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

Grand_Surrey_Canal,_1806

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]

‘I won’t have a month, you must give me more’: an unhappy drunk at Westminster

The late Mr L C Tennyson d'Eyncourt

On Friday I recounted the story of a man who was clearly very unhappy at being brought before a magistrate and locked up, particularly because he’d had nothing to eat or drink that morning.  John Betts disturbed the court proceedings and smashed up his cell before he finally accepted his lot.

By contrast Eliza Hastings was unhappy because the magistrate refused to lock her up for longer.

The ‘wild looking and wretchedly clad’ woman was stood in the dock at Westminster to face Mr D’Eyncourt, a well established Police Court justice in the late 1800s. Eliza was charged with being drunk and disorderly and it wasn’t the first time she’d been up before the ‘beak’.

The court was told that she had ‘been repeatedly locked up’ and that ‘prison was the only home she has besides the streets’. She was homeless and presumably preferred not to enter the casual wards of London’s several workhouses.

No less than 30 conviction could be proven against the woman and the last of these had been on the 31 March, Mr D’Enycourt was told, when she was sent to prison for a month.

‘You keep on giving me a wretched month, that’s no good to me‘ Eliza grumbled from the dock, ‘give me a long time in prison‘ she pleaded.

However, Mr D’Eyncourt gave her another month and Eliza lost it. She raged at the magistrate and his court, ‘I won’t have a month, you must give me more’ before tearing off one of her boots and throwing it ‘with violence’ at the bench.

She was then led out of the court by the officers, screaming at the injustice of it all.

The magistrate might have wanted to give her longer but rules were rules and the guidelines he worked to suggested 30 days was the appropriate sentence for the offence she’d committed. She’d not used violence, or resisted arrest, or stolen anything. She was a drunk, a vagrant and quite possibly suffering from mental illness. I suspect that today she’d be a case for probation or social services and helped rather than locked up.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, May 6, 1888]

For other cases heard by Mr D’Eyncourt see:

Mr D’Eyncourt sends his own message after a telegraph boy is attacked

Health and safety ‘gone mad’, as a child narrowly avoids being roasted alive

Pickett climbs a fence and saves a life

The actress and her ‘lunatic’ husband

The shoeblack who only wanted a chance to ‘go straight’.

thomson-13a

The Victorians believed that criminality was endemic in the working classes and that some offenders were beyond help. This informed a debate about the existence of a ‘criminal class’, reviewed and given impetus by the writings of Henry Mayhew at mid century. Just as there were those that ‘would not work’ there were those that lived by theft and violence. This depiction of crime had important consequences for those caught up in the justice system because by the 1870s the authorities had pretty much abandoned all attempts at rehabilitating prisoners and instead imposed ever more strict forms of discipline and penalties for breaking the rules.

The harsh nature of the penal system didn’t end when you left gaol. Under the terms of the Prevention of Crimes Act (1871) any prisoner released early on a ticket-of-leave could be arrested and presented before a magistrate on the mere suspicion (by the police) that they had done something wrong. Moreover, registers of habitual offenders were now kept which recorded previously untold details of thousands of individuals convicted of all manner of offenders by the Victorian state. Now then, a criminal record could dog your footsteps forever.

Not surprisingly this made it very hard for former convicts, like Thomas Briggs, to go straight. By March 1875 Briggs already had a  prison record. He’d served at least one term of penal servitude and had been up before the local Police magistracy on a number of occasions.

On Saturday 20 March 1875 he was there again, this time in Mr Hannay’s court at Worship Street in Shoreditch.

Briggs was an unlicensed shoeblack who  plied his trade on the streets. The 35 year-old was well known to the local police and it seems they were in no mind to let him live out an easy life. PC 250N was patrolling his beat near Shoreditch church at seven in the evening when he saw Briggs standing by his box looking for trade. According to the policeman the ‘black and his box were blocking the passage and he asked him to move along.

The real problem here was that Thomas didn’t have a license to clean shoes in the street and this was because the police refused to give him one. Every time they saw him on the street they move him on or confiscated his box, taking away his livelihood. Thomas then had to collect this from the police station , reinforcing his relationship with the law and reminding everyone of his criminal history. According to Briggs this happened ‘four or five times a week’.

On this occasion Thomas lost control of the situation and refused to move. When the PC insisted the shoeblack climbed the nearest lamp post and yelled abuse down at the copper below. He accused the local police of persecuting him; they knew he’d only bene out of prison for a few weeks and ‘pitched on’ him at every opportunity making it impossible for him ‘to earn an honest living’.

