‘You cannot possibly know her history’ A policeman gets a flea in the ear for his lack of compassion

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As PC Olding (269D) patrolled the streets in central London in September 1888 he may have counted his blessings that he had not been seconded to Whitechapel, as many officers were later that autumn. No part of the capital was ‘safe’ but few were as dangerous as the East End. By contrast with the men of H and K division, PC Olding had it easy.

Sadly that didn’t mean he held much sympathy for his fellow human beings and when he found an old woman asleep on a doorstep he shoved her roughly so that she woke up.

Margaret Elmore screamed.

Woken from sleep in the early hours of the morning she was probably disorientated and scared. after all news of the Whitechapel murderer’s attacks in the east were common knowledge throughout London.

Shouting ‘murder!’ and ‘police!’ Margaret flailed about and it took the officer some time to get her under control. Since, by his definition she was now ‘disorderly’ he arrested her and took her to the station. The next day she was up before the Police court magistrate at Marlborough Street.

There she told him a convoluted and quite possibly invented story of her troubles. She said she had out late searching for her daughter who’d been trafficked to Belgium but had latterly, she’d heard, returned. It was well known that English girls were sometimes taken to the continent to work in brothels (indeed that was one of the stories associated with Mary Kelly, the ‘Ripper’s fifth canonical victim). Margaret had even seen her daughter she claimed, twice it seems on the streets but hadn’t been able to catch up with her.

The policeman had told to go to the workhouse if she was homeless, to a casual ward, but she had no need of that she insisted. Her brother was a merchant in Cuba and gave her an allowance of £25 a year, while she ‘received £15 from another source, and a gentleman paid her rent’. If all that was true she was doing pretty well and her tale of searching the streets made some sense.

Of course it might all have been a fantasy but, as the magistrate told the policeman, ‘he could not possibly know her history’. It appeared, to him at least, to ‘be a sad one’ and he wasn’t about to penalize her for it. However, she should have gone home when the constable told her to. If she had then all of this trouble could have been avoided. He discharged her and ticked the constable off for his excessive zeal in arresting a 69 year-old woman who was doing no harm to anyone.

This concludes my two-week experiment in following the reports of the police courts in the newspapers of 1888. Tomorrow I’ll go back to a more random survey of the business of the courts. But if you have enjoyed these stories you might like to read my own analysis of the Jack the Ripper murder case which is available now from Amazon, and all good bookstores. It is a new study of the Whitechapel murders of 1888 which offers up a new suspect, links the ‘Jack the Ripper’ killings to the unsolved ‘Thames Torso’ crimes, and provides the reader with important contextual history of Victorian London.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, September 15, 1888]

Poor life choices force ‘Annie’ out on the streets of Whitechapel in September 1888

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When I worked in retail in the 1990s (long before I changed career to become a historian) there were a couple of occasions where I had to investigate cases of theft by employees. I was a shop manager and was sometimes deployed by one of the directors to troubleshoot underperforming shops or to help recruit for new stores. In one store there was  problem with money going missing; someone was pilfering,  either from the tills or the safe. In the end we discovered it was the manager.

Confronted with it he confessed and said he’d been borrowing money as he was struggling to pay some debts. He said he always intended to pay the money back, he saw it as a loan (albeit and unauthorized one) not stealing. Suffice to say that’s not how the director or the company’s owner saw and he was out on his ear. He was lucky no prosecutions followed.

There is a fine line of course between borrowing and theft, one that best avoided if you want to stay on the right side of the law. Annie Franks crossed that line in September 1888. The 18 year-old shop girl lodged with Julia Regan in her digs in New Court, Whitechapel. Regan had taken the girl in while her folks were away in Kent helping to bring in the hop harvest. She’d done so because Annie looked lost and Julia needed the company.

Annie had been there a few weeks when Julia missed a pawnbroker’s ticket she’d kept in a sugar basin in her room. She’d pawned some clothes in order to get some cash but now she was ready to redeem the ticket and collect them. She asked around to see if anyone had seen it and neighbour told her that Annie had shown it to her, and claimed Julia had sold it to her for 3d.

