A cab driver hits rock bottom as he plunges into the Thames’ polluted waters.

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Constable William Hanson (103F) was on duty on Waterloo Bridge when a hansom cab pulled up. Nothing unusual in that of course but what followed was.

The driver leapt down from the cab, rushed to the side of the bridge and then, before PC Hanson could react, threw himself over the side. The officer shouted for help as he heard the splash, and charged down the steps to the riverside.

Charles Field’s life must have swirled around him as he plunged into the Thames’ murky waters and poisonous waters. In July and August of that year the pollution in the Thames, always bad, had reached new heights, as raw sewage emptied into the river in unprecedented quantities bring death and disease in its wake. The ‘Great Stink’ closed Parliament and forced the authorities to take action. Eventually new sewers were designed and built and a monument to their creators, Charles Bazalgette, can still be seen on London’s Embankment.

This was all in the future as Charles Field struggled and sank through the filthy waters. Twice he touched the riverbed before rough hands lifted him clear and into a boat. A waterman had been passing under the bridge at just the right moment, heard the splash, and pulled his oars hard to reach the drowning man.

Between them the waterman and the policeman managed to save the cab driver’s life and PC Hanson helped him to Charing Cross Hospital where he remained for the best part of two weeks as he recovered.

Attempting suicide was a crime however, and so, on the 2 November 1858, Charles Field was set in the dock at Bow Street and formally charged. Having heard the circumstances Mr Jardine, London’s most senior magistrate,  asked him to explain himself.

Field was full of regret for his actions and said he never intended to ‘destroy himself’.  For weeks he had suffered with ‘rheumatic gout’ and that had affected his ability to work. Since he couldn’t take his cab out his family suffered, and his wife was ‘afflicted with paralysis’ so she was unable to help either.

It was desperate but with no social security or health service to fall back on there was little Charles could do but carry on. The 50 year-old cut a sad figure in the dock, looking ‘extremely ill’ and clearly at his wits end. He said that on the day he jumped he had finally managed to go out in the cab, things looked like they might start to improve at last.

But then disaster struck. He was so far behind with his rent that his landlord turned them all out on the street and seized his furniture and effects. His brother gave them a room but he had no money for food. Field went out with his cab but had a ‘bad day’, took little money and found himself on Waterloo Bridge facing the prospect of going home empty handed.

Which is why something broke inside him and he decided to take his own life.

The magistrate turned to the police constable and asked him whether all of this was true. It was, PC Hanson confirmed. He had made enquiries and discovered that the defendant’s wife and children were ‘actually starving’. Given this, and Field’s very obvious remorse, Mr Jardine said he would not punish him. He reprimanded him, reminding the cab driver that suicide was a crime as well as a sin, but discharged him. He ordered that Charles Field be given 10s from the poor box ‘for his present relief’ and told him to ‘call again’ if he needed further help.

Charles Field was a working man; he’d probably been a cab driver for many years. Tough work, driving a cab in all weathers, rarely having a day off, putting up with abuse from customers and other road users. His wife was sick, his children hungry, he had a mountain of responsibilities and no means of support. He got no sick leave, no holiday pay, no unemployment benefit if he couldn’t work, no means to get credit to pay his bills. Like many poor Victorian Londoners when the fragile house of cards he had built came tumbling down he and his family were tipped into poverty.

This is why we have a system to help those that need it. Whether it be medical care that is free at the point of need, or state benefits for periods of unemployment or when work is short. This doesn’t always help of course: those working in the so-called ‘gig economy’ are rarely guaranteed pay and self-employed men like Charles Field still suffer by comparison to those of us that enjoy the benefits of sick pay and annual leave allowances.

That is why the rights of workers matter so much, and why our modern British social security system should be a source of pride, not something for politicians and wealthy press barons to sneer at and undermine.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, November 03, 1858]

Two girls go ‘a thieving’ in a long lost Strand arcade

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The Lowther Arcade, Strand 

If you are familiar with Piccadilly in central London then no doubt you are familiar with its grand arcades. Arcades like this used to exist in many British cities but few retain the grandeur of those near the Royal Academy and Fortnum and Mason’s on Piccadilly. In the 1840s London had a similarly elegant arcade on the Strand, now long lost (being demolished in 1904 to make room for Coutts Bank).

The Lowther Arcade was praised by John Tallis in London Street Views as:

‘short, but for beauty will vie with any similar building in the kingdom; its architecture is chaste and pleasing; its shops well supplied, tastefully decorated, and brilliantly illuminated at night. It forms a pleasant lounge either in the sultry heat of summer or the biting cold of winter’.

