A young postman is overwhelmed by Valentine’s Day

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Amidst all the commercial celebration of Valentine’s day, with every supermarket making special ‘dine in’ offers, shops filling their windows with hearts and chocolates, and florists selling red roses at double the normal price, it is easy to see that for some of these traders this has become one of the key income generating weeks of the year.

Once Christmas and the sales are over there is usually a slump in trade before Easter that [St] Valentine’s Day has now assumed such an importance to the retail industry. But do we have an idea of how busy it was in the past I wonder? We know the Victorians celebrated the occasion and sent love tokens as we do, but what effect did that have on everyday life?

Well we can get an idea of how it affected the people that delivered those messages, the postmen of the Victorian capital, in this case from 1871. An unnamed postman was prosecuted at Westminster Police court for drunkenness whilst on duty. His offence was minor but had the potential for serious consequences, his defense however, was most illuminating.

Mr Woolrych, the sitting magistrate at Westminster that day, was told that a crowd of ‘disorderly persons’ had gathered around a postman, drawing the attention of a passing police officer. As the bobby pushed his way through the throng he found the postman sorting a pile of letters under a lamppost. It was late at night, past 10.30, which was why he needed the gaslight to read the addresses on the mail.

Most of the letters ‘were valentines’ and they should have been delivered much earlier in the day by a colleague but that postie had failed to find the addresses and so they had gone back in the system, and our man was now tasked with uniting them with the correct (and probably by now quite desperate) recipients.

As the postman at last moved off to make his deliveries the policeman noticed that he was rather unsteady on his feet, and stopped him. He quickly realized that the man was under the influence of alcohol and he arrested him. In court the postman apologized but said he had been on duty since four in the morning, had had very little if anything to eat all day, and so when a kindly woman had treated him to a ‘tumbler of sherry’ it had ‘produced an effect over which [he] had no control’.

His supervisor appeared to confirm that the young man had an exemplary record in his four and a half years with the Post Office:

‘He was a steady, honest, and industrious servant, against whom no complaint had ever been made; and should he be convicted…dismissal from the service would certainly follow’.

In this case common sense prevailed. Mr Woolrych accepted that while drinking on duty rendered the man  ‘blamable’ for the offence there were mitigating factors. There was no need to ruin a young man with such a previously unblemished record and so he discharged him (which is probably why the papers decided not to reveal his name).

The evidence revealed that (as noted earlier):

the ‘defendant had been on duty since four o’clock in the morning without intermission or opportunity of taking a meal, as the valentine delivery was very heavy, and the reserve men had even been called upon to perform the duties of letter-carriers’.

Valentine’s Day was a big day then in Victorian England with very many people using the postal service to send their tokens of affection to their sweethearts. After Christmas this was probably the busiest period of the year for the men of the Post Office, just as it is today for the florists, chocolatiers and restaurateurs of the capital.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, February 16, 1871]

A teenager learns a hard life lesson

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The Blewcoat School in Caxton Street

William Gillman had managed to secure a solid position for himself at a merchant’s offices in Mansion House Street in the City. He was 16 years of age and had been educated at the Blewcoat School in Caxton Street. The charity school, established in 1688 and situated in Caxton Street from 1709, served to help poor boys and girls in ‘reading, writing, religion, and trades’. The education he received there allowed Gillman to work for Mr Charles Ede as a clerk.

It should have been the basis for a long and respectable career had young William taken his opportunity. Sadly, and as if so often the case, he didn’t appreciate at 16 just what his life could be if he knuckled down and worked at it; maturity comes to all of us at different stage of life after all.

William was entrusted with Mr Ede’s postage stamps, amongst which were a ‘certain number of foreign’ ones which were kept in a book. The book was in a box which was locked away at night but to which William had access during the day. So when Mr Ede noticed that the foreign (at a shilling value each) stamps were running out faster than normal his suspicions fell on the lad.

