‘You must have a go at the treadmill’ a regular visitor to the courts is told.

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Beggars and vagrants were an endemic problem for the police and magistrates of nineteenth-century London. The Vagrancy Act (1824) empowered the New Police to sweep anyone begging from the streets and the Poor Law allowed for the repatriation of the unentitled back to their place of last settlement. But once arrested what could be done with ‘sturdy beggars’ like Thomas Costello? A spell in prison held little fear for them and if they had lived and worked in a town for a year at least then they could claim it was their home and be hard to get rid of.

This was the Lord Mayor’s problem as he peered down at Costello standing in the dock at Mansion House Police court in August 1837. A policeman had brought the Irishman in because he’d been upsetting sensibilities by begging ‘in a most importune style’ the court was told.

His way was to fix himself shivering and shaking against the wall, and his deplorable appearance, for he could make is very eyes almost start out of his head, soon brought customers to him’.

The officer had tried to get him to leave the city’s boundaries but Costello refused, so he took him into custody.

He wasn’t an unfamiliar sight in the police courts and the Lord Mayor was sure he recognized him. ‘We have often told you to leave the city’ he grumbled, ‘why do you persevere in annoying us?’

‘Ah, please your honour’, came the reply, ‘I’m all over pains and aches; I’m afraid I’ll never get well’.

‘You are sick with idleness’, the Lord Mayor quipped, seeing what appeared to be a strong man in the dock before him. Thomas claimed to be suffering from a bad fall from a horse, but the magistrate clearly didn’t believe him. Nor did he buy the man’s complaint that his eyesight was failing and the policeman agreed saying that:

‘there was not a beggar in the city – able and active as they were – who had better use of his eyes and hands than the defendant, who could see an officer at any distance, and get out of sight in a twinkling’.

‘Oh yes they ought to put me up as a tellygraph [sic]’ joked the prisoner, beginning to enjoy his moment in the spotlight perhaps. ‘You’d swear that I could read the newspaper from this to Portsmouth in a fog’!

Keen to determine whether Costello had been up before the bench recently (and so perhaps worthy of a more serious penalty) the Lord Mayor asked him. The beggar said he’d not been in trouble for three years which caused the police officer to comment that it couldn’t be less than six months. Guessing that he’d been in and out of gaols all over the place and that they’d proved to be no deterrent the Lord Mayor made one last effort to persuade Costello to leave London, or at least the city itself.

Oh! dear no; I won’t disgrace myself by going out of your jurisdiction’ Costello answered, no doubt with a smile, ‘I’ve got no parents, God help me, but yourself and the likes of you’.

London was his home and he wasn’t going to leave it for anyone.

And for the next couple of months he definitely wasn’t going anywhere. ‘You must have a go at the treadmill’ the justice told him.

‘I know where the mill is precious well’, Costello responded, ‘It ain’t out of the city, is it, my lord?’ And off to Bridewell he went, where he’d be fed and watered at the ratepayers’ expense but at least he wouldn’t be bothering the good citizens of London for a while.

[from The Morning Chronicle , Friday, August 11, 1837]

A returning ‘hero’ is given the benefit of the doubt

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The Battle of Magdala, 1868

When PC William Towsey of the City constabulary turned into Bishopsgate Churchyard on his beat he saw a man and young girl on Alderman’s Walk opposite. It was 10 at night and the man was dressed in a soldier’s uniform while the little girl appeared to be about ten years of age. She also seemed uncomfortable in the man’s company and to be trying to get away from him. When he saw the soldier assault her, he quickly moved towards them and seized the man.

PC Towsey took the pair back to the police station but there the girl took advantage of her attacker incapacitation and escaped, running out into the night. The next morning the constable and his prisoner appeared at the Mansion House Police court in front of the incumbent Lord Mayor.

Thomas Nidlet was stood in the dock and accused of being drunk and committing an assault on the girl. There are no details given the newspaper report so we don’t know what sort of assault this was, or who the girl was. Nidlet said he was from the 33rd regiment of foot and that he had arrived back from Abyssinia, landing in Portsmouth just over a month ago. He’d been on furlough for a month and had come to the capital.

Nidlet had been at the police station before that evening; at around 8 he’d turned up, a little tipsy, with ‘a gentleman’ and had enquired about a place to stay.  The mysterious gentleman had given the soldier a sovereign, on the strength of him producing a payment order for £5, presumably his accumulated wages. By the time of the incident at the churchyard Nidlet was reportedly very drunk, so he and the other man had seemingly been drinking heavily for another couple of hours.

