A small success in the war on drugs (the nineteenth-century version)

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Plan of the London Docks, by Henry Palmer (1831)

Sergeant Aram of H Division Metropolitan Police (18H) was stationed in Flower and Dean Street, one of the most notoriously rough addresses in Victorian London. Now the street is altered beyond recognition; all that remains is an archway that used to mark the entrance to model dwellings built in 1886. By the 1880s Flower & Dean Street was lined with low lodging houses and several of the Whitechapel murder victims dossed there at some point.

It wasn’t much better in the 1850s and was a almost a ‘no-go’ area for the police who preferred to patrol here in strength. The sergeant may have been positioned here to receive information from his constables as walked their beat. There were fixed points like this throughout the police district but in this case it seems Aram may have been keeping an eye out for criminal activity himself, perhaps on the basis of information he’d received.

At about five o’clock in the morning a hansom cab pulled up and two men got out. One lobbed a bundle into the passageway of number 33 and then turned to see the police officer approaching him. Before sergeant Aram had a chance to ask him what he was up to the man fled.

Seeing his fare disappearing into the night the cabbie started to run after him but sergeant Aram called to him and instructed him to follow the other passenger, a man wearing a smock frock. It took a little while but both men were soon apprehended. At a first hearing at Worship Street both the cab driver (a man named William Perry) and the smock coated man were questioned before being released; the other individual, William Watchem, was remanded for further enquiry.

Two days later Watchem (also known as Will Watch or simply, ‘the Captain’) was brought up from the cells and set in the dock to be examined in the presence of an official from the Customs. He had been formally identified by Inspector White from H Division who clearly knew him (or knew of his reputation).  The Customs were involved because the bundle Watchem had lobbed into 33 Flower & Dean Street contained no fewer than 213 packages of tobacco with a street value of over £50 (about £4,000 today).

Perry, the cabbie, testified that Watchem had flagged him down in the Minories and said he wanted to transport a sack of potatoes. The magistrate was content that the driver was not otherwise involved and perhaps the other man was a police informer (and so was not prosecuted). I imagine the court could have prosecuted this as theft  but it may have proved difficult to gain a conviction. So instead the police and magistrate opted to deal with Watchem under legislation aimed at those that avoided paying the required taxes on imported goods.  So, ‘The Captain’ (described in the press report as ‘the Bold Smuggler’) now faced a hefty fine for non-payment of the duty owed on the tobacco.

The magistrate decided that Watchem should pay a fine of £100 which, at twice the value of the tobacco, was clearly unrealistic and he can’t ever have been expected to do so. Instead, in default, he was sent to prison for six months.

A smuggler was taken off the streets for a while and the police had demonstrated that their information networks were capable of penetrating the underworld of organized crime. It was a small success for sergeant Aram and the men of H Division.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, 16 December, 1852]

‘Weel, your honour, I was three sheets to the wind, and that’s all about it’: A Tyneside collier in the Thames Police court

Unloading coal at the London docks 1871

The London press delighted in occasionally giving their readership a flavor of the drama that unfolded in the metropolitan police courts. There was plenty of pathos but also humour for balance, and if a reporter could poke fun at a regional or foreign accent, so much the better.

John Leslie was a seaman. He was master of the Sarah, a collier that brought coal down from the north east of England to unload at the London docks. It was a tough life but he was his own man and earned a decent wage for the fuel he delivered to the capital.

In early November 1863 he had unloaded his cargo and so he headed for pubs and lodging houses close by the docks, in Ratcliffe and Wapping. At some point, and it is not clear why, Leslie, much the worse for drink, went in search of his mother.

He turned up at the home of Mrs Elizabeth Farrier at 131 Wapping High Street, Banging on the door he demanded to be let in shouting ‘I want my mother!’ Mrs Farrier said that no one answering to his mother’s name lived there, he was mistaken and should go away. But John was determined and in his drunken rage he pushed past her into the house. As she tried to stop him he punched her in the face and swore at her.

The tumult alerted the house and Mrs Farrier’s neighbours and a policeman was summoned. PC Palmer managed to arrest Leslie and dragged him off to the station. The next morning he was stood in the dock at Thames Police court charged with violent assault.

In his defense a chastened Leslie said he was merely looking for his mother.

‘You should prosecute the search for your mother at reasonable hours, and when you are sober’,

the magistrate (Mr Partridge) admonished him.

‘Weel, your honour, I was three sheets to the wind, and that’s all about it’,

the man replied in a strong north eastern accent.

When asked if he had been ‘paid off’ Leslie countered that he was not a mere sailor but his own boss:

‘Eh mon! I am not paid off at all. I am master of my own ship’.

