From the Inner Circle to Crossrail: 135 years of ‘improving’ the capital’s transportation network

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Not everything that came before the magistrates in London was ‘criminal’; the Metropolitan Police magistracy dealt with a lot of business that we would deem ‘civil’, including complaints about all sorts of things that were result of the everyday nature of living and working in the world’s largest city.

If you take a trip into London today you will be struck by the sheer amount of building and repair work that goes on. London’s streets are in a constant state of construction and reconstruction; pavements are opened up so utility companies can lay new telecommunications cables, or fix leaks in water pipers, or reroute gas or electricity. New road layouts or junctions are being set out, traffic lights replaced or pelican crossings created, cycle paths painted in, and ‘traffic calming’ measures (a misnomer if ever there was one) put in place.

Meanwhile new housing or office blocks rise up as other buildings are demolished, and scaffolding wraps existing structures in a coating of branded cladding to let us know which major building company is disturbing the peace around us. An army of hi-viz, plastic helmeted workers occupying lofty or lowly positions as they beaver away like so many bright yellow ants to make these design projects a reality.

Foremost amongst all of this building activity is Crossrail, London’s new and expensive east to west underground railway, the first new addition to the capital underground since the Jubilee Line was opened in 1977.  Crossrail has been disrupting London for years, it seems like decades, making it impossible to visit the site of Polly Nicholls’ murder in Durward Street (then Bucks Row) and other places. Crossrail will eventually connect the tow sides of the capital via 26 miles of new tunnels and allow greater connectivity and volume for an underground system that is clearly creaking under the weight of millions of daily commuters.

London’s underground network is the oldest in the world and when it was first opened (in 1863) it was – and remains – a tremendous feat of engineering. From the building of the first lines by the Metropolitan Railway and the District Railway, work expanded to drill down deeper into the capital and them, in the 1890s, the first electric trains began to run. One can only imagine what it was like to travel underground in the Victorian period, on steam-powered engines hauling wooden carries, lit by gas lamps. It is not exactly a picnic today, and recent research has revealed that levels of air pollution are contributing to the ill health of millions of Londoners.

While the tube (as it is affectionately known) was both an engineering miracle and a tremendous boost for the Victorian capital’s economy, it was also a nuisance in just the same way that Crossrail is today.  It disrupted daily life, forced people from their homes and business, and cut deep swathes through the city.  Photos from the time (such as the one above) show scenes of building work that are not unlike those we experience whilst walking or driving in London today.

And for a small glimpse into exactly how this affected ordinary Londoners we can visit the Mansion House Police court in January 1884 just as the new Circle Line (known then as the inner circle) was being constructed. John Bates, who rented rooms at 137 Cannon Street, applied to the Lord Mayor for compensation for being, in effect, evicted from the home where he and his wife had lived for some time.

Bates paid 5s a week for his accommodation and his wife contributed to the rent by cleaning the offices in the rest of the property. The property had been recently acquired by the Metropolitan and District Railways Companies and they were asking the couple to vacate the premises because they needed to knock it down to build a ventilating shaft ‘or “blow hole” for the new underground line below. In court Bates argued that since he had a three year verbal agreement with his landlord he should be compensated for moving out. In reply the lawyer representing the railways insisted that Bates was simply a weekly tenant and had no real rights to his tenancy.

Bates’ representative explained that Mrs Bates also provided a catering service to the clerks that had been occupying the site before it was sold and that she earned £3 a week from this venture; the Bates’ had more to lose than their home then as a consequence of the building of the ‘Inner Circle Railway’. A surveyor calculated the loss of income at £94 per annum and Bates’ claim was for a year and a half, £141, plus costs (which were estimated at over £50).

So what was the Lord Mayor to do? Clearly the building work was going ahead – the tube needed to be built – and so the Bates’ would have to find a new home and a new way of earning a living (or at least some new clients). In the end, having heard from the original landlord that he considered Bates to be ‘a yearly tenant’, the Lord Mayor awarded damages of £100 with 5 guineas costs (a guinea was worth 21 shillings, or £1 and 1s).

