‘A most outrageous assault’: more gang violence in Oxford Street

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Most of the gang crime that plagued London in the late 1800s was pretty minor compared with the stabbings and drug related crime experienced by Londoners today. Even so, then, most of the victims were rival gang members. When ordinary members of the public were caught up they were often simply harassed or shoved as they walked home from the theatre or the pub and encountered groups of ‘roughs’ on the streets.

This incident, from December 1889, was within that typology of gang attack but was of a more serious nature, which was probably why it ended up before the magistrate at Marlborough Street.

Herbert Easton was walking home along Oxford Street after a late night out in town. He was heading past Harewood Place where a group of around 20 young men were gathered. As he past them something hit him on the back and he spun round on his heels. He wasn’t drunk but he had been drinking and, possibly emboldened by the ‘Dutch courage’ he demanded to know who was responsible.

He was met by silence and denials and carried on his way.

He was quickly aware that the group was now following him, in a very threatening manner. Before he had time to take evasive action they were on him, knocking him to the ground and kicking and punching at him.  As he tried the lift his umbrella as a makeshift weapons they overpowered him and held him down with it.

Easton struggled to his feet and pushed one of his assailants away. Seeing a cab he hailed it and jumped in side. The driver set off but the lads grabbed hold of the reins and one, George Leonard, tried to clamber into the cab. As Easton fought and grappled with Leonard the driver shouted out for help. A constable was quickly on the scene and fought his way through the throng, blowing his whistle to summons others.

As a number of officers arrived and the gang decided their luck was up, they melted away leaving Leonard in police custody. The police ordered the cabbie to make directly for Marlborough Police station where the young ‘rough’ was charged and thrown in a cell.

Appearing before Mr Hannay he had little to say for himself. The magistrate was much more forthcoming however. He told George Leonard (19) that this was ‘one of the worst street outrages he had ever heard of’ and sent him to prison for two months with hard labour.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, December 10, 1889]

One wedding, a broken jaw, and a prison sentence

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On Saturday 30 November William Mellish appeared at the Greenwich Police court accused of assaulting his a sister Caroline at their cousin’s wedding. Caroline, married to man named Hannen, was present in court with her swathed in bandages.

Mr Marsham was told that the wedding party had retired to Mellish’s home in Deptford where the drinking had continued. A sing song had resulted in arguments as Caroline’s sister apparently omitted some words from a popular ditty and the celebration descended into a full-blown fistfight.

Caroline poked her sister in the eye, the sisters went at each other no holds barred and William reached across the table and punched out at the pair of them. His blow landed on Caroline, breaking her jaw.

He tried to claim that Caroline had hurt herself by banging her head against the table but the magistrate wasn’t convinced. Everyone had been ‘the worse for drink’ and I suspect he wanted to make an example of such working-class excess.

Mellish was sent to prison for three months, meaning he would miss the family Christmas that year. In retrospect that was probably no bad thing.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, December 1, 1889]

A Soho gambling den is raided but Mr Hannay shows some leniency

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Gamblers playing at Faro in the American midwest 

In November 1889 detectives and regular police constables led by Superintendent Heard of C Division raided a suspected gambling den at 14 Meard Street, Soho. The rounded up about 20 suspects, all of them Jewish immigrants, and took away several packs of playing cards and a Faro table.

Faro (or Pharo) was a old card game closely associated with gambling. It used a table, often covered in green baize and marked out in squares. There was a banker and the players laid bets. It was a simple game but, like other card games such as Poker, it was open to cheating by the ‘house’ and players. As a result it was banned in most European cities.

Despite the large number of participants the police only found small sums of money were involved. The men were gambling with their weekly wages, not their life savings and so Mr Hannay, the presiding magistrate at Marlborough Street (where the case was heard) was not inclined to penalize them overmuch.

Charles Levi, a tailor, was held to be the most responsible and was convicted of ‘keeping a common gaming-house’. He was fined £20, a large sum but still ‘small when compared with the fines that had been imposed in other cases’, Mr Hannay told him.

All the others were liable to fines of 6s 8dbut on this occasion the magistrate said he would be lenient and simply demand that they all entered into recognizance of £5 each to ensure they did not offend again. He also allowed Levi time to find the £20 fine, paying by installments if he chose, and so saved him from the default of going to prison for a month instead.

