‘You will meet a tall dark stranger’: a fortune teller fails to predict her own demise.

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Did you watch the recent BBC drama, The Pale Horse? It is an adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1961 murder mystery in which a dying woman leaves a list of names of people who die in unexplained circumstances.

The drama centres around three ‘witches’ in the village of Much Deeping (below right) , who tell fortunes and (at least in the mind of one of the characters) place curses on victims, causing them to die.images

The idea of having one’s fortune told has a very (very) long history. From ancient times those with the gift of prophesy or ‘sight’ have been sought out by kings and chieftains, and those who just want to know who and when they’ll marry.

Until the eighteenth century those deemed to be practicing witchcraft could hanged if convicted and although the laws against witchcraft were repealed in 1736 so-called witches were still targeted well into the 1800s. The 1735 Witchcraft Act had effectively abolished the crime of witchcraft but made it illegal to claim magical powers. This continued to be used against those who said they could ‘summons spirits’, as both Helen Duncan and Jane Yorke discovered in 1944 when they were last two people to be prosecuted under the act.

According to the Police Code Book of 1889 fortune telling was also prohibited. The section reads:

‘Every person pretending of professing to tell fortunes, or using any subtle craft, means, or device, by palmistry or otherwise, to deceive and impose on any one, may be treated as a rogue and vagabond, and sentenced to imprisonment with hard labour’.1

This offence fell under the ‘catch all’ terms of the Vagrancy Act (1824) and in February 1884 it ensnared an elderly woman called Antonia Spike. Spike appeared before Mr Lushington at Thames Police court. She’d been brought in on a warrant by sergeant White of H Division who’d been watching her for weeks.

White testified in court that he’d often seen women going coming and going at the house where Spike lived, sometimes as many as 8 or 9 in a single day. On the 18 February Eliza Weedon (a tenant on Whitechapel High Street) and Annie Wheeler, who lived in Shadwell, were among Spike’s visitors.  Somehow the police sergeant persuaded them to give evidence before the magistrate.

They said that they had entered the house and Antonia  Spike asked them if they wished to have their fortunes told. They said they did and Spike proceeded to shuffle and a pack of cards before giving them to Wheeler to cut

‘Are you married?’ she asked Annie, who said she was.

‘You will have a letter from a fair man, with a present, and you will be pleased. You will hear of the death of a dark woman, and you will come into some money. You will cross the ocean, and be married a second time, and be very well off’.

She also read Eliza’s fortune but presumably that was less interesting so the reporter didn’t write it down. Both women paid Antonia sixpence for reading their futures.

Mr Lushington, not a man to suffer fools or charlatans easily, sent the old lady to prison for a month with hard labour.

I had my fortune read once, in Aylesbury by a man who described himself as a warlock. He used the tarot and had an impressive statue of Anubis over his front door. He said I’d travel overseas, and that someone close to me, and elderly, would die. I paid more than 6d.

[from The Standard, Monday 25 February, 1884]

  1. From Sir Howard Vincent’s Police Code 1889, (ed by Neil. A Bell and Adam Wood, Mango Books, 2015), p.88

‘Ring the bell, and put the child on the doorstep’: a young mother is handed a stark ultimatum

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There have been plenty of examples in the pages of this blog of quite stark reminders that the past was ‘a different country’. Periodically today there are news reports of babies being found abandoned. In late January this year for example, a postman found a newborn child on a doorstep in Hackney as he made his rounds. The baby was taken into care and the police ‘appealed to his mother to come forward, assuring her she is not in trouble and will be helped’.

That is invariably the message to mothers who, for whatever reason, feel unable to keep a child they have just given birth to. Come forward, you’re not in any trouble, we are just worried about you.

This was not the way society viewed mothers that abandoned their babies in the nineteenth century however; something clearly illustrated by this cautionary take from 1871.

Elizabeth Fisher was working as a servant when she fell pregnant. She had the child and at first her sister agreed to care for it. Elizabeth’s employer, a Mrs Cruise (of Arthur Road, Brixton), made it abundantly clear that she was not willing for an illegitimate child to be raised under her roof.

Fisher either had to get rid of her baby or leave her service.

That was normal in the 1800s. Servants who got pregnant would often be dismissed and so many hid their pregnancies and then gave away or farmed out their children to relatives or women who they paid to take them in.

