‘labouring under considerable depression of spirits’: a young woman throws herself and her baby into the canal

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The Grand Surrey Canal on Davies’ Pocket Map of London, 1852

On Sunday 17 May 1840 a policeman (32P) was walking his beat, which took him along the Surrey Canal. This ran through Camberwell and Peckham to the Surrey Docks at Rotherhithe, but no longer exists.

It was between one and two in the morning and the moon (which had been full three days earlier) was waning. The copper thought he heard a splash and hurried to the bank. As he peered across the water he thought he saw something, a woman’s bonnet, floating in the canal. Without a thought, he ‘threw off his coat and cape and jumped into the water’.

The water engulfed him and he was soaked through as he thrashed about to find the woman he presumed had fallen in. The canal was nine feet deep at this point, quite deep enough for someone to drown in, but fortunately the policeman soon found a body in the water. He grabbed it and pulled the person to safety, hauling them up onto the towpath.

When he’d recovered himself he realized he had rescued a young woman and her infant child that she had ‘closely clasped in her arms’. He took them both to the station house and then on to the Camberwell workhouse where they were able to get a change of clothes. The next morning he collected her and brought her to the Union Hall Police court to face questions about her actions from the magistrate.

After PC 32P had given his evidence another officer testified to having seen the woman, Mary Doyle, walking by the canal late at night. He had assumed she was lost and accompanied her back to safety. Mary told the justice she had no idea how she had ended up in the water and said that whatever feelings she had about her own life she would never have endangered her child.

Attempting suicide was an offence in 1840 as of course was attempting to kill your own child. It was evident however, that Mary was not herself. The paper reported that:

 ‘she was labouring under considerable depression of spirits’ and there was a suggestion that the child was illegitimate, and so perhaps Mary was trying to end her own life, and that of her infant, in order to escape the shame of ‘an illicit intercourse’.

The magistrate decided to remand her for further enquiries. He added that if she could find bail he’d be happy to release her to her friends. Sadly, no friends had appeared in court that morning so she was taken back to the cells.

Now PC 32P asked the court if anything could be done for him. He had risked his life, he pointed out, and had got soaked through and his uniform soiled in the process. Could he be ‘recompensed for what he had done?’

While it may sound a little ungallant in the circumstances, he did have a point. Policemen were responsible for their own uniforms and he would have to get his cleaned, presumably at his own expense. Unfortunately for him the clerk explained that there was no fund available for him, and suggested he apply to the Humane Society which paid out rewards for those that ‘saved the lives of others’.

The Humane Society (now ‘Royal’) was founded in 1774 by two doctors who wanted to promote resuscitation, and made awards to those that rescued others from the ‘brink of death’. They set up ‘receiving houses’ throughout the capital where people could be brought to recover. It still exists and continues its work recognizing the efforts of lifesavers, but it no longer offers rewards.

If the policeman did approach them he was likely to have been given around £5 (or £300 in today’s money), quite sufficient for him to get his tunic cleaned and pressed, and to be able to dine out on the story for months afterwards. As for Mary, she disappears from the records at this point so hopefully she survived and avoided being prosecuted. Who knows, perhaps the shock of her brush with death was enough of a prompt to turn her life around.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, May 19, 1840]

p.s. On 10 February 1840 Queen Victoria married her prince, Albert to begin what was undoubtedly one of the few ‘love matches’ in the history royal marriages at the time. Today of course is the wedding of Prince Harry to Meghan Markle. I’m no royalist – quite the opposite in fact – but this is clearly a marriage based on love and not dynastic expedience. This is also a revolutionary marriage in its own small way: Harry, an English prince descended from Victoria, is marrying an American commoner, and a person of mixed race. This is (almost) then a ‘normal’ marriage, and continues the modernisation of the royal family that began under Harry’s mother, Diana. I will doff my red cap to them both today, and wish them well (but I shan’t be watching on television!)

A deserter faces a double punishment: for his crimes against society and the Queen’s colours.

