‘labouring under considerable depression of spirits’: a young woman throws herself and her baby into the canal

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The Grand Surrey Canal on Davies’ Pocket Map of London, 1852

On Sunday 17 May 1840 a policeman (32P) was walking his beat, which took him along the Surrey Canal. This ran through Camberwell and Peckham to the Surrey Docks at Rotherhithe, but no longer exists.

It was between one and two in the morning and the moon (which had been full three days earlier) was waning. The copper thought he heard a splash and hurried to the bank. As he peered across the water he thought he saw something, a woman’s bonnet, floating in the canal. Without a thought, he ‘threw off his coat and cape and jumped into the water’.

The water engulfed him and he was soaked through as he thrashed about to find the woman he presumed had fallen in. The canal was nine feet deep at this point, quite deep enough for someone to drown in, but fortunately the policeman soon found a body in the water. He grabbed it and pulled the person to safety, hauling them up onto the towpath.

When he’d recovered himself he realized he had rescued a young woman and her infant child that she had ‘closely clasped in her arms’. He took them both to the station house and then on to the Camberwell workhouse where they were able to get a change of clothes. The next morning he collected her and brought her to the Union Hall Police court to face questions about her actions from the magistrate.

After PC 32P had given his evidence another officer testified to having seen the woman, Mary Doyle, walking by the canal late at night. He had assumed she was lost and accompanied her back to safety. Mary told the justice she had no idea how she had ended up in the water and said that whatever feelings she had about her own life she would never have endangered her child.

Attempting suicide was an offence in 1840 as of course was attempting to kill your own child. It was evident however, that Mary was not herself. The paper reported that:

 ‘she was labouring under considerable depression of spirits’ and there was a suggestion that the child was illegitimate, and so perhaps Mary was trying to end her own life, and that of her infant, in order to escape the shame of ‘an illicit intercourse’.

The magistrate decided to remand her for further enquiries. He added that if she could find bail he’d be happy to release her to her friends. Sadly, no friends had appeared in court that morning so she was taken back to the cells.

Now PC 32P asked the court if anything could be done for him. He had risked his life, he pointed out, and had got soaked through and his uniform soiled in the process. Could he be ‘recompensed for what he had done?’

While it may sound a little ungallant in the circumstances, he did have a point. Policemen were responsible for their own uniforms and he would have to get his cleaned, presumably at his own expense. Unfortunately for him the clerk explained that there was no fund available for him, and suggested he apply to the Humane Society which paid out rewards for those that ‘saved the lives of others’.

The Humane Society (now ‘Royal’) was founded in 1774 by two doctors who wanted to promote resuscitation, and made awards to those that rescued others from the ‘brink of death’. They set up ‘receiving houses’ throughout the capital where people could be brought to recover. It still exists and continues its work recognizing the efforts of lifesavers, but it no longer offers rewards.

If the policeman did approach them he was likely to have been given around £5 (or £300 in today’s money), quite sufficient for him to get his tunic cleaned and pressed, and to be able to dine out on the story for months afterwards. As for Mary, she disappears from the records at this point so hopefully she survived and avoided being prosecuted. Who knows, perhaps the shock of her brush with death was enough of a prompt to turn her life around.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, May 19, 1840]

p.s. On 10 February 1840 Queen Victoria married her prince, Albert to begin what was undoubtedly one of the few ‘love matches’ in the history royal marriages at the time. Today of course is the wedding of Prince Harry to Meghan Markle. I’m no royalist – quite the opposite in fact – but this is clearly a marriage based on love and not dynastic expedience. This is also a revolutionary marriage in its own small way: Harry, an English prince descended from Victoria, is marrying an American commoner, and a person of mixed race. This is (almost) then a ‘normal’ marriage, and continues the modernisation of the royal family that began under Harry’s mother, Diana. I will doff my red cap to them both today, and wish them well (but I shan’t be watching on television!)