It was very popular with small children because at one end there was first a science exhibition and later a puppet show and other ‘amusements’. It housed just 24 shops, but all ones of the finest quality and while such shops attracted customers with deep pockets they were also a magnet for thieves.

In early July 1846 Mary Anne Gordon and Anne Brown were brought up before the Bow Street magistrate charged with shoplifting in the arcade. They’d been remanded for the past week while the the case was looked into and witnesses found.

Gordon was represented in court by a lawyer (a Mr Woolf) but Brown was on her own. The case was brought by a Mr West, who ran a shop in the arcade with his wife. He told Mr Jardine (the magistrate) that the young women had approached his shop while his wife was serving a customer. Gordon had picked up a brooch, brought it out to the door, examined it and then thrown it on the ground. West, who was stood outside, remonstrated with her and she moved away.

It was a classic distraction, because while West rebuked Gordon the other thief entered the shop and pocketed some items. Realising what had happened West set off in pursuit but it took him awhile to find them because they’d split up. When he did he saw a brooch in the hands of Anne Brown and called the beadle over to arrest her. A fight broke out as the women tried to escape but between them West and the beadle managed to take them into custody.

Mrs West was cross-examined by Gordon’s lawyer and the justice and she floundered a bit. She said she couldn’t be sure she’d seen Gordon or Brown take anything at all, nor was she completely sure of their identity because they were dressed very differently when they’d come into the shop. Shoplifters did often ‘dress up’ to ‘go a thieving’ in the nineteenth century, especially women. If they looked like any other ‘respectable’ customer they were much less likely to attract attention and suspicion.

In the end Mr Jardine decided that there was insufficient evidence to send Mary Anne Gordon for trial but Brown was not so lucky; she was committed for trial at the next Middlesex Sessions where she would have to take her chances with the jury.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, July 02, 1846]

Drew’s new book (co-authored by Andy Wise) is published by Amberley Books. It is a new study of the Whitechapel murders of 1888 which offers up a new suspect, links the ‘Jack the Ripper’ killings to the unsolved ‘Thames Torso’ crimes, and provides the reader with important contextual history of Victorian London. The book is available on Amazon here

A lucky counterfeiter or a young man with deeper problems? Mercury and bad money at Bow Street

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William Collins was lucky. In 1841 he had a brush with the law that might have ended in a quite serious prosecution and, most likely, a prison sentence. As it was the sitting magistrate at Bow Street chose to believe his version of events over that of the police, and he walked out of court a free man. With a different magistrate, and in previous decades, he may not have been so fortunate.

Collins was charged with passing counterfeit money (‘uttering’ as it was often described). He had entered a butcher’s shop in Charles Street and attempted to pay for a ‘quarter pound of beef’ with a ‘bad’ fourpenny piece. The butcher (George Garland) rejected the young man’s coin and demanded another. Colins produced a shilling and a sixpence from the same pocket and handed them over. Garland carefully examined each, told him the shilling was also ‘bad’ but accepted the sixpence. Collins left with his supper and 2din change.

Next he went to the Anchor and Crown pub in King Street and ordered a pint of beer. When Edward Hoey the landlord asked him to pay he handed him the shilling that had been refused earlier. Hoey refused it and Collis tried another coin, a halfpenny which was fine. He drank his pint and left.

Some moments later a man approached the bar and spoke to the landlord. He asked if a person fitting Collins’ description had been in and when he was told he had said he had him under surveillance for some time. The man was an early police detective named Roberts and having been informed that his quarry was  close by he rushed off after him, arresting him soon afterwards and taking him to the nearest police station.

Detective Roberts questioned his prisoner and sent for the landlord and the butcher. On the following Saturday both men and the detective were in court to give evidence against Collins.

The young ‘strenuously denied’ knowing that the money was counterfeit and was very clear about how he had acquired it. He can’t have come across as a criminal and Mr Jardine seemed ready to believe he was innocent. The justice asked the policeman who’d searched him at the station whether any other ‘bad’ coins had been found on him. The constable replied that none had but the lad did possess a bottle of quicksilver, which he kept in the same pocket as his money. The quicksilver (mercury) would have tarnished the coins he owed. This seems to have convinced Mr Jardine of his innocence although the other witnesses were less sure that they hadn’t narrowly avoided being ripped off by a fraudster. They insisted the coins were fake.