It was a lie and it soon transpired that Annie had taken the ticket and retrieved the clothes for herself. Julia was angry and provably quite hurt, so she went to the police. Annie broke down under questioning and admitted her crime to PC 77H. She only meant to borrow the clothes while she too went ‘hopping’ and she fully intended to give the items back on her return.

That was a lie as well because a little investigation showed that she’d already pawned them once more. In court at Worship Street Annie must have cut a forlorn figure in the dock. Her youth was in her favour but Mr Saunders was told that since she’d moved to Spitalfields she had ‘taken up with a lot of bad characters’. The police also reported that she had a previous conviction for theft as a servant. That decided things for her and the magistrate: he sent her to prison for seven days.

If you are familiar with the events of 1888 in the East End you might know that New Court was an alleyway that ran off Dorset Street to the north. There were two others: Paternoster Row and Miller’s Court. Miller’s Court was where Mary Kelly lived in the autumn of 1888 and where she died on the night of the 9 November. Lots of people lived and worked in this desperately crowed and poverty riven part of Whitechapel but there was a chance, a real one perhaps, that Annie knew Mary and certainly she would have been affected by the terror that was meted out on the inhabitants of the East End that summer and autumn.

All the women killed by the ‘Ripper’ were out late at night or in the early hours of the morning. They were living a hand-to-mouth existence, staying in cheap rooms or boarding houses where they could, and earning money by prostitution when they had to. They had all enjoyed more comfortable and settled lives previously but drink, bad luck, or tragedy had best each of them which was why they were on the streets and vulnerable.

Annie – by virtue of her own poor decision making and the sentence handed down by Mr Saunders was now on a critical downward pathway towards a similar fate. Let’s hope her employer took her back when she came out of gaol or that she did indeed escape to the country to pick hops. Let’s hope she didn’t end up like Martha, Polly, Annie, Liz, Kate and Mary Jane walking the streets in the hopes of finding enough money for her ‘doss’. After all just two days after Annie’s court appearance another ‘Annie’ (Annie Chapman) was found murdered in Hanbury Street, barely ten minutes walk from New Court.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, September 07, 1888]

It is a year before the first ‘Ripper’ murder but the portents are visible in East End life

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In August 1887 London had little inkling of the terror that was to haunt the East End in just a year’s time. There was violence and crime aplenty of course, but no more or less than usual, and nothing to suggest that Whitechapel and the East End was soon to be the focus of world attention as a serial killer struck again and again with impunity.

Despite the ‘Jack the Ripper’ murders being extraordinary by any standards I wonder if the foundations for the unknown killer’s actions were already well established in the community he later terrorised. Domestic violence was endemic; linked to alcoholism and poverty, and patriarchal attitudes towards women. With the campaign against contagious diseases and the well-publicized attack on vice and immorality prostitution was also in the spotlight with sex workers demonized as the carriers of diseases which had decimated the army in the Crimea.

But it was the causal, commonplace brutality eked out daily by working-class men towards their wives and common-law partners that really empowered the actions of the ‘Ripper’.

Men frequently beat and abused their womenfolk in the East End and while murders might have been relatively unusual, manslaughter and grievous bodily harm was not. Unless the police actually saw it happen they weren’t able to interfere and even then many if not most were reluctant to get involved in a ‘a domestic’.  The survivors were also reluctant to press charges against their abusers; in fear of retaliation or the loss of the main breadwinner. Magistrates were frustrated but there was little they could do save deal with offenders when they did come before them.

Frederick Smith was a 35 year-old milkman living in Britannia Street, off the City Road. In late August 1887, a year before the Ripper murdered Polly Nicholls in Bucks Row, Smith was brought before Mr Bushby at Worship Street Police court. The milkman was accused of violently assaulting his wife.

PC 63G testified that he had been called to an incident at the defendant’s home and found Mrs Smith ‘lying insensible and bleeding on the pavement’. A few people had gathered and they told him that she fallen out of a window above. He got her into a cab and took her to the London Hospital to be treated. She regained consciousness on the journey and told him that he husband had attacked her and thrown her out of the window to the street below.

