Hard choices for an unmarried mother in Spitalfields

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Spitalfields (in the early 20th century) by the photographer C. A. Matthew 

Sophia Higgins, the wife of a chemist in Spicer Street, Spitalfields was making her way home at 11 at night when something caught her attention.  She was crossing the market when she heard what she thought was a baby crying.

Moving towards the sound she soon discovered an infant ‘lying on the pavement, wrapped in a piece of blanket’. Horrified she stopped it up, went to find a person nearby to care for it, and then rushed off to the nearest police station.

The police arrived and collected the child, taking it to the Whitechapel workhouse to make enquiries there. Having established from the porter who they thought the mother was, another officer was despatched to find her and arrest her.

Eventually Ellen Lehain was identified as the child’s mother and questioned by the police before being summoned before the magistrate at Worship Street Police Court in October 1853. A witness, Ann Buskin (described as an ‘unmarred female’) said she had lodged with Ellen at a property in Holborn and testified that she had recently given birth to an illegitimate child.

Ann explained that her fellow lodger had ‘nursed it for a few weeks, when she left there to go into the union house’ (meaning the local workhouse for the poor).

The child was produced in court and  Ellen admitted it was hers. When the policeman had asked her what she had done with it she had told him she’d left the baby at the door of the workhouse. So how did it come to be in the middle of Spitalfields market the court wanted to know?

Ellen’s response to this question is not recorded.

In her defence the girl simply pleaded poverty and distress as the reason for abandoning her new born baby. Mr D’Eyncourt sent her to the house of correction for three months, the fate of her child was not something the newspaper reporters seems to have thought important enough to write down. Perhaps it was obvious: the child would become another mouth for the parish union to feed, until at least he or she could be apprenticed out into service.

No one seemed to be in the least bit interested in the fate of its mother, who must have been in considerable distress to give up a child she had been caring for for several weeks.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, October 14, 1853]

Tragedy, as a man murders his cleaner before turning the gun on himself

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From The Illustrated Police News, January 1882

In a break from the usual focus of this blog I am looking at a case that didn’t make it to the Police courts, for the simple reason that there was no one to prosecute. The source for all my posts are the reports of the cases heard at the Metropolitan Police courts in the Victorian press and these are usually situated with all the other ‘crime news’ in the papers. On the 2 January 1882 the usual record of events at the Bow Street, Guildhall and Marlborough Street courts was followed by the following headline:

Shocking murder and suicide.

It detailed the case of Robert Saunders, a 60 year old man who had given many years service as a butler to ‘a gentleman in Portman Square’. On his retirement from service Saunders had managed to accumulate enough money to purchase a number of small properties close to the Edgware Road. He rented most of these out but lived at 16 Shouldham Street with his wife Mary Jane in two rooms (the remainder of that house also being let to tenants).

Sadly what should have been a gentle and prosperous retirement for Robert was anything but. He was in financial difficulty and two of the leases of his properties had ‘fallen in’. Saunders feared that instead of prosperity, poverty was all that he and his wife had to look forward to. The former butler now fell in to what the report described as a deep ‘depression of spirit’.

In one of his houses, at 5 Newnham Street, lived a cab driver named Humphries and his wife Louisa. Humphries had had an accident and was being treated in the Marylebone Infirmary, as he was too sick to work. As a result Louisa was forced to take up charring for the Saunders and on Saturday 31 December 1881 she was at 16 Shouldham Street all day.

At half past five o’clock she had finished cleaning and went to see Mrs Saunders to let her know. The Saunders were seated in the parlour eating a meal. They were having hare but Mary remarked that they should have pork tomorrow, and asked him Mrs Humphries would oblige her by fetching some for them. She turned to her husband and asked him to give the cleaner 3s for the meat.

This simple request seemed to trigger something in Robert. He got to his feet and moved to the door, locking it. Slowly, he turned around and drew revolver from his pocket. In horror Louisa Humphries tried to rush to the door but Saunders shot her at point blank range in the face. She fell down dead on the spot. Mary screamed but ran at her husband, trying to wrestle the gun from his grip. He let off two shots, which missed her, before she knocked the weapon from his hands. As he reached for it she unlocked the door and ran out into the street, shouting for help. As she did so ‘she fancied she heard another shot fired’.

