A beggar fights back and racism rears its ugly head in 1830s London

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Slaves on a West Indian plantation being freed following passage of the Slavery Abolition Act (1833)

Assaults were prosecuted frequently in London’s police courts in the 1800s, and many of them involved attacks on the police or other authority figures. So the violence meted out to Samuel Daniels, a Mendicity Society officer, is, on the surface at least, not particularly notable.  What makes this case – from 1836 – noteworthy is the language used to describe the attack and perpetrator of it. Because, as we shall see, this was shot through with early Victorian notions of race and prejudice.

The Mendicity Society had been founded in 1818 with the intention of preventing begging in London. It gave out alms to those that agreed to move away and brought prosecutions against those that did not. As a charity it relied on donations but was doing very well by the 1820s, to the extent that it drew down criticism that not all of its funds were reaching those it purported to help. By the time this case came before a magistrate at Marlborough Street, the society had acquired a corn mill where some of those swept from the streets could be given work.

Mr Daniels had been looking for beggars in Soho in September 1836 and found Domingo de Sousa. De Sopusa was known to him as an ‘incorrigible vagabond’ and ‘imposter’ and presumably that meant he had tried to ‘help’ him off the streets previously, without success. Now he determined to take him into custody and have him taken before a magistrate to be charged under the Vagrancy Act. He did not count of de Sousa’s resistance however.

The officer was sensible enough to recognize that the beggar was a powerful man and so enlisted a nearby policeman for support. The presence of the constable failed to have the desired effect and de Sousa declared that:

‘Me no go wid mendacity ________!’ and then thumped Daniels hard on his chest.

He grappled with him trying to throw the charity officer the ground as the police tried to pull him off. In the process PC Sullivan received a bite wound which drew blood and the beggar was only subdued when a second constable arrived.

It wasn’t the end of the violence; a few yards down the road de Sousa escaped the clutches of the law and turned on the Medicity man. He through him down so violently that he broke his right leg in two places. He then attacked PC Sullivan, kneeing him in the groin before the other officer managed to secure him once more.

It was clearly a violent attack but it is the language used to describe it that reveals contemporary prejudice.

PC Marchant (the second officer) was ‘attacked with all the activity and ferocity of a tiger’, the report stated. De Sousa ‘sprang away’ and his attack resembled that of a ‘wild beast than of a human being’. While the policeman was ‘strong and resolute’ de Sousa was described in animalistic terms:

‘His physiognomy, which closely resembled an ouran-outang’s [sic] , was hideously distorted; his eyes rolled furiously, and he bit at his opponents, using a kind of growl’.

De Sousa was a ‘black man of horrid aspect and powerful structure’. He was clearly seen as a threat to public safety just as many nineteenth-century people feared that freed slaves would be a threat to their former masters and the communities around the plantations on which they worked.   It seems that rhetoric was in use in London in the 1830s just as slavery was being abandoned after centuries of exploitation.

In 1834 the British parliament finally agreed to abolish slavery in British colonies but the process took another four years to complete. When the slaves were freed they did not rise up and slaughter their former abusers, they went to church to give thanks to God though the religion they had adopted in captivity.

Domingo de Sousa was treated not just as a violent beggar – cause enough to bring him to court – but as a member of an ‘inferior’ and ‘sub-human’ race. Mr Dyer, the sitting magistrate, committed him for trial at the next sessions and as he was led away he had one last blow to strike against his oppressors:

‘Me berry glad me break de medicity’s man’s leg’ he shouted as the gaoler dragged him back to the cells.

[from London Dispatch, Sunday 9 September 1836]

A cheeky guest and a runaway wife: all in a day’s work for the Marlborough Street beak

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Today I shall mostly be at a one-day conference at the Open University near Milton Keynes. For those that don’t know the OU is home to the Centre for the History of Crime, Policing and Justice and some eminent historians of the police such as Clive Emsley, Chris Williams and Paul Lawrence. I’m not speaking but I am chairing a panel, which means I have to stay awake and take notes, so I can ask poignant questions and (most importantly) make sure nobody goes over time. The conference is called The Architecture of the State: Prisons, Courts & Police Stations in Historical Perspective and my panel has two excellent looking talks on courts.

I’ve been spending a lot of time in courts recently, albeit ones convened well over 100 years ago. This morning I’m at Marlborough Street in the year following the creation of the Metropolitan Police, 1830. No policemen feature in either of the cases I’m looking at today which probably reflects the fact that Londoners were still getting used to the idea of turning to them when a crime occurred.

