‘Weel, your honour, I was three sheets to the wind, and that’s all about it’: A Tyneside collier in the Thames Police court

Unloading coal at the London docks 1871

The London press delighted in occasionally giving their readership a flavor of the drama that unfolded in the metropolitan police courts. There was plenty of pathos but also humour for balance, and if a reporter could poke fun at a regional or foreign accent, so much the better.

John Leslie was a seaman. He was master of the Sarah, a collier that brought coal down from the north east of England to unload at the London docks. It was a tough life but he was his own man and earned a decent wage for the fuel he delivered to the capital.

In early November 1863 he had unloaded his cargo and so he headed for pubs and lodging houses close by the docks, in Ratcliffe and Wapping. At some point, and it is not clear why, Leslie, much the worse for drink, went in search of his mother.

He turned up at the home of Mrs Elizabeth Farrier at 131 Wapping High Street, Banging on the door he demanded to be let in shouting ‘I want my mother!’ Mrs Farrier said that no one answering to his mother’s name lived there, he was mistaken and should go away. But John was determined and in his drunken rage he pushed past her into the house. As she tried to stop him he punched her in the face and swore at her.

The tumult alerted the house and Mrs Farrier’s neighbours and a policeman was summoned. PC Palmer managed to arrest Leslie and dragged him off to the station. The next morning he was stood in the dock at Thames Police court charged with violent assault.

In his defense a chastened Leslie said he was merely looking for his mother.

‘You should prosecute the search for your mother at reasonable hours, and when you are sober’,

the magistrate (Mr Partridge) admonished him.

‘Weel, your honour, I was three sheets to the wind, and that’s all about it’,

the man replied in a strong north eastern accent.

When asked if he had been ‘paid off’ Leslie countered that he was not a mere sailor but his own boss:

‘Eh mon! I am not paid off at all. I am master of my own ship’.

That didn’t do him any favours with the justice who, determining that he was a man of means (despite his rough appearance) fined 40for the assault, a considerable sum by the standards of assault prosecutions in the 1860s. However, Leslie was a ‘man of means’ and he paid the money immediately and went on his way leaving the mystery of his mother’s location unsolved.

[from The Globe, 13 November 1863]

‘An awful responsibility rests on those that who have brought this war about’, a vicar tells an angry crowd in London

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This morning we remember the fallen of all conflicts but with particular focus on the 100 year anniversary of the end of the First World War. There has been a great deal of emphasis on those that lost their lives in the so-called ‘war to end wars’ with a powerful lightshow at the Tower of London and a count of the dead across the advertising screens in Piccadilly Circus. Across the country and across the world ordinary people, politicians, and members of the armed forces (serving ones and veterans) have been marking the armistice that was signed in 1918 on a railway carriage in France.

There have been some discordant voices; criticism has been aimed at those not wearing poppies and the president of the USA chose to avoid getting his hair wet rather than attending a ceremony to mark the sacrifice of the ‘doughboys’ who did so much to bring the conflict to an end on the Western Front.

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In 1899 (21 years before the end of the First World War) Britain was embroiled in a smaller colonial conflict in South Africa. The Boer War (as it was called then) ended up in a  victory for the Queen’s forces but for a while the irregular farmers of southern Africa embarrassed the finest army in the world. At home patriotism was high and there were joyful celebrations of victories, along with outpourings of sadness at the loss of life amongst the troops that sailed halfway across the world to defend the Empire.

The Reverend Francis Allen Minnitt was someone who objected to the sacrifice and believed, as a significant minority did, that the war was unnecessary. These sentiments were to voiced in 1914 and throughout the ‘Great War’ by those who for political, religious or moral reasons argued that war was wrong, or that ‘this war’ was wrong.

Rev. Minnitt had set himself up to speak in Betterton Street, Westminster and a crowd of (mostly) boys had surrounded him. The minister had been working with young boys in London for some time, trying to help the poorest avoid the temptations of crime and immorality, through education and work. But now he was also condemning the war and the men at the top of society that had sent so  many men off to fight and die in the Transvaal.

‘An awful responsibility rests on those that who have brought this war about’, he told the crowd.

The crowd didn’t like it. Several of them started heckling him, and two women argued and started fighting each other. Several of the boys had been at the Lord Mayor’s Show earlier and tossed a few of the apples they had filched at him. PC 352E was perambulating his beat and soon realised that the reverend was in trouble. Pushing his way through the crowd he grabbed hold of the cleric and asked him, none too politely, to ‘come along’ with him.

Rev. Minnitt was unhappy about the constable’s then but was eventually pulled away and then arrested  for causing an obstruction. On the next morning (the 10 November 1899) he was presented at Bow Street Police court where he protested taht he’d been doing nothing wrong. Mr Marsham (the presiding magistrate) told him that he had been chasing an obstruction  and, if the constable’s testimony was accurate, was also at serous risk of injury himself.