That didn’t do him any favours with the justice who, determining that he was a man of means (despite his rough appearance) fined 40for the assault, a considerable sum by the standards of assault prosecutions in the 1860s. However, Leslie was a ‘man of means’ and he paid the money immediately and went on his way leaving the mystery of his mother’s location unsolved.

[from The Globe, 13 November 1863]

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 suggestion of Police brutality in Limehouse as a porter is attacked.

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Deal porters on the London Docks

There was plenty of violence in nineteenth-century London. Much of it was drunken and most of the perpetrators and women were often the victims. Policemen were also assaulted, not infrequently when they tried to move on drunks in the street or intervened to stop a crime, but it was relatively rare for them to be charged with violence.

So this then is a rare example of a summons being issued against a serving Victorian policeman. In September 1865 Thomas Marshall, a porter, appeared at Thames Police court in the East End of London to complain about being assaulted the previous night.

Marshall looked pale, he’d lost a great deal of blood and the top of his head was covered by a large ‘surgical plaister’. He told Mr Paget  (the presiding magistrate) that he’d been to the Five Bells pub in Three Colt Street, near Limehouse church.

That was at about nine in the evening. Thomas was a deal porter who worked on the docks. This was a physically demanding occupation requiring considerable skills in ferrying and stacking softwood into tall stacks on the quays. It is quite understandable that Thomas quickly fell asleep in a corner of the pub  after a few pints.

However, at midnight the landlord, Mr Wright, woke him gently and said: Now, York [which was his nickname] you must leave’.

For whatever reason Marshall refused and the landlord called in a passing policeman. The copper was heavy handed, dragged him out on the street and then, according to the porter:

struck him on the tip of his nose, hit him on the arm, and nearly broke it, and then struck him on the head with his truncheon. He received a dreadful wound, and the people who looked out of the windows called out “shame”.’

Why did he do this the magistrate wanted to know. Because he was drunk, the porter explained.

He didn’t know his name but he had got his number. Mr Paget turned to the policeman who’d appeared that morning to represent the force, sergeant Manning (15K). Would there be any difficulty in identifying the officer Mr Paget asked him.

None, sir, if he had mentioned the right time and place’, the sergeant replied.

The magistrate agreed to issue a summons and ordered the sergeant to speak to the station inspector to ascertain exactly whom the summons should be issued for. While the magistracy generally backed up the police, cases like this, where an officer appeared to have overstepped his authority and, more importantly even, had allegedly been drunk on duty; they were quite capable of siding with the public.

Whether this policeman was summoned to appear, let alone convicted of assault, remains unknown however, as I can’t easily find any reference to the case in the next couple of weeks at Thames. It doesn’t mean he wasn’t of course, the newspapers rarely followed up all the stories they printed and perhaps they felt they’d said all they needed to here.  Quite possibly however, the police simply closed ranks and protected their own, concluding that it would be quite hard for the porter to prove anything.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, September 15, 1865]

The case of the ‘explosive’ honey at the London Docks

South Dock warehouses and hydraulic capstan

All sorts of things come up in the reports of cases at the Metropolitan Police courts. These really were quite diverse in the areas they covered; while the bulk of the reported cases were thefts, assaults, drunk and disorderly behaviour and vagrancy there are also numerous examples of the regulation of trade in the capital and at its docks. These may not be as ‘sexy’ or as exciting as murders, robberies and cunning frauds, but they do offer us an insight into contemporary life in a way that isn’t often repeated elsewhere.

Take this case for example: In September the presiding alderman at Guildhall Police court called the attention of the superintendent of the City of London police to a practice he had heard about and thought needed investigating.

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Sir Andrew Lusk (left, from Vanity Fair) told Superintendent Foster that a complaint had been made to him about a firm importing honey which had deliberately mislabelled the crates containing their produce. Clearly worried about dockers and porters casually throwing the boxes around without due care and attention they had inscribed the cases with the legend ‘Dynamite: handle with care’.

The magistrate could see the purpose behind the subterfuge but was worried none the less that ‘it was the old story of the wolf’; once it was realised that the crates contained honey and not explosives there was a very real danger that actual imports of dynamite would be treated with reckless abandon!

He ordered the superintendent to ask the Customs staff to investigate the matter and have a word with the honey importers to ensure such misdirection didn’t lead to a potentially disastrous accident on the docks.

I’m sure today that honey and dynamite are not imported in the same sorts of containers or unloaded in the same manner. Those were less health and safety conscious times of course.

[from The Standard, Friday, September 12, 1879]

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]

A chance theft adds insult to a widow’s grief

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London was an extremely busy port city in the Victoria period. Goods came in and out of the docks and the river teamed with shipping, bringing travellers to and and from the various parts of the British Empire, and the rest of the world. This provided all sorts of opportunities for criminal activity: from smuggling, to pilfering from the docks, or the theft of sailor’s wages, and all sorts of frauds. The Thames Police and the Thames Police office then, were kept just as busy as the port and river was.

