‘I should like to go to sea sir’: a boy’s plea for adventure falls on deaf ears

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What are we to make of young John Speller? The teenager was set in the dock at Hammersmith accused of trying to steal several small steam boats (or ‘launches’) that had been moored at Chiswick and Strand-on-the-Green.

John’s MO was to untether  a launch and let it drift out in the current of the river, then attempt to pilot it. He’d tried this on no less than six occasions without much success. On a launch named Zebra he’d even tried to start a fire to get the boiler going so that he could ‘get up a head of steam’.

Sadly for him he had been caught red handed and now faced Mr Paget in the Hammersmith Police court.  The magistrate listened carefully to the Zebra’s owner and engineer, a Mr Faulkner, who testified against the lad adding that as well as trying to pinch the boat he’d caused damage from the misplaced effort to get the boiler going.

He then turned to John and asked him what he had to say for himself. ‘I should like to go to sea’, came the reply.

So should we see John as a frustrated sailor, a boy in search of adventure, or a delinquent who needed a stiff lesson in discipline? Perhaps he got his chance to sail the world eventually; after all London’s docks brought opportunities for travel every day of their week.

But not that week, or the next four. Because Mr Paget (who clearly had no sense of what it was like to be a teenager anymore) sent him to prison for a month for causing damage to the Zebra and for attempting to steal it.

[from The Standard, Monday, June 11, 1888]

A second chance for the lad that strayed

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Augustus Harris (1852-1896)

It seems as if young John Davenport was trying to escape his environment and make a better life for himself. For a 14 year-old working-class lad like John there were few opportunities to scale the social ladder or win any kind of wealth or fame. An entrepreneurial boy might strike lucky and make a fortune in business; by contrast serious crime was a pathway out of poverty (albeit a rocky and precarious one).

I once had the pleasure of spending an afternoon with the Strictly Coming Dancing judge Len Goodman. Len told that growing up in East London he knew that his passport out of the area was dancing. It was that, he said, or football or becoming a gangster. While he loved football, dancing was his passion and what he was best at.

Entertainment was also John Davenport’s thing and he got a break, being selected as part of the touring company performing Augustus Harris’ Human Nature (written in 1885). Augustus Harris was a big name in late Victorian theatre. Dubbed the ‘father on modern pantomime’ Harris was manager of the Drury Lane Theatre and co-wrote a number of plays and pantomimes. Several of these will be familiar to modern readers including Babes in the Wood (1888), Beauty and the Beast (1890) and Cinderella (1895).

So it was a ‘big thing’ to be chosen by Harris and should have meant to start of a long career in show business. Unfortunately John found himself on the wrong sort of stage in June 1888, after being caught in the wrong sort of act.

At the beginning of June he was brought into the Bow Street Police court and charged with stealing a pocket-handkerchief. He was first remanded so enquiries could be made and these revealed his links to Harris and the theatre company. It also revealed that his father – a costermonger –  wasn’t keen to see his boy fly the nest, at least not if it meant he would be excluded from his son’s earning potential.

As a 14 year-old thief with a previous unblemished record the magistrate, Mr Vaughan, was minded to be lenient. A member of the St Giles’ mission appeared and said he would be happy to find the boy a temporary home so long as the father would ‘give an undertaking not to interfere with him in future’. Mr Wheatley (from the mission) was clearly keen to remove the old bad influences from John and set him on a better road. Mr Davenport however refused to play along and said he would rather see John imprisoned for month instead.

Mr Vaughan told the father that he was extremely selfish and saw through his attempt to conceal his avaricious desires on his son’s earning under a cloak of parental indignity. Now it transpired that Augustus Harris had heard about John’s arrest and far from abandoning the lad as yet another wastrel that had failed to take the opportunity offered to him, ‘interested himself on the boy’s behalf’. The court was informed that Harris had found him a job in domestic service, would pay for a new suit of clothes and the fare to get him there.

It was a kind and generous offer and presented a viable solution to the magistrate. John was released to begin his new life. Let’s hope he took full advantage of this second chance the impresario had given him.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, June 3, 1888]

P.s Augustus Harris was a lover of food and drink as well as the theatre and there is a bust of him on the corner of Catherine Street in Covent Garden, where he might have enjoyed a glass or tow. There’s even a smart Italian restaurant named after him.

