‘We didn’t live – we starved’: Poverty and ‘foreign markets’ in 19th Century Whitechapel

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In my last post I started walking the streets of East London with Charles Booth’s poverty survey as my guide. Moving on from Gunthorpe and Flower and Dean Walk (which in the 1880s was George Street and Flower and Dean Street respectively) in this post I’ve arrived at Wentworth Street.

In the late nineteenth century Wentworth Street was extremely poor. In Booth’s original map (above) it is a mixture of colours from red to pink to blue but since it abuts George Yard, Thrawl Street and other courts and alleys associated with the ‘Abyss’ we can confidently assume that most people living here were living close or below what Seebohm Rowntree was later to define as the ‘poverty line.

This story, reported in the Manchester press, gives us some idea of exactly what conditions were like in and around Wentworth Street in the last decade of the 1800s.

In early November 1893 Mr Wynne Baxter, the local coroner (and the man that had presided over the inquests into most of the Whitechapel murder victims in 1888), convened an inquest on the death of Elizabeth Newton.

Elizabeth was only four months old; she was the illegitimate daughter of Martha Newton who lived at 75 Wentworth Street. The paper described Martha as a ‘poor, miserable-looking girl’ who lived with her mother.

At the time little Elizabeth had been born Martha was living in a local lodging house, and went to the infirmary to give birth. Once the child and mother left hospital they went to live with Martha’s mother Margaret but the conditions were awful.

‘Her mother only occupied one room’, the inquest was told. So Martha and her baby joined her ‘sister, aged eight years […] and her other illegitimate child, aged two’, in the room.

Margaret Newton was desperately poor and the augmented family struggled to feed itself. Margaret told Mr Baxter that Marth fed her newborn on ‘cornflour, arrowroot, or anything the mother could get for it’. She herself only earned 1s3d to 1s 6da day.

How much was the rent, the coroner asked her. ‘Five shillings’, was the reply.

‘How do you live’?

‘We didn’t live – we starved’, Margaret Newton told him.

The final witness was the doctor who declared Elizabeth dead. She weighed only 3lb 12oz when he examined her. He told a stunned court that she should have weighed at least 11b by then. The coroners’ jury delivered a verdict of ‘death by malnutrition’.

Sadly Elizabeth’s death was not uncommon in late nineteenth-century London. Without an effective system of state benefits or health service that was free at the point of need, many children succumbed to poverty and lack of nutrition in Victoria’s Britain.

In the 1880s and 1890s Wentworth Street was busy during the day and early evening. As Charles Booth observed it was:

 ‘thronged every day by stalls, both buyers and sellers nearly all but not altogether Jews, women bareheaded, bewigged, coarse woolen shawls over shoulders, more like a foreign market scene than anything English’.

The red on the map probably refereed to ‘the small shops and houses on the North side’, the poor were absent except in the nearby courts.

Today, as I found out on my walk, there is very little remaining of nineteenth-century Wentworth Street. This is hardly surprising when you consider that this area was very heavily bombed during the Second World War (see map from www.bombsight.org) and post war council rebuilding and slum clearance.

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There was still a strong Jewish community in and around Wentworth Street during and after WW2. Helen Shaw (Schevitch) remembered life back then:

We had one kitchen at the back of our house, which was like a scullery. We only had cold running water, a gas cooker and wooden table, and back yard. The whole family, nine of us at the time had to wash there, but when it was bath time we only had a metal bath with water poured from the fireplace, and the three younger girls were bathed together in this boat like tub. There was a time when there was a shortage of fuel when I was about eleven and every family was rationed one sack of coal. We had to go and collect the coal from Flower and Dean Street (or Fashion Street) and had to line up.

Now, as my walk confirmed, there is hardly any sign of the Jewish presence in Wentworth Street. Instead this area is home to a new set of immigrants and their British born descendants. The larget and most visible migrant group (akin to the Jewish residents in the 1880s that Booth remarked upon) are the Bangladeshis, most of whom trace their roots to Sylheti in the northeast of the country. They are Muslim and established their first roots in the area as early as 1910 and it took them until the early 1980s to win permission to build a mosque.