When William Grant knocked at the door of Mr William Holmes MP in Grafton Street the footman let him in. After all he was ‘fashionably dressed’ and had asked to see Lady Stronge, the politician’s wife. William Holmes was a Conservative member of parliament for Grampound in Cornwall, a rotten borough which returned two MPs before the Great Reform Act of 1832 swept such corrupt practices away. Lady Stronge was the widow of Sir James Stronge, an Irish baronet who had died in 1804, and she was 10 years older than her second husband.

Grant was asked to wait in the dining room while the footman went up to announce him. While he waited he pocketed three silver spoons from the sideboard. He was discovered as he ascended the stairs because the footman heard them clanking his jacket. He was taken before Mr Dyer at Marlborough Street who remanded him in custody.

Earlier that session Mr Dyer had a strange request for help from ‘an elderly gentleman’ about his missing wife. The man, whose name was kept out of the newspapers, told the justice that about a month ago his wife had left home complaining of ill health. She had promised him that she would go to the country, to visit to her friends, and presumably to take the air and recover.

She’d not been gone long however when he realized that a ‘considerable quantity of valuable property’ had disappeared as well. The old man wrote a letter to her relatives to ask after her and received a reply that they hadn’t seen her for ages!

The poor man now made some enquiries and discovered that she was living in St John’s Wood with another man. Far from retiring to the county for the good of her health she’d run off to begin an adulterous relationship with a younger man. He had tried to see her but was prevented from doing so. His only contact had been when he saw her walking with her new beau on Fleet Street.

The elderly husband was clearly at his wits end but laboring under the misconception that his wife had been abducted and so he asked Mr Dyer for his help in rescuing her. The magistrate explained that there was little he could do in this situation but if he truly believed that  she was bring held against her will then he could apply for a writ of habeas corpus and serve it on his rival. Satisfied with this answer the old man left the court, no doubt in search of a lawyer.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, May 17, 1830]

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:

One in the eye for a foreign national in London

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Mr (or perhaps Monsieur)  Goughenheim was strolling along Bear Street near Leicester Square in mid August 1839 with an English friend (named Richardson) when he noticed a man across the road that he recognised. Goughenheim was a translator and he’d spotted one of his former clients, Jean Jaques Covin, who happened to owe him money for his services.

Crossing the road, Goughenheim hailed the man and demanded he honour his debt. Covin was literally taken aback, and took a moment to step backwards before lifting his cane and aiming an attack at the translator. It was a vicious assault and caught Goughenheim in the eye, seemingly popping it.

Richardson grabbed hold of the assailant and he was quickly given into he custody of the police with the help of some passers-by. It took some time to come to court (because of the victim’s injuries) but eventually the case was heard before the Marlborough Street Police magistrate in early September, 1839.

There several witnesses gave evidence but were unable to comment on what was factually said because the entire exchange had been in French.  One was able to testify however, that:

as he ‘was passing a portion of the aqueous humour [from Gugenheim’s eye] fell upon his clothes, and at first he thought the prisoner had squirted water over the prosecutor, until he saw that his eye was totally destroyed‘.

The justice, Mr Dyer, was pretty clear that this was too serious a case for him to deal with  summarily. Covin, through his solicitor, denied any attempt to injure the other man, saying he thought he’d been assaulted himself when Gougenheim placed his hand on his shoulder to get his attention in the street. He accepted he’d raised his stick but never meant to hurt Gougenheim. His solicitor asked Mr Dyer to be lenient and to fine his client rather than send it up through the system.

Gougenheim challenged Covin’s version of events and insisted he’d not acted aggressively himself. Probably on the strength of this and the seriousness of Gougenheim’s injury, the magistrate decided he would commit the Frenchman for a full jury trial. There would still be an opportunity for this to be settled however, if Covin offered to pay the translator what he owed him and added compensation for the injury he might have escaped an embarrassing public trial and a potential prison sentence.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, September 3, 1839]

Ever fallen in love with someone you shouldn’t have fallen in love with? (especially a queen)

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Queen Victoria in the Royal Box of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane (after the oil painting by E. T. Parris, 1837)

At Christmas 1837 the young Queen Victoria had been on the throne for just six months. She was not to marry until 1840 and so remained an object of desire, and for one person at least, a fantasy. James Ash was certainly smitten by her. He had visited Windsor and caught a glimpse of the eighteen year-old monarch and had fallen her over heels in love with her. It would do him no go at all.

Sadly for James he was a pretty unsuitable candidate. He was ‘about forty years of age, rather ill-favoured and something above the mechanic class’, as the reporter at Marlborough Street Police court described. He had been brought into court at the request of the parish authroories of St Giles who wanted to send Ash to a lunatic asylum.

