Two classes collide in central London

813945

An 1850s omnibus

Recently I have become quite interested in the dynamics of traffic in Victorian London. I’m not normally so fascinated about the minutiae of everyday life but I’m writing a book which explores the Whitechapel murders of 1888 and posits a potential solution. Myself and my co-researcher suggest that the transport network of the capital might well be an important factor in the murder series for reasons which, well, I just cant go into before the book goes to print. I’ll keep you informed.

With transport in mind today’s story concerns a collision, between an old form of transport (an open carriage – not unlike that which carried Harry and Meghan away from their wedding) and a ‘modern’ one (an omnibus). It took place at mid century and also brings together members of very different classes in Victorian society.

Lady Thesiger, the wife of Sir Frederick Thesiger the Conservative politician (and future Lord Chancellor) was sitting in an open carriage while it moved slowy along on Cockspur Street. It was a Tuesday afternoon and it was clear and dry, as the carriage’s hood was down and Lady Thesiger had a good view of the street around her.

As her coachman began a manoeuvre to cross the road and ‘park’ outside Strongi’th’arm’ the engraver’s shop, she saw an omnibus travelling quite fast in their direction. Her coach driver waived at the ‘bus driver but he either didn’t see the signal or ignored it. She later described what happened to the sitting magistrate at Marlborough Street Police court:

 ‘She saw the omnibus coming along very fast, and her impression at that moment was that the omnibus would run into the carriage. In an instant afterwards she found the pole of the omnibus across her chest and the head of one of the horses in her lap. It was a miracle she escaped serious injury’.

That a collision took place was not in doubt but when it came to court, and the omnibus driver – Roberts – was charged, a debate ensued as to whose fault it was.

After Lady Thesiger had given her testimony Mr Bingham heard from several other witnesses who corroborated her version of events. They deposed that the carriage was travelling at a sedate 5 miles and hour while the omnibus was doing nearly twice that. We might note that neither vehicle was going very fast by modern standards.

Roberts offered an alterative explanation of what had happened. He said the he’d been going downhill at ‘a moderate pace’ when the carriage had moved over to the wrong side of the road and into his path. The coachman had not indicated what he was doing and by then it was impossible for him to avoid the collision. It wasn’t his fault; it was Lady Thesiger’s driver’s.

He brought witnesses that backed him up including a local baker who had seen the whole thing unfold. He refuted the evidence about the speed of the vehicles, arguing that it was carriage that was moving more quickly. He said that the carriage driver should have waited until it was safe to cross the street and not have simply turned into the flow of the traffic.

Mr Bingham now had a couple of things to consider, one of law and one of fact, as he put it. The point of law was who had the right to cross the road in this case, while the fact referred to whether the coachman had given a signal or not, and if this signal had been seen or ignored by the omnibus driver ‘because he had more weight of metal with him’.

I think by that he meant simply that the omnibus driver was larger and so less bothered about a collision because it wasn’t his vehicle that was likely to get damaged by it. As someone who drives up and down the motorway several days a week in a small car I am quite aware of the careless driving of some larger vehicles who clearly think they are unlikely to come off as badly as me if I fail to avoid hitting them when they’ve pulled out in front of me.

So in the end the magistrate reserved judgement so he could make some enquiries. He promised an early verdict and was back in court the very next day to deliver it. He gave a lengthy explanation of his judgement which basically concluded that had the omnibus driver acted carelessly or wilfully then it would have constituted an act of ‘wilful and  perverse recklessness’ and he could impose a penalty. However, Mr Bingham didn’t believe that had been proved in court and so he dismissed the complaint but said that the Thesigers could of course take this before the civil courts.

Interestingly at that moment Sir Frederick was also in the courts, as a defence lawyer in a libel case. He lost that one too.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, May 24, 1850; The Morning Chronicle , Saturday, May 25, 1850]

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

images

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]

A ‘long firm’ swindle on Kingsland Road

887d9b125c16f951f948a7a9972e29c1

The long firm fraud – where a criminal organisation sets up a seemingly legitimate business (such a distribution warehouse) for illegitimate purposes – was a noted practice of 1960s gangsters like the Kray brothers, Reggie and Ronnie. The deception featured at the heart of Jake Arnott’s 1999 novel about the fictional criminal gang leader, Harry Starks. But long firm frauds weren’t new in the 1960s as this case demonstrates, they were well known in the 1880s if not earlier.

William Hammond (an agent in the leather trade) appeared at Worship Street Police Court in March 1883 charged with ‘having conspired [with two other men] to cheat and defraud Samuel Chittick by fraudulently removing certain goods with an intent to prevent an execution for an unsatisfied judgement’.

In layman’s terms what this meant was that Hammond had run up large debts (to the tune of £167 the court heard) and Chittick had been forced to take him to law to recover his money. Hammond operated out of premises on Kingsland Road in north-east London but when a sheriff turned up to remove goods and chattels to the value of the debt he ‘found them empty’.

Chittick’s lawyer declared that he would prove that Hammond had:

‘actively assisted in removing the goods, leather and machinery, and further that he had said Mr Chittick would not get a farthing of his money’.