Officer down! Two policemen are stabbed with a sword stick by a crazed revolutionary

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Giuseppe Mazzini

A crowd had gathered outside 7 Hardington Place, Portman Market in Marylebone. It was about 10.30 at night and a man was at a first floor window in a highly agitated state. He was hurling ‘bricks and missiles in all directions’ and several policemen were soon on the scene.

Two officers, PC Robert Dobell (237D) and PC Thomas Tice (40D) entered the building and rushed upstairs accompanied by some others, possibly from the ‘mob’ outside. The door to room in which the man had been seen was locked so they put their shoulders to it, and broke it down.

At this the man came charging towards them brandishing a walking cane which he thrust at them. PC Dobell cried ‘I am stabbed’ and then fell in front of his colleague. PC Tice was also wounded but in the chaos and with his adrenaline pumping he didn’t realise this at first.

The policemen shouted for help and the man was soon overpowered. The weapon, a sword stick, was picked up from the floor where the attacker had dropped it. PC Dobell was taken to hospital and the prisoner to the station. When he removed his uniform top coat PC Tice discovered his injury, a stab wound to the ‘fleshy part of my right arm, between the elbow and the shoulder’.

The following morning PC Tice was in court at Marylebone to give his evidence in front of Mr Long, the sitting magistrate. He showed the court his bloody coat and testified that PC Dobell was still gravely ill, and not yet out of danger.

Their attacker was also in court and gave his name as John Phillips, occupation – painter. He’d been brought to court in a cab, handcuffed with two other officers guarding him. He was clearly a dangerous man.

Not only was he dangerous it was also evident that he was suffering from a mental illness or, as the court reporter described him, demonstrating ‘unsoundness in his intellect’. He raved in court, shouting out:

‘Kossuth, Mazzini, let me have justice. It was not a Roman dagger or a poisoned dagger, and I stand upon the liberties of my country. Had Prince Albert have been there at the time his blood would have flowed, and so would yours (alluding to the magistrate), had you been there’.

Lajos Kossuth was a Hungarian revolutionary who briefly ruled his nation in the tumultuous period of 1848-9, he was widely revered amongst British radicals and so may have been an inspiration for Phillips. Similarly Giuseppe Mazzini was a well known Italian political activist who was driving force in Italian Unification.

Philips was eventually sent for trial at the Old Bailey but his ‘madness’ was deemed too great and the jury found him unfit to plead. He was therefore found not guilty by dint of being non compos mentis. I believe that PC Doble survived the attack but he was lucky if he did, because the stab wound was very close to his heart. Philips, one imagines, was confined to an asylum.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, April 14, 1853]

Acid throwing in the East End, an echo from the 1880s

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This is a shocking case with echoes of recent acid attacks on London streets. Derryck John has just been sentenced to 10 and a half years in prison for spraying a corrosive liquid into the faces of moped riders as part of an attempt to steal their vehicles. The 17 year old refused to name his accomplice, the Wood Green court was told, and he remains at large.

In 1889 The Worship Street Police Court witnessed a case that was almost as alarming, and certainly resulted in similar ‘life changing’ injuries as suffered by John’s victims. William Green was just 14 years of old but he stood accused of ‘throwing corrosive liquid’ over another young lad because the pair had an argument in the street.

Green worked as walking stick maker and on the 2 April 1889 his master sent him out to purchase a pint of nitric acid. As he approached the workshop he met the other boy, Jacob Rosenberg. The pair were acquainted but hardly friends. Within moments Green started abusing the other lad, one imagines Rosenberg replied in kind.

The name calling escalated and Green ‘flung some of the acid he had in the bottle full in Rosenberg’s face’. The liquid went over his face, hands and his clothes and burned terribly. Rosenberg appeared in court as a witness, his face ‘hidden by bandages’. The magistrate committed Green for trial.

