‘Haven’t you any smaller houses?’ An escaped lunatic at the duke’s front door

York or Stafford House, St James's Park, London

In the early hours of the morning the night porter at Stafford House, (the Duke of Sutherland’s London home), was summoned by the ringing of the front door bell. When he opened the door a man was stood there, looking distracted and disheveled, and who claimed to be the Duke himself.

Clearly he wasn’t the aristocrat in question and the porter told him to go away. Moments later he was back again trying to gain access through one of the downstairs windows. The porter called the police.

When PC 447A questioned him the man again insisted he was the duke and said he’d been out with the Prince of Wales and thought it best to get in by a window than to disturb the household via the front door. The constable was unconvinced by the man’s explanation, thought it likely he was mad, and arrested him.

Back at the police station the police doctor was called and he pronounced the man to ‘be insane’ after which he was locked up prior to being taken before Mr Flowers at Bow Street Police court in the morning.

In court he was alleged to be a wandering ‘lunatic’ by the name of Walter Trower. He was 21 years of age and described as being ‘well dressed’. The magistrate asked him if he had anything to say or any questions to ask. Trower simply continued to insist he was the Duke of Sutherland and that he had been out with the Prince of Wales. However, he clarified this to say that the prince was ‘with me’ adding that: ‘I believe that under the lunacy laws I am the Prince’s sovereign’.

Mr Flowers told him that he would be remanded in custody while investigations into his background were conducted. ‘Of course you will allow me to stop at Stafford House in the meanwhile?’ Trower asked.

Sadly not, the magistrate explained, but he assured him he would be very comfortable in the house of detention. ‘Well sir’ the defendant enquired, ‘if not there [Stafford House] I have other houses in London. The Duke of Portland’s house in Cavendish Square is also mine. I could stop there’.

‘Haven’t you any smaller houses?’ Flowers asked him, drawing laughter from his watching courtroom audience. ‘No, sir I am afraid I have not’ said Trowers before he was led away to the cells. Soon afterwards Inspector Horsley from A Division appeared to confirm that the poor man had escaped from an asylum in Peckham and Mr Flowers instructed that he should be taken back there as soon as was possible.

[from The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, June 27, 1874]

On June 15 Drew’s new book (co-authored by Andy Wise) was 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

‘He would have been alive only for my giving him what I did’: an 11 year-old admits to murder

Victorian-Cartoons-Punch-1849-09-08-97

In April 1883 a lad of 11 named Arthur Harris Syres was brought before the Lambeth Police court magistrate where he confessed to causing the death of his little brother in early February. Arthur admitted that he had given his infant brother – who was just 12 months old – rat poison and gave the address of the shop that he bought it from. The magistrate decided that the full details of the case needed more careful investigation and remanded Arthur to the care of the local workhouse so they could be carried out.

A week later Arthur was back in court and more details emerged. His home address was given as Park Row, Peckham and his dead brother was named as Alexander Syres. A police sergeant (26P) deposed that Arthur had been brought to the station house by his stepmother. She explained that he child had been taken ill and had been vomiting. The poor thing had died soon afterwards but the doctor she consulted initially thought it might have been a complication of teething. It was only after this that Arthur admitted that he had given Alexander some rat poison that he’d purchased specifically for that purpose.

The magistrate, Mr Ellison, thought it all sounded very strange and once again remanded Arthur in custody. One of the first reforms of juvenile justice in the nineteenth century had been to stop sending children to adult prisons whilst they were on remand, which was why he was secured at a workhouse.

Another week passed before the case returned to Lambeth. More details emerged: the police now believed that it was ‘vermin poison’ that was used and that Arthur had bought ‘a pennyworth’ at a doctor’s shop. The doctor appeared and said the boy’s confession didn’t hold up because he’d said he’d purchased it from another boy working there. He denied that any lad dispensed poisons on his counter but of course he might have been trying to distance himself from the tragedy.

The discussion returned to the initial hypothesis that Alexander had died as a result of complications in teething. Mr Ellison wanted to know if the symptoms of this might be similar to those caused by poison. Dr Hemmings, who treated the child, agreed that they might.  Since little Alex had already been buried the only way to establish the truth for certain was to have his body examined and for that the justice would have to apply to the Home Secretary for a legal exhumation.

On May 4 Arthur learnt that while no decision had yet been made as to digging up his brother’s body it had been decided that he had a case to answer. It was now likely that the 11 year-old would face trial for causing the death of his brother and he was remanded in custody once more. This meant that he had now been in custody and separated from his family for three weeks, not knowing the outcome of the case against him and most likely not having any meaningful legal support. It is hard to imagine the torments he was going through.

