A Victorian tale to bring a gleam to Mr Duncan Smith’s eyes

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The Victorians – and especially those who signed up to the Mendicity Society – had a real hatred of imposture when it came to poverty. The society was determined to root out and expose (and thence to punish) anyone who pretended to be in need of poor relief or charity when they were fit and able to work. We seem to have inherited this distrust of the poor and now frame those we would like to see exposed as ‘benefit scroungers’.

It is fairly common for highly paid, privately educated, and well-connected, privileged members of Parliament to condemn those that claim they cant survive on the little the state provides.  In these hard times there has also been a focus on denying benefits to the disabled, by reinterpreting what it means to be ‘unfit to work’. Withholding benefits or making the hoops that the impoverished need to jump through to get them more complicated or time consuming is another, well practiced, tactic of modern ‘caring’, Conservative Britain.

I think Mrs May, Jeremy Hunt, Amber Rudd, Ester McVey and (especially) Iain Duncan Smith would have relished living the 1800s. Workhouses, ‘less eligibility’ and mendicity officers would have been right up their street (although they may have struggled with this county’s open doors policy on immigration – at least until the end of the century that is).

They would have liked Mr Turner, who gave evidence at Clerkenwell Police court in March 1866. He was there to investigate Johanna (or Ellen) Shields who had been brought up by the curate of St George’s, Queen Square, for begging at his door. The curate (presumably a  ‘good Christian’) had found Johanna knocking on his door asking for money as her husband was sick and out of work and she had six children to feed.

He asked her name and where she lived. Johanna gave a false name (Ellen Thomas) and an address in Little Ormond Yard, in Bloomsbury. He didn’t believe her and to confirm his suspicions he donned his hat and said he’d accompany her home to see for himself. This unnerved Johanna who tried to put him off, saying she would go and get her certificate to prove she was registered in the parish (and so entitled to relief). Instead the curate summoned a constable and had her arrested.

In court at Clerkenwell Mr Barker (the magistrate) was told (by the curate, whose name is never revealed) that Johanna had changed her story when he’d said he’d go with her, which led him to involving the police. The woman now said she lived in Church Street, St Giles, had six children (one of whom was blind) and a sick husband. When he subsequently visited her address he found her husband, and three children, none of whom was blind. He also testified that she had asked his fellow rector at St George’s for help and he’d refused also. He said he was ‘determined to give all imposters into the custody of the police’.

So what was Mr Barker to do with Johanna? She denied the charge but the evidence against came from a respectable source. Moreover the justice expected she’d done it before, and so had ‘form’. She was being treated as if she was a criminal when her only ‘crime’ was being poor and asking for help.

This is where Mr Turner from the Mendicity Society came in. He was tasked with discovering whether she had a history of ‘shamming’ so the bench could decide what punishment (if any) to hand down. This would take a week and Mr Barker decided that regardless of the outcome Johanna would spend the next seven days locked up on remand. The gaoler escorted her back to the cells to be transferred to the Clerkenwell house of detention where she would subsist on bread and water and pick oakum with all the other ‘offenders’.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, March 06, 1866]

The peril of children running errands on London’s streets

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I recall being dispatched to buy cigarettes for my father on several occasions in my youth, or to return ‘pop’ bottles for the deposit. Both involved a long walk (or run) down (and then back up) the hill where we lived. Running ‘errands’ like this was a common enough thing in the past but I suspect it is one of those things that no longer happens, especially with small children, given the perceived perils of modern society.

In the nineteenth century sending a child (even one as young as 7) out to fetch food or drink, or to deliver a message, was very normal. After all children worked at a much younger age and until mid century school was really only for the sons and daughters of the better off.

But the streets could be just as dangerous a place for children in the 1800s as they are today. Carts and coaches rumbled along the cobbled thoroughfares at great speed and could rarely stop in time to avoid a running child if they stepped into its path; thieves and villains lurked around every corner, and child prostitution rackets operated in the capital.

Sometimes the threat came from young people not much older than themselves, as in this case from 1855. In early March Ann Jane Hatley had been sent out with sixpence to buy some butter. She was 7 years of age and lived with her parents in Exeter Street, Chelsea. As she walked along a small boy, about 12 or 13 came up to her and asked where she was going. When she explained he said she needed to be careful of lest she drop the 6in the mud of the street.

The lad, whose name was William Smith, produced a piece of paper and said the best thing was for her to wrap her coin in it to protect it. When Ann handed over the money for him to do so he promptly ran off with it. Fortunately, a passer-by had seen what happened and set off in pursuit. William was captured and brought before the magistrate at Westminster.

