Dead bodies dumped in a rubbish tip and a pair of Yankee fraudsters escape justice: all in a day’s business for London’s magistracy

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A pair of interesting cases for you this morning both brought before magistrates in London but neither of which ended in a conviction for any crime. Once again this is useful reminder that histories of crime that concentrate on the higher, jury courts of England will inevitably miss those cases which were dismissed much earlier in the criminal justice process.

In May 1847 two well-dressed young men were placed in the dock at Marlborough Street and accused of stealing. Their victim was a young woman named Eliza Williams who claimed to have lost a gold watch and chain and her purse. The crime was pretty standard – pocket picking – but the circumstances made it a little more unusual and, therefore, newsworthy.

Eliza claimed that she had met Robert Brownrigg Tolfrey at a ‘dancing room’ in Great Windmill Street. He’d approached her and asked her to dance. He spoke with a soft American accent and she accepted. Despite being distracted by the music and his attentions she was still aware enough to feel a tug on her watch chain. The chain broke but she quickly rescued it and the watch and place dit safely (she thought) in her pocket.

The couple parted for the next dance and Eliza instinctively checked for her watch – it was gone, as was her purse! Looking around another dancer caught her attention and pointed out Tolfrey and said they’d seen the watch chain hanging out of his pocket as he strode away. Eliza confronted him and although he vigorously denied stealing her property she had him arrested.

In court at Marlborough Street Tolfrey and his friend Robert Berkely Reynolds protested their innocence. A witness for Eliza said he’d seen Tolfrey pass the watch and purse to another man, perhaps named Nicholls, but he couldn’t be sure. There was no real evidence against either man and in this sort of case it was unlikely that the justice would be able to do anything unless previous convictions against them could be shown that would sow doubt in the mid of a jury.

That is why the men’s landlady was called I think.

Mrs Green said the men rented rooms form her at Golden Square off James Street giving their name as Berkley and passing themselves off as brothers recently arrived from America. While they were staying with her tradesmen would arrive and leave goods which soon vanished, suggesting a scam of some sort was being orchestrated there. When Mrs Green asked them to pay their rent they simply walked off leaving ‘nothing behind them except a false spring beard and mustachios’. The pair were clearly up to no good but, on this charge of ‘privately stealing from the person’, Mr Bingham could see no evidence that would stick in court, so he released them.

At Westminster a more disturbing case was heard before Mr Broderip. One of B Division’s police inspectors (named Donegan) was in court to report that ‘considerable excitement’ had been caused amongst the public in Lillington Street when human remains were discovered in a rubbish heap. He’d been called to investigate and had found bones that appeared to belong to a ‘human foot and arm’.

‘There were other bones’, he said, ‘smaller and larger, more advancing to decay, and evidently belonging to other bodies’. He had them collected for examination he explained.

In answer to a question from the magistrate Donegan said he didn’t believe the bones were recent but agreed that they might well come from a nearby medical school. A number of admission cards  from King’s College Hospital had been found amongst the rubbish and this strongly suggested a connected. The bones were probably the remains of persons whose bodies had been used in the teaching of anatomy, as the cadavers of the poor had been used for that purpose since the passing of the Anatomy Act in 1832. The act was supposed to stop the practice of grave robbing which itself had been caused by the shortage of fresh specimens taken from the gallows.

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It was a grisly business and not one the authorities wanted to be given too much publicity. Once dissected the bodies of the poor were supposed to have been buried properly even if no headstone was set to commemorate them. The idea that they might end up in a communal rubbish tip was appalling and, as the magistrate termed it, ‘indecorous’. He instructed Donegan to call upon the board at King’s to make it clear to them that any future occurrences of this sort would not be tolerated.

According to the leading historian of the Anatomy Act of 1832 in the course of the Victorian period some 125,000 corpses were sold in the ‘anatomy trade’.1 Many of those leaving the bodies of their loved ones did so by placing them outside the doors of London’s main teaching hospitals (like King’s or St. Bart’s) knowing that they had no funds to bury them. I regularly visit the local cemetery close to my home, to pay my respects to my wife’s parents, and we usually pass by a solitary stone that commemorates the thousands of people who are buried within the grounds in unmarked graves, because their families could not afford to meet the costs of a funeral.

For every grave carefully tended or left to slowly degrade there are, in small and larger graveyards and cemeteries they length and breadth of the country, hundreds of thousands of burials which are left unmarked. Something to think about when next you visit one perhaps.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, May 4, 1847]

1. Elizabeth Hurren, Dying for Victorian Medicine: English anatomy and its trade in the dead poor, c.1834-1929(Palgrave Macmillan, 2012)

If you enjoy this blog series you might be interested in Drew’s jointly authored study of the Whitechapel (or ‘Jack the Ripper’) murders, which is published by Amberley Books on 15 June this year. You can find details here:

No help for heroes at Westminster, just a prison cell

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In 1892 Rudyard Kipling published a collection of poems called ‘Barrack Room Ballads’. This included ‘Tommy’ which he’d penned a coupe of years earlier and contrasted the public view of the Victorian soldier in wartime and peace. This is best summed up by this line:

O it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Tommy, go away”;

But it’s “Thank you, Mister Atkins”, when the band begins to play,.

Soldiers – as Kipling’s poem suggested – were to be valued when there was fighting to be done but were considered a nuisance at other times. I grew up watching the annual Festival of Remembrance that honours the dead of two world wars (and subsequent conflicts) but while the British Legion have done much for ex-servicemen and their families it was still deemed necessary to create the Help for Heroes charity in 2007 to support men and women wounded in the course of serving in the armed forces.

