A bit of good luck quickly turns into a personal disaster for one London plumber

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An 1865 issue Victorian florin (not actual size…)

I suppose that in these days of contactless payment fewer and fewer of us use real money any more. Even when I go the pub I rarely pay with case, and never do so in shops any more. Am I unusual, I doubt it?

If you do use cash and a barman or shop assistant gives you change, do you check it? If its short I imagine you’d say something but what if they give you back too much? I expect most of us would quietly offer a prayer to  the gods of good fortune and walk away.

That may be what Edward Pearce did in September 1892 as he paid for drinks at the bar of the Orange Tree pub in the Euston Road. The 48 year old plumber insisted that he’d handed over a florin for two glasses of ale, for which he was given 16in silver, and a further 4d in bronze as change. A florin was worth around 24 old pence, or a tenth of a pound. Since a shilling was 12 pence, we can assume his drinks cost him twopence. Today in my favourite pub I’ll pay about £10 for two ‘glasses of ale’.  Edward was paying around 68p in today’s money.

However, the barman quickly realized his mistake when he saw that instead of a florin Edward had only given him 2d  and so wasn’t entitled to any change at all. He demanded the money back but Pearce refused, insisting he’d handed over a two-shilling piece (the florin).

The police were called and since Pearce stuck to his story and the barman stuck to his the case came before the magistrate at Marylebone Police court where the plumber was tried for theft. It may have been an honest mistake or simply a cheeky attempt to get away with a bit of good luck. Sadly for Pearce all he ended up with was a week’s incarceration with hard labour. A little harsh even by late Victorian standards.

[from The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, September 17, 1892]

Gin Lane revisited in 1888

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One the most powerful images of the negative effects of alcohol is William Hogarth’s ‘Gin Lane’. The engraving is Hogarth’s attack on the evils of imported ‘foreign’ liquor – ‘jenever’ or Dutch gin. He produced this to contrast with ‘Beer Street’ drawing a clear comparison between ‘honest’ English beer and the stronger more dangerous spirit that gripped so many Londoners in the 1700s. London suffered a  ‘gin craze’ at mid century that forced government to act against it, passing the last of several gin acts in 1751 aimed at reducing consumption by raising prices through taxation. Actually it was rising prices for grain that weaned Londoners off gin by the 1760s, coupled with higher food costs people simply couldn’t afford it.

Hogarth’s Gin Lane (above) has a woman holding (or rather dropping) a baby at its centre. It is this image that sums up the affect of alcoholism on the addict; a total abdication of responsibility in pursuit of the next ‘fix’ of gin. Anyone familiar with modern drug addiction will recognize this as having very similar consequences.

Gin did not go away in the 1760s and remained a popular and cheap way to get drunk in the 1800s. By then campaigners against alcohol had developed more sophisticated ways to encourage abstinence – as the Temperance movement and the Salvation Army attest. Sadly, they don’t seem to have been able to do much for Mary Sullivan.

In September 1888 Sullivan, a 44 year old mother, was found dead drunk in Woolwich High Street by PC Williams (127R). The policeman had been alerted to Sullivan by the large crowd that was quickly gathering around her. She was drunk and had a baby in her arms, which she was flailing about. The child was crying and Mary was angry with it.

As he approached her he saw her dash the baby’s head against a nearby wall. He rushed over, secured her and the child and asked her where she lived. Mary had no home; homeless, impoverished and probably abandoned by the child’s father, she was at her wits end. It was not uncommon in the poorer districts of London in 1888.

A woman standing nearby offered to pay for a night’s lodging for Mary but she refused the charity. The baby seemed ok so PC Williams warned her and carried on his beat. Some time later he found her again, sitting on a  doorstep holding the child in front of her. The child was naked and another crowd were berating her, some threatening to lynch her for her cruelty.

For her own safety, and that of her baby, PC Williams now arrested her (as he probably should have done earlier). At the station the child was examined by the police surgeon and was taken away from Mary and sent to the workhouse infirmary to be cared for. At Woolwich Police court Mary Sullivan was sent to prison for 14 days hard labour. At least there she might have a chance to sober up.

[fromLloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, September 9, 1888]

A boy steals a horse and cart as Whitechapel wakes up to news of a serial killer in its midst

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On Saturday 1 September 1888 the East End was digesting the news that a woman’s dead and mutilated body had been discovered in the early hours of the previous morning. At some point around 3am an unknown killer had attacked and murdered Mary Ann ‘Polly’ Nichols as she walked near the board school in Buck’s Row (now renamed as Durward Street). No one had heard anything despite several people living nearby and there being workmen in the knackers’ yard around the corner.

Polly was the first of the ‘canonical five’ female victims of  ‘Jack the Ripper’ and her death sparked the attention of the world’s press to cover what became known as the ‘Whitechapel murders’. Polly was a desperately poor woman who lived a hand-by-mouth existence, supporting herself by prostitution when she had no other options. She wasn’t alone in being poor, Whitechapel was among the poorest quarters of Victoria’s empire.

Despite the murder in Buck’s Row life went on as normal in the capital police courts and reading the reports from these you would be forgiven for thinking that nothing untoward had happened that week. On the Saturday The Morning Post reported goings on at the Thames Police court, the magistrates’ court that covered part of the East End of London (Worship Street being the other).

There an eleven-year old boy was charged with stealing a horse and cart from a carman while he was delivery goods in Lower East Smithfield. The boy had climbed into the cart and was driving it along Worship Street when he was stopped by PC William Thames (421G). When he asked him what he was doing with a cart the lad replied:

‘I am going to take it home. I have been with the carman to take some goods to Wood-green but the carman got drunk and had to go home by train’.

Later he claimed that the carman had fallen out of the cart. It was a lite and in court it was revealed that this was the firth time young John Coulson had been found in possession of someone else’s vehicle. Given that he was so young this was quite an amazing record and the magistrate  Mr Lushington told his mother that she would be best advised to get her son into an industrial school.

Lushington then had more serious case to deal with. Nathanial Rose was charged with violently assaulting a police officer. PC William Gunther (133H) had been called to attend to an incident on Betts Street, near Cable Street by several local tradesmen. A group of local ‘roughs’ were terrorizing passers-by; pushing them off the street, verbally abusing them, and generally behaving in an anti-social manner. When the policeman reached the scene there were about 10 lads gathered there and he told them all to go home.

He then strolled off thinking his work was done. It wasn’t. Within minutes they jumped him. He was jostled by several lads before Rose hit him on the side of te head with a bottle, cutting his eye. As he recovered they ran off.

PC Gunther knew who the culprit was and once he’d been patched up went round to Rose’s lodgings and arrested him. Mr Lushington sent him to prison for 10 weeks with hard labour.

Over the next three months or more the police of Whitechapel and the East End were kept very busy as a manhunt developed in response to Polly’s killing and the subsequent murders of at least four more poor local women. No one was ever successfully prosecuted for the murders and to this day there is considerable debate as to how many victims were killed and who exactly ‘Jack’ was. We all have our own theories and if you’d like to read mine it is available to buy from Amazon and all good booksellers.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, September 01, 1888 ]

A life destroyed by the ‘demon drink’

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Alcoholism is a debilitating addiction than ruins not only the life of the person affected but that of those around them. Since the Second World War most of the attention of the police, courts, and prison service has been on  drugs such as cannabis, heroin, cocaine, and MDMA (with all the various derivatives and combinations) and with good reason. All these drugs have the capacity to destroy lives as well. But while all of the above are proscribed and subject to sanctions under the criminal law, alcohol remains legal and freely available. Like tobacco, alcohol is recognized as being harmful but is simply taxed, not banned.

In the 1800s the negative effects of drink were well understood; drink was blamed for all manner of society’s problems form unemployment to fecklessness, poverty to mental illness, domestic violence to mental illness and suicide. All of these social issues were linked to the excessive consumption of the ‘demon drink’. In the early years of Victoria’s reign the Temperance movement established itself; from small beginnings in the late 1820s it had grown into a significant lobbying group by the 1850s. It attempted, unsuccessfully, to  get parliament to pass a prohibition bill in 1859 but it continued to promote abstinence by urging working men and women to sign the pledge.