This worked for Elizabeth for a while but then in December 1870 her sister explained that she could no longer care for the baby.  With what one imagines was a heavy heart Elizabeth took her baby to the Camberwell workhouse (below right) and asked them to care for it.

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The workhouse refused telling her they were ‘neither a nursery nor a baby-farming establishment, and they could not separate mother and child’. If Elizabeth wanted to place her baby in their care she’d have to admit herself at the same time. Even when Fisher offered to pay a weekly sum for the child’s acre the workhouse authorities turned her away.

She was back to square one.

Her mistress, Mrs Cruise, now suggested she take the child to its father. While Fisher wasn’t married she did know where the father was. Cruise told her to go to Gloucester Terrace, Hyde Park (where the man lived), ‘ring the bell, and put the child on the doorstep for the father to take in’.

So it was that Elizabeth, her sister, and Mrs Cruise set off, taking an omnibus towards Haymarket (where Cruise was going to attend the theatre). The sisters hopped off but seemingly never made it to Gloucester Terrace. The baby was found on a shop doorstep in the Haymarket by a policeman.

It took some time for the police to trace the child back to Elizabeth Fisher who by this time had left Cruise’s employment. The police obtained a summons to bring Fisher, her sister (Mrs Brown,, who lived in Hoxton) and Mrs Cruise to court at Marlborough Street. Mr Tyrwhitt, the sitting Police magistrate, listened carefully to the stories all three women told before reaching his judgment.

Despite her telling her employer to leave the child on a doorstep or leave her employment, the justice exonerated Mrs Cruise. She’d apparently acted ‘only with kindness’ her lawyer had argued, and Mr Tyrwhitt agreed. Nor did he condemn the workhouse for not receiving the child and refusing the mother’s money. The father was not summoned as Elizabeth’s sister did not want to ‘disgrace’ him. Instead he reserved his opprobrium for Elizabeth Fisher. He sent her to prison for 10 days with hard labour.

I doubt she took her child with her and I imagine she would have found it hard to find similar employment thereafter, with the stain of imprisonment added to that of bastard bearing. Elizabeth was ‘ruined’ and yet no fault or responsibility was set at the door of the man that she had conceived her baby boy with.

This was the reality of being poor, female, and a single mother in nineteenth-century London. It may not be easy today, but at least it is unlikely to land you in gaol.

[from Morning Post, Wednesday, 22 February 1871]

‘Furious driving’ and RTAs: have we lost control of our streets?

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While the Metropolitan Police courts dealt with all manner of crimes, misdemeanors, and complaints, the press only selectively reported them. Sensational cases, hard rending ones, and those which reflected a current concern were the most likely to grab the ‘headlines’ in the later 1800s.

On 12 January 1881 the Morning Post chose to focus attention on dangerous driving in central London, highlighting three cases that came before the Westminster magistrate Mr Partridge. Of course none of these involved cars or vans or motorcycles; none of the vehicles we associate with road traffic accidents had been invented in the 1880s, everything was horse drawn in Victorian capital.

Yet accidents were fairly common, and being run over by a horse drawn cart or carriage was just as likely to result in injury and death as being hit by a car today. More so perhaps, since medicine was much less effective and the emergency services much less well equipped.

Speeding was termed ‘Furious driving’ – driving or riding that endangered life – and was punishable by a fine or imprisonment; cab drivers found drunk by police could be arrested, those driving ‘furiously’ would be charged accordingly. Drunk driving was clearly as much of a problem in the 1800s as it was in the 1900s.

On 11 January John Smith was charged before Mr Partridge at Westminster with being drunk in charge of his hansom cab and running over a little girl. Smith had been driving along the Fulham Road and turned quickly (too quickly really) into Marlborough Road, just as Rhoda Thompson was crossing it.

Smith’s cab hit the child who went under the wheels and was run over. A policeman saw the incident and intervened, making sure Rhoda was taken to St George’s Hospital. The cab driver appeared to be drunk and so he was escorted to the nearest police station to be charged. In court Smith said he was distressed by the accident but not drunk and said the officer must have mistaken his shock for inebriation.  The magistrate was told that the girl was still in hospital and her condition not yet known, with that in mind he remanded Smith in custody to see what happened.

