A circus artist for whom the show cannot go on alone

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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

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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;]

One drink led to another…

Rosemary Lane had a bit of a reputation in the eighteenth century, and its fair to say this persisted well into the 1800s. Now the lane has gone, replaced completely by Royal Mint Street which runs to join Cable Street, south of Whitechapel High Street. In 1861 Henry Mayhew wrote of the people that here:

The lodgings here are occupied by dredgers, ballast-heavers, coal-whippers, watermen, lumpen, and others whose trade is connected with the river, as well as the slop-workers and sweaters working for the Minories. The poverty of these workers compels them to lodge wherever the rent of the rooms is the lowest.

One of those living in and around Rosemary Lane was Mary Ann Carey, who described herself as a ‘basket woman’. On Tuesday, the 22 September 1868 Mary was in a pub when John Fletcher, a native of Scotland, newly arrived from Australia, walked past.

According to Fletcher Mary ‘rushed out’ and asked him to have a drink with her. Mary may have fallen for him, or perhaps she was already a little the worse for drink to be so forward, but my understanding of her actions suggests that she was a prostitute as well as a basket woman. Many women in the area sold themselves when they could not sell something less personal.

Gold rush

Fletcher had been to Australia for the gold rush; we know this because in court he said he was carrying ‘two nuggets of gold entrusted to him by a  scotchman [he met] at the diggings’. The gold rush in Australia drew thousands of fortune hunters to the continent i the 1850s and 60s. John Fletcher said he had had arrived back in London from Melbourne on the Lincolnshire and had presumably gone out to party on his new wealth. Months at sea with only male company led him to Whitechapel and the dock community than was synonymous with cheap booze and casual sex.

He took Mary up on her offer and the two of them started drinking at noon. ‘One drink led to another’, he told the court, and soon he realised he was missing not only the two gold nuggets but also four sovereigns. At least he still had his gold watch he thought, as the chain was in his pocket. Alas when he pulled the chain out, the watch was gone!

He called for a policeman and PC Childs came to his assistance. The policeman told the magistrate (Mr. Paget) that the pub was a ‘notorious den of thieves’ and he knew Mary as well. She was soon apprehended and presented in court. PC Childs suggested it was unlikely she was working alone and he begged time to round up the others.

Mr. Paget sympathized with the Scotsman’s plight but also said that his experienced should be a warning to others to avoid such places and keep their valuables safe. The court reporter took great delight in transcribing Fletcher’s words in dialect:

When asked what he would do now the poor man replied: ‘I was guan to Scotland. What am I to do now I dinna ken’. Where had he slept? ‘I was oot all the nicht in a yard’.

It was a very long way to go to find gold only to lose it within hours of landing back home in Britain.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, September 25, 1868]

Echoes of Bleak House or an elderly fraudster?

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“Jarndyce and Jarndyce drones on. This scarecrow of a suit has, in course of time, become so complicated that no man alive knows what it means.”

Benjamin Gibbs Mitchell was an old man and had recently found himself in the Giltspur prison in the City of London. It is likely that Mitchell was in gaol for debt, as most of the Giltspur’s inmates were sent there by their creditors [https://londonhistorians.wordpress.com/2010/10/27/compters-aka-counters/]. The gaol closed just a year or so after he was released and imprisonment for debt was formerley ended in 1869.

He may have committed another minor offence but the circumsatnces of his appearance in the Thames Police Court in September 1852 suggests that he was someone for whom money was often scarce.

Mitchell was charged by his landlady, Mrs Hannah with assault but this was to reveal quite a lot about the old man and his delaing with his neighbours. Mrs Hannah kept a lodging house in Wellington Place and when Benjamin Mitchell turned up there he was quite effusive about his requirements.

He demanded ‘coffee and eggs for breakfast, mutton and potatoes for dinner, with soup at other times, and feather pillows for his bed’. He was suffering he said from a delicate stomach following his imprisonment.

On being asked how he would pay he told the good lady he was expecting large sum of money anytime soon. However, after a month he had not paid a ‘farthing’ for this keep and Mrs Hannah began to get annoyed with him. He met her demands for money with violence, striking her with his umbrella. She wrenched the item from him and ‘belaboured him in return’. This is what brought the pair into court.

Benjamin denied the assault and calimed his affairs were in the hands of a most ‘respectable lawyer’, named Mr. Gray*. He was pursuing a claim to £7,000,000 through Chancery that had been going on for 54 years. This sounds like the infames ‘Jarndyce vs Jarndyce’ case that provides the backdrop for Dickens’ Bleak House, a case that went on for ever and ever (and ever).

The magistrate was skeptical and so Mitchell asked him to seek out his doctor who would vouch to the truth of. The court sent for Dr Faulkener.

When he arrived he did indeed speak in Benjamin’s defense; he was a ‘respectable man’ and there was such a claim. In the meantime though the justice had heard that several neighbours had complained about Mitchell’s frauds over a number of years and so he had decided to sentence the old man to 10s fine or 7 days in prison. That was heavy punishment for the assault but he justified it on the grounds that he was unable to punish him for the frauds. I’m not sure that would stand up in court today!

