A child has a narrow escape as a disenchanted teenager poisons her lunch

805661c4fd60222a4835399fb16aef85

In December 1895 Edith Fenn appeared before Mr Lane at the West London Police court. Edith was just 15 years old and worked as a kitchen maid at 21 Courtfield Gardens, Earl’s Court. She had been asked to take food up to the youngest member of the household, Gwendolin Morris who was just 3 and a half years of age.

As she carried a tray with a bowl of cooked mincemeat along the landing Elizabeth Smart, a housemaid cleaning upstairs, stopped her. Elizabeth  could smell something bad, like ammonia, asked Edith what is was. The kitchen servant nodded to the jug of milk standing on a slate on the landing: ‘Perhaps it is in the milk’, she suggested, and carried on to the nursery.

The milk was there because Edith had brought it up earlier (as was her duty) and the little girl had rejected it. When the child tried it she spat it out complaining that it tasted ‘nasty’ and her nurse, Florence Powell agreed. Since the milk was slightly off the nurse decided to put it outside.

Now Edith had arrived in the nursery with Gwendolin’s meal of minced meat and potatoes. Immediately Powell recognized the smell of ammonia, just as Elizabeth Smart had. Edith set the tray down on a side table and went back downstairs to the kitchen. The nurse sniffed the meat and found it was certainly the source of the ammonia smell and handed it to the housemaid to take back to Mrs Longhurst, the cook.

What was going on? Had the cook inadvertently added ammonia to the baby’s dinner or was something more sinister at work?

Once the cook had seen what had happened she called for her mistress, and Mrs Louise Morris, the wife of an army officer, summoned a doctor. He examined both the milk and the minced meat and found that both were poisoned. The meat contained ammonia and the meat had traces of prussic acid, a cleaning agent used on gold lace. Dr Wyckham gave the little girl some ether as an antidote and she was later said to be recovering well in hospital.

A police investigation was soon underway and suspicion fell on Edith who had only been with the Morris family for six weeks. A bottle labeled ‘poison’ was found in the dustbin and in a subsequent trial at Old Bailey Edith admitted throwing it away after poisoning the girl’s milk and food.

Why had she done so, a nurse at the hospital wanted to know? All Edith would say was that she didn’t like taking the girl’s food up to her. At the police station she seemed much more anxious that her mother would find out what she had done. In the end she was charged with a form of wounding (‘Unlawfully administering a certain poison to Gwendolin Sutherland Morris with intent to injure and annoy her’) and, thankfully, no real harm was done to the child.

It was the end of Edith’s career as a domestic however. The jury recommended her to mercy on account of her age and the fact that two people stepped up to say that she had a previously unblemished good character. The judge sent her to prison for four months with hard labour. If she didn’t enjoy the tiresome trudge up and down stairs with a tray of food she was hardly going to prefer the treadmill and the crank and a diet of thin gruel.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, 18 December, 1895]

Milking it in at Hyde Park

Cow_1850

If you visit Hyde Park this weekend you will see many things: couples strolling arm in arm, dog owners walking their pets, cyclists clad in lycra and joggers sipping from water bottles; there will be ducks and geese and squirrels, and plenty of pigeons; and of course at this time of year there will crowds of people attending the Winter Wonderland.

What you are very unlikely to see is cattle. However, in 1829 cows grazed on the parklands, reminding us that early nineteenth-century London was a lot more rural than we might expect.

Cows were pastured on the grass by the ‘cow keepers’ who helped supply milk to the thirsty population of London in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Research has shown that there was a herd of about 30-40 cows in the park and that other herds were grazed across the capital and on its perimeter. Of course as London expanded much of the green space was gradually built upon and by the middle of the 1800s many of these herds were disappearing. The Victorian period also experienced a change in the tolerance of animals on the city streets and increasingly cattle and sheep were directed away from centres such as Smithfield to the outskirts of London. This has been described as ‘improvement’ by historians.

In 1829 one man was clearly enjoying the benefits of having milk cows nearby. Joseph  Nicholas had taken to milking the cows himself under cover of night and taking home a couple of bottles for himself and his family.

