What we all need is a right royal knees up

Queen_Victoria's_Diamond_Jubilee_Service,_22_June_1897

Given that the Metropolitan Police courts sat six days a week, every week of the year, and most of them from 9 or 10 in the morning to 4 in the afternoon it is fair to say that the magistrates that presided over them were kept fairly busy.

Mondays were probably the busiest days because the courts dealt with all of those that had been picked up by the police on the preceding Saturday evening and Sunday morning. Most of those charges would have been for drunkenness, disorderly behaviour, or refusing to quit licensed premises (or a mix of all three). There would be a steady stream of wife beaters, pub brawlers, vagrants, unlicensed peddlers, to swell the ranks of the cheats, fraudsters, thieves, burglars and robbers.

The day after a bank holiday could also be particularly busy, as a day off tended to bring Londoners out to the various parks of the capital where drink was enjoyed and inhibitions were left at home. Fights, indecency, bad language, and criminal damage could all become prosecutable offences once the park police moved in to clear trouble makers from the grounds.

So it was something of a surprise to the magistrate at Marlborough Street on the day following Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee in July 1897 that his court was virtually empty. Incredibly where he might have expected the usual caseload of 50-100 defendants to be swelled by those overdoing the celebrations, in fact he had just seven prisoners to process. At 11 o’clock the chief clerk turned to Mr. Plowden and said:

‘That is all’.

The justice ‘looked up in astonishment’ and asked for confirmation that he had no more business that day. He noted that ‘the jubilee seems to have extinguished’ both ‘crime and disorder’ and it was quite remarkable. He then made a point of praising the police (not something often heard from the bench in the 1800s).

‘It is most notable’, he said, ‘that the police have shown themselves the best friends of the public, and the public the best friends of the police’, before leaving his seat and retiring early for once.

The message here might be, if the country is beset by crime and disorder, discord and division, then the ideal thing to do is stage a royal pageant. Nothing brings peace and harmony to British life more quickly than a happy royal occasion. Teresa May should take note.

[from The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, July 3, 1897]

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

Four go wild in Kilburn, until the police spoil their fun

the_boy's_own_paper,_front_page,_11_april_1891

For anyone that has read the Famous Five books, or Swallows and Amazons  this story might chime with memories of childhoods past. Today children seem to be hard wired to televisions, computers, or mobile devices, playing video games or ‘chatting’ with friends via social media. In the past – in the days before ‘technology’ – kids played in the street, built tree houses, and had ‘adventures’.

For the record I’m not sure exactly how trueand of that is, it may yet another myth of a British past that never existed (the same one where everyone could leave their front doors unlocked, you could see a film and get fish and chips all for tuppence, the trains ran on time, and England were good at football).

Whether or not this ‘golden age’ ever existed I do suspect that working-class children and youth had a very different experience of life than their wealthier compatriots. Most working class children in the 1800s would have worked, few would have gone to school beyond a basic primary education, and very few would have enjoyed much in the way of ‘luxuries’. Sadly, it seems, a decade or more of austerity is bringing that experience of the past back to some working class communities today.

Children (in any period of history) will find ways to amuse themselves if they are not otherwise engaged in tasks or education by adults. They will also ape adults, and seek to find space away from adults to act our their own fantasies of life.

Ernest Digwood, George Cronin, James Harwood, and William Wallace (probably no relation) were four small boys intent on creating their own world within the adult one. If they’d lived in the countryside they’d have played in the woods and fields, climbing trees, stealing eggs for nests, swimming in ponds or rivers, and running through corn fields.

But they didn’t grow up in rural Essex, or Buckinghmashire, or anywhere very green at all. Instead they had to make their fun in West London, among the streets and houses of one of the world’s busiest cities. Boys being boys they explored their patch and found an empty house on Kensal Road, at number 174, close to the canal. Today the area has little trace of its Victorian past, rows of modern social housing and warehouse space make this part of London indistinguishable from many others. But in 1892 these four boys found a place to play.

They had established a den, built a fire in kitchen grate and had brought provisions. I say ‘brought’ because they certainly hadn’t ‘bought’ them. The quartet had been out in the surrounding streets and had found a delivery van with an ample supply of food. Helping themselves, they returned to the house with ‘eggs, two loaves [of bread], some sugar, liver, steak, and four bottles of gingerade’. It was a veritable feast but they never got to enjoy it.

Someone must have seen them or heard them in the property and reported it to the police. PC 412X arrived and arrested them, taking them before Mr Plowden at the West London Police court. James Harwood was known to the court, having been in trouble there before. The birching he’d received then clearly hadn’t acted as the deterrent it was intended. He and Ernest were sent to the workhouse, probably to be beaten again. George Cronin and William Wallace were released into the care of their parents but could hardly expect to get away without a slippering from their respective fathers.

They stole and the broke into an empty house, and of course that’s wrong. But at least they had an adventure, which is something, surely?

[from The Standard, Friday, January 15, 1892]

A woman pulls a gun in court

i-fear-no-tramp.jpg

It must have caused quite a stir at Wandsworth Police court when a respectably dressed woman stepped into the witness box and placed a loaded revolver in front of her. Mr Plowden, the sitting magistrate, asked her why she was carrying it and she told it it was for protection against her husband, who had threatened her.

The unnamed lady was ‘respectable’ (which is probably why her name was left out of the paper’s report) but was living away from her partner as he had ‘put her in fear of her life’. Mr Plowden was sympathetic to the woman’s request for protection (which is why she had appeared that day) but advised her to seek legal advice for a formal separation.

He added that carrying a loaded gun around in her handbag was dangerous: for herself, her husband and and the wider public and he cautioned her to leave it at home. The court clerk took the revolver from the lady and extracted the bullets before handing it to a ‘legal gentleman’. She left court in the company of that solicitor to begin the process of legal separation from her man.

Given that this incident took place in November 1888, when across London in the East End a serial killer was stalking victims around Whitechapel it is interesting that no mention of this was made by the press here. After all it might seem quite appropriate for a woman to arm herself for protection, even if, on this occasion at least, the threat she faced was much closer to home. Perhaps the heightened tension caused by the Ripper had prompted her to take such drastic precautions?

[from London Evening Standard, Monday, 5 November 1888]

‘A very miserable story’ of the path to disgrace and ruin for a lady writer in Bayswater

vistorian-women-writers-main

This case is curious because it sheds some light on late Victorian attitudes towards mental health, alcoholism and class.

Mrs Maria Wilkin was the widow of an army officer, a major no less. She was just 53 years of age and lived in rented rooms in Bayswater. It seems she tried to support herself by writing, a precarious way to earn one’s living, especially for a woman in the late 1800s.

She was up before Mr Plowden at Marylebone Police court on a charge of stealing a bottle of brandy from her landlady, Mrs Street. At first the hearing and been postponed so  that Mrs Wilkin could call witnesses in her defence and now, in early December 1893, she had one person to speak for her and a legal advocate.

The case was again presented, and Mrs Wilkin’s defence offered. Her character witness simply said she knew her, but not well. It was hardly a glowing reference and probably reflected the embarrassment the witness felt at being brought into public courtroom to defend someone whose behaviour she found objectionable.

Her barrister told Mr Plowden that Mrs Wilkin received regular visits from her family and was well cared for by them. At this point the accused woman objected, ‘denying she under the care of anybody’. She asserted her independence and  assured the magistrate she could support herself, by writing. Her previous landlady had ben quite happy to let her rent the rooms, so long as the rent ‘was guaranteed’.

‘Well, yes’, said Mr Plowden, ‘there’s the difficulty’. The rent clearly was not guaranteed and Mrs Wilkin was struggling to cope. He said it ‘was a most lamentable and painful’ case.

‘He had heard a great deal about the prisoner and her antecedents, and he did not know whether to blame or pity her, but it was a very miserable story. He had no doubt that she did steal the brandy. In her sober senses she would, no doubt, have shrank from doing such an act. But, under the influence of a craving for drink, she took the bottle of spirits’.

He would prefer it if her relatives would ‘take care of her’, in other words take her away from Mrs Street’s rooms and look after her at home. This would represent a move from independent living into care, something that we all may have to contemplate at one point in our lives, or the lives of our nearest and dearest. For the vast majority of Victorians care was not something they could contemplate; the working classes had the workhouse or the insane asylum, hopefully Mrs Wilkin, as a member of the middle classes, would be able to either continue her independent lifestyle or move in with her extended family.

The alternative was made starkly clear to her by the magistrate however. He would release her on the promise (guaranteed by her recognisances) that if necessary she would be recalled to court to face the consequences of her theft. It was a warning to her: if she was not able to resist the temptation to steal again then she faced prison where she ‘would be disgraced and ruined for life’.

Finally he told her that  he’d like her to enter a ‘retreat’ for a time, so that she could rid herself of her addiction to alcohol. Such retreats for ‘inebriate women of the better class’ had been established in England, Australia and the US in the second half of the nineteenth century. Whether Maria could afford one is a moot point however, and the court was offering her no financial assistance. Alcoholism was widely believed to be a working class issue and that is where most of the Temperance Movement’s efforts were concentrated, but this demonstrates that it was a problem at all levels of society in the 1890s.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, December 12, 1893]

A ‘passenger incident’ on the late Victorian Underground

08ee41e904a9481cd07a430d0707a9fa

As someone who lives in London and regularly uses the ‘tube’ (the underground railway,  for those unfamiliar with the metropolis) I am used to the occasional delay in services caused by that saddest of announcements, a ‘passenger incident’. This can mean that someone is ill and a carriage has been stopped so that medical assistance can be sought, but it can also indicate that a person has thrown themselves in front of a train.

While I can just about imagine what motivates someone to do this I can’t begin the understand how the poor driver of a train must feel when he or she sees someone fall out the racks in front of his eyes, and they are unable to stop the vehicle from crushing them. Between 1993 and 2015 over 1400 people attempted to take their own lives on the Underground, that is an average of 64 a year, and over one a week.

The London Underground has been operating since the 1860s and it has been used for suicides attempts throughout that time. According to one piece of research, suicide on the railway increased after 1868 (just three years after the first train ran) when newspapers published details of the methods would-be suicides used.*

If that was the case then this example, from The Standard in 1893, was probably just as unhelpful.

Isaac Shelton was a 63 year-old ‘house decorator’ who lived on the Edgware Road.  At a quarter to six in the evening on 27 June (a Tuesday) Isaac was seen entering the tunnel at Baker Street underground station, heading for Edgware Road. A fellow passenger shouted to him but he was ignored. At the same time a train was arriving in the station and the driver was alerted and the service was detained.

The station inspector, Mr Coleman, was summoned but in the meantime a young man named Albert Swift set off in pursuit of Shelton.

‘In the darkness he could hear somebody scrambling about on the ballast, and going in the direction of the noise, he found [Shelton] about 150 yards into the tunnel, lying across the metals of the upline’.

Albert tried to get the man’s attention and lift him up, but all he got back was the request: ‘leave me alone, I’m going home’. Fortunately the young man was soon joined by Mr Coleman and a porter and eventually the three manhandled Shelton up and off the tracks and back out to safety.

He seemed ‘sober, but excited’, they later testified.

The case came before the Marylebone Police magistrate, Mr Plowden. Shelton claimed she had no recollection of how he had got where he was. He said he had been having epileptic fits for twenty years and one had come on as he made his way home that evening. His wife appeared and confirmed that her husband suffered from epilepsy, and was subject to fits.

I’m not an expert on epilepsy but I have known people who suffer. This seems something quite unlike a fit and more akin to an desperate act by someone who did not wish to carry on. It seems this was also the opinion of the justice, who remanded Shelton in custody, perhaps to seek a medical opinion on his condition. Fortunately his attempt (if thats what it was) failed, because someone was quick witted enough to spot him and do something about it.

I imagine that is how most attempts are foiled today – by someone caring enough to see what their fellow passengers are doing and to notice when a person looks like they need a gentle word or two to bring them back from the edge, literally and figuratively.

[from The Standard, Thursday, June 29, 1893]

*O’Donnell, I.; Farmer, R. D. T. ‘The epidemiology of suicide on the London underground’. Social Science & Medicine 38 (3): 409–418. February 1994