An old man’s ‘revenge’, with echoes of the infamous Ratcliffe Highway murders

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In October 1843 Thomas Rowe was brought before the Lord Mayor of London at Mansion House Police court. The Lord Mayor sat, as did the City’s aldermen, as single magistrates just as Police Magistrates did across the rest of the metropolis. On most days they dealt with the full gamut of summary offences and pretrial hearings, listening to cases of petty theft, fraud, disorderly behaviour and assault. But on this morning, Friday 6 October, a much more interesting (and serious) case was opened in the Mansion House.

Rowe, a 77 year-old former servant, was accused of attempted to murder his employer – a wine merchant named Thomas Waller. The incident had occurred at around nine o’clock that morning.  Thomas Lock, another of Waller’s servants, had opened the door to his former work colleague Rowe, with a ‘halloa’ and a comment that he hadn’t seen him for some time.

This was because Rowe had been dismissed some three weeks earlier after an argument with the wine merchant. Now he asked if he might have a word with Mr Waller and Lock went off to see if his boss would see him. The 61 year-old wine dealer told him: ‘I have nothing particular to say to him, but let him come in’.

Rowe was shown in to the counting house where Lock left him. Barely five minutes later the sound of a pistol shot punctured the peace of the house and Lock heard his master cry out: ‘Rowe has shot me!’

He rushed in and put himself between the shooter and his victim, then manoeuvred Rowe out into the passage while he attended to the injured man. Rowe made his escape past a frightened serving girl and the beadle was called.

Police inspector Waller (no relation to the wine dealer) was soon on the case and sent ‘officers in all directions’ while he acted on information and hailed a cab to pursue the would-be assassin in the direction of Bow. He caught up with him and Rowe quickly surrendered. He made no attempt here, or later before the magistrate, to deny what he had done so it really only fell to the justice to determine why he had tried to kill the merchant.

What reason had you for committing this dreadful act?, the Lord Mayor asked him.

I could not live with nothing but misery before my eyes‘, Rowe replied.

Having served his master faithfully for 24 years he felt he was owed more loyalty from the wine merchant.

After ‘serving him morning, noon, and night, at all hours, I could not help thinking it [his dismissal] was like transporting me to a foreign country. I had no one to help me‘.

Whatever the cause of his dismissal it was devastating. With no wife and children that he said were unable to support him, and no savings or means of employment, Rowe was thrown on the scrap heap and all that society offered him was the workhouse and, eventually, a pauper burial with no known grave. It must have been a desperately depressing and frighting future for an elderly man who had probably worked all his life.

Nevertheless the Lord Mayor was horrified:

The idea of firing pistols at a man because it did not suit him to employ you is horrible beyond everything‘.

Rowe was stony faced:

My Lord, Mr Waller is a very rich man and he could afford to employ me easily enough‘.

So the motive for the attack was revenge and Rowe was taking no chances of failing in his mission. He had two pistols  (in case one misfired) and a dagger as back-up because, as he put it, ‘that was a thing that wouldn’t miss-fire’.

How long had he had these weapons, the magistrate wanted to know.

I have had them for 30 years‘, Rowe explained. ‘I bought them to protect myself at the time of the murder of the Marrs in Ratcliffe-highway‘.

The defendant was referring to the infamous Ratcliffe Highway murders of 1811 when two entire families had been brutally murdered in the space of a week in East London. The case gained national headlines and highlighted the ineffectiveness of the capital’s policing in the years before Peel’s 1829 reform. The murderer was caught (although some doubt remains as to whether he was the right man) but he never went to trial. The body of John Williams was found hanging in his cell before he was formally committed to a jury trial. William’s corpse was then placed on a cart, with the murder weapons alongside his head, and he was paraded along the Highway before being buried at a crossroads with a stake driven through his heart.

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Having heard from the doctor that examined and treated the injured Mr Waller and from the policeman that searched the scene of crime for evidence (and picked up the offending bullet), the Lord Mayor asked Rowe if he anything further to say. ‘No, my Lord, I have nothing at all to say’. Since the wine merchant was still recovering from his injury (which it was hoped was not fatal) Rowe was remanded for a week.