This was considerably less than £50 and so the overall compensation awarded was about half what Bates had asked for. It was still about £7,000 in today’s money but I rather expect Crossrail has had to pay a lot more to compensate those in the path of the new railway. After all the estimated cost of Crossrail was supposed to be just under £18bn in 2009 but that was revised downwards to £14.8bn. In 2018 it was announced that the project was behind schedule (by nearly a year) and over budget, to the tune of about £600m.

Hopefully it will all be worth it.

[from The Standard, Saturday, January 19, 1884]

Murder most foul in Old Nicol Street

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Old Nicol Street (from an image on the St Hilda’s East Community Memories blogsite)

James Muir had spent the whole of Christmas in gaol. He’d been accused in mid December of the murder of Abigail Sullivan, with whom he ‘at times’ cohabited in Shoreditch. The couple had a tempestuous relationship and arguments (often drunken ones) were frequent.

It was a familiar story in the East End, where domestic violence was endemic and murder or manslaughter all too often the result. At some point the pair had separated, with a suggestion that Muir had been seeing someone else, a lodger at the house in Old Nichol Street where Sullivan had lived with him. This woman was Selina Lewis and she was present when the fatal attack occurred.

Lewis told the magistrate at Worship Street Police court (a Mr Rose) that Abigail Sullivan had been speaking with Muir in her room when things got heated. He hit her and she fell down. Muir then made to leave, saying he was off to get a drink. Selina left as well but came back a few minutes later with a boy. Since Abigail was still lying prone on the floor Selina told the lad to fetch over a lamp so she could examine her. When he did so they both saw that the poor woman was dead and blood was flowing from a wound in her chest.

The police were called and the body was assessed by Percy Clark, an assistant to Dr Bagster Phillips, (the police surgeon who had presided in several of the ‘Ripper’ murders in 1888). He testified in court that Abigail had suffered a fatal wound that had ‘penetrated the lung and divided the aorta. The cause of death was syncope [loss of consciousness] and loss of blood’. The weapon was produced in court, a ‘thin-bladed butchering knife’ and the police inspector present said it must have been wielded with ‘considerable force’.

Selina admitted that the quarrel had been about her and Muir’s relationship with her. The knife also hers but she’d not seen the prisoner Muir use it. That he had was not in doubt however, as he’d been arrested outside in the street by PC Brown (389H) who picked it up as the killer tried to throw it away. Muir was remanded in custody again so that Mr Sims, the Treasury solicitor, could summon five more witnesses for the prosecution.

It took until early February for the case to make it to the Central Criminal court at Old Bailey but then it didn’t trouble the jury for too long.

Muir, described elsewhere as a 39 year-old shoemaker, was found guilty of killing his former partner and the mother of his child, a baby whom Abigail had given into the care of another resident while she spoke to her errant common-law husband. One witness knew the pair well. Caroline Hall lived at 67 Old Nicol (while Sullivan had a room at number 4) and she told the Old Bailey court:

‘I have heard him threaten her—I heard him say that he would give her a good hiding some night, and that he would swing for her’.

James Muir did ‘swing for her’ on 1 March 1892 at Newgate Prison. He was hanged by James Billington and the motive given at the time was that although he and Abigail had split up she ‘still pestered him for money’. Presumably to support her little baby girl, who was now an orphan.

A very happy New Year to everyone reading this and especial thanks to those who’ve been reading my posts on a regular (or irregular) basis for the past year or more. In 2019 my next book will come out – a co-authored analysis of the Whitechapel and Thames Torso murders with my friend and fellow researcher Andy Wise. Hopefully it will be published by Amberley in June, but I’ll keep you posted on here.

[from The Standard, Friday, 1 January, 1892]

A deceptively simple tale of lingerie, scandal, and theft

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If one of the aims of late Victorian press was to provide some titillation for their readers over breakfast then this tale, from the end of 1888 (a year which we might consider to have had more than enough sensation), certainly fits the bill. It concerns female criminality, exotic foreigners in London, underwear, and the hint of sexual scandal.

When Maria Becherette appeared before Mr Newton at Marlborough Street she commanded the attention of the court and the reporter from Lloyd’s Weekly. She was 23 years old, spoke English with a German accent, and was fashionably well dressed. She gave no address or occupation but nor was she pressed to do so by the magistrate.