If you want to have any sense of the Wentworth Street that Booth described as ‘a foreign market’ in the 1890s then take the underground to Whitechapel and wander along the market stalls that throng beside Whitechapel High Street opposite the London Hospital. Close your eyes, and imagine yourself transported back in time.

Stoke Newington ‘has a great reputation’; ‘anything will sell or let there’.

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In the last two blog posts I explored the murder of John Broome Tower, whose lifeless body was dragged from a reservoir in Stoke Newington. No one was ever prosecuted for the clerk’s murder and the police eventually seem to have decided that he’d taken his own life, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary.

In 2020 this blog will change tack from the course it has been on since I started writing it in April 2016. All the stories from the capital’s police magistrate courts will remain and I will probably revisit those sources from time to time, rich as they are. Having completed writing two books in 2019 (both of which should reach the shops before the end of 2020) I will now be concentrating my writing efforts on a new work for Reaktion books on the police courts. I suspect this to go to print in about 12-18 months, and I’ll post updates on this site.

In the meantime I am going to use the notebooks left by Charles Booth (and held by the LSE) to explore London’s streets and communities in the last decades of the nineteenth century. Booth’s Inquiry into the Life and Labour of the People in London was carried out between 1886 and 1903 and the most outstanding result of his research were his poverty maps revealing the distribution of wealth in the late Victorian capital.

Booth, working with a small team of investigators, many from the Toynbee Hall settlement in Spitalfields, walked the streets with police and London School Board visitors, interviewed employers, trade unionists, clergymen, and others in his attempt to understand individual circumstances of poverty and want. All of this went into his notebooks, 450 of them, and the level of detail is fascinating.

My aim is to explore an area mapped by Booth and compare its conditions today to those at the end of the nineteenth century. I have already looked at the area around Tufnell Park (where I was born in the 1960s) and today I’ll explore the streets where my wife’s family settled in London having migrated here from Cyprus in the 1950s.

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William Patten School on Dynevor Road (formally Church Street Board School). It had a open air playground on the roof, built deliberately – as others were – to bring fresh air to London’s children in a period when levels of TB were dangerously high.

I think migration (from overseas, the Empire and Commonwealth, what is now the EU, and the rest of the UK) is likely to be one of the themes of this project, as London has always been a multi-cultural city. Another is the diversity of wealth in the capital: Booth’s maps reveal that poverty and relative affluence existed side-by-side in the 1880s just as they do today, and I hope that will come out in this blog.

Another theme that I suspect might feature is that of change. When the houses in St George’s Avenue, Tufnell Park were built in the last quarter of the 1800 the aspiring middle class inhabited them. When Booth mapped them in the early 1890s the area was on the brink in his view; at risk of sliding downwards economically as poor housing and cheaper rents prompted the ‘better sort’ to move elsewhere. When my parents moved in to their house in St George’s in about 1960 the area was far from prosperous.

They moved out in the early 1970s seeking the more open spaces of Finchley (and in so doing echoing the paths trodden by countless Londoners from the late eighteenth century onwards, in fleeing the congested centre for the suburbs to the north and south). Now Tufnell Park is desirable and expensive. A house that might have cost under £2,000 in 1960 will cost you close to £2,000,000 today.

The same is true for Stoke Newington. My wife’s family sold their property there in the late ‘70s and now an equivalent house would be worth around £1,500,000. They left because the area was ‘rough’ and in the 1870s (when the board school at the end of their road was built), poverty was endemic and life expectancy one of the worst in London. By the 1890s Booth thought that the streets behind Church Street Stoke Newington were largely ‘comfortable’ and we saw (in the last two posts) that in the mid 1880s the area was a ‘rapidly expanding’ suburb on the up.

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Old public house on Nevill Road

What you will notice today is the overwhelming concentration of domestic property. Of course there are plenty of shops and pubs, most of which are on Stoke Newington Church Street and the High Street, but few if any commercial buildings exist beyond there. In Booth’s walks he or his team noted the existence of Maynard’s confectionary factory (on Gordon Road) that had once been a factory.