At the Old Bailey Jacob testified that anti-Semitism was at the heart of the dispute. Green had shouted that he was a ‘Jew bastard’ and ‘should be at home in my own country’ and challenged him to a fight. When he declined to fight Green hurled the act and ran away. Rosenberg, who had already lost an eye to smallpox, was left in agony and taken to the police station to have his wounds dressed.

However, there was a counter allegation that Rosenberg had been the aggressor, perhaps because Green regularly tormented him. It was suggested that he had either provoked Green or had shoved him, spilling the liquid over himself.

Green was given a good character and the injuries to Rosenberg were described as being ‘nothing serious’. There was enough doubt placed as to Green’s intent and so he was acquitted of the intent to cause injury and a lesser charge of common assault. One can’t help but feel that the court didn’t want to take the side of the Jew against an ‘honest’ English working lad. Anti-Semitism was rife in the 1880s, especially in the crowded East End of London where so many immigrants had arrived in the last few years.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, April 10, 1889]

Much ado about nothing? Cheesy goings on at Smithfield at Easter

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Easter fell on the 1 April on only four occasions in the nineteenth century: 1804, 1866, 1877, and 1888. On Easter Sunday 1877 there were the usual series of reports from the Police Courts of the metropolis. There was ‘brutality’ at Lambeth as a 28 year-old labourer was charged and convicted of beating his wife; he went to prison for three months. At Hammersmith, in a report captioned ‘ruffianism’, John Slade was sent away for four months for assaulting a policeman in the course of his duty.

At Bow Street there was a most unpleasant accusation of child rape (under the title ‘alleged bestiality’), while at Clerkenwell a costermonger’s wife was in the dock for attacking her husband. But the case I’m going to recount today is a less unpleasant one; something cheery for this Easter Sunday for  change. And as it headed up all the reports on that day perhaps that was the intention of the editor of Reynold’s Newspaper, to bring a little ‘good news’ to his readers.

Under the title, ‘a singular charge of theft’, the paper described the appearance at the Guildhall Police Court of Ruth Thornton who was accused of stealing a cheese from a shop in the City.

The charge was brought by Charles Parsons, a butcher working at the London Central Meat Market (Smithfield). He told the magistrate, Mr Alderman Ellis, that at times he worked for Mr Turner who ran a cheese shop at number 254 in the market. He explained that:

‘it was their practice to have cheese exposed for sale in pieces on the shop-board, from which customers selected those they liked, and then took them into the shop to get weighed and then to pay for them’.

He said he saw Mrs Thornton pick up a cheese and walk into the crowded shop. There were lots of customers pressing to get to the counter to pay but Parsons was sure he saw the lady place the cheese in her basket then, as she got close to the counter, turn around and walk out without paying.

He followed quickly and stopped her, demanding to know what she had in her basket.

‘Why cheese, to be sure’, she replied.

Parsons then accused her of theft which she denied. She said she’d paid for it with half a crown and received one and half pence change. The cheese weighed 4lbs 2oz and was priced at six and half pence a pound. She was very precise about this but Parsons didn’t believe her and instead of taking her back to the shop to verify her version of events he handed her over to the first police constable her found.

The police called for Mr Turner to come to the station to give his account but he refused, saying he knew nothing of the affair. In court Mrs Thornton’s lawyer, a Mr Chapman, pressed the butcher as to whether Turner had said he didn’t know whether the cheese had been paid for or had said he couldn’t recall it being paid for. The defence was trying attempting (successfully it seems) to create some doubt about the butcher’s insistence that Ruth had not paid for the cheese in her basket.

The shop was busy, he explained, his client was adamant that she’d paid and her story was entirely consistent; to the butcher, the police and now here, in the Guildhall. Moreover she had been willing to go back to the shop with the assistant when he had stopped her but he had insisted on taking this to law.