The merchant decided to set a trap for his young employee, marking some of the stamps so he’d be able to recognize them later. One day soon afterwards he called for a stamp but since no one answered him he went to fetch one himself.  When he opened the box he found there were no shilling stamps left so he called William over, gave him 10and sent him to the post office to get some more.

When the teenager returned and handed him the stamps Ede noticed that some of them bore the secret marks he’d inscribed on them. Clearly William had pocketed some of the money for himself and fobbed his master off with the stamps he’d previously stolen. The merchant confronted the boy and asked him if he stolen from him. At first William lied and said he was innocent but capitulated when his boss told him about the markings.

Mr Ede resolved to write to the boy’s father and have him dismissed from his service and taken home. That would have been the end of it (and reminds us that very many petty thefts like this would never have reached the courts) had not William tried to justify his actions. Theft was bad enough but to couple it with deception and a refusal to acknowledge one’s guilt was too much for the merchant who was determined that the boy needed to be taught a lesson.

On Monday 4 February 1861 William Gillman appeared before the Lord Mayor at Mansion House police court where he was formally charged with theft. He could have been sent to prison for his crime but neither the magistrate or Mr Ede wanted that. The boy’s father was present and was willing to take the lad back into his care so, after ‘a severe reprimand’ he was discharged.

Let’s hope he learned that hard life lesson and quickly moved on.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, 5 February, 1861]

‘I may be wrong but I think a man can be a Christian and march along without a uniform’: theft and imposture brings the Salvation Army into court

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The Salvation Army was founded in 1865 but only adopted its current name in 1878, so in January 1884 (the subject of this week’s series of posts) it was still a fairly new organization. I’ve written about the ‘Army’ several times in this blog and elsewhere and I think it would be fair to say that in its infancy the Sally Army (and it is now affectionately known) was not as well-thought of as it is today.

As a deeply religious Protestant sect it attracted criticism from middle-of-the-road members of the established Church of England. This criticism (which was often sneering) from above was matched by ridicule and antagonism from ‘below’; members of the working class resented the temperance message the Army preached. Many others simply disliked the awful row they made when they marched through London playing brass instruments badly and singing hymns off key.

A quiet Sunday in London; Or, the day of rest.

Cartoon in Punch (1886) showing some of the contemporary ridicule of salvation Army members 

Some of this underlying resentment and  contempt can be seen in the prosecution of a letter carrier at Bow Street Police court towards the end of January 1884. William Hartley, employed in the Chelsea district of London, was brought before Mr Flowers accused of stealing a letter that contained a £5 note. Hartley, it was alleged, had stolen the money and used it to buy a Salvation Army uniform.

When the police traced the missing money and found a trail leading to Hartley he was arrested and held for questioning. He then wrote to the Army at its headquarters in Queen Victoria Street, saying he was attached to ‘211 Blood and Fire Division, Chelsea Detachment’. As a result both the detachment’s commander –a ‘Captain’ Isaac Anderson – and the Army’s solicitor – Mr Bennett – appeared in court also.

The reporter was amused that Bennett, a lawyer, appeared in the uniform of the Army rather than civil clothes and this theme ran through the Morning Post’s article. The lawyer said he regretted any association between the prisoner and the Army and suggested the man was an imposter. After all, he said, ‘any person could have a uniform by paying for it, if he liked to represent himself as a soldier’.

This drew a strong rebuke from the magistrate:

‘The country provides its soldiers with a uniform’ Mr Flowers told him, adding that he ‘didn’t see the use of a uniform, but I may be wrong. I think a man can be a Christian and march along without one, and all the better’.

While he said this ‘warmly’ it was met with applause in the court, indicating that many of those gathered shared his dim view of the Army’s obsession with dressing up and adopting a military outlook. That said it was clear to him that Hartley was guilty of stealing the bank note (and, as it was revealed a 20spostal order and since the theft was both serious (£5 in 1884 is about £300 today, 20 shillings equates to £65) and from her Majesty’s Post Office, he committed him to take his trial before a jury.

