Pay your bills young man, or face the consequences!

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On Saturday 8 October 1853 Henry Julian, a young ‘gentleman’, took delivery a new suit of clothes. He had ordered a week earlier, from Thomas Dando’s tailor’s shop close to the Blackfriars Road.  He was quite specific in his instructions; the suit was to be in black as he needed to go to a funeral.

As soon as Dando’s shop lad arrived at Julian’s home on Stamford Street he handed the bundle over and waited while his customer tried them on. Julian came down dressed in his new suit and immediately declared that he was unhappy. They weren’t to his satisfaction and so he wouldn’t be paying Dando’s bill, which was £5 8s (or around £450 today).

In that case, the boy said, he would have to take them back as his master had told him not to leave the goods without receiving full payment. Julian again refused. He needed the suit as the funeral was that day. He instructed the lad to return to Dando and tell him he’d pay the bill within six months; like many middle class and wealthier people in the 1800s he was demanding credit.

Having said his piece he placed a hat on his head, escorted the young lad off his property, and set off for the funeral, closely followed by the boy. The route Julian took went directly past Dando’s shop on Charlotte Street, off Blackfriars Road.

Thomans Dando saw him coming and his lad behind and perceived something was wrong. He stepped out and pulled the young man into his shop and demanded to know what was going on. Julian repeated his desire to enter into a credit arrangement and again refused to pay cash there and then.

Dando was furious and seizing his customer by the collar marched him to the nearest constable, demanding he be arrested for fraud. The local police duly obliged and later that day he was set in the dock at Southwark Police court where Mr Combe remanded him in custody. He was taken down to the cells, his new suit swapped for prison clothes and he was left to reflect on his actions for a few days.

On the 11thhe was back in court, wearing his prison outfit and facing Mr. Combe’s interrogation.

Having been reapprised of the details of the case the magistrate was told that Dando no longer wished to press charges. He’d got his property back and as far as he was concerned that was that. Mr Combe now told the prisoner that he was free to go but warned him that he might not be so lucky next time. However, he would have to return the prison clothes he was wearing and, since he could hardly walk naked through the streets, the gaoler would accompany him back to his home at 110 Stamford Street to affect the exchange.

One can imagine the shame he now experienced; walking through the streets of Southwark, dressed in prison garb, like a penitent in sackcloth, while all his neighbours watched. The message to the reading public was clear: settle your bills, especially if you shop at Thomas Dando’s!

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, October 12, 1853]

‘The stench was horrible, and seemed as if from burnt bones or flesh’: the Spa Fields scandal of 1845

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Clerkenwell Police court was crowded on the morning of the 25 February 1845 and the magistrate must have quickly realized that local passions were running high. Most of those present either lived or worked in the near vicinity of Exmouth Street, close by the Spa Fields burial ground.

Burials no longer take place in Spa Fields and nowadays the gardens are an inner-city paradise on summer days as visitors eat their lunch, walk their dogs, or sunbathe on the grass. The London Metropolitan Archives is nearby and in Exmouth Market gourmands can enjoy a wide variety of food from the stalls and cafés that trade there.

The crowd in Mr Combe’s courtroom were represented by a pawnbroker and silversmith called Watts. He stepped forward to explain that he and his fellow ratepayers were there to seek an end to ‘practices of an abominable nature’ that had been taken place in the graveyard.

What exactly were these ‘abominable practices’?

The magistrate listened as  Mr Watts told him that while the burial ground was less than two acres in size and was estimated to be able to hold 3,000 bodies. In reality however, in the 50 years of its existence on average some 1,500 internments were taking place annually. In sum then, something like 75,000 people had been buried in a space for 3,000 and more and more burials were taking place, indeed there had recently been 36 in one day the pawnbroker said.

However, while the graveyard was crowded and this would have meant digging into extant graves and disturbing them, ‘not a bone was seen on the surface’. He (Mr Watts) would provide his Worship with evidence that the bodies of interned persons were routinely being dug up and burned to make room for fresh burials. Moreover many of those coffins removed were new, the wood ‘was fresh’ he added, and witnesses had seen human body parts hacked off by diggers.

