A little local difficulty: ‘political’ violence in early Victorian Stepney

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Politics, as we have seen recently, can sometimes get a little heated and nothing gets more heated than local politics. Having stood as a candidate for local elections in the recent past I can attest to long running petty squabbles between party workers, elected and defeated councilors, and their friends and families.

In one large east Midlands town there were dark mutterings about a Conservative councilor who had defected from Labour several years earlier simply because he thought it more likely to be re-elected if he stood for ‘the other side’.  The suggestion (made by his Conservative colleague, against whom I was contesting a seat) was that he only entered politics for the rewards it brought in terms of his local standing in the community; it mattered not whether he was part of a left or right political party, what mattered was being in government.

I’ve no idea if this was accurate or fair (and indeed I wondered at the time if there was a smack of racism in the comment) but historically the exercise of local government has involved a deal of self aggrandizement. It is also accurate to say that local politics has probably always been fractious though it doesn’t always end in violence as this particular example from 1847 did.

Charles Williams, a general dealer from Mile End, was attending  meeting of the Stepney parish vestry on Easter Monday 1847 when a man rushed into the room and interrupted them. Williams and his colleagues were tasked with electing parish officers when James Colt (a local undertaker and carpenter) interrupted them.  Colt pulled the chair out from underneath one of the candidates for the role of churchwarden, tipping him on to the floor, before slamming shut the room’s shutters – plunging it into darkness – and throwing the ink pot into the fire. He called everyone present ‘the most opprobrious names’ and challenged them all to a fight.

It was a quite bizarre episode and it seemed that Colt’s intention had been to close down proceedings because he believed they were being conducted either illegally or unfairly. An argument then ensued about the manner of the meeting and whether it conformed to the rules as they were understood. James Colt was, like the man he’d tipped out of the chair, been seeking election as parish officer (an overseer in Colt’s case) and he may have believed he was being excluded form the meeting so as to have missed this chance at a bit of local power.  Perhaps he was, and perhaps with good reason.

Eventually Colt was summoned before the magistrate at Thames to face a charge of assault. The paper concentrated on the shenanigans at the parish meeting and heard several claims and counter claims regarding the legitimacy or otherwise of the proceedings but for Mr Ballantine the magistrate the question was simple: had Colt committed an assault or not? It was fairly obvious to all present that he had and so the justice fined him £5 and let him go. I would suggest James Colt had demonstrated by his histrionics that he was entirely unfit for public office.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, April 9, 1847]

The wife of the Lord mayor is found sleeping rough in Islington.

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When Sergeant Gillett (31N) found Amelia Cooke and her children sleeping under the stars he decided to act. It wasn’t the first time the woman and her family had been picked up by the police – she was well know as a homeless person who refused to go into the workhouse.

On this occasion however, it being 2.30 in the morning, the police sergeant was concerned for the health of her children and decided to take them, and her, into custody. On Thursday 12 June 1851 he brought them and their mother to the Clerkenwell Police Court for Mr Tyrwhitt to decide what to do with them.

The magistrate was told that Amelia (27 years of age and described by the  Morning Chronicle’s reporter as ‘a sun-burnt haggard looking woman’) was regularly to be found around Islington sleeping in doorways or on the pavements. When quizzed as to why she would not take the help of the parish poor law authorities she explained that it would damage her case, as ‘she was entitled to considerable property’.

She told the desk sergeant that far from being destitute she was actually the wife of the sitting Lord Mayor of London, Alderman Musgrove. He had changed his name, she added, because ‘Cooke’ was far too common for a man of his status. The pair had been married at St. Nicholas’ Church in Liverpool and she had previously lived at 17 Wellington House, St. Pancreas where a sum of £350 (£28,000 in today’s money) had been left for her but she was refused access to.

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Sir John Musgrove was born in Hackney and had made his money by property speculation in the mid 1820s. While he may have travelled to Liverpool there is no record of him marrying there. In fact there is no record of him marrying at all, and when he died (in 1881) his baronetcy died with him, suggesting he had no male heirs.