In June 1859 Susan Breeson appeared in the dock at Thames to be questioned about her possession of a pair of gold framed spectacles we she insisted had been given to her in part payment of a debt.

Breeson had taken the spectacles to a pawnbroker in mid May but he’d become suspicious and refused to give her the money she’d asked for. This wasn’t the first time apparently; another ‘broker had refused to lend her the 7s she asked for them.

Breeson’s story was that her husband worked on the docks as a ‘searcher’ (literally a man working for the Customs who searched ships for contraband etc.) He’d found the, she said, at Victoria Dock in Plaistow but she didn’t know their value or even whether they were gold or brass. Samuel Redfern, who ran the pawn shop in Cannon Street Road with his father-in-law, didn’t believe her story and so he retained the glasses and alerted the police.

Questioned before Mr Yardley at Thames Susan now changed her account and said that the spectacles had been given to her by a sailor. However, the court now discovered that Breeson wasn’t married to a customs officer at all, instead – according to the police – she ran a brothel in Stepney. the specs were given to her, but in payment of money owed, for lodgings or something else it seems.

Sergeant John Simpson (31K) deposed that Breeson was well-known to the police of K Division. She was a ‘bad character, and she cohabited with a man who worked in the docks many years’.  So some elements of her story had a hint of truth about them but now she elaborated and embellished it. The sailor in question, she explained, had been given the spectacles as a gift from a poor dying parson on board a ship ‘for kindness exhibited, towards him in his illness’.

Now the hearing took a more interesting turn. From a simple case of a brothel madam trying to pawn goods either lifted from a client, or pilfered from the docks and used as payment for sexual services or drink, it now became clear that the spectacles were part of a larger and more serious theft.

The next witness was Mrs Barbara Wilson Morant and she had travelled up from Sittingbourne in Kent to give her evidence. She testified that the glasses and the case they were in had belonged to her husband, who had died in the East Indies. She had been in the Indies with him but had traveled back overland, sending the spectacles and other things by sea. She told Mr Yardley that she had arrived in England by screw steamer after a voyage of several months (she’d left the East Indies in August).

The keys of her luggage were sent to Mr Lennox, her agent‘, she explained, and now ‘she missed a diamond ring, a gold pencil-case, a pair of gold-mounted spectacles, and other property‘.

The sergeant conformed that Mrs Morant’s luggage had been examined at Victoria Dock on its arrival, where it was then repacked ready for her to collect it. It would seem that someone pinched the items in the process. Samuel Lennox worked as a Custom House agent and confirmed that he had collected 15 pieces of the Morants’ luggage and checked them off to be collected but he couldn’t say who had unloaded them or carried out any other searches. The company employed casual workers who were hired without checks being made on them. Perhaps one of these was Breeson’s partner in crime?

Mr Yardley recognised that this was serious. While Breeson may not have stolen the spectacles (and perhaps the other items) but she was certainly involved in disposing of it. He remanded her for further enquiries for a week but said he would take bail as long as it was substantial and was supported by ‘reputable sureties’. It would be very hard to prove that anyone had stolen the Morants’ possessions or that Breeson was involved. She doesn’t appear at the Old Bailey although a ‘Susan’ and a ‘Susannah’ Breeson do feature in the records of the prisons and courts of London throughout the 1850s and 60s.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, June 9, 1859]

‘Clothed in the dirtiest of rags’; three little urchins at Worship Street.

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Alice and Rosina Purcell were homeless. The sisters survived on whatever they could scavenge around Spitalfields Market, living on ‘rotten fruit and begging of the salesmen’ there. Thomas Williams was also destitute and had no other means of supporting himself besides begging. All three of them fell foul of the laws against vagrancy and begging and in late April 1872 were arrested and taken before Mr Hannay at Worship Street Police court.

Alice and Rosina must have struggled to see over the dock because they were just children, aged between 6 and 8 years. A school board officer named Mr Gear had picked them and enquiries were made by the local police. The girls’ mother was dead and their father, who worked as labourer at the London docks, ‘left nothing for them’. They were both ‘clothed in the dirtiest of rags, although they looked cheerful and intelligent’.

The magistrate wanted to send them to school but they were Protestants Mr Gear told him, and at present there were no vacancies in Protestant schools so the pair were remanded for a week and sent to the nearest workhouse.

As for Thomas (who was 13), he had been brought in by police constable Barker (141N) and had also been remanded to a workhouse and in the meantime a school had been found for him. Here the school option was complicated however.  The choice of a Catholic school was based on information given to the court when first the case was aired a week ago.  It was claimed, by the landlord where his family had formally lived, that the lad had been brought up a Catholic. Thomas, who had lost both his parents, hadn’t contradicted him. However now Thomas objected to being sent to a Catholic school and said that he had in fact been a pupil at St Mark’s Protestant school in Hoxton.

