An excess of zeal as a man tries to avoid the shame of a court appearance.

qv alic 4

This is one of those unremarkable cases, which, at the same time, serves to illustrate how the police courts of Victorian London actually operated. Most of the time the press does not discuss the various functions of the court. Partly this was because it is unlikely that the reading public were interested but also presumably because most people knew anyway. After all these were popular arenas for negotiating social issues and held few secrets for most of the people of Victoria’s capital.

On Thursday 24 June 1880 a number of people were brought to the Worship Street Police court charged with keeping dogs without paying for license to do so. We might have forgotten but until 1987 anyone owning a dog had to buy an annual license.  In 1880 this cost 7s 6d (equivalent to about £25 today) so while not a huge sum it was still a cost on the stretched income of the workingman. So it is not surprising that large numbers of people tried to avoid it.

This meant that periodically the capital’s police courts were filled with defaulters, most of whom were expected to pay up on the spot or face a possible fine and/or imprisonment if they couldn’t pay. Being sent to gaol for not having a dog license was not impossible but it was extremely unlikely.

On this occasion one man seemed keen to pay what he owed but then get out of court quickly and without drawing attention to the fact that he’d been there. This was understandable; no one wants his neighbours to know that he has been in court or in trouble with the law, it was potentially embarrassing. So he popped his 5fine on the ledge of the dock and tried to leave by the main entrance. A warrant officer stopped him and told him he had to go out by the door marked ‘prisoners’, which he was reluctant to do.

When the fellow refused point blank the officer picked up his coins and shoved the man towards the exit door. However, the poor man clung to the dock and continued to refuse to be expelled via the prisoners’ exit. Two more officers arrived, and a police sergeant, and a struggle ensured which ended in an unseemly wrestling match on the court floor.

Finally the man was dragged out of court by his collar and thrown into the street. If he wanted to avoid attention he’d failed quite spectacularly but it was the behaviour of the police and court officers that upset Mr Bushby, the presiding magistrate.

In the afternoon he called the sergeant and officers before him and upbraided them. He told them that they had exceeded their authority and had shown too much ‘zeal’. Given the minor nature of the man’s offence there was no need for rough stuff. He was not supposed to leave his money on the ledge nor was the warrant officers supposed to pick it up from there. They should have told him to pay it to the ‘proper officer’ and, had he refused, they were required to let him leave. There was no requirement that he be imprisoned in default of payment and the proper procedure was for a distress warrant to have been issued if he continued to default on payment.

The man had been injured in the kerfuffle and Mr Bushby wanted it made clear to the officers that he didn’t want to see that sort of incident in his courtroom ever again, and he wrote a letter to the police inspector for K Division to place that on record.

So this uninteresting case becomes interesting (to me at least) because it shows how the courts operated when a fine was due to be paid. It also reveals that there was an exit designated for prisoners (or anyone presumably who had been charged, regardless of whether they came in from the street or from the cells). These were multi-purpose courts; they didn’t simply deal with ‘crime’ and we can all appreciate that some of those that found themselves there were hardly ‘criminals’ by any measure of that term. So making them walk out of a door marked ‘prisoners’ was probably likely to upset those that felt they had done little to deserve the blemish on their character.

[from The Standard, Friday, June 25, 1880]

A prisoner swallows the evidence of his crime



Mrs Sarah Cameron ran a tobacconist shop on the Broadway in Westminster, central London. One evening in November 1840 a young man  called William Meeton entered the ‘snuff and tobacco’ shop and asked for a cigar. He handed over half a crown and she gave him the cigar and his change (of ‘two shillings and four pennyworth of halfpences’).

Meeton scraped up the coin but after appearing to examine it ‘threw down a shilling alleging it was bad’. Mrs Cameron was sure the coins she had handed over were fine and she said so. Now she suspected him of committing a crime and so called for a policeman who arrived and arrested the lad.

William Meeton was charged at Queen’s Square Police Court with uttering – a variant of the wider crime of coining and forgery. While forging meant making false notes (and coming, fake coins), uttering described the practice of using or distributing counterfeit money.