So the magistrate sent the constable off with the coins to be tested by a nearby jeweler. The expert opinion was that the coins were indeed ‘genuine, but discolored in consequence of being placed with quicksilver’. The magistrate turned to the young man in the dock and apologized to him for having held him in custody while the facts were checked. He said he hoped he understood that while he was now cleared of any suggestion of criminal behavior the ‘affair [looked] very suspicious’ based on the witnesses produced in court.

But why might Collins have had a phial of mercury on his person? In the 1800s there were plenty of uses for a metal that we would be rather concerned to find someone wandering the streets of London with. Mercury is highly toxic. However in the Victorian period plenty of substance we would consider dangerous were readily available and used in everyday operations at home and at work.  Collins might have been self-medicating with mercury; it was used as disinfectant, diuretic and even as a laxative.

At points in history mercury was used to treat syphilis, a disease that was rife in nineteenth-century London. However, the treatment could be as bad as, worse even, than the disease itself. Mercury can induce mental illness (that was the – possibly apocryphal – story behind Lewis Carroll’s ‘Mad Hatter’ – as mercury was used in the manufacture of hats) and cause other, physical, problems for the user.

So perhaps William Collins wasn’t that lucky after all?

[from The Morning Post, Monday, May 03, 1841]

The problem of syphilis and its treatment is something I cover in my new co-authored book on the Whitechapel (‘Jack the Ripper’) murders. This is published by Amberley Books on 15 June this year. You can find details here:

“I think you are in my seat sir”: A Row in the Dress Circle

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Today if you decide to go to see a West End show, concert or play you will always buy tickets, usually in advance, and sometimes on the door. The tickets will indicate where your seat is and that seat is yours regardless of whether you choose to sit and watch the performance of spend the entire evening propping up the bar. We might imagine it was ever thus but this story from October 1855 reveals that while you might pay to access a certain section of the theatre buying a ticket did not necessarily guarantee a particular seat.

Henry Burroughs and William Horner had decided to spend a night at the Drury Lane Theatre. They had paid to sit in dress circle and had occupied seats in one of the boxes there. They’d arrived around seven o’clock but at some point after that had gone down to the bar for some refreshment. When they returned (at about nine) with a friend they found two men sitting in their seats.

They politely asked the newcomers to leave but were (just as politely) rebuffed:

‘If the box-keeper says they are yours, we will give them up’, William Burt (one of the two occupants) replied, otherwise he was staying put. The theatre assistant (the ‘box-keeper’) was called over but assured them that no one had asked him to mind the gentlemen’s’ seats. Nor had any of the theatre-goers in the neighbouring seats. As far as William Burt (and his friend Seymour, a City solicitor) the seats were vacant and they were entitled to sit there.

Burroughs and Horner thought otherwise however and one of them leant foreword and grabbed Burt by his shirt collar, pulling his head back. His companions joined in and a fight broke out between the five men. The theatre erupted into chaos and the playhouse’s inspector was summoned. With some difficulty all the men were arrested and led away so the performance could continue in peace.

The next day Burroughs and Horner, ‘smartly-dressed young men’, were presented at Bow Street Police court to answer for their actions. They complained that they were the victims in all this: they’d only vacated their seats for a ‘few minutes’ and others had unfairly occupied them. They’d politely requested them to leave but they hadn’t. The row was regrettable but not entirely their fault.

Inspector Hancock from the theatre said he’d never had such a dreadful disturbance in all his four years of service. Nor was it normal for the box-officers to reserve seats in the outer circle, you took your chance and the men should have asked others to keep their seats for them while they sought refreshment. Mr Jardine the sitting magistrate agreed. While the fight had involved all five of them it was Burroughs and Horner that had started it and so he fined them 40s each, which they paid.

So next time you are sitting in a West End theatre make sure you are sitting in the right seat but if someone is in yours, be careful to ask the attendant to make them move.

[from Reynold’s Newspaper, Sunday, 21 October, 1855]

Did you steal my pineapple? Shady goings on at the Royal Horticultural Show

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There was an annual horticultural show in Chiswick in the nineteenth century. Exhibitors displayed their plants and produce and there seems to have been an especially good array of fruit, some of it quite exotic. However, the trustees of the Horticultural Society of London had been aware form some time that certain exhibits were being stolen, to then be sold in London’s markets. When this happened again in 1842 they decided to do something about it.

One exhibitor, Mr Henderson of Collorton Hall (possibly Coleorton in Leicestershire) had sent seven pineapples to the show, one of which he’d earmarked as a potential prize winner. The exotic fruit was placed in a jar on a stand that belonged to another exhibitor, a Mr Chapman, but there was no doubt that everyone knew the pineapple was Mr Henderson’s, and he’d even marked it on its base.

