A foolish young man amongst the ‘roughs’: police and protest in late Victorian London

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This morning my History and Criminology undergraduates sit their exam on my third year module on the Whitechapel murders. The module uses the ‘Jack the Ripper’ case as a prism through which to explore a number of themes in the social and cultural history of late Victorian London. We look at the murders, think about the representations of ‘Jack’, of the mythmaking that surrounds the case, and consider policing, prostitution, poverty and popular culture (among other things). I am considering creating an online version of the module that the public might be able to sign up, so do send me an email if you think this is the sort of thing that might interest you.

One of the events we cover is ‘Bloody Sunday’ in November 1887 when a demonstration in Trafalgar Square was broken up by police and elements of the military on the order of Sir Charles Warren, the chief commissioner of the Metropolitan Police. Many people were injured and two or three killed as the police charged protestors. It was a mixed day for Warren who was castigated in the radical and popular press but praised by establishment organs such as The Times. He’d acted firmly following a debacle in 1886 when demonstrators had run amok in Pall Mall, smashing shops and the smart West End gentleman’s clubs that were situated there.

Demonstrations of all sorts happened in the 1880s: for Irish Home rule, or socialism, against unemployment, or for free trade – all brought hundreds and thousands of people onto the streets. The 1880s was a turbulent decade or poverty and austerity, and hundreds slept rough in the streets, squares and parks of the capital. Police soused the benches in Trafalgar Square to  deter the homeless from using them as beds and local residents demanded action to clear the area of the unwanted ‘residuum’ or ‘dangerous classes’.

There must have been some sort of protest or demonstration in Trafalgar Square close to May Day 1888 because two men appeared at Bow Street Police court on charges connected to disturbances there. First up was Alexander Thompson, a ‘respectably dressed youth’ who was accused by the police of being ‘disorderly’. PC 82A deposed that on Saturday evening (5 May) at about 6 o’clock Thompson was being arrested by two sergeants when a group of ‘roughs’ tried to affect an impromptu rescue.

According to the police witness Thompson was egging them on  by ‘groaning and hooting’ and some stones were thrown at the officers. As the constable tried to hold back the crowd Thompson lashed out at him, striking him on the shoulder. His escape was prevented by another PC who rushed in to help but it was devil of job to get him to the station house. The young man had enough money to be represented by a lawyer, a Mr E Dillon Lewis, who secured bail of £5 for his appearance at a later date.

Next to step into the dock was Walter Powell and he was charged similarly with disorderly behaviour. Powell had been selling ‘a weekly periodical’ in the square. He’d drawn a crowd of ‘roughs’ about him and the policeman who arrested him said that while he couldn’t hear what he was saying it was clear he was addressing them, and possibly exhorting them to some sort of nefarious action. The police sergeant from A Division told Powell to go home and when he refused, or at least did not comply, he took him into custody. He’d been locked up overnight and all day Sunday and for Mr Vaughan, the magistrate presiding, that was punishment enough. He told him he was foolish but let him go with a flea in his ear.

Hopefully today my students will not have been ‘foolish’ and will have prepared themselves for the 90-minute examination I’ve set them. They have to write one essay (from four choices) and analyse  one of two contemporary sources. If they’ve done their revision and paid attention all year I should get some interesting papers to mark. I wish them all the best of luck, but hope they don’t need it.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, May 08, 1888]

If you enjoy this blog series you might be interested in Drew’s jointly authored study of the Whitechapel (or ‘Jack the Ripper’) murders which is published by Amberley Books on 15 June this year. You can find details here:

‘I always tire of a woman in a week’: a charmless husband at Bow Street

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Whilst I live in the capital I work in Northampton and yesterday I had a meeting with some members of local history and community group who wanted to discuss the preservation and dissemination of the history of the Delapré Abbey estate, which sits next to our university campus.

Delapré Abbey (pictured above) has its roots in the medieval period but today there stands a beautifully restored English country house in acres of grounds, all open at times to the public. In the late 1800s it was the seat of the Bouveries, a prominent Northamptonshire family who acquired it in 1756. It stayed in the family until just after the Second World War when Northamptonshire Corporation bought it.

