A lucky counterfeiter or a young man with deeper problems? Mercury and bad money at Bow Street

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William Collins was lucky. In 1841 he had a brush with the law that might have ended in a quite serious prosecution and, most likely, a prison sentence. As it was the sitting magistrate at Bow Street chose to believe his version of events over that of the police, and he walked out of court a free man. With a different magistrate, and in previous decades, he may not have been so fortunate.

Collins was charged with passing counterfeit money (‘uttering’ as it was often described). He had entered a butcher’s shop in Charles Street and attempted to pay for a ‘quarter pound of beef’ with a ‘bad’ fourpenny piece. The butcher (George Garland) rejected the young man’s coin and demanded another. Colins produced a shilling and a sixpence from the same pocket and handed them over. Garland carefully examined each, told him the shilling was also ‘bad’ but accepted the sixpence. Collins left with his supper and 2din change.

Next he went to the Anchor and Crown pub in King Street and ordered a pint of beer. When Edward Hoey the landlord asked him to pay he handed him the shilling that had been refused earlier. Hoey refused it and Collis tried another coin, a halfpenny which was fine. He drank his pint and left.

Some moments later a man approached the bar and spoke to the landlord. He asked if a person fitting Collins’ description had been in and when he was told he had said he had him under surveillance for some time. The man was an early police detective named Roberts and having been informed that his quarry was  close by he rushed off after him, arresting him soon afterwards and taking him to the nearest police station.

Detective Roberts questioned his prisoner and sent for the landlord and the butcher. On the following Saturday both men and the detective were in court to give evidence against Collins.

The young ‘strenuously denied’ knowing that the money was counterfeit and was very clear about how he had acquired it. He can’t have come across as a criminal and Mr Jardine seemed ready to believe he was innocent. The justice asked the policeman who’d searched him at the station whether any other ‘bad’ coins had been found on him. The constable replied that none had but the lad did possess a bottle of quicksilver, which he kept in the same pocket as his money. The quicksilver (mercury) would have tarnished the coins he owed. This seems to have convinced Mr Jardine of his innocence although the other witnesses were less sure that they hadn’t narrowly avoided being ripped off by a fraudster. They insisted the coins were fake.

So the magistrate sent the constable off with the coins to be tested by a nearby jeweler. The expert opinion was that the coins were indeed ‘genuine, but discolored in consequence of being placed with quicksilver’. The magistrate turned to the young man in the dock and apologized to him for having held him in custody while the facts were checked. He said he hoped he understood that while he was now cleared of any suggestion of criminal behavior the ‘affair [looked] very suspicious’ based on the witnesses produced in court.

But why might Collins have had a phial of mercury on his person? In the 1800s there were plenty of uses for a metal that we would be rather concerned to find someone wandering the streets of London with. Mercury is highly toxic. However in the Victorian period plenty of substance we would consider dangerous were readily available and used in everyday operations at home and at work.  Collins might have been self-medicating with mercury; it was used as disinfectant, diuretic and even as a laxative.

At points in history mercury was used to treat syphilis, a disease that was rife in nineteenth-century London. However, the treatment could be as bad as, worse even, than the disease itself. Mercury can induce mental illness (that was the – possibly apocryphal – story behind Lewis Carroll’s ‘Mad Hatter’ – as mercury was used in the manufacture of hats) and cause other, physical, problems for the user.

So perhaps William Collins wasn’t that lucky after all?

[from The Morning Post, Monday, May 03, 1841]

The problem of syphilis and its treatment is something I cover in my new co-authored book on the Whitechapel (‘Jack the Ripper’) murders. This is published by Amberley Books on 15 June this year. You can find details here:

‘Chops, kidneys and the Queen’: An unusual magic lantern show advertises a butcher’s wares

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Advert for a magic lantern. c.1885

Have you ever stood and watched the rolling advertisement we now get in some underground and other railway stations? These have moved beyond the static poster advertising a new film, holiday destination or fashion retailer, and catch our attention with moving images. On some escalators you can watch the same advert appear and disappear before your eyes as to ascend or descend the stairway.

If you had assumed this is another example of the innovative and all pervading reach of modern marketing – think again! As with so many things the Victorians were at over a hundred years ago.

In early April 1891 William Harris appeared before the chief magistrate for London at Bow Street Police court. Mr Harris, a prominent butcher, was charged with causing an obstruction on the pavement opposite his shop on the Strand. The butcher was a colourful and flamboyant character and brought his three sons (simply known as “no. 1, No. 2, and No. 3”) into court dressed in ‘white slops, etc, to resemble miniature pork butchers’. He had also hired a defense attorney, Mr Wildey Wright, to represent him.

Chief Inspector Willis of the local police said that at around 9 o’clock on the 28 March last a crowd of around 50 people had gathered across the Strand from Harris’ butcher’s shop and they were staring at his roof. The crowd had become so large that passers-by had to step out into the road to avoid it. Those standing on the street were watching a magic lantern display that Harris had installed above his premises as advertising.

As a constable tried to move the crowd on CI Willis watched as the display passed though several images of the Queen and other members of the royal family followed by cuts of meat and sausages, and then back to scenes from politics and public life.

The inspector agreed that there was ‘nothing objectionable’ about the images shown it was just that people were entranced by it and stood watching, thus blocking the passage of the street. It was a Bank Holiday, he explained, and the crowds were bigger than they normally were. This suggests that the butcher regularly used a magic lantern show to advertise his ‘chops and kidneys’.

Sir John Bridge, the magistrate, said Harris was a ‘very good Englishman and a good neighbour no doubt, and very fond of pigs; but there seemed to be some evidence of obstruction’. The defense lawyer said his client would certainly withdraw the images of the Queen and politicians of the day if that is what his neighbours demanded but he had invested a lot of money in the display.

The justice decided to suspend judgment for a month to take some soundings from local people and the police. Mr Harris meanwhile (to rising laughter in the courtroom) promised he would only show pictures of his meat products in future, and not Her Majesty or her cabinet.

[from The Standard, Friday, April 10, 1891]

‘The wonder-stricken animal then tried to turn around’: An actual ‘bull in a china shop’

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According to some sources the expression ‘a bull in a china shop’ (used to refer to a clumsy person) has its origin sometime before it was first written down in Frederick Marryat’s 1834 novel, Jacob Faithful. As you can see from the illustration above however, the expression was in use well before then.

Londoners would have been familiar with the sight of bulls and others livestock being herded through the city streets in the 1800s. Smithfield market had been the destination for hundreds of thousands of beasts throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth century, as drovers brought in animals to sold and then herded east to the slaughterhouses in Spitalfields and Whitechapel.

Occasionally an animal would escape and run amok but more frequently, as the records of the eighteenth-century Mansion House and Guildhall justice rooms reveal, they were deliberately separated from the herd and chased through the streets by boys and young men. These incidents of ‘bullock-hunting’ (akin to the annual bull run in Pamplona, Spain) caused chaos on the City streets and ended in prosecutions before the magistrates.

Bullock hunting seemed to tail of off in the 1830s and had pretty much disappeared by the Victorian period. Urban areas were ‘improving’ and the authorities and public were increasingly intolerant of rowdy folk customs that interrupted the ‘polite and commercial’ pattern of day-to-day life.

By the 1840s campaigners were active in trying to close Smithfield as a cattle and sheep market. They cited the noise, the smell and the impracticality of moving animals through the streets. The market had also become too small to serve the city’s needs and was required to expanded, but not in the centre. In 1852 work began on a new market in Islington, which opened in 1855 as the Metropolitan Cattle market. Smithfield underwent a rebuilding and emerged, in 1868, as the new Smithfield meat market, selling dead meat rather than live animals.