The area south of Maury Road was one of the ‘roughest’ in the area according to the notebooks. Ottway Street, Mellington Street, Stellamn and Landfield Street varied in cloulor from blue to pink and were nicknamed ‘Tiger’s Bay’ and ‘Spike’s Island’ at the time. The inhabitants were ‘low-bred English of no particular occupation’. Their problem was the lack of a regular wage, an uncertainty that remains a problem today and is a causal factor in poverty. The policeman that accompanied Booth or his researcher told him that ‘some of the women washed but others, “you’d better judge for yourself”.’

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I concentrated my walk the other day around Nevill Road and Dynevor Road, ending up back on Church Street via Dumont Road and Kersley Road. For the most part the properties are fine late Victorian ones in good condition. There are some modern builds, mostly post war social housing some of which are probably a result of enemy bombing. A ‘doodlebug’ hit Defoe Road for example, and parts of Dynevor Road were destroyed or badly damaged by enemy action.

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For Booth in the 1890s this was a decent respectable part of the district. It ‘looks pink and clerical’ he said but was actually largely occupied by ‘artisans’. Dynevor Road was pink (‘fairly comfortable. Good ordinary earnings’) and it was here (at 106) that John Broome Tower lodged in 1884. Chesholm and Broughton Road were both similar. Oldfield, Harcombe, Woodland, and Sandbrook Roads were occupied by artisans and shop workers, most of whom presumably employed by businesses on the High Street or Church Street (or those communing into the West End of London). It was pink in the 1890s, it is probably similar today, although the cost of living makes this an expensive place to live now (true for much of London of course).

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An echo of the area’s past: a Victorian post box by Walford Road (next to a synagogue – another reminder of the mixed community that existed in the 1890s and still exists today).

Stoke Newington was – in the 1880/90s – ‘very healthy’ Booth wrote. ‘It has a great reputation’. The houses were small but nearly all of them were occupied. That is still true in the streets I walked around. There were properties for sale and estate agents boards advertising letting opportunities but relatively few. It feels ‘well-heeled’, quite and ‘desirable’. ‘Anything will let or sell in Stoke Newington’ the police constable accompanying Booth on his travels told him with confidence.

One imagines the same is true today.

 

 

Housebreaking in Stokey and Hackney; slim pickings perhaps but poverty was relative in 1887

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In early September 1887 William Parker (an 18 year-old box maker) and James Hall (also 18 and described as a boot maker), appeared at the Worship Street Police court accused of breaking and entering.

The pair, both Bethnal Green lads, had strayed west, targeting three different properties in Stoke Newington. They’d been picked up by police from N Division (which covered Islington and included Stoke Newington) with a bag that contained ‘housebreaking implements’ and their lodgings in Hackney and Globe Street, Bethnal Green were raided.

Sergeant Helson and his colleagues Sergeant May explained that they had arrested the pair on suspicion that they were involved with burglaries at the homes of a Mr Cameron (at 102 Clarence Road), Mr Mears (62 Bentham Road) and Ernest Beckman (a commission agent who lived at 82 Rectory Road).

Mrs Beckman testified that she’d left her home at 3 in the afternoon on Saturday 20 August and came back and hour and half later to find that the front door had been forced open. The dining room had been left in a terrible state, and upstairs in the bedroom her jewelry box was lying open and empty.

She said she had lost ‘£5 in gold, a gold watch and chain, a gold ring, two pairs of earrings, two brooches, and a pair of solitaires’.

The solitaires were found on Hall’s person when the police arrested him and a witness testified to seeing him loitering outside the property earlier that day. Sergeant Helson told the magistrate (Mr Hannay) that the area had suffered a great deal from break-ins recently and requested that the men be committed for trial. Mr Hannay obliged and both men were tried at the next quarter sessions. Hall was convicted and sent to Pentonville prison for 15 months, Parker got an extra three months.

In Charles Booth’s 1888-90 poverty maps Rectory Road (where the Beckmans lived) is solidly red in colour, marking it out as ‘comfortable’. Rectory Road had ‘many old houses’ Booth reports, with ‘old fashioned wooden palings round the front gardens’. Several were semi-detached and rents were £45 (around  £,650 today). There were shops on Rectory Road’s west side and at the corner with Amhurst Road there was a large red brick building ‘with a  boy in buttons at the entrance’. This was the ‘Amhurst Club’ which charged a 2 guineas a year subscription. I have to check this but I believe this might be the site of the Regency Club (at 240a Amhurst Road) – popular with the Kray twins in the 1960s (below right).

