‘Let finish the bastard!’ : Drunkenness and violence in the Victorian capital

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Seven Dials, a Victorian slum 

It was drunkenness and its consequences that filled the first column of reports on the Police Courts in the Morning Post on 6 August 1863. Drunk and disorderly behaviour, especially if it involved any form of violence, was regularly punished by the city’s magistrates and featured often in newspaper reports. This morning the reports, while they had a common theme, involved a range of defendants and circumstances.

The most serious (at least in the eyes of the law at the time) was heard at Bow Street before Mr Henry. Two ‘young rough fellows’ – Reardon and Sullivan – were accused of being drunk and assaulting a police officer. The officer involved was a Inspector Brimmacombe of F Division Metropolitan Police. Brimmacombe was on duty in Seven Dials, one of the capital’s poorer and more criminal districts.

What he was doing there is unclear but he wasn’t operating under cover because when he came upon Reardon and Sullivan and a half dozen other men who were drunk and disturbing the peace, he instructed them to go home quietly.

They laughed in his face, refused to comply, and attacked him. Sullivan swung at the officer but missed, striking a nearby carthorse on the nose instead. Sullivan now tried to grab at the policeman and spat full in his face, cursing him. Brimmacombe seized the man’s collar and made to drag him way but he called for his mate’s to help him ‘throw him down’.

The ‘mob’ now piled in on the policeman, joined he said by many more so that he was kicked on the ground as he was surrounded by upwards of 20 assailants. Inspedctor Brimmacombe was kicked, ‘beaten, and dragged about, his coat and cape covered with mud, and so torn as to be unserviceable’. The assault continued for about 10 minutes and Reardon then drew a knife and muttered darkly:

‘Let’s finish the __________’.

Just then the Westminster Police court prison van drove by, on its may to the House of Detention. The sergeant driving the van saw what was happening and rushed to help the inspector. The crowd of roughs scattered but Sullivan was arrested. Reardon was identified and picked up in a pub later that evening. In court both prisoners apologized but it didn’t save them from punishment: Mr Henry ordered them to pay a hefty £3 fine each or go to gaol for a month.

The next two cases are from the City of London, which had two courts – at Mansion House (where the Lord Mayor presided, unless he was unavailable) and Guildhall, which was staffed by aldermen in rotation.

Ellen Murray was charged before Alderman Gabriel with being drunk and causing criminal damage. She was prosecuted by a Mr Hough, who kept a licensed public house on Giltspur Street. Hough said that Ellen had come to his house and had been drinking until he decided she’d had enough. Ellen was becoming rowdy and landlords were mindful of running orderly establishments for dear of losing custom and their licenses.  When she wouldn’t calm down he threw her out.

The young woman was drunk and enraged and put her fist through his window, breaking what he described as a ‘valuable pane of embossed glass’. He called for a policeman and had her arrested. In court he told the alderman magistrate that he was particularly upset because he had helped Ellen in the recent past. She was poor and he had approached the West London Union on her behalf to secure her some outdoor relief, meaning she could stay out of the workhouse. He thought it very ungrateful of her to repay him in this way.

Ellen apologized but again; it wasn’t enough to save her. She had no money to pay a fine or the damages she owed for the window so she was sent to prison for a fortnight.

Our final case concerned a young man at the other end of the social scale. James Wilson was the name he gave at Mansion House but that may not have been his real name. He was a – he said – a solicitor and had a ‘genteel’ appearance as he stood in the dock before the Lord Mayor.

He too was charged with being drunk and, in addition, with ‘assaulting several females’. This was his second appearance that week but when he was set in the dock on Tuesday he’d been too drunk to stand and so was remanded overnight. Wilson had been seen by a 15 year-old boy in Bucklersbury (a street in the city quite close to the Bank of England – pictured right c.1845 ) with a young girl. It was reported that he had assaulted her in ‘an indecent manner’ and the witness had gone off to fetch a policeman.

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Meanwhile Wilson ran off and groped a passing woman before boarding a moving omnibus where he assaulted another female passenger. The bus was stopped and Wilson removed and warned by a constable. Taking no notice – presumably because he was so drunk – Wilson ran up to another women in the street and threw his arms around her neck.

That was his lot and the police took him into custody. On Wednesday, sober and repentant, he apologized although he said he was so drunk he could hardly remember anything from that night. He begged not to be sent to gaol, as ‘it would ruin him mentally, he was sure’. The Lord Mayor said drunkness was no excuse and he’d have to be punished in some way.