In court several other children were produced who reported similar robberies on them whilst out running errands. Susannah Welsh (who was 9 or 10) had been sent to buy flour. William had followed her for ‘some distance’ before he suddenly pounced and wrestled the money she was carrying (2s) from her grasp.

Thomas Mursell (just 8) had been entrusted with 9to pay a baker’s bill when Smith approached him and asked what he was doing. When he discovered the boy had money Smith contrived to knock it out of his hand, as ‘if by accident’, and then offered him some paper to wrap it in as they pair collected it from the street. It was only when Thomas got to the baker’s shop that he realized that William had managed to steal over half of it.

There were a string of other small boys and girls with similar tales to tell but the magistrate (Mr Arnold) had heard enough. He duly committed the ‘expert juvenile highwayman’ (as Reynold’s Newspaper dubbed him) for trial before a jury.

William went for trial at the Westminster Quarter Sessions where he was convicted of two thefts (from Ann and Susannah) and sentenced to a spell in the house of detention.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, March 4, 1855]

The magistrate tells a mentally ill mother to ‘remember to the end of her life what disgrace and danger she brought upon herself’.

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Today the British government has decided to mark World Mental Health Day by appointing a government minister to prevent suicide. The Health Secretary has admitted that under successive governments there has been too little focus of resources on tackling the problems of mental illness but, speaking on BBC Radio’s Today programme he stopped shorted of promising more money or specifying exactly how he intended to address the issue of mental health in the coming months and years.

The PM said this: ‘We can end the stigma that has forced too many to suffer in silence and prevent the tragedy of suicide taking too many lives’. They have pledged £1.8 to the Samaritans to help them run their free helpline. That is certainly something of course, but then we spend £38 billion on defence and about £45m on the Queen. The costs of mental health care do come out of the NHS budget of course and that budget is £124.7 billion and about 10% of that goes towards treating mental illness.

What all of these figures show is that mental illness is a massive problem in modern society and helps explain why upwards of 4,500 people take their own lives every year. Anyone visiting this blog over the last couple of years will probably have come across one or more story of attempted suicide prosecuted at the Metropolitan Police courts.  London was just as unforgiving and uncaring in the 1800s as it has proved to be in the 1900s and early 2000s. Policemen frequently prevented suicides simply by being on the streets (and bridges) at the right times.

Beat bobbies rescued men and women from the river, pulled them from canals, and cut them down from railings where they found them hanging. On more than one occasion a quick thinking guard or passenger saved a life on the overground or underground railways. Unlike today few of those attempting to end their lives received any help afterwards and all of them ended up facing prosecution for their ‘crime’.

Take the example of Maria Ford, a 28 year old married woman from Henry Street in Marylebone. She was charged before Mr Mansfield with attempting to murder her baby boy and then take her own life with poison. The magistrate was told that Maria was a drunkard with a history of being found incapable in the streets. After numerous appearances before  the courts she had recently promised to refrain from alcohol and had ‘signed the pledge’.

As a convert to the Temperance movement Mr Mansfield was prepared to give her the benefit of the doubt. The chaplain of the house of detention had written to him to attest to Maria’s attempt at reformation and he was keen to encourage her. He decided to treat the attempt on her son’s life as an accident occasioned by her being drunk but warned her against slipping ‘off the wagon’ in future:

‘He did not think she intended to injure her child’ he said, ‘but in her drunken madness she might have killed both the child and herself’.

He would therefore discharge her but now she had signed the pledge she had best keep it and ‘remember to the end of her life what disgrace and danger she brought upon herself by her drunken habits’.

I’m not sure anyone asked her why she drank or why there was no husband in court to support her. At least in that respects our society has made some significant strides forward even if, as Matt Hancock admits, there is still plenty of distance to travel.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, October 10, 1883]

for other cases that touch on attempted suicide see:

A man is driven to attempt suicide because of his ‘reduced circumstances’

‘She has been very low spirited lately’: The early casebook of the ‘Ripper’ surgeon reveals the extent of mental illness in London

A bad week in London, full of personal tragedy

‘A very noble and intelligent dog’ saves a life the ‘owner’ had given up on

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In late March 1883 Thomas Lyford was walking his dog along the Victoria Embankment when the animal suddenly headed off towards Cleopatra’s Needle. It raced down the steps to the water, turned, ran up, ‘barked twice and ran back’. Lyford followed quickly afterwards instantly realising that something was wrong.

The dog was a retriever/Newfoundland cross, and the latter were bred for rescuing people from the water. The dog had seen a woman in the Thames and swam out towards her. When the animal reached her it used its large jaws to pull her back towards the river side a where Lyford was able to grab her by her dress and haul her onto the steps at the foot of the Egyptian monument.