This did not go unnoticed by the cow keepers who began  to suspect that the dwindling yield form some of their animals was not occasioned by a problem with the animals themselves. They contacted the police (quite possibly Peel’s newly created body) and set them to watch the park at night.

Sure enough, in mid November 1829 at 10 at night two officers saw a man waking in the park. It was Nicholas and they stopped and asked him his business.

‘Halloa there’, they enquired, ‘what are you doing?”

‘Nothing particular’ the middle aged man replied, ‘only inhaling a little fresh air, for the benefit of my health’.

The constables thought it an odd time to be taking the air so they searched him. In either of his long coat pockets they found a bottle of warm milk, freshly squeezed from the teats of one the fine beasts in the park. They arrested him and presented the man at Queen’s Square Police court the next day.

Nicholas was very sorry for what he’d done and promised not to reoffend in future. The magistrate, Mr Gregorie, was anxious to hear from the cow keepers to see if they wished to press charges. So poor old Nicholas was remanded in custody for a couple of days.

Nicholas doesn’t feature in the Old Bailey Proceedings or in the records that survive for those transported in the 1800s. So perhaps his apology was enough or maybe when he reappeared Mr Gregories handed down a small fine. His actions were hardly a major crime and were probably replicated up and down rural England in the 1800s. With the police on the case the cow keepers now had some chance to protect their stock, before that it seems the milk could be taken past their eyes without them even noticing…

[from The Morning Post, Monday, November 16, 1829]

 

Milking the profits in 1880s Rotherhithe

3bb4b6bb5719962c0494e748220b1725--victorian-london-victorian-era

There is still a ‘proper’ milkman who delivers in the early hours of the morning in our street. Milkman used to be ubiquitous though; this was how nearly everyone got their milk until the supermarkets and convenience stores usurped the trade.

In the 1970s and 80s (when I was growing up in north London) milk was delivered in glass bottles which were then left as ‘empties’ to be returned to and refilled by the dairy. In the Victorian period a milkman brought his milk in pails and sold it by the pint, decanting it into whatever container the housewife produced.

Just as we have a foods standards agency to protect consumers Victorian society had sanitary inspectors who checked the quality of meat, dairy, and other consumables, visiting the various shops, markets and street traders to ensure their produce was both safe and unadulterated.  Throughout the 1800s food was adulterated (adding chalk to bread to make it ‘white’ for example) and beer watered down. This was all down to improve margins and increase profits but the last quarter of the century it was illegal and offenders could be prosecuted before a magistrate.

Joseph King fell foul of the law in late July 1881. The Bermondsey milkman was driving his cart in Rotherhithe and crying ‘milk, oh!’ to attract his customers, when Joseph Edwards approached him. Edwards was a sanitary inspector and King clearly recognized him. When Edwards asked him for a pint of milk the milkman refused his request. When he continued to refuse the inspector withdrew and applied for a summons to bring him before a magistrate.

On Friday 29 July King was up before Mr Marsham at Greenwich Police court. Edwards presented the case as he saw it. He’d had his suspicions about King so had approached him as described. When he’d asked for some milk King initially said he didn’t have any, but Edwards ignored him and opened up on of the cans on the cart. There was plenty left inside it.

He then told the milk seller who and what he was (as if King didn’t know) and this prompted King to say that what he had there was milk mixed with water, which he sold for 4a pint. He added that his customers knew what it was and there was no deception on his part. If they wanted pure milk they could have it, at 5a pint.

Edwards then walked across to where he’d seen the milkman last make a sale and asked the woman there what she’d bought. She vehemently denied being told that the milk she’d bought had been mixed with water. He was bang to rights and the inspector told the court that a ‘very fair profit was got out of pure milk sold at 4d’.  Mr Marsham agreed and fined Joe King 20splus 2s costs for trying to deceive his customers and  drive up his margins.

Perhaps he should have suggested that milk with less fat and a higher water content might have been a healthier option for the good folk of Rotherhithe, but I don’t think we had progressed to skimmed or semi-skimmed (let alone almond or oat) milk by then.

