‘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

A real life Dickensian story of one girl’s descent from respectability to ruin.

 

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Yesterday evening I had the pleasure of visiting the Charles Dickens museum in Doughty Street and then going on a walking tour of the area led by Lee Jackson, an expert in all things Victorian. The tour was inspired by Dickens love of walking – he walked several miles every day and his observations gave him inspiration for his writing. Lee stopped frequently and referred extensively to Sketches by Boz, the collected writings that Dickens produced between 1833 and 1836 and which helped secure his contract to write The Pickwick Papersand then Nicholas Nickleby(and thus his breakthrough as an author). His pen portraits of people and places have helped fix the idea of early Victorian London in our heads with a host of characters from everyday life.

Many of these appear in the various Police Courts of the metropolis throughout the 1800s and the way in which certain characters or situations are described probably owes something to Dickens and his journalistic style. The reporters that attended the police courts were quick to choose cases that had drama, humor or a level of pathos – as well as those of course that offered a moral message or warning to the readership.

Dickens must have been familiar with the courts (he was after all, a legal clerk in his early years) and may have been inspired by some of the stories he heard there. I think the following case is a good example of the sort of tale that might lend itself to a short story or a scene in a Dickensian novel.

On the 31 May 1836 an ‘elderly, respectable looking’ man attended the Union Hall Police court to ask for the magistrate’s help.  He explained to Mr Wedgewood (who was the sitting justice that day) that he had an eighteen year-old daughter who had eloped with her lover three weeks previously.

She left without saying a word, taking her possessions in two packed suitcases. He’d sent out messages to find her and bring her home but without success. And then, as if this could not get any worse for the man, he went on to describe how the ‘seducer’ of his child had then abandoned her and left her disgraced and ruined at the mercy of a landlady of a house of ‘ill-fame’ in Anne Street, off the Waterloo Road.

The poor father had made enquiries at the house and was told that his ‘unfortunate and misguided’ had turned up there with a story that she had recently arrived from the Continent, and took rooms at £1 14sa week. Presumably unable to pay her rent the girl had fled leaving her luggage in lieu of her debt. He asked the magistrate if he could compel the landlady to hand over his daughter’s possessions.

Mr Wedgewood said he had no such powers under law; the woman was within her rights to keep the clothes and other goods since his daughter owed her money. However, if the gentleman could track down his missing girl she may well be able to testify to being abducted which could help bring a prosecution against the house (which clearly seems to have been some sort of brothel) and those that ran it. In response to this the old man said he’d asked the landlady where she was likely to have gone and was told:

I suppose if you look after her you will find her of an evening in the Strand or Fleet-street’ and ‘evinced the utmost unconcern in the course of the questions put to her respecting the unfortunate girl’.

She didn’t care what had happened her to. She’d lost a potential money earner but had her clothes; she must have hoped or excepted that the girl would return to her when she’d had enough of walking the streets. If the man didn’t find her soon however her ruin would be complete and a (short) life of exploitation, violence poverty, disease and death probably awaited her.

Mr Wedgewood could only sympathize with the unnamed father, she could do nothing for him except advise him to keep looking and hope to eventually bring her abusers to justice.  The man left court ‘evidently much depressed in spirits’.

A desperate and elderly father, a callous brothel madam, a young girl seduced by the charms of a duplicitous young man and the ultimate descent from respectability to poverty and public disgrace: this story has it all, it just needs a Dickensian quill to bring it to life.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, June 01, 1836]

 

Mr Punch lands a blow on two young thieves in Fleet Street

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I’m sure we all have a memory of going to see the dentist as a child, and not always a happy one at that. I don’t remember much about him but I do recall the waiting room and the large pile of magazines you could read. I always opted for Punch because it had cartoons in it. I didn’t really understand most of them but they were still cartoons, so I tried to.

Punch has been around for a very long time and I use its political cartoons in teaching at visual sources for undergraduates. One of Punch’s founders was Henry Mayhew, whose investigative survey of life in London is also a treasure trove for social historians. In fact Mayhew’s work is sometimes the only primary source that used to tell the story of mid-nineteenth century London; something I find a little problematic at least. Mayhew’s journalism is useful, interesting and entertaining, but it is juts still one point of view, not the full picture.

From its creation in 1841 Punch, or the London Charivari (to give it its full title) liked to poke fun at the establishment. The French word ‘charivari’ referred to the ritual folk practice of humiliating those that offended public morals. In England we had a similar practice – ‘rough music’ – whereby wife-beaters, adulterers, ‘nags’ and the like were shamed by the entire village gathering outside their home to bash pots and pans together and shout abuse. We call this ‘Twitter’ today.

By the 1860s Punch, which had struggled at first, was well established and was being printed by the firm of Bradbury and Evans in London. Punch’s  head office was at 85 Fleet Street in the heart of the newspaper district.

On Saturday 19 December 1868 three men appeared at the Guildhall Police court on a variety of charges relating tot he theft of copies of the magazine. The first was Samuel Watts who ran a beer shop on Fetter Lane, just around the corner from Punch’s offices. Watts was initially charged with in the unlawful possession of 256 copies of Punch magazine ‘well knowing the same to have been stolen’. He protested his innocence and was represented by a lawyer.

His brief, Mr Lewis, told the court that the police had ‘made a great deal about the defendant keeping a house which was frequented by bad characters’. But no one had complained about his beer shop in the seven years he’d run it and it was hardly his fault if the odd ‘bad character’ came in from time to time. After all, ‘it was not to be expected that his house would be frequented by gentlemen only’. The police accepted that Watts was not really a suspect in the case and so the magistrate discharged him but then swore him in as a witness.

Next to appear were the real culprits: James Connor and Alfred Clarke. Connor was 24 and Clarke just 19 and they were charged with stealing 300 copies of the publication from the Fleet Street offices on the 9th December. The court heard that a parcel containing the copies was taken from behind a counter and left at a coffee house at 90 Shoe Lane, run by William Bye. The parcel was left in the name of John Clarke, to be collected later.

A little after 3 another lad named George Harrison entered the pub and picked it up. Bye saw him hand it over to Alfred Clarke at the door and go off with it. From there Clarke and Connor distributed the copies of the paper to a number of newspaper vendors to sell in the streets for whatever they could get. They asked just 1d back for each copy sold.

One of these was Richard Bailey. He was in the Three Lions pub and saw Clarke and Connor playing at skittles. They asked him to sell some copies and he agreed, as he had no work at the time and the money was useful. But although he managed to sell some – at  one and a half pence each – he soon realised the copies were stamped. They were supposed to be sold at 4 and he must have realised they were stolen. Not wanting to get into trouble he took them back to the thieves, who by now were playing bagatelle.

Connor and Clarke were eventually arrested by a detective in the City of London force. He picked up Clarke in Fleet Street and then discovered the missing copies of Punch behind the skittle alley in the games room of the Three Lions pub. On the 11 January Clarke and Connor were tried at the Old Bailey and convicted of the theft.

Clarke was sentenced to four months imprisonment but Connor came off much worse. He admitted to having previously been convicted (in 1866) and so the judge sent him away for seven years of penal servitude.

For stealing £12 worth of magazines. Ouch.

 

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, December 20, 1868]

The repercussions of the Maiden Tribute are felt in Lisson Grove

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The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon (1885) was one of a handful of scandals that rocked Victorian society in the last few decades of the nineteenth century. In an attempt to force the hand of parliament to pass legislation to raise the age of consent, the newspaper editor and scourge of government, William T Stead undertook to procure a young girl of 13. Stead, the editor of the Pall Mall Gazette,  wanted to show the world just how easy it was for wealthy elite men to obtain access to the daughters of the working classes and in doing so shock and shame MPs and lords into protecting girls under the age of 16 (the age of consent in 1885 was 13).

Stead employed the help of a retired and reformed brothel madam, Rebecca Jarrett, who obtained a girl named Eliza Armstrong, paying her mother £5 for the child. Jarrett took Eliza to a room where she was drugged (as victims would normally be) before Stead visited her. There is no suggestion that Stead went through with any rape of the girl but simply made his point. The Pall Mall Gazette then published a serialised account of the problem and Stead’s exercise in exposing it.

One of the consequences of this was that Eliza’s mother and father came in for considerable abuse from their neighbours for selling their daughter into prostitution. Mr and Mrs Armstrong claimed they had done no such thing; as far as they were concerned Jarrett was taking the child off to be trained as a domestic servant for a wealthy employer.

Regardless of whether they knew the real fate intended for Eliza or not this led (with support from those opposed to Stead and his campaign) to a court case at the Old Bailey where Stead and Jarrett were convicted of kidnapping and indecent assault. Stead went to prison for three months, Jarrett for six. There was a ‘happy ending’ in that Parliament passed the Criminal Law Amendment Act (1885) which raised the age of consent to 16 but all parties were damaged by the process. Stead never fully  recovered his former reputation as an investigative journalist; Jarrett withered in Millbank prison, and poor Eliza was badly affected by her experience.

In August 1888, just as the cycle of killings known as the ‘Whitechapel murders’ began in East London Elizabeth Armstrong (Eliza’s mother) appeared before the police magistrate at Marylebone. Elizabeth, aged 39 and resident at Charles Street, Lisson Grove, was charged with being drunk and disorderly and with assaulting one of her neighbours and a policeman.

Ellen Tuley deposed that Elizabeth had attacked her with ‘a sweep’s broom and kicked the constable’. Constable Nicholas (100D) confirmed this and so the case was fully proved against her.

Mrs Armstrong was defended in court by Mr Pain, who had been her lawyer throughout the Maiden Tribute case. He said that ‘ever since the unfortunate case of Eliza Armstrong, when it was suggested that his client had sold her daughter for £5, she had been subjected to systematic annoyance at the hands of the prosecutrix and others’. Her husband had been sent quite mad by the affair and was now living in the Marylebone infirmary.

Elizabeth Armstrong denied the assault and counter claimed that Ellen had instead attacked her. The magistrate had to deal with several other related summons from various neighbours of the Armstrongs, binding several over on their own recognisances to behave in future. The Maiden Tribute case had clearly polarised opinion in this poor district of London.

Elizabeth was sent to prison for 14 days for being drunk and disorderly and most probably for the attack on the constable, which would not be tolerated by the magistracy in the 1880s. Mr Pain noted that it was not her first appearance or her first conviction at Marylebone and that too counted against her. By 1888 Eliza Armstrong would have been 16 and free to get on with her life, if she was able. With a father in a lunatic ward and a mother in gaol one wonders if that was possible. Stead clearly believed he was doing God’s work in exposing child prostitution but not for the first time one is bound to ask whether journalists and newspaper editors fully consider the effects of their ‘higher’ actions on the ‘ordinary’ people they use along the way.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday 5 August 1888]