A bad week in London, full of personal tragedy

V0019421 A destitute girl throws herself from a bridge, her life ruin

George Cruikshank, ‘A destitute girl throws herself from a bridge, her life ruined by alcoholism’, (1848)

Sometimes the London press seems to have chosen to focus on a particular theme. In the third week of July 1864 it appears to have been the personal tragedy of suicide. I can think of no reason why acts of self-destruction should have been higher in that period than in any other year. In America civil war was tearing that nation apart but the only noteworthy event in London was the murder of Thomas Briggs by Franz Muller, the first ever murder on the railways. Perhaps the relative lack of news stories in July prompted the newspapers to concentrate on the personal drama of those that decided they could no longer cope with life.

Attempted suicide was a crime in the 1800s and so those caught in the process were liable to be prosecuted. On the 19 July The Morning Post reported that three individuals had appeared before the city’s magistracy charged with this offence.

The first of these was an elderly man called James Gander. PC 244 of B Division told Mr Selfe at Westminster Police court that he’d been alerted to the fact that a person was seen drowning in the River Thames. It was about 8 o’clock on Sunday night (17 July) and when the policeman reached the water he and a bargeman managed to affect a rescue, pulling the 60 year-old out of the river.

Searching him he found three large stones in his pocket wrapped in a handkerchief. When he recovered his senses Gander told the constable that ‘trouble of mind and family misfortunes had driven him to it’.  Gander was also quite drunk, or at least appeared to have been drinking heavily and in court his son told the magistrate that his father had taken to drinking recently.

He went on to say that his father had been a fairly successful master carman but some time ago that business had floundered and gone under. His wife had been away from the family for the last few months looking after her daughter-in-law and it seems Gander wasn’t coping well. The magistrate wasn’t particularly sympathetic; he remanded the old man for a week so he could reappraise the case but said he was minded to send him for trial for the crime.

At Southwark on the other side of the river Mr Woolrych had two unconnected attempted suicides to consider. PC 133M told the magistrate that at half-past five on the previous Friday afternoon (15 July) he had found Henry John Arnold lying on the pavement in Swan Street. A gentleman was standing over him and called the officer’s attention to him, saying he feared the young man was dead.

Arnold was alive, but ‘totally insensible’. The gentleman handed the policeman a bottle marked ‘laudanum’ which he had prized from the stricken man’s hand. Arnold was taken to Guy’s Hospital and his stomach was pumped to try and save him. He was lucky but it took a few days for him to recover sufficiently to be brought before the magistrate at Southwark to answer for his actions.

Mr Woolrych asked him if he been trying to kill himself and why. Arnold admitted he had and explained it was because he ‘truly unhappy’ having fallen out with his wife. This prompted a ‘decent-looking female’ to step forward and state that she was Mrs Arnold. She said they had argued about a young girl that worked with him, but she’d forgiven him. Arnold had taken it badly and had wandered off for a while and she’d not known where he was. She worried because he was often in ‘bad health’, and perhaps she meant in poor mental health.

This time the magistrate decided he would keep Arnold in gaol until ‘he was in a better frame of mind’, perhaps conscious that the young man had told the  arresting officer that ‘next time he would do it better’.

The final case was that of Mary Ann Willis. She was also brought to Mr Woolwrych at Southwark and charged with attempting to end her own life. A young lad named Samuel Carden testified that on Saturday afternoon (16 July) at 3 o’clock he’d been on Waterloo Bridge stairs where he worked assisting the watermen. Mary Ann came down the stairs and remarked to him that ‘it would be a nice place to commit suicide’.

Carden told her to be careful that she didn’t accidently fall in and said he would ensure no one tried to kill themselves while he was there. Regardless of this, she pushed past him and ‘slipped off the logs and went under’. Samuel acted quickly, grabbed her and pulled her back on to dry land, before she could be caught under the logs of the platform and be drowned.

In court Mary Ann denied all of this and said she’d fallen in by accident. The magistrate asked Samuel if he thought the woman had been entirely sober when he’d seen her. The lad said he was pretty sure she had been drinking as she looked unsteady on her feet when she came down to the jetty. Faced with this evidence and Mary Ann’s denial the magistrate had a decision to make. Whom did he believe?

Finally he decided that he would believe the ‘respectable young woman’ but probably because he felt she had acted on the spur of the moment and had planned to kill herself. Unlike Carden or Gander this seemed to be a life that could be turned around. But young Samuel had acted bravely and deserved a reward for saving her, so Mr Woolrych ordered that he been given five shillings from the poor box. Mary Ann he discharged.