It was recognized from the middle of the century that alcoholism was a disease and not simply a vice. Since it was not merely a weakness of character it was possible to treat it, and cure it and this was the beginning of modern efforts to deal with addiction to all sorts of substances.

Margaret Malcolm was a good (or perhaps ‘bad’) example of the evils of drink. She was brought before the sitting magistrate at Westminster Police court in August 1878 for being found drunk and disorderly in the Vauxhall Bridge Road. She’d been carried to the local police station on one of the new Bischoffsheim hand drawn ambulances, being incapable of walking.

That was Friday 16 August and the magistrate fined her 8which her husband  paid to keep her out of gaol. On Monday (the 19th) she was back in court and this time Mr Woolrych fined her 21sand told her she was an ‘incorrigible drunkard’. Margaret pulled out a card to show that she had ‘joined the teetotalers’ and promised that she ‘would never drink again’.

Her pledge didn’t last the day: at around five in the afternoon PC Charles Everett (185B) found her drunk, ‘stopping the vehicles in the street, [and] making a great noise’. When he went to arrest her she threw herself to the ground and refused to budge. It took some time to get her up and into custody and in the meantime a large crowd had gathered to see what all the fuss was about.

Back in court before Mr Woolrych she had nothing to say for herself. The magistrate was told that Margaret had been in court on at least fifty occasions previously. Her long-suffering husband had paid nearly £200 in fines in just a few years. To put that in context £200 in 1878 is about £13,000 today. It would have represented almost two years wages for a skilled tradesman, or you could have bought 7 horses with it. Margaret must have had a loving husband (more than many working-class women had in the 1870s) and one who was, whenever possible, determined to keep her out of prison.

He hadn’t always succeeded; she’d been to prison several times when magistrates like Mr D’Eyncourt had refused the option of a fine in the forlorn hope that it would curb her drinking. On this occasion the law continued to be a blunt instrument: with no option available to him to send Margaret for treatment (as a court might today) she was fined 25(£80) or three weeks’ hard labour. The court report doesn’t tell us whether Mr Malcolm dipped into his pocket this time.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, August 25, 1878]

‘I did it!’ A young servant confesses to being the Lavender Hill poisoner

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The watching public at Wandsworth Police court witnessed an unusually dramatic case on 23 August 1886. Emily Parry, an 18 year-old domestic servant, was placed in the dock and charged with attempted murder. The girl was an unlikely murderer and what made the matter all the more sensational was that she confessed in full.

Inspector Lusk explained that on the previous Saturday Miss Parry had walked into Battersea Police Station and told the desk sergeant she wished to make a confession in the ‘poisoning case’.  She was referring to the attempted poisoning of Mrs Rose Darling at Lavender Hill in February that year. At the time another servant – Alice Tharby – had been accused and Emily had even given evidence at the pre-trial hearing. The case was thrown out by the Grand Jury and Alice was released but she had been out of work ever since and was living with her mother.

Now Emily admitted that she had put poison in Mrs Darling’s tea and milk because she had fallen out with Alice and wanted to get her ‘into a row’ (into trouble in other words). She’d used laudanum and chloroform that she’d found in the pantry; fortunately Mrs Darling quickly realized that the tea was ‘bad’ and hadn’t drunk too much. She was ill was several days but no serious damage was done. Alice tasted the milk and was ‘a little sick’ as a result.

At Battersea police station Emily declared: ‘I did it; I put the poison in the teapot’. She then made a full statement that was read out before Mr Bennett at Wandsworth.

I, Emily Parry, formerly Vass, understanding the probable serious consequences of what I am about to do, desire to make the following statement:—

On 26th February last I was in service at Dr. Bayfield’s, Soames Villa, Lavender Hill. My fellow-servant, Alice Tharby, and I quarrelled on that day. The same afternoon Alice made some tea for Mrs. Darling, Mrs. Bayfield’s mother, who was staying in the house, which she placed on the dining-room table. She then went upstairs. I was in the scullery at that time, and wishing to spite Alice I determined to put some poison into the teapot, thinking that blame would fall on her. I did not think of what might happen to other persons. I ran from the scullery and took the teapot off the dining-room table out to the surgery. I poured something from several bottles into it, one of which was labelled ‘laudanum, poison,’ and then put the teapot back on the table in the dining-room. I went to the pantry, took the jug of milk into the surgery and put some chloroform into it, and replaced it in the pantry. It only took me about five minutes to do all this. I had no thought or intention of poisoning any one; my only idea was to get Alice into a row. When Alice was locked up I was afraid to tell the truth. I have often since half made up my mind to make this statement, but could not find courage to do it until to-day. I make this statement to clear all blame from Alice Tharby and to ease my own mind.”