[from The Standard, Saturday, July 30, 1881]

‘There’s more milk drank in London in a fortnight than all the cows in England give in a month’, a milkman tells the Thames magistrate.

s_0004

London, in fact, knows nothing of real milk, which differs as thoroughly as chalk is unlike cheese, from the spurious stuff we are at present contented with. Commercial milk is a compound which any conscientious cow would indignantly repudiate, 

Punch, 1849

When George Day was charged with stealing milk at Thames Police court it revealed the wholesale adulteration of milk in the capital, something the sitting magistrate was clearly unaware of. The ‘audience’ at Thames however, laughed throughout the hearing, suggesting that they were well aware of the practice and were amused by both the candour of the various witnesses and the ignorance of ‘his Worship’.

The prosecution was brought by Thomas Stevens who ran a dairy and kept cows at Dock Street in Whitechapel. George Day was a regular customer but Stevens had his suspicions about him. The dairyman was pretty certain that the milkman was pinching his milk by the fairy subterfuge of paying for one pail whilst collecting two.

On Thursday morning (18th September 1845) Day appeared as usual (carry two emptily pails) and asked for six quarts of milk. John Knott was milking a cow and when he’d filled one pail (with around 11 quarts) he handed it to Day. Normally those buying milk wholesale like this would have it taken to be strained in the dairy but Day said he was in a hurry so told Knott that he would carry in himself. However, Knott noticed that the milkman had set it down nearby and headed into the dairy without it.

All of this had been seen by Stevens who had hidden himself in a room above one of the cow houses and was spying on him from a window. He saw Day stroll into the dairy carry his empty pail where he was served by another of Steven’s employees, Mrs Gilbert. She gave him six quarts of strained milk, which he paid for.

So the con was pretty obvious: Day presumably appeared each morning with two empty pails which could hold up to about 12 quarts each. He asked and paid for six quarts of fresh milk and ended up with more than twice that amount by the simply tactic of getting his milk directly from the cow and hoping no one noticed. He was caught because the dairy was more alert than he thought it was.

However, the case was made much more interesting because of what George Day did next.

Having received the six quarts for strained milk (i.e. ready to sell to his customers) he carried it over to a pump and topped it up with water. When he admitted this before Mr Broderip at Thames Police Court the place collapsed in laughter (with the exception of the magistrate that is).

‘Is that usual?’ the justice asked him.

‘For him to do so it is sir’, explained the dairy owner.

‘I have regally bobbed it – it’s all right’, confirmed Day, seemingly unembarrassed by his admission that he watered down his milk.

Mr Broderip was confused, what did ‘bobbing’ mean? That was, he was told, the term used to describe adding milk and chalk to strained milk to make it go further. Far from being ashamed to have been caught out George Day was quite happy to tell his worship ‘a few secrets of the milk trade’.

‘We never sell it without water. Of course warm water is the best, ’cause then the people believe it’s just been yielded by the cow. Nothing like it, sir. We adds a little chalk to the score sometimes, and the customers don’t mind it’.

As he had made to leave the dairy, with his two pails balanced carefully over his shoulders with a yoke, Thomas Stevens had run after him and accused him of stealing his milk. Despite Day’s loud denials he was given into the custody of a nearby policeman and so had ended up before the Thames magistrate.

He denied his crime and continued to argue he had done nothing wrong in ‘bobbing’ the milk he sold on the streets.

‘Law bless your worship, its not the first time it’s been done by thousands’ (prompting yet more roars of laughter in court). It was ‘and old saying’ Day told the court, ‘that more milk was drank in London in a fortnight than all the cows in England give in a month’.

The practice of adulteration (or ‘bobbing’) was evidently widespread and well known.

Mr Broderip was satisfied that a felony had been committed but before he could draw up the indictment to send Day for trial he needed formally to hear Mrs Gilbert’s evidence. Therefore he remanded Day overnight for the dairywoman to appear. As for ‘bobbing’ he suggested that the public (via the newspapers) needed to be made aware of this sharp practice, and after this report they certainly were. My suspicions however are that most working class Londoners were already well aware of the reality of what their milk contained, although it may have come as a shock to polite society. Regardless the magistrate declared that it was one of the most ‘impudent’ defences he had heard for a long time.