Mr Tyrwhitt thought that Amelia was possibly ‘deluded’ and sergeant Gillet agreed. He wondered if the sufferings she’d been through in sleeping rough and hardly eating had ‘impaired her faculties’ and added that it was certainly ‘injuring her children’s health’.

The magistrate despatched an officer of the court to Mr Perch, one of the overseers of Clerkenwell, to make enquiries as to their future care.

Perch soon returned and said he advised taking the family into the workhouse so enquiries could be made into Amelia’s story (not that I think anyone apart from her believed it).  He’d spoken to the poor woman and was convinced that she was delusional. That made up Mr Tyrwhitt’s mind and he ordered Turner (the officer) to accompany the woman and her ‘miserable’ children to the workhouse.

But Amelia was a spirited woman and convinced of the truth of her story. She grabbed her children as they left the curt and tried to run away. When Turner caught hold of her she fought him at first before eventually being overpowered and led away to the ‘house. I doubt the Lord Mayor was even informed of the case, unless he chanced upon it over his breakfast of course.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, June 13, 1851]

 

A morbid request for a reward reminds London of the Princess Alice disaster

 

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For those of you following this blog regularly and especially this week I hope you can see that I have tried to follow the ‘doings’ of the Thames Police Court for a whole week. Due the selective reporting of the courts however, this has not proved possible. I had hoped to be able to follow a couple of remanded cases, to see them reappear with some conclusion reached, but sadly this hasn’t happened. It all helps me understand though, just how selective the reportage was and suggest readers were more interested in a variety of ‘titbits’ about the courts than they were in finding out exactly what occurs in each court on a regular basis.

Historical research is always problematic and we can learn from what we can’t find almost as much as we learn from what we do. There is also the unexpected gobbets of information that the newspapers offer, that can open up new avenues for research and understanding, there were two of these today.

On the 66th anniversary of Wellington’s victory at Waterloo the Standard newspaper chose to concentrate on two cases from the Woolwich Police Court. In the first a ‘reputed lunatic’, James Peacock, was sent for trial by jury for allegedly stealing rockets from the Royal Arsenal.

The other case concerned a boy who had summoned the overseers of the poor at Woolwich for non-payment of a reward he was due. The reward was for recovering a dead body from the Thames and this linked the police courts to a tragedy that had occurred three years earlier, in September 1878.

On the evening of the 3 September the Princess Alice, a pleasure steamer loaded with passengers, was passing the shore at Tipcock Point, North Woolwich, when it collided with another vessel, a collier barge, the Bywell Castle. The Alice went down in just four minutes, dragging its terrified passengers into the polluted river. Over 650 people, men , women and children, drowned in the river and the loss of life was shocking.

The tragedy lasted long in local and national memory and must have impacted Londoners in particular. Liz Stride, one of the victims of ‘Jack the Ripper’ even claimed she had lost her husband on the Princess Alice, a claim that doesn’t seem to have much substance.  Stride might have been trying to get some charitable relief following the disaster, as several institutions, including the Lord Mayor’s Mansion House Fund, paid out to victims’ families.

Appearing in Woolwich on behalf of the Overseers of the poor, Mr Moore a relieving officer, said that the Overseers or the Guardians were normally quite happy to pay out for the recovery of bodies from the river. The boy also had a certificate from a coroner saying he was entitled to the money, so that seemed settled, but it wasn’t.

Mr Moore  told the court that a recent ruling at the Court of Queen’s Bench that in the case of the Princess Alice there was no actual law that gave authority for the paying of rewards. The Thames, he explained, was not included as part of “the sea”, which was what the original reward referred to. The magistrate, Mr Marsham grumbled that he couldn’t see how the two were not connected; after all the Thames was a tidal river which seemed to bring it within the act. Nevertheless he was bound to abide by the superior courts’ ruling and he dismissed the summons.