Maria was accused of a number of thefts from West End stores, including Liberty’s and Lewis & Allenby in Regent Street. Her modus operandi was simple but effective. On the 14 November she spent two hours at Liberty’s and, having finally selected a number of items of ladies’ underwear, she arranged to have them delivered on account. Giving her name as ‘Lady Coencerl’ she asked for the goods to be sent to the Bath Hotel in Piccadilly.

At Messrs. Lewis & Allenby she had done similarly on the day before; this time giving the name ‘Lady Gorskey’ and directing the items to be delivered to the Continental Hotel. On both occasions after she had left the shop assistants discovered that several expensive items were missing. Mlle. Becherette it seems was a sophisticated shoplifter.

She might have got away with it as well had she not pushed her luck. In the 15 November she was seen in Regent Street by one of Liberty’s staff, who alerted a concierge at the store and set off to follow her. The assistant, Mrs Elizabeth Nicholls, had served the thief and tried to keep her in her sights with the intention of finding where she went. The young German was too alert however, and spotted that she had a tail. She hailed a cab and was about to escape when the concierge leapt into the hansom with her and told the driver to take them both to Marlborough Mews police station.

There she said she was a governess and had recently arrived from Vienna, and denied the accusations of shoplifting. She was charged and presented at Marlborough Street where she was remanded on more than one occasion (for the police to investigate) and then brought up again at the end of the year. In court before Mr Newton Maria cut a sad figure. She stood in the dock with tears in her eyes as the prosecution was presented by Mr Humphreys.

As he now explained that there were allegedly multiple other similar cases against her she broke down and sobbed, finally admitting her crimes. She told the magistrate that while she had stolen the underwear it was ‘not for her own benefit but for the benefit of “the gentleman” she had been living with at Queenborough’.

Before she could go on to add that something the justice stopped her, perhaps mindful that she might reveal his name or add to the implication that the underwear in question was part of some elaborate sexual fetish. Mr Newton remanded her again so that she could, he suggested, give whatever information she had to the police. It might help her defence by mitigating her crime, but it would serve no one for it to be heard publicly.

On the 29 December she was brought back up into court to be dealt with by the magistrate. Mr Newton had presumably decided that despite the relative seriousness of her crimes (in stealing expensive items on several occasions and giving false names each time) it was best to try her summarily. This avoided any further public scrutiny of  the case or her motivations. She was denied the opportunity to name and shame her mysterious ‘gentleman’  or to use her charm on a jury of middle-case men. Instead she was sent to prison for four months and taken away immediately. The reading public were left, like us, to speculate over their toast and marmalade, as to what really lay behind this simple case of shoplifting.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, 30 December, 1888; Daily News, Monday, December 31, 1888]

December 1888: Whitechapel is quiet again,but ‘Jack’ is still at large.

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Today finds me, weather permitting, stumping around Whitechapel with my third year undergraduates. This is an annual occurrence for me; in the past 12 years I’ve only missed one year of taking students around the area to visit the sites of the ‘Ripper’ murders and the associated places of interest.

This year my route has again been carefully worked out to take in as many places that might prove interesting (from Flower & Dean Street, to Wilton’s Music Hall, to the Pinchin Street arches, and back up to Mitre Square and then Christ’s Church, Spitalfields). It will take us the best part of four hours with stops for lunch and refreshments. At the end of it I hope they will have learned something as well as getting slightly fitter!

130 years ago the shadow of the Ripper still lay across Whitechapel. Following Mary Kelly’s death in early November the case began to lose its interest for the newspapers but no killer had been caught and the police patrols continued. There had been an attempt of the life of one woman (Annie Farmer) on 20 November, just eleven days after Kelly’s murder, and there was another homicide that can be associated with ‘Jack’ on December 20 that year (Rose Mylett), but things were more or less back to ‘normal’ in East London.

On Thursday 13 November 1888 the proprietors of Batey & Company Limited, ginger beer manufacturers, were summoned to appear at Worship Street Police court accused of infringing the factories act. It was alleged that the company had employed 21 young women who were set to work beyond 2 o’clock on Saturday afternoon at the company’s factory in Kingsland Road.

Under the terms of the act they should have been released at 11.30 that morning but the company was hard pressed. There had been, its representative explained, an ‘extra demand for aerated waters, owing to the late summer’. They admitted their culpability and Mr Bushey fined them £21 (£1 for each girl) plus £2 2scosts. It was an expensive day in court for the Bateys and one wonders if an employee had blown the whistle on them or whether a factory inspector had been watching them. Often these prosecutions followed repeated infringements of the law, rather than being isolated incidents.

