‘Weel, your honour, I was three sheets to the wind, and that’s all about it’: A Tyneside collier in the Thames Police court

Unloading coal at the London docks 1871

The London press delighted in occasionally giving their readership a flavor of the drama that unfolded in the metropolitan police courts. There was plenty of pathos but also humour for balance, and if a reporter could poke fun at a regional or foreign accent, so much the better.

John Leslie was a seaman. He was master of the Sarah, a collier that brought coal down from the north east of England to unload at the London docks. It was a tough life but he was his own man and earned a decent wage for the fuel he delivered to the capital.

In early November 1863 he had unloaded his cargo and so he headed for pubs and lodging houses close by the docks, in Ratcliffe and Wapping. At some point, and it is not clear why, Leslie, much the worse for drink, went in search of his mother.

He turned up at the home of Mrs Elizabeth Farrier at 131 Wapping High Street, Banging on the door he demanded to be let in shouting ‘I want my mother!’ Mrs Farrier said that no one answering to his mother’s name lived there, he was mistaken and should go away. But John was determined and in his drunken rage he pushed past her into the house. As she tried to stop him he punched her in the face and swore at her.

The tumult alerted the house and Mrs Farrier’s neighbours and a policeman was summoned. PC Palmer managed to arrest Leslie and dragged him off to the station. The next morning he was stood in the dock at Thames Police court charged with violent assault.

In his defense a chastened Leslie said he was merely looking for his mother.

‘You should prosecute the search for your mother at reasonable hours, and when you are sober’,

the magistrate (Mr Partridge) admonished him.

‘Weel, your honour, I was three sheets to the wind, and that’s all about it’,

the man replied in a strong north eastern accent.

When asked if he had been ‘paid off’ Leslie countered that he was not a mere sailor but his own boss:

‘Eh mon! I am not paid off at all. I am master of my own ship’.

That didn’t do him any favours with the justice who, determining that he was a man of means (despite his rough appearance) fined 40for the assault, a considerable sum by the standards of assault prosecutions in the 1860s. However, Leslie was a ‘man of means’ and he paid the money immediately and went on his way leaving the mystery of his mother’s location unsolved.

[from The Globe, 13 November 1863]

‘Well sor, this ‘ere perliceman comes rushing in, and, with “Out you go, missus,” capsizes me into the street’: one drunk’s story a year on from the Dorset Street horror.

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Today is the 130 anniversary of the discovery of the body of Mary Jane Kelly in Miller’s Court, Dorset Street, Spitalfields in November 1888. Mary Kelly was the fifth ‘canonical’ victim of the killer known only as ‘Jack the Ripper’ and hers was the most brutal of all the murders in the series.

Mary (or Marie) was found lying on her bed when her landlord’s man came calling for her back rent. He peered through the window at the horror inside and rushed to find his boss and then the police. No one that saw Mary’s mutilated corpse ever forgot how awful it was.

However, within a year the room in Miller’s Court had been re-let and the landlord, McCarthy, merely sent someone round to scrub the blood off the walls and floors. Rooms in Dorset Street were cheap and new tenants could hardly afford to be too picky if all they could afford was a room in the ‘worst street in London’.

A year after the murders seemed to have ceased although many researchers are far from convinced the killer had stopped with Kelly. My own research suggests he continued into the early 1890s only stopping when his own body succumbed to the disease that killed him.

Meanwhile the day-to-day business of the Police courts rumbled on. Over at Marlborough Street Mary Jones appeared in early November 1889, charged with being drunk and disorderly, a commonplace offence at this level of justice.

Mary had been arrested after she had resisted arrest. Mr Newton (the presiding magistrate) was told that she had entered the King’s Arms in Titchfield Street late the previous night and had caused a scene. She’d asked for ‘two of unsweetened and a bit of sugar’ but the landlord refused to serve her as she was already quite inebriated and he had a care to his license.

He called in the passing street bobby, PC 282D to eject her and she squabbled with them both. She shouted abuse at both men and had to be restrained. In court she was apologetic (presumably having sobered up) and begged the magistrate’s “parding”.

