“Oh Monsieur, if you don’t take care you will lose your handkerchief out of your pocket!’: A Frenchman amuses the reading audience at Mansion House

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I was watching the news a week or so ago and (surprise, surprise) Brexit was being discussed. The BBC had sent a roaving reporter to Stoke to ask locals what they felt about Britain leaving the EU and at the delays that seemed to be undermining the process. One elderly couple (who self-identified as Leave voters) reflected a fairly common view that it was ‘about time’ the politicians just got on it with, and executed the will of the 52% that voted out.

When asked why he thought it was taking so long the man replied that it was the fault of the Europeans, in particular the French. ‘I’ve never liked the French’ he said.

This version of Francophobia has a long history in British (or rather English) culture.   As our nearest European neighbours France has been perceived as an enemy and economic rival for much of the last 1000 years. This is despite the reality that the long wars of the medieval period were dynastic (effectively French French kings versus English French kings) and the wars with the Bourbons were as much about religion as they were about nationalism, and those that benefited from them were the wealthy, not the poor that fought them.

Similarly the wars with Revolutionary and Napoleonic France were fought to preserve the power and wealth of the English aristocracy and mercantile class, not the ‘scum of the earth’ (as Wellington dubbed some of his infantry) who died in their thousands on foreign soil. Napoleon was a ‘monster’ and the revolutionary ideas of the French were supposedly inimical to English ‘liberty’. The reality was that had the revolution been exported to Britain we’d be quite a different nation today, arguably one without the House of Lords, the monarchy and all the trappings of class privilege.

In the early 1830s Waterloo was still a recent memory. Napoleon had died in 1821 (in exile on St Helena, possibly as a result of poison). France was no longer an enemy, even if it was still an economic rival, but Francophobic views persisted. London was home to plenty of Frenchmen and women and, in March 1835, one of the appeared at the Mansion House Police court to prosecute a pickpocket he’d caught red-handed on the street. The report of the case before the Lord Mayor reveals the casual anti-French sentiment which, I think, (as that man in Stoke demonstrates), continues to this day.

Monsieur Colliard had captured Edward Brown as he attempted to steal a handkerchief from his pocket in Lombard Street near the Bank of England. He described what happened in excellent English but with a heavy French accent. The Morning Post’s reporter wrote it up for the amusement of his readership so that both the working-class thief and his intended French victim  appeared as comic characters in a popular music hall skit.

‘My Lor’ said M. Colliard, ‘I vas going doing Lombar-street, Friday veek, and I felt tug, tug; and ven I turned to see vat it vas, I saw a vera leetle garçon run away with my handkerchief’.

I am now imagining the gentleman in his club or the worker at the bar of the pub amusing his friends by reading this aloud, with perfect comic timing.

Having lost one hankie Colliard was on his guard the following day.

‘So, I thought [this time] I would pin my handkerchief to my pocket, so de leetle garcon should not get him out. So when I go to the place were I vas tugged I felt another tug, and I turned about, and this garcon had a hold of my handkerchief. “Ah” I says, “I have caught you!”

“Oh Mounsier, “ says he, “if you don’t take care you will lose your handkerchief out of your pocket;” but I says to him, ‘I vill take care not to lose you,” and I held him fast, and I bring him here for your Lordship to try him’.

Young Edward Brown attempted to wriggle out of the charge by saying he was only trying to warn the Frenchman that he was in danger of dropping his ‘wipe’ or having it pinched by one of the many ‘bad characters’ that lurked around the Bank.

His show of altruism fooled no one, especially not the Lord Mayor, who told him that if he made ‘the communication without the slight of hand all would have been all right, but he must go to Bridewell for two months for going too far in in his endeavour to protect his neighbour’s property’.

So in the end a very ordinary story of petty theft was dressed up as an amusing tale that allowed the readers to chuckle at the funny accent of our continental neighbours and the misfortune of a ‘street arab’ whose poverty had probably driven him to steal in the first place. For me it is a reminder that some elements of our society continue to enjoy demonizing or ridiculing ‘foreigners’ even at the same time as we enjoy their wine, cheese, countryside, and culture and benefit from the trade between our countries.

