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

Russell-Street

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]

“Buy British!” is the cry from Smithfield (but check it is fit to eat)

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Smithfield Market (c.1890)

George Waller junior was a butcher like his father and traded from the Central Meat Market at Smithfield. In April 1889 he was, as was normal, selling meat from his stall in front of the wholesale shop operated by his father. Once the wholesale business of the market was concluded the public were able to come and buy directly from the trade.

George was offering cheap offal that morning, in this case lamb kidneys. And he was selling at a knockdown price. Where normally these would be advertised at 26d  to 3s   6a dozen Waller was selling them at just 6a dozen. It was a real bargain and it drew the attention of punters but also one of the meat inspectors.

Inspector Terrett came over to the stall and examined the goods on sale. He found that the kidneys were ‘putrid’ and not fit for human consumption, so he seized them. In June George Waller was summoned before the magistrate at the Guildhall (Smithfield falling under the City of London’s jurisdiction) to answer a charge of selling diseased meat to the public. In court Waller offered a limited defense, claiming that while he was charged with selling 121 putrid kidneys there were only 46 for which he was liable. He added that they came from imported German sheep and so he shouldn’t really be blamed.

The alderman magistrate brushed this aside but did comment that it was unfair if imported meat was not expected to be of the same standard as domestic produce:

I take a very strong view of the case’ he said. ‘Foreigners can send filthy stuff to England, and have no liability, whereas our own subjects would be liable’.

Goodness knows what he would make of chlorinated chicken…

In the end he decided that Waller would be fined but excused him the whole penalty, having some limited sympathy for him. Instead of paying 20each for 121 items of ‘bad meat’ he would pay just £36 and he hoped it would be a lesson to him to be more careful in future where he got his produce from.

[from The Standard, Friday, June 07, 1889]

On 16 October 1888 George Lusk, the chairman of the Whitechapel Vigilance committee (set up as a communal reaction to the police’s inability to catch the Whitechapel murderer) received a very unpleasant parcel in the post. When he opened it Lusk found a small part of a human kidney wrapped in a little box with a letter attached. It read:

Sir, I send you half the Kidne I took from one woman preserved it for you. tother piece I fried and ate it was very nise. I may send you the bloody knif that took it out if you only wate a while longer signed Catch me when you can

Mishter Lusk.

The letter was addressed ‘From Hell’ and has become one of the most contested pieces of evidence in the Jack the Riper mystery. 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:

A dishonest butcher is hooked

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Thomas Dubbin had enjoyed a steady job as a butcher’s foreman working for a respectable business on The Strand. But his relationship with his employer, Mr Grant, had soured and, after a decade of employment, Grant suspected him of dishonesty.

Nowadays firms (especially retail companies) try to solve these issues in house. Investigations into pilfering or fraud usually start with disciplinary hearings and only involve the police if it is serious, or the accused employee does not confess quickly to their offending. It seems here though that Mr Grant immediately took his concerns to police and consulted two detectives, DS Partridge and DS Drew.

Mr Grant then had a visit from one of the lads he employed , whose name was Marshall. Marshall told him that the foreman had approached him and ‘incited him to steal some kidneys and take them to a neighbouring  shoemaker’s’.

This gave the butcher the hook he required to explose his dishonest employee.

Young Marshall acted as he had been told and took the offal to the shoemaker’s premises. Meanwhile the police kept Dubbin under observation to see what he did. Sure enough he went straight to the shoemaker’s workshop where he collected the kidneys. The police were waiting for him and he was arrested.

The magistrate was disgusted with his behaviour; partly because of the dishonesty in robbing a master he had served for 10 years, and for inciting a much younger member of staff to steal on his behalf. Thomas Dubbin was sent to prison for 3 months at hard labour and lost his steady employment too.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, July 11, 1883]