When the case came before an Old Bailey jury much was made of Rowe’s infirmity and poor mental health. In the end this was what saved him. He had made no attempt to deny his actions at any stage. William Cook, a surgeon that specialised in ‘diseases of the mind’ testified that he had known Rowe for very many years and had seen him deteriorate. When asked by Rowe’s counsel what the effect of his dismissal from service would have been he answered that he thought it quite possibly could have tipped him over the edge. Rowe had complained of ‘a swimming in the head, and dizziness about the eyes’ on several occasions, the jury was told.

Thomas Rowe was acquitted on the three counts he was charged with: namely ‘feloniously assaulting Thomas Wilier […] and shooting off and discharging at him a certain pistol loaded with gunpowder and leaden bullets, and wounding him on the left side of his body, with intent to murder him.—2nd COUNT, stating his intent to be to maim and disable him.—3rd COUNT, To do him some grievous bodily harm.’

It was also revealed in court exactly why Rowe had been dismissed. Mr Waller had deemed him unfit to continue on account of his age and mental state. Waller told the Old Bailey that ‘when I gave him notice I said, “Your faculties give way, you don’t know what you are about”.’ He gave him a guinea and a week’s notice.

After 24 years of service, a week’s wages and a guinea was not a lot of reward for his loyalty. A week later Rowe sent a letter to his former master (written by Rowe’s son) pleading for help but ignored it.

Rowe was found not guilty on the account of being insane; however, no one doubted he’d acted as charged. The asylum beckoned for Thomas Rowe, if anything a worse outcome than the workhouse, or even a public execution.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, October 07, 1843]

A teenager learns a hard life lesson

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The Blewcoat School in Caxton Street

William Gillman had managed to secure a solid position for himself at a merchant’s offices in Mansion House Street in the City. He was 16 years of age and had been educated at the Blewcoat School in Caxton Street. The charity school, established in 1688 and situated in Caxton Street from 1709, served to help poor boys and girls in ‘reading, writing, religion, and trades’. The education he received there allowed Gillman to work for Mr Charles Ede as a clerk.

It should have been the basis for a long and respectable career had young William taken his opportunity. Sadly, and as if so often the case, he didn’t appreciate at 16 just what his life could be if he knuckled down and worked at it; maturity comes to all of us at different stage of life after all.

William was entrusted with Mr Ede’s postage stamps, amongst which were a ‘certain number of foreign’ ones which were kept in a book. The book was in a box which was locked away at night but to which William had access during the day. So when Mr Ede noticed that the foreign (at a shilling value each) stamps were running out faster than normal his suspicions fell on the lad.

The merchant decided to set a trap for his young employee, marking some of the stamps so he’d be able to recognize them later. One day soon afterwards he called for a stamp but since no one answered him he went to fetch one himself.  When he opened the box he found there were no shilling stamps left so he called William over, gave him 10and sent him to the post office to get some more.

When the teenager returned and handed him the stamps Ede noticed that some of them bore the secret marks he’d inscribed on them. Clearly William had pocketed some of the money for himself and fobbed his master off with the stamps he’d previously stolen. The merchant confronted the boy and asked him if he stolen from him. At first William lied and said he was innocent but capitulated when his boss told him about the markings.

Mr Ede resolved to write to the boy’s father and have him dismissed from his service and taken home. That would have been the end of it (and reminds us that very many petty thefts like this would never have reached the courts) had not William tried to justify his actions. Theft was bad enough but to couple it with deception and a refusal to acknowledge one’s guilt was too much for the merchant who was determined that the boy needed to be taught a lesson.

On Monday 4 February 1861 William Gillman appeared before the Lord Mayor at Mansion House police court where he was formally charged with theft. He could have been sent to prison for his crime but neither the magistrate or Mr Ede wanted that. The boy’s father was present and was willing to take the lad back into his care so, after ‘a severe reprimand’ he was discharged.

Let’s hope he learned that hard life lesson and quickly moved on.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, 5 February, 1861]

‘I would have given him a good trimming; such vagabond roughs deserve it’; A ‘have-a-go hero’ in Islington.

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Yesterday’s post concerned the disorderly and violent behaviour of youth gangs in late nineteenth-century London. Given that it is still something Londoners are worried about (only this week there was a report of more stabbings and a shooting in south London) I’m bound to wonder if this is a new phenomenon, or sadly just a continuation of a form of bad behaviour that has existed for decades, if not centuries.

Perhaps today it is the fact that violence is so often associated with teenagers and young men in the early 20s that is so shocking; the waste of young life makes it all the more tragic. But everyday violence on the street is always (or should always) be shocking, simply because there is never any justification for it. If the court reports from the Victorian period are in any way an accurate guide to that society we can also be sure that mindless and routine violence was every bit a part of daily life then as it seems to be now.