She’d given her statement through floods of tears, mindful of what might happen to her but also probably relieved to finally tell someone the truth. It was a straightforward decision for the magistrate: he committed her to take her trial at the Old Bailey and she appeared there in October. This time a chemist was called to examine two bottles which contained samples of the tea and milk that been given to Mrs Darling. He confirmed that there were traces of laudanum and chloroform present. Rose Darling, Alice Tharby and the surgeon that treated Rose all gave brief evidence in court but Emily said nothing.

The jury found her guilty on her confession and the other evidence and the judge sent her to prison for three months at hard labour.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, August 24, 1886]

‘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]

Another dreadful attack on the police and an echo of PC Culley, the first officer to be killed ‘in the line of duty’.

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It was claimed last week (by the Daily Express) that assaults on the police had risen to ‘28 attacks a day on officers in crime epidemic’.1

With recent events in mind it is easy to suggest that our police men and women are at a greater risk of harm than ever before but as one independent fact checking organization has shown, it isn’t really possible to compare rates with those in recent years because reporting criteria has changed.

The reality is that from their very inception, in 1829, members of the public have subjected the police to attacks. It has not become then a dangerous occupation, it always has been. The first officer to die to be killed in the line of duty was PC Robert Culley. He signed up for Peel’s new force in September 1829, joining C Division. On 13 May 1833 he was part of a team sent into break up a demonstration of the National Union of the Working Classes (a group  of radicals demanding parliamentary reform). The gathering at Coldbath Fields in Clerkenwell descended into violence as the police moved in to disperse it and PC Culley was fatal wounded in the affray.

Hundreds of officers have died since Culley, with PC Andrew Harper being the most recent. Many thousands more have been injured and it is unlikely that we would ever have a true figure for this because statistics for common assault are notoriously unreliable. During the first 20-30 years of policing in England the police were deeply unpopular in working class areas. Seen as ‘class traitors’, and busybodies their use to suppress Chartism or demonstrations against the hated Poor Law won them few friends. Nor did their efforts to close down markets or stop street gambling endear them to working-class communities.

While they enjoyed gradual acceptance by the end of the century it would be fair to say that the public still saw the police as a ‘necessary evil’ rather than the ‘lovable bobby’ that 1950s and 60s television dramas like to depict.

In 1883 William Aldis was brought before the magistrate at Thames Police court in the East End of London. Aldis was a costermonger – a small trader who sold goods from a barrow. Costers were always being asked to ‘move along’ by the capital’s police and they resented these attempts to interfere with their traditional way of life. They saw the police as their enemies.

On the 2 August 1883 PC James Simpson (135K) was on duty just after midnight on Salmon’s Lane in Limehouse. He noticed Aldis and a group of ‘roughs’ standing outside the Copenhagen pub. They were drunk and rowdy, and making quite a noise so PC Simpson moved over to tell them to go home.

Aldis saw his opportunity to ‘serve out a policeman’ (as one coster had famously boasted to Henry Mayhew) and punched the officer in the face, blackening his eye, and sending him crashing to the pavement. The other roughs steamed in and rained down blows and kicks on the stricken policeman as he lay helpless on the ground. When they’d finished their work they ran off before help could arrive.

William Aldis was arrested later but it took a while for the case to come to court because PC Simpson was too sick to attend. Even two weeks later he was still unable to appear to give evidence in person. Evidence was obtained however, which satisfied Mr Lushington that the costermonger was to blame for the assault and he sentenced him to six months at hard labour.

So before we carried away in thinking that we have a ‘crime epidemic’ on our hands today and that something different is happening in society it is worth remembering again (as my blog yesterday argued) that violence towards the police and others is nothing new. That may not be very comforting but it is the reality.

[from The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, August 18, 1883]