She had been in hospital that day she said and explained that after she’d been released she’d felt dizzy. She’d gone into the pub to rest she insisted, and was as surprised as anyone when ‘this ‘ere perliceman comes rushing in, and, with “Out you go, missus,” capsizes me into the street’.

Mr Newton asked her where she lived.

‘Lisson Grove, your Wurchip’ she replied.

‘Then go back to Lisson Grove sharp, and don’t come back here again’ he told her.

And with that she stumbled gratefully out of court as the public gallery collapsed in laughter.

[from The Standard, Saturday, November 09, 1889]

‘Nothing could be more disgraceful than for a man of your profession to be intoxicated’: An East End clergyman in disgrace.

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Drunkness (often combined with disorderly conduct or incapability) was the most common things for anyone to be prosecuted for at a Metropolitan Police court in the late 1800s. In the mornings (particularly Monday morning) the cells were full of recovering drunks, nursing sore heads and bumps and bruises from falling down in the street. The vast majority of these were fined and released with a flea in their ears from the magistrate, some (those who resisted arrest or had no money to pay a fine) were sent to prison for a few days or weeks. Overwhelmingly they were poor working class men and women.

Henry Hurgill was different.

Hurgil had been found drunk and incapable, lying on the pavement outside the Dog and Partridge pub in Bow Road. PC Robert Clarke (529K) had dragged him to his feet, ascertained that he was hardly able to stand and so had escorted him back to the station to sober up.

When he was presented at Thames Police court the magistrate asked him his profession.

‘I am a clergyman’, Hurgil told him.

‘In holy orders?

‘Yes sir’.

‘And found in this beastly condition, dead drunk?’ Mr Paget demanded.

‘It don’t often happen’, apologized the clergyman, but this only brought more opprobrium down on his shoulders.

‘Often happen, sir?’, the justice thundered. ‘It ought never to happen at all. Can anything be more disgraceful than a drunken clergyman?’

Hurgil tried to say that he only drank occasionally but clearly he was in denial; he was a regular drunk and Mr Paget was disgusted by him. ‘Nothing could be more disgraceful than for a man of the prisoner’s profession to be intoxicated’, he said, and he only wished he had the power to punish him more severely than the law allowed. But his hands were tied and he could only hand down the maximum fine of 5s.

Henry couldn’t pay this however, as he was a clergyman without a ‘duty’ at present. ‘Duty!’ spluttered the justice, ‘I should hope not’. The gaoler led his prisoner back to the cells to hope that his friends had a whip round to keep him out of prison where he was bound to go if the money could not be found.

[from The Illustrated Police News etc, Saturday, October 17, 1868]

The man who was flogging a dead horse

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I start teaching my third year module on London in the late nineteenth century, which looks at crime, popular culture and social history in the 1880s. It will be the 10th year since I devised this module and its run in 9 of those. Over the years it has evolved and I’ve developed the context and assessments but the focus remains the same: using the ‘Jack the Ripper’ murders of 1888 as a prism through which to explore a range of contemporary topics. It prompted my 2010 book (London’s Shadows) and my continuing interest in the ‘Ripper’ case.

While the Ripper case dominated ‘crime news’ in 1888 the police courts continued almost as if nothing was happening in the East End. The same range of petty thefts, domestic and public violence, fraudulent scams, drunks, disorderly prostitutes, and vagrants continued to be the stock of most lower court reports.

So take today in 1888 for example, the first case (from Bow Street) featured an elderly man who had tried to pass counterfeit currency in a central London pub. He was caught along with two accomplices and remanded in custody. Over at Westminster Police court two newspaper sellers were prosecuted for robbing a man in the street. Francis Hoare (a pub landlord on a visit to the capital) had fallen over in the street.  William Turner and Edward Lynch rushed to help but then used that as cover to lift his pocket watch; both men were ‘known’ to the police and the magistrate remanded them for further enquires.

Across the river Thames at Greenwich Police court Thomas Pettitt was accused of mistreating a horse. Mr Sheil was told that Pettitt, a potato dealer, had been working a horse that was clearly ill. The case was brought by an officer of the RSPCA who testified that the beast was ‘suffering from several sores and partly fractured fetlocks’.

