‘You won’t see me alive in ten minutes’: a strongman’s wife reaches the limits of her despair

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I am struck by the frequency of attempted suicide cases that came before the London magistracy in the late nineteenth century. The Police Code book stated that:

A person who kills himself in a manner which in the case of another person would amount to murder, is guilty of murder’,1 which seems a supremely unhelpful directive under the circumstances.

Those attempting to kill themselves were ordered to be given medical assistance and then prosecuted for a misdemeanor. In most cases I’ve found the accused was remanded so that enquiries could be made into their mental health and character with the aim being, it seems, to ensure that they didn’t try anything so drastic again.

While there were several attempts at hanging and one of a man who walked into an underground train tunnel to end his life, most of the attempted suicides that made the pages of the newspapers were of women who had been prevented from drowning themselves in the Thames or one of the capital’s canals. In almost all instances their lives were saved by the quick reactions of a nearby beat bobby or member of the public. The case of Edith Sampson was a little different.

In late March  1892 Dora Hoffmeister was working as a servant at the Empire Hotel in Leicester Square. She knew Edith as one of the guests and met her by the front door to the hotel on the 31 March in the afternoon. Edith spoke to her saying darkly: ‘You won’t see me alive in ten minutes’, before hurrying off upstairs to her room.

Alarmed, Dora followed her and entered her bedroom where she saw Mrs Sampson sat at her dressing table. She took a small bottle from the table and poured its contents into a glass. Dora seized the bottle and realized it was marked ‘Laudanum. Poison’. She remonstrated with Edith who relented and poured the liquid back into the bottle and set it down.

Dora stayed as Edith dressed and went out, and then returned to her duties. About an hour later she decided to check on her again and went up to her room. There she found Edith lying on the bed where she had been carried by one of the hotel’s waiters after she’d been discovered earlier. Apparently another servant, Harriet Perrett had found Edith slumped on the stairs, a handkerchief in one hand and the bottle of laudanum in the other.  Dora rang for help and stayed with Edith until a surgeon arrived.

Dr Clarke examined his patient and the bottle and administered an emetic. Edith vomited up the poison and complained that the doctor should have let her die. ‘You don’t know my troubles’, she declared and continued to bemoan her fate until her mother arrived. Edith Sampson was just 18 years of old her mother explained, and had married  ‘Sampson, the Strong Man’ in September 1891. He was not about having left for Liverpool earlier that week. The couple had quarreled and Edith was clearly unhappy in her marriage. Nevertheless Edith’s mother was sure that this was a one off and told Mr Newton (the magistrate at Marlborough Street) that her daughter would never take her own life.

Mr Newton was much less sure however, and said she’d already made that attempt and might well try again. In his opinion the best course of action would be to have Edith secured in the infirmary at the local house of correction for a week. Edith Sampson ‘was led away crying, and evidently in deep distress’.

Edith was probably married to Charles A. Sampson, a famous strongman in the late Victorian period. He claimed he owed his remarkable strength to being hit by lightning when he was a child and he would appeared on stage throughout Britain and further afield. As a vaudeville showman Sampson would have been on the road a lot, with little time for his young wife. Edith, who was described as ‘good-looking’ and ‘fashionably attired’ might have enjoyed the trappings of a prosperous theatre existence but she may well have been quite lonely and worried that her new husband might be subjected to the charms of other women while he was out of her sight and care.

Hopefully this incident was enough to alert Edith’s family and friends to rally round her and give her the support she needed and, had it not been for the attention of a stranger, Dora Hoffmeister, a European immigrant worker in London, Sampson might have been burying his young wife without even celebrating his first wedding anniversary.

[from The Standard, Saturday, April 02, 1892]

  1. Neil R A Bell and Adam Wood (Eds), Sir Howard Vincent’s Police Code 1889, (Mango Books, 2015), p.174

‘A fever amongst people living under the mockery of a poor-law which recognizes no right to relief in destitution’: reflections on the Irish Potato Famine from 1846

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Today is St Patrick’s Day and there will be drinking galore in Dublin, London and Boston and throughout the Irish diaspora. The island of Ireland is small, just 32, 500 square miles, and today it is home to around 6.5m people, but it bats above its average in terms of political importance and influence. This is due in no small part to its strategic significance, situated as it is between continental Europe, Britain and the Atlantic, and also of course, because of its long and troubled history. It is not for nothing that the Brexit wrangling in recent months has focused so much on the so-called ‘Irish backstop’; the determination not to recreate a hard border between Eire (the Irish Republic) and the six counties of Northern Ireland.

