Crossed wires in the early days of telecommunications.

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Earlier this week, as I drove out of north London on my way to the motorway, I passed a mother and child waiting at a bus stop. The child was about 6 or 7 and she was looking intently at a mobile phone, playing a game I imagine. I looked to her mother who was also completely absorbed in her device, with no obvious connection to her daughter at all. This is modern Britain I thought.

We all rely on our phones today, but rarely actually as devices to speak to anyone on. Instead we communicate by text, direct message, emojii, or post and respond to updates on social media. Our ‘smart phones’ are powerful computers that allow us access to more information than even our recent ancestors could imagine as well as a host of entertainment in the form of films, music, games and reading material. Indeed, you may well be reading this blog post on your mobile device.

The telephone was invented (as every school pupil used to be taught*) by Alexander Graham Bell in 1875. He applied for a patent in the US and brought his invention to England in 1878 and tried it out on Queen Victoria, making calls from her house at Osborne on the Isle of Wight. Thomas Edison developed the technology at much the same time so we have two men vying for the accolade of inventing the telephone.

In 1879 the Telephone Company Ltd opened two exchanges in London (one in the City on Leadenhall Street, the other at 3 Palace Chambers in Westminster). A telephone service then, was up and running in the Metropolis and rivals soon started to get in on the game.

Most of the technological advances we associate with ‘modern’ Britain were born out of intense competition (the train, tram, and omnibus for example) and London was at the heart of capitalist innovation. So it is no surprise to find that as early as 1883 (just 6 or 7 years after Bell’s breakthrough) that this competition resulted in prosecutions at London’s Police courts.

In May 1883 Theodore Torrey , the manager of the Globe Telephone Company, and two of his employees – William Goodfellow and James Molyneaux – appeared to answer a summons at the Guildhall. The summons had been taken out by the United Telephone Company (UTC) and accused Torrey and his team of ‘wilfully and maliciously tying up their wires’.

This then, was an early case of industrial sabotage with the aim of putting a rival out of business (or at least stealing a march on their custom).

Both firms were represented by legal teams and it was made clear that this situation was already the subject of a civil case in the court of Chancery. There an injunction had been granted against the Globe Company which ordered the wires to be untied. Globe had appealed this decision and the case rattled on (as they tended to in Chancery).

However, at Guildhall the lawyers for the UTC argued that this was actually a criminal case (one of damage) and so should be heard separately. The two sets of legal minds argued this out for a while before Sir Robert Carden (sitting as magistrate in Guildhall) before he decided that he couldn’t see enough daylight between the two points of view to make a judgement at this time.

The lawyer for the prosecution – a Mr Grain – said that the company wanted to get the situation resolved because at present the United Company’s customers were being inconvenienced. They had literally got their wires crossed he stated. For the defence Mr Lewis countered that the reason the wires were tied by his clients was because they were in the way, pointing out that the UTC had sent them over the Wool Exchange ‘purposely to interfere with their wires’. In fact, he said, they weren’t even genuine wires but dummy ones, simply placed there to cause inconvenience. If they were removed then the case in Chancery might proceed more quickly.

The magistrate could not untangle this tricky legal argument and so he adjourned the case for a few days, perhaps so heads might cool and private lines of communication between the warring firms might succeed where the public ones had failed. This was one of those ‘first world’ problems for most Londoners of course; very few people had access to a telephone in 1883 or even knew how to use one. How things have changed.

[from The Standard, Friday, May 25, 1883]

* Now they can just ‘google it’.

Be careful who you drink with, and how much you imbibe! A cautionary tale from the 1820s.

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Bow Street Police Office, c.1825 (by J. Winston)

In 1827 the Metropolitan Police were still a pipe dream; Peel may well have envisaged them but there was still considerable resistance to the idea of a state run uniformed police force in England. In London policing was still the responsibility of the parish and the Police Offices staffed by ‘runners’, the principal one being at Bow Street.

In May of that year several persons turned up at the Registrar’s Office in Chancery Lane, to receive the confirmation and certificates for a legacy that had been rumbling through the civil court for some time. William Jones had finally got his hands on his inheritance, a sum of £355 16and 2d. That was a considerable and potentially life-changing amount of money in 1827, representing about £24,000 today. That equated to about 6 years’ wages for a skilled craftsman.