The magistrate demande to see the coin in question. Sadly Mrs Cameron didn’t have it. Why not, Mr Burrell asked?

The young man had swallowed it, along with several other shillings he had in his possession the court was told. The chief usher of the Police Court inform his worship that that the accused was ‘well known’ to the court. After some conferring the justice and his clerk agreed that there was nothing to be done, no case could be made without the coins as evidence.

He turned to Meeton and told him that while today he ‘had been too sharp for his prosecutors’ his card was marked, and warned him about his future conduct. He was discharged, presumably to find the nearest privy!

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, November 18, 1840]

NB a half-crown was worth 2 shillings and 6 pence so you can work out for yourselves just how much Mrs Cameron was selling her cigars for. No age is given for Meeton but this wouldn’t matter anyway in the context of the 19th century. There was no age restriction on buying or selling tobacco to minors until 1933. It still isn’t illegal for children to smoke but under 16 it is subject to parental control. 

An army deserter gets some sympathy but precious little help from the Lord Mayor


the siege of Lucknow 1857

Cormack Scolland (a ‘determined looking man’) appeared before the Lord mayor at the Mansion House Police court in October 1865 accused of deserting his regiment, the 5th Fusiliers.

Scolland had given himself up to a sergeant from the Coldstream Guards at the Tower of London on the previous Monday. The sergeant was surprised but on the strength of the man’s confession he took him into custody.

Now, a little under a week later, the Mayor asked him if he still persisted in saying he was deserter and reminded him that a false statement laid him open to a penalty of three months in prison.

The soldier stated that he had enlisted in 1846 and had served in India. He was present at the siege of Lucknow (in the so-called Indian ‘mutiny’) and had served there under General Havelock with distinction. In his career of 19 years he had served faithfully and been awarded ‘two medals with clasps’.

‘What had become of his medals’ the Lord mayor asked. He had sold them for 7s each he replied.

Now the magistrate asked him why he had taken the fateful decision to desert from the army. Scolland stated that:

‘He was very much put upon by one of the sergeants, and had suffered much from his tyranny, that he felt he should have done something worse if he had not deserted. He therefore thought it was the best course to do so.’

The Coldstream sergeant stated for the record that had he have deserted the man was entitled to a pension of 1s or 1s 2d per day. That, presumably, Scolland had thrown away such was his conviction that he was a victim of bullying at work.

This drastic action earned the Lord Mayor’s sympathy: he told the soldier that he ‘was sorry to see a man that had served his country… forfeit his character in the way he had done so’. But he gave him little else in the way of help and certainly there was no suggestion that the truth of his allegation against a sergeant of the Fusiliers should be investigated.

Instead the poor man was sent to Holloway Prison (not then a women’s prison) to be dealt with by the military authorities at a later date.

[from The Morning Post , Saturday, October 14, 1865]

Transport problems in London are nothing new it seems

In October 1877 the Morning Post’s review of the doings of the Metropolitan Police Courts included a number of references to incident on or involving public transport.

John Shaw appeared at Worship Street charged with stealing 5s from Selina Claridge. Ms. Claridge had been traveling on a tram and while she had felt ‘touches at her pocket’ had not suspected the ‘very gentlemanly’ passenger who sat next to her.

However, when she alighted from the tram and checked her pocket she missed her purse. She immediately returned to the tramcar but Shaw had disappeared. She soon found him loitering in a doorway and charged him with the theft, which he denied.

Shaw was arrested and when he was searched the exact sum she had lost was found on him (‘in the same coins’) as was a tram ticket.

Two other witnesses came forward to report thefts by Shaw and in the end the court remanded him but also advised inquiries be made into his mental state as he appeared to be no common thief but a ‘gentleman of large means’.


Meanwhile over at Marlbourough Street the magistrate was presented with on the conductors of the London General Company, John Perry. Perry had been complained of for loitering outside the premises of a haberdasher on on Oxford Street.

