Down and out in a Chelsea back garden


Homelessness is very much a part of life in London in the 21st century, something, I feel, we should – as a society – feel ashamed of.  London is the capital of one of the world’s richest countries; by GDP we are the ninth wealthiest country in the world, we have 54 billionaires (ranking us 7th in the world), and London is the sixth richest city on the planet.

However, in the 1870s Britain was THE richest nation on earth. In terms of GDP Great Britain far outstripped the US and generated more wealth than Germany, France, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Italy put together.  London was the premier city of empire in the 1900s with more goods and wealth passing through here than anywhere else.

So for there to be rampant poverty and homelessness in Victoria’s capital was even more of a national disgrace. And, just like today, no everyone that was homeless had started life in poverty, or had led a ‘dissolute’ life.

Take James Russell for example. James was a 58 year-old man, quite close to my own age. He was well educated and described himself as a tutor. He had studied at Trinity College, Cambridge and had earned a living teaching in various schools and most recently for the army and navy.

Yet despite this he found himself destitute and homeless in 1877, living a migratory existence sleeping on benches, in a baker’s barrow, and even an empty hansom cab. In September 1877 he was discovered sleeping in a garden in Pond Place, Chelsea by a policeman on patrol. The officer, PC Henry Skeats (328B) asked him his business and, since he couldn’t give a satisfactory account of himself, he arrested him.

Standing in the dock at Westminster Police court James Russell told Mr Woolrych his story.

He had a note from Dr Thompson, his master at Trinity, confirming his attendance there,  and promised that his situation was merely temporary; he hoped to get gainful employment soon. The magistrate sympathized with him: after all here was an educated man, a member of the upright middle classes, not the usual underclass he had to deal with. Russell promised that he would not return to sleeping rough on the constable’s patch (he made no such vow about alternatives however) and that was good enough for Mr Woolrych who released him.

Homelessness is not always a product of simple economics; mental illness plays it part, as does drug and alcohol abuse. If you want to help end homelessness in this country (or any country) then I would urge you to look to political solutions that favour a more equal distribution of wealth. Poverty is nothing new but then neither is wealth inequality that is controlled by the richest in society. For a more immediate and practical action you might consider, if indeed you can afford it, supporting one of the many homeless charities like Shelter or St Mungo’s.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, September 23, 1877]

Is tea the cure for alcoholism? One poet swears by it.


Lest we be in any doubt about the problems caused by alcohol in the late nineteenth century the reports from the Police courts bear testimony to them. They are all of individuals (men and women) who are there because they are addicted to alcohol or are at least unable to control the amount they drink, or the affects it has on them.

The last quarter of the 1800s saw the rise of the Temperance Movement which strove to ween individuals off the ‘demon drink’ and to get them to sign the ‘pledge’ of abstinence. Out of this came the Police Court Missionary Service, the forerunner of Probation, which helped those brought into the courts, but only if they would promise to remain sober in future.

Drunkenness led to disorderly behaviour, to the verbal abuse of officials and police; to the physical abuse of partners and children; to poverty and homelessness; and ultimately to a debilitating death. The police courts were full of it, as these cases from Thames Police court (in London’s East End) in 1899 demonstrate.

The first person up before Mr Mead (the magistrate) was Mr William (or ‘Spring’) Onions. William was a self-styled poet who had struggled for years with a drink problem. Recently he’d overcome it and was in in May 1899 not because of any misdemeanour he committed but for a much more positive reason. He’d come to tell the justice that he’d been sober for six months.

How had he managed it, everyone (including Mr Mead) wanted to know? What was the secret of his sobriety?

It was simple, ‘Spring’ Onions declared. He’d exchanged beer for tea.

 ‘Tea is the thing, sir‘ he explained: ‘I take four or five pints of it everyday, instead of four and twenty pints of beer‘.

He heaped some fulsome praise on the bench, shared some anecdotes about his ‘companions’ in drink, and reminded everyone that he was a poet before leaving the courtroom.

The next person to take the stand was Samuel Freeman, a ‘tailor’s dresser’ from Mile End. He was charged with selling illicit alcohol door-to-door. He’d been under surveillance by the Inland Revenue (this was an offence of tax – or duty – avoidance so fell under their purview) and detective inspector Arthur Llewellyn had stopped him in Anthony Street as he made his deliveries.