The Irish influence is widespread however, because of the waves of Irish emigration from the ‘emerald isle’ that took place, for the most part at least, in the nineteenth century. Millions of Irish men and women left their homes to travel in search of food, shelter and work – a better life – in the wake of famine, persecution, and religious intolerance.

St. Patrick's Day Parade in America, Union Square, 1870s (colour litho)

Many went to their nearest neighbours, settling in England and Scotland (in London, Liverpool and Glasgow in particular) while many others traveled to the United States (especially New York and Boston). They took their culture with them, hence the St Patrick’s Day parades in US cities today (as above from Boston in the 1870s).

The famine began in September 1845 so by the winter and spring of 1846 it effects could be felt throughout Ireland and the British Isles. England had always had a large Irish immigrant population and they were generally regarded as second-class cousins at best and dangerous Catholic troublemakers at worst. Most of all perhaps the Irish were generally poor and considered to be ‘feckless’ ‘work-shy’ and a burden on the rates. When the numbers of the existing populations were swelled by tens of thousands of new migrants in the mid 1840s antagonisms were heightened.

The Police courts of the English capital were often visited by members of the Irish community, who gravitated to the poorer areas around St Giles, Covent Garden, Whitechapel and Southwark. The Irish had a reputation for hard drinking and ‘fair fights’ (when they were drunk). Brawls in pub spilled over into the streets and there altercations with the police were inevitable.  So arrests would be made for drunken and disorderly behaviour, refusing to quit licensed premises, and assaults on the constabulary. Many Irish ended up in the workhouse or as vagrants and beggars and this could also lead to an appearance before a magistrate.

The situation in Ireland was caused by the failure of the potato crop but exacerbated by the actions of the English landowners, poor law authorities  and government that failed to help the people affected. This was hotly debated in Parliament (just as today’s MPs debate Brexit and the ‘backstop’). Discussions turned around debates between those seeking trade tariffs for imported corn and those opposed to them. Peel wanted to repeal the Corn Laws but this split the Tory party (rather like Brexit has) meanwhile Irish people were literally starving to death. This is a flavor of the debate as reported in the Daily News on the day following St Patrick’s Day 1846:

This measure is an impressive commentary on the time occupied by the Protectionists [those that wanted to keep tariffs] in their long protests. It is fever against which Parliament has to provide. An infliction of fever so national, that Government must interpose to prevent the dying and dead from making the Green Isle a very Golgotha.

It is fever induced by starvation; and hastening on, with giant strides, while week after week is wasted in describing and deprecating the horrors of a superabundant influx of food from foreign countries. Moreover it is a fever amongst people living under the mockery of a poor-law which recognizes no right to relief in destitution’.

Peel’s early attempt to import American corn in secret failed because the quality of the grain was so poor that it was virtually inedible, causing widespread digestive problems so it became known derogatively as ‘Peel’s brimstone’.    At least 800,000 Irish men, women and children died as a direct result of the famine and the failure of the British government to support them, the figure is probably closer to 1-1.5m. A further million (at least) emigrated. If you ever wondered why anti-English feeling remains prevalent at all in the Ireland and amongst Irish communities elsewhere perhaps a reflection on the events of 1845-49 would be instructive.

And that is without considering the actions of the early modern rules of England, the atrocities committed by Oliver Cromwell’s troops, the long battle over Home Rule in the late 1800s, the brutal repression following the Easter Rising in 1916, the ‘black and tans’, ‘Bloody Sunday’, Diplock courts and all the other measures used to govern the northern counties in the Troubles, and of course decades of jokes at their expense.

Happy St Patrick’s Day folks – God save Ireland!

[from Daily News, Wednesday, March 18, 1846]

A ‘young hero’ engages in an ‘attaque à outrance’ near Battersea Bridge

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On Sunday afternoon, the 7 October 1860 PC John McGuire of V Division was called to attend an incident in Lindsay Place close to Battersea Bridge.  When he got there he saw a huge crowd of youths, possibly as many as 200, which formed a ring. As he forced his way through the throng he found two young lads, aged about 10, slugging it out in the centre.

He stopped the fight and soon discovered that the boys had been at it for ages, being dragged apart on no less that six occasions already. They seemed very determined to fight and it took all of PC McGuire’s physical and persuasive abilities to get them to stand down and to take them into custody.

Both lads were bailed to appear the following morning at Westminster Police court but only one of them, James Wood, turned up.    The court heard that ‘the mantles of Sayers and Heenan’ had ‘descended upon their shoulders’ and that they had ‘made up their minds to do battle à l’outrance’ (or attack to excess as the expression translates).