The desecration of graves was one thing but the root of the complaint was actually the effect that this practice had on local people and their businesses. According to Watts:

‘The stench proceeding from what was called the “bone-house” in the graveyard was so intolerable that many of the residents in Exmouth–street, which abutted on the place, had been obliged to leave it altogether’.

Surely, the magistrate asked him, a prosecution could be brought against the parochial authorities that had responsibility for the place? Mr Watts said that the parish of St James’ was well aware of what was happening but were doing nothing to stop it.

‘The custom is’ he explained, ‘to disinter the bodies after they have been three or four days buried, chop them up, and burn them in this bone-house’.

Then he should certainly bring a charge against them Mr Combe advised. The clerk to the local Board of Poor Law Guardians was less sure however; since the burial ground was not subject to rates he didn’t think the parochial authorities could be held liable for it. The magistrate said that if the Guardians couldn’t interfere the matter should go to the Poor Law Commissioners and, if they didn’t not help, he would apply directly to the Homes Secretary (who, in February 1845, was Sir James Graham – a politician who, by his own admission, is only remembered by history as ‘the man who opened the letters of the Italians’ in the Mazzini case).

Police Inspector Penny (G Division) testified that he had visited the bone house after being presented with a petition signed by 150 locals.

He found ‘a large quantity of coffins, broken up and some of them burning…the smell was shocking, intolerable. There were coffins of every size there, children’s and men’s’.

The court heard from Reuben Room, a former gravedigger who’d left two year’s previously after ‘a dispute’. He said he’d often been asked to disinter bodies after a couple of days to make room for fresh burials. John Walters, who kept the Clerkenwell fire engine, gave evidence that he had twice had to attend fires at the bone house. He had found it hard to gain admission (suggesting that the authorities there were not keen for people to see what was going on inside) but when he had he’d seen ‘as many coffins as three men could convey, and a great deal of pitch was fastened to the chimney’ [i.e. blackening it], resulting from the burning of coffins.

The smell, he agreed, was ‘horrible, and seemed as if from burnt bones or flesh’. A large crowd had gathered that night and were ready to pull the place to the ground.

More witnesses came forward to testify to the horror of the bone house and the ‘abominable practices’ carried out there. Catherine Murphy, who lived in a house which overlooked the graveyard had seen grave diggers chop up a body with their shovels, and had intervened to admonish them when one of the men had lifted the ‘upper part of a corpse by the hair of the head’.

‘Oh, you villain’, she cried, ‘to treat the corpse so!’

Mr Combe  again advised Mr Watts and his fellow petitioners to make a full statement of their complaint to the board of guardians so that they could take action against whomsoever was to blame. Satisfied with this, the crowd emptied out of the courtroom.

Even by early 1800s the pressure on London’s graveyards was acute. The small parish burial grounds simply were not designed to cope with the huge numbers of burials that a rapidly growing population required. The local authorities recognised that larger cemeteries needed to be laid out so that room could be found for new internments. In 1824 a campaign began to build large municipal cemeteries on the edge of London, away from crowded housing and the danger of disease.

From 1837 to 1841 Parliament agreed to ‘the building of seven commercial cemeteries’ at Kensal Green, West Norwood, Highgate, Nunhead, Abney Park, Brompton and Tower Hamlets. By mid century (not long after the horror of Spa Fields) these were already filling up.* Acts in the 1850s caused most of the old seventeenth century burial grounds to be formally closed, some of these are now public gardens.

So the next time you take a stroll in Spa Fields enjoying your lunch or coffee, and taking in the antics of the local canines, you might try to imagine what this place smelled like when the bone house’s fires were in full operation.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, February 26, 1845]

*Weinrebb & Hibbert, The London Encyclopædia (p.129)

for other posts about the problems of London’s dead see:

Knocked down in the street a week before her wedding.

A grave legal dispute in Essex

‘Here are people dying of cholera owing to the most foul and disgusting nuisance’: an East End landlady is brought to book.