In August 1855 Frederick Mountford, a provisions merchant, was walking home from work along Shepperton Road in Islington.  It was about six in the evening and Mountford was looking forward to his tea. Up ahead of him he saw two men, one younger and one older, having an argument. As he approached he witnessed the younger one, who seemed rather the worse for drink, strike the other, knocking his pipe from his mouth.

As the victim staggered away his assailant pursued him, seized him around the waist and wrestled him to the pavement where he proceeded to beat him. When he began to kick him in the head Mountford rushed up to stop him, earning a mouthful of abuse for his trouble:

‘You ______’, the man said, ‘I will serve you the same way’, carrying out his threat immediately and knocking the merchant senseless to the ground.

Mountford was saved by the intervention of another young man who arrived and punched his attacker hard in the face. Two nearby witnesses called the police and the man was led away to face a hearing at Clerkenwell Police court in the morning.

James Bright was described in the paper as ‘ a short, thick-set ruffian’. The magistrate (Mr Tyrwhitt) praised the young man who’d helped capture him. His name was Charles Miller and he explained that he would have happily have thumped Bright multiple times had he not ‘sprained my thumb with the first blow’.

Then you did not approve of his brutal conduct?’ Mr Tyrwhitt enquired.

I did not, sir’, Miller replied, ‘and I would have given him a good trimming; such vagabond roughs deserve it’.

The court heard  from the witnesses who had seen the assault on the pipe man and the merchant unfold from their windows, and was told that Mr Mountford was still recovering from the beating he had sustained.

After commending Miller for ‘his courage’ the magistrate turned to the prisoner in the dock.

Such as you imagine that you can “run a-muck” indiscriminately in the public streets. You will have to pay a fine of £5, or go to two month’s hard labour’.

The ruffian didn’t have £5 (which was almost a month’s wages for a skilled tradesmen in 1855, and probably more like 2 or 3 months’ pay for young Bright) so he was led back to the cells and taken away in the van to start his sentence.

[from The Morning Post (London, England), Wednesday, August 22, 1855]

The bailiffs thwarted – a small victory at the Mansion House

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On Wednesday 27 October 1886 a man appeared in front of the alderman magistrate at the Mansion House Police Court to answer a summons. Mr B. A. Bird was a clerk employed by Messrs. Norman & Co. (Limited) of Queen Victoria Street.

The company either sold furniture or operated a loan scheme for those making hire purchases of large items. In July 1885 a City merchant named Gray (first initial ‘F’, possibly Frederick) had bought some furniture for £22 using the hire purchase service. He paid £3 deposit and agreed to make subsequent monthly payments of £1 until the whole sum was covered.

By June 1886 he had paid back £13 but had fallen into financial difficulty and fell into arrears. Anyone who has a mortgage or large credit card bills to service today will understand how this feels. By the 1880s debt was no longer something that was likely land you in debtor’s gaol but it still carried a stigma. In 1869 legislation restricted the amount of time one could be thrown in prison for debt to six weeks, and in 1883 the Bankruptcy Act further protected the person of those that couldn’t pay their debts.

Normans waited five months before they chose to recover the debt by other means. When no further payments were forthcoming they despatched Mr Bird and ‘some carmen’ [the Victorian equivalent of van drivers] to Gray’s business address.

There ‘they forcibly broke open the door, and removed the whole of the furniture in question, together with Mr Gray’s papers in the table-drawers, and a mat which did not belong to them’.

Regardless of whether they had a right to recover the debt or not Alderman deemed them to have acted unlawfully and excessively and sided with the complainant. He fined Bird £5 for the offence, and awarded £2 2s costs, plus an extra 5s 6d  for the damage to the lock they broke as they entered.

I know that in my own family history there was a Frederick Gray who we believe worked as a clerk and settled in West London. The family originated from Cambridgeshire, from the small village of Maney in the heart of the fens, and at some point in the mid 1800s one of them chose to travel down to London to look for work. Was this ‘F. Gray’ a relative of mine? From this distance it is hard to say and, of course, it is highly unlikely –  this man was a merchant not a humble clerk, and it is not an unusual surname after all. But for all that I feel a certain link to the past in this story a man who stood up to the bullying tactics of the debt collectors and won.

[from The Standard, Thursday, October 28, 1886]