But there was more the lawyer insisted. He didn’t believe that Hammond’s co-accused (a man named Thomas Marshall) was as culpable, the real villain was the leather salesman.  He told the magistrate – Mr Bushby – that he could prove that Hammond had set up the business as a fraudulent venture. Marshall had already been convicted in the previous year of fraud at this address but now he was able to provide evidence that Hammond was the main operator. It was Hammond who had set up the false business and installed Marshall to run it.

He said that ‘goods were obtained merchants ostensibly for the purposes of legitimate business, but instead of the goods being used in the way of fair trade, they were removed in bulk from the premises soon after delivery, and sent to a firm carrying on business as Lodes and Son at Norwich, and sold under cost price’.

This was, he hoped Mr Bushby would official record, a ‘mere “long firm” swindle.

Hammond had escaped the law for some time by relocating himself to Norfolk but had made the mistake of suing a local newspaper there for libel because it had accused him of carrying on  similar racket in Norwich. This backfired and he had been arrested and convicted there. After his conviction he had been handed over the Metropolitan Police who were keen to question him about the Kingsland Road case.

Several people testified to the truth of the lawyer’s allegations and the magistrate remanded Hammond in custody, waiving away the prisoner’s request to be granted bail. Hammond was eventually tried at the Old Bailey in April that year. He was convicted and sentenced to nine months imprisonment at hard labour.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, March 06, 1883]

Libel and crim.con as the ‘better sort’ are dragged through the Police Courts

mw258769

Sir Albert de Rutzen

Most of those appearing before the police magistrates of London were members of the working class. The vast majority were being prosecuted for all manner of petty and not so petty forms of crime and violence. When the more ‘respectable’ middle classes appeared it was usually as witnesses or victims (although there were plenty of these from the lower order as well – especially women) and the very wealthy rarely feature in the newspapers reports. T

here were exceptions however.

Crime was big news in the Victorian press and the daily ‘doings’ of the police courts are testament to the popularity of this amongst the reading public, of all classes it should be said. Alongside the police court news and the more sensational ‘murder news’ were the reports of adultery served up as scandal for public consumption. ‘Criminal conservation (or ‘crim. con’) cases offered readers a peep into the bedrooms of the rich and famous. This was where the ‘better sorts’ made the pages of the newspapers for reasons they would rather have kept to themselves.

Often linked eventually to divorce, crim.con proceedings were a legal procedure  whereby one man sued another for having an affair with his wife (on the basis that he could claim financial damages, as his wife was his property).

In February 1886 two wealthy individuals appeared at Marylebone Police court represented by their lawyers. Mr St. John Wontner was there to defend his client, Robert Bailey, against a charge of libelling the elaborately entitled Charles V. J. Frieden de Friedland and for assaulting him at the theatre.

The reporter is fairly careful to skirt around the issue at the centre of this case; namely that both men appear to have been having a relationship with the same woman, a woman that neither of them was married to. Her name was Mrs Astay and it isn’t clear whether she was married or a widow.

The magistrate, Sir Albert De Rutzen, was at pains to try and keep any of the details behind the libel accusation  out of his courtroom but, since some evidence had to be offered (so a formal committal could be made),  this was fairly difficult and ultimately impossible.

Prosecuting, Mr Lickfold explained that his client was a member of the Supper Club which had a premises in Paris and at Langham Place in London. Mr de Friedland was staying in London and had been receiving ‘communications’ from Mr Bailey.

These were quite unpleasant and contained ‘threats , and were written in a language quite unfit for publication’. Bailey and de Friedland had then met at the Alhambra in Leicester Square where they had argued.

Bailey had, he alleged:

‘knocked the Complainant’s hat of and abused him. In fact the conduct of the Defendant had been so bad that, unless restrained, the Complainant’s life would be insufferable’.

Wontner now cross-examined and this is where some of the detail that the magistrate presumably wished to keep hidden began to seep out. The readers would be able (as you will be) to fill in the gaps and make a judgement on what de Friedland had been up to and what sort of a man he really was.

De Friesland said he was a director of the Supper Club which was a respectable establishment and not a gaming club (as the lawyer must have suggested). He admitted that ‘baccarat was played there’ but refuted allegations of gambling. He admitted as well to being married, and that his wife lived in Paris but he wasn’t (as was suggested) in the middle of divorce proceedings with her. He also admitted knowing and visiting a ‘Mrs Astay’, but ‘refused to say whether he had been intimate with her’. He added that Bailey had been intimate with the woman, a libel itself if not true.

Mr Lickfold objected to his opposite number’s line of questioning but Wontner contended that his client’s defence in court would be that he was provoked and that he would counter sue de Friedland for libelling him. As such it was necessary to set his stall out at this stage.

The magistrate was not happy with this and told the defence lawyer to keep his defence for the senior court trial. He heard from several witnesses who confirmed seeing the trail of letters and cards sent to the complainant and fully committed Bailey for trial. He then bailed him on his own recognisances of £100 – a considerable sum – demonstrating the wealth associated with these two protagonists.

[from The Standard, Thursday, February 25, 1886]

Sir Albert de Rutzen died in 1913 at the age of 84. An obituary noted ‘his patience and gentleness alike with the highest of criminals and the Suffragettes, with whom he had to deal of late, were remarkable’.