Next up before him were George Franklin (21), James Galleymore (also 21) and Fredrick Drake (a labourer, whose age was not given). Franklin and Galleymore were carmen, the nineteenth-century equivalent of van delivery drivers today. Franklin had been arrested for being drunk in charge of a horse and cart and knocking down John Silcock in the King’s Road, Chelsea. Galleymore and Drake were both drunk and disorder the court was told and the former was also charged with assaulting PC Campion (506T) at Chelsea Police station.

Franklin was driving a van ‘rapidly’ as it went round the corner by the police station, just as Silcock was crossing the road. Silcock, an elderly man who was employed as a timekeeper by the London Omnibus Company, was knocked down but, fortunately, not badly hurt. He’d been carrying a small child in his arms and miraculously, she was also unharmed.

Mr Partridge, perhaps minded to make an example of the trio, said ‘he was determined to do all in his power to put down this reckless driving in the streets’. He sentenced Franklin to two months in prison with hard labour, gave Galleymore six weeks, and fined Drake 10s for being drunk (warning him he’d also go to gaol if he failed to pay).

Finally, John Lincoln was brought up to face a charge of being drunk in charge of his Hackney cab. On Monday evening Lincoln’s cab had collided with a ‘light spring van’ being driven by William Dyerson on the Vauxhall Bridge Road. Such was the force of the crash that Mrs Dyerson was thrown out of the van onto the street, breaking her arm.

A policeman saw the whole incident unfold and rushed to help the lady. Lincoln was arrested and the officer declared he was drunk and driving ‘recklessly’. Mr Partridge decided the incident was severe enough to require a jury trial and committed him to the next sessions of the peace.

Lincoln (who gave his age as 52) appeared at the quarter sessions on 24 January 1881 where he was found not guilty of furious driving but was convicted of willful misconduct, and of causing ‘bodily harm’ to Jane Dyerson. The court fined him 20s.

In the streets around me a 20mph speed limit is in place, because there are several schools near by. This doesn’t stop people driving ‘furiously’ and on the main road cars and vans frequently race across the zebra crossing, even when pedestrians are halfway across it.  They know that they are very unlikely to be caught or prosecuted for doing so, and so can speed and endanger lives with impunity.

I’ve raised it with the council who aren’t interested. I’ve raised it with the police who were too busy to even respond to me. It seems that unless someone dies we don’t road traffic incidents as seriously as Mr Partridge once did.

[from Morning Post, 12 January, 1881]

‘A most outrageous assault’: more gang violence in Oxford Street

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Most of the gang crime that plagued London in the late 1800s was pretty minor compared with the stabbings and drug related crime experienced by Londoners today. Even so, then, most of the victims were rival gang members. When ordinary members of the public were caught up they were often simply harassed or shoved as they walked home from the theatre or the pub and encountered groups of ‘roughs’ on the streets.

This incident, from December 1889, was within that typology of gang attack but was of a more serious nature, which was probably why it ended up before the magistrate at Marlborough Street.

Herbert Easton was walking home along Oxford Street after a late night out in town. He was heading past Harewood Place where a group of around 20 young men were gathered. As he past them something hit him on the back and he spun round on his heels. He wasn’t drunk but he had been drinking and, possibly emboldened by the ‘Dutch courage’ he demanded to know who was responsible.

He was met by silence and denials and carried on his way.

He was quickly aware that the group was now following him, in a very threatening manner. Before he had time to take evasive action they were on him, knocking him to the ground and kicking and punching at him.  As he tried the lift his umbrella as a makeshift weapons they overpowered him and held him down with it.

Easton struggled to his feet and pushed one of his assailants away. Seeing a cab he hailed it and jumped in side. The driver set off but the lads grabbed hold of the reins and one, George Leonard, tried to clamber into the cab. As Easton fought and grappled with Leonard the driver shouted out for help. A constable was quickly on the scene and fought his way through the throng, blowing his whistle to summons others.

As a number of officers arrived and the gang decided their luck was up, they melted away leaving Leonard in police custody. The police ordered the cabbie to make directly for Marlborough Police station where the young ‘rough’ was charged and thrown in a cell.

Appearing before Mr Hannay he had little to say for himself. The magistrate was much more forthcoming however. He told George Leonard (19) that this was ‘one of the worst street outrages he had ever heard of’ and sent him to prison for two months with hard labour.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, December 10, 1889]

Gang fights and assaults on the police – taking the long view

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With all the trouble surrounding the release of Blue Story, Andrew Onwubolu’s (aka ‘Rapman’) new film about love and friendship amongst rivals London gangs the issue of youth violence is back in the news. As this blog has touched on several times already in last few years, none of this is anything new. London has a history of gang violence that stretches back at least 150 years.

