An old man’s ‘revenge’, with echoes of the infamous Ratcliffe Highway murders

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In October 1843 Thomas Rowe was brought before the Lord Mayor of London at Mansion House Police court. The Lord Mayor sat, as did the City’s aldermen, as single magistrates just as Police Magistrates did across the rest of the metropolis. On most days they dealt with the full gamut of summary offences and pretrial hearings, listening to cases of petty theft, fraud, disorderly behaviour and assault. But on this morning, Friday 6 October, a much more interesting (and serious) case was opened in the Mansion House.

Rowe, a 77 year-old former servant, was accused of attempted to murder his employer – a wine merchant named Thomas Waller. The incident had occurred at around nine o’clock that morning.  Thomas Lock, another of Waller’s servants, had opened the door to his former work colleague Rowe, with a ‘halloa’ and a comment that he hadn’t seen him for some time.

This was because Rowe had been dismissed some three weeks earlier after an argument with the wine merchant. Now he asked if he might have a word with Mr Waller and Lock went off to see if his boss would see him. The 61 year-old wine dealer told him: ‘I have nothing particular to say to him, but let him come in’.

Rowe was shown in to the counting house where Lock left him. Barely five minutes later the sound of a pistol shot punctured the peace of the house and Lock heard his master cry out: ‘Rowe has shot me!’

He rushed in and put himself between the shooter and his victim, then manoeuvred Rowe out into the passage while he attended to the injured man. Rowe made his escape past a frightened serving girl and the beadle was called.

Police inspector Waller (no relation to the wine dealer) was soon on the case and sent ‘officers in all directions’ while he acted on information and hailed a cab to pursue the would-be assassin in the direction of Bow. He caught up with him and Rowe quickly surrendered. He made no attempt here, or later before the magistrate, to deny what he had done so it really only fell to the justice to determine why he had tried to kill the merchant.

What reason had you for committing this dreadful act?, the Lord Mayor asked him.

I could not live with nothing but misery before my eyes‘, Rowe replied.

Having served his master faithfully for 24 years he felt he was owed more loyalty from the wine merchant.

After ‘serving him morning, noon, and night, at all hours, I could not help thinking it [his dismissal] was like transporting me to a foreign country. I had no one to help me‘.

Whatever the cause of his dismissal it was devastating. With no wife and children that he said were unable to support him, and no savings or means of employment, Rowe was thrown on the scrap heap and all that society offered him was the workhouse and, eventually, a pauper burial with no known grave. It must have been a desperately depressing and frighting future for an elderly man who had probably worked all his life.

Nevertheless the Lord Mayor was horrified:

The idea of firing pistols at a man because it did not suit him to employ you is horrible beyond everything‘.

Rowe was stony faced:

My Lord, Mr Waller is a very rich man and he could afford to employ me easily enough‘.

So the motive for the attack was revenge and Rowe was taking no chances of failing in his mission. He had two pistols  (in case one misfired) and a dagger as back-up because, as he put it, ‘that was a thing that wouldn’t miss-fire’.

How long had he had these weapons, the magistrate wanted to know.

I have had them for 30 years‘, Rowe explained. ‘I bought them to protect myself at the time of the murder of the Marrs in Ratcliffe-highway‘.

The defendant was referring to the infamous Ratcliffe Highway murders of 1811 when two entire families had been brutally murdered in the space of a week in East London. The case gained national headlines and highlighted the ineffectiveness of the capital’s policing in the years before Peel’s 1829 reform. The murderer was caught (although some doubt remains as to whether he was the right man) but he never went to trial. The body of John Williams was found hanging in his cell before he was formally committed to a jury trial. William’s corpse was then placed on a cart, with the murder weapons alongside his head, and he was paraded along the Highway before being buried at a crossroads with a stake driven through his heart.

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Having heard from the doctor that examined and treated the injured Mr Waller and from the policeman that searched the scene of crime for evidence (and picked up the offending bullet), the Lord Mayor asked Rowe if he anything further to say. ‘No, my Lord, I have nothing at all to say’. Since the wine merchant was still recovering from his injury (which it was hoped was not fatal) Rowe was remanded for a week.