Two years before trading ceased at Smithfield John Waistcoat appeared in the Guildhall Police court charged with ‘driving cattle without a license, or a drover’s badge’. This tells us cattle were still being brought into the centre in December 1850 and, as we will see, were still causing chaos. It also reveals that ‘bullock hunting’ was still very much alive, long after it was supposedly stamped out.

Waistcoat was only 15 years of age when he arrested by City police constable 117. The officer had seen two animals running towards Skinner Street, ‘apparently very excited’ and being chased by a group of small boys. Waistcoat was older and seemed to be trying to catch them so the copper stopped him and demanded to see his badge and license. When he was unable to produce either he collared him.

Meanwhile the beasts continued to run wild in the City streets.

A Mr Pierce said he saw one bull run into Rose and Crown Court and enter his house, which operated as a workshop. A witness who was inside the property described what happened next:

‘I was in the room on the ground floor at work, when I heard a great noise outside, and the next minute, to my great surprise, I saw a bull’s head thrust into the passage over the little wicket gate at the street door. I immediately closed the room door and he [the bull] went into the passage’.

By this time his testimony had reduced the Guildhall court’s occupants to unrestrained laughter as they imagined the scene.

‘I felt the wainscotting giving way’ he continued, ‘and accordingly pressed against it on the inside, while the bull pressed against it from without. ‘I felt the partition cracking under the weight, and at the same time the females in the room began to scream and make such a noise that I believe the bull was frightened, and he passed along the passage and I thought he was going upstairs’.

The people in court continued to laugh as the poor man tried to explain what had occurred to the alderman justice on the bench. For the reporter from Reynold’s it must have seemed as if he had the scoop of the week; many of the daily reports from the police courts were mundane, this was anything but.

‘The wonder-striken animal then tried to turn around’, the witness told Sir Peter Laurie (the magistrate), ‘and in doing so he knocked down the whole of the partition between the passage and the room with his hind quarters, and backed out, sending the little wicket gate flying over to the public house opposite. The bull then got clear of the court, and left me master of the ruins’.

The damage was estimated by Pierce to be between £2 and £3 which might not sound a lot but probably equated to about two weeks wages for a skilled tradesman, so not insignificant. The question was, who was to pay? Sir Peter decided that Waistcoat was not responsible and discharged him. Instead he decided that the man that bought the cattle should pay, and directed Mr Pierce to send his bill to a Mr Lowe.

[from Reynolds’s Weekly News, Sunday, December 1, 1850]

Police made to look sheepish in a case of mistaken identity

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By the 1860s London was a very modern city, boasting many of the ‘modern’ features that we take for granted today. It had department stores, theatres and music halls, trains (including an underground railway), buses and trams, and its streets were crammed with tens of thousands of commuters rushing to and fro to work and back. It was a commercial centre and the seat of government; a social and cultural capital and the largest one in Europe.

However, for all its modernity it still represented a nineteenth century city with elements that have long gone today. For example, cattle and sheep and were still driven into the capital to be sold at markets like Smithfield and then slaughtered in the East End for the meat trade. Today our beef and lamb arrives in temperature controlled vans and lorries, and the only animal hooves that touch our streets are those belonging to the police and horse guards.

This process of cleaning our streets of animals (‘urban improvement’ as our ancestors termed it) began in the 1800s and was completed, largely, by the end of the century. Markets were moved out of the centres to the peripheries, streets became the preserve of  people, not beast, and politeness reigned. Of course they were soon replaced by vehicles and London’s streets soon echoed to the sounds of horse drawn trams, omnibuses and hansoms, all eventually to be supplanted by motorised versions.

In 1868 Henry Goodwin came before the alderman at Guildhall Police court. Goodwin was a drover and his job was to bring sheep into London for sale. Goodwin was licensed by the City of London and wore his badge on his coat. However, his ‘crime’ that day was to have driven more sheep into London than the regulations allowed.