Plenty of the early concerns about youth violence and gangs focused on the ‘roughs’ and (later, in the 1890s) ‘hooligans’ who terrorized districts such as Southwark. Marylebone and the East End.

Christopher Eaton and John Marr (both just 16 years of age) were apparently connected to ‘a gang of roughs’ that were ‘infesting Bermondsey New Road’ in November 1875.

An elderly man named Richard Carney testified before the magistrate at Southwark Police court that on Friday 23 November he was walking home when he saw two boys fighting with a crowd gathered around them. He – rather unwisely it had to be said – pushed his way through the throng to try and separate them.

The crowd now turned on him and started to kick and punch him. As he collapsed a reserve policeman came running up to help, only to be subjected to the same treatment by the lads.

As the youths ran away PC Robert Atkins managed to secure the two boys and, having summoned a fellow officers to help, got them to the station and Mr Carney to Guy’s Hospital. Fortunately neither man was badly hurt although the youths had attempted to escape, kicking out at the officers that arrested them.

Mr Benson in the chair commented that ‘these street outrages must be put a stop to, as the peaceable inhabitants of Bermondsey could not pass along the streets without being assaulted after dark’. He sentenced Eaton to 21 days hard labour and Marr to 10.   Whether it did any good is anyone’s guess but given that several police were injured as gang’s clashed in Birmingham just this weekend it would seem that 144 years later little has improved.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, November 28, 1875)

‘What a ruffian you must be’ to punch a defenceless woman

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Lydia Morgan was drinking with her husband in a pub in Chelsea when an argument broke out. Her husband was quarrelling with another, younger, drinker when a friend of the teenager tried to intervene.

Mrs Morgan told the intruder to mind his own business and sit down. With that the lad, Patrick Cook (19), punched her in the face knocking her off her stool. The assault broke Lydia’s nose and she was taken to hospital to be treated for the injury.

The next day Cook was in court at Westminster Police court to answer for his actions.  He claimed that Lydia’s husband had been preparing to fight him (he ‘had his coat off’) and was drunk. Mr Morgan and his wife flatly denied this and their version of events was corroborated by Thomas Cook, the landlord of the Royal Oak in Keppel Street (who was no relation to the defendant).

Mrs Morgan had appeared in court with her face half covered in bandages and the policeman that brought the charge presented a certificate certifying that her nose was broken. Mr Selfe, the magistrate, thought he recognized Patrick Cook and asked the officer. The constable said that Cook was a violent lad who had been in court in September that year for stabbing a man with a fork. He’d served six weeks for that assault.

That certainly counted against him and cemented the justice’s view that he was guilty of this offence.

‘What a ruffian you must be’, he told him.

‘The instant you get out of prison here you are indulging in your naturally savage propensities. You have committed a serious and perhaps permanent injury upon this poor woman, who it is clearly shown offered you no provocation whatever’.

He then proceeded to sentence the lad.

‘If you had struck her more than once I should have given you the utmost punishment the law allows, and as it is I’ll stop your brutal habits for a little time, by imprisoning you for three months, with hard labour’.

With that Cook was led away to start his second term of incarceration that year. I doubt it was to be his last.

In 1872 a Patrick Cook was sentenced to a year in gaol for assaulting three policemen. He was aged 25 and gave his occupation as ‘labourer’ (which probably meant he had no actual trade, ‘labourer’ was a common default ). His criminal record notes two previous convictions: three months in November 1865 and six weeks in September, both at Westminster Police court. He served each sentence in Cold Bath Fields house of correction.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, November 14, 1865]

An unwanted ‘guest’ under a Whitechapel grocer’s bed

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Harris Rosenthorn ran a small grocer’s shop on Plummer’s Row, Whitechapel. For a few days he’d noticed a young immigrant loitering nearby and suspected he was up to no good. Then, on Thursday 2 November 1893 the lad had come into the shop and bought some butter. From his accent Mr Rosenthorn determined that the teenager was probably a Russian Pole, one of many in the East End.

At around 9.30 the grocer went upstairs to the second floor and into one of the bedrooms. The candle lighting the room had just gone out and worried, Rosenthorn lit another. He soon found the strange young man hiding under the bed. The lad crawled out and, before the shopkeeper could stop him, he pushed past and down the stairs.

