Panic on the river as a steamboat heads for disaster.

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Imagine the scene if you can. You are on board a Thames steamer heading towards Battersea Bridge, it is nighttime, on a Sunday, the ship is packed and it is quite dark on the river. Suddenly the boat veers off course and starts to head directly towards the piles of the new bridge, sticking up out of the murky waters of London’s river. As the crew tries to slow the boat or alter its course the passengers panic, screams are heard, and everyone rushes about blindly.

Inevitably the steamer slams into the bridge but fortunately only sustains relatively minor damage. No one is badly hurt and the ship stays afloat. This is no repeat of the Princess Alice disaster of 1878 when 650 people lost their lives. However, that was only 10 years previously and very many of those onboard would have remembered that awful event.

Having secured the ship and its passengers the crew’s next thought was to find out what happened. It quickly became clear that the boat had been sabotaged. The lock pin of the rudder had been unscrewed and removed, causing the vessel to become steer less. Suspicion fell on a group of young men who had been rowdy all evening, pushing and shoving people and generally acting in an anti-social manner as gangs of ‘roughs’ did in the 1880s.

One youth was blamed and brought before the magistrate at Westminster Police court. Remanded and then brought up on Monday 3 September 1888 Sidney Froud, an 18 year-old grocer’s assistant, was accused of ‘maliciously and wantonly interfering with the steering gear’ of the Bridegroom, a Kew steamer. He was further accused of endangering life and causing £30 worth of damage (around £2,500 in today’s money).

The prosecution was brought by the Victoria Steamboat Association (VSA) who were represented by a barrister, Mr Beard. He asked that the case be dealt with under section 36 of the Merchant Shipping Act, where a fine of up to £20 was the penalty. Several members of the crew gave evidence describing the lads as ‘full of mischief’ and testifying to hearing the defendant laugh as the pin was removed.

Froud did not deny his action but his defense brief claimed he had not acted maliciously, saying he had no idea that the consequences would be so severe. His conduct was ‘stupid’ but the ship’s company was negligent in allowing the youths to get so close to such an important part of the ship’s steering mechanism.

Mr D’Eyncourt, presiding, rejected any negligence on the part of the crew or the VSA and found against the lad. The only thing to be considered was his punishment. Mr Dutton for the defense, said he was only being paid 5sa week at the grocers so couldn’t possibly afford a huge fine like £20. His friends were ‘very respectable’ and several persons would testify to his good character. Perhaps a sound thrashing would have sufficed if he was younger he added, but at 18 he was past that.

Mr D’Enycourt listened to all of this carefully and in the end awarded the company 23scosts and fined Froud a further 50s. In total that amounted to almost 15 weeks’ wages for the grocer’s boy, if indeed he kept his job after such a public display of recklessness. I suspect he did because the fine was paid up on the day and he was released to his friends. He was lucky, as were the 100 or more souls that his stupidity had endangered the lives of.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, September 04, 1888]

A boy steals a horse and cart as Whitechapel wakes up to news of a serial killer in its midst

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On Saturday 1 September 1888 the East End was digesting the news that a woman’s dead and mutilated body had been discovered in the early hours of the previous morning. At some point around 3am an unknown killer had attacked and murdered Mary Ann ‘Polly’ Nichols as she walked near the board school in Buck’s Row (now renamed as Durward Street). No one had heard anything despite several people living nearby and there being workmen in the knackers’ yard around the corner.

Polly was the first of the ‘canonical five’ female victims of  ‘Jack the Ripper’ and her death sparked the attention of the world’s press to cover what became known as the ‘Whitechapel murders’. Polly was a desperately poor woman who lived a hand-by-mouth existence, supporting herself by prostitution when she had no other options. She wasn’t alone in being poor, Whitechapel was among the poorest quarters of Victoria’s empire.

Despite the murder in Buck’s Row life went on as normal in the capital police courts and reading the reports from these you would be forgiven for thinking that nothing untoward had happened that week. On the Saturday The Morning Post reported goings on at the Thames Police court, the magistrates’ court that covered part of the East End of London (Worship Street being the other).

