A mini riot at an RHS fête

30 Chiswick House

1829 was the year that the Metropolitan Police Act was passed bringing a fully regulated and hierarchical system of police to the capital’s streets. However, we shouldn’t assume that London was unpoliced before Peel’s initiative, nor believe everything early police historians have told us about the inefficiency or corrupt nature of the measures that existed before the ‘Peelers’ began to patrol their beats.

London had been policed by amateurs and part-time paid police from the medieval period and the networks of parish watchmen and constables had improved markedly in the second half of the 1700s. One of the key improvements in ‘policing’ (and I use that term more broadly than it is used today) was the passing of the Middlesex Justices Act in 1792. This created seven ‘police offices’ across London and complemented the existing ones at Bow Street and the City of London’s Guildhall and Mansion House justicing rooms.

Based on the Bow Street model established by Henry and John Fielding, these police offices were set up as courts with police magistrates (justices of the peace) and court officers (or ‘runners’ as they were known at Bow Street). These institutions later evolved into the Police Magistrates courts and their officers were effectively replaced by Peel’s New Police after 1829.

In July 1829 there was no Metropolitan Police Force and so Londoners were reliant on the old system. And we can get a glimpse of the sort of things they had to deal with in this case that came before the Marlborough Street Office on first Wednesday in the month.

Edward Perry, a coachman, was charged ‘with violently whipping and endangering the lives’ of two Marlborough Street officers. His case was heard by all three appointed police magistrates: Sir George Farrant, H. M. Dyer senior, and his son, H. M. Dyer, junior. The court was packed with several gentlemen who had either witnessed or heard about the events that led to the violence that was alleged to have been meted out to the court’s officers.

One of the officers, Schofield, gave his evidence before the bench. He testified that at 7 o’clock on the previous Saturday evening (27 June) he had been stationed opposite the entrance to Royal Horticultural Society’s annual Fete, which was held in gardens on Wavendon Road on land leased by the Duke of Devonshire. We might have thought that an RHS event (like the modern one at Chelsea) would have been a sober and civilized occasion, but it seems that in 1829 ended in a mini riot.

A queue of coaches had developed, as they waited to collect their ladies and gentlemen from the fete, and this caused some tension as patience worn thin and tempers rose. Perry was employed by Sir Astley Cooper and as he waited outside the gates of the gardens a man approached him and asked him to ‘drive on, and take them up in a few minutes’. At first Schofield assumed this was Sir Astley himself but later established that it was one of the knight’s ‘near relations’, a Dr Patterson.

As the doctor departed into the gardens Schofield, aware of the queue behind, asked Perry to move along. Perry replied that he wasn’t going to move for anybody. The officer took the reins of the horses to lead them away and Perry struck him hard with his whip.

Seeing this one of Schofield’s fellow officers (Goddard) rushed to help his mate. Schofield tried to clamber onto the coach via the running board but Perry pulled it up fast, meaning the officer fell back onto the street. Undeterred he got up, dusted himself down and grabbed at the reins. The driver and officer struggled for some moments before, eventually, Perry was unseated and the coach secured.

In court Perry challenged this account, saying he’d not heard anyone tell him to move and that the officers were aggressive and he’d been injured in the process. He also denied a suggestion that he was drunk, something often leveled at coach drivers who probably drank plenty of beer in the course of their work but were not expected to be get inebriated.

Mr Dyer senior was present at the fete and said that since he could corroborate Perry’s evidence perhaps he should step down from the bench. Another gentleman witness, a Mr Creswell, also supported the coachman. The younger Mr. Dyer had also seen the ‘riot’ but his account verified that of the court officers.

The confusion here is probably explained by the fact that as the incident occurred a throng of servants, attached to various notables visiting the fete, got involved on to try and rescue the coachman as he was led away. A riot ensued and another court officer (Ballad) said that because some of these men were ‘following the officers in a fighting attitude, he was compelled to take out his pistols to keep the mob off’.

This reveals then, that the officers of the courts (or some of them at least) were routinely armed, whereas Peel’s men were only equipped with truncheons establishing the tradition that British police are only given firearms under special circumstances.