Neighbours soon rushed to the scene and a police constable (Stokes 156D) assumed control. He called for support and other police arrived including Inspector Measures of D Division. Mr. Saunders had locked the door again but they broke it down and entered the parlour where ‘a shocking scene presented itself’ (as the Illustrated Police News‘ artist imagined it above).

Mrs Humphries was lying dead in a pool of blood, the bullet had entered just below her left eye and had penetrated her brain, the money for the pork joint still gripped tightly in her lifeless hand. She would have died instantly, the report suggested. The former butler’s body was draped over a fender, the revolver close to his right hand. He had pointed the muzzle of the gun into his mouth and fired upwards, once again death would have been instantaneous.

The revolver still contained one charge; he’d fired one at his wife’s retreating back before locking the door behind her. The final shot Mrs Saunders had heard was the one that took her husband’s life.

A crowd had gathered outside the house and the bodies were taken away to the mortuary prior a formal investigation by the Middlesex coroner. There would be no trial but the readers could look forward to seeing if anything new emerged from the coroner’s enquiry in a few days time.   The question on everyone’s lips was how had an otherwise mild mannered former servant gotten hold of a pistol and why had he chosen to shoot an entirely innocent woman? Unfortunately, with no defendant to set in the dock and ask, these were questions that were unlikely to be answered.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, 2 January, 1882]

A deceptively simple tale of lingerie, scandal, and theft

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If one of the aims of late Victorian press was to provide some titillation for their readers over breakfast then this tale, from the end of 1888 (a year which we might consider to have had more than enough sensation), certainly fits the bill. It concerns female criminality, exotic foreigners in London, underwear, and the hint of sexual scandal.

When Maria Becherette appeared before Mr Newton at Marlborough Street she commanded the attention of the court and the reporter from Lloyd’s Weekly. She was 23 years old, spoke English with a German accent, and was fashionably well dressed. She gave no address or occupation but nor was she pressed to do so by the magistrate.

Maria was accused of a number of thefts from West End stores, including Liberty’s and Lewis & Allenby in Regent Street. Her modus operandi was simple but effective. On the 14 November she spent two hours at Liberty’s and, having finally selected a number of items of ladies’ underwear, she arranged to have them delivered on account. Giving her name as ‘Lady Coencerl’ she asked for the goods to be sent to the Bath Hotel in Piccadilly.

At Messrs. Lewis & Allenby she had done similarly on the day before; this time giving the name ‘Lady Gorskey’ and directing the items to be delivered to the Continental Hotel. On both occasions after she had left the shop assistants discovered that several expensive items were missing. Mlle. Becherette it seems was a sophisticated shoplifter.

She might have got away with it as well had she not pushed her luck. In the 15 November she was seen in Regent Street by one of Liberty’s staff, who alerted a concierge at the store and set off to follow her. The assistant, Mrs Elizabeth Nicholls, had served the thief and tried to keep her in her sights with the intention of finding where she went. The young German was too alert however, and spotted that she had a tail. She hailed a cab and was about to escape when the concierge leapt into the hansom with her and told the driver to take them both to Marlborough Mews police station.

There she said she was a governess and had recently arrived from Vienna, and denied the accusations of shoplifting. She was charged and presented at Marlborough Street where she was remanded on more than one occasion (for the police to investigate) and then brought up again at the end of the year. In court before Mr Newton Maria cut a sad figure. She stood in the dock with tears in her eyes as the prosecution was presented by Mr Humphreys.

As he now explained that there were allegedly multiple other similar cases against her she broke down and sobbed, finally admitting her crimes. She told the magistrate that while she had stolen the underwear it was ‘not for her own benefit but for the benefit of “the gentleman” she had been living with at Queenborough’.

Before she could go on to add that something the justice stopped her, perhaps mindful that she might reveal his name or add to the implication that the underwear in question was part of some elaborate sexual fetish. Mr Newton remanded her again so that she could, he suggested, give whatever information she had to the police. It might help her defence by mitigating her crime, but it would serve no one for it to be heard publicly.