The fruit was declared a winner, just as was predicted, but before it could be awarded its prize it disappeared! Someone had stolen the winning fruit, and so investigations were made.

Every year Henderson sold his fruit at Covent Garden to a fruiterer named Dulley. This year he’d promised Dulley seven pineapples but only six were handed over. Then, a day after the fruit vanished, an older man turned up at Covent Garden and offered Dudley a single pineapple for sale. The old man was Chapman’s father and the fruit was the missing ‘pine’ from the horticultural show.

The whole case ended up before Mr Jardine at Bow Street who seems less than happy that such a trivial thing had been brought to trouble him. Nevertheless he listened as witnesses testified to the fruit being found to be missing, and to its being offered for sale. One witness, a Fleet Street watchmaker called Dutton, testified that he had seen Chapman talking to a man at the gardens and negotiating the sale of the fruit. The pair shared a bottle of wine, which seemed to be a part of the bargain that was struck. Mr Dudley said he had paid 12s and a bottle of wine for the pineapple but he hadn’t realised it was not Chapman’s to sell.

Mr Jardine declared that while it was clear that the pineapple was Henderson’s to sell, not Chapman’s, so long as the money or fruit found its way to the right person he was confident no actual crime had taken place, and he dismissed the case. The society were more keen to have raised the issue as a warning that in future people should not think to steal from their show. It was hardly the crime of the century though, and I suspect it served more to amuse readers than to send them into a panic that the traders at Covent Garden were dealing in stolen fruit and vegetables.

As a postscript it does reveal just how expensive a luxury item such as a pineapple was in the 1840s. This one was sold at 9s in the pound and, as he said,  Dulley paid 12 (plus a bottle of wine of course). That equates to about £36 today. If you want to buy a pineapple now it will cost around £1-£2 which shows how much has changed in the global food market.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, July 18, 1842]

The polluter pays in an early version of the ‘clean air’ act.

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On Friday, July 6 1855, a foreman operating one of the companies of river boats on the Thames appeared in court at Bow Street. Henry Styles was charged under an Act for the Prevention of Smoke in the Metropolis (or more properly, the Smoke Nuisance Abatement (Metropolis) Act 1853), which was the first attempt to tackle the problem of air pollution in the UK.

The company Styles worked for ran ‘halfpenny steam-boast’ between London Bridge and the Adelphi (or what would now be the Embankment) so their route is replicated today by the modern Thames Clippers. Styles explained that he was in court on behalf of the captain of the Curlew, the boat that had been accused of breaking the terms of the act. He told the Bow Street justice, Mr Jardine, that he would be pleading guilty to the charge.

Mr Bodkin, the counsel for the prosecution, was not content to let the matter rest however because, as he went to explain, this was not the first time that the Curlew’s captain, Thomas Shearman, had broken the law in this regard.

‘the boat in question had repeatedly been cautioned before any proceedings were taken…  [but still] the nuisance was permitted to continue, and thick volumes of black smoke were suffered to escape from the funnel in open defiance of the law, to the disgust and annoyance of all whose avocations took them to the vicinity of the river’.

Moreover, Bodkin, continued, none of this was necessary. A ‘very simple apparatus’ used by other steam boats that worked the river could have been deployed on the Curlew.  The company had even fitted it to some of their other vessels but not this one. So the captain could not plead ignorance, or argue that nothing could be done. The act had been in place for over a year and so their was simply no excuse for non-compliance with it.

The foreman agreed and said they had been experimenting with a device but so far it wasn’t working properly. The only way they could avoid the noxious smoke that polluted the river was to ‘use more expensive coal’, and they evidently didn’t want to do that all the time.

They were evading the act and hoping they wouldn’t get caught and having found themselves in court they tried to ‘come clean’ and hope for mitigation. In doing so they probably avoided a heavy fine as Mr Jardine imposed one of just £3, at the bottom end of the scale available to him. Styles was warned that the nuisance must stop however, or further charges and penalties would follow.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, July 07, 1855]

Beware Greek numismatists that show an interest in your collection

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On Thursday 5 April 1849 a young Greek (or possibly Austrian) man appeared at the Bow Street Police court charged with theft. It wasn’t his first appearance and it was not to be his last. It was part of series of pre-trial hearings that demonstrate the work that the Police magistrates did in shaping cases before they came before a judge and jury at the Old Bailey. Eventually, in May of the same year the accused pleaded guilty and received a sentence of transportation.

So what exactly was he accused of doing?

