A returning ‘hero’ is given the benefit of the doubt

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The Battle of Magdala, 1868

When PC William Towsey of the City constabulary turned into Bishopsgate Churchyard on his beat he saw a man and young girl on Alderman’s Walk opposite. It was 10 at night and the man was dressed in a soldier’s uniform while the little girl appeared to be about ten years of age. She also seemed uncomfortable in the man’s company and to be trying to get away from him. When he saw the soldier assault her, he quickly moved towards them and seized the man.

PC Towsey took the pair back to the police station but there the girl took advantage of her attacker incapacitation and escaped, running out into the night. The next morning the constable and his prisoner appeared at the Mansion House Police court in front of the incumbent Lord Mayor.

Thomas Nidlet was stood in the dock and accused of being drunk and committing an assault on the girl. There are no details given the newspaper report so we don’t know what sort of assault this was, or who the girl was. Nidlet said he was from the 33rd regiment of foot and that he had arrived back from Abyssinia, landing in Portsmouth just over a month ago. He’d been on furlough for a month and had come to the capital.

Nidlet had been at the police station before that evening; at around 8 he’d turned up, a little tipsy, with ‘a gentleman’ and had enquired about a place to stay.  The mysterious gentleman had given the soldier a sovereign, on the strength of him producing a payment order for £5, presumably his accumulated wages. By the time of the incident at the churchyard Nidlet was reportedly very drunk, so he and the other man had seemingly been drinking heavily for another couple of hours.

The Lord Mayor asked the soldier if he knew the man’s name and address. He did but the newspaper didn’t record it. This almost satisfied the magistrate but he wanted to hear from this potential witness so he remanded Nidlet for a few days but indicated that he would discharge him after that. As he gave his judgment the Lord Mayor advised the soldier to return to his regiment as soon as possible, to avoid any further trouble in the capital.

I do wonder at this story. Who was the little girl? Was she one of the capital’s homeless street children? Was the soldier’s attempted assault sexual? What role did the gentleman play in all of this, and was he even a ‘gentleman’? The mystery must remain unsolved however, as that is the last time he troubles history in the capital. After this report he disappears without a trace.

The 33rd regiment (West Yorkshire) of foot had been commanded by the Duke of Wellington and after the duke’s death in 1852 Queen Victoria recognized their association with  the nation’s greatest land commander by renaming them the 33rd(or Duke of Wellington’s Regiment). In 1868 the 33rdwere sent to Ethiopia (then Abyssinia) to effect a rescue of some British, European and native hostages that were held by Emperor Tewodros II. Despite the later release of the Europeans Tewodros’ refusal to accept surrender terms led to an assault on the fortress of Magdala (now Amba Mariam) and its seizure. Although the force was described as Britsih it was mostly made up of Indian troops and was commanded by General Sir Robert Napier, from the Royal Engineers.

It was an incredible expedition, involving a 400-mile march over challenging terrain. Napier built 20 miles of railway, a harbor and warehouses to ensure he kept his communication lines open and his men supplied. The assault began on the 13 April 1868 and lasted just an hour and half. The emperor’s men were no match for the well equipped troops under Napier’s command. Tewodros (or Theodore) was found dead just inside the gates; he had taken his own life with a pistol that had been a present from Queen Victoria.

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Napier’s men looted Magdala and it required 15 elephants to carry the booty back to the coast for transport to England. It was hailed as a great victory, Napier was feted and the men that served awarded ‘Abyssinia’ as a battle honour. All of this would have played to Nidlet’s advantage one imagines. It may be why the ‘gentleman’ was quick to befriend him and help explain why the Lord Mayor was minded to forgive his drunkenness in the City and overlook an alleged attack on one of the capital’s many street ‘urchins’.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, July 13, 1868]

The boy that tried to set fire to the Bank of England

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The Royal Exchange and Bank of England

(you can see the railings and the gas lamps on the left hand side) 

PC Batchelor was on his beat in Threadneedle Street at one in the morning when he saw smoke coming through the railings by the Bank of England. Was the ‘old lady’ on fire? He quickly discovered a fire at the base of column that connected to one of the gas lamps that lit the street. As the policeman set about tackling the small blaze he saw a figure leap over the railings and run off.

