Three cheers for health and safety as the ‘filthy’ reality of Bermondsey is exposed.

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Mr. A’Beckett’s courtroom at Southwark was packed in late September 1854 as the Bermondsey Improvement Commissioners brought a series of ‘health and safety’ actions against local businesses. We tend to think of ‘H&S’ as being a modern thing, often something forced on society by European bureaucracy. The reality is that it has a very long history in Britain, at least as far back as the Victorians.

The complaints, presented by Mr Ballantine of Messrs. Drew and Gray, solicitors, lasted several hours and focused on activities being carried out underneath the railway arches of the South Eastern Railway Company, near Russell Street.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth century this area of south London was associated with the leather trade. There were numerous tanneries and curriers in this ‘Land of Leather’ and some of these trades, such as Garner’s jappanning workshop, were operating from under the arches of the railway.

This was a problem for locals because the fumes were, according to the commissioners, causing a nuisance. By nuisance Mr Ballantine meant illness, injury and death. Not only to locals but to anyone travelling on the railways above, and especially those coming into London from the countryside.

James Oates operated a bone boiling works under the arches and this was particularly unpleasant to travellers. At present it was, the prosecution alleged, ‘dangerous in the extreme’:

‘and parties coming in from the pure air in the country […] were sickened by the noisome effluvia emitted from the defendant’s premises below’.

Jane Prior’s work involved melting used cooking fat and the smell was obnoxious. The commissioners condemned her trade as ‘filthy in the extreme, and dangerous to the health of the locality’. Ralf Sockhart had a similar business. His involved boiling offal to make pet food and was equally disgusting and offensive to locals.

The magistrate listened carefully as a string of cases were brought against the occupants of the arches, many of whom must have been practicing their trades for several years. The second half of the nineteenth century was witnessing a coordinated effort to remove ‘nuisances’ from the densely occupied parts of the capital. The cattle market at Smithfield – part of London life since the medieval period – was moved out of the centre to clear the thoroughfares. This series of actions against the ‘dirty trades’ of Bermondsey has to be seen in the context then of ‘improvement’.

In all the cases the magistrate sided with the Commissioners even if he sympathized with the businesses, none of whom were rich.  All were given time – a month – to find new premises, hopefully far away from the homes of residents. Mr Ballantine hoped that press coverage of the proceedings would also warn the railway companies that they were expected to take more responsibility in letting out the arches they owned.

‘It was monstrous’, he declared, ‘that these arches should be kept for such purposes, merely for their profit, much to the injury of the public health’.

And there of course was the point of these proceedings and, I might suggest, the point of health and safety legislation. The laws existed (indeed exist) to protect the public from dangerous practices. When chemicals and gases are being used in enclosed premises there is a risk of diseases, fire, explosions and the Victorians recognized that some trades had to be separated out and placed a long way from peoples’ homes. The people concerned were, more often than not, those that could not afford to bring private prosecutions against large companies and rich businessmen. So the Commissioners, for all their interference and accusations of ‘nannying’, were standing up for those who were otherwise rendered silent.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, September 28, 1854]

‘A most mischievous piece of fun’: a lawyer gets his comeuppence.

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Richard Thursgill and his family were awakened by someone ringing violently on their doorbell.  It was about a quarter past one in then morning of the 18 September 1878 and, in that respectable part of Ludgate Hill alarms like this usually meant one thing: fire! Despite being ill the whole family rose from their beds and rushed downstairs.

There was no fire however, and no one to be seen in the street outside either. Then, around five minutes later PC Martin of the City force appeared at the door with a young man. He’d caught him hiding near by after watching him ringing on the bell pull. The pull itself was almost wrenched clean off, so violent had the man’s actions been. The PC wanted to see if Mr Thursgill wanted to press charges.

He did and so the case ended up before Sir Andrew Lusk at the Guildhall Police court. There the young man gave his name as Arthur Stapleton, a solicitor of 62 Bishopsgate Street-without. He denied the charge and his lawyer assured the magistrate that his client was a respectable young law graduate and not the sort of person to do such a thing.

Really, the magistrate asked? In his experience this sort of ‘abominable’ behavior – ringing people’s doorbells and worrying them into thinking a fire had broken out – was exactlythe sort of thing ‘young solicitors and students did for a “lark”.

He had no doubt Stapleton was ‘respectable’ (and did not need him to produce the character witnesses he promised to prove it), but the only question he was concerned with was identification. Could PC Martin be sure that it was this person that had caused the annoyance?