The paper that day also chose another similar case to remind its readers (who would have come from the same class as the owners of the factory in Kingsland Road) that the laws must be respected. Hannah Bender, who worked as a French polisher, was fined £1 plus 4sfor employing two young women after eight in the evening, against the statute. The Match Girls strike had happened in 1888 and so labour rights were fresh in everyone’s memory, perhaps that was why these cases were prosecuted, or at least highlighted by the Standard.

[from The Standard, Friday, December 14, 1888]

In June next year my own solution to the Whitechapel murders is due for release. Based on several years of research it is a collaborative effort with an independent researcher, Andy Wise. We hope to offer a new angle on the killings that terrified Londoners in the late 1880s. 

The police magistrate as a teaching tool

Today was the first time that I’ve used this blog in my own teaching. I’ve discussed it at conferences and with colleagues but thus far I hadn’t exposed undergraduates to it.

I am coming to the end of a 10 week module for third year undergraduates at Northampton University which explores the social and cultural history of late Victorian London. It takes the 1888 Jack the Ripper murders as it focal point and verse off to look at a variety of interconnecting themes.

So we start with London in the late nineteenth century (the ‘infernal wen’) as the capital of Empire and the expanding metropolis that seemed to many contemporaries to represent everything they feared about society in the later 1800s. Here was a huge urban area, densely packed with hundreds of thousands of people, many drawn from outside of London, living cheek by jowl, and struggling for air beneath the coal smog.

Here were colourful migrants and visitors from every corner of the Empire and the globe, bringing the riches of other lands along with their culture, language and radical politics. Tensions rose with unemployment – a new word in the 1880s – and competition for space. So we explore the themes of immigration and anti-alienism as well as poverty, charity, and housing reform.

We look at the Ripper murders and the impact they had; at the way the press manipulated the story and how this fitted with other contemporary concerns about violence, prostitution, immorality and the plight of the poor. Hopefully the module challenges some preconceptions about the Victorian age (and about who might have been the ‘Ripper’) and next week we are tackling the mythology associated with the case and its impact on history and Ripperology, head on.

This week I chose to concentrate on the notion that a criminal ‘class’ existed in the Victorian period. This is how contemporaries like Henry Mayhew and James Greenwood described the ‘underclass’ (the residuum); a class below the ‘respectable’ and ‘honest’ working class who were eulogised in Ford Maddox Brown’s painting ‘Work’. These were the Londoners who ‘will not work’ and earned their living instead by thievery and deception.

We discussed how this view was created by writers like Mayhew and Greenwood (and others0 and perpetuated by a media driven by a  mix of sensationalism and early investigative journalism. I asked them to search through this blog to see the ways in which I’d interpreted the newspapers that contributed to the rhetoric of criminality and got some others to mine the database of nineteenth-century newspapers to discover the reportage of the police courts for themselves.

It was interesting to see my own research reflected back at me, (and to have my typos pointed out!) and to hear their own interpretations of what they read and found. I’m trying to use more digital resources in teaching as I recognise that this is how this generation access historical material. Where I once spent hours, days and weeks hunched over dusty volumes in a archive, the next cohort of historians are turning to the computer screen to make their own discoveries.

There’s a instant quality to this method of data searching but it all still requires context: some of the things they found didn’t make sense to them – in places I was able to draw on what is now over three years of looking at the London Police courts to help them make sense of it. In the end I thought it was a useful expertise which I will repeat next year, and perhaps in the spring with my second years (who study a longer broader period of crime history).

Interfering mothers-in-law at Westminster give the ‘beak’ a headache

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Some of the cases that came before the Police Court magistrates seem particularly unimportant or trivial. It must have been quite frustrating, if not downright annoying, to have to listen to a never ending stream of petty disputes and grumbles on a daily basis, but moments of humour will probably have helped to lift the mood.

On the morning of the 16 November 1888 while Francis Tumblety (a suspect in the Ripper murders case) was being bailed at Marlborough Street, a young wife appeared at Westminster in answer to a summons taken out against her by her husband.