He ran after the escapee and collared him. His quarry was a young lad of 13 named Michael Buckley. He arrested him and took him before the magistrate at Mansion House in the morning.

The boy explained that he and several other lads had taken to sleeping rough within the boundaries of Bank and tended to curl up near the base of the lamp columns. They dragged in straw to make beds that were a little more comfortable than the hard stone floors or pavements. I imagine this was their version of the cardboard boxes that modern homeless people use to create a crude mattresses.

However, Micheal told the Lord Mayor (who presided as the City’s chief magistrate) that one of the lads had fallen out with the others and left, but had set fire to the straw bedding ‘in revenge’.

The court heard that had the fire melted the pipe that carried gas to the  street light ‘much damage might have been caused to the interior of the building’, hence the paper’s overlay dramatic headline that read:

Setting fire to the Bank of England’.

The Bank was not inclined to prosecute the lads for their trespassing but this didn’t stop the Lord Mayor – Sir Thomas Dakin – from sending the lad to prison for a week at hard labour. He said something had to be done to prevent boys from sleeping rough on the Bank’s property but his concern seemed to be with the potential risks of fire or other damage, not with the poor lads’ welfare.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, June 19, 1870]

The wife of the Lord mayor is found sleeping rough in Islington.

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When Sergeant Gillett (31N) found Amelia Cooke and her children sleeping under the stars he decided to act. It wasn’t the first time the woman and her family had been picked up by the police – she was well know as a homeless person who refused to go into the workhouse.

On this occasion however, it being 2.30 in the morning, the police sergeant was concerned for the health of her children and decided to take them, and her, into custody. On Thursday 12 June 1851 he brought them and their mother to the Clerkenwell Police Court for Mr Tyrwhitt to decide what to do with them.

The magistrate was told that Amelia (27 years of age and described by the  Morning Chronicle’s reporter as ‘a sun-burnt haggard looking woman’) was regularly to be found around Islington sleeping in doorways or on the pavements. When quizzed as to why she would not take the help of the parish poor law authorities she explained that it would damage her case, as ‘she was entitled to considerable property’.

She told the desk sergeant that far from being destitute she was actually the wife of the sitting Lord Mayor of London, Alderman Musgrove. He had changed his name, she added, because ‘Cooke’ was far too common for a man of his status. The pair had been married at St. Nicholas’ Church in Liverpool and she had previously lived at 17 Wellington House, St. Pancreas where a sum of £350 (£28,000 in today’s money) had been left for her but she was refused access to.

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Sir John Musgrove was born in Hackney and had made his money by property speculation in the mid 1820s. While he may have travelled to Liverpool there is no record of him marrying there. In fact there is no record of him marrying at all, and when he died (in 1881) his baronetcy died with him, suggesting he had no male heirs.

Mr Tyrwhitt thought that Amelia was possibly ‘deluded’ and sergeant Gillet agreed. He wondered if the sufferings she’d been through in sleeping rough and hardly eating had ‘impaired her faculties’ and added that it was certainly ‘injuring her children’s health’.

The magistrate despatched an officer of the court to Mr Perch, one of the overseers of Clerkenwell, to make enquiries as to their future care.

Perch soon returned and said he advised taking the family into the workhouse so enquiries could be made into Amelia’s story (not that I think anyone apart from her believed it).  He’d spoken to the poor woman and was convinced that she was delusional. That made up Mr Tyrwhitt’s mind and he ordered Turner (the officer) to accompany the woman and her ‘miserable’ children to the workhouse.

But Amelia was a spirited woman and convinced of the truth of her story. She grabbed her children as they left the curt and tried to run away. When Turner caught hold of her she fought him at first before eventually being overpowered and led away to the ‘house. I doubt the Lord Mayor was even informed of the case, unless he chanced upon it over his breakfast of course.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, June 13, 1851]

 

A ‘Champagne charley’ causes mayhem in the cells

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John Betts’ appearance at the Mansion House Police court in early May 1867 caused something of a stir. Betts, a notorious thief in the area, was arrested in Crutchedfriars in the City at 11 o’clock at night as he raced away from a victim he’d just robbed.

