‘I wish I could avoid the drink sir, but it’s too tempting’. The Inebriate Act in action in the East End

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Minnie O’Shea was a drunk, an alcoholic with a problem, and when she appeared at Worship Street Police court in May 1899 it was very clear that she needed help. Minnie admitted as much herself, telling Mr Cluer the magistrate that ‘she wished she could avoid the drink; but it was too tempting for her’.

It wasn’t her first time in the dock; Minnie had three previous convictions for drunkenness in the past year alone, and according to police she’d been arrested and charged on least 20 occasions. She was a serial drunk and in 1899 that meant she had made herself liable to a new initiative aimed at dealing with the problem of alcohol abuse in society.

1898 had seen the passing of the Inebriates Act which allowed justices like Mr Cluer to send defendants like Minnie to a reformatory to dry out. A similar scheme had been attempted in 1879 but no funds had been provided for it. If a person was sent to a retreat under that legislation they had to fund their stay themselves. There was no way that a poor woman like Minnie could afford to do that. This new legislation supposedly expected the local authority (in this case the London County Council) to foot the bill.

Minnie was given the option of having her case heard summarily or to go to trial before a jury. Having been told that if she agreed to have the magistrate decided her fate at Worship Street that she would be sent for a home, she wanted to know for how long? If she behaved herself, the justice told her, she’d be out in a few months, so Minnie gladly accepted her fate. She’d get fed and a roof over her head so it wasn’t so bad, she must have thought.

It came as a bit of shock then when Mr Cluer handed down a sentence of three months confinement in a inebriate reformatory, albeit a Roman Catholic one that would suit her cultural background. ‘Three years!’ Minnie objected. ‘Then I’d better not consent, I won’t go’, she told him from the dock. Too late, Mr Cluer countered, ‘you cannot help it now’, and she was dragged out of the court to begin her enforced period of reformation.

Minnie was exactly the sort of person confined under this and the previous legislation.  Victorian society viewed alcoholism as a sort of moral individual failing and associated it particularly with women. Women were viewed as weak in nineteenth-century rhetoric and thus ill equipped with the requisite willpower needed to abstain from ‘the drink’. Minnie seemed to affirm this widely held view telling the justice as we’ve heard that ‘it was too tempting’ to turn to the bottle. In the late 1800s the ‘drunkard was an individual considered to pose a threat to wider society as well as to themselves’ and as Jennifer Wallis has shown this enabled so-called charity workers and reformers to treat alcoholics appallingly.1

Not only were some inmates treated badly the legislation was largely ineffectual. Few local authorities could afford to build reformatories and by 1900 the state hadn’t met demand either. In the first year of the act becoming law just 82 persons were sent to homes, 61 of them in London so Minnie may have been one of that handful. Most were women (for the dubious reason given above) and thereafter nearly all the reformatories that were established (9 from 11) catered exclusively for women.

Alcoholism was a problem in the late 1800s and this was particularly true in poor working class areas like the East End. That is why the Temperance Movement arose and why Police Court Missionaries strove to help those ‘that helped themselves’ by pledging to abstain from ‘the drink’. But it was an uphill battle because life on the bottom rungs of society was desperately hard and for many Londoners drink was a form of anesthetic, muting the pain that they daily felt in their struggle simply to survive.

The middle classes that swelled the ranks of the Charity Organisation Society might have seen drink as a symptom of moral weakness but they didn’t have to suffer the privations that the capital’s poor did every day. They judged women like Minnie O’Shea, I don’t think we should.

[from The Standard, Monday, May 22, 1899]

  1. Wallis, J. ‘A Home or a Gaol? Scandal, Secrecy and the St James’s Inebriate Home for Women’, Social History of Medicine, Vol. 31, No. 4 pp. 774-795

A photographer snaps when his subject dismisses his talent

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In 1868 photography was still in its relative infancy but it was coming more fashionable to have your photo ‘taken’. Edward Frewing described himself as a ‘photographic artist’ and had set up a studio in an upstairs room on Clerkenwell High Street. He was always on the lookout for new business and was standing outside on the street when two young Irish women came walking by. Frewing hailed them and persuaded them to come upstairs and sit for him.