In court the constable told the magistrate that Briggs was ‘obstinate’, obstructive and abusive. He ‘collected a crowd about him, told the people his history to enlist their sympathies, and then said they should see him righted’.

Not surprisingly Mr Hannay took the police’s side in this. Briggs would have to confine himself to cleaning shoes only in places where the police allowed him to (presumably licensed ‘backs had more liberty of choice?). The magistrate told him he would be dismissed without further charge today but warned him that future transgressions would fall heavily upon him. He advised the policeman to bring him in as often as was necessary for the former convict to learn that rules were there to be obeyed.

Naturally we can’t know whether Thomas Briggs was an honest man caught up in an impossible system. He may have been a petty criminal who preferred an ‘easy’ way of life. However, his extreme reaction to being moved on again suggests that he might have had some mental health issues which would hardly have been identified as such in the 1870s as they would be today.

Nor would he have had any support on leaving prison; no probation officer or social services, or any form of state benefit. Recidivism remains a serious problem today when there are many more options open to those caught up in the criminal justice system – if Thomas Briggs managed to ‘go straight’ and stay out of gaol for the rest of his life then he would have been a quite remarkable individual.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, March 21, 1875]

‘A dangerous imposter’ on Rosslyn Hill spells trouble for DS Fox

Middlesex_County_Lunatic_Asylum,_Colney_Hatch,_Southgate,_Mi_Wellcome_L0012311

The Victorian criminal justice had been developing a much more effective means of keeping records on those that passed through it doors than had been the case in the Georgian period. As a result criminals routinely gave false names to the police and magistrates in the hope that their previous convictions would not dog their footsteps for ever. Being ‘known to the police’ or the courts was dangerous; a magistrate or trial court judge was very likely to hand down a much stiffer sentence if he knew you’d failed to learn your lesson in the past.

I some cases of course the problem ran much deeper and this is particular true in cases of those that committed offences in part because they were suffering from mental illness. The law recognised that mental health was a factor and the principal of acting with ‘diminished responsibility’ had been debated throughout the nineteenth century following a handful of high profile cases that shocked society. In 1863 the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum had opened in 1863 to take those convicted as being guilty but insane.

This would have been too early for John Gough. He had been convicted of ‘assault with intent to murder’ at Exeter Assizes in 1856 and had sentenced to life imprisonment. In 1873 he was freed on a ticket of leave (effectively parole) and had then been admitted (or admitted himself, it is not clear) to a lunatic asylum. Gough must also have moved from the south west to London because in 1883 he turned up at the Marylebone Police Court charged with assaulting a police detective.

Detective Sergeant Fox saw Gough wandering at Rosslyn Hill in Hampstead in late February 1883. Gough looked in serious trouble and was soliciting for charity, as Fox described in court:

‘The prisoner was bandaged about the the head and arms, as though suffering from injuries, and while walking along praying aloud begged for alms of people’.

Begging was illegal and so DS Fox arrested him, only to attacked and verbally abused (with ‘profane language’) by his charge. Back at the station Gough was examined and it was found that there was nothing whatsoever wrong with him; his show of injury was just that, a show. The man was ‘an imposter’ Mr De Rutzen (the magistrate) was told and the police added the information regarding Gough’s previous conviction.

While Gough was clearly suffering from mental illness he had checked out of the asylum in 1877 and hadn’t been in contact with the police either. This was a breach of his release license and this, coupled with the assault on the detective sergeant, earned him a another spell inside. De Rutzen declared Gough was ‘a dangerous man’ and sentenced him to two months at hard labour. It might have bene more sensible to send him to Broadmoor or even to the Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum which had opened in 1851 which held over 2000 patients in the 1880s, including (just possibly) a candidate for Jack the Ripper.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, March 07, 1883]

A sad confession at Bow Street

woodenleg

At ten past eleven on Friday March 1 1883 PC Pilling (428 City) was patrolling his evening beat on the Victoria Embankment. A rough-looking man with a wooden leg approached him and made a startling declaration:

‘I want to give myself up for murder’.

The policeman accompanied the man back to Bow Street Police where he supposedly made the following statement to Inspector Husted, the inspector on duty that night.

‘My name is Dennis Driscoll. About 5 or 6 years ago, at Christmas time, I killed a man named Brennan, at a lodging-house in New Church Court, Strand, by hitting him on the head with a piece of iron – the iron frame of my wooden leg. I went away for some weeks, and he died.  At times I have been very unhappy about it, and so I have given myself up’.