He was found with two remaining bottles of spirt which he said he sold for 1s 6d at a profit of sixpence a bottle. He admitted to being able to shift 7-8 pints of this a week and at his home the officers found two gallons of unlicensed spirits ready to be sold. This was a racket that exposed the desperate desire locally for cheap booze; the sort of drink that wrecked the lives like those of William Onions.

Mr Mead gave him the option of paying  a 40s fine or going to prison for fourteen days.

Finally William Pocklingstone was brought up to face the court. He was an old man and admitted his crime of ‘being drunk and disorderly’. He had a ready-made excuse however (possibly one he’d ventured before).

He said he ‘was an old Navy man, and got drinking the health of Britain’s pride – the Queen, God bless her!’

What has Britain’s pride got to do with May 19?’ the magistrate asked him.

I had an idea it was the Queen’s birthday,’ the old salt explained, ‘and made a day of it‘.

It wasn’t Victoria’s birthday at all (she was born on the 20 June) but the magistrate decided to take pity on the old man so long as he promised to address his drink problem. He would let him go today without penalty if he swore to keep sober for the monarch’s actual birthday in a month. William said he certainly would (although I doubt anyone believed him) and he was released.

All three cases show that drink and alcoholism had deep roots in Victorian society and remind us that our concerns (about ‘binge drinking’, super strength lager and cider, and supposedly rising levels of alcohol consumption) are nothing new. Nor has anything that has been done to curb the British love affair with booze had that much effect.


[from The Illustrated Police News etc, Saturday, May 27, 1899]

Plunder on the Thames or merely a perk of the job?



In late February 1828 two young men were brought before the Lord Mayor  at Mansion House charged with ‘having taken some bushels of corn’ from a loaded cargo vessel they were working on.

The pair (who were not named in the newspaper report) were employed as lightermen on the Thames river  – ‘the people who have operated the boats on the Thames with a history going back hundreds of years’.

The prosecution was brought by a Mr Ashford, a corn factor  (a trader in corn) who had sent the bushels as samples to his customers. Presumably if the quality (and price) were acceptable they would then enter into contracts to take regular deliveries from him.

Ashford told the Lord Mayor that it was becoming ‘a general practice with lightermen to plunder corn vessels’ and that while he was loath to press ‘to have any punishment inflicted’ he wanted something done to stop it.

He probably recognised that he needed the lightermen on side as it was, to convey his samples and future deliveries along the crowded waterway of the capital. He may also have been acknowledging that for hundreds of years those working on the river (as lightermen, dockers and warehousemen) had a long standing belief that they had rights to a part of the cargos they conveyed, unloaded or secured.

The concept of customary rights or perquisites (‘perks) has been understood by social historians to form part of the ‘economy of makeshifts’ of working men and women in the long eighteenth century and beyond. Carpenters working at the naval shipyards on the Thames took home offcuts of wood to build stairs in their homes, dock workers felt entitled to help themselves to plugs of tobacco or ‘sips’ of alcohol; while coal heavers swept up the dregs of coal from boats coming in from the North East and South Wales to use on their fires.

This alternative economy (which had its examples in almost all small industries and in agriculture) was increasingly suppressed as capitalism took hold in the 1700s and employers used the growing sheaf of property laws to prosecute for theft.

Perks still exist of course; who hasn’t taken home some office stationary for personal use, used the employer’s phone or surfed the internet on a work PC; or perhaps exploited staff discount for friends? We have a deep seated sense of entitlement to the benefits of working for this or that company, institution or individual and it is hard tom let go of (or police of course).

In the end the Lord Mayor decided not to proceed against the two lightermen, taking on board what the corn trader had requested. But he laid down a marker:

He said he was ‘perfectly aware of the practice, which, if not actual felony, came very near it; and, if after this warning, were not discontinued, he would, in any future case, recommend prosecution’.

He then sent the men away with a flea in their ears.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, February 25, 1828]



The Police Courts as citizen’s advice bureau


Two cases today which show how the police courts of the metropolis could be used by members of the public seeking legal advice. Both are from Westminster Police Court in November 1888, just days before the final ‘canonical’ murder in the Whitechapel series took place.