I wonder if Mr Hannay enjoyed a flutter himself and so considered moderate gambling no bad thing. He had to act of course, since a large police operation had been carried out; but he was able to be as lenient as possible.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, December 1, 1889]

A casual thief with a lot of attitude

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Hannah Newman was a confident (one might say ‘cocky’) character. At half past ten on the 29 November 1858 she was on Cheapside, in the City of London. She was dressed smartly and carried a muff to keep her hands warm.

As a man walked towards her along the road she engineered a collision, running into him and apologizing. When he checked his pockets he found his purse was missing. Turning to Hannah he accused her of stealing it which she denied.

The gentleman (who had lost over £13) didn’t  believe her and threatened to call the police. Seeing a constable near by Hannah retrieved the purse from her muff and handed it over, ‘begging to be allowed to go free’. But her appeals fell on deaf ears and she was handed over to the police and taken back to the nearest station house.

When she was searched more money was found along with a porte-monniae (a wallet) with 7s 6d in it. The police also found some calling cards belonging to another gentleman. When they followed up this lead he told them he had been similarly robbed in Jewry Street about an hour earlier.

All this was outlined to the sitting justice at Mansion House along with the suggestion that there was a third victim who did not wish to come forward. Hannah claimed that she had merely picked up the purse for safe-keeping and had no knowledge of how she had come by the other man’s cards. She requested that her case be dealt with summarily and not taken to a jury court.

The Lord Mayor disagreed and said her crimes were too ‘flagrant to permit him to take such a course’ and that for her ‘barefaced’ actions he would send her to the Central Criminal Court (the Old Bailey) for trial.

At this she requested that at least she might keep the money (19s and 6d) that had been found on her. This the magistrate refused, telling her that it would be put ‘towards her maintenance in prison’.

There is no trial of a Hannah Newman at the Old Bailey in 1858 so perhaps it wasn’t published (not all were) or she was released before then or the trial collapsed (perhaps because the ‘gentlemen’ involved preferred not reveal why they had been out on those evenings or because they simply preferred to stay out of the papers). There was a case 8 years earlier however when  a 14 year old girl named Hannah Newman was convicted of stealing a shawl and other goods from her master and mistress. She was sent to prison for 6 months.

Was this the same Hannah? Chances are unlikely I concede, but not impossible. Research at the University of Liverpool has shown that offending patterns in women started young and that many had several  convictions before they stopped offending in later life. If it was was the same Hannah then she might have been 22 at the time of her encounter at Mansion House. Unmarried and out of work she was represented the ‘norm’ for female thieves in mid nineteenth-century London.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, November 30, 1858]

‘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]

An unwanted ‘guest’ under a Whitechapel grocer’s bed

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Harris Rosenthorn ran a small grocer’s shop on Plummer’s Row, Whitechapel. For a few days he’d noticed a young immigrant loitering nearby and suspected he was up to no good. Then, on Thursday 2 November 1893 the lad had come into the shop and bought some butter. From his accent Mr Rosenthorn determined that the teenager was probably a Russian Pole, one of many in the East End.

At around 9.30 the grocer went upstairs to the second floor and into one of the bedrooms. The candle lighting the room had just gone out and worried, Rosenthorn lit another. He soon found the strange young man hiding under the bed. The lad crawled out and, before the shopkeeper could stop him, he pushed past and down the stairs.

He ran straight into one of the Rosenthorns’ servants, who, alerted by her master’s cries of alarm, tried to tackle him. She was punched in the chest and pushed to the floor and the man got away.

He didn’t get far however, soon several neighbours were after him and overpowered the burglar a few streets away. As he ran he dropped a chisel he’d been carrying, either to use as a jemmy or a weapon. His captors handed him over to the police and on Friday 3 November he appeared before Mr Dickinson at the Thames Police court.

The young man gave his name as Max Landay. He was just 17 years of age and under the powers bestowed on magistrates by the summary jurisdictions acts of the 1800s the justice decided to deal with him without recourse to a jury trial. Max was sent to prison for six months with hard labour.

