An extraordinary tale of the escaped convict who panned for Australian gold

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On Saturday 20 July 1867 the dock at Lambeth Police court was occupied by a ‘miserably-attired man’ of about 40 years of age. Thomas Nugent, of no fixed abode, was charged with having escaped from the penal colony at Van Diemen’s Land 15 years earlier.

PC Waghorn (101L) said that Nugent had walked into the Kennington Lane Police station to give himself up. He was, he declared to the desk sergeant, ‘without home or friends and perfectly destitute’. He felt he had no other option that to surrender to justice.

Nugent explained that he had been convicted of committing at burglary in Manchester and sentenced to ten years transportation at the assizes held for Kirkdale, Lancashire. He’d gone to Norfolk Island, a notorious penal settlement, but escaped during a mutiny there. For a time he’d found work prospecting in the Australian gold rush and earned enough money to buy his passage back to England. He stayed with his father, a navy pensioner, at Greenwich, before enlisting in the army.

He served in the 64thfoot in Persia (modern Iran) and during the Indian war of independence (or ‘Mutiny’) of 1857. He was discharged with a small pension after suffering a series of injures and being declared unfit. Since then he’d found work on the docks but it was back breaking and his body couldn’t cope with it.  As a result he was forced onto the streets to fend for himself as best he could.

It was an extraordinary story, as the newspaper report stated, and the magistrate was keen to discover whether it was a fantasy or not. He remanded Nugent in custody and requested the police and clerk to very the man’s tale.  At least in the meantime he’d get food, a bed and shelter for a few days.

It seems he was telling the truth, at least about his transportation, or at least in part. The Digital Panopticon reveals that in August 1843 a Thomas Nugent was convicted at Lancaster of a burglary. He had one previous conviction for ‘offences against property’. Nugent arrived in Norfolk Island in May 1846 but absconded in July 1849. He was caught, but ran away several more times before he disappears from the records in 1850. So while he got his dates wrong it is possible, likely even, that this was the same Thomas Nugent. By 1867 transportation to Australia had all but ended so perhaps now he felt safe in handing himself in.

[from The Standard, Monday, July 22, 1867]

Charles Dickens celebrates the newspaper industry and its portrayal of ‘modern’ British society

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Given that surviving archival records of the Metropolitan Police courts of the Victorian period are very few are far between for the past few years I’ve spent a considerable amount of my time reading nineteenth-century newspapers. While I stick mostly to the ‘police intelligence’ it is impossible not to occasionally get distracted by the other news stories they covered. Living, as we do, in a society where news is now 24/7 and delivered instantly via tiny super powerful computers that fit in our pockets, it is hard to imagine sometimes how important the  Victorian press was to the dissemination of news and ideas to our ancestors. So, in a break from the norm today I want to highlight a speech that was reported in 1862 in the Daily News by none other than Charles Dickens, arguably England’s greatest ever novelist.

In May 1862 the Newsvendors Benevolent Institution celebrated their 23rdanniversary with a banquets at the Freemason’s Tavern in Great Queen Street (below right). Freemasons'_TavernThis is not the current Freemason’s Hall which is just further up the street but was on the site of what is now the Connaught Hotel. Regardless, it was a grand affair and with Dickens in the chair, no doubt an entertaining evening was had by all.

The famous author and public speaker opened by praising the man that had deputized for him the year before, Wilkie Collins. In 1861 Dickens had toothache and so had handed the chair to his friend but now expressed some regrets so well had his fellow novelist performed. ‘If I ever find myself obliged to provide a substitute again’, Dickens declared, ‘they may implicitly rely on my sending them the most speechless man of my acquaintance!’.

He then went, at some length, to list the ways in which the newspaper covered the whole gamut of life in Victorian Britain and the world. He did this by imagining himself peering over the shoulder of a reader, just as many of us will have done on a tube train or bus, trying to catch a story that has made the headlines.

The newspapers, Dickens noted, tell us who is born, who married, and who has died, and how. Other points and events in our lives are also recorded, especially if they are the lives of royalty or the famous. I’m struck by the fact that just the other week a baby was born in London and this made the news, even though millions of babies are born every day, all over the world. This baby was special of course, because Archie Windsor was the son of a prince and his new American born spouse.