The ‘little Englander’ has become a little more prominent as a result of Brexit and, regardless of whether being a member of the EU is a good or bad thing in your opinion, anything which serves to divide peoples who have much more in common than they have in difference, is a sad thing which does no one any good.

Expect, of course, for those that profit from nationalism and division. And that little club contains the real enemies of the people, the far right, religious extremists, and arms traders.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, March 02, 1835]

Prison for the mother who couldn’t support her babies

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Today Haille Rubenhold’s new book on the five canonical victims of ‘Jack the Ripper’ is published in the UK. I’ve chatted with Haille about her work but haven’t read it yet. I am well aware that its publication (or at least the publicity surrounding its publication) has caused a stir and led to Haille being attacked in some quarters by those that believe she has misrepresented ‘Ripperologly’ (the name given to the study of this, the most famous of all ‘cold cases’).

I haven’t read it yet (my copy is on order and I’ll review here when I have) but while I recognize very many people might be upset that she has (supposedly) claimed that the stories of the ‘Ripper’s’ victims have never been told when they have, I think it is also very good that an independent and credible researcher such as Haille has chosen to write about this topic. She had important things to say about prostitution, women’s lives, poverty and homelessness, and I’m keen to read it. She may not be as well informed on the details of the case as those that have studied it for decades and that may undermine some of her findings but she deserves to be ‘heard’.

She also deserves to be treated with respect, as do respected Ripperologists like Paul Begg. Name-calling is never appropriate. We can critique, argue and disagree with each other without chucking unpleasantness about.

One of issues Haille’s work highlights is the desperate poverty that women (and of course men) endured in Victorian London. This wasn’t something new in 1888, it was endemic throughout the 1800s. The magistrate courts could provide temporary relief for those caught in the poverty trap but they could just as frequently criminalize paupers, especially when outside agencies were involved.

Nance (or Nancy) Donovan was a pauper with two children who had only just got out of prison when she appeared before the Lord Mayor at Mansion House Police court in late February 1853. She stood in the dock, in ‘filthy rags’ and with one of her children – a babe in arms – clutched closely to her.

She should have perhaps inspired charity but there was no sympathy on display in the Lord Mayor’s courtroom that cold February morning. Nancy had been brought in from the streets by a City policeman after she’d been pointed out by a an officer from the Mendicity Society. Nancy had been begging from the steps at the end of King William Street with one child in front of her, the other in her arms. The suspicion was that she had drugged them both with laudanum so they looked ill and starving.

Of course Nancy denied this and begged the magistrate to let her off this time.

‘I’ll never bother yez any more if you let me off this once. Upon my sowl I wasn’t begging a farthing from anyone. I was only just sitting down to nurse the babby in this cowld weather, and sure enough it wanted a dhrop of suck’.

The Lord Mayor was unmoved, clearly believing that Nancy was a mendicant (a beggar) that was using and abusing her offspring to feed her idle lifestyle. He sent her to gaol once again, to bridewell for a months, and her children to the workhouse to be ‘cared for’ by the parish.

This was Victorian ‘justice’ and ‘welfare’ policy and it is hardly surprising that women turned to prostitution, alcohol and the streets, as Rubenhold’s important new study highlights.

[from The Standard, Monday, February 28, 1853]

My own study of the Whitechapel or ‘Jack the Ripper’ murders is due to be published in June 2019.

‘His whole time belongs to the public’: the lot of the Victorian policeman

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London Police (c.1891) – you can see their duty armlets on their left wrists.

A Victorian policeman was expected to wear his uniform at all times of the day, regardless of whether he was on duty or not. According to the Police Code book an officer can ‘never be strictly off duty, for his whole time belongs to the public’.* To indicate he was on duty a policeman wore the striped armlet, the removal of which – in duty hours – was considered a very serious offence.