Mr Hannay asked him why he hadn’t said this earlier to save the confusion? Thoams admitted he hadn’t wanted to say anything in court, possibly because the poor lad was simply bewildered or afraid.

Religion was important and so even though these children were paupers with no parents to speak for them (or at least as in the girls’ case who were prepared to take responsibility for them) Mr Hannay was determined that they should be educated within the tenets of their faith, and where possible, I expect, he would always have favoured the reformed church over the Roman one.

If only society was as bothered about the fact that three children were wandering the streets of the world’s largest city starving and living on their wits quite as much as they cared which version of the Christian doctrine was used to educate them. It smacks, to me at least, of gross hypocrisy.

[from The Morning Post , Wednesday, May 01, 1872]

‘I am absolutely lost in London’: bureaucracy and callousness combine to mistreat a servant of the Empire.

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A Hindu temple in Bangalore in the 1880s

 This week the news is rightly dominated by the scandalous treatment of the Windrush generation. This country had a proud history of supporting and welcoming immigrants because it recognized the tremendous value they brought to these islands. The first discordant voices in the immigration debate were raised in the late 1800s as large numbers of Eastern European Jews arrived in London, fleeing persecution in the Russian Empire. Anti-Semitism mixed with protectionism meant that politicians on the right (like Arnold White) and left (H. M. Hyndman) used immigration as a political weapon and argued that Britain was too full, and needed to look after its own people first.

Racism and anti-immigration rhetoric often raises its ugly head when there is an economic crisis. We saw this in the 1880s, in the 1930s, the 1970s and today, in this prolonged period of austerity and concern around our impending exit from the European Union. Blaming immigrants focuses attention on the symptoms not on the causes of economic hardships and helps keep the working classes divided. Moreover it also reveals that when times are hard governments attempt to save money by reducing the amount of benefits that are paid out to those at the bottom of society, rather than raising the contributions made by those at the top. There are lot more people at the bottom than there are at the top and those in power (at national, local and parochial levels) have always been closer, in terms of social class, to those at the top.

Consider this case from 1889, a time of serious economic downturn if not quite a depression. The payments for poor relief had been rising across the second half of the 1880s and London was receiving thousands of political and economic migrants from Europe as well as very many from across the UK and wider Empire. If these migrants arrived (as many of them did) without much or any money; without jobs to go to: without homes or friends and family to stay with, then they had few choices but to appeal to charity or the state for help. The reaction they got was often uncaring and unhelpful even, as in this case from Westminster, they seemingly had every right to assistance.

In April 1889 a ‘poorly-dressed woman’ (we are not told her name) presented herself at Westminster Police court asking for help. She was Irish and she had been married to a serving British soldier in India, a sergeant major in the Nilgiri Rifles. The Rifles was a volunteer regiment raised in Madras in 1878 and while she had lived with him she had drawn a small government allowance as she was deemed to be ‘on the staff’ of the regiment.

However, at some point the couple had separated (‘through no fault of her own’ she told the magistrate at Westminster, Mr Partridge) and he, on leaving the regiment at the red of his period of service, had returned to England with their two children. The woman had followed him, taking a boat a Bangalore in March 1888 after gaining a certificate from the District Staff Officer there, which entitled her to free passage. She had just eight rupees left for the whole of the voyage and arrived in London on the 14 April. She headed to the War Office with her papers with the intention of being sent on to Ireland where ‘her friends were’.

However, there she was met with a similarly uncaring bureaucracy as that has recently confronted the Windrush generation. She was entitled to help from the British state but the paperwork had not arrived or could not be validated. Until ‘the order’ came from India nothing could be done for her. Even the certificate from the ship’s captain that declared she had forgone her beer allowance (and was thus entitled to some money for that) could not be processed. She ‘was transferred from one to the other, only to be told that nothing could be done for her at present’.

The previous night she had slept at the workhouse casual ward in Buckingham Palace Road and now she asked Mr Partridge for help. ‘She was absolutely lost in London’, she said, ‘having never been here before’. Without some temporary help she said would have to ‘walk the streets or starve’ – suggesting her only alternative was to beg or to prostitute herself.

The magistrate was cold. There was nothing he could or would do for her he said. He told the clerk to give her the fare to get to Thames Police court so she could plead her case there. ‘The docks are in that district’ he added, suggesting that since she’d arrived by boat she wasn’t his problem. The poor woman was dispatched with a shilling, not knowing what to do or where to go.

[from The Standard, Thursday, April 18, 1889]