On the 29 December she was brought back up into court to be dealt with by the magistrate. Mr Newton had presumably decided that despite the relative seriousness of her crimes (in stealing expensive items on several occasions and giving false names each time) it was best to try her summarily. This avoided any further public scrutiny of  the case or her motivations. She was denied the opportunity to name and shame her mysterious ‘gentleman’  or to use her charm on a jury of middle-case men. Instead she was sent to prison for four months and taken away immediately. The reading public were left, like us, to speculate over their toast and marmalade, as to what really lay behind this simple case of shoplifting.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, 30 December, 1888; Daily News, Monday, December 31, 1888]

‘You have most grossly ill-used this girl, and you will pay a fine of £5 to the Queen’: violence, theft and late night drinking dominate the news from  the early Victorian police courts

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The Police courts of the Victorian metropolis did not sit on Christmas Day but the newspapers were printed on Boxing day and they carried the stories of the week’s crime news. In the early days of the reportage of the ‘doings’ of these magistrates’ hearings the storytelling can be more elaborate than is the case later in the century. Dickens cut his teeth as a court reporter and you can certainly see some novelistic flourishes in the articles that were published under the header of ‘police intelligence’.

In the Boxing Day edition of The Morning Chronicle for 1838, in the first full year of Victoria’s long reign, there were three reports, all of the hearings heard on Christmas Eve before the courts closed for the holiday. At Worship Street Robert Terry was charged with breaking into a property in Hoxton with the intent to steal. As he entered the yard at the rear he was heard and a lodger went to investigate. Seeing a stranger in the dark the resident attempted an arrest and was badly beaten for his pains.

Fortunately a policeman was on hand to capture Terry and bring him before Mr Broughton at the East End police court. The intruder was well known to the police, having been ‘summarily conicted no less than six times’. On his way to the station Terry had told the officer (41N) ‘Well, you _____, you can’t hang me now: you can only give me two or three months for this’.

The magistrate told him he was mistaken: he would send to prison for two months for the attempted burglary and then on for trial as a ‘an incorrigible rogue’, for which he fully expected him to get a further year at hard labour.

At Lambeth Mary Byrne was brought before Mr Coombe charged with stealing nine pairs of gloves from a hosier in the Mile End Road. She was seen dropping a parcel containing the gloves into her basket soon after she entered the shop on the previous Saturday evening. Mary said she had travelled to the shop from Charing Cross and was so cold and wet (it had rained heavily that day) that her hands had ‘become so benumbed, that she was perfectly unconscious of what she did with them’. Her husband was a policeman, and had served since the formation of the force in 1829. He was an honest man but it didn’t save his wife who was sent back to gaol to await a trial in the new year.

Finally, the reporter from Thames Police court described the scene and exchange in court as Peter Murphy, a boilermaker, was prosecuted for a vicious attack on a young woman.

Sarah Douglas was assaulted by Murphy as she made her way home from a concert in a beer house called the Bee Hive. Murphy, quite drunk it seems, had caught up with Sarah and had knocked her to the ground. More than one witness (including PC William Wood of K Division) watched in horror as the man grappled with his victim and tore her clothes off. Poor Sarah was left with just her stays and a petticoat. The policeman rushed to her rescue but a mob of onlookers stole her clothes and ran away.

She must have known the young man that attacked her because in court she at first refused to press charges against him. Mr Ballantine, the sitting justice and a county justice sitting with him, were adamant however that the man must be punished. ‘That is very kind of you’, Mr Thistleton told her, ‘but we must punish him unless he has a very good defence’. All the boilermaker could say was that he was ‘very tipsy’.

‘But whether drunk or sober’, Mr Ballantine berated him,‘men don’t ill-use women and knock them down. It appears that you most grossly ill-used this girl, who had given you no provocation’.

He went on to add that:

‘If you had any manhood about you, you would not have done it. You will pay a fine of £5 to the Queen, or be imprisoned for two months’.

He then directed the police to look into the concert at the beer house, which, he suggested, was less than reputable.  The Bee Hive had been open much later than its license allowed and inspector Valentine of the Metropolitan Police promised he would give this his urgent attention.

Thus, the middle class reading public was suitably entertained by the bad behavior of the lower orders, but reassured that three near-do-wells (from the roughest areas of the capital) were safely locked up over Christmas.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, 26 December 1838]

A family is broken up, just in time for Christmas

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Monday’s post touched on the subject of prostitution and brothels in central London in the 1880s, suggesting that a young girl of just 14 years of age might have been drugged with alcohol as a precursor to being ‘sold’ into the sex trade. Today’s case concerns three young children who have been taken into what passed for ‘care’ in the late Victorian city, because their mother was a prostitute and they were being brought up in a brothel.