Today none of these individuals would be prosecuted for what they had done or had attempted to do and hopefully all three would have been given some support from the mental health services. This doesn’t prevent thousands of people from trying and succeeding in ending their own lives of course and stories like these remind us that everyday people struggle with their personal demons and pressures, and some of them lose those battles.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, July 19, 1864]

Stealing from John Lewis earns a ‘respectable’ woman an unwelcome day in court.

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John Lewis’ Oxford Street store, c.1885

Given the proliferation of shops in the capital it is not surprising that shoplifting was much more of a problem here than in most other towns in England. London was the shopping capital of northern Europe in the late 1800s and the concept of large department stores had been imported from America.

Shoplifting had always been associated with female offering. That’s not to say than men and boys didn’t do it, they did of course, but this was a crime which was more evenly distributed by gender. Robbery and burglary were crimes which were overwhelmingly committed by males, picking pockets and stealing from shops were much more likely to be undertaken by women and girls.

In the second half of the 1800s the idea that some women  (generally ‘respectable’ women) might steal because of a weakness, a compulsion to thieve, gained ground. Kleptomania was coined and became a way of explaining the theft of items (often small luxuries) by women who could easily afford to pay for them.

Of course this dent make it any less annoying for the poor shopkeeper. Nor did necessarily excuse such behaviour. In July 1888, just before the Whitechapel murderer began his atrocities in the East End, a ‘respectably connected’ woman was brought before the magistrate at Marlborough Street caused of stealing from Messers. Lewis in Oxford Street.

Ellen Harris (or possibly Ellen Barker as the court reporter noted she had an alias – often a sign of previous criminal connections) – was charged with stealing a black silk jersey from the store (the forerunner of the John Lewis Partnership we all know today). Ellen had ben in the shop on the Monday in the mantle department and had bought and paid for some items. An assistant the saw her select the jersey and hide it under her waterproof jacket and walk away.

The assistant told the store manager (Walter Cryer) and he followed her. Ellen left the store and started to stroll down Oxford Street. In the classic mode of a store detective Cryer tapped her on the shoulder and asked if she would accompany him back to the shop. Once inside and at the foot of the first staircase Cryer challenged her with the fact that she’d taken the jersey without paying for it.

Ellen denied it and started back up the stair. She stopped halfway, putting her hand inside her jacket and asked him:

‘If I give it to you now, will that do?’

It would not, Mr Cyrer replied and said he’d already summoned a detective to investigate. When he failed to show up Cryer went and found a policeman on the street and handed the woman over. She pleaded with them not to take her in saying she was ‘respectably connected’. In court her solicitor suggested that it was a mistake, that Ellen was ‘absent minded’ and ‘vacant’ when stopped by the store manger. He was trying to paint a picture of a woman who was not entirely in her right mind, one suffering from a compulsion she could not control.

The constable that took her into custody rather supported this interpretation but the store manager disagreed. In the end Mr Hannay, the police court magistrate, denied he could not deal with the case and remanded her with a view to sending her for trial.  At the last moment another witness appeared; the manager of another large store, Gask and Gask’s. He identified a number of handkerchiefs that the police had found in Ellen’s possession as the property of his shop. Things didn’t look good for Ellen.

In the end Ellen was prosecuted at the Middlesex Sessions and convicted of theft from John Lewis and Gask’s.  She was 40 years of age and described simply as ‘married’. The judge didn’t send her prison so perhaps he thought there was grounds for accepting a plea that she was ‘distracted’ in some way. The court took sureties as to her future behaviour, and perhaps these were guaranteed by her husband or wider family. If she’d been younger, or unmarried, or working class, I doubt she’d have got off so lightly.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, July 11, 1888]

An elderly kleptomaniac in North London

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From about the middle of the nineteenth century mental weakness was used to explain some forms of petty offending, usually by women. The idea that female shoplifters were impelled to steal as a result of their ‘inferior’ or ‘weak’ minds helped explain, if not entirely excuse, those ‘respectable’ women caught stealing small items from London’s new department stores.

I’ve nearly always heard kleptomania associated with women but in this case the suggestion was that an elderly man could also be susceptible to this form of ‘brain fever’. This fits the underlying narrative however: women, children and the elderly were all ‘weak’ in the eyes of Victorian society. All required some level of protection, and sometimes from themselves.

