‘Here are people dying of cholera owing to the most foul and disgusting nuisance’: an East End landlady is brought to book.

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In August 1849 Mrs Isabella Blaby was summoned before the magistrate at Thames Police court to answer a charge that she was exposing her neighbours to a most ‘intolerable odour’.

The now widowed Mrs Blaby was well known to the court as her husband had worked there until his death a few years earlier. But any sympathy that Mr Combe (the sitting magistrate) might have had for her quickly evaporated as he heard the evidence against her. Mrs Blaby ran a number of lodging houses in East London: one in Batty Street (a street later to become infamous as home to Israel Lipski, hanged for murder in 1887, and Francis Tumblety, a suspect in the ‘Ripper’ case) and two others in Charles Street.

A cess pit at the rear of her properties in Charles Street was overflowing into the yards at Phillip Street nearby via damaged wall, and the stench was unbearable. This caused the tenants there to complain and Thomas Overton, the local inspector of nuisances, was sent round to investigate.

He had already had dealings with Isabella having previously ordered her to deal with a similar problem at her Batty Street tenement, but she clearly hadn’t taken his orders seriously enough. He now discovered that as well as the smell there were potentially fatal health consequences associated with the ‘nuisance’. Given that there had been several outbreaks of cholera in the area, and she seemingly wasn’t  dealing quickly enough with the problem, Overton had no alternative but to bring Mrs Blaby to court.

At the Thames Police court hearing Mr Combe was told that two people were in hospital and the surgeons had warned that unless the cesspit was emptied immediately, and thereafter more regularly, there was a very real risk of further outbreaks.

In her defence Mrs Blaby said she had ‘compoed’ the wall that surrounded the pit (which was was found to be in a poor state of disrepair thus causing it to leak into the adjoining yards) and added that the cess pit had been emptied just six months earlier.

Six months ago? Asked the justice, that was ‘too long, too long’, he told her. ‘Empty them immediately, or you will be liable to a fine of 10s a day’.

Mrs Blaby said was happy to get someone to empty the cess pit of ‘night soil’ the following day, but this was not good enough for Mr Combe.

‘I can’t give you authority to remove night soil in the day time’, he insisted, ‘You must do it this very night, and before five o’clock tomorrow morning. Here are people dying of cholera owing to the most foul and disgusting nuisance’.

The landlady left court agreeing to sort out the issue straight away but her cavalier attitude towards her tenants and her neighbours can’t have filled the bench or the local health inspectors with confidence and it speaks volumes about the conditions people in the East End were living in at the time.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, August 17, 1849]

A man with a mission and some chalk

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It was not Edward Barnbrook’s first time in court. He had appeared before the magistrates at Marylebone Police court on a number of occasions. He was described on the charge sheet as having ‘no home’ and ‘no occupation’, but he certainly believed he had an important task to complete.

His crime?

– ‘defacing walls and hoardings by chalking verses from Scripture on them, [and] also sentences  satirising our statesmen and country’.

In late August 1861 he was brought up before Mr Mansfield having been arrested by PC Gaze (356S) between one and two o’clock that morning in Little Albany Street, close to Regent’s Park. The constable had interrupted the men while he was chalking a message on a wall. What was that message, the magistrate asked.

‘What nation can fight?’ replied the policeman to stifled laughter in the courtroom. Since Barnbrook had refused to stop writing the constable had arrested him and taken him back to the station to charge him.

Thomas Taylor, a man with the wonderful title of ‘inspector of nuisances’ appeared next, to explain that Barnbrook was  serial offender and his daubing was a constant source of irritation to local residents.

Mr Mansfield asked the slogan writer why he did it.

‘Prisoner (solemnly): To fulfil the prophets and prophecy, also the saints, and to make the Bible universal. I have a mission’.