Georgina Rogers (aged 11) and her sister Agnes (10) and brother Henry (8) were brought before the magistrate at Westminster. They had come from St George’s workhouse under the watching eye of William Girling, an officer working for the Rescue and Reformation Society at Charing Cross. They had sepnt a few nights in the workhouse after they had been removed from ‘a disorderly house’ in Cumberland Street, Pimlico.

Their mother had money, so perhaps she was a successful  brothel madam or otherwise well connected. This was evident because she hired a lawyer to defend the children in court with the aim of keeping them out of institutional care. Mr E D F Rymer told the magistrate (Mr Partridge) that arrangements had been made for the trio to go and live with their grandmother at Teddington.

This might have seemed like a sensible solution. After all, as Mr Rymer explained, in his experience ‘children of the prisoners’ class were invariably corrupted by mixing with those children in these institutions’. Just what sort of class the three siblings were is hard to judge but given that their mother was living with them in  a house of ill repute I doubt they were exactly members of the aristocracy. Instead I imagine that Ms Rogers perhaps considered herself to be better through wealth than she was through birth, and so aped the behaviour (if not the morality) of the middle classes.

The Rescue Society had been created in 1853 to protect children from sexual exploitation and prostitution. It ran 10 homes across the capital and had campaigned for a rise in the age of consent. Its members were dedicated to the cause and under the terms of the Criminal Law Amendment Act (1885) saw these realized with the help of Stead’s Maiden Tribute newspaper campaign.

So it was unlikely that Mr Girling was going to be happy to allow the children back into the care of Ms Rogers or her family. Crucially Mr Partidge agreed with him, not the lawyer. He ordered that the girls be taken to a reformatory school at Chelsea but allowed the lad (who was perhaps less at risk in his eyes of being corrupted) to go to his grannie.

Was this a good outcome for the children? It is hard to say. Reformatories separated parents from children, and children from ‘bad’ environments. The sisters would have learned domestic duties and sewing, as well as being educated in basic literacy and maths. But being parted from their family would have been traumatic, but not unusual for very many poor children in the later 1800s.

[from The Standard, Saturday, 19 December, 1885]

The descendant of the Rescue Society is Fegans, a charity that supports abused children and their parents.

A late garrotting in Chelsea as the panic endures

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In 1862 there was a moral panic about street robbery.  I’ve covered it elsewhere on this blog and it has been well-documented in the work of Jennifer Davis. The so-called garroting panic began July of that year when a member of Parliament (Sir Hugh Pilkington) was attacked in the street in London. In modern language Sir Hugh was ‘mugged’: thieves used a choke hold from behind to disable him, then rifled his pockets for valuables and left him gasping for air as they ran off.

Within days and over the next few weeks the newspapers carried reports of similar attacks in the capital and across the country. It was as if a generation of criminals had been inspired by the events of the 17 July and had taken to the streets to garrote each and every suitable victim they could find.

Of course, this was not what was happening at all. Rather it seems that the press were exaggerating the extent of the problem (whilst moralizing on the state of the nation and pointing fingers at those they held responsible) and seeing hitherto fairly ordinary robberies as garroting.  The effect was fairly dramatic however; within weeks the public was on edge and started to report otherwise minor incidents as potential attacks. Newspapers carried adverts for anti-garrote technology such as studded metal collars and this was, in turn, parodied in Punch which showed groups of Londoners marching through the streets and armed to the teeth like some band of medieval questing knights.

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All histories tell us that the panic only lasted for a few weeks or months before fading away. This is the nature of moral panics – they burn brightly while the media and public is interested, but die fairly quickly once the novelty has worn off. But in December 1862 it seems the residual panic was still newsworthy as this case from the Westminster Police court shows.

On 3 December Michael Murray had been collecting the entrance money at a ‘teetotallers’ entertainment’ in Chelsea. Just before he reached his home in Simmond Street he was jumped by four men who used ‘most serious violence’ and robbed him of the takings (18s) and his pocket watch. The case before Mr Paynter was all about whom was responsible and who could be put on trial. In the end he determined that James Hurley would face a trial at Old Bailey for the robbery, the case against the (unnamed) others involved was ongoing.

