The death of a child is always a tragedy, this seems even worse somehow.

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Denmark Hill, Camberwell near the turn of the century.

1888 is a year forever synonymous with brutality and murder. Between August and November that year the papers were to become obsessed with the failure of the police to catch the ‘Whitechapel fiend’, the man that has gone down in history as ‘Jack the Ripper’. 

But the murders of the as yet undiscovered ‘Ripper’ were not the only killings in London that year, even if they were the most ‘newsworthy’.

In late May a man was brought before the sitting magistrate at Lambeth Police court, charged with murdering his infant son. 

William Albert Pierrepoint, a 31 year old hammerman from Camberwell, was accused of killing Sidney Gilbert John Pierrepoint, a child just one year and 10 months old*. 

The tragedy had happened on a Saturday evening as the Pierrepoints were leaving their lodgings at 158 Neate Street, Camberwell. As was often the case when a family left a small crowd had gathered outside. Some would have come to wish the couple and their children well, others to gawp, perhaps some even to revel in their neighbours’ misfortune. William Pierpoint was out of work, and seemingly had been for some time. The late 1880s were hard years for the British economy and the ranks of the out of work and underemployed grew, leading to protest rallies in Trafalgar Square and riots in Pall Mall. In 1888 the word ‘unemployment’ entered the Oxford English dictionary for the first time. 

As the family carried their small collection of personal belongings into the street to pile onto a barrow and made ready to leave, William, already slightly the worse for drink, railed against the world and his landlord. Perhaps because they were behind with the rent the Pierpoints had some of their furniture detained; most significantly their bed.

This was too much for the hammerman who suddenly raised his infant son up high and, with a cry of ‘Patty, Patty, you shall be the victim’, threw it to the ground. 

Stunned by what he’d done William stood there for a moment until the crowd became agitated. As they moved towards him and child a woman was heard to shout: ‘Don’t hurt him; he will have enough to answer for’. William fled and was picked up some time afterwards, even more drunk at the Little Wonder beer house nearby. 

The policeman that arrested him said that he went quietly when confronted with the assault on his child. ‘I had no intention of doing such a thing’, he explained as he was led to the station. Interviewed by Inspector Webb at 11 at night Pierpoint must have realised the enormity of his situation and tried to defend himself. ‘No one saw me do it’, he said, claiming that the ‘child fell off my arm’. 

In court before Mr Biron he said little except to repeat that the child’s death was not intentional. ‘I let the child fall’, he stated in the dock. The magistrate was unconvinced: ‘He did not let if fall, but dashed it to the ground’. William Pierpoint was first remanded and later indicted for murder and sent for trial at the Central Criminal Court, Old Bailey. 

The case came on in July 1888 and there the Pierpoints’ landlady, Sophia Moon, gave the court a bit more context for the events of that fateful evening in May. By the 26 May William owed her 19s 6d, or six weeks’ arrears. She had asked him for this and he told he hadn’t anything to give her. He had piled the family’s belongings into a barrow but told her she could have all the furniture – ‘You can have the b_____ lot’ he said, and apparently said quite a lot more, none of which she was prepared to repeat in a courtroom. 

He threw his key down and stormed off, his youngest child (Gilbert) in his arms. It was soon after this the then that the tragedy occurred. Despite William’s comment to the police there were witnesses that saw him throw his child to the ground. Eliza Howell, a leather dresser’s wife, saw it and later identified William to police at the beer house. Sarah Store also witnessed William’s actions, saying he was ‘dreadfully excited’ and had offered to hold the baby urging William to go and get the bed from upstairs. 

She was insistent that that child had not fallen, William had thrown it down. Others witnessed this and so despite his not guilty plea, his agitated state of mind, and the fact that several testified to his usual good nature towards children, Pierrepoint was convicted of murder. The jury strongly recommended mercy but judge passed sentence of death on him. 

William Pierrepoint did not hang for his son’s murder. On 22 July 1888 Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper reported that a respite had been received at Wandsworth Prison, where he was being held. Justice Hawkins, the trail judge, had added his name to that of the jurors in asking for clemency and it seems as if Pierrepoint’s sentence was then commuted to life imprisonment. 

It’s a very sad story, all arising from the stress that poverty can cause, leaving one child dead, and depriving the other of his father and Mrs Pierrepoint of her husband. And all for the want of 20 shillings, or about £80 today. 

Curiously, but not related, the name Pierrepoint is as associated with hanging as 1888 is with murder; from 1931 to his resignation in 1956, Albert Pierrepoint either assisted or was the lead executioner who hanged between 450-600 persons in his 25-year career. Of these 200 were war criminals executed as a result of the Nazi atrocities in WW2. 

