Dodgy meat on sale at Smithfield and is a cat’s meat man in the frame for the Whitechapel murders?

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On Thursday 27 June 1889 Frederick Miller was summoned to appear at the Guildhall Police court in the City of London. His alleged offence was selling meat unfit for human consumption and the prosecution was brought by the Commissioners of Sewers who policed food safety at the Central Meat Market, Smithfield.

Alderman Evans, the presiding magistrate, was told that Miller had brought a cow carcass to market from his home in Norfolk and attempted to sell four pieces from it. That animal had been slaughtered and then prepared for sale on Whit Sunday, the day after Pentecost (which is usually 50 days after Easter Sunday). Since Easter fell on the 21 April in 1889 the likely date the meat was prepped was probably around the 2 June, or three weeks before it reached market in London.

While Miller pleaded not guilty the inspectors (and the Medical Officer of Health, Dr saunders) were able to convince the alderman that the meat was bad and that the public would have been at risk had they not spotted and confiscated it. Alderman Evans fined Miller 50plus £3 3costs, warning him that if he did not pay up he’d go prison for two months.

Miller was described as horse slaughterer and butcher, living at North Walsham and was well-to-do enough to employ a solicitor. London’s horse slaughtering business at this time was dominated by the firm of Harrison, Barber who had premises across the capital. They fed the market in horse meat that supplied the cat’s meat men that catered to Londoner’s love of pets. The history of this little known industry is something I address in some depth in my recent investigation into the Jack the Ripper murders of 1888. In June 1889 body parts were found floating in the Thames near Horselydown steps; they were the forth of the so-called ‘Thames Torso mysteries’ that baffled police between 1887 and 1889. In my book I suggest that one man – a cat’s meat seller no less – might have been responsible for these and the Whitechapel murders.

For more details visit:

[from The Standard, Friday, June 28, 1889]

A ‘long firm’ swindle on Kingsland Road

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The long firm fraud – where a criminal organisation sets up a seemingly legitimate business (such a distribution warehouse) for illegitimate purposes – was a noted practice of 1960s gangsters like the Kray brothers, Reggie and Ronnie. The deception featured at the heart of Jake Arnott’s 1999 novel about the fictional criminal gang leader, Harry Starks. But long firm frauds weren’t new in the 1960s as this case demonstrates, they were well known in the 1880s if not earlier.

William Hammond (an agent in the leather trade) appeared at Worship Street Police Court in March 1883 charged with ‘having conspired [with two other men] to cheat and defraud Samuel Chittick by fraudulently removing certain goods with an intent to prevent an execution for an unsatisfied judgement’.

In layman’s terms what this meant was that Hammond had run up large debts (to the tune of £167 the court heard) and Chittick had been forced to take him to law to recover his money. Hammond operated out of premises on Kingsland Road in north-east London but when a sheriff turned up to remove goods and chattels to the value of the debt he ‘found them empty’.

Chittick’s lawyer declared that he would prove that Hammond had:

‘actively assisted in removing the goods, leather and machinery, and further that he had said Mr Chittick would not get a farthing of his money’.

But there was more the lawyer insisted. He didn’t believe that Hammond’s co-accused (a man named Thomas Marshall) was as culpable, the real villain was the leather salesman.  He told the magistrate – Mr Bushby – that he could prove that Hammond had set up the business as a fraudulent venture. Marshall had already been convicted in the previous year of fraud at this address but now he was able to provide evidence that Hammond was the main operator. It was Hammond who had set up the false business and installed Marshall to run it.

He said that ‘goods were obtained merchants ostensibly for the purposes of legitimate business, but instead of the goods being used in the way of fair trade, they were removed in bulk from the premises soon after delivery, and sent to a firm carrying on business as Lodes and Son at Norwich, and sold under cost price’.

This was, he hoped Mr Bushby would official record, a ‘mere “long firm” swindle.

Hammond had escaped the law for some time by relocating himself to Norfolk but had made the mistake of suing a local newspaper there for libel because it had accused him of carrying on  similar racket in Norwich. This backfired and he had been arrested and convicted there. After his conviction he had been handed over the Metropolitan Police who were keen to question him about the Kingsland Road case.