No names were given (perhaps to protect the couple and give them a chance to ‘move on’ with their lives) but they were newly wed and, it seems, barely mature enough for this life-long commitment.

The wife – described as a ‘mere girl’ – broke down in the dock, ‘cried and seemed greatly distressed’. She had been summoned for attacking her husband with a broom (which caused much laughter in the courtroom). She denied doing so and said she loved him and wouldn’t never hurt him.

However this public investigation into their married revealed the influence of each of the couple’s mothers, both of whom seemed unable to let their offspring go.

The husband was just 21 years of age and a sorter in the Post Office. Recently his mother had encouraged him to come back to his old home and declared that ‘the poor boy looked  bad’; implying that she (and not his wife) needed to look after him properly.

The poor wife complained that while he earned nearly a pound a week she was struggling to cope with paying the rent, and managing the family budget on the 13 a week he gave her. My students struggle to cope with their first year away from home, why should we expect it to be that much easier for Victorian newlyweds on a similarly limited income?

The situation was not helped by the fact, revealed in court, that the wife’s mother lived with them. She was a nurse and it was inferred that she was staying close to them as her daughter was pregnant. Had they married because she was with child? It is not unlikely.

In denying that she’d hit her partner with a broom the young wife did admit that she was ‘subject to fainting fits’. She explained that ‘when I have felt myself “going off” I may have seized my husband’s wrists and dug my nails into his flesh “unconsciously”‘.

The magistrate, (Mr Partridge) waived her away. Her husband had not attended to press the summons nor had he declared his intention to renew it. So as far as he was concerned it was at an end. He hoped that she would go home to him and advised them to ‘make up their differences’. As for her mother-in-law, he urged her to ‘live apart from them, and not interfere’.

If this marriage was going to work it required both mothers to accept that their children were adults now, with their own lives to lead.

[from The Standard, Saturday, November 17, 1888]

‘Well sor, this ‘ere perliceman comes rushing in, and, with “Out you go, missus,” capsizes me into the street’: one drunk’s story a year on from the Dorset Street horror.

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Today is the 130 anniversary of the discovery of the body of Mary Jane Kelly in Miller’s Court, Dorset Street, Spitalfields in November 1888. Mary Kelly was the fifth ‘canonical’ victim of the killer known only as ‘Jack the Ripper’ and hers was the most brutal of all the murders in the series.

Mary (or Marie) was found lying on her bed when her landlord’s man came calling for her back rent. He peered through the window at the horror inside and rushed to find his boss and then the police. No one that saw Mary’s mutilated corpse ever forgot how awful it was.

However, within a year the room in Miller’s Court had been re-let and the landlord, McCarthy, merely sent someone round to scrub the blood off the walls and floors. Rooms in Dorset Street were cheap and new tenants could hardly afford to be too picky if all they could afford was a room in the ‘worst street in London’.

A year after the murders seemed to have ceased although many researchers are far from convinced the killer had stopped with Kelly. My own research suggests he continued into the early 1890s only stopping when his own body succumbed to the disease that killed him.

Meanwhile the day-to-day business of the Police courts rumbled on. Over at Marlborough Street Mary Jones appeared in early November 1889, charged with being drunk and disorderly, a commonplace offence at this level of justice.

Mary had been arrested after she had resisted arrest. Mr Newton (the presiding magistrate) was told that she had entered the King’s Arms in Titchfield Street late the previous night and had caused a scene. She’d asked for ‘two of unsweetened and a bit of sugar’ but the landlord refused to serve her as she was already quite inebriated and he had a care to his license.

He called in the passing street bobby, PC 282D to eject her and she squabbled with them both. She shouted abuse at both men and had to be restrained. In court she was apologetic (presumably having sobered up) and begged the magistrate’s “parding”.

She had been in hospital that day she said and explained that after she’d been released she’d felt dizzy. She’d gone into the pub to rest she insisted, and was as surprised as anyone when ‘this ‘ere perliceman comes rushing in, and, with “Out you go, missus,” capsizes me into the street’.

Mr Newton asked her where she lived.

‘Lisson Grove, your Wurchip’ she replied.

‘Then go back to Lisson Grove sharp, and don’t come back here again’ he told her.

And with that she stumbled gratefully out of court as the public gallery collapsed in laughter.

[from The Standard, Saturday, November 09, 1889]