Writing in his autobiography, published in 1974, Pierrepoint reflected on the death penalty (which by then had been suspended): 

… is said to be a deterrent. I cannot agree. There have been murders since the beginning of time, and we shall go on looking for deterrents until the end of time. If death were a deterrent, I might be expected to know. It is I who have faced them last, young lads and girls, working men, grandmothers. I have been amazed to see the courage with which they take that walk into the unknown. It did not deter them then, and it had not deterred them when they committed what they were convicted for. All the men and women whom I have faced at that final moment convince me that in what I have done I have not prevented a single murder.

[From Morning Post, 28 May 1888; Daily News 29 May 1888; Ipswich Journal 31 May 1888; The Standard, 31 May 1888; Reynolds Newspaper 2 June 1888; Lloyds’ Weekly Newspaper 22 July 1888]

*soem reports say that ‘Sidney’ was 2 and half years old.

‘The weakness of the dangerous classes’: attitudes to poverty are at the heart of my teaching this term

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This week I will begin teaching my third year module at Northampton which focuses on the Whitechapel Murders and East End society in the 1880s. 

It is going to be different this year: with a full national lockdown in place all of my classes will be remote, online. The way we do this at Northampton University is to host online teaching sessions – live, not recorded (although there is always plenty of pre-recorded content for students to access before and after sessions). So I will be in my ‘virtual classroom’ with my normal seminar group, who will all be tuning in from their homes.

It isn’t ideal, it makes discussion harder, but not impossible. There are the inevitable tech problems, and issues with WiFI and simply having a suitable space to study. I’m lucky, I have a home office and a decent chair and desk; some of my students are using the kitchen table in their parental home, with parents trying to use the internet to work, while their younger siblings are home schooled. 

But this is a national (an international) emergency and needs must. As Tony Soprano would say, ‘what a ya gonna do?’ 

This week we will start by looking at the East End through the maps of Charles Booth, who mapped poverty in the capital in the 1880s and 1890s. He famously colour coded individual streets according to their levels of wealth or deprivation: black or dark blue for the ‘worst’ parts, red or yellow for the ‘best’. Much of Whitechapel, Stepney, and Bethnal Green was black or blue. There were red streets – signifying commercial or middle class relative affluence – but these tended to be along the main thoroughfares (like Commercial Road/Street or the High Street). The very heart of the ‘abyss’ (as the American writer jack London later termed it) was very dark and here poverty was endemic. 

Charles Booth undertook his investigation into poverty as a result of what he thought were spurious claims, by the socialist leader Henry Hyndman, that poverty was rife in the capital. In fact he discovered the situation was much worse than even Hyndman had alleged. 

Alongside Booth’s maps my students will study contemporary accounts of poverty and the very many views of the ‘the poor’ expressed by (mostly) middle-class ‘well-to-do’ (to borrow a phrase from Booth) commentators. 

These are revealing because they show us what some middle class people felt about the inhabitants of the East End; it reveals their prejudices, their fears, and how these all came together to shape their thoughts about what could be done about poverty. For example, one report – in the Pall Mall Gazette from January 1888 – of an interview with the Rev. G. S. Reaney is illuminating. Reaney had run the Stepney Congregational Church in the East End for six years by 1888, and was leaving the church for pastures new.  He was both ‘hopeful and hopeless’ about the people he was leaving behind. 

One section of the populace, the native Londoners of the East End, he described as ‘a hopeless class’. He had no idea how they managed to survive the poverty that engulfed them. ‘I imagine they eat a great deal less than we think necessary’, he told the Gazette as he continued packing up his effects to move. ‘I think they occupy very little house room’ and ‘by constant flitting [i.e. moving at night when they were in rent arrears] they escape a good deal of rent’. 

‘They have so little character’, he continued, and were ‘the most drunken and dissolute class of people’. In fact, ‘were it not for their physical and mental feebleness they would form a dangerous class’. 

This gets to the heart of one of the themes I explore with my students: the threat posed by endemic poverty in the late nineteenth century, as seen by the wealthy and elite. Should a state intervene to help these people out of poverty, help give them the ability to support themselves, educate them, pay they better? Or was it hopeless to even try? Would the provision of state support undermine their independence, and help create a dependence culture? 

These continue to be questions we ask today. 