The police and a surgeon arrived soon afterwards. They had been alerted earlier when a patrolling constable (PC 281) had noticed the woman acting strangely near the Needle. To his horror he’d seen her launch herself into the Thames in what appeared to be an act of self-destruction. The constable ran as fast has he could towards the Thames Police Office (which was at the foot of Waterloo Bridge on the north side of the river) to raise the alarm and have a boat launched to save her.

It was half past eight at night when the policeman had seen the woman jump so without the quick reactions of  Lyford and his dog she may well have drowned. Instead the woman was taken to the workhouse infirmary where, after some time, she made a full recovery.

As regular readers will know this was not the end of the story because very many people chose to attempt suicide in the 1800s and since it was against the law those that failed in their efforts were brought before the metropolitan Police Courts to answer for it. This woman’s name was Amelia Crickland and she was placed in the dock at Bow Street before Mr Vaughan while the case against her was heard.

We get no real sense of why she threw herself into the river but this is probably because the court reporter was more interested in the canine rescue story, which was described in detail. Thomas Lyford stood in the witness box with his dog. The animal ‘placed its fore paws on the ledge of the box, looking round the court in a most intelligent manner’.

‘It is a very noble and intelligent dog’ Mr Vaughan commented.

‘Yes, he came and told me that something was wrong as plainly as any Christian could,’ the proud dog owner replied.

The unnamed dog was the hero of the hour, poor Amelia (who could only put her decision to drown herself down to ‘some trouble she had’) was sent to the house of detention to wait final judgement on her punishment. ‘Some trouble’ may have meant she was pregnant, or had lost her employment, or some other disgrace she found too awful to bear. Sadly society wasn’t that interested in what had driven her to despair and the reality was likely to be that when she got the chance again she’d make sure there were no eagle-eyed policemen or rescue dogs nearby.

[from The Standard, Friday, March 30, 1883]

Cleopatra’s Needle (which had little or nothing to do with the Egyptian queen) had arrived in the capital in 1878 and so was still a fairly new attraction on the Embankment. It was paid for by public subscription to commemorate victory over Napoleon in Egypt and it had survived a tempestuous journey to reach London. I wonder how many visitors to London stop think of the number of people that ended (or attempted to end) their lives in the water that lay just beyond this symbol of British military power? 

Midsummer ‘madness’ at Marlborough Street

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There was much less understanding of mental health in the Victorian period than there is today. Public asylums were largely used as dustbins for the unwanted mentally ill poor, while private ones attempted to treat the ‘mad’ relatives of the better off. Some families simply locked their disturbed relatives away in the attic, too embarrassed to be seen to have insanity ‘in the family’.

But of course there was probably just as much mental illness in the 1800s as there is today, but while modern society has slowly become more accepting of it our ancestors saw sufferers as objects of pity, danger or ridicule. Just as casual racism is evident in reading the Victorian press, so are jokes at the expense of the mentally ill.

Jane Roderick (also known as Jane Waddy) was brought up before the Marlborough Street police magistrate charged with being drunk and disorderly. She had been arrested in Leicester Square a few nights before, proclaiming the health of the Queen and Royal family loudly to anyone in the vicinity.

She was still quite loud when she stood in the dock as she explained her behaviour to him. Jane told the justice that the reason she had undertaken her own public celebration was because she had heard the good news that the sons of Her Majesty ‘had been admitted into the House of Parliament to assume their rights as the Royal family without the consent of Parliament’, which she deemed a good thing.

It was such a good thing, she continued, that she felt duty bound to drink a toast (or two) in port wine.

She then entered into an elaborate story: she was, she said, born in Kent and was a ‘woman of Kent’. Her uncle worked in the Queen’s gardens, she claimed, and so she had brought a rose for him to plant for the Queen. Her father had made a communion table at Chislehurst, and now she heard the Queen was ‘ready to support her sons’. Finally she added that she was widowed and one of her sons lived in a vicarage at Greenwich under the Queen’s care.

It was probably a mix of fact and fantasy, but it was delivered in a chaotic manner that suggested that the poor woman was not in full control of herself. That is certainly how the press depicted her.

Mr Vine, the court’s gaoler, now appeared to give evidence to the fact that the same woman had been up in court on the same charge four months earlier, and had given exactly the same story in her defence.

At this Jane either affected deafness or really was unable to hear what the man said. On it being repeated to her she admitted to having been drinking: ‘I had a “little drop” then, of course, and unfortunately I have been given to it since my husband’s death’.