PC Josiah Norton  (770 City) was a good example of a police officer who took his vows of service seriously. He lived in digs above a watchmaker’s shop at 11 Barking Alley on the wonderfully named Seething Lane. On the night of the 22/23 February 1869 Norton was asleep then, around one in the morning, he was woken by ‘a slight noise’. His police sense told hi something was wrong and he got up and, dressed only in his nightshirt, went to investigate. As he descended the stairs to Mr Miller’s watch shop he saw an intruder who, seeing the other man, ran off with the policeman in pursuit.

The burglar ran out of the house and towards nearby Barking Church, tripping on some steps as he fled. Unfortunately for him two policemen were nearby, Inspector Harrison and Sergeant Hartopp. The running man looked suspicious so they questioned him. As they did PC Norton came running up, still dressed only in his night wear, and told them the fugitive was wanted for attempted burglary. Norton said he would have been with them quicker but the escaping felon had the presence of mind to bar one of the exits behind him.

In the Mansion House Police court the following day the man gave his name as James Cottrell, labourer but the police described him as the member of a ‘gang of burglars, all of whom are now in custody’. The magistrate, Sir Robert Carden, granted their request for a remand so that Cottrell’s character and circumstances might be investigated further.

Cottrell came to trial at the Old Bailey on the 1 March 1869. He pleaded guilty but tried to argue that he’d only entered Miller’s watch shop by accident: ‘I was making a convenience of the place, and fell in,’ he said. In other words he was using the doorway as a toilet when it opened unexpectedly. The judge was no more convinced than I imagine you are and, since he had a previous conviction from 1865, he handed down a seven-year sentence of penal servitude.  Cottrell was just 21 years of age; he served six years being released on license in February 1875.

As for PC Norton his heroics had not passed unnoticed by the City magistracy and police. Sir Robert Corden made a point of commending his dedication to duty in pursuing a criminal despite being undressed and said ‘he hoped his conduct would be reported to the commissioner’. It already had been, Inspector Harrison confirmed.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, 24 February, 1869]

*Neil A. Bell and Adam Wood, Sir Howard Vincent’s Police Code 1889, (Mango Books, 2015), p.24

‘He wants to go to a reformatory your worship’. ‘He cannot do that, he is too old’: one mistake and a life is ruined.

1919

Robert Rayhnam cut a miserable figure in the dock at Mansion House Police court. The 14 year-old kept his head down, hardly spoke, and struggled under the withering glare of the Lord Mayor who sat as the City’s chief magistrate.

Young Robert, who was dressed respectably, had squandered a chance in life denied to very many boys of his class. He’s secured a position at Hackett & Co. a firm of ship agents as a messenger. It was a low paid but responsible job and Robert was trusted with money and cheques and so he had access to the company safe.

Sadly one day temptation got the better of him and he pinched a bag containing £11 and 10s. The bag, which also held notes and memos, was soon lost and Robert was questioned. He denied taking it but a search of the premises turned up some of the bag’s correspondence alongside private papers that belonged to the lad. Confronted with this Robert broke down, admitted his crime and begged for mercy.

His father was called who took him home. In looking through the boy’s papers Mr Hackett found a receipt for £9 for three month’s board and lodging, paid in advance. When he investigated further Hackett  discovered that these lodgings were in the house of man whose daughter Robert had been ‘courting’. So he wanted the money to impress his sweetheart’s father and demonstrate he was a worthy candidate for her  hand. Instead he merely showed himself to be dishonest and unreliable.

Robert’s employer was not ‘vindictive’ (in his words) but the boy had to be corrected. He asked the Lord Mayor if it would be possible to send Robert to a reformatory school. The Lord Mayor asked the boy’s age.

‘He was 14 in August’ Robert’s father replied.

‘Then he is too old for a reformatory’, intoned the magistrate.  ‘What have you to say to this charge?’ he demanded of Robert.

