‘The wonder-stricken animal then tried to turn around’: An actual ‘bull in a china shop’

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According to some sources the expression ‘a bull in a china shop’ (used to refer to a clumsy person) has its origin sometime before it was first written down in Frederick Marryat’s 1834 novel, Jacob Faithful. As you can see from the illustration above however, the expression was in use well before then.

Londoners would have been familiar with the sight of bulls and others livestock being herded through the city streets in the 1800s. Smithfield market had been the destination for hundreds of thousands of beasts throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth century, as drovers brought in animals to sold and then herded east to the slaughterhouses in Spitalfields and Whitechapel.

Occasionally an animal would escape and run amok but more frequently, as the records of the eighteenth-century Mansion House and Guildhall justice rooms reveal, they were deliberately separated from the herd and chased through the streets by boys and young men. These incidents of ‘bullock-hunting’ (akin to the annual bull run in Pamplona, Spain) caused chaos on the City streets and ended in prosecutions before the magistrates.

Bullock hunting seemed to tail of off in the 1830s and had pretty much disappeared by the Victorian period. Urban areas were ‘improving’ and the authorities and public were increasingly intolerant of rowdy folk customs that interrupted the ‘polite and commercial’ pattern of day-to-day life.

By the 1840s campaigners were active in trying to close Smithfield as a cattle and sheep market. They cited the noise, the smell and the impracticality of moving animals through the streets. The market had also become too small to serve the city’s needs and was required to expanded, but not in the centre. In 1852 work began on a new market in Islington, which opened in 1855 as the Metropolitan Cattle market. Smithfield underwent a rebuilding and emerged, in 1868, as the new Smithfield meat market, selling dead meat rather than live animals.

Two years before trading ceased at Smithfield John Waistcoat appeared in the Guildhall Police court charged with ‘driving cattle without a license, or a drover’s badge’. This tells us cattle were still being brought into the centre in December 1850 and, as we will see, were still causing chaos. It also reveals that ‘bullock hunting’ was still very much alive, long after it was supposedly stamped out.

Waistcoat was only 15 years of age when he arrested by City police constable 117. The officer had seen two animals running towards Skinner Street, ‘apparently very excited’ and being chased by a group of small boys. Waistcoat was older and seemed to be trying to catch them so the copper stopped him and demanded to see his badge and license. When he was unable to produce either he collared him.

Meanwhile the beasts continued to run wild in the City streets.

A Mr Pierce said he saw one bull run into Rose and Crown Court and enter his house, which operated as a workshop. A witness who was inside the property described what happened next:

‘I was in the room on the ground floor at work, when I heard a great noise outside, and the next minute, to my great surprise, I saw a bull’s head thrust into the passage over the little wicket gate at the street door. I immediately closed the room door and he [the bull] went into the passage’.

By this time his testimony had reduced the Guildhall court’s occupants to unrestrained laughter as they imagined the scene.

‘I felt the wainscotting giving way’ he continued, ‘and accordingly pressed against it on the inside, while the bull pressed against it from without. ‘I felt the partition cracking under the weight, and at the same time the females in the room began to scream and make such a noise that I believe the bull was frightened, and he passed along the passage and I thought he was going upstairs’.

The people in court continued to laugh as the poor man tried to explain what had occurred to the alderman justice on the bench. For the reporter from Reynold’s it must have seemed as if he had the scoop of the week; many of the daily reports from the police courts were mundane, this was anything but.

‘The wonder-striken animal then tried to turn around’, the witness told Sir Peter Laurie (the magistrate), ‘and in doing so he knocked down the whole of the partition between the passage and the room with his hind quarters, and backed out, sending the little wicket gate flying over to the public house opposite. The bull then got clear of the court, and left me master of the ruins’.

The damage was estimated by Pierce to be between £2 and £3 which might not sound a lot but probably equated to about two weeks wages for a skilled tradesman, so not insignificant. The question was, who was to pay? Sir Peter decided that Waistcoat was not responsible and discharged him. Instead he decided that the man that bought the cattle should pay, and directed Mr Pierce to send his bill to a Mr Lowe.

[from Reynolds’s Weekly News, Sunday, December 1, 1850]

Milking it in at Hyde Park

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If you visit Hyde Park this weekend you will see many things: couples strolling arm in arm, dog owners walking their pets, cyclists clad in lycra and joggers sipping from water bottles; there will be ducks and geese and squirrels, and plenty of pigeons; and of course at this time of year there will crowds of people attending the Winter Wonderland.

What you are very unlikely to see is cattle. However, in 1829 cows grazed on the parklands, reminding us that early nineteenth-century London was a lot more rural than we might expect.