Charles Cadge had been walking with his wife in Gracechurch Street when they encountered Betts. The robber started him ‘full in the face, and then made a rush at him and snatched his watch from his pocket, breaking the guard’. It was a daring attack and had a City Police patrol not been just around the corner the thief might have evaded capture.

However, now he was up before the Lord Mayor, and he was far from happy about it.

Those waiting for their cases to come up were supposed to stand quietly once they had been brought up form the holding cells but Betts was in no mood to behave. He had made so much noise before his own hearing that he’d been taken back to the cells and while Mr Cadge and other witnesses (Inspector White and one of his constables) tried to give their evidence Betts made such a row that it was almost impossible to hear them.

Once in the dock he refused to give his name. Asked again (even though the warder of the City Prison said he was well known to him) he said he would only give his name if they gave him half a pint of beer. When this was not forthcoming he started singing the music hall standard ‘Champagne charley’.

The Lord Mayor admonished him, telling him to behave himself.

‘I shan’t’ Betts replied, ‘I want half a pint of beer. I have had nothing this morning. Look at my tongue’ which he stuck out, provoking much laughter in the courtroom.

The magistrate simply committed him for trial at the next sessions and the gaoler went to take him away. But Betts wasn’t finished and he lashed out, resisting the attempts to lead him to the cells. Two constables had to help the gaoler drag the prisoner down the stairs. As he passed a glass partition that allowed some light to the cells below Betts kicked out violently, trying and failing, to smash it.

Placed in a cell on his own he continued his protest, smashing ‘everything he could lay hold of, and armed himself with a large piece of broken glass in one hand and a leaden pipe which he had succeeded in wrenching up in the other’ and standing there in just his shirt, ‘he threatened with frightful imprecations that he would murder anyone that approached him’.

When he was told what was happening below him the Lord Mayor ordered that Betts be secured and taken directly to Newgate Prison, but this was easier said than done. Several men were sent to take him and after some resistance he gave in and said he only wanted a half pint of beer and he would desist. Finally the gaoler acquiesced and Betts was given a glass of porter, which was placed carefully on the floor of the cell in front of him. He tasted it, declared it was ‘all right’, gave up the weapons he’d armed himself with, and was taken to Newgate to await his trial.

When Betts (or in fact Batts) was brought for trial at the Old Bailey he refused to plead, pretending to be mute. A jury determined that he was ‘mute from malice’  not ‘by visitation of God’ (in other words he was shamming) and the court entered a not guilty plea on his behalf. It wasn’t a great way to start one’s defence but by now I think we know that Batts was probably suffering form some sort of mental illness. Even his encounter with the police that arrested him suggests an unbalanced mind (as the Victorians might have described it).

Inspector White explained that:

On 2nd May, about eleven o’clock, I heard a cry of “Stop thief!” and saw the prisoner running—I stopped him with the assistance of another constable, and said,”Where are you going?”

He [Batts] said, “All right, governor, I am just going home; we are having a lark”—he ran round the urinal, took a watch out of his trousers pocket, and threw it against the urinal—I picked it up, and Cadge came up and identified it

On the road to the station he said, “It is only a lark; I did not take the watch, it was only a game; I did not throw it there”—he said nothing at the station except joking.

The prisoner said nothing in his defense and was convicted. It was then revealed that he had a previous conviction from Clerkenwell Sessions in 1864 where he’d been given three years’ penal servitude for stealing a watch.

For repeating his ofence the judge sent him back to prison, this time for seven years. He was let out on license in 1873 and doesn’t trouble the record again after that. Perhaps he went straight, let’s hope so as in 1867 he was only 21.

