‘It was a bigger boy, sir’: youthful pranks in Rosemary Lane

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Rosemary Lane had a reputation for criminality throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The street was one of several in Whitechapel where the police were cautious about patrolling at night and where they would often turn when they needed to locate the ‘usual suspects’ for a bit of local thievery.

In 1847 PC H180 was passing nearby when he heard a terrible noise emanating from the lane and decided to investigate. He soon found almost two dozen young boys gathered together as some sort of impromptu orchestra, making an awful racket.  Some were banging pots and pans, others clashing knives and cleavers together; even bones were being used to pound out a rhythm on kettles and saucepans.

The policeman waded into this row and tried to get the lads to disperse. The boys were in high spirits and in no mood to listen. That day there had been a wedding – a Jewish marine store dealer, unpopular in the neighbourhood had married, and the reaction of the boys might have been some sort of youthful communal protest.

From the early modern period right up to the early twentieth century it was not uncommon for communities to express their displeasure or antipathy towards those they disliked or disapproved of by way of a charivari or skimmington. This was an old folk custom involving a mock parade with discordant (or ‘rough’) music.

As the policeman tried to stop the noise and make the crowd of boys go to their homes several of them turned on him and attacked him. One in particular hit him over the head with a kettle, knocking his hat into the gutter (before 1864 the police wore tall top hats, not helmets like they do today). He grabbed the boy and took him into custody, the others ran away.

The next day the child was brought before Mr Yardley at the Thames Police court charged with assaulting a policeman. Isaac Gardiner was so small his face could hardly be seen as he stood in the dock. When the magistrate was told that the boy had uttered the words ‘take that blue bottle!’ as he aimed a blow at the constable there was laughter in court. Isaac denied the charge, claiming some other boy was to blame.

‘It was a bigger boy, sir’, he said; ‘How could I reach up to a tall policeman’s head?’

It was a fair comment even if it was probably untrue. Mr Yardley was in no mood to have his court turned into a comic music hall act however, nor was he about to condone bad behavior by street urchins like Isaac. He told the prisoner that ‘boys must be taught to conduct themselves properly’. Isaac would be fined 5s and, since he had no money to pay, he’d go to prison for three days.

The poor lad was led away whimpering that it was unfair and he ‘didn’t see much harm in having a lark on a weddin’-day’.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, October 20, 1847]

Caveat Emptor is the watchword on the Ratcliffe Highway as an Italian sailor strikes a hard bargain

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The Ratcliffe Highway in the late 1800s

Here’s a case of caveat emptor (‘buying beware’) from the Ratcliffe Highway, where in the nineteenth century unwary sailors and other visitors were frequently separated from their hard earned wages.

Marion Madria was an Italian seaman, one of many in the multi-cultural district close to the dockyards that stretched along the East End’s riverfront. As he walked along the Ratcliffe Highway in early August 1857 he passed a jewelry shop. One of the store’s employees stood outside offering items for sale to passers-by, tempting them to enter with special offers and ‘bargains of the lifetime’. Their tactics were much the same as those of retailers today, but relied on the spoken word more than print (sensible in a society with much lower levels of literacy than today’s).

Madria was hooked and reeled in to the shop where he was offered a gold chain for just £3. It was a ‘too-good-to-be-true’ bargain but £3 was still a lot of money so the sailor bartered the price down to £2 9s. He didn’t have all the money but that was no problem, the shop assistant said he could pay a deposit of 9and bring the balance back later. Moreover, he could even take the chain away in the meantime.

I suspect Madria might have been a little drunk when he bought the chain, which would hardly have been unusual for a sailor on the Highway. Later that day as he showed his prize off to his mates he soon realized he’d been ‘done’.  The ‘gold’ chain was nothing more than brass and worth barely 6not nearly £3. It should have been obvious that a chain of that eight made from gold would have cost nearer £300 than £3. It really was too good to be true.

Enraged and not a little embarrassed the Italian obtained a summons to bring the shop’s owner to court to answer for his attempt to defraud him. In consequence Samuel Prehowsky appeared at Thames Police court before Mr Yardley. Since Madria’s English was limited at best the case was presented by a lawyer, Mr Young.

Young set out the details of the case and showed the justice the chain in question. He said he’d had it valued at between 4 and 6 pence and it was clearly not even worth the 9sthat Madria had left as a deposit. Mr Yardley agreed but he was far from certain that any fraud had taken place. He couldn’t quite believe that anyone would have fallen for it anyway. Young said that his client had ‘been dragged into the shop, and done for’. The magistrate replied that had he indeed been ‘dragged in he would have dealt with this as an assault, but he’d entered of his own volition. There was no assault involved at all, just incredible naivety.