It was a dramatic confession and Driscoll was taken before the Bow Street magistrate the following day, Saturday 2 March, to be formally indicted for the murder. However, once he was there Driscoll claimed that the confession had been fabricated; he’d never said any such thing.

Mr Flowers was told that Driscoll was well known in the area as an aggressive and unpleasant individual. He had been ‘repeatedly charged and convicted for violent assaults’ many of which involved him taking off his false leg and using it as weapon. Thus the idea that he had murdered someone in 1877 was not implausible despite his physical disability. The magistrate decided that since this was all very odd and the prisoner was acting ‘in a very strange manner’ he would at least remand him in custody so that further enquiries could be made.

Driscoll was back before Mr Flowers on the 10 March where a few more details emerged. The Inspector Hustead confirmed that a man named Brennan had died following a quarrel in 1879 (not 1877) and that it was believed that Driscoll was the other party. However, Brennan had not been at all badly injured and went back to work as a flower seller straight away. It was only a few weeks later that he fell ill and was admitted to St Giles’ Infirmary where he died soon afterwards. His death was attributed to his destitution (flowers sellers were often, in effect, beggars) and it was formally registered as death by ‘natural causes’.

Driscoll then was off the hook. He may have believed he’d caused another man’s death but there was no proof to take him to trial for it. He was however, quite destitute himself and so Mr Flowers ordered him to be discharged but offered to recommend him as a suitable candidate for the workhouse.

It is a very sad case and indicative I think of the lack of care in Victorian society for the disabled poor. Clearly Dennis Driscoll struggled with life and may well have been a violent person who struck out at those around him. He quite probably drank and if, as is likely, he found work hard to come by then he must have supported himself by begging in the streets. Evidently he was in and out of the justice system, regularly turning up in the Police Courts and quite likely spending small amounts of time locked up. We have no idea how he’d lost his leg but an accident, or an injury sustained in the forces are possible explanations.

His confession may have been the result of guilt, of a drunken urge to get something off his chest, or even of a fatalistic desire to end his miserable existence. Convicted killers were still executed in Victorian England and while that is unlikely to have been Dennis’ fate he might have thought that was a way out of his misery.

[from The Standard, Monday, March 05, 1883; The Standard , Monday, March 12, 1883]

The Mansion House has no sympathy with those bent on ‘destroying themselves’.

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When an unnamed woman was charged with disorderly conduct at Mansion Police Police court in December 1841 the sitting justice took it upon himself to make a statement to the press. Sir Peter Laurie, the incumbent Lord Mayor, didn’t inflict further punishment on the woman because she had already been locked up overnight in the City’s compter (a old term for a prison). However, all leniency stopped there.

The Lord Mayor had previously punished her for attempting to ‘destroy herself’ (in other words for attempting suicide) by jumping off one of the capital’s bridges. Sir Peter said that there had been considerable numbers of suicide attempts in the past few months. No less than 26 people had been charged with the offence at Guildhall  and a further five at Mansion House from September to October.

As a result he had determined to deal with all future cases more severely. In November he had sent a man to Bridewell in an attempt to check ‘so revolting an offence’ by ‘a little wholesome severity’. That individual had tried to cut his own throat because he was suffering from ‘poverty and idleness’. A day later he sent a woman to the Old Bailey to face a jury trial. His fellow justice, Sir Chapman Marshall, followed his lead and committed a man for ‘attempting to drown himself’. In both cases the accused pleaded guilty and received a sentence of 14 days imprisonment.

Since then there had been a notable falling off in persons attempting to take their own lives so Sir Peter commended the actions of the bench.

The clerk of the court ‘observed that several desperate imposters had made money by the experiment of tumbling into the Thames. The infliction of imprisonment and hard labour for the offence would certainly check the practice as far as pretenders were concerned, whatever effect it might have on those that seriously wished to get rid of life.’ He added that the ‘great majority’ were imposters in his opinion.

Sir Peter concluded by warning ‘every man and woman brought before me jumping or trying to jump into the river shall most positively walk off to Newgate [gaol] , and I am very much mistaken if the Judges do not henceforward inflict upon offenders very heavy punishments’.

It hardly needs to be said that such draconian attitudes to what may well have been genuine mental health issues would not be applied today. Attempting suicide is no longer an offence under law although persons displaying suicidal tendencies may well be sectioned, and forcibly confined. So the Victorian bench looks particularly uncaring in this regard. But before we congratulate ourselves on living in more enlightened times we might note the report of the parliamentary commission created by the late Jo Cox that has revealed the worrying extent of loneliness in modern Britain.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, December 15, 1841]