However, apparently the case was being discussed in parliament he was told, and so the lad (not named in the report) was advised to hang onto his certificate in the hope that the situation was eventually resolved to his benefit.

[from The Standard, Saturday, June 18, 1881]

As this was the 66th anniversary of Waterloo several papers mentioned the battle. The Daily News dedicated a small column to 200th anniversary of the Scots Greys, the ‘oldest dragoon corps’ in the British Army.  The ‘Greys’ had served with distinction in the Crimea at the battle of Balaclava, where they ‘tore through the Russians as acrobats go through a paper hoop’ (as the reporter described it). Their charge at Waterloo, which was more brave than effectual (if military historians are to be believed), was forever immortalised in Lady Elizabeth Butler’s Scotland Forever which was painted in 1881, to celebrate the anniversary. 

[from Daily News, Saturday, June 18, 1881]

Smallpox brings death and difficult decisions to the Westminster Police Court

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Watercolour of a hand with smallpox by Robert Carswell in 1831 (Wellcome Library, London)

Mr Selfe had only just taken his seat at Westminster Police Court on the morning of the 12 April 1863 when the officer of health for the parish of St George’s, Hanover Square approached him. As a magistrate Selfe had to deal with all sorts of problems and issues of everyday life, but few were as sensitive as this.

The health officer, Dr Aldis of Chester Place, explained to the magistrate that a three year-old child had died of smallpox, a disease that remained widespread in poorer communities in the nineteenth century despite Edward Jenner’s best efforts to promote vaccination against it.

The unnamed child was lying in his cot so people could pay their respects, as tradition dictated, at a room in a house in Pimlico and Dr Aldis was worried about the public health consequences of this. The ‘small back room’ was home to the ‘boy’s father and mother and three other children’ and no fewer than 26 other persons lived in the property. Moreover, the doctor insisted, this was a crowded locality ‘in which the smallpox is very prevalent’.

He wanted to have the child buried quickly to avoid contagion but the mother was resistant. She wanted to grieve for her son and to do so in the customary way. The family were part of London’s large immigrant Irish community and they fully supported the bereaved mother.

Mr. Badderly, the overseer of the poor for the parish, had attempted arrange the funeral and had sent a man named Osborne to the house to try and remove the dead boy. He brought a small coffin and with the father’s permission placed the child within it. When the mother found it however, she removed her son and placed him back in his cradle. When Osborn objected a group of local Irish gathered and ‘intimidated him with their threats [so that] he felt compelled to retire’.

Here then was a clash between the parish and its obligations towards the health of the community and the very personal wishes of one grieving mother and her friends and family. Since the child’s father either agreed with the health officer or simply felt much less strongly that his wife, the court was bound to side with the parish. Mr. Selfe agreed that the child needed to be buried immediately, for the sake of public health, and since the father had no objection the mother’s wishes were of no consequence. The magistrate said that in his opinion ‘there could be impropriety in the police accompanying the parish officers to see that there was no breach of the peace from the removal of the child’.

It is a desperately sad story which reveals both the reality of infant mortality in the Victorian period and the poverty and overcrowding that condemned so many to a premature death. It also demonstrates the difficult decisions that some magistrates had to make when faced with evidence that ran counter to the wishes of individuals who had not done anything wrong or in any way ‘criminal’.

The mother’s desire to mourn for dead boy in her own way is completely understandable, but when this was countered by what was (at the time) understood to be a risk to the health of very many others, the justice’s decision is also easily understood. This week we have had the heart-rending story of the struggle of Connie Yates and Chris Gard who have lost the latest stage of their battle to keep their son, Charlie, alive in Great Ormond Street Hospital.

Mr. Justice Francis, who made the decision knew, as everyone in the court did, that when he told doctors ‘at Great Ormond Street that they could withdraw all but palliative care, was to all intents and purposes delivering a death sentence’.* He acted in what he considered to be the best interest of the child and against the interests of the parents. Time alone will tell whether he was right to do so.