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The 1850s was a busy time for the British armed forces. The major conflict was that with Russia in the Crimea, but 1857 had seen rebellion in India, which was eventually crushed with heavy reprisals. Britain and France had joined forces in the Crimea and did so again in an imperialist war in China, which resulted in the destruction of the Qing army and the looting of the imperial palaces in Beijing. The British expedition in China was led by the 8thLord Elgin who had inherited not only his father’s name but also his lack of scruples in stealing other peoples’ heritage. Along with the Crimea, India and China, British troops were also involved in conflicts in Persia (modern Iran), and then later in Burma (Myanmar) Bhutan and Abyssinia (Ethiopia).

Being a soldier in the British Army certainly offered you the chance to see the world then, but perhaps with a higher degree of risk and much more travelling than some might have liked.

William Parsons had clearly had enough by 1856 and he deserted his regiment and escaped their attention for three years. His downfall was his inability to stay out of trouble with the law (which was often the reason that some joined the colours in the first place, because it offered discipline, food and shelter, and a steady income).

In May 1859 Parsons was arrested after he stole a handkerchief from a sailor in Billingsgate market. Arthur Ewes had recently docked at Fresh Wharf with his ship and had decided to explore Billingsgate. Feeling a hand in his pocket he spun around to find Parsons holding his handkerchief.

He demanded the man give him back his handkerchief:

What handkerchief?’ Parsons replied. ‘That one which you just took out of my pocket’, the seaman told him before making a grab for it as Parsons dropped it and ran off.

He was quickly apprehended in the busy market and produced before Alderman Cubitt at the Mansion House Police court on the Saturday morning following the arrest.

Parsons said he’d never been in trouble with the law before but the gaoler scoffed at this, saying he’d been there ‘several times’. More importantly perhaps, a soldier now took the stand and declared that Parsons was a deserter, missing, as we’ve heard, since 1856.

At this point William probably realized his choices were limited; he could go to prison for the theft (and if previous convictions were proved this might be a lengthy spell) or he could try and rejoin his regiment and face the disciplinary consequences (hardly likely to be pleasant) that would entail. He opted for the army and stated his willingness to return to the Queen’s service.

That was all very well Alderman Cubitt remarked but he would have to pay for the crime he’d committed first: he would go to prison with hard labour for three months and then he handed over to the commanding officer of his regiment. If he was lucky I imagine he would have been simply given menial duties for a few months on his return to the army.  However, he may have been flogged for his desertion as this was not abolished for servicemen at home until 1868, and persisted in active service abroad until 1881.

So William’s inability to keep his head down and find paid work was what undid him in the end. Deserters were sometimes tattooed (with a ‘D’) when they were caught, to make it clear to everyone that they had abandoned their comrades and let down their country. But joining the army (or the navy) was not the career choice we see it as today. For large numbers of poor young men in Victorian Britain it represented the lesser of two evils; a chance to escape grinding poverty and just the sort of hand by mouth existence that led William Parsons to filch a ‘wipe’ in a London fish market.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper , Sunday, May 8, 1859]

Laudanum, primroses and mental health collide as the millennium approaches.

Primrose Day 1885 by Frank Bramley 1857-1915

Primrose Day, by Frank Bramley (1885) Tale Gallery, London

By late April 1899 the old queen was nearing the end of her long reign and Britain was just six months away from the debacle of the second South African (Boer) war. The birth of Duke Ellington (on the 29 April) is an indicator that the ‘modern’ age was just around the corner, and all the horror and cataclysm that accompanied the ‘Great War’ less than a generation away. Yet as the millennium approached London was still very much a Victorian city where people looked backwards as much as forwards, and where ‘respectability’ ‘character’ and social class remained as ingrained as they had been for the last 100 years.

The Police courts of the capital continued to deal with the dregs of society; with the petty thieves, wife abusers, and disorderly prostitutes. Here was also where the poor came for advice or charity, and it was where those that manifestly could not cope with life sometimes turned up.

Jannie McDonald was one of those that struggled with life at the end of the century. Just 18 years of age Jannie was a young woman living in Notting Hill Gate. On the 26 April a policeman was called to her lodgings in Silver Street where he found her collapsed on the floor. She was clutching an empty bottle of laudanum that she has swallowed in an attempt to end her life. When she recovered she admitted that she had tried to kill herself on account of the abuse she received from her husband. The couple had been married less than a year but she preferred death to the prospect of returning to him. In court at West London Police court she changed her story and said she had only taken the drug to ‘procure some sleep and to ease pain’. The magistrate remanded her so that further enquiries could be made into the state of her mental health.