A ‘lady-like person’ first approached the sitting justice, Mr D’Eyncourt, to ask for help in preventing her estranged husband from visiting her place of work and causing trouble.

The unamed woman worked at the home of a naval officer in Eaton Square, in fashionable Belgravia, where she acted as a sort of live-in nurse for the officer’s invalid wife. Her husband had left some time before, leaving her to fend for herself.

Even before he left she had been used to supporting the pair of them for he was a ‘lazy fellow’, much given to drink. Before he left he had ruined them, spending her money and selling their furniture to buy more drink and pay his debts.

Finally rid of him she must have been devastated when he found out her new address and started turning up in Eaton Square demanding money. On Saturday the household’s butler had turned hm away but he at first reused to budge until he was given something for his trouble. She begged the magistrate to help her. Mr D’Eyncourt advised her if she got her mistress’ assent she could prosecute him for ‘coming there without lawful excuse’.  The lady thanked him and said she do as he suggested.

The next case before the court was brought by a ‘well-dressed young woman’ who also asked for advice, this time about a boy. Her parents had brought up their grandchild ‘from eleven months of age’. The boy was ten years old now and his father had appeared to demand custody. Yet the elderly couple had maintained and educated the boy at their own expense and clearly felt he ‘belonged’ to them.

Mr D’Eyncourt was interested in how the boy had come to live with them in the first place. ‘Because the father was given to drink’ he was told, and ‘it was the mother’s – my sister’s – wish that he should be properly looked after’.

The magistrate advised her that the couple should stick to heir guns and refuse to give up the child because the father would then have to go before a judge and make his case for custody, and show supporting evidence.

Both examples show these courts working to regulate and mediate family life and social relations in the late Victorian capital. The magistrate was a respected figure and clearly people felt him to be a person’s whose legal and other advice was worth listening to.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, November 06, 1888]

keywords: advice, Jack the Ripper, D’Eyncourt, Eaton Square, Navy, Begravia, adoption, childcare.

A sailor’s display baffles the bench


In June 1836 the Marylebone Police Court witnessed an entertaining performance of nautical wit delivered in defense of a charge of fare dodging.

Jack Robinson (described as ‘a jolly son of Neptune’) was brought in and charged with refusing to pay his fare to the driver of the No. 735 cab from Ratcliff Highway to Tottenham Court Road. Sailors have always been held in greater esteem than soldiers in English society and this was particularly the case in the nineteenth century when the memory of Nelson was still fairly fresh.

When he was asked why he had refused to pay his driver Jack’s response was full and passionate:

‘My Lord…the plain truth of the matter, without gammon or nonsense at all is this here: I came over in the Spartan from New York, and landed at Bristol, when I directly brought myself to anchor a-top a stage, and got into London yesterday’.

He went on to say that he met the cab on the Ratcliffe Highway, a notorious stretch of brothels, taverns and cheap lodging houses frequented by sailors that ran parallel to the banks of the River Thames (it is now simply called ‘The Highway’). He asked him to take him into town.

He agreed the fare with the driver in his own peculiar way:

“Now mate, what’s the price of my passage?” and he agreed to land me for two bob, with the understanding, my Lord, that on the road I was to stand grog for us both, which I did: and when I got out I offered him the blunt [the two bob – or 2 shillings] but he wouldn’t have it, and said he should charge for time instead of distance. “Avast, there my lad” says I. “I shan’t pay, so you may do you best and be d—d!”. and with that he calls up this blue-coated fellow (pointing to a policeman) who locked me up in this little square crib worse than the Black Hole at Calcutta.

With that he bowed to the justice and scraped his foot on the floor ‘in true sailor-like style’. Suitably impressed by his performance and persuaded of the honesty of his claim, the magistrate dismissed the case and let him go.

NB: HMS Spartan had been a famous ship of the line in the Napoleonic wars and the War of 1812 with America. But she had been broken up in 1822 so Robinson’s ship must have been a more recent version but perhaps one that carried the name of its predecessor and some of the associated glory. Robinson must have cut a dash in court and cabbies weren’t that popular in the period anyway.

[from The Morning Post , Thursday, June 09, 1836]