Pettitt’s poor defence was that he had only taken up dealing in potatoes recently; he was previously a draper, and didn’t understand horses. Mr Shiel countered that excuse with:

‘any fool must have known the horse was not fit for work’.

He added – the RSPCA’s officer – that in future individuals shouldn’t be summoned but instead they should be arrested and the animal impounded so a magistrate could look at it and come to an opinion about its state of health. That, he said, was ‘better than the evidence of the whole College of Veterinary Surgeons’ (which I doubt went down well with that august body of men).

Any inspection of the horse was now impossible as Pettitt told Mr Sheil he thought it was dead. The magistrate fined him £3 with 2s costs and gave him a week to find the money or he would send him to prison for a fortnight. London was served by thousands of horses in the Victorian period, and very many of them were simply worked till they dropped.

At that point their masters called for a horse slaughterer to dispatch them and this usually meant someone from the firm of Harrison & Barber, who held a virtual monopoly in the capital. Not surprisingly, as men used to cutting up animals, some of the first people the police questioned in the aftermath of Polly Nichol’s murder in August 1888 were slaughterer’s from the nearby Barber’s yard.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, October 05, 1888

Ripped trousers and little thanks as a guardsman ignores a drunk’s request to ‘go for the policeman’.

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Frank and the fabulously named Tirquinia Keeling were drunk, and soon quite disorderly. It was a Monday night in Septemebr 1890 and the pair were wandering through Hyde Park with their friend Rose Allsopp, probably after an evening of drinking somewhere nearby.

As can often happen when people have had too much to drink, an argument broke out. Frank and his wife exchanged words, then shouts, then blows. Soon they were wrestling and creating quite a scene, so much so that it attracted the attention of the local bobby on his beat.

PC 319A hoved into view and presumed he saw a man knocking a woman about a bit while another woman intervened from time to time. He moved in to separate the couple but received little thanks for his efforts. Eventually he decided he had to arrest Frank and collared him. Frank resisted and the policeman was in danger of being overpowered when a passing soldier and his mate came to his aid.

Private Clarke of the 2ndbattalion Coldstream Guards ran over to help. Soon another brace of policemen arrived and together they all fought to subdue Frank and his wife. It was quite the bar room brawl, just without the barroom setting. Finally Frank and Tirquinia were under the police’s control and were led off in the direction of a police station.

As the pair were led away Rose piled in to try and affect a rescue. The trio spent an uncomfortable night sleeping off their drinking before being presented before Mr Hannay at Marlborough Street Police court in the morning.

They must have looked dejected in the dock and hopefully shamefaced as well. Private Clarke told the magistrate that when he went aid the policeman Keeling had growled that he was helping the ‘wrong side’. Frank was a musician but had served in the army and expected a fellow soldier to recognize a common enemy. But Clarke was a former copper and so he knew where his loyalties lay.

He had fared badly in the fight though: he had been thrown to the ground, damaged his knee, and tore his trousers. He was most upset about the latter however because he would have to pay for a new pair out of his meager army pay. Mr Hannay thought that was very unfair and asked the inspector on duty ‘to report the matter to the Police Commissioner to see what recompense could be made’ to him. The court had a poor box but it wasn’t meant to be used for that purpose.

As for the Keelings, who refused to give their address but stated that they were musicians (and so were possibly itinerant), he fined them 40seach or a month’s imprisonment. Allsopp was fined 20sor ten days. It doesn’t say whether they paid up or not but they would have had a few hours to find the money as that seems to have been the standard practice. They don’t appear in any records of imprisonment for that or any other year so I imagine they found the money soon enough.

Some form of drunk and disorderly behaviour was by far the most common reason for being arrested and presented before a magistrate in late Victorian London. The courts were dealing with dozens every day, very many more after a weekend or – worst of all – a Bank holiday.

Today is the beginning of freshers’ week at my and many other universities and sadly, I fear there will be plenty of  drunkenness on display. So, if you are about to start your studies this autumn, enjoy freshers but spare a thought for the police and bouncers that are (usually) there to help you get home safely, in one piece, and without upsetting the locals too much. Have fun, but know your limits folks!

[from The Standard, Wednesday, September 24, 1890]

Is there ‘anything more shocking than a woman teaching a child to rob its parents’?