The Rev. Reaney – a Christian man we must assume – suggested that while the ‘hopeless class’ of the East End was possibly beyond saving we might take away their children (following the example of the ‘splendid’ Dr Barnado) and provide them with an education, preferably a long way from the slums of the East End.

Reaney, not surprisingly, had more faith in religion to change society than in politics. Socialism was on everyone’s lips in the 1880s, Marx was in London and the waves of central European immigrants that arrived in the East End brought radical political beliefs with them. These are also things we discuss in the module. 

Perhaps this year, with everyone suffering in so many ways under this pandemic, the struggles of ordinary people in the 1880s will chime more loudly than they normally would. Hopefully, our discussions and debates, albeit fractured by the difficulties of the online platform, will be even more focused and interesting than they usually are. 

[from The Pall Mall Gazette, Wednesday 4 January 1888]

A brutal assault on the underground

A brutal assault on the underground

Clarence Lewis was in a poor state when he appeared at Guildhall Police court in September 1880 to tell the sitting alderman what had happened to him. 

He was only a young man – just 18 years of age – and apprenticed to a grocer with premises in Aldgate and Kensington. On 21 August he was working at the Aldgate shop when his master, Mr Barham, instructed him to travel to Kensington to pick up the takings there. He arrived at 9.30 and collected a bag containing neatly £100 in cash. 

In 1880 £100 was a considerable sum of money (around £7,000 at today’s prices), so his master certainly placed a lot of trust in young Clarence. Stowing the package in his pocket he headed for High Street Kensington station to catch the train back to the City.

Clutching his third-class return ticket he rushed to catch the train. As he passed the ticket office a man a little older called his name. The young man was Henry Perry and he claimed the pair knew each other. ‘Don’t you know me?’ he demanded and, when Clarence replied that he didn’t, said: 

‘I am Perry, of Aldgate; I thought you were too proud to speak to me’. 

This must have triggered the apprentice’s memory because he now recognized the young man as someone who had once worked behind the counter at Barham’s shop in Aldgate. Perry insisted that Clarence join him in a first-class carriage and waived aside the younger man’s protest that he didn’t have the fare:

‘Never mind’, he said, ‘I will pay it’. 

The compartment they entered was empty and, as the train moved off, Perry peered into the next one and laughed, saying that there were only a few ‘girls over there’. The train rattled through a couple of stations before Clarence’s companion produced a small phial of liquid which he said was Zoedone, offering it to him.

Described as ‘the king of non-alcoholic beverages’ ‘Zoedone’ was said to have powerful ‘elements essential for the building up and reproduction of the human body’.  

It was a tonic drink which was available throughout the late 1800s and Perry claimed to have obtained a small sample. Warning his new friend not to take more than half he watched as Clarence upended the bottle. Clarence swallowed about an eighth of the phial and it tasted awful and fizzed in his nose. He immediately felt sleepy and resisted as Perry poured some onto his handkerchief and suggested he sniff it. 

‘Don’t you like it?’ Perry asked. ‘No, if all teetotalers’ drinks are like that I’d rather not be a teetotaler’ Clarence told him.

He turned down the other man’s offer of port to take the taste away. 

The pair carried on the journey for a few stops, with one female passenger getting on at Gower Street and then off at Kings Cross. Then, just before they reached Farringdon Perry pounced on his victim, hitting him with a stick and knocking to the carriage floor. He knelt on his chest and put his hand over his mouth as Clarence tried to shout for help. His assailant demanded to know where the money was and Clarence was forced to tell him.

Having lost the shop taking the beaten apprentice hid his head under the seat for safety; when the train pulled into Aldersgate station he emerged to find that Perry was nowhere to be seen. 

It took several weeks for Clarence to be fit enough to attend court and, even when he was, he stood in the witness box swathed in bandages to his head. He had been helped at the station by a bricklayer and his brother who saw him staggering out of the compartment covered in blood. Perry had not fled and as a policeman approached the crowd around the stricken apprentice he appeared clutching the parcel he had stolen. 

When Clarence accused him of doping him with laudanum and chloroform (the phial he claimed to be a tonic being quite the opposite), and then assaulting and robbing him, Perry brazenly denied everything.  ‘We are friends’ he told Clarence and the police that now collared him, ‘and you know me; I have not robbed you; that is my own money’. 

The alderman at Guildhall had heard enough to commit Perry for trial at the Old Bailey where he appeared on 13 September. The court heard evidence from a number of witnesses as well as testimonials to Perry’s general good character in his employment with another grocer on Aldgate. He had left there in May but his boss only had good things to say of him. 