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However, I can’t find a Bentham or Clarence in the near vicinity so perhaps those break-ins occurred further east, in Hackney (where  there is a Bentham Road). In the notebook covering the wider area Booth mentions Clarence Road (and Terrace) as a street where the houses have workshops ‘in their back gardens’; he coloured these purple moving to light-blue as it reached Clarence Terrace. One wonders what Hall and Parker could find to steal here but if they came out of worse conditions in the East End perhaps even slim pickings were worth stealing.

I’ll look in more detail at the area around Rectory Road in the next post.

[from Morning Post, 2 September 1887]

Who lived in 1880s Holloway? Milkmen, posties and the police it seems

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On Wednesday this week I began a slightly different blog series, which, while it will still focus on London in the nineteenth century will not always use the metropolitan police courts for its primary sources material. Today I’m using Charles Booth’s poverty maps and notebooks from the late 1880s and early 1890 to explore the roads around Tufnell Park (where I was born in the 1960s) to see what sort of a district it was at the time.

The previous blog was a reminder that while modern Upper Holloway is a densely populated urban sprawl, in the 1880s open green space still existed and drovers still brought flocks of sheep through the streets to the Metropolitan Meat Market at Caledonian Road.  A friend also pointed out that sheep herding continued in Finchley (where I later grew up) right up to the middle of the last century, the 1950s although the last recorded incident of sheep ‘rustling’ was in 1839.

My family lived in St George’s Avenue in the early 1960s, moving there just before or during the Second World War from a property not that far away. I can’t find Booth’s notebook entries for St George’s Avenue but we do have them for nearby street like Lady Margaret Road. Booth coloured Lady Margaret Road pink, meaning it was ‘fairly comfortable’ with ‘good ordinary earnings’. It was a better off street to some of those around it, notably Fulbrook Road (which was ‘not quite so good, used to be rough’ and Brecknock Road which had elements that were purple (meaning some residents were poor).

The people living in Warrender Road in 3 storey sub-letted houses were paying £34 to £40 rent per annum and were mostly milkmen, police and postmen. The two storied houses in Brecknock Road had seven rooms, so clearly houses of multiple occupation are not a ‘modern’ thing at all. It cost more to live in Southcote Road and Lady Margaret Road (£40-45 in the former, £52 in the latter) and so we’d expect the residents there to be clerks and better paid artisans and shop workers. For comparison £52 in 1889 would equate to about £4,250 today.

This area of North London was the setting for George and Weedon Grossmith’s Diary of Nobody (serialized in Punch in 1888-9, later published as a book in 1892). The fictionalized diary is kept by Charles Pooter, a London clerk, and records his misadventures in social climbing and reflects a contemporary view of the sort of people that were buying and renting property in the expanding Northern suburbs of London.  Pooter and his wife end son lived at ‘The Laurels’ (pictured, right below). It is very funny and well worth your time if you haven’t read it.

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Going east from Lady Margaret Road, Booth’s enumerators noted that while the people living in Celia Road, Corinne Road and Hugo Road were all ‘mostly comfortable’ the property they were living in was ‘all badly built’. Despite the houses being ‘not 10 years old’ they were ‘cracking above the windows’, had ‘very small backs’ and would ‘probably go down in character’. This might reflect rapid expansion in the area with builders and developers keen to cash in on the growth of London’s population and the desire to move out of the East End and centre.

He went on to comment that while the north west end of Upper Holloway was pink and the south red, suggesting comfortable living and some relative affluence, the north east was light and dark blue, revealing poverty. Moreover he reflected that ‘the best people are leaving’. Adding that if good new small houses for rent were built then the area could maintain its ‘pink’ status (like Stamford Hill) but if not there was a risk that it would only attract the poorer elements and ‘go rapidly down’.

Today the street layouts around Lady Margaret Road remain almost identical to the 1880s so in my final blog of the first trio I will head off to the area on foot to see what it looks like today. Hopefully you’ll see the results on Sunday or Monday of next week.

Sheep rustling in Holloway; a reminder of our rural past

The new Metropolitan Cattle Market, Copenhagen Fields

Today I am starting a new blog series which will look at the smaller events (and some larger ones) associated with London’s streets and the people that lived in them in the past.