William was accompanied to the registrars (and then to the Bank of England) by his wife, his younger brother, and a Thomas Jones (who ‘was in some degree related to him’). The group were joined by Jones’ solicitor and his clerk. At the bank the legacy was paid out in five £50 notes, some £20 and a large amount of coin.

Having secured his fortune William Jones now invited his family and friends to dine with him at a chophouse in Mansion House street before some of the party went on to a pub in Welbeck Street, off Cavendish Square. There the celebrations began in earnest and it seems the drink was flowing. until late in the evening.

Finally William, much the worse for drink, was bundled into a cab with his wife, brother and Thomas Jones and ferried back to his home in Draper’s Court, London Wall where he was helped to his bed.

In the morning he awoke with a sore head. That much was expected but much worse was the discovery that some of his money was missing. He’d lost one £50 note and two £20s. That might not sound much to us but it was about £6,000; he certainly hadn’t run up that sort of a bill in the pub!

He immediately went back to the Bank of England and, having been wise enough to note down the numbers of the bank notes, had the stopped. later that day one of the notes was tendered in payment for some boots at a shop in Oxford Street and the notes were traced because the purchaser had been required to give his name and address.

All of this investigation was carried out by Mr Jones not by the police, and he managed to find out that the thief was none other than his ‘some degree’ relative, Thomas Jones.  Since Thomas gave his real address, in Praed Street, Paddington, he was quickly apprehended by an officer from Bow Street (a ‘runner’) and brought before the magistrate. He was committed for trial at the Old Bailey where he was acquitted.

I can only imagine the jury were unconvinced by the evidence presented which, while it seemed to prove that Jones had tried to spend the missing money, did not really show that he had stolen it. It therefore wasn’t beyond ‘all reasonable doubt’ and the young man got away with it.  Of course it may be that the jury were simply jealous of Jones’ good fortune and, with typical English mean spiritedness, quite glad to see that he’d lost his money when he’d allowed himself to be robbed whilst in a state of inebriation. ‘Serves him right’, they might have concluded.

[from The Morning Post , Thursday, May 10, 1827]

‘Oh, mother, have I killed him?’ Manslaughter as two boys go toe-to-toe.

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Greenwich Pier, c.1850

Today’s story will unfold in two parts and starts at the Greenwich Police court in April 1858.

William Sellis, aged just 12, was brought up before Mr Traill charged with causing the death of another boy in a fight. John Thomas Bolton (who was 13) had died following a clash in Wellington Street. What made this tragedy all the more interesting (from a newspaper’s point of view) was that Sellis was not some street urchin but the son of ‘respectable parents’ from Rotherhithe and that a police inspector was also charged as an accessory.

It was not the first hearing in the case and so some of the details were already in the public domain. Inspector Henry Hambrook of the Thames Police was accused of egging Sellis on, and urging him to target his victim:

“Give it him right and left, and hit him once under the ear, and he won’t want to fight again” he was alleged to have told the youngster.

The boys were fighting toe-to-toe as in a prizefight and Bolton was slightly taller. Two more rounds elapsed before Sellis applied the advice the inspector had given him and connected with his opponent just below the ear. According to witnesses Bolton fell to the ground, screamed and curled himself into a defensive ball. Sellis was horrified at what he’d done running home and yelling ‘Oh, mother, have I killed him?’ before going on to the doctors to see how his victim was.

In court the inspector’s lawyer pleaded on behalf of his client, emphasising his long service and the effect that any stain on his character would have on his pension and retirement. He’d served at Thames for 15 or 16 years and was currently off work on sick leave.

None of this cut much ice with the magistrate. Mr Traill said that someone with Hambrook’s knowledge of the law and position in the community should have known better than to encourage such violence.

‘It was a most abominable act’ he said adding that ‘it was the duty of every person to prevent a breach of the peace; and when an officer of the peace, who had been connect with the police’ for such a long time ‘took no steps to prevent such an act, but assisted, he thought it a most shameful proceeding’.