Worship Street from Builder

When Mr and Mrs Thomas French began to notice money was missing from the till they scratched their heads for an explanation. The couple ran the Chequers pub in Worship Street, Finsbury and the only other person they thought could be responsible was their young son, a child of just nine years of age.

Ada French decided to collar her boy and make him tell her the truth: had he been stealing, and if so, why? The poor lad confessed but said a woman named Bencker who lived in Fitzrovia had put him up to it. Ada resolved to find out if he was lying so set a trap for him (and his partner in crime).

Acting on the advice of the police she marked a handful of sixpence pieces and put them in the till. Soon afterwards she saw her son take coins from it and leave the pub. She followed afterwards  with a police constable and tracked the lad to Windmill Street, Fitzrovia, where Louise Bencker lived.

Ada found her boy inside the 36 year-old fur sewer’s home and the policeman discovered the two marker coins in Bencker’s possession. She was arrested and brought before Mr Bushby at Worship Street Police court in the morning. The magistrate was horrified:

He told the prisoner

that anything more shocking than a woman teaching a child to rob its parents he could not conceive’,

and he sentenced Louisa to three months at hard labour.

But what exactly did Louise Bencker have on the unnamed nine year-old? What do she say or do to induce him to risk a beating at the very least, and possibly worse, by stealing from his family? And what was he doing all the way over in Fitzrovia? Sadly of course, that bit of the story we will probably never know.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, September 16, 1877]

The perils of coming up to ‘the smoke’; highway robbery in the Borough

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John Roots had come to London in the late summer of 1848 to get treatment at Guy’s Hospital. The elderly labourer traveled first to Rochester (four miles form his home), where he caught a stage to London, arriving on the 22 August with 29sto his name. Arriving at the Borough, near London Bridge, he first took himself off to an inn to eat and drink. He stayed till the pub’s clock struck 6 and went off in search of lodgings, as the inn had no rooms available. At that point he had about half his money left having spent the rest on his fare, food and drink.

He was walking in the general direction of the St George’s Circus and as he sat down to rest for a while on Blackman Street, near the gates of the Mint, he met three men who hailed him.

What are you doing here? let us see what you have got about you’, one of them asked him.

Roots ignored them, and then told them to go away. They didn’t, instead they seized him and his inquisitor punched him hard in the face. The others grabbed him as he tried to recover, and rifled his pockets before running off. It was a classic south London highway robbery, and seemingly one carried out by a notorious gang of known criminals.

The Kent labourer’s cries had alerted the local police and very soon Police sergeant John Menhinick (M20) was on the scene and listened to Roots’ description of what had happened. He ran off in pursuit of the gang and managed to catch one of them and Roots later identified the man as the one that had hit him.

Appearing in court at Southwark a week later (Roots had been too sick from his injury and general ill health to attend before) the man gave his name as Edward Sweeny. Sweeny said he had nothing to do with the robbery; he was entirely innocent and had seen Roots lying on the pavement and had tried to help him, but he’d collapsed. When the policeman came up he said he’d told him to run away lest he was blamed for it, which he did.

Sergeant Menhinick dismissed this as rubbish but nothing had been found on Sweeny that could link him to the crime. All the prosecution had was Roots’ identification and given his age, his unfamiliarity with the capital, and his own admission that he’d spent two and half hours in a pub on Borough High Street (and so might have been a little the worse for ale) it wasn’t an easy case to prove.

The magistrate, Mr Cottingham, said that he’d rarely heard of ‘a more desperate robbery’ and declared he intended to commit Sweeny for trial at the Bailey. However, given the poor state of the victim’s health he said he would hold off doing so for a week so he could recover sufficiently to make his depositions.

Eventually the case did come to the Old Bailey where Sweeny was now refereed to by another name: Edward Shanox. Given the poor evidence against him it is not surprising that he was acquitted. Shanox/Sweeny was 21 years old and makes no further appearances in the records that I can see. Perhaps he was a good Samaritan after all, and not a notorious gang member.

As for Roots, he was still left penniless by the robbery and presumably unable to pay his hospital fees, so his future, as a elderly man and a stranger to ‘the smoke’, must have looked bleak.

[from The Standard, Monday, August 28, 1848]