Ellen Norton was married and lived with her husband in Queen’s Road, Holloway. Intrigued by the idea she and her friend Catherine Moran went up to Frewing’s studio and sat as his arranged his camera in front of them. He took a photograph of the pair and presented it to them.

Ellen was unimpressed. ‘We do not approve of it; it is not like us’, she told him.

Edward swore and flushed red with anger, causing Ellen to try to placate him. ‘If you take another I will pay you’, she promised.

‘You had better pay me, or I shall give you nine pennyworth’ the photographer warned her, and then seized a bottle from his worktop and threw it at her. It stained and bleached her dress and she hurriedly left, following her friend Catherine who had run off as soon as she had seen the man’s rage erupt.

‘If you not give me the 9I will throw you down the steps’ Frewing declared and made good on his threat, pushing her over and down several. Ellen fell and tumbled out into the yard, cutting her face and arms, and almost passing out. She stumbled, helped by Catherine, to see a local doctor who told her she should seek more serious medical help at the hospital, so grave were her injuries.

Having been patched up Ellen went home and later obtained a summons to bring Frewing to justice. At Clerkenwell she told her story to Mr Cooke with Ellen offering her support and confirmation of her friend’s evidence. The photographer gave an alternative of the altercation, suggesting that while he had sworn at her (and called her a ‘_______ Irish bitch’) he had not pushed her or thrown anything. Instead she had tripped up and knocked a bottle of ‘spirits of salts’ (hydrochloric acid ) over herself and then had fallen down the stairs in her haste to leave without paying.

The case was watched by a Mr H Allen a prosecuting officer of the Associate Institute for Improving and Enforcing the Laws for the Protection of Women, an organization I’d not heard of previously. The magistrate agreed that this was a ‘very serious case’ and he wanted to hear from the surgeon that had treated Ellen at the hospital. She was still badly shaken by the episode and said she’d not eaten a thing since it had happened. An apology from the artist was not going to be sufficient in this case. Frewing was remanded in custody and his request to stand bail was refused.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, May 14, 1868]

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

An enterprising mother and daughter team come unstuck

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St Botolph’s, Aldgate from the Minories

Cordelia Johnson ran a small manufacturing workshop in the Minories, on the borders of the East End of London and the City. The wife of a commercial traveller, Mrs Johnson employed a number of women to make up work shirts which were sold to a number of ‘outfitters and slopsellers’ in the City.  For weeks now items of her stock had been going on a daily basis and Cordelia was unable to discover how.

Eventually she turned to one of her most trusted employees, a young woman named Mary Ann Cantwell who she trusted to run errands for her as well as in the workshop sewing shirts. Mary Ann promised to help by keeping her eyes open and her ear to the ground for any hints of who was responsible for the pilfering.

Unfortunately for Mrs Johnson however, Mary Ann was the culprit. She was in league with her mother Harriet and the pair of them were engaged in a clever racket by which they stole material or fully made up shirts and pawned them at one or more of East London’s many pawnbrokers’ shops.  Mary Ann must have felt untouchable when her boss trusted her with the effort to trace the thieves and it emboldened her.

On Saturday 14 March 1857 Mary Ann spoke to one of the other younger women in the workshop and suggested she steal a pile of clothes and pawn them in Poplar. The girl, like Mary Ann, was Irish and the funds raised, she said, could be used to fuel the forthcoming St Patrick’s Day festivities. The girl was not so easily tempted however and went straight to her boss and told her what had happened. Mrs Johnson went to see the police and Police Sergeant Foay (7H) – ‘an intelligent detective officer’ – decided to follow Mary Ann to see what she was up to.

From his hiding place in Mrs Johnson’s house Sergeant Foay watched the young woman leave the factory take a pile of shirts from a cupboard and walk out of the building. He tracked her to Cannon Street Road, on the Ratcliffe Highway where she met her mother and handed over the clothes. Foay pounced and grabbed at the pair of them. HE got hold of Mary Ann but Harriett put up ‘a most determined resistance’ hitting and biting him in the process. Eventually he had them both under arrest and when they were safely locked up the police went off to search their lodgings at 13 Cannon Street Road.

There they found more evidence, namely a great number of pawnbrokers’ duplicates. These were cross checked with several ‘brokers who confirmed that they had been exchanged for shirts and materials brought by Harriet or Mary Ann. Four duplicates were found on the younger woman who, in front of Mr Selfe at Thames Police court, tried to take all the blame herself, saying her mother knew nothing of the crime.