Today the Salvation Army has over 1.6 million members across the globe and does a great deal of worthwhile charity work. William Booth, the Army’s founder, wanted a more direct religion for the masses, feeling that the C of E was far too ‘middle class’ to appeal to ordinary people. I suppose the rise of evangelicalism  in the modern period is a reflection of this as well, the idea that Anglicanism is less about God and more about keeping up appearances and retaining social barriers (rather than  breaking them down).

As someone with no organized religion of my own I find them all equally strange but at the same time am happy when Christians (as the Sally Army’s legions of members are) actually practice what they preach rather than simply paying lip service to the sermon on the Mount by their occasional attendance at harvest festivals or carols at Christmas.  The Salvation Army may be odd but it is not full of hypocrites.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, 26 January, 1884]

The pillar box thief comes unstuck

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Today I am going to begin a week of posts all drawn from the equivalent week in 1884 (when the calendar matched with ours). For some context in 1884 Great Britain’s empire was at its height, Queen Victoria (who had been Empress of India since 1876) was in the 47th year of her reign. Her husband had died in December 1861, she had survived an assassination attempted two years earlier, then a bad fall at Windsor Castle which prevented her from walking properly for several months. This was compounded by the death of her servant John Brown, whom she mourned quite publicly, stoking rumours that the pair had been having an affair.

In politics Gladstone was in power, the second and longest of his four ministries. Disraeli (Victoria’s favourite) was dead and so the opposition was led by the future Tory PM Lord Salisbury. Socialism was becoming a force to be reckoned with on the European continent and in London on the 4 January 1884 the Fabian Society was founded with its particular brand of gentle democratic socialism. It attracted some of the leading thinkers and writers of the day, including George Bernard Shaw,  H. G. Wells, Annie Besant, Emmeline Pankhurst and Sidney and Beatrice Webb. The future Labour Party PM Ramsey MacDonald was also an early convert.

In January 1884 Gilbert and Sullivan’s eight comic opera, Princess Ida, opened at the Savoy Theatre in London’s West End and on the 18th, with less success, General Charles Gordon set off for Khartoum to quell an uprising in what is now Sudan; he never returned. In the world of sport 1884 saw the establishment of Derby County as a professional football club while in tennis William Renshaw won the Wimbledon men’s singles and Maud Watson beat her sister Lillian in the ladies final.

Over at Westminster Police court, on the morning of January 2, William Henderson was brought up for the second time having been remanded in custody charged ‘with intent to commit a felony’. Henderson, who gave his home address as a house in York Street, had been reported acting suspiciously on several occasions in and around Belgrave Square.

According to these reports Henderson was loitering near a pillar box which was later discovered to have been tampered with. When he’d realized a policeman was watching him he had run away and a letter addressed to ‘a lady in Scotland’ was found discarded by the post box, it was smeared with something sticky.

Henderson was picked up some hours afterwards and when he was searched he was found to have a pair of gloves with the fingers cuts off, also sticky with some sort of adhesive. There were also some hooks made from copper wire and more evidence of glue on his handkerchief.

A search of his lodgings revealed yet more adhesive material and ‘a contrivance for abstracting letters from pillar-boxes’. In addition to the mechanism he’d apparently been using to steal the post was a large collection of letters and stamps. Mr D’Eyncourt remanded him once more so the police investigation could be continued, in the meantime the letter thief (or avid philatelist) was returned to prison to await his fate. If you stick with my posts for the next few days (no fun intended) we may discover what happened to him.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, January 25, 1884]

‘He is not quite right in the head’: Moriarty causes chaos and injury in Pall Mall

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In early December 1883 Peter or Joseph (there was clearly some doubt as to his real name)* Moriarty made his second appearance before the magistrate at Marlborough Street Police court.