The Lord Mayor asked the soldier if he knew the man’s name and address. He did but the newspaper didn’t record it. This almost satisfied the magistrate but he wanted to hear from this potential witness so he remanded Nidlet for a few days but indicated that he would discharge him after that. As he gave his judgment the Lord Mayor advised the soldier to return to his regiment as soon as possible, to avoid any further trouble in the capital.

I do wonder at this story. Who was the little girl? Was she one of the capital’s homeless street children? Was the soldier’s attempted assault sexual? What role did the gentleman play in all of this, and was he even a ‘gentleman’? The mystery must remain unsolved however, as that is the last time he troubles history in the capital. After this report he disappears without a trace.

The 33rd regiment (West Yorkshire) of foot had been commanded by the Duke of Wellington and after the duke’s death in 1852 Queen Victoria recognized their association with  the nation’s greatest land commander by renaming them the 33rd(or Duke of Wellington’s Regiment). In 1868 the 33rdwere sent to Ethiopia (then Abyssinia) to effect a rescue of some British, European and native hostages that were held by Emperor Tewodros II. Despite the later release of the Europeans Tewodros’ refusal to accept surrender terms led to an assault on the fortress of Magdala (now Amba Mariam) and its seizure. Although the force was described as Britsih it was mostly made up of Indian troops and was commanded by General Sir Robert Napier, from the Royal Engineers.

It was an incredible expedition, involving a 400-mile march over challenging terrain. Napier built 20 miles of railway, a harbor and warehouses to ensure he kept his communication lines open and his men supplied. The assault began on the 13 April 1868 and lasted just an hour and half. The emperor’s men were no match for the well equipped troops under Napier’s command. Tewodros (or Theodore) was found dead just inside the gates; he had taken his own life with a pistol that had been a present from Queen Victoria.

Theodore

Napier’s men looted Magdala and it required 15 elephants to carry the booty back to the coast for transport to England. It was hailed as a great victory, Napier was feted and the men that served awarded ‘Abyssinia’ as a battle honour. All of this would have played to Nidlet’s advantage one imagines. It may be why the ‘gentleman’ was quick to befriend him and help explain why the Lord Mayor was minded to forgive his drunkenness in the City and overlook an alleged attack on one of the capital’s many street ‘urchins’.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, July 13, 1868]

‘Lazy’? ‘Good-for-nothing’? Or economic migrants with a dream of a better life?

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Frederick William Turner was described in the Southwark Police Court as a ‘singular-looking young fellow’ but also (by the magistrate), as a ‘lazy good-for-nothing’. What was it that Frederick had done to earn such a condemnation from Mr Burcham?

His ‘crime’ was dodging his fare on the railway. To be precise Turner had travelled from Portsmouth to London without paying. He had fallen asleep in a second-class carriage and when he was rudely awakened by a ticket inspector (Anthony Coleman) he ‘fumbled about in his pockets’ before telling the inspector ‘he had neither ticket nor money’.

Coleman grabbed him and marched him to the office of the station superintendent for him to deal with. There he admitted having no money, and no intention of ever paying for the ride. The superintendent recognised the lad as someone he had caught fare dodging not long ago. Indeed, six months previously Turner had made the same journey to London, had been caught without a ticket or the means to pay and was imprisoned for seven days because he (fairly obviously) didn’t have the 10s to pay a fine instead.

Now Frederick found himself once again before ‘the beak’ and got little sympathy from the bench. Mr Burcham asked him to defend himself but all Frederick said was that it was true. He had come up from Portsmouth to look for work in London. He didn’t have the fare, presumably because he was poor and out of work.

Instead of admiring his desire to find work (as Norman Tebbit might have done, despite the implicit criminality) Mr Burcham was clearly outraged that the lad had demonstrated that he had learnt nothing from his previous brush with the law.

He had ‘no right to defraud the railway by travelling on their line’, he told him. Fred’s response was to say that he had ‘tried to walk up but could not on account of the heat’. It was the height of summer after all and a particularly hot one. A temperature of 100.5 degree Fahrenheit (38 C) was recorded in Kent in July of that year, so the young man was not exaggerating.

Regardless of this Mr Burcham condemned him as ‘lazy’ when it seems apparent he was anything but. We might excuse his attempt to evade his fare if his higher purpose was to gain employment in the capital, but the magistrate couldn’t or wouldn’t. He handed down another 10s fine which the lad would not be able to pay and so, for the second time that year, Frederick Turner found himself in prison.

I have no idea how or if he then made his way back to Portsmouth from London, or whether he served his week inside and found work and digs in the capital. At some point in the middle of the nineteenth century an ancestor of mine made his way to London from Maney in the fens of Cambridgeshire looking for work after the agricultural depression.  He stayed and survived and started a line of family members that includes me. I’ve no idea whether he saved his pennies to pay for  ticket on the new railway line or not; perhaps he hid in a wagon or kept out of there way of the inspector.

