‘I should like to go to sea sir’: a boy’s plea for adventure falls on deaf ears

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What are we to make of young John Speller? The teenager was set in the dock at Hammersmith accused of trying to steal several small steam boats (or ‘launches’) that had been moored at Chiswick and Strand-on-the-Green.

John’s MO was to untether  a launch and let it drift out in the current of the river, then attempt to pilot it. He’d tried this on no less than six occasions without much success. On a launch named Zebra he’d even tried to start a fire to get the boiler going so that he could ‘get up a head of steam’.

Sadly for him he had been caught red handed and now faced Mr Paget in the Hammersmith Police court.  The magistrate listened carefully to the Zebra’s owner and engineer, a Mr Faulkner, who testified against the lad adding that as well as trying to pinch the boat he’d caused damage from the misplaced effort to get the boiler going.

He then turned to John and asked him what he had to say for himself. ‘I should like to go to sea’, came the reply.

So should we see John as a frustrated sailor, a boy in search of adventure, or a delinquent who needed a stiff lesson in discipline? Perhaps he got his chance to sail the world eventually; after all London’s docks brought opportunities for travel every day of their week.

But not that week, or the next four. Because Mr Paget (who clearly had no sense of what it was like to be a teenager anymore) sent him to prison for a month for causing damage to the Zebra and for attempting to steal it.

[from The Standard, Monday, June 11, 1888]

Cruelty to a cat, or a dog, or both. Either way Mr Paget and the RSPCA were not happy about it.

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I’m not quite sure what to make of this story so offer it up as an example of how difficult it must have been on occasions, for a magistrate to know who was telling the truth or how he should proceed.

On Friday 4 June 1880 the manager of the Ladbroke Hotel in Notting Hill Gate was brought before Mr Paget at Hammersmith Police court. The defendant, William Gimlett, was represented by a lawyer (a Mr Claydon) and the case was brought by the RSPCA and presented by their lawyer, Mr R Willis.

The matter at hand was cruelty to a cat but there seems to have been some abuse of a dog as well, even though the case turned on the actions of the dog itself. The RSPCA accused Gimlett of cruelty by ‘urging a dog to worry a cat’. According to one or more witnesses the hotel manager was seen trying to get the dog to ‘worry’ a cat, presumably to make it go away but possibly out of simple base cruelty.

One witness testified to seeing Gimlett on the morning of the 13 May outside the hotel. He was allegedly ‘hissing a brown bull dog, which had the cat by the throat’. The cat escaped but only temporarily, the dog soon caught it again, and this tie it dragged it down into the coal cellar where it was discovered, ‘three-parts dead’ by one of the hotel’s footmen.

For the defence Claydon argued that the dog could not have harmed the cat ‘as it had lost its front teeth’. Mr Paget wanted to see for himself and asked the lawyer if he would open the animal’s mouth so he could check the veracity of the defence. The lawyer happily obliged, lifting the dog onto a small table and prizing its jaws open. Presumably satisfied that this wasn’t a dangerous beast the magistrate turned his attention to the barmaid of the hotel who gave evidence to support her manager.

Emily Mawley told the justice that the cat was a stray, and that again may well have meant it was unwelcome and needed to be shooed away. She added that her boss was nervous of the dog since he didn’t know it, and so ‘he threw a brick at it’. Was this intended to incite the dog or scare it away? This bit I find odd and without a more detailed report it is quite frustrating. Especially as the defence lawyer then went on to explain that the dog had been left to the house by a previous landlord and Mr Gimlett had inherited it, taking ‘the dog as one of the fixtures’.

Mr Paget wasn’t convinced by the barmaid’s testimony. He said she had ‘attributed to the defendant a degree of timidity which he would not impute to him’.  He found for the prosecution and fined Gimlett 40swith £1 18scosts. While this was confusing I think it does show the growing effectiveness of the RSPCA by the last quarter of the century. By 1880 they had been around over 50 years and had presumably become adept at bringing cruelty cases.

Given some of the acts of animal abuse which I have seen on social media recently I really hope that modern magistrates are as quick to side with the ‘dumb’ animals as Mr Paget was. After all in 1880 the fine and costs that was awarded against this abuser amounts to about £270 in today’s money but was almost two week’s wages for skilled tradesman then. No small sum at all and so, hopefully, a lesson not to be so quick to harm a stray cat (or dog) in the future.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, June 05, 1880]

P.S in Victorian London pets were popular, just as they are today. The image at the top of the post is of a cats-meat man; someone that sold cheap pet food door-to-door. The meat was horse meat  a  by-product of the horse slaughtering trade and if you are interested in discovering what connection there is between cats-meat, horse slaughtering, and the Jack the Ripper murders of 1888 then you might like to read Drew’s jointly authored study of the killings  which is published on June 15 by Amberley Books. It is available to pre-order on Amazon now

A poor lad is exposed to shame and ridicule by the callous workhouse system

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The Victorian period is synonymous with the harsh treatment of paupers in the workhouse. We draw much of our popular imagery of the workhouse from Dickens (and film and television adaptions of Oliver Twist in particular) and from now fading folk memories of the dreaded ‘house’. There are good late nineteenth century descriptions of the workhouse from men – social reformers and journalists – who visited them, sometimes in disguise. These give us an idea of the deprivations that those forced through poverty to enter them were exposed to.

The newspaper reports of proceedings at the Police Courts of the metropolis are another excellent way to ‘experience’ the reality of these cold and uncaring institutions and assess wider attitudes towards poverty and paupers. On many occasions malingerers and ‘shammers’ were brought before the magistracy to be punished for begging. Vagrants were rounded up by the police and given short sentences by the courts. The Mendicity Society brought prosecutions against those they thought were faking their injuries, and sometimes of course they were right. Just as today not every beggar with a hard luck story is telling the truth. But the courts also helped the poor, handing out small sums of money and, as in today’s case, taking to task or even punishing those that abused paupers in their care.

In late May 1868 the Thames Police court was graced with the presence of the 5th Marquis of Townshend. John Villiers Townshend (whose Vanity Fair caricature can be seen right), was the member of parliament for Tamworth and enjoyed a reputation as ‘the pauper’s friend’. Townshend was a social reforming politician who made it his business to know what was happening in the capital’s workhouses.  He was in court in 1868 to point out the mistreatment of a young lad in causal ward of the Ratcliffe workhouse. mw06374

The young man, who’s name is not given, had been released on to the streets wearing a rough canvas suit of clothes which was printed with the following text:

‘Jack from the country’ (on the back of the jacket) and ‘Lazy scamp’ on one trouser leg.

The intention was clear: when the lad left the ward he would be exposed to ridicule in the streets and, presumably, this was done deliberately to deter him from ever seeking asylum there again. After all one of the driving principles of the poor law was to deter the ‘undeserving’ poor from seeking help from the parish. The workhouse had to be awful, the logic ran, so that the last and feckless would not think of going there. Instead the workhouse was to be a place of last resort, used by the ‘deserving’ or genuinely impoverished who really had no alternatives.

Having been presented with this disturbing scene Mr Paget, the Thames magistrate, sent a runner to bring Wilding, the labour master and superintendent of the Ratcliffe workhouse, to the court to answer for himself. Wilding said he’d followed the rules. The lad had been given food and shelter I the ward but he’d chosen to cut up his own clothes and so had nothing to wear. That’s why he’d given him the rough canvas suit, what else was he to do? He marked the suit accordingly as what he clearly felt was an appropriate punishment.

The pauper explained that the reason he had ripped up his clothes was that ‘that he could not wear them any longer, they were very dirty and covered with vermin’.

Mr Paget took the side of the lad (or perhaps more obviously that of the marquis). He instructed the clerk of the court to send a letter to the Poor Law Board to report the misconduct of the labour master. Lord Townshend said he would also bring the matter up with the board. ‘If paupers were thrust into the streets with such extraordinary comments and inscriptions on their garments it would’, he declared, ‘give rise to inconvenience and breeches of the peace’.

More practically the marquis also undertook to provide the lad with a new set of clothes and a pair of stout boots. The canvas suit would be returned to the Ratcliffe workhouse, hopefully for disposal. The watching public gave him a rousing cheer as he left the courtroom, here was one small victory for the ordinary man over the hated keepers of the pauper ‘bastilles’

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, May 26, 1868]

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

‘I will go faster to ruin if I go with my mother’: teenage defiance as tensions run high in Westminster

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I am not sure what Margaret Brown hoped to achieve when she prosecuted Matthew Max Plimmer for an assault at Westminster Police court. Margaret (a 32 year-old woman who lived in a property on the Brompton Road), explained that her daughter had run off with Plimmer, who was already married, and had been living in sin with him. Anxious to ‘rescue her’ as she put it, Margaret turned up at the house and demanded that her daughter come home with her. Plimmer refused to allow this, remonstrated with the woman and then assaulted her. According to the prosecutrix he ‘seized her, and bit her wrist so it bled’.

The daughter was in court and was interviewed by the magistrate, Mr Paget. She told him she had left Plimmer (a Belgian national who had apparently worked, briefly it seems, for the C.I.D) and had set herself up at digs on the Marylebone Road. She wasn’t doing very well however, and was surviving only by pawning her own clothes.

Mr Paget advised her to go back home to her mother but the headstrong nineteen year-old refused. She would ‘do as she liked’ she told him. In that case ‘she was going fast to ruin’, the magistrate said; why on earth would she not return home?

The young woman offered an ‘insolent’ (but unrecorded) response and said ‘she would go to ruin faster if she went with her mother’.

Ouch.

That was a telling comment on Mrs Brown’s character and her relationship with her daughter. If she had hoped to use the leverage of the court to separate her daughter from a married man (and a foreigner to boot) in an effort get her to return to the fold she had failed. Plimmer was initially remanded for further examination but then released on sureties of £50 to reappear if required.

Mother and daughter went their separate ways.

[from The Standard, Friday, April 11, 1879]

Of billiards, bribery and champagne

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Sergeant Wills and his fellow police officer had arrived at the Hopples pub in King Street, Hammersmith at a quarter past one in the morning on the 16 November 1876. The public house should have been quiet, all the drinkers gone, and the place closed up, but the police were working on information that an after hours session was underway.

Determined to break it up the two men entered the premises and, sure enough, they found a number of people sat around the landlord’s parlour table. The landlord was a Mr Ward and he explained that an important billiards match had been played earlier and that the four men that remained were his guests, and would be ‘leaving directly’.

William Cook was famous in the 1800s. He had won the World Championship many times, taking his first victory in 1870 and dominating the sport until mid century when he was overtaken by John Roberts (himself the son of another professional billiards player). The game (which today is much less well known that snooker or pool) was popular in the nineteenth century and drew an audience of spectators, including on at least one occasion members of the royal family.

Presumably Mr Ward hoped that Sergeant Wills would be impressed that such an illustrious celebrity had been in his establishment and that it would justify the late night drinking session. But the police weren’t in the mood to be impressed and while the landlord pleaded his case the other officer took down the names of all those present so they could issued with summons to appear in the Hammersmith Police court.

Ward’s last attempt was also his worst. He leaned close and whispered in the police sergeant’s ear:

‘You had better have a bottle of champagne, and say no more about it’.

That was an attempt at bribery and Wills wasn’t about to let that pass.

‘No thank you, I want the names and addresses of the gentlemen and I shall report the case’.

And so he did.

On Saturday 2 December Ward and the four men that had been discovered in his parlour all appeared at Hammersmith in front of Mr Paget the sitting magistrate. The policeman set out his case and the landlord was defended by his solicitor, a Mr Child. The defense was that the pub was shut up and no drinks were being sold; the men were simply there after hours as guests.

Mr Paget accepted this and so he dismissed the first summons, that of running the house out of hours. As that prosecution had failed it followed that those against the four gentlemen would also be dismissed which just left the matter of attempting to bribe an officer of the law.

The magistrate was reluctant to punish the landlord; he kept a respectable house and Paget clearly felt the police had overstepped themselves. There was nothing wrong in a man sharing a few drinks with his friends so long as he wasn’t trading at the same time. It was understandable that the men wished to finish the evening discussing the merits of the two players they had just watched compete.

So he imposed a fine of £5 with costs (for the summons) of 56but said he would not record the conviction, so it would not affect Ward’s attempt to renew his license in future. It was a slap down for the police and a justification of sorts for Mr Ward. Importantly, the four ‘gentlemen’ had their names kept our of the papers as well.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, December 3, 1876]

It was a great pity they did not go to school’ : truancy and the Victorian state’s motivation to educate the masses.

RAGGED TRUANTS CAPTURED

Truancy is not a new problem. In the pages of the Thames Police court in the late 1880s huge numbers of parents appear to answer charges of not sending their children to school. Most are fined small amounts and dismissed. It is rare to know why children were not attending school or whether a brush with the law meant that future attendance improved.

In late October 1880 Mr Paget was sitting in judgment at Hammersmith Police court as a number of summonses for truancy were presented to him. They were brought by a superintendent of schools, Mr Cook, who had the power (should the magistrate require it) to place children in Truant Schools for a period of weeks or months. It was generally thought that this (presumably harsher) environment encouraged children to go to normal day schools thereafter.

Of course while it is often assumed that kids play truant because they don’t like school (for all sorts of reasons we better understand today) it was often the parents that kept their offspring at home. Children could help with domestic duties, with the care of younger siblings or elderly or sick relatives, freeing parents to go to work. Children also worked, especially when that was piece work (like making matchboxes or mending shoes or clothes). In short for many poor families children from about 10 were useful in the family economy and weighed against the opportunities presented by a basic education (which were, let’s face it, few) having them at home was probably better.

One mother told the justice that her truant daughter was 12 and had secured a position as a servant, which was why she wasn’t at school. She appeared in court with her youngest child in her arms, as if to emphasize the necessity of moving her children on to make space for the new ones. Another explained that her son had not been to school for nine months because he was needed to take lunch to his father who worked in a brickfield.

In one case the magistrate wanted to know why it was the mother in court when the summons had required the presence of her husband.  He could read she said. Nor could she, or her truant son. Mr Paget declared that ‘it was a great pity they did not go to school’ but adjourned the hearing so the summons could be read and the father given time to attend.

In the end many cases were similarly adjourned while enquires were made into the reasons given (ill-health, lack of money or shoes) for truancy. Mr Cook the schools superintendent said he would try to find places in Truant Schools but few were available. He wanted the parish to build a second one. That would cost money, and money was probably at the root of the problem.

The Victorian state wanted the children of the poor to be educated, up to a point. They wanted them to be better-educated factory hands, soldiers and servants, not educated so they challenged their place in society. This was often moral education that shaped a nation rather than improved the lot of its poorest.

Thankfully (I say, tongue firmly in cheek) we’ve left all that behind…

[from The Standard, Thursday, October 28, 1880]

‘Nothing could be more disgraceful than for a man of your profession to be intoxicated’: An East End clergyman in disgrace.

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Drunkness (often combined with disorderly conduct or incapability) was the most common things for anyone to be prosecuted for at a Metropolitan Police court in the late 1800s. In the mornings (particularly Monday morning) the cells were full of recovering drunks, nursing sore heads and bumps and bruises from falling down in the street. The vast majority of these were fined and released with a flea in their ears from the magistrate, some (those who resisted arrest or had no money to pay a fine) were sent to prison for a few days or weeks. Overwhelmingly they were poor working class men and women.

Henry Hurgill was different.

Hurgil had been found drunk and incapable, lying on the pavement outside the Dog and Partridge pub in Bow Road. PC Robert Clarke (529K) had dragged him to his feet, ascertained that he was hardly able to stand and so had escorted him back to the station to sober up.

When he was presented at Thames Police court the magistrate asked him his profession.

‘I am a clergyman’, Hurgil told him.

‘In holy orders?

‘Yes sir’.

‘And found in this beastly condition, dead drunk?’ Mr Paget demanded.

‘It don’t often happen’, apologized the clergyman, but this only brought more opprobrium down on his shoulders.

‘Often happen, sir?’, the justice thundered. ‘It ought never to happen at all. Can anything be more disgraceful than a drunken clergyman?’

Hurgil tried to say that he only drank occasionally but clearly he was in denial; he was a regular drunk and Mr Paget was disgusted by him. ‘Nothing could be more disgraceful than for a man of the prisoner’s profession to be intoxicated’, he said, and he only wished he had the power to punish him more severely than the law allowed. But his hands were tied and he could only hand down the maximum fine of 5s.

Henry couldn’t pay this however, as he was a clergyman without a ‘duty’ at present. ‘Duty!’ spluttered the justice, ‘I should hope not’. The gaoler led his prisoner back to the cells to hope that his friends had a whip round to keep him out of prison where he was bound to go if the money could not be found.

[from The Illustrated Police News etc, Saturday, October 17, 1868]