However, Traill didn’t seem inclined to formally commit the policeman as an accessory as he wasn’t sure the evidence of intent was there. Mr Solomon, Hambrook’s lawyer, wanted his client to speak in his own defence but the justice was not inclined to hear him. Solomon pressed his case saying that if only Handbrook could explain he was sure he would be exonerated. Finally Mr Traill agreed, and it proved to be a mistake on the defence’s part.

Hambrook chose to challenge the various witnesses that had already testified to his involvement but each one stuck to their evidence and left the inspector high and dry. The magistrate now committed both the lad and the police inspector to trial for the killing of John Bolton. Hambrook was bailed but Sellis, despite the coroner being happy to allow, was refused bail and taken away to a cell to await his transfer to trial later in the year.

I will look at that trial and its aftermath in tomorrow’s blog.

[from The Standard , Monday, April 26, 1858]

A fanatic causes a disturbance at St Paul’s.

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It was midday on 24 April 1883 and the verger to the Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral (a Mr Green) was close by the choir with his assistant. He noticed a well-dressed respectable looking man marching towards the altar with some determination. As he got close he clambered over the rope that divided the area from the public space and would have reached the communion table had Mr Green not stopped him.

There was no service at that time and no good reason for the man to be where he was. The man now demanded that the verger remove the cross and the candlesticks from the table at once, a request that Green, not surprisingly refused to comply with.

This angered the man who insisted again, trying to push past to implement his will himself. With some effort Green and his assistant prevented him and when the man refused to stand aside they called for a policeman to take him into custody.

So exactly what was all this fuss about? This became clear later that day when the verger and the intruder appeared before the alderman magistrate at the Mansion House Police court.

The defendant gave his name as William Handsley Podmore, 61 years of age and a solicitor. He was charged with making a disturbance in the cathedral, not a very serious offence in the eyes of the law but an unusual one for a man of such standing in society. Indeed, when the policeman was summoned Podmore warned the verger that he himself was a magistrate and he would ‘make him remember this one day’.

In court Podmore at first conducted his own defence, insisting that he had every right to ask for the candles and the cross to be removed:

‘On principal’, he declared, ‘I maintain that they have no right to be in a Protestant Church. I said I insisted on their being removed, and I will have them removed’.

The verger’s assistant was called to testify and supported his colleague’s account adding that the solicitor had acted very oddly that lunchtime. He had told them both that he’d been to the cathedral ‘1800 years ago, and made other strange statements’. He had even suggested he was Jesus Christ himself the verger’s assistant told a presumably stunned courtroom. William Podmore dismissed this as ‘nonsense’. He insisted he was within his rights and was a upstanding citizen. He ‘held five appointments in the City’ he added, and was a ‘Master Extraordinary of the Court of Chancery’.

The alderman, Sir Robert Carden, seemingly chose to humour the aged lawyer. If he didn’t like ‘ornaments in the church’ why did he go there? There were plenty of other churches he could worship in in the city after all.

‘I will go there’, insisted Podmore, ‘and I will pull them down. It is simply Romanism in our Protestant Evangelical Church’ adding that ‘these accused things should [not] be allowed to remain’.

A character witness appeared next to vouch for Podmore. Mr Crawford was a fellow solicitor who had known the defendant for years as well-respected member of the community, he soon took over his friend’s defence. He thought he must be ill if he was acting in this way because it was entirely out of character. Podmore was a Commissioner for Oaths and he hoped the alderman would be satisfied by a promise from the defendant not to enter St Paul’s ever again.

However, he added that he thought a shame that it had come to court at all. He alluded to recent changes at the cathedral that were not to everyone’s liking and Sir Robert agreed. However, whilst he might think it fitting to express his ‘disapproval at the extraordinary change which had taken place in the service at the cathedral, he should not think of disturbing the service because he disliked it’.

Reynold’s Newspaper ‘headlined’ its reports as ‘another disturbance at St. Paul’s’ suggesting Podmore wasn’t the only person unhappy that whatever changes had been taking place. The justice decided that he wanted to hear from the Dean and Chapter about the changes that were happening at St Paul’s so adjourned the case for a week, bailing Podmore on his own recognizances.