On June 15 Drew’s new book (co-authored by Andy Wise) is published by Amberley Books. It is a new study of the Whitechapel murders of 1888 which offers up a new suspect, links the ‘Jack the Ripper’ killings to the unsolved ‘Thames Torso’ crimes, and provides the reader with important contextual history of Victorian London. The book is available to order on Amazon here

‘You nearly killed this old woman’: ‘If not, I  ________ will soon!’ Jealousy and violence is fuelled by a night of heavy drinking

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Most of the domestic violence cases that I have written about over the last three years of this blog have involved men beating their wives. The majority of attackers were younger men or men in their 30s or 40s, their wives similarly, but today’s example is a man in his late 50s who brutally assaulted his elderly partner who was 63 years of age.

Timothy and Mary Reece had been married for 30 years, a considerable achievement in any age but perhaps especially in the harsh conditions of working-class life in Victorian London. They lived in the East End, in Edward Street, Hoxton and on a Saturday night in May 1854 that the attack happened.

PC Austin (224N) was alerted to the assault by the noise coming from a crowd of around 150 persons that had gathered outside the couple’s home. Shouts of ‘murder!’ had rang out and the constable forced his way through the throng to find Mary lying on her back in the passage of the house. Timothy was dragging her by the legs, intending to throw her into the street and – symbolically – out of his life. He stopped when he saw the policeman.

Mary was falling out of consciousness;

her tongue was protruding and quite black, and her mouth was full of blood. Her face also was black and much bruised, and it was some time before she recovered her senses, and she then complained of being injured in the ribs’.

PC Austin told Reece that he had ‘nearly killed this old woman’, to which he merely grumbled ‘If not, I  ________ will soon’.

Timothy Reece was arrested and his wife was taken to hospital to have her injuries assessed and treated. A few days later Reece was in court at Worship Street and his wife, still recovering and using a stick to support herself, was summoned to give evidence against him.

He said that the altercation was her fault, that she had misbehaved in some way. A neighbour, Elizabeth Guterfield, suggested that he was jealous of her and the landlord, something she found ridiculous. On the night in question both parties had been drunk she testified. Timothy had been pushing her along the street as they made their way back from drinking in Bishopsgate and his wife was swearing at him.

She wasn’t sure why or how the jealousy had arisen but she insisted that in her day Mary had been a beautiful woman. She went on to describe Mary’s ‘departed charms’ to the court while the court observed the victim in court who ‘certainly bore no present trace of them’.

Mary herself said she could remember very little of the events of Saturday night as she was out of her senses. Even in court she was under the influence. She did say she’d borne 15 children in her life, six of whom were still alive. According to Timothy the couple had had eight children so whether the other seven were from another relationship or he was simply unaware of them is impossible to say.

Mr D’Eyncourt sentenced Timothy Reece to three month’s hard labour and bound him over to keep the peace to his wife for six months on his release. It was a common enough punishment for a wife beater and evidently well deserved. Whether it would do any good however, is debatable. Mary had to be summoned to court, I doubt she wanted to press charges and her situation was not really helped by losing her husband for 12 weeks. I also doubt whether this was the first time he’d hit her, although perhaps it was the most serious of a number of smaller assaults.

Working class life in mid nineteenth-century London was hard, extremely hard. Grinding poverty was a fact of daily life there and it seems both of them self-medicated with alcohol to alleviate the pain of it. Both seemed older than they really were: the newspaper reporter thought Mary was over 70 and described Timothy Reece as ‘elderly’. She was 63 and he was several years younger, so perhaps my age. Alcohol and poverty had taken its toll on both of them, physically and emotionally, and they had little hope of any improvement as they headed towards their dotage. There were no old age pensions to collect (those arrived in 1908, too late for Timothy and Mary) and little support outside the hated workhouse. Cheap drink – gin and beer – was their only comfort but alcohol (as we all know) fuels jealousy and violence and domestic violence in particular.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, May 18, 1854]

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:

‘Violence only creates victims, that’s all it ever has done’: the aftermath of the ‘Clerkenwell outrage’ of 1867

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At about a quarter to four in the afternoon of Friday 13 December 1867 a bomb went off in London. A barrel of gunpowder, hidden under tarpaulin, positioned next to the wall of Clerkenwell house of detention , exploded blowing a large hole in the prison wall. The bomb also destroyed a row of houses opposite killing a dozen of more occupants, sending at least one mad, and precipitating the premature births of up to 40 babies, half of whom subsequently died. In all at least a further 120 people were injured by the blast, and 15 were disabled for life.1

The incident, which was known by contemporaries as the ‘Clerkenwell Outrage’ is often considered the first serious act in the Irish Republican war against the British state. The bombers’ intention was to affect a prison break – rescuing comrades that had been captured in London earlier that year. In that respect they failed and six people were eventually put on trial for the ‘outrage’, charged with murder. On 26 May 1868 Michael Barrett was executed, the last man to be publically hanged in England, even though there was considerable doubt as to his guilt.

