No help (or sympathy) for an old ‘hero’ who lashes out

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Thomas Cooney was a crossing sweeper on the Bayswater Road. Sweepers were ‘beggars of a sort, demanding alms in return for a useful, almost essential public service’: clearing a path through the mud that covered most of the capital’s streets and paths.Cooney asked for tips from the ladies and gentlemen that preferred not to drag their crinolines or trouser legs through the filth churned up by countless road users. He could probably find no other work since service in the army had left him crippled with two wooden legs. He drew an army pension of 10s 6a week but that wouldn’t have gone very far in 1859.

Today I doubt that even Esther McVey or Ian Duncan Smith would expect Thomas to work for a living but the Victorian state was much less considerate in giving benefits to those that so obviously needed them. As a result the man with (literally) no legs to stand on was forced to do exactly that, day after day, in all weathers.

Moreover, the local youth had identified him as a figure of fun, worthy of their abuse. Most days a pack of them would taunt him, fling stones and mud at him, and occasionally be brave enough to get close enough to prod him and try to knock him over. What larks!

Cooney retaliated by shouting at them, waving his sticks, throwing stones back, and threatening to ‘do for them’. One day in April 1859 the boys were teasing him and he was chucking stones back when a little girl, just 11 years of age was passing on her way home from school. As she passed Cooney he wacked her with his stick, hitting her in the face, and she ran off home in tears.

Her father was a respectable tradesman living in Blandford Street, just off Manchester Square (where the Wallace Collection is housed today). Mr Woolter was so outraged by the attack on his daughter Anne that he set out at once to confront the crossing sweep. He gave him a piece of his mind but Cooney was far from repentant, instead of an apology all Woolter got was a punch in the mouth. The blow dislodged a tooth and unsettled the rest. Cooney was arrested and produced before Mr Broughton at Marylebone Police court.

The magistrate heard that Cooney had a long history of hitting out at anyone – youths, members of the public, and the police – that encountered him. He was described as a ‘brutal fellow’ and ‘a most desperate character’. I’m sure he was but perhaps he had his reasons. PC Reed (60D) said Cooney had been drinking and had resisted arrest. All Cooney offered by way of a defense was the unceasing abuse he’d received from the boys.

That didn’t wash with Mr Broughton. A respectable citizen and his little girl had been assaulted and the latter was fortunate not to have ‘been killed on the spot’ he declared. The justice requested a certificate from the surgeon that had treated Anne so he could assess the severity of her injuries before passing judgment on Cooney. In the meantime the sweeper was sent to the nearest house of correction to await his fate.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, April 20, 1859]

1 Lee Jackson, Dirty Old London: The Victorian Fight Against Filth, (Yale University Press, 2014), pp.32-3

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]

 

A rubbish thief in Westminster

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Parish Dustman, c.1820

Not for the first time I’m indebted to the curiosity of a fellow historian to make sense of a very short entry in the newspapers covering the Police Courts of the Metropolis in the early 19th century.

In February 1833 the Morning Post reported that John Stockton, ‘a well known flying dustman of Duck-lane, Westminster’ had appeared at the Queen’s Square Police Court charged with theft.

But Stockton hadn’t stolen valuables or money, or even food; he was accused of pinching ‘a quantity of dust’ from the Duke of Leeds in Whitehall. The report, sadly, gave no details of how much dust was stolen, or how the thief was caught. He was found guilty however, and the magistrate handed down a hefty financial penalty of £10.

Stockton didn’t have that kind of money and so he was sent to prison by default.

But what was a ‘flying dustman’?

I hadn’t a clue but I knew Lee Jackson would. His fascinating study of the ‘dirty trades’ of London is an excellent read and his Victorian London webpage is a resource I use all the time.

Dust was a by-product of the burning of fuels like coal and wood, and there was a lot of it. Ratepayers  demanded it was cleared away, and so parish officials employed men to take it away – sometimes carts passed streets twice a week in order to keep up with the mounds of dust and other refuse a huge city like London produced.

But dust also had a value. It could be mixed with other materials to make bricks and was employed for a variety of purposes. So its collection could be profitable and the capital soon spawned its own industry in waste removal. Flying dustmen were so called ‘from their habit of flying from one district to another’, a report into ‘Street Life in London’ from 1877 explained.

We still have ‘dustmen’ today of course, although they rarely collect ‘dust’ and are now given much more modern titles. They continue to remove the stuff we don’t want of course, and are part of wider recycling of materials and ‘rubbish’ that our Victorian ancestors would have understood and approved of.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, February 08, 1833]