Quite sure the policeman replied, there was no one else in the vicinity at that time and he’d seen him do it. In that case Sir Andrew said, he had no choice. For his ‘most mischievous piece of fun’ young Stapleton would have to pay the princely sum of 20s. He would have charged him less had been less ‘respectable’, merely 10s, but under the circumstances he could well afford 20s.

Let’s pause for a moment to share our collective sorrow for a solicitor being overcharged…

[from The Standard, Wednesday, September 18, 1878]

A ‘terrible nuisance to respectable persons’: the selling of ‘ladies tormentors in late Victorian London

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The Marlborough Street Police court dock was pretty crowded on the last day of May 1887. William Waller, William Bryan, Margaret Loosley, John Dean, William Smith, John Coleman, John Reardon, Michael Donnellan, Samuel Maidwell and Thomas Gambier all started up at Mr Mansfield as he listened to the evidence against them.

They had been rounded up by the police and charged with selling ‘squirts’ and ‘thus enabling persons to commit assaults’. The prosecution was brought individually, as they had all been involved but in different places. A Mr Alsop said that he had first complained about the problem but the law was unclear on whether their activities were prescribed or not.

He clearly wanted something done about the ‘squirt nuisance’, but what was it? It seems that the men and women were selling what we would describe as water pistols but these were filled with something unpleasant, not necessarily dangerous, but a liquid that stained or had a very bad smell. The Times described it (in 1876) as ‘a peculiarly abominable scent’1and the pistols sold as ‘ladies tormentors’.

After similar complaints by residents the police had posted up notices prohibiting the sale of such ‘weapons’ but the accused had ignored them. The previous night had seen London’s parks lit up by illuminations and this had drawn crowds on to the streets. Crowds brought mischief and opportunities to sell ‘squirts’ and occasioned this mass occupation of the Marlborough Street dock.

The magistrate agreed that the use of squirts was a ‘terrible nuisance to respectable persons’ but he wasn’t clear that any law had been broken by selling them. It wasn’t as if they were lethal weapons – like guns – which already had restrictions on their sale.  It was, he said, akin to the school playground where things were commonly thrown around but not intended to cause real harm. An educated man, he regaled the court with the history of the carnival in Rome where ‘bon-bonsetc, were thrown at passers-by’.

He was sure the police were right in trying to suppress the problem but until the legislature acted to prohibit it there was very little he could do to stop it and punish anyone for selling squirts. If, however, those using them were brought before him he would do his utmost to punish them as the law allowed. So the crowded dock was cleared and the squirt sellers dismissed.

1 The Times 1879 from a tweet by Lee Jackson, [24/5/16]

[from The Standard, Tuesday, June 01, 1880]

On June 15 Drew’s new book (co-authored by Andy Wise) is published by Amberley Books. It is a new study of the Whitechapel murders of 1888 which offers up a new suspect, links the ‘Jack the Ripper’ killings to the unsolved ‘Thames Torso’ crimes, and provides the reader with important contextual history of Victorian London. The book is available to order on Amazon here

An ‘infernal din’ disturbs the peace on the Sabbath and lands the Salvation Army in court

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It was 10.30 on a Sunday morning in late April 1896 and Mr Eamonson had settled down to write in his study when, once again, his peace was broken by the sound of music playing in the street outside. He set aside his work and went outside to remonstrate with those responsible, as he’d done more than once before.

There were six or eight members of the Salvation Army assembled on the opposite side of Burdett Road in East London, and they had drawn a small crowd around them. He approached John Murfitt who was banging a large drum and asked him, ‘please to stop, or go away’.

Murfitt took no notice and the band played on.

Eamonson tried again, cupping his hands and shouting for them to stop or play somewhere else.

Ignored three times he set off in search of a policeman to complain to. Eventually he found one and accompanied him back to Burdett Road to ask the Army band to desist.  The officer tried to take their names and addresses on the grounds that they were causing a nuisance and obstructing the pavement but it was difficult given the ‘infernal din’ they were making.

In the end two of the band (Murfitt the drummer and Charles White) were summoned before Mr Mead at Thames Police court on the dual accusations of refusing to stop making a disturbance after having being requested to, and of obstruction of the thoroughfare. The men denied both charges.

In essence the men of William Booth’s ‘army’ tried to argue that they couldn’t hear what was being said to them, so weren’t aware that Eamonson had requested them to stop. Their solicitor, a Mr Frost, told the court that the Army ‘always cheerfully acquiesced in any suggestion’  that they should refrain from disturbing the peace but hinted that on this occasion his clients were the victims of an ‘organized attack’. Perhaps Eamonson was a serial complainer and simply didn’t like the Salvation Army.