There an eleven-year old boy was charged with stealing a horse and cart from a carman while he was delivery goods in Lower East Smithfield. The boy had climbed into the cart and was driving it along Worship Street when he was stopped by PC William Thames (421G). When he asked him what he was doing with a cart the lad replied:

‘I am going to take it home. I have been with the carman to take some goods to Wood-green but the carman got drunk and had to go home by train’.

Later he claimed that the carman had fallen out of the cart. It was a lite and in court it was revealed that this was the firth time young John Coulson had been found in possession of someone else’s vehicle. Given that he was so young this was quite an amazing record and the magistrate  Mr Lushington told his mother that she would be best advised to get her son into an industrial school.

Lushington then had more serious case to deal with. Nathanial Rose was charged with violently assaulting a police officer. PC William Gunther (133H) had been called to attend to an incident on Betts Street, near Cable Street by several local tradesmen. A group of local ‘roughs’ were terrorizing passers-by; pushing them off the street, verbally abusing them, and generally behaving in an anti-social manner. When the policeman reached the scene there were about 10 lads gathered there and he told them all to go home.

He then strolled off thinking his work was done. It wasn’t. Within minutes they jumped him. He was jostled by several lads before Rose hit him on the side of te head with a bottle, cutting his eye. As he recovered they ran off.

PC Gunther knew who the culprit was and once he’d been patched up went round to Rose’s lodgings and arrested him. Mr Lushington sent him to prison for 10 weeks with hard labour.

Over the next three months or more the police of Whitechapel and the East End were kept very busy as a manhunt developed in response to Polly’s killing and the subsequent murders of at least four more poor local women. No one was ever successfully prosecuted for the murders and to this day there is considerable debate as to how many victims were killed and who exactly ‘Jack’ was. We all have our own theories and if you’d like to read mine it is available to buy from Amazon and all good booksellers.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, September 01, 1888 ]

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]

Tears in the dock as a young pickpocket tries to win hearts and minds

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What is the purpose of pockets? Today it seems that they have become a semi-practical part of fashion, not always that useful and sometimes there just for show. In the eighteenth century ‘pocket picking’ was made a capital offences, which suggests that it had become a serious problem. The actual law refers to ‘stealing privately from the person’ – in other words stealing without the victim being aware of it.

It was also one of the earliest forms of theft to be removed from the threat of hanging, along with shoplifting. Both forms of larceny were often committed by women and children and so prosecutors were less inclined to bring a charge and juries reluctant to convict when they knew that it might result in an execution. Today it is unlikely that someone would be sent to prison for picking pockets unless they were a serial offender for whom alternative measures had been tried and had failed.

But let’s return to the pocket.  In the 1600s women used pockets as they might use handbags today. They were usually concealed under their dresses or petticoats, so not as decorative fashion accessories. Men also had pockets and these were sewn into the linings of their clothes, again with the intention that they were not visible.

This meant they were a good place to keep valuables (money, jewelry, papers etc.) It also meant they were targeted by thieves. Pockets would have been of no use if a woman had to take off her outer garments to access her pockets so openings in the outer ware enabled her to reach her concealed pockets. It was through these ‘hidden’ opening that pickpockets were able to strike.

Of course that took skill and an ability to get close to the person for long enough to ‘dip’ their pockets, either removing items or cutting the strings that attached it to your clothes. Women and children were especially good that this because the possessed the manual dexterity to secretly invade another’s clothing and were not seen as of much of a threat when close to you in a crowd.

Pockets went out of fashion for ‘ladies of quality’ in the 1790s, being gradually replaced by the handbag, but remained part of working class clothing and male fashion. I was interested by the following short report of a pickpocketing case from 1859 because the nature of pockets is specifically referred to.

William Burke was brought before Mr Corrie at Clerkenwell Police court accused of picking a man’s pocket. The victim said that he had been walking along the Goswell Road when he felt a tug at his pocket. Looking down he saw Burke – with his handkerchief in his hand – making his escape. The prosecutor rushed after him and caught him up, handing him over to a policeman.

The court was told that several victims had lost handkerchiefs to pick pockets in the area recently and the victim stated that as a result he had started to ask his tailor to make his pockets inside his coat.  Mr Corrie didn’t think that would stop the thieves: he had been having pockets made inside for a while but ‘but still he had his handkerchief taken from his pocket’.