The magistrate acknowledged this act of selfless filial duty but dismissed it. The evidence against both of them was overwhelming and both would be punished. Mary Ann was fined £6 for illegally pawning items (with a default of two months’ imprisonment if she was unable to pay, which I suspect meant she did go to gaol). If so she might have joined her 40 year-old mother whom the magistrate sent straight to prison for two months’ hard labour without even the option of paying a fine.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, March 20, 1857]

‘A fever amongst people living under the mockery of a poor-law which recognizes no right to relief in destitution’: reflections on the Irish Potato Famine from 1846

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Today is St Patrick’s Day and there will be drinking galore in Dublin, London and Boston and throughout the Irish diaspora. The island of Ireland is small, just 32, 500 square miles, and today it is home to around 6.5m people, but it bats above its average in terms of political importance and influence. This is due in no small part to its strategic significance, situated as it is between continental Europe, Britain and the Atlantic, and also of course, because of its long and troubled history. It is not for nothing that the Brexit wrangling in recent months has focused so much on the so-called ‘Irish backstop’; the determination not to recreate a hard border between Eire (the Irish Republic) and the six counties of Northern Ireland.

The Irish influence is widespread however, because of the waves of Irish emigration from the ‘emerald isle’ that took place, for the most part at least, in the nineteenth century. Millions of Irish men and women left their homes to travel in search of food, shelter and work – a better life – in the wake of famine, persecution, and religious intolerance.

St. Patrick's Day Parade in America, Union Square, 1870s (colour litho)

Many went to their nearest neighbours, settling in England and Scotland (in London, Liverpool and Glasgow in particular) while many others traveled to the United States (especially New York and Boston). They took their culture with them, hence the St Patrick’s Day parades in US cities today (as above from Boston in the 1870s).

The famine began in September 1845 so by the winter and spring of 1846 it effects could be felt throughout Ireland and the British Isles. England had always had a large Irish immigrant population and they were generally regarded as second-class cousins at best and dangerous Catholic troublemakers at worst. Most of all perhaps the Irish were generally poor and considered to be ‘feckless’ ‘work-shy’ and a burden on the rates. When the numbers of the existing populations were swelled by tens of thousands of new migrants in the mid 1840s antagonisms were heightened.

The Police courts of the English capital were often visited by members of the Irish community, who gravitated to the poorer areas around St Giles, Covent Garden, Whitechapel and Southwark. The Irish had a reputation for hard drinking and ‘fair fights’ (when they were drunk). Brawls in pub spilled over into the streets and there altercations with the police were inevitable.  So arrests would be made for drunken and disorderly behaviour, refusing to quit licensed premises, and assaults on the constabulary. Many Irish ended up in the workhouse or as vagrants and beggars and this could also lead to an appearance before a magistrate.

The situation in Ireland was caused by the failure of the potato crop but exacerbated by the actions of the English landowners, poor law authorities  and government that failed to help the people affected. This was hotly debated in Parliament (just as today’s MPs debate Brexit and the ‘backstop’). Discussions turned around debates between those seeking trade tariffs for imported corn and those opposed to them. Peel wanted to repeal the Corn Laws but this split the Tory party (rather like Brexit has) meanwhile Irish people were literally starving to death. This is a flavor of the debate as reported in the Daily News on the day following St Patrick’s Day 1846:

This measure is an impressive commentary on the time occupied by the Protectionists [those that wanted to keep tariffs] in their long protests. It is fever against which Parliament has to provide. An infliction of fever so national, that Government must interpose to prevent the dying and dead from making the Green Isle a very Golgotha.

It is fever induced by starvation; and hastening on, with giant strides, while week after week is wasted in describing and deprecating the horrors of a superabundant influx of food from foreign countries. Moreover it is a fever amongst people living under the mockery of a poor-law which recognizes no right to relief in destitution’.

Peel’s early attempt to import American corn in secret failed because the quality of the grain was so poor that it was virtually inedible, causing widespread digestive problems so it became known derogatively as ‘Peel’s brimstone’.    At least 800,000 Irish men, women and children died as a direct result of the famine and the failure of the British government to support them, the figure is probably closer to 1-1.5m. A further million (at least) emigrated. If you ever wondered why anti-English feeling remains prevalent at all in the Ireland and amongst Irish communities elsewhere perhaps a reflection on the events of 1845-49 would be instructive.