The cleric said he thought the officer ‘might have spoken in gentle tones’

‘He spoke too harshly. He pushed me along, and I wanted to retire with modesty and dignity’.

Unfortunately for him he got little sympathy from the court and the public gathered there, who struggled to stifle laughter as the clergyman spoke.

‘You were making a speech which was not agreeable to the people that heard it’, Mr Marsham explained, ‘and the constable took you into custody to prevent you being attacked’.

He went on to add:

‘I think the constable was quite right. Our soldiers in the Transvaal are fighting their country’s battles , and it was indiscreet of you in a mixed assembly of this kind to say anything about the war’.

The reverend made another little speech and again complained that the policeman might have been gentler to him but promised not to repeat his offence in future, and so he was discharged.

In 1902 there were large celebrations in London and other British cities to mark the final victory against the Boers. The war caused serious concerns at home at the state of the health and fitness of those recruited to serve in the armed forces. Poverty and its consequences were evident in the men and boys that went to war, and no amount of jingoism could cover the fact that it was a costly and far from certain victory. Within just 12 years Britain was again at war, this time in a conflict that would claim many many more young lives.

At the going down of the sun, we will remember them.

[from London Evening Standard, Saturday 11 November, 1899]

A rabble rouser threatens the peace of the Lord Mayor’s Show

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Today it is the annual Lord Mayor’s show in the City of London. This event has been repeated at this time for hundreds of years and when I was a boy I always made a point of watching it on television, fascinated by the floats and military bands. The ceremonial point of the parade is to swear in the new Lord Mayor at the Royal Courts of Justice, but the ‘show’ is an opportunity to demonstrate the City’s wealth, power and diversity of talent to the nation as a whole. All the livery companies of the City take part and their floats and costumes often make links to the crafts they practice (tailors, grocers, ironmongers etc) or reflect a social or historical theme.

So today Peter Estlin will be sworn in as the 691stLord Mayor of London and head of the City’s Corporation. Amongst many roles the Mayor is appointed chief magistrate of the City and throughout the nineteenth century this meant that office holders routinely sat in judgment on offenders and others brought before them at the Mansion House Police court.

In 1892 one of the Lord Mayor’s fellow police court magistrates, Mr Mead, was the presiding justice at Thames Police court east of City the heart to London’s docklands. On day before that year’s Lord Mayor’s Show Daniel Keefe was put in the dock at Thames and accused of disorderly conduct and of inciting a crowd to disorder.

PC Isles had come across a gathering crowd outside the Sailor’s Home on Well Street. This establishment had been founded in 1828 on the site of an old theatre (the Brunswick) to help the plight of destitute seamen. A man had stood himself on a box so he could be seen and was addressing his audience.

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He was berating the authorities for allowing so many men to be unemployed and told them to boycott that year’s Lord Mayor’s Show in protest. Instead of waiving and cheering the mayor and his aldermen why not ‘test the right of free speech’ instead by demonstrating their discontent with the state of the economy that left so many people impoverished in the East End.

This was just three years after the Great Dock Strike that had seen working men flex their collective muscles and secure small but significant gains from the Dock companies. Throughout that dispute the police had been used to try and break up demonstrations and prevent secondary picketing. The magistracy had played their part too, in fining and imprisoning active participants whenever their saw a way to use the law to do so.

It was evident to PC Isles that regardless of the politics here that Keefe was in breach of the law. By calling a crowd together he was causing an obstruction to the footpath and, under the terms of the Police Code (1889), the officer was obliged to ask him to desist and to require the crowd to disperse. When Keefe refused he arrested him.

In court Mr Mead had little time for Keefe’s attempts to justify himself. Keefe said he had as much right to be on the street as anyone else and that he was hemmed in by the crowd and so couldn’t move when the constable had asked him to. He was ‘vindicating the rights of the unemployed’ (a term that only entered the Oxford Dictionary in 1888) and so his cause was noble. He had even started a ‘labour bureau’ to help men find work.

Mead was uninterested and chose to bind Keefe over in the sum of £5 (about £400 today) which he would forfeit if he broke the peace again within six months. He was, in effect, stopping any attempt by Keefe to ‘rabble rouse’ in the East End and issuing a warning to him and others not to disturb the annual pageantry in the City.

[from The Standard, Thursday, November 10, 1892]

‘Well sor, this ‘ere perliceman comes rushing in, and, with “Out you go, missus,” capsizes me into the street’: one drunk’s story a year on from the Dorset Street horror.

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Today is the 130 anniversary of the discovery of the body of Mary Jane Kelly in Miller’s Court, Dorset Street, Spitalfields in November 1888. Mary Kelly was the fifth ‘canonical’ victim of the killer known only as ‘Jack the Ripper’ and hers was the most brutal of all the murders in the series.