The problem the authorities had was in finding reliable witnesses who would testify. They had someone who turned Queen’s evidence (in other words agreed to inform on his colleagues in return for his own life) but doubts were raised as to the reliability of testimony secured in that way. The wife of Charles Page had given evidence in court in April 1868 and what happened in the days following the trial give us a sense of the difficulties the police and prosecution had in convicting those responsible for the bombing.

Charles Page was locking up his pawnbroker’s shop at 1 Pulteney Court on a Saturday night. He was chatting to his neighbour Mrs Cook when a voice cried out: ‘Let him have it!” A man rushed up to him and punched him in the eye, without any provocation. The police arrived and arrested the man, who appeared before the Marlborough Street Police court magistrate on the following Monday morning.

Here the defendant, who gave his name as James Cosgrove, offered an alternative explanation for his actions that night. He said he had seen Page abusing the woman and had intervened to defend her. Cosgrove was able to produce several witnesses that supported his version of events but Mrs Cook took the stand to swear she was the only woman present and confirm Page’s account.

PS Page of C Division said he ‘had no doubt whatsoever that the assault arose out of the Clerkenwell outrage’. He added that:

ever since the complainant’s wife had given evidence both husband and wife had been subject to such annoyance by persons in the neighbourhood that it had been found necessary to place an extra constable in the court for their protection’.

Cosgrove, he insisted, was ‘connected with the class of persons who committed the outrage’, meaning presumably, that Cosgrove was an Irishman or part of London’s large ethnic Irish community.

Mr Mansfield had heard all he needed to convict Cosgrove of violent assault. In normal circumstances I suspect he would have handed down a small fine of perhaps a few shillings with a week or two in goal for non-payment.  But these were not ‘normal circumstances’, London was still feeling the effects of the tragedy that left so many dead. The Queen had issued a letter of condolence and £10,000 had been raised to help the victims rebuild their homes.

This was a big moment in London’s history, its first real brush with terrorism. So Cosgrove was fined the huge sum of £4 18plus costs and warned he’d go to prison for two months if he didn’t pay. A woman who had made a scene in the court and had shouted abuse at Mrs Cook (no doubt calling her a liar) was bound over to keep the peace as well.

I pick these stories fairly randomly: the only link I have to today is the date. So it is a coincidence, but a sad one, that I find myself writing about Republican terrorism (or freedom fighting if you prefer) on the morning that news of Lyra McKee’s murder in Derry last night is reported.  The 29 year-old journalist was shot and later died of her wounds while she was covering an outbreak of rioting in the Creggan area of Londonderry. The ‘troubles’ were supposedly ended by the Good Friday Agreement but tensions in Northern Ireland are never far from the surface.  One local politician, the SDLP’s Mark Durkan tweeted:

Violence only creates victims, that’s all it ever has done. The thoughts and prayers of our city are with the young woman’s family and friends, may she rest in peace.’

That sentiment could equally well apply to those killed or injured by the Clerkenwell bomb, and indeed to Michael Barrett who most likely was hanged in error for it. Now, more than ever it seems, we need our politicians to dampen down on the rhetoric of division, and stop playing politics with people’s lives and economic futures.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, April 19, 1868]

1. K.R.M. Short, The Dynamite War: Irish-American Bombers in Victorian Britain, (Gill & Macmillan, 1979), pp.8-10

Drew Gray is the joint author of Jack and the Thames Torso Murders, published by Amberley Books in June 2019. Details available here

‘A child having been stolen the detectives were looking for its clothes, not its body!’ The police and press criticism in Victorian Islington

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The police are never far from criticism by the media in this country. In the late twentieth century there has been widespread condemnation of their handling of the Miners Strike, the Peace Convoy near Stonehenge, the tragedy at Hillsborough 30 years again this week, and the murder of Stephen Lawrence. We can add to that the botched investigation into the serial murders committed by Peter Sutcliffe in West Yorkshire, the ‘kettling’ of student protesters, various deaths in police custody, and the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes in 2005.

The nineteenth-century police was far from immune to newspaper criticism; indeed from the very creation of the Metropolitan Police in 1829 sections of the press leapt at every opportunity to pour scorn on them or expose their inefficiencies. The police represented – for some at least – an imposition on the freedom and the wallet of decent and respectable Britons. In London and in many midlands and northern towns the police became a symbol of an ever more oppressive state as they were deployed to prevent protests against the hated Poor Law.