We had an interesting chat about the estate and its history and the problems of capturing and conserving information about the past before in disappears under the diggers and concrete mixers of modern day developers. Hopefully we’ll find ways for local historians and staff and students at my university to work together on this in the near future.

Given that I knew almost nothing about the Bouveries of Delapré it was something of a surprise to randomly alight on a court report from Bow Street in late April 1888 where a junior member of the family was mentioned. Mrs Blanche Minnie Bouverie appeared with her solicitor, a Mr Churchley, at Bow Street Police court to request a summons against her husband for desertion.

Blanche was the third wife of Francis Kenelm Bouverie, who had recently been the subject of a fraud case heard at the Old Bailey. The young Bouverie had already been married three times despite only being 26 years of age and was considered something of a rogue.

He’d been divorced twice for adultery Mr Churchley told the magistrate (Mr Bridge) and Blanche had tried to divorce him herself, again for adultery but had not yet succeeded. In the 1800s the laws on divorce were weighted in favour of the man: a wife had to prove two things against her partner, while he had only to prove one. Mrs Bouverie had alleged adultery and cruelty  but had not proved the latter charge.

She was only 20 years old and they had been married for just a year when Francis left her. She said he started beating her after just a week. Bouverie had apparently told her that it would be better if she left him then and returned to her mother as ‘he always tired of a woman in a week’.

Mr Bridge granted the summons against Francis but queried why, given his reputation, Blanche had entertained the idea of marrying him in the first place. No answer was forthcoming but sadly we often believe that we can change those we fall in love with or believe it won’t happen to us. The young self-styled heir to the Delapré estates was ‘living in great style’ in London the court was told, and one imagines that he played the eligible bachelor card to the full. Hopefully this exposure of his character in the press served to warn other women against falling for his ‘charms’.

[from The Standard, Monday, April 30, 1888]

If you enjoy this blog series you might be interested in Drew’s jointly authored study of the Whitechapel (or ‘Jack the Ripper’) murders which is published by Amberley Books on 15 June this year. You can find details here

Procrastination, distraction and unexpected discoveries: the Coppetts Wood murder of 1882 (part one)

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There are moments in historical research when you discover something that distracts you from your core purpose and sends you in a different direction. One of the most famous examples of this (in academic history terms anyway) was Vic Gatrell’s Hanging Tree which examines in detail the history of public execution in England in the period 1770 to 1868. Gatrell wasn’t intending on writing a history of hanging, instead he made ‘a chance discovery’ whilst ‘working on something quite different’.

This led him to start browsing through a set of judges’ reports in the National Archives at Kew and he came across the story of the rape of Elizabeth Cureton and the petitions for mercy made on behalf of the man found guilty of assaulting her. The Hanging Tree is one of the seminal works in the history of crime and the idea that it was the product of a momentary desire to of break the ‘tedium’ of archival research (something I’m sure very many historians can empathise with) is enlightening.

I am (slowly) finishing a book on eighteenth-century homicides. It is a project which started life about 9 or 10 years ago when I began researching a murder in Northamptonshire. It had odd elements to it, but mostly it was interesting because it seemed to offer an opportunity to explore the system by which convicted criminals might avoid the death penalty, even for a crime as heinous as murder. Working with my PhD supervisor, a very eminent historian of crime, we published an article on the case in a historical journal. I then went on and started work on other articles and books.

There was something about that case that always niggled with me and made me want to see if other examples could be found where convicted murderers had tried to avoid the noose in the 1700s. Cutting a long story short I found four cases (including the Northamptonshire one) that seemed worth exploring. One involved two brothers murdering a watchman, the next concerned the public stoning to death of an informer in Spitalfields, and the last was a prostitute who was accused of killing a minor celebrity musician. I pitched the project to a publisher and they were kind enough to give me a contract.