Wilson said he was ‘a poor man’, living off his friends with very little funds of his own but he’d happily make a donation to the poor box if His Lordship requested him to. The Lord Mayor fined him 40but warned him that a failure to pay would earn him a month in prison. Hopefully for him – if not for his victims – his friends rallied round and paid his fine.

So, three cases of drunken behaviour, three different sorts of victim and quite different circumstances, but all ‘rewarded’ in much the same way. Violence, often fuelled by drink, was endemic in the Victorian capital and must have proved depressingly repetitive to the  men who served as Police Court magistrates.

[from Morning PostThursday, 6 August 1863]

A murder confession, 13 years too late

The "Rookery", St. Giles's, 1850

Nineteenth-century St Giles

The reporter from Reynold’s newspaper, or his editor, captioned George Skinner’s behavior as ‘EXTRAORDINARY CONDUCT’.

Skinner, a 39 year-old resident of south London was brought before Mr Chance at Lambeth Police court charged with being drunk. It wasn’t his first appearance in court and had only recently been released from prison where he’d served a month inside for being an ‘habitual drunkard’.

On this occasion Skinner had presented himself at the desk of Gypsy Hill Police station, telling the sergeant that he was responsible for a murder that took place 13 years earlier. The station inspector sat him down and took a statement from him. He confessed to killing a ‘woman named Jackson’ in 1863 but when he was handed the statement to sign, he refused.

He was ‘very drunk’ when he spoke to the police and subsequent enquiries had ‘ascertained that the prisoner had before given himself up at Bow Street in a similar manner’.

But had a woman named Jackson been murdered in 1863, the magistrate asked? Indeed they had.

Sergeant 4ER gave evidence that a woman named Jackson had been murdered in George Street, Bloomsbury in 1863 and that in 1870 George Skinner had confessed to the crime. The police had investigated his confession however, and found it to be false.

Whoever had killed Ms Jackson the police didn’t believe it was Skinner, even if he seemed to. Mr Chance turned to the prisoner and told him that he had acted in a ‘most disgraceful manner’, presumably by being drunk and wasting police time. What had he to say for himself?

‘Commit me for trial’, Skinner replied. ‘I don’t care what you do. Let it go for trial’.

‘Let what go for trial?’, the magistrate demanded to know.

‘Send me for trial as an habitual drunkard. You know you can do it if you like. That’s the law’.

Mr Chance may well have had considerable discretionary power in 1880 but he could hardly send someone before a jury for being a drunk, however annoying the man’s behaviour was. Instead he was able to send him back to prison and/or fine him and this is what he did. Skinner, described as an able if ‘lazy’ shoemaker, was fined 20s  and told if he did  not pay up he would go to prison for 14 days at hard labour.

‘Only fourteen days for confession of a murder?’ Skinner quipped, ‘All right’.

In April 1863 a carpenter was charged at Bow Street with the murder of an Emma Jackson in St Giles. The court was crowded as the locals clearly felt this was the killer. They were mistaken however, as the police quickly established that the man confessing to murder, John Richards (a 31 year old carpenter) was, like Skinner, a drunken fantasist. He had confessed whilst drunk but later retracted and the magistrate, a Mr Broddick, warned him but let him go without further penalty.

The murder of Emma Jackson excited ‘intense interest in the miserable neighbourhood in which it took place’, Reynold’s  had reported at the time. As a result the tavern where the inquest was held was as crowded at the police court where Richards was examined a few days later. St Giles was a notoriously poor area (below), on a par with Whitechapel and Southwark in the 1800s, and a byword for degradation and lawlessness.

A_Scene_in_St_Giles's_-_the_rookery,_c._1850

Emma was murdered in a brothel, although it was also described as a lodging house; in some respects it was hard to discern much difference between the two. Jackson had arrived there with a client (a man wearing a cap was all the description the landlady could manage) and asked for a room for two hours.

It was a very brutal murder, there was blood everywhere, but no sign of the killer. Perhaps it was intensity of this murder and the lack of a suspect that prompted some disturbed individuals to confess to it, just as several people confessed to being the Whitechapel murderer in 1888.  That they were drunk when they did so might also indicate that they ware suffering from a form of mental illness, understood today but not in the 1800s.

Skinner had confessed to a murder in 1863 in Bloomsbury, Jackson was killed in St Giles, which is near enough to allow it to be the same murder.