I am going to start with Tufnell Park Road in north London because it very close to where I was born and my family lived. Today it is a very urban, built up area, with some fairly well heeled residents living alongside rougher areas of relative deprivation. In that respect then Tufnell Park and Holloway is quite like a lot of the capital in the 21st century.

In May 1867 Richard Allcock was walking along Kentish Town Road at about 10 or 11 at night when he saw a man approaching, driving a ‘drove’ of lambs towards him. He knew the man, John (or ‘Jack’) Read as a fellow drover from the Highgate area. He counted 30 lambs and recognized as a breed native to the Isle of Wight.

He hailed his colleague who replied with a cheery,  ‘holloa Dick, is that you? Will you have a glass of ale?’ Allcock happily agreed and the pair enjoyed a few beers at a nearby public house.

On the following Thursday Allcock ran into Read again, this time at the Metropolitan Cattle Market at Copenhagen Fields by Caledonian Road. The market had moved there just a dozen years earlier from Smithfield as the City authorities attempted to ‘improve’ the built up centre of London. This, and the fact that Allcock later stated that flocks of lambs were regularly graved in Tufnell Park reminds us that, in the mid Victorian period, the area was very far from being as urban as it is today.

At market Allcock was speaking to another drover about his conversation with Jack when he came over and took his mate to one side. ‘Don’t say anything to anyone that you saw me on Monday night’, he said. If Allcock was puzzled it all soon became clear. On the night in question the lambs, part of a larger flock of 71 belonging to John Fuller, had vanished. Police sergeant David Older (16Y) had arrested Read following a tip off.

Read denied stealing them and said he was in bed by 5 o’clock that night, and didn’t get up again that day. Allcock’s evidence undermined that because he’d been drinking with him between 10 and 11. The police were sure they had their man but he wasn’t acting alone. Read himself came close to admitting his crime but muttered that he was ‘not going to take this all alone’.

His solicitor asked for bail when he appeared before the magistrate at Clerkenwell but Mr Cooke refused. Apparently Read had previous for stealing livestock and the police were reluctant to see him at liberty. Off to prison he went while the investigation continued.

Looking at George W. Bacon’s map of London for 1888 Tufnell Park Road is much less built up that it is today. There is a cricket ground and considerable open space on the north side, in Upper Holloway, although there are buildings along most of the street. By the early 1900s the cricket ground is surrounded by housing and other property; all the green space has gone and a railway (the Tottenham and Hampstead Junction) runs across its northern edge.

In Charles Booth’s 1889/90 map of the northern suburbs Tufnell Park Road is solidly red in colour, marking it out as a comfortable middle class area with, as one might expect for a major thoroughfare, plenty of commercial property. Tufnell Park Road looks then, like a respectable street in a mixed working-class area but the situation does vary across Holloway, something I’ll pick in more detail by looking at Booth’s notebooks in the next blog.

[from Daily News, Thursday, June 6, 1867]

William Booth in court, for doing something about homelessness

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The Salvation Army is a well-established charity doing good work with the poor and homeless for well over a century. It was set up in London by William Booth in 1865, adopting the name Salvation Army (formally the Christian Mission) in 1878. Booth was an evangelist Christian who took his religious beliefs seriously, believing that the teachings of Jesus Christ impelled the better off to look after the poor.

As several articles in this blog series have shown the ‘Army’ wasn’t always well received. Their military structure and marching bands drew opprobrium and ridicule from all levels of society but by the turn of the century they were clearly established as a fixture in both British and American society.

In 1888 Booth, who started his mission in the East End of London, preaching in rooms above what is now the Blind Beggar pub on Whitechapel Road, set up a temporary night shelter in Hanbury Street, for the homeless female poor. He was prompted by the murders of Jack the Ripper, who preyed on vulnerable and often homeless prostitutes in the area.

The shelter was basic, and cost users 3d a night (2for children, and just a penny for infants in arms). In December 1889 Booth himself was summoned to the Worship Street Police court to answer a summons brought against him by the police, for running a shelter that wasn’t registered as a ‘common lodging house’, and therefore fell foul of the regulations.