‘Nothing’.

‘Are you desirous that the case should be dealt with here, and that you should not be sent to the Old Bailey for trial?’

Robert said nothing, keeping his head bowed, and probably hoping the ground would swallow him up. The court’s officer leant in and Robert said something to him. ‘He wants to go to a reformatory your worship’, said the officer. ‘He cannot do that, he is too old’, said The Lord Mayor. Robert pleaded guilty and was remanded for three days so they could decide what to do with him.

Despite his crime it is hard not to feel sorry for Robert. He made a bad mistake and paid the price for it. The minimum he could expect was the loss of his job and any reference that might allow him to secure a similar one. He’d undermined his relationship with his father, the father of the girl he loved, and probably ended that relationship in the process (as it was unlikely that her father would allow the pair to see each other). Prison probably awaited him, if only for a few months.

Thereafter he’d be scarred by his experience. His best line of action probably lay in leaving the area he grew up in and seeking a fresh start somewhere else, perhaps with the forces, or on one of the many merchant ships that plied their trade at the London docks. Let’s hope there was a happy ending.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday 23 February, 1859]

A teenager learns a hard life lesson

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The Blewcoat School in Caxton Street

William Gillman had managed to secure a solid position for himself at a merchant’s offices in Mansion House Street in the City. He was 16 years of age and had been educated at the Blewcoat School in Caxton Street. The charity school, established in 1688 and situated in Caxton Street from 1709, served to help poor boys and girls in ‘reading, writing, religion, and trades’. The education he received there allowed Gillman to work for Mr Charles Ede as a clerk.

It should have been the basis for a long and respectable career had young William taken his opportunity. Sadly, and as if so often the case, he didn’t appreciate at 16 just what his life could be if he knuckled down and worked at it; maturity comes to all of us at different stage of life after all.

William was entrusted with Mr Ede’s postage stamps, amongst which were a ‘certain number of foreign’ ones which were kept in a book. The book was in a box which was locked away at night but to which William had access during the day. So when Mr Ede noticed that the foreign (at a shilling value each) stamps were running out faster than normal his suspicions fell on the lad.

The merchant decided to set a trap for his young employee, marking some of the stamps so he’d be able to recognize them later. One day soon afterwards he called for a stamp but since no one answered him he went to fetch one himself.  When he opened the box he found there were no shilling stamps left so he called William over, gave him 10and sent him to the post office to get some more.

When the teenager returned and handed him the stamps Ede noticed that some of them bore the secret marks he’d inscribed on them. Clearly William had pocketed some of the money for himself and fobbed his master off with the stamps he’d previously stolen. The merchant confronted the boy and asked him if he stolen from him. At first William lied and said he was innocent but capitulated when his boss told him about the markings.

Mr Ede resolved to write to the boy’s father and have him dismissed from his service and taken home. That would have been the end of it (and reminds us that very many petty thefts like this would never have reached the courts) had not William tried to justify his actions. Theft was bad enough but to couple it with deception and a refusal to acknowledge one’s guilt was too much for the merchant who was determined that the boy needed to be taught a lesson.

On Monday 4 February 1861 William Gillman appeared before the Lord Mayor at Mansion House police court where he was formally charged with theft. He could have been sent to prison for his crime but neither the magistrate or Mr Ede wanted that. The boy’s father was present and was willing to take the lad back into his care so, after ‘a severe reprimand’ he was discharged.

Let’s hope he learned that hard life lesson and quickly moved on.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, 5 February, 1861]

A waiter reaches rock bottom and tries to end it all

Victorian man ordering coffee from a waiter in a bar

We know that very many families today struggle to survive even though we have a well established and supposedly thriving economy and the safety net of a state financed benefit system. The refusal of some employers (like Tim Martin) to even discuss paying the ‘living wage’ is indicative of the reality that even in the 21stcentury poverty continues to exist side-by-side with immense wealth.