[from The Standard, Saturday, November 04, 1893]

Winter is coming

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Winter is coming.

Hallowe’en has come and gone and Bonfire Night is looming. The clocks have gone back and the air has turned distinctly chilly. Yesterday in town I noticed more rough sleepers than usual around King’s Cross and St Pancras and reflected once again that our modern society still hasn’t solved the problem of poverty. And now an election is looming and we might ask ourselves which party is most determined to address the problem of poverty and inequality in the UK?

The reports from the Victorian Police Courts provide ample evidence that desperation and poverty were endemic in the 1800s. This was a society without a welfare state, with no old age pension scheme, or National Health Service, or social services. Where we have a benefits system (however flawed) they had the workhouse or charity and recourse to either meant shame and failure.

In our ‘modern’ world we have people whose lives have been destroyed by drink or drugs and both provide the really desperate with the anaesthetic they need to simply survive on day-to-day basis. I saw a notice yesterday that said, ‘would you smash up a phone box to get 24 hours in a dry cell with food?’

This is a reality for some people in ‘modern’ Britain.

In October 1865 Mary M’Grath was charged at Thames Police Court with being drunk and disorderly and punching a policeman. Mary was about 30 years old and had a baby with her in court. PC John Mansfield (393K) testified that on the previous afternoon he had seen Mary rolling about, quite drunk, on the East India Dock Road.

She was carrying her infant and staggering about so badly that she kept banging into the nearby ‘walls and houses’. The child was ‘injured and screamed fearfully’, he added. Mary kept up a stream of the most unpleasant language, so disgusting that several onlookers complained to him about it.

Eventually  she fell heavily and a man rushed up to save the child and a police sergeant arrived to help  PC Mansfield take her to the police station. Once there she rewarded him with more abuse and landed a blow on his face, blackening his eye and impairing his sight.

The next day they appeared in court before Mr Paget, the magistrate, who asked the constable what had become of the child.

‘It was taken to the workhouse’, the policeman replied.

‘How old is it?’ the magistrate asked him.

‘Four months old’.

‘It is eight months old’, piped up Mary from the dock.

Mr Paget declared that nothing was more disgraceful than seeing a mother so drunk in public. Didn’t she have a husband at home he enquired.

‘No sir, my husband died seven years ago’, came the reply. So her baby was illegitimate and presumably the product of new relationship or a casual encounter, and no father was present in court. Drunk, riotous and promiscuous the magistrate was probably thinking, a suitable object not for pity but for condemnation.

In reality of course Mary’s life became that much more difficult when her husband had passed away. She would have lost the main bread winner and her partner. It is likely she already had children so they would have added to her problems. Perhaps this explains her descent into alcoholism.

She told him that she couldn’t remember what had happened the previous day, so drunk had she been. She had been inside the workhouse, and therefore destitute as no one went inside iff they could possibly help it.

‘I was there long enough’ she explained, and ‘I was half starved’ and ‘discharged myself. I took a drop [of alcohol] and lost myself’.

So in her version of events  she had been so malnourished in the ‘house’ that a small amount of drink (probably gin) had affected her much more than it would normally. It was probably an exaggeration of the truth but it did her no good. Instead of opting to find her some help in the form of money, food and shelter Mr Paget sent her to prison for a month at hard labour.

She had merely swapped one uncaring institution for another. As for the child, well as a ‘suckling’ Mr Paget decided it needed to stay with its mother, so off to gaol it went as well.

This was an oft repeated story in Victorian London. Children were growing up affected by alcoholism, grinding poverty, homelessness, and sometimes, prison. No wonder reformers demanded change and some turned to ‘extreme’ politics (like socialism or anarchism). Men like Paget had comfortable lives and sat in judgement for the most part on those that scraped by.

Can we, hand on heart, say that 150 years later everything is so much better? Yes, of course to an extent we have provided a much better safety net for Mary M’Grath and her baby. But have we really tackled the root causes of her poverty? No, I don’t think we have  and while we pursue a form of economics and politics that allows some people to live in epic luxury while others sleep rough on the streets I don’t think we can sit in judgement of our ancestors either.

Winter is coming. Use your vote wisely.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, November 01, 1865]