Mr Dyer, presiding as magistrate on the 22 December 1837, was unclear why he was being asked to adjudicate in this case. It would normally, he said, be a decision for ‘a medical man’ whether someone was sent to an asylum or not.

victoria-jenna-louise-colemanA surgeon gave evidence to say that Ash was, by all accounts quite normal and rational with the notable exception that he had declared not only that he was love with the queen but insisted that his affections were returned in full.

Mr Dyer questioned Ash about his lifestyle. Did he drink? Not at all, Ash insisted. Was he married or otherwise involved with any other woman? Ash declared that he:

‘was deeply in love with her Majesty , and he had the happiness of knowing that the passion was mutual’.

I suspect at this point the magistrate was convinced of the man’s delusional state but he asked him to continue. Had he expressed his affection by letter perhaps? He hadn’t but as  soon as the queen and her ministers had completed the ‘arduous task of setting the Pension and Civil Lists he should apply to them for suitable provision, in order that he might be enabled to throw himself at the feet of her Majesty’.

Mr Dyer had no intention of letting James Ash anywhere near the young queen and was entirely satisfied that he was ‘mad’. He signed  a warrant  to have Ash confined in the Hanwell lunatic asylum* where he might tell his story to all the other residents until the authorities there decided it was safe or expedient to let him go.

I suspect that might have been some time in the future. Meanwhile Victoria married Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha and the couple had nine children who married across the European continent earning the queen the epithet of ‘grandmother of Europe’.  Victoria’s reign was peppered with attempts on her life, the earliest in 1840 when Edward Oxford shot at her carriage as it made its way on Constitution Hill. There were a further six assassination attempts, none of which succeeded. So perhaps Mr Dyer and the St Giles authorities were right to err on the side of caution and lock poor James away.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, December 23, 1837]

*For more about the asylum at Hanwell see Mike Paterson’s post for the London Historians blog.

A young man is ‘saved’ by a clever use of the legal system

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A curious case today, where the intention of the prosecutor may well have been something quite different than it at first appeared.

The defendant was a woman named Mary Ann Downes and she had been brought to the Marlborough Street Police Court on a charge of assault. Two gentlemen had first presented themselves before Mr Dyer the sitting justice, to request a warrant. One of the men explained that his brother:

‘a young man of rather weak intellect, had got connected with the woman, and had left his friends, who were persons of station and property, to live with this woman, who so completely got him under control that she will take care that he will have no intercourse with his relatives’.

I’m sure it was not the first or the last time that a young man friends and family had taken exception to his choice of partner, but he was over age (22) and quite able, one would think, to decide things for himself. Unless that is, the term ‘weak intellect’ suggested that he was more seriously mentally ill or particularly stupid.

Either way the two men were determined to separate their friend and brother from the woman and turned up at his house at 8 Bidborough Street in a post chaise with the intention of taking him away to the country. Mary Ann was having none of it however.She remonstrated with them and would not let them in; when they pressed their case she hit them.

Perhaps this was their intention all along because now they had a case for accusing her of assault and Mr Dyer issued the warrant.  A hackney carriage was despatched – this time with an officer of the court (Mr Carter) on board – to execute the warrant and bring Mary Ann in.

Sometime later it returned with the accused woman and a very disheveled officer. Carter  was ‘in a violent perspiration, and the woman’s dress and appearance indicated that a severe struggle between them had occurred’. This had been no easy arrest.

Carter, on oath, told the court that Mary Ann had resisted arrest and had put up such a struggle that he was forced to call a policeman to help him. Mr Dyer turned to the woman and demand to know why she had assaulted the officer.

‘I did not know what he came for’ she replied.

‘I exhibited the warrant’ grumbled the officer, clearly still suffering from the encounter with this formidable woman.

‘You did not’, she retorted, ‘you pulled and dragged me about very much, and would not let me lock up my drawers or my drawing room’. She then added: ‘the warrant was for the purpose of getting me out of the way, so they might take away my husband, Mr Downes, who is not capable of taking care of himself or his property’.

Mary Ann was described as ‘bony and thin’ and an ‘altogether vulgar character’. Her age was put at 35 so she was much older than her ‘husband’ (if they were indeed married). The magistrate bailed her for the assault but noted that the two men who had requested the warrant had not returned to prosecute. In all likelihood Mary Ann was correct in her accusation that the warrant was a ruse; regardless of whether she had hit or assaulted anyone the two gentlemen had used the summary court system to extricate a young man from a domestic situation   that they clearly believed was detrimental to his health, wealth and social position.

One can only imagine the fury that Mary Ann Downes might unleash if she ever got to see him or the two men ever again.

[from The London Dispatch and People’s Political and Social Reformer, Sunday, September 2, 1838]