However having heard that the claims the man had made were now verified he sent word to have him released from the cells (he had not been able to pay the fine, as I suspect the ‘beak’ well knew). Instead he sent the old man the amount of the fine for his own use plus 5s from the poor box – punishment had switched quickly to charity on the evidence of one ‘respectable’ medical man.

*my brother is just such a ‘respectable’ lawyer

[From Daily News, Friday, September 24, 1852]

An ungrateful son and the case of the hard boiled eggs

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Frederick Vincent lived with his parents in Brown’s Buildings, a model dwelling in Kensington. On the 13th August 1877 he came home to find his mother boiling eggs for his tea. He made some remark about how she was cooking his eggs which she didn’t like. Mrs Vincent told Frederick that if he didn’t like his home he should leave it.

The lad responded with an ‘offensive epithet’ (we can probably all imagine the sort of thing he might have said). She told in no uncertain terms that should he repeat such language she ‘would knock him down’.

At that Fred swung for her and hit her in the eye. In court he started to say “this woman…” before the magistrate silenced him with “this woman! Sheis your mother”.

Fred said that she had tried to strike him with a nearby pot and so he was only defending himself. His father appeared to back him up, saying his wife was a “curious compound” and there was ‘no peace in the house with her’. The justice was uninterested in either of the men’s excuses, it was ‘difficult to conceive a more disgraceful act than for a son to strike his mother?.

He sent Fred to prison for 21 days, with hard labour. The boy complained that it was ‘an unjust decision’.

[from Daily News, Thursday, August 23, 1877]

Incest and abuse in Holborn

In August 1826 John Green was accused of child abuse. The newspaper reporter spared his readers any intimate detail but it is quite clear form the report that Green was accused of incest with his daughter.

Green and his wife lived in the parish of St. Andrew’s in Holborn. They had a daughter who was 16 and lived with them. Green was about 40 to 50 years of age and on the previous Saturday afternoon he and his daughter had dined around 1 o’clock . Mrs Green was out and her husband now took advantage of this to ‘interfere’ with the girl.

He ‘took liberties’ with his child and was only prevented from the ‘completion of his offence’ by the unexpected return of his wife. The girl told the court this was not the first time it had happened. About two months previously he father had sexually abused her and in fear of punishment she had kept quite and let him continue on several subsequent occasions.

Mrs Green backed up her daughter’s evidence of what had happened at the weekend and a surgeon sent a certificate to show he had examined the girl that ‘corroborated in part the girl’s testimony’. John Green pleaded his innocence and claimed it was a ‘wicked conspiracy’ between the two women against him. He spoke of his wife in ‘terms of detestation’ but it did him no good. He was committed ‘for the misdemeanour; the parish officers [having] declared it to be their intention to prosecute’.

This suggests that this was going to be brought by the parish not by the girl or the wife. It was not against the law to have sex with someone of the girl’s age (the legal age of consent in 1826 was 14, it was not raised to 16 until 1885) but this was incest and that was a matter for the authorities. It also seems to be a case of rape, but that doesn’t seem to be how it was being treated.

[from The Morning Chronicle. Tuesday, August 22, 1826]

Knife crime causes concern in London again, several people are charged

It seems that rarely a week passes in London at the moment without there being a report of a stabbing or shooting involving young people. Gangs, drugs, turf wars and postcode territorial disputes are often blamed and carrying a knife for ‘self-defence’ seems to be endemic.

As with many things in history, especially it seems the history of crime, none of this is very new. In September 1893 the newspapers carried several stories of knife related incidents prosecuted at the capital’s Police Courts.

At Greenwich Alfred Lewis (a 43 year old coach maker from Deptford) was charged with ‘maliciously cutting and wounding’ James Good. Both men fought and both ended up in the Miller Hospital. The fight had happened at a coffee house in Watergate Street and a policeman had been fetched by a distressed onlooker.

Charles Townsend had picked up e bloody knife Lewis had used on Good and handed it over to PC James (512R). The copper went to the café and found Lewis being restrained by two men. The prisoner asked, “is he dead?” and then added, “I meant doing for him. I should like to see him in e mortuary to-night”.

A crowd had gathered outside the coffee house, upwards of a 100 people who seemingly wanted to deliver their own ‘justice’ to Lewis. The policeman had great difficulty in getting Lewis away from those that wanted to Lynch him.

Back at he police station the prisoner told the desk sergeant he had acted in self defence. It seems an unlikely plea, especially given what he had said at the scene. Good was badly hurt:he had four stab wounds in his chest, and one on his cheek. Lewis had a fractured rib where Good had tried to resit him.

The magistrate heard from a doctor that the victim’s wounds were very serious and he was unable to attend court. Lewis was remanded in custody to await Good’s return to some degree of health.

[from Daily News, Thursday, September 21, 1893]