Over at Westminster William Lewis was re-examined having been remanded just over a week earlier. He was accused of criminal damage; he had allegedly ‘damaged the floral decorations at the Beaconsfield statue on Primrose Day’. Until April of this year 2018 (when the statue of Milicent Fawcett was installed) there were several famous people commemorated in Parliament Square, all of them men, one of which was Benjamin Disraeli, the Earl of Beaconsfield.

Disraeli, always Victoria’s favourite prime minister, died on 19 April 1881 and his followers marked his passing each year on Primrose Day. Perhaps Lewis was not a fan or held some grudge against the politician who pioneered what we now call ‘One nation Conservatism’. Like Jannie however, William was suffering from some form of mental illness. In fact enquiries in his case revealed that he had ‘three times been confined in a lunatic asylum’ and was currently out on ‘probation’. This didn’t refer to probation as we understand it within the criminal justice system today, as the first Probation orders were not issued until after August 1907. A district reliving officer from Rickmansworth (where William ‘belonged’) now appeared and he was discharged into his custody to be taken ‘home’ and re-confined.

Both these cases reveal that this was a society that was actually quite similar to our own with people that simply couldn’t cope with day-to-day life for whatever reason. What is noticeably different, one hopes at least, is that today both of these individuals would get more support from the state and local authorities than they did in 1899 at the end of the Victorian period. This change was not about to happen in 1899 of course; it took two world wars to finally overhaul the nature of the British state and create a society, which valued all of its citizens at least a little more equally than it had before. Two wars and the extension of the franchise (something Disraeli experimented with to win greater support for the Conservative Party) led to the election of ‘socialist’ government and the creation of a welfare state that remains (for all its flaws) the envy of the world to this day.

[from The Standard , Friday, April 28, 1899

‘You rascal you’: An early tale from Bow Street reveals contemporary prejudices

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This case is amongst the earliest I’ve looked at for the Metropolitan Police Courts predating in fact, both the beginning of Victoria’s reign and the creation of the Metropolitan Police. The style of the early reports from the Police Courts seem to suggest that the writers are working out how to present their stories in an entertaining way, while by 50 or 60 years later a more formulaic style of reporting has developed.

In the 1820s and 30s the audience for newspapers was smaller and less demographically brand;  papers were generally read by the well-do-do and wealthy. By the second half of Victoria’s reign the improvements that technology brought both to the production of newspapers and their distribution, along with a rise in literacy, meant that the reports of the summary courts (along will all other news) reached a much larger and better read audience.

Many of those reading the reports from the Police Courts in the 1880s (where I have spent much of this year so far) were members of the working class and they were often reading about people just like them. In the 1820s I suspect most of those reading about the goings on at Bow Street and elsewhere were reading about people  not like them, unless they were the prosecutors in these courts.

Regardless, editors still operated on the principle of mixing information with entertainment and a heavy dose of social comment. Class is clearly important, as is the maintenance of social position and ‘respect’. This case provides plenty of opportunity to smirk at the pretensions of youth, at respectability, and class, all served with a dash of prejudice on top.

Mr Merix was a ‘dashingly dressed young man’ who appeared at Bow Street to make a complaint about another young man that he said had assaulted him. For no obvious practical reason the The Morning Post’s reporter tells us that Merix was ‘a Jew’ and describes him as self-obsessed and vain: ‘no man or boy ever appeared on better terms with himself’, notes the writer. In addition Merix spoke with a mild stutter which the report delights in rendering in print.

It is pretty clear then from the start of this short court report that the editor is using this story as entertainment and an opportunity to poke fun at Merix and those like him.

The person accused of assaulting Merix was a Mr Zinc, a ‘Musician in the Orchestra at Covent Garden Theatre’. He appeared ‘voluntarily’ we are told, and this helps establish where the paper’s sympathy lies.

Merix complained that on the previous Thursday evening he had met Zinc in the street and the other man had knocked him down without the slightest provocation.

Mr Halls, again for no obvious reason, asked him who he was.