When the case came before an Old Bailey jury much was made of Rowe’s infirmity and poor mental health. In the end this was what saved him. He had made no attempt to deny his actions at any stage. William Cook, a surgeon that specialised in ‘diseases of the mind’ testified that he had known Rowe for very many years and had seen him deteriorate. When asked by Rowe’s counsel what the effect of his dismissal from service would have been he answered that he thought it quite possibly could have tipped him over the edge. Rowe had complained of ‘a swimming in the head, and dizziness about the eyes’ on several occasions, the jury was told.

Thomas Rowe was acquitted on the three counts he was charged with: namely ‘feloniously assaulting Thomas Wilier […] and shooting off and discharging at him a certain pistol loaded with gunpowder and leaden bullets, and wounding him on the left side of his body, with intent to murder him.—2nd COUNT, stating his intent to be to maim and disable him.—3rd COUNT, To do him some grievous bodily harm.’

It was also revealed in court exactly why Rowe had been dismissed. Mr Waller had deemed him unfit to continue on account of his age and mental state. Waller told the Old Bailey that ‘when I gave him notice I said, “Your faculties give way, you don’t know what you are about”.’ He gave him a guinea and a week’s notice.

After 24 years of service, a week’s wages and a guinea was not a lot of reward for his loyalty. A week later Rowe sent a letter to his former master (written by Rowe’s son) pleading for help but ignored it.

Rowe was found not guilty on the account of being insane; however, no one doubted he’d acted as charged. The asylum beckoned for Thomas Rowe, if anything a worse outcome than the workhouse, or even a public execution.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, October 07, 1843]

A thief is nabbed at the Tower and a cross-dresser is arrested for dancing: all in a day’s work for Mr Lushington

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Visitors to the Victorian Tower of London Armouries

Two contrasting cases from the Thames Police court today, one of who courts that served the East End and the river from the Tower of London. The first concerned the Tower itself, or rather the collection of arms and armour it displayed there.

The Tower Armouries was always one of my favourite places to visit when I went to the Tower as a boy. Housed in the White Tower (the original Norman keep) the collection of edged weapons, guns and suits and armour fascinated me just as it has so many other visitors before and since. Now it has been removed from the Tower and sent to the north of England to a purpose built museum in Leeds. It’s great there too, but not quite the same.

John Passmore was only a young man when he visited the Tower in 1877. He worked as a labourer and had gone to see the armouries with some mates. As he was coming out he noticed some horse pistols hanging on hooks, easy to reach and not behind bars. Without really knowing why he snatched one and hid it under his jacket.

Several such pistols had gone missing in recent weeks and David Deedy, one of the armories’ attendants, was keeping his eyes peeled for further depredations. Something about John caught his eye, was that a bulge under his jacket, or a smudge of dirt on his lapels? He moved forward, stopped the young man and searched him. John pleased with him not to have him arrested but, given the recent thefts, Deedy was understandably keen to prosecute. John Passmore apologized for his momentary act of recklessness and paid for it with seven days imprisonment at hard labour.

The other reported case that Mr Lushington (who known to be harsh) dealt with that day was distinctly different. John Bumberg was a foreign sailor (his precise nationality was not stated, he was just ‘foreign’) and he was in court for causing a disturbance.

PC George Carpenter (102H) told Mr Lushington that he had been on duty in St George’s Street when he’d heard what sounded like a large crowd up ahead. Hurrying along he discovered that there were about 200 boys and girls gathered around a dancing figure, who was being accompanied by a barrel organ. The dancer was dressed in woman’s clothing but was quite clearly a man. PC Carpenter approached and questioned him, established he was sober (if a little ‘excited’) and then arrested him.

Causing a nuisance and obstructing the streets were both misdemeanors so Carpenter was within his rights but it seems a fairly unnecessary action to take. I think that Mr Lushington   might have agreed because on this occasion he was fairly lenient. Given that Bumberg had been locked up all night he simply told him he had acted ‘foolishly’ and ‘advised him to behave more decently in the future’ before letting him go. The man left the dock carrying ‘a bundle of female wearing apparel in his arms’.

Was John Bumberg a frustrated female impersonator who wanted to be on the stage like the starts of the musical halls?  Was he perhaps a transvestite or cross-dresser? Whatever he was and whatever his motivation for entertaining the children of the East End that night I don’t believe he was doing anybody any harm and I think H Division’s finest might have found more suitable targets for their attention.