In the meantime one of my former undergraduates approached me and told me he had ‘solved’ the Ripper murders. He believed he had uncovered the identity of the Whitechapel murderer of 1888 and had linked him to a second series of contemporary murders. I was skeptical, but intrigued. Over the course of the next few years I worked with Andy on this project alongside my other one until, in the summer of last year, we had the bulk of a manuscript to pitch to publishers. It wasn’t easy to sell because the market for Ripper books is pretty well saturated, but in the end we found a home for it with Amberley. A note here: if you are an author who wants to get something published, keep trying – if it’s good enough someone will take a chance on it, eventually.

While all this was going on I decided to start this blog. Daily writings on the police courts of the Victorian metropolis, a way of keeping me focused on writing and research every day. It was also born of my desire to return to a study of the magistracy, the subject of my original PhD research back in the early 2000s. My intention (after the homicide and Ripper books) was and is to write academic and more popular histories of the magistracy in England.

So, where is this rambling blog going right now? Well, this morning I’ve found a report of a 24-year-old man named Frederick Cheekly who was set in the dock at Southwark Police court in late April 1884 charged with stealing a watch. Cheekly lived at 113 the Borough in south London with his common-law partner Maud Norton. She was older, 29 years of age, and appeared in the dock with him as an accessory to the theft. A second charge was preferred against the pair, also for stealing, and this time a third person – Minnie Lewis – was also charged. The solicitor for the Treasury brought the charges and the trio were committed for trial.

What happened to them after that is unclear but I doubt it would necessarily have resulted in convictions. I suspect the house in Borough was a brothel and the two women acted as prostitutes and/or madams. The men robbed were risking their property simply by entering a house of ill repute and I doubt the Surrey jurors would have had much sympathy for them.

But what struck me was a comment made by the Police News’ reporter who stated that Checkley was ‘said to be a companion of the Finchley-wood murderer’. Given that I grew up in Finchley and I hadn’t heard of this case I thought I’d do some quick digging this morning.   I soon found a report form March 1882 which describes the discovery a the body ‘of a young man’ in woods near Finchley. A little bit more research established that these were Coppetts Wood, near Colney Hatch. At first the police thought they’d found the body a dead gispy since the woods were a popular transit point for travelling people. But the hair on the corpse was fair, not dark like most gipsies. The papers now speculated that the victim might have been part of a criminal gang operating in the area, committing burglaries and street robberies.

Suffice to say, for now at least, that I think I have worked out what happened and how this case unfolds but it is going to take me some time to unpack it all. So, if you would like to know what happens in the Finchley Wood murder mystery stayed ‘tuned’ for further articles over the week as I get to the bottom of who was left buried in Coppetts Wood and who put him there.

In between, that is, finishing off the book I’m supposed to be writing!

[The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, April 26, 1884; Daily News , Tuesday, March 7, 1882]

A welcome new insight into the lives of the ‘Ripper’s victims

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Book Review, The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper, Hallie Rubenhold (London, Doubleday, 2019) 416pp; £16.99

This may not be the first study to look at the lives of the five canonical victims of ‘Jack the Ripper’ but it is certainly the first published by such a prestigious printing house as Penguin/Doubleday. Hallie Rubenhold has written about prostitution previously and is also a novelist and she brings both of these skills to bear in this excellent popular history. Rubenhold takes the lives (not the deaths) of the ‘five’ murdered women – Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly – as her subject and traces them from birth, detailing their highs and lows.

She uses a range of archival material, augmented by a strong selection of secondary reading, to map out the lives of these working-class women as they grew up, went into work, married and had children, before – in all cases it seems – beginning the descent into poverty, alcoholism and homelessness that led them to Whitechapel (and their deaths) in 1888.

However, Rubenhold does not describe their murders or give any space to their killer: ‘Jack the Ripper’ is entirely absent from the book, except for a discussion of the mythology and industry that has grown up around him since the murders.  This is deliberate and fitting in the context of the book. While in recent years studies have been at pains to provide context on the ‘Ripper’ case a great many of the books that have received media attention have been those which focus on naming a suspect, and most of these do so with very little attention to the victims.