And that is without considering the actions of the early modern rules of England, the atrocities committed by Oliver Cromwell’s troops, the long battle over Home Rule in the late 1800s, the brutal repression following the Easter Rising in 1916, the ‘black and tans’, ‘Bloody Sunday’, Diplock courts and all the other measures used to govern the northern counties in the Troubles, and of course decades of jokes at their expense.

Happy St Patrick’s Day folks – God save Ireland!

[from Daily News, Wednesday, March 18, 1846]

An avoidable tragedy at Christmas

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James Arthur and Timothy Howard worked together at a charcoal factory in New Gravel Lane, Shadwell. They were workmates and drinking buddies but not close friends. That said, they rarely quarreled and both were hard workers who were well spoken of by their employer.

They were employed to work on a platform which stood 18 feet above the factory floor and on Christmas Eve 1868 both were working there even though it was late in the evening. Perhaps with their minds on how they would celebrate Christmas and the Boxing Day holiday they started to talk about beer and how much they might drink. A ‘chaffing match’ ensued as each man boasted about the amount of drink he could get on credit (a measure of their financial worth of sorts) and this escalated into a row.

Howard taunted Arthur, suggesting that in the past he’d used a woman poorly and run up a debt on her behalf before leaving her. What had began as friendly ‘banter’ quickly descended into open hostility and Arthur looked dagger at his mate. He reached for a shovel and threatened Howard with it.

Realising he’d gone too far Howard tried to calm things and told his workmate to put the makeshift weapon down. When Arthur declined the two came to blows and the pair swore at each other. Howard struck him once or twice without return and Arthur staggered backwards. He missed his footing, slipped, and tumbled over the edge of the platform, plummeting the 18 feet down to the floor.

Howard clambered down the ladder and ran over to his mate, ‘who was quite dead’, his neck broken.

The foreman arrived on the scene and, seeing what had occurred, called the police. Howard was arrested while the police surgeon examined the deceased. Howard tried to say he’d not hit his friend but there had been at least two witnesses who’d been drawn to the noise the pair had made in their arguing.  Mr Benson (the magistrate at Thames Police court) remanded Howard in custody so that these witnesses could be brought to give their testimony.

At a later hearing Timothy Howard (described as an ‘Irish labourer’) was fully committed to trial for the manslaughter of his work colleague. On the 11 January 1869 he was convicted at the Old Bailey but ‘very strongly’ recommended to mercy by the jury who accepted that it was really a tragic accident, their was no intent on Howard’s part. The judge clearly agreed as he only sent the man to prison for a fortnight, a shorter term than many drunker brawlers would have received at Thames before the magistrates.

[from The Standard, Monday, 28 December, 1868]

Like a bad penny old Annie keeps turning up

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It is always a bad sign when a defendant appears in the dock and is said to answer to more than one name. It suggests a ‘known’ criminal who is trying to keep their head down so as not to be processed up through the criminal justice system to a higher court where they might get a stiffer penalty.

Anne Hogarty was also known as Anne Flannaghan [sic] and Anne Sullivan but more importantly for her she was known to the police and the courts as someone who passed (or ‘uttered’) counterfeit money.

On this occasion she had attempted the simple ruse of waylaying  a little girl in the street and promising her a penny if went and fetched her a loaf of bread. The child rushed off with a ‘bad shilling’ in her mitt and handed it over at Mr Wheeler’s bakery on Orchard Street, Westminster. He spotted it instantly and grabbed her, demanding to know where she’d come by the coin.

The nine year-old girl pointed out Anne in the street who tried and failed to make a swift getaway and on Monday the 29 October 1860 she was hauled up before the magistrate at Westminster Police court. The Mint solicitor attended to press the charge and two publicans gave evidence that Anne has uttered bad coins on their premises as well. She tried to deny it but there was a ‘respectable’ witness who saw her talking to the child and the justice was also informed that in May 1859 Anne had served nine months for a similar offence.

Her previous convictions had caught up with her and so she was committed for trial at the Old Bailey, sadly I can find no record of what happened to her there.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, October 30, 1860]