Cows were pastured on the grass by the ‘cow keepers’ who helped supply milk to the thirsty population of London in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Research has shown that there was a herd of about 30-40 cows in the park and that other herds were grazed across the capital and on its perimeter. Of course as London expanded much of the green space was gradually built upon and by the middle of the 1800s many of these herds were disappearing. The Victorian period also experienced a change in the tolerance of animals on the city streets and increasingly cattle and sheep were directed away from centres such as Smithfield to the outskirts of London. This has been described as ‘improvement’ by historians.

In 1829 one man was clearly enjoying the benefits of having milk cows nearby. Joseph  Nicholas had taken to milking the cows himself under cover of night and taking home a couple of bottles for himself and his family.

This did not go unnoticed by the cow keepers who began  to suspect that the dwindling yield form some of their animals was not occasioned by a problem with the animals themselves. They contacted the police (quite possibly Peel’s newly created body) and set them to watch the park at night.

Sure enough, in mid November 1829 at 10 at night two officers saw a man waking in the park. It was Nicholas and they stopped and asked him his business.

‘Halloa there’, they enquired, ‘what are you doing?”

‘Nothing particular’ the middle aged man replied, ‘only inhaling a little fresh air, for the benefit of my health’.

The constables thought it an odd time to be taking the air so they searched him. In either of his long coat pockets they found a bottle of warm milk, freshly squeezed from the teats of one the fine beasts in the park. They arrested him and presented the man at Queen’s Square Police court the next day.

Nicholas was very sorry for what he’d done and promised not to reoffend in future. The magistrate, Mr Gregorie, was anxious to hear from the cow keepers to see if they wished to press charges. So poor old Nicholas was remanded in custody for a couple of days.

Nicholas doesn’t feature in the Old Bailey Proceedings or in the records that survive for those transported in the 1800s. So perhaps his apology was enough or maybe when he reappeared Mr Gregories handed down a small fine. His actions were hardly a major crime and were probably replicated up and down rural England in the 1800s. With the police on the case the cow keepers now had some chance to protect their stock, before that it seems the milk could be taken past their eyes without them even noticing…

[from The Morning Post, Monday, November 16, 1829]

 

Police made to look sheepish in a case of mistaken identity

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By the 1860s London was a very modern city, boasting many of the ‘modern’ features that we take for granted today. It had department stores, theatres and music halls, trains (including an underground railway), buses and trams, and its streets were crammed with tens of thousands of commuters rushing to and fro to work and back. It was a commercial centre and the seat of government; a social and cultural capital and the largest one in Europe.

However, for all its modernity it still represented a nineteenth century city with elements that have long gone today. For example, cattle and sheep and were still driven into the capital to be sold at markets like Smithfield and then slaughtered in the East End for the meat trade. Today our beef and lamb arrives in temperature controlled vans and lorries, and the only animal hooves that touch our streets are those belonging to the police and horse guards.

This process of cleaning our streets of animals (‘urban improvement’ as our ancestors termed it) began in the 1800s and was completed, largely, by the end of the century. Markets were moved out of the centres to the peripheries, streets became the preserve of  people, not beast, and politeness reigned. Of course they were soon replaced by vehicles and London’s streets soon echoed to the sounds of horse drawn trams, omnibuses and hansoms, all eventually to be supplanted by motorised versions.

In 1868 Henry Goodwin came before the alderman at Guildhall Police court. Goodwin was a drover and his job was to bring sheep into London for sale. Goodwin was licensed by the City of London and wore his badge on his coat. However, his ‘crime’ that day was to have driven more sheep into London than the regulations allowed.

PC William Kenward (426 City Police) said that he was on duty on the 21 September just before 8 in the evening when he saw the defendant coming over Blackfriars Bridge with a drove of sheep. He thought the man had too many sheep and asked him what the head count was. The drover grumbled that ‘he had better count them himself’. PC Kenward counted 160. That was too many so he took the drover’s number (which was 1543) but the man refused to give his address.

The man in the dock was Henry Goodwin, senior (and he wore badge number 263). He declared he’d not driven sheep through the city for 18 months. The police had issued the summons to the wrong Goodwin. This was easily done as both of them were Henrys. It was also quite dark and both PC Kenward and his colleague (PC Clark 489 City) admitted they couldn’t be sure in the poor light that the man in the dock was the person they’d seen on the bridge. The older man was also able to produce a witness who testified that Henry senior was drinking with him in the Three Stags pub on the Kennington Road at the time the drove was crossing into London.

All in all it was a case of mistaken identity by the police and Alderman Causton felt there was insufficient evidence for him to proceed against the drovers. Father and son were released without further action and probably had a chuckle at the policemen’s expense. Nevertheless it shows us that even as late as 1868, just 150 years ago, one of London’s busy bridges was being blocked by a flock of sheep 160 strong. It is the sort of scene we associate with rural Britain, not the modern city. The image above is of Dingwall (in Ross Shire, Scotland) in the 1950s. We might imagine this is not that far from how London might have looked in the 1860s, as the Goodwins brought their flock to market.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, October 07, 1868]