Mr Cooke, the magistrate, turned to her and asked her if she had any friends locally. She had claimed to have been born in Poland Street (which prompted titters of laughter in court, but why is not clear). In the 1880s it was quite a respectable place in Soho with a number of artisans and tradesmen living there. Jane replied that her sister-in-law lived nearby, and then told him (somewhat randomly) that she was the daughter of a carpenter, and that one of the guardians of the poor in Lambeth had a mortgage on her fathers house.

Again, this may well all have been true but it didn’t really answer the magistrate’s questions.

He declared: ‘I think you are not right in your mind. You will be sent down to..’

‘Sent down! Where?’ interrupted Jane.

‘To the House of Detention for a week; but they will not put you in the cell’.

She thanked him and added, ‘I shall charge you 13s for this; and if you have not money to pay, why, spout your ticker!’

This last remark brought the house down in laughter, clearly amusing the court reporter who added that she then left ‘with a  jaunty air’, calling the gaoler to ‘order her brougham [her carriage] to drive her to Hanwell’.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, June 21, 1885]

Happy solstice everyone!

An American Private I at Bow Street, on the trail of silk smugglers

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In the mid 1870s America was still recovering from the horrors of its civil war. Its president was the victorious Union general, Ulyssess S. Grant, serving his second term after an election which the Democrats did not field their own candidate. It was less than century, of course, from the War of Independence but America now enjoyed fairly good relations with its former colonial master, Great Britain. The two countries even had an extradition agreement after 1870, which allowed the USA to request the return of suspected offenders against US law so long as it could provide prima facie evidence of the person’s alleged guilt.

Which is why, in April 1875, the Bow Street Police Court was visited by a celebrated New York private detective, James Mooney, who was on the trail of a gang involved in smuggling contraband goods through US customs.

In 1872 Mooney and sheriff John Boland had set up a detective agency at 176 Broadway, New York, with the specific purpose of investigating business fraud. In 1874 they were hired by some prominent NYC merchants to look into falling silk prices that they suspected were being caused by an influx of cheap, untaxed materials on the US market.* Over the next few years they chased down smuggling operations all over the US, Canada, Europe and Britain.

In April 1875 Mooney appeared at Bow Street with a request to extradite Charles Lewis Lawrence. The case had  been delayed several times while evidence was being prepared but when it finally came before Sir Thomas Henry the charge laid was that Lawrence had used forged bonds to ‘pass goods through the customs at much lower duty than ought to have been imposed’.

In practice what thus meant was that Lawrence had set up a dummy company, Blanding & Co., and created fake labels for boxes of silk. The silk was labelled as cotton which drew a much lower duty ($18,000 lower in fact) than silk. One or two boxes containing cotton were then sent through customs for examination and the rest were waived through, allowing the American marked to be swamped with cheap silk. The whole operation anted to a fraud valued at ‘upwards of half a million dollars’.

Mooney, an Irishman who, like so many had emigrated to New York as a young man in search of a new life, was able to bring a number of witnesses to court to support his application. Frederick Brooks,  a US customs clerk, confirmed that there was no such firm as Blandings and a London-based handwriting expert, Mr Netherclift, testified that the forged bonds were indeed written by Lawerence.

The private detective explained that he had tracked 10 cases of ‘so-called cotton’ that had arrived in New York on the Pomerania merchant vessel. A customs officer named Des Anges had assigned just one of them for inspection. This one contained cotton, the others silk. Mooney found the crates in a  warehouse and seized them, arresting Des Anges in the process.

Lawrence had been caught on a ship leaving Dublin bound for London from America and the detective sergeant, Edward Shore, that took him into custody found a damning piece of evidence on his person. This was a note from Des Anges which read:

‘All is up. I am followed, and you are followed. Export all you can, and leave me to save myself’.

None of the evidence presented in court was challenged by Lawrence’s lawyer, Mr Lewis, but when the prosecution had finished its presentation he rose and addressed the magistrate. He explained that while he had not chosen to cross-examine the witnesses this was not because his client accepted the ‘facts’, merely that ‘the question of guilty or not guilty was not to be decided by this court’. All that the Bow Street court had to decide was whether he should be extradited.

Sir Thomas was satisfied that a prima facie [lit. “on the face of it”] case had been established; there was sufficient cause to send Lawrence for trial so he granted the extradition request. However, he added that in accordance with British law the American would be committed to a house of detention for 14 days. Lawrence ‘asked to be sent back at once’ (presumably not keen on experiencing any more British hospitality) but the magistrate refused.

