Traffic accidents seemed to be fairly common in Victorian London and so to were prosecutions of drivers (particularly hansom cab drivers) for dangerous driving. The most usual outcome was a fine, and occasionally a short spell in prison if the cabbie was unable to pay the fine. However, cab drivers were also prosecuted for being drunk in charge of a cab, especially when they were abusive towards a passenger or a policeman. In this case one driver was arrested after he drove his cab into two women who were walking on the King’s Road, nearly killing one of them. The driver was drunk and ended up before the magistrate at Westminster Police court.
George Thompson stood in the dock as the evidence of his actions was recounted before Mr Mansfield, the sitting magistrate. Emmelie Ullarbane said that she was walking along the King’s Road with her elderly companion Mrs Martha White on the previous evening. As they were crossing the road a cab driven by Thompson hit them, knocking Mrs White to the ground and trampling her. Emmelie was hurt but not too badly.
A policeman came rushing up and asked if they were injured; Mrs White was quite badly hurt so she was taken to be treated by a doctor. Mr. Mansfield asked him if either woman had been drinking, to which the officer – PC Langford (344B) – answered that they had not. That might seem an odd question to have asked but perhaps I can make sense of it later.
Having checked on the injured parties PC Langford set off in pursuit of the driver who hadn’t stopped after the accident. The policeman called to him but was ignored, so he raced along and managed to catch up with the cab. Langford leapt up onto the back of the cab, seized the reins, and stopped the horse. It was obvious to him when he confronted Thompson that the driver had been drinking and was quite incapable.
The policeman arrested Thompson and took him back to the station before heading off to Brompton to visit Mrs White to see how she was. According to the doctor’s report she was in a bad way, her petticoats ‘were torn to pieces by the tramping of the horse’, and she was not yet ‘out of danger’. It must have been a huge shock to an elderly lady and Mansfield remanded Thompson (who had two previous convictions for drunkenness) in custody for a week.
I wondered why the magistrate had enquired as to whether the women were themselves drunk. Two women walking in the early evening on the King’s Road did not necessarily suggest anything unusual. One on her own might have raised eyebrows but given Mrs White was described as being ‘elderly’ we might assume Ms Ullarbane was her companion or servant and so I can’t see anything odd here. Until that is we learn that Mrs Martha White was a ‘West India lady’.
I take this to mean that she was a part of London’s black community in the late 1800s a group rarely mentioned but ever present in the nineteenth-century capital. Perhaps Mansfield was simply expressing contemporary racism and imperialist views in assuming, or merely suggesting, that two black women out and about on a Tuesday evening had been drinking and were, therefore, partly to blame for the accident that had occurred.
This case rumbled on for several months, maybe as a result of the injuries Mrs White received. A jury had held the cab company liable and Martha had been awarded £100 in compensation. Thompson was finally brought back before the Westminster magistrate in August 1869. This time it was Mr Arnold and he declared that he was not going to be influenced by that civil judgment but determine punishment on it merits. He was convinced, he said, that Thompson had been drunk that night but wasn’t sure that had caused the accident. Instead he held Mrs White partly to blame stating that the accident:
‘was caused by the nervousness of the injured lady and her friend, who did not know whether to advance or recede’.
So he imposed a fine of just 10s on Thompson who might have expected worse (especially given his previous convictions for being drunk in charge of a cab). The police were not so sanguine as the magistrate however, and informed his worship that the renewal of the driver’s license had been refused. George Thompson would not be driving a hansom in London again, or not at least in the near future.
[from The Morning Post, Thursday, April 01, 1869; The Morning Post, Wednesday, August 18, 1869]