The reference to Sayers and Heenan was to what has been termed the world’s first title fight which took place in April 1860. The American champion John Carmel Heenan came to England to fight the British boxer Tom ‘Brighton Titch’ Sayers. Thousands flocked to Farnborough to see the fight that ended in a bloody draw as the police raided the venue. The fight was illegal and no rules on the length of ‘rounds’ applied then. However, the fight prompted questions in Parliament and led to the formation of the ‘Dozen Rules’ by the London Amateur Athletic Club in 1865. These were approved in parliament and were sponsored by John Sholto Douglas, the Marquess of Queensbury.

As for James Wood the magistrate at Westminster, Mr Paynter, asked why the fight had occurred. James explained that he had caught his opponent trying to drown a dog and when he had tried to stop him the pair had agreed to settle it with their fists. It was a noble gesture in the eyes of the press who described him as a ‘young hero’ (perhaps a little tongue in cheek), and Mr Paynter perhaps agreed. However, fighting on a Sunday was against the law and the justice warned him not to engage in it again, and then let him go, his reputation significantly enhanced by his day in court.

The other lad (who remained unnamed) suffered by comparison. The papers suggested that ‘the long arm of the law [was possibly] too strong for his juvenile constitution’.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, October 09, 1860]

Like this? You might enjoy these other posts that involve boxing:

Illegal boxing in North East London

‘They fought very severely for little boys’; tragedy in Rotherhithe.

The Marlborough Street magistrate helps Big Ben’s missus deliver a knock-out blow

The old ‘money changing’ scam on the Docks

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For many people arriving in London in the 1880s the capital was a stopover en route to somewhere else; for many European Jews that ‘somewhere else’ was the golden medina, the United States of America. This had been the case for thousands of Irish migrants in the 1840s, fleeing famine and poverty after potato blight devastated their lives. Very many settled in London, Liverpool and Birmingham but plenty had the ambition to make a fresh start outside of the British Empire, an empire that had palpably failed to support them when they needed it.

London’s docks must have heaved with people looking for a passage across the Atlantic in the 1800s and a similar scene would have played out at Liverpool. Men like Messers, Koosch and Schack, two German travellers, asked around to find a berth on a steamer bound for Ellis Island. These two had struck lucky and secured a place on the Etna which had been built and launched in Greenock in August 1854.

However their luck was soon to run out when they were taken in by a fairly straightforward conman. John Louis befriend the pair and explained that he was a provisons dealer and was also travelling on the Etna. They had plenty of English money but no American dollars. That was no problem, Louis assured them, he was in an ideal position to change the money for them so they’d welcomed on to US soil with open arms.

Delighted, the two friends handed over all their money (about £10)  and arranged to meet Louis the following day. Of course he never showed up and they soon realised they’d been scammed and  robbed.

With the help of the local police Koosch and Schack traced Louis and he was arrested and brought before the Lord Mayor at Mansion House Police court. He was represented by a solicitor and he promised to return every penny that his client had taken. This must have been a relief for the two Germans whose chances of making a new life in America would have been devastated before they’d even arrived had they been force to travel with nothing.

But for the Lord Mayor this wasn’t enough; he needed to demonstrate to the public that anyone behaving in such a ‘villainous and disgraceful way’ could expect no mercy in his court. He sent Louis to prison for four months with hard labour.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, September 18, 1883]

A London ‘scuttler’ in the dock at Marylebone?

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Throughout the last quarter of the nineteenth century the subject of gang crime periodically troubled the newspapers. Concern about ‘roughs’ first surfaced in the 1870s in London and elsewhere, with specific incidents involving ‘corner men’ in Liverpool, and ‘scuttlers’ in Salford before the ‘hooligan panic’ broke in the 1890s. I’ve written about gang fights (including one fatal stabbing) before but the pages of the newspapers would suggest that while youthful ‘bad behaviour’ was endemic, fatalities were rare.

Today we have a fairly clear idea of what we think a ‘gang’ is even if very few of us are qualified to judge. So called ‘post code wars’ involving territorial disputes have dominated press coverage along with shootings and the seemingly routine carrying of knives in some parts of London and other major British cities. Those involved are usually young – below 25 – working class, and often from the poorest, most marginalised sections of society.