When he’d deposited her at the hospital he went back and arrested Fred who, he now realized, had been part of the crowd gathered around Mrs Smith’s body in the street. When he’d seen the policeman the milkman had quickly made himself scarce. Since Mrs Smith was still in hospital and unable to give evidence Mr. Bushby remanded the prisoner for a week and the gaoler locked him up.

We don’t know if Mrs Smith made a full recovery or, if she did, whether she pressed charges against her husband. There’s no record of a Frederick Smith being prosecuted at the Old Bailey for murder or manslaughter, which makes me hopeful that his wife survived.  Fred Smith is hardly an unusual name however, so newspaper searches are problematic.

I think it does indicate the casual nature of violence meted out to working-class women in the 1800s; when ‘ordinary’ me could do this and (mostly) get away with it then surely its not too far of a leap to understand why a disturbed individual could feel emboldened to take that violence much further.

[from The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, August 27, 1887]

Drew’s new book (co-authored by Andy Wise) is published by Amberley Books. It is a new study of the Whitechapel murders of 1888 which offers up a new suspect, links the ‘Jack the Ripper’ killings to the unsolved ‘Thames Torso’ crimes, and provides the reader with important contextual history of Victorian London. The book is available on Amazon

‘A very bad woman’ in Shadwell

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Bluegate Fields by Gustave Doré (1872)

Bluegate Fields in Shadwell was, by all accounts, ‘a terrible place’ in the 1800s. Gustave Doré included it in his famous set of London etchings, a picture of desperate poverty, dark and foreboding. In 1863 it was inhabited by ‘thieves, ruffians, prostitutes, and other bad characters’ and was a place where ‘numberless outrages and robberies had been perpetrated’.

It was on PC Robert Thimbleby’s beat. The policeman (119H) was patrolling Shadwell High Street at 2.30 in the morning of August 20th1863 when he heard a disturbance. Cries of ‘murder’ and ‘police’ rang out and the bobby ran towards to the noise.

As he entered Bluegate Fields he saw a second floor window open and a man tumble out. The man was dressed only in is nightclothes and his fall have left him ‘dreadfully mutilated’. PC Thimbleby helped him and a cab was found to take him to the London Hospital.

The house was notorious as a brothel and soon after the man had fallen out of the window a woman appeared at the front door. She was Irish and rough looking, with a quite masculine, ferocious appearance. She squared up to the policeman, abused him verbally using ‘foul language’ and exposed herself ‘in a most flagrant manner’. With some difficult he arrested her.

On the next day PC Thimbleby brought her before Mr Patridge at Thames Police court where she gave her name as Mary Ann Mahony. The man who’d fallen was too unwell to give evidence against her but his story had been gathered by the police. Mr. Partridge listened to his version of events.

The wounded man was a sailor and had gone to the brothel with Mahony. In the middle of the night he awoke to find she’d stolen his trousers and his money – around £5 in gold and silver – and was making her way out of the room. When he grabbed her, she fought back, seizing a poker and chasing him round the room with it. Fearing for his life (and perhaps not realizing exactly where he was) he jumped out of the window.

Given that the man was not in court to press charges of attempted robbery all the justice could do was deal with the charge of being drunk and disorderly. Mr Partridge was quite satisfied that this had been established and he sent Mary Ann to gaol for 21 days warning her that when her punter recovered she was likely to be back to face a charge of attempted theft. She was, he added, a ‘very bad woman’ who had had a string of previous convictions to her name.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, August 21, 1863]

The ‘modern Babylon’ exposed: pornography in an age of prudery

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Holywell Street, central London, late 1800s 

One of the things ‘we think we know’ about the Victorians is that they were very prudish and straight-laced, even going to the bizarre lengths of covering up their piano legs so as not to shock or titillate. This view of the age is sometimes confirmed by depictions of a sour faced Queen Victoria proclaiming: ‘we are not amused’.

The reality is that the Victorians were hardly much less lascivious and fun-loving than their Georgian predecessors. Perhaps the emphasis on family (best epitomized by Royal Family) and the work of Samuel Smiles in setting out so-called ‘Victorian values’, combined with a post war desire to look back  to the past to make comparisons with the present, have skewed our views.