Mary (or Marie) was found lying on her bed when her landlord’s man came calling for her back rent. He peered through the window at the horror inside and rushed to find his boss and then the police. No one that saw Mary’s mutilated corpse ever forgot how awful it was.

However, within a year the room in Miller’s Court had been re-let and the landlord, McCarthy, merely sent someone round to scrub the blood off the walls and floors. Rooms in Dorset Street were cheap and new tenants could hardly afford to be too picky if all they could afford was a room in the ‘worst street in London’.

A year after the murders seemed to have ceased although many researchers are far from convinced the killer had stopped with Kelly. My own research suggests he continued into the early 1890s only stopping when his own body succumbed to the disease that killed him.

Meanwhile the day-to-day business of the Police courts rumbled on. Over at Marlborough Street Mary Jones appeared in early November 1889, charged with being drunk and disorderly, a commonplace offence at this level of justice.

Mary had been arrested after she had resisted arrest. Mr Newton (the presiding magistrate) was told that she had entered the King’s Arms in Titchfield Street late the previous night and had caused a scene. She’d asked for ‘two of unsweetened and a bit of sugar’ but the landlord refused to serve her as she was already quite inebriated and he had a care to his license.

He called in the passing street bobby, PC 282D to eject her and she squabbled with them both. She shouted abuse at both men and had to be restrained. In court she was apologetic (presumably having sobered up) and begged the magistrate’s “parding”.

She had been in hospital that day she said and explained that after she’d been released she’d felt dizzy. She’d gone into the pub to rest she insisted, and was as surprised as anyone when ‘this ‘ere perliceman comes rushing in, and, with “Out you go, missus,” capsizes me into the street’.

Mr Newton asked her where she lived.

‘Lisson Grove, your Wurchip’ she replied.

‘Then go back to Lisson Grove sharp, and don’t come back here again’ he told her.

And with that she stumbled gratefully out of court as the public gallery collapsed in laughter.

[from The Standard, Saturday, November 09, 1889]

A thief falls foul of the mastermind behind Pimms

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I’m not sure this example of Victorian ‘justice’ would have troubled the magistrates courts today. I am even more convinced that it wouldn’t have resulted – as it did in 1895 – in a hefty prison sentence.

William Smith was minding his newspaper stall when he saw a young man approach a pillar (post) box in Threadneedle Street near the Bank of England. As he watched the man appeared to slide his hand into the post box opening and pull a letter out, which he put into his pocket.

Smith hailed a nearby policeman who quickly apprehended the thief. back at the police station the culprit gave his name as Henry Kempston (21) and admitted the charge. ‘I know I have done wrong’ he told the police sergeant.

The next morning he was brought before Alderman Davies at Guildhall Police court charged with the crime. He admitted taking the letter out but denied any intent to steal it. He had seen it sticking out ‘and foolishly took it right out, but meant to return it’.

Did he just want to be a postman? Alderman Davies, who sat in parliament for the Conservatives as an MP, wasn’t interested in any excuses and sent him to prison for two months with hard labour.

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Men like Horatio Davies (right) were sometimes very far removed from most ordinary lives in the nineteenth century.   Davies had come from humble origins however, having been educated at Dulwich College  as a ‘poor scholar’. He had a reputation as being harsh of ‘wrong-doers’ but kind to the needy. He clearly thought Henry was the former.

When he was in his thirties Davies teemed up with his brother-in-law to establish a number of restaurants, bars and hotels; ultimately creating the Gordon Hotels Group. Three years after this case he was knighted and at some pint after that he purchased an ailing drinks brand from an oyster salesman in London. James Pimms had invented a drink that aid the digestion of those eating his shellfish but it had limited appeal. Sir Horatio Davies helped turn it into the national and international institution that it is today.

[from The Standard, Friday, November 08, 1895]

A ‘typical girl’ in the dock at Clerkenwell

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In my seminar last week my students and I were discussing forms of property crime in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. One of those we focused on was shoplifting, noting its increasing importance in contemporary discourse in the 1700s (as the number of shops in London grew and the emphasis on the display of goods made them more vulnerable to opportunistic thieves).

They were interested to note that women made up a more equal  proportion of defendants at the Old Bailey in shoplifting trials than they did, say, in highway robbery or burglaries.  Indirect thefts, such as shoplifting or pocket-picking, were much more likely to feature females or children than the direct and often violent or dangerous crimes of robbery and housebreaking or burglary.

We also looked at what shoplifters stole and at why female thieves mostly seemed to have filched items that fitted within their social sphere. Thus women took clothes, or linen and lace, lengths of materials, and ribbons. Men, by comparison, stole tools, money, and precious items such as watches. Women did take these as well, but images of female thieves with ribbons and lace tucked under their clothes are more common.