In 1881 George Carpenter was still in the force and on 14 May that year he brought Catherine Scannel into the Thames court charged with being drunk and disorderly. She was 46, quite possibly a streetwalker and Mr Lushington sent her to prison for 7 days, mostly likely because she gave the policeman some well-aimed verbal abuse. A week later he was back with another woman, Julia Hayes, who was charged with fighting. This time the magistrate let her off with a warning. PC Carpenter brought in a couple more drunks that May, this was after all, much of the traffic of the police courts, most of which the papers didn’t bother recording. We only of this because a few archival records survive.

[from The Standard, Monday, June 18, 1877]

H Division was, of course, the main police district tasked with catching the Whitechapel murder 11 years after these two defendants appeared before Lushington at Thames.  Drew’s new book (co-authored with Andy Wise) is published by Amberley Books this week. 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 young Turpin is nipped in the bud

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William Roseblade was 13 years old when he was stood in the dock at Clerkenwell Police court accused of stealing money from his employer, Mr Thompson. Described as ‘a sharp, intelligent-looking boy’ it was alleged that William had stolen the princely sum of £10 and ran away. The boy was tasked with errand running for the Islington watchmaker and was regularly sent out with sovereigns to change to get changed for smaller silver coins. One day in March 1864 he simply didn’t come back.

PC William Kempson (304R) was on the platform at Lewisham railway station when he noticed  a lad acting suspiciously, putting money in a purse and he moved in and grabbed him. When he asked the boy (who was William) just where he’d got such a lot of cash he was given three different, and equally implausible answers.  The policeman took young William by the collar and marched him to the local police station. There he was searched and £5 14d, a pistol, some percussion caps, powder and a bullet mould were found on him.

This was more serious than the usual juvenile delinquency the police encountered daily, just where had William got a gun from and how had he ended up in Lewisham when his stated home address was in Norfolk Street, Islington?

William now gave a dramatic and bizarre story to the police. He said he’d been waylaid by gipsies and forced to join their gang. At first they threatened his life if he didn’t do as he was told but soon he won the confidence of their leader and became his second in command. He said the gang had stopped several gentleman on the roads and demanded ‘their money or their lives’. William held the gun and was told that if they didn’t hand over the money, or were violent, he was to shoot them. He added that the gang ‘never ill-used them if they did not make a noise and at once complied with their wishes’.  He declared that he had already shot several people who hadn’t done as they were asked.

Now, however, he had grown tired of the life of a highwayman and a burglar and wanted to go to sea ‘so that he could be a pirate and a bold buccaneer, and sweep the seas and be his own master, and forever free’.

It was a romantic tale and, of course, a complete fantasy from beginning to end. The magistrate asked the police if any crimes fitting William’s description had occurred in the area he mentioned but they had not, the lad had made it up. What had inspired him then? Well, it seems young William had a passion for penny dreadfuls, for the cheap publications like “Dick Turpin”, “The Gentleman Highwayman,” and “Tales of the Daring and Bravery of Pirates”. He’d filled his head with heroic criminality and was unable to separate this from the reality of his own life.

His mother was distraught. She told the justice that she’d raised him properly, ‘religiously and respectably’ and he had brought disgrace on a  family that had never been in trouble with the law before. She urged the magistrate to send her son to a reformatory school: ‘He was young’ she said, ‘and he might turn out a bright man’.

The magistrate upbraided William for his behaviour and his attitude but the lad was unrepentant and seemingly unfazed by his appearance in court. He was living the dream of being a highwayman, acting up to authority and ‘dying game’ as Turpin did. Whether he felt the same way once he had spent a month in a cell at the Clerkenwell house of correction is anyone’s guess however.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, April 3, 1864]

‘No income tax, no monarchy!’ The cry of protestors in Trafalgar Square

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G W M. Reynolds

In March 1848 (a year noted for turbulence throughout Europe) there was a demonstration called in Trafalgar Square to protest about income tax. The protest had already been ruled ‘illegal’ by the commissioners of police and and the convener, Charles Cochrane, had tried to call it off. Men carrying placards were dispatched by the police to instruct the gathering crowds to disperse and go home. By this time however, 1,500 to 2,000 had gathered and didn’t seem to be in the mood to go anywhere.