Anyone strolling around London in the 1800s would have seen plenty of evidence that the Victorians liked to enjoy themselves.  This age saw the rise of the musical theatre, the novel and popular newspapers; it witnessed the invention of the railways, cheap travel and the weekend excursion. Here too was the Great Exhibition, great ceremonial pageants, and military parades. And with all of this (largely) wholesome entertainment came vice at a level the Georgians could only have imagined.

The invention of photography offered new opportunities for pornography and the increasingly economic cost of printing and distribution made the printed vice trade even more profitable. This was not lost on the ‘moral majority’; those that railed against vice and crime. London became the ‘modern Babylon’; a sink of iniquity and place where domestic missionaries sought new converts in the dark alleys of Whitechapel and Southwark. In Holywell Street, off the Strand, there was a roaring trade in indecent literature to suit every taste.

In 1841, early in the young queen’s reign, a barrister representing the Society for the Suppression of Vice appeared at the Guildhall Police court in the City to apply for a warrant against a local bookseller. St Paul’s Churchyard (close by Wren’s cathedral) had long been associated with the print trade, and with obscene publications and prostitution to boot.

Mr Clarkson, the barrister, explained that officers from the Society wanted to draw the magistrate’s attention to the fact that this bookseller (at this point unnamed) was displaying ‘five indecent little pamphlets in his window’. Under the terms of the Vagrancy Act he had tried to summons the man to court but this had been ignored, now he wanted a warrant which carried more force (since it was executed by a policeman).

The lawyer argued that the act ‘1 and 2 Victoria, c.38’ (the Vagrancy Act) declared that anyone exposing to view obscene images was liable to be dealt with as a ‘rouge and a vagabond’ and so was punishable by a fine or, if unable to pay, imprisonment. This toughened up the previous act of George IV (5 Geo. IV. c.83. 1824) and he wanted to use it.

Alderman Copeland was in the chair at Guildhall that day and Mr Clarkson handed over some of the obscene pamphlets in question. These had titles such as ‘The Wanton Widow’, ‘The Petticoat Pensioner’ and ‘Venus in the Cloister’*.

UnknownI suspect by modern standards of indecency they were pretty mild but in a society where ‘nakedness’ often meant that someone was dressed only in their undergarments, and where a glimpse of ankle was evidence of a woman’s immoral character, the alderman was suitable disgusted. He issued the warrant and the barrister rushed off to find an officer to execute it.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, August 20, 1841]

*You can still find this today. Published in 1683 as Vénus dans le cloître, ou la Religieuse en chemise, it is a work of erotic fiction as the illustration above shows. .

A man offers a free ride and gets more than he bargained for

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Mr Savory Moriston had been out in the Haymarket, dining with friends during one of his regular visits to London. Moriston was a Hamburg based merchant and in a couple of days time he was bound for Australia, once more on business. As we waited for a cab at one on the morning two young women sidled up to him. Introducing themselves they said they lived ‘over the Waterloo Bridge’ and, since Moriston was heading to Lambeth, they entreated him to give them a lift. When a cab arrived all three got in.

If Moriston was familiar with the Haymarket in the 1850s then it is fairly likely that despite their ‘well-dressed’ appearance he would have realized that Emily Morton and Susan Watson were prostitutes. The Haymarket was notorious for the sex trade in the 1800s and the girls had probably been working the bars and theatres around the West End all evening. Now they saw the opportunity of a free ride home and another possible punter, perhaps one a little the worse for drink.

The girls bided their time and it was only when they were crossing the Thames that Moriston felt a hand in his coat pocket and then realized his handkerchief was missing. I remained silent at this point but decided to check his money. He reached into his trouser pocket and took out 13 sovereigns to count them.

It was probably not the most sensible move because it alerted the women to the fact that he possessed a much bigger prize than a silk hankie. Soon afterwards Susan leaned in and began to whisper in his ear, all the time stroking his breast with one hand. Meanwhile her other hand was heading for his trousers. Within seconds she had pinched two sovereigns.

Moriston was aware however and kept his cool. As the cab approached a policeman the merchant hailed him and the women were taken into custody at Tower Street Police station. There they were searched and the sovereigns were found, one in Watson’s glove the other in a pocket concealed in her dress. The handkerchief had been dropped as soon as the policeman was seen, it was found on the floor of the cab.