The shopkeeper, a Mr. Johnson, was clearly fed up with the number of ‘buses that stopped and waited for fares outside his business. He told the court that in ‘conseqience of the number of omnibuses that congregated at Regent’s Circus, Oxford-street, it was impossible for a carriage to come to his door for a greater portion of the day’. Most of his customers one imagines, arrived that way, rather than by public transport.

Not only was it hard for them to stop but when they did they were subject to abuse by the drivers of the omnibuses. A nearby tobacconist spoke in support of the haberdashers complaint and it certainly seems to have been a problem for the traders on the busy London street.

Two police inspectors now deposed that the ‘buses were allowed to stop at certain places (what we would now describe as ‘bus stops’, clearly not then marked) but ‘only long enough to set down or take up passengers’. They were not supposed to loiter waiting for business and the constables on the beat were there to regulate this and move them on. The justice suggested an extra policeman be detailed to help in this busy area and fined the conductor 2s 6d and an extra 2s in costs.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, October 10, 1877]

A Vitriol fiend strikes at Tufnell Park and Highgate



The night of the 30 September 1888 has gone down in infamy as the ‘double event’; the night when the mysterious killer known as ‘Jack the Ripper’ murdered both Elizabeth Stride and Catherine Eddowes in different locations, leaving two London police forces searching for him in vain. The Whitechapel murders dominated the news hole for most of the late summer and autumn, only really fading away after the death of the Ripper’s last canonical victim (Mary Kelly) in early November.

During that time the papers continued to report the goings on at the Police Courts however.

At Marylebone Police Court a most unpleasant case came before the magistrate, Mr. Cooke. William Martin, a 46-year-old gentleman (of no occupation’) living on Holloway Road, was charged with throwing vitriol at Winifred Brown and another lady. Winifred had brought her case a week or so before and Martin now apologized (via his lawyer) and promised to compensate her for the damage he had caused to her dress. Clearly his lawyer wanted to circumvent the criminal charge by making this a civil one, of merely damages. His worship wouldn’t hear of it however and closed down these ‘negotiations’.

Now a police inspector came to the stand to present another victim who accused Martin of attacking her in a similar way. Florence Smith and her sister had left St. John’s church in Highgate three weeks earlier and had noticed Martin loitering outside. When, some days later, she came to put on the same dress she had worn to church she noticed it was ‘utterly destroyed down the back, having been burnt into holes’.

Mr. Cooke decided that this was such a serious affair it needed to be heard before a jury, and so he fully committed William Martin for trial. Martin was indeed prosecuted at Old Bailey (on a charge of ‘maliciously pouring sulfuric acid’ on Winifred Brown) but was acquitted.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, September 30, 1888]

A murder in Barbados or a false accusation?



The most recent series of Ripper Street opened with the death of an Indian lawyer found in the East India dock. At first it was thought that this might be the result of rivalry between dockworkers or perhaps tensions between foreign sailors (often this meant Lasacars) and locals. I don’t know how the writers get their stories but they might profitably search the pages of the Victorian press.

In September 1875 a Malay boatswain named Seeden was brought before Mr. Lushington at Thames Police Court. He was charged with ‘causing the death of a Lascar seaman named Sali’. Both men had served on the Neva, said John James a fellow crew member who gave evidence at Thames.

Whilst the ship lay at anchor at Barbados Sali and Sedeen quarreled and the latter knocked Sali to the deck, pushed him to the rail and threw him overboard. After an interval of 20 minutes he informed the captain that his crewmate had ‘jumped overboard’.

Mr. Lushington examined two other Malay sailors but they failed to corroborate James’ testimony. The magistrate turned to James and suggested it was odd that he waited so long to bring his evidence before a policeman or a court. He dismissed it as an ‘entirely groundless charge’ and ordered Sedeen to be released. He added that if the police ‘thought it proper’ they should arrest and charge James with perjury.

[from The Morning Post , Wednesday, September 29, 1875]

Drink: the curse of the working classes…



Throughout the nineteenth century the problem of drink (especially the drinking habits of the working classes) were the subject of intense discussion. The Temperance Movement began in the early 1820s and while it began by advocating ‘moderation’ it became more radical, demanding the prohibition of the sale of alcohol and urging people to take the pledge of abstinence. The Band of Hope was founded in Leeds in 1847 and a national organization grew from this in 1855. In 1864 William Booth founded the Salvation Army with temperance one of its key tenets.