‘Why, Sir – a – I, Sir – a – the fact is, Sir – I am – a – no – thing, Sir’

he answered, provoking a laugh in the court.

‘How do you live’, asked the magistrate, ‘are you of any business or profession?’

‘I am – under the protection of – a – my father – who is a diamond merchant’, stammered the complainant.

At this point we might well remember that Mr Merix was the supposed victim in this case, yet it seems to be him who is on trial.

Next the magistrate turned his attention to the defendant who seemed perfectly relaxed and happy to be in court. He admitted knocking Merix down but said he had plenty of good reasons to do so.

He told Mr Halls that he had lodged with the prosecutor and after a quarrel, Merix had challenged him to a duel which he declined ‘with silent contempt’. Thereafter Merix never missed an opportunity, he said, to insult him. This happened regularly at Zinc’s place of work, the theatre, as he described in detail:

He (Merix) ‘sometimes placed himself in a  conspicuous situation in the Theatre and curled his nose, and directed the most offensive gestures towards him, and when he met him in the street, it was his constant practice to spit on the ground in a marked manner, and turn up his nose as he passed’.

Given Merix’s ethnic background I think it is pretty clear that Zinc is making as much of the young man’s physical appearance as he could to denigrate him. Nearly every depiction of Jews in nineteenth-century popular culture make a point of emphasising the size and curl of their noses (see Fagin in Oliver Twist as just one example).

On the night in question Zinc says he reacted to Merix’s now routine insults by threatening to pull his nose, prompting the other man to call him a ‘rascal’. This was enough for Mr Halls; the magistrate thought it outrageous that a respectable citizen like Zinc should be called a ‘rascal’ and said Merix deserved the treatment he had received.

‘Any man who called another rascal, deserved to have his nose pulled’ he declared, ‘or to be knocked down, and still more did he merit punishment who could be guilty of such a filthy, low, blackguard trick as that which was ascribed to the Complainant’.

He would not remand or even bail Zinc for the assault but if Merix wished he could indict him at the next Session of the Peace, not that he thought he ‘was likely to get any good by it’. He dismissed the case and left Merix looking ‘very crestfallen’ as a result’.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, April 15, 1826]

‘The very image of the Devil himself, with horns and eyes of flame’; Spring Heeled Jack in Kentish Town

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At some point in the late 1830s a new monster appeared in the public consciousness. A humanoid figure with glowing eyes, that breathed fire and leap over walls attacked and frightened women across the capital. The fearsome creature – dubbed ‘Spring Heeled Jack’ – disappeared almost as quickly as it arrived, leaving the police baffled and the public in terror.

In February 1838 Lucy Scales and her sister were terrified by ‘Jack’ as they walked home in Limehouse. The cloaked monster shot ‘a quantity of blue flame’ into a face, temporarily blinding her and bringing on what sound like epileptic fits for several hours.

In Kentish Town in March 1838 PC Markham (S24) was walking his beat one Saturday evening when he screams and shouts ahead of him. Suddenly he saw ‘women and children running in all directions, screaming out “Here’s Spring-heel’d Jack’.

The constable drew his ‘staff’ (his truncheon) gathered his wits and courage and set off to confront the demon. Several women who had run to the policeman for safety pointed at a man in the street as the ‘terror of London’ in person.

‘Perceiving that a sort of blue froth was at his mouth, and his features were not altogether natural, [PC Markham] went up to him, and seizing him by the collar, dragged him to a butcher’s shop, by the light of which he discovered that he wore a mask, embellished at the mouth with blue glazed paper’.

The brave constable grabbed his man by the collar and frog-marched him off to the nearest police station. The next morning the monster, who went by the name of Daniel Granville, was set in the dock at Marylebone Police Court. He cut a strange and sorry figure: ‘a simple-looking fellow, with a most bewitching obliquity of vision’ as the paper described him. Granville apologised for frightening the public and said it was never his intention. The magistrate dismissed him with a warning, presumably as a sad rather than bad individual who was trading on the publicity that the real ‘devil’ had generated.

