A brave man saves a young life

Rotherhithe early 1811

William Whitlock was a brave man and a humanitarian; someone who was prepared to risk his own life to save others. While we should always be sensible about wading in to disputes or rushing into burning houses to rescue people I would hope our society still has people like William in it. Sadly, if the reports from some of the emergency services are to be believed, we have become a society that would rather record an accident or calamity on our mobile phones than take an active role in helping out.

William lived at 1 Canal Row, Albany Road close by the banks of the Surrey Canal. The canal was built in the early nineteenth century to transport cargo to the Surrey Commercial Docks and its long towpath provided opportunities for recreation and for those with darker intentions.

On the evening  of Tuesday 20 August 1844 William was walking along the canal, as he often did, when he heard raised voices ahead. Two young people, a man  and a woman, were arguing. The woman saw him and ran over.

‘For God’s sake, Sir’, he pleaded, ‘use your endeavours to prevent that young man [indicating the other person] from destroying himself, for he has threatened to drown himself’.

William spoke to the man and advised him to go home. The other, whose name was Edward Hornblow, was clearly distressed and perhaps a little under the influence of alcohol, at first seemed to agree and started to walk away. Then suddenly he turned and ran headlong towards the canal, leaping into the water.

At that point the canal was about 8-9 feet deep and Edward disappeared into the depths. William stripped off his jacket and dived in after him. He was a strong swimmer and he needed to be because as he surfaced the young man grabbed hold of him, suddenly desperate to live. At first the pair sunk like a stone but when they came back up gasping for air, William managed to drag himself and Edward to the canal bank. By then the woman had got into the water where it was shallower and together she and Mr Whitlock struggled but got Edward to safety.

Edward Hornblow was in a sorry state and he was carried, insensible, to the parish workhouse to be treated. The young woman, whose name was kept out of the subsequent newspaper report, was also badly affected by the experience. She suffered ‘violent fits afterwards’.

Two days later William was in court at Union Hall to testify to Edward Hornblow’s attempted suicide. Hornblow had recovered sufficiently but the woman was not in court. William Whitlock said that he had rescued a number of people from the canal and the magistrate asked him if he had ever had a reward for it.   The Humane Society was formed to help prevent suicide and it often gave monetary rewards to those that saved lives. No, William told Mr Cottingham, he had never been rewarded for his actions even though on the previous occasion that he’d leapt into the canal (to save a young woman) he’d had to remain in his wet clothes for hours, and had a caught a chill as a result.

Mr Cottingham now turned his attention to the defendant and asked him why he’d taken the action he had. It was a fairly typical story of unrequited love. William had been ‘paying his attentions’ to the young woman in question and was trying to move their relationship on by discussing marriage. She wasn’t ready or she wasn’t interested. Either way, having taken some ‘Dutch courage’ before he popped the question the young man was sufficiently traumatized by the rejection to attempt his own life. He was sorry for what he’d done and promised not to repeat his actions in future.

The magistrate ended by praising William Whitlock’s heroics and ordered that Edward Hornblow provide financial sureties against any repeat of his behaviour. He would be locked up until these were secured. This case is a reminder that suicide (and its attempt) was fairly common in the 1800s with canal and the Thames being regular scenes of these human tragedies. In many cases the thing that stopped attempts from being successful was the quick and brave actions of passersby, the ‘have a go heroes’ of the nineteenth century. I do hope we haven’t entirely lost that spirit in our modern ‘me first’ society.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, August 23, 1844]

The perils of coming up to ‘the smoke’; highway robbery in the Borough

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John Roots had come to London in the late summer of 1848 to get treatment at Guy’s Hospital. The elderly labourer traveled first to Rochester (four miles form his home), where he caught a stage to London, arriving on the 22 August with 29sto his name. Arriving at the Borough, near London Bridge, he first took himself off to an inn to eat and drink. He stayed till the pub’s clock struck 6 and went off in search of lodgings, as the inn had no rooms available. At that point he had about half his money left having spent the rest on his fare, food and drink.

He was walking in the general direction of the St George’s Circus and as he sat down to rest for a while on Blackman Street, near the gates of the Mint, he met three men who hailed him.

What are you doing here? let us see what you have got about you’, one of them asked him.

Roots ignored them, and then told them to go away. They didn’t, instead they seized him and his inquisitor punched him hard in the face. The others grabbed him as he tried to recover, and rifled his pockets before running off. It was a classic south London highway robbery, and seemingly one carried out by a notorious gang of known criminals.