Dickens noted that it was in the newspaper that the reader discovered that ‘there are great fleets bound to all the ports of the  world’ and here that they would find what these fleets carried, what space they had, where you might purchase a ticket to travel on them, and even find out what the ships were made of. Here were adverts for almost anything you could want (and many things you certainly wouldn’t need):

Still glancing over the shoulder of my newsman, I find I am offered all kinds of houses, lodgings, clerks, servants, and situations which I can possibly or impossibly want. I learn to my intense gratification that I need never grow old, that I may always preserve the juvenile bloom of complexion, that if I ever become ill it is entirely my own fault, that I may have no more grey hair. If I have any complaint and want brown cod liver oil or a Turkish bath I am told where I can get it, and that if I want an income of £7 a week I have only to send for it enclosing half-a-crown’s worthy of postage stamps’.

Along with the adverts (spurious and genuine) Dickens cited the political news that the papers reported. Here, he said, you could find out what the Home Secretary had to say about the ‘last outrage, the last railway accident, or the last mine explosion’, only to be told that the minster of state had said that ‘he knew nothing of the occurrence beyond what he had read in the newspapers’!

Dickens himself had reported from the law courts before he had ‘made it’ as an author of popular stories. He told his captive audience at the Freemason’s Tavern that the reporting of the police courts of the capital would inform the reader that:

if I have a propensity to indulge, I may very cheaply bite off a human being’s nose, but that if I presume to take off from a butcher’s window the nose of a dead calf or pig, it will cost me exceedingly dear’.

Once the laughter had settled down he went on to add:

and also find that if I allowed myself to be betrayed into the folly of killing an inoffensive tradesman upon his own doorstop, that little incident will not affect the testimonials to my character, but that I shall be described as a most amiable young man, and above all things, remarkable for the singular inoffensiveness of my character and disposition’.

Dickens was an astute observer of course and in many of the reports of court cases the defendants are described in flattering terms despite the crimes they are accused of, especially if they are drawn from the ranks of ‘respectable’ society.

He then went on to list the theatrical and other arts news that could be found in the papers, even though he noted that it was hardly ‘news’ at all. He ended with a tour around foreign and international news suggesting that the London press reported incidents and events that in some countries (he mentioned Japan as an example) would never be reported. This echoes today’s world news  where British and European readers may well be better informed of what is happening in some closed societies (like China, Saudi Arabia or North Korea) than the people living there.

News, after all, is power.

Charles Dickens finished his speech with a toast to the men (and ladies) of the institution who raised funds for those vendors who fell on hard times. The evening raised around £100 for the charity which would be used to provide pensions for the men who sold the newspapers that carried all of this news to the public. £100 in 1862 amounts to about  £6,000 today, and so it was a significant sum of money.

I’m struck by the comparison we might make with the way Dickens characterized the reach and variety of the newspaper in 1862 and today’s internet or ‘world wide web’. Our first instinct now if we want to find something out is to reach for our phones, tablets or PCs and to ‘Google it’. In seconds we find an answer (if not always ‘the’ answer) to our question.

But for all this technology our desire to know and understand the world around us is much the same. Moreover the Internet has really only replaced print news as the vehicle to inform, deceive, manipulate and exploit our desires and prejudices. Had the Victorians invented the worldwide web they would have probably have used it for all the things we use it for.

Once again I am left wondering just how ‘modern’ we really are.

[from Daily News, Wednesday, May 21, 1862]

No help (or sympathy) for an old ‘hero’ who lashes out

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Thomas Cooney was a crossing sweeper on the Bayswater Road. Sweepers were ‘beggars of a sort, demanding alms in return for a useful, almost essential public service’: clearing a path through the mud that covered most of the capital’s streets and paths.Cooney asked for tips from the ladies and gentlemen that preferred not to drag their crinolines or trouser legs through the filth churned up by countless road users. He could probably find no other work since service in the army had left him crippled with two wooden legs. He drew an army pension of 10s 6a week but that wouldn’t have gone very far in 1859.

Today I doubt that even Esther McVey or Ian Duncan Smith would expect Thomas to work for a living but the Victorian state was much less considerate in giving benefits to those that so obviously needed them. As a result the man with (literally) no legs to stand on was forced to do exactly that, day after day, in all weathers.

Moreover, the local youth had identified him as a figure of fun, worthy of their abuse. Most days a pack of them would taunt him, fling stones and mud at him, and occasionally be brave enough to get close enough to prod him and try to knock him over. What larks!

Cooney retaliated by shouting at them, waving his sticks, throwing stones back, and threatening to ‘do for them’. One day in April 1859 the boys were teasing him and he was chucking stones back when a little girl, just 11 years of age was passing on her way home from school. As she passed Cooney he wacked her with his stick, hitting her in the face, and she ran off home in tears.