But it is often the ‘little things’ that annoy the public just as much and it seems from this anti-police report in The Era from 1870 that it was their actions against publicans that got under the skin of middle-class newspaper editors. The licensing laws were an easy target because they seemingly unnecessary imposed rules on people who were doing ‘northing wrong’.  As The Era put it the police’s purpose seemed to be little more than:

annoying respectable Licensed Victuallers and their customers under the colourable pretence of seeing that men who have a large stake in their property are not jeopardizing it by evading the law and encouraging bad characters’.

In other words the police were interfering unnecessarily in the lives of business men and women and it might have been better if the police concentrated on catching ‘real criminals’, rather than the odd landlord who stayed open after hours or served alcohol on a Sunday. Today we hear very similar complaints about the police, especially from grumpy motorists pulled over for speeding.

In 1870 The Era opted to illustrate its point by reference to a child abduction that the local police (in this case Islington’s Y Division) quite spectacularly (in the opinion of the paper) failed to investigate properly.

When Mrs Chinnery (the wife of a respectable Horney Road tradesman) required a new domestic servant she approached the Poor Law authorities. They found her a widow named Mary O’Connor who happily swapped the workhouse for her new live-in role and, at first at least, she pleased her new mistress and seemed very happy to have this new chance in life. Things soured however when she was unable to visit her daughter (who lived in an orphanage in Kensington) because she’d not finished her duties at home in time.

That was Sunday 3 April and on the following Monday when her mistress sent her out on an errand Mary took Mrs Chinnor’s 18 month old son with her.

She never came back.

Mrs Chinnor ‘naturally alarmed’ went to the police who issued a description of the servant and the infant child. However, despite the best efforts of the ‘active and intelligent Police of Y Division’ (as the press reported it) neither the woman nor the baby could be found. Then, a week later on the 11 April one of Mrs Chinnor’s suplliers ran into Mary in the street. Knowing that she was a fugitive she made a citizen’s arrest, but not without a struggle. She fought with the servant for twenty minutes before any policemen arrived and then they struggled again to ward off a large crowd that wanted to string the child abductor up on the nearest lamppost.

Meanwhile the poor little boy was still missing and despite the efforts of the division’s detectives no one could find him. No one that is until he turned up in the care of the Islington workhouse. In fact the infant had been there for a day and half, having been found – by the police – on the doorstep of the local police station. The baby was almost naked, swaddled in a cloth, and not dressed as the mother had described it in ‘its pelisse and hat’. The police didn’t recognize it nor, seemingly, did they cross check one inquiry with another. Mary had simply taken the child out of spite but thought better of it and left it where she knew it would be safe.

The Era was scathing:

There’s intelligence – there’s activity of intellect; a child having been stolen the detectives were looking for its clothes, not its body!

‘’Where was the child found? On the steps of Islington Police-station; and though the intelligent and active officers of that Division had circulated a description of the child to all other Metropolitan Police-stations  they had had never thought of examining it to see whether it had the markes [sic] described’ by its mother.

All’s well that ends well of course and mother and child were reunited safely but Mrs Chinnor brought a complaint against the servant to Clerkenwell Police court. Mr Cooke – the magistrate presiding – expressed his ‘astonishment at the intelligence displayed’ by the police. For the press it was an opportunity to comment on the inefficiency of policing in London and to reinforce the opinion of its members that resources were being deployed in the wrong areas.

The paper didn’t bother to say what happened to Mary O’Connor but I imagine a cold prison cell awaited her, which would have meant her daughter would have waited even longer for that visit.

[from The Era, Sunday, April 17, 1870]

‘You only have to order for one of the cafés, they put it down in their books, and all is settled up all right’: testing the boundaries of credit in Victorian London

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Today we operate a society largely underwritten by credit. I hardly use cash to pay for anything and for many things that I buy I use a credit card. My grandmother would no doubt be horrified if she was alive today. She was an Edwardian, born before the outbreak of war in 1914 in a very different country to the one we live in today. There credit was usually reserved for the wealthy although many small shopkeepers recognized that poor people needed some help in making ends meet and did them credit where possible.

But the real beneficiaries of credit in the way we understand it today (not paying for goods or services for sometime after you received them) were the middle class and elite. Many of wealthy in Victorian and Edwardian society simply lived on the ‘never never’, paying their bills when they really had to. Naturally this system was open to abuse as while the payments came from those at the top many of purchases were actually made by their servants.