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In August 1849 Mrs Isabella Blaby was summoned before the magistrate at Thames Police court to answer a charge that she was exposing her neighbours to a most ‘intolerable odour’.

The now widowed Mrs Blaby was well known to the court as her husband had worked there until his death a few years earlier. But any sympathy that Mr Combe (the sitting magistrate) might have had for her quickly evaporated as he heard the evidence against her. Mrs Blaby ran a number of lodging houses in East London: one in Batty Street (a street later to become infamous as home to Israel Lipski, hanged for murder in 1887, and Francis Tumblety, a suspect in the ‘Ripper’ case) and two others in Charles Street.

A cess pit at the rear of her properties in Charles Street was overflowing into the yards at Phillip Street nearby via damaged wall, and the stench was unbearable. This caused the tenants there to complain and Thomas Overton, the local inspector of nuisances, was sent round to investigate.

He had already had dealings with Isabella having previously ordered her to deal with a similar problem at her Batty Street tenement, but she clearly hadn’t taken his orders seriously enough. He now discovered that as well as the smell there were potentially fatal health consequences associated with the ‘nuisance’. Given that there had been several outbreaks of cholera in the area, and she seemingly wasn’t  dealing quickly enough with the problem, Overton had no alternative but to bring Mrs Blaby to court.

At the Thames Police court hearing Mr Combe was told that two people were in hospital and the surgeons had warned that unless the cesspit was emptied immediately, and thereafter more regularly, there was a very real risk of further outbreaks.

In her defence Mrs Blaby said she had ‘compoed’ the wall that surrounded the pit (which was was found to be in a poor state of disrepair thus causing it to leak into the adjoining yards) and added that the cess pit had been emptied just six months earlier.

Six months ago? Asked the justice, that was ‘too long, too long’, he told her. ‘Empty them immediately, or you will be liable to a fine of 10s a day’.

Mrs Blaby said was happy to get someone to empty the cess pit of ‘night soil’ the following day, but this was not good enough for Mr Combe.

‘I can’t give you authority to remove night soil in the day time’, he insisted, ‘You must do it this very night, and before five o’clock tomorrow morning. Here are people dying of cholera owing to the most foul and disgusting nuisance’.

The landlady left court agreeing to sort out the issue straight away but her cavalier attitude towards her tenants and her neighbours can’t have filled the bench or the local health inspectors with confidence and it speaks volumes about the conditions people in the East End were living in at the time.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, August 17, 1849]

Blasphemy, Race and Empire collide as an undertaker appears before the Southwark court.

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I am often reminded of how tremendously ignorant I am of some aspects of history. Most of my  study has been concerned with Britain and Europe and the world conflicts that involved them. I studied some American history to A level and some aspects of colonial history as part of my undergraduate degree, but for the last decade or so I have been firmly rooted in the period between about 1750 and 1900 and rarely stray much beyond London.

So until I read about him today I’d never heard of John William Colenso (1814-1883) or his important influence on African history. Colenso was born in St Austell in Cornwall where his father lost money in the mining industry when a sea flood deluded the works. After several false starts Colenso eventually took a career in the church and in 1853 became the first Church of England Bishop of Natal in what is now South Africa.

Throughout the 1850s Colenso travelled around Zululand meeting its people and writing up his experiences. Unlike many colonial travellers and officials Colenso was sympathetic to the cause of Africa rights and equality and this brought him plenty of criticism from the church and colonial authorities and eventually led to his removal from office in 1863.

And this is where he came across my radar, appearing (albeit not in person) in the Southwark Police court in April, in a case heard by Mr Combe the sitting magistrate.

As the newspaper report noted:

‘An elderly Scottish gentleman entered the court to complain of a blasphemous placard placed outside the shop of an undertaker’. The notice declared “Colenso right and the Bible wrong’, and the complainant wanted it taken down immediately. It was, he said, ‘full of blasphemy’ as it denied the truth written down in the scriptures.

At first Mr Combe was reluctant to get involved in this, as he didn’t think he had any jurisdiction to interfere but the Scot was instant. The magistrate sent a warrant officer out to fetch the placard and ask the undertaker to attend to explain himself.