Several people testified to the truth of the lawyer’s allegations and the magistrate remanded Hammond in custody, waiving away the prisoner’s request to be granted bail. Hammond was eventually tried at the Old Bailey in April that year. He was convicted and sentenced to nine months imprisonment at hard labour.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, March 06, 1883]

A waiter’s cheeky swig lands him him in court

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The Strand, London (late 1800s)

In 1881 Thomas Carr (originally from Norfolk) owned and ran the King’s Head public house at 265 The Strand.* The hostelry was close to where the new Royal Courts of Justice was nearing completion (it opened in 1882) and on one of London’s busiest thoroughfares (as the illustration above suggests). In late November Mr Carr employed a waiter to work in the pub serving what would seem to be quite high class customers.

William Whitlock had been working at the King’s Head for just three weeks when he seriously blotted his copybook. He was accused of stealing a bottle of champagne by Mr Carr’s son, and prosecuted at the Bow Street Police court in front of the sitting magistrate, Mr Flowers.

Mr Carr junior said he had seen the waiter carrying a bottle of champagne into the pantry and so followed him in. Once inside he challenged him and Whitlock told him that a gentlemen had left some wine in the bottle after he’d finished with it and he was taking it as ‘his perquisites’.

Carr explained that ‘in obtaining wine for customers it is the practice to give a bono check [a blank cheque in other words], and mby these means the prisoner [Whitlock] obtained the bottle of champagne on the representation that it was for a customer’.

Now, whether he intended to take the whole bottle or just finish the dregs is not made clear. Carr’s son said he saw Whitlock pouring water into the bottle – to dilute the wine or rinse it out having swigged the last half glass? Either way he had ‘no right to any wine’ while he was working and so shouldn’t have acted as he did. But it hardly seems to be the crime of the century.

Nevertheless the magistrate was faulty adamant that a crime (theft) had been committed. He found the waiter guilty and sentenced him to one month’s imprisonment. I doubt Mr Carr expected this outcome nor , it seems, did he welcome it. His solicitor approached the bench and pleaded for Whitlock’s freedom. Mr Flowers then agreed to substitute a 30s fine for the prison term. This was still a hefty punishment for a low paid worker – 30s in 1881 represents about £200 in spending power today – but at least it kept him out of gaol at Christmas.

[from The Illustrated Police News etc, Saturday, December 17, 1881]

*The pub has long gone and now it is a smart office block owned by a Japanese telecom company.

A young dressmaker emerges with her reputation untarnished

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October 21 1855 was the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar and the death of Nelson but the England that emerged from the long wars with France looked quite a different place from the world Horatio Nelson was born into. By the 1850s his Norfolk descendants would have been able to take the train to the capital rather than the bone-shaking stage coach, and the Navy office might have been able to summon the admiral by telegraph instead of a despatch rider.

Nelson’s flagship HMS Victory was the largest ship of the line in the Royal Navy in 1805 but it was powered by sail and built of oak. In 1859 the very first ironclad warship was launched in France, and in the American Civil War (1861-65) floating ironclads helped usher in a new sort of warfare that had more in common with the Great War of 1914-18 than the battlefields of Austerlitz, Salamanca or Waterloo.

Britain had demonstrated its military might during the Napoleonic wars but the much less ‘glorious’ Crimean War (1853-56) had exposed the extent of disease in the army and poor command and infrastructure of the British forces, despite its victory. Nelson (and Wellington) would most probably have been horrified that the nation’s armed forces had been allowed to reach such a parlous state by mid century.

Meanwhile of course the business of fighting crime and dealing with the everyday regulation of the capital continued despite the nation being at war with Russia. Nelson would never had seen a ‘bobby’ on the beat nor been very family with a Police Court Magistrate. Nor it seems was young Miss Eliza Greaves, yet she found herself in the dock at Marlborough Street accused of a very serious offence.

At about 7.30 in the evening of 16 October 1855 Eliza, a ‘respectable’ dressmaker who resided 11 Bruton Street, near Berkley Square – a fashionable address – entered a haberdasher’s shop at 272 Regent Street.  She asked the assistant for some ‘riband and blonde’ and paid with two half-crowns and coated for her change. However, when the assistant  handed the money to the cashier he immediately declared they were ‘bad’ (i.e they were counterfeit).