He would not have been alone; in its early years Salvationists like Murfitt and White suffered considerable abuse from all classes in Victorian society. They were ridiculed, chased down the street, and prosecuted as a nuisance. It is quite hard to imagine the global success and acceptance that they have today.

Mr Mead was a stickler for the law and so he trod a careful path around this pair of summons. He agreed with the lawyer that the playing of music was not illegal and that any obstruction caused was minor, technical in fact, but not worthy of a summons. However, he was also clear that Mr Eamonson had been disturbed by a band playing loudly outside his home on a Sunday morning.

In many persons’ eyes the essence of the Sabbath is quietness’, he stated, and so he could ‘quite understand the Complainant being annoyed’.

He told Frost that if his clients gave an undertaking not to play there in the future he would dismiss the summonses. The lawyer waivered, not wanting to commit the Army to signing up to self-enforced restrictions, but Mr Mead pressed him.

‘Perhaps you would like to consider your position’, he told him. Further prosecutions could follow if others objected to the Army setting up a band outside their homes but hopefully if they took sensible cognizance of this action they could continue their form of recruitment without the need to defend themselves in court.

It was an invitation to common sense: leave Mr Eamondson and others like him alone, and the Salvation Army band could continue to play. Persist in disturbing his peace and the law would probably find for the complainant. Mead decided to end proceedings by adjourning the hearing sine die, meaning that it was effectively postponed indefinitely. Like Mr Eamonson the worthy magistrate had no desire to hear from the Salvation Army in his court again and, if they followed the advice he’d give, he wouldn’t have to.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, April 28, 1896]

Ghostly goings on in Westminster : everybody needs good neighbours.

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The act of going to law was often a last resort, a necessary act to put an end to a problem that had resisted all attempts resolution. While it was sometimes suggested that the poorer classes enjoyed their ‘day in court’ it was equally observed that the middle classes feared the taint by association of appearing before a magistrate.

Mr Henry Payne seems to have been one of those who would rather not have resorted to law, and who was keen to avoid a repeat appearance. The respectable dyer was not in trouble with the police, instead he was the victim of persistent and escalating intimidation. The cause was unknown but the middle aged dyer, who lived in Rochester Row in Westminster, was pretty clear who was the culprit.

He blamed his young well-to-do neighbor, George Champion. For several weeks Mr Payne had been ‘annoyed by mysterious stone throwing’. When he tried to find out who was responsible his neighbour muttered darkly about his house being haunted, and this rumour soon spread amongst the other nearby occupants of Rochester Row.

Payne’s house was sandwiched between Champion’s and that of Mr Cocks, an undertaker. He too had suffered from stones and broken bricks being tossed into his back yard or small items hitting his windows. Both men had complained to the police who sent an officer to keep watch.

Payne had boarded his yard to protect his family from the missiles that sailed over, mostly during the night. His wife and children didn’t dare set foot out there, and poor Henry was going out of his mind with ‘the annoyance’.

Finally, when a large stone broke a skylight in his roof he had enough and opted to take legal action. He applied for a summons to bring Champion before the magistrate at Westminster Police court where he appeared, smartly and fashionably dressed, on the 28 November 1890.

Mr De Rutzen questioned all of those involved. Payne gave his evidence in a rush, clearly perturbed by the whole affair. Inspector Webber for the police, said that his men had seen nothing thrown but had felt one! This brought a moment of levity to the court as everyone imagined the poor policeman being struck by a ‘ghostly’ missile.

In the end, and probably because Mr Payne was reluctant to take it further and since Champion was clearly a member of the wealthier class, the justice opted for a ‘common-sense’ approach. He suggested that so long as the nuisance stopped there was no need to do anything else. Mr Payne was not asking for compensation for the skylight, he just wanted some peace from ‘the ghosts’. Champion walked free from court but with a reminder that if the stone throwing restarted Mr De Rutzen was very open to issuing a second summons, and then the dyer and his neighbours might not be so reasonable.

[from The Standard , Saturday, November 29, 1890]

An ‘Eliza Doolittle’ has her living taken away from her

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Poor Ellen MacCarthy. All she wanted to do was sell a few flowers to the visitors around St Paul’s but she fell foul of the City’s restrictions on street vendors. As a result she was arrested, had her violets taken off her, and she ended up in front of the alderman magistrate at Guildhall.