He was more fortunate, it would seem, than Frederick Turner, but both young men had the same goal in mind: to make a new life in the city that consumed so many migrants fro so many parts of Britain and the Empire. I think to describe such people as ‘lazy’ or ‘good-for-nothing’ does them a deep disservice.

[from Morning Post, Saturday 1 August 1868]

A ‘very intelligent’ detective and the use of a telegram, more than 30 years before Crippen

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Walter Dew was the policeman who famously caught ‘Dr’ Crippen and Ethel le Nève as they tried to escape from England on a ship bound for Canada.  The pair were wanted in connection for the murder of Crippen’s wife at their North London home in 1910. The captain of the Monstrose recognised the pair from descriptions of them in the press and sent a wire by telegraph to Scotland Yard. Dew boarded a faster ship and intercepted them. The rest, as they say, is history.

In March 1862 Samuel Higgs and Henry Wilkinson were brought before the Lord Mayor at Mansion House charged with deserting their positions on board the Camarthanshire, a merchant ship lying at anchor in Portsmouth harbour.

The pair had fled the ship and made their way to London. Desertion was one thing but they had compounded their crime by stealing a ‘chronometer watch’ valued at £35 (about £1600 in today’s money). The ship’s captain, Atkinson, had sent a telegram (rather than a telegraph wire) to the police in London and detective Hancock (described by the press as ‘very intelligent’) had set off to intercept the men.

He went to Paddington station and searched the evening train as it came in. Recognising Wilkinson and Higgs he approached them and body stated: ‘How do you do, Wilkinson?’ Although the former ship steward pretended not to be the man in question he couldn’t keep up his ruse for long. Wilkinson and Higgs confessed to having abandoned their roles as steward and ship’s cook respectfully, but denied stealing anything.

They were taken to Bow Lane police station and searched. The police found £6 18s shillings on them but no watch. Wilkinson was then asked to remove his boots. As he bent down to try and ease one off an object fell out from his sleeve.

It was the missing watch.

 

[from The Morning Post, Monday, March 15, 1869]

Who on earth was Countess Nelson?

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In early 1838 a man appeared at Marlborough Street Police Court charged with embezzling ‘sums of money’ from Countess Nelson.

This caught my eye because my boyhood was Horatio Nelson. From an early age (I think I remember having a Ladybird book on Nelson) I was fascinated by his story. I suspect much of Nelson’s history is suffused with myth; a result of distortions by his early biographers (like Southey) and the repetition of heroic tales over time. But I liked the fact that this man from relatively humble origins in Norfolk rose to be the greatest warrior that England has produced.

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Whether he shot a polar bear as a teenage midshipman is unimportant, as is the exact story behind him ‘turning a blind eye’; the brilliance of his victory at Aboukir Bay and the vital importance of defeating the combined French and Spanish fleet at Trafalgar were thrilling to me as a young boy.

There is an adage of course that one should never meet your heroes. The closest I have ever got to Nelson is his tomb at St Paul’s or his memorial in Trafalgar Square (although I have made the pilgrimage to Burnham Thorpe in Norfolk where he was born and trod the decks of HMS Victory  at Portsmouth).

As an adult the biographies I have read of this greatest of English heroes have been careful to present his other side. The vanity of the man must have been awful, his treatment of Frances Nisbet his wife, his galavanting with the wife of his friend Lord Hamilton, and his oppression of popular uprising in Naples; all jar against the popular image of Horatio Nelson.

Ultimately I remain a fan. I can separate the sea captain, the patriot, the strategist and the brave leader who cared for his troops, from the arrogant, illiberal, self-centred man who cheated on his wife. But while we have had a recent exhibition focused on the life of Nelson’s love, Emma Hamilton, what of the lady she replaced?

Nelson married Frances Nisbet in 1787 after they had met on the Caribbean island of Nevis. Frances had been married before but her husband, a doctor, had died. Military marriages are difficult to maintain over distances, and naval ones in the 18th century even more so given that men were at sea for months on end. When Nelson met Emma at Naples the writing was on the wall for Frances and his marriage.

After the admiral’s death in 1805 at Trafalgar she herself fell ill but made a recovery. She moved to Paris for a while (to live with her son) before returning to England and setting down in Exeter. She died in 1831 in London, in Harley Street.

So who, I wonder, was the Countess Nelson who appeared as part of a court case in January 1838?