Religious zeal was as prevalent in Victorian society as it appears to be in our own and seemingly dismissed or tolerated as harmless unless it was attached to violence. The magistrate remanded the prisoner for two days. In effect the man was being imprisoned without being convicted of any offence,a fairly standard practice for those caught doing something but not really guilty of doing that much.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, August 23, 1861]

Adulterated milk and the Inspector of Nuisances

 

There were no cases from the Thames or Worship Street Police Courts reported in the London press on 17 June 1881. As an exercise in following one court for seven days then this has been something of a failure. However, the absence of reportage is not evidence that the court did not do any work – we know these courts sat daily. Henry Turner Waddy recorded that:

‘All the police courts are open for business on every week-day of the year, Good Friday and Christmas Day only excepted. The ordinary hours are [from] 10 am to 8 pm’.  The Police Court and its Work, (London, Butterworth, 1925)

The manuscript records of the Thames court reveal that it opened on Saturdays as well. Given that they heard dozens if not hundreds of cases daily it stands to reason that the press representation of them is highly selective, when we can see that on some days they reported nothing from one or more of the courts then clearly we need to look carefully at what was (and was not) chosen by the reporter or his editor as worthy of inclusion.

With nothing from either of the two East London courts it is necessary to look at the others on this day.

Earlier in the week we had a short report of an assault that arose out of a dispute between rival milkmen. Well today that same milk company, the Farmers’ Dairy Company (FDC), were back in the news. George Shepparton, the manager of the FDC, was summoned to Clerkenwell Police Court for ‘selling as unaltered milk from which the cream had been extracted’.

We are encouraged to drink low fat milk and avoid cream but the Victorians had different concerns when it came to food. In the 1800s it was the adulteration of food which brought prosecutions: bread with bleached floor, or watered down beer, and of course milk from which the cream had been removed.

The case was brought by William Roache, the wonderfully entitled Inspector of Nuisances. He had seen a man selling milk in Lancing Street (near Euston Station) . The vendor was shouting ‘Fresh Farmhouse milk, twopence a quart’. He bought a pint and then informed the seller that he intended to have it analysed. This prompted the vendor to tell him that it was in fact ‘skimmed milk’.

In court the deface and prosecution lawyers argued over whether the milk had been intentionally sold as something other than skimmed milk. The prosecution said that since it was advertised at ‘Fresh Farmhouse milk’ that implied it was full cream. Mr Wakeling, for the dairy, argued that:

‘the price at which the milk was sold was sufficient to show that there was no pretence that it was anything but skimmed milk’.

Today a pint of milk is likely to cost much the same regardless of whether it is full fat, semi-skimmed or virtually far free. After all you are probably paying more for the packaging now than you are for the content. Supermarkets sell milk at ridiculously low prices compared to cost of producing it.

Back at Clerkenwell the magistrate felt he needed more time and advice before he could make a decision on the evidence he’d heard. He sent the parties away and asked them to return in a  week. Meanwhile he dealt with several other cases of adulteration.

Percival Hawes was convicted of selling milk from which all the butterfat had been extracted, he was fined £20 plus cost. Andrew Carrucio of Gray’s Inn Road was similarly convicted and fined, as was James Ernteman who operated a business on the same road.

George Matthews of Camden Town was summoned for selling adulterated mustard. Mr Roache claimed he had been sold mustard which was mostly flour with a small amount of turmeric (for colour). Matthews countered that he had bought it wholesale from a reputable business so ‘he thought he might safely trust them’. Roche said that the mustard powder he’d been sold came not from a wholesaler’s tin but loose from a drawer. The conviction stuck and Matthews was also fined £20 plus costs.

These are not petty fines, £20 in 1881 was a significant sum of money, close in fact to £1000 in today’s prices. So the state, in the form of Mr Roache the Inspector of Nuisances for St Pancras, was doing sterling work. Today I think that job is part of the role performed by councils and the Food Standards Agency, which checks up on labelling to make sure it is accurate and not misleading. It is worth remembering that this has such a long history.

[from The Standard , Friday, June 17, 1881]