When I looked at the make up of the ‘gang’ responsible for the murder of Joseph Rumbold in 1888 only one of the 10 young men that appeared at the Old Bailey accused of his murder was unemployed. That was 18 year-old George Galletly, the person who actually stabbed Joe by the York Gates at Regent’s Park. Galletly was the only one convicted and his sentence of death was quickly commuted to life imprisonment on account of his tender years.

I’m not clear that the Victorians believed they had a problem with gang violence in the way that we do today; crucially while the Pall Mall Gazette ran one of its periodic ‘exposés’ on the London gang issue the papers mostly dealt with the topic as a routine, if unpleasant, consequence of urban living. Even when a case like the Regent’s Park murder was fresh in the memory the papers weren’t always keen to hype an incident like the one that I’ve picked for today’s visit to the police courts.

Rumbold had been killed on the 24 May 1888 and the trial had taken place at the Old Bailey in August and Galletly set to hang on the 21st, exactly 130 years ago today. By the 21 August 1888 however Galletly had already been reprieved by Henry Matthews, the Home Secretary and the press had moved on. After all, an even more sensational murder story was just around the corner…

At one in the morning on Sunday 19 August 1888 PC Nicholas (100D) was walking his beat in Lisson Grove when he came across a group of young men in the street. There was about a dozen of them and they were rowdy, quite possibly drunk, acting ‘in a very disorderly fashion, and fighting’. The copper did what he was expected to do and asked them to go home quietly.

This seems very like the Fitzroy Place or the Lisson Grove ‘Lads’ that had been involved in the Regent’s Park murder earlier that year. Groups of young men, aged 18-25, wandering the streets late at night, under the influence of drink, pushing, shoving and abusing passers-by; this has all the hallmarks of late eighteenth-century ‘hooliganism’.

One of the group, William Murphy (a 20 year old carman from Marylebone) took exception to being asked to ‘go quietly’ by a policeman. He squared up to PC Nicholas and took off his heavy leather belt. Wrapping it around his wrist, with the large brass buckle to the front, he aimed a blow at the officer.

PC Nicholas avoided being hit on his head but the buckle landed with force on his hand, doing some damage. He blew his whistle and help soon arrived; Murphy was overpowered after a short struggle and the others scattered. On Monday the carman was up in court before Mr De Rutzen at Marylebone Police court, where he’d been before.

The magistrate recognised him and dismissed Murphy’s claim that he was only defending himself against the policeman. He had previous convictions for assault, including at least one where he’d served 2 months for violence that involved him using his belt as he’d done the previous night. As Andy Davies’ work has shown the Salford and Manchester ‘scuttling’ gangs decorated their heavy leather belts with horse brasses that doubled as offensive weapons in their fights with rivals; it seems the tradition had also reached Marylebone.

De Rutzen sent him down for three months this time, but probably felt it would do little to change his behaviour. I suspect he was correct, most young men like Murphy seemed to treat gangs as stage on their journey to adulthood. Once they found a sweetheart to settle down with and the demands of a family intruded they left their wayward youth behind them. The violence didn’t necessarily stop of course, but the target became much closer to home.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, August 21, 1888]

A mutiny at the Royal Albert & Victoria Docks reveals the hidden DNA of the capital

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Since the 1980s London has lost what remained of its working port on the Thames. The massive docklands development wiped away the last vestiges of warehouses and quays and transformed the area into smart housing, commercial centres and leisure outlets. It is still possible to see some of the buildings that survived the Luftwaffe and the developers but often they are little more than a façade and their function has changed.

In the 1880s however London was still a bustling port, the greatest in Europe if not the world. Thousands of ships were loaded and unloaded here, and teams of stevedores directed gangs of dockers in hard manual labour to bring in products from all over the Empire and the rest of the globe.

It wasn’t only the goods that were imported: the docks teamed with people from all over the world – Portuguese, Cypriots, Chinese, Arabs, American, Africans and south east Asians amongst them – a reminder that London has been a multi-cultural society for well over 150 years.

Most of those that were not white were collectively known as Lascars. Most of these were from India and many from Gujarat and Malabar or from what is now Bangladesh. They were recruited in large numbers to serve on British registered ships but often treated poorly by comparison to white European sailors. Lascars were paid less and often left virtually homeless while they waited to get a ship back home. The shipping companies treated them so badly because the lascars had a reputation for being ‘trouble free’. I would imagine that contemporary racism played a part in all of this as well.

Before we dismiss the lascars as submissive however here is an example of them standing up en masse and, while it was ultimately unsuccessful, it demonstrates that they were more than capable of doing so.