Nevertheless this couldn’t save him. He was found guilty of violent robbery and was probably fortunate to avoid a charge of attempted murder. The judge sentenced him to 30 lashes and a crippling 20 years of penal servitude. Perry didn’t do 20 years because he died just 15 years later in 1895 at the age of 39, not long after being discharged from prison. 

From Nottinghamshire Guardian Friday 3 September 1880

I have been writing and teaching the history of crime for over a decade and continue to find it fascinating.  Whether it is the stories of everyday life in Victorian London that I uncover for this blog, the mystery of the ‘Jack the Ripper’ killings, or murders and attempted murders like this one, I am always discovering new ways to look at crime and its representation.

Fortunately very few of us will experience murder directly in our lives; instead we engage at a distance, through the news, or, more often, via a television drama or a holiday crime novel. When we do it is invariably shocking murder that captures our attention. Indeed if we took popular cultural representation of crime at face value we could be forgiven for believing that murder was an everyday occurrence, when, in reality, it is extremely rare. 

This week my most recent book – Murder Maps– is published by Thames & Hudson. This takes a 100 years of murder news in a global context, exploring via short entries, dozens of homicides across Europe, the USA, and Australia from 1811-1911. 

In the stories of Jack the Ripper, Henry H. Holmes, Joseph Vacher, Ned Kelly, Belle Gunness, and the other murderers I show the myriad motivations and underlying causal factors that led men and women to kill. Jealousy, greed (like Perry), politics, and severe mental illness were all factors that resulted in newspaper headlines that shocked and titillated readers in equal measure.  

Hopefully some of you will take a look at Murder Maps and find it as fascinating to read as I did to research and write. But don’t have nightmares, we are all pretty safe in our beds today. 

A small tragedy averted as over 600 drown in the Thames’ foul waters

FeaturedA small tragedy averted as over 600 drown in the Thames’ foul waters

On Saturday 14 September 15, 1878 Henry Sharpe, whose occupation was simply recorded as ‘labourer’ , was set in the dock at Mansion House and charged with trying to kill himself. 

On Friday night (ominously perhaps, the 13th) a City policeman was on patrol by London Bridge when a man rushed up and grabbed him. The man (Sharpe) was clearly at his wits end and very drunk. He tried, incoherently, to explain that his wife and two children were dead – both drowned in the sinking of the Princess Alice earlier that month. 

The SS Princess Alice  was a Thames paddle steamer that sank after a collision with a collier, (the Bywell Castle) on 3 September. It was a terrible tragedy that claimed the lives of over 600 people: men, women, and children. The steamer went down in a stretch of the river that was heavily polluted with raw sewerage; many of those that died must have suffered an awful death. 

Having poured out his grief to the policeman Sharpe was persuaded to go home and sleep off his sorrow. Convinced he’d averted another tragedy (however small by comparison) the policeman resumed his beat. Imagine his surprise then when 30 minutes later he saw Sharpe scrambling up the parapet of the bridge, seemingly intent on launching himself in the Thames’ murky waters. 

With the help of some passers-by the lawman affected a rescue, dragging the drunken labourer back from the precipice by his ankles. He was taken back the station, charged and left to sober up. 

Sharpe was joined in court by his wife in children who had clearly not perished in the disaster and must have been shocked that Henry would suggest such a thing. His desperate actions perhaps reveal a deep seated mental illness but he told the magistrate – Sir Thomas Dakin, Lord Mayor of London – that he had been drinking with a close friend that evening, consoling him for the loss of his family in the sinking. 

Who knows if that was the truth either; we have no passenger list for the Princess Alice  we don’t know exactly how many souls perished or what all of their names were. One of Jack the Ripper’s victims claimed to have lost her husband in the tragedy; Elizabeth Stride may have been hoping to gain the sympathy of others for her loss, or perhaps even to benefit from the generosity of Londoners who raised thousands of pounds for the bereaved families.  In Liz’s case as in Henry’s it was a false claim but it shows how this disaster touched so many lives in the late Victorian capital. 

The Lord Mayor declared that Sharpe was ‘a dissipated fellow’ and decided the best course of action was to lock him on remand for a few days so the alcohol could work through his system. It wasn’t a conviction or a sentence as such, but at least it was some sort of intervention that might have saved his life.  

From Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday 15 September 1878

Cowboys in the dock at Westminster as the ‘Whitechapel fiend’ makes his first appearance.

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On the 3 August 1888 two Americans appeared before the magistrate at Westminster Police court. John Dunn was probably every small boy’s idea of an American – a cowboy and ‘professional horseman’, part of Buffalo Bill’s travelling Wild West Show, he would have cut an exotic figure in the dock. The other man was darker skinned, described as a Mexican and giving the name Richard Chester Dare.

