‘A very bad woman’ in Shadwell

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Bluegate Fields by Gustave Doré (1872)

Bluegate Fields in Shadwell was, by all accounts, ‘a terrible place’ in the 1800s. Gustave Doré included it in his famous set of London etchings, a picture of desperate poverty, dark and foreboding. In 1863 it was inhabited by ‘thieves, ruffians, prostitutes, and other bad characters’ and was a place where ‘numberless outrages and robberies had been perpetrated’.

It was on PC Robert Thimbleby’s beat. The policeman (119H) was patrolling Shadwell High Street at 2.30 in the morning of August 20th1863 when he heard a disturbance. Cries of ‘murder’ and ‘police’ rang out and the bobby ran towards to the noise.

As he entered Bluegate Fields he saw a second floor window open and a man tumble out. The man was dressed only in is nightclothes and his fall have left him ‘dreadfully mutilated’. PC Thimbleby helped him and a cab was found to take him to the London Hospital.

The house was notorious as a brothel and soon after the man had fallen out of the window a woman appeared at the front door. She was Irish and rough looking, with a quite masculine, ferocious appearance. She squared up to the policeman, abused him verbally using ‘foul language’ and exposed herself ‘in a most flagrant manner’. With some difficult he arrested her.

On the next day PC Thimbleby brought her before Mr Patridge at Thames Police court where she gave her name as Mary Ann Mahony. The man who’d fallen was too unwell to give evidence against her but his story had been gathered by the police. Mr. Partridge listened to his version of events.

The wounded man was a sailor and had gone to the brothel with Mahony. In the middle of the night he awoke to find she’d stolen his trousers and his money – around £5 in gold and silver – and was making her way out of the room. When he grabbed her, she fought back, seizing a poker and chasing him round the room with it. Fearing for his life (and perhaps not realizing exactly where he was) he jumped out of the window.

Given that the man was not in court to press charges of attempted robbery all the justice could do was deal with the charge of being drunk and disorderly. Mr Partridge was quite satisfied that this had been established and he sent Mary Ann to gaol for 21 days warning her that when her punter recovered she was likely to be back to face a charge of attempted theft. She was, he added, a ‘very bad woman’ who had had a string of previous convictions to her name.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, August 21, 1863]

A ‘most daring (and painful) robbery’

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Fanny Corzinski had just left home with her husband to go to a wedding. She was dressed in her best outfit and was wearing gold earrings for the occasions. They hailed a cab and had just sat inside when a large crowd of boys and young men appeared, and proceeded to ‘mob’ the hansom.

One of the youth reached through the cab’s window and struck at them, hitting Mr Corzinski on the head with a walking cane. He hurriedly pulled up the window and urged the driver to move. The cab was going nowhere however, stranded as it was in the crowd of riotous lads.

Another lad smashed the window with a stick and tried to grab at Corzinski’s watch and chain. When he failed in this attempt he noticed Fanny’s earrings and lunged for them, pulling one off and getting away. In doing so he tore the lobe of her ear, injuring her.

Her husband wanted to run after the lad but it was simply too dangerous. Fortunately the crowd soon dispersed and the river was able to effect an escape from the danger. In the days following the robbery Fanny had noticed the main culprit and pointed him out to police. The lad was identified as Patrick O’Leary and he was picked up by PC Bolton and brought before Mr Hosack at Worship Street Police court.

The prisoner had no defense for his action and admitted his guilt, hoping for a more lenient sentence. Mr Hosack told him it was a ‘most daring and painful’ robbery and sent him to prison for three months with hard labour.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, August 14, 1884]

‘Drunken fellows like you should not be allowed to give all this trouble’: An Irishman in the dock in the City

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By far the largest element of a Victorian Police Court magistrate’s business was dealing with those arrested for being drunk, drunk and disorderly, drunk and incapable: – or a variation of these charges that might include using foul and abusive language or violence when resisting arrest.

Every morning (but particularly Monday morning) across the capital police cells were emptied as the various offenders were taken to the Police Courts to be reprimanded, fined, or sent to gaol for a few days or weeks. Many were repeat offenders, others were ‘Saturday night drunks’ – normally ‘respectable’ individuals who just overdid it on a night out.

I’m not sure which category Patrick Sullivan fell into but he was fast asleep on the pavement in Lower Thames Street when a City policeman found him and nudged him with his boot. Sullivan woke with a start and gave the officer a mouthful of drunken abuse. It was clear he could hardly stand up and when the policeman told him to go home he refused. Instead he declared that the only place he would go was to a police station house.

The officer was only too happy to oblige and started to pull him up off the street when the man objected. He now told the policeman that he would have to carry him, and threw himself to the floor. The City man called for help and eventually he and another officer carried Sullivan back to the station. Even now he caused as much trouble as he could, refusing to stand at the desk while the sergeant took his details and read the charge, and then once more throwing himself on the floor of the station. It took a couple more officers to carry him to a cell where he was left to sober up for the night.

In the morning he was taken before Alderman Abbiss at Guildhall Police court where he gave his name and his occupation, a tailor. Sullivan was an Irishman, a nation with a reputation in Victorian society for their love of alcohol and belligerence. This probably counted against him in Mr Abbiss’ courtroom. Not surprisingly perhaps Sullivan could remember little or nothing of the previous night and had nothing to say in his defence.

The alderman told him that ‘drunken fellows like him’ should ‘not be allowed to give all this trouble for nothing’. He fined him 10s or ten days inside. If is was a tailor I suspect he was able to pay his fine, if not he wouldn’t be the first person to spend a long week in a Victorian house of correction for an inability to control his drinking.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, July 17, 1860]

‘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]