Parsons had acted prematurely and had had a respectable woman taken into custody. Mrs Turner had given a correct address to the police (5 Charles Villas, Stratford). Moreover she had plenty of money on her that day (£1 13s 6d) so there was no reason for her to have stolen the cheese. Mr Ellis was of the opinion that there was insufficient evidence to convict the prisoner before him and so he discharged her.

His decision was ‘met with applause’. The only person unhappy about it was Parsons, who had to go back to his employer to break the bad news that first, he’d lost the case (and so if she had stolen the cheese, the value of it) and second (and worse) that Mr Turner’s good reputation had been a little tarnished in the process.

Happy Easter, Passover or Eostre to all of you.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, April 1, 1877]

A little bit of common sense as Easter concentrates the mind of the ‘beak’.

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The magistrates operating at London’s several Police Courts applied the law as they saw it but used their discretion when appropriate. It is not accurate to describe the courts as spaces to demonstrate the power of the state but nor were they arenas for the poor to negotiate their way to a better life. Moreover, we must not see the magistracy as a group of like-minded individuals who always presented a united front, or who invariable took the side of the police or indeed, the wealthier or middle classes.

They did tend towards a moral position in most things; drunks, wife beaters and prostitutes could expect short shrift, as could recidivist thieves or tradesmen that attempted to defraud or trick their customers. Some justices had particularly fearsome reputations as ‘no nonsense’ law givers (like Mr Lushington in the late 1800s) while others might have earned contrasting reputations as ‘kindly gentlemen’.

In popular culture it is the character of Mr Fang in Oliver Twist that represents one contemporary view of the uncaring Police Court magistrate. Mr Fang, on no evidence whatsoever, initially sentences Oliver (who has fainted clean away in the courtroom though illness and exhaustion) to ‘three months – hard labour of course’. Dickens had reported on the courts of the metropolis and was aware of the institutions he was critiquing and the men that served them. He used Mr Brownlow as the voice of reason and charity who ultimately saves Oliver from being caught up in the Victorian justice system.

Sometimes though we do get a sense of the humanity of the Victorian bench and perhaps at certain ties of the year this was more likely to be highlighted by the court reporters who attended these daily summary hearings. The reading public may well have needed to reminded that while justice was swift and harsh for those that deserved it, it could also be ‘just’.

Easter was certainly a time when charity and ‘good Christian’ values were uppermost in everyone’s thoughts, especially the upright moral middle classes of Victorian England.  Over at Westminster Police court in March 1865 Easter was just a fortnight away and Mr Arnold was in the high seat of the courtroom. He had several charges that day one of whom was James Davis. Davis cut a melancholy figure in court:

‘A poor, miserable-looking fellow, covered with rags, was brought up on remand’ the report described, ‘charged with hawking without a license’.

Davis had been held in the cells for a couple of days while enquiries had been made, and this experience had clearly not done him much good. This probably factored into the justice’s decision-making, but before we leap to the conclusion of the case let us door-to-door the circumstances of the charge.

PC Rowe (113 B) was on patrol in Chelsea when he noticed Davis wandering from door to door in King’s Place off the King’s Road. A ragged looking individual had no business being in such an elevated part of town and the policeman was immediately suspicious. There had been a series of burglaries and robberies recently, committed by people that pretended to sell things at the door (we are familiar with this sort of trick today).

As Davis left one house PC Rowe collared him and asked him what he was doing. Davis was indeed trying to sell stuff and had a card of shirt buttons  and the previous householder had bought some from him. Rowe asked him if he had a license to sell goods in the street and off course since he didn’t, he took him into custody.

On his first appearance before the magistrate Davis pleaded poverty, saying he was ‘half starved’ and was trying to ‘get an honest living’. Nevertheless, the law was the law and Mr Arnold reminded him so that he could seek advice from the relevant authorities. In this case that was the Inland Revenue and a few days later a gentleman from the Excise appeared.