[from The Morning Post , Saturday, May 04, 1867]

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

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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 ‘poor man’ and ‘a most depraved and incorrigible beggar’: Contrasting attitudes at Mansion House as winter sets in

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We’ve just had a weekend of severe weather in which snow caught much of southern England by surprise. Many parts of London were covered in a white coating yesterday, all very attractive and fun for kids but a nightmare for commuters come Monday morning. My university is effectively closed as teaching is suspended and all the trains into central London are running slow or late or both. Mind you, I’m not sure how much difference that is to a normal day!

So winter is well and truly upon us and this is the season which hits the homeless and the poor the hardest. For those that have to decide between food and heating, or those sleeping rough in the capital, December through to the spring is particularly challenging.

That is why Shelter and the  other homeless charities campaign so hard to help people at this time of the year. We will all see the adverts on the tube or get a leaflet through the door asking for a one-off donation or a regular contribution. Each year the BBC supports the St Mungo’s charity, which does such good work with the homeless.

The early Victorians were certainly aware of the problem of poverty and homelessness. They had charities and dedicated people who worked, often through the church, to support those in need. What they didn’t have, as we know, is a system of poor relief that allowed people to be supported within their own homes. There was no housing benefit or  income support. If you needed ‘relief’ you went to the workhouse, and this was increasingly true after 1834 and the passing into law of the Poor Law Amendment Act.

Attitudes towards poverty had hardened in the 1830s and poverty, which had always been viewed in part as a personal failing, was now frequently associated with moral bankruptcy. At Mansion House Police court two cases came up in early December which highlight contrasting contemporary attitudes towards poverty and homelessness.

Peter Jordan was described as an ‘imbecile’. Today we would understand this as someone with learning difficulties and now, as then, we would have some sympathy with him. The sitting magistrate at Mansion House that morning was Alderman Pirie, who was deputising for the Lord Mayor. He certainly looked on Jordan’s case with compassion but he was fairly limited in what he could do.

Jordan had been brought it by Duncan Campbell, a parish officer for the City. He had found the man ‘soliciting for charity’. In other words he was begging and that was against the wide-ranging vagrancy laws. However, Campbell’s aim wasn’t to have him punished for begging but to help him. He wanted to ‘prevent him perishing in the streets’.

Had he applied for relief, the alderman wanted to know. This was complicated; there was no help to had at Cannon Street he was told, and the London workhouse had recently closed and a new one was not yet built. The City had also closed a house of refuge so that was no option either.

All that was left to the justice was to send Jordan to prison for begging. And so the ‘poor man, […] who used formerly to work in the coal pits, was removed to Bridewell, under particular directions’ (presumably not to be whipped or set to hard labour, but instead to be looked after).

The next defendant in the dock received far less sympathy. Maria Butcher and her two children were also presented for begging in the streets. A policeman testified that he had found the two children at five in the evening on the Saturday.

He said ‘he saw the poor children, half naked and shivering on the steps leading to London Bridge. He took them to the Station-house and found in their pockets eighteen-pence halfpenny.  Their mother, who was up to all the tricks of vagrancy, the officer said, was in the justice-room’.

Maria denied any knowledge of what her children got up to when she wasn’t around but no one believed her. She took in washing and had, she said, very ‘little to give them’. The alderman said he was sure she was happy to take any money they ‘earned’ by begging nevertheless.

‘I’d be very glad to get any’ she replied, ‘and I assure you I’d make good use of it’.

The magistrate was horrified:

‘What a wretch you must be to send out these poor infants in such dreadful weather’.

His feelings were echoed by a street keeper who said he knew Maria as a ‘most depraved and incorrigible beggar’ who exploited her children to avoid doing any work herself. She often sent then out without hardly any clothes or shoes, in all weathers, to beg for her. Another witness, a Poor Law Union official said the children were well known beggars and the police were obliged to bring them in under the law.

In the end although she begged for clemency Mr Pirie sent her and the children to Bridewell but – for her at least – there was no similar instructions for them to go easy on her. The children could expect some level of care but she would bread and water and the drudgery of hard labour, picking oakum most likely.