[from Reynold’s Newspaper, Sunday 7 March 1880; Daily NewsThursday 23 April, 1863; Reynold’s Newspaper, Sunday 19 April 1863 ]

Don’t put your sons on the stage Mr Gamgee, they are too young to box

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William Gamgee wanted his two sons to be able to take up a ‘manly’ sport but before he could let them appear on the stage of the Royal Aquarium in Tothill Street he had to get a magistrate’s permission. It might seem odd to us that such restrictions existed in the late 1800s, after all this was a society that still sent fairly young children to prison, locked them in workhouses, and expected them to work long hours in factories and mills. But, slowly, things were improving.

Gamgee, a hairdresser, appeared before Mr Partridge at Westminster Police court in early December 1889 to make his case.  He brought his lads along, together with the outfits they would wear and the boxing gloves they’d use in the bouts. He was applying for a license under the terms of the Act for the Better Protection of Children for the boys to ‘box nightly in costume’.

To support his case he’d brought along a certificate from ‘a gentleman designating himself as a bone-setter’ who declared that, in his opinion, boxing was beneficial to the general health of boys. He also had a letter from his sons’ schoolmaster confirming that they were regular attendees at school and were making good progress with their studies.

Gamgee said that he would get no financial reward for the boys’ performance and they themselves would not be paid, but would be given gold medals for their efforts. ‘That is all’, he stated.

Mr Partridge wanted to examine the gloves the pair would be using. He wasn’t sure that they wouldn’t hurt them but Gamgee assured them that the boys are never bruised’. ‘They only have three short rounds, and I decide when time is up’, he explained. They’d been training for a year and a half for this opportunity but it wasn’t his intention for them to go on to become pugilists in the future.

The boys seemed to have a different opinion. When asked if they’d rather be boxers or follow their father’s trade of hairdressing they were adamant that they wanted to be fighters. ‘Which is the best “man” of the two?’ asked the magistrate.

‘We are as good as each other’, came the reply, to laughter in court.

The police said that they had examined the boys (‘stripped’) and thought them to be in good health and showing no signs of harm from their training. The inspector didn’t think the gloves would harm them and so all the signs for Gamgee seemed good. So it was probably something of a surprise when Mr Partridge refused to grant his application.

[from The Standard, Thursday, December 05, 1889]

What does ‘drunk and incapable’ actually mean?

For the next few days I am taking a short holiday from writing this blog so I thought that I might revisit some of the ‘highlights’ of the past few years, especially as more recent readers might not have seen them. So for today, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, there will be a series of ‘repeats’ : the most viewed posts from 2016-18.

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[NB this is not Sarah but a 16 year-old girl from a 1893 book of police mugshots depicting Dundee citizens banned from drinking houses]

In mid June 1877 PC Savage was called to the Two Brewers pub in Clapham, south London, to deal with a drunken woman. Sarah Weller was very drunk and the landlord had described as being ‘riotous’ and had refused to serve her any more alcohol.

Savage helped Sarah from the pub but she soon fell over and so he arrested her and took her back to the police station. When she came up at Wandsworth Police Court she was charged with being ‘drunk and incapable’. This puzzled the magistrate, Mr Briggs; ‘he did not know why the word “incapable” was put in, as it was not an offence’.

The constable’s inspector now appeared and stated that it was the old form of charge and they still used it. Mr Bridge restated his view that it was no crime to be incapable and Sarah’s defence lawyer insisted her behaviour was due to an illness. The justice agreed, suggesting that perhaps Savage had mistaken hysteria for drunkenness and so Sarah should be discharged.

Under the terms of the Intoxication Act it was reasonable to take individuals into custody for their own safety and then let them go once they had sobered up.In some cases a summons might be appropriate but not all. Mr Briggs therefore released Sarah but accepted that the police were not to blame for interpreting the law as they had.

I can’t find the specific act that Briggs was referring to but it is interesting that law, in essence, doesn’t seem to have changed much. It’s not a crime to be drunk; it is what you do that matters. So disorderly or riotous behaviour can be penalised. Today police are obliged to arrest drunk and incapable persons for their own safety and safety seems to be paramount. These people will be released when sober unless they have previously been arrested for the same offence or they are acting in a  disorderly manner, then they might well face a charge and a magistrate’s court appearance, like Sarah.

[from Daily News, Monday, July 9, 1877]

‘Drown the bugger!’ A policeman is pitched into the canal

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At half past one on the morning of Saturday 3 November 1849 police constable Henry Hewitt (164N) was on his beat in Islington, proceeding along Thornhill Road and adjacent to the towpath of the Regent’s Park Canal.