Dare (described as ‘a powerful man’ with the press) was charged with assault, and Dunn with aiding him. On the Thursday night both had been drinking at a pub on the Broadway when they had fell into an argument with a gun maker’s assistant called William Head. We can probably imagine the nature of the dispute, two US citizens in London arguing with a local about the merits of American vs British firearms.

Head left the pub but Dare hadn’t finished the quarrel and took it outside. As the gun maker walked home Dare and two others came up behind him and pushed him. A fight ensued and Head was knocked to the ground. Head and Dare grappled together before William escaped and made his way home.

He had been wounded quite badly, sustaining a bruise to the side of his face which had closed his left eye and had been stabbed in his side. It is likely that in the chaos of the moment and being a little the worse for drink he hadn’t noticed the American pull out a knife at the time. However, in court before Mr Partridge he testified to seeing a knife in the cowboy’s hand.

Both men were remanded to appear again but on application Dunn was granted bail. His was the less serious charge and Mr Partridge was told that Dare was supposed to be on his way to Brussels to join up with ‘Mexican Joe’s’ troupe, so perhaps the chance that he might slip away from justice was uppermost in the magistrate’s mind. He also instructed the police to inform the American consul of the men’s arrest.

William ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody toured Europe several times between 1887 and 1906, the first in 1887 which coincided with Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. One of the reviews of the 1887 show in London (at the American Exhibition) gives us a flavour of the event:

The size of the enclosure was one element of the impressiveness of the coup d’œil and this was cleverly increased by the picturesque scenery which enclosed half of the circle. At the edge of the ash-covered circle in the center were drawn up on parade the whole strength of the Wild West company. There were the various tribes of Indians in their war-paint and feathers, the Mexicans, the ladies, and the cowboys, and a fine array they made, with the chiefs of each tribe, the renowned Sergeant Bates, the equally celebrated Buffalo Bill, the stalwart Buck Taylor, and others who were introduced by Mr. Frank Richmond who, from the top of an elevated platform, described the show as it proceeded. 

Cody took his troupe back to the USA in May of 1887 having performed for both the Queen and the Prince of Wales. Yet some of the performers stayed behind, enjoying the life they found in London’s bustling city streets. Presumably two of these were Dare and Dunn. Sadly, at this point they both vanish from the pages of the Victorian newspapers so we don’t know what happened to them.

A few days later the body of Martha Tabram was discovered on a landing in George Yard, in the heart of the Whitechapel slum. She had been viciously stabbed and her killer was nowhere to be seen. Although there is considerable dispute as to whether Martha was the first victim of ‘Jack the Ripper’ a consensus is developing that suggests she was killed but he same person that murdered five or more women that summer and autumn.

As the police searched for a serial killer in 1888 the idea that the killings might have been perpetrated by a native American or another member of Buffalo Bill’s travelling Wild West circulated. After all, it was said, what Englishman could do such a terrible thing?

[from The Standard Saturday 4 August 1888]

‘If the trucks had been thrown off the line they would have been dashed into the bridge’: an East End train disaster narrowly avoided

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In mid June 1888, in what was to become a dreadful late summer and autumn of terror in the East End, a young man appeared at the West Ham Police court accused of an act of willful damage that might have caused a localized tragedy.  Henry William Fox (19, and a described as a labourer) was put in the dock to answer a charge that he, and some persons unknown, had placed a large piece of wood on tracks of the railway that served the Victoria Docks.

Robert Clayden, a signalman on the London and St Katherine’s Dock Company railway, testified that at 4 o’clock on Friday 15 June he had been in his box when he noticed Fox and three other men ‘playing around’ on the tracks. They had a large section of wood made up of two scaffold planks bolted together to make about a foot square. They had eased this onto the tracks, just after a bend and before a sharp decline. Claydon stated that, in his opinion, the driver of the next train (due in 30 minutes) would not have seen the obstruction in time to apply the brake.

The signalman immediately left his box and ran off to apprehend the trespassers, shouting ‘do you want any help there?’ The quartet scattered but deciding that Fox was the most responsible Clayden pursued and captured him with the help of a dock constable, Henry Kimpton. Inspector Hamilton was shown the obstruction before it was removed and Fox was taken away to be charged.

In court Fox’s defense – conducted by a Mr Willis (jun) – the bench was told that it was a case of mistaken identity; Fox was one of four others and he wasn’t the person responsible for blocking the railway. His solicitor applied for bail, which was refused, as the case ‘too serious’.