Of course while many people agreed that moderation and even abstinence were a ‘good thing’, others either resented the attack on their lifestyle and ‘freedoms’ or saw temperance as a threat to their business and livelihood. Publicans and brewers in particular can’t have welcomed the emergence of an anti-alcohol movement.

In 1850 Mr. William Townsend was due to speak on the subject of the ‘social. moral and religious condition of the working classes’ at the Temperance Hall at Horsleydown, in Bermondsey. Before the meeting placards were printed and distributed announcing the lecture. He rose to speak but had not got very far into his lecture before he was interrupted.

A group of people close to the podium stepped forward and threw red paint at him, covering the front of his clothes. The men then left and Mr. Townsend, to his credit, finished his speech.

However, as he was leaving and stepping into a cab ‘his assailants’, who had been waiting for him nearby, rushed forward and chucked a quantity of flour all over him; he was now, as the paper dubbed him, the ‘red and white lecturer’!

Townsend told the magistrate he knew who his attackers were and his worship issued a summons for them to appear to answer the charge. Perhaps they were members of the ‘skeleton crew’ supposedly hired by landlords to thwart the efforts of the prohibitionists.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, September 28, 1850]

A circus artist for whom the show cannot go on alone



Very sadly suicides seem to feature quite frequently in the reports of the London police courts. The Thames offered those in despair plenty of opportunities to take their lives and we must remember that in the Victorian period there were not the social services, health care or even many of the modern charities that support those with depression or other forms of mental illness. Nor were nineteenth-century asylums places one would want to end up in.

Ellen Whitby was brought up to be re-examined before the sitting magistrate at Mansion House in late September 1873. Ellen had tried to jump from London Bridge into the river below and this had not been the first time. She had attempted suicide ‘no fewer than four times’, once been dragged out of the Thames after falling from Blackfriars Bridge. After this most recent attempt she was locked up in Newgate for her own safety.

Ellen was a former circus performer. Under the stage name Lottie Marcella she had performed as an ‘equestrienne’ with her husband. But three years previously he had been killed in an accident and their act had come to an end. A public subscription had raised £400 for the widow but it seems she took his loss and the end of her career hard, turning to drink.

This ‘intemperance’ was accompanied by what today we would probably identify as depression and so led her to attempt her own life.

The ordinary of Newgate (the prison’s chaplain) appeared at court to speak on her behalf. He said he believed she would no longer try to kill herself if released. He added that ‘arrangements had been made to send the prisoner to an institution where she would be taken care of’ (an asylum one imagines). There she might be able to ‘regain her position’ he hoped.

I fear the ordinary might have been being a tad optimistic as Victorian ‘lunatic asylums’ had ‘a reputation as dehumanising, prison-like institutions‘, and I doubt ‘Lottie’ would have had much ‘care’ there.


[from The Morning Post, Saturday, September 27, 1873]

A thief can’t wait to get back inside


Cowcross Street, Farringdon, c.1870

George Wood (also known to the police and the community as ‘Gentleman Jack’) was presented at Clerkenwell Police Court in late September 1881 charged with stealing a gold chain valued at £5.

Wood was described as a ‘general dealer’ who lived at Bath Street, off the City Road. The watch belonged to Mr Thomas Matthews, an engraver at the Albion Works on Cow Cross Street (near Farringdon station, Clerkenwell). Matthews was walking to work one morning when Wood ‘got in front of him, tugged at his chain’ and ran off with the watch.

He was soon arrested by a police detective (DS Maroney) and charged. Woods, somewhat surprisingly perhaps, immediately confessed to the robbery. He told the detective that ‘he should like to be sentenced at once, so that he could be doing his time and [therefore the sooner] be at large again’.

His worship did not oblige however, he decided the case was too serious for a short summary imprisonment and committed him for a jury trial at the Middlesex sessions of the peace.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, September 26, 1881;]