The cashier, John Wilson, took the coins over to where the young woman was seated and asked her where she had got the coins from. She told him they came from her sister, who lived in Hanover Square. Wilson then enquired whether she had any other money and she handed over a shilling which he again realised was counterfeit.

Poor Eliza was now in some difficulty because she was seemingly committing the offence of passing (or ‘uttering’) false coins. The police were called and Eliza was taken away by PC 27 of E Division. On the next day Eliza was produced in court to answer a charge of trying to pass ‘bad’ coins and so defraud Messers. Sowerby &. Co of the value of their property.

Enquiries were made and Eliza’s sister was consulted about the money she had given her her sibling. It transpired that she ‘had put a small packet of quicksilver [mercury] in her pocket, in which was her purse, and some silver’. It was this that had caused the discolouration of the coins. The magistrate’s chief clerk examined the coins carefully and declared that he ‘very much doubted if they were bad’. Mr Bingham (the magistrate) sent a police inspector off to have them properly tested and he returned to state for the record that the coins were ‘good’. To everyone’s relief (not least Eliza’s) she was cleared of any wrongdoing and set at liberty to return with her friends, who were people of ‘the greatest respectability’.

Just what her sister was doing with mercury in her pocket is far less clear. Mercury was used to treat syphilis and other forms of venereal disease but I hardly think the other Miss Greaves bought it for that purpose. It had some use in making dental fillings, and of course was used in thermometers, but why Miss Greaves needed it remains a mystery to me. Please enlighten me if you know!

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, October 21, 1855]

Two jewel thieves nabbed in Cheapside

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Cheapside in the 1890s

One of the early jobs I had as an adult was working in a jewellers over the busy Christmas period. Being new to the trade my job was to fetch items from inside the large shop windows and bring them to the assistants serving customers on the counter. Jewellers are different from most retail outlets in that customers are not generally allowed to select their purchases without supervision; after all some of the rings, necklaces and watches they sell are extremely valuable.

This makes it more of a challenge for shoplifters and jewel thieves. The crudest method is the smash and grab: literally smashing a jeweller’s window with something heavy (like a hammer or a brick) and snatching as much as they can before running off with it. This is harder to achieve during daylight so its no surprise that jewellers routinely empty their displays at the end of the day’s trading.

The other common method of theft is deception by distraction. This is frequently deployed by shoplifters and involves convincing the shop keeper that you are an honest regular customer and diverting their gaze or attention from your target long enough to palm it or other wise secrete it about your person. This often works best if the thief has an accomplice.

In October 1889 Mary Ann Sinclair and Sarah Pond (or Pend) entered a jewellers shop in Cheapside in the City of London owned by a Mr Carter. They asked the assistant if they could see some wedding rings. Neither of them were particular young ladies (Sinclair was 52 and Pend 39) but presumably they were respectably dressed and caused the assistant no alarm.

He produced a triangular wire tray containing a selection of rings. Mary Ann tried on 2 or 3 of the rings but none fitted; she told the man that they had better bring in their friend (the bride to be presumably) just to be sure. She then asked the assistant to measure her finger and left. Almost as soon as they had gone the assistant realised one of the rings was missing, a diamond band valued at £15 10s (or around £600 in today’s money).

This was not the first theft these two had carried out however. On the 2 October they had performed a similar deception at John James Durant & Son., also on Cheapside and the police were onto them. Soon after they left Carter’s two detectives picked up their trail and followed them to Gutter Lane, just off the main street, where they were arrested. Back at Cloak Lane police station the pair were identified as the women that had stolen another ring from  Durant’s by Albert Chambers by the same ruse. Chambers, who served as the shop’s engraver, told the police that he counted the number of rings on the wire frame  before handing them to his colleague to show the women. This was probably standard practice.

So the police now had good evidence against the women and at the Mansion House Police court they were both committed for trial. At the Old Bailey on 21 October they were tried and convicted of the theft despite their protestations that they knew nothing about it. Pend admitted to having a previous conviction from 1878 when she was known as Mary Margaret M’Cull. Both women were sent down for 15 months at hard labour.