He noticed two men, one carrying a large sack over his shoulder and he became suspicious that they were up to no good. PC Hewitt moved over and stopped them, asking to see what they had in the bag. Even by the dim light of his lantern he could see that the bag was stained with fresh blood.

The blood was from the remains of four dead geese and when the men failed to provide a satisfactory answer for why they had four dead birds he attempted to arrest them. The men were desperate however, knowing they’d been caught, and decided that attack was the best form of defense. They pushed him and tripped him up, turned tail and ran, dropping the sack in to the process.

PC Hewitt recovered himself and set off in pursuit, quickly catching one of the men. His captive shouted for help, calling on his accomplice to ‘drown the b_____r!’ At first the other man did help his mate, but as a battle raged between the policeman and his captive the other took the opportunity to make his escape.

Now Hewitt was left fighting with one thief and the pair tumbled into the canal. The policeman might have drowned in the water but he had a firm grip on his assailant’s neckerchief and in the end the noise of their fight and the officer’s cries for help drew assistance to the towpath and both men were dragged out of the water.

The next morning the prisoner was set in the dock at Clerkenwell Police court and identified as James Knight, alias ‘Macclesfield Bill’, and charged with theft and attempted murder. The court was packed and listened with horror as the policeman described his narrow brush with death.

The magistrate, Mr Tyrwhitt, wanted to know if the owner of the geese had ben traced. They had, the constable told him: two belonged to a Mr Millard of Salisbury Street, Agar Town, while the other pair were the property of a gentleman named Caxton.  In both cases the thieves had broken into buildings to steal the animals. This was a very serious crime – robbery and breaking and entering, plus attempted murder and violence. The justice had no hesitation in sending Knight to trial and Inspector Thatcher promised that ‘every exertion would be made to discover the prisoner’s confederate’.

Seemingly they never did find the other man nor was a jury convinced that Knight was guilty of attempted murder. At his trial on 26 November James (or William) Knight was found guilty of common assault, which usually attacted a small fine or short period of imprisonment. Since he’d been remanded in custody for the best part of a week he was released.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, November 05, 1849]

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]

‘Haven’t you any smaller houses?’ An escaped lunatic at the duke’s front door

York or Stafford House, St James's Park, London

In the early hours of the morning the night porter at Stafford House, (the Duke of Sutherland’s London home), was summoned by the ringing of the front door bell. When he opened the door a man was stood there, looking distracted and disheveled, and who claimed to be the Duke himself.

Clearly he wasn’t the aristocrat in question and the porter told him to go away. Moments later he was back again trying to gain access through one of the downstairs windows. The porter called the police.

When PC 447A questioned him the man again insisted he was the duke and said he’d been out with the Prince of Wales and thought it best to get in by a window than to disturb the household via the front door. The constable was unconvinced by the man’s explanation, thought it likely he was mad, and arrested him.

Back at the police station the police doctor was called and he pronounced the man to ‘be insane’ after which he was locked up prior to being taken before Mr Flowers at Bow Street Police court in the morning.

In court he was alleged to be a wandering ‘lunatic’ by the name of Walter Trower. He was 21 years of age and described as being ‘well dressed’. The magistrate asked him if he had anything to say or any questions to ask. Trower simply continued to insist he was the Duke of Sutherland and that he had been out with the Prince of Wales. However, he clarified this to say that the prince was ‘with me’ adding that: ‘I believe that under the lunacy laws I am the Prince’s sovereign’.

Mr Flowers told him that he would be remanded in custody while investigations into his background were conducted. ‘Of course you will allow me to stop at Stafford House in the meanwhile?’ Trower asked.

Sadly not, the magistrate explained, but he assured him he would be very comfortable in the house of detention. ‘Well sir’ the defendant enquired, ‘if not there [Stafford House] I have other houses in London. The Duke of Portland’s house in Cavendish Square is also mine. I could stop there’.

‘Haven’t you any smaller houses?’ Flowers asked him, drawing laughter from his watching courtroom audience. ‘No, sir I am afraid I have not’ said Trowers before he was led away to the cells. Soon afterwards Inspector Horsley from A Division appeared to confirm that the poor man had escaped from an asylum in Peckham and Mr Flowers instructed that he should be taken back there as soon as was possible.