Robert Lacey was working in his yard on Hertford Road in Kingsland one evening in July 1892 when an old man entered. The visitor offered  Lacey a whip socket for sale but he wasn’t interested and the man went away. As he was leaving however Lacey saw him take a waterproof knee-length apron from the ‘rail of a pleasure van’. The old man calmly folded the apron up, ticked it under his jacket, and walked away.

Lacey followed after and caught him, waiting until a policeman came into view before handing him over. When he was searched at the station the police found the apron (worth just 6s) and the whip socket plus ‘four carriage-handles, three knives, a billiard-ball case, eight pawn-tickets, and two bottles of oil’. Quite how he carried all these is a mystery!

In court before the North London Police Magistrates the man gave his name as John Clark, 60 years of age and said he was very sorry. He’d only recently been released from Banstead Lunatic Asylum ‘where he had been detained as a kleptomaniac’. The magistrate – Mr Bros – called for enquiries to be made by the surgeon at the gaol to determine ‘the state of his mind’. He remanded him in custody in the meantime.

Judging by the eclectic list of things that Clark had in his possession he certainly seems to have been someone ‘collecting’ things by impulse rather than a determined thief but one wonders if the unforgiving justice system of the time was able to appreciate that.

[from The Illustrated Police News etc, Saturday, July 9, 1892]

The apple doesn’t fall that far

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William Thomas’ son – Thomas Thomas – had been a difficult child. He had grown up in a large family with eight siblings, another one of which had been in trouble with the law as Thomas had. In January 1866 Thomas had been brought before a magistrate and sent to the Reformatory School ship Cornwall, which was moored off Purfleet in Essex.

The school could take up to 250 boys who had been convicted of offences that earned them three years on board but parents were expected to contribute to the costs. William Thomas now found himself in court at Marlborough Street because he had neglected to pay for his son’s keep. He now owed £1 and 7for his failure to pay 1s 6d  a week.

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William Thomas pleaded poverty but that didn’t go down well with the prosecutor (a Mr Brannan from the Home Secretary’s office) or the magistrate – Mr Knox.

The court heard that William had abandoned his wife and six children at home and was now living in Foley Street with a new partner and had already given her two new mouths to feed. He’d promised to pay if given time but had then furnished Mr Brannan with a false address.

Mr Knox sent him to prison for 10 days and told him to find the money.

Underlying this of course is the domestic environment that Thomas Thomas had grown up in. Poverty, overcrowding, and domestic instability would all have contributed to his delinquency. We are very aware of these issues today and try to support children caught up in them.

Not that we are always that successful: there are still high truancy rates, children are abused and abandoned, and thousands suffer mental health problems. At least birth control has allowed couples to take more control over the size of their families and this would have been useful had it been available to the Thomas’s in the mid 1860s.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, June 16, 1866]

A unsolved murder in the East End, forty years before the ‘Ripper’

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Spitalfields Market, c.1842

This is a very curious case and one which may require some deeper digger over the next few weeks. In May 1848 a murder was discovered in Spitalfields, East London. Many readers will be familiar with the history of area in the Victorian era and others might perhaps assume that murders were two-a-penny in such a ‘degraded’ part of the capital.

This is often how Whitechapel was (and continues) to be portrayed in the media of the day and it was one of the dominant tropes when the so-called ‘Jack the Ripper’ murders occurred in the late summer and autumn of 1888.

However, while the area did have high levels of poverty and crime it was probably no worse than St Giles in the 1840s or indeed the Borough; murder was still relatively rare and far from being commonplace.

Nevertheless this murder was of a child, and so something that was very likely to garner column inches in the newspapers. In this case the child was a local immigrant – ‘a little Jew boy’ – as the papers of the time described him. His name was Henry Lazarus and, by the 10 June at least, no one had been prosecuted for his murder.

On that Saturday however, one man was in custody and he appeared in the dock at Worship Street Police court accused of the crime. There was only one witness who gave evidence however, and he was far from reliable.

Charles Savage testified that he was standing near a place known as ‘The Ruins’ in Fashion Street at about 10 o’clock at night. Savage was a street musician and he was planning on playing that night.

He watched he said as a group of men set upon the little boy and strangle him with a necktie. He recognised one of the men as a local who was known as the ‘bottle conjurer’ (presumably another performer) but the others he didn’t, or couldn’t name except for one, the young man the dock: Thomas Hart, a porter at Spitalfields Market.

Having killed the boy the men stripped him of almost all his clothes and told Savage to get rid of it. He refused and wouldn’t be persuaded even when the threatened him he said, so they picked up the dead lad and through him into a dust hole in the tenter ground.