On Friday 25 May Arthur was again set in the dock at Lambeth and again asked whether he had given his brother poison.  The lad continued to admit his guilt and so although no independent verification of his story could confirm this to be true the justice, this time Mr Chance, had little choice but to formally commit him to take his trial at the Old Bailey.

The trial took place on the 28 May and was quite short. Sergeant Ledger gave evidence as did Arthur’s stepmother, Margaret Syres. She told the court how while they had all believed that baby Alex had died as a result of his teething Arthur had admitted his role in the baby’s death to his sister Ada.

‘He would have been alive only for my giving him what I did’, he reportedly said and, when questioned by his parents, said he’d taken rat poison himself before.

However, doubts remained as to whether Arthur had administered rat poison or red precipitate poison (mercurite oxide) and Dr Butters (where Arthur claimed to have bought a twist of powder from an errand boy) was adamant that his servant would not have been able to have sold the boy the former.

It then emerged that on New Year’s Eve 1882  Arthur had been charged with attempting to take his own life. Inspector Thomas Worth told the Old Bailey court that on that occasion Arthur had ingested phosphorous paste (which was sometimes used as a rat poison). When asked why he replied that he’d run away from home because his parents ‘ill used him’.

Arthur’s confession was again given in court but when asked the defendant had nothing to say for himself. The jury acquitted him of manslaughter and he was free to go after several weeks of trauma. Whether he was able to return home however, or wanted to, is quite another matter. While the court was unable (and perhaps unwilling) to prove that an 11 year-old boy was a killer it is clear that Arthur Syres was a very troubled youth. His mother had died and his father had remarried and started a new family. It seems as if he was struggling to cope with the adjustment and acted up in the most extreme of ways.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, April 14, 1883; The Hull Packet and East Riding Times, Friday, April 20, 1883; The Standard (London, England), Friday, April 27, 1883;The Standard, Saturday, May 05, 1883; Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, May 27, 1883]

NB: If you enjoy this blog series you might be interested in Drew’s jointly authored study of the Whitechapel (or ‘Jack the Ripper’) murders which is published by Amberley Books on 15 June this year. You can find details here:

‘labouring under considerable depression of spirits’: a young woman throws herself and her baby into the canal

Grand_Surrey_Canal,_1806

The Grand Surrey Canal on Davies’ Pocket Map of London, 1852

On Sunday 17 May 1840 a policeman (32P) was walking his beat, which took him along the Surrey Canal. This ran through Camberwell and Peckham to the Surrey Docks at Rotherhithe, but no longer exists.

It was between one and two in the morning and the moon (which had been full three days earlier) was waning. The copper thought he heard a splash and hurried to the bank. As he peered across the water he thought he saw something, a woman’s bonnet, floating in the canal. Without a thought, he ‘threw off his coat and cape and jumped into the water’.

The water engulfed him and he was soaked through as he thrashed about to find the woman he presumed had fallen in. The canal was nine feet deep at this point, quite deep enough for someone to drown in, but fortunately the policeman soon found a body in the water. He grabbed it and pulled the person to safety, hauling them up onto the towpath.

When he’d recovered himself he realized he had rescued a young woman and her infant child that she had ‘closely clasped in her arms’. He took them both to the station house and then on to the Camberwell workhouse where they were able to get a change of clothes. The next morning he collected her and brought her to the Union Hall Police court to face questions about her actions from the magistrate.

After PC 32P had given his evidence another officer testified to having seen the woman, Mary Doyle, walking by the canal late at night. He had assumed she was lost and accompanied her back to safety. Mary told the justice she had no idea how she had ended up in the water and said that whatever feelings she had about her own life she would never have endangered her child.

Attempting suicide was an offence in 1840 as of course was attempting to kill your own child. It was evident however, that Mary was not herself. The paper reported that:

 ‘she was labouring under considerable depression of spirits’ and there was a suggestion that the child was illegitimate, and so perhaps Mary was trying to end her own life, and that of her infant, in order to escape the shame of ‘an illicit intercourse’.

The magistrate decided to remand her for further enquiries. He added that if she could find bail he’d be happy to release her to her friends. Sadly, no friends had appeared in court that morning so she was taken back to the cells.

Now PC 32P asked the court if anything could be done for him. He had risked his life, he pointed out, and had got soaked through and his uniform soiled in the process. Could he be ‘recompensed for what he had done?’