In April 1888 Mary Hughes was prosecuted at the Marlborough Street Police court for ‘unlawfully obtaining three slices of salmon, value 10(or about £40 today). Hughes had entered Mrs Ann Crump’s fishmonger’s shop on New Bond Street and had asked for the fish. She said that the fish was for her mistress, the Countess of Dudley, and so the salmon was wrapped and the bill added to the countess’ account. Normally the fishmonger would have delivered the item later but Mary insisted that it was needed in a hurry, so she was given it straight away.

Something about her demeanor raised the cashier’s (a  Mr Woodwatd) suspicions however, and he decided to follow her. Woodward followed Mary along Bond Street to St James’ Street where she boarded a bus headed for Victoria. When they reached the Vauxhall Road Woodward collared her and told her he suspected her of committing a fraud. Mary spun him a line about having to go somewhere before she returned to her mistress but he didn’t fall for it. He called over a passing policeman and had her arrested. The officer took her in a cab to Dudley House, (below right) the home of the countess, and Woodward followed behind. dudley house

At Dudley House Mary’s unraveled: the housekeeper stated that she didn’t know her, she had never worked there and no one had sent her out to buy salmon. Mary was taken back to a police station to be charged and brought before the magistrate the next day. In court it was revealed that she’d told the officer on the way to the station that her ruse was an easy one to perpetrate:

‘You know what it is, constable, in these large firms. I have had many a piece there; you only have to order the salmon for some of the cafés, and then they put it down in their books, and all is settled up all right’.

This admission brought chuckles of laughter in the courtroom but the magistrate was unlikely to have been amused. This exploitation of the credit system undermined it and that, ultimately, affected people like him who enjoyed the freedom to choose when to pay that it brought. Mary said she had a relative who worked for the Countess of Dudley which is how she knew where the household placed its orders, let’s hope there were no repercussions for that employee. She added that on the day she’d committed the fraud she’d been drunk.

It was a lame defense at best but Mr Mansfield decided to remand her for a week while he decided what to do with her.  In the end Mary was tried and convicted at the quarter sessions and sent to Millbank prison for two months.

[from The Standard, Saturday, April 14, 1888]

Polish ‘moonshine’ and a police stakeout in Whitechapel 1888

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Detective supervisor Llewhellin [sic] had organised a stakeout to watch two properties in Whitechapel in March 1888. This had nothing to do with the infamous murders in that district because, in the spring of that year, no one suspected that the name ‘Jack the Ripper’ was about to become a byword for brutality against women.

Instead Llewhellin and the two detective constables under his orders were acting on information that a number of people were involved in buying and selling spirits without paying the tax due on them. As they waited they saw two men – Aaron Klausner (34) and Aaron Cohen Zeitlin (17) – enter the house in the middle of the night, carrying ‘a hamper partially filled with straw’. Not long afterwards they reappeared outside 72 Whitechapel High Street with the same hamper, but this time it seemed to be a lot heavier, as they were struggling a little to support it.

As the men moved off Llewhellin and his team followed at a distance tracking them to a house known to be the home of a local Rabbi. Just as they were about to go inside Llewhellin pounced, ordering his men to arrest them. Zeitlin took to his heels but was picked up soon afterwards, hiding in a nearby loft. The rabbi was Zeitlin’s father but he seemed to know nothing about his boy’s activities. The place was searched nevertheless and a quantity of wine was found there.

More wine (some being made) and two barrels of spirits were discovered at Klausner’s home and it was clear some sort of illegal operation had been exposed. In court Klausner admitted that he had been making a white spirit distilled from plums. This could be a ‘moonshine’ version of slivovitz, which is widely drunk in Central and Eastern Europe. It is a plum brandy which has very long association with Jewish cultural traditions in Poland, where many of the Jewish community living in Spitalfields and Whitechapel had emigrated from.

Aaron Klausner dealt in spirits and the police undercover team had purchased nine bottles from him only days before as part of their operation. However, in court Klausner claimed that he’d paid duty for the spirit and hadn’t known it was against the law to take it from one place to another without paying additional excise charges. According to an officer from the Inland Revenue who was present it was, and of course ignorance of the law is no defense for breaking it.

Mr Hannay, who was the duty magistrate at Worship Street Police court, took pity on the pair however. The fine they were both liable to was substantial but the prosecution was, he said, ‘somewhat novel and unusual’ so he would mitigate it. The minimum fine of £10 each would be levied, but that was still a very large sum for them to find.

At first both men were taken away to begin the 21 days imprisonment that was the default punishment for those unable to pay that fine  but Klausner was later released, his friends and relative shaving brought the money to court. Young Zeitlin would have to stay where he was for three weeks and then explain himself to his father on his release. One imagines that would be the most difficult of conversations.

[from The Standard, Thursday, March 22, 1888]