A snake trader charms the Mansion House

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The summary courts of the capital didn’t always deal with crime or antisocial behaviour; some of those that came before so did so for advice or to ask for help. One such person, named, was a traveler from the Caribbean, who appeared before the Chief Clerk at Mansion House in some distress.

The unnamed visitor, described by the press reports as a ‘respectable-looking young negro’, said he had arrived in London from his native Demerara via a circuitous route. He told  Mr Oke, the clerk that he had left Demerara (in what was then British Guiana and is now Guyana) in an attempt to make some money.

Whilst ‘out in the woods’ in Demerara he ‘had discovered a nest of boa-constrictors that had only just been hatched, and having heard that such objects were of value in foreign countries, he carefully secured his prize… and resolved to take the “little strangers” to the Zoological Gardens at Moscow, where he was told he would be paid a good price for them’.

It seems that there was nothing deemed wrong in the young man’s actions, the Victorians hadn’t yet determined that trading in live exotic animals was cruel. The RSPCA (who are concerned about such a trade in snakes today) had been in existence for around 50 years by 1873 (when this application came before the Mansion House Police Court) but perhaps they were busy enough dealing with cruelty to domestic animals.

Unfortunately for the adventurous snake dealer things didn’t go quite to plan however. He made his way to Hamburg where he was supposed to make a connection to take him on to Russia but the boas fell sick. Despite ‘all his endeavours’ the ‘young “boas” all died’.

With nothing to trade and most of his money gone the lad used the rest of his funds to get himself to England and the capital where he now asked for the Empire’s help to secure a boat back home. He had found ship at the West India dock that was prepared to carry him back to Guiana in return from him working his passage but he had no clothes. He asked the court therefore, if he might have some money from the poor box to purchase the necessary clothes for the voyage.

Mr Oke sent an assistant to check his story and, having ascertained that he was telling the truth, agreed to help. He was given a small sum and ‘left the court apparently highly delighted with the result of his application’.

There is a footnote to this story: Mr George Colwell OKe (1821-1874) served as the Chief Clerk to the magistrates in the City from 1864 onwards having started as a clerk in 1855. He was widely respected for his knowledge of the criminal law and assisted many aldermen and lord mayors in their decision making. Moreover, as a result of his deep understanding of statue law and practice Oke produced several volumes on the subject.

The best selling and most well-known of these was his Synopsis of Summary Convictions,(1858) which ran to 8 volumes and was popularly known as Oke’s Magisterial. You can find this online and while it is hardly an exciting read, it is invaluable to historians in understanding the legal structure under which all Police Court business was conducted. Oke rarely appears in the pages of the newspapers so it is nice to see such an influential figure pop up and act in a charitable way, demonstrating the alternative function of these central summary courts.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, October 23, 1873]

A morbid request for a reward reminds London of the Princess Alice disaster

 

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For those of you following this blog regularly and especially this week I hope you can see that I have tried to follow the ‘doings’ of the Thames Police Court for a whole week. Due the selective reporting of the courts however, this has not proved possible. I had hoped to be able to follow a couple of remanded cases, to see them reappear with some conclusion reached, but sadly this hasn’t happened. It all helps me understand though, just how selective the reportage was and suggest readers were more interested in a variety of ‘titbits’ about the courts than they were in finding out exactly what occurs in each court on a regular basis.

Historical research is always problematic and we can learn from what we can’t find almost as much as we learn from what we do. There is also the unexpected gobbets of information that the newspapers offer, that can open up new avenues for research and understanding, there were two of these today.

On the 66th anniversary of Wellington’s victory at Waterloo the Standard newspaper chose to concentrate on two cases from the Woolwich Police Court. In the first a ‘reputed lunatic’, James Peacock, was sent for trial by jury for allegedly stealing rockets from the Royal Arsenal.

The other case concerned a boy who had summoned the overseers of the poor at Woolwich for non-payment of a reward he was due. The reward was for recovering a dead body from the Thames and this linked the police courts to a tragedy that had occurred three years earlier, in September 1878.

On the evening of the 3 September the Princess Alice, a pleasure steamer loaded with passengers, was passing the shore at Tipcock Point, North Woolwich, when it collided with another vessel, a collier barge, the Bywell Castle. The Alice went down in just four minutes, dragging its terrified passengers into the polluted river. Over 650 people, men , women and children, drowned in the river and the loss of life was shocking.

The tragedy lasted long in local and national memory and must have impacted Londoners in particular. Liz Stride, one of the victims of ‘Jack the Ripper’ even claimed she had lost her husband on the Princess Alice, a claim that doesn’t seem to have much substance.  Stride might have been trying to get some charitable relief following the disaster, as several institutions, including the Lord Mayor’s Mansion House Fund, paid out to victims’ families.

Appearing in Woolwich on behalf of the Overseers of the poor, Mr Moore a relieving officer, said that the Overseers or the Guardians were normally quite happy to pay out for the recovery of bodies from the river. The boy also had a certificate from a coroner saying he was entitled to the money, so that seemed settled, but it wasn’t.

Mr Moore  told the court that a recent ruling at the Court of Queen’s Bench that in the case of the Princess Alice there was no actual law that gave authority for the paying of rewards. The Thames, he explained, was not included as part of “the sea”, which was what the original reward referred to. The magistrate, Mr Marsham grumbled that he couldn’t see how the two were not connected; after all the Thames was a tidal river which seemed to bring it within the act. Nevertheless he was bound to abide by the superior courts’ ruling and he dismissed the summons.

However, apparently the case was being discussed in parliament he was told, and so the lad (not named in the report) was advised to hang onto his certificate in the hope that the situation was eventually resolved to his benefit.

[from The Standard, Saturday, June 18, 1881]

As this was the 66th anniversary of Waterloo several papers mentioned the battle. The Daily News dedicated a small column to 200th anniversary of the Scots Greys, the ‘oldest dragoon corps’ in the British Army.  The ‘Greys’ had served with distinction in the Crimea at the battle of Balaclava, where they ‘tore through the Russians as acrobats go through a paper hoop’ (as the reporter described it). Their charge at Waterloo, which was more brave than effectual (if military historians are to be believed), was forever immortalised in Lady Elizabeth Butler’s Scotland Forever which was painted in 1881, to celebrate the anniversary. 

[from Daily News, Saturday, June 18, 1881]