This was the police’s report of their visit to the shelter, delivered by a sergeant (32H) and Inspector Ferrett:

‘The sergeant said that each sleeper had a “box like an egg-chest.” minus the bottom. A mattress made of American cloth and seaweed was in this, and the coverlet was sheepskin the size of the mattress, the sleeper putting their head through a hole at one end’.

The property, an old bath house, was well ventilated and quite warm, served as it was by hot water pipes. It had space for 192 women and for their three pence they got a light supper as well. The mattresses were cleaned regularly and the place was orderly, so what was the problem?

Well the summons seemed mostly concerned with it not being registered and that this ‘temporary’ solution to a crisis becoming permanent by default. The police did bring along some witnesses that to argue that the Salvation Army were operating not merely as a refuge but as a de facto lodging house but Mr Bushby wasn’t convinced by their line of argument.

He dismissed the summons and let Booth go back to his charity work.

We are once again in a period where homelessness and poverty are in focus. Winter is here and people are dying on the streets of British cities. Homelessness is a growing problem in the UK, despite us being in the top 10 richest nations on earth.

Changes to the benefits system (the introduction of Universal Credit and the bedroom tax) by the Conservative government (and before them the Tory and Liberal Democrat coalition), and a decade of austerity economic policies driven by a succession of Conservative chancellors from George Osborne to Sajid Javid have directly impacted the lives of the poorest.  726 people are known to have died on the streets in 2018, the highest number since recording began in 2013.

Something to think about when we cast our votes on December 12.

[from The Standard, Saturday, December 07, 1889]

‘Where are your father and mother?’ A young girl, broken by poverty, breaks windows and then breaks down in court

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I know that there are people in this world that believe that society has become too soft: too soft on crime, on beggars, on children, on immigrants. They will often look back to the distant past and make specious pronouncements on how there was more respect or deference in the past. It is part and parcel of a lack of empathy for others – perhaps best (or rather worst) expressed by Jacob Rees-Mogg in his hateful comments about the ‘stupidity’ of the victims of the Grenfell Tower disaster.

Before the Liberal reforms of the early twentieth century and the transformative Labour government of 1945 this country treated its poorest with callous unconcern. This indifference to the suffering of the poor was extended to the mentally ill, the sick poor, elderly, and orphaned children. If you weren’t wealthy you simply didn’t matter in the eyes of the elites that ran the country.

I think we can see this in the treatment of one young teenage girl in east London in 1865.

Priscilla Herman was an inmate of the Bethnal Green workhouse. She was under 16 years of age and in November she was brought before the magistrate at Worship Street Police court charged with criminal damage.

The court heard that Priscilla, described as ‘placid’ but displaying ‘features indicative of aught but abandoned and vicious conduct’, had smashed five panes of glass and verbally abused a female overlooker.

That was Ann Summers, who testified that when she’d asked her to do some cleaning work Priscilla had refused and threatened her. Summers was old and the girl had threatened, she said, ‘to beat my _______ old head in’.

The magistrate asked the overlooker why she hadn’t found Priscilla work as a domestic servant outside of the workhouse. She’d tried, Summers explained, but she kept getting dismissed.

‘A great many of the girls turn out bad after leaving us; the language of this one is most shameful and disgusting’.

The police constable that had escorted Priscilla to court agreed that her language was ‘dreadful’. He added that she’d admitted braking the windows but no one knew why she did it.

I doubt anyone really cared why she did it, they simply wanted to punish her for doing so. The magistrate did ask her some questions however:

‘Why did you leave your last place, girl?’

No answer.

‘Did you do wrong?’

No answer.

‘Where are your father and mother?’

At this Priscilla broke down in the dock and started sobbing.

‘I haven’t any’, she cried.

She admitted behaving badly at her last job and promised to do better and ‘be a good girl’ if she were given another chance.

As an orphan under 16 I would hope we would give Priscilla a chance today although given the large numbers of teenagers sleeping rough on our streets I’m not confident that our society would do much better by her.  However, I doubt even  the most heartless of Rees-Mogg’s chums would do as the magistrate here did, and send Priscilla to prison for three weeks, effectively minimalizing any chance of her finding an honest living outside of the ‘house in the near future.

She was led away, still sobbing he eyes out, her future looking bleak as winter approached.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, November 24, 1865]