‘He is excited when he gets anything to drink, and is not responsible for his actions’; arson and sibling rivalry in Victorian Limehouse

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When PC Walter Stratford (K 376) arrived at Nesbit’s Rents, off Three Colt Street, Limehouse he found chaos and confusion. The property was owned by Mary Charlton and her husband and there were three other families living there. PC Stratford was directed up to the room occupied by the Cullens (two brothers – John and Micheal – and their sister, Elizabeth).

Elizabeth was screaming her head off and a small fire had engulfed one of the two beds. Michael Cullen was sitting quietly on a chair smoking his pipe. Soon afterwards a second officer arrived and he tried to calm the situation as the household, many of them dressed only in their nightgowns milled around outside.

The policemen, John Cullen and Mary Charlton all helped beat out the flames and then the finger of blame was pointed at Michael who was arrested and taken to the nearest police station for questioning. There he apparently admitted setting the fire in the bed because he wanted more space. He shared with his brother while Elizabeth slept in her own bed. When John had refused to move over, Michael had set light to the bed clothes to force him to. John had been woken by his sister’s cries of ‘fire!’ and had leapt up, grabbed his brother, and punched him hard.

By all accounts Michael was drunk and when he was drunk he changed from being the quiet and inoffensive character his married sister, Ellen, later testified to, into a very different person. ‘He is excited when he gets anything to drink, and is not responsible for his actions’, she told an Old Bailey judge when her brother was eventually tried for arson in April 1889.

Fortunately tragedy was avoided and no one was hurt by Michael’s reckless desire to have a more comfortable sleep that night but at the Thames Police court the 12 year-old cabinet maker was still formally indicted for the offence by Mr Lushington.

Michael Cullen apologised for his actions at the Old Bailey and claimed he never intended to do anyone any harm. He admitted his inebriated state and claimed to remember little of what had happened. He added that it was the first time he’d been in trouble with the law. The jury believed his version of events and acquitted him.

The circumstances reveal the reality of living conditions for many of those living in the East End of London in the later 1800s. Three siblings, all in their early twenties, shared one room in  house of multiple occupation. In total somewhere between nine and 15 or more individuals lived in Nesbit’s rents, and tensions must have flared at times.

In the late 1800s Limehouse had a poor reputation as a centre for drugs and crime and Three Colt Street, where the Cullens lived, was at the heart of London’s Chinese quarter. More recently Limehouse has featured in a major film version of Peter Ackroyd’s novel Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem. The film is fun but the book is much better.

[from The Standard, Monday, March 25, 1889]

A young girl is cruelly used by her callous stepfather

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When Sarah Craddock was put in the dock at Marylebone Police Court to answer a charge of stealing from her master it uncovered an ugly family quarrel, in which she was being used as a pawn.

Sarah was just 15 and had been working as a domestic servant in the home of Mr George Provaze in St John’s Wood. She had been dismissed, not for stealing, but for absenting herself from the house without permission. However, after she had left the girl’s stepfather had called on Mr Provaze to inform him that he’d found a number of items in Sarah’s effects that he believed belonged to him.

The case was reported to the police and a detective instructed to investigate. Detective sergeant Laidlaw accompanied Mr Provage south of the River Thames to the Craddock home in Bermondsey. There the following items were found: ‘a pipe and case, four handkerchiefs’ and a number of other things, amounting in value to around 20s. Having had a look at them Mr Provaze and one of his staff, Harriet Hazel, were able to confirm that they had indeed been stolen from the house.

In court DS Laidlaw revealed that the girl had insisted that her step father had asked her to steal the goods and she’d given the pipe to him. Indeed, he’d even used it!

Next to appear was Sarah’s mother who confirmed her daughter’s evidence and said that her husband had also tried to get her other, younger daughter, to steal for him. She also claimed that he had ‘been knocking her about most cruelly’. When she’d taken him to court about it he’d sought revenge by getting his step daughter into trouble. So the unnamed stepfather was trying to break up the family home, perhaps to strip away his wife’s support network from under her. Mr Mansfield, the justice at Marylebone, remanded Sarah in custody for further examination.