On 22 July Fox appeared at the Old Bailey where the case against him was heard before a jury. Claydon was the first witness and explained that his job was to control the swing bridge that served Bridge Docks. The planks used to block the line were those deployed in the painting of ships at dock. When not in use, as this one wasn’t, they ‘lie about in the dock and are washed about by the water’ he told the court.

He said that when he asked Fox and his friend s if they wanted ‘any help’, the accused told him to ‘Go and f— yourself’. At this Claydon blew his whistle (to frighten them off) and clambered down from his box. A chase then ensued and Fox was arrested, question by the dock inspector (George Hamilton) before being handed over to PC William Richardson (280K) of the Met. Fox’s maintained his defense that it wasn’t him but someone else and said he’d been in the area because he was looking for bird’s nests.

One of the company’s drivers, John Sherlock, took the stand to tell the court that 10-15 trains used that line every day and agreed that the position of the timber would have made it impossible for any driver to stop in time.

‘The curve is sharp’ he explained, ‘if the trucks had been thrown off the line they would have been dashed into the bridge’.

Fortunately the quick action of the signalman had averted a disaster and almost certain loss of life. Fox was young and was given a good character. As a result the judge went easy on him: he was sentenced to six months at hard labour.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday 17 June, 1888]

A murder confession, 13 years too late

The "Rookery", St. Giles's, 1850

Nineteenth-century St Giles

The reporter from Reynold’s newspaper, or his editor, captioned George Skinner’s behavior as ‘EXTRAORDINARY CONDUCT’.

Skinner, a 39 year-old resident of south London was brought before Mr Chance at Lambeth Police court charged with being drunk. It wasn’t his first appearance in court and had only recently been released from prison where he’d served a month inside for being an ‘habitual drunkard’.

On this occasion Skinner had presented himself at the desk of Gypsy Hill Police station, telling the sergeant that he was responsible for a murder that took place 13 years earlier. The station inspector sat him down and took a statement from him. He confessed to killing a ‘woman named Jackson’ in 1863 but when he was handed the statement to sign, he refused.

He was ‘very drunk’ when he spoke to the police and subsequent enquiries had ‘ascertained that the prisoner had before given himself up at Bow Street in a similar manner’.

But had a woman named Jackson been murdered in 1863, the magistrate asked? Indeed they had.

Sergeant 4ER gave evidence that a woman named Jackson had been murdered in George Street, Bloomsbury in 1863 and that in 1870 George Skinner had confessed to the crime. The police had investigated his confession however, and found it to be false.

Whoever had killed Ms Jackson the police didn’t believe it was Skinner, even if he seemed to. Mr Chance turned to the prisoner and told him that he had acted in a ‘most disgraceful manner’, presumably by being drunk and wasting police time. What had he to say for himself?

‘Commit me for trial’, Skinner replied. ‘I don’t care what you do. Let it go for trial’.

‘Let what go for trial?’, the magistrate demanded to know.

‘Send me for trial as an habitual drunkard. You know you can do it if you like. That’s the law’.

Mr Chance may well have had considerable discretionary power in 1880 but he could hardly send someone before a jury for being a drunk, however annoying the man’s behaviour was. Instead he was able to send him back to prison and/or fine him and this is what he did. Skinner, described as an able if ‘lazy’ shoemaker, was fined 20s  and told if he did  not pay up he would go to prison for 14 days at hard labour.

‘Only fourteen days for confession of a murder?’ Skinner quipped, ‘All right’.

In April 1863 a carpenter was charged at Bow Street with the murder of an Emma Jackson in St Giles. The court was crowded as the locals clearly felt this was the killer. They were mistaken however, as the police quickly established that the man confessing to murder, John Richards (a 31 year old carpenter) was, like Skinner, a drunken fantasist. He had confessed whilst drunk but later retracted and the magistrate, a Mr Broddick, warned him but let him go without further penalty.

The murder of Emma Jackson excited ‘intense interest in the miserable neighbourhood in which it took place’, Reynold’s  had reported at the time. As a result the tavern where the inquest was held was as crowded at the police court where Richards was examined a few days later. St Giles was a notoriously poor area (below), on a par with Whitechapel and Southwark in the 1800s, and a byword for degradation and lawlessness.

A_Scene_in_St_Giles's_-_the_rookery,_c._1850

Emma was murdered in a brothel, although it was also described as a lodging house; in some respects it was hard to discern much difference between the two. Jackson had arrived there with a client (a man wearing a cap was all the description the landlady could manage) and asked for a room for two hours.