This is a book with a clear central message, namely that the five ‘canonical’ victims of the unknown murderer known to history as ‘Jack the Ripper’ were real people, with real lives, and that they deserve better than to be dismissed as ‘just prostitutes’.  Rubenhold writes that ‘in the absence of any evidence that Polly [Nichols], Annie [Chapman] and Kate [Eddowes] ever engaged in common prostitution, many have taken to claiming that these women participated in “casual prostitution”: a blanket term cast over the ambiguities of the women’s lives that is steeped in moral judgment’ (p.343).

It is fair to say that it is this assertion, namely the lack of ‘any evidence’ that three of the five were prostitutes (however we define that term for the 1880s) that has caused most dissent amongst the Ripperology community (another term that can be broadly defined). I am not a Ripperologist but I have researched the case and its contexts, have written and lectured on the subject, and often discuss aspects of the murders and the existing archival evidence with researchers that would classify themselves within that group. I am also a trained historian, like Rubenhold, with an interest in the social history of London in the nineteenth century.

I would say that plenty of evidence exists to suggest (if not prove conclusively) that all of the five canonical victims* in the Whitechapel murder series were, at one time or another, engaged in prostitution. This evidence has been presented by a number of researchers over very many years and while we might reasonably ask questions about police and public attitudes at the time (a point Rubenhold raises), we can’t simply ignore sources that don’t fit our particular view of the past. This book is notable both for the new information it highlights about the lives of the women murdered in 1888 and by the information (mostly about their deaths) that it omits.

Researchers like Paul Begg and very many others have been questioning our accepted narrative of the case for over 20 years and so it is wrong to suggest that it has always been assumed that all of the victims were sex workers. Moreover even a casual engagement with the information that is in the public domain (at the National Archives for example) would us cause to question whether Rubenhold’s assertions are entirely accurate.

I might ask why it matters whether the women were, or were not prostitutes? They were still human beings and innocent victims of a brutal, misogynist killer. As Judith Walkowitz’s work on prostitution in the nineteenth century has shown communities like that in Spitalfields and Whitechapel did not themselves denigrate those poor women who, at times of desperate need, were forced to sell themselves for the price of a bed, a meal, or a drink. The sneering tone of The Times certainly condemned those ‘unfortunates’ for bringing such horror on their own heads but then it was equally scathing about most of those living in the Whitechapel slum.

Rubenhold certainly makes an interesting suggestion when she argues that the victims were killed while they were sleeping rough on the streets. In my conversation with her in the summer it was this new interpretation of ‘street walking’ (from the comments made by Kate Eddowes’ partner John Kelly) that gave me cause to consider how this might affect our understanding of the case. I had previously thought of ‘street walking’ as a euphemism for prostitution but what if it simply it was sometimes meant literally: walking the streets because they had nowhere to sleep indoors?

It is an interesting angle on the killings and certainly one I was looking forward to seeing developed in the book. Once again though, I’m bound to say that I wasn’t presented with any real evidence that these women were killed whilst sleeping rough, let alone evidence that effectively challenges the considerable existing evidence that suggests otherwise. This partly because of her understandable decision not to detail the circumstances surrounding their murders. But it is within the information – such as exists – about the killings that evidence arises that might challenge this second assertion.

So in terms of the two key discoveries in her research I am unconvinced on the basis of the evidence she presents. This leaves her open to criticism by those researchers who know a great deal more about the case than I do, and that is a shame because she has made a significant contribution to the study of the murders in highlighting the lives of five of the victims. While we have had studies of the murdered women before we have never had such a high profile and well written study before.

As a result of Rubenhold’s book very many more people will know about the lives of poor working-class women (and men) in late Victorian London. Bringing these stories to a much wider audience is important, especially in highlighting that the problems of homelessness, poverty, substance abuse, and domestic violence (all current issues) have a long history.