Francis Wright, ‘a respectable looking man’ was brought before the magistrate at Marlborough Street for embezzlement. The court heard that Wright had left the Countess’ service some weeks before and had set himself up in business with a beer shop on the Clapham Road.

Wright was charged with ‘forging a certain receipt with intent to defraud Lady Nelson’ and a warrant was executed to bring him in. He was asked to produce his account book but told the justice he was unable to as he had torn it up to ‘make pipe-lights for his customers’. How convenient. He was remanded for further enquiries.

The case didn’t reach the Old Bailey but it may have been too trivial for that and been dealt with later by the summary process. The nature of the court reportage means its not always possible to trace these cases further.

However, I can reveal who Countess Nelson was. She was most probably Hilare (more properly Mrs George) Knight. She had previously been married to William Nelson, Horatio’s brother. William had been given his more famous brother’s title (including that of the Duke of Bronte, Sicily) and so when the couple married in 1829 she adopted the title of Countess Nelson.

In 1835 William died and in 1837 (one year before this case) she remarried, to George Knight, a relative of Jane Austen – so as one researcher noted she was well connected with two famous literary names!

Interestingly as a footnote, neither the original Lady Nelson or Emma Hamilton would live to see the monument to the admiral open in their lifetime. Nelson’s column was erected between 1840-3 at a cost of £47,000 (over £2m today), much of it from public subscription. Frances Nelson died in 1831 and Emma died, penniless, in 1815. Countess Nelson however lived until 1857 so may have strolled beneath the gaze of her illustrious relative by marriage.

[from The Morning Post, Sunday, January 29, 1838]

One of the ‘most expert pickpockets in London’ is caught red handed

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What! Eighteen Stone! Oh, you’ll do; – here’s your Ticket-of-leave!” (Punch, 13 December, 1862)

Michael Welch – who also went under the name of John Hunt – had already had several brushes with the law. He had served time in Portsmouth Prison and had previously been sentenced to 7 years’ transportation. Fortunately for Welch his sentence had come at a time when Britain was bringing the process of transporting felons to Australia to an end.

Transportation to New South Wales had been resisted (by the inhabitants) from the 1830s and in 1840 it ceased (although between 1788 and then some 150,000 Britons had been sent there). Convicts continued to be sent to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) until 1853 and to Western Australia from 1850 onwards (albeit in small numbers), but the reality was that after 60 or so years of dumping her unwanted criminals and some political prisoners in the new colony Great Britain was forced to look at alternative ways to deal with crime.

The answer was imprisonment at home, in the hulks (which also served as embarkation off points for transportees) and in the national prisons (such as Pentonville or Portland) where convicts could be set to building sea defences or other public works, or ‘broken’ on the treadwheel and crank.

Adopting a system pioneered with transported convicts in Australia those sentenced to long spells in prison could earn a ticket-of-leave (effectively parole) whereby they might be released early so long as they behaved themselves thereafter. Welch was one such ‘ticket-of’leave’ man.

Unfortunately for Welch he was unable to stay out of trouble.

In October 1854 he was spotted on Fleet Street attempting to pick the pockets of passers-by. Inspector Daniel May of the Metropolitan Police’s Detective force was mingling with the crowds on Fleet Street at around half past seven in the evening when he saw Welch.

‘I watched him for about half an hour’, he told the magistrate at Guildhall; ‘at length I saw him put his hand through a hole in his coat where his pocket should be, and take a handkerchief from a gentleman’s pocket’.

He informed the victim of what had happened and soon afterwards seized Welch and took him into custody.

When he was searched he had no less than 14 other silk hankies. The magistrate was amazed:

‘I suppose they are the product of a whole day’s work, are they not? he asked the detective.

‘Oh no sir’ the policeman replied, ‘I believe it was only two hours’ work’.

‘He must be a very clever fellow to get so many handkerchiefs in two hours’, said the Alderman. ‘He is one of the most expert pickpockets in London’ confirmed Inspector May.

Now the magistrate turned his attention to the accused and, having established his history of imprisonment and recent release, upbraided him for his lack of gratitude to the criminal justice system.

‘Did they give you a ticket-of-leave to rob people of their handkerchiefs?’ he asked the man in the dock. ‘No sir’.

Welch was remanded in custody so that the owner of the handkerchief could appear to prosecute him.

Postscript: On 23 October 1854 a John Hunt was sentenced to four years penal servitude at Old Bailey for stealing a handkerchief valued at 2s belonging to a George Pullen. Hunt had ‘before been convicted’ and pleaded guilty. There are no details (because of the guilty plea) but I suspect it is the same man.

Four years for the theft of a handkerchief worth about £2 in today’s money.

[from The Morning Post , Wednesday, October 11, 1854]