At Westminster court in 1863 Mr. Selfe may have done the right thing, and saved many other lives. Given what we now know about smallpox it is unlikely that anyone would have caught it unless they had physical contact with the child whilst his exposed scabs still covered him, but the magistrate was not necessarily aware of that and so his actions were perhaps the best thing he could do in the circumstances.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, April 13, 1863]

*www.guardian.com [accessed 13/4/17]

Poverty, a pig and no small amount of pathos; a day in the life of London’s Police Courts

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Today’s post takes a handful of hearings from the Police Courts in early April 1834 to show the variety of both the reporting, and the types of cases that came before them. We should remember that while the press reports served as a source of information for the public about the ways in which crime and general ‘bad behaviour’ was being dealt with, they were also a source of amusement and diversion for many.

Firstly, at Bow Street, the dock was crowded as around eight Irish men took their place in front of the magistrate. Cornelius Donovan and his brother Timothy were the only defendants named by the reporter from the Morning Postperhaps because it was these two that spoke up in court.

The men were charged with assaulting a group of their fellow countrymen, the O’Neils. The fight had broken out as a result of dispute over the ownership of a property in St Giles. St Giles in the 1800s was synonymous with poverty, crime and was home to a large Irish population, now of course it is a much more fashionable part of the modern city, where the only evidence you’ll find of poverty are the Big Issue sellers and the rough sleepers in shop doorways.

The justice told all the men that he could not determine who had the legal entitlement to the house, they ‘would have to fight it out’. At this Tim Donovan ‘(interrupting His Worship)’, said ‘There, do you hear that? Come out of this, all of ye, and settle this at once’.

The poor magistrate had to raise his voice to correct the misunderstanding; what he meant was that the warring parties would have to ‘fight out’ their competing claims in a court of law, not on the street!. As he left the court Tim was heard to say, ‘By Jasus, we have got to begin all over again’.

From the amusing story of the fighting Irish (a familiar theme for the nineteenth-century press) we move to Marylebone Police Court. Here Thomas Allingham was accused of ill-treating a pig.

PC 117T (one of Peel’s new force) told the magistrate that he had been on his beat at 7 in the morning when he saw Allingham riding the large animal around a field off the Bayswater Road. According to the copper Allingham was ‘beating and spurring the poor animal in the most unmerciful manner, until it at last sunk down under its load and appeared nearly dead’.

When the policeman remonstrated with the lad he leapt off the pig and attacked him with a knife. He was charged with almost ‘boring’ the pig  to death and with assaulting a police officer. The magistrate ordered him to find bail against an appearance at the next sessions of the peace.

Finally, and perhaps appropriately for 1834 we have a case of destitution. This was the year which saw the passing of Poor Law Amendment Act; the piece of legislation which had the cruel intention of forcing the unemployed and sick to seek relief in a workhouse (rather than being assisted in the community). It was the brainchild of Edwin Chadwick who often gets a better press (as a social reformer and champion of pubic health) than I think he deserves. The New Poor Law was an awful imposition on the lives of the most vulnerable in English society and it has left a long dark stain on this nation’s history.

Mary Ann Davis, ‘a miserable-looking being clothed in rags, and carrying an infant in her arms’, was presented before Mr Shutt. A policeman said he had found the two of them sleeping rough in a doorway on Oxford Street between 10 and 11 the previous night. Given that they were in breach of the Vagrancy Laws he had escorted them to the police station.

Mr Shutt wanted to know if the woman had been drinking. ‘I don’t think she was’ the policeman reported,  but ‘she was shivering with cold, and the infant was crying’.

The magistrate turned to the mother and asked her when she had last slept in a bed. Some time ago, admitted Mary, and in St Giles so she was clearly down on her luck. She had been to Marlborough Street police office (the police courts were termed offices until later in the century) but had been sent away again.

No one there seemed to want to help her.