Several other witnesses came forward to testify against the officers but this did them little good. Perry was convicted of assaulting Schofield and was fined 40s. The bench agreed that there was less evidence that he’d assaulted Goddard but still fined him 20s anyway. In 1829 60s was a lot of money, around £200 at today’s prices, or two week’s salary for a skilled tradesman.

He wasn’t the only one punished for involvement in a riot that had spoiled the quite peace of Chiswick that night. James Smith, a groom employed by a coal merchant at the Adelphi was fined 20s ‘for attempting to ride over Boothman, a special constable’, and John Wichens, another coachman, had to find £4 as a result of being convicted of whipping two other Marlborough Street officers, Avid and Stone.

While the Bow Street runners wore red waistcoats to identify them it must have been hard to determine exactly who was a policing agent in the early 1800s. One of the advantages of the New Police then was their unambiguous visibility; with their blue swallow-tailed coats and tall stove pipe hats they quickly became a recognized figure of authority on London streets. This didn’t mean that coach drivers became any more respectful of them, but it did make it harder for defendants to claim they hadn’t realized who they were.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, July 02, 1829]

The sweep’s boy who wasn’t all he appeared

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London’s police magistrate courts were created (officially) by the passing of the Middlesex Justices Act (1792). This established seven new ‘Police Offices’ throughout the capital in addition to Bow Street (and Mansion House and Guildhall in the old City of London). The press reported on these courts as they reported on all the other criminal and civil courts, but it took them a little while to start doing so in a systematic way.

As a result the earliest reports are patchy, not always easy to find, and short on detail. Thereafter, and especially from the 1840s onwards, court reporting settled into a pattern that hardly changed throughout the century. Reports became longer; those from Lambeth and the East End often involved poverty or drunken violence, those based at Guildhall or Mansion House dealt with fraud and other financial themes. As the senior magistrate court Bow Street often had the most serious cases, but Clerkenwell, Marylebone, and Westminster were all very busy.

Everyday the reader would be exposed to a mixture of information, cautionary tales, pathos, and humour.

On January 1st 1818, 200 years ago today, underneath a report from Argentina of the retreat of  Spanish forces in Chile, was a short item of new from the police courts. Spain had suffered a ‘complete defeat’ the paper noted, in a war that had raged since 1810. 1818 was to see the end of the war which culminated in the battle of Maipu on 5 April. Argentina, Chile and Peru all won their independence from Bourbon Spain.

Meanwhile in London The Morning Post  reported from just two police courts: Bow Street and Marlborough Street.

John Cook was charged with robbing a woman at the pit entrance to Covent Garden theatre. The court was told that he had cut ‘her pelisse and other clothes to get at her purse’. He then removed a ‘Bank-note, a half-Sovereign and six shillings’. The Bow Street justice committed him for trial.

A ‘familiar’ face appeared at Marlborough Street charged with being drunk and riotous. John McNaughton had been a Commissary General in the Peninsula (linking this story to that of the South American war of independence above). The charge was brought by Mr Molloy, who ran the Grosvenor Coffee House in Bond Street. McNaughton was a regular customer but a troublesome one. Having once held a position demanding respect and authority the magistrate was lenient with him; he awarded damages to Molloy but released the former army man on his promise to stay away from the coffee house in future.

Finally, after tales of serious crime and drunken behaviour the paper ended on a whimsical story to amuse its readers. A Mr Brown had called in a sweep to clean his chimney. Westwood, based in St Pancras, sent his ‘boy’ who climbed up and cleaned the chimney. Brown remarked that it had never been cleaned as well by anyone previously and took the time to praise and question the lad that had done it. It soon became clear that this was no boy at all, but ‘a poor girl of 12’.

She explained that ‘her uncle had turned her out of doors to look for work, and she had engaged herself to a sweep rather than be chided, as she could get no other work’.

The paper doesn’t tell us what happened to the young girl, whom Mr Brown had brought to Marlborough Street to hear the advice of the magistrate on the issue. I suspect a summons for the uncle or her being placed in the parish workhouse were both possible outcomes. Perhaps however, such a sad and touching story might have prompted someone reading to offer her a place in service. Maybe even Mr Brown might have taken her in.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, January 01, 1818]

A not so ‘jolly Jack’ at Bow Street

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The Police Courts of London were established in the late eighteenth century, after the passing of the Middlesex Justices Act (1792). The press reported the goings on at these courts from the start but their coverage in the early decades was patchy and much less regular than it became by the 1840s and 50s. It seems that the newspapers were working out how to use the information and stories that these summary courts provided. The tales of prosecuted thieves and fraudsters offered opportunities to demonstrate the efficacy (or otherwise) of the criminal justice system, to critique (or laud) the ‘New Police’, and, to alert Londoners to the threat posed by particular sorts of criminal.