He was accused of wounding Mr Hwfa Williams, a resident of Great Cumberland Place, by shooting him in the leg. It doesn’t sound like it was a deliberate attack on the Welshman because Moriarty was reportedly waving a pistol about in Pall Mall and firing it at random.

There was also evident concern for the prisoner’s mental health because he was exhibiting signs of depression in the days before the shooting. His friends had removed two bottles of poison from him which suggests that he had taken the gun to end his own life, not another’s.

In court Moriarty was represented by a lawyer (Mr Ricketts) who argued that his client should be allowed bail and promised that he would be looked after and, therefore, be no danger to anyone else. But Hwfa Williams was still recovering from the incident; he was ‘progressing favorably, but the bullet had not yet been extracted’.

Thus Mr Mansfield decided that a further court appearance was necessary and , since firearms were involved and the victim not entirely free from danger (given the state of medicine in the 1880s) he refused bail. Moriarty, a 22 year-old Post Office clerk who lived in Luard Street, Pentonville, would spend a few more days and nights in gaol.

A few days later Moriarty was again brought to court, and again remanded in custody as Mr Newton was told Williams was still unable to attend court. Another week passed and detective inspector Turpin appeared with a certificate from the surgeon treating Williams that again insisted that while he was recovering he was not able to come to court to give evidence.

Once more the troubled young clerk was taken back to his cell to await his fate. The Illustrated Police Newsmade a point of telling its readers that, ‘from the manner in which the prisoner has conducted himself, […] there is little doubt that he is not quite right in the head’.

It was reported (by Lloyd’s Weekly) that the poor victim would finally be fit enough to attend court after the 6 January 1884 but I can find no record in the papers of him so doing. To me this suggests that the papers had grown tired of the case which had carried quite a bit of interest.

Moriarty would have remained in custody for at least a month, and all over the Christmas period. If Mr Williams had been keen to see his assailant punished without the trouble of having to go to court himself then this was achieved most effectively. If however, the court decided that the best place for Moriarty was a secure asylum then that is perhaps where he ended up, without the necessity for this to be made public knowledge.

*In late December his name was also given as Frederick James Moriarty

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper ), Sunday, December 2, 1883; The Morning Post, Wednesday, December 05, 1883; The Standard , Wednesday, December 19, 1883; The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, December 29, 1883; Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper , Sunday, December 30, 1883]

Interfering mothers-in-law at Westminster give the ‘beak’ a headache

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Some of the cases that came before the Police Court magistrates seem particularly unimportant or trivial. It must have been quite frustrating, if not downright annoying, to have to listen to a never ending stream of petty disputes and grumbles on a daily basis, but moments of humour will probably have helped to lift the mood.

On the morning of the 16 November 1888 while Francis Tumblety (a suspect in the Ripper murders case) was being bailed at Marlborough Street, a young wife appeared at Westminster in answer to a summons taken out against her by her husband.

No names were given (perhaps to protect the couple and give them a chance to ‘move on’ with their lives) but they were newly wed and, it seems, barely mature enough for this life-long commitment.

The wife – described as a ‘mere girl’ – broke down in the dock, ‘cried and seemed greatly distressed’. She had been summoned for attacking her husband with a broom (which caused much laughter in the courtroom). She denied doing so and said she loved him and wouldn’t never hurt him.

However this public investigation into their married revealed the influence of each of the couple’s mothers, both of whom seemed unable to let their offspring go.

The husband was just 21 years of age and a sorter in the Post Office. Recently his mother had encouraged him to come back to his old home and declared that ‘the poor boy looked  bad’; implying that she (and not his wife) needed to look after him properly.

The poor wife complained that while he earned nearly a pound a week she was struggling to cope with paying the rent, and managing the family budget on the 13 a week he gave her. My students struggle to cope with their first year away from home, why should we expect it to be that much easier for Victorian newlyweds on a similarly limited income?

The situation was not helped by the fact, revealed in court, that the wife’s mother lived with them. She was a nurse and it was inferred that she was staying close to them as her daughter was pregnant. Had they married because she was with child? It is not unlikely.