The explanation is straightforward: women took things they could use or easily get rid of. There was a huge market in secondhand clothes and materials into which thieves could ‘invest’ their loot. Suspicions might be raised by a woman walking through town with a bag of working-men’s tools but not by a basket of ribbons.

Mary Ann Stanniel was only 18 when she appeared before Mr D’Eyncourt at Clerkenwell Police court in November 1860 but she had already established an unwanted reputation as a ‘well-known shoplifter’. On this occasion she was charged with taking two samples of silk ribbon belonging to John Skinner a linen draper on the Pentonville Road.

Mary had entered Skinner’s shop with a friend and then engaged the shopkeeper in conversation in a classic distraction technique. They asked him to show them two completely different sorts of product and Skinner was on his guard. He’d been robbed before and spotted the attempted deception.

However, having two young women in his shop, each demanding to see different things at the same time he was hard pushed to keep his eyes on both of them. He called his wife to help and she provided the necessary extra pair of eyes. Soon afterwards she noticed that a piece of blue ribbon was missing. Mrs Skinner came round the counter and took hold of Mary Ann’s hand, turning it over to reveal a roll of ribbon. It wasn’t the blue one she’d lost, but it was theirs so the police were called.

The blue ribbon was missing so when PC Lillycrap (409A) arrived he took Mary Ann to the station and searched her. It seems that her friend had done a runner when Mary Ann had been pinched by the shopkeeper’s wife. No ribbon was found on Ann so the policeman came back to the shop to check again. After a quick search the ribbon was found on the floor, behind some other things, where the defendant had hastily dropped it.

PC Lillycrap told Mr D’Eyncourt that he had arrested Mary Ann before and that she’d been up before the bench at Westminster Police court on similar charges. Mary Ann had some support in court, in the form of a solicitor who urged the magistrate to deal with the matter summarily, saving her a longer spell in prison after a full jury trial. He promised that after she had served whatever time the justice felt was appropriate Mary Ann’s father would ‘take her home and look after her’.

Whether D’Eyncourt believed him or not he did as requested and sent the shoplifter to the house of correction for four months and told her she ‘was fortunate’ she hadn’t got longer. Let’s hope her father kept his promise.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, November 7, 1860]

Plain-clothes police foil a jewel heist on Cheapside

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The City of London police were only created in 1839, a decade after the Met. This was partly because the square mile had resisted Sir Robert’s Peel’s (and other’s) attempts to include them in a London-wide system of police. The City authorities (in the person of the Lord Mayor and aldermen) believed with some justification that they already possessed an efficient organization for policing the City streets. In 1856 policing was extended to cover not only London but the entire country with the passing of the County and Borough Police Act (1856) and it is from then that we can really date the modern service.

Peel intended for his force to be visible and preventative; not to act as ‘spies’ (as Fouché’s French police did) but as ‘citizens in uniform’  to counter fears of a paramilitary presence on English soil. But it seems the City police were not above putting men in plain clothes on occasion, especially after 1842 when the Detective branch of the Metropolitan Police was created.

PC Legg (440 City) and a fellow officer (Evans 459 City) were watching two suspicious characters on Cheapside in late October. It was about 7 at night and PC Legg were in plain clothes when they saw Henry Smith and William Raymond looking in a number of jewellers’ windows. The two men waited for the beat bobby to pass by and then one of them (Smith) took a stone from his pocket and smashed a window. As they attempted to steal from Mr Mott’s  jewelers and watchmaker’s shop the two officers rushed them and took them into custody.

The jeweller’s assistant (Joseph Snowden) came running out and saw what was happening. He noted that they had picked the window which held the most expensive items, including several diamond bracelets. In total he estimated that there was upwards of a £1,000 worth of stock that the thieves might have carried away had it not been for the quick work of the police.  Smith quickly found the stone and the men were arrested and searched: each of them was carrying a knife and Smith had an empty purse on him as well.

At the Mansion House Police court the Lord Mayor heard conformation of the evidence from PC Evans who added that the men were laughing as the broke the window. He also said that Raymond had told him (when arrested) that he was a former soldier having serve din the Middlesex Militia and the Buffs but had been discharged on health grounds. If that was supposed to impress the police or the magistrate it failed. The defendants refused to say anything much in their defence except to ask for the Lord Mayor to deal with them summarily. That would have earned them a shorter sentence and the justice was not inclined to oblige them.

‘No’, he said, ‘I shall never think of adjudicating in a case of this kind. It must go before a tribunal possessed of the power of inflicting a punishment proportioned to the serious offence’.

He committed them to the Central Criminal Court at Old Bailey where they appeared on November 24th. After a brief trial they were convicted and sent to prison for nine months each, both men were just 22 years old.

 

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, November 01, 1856]