It was a very brutal murder, there was blood everywhere, but no sign of the killer. Perhaps it was intensity of this murder and the lack of a suspect that prompted some disturbed individuals to confess to it, just as several people confessed to being the Whitechapel murderer in 1888.  That they were drunk when they did so might also indicate that they ware suffering from a form of mental illness, understood today but not in the 1800s.

Skinner had confessed to a murder in 1863 in Bloomsbury, Jackson was killed in St Giles, which is near enough to allow it to be the same murder.

[from Reynold’s Newspaper, Sunday 7 March 1880; Daily NewsThursday 23 April, 1863; Reynold’s Newspaper, Sunday 19 April 1863 ]

‘What would become of the little children?’: charity and kindness make a rare appearance in a Police Court

John Tenniel The Nemesis of Neglect

Tomorrow is the last day of February meaning that (as we do every four years) we get a 29thday of this month. Did you know that 1888 was a leap year? Making a very tenuous link today is also the artist John Tenniel’s birthday. Had he lived he would be 200 years old today.

On 29 September 1888 the magazine Punch published a cartoon by Tenniel alongside an article on slum living in the East End of London. Tenniel’s iconic image of the Nemesis of Neglect (above), was published at the height of the Jack the Ripper murders, while London reeled from the terror created by a serial killer the police seemed unable to catch.

Tenniel’s drawing and the text that accompanied it suggested that the murderer was a product of the degraded environment in which all the victims had lived, and died. It also warned polite society of the dangers of not doing ‘something’ about the abject poverty of the East End, which risked the ‘contagion’ spreading to reach the wealthier parts of the metropolis.

In February Whitechapel was relatively quiet; the series lodged in the National Archives at Kew as the ‘Whitechapel Murders’ had not yet started, but poverty was very much in evidence.

At Westminster Police court a 76 year-old man appeared to ask Mr D’Eyncourt for a summons. He wanted to bring a charge against the one of the officers at St Luke’s workhouse in Chelsea. The elderly man moved slowly and spoke with difficulty, clearly suffering as he was from fresh injuries. He told the magistrate that he’d sustained these when he was turfed out of his bed at 6.45 in the morning by a workhouse attendant.

He was, he said in response to the justice’s questioning, 15 minutes late in getting up after the bell rang at 6.30. But he had only just got to sleep having been kept awake by others’ coughing and cramp in his legs.

‘I am so badly bruised that I have not been able to walk upright since’ he complained.

The poor man had no family or friends and had been an inmate of the workhouse for six years. Mr D’Eyncourt granted his summons and said he would not have to pay for it. He would hear what other inmates said and call the accused party before him.

At Southwark Sarah Ann Davis stood in the dock with a baby in her arms. She was accused of begging in London Road, having been arrested by a police sergeant. Sarah denied the charge, she ‘was selling some pins to get some food for her children’ she explained.

Sergeant Ireland told Mr Slade that the prisoner’s husband was currently serving a prison sentence for begging. As if that compounded the woman’s crime and demonstrated she was guilty.

The magistrate asked her why she didn’t turn to the workhouse.

‘I don’t want to break up the home while my husband is away’, she replied.

Mr Davis was, she said, and out of work carpenter who’d do any job if he could get one. 1888 was not a good year for work: this was the year that the word ‘unemployment’ entered the dictionary and for the past few years large numbers of unemployed men and women had gathered in Trafalgar Square to listen to socialists and free traders bemoan the state of the economy and the capitalist system that had seemingly failed so many.

Slade called her landlord to the stand and asked him about the family’s character. He was told that the Davis’ were good, respectable and quiet tenants, but were two weeks behind with their rent.

‘You are not going to turn them out?’ The magistrate asked.

‘On no, sir, certainly not. What would become of the little children?’ the landlord replied.

‘Very well, I will discharge her now. You can go know, Mrs. Davis. You will receive some coal and bread tickets from the Poor-box Fund, and you had better apply to the Relieving Officer for some out-door relief’.

Then he warned her against begging in future, and she left, with applause for the magistrate ringing out in court.

Individual acts of decency by men like Mr Slade and Sarah’s landlord were not enough of course to mitigate the realities of abject poverty in late nineteenth century London. On another day Sarah might have gone to gaol and had her children taken away.  Another magistrate might have told her it was the ‘house or nothing, and she would have again lost her children.