We might well ask why such a charity is needed in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, a country which is a founder member of NATO and that has an arms trade that generates billions from the sale of lethal weapons across the globe. Then again we might ask ourselves why over half a million people used food banks in Britain last year, or why the DWP (Department for work and pensions) concluded that in 2016 over 21m Britons were living in ‘relative poverty’.

But back to ‘Tommy Atkins’ and public attitudes in the 1800s. There was no ‘help for heroes’ then, or a British Legion. All the ex-soldier without work could rely on at mid century was his army pension (if he had one) charity, the Poor Law, and his wits. George Hill had no pension because he’d been kicked out of the army for getting drunk and assaulting an officer.

Hill was lucky; if he’d attacked the officer whilst on active service he’d have faced a court martial and the possibility of a firing squad. Instead he’d been released ‘with ignominy’ and no pension and had subsequently found it difficult or impossible to secure gainful employment. As a result Hill sat himself on the streets of London with a painted sign that read:

9th Regiment of foot.

I have served 22 years in the 9thFoot – 20 years in India, and have been in eight general engagements, and am now discharged without a pension’.

Begging was a summary offence and so when PC James Light (128B) discovered him on his beat he asked him to move along and, when this request was ignored, arrested him. The former infantryman was brought before Mr Broderip at Westminster Police court where his previous military indiscretion was revealed. In the eyes of Victorian society Hill was a violent drunk who deserved nothing from a society he had served for 22 years expect condemnation and a prison cell. The magistrate duly obliged and sent him down for three months.

George Hill may well have been a ‘impudent, violent beggar’ and he certainly had previous convictions for vagrancy but today we recognize that ex-servicemen suffer mental as well as physical wounds as a consequence of what they’ve been through. Perhaps Hill’s 22 years in the colours had left him similarly scarred and unable to function as a part of ‘normal’ Victorian society.

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He had probably fought at the battles of Mudki and Ferozeshah during the First Anglo-Afghan War and so, like many modern soldiers, had been to Kabul. He would also have been with the colours at the battle of Soprano (right) in the First Anglo-Sikh war. Technically of course he was fighting under the general banner of the East India Company but that matters little, the danger and suffering is the same.

In 1852 then soldiers like George Hill were not valued by the society they had served. Within two years however thousands of then were fighting for ‘Queen and Country’ once more as Britain took on the might of Imperial Russia in the Crimea and then the challenge to the Empire in India in 1857. So once again it was ‘ “Thank you, Mister Atkins”, when the band begins to play’.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, 5 January, 1852]

The most ‘savage and wonton outrage I ever did see’.

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As John Holland was walking along the Back Road in Shadwell he saw a man attacking an elderly man and his wife. He rushed over and remonstrated with him, pulling him off the old man. He told him he should be ashamed of himself assaulting someone old enough to be his father. The man was unmoved by the dressing down, landed a blow that knocked his victim to the ground and then set upon Holland as well.

He hit the good Samaritan over the head, which pitched him to the street and, just as he saw the old man trying to get to his feet behind him, turned and kicked him full in the face. Meanwhile as Holland struggled to stand up the violence continued as his assailant kicked him in the groin, ‘which completely disabled him’.

It was a brutal attack on two entirely innocent people and there were witnesses to it. A passing gentleman told Holland he should press charges and a policeman was called for. Running hard from the nearby King David Lane police station PC Joseph Harrad (263K) was first on the scene and he arrested the attacker who later gave his name as Henry Dixon, a tailor.

Dixon, a small man, was still boiling with rage and shrugged the policeman off him.

Don’t hold me by the collar’, he snarled, ‘I will walk quietly with you’.

He only walked so far however, stopping after a few yards near a waterspout and declaring:

I’ll be damned if I go any further’.

When PC Harrad insisted, Dixon seized the waterspout and refused to move. The pair wrestled and the spout broke, tumbling policeman and his quarry into the street. The tailor was up first and ran at Harrad and hit him. Undeterred the copper grabbed him and dragged him into a nearby greengrocer’s shop, which was close to the police station.

Here Dixon landed a severe blow on the policeman’s face and gave him a bloody nose and mouth. Mr Longlands, the grocer, saw what happened and came to the aid of the officer and got knocked back with a fist to his chest for his pains. As Dixon kicked out at Longlands’ shins his cries brought the grocer’s daughter out from the back of the shop. She assumed the attacker was PC Harrad and piled into him with her hands, pulling him off the tailor. The poor copper finally managed to explain that it was Dixon who was the problem and she desisted.

The fight carried on for several minutes and both ‘parties were alternatively up and down’ before sergeant Derrig (27K) arrived and Dixon was finally subdued and frog-marched to the nick. PC Harrad was covered in bruises and Holland and the grocer had both sustained a number of injuries. Dixon was charged with assault and presented at Thames Police court the next day to be examined by Mr Broderip the magistrate.

The magistrate praised the conduct of the policeman and said he’d acted bravely and with ‘great forbearance’. Dixon cut a sorry figure in court, his clothes (which were described as ‘seedy habiliments’) ripped and torn and had little to say in his defence. He alleged that he was defending himself and that he been shoved by the old couple as he passed along the street but that was a weak excuse for such violence.

In fact it was the worst case of assault Mr Broderip had seen in a long time and handed out multiple fines for the various offences that totaled £8 and 40s(or around £600 today, probably two month’s salary for him at the time). I doubt the tailor had the funds for these so probably ended up serving the alternative of serving nearly six months in prison at hard labour.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Saturday, June 6, 1840]