Hurley, whose lengthy criminal record was read out in court, was convicted of the robbery and sentenced to 10 years penal servitude. A decade or so earlier he would have been transported and the decline of this option was one of the causal factors behind the panic about street robbery in the early 1860s.

Hurley was followed into the dock at Westminster by Daniel Turnham and Henry Welham where they were charged with a garrote attack on William Toy, and old cavalryman who had served with the 9th Lancers. He was attacked on his way home and choked from behind and hit on the hand with a metal object. The two men ripped his waistcoat pocket to get at the 17sand 6dhe was carrying in it. The police were quickly on the scene and set off in pursuit, catching the Welham who was already wanted for another robbery some days before.  Turnham was picked up soon afterwards. Mr Paynter remanded then in custody so a case could be built against them. They don’t appear in the Old Bailey records so perhaps on this occasion they got lucky, many others did not.

There were real consequences to this media constructed crime panic. The police arrested many more ordinary people for street crime than they had in previous years, redefining simple thefts and assaults as ‘highway robberies’. The courts played their part too, handing down much stiffer penalties for those the police brought before them. Parliament passed the Security Against Violence Act the following year (1863), which reintroduced whipping for some violent offences (although it was rarely used). In 1864 the Penal Servitude Act meant that second offenders were hit with five year minimum sentences as Parliament determined to be ‘tough on crime’ (if not on the causes of it).

[from The Standard, Monday, 15 December, 1862]

December 1888: Whitechapel is quiet again,but ‘Jack’ is still at large.

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Today finds me, weather permitting, stumping around Whitechapel with my third year undergraduates. This is an annual occurrence for me; in the past 12 years I’ve only missed one year of taking students around the area to visit the sites of the ‘Ripper’ murders and the associated places of interest.

This year my route has again been carefully worked out to take in as many places that might prove interesting (from Flower & Dean Street, to Wilton’s Music Hall, to the Pinchin Street arches, and back up to Mitre Square and then Christ’s Church, Spitalfields). It will take us the best part of four hours with stops for lunch and refreshments. At the end of it I hope they will have learned something as well as getting slightly fitter!

130 years ago the shadow of the Ripper still lay across Whitechapel. Following Mary Kelly’s death in early November the case began to lose its interest for the newspapers but no killer had been caught and the police patrols continued. There had been an attempt of the life of one woman (Annie Farmer) on 20 November, just eleven days after Kelly’s murder, and there was another homicide that can be associated with ‘Jack’ on December 20 that year (Rose Mylett), but things were more or less back to ‘normal’ in East London.

On Thursday 13 November 1888 the proprietors of Batey & Company Limited, ginger beer manufacturers, were summoned to appear at Worship Street Police court accused of infringing the factories act. It was alleged that the company had employed 21 young women who were set to work beyond 2 o’clock on Saturday afternoon at the company’s factory in Kingsland Road.

Under the terms of the act they should have been released at 11.30 that morning but the company was hard pressed. There had been, its representative explained, an ‘extra demand for aerated waters, owing to the late summer’. They admitted their culpability and Mr Bushey fined them £21 (£1 for each girl) plus £2 2scosts. It was an expensive day in court for the Bateys and one wonders if an employee had blown the whistle on them or whether a factory inspector had been watching them. Often these prosecutions followed repeated infringements of the law, rather than being isolated incidents.

The paper that day also chose another similar case to remind its readers (who would have come from the same class as the owners of the factory in Kingsland Road) that the laws must be respected. Hannah Bender, who worked as a French polisher, was fined £1 plus 4sfor employing two young women after eight in the evening, against the statute. The Match Girls strike had happened in 1888 and so labour rights were fresh in everyone’s memory, perhaps that was why these cases were prosecuted, or at least highlighted by the Standard.

[from The Standard, Friday, December 14, 1888]

In June next year my own solution to the Whitechapel murders is due for release. Based on several years of research it is a collaborative effort with an independent researcher, Andy Wise. We hope to offer a new angle on the killings that terrified Londoners in the late 1880s.