This justice was more sympathetic; he instructed an officer to take Ann and her child to the overseers of the poor at St Giles so they could receive her. She ‘must not’, he insisted, ‘be suffered to perish in the streets’. Whether the overseers did as they were asked is impossible to know for certain. Many thousands passed through their hands in the first half of the 1800s; this was a period where very many suffered from poverty and unemployment.

Chadwick’s ‘reform’ of the old poor law system was based on a recognition that rising population numbers were putting an increased pressure of the public purse. Sadly, as the continued presence of rough sleepers testifies, even our modern nation, with its extensive welfare provision, still fails a proportion of its citizens.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, April 07, 1834]

When prison is a better option than the Poor law

 

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The City of London workhouse

Ann Weeks and Sarah Hart were poor and they were starving.

They were so desperate  that they queued up to get into the London Union workhouse. Having not eaten for days they were admitted and given a bed for the night. But instead of the hot meal they had hoped for all they were given was ‘a small bit of dry bread’.

Their reaction was extreme and landed them in the Guildhall Police Court on the following day. Having decided that they would be better fed in prison the women started breaking the windows of the workhouse and pulling out the fittings in the hope that they would get convicted of wilful damage and sentenced to gaol.

The women admitted their crime and justified it on the grounds of desperation. The alderman magistrate had some sympathy for their plight and bemoaned the fact that ‘a gaol should be sought after as a superior refuge to the workhouse’.

The overseer admitted conditions were bad in his institution but said they were overwhelmed with paupers seeking shelter at night, since over 50 came to his door every evening.  The alderman said he had no choice but to give the women what they wanted and sent them to the Bridewell house of correction for two months.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Monday, March 8, 1841]

Two incorrigible beggars at Bow Street get no help and little sympathy

 

Mr. and Mrs Philips were well known to their parish officers and to the local charity groups that attempted to intervene in the lives of London’s poor in the 1880s.

The Charity Organisation Society was founded in London in 1869 with the intention to support ‘self-help’ and thrift over state intervention. At its head were two strong women – Helen Bosanquent (neé Dendy) and Octavia Hill (who went on to be a founder of the National Trust). The COS wanted people to help themselves and viewed poverty (as many did in the 1800s) as largely a personal failing.

Supporters of the COS disliked ‘outdoor relief’ (where families were given handouts without being required to enter the workhouse) and argued that the ‘workhouse test’ was a proper way of separating the needy from the work-shy.

However, it was often accepted that there were those who could not work and, at face value at least, Mr. and Mrs Philips seem to have fallen into that category.

Mr. Philips was blind and his wife had lost her right arm. In late January 1887 the pair made their way to the Bow Street Police Court in Covent Garden to ask for help.

Mr. Vaughan, the sitting magistrate, sent out for information about the couple, to ascertain what sort of people they were and what he might do to assist them. It didn’t take long for the various charity groups and local parish officials to get back to him. On the 27th the husband and wife attended his court to hear the results of his investigations.

It wasn’t good news.

The COS reported that that had initially being paying the pair 12s a week (about £35 or the equivalent of a day’s wages for a craftsman) but when they discovered that Mrs Philips was ‘constantly drunk’ and that Mr. Philips continued to go out begging, they stopped all support. The parish officers described them as ‘incorrigible beggars’ who they were constantly having to remove from the streets around their home in Euston Road.

They added that Mrs Philips drinking had reached such a point that her mental health was affected. According to one witness: ‘she ‘showed symptoms of softening of the brain through excessive drinking’.

Mr. Vaughan looked down at the couple from the bench and told them that there was nothing he could do for them while they continued to disobey the laws surrounding vagrancy and begging. In order to get help in late Victorian Britain paupers – whatever their situation – had to either submit themselves to the horrors of the workhouse or attempt to live up to the standards set by demanding middle ladies like Mrs Bosanquet and Octavia Hill; there was no middle ground if you couldn’t support yourself.

[from The Morning Post , Friday, January 28, 1887]