The Kent labourer’s cries had alerted the local police and very soon Police sergeant John Menhinick (M20) was on the scene and listened to Roots’ description of what had happened. He ran off in pursuit of the gang and managed to catch one of them and Roots later identified the man as the one that had hit him.

Appearing in court at Southwark a week later (Roots had been too sick from his injury and general ill health to attend before) the man gave his name as Edward Sweeny. Sweeny said he had nothing to do with the robbery; he was entirely innocent and had seen Roots lying on the pavement and had tried to help him, but he’d collapsed. When the policeman came up he said he’d told him to run away lest he was blamed for it, which he did.

Sergeant Menhinick dismissed this as rubbish but nothing had been found on Sweeny that could link him to the crime. All the prosecution had was Roots’ identification and given his age, his unfamiliarity with the capital, and his own admission that he’d spent two and half hours in a pub on Borough High Street (and so might have been a little the worse for ale) it wasn’t an easy case to prove.

The magistrate, Mr Cottingham, said that he’d rarely heard of ‘a more desperate robbery’ and declared he intended to commit Sweeny for trial at the Bailey. However, given the poor state of the victim’s health he said he would hold off doing so for a week so he could recover sufficiently to make his depositions.

Eventually the case did come to the Old Bailey where Sweeny was now refereed to by another name: Edward Shanox. Given the poor evidence against him it is not surprising that he was acquitted. Shanox/Sweeny was 21 years old and makes no further appearances in the records that I can see. Perhaps he was a good Samaritan after all, and not a notorious gang member.

As for Roots, he was still left penniless by the robbery and presumably unable to pay his hospital fees, so his future, as a elderly man and a stranger to ‘the smoke’, must have looked bleak.

[from The Standard, Monday, August 28, 1848]

 

 

The odd couple: An unsympathetic pair of thieves in the dock in South London

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I can certainly begin to discern a qualitative difference in the style of Police court reporting over the course of the nineteenth century. The later reports (those from the 1890s in particular) are more ‘serious’ or less inclined to find amusement in the day-to-day happenings at the courts. The very early ones are quite short and factual, more akin to the reporting of crime in the previous century. But the ones around mid century (from the 1840s to the 1860s) show, I think, a desire to entertain. This would fit with the rise of ‘new journalism’ and the beginning of the ‘modern’ newspaper industry in this country.

Several of the cases reported by The Morning Post  on Monday 9 August 1841 have journalistic flourishes: descriptive remarks which are often absent from reports at the end of the century. They also seem partly aimed at provoking an emotional reaction in the reader – of horror, or sadness, shock, or sympathy. Whilst the language is old fashioned the approach seems very ‘modern’. It might, perhaps, reflect the influence of Charles Dickens, whose stories were popular at the time.

The Morning Post regaled its readers with the antics of a group of juvenile thieves who used even younger children to sneak into properties and secrete valuables in bags, which they then carried out to the waiting gang. The idea being that these kids were too young to prosecute, and perhaps so small as be undetected or unsuspected. One other lad (‘a little fellow’ as the paper described him) stole a pair of gloves and slammed a door in the face of his pursuers. When caught he boldly denied the theft saying ‘he never wore such things’ so why would he steal them? He may have got away with this attempted theft (the gloves were found discarded nearby) but two years later George (aged 17) was tried at the Old Bailey for stealing cloth and sent to prison.

Over at Union Hall Police court, south of the river, James Lewis appeared in court alongside his wife Harriet, both of them charged with stealing (James from his employer, a linen draper in Walworth) and Harriet from a local pawnbroker.

The reporter was fascinated by Harriet and gave his readers a pen portrait of her:

The female prisoner, who was dressed in the first style, with satin gown and rich velvet shawl, cut a very curious figure in the dock, when seated amongst a motely group of persons, consisting of low prostitutes and ragged mendicants’.

So we learn, incidentally, that in the early 1840s the prisoners mostly sat together at Union Hall, and weren’t brought up one by one from the cells to be dealt with.

Harriet clearly loved clothes but perhaps her husband’s salary wasn’t sufficient for her to indulge her passion, so she helped herself at the pawnbroker’s expense while he was fetching a waistcoat she had asked him about. Mr Cottingham committed for trial by jury at the Surrey assizes. During the trial she ‘appeared dreadfully excited, and wept bitterly’ as the details of the case were described. She protested her innocence and seems to have convinced the jury that it was all a mistake, she never intended to steal anything and they let her off.