We have no more information about Sinclair but Sarah Pend (or M’Cull) generated a little more detail in the records. The new Digital Panopticon website notes that she was born in Norfolk in 1850 and had great eyes and sandy coloured hair. She was sent to Holloway Prison and released onto the habitual criminals register in January 1891.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, October 11, 1889]

‘diseased, unsound, unwholesome, and unfit’: a Norfolk knacker falls foul of the law

The Cats' Meat Man

Regular readers of this blog will know that alongside the very many cases of theft, drunkenness and assault the Police Courts dealt with a great deal of business that today would not get before a magistrate. London justices of the peace in the eighteenth century and their Victorian counterparts (the Police Court Magistrates) in effect regulated the daily life of Britain’s capital city.

So disputes over transport, employment, the provision of poor relief, the education of children, weights and measures, the sale of alcohol, and excise duty, all came under the purview of the magistracy. As a result the Police Courts are an ideal place to see how the metropolis functioned (or didn’t) in the past; all human (and often animal) life was here, and all manner of trades and occupations appear for the historian to study.

In a city as huge as London was (approximately 1/10th of the British population lived here in the 1800s) one perennial concern was the health and wellbeing of its citizens. The capital devoured vast amounts of food from all over the British Isles  and beyond and all of this had to fit for human consumption.

Meat was a particular concern and it fell to the market inspectors at Smithfield and the other city markets, as well as other officials to inspect meat and poultry that was offered for sale to the public. If suppliers (whether butchers, costermongers or slaughter men) attempted to foist unhealthy or rancid meat on an unsuspecting consumer they might well find themselves in front of a police court magistrate on a charge.

This is what happened to a Norfolk slaughterman named Thomas Fisher.

Fisher appeared before Sir Sydney Waterlow at Guildhall accused of ‘sending three quarters and a half of beef to the London Market for sale as human food’, when it was ‘diseased, unsound, unwholesome, and unfit for the food of man’. The case was brought by Mr Bayliss representing the Commissioners of Sewers (created in 1848 following concerns about public health in the wake of cholera outbreaks).

Bayliss told the Guildhall court that the animal concern had belonged to a grazier in the same area of Norfolk as Fisher. The cow had become sick and was diagnosed with a lung disease. Nowadays we are aware that bovine TB can be transmitted to humans and so is a significant health risk. Whether they knew this in 1870 is unlikely but an animal with the ‘lung disease’ as this beast had should not have made it to market.

The grazier was aware of this and so called for Fisher to take it away for slaughter and the meat to fed only to dogs. However, when Fisher collected the animal and started to ‘drive it home’, it collapsed on the road and he ‘was obliged to kill it there and then’. Afterwards he took the carcass to a slaughter yard were it was stripped and prepared and later sent on to London for sale as human food.

Once all this had been presented and verified in court Thomas Fisher had the opportunity to speak up for himself. The knacker argued that in his opinion the meat was fine when he sent it south. When ‘it dropped down he did think it was the lung disease, but when it was opened he saw that it had fallen from having a nail in its heart’. The meat was far too good, he insisted, to be wasted as dog food and if it was putrid when it reached London it must have been because of the hot weather.

A butcher was produced (presumably on behalf of the prosecution) to testify that he had seen beasts live for months with a nail in their hearts. In ‘one case an animal had a small roll of wire in its heart’ and still survived. The contention was that Fisher knew full well that the animal was diseased but chose to ignore this (and the implications for the health of Londoners) in order to profit from the carcass.

Sir Sydney was sympathetic to the knacker; he didn’t want, he said, to send a man like him to prison but he had clearly breached the laws around food safety and so he must fine him ‘the full penalty’. The full penalty in this case was £20 and £5s costs, the considerable sum of £925 in today’s money. Thomas Fisher was a relatively poor knacker who had probably spent a not insignificant sum of money in answering the summons by travelling to the capital from the Norfolk countryside. He certainly didn’t have £25 on his person (and probably not to his name).

In consequence, despite Sir Syndey’s sympathy he was sent to prison by default. After this was stated in court the gaoler led him away to the cells to begin await transfer to one of the capital’s prisons, probably Clerkenwell, to serve a month inside. If and when he emerged he faced the prospect of having to tramp back to Norfolk again under his own steam or to try and make a new life in London.

Given the tens of thousands of horses that vied with pedestrians on the capital’s crowded streets he might well have made a new career in the ‘Wen’ despatching the poor animals that reached their use-by date. Many of those animals then ended up being sold piecemeal on barrows by ‘cats-meat’ men. Horse meat sold as such was intended for cars and dogs but, as Dickens observed, sometimes graced the tables of not so discerning diners amongst the poorer classes.