William Burke began to cry – he was only 10 years old after all – but the magistrate (and reporter it seems) dismissed this as a act; an attempt to gain sympathy and ward off a more severe punishment.

Did it work? Well Mr Corrie sentenced the lad to 3 months in the house of correction with hard labour. That seems pretty harsh for a 10 year-old found guilty of stealing a hankie but young William took it well, smiling at the magistrate as he sentenced him.  Perhaps he feared worse.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, August 9, 1859]

‘He bolted across the road like an arrow’: the young man that never listened in school

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As schoolboys we were always being told to avoid pushing and shoving at bus stops. We were to queue quietly, just as we did whilst waiting to enter class or the dining hall. To do otherwise risked both the health and well-being of other travellers (especially elderly ones) and the good reputation of the school. It largely was irrelevant to me since I walked to and from school anyway, but like many things I was taught there, it has remained with me.

George Barratt had not learned any such lesson or, if he had, he chose a different path. He almost certainly lacked the benefit of grammar school education (or much education at all) and in his late teens or early twenties he was living a chaotic life, and stealing to survive.

Mr J H Loongrin was an infirm and elderly man and on Friday 12 July 1889 he was waiting to board an omnibus in the City of London. Suddenly he felted himself being jostled and then pushed forward. He steadied himself but then looked down and saw that the bow of his watch was broken, the section that held it secure in his pocket via a chain. Luckily Mr Loongrin was a cautious soul and always secured his watch using two chains. His watch was still in his pocket.

As he looked up he saw a young man (Barratt) ‘bolt across the road like an arrow’. Loongrin reacted quickly, calling over a nearby police constable and pointing out Barratt’s disappearing form. PC Daly (City) set off after him down Ropemaker Street, eventually finding him hiding in a lavatory at number 9 White Street.

When he was dragged out the constable found he had another watch on his person (presumably stolen earlier) and when he got him to the station investigations revealed a string of previous convictions for theft. Barratt was represented by a lawyer (Mr Purcell) who told alderman Fuadel Phillips that his client would prefer to be dealt with summarily and avoid a jury trial. This was a de facto admission of guilt and the alderman magistrate sent Barratt to prison for three months with hard labour.

The lesson is clear, listen to your teachers and respect the elderly.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, July 15, 1889]

A baby on the tracks and a child in a dustbin; two horror stories from the 1880s

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Lloyd’s weekly round up of ‘Police intelligence’ on Sunday 13 July 1884 contains a fascinating variety of human greed, misery and criminal artfulness. There are possibly a dozen or more cases from a betting scam in the City of London to an assault in Highgate, and the stories reveal the diversity of life in the Victorian capital. Two cases stand out amongst the petty thefts, domestic violence, fraud and juvenile crime reported. Both involve some form of child abuse, and both are quite shocking examples.

Clara Wardle was prosecuted at Thames Police court in the East End of London in very strange circumstances. Clara was seen to place a small child, her own baby, on the tram lines on Commercial Road and then run away. Luckily for the infant John Kerr saw what happened and rushed over and snatched up the child before a rapidly approaching hose and van crushed it under its hooves and wheels. The young lad handed the baby over the police.

Meanwhile another man who had seen what Clara had done chased after her and caught her in a side street. He marched her off to find a policeman and PC Newport (44H) took her into custody and ensured she appeared before Mr Lushington in court the next day.

Clara stood in the dock clutching her baby to her breast and listened as the evidence against her was read out. She told the magistrate that she never intended to hurt the child. She was ‘merely laid the child down to frighten her husband, who she thought would have picked the baby up’.

A report of the incident in a provincial newspaper gives us a little more insight into the case. John Kerr (the rescuer) is reported as telling the magistrate that he saw Clara and a man (presumably her husband) ‘running after a tram-car in Commercial Road’ at about 6 o’clock in the evening. The man boarded the tram ‘leaving the prisoner [Clara] standing in the road. She then deliberately laid her baby on the rails and ran away’.

So her action was part of an argument between her and her husband that almost led to the death of a baby. Perhaps he was leaving her, or simply had had enough of the row and saw an opportunity to escape quickly. Lushington remanded her for further inquiries, presumably to bring her husband in to see what he had to say about the matter.