Mr Prehowsky was an immigrant himself, a long established Jewish trader in clothes and jewelry who had come to London from Poland many years earlier. He explained that he’d not been in the shop that morning but would be able to bring witnesses to prove that Madria was not charged £30 but just 10s, which he bargained down to 9s and paid.  At this Madra cut in:

‘He say all gold, only £2 9s. – you leave me de money, all you have got, -9s and bring me de money, all the rest of it’.

‘You have not paid him the other £2 I hope?’, the magistrate asked him.

‘No Senhor, all brass, like the Jew [who] stand there’.

This last exchange brought the house down, laughter filling the courtroom.

It was a cautionary tale for the paper’s readership – be careful when you are buying jewelry on the Highway or you might get less than you bargained for. It was also an opportunity to make fun at the expense of a foreigner (Madria) and remind English readers that Jews were untrustworthy and avaricious. But no crime had been committed. Prehowsky confirmed that he was not seeking the extra £2 in payment for this goods (he said he never had anyway) and the Italian had his chain so as far as Mr Yardley was concerned that was that. He advised Madria not to buy jewelry in future and let everyone go.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, August 6, 1857]

Forced aboard a merchant ship in New Orleans: an echo of modern slavery on the high seas

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New Orleans, c.1841

John Burns was a steward on board a merchant ship named the Rio Grande. He’d sailed with it to New Orleans in 1849 where he’d gone ashore with a fellow crew member who had been taken ill. He took temporary lodgings in a boarding house and made plans to collect his pay packet in the morning. This was normal: sailors often collected their pay onshore, being paid at a shipping agent’s office.

However, this was also when they were vulnerable to thieves and fraudsters who knew they were likely to have been carrying fairly large amounts of cash. In London the Ratcliffe Highway and its associated dockland was notorious as an area where prostitutes would inveigle seaman into bars, get them drunk, take them upstairs and rob them (or assist others in their robbery). I’m fairly New Orleans presented very similar hazards to the unwary.

As Burns left his lodgings to collect his money two men seized him and forced a drink down his throat, which ‘rendered him insensible’. Having dragged him they manhandled him on board a ship called the Ashley, which was run by Alfred Greg. The two men were what were known as ‘runners’ or ‘crimps’; in effect they acted as a press gang for merchantmen, forcing men to serve as seaman against their will.

We are probably all familiar with the concept of the press gang as it operated in the eighteenth century, forcibly enlisting men and boys into the Nelsonian navy but this was nearly half a century later and in a foreign country. In 1849 New Orleans was, as it is today, the largest city in Louisiana, the 18th state of the USA. In 1849 something like half of Louisiana’s population were enslaved and it is hard to think of what happened to Burns as anything other than enforced labour by kidnapping.

Burns tried to explain to the master (Greg) that he was no sailor, just a steward with no experience of seamanship but he was ignored and set to work. He was promised $35 and the ship sailed to England, docking in London in April. When he asked for his pay he was told he’d already been paid, but he’d never seen ‘a halfpenny of it’. Instead the master had paid all the money to the two men that had pressed him.

Perhaps this was a common scam, akin it seems to me, to modern slavery where men and women and kidnapped and forced to live and work in terrible conditions by criminal gangs. The steward had the sense to get away from the ship and present him himself at the Thames Police court where he obtained a summons against Greg. A few days later the master was in court to hear Burns testify against him. Two other crew members turned up to confirm his evidence and Mr Yardley (the magistrate) said it was evident that a ‘gross and scandalous fraud’ had been committed.

However, it doesn’t seem like he was able to do much about it, perhaps because the crime (of kidnapping) had happened outside his jurisdiction. He could – and did – insist that John Burns was paid however, and would remand the master in custody if necessary until the sum was handed over.

The story served as a cautionary tale for others travelling to ‘foreign’ parts to not get taken unawares by unscrupulous captains in search of a crew.

[from The Standard, Monday, April 23, 1849]

A warning: if you have a sense of fair play and justice this may annoy you.

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Lewis Wills was a respectable small businessman who ran a trimming workshop in Mile End. At premises in Raven Row he employed a large number of women  who undertook piece work there and from home. One of these women was Mrs Emma Davis and on the 22 December 1847 she had an unfortunate meeting with her employer.