So that winter all four of the people brought before the Mansion House court ended up in prison. Their ‘crime’? Poverty. Today there will still be hundreds of men, women and young people sleeping rough and begging on London’s streets. So before we congratulate ourselves too much on creating a fairer and more civilised society than our early Victorian ancestors perhaps we should take a moment to reflect on that uncomfortable fact.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, December 11, 1838]

An appeal to the Lord Mayor so ‘that one of the few holidays in this country would not be lost’. Some pre-Christmas cheer at Mansion House

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Before I became an academic historian I worked mostly in retail. I enjoyed the busy Christmas period but it has to be said that shopkeepers and shop staff work extremely hard for very little pay and hardly any time off. Most of us that are lucky enough to work in education will get at least a week’s downtime over Christmas and probably quite a bit more.

This is because schools and universities close down between Christmas and New Year and there is no teaching at my place for three weeks. I will use some of this time for marking, preparation and research but will also have a week’s proper holiday as well. Contrast this with the 15 years I worked in a variety of shops when I would work till 5 or 6 on Christmas Eve and be back in on the 27 December and sometimes even on Boxing Day.

Indeed Boxing Day has almost ceased to be a day off for many workers. Traditionally Boxing Day was a time when we rewarded servants and tradespeople for their service over the past year in a custom that stretched back to the 17th century at least. Now many if not most shops open their doors at 9 am so that the British public can start to spend the vouchers and money their relatives have given them for Christmas, or exchange their unwanted presents and ill-fitting clothes.

It seems that even in mid Victorian period there was some recognition that workers needed some proper time off. In 1842 an organisation was formed to campaign for an end to Sunday trading and to regulate shop opening times. From the evidence I see in these newspapers reports, shops in London opened all hours in the 1800s, you could walk into a grocers, or haberdashery, or a cheese shop anytime from early morning to almost midnight. In fact nineteenth-century London looks a lot more like twenty-first century London than does it resemble the city of my youth.

In December 1859 a deputation from the Early Closing Association appeared at Mansion House Police Court to ask for the Lord Mayor’s support. In 1859 Christmas Day fell on a Sunday. Given that the 25 December was observed as a holiday the Association were worried that the ‘toiling classes’ would miss out on an extra holiday this year.

Mr Lilwall and Mr Winkworth (secretary and vice president respectively) reminded the Lord Mayor that in 1857 the then incumbent chief magistrate had issued a recommended that Boxing Day be observed as a public holiday. Shops and other businesses had taken up the idea and it had even been adopted by mayors across the country. The result was that shop workers, clerks, and all manner of the ‘industrial classes’ got a proper holiday from Saturday afternoon through to Tuesday morning on the 27th.

The Association urged this Lord Mayor to follow suit and urge businesses to adopt the holiday. It was hard, they said, for individual tradesmen to grant an extra day of leave and close their shops because they didn’t know what the competition was doing. It needed a voice of authority to make a declaration.

The Lord Mayor agreed with the deputation from the Association but it wasn’t sure he had either the power or the influence to instigate a holiday in London, let alone elsewhere.

But he was certainly happy to publicly ‘express his hope that the tradesmen and merchants of the city, and the bankers, as far as they possibly could, would close their establishments on the 26th inst. and so give an opportunity for rational and recreative enjoyment to those in their employ’.

He hoped that this would mean that Christmas, as one of the ‘few holidays which were generally observed in this country would not be lost’.

The Early Closing Association continued it campaign throughout the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. It took them until 1912 to achieve part of their aim, half-day closing. Some of you might remember when shops would close early on a weekday and many will recall that until the 1990s Sunday opening was rare. Nowadays shops open Sundays, all week long, from 8 to 8 and later, and some big stores are open 24/7.

Spare a thought then for those that have to man the tills and restock the shelves over the bus Christmas period who work even harder than they normally have to. They need a rest just as much (if not more) than everyone else. Perhaps its time that we made Boxing Day a proper national holiday, with all shops closing for the day. After all, do we really need ‘retail therapy’ on the morning after Christmas?

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, December 9, 1859]