Mooney & Boland were one of several US detective agencies, the most famous of which of course was Alan Pinkerton’s which still exists (if in a  slightly different capacity). James Mooney died in March 1892 at the age of 44. He moved his NYC office to Chicago where he was involved in a number of very successful investigations of business related fraud. The firm continued to operate well into the next century from its Chicago offices.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, April 16, 1875]

*Andrew Wender Cohen, Contraband: Smuggling and the Birth of the American Century, (W. W. Norton & Company, 2015)

A woman who wanted to see the world through a man’s eyes

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Following yesterday’s story about a German man arrested for cross-dressing at King’s Cross, today’s story is of a woman who preferred to live as a man. While the German performer was perhaps simply a female impersonator, the subject of today’s blog appears to be much closer to the modern transgender community. Her story clearly excited those that heard it in 1868 and the editor of The Illustrated Police News gave it plenty of space.

One Saturday night in late March PC Bonner (35H) was walking his beat along Cable Street in the East End when he heard a woman singing. What he saw was a man however, and he approached ‘him’. When he was close enough, and allowing for the fact that it was dark, PC Bonner was able to discern that the singer was female even though she was dressed in a man’s clothes.

He arrested her, not for ‘assuming male attire’ but for begging, and took her back to the police station. On the Monday following she was produced at the Thames Police Court in front of the magistrate, Mr Benson.

Mary Walker was a 38 year-old woman with quite a story to tell. She had already been prosecuted several times and so was a familiar face at the police courts of the capital where she was known as the ‘female barman’. She had been to prison for robbing her master (a pub landlord) and presumably had struggled to find work since.

Using the names John Walker and John Thum she had sailed on a Cunard liner as a stoker and worked as a porter on the Great Western Railways, before on each occasion her sex was discovered and she was dismissed. Mary had once even proposed marriage to another woman. Mary (or John) was not living in a society that was prepared to accept her for what she was or what wanted to be. Historians have demonstrated that there was nothing new in what Mary (or countless men and women) was doing in the Victorian period; ‘people had been crossdressing, and getting arrested for it, for many, many, many centuries’ Jeanne de Montbaston tell us.

Gender had become more clearly defined in the Victorian period so while the pervious century had seen the exploits of the female pirates Anne Bonney and Mary Read the prevailing ideology of ‘separate spheres’ supposedly attempted to keep women as tightly constrained by societal norms as their were by their corsets.

Clearly for Mary Walker the laces were drawn far too tight.

She had been born in Bedfordshire, a largely rural county where any attempt at ‘being different’ would have attracted attention. At some point she chose to leave and pursue an alliterative life.

She told Mr Benson that it was then that she ‘indulged the foolish freak of changing her clothes. The desire to act the part of a man and to adopt the garb and condition of the sterner sex grew into a passion’. It was then she went to sea but her ‘sex was discovered by her shipmates’.

The magistrate asked her why she had ‘degraded her sex’ in this way? Why not simply take a position on a ship suited to women? Mary said that it was not possible, but in reality I suspect it was simply not what she wanted. Mary wanted the freedom that came with a  male persona, the freedom, as she put it, to fulfil her ‘desire of seeing foreign lands’.

Not surprisingly the magistrate called for medical expertise and Inspector Holloway of H Division said a surgeon had declared that she was ‘very much out of health’. Mary had also been in Elizabeth Fry’s Refuge at Hackney, and she didn’t want to be sent back there, because the conditions were too bleak. I rather suspect also that she would have found the regime too restrictive and the attempts of the matrons to enforce femininity claustrophobic.

The magistrate was clearly conflicted; he had little sympathy for her actions but she hadn’t committed a serious crime either. Her choice of a  lifestyle had, he stated, been too hard for the frailties of a woman and had left her in  a ‘lamentable condition’. He sent her to the House of Detention for a week, where he trusted she would be properly looked after.

The only place where women could safely assume the identity of a man was the stage and women like Vesta Tilley (pictured above) made a career out of it. Tilley appeared most famously as ‘Burlington Bertie’ as she trod the boards in the popular musical halls. This, of course, was a temporary reversal of gender identities and so allowed the Victorian and Edwardians to poke fun at each other gently in safety. That tradition continued through the 20th and 21st centuries with performers like Dick Emery and, more recently, David Walliams. Anyone, like Mary Walker, who actually wished to redefine her own gender was threatening.

We shouldn’t be too surprised at this though, even in the ‘enlightened’ world of 2017 society remains fairly uncomfortable about those that wish to adopt a gender they find more comfortable and natural than the one they were born into.

[from The Illustrated Police News etc, Saturday, April 4, 1868]