Given that the likely result of a successful prosecution would see Sarah not only dismissed from a valuable and respectable position but also publicly shamed and possibly imprisoned, it was a drastic and extremely cruel course of action. It reminds us that spousal abuse could (indeed can) take very many forms.

[from The Standard, Thursday, December 06, 1883]

An act of kindness or a juvenile prank?

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Westminster Bridge and the new Houses of Parliament, 1858

As a mother and her daughter walked along the banks of the Thames in October 1858 two young men hailed them from their cart and asked them if they’d like a ‘ride to the new bridge’.

I imagine the ‘new bridge’ in question was Westminster which was under construction in 1858. By the middle of the 1800s the old Westminster Bridge (which dated from the middle of the previous century) was in a bad state of repair. Thomas Page was commissioned to design a new bridge and the structure, with decorations by Charles Barry (the architect of the new Gothic Houses of Parliament) opened in May 1862.

The young men, named Shearing and Lloyd may have an ulterior motive in picking up the women but it certainly wasn’t robbery. The women were poor, being alter described as of ‘very humble position’. Moreover the younger woman was carrying an infant and so they gratefully accepted the lads’ offer and climbed aboard.

The men were smoking and probably showing off, or ‘larking about’ to use a term contemporaries would have understood. One of them threw his pipe away once he had finished with it and the cart rattled on towards the bridge.

Suddenly to their horror the women realised that there was a fire in the cart and their clothes quickly ignited. It seemed to have spread from a piece of paper, maybe lit from the discarded pipe. Since it was so shocking and had burned right through the women’s clothes to their undergarments they decided to press charges at the Westminster Police Court.

Mr Arnold, the sitting justice, was told that ‘the old lady’s hands were burnt in extinguishing the fire, and she and her daughter, who appeared very creditable people, were much grieved by the loss they had sustained to their clothes, amounting to at least £2’.

So the case turned on whether the fire was an accident, or set deliberately, perhaps as a prank.

Was that the reason the men had offered the women a lift, to lure them into the cart to play an unpleasant joke on them? It is certainly possible but Mr Arnold was unsure. Had he been sure, he said, that the fire was intentional ‘he would have visited it with the severest punishment of the law’. But there was not enough evidence against the pair so he was unable to order compensation, and so the lads were released. Regardless of whether there was any intent or not this judgement did nothing at all to help the poor women who probably could ill afford to lose their clothes to a fire, however accidental.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, October 05, 1858]

A mysterious case of arson in Mile End

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The spinning room in the Shadwell rope works c1880

This week I am looking at the business of just one of London’s police courts, Thames (in East Arbour Lane) over the course of seven days in June 1881. After yesterday’s wounding at sea and violent assault at home we have another two cases from the East London courtroom.

Francis Kearns and Thomas Risdale were accused of assaulting Henry Osborn. All three were milkmen, the former worked for the Farmers’ Dairy Company (based in Stepney) and while Osborn was employed by an unnamed rival. They clashed in a pub in Cotton Street, Limehouse and Kearns hurled a can containing eight quarts of milk at Osborn. As a fight began to escalate the police were called and the men arrested. Mr Saunders, the magistrate presiding that day, sent both defendants to prison for a month at hard labour.

However it was the other story I found more interesting because it involved arson, a crime historians have , relatively speaking, largely ignored.

At 4 o’clock on Saturday 11 June the gates of Joseph Johnson’s rope and twine factory in Wade’s Place on the Mile End Road were locked. All the hands had gone home at 2 having finished for the day, as was the normal pattern of working in the 1800s. Workers generally worked Monday to Saturday afternoon, having the latter off along with Sunday.  Joseph Johnson ran the factory with his brother William but they didn’t live there. At 11 at night William checked the premises, as he always did, and found everything in order and nothing out of the ordinary. He returned to his home which was close by the business.

However, at one o’clock on Sunday morning a fire was seen burning in the factory and the alarm was raised. William rushed over accompanied by his carman (effectively a nineteenth-century van driver) and they found the whole place on fire. They also discovered a man lying on the ground, ‘face downwards, close to the shed door’. William asked him what he was doing there but his reply was inaudible and Johnson and the carman left him and ran off to try and save the horses that were stabled there.