Once the offending message and the undertaker’s men ( a Mr Antill) were present Combe asked him whether he was aware what it said. Antil was, he explained that he related to a series of lectures due to be given over the next six Sunday evenings. We don’t learn what the lectures were about but given what I now know about Bishop Colenso I think I might make an educated guess.

Colenso was a polygenist, in other words he believed that mankind had evolved from more than one initial source. The Bible, of course, states that man descends from Adam and Eve. Science and history made it hard, Colenso argued, to accept that all races were descended from the same single pair of human beings. Instead he suggested that God had created several races, but all of them were created equal. As with others that held this belief he argued that monogenism lay at the heart of racism and slavery.

The Colenso controversy sparked huge religious debate in Britain and southern Africa in the 1860s and we can see from this small snippet in the news that this manifested itself even in daily life in the capital of Empire.

Mr Combe asked the undertaker if he had gone to these lectures. Yes, he had, Antill replied, and he ‘took considerable interest in them’ which was why he’d put out the placard to advertise them to others.

The magistrate told him he’d committed an offence by ‘exposing such a blasphemous’ notice. It was ‘not at all respectable for a tradesman to allow it, and more especially an undertaker’.

Mr Antill apologised and said he would not put it out again in the future and left with a warning that if he did he could expect to be punished for it. The unnamed ‘Scottish gentleman’ thanked the magistrate and left the court, his mission accomplished. One wonder what he would have made of Darwin’s Origins of Species, which had been published just 4 years earlier in 1859. Religion and science were locked in an intellectual debate throughout the second half of the nineteenth century with evolution and God’s role in it firmly at the heart of that debate.

That debate continues still, as does the question of racial equality and the rights of peoples. Colenso was a friend of the Zulu people and supposedly argued against the war that broke between Cetshwayo and the British state in 1877. After the Zulu’s had been defeated Colenso agitated on the defeated kings behalf and successfully got Cetshwayo released from imprisonment on Robben Island. His continued challenge to authority and exposure of racism at the heart of the imperial project did nothing to endear him to politicians and senior clergy at home but it earned him the title of Sobantu (father of the people) amongst native Africans in Natal. He died in Durban in 1883, aged 69.

[from The Morning Post , Friday, April 24, 1863]

‘She had no doubt the prisoner would have murdered her’: violence and crime in the St. Giles rookery

PC Baker (108G) was on duty in Buckeridge Street, St Giles in mid April 1844 when he heard a shout of ‘murder!’ In the mid nineteenth century Buckeridge Street (also known as Buckbidge) was a part of the notorious St. Giles ‘rookery’. aaa445A place full of  ‘lodging-houses for thieves, prostitutes, and cadgers’ (according to Henry Mayhew) and somewhere the New Police generally proceeded with caution.

Shouts of ‘murder’ were hardly uncommon here, and were probably often ignored (as they were in Whitechapel in the 1880s). However, PC Baker chose not to ignore this and entered the yards of number 26, following the noise he’d heard. There he found a man and a woman grappling with each other, and saw that the man had a life pressed to the woman’s throat.

Seeing the policeman the man turned and ran into the house and Baker followed as fast as he could. He could see the woman was bleeding from two cuts on her neck but the wounds weren’t too serious.

Inside he found her assailant in the apartment and immediately noticed a frying pan on the fire in which it seemed that metal was being melted. ‘You have been melting pewter pots’, PC Baker accused the man. ‘Yes, that is the way I get my living’ the other admitted. Pewter pots were frequently stolen from the numerous pubs in the capital and once melted down they were very hard to identify, so it was the normal practice of thieves to dispose of them this – turning stolen goods into saleable metal.

Looking across the dark room Baker now noticed that a woman was in bed there. At first she seemed asleep but then he realised she was merely drunk and lying in a comatose state. Her name was Bishop and the man he had caused (and arrested) was called James Robinson. Robinson was searched and the knife was found on in.