A week later Mr Podmore was back and the Dean and Chapter chose not to press charges. They insisted that they did so because it was their belief that the solicitor was ‘not responsible for his actions at the time of the occurrences’ (suggesting he was suffering from a mental illness). However there was a little more detail to this that emerged in Reynolds’ account of the second hearing. The Dean and Chapter wanted to make it clear to the public – through the auspices of the magistracy – that disturbances at the cathedral should not be allowed to continue.

‘St. Paul’s was the cathedral church of London’, they insisted, and its services were attended by large congregations. There was no knowing what might be the result to life and limb if any scare or panic arose through the act of a fanatic, and in these days especially when the public mind was excited by recent threats against public buildings, the dean and chapter had a great weight of anxiety resting on their shoulders’.

Sir Robert Carden agreed that Podmore was ‘in the wrong’ and the solicitor himself (while insisting he was not out of his mind) accepted his responsibility and his ‘little want of judgement’. He said he hoped the law would change so such ‘ornaments would soon be removed in a legal manner’.   He was released on his own sureties of £50 to not disturb the peace in future but the magistrate added a warning that the leniency he’d shown to Mr Podmore was on account of his infirmity and character, he would come down hard if there were any further attempts to disturb the peace of Wren’s masterpiece.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, April 25, 1883; Reynolds’s Newspaper , Sunday, April 29, 1883; The Standard, Wednesday, May 02, 1883; Reynolds’s Newspaper , Sunday, May 6, 1883]

‘They have treated my young lady shamefully’: a schoolmaster has his day in court

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In the early modern period the Church (consistory) courts were sometimes used to prosecute individuals for defamation. Tim Meldrum (who taught me when I was an undergraduate) discussed how the London consistory courts were used by women who wanted to defend themselves against accusations of sexual misconduct – the oft heard cries of ‘whore!’ By the eighteenth century libels such as this were being dealt with by the magistracy within a wider application of the laws surrounding assault. Assault, which we normally associate with violence, could also involve threats and words deemed to cause an offence.

There is a kind of logic here: insults and attacks on the character of individuals undermined good social relations and it was the key role of the magistrate in the long eighteenth century to preserve the peace within society. Libel is often deemed to be more serious because it usually involves written statements of defamation. In the late 1800s it carried the possibility of a hefty fine or imprisonment by default and so we are more likely to find these cases at the Old Bailey or pursued privately through the civil courts if the plaintiffs had the money to do so.

In 1878 Robert John Pitt placed an advertisement in the papers for a nurse. Pitt was an agent (we don’t know in what business) operating out of premises in Bread Street in the City of London. John Minton, a schoolmaster, saw the advert and called at the address listed to say that he knew of a suitable candidate for the post.

The young woman in question lived in Wales but was keen to come to the capital. The reason she was so eager to come it seems, was because she and Minton were in a relationship. Whether this was made clear to Mr Pitt at the time is unknown.

The woman was taken on but very soon dismissed on the grounds, Pitt said, that she ‘was not at all what he expected’. Pitt complained to Minton that:

‘she was dirty in her habits, and he asked her to remonstrate with her’.

She emerged in a hearing at the Mansion House Police court in April 1883, where it was reported in The Standard. The case was presented by Mr Nicholls, a lawyer engaged on behalf of Mr Pitt. The Lord Mayor was in the chair and he made it clear that it wasn’t his role to judge the case, simply to determine whether a libel had occurred and so the charge should be passed to be heard by a jury.

Following the dismissal of the unnamed Welsh girl from the Pitt household nothing had been heard from Minton or the woman Mr Nicholls told the court. Then, in late 1882 a number of letters began to arrive in Bread Street. These affected ‘the character of himself and his wife’ and at first he simply burned them.

When they started to become more frequent he took it more seriously and kept them. The letters contained statements that could not be repeated in court, the lawyer declared, so we might assume the language used was defamatory or the accusations made scandalous. The reading public probably did want to know but, like us, they were kept in the dark to preserve public decency and the good name of Mr Pitt and his spouse.