In early July 1884 four lascars sailors were brought before Mr Philips at West Ham Police court charged with being the ringleaders of a mutiny on a British vessel docked in London. The formal charge was that they had refused to obey their captain, William Turner of the Duke of Buckingham, a steamer operated by the Ducal Line Company.

The ship’s crew was made up of 45 seaman, all ‘coloured’ who had signed articles in January 1884 to serve on the Hall Line’s steamer Speke Hall, for a year. The ship docked at Liverpool for repairs and the owners decided to transfer the men to the Duke of Buckingham while they were completed. When the crew reached London and discovered that this ship was headed for India via Australia they protested. Some argued that their contract (articles) was with the Hall Line not the Ducal Line while others complained that the journey would be too long, and they would be beyond their 12 months of employment.

18 of the 45 men refused to work and four were identified as ringleaders and arrested, hence the court appearance in West Ham. The four were: ‘Amow Akoob a serang, Manged Akoob, a tindal, and Fukeera Akoob and  Adam Hussein, Lascars’. ‘Serang’ probably meant that Amow Akoob was a captain or boatswain while Tindal is a town in Tamil Nadu in southern India.

Perhaps unsurprisingly the English magistrate wasn’t about to get deeply involved in an industrial dispute. He pointed out to the men that at the current time they were under contract and warned them that they were liable to ‘penalties’ if they and they rest of the crew continued to refuse to work. In the end the four men decided that they’d made their point and had little to gain by continuing their protest. They agreed to return to work and were discharged.

We have heard a lot about Caribbean migration this year, with the anniversary of the arrival of the Empire Windrushand the revelations of the Home Office’s scandalous treatment of some of their descendants. Immigration is often seen as a mid to late 20thcentury phenomenon, a product of the end of empire. But for London, and other port cities like Bristol and Liverpool, immigration has been part of the fabric of our history and our success for hundreds of years. London is built on the backs of migrant labour – migrants from all over Britain, Europe and the World; migrants of all nations, all races and all faiths. If we could analyze London’s dna it would reveal us to be the children of a global trading people and that is why it is the greatest city in the world.

[from The Morning Post , Monday, July 07, 1884]

Henry Cooper: serial fraudster or plucky entrepreneur?

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We’ve met Henry Cooper before on this site. No, not the boxing legend who once floored Mohammed Ali, but a serial fraudster who got himself locked away on more than one occasion in the 1860s and 70s. In 1872 Cooper was sent to prison for five years for fraud but he had more than one opportunity to mend his ways before then, sadly he didn’t take them.

The Digital Panopticon shows that a Henry Cooper was gaoled in 1867 for forging a warrant for goods; he got five years then and spent his time at Portland quarrying stone. It is quite likely that he would have had a number of less serious convictions before this and so this court appearance – in June 1860 – fits quite nicely and suggests it is the same individual.

On Thursday 21 June (on the longest day of the year) Henry was up before the magistrate at Guildhall facing a charge of ‘absconding from his liabilities’. Described as a ‘boot and shoe manufacturer’ (interestingly, as on one of his prison records he is shown as having worked as a shoemaker inside). Cooper was bankrupt, and it was alleged that he’d tried to obtain goods on credit just three months after being declared so.

He’d run up debts of around £1,000 which, in 1860, was the equivalent of a vast sum of money (about £60,000 today). Cooper had been trying to run a business on Great Cambridge Street, Hackney Road, which he’d started with just £9 a year earlier. By the end of the first year he was £500 in the red. By May 1860 things had got so bad that Henry decided his best move was to shirk his responsibilities and emigrate to New Zealand.

Naturally he didn’t inform his creditors of his decision and the first they heard of it was when their representatives turned up at his shop and found it boarded up and Cooper gone. They made some enquires and tracked him down to Liverpool where he’d booked passage to New Zealand on the Northern Bride. Henry had managed to pull together about £300 in gold and a further £700 in disposable goods to sell when he arrived.

It was a bold move and had it worked Cooper may well have made a new life for himself on the other side of the world. As it was the alderman magistrate committed him for trial for fraud and he lost his chance. He pleaded guilty at the Old Bailey and judgement was respited on the 37-year old. The Digital Panopticon has a life archive for a Henry Cooper which includes this case and suggests he died in 1876.

If this really is Henry then it shows what a strain prison and hard labour put on this man. He was just 53 when he died but he’d possibly quarried stone for several years and been locked up in the ‘separate system’ at Pentonville in a regime of ‘hard bed, hard fare, hard labour’.  I feel kind of sorry for Henry; yes he was a fraudster but he was, in his own way, an entrepreneur of sorts.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, June 22, 1860]