In denying that she’d hit her partner with a broom the young wife did admit that she was ‘subject to fainting fits’. She explained that ‘when I have felt myself “going off” I may have seized my husband’s wrists and dug my nails into his flesh “unconsciously”‘.

The magistrate, (Mr Partridge) waived her away. Her husband had not attended to press the summons nor had he declared his intention to renew it. So as far as he was concerned it was at an end. He hoped that she would go home to him and advised them to ‘make up their differences’. As for her mother-in-law, he urged her to ‘live apart from them, and not interfere’.

If this marriage was going to work it required both mothers to accept that their children were adults now, with their own lives to lead.

[from The Standard, Saturday, November 17, 1888]

‘The horrors of that place had for me nobody knows’: one man’s fatal experience of Pentonville

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Here is something slightly different today, not a case from the Police courts but the consequence of the savage penal system that existed in the late 1800s. Indeed this story comes from June 1888, the year that the Whitechapel murderer terrorized the women of the East End and about whom so much has been written. That killer was never caught and if he had been then he would surely have ended his days at the hands of an executioner.

By 1888 only murderers, and not all of them, were hanged for their crimes. Since the opening of Broadmoor in 1863 the state had a place to send those dangerously violent men and women who were deemed insane and it quickly filled up with mothers and wives who had killed (or were convicted of killing) their children or husbands. For everyone else – the burglars, robbers, fraudsters, forgers, and the violent – there was just one option after convict transportation ended in the mid 1860s and that was prison.

Arthur James Simmonds had been sent to Pentonville Prison in late 1887 or early 1888. Simmonds was a letter sorter employed by the Post Service and he succumbed to the temptation to steal from work. Unfortunately for him his employers were on the look out for letter thieves and had placed a ‘test’ letter in the system to catch just such a fish.

Simmonds was prosecuted and was given 18 months inside for the offence, with the addition of hard labour. He was 20 years of age but far from being a healthy young man.  The ‘hard labour’ at Pentonville meant he would be subjected to the pointless tyranny of the treadmill.

On Whit Sunday 1888 Simmonds was taken ill and received a visit from a friend of his, George Nealing. When he saw George the prisoner started to cry and when he was asked how he felt he said he: ‘felt as well as could be expected in the circumstances’, but added that ‘I ought never to have been put on the mill’.

‘The horrors of that place had for me nobody knows. When after three days on the mill I got off at night I found my feet were four or five times their ordinary weight, and by the end of the first week they were twenty times their normal weight. I could scarcely walk up to my cell after leaving the mill’.

He told his friend that along with the physical pain of the treadmill he was unable to eat the food he was given and so his health further deteriorated. He died some time afterwards, never recovering from collapsing as a result of his exertions.

The inquest into his death heard from his friend but also from prison staff and doctors. They stated that he had never complained about the severity of the treadmill and had he done he would have been taken off it. This may well be true but complaining about the treatment one received in prison wasn’t likely to go down well in a system that was described by one inmate as ‘a vast machine’ that crushed anyone that refused to follow the rules.

The Victorian prison system had, under Edmund Du Cane’s stewardship operated the principle of ‘hard board, hard fare, hard labour’. Sleep deprivation, minimal diet and crippling physical activity was designed deliberately to break the spirit of convicts and make them easier to control. If a few died, or went mad, it was unfortunate but it was a consequence the authorities were prepared to live with.

Arthur Simmonds did die and the inquest was told that a ‘brain disease’ was the cause. The jury followed the medical advice and returned a verdict of accidental death. While the letter thief may have had a long term undiagnosed medical condition I think it is reasonable to suggest that the forced labour of the treadmill at least exacerbated his condition, if it did not create it entirely. His death then, lies in the hands of the prison authorities and government department that sanctioned the system that governed convicted felons in England in the 1800s.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, June 10, 1888]