According to the Daily News reporter very few (‘not above 50’) would have been affected by the imposition of income tax on incomes of over £30 a year and soon it became apparent that elements of the assembled had their own agendas. One man mounted the balustrade in front of the National gallery and started to harangue the ‘mob’ with calls for the end of the monarchy. He was quickly hauled down. The self-appointed ‘president of the meeting’, G W M (William) Reynolds, then took the stand and denounced ‘the income tax’ and let several other speakers add their voices to the protest. Reynolds was a major figure in the Chartist movement, an advocate of republicanism, and the founder of Reynold’s  newspaper.

By 3 o’clock the police, who had been watching but not acting decided it was time to bring the whole thing to a close. As the police moved in to clear the crowd trouble flared. There were scuffles and the officers under Commissioner Mayne’s command had to use force.

‘Resistance was offered’, the reporter noted, ‘and they had recourse to their staves, which they found it necessary to exercise somewhat roughly, stones being thrown at them, in addition to manual violence used’.

There were injuries on both sides and several arrests were made. The protest had taken place on the Monday and on Wednesday two young men, James Turner and William Allis, appeared at Bow Street Police court before Mr Henry to answer charges of unlawful assembly.

Commissioner Mayne was in court to press the case and testified that the men had acted to obstruct his officers and had ‘conducted themselves in a very rude and disorderly manner’. They’d been arrested and when searched later at the police station Turner was discovered to be carrying a pistol, with ‘a powder flask, balls, and wadding’.

Turner denied refusing to quit the square as charged but admitted to being rude to the police. As for the weapon he carried he said he always did, having been the victim of a highway robbery in Fulham Fields some time ago. He armed himself, he argued, against common footpads that infested some areas of the capital. I think this suggests that the police were still establishing their control in the 1840s and were far from being accepted as the city’s bulwark against criminality.

The men were released on their own sureties (and those of Turner’s master and Allis’ father) but because they verbally abused the police inspector as they were leaving, they were hauled back in and find 30each. There are times, they hopefully learned, when it is better to keep your mouth shut.

Banning a protest in Trafalgar Square was deemed controversial (as a future commissioner of the Met – Sir Charles Warren – was to discover in 1887) but the press noted that in 1848 it was illegal for assemblies to be held there whilst Parliament was sitting).

[from Daily News, Tuesday, March 7, 1848; The Morning Chronicle, Thursday, March 9, 1848]

A misguided printer arms himself against the ‘roughs’

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Well, today is exciting! The first editorial queries for my new book have arrived. Jack and the Thames Torso Murders  is due to be published by Amberley in the summer and this morning the copyeditors questions have landed in my inbox for me and my co-author to deal with. The book offers up a new suspect in the Ripper murder case and packs in plenty of social history at the same time. I’ll keep you posted with its progress.

Given that the Whitechapel murders took place in the summer of 1888 let us now go back to February of that year and see what was happening in the Police courts.

At Clerkenwell George Dickson, a 19 year-old printer was convicted of firing  pistol in Castle Street, Hackney on the previous Saturday night. Dickson was lame in one leg and so probably walked with a limp. Sadly this attracted the unwanted attention of the local youth who teased and taunted him as he made his way along the streets.

Like many areas of London in the late 1880s ‘gangs’ of youths walked the streets, acting aggressively towards passers-by, pushing and shoving, and using crude language.  George was just one of their targets and had taken to arming himself against the threat he felt they posed. He was overreacting, the magistrate at Clerkenwell insisted, who declared that the ‘practice of carrying loaded revolvers was a very dangerous one’, and something parliament should act against.

Clearly in 1888 it wasn’t against the law to carry a gun in England (although you did need a license), but it was an offence to fire one. In court Dickson was contrite and because he agreed to surrender his pistol to the police the justice (Mr Bennett) simply bound him over in the sum of £10 against any future misconduct, and let him go.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, February 12, 1888]

A mysterious shooting in Belgravia

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Sometimes there is just no obvious reason behind people’s actions and this is one of those cases. In early February 1844 the magistrate at Queen Square Police court was about to shut the court and leave for home when the police brought in a young man named Philip Macholland.

Macholland, who was seemingly in all accounts, ‘respectable’ and ‘of sound mind’, was set in the dock and charged with firing a pistol into a house in Lower Belgravia Place. The ball from the gun narrowly missed the Reverend Charles Chapman who appeared in court with the policeman that had arrested the youth.