The offence Davis had admitted to carried a maximum fine of £10 but the revenue man said this could be reduced ‘by a quarter’ under legislation passed in 1860 and 1861. This was still a huge sum for a man in Davis’ parlous state to find. £10 was the equivalent of almost £600 in today’s money and would have bought you a skilled tradesman’s labour for a nearly two months. Davis was selling his buttons for a few pennies, and trying to scrape a few shillings together to eat and put a roof over his head.

So taking all of this in account Mr Arnold acting with charity, compassion and no little common sense. This man, he declared:

‘could not pay £2 10s, and if he sent him to prison it was for trying to get an honest living. Nothing was known of him [meaning he was not ‘known to the police’ as a repeat offender or trouble maker] and he (Mr Arnold) should not put the law into force’.

He told him he ‘must not do it again’ but released him on his own recognizances with the warning that he might be required to attend his court again in the future, presumably if he was caught selling without a license once more. Another man was similarly convicted and released, so that Mr Arnold could award punishment at a later date. The inference was that as long as he behaved himself and obeyed the law, that ‘later date’ would not transpire.

Quite how James Davis managed to keep himself together and earn his ‘honest living’ without being able to afford to purchase a hawking license is not clear, but at least he was out of gaol and with no stain against his character.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, March 31, 1865]

‘A very noble and intelligent dog’ saves a life the ‘owner’ had given up on

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In late March 1883 Thomas Lyford was walking his dog along the Victoria Embankment when the animal suddenly headed off towards Cleopatra’s Needle. It raced down the steps to the water, turned, ran up, ‘barked twice and ran back’. Lyford followed quickly afterwards instantly realising that something was wrong.

The dog was a retriever/Newfoundland cross, and the latter were bred for rescuing people from the water. The dog had seen a woman in the Thames and swam out towards her. When the animal reached her it used its large jaws to pull her back towards the river side a where Lyford was able to grab her by her dress and haul her onto the steps at the foot of the Egyptian monument.

The police and a surgeon arrived soon afterwards. They had been alerted earlier when a patrolling constable (PC 281) had noticed the woman acting strangely near the Needle. To his horror he’d seen her launch herself into the Thames in what appeared to be an act of self-destruction. The constable ran as fast has he could towards the Thames Police Office (which was at the foot of Waterloo Bridge on the north side of the river) to raise the alarm and have a boat launched to save her.

It was half past eight at night when the policeman had seen the woman jump so without the quick reactions of  Lyford and his dog she may well have drowned. Instead the woman was taken to the workhouse infirmary where, after some time, she made a full recovery.

As regular readers will know this was not the end of the story because very many people chose to attempt suicide in the 1800s and since it was against the law those that failed in their efforts were brought before the metropolitan Police Courts to answer for it. This woman’s name was Amelia Crickland and she was placed in the dock at Bow Street before Mr Vaughan while the case against her was heard.

We get no real sense of why she threw herself into the river but this is probably because the court reporter was more interested in the canine rescue story, which was described in detail. Thomas Lyford stood in the witness box with his dog. The animal ‘placed its fore paws on the ledge of the box, looking round the court in a most intelligent manner’.

‘It is a very noble and intelligent dog’ Mr Vaughan commented.

‘Yes, he came and told me that something was wrong as plainly as any Christian could,’ the proud dog owner replied.

The unnamed dog was the hero of the hour, poor Amelia (who could only put her decision to drown herself down to ‘some trouble she had’) was sent to the house of detention to wait final judgement on her punishment. ‘Some trouble’ may have meant she was pregnant, or had lost her employment, or some other disgrace she found too awful to bear. Sadly society wasn’t that interested in what had driven her to despair and the reality was likely to be that when she got the chance again she’d make sure there were no eagle-eyed policemen or rescue dogs nearby.

[from The Standard, Friday, March 30, 1883]

Cleopatra’s Needle (which had little or nothing to do with the Egyptian queen) had arrived in the capital in 1878 and so was still a fairly new attraction on the Embankment. It was paid for by public subscription to commemorate victory over Napoleon in Egypt and it had survived a tempestuous journey to reach London. I wonder how many visitors to London stop think of the number of people that ended (or attempted to end) their lives in the water that lay just beyond this symbol of British military power? 