South of the river, at Lambeth, two young boys were placed in the dock once more having been remanded a few days earlier by Mr Chance. Their crime was arguably even worse than Clara, since they acted deliberately and with malice. The lads were about 10-12 years of age and they were accused of having taken away a boy of 7 or 8 and forcing him inside a dustbin.

George Steeden and Stephen Murphy had taken Henry Douglas to a house in Penge and imprisoned him in a dustbin by loading bricks on the lid so he couldn’t climb out again. They’d trapped him in the 4 ½ foot deep bin at around five in the evening and by their own confession had left him there ‘to be found dead, so they might afterwards get a reward for the discovery of the body’.

Young Henry was locked into his intended tomb for nearly 17 hours, being discovered around one in the afternoon of the following day. It must have been a terrifying and traumatizing experience for the child. The magistrate said it was one of the ‘most serious cases he had ever had before him with regard to boys’. Steeden had been in trouble with the law before so Mr Chance ordered that he be given ‘six strokes of the rod’ before being sent to an Industrial School until he reached 16. Murphy was sent back to the workhouse where he’d been held on remand while the court decided what to do with him.

Despite the newsworthiness of both of these stories the papers seemed to have lost interest at this point. I’ve therefore no idea whether Stephen Murphy was considered the lesser of the two ‘evils’ and allowed to go home or if he too was sent to a reformatory or industrial school. Clara clearly needed help or at least a reconciliation with her husband. The court might have had her examined to determine the state of her mental health; if she was found to be insane then she risked being sent to an asylum. If her husband had abandoned her then the 28 year-old women might end up destitute and in the workhouse. Either way her future looked uncertain at best.

For many of those reading the ‘Sundays’ over their breakfast or supper these were the lives ‘others’; part of the world outside their comfortable homes and about people that they did not know, nor wanted to know. They would have been shocked certainly, disgusted and angered probably, but amused and entertained as well, such was the purpose of the ‘crime news’ in the nineteenth century.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, July 13, 1884; The Hampshire Advertiser, Saturday, July 12, 1884]

Five go wild in Wardour Street…until the police pick them up

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I can imagine that for some parents making sure their children go to (and stay at) school can be something of a challenge. The Police courts of late Victorian London fairly regularly witnessed prosecutions of fathers who were accused of allowing their sons and daughters (but usually sons) to play truant.  Fines were handed down which did little to help because in some instances parents needed the children at home to help either with piece work or, more often, to care for infants or elderly relatives while they went out to work.

Some tried very hard to ensure their offspring gained an education but this could be hard when the kids didn’t have boots or decent clothes to go to school in. We shouldn’t underestimate the extent to which pride existed in working-class communities where maintaining an image of ‘respectability’ was every bit as important to them as it was to the middle classes with whom the term is often more associated.

There was tremendous poverty in 1880s London but that didn’t mean that families were not striving every day to keep standards up. Mrs Rochford and her neighbours seemed to fighting a losing battle with their collective brood of five youngsters. Walter Rochford (11) and his brother  James (10) appeared in court at Marlborough Street alongside Ernest Flowers (10), Albert Carey (11) and Thomas Copeland, who was just 8. This ‘interesting youthful quintette’ as the paper described them, had been picked up by the police because they were begging in Wardour Street.

Four of them had no boots and they all hailed from Hammersmith, quite some distance away. Their mothers were in court to answer for them and to listen to the story they gave Mr De Rutzen.

The boys said that they often played truant from Board school, preferring instead to hide their boots in an empty house in Shepherds Bush to go begging house to house or in the streets. They slept in empty properties, tramcars and one even admitted to occupying a dog kennel! If they were ‘nice’ children in the countryside the whole episode would have something of Enid Blyton about it.

But they weren’t. They were five ‘little urchins’ and their mothers were at their wits end, not knowing how to control them. Some of them had been absent from home now for a week and so sending them to Board school was clearly pointless.

The magistrate had a solution however, he would have them confined in an industrial school, where they wouldn’t be able to run amok or indeed run anywhere without permission. It would probably mean the five would be broken up and would be separated from their families. I have no idea whether the parents were consulted or merely told this would be happening, but under the terms of industrial schools, they would (if they could) be expected to contribute something to their care.

The five boys were dispatched to the workhouse while the industrial school officer was sent for to determine their fates.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, June 12, 1887]