Giving evidence against her PC 371 (City) stated that he had seen Ellen ‘annoying and stopping’ passers-by in St Paul’s Churchyard at 7 in the evening on Saturday 26 October 1850. He said there had been ‘repeated complaints’ from local inhabitants about flower sellers and so he told Ellen to move along.

Although she  initially obeyed his instruction she was soon back again, selling violets to anyone who would buy them – just like a Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady does at Covent Garden. The copper confiscated her basket and sent her away again.

Ellen was not to be deterred however: within the hour she was back with a new stock of violets, although this time she was selling them from a saucepan as the policeman had withheld her basket. Presumably infuriated the policeman now arrested her and took her back to the station. She was later bailed out, but without her stock.

Alderman Sidney was cross with the policeman who he felt had overstepped himself. There was no need, he said, for the police to detain the poor woman’s violets – how else was she to make a living? Yes, he agreed, she was causing a nuisance and the copper was correct in moving her on, and in arresting her, but once bailed her flowers should have been returned to her.

Ellen said that her violets were now ‘quite dead’ and unfit for sale so she was out of pocket to the tune of 16d, a sum she ‘could ill afford to lose’. The alderman sympathized with her but she had been in the wrong and so decided she had been punished enough by the loss and let her go with a caution not to appear before him on a similar charge in the future.

PC 371 left court probably wondering what he’d done to earn the opprobrium of the ‘beak’ when he’d only been doing his duty. Flower girls like Ellen were not that far removed  (in the public mind) from prostitutes in mid Victorian London, and St Paul’s Courtyard was notorious as a place for that ‘trade’ as well. Perhaps the alderman saw something else in Ellen, just as Henry Higgins did with Eliza.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, October 29, 1850]

Here are two other stories from the police courts that feature ‘Elizas’

“I ain’t done nothing wrong by speaking to the gentleman”: a real life flower girl in trouble with the law

A ‘barbarous’ attack on ‘Eliza Doolittle’ at Charing Cross

 

‘Here are people dying of cholera owing to the most foul and disgusting nuisance’: an East End landlady is brought to book.

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In August 1849 Mrs Isabella Blaby was summoned before the magistrate at Thames Police court to answer a charge that she was exposing her neighbours to a most ‘intolerable odour’.

The now widowed Mrs Blaby was well known to the court as her husband had worked there until his death a few years earlier. But any sympathy that Mr Combe (the sitting magistrate) might have had for her quickly evaporated as he heard the evidence against her. Mrs Blaby ran a number of lodging houses in East London: one in Batty Street (a street later to become infamous as home to Israel Lipski, hanged for murder in 1887, and Francis Tumblety, a suspect in the ‘Ripper’ case) and two others in Charles Street.

A cess pit at the rear of her properties in Charles Street was overflowing into the yards at Phillip Street nearby via damaged wall, and the stench was unbearable. This caused the tenants there to complain and Thomas Overton, the local inspector of nuisances, was sent round to investigate.

He had already had dealings with Isabella having previously ordered her to deal with a similar problem at her Batty Street tenement, but she clearly hadn’t taken his orders seriously enough. He now discovered that as well as the smell there were potentially fatal health consequences associated with the ‘nuisance’. Given that there had been several outbreaks of cholera in the area, and she seemingly wasn’t  dealing quickly enough with the problem, Overton had no alternative but to bring Mrs Blaby to court.

At the Thames Police court hearing Mr Combe was told that two people were in hospital and the surgeons had warned that unless the cesspit was emptied immediately, and thereafter more regularly, there was a very real risk of further outbreaks.

In her defence Mrs Blaby said she had ‘compoed’ the wall that surrounded the pit (which was was found to be in a poor state of disrepair thus causing it to leak into the adjoining yards) and added that the cess pit had been emptied just six months earlier.

Six months ago? Asked the justice, that was ‘too long, too long’, he told her. ‘Empty them immediately, or you will be liable to a fine of 10s a day’.

Mrs Blaby said was happy to get someone to empty the cess pit of ‘night soil’ the following day, but this was not good enough for Mr Combe.

‘I can’t give you authority to remove night soil in the day time’, he insisted, ‘You must do it this very night, and before five o’clock tomorrow morning. Here are people dying of cholera owing to the most foul and disgusting nuisance’.

The landlady left court agreeing to sort out the issue straight away but her cavalier attitude towards her tenants and her neighbours can’t have filled the bench or the local health inspectors with confidence and it speaks volumes about the conditions people in the East End were living in at the time.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, August 17, 1849]