He’d followed them to see where they went and fully expected (or hoped) to meet a policeman but couldn’t find one. So he went home to his lodgings in Wentworth Street and fell into a troubled sleep. Standing in Mr Arnold’s court he now pointed out Hart and accused him of being the one that had strangled the little boy.

Savage was described as being ‘a poor half-witted cripple’ and he was not taken seriously by the bench. Mr Arnold heard that the street singer had previously accused the ‘bottle conjuror’ of the murder a few weeks earlier and so his credibility now was much in question. Savage was clearly aware of this and admitted that he’d changed his story. ‘I deny all that now’ he declared with what the paper called ‘an imbecilic simper’.

Faced with such a weak witness Arnold decided to release the porter, telling him he was free to go ‘without a stain on his character’. He turned to the dead boy’s father and said ‘he was astonished that anyone could be given into custody upon such a serious charge upon such evidence’. Henry’s killer then, remained at large but in the next week I’ll see whether we can find him in the records.

Watch this space.

[from The Standard, Monday, June 12, 1848]

‘labouring under considerable depression of spirits’: a young woman throws herself and her baby into the canal

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The Grand Surrey Canal on Davies’ Pocket Map of London, 1852

On Sunday 17 May 1840 a policeman (32P) was walking his beat, which took him along the Surrey Canal. This ran through Camberwell and Peckham to the Surrey Docks at Rotherhithe, but no longer exists.

It was between one and two in the morning and the moon (which had been full three days earlier) was waning. The copper thought he heard a splash and hurried to the bank. As he peered across the water he thought he saw something, a woman’s bonnet, floating in the canal. Without a thought, he ‘threw off his coat and cape and jumped into the water’.

The water engulfed him and he was soaked through as he thrashed about to find the woman he presumed had fallen in. The canal was nine feet deep at this point, quite deep enough for someone to drown in, but fortunately the policeman soon found a body in the water. He grabbed it and pulled the person to safety, hauling them up onto the towpath.

When he’d recovered himself he realized he had rescued a young woman and her infant child that she had ‘closely clasped in her arms’. He took them both to the station house and then on to the Camberwell workhouse where they were able to get a change of clothes. The next morning he collected her and brought her to the Union Hall Police court to face questions about her actions from the magistrate.

After PC 32P had given his evidence another officer testified to having seen the woman, Mary Doyle, walking by the canal late at night. He had assumed she was lost and accompanied her back to safety. Mary told the justice she had no idea how she had ended up in the water and said that whatever feelings she had about her own life she would never have endangered her child.

Attempting suicide was an offence in 1840 as of course was attempting to kill your own child. It was evident however, that Mary was not herself. The paper reported that:

 ‘she was labouring under considerable depression of spirits’ and there was a suggestion that the child was illegitimate, and so perhaps Mary was trying to end her own life, and that of her infant, in order to escape the shame of ‘an illicit intercourse’.

The magistrate decided to remand her for further enquiries. He added that if she could find bail he’d be happy to release her to her friends. Sadly, no friends had appeared in court that morning so she was taken back to the cells.

Now PC 32P asked the court if anything could be done for him. He had risked his life, he pointed out, and had got soaked through and his uniform soiled in the process. Could he be ‘recompensed for what he had done?’

While it may sound a little ungallant in the circumstances, he did have a point. Policemen were responsible for their own uniforms and he would have to get his cleaned, presumably at his own expense. Unfortunately for him the clerk explained that there was no fund available for him, and suggested he apply to the Humane Society which paid out rewards for those that ‘saved the lives of others’.

The Humane Society (now ‘Royal’) was founded in 1774 by two doctors who wanted to promote resuscitation, and made awards to those that rescued others from the ‘brink of death’. They set up ‘receiving houses’ throughout the capital where people could be brought to recover. It still exists and continues its work recognizing the efforts of lifesavers, but it no longer offers rewards.

If the policeman did approach them he was likely to have been given around £5 (or £300 in today’s money), quite sufficient for him to get his tunic cleaned and pressed, and to be able to dine out on the story for months afterwards. As for Mary, she disappears from the records at this point so hopefully she survived and avoided being prosecuted. Who knows, perhaps the shock of her brush with death was enough of a prompt to turn her life around.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, May 19, 1840]

p.s. On 10 February 1840 Queen Victoria married her prince, Albert to begin what was undoubtedly one of the few ‘love matches’ in the history royal marriages at the time. Today of course is the wedding of Prince Harry to Meghan Markle. I’m no royalist – quite the opposite in fact – but this is clearly a marriage based on love and not dynastic expedience. This is also a revolutionary marriage in its own small way: Harry, an English prince descended from Victoria, is marrying an American commoner, and a person of mixed race. This is (almost) then a ‘normal’ marriage, and continues the modernisation of the royal family that began under Harry’s mother, Diana. I will doff my red cap to them both today, and wish them well (but I shan’t be watching on television!)

‘Oh don’t be so hard on me,’ pleads an Irish philosopher and gentleman of the road

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I had a ‘conversation’ yesterday on social media with someone asking how he should act when homeless people ask for money in the street. Should he give money, or buy them food or a coffee, or should he simply take the time to chat to them? It is a complex question and I quite understood his dilemma; some charities (like the Salvation Army) tell us not to give money, believing it perpetuates the problem. Others suggest we should to help them get the basic necessities of life.

I’m also often told that ‘they will spend it on drink or drugs’, not that it is any of my business how they spend whatever money they have.

Homelessness, vagrancy and begging are not modern social issues, they have been with us for as long as humans have lived in societies. The ‘modern’ vagrancy laws in Britain have their roots in the Tudor period with laws to punish ‘sturdy beggars’ and the building of houses of correction to enforce them. By the Victorian period poverty was endemic and being dealt with by the Poor Law, with workhouses operating as a deterrent to the ‘work-shy’ in the belief that poverty was a personal failing, not a product of society or a capitalist economic system.

There was also limited understanding of mental health and very little state provision for those that suffered. That much is obvious form so many of the cases I’ve written about on this site. I am reluctant to say that nineteenth-century society didn’t care about the poor and homeless and mentally ill, just that it didn’t really understand them and the underlying reasons for their actions.

St. George Gregg was someone who often found himself in trouble with the authorities in the late 1830s and early 40s. He’d come up before the Police court magistrates at Queen Square on more than one occasion in 1840 and was there again in early May that year.

Gregg was an Irishman and was frequently charged for being drunk. He was about to be convicted and fined by Mr Burrell when he raised his hand and asked if he could say a few words. The justice agreed and listened.

The defendant held out a small book, offering it to the chief usher to give to the magistrate. He explained that he’d been writing a book ‘on the currency question’ and thought his worship might like a copy. Mr. Burrell wasn’t interested.

I don’t want your book. What have you to say to the charge against you?’

I walk frequently thirty miles a day’, replied Gregg, ‘That fatigues me, and if I have nothing to eat the liquor has an effect sooner. I had no dinner yesterday, in fact I had no “tin”.’

The magistrate didn’t know what he meant by ‘tin’, so asked him.

Tin is money’, the man explained, ‘and having no  money I had no dinner’.

He’d tried to sell his books for money but seemingly had no takers to he’d started to sing in the streets and that way he’d raised a few pennies which he spent on drink.

‘You might have purchased victuals with that’, Mr Burrrell remarked.

‘Oh, sure, I wasn’t victuals hungry, I was grog hungry’ Gregg shot back. ‘I was like the captivating chandler, wanted I wanted in starch, I made up in blue’, he said, warming to his theme.

So I had toddy till I had but a single copper left, then devil a bed had I, and was making my way to the church-yard to go to bed on a tombstone, when the police found me quarters’.

He added that he’d written a study of ‘ambition’ and would send the magistrate a copy.

‘I don’t want your book. You are fined 5s’ was Mr. Burrell’s response.

Gregg hadn’t got one shilling let alone five and the justice must have realised this. What was the point of fining a homeless tramp anyway? Gregg attempted to barter with the justice, offering him books that he probably hadn’t written (and certainly hadn’t ‘published’ as he’d insisted he had) as part payment of the penalty. Burrell was having none of it and ordered him to be taken away; if he couldn’t pay the fine he’d have to go to prison.

Oh don’t be so hard on me’, pleaded the Irishman, ‘I want to finish a poem’. He was led away protesting his freedom.

Society didn’t understand George Gregg. He didn’t, couldn’t or wouldn’t conform to what was expected of him. He chose to live by his wits and on his own terms. Perhaps he was a ‘popular philosopher’, who wrote tracts in notebooks or scraps of paper that nobody read. His logical response to accusations of being drunk (drinking on an empty stomach) or his choice of how to spend the money he’d earned (on drink because he was thirsty after singing and walking) would be quite reasonable if he was a ‘normal’ member of society. Because he was an outsider and had chosen to live differently to others, the law treated him as a problem. It punished him rather than helped him. I’m not entirely sure we have made much progress in the last 180 odd years.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, May 7, 1840]