Her father was a respectable tradesman living in Blandford Street, just off Manchester Square (where the Wallace Collection is housed today). Mr Woolter was so outraged by the attack on his daughter Anne that he set out at once to confront the crossing sweep. He gave him a piece of his mind but Cooney was far from repentant, instead of an apology all Woolter got was a punch in the mouth. The blow dislodged a tooth and unsettled the rest. Cooney was arrested and produced before Mr Broughton at Marylebone Police court.

The magistrate heard that Cooney had a long history of hitting out at anyone – youths, members of the public, and the police – that encountered him. He was described as a ‘brutal fellow’ and ‘a most desperate character’. I’m sure he was but perhaps he had his reasons. PC Reed (60D) said Cooney had been drinking and had resisted arrest. All Cooney offered by way of a defense was the unceasing abuse he’d received from the boys.

That didn’t wash with Mr Broughton. A respectable citizen and his little girl had been assaulted and the latter was fortunate not to have ‘been killed on the spot’ he declared. The justice requested a certificate from the surgeon that had treated Anne so he could assess the severity of her injuries before passing judgment on Cooney. In the meantime the sweeper was sent to the nearest house of correction to await his fate.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, April 20, 1859]

1 Lee Jackson, Dirty Old London: The Victorian Fight Against Filth, (Yale University Press, 2014), pp.32-3

Drew Gray is the joint author of Jack and the Thames Torso Murders, published by Amberley Books in June 2019. Details available here

No help for heroes at Westminster, just a prison cell

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In 1892 Rudyard Kipling published a collection of poems called ‘Barrack Room Ballads’. This included ‘Tommy’ which he’d penned a coupe of years earlier and contrasted the public view of the Victorian soldier in wartime and peace. This is best summed up by this line:

O it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Tommy, go away”;

But it’s “Thank you, Mister Atkins”, when the band begins to play,.

Soldiers – as Kipling’s poem suggested – were to be valued when there was fighting to be done but were considered a nuisance at other times. I grew up watching the annual Festival of Remembrance that honours the dead of two world wars (and subsequent conflicts) but while the British Legion have done much for ex-servicemen and their families it was still deemed necessary to create the Help for Heroes charity in 2007 to support men and women wounded in the course of serving in the armed forces.

We might well ask why such a charity is needed in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, a country which is a founder member of NATO and that has an arms trade that generates billions from the sale of lethal weapons across the globe. Then again we might ask ourselves why over half a million people used food banks in Britain last year, or why the DWP (Department for work and pensions) concluded that in 2016 over 21m Britons were living in ‘relative poverty’.

But back to ‘Tommy Atkins’ and public attitudes in the 1800s. There was no ‘help for heroes’ then, or a British Legion. All the ex-soldier without work could rely on at mid century was his army pension (if he had one) charity, the Poor Law, and his wits. George Hill had no pension because he’d been kicked out of the army for getting drunk and assaulting an officer.

Hill was lucky; if he’d attacked the officer whilst on active service he’d have faced a court martial and the possibility of a firing squad. Instead he’d been released ‘with ignominy’ and no pension and had subsequently found it difficult or impossible to secure gainful employment. As a result Hill sat himself on the streets of London with a painted sign that read:

9th Regiment of foot.

I have served 22 years in the 9thFoot – 20 years in India, and have been in eight general engagements, and am now discharged without a pension’.

Begging was a summary offence and so when PC James Light (128B) discovered him on his beat he asked him to move along and, when this request was ignored, arrested him. The former infantryman was brought before Mr Broderip at Westminster Police court where his previous military indiscretion was revealed. In the eyes of Victorian society Hill was a violent drunk who deserved nothing from a society he had served for 22 years expect condemnation and a prison cell. The magistrate duly obliged and sent him down for three months.

George Hill may well have been a ‘impudent, violent beggar’ and he certainly had previous convictions for vagrancy but today we recognize that ex-servicemen suffer mental as well as physical wounds as a consequence of what they’ve been through. Perhaps Hill’s 22 years in the colours had left him similarly scarred and unable to function as a part of ‘normal’ Victorian society.

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He had probably fought at the battles of Mudki and Ferozeshah during the First Anglo-Afghan War and so, like many modern soldiers, had been to Kabul. He would also have been with the colours at the battle of Soprano (right) in the First Anglo-Sikh war. Technically of course he was fighting under the general banner of the East India Company but that matters little, the danger and suffering is the same.