It was a serious theft and one that warranted a jury trial. Moriston was reluctant to go to court however, as his business commitments required him to leave London in a few days. He said he was content to have the young women dealt with summarily. Mr Norton presiding said that while he would not normally approve of such leniency he accepted that the German visitor to London was committed to be elsewhere and so agreed. He sent Susan Watson to gaol for two months and discharged Emily Morton, as nothing had been found to incriminate her.

[fromThe Morning Post, Thursday, August 11, 1853]

‘You are a disgrace to human nature’: the meanness of the Poor Law exposed

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The Police Courts were places where people could bring their grievances on all manner of things in the 1800s. It is easy to get the impression that their main purpose was to deal with crime – petty and serious. However, this view is often reinforced by the newspapers’ selection of cases to bring to the attention of their readers: they often chose the outrageous, amusing, shocking, and heart ringing stories as well as regular examples of cases which reminded the public that working class men were brutal, that theft was common, and fraud to be avoided by the wary.

When Ellen Potts came to the Guildhall Police court to ask for Alderman Moon’s help it gave the court reporter of The Morning Post the perfect opportunity to expose an old chestnut: the misuse of authority by a lowly public servant. It helped that Ellen was pretty (‘a good-looking girl’ of ‘about 18 years of age’) and the public servant had a reputation locally for meanness.  Immediately then there was a melodramatic backstory that readers could relate to with a villain and a young heroine that needed saving.

Miss Potts told the court that she had been thrown out of her home after a row with her mother (‘over a shawl’). With nowhere to go that night Ellen knocked on the door of the West London Union workhouse at St Bride’s on Shoe Lane. The relieving officer, Mr Miller, refused her entry however, on the grounds that her mother took in lodgers at her house on Cloth Lane and so was perfectly capable of supporting her daughter.

Alderman Moon was angry with the officer whose only (and sustained) defense was to say he was only following orders. He quickly established that Mrs Potts was receiving poor relief herself and that Miller knew this.

‘Then how can she support her daughter?’ the magistrate demanded to know.

‘You have discretionary power, and I think it is a most cruel act of a man to refuse shelter to a girl under such circumstances, and your conduct is most disgraceful’.

When Miller tried once more to say it that Ellen was her mothers responsibility Alderman Moon cut him off.

‘Don’t talk to me about the mother. You may be a good badger for the guardians, but at the same time a disgrace to human nature. No wonder, when females  are thus cruelly refused an asylum, so many should become prostitutes for the sake of obtaining that relief for which the ratepayers are rated so heavily. There are constant complaints of your hard-hearted conduct, which is a disgrace to your nature’.

This brought cries of ‘hear, hear’ from all sections of the courtroom and Miller must have looked up miserably from the dock, as he continued to say that he was only doing what he’d been told to do by his employers.

The chief clerk whispered to the alderman that Miller was liable to a hefty fine for his actions. The magistrate told Miller that he was going to levy that penalty, £5, for disobeying the general rule that ‘relief shall be given to all person in urgent distress’. After one more forlorn attempt to shift responsibility from himself to the guardians the relieving officer finally work up to what was required of him.

‘Is it your wish she be taken into the house?’ he asked the alderman. ‘If so I will do it willingly’.

‘It is so’, Alderman Moon told him. ‘There’s an end of the case’.

So Miller avoided a fine and Ellen was admitted to the workhouse so she didn’t have to walk the streets and risk falling into an even worse fate.  Arguably the real villains here were the Poor Law Guardians that set the rules that Miller was expected to enforce, and Mrs Potts who was prepared to let her teenage daughter take her chances on the streets. At least this mini melodrama ended happily.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, August 10, 1849]

Drew’s new book (co-authored by Andy Wise) is published by Amberley Books. It is a new study of the Whitechapel murders of 1888 which offers up a new suspect, links the ‘Jack the Ripper’ killings to the unsolved ‘Thames Torso’ crimes, and provides the reader with important contextual history of Victorian London. The book is available on Amazon here