This is a book that will get a large and a different readership to those that have knowledge of the ‘Ripper’ case before. The sympathy with which Rubenhold writes about the ‘Five’ is evident and her ability as a writer to bring these lives to life, to paint a picture of their struggles in the society in which they lived, is great popular history. She has a novelistic style which fills in the gaps left by the paucity of source material there is for almost any working-class life in Victorian Britain. I’m not surprised this has been selected for a television drama, it reads like a screenplay in places.

This sort of book engages new audiences with history and that has to be a good thing. Will anyone with a strong working knowledge of the Whitechapel case learn much from it? Maybe not, but if it asks them to question the way they approach the case then that too can only be a positive.

Finally, the book has made waves. Partly, of course because of Rubenhold’s bold assertions. But also because of the way that she and some elements of the Ripperology community have clashed both before and after the publication of The Five. Some of the social media exchanges have been unpleasant (to say the least) and seems to be dividing into two camps – those that support her and those that attack her ideas. I find this quite depressing and indicative of our modern society where the quality of intellectual debate is at the lowest I can remember it and where even complex questions are reduced to binary ones. So a lot of mud has been slung about and one comments on the book with caution, for fear of being dubbed a ‘heretic’ by either side.

I enjoyed reading The Five and would recommend that anyone with an interest in well-written popular history would enjoy it also. It is not fair to judge it as an academic study because that it not what it is, whether it is a ‘Ripper’ book is also open to question. It is however a very readable and engaging book about working–class women’s lives, and there are too few of them about so Rubenhold deserves a lot of credit for what she has produced here, I’d like to see more.

*And other women listed  in the Police File (held at the NA).

NB in June 2019 my own joint authored book on the Whitechapel murders will be published by Amberley. In it we argue that the killer known as ‘Jack the Ripper’ murdered 13 women and attempted the lives of at least 3 more. 

‘An habitual offender who accepts imprisonment as an occupational hazard’: the sadly typical story of Lydia Lloyd

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There are those moments in research when your own work links with that of others working in a similar area. Because I know several of the wonderful people behind the Digital Panopticon website and database and was present when they launched in 2016 I remember the exhibition that accompanied it. The site allows you to trace individuals caught up in the English criminal justice system from the later 1780s to the beginning of the twentieth century through their prison and transportation records. Within the site the team have managed to create ‘life archives’ of a number of criminals which reveal the mishaps and opportunities that led them to feature in a number of institutional records.

One of these was Lydia Lloyd who first appears in the DP in 1865. Her life story reveals a woman who first got in trouble in her teens and went to on prostitution and a number of encounters with the summary courts before, in 1870, she was sent to prison for eighteen months for theft. As Dr Lucy Williams notes, Lydia was one of ‘many women living on the margins of society, trapped in prison’s ‘revolving door’.

Whilst in prison she continued to break the rules, and the system was hard on those that it didn’t break quickly. Lydia (pictured in 1879 below) was punished for laughing in chapel, and for striking another inmate with her tin mug. Both infringements resulted in her being denied daily exercise for three days.  She didn’t learn from this and continued to offend inside, and then again once she’d been released.

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Lydia turns up in my daily search of the Police court, in February 1879. She appeared at the Hampstead Police court, described as a laundress, accused of burglary and the theft of a shawl. The alleged victim was Charles Augustus Mackness, the landlord of the Railway Inn, Church End, Finchley in north London.

Mr Mackness told the magistrate (Mr Marshall) that between half past five and six that morning he’d been awakened by a ring on his doorbell. A policeman was at the door and explained that he’d been alerted to a light passing several windows and thought he might have an intruder. Mackness searched and found Lydia under the bed in the tavern’s ‘best bed-room, which they kept for visitors’. Lydia was arrested.

Looking around the room it was evident that she’d been through several drawers and the wardrobe and had stolen a shawl and possibly, a blanket that had been on the bed. I wonder if the latter was just to keep her warm as I doubt the room was heated and it was February.