Day was eventually tried for the theft of 11 quarts of milk but I’m unsure of the outcome. He was listed as being in the Middlesex House of Detention awaiting trial (probably at the Middlesex Sessions). Given the extent of evidence against him I rather suspect he would have been convicted and then imprisoned for a few months.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, September 19, 1845]

Food adulteration was a massive problem for the Victorians: ‘As late as 1877 the Local Government Board found that approximately a quarter of the milk it examined contained excessive water, or chalk, and ten per cent of all the butter, over eight per cent of the bread, and 50 per cent of the gin had copper in them to heighten the colour’. (1) 

(1) Adulteration and Contamination of Food in Victorian England, Professor Anthony S. Wohl, Professor of History, Vassar College [http://www.victorianweb.org/science/health/health1.html]

A mysterious case of arson in Mile End

the-spinning-room-in-the-shadwell-rope-works-c1880-A4JN3G

The spinning room in the Shadwell rope works c1880

This week I am looking at the business of just one of London’s police courts, Thames (in East Arbour Lane) over the course of seven days in June 1881. After yesterday’s wounding at sea and violent assault at home we have another two cases from the East London courtroom.

Francis Kearns and Thomas Risdale were accused of assaulting Henry Osborn. All three were milkmen, the former worked for the Farmers’ Dairy Company (based in Stepney) and while Osborn was employed by an unnamed rival. They clashed in a pub in Cotton Street, Limehouse and Kearns hurled a can containing eight quarts of milk at Osborn. As a fight began to escalate the police were called and the men arrested. Mr Saunders, the magistrate presiding that day, sent both defendants to prison for a month at hard labour.

However it was the other story I found more interesting because it involved arson, a crime historians have , relatively speaking, largely ignored.

At 4 o’clock on Saturday 11 June the gates of Joseph Johnson’s rope and twine factory in Wade’s Place on the Mile End Road were locked. All the hands had gone home at 2 having finished for the day, as was the normal pattern of working in the 1800s. Workers generally worked Monday to Saturday afternoon, having the latter off along with Sunday.  Joseph Johnson ran the factory with his brother William but they didn’t live there. At 11 at night William checked the premises, as he always did, and found everything in order and nothing out of the ordinary. He returned to his home which was close by the business.

However, at one o’clock on Sunday morning a fire was seen burning in the factory and the alarm was raised. William rushed over accompanied by his carman (effectively a nineteenth-century van driver) and they found the whole place on fire. They also discovered a man lying on the ground, ‘face downwards, close to the shed door’. William asked him what he was doing there but his reply was inaudible and Johnson and the carman left him and ran off to try and save the horses that were stabled there.

When they had secured the horses – all safe and well I’m glad to say – they looked for the mysterious man but he had gone. He hadn’t gone far however, and they soon caught up with him near the gates. Johnson and his employee seized the man and handed him over to the police. On the way to East Arbour Square Police station the man, who gave his name as John Redding (a cooper from Stratford), desperately tried to escape his situation.

‘I hope you will not swear against me’ he pleaded with Johnson, ‘I did not intend to do any hard. If £1000 will get me out of it, I can get it’.

£1000 in 1881 was a huge sum of money, the equivalent to nearly £50,000 today so I’ve no idea how a cooper thought he would lay his hands on that amount, and it all adds to the mystery.

At Thames Police Court Mr Saunders was told the police thought Redding had been drinking and was sporting a black eye. Was this an explanation of his behaviour or evidence of him seeking some ‘dutch courage’ to carry out a deliberate act of arson, perhaps one inspired by revenge? When he was searched no ‘lucifers’ (matches) were found on him; in fact nothing (not even a pipe) was found that might have enabled him to start the blaze. It was a curious case and clearly there was more to be discovered. As a result Mr Saunders remanded him in custody for further examination.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, June 12, 1881]