At the end of March Timonion Ulasto (variously written as Vlasto) was placed in the dock at Bow Street charged with stealing ‘a number of valuable coins from the British Museum’. One of the museum’s assistants, a Mr C Newton, told the magistrate that Ulasto had been introduced to him by ‘a personal friend’ and so he came with good credentials.

Ulasto professed to have a serious interest in the coins collection, especially Roman coins. He was also an acquaintance of General Charles James Fox, a notable collector. Fox’s name gained him almost unlimited access to the museum’s collection and he busied himself examining nearly everything they had.

On Saturday 24 March some members of staff began to have their suspicions about the coin enthusiast and started to watch him a little more closely. On the Monday these fears were realised. Whilst searching the room a catalogue ticket was found on the floor; this referred to a ‘certain coin of great value’ which was soon discovered to be missing.

The museum was reluctant to directly accuse Ulasto of theft since he had arrived with such good ‘introductions’, but as several more items disappeared over the next few days they decided to act. Mr Newton went to the police, who then applied to the magistracy for a search warrant, which was duly granted. Ulasto was reluctant to allow the search but when his premises were turned over coins to the value of £3,000 (about £175,000 in today’s money) were discovered in a drawer. Some of the items were identified (by catalogue tickets Ulasto had taken away) as belonging to the museum but others probably came from private collectors, General Fox among them.

Bail was refused (understandably) and Ulasto was remanded in custody, having declined to have an interpreter translate for him; it was common (particularly at Marylebone and the courts in the East End) for interpreters to appear to help defendants or prosecutors that had a poor or no command of English but the coin enthusiast was a well educated man who required no such assistance.

A few days  later he was back up before the Bow Street magistrate, this time he was represented by a lawyer, as were the museum. General Fox was also represented in court so his interests could be looked out for.

The theft had shaken the authorities at the museum who had convened an extraordinary meetings of the directors, at which no less a figure than Sir Robert Peel (the former Prime Minister and, of course, the founder of the metropolitan Police) had attended. They set up an investigation in to what had happened and to discover exactly how many, and what value of coins, had been stolen.

The court was crowded – Bow Street was always the most popular court as it was the most senior, but this was an exciting and intriguing ‘crime news’ story. General Fox was there, as was the principal librarian of the British Museum, Sir Henry Ellis, Lord Enniskillen.

Also in court that day was detective Inspector Charles Field, the inspiration behind Dickens’ character of Inspector Bucket in Bleak House. Three years after the Ulasto case Charles Dickens wrote of his experience of joining Field on duty and watching him work.  The inspector had executed the warrant to search Ulasto’s rooms and he was also investigating a series of other coin robberies in which the Greek featured as the most likely suspect. He asked for a further remand while he continued his inquiries.

Ulasto’s counsel requested that his client either be tried or released on bail but Mr Jardine, the magistrate, refused. He told the lawyer that the case was too serious to risk allowing ball and Timonion was again returned to prison.

He was again brought before the justice on the 10 April and again Field requested (and was granted) a further remand. On the 17 April he was up again; the newspapers gave a brief summary of what had occurred previously (although one imagines their readers were following the story fairly closely) and now the value of the items missing had risked to nearer £4,000.

The museum was able to provide evidence (from ‘sulphur casts’ made of the items it held) that the coins found at Ulasto’s lodgings were indeed their property. It was agreed that he should be further remanded until May.

Now the prosecution switched to General Fox who brought a separate charge for the theft of his property. No less than 71 coins produced in the court were from the general’s collection he said, and had been taken some time after he had first met Ulasto back in January at Fox’s London home at 35 Hill Street,  Mayfair. The magistrate bound General Fox over to prosecute and the supposed coin thief was returned to his cell.

And that, it would appear, was that for the Police Courts. It is likely that Ulasto came up once more , to be formally committed for trial, but the papers don’t seem to have reported it. His case was heard, as we know, on May 7 1849 and he chose to plead guilty (to the theft of over £6,000 worth of coins – a huge amount, probably close to £350,000 at modern prices). If he was hoping for a reduced punishment then he may have been disappointed; the judge sentenced him to be transported to Australia for 7 years.

If Ulasto (first described as a citizen of Vienna) was Greek (as he was thereafter referred to) then I enjoy the irony in his desire to steal Greek and Roman antiquities from the British Museum. After all, the museum ‘owns’ a tremendous amount of other people’s property plundered by British adventurers and empire builders over the course of the 18th and 19th centuries. If a native of Athens wished to repatriate some of his cultural heritage can we really condemn him?

[from Daily News, Saturday, March 31, 1849 The Morning Post, Friday, April 06, 1849]