[from The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, June 27, 1874]

On June 15 Drew’s new book (co-authored by Andy Wise) was published by Amberley Books. 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

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

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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]

‘He would have been alive only for my giving him what I did’: an 11 year-old admits to murder

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In April 1883 a lad of 11 named Arthur Harris Syres was brought before the Lambeth Police court magistrate where he confessed to causing the death of his little brother in early February. Arthur admitted that he had given his infant brother – who was just 12 months old – rat poison and gave the address of the shop that he bought it from. The magistrate decided that the full details of the case needed more careful investigation and remanded Arthur to the care of the local workhouse so they could be carried out.

A week later Arthur was back in court and more details emerged. His home address was given as Park Row, Peckham and his dead brother was named as Alexander Syres. A police sergeant (26P) deposed that Arthur had been brought to the station house by his stepmother. She explained that he child had been taken ill and had been vomiting. The poor thing had died soon afterwards but the doctor she consulted initially thought it might have been a complication of teething. It was only after this that Arthur admitted that he had given Alexander some rat poison that he’d purchased specifically for that purpose.

The magistrate, Mr Ellison, thought it all sounded very strange and once again remanded Arthur in custody. One of the first reforms of juvenile justice in the nineteenth century had been to stop sending children to adult prisons whilst they were on remand, which was why he was secured at a workhouse.

Another week passed before the case returned to Lambeth. More details emerged: the police now believed that it was ‘vermin poison’ that was used and that Arthur had bought ‘a pennyworth’ at a doctor’s shop. The doctor appeared and said the boy’s confession didn’t hold up because he’d said he’d purchased it from another boy working there. He denied that any lad dispensed poisons on his counter but of course he might have been trying to distance himself from the tragedy.

The discussion returned to the initial hypothesis that Alexander had died as a result of complications in teething. Mr Ellison wanted to know if the symptoms of this might be similar to those caused by poison. Dr Hemmings, who treated the child, agreed that they might.  Since little Alex had already been buried the only way to establish the truth for certain was to have his body examined and for that the justice would have to apply to the Home Secretary for a legal exhumation.

On May 4 Arthur learnt that while no decision had yet been made as to digging up his brother’s body it had been decided that he had a case to answer. It was now likely that the 11 year-old would face trial for causing the death of his brother and he was remanded in custody once more. This meant that he had now been in custody and separated from his family for three weeks, not knowing the outcome of the case against him and most likely not having any meaningful legal support. It is hard to imagine the torments he was going through.

On Friday 25 May Arthur was again set in the dock at Lambeth and again asked whether he had given his brother poison.  The lad continued to admit his guilt and so although no independent verification of his story could confirm this to be true the justice, this time Mr Chance, had little choice but to formally commit him to take his trial at the Old Bailey.

The trial took place on the 28 May and was quite short. Sergeant Ledger gave evidence as did Arthur’s stepmother, Margaret Syres. She told the court how while they had all believed that baby Alex had died as a result of his teething Arthur had admitted his role in the baby’s death to his sister Ada.

‘He would have been alive only for my giving him what I did’, he reportedly said and, when questioned by his parents, said he’d taken rat poison himself before.

However, doubts remained as to whether Arthur had administered rat poison or red precipitate poison (mercurite oxide) and Dr Butters (where Arthur claimed to have bought a twist of powder from an errand boy) was adamant that his servant would not have been able to have sold the boy the former.

It then emerged that on New Year’s Eve 1882  Arthur had been charged with attempting to take his own life. Inspector Thomas Worth told the Old Bailey court that on that occasion Arthur had ingested phosphorous paste (which was sometimes used as a rat poison). When asked why he replied that he’d run away from home because his parents ‘ill used him’.

Arthur’s confession was again given in court but when asked the defendant had nothing to say for himself. The jury acquitted him of manslaughter and he was free to go after several weeks of trauma. Whether he was able to return home however, or wanted to, is quite another matter. While the court was unable (and perhaps unwilling) to prove that an 11 year-old boy was a killer it is clear that Arthur Syres was a very troubled youth. His mother had died and his father had remarried and started a new family. It seems as if he was struggling to cope with the adjustment and acted up in the most extreme of ways.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, April 14, 1883; The Hull Packet and East Riding Times, Friday, April 20, 1883; The Standard (London, England), Friday, April 27, 1883;The Standard, Saturday, May 05, 1883; Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, May 27, 1883]

NB: If you enjoy this blog series you might be interested in Drew’s jointly authored study of the Whitechapel (or ‘Jack the Ripper’) murders which is published by Amberley Books on 15 June this year. You can find details here: