Two tragedies narrowly averted as life takes its toll on two Londoners

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April 1889 must have been a hard month for those living in London. The 1880s were a period of economic slump, if not a full-blown depression, and unemployment, homelessness and poverty were all rife. A year today I wrote up the story of a young woman that arrived from India, penniless and in need of kind advice and support, who got little of either from the Westminster magistrate. In the same set of daily reports from the Police courts two more tales of personal distress and tragedy caught my eye today.

Mr Bros was the sitting magistrate at Dalston Police court in northeast London when George King was brought before him. King was a 48 year-old stonemason but he was out of work. He’d lost his wife some years ago and was attempting to support his family on his own. Recently however, the state of trade meant he’d little or no money coming in and his sons and daughters were going hungry.

At some point in the spring it all became too much for George and he decided to end his own life. He swallowed a quantity of oxalic acid (used to bring a shine to marble, so something he’d have used in his work) and almost died. Fortunately oxalic acid is one of the least toxic of acids and while it causes considerable harm (notably to the kidneys) its misuse is survivable.

George King did survive but was later arrested and charged with attempting to take his own life. Mr Bros said he was inclined to make an example of the stonemason since ‘such cases were too frequent’ but thought better of it. Taking the circumstances of his plight into consideration he bound him over on his own recognizes (of £5) to never try to do such a thing again.

If George King’s story was a narrowly tragedy avoided then Thomas Burrows was equally distressing. Thomas was only 14 years of age when he attempted to kill himself by lying on the tracks of the North London Railway. At midday on the 10 April Thomas had been seen jumping ‘excitedly’ off the platform at Mildmay Park station onto the tracks below. Observers rushed to pull him up and a constable was called to take him home to his parents. He was later summoned before Mr Bros at Dalston.

The magistrate asked him if he knew it ‘was an extremely wicked thing to attempt to take your life?’  ‘Yes, sir’, Thomas replied meekly.

The boy’s father explained that he understood that the lad had had a ‘tiff’ with his sister. It was something minor, involving carrying home a basket of work in the rain, but it had upset the boy and he had taken this drastic course of action. Normally Thomas was ‘a very good boy, and was fond of his home and of his brothers and sisters’. This had been out of character and he was sure it would never be repeated.

Mr Bros was shocked but also recognized that it was a ‘one off’. Indeed, he said he was almost inclined to laugh’ had there not been ‘such a serious aspect to the case’. He decided to reserve judgment but released Thomas to his father’s care and set bail  (set at £5 again) to ensure the pair returned again to hear what the court decided.

Both these cases are revealing of a society where mental health care was nothing like as advanced as it is today. The attitude of the courts was to punish those that struggled with their personal demons not to support them. Nor was their the state support for men like King who wanted to work but couldn’t; he had at least four other mouths to feed and the only recourse he had was the workhouse (where he’d most likely lose his children altogether).

We are understandably concerned about the mental health of our children in today’s multi-media society where they are exposed to all sorts of challenges on a daily basis. It is often suggested that mental health problems amongst teenagers are more widespread than ever before. This may be true but cases like Thomas’ suggest that such problems existed in the past, but were treated very differently or simply not recognized at all.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, April 18, 1889]

A self confessed murderer? A or a case for the asylum?

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Smugglers, by G. Morland

Readers last week will hopefully remember that I left you on a cliffhanger as we waited to see what would happen to a man that confessed to a murder carried out 18 years previously. John Lane had walked into a police station and admitted having been involved in the murder of a coast guard at Eastbourne in 1832. The magistrate at Marylebone had remanded in custody for a week so S Division’s finest could see what information they could discover about Lane, his confession, and his mental state.

On Tuesday 22 January 1850 he was back in court before Mr Broughton and the newspaper reporter rehashed the story with a few additions. It seems that in 1842 Lane had traveled to Brighton to seek out Lt. Hall (the officer in charge of the investigation into the smuggling case he claimed to be involved in). He never found him and that was why he’d gone back to ground.

As he stood in the dock a second time to hear the details of the case restated Lane looked miserable. He ‘seemed in a very low and desponding state’ the report continued, ‘and the impression upon most of those in court was that his intellects were impaired’.

Two men from the customs appeared and asked lots of questions of Lane but he wasn’t able to provide them with kind of detail for the events he had originally described. They, and a religious man in attendance, (described as ‘a missionary’) were of the ‘opinion that the man was not sane’.

Mr Broughton concurred and said that given the rambling nature of his confession and the failure of anyone to reveal any details of this supposed crime there was ‘not the slightest chance of a conviction’ before a jury. He discharged John into the care of his wife, a laundress working from premises in Portland Grove. Hopefully she would be able to look after him but what he really needed was specialist mental health treatment and in 1850 that simply wasn’t available to the likes of him, unless he wanted to take his chances with the workhouse  or Bedlam.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, January 23, 1850]

‘Her Majesty’s most gracious pardon is all that I crave or look for’: a man confesses to murder

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A curious case today, of a man confessing to being involved in a crime that happened some eighteen years before he presented himself in court. John Lane was about 40 years of age and when he stood in the dock at Marylebone he gave the impression of being from a military background. He looked tall and physically strong, but also worn down by life and ‘not altogether sane’ (as the court reporter noted).

PC Transom (226S) explained that  at 10 o’clock that morning (the 15 January 1850) Lane had walked into the police station at Portland Town and declared:

“I have something particular to communicate to you’.

Fighting to control  what seemed to be almost overwhelming emotion the man went on to say:

‘About eighteen years ago I was engaged in a smuggling affair at Eastbourne, Sussex, and in the affray one of the Coast Guard was killed. I think he was shot’.

Lane said that while he wasn’t directly involved, and didn’t see the man fall, he was pretty sure the killing had happened while his comrades were hauling away several casks of spirits. He said he’d always wanted to confess but was afraid of what might happen to him.

This fear might have been of being convicted and hanged as an accessory or may also have been a genuine concern that had he given evidence against his fellow smugglers he would have been targeted by them. The history of smuggling in Sussex is peppered with fights between the revenue and smugglers and tales of intimidation, violence and murders are not uncommon.

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The most notorious case was probably that of the Hawkhurst gang (right) who terrorized the southern coastline of England in the 1730s and 40s. They were only brought to book in 1748 when two of their leaders were hanged and their bodies displayed on a gibbet as a warning to others.

The sitting magistrate at Marylebone, Mr Broughton, wanted to know why he was confessing now, so many years after the event. Lane said he’d tried to confess (in 1842) to the man in the charge of the case but had been unable to find him. That officer was Lieutenant Hall of the Coast Guard and it seems Lane was in some way desperate to unburden himself of his guilt, regardless of the consequences now.

What did he want, the magistrate asked? ‘Her Majesty’s most gracious pardon is all that I crave or look for’ Lane stated, before he was led away so further enquiries could be made.

For the magistrate it was a difficult case; if Lane was telling the truth then he was confessing not to murder but to a serious crime, which didn’t seem to have ben solved. There was no record, he was told, of anyone being prosecuted for the coast guard’s death (or even clarity that a revenue man had died). It was also evident to anyone watching that Lane was ‘not quite sane’ and so might be confessing to something he hadn’t done. Nevertheless Mr Broughton ordered Inspector Chambers of S Division to investigate the truth of the man’s testimony so he could decided what to do with him.  Lane was remanded in custody until the following Tuesday and I will reveal what happened next on the 23 January.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, January 16, 1850]

“Oh what would mamma say?”: an old drunk at Marlborough Street

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Drunk and disorderly was by far the most common offence to be dealt with at the Police courts of the metropolis in the Victorian period. Thousands of men and women were brought before the city’s magistracy, usually after an uncomfortable night in the cells of a station house, to be admonished, fined and/or sent to prison for a few days or weeks. The worst nights for drunkenness were Friday or Saturday but it was a perennial problem, one we have not managed to solve today either.

Some of the drunks encountered by police officers would have sloped off to their homes when politely but firmly asked to do so, and quite a few of them were otherwise ‘respectable’ gentlemen and clerks who had just enjoyed one or two many beers or glasses of wine. These weren’t really the  concern of the magistrates, they concentrated their attention for the most part on the regular offenders, on those women for whom ‘disorderly behaviour’ was  simply code for prostitution, and the violent brawlers who squared up to police (or each other) outside one of the capital’s very many waterholes.

The catch-all offence of ‘disorderly’ brought defendants into court who, whilst clearly drunk, would probably today be seen as need to help, not punishment. Mental illness was not as well understood in the 1800s as it is today and society was certainly not as tolerant of ‘difference’ as we are. So the case of Amy Anderson is instructive.

Amy was a young woman, perhaps in her twenties, who was constantly in and out of prison in the last quarter of the century. In January 1888 she was put up before Mr Newton at Marlborough Street Police court on a charge of disorderly behaviour in Regent Street. This was a normal experience for Amy who gave a different name every time she was arrested. This time it was Lillie Herbert, a few months earlier it had been Tot Fay, but there were plenty of others. Giving a false name was a common enough ruse for criminals and streetwalkers who hoped that they would avoid a stiffer penalty if convicted (calculating that the courts would not link their previous convictions together).

I’m not sure Amy (Or Lillie or Fay) was a prostitute but she may have been. Regent Street was a notorious haunt for sex workers in the nineteenth century but it was also a place where single women would go shopping (and so sometimes be mistaken for prostitutes). Amy was dressed elaborately and this had drawn the attention of two other women. An argument had ensued and words and blows had been exchanged. At the point the police arrived – in the person of PC James (37 CR) – it appeared that Amy was the aggressor and she was arrested.

In court under questioning Amy’s responses suggest a person struggling with mental illness. She denied any wrongdoing and told Mr Newton that the other women had picked on her because of her ‘conspicuous dress’. She angrily declared that ‘her mamma would not tolerate such conduct, she was sure, and she would be sorry if she got to know about it’. This exchange – and most of the hearing in fact – was met with laughter in the court, clearly poor Amy was not being taken seriously and was held up by the paper at least as a figure of fun.

The gaoler was called forward to be asked if he recognized her.

‘Oh yes’, he testified, ‘she has been here very many times, as well as at Marylebone, Westminster, and other courts. On the 3rd of last month she was fined 40s for drunkenness and disorderly conduct in the streets and in default she was sent to prison for a month’.

So Amy had spent most of December 1887 in gaol and it had taken her less than a fortnight to find herself up on a charge again in the New Year. Mr Newton turned to her and dismissed her protests, telling her to find two sureties of £10 each to ensure she behaved herself for six months. There was no way Amy could provide such assurances or such wealthy ‘patrons’.

‘Oh what will mamma say?’ she sighed and was led skipping out of the dock with the laughter of the court ringing in her ears.  As the report put it: ‘in the afternoon she returned to her old quarters in Millbank’, meaning of course, the prison by the Thames (where the Tate Gallery now stands).

[from The Standard, Thursday, January 12, 1888]

“The last descendant of the Bruce”?: madness and the magistracy in mid Victorian London

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This is another example of mid-nineteenth century attitudes towards mental illness. At the time mental health was not as well understood as it is today but it seems to have been, if not as prevalent, then still quite significant as a societal problem.

Ms Wetherall (if indeed that was her real name) was quite well know to the staff and magistracy at Marlborough Street Police court. The respectably dressed middle-aged woman had appeared at the court to ask the magistrates’ advice on more than one occasion.

On her previous visit she had told the bench that she was about to be married to Earl of Carlisle and had been summoned by ‘various tradesmen’ upon she had imposed in order to get herself the necessary wedding outfit on credit, something they had declined to do.

In a separate incident  she apparently declared she was ‘the last descendent of the Bruce’ (meaning Robert the Bruce, the victor of the battle of Bannockburn and a Scottish national hero). She had made this extraordinary assertion outside the gates of Buckingham Palace and was led away by a policeman. The magistrate then had sent her to be assessed by the medical authorities in St Martin’s to see if she was quite in her right mind.

Now she appeared before Mr Hardwick (the parish officials at St Martin’s clearly not wanting anything to do with her) to make an application to retrieve some property that she claimed her former landlady was withholding from her. It was a common enough application for a magistrate to decide on but given her history Mr Hardwick chose to fob her off. He said that as she had previously applied for similar things to his colleague Mr Bingham, she would have to direct this application to him on the following Monday.

Ms Wetherell was unhappy with this decision as she said she may not be able to make Monday. She told the justice she was sailing to Australia on Monday and may well have already sailed by the time the court opened. Having stated her case she upped and left the court leaving everyone wondering what her story would be when she next appeared.  She was clearly suffering with some form of mental illness which Victorian society was unable to help. However, she was not abusive or dangerous, the nineteenth-century’s equivalent of the early modern ‘village idiot’ perhaps, so off she went, no doubt with the laughter of the court ringing in her ears.

[from The Morning Chronicle, 15 November, 1849]

‘I always do what I say I will do’: the dark murmurings of a troubled mind

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The owner of Deacon’s Coffee House and Tavern on Walbrook in the City was disturbed by the sound of shattering glass. It was nine in the evening and Mr. Howell rushed out into the front room of his establishment to see to his horror that his window was completely destroyed. His clientele were in uproar and outside a small group of onlookers were gathering around a ‘little old woman’.

A policeman had arrived in a hurry and a small boy pointed out the elderly lady as the culprit. The constable arrested her and led her off to the nearest police station to be questioned and charged. She had already admitted throwing a brick through Mr. Howell’s window telling the proprietor:

‘I said I would break your window and I have done it. I always do what I say I will do’.

While in custody the woman, who gave her name as Emily Howard, told the police should would have liked to have smashed ‘every ______ pane of glass in the house’, and would make good on her promise when they released her. The constable later told the Lord Mayor at Mansion House that she was swearing throughout the interview but seemed perfectly sober.

In court the Lord Mayor heard that Emily had previous for criminal damage. The court’s gaoler (a man named Partridge) said he’d known her for 20 years and that she was someone who’d been in and out of gaol for doing similar things in the past. Emily’s only defense was that someone had thrown water over her but no one seemed to believe her.

The Lord Mayor sent her back to prison for two months at hard labour and she was led away ‘uttering threats of vengeance’ against the coffee house owner and the policeman that arrested her. She sounds to be like someone that needed help not a month or two picking oakum.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, October 16, 1875]

A befuddled old man ends up in the wrong bed

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It was about 10 o’clock at night and Jane Black was feeling unwell. Her husband worked in a nightclub and was often late home so she decided to take herself to bed. An hour later she work up, conscious that someone had joined her but as she moved to greet her partner she was instead shocked to find that she was in bed with a complete stranger!

Mary screamed and raced down the stairs in her nightclothes. The commotion woke the house and brought several other lodgers out of their rooms. The landlord went up to Mary’s room and found Edward Williams, an elderly man of 65 years, sitting on the edge of the bed in only his shirt. He was drunk and admitted:

‘I fancy I may have made a mistake. Well if I can’t sleep in the bed , let me sleep on the floor’.

The police were called and the uninvited ‘guest’ was arrested.

A prosecution for assault followed at Bow Street on the next morning and Mr Vaughan was told that Williams had been let in by the landlord. The landlord said he and his wife had retired to bed but later heard someone fumbling at the door, trying to get into the house. He had opened the door and asked who the person wanted. ‘Mary Ann Black, of course’, the stranger replied, so he’d let him in. It was dark, and he assumed it was Mary’s husband.

The magistrate decided that he needed to know more about Williams and so he remanded him in custody that enquiries could be made into his character and mental health.

This case really shows us that we have to be careful about how we read a newspaper report. What is written above is how the incident was recorded in Lloyd’s Weekly, and there is no real hint that this is anything other than an amusing and not very serious case of a drunken old man getting confused and finding the wrong door.

But on the 25 October Edward Williams, a 40 year-old labourer, was sent to Pentonville Prison for 12 months for indecently assaulting Jane Black. He was committed to trial by Mr Vaughan so we can sure this is one and the same man. Not a 65 year-old who lost his way but a would-be rapist that tricked his way into Mrs Black’s bed while her husband was at work.

That is quite a different story to the one the newspaper presented.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, October 14, 1888]