Mr Pitt appeared and proved the receipt of the letters by producing some of them in court. The case was serious enough for the police to pursue it and detective-sergeant Brett testified that he had been despatched to Wales to arrest Minton and bring him to London. He’d served a warrant on him at West Street, Pembroke Dock on the previous Wednesday and he had accompanied him back to the capital, he now produced him before the Lord Mayor.

Minton had come quietly and happily stating:

‘Yes, I have been expected this; I have the whole of my defence ready. I will fight it out, as they have treated my young lady shamefully’, adding, ‘I do not wish to evade the matter, two of the letters are signed in my own name’.

The nurse, it was revealed, was now Mrs Minton. The case was adjourned until the following week while the Lord Mayor considered what he’d heard. A week later Minton was back up before the Lord Mayor and a handwriting expert confirmed that the letters and postcards sent were written by the schoolmaster. After a lengthy cross-examination of the witnesses involved the Lord Mayor decided there was enough evidence to send this for a formal trial and committed Minton but bailed him on his own recognizances of £40.

He appeared at the Old Bailey on the 30 April that year where he pleaded guilty to libelling MRs Elizabeth Pitt. He was sent to prison for a month, fined £30 and ordered to enter into recognizances (of a further £30) not to repeat the offence again. Imprisonment must had meant that he too would lose his job, and his reputation – important for even a lowly schoolmaster – so the future for this married couple must have been an uncertain one. One does wonder what exactly he wrote about Mrs Pitt and what his future wife’s experience was of working there. What exactly were the ‘dirty habits’ that the Pitts complained of? Sadly, since he pleaded guilty and no details were therefore given in court, we can only imagine.

[from The Standard, Saturday, April 07, 1883; The Standard, Saturday, April 14, 1883]

Much ado about nothing? Cheesy goings on at Smithfield at Easter

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Easter fell on the 1 April on only four occasions in the nineteenth century: 1804, 1866, 1877, and 1888. On Easter Sunday 1877 there were the usual series of reports from the Police Courts of the metropolis. There was ‘brutality’ at Lambeth as a 28 year-old labourer was charged and convicted of beating his wife; he went to prison for three months. At Hammersmith, in a report captioned ‘ruffianism’, John Slade was sent away for four months for assaulting a policeman in the course of his duty.

At Bow Street there was a most unpleasant accusation of child rape (under the title ‘alleged bestiality’), while at Clerkenwell a costermonger’s wife was in the dock for attacking her husband. But the case I’m going to recount today is a less unpleasant one; something cheery for this Easter Sunday for  change. And as it headed up all the reports on that day perhaps that was the intention of the editor of Reynold’s Newspaper, to bring a little ‘good news’ to his readers.

Under the title, ‘a singular charge of theft’, the paper described the appearance at the Guildhall Police Court of Ruth Thornton who was accused of stealing a cheese from a shop in the City.

The charge was brought by Charles Parsons, a butcher working at the London Central Meat Market (Smithfield). He told the magistrate, Mr Alderman Ellis, that at times he worked for Mr Turner who ran a cheese shop at number 254 in the market. He explained that:

‘it was their practice to have cheese exposed for sale in pieces on the shop-board, from which customers selected those they liked, and then took them into the shop to get weighed and then to pay for them’.

He said he saw Mrs Thornton pick up a cheese and walk into the crowded shop. There were lots of customers pressing to get to the counter to pay but Parsons was sure he saw the lady place the cheese in her basket then, as she got close to the counter, turn around and walk out without paying.

He followed quickly and stopped her, demanding to know what she had in her basket.

‘Why cheese, to be sure’, she replied.

Parsons then accused her of theft which she denied. She said she’d paid for it with half a crown and received one and half pence change. The cheese weighed 4lbs 2oz and was priced at six and half pence a pound. She was very precise about this but Parsons didn’t believe her and instead of taking her back to the shop to verify her version of events he handed her over to the first police constable her found.

The police called for Mr Turner to come to the station to give his account but he refused, saying he knew nothing of the affair. In court Mrs Thornton’s lawyer, a Mr Chapman, pressed the butcher as to whether Turner had said he didn’t know whether the cheese had been paid for or had said he couldn’t recall it being paid for. The defence was trying attempting (successfully it seems) to create some doubt about the butcher’s insistence that Ruth had not paid for the cheese in her basket.