However, the overriding purpose of publishing a half dozen or more of these daily reports from the Police ‘offices’ (as they were first called) or courts was entertainment. The everyday stories of ordinary folk, sometimes rendered in their own words or dialect, presented what we might now call a ‘Dickensian’ view of life in Victorian Britain.

This story, with its depiction of an Nelsonian Naval ‘hero’, is a good example of the court report as a entertaining distraction from the serious news that the papers contained.

In June 1830 the superintendent of Police, Mr Thomas, was at the Covent Garden watch house. These buildings were the forerunners of the police stations that were built following the establishment of the Metropolitan Police after 1829. The watch house was where the old watchmen set off from to patrol their beats and where those they arrested at night were brought back to to be charged or left to sober up.

On Wednesday morning (the 23 June) a sailor came into the watch house to make a complaint. He was a larger than life character and the Morning Post‘s reporter delighted in his representation of him for his readers. He described him as a ‘jolly-looking  weather-beaten tar, who came ‘tripping along with true sailor-like step’. He asked to be directed to the ‘captain’. In the watch house this meant the ‘super’, and Mr Thomas asked him what he wanted.

‘Your honour’, he began, ‘I am an old seaman and am come to you for redress’.

He went to explain that he had served his country for 15 years, seen many battles, including Navarino where he was part of the crew of the Asia. This battle, the last of the sailing ship age, had effectively decided the outcome of the War of Greek independence as the allied fleet (made up of Britain, France and Russia, led by Admiral Codrington) destroyed a superior Turkish one.

Navarino took place in 1827, and our hero had returned home some years later. He was ready to settle down it seems and, having ‘nothing particular to do’, he thought he’d travel to Windsor to ‘see the King, Lord protect him’. The king in question was George IV who was in the last few weeks of his reign at the time, because, on 26 June George died, at the age of 67. He was succeeded by the last Hanoverian king, his brother, William IV, who reigned for just under seven years.

In his patriotic fervour our unnamed sailor had made his way to Windsor and decided he liked it but that he needed a wife to complete his retirement from the sea.

He soon met up with a ‘jolly wench’ who’s name was ‘Fair-haired Poll’. It soon becomes clear that Poll was not your average Windsor maiden, but an experienced local prostitute who saw a sailor, recently discharged with deep pockets, as a profitable investment. The two soon became intimate.

The sailor told Mr Thomas: ‘I don’t like to be under any obligation, so I thought I’d buy her out and out’. They pair ‘struck a bargain’, and she was ‘his’ for ‘fifteen pounds’. They ‘got on comfortably well together’ at first, the tar explained, but he was getting bored in Windsor so decided to return to London.

‘So we tacked about, and got a-board a coach for town. Well, we comes to a place they call Piccadilly, or some such name, but my Poll thinks proper to bolt while I was treating the Jarvy, and she not only takes herself off but also £60 of my money, and all my toggery’.

So (to translate)  while the sailor had a drink with the coachman Poll ran off with his money and his trunk of clothes. Outraged, he headed for the nearest watch house to demand some help in finding her and his property. Mr Thomas, having listened to his tale brought him to Bow Street Police Court, to make a formal complaint.

There the magistrates sympathised with him (and were amused by the ‘naive style in which he presented it’) but could offer little real help. The man showed them several documents to prove he was who he said he was, but these were unnecessary, ‘as he completely embodied the appearance of a regular built tar’. He was told his best option was to return to Windsor as Poll would most probably have gone back to her old haunts.

The police superintendent promised to keep an eye out for her and his money but they all clearly thought it fairly useless. He was not the first ‘old salt’ to be separated from his prize money by a ‘privateer’ nor was he likely to be the last. Hopefully he found Poll in Windsor, if not then he was likely to end up as another of the hundreds of discharged seamen that struggled to survive in post-war nineteenth-century England.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, June 24, 1830]