Emma and her husband, like many in the East End, were poor and lived a hand-to-mouth existence, relying on what ever the pair of them could bring in by working every possible hour and hope it was enough to meet the rent, feed their children, and heat their rooms. Winter was always harder and in the run up to Christmas Richard Davis was unemployed.

Richard was no slouch however and (as Norman Tebbit would have no doubt approved) he got on his metaphorical ‘bike’ and traveled to Southampton to look for work. Meanwhile Emma continued to take in trimming work to keep the family solvent. One of the advantages she had enjoyed was that Mr Wills was generous enough to advance money to his workers, to help them meet their obligations to landlords and local shopkeepers.

As a result Emma, and others in the workshop, were literally indebted to him. Sadly, surrounded by young women this proved quite a temptation to Wills, and one he could not resist. On the 22nd Emma came to him to ask for the advance of a shilling against her wages.

Knowing her husband was away Wills decided to turn this encounter to his advantage and he suggested to Emma that if she was willing to allow him to take what she described as ‘improper liberties’ with her he would lend her a half sovereign. Emma was deeply shocked and offended, especially when Wills pressed his case and grabbed hold of her. She had been propositioned and sexually assaulted by her employer and she ran home as fast as she could.

When her husband came back she told him and he was furious, wanting to press charges against Wills but Emma was cautious. She still owed him money and had work to complete; she was worried she’d lose her job and then how would they cope. Richard went to see Wills and remonstrated with him but the man denied doing anything and sent him away. Emma decided to go and see Mrs Wills, to plead with her woman to woman but at first she was prevented from doing so by the trimmings manufacturer and then, when she did finally see her, she was dismissed out of hand. Wills had got to his wife first and warned her that a hysterical woman was about to make false accusations against him.

Unless the couple formally went to law they were unlikely to get any justice from the situation. So in January, when all the work was completed and no debts were owing, Richard applied for a warrant to bring Lewis Wills before the magistrate at Thames Police court. To get such a warrnat the case was recounted to Mr Yardley (the magistrate on duty) and Wills was defended by his lawyer, Mr Pelham.

Pelham went on the attack demanding to know why it had taken so long to bring his client to court. Emma and Richard explained (as detailed above) but it fell on deaf ears. The lawyer rejected the suggestion that Wills effectively exploited his female workforce for sexual favours by inveigling them into his debt and dismissed Emma’s testimony as nonsense.

Then Emma produced another worker, this time a much younger girl, who was being led to the witness box to support a claim that Wills’ predatory sexual behavior was widespread when Mr Yardley stopped her. He said ‘the girl would not assist the case, and he refused to examine her. It was quite impossible’, he added, ‘to trust to the evidence’. As far as he was concerned Richard Davis was at fault here: he should have brought the case immediately and implied that he’d only done so when Wills had refused his wife any more work.

Thus in his view this was a malicious prosecution and he dismissed it.

Emma and Richard left court without ever being able to bring her abuser to a public hearing to defend himself. That was exactly what his lawyer intended and in this he had the full cooperation of the magistrate, a man drawn from a similar social class. The court was in effect deciding, without a ‘trial’, that such a person could not be deemed to have done such a thing and that, therefore, Emma was a liar.

This was a crushing defeat for the Davis family and probably meant that Emma would have to seek work elsewhere, but with all local businessmen knowing she was marked out as a ‘troublemaker’. In the meantime a ‘sex pest’ was free to exploit and abuse his small army of female   workers, who were made even more vulnerable by the failure of the law to protect one of their own. This kind of behaviour has recently been called out by the ‘MeToo’ movement but it is nothing new of course, and men like Wills continue to take advantage of the power they have over vulnerable women.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, January 19, 1848]

‘A contemptible, ill-conditioned fellow’ attacks a woman near Marble Arch

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Horses were a familiar site in mid-Victorian London. They pulled omnibuses and carts, hackney carriages and coaches, and – since this was still an age without the automobile – plenty of individuals daily rode their horses across and about the city. So, just like today when there are thousands of learner drivers struggling to negotiate the busy streets while remembering to change gear and indicate, there must have been dozens of people learning to ride.

Of course, most of these would have been wealthy because it was only the rich and aristocratic who could’ve afforded to keep and ride horses in London and so its not surprising to see that the victim in today’s case was Lady Elizabeth Chichester (née Dixon), the wife of Francis Algernon Chichester, captain in the 7th Hussars.