He ran straight into one of the Rosenthorns’ servants, who, alerted by her master’s cries of alarm, tried to tackle him. She was punched in the chest and pushed to the floor and the man got away.

He didn’t get far however, soon several neighbours were after him and overpowered the burglar a few streets away. As he ran he dropped a chisel he’d been carrying, either to use as a jemmy or a weapon. His captors handed him over to the police and on Friday 3 November he appeared before Mr Dickinson at the Thames Police court.

The young man gave his name as Max Landay. He was just 17 years of age and under the powers bestowed on magistrates by the summary jurisdictions acts of the 1800s the justice decided to deal with him without recourse to a jury trial. Max was sent to prison for six months with hard labour.

[from The Standard, Saturday, November 04, 1893]

The uninvited guest who was under the bed

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We’ve all heard strange noises at night and wondered if an intruder is in the house. Mostly it is the wind, or mice, or our imagination, but, just occasionally, it might actually be a burglar.

One young lady in a City pub near the Mansion House was convinced that there was someone in the room upstairs. She was in the first floor kitchen and was sure that someone (or something) was moving in the floor above so she went to investigate.

She knew no one was supposed to in any of the upstairs guest bedrooms since none had been let so she proceeded with caution. As she entered one room there was nobody there but she heard a  ‘slight rustling’. She said nothing but as she looked down she saw a man’s arm sticking out from under the bed.

The young woman now left the room, locking the door behind her and removing the key, and headed downstairs. Without saying anything to anyone she went out on the street and found a policeman. Having been appraised of the situation the officer took the key and went up to the room.

First the policeman knocked the door and announced himself. The intruder now came out and tried to leave. Finding the door locked he began knocking to be let out. The bobby opened the door and asked him his business. The man – who name was Samuel Sale – claimed that it was all a mistake, that he’d ended up in the room by accident and had got locked in. When he’d heard people in the house he had hidden under the bed for fear of being taken for a thief. He gave the policeman a false address and said he had gone upstairs instead of downstairs after being misdirected by a waiter in the house.

The policeman believed none of this and took him into custody. He was brought before Alderman GIbbs at Mansion House police court on the following day. There the magistrate listened to the prisoner’s version of events (it was all a mistake, he had no intention to intrude let alone steal anything) before asking him why he had given a false address.

‘The officer mistook me’, Sale replied. In other words the policeman had taken the address down incorrectly.

‘Then we are all in a mistake’, the alderman declared.

‘You mistook the bedchamber, the officer mistook another address for your address, and I mistake you for a thief who had an intention to rob this house’.

After the laughter that this caused had subsided he went on:

‘The young lady has acted with a great deal of presence of mind and prudence in completing the business without terrifying her mother, and you shall go to Bridewell for three calendar months with hard labour’.

With that the unfortunate man was led away to start his sentence.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, October 27, 1850]

‘I always do what I say I will do’: the dark murmurings of a troubled mind

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The owner of Deacon’s Coffee House and Tavern on Walbrook in the City was disturbed by the sound of shattering glass. It was nine in the evening and Mr. Howell rushed out into the front room of his establishment to see to his horror that his window was completely destroyed. His clientele were in uproar and outside a small group of onlookers were gathering around a ‘little old woman’.

A policeman had arrived in a hurry and a small boy pointed out the elderly lady as the culprit. The constable arrested her and led her off to the nearest police station to be questioned and charged. She had already admitted throwing a brick through Mr. Howell’s window telling the proprietor:

‘I said I would break your window and I have done it. I always do what I say I will do’.

While in custody the woman, who gave her name as Emily Howard, told the police should would have liked to have smashed ‘every ______ pane of glass in the house’, and would make good on her promise when they released her. The constable later told the Lord Mayor at Mansion House that she was swearing throughout the interview but seemed perfectly sober.

In court the Lord Mayor heard that Emily had previous for criminal damage. The court’s gaoler (a man named Partridge) said he’d known her for 20 years and that she was someone who’d been in and out of gaol for doing similar things in the past. Emily’s only defense was that someone had thrown water over her but no one seemed to believe her.

The Lord Mayor sent her back to prison for two months at hard labour and she was led away ‘uttering threats of vengeance’ against the coffee house owner and the policeman that arrested her. She sounds like someone that needed help, not a month or two picking oakum.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, October 16, 1875]