In 1852 then soldiers like George Hill were not valued by the society they had served. Within two years however thousands of then were fighting for ‘Queen and Country’ once more as Britain took on the might of Imperial Russia in the Crimea and then the challenge to the Empire in India in 1857. So once again it was ‘ “Thank you, Mister Atkins”, when the band begins to play’.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, 5 January, 1852]

Police rivalry as a City man busts a man from the Met

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Henry Morey served in the City of London Police, a separate institution to the Metropolitan Police created by Robert Peel in 1829. The City jealousy guarded its independence from central control and resisted calls to reform its policing in the long eighteenth century. In 1839 an act of Parliament gave the existing day and night watch full legal authority to act as the square mile’s police force and effectively ended attempt to merge them with the Met. To this day the City retains its own independent police who wear slightly different uniforms to their colleagues in the rest of the capital.

I suspect that as with regional forces outside of London, there is some tension between the City Police and the Met. This was certainly evident in 1888 when the Whitechapel murderer strayed onto City territory to murder Catherine Eddowes in Mitre Square. Now there were two sets of detectives hunting the killer and almost immediately they clashed over the finding of evidence in Goulston Street.

This rivalry or jealousy may well have manifested itself in small scale personal moments of friction between City police and their brothers in the Met. So when PC Morey found that he had a member of the Met in custody he must, at least, have felt a certain sense of superiority if not triumph. This is his story from February 1869.

Morey was watching a man named Smith who he suspected of smuggling. George Smith was a seaman and just before 9 o’clock in the evening of Wednesday 14 February PC Morey saw the sailor in King’s Head Court, Fish Street Hill. The hill ran down from the Monument towards London Bridge and was close to Billingsgate Market. Now it is all fairly quiet at night and few residents live there; in 1869 it is likely to have been a livelier place.

The policeman watched as Smith met with two others and handed over a package of goods. Calling for assistance the policeman moved in and arrested the trio. Back at the police station he established that Smith had been passing them contraband goods that he’d smuggled from the quays with the intention of avoiding the duty on them. There was some brandy, a bottle of Holland (jenever or Dutch gin) and a quantity of Cavendish tobacco.

Smith owned up to the offence at the station but claimed that the men, who were his brothers-in-law, were unaware that there was anything illegal about the transaction. He said he’d given the others the goods to say thank you for their support while he’d been in hospital recovering from an accident.

James Salmon was a local carpenter but the third man was James Brand, a Metropolitan policeman with 21 years service in the force. He had the most to lose from this court appearance, as his lawyer explained. Mr St. John Wontner told the magistrate (Sir William Anderson Rose) that:

‘there was sufficient doubt his [client’s] knowledge that the goods were contraband to justify the alderman in discharging him. He had been in the police force for a long period of years, and on quitting it would be entitled to a considerable pension (about 15s a week), but if convicted that pension would be forfeited’.

Brant’s station inspector appeared to vouch for his man, saying he’d had nothing said against the officer for 13 years (suggesting a not unblemished record however). Smith again pleaded in court that he was entirely to blame and the others knew nothing of it.

Sir William wasn’t convicted however. He declared that they must have know something was wrong, especially Brant who, as a police officer, knew the law. However, he was minded to be lenient where the man from the Met was concerned; he would only fine him £1 12s as his ‘conviction would be followed with serious results’ (i.e the loss of his pension most likely). Salmon and Smith were also fined similarly, with the threat of seven days in prison if they failed to pay.

I suspect there were some harsh words or long stares exchanged between PC Brant and his supporters and the members of the City Police gathered in the Mansion House Police Court. PC Morey was just doing his job, preventing the evasion of tax, but PC Brant had hardly been guilty of a heinous crime. For him, however, the result was potentially catastrophic. Not only did he lose his job and his reputation, he risked losing around £40 a year (just about £2,000 today) if the police canceled his pension.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, February 26, 1869]

‘The Lord is not so unjust as to hold a man responsible for a rash act when he is mad’: a man’s grief drives him to suicide.

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Finsbury Square, c.1828

I am breaking, ever so slightly, with the normal pattern of these blog posts today. This story concerns the police courts but is not a report from one of them. Instead it came under the headings for London’s coroners courts, which detailed the inquests into those that died in suspicious circumstances.

On the 22 January 1838 an inquest jury sat at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital to listen to the evidence in case of a retired police court officer who had died at the age of 60. Thomas Van had worked at the Worship Street Police court ‘for nearly 25 years’ and was ‘an active officer’.