PC William Kenward (426 City Police) said that he was on duty on the 21 September just before 8 in the evening when he saw the defendant coming over Blackfriars Bridge with a drove of sheep. He thought the man had too many sheep and asked him what the head count was. The drover grumbled that ‘he had better count them himself’. PC Kenward counted 160. That was too many so he took the drover’s number (which was 1543) but the man refused to give his address.

The man in the dock was Henry Goodwin, senior (and he wore badge number 263). He declared he’d not driven sheep through the city for 18 months. The police had issued the summons to the wrong Goodwin. This was easily done as both of them were Henrys. It was also quite dark and both PC Kenward and his colleague (PC Clark 489 City) admitted they couldn’t be sure in the poor light that the man in the dock was the person they’d seen on the bridge. The older man was also able to produce a witness who testified that Henry senior was drinking with him in the Three Stags pub on the Kennington Road at the time the drove was crossing into London.

All in all it was a case of mistaken identity by the police and Alderman Causton felt there was insufficient evidence for him to proceed against the drovers. Father and son were released without further action and probably had a chuckle at the policemen’s expense. Nevertheless it shows us that even as late as 1868, just 150 years ago, one of London’s busy bridges was being blocked by a flock of sheep 160 strong. It is the sort of scene we associate with rural Britain, not the modern city. The image above is of Dingwall (in Ross Shire, Scotland) in the 1950s. We might imagine this is not that far from how London might have looked in the 1860s, as the Goodwins brought their flock to market.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, October 07, 1868]

An embezzling gambler’s luck runs out

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Leadenhall Market

Edward Bristow had a good  job in the eyes of Victorian society. He was a respectable middle-class clerk and bookkeeper  in the employ of a meat salesman at Leadenhall Market in the City of London. But he also had an addiction, an addiction all too well understood today to gambling.

Mr Lee, the meat salesman, was elderly and infirm and for the past four years had placed all his confidence in his 36 year-old assistant. Bristow received the payments for meat from butchers such as Charles Parrott (who had a stall at the market) and entered then into the ledger.

But he was also taking money out of the account and using it to place bets of his ‘favourite horse at Ascot, Epsom and other places of entertainment in that way’. Eventually he came unstuck because Henry Lee, the son of the salesman (and a butcher at Leadenhall in his own right) became suspicious. He looked into the books and found them ‘to be in a state of confusion’ and asked Bristow about it.

Henry Lee knew his fellow butcher Parrott who told him he had a receipt for two cheques recently, one for £374 and another for £100. Lee could find neither of these in the ledger. On enquiring at his father’s bank he discovered that the account had frequently been overdrawn and that had it not been for the fact that he was ‘a person of very large property’ the bank would have not have continued to give him credit. As it was they were already making arrangements to cease their connections with the salesman.

Henry Lee’s research revealed that Bristow had embezzled somewhere between £1000 and £2000 in money to feed his gambling habit. It had imperilled a well established business and at last brought the clerk to book at the Mansion House  Police court in December 1852.

The justice (the sitting Lord Mayory) committed Edward Bristow for trial at the Old Bailey and the clerk asked him not to remand him custody while he waited for that examination. But the Lord Mayor refused; ‘I would not accept bail of any amount, of the most unexceptional kind in a case like this’ he told Bristow before the sergeant took him away.

At Old Bailey in January of the following year Bristow pleaded guilty to embezzlement. The prosecution barrister asked for judgment (sentence) to be respited. This may mean that Bristow was sentenced at a later date (although he doesn’t appear in any of the records), or it could be that the case was referred up (the to 12 judges) because it might have issues of doubt attached (which is unlikely here). It may be that the Lees took pity on their family employer and wished to save him in some way.

We can’t say for certain what happened to Edward Bristow but it is safe to conclude that his gambling habit ruined him, robbed him of his livelihood, stripped him of his reputation and most probably rendered him destitute. Sadly we can say that this is still a very likely outcome for the compulsive and addicted gambler.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, December 11, 1852]