When they had secured the horses – all safe and well I’m glad to say – they looked for the mysterious man but he had gone. He hadn’t gone far however, and they soon caught up with him near the gates. Johnson and his employee seized the man and handed him over to the police. On the way to East Arbour Square Police station the man, who gave his name as John Redding (a cooper from Stratford), desperately tried to escape his situation.

‘I hope you will not swear against me’ he pleaded with Johnson, ‘I did not intend to do any hard. If £1000 will get me out of it, I can get it’.

£1000 in 1881 was a huge sum of money, the equivalent to nearly £50,000 today so I’ve no idea how a cooper thought he would lay his hands on that amount, and it all adds to the mystery.

At Thames Police Court Mr Saunders was told the police thought Redding had been drinking and was sporting a black eye. Was this an explanation of his behaviour or evidence of him seeking some ‘dutch courage’ to carry out a deliberate act of arson, perhaps one inspired by revenge? When he was searched no ‘lucifers’ (matches) were found on him; in fact nothing (not even a pipe) was found that might have enabled him to start the blaze. It was a curious case and clearly there was more to be discovered. As a result Mr Saunders remanded him in custody for further examination.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, June 12, 1881]

Smokers rights championed in the 1870s

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The new Paddington railway station, c.1866-70

Mr D’Eyncourt had only just taken his seat on the bench at the Marylebone Police Court when his first hearing of the day presented itself. It was late January 1871 and Mr Michael Pope, a solicitor from Great James Street, Bedford Row, requested that the magistrate issue him with a summons to bring in the directors of the Great Western Railway.

He cited statute law (31 and 32 Vic. cap.119, sec.20) which stated that all railway companies (excepting the Metropolitan underground railway) were obliged to provided smoking carriages for ‘each class of passengers’.

Smoking has of course been banned entirely on all British railways since 2007 but in the 19th century no such prohibition was in place. However, it was clearly ‘not the done thing’ to smoke in a compartment that was not labelled as ‘smoking’. Here is the advice from a contemporary etiquette guide:

‘One may smoke in a railway-carriage in spite of by-laws, if one has first obtained the consent of every one present; but if there be a lady there, though she give her consent, smoke not. In nine cases out of ten, she will give it from good-nature. One must never smoke in a close carriage; one may ask and obtain leave to smoke when returning from a picnic or expedition in an open carriage’.

                                                               The Habits of Good Society (1864)

Mr Pope recounted the story his daily commute from Ealing to Paddington, and at how he had walked the length of the train looking for a ‘second-class’ smoking carriage but could not find one. The guard directed him to a carriage but as it did not say ‘smoking’ and there were several occupants already, he did not lite up.

He wanted to summon the directors because he felt they were as much in breach of the law in not providing separate spaces for smokers as the ‘poor persons’ who were bring fined for smoking where they should not.

The magistrate said he couldn’t sympathise (as he wasn’t  smoker) and he couldn’t help as a summons would be of no use. The law was not a compulsion but a direction; the railways were encouraged to provide separate coaches but they were not compelled to do so. It would be  waste of time summoning them to court. Better instead that Mr. Pope wrote to them directly, as Mr. D’Eyncourt was sure they would ‘see into the matter’.

The solicitor went off grumbling that there was little point in a law that had no effect and presumably lit is pipe (or cigar) as soon as he was outside.

Nowadays we are getting used to smoke-free environments and there is no obligation for companies to provide their employees or the public with smoking areas , although they do exist (often at airports). ASH (Action on Smoking & Health) continue to campaign for restrictions on smoking on health grounds. By contrast Forest campaigns on behalf of the smoker, and oppose blanket bans.

Whatever your personal standpoint (and I’m a reformed smoker glad of the cleaner air around me) it is interesting to see that this debate has bene going on for a long time. I don’t want to share my railway carriage with a single or group of active smokers, and nor did my Victorian ancestors. Do I think the railway companies should provide a coach for those that want to smoke? Yes, if they can provide enough alternative space so the rest of us can actually find seat on a rain that runs to time for once.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, February 01, 1871]