Rev. Chapman testified that earlier that afternoon, at about four o’clock, he had been dressing in a room which overlooked his garden at the rear of the house at 20 Lower Belgravia Place. To his horror he heard a gun discharged and felt the ball pass close by him before lodging in the wainscot.

Looking out the window he saw a man (evidently Macholland) appear from a property three doors down holding a gun. Either the cleric or one of his staff had already called for the police and PC Hobbs (166B) quickly arrived and secured the gunman.

Macholland tried to deny firing the gun but when the clergyman assured him that ‘he might be forgiven’ if he admitted his actions he confessed to it, but gave no reason. In court before Mr Bond Macholland said he was sorry for what he’d done and promised not to do it again. All he would add under questioning was that he was apprenticed to a modeler and sculptor; he couldn’t (or wouldn’t) say why he had a gun or had used it that day.

The magistrate was quite perplexed but given that the Rev. Chapman was in no mood to press serious charges against the lad he simply reprimanded Macholland, warning him that the consequences could have been fatal, and bound him over to keep the peace for the next twelve months. Having extracted a promise (backed up with nearly £150 worth of sureties) he released the young man. Congratulating the reverend on his lucky escape from an untimely death the magistrate went home to reflect on an unusual end to his working day.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, February 10, 1844]

p.s curiously, and amusingly, just around the corner from Lower Belgravia Street is Ebury Street where, at number 22 Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond, once lived. A blue plaque marks the house today. 

One man throws acid at his wife, while another threatens his with a pistol

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Today I want to compare two separate but related cases heard this week in 1884 before the police magistrate courts of London. Both concern men acting against their wives, and both quite violently.

At Guildhall Police court, in the City of London, George Steel, a metal worker, was charged with threatening to shoot his wife Charlotte. Mrs Steel appeared in court to testify against him and the only other witness of the policeman that arrested him.

According to Charlotte her husband had come home in the morning ‘the worse for drink’ (in other words he was drunk, and we might presume she meant the ‘early hours’ of the morning). The couple rowed, and, as was depressingly common in working-class marriages at the time, came to blows. For some reason George owned a pistol and he seized it and thrust it in her face, threatening to ‘settle her’.

The alderman magistrate was told that it wasn’t the first time the metal worker had used force and threats against his spouse, and that too was very familiar. Wives and partners tended to put up with quite a lot of abuse before they were finally driven by desperation and fear of what might happen to take their complaints to law.

George said he only wanted to scare his wife, and that he only loaded the gun with the intention of firing up the chimney. The justice remanded him in custody to see what might emerge from other witnesses in the next couple of days.

Meanwhile at the Marlborough Street court George Ballard was brought up for second appearance having previously been remanded by Mr Newton for an assault on his (Ballard’s) wife. Ballard was a 38 year-old bootmaker living with Mrs Ballard in Berwick Street, Soho. The couple argued at lot and Ballard was another drinker. The officer of the court who had investigated the case described his wife as ‘a hard working woman’.  He added that he’d been told that the defendant had often threatened his wife and her sister.

George Ballard’s crime was to have thrown vitriol (acid) over his wife in a fit of anger. When questioned his only defense was that she had threatened his life. Mr Newton dismissed this excuse, saying that even if it was true (which he clearly doubted) it was no reason to attack her in such a cowardly way. He sent the bootmaker to prison for six months at hard labour and, ‘as she was capable of maintaining herself’, he granted Mrs Ballard a judicial separation. Hopefully when George got out she would have found somewhere a long way away from him.

Many women wouldn’t have gone as far as Mrs Ballard did in getting the court to remove her husband and bread winner, but she was perhaps in a better position than most, and able – as the justice noted – to look after herself. It was more usual for wives and partners, seemingly regardless of the hurt done to them, to forgive their abusers or retract their evidence, sometimes after the man had spent a few days in a cell.

This was the case with Charlotte Steel. When George Steel was again presented at Guildhall Police court on the 3 February 1884  Charlotte said she was not frightened of him and that he’d never threatened her before. Her sister backed her up, saying she didn’t believe George ever meant to hurt anyone. Alderman Isaac could do little but warn George about his future behaviour telling him that he:

‘had placed himself in a very serious position, for he might have been committed for trial for  threatening to commit murder. He advised him not to have anything to do with firearms again’, and then released him.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, 30 January, 1884; The Morning Post), Monday, 4 February, 1884]