‘Here’s a man who is able to buy an inspector for a shilling, a sergeant for sixpence, a constable for sixpence’. The great cake controversy of 1883

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I am going back to 1883 for the next few days. Regular readers will recall that I sampled a week’s news from the Police Courts of the metropolis earlier this year and traced a number of cases that came up more than once. Today’s story may be another of those as it ended with the defendants being required to reappear, bound over on their own recognizances. This case is also interesting because it hints at contemporary concerns about police corruption or, at best, favouritism, and at how this affected those that plied their trade in the local streets and markets – a regular battleground between costermongers and ‘the boys in blue’.

In March 1883 James Williams and Samuel Stephenson were charged before Mr Shiel at Wandsworth Police court with ‘playing at a game of chance and causing an obstruction’ in Battersea Park Road. They had been brought in by Detective Gilby who said he’d been alerted to the crowd that had gathered around the pair’s barrow as it stood on the road on Saturday evening. He and his fellow detective, DS Vagg, watched the men operate what they believed to be a swindle.

The men appeared to be auctioning cakes using a ticket system. Detective Gilby described what he saw:

‘The prisoner Williams took eight tickets from a box, pretended to shuffle them, and sold them at  penny each. After the tickets were collected he called out a number, and pointed to a person as having won a cake’.

The police officers explained that Williams then called out to the crowd that they could swap the cakes for sixpence if they preferred, making this possibility now to win money rather than cake by gambling on your ticket coming up. A boy working for the men handed out several cakes, three of whom were returned to him, presumably in the hope of turning their pennies into sixpences.

Detective Sergeant Vagg bought three tickets to test the system and catch the men red handed. When he had handed the tickets over to Stephenson he had effectively proved they were operating a ‘game of chance’ (rather than simply selling cakes) and he arrested them and took them back to the station. He accused them of swindling the public by placing stooges in the crowd to make it seem as if it was a fair raffle, when in reality the whole thing was staged (as so many street swindles were – or are).

The men denied it and Williams went further, alleging police corruption.

‘Here’s a man who is able to buy an inspector for a shilling, a sergeant for sixpence, a constable for sixpence’ he said, although it is unclear who he meant to be the target of that remark. Quite possibly it was the informant that had told the detective Gilby about the illegal game in the first place. Perhaps this was a rival coster who wanted to reduce the competition or even a trader that paid a premium to ensure that he wasn’t the subject of unwanted police attention.

Mr Shiel was not keen to have this kind of talk in his court and tried to close down that particular line of enquiry. Williams was glad to have the case taken before the magistrate he claimed, as he had long ‘been persecuted by the police’.

The pair claimed merely to be selling cakes at sixpence a go and said they’d not used a ticket system since they’d been arrested and charged with doing so by the same officers some time ago. The suggestion was that the police were either making the whole thing up or prosecuting them for misdemeanours in the past, in order to persecute them. It sounded pretty far fetched but they were able to produce a witness of sorts who backed them up.

Charles Lloyd was described as a comedian, living in Bermondsey. He told the court that he’d been standing at the corner of the street near to where the men’s barrow was when he overheard “two gentlemen” (indicating the two detectives in court) say ‘they meant to have a cakeman, whether he had any tickets or not’. Lloyd said he watched for 15 minutes and saw Williams and Stephenson selling cakes by auction but saw no tickets. When the men were arrested the crowd rushed forward to take their cakes.

Mr Shiel said he would like to speak to the boy that had supposedly been collecting the tickets and Williams told him he was sure he could produce him. At that point the pair of ‘cakemen’ were released to appear at a later date. We shall see if they make the pages of the newspapers before the end of this week.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, March 27, 1883]