Lady Chichester was out riding with her riding master, William Jackson, and the pair were on Cumberland Street when a man rushed at them close to Marble Arch. He bumped into Lady Chichester and then staggered away, it seemed obvious to Jackson that the man was quite drunk.

As he moved away Elizabeth exclaimed that the fellow had cut her clothes. The man now started to run and Jackson shouted ‘stop him’  and he was soon captured by a nearby policeman.

The following morning the man – James Johnson, a 24 year-old upholsterer living at 40 Marylebone Lane – was brought before Mr Yardley at Marylebone Police court charged with being  drunk and ‘cutting the riding habit’ of Lady Chichester. Elizabeth revealed that she’d spotted a knife in his hand as he lurched towards her, which must have been frightening.

In court Johnson had little to say for himself and didn’t challenge any of the evidence of the witnesses that spoke there. He said he couldn’t remember much about it as he was drunk or, as he put it, he’d ‘had a drop too much to drink’.

Mr Yardley sad drunkenness was no excuse for what he’d done and Johnson accepted this adding that he was prepared to pay for a new riding habit for the lady. This wasn’t enough for the magistrate who was determined to show how disgusted he was by the man’s behaviour.

Can you show any reason why I should allow you to go upon that paltry excuse?‘ he asked the defendant in the dock.

Well, no sir‘, was the reply.

You seem a contemptible, ill-conditioned fellow, and I should not be doing my duty if I allowed you to go upon the payment of a fine, or  to pay for the damage. I shall sentence you to one month’s hard labour‘.

James Johnson looked shocked, but before he had time to react he was led away and taken down to start his sentence.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, July 22, 1863]

A chance theft adds insult to a widow’s grief

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London was an extremely busy port city in the Victoria period. Goods came in and out of the docks and the river teamed with shipping, bringing travellers to and and from the various parts of the British Empire, and the rest of the world. This provided all sorts of opportunities for criminal activity: from smuggling, to pilfering from the docks, or the theft of sailor’s wages, and all sorts of frauds. The Thames Police and the Thames Police office then, were kept just as busy as the port and river was.

In June 1859 Susan Breeson appeared in the dock at Thames to be questioned about her possession of a pair of gold framed spectacles we she insisted had been given to her in part payment of a debt.

Breeson had taken the spectacles to a pawnbroker in mid May but he’d become suspicious and refused to give her the money she’d asked for. This wasn’t the first time apparently; another ‘broker had refused to lend her the 7s she asked for them.

Breeson’s story was that her husband worked on the docks as a ‘searcher’ (literally a man working for the Customs who searched ships for contraband etc.) He’d found the, she said, at Victoria Dock in Plaistow but she didn’t know their value or even whether they were gold or brass. Samuel Redfern, who ran the pawn shop in Cannon Street Road with his father-in-law, didn’t believe her story and so he retained the glasses and alerted the police.

Questioned before Mr Yardley at Thames Susan now changed her account and said that the spectacles had been given to her by a sailor. However, the court now discovered that Breeson wasn’t married to a customs officer at all, instead – according to the police – she ran a brothel in Stepney. the specs were given to her, but in payment of money owed, for lodgings or something else it seems.

Sergeant John Simpson (31K) deposed that Breeson was well-known to the police of K Division. She was a ‘bad character, and she cohabited with a man who worked in the docks many years’.  So some elements of her story had a hint of truth about them but now she elaborated and embellished it. The sailor in question, she explained, had been given the spectacles as a gift from a poor dying parson on board a ship ‘for kindness exhibited, towards him in his illness’.

Now the hearing took a more interesting turn. From a simple case of a brothel madam trying to pawn goods either lifted from a client, or pilfered from the docks and used as payment for sexual services or drink, it now became clear that the spectacles were part of a larger and more serious theft.

The next witness was Mrs Barbara Wilson Morant and she had travelled up from Sittingbourne in Kent to give her evidence. She testified that the glasses and the case they were in had belonged to her husband, who had died in the East Indies. She had been in the Indies with him but had traveled back overland, sending the spectacles and other things by sea. She told Mr Yardley that she had arrived in England by screw steamer after a voyage of several months (she’d left the East Indies in August).

The keys of her luggage were sent to Mr Lennox, her agent‘, she explained, and now ‘she missed a diamond ring, a gold pencil-case, a pair of gold-mounted spectacles, and other property‘.