Sightings of Spring Heeled Jack multiplied across the 1830s and into the 1840s, and the phenomenon spread beyond the capital. Jack was spotted in Brighton later in 1838 and by the 1840s had traveled to East Anglia and Northampton Jack became a feature of contemporary popular culture – headlining in several penny dreadfuls and a number of plays and melodramas. ‘Jack’ eventually passed into myth (if he even existed at all) and by the 1950s was appearing in popular comics as a sort of dark vigilante, a caped anti-hero rather similar to Gotham’s Batman.

No one has ever been formally identified at the culprit and the reality may be that there were several ‘Jacks’. For me it is an example of how a growing urban populace retained some of the folk beliefs and ‘monsters’ from their rural past and merged them with the threats posed by the modern city environment. ‘Spring Heel’d Jack’ was embodiment then of the fears of the City at the beginning of Queen Victoria’s reign just as ‘Jack the Ripper’ was to become symbolic of urban degradation towards its end.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, March 20, 1838]

‘I think you are a fool, nothing more’; playground insults in Hyde Park

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The reports of the Victorian police courts reveal much about society in the 1800s. Some of this is very familiar to us and we can imagine ourselves in their world. In other instances it seems a world apart, almost ‘another country’ entirely.

Take this case, from the Marlborough Street Police Court in the early years of Queen Victoria’s reign. This suggests a society that is riven with deep concerns regarding status and reputation. The two men involved are prepared to use the law to challenge assaults not on their person, but on their public image. Personal slights and insult is treated so seriously that it requires redress before a magistrate. I’m not sure that would be the case today.

Mr Dunn and Mr Smyth were well-to-do members of London’s middle class. Richard Dunn was a barrister while Smyth was a surgeon. Both were Irish and (in Victorian popular culture at least) the Irish had a reputation for being hot headed.

The pair were not formally acquainted with each other but met often, as they walked through Hyde Park. For some unknown (or undeclared) reason they didn’t like each other and a sort of feud had been established.

On January 9 January 1846 Dunn was strolling across the park when he saw the surgeon walking towards him. As the men crossed each other’s path Smyth blew a raspberry or made some similar noise with his mouth.

It was a pathetic thing for a grown man of quite high social status to do to another. In fact it was the sort of behaviour we’d associate with the school playground. But the barrister was determined that this insult should not pass unchallenged. Instead of ignoring it he went to his local police court, at Marlborough Street, and obtained a summons against Mr Smyth to bring him in to answer a charge.

On the 13 January the pair were up before Mr Maltby and Smyth was accused of behaviour that was intended to cause a breach of the peace. Dunn’s allegation was then, that by continually making rude noises or gestures towards him the medical man was actually attempting to make his lose his temper and provoke a fight between them.

Smyth didn’t deny making the rude noise but counter-claimed that Dunn had started it by ‘thrusting his tongue out at him as he passed’. ‘I had no wish to insult the complainant’, Smyth told the magistrate; ‘I only meant to say to him, by what I did, I think you are a fool, nothing more’.

‘Such conduct does appear likely to cause a breach of the peace’, the magistrate declared and fined Smyth 40s. This enraged the surgeon who refused to pay. He then threatened to sue Mr Maltby ‘for daring to fine him’ but he calmed down  and paid up when the justice had him locked up in the cells for a while. We might imagine the frustration of the sitting justice, to have his time wasted by such a pair of self-important middle-class men.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, January 14, 1846]

A heartless debt collector at Battersea and a sighting of the Ripper in Poplar?

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So another Christmas is upon us and today thousands of people (well men mostly) will be rushing around trying to secure that last minute present for the ‘significant other’ in their lives. Meanwhile I am sitting smugly, safe in the knowledge that I had this all wrapped up (literally) by Wednesday evening. Which means I have today free to write about the past at my leisure.

This blog is based on reading  section of news reports of the cases heard before London’s Police Court magistrates in the reign of Queen Victoria. Much before 1837 reports exist but are fewer in number and so you’ll find most of mine bunch between about 1850 and 1900. I use today’s date and pick a year – this morning it is 1888, a year I often return to because it was in that late summer and autumn that London was terrorised by a killer known only as ‘Jack the Ripper’. I teach a whole module based around the Whitechapel murders of 1888 at the University of Northampton where I am currently head of the History department.