While it may sound a little ungallant in the circumstances, he did have a point. Policemen were responsible for their own uniforms and he would have to get his cleaned, presumably at his own expense. Unfortunately for him the clerk explained that there was no fund available for him, and suggested he apply to the Humane Society which paid out rewards for those that ‘saved the lives of others’.

The Humane Society (now ‘Royal’) was founded in 1774 by two doctors who wanted to promote resuscitation, and made awards to those that rescued others from the ‘brink of death’. They set up ‘receiving houses’ throughout the capital where people could be brought to recover. It still exists and continues its work recognizing the efforts of lifesavers, but it no longer offers rewards.

If the policeman did approach them he was likely to have been given around £5 (or £300 in today’s money), quite sufficient for him to get his tunic cleaned and pressed, and to be able to dine out on the story for months afterwards. As for Mary, she disappears from the records at this point so hopefully she survived and avoided being prosecuted. Who knows, perhaps the shock of her brush with death was enough of a prompt to turn her life around.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, May 19, 1840]

p.s. On 10 February 1840 Queen Victoria married her prince, Albert to begin what was undoubtedly one of the few ‘love matches’ in the history royal marriages at the time. Today of course is the wedding of Prince Harry to Meghan Markle. I’m no royalist – quite the opposite in fact – but this is clearly a marriage based on love and not dynastic expedience. This is also a revolutionary marriage in its own small way: Harry, an English prince descended from Victoria, is marrying an American commoner, and a person of mixed race. This is (almost) then a ‘normal’ marriage, and continues the modernisation of the royal family that began under Harry’s mother, Diana. I will doff my red cap to them both today, and wish them well (but I shan’t be watching on television!)

Do you know the muffin man (and is he annoying you)?

Do you know the muffin man?
The muffin man, the muffin man.
Do you know the muffin man
Who lives in Drury Lane?

Are you familiar with this old nursery rhyme? It was probably first written down in the early 1800s but it reminds of us of a time when many people bought their food and household goods and services from street vendors or door-to-door salesmen.

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These were men and women like the ‘muffin man’ in the illustration above (from Punch in 1890). They attracted the attention of the householders by ‘crying’ their goods in songs and making a noise (by, for example, ringing a bell). I remember the ‘rag and bone’ man’s bell in Finchley in the 1970s, and we still have ice cream vans with their familiar tunes.

It was vital for the tradesmen to be able to advertise their wares because they how else would you know they were there? There were plenty of advertisements in the 1800s (just look at any photograph of a street scene and you will see the buildings and buses literally covered in promotional material) but there was no television or radio to promote yourself on.

Increasingly it seems however that street sellers were coming into conflict with the very people they wanted to sell too, because not everyone appreciated the disturbance they caused. The police, who had tried to regulate the streets since the 1830s, often chose to turn a blind eye unless local residents complained. In December 1879 some householders in Lambeth did complain, and the problem reached the Police Courts.

Mrs Hart, and other residents of Brunswick Terrace in Camberwell Road, south London appeared before the magistrate at Lambeth to lodge a complaint against a muffin man and other tradesmen for disturbing their peace. Mrs Hart’s daughter was ‘very seriously ill’ she told the justice, ‘and the noises on Sundays as well as on other days from muffin bells were most annoying and unpleasant’.

Sunday had become a ‘day of torment and misery instead of rest’, she said and added that whenever she remonstrated with the man he ignored her, and went off laughing and ringing his bells without any consideration for her or her daughter.

Thomas Pitten, who lived in Peckham, came into to add his voice in support. He said the muffin man was bad but so were ‘the vendors of coal and other articles, whose noises were terrible’. His wife was also sick and he had complained to the salesmen but to no avail.

The justice, Mr Ellison, turned to the muffin man (who was not named in the report) and told him he was guilty, under the terms of the Police Act, of making a disturbance. He said that on this occasion he would be lenient and simply charge him the cost of the summons but that the noise and nuisance must cease herewith; if he was to come before him again he would ‘heavily fined’.

I’m not sure what the muffin man could do about that except to take his business elsewhere. Most likely if he did desist then his trade would suffer and the other residents would lose the convenience of a delivery service unless they booked him. Complaints such as this probably helped move the retail trade away from this sort of business and into the more fixed premises we recognise in our high streets today. Is this a good thing?

Personally I’d quite like a warm muffin right now, without having to find my nearest bakery or supermarket.

[from The Standard, Friday, December 19, 1879]