On the following day (the 16 April 1844) Robinson was up before the ‘beak’ at Clerkenwell Police court. He was charged attempted murder by the girl he’d attacker, Mary Ann Macover  ‘a well-looking, but dissipated’ nineteen year-old. She alleged that the three of them (Robinson, herself and Bishop) and been drinking before a quarrel had broken out. Robinson had dared her to drink half a pint of gin in one go and when she’d refused he abused her.

He chased her out into the yard with the knife, nearly bit off her ear in the struggle, and had it not been for the timely arrival of the policeman ‘she had no doubt the prisoner would have murdered her’. The wounds to her throat were visible to all those watching in court but I don’t get the feeling that the magistrate had that much sympathy with her or was that interested in the assault.

What was interesting to the law however was the melting down of (probably) stolen pewter pint pots. Moreover Robinson was familiar to the police and courts in the area having been previously convicted. He also went under the name of Lewis and this made it very likely that the justice, Mr Combe, would take the opportunity to lock him away.

Robinson denied the assault but it was much harder for him to explain away the pan of pewter melting on the fire. Mr Combe decide to send him to the Clerkenwell house of correction for two months at hard labour adding that he would grant Mary Ann a warrant for his arrest for the assault. This was not to be executed until he had served his full sentence however, meaning he would be rearrested as he was released from the gaol. It was then up to her to prosecute the supposed attempt on her life at the Sessions.

This seems the wrong way around for us today. The desire to punish a man for an implied property crime (the theft of pewter pint pots), instead of what seems very clearly to have been an actual violent crime (assault or attempted murder), is the opposite of what a magistrate would do now. But in 1844 assault had not been codified and the term covered a wide range of actions and was invariably prosecuted as a ‘civil’ action at the Sessions (or before a magistrate if it was less serious). It was the 1861 Offences against the Person Act that brought in the offences (such as GBH, wounding) that we are familiar with today and ushered in a less tolerant attitude towards casual violence.

St Giles was also a dreadful place with a terrible reputation for violence, crime, poverty and immorality. I doubt Mr Combe was as bothered by the violence (which he probably thought he could do nothing about) as he was by the property crime. By locking up Robinson for a couple of months, and putting him on notice thereafter, he at least took one thief off the streets  for a while and gave the local landlords some relief from the loss of their drinking vessels.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, April 17, 1844]

Three hearty fellows from Horselydown fall foul of Mr Coombe’s benevolence

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In January 1861 three ‘hearty-looking men’ appeared at the Southwark Police court in front of Mr Combe, the magistrate presiding. The trio were dressed in agricultural labourers’ clothes and said they come from Horsleydown, by Wapping, where they claimed to earn a living by  working on the river front. However, there had been a severe winter and the frost had prevented them from doing any paid work. They told the magistrate that their ‘wives and families were at home starving’.

That the winter of 1860/61 was a hard one is evidenced by several donations listed in the papers to the local poor relief funds. At Southwark alone over a dozen people had left sums of money, postal orders or postage stamps for the magistrate to distribute as they saw fit. However, these three men had been arrested for begging and that was met with strong disapproval from Mr Combe. He enquired the circumstances in which they had been picked up by the police and PC Duff (216M) stepped forward to make his report.

PC Duff explained that he was on duty in Bermondsey Street at four in the afternoon when he saw the three men walking down the road. They were carrying spades and singing a song. As they sang ‘Got no work to do’ they waived their spades on which was written the words “Relieve the distressed poor” in chalk.

Several people did part with money, although the constable felt they were often in worse straights than the three river workers. It was also suggested that there was more than a air of menace about the way they presented themselves and how they persuaded passers-by to help them.

After they had been shaken down at the police station six shillings and eleven pence was discovered so they had managed to extract a small amount of loose change from the Southwark locals at least. Mr Combe was not inclined to leniency in this case; he saw the men as imposters – and declared ‘he would not be doing his duty if he didn’t send them to prison’.

And prison was where they went next, sentenced to seven days hard labour in the house of correction. That seems to have come as something of a shock to the three of them, who perhaps hoped for help not brickbats. Mr Combe was making it quite clear that this was a society who helped those it deemed deserved it and these three ‘hearty’ fellows from Horselydown did not fit that description.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, January 24, 1861]