Whilst looking at the regular courts reports for the 24 December 1888 I noticed an additional ‘crime news’ item about a murder case that was occupying the attention of readers. I’ll return to that story after my usual report from the police courts. Today the court in question is Wandsworth, south of the River Thames and to the west. The man in the dock was Arthur Baldwin who was accused of violently assaulting a woman in Battersea.

On the 13 December Baldwin, a debt collector, turned up at the home of Elizabeth Leonard at 12 Gwynn Road in Battersea. Baldwin was accompanied by a bailiff from the county court and they demanded the rent she owed on the property. She said she hadn’t got the money for the rent, and clutching her purse she turned to her little boy and took out a shilling for him to go and buy some bread.

At this Baldwin reached across and snatched her purse and the pair wrestled with it. He took out several pawn tickets and as Elizabeth fought with him the tickets were ripped up and she was thrown violently against the large copper kettle on the stove. Baldwin and the bailiff (a Mr Hewett) picked up several items of Elizabeth’s furniture, ‘including three chairs and a Dutch clock’, and left with them.

The debt itself amounted to just 8s and Baldwin had obtained a warrant, but there was no evidence that he’d shown it to Elizabeth. The magistrate (Mt Curtis Bennett)  thought he was acting illegally and ‘had no right to go to the house at all’. He fined the debt collector 20awarded Elizabeth 30s costs which should have covered the rent arrears and her pawned goods. I’d like to think that the fact that the case came up as Christmas was approaching was in the justice’s mind. Here was a poor woman and child, with no husband, in debt and probably dreading what the New Year would bring. Perhaps with Scrooge and Tiny Tim in mind Mr Curtis Bennett did the right thing on this occasion.

Meanwhile, under the report of the heartless debt collector was one which caught my eye entitled ‘The Poplar Murder’.

In the morning of Thursday 20 December 1888 a woman’s body had been found in Clarke’s Yard, Poplar. Next to her was a glass bottle which at first was believed to contain poison. It looked initially like a suicide. But the bottle had actually held sandalwood oil and it quickly became evident that the woman had been strangled. A doctor’s report suggested she had been attacked from behind:

‘Dr Brownfield’s opinion is that the murderer stood behind the woman on her left side, and having the ends of a cord wrapped around his hands, threw it around  her throat, and crossing his hands so strangled her’.

The report went on the say that there was considerably ‘conjecture’ about the nature of the cord and the way it was used. In America the police used a similar cord to restrain those they had arrested instead of handcuffs – with the nickname “Come along”. ‘The more a prisoner struggles the tighter is drawn the cord’, the paper added.

The woman had marks on her neck which were consistent with such a weapon being used and the reporter stated that there had been recent speculation that the Whitechapel murder was an American. Indeed some reports suggested the killer might be a native American from Buffalo Bill Cody’s travelling Wild West show and the quack doctor, Francis Tumblety, has also been closely associated with the killings. It also noted that descriptions of the man seen with the woman before she was found murdered ‘pointed to an individual of a distinctly American type’.

The murder in question was, as all Ripperologists will know, that of Rose Mylett a ‘known prostitute’. Rose is not normally considered to be a ‘Ripper’ victim (and the police even tried to suggest she’d died by natural causes or, as we’ve heard, by her own hands). Wynne Baxter and George Bagster Phillips (both closely involved in the Whitechapel murder case) and the coroner were clear that it was a homicide however but one that had to be added to the roll of unsolved murders that year.

Robert Anderson and CID never accepted the coroner’s verdict of wilful murder, however, and in 1910 wrote in his memoirs:

‘the Poplar case of December, 1888, was death from natural causes, and but for the ‘Jack the Ripper’ scare, no one would have thought of suggesting that it was a homicide’.

In my own investigation of the Ripper case (made in collaboration with a former student of mine who served with the police) we felt that Rose Mylett’s killing bears close scrutiny as a possible addition to the murder series. If we manage to get our thesis into print in 2018 I will then be able to shed a little more light on why we’ve reached this conclusion. Until then it will have to remain a mystery, just as it was to the readers of the Victorian papers in 1888.

[from The Morning Post, Monday, December 24, 1888]