It is often those working in the service and entertainment industries that get paid the least for working the longest and most inconvenient hours. To get some historical perspective (and sadly, historical continuity) we can look at the case of John Johnson who appeared in the dock at Mansion House Police court in January 1884 accused of attempting to kill himself.

Johnson was a waiter working at a Fenchurch Street restaurant who was paid so little he was struggling to feed and clothe his family. Let’s note that this man was not a criminal, not a thief, nor was he unemployed, or seeking benefits. Like so many people today who work in the ‘gig economy’ or on ‘zero-hour contracts’ he was paid very little to wait tables in central London and by January he was so overwhelmed by his situation he plunged a kitchen knife into his own chest.

He recovered in hospital but was arrested and questioned by the police. When he told them of his economic distress they investigated, sending a sergeant and a man who was present at the restaurant at the time to see his circumstances for themselves.

It was pretty desperate.

The sergeant told the Lord Mayor at Mansion House that:

‘There was barely any furniture in the house’, suggesting that they had pawned or sold (or even burned them for fuel), in an effort to stay warm and alive. The waiter’s wife was ‘so weak that she seemed scarcely able to stand’ when they knocked at the front door.

She showed them in and upstairs where the family occupied one room. There ‘they found some of the children lying on a very old bedstead with no clothes on them. She then pointed to a corner, which was so dark that they could not see anything, but on searching more closely [they] discovered some of the children huddled together. They were fast asleep, but had no clothing whatever on.’

He went on to say that the couple’s eldest daughter, a girl of 18, was sat slumped in the fireplace with a child in her arms. This baby was hers but the father had been locked up in ‘a madhouse’ so she had no one else to support it. Another girl, aged four, sat next to her, with no ‘shoes or stockings on’.

It was a terrible sight to behold and the gentleman accompanying the officer immediately doled out some coins to help them ‘relieve their present condition’ but clearly they needed much more help.

In court the Lord Mayor could do little more than inform the parish poor law officials to pay a visit. He extracted a promise form Johnson that he wouldn’t repeat his attempt at suicide, and dismissed him.  This was a society that only cared up to a point and was more interested in profit than economic equality of opportunity. I sometimes (often actually) wonder how far we’ve come since then.

Tim Martin is worth an estimated £448,000,000. He allegedly pays his bar staff a basic £8.05 an hour.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, 29 January, 1884]

The fight to get to work

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Since Friday I have been following one week’s ‘police intelligence’ in the London newspapers in 1884, a year which followed the same calendar as 2019. On Monday the newspapers reported a selection of cases heard at the capital’s Police courts on the preceding Saturday (since the courts were closed on a Sunday).

On Saturday 24 January 1884 one of these was the reappearance after a couple of days of Henry Brayne, a clerk from Leytonstone who worked in the City. Brayne had been accused of assault by his (unnamed) victim, another City worker. The pair had been walking independently along the Poultry – one of the City streets that leads past Mansion House to the Bank of England – when they bumped into each other.

The other man was carrying some parcels and nearly toppled over. He turned on Brayne and said that had he got both his hands free he would ‘teach him better’ than to nearly knock people over in the street. Brayne took exception to this and punched the man in the eye.

When the pair had appeared in court on the Thursday the Lord Mayor (who sat as Chief Magistrate for the City of London) advised the pair to settle their differences by negotiating some compensation for the wounded man’s injury. Failing that, he said, he would hear the action for assault against the clerk.

It now transpired that the pair had agreed a financial arrangement that was mutually acceptable. The amount of this was not disclosed in court (or at least it was not reported) but given that Brayne’s attack had left the other party without the ability to see in one eye (albeit, we hope, temporarily) it must have been a fairly hefty settlement.

It reminds us that London was an exceptionally busy place in the Victorian period. The streets were as rammed with traffic as they are today and all the photos we see of the capital’s centre show thousands of commuters fighting (clearly sometimes literally) to make their ways to and from work.

Plus ça change, eh?

[from The Morning Post, Monday, 26 January, 1884]