Lydia denied taking the shawl but she could hardly explain why she was in the landlord’s rooms. Moreover her ticket of leave, which she carried with her, was produced in court showing she had been given seven years imprisonment in 1873, with a further five years’ of police supervision. That was six year’s earlier and Lydia had failed to comply with the terms of her parole. Not that it was easy for a former offender to ‘go straight’ even if she’d wanted to. For Lydia there was only going to be one outcome here: the magistrate remanded her and she was later formally indicted to appear at the Old Bailey for breaking in to Mr Mackness’ house.

The jury convicted her in early March and the judge handed down another custodial sentence, this time ten years’ penal servitude. Once inside Lydia again continued with her disruptive behaviour, fighting, talking in chapel, arguing with other inmates, and damaging prison property. None of this would have helped her, fighting the system was pointless, as the prison diarist Austin Bidwell recognized:

‘An English prison is a vast machine’, he wrote. ‘Move with it and all is well. Resist, and you will be crushed as inevitably as the man who plants himself on the railroad track when the express is coming’.

(From P. Priestley, Victorian Prison Lives, (London, 1985. p.229)

Lydia came out of gaol in September 1884 when she was 43 years of age, again released on license. The Panopticon believes she died just seven years later at the age of 50, she’d spent much of the past 28 years inside. At some point she managed to have three children but her brushes with the law, and a lifetime addicted to alcohol, meant she must hardly have known them.

This sort of construction of a ‘criminal life’ is invaluable in demonstrating the affect that the criminal justice system had on the lives of ordinary working-class men and women who while far from perfect individuals, never really did much more than break the laws surrounding petty theft. Today our prisons are full of very similar neglected and damaged people, who have ‘failed at life’ and/or been let down by society.

As a footnote, I grew up in Church End, Finchley. The Railway Tavern was demolished in 1962, the year before I was born. The Minstrel pub was built on that site and my friends and I used to drink in there in the early 1980s. It too has gone now, and another bar has taken its place. Dr Williams studied for her first degree in History at Northampton, where I taught her.

It is a very small world.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday 25 February, 1879]

A lazy policeman, ‘regaling himself with coffee and cold meat,’ reveals early resistance to the New Police

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It is easy to think that the police have always been with us, so much a part of society have they become. Although we may not see them as often on our streets as our parents and grandparents did, a police presence of sorts is everywhere if only at the end of a surveillance camera. Moreover we accept this and (for the most part) value the police and the work they do to keep us safe from criminals, terrorists and others that would do us harm.

However, as I have been outlining to my second year History and Criminology undergraduates at Northampton, it took some time for the police to establish this place in our hearts. Very many people, including those in the upper echelons of society, resisted the creation of a professional Police force in the early years of the nineteenth century.

For much of the previous century the idea of a uniformed police was anathema to an English people schooled in ‘liberty’ and opposed to continental (French) forms of state run policing.  “I had rather half a dozen people’s throats should be cut in Ratcliffe Highway every three or four years than be subject to domiciliary visits, spies, and all of the rest of Fouché’s connivances’, commented one skeptic at the time.

Even after Robert Peel successfully (and quietly) steered his Metropolitan Police Bill through Parliament the New Police (as they were dubbed) struggled to gain acceptance. The working classes resented their interference in their street activities (like gambling or trading from stalls), the middle classes disliked the burden they placed on their pockets and the upper class feared the loss of localised control over law and order as these ‘bobbies’ answered directly to the Home Secretary, not the magistracy.

Some of these tensions can be seen in the early reports police actions that resulted in cases heard before the capital’s Police courts. In February 1830 for example, the magistrates at Bow Street sided with a parish constable (the ‘old police’) against two officers from the New Police in a dispute over a fire at the Covent Garden opera house.

Following this brief case was a longer one, also at Bow Street where a ‘wretched-looking young woman’ was accused of being ‘riotous and disorderly’ by PC 104. The officer appeared to give evidence stating that between 2 and 3 o’clock in the morning the girl had been in a coffee shop in Phoenix Alley and had refused to pay for her drinks. He’d been called to ‘turn her out’ and, since he was adamant that she was going nowhere, he arrested her.