As for James, her husband, he had apparently being suspected of stealing from William Wharton’s linen drapery for some time. When his lodgings were searched a great deal of stolen property was discovered, including many shawls. The court heard that James Lewis was paid £40 a year plus board and lodging so the shopman must have come across as an ungrateful thief to the readers of The Morning Post.

I doubt he endeared himself either by then telling the court that he would happily give the names of other employees at Mr Wharton’s who had also been pilfering from him. He said he did it ‘make what reparation he could’ to his master but he probably came across as a sneak to the reading public, and one who was trying to wriggle out of a situation he got himself into because of his greed and that of his wife.

Mr Cottingham issued summonses for the men he named and remanded Lewis is custody to appear with them when they were found. What happened to him I’ve not been able to discover, as he disappears from the records. At the very least I imagine he lost his position and that, along with his wife’s brush with the law, must have undermined their relatively happy existence. For the readers of the The Morning Post then this served as a cautionary tale and a peek into the lives to others, people unlike but then again, just like, them.  Which is often why we like to read the ‘crime news’ after all.

[from The Morning Post , Monday, August 09, 1841]

A returning hero of the Syrian war is robbed and left in a London gutter

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HMS Powerful

In 1840 Britain was embroiled in war in the middle east, fighting at sea off the coast of Syria in the Egyptian-Ottoman War (1839-41). Britain was allied to Turkey and when the the Ottoman fleet surrendered to the Egyptians at Alexandria the Royal navy entered the fray. A naval blockade, led by the British with support from the Austrian Empire, eventually secured a truce and the return of the Turkish vessels. A peace treaty followed in which the chief British negotiator was Admiral Charles Napier who managed to get the Egyptian ruler, Muhammed Ali, to renounce his claims to Syria in return for British recognition of his legitimate right to rule Egypt.

Napier had established his reputation in June 1839 (when he was plain Captain Napier) by bringing his command, HMS Powerful, to the defence of Malta when it was threatened by Egyptian forces. HMS Powerfulan 84-gun second rate ship of the line went on to lay a significant role in the war, being part of the force that bombarded Acre ultimately allowing Allied force to occupy the city.

So the Powerful  and the men that served on her were valorised as heroes and one of those men was Henry Collier, who returned to England in 1841 after being wounded in the conflict. Collier had been treated at the navy Haslar hospital at Gosport ‘in consequence of wounds sustained in actions on the coast of Syria, but by July 1841 he was in London.

As part of his recuperation able-seaman Collier decided he would take in the sights of the capital and headed for the Surrey Theatre with ‘a messmate’. He took his naval kitbag with him which contained some new clothes he had bought in town to ‘take into the country’, and his retirement from service.

Collier found the entertainment boring however, and left the theatre hailing a cab. He got talking to the cabman and the latter invited the sailor to join him and a fellow driver for a few drinks. Soon Collier was on a pub cruise with William Collison and John Stone and quite the worse for drink. He anded over a guinea to Collison to pay for his travel but only got 56s in change, not nearly enough. However by this stage the sailor was ‘so groggy’ that he didn’t really notice.

He was soon abandoned by the pair and when he was found, dead drunk on the street by a policeman, he had no money and no bundle of clothes. He described the men and they were soon apprehend and the whole case was taken before the police magistrate at Union Hall.

When the evidence was presented to him, the magistrate (Mr Cottingham) described it as a ‘scandalous robbery’ and asked if any of Collier’s possessions had been found in the possession of the cab drivers. They hadn’t the police replied, but Collison was discovered to have considerable funds on him, 10s 6d in fact. The cabbie, never the most popular figure in the pages of the Victorian press, claimed that this was simply his daily earnings for his trade. He not only denied stealing the sailor’s money or bundle of clothes but said that when he had picked him up he had nothing but the clothes he stood up in.

Had the sailor already lost his kit bag, was he drunk before he met up with the drivers? Both were possible of course but Collier ‘persisted in the truth of his account’. It was a familiar story of an unwary visitor to the capital being parted from his wealth by the locals and sadly, there was little in the way of proof on either side. It would probably come down to reputation and the appearance of anyone that could verify either of the conflicting accounts. Mr Cottingham therefore chose to remand the cabbies while other witnesses for the prosecution (or defence) could be found.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Monday, July 5, 1841]