The shop was busy, he explained, his client was adamant that she’d paid and her story was entirely consistent; to the butcher, the police and now here, in the Guildhall. Moreover she had been willing to go back to the shop with the assistant when he had stopped her but he had insisted on taking this to law.

Parsons had acted prematurely and had had a respectable woman taken into custody. Mrs Turner had given a correct address to the police (5 Charles Villas, Stratford). Moreover she had plenty of money on her that day (£1 13s 6d) so there was no reason for her to have stolen the cheese. Mr Ellis was of the opinion that there was insufficient evidence to convict the prisoner before him and so he discharged her.

His decision was ‘met with applause’. The only person unhappy about it was Parsons, who had to go back to his employer to break the bad news that first, he’d lost the case (and so if she had stolen the cheese, the value of it) and second (and worse) that Mr Turner’s good reputation had been a little tarnished in the process.

Happy Easter, Passover or Eostre to all of you.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, April 1, 1877]

A practised thief accepts prison as ‘an occupational hazard’.

Any Gentleman Oblige A Lady Cassells Family Mag 1885

Public transport brought people of all stations of life together in the crowded Victorian metropolis. Contemporaries worried about the collapse of the natural barriers of class, particularly on the railways where women travelling alone were vulnerable to unwanted male attention. The London omnibus also provided the city’s thieves with plenty of opportunities to prey on the unsuspecting or careless commuter and practised pickpockets could hope to avoid detection most of the time.

Occasionally however they weren’t so lucky and risked an appearance before a Police Court magistrate, or worse – a sessions or Old Bailey jury – and the very real prospect of prison. I suspect many of them – like the fictional ‘Norman Stanley Fletcher’ of BBC’s Porridge – accepted this as ‘an occupational hazard’. If you chose to ‘pick a pocket or two’ then every now and then you would get caught.

This is what happened to one ‘respectably dressed’ woman named Jane Clark. Jane was riding on an omnibus in Oxford Street and keeping her wits about her for her next opportunity to ‘dip’. This arrived in the person of Mrs Amy Massy, a resident of Great Titchfield Street in Fitzrovia.

Mrs Massy was seated on the ‘bus and probably didn’t even notice the unremarkable woman sat beside her. Something moved her to become concerned however, and she reached into her pocket to ‘see if her purse was safe’. To her horror she discovered that the elastic band she used to keep it secure had been forced off and ‘two sovereigns had been taken from it’.

Amy called the conductor and accused her neighbour on the ‘bus of stealing them. She claimed she’d seen Jane’s hand ‘in her pocket’ but I doubt she did. If Jane Clark was a practised thief then it is highly unlikely anyone saw anything untoward. However, in order to secure a conviction it was imperative that someone witnessed the ‘private theft from the person’ that the law defined.

Jane denied the theft and no coins were found on her or, at first at least, on the omnibus. Later though a young lad named Henry Taylor found two sovereigns on the floor of the bus when it reached Islington. He handed them in and they were eventually traced back to Mrs Massy after a police investigation.

On the following day Jane Clark was set before the Police magistrate at Marlborough Street, Mr Tyrwhitt, where she was defended by Mr Lewis, a lawyer. Jane again denied the theft and Mr Lewis tried to suggest that Mrs Massy had dropped the coins when she took out her handkerchief to wipe her face. The magistrate said he was minded to send the case for a jury to decide; there was considerable doubt here as to whether Jane was guilty after all. But this wasn’t at all popular with the defendant.

It is quite likely that Jane Clark was a known offender and would be exposed as such at the Middlesex Sessions. If a jury convicted her she might face a lengthy spell inside and that was to be avoided at all costs. Mr Lewis pleaded with the justice to deal with the case summarily. Tyrwhitt was reluctant at first and even offered to bail Jane in the interim.

In the end Jane agreed to plead guilty (as was her right after 1855) and the magistrate sentenced her to two months in prison with hard labour, not ideal but not penal servitude with all that included. Jane would be back on the streets by the summer, and able to go back to ‘work’ on the thousands of tourists that rode the ‘buses of the Victorian capital.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, March 23, 1865]