Mr Halls, the sitting justice, turned on the officer and upbraided him for arresting the woman when he should have been more concerned that a coffee house was still open after hours.  What hadn’t he applied for a summons against the coffee house owner, he asked?

Here the young woman leaped in, the reason ‘was obvious’ she said. The constable hadn’t been ‘called in as he had stated, but was at the time seated in one of the boxes, regaling himself with coffee and cold meat’.

While the policeman denied this Mr Halls seems to have believed the woman because he discharged her and demanded that the police inspector, who had attended court to hear the case, immediately applied for ‘an information […] against the keeper of the coffee-house’. He added that the girl might prove a useful witness.

In the first year of the New Police accusations of corruption and collusion (with coffee house and beer shop owners, petty crooks, and prostitutes), as well as laziness and drunkenness, were commonly thrown at the new force. Some of this criticism was valid, some malicious, and there was a large turnover of men between 1829 and the early years of the 1830s. It probably took the police until the 1860s to be accepted, albeit grudgingly, by the public, and to the 1950s to be ‘loved’.

A Policeman’s lot, as the song goes, is not a happy a one.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, February 18, 1830]

The police magistrate as a teaching tool

Today was the first time that I’ve used this blog in my own teaching. I’ve discussed it at conferences and with colleagues but thus far I hadn’t exposed undergraduates to it.

I am coming to the end of a 10 week module for third year undergraduates at Northampton University which explores the social and cultural history of late Victorian London. It takes the 1888 Jack the Ripper murders as it focal point and verse off to look at a variety of interconnecting themes.

So we start with London in the late nineteenth century (the ‘infernal wen’) as the capital of Empire and the expanding metropolis that seemed to many contemporaries to represent everything they feared about society in the later 1800s. Here was a huge urban area, densely packed with hundreds of thousands of people, many drawn from outside of London, living cheek by jowl, and struggling for air beneath the coal smog.

Here were colourful migrants and visitors from every corner of the Empire and the globe, bringing the riches of other lands along with their culture, language and radical politics. Tensions rose with unemployment – a new word in the 1880s – and competition for space. So we explore the themes of immigration and anti-alienism as well as poverty, charity, and housing reform.

We look at the Ripper murders and the impact they had; at the way the press manipulated the story and how this fitted with other contemporary concerns about violence, prostitution, immorality and the plight of the poor. Hopefully the module challenges some preconceptions about the Victorian age (and about who might have been the ‘Ripper’) and next week we are tackling the mythology associated with the case and its impact on history and Ripperology, head on.

This week I chose to concentrate on the notion that a criminal ‘class’ existed in the Victorian period. This is how contemporaries like Henry Mayhew and James Greenwood described the ‘underclass’ (the residuum); a class below the ‘respectable’ and ‘honest’ working class who were eulogised in Ford Maddox Brown’s painting ‘Work’. These were the Londoners who ‘will not work’ and earned their living instead by thievery and deception.

We discussed how this view was created by writers like Mayhew and Greenwood (and others0 and perpetuated by a media driven by a  mix of sensationalism and early investigative journalism. I asked them to search through this blog to see the ways in which I’d interpreted the newspapers that contributed to the rhetoric of criminality and got some others to mine the database of nineteenth-century newspapers to discover the reportage of the police courts for themselves.

It was interesting to see my own research reflected back at me, (and to have my typos pointed out!) and to hear their own interpretations of what they read and found. I’m trying to use more digital resources in teaching as I recognise that this is how this generation access historical material. Where I once spent hours, days and weeks hunched over dusty volumes in a archive, the next cohort of historians are turning to the computer screen to make their own discoveries.

There’s a instant quality to this method of data searching but it all still requires context: some of the things they found didn’t make sense to them – in places I was able to draw on what is now over three years of looking at the London Police courts to help them make sense of it. In the end I thought it was a useful expertise which I will repeat next year, and perhaps in the spring with my second years (who study a longer broader period of crime history).