Tenniel’s image of the ghoul raising from the ‘slum’s foul air’ was so powerful because it reflected a sort of stark reality, even if it was as fantastical as his more famous illustrations for Alice in Wonderland.

[from The Standard, 28 February 1888]

‘We didn’t live – we starved’: Poverty and ‘foreign markets’ in 19th Century Whitechapel

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In my last post I started walking the streets of East London with Charles Booth’s poverty survey as my guide. Moving on from Gunthorpe and Flower and Dean Walk (which in the 1880s was George Street and Flower and Dean Street respectively) in this post I’ve arrived at Wentworth Street.

In the late nineteenth century Wentworth Street was extremely poor. In Booth’s original map (above) it is a mixture of colours from red to pink to blue but since it abuts George Yard, Thrawl Street and other courts and alleys associated with the ‘Abyss’ we can confidently assume that most people living here were living close or below what Seebohm Rowntree was later to define as the ‘poverty line.

This story, reported in the Manchester press, gives us some idea of exactly what conditions were like in and around Wentworth Street in the last decade of the 1800s.

In early November 1893 Mr Wynne Baxter, the local coroner (and the man that had presided over the inquests into most of the Whitechapel murder victims in 1888), convened an inquest on the death of Elizabeth Newton.

Elizabeth was only four months old; she was the illegitimate daughter of Martha Newton who lived at 75 Wentworth Street. The paper described Martha as a ‘poor, miserable-looking girl’ who lived with her mother.

At the time little Elizabeth had been born Martha was living in a local lodging house, and went to the infirmary to give birth. Once the child and mother left hospital they went to live with Martha’s mother Margaret but the conditions were awful.

‘Her mother only occupied one room’, the inquest was told. So Martha and her baby joined her ‘sister, aged eight years […] and her other illegitimate child, aged two’, in the room.

Margaret Newton was desperately poor and the augmented family struggled to feed itself. Margaret told Mr Baxter that Marth fed her newborn on ‘cornflour, arrowroot, or anything the mother could get for it’. She herself only earned 1s3d to 1s 6da day.

How much was the rent, the coroner asked her. ‘Five shillings’, was the reply.

‘How do you live’?

‘We didn’t live – we starved’, Margaret Newton told him.

The final witness was the doctor who declared Elizabeth dead. She weighed only 3lb 12oz when he examined her. He told a stunned court that she should have weighed at least 11b by then. The coroners’ jury delivered a verdict of ‘death by malnutrition’.

Sadly Elizabeth’s death was not uncommon in late nineteenth-century London. Without an effective system of state benefits or health service that was free at the point of need, many children succumbed to poverty and lack of nutrition in Victoria’s Britain.

In the 1880s and 1890s Wentworth Street was busy during the day and early evening. As Charles Booth observed it was:

 ‘thronged every day by stalls, both buyers and sellers nearly all but not altogether Jews, women bareheaded, bewigged, coarse woolen shawls over shoulders, more like a foreign market scene than anything English’.

The red on the map probably refereed to ‘the small shops and houses on the North side’, the poor were absent except in the nearby courts.

Today, as I found out on my walk, there is very little remaining of nineteenth-century Wentworth Street. This is hardly surprising when you consider that this area was very heavily bombed during the Second World War (see map from www.bombsight.org) and post war council rebuilding and slum clearance.

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There was still a strong Jewish community in and around Wentworth Street during and after WW2. Helen Shaw (Schevitch) remembered life back then:

We had one kitchen at the back of our house, which was like a scullery. We only had cold running water, a gas cooker and wooden table, and back yard. The whole family, nine of us at the time had to wash there, but when it was bath time we only had a metal bath with water poured from the fireplace, and the three younger girls were bathed together in this boat like tub. There was a time when there was a shortage of fuel when I was about eleven and every family was rationed one sack of coal. We had to go and collect the coal from Flower and Dean Street (or Fashion Street) and had to line up.

Now, as my walk confirmed, there is hardly any sign of the Jewish presence in Wentworth Street. Instead this area is home to a new set of immigrants and their British born descendants. The larget and most visible migrant group (akin to the Jewish residents in the 1880s that Booth remarked upon) are the Bangladeshis, most of whom trace their roots to Sylheti in the northeast of the country. They are Muslim and established their first roots in the area as early as 1910 and it took them until the early 1980s to win permission to build a mosque.

If you want to have any sense of the Wentworth Street that Booth described as ‘a foreign market’ in the 1890s then take the underground to Whitechapel and wander along the market stalls that throng beside Whitechapel High Street opposite the London Hospital. Close your eyes, and imagine yourself transported back in time.