So Fisher, having been accused and found guilty of trying to pass off diseased meat as fit for human consumption may well have ended up legitimately supplying horse flesh to the same consumers anyway.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, August 17, 1870]

If you are interested in this tale of the regulation of food in Victorian London then you might enjoy this post as well: A butcher is hooked

Who on earth was Countess Nelson?

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In early 1838 a man appeared at Marlborough Street Police Court charged with embezzling ‘sums of money’ from Countess Nelson.

This caught my eye because my boyhood was Horatio Nelson. From an early age (I think I remember having a Ladybird book on Nelson) I was fascinated by his story. I suspect much of Nelson’s history is suffused with myth; a result of distortions by his early biographers (like Southey) and the repetition of heroic tales over time. But I liked the fact that this man from relatively humble origins in Norfolk rose to be the greatest warrior that England has produced.

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Whether he shot a polar bear as a teenage midshipman is unimportant, as is the exact story behind him ‘turning a blind eye’; the brilliance of his victory at Aboukir Bay and the vital importance of defeating the combined French and Spanish fleet at Trafalgar were thrilling to me as a young boy.

There is an adage of course that one should never meet your heroes. The closest I have ever got to Nelson is his tomb at St Paul’s or his memorial in Trafalgar Square (although I have made the pilgrimage to Burnham Thorpe in Norfolk where he was born and trod the decks of HMS Victory  at Portsmouth).

As an adult the biographies I have read of this greatest of English heroes have been careful to present his other side. The vanity of the man must have been awful, his treatment of Frances Nisbet his wife, his galavanting with the wife of his friend Lord Hamilton, and his oppression of popular uprising in Naples; all jar against the popular image of Horatio Nelson.

Ultimately I remain a fan. I can separate the sea captain, the patriot, the strategist and the brave leader who cared for his troops, from the arrogant, illiberal, self-centred man who cheated on his wife. But while we have had a recent exhibition focused on the life of Nelson’s love, Emma Hamilton, what of the lady she replaced?

Nelson married Frances Nisbet in 1787 after they had met on the Caribbean island of Nevis. Frances had been married before but her husband, a doctor, had died. Military marriages are difficult to maintain over distances, and naval ones in the 18th century even more so given that men were at sea for months on end. When Nelson met Emma at Naples the writing was on the wall for Frances and his marriage.

After the admiral’s death in 1805 at Trafalgar she herself fell ill but made a recovery. She moved to Paris for a while (to live with her son) before returning to England and setting down in Exeter. She died in 1831 in London, in Harley Street.

So who, I wonder, was the Countess Nelson who appeared as part of a court case in January 1838?

Francis Wright, ‘a respectable looking man’ was brought before the magistrate at Marlborough Street for embezzlement. The court heard that Wright had left the Countess’ service some weeks before and had set himself up in business with a beer shop on the Clapham Road.

Wright was charged with ‘forging a certain receipt with intent to defraud Lady Nelson’ and a warrant was executed to bring him in. He was asked to produce his account book but told the justice he was unable to as he had torn it up to ‘make pipe-lights for his customers’. How convenient. He was remanded for further enquiries.

The case didn’t reach the Old Bailey but it may have been too trivial for that and been dealt with later by the summary process. The nature of the court reportage means its not always possible to trace these cases further.

However, I can reveal who Countess Nelson was. She was most probably Hilare (more properly Mrs George) Knight. She had previously been married to William Nelson, Horatio’s brother. William had been given his more famous brother’s title (including that of the Duke of Bronte, Sicily) and so when the couple married in 1829 she adopted the title of Countess Nelson.

In 1835 William died and in 1837 (one year before this case) she remarried, to George Knight, a relative of Jane Austen – so as one researcher noted she was well connected with two famous literary names!

Interestingly as a footnote, neither the original Lady Nelson or Emma Hamilton would live to see the monument to the admiral open in their lifetime. Nelson’s column was erected between 1840-3 at a cost of £47,000 (over £2m today), much of it from public subscription. Frances Nelson died in 1831 and Emma died, penniless, in 1815. Countess Nelson however lived until 1857 so may have strolled beneath the gaze of her illustrious relative by marriage.

[from The Morning Post, Sunday, January 29, 1838]