The sergeant conformed that Mrs Morant’s luggage had been examined at Victoria Dock on its arrival, where it was then repacked ready for her to collect it. It would seem that someone pinched the items in the process. Samuel Lennox worked as a Custom House agent and confirmed that he had collected 15 pieces of the Morants’ luggage and checked them off to be collected but he couldn’t say who had unloaded them or carried out any other searches. The company employed casual workers who were hired without checks being made on them. Perhaps one of these was Breeson’s partner in crime?

Mr Yardley recognised that this was serious. While Breeson may not have stolen the spectacles (and perhaps the other items) but she was certainly involved in disposing of it. He remanded her for further enquiries for a week but said he would take bail as long as it was substantial and was supported by ‘reputable sureties’. It would be very hard to prove that anyone had stolen the Morants’ possessions or that Breeson was involved. She doesn’t appear at the Old Bailey although a ‘Susan’ and a ‘Susannah’ Breeson do feature in the records of the prisons and courts of London throughout the 1850s and 60s.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, June 9, 1859]

A ‘riot in church’? Drunkenness and disorder at St. George’s-in-the-East

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We credit the Victorians with being much more regular churchgoers than we are today. In 1851 a census was taken of all religious observance in Britain and it produced some interesting results. The report showed that only about 40-45% of those able to attend church did so, with numbers higher in rural areas. Moreover it noted that if everyone who could attend did, there wouldn’t be room for them all.

This was worrying as church was seen as the best way of inculcating good morals and discipline in the populace. Universal education was still in its infancy and its reach was limited, the church (and particularly the established Church of England)

There does also seem to have been a concern about behaviour in church, especially the behaviour (or misbehaviour) of the lower classes and this is evident in the report of cases before the Thames Police Court magistrate in March 1860, nine years after the census was taken.

John March, who had a ‘respectable appearance’ and carried on a trade as an umbrella maker, was charged with disturbing the Rev. Thomas Dove as he presided over service at St George’s-in-the-East on Sunday morning.

He told Mr Yardley that the accused he ‘was interrupted during the Litany service by the saying of supplications in a different tone from that in which he was singing them’. There was also some ‘unnecessary coughing’ he complained.

I found it surprising that there was a policeman on duty in the church. PC Charles Pearce (382K) said he was alerted to a young man in a pew who was coughing loudly. He said that March ‘related the coughing several times , and out his hand over his mouth and held his head down’. It ‘was an artificial cough’ PC Pearce concluded, and March was obviously trying to put the minister off his stride. March’s neighbour could also be heard to tell him to ‘hush’.

The policeman moved in and spoke to the young man, saying:

‘You must go. You have been coughing and laughing all the morning’. March was reluctant to oblige, declaring it ‘was only a mistake’.

Mr Yardley was told that there was plenty more evidence of March’s attempts to undermine the curate but no one turned up in court to testify so he discharged the prisoner. This decision was met with ‘a murmur of satisfaction and applause’.

Next up was Eliza Fenwick who, by contrast with the ‘respectable’ John March was described as ‘dirty and dissipated’. She was also charged with disturbing Rev. Dove’s service but, more seriously, by being drunk and disorderly.

Here Mr Yardley was on firmer legal ground. He said she had been proven guilty of ‘most improper conduct’ which was ‘aggravated by the fact of her being drunk’. Drinking was bad enough but drinking on the Sabbath, and being drunk in church was the action of a dissolute individual. However, there was no evidence that Eliza had gone to Rev. Dove’s service with the express intention of disturbing it so he simply fined her 10s for being drunk and disorderly. So long as she paid she was free to go, if she didn’t have the funds however she’d go to prison.

St George’s-in-the-East was one of several churches built by Nicholas Hawksmoor in the early 1700s to bring the church into the lives of the capital’s poorest communities. Driven by legislation (the New Churches in London and Westminster Act, 1710) the intent was to build 50 new churches across the metropolis. There was a real concern at the time that a lack of places of worship would undermine attempts to spread good discipline and morality amongst London’s poor, so the religious census of 1851 was an echo of this initiative.

I find it interesting that Reynolds’s Newspaper, which served a more radical working-class readership than most, chose to caption this report ‘Rioting in church’. There was no rioting as such which  that the paper had its tongue firmly in its cheek, and was pouring some scorn on the actions of the Rev. Dove in bringing such trivial complaints to court. Alternatively if might have been using the ‘headline’ technique (not something we associate with Victorian papers) as a means to catch the eye, regardless of the real content of the article below.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, March 4, 1860]

St George’s remains (along with Christ’s Church Spitalfields) an example of Hawksmoor’s magnificent architectural ability. It was hit by German bombs during the WW2 but has mostly survived and is well worth a visit.