Each of the London police courts were served by half a dozen officers, modelled on the system set up by the Fieldings at Bow Street in the mid 1700s. Officers ran messages, brought up prisoners from the cells, kept order in the court and may well have played a role as active investigators in some instances. This was how the Bow Street officers (dubbed ‘Runners’ of course) operated.

Van’s wife had died in last year and he missed her very much. He lived with his son in rented rooms at 13 Queen Street, Finsbury Square and his landlord, Benjamin Watkins, gave evidence to the inquest. At about 9 o’clock a week earlier Watkins had heard a loud thud from Van’s room above and rushed upstairs to see what had happened. There he found the man stretched out on the floor with blood flowing from a gash in his throat.

There was ‘a large table knife on the floor besides him’ and while Van was not quite dead, he could not speak. Watkins called a carriage and took his lodger to St Bart’s where he died soon afterwards.

It was a tragic tale. Van had only recently been given a pension by the Worship Street office in recognition of his service, and because his grief made it impossible for him to carry on. He seems to have fallen into a deep despair and was quite unable to cope without his wife. His son testified to his father’s grief and told the coroner that Thomas Van ‘had been lately deranged’.

A suicide note was produced which read:

‘The Lord is not so unjust as to hold a man responsible for a rash act when he is mad’.

The inquest jury duly brought in a verdict of ‘temporary mental derangement’. Van probably had little to leave his son but suicides supposedly had their estates forfeited. They were also supposed to be buried at night, and not in consecrated ground. Perhaps the jury’s verdict allowed the family some license here.

Let’s hope so anyway.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, January 23, 1838]

An unhappy husband gets sympathy but little help from Mr Yardley

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‘Judge Thumb’ or Sir Francis Buller, 1st Bt (‘Judge Thumb’), by James Gilroy (1782)

As I mentioned in previous post about domestic violence the Aggravated Assault Act (1853) was well intentioned. Under its term magistrates could send men that beat their wives or partners to prison for up to six months at hard labour and it was considered necessary because of the widespread abuse that women (most visibly working-class women) received in mid nineteenth-century England.

However, not everyone agreed that it was a good idea and some pointed out its flaws and unexpected side-effects. Mr Yardley, one of the capital’s Police Court Magistrates was clearly not a big fan of the new act. While he recognised its purpose he declared that one of its effects was ‘to make […] women a good deal worse, and he had made his mind up to punish drunken and disorderly women brought before him as severely as he could’.

His words presupposed of course that the reason that men beat their wives was because they were disobedient, slovenly and drunken in the first place. Rather than questioning the rights of men to discipline their partners the law was actually trying to limit the amount of violence they used rather than stop it altogether. Yardley was of the school of thought that physical punishment was appropriate so long as it did not go too far. In that regards he was a echo of the possible apocryphal Justice Buller who suggested that men might beat their wives so long as they only used a stick ‘no thicker than their thumb’.

Yardley delivered his statement on the new act during a hearing at Thames Police Court when a man had appeared in court asking for help and guidance on controlling his own, rather disobedient wife. The ‘very respectable man’ (who was not named by the reporter, no doubt to save his blushes), told the magistrate that his wife was an incorrigible alcoholic.

‘The applicant, whose anxieties and troubles were depicted on his countenance, said that his wife was repeatedly drunk; that she had made away with a good deal of property to indulge her propensity for strong drinks; and that when he expostulated with her, she abused him, and used the most foul epithets towards him’.

She had sold off his property to feed her habit and in desperation he had even offered to separate with her and grant her half his navy pension of £60 a year. She had refused his offer and continued to torment him. He wanted help from the court to deal with her but the magistrate was unable to offer any.

Had she been violent towards him? No, the only ‘violence’ was verbal. The poor man was clearly at his wits end and feared that if he tried to repress her with force he would find himself on a charge under the new act and would soon be facing a spell in prison.

Yardley sympathised with him but reiterated that his hands were tied. In his opinion the Aggravated Assaults Act had seemingly emboldened women and innocent men like the applicant were likely to continue to suffer the consequences. He wanted it known that he would deal severely with any drunk and disorderly woman that came before him but that was little comfort to the anonymous husband in his court.

‘Can’t you compel my wife to accept of a separate maintenance?’ he implored the magistrate. ‘No’, said Yardley, ‘I cannot give you the least assistance’.

[from The Era, Sunday, August 28, 1853]