the problems of their marriage (in a time before Relate or other marriage counsellors) would either have to put up and make the best of it, or separate and live independently.

This was much easier for men than it was for women, socially and economically. As a result it was fairly common for men to desert their wives, and many did. An abandoned wife could, if she chose (and if she could find him), take her estranged husband to a police court and demand maintenance if he wouldn’t return to her.

This is what the young wife of William Clarke did. A court made an order against him and he started to pay her 10sa week towards her keep. However, as was usual, no payments materialised and Mrs Clarke had to go to law again to get the maintenance order enforced. So, on Saturday 28 May 1887 Mr and Mrs William Clarke were reunited, if only briefly, before Mr Bushby at Worship Street Police court.

William, who said he was a joiner, decided that now was the time to come up with an elaborate explanation for his behaviour, an explanation which owed more to the realms of popular melodrama than it did to reality.

Clarke said that eh should never have married his young bride at all. When he’d met her she had been a lady’s maid in the employ of ‘a wealthy lady named Le Compte’. And it was to Lady Le Compte that William was betrothed he insisted.

However, while he stayed at the lady’s London house he was systematically drugged and for a fortnight lost track of events, and had no real memory of them. During that time he was bundled into a hansom cab and driven to east London and forcibly married to the woman ‘who now called herself his wife’.

It was a incredible (if not incredulous) tale and Clarke didn’t manage to convince the magistrate of his version of events. Mr Busby had also heard from Mrs Clarke’s father who told him that he clearly recalled William coming to ask for his daughter’s hand, and that the couple had gone to Brighton after the wedding.

Mr Bushby declared that while the couple had only lived together as man and wife for two days they were still clearly, and properly married and so William had a responsibility towards her. She had received no money since the court order for maintenance had been made so he ordered William to find £59 plus £3 6scosts. This was a lot of money (about £5,000 today) but William paid it on the spot.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, May 30, 1887]

‘The road is as much mine as yours to-night and I shan’t drive you an inch’: A cabbie who won’t go south of the river without a hefty tip

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In 1875 the Adelphi theatre in the Strand was staging a production of Nicholas Nickelby. Dickens’ third novel had been turned into a play almost as soon as it had appeared in print and the author didn’t profit from the misappropriation of his work. By 1875 Dickens was dead anyway and the story of Nickelby, the impoverished schoolmaster and the quite awful Wackford Squeers, was a popular standard for Victorian audiences and the Adelphi had been amongst the first theatres to put it on.

Once the show was over the Aldelphi’s manger, a Mr Chatterton, went on to enjoy an evening of the opera at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane before meeting up with a friend for drinks. Chatterton finally left the Albion Tavern at just after midnight and he and his chum, Mr Webster, asked a linkman to fetch them a cab.

It was a dreadful night, pouring with rain and it took the man about a quarter of an hour to secure a hansom cab for the friends as he’d had to go all the way to the Haymarket to find one. Chatterton helped the other man into the cab (which suggests to me at least that he was a little the worse for drink) before clambering in himself. The driver (John Dredge) got down from his seat to ask them where they wanted to go.

‘Clapham Road, near the Kennington Church’ Chatterton told him.

While this was only a journey of about 3 miles it did involve going south of the river and would probably have taken half an hour (and of course another 30 minutes for Dredge to get back into town and home). Under the bylaws governing licensed cabs he had to be home by 1 in the morning (or a pay a fine at the rate of 16an hour), so given how late it was he was reluctant to ‘go south of the river’ at that hour. However, if the money was right he was prepared to carry the gentlemen.

‘I am not obliged to go that way, and shall not go unless you pay be liberally’, Dredge told them, ‘what are you going to give me?’

Chatterton didn’t want to get into an auction with a cabbie so decided to find an alternative way home. ‘If you won’t go there’ he insisted, ‘drive me to the station in Bow Street’.

This infuriated the cab driver. Bow Street was literally just around the corner from the pub. ‘Oh that’s your game is it?’ he told them, ‘The road is as much mine as your to-night and I shan’t drive you an inch’. Webster tried to reason with him but Dredge was having nothing of it; he clearly felt the gentlemen were taking the mickey because they were tipsy. Chatterton was not at all amused however, and called a policeman who took the cab driver’s number.

Ten days later Dredge was summoned to appear at Bow Street Police court before Mr Vaughan. Cab drivers had a poor reputation for insolence and magistrates rarely missed a chance to punish them for it. Despite Dredge insisting that he thought the two men were drunk but now apologising for being mistaken and for ‘having cast such an imputation’ the justice decided to throw the book at him.

He said it was evident that Dredge’s intention was to ‘extort more than his legal fare’ and the ‘public were not to be exposed to such a system’. So, as a ‘warning to other cabmen’ he fined him 40(or a month in prison) and suspended his license for a month.

Dredge was stunned, and so was the theatre manager. Surely Mr Vaughan didn’t mean to deprive the man of his livelihood as well as fining him the equivalent of £120 today (about two week’s wages at the time). The Bow Street magistrate was unmoved by either man however, and insisted his mind was made up and the penalty would stand.

I suspect this decision would have filtered down to Dredge’s fellow drivers but not necessarily with the effect that the justice wanted. London cab drivers are unlikely to have reacted well to being told what to do, or to one of their own being treated quite so harshly.

[from The Morning Post (London, England), Wednesday, May 12, 1875]

for other stories featuring London hansom cab drivers see:

Cabbies get a raw deal at Westminster

